Bad Habits

21 January 2003

By now most of us have got over all those silly and ill-planned new year’s resolutions and life has returned to normal, at least it has for me. Now that I think about it, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually terminated a bad habit purely as an act of will. In most cases, events have conspired and the bad habit has left me pretty much of its own accord.

One lovely spring morning in 1984 I was standing crisply by my gleaming limousine at the curb outside Gump’s on Post Street during rush hour waiting for my client to emerge. (I was a minor partner in a small limousine company back then.)

I was buffed, I had just had a haircut, I was wearing a new Givenchy three-piece pin-stripe navy-blue suit, and I was feeling, frankly, pretty damn spiffy as I watched the traffic creep along. Then, as I scanned upstream I saw gradually pulling level with me a stunningly beautiful woman driving a Mercedes convertible. Like Cleopatra on her barge except Cleopatra wasn’t driving. My gaze lingered as she pulled even with me.

And then she met my eyes as she rolled by and said, in a calm, conversational tone, “Stop biting your nails.”

I was, as the Brits say, gobsmacked.

I wasn’t biting them when she spoke, but obviously she had seen me biting them at some point before I turned and saw her.

Some of my earliest memories are of my parents telling me to stop biting my nails. In public school, teachers criticized this habit. When I was in the Army, sensing that it was conduct unbecoming, I went underground and indulged in clandestine nail-biting.  I had bitten them all my life.

But I have not tasted another nail since she spoke. Not once have I found myself biting a nail and stopped. There was no exercise of will, there was no tapering off, there was no withdrawal. The habit was simply gone, lasered into nonexistence in an instant.

Then I discovered the negatives. You have to clean underneath them. You have to keep them trimmed or they get in your way. They’re a constant hassle! But alas, keeping them trimmed short the natural way, the way our ancestors on the savanna did, is no longer an option.

How could that woman have had such power over me? What if she’d told me to rob a bank?

“Which bank, Ma’am?”

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