My Thigh Hurts

The 77 Year Old Rock Critic meets his 77-year-old body

The author in front of the Donnell Library on 53rd Street, 57 years before his knee replacement. (Photograph: Leonard Lipton)


Last September, asked to provide a kicker for this “newsletter”—a designation I feel subtly suggests that us Substackers not get all diaryesque on the paying customers—I couldn't resist a bit of snark. “Music”: but of course. “Books”: Book Reports author claiming turf. “Politics”: built into everything I write, which with fascism looming it had better be. But “Old Age”? A fungu, but built in as well. You’ve heard of (now 93-year-old) Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man? If you’re old enough you have. So meet the 77 Year Old Rock Critic. With the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s Jane Scott retired in 2002 and passed in 2011 at 92, Robert Hilburn retired, and my pal John Rockwell publishing mostly in Opera Magazine, I am America’s oldest rock critic, 77 with a body to match no matter how well modern medicine beefs up my erotic puissance. 

My “a body to match” isn’t meant, of course, to imply that all bodies last 77 years—I never forget the friends I loved who weren’t so fortunate. And it’s also to sidestep the cancer diagnosis the person I love most was hit with at 72. Carola is in remission from multiple myeloma and likely to live for quite a while. But where three years ago we were both notoriously hale seventysomethings—me with my Generation Z gig at Noisey, Carola publishing her first novel at 69.9—now, dear diary, we’re feeling our age.

Many of our friends are striplings in their forties and fifties. But more are in their seventies and even eighties, and when we oldies get together our conversations often slip from politics, the arts, and our future heirs to a risible cliche: tales of medical woe. If there was a shuffleboard court nearby we could pose for a before-and-after photo to go with the one set on a park bench where we’re hashing out daycare options and bedtime strategems while our kids run around. But as Carola points out to me, there’s no embarrassment in either. What nonparents/nonold don’t get is that both are intellectually active information exchanges that beat self-help books and online forums at educating participants in the human life cycle about crucial details of the mortal struggle—they’re more local, more specific, more transparent, and often smarter. But online forums have their own utility. So permit me to rattle on about how health is going in Bob and Carola’s East Village apartment. And n.b.: there’s an ask at the end.

Carola’s remission requires maintenance doses of the multiple myeloma-specific Revlimid, a costly thalidomide offshoot that weakens the immune system and messes up the digestive tract even in small quantities. As she says, she takes Revlimid so cancer won’t kill her and anti-virals so Revlimid won’t kill her, plus bone-strengthening vitamin D that baffles her nutritionist by messing up her digestive tract even more. Long a look-ma-no-glasses wonder, she’s undergone two cataract surgeries since her cancer year began, one less routine than advertised, while contending with other visual problems that at their worst had her taking eyedrops 15 times a day. In 2017 she began to experience both migraines and vertigo that recently occasioned a course of twice-weekly therapy we hope is finally working. And she’s suffered two falls since November—one major, one minor, both with consequences. Yet while Superbob was proud to act as caregiver during her cancer year—attending every doctor’s appointment, hiking the upper East Village buying provisions as his left knee got gimpier, and hanging out with her daily during her stem-cell sequestration—caregiver is now her role.

I was bequeathed a smaller version of my athletic father’s body, so strong in the legs that I traveled Manhattan by bicycle for 40-plus years. But my sway back and pigeon toes did nothing for my bookworm’s posture, hastening a meniscectomy in my left knee when I was 41, and for a quarter century I’ve contended with my dad’s arthritis, including surgeries to clean up my right arm and then shoulder. Five-foot-nine (and a half, dammit) in the playground basketball years that lasted into my early thirties, I shrunk to five-seven sometime after 70—stenosis, they call it when the spine tightens up, my father had it too. Steroid shots (covered by Medicare) and platelet injections ($1000 a pop) having outlived their effectiveness, I’d planned to replace my increasingly painful left knee in 2018 before Carola’s diagnosis. Instead, after a driving vacation in upstate New York last July just in case there’d never be another, I had it operated on by an excellent surgeon last October. Well-wishers in Xgau Sez and elsewhere soon learned how swiftly I recovered—95 percent flexion well ahead of schedule. True, I experienced thigh pain in my left leg the first time I walked a block outside. But the presumption was that that would pass. 

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It didn’t. Some four months later, in fact, it’s worse—essentially, I’m lame. Carola now does all the shopping, which wears her out, and whenever I travel more than a block, usually to medical appointments, I take a Lyft or a cab, which adds up. Generally I need a cane, although a few steps or more unaided is possible—at home, I can get around. At first the culprit was thought to be my IT band—the long, thick, poorly understood iliotibial tendon that connects the pelvis to the shin. But most IT problems present in the outer knee, and after much testing, the theory is that a pinched nerve in my stenotic spine is the problem, almost certainly between the 4-5 vertebrae—a steroid injection in the 2-3 had no effect, while a 4-5 shot may briefly have helped a little. A supershot has been proposed. But due to the failure of the first two plus my extensive steroid experience (I’ve had so many shots in my troubled right shoulder that I now must cease and desist) I’m skeptical. Instead I’ve done some due diligence by committing to eight weeks with a well-regarded acupuncturist. But most likely I’ll eventually have to try back surgery, which is safer in the lumbar region. It may well work; it also may not.

So here’s my ask. I won’t even see the back surgeon for another week or so, and network as I will I’ve yet to find anyone who’s experienced my specific ailment: knee replacement followed by disabling pain on the outer side of my thigh over an area a little bigger than my hand—an ache or a burn or both or sometimes cold tingling that shoots up and down to hip and knee. The pain comes and goes, depending in part on how much stretching or percussion is imposed by physical therapy or just getting around. So if you can connect me with somebody who’s had an identical or near-identical experience, please let me know. Some freelance intellectual activity is called for.

If, as is more likely, you have no such contacts, I hope you don’t feel I’ve gotten too diaristic here. That's because there’ll probably be more Old Age coverage in the future. The only way it goes away is if I die.