What I’ve Learned in the Alleys
Baseball is the expression of the American soul, the revelation of American national foibles? Bah! They’d like you to think so. But it’s really bowling, baby. And if bowlers could be bothered, they’d kick those baseball players’ oversized, overpaid butts and take their rightful place in the national mythos. So despite the fact that the game is perpetually unable to shake its déclassé reputation (or maybe because of it), Dante’s Caroline Udall never feels quite so ‘Murican and proud as when she’s rolling in the alleys.
In some effete, blue-state circles, bowling – like NASCAR and line dancing – is something to be sniffed at with Amused Condescension. Peer-Group Approval Whore that I am, I cravenly join in with the sneering in regards to both of the latter. But when it comes to bowling, well, just wrap me in leopard skin and call me Fred Flintstone. I’m off to the bowling alley with the rest of the Water Buffalos and I don’t care what anybody says.
I retain an inexplicable, child-like affection for the game… sport… whatever… despite its aura of terminal uncool. That aura clings to bowling despite it being the subject – sort of – of one of the coolest movies of the last twenty years or so: the Coen brothers’ 1998 masterpiece The Big Lebowski. The film has developed an intense cult following over the years. So much so, that you can join the Church of the Latter-day Dude (the beleaguered main character, played by Jeff Bridges) and become an ordained Dudeist priest. (I’m one! Seriously. I got my ordination on the Internet for free, but I forgot to print out the certificate. According to the website there are over 100,000 of us, worldwide.)
Yet of all the hipster boys and girls who ever gleefully shouted “Nobody fucks with the Jesus!” how many of them do you think ever actually roll on a regular basis? Precious few, I promise you that.
Bowling may be scoffed at alternately as white-bread and boring, or low class and tacky, but I am here to tell you that life’s rich pageant happens in a bowling alley (which may be why my mother would never let us hang out in one). And bowling reliably presents the prepared bowler with a subtle, Zen-like lesson on life and the nature of things. It is as if, when the bowler is ready, the Buddha appears, offering little crystalline nuggets of enlightenment, and wearing rented shoes.
Here’s a small example. Take the little red marks that are painted in an arrow formation on the boards of most bowling lanes. The marks line up directly with the pins at the opposite end of the lane. If one were naïve and trusting, one would simply roll the ball in as straight a line as possible down the mark that lines up with the centre pin and all would be well. Were one to do that, however, one would be both deceived and disappointed. I happen to know (and my friend Domo – who has actually studied bowling at university level – confirms this) that you must line the ball up with the mark just to the right of centre and as you release it, give it a bit of a spin. I believe Domo, who claims to know all the secret Jedi bowling tricks, advises a counterclockwise turn. The sweet spot is the space between the lead pin and the one just behind and to the right. (Southpaws, reverse everything.) This will get you, if not a strike every time, then at least a greatly improved score.
Bowling Life Lesson #1: Nothing is straightforward – spin is all.
My Internet friend, Brenda, told me of a very potentially therapeutic bowling experience she had while in college. She and I both attended the same religiously-sponsored university in the intermountain West of the US. (And no, I’m not talking about the Air Force Academy. Just keep guessing, cuz’ I ain’t saying.) Let’s call it something cute and whimsical – oh…say…the Madrasa. Internet Brenda and I were probably there at the same time and may even have bowled next to each other, though we only became acquainted a few years ago. But I digress. Anyhow, iBrenda said that she regularly bowled at the campus bowling alley. A large mural honouring the patriarchal namesake of the Madrasa stretches across the wall above the lanes. Said Patriarch boldly straddles a couple of the lanes as he goes forth to conquer the wilderness. iBrenda actually wrote an essay for a class about how she improved her bowling score by aiming right between those columnar patriarchal legs. When I think how a strategically rolled bowling ball might have altered the course of US religious history and thereby my own in a very personally relevant way, I begin to understand.
Bowling Life Lesson #2: Even the high and mighty will eventually be brought low – even if it’s just through the snarky imaginings of a skinny undergraduate, 100 years in the future.
