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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Not Everything is About the Beer

You take your chances and you take your lumps. It's an old adage and one that has nothing to do with beer or alcohol, except maybe as it applies to overconsumption. In my context, it applies to making certain choices that have now more or less caught up with me.

Younger knees (with Burleson)
I'll have my left knee replaced before the end of the year. Because choices do have consequences. I'll probably get a partial replacement. They'll insert implants on the medial (inside) of my knee. The rest of the knee is apparently okay, meaning I'm not in line for the somewhat more invasive full knee replacement. Small favors.

How did I get here? This isn't the result of a specific injury or accident. I got here because I consciously chose to abuse my body over the course of some 40 years, give or take. Beer was only indirectly involved, icing on the cake.

I started down the road of abuse while in high school, where I chose to play football for four years. We didn't have many big kids in Clarkston, but I was certainly undersized. I never suffered a serious injury and had only a few concussions. That I know of.

Like most kids, I didn't know what I was doing in high school. Besides football, I was involved in a lot of recreational sports...basketball, baseball, golf, snow and water skiing. But I didn't know what it meant to be physically active as a high school graduate. No clue, really.

At some point during my first year of college, I got hooked on tennis. Blame Jimmy Connors, if you want. I had played in junior high, got bored, didn't try very hard, quit. The American tennis boom of early 1970s got me interested again and I got serious about playing regularly.

Honestly, I wasn't very good during those years. I could win intramural matches, but wasn't nearly good enough to be part of the team at Washington State. I kept working at it. Not long after I graduated, I was competing and occasionally winning in tournaments.

After several years of playing tennis and working in the record biz, I entered graduate school. At that point, I was good enough to beat some players on the WSU team. Not that it mattered; I had no eligibility and wasn't in school for tennis. I was getting trained so I could one day write about beer.

Looking back, I doubt tennis caused significant damage to my knees. Young knees, which mine were at the time, are well lubricated. Normal wear and tear, nothing more. But tennis was hard on my shoulder and shoulder problems caused me to consider other options.

I eventually switched to racquetball. It seemed reasonable. Less shoulder stress. Plus, Pullman's climate isn't friendly to outdoor tennis for much of the year and the indoor facilities were lousy at the time. Racquetball was popular enough that it was easy to find a decent game. Courts were always available.

The transition to racquetball was not smooth. I had the basic skills needed, but my swing was all wrong (too stiff) and my footwork (from tennis) was a mess. I also didn't understand the game. It took several years to learn the nuances across a wide spectrum of situations.

Early serving form (not good)
When I left Pullman for Portland in 1989, I wasn't a very good player. But I kept at it, finding a club where I could get regular games. I made a lot of friends. Pretty soon I was good enough to compete at the A+ level and win more than I lost. I played tournaments in Oregon for 20 years.

Most of that probably wasn't a terrible idea. There are definite health benefits to playing a game that causes you to exert and sweat. But it's easy to fool yourself into thinking the benefits outweigh the risks. Ego enters the picture and cons you into thinking you're not at risk. You are.

Racquetball is hard on knees. I had meniscus tears in both knees repaired via arthroscopic surgeries in 2006. Maybe I should have quit playing then. Old knees are not well-lubricated and can't take the pounding dished out by games like racquetball. My surgeon said playing was fine, but advised me to go easy. Which I did, partially by playing fewer tournaments.

Five years ago, I felt nagging pain in my left knee. I initially thought it was tendinitis, but it refused to heal. I saw an orthopedist at Rebound. X-rays revealed deterioration of the articular cartilage on the medial side in both knees. It would get worse, he told me. I'd eventually need to have the left knee replaced. And maybe the right.

If beer played a role in that diagnosis, it was in the 15 or so pounds I gained after I started writing about it in 2011. Every pound adds stress to the knees and my knees were already significantly damaged. But beer was late to the project of wrecking my knees and deserves little credit.

Racquetball jumping too high
American healthcare is a mess, of course, The 2006 scope surgeries were fairly straightforward and cost me almost nothing. The system has since gotten better at delaying, denying and charging more for care. I'm jumping through multiple hoops to get this surgery and it will cost thousands of dollars, at least, in the end. Hopefully, I'll regain full use of that knee.

This story almost makes me wonder if the choices I made were wise. My worn out knees are the result of regular activity that put a lot of pressure on them. If I hadn't played those games, my knees might feel better. But I suspect some other body part or parts would have malfunctioned by now if I hadn't played.

I guess I'll have another beer and reconsider past choices. I don't regret the years I spent playing sports that were risky. Doing so kept me generally healthier than most of my contemporaries. But getting old isn't a spectator sport, no matter how you cut it.

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