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JeffsLife

Say What?; Somebody; Cool Idea; Calls of the Wild; Losing It; Season's Readings; No 'X-files'; Clippings


Say What?

Sometimes talking to myself clears out thoughts or vents frustration, suggests a course or lends romance to the everyday. Sometimes itís to live for the first time. Sometimes itís to re-live, sometimes to tinker with what was, sometimes to tinker with what will be. Often, itís to rehearse. Rehearse seizing the conversation at my in-laws' dinner table. Speeches I'll give. Commands I'll issue. Excuses I'll make, fits I'll pitch that will make eyes go wide and mouths pop into little round "O"s of astonishment.

Jill was changing Alex the other day when she said something. "What'd you say?" I called into Alex's room.

"I said would you mind not talking to yourself," she answered, "'cause it's just getting kind of creepy!"

What's so weird about talking to yourself? I dunno. Jill has suspected me of talking to myself since she came upon me six years ago, sprawled on our bed and making little explosion noises. She couldn't know she was walking in on a key moment in Klingon history, and that's all I feel comfortable in saying about that.

I talk to myself. I did it just now, here in my white-walled office with the closed door. And just then, too. I've conversed on the sidewalk, in the men's room, in my office, in business meetings and bakeries, on the subway, on buses (city-operated and private), at the coffee machine, down the hall and up my street. All silent stuff, you understand, where you keep your lips pressed against each other so they won't start opening and closing until people start looking at you -- except on the subway -- and you must assume an expression of having just remembered something important you have to do.

When I was a kid I talked to myself all the time. My brother, my closest sibling, was nine years older, and by the time I was a little kid he was pretty much grown, and he bored easily of ricocheting me off the elm tree. There was nobody to play with, or at least nobody who had my appreciation of combat in the gunpowder age. (As with any good soldier, my best buddy became my plastic M1.) Some kids in the neighborhood caught me talking to myself once, and teased me for about it for months afterward. I felt bad about it at the time, but most of them eventually went to jail. Enjoy your shower, boys!

Ha ha!

When Jill read the first draft of this essay, she came laughing into the living room, where I was watching The Outlaw Josey Wales - Clint Eastwood talked to himself in all his movies -- and she continued to laugh. She laughed and laughed, her shoulders shaking, laughing until she folded in the middle. She laughed until it was plain whatever had set her off wasnít merely funny.

"I was reading your piece...by accident..." she gasped. "I just thought it was funny. Youíre so crazy and strange... Unless you didnít mean it to be funny!" She waved her hands as if signaling a runner safe at home plate. "Then it wasnít funny at all. Oh no, not at all!"

Jill seemed taken by this topic. That night in bed, her back was to me as she explained the levels of talking to oneself. "Thereís muttering, there are words..." she said.

I told her that when I speak to myself, Iím always very clear.

"So you use words?"

Well, I replied, theyíre words to me.

Her shoulders began to shake.

I had bachelor years in New York to talk to myself, saying things like "Gee-sus Ewing!" and "I hate this mirror." A lot of talk inspired by TV. I still talk to myself after a particularly good movie. I talked to myself a lot after the Borg episodes of "Star Trek."

Talking to yourself takes a turn with marriage. Soon youíre aware of the eyes on you, the sudden appearance in the doorway, the other set of ears. "I said would you mind not talking to yourself, Ďcause it's just getting kind of creepy." A husband is limited in talking to himself to household chores, such as the garbage. ("Where are all the twisties? Oh just dump it down the chute.") I guess that's talking to myself. I donít do it as much anymore. I do this instead.

"You talk to yourself after good movies?" Jill asks.

Donít you? Please say yes.

"No. I call someone." She turns to Alex. "Maybe daddy should call someone ..."

I like to listen to Alex talk to himself. He gets away with it, cute as a little brook as he fingers a toy and murmurs descriptions, memories, observations, and perhaps nascent stories. I remember the endless weeks when he had a tube down his throat. I can still hear the silence, and I always will. (April, 2000)

Somebody

Phone rings in my office. I answer standing up. "Jeff Stimpson."

