Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Tennis Elbow

Several years ago I started experiencing muscle pain in both shoulders. It was mystifying – I hadn’t been exposed to physical labor in ages, and I hadn’t set foot in a gym since Eleanor was born. I finally told my Seattle doctor, who immediately identified my neck as the real culprit. Apparently, shoulder pain is inevitable if you spent hours very day hunched over a keyboard staring at a screen. Millions of years of evolution optimizing lean mean hunter-gatherers did not prepare human spines for this contingency.

My doctor referred me to physical therapy. I dutifully did neck and shoulder exercises for several months, sharing teeny tiny weights with the other old ladies at the Polyclinic. More importantly, I upgraded my work station. Every time I changed offices afterwards, I would consult with the Human Resources ergonomics guy to make sure I was minimizing neck and back strain.

Now I write in a home office. I’m the Human Resources ergonomics guy. After the fog of writer’s block lifted this spring, I began typing for hours every day. So when the shoulder pain came back, I consulted with myself.

We started with the chair. Did you know desk chairs are tested to determine the maximum time you’re supposed to spend sitting in them? Obviously I didn’t. My old one was rated for “<30 minutes.” I’m now sitting in a cheap mesh Aeron-ish knockoff that’s rated for “8+ hours.” Take that, hypergraphia.

Our glorious iMac screen makes you feel like you’re word-processing from the front row at Cinerama. To reduce neck movement, for my next trick I bought a cheap pair of over-the-counter 1.75 strength reading glasses the size of aviator goggles – big enough to fit the whole wide computer screen into my field of vision. These new reading glasses are so hideous my daughters made me promise I would never let anyone see me wearing them. Or post any selfies.

Ergonomics is like riding a bicycle. With these few simple adjustments, my neck and shoulders have been feeling much better. Unfortunately, last month I also experienced pain around my left elbow for the first time. I couldn’t lift a saucer.

Ever since Eleanor was diagnosed as a Drama Queen at birth, I have been seeking a suitable antonym for “hypochondriac.” For contrast. Currently I favor “la belle indifference.” Mosby’s Medical Dictionary defines this term as:
“an air of unconcern displayed by some patients toward their physical symptoms. It is believed the physical symptoms may relieve anxiety and result in secondary gains in the form of sympathy and attention by others.”
Sounds perfect for a codependent person. You know the drill:  “Don’t worry about me, I’m sure it’s nothing / Go on ahead without me, I’ll be fine / It’s only a flesh wound / I wouldn’t want to be a bother….”

Nevertheless, my elbow hurt so much I finally broke down and saw my Bellingham doctor. He sent me back to physical therapy. I have a misleadingly-named case of “tennis elbow.”

I am wearing a black arm band. Not in mourning for the snows of yesteryear, nor in protest against injustice. It’s supposed to help my sore elbow. Yes, I realize the arm band is several inches away from my elbow. When I saw the diagram on the box at Walgreen’s, I assumed it was like acupuncture or voodoo – I’m supposed to trust my doctor and physical therapist on faith when they tell me to wear a tourniquet on my forearm in order to fix my elbow, shoulder, and neck.

Your arm is like a complicated pulley system. Throwing things off in my neck and shoulder unbalanced the tendons further down my arm. The Walgreen’s arm band is like a violinist’s finger, holding down one string so the instrument will play a slightly different note. It’s also like my son strengthening his lazy eye by wearing an eye patch on the stronger eye, which forces the weaker muscles to work harder. Meanwhile I’ve borrowed one of my mom’s teeny tiny weights to do wrist and arm exercises. I need to toughen up my left arm for the grueling work of typing these words right now.

But my elbow still hurts, especially if I type too much. In my blog post last week about the Mother’s Day letter my son sent to his birth mother, I reported I was writing in pencil because my daughters had commandeered both computers for school writing projects. I indeed drafted half of that essay in longhand, later transcribing the text into Microsoft Word. That’s my routine whenever the Muse tackles me away from my computer.

Last Wednesday I wrote all day. When I woke up Thursday morning, my elbow was so sore I couldn’t type. Rather than wear out the other arm writing in pencil, I gave my body a break. Instead, I tried dictating into my phone for a couple of days with my spiffy voice recognition and transcription app. My plan was to send the files to the computer by Bluetooth, then cut and paste them together using only my right hand. I was hoping for something in between Auntie Mame dictating her memoir to Agnes Gooch, and writing a novel on post-it notes.

