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knees knees

Art by Julie Seyler.


I remember, as a boy, occasional nights lying in bed when my thighs – not the muscles, mind you, the bones themselves – were sore for no apparent reason.

“Growing pains,” Mom would say, summing up the cause, and dismissing my concerns in one stroke. “You’ll outgrow them.”

She was right. By the time I was a teenager, the soreness had stopped. And it stayed away, for the most part, until three years ago when I turned 55. I want to say that suddenly the pain returned, but that would be wrong. In truth, it gradually, almost imperceptibly, insinuated itself back into my life.

First it was a tightness in the calves after running. I did extra stretches, stood in the warm shower a few minutes longer, and learned to live with it. Then it was a tender Achilles tendon that visited my left ankle for a few days before switching over, as a change of pace, for a week’s sojourn on my right. Those pains disappeared, only to be replaced by a dull ache in both knees that arrived one damp Saturday morning. I hopped out of bed and immediately winced.

“What’s wrong?” my wife asked as I throttled down to a slow shuffle and expressed mild dismay. Actually, I believe I hissed, “Shit that hurts!” Or something along those lines.

“What is it?” she repeated, concerned yet remaining firmly ensconced under the covers.

“My knees are sore.”

“Maybe you ran too much yesterday.” (This from a non-runner.)

“They shouldn’t hurt like this.”

“You’re getting older. You have to expect this kind of thing.” (This from someone two years younger than me.) She burrowed deeper into the sheets. “You’ll get over it.”

Fantastic – I’ve outgrown growing pains and graduated to growing-old pains. But these are fundamentally different from the occasional bone pains I’d experienced as a child – those would come and go. These come and stay. They not only stay – they get comfortable. They establish happy residence in one joint or another, and then branch out from there.

tin man 2For instance – the sore knees, after announcing themselves as a nearly crippling acute condition, settled down after a couple of weeks to a merely annoying chronic ache. I’m now the Tin Man: if I stay too long in one position I get stiff and creaky.

Standing up after an hour at my desk is no longer a mundane act; it’s a process. I have to rise slowly, then hobble gingerly until the lubrication in my knees starts to flow. If you’re old enough to recall the early ’60s sitcom, “The Real McCoys,” you may remember how Walter Brennan’s character, Amos McCoy, limped around with that endearing hitch in his step. Now I know why – no Advil.

In deference to my iffy knees, I’ve even had to adjust how I get out of a car. I used to swing one leg out, then pivot on that front foot as I lifted my other leg out and took a step forward. I would slam the door behind me – sometimes with a cavalier kick of that trailing foot – and walk away. The process took three seconds; less if I was in a rush.

No more – now my knee screams if I try to pivot like that. And worse, a couple of times as I tried to one-foot it out of the car after a rainstorm, my leg gave out, my leading foot skidded out from under me, and I was forced to plop back onto the edge of the seat to avoid falling on my ass in the parking lot. No one saw it happen, but it was embarrassing nonetheless. And oh yeah – it hurt too.

So I’ve adopted a new routine: I open the door, turn my body so it squarely faces the opening, and place both feet firmly on the ground. Then I stand with my weight evenly distributed over both feet, and shuffle in place to test the ground for slickness. Only then do I hitch away – Amos McCoy personified. The process takes eight seconds, and feels like more if I’m in a rush.

The sore knees brought a friend, too. Shortly after they arrived, I developed an annoying pain in my right thigh that radiated from my tailbone down the entire back of my leg. After a month visiting my leg, that pain moved into permanent chronic residence in the center of my lower back. Now I get a handy reminder twinge if I bend over too quickly to tie my shoes or pick up a coin off the floor.coins

Hey no problem – just avoid that movement. I prop my foot up on a chair to tie my shoe, and crouch down instead of bending over from the waist to retrieve the occasional errant coin that’s fallen from my hand. Of course, I wince as I crouch because of the sore knees, but that’s a small price to pay to recover my spare change – usually. It’s actually not worth crouching through the sore knees, or bending and provoking a flare of back pain, if the change on the ground is less than a quarter. When the pain is worse, or if I drop coins as I’m exiting a car and the ground is damp that day, anything less than a buck is left behind.