In college, foosball was my game. Throughout my younger years in real team sports played on actual fields I was —almost—the proverbial “last kid picked.” But on the vast artificial sward that is the tabletop soccer pitch I had mad skills that were equal to—no, the envy of—my peers. In a typical team game with two players per side I took the front two rows, wielding the gleaming steel rods piercing the stiff tiki-like figures with a combination of ferocity and supple grace. There was a table in the game room of my freshman dorm at USD and I spent many happy hours there, delighting in the my prowess and the awe it inspired in my athletic betters. My specialty move was the “stuff”: as the opposing goalie and fullbacks tried to clear the ball from their goal area I would anticipate its path and, with a deft flick of the wrist, send it back through the ranks to crash into the open maw of the goal with a satisfying whonk.
Late one night in a heated game I executed one of these moves, simultaneously pushing the handle of the rod in toward the side of the table with my right hand while twisting my wrist to capture the moving ball and send it back into the goal. As the shot went noisily home I felt something snap. Looking down at my right hand, I saw that the tip of my thumb had run into the side of the table.
“Damn!” I said. “I broke a nail.”
In the moment that passed between uttering these words and raising my head to look at the other players, I realized that these were not the words of triumph expected of me in the moment. And indeed, the gazes that met mine were decidedly veiled and suspicious. “Who is this guy we’re playing with? What’s the deal with his nails? Is he…you know…?”
They were correct, of course. I was, and am, a classical guitarist.
Divas fixate on their vocal chords and they drape themselves in gauzy scarves and drink hot tea. Oboists obsess over their reeds and spend as many hours carving cane as playing scales. And classical guitarists have our fingernails. On the left hand they are kept very short so as not to interfere with pressing the strings against the frets. But on the right hand they are grown out. They are cherished. They are filed, sanded, and buffed with the same care that a jeweler might lavish on a precious diamond. For it is at these points, the very tips of the guitarist’s fingers, that intention meets string and creates music.
If you ever go to a classical guitar recital (and I hope that you do), observe the guitarists in the audience. We are easy to spot if you concentrate on the hands. It’s not just the nails. It’s also the affected way in which we carry our hands as if dreading any unanticipated contact. The way we constantly run the flesh of the thumb over the tips of the nails, searching out any imperfection in the surface. The way we curl our fingertips inward when reaching for a door.
To be a man and to be a classical guitarist is to sign up for a series of uncomfortable incidents. I have lurked furtively in the beauty section, looking for just the right nail buffer or top coat. I have accidentally glued two fingers together. I have been the only man in a nail salon, trying to explain to the nice Korean lady exactly how my thumbnail needed to be shaped. Whispers behind hands and sidelong glances.
Most recently I have resorted to purchasing my nail supplies online. They arrive in anonymous packages, like drugs for some embarrassing disease whose name can’t be spoken. My current nail regime—undertaken to combat the ravages of age and an index finger nail that consistency hooks in a manner not conducive to sweet guitar tone—is to use artificial nails glued to the top of my own. It took me a while to get used to the idea that it was not “me” touching the strings, but I can’t argue with the fact that my performance-enhancing nails give me a better sound.
Even better, a broken nail is no longer a crisis. The other day I broke a nail during a morning bike ride. Don’t ask. I had a performance scheduled for the afternoon at a wine & cheese party. No panic, no anxiety; after I got home, I had a new nail in 15 minutes and the performance went forward as planned.
It’s wonderful to be free of nail anxiety, knowing that with a little piece of acrylic, some glue, and some trimming and filing I can have a nice new nail anytime I want.
Perhaps it is not too late to bring my foosball skills back to life.