Pin me down

When a neurological disease hijacks your body, it’s time to go bowling

Joel Davis is a Sacramento writer and author of Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders.

I used to dismiss amateur bowling as kitschy fun, a lowbrow activity for the dregs of society, something to do a couple of times a year, a lark done mostly for the irony.

Then I became a dreg. The irony stopped. At 43, Parkinson’s has taken so much from me. But it has given me weekday league bowling and the wonderful characters that come with it.

I was able to hide my young-onset Parkinson’s for the first few years. Up to 40 pills a day, then brain surgery—yep, I’ve had a surgeon’s drill spin into my head while awake. But “PD” is a progressive neurological disorder. Like rust, never sleeping. “The gift that keeps on taking,” cracks Parkinson’s poster boy Michael J. Fox, who—save for the fame, fortune, boyish good looks and tremendous height difference—is just like me. I gave up jogging years ago, my bicycle and lawn mower are starting to scare me, I carefully time my walks with my meds. I avoid most trips to the bank and the grocery store—too many humbling “I wonder what’s wrong with him?” stares now. The obligatory “Would you like some help out with that?” from baggers that I once responded to with snarky “Yeah, in about 30 years!” is sincere now. Blue parking tags hang on my car like scarlet letters.

But nobody asks me if I need any help when I stumble into the bowling alley. And I like that. Bowling alleys are the Island of Misfit Toys of the recreation world, the acceptable edge for the unacceptable. I have bowled with or alongside paraplegics, the chronically ill, the mentally challenged, the hygienically challenged, tots who unload zigzagging balls in bumper bowling with both hands as a beaming parent props them up, and the occasional ringer that has tried to hustle me out of my money.

And lots and lots of seniors. To be on the very young side of an older person’s disease is to be around a lot of retirees, especially at weekday bowling. In a society that treats its seniors like castoffs, I have, by default, come to love the ones around me.

I love their wisdom, their quirkiness, how they are long past the point of caring what people think of them (except maybe the hair: older women, especially, seem very fussy about their hair). Their easy smiles and nothing-you-can-do-will-rattle-us empathy. I love their simple but sturdy Greatest Generation names: Orton. Louise. Rudy. Dot. Ray. Audrey. Not a Connor or Madison among them.

One guy I bowl with has neatly trimmed sideburns and still wears polyester bell bottoms circa 1972 that I bet he never bothered to mothball. Another old-timer, a crusty bowling-alley rat with a mean stare, peel-paint growl and a high average, is known around Carmichael’s Crestview Lanes (and on the official scoreboard) as … Old Fart.

I have never not seen Old Fart at the bowling alley—for all I know he sleeps there. I have been bowling around Old Fart for about a year and still don’t know his real name. (Because he regularly out-bowls me, I figure the least I can do is call him Sir Flatulence.)

I have also learned coping skills from my older bowling brethren: These are not complainers. So as their various maladies worsen or flare up, they do what I imagine a lot of them did as Depression-era children: suck it up. Deal with it. Arthritis, strokes, cancer, heart problems and the footsteps of Father Time are counterpunched by moving closer to the release line, a new grip, a lighter ball, and refreshingly little cussing because it is mixed bowling and the men recognize there are ladies present and remember a thing or two about chivalry.

An octogenarian gent on my summer-league team could not see the overhead projector well enough to read his own scores, talked in a rasp you could barely hear, obviously had suffered a Major Something, and threw the ball so slow you could out-walk it down the lane. Yet he deftly let it drop out of his hand so it spun just-so, the ball dangerously riding the gutter’s edge before it routinely toppled spares and strikes. And whenever Johnny “marked” (bowling parlance for a strike or spare), he slowly raised his arms in triumph, a warm smile creasing his kind old face. Beautiful.

Parkinson’s is not easy to treat. I am currently girding for more brain surgery and have had negligible results with the latest wonder med. But that’s OK. Bowling stage-whispers to me: When my symptoms are flaring up, the simple act of keeping my balance and throwing a 14-pound ball down a well-oiled lane then awkwardly retreating backward has a way of telling me it is time to take my meds, go slower, do the stretches I learn in Parkinson’s yoga with yet another delightful crew of seniors.

And when my body is really betraying me, when it is Turtle Time, as my wife and I call it, I waddle up to the line and make sure my tacky blue-glitter shoes are tied properly and pointed in the right direction with my tacky blue sparkly ball. I then get marvelously lost in the moment, the Zen or Big Lebowski of it all, chucking the ball in the air like a shot put so it has a reasonable shot of landing near the head pin. And unlike the disease that has no cure, every shot sails out of my trembling hands with renewed hope that every darn one of those pins will fall down before I do.