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Old people bowling

And learning to go with the flow


Goddam, I thought I knew how to bowl. I mean, you don't grow up the daughter of an unemployed traveling trailer salesman without picking up a few essential talents. I used to hang out at a bowling alley almost every day with my sisters when I was 7 while my dad belted beers at a bar nearby. I even had my own pair of thrift-store bowling shoes, which I wore to summer camp in the mountains, where the closest bowling alley was three days away on horseback.

"I am so gonna kick yer fag ass all over this bowling alley," I bragged to Grant on our way to the counter. Also with us was Lary and Hector, Grant's boyfriend, who is quick to point out that he should not to be mistaken for a gay man just because he sleeps with one.

"Bitch," Grant said simply, "you can't beat me."

"I've been bowling since I was 7!" I bellowed. Actually, the last time I bowled I was 7. But, hell, it's like riding a bike, right?

Of the four of us, I was the only one who had to track down 12 quarters so I could buy socks from a vending machine. Maybe that threw me. Yes, I think it put me at a disadvantage, to have had strange shoes as well as strange socks on my feet. In fact, those socks are still in my purse, tucked into each other like sleeping little lab mice. I'll have to remember to take them out again when I need a good excuse for something.

Anyway, I was immediately busted for my crappy aptitude during the first five frames, when every single one of my balls hit the gutter as if sucked there by some powerful force. It got to the point where people applauded me just for the rare non-gutter-ball toss. Even Grant took pity.

"You need to control your flow," he advised. "Your energy flow."

Then he'd demonstrate by pitching his ball in a perfect curve toward the 10 pin. He perched there on one foot for a while, with his left arm out for balance, looking like a frozen speed skater mindful of wet nail polish. The computer marquee above our seats automatically recorded our scores as well as the speed of our balls.

"Oh, fuck flow," I growled, and slammed another ball down the lane. So far, I had the lowest score but the highest speed.

It was then I started remembering that, when I was 7 hanging out at our neighborhood bowling alley, I myself might not have personally bowled, so much as I sat hours on end watching other people do it. I remember now my parents used to drop us off there with no money, and my sisters and I spent the time wandering the lanes and the rows upon rows of heavy bowling balls, stuffing cigarette butts into the finger holes.

The place was cavernous, and often we'd play hide and seek. My favorite hiding place was at the base of a rack of shirts in the pro shop, where I'd sit giggling as my sisters searched for me, price tags tickling my ears.

Nobody ever bothered us, or booted us out, or even noticed us that I remember. They just enjoyed themselves and let us be. I must have got it in my head that I was good at bowling one day while watching some old people hooting it up on the end lane. They must have been at least 500 years old, and I never saw people that old having that much fun. Until then, the only old person I'd known, briefly, was my mother's father, who once told me to guess what he got for Christmas that year and, trying to fathom the most boring gift I could imagine, I correctly answered, "A deck of cards." So that is what I thought old people did: I thought they sat around dealing cards and, in the case of my mother's mother, obeying a doctor's order to keep taking a particular medication that didn't work until it was time to die.

So it kind of pissed me off that these old people in the bowling alley weren't obeying the natural order of things. "Who do they think they are?" I thought. Then one lady, who had just aced a split, caused a ruckus as her friends ran onto the lane to embrace her. Her face was incandescent with joy. To this day, she probably thinks about that split -- I mean, if she isn't dead, though I don't see how she could have avoided that natural order.

But one day, ages ago, she was radiant with glee over a simple display of skill. For that instant, she had found her flow, and her friends were embracing her, their hoots heard throughout the complex, and a 7-year-old's resentment was melted in that moment. I guess that's when I decided I knew how to bowl, and probably why I wore bowling shoes to bed until the following fall.

It was my turn next, and Grant was coaching me as best he could, but my ball got sucked into the gutter anyway. You gotta laugh at that, right?

"You need to find your flow," Grant repeated, hugging me.

I sat down smiling, and said, "I did."

Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at

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