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My Achy-Breaky Back

How Harry Potter turned me into a crippled old man.

 

I'm suing Harry Potter. In today's litigation-mad society, apparently anybody can sue anybody for anything, so I figure I might as well target the richest woman in Britain, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. You don't even really need a lawyer to slap a lawsuit on somebody, it turns out; pretty much anybody who can scrawl his name on a piece of paper can plunge somebody they've never met into litigation.

It's possible, of course, that Britain might be a tad more discriminating in its legal system. Having been perfecting this whole law thing for several more centuries than we Yanks, Britain might not let the village idiot sue Wimpy's, say, for serving him hot coffee. (Named for the Popeye character, the British fast-food chain sells hamburgers, of course, but also a truly guilty pleasure — a bacon sandwich, worth a trip to England all by itself. But I digress. . . .)

In that case, I'll have to sue Arthur Levine, Harry Potter's editor here in the States. I've actually met Arthur and he seems like a nice bloke, as Harry Potter might say, but that's just too bad. Somebody has to pay.

It's my back, you see. In the blink of an eye, I've become a crippled old man. And it's all Harry Potter's fault.

I'd strained my back a bit a few days before, trying to be a he-man muscle man by lifting two containers bulging with recyclable newspapers at a time instead of just one. It was just a twinge, really, and by the next day I hardly noticed.

Then, just after lunch a few days later, I decided I deserved a short reading break and went into the bedroom to fetch the latest Harry Potter book. I bent at the waist to pick the 700-plus-page behemoth from the floor. And that, Ms. Richer Than the Queen of England, is when all hell broke loose in my lower back.

I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand exactly what an encounter with an electric cattle prod feels like, but I believe now I have a pretty good idea. Spasms — the word seems so paltry, so feebly not up to the task of describing the agony I felt — convulsed my back. I flopped on the bed, writhing.

Nothing the evil Voldemort could do to Harry Potter can match what I suffered, I'm positive. Go ahead, You-Know-Who, do your worst! Those Dark Arts spells would be a mere tickle by comparison.

 

Mewling pitifully on the bed, I managed to summon the strength to do what any man would do in this situation: I hollered for my wife. Even though she was outside, somehow she heard me and came running, no doubt thinking I was at death's door. (If only I'd been so lucky!)

She got me straightened out on the bed with an ice pack and a couple of ibuprofen. Soon I was able to hobble around the house as though I had a board up the back of my shirt — one of those boards that Indian mystics lie on, studded with nails. My wife made a mercy run to the store for ointments, wraps and a really nifty massager that Velcros right onto your chair. Thus pampered, I began my arduous recovery.

Ultimately, only the hot tub out back really helped. I've raised the notion in these pages before that I ought to be able to deduct the cost of the hot tub from my taxes because, well, because I wrote about it in these pages. Duh. My accountant — and presumably the IRS — was strangely unmoved by this logic, however. Now that the hot tub clearly represents a medical expense, though, I'm sure it'll be a slam dunk. (A nice bottle of Merlot, post-hot tubbing, also helped relieve the pain, but I don't want to push my luck with the IRS. . . .)

Even as my condition improved from writhing-in-agony to damn-this-hurts (sorry for the lapse into technical medical jargon), however, a thought nagged at me: What if this is just the start of back problems that will torment me the rest of my days? A heedless hefting of too many newspapers, a stretch for a book that any responsible publisher (are you listening, Arthur?) should have known was too heavy for safe reading. . . and bam! My life is changed forever.

Is this the way old age claims you — not with a whimper, but with a bang? One minute you're (relatively) hale and hearty, opening the door at the post office for bent-over oldsters you feel both kindly about and sorry for. The next thing you know — pow! You're the bent-over oldster and some cocky young whippersnapper is holding the door at the post office for you, as though you're too feeble to open a dang door by yourself. Worse, your suddenly enfeebled brain starts coming up with phrases like "cocky young whippersnapper."

 

We're such fragile creatures, really. It's not even just the creeping — or sometimes rushing — onset of old age. At any age, a single misstep or freak occurrence can turn your hitherto healthy body into a broken mass of pain, perhaps never to be quite the same.

Years ago, when we'd first moved to Milwaukee, my wife had just finished tucking our daughter into bed and was hurrying downstairs to catch the last episode of "Twin Peaks." The staircase in our new, still-unfamiliar house had those little pie-shaped steps that go around a curve — but no handrails. She lost her footing and broke her leg quite nastily. Needless to say, our whole experience of living in Milwaukee was colored by the accident (that and the fact that the whole town smelled like brewer's yeast). Her leg has never been 100 percent since, and I still don't know how "Twin Peaks" wrapped up. (To show you the kind of husband I am, I don't bring this up more than once or twice a year, and even then I make clear that I don't blame my wife for missing the finale. Much.)

I was too preoccupied with the ambulance and the hospital and such at the time to think clearly, but now I'm wondering if it's too late to sue David Lynch, the creator of "Twin Peaks." At least maybe he could send me a DVD of the final episode. (Hmmm. The last Harry Potter novel. The last "Twin Peaks." Anybody else see a pattern here? When Jay Leno hangs it up, I'm not budging from my La-Z-Boy.)

The point is, these bags of bones and tissue that we trust to carry us around all day can betray us in a heartbeat. The human back, in particular, was clearly crafted by one of God's subcontractors when He was off painting butterfly wings or something. Disks slip, muscles strain, perfectly ordinary tasks you ask your back to perform turn into the sort of torture Dick Cheney could only dream of trying at Guantanamo.

It's not like I'm asking to throw a 100-mile-an-hour fastball 80 or 90 times in a ballgame and then complaining that, gee, my shoulder hurts or my rotator cuff feels like somebody took a ball-peen hammer to it. (Although I just read that retired pitcher Nolan Ryan, who's 60 years old, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game and was clocked at 85 mph. Life is so not fair.) No, I'm just expecting to be able to bend down and pick up a book — albeit a recklessly heavy, unsafely paginated book — without experiencing a preview of the seventh level of hell.

 

I'm getting better, slowly, and can begin to dream of a day when I won't be dimly conscious of a twinging tightness in the small of my back all the time. But I'll probably always have to be wary of my back: Better let a younger, stronger fella lift that for you. Some cocky young whippersnapper who's never tried to pick up the last Harry Potter book. . . .

My eyes are going, too, and bifocals no longer quite do the trick. Now I understand why my mom always used to have pairs of glasses strewn about the house, and I feel bad about teasing her for it.

Let's not even get started on the graying of my hair. I'm just happy to still have hair.

It's official. I've started down that slippery slope to being the bent-over old guy at the post office the rest of you feel sorry for. I can still open my own dang door, thanks — for now.

At least I'll be financially secure in my old age. Between J.K. Rowling and David Lynch, I figure I'll be set until I'm 90. Then I can always claim a nasty paper cut from opening the box for Microsoft Windows XXXP. Hello, Mr. Gates. . .?

 

David A. Fryxell gets his gray hairs being editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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