"Jeff?"

Jill, uttering one syllable that is pregnant with all that follows.

"Jeff, you can't leave the boxes of cereal where baby will get them. There's Cheerios all over the floor!"

It is hot, 85 and dripping humid at 10 o'clock in the morning. I'm in an air-conditioned office, a desk fan in my face. They say 90 today, with a heat index near 100. Jill has to get out the door with Alex, his air tank, his diaper bag, his stuff, to an appointment for a sonogram. She operating under a special Pregnancy Heat Index. We also slept late.

"I can't do this in the mornings anymore," she says. "I can't hook up the air tanks and do this work I have to do on the computer and get out the door and sweep up Cheerios! I'm leaving it for you. You can clean it up when you get home."

Jill-

"I've asked you about this before!"

Dreaded words. She plows on:

"It's hot. I have a million things on my mind. I need you to make two calls."

Turns out it's three calls. One to our feeding therapist to cancel Thursday's appointment. One to our designer who've overseeing the renovation of new apartment and who has e-mailed that he doesn't have our mailing address. One to the printer of Jill's newsletter, and to whom Jill owes $250. We mailed a check to the printer.

"Call her and say I'm sorry but somebody didn't put a stamp on the envelope." You don't want to ever become "somebody" to your spouse.

Any other time Alex's grabbing the Cheerios box would rank with his getting to the Pringles the other night by opening the dishwasher and stepping up on the flattened door. Jill doesn't see it that way this hot morning, I guess. I'm stuck in the white walls of my office and can't do anything - such as, in the time it takes to have the argument, sweep up the Cheerios.

The day of this fight wears on. I flush in the air conditioning to thoughts about her hammering words. Foul mental pictures that float just below the surface of most marriages. Surely these thoughts are healthy?

"Listen," she says, "I've swept up Cheerios three times already."

I've asked you about this before.

I've never been good at defending myself to myself when somebody accuses me of not listening. I always think, Is it possible I missed something? That's what makes me a good reporter, or at least an apologetic one. I'm relatively smart - smarter than most of my relatives - but I did flunk 10th grade biology and once got a 56 in French. I think about these subjects when somebody says, "I've asked you this before." Sometimes people talk and I don't hear them. But then, have you listened to most people lately? I pay more attention to Jill than I do to most people. She doesn't believe that's true, of course. Each time she must tell me that she's Asked Me About This Before, I try to recall what else she's asked me about. Snapping at her when she wants to share my dessert was one. And something to do with the dishwasher.

When I get home that night there they are, a mound of Cheerios by the kitchen doorway, with a further scattering under the shopping cart and under the highchair. I put Alex in his crib and sweep them up. Many Cheerios bounce out of the dustpan and have to corralled again. I show Jill this essay. "You can't publish this," she says. Through the evening her statement wilts into a question: "You're not going to publish that mean essay about me, are you?"

Jill says she's sorry she was angry, and that her sister says all men sneak away right after getting married and have themselves lobotomized. Jill's friend phones from upstate; I tell her about Jill leaving the Cheerios on the floor and she says, "Cool." Maybe it was cool. It was no more related to the teamwork of raising a child, however, than somebody leaving the cereal box within Alex's reach in the first place.

(Note: Three days after this, I left my morning coffee where Alex could get to it. He did. Jill thought you should know.) (August, 2000)

Cool Idea

Heat is here again. Ninety yesterday, 90 today, 90 tomorrow. The air pushes my face. The heat hasn't pervaded the subway yet; the wind of an incoming train still feels cool as I stand on the platform. But the sunny side of the street smothers me, and the trees, as if panicked, shed blossoms faster than men their shirts here in the West Village. I wear no jacket to work. I miss the extra pockets. At lunchtime I took a long walk, and returned to the office with shirt stains that would've been embarrassing on any other kind of day. Outside my window, the air seems to soften the buildings.

And this is just a mini-wave. The coming months will bring weeks that will turn the city into a gigantic sneaker.

