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Friday, July 11, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Digging out from stupidity
A painful exercise in shoveling

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My new snow shovel is one of those ergonomic models with a bent handle. The zig-zag of the shaft is designed to relieve the stress load on the shoveler's lower back. Yep, that's what this shovel is meant to do. What it's not meant to do is overcome its user's stubborn abuse of the shovel in such a way as to negate the advantages of its design.

Full disclosure: When I was born a boy, I was endowed with a double dose of the dumb-ass gene that is all but universal to my gender - that strand of code braided into the male DNA that makes us do stupid things from infancy throughout adolescence and adulthood, all the way to the grave. Being twice as dumb-ass as my peers, I've done a powerful lot of stupid things in my life.

But injuring my back while clearing snow with an ergonomic shovel? That has to be some kind of new gold standard.

Mind you, the jury is still out on whether it was the new ergo shovel, my trusty old worn-down plastic shovel or the rudimentary ice-chipper I used to separate early December's glacial cement from the sidewalk and curb cuts. Might have been a combination of all three in some combustible chemical reaction involving stubborn determination and high-octane stupidity. But the ergo shovel is among the leading suspects.

What impresses me about the new shovel is the way it pulls tire-tracked snow off the pavement. The metal blade gets down under the snow and separates it from the asphalt. Heck of a thing. My trusty plastic shovel couldn't do that.

The most notable downside to the new shovel is the noise it makes. It's not as noisy as a snowblower, but noisy enough that it would be rude to start shoveling at an hour that risks waking the neighbors. If this shovel were a comic-book superhero, the sound-effect words in the panels depicting its monumental fight with the nefarious snow would be dominated by hard consonants and screeching dinosaur vowels, rendered in capital letters such as SKRAAAT-T-TCH!

In contrast, any comic-book sound-effect depictions that might accompany my trusty, mild-mannered plastic shovel would involve more subdued lower-case sounds such as swumph or shlooofff, without exclamation points. The sort of muffled sound effects that won't wake the neighbors at 6 a.m.

I'm sentimental about my trusty, mild-mannered plastic shovel. When it was new, its red blade might have measured 23 inches deep by 31 inches wide. After years of scraping, pushing and lifting thousands of tons of snow and ice off the sidewalk and driveway, it remains my shovel of choice, even though the blade has been worn down to maybe 11 inches by 17.

When the pain stabbed me in the back, I thought to myself, "Self, that was stupid." The thought balloon that appeared over my head also contained a plethora of expletives containing hard consonants and screeching dinosaur vowels, along with the recognition that this must be the spinal agony they warn shovelers about - a warning I'd disregarded. When the pain grew worse, moved down my right leg and numbed a nerve that caused the leg to buckle at the slightest bend of the knee, the expletives became audible.

If your children were within earshot, I apologize. Even for someone endowed with a double dose of the dumb-ass gene, that was stupid rude. To make up for my verbal transgressions, I pledge to invest in profanity offsets.

If there's any upside to the more painful consequences of one's boyish stupidity, it might be this: One is forced to confront the reality that millions of people live with more profound and enduring pain than my own, yet whine and moan less - despite the fact that they may not enjoy the good fortune to have access to health insurance or to the world-class health care available in Madison.

If my own pain is not awful enough to dislodge my gratitude for being alive, I'm obliged to respect that reality and the millions who live in it. To not acknowledge this would be stupid.

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