A Simple Misunderstanding

It was literally a miscommunication. We didn't even know that they'd arrived, let alone that they had come on a humanitarian mission to help us. How could we possibly understand that?

For a hundred years we'd been broadcasting still born beings into the cosmos. For a hundred years we'd been trying to say hello, while they had been trying to understand what was killing us. Trying to understand why these lifeless husks kept arriving on their doorstep? They understood that we were trying to initiate contact. What they couldn't understand was that our messages weren't us. That we were back on a planet trapped inside the arrogance of our carbon based bodies.

Inspired by a frenzied rereading of Enders Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Ender's Shadow. A reverse twist on the Buggers killing us off without thought because to them individuals weren't important.

See also: They're Made Out of Meat?

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

During the last couple of years of my marriage I understood that the only chance I had to save my marriage was to learn to use language more effectively. I began experimenting, initially subconsciously, with how I could express myself in ways which weren't destructive to the fragile remnants of our relationship. It was an ultimately doomed process but one that taught me a lot about the power of language. I learned a lot about why things went wrong, but never quite made sense of why things sometimes “went right”.

A couple of years later I was introduced to Marshall Rosenberg's “Nonviolent Communication”. As I watched the workshop videos and later read this book, I felt as if I had been slapped by the inevitable. Here, laid out simply and clearly was exactly what I had been trying to teach myself. I'd been on the right path but had only taken baby steps towards my desired goal. To see the ideas I'd been fumbling with expressed so clearly was shocking. To see them demonstrated so effectively in a workshop setting, and having exactly the effect I'd hoped for, was extraordinary.

There was another piece of learning for me in this, Marshall's concept of empathy. In the time following my separation I talked fairly openly about my experience, however I was always extremely frustrated by the interactions. Most people were sympathetic, some wanted to assure me I'd done everything I could and a few wanted to tell me what I'd done wrong. Yet all of these conversations left me oddly untouched. I was talking about something extremely important to me, and for some reason the responses I was getting felt empty and meaningless.

It was incredibly frustrating. I knew I had to talk about it, I knew I was hurt from the experience and I suspected that talking (and time) were the only things which were going to help. Yet none of the talking seemed to mean anything. The most meaningful thing I learned was simply that I was not alone. Lots of friends had a divorce in their past. Even more had struggled with the drinking habits of a partner or relative. But this understanding didn't help resolve anything in me.

Empathy in the context of Nonviolent Communication is the idea that simply being aware and present with another person can be healing. As I was listening to Marshall talk about and demonstrate empathy, suddenly I knew what it was that I'd been looking for in all those interactions. I didn't need anybody to tell me that I'd done the right thing, or the wrong thing. I didn't need anybody to tell me that it was going to get better in time. I just needed somebody who could listen and understand. Somebody to share the experience of what I was going through. As I began to understand this need in myself, I also started to understand that when people came to me I offered advice, sympathy and criticism. How rarely I provided this sort of empathy for others shocked me.

Reading this book, and watching his workshop videos, was a profound experience for me. I can't recommend this book enough to anybody who is struggling with a relationship and wants to learn to use their language more effectively.

Literary Caricatures

It started with a recommendation from my Dad to read “The Snow Leopard” around mid-2009. From there I found a neglected copy of “The Great Gatsby” loitering on my bookshelves and then discovered “Diary of a Drug Fiend” in a secondhand bookstore. Continuing in this vein, and fuelled by childhood memories of Bill Murray, I tracked down “The Razor's Edge”.

Reading these books from nearly a hundred years ago, it startled me how little many things had changed. That despite the sea of change in which we are currently immersed, “people … are still people”. This dovetails nicely with one my primary experiences in Asia over the last year, that despite significant language and cultural differences, people are still people. It's a great lesson that neither time or space is powerful enough to change us, in essence we are all the same.

Digressions aside, one of the things I love about these classic novels is the almost breathless way in which characters are often introduced. Here's an example from F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby”:

His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God… and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

and from W. Somerset Maugham's “The Razor's Edge”:

He was a colossal snob. He was a snob without shame. He would put up with any affront, he would ignore any rebuff, he would swallow any rudeness to get asked to a party he wanted to go to or to make a connection with some crusty old dowager of great name. If I have given the reader an impression that Elliot Templeton was a despicable character I have done him injustice. He was for one thing what the French call serviable…helpful, obliging, and kind. He was generous, and though early in his career he had doubtless showered flowers, candy, and presents on his acquaintances from an ulterior motive, he continued to do so when it was no longer necessary.