I'm no hot weather guy. I grew up in Maine, where 85 is a blisterer and the heat lingers maybe three weeks out of summer's 12. I relish fall, when the spine of summer has broken. Fall's a long way off right now.

Readers may recall how the heat seeped into essays in the past three summers: sweating on the sidewalk heading to Alex's hospital in 1998; sweating over Con Edison keeping the electricity flowing to his thirsty air concentrator in 1999. I didn't write as much about heat last summer because we had my kind of July. It was wet and cool, and I wrote only to thank July - which can be the worst kind of New York City bitch.

We have three air conditioner sleeves in our new apartment. The former owners of the place left us one tired air conditioner, and we brought with us three weighty - sharp edges, too - window units. But window units burn out if used in sleeves, the AC guys say. Besides, just as once I wanted to be someone who had air conditioning in his bedroom, now I want to be someone who doesn't have to risk crushing his foot - or his baby son - wrestling enormous, sharp-edged boxes into windows on the first sweltering afternoon of the year.

So I ordered hundreds of dollars worth of air conditioners. The AC guys delivered the three imposing boxes the day before installation. "You've not fooling around with this weather!" our babysitter noted, looking at the fortress of cardboard. The three units total almost 30,000 BTUs. I will never be hungry again for BTUs.

Jill called after the AC guys left this morning. "Jeff, I hate to tell you this, but it's not that cool in here."

I ordered these air conditioners. ("I'd kind of like this to be your project," Jill said weeks ago, tossing off the comment on a clear and breezy 50-degree afternoon.) Jill wanted to order them from a different store. I'm already on thin ice with her over our computer, which I bought online and which keeps crashing her off AOL.

"It isn't?"

"No, it isn't. I'm standing right in front of the one in the living room. It's cold in Alex's room, but it sure isn't cold in here."

She tells me she left a message for the store, a joint that barely made the delivery deadline and which returns few calls. I ask her if she wants me to call them. She says no. I say okay then, I'll talk to her later.

When I do, she doesn't mention the air conditioning, which means it's probably working fine. When I get home, I pause to see how long it takes the sweat to evaporate from my forehead. Not long. It's cool in here, I tell Jill.

"It's okay, just okay," she replies.

A few hours later we sit down to dinner and I again say it's perfectly comfortable. And it is, perfectly. I chew with the surety that, for the moment, I've become one of the people I wanted to be. Jill admits that yes, it's comfortable, but she wanted it a little on the cool side.

Later, we get into bed. I reiterate that it's perfectly comfortable and listen to the hum of our bedroom unit, locked in its sleeve, at my command, kicking BTUs into our lives.

"I'm cold," Jill says. (May 2001)

Calls of the Wild

"You tell me to get some underwear, I'm back in two seconds." - Frank Costanza

"Jeff!"

This from the bedroom, where Jill is feeding Ned and trying to get him to sleep. I'm betting she's seen a bug. I shoot off the couch.

"Jeff!"

"I'm coming! What is it?"

I round the corner into the bedroom and find ... well, I wish it had been a bug. She's holding Ned at arm's length. On her cheek and down her shoulder runs a long and familiar yellow spatter.

"What do you think?!" she barks. "Bring me a wet cloth!" I fetch one as Jill tries to reason her way through this emergency. "Achh! Achh! Achh!" she cries.

I take Ned, hand her the washcloth, and with one of Ned's blankets I start mopping the spit-up on the floor. Jill dashes for the bathroom. I'm still mopping -- Ned's on the bed, smiling big -- when I mention to Jill that I thought she'd seen a bug.

"No, I didn't see a bug!" she replies from in front of the bathroom mirror. "You know, everybody talks about how you have to learn to recognize your baby's cries. You need to learn to recognize your wife's cries. Achh!"

Now that Jill mentions it, that's a heck of an idea. ("Oh, is it? Thank you," she adds, scrubbing her cheek.) Jill has always had different cries, I think, playing with Ned, who's still grinning on the bed. "Doesn't mommy have different cries? Doesn't mommy have different cries?" Big, big smiles.

