You may not be aware of it unless you follow my Twitter or Instagram, but this fall and winter, I joined a bowling league. Once a week on Monday evenings, I roll down to one of the bowling alleys in our local town, lace up some goofy shoes and play three games in a “Pizza, Wings and Beer” league.
Being in a league was kind of a no-brainer, a nice thing to do with my sweetheart every week with friends. Plus: 16 weeks of bowling once a week! A free ball of my own! Pizza! Beer! I’m down with any sport that encourages drinking while participating! I once joked in NOGOODFORME that my idea of heaven was a bowling alley, french fries and a disco. I was being a goofball, but that sentiment still holds pretty much true. I’m really just thrilled and a half when I bowl.
It’s partly because I love bowling, but also the associations I have with it with my family. When my parents first came to America from Thailand in the mid-1970s, one of the first things they did was join a bowling league, and they kept up their membership while I was a young girl. I have memories of wandering in the bowling alley, not being tall enough to play the pinball machines, and trying to put my younger sister in the bowling ball bag — which I was convinced was a much cooler way to carry babies than a seat carrier.
I loved to watch my parents play. It was like they became different people — happier, carefree, not parent-y at all. They laughed together in a way they often didn’t in their everyday life, and I always had that vaguely gleeful “Ooooooh, Mommy and Daddy are drinking BEER!” feeling at the alley, which was fun. They were good bowlers, too — my dad played for his company and won a trophy or two, if I remember. I always associate the bowling alley as a place where people had fun and relaxed.
Bowling is kind of just a part of life here — but, as I later came to realize, a very working-class, Midwestern life. We’d bowl occasionally in high school, and very occasionally in college. But when I lived in NYC and San Francisco, I hardly bowled at all. It’s hard for cities to have the big open space that bowling alleys require, and it’s more of a novelty activity — and an expensive one at that. (When I went bowling in L.A. at the Roosevelt, it was something like $100 for two hours for 4-6 people in a lane. Granted, it’s a fancy hotel and “vintage,” but still! Bowling is supposed to be cheap!)
Here, though, bowling is something everyone does at some point. My town is overwhelmingly white — there’s really no other way to put it — but the bowling alley in town is a genuinely diverse place. Old, young, black, white, Asian, Mexican, hipster, square — you see all types, ages and identities at the bowling alley. It’s very unpretentious and relaxed, and I like that.
So joining a league this fall and winter kind of brought me full circle, in a family-tradition and cultural way. My own league has a nice group of people of all sorts, from retirees to bros to everyone in between. Everyone is pretty nice and friendly to one another, and supportive.
But I didn’t anticipate what a personal rollercoaster that league bowling can be. There were definitely some weeks where I was just frustrated — I’d have a great week in terms of my score one week, and then just flounder the next. There are some insanely good bowlers in my league, those people that seem to nail near-300 scores week after week, who bring a separate ball to pick up spares and such. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when my own perfectionistic streak reared its head. I’d have a good game one week and then beat myself up for not being able to duplicate the same results the week after? Then I’d have to remind myself to chill out because this was bowling and it was supposed to be freaking fun, for God’s sake! And ironically, once I chilled out, my game got way better. And more fun? Which is what it’s all about, of course. I had to learn to set my own little goals, and adjust them depending on what kind of day I was having. I could come into a night hoping to get consistent games over 100, but if I was sucking, I’d just aim for what I could. I couldn’t be so hard on myself like I usually am at times. So in that way, bowling was a good exercise not just in knocking down pins, but in accepting the present and being kind and accepting to myself.
Still, I picked up some useful tips and such over the course of the season. I definitely got better when I got my own ball, though it took me a lot of time to get used to it. It was weird to realize how I had to readapt my whole flow and alignment to my customized ball. I also heard again and again that I needed to bowl with a heavier ball. I had ordered a 8-lb. one, thinking it would be easier to control, but good players kept telling me my ability to line it up for a strike was getting good and consistent and I just needed more power to knock ‘me all down. But I didn’t really trust in my growing ability or have confidence in myself. So as it ended up, people were right, because in L.A. I bowled with a slightly heavier ball and nailed strike after strike. So lesson #1: try a heavier ball. Still, I lurve my own ball. She’s “hot lava”-colored and I named her Malibu!
The other? Make sure the shoes fit. So obvious, I know, but for a sport that most people play with rental shoes, sometimes you just get used to playing with shoes that are slightly too right or loose, or kind of just falling apart. But then the nice people at bowlingshoes.com sent me my own pair of bowling shoes, which offered way more sturdy support than the typical rental pair. (I also call them my rockabilly shoes because they have a certain retro flair to them. They make me want to listen to lots of ska and wear a vintage dress!) And what do you know…I upped my average once I played in them. I didn’t have unexpected sliding or anything like that, and felt much more secure on those slippery floors, which helped me focus solely on my aim. You may not invest in your own shoes as a casual bowler, but don’t be afraid to be picky about the rental shoes at a bowling alley. But I’m glad I have my own now; I call them Sid and Nancy, because it’s fun to name everything. And come on…how can I resist a sport with special shoes? Maybe I’ll turn out to be the Carrie Bradshaw of the bowling alley.
Oh, and the weird thing I’ve discovered? This won’t surprise serious athletes, but what you eat has a direct effect on your game! Yes, even in bowling! My best games happened when I brought a banana to the alley, and ate that instead of a 2nd slice of pizza. (I wouldn’t give up the beer for a game, no way!) Bowling isn’t an aerobic sport, but playing 3+ games of bowling takes a lot of strength and wears on the muscles. So, go potassium!
But you know, the point isn’t getting a high score. Joining a bowling league was a wonderful way to feel connected to a community, to have fun, to drink some beer while playing a game. I’m hoping we can keep up our league in the spring…and maybe I’ll finally nail a 200-point game in my rockabilly retro shoes and my bright orange Malibu!