My sister has a bowling testimony of her own of sorts that she likes to recount around the scoring table. When she was getting her post-grad in history, there was a girl in her programme who was a serious-ass bowler. She was writing her thesis on the history of women’s bowling in America. Those in the program who were studying intellectual history (my sister and one other guy) were very sniffy about her thesis topic and quite looked down their noses at her research. However, said bowler would come into the Teaching Assistants’ office on Thursday mornings waving great wads of cash, having competed in the Wednesday tournaments the night before. She generally won and made like $600 every Wednesday night. The intellectuals were secretly in awe of her. Now pay attention because this one will haunt you if you don’t.
Bowling Life Lesson #3: If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?
And speaking of money, bowling has, of course, taught me some profound things in the political arena as well. In the early 90s, I was a reporter at a small, Washington, D.C.-based foreign affairs newspaper. The wife of one of the other reporters was, briefly, a staffer for a certain mid-western congressman. This particular congressman is probably most noted for making a speech from the well of the House while wearing a paper bag over his head. (Let’s call him The Unknown Congressman.) The Unknown Congressman’s little stunt was, I believe, an expression of his shame over the House banking “scandal” wherein Representatives wrote overdraft checks which were honoured by the House Bank (so they didn’t actually bounce), but weren’t charged overdraft fees.
Sigh. It all seems so quaint now, doesn’t it?
L. From Mars, my friend and fellow reporter, and his wife, the alliteratively named L. From Venus, organised a night of bowling between our office and The Unknown Congressman’s staff. As I recall, L. Mars sent around an email inviting everyone to participate in a bowling match against the staff of “the neoconservative Unknown Congressman.” Of course, he went on to try and rouse our competitive dander, but I mention this simply because it was the very first time I had ever heard the term “neoconservative.” When I read the word there was a flash of lightning and the sound of horses screaming in the distance, but I – like so many others – foolishly paid it no attention.
In any case, we were all game, so off we trooped one evening to a bowling alley somewhere in suburban Virginia. The members of Team U.C. were so similar in appearance that they have sort of blended into a composite in my mind. I retain only scattered impressions of highly pressed khaki and LLBean oxfords, a dearth of shirttails, a small amount of well-groomed facial hair, VERY conservative haircuts, and a general aura of Corporate Casual – and that was the just the women. We were by far the motley-er crew. I can’t really remember what we were all wearing, but we certainly weren’t uniform. And, despite the presence of a Madrasa graduate (me), we had a much more bohemian air about us. Plus, we sucked. As proof of this assertion, I offer in evidence the fact that I was one of the top scorers on our team. We made up for it with our wild, boho abandon. We cheered each other on, succumbed dramatically to defeat, whooped when we knocked down a reasonable number of pins, and just generally had a hell of a good time.
If I remember correctly, we mainly paid attention to the team score when one of the Jungend next door would casually saunter over to point out how far behind we were. We would panic momentarily, but then short-term memory loss would kick in and we’d go back to whooping. Over in their lane (ironically positioned to the left of ours) there was much huddling, consulting, whispering, strategising, and figuring of the score. It was darn near as silent over there as a Scientology birthing room. The only one who actually came over to socialise was L. Venus who had worked at the paper off and on before landing the political gig, and was already friends with us.
At the end, when they (inevitably) kicked our butts, they were not particularly good winners. Our team cheered like crazy when our worst bowler managed – after heroic perseverance – NOT to roll a gutter ball. The only explosion of joy from their lane all night came at the very end when the final scores were totted up. They seemed to take far too much smug satisfaction in what was – to put it charitably – a pathetically easy victory. I remember being rather bewildered by it all. It was as if something huge had secretly been at stake and we didn’t realize it until we’d lost it. Like winter had arrived and the industrious ants were gleefully anticipating the imminent starvation of the lazy grasshoppers. Their fun didn’t really seem to start until the whole thing was over and it was clear that they’d won. Rather than the substance of the thing itself, the crowing and throwing it in your face seemed to be the point of it all. Well, as above, so below, or: as in bowling, so in governance (or whatever they’re calling it these days). Really, looking back at it now, I’m no longer surprised that the neo-cons took over the world.