Jill doesn't do all the summoning in our house; I often call her name as she's lost in e-mail or on eBay. But as my words ricochet off and don't budge her, there's no point in examining them. Jill employs many calls, however, and they can mean many things: Anger, disaster, surprise, dread, foreboding, annoyance. I think there was one a few years ago that lead to something good and pleasant, but I can't recall what it was.

-The bug: High, sharp, loud as a pistol, followed by a pained, unraveled, somehow kitten-weak detailed description of said bug.

-Missed appointment cannonade: Six feet of quarterdeck bark out of five-feet three-inches of woman. Easily drowns out the slam of the cab door. Rarely lasts long, but usually includes the word "hate."

-Get Your Hearing Checked: "Jeff! I've been calling you and calling you about 50 times. Why don't you ever answer? You've got to get your hearing checked!" (Author's note: I heard her, and I came as fast as I could but no, I didn't call out to confirm I was coming. Why would I want to confirm I was coming? Can someone explain this?)

-The "Huh," or Double-blind Summons: An out-loud expression of amusement or amazement fired from over the page of the Times or The New Yorker and made loud enough, clearly, to get me to say, "What?" Unequalled in igniting talk between marrieds as long as the Spouse Who Needs His Hearing Checked takes the bait.

-"Huh" (Opened-Mail Version): Uttered by Jill over fresh correspondence from doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. Not always a lead-in to bad news, oddly.

-The Ugh!: Old food. Everybody knows this one.

-Will You Come Here Please?: Curt and icy, as laced with subliminal anger as the Raymond Carver title, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" Usually involves a prop, such as a letter or a spill by Alex that is invariably my fault. Sometimes also a follow-up to previous, unanswered summonses.

-The No, Just Forget It: This is the cut-off, the chilled click and hang-up of household discourse. I don't hear this as much since I discontinued use of the "Whaddya want?" that I think I picked up from some mob movie. "Whaddya want?" lead to some shrill cries, I can tell you, and was often followed by hours of stone silence. I can still hear that silence. (July 2001)

Losing It

Last night I was watching TV with Jill when I said something stupid. "You know," I said to Jill, "I'm going bald."

She could have responded to this statement, which worms its way eventually into most marriages, by saying one of three things: 1) I know; 2) No, you're not, sweetie...; or 3) It doesn't matter because you're so handsome.

She went for number four: "Let me see."

Jill was off her end of the couch and on me like a falcon. Her face got big and her fingers probed for that chilly spot near my crown. At this point, she could have said one of three things: 1) Oh you are not bald; 2) Just a little, sweetie...; or 3) You call that bald?

She went for number four: Oh my god!

For the next several minutes, Jill didn't say anything, but just sat over there with a tight, crumbly look around her mouth, as if she'd just received terrible dental news. I let a few minutes go by filled with only the chatter of the TV, then said, "My father was bald."

"At what age?" she demanded.

"About my age."

"Did he go completely bald?"

"He didn't live long enough," I said. Ned is almost bald. What's the problem?

"Bald! Stop pulling at it with the comb!"

I don't pull at it with the comb, except when I get those flea-sized snarls on top of my forehead. When did I get so much forehead? I don't know: I'm simply 40. I have kids and crushing responsibilities and I'm simply 40 years old. Some of my hairs are even turning an odd whitish color; I think this has something do to with bioterrorism.

Hair, in fact, has been twirling off my head as long as I can remember. I often run a hand through it when under deadline or late on a hot day, when I marvel at the feel of purely dirty and flat hair. Feels good, in a strange way.

Near as I can tell using two mirrors, I've got myself about a two or three inch wide spot of sudden white, my own little Ground Zero, near the back and slightly to the left. I don't think this is bad for age 40. My older brother has been ribbing me about "a sunroof" for almost 10 years. I just thought the comments were an inescapable segment of his, let's call it charm, and that if my sunroof was getting bigger he would have laid off.

"Your brother isn't bald," Jill suddenly fired. "Your sister isn't bald."

