Do You Know You're Forty?
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I can bend my right hand pinkie finger out of joint and off to the side about ninety degrees. It's a really neat trick that can send people running away and covering their mouths like they’re trying not to vomit. Dr. Keller, my friendly rheumatologist (When did I become old enough to need a rheumatologist?) tells me in his soft, sensitive voice that I've finally torn away all of the ligaments and that surgery would be a nice option if I wanted to regain full use of the finger.

The tone of his voice, which he must have practiced for months in medical school, so professional and caring, actually makes my finger throb. Between throbs, I wonder: What exactly constitutes "full use" of something as generally useless as a pinkie finger? Hitting those really high and/or low notes on the piano? Displaying complete extension while holding your drinking glass at a formal dinner? Assuring in-depth wax removal from a difficult ear?

  
 
This particular pinkie injury first happened about five years ago playing basketball. I reached up to knock down a pass while defending a fast break (playing defense--usually a mistake beyond age twenty-seven), and the ball sort of skidded off my hand at a weird angle while making a pinging sound. I didn't feel the pain until I looked down and saw the top half of my pinkie finger pointing back toward my elbow like some kind of Picasso hitch-hiker. "Hey, look at that," I thought, and then, boy-howdy, did the pain start.

One of the athletic trainers at the gym told me not to twist the pinkie back into place (that thought honestly hadn't occurred to me). He mashed a bag of ice against my hand and told me to hold it above my head. I'm sure all of this had some medical purpose beyond showing the world my armpits. At the hospital emergency room, I sat around for two hours showing anyone who was interested my jigsaw finger. I really cheered up a couple of rowdy little kids who were waiting for news about their mother's exhaustion attack. "Show my dad again, mister, please show my dad your funky finger again!" they kept repeating as their father sank deeper into his ancient vinyl waiting-room chair, his hands glued to his brow.

After the x-rays came back showing no fracture, just a dislocation, the doctor snapped my finger back in place and sent me home. "That's gonna hurt tomorrow," he said, handing me a prescription for percocet (several of which I'm still hoarding somewhere just in case). He was right. It hurt the next day, and the day after that, and the next one, and for the next five years.

My pinkie is now pretty funny looking. The top joint is very loose and just kind of dangles there. The middle joint is swollen and discolored and sticks out at a weird angle. For the last five years, I've been slapping athletic tape around my pinkie finger and playing basketball. I've reinjured the annoying little digit about thirty times since then, usually playing defense. (I never learn.) Once I even hurt it twice in about five seconds, first jamming it into the bottom of the backboard while trying to block a shot, then smacking it against another player's hard-muscled rear end while shaking it vigorously and saying "shitfuckhell" through my clenched teeth.

Despite my pinkie troubles, one advantage that I have is that I can shoot the ball left-handed. This skill grew out of an active childhood fantasy life. I read about a college player who broke his right arm, then played the next game with a cast on that arm while shooting the ball with his left. This was all the motivation I needed. In my fantasy, I broke my right arm just before half-time of the championship game, had it casted during intermission, then played the second half left-handed, leading my team to victory. Shooting through rain and sleet and snow at the basket I put up on a telephone pole in our yard, I scored on millions of left-handed lay-ups, hook shots, and free throws, each one dropping through the net for the winning basket as time expired and adoring fans mobbed the court to lift the injured hero onto their shoulders in celebration.

Of course, I never broke my arm in a game. But the left-handed shot has come in handy for more than just compensating for my right-hand pinkie. From close to the basket, I'm just as good with either hand, often using the left to keep the ball away from shot-blockers who want to smack the old, slow, bad-fingered guy's shot into another area code just for giggles. Sometimes when I play at an unfamiliar court for the first time, I shoot all my warm-up shots left-handed. Then, when the game starts, I fake left, drive right, and leave the confused defender in my dust for a right-handed lay-up. And I can't count the games of H-O-R-S-E that I've won with left-handed free throws. There’s something wonderfully gratifying about watching a player six inches taller, fifteen years younger, and considerably more talented than I try to shoot a left-handed free throw for the first time in his life and miss by ten feet while looking totally uncoordinated (and, I'm ashamed to admit, kind of feminine) in the process.

