31. Bad Backs
I remember once hearing someone comment that they had a “bad back” and smugly thinking to myself, “glad I don’t have a bad back.” Then I had to pause. I don’t have a bad back. I have a perfectly strong and able back. But I can think of five distinct types of back pain I’ve endured and their separate specific causes. I have a human back, which means it’s imperfect and subject to damage when mistreated.
In the same way you can’t afford to melt down your kiln, or stand on the flywheel of your kickwheel, or slide your van across an icy bridge into a concrete median, you can’t afford to damage your back. It’s a tool, impossible to replace and difficult to repair.
At the 1989 Kansas City NCECA conference David Shaner interrupted his throwing demonstration and completely switched his discussion to the issue of back pain. He had recently been forced to undergo back surgery and showed us strengthening exercises and brought up improved methods of working. His audience was by no means silent on the subject either. Tips, suggestions, and anecdotes fairly flew around the room. It certainly seemed more significant than merely watching a few bowls being thrown would have been.
For the younger members of the audience it may have looked like a lot of geriatric foolishness, but that’s youth for you, resilient, confident, immortal. For the rest of us, I’ll share my list of five back pains and some suggestions for avoiding them.
1) Bent over a wheel too long. Avoid long ‘throwing only’ or ‘trimming only’ work sessions. Stretch periodically and get up to do other chores. If possible, learn to throw standing up with your wheel elevated to an appropriate height.
2) Too much coolie labor. This is simple overuse of the back as a lifting mechanism. Make more trips carrying lighter loads. Break up the work into multiple sessions if possible. Get help. Raw lifting and carrying is inherently unskilled labor and doesn’t need to be done by a highly trained potter. Use your legs. Learn the best physical techniques for lifting. Be smart.
3) Lifting and twisting simultaneously. This is particularly likely in getting heavy items out of a car’s backseat or trunk. Removing the benches from a van presents a risk for this, too. Try to avoid these situations. If you can’t, stretch first and move carefully. Don’t get distracted.
4) General anxiety. Just worrying can set up a particular and recognizable backache. Stretch out. Reevaluate your problems. Do something enjoyable. Relax. Find reasons for laughter.
5) Worrying about money. This is very much like the general anxiety backache but sharper and in its own distinctive location. Be careful with money. Cultivate income while resisting out-go. Some would recommend using a budget, but that implies that you can predict a certain regular income and if you’re self-employed as a potter you can’t predict any such thing. Instead carefully prioritize the use of the money that does come in. Try to relax. Learn to enjoy paying your bills.
I’m sure that there are many additional variations on the sore back, but you get the idea. Take measures to protect yourself. Roberta Lampert, an Iowa alum (and nothing like a lumberjack), specifically invested in an expensive de-airing pug mill to save her back from the strains of wedging. She figures it will add ten years to her career. [The late] Richard Peeler threw six thousand pots a year and figured that sit-down potters waste a lot of time and energy getting up and down from their wheels. He averaged 26 pots a day at a stand-up wheel and never just threw all of them at the same time. Varying his work chores kept him flexible, strong, and productive. Jun Kaneko uses electric cranes and hoists to minimize the weight he personally lifts in building even his most massive sculptures. Money and intelligence can be substituted for physical strength.
Perhaps you do just have a bad back. Maybe it “went bad” in your youth, long before clay could be labeled the culprit. You may just have to limit your efforts, or seek surgery, or acupuncture, or chiropractors, or yoga, or any of the countless other strategies in the world of pain management. You have my sympathies. The solutions will be up to you.
If, as yet, your back is still ‘good,’ congratulations! I’ve given you some advice for keeping it that way. I hope it helps. Take good care of your tools. Some of them can not be replaced. Use good techniques, good work habits, labor-saving equipment, and assistants (if necessary) to protect yours now while you still have your best chance of succeeding.
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