Bowling Life Lesson #4: It just seems like it’s all good fun in the moment. The horror only becomes apparent in retrospect.
A few years later, after turning my back on Washington and heading (literally) into the sunset, I had an opportunity to bowl once more, this time in a somewhat more serious venue. I was at a period in my chequered career where I’d taken a temporary detour into teaching primary school. My In-Real-Life friend Brenda, a fellow teacher, was part of a recently constituted staff bowling team. They needed an alternate bowler to fill in on nights when somebody couldn’t make it and In-Real-Life Brenda asked me to do the job. Since nobody on our team was a Really Serious Bowler, on any given night one or more of them found something better to do. This meant that I ended up bowling almost every week. The team was part of an organised league that had been established in a nearby town for longer than I’d been alive. I agreed to do it, but I admit I was worried that I’d be in over my head.
This did, in fact, prove to be the case. I needn’t have worried about it, though. On my first night, it became apparent within minutes that, without any conscious design, I was once again part of the woo-woo group.
Bowling Life Lesson #5: Patterns such as this may signal a need to seriously reflect on your karma.
Most nights we were almost all rolling low scores and whooping it up as if we’d just won a million bucks on Bowling for Dollars. The second or third week of the season, one of the league organisers approached us and, with poorly concealed annoyance, asked us to please stop being so noisy. Noisy. In a bowling alley. Apparently, we were making it difficult for the other bowlers to concentrate. How they even heard us over the crashing of pins, the smack of the balls hitting the boards, and the rumbling of said balls rolling down the lanes, I really don’t know (big, fat, eye roll). Still, the Prime Directive of schoolteachers is to make sure that we all just get along. So in the intervening week a couple of members of our team made some large signs attached to sticks that said things like “Way to Go!” and “Great job!” and “Awesome!” We contented ourselves with silently waving these at whoever had gone to way, jobbed greatly, or had some awe.
This seemed to bring down the noise quotient enough that the Really Serious Bowlers could get on with their Really Serious Bowling. The most serious of the Really Serious Bowlers was a contingent of very old ladies, all of whom were well north of 90. They smoked like smokestacks and had been bowling in this league every Wednesday night since approximately the Taft administration. I swear to God, I don’t know how those creaky old birds even picked up the bowling balls. They were nothing but skin and bones. They’d shuffle up to the fault line, clutching their balls hard to their rib cages with both arms. Then they’d basically just drop the ball and – in defiance all that is holy, including most of the laws of physics – it would creep down the alley at such a glacial pace that time itself seemed to stop. After meandering crazily back and forth, the ball would reach the pins, emerge with a roar from the warp in the time/space continuum, annnnd… STRIKE! Every. Damn. Time. As I said – in over my head.
Once, IRL-Brenda said to me at the beginning of the evening: “Tonight we are going to out-bowl Fern” – who was the oldest and baddest of the bad, old ladies and was bowling in the lane next to us that night. Of course, we didn’t have the stones to actually tell Fern that we were competing with her. We just surreptitiously kept track of her score and tried to beat her. I think she ended up bowling like a 298 or something. IRL-Brenda bowled maybe 105, 110. I didn’t break 100. I swear she put some kind of bowler’s curse on us, or something, as she squinted at us with malevolent contempt through the haze of cigarette smoke that clung to her like a thundercloud at the top of Mt. Olympus. We feared and worshipped her in equal measure. She was a dark bowling goddess. She really was 95 years old. (I’ve confirmed that with knowledgeable sources.) She drove a huge-ass SUV.
Bowling Life Lesson #6: You may think you’re all that because you’re young, or smart, or fit, or rich, or beautiful. Whatevs. You just haven’t met your Fern yet.
I admit that I am nothing compared to Fern. However, I can usually get one or two strikes in the course of a game and that is enough to sat.is.fy. me. It is the only context in my life in which I do this:
You thought I was going to end this with some kind of “Dude Abides” philosophising, didn’t you? Well, I’m not. I’d rather end with Walter: Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.