This gave me an idea for a writing exercise. Using my friends as inspiration I will try and craft my own versions of these introductions. I don't have the courage to name them, hopefully nobody recognises themselves, and if they do, hopefully they won't be offended by my caricature!

Stay tuned …

Managing Wrist Pain

I've had several friends who were forced to stop working in front of a computer. They ignored all the warning signs, until eventually the pain in their body became unbearable. I've been actively managing my own pain since 1997 because I really didn't want to repeat their mistakes. Most of the times I went to a doctor for help, the only advice I got was “spend less time in front of a computer”. I wasn't impressed.

I use the phrase “wrist pain”, even though hunching over a computer for years can cause pain nearly anywhere in your body. I do this because as far as I'm aware, all of the the other terms (RSI, OOS, carpal tunnel, etc) seem to be known only by certain people in certain countries. Despite being a misnomer, when you say “wrist pain” people understand what you are talking about.

The bottom line is that the only thing which is guaranteed to make your wrists hurt less is spending more time moving your body, and less time hunched over a computer. Anything which gets you away from your computer, and moving your body in a wide range of motion, will be a dramatic help. Movement acts as both a preventative and a source of healing. In addition to this, there are many other things which may help prevent pain and encourage healing.

This article is based on one I wrote in 2003 but updated with recent experiences. There is no guarantee that what worked for me will work the same way for you, but hopefully it will provide you with some good starting points for experimentation. Happy experimenting!

Please use your common sense, I am not a doctor.

Experiments

Exercise

I cannot overstate how big a difference regular exercise makes. The more active my lifestyle the better my body handles the abuse. I've found that Aikido and yoga make an especially huge difference. When I was at my worst, working really long days, I found that if I did Aikido three times a week, my body could take nearly any amount of work without complaining. When I had a lot of pain and a ganglion cyst in my wrist, six months of physical therapy and ultrasound only made it worse. Three months of yoga and the cyst was completely gone, and with it with most of my pain.

Just don't let it get really bad before you start or the first classes can be pretty unpleasant!

Take Regular Breaks

This is the only thing I've tried which made a huge and measurable difference almost immediately. I was never disciplined enough to force myself to take regular breaks, so it wasn't until I found micropause software, which could periodically lock me out of my computer, that this became an effective option for me. I messed around with the timing of pauses for a long time. When I had a lot of pain locking me out of my computer for one minute every 15 minutes worked very well. When I was healthier I used five seconds every five minutes and one minute ever hour. It's important that when the timer goes off, and you are locked out, that you sit up and stretch. Move your body, even if you don't get out of your chair. Shake your arms, twist your neck and look out the window. If you sit slouched in the same position, waiting for you computer to unlock, you aren't doing yourself any good.

Be prepared though, it's unbelievably annoying to have your work day broken up like this. For me though it was the difference between being able to work and not able to work. Also, make sure that you put it on all your computers. For a long time I resisted installing it on my laptop, which was a mistake.

Regular Massage

Weta Digital had a superb in house masseur. When we were working stupid hour weeks for months at a time, getting a weekly massage was the only reason I could continue to work. It is some of the the best money I've ever spent. Even if you're not lucky enough to have a masseur that comes to your workplace, find somebody and get to know them! Masseurs are a good safety check. A good one will let you know when your body is getting really tired, it is especially easy to miss the warning signs when you're stressed.

Ergonomic Keyboards

I never liked the cheap ergonomic keyboards, however Pixelworks purchased a Kinesis Contoured keyboard for me. The first week was massively frustrating as I relearned to touch type, but after that my typing speed improved quickly. I believe that it's made a small but consistent improvement, especially when managing my pain was a daily struggle, it really helped.

I got this keyboard in 2002 and I'm still using that same keyboard in 2011, they are build to last!

General Ergonomics

There's lots of ergonomic guidelines online (my Kinesis keyboard came with some excellent instructions). Following these guidelines helped me with general neck, back and shoulder pain. After working at a place that provides Aeron chairs I have admit that despite all the `.com` mockery, they are *amazing* chairs. If you can afford one, or can convince your work to buy one, I highly recommend them!

