Fun with Dangerous Chemicals: Small Amounts Won’t Hurt You…

The second toe on my right foot has a bruised toenail. This is absolutely unnoteworthy, except this has happened for three consecutive years.

The cycle goes like this.

First there is a little bothersome pain, which inspires me to scrutinize my toe. It looks fine. And for the record, I keep my feet clean and immaculately groomed.

A couple of days later, the toenail starts turning blueish purple.

After the bruising becomes pronounced, the toenail falls off entirely, which sounds much worse than it is, because after that the pain goes away. Lots of ballerinas out there will understand this, because it can also happen when you dance on pointe, and especially if your shoes are improperly fitted or worn out when you dance in them.

Anyway, back to this particular toe. It takes about a year to repair itself and look like a normal toe, just in time for it to happen again.

So when I mentioned this to The Chef the other night, about my toenail starting to turn purple again, he just shrugged and said, It’s from running, because that toe is probably banging into the end of your shoe. It happens to me, too. (This is a lie he probably fabricated to make me feel better and not worry about it, because I have never, ever observed a bruised toenail on either of his feet.)

I went on to say I wish I could stick my foot down inside one of those x-ray machines shoe stores used way back in the 1950s or ’60s, just to see what is actually going on with the bones in that toe, because maybe then I could explain to myself why that toe, but none of the other toes, keeps on acting up like this.

The Chef had never heard of such a device. And in truth, I have never seen one, in spite of growing up in the ’60s and ’70s (the devices were banned in 1971), but learned about them from one Dr. William Bass, when he was still head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee, and when I was a student in his Human Osteology class. (In case you’ve never heard of him, Dr. Bass is Quite Famous, most especially for his pioneering work in Forensic Science and in particular for his observation of the different phases of corpse decomposition, in different kinds of environments, at the notorious Body Farm at UT. People often find it disturbing or just downright disgusting, but Dr. Bass’s work has solved plenty of crimes and lots of just plain old mysteries.)

Human Osteology was an intense class. Not only did we learn every bone in the human body in excruciating detail, but we learned how to identify a bone from a tiny fragment (small enough to fit inside a plastic camera film container—remember those?), even burned fragments, and if it was a paired bone, to recognize whether it was the left or right. Where it was relevant, we were expected to know the race of the person whose bones we were studying, and even their age and gender. There are markers on bones that indicate these variables, if only you know to look for them. Yes, really.

We had a quiz at the start of class every Friday, where we identified 25 or so bone fragments within a specific timeframe. Dr. Bass started the clock, and then you scrutinized the bone in front of you, took down the relevant information on your paper, and when he called time, you passed the bone to the person sitting to your left. In the beginning, we had 60 seconds to identify each bone, but by the end of the semester, could do it in under 15 seconds.

The grade you received in that course was an average of all the Friday tests, so naturally everyone was fairly motivated to attend all the labs and learn the bones. Not much gray area there. It was the kind of course where a bunch of folks dropped out in the first week once they realized what the class entailed. Oddly enough, that class in particular would later inform my approach to teaching classical ballet at Knoxville Ballet School, underscored by training in pedagogy at American Ballet Theatre.

We also learned to read x-rays in Human Osteology, and it was during one of those lectures that Dr. Bass casually mentioned the shoe-fitting x-ray machines. I could only imagine, but now, thanks to the SERPs, was able to pull up a video to see one of these contraptions and learn how it worked. Chef David and I sat there a couple nights ago with our jaws on the floor, watching. Wonder turned to hilarity, and soon enough I was laughing hard enough to pee myself. Not at all because of the tens of thousands of folks who were evidently exposed to dangerous levels of radiation on an outing as ostensibly benign as buying new shoes, but because of the way this epiphany unfolds in the voiceover. Imagine, if you will, a conversation that might have transpired between a couple of fifth-grade boys:

“Wanna go look at the new comic books after school?”

“Nah, let’s go stick our feet into the x-ray machine at the shoe store!”

This imagery evoked another in my mind’s eye, of old newsreel footage where legions of people are shown walking fully clothed into a swimming pool of perchloroethylene (dry-cleaning fluid), and marching out the other end, to demonstrate their instantly clean—and dry!—clothing.

Which begs the question, what on earth kinds of things are we doing in the here and now that, some decades hence, our progeny, and then theirs, will find impossible to believe? Because these things might kill you? I leave you to ponder this notion as you watch the video.

Feeling less of a need to see the insides of my irksome second toe.

One thought on “Fun with Dangerous Chemicals: Small Amounts Won’t Hurt You…

  1. We had a fluoroscope in the radiology dept and the precautions for the operators was extreme! The patients had a one time dose and it was noted in their records. I think the limit was 2 time in a lifetime (though most of the patients were dogs and the life span was under 20 years… still it was not a diagnostic test that was run without serious consultation with the owners. I never knew about these in shoe stores. I guess in my little home town we didn’t rate that kind of fancy stuff! (Sometimes being out of the mainstream is a good thing!)

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