My Tell

I’m an open book. Those in the know, Susan, my kids when they pay attention, possibly some coworkers, know my mood, my primal feelings just by watching and listening. Sitting on the couch this morning, talking to Susan, I started chewing on my pinky. Not at the end, my fingertip, like my kids chew on their drinking straws as they near the slurping end of their Coke, but the base of my pinky, the first joint, on the outside of my hand. The part you use to pound on the door.

Immediately self-conscious, I stopped. I put my hands in my lap and started picking at the same spot with my fingernail—digging deep under the callus, leaving me with a satisfying sensation of pain. “What’s wrong?” Susan sees this, and all my other tics and twitches, my tells.

Tell. It’s a poker term. A subtle (or not) change in a player’s demeanor or actions providing competitors an opportunity to assess that player’s poker hand. “Whenever Dave is bluffing, he twists his watch around his wrist.” That’s Dave’s tell. The other players go all in.

As a kid, just one and two years younger than my brothers, I harbored different interests. On wintry Sunday afternoons, while they watched football with my father in the family room, I watched old movies on the spare TV in my parents’ room. I almost wrote old, black and white movies, because the movies I watched were black and white. But so was football downstairs—my parents didn’t spring for a color TV until 1978. On summer evenings, the family watched baseball, and I watched reruns of the Odd Couple.

Do any of you older readers remember this show? I can’t gauge its popularity because I always watched it alone. Two middle-aged divorced men shared an apartment in New York City. A strange show choice to appeal to a twelve or thirteen-year-old. Like all sitcoms, the characters featured exaggerated traits. Oscar was a slob, his bed covered with unfolded laundry, an old cigar doused in a glass of unfinished whiskey. Continually hungover, disheveled, always looking for a big gambling score to shore up his shaky finances.

In contrast, Felix was fastidious. Early to bed, early to rise. Fit, cultured, motivated, but always a little sad. He spent his days following Oscar around the apartment cleaning up the messes Oscar left in his wake. Each roommate expressed extreme versions of their primary traits. What now would be viewed as obvious mental illnesses, in 1970 was simply funny.

Whenever Felix became upset, usually over something Oscar did or didn’t do, his ears seemed to clog up. Felix tried to clear this blockage with a loud, exaggerated “MMMWAH!” That was the sound he made, but accompanying the sound was an attempt to expel air into his ear canals. Give it a try, it’s fun. Oscar drops a chili dog between the couch cushions… MMMWAH. Oscar blows his rent money on the fifth race at Belmont Park, MMMWAH, MMMWAH.

Felix had a tell. At the time, I identified with Oscar, everyone did. I thought Felix was a priss. How strange to realize that I’ve essentially turned into him.  

I have gobs of tells. At the start of the pandemic, I began coughing. Perpetually stressed, coughing became an outward manifestation. I opened a browser, clicked the case count graphic and started coughing. I heard about some recent deaths at the local hospital, I coughed. Walking through the grocery store coughing, I worried that everyone thought I had covid, and I coughed some more. My family knows this. Whenever I cough, Susan eyes me with concern, wondering what’s bothering me.

It comes on suddenly. Quietly doing dishes, I’ll remember that unresolved hospital bill from Eli’s bike accident and I cough. Sitting on the couch, I’ll remember an embarrassing thing I said at work and I cough.

The rock band the Police have a lyric about this:

It’s no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov

God, I hate the Police. I realize I’m channeling a song lyric cowritten by Sting, and I cough.

I have a dozen of these tics and twitches that show up when I’m feeling stress or discomfort. This afternoon, Susan, Eli and I drove to the lake we kayak on in the summer and walked out onto the ice. People littered the surface. A hockey game here, ice fishers there, couples taking walks, kids dragging behind their parents on sleds. I didn’t like it. Much like my fear of heights, I guess I’m fairly afraid of falling through ice. I didn’t cough, but I punched my thigh the whole time we were on the ice. Punched my thigh? Yup, yet another tell, just like chewing on my pinky. I guess that’s what happens when I wear gloves.

As an adult, if I was forced to choose between Oscar and Felix, I suppose I’d rather be Felix. Oscar’s addictive personality (alcohol, gambling) is too familiar and disruptive. I’ve had my problems with alcohol already, and obsessively immersing myself into other harmful activities never feels too far away. People like Felix are introspective. Yes, my twitchy tells are annoying, to me, to others, but they provide me an easy-to-read map of what’s going on in my own head. For me it’s helpful to find that clarity without having to dig for it. I appreciate that it’s all right out in the open for me to see, even if everyone else can see it too.

