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On the Shining Paths of Tenpin

By Cooper, Marc | The Nation, August 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

On the Shining Paths of Tenpin

Cooper, Marc, The Nation


"I felt a rush like I had personally just won the World Series!" said 51-year-old squat, paunchy attorney Al Glanz. "Only in bowling can an out-of-shape middle-aged short guy win that kind of victory." Glanz, a college-days SDS comrade and current leadoff man of my five-person bowling team, Al's Animals, was reflecting back on our 1997 league championship.

After thirty-eight Tuesday nights of competition against seventeen other mixed-gender teams, we found ourselves in the final roll-off matched against some big bruisers. Miraculously, we split the first two games. And in the final bowl-off we were neck and neck going into the tenth and last frame. Al bowled two strikes and finished over 150. In the anchor position, I wound up a handful of points above my 198 average. As 100 other league members looked on, the opposing team's Big Kahuna anchor was shooting his tenth frame. Glancing at the scores projected over our heads, he apparently miscalculated the narrow difference between us and--grossly overconfident--whipped his sixteen-pound Code Red ball out toward the lone ten-pin standing on the back-righthand corner of the alley. But hubris has a price. The Kahuna's ball went on a sharp angle to the 5 board and, skidding in the conditioning oil, failed to stabilize and then plunked unceremoniously into the gutter three feet short of the pin.

The electronic tote board flashed our one-point victory as we basked in applause and cheers. At the awards ceremony later that evening we left elated with armfuls of trophies and $287 in prize money. A year later we still talk excitedly of our razor-close win (this year we tanked out in fifth place).

Such are the wonders of organized, serious bowling. I'm the only member of my team with a high average. Al hadn't bowled in twenty-five years and had worked himself up to 125. Team member and printer Miki Jurcan was then a first-year bowler averaging 137. Bookkeeper Kim Yoh shot in the high 150s, and her developmentally disabled brother, Dale, in the 140s.

But those averages made little difference. Bowling is the most democratic of sports. You most often play in your own neighborhood; teams are drawn from networks of friends or co-workers; more often not the squads are mixed gender, and usually mixed generation. It's relatively inexpensive, easy to learn (at least the basics). But most important, 95 percent of bowling leagues rely on the very socialist notion of handicap--a formula that adjusts for the differences between teams. This goes way beyond affirmative action. We were able to win the championship against much better bowlers not because we outbowled them but because they had to "spot" us sixty-five pins a game, and we outbowled our usual selves. From each according to his ability...

Bowling is also a literate sport. In a two-team matchup you must follow ten separate evolving narratives through three games and thirty frames. Much as in baseball (and in sharp contrast to either soccer or basketball) virtually every moment of play can be frozen, studied, analyzed, regretted or celebrated. Even on a losing night you might be compensated by picking up two different splits, or finally perfecting your conversion of a troublesome spare. Bowling also requires some basic mathematical skills. Even with automatic scoring now almost the norm, you have to figure out a series of calculations quickly in your head to know exactly where you stand.

Maybe this is why a younger generation seems to be giving up on the sport. Many claim it's too boring, too square. But maybe to a culture that is becoming to narrative and sequential logic, bowling is just too demanding. With alarming frequency, more and more bowling alleys are converting to so-called Cosmic Bowls. Irony replaces competition and acquired skill. Black lights, fluorescent pins, pounding disco music, cheap beer and a crowd of kids who come bowling--but bowling in quotes.

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