Even with the tape securely binding the finger, I can still pop it out of joint. And because I can't seem to get it through my head that playing defense should be avoided at all cost, I've even taken to using it to my advantage while guarding an opposing player. There's one guy in particular, Andre, a sweet-natured twenty year-old who thinks it's really cool that an "old dude" like me is still "trying to play." When he gets the ball and squares-up against me, I whisper, "Hey Andre," then pop my finger out of joint, sending him into spasms of disgust. He seldom loses the ball to me, but he does pass it to someone else, and I've done my defensive job pretty well for such an "old dude."

Dr. Keller isn't finished when he tells me I could get my pinkie fixed with a fairly simple operation (simple for him, I'm sure). He asks me how everything else is doing, so I give him the "organ recital," as I've come to think of it--the recitation of everything that happens to a mediocre athlete's body after forty percent of a century. My body works like a well-oiled machine. Think of the Exxon Valdes that ran aground in Alaska some years ago--that kind of well-oiled machine.

First, there's my other finger injury, the wedding finger on my left hand, not nearly as serious as my pinkie, but often swollen and discolored. Halfway through my marriage, I jammed this finger (guess how?) and had to yank my wedding ring off before the swelling started. Then I couldn't get it back on--not a week later, not a month later, not ever. I had to buy a new ring two sizes larger. Then a few years later, I got divorced. Good money after bad, my mother used to say.

Then there's my shoulders. No actual injuries that I can remember, but they click and grind as I lift and lower my arms. Sometimes when I roll over in bed at night, it feels like I'm getting nails hammered into my shoulders--sort of a non-joint-specific Christ complex, I guess. Dr. Keller lifts and lowers one of my arms like a chicken wing, listening to more snap, crackle, pop than a cereal commercial.

"Let me know if these get worse," he says. "We might want to get that looked at."

"Aren't you looking at it now?" I almost say, but I'm afraid of his answer.

"What else?" he asks.

I shrug (ouch) and move on. I had arthroscopic surgery on my left knee a few years ago. My (now ex-) wife and I used to play tennis. She was a far better player than I, and our games usually ended with her being mad at me. She'd usually win, then accuse me of taking it easy on her. I wasn't taking it easy--I just sucked at tennis. After my rare wins, she'd be mad at me for being lucky. Damned if you do and burn in hell forever if you don't.

One day she decided she needed to work on her drop shot. So she hit me little dinkers that just barely cleared the net for about two hours. I dutifully returned them, straining my left knee again and again each time. The next day, I woke up with a cantaloupe-sized knee, then just a few short years later, I was divorced. Coincidence? I actually get some satisfaction from blaming the injury of my ex-wife's obsessive behavior--my own bitterness easing the pain more than percocet ever could.

The surgery was a success, at least until two months later when I heard a popping sound while fighting through a pick on defense. (Yes, I've noticed the pattern, so stop bugging me. Can I help it if I still hear my high school basketball coach screaming about defense if I even drive by a gymnasium?) Since then, I sleep with a pillow under my knee because straightening it hurts too much. Also, I'm careful to get out of my car slowly after a long drive (anything more than, say, three miles) because keeping it bent for a while locks it in place.

I have a really cool specially fitted brace that I now wear on my left knee for sports. It's hard and black and weighs about five pounds and sometimes gets really pretty women at my gym to say nice things like, "Oh, you poor baby." I also sometimes use it to whack the knees of much younger players if they've been scoring too many points against me. Scoring all those points could go to their heads and give them a false sense of accomplishment to reflect on when they reach forty.

"Hurt any more than usual?" Dr. Keller asks, nodding toward my knee.

"Not any more than usual," I reply.

"Well, we'll have to keep an eye on it, I guess. How's the other knee?"

My right knee has never given me a moment's trouble, God bless it.

Then I tell him about my left ankle, which I had surgically reconstructed twenty years ago because I was a chronic supernater and tore all my lateral ligaments. The operation involved a lot of drilling and harvesting tendons to take over the functions of the ligaments. The orthopedic surgeon called it a "salvage" procedure that would ensure that I could still walk when I turned forty some day far off in the mythic future when computers had taken over all of our jobs, disease and famine had been eliminated by benevolent aliens, everyone communicated through electrical mail carried by some kind of interconnected net of computers, and I would be officially old. The operation was an unbelievable success. I think I'll send a the surgeon a thank-you card, but he probably retired to some orthopedic surgeon retirement community where he can wear plaid pleated shorts, play thirty-six holes of golf each a day, and complain about the government full time.

