They say that the longest journey begins with a single step

July 15, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 15, 2013

They say admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. So here goes:

My name is Matthew E. Milliken, and I have toenail fungus.

(OK, so maybe they don’t say “admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery” about toenail fungus. Please bear with me anyway, folks.)

Normally, toenail fungus is one of various frailties, failings and shortcomings that I simply keep to myself. But something happened the other week that prompted this confession.

There are various ways to fight and control — although sadly not to eradicate — toenail fungus. If memory serves, the therapies that can be brought to bear on disfigured toenails include pills, ointments, injections and even lasers.

I tried a few of those. But ultimately, I got to the point where I set aside prescription-based treatments in favor of two things recommended by my dermatologist. One was putting over-the-counter antifungal cream on my feet and toes every few days or so. The other was shaking medicinal powder into my shoes every day.

Recently, I wrote about taking an improvisational comedy class at DSI Comedy Theater in Carrboro, N.C. An exercise that we did there unexpectedly made my toenail fungus relevant.

The topic of that week’s lesson was the environment — conjuring and using the imaginary (improvised, natch) world around us. Our instructor, Brandon Holmes, called the exercise in question baby monster. One by one, each member of the class was to walk into a kitchen, discover a baby monster and then slay the monster using whatever we found in the room.

When my turn came, I opened an imaginary cutlery drawer and found — something horrifying inside. (I pictured my baby monster as resembling a cockroach.) With some wild flailing, I managed to extract the creature from the drawer and fling it to the ground. Then I frantically stomped on the thing.

To the chagrin of myself and seemingly everyone else watching, my black New Balance sneaker emanated white puffs whenever I stamped it against the ground. Internally, I shook my head in dismay. There was something gross about the small clouds raised by my feet. But I didn’t dwell on it — I grabbed an invisible cutting board, fell to my knees and started bashing the monster with it until it was a flat, motionless, gooey mess.

At the time, no one said anything; the entire baby monster exercise, per Brandon’s instruction, was conducted wordlessly. But it was clear people had noticed the dust my feet had raised.

After the class discussed the exercise, Brandon humorously apologized for the dust left behind by the people responsible for vacuuming the carpet. Someone joked that whoever that was shouldn’t be paid for the month.

I considered explaining that the puffs had come not from the carpet but from my shoes. Many times, I would have done so. I have a tendency sometimes to be defensive, to apologize, to overexplain, to accentuate and prolong embarrassing situations.

But I’ve been trying lately to keep my mouth shut when the situation doesn’t flat-out require me to speak — especially when whatever I have to say would run myself down in some way. So I simply grimaced and remained silent.

I nearly broke my silence when a classmate stamped on the carpet near where I had done so. Conspicuously, at least to my mind, his foot raised no cloud. But I held my tongue.

Still, I thought: What’s the big deal? I put foot powder in my sneakers. So what! Who cares? Later, it occurred to me that this was one of those episodes that might, if charmingly told, make for an interesting anecdote. After all, wasn’t there something funny about how the class teacher expressed embarrassment for something that was entirely my fault, not his or the theater’s? Wasn’t there a chuckle to be found in my embarrassment over the oh-so-shameful fact that I use foot powder?

Perhaps. (Although this blog entry, alas, may not be the clever vignette for which I’d hoped.) But first, I would have to get over my own embarrassment.

So I’ll say it loud, I’ll say it proud and I’ll say it a second time — and I invite you to say it with me. Here goes:

My name is Matthew E. Milliken, and I have toenail fungus.

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