I won't testify to that second claim, but both my sister and my brother have my mother's hair: wiry old backwoods stuff, resistant to recession and cutting tool alike. I have dad's hair: fine, wispy, full for four decades and I say again that that isn't bad.

Our evening turned back to Jill, who said she was catching yet another cold, and always felt rundown. I told her it was the last few years catching up to her and, after all, we weren't getting any younger and this was the boys' fault. They wouldn't be the first kids who caused hair loss or an exhausted mother.

"How bald was your father?"

"Kind of Patrick Stewart bald." Dad was a handsome guy. He lost his hair during World War II, something to do with Pearl Harbor. I had nothing to do with it.

"Oh, you can get away with being bald because you're so handsome," Jill said. "You won't have any trouble getting a second wife."

I knew eventually she'd go for number 3, if she got exhausted enough. I let her comment slide to the floor with the wise maturity that comes with age and baldness. I turned my attention to the TV and settled in with apple pie and ice cream to watch a commercial.

It was for Rogaine. (October 2001)

Season's Readings

This holiday season my reading on the subway has consisted of Richard III and Real Simple magazine.

The first is a Shakespeare play about an evil, deformed butcher who connives for the throne of England. The second is about ways to simplify your life and have a homespun, thrifty Christmas season. "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this / easy-to-make string of dried cranberries that's festive, colorful, and lasts up to two weeks!"

Why would a rational man spoil his regularly-scheduled Christmastime reading (Richard III) with depressing, hard-to-understand prose that serves no useful purpose in life (Real Simple)? The answer has three parts:

Holidays. Gifts. And Jill.

I've been whiffing in my gifts to Jill since just before the first Clinton Administration. Around that time, I set up a treasure hunt of little birthday presents all around her apartment; each site had a gift -- such as a pen shaped like an ear of corn -- and a clue to the whereabouts of the next gift. It was a great idea, it wasn't hard, sort of like swinging for 10 singles in a game instead of three homers, but I've never done it since.

I've been trying for homers, usually as surprises. Gloves (wrong size). An Easy-Bake oven, figuring it was kitchy and she could bake with the boys (it went to a thrift shop, unopened). A diamond-chip necklace with a tiny heart inside a bigger heart. She still has that necklace, somewhere, and conversations about it end with Jill saying, "I will wear it. I promise."

So one recent night I'm sitting in the bathroom, staring at the floor -- it is, after all, the holidays -- and by my foot I spot her Real Simple. It's the end-of-year shebang, with tips on trees, parties, and cheap presents. Jill can suck a lot of juice out of a magazine like this, so maybe reading it will give me insights into what she considers a good gift.

I remember nothing about the tree article except that it mandated a potted evergreen strung with popcorn and cranberries, and you could plant the whole thing in the backyard for the birds come January. Well, already I'm at sea over this magazine because I come from Maine, where all you're going to get if you try to dig a hole in the ground in January is a broken spade, frozen fingers, and a hankering to set fire to something. And that's where a used, dead Christmas tree comes in handy!

To make gift-giving more peaceful, Jill and I agree to exchange lists. Within a day, I e-mail her mine: "Military model kits (to keep around and take up room); boxers (38-40 size -- DO NOT LAUGH!); high density 3 1/2-inch floppies; a biz card holder; JeffsLife postcards (for mailings); anything to do with Hornblower or Nelson; the memoirs of U.S. Grant; seafood; anything to do with apples or licorice; flammable olives."

I'm proud of this list. It's practical yet humorous, and real simplifies Jill's load during the holiday rush. I add one more line: "I trust your own list is on the way?"

Oh yes, she assured me. A week ago.

"I'm still waiting on your list," I informed the back of her head this afternoon in Bed Bath n Beyond. The back of Jill's head joins the rest of her body in knowing that this Sunday is the first night of Hanukah, when Jill and her family will gather around the dining room table, light the candles, bow their heads, and simultaneously rip as much wrapping paper as possible until the presents run out. (I'm thinking of putting the shower-scene music from Psycho on the stereo. Jill suggested the theme from Jaws.) This year, Jill and I are also celebrating Christmas. This will be with the proper Yankee solemnity: We will carefully open our presents one at a time, thank the appropriate relative, save the bows and tags, and pass the wrapping paper to Ned.

