Gutter Balls


I am going to age myself here, but I feel compelled to share another memory. When I was a kid, eight or nine years old, I was in a bowling league (at a second-hand-smoke-wafting bowling alley that now serves as a parking lot for a home improvement store) on the west side of Green Bay.

Waking up on Saturday mornings (post-Ducktales and Gummi Bears cartoons), I was always so excited to get to the bowling alley, not only to bowl, but I was excited for what came after bowling: delicious filled donuts that sometimes showed up at the end of the games as a reward for trying my best. My best then, and my best now are quite different in their appearance…well, that’s an understatement; a terrifyingly ginormous understatement (but I’ll get to that in a bit).

At eight years old, I could curve my ball down the lane, striking the pins down with explosive popcorn action, causing the pins to echo with a satisfying kaboom. My right hand sported a very fashionable gray and black velcro wrist brace to “guide” my release, and I rarely threw a gutter ball. My eight-year-old self could kick my present-day-almost-forty-year-old self’s butt on the alley, that is for certain.

Even though I’m not yet forty years old, my childhood seems like forever ago. What’s even more intriguing to me is how different my childhood looks from that of my own childrens’. I wholeheartedly understand that times change, and that my childhood looks pretty different than that of my own parents, but in the swift shift of times, so many childhood commonalities just aren’t there. Bowling being a prize example.

Anyway, I digress. I did a thing, and in an attempt to create some fun memories for my own two protégés, I took them bowling yesterday. It was a rainy day, and we had already explored the outdoors in our rain gear, so we needed to find something indoors to entertain ourselves with. My kids are nine and seven years old– so they are the PERFECT ages to learn to bowl, right!? I mean, it’s something I loved as a kid, so they will share the passion with me, right? (Right. Obviously, this was a hard no, but keep reading anyway.)

My kids and I entered the local bowling alley (one of the few that remain), and right away I noticed that it’s a little different than any bowling alleys I remembered. The sounds were the same as I recalled, but the smells were better; I smelled sanitizer and bleach this time around, not cigarette smoke. I saw colorful bowling balls, of all weights and finger sizes, not the dreary black and gray bowling balls from my memory. The shoes are definitely the same (maybe even the exact same pairs from thirty years ago by the looks of some of them), and scoring (minus the paper and pencil) was the same. I was pumped. The worker at the counter checking us in wondered if I wanted to use “bumpers”– heck no! We were going to have so much fun! Gutter balls build character!

My kids and I arrived at our alley, socially distanced from our bowling neighbors, and I slid my feet into my rented (highly worn and tattered) bowling shoes; I quickly tied my laces so I could grab a few practice throws before my kids–you know, to “show them” how to do it. In my deepest conscience, I wanted to knock their socks off with a few strikes, I’ll admit it.

With my highlighter green bowling ball in my hands, I slowly took stance; muscle memory was key here. Gliding towards the foot foul line, I swung my sturdy fourteen-pound ball back with my right arm, squeezed ever so tightly with my fingers. I stooped, lunged, and concentrated on a graceful release. It felt like slow motion; I could hear the Olympic slow-mo song playing in my head. I stood and watched the green ball as it betrayed all my desires…Guess what?

Yep, you guessed it. I did not get a strike. In fact, I didn’t get a strike the entire game. I didn’t get a strike, and my left butt cheek started hurting within the fourth frame. My right wrist started hurting by the second game. I switched to bowling left-handed by the fourth game.

How did my kids do, you might wonder? It took my son thirty-seven frames before he decided to change his attitude from growling negativity to giving an honest effort. He is the stereotypical “instant gratification” nine-year-old. Because he threw a gutter ball the first few frames, he decided bowling blows, and he didn’t want to try anymore. In his words, he “couldn’t compete” with me because I “knew what I was doing”.

Point taken. I did know what I was doing. I was doing it poorly, and nothing like what I remembered, but I understood his frustration. In an attempt to soften the mood after the first couple of games, I used a QR code at our table, ordered some food from the alley’s online tool, and had it delivered to our table (couldn’t do that in the 90s!). In between our battles with the stubborn pins (I swear a few were glued to the floor), we feasted on delicious morsels that definitely helped contribute to a better mood (hangry is a real thing, my son would make a great case study specimen).

Here is where the point of my story comes to fruition (sorry it took a bit): How do I teach my children, who are growing up surrounded by games, snap-your-fingers-fast internet, and virtual learning, that not everything is a competition? These kids who sit down and figure out things for themselves (aka technology), who struggle to show any vulnerability and don’t want to be the “noob” (parents of Roblox kids, you know what I mean)– how can I emphasize that it’s not winning that counts (all the time), but who has the most determination, or courage, or effort?

I look back at my own childhood and I couldn’t tell you who won which game, who scored the highest, or how many trophies everyone had; I remember the donuts and the laughter after the competition. The faces of the people I bowled with are blurry memories now, but I remember the fondness of the routine, the anticipation of celebration–no matter how we scored. I wasn’t kidding when I said that gutter balls build character.

I plead the fifth for my own meek bowling scores yesterday, but I can say that my kids and I did in fact have something to celebrate. My seven-year-old daughter had a good attitude, bless her heart, and (I almost said “but”) she got a 27 in the first game. That was her high score out of four games. It’s laughable how terrible we did, but we had a great afternoon of trying something out of the ordinary, working through bad attitudes, and when all was said and done, we were blessed with sunshine when we left the bowling alley (literally and metaphorically).

I highly recommend taking your people of all ages bowling. I also recommend intensive physical training, rigorous stretching, and ultra hydration for a few months prior to taking your people bowling.

If you’re looking for more ways to connect as a family, read Martial Arts to the Rescue!