Everyone used to bowl. Blue collar Michigan in the 1970s was the most bowlingest time and place in the history of the world. More kids were on bowling leagues than baseball leagues. Everyone’s parents and grandparents bowled. Everyone knew how to keep score (10 x 12 = 300).
Whether it was Southland or Galaxy or Town and Country, everyone had their lanes and where you bowled said something about you. The rich kids from Grand Blanc bowled at Galaxy with their fancy computerized scoring machines. Tough kids from Flint bowled at Town and Country and scored with pencils on paper. The Flint Township kids like us bowled at Southland – 76 lanes! – scoring with grease pencils on the transparent sheets projected overhead. But no matter where you bowled, everyone had their Saturday morning leagues – ”the Alley Cats” when you were young, the “Junior Strikers” when you were older – their towels, their rosin bags, their wrist braces and, eventually, their own ball.
I started bowling on leagues when I was five. As I got older fewer and fewer kept it up. Girls or football or some other things would distract them eventually. But I didn’t stop until I graduated high school, even though there were girls and and football and other things for me too. I just made time because I liked it and I was pretty good at it so I always wanted to do it. Once I moved to West Virginia it was even better because down there nowhere near as many people bowled and it was way easier to be a big fish in that small pond. Not gonna lie: my 170s-ish average and I were a pretty big deal around Emerson Lanes in Parkersburg and, later, Leisure Lanes and Acculanes in Beckley.
But beyond just liking it, there was a psychological and emotional element to bowling that I valued and, at times, even needed. I didn’t realize it then, but I see it now. When I started bowling I wasn’t that good. Certainly not as good as my brother and his friends were, all of whom were older and more naturally athletic than me. When I was five or six I’d bowl badly and I cry and whine and sometimes it would get so bad that my mom, who would be keeping score, would take me aside and tell me that if I was going to get so upset about it that I shouldn’t be bowling in the first place. Even if I was upset I liked bowling so I eventually figured out that no matter how much the game frustrated me it wasn’t worth losing my shit over it because to do so would defeat the purpose. I figured out pretty quickly how to keep the setbacks in perspective or at least suppress my anger and sadness at them. I figured out that being derailed by unproductive emotion was nothing I wanted any part of because it’d keep me from doing what I wanted to do and accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.
And so I bowled. I bowled quite happily, in fact, until I graduated from high school and found better and more important things to do.
I’ve not been doing particularly well lately. I’ve had some personal and professional setbacks that have sent me into something of a depression. It’s not unprecedented. A lot has happened in my life over the past four years. I’ve been in and out of therapy and on and off medication and I have grappled with a lot of things I used to just bulldoze over when I was younger and cockier and richer and more confident. I don’t want to be the man I used to be – he was awful and oblivious about so many things so much of the time and I like myself a lot better now than I liked that man – but I do wish I could slough off the things like he used to be able to do. I wish things didn’t linger and prey on me and keep me up at night like they do now.
But they do and, because they do, I’ve learned that sometimes I need help to deal with things. So after a long time off I went to a therapist this morning to talk through it.
I don’t know what I think of this guy. I had seen him before so it’s not like we had to introduce ourselves to one another, but I really don’t know if he’s the right guy for me. Maybe the biggest problem is that he’s a sports fan and he had a vague idea of who I was when I first came into his office, having heard me doing segments on the local sports talk radio station he has constantly pumping through his office. Both times I’ve seen him I’ve spent 40 minutes spilling my guts and the last five telling him that the Reds are gonna be OK eventually and that at least some of these young arms they keep running out there might pan out. I assume it’s possible he knows I’m lying about that. The Reds are a mess. Either way, the baseball conversation sort of undermines everything we talk about before that because it forces me to be confident in ways I don’t necessarily feel. And makes him think that I’m feeling better than I do.
As today’s visit was premised on me being fairly close to losing my shit altogether, the baseball talk was at a minimum and he sent me off with a bunch of worksheets and listicles for arresting depression and desperation:
- Coping skills for depression (1-6);
- 10 steps to happiness;
- “Feel Goods” (a list of 13 things, including “painting your nails or getting a manicure/pedicure”);
- 13 things mentally strong people don’t do;
- 28 secrets to happiness;
- 44 Life Lessons
I accepted his pile of Xeroxed sheets and, apparently, gave him a look of extreme dubiousness, because as he handed them to me he said “Look, just do some shit for yourself. Take some time and so something dumb and fun you like to do and that gets you out of your head for a while. Your life is pretty good. Do things that feel good for a bit and the bad stuff isn’t gonna seem so bad.”
So I went bowling.
Since I quit bowling regularly at age 18 I’ve only been back on the lanes, six or seven times. I think the last time I bowled was six or seven years ago. Why I decided to go tonight I’m not sure but I had an impulse to do it just as I was getting ready to knock of work. I went out to the garage and found my bag and opened it up. Inside:
- The 16-pound Columbia Yellow Dot 300 with the fingertip grip I bought with my own money – saved from my $3.35/hr radio station job – back in 1990;
- My bowling shoes, size 11, which I got the moment my feet stopped growing at age 15 and which still fit like a glove. They’re brown and clunky and represent everything bowling was by the late 1980s before nostalgia and irony and “The Big Lebowski” turned bowling into some weird cul-de-sac of hipster retro culture. Rather than some two-tone, intentionally garish pair of kicks, they attempt – and fail – to look respectable while remaining 100% functional;
- My rosin bag and my towels, which include a “Beckley Bowling Association 600 Club” number and a “550 Club” to boot.
Jesus Christ, what did I used to be?
I got to the alley a bit after 8pm. The Wednesday night leagues were still going on a few lanes down but I had some nice space to myself. I also had the exact soundtrack I remembered from back when I bowled on the regular pumping over the loudspeakers: “Too Young to Fall in Love” by Motley Crue, “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top and all manner of late period Whitesnake and Heart. I looked to my left down the lanes and saw the same sorts of people I remember from Southland and Emerson and Leisure and Acculanes going about their business. The only difference between then and now is that tonight they had to step outside to smoke and tonight I was old enough to have a beer or two while I rolled.
I did OK. My wrist hurt more than it did when I was 17, but the results were more or less the same. A 171 to kick things off. A 165 in Game 2. A not-so-great 153 in Game 3 as a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbons and 25 years on the odometer took their toll.
That aside, it was all the same. I still get more strikes from the Brooklyn side than I should. I still struggle with picking up the six and ten pins on spares, having all manner of trouble shooting to my right. I still find myself overthrowing in the middle frames. I still get that weird little blood blister on the tip of my right thumb like I used to every Saturday as a result of popping and snapping the Yellow Dot out of my grip and onto the lanes over and over again.
As I type this I’m looking at that blood blister and it’s reminding me of the thousands of frames I laid down back when Ronald Reagan ruled the world, everything in my life seemed much more simple and straightforward and bowling was just a thing I did instead of some therapy cum nostalgia trip I impulsively took this evening.
Did it work? I dunno. I’ve learned to stop making pronouncements about my mental health because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring and your life and your psyche can go sideways at any moment. I do know, however, that I feel better this evening than I did when I woke up this morning and that’s better than nothing.
I also know that I got two PBR tallboys, a cheeseburger and three games worth of something approaching catharsis for less than $25 bucks, and that’s not too fuckin’ bad.