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Traveling with a Bad Back

One Minute Mystery: Returning from a business trip, on layover in some American airport, you notice a young woman in cowboy boots attempting to hide behind a bank of pay phones. Then she shuts her eyes and squats deeply in the position used by Hindu gods with multiple pairs of arms. Positive you are about to witness something illegal, illicit, or just plain outrageous, you stare—but that's it: she just squats there. No additional arms appear.

On the plane, it turns out she is your seatmate. You never get up the nerve to ask what she was doing earlier—praying? receiving a radio transmission? rearranging illegal substances secreted on her person?—though you do observe, for the record, that she is wearing a thumb ring. Should you later be contacted by the authorities regarding this woman, you are prepared. Although it's only a 70-minute flight, the woman makes four trips to the back of the plane, each time toting two of those Chiclet-size airline pillows and what appears to be an orange golf ball. She has the aisle seat, so technically she isn't disturbing you, but still, it's hard not to wonder. What could explain the woman's odd behavior?

The answer (which would be printed upside down if this were a real One Minute Mystery) won't surprise anyone who suffers from chronic back problems. The woman was me, the squat is a hatha yoga posture, and the golf ball was recommended by a shiatsu practitioner—I lie on it, and it breaks up muscle spasms. (How do the thumb ring and cowboy boots fit in? They don't; they're just what I wear.)

According to a pamphlet my physical therapist gave me, even prehistoric cave drawings show evidence of back injuries. This fact is illustrated by a cartoon of a caveman with stars and lightning bolts emanating from his lower back, telling his caveman friend about it in caveman language: "Bu urac sa kpacus tei!!" Of course we don't know exactly what he's saying—"All I did was sneeze!" or "Apparently I have offended the gods yet again!" or "I must see Dr. Kpacus!"—but the point seems to be that there is no cure for back pain, so we have to learn to live with it. (Incidentally, doctors should never give such pamphlets to their writer patients. I have spent more happy hours translating that caveman sentence than I'll ever spend on the pamphlet's recommended exercises.) There are endless, often contradictory, ways of addressing back pain—dry heat, wet heat, firm beds, waterbeds, exercise, rest—but the important thing to remember is that we must adapt our ornery backs to our busy lives rather than the other way around.

Anyone who has a bad back but refuses to give up traveling for business or pleasure will be at least passingly familiar with the type of behavioral oddities described above, and will likely be able to add a few pointers. Every back-pain sufferer has his own travel bag of tricks by which he swears. This is why otherwise dignified adults can be seen squatting and arm-swinging and lying prone in crowded airports everywhere, or on the shoulders of highways, oblivious to the shocked stares of strangers. It is why people assume worshipful postures before apparently blank walls in the ornate lobbies of famous museums and theaters, or turn their backs on, literally lean on, the great natural and man-made structures of the world. At the ancient Mayan ruins, one contemplates not how the temples were constructed or what they signified, but whether there's any place to lie down on them. Travelers with bad backs are something like a secret society—once initiated, you recognize fellow members by the inexplicable-to-outsiders rituals they perform.

A 60-year-old colleague of mine likes to hang from door frames (by his hands, not the once-popular gravity boots) and tries to stay only in hotel rooms whose door frames have "that little ledge" for easy gripping. He will actually phone hotels in advance to ask the desk staff if the rooms have that little ledge. If they say they don't know, he will request politely that they go look. I know a hairstylist who frequently visits professional hair shows and will not travel without a bag of frozen peas—a malleable, disposable ice pack—for her shoulder. She transports them in a miniature picnic cooler, which I imagine makes the peas feel very important: born mere peas, now as heroic as any donor organ.

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