How to Bowl Alone - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
How to Bowl Alone

A few years ago, when hard lockdowns were still in place, I took a road trip along the Ohio side of Lake Erie. I skipped the highway and instead rolled through town after town until I hit Port Clinton, where I stopped to take a photograph of a cannon, a relic of the War of 1812, still pointed toward Canada. It occurred to me then that Port Clinton happens to be Robert Putnam’s hometown, so I did what most reasonable people would do under such circumstances: I went searching for the local bowling alley. 

It was hard to find. Port Clinton’s downtown, like many downtowns in the Rust Belt these days, consists of little more than a few restaurants, consignment stores, and a Knights of Columbus hall. The rest is empty storefronts. If there ever were a bowling alley, it was long gone. After some searching, I found an all-purpose entertainment center on the outskirts of town. It advertised lanes inside, but because of statewide health neuroses the complex was closed with no definite reopening date. There was to be no bowling for me, whether in company or alone.

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At the time, I thought my strange non-encounter was the perfect incarnation of the argument that Putnam made more than twenty years ago in Bowling Alone. Putnam writes that since his childhood in the 1950s, American society has come undone because fewer people participate in community activities than did their forefathers. The example from which he draws his title is well known: more people in America than ever were bowling at the time the book was published, but the number of bowling leagues in the country had been declining for decades. A confluence of forces, including rising incomes, suburbanization, and personalized technology, made this state of voluntary isolation possible. It wasn’t until the pandemic — when, for example, in the interest of my individual safety, I was locked out of a bowling alley in a deserted town — that the nastier effects of this way of life became fully apparent. Many people had already cut themselves off from their neighbors; social distancing regulations only codified the trend. 

Even when the regulations relaxed, many people clung to their solitary habits. I’ve found myself — often to my shame — longing for those few strange months. These days shutdowns are virtually nonexistent, except at a few art house theaters in New York and some of the boutiques near my house in Georgetown. I have a soft spot for eccentric customs, especially defunct ones, and so I feel a pang of longing for the irrecoverable whenever I walk into a bookstore where the owner at the checkout counter is crouched behind a plexiglass sheet, masked and pointing to the social distancing stickers still plastered to the floor. Oftentimes, I am the only person in the store, and, as I browse the aisles, accompanied by nothing more than the hum of the radiators, I experience a strange calm. And I remember that a similar American desire to reclaim the solitude of Eden has marked our popular literature from Emerson down to Joan Didion. Even a glimpse of such complete, unattainable freedom is an intoxicating feeling, and the longing to be truly alone is as essential to the American character as the “spirit of association” Tocqueville observed in the pioneers.

Put another way, the desire to bowl alone is complementary to the impulse to form a league. One of my dearest friends, who usually bowls with friends in South Bend, Indiana, in times of crisis, when he really needs to turn a problem over in his mind, occasionally will drive down to the alley by himself. There he puts on his headphones and listens to the Brandenburg Concertos as he bowls six games straight. When he leaves, he feels refreshed, and many times the solution to the problem presents itself on the way home. For my own part, if I have a need to be alone, I drive out to the ocean or a large lake and just stare at the water for a few hours.

That’s what I did, anyway, after I left that closed bowling alley in Port Clinton. Lake Erie is the smallest of the Great Lakes, but, from a sandy embankment on the edge of Catawba Island, it appears endless. When I had my fill, I turned around to find my wife. If the pandemic — and any time of forced solitude — has taught me anything, it is that any stretch of aloneness can only be fruitful if it eventually ends.

Nic Rowan is managing editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal.

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