The one or two times that I bowl a year, my goal is to break a hundred points. For those not familiar with bowling, this is a totally unremarkable score. I often don’t attain even this modest feat.
But for one game, one shining moment, I scored radically higher than I ever had before (or have ever since).
My son Elijah was eight at the time and on a “Generation Gap” bowling league, which paired children and adults. Elijah’s grandfather, who the kids call Pops, is an excellent bowler and he was Elijah’s partner. My only jobs were transportation and funding. I was never supposed to touch a bowling ball, which was best for everyone involved.
I normally took just Elijah and enjoyed eating bowling alley nachos for an hour while I watched other people repeatedly lift heavy things. But my wife had to be somewhere else that night and dubiously claimed that she couldn’t take our four-year-old Isaac with her.
Elijah and Isaac are not a good combination.
If you are a parent that has just girls, consider yourself lucky in some aspects of parenting. If two sisters don’t get a long there can be tears, hurt feelings, maybe some screaming. If two brothers don’t get along there will be events that have police codes assigned to them.
But I could handle this. Elijah would be occupied with bowling and I could just keep stuffing Isaac full of nachos (don’t act like you haven’t parented like that before).
I arrived at the bowling alley holding the boys apart, because of some deep offense to Isaac’s honor, and pushed Elijah towards the lanes. We waited for Pops to arrive as Isaac dodged in and out of people intentionally paying money to wear other people’s shoes.
And we waited.
When the time came for the game to begin I called and found out that Pops was sick and couldn’t make it. Sorry, Elijah. Too bad. I wish I could help. I really do, but I’m not your official partner. Oh well.
I was going to haul the boys home when a helpful man from the league said that I could substitute in. I explained that I would destroy their score. Pops bowls far higher than I do. The man got out charts and graphs and started to explain the bowling league rules. He used the term handicap, and I tried to make it clear that I was bad but not actually disabled.
I was not about to bowl against men and women that owned their own balls, that talked about the oil pattern on the lanes and held up wind gauges before each throw. But then I saw the look on Elijah’s face. He wanted to bowl. He wanted to compete. He and Pops were leading the league.
So I put on ugly shoes, found a ball that I thought was heavy enough to not make me look like a wimp and signed some forms to officially record myself in the league. Isaac hadn’t gotten the promised nachos and now had to be kept in dangerous proximity to Elijah.
Within a few moments Elijah made an astute observation about Isaac’s face and the fists started flying. I pulled them apart and told Elijah to bowl. His rolled the ball two times and then it was my turn. Now I had an unsolvable problem. I couldn’t keep the boys apart while I was bowling. There would be a few critical seconds where my back was turned and anything could happen.
Anything could happen in a room filled with conveniently placed head crushing objects.
So I grabbed my ball and flung it down the lane, taking my eyes off the boys for just a fraction of a second. In that tiny slice of time, Elijah decided to mention that he had bought candy with his own money and he happened to notice that Isaac didn’t have any.
Isaac, not found of inequality, flung himself on the floor in a tantrum, in front of these strangers who were judging both my bowling and parenting ability. I scooped up Isaac, whispering threats I couldn’t possibly follow through on, and told him to sit still while I threw the ball again.
But I didn’t need to throw again. I had gotten a strike.
I’m a mathematical person and I figured that this really shouldn’t surprise me. A certain small percentage of random throws will result in a strike.
I decided to handle Isaac’s horrible behavior with bribery. I knew this wasn’t the best long-term parenting. He needed to learn a lesson. To be taught that he couldn’t act like that. But I also needed to get us through the game and out of there before the sun rose again. Isaac inherited certain characteristics from the woman I love and will fight to the death over anything.
Unfortunately I had just lectured Elijah about the importance of earning his own money and that his allowance was there so that he could buy his own treats. Elijah called out for justice. After your first few kids, justice and fairness are quickly abandoned. Parents don’t want justice. They want quiet.
I quickly bought Isaac a treat and then had to bowl again. I threw the ball and went back to keeping the boys from making people want to call social services.
And I got another strike.
The odds of this being random were rapidly decreasing. I continued wrangling the boys and flinging the ball, barely noticing it out of the corner of my eye. Strike. Spare. Strike. Spare. Spare. Strike. Strike.
I can’t remember the final score, but it was somewhere around 190. And to add to the strange evening, I was bowling against a man who I had regularly seen get scores well north of 200 and he was having a bad night. I stayed of ahead of him the entire time. This is a man that cursed at a spare and considered a strike to be no cause for celebration at all.
On any other night, if I got a strike I would look shocked and commemorate the event with photos and a short speech. Now I looked like an expert bowler who could throw strikes while barely looking and holding a kid under one arm. He probably thought I was having an off night, scoring low with the distractions. I never dissuaded him from this assumption.
I have tried since then to perform the same, but the next time I played I returned to my previous level. I can’t reproduce the circumstances of that night (and frankly, I wouldn’t want to), where my mind gave no thought and my body just performed as it should.
But I did learn this. Sometimes to do well, you have to let go.