I met my birth father when I was 18. We were afforded the next 28 years to piece together a relationship around the void. And, given the scope of the rebuilding project, I thought we did a nice job.
I learned bits and pieces about him in, well, bits and pieces. He was a droll, shy and private man, not given to forthcoming. Military service in Korea. His career in finance, savings and loans. A New Orleans Saints fan. It’s a relationship as much of historical inference as actual experience. I pieced the fragments together, trying to embrace the man and his life.
But my favorite memory was when I bought a pool table. Pocket billiards. Oh, nothing fancy about the table. One of those “low end” tables from a local sporting goods store. But it sufficed for me, my children and my friends — all rank amateurs.
Actually, “rank amateur” might be flattering myself. I mean more a clumsy, ignorant “hit and hope” kind of pool player. I can line up basic shots. I understand that you can hit the cue ball harder or softer. But, beyond that, all I know is that I really, really enjoy the game. I’m still not clear about the purpose of chalking, but it looks cool and businesslike to do it between shots, so I chalk vigorously. Panache, don’t you know.
See, geometry was my favorite class in high school. Because it made such pure and utter sense. Algebra, physics and calculus were beyond me. But geometry was almost relaxing. Spot me two points on a plane and maybe an angle and the rest is discovered through sheer deductive logic.
Pool is that way. Pure geometry. Velocity and mass times the angle and voila! The outcome is cosmic law. The are no real variables, save for the amount of beer you’ve had to drink, whether and how much you’re distracted by the beer maid who just brought another pitcher, or my mischievous son’s tendency to leave the chalk surreptitiously behind the ball at which I’m aiming.
Pool soothes me. It occupies a part of my brain I don’t use very often. Specifically, the part that concentrates. I didn’t say “think” or “problem solve.” And, thank heavens, I didn’t say “emote” or “feel” or “ruminate.” The thinking/feeling part of my brain works just fine. Too fine, in fact. If I’m not careful, it’s a 24/7 runaway train exhausting me.
But pool is more art, flow, rhythm and seeing. It’s a happening. It makes me empty my head of thoughts, empty my heart of feelings, and simply concentrate. It relaxes me, a man singularly resistant to relaxing in most other contexts of life.
In this state, fun happens. Conversations flow, from absurd and silly to deadly serious. You know how some therapists sit down and draw or color with minor patients in hopes of getting conversation flowing more naturally, if indirectly? Well, I’ve always enjoyed the fantasy of having a billiards table in my office — me and my patients pacing around the table, chalking our cue sticks, lining up shots … and talking.
My birth father was a pool shark. What a surprise! The second time he played on that table, he brought over his cool little case containing his very own pool cue that he acquired in the Marines.
I swear he could cast a spell over the cue ball. It wasn’t enough that the ball he hit went obediently into the waiting pocket, but the cue ball would then somehow travel mysteriously to exactly the place where the next ball was waiting to be driven home. It’s called a “good leave,” and to this day it mystifies me. And delights me. Fills me with wonder.
Oh, that relationships could be so logical. That, with a little concentration you could merely decide to bang into folks at just the right angle and speed, pushing them just where they need to go (or maybe where you need them to go), and leaving you right where you needed to be after the encounter. Nope. Sorry. The billiard table of life doesn’t work that way.
My birth father’s pool cue rests in its case in my bedroom closet. Aside from a few pictures and a turquoise ring, it’s really all I have of him. Some day I’ll acquire another pool table. In the meantime, I’m just glad he stepped back to the table of my life and banged into me again.
Wherever I rolled.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him email@example.com.