I always thought physical therapy would feel good for my bad back, but I'm starting to wonder. I'm lying on my stomach on an exam table, staring at the dust on the table legs through the opening designed to accommodate my face, when I realize this isn't going to be comfortable.
Carl, my physical therapist, is tugging on my ankle, pulling my hip off the table and stretching my leg from west to east. He says he's realigning my hip. It feels as though I should tell him something important — the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, perhaps — or else I can expect a similar fate for my other leg.
I breathe deeply, the breath of a woman who has endured childbirth and kidney stones and late-night conversations with crying teenage girls.
Hee hee, hoo hoo, hee hee, hoo hoo, then a cleansing breath to wash away the strain. As if on cue, Carl picks up my other leg and pulls from east to west.
Just how this contortionist exercise is supposed to cure my bad back, I don't know, but at least the pain in my quads is taking my mind off the ache in my lateral muscles.
Carl changes gear and starts massaging. Fortunately, he can't see the surprised look on my face as he rubs the spot where the nerve in my back sends pain messages. There's nothing else to do with a person who's working the knots out of your glutei maximi but make small talk, so I strike up a conversation.
"How are your kids, Carl?"
"My kids?" Carl asks. "My kids?" he says again. I'm thinking there's a Rodney Dangerfield punch line coming ("My kids are so mean they tape worms to the sidewalk just to watch birds get hernias"), but instead Carl says, "Don't get me going about my kids."
Carl has seven children, a large, blended family over which he seems to exercise passionate leadership. On a previous visit, he told me about a "chat" he had with a male friend of his teenaged daughter whose behavior he found inappropriate.
Apparently, the chat included a discussion of the many ways in which a physical therapist can realign a person's body. The young man hasn't been around since he and Carl "made nice" on the driveway.
Today, the topic on Carl's mind is his son, a high school junior who this weekend was discovered sneaking out of the house after hours. "You won't believe what this boy says to me." Carl's voice is getting louder and his fingers are digging deeper into my sore muscles.
"Um, what?" I'm a little tentative, given that I already was in pain when I got here.
"He says, 'Dad, at least 60 percent of all high school kids sneak out at night. That's just the way it is.' Can you believe that?"
Actually, I can believe it. Not the statistic — the fact that his son tried to argue his way out of trouble by pointing to a supposed immoral majority.
Carl recounts his entire lecture to his son, a diatribe that included time-honored parenting phrases such as "Actually, that's not the way it is," and "You're not 60 percent of all high school kids" and "If 60 percent of people jumped off a bridge…"
He ends with a few phrases that no longer are used as much as they ought to be: "Welcome to the other 40 percent" and "I'm not here to be your buddy; I'm here to be your father."
Carl tells me about the consequences he devised for his son, all of which require a whole lot more work on Carl's part. He even has set his home alarm system to let him know if someone is leaving the house as well as breaking into it.
"It's too bad I have to resort to that," Carl says, "but that's the way it's got to be. There's no way I'm putting up with a kid who takes off in the middle of the night to do God-knows-what."
Carl rhythmically presses on my back, forcing air out of my lungs in short pulses. "I'm imPRESSED, Carl. There aren't many PARents like you these days. Takes a lot of GUTS."
He doesn't think so. "It's not guts," he tells me. "This is the job. This is what it means to be a parent. It's not easy or pleasant, but that's what it takes to raise a kid."
Carl knows his hands-on parenting will work. His older sons challenged his authority when they were teens, and Carl understands it's part of growing up. "But just because a kid will question your authority doesn't mean you can just throw up our hands and give up," he says.
By now my physical therapy session is nearly done. After all his tugging and pressing, Carl has somehow enabled me to move more freely and without the stiffness I had when I came in.
"Feeling better?" he asks, returning to the pleasant, professional voice he had when our session began.
"Oddly, yes." Suddenly I'm aware my back isn't aching as usual. Funny what a little manipulation will do to turn things around.
Then again, Carl knows it sometimes is painful to make a body straighten up. Just because it hurts doesn't mean it's not good for you.