One of the background noises of my childhood was the sound my father made when he was practicing bowling in the living room.
Pop came to bowling late in life, not until he was in his forties, and I always suspected that he could have gone professional if he had started earlier. For a long while, he carried a 220 average in a league at Leemark Lanes in Brooklyn, and he once bowled a nearly-perfect 295 game: eleven strikes in a row and five pins on a last ball that he told me "felt so heavy" in that final frame.
Bowling was his passion; he would play twice-weekly when he was working and daily on vacation and after he retired. In between visits to the alley, he would practice in the living room. I could sit and watch him, so focused on his task, and he wouldn't even notice me. He would sit in his rocking chair, reading a dog-eared copy of one of his bowling manuals or one of his clippings of the bowling column from the sports section of the Daily News - "Don't Twist at Target," "Fine Bowlers Study Lanes," or "Bend Knee to Brake." After a while, he would close the book, set it down on the carpet, and pick up his ball.
With a look of concentration on his face, he would step to the center of the room and practice his footwork, making a classic four-step approach in his slippers - swish, swish, swish - and moving through his backswing and downswing, not releasing the ball, of course, but letting it drop into his left hand - slap! - his muscled butcher's arms easily handling the weight as he worked to refine his technique.
After one approach or several, he would set the ball down again, return to his chair, pick the book, and open it once more. My father was not a formally educated man, progressing no further than grade school, but he believed in books and their power, and his bowling manuals were as important to his game as the rasp he used to smooth the finger holes in his ball. I am sure that there were sections of his manuals that he had read dozens of times, reading and experimenting and refining and improving his game. Bowling and reading about bowling; he did a lot of both.
I've bowled a bit in my day, but have never made it the avocation that my father did; and as a fellow who ended up a college English instructor, books and education have been a big part of my life for a long time. In some ways, I am nothing like my father; but sometimes...
We have begun some role-playing games again with a small group of friends, and I have been game-mastering some of the sessions. This requires me to set up a scenario that will provide the players with both an opportunity to create a shared narrative and some sort of challenge for them to overcome, all within the constraints of the game mechanics and rules. So, I sit and write, sketching out the non-player characters and trying to build a believable and engaging world.
And when something doesn't seem to be working out, or I have an idea I think would improve a puzzle, I find myself putting down my stuff, walking over to pick up my game manual, and sitting down to read it again. I am sure that there are sections of the manual that I have read a dozen times. Then I go back to my work, refining and improving it.
My father would not have had any resonance with something like RPGs; he was much more practical and did not have much truck with the world of fantasy. But I think he would have recognized the value of the manual and the relationship between my reading the book and accomplishing my task. And I'd like to flatter myself by thinking that I might look a little bit like him as I sit in my chair, a dog-eared volume in my lap and a look of concentration on my face, trying to get better at doing something I care about.
Better Bowling by Joe Wilman sits in my bookshelf, tape-mended spine, yellowed clippings, and all. The trophy that Leemark Lanes issued for Pop's 295 game went into his casket.