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I dream of knees

This is an excerpt from Outtakes, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Renée Graham. Sign up to get this in your inbox a day early.
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Dissatisfied with harsh working conditions and an insufficient amount of time off, my left knee recently went on strike.

I tried to convince myself that this was surprising. That’s the story I told the orthopedist I finally visited. But my knee’s not-so-quiet quitting has been apparent for weeks, if not longer. That stressed out joint kept screaming and I kept treating it like some unspecified noise from an old car — just turn up the music and drown it out. Eventually I made a few concessions, like taking escalators instead of stairs. I bought a compression sleeve, popped some ibuprofen every few days, and assumed, “This, too, shall pass.”


Except it didn’t.

In 1999, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann had a hit with “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” He set to music a spoken word version of a 1997 Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich. One line in particular stuck with me: “Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.” I’ve rarely been kind to my knees. As a kid, I was an avid athlete who never stretched, never worked out, but showed up at game time and often won. At the time, I didn’t recognize that our bodies also keep score. I grew up watching “Soul Train” and learned the dance moves of the legendary Lockers — especially knee drops. I continued to do them well into my 40s until one night it suddenly occurred to me that slamming my knees on the ground probably wasn’t a great idea.

More recently, I’ve read studies about the dire consequences of sitting too long yet I still find myself sitting at my desk too long with my legs contorted in the least ergonomic positions imaginable.

But there was also this indelible shadow. In my family’s inexhaustible history of medical maladies, few loom larger than arthritis. The disease ravaged my grandmother’s knees; in the last 30 years of her life, she had both of them replaced several times. (She used to joke that her surgical scars meant her miniskirt-wearing days were over.) In the nearly 40 years that we shared on this planet, I never saw her walk without a pronounced limp. I’ve feared arthritic knees like others fear snakes or heights.


Now it’s official — I have arthritis in my left knee.

My doctor assured me it’s “just a little bit,” and with a few weeks of icing, topical gel, and a lot of ibuprofen, I should feel better. Unlike my grandmother, and three close friends in recent years, I don’t need a knee replacement. Yet.

These days when I’m not researching standing desks or proper ergonomics, I dream about knees. A lot. I look at the knees of strangers and wonder if they’re treating them with kindness. Recently I saw a little girl fall while walking downtown. She let out a small yelp and grabbed her leg. With a slight wobble, she got to her feet, caught up with her mother, but kept rubbing her knee. She bit her lip to keep from crying. And all I could think was, “You have no idea, kid. But you will. Someday, you will.”

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.