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Rogue Vertebrae
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As I struggled painfully and carefully up the nearly vertical escarpment that had only a day before been the stairway to our office, I longed for the days when I had been in better shape, during my forties, when I had run road races. My back never liked running and it hadn't broadened its interests over the years either. Now my back didn't like climbing what used to be stairs, or getting up from a chair. But I managed to move around, some, once I figured out how, step by step.

I have no idea why my back went out again, just as I have no idea what triggered the recurring problem years ago. However in this exciting episode a new twist had been added to the saga. Well, not exactly a twist, more a massive muscle spasm rather than the sharp pain that normally accompanies unacceptable movement.

The surprise was sprung on me when I got into bed, or to be precise, got halfway into bed and then was stopped cold when my entire lower back clenched my spine like a famished crocodile biting down.

I yelled. I screamed. I ululated.

"Quiet," Mary said. "The neighbors will think we're having a good time."

Are you familiar with Rogue Moon, the great science fiction novel by Algis Budrys? In it astronauts explore a mysterious alien artifact discovered on the far side of the moon. They have no idea what the thing is. An advanced machine? A discarded multi-dimensional soup tin? All that is known is that explorers who enter the artifact die horribly the moment they make a wrong move. And the wrong moves, and right moves, don't seem to have any rational relationship to the weird, shifting surroundings. So a route of survivable moves has to be painstakingly mapped.

Which is almost exactly what I find myself doing when my back goes.

For example. It is time for coffee.

I don my psychological armor, which feels akin to Speedo swimming trunks, and enter the maze.

Facing the monitor, I slowly place my left hand on the back of the chair and my right on the desk in front of me. I can sense some unidentifiable alien sensation in my lumbar region. Putting some of my weight on my hands I begin to pivot my torso slowly...and the end of my spine disintegrates in a blinding explosion of agony.

Try again. Facing the monitor, I put my right hand on the desk in front of me, as before, but this time I lower my left hand to grasp the side of my chair. Placing some of my weight on my hands, and pulling slightly with my left hand, I begin to pivot my torso slowly until my legs are at a 45 degree angle to the desk. I am aware of an odd rippling in the muscle just north of my hip bone. I push myself......and my lower back implodes into a point singularity of agony.

I position my hands exactly as before but pivot my legs further until they are parallel with the desk. I lever myself upwards with infinite care. Finally I am on my feet.

From this position I am looking directly at the corner of the room and need only to turn my head slightly to face the stairs. I can feel small spasms bubbling and twinkling around the base of my spine. I relocate my left hand to the back of the chair and bracing myself with that hand I begin to lift my right foot....and the gravity of Jupiter's surface crushes my lower body into a shrieking jelly of hurt.

Heroes do not give up. Especially heroes in need of coffee. Yet again I repeat my maneuvers, navigate the indecipherable sensory landscape of my lower back, until I am on my feet and can see the stairs.

Heart pounding I take a step with my left foot rather than my right. There is a phantom tickle of pain, nothing more. I wait, catching my breath. Now my right foot moves forward. I remain standing. Nothing seems to have changed. To advance further I will need to leave the safety of the chair, however. I release my grip on the chair back. I flex my fingers, raise my hand....and an invisible giant reaches out of nowhere, bends me in half and yanks me inside-out into a universe where torment is extended into thirteen dimensions.

I've often said I'm dying for a cup of coffee. But twenty-five times? I must die at least four times on the way to the stairs and another nine creeping down them, twisted up like a crippled, hunchback, contortionist. Then I have to reverse my course.

At last setting my coffee cup on my desk I begin the intricate shuffle and shifting of hand grips necessary to sit. Six inches from the cushion, with relief I let myself drop.

A huge mistake!

I yelp. I yodel. I caterwaul.

But I have my coffee. And finally I have achieved my great childhood ambition -- to do the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell.

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