Posture

I've found that over the years of working in front of a keyboard my posture has become awful. I slouch in front of the computer, I slouch on the couch, I slouch when I eat. On the days which I pay attention to my posture at work, I feel a lot better at the end of the day. One thing that makes it easier to avoid hunching is to increase your font size so you can read comfortably from a distance. Getting a large monitor can also help dramatically, but only if you use it to make things bigger rather then jam more into once screen.

Standing Desks

Several people at Weta have standing desks and swear by them. I tried it for a few months and it didn't work very well for me. I found I was more inclined to end up slouched on my elbows then when I sit in a chair. I also got a tall chair so I could sit when required, but I ended up using it most of the time and it was a much worse chair than the Aeron.

Back at Earthlight I had a standing desk which was also the counter I did hardware repairs on. Being able to move seamlessly between responding to email and standing at the desk while pulling computers apart was wonderful. If I'm ever in a job like that again I think I'd go back to a standing desk and try and avoid a chair all together.

You can also buy "sit-stand" desks which are motorized and periodically move from a sitting height to a standing height. If ever my pain got really bad again I might try one of these. The forced movement and varied work position can only be a good thing.

Update Sep 2011: A new Cornell study shows that standing and sit-stand desks are ineffective:

Sit to do computer work. Sit using a height-adjustable, downward titling keyboard tray for the best work posture, then every 20 minutes stand for 2 minutes AND MOVE. The absolute time isn’t critical but about every 20-30 minutes take a posture break and move for a couple of minutes. Simply standing is insufficient. Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles. Research shows that you don’t need to do vigorous exercise (e.g. jumping jacks) to get the benefits, just walking around is sufficient. So build in a pattern of creating greater movement variety in the workplace (e.g. walk to a printer, water fountain, stand for a meeting, take the stairs, walk around the floor, park a bit further away from the building each day).

Swiss Ball Chairs

Lots of people (including physiotherapists) think that using a Swiss Ball as your chair is a great technique because it makes it hard to slouch and you are constantly exercising your core muscles. Maybe I have super slouch abilities but I found that I still managed to slouch on a Swiss Ball. I did like the constant movement though and would do this again. The only downside for me was that I got a really sore bum for the first few weeks.

Dr. John Sarno

I have several acquaintances who suffered horribly from wrist pain and found their salvation in Dr. Sarno's “mind body medicine”. I discredited it for ages because I found the notion that my mind was inflicting the pain on my body due to unhappiness somewhat insulting. However after having the idea in my head for several years, I had to admit that it made a certain amount of sense. More importantly, I can actually track how bad my wrists are with how much I'm enjoying my job.

Alternate Keyboard Layouts

Dvorak, Colemak and Maltron layout of keyboards are supposed to help but I've never tried. I've never tried any of these because the idea of relearning to touch type isn't very appealing. Several friends have moved to Dvorak keyboards though and swear by it. These days I think I'd give the Colemak keyboard a try first but that's based more on impressions then actual research.

Trackballs

I never suffered from mouse arm so this has never been a priority for me. Also from some of my reading trackballs are actually worse because they encourage movement even less then a mouse. However if mouse arm is your thing, it's worth a try.

Advice

The one great piece of advice I got from a doctor was when I asked “when do I need to get seriously worried about the pain in my wrists”? Her answer was “if the pain starts waking you up at night, then you need to do something drastic immediately”. I've repeated this advice more times than I can count. While I have no idea how technically correct this is, it's been a very useful metric for me to gauge the seriousness of peoples pain. It also seems to make sense to people and has provided a stick for me to encourage employees to take their health seriously.

Sadly, other than that one wonderful piece of advice, all the rest of the doctors I've been to see have not be very helpful. If you are struggling with any form of pain which you think comes from sitting in front of a computer, my recommendation is that you need to take your health into your own hands. Research on the internet, talk to friends and associates about their experiences and experiment.

