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Gurdon: Mr. Back Pain shows mercy only when he loses interest

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

Some people work for the government, some people work for private business and some people work for themselves. Me? Lately, I've been working for Mr. Back Pain.

It is a full-time job.

Those of us under his supervision are not permitted the slightest freedom of movement or even thought. Our minds are consumed with trying to placate him, to avoid the next stab or wave or shimmer of pain. Every step, every gesture of our bodies is made in the hopes of avoiding Mr. Back Pain's chastisement.

Alas, he makes free with whip and scourge, and he applies them to remote corners of the body not easily accessed by ice packs, hot water bottles, liniments or even the kind of painkillers you swallow.

Oh, he is an impatient taskmaster!

I hadn't worked for the guy for years; the last unhappy period had faded, as memories of pain generally do, and I had all but forgotten what it is to be in such excruciating thrall.

Maddeningly, all it took was a moment's inattention earlier this week -- sitting in a too-soft chair at a slightly odd angle for a little too long -- and ker-thunk: I'd inadvertently punched my timecard and entered Mr. Back Pain's employ again.

Now I can't do anything else. When he says jump, I jump. When he says sit, I sit. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no position that will conciliate him, and these times are disagreeable indeed. When it is not possible to sit or stand or lie down without shooting pain, a person must work hard to retain her sense of humor.

There is some fun, I suppose, in the fact that signing on with Mr. Back Pain often means doing a stint at the Ministry of Silly Walks. In the interest, yet again, of getting the boss to lay off the rack a little, a person in my situation is willing to experiment in otherwise humiliating ways.

A gentle shuffle-off-to-Buffalo, soft-shoe lateral slide is surprisingly comfortable, though doing this means it takes ages to get anywhere. (The doer also receives curious looks, as I discovered.) At home, out of the public eye, I find that using a bobbing, slightly crouching step and a low arm swing helps me to move from room to room. If I'm in a hurry, a more vigorous pumping of the elbows not only accelerates my speed but also adds comic effect.

Enduring sharp, if temporary, pain of this kind has a paradoxical effect. It both draws a person inward and at the same time causes her to see with fresh eyes the suffering of others.

While crossing a supermarket parking lot this week, I became aware of how many of my fellow shoppers were themselves walking as if in private pain. A man pushed a loaded cart with a hoiking, loping gait, as if he had a bad hip. A woman got out of her car and stood up very slowly, vertebra by vertebra, as if fearful of making a sudden movement. I danced past them with my soft-shoe shuffle and was suffused with compassion for the lot of us.

Mr. Back Pain is a cruel overseer, but experience teaches that he tends to lose interest after a while. One day a person in his employ makes a hasty movement and only a beat later realizes with surprise that it didn't hurt. Range of motion increases, caution decreases, and soon there you are, master of your fate again: No more silly walks, no more sitting in peculiar ways, no more standing up to eat your supper.

When you've been working for Mr. Back Pain, unemployment comes as a great relief.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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