Many years back I read a book for work, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. It's all about social capital and social participation.
As you can probably guess from the title, Putnam found that not only were fewer Americans participating in the democratic process and volunteering in their communities, but there were also fewer people joining bowling teams. But there weren't fewer bowlers.
While the social element broke down people still liked to bowl.
About the same time (the early part of the century) Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine was released. In between Moore's theatrics was the interesting (and disturbing) story of two friends in a close pact, who loved to bowl together. Putnam would agree that strong internal cohesion often creates negative external societal outcomes…but I digress.
Really what I want to talk about is bowling. I love bowling. And what's not to like?
You get to sit around, talking with your friends, drinking beer and occasionally getting up to throw something heavy at a bunch of pins that clatter about with the best noise. I love that noise. On a good roll you get that deep rumble of the ball on a curve that should, with any luck, terminate just to the right of the front pin. Then the smashing, almost porcelain-like, sound of the explosion of pins. Then you dance.
Like all sport, bowling has a culture. That culture is something The Lanes (an "urban" bowling alley in Wellington) is lacking. Bowling isn't cool. Sure hipsters think there is a certain ironic charm in having a few beers and rolling a few rocks but irony is all bowling has.
In America, professional bowling is huge. They have super-stars; they have endorsements; they get live coverage on ESPN (despite how much I yell at the TV for them to just show the baseball). And yet… it still isn't cool. The bowlers run out (sometimes with intro music), they wave to the crowd, and you can see on their faces that they think this is awkward.
And it is. Inside a bowling alley someone wearing two tone shoes, a loud shirt, and a protective wrist thing is the King or Queen of the alley (it's like the really good swimmers at the local pool or the good runners at the park). Yet as soon as they walk out the door they become weirdoes.
The Big Lebowski shows this quite well. Nothing bad happens in the bowling alley. There are arguments and confrontations but it's the sanctuary to the characters. The Dude and his pals head there when things go wrong. Everyone knows them there and everyone is an old friend. League Night takes precedent over other things. In fact many bad things happen when they step out of the alley (think about Donny).
Bowling is a comfort sport. It's the warm toast of sport. It's often portrayed as an escape. Middle-class family men (from Fred "twinkle toes" Flintstone on up) have gone bowling as an escape from the pressure of their daily lives and stresses. Teenagers took their dates bowling (as does a certain east-European gangster in GTA4) in all those same cheesy sitcoms.
So really, bowling is almost the perfect sport. It combines the best parts of spectatorship with the best parts of sportsmanship.
Bowling also tells us about ourselves. We learn quickly if we lean to the left or the right; whether we are just into speed; how much we can lift with one hand; and how well we can dance. Because when you get a strike, it's all you can do.