A few years ago, my son’s longtime girlfriend Shannon did a capstone project for her grad school program in design. The assignment was to come up with a novel idea for a non-profit organization and design all the graphics for it; at the end, a panel of professional designers came in to judge their presentations. Shannon’s group’s project was The Rescued Radish, a company that would go around to grocery stores and pick up all the older, less attractive, but still usable produce – the spotty bananas, the pock-marked peppers, the brown-edged lettuce, the frosty carrots – and take them to soup kitchens and food pantries and also sell them at a deep discount to impoverished college students and others living on ramen.

Here’s the beginning of the prize-winning presentation. To see the whole thing, and Shannon’s lovely website, which starts with a big picture of her lovely self, go to www.shannonmckennadesign.com.
Here’s the beginning of the prize-winning presentation. To see the whole thing, and Shannon’s lovely website, which starts with a big picture of her lovely self, go to www.shannonmckennadesign.com.

The Rescued Radish won first prize from the judges, and the Grande Palme d’Or from me. The rescuing of radishes and other gently aging foodstuffs is a matter dear to my heart. Bring ‘em here: I’ll freeze the bananas for smoothies, trim the soft spots off the peppers, sort through the greens and find some leaves that can be cleaned and perked up in the fridge.

I was delighted to find out that Shannon seemed to have the same love of conservation that I do (maybe not exactly the same, since mine verges on neurosis, though if you’ve read Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender at the Bone, I am definitely nowhere near as bad as her mother) but maybe it made perfect sense. After all, she has been dating my son for what is it, thirteen years or something. Since they were children.

If something is perfectly good, keep it, I say. If you’ve had it since the Reagan administration, so much the better. And if it’s not perfectly good anymore, you may still be able to work with it. A thing can look at first glance like it’s ruined, like the knife whose handle melted into a black plastic blob in the dishwasher, but guess what? It still cuts!

The love of making things last as long as possible is probably why I kept my knees as long as I did, 62 years, considering they started to give me trouble back in middle school, famously pooping out in the middle of the murder scene in the rock opera version of Julius Caesar in 7th grade, also causing problems on the 1972 Walk for Mankind, and prematurely cutting off my careers in tennis, downhill skiing, and ballet. I worked around it.

Eventually arthritis compounded the situation, and a visit to an orthopedic surgeon in the early 2000s confirmed that my knees were shot. I could get new ones anytime.

I was in no rush. My late mother was always proud that she put off her knee replacement so long that she never did have it before her more critical parts gave out, and as in many other aspects of aging, I followed in her footsteps. There were some issues – I couldn’t take a long walk or hike; in yoga, couldn’t do balance poses or sit on my heels; had this weird pain in my shins that was apparently “referred” by my knees, a locution, if not an experience, I enjoyed. None of it was really that bad. Gradually, and without intending to do so, I structured my life to minimize the need to walk – this became evident whenever I spent time in New York City, with its cement sidewalks and unforgiving subway stairs, which wore out my locomotive capacity in a matter of hours.

Even before the pandemic came, I had pretty much decided to do it this year and get it over with. Quarantine made the decision that much easier since I would be stuck on the couch either way.

And so the knees I was born with went out with the trash at St. Joseph’s Hospital one day in July. The doctor confirmed that they were junk — what he saw in there, he told my daughter, was ‘horrifying.’ It was hard to believe, he said, that they were still load-bearing. That made me feel better about my decision, which seemed idiotic in the first miserable post-op days. It’s almost six weeks now. I can walk and do yoga — and sleep, which was practically impossible in the beginning. But will I eventually say “I should have done this years ago,” like everyone else with these $20,000 titanium knees does? I’m not there yet. I’m not sure how I will know. Right now I’d settle for just not thinking about my knees all the time. And here I am writing about them!

My beloved sister came to take care of me the first week. Flowers courtesy of Jim Magruder and Steve Bolton.

I was reading about expiration dates and shelf life in Wikipedia, about the distinctions between Sell by and Use by and Best before, which is how I started thinking about the Rescued Radish.  We didn’t realize how many things would expire in 2020, did we. Where were the tiny numerals stamped on the restaurants, the stores, the jobs, the knees, the relationships? Divorces spiked in China when the lockdown ended. That doesn’t seem surprising. The National Book Critics Circle tried to expire, but I wouldn’t let it, which is a story for another day.

My ferocity with regard to the National Book Critics Circle may have been a reaction to my inability to prevent one big unforeseen expiration. The truth is I have not spoken to my lifelong best friend since March, even before her daughter came here expecting to stay a few months and it didn’t work out that way. There is more to it than that, probably even more than I know. So far I have not been able to rescue this radish at all. It was a very good radish for over 50 years, so perhaps I should just be grateful.

I have been worried that this now-nine-year-old column itself was ‘best before,’ too. I have felt so little urge to write these past months. It’s partly the sadness, I think, it’s like a lump in my throat, and I really don’t know what to say about it or if I even should say anything about it. What is writing supposed to be or do? If you think of it mainly as creating things for other people to read, it is certainly an activity of value. Reading is one of the few things that has only gotten better in quarantine. And I say that as a person who has recently read two books about Melania Trump, the memoirs of Perez Hilton and Gucci Mane, and the novel that won the Booker International, which had so much child and animal abuse in it, I still feel traumatized. Now I’m rambling, I know. Well, I can tell you that didn’t stop Gucci Mane or Perez Hilton.

Try to keep your spirits up, try to keep your body going, your pets alive, and your house from falling down. Do not go gentle into that COVID night. Or at least make sure you vote before you do. There’s no titanium replacement for democracy.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

6 replies on “A Farewell to Knees”

  1. Oh, no! Please don’t end your Baltimore Fishbowl column. I’ve been reading it for years & *always* enjoy it. / I’m so sorry to hear that there’s a rift with your lifelong best friend. My dear friend of similar duration inexplicably drifted away from me about 15 years ago, slowly becoming ever less responsive to e-mail or phone calls. It hurt my feelings terribly at the time, but today, there’s no longer a “scab” on my heart. Time did, indeed, heal that wound. / I wish you well & whole, and selfishly hope B Fishbowl continues.

  2. I really understand your feelings about writing the column; for the first time since seventh grade, I have had no will to practice flute or just play for fun. I am pulling myself out of it, but it feels like Covid has been one long holding of breath. Please keep writing; I enjoy this column so much!

  3. I hope that you decide to keep writing the column. I’ve followed you since you wrote First Comes Love and I heard you read from that on NPR. You feel like an old good friend who I’ve shared stages of life and who makes me laugh.

  4. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. I’ve read your column for years and enjoy it. Please take care of yourself in these difficult times.

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