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Well Bowl Me Over 9 min read

Well Bowl Me Over

On being bad at bowling (and other stuff), plus Wright Thompson and Caitlin Clark, smartphones and teens, college admissions, nostalgia, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

On Saturday, my girlfriend and I checked off a box from our to-do list: Go bowling at the Columbia Mall.

It was such a great time, and one of those reaffirming feelings of an activity from our past that still holds up, begging the question “Why’d it take us so long to do this?” I remember a stretch of time when bowling was a big deal for me and my friends. We didn’t have a bowling alley in our town, so we’d drive the 20 minutes to northern Mississippi and bowl our frames there. It was a lot of effort, which probably counts a lot for why it didn’t stick as the singular way we’d hang out or kill time. But it was one of the great settings in American life for the loosely structured hangout. There was a point to our gathering, and there was scorekeeping and varying degrees of talent at the game. But the biggest point was just getting out of the house, out from under our parents’ noses, and enjoying each other’s company. 

In another chapter of life, it could have been a big preoccupation. There was a surprisingly robust bowling culture in Gillette, Wyoming, when I was working at the newspaper there. A few of my coworkers were bitten by that bug, fans of pitchers of cheap beer and their surprising talent at the game. One of them, when he was as new as new could be in the city, spent lots o time there, just bowling by himself. He bought shoes and a ball, the whole shebang. Despite all of that, it never caught as our grownup version of loosely structured hangout time. As a result, I hadn’t played in a long time.

On Saturday, I was instantly transported back to high school and the carefree way we’d meet up to play back then. My girlfriend and I were there with another couple, and it was safe to say that, overall, the pins of lane 8 had little to fear from our group. We drank overpriced drinks and ate concession-stand food that can only taste good in settings like that. We shared the seating area first with a family that had a toddler, and when they left, they were replaced by high schoolers. I tried to zoom out for a brief minute, looking at them, at us, back and them, back at us, and I didn’t feel like I was being overly generous to us when I thought “We look like they do.” Not as young, for sure, but the carelessness and lightness that seems to exude from groups of teenagers didn’t feel quite so different from our own lightness. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously at all, boisterously hyping each other up when we had the all-too-rare chance to close out a frame and over-playing our heartbreak when we saw a ball go in the gutter almost immediately out of the hand; we politely pretended that we believed something—anything, a miraculous single pin—was possible.

On the way home, my girlfriend and I commented on how good it was for us to be bad at something, to be loosed from the chains of competition. We thought of it as character-building, humbling, a nice reminder of the fun parts of games rather than obsessing over the scores. 

