Wednesday, October 12, 2005


In Which We Back Up A Little...

Still feeling tired from our drive to Ohio and back, which is kind of pathetic, considering we left on a Thursday morning and returned on a Sunday night and so had two non-driving days to cancel out the two driving days.

I used to love driving places. Drove all over Christ creation when I finally got a car. Day trip to Canada? Let's go! When I lived in the Philadelphia area for a while, I went shopping--up at L.L. Bean's, in Freeport, Maine--as casually as some people drove to the local suburban mall. And I often got there and back in the same amount of time too. For a time, I was slightly legendary for my drives east from Chicago, during which I would stop in pretty much every mid-Atlantic and most New England states to visit friends for a night--or sometimes, just for a sandwich--before moving north or south to the next stop.

I still love driving, or rather the idea of driving, but these days my zeal for road travel has a tendency to write checks that my back cannot cash. It might be different if I didn't spend 10-12 hours a day sitting in my car and office, but I do. Throw a road trip any longer than 3 hours on top of that, and I end up where I am now, which is as a wincing, hobbling old man who wishes for nothing more than several hundred milligrams of codeine, or perhaps a small woman with soft feet to walk upon my back and make it pop like bubble wrap.

Sadly, no such women meeting that description made that offer today, although one did ask, as she beheld my limping self, "Did you sprain your ankle?"

I wish.

Instead, I am, much to my chagrin, one of the 80-some percentage of men who suffers from back pain. Specifically pain in the lumbar region of my back. Specifically sciatic pain down my right leg (hence the limp). As chronic physical afflictions go, I suppose it's better than, say, impotence or blindness, but it's bad enough for me, for today, thanks very much. And of course, I have no one to blame but myself for the situation. And I suppose it's time I told you the story, lest you think all my acts of avoidable self-injury result in nothing more than a broken knuckle, a few drops of blood and a semi-amusing blog entry.

So, let us turn back the hands of time to the spring of 2001. We were living in our first house, me and young master Thomas and a cat of really foul temper, and Her Lovely Self, a.k.a Her Lovely Enormously Pregnant Self.

When you are homeowners, spring has a way of igniting in you--or in my case, your spouse--a powerful desire to start on ambitious projects, usually of an outdoor nature. In springs past, HLS spent many a happy and industrious hour transforming different quadrants of our small lot into beautiful gardens and landscapes. My job was typically restricted to pushing a wheelbarrow around and saying things like, "Here?" or "More?" Actually, much of my success--such as it is--in married life has generally revolved around my knowing when to say those two words, which is often.

That particular spring, though, with a Brownie in the oven, there wasn't much kneeling and pulling and hoeing for HLS--I mean HLEPS--but her desire for spring cleaning, coupled with, I must observe, a certain furious instinct towards nesting, seemed to drive her manically in the direction of our side yard, a pebbly, scrubby area largely concealed by a giant evergreen bush. We had had a defunct heating-oil tank removed from the space before we bought the house and had never quite figured out what to do with it thereafter. Now, HLEPS decided this section of the yard had to be dealt with. Had to. And it fell to me to make it happen. And so, with the somewhat petulant resignation of a child who has been given a second-hand toy racer with a sticky remote control device, she sat in a lawn chair and not-very-patiently tried to steer me through the task of transforming the side yard just as she would have, had she not been so stupendously pregnant that she required intervention to help her complete the most basic physical tasks such as, for example, being dislodged from her lawn chair.

I hauled soil. I hauled compost. I carefully arranged soil and compost, assisted by my 2-year-old son and his plastic rake and shovel which, I was surprised to note, are just as painful as the real thing when an unthinking operator chips you in the knees or ankles with them.

At length I turned our side yard into a square of fertile black earth, ready for grass and flowers and whatever other pretty thing HLEPS directed me to plant.

Except, there was one problem.

"What do you think of this bush?" she asked me one morning, in a way that made me think the only answer could be "Why, I hate it and would be only to happy to remove it from the presence of your exceedingly pregnant self."

It was just a big, old evergreen bush, roughly the size of a small hatchback. Between you and me, I thought it perfectly fine where it was, as it was. But now, HLEPS saw it as an eyesore, a visual block between the street and the verdant area she had just recently transformed (by remote control). Suddenly, it seemed that her nesting instinct had been replaced by an uprooting urge, and so it was determined that one Saturday morning, while she and a girlfriend went off to a greenhouse to pick flowers, the boys would stay home and grapple with the bush.

And by "bush," I realized as I began the job, I meant "tree."

I spent a good hour clipping off enough evergreen branches to stock a Christmas shop through the holiday season. When I got far enough in, I discovered a wooden core at the center of this bush, roughly as thick as my leg. I broke out the chain saw and, once I had positioned young Thomas some distance away, set about turning the bush into so much firewood.

