Bowling in the Hudson River

by Andy Gullahorn When I was in Las Vegas almost a decade ago with some of my family, someone gave us tickets to see George Carlin. I didn’t know much about his stand-up comedy except that he was known for trying to shock people with some of the most vile language known to man. Thinking back on that night, I don’t remember anything specifically shocking about it, but I do remember walking out of there with advice for anyone else interested in going: You can avoid some really awkward moments by not attending with—and sitting next to—your mother. Trust me, it was awkward. But that wasn’t the only thing I remembered about that performance.

I remember George talking about how he thinks we care way too much about being “germ free” these days. He thought it was absurd the way we cook the taste out of a hamburger in fear of food poisoning. We would even go so far as to swab prisoner’s arms with alcohol before giving a lethal injection, because we wouldn’t want them to die and be sick. He contended that this fear of germs only makes our immune systems weaker and in turn leaves us more vulnerable to illness and disease. Then he told his own, personal immunization story.

“When I was a little boy in New York City in the nineteen-forties, we swam in the Hudson river. And it was filled with raw sewage! OK? We swam in raw sewage, you know, to cool off. And at that time the big fear was polio. Thousands of kids died from polio every year. But you know something? In my neighborhood no one ever got polio. No one! EVER! You know why? Because WE SWAM IN RAW SEWAGE! It strengthened our immune system, the polio never had a prayer.

“So personally I never take any precautions against germs. I don't shy away from people who sneeze and cough. I don't wipe off the telephone. I don't cover the toilet seat, and if I drop food on the floor I pick it up and eat it! . . . And you know something? In spite of all the so-called "risky behavior,” I never get infections. I don't get colds; I don't get flu; I don't get headaches; I don't get upset stomach. And do you know why? Because I got a good strong immune system! And it gets a lot of practice!” *

I thought about this story the other day because I am the father of a five, eight, and eleven year old. Any parent with at least a couple of kids in that age range knows that in addition to the frequent permission slips, graded papers, finger paintings, and heads full of lice, the kids also bring home a Russell Stover assortment of viruses. Usually these things quickly make their way through the entire family because, for some reason, a parental figure is expected to care for a child even when it is a sick, snotty one. But I made it through this last stomach bug barrage unaffected. In fact, I haven’t been sick in over three years (knock on wood). This is great news for a couple of reasons. First, it is always just nice to not be vomiting. Secondly, I can use this information to justify one of my favorite hobbies.

Four years ago, I took advantage of a new “Bowling Stimulus Package” at my local bowling alley that offered two free games and shoes with the purchase of a lunch combo from the “super-healthy” grill there. What started out as a kind of joke has turned into a weekly commitment. I started inviting other guys after that first visit and started keeping score after the first few months. The Wednesday Bowling Lunch group has been bowling every Wednesday since that first one in February of 2009, and, while we normally have about twenty guys there each week, over 180 guys have joined us throughout those four years. And now, as if to prove that it is no longer a joke to me, I have my own bowling shoes, three bowling balls, and a rolling piece of luggage to carry it all in.

I am not ashamed of becoming the very bowling fanatic I used to internally mock four years ago because I realize that bowling is my Hudson River. Although it probably isn’t true, I like to think that years of eating a burger, then bowling, then eating fries, then bowling again—all with the same hand—have just served to strengthen my immune system. If I can withstand bowling alley germs and expose myself to them on a regular basis like an immunization shot, then surely I can take whatever the kids bring home from elementary school. My immune system gets a lot of practice.

Still, I have found that avoiding stomach viruses is not the greatest health benefit I get from my bowling habit. I don’t know if it is just this stage of life as a self-employed singer-songwriter married to a self-employed singer-songwriter, trying to raise three young, active, hungry, whiny, perfect kids, but it sure is easy to get caught in the isolating whirlwind of activities and obligations. Left to my own devices, I could be floating from one event to the next like a piece of space debris, essentially alone with no tether to the real world. When I made a commitment to show up every Wednesday at 11:30am to bowl, I had no idea that seeing the same faces every week over a long period of time in a context completely disassociated from work, responsibility, or obligations could be that tether for me. But it is.

I often wonder how eating junk food and bowling can feel as healthy and life-giving as it does to me now. I am at the age where I have to make a number of intentional decisions to maintain my health with things like diet and exercise. The decision to bowl was obviously not made with that in mind. It was a selfish decision, made purely for fun and enjoyment. It was a choice to avail myself to a community of guys and build history one week at a time. It is a way to practice showing up regardless of how I feel that day, and then being rewarded by the conversations, encouragements, and trash-talk from dear friends. It reminds me that a spiritual life isn’t about accomplishing a list of tasks out of obligation. No, it is like walking to the banks of the muddy Hudson River and jumping in just to play in it—never knowing that there might be hidden, long-term “health” benefits in the undercurrents.

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*Although George did not get “infections, colds, the flu, headaches or an upset stomach,” he apparently did get heart attacks. But that is beside the point.

Andy Gullahorn is a Tokens Blog contributor. He spends his time playing concerts and house shows across the country, accompanying other artists on the road, and providing his three kids with plenty of stories to tell their counselors in 20 years. Andy was a Kerrville New Folk Winner in 2010 and was a runner-up at the 2009 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. He has recorded several CDs, including Reinventing The Wheel (2007), The Law of Gravity (2009) and Christmas (2010).