The point is, there will be gifts, gifts, gifts over the next few weeks.

"And you better not give me your list on Friday night," I warned. "I want it by Wednesday! Right?"

"I hear you," the back of Jill's head said. "You know," she added, "I like surprises, too."

I don't know who my wife is during the holidays. I do know that before Mother's Day I'll be thumbing through Real Simple again on the subway. That and the memoirs of U.S. Grant. (December 2001)

No 'X-Files'

"'The X-Files,' the Emmy-winning sci-fi drama that thrust two federal agents into spooky paranormal situations, will end its nine-season run on the Fox television network in May." -- CNN.com.

Jill and I started watching "The X-files" before the show had baseball hats or a movie, when David Duchovny was still living down his role as a transvestite on "Twin Peaks." Jill lighted on the Files early in its first season because of a commercial for the show. "It said, 'spooky and fun,'" she recalls. "That sounded good."

TV in general has been important to us. After we'd started dating, Jill claimed she hadn't known how to turn on a TV until she met me. I like to think I taught her what to look for in a show. She was picky, too. For example, she quickly pricked "M*A*S*H" by declaring that it would have been funnier without a laugh track.

"Cheers" helped cement us as a couple, however, followed by "American Gothic," "Picket Fences," and "Homicide." "Seinfeld" kicked off our marriage as much as the cake and the municipal judge. "X-files" then did its part. Long before Alex and Ned came around, we thrilled and chilled to the earliest episodes, when creator Chris Carter still had an eye on Darren McGavin's old "Night Stalker."

"The Night Stalker" still wins for me in the boo! department. On those rare occasions when I catch it today -- we don't get the Sci-Fi Channel, and with two little kids I haven't got time to watch so much as a commercial, anyway - I'm back in junior high at 10 on Friday night, dropping crumbs of Space Food Sticks into mum's couch and marveling how McGavin could keep his same suit so white week after week while running from goblins. (Incidentally, Jill proclaimed the "Night Stalker" pilot "classily done" when she finally saw it a few years ago.)

Mulder and Scully were Kolchak-unflappable, yet also came with a subliminal sexuality, as they unearthed some slimy thing swallowing townspeople, or creepy crawlies hanging from the trees in the deep woods ("RAILINGS, OREGON. 9:53 P.M. ..."). The show was spooky and fun; we never missed it, though it was a few weeks before I learned not to call them "Sculder and Mully."

Somewhere along the line, Carter must have noticed how McGavin always got crushed in a conspiracy while trying to break his stories. And soon Mulder's UFO obsession surfaced. The show remained spooky and sort of fun, but, after a season or two, tracking all the shadowy FBI higher-ups became complicated. That's also about when "The X-files" put out baseball hats.

Jill and I moved on. We tried "The Sopranos," which easily lived up to its pre-airing hype. What it didn't live up to, in our opinion, was its own first season. Then we got HBO specifically for re-runs of "The Larry Sanders Show." Every ... Wednesday, I think it was, I'd make sure the tape was ready and the VCR programmed just before I called the hospital for another damned night to check on Alex. Thursday mornings, after calling the hospital to see how Alex was and before sprinting to the Queens Boulevard subway, I'd rewind the tape and check the "Sanders" episodes. "New Larrys!" I'd call. I still think "Larry Sanders" packs more into 22 minutes than most movie-length comedies. And there's no laugh track.

I used to think Jill loved Larry, too. Lately, when the kids are finally in bed and we flip through the TV book to discover that yet again there's nothing on, Jill isn't always hip on Larry. "We have all these Larry tapes!" she says, rummaging for a movie. I don't understand it. We haven't seen any of them more than twice.

Jill and I have sort of moved in separate TV directions, a rift that started with "Ab Fab," a British comedy I found watchable, clever, well-paced - everything, in fact, except funny. I've taken to "Enterprise," and have tried to get Jill interested in it. She just reads during the show, though, and asks distracted questions like, "If she's a Vulcan, why's she asking that?"

