the twilight zone | goldfish brains


This series encompasses three events linked together by my change in perspective.
It took me a long time to write because I did not have the ability to express my thoughts clearly.
This is the first part.


When I went to Tampa to play in the APA U.S. Amateur Championship late last year, I was in bad shape. I had spent too much in all aspects preparing for the tournament and now, I had nothing left for the big show itself. I was burned out. Right when the plane hit the runway, I knew I had made a mistake. I should have stayed home. I wanted to go home. I could not, however, afford to change my flight. I was stuck in Tampa.

As the shuttle crept slowly through a large retirement community decorated with crumbling plaster replicas of famous Greek statues (the other passenger was a older lady who was coming in to visit another older lady), I tried to manage what I had left. If I was stuck here for three days, I might as well play the tournament.

The tournament was comprised of 32 women who qualified from around the country. I had last qualified for this tournament three years ago. The year before, I had lost–in the sh#ttiest way possible–in the finals of a qualifier. I had built a lead, lost it, and then lost the whole thing hill-hill. The year before that I had not even won a match. It had taken me a while to win the qualifier and so, this tournament meant something to me. I carried my own expectations as well as the expectations of others.

I wanted to win the tournament but now, with no resources and limited energy left, I truly had to examine my motivations. Money was not a motivation, that was a given. The winner of the tournament would receive entry and expenses toward a women’s professional event; second and third places would receive trophies. There were no cash awards. If not fortune, then fame, right? This tournament, billed as “The Nation’s Most Prestigious Amateur Pool Tournament!” promised much recognition for the winner. In the past, winners have been featured on ESPN and in ESPN The Magazine. Exposure like that could lead to lucrative sponsorships. Fame had never been a great motivator for me and the longer I played, the less it meant.

Having cut out fortune and fame, there remained one thing: expectation.

The desire to Not Let People Down.

This is a tournament many–including those close to me and whom I respect–have told me I could win; that I should win. If I failed, I felt I would lose their respect. This was an irrational sort of fear, I knew, but it still took a bit of mind-wrangling to come to the conclusion: If they regarded me less because I did not not win a tournament, they were not my friends. Indeed, if they regarded me less because I lost a match, a game, or dogged a shot–then they were not a friend of mine nor was I a friend of theirs. Cutting that loose relieved the pressure somewhat, but there was still plenty left.

The greatest source of pressure for me in this tournament came from myself.

That was a much harder monster to wrangle.

I forced myself to stop looking at the big picture of a tournament win, what it would require and what it would promist. I shrank the image down to winning a match. I would be playing on unfamiliar equipment in unfamiliar surroundings in less than optimum physical condition. I had to acknowledge that I might not win a match. I am a reasonable human being with realistic expectations. I further lowered what I expected of myself again and again until I felt somewhat comfortable with a goal I could handle.

The only expectation I had for myself, for the entire tournament: have the cue ball make contact with an object ball–without fouling.

There was a tiny part of me that was not sure I could do it.


Sleep and Tampa’s humid weather eased the weakness of my lungs. The next day, I woke up early and walked rather slowly to the pool room. Every last joule I had would go toward hitting the cue ball into an object ball without fouling. This was all I would focus on. Making a ball, winning a game–those would only be thought of if I had the energy to spare. Winning a match, winning a tournament, hanging out with friends, and humoring strangers all took a back seat.

I almost miscued my first shot.


I missed a lot of shots. I made terrible choices. I did not care. My only thought was to try to hit the next ball without fouling. If I did not, then I waited patiently until I could have another try. In between matches, if I had the energy to chat with people, I did. If I did not, then I did not. Through all of it, one thought ran in the background: always move forward. I did not look too far into the future which meant I also did not think very much about the past. If something annoyed me or I disappointed myself, five seconds later, the thought was gone. I had the brain of a goldfish and I was in The Zone.

And then, quite suddenly, I was playing in the finals.


I did not have a good start, but that was all right. The final race was longer than the other ones in the tournament so my energy did begin to flag a bit, but I stuck to my simple goal and forged on. Physically, I was running on fumes but mentally, I was flying.


At no time did I think I would lose.

It was the purest sense of confidence I have ever known.

It was fearlessness and immortality distilled into one fine point in time and I existed only in that moment.


In the back of my mind, I did wonder what would happen when the goldfish-brain-train ended. In the last game, I was hooked on the four-ball. I went for a kicksafe and the whole idea and layout and result had been illustrated in my mind. I kicked and completely missed the ball. I was actually surprised I missed. It was a hilariously weird moment. I was not angry or frustrated or disappointed, just–“huh”. I sat down, my opponent took ball in hand, made the combination on the hanging nine-ball, and won the tournament. It was the only shot of the tournament I would remember clearly.

I wasn’t even mad. I was surprised at not being mad. Then my body caught up with my mind and I felt very tired and nauseous. Looking around, I felt extreme claustrophobia. My brain was still in goldfish mode so I flapped my little fins and fled.


I was intrigued by my mind-warp in Tampa. I told some people I had gone to Tampa one type of player and come back as another. When I returned home, I wondered if what happened was only a fever dream or something more permanent. The only way to find out would be to put myself in a similar situation, but I did not foresee that happening. It was nearing the end of the year and I was burned out. I was so, so glad there would be no more pool. I was sick of pool, really. I knew I had pushed things too far and would need a lot of rest to get better. I looked forward to going home to my family for the holidays. I was ready to give up the pool player ghost.

Then something came up.


part two >>

el duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing