Last Call

Bowling Alone

Strike while the lanes are hot and the pins a'quivering.

By From the February 2012 issue

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Bowling is cheap therapy. Rather than pay a Dr. Melfi-type $150 an hour to listen to your troubles, you plunk down $10 on the counter, change into the funny shoes, and start firing the heavy ball down that long, skinny lane, between the two gutters.

You have issues? Tell it to the pins. Then knock them down -- all of them. Some people find uplift in the symphonies of Beethoven. To those of us of a more caveman sensibility, true sublimity is more often found in the explosive sound of our ball finding the pocket, sweeping all before it.

According to Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, that makes me a part of the problem, because I have not yet joined a bowling league. In the nineties, Putnam wrote the popular article cum book called Bowling Alone about the collapse of what he called "social capital" in the United States. (Think "civic virtue" in cramped quarters.) The rise of individual bowling and the relative decline of league play was held up as yet another sign of our unraveling social fabric.

Why Putnam thought bowling the most telling indicator of decline is something of a bafflement. This was the nineties, remember, decade of the L.A. riots, Columbine, and Jerry Springer. Here was one of America's most prominent political scientists getting worked up because some bowling leagues in Barberton, Ohio, or Oshkosh, Wisconsin, were having a hard time fielding new members.

Maybe it was the thing about the kidney transplant that got him. Putnam tells the story of John Lambert and Andy Boschma from Ypsilanti, Michigan. Lambert needed a kidney and Boschma, a friend from his bowling league, just happened to have one lying around.

"This moving story speaks for itself," writes Putnam, but he won't let it. He says the Ann Arbor News photo of the two friends "reveals that in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma is white and Lambert is African American. That they bowled together made all the difference." Your humble bowler will try to feel duly chastened, un-diverse, and over-kidneyed the next time I head to the lanes.

Yet several critics have noted that Putnam's whole characterization of bowling was seriously misleading. Those who "bowl alone" are rarely alone, if for no other reason than that bowling alleys are intensely social settings. The restaurants and bars and other entertainments are at least as important to the alley's bottom line as the actual bowling. Stick around long enough and people will get to know your name, and you theirs.

They'll also start to hint that maybe you'd like to join a league. I may, eventually, but there are good reasons to hold off. Leagues are major time and money drains and they come in two types: scratch leagues and handicap leagues. Handicap leagues are for levelers. The better player spots the worse one the difference between their averages. That kind of Bolshevik bowling holds no interest for me, and with an average in the 140s (high game: 204) I am not yet good enough for the scratch leagues.

Another worry is that league bowling won't be nearly so fun. "You bowl like Fred Flintstone," said one cousin, and she was on to something there. Most serious bowlers work tirelessly on refining their form. I run like a madman and let fly my ball—a glossy black Japanese 15-pound birthday present—for four or five quick games. On good days, the pins fall over out of fear.

Usually, this is a solo act, but not always. Any time a friend calls up and asks if I want some company, I say, "Why yes, I yabba dabba do."

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.