Jill still clings to "Sex in the City." Historically, I haven't gone for HBO's latest award-winner: too pitter-pat, for one, and it'd definitely be funnier without the voice-over. And the language! How are the boys ever going to watch this? But the one episode I caught this year, surprisingly, struck me as entertaining; I'm looking forward to more.

In light of that, perhaps Jill could continue to give a good wholesome show like "Enterprise" a chance? Well, "it doesn't draw me in," she replies. "It's no 'X-files.'" (February 2002)

Clippings

How would you respond to this question by your spouse?

"Jill, would you think it was weird if I started keeping a record of when I cut my nails?"

What if your spouse asked it while you were just getting ready to fall asleep? Would your response sound like Jill's?

"That is beyond weird! That is so freaky it is truly disturbing, and I would prefer you don't do it."

Before we address Jill's obvious problems, let's look at the chart, which I keep in a Gregg-ruled, 60-sheet (green) stenographer's notebook. Not that it matters.

"8/12/02: RH ring, LH ring, LH Middle. 8/15/02: RH Middle, RH Index, RH th, LH th."

Jill reads my notebook. She reads. Her smile fades. "You didn't do this?" she asks. "What's 'RH th?'"

"Right-hand thumb!"

"You're doing this nail thing," says Jill. "You talk to yourself. Can't you do something that bothers me less? It's not normal!"

"It's not normal to have such a beautiful and understanding wife?"

"STOP!"

I used to tease Jill about the way she said "stop," until I found better ways to needle her.

"8/23/02: RH pinkie. 8/24/02: RH ring (second cut). 8/25/02: Left foot (big toe being 1 and pinkie toe being 5), toe 3."

These figures speak for themselves. If I were a scientist, would it be beyond weird to chart the growth of protons? I don't know if protons actually grow, and I'm certainly not going to ask Jill, but my point is clear.

I found this on the Web, which is a good place to go when your wife is giving you funny looks: "According to the online encyclopedia, the human and primate nail corresponds to the claw, hoof, or talon of other animals. Human nails protect the tips of the toes and fingers, while fingernails help us pick up small objects and scratch ourselves."

Got that right.

"On the other hand, the feet of primates are capable of gripping objects, just like their hands, so their toenails have much the same function as fingernails. However, human toenails seem to be an evolutionary leftover."

I don't have any special thing for nails -- I'm not a lunatic -- but I do like the way trimming them makes me feel clean and lighter. I don't bite them unless you count the occasional pinkie in my pre-record keeping days. I also admire the rebel nail, often from a toe, that gets snapped off hard by the clipper and sings past my ear.

I like piling them up on my bed table as I clip away. I like the tiny clatter of dumping them into the wastebasket. And after a certain, almost agreed-upon length, don't nails just begin using your bodily resources for their own vanity and selfish ends? Clatter clatter. There. That's what you get for getting too long on me. You can grow after I'm dead. Which I've read you will do.

You can't clip everything away. Gray hair I can't fight: I have a beyond weird red shade that Grecian Formula would probably turn purple. I look in the mirror and see the shadow of the bags under my eyes, the creases at the cheeks deepened by the last four years with a special-needs son. I open my mouth to reveal a bright, fake crown, and a junkyard of fillings spanning shiny to dull lead, a rack of teeth worked on through seven U.S. presidents. Seven. The other day I heard from a reader who doesn't remember Ronald Reagan. And she has kids of her own now! Ronald Reagan had good teeth, though false. I never noticed his evolutionary leftovers.

Here are mine, though. RH ring is about ready for comeuppance. LH pinkie is sitting there thinking it's just going to get away with a quick nibble, forgotten as soon as the clipping clicks into the bottom the wastebasket. Well, I'm not going to forget this kind of thing anymore for a while, not going to let trimmings pass into good night.

"Good night," I say to Jill. She is still awake. She has obvious problems. (September 2002)

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