It brought to mind other ways we can do more of the same—stepping back into a batting cage for the first time in more than 15 years, getting my ass handed to me on the tennis court, hooking a driver off the tee. It’s not so much that I’m celebrating being bad at various sports and games (though if you could see me try to hit a tennis ball you’d know I could write on the topic with quite the expertise), but rather I’m celebrating the letting go of what actually becomes distractions and focusing on the things that really matter. For us, we’re already planning our next outing, and we can’t wait, gutter-balls or no.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. March Madness is well underway at this point, and it was the beautiful craziness of tournament basketball that brought us Wright Thompson on Caitlin Clark. Absolutely masterful stuff. One of the best covering another one of the best.
  2. It wasn’t that long ago, sometime toward the end of last year, that I first listened to the audiobook of Jonathan Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind. Loved the book and its exploration of the generation right behind my own, as it attempted to describe a college atmosphere that I’d missed out on as a student. Haidt extended many of his same points made in Coddling to a recent article in The Atlantic (which is where Coddling got its start, as a feature story for the magazine before it was expanded to book-length) that explored the negative effects of smartphones on teens. It’s a powerful indictment of technology and depicts a bevy of negatives that I can feel in some form as an adult and just barely dodged a childhood full of them.
  3. From one extreme to the other: This New York Times piece from Australia comes from a father who’s reckoning with his daughter’s 9th-grade year in which she’s enrolled in an entire school year in the Australian bush, without phones or the internet or computers. It’s a sweet essay about the effects of unplugging, how radical they are not just for the daughter but for the father as well. It talks about the joys of snail-mail letters, and I confess that I don’t have any real experience with waiting for such mail. I’ve sent it on a regular basis once in my life—when my brother was in basic training for the U.S. Navy. I sent him letters every single day, and it was a weird feeling, mailing these things off into the void. Like the father, I didn’t handwrite my letters; I typed them out in Google Docs. Reading his story, I feel like maybe I did it wrong, maybe I should have written them out longhand. Regardless of the last time you’ve sent snail-mail correspondence, you’ll enjoy reading about the growth of both a teenager and an adult.
  4. In Haidt’s and Lukianoff’s book, one of the changes to both parenting and the childhood they oversee is the educational arms race that begins ever younger and younger these days. It’s not uncommon for the parents of elementary schoolers to be worried about the skills and extracurriculars that will look good on college applications many years down the road. I was thinking of those examples as I read a New York magazine story about what’s said to be one of the craziest college admissions seasons ever. It feels far away, like I’m in some middle period of life, where college admissions was a long time ago for me and, being unmarried and childless, future college admissions concerns seem forever away. But none of it—from the students’ perspective, from the parents’ perspectives, from the colleges’ perspective—sounds fun.
  5. I find that often these days when I’m talking about nostalgia, I’m talking about it in the form of entertainment strategy—the seemingly lazy way Hollywood executives are trying to capitalize my cohort of mid-30s millennials by repackaging worse versions of things we loved when we were younger because of the notion that we’ll simply want to relive those moments. It probably works more than it should, and that’s not a testament to the actual soundness of the strategy but a testament to the power of that feeling, nostalgia. This personal essay from The Walrus is a nice piece of writing that explores some of the science   trying to study nostalgia, films exploring nostalgia in an honest, thematic way (not IP reboots and legacy sequels), and tells the author’s own relationship to the feeling.
  6. In a different sort of trip down memory lane, I really enjoyed this long feature in The American Scholar about a whole host of issues: medical privacy, history, art, family, and more. In the attic of an old mental health hospital, there was a large collection of patients’ suitcases. A photographer was allowed to photograph them, but it became a complicated matter when determining how to label them for exhibit purposes. Should they be identified or should their identities be withheld for privacy reasons? It connected with me on multiple levels, but most probably because my mom has worked in a state mental hospital for almost 50 years. Not directly with patients, but with their records. Some of the details and tidbits about both the hospital, how it had a large campus and there used to be a farm and other types of work and how the town and hospital worked closely together, and the people searching for answers about their family members reminded me of her work stories.
  7. Speaking of photographs: I loved this story from NPR. I did not know 1) there was such a thing as International Happiness Day and 2) that it was last week. But I did know that photos can make you happy, and I loved seeing what these photographers from all over the world selected as the shots that are making them happy.
  8. This is a great piece from the always informative High Country News that makes great use of data and infographics to punctuate a story that gets lost in the vastness of the West: Its highways are incredibly dangerous. During my recent trip to Wyoming, my friend Jake and I made the four-hour drive from Gillette to Laramie to see our friend Alex, who’s a sports reporter covering the University of Wyoming, and he’d just been covering a car crash that killed three UW swimmers. Apart from the coverage of the team’s reaction to the tragedy, Alex wrote a column that pointed out the danger of the same highway Jake and I traveled to get to Laramie: U.S. 287.
  9. Calvin Trillin, longtime writer at The New Yorker is out with a new book called The Lede: Dispatches from a Life in the Press, and he stopped by the On The Media podcast to chat with Brook Gladstone about its contents. Just a delightful listen from a guy who knows good stories and good writing.
  10. A big splashy return to TV was only fitting for D.B. Weiss and David Benioff after the massive appeal and success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and perhaps you’ve seen their latest show up recently in your Netflix options: 3 Body Problem. I read a lot about it, and I was honestly still on the fence about trying it. My girlfriend and I tried one episode and both of us were kind of “meh” on the whole thing. I might return to it at some point, but I’ll do it with little to no urgency. The reviews are kind of all over the place, from the negative (Slate and Rolling Stone) to the positive (The Ringer and Washington Post).

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Notebooks and Deeply Disciplined Half-Assery

March Madness and Bracket Busters

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

3/18: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, S11
3/19: The Red and the Blue, Steve Kornacki
3/20: CON AIR (AppleTV+)
3/22: Shogun (Hulu); 3 Body Problem (Netflix); Tokyo Vice, S1* (Max)