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The Nail Polish Test

Photograph by Getty Images

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! What the heck is THAT!?”

I knew where he was going before he even got to the end. He’s a good dude, the guy who was going off. He's someone I like and trust, someone I could count on if I needed anything, I believe. So I guess it stung a little bit when he started in on my son’s proud electric blue fingernails.

Henry, my boy, he had no idea what was up, of course. He just kind of stood there holding his hand out, proud as a peacock, showing my buddy his tiny fingertips as if they were a decent-sized brook trout he’d caught, or the fiver he’d found out in the road.

“Oh no! No you don’t! You can’t have that stuff on!” He wasn’t letting up, the guy wasn’t. “You know what you are? You’re a boy! That’s not boy stuff!”


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My guts churned and all of the sudden I wanted to unleash an intellectual artistic firestorm of modern parenting prowess on the guy. I wanted to be the fellow who set him straight about how Henry had really wanted his nails painted when he saw his big sister having hers done, and how my wife had gladly obliged without even batting a 21st century eyelash.

But, I didn’t say a word. I just kind of chuckled, nervously, and tried, lamely—I might add—to change the subject we had stumbled into.

“So … have you been seeing any deer in the fields lately?” Hunting talk would do the trick, I figured. My buddy is a big hunter and I figured bringing it up would swerve him away from all of this.

But I was wrong and he ignored me as he held Henry’s little right in his and inspected it like he was doing us all a favor.

“Oh no. Uh-uh. This is for girls, man. Nail polish is girl stuff!”

Now, I could see my son beginning to get a little suspicious of what the hell was going down here. He had thought he was about to get a nice little compliment on these hands he was kind of excited about. But, even toddlers can sense when a fire starts blowing the wrong direction, you know?

I wanted to tell this guy—a father himself—how much I could care less about whether a guy wears nail polish.

“Well...” I started in, like a mumbling cowardly sissy,”he wanted to be like his sister, and…”

I trailed off. I was out in uncharted waters here, neck deep in some things I had not experienced yet as a parent. Someone was calling my young kid on his manhood, on his machismo. Someone I know pretty well and have a fine relationship with was playing around a little, and yet I was feeling desperate and uncertain about what I should do, or say. I was lost. And I rarely get lost, believe me.

In my head, I wanted to tell this guy—a father himself—how much I could care less about whether a guy wears nail polish. I wanted to explain to him that after years of big city living and world traveling, I had seen many, many things that had caught my eye and held it; and that a man with painted fingernails had never, ever been one of them.

My voice—I could hear it speaking—eloquently, patiently, telling him how some of the coolest dudes I have ever known, some of the most powerful talents, some of the greatest artists—hell, I wanted to tell him about the hundreds of guys I have known who have gotten laid fifty zillion times more in their lifetime by absolutely stunning women than this man could have ever dreamed of, and how a lot of them loved sporting nail polish and eyeliner and lipstick.

And who cares what a person wears, anyway? I wanted to say that, too. And in my head, I heard myself saying it, clearly. But out here, next to my boy, I just bit my lip.

I chickened out.

I didn’t want to get into a thing.

It was the one and only time in my life so far that I walked away from feeling like I totally failed one of my children. And it is still bothering me like a festering slit running down my arm.

My son, your son—my God, let them mess around with the nail polish, you know? It doesn’t matter at all. Let them paint it on thick as thieves if they want, in pistachio or magenta or blood.

Let them do it as a kid and see how it feels.

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And if they like it, if keep glancing down at it on a warm autumn afternoon or on some rainy spring evening, if they keep checking it out and smiling to themselves at the way that the color dazzles and dances in the flickering sunlight or under the street lamp, then be thankful that you were man enough to be watching them so closely. With such open eyes, buddy, to notice such a small, fleeting moment of joy in the life of someone you love so much that you would die for them in a single flash.

Or don’t.

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