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By 2001 Humble had filled all the Kearny Mesa center's lanes with league players during the prime evening hours. Demand for the lanes from leagues intensified in the wake of the August 2005 closure of Sunset Bowl in Clairemont. Humble was able to accommodate some of the folks who had been playing there, but a lot of them had to quit for lack of a place to play. "It's a shame," Humble says. "People bowling together for 25-30 years, closer than family."

From the end of World War II through 1965, bowling leagues enjoyed a different story. Growth was explosive. "At the peak, in the mid-1960s, 8 percent of all American men and nearly 5 percent of all American women were members of bowling teams," writes Robert D. Putnam in his bestselling book Bowling Alone. But from the late 1960s through the 1970s, league membership stagnated, and between 1980 and 1993, it plunged by more than 40 percent, according to bowling industry data. Writing in 2000, Putnam noted, "If the steady decline in league bowling were to continue at the pace of the last 15 years, league bowling would vanish entirely within the first decade of the new century."

I couldn't find a single bowler in San Diego County who had heard of Bowling Alone. That's not surprising. Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard University, and his book really isn't about bowling. Rather it reports on the dramatic decline in participation in all manner of community groups and social activities in America since the 1960s. While we were dropping off our bowling teams, we also began to lose appetite for a host of things once woven into the fabric of American life: voting and working on political campaigns, attending PTA and Elk's Lodge gatherings, playing cards and having friends over, even going to church and dining together with our immediate family members. None of these activities is yet extinct, but the graphs in Putnam's book have an eerie and depressing similarity. Whether illustrating participation in blood drives or union membership or belonging to a bowling team, you see a rise in activity through the first half of the century. Then in the '70s and '80s, the numbers take a nosedive.

The problem with disengaging from all these social activities, according to Putnam, is that they have a value that goes beyond any specific pastime. Doing things in the company of others -- be it stuffing envelopes for a candidate or dancing tango every Tuesday -- creates connections that make both individuals and groups happier and more productive. Data "from diverse surveys" suggest that up to half of all Americans find their jobs through social networks. People also find pals to help them when they move and sympathetic ears. Social ties "foster sturdy norms of reciprocity," Putnam argues. "I'll do this for you now, in the expectation that you (or perhaps someone else) will return the favor." They also "facilitate gossip and other valuable ways of cultivating reputation -- an essential foundation for trust in a complex society."

Even health and happiness correlate strongly with social ties, Putnam asserts. More than a dozen studies in the United States, Scandinavia, and Japan have shown that socially disconnected people are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with matched individuals who have close ties with family, friends, and the community. "As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half." The findings for happiness are no less dramatic. Putnam writes, "The single most common finding from a half century's research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one's social connections."

I can't tell you if the members of the PIA League are any healthier than the folks who spend their Thursday evenings sitting home and watching Ugly Betty. But they do seem like happy people, particularly Chuck Shock, one of Kearny Mesa Bowl's regulars. "You want to know what makes bowlers tick?" he asked. "Competition! Fun! It's like any sports program. People get to enjoying what they do and love the people they're around and just have fun."

Shock wears his gray hair so short it's just shy of baldness. That and the smoothness of his skin give him a baby-faced appearance that belies his 70 years. He's been bowling for 53 of them. From his earliest experiences back in Anderson, Indiana, he felt passionate about the sport. "Because you're with people that you know, people you like. And you just keep going."

Shock kept going through 22 years in the Navy, a career that took him all over the world. "I bowled in Japan. I bowled in Korea. I bowled in Hong Kong and Singapore." When he retired, he worked as a civil servant in the Navy headquarters building at the foot of Broadway, serving as paymaster for the western United States. During those years, there were periods when he was bowling three nights a week, even though his wife hates the game. "With a passion!" he said, amused. "She thinks bowling is like watching paint dry." Shock's wife did share his affection for the people he bowled with, so she'd drop in to chitchat. "There were some ladies bowling with us, and she'd have a drink with 'em and socialize. It's very social." She also enjoys traveling with Shock to bowling tournaments. "We've gone to the nationals 23 years in a row," he boasted. "It's held in different cities every year. We're going to Reno this year. Next year we go to Las Vegas. Then after that, we go to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then to Wichita, Kansas." The state tournament, held in cities all over California, has lured them for every one of the last 15 or 20 years.

Shock gradually cut back on the number of bowling leagues he belonged to, but not because he lost his appetite for bowling. "I'm getting to the age where the knees give out. The back gives out. The arm gives out." He joined his one remaining league, the PIA, about 15 years ago. A printer by the name of Tommy Burnett started it in the early '60s as a way for local printers to have fun together (PIA stands for Printers International Association). But over the years, plenty of nonprinters have been admitted to its ranks.

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