Illustration by Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

Maybe it’s the weeks-long buildup of our family outing, or the general chaos of the crowded bowling alley. Whatever the reason, a look of terror overtakes my 8-year-old daughter, Josephine, the second we enter Diversey River Bowl. “I’m not bowling,” she declares. “I just don’t feel like it right now.”

As we trot toward the front desk, I see her senses hijacked by the neon lights and thunderous sounds of balls crashing into helpless pins. She’s just a little nervous, I tell myself. So I play the chill dad: Sure, honey. Whatever you want. Just sit there with your lemonade and watch me bowl. In parenting books, they call that reverse psychology. In my world, it’s called ineffective. Josephine digs in with her own brand of stubborn, too old for tantrums and not yet graduated to preteen sass.

How can she not want to bowl? I thought I’d nailed this one: On a sunless Sunday afternoon, take the family bowling in an attempt to encourage Josephine to love the one sport I’ve pursued my entire life. The last time she stepped foot in this alley, probably three years ago, she was practically a baby. Now, if my math serves, she’s closer to a teenager (gulp). The time feels right to plant the seed. I can picture myself as a still-spry 80-year-old, high-fiving a grown-up Josephine after I pick up a particularly difficult spare. “You’ve still got it, Dad,” she’ll tell me.

Except my future fantasy is already flying off the rails. After 20 minutes of cajoling and having to start a game without her, I persuade her to put on her rental shoes. I walk her to the ball rack and suggest she fit her fingers in the holes of the ball, instead of rolling it under her legs, picking up the eight-pound pink house ball to demonstrate. I look down. Oh shit. She’s crying. My wife, Jen, who’s been hanging back with 4-year-old Gemma, swoops in.

“Don’t listen to him—I’ll show you,” Jen says, gently pushing me aside. She tells Josephine she can throw any way she darn well pleases, then points to the screen, which shows Jen with a lucky strike and a spare over three frames, dwarfing my cumulative score of 21. (Note: I had no time for warm-ups.) “Who’s winning, huh?” Jen asks pointedly. “Me. Let’s do this.”

Josephine chucks the ball like a shot-putter, and it goes straight into the gutter. But she’s smiling. She steps up for her second toss. This time, she slips her fingers into the holes. (Ohhh, I get it. She wants to do it herself. Duh.) She walks to the line and swings her arm back, and the slow roller eventually drops two corner pins. She’s ecstatic. Me? I’m bummed that my student-teacher moment got trumped. Maybe it’s time for me to go grab us some nachos.

I tried lots of sports as a kid: basketball and football, wrestling and soccer, a little golf and tennis. But bowling was the only one that stuck. My love affair with the lanes began when I was about Jo’s age, in fourth grade. My parents signed me up for the junior league at Fox Bowl in Wheaton. To this day, the only sports trophy I’ve ever earned is for a third-place finish in that league in 1982. And I’m OK with that. I bowled every Saturday with my very own shoes and a ball engraved with “Roddy.”

Despite my unorthodox throwing style—a herky-jerky heave without even a hint of the hook all decent players have—I’ve always been confident at the bowling alley. While I’m not great by any means, I can safely say I’m above average. Maybe that’s why I kept with it into adulthood. Until the responsibilities of two kids finally won out, I’d almost always been in a league. (My career highlight came roughly 15 years ago, when my team, Hurricane Ditka, took the championship by crushing a group of insane guys who wore lucha libre wrestling masks and called themselves Los Diablos Guapos—“The Handsome Devils.”) I’m not an overly competitive person, but at the lanes, whether my opponent is a longtime league rival or my mother-in-law, I always want to win.

So far, Josephine hasn’t shown much interest in sports, which is fine. But this is about more than being a daddy-daughter duo. I don’t want Josephine to be a wallflower. I’d like her to be comfortable with the adrenaline rush of competition. She should understand that in bowling, as in life, there are winners and losers. (And winners know how to do the turkey dance when they toss three strikes in a row.) Most of all, I want her to grow into a confident woman, ready to knock down whatever adversity comes her way. Problem is, she’s not knocking down much of anything at the moment. I could be nurturing and let her learn at her own pace … or I could bring in a ringer.

A few weeks later, Jo and I return to River Bowl for a private lesson with Diandra Asbaty, a decorated world-champion bowler who lives in the South Loop. The 36-year-old has her young kids along and lets them bowl with a sitter. It doesn’t take long to see that Asbaty can coach Josephine in more than just proper form. The public speaker and self-proclaimed “mompreneur” started her own line of women’s bowling attire and the nonprofit Elite Youth Tour—and she still kills it in pro tournaments when she can find the time. Bowling role model? Check.

“Everything I’ve ever learned about life, I learned from bowling,” she tells Jo. “Remember, you get to decide how good you want to be at something. I decided I wanted to be the best bowler in the world.” Solid advice.

Asbaty shows her how to do a four-step approach and preaches the importance of swinging her arm like a pendulum. Josephine listens intently, but she’s still tossing goose eggs. Meanwhile, Asbaty’s 6-year-old is dropping strikes without really trying, and Robert Morris University’s bowling team is on fire in the next lane over. I start to worry this was a terrible idea.

Half an hour later, it comes together. A dancer since she was 3, Jo’s got some footwork that translates: She lets one fly, doing that cool back-leg-kick thing, and narrowly misses the strike. We’ll both gladly take the 7—and the boost it gives her. After the lesson, she leads me by the arm to the pro shop. “Daddy,” she says, “I think I need my own ball.”

There’s the spark I’ve been hoping for. In a few years, I’ll get Gemma out here, too. We’ll be like the Partridge Family of bowling. And we will be unstoppable.