September 14, 2000

Bowling for Society

This entry was inspired by a book review that was recently linked on the Another Day Weblog. The book in question is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam. If the title doesn't grab you, nothing will - especially if you're a bowler, as I am.

The book, in turn, grew out of a 1995 article, Bowling Alone, by the same author. He claimed that community participation and volunteerism (PTA, Boy Scouts, etc.) had declined significantly in recent years. The sport of bowling served as both a concrete example and a metaphor: fewer people were joining formal bowling leagues, preferring instead to bowl on occasion with friends. The book provides the research data to support the argument put forth in the original article.

The apparent results of social isolation, rather than the causes, are the most disturbing:

The fewer our social bonds, the more likely we will suffer from depression, nervous breakdowns, ulcers or even heart attacks. We also will be more likely not to vote, not to trust our neighbors, to sue and so on..

Causes and results are easy to define compared to solutions. According to the review, the book proposes solutions along the lines of increased participation in religious groups; building "bridges" between groups to try to minimize intergroup discrimination and divisiveness; laws to encourage employers to consider employees' families (presumably, flexible working hours, perhaps day care, but it's not specified in the review.)

The author of the book review finally questions just how useful organized activities are in the first place: what do people really talk about in the lanes or at the chess club?

I grant that all are occasions in which people reinforce their friendships. However, I am less confident that they also are the places where people shore up their moral commitments, talk about basic moral questions, such as what is right and wrong, or encourage each other to be better than they would be otherwise -- things that are essential prerequisites of a good society.

This is where I come in.

First of all, I want to point out that I am an anomaly. Although we lived in the same house from the time I was two until the time I married, I have a much greater sense of community now than I did as a child. My mother was not a community person. While she attended my school performances and parent-teacher meetings concerning my progress, I don't remember her going to the PTA or any other meetings or social events. She had a few close friends from childhood, whom she spoke to often, but who didn't necessarily all know (or get along with) each other. She was more focused on her nuclear family ( Dad and me) and her father and brother.

I didn't miss it at the time. Looking back, it might have been nice to feel a part of something, as I think my kids do now, and as I do now. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my community, and don't find it fulfills all my social needs, and complain that it's too homogeneous, but at least it's there and it has its advantages.

When my father was ill I didn't even have to tell anyone.. people just knew. I know most of my friends' parents and they've met mine. When the kids started to become more independent, it was usually with friends whose families I knew, often from several different places. When Older Son (his name is Mark, by the way) went through his late-night poker game phase, I knew the other kids personally, and more important, they knew and respected me from my years of volunteering at their junior bowling league. (There's that ubiquitous sport again!)

I would find the singer in Younger Son's (Rob's) band much scarier if I hadn't known him, his parents, and his family history for the past 15 years. (At 16, he's done hard drugs and been expelled from multiple schools. It's a long story.)

As for the pivotal question, what do we talk about at bowling: it seems to depend on the gender of the league. I asked Hubby about his league and got "nothing" as an answer; when pressed, he admitted that conversation involved the stock market and golf, both personal golf games and Tiger Woods. Do they talk about their kids? No. Their families? No. Anything besides the stock market and golf? No.

They must talk somewhere, however, since Hubby's golf and bowling buddies have encouraged him to participate in working on charitable fund-raising events for their various pet causes, year-round. Hubby has no social conscience himself, but he enjoys the camaraderie and free food. Whatever the motivation, the result is at least constructive.

As for my league.. well. Thirty-two women are constantly chirping and cackling about something. There is some talk about children and grandchildren but it's not overwhelming. None of these ladies are new parents and most are already grandparents. There is talk of vacation trips, recipes, restaurants, movies (lots of movies), aches and pains and illnesses. There used to be more talk about the local schools but not too many still have children there. The internet and computers don't rate too highly either. There needs to be some conflict and if none exists, some must be manufactured; this week it concerned exactly where the no-smoking boundary should be.

Basic moral questions are covered, not in abstract philosophical discussions, but as a reaction to day to day life. I think most of the ladies in my league are "better" for having been there, at the very least for the afternoon of escape and release it provides. "Better" can encompass as little as taking down a new recipe or as much as learning a moral lesson. Week after week, the effect compounds.

I've been in that league since 1987; I bowled in a social singles league when I was, um, single, and that grew into a social club with various self-organized outings. Several marriages resulted from that league, and one couple I know still lives in my community. Before Hubby and I began to date seriously, I invited him into the league to sort of be able to view him at close quarters.. with no commitment.

One of the ladies in my league has a husband who is a school commissioner in "my" school board. I've had a few productive informal talks with him when he came to pick up his wife. Another of the ladies volunteers at the rehabilitation hospital where Dad stayed while recovering. Yet another works at the XRay lab where I once had a test involving swallowing enormous amounts of barium; having her there helped me through it. I could go on and on. If someone has "bowled with me", there's a bond, even years after they've left the league.

Golf foursomes and bridge evenings have their place in cementing specific friendships and fostering deeper discussions; but if people are neglecting activities involving larger groups, something is definitely lost, for more than just the people involved but for society in general. Alienation, after all, has been recognized as a destructive force for quite some time now.

Do I have a solution? Only that more people become more aware of the effects of their isolation, and put social and community activities higher on their list of priorities. Books such as this with their attending publicity are a start.

Linque Du Jour:

Oh why not.. I've linked to part of it before, but it fits in too neatly with the rest of this entry. Very comprehensive site on all things official in the sport.

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