Sunday, October 31, 2010


For nigh onto forty years, and possibly more, I have been a self-mutilator of my fingernails. Some sort of nervous habit I picked up when I was in elementary school. Perhaps it was one of those terrible early grade teachers who tormented me with lessons and homework and high expectations and who always wanted me to be quiet in class.

It was hell, I tell you, sheer hell.

Whatever the reason, I was a picker. Not a biter, those people are just weird. My fingers would take turns ripping off the end of any nail within reach, and just as soon as it grew back it would be assaulted again. Many good and kind people have tried to help me over the years, but at some point it became part of my being and would not be eradicated.

About sixteen years or so ago I was scheduled to go on a few business trips for my then-employer. My jagged and sore fingertips would not be the proper way to introduce myself around the country, so I suddenly stopped picking. Stopped cold. Within two weeks they were grown out and I even visited a salon near work to have them buffed and trimmed to appropriate man-length.

I felt a little odd going in, but it ended up being all right. I mean, I never intended to go back, but at least I didn't look like a freak while I traveled. After I got back home for good, though, I tore them all off and went back to the old habit. And I kept at it religiously, at least until very recently.

In just the last few weeks I have once again grown real nails, just like I had in 1994. By stopping the daily picking it was as if they grew by magic. Plus I stopped picking: that might have been the magic. I could tap them on table- and countertops, and could scratch my scalp as I massaged in the dandruff shampoo. My daily shower went from two minutes to five just so I could enjoy the tactile sensations.

Okay, it’s never really been a daily shower, but I was in there as often as necessary.

I had fun for a few days as folks oohed and ahhed, and I felt like I just might have become a grown up. No longer did I rise from a chair to find the floor littered with bits of my nails and flesh. People were impressed with my incredible feat of self-restraint. If I could stop picking my nails, then surely there was the potential for peace in the Middle East.

Now . . . they are just getting in the way! I scratch myself accidentally, they bend backwards painfully after being caught on a door handle or while folding clothes, and all kinds of crap gets stuck underneath them. Peanut butter, grease, dirt, the long nails are always dirty.

It was time to return to a professional, but I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the best source for manicure information available to me: my teenaged daughter. She has a favorite place where they trim and buff and color and stripe her nails and ask her, “You have boyfriend?”

Her manicurist is right next door to Jerry’s Barbershop, where I spent many formative years getting haircuts with extra gel—before I started going across the street to whatever was the inexpensive shop in those days: Cheapcuts or Looksbad, something like that. Nowadays it would have a dot-com at the end. As if you could buy a bad haircut over the Internet!

Silly kids.

When it came time for a second manicure, though, I couldn’t do it. During the first excursion there wasn’t another soul in the shop when I walked in, and I was the only one there during the appointment. Just the way I liked it. Anonymous.

Kelsey’s shop was way too busy, and there was always the risk that Jerry would be standing next to his barber pole when I walked up. “Matt?” I could imagine him asking, “You’re here for a manicure? Hahahahahahahahahaha!” He would double over, gasping for breath.

Then one day Kristin and I were playing canasta and she saw my nails. “Wow, they’re really getting long,” she said. “I’m surprised you haven’t broken one yet.”

Ninety minutes later as I was grilling some burgers for dinner I did just that. The nail on my right index finger bent and broke. The wife had cursed me.

The next day I reached over a student’s shoulder at school to point out something on his math worksheet and I scratched his arm. I wasn’t used to allowing space for my sword-like fingers.

The boy screeched and threatened legal action, and when I tried to apologize and showed my fingers as some sort of explanation, the class recoiled in disgust. I was now the creepy old guy with long fingernails. A la Howard Hughes, if that particular reference is not lost on all of you.

Now the question is “how long is too long?” And the other question is “file, clip, or cut?” And the third question is “should I get another manicure?” It has become a more cumbersome process to care for my fully grown nails than it ever was to explain my obsessive compulsivity to pick.

I think it would be easier if I just went back to the self-mutilation.

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