Last summer, I stepped on another player's big stupid foot and cracked a bone in that ankle. Actually, the x-ray showed about five little fractures, and the doctor couldn't tell for sure when each one had happened--maybe a week before, maybe five years. I was supposed to wear a "walking boot" for six weeks, but I took it off after two weeks and started playing again after three. Of course, the pain didn't go away until I forced myself to take six weeks off from basketball. I spent a lot of time lifting weights and riding a non-impact exercise bike while wearing my boot. Frankly, I don't really enjoy most forms of exercise that don't involve lots of other people and chasing after some sort of ball. When the boredom overcame me, I would shoot free throws and politely but sadly decline, pointing to my boot, when asked to join in a game.

Saving the worst for last, I tell Dr. Keller about something new. At first, I thought I had somehow bruised my right heel. I kept playing for a few weeks, and the "bruise" eventually became very painful. Then just for sheer craziness, I decided to sprint back on defense (don't say it), and I felt the bottom of my foot tearing apart. I limped for the rest of the game and actually did a good job at all facets of the game that don't involve running or jumping (which is a lot more of the game at forty than it is at twenty).

After long sessions alternating ice and heat, I still felt like I had a fork stuck in the bottom of my foot. After doing some research in my sports medicine book (don't stay home without it!), I learned a new term: "plantar fasciitis." It's a strain or (in my case) a tear of the ligaments that join the heel to the ball of the foot. I'd always just assumed the bottom of the foot was made up of skin and nothing more--silly me. It's always good to learn something new, no matter how old you are.

Confirming my own diagnosis, Dr. Keller tells me to get some arch supports for my shoes and shows me some little stretching exercises I can do to ease the pain a bit. I try the exercises, and (of course) they hurt. The treatment options, he says, consist of doing nothing or surgery. Extremes can be so much fun, but only in moderation. And by doing nothing, Dr. Keller means for a long time.

"How long?" I ask.

"Until your foot feels better," he says.

"How long will that be?" I ask.

"Let's just take our time and see," he replies, and I start thinking again about how mindlessly boring exercise bikes can be.

I'm too embarrassed to tell him about hurting my back playing tennis, a game I took up again recently to overcome the trauma of playing with my (now ex-) wife. I took the weight off my sore plantar fascia too quickly while hitting a backhand (almost as dangerous as playing defense) and pulled a muscle in my back. It hurt so much that I hobbled around the house for a week with a cane (yes, of course, I own one) looking for my hoarded percocet. Some things are best kept from your doctor. My back will be a secret from my friendly rheumatologist. The mystery will keep out relationship fresh and exciting through the coming years together.

Dr. Keller spends the next five minutes writing notes in my file. It's a thick file. There's a stack of pages in it thicker than the finger I couldn't stuff back into my wedding ring. I try to peek at his notes, but he blocks my view with his hand (no misshapen fingers, I notice) like I'm trying to copy his math test. Finally, he closes the folder and looks at me.

"Do you know you're forty?" he asks me. He's serious. I hang my head like a child who has done something bad forty times. "Have you thought about taking up cycling or walking or golf?"

From the time I turned twenty, friends have been trying to get me to play golf. I've lost many basketball-playing friends over the years as they have given up hoops for the links. But let me clear up a common misconception. Golf is not a sport. Golf is a board game--a giant board game where people knock their game pieces into holes on a huge, grass-covered board. Any man who gives up a sport like basketball for a board game like golf has given up being an athlete of any kind and should be ashamed of himself if he thinks he's playing a sport.

"How about chess?" Dr. Keller says with a chuckle.

"I'd like to keep playing basketball," I reply, not telling him that chess is one of my favorite board games, and I'm a really good player. "But maybe I should concentrate more on tennis. That puts a lot less stress on my joints than basketball."

"Well," Dr. Keller says, shaking his head and hefting my big folder, "I wish you luck."

I'd knock on wood, but I'm afraid I'd hurt my pinkie.

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