It started out fine: “I am writing this on my voice recognition app because I can't type anymore today.” As Siri and Alexa are quick to point out, voice recognition technology software has come a long way since I was a linguistics grad student at BYU. (Back then it was like the dream of flying cars, always just out of reach.) But artificial-intelligence technology still has a long way to go.  For example:
"Hi Sue going to Ventura men's chorus rehearsal yesterday evening because I wanted to make enough profit to finish the get close to finishing the brief her that's a big sacrifice because chorus is one of the most rewarding and energising the things I do each wait but I knew that the extra driving and time would weigh me down and I actually enjoyed a relaxing evening at home writing because the experience of flow as I write this so rewarding energising whatever"  
That transcribed post-it note should have begun “I skipped going to Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearsal yesterday because I wanted to make enough progress to finish…” My day-long experiment was an exercise in autocorrect gone wild. My favorite:
“I Norris Lee peed to attend the training in person.”
I actually told my phone “I RSVP-ed to attend the training in person.” As a touch-typist since high school, my one-handed attempt to edit the transcriptions was even more maddening.

The entire experience reminded me of our sign language interpreter at Windy City Gay Chorus twenty years ago. Steve was the first person I met who regularly used speech recognition software. The pain in his wrists from carpal tunnel syndrome was becoming unbearable. So he was signing and typing as little as possible, and looking for a whole new career.

Even with physical therapy, improved ergonomics, and the voodoo armband, mornings are especially hard. I worry my story will end with an O. Henry-esque twist:  finally overcoming writer’s block and writing about disability issues, only to lose the use of my hands.

Last month I web-attended a Continuing Legal Education program called “Beyond the Dialogue: Disability and Ableism in the Legal Profession.” I originally RSVP-ed to attend the training in person in Seattle, followed by the wine and cheese reception celebrating the importance of diversity and the contributions made by disabled lawyers. Unfortunately, this was the week that an “atmospheric river” across the Pacific Ocean dumped twenty inches of rain on us, and I couldn’t face a round-trip drive through wet Seattle traffic.

Even staring at a screen (look, Ma, no hands!), I enjoyed each of the presentations. The keynote speaker, who has a degenerative muscular condition, sat in a Steven Hawking-esque motorized wheel chair. Despite impressive academic credentials, he had given up on a traditional legal career and instead started a disability advocacy organization. One of the panelists, a former police officer, went to law school after he lost his sight in a boating accident. He doesn’t have a legal job yet. The other three panelists described their respective invisible disabilities, and the challenges they face dealing with clients, employers, and judges. Each perspective was informative and inspiring.

Midway through the training, I regretted staying home to watch in my jammies on the web. Except for two things:

First, after the speakers' presentations there was a question and answer period. Frankly I hate Q&A time, which usually consists of incoherent self-important rambling by the questioners. But I have acquired enough mindfulness and self-soothing techniques to handle these situations calmly. (In law school we played a game called "Asshole Bingo"  marking each square when the designated weenie got called on. I won't tell you which now-famous legal scholar was our Free Square.)

No, my problem with the disability training Q&A time was when the camera panned back. I saw the session was sparsely attended, and the audience consisted of the usual suspects  the handful of openly disabled people trying to change the profession in Washington, and the other diehards who have been working on diversity and inclusion issues for decades. I have been preaching to and/or sitting in this choir for too long.

Second, the moderator was a lesbian employment lawyer who is married to a prominent local politician. (Shout out to hardworking House Speaker Laurie Jenkins from Tacoma.) I worked closely with Laurie years ago during the anti-gay initiative battles. I'm sure her wife Laura, whom I know only from pictures on Facebook, is a lovely person. But she happens to be a lawyer working for my former employer, Washington Attorney General / unannounced gubernatorial candidate Bob Ferguson. Laura is assigned to the AGO's Labor and Industries division, where she advocates for injured workers. Of course, no one at the AGO bothered to contact a lawyer like Laura when they were busy discriminating against me on the basis of my sexual orientation and disability.

I worry chatting with Laura at the diversity reception would have triggered PTSD symptoms. Perhaps I would have been provoked enough to fling my plastic cup of pinot gris at her, like Angelica Huston’s character in Smash every time she ran into her ex-husband in a restaurant. 

So it's probably a good thing I stayed home in my jammies, giving my left elbow a break. 

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