H and I just watched a documentary on bowling. Yes, bowling. He once bowled seriously, as he now plays pool. The documentary, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, followed four men through a season of what felt something like the circus coming to town. In 1997 the PBA broadcast on ABC for the last time and in 2003, three Microsoft execs (retired) bought the franchise for $5 million and brought in some ex-Nike guys to revive it. It was all reminiscent of another documentary on the Big Apple Circus ("Circus") that played out many of the same themes. A caravan of recreational vehicles traveled the roads from tournament to tournament (or show to show). Careers were built and lost. Families were built and lost. Lives were fit around the needs of the tour. Personalities were built for the benefit of the media.
Of course one man won. Three lost. Their stories of success and failure would be familiar to most. Each one represented some archetype; the hero, the bad boy, the kid on the rise, and the old-timer whose luck had run out.
When we were finished, I took out a book that I have been reading, by Lisa Knopp: "The Nature of Home." I read about her decision to leave a full time teaching position with benefits, in what she calls "the estranging place," so that she could settle with her children in southeastern Nebraska. She gave up what was safe, for something that would take her to her "belonging place."
It is a struggle that H and I have taken on for some time now... and we have opted for the familiar over the risky in times that are economically extreme. Academic and writer Richard Wolff recently claimed that the government's statistics on those who are unemployed, underemployed or who have given up looking for work is now at 18%. So familiar has trumped our decision to start over, for the weeks to come. And I am struck by how many people live and work in their "estranging places" because it is what they know and the risks seem too great... or as Wayne Webb (the old timer) said, while driving through the rain from one show to another, bowling is all he knows. He has bowled professionally since he was 18; at the time of this documentary, he was 45. "I never did college. I don't have another way of making a living. I thought bowling would always be there." Replace "bowling" with "the factory" or "the department" and you have the stories of millions of hardworking and successful people who suddenly find themselves with no next steps. If he is to give up the tour, what is there for him to do? If we give up the work we know and that we do well, who are we in its absence? Lisa Knopp writes "Faith I told myself. Faith will make this work. I thought often about Jesus' disciple Peter. The moment Peter thought about the impossibility of walking on water, he began to sink. I could sustain myself in my belonging--place as long as my faith exceeded my doubts".
We are exhorted to take the risk, jump off the cliff..."at least you
will be in a place different from where you were stuck." I have heard
this much of my life and from many people. But most of those people have
health insurance and a steady income and a clear knowledge of what they
are jumping toward. We hear the stories of the successes... these are
the stories ginned up to give us faith. But there are legions of people
who are sinking in this country, whose faith in themselves and the
system were not enough to keep them walking on water.
Knopp patched together jobs as church secretary and interim school administrator, and writing book reviews for a local paper. I have worked as a consultant and adjunct teacher for much of my life and have patched together a business and a life. But tonight, I am aware of how many people are patching lives together, and how few of those lives are shaped as we had imagined, in our belonging places. The MVP of the Professional Bowlers Tour is last seen chipping the ice off the roof of his motor home, late on the night of winning the national championship, on his way to the next tournament, the next round, the next circus.