Having a Body • 13 November 2009

Things were never the same after the long weekend at Cabinas Ramirez—the $8 a night shacks on the shores of Manuel Antonio. Still the most tranquil cove I’ve swum in, but there was something just not right in the monkey swamp we crossed in reef sandals and cut-offs. A few weeks later I finally went to the student clinic at the University of Costa Rica to have someone look at the scaly, blotchy entity that had grown over a toe and the side of my right foot and was starting to inch up the outer calf. I didn’t think much of it: healthcare is free and direct in the country, even for foreign exchange students, and whatever pastillas they gave me more or less did the trick. With an exception… three toenails were never the same again.

That was 14 years ago, and ever since I’ve more or less ignored the situation. When toe-gazing became something I did intently, in a “self-studying” mood, for hours each day, I was practicing at Yogaworks—where some ashtanginis sport manipedis, get bodywork for every tweak, hail adjustments, apply essential oil before class, and wear very cute expensive clothing. At the time, I saw these as strategies for avoiding the body as it is.

So it seemed important to be overtly unfashionable there. (Of all the places my aesthetic resistance, borne of Pacific Northwest indie rock and dubitable thrift store fashion sense, would not be understood.) Anyway, in addition to resurrecting my gym clothing from junior high (my mom never throws anything out), part of me, in that setting, began to appreciate those old long-decayed toenails. I cut them to the would-be quick and just acted like they were as precious as any pedicure.

But after a few years in that scene I left. Because even though the physical instruction there was very helpful, the obsession with form started to feel not just distracting but self-punishing. I just needed a place I could tap some deeper mental states and learn about loving community. Loosening up to that kind of supported practice generated a lighter attitude to having a body, and among other things I started painting my toenails pale pink—and later bright red—on Saturday nights.

Underneath the polish, the fungus grew like, well, fungus. I didn’t really notice until a couple of months ago when someone lovingly called my pedicures “patriarchal” and I stripped it all off in curiosity. Oh, holy! There was the warped and mushy, not unscented, yellow decay of nastiness.

I felt a kind of pride that my organism could generate something so putrid all by itself, and thought of calling people who have asked me to pose for yoga pictures to say I was available for some FBH shots. I thought of the yogis in the charnel grounds, meditating on decay, and realized that the fungus was actually a resilient life form that I might contemplate in awe. Surely a tool for realization.

Ummm. That got me about a week before committed inquisition and purgation set in.

What are you, vile creature; and who gives you the right to squat on my feet?

For the first time, I looked online to see what the rest of the world is doing about these things. And wow. There are a lot of crazy methods out there.

It turns out that there are several varieties of toenail fungus: I suppose whatever I had was relatively savage, given its origin and longevity, so maybe what works to kill it would be easily effective for domestic varieties. Hard to say.

On the internet, there are people who recommend immersing the affected member in a solution of hydrogen peroxide and bleach. Then follow up by covering everything in vaseline. Great formula for a chemical burn there. Said burn is guaranteed to make previously fungal toenails look healthy by comparison, but can’t be good for the bloodstream or one’s organism in general. Too painful.

There’s also a lot of discussion online about prescription and over the counter drugs taken by mouth. Sounds like a great way to use the digestive system to screw the liver while only distally accessing the ends of the toes. Too inefficient, not to mention expensive.

But then there are some more benign home remedies: I started experimenting and settled on a hybrid approach. It’s just my folk concoction of DIY, OTC and the placebo effect, but, weirdly, it works.

It’s a four-fold method. First, before I started, I filed the whole sorry fungified nails clear off, everything, and scrubbed the whole sorry mess in Dr. Bronner’s. That made everything even uglier, but seemed obviously helpful. In subsequent weeks, if any toenail appeared that was not fresh, tender and baby-pink, I hit it again with the emery board and the Bronner’s.

Second, I picked up some tea tree oil for a couple of dollars at Trader Joes. After practice and after work, I use a Q-Tip to cover all three nails with the stuff. I do wonder if I smell of that barky antiseptic now everywhere I go, but on the rare occasion it gets too pungent for me I just cover it with a little Scent of Samadhi—the pricey perfume powder distilled from the urin of cave saddhus. (You think I’m kidding about that, but Scent of Samadhi is actually a New Age favorite around here, and I quite like it. Those saddhus probably drank their pee several times over before making it in to perfume. I can only hope that my own waste materials will one day be so sublime.)

Third, something weird. At night I lay a little Vic’s Vapo Rub (who knew it still existed?) right in to the nail bed and cover it with band-aids until morning.

Fourth, naturally, is the woo-woo component. I don’t know. Any attitude might work here. Personally, I just put some happy affection on the new little toenails. I do not envision them being fully grown and perfect; and I don’t think bad thoughts at the old fungus. I just sort of tell the new little growths that they are very sweet and adorable and welcome. Kind of how I would talk to kittens. Only, I do this silently in my head right before practice. And, ok, sometimes also at night.

I thought about growing new toenails quasi-scientifically, but there was the problem of having four treatments and only three toes. Also I didn’t have the patience to leave one of the three as a control-toe and work out the other treatments one by one. Furthermore, how does one administer the woo-woo treatment to one toe while ensuring others are not affected? Woo-woo is messy. Not good science.

Bottom line: toenail fungus did not help me stick it to the man when I practiced at Yogaworks. Nope. Not an effective political statement. Also: having a body is gross. And yet, happily, toenails do not have to look like death. At least not for now.