Bowling in the afterlife

Bowling in the afterlife
David Bartal reflects on the healing power of an evening out bowling in the Stockholm suburbs.

Just a few days before I was to undergo a major life-threatening operation in a Stockholm hospital last year, I did something odd. Together with my sister who was visiting from Los Angeles, a Swedish graphic designer, and a few journalist buddies, I decided to go bowling.

That may seem like a normal enough thing to do, but it was an extraordinary experience for me.

In the first place, I was so fragile because of my illness that walking up a short flight of stairs felt like I was trying to lift a freight train. Secondly, I hadn’t bowled since I was a teenager. But perhaps more significantly, I associated bowling with my tough father and his WW II generation.

My father was a working class guy, originally from Brooklyn, New York who finished his formal education at age 12. He did fairly well for himself after marrying late in life, and eventually owned and managed an industrial hardware store.

One of Dad’s main private pleasures was his regular night out with the boys bowling. I have therefore always associated bowling with my conservative father, and I didn’t get along with him.

The rift between father and son was as wide as the Pacific Ocean during adolescence, and caused me to leave home and live on the streets for a period during high school. In any event, bowling has never been my cup of tea. Not in the USA. Not in Sweden. Not anywhere.

But there I was in the spring of 2007, a mortally sick man trying on size 13 bowling shoes at a bowling hall in Åkeshov, which is located along the underground’s Green Line.

Those battered red leather shoes with their slippery soles felt surprisingly comfy on my feet. The sound of polished white pins hitting the hardwood lanes sounded like thunder in my ears.

None in my party had bowled in decades, so we performed like crap. I was mired in last place until the final two frames, when I miraculously scored two strikes in a row, allowing me to win over everyone, with a grand total of about 75 points.

This may sound like a trivial victory and nothing to brag about, but at that moment it felt important, as if I had challenged fate and won.

Now that I’m healthy as sin, I have continued to occasionally bowl with friends, usually at a small rock n’ roll bowling alley on the south side of town. We are achieving higher scores, but gutter balls are still more the rule than the exception.

Beneath the joking and teasing is an undercurrent of desperate rivalry, bruised male egos and raw ambition. Everyone wants to win more than we care to admit.

For Americans of my generation, bowling was something that our parents or grandparents did. It was something my father did. As a young adult my family and I were estranged for longer than I care to recall—no contact at all. My parents weren’t invited to my wedding.

About 10 years before he had a fatal stroke, Dad did soften up a bit—he changed after my Mom, who was his true soul-mate, passed on. We re-established contact, Dad helped me out financially when I needed it, and even made long trips to visit a few times.

Unfortunately, we never fully reconciled. He never explained why he applied a brutal style of discipline on me when I was a kid—he just would say he had been treated the same way by his father. It is odd how childhood memories haunt one long after the events and people concerned have become faded photos in albums one never dares to open.

Sometimes when I’ve been out at the bowling alley at Mariatorget, battling in every frame of the game like it really mattered, a silly thought crosses my mind. I can imagine my stubborn and difficult Dad with his barrel-chest and wavy black hair and sandpaper chin looking down from heaven, grinning in a highly irritating manner. It doesn’t bother me, not very much.