Lame Humor

(Eric Shansby)
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 9, 2007

One day many years ago, I was sitting in a subway car in New York reading a newspaper when I was startled by a shrill voice. Looking up, I saw a woman in her 70s standing over me, loudly berating me for not giving her my seat.

My sin was inattention, not selfishness, but her complaint had merit. I was young and strong, she was old and frail, it was standing room only, and I should have noticed her and done the gallant thing. Unfortunately, that option was now unavailable because, in her zeal to publicly reprimand me, she had positioned herself so close that I could not get up. I had to abjectly absorb her diatribe about the death of chivalry in a jaded age, the pestilence of coddled youth with a sense of entitlement, the loss of religion as a moral compass for human behavior and the utter worthlessness of my particular self. Eventually, she stepped back, and I sheepishly arose.

Then I walked away with a highly pronounced, excruciating-looking, completely invented, limp.

As a lifelong practitioner of the art of smart-aleckry, I have proudly retold this anecdote many times. I believe my punishment has finally caught up with me: At the age of 56, I have actually become a Man With a Limp.

I have arthritic knees, and over the past six or seven years, they've been getting steadily worse. This is a process so gradual that you don't even know how bad things have become until something dramatic informs you. In my case, it was when I recently discovered that I could no longer quicken my normal walking gait, even slightly, to catch a Metro train. As I trudged determinedly on, a mother hurried past me with a toddler at her side. A man in a leg cast thud-thudded by. The single-cell organisms swimming in the soupy crud on the Metro station floor were probably making faster progress than I was. The train doors closed on my nose.

So, that was bad. But what's happened in the past few weeks is worse. My supposedly better knee -- the left one -- has suddenly informed me that he is taking charge from now on, and there will be a few changes around here, by cracky. (I think of this knee as an embittered, cantankerous, 112-year-old rat-bastard bumpkin with an ear trumpet. His name is Elmer, and he bites. He has only two teeth, but, unfortunately, they meet.) Elmer walks with a limp, and he's made sure I have one, too.

I do have a knee doctor, of course, and he is doing his best to help. Dr. Hartley is about 6-foot-5 and still more or less in the shape he was when he was a starting forward for the 1975 NIT champion Princeton basketball team. (For the record, if you, a prematurely old man, must hobble in on arthritic knees to see your orthopedist four times a year -- shuffling past sprightly young nurses and nubile physical therapists -- you do not want your orthopedist to look like Dr. Hartley. You want your orthopedist to look like Alan Greenspan's grandfather.)

Eventually, I am going to have to get these knees replaced. For a few years, Dr. Hartley has been ably forestalling this drastic solution via various stopgap methods, including physical therapy, pharmaceuticals and minor surgery. Now, we are down to the medical equivalent of a desperation, at-the-buzzer, rafter-grazing, full-court overhand heave in the general direction of the basket. In a couple of days, Dr. Hartley is going to inject my knees with what is basically . . . grease.

"Do we know, scientifically, how this stuff is supposed to work?" I asked.

"Not entirely," he said.

"Do we know that it does work?"

" Some people have reported success with it," he said, as one might say that some people have reported receiving rectal probes from aliens in spaceships. But, we're trying it.

Meanwhile, I am coping. For example, I am learning to cheerfully ignore the inescapable fact that, after nearly 10 years of treatment, my knees kind of resemble actual knees only in the sense that walnuts kind of resemble Ping-Pong balls. And I am learning to do certain really old-fogy things to make everyday life less painful, such as using the curb cuts in the street, taking elevators instead of stairs, becoming the slow-moving pedestrian in front of you whom you want to kill, etc.

It's all made me realize that the body is like a chain. Yeah, it's only as strong as its weakest link, but that's not what I mean. What I mean is that when it's not working right, it rattles. And what it's rattling is you.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company