Day 302: I Was a Pool Player

It’s been nearly 10 years now, but if I concentrate I can still hear the sound of a break shot. There’s nothing else like it. The cacophony of tightly grouped billiard balls exploding apart and smattering about the green cloth like acrylic mice desperate to find a hiding place. They scurry around the table, at first colliding violently, then slowly, almost casually bouncing off each other as if they’ve lost their will.  Within 6 seconds of the initial blast, everything is calm. The table, which was moments ago neatly organized, now resembles the chaos of a plane crash – balls are strewn about haphazardly, some huddled together and others off in the corner alone. They seem dazed, like a  boxer trying to shake off a left hook to the chin. The only sound now comes from adjacent tables, yours is quiet and still. Nothing is more Zen.

I preferred to play by myself. In retrospect, I see  it was a form of meditation. Competition took me out of the moment. It made my hands shake and my heart race. I would make inexcusable errors, and miss important shots simply because they were important. I started to hate myself for being undependable under pressure. I never performed up to my ability when there was something to lose. Failure was all I could think of, and fatalistic imagery causes the muscle memory you’ve spent thousands of hours building, to fail.

Finally all the frustration culminated in one unforgettable moment. I missed a relatively easy shot during a tournament. It was one I had probably made thousands of time with my eyes closed. In anger, I planted my cue into the floor and bent it like a pole vaulter.  It snapped in half under the weight of my aggression.

The room fell silent. Other players paused mid shot, stood up straight, and scanned the room to see which one of us had pulled a McEnroe. It’s so taboo that people came over to check on my mental well-being. We all abuse our cues now and then. We unscrew them aggressively and throw them into their case. Sometimes we yell at them (but more frequently at the balls). But it’s a rare emotional fit that causes someone to actually break a $500 custom made Ted Harris stick.

I assured my friends that I was stable enough to be left alone. I apologized to my opponent and the tournament director and forfeited the match. I was embarrassed and humbled by my ability to completely lose my composure in public. I had always gotten angry, but never had I failed so miserably at containing it. I was at rock bottom and I knew that I would probably never play competitively again.

I play now and then in bars where I’m performing comedy, but I’ve only ventured into an actual pool hall 3 or 4 times since that incident. I sometimes pull my case out of storage and inspect my old cues. They feel like iconography of an abandoned faith. Now that I’ve revisited some of the old emotions (both good and bad) that I felt while playing pool, I think I might be ready to go out and hit some balls soon.

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

5 comments On Day 302: I Was a Pool Player

  • At least it's a somewhat respectable sport/hobby to have gone crazy from. Just walking past an air hockey table gives me an anxiety attack and I get violently competative, wanting to swear and beat someone with the little disc pusher because I hit the disc in my own slot on accident. Thankfully as I'm in my 30s now I'm not in many places anymore with air hockey tables.

  • I was a soccer player. Started playing in England in 3rd grade when my family moved there, and it became my primary sport for 15 years. I was captain of my high school varsity team, MVP and nearly made the all-regional list in my senior year. But, I was a big fish in a small pond. Not good enough to play Division I in college, but I wasn't ever planning on that anyway. College was a small liberal arts place with (again) a reasonably competitive Division III team. Tried out for that team for two years, each time coming within one or two spots of making it. (The first year, I even showed up at the first scrimmage. It was only then that the coach informed me of his decision.) The third time I noted that there was only one returning goal-keeper and no others trying out. I had played goal-keeper occasionally, so I moved into trying out for the backup slot. I made the team, finally!

    I showed up early for practices and stayed late. I got muddy and bruised. The keeper coach was a great guy who had played on the national team for Trinidad & Tobago. He taught me more than I thought one could learn about the position, and made practice a joy despite being physically brutal. Unfortunately, he was not the head coach. We lost the first six games in a row (five by 3 or more goals), but I never got a chance to even get playing time in a game we were clearly not going to win. I requested a meeting with the head coach, who with a perfectly straight face, told me that even if the starting keeper was injured to the point of not being able to play, he might not put me in. He might put in someone who had never even played goal-keeper. Needless to say, I was shocked, and returned my jersey the next day.

    That experience crushed me with respect to soccer for years. About 10 years ago I started playing recreationally again in a little pickup league through work. But, after a little while, every time I stepped on the pitch, my heart rate went up and I got angry with everything. After a few years, one of my work buddies said he wanted to try this soccer thing, and he joined my team. Within a few games, it became clear how differently I treated one of my best friends on the field compared to off. He decided soccer wasn't his thing, and I decided that it was unhealthy (or at least unhelpful) to continue playing.

    I haven't played soccer since. It's been about five years now, and I still get conflicting emotions when I see pickup games in the local field near my house. I think about going back, about finding another local league, but am held back by the expectation that half of the people will be over-competetive while the other half won't care enough to show up reliably. Not sure if that will ever change, or if I will ever play again. But for the time being it doesn't matter – I have a 3 year old daughter and a 1.5 year old son and little time for anything else. I hope that, whatever they choose to do (sports or not), I will be able to help then learn and grow; to be competitive, but not overly so; to enjoy what they are doing without feeling obliged to be the best at it. To get through each day without a trip to the emergency room.

    Your family members are your billiard balls right now, and your life is the table. Everything is scattered and bumping into each other. Sometimes you scratch, miss a shot or knock a ball off of the table. But in time, you will find that zone again where you see a pattern emerge from the chaos and the shots line up. You'll have that period where your kids will both know how to put on their pajamas *and* do it when you ask. Then of course, when Silas turns 8, god will re-rack the balls, turn the boy's personality on its head, and you'll hear the crack of the break and everything will be jumbled again.

    Good luck. We're all rooting for you.

  • that sounds the same as me with Tennis! Hope you find your way back to something you once loved :)

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