There are many leagues in the world. There’s the one for Nations, the one for Justice, the one for Red Headed dudes, the one for Extraordinary Gentlemen (and insufferable movie adaptations), and the 20,000 that are under the sea. Those are all fine, I guess, but they will forever live in the shadow of the King of All Leagues—the bowling league.
I joined a bowling league as a kid. I feel like you should know just in case there was still any hope in your heart that I was maybe not a dweeb after all. Through I was spry when I first joined, I grew rather bowling ball-shaped over time, and the lowest impact sport around seemed like a good fit.
Some of the people I hugely admire are also avid bowlers. I mostly mean basically every character John Goodman ever played. Johnny Depp is to Eccentric British Characters as John Goodman is to Characters that Bowl. Just like King Ralph, if I found out that I was the only surviving member of the royal family, I would totally install a bowling lane in the palace, too. Who wouldn’t?
I remember during maybe my sophomore year of high school (yeah, I bowled for many, many years, okay?) I thought to myself what a good sign it wasn’t that I would break into a sweat by taking four calculated steps and rolling a ball. Of course, part of the game included buying pizza by the slice (ubi sunt, Southgate Pizza?) as well as Tangy Taffy and Welch’s Grape pop from the vending machines. And sometimes Funyuns, if I was feeling bold. And let’s face it, I was always feeling bold
Coupled with the secondhand smoke pouring from the parents in the spectator section and the bar section which sold the pizza slices, I would say I probably added many vivacious years to my lifespan by participating in the sport.
In order to more perfectly match my careers in hockey, baseball, and anything that required coordination or skill, I was not a great bowler. My average was always just that—average. But you can get more mileage out of bowling than a lot of sports, and my half-hearted years spent knocking down (or not knocking down) pins gave me some foundation skills that would come in handy for the rest of my life. Mostly during late night trips to the Bemidji Bowl in college to drink Rolling Rock and make jokes about the splatter patterns of laundry detergent under blacklights.
I think most people can agree on bowling. Most everyone is mostly bad at it, and an even playing field makes for an excellent first date, a work mandated social function, or family fun night. It’s light enough work to allow for a lot of chat, but also lends itself to focus on the task at hand, and if shooting the bull with your teammates is the last thing you want to be doing, bowling is there to fill the dead air time with hums of ball returns, crashing of distant strikes, and chatter from other groups of people who actually probably like each other.
The cruel tutelage of bowling also taught me a slew of other skills: adding, drawing slashes, lying about the second pin that you know is still standing behind another pin but is hard to see so it might as well have been knocked down and added to your score, trash talking, high-fiving, and of course the most ancient and secret art of the Proper Bowling Form.
There are a thousand different ways to pick up a ball, approach the foul line, release, and repeat. You have probably seen many of them. I mean, there’s the Full Tilt method where you grab our ball haphazardly and with only the most Zen amount of forethought, you run towards to the pins and throw the ball at whatever moment feels right. There is the Rock Lobster method, where you stand as far away from the pins as possible and hurl the ball like it’s the shot put finals at the Barcelona Summer Games. Bowling alley owners are particular fans of this method, since they love to replace their lanes as often as they can.
What I lack is substance as a bowler I think I make up for in style. I’ve always been kind of long-shanked, and when you have a lot of leg under not a lot of torso, you have to figure out pretty quickly how to deal with it so as not to fall over every time you move. Sometimes it works out, and it comes out looking almost like athleticism.
I believe in the clean, simple four-step approach followed by a fairly smooth follow through with a gentle curve toward the pocket between the head pin and its personal body guards, which flank it on either side. (The success of this last part is directly related to how many Rolling Rocks you’ve thrown back. So I’ve heard.)
Above all things else, I believe in sticking the landing after you have released the bowling ball, and I believe in trying to get those last few points for style. Maybe it was born of my long leg/short torso conundrum, or maybe it was born from my inability to stop trying to make a little art everywhere I can, even in the stupidest of places. It doesn’t matter, because my sweet sweet bowling form is special, and if I ever accomplish something in this world and someone builds a monument in my honor, you can bet it will be posed in the steep lean with my right leg dramatically extended for balance and for beauty.
I got to put that form to use this week in this weekend at the Brunswick XL Zone, a marvel that seems to have been built from all my young dreams. Part of my love of bowling is a love of things that look and feel old fashioned. There is a part of the game that will always feel like it’s 1967, even when it’s dressed up in what someone guessed would look like the future of bowling. This XL Zone tried its best; it has like forty lanes, laser tag, skeeball, more nachos that could ever be eaten, a counter where you can trade in your arcade points for worthless pieces of crap (including shot glasses…who is this arcade’s target demographic? Fifth graders from Thunderdome?), and more. It’s a far cry from the Southgate Bowl, the humble thunderdome in which I celebrated many birthdays, including the one during fifth grade. The bells and whistles are new and fangled, but the spirit is pretty much the same.
My best friend and I have a traveling trophy dollar bill that has been on the line since around 2005. I think someone spent the original on accident, and we lost another one to the sister of my girlfriend at the time, but other than that, the dollar has remained folded and pressed in one of our wallets ever since. It didn’t make it home with me this weekend because I really sucked, but I believe every dog has his day, and that this dog will bowl again soon.