But there was still the stump to contend with.

I spent the rest of the morning digging around that stump, trying to uproot the thing. After about two hours, I had it as wobbly as a loose tooth. But no matter how much I jammed my shovel in and pushed down on the handle to lever the thing out, that damn stump wouldn't budge.

I got down on hands and knees and felt around under the great inverted umbrella of roots and dirt. Deep down under all that I could feel one fairly thick root, the very last obstacle between me and my goal. I reached in with the electric hedge clippers and, with a muffled roar and much flying of dirt, felt the connection sever. Thankfully, none of my appendages went along with it.

Flush with success, I crouched, grabbed the stump and the pile of roots and dirt beneath it and gave a mighty tug. The damn thing didn't budge.

I repositioned, squatting a little, trying to lower my center of gravity. I looked at Thomas and nodded.

"Okay, Daddy!" he yelled, giving the count, which was one of his job, "One, two, free!"

I tensed and pulled.

There was an odd crack in my back, very low, more like my ass had somehow popped than my back. My hands were slick with sweat and I slipped and fell on my behind. Still the remnants of the bush remained stuck to the ground.

As I stood, I felt a sort of stinging soreness in my right buttock and knew then I'd probably have a black and blue mark from failing on my keister. I crouched and felt under the stump again. I couldn't feel anything. What the hell was holding this thing in place?

Now a little annoyed, I jumped up and more or less hugged the stump, yanking and yanking (to a casual observer, I might have looked a little like I was trying to hump it). The stump and root conglomeration rocked and swayed but never came free.

I stood there, sweating and cursing silently. Little Thomas toddled around the bush, looking at it and saying, "Hmm!" in a way that I would have found completely adorable. If I hadn't been so pissed off. Finally, I made up my mind. "Come on, buddy," I called to Thomas. We walked off to the garage where I found a length of thick Manila rope. I'm no Boy Scout, but I lashed the crap out of that stump, criss-crossing the rope over and under and through the latticework of the roots.

"Oh! Tugga! Tugga!" Thomas shouted, grabbing the loose end of the rope and pulling with all his tiny might. I'd love to tell you the stump suddenly popped free. But it didn't. I looped my arm around his waist, lifted him off the ground (as I did I felt a small shooting pain down my leg) and carried him to the Subaru.

According to the literature that came with it, our 1996 Subaru Outback Sport Utility Wagon had enough of an engine under the hood that it could haul a boat or small trailer with no trouble. Surely, I reasoned, that would be enough to pull a stubborn root out of the ground. I buckled Thomas into his car seat in the back. "Where we goin' Daddy?" he asked and I climbed into the driver's seat and started the car.

I cut the wheel hard, put it in reverse and slowly backed us off the driveway and up onto the green, green grass of our perfect little front lawn...

OH NO! Those menacing dots of the ellipse again!

I just hope sciatica (sp?) isn't hereditery. My dad and uncle both spend days on end on their back in bed from it.
Oh God.

It's like a slow-motion train wreck.

I can see it coming, but I can't not look...


T. ;)
I am cringing--visibly, intensely cringing...
No. No. No.

As for sciatic pain--I can relate; I had that really badly with both of my kids. I once even had my leg go suddenly numb and fell over in a store. Wait, weren;t we talking a while ago how everybody chimes in with their own medical stories...Sorry. I'll stop. Sciatic pain sucks. Done.
Know what you need, MM? Theme music! "Our unwitting hero is about to take a nasty turn" theme music.
Oh the empathy pain!
uh oh...this can't end in smiles...

btw, MM...I had a dream that contained your presence the other night. Weird.
No good can come from taking a Subaru onto the green, green lawn...
oh my.... I so can't wait to read what happens...
ouch, ooch, ouch, ooch...
I actually just shut my eyes in nervousness for you...

Really random - my uncle used to have really bad back pain, and although it didn't stop it entirely, his was made less awful by not carrying a wallet in his back pocket. Apparently when you sit, it makes you unbalanced - which backs don't like.

There's my trivia for the day.
You are rather accident prone, MM, and I'm sorry to say these stories always give me a good chuckle.

Ow ow ow ow ow owie.

Boy did I cringe when your back "popped".
I would have never pegged you as an LL Bean man, you don't come off that uptight. BTW, I am blogging again. You use to read my old blog but it was kind of SQUARE (wink,wink)
i strongly suggest using the car. that's how we ripped our bushes out. only, it tore up much of our lovely verdant grass, too

hopefully you weren't stuck in the car because of your back
There's no way this can end well.
Flexibility = Freedom from back pain.

I cracked my back in 1996 and until I started some yoga at the insistence of my PCP, I was in constant pain, much like you described.

If you can get yourself into some sort of stretching/strengthening routine 3x a week, you'll be AMAZED at how much difference it will make.
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