24 thoughts on “My Tell

  1. I like the elliptical flow of this Jeff, we’ll done. I know the show also, didn’t watch it much. One could go deep on what those shows maybe said about us. I didn’t know the expression tell either, so I like how you used that as a premise. Sorry you don’t like the Police though! I admire some of his songs, really masterful lyrics. Especially Synchronicity II, one of my favs. Daddy grips the wheel and stares alone into the distance / he knows that something somewhere has to break…and so on. The ice would make me nervous too, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Bill. Near the end of our ice adventure, I stuck my hand down into an abandoned ice fishing hole and found that the ice was about 10 inches thick. So not really a concern, but stuff like that drives me nuts. You should see me out on rock cliffs–basket case. I know it’s a movie role, but when Sting was in Quadrophenia I was like yeah, right, he’s an ass.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “I realize I’m channeling a song lyric cowritten by Sting, and I cough.” I literally guffawed… woke Zeus up😂
    But why do you hate the Police? Is it Sting’s pretentiousness or the music itself?

    I loved watching the Odd Couple as a kid. Does that make me weird?🤷🏼‍♀️ Nah, I’m just weird cuz I am. Every Sunday was old movie day in our house, back in the days when we were a happy family. My daughters learned to appreciate the snappy dialog and absence of special effects.

    I notice people’s tells. Being an Empath makes me a good lie detector so I feel it, then I observe closer. I’m sure I must have tells too but I couldn’t tell you what they are. I don’t get stressed out about much anymore. I spent too many decades stressed about everything in my dumpster fire of a life, and I think the stress connection in my brain is permanently fried. My body carries the reminders in the forms of chronic pain and auto-immune issues.

    Your tics might be the better way… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went off to college liking the police, but hated them by the end. It might be that they were popular with the frat kids. After seeing Quadrophenia, that pretty much cemented my dislike of Sting. Unfair, I know, it’s a movie part… I think we’ve all got our tells, some of us just have more noticeable ones that no one can miss.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was a fan of the Odd Couple. Don’t remember favoring one character over the other; it was how they reacted to each other than intrigued and entertained me.

    I like the term “tell.” I’ll use it, from now on, so thanks for that. One of my nervous “tells” is to pick at my cuticles. As a newly-minted attorney, I would do this when appearing in court, waiting to speak, sometimes drawing blood, which was doubly embarrassing.

    My father’s tell was to put his hand in his pants pocket and jangle the loose change there, especially when speaking in public. He did that “tell,” loudly, just before walking me down the aisle at my wedding (when I was just 18 and marrying for all the wrong reasons). I wish he and I had both listened to those nerves, then turned and run the opposite direction!

    You’re so right, Jeff. Those “tells” tell us to pay attention, something’s bothering us and we need to listen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • 18 is crazy young to get married. Couldn’t possibly have worked out. After a bit of chatting about the odd couple today, I really want to see it again. I think I can relate to both Oscar’s and Felix’s issues pretty well. Which may be the point. Maybe everyone can relate to their problems. Being a really ticcy person, I have an absurd number of tells. I just can’t sit still. Nail biting might be the only one I ever kicked.


  4. I love my families tells, I have my own as well but we all recognise each other’s and will point them out, particularly when immersed in an intense board game. Interesting how you use your own to tap into how you’re feeling, I think that is a great take on self awareness.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a kid, I loved the show the Odd Couple, I imagined those guys being that way in their real lives too, very good casting. I sometimes have a eyelid that uncontrollably twitches when I’m talking. It usually happens in the morning. I find it so distracting, I usually make something up like I have something in my eye. I wish I could just own that it twitches sometimes, who knows why, maybe my eye is tired. I like to think I’m not insecure about it, but I am.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I had a morning twitch, I’d assume it’s related to coffee. Too much, too little, who knows. I have a hard time owning my twitches too, as I’ve written about ad nauseum. In fact, the reason I write so much about it is I’m trying to gain comfort with myself and own who I am.


  6. Sorry this is off topic but I sucked it up and finished watching Station Eleven, and wow! It was actually so good. I know you said you probably won’t watch it but if you were ever wavering I recommend it.


      • No worries! I actually saw my comment disappear into the ether and thought I maybe deleted it myself. In the UK it’s on Starzplay, but it looks like HBOMax in the US. As someone who hasn’t finished the the book yet I recommend it! Not sure if having read the book would alter your enjoyment of it but I hope you get to try it out.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. our whole family used to watch The Odd Couple on Friday nights,and have pizza. thanks for bringing back a good memory.

    I don’t think I could walk onto a frozen pond, unless the temperature had never gotten above 0 degrees for two weeks straight…

    Liked by 1 person

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