I HATE CLAMSHELLS

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I feel entirely comfortable announcing my hatred of clamshells to the cyber world because Judy Kugel has declared in her own usually upbeat twice-a-week blog that she hates snow angels. Judy is a slim, trim 77-year-old academic, recently retired from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who is a self-proclaimed lover of exercise;  the way I love to eat, she loves vigorous cycling and hiking. They’re her idea of a super good time. (I believe she and her husband also have bulky gym-type equipment in the home, which they use regularly and properly, not — as I once did with a stationary bicycle — to hang clothes on.) So if she can hate her angel wings in public, who am I to prevaricate about my feelings for clamshells?

“Clamshells” in this instance are not what you find when you go clamming at the shore. Nor are “snow angels” what small children make in the snow.  They are part of an armatorium of whimsically named exercises imposed on those of us who are aging by licensed, and perhaps also by unlicensed, physical therapists in alleged restoration of the swift and pain- free movements of our youth. (Ha!)  There’s also “table top,” “soup bowl,” “chair” and “bridges.” If truth be told, I hate them all, but “clamshells” get first prize, with “chair” and “table top” tied for second. (“Bridges” is not so bad, unless you have to do it with only one foot on the ground.)  There’s also another extremely unpleasant one, done on your stomach with knees bent, but it seems to be nameless.

I don’t know the nature of the problem Judy and her trainer are attacking with snow angels against the wall:  fifteen at a time, hands and arms never leaving the wall.  All she says in her blog post is that she can only do five and they hurt. The reason I am supposed to be confronting three sets of fifteen clamshells on each side every day is that, according to this new therapist I’m seeing, I have weak hips and glutes — but especially on the right side — as a result of improper guidance by and work with another therapist five years ago after a right hip replacement.  (Why is it that one thing corrected always leads to another going wrong?) This weakness — which I admit without demur, although I wouldn’t blame it on my nice former physical therapist — has resulted in the top line of my pants tilting slightly to the left, an idiosyncrasy I could live with, and my left knee and leg periodically sending signals of something between discomfort and pain whenever I do much more than sleep or loll around.

I might add we live in a condo with two flights of stairs and no master bedroom on the ground floor, having been beyond optimistic in our late seventies when we bought it that we would remain gazelles forever.  However, I do not consider my left leg’s deficiencies and complaints over the past four years a reason to put the condo on the market.  (There are perhaps several other reasons, but these can wait for some other blog post some other time.  Maybe, if we’re lucky, some other year. Life is uncertain: surely I’ve already established that in this blog.)

The new therapist’s theory is that my left knee and leg are complaining because they’re doing not only their share of the work involved in moving me around but also the right leg’s share.   My sunny-tempered physiatrist (I call him Dr. Feelgood), he who wrote the prescription for this year’s bout with physical therapy — I use the word “bout” advisedly — does not necessarily agree with the new therapist’s diagnosis but does believe exercise is always a good thing.  (He even wrote several books about it in his spare time.)  Accordingly, every time I make an appointment for the knee, which is about once a year, he administers a series of four weekly shots  — the first a steroid, and then three of Synvisc, which provides lubication to the cartilage.  Bill and I used to be holier-than-thou about steroids, but not any more; Dr. Feelgood’s ministrations pretty much get rid of the “discomfort” for a while and provide what he calls a window of opportunity for all those healthful exercises. He writes the script, I go away promising to be good and try. (Yes, I really do try. At least for a while.)

Helpful acquaintances — usually at least twenty years younger — have suggested I spare myself this annual ritual of retribution for unknown past sins and have a left knee replacement.  They just don’t know. It’s not as if I’m a crack tennis player who must get back in the game.  I’m not (yet) in screaming agony.  The only reason I finally broke down and had the right hip replaced was that I absolutely positively could not step on the brake anymore and had to halt my car in my own driveway with the hand brake. Having recovered from a hip replacement in a rehabilitation facility where I shared a room with a woman who had just had both her knees replaced at once, I mentally divided in two what she was going through to rehabilitate herself, and decided no thank you, I would do whatever it took to forestall even one of what she was having.

This year whatever it takes in my current, discomfort-free window of opportunity includes “clamshells,” one of six tedious, boring, perspiration-making activities I’m supposed to perform every morning, or at least most mornings, before getting on with the day.  The other five, which chew up about forty minutes if done slowly and properly, I could perhaps learn to live with — although the cloud of gloom they cast over the prospect of getting out of bed tends to keep me from setting feet to the floor until the hands of the clock are well advanced towards noon and guilt overcomes indolence.  But “clamshells” are something else.

I know, I know: you still don’t know what “clamshells” are. (Unless you’re a physical therapist, or the victim of one.)  They’re like this:  You get down on the floor, if you think you can get up again, or on a very thin hard mattress if you’re not sure about the floor. We have one of those man-type mattresses left over from Bill’s divorced days; it’s now adorning his old bed in the finished part of the basement.  There you lie on your side, draw your knees up to a 90 degree angle, keep your back absolutely straight and unmoving (no rolling towards the mattress) and hold your feet together throughout the exercise.  Now you’re a closed clamshell.  Try to open the shell by raising the top knee and then close it again, with a controlled motion if possible. Fifteen times.  That’s a set. Rest. Do two more sets — that is, forty-five times all together.  Then you do the forty-five open-and-shuts on the other side.

This is supposed to be so good for my rear end muscles — which I never knew existed, and maybe they don’t — that I shouldn’t mind that my clamshell won’t open. It doesn’t open at all when I lie on my left, and barely enough to insert a pinky finger between the thighs when I lie on my right. But I do mind.  I hate failing at anything, especially failing at something I hate in the first place.  So my clamshells aren’t really like Judy Kugel’s snow angels.  I know she will persevere until she conquers the wall she’s standing against to do them.  Me?  All I know is why I wrote this post.  It’s to shame myself in public into getting down to the basement even though it’s already 3:30 in the afternoon.  If I go now, I can be back upstairs before 4:30.

If, if.  Now if only there were such a thing as a human clam opener.  No, scratch that. It doesn’t sound quite right.  Weak rear end muscles or no, I do try to run a clean blog.