Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

The right hand of darkness (or: Mostly armless)

Not to worry - things are still busy here in Busytown. It’s not like I’ve been sitting on my hands. Except that it is, in the sense that I’ve got pins and needles and shooting pains running up both arms, mostly my right one. Yep, the tiresome repetitive strain injury has tightened its grip on my writing bits again.

As physical things go, it’s clearly not the worst that could happen. But it does cramp my style a bit, and it’s not just the writing that suffers. Everything I like to do, get paid to do, or am socially obliged to do, requires a functioning hand or two. Grading papers. Gardening. Brushing teeth. Making pikelets. Auto-eroticism. “Lend me a hand” becomes more than a metaphor.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing – apart from the slowness of recovery -- is the randomness of its arrival. There you are, typing away like a madwoman, generating dissertations, book proposals, and at a conservative estimate 70,000 words of commentary on student papers in the space of a single semester (I know, lucky students! That's a whole book right there!), with only the occasional twinge or tingle.

And then one day you wake up and you can’t hold your cup of tea.

Another troublesome aspect is what to call the damn thing. RSI, the original monicker, conjures up images of gouty old soldiers gathering for a drink and a smoke in my joints. OOS always sounds a bit too martial, a bit dojo, really. “Carpal tunnel” is the favoured American term, but what I have isn’t anything to do with my carpal tunnels, more my (ooer) thoracic outlets, apparently.

I like the old-fashioned terms for occupational afflictions: "housemaid’s knee," "nursemaid’s elbow," “jeep bottom” (I put that one in for the old soldiers, and yes, it's real). For the moment I’m calling my problem lucubrator’s shoulder, but would welcome other suggestions. Busytot’s diagnosis was to the point: “Your arm is very busted, and too busted, and very busted.”

There are remedies: stretching, exercising, a benevolent and exacting physiotherapist who puts me through my paces. She also does an enormously subtle laying-on of hands. The barest amount of pressure – like a beanie-baby on the back of a sleep-troubled infant – causes the muscles and all the other bits whose names I don’t know to relax and let go. It’s magic, and gives a few days' relief at a time.

Resting from typing is the other half of the equation. Which is why I’ve been slack about posting, although I was tempted to switch to photo-blogging for a while (garden pics? cat photo-essays? self-portraits, under the name Bustytown?). I’ve also been slack about replying to enquiries and encouragement lately. But thank you for all of them! You’re the reason I’m back at my desk. Really.

Speaking of desks, I’m looking into setting up a standing desk for myself – if it was good enough for Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov and Winston Churchill, surely it’s worth a try. (Apparently Donald Rumsfeld is another fan of the erect position, but according to an on-line discussion I stumbled across, that may be less to do with an enthusiasm for ergonomics, and more about the broomstick where it ought not be. This is the man who questioned why the "stress positions" used for interrogation were limited to four hours a day, when he happily stands for 8 to 10).

And of course I’m trying out dictation software. Not right now – this is being typed, slowly – but I’m busy training up a Mac version of iListen. It’s annoyingly slow work, especially since it doesn’t seem to recognize any word with an R in the middle when pronounced in a New Zealand accent. Art, sort, car, are... Nada. So I find myself articulating like a pirate. Not to mention punctuating like Victor Borge. Hilarious for anyone standing outside the window.

According to the detailed history of dictation software that I’m reading to the computer so it can capture my voice, the technical term for the relationship between a given word and the squillions of possible words that might follow it, is “perplexity.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s also the term for the relationship between what I say to the computer and what it writes.

Back in the dying days of the last century, in my first major brush with this occupational hazard, my flatmate Sara – another sufferer -- and I tested out earlier versions of the software, and would gigglingly e-mail each other the choicest mistranslations.

There were lots of accidental obscenities, of course, usually related to the names of professors or eminent literary theorists. There were the super-annoying ones, like the way every time I said “New Zealand” mine would write, with passive-aggressive regularity, “new sealant.” I considered designing a customized macro so that when I said “Polyfilla” it would finally type “New Zealand,” dammit.

But the best was what the computer came up with every time Sara carefully articulated “voice dication”: "foisted patience." Yes, some of us are born patient, some achieve patience, and others have it thrust upon us.

Patience is good, even the foisted kind. Being unplugged forces me to remember other ways to express myself. Watching the garden unfold in its own good time is rather soothing, as is advising my patient husband where to plant the latest acquisitions. By family tradition, all plants share the Latin name wombaticus syphilliticus, but he’s getting pretty conversant with the different strains: pink wombaticus, climbing wombaticus, etc.

And I’ve been reading: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a wonderful Mrs Dalloway for the other end of the twentieth century, with a brain surgeon in place of a hausfrau, and terrorism in place of the Great War. Jolly good reading. As was Elizabeth Knox’s new young adult fantasy novel Dreamhunter (keep an eye out for my rave review in the Listener).

And watching. The whole first season of The L-Word on DVD -- nicely steamy and ridiculously well-dressed. And the new Miss Marple series, with Geraldine McEwan as the canniest Miss M to date. She’s no dithery old tabby, this one, but a very sharp-eyed pussycat with an intriguing new history, and a magnetic effect on those around her. As played by Joan Hickson, Miss Marple was someone you could tell things to because you thought she wasn’t really listening, but McEwan’s Miss Marple is a confidante you would deliberately seek out: smart, empathetic, and all-knowing. Nice one.

Also, the film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was not too terrible at all. It's almost like watching Shakespeare, in that you know all the old jokes, and are always interested to see where they’ve cut the text or fiddled with the staging, and of course Ford Prefect is black, in exