By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1996]
Share one of your deepest secrets with me; in that exquisite fantasy you have about running infinite balls (see how well I know you?), doesn’t that run take place before one sort of audience or another? And isn’t executing your run before that wildly approving mob, instead of the run itself, what’s really getting you off?
This year marks the 25th anniversary of nut-bar cartoonist Arnold Roth’s magnificent Sports Illustrated feature simply called, “Pool.” Its centerpiece was a two-page illustration titled, “A Pool Shooter’s Dream,” depicting the shooter pocketing all 15 balls with a single stroke — but far juicier than that, the mastery is accomplished before a gallery that takes in prancing cheerleaders, adoring women, royalty, mobsters in fedoras, TV and movie cameras, and even the presidential seal. I have hung that lovingly preserved cartoon on the wall of every business office I’ve inhabited over the last quarter century, both to announce to one and all where my heart is and because my hunch is that Roth has peeked into most of our psyches.
After all, most of us have courted attention somehow or other since our first moments in life. We squall and shriek and pose and preen and prance for audiences that change and evolve as our lives do — parents, siblings, friends, teachers, bosses, peers, lovers — but few of us live in a vacuum.
Now writers, by choice, sing their songs to an auditorium they cannot see. Good ones, in the absence of literal applause or any other form, simply dedicate themselves to meeting their own lofty standards and no one else’s. We hope that someone, somewhere, has been made to think a bit, perhaps smile or even laugh, and come away glad that he or she took the time to consider our work. But most of our fulfillment is in the creation; any news of the actual effect of our words, however slight or far off, is like more whipped cream on an already-rich banana split.
Back in the mid-’80s, I wrote a column titled, “In the Eye of the Beholder,” in which I suggested, in a most gracious and dispassionate manner, the paucity of good-looking men in pool’s front ranks. To prove my objectivity in the matter, I provided several notable exceptions to my own theory: Bill Incardona (build), the super-snazy Winning Garb’s creator George Michaels (hair), and especially transplanted Californian Paul Brienza. The latter, I noted, was college-educated, had a bona fide career (stockbroker), had a gorgeous wife and stepdaughter, and probably had rarely suffered from lack of female attention. “In summary, then,” I marveled, “Looks. Education. Career. Love. Who knows what kind of player Paul Brienza might have been without all those ungodly millstones around his brawny neck?”
It was some years after I wrote about Paul Brienza before I actually met him, at the wondrous Billiard Congress of America Trade Expo. I was pleased to see that he had laminated my enthusiastic review of his recent video, and was using the lamination as a counter ad. Neither the publication nor I had been consulted, nor paid a cent, but writers, as I say, take their fulfillment where and when they find it.
Somewhat vaingloriously, I suggested that he might have laminated his other mention from me as well; why advertise anything halfway?
He took on a puzzlingly pained expression, “That thing you wrote,” he sighed, “got me in more trouble…”
“How’s that? I thought I was uncharacteristically kind.”
“Well, on one hand, I suppose I owe you gratitude beyond repayment. I liked the piece well enough, and so did most everybody I know. But I’m divorced from that lady now; and when we’d fight, she had this habit of digging out the magazine with that column in it and waving it under my nose, screaming, ‘I’m not gonna be a millstone around your neck!’”
“Hmm,” I said thoughtfully.
“Now, when I could get her to make up, we scaled the heights of ecstasy,” he continued nostalgically. “Which wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for you.”
“I suppose not,” I nodded, a bit lost in the turn of logic.
“On the other hand, we did get divorced.”
“All because of what I wrote?”
“No,” Paul said. “But it was sort of ‘Exhibit B’ in evidence.”
There’s no way to explain what happened next, except to point out that I am an only son of Jewish parents and thus already have far more guilt than I can ever possible handle. I began to giggle.
“What’s funny,” he said, bemused. “That I’m divorced?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just that the scene visualizes so well. Her selecting the magazine — her weapon of choice — and then coming after you…”
“Usually after a drink or two, or six,” he said, beginning to teeter and grin himself, rolling up an unseen magazine as though about to deal with an unhousebroken puppy. “Millshtones, huh? Millshtones? I’ll give you millshtones!” He was quite a sight as he got into his role; his chiseled features reddening nicely; the more worked up he became, the harder he laughed, and the harder he laughed the harder I laughed too. There we were, cackling away, amidst the splendor of the most majestic tables, the most magnificent cues, the most innovative accessories in the cue games’ long history. Paul Brienza had made the very best contributions he could to the game he loved, I had made mine, and now those contributions had oddly interfaced us. “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you!” he bellowed in absolute hilarity, and I sympathized as best I could by laughing until I drooled.
Over in the communications industry, where I make my living, advertising writers quest for peer approval just like everyone else does. Feedback from clients is rare; they’re usually too busy watching the bottom line. Feedback from management is rare; they’re usually too busy watching the clients. A writer’s bragging rights usually center around how much product a given campaign has moved, or how many awards it has won. But I’m not daunted by that kind of talk anymore. I get the last word in without fail.
“I wrote a single paragraph once that helped get a guy both laid and divorced,” I always announce airily. “When you’re ready to top that one, you be sure to come see me.”