My hamstrings are either way tight or way short, depending on who’s describing them. I like to go with “tight,” which also happens to be a term of appreciation in my son’s crowd. The result of this tightness is that (like all Kornbluths) I walk kind of funny (bouncing on my toes) and have chronic back problems. I also have begun to suspect that my hammies are a root cause of why I spend so much time in the bathroom.
Bear with me.
In my mid-20s, two things began happening at around the same time: my back started going out, and it started taking me longer and longer to, well, you know. Alarmed at these premature signs of elderly Jewishness, I went to a doctor who had been recommended by someone at work. It took me a long time to get to this guy’s office — train to bus to another bus, etc. — and when I got there, I was already kind of frazzled. Then the doctor came in, and — I’m being totally truthful — he had Elephant Man’s Disease. (I’m not sure that’s the technical term.) Half his face was covered with wiggly, splotchy cysts. So instantly I became focused on not in any way acknowledging that I was freaking out about the doctor’s face — which was difficult, as he kept leaning close to me and asking what my problem was. (To answer your unspoken question: No, he didn’t talk in that slurpy way of the movie character.)
Mentally averting my eyes while not physically doing so, I told him that I had two complaints: my back was bothering me, and it was taking me longer and longer to poo.
“Hmm,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess you need to drop your pants.”
My first emotional response to this was actually relief, since now he would at least be leaning his face into a part of me that didn’t have eyes. But soon this was replaced with another emotion: I’m not sure of the exact name of this emotion, but it’s the one you have when a stranger sticks his finger in your butt. … Come to think of it, there’s probably a wide range of emotions that this action can evoke, depending on what you’re into, so let me try to be more specific: I became tense and uncomfortable — I clenched.
“Relax,” said the doctor.
“I’m trying!” I said.
Eventually he was able to reach whatever he was going for, and in due time we were chatting again, face to face.
“Everything seems to be normal,” he said. “Now what’s the trouble with your back?”
Have I mentioned that his office was extremely tiny? By now I was feeling intensely claustrophobic, and profoundly embarrassed. So I mumbled something about my back being fine, really, and got the hell out of there.
In subsequent days, when I went to the bathroom to do number two, I experienced a kind of post-traumatic-stress syndrome: I’d picture that doctor, and remember my visit, and involuntarily I’d clench. Which made me take even longer. Which, in turn, made me extremely unpopular with my three roommates and their girlfriends, all of whom felt — reasonably enough, I suppose — that they, too, deserved access to the one bathroom in our apartment. If you’ve ever tried to poo while visualizing a doctor with Elephant Man’s Disease sticking his finger up your butt and simultaneously being yelled at by a large stoned used-record-store employee who’s relentlessly banging on the bathroom door because he really needs to go, I think you can probably relate to my situation at the time. (Not long after that, I was asked to move out.)
Now here I am nearing fifty, and it’s only gotten worse. Though healthwise — knock wood — I seem to be doing okay. Yesterday I had my annual physical, and as always we came to the part where my doctor had me bend over. (Let me mention parenthetically that my current physician in no way resembles Joseph Merrick — or “John Merrick,” as he’s called in the film — except, perhaps, for a shared affection for theater.) And, as usual, I had trouble bending over — my tight hamstrings, as you know. And that’s when I was suddenly pierced by both a finger and an insight — the latter being that my whole problem all along has been my hammies: when I sit (to type, say, or to do … other things), other parts of me (spine, intestines, etc.) must distort themselves to overcompensate. Thus the lower-back problems — and, possibly, the bathroom-related problems as well!
So last night I rushed over to the Y and began stretching out my hamstrings. Most people can touch their toes; I can maybe touch my waist. A woman who was doing yoga-like contortions nearby, while also sympathetically watching my exertions, eventually spoke up: “You know, they’re saying now that if you stretch out a problem area five times a day, for 30 seconds each, and keep it up for six weeks, you can attain a normal range of motion.” I can’t begin to tell you how pleasant it is to receive medical advice from someone who isn’t sticking a finger in you! Instantly I resolved to do as she suggested.
That’s why, for the next six weeks, I will be doing five 30-second-long hamstring stretches a day (after first warming up; the woman said that was also important). This will take me to mid-January — at which point, if her method works, I expect to wake up one day, stretch my non-achy back, and use the bathroom for only one to two minutes. I’m not sure what I’ll do with all the extra time — maybe travel a bit, or take up archery, or discover a cure for Elephant Man’s Disease. But I imagine that somewhere up in secular Jewish heaven, generations of Kornbluths past — each on his or her own individual celestial porcelain throne — will look down on me and smile, before going back to slowly, and happily, reading the entire Sunday New York Times.