Remember the story about boiling a frog? We'll we're the same. Our brains are good at noticing sudden change, but not so good at noticing gradual change. Because this type of pain builds up gradually it's easy for it to get quite bad without realising it. The lesson is awareness and patience. Try and cultivate a routine where you check in with yourself once a day about how you are feeling, where do you hurt, how bad is it. Awareness is hardest, and especially important, when we are stressed so be careful.

Patience is important because we heal slowly. When you are experimenting, change one thing at a time and give it a few weeks to see if it makes a difference. It can be helpful to keep a journal as our memories can play tricks on us.

Coffee, tea, soda and juice are not water, and our bodies need water to heal. You don't need to go crazy, but try to drink water during the day. I find having a bottle of water on my desk makes it easy to sip when I'm thirsty without breaking my concentration.

Stress makes everything worse, one of the best tools we have against stress is meditation. I've found meditation to be an immensely rewarding practice. Find a teacher or a local sitting group and give it a try.

Anecdotes

After many years of managing pain I ended up with my left wrist so bad that it wouldn't hold my weight and I'd get shooting pains up my arm from any sort of vibration. Months of going to doctors and hospitals, having X-rays, MRIs, ultrasound and physio only made it worse. The eventual diagnosis was a mixture of a ganglion cyst and tendonitis, and they all said there was nothing which could be done. I got on with my life but several years later I tried a yoga class. To my amazement, after three months of regular yoga, the cyst was completely gone along with the majority of the pain. I also found that, just like Aikido, regular yoga practice kept the pain away!

When I first started working at Weta I was very apprehensive about the base 50 hour work week. I was having enough problems managing my wrists with a normal 40 hour work week. Surprisingly I managed the 50+ hour weeks with very little problem and after a few months realised that I hadn't even bothered to setup my micropause software. Eventually it caught up with me but I managed lots more work with roughly equivalent symptoms. I've never been sure exactly what to credit with the difference, but my best guesses are desks with adjustable legs, the Aeron chairs and having a job I enjoyed.

As a side note, if you are in New Zealand there is a local company called Formway which makes similarly adjustable chairs, for much less money. I don't personally like them quite as much as the Aeron, but if it was my money on the line I'd buy one as they are better value for your dollar.

Lost

I wake. Suddenly. I'm not sure how I know but something is wrong. I'm staying at the Ananda Resort, a grisly backpackers which leaves me constantly checking my pockets every time I meet a new inmate. The flicker from the fluorescents outside cast erie shadows on my curtains. This is the fifth night in a row I've woken suddenly. Each night I've stayed up, waiting for something to substantiate my sense of looming disaster. Each night it has failed to arrive.

Two years ago I left my wife, sold our house and tried to carry on with my life. It took a bit over a year before I realised that the married course I'd charted no longer had to be a map of my future. I quit my job, sold what few possessions I had remaining, and bought a one way ticket to Bali. Three months later I find myself in an intensive yoga course in the Gulf of Thailand. I'm not quite sure how I ended up here but when you buy a one way ticket to Asia, the point isn't to end up where you expected.

It's morning and as I stretch I realise that the last thing I remember is a pair of eyes staring down at me from above the bed. As my body responds with panic, I realise that there is actually no fear associated with the memory. In fact if anything there is a sense of warm comfort, almost peace.

Shaking myself awake, I stumble into the bathroom. With the cold water pouring down my back I'm struggling to make sense of what is going on. What have I imagined? It certainly doesn't feel like a dream, the green eyes still float vividly in front of me when I recall the memory.

The school I'm attending warned us all about purification effects, that strange things can happen as you begin eating, living and thinking in new ways. This is not what I expected.

A Love Letter to Thailand

Your head is nestled into my shoulder
or perhaps my head rests on your breast
I can feel your softness and warmth
as our fingers idly play and tease.

Our legs casually stretch towards the sunset
as the waves slap softly at the seawall
Occasionally a tourist walks beneath us
smiling quietly as they notice our dangling legs.

We speak little, and move less
engulfed by the heat of the early evening
Dragonflies and swallows fly lazy circles about us
hunting mosquitos and singing to the dying sun.

Soon it will be dark, the mosquitos fled
even the faint shrieks of the bats will be gone
We will peel our bodies apart, shake off our torpor
and leave to find food, to talk and laugh among friends.

Tomorrow brings another day
but for now, we want for nothing.


2014 by adam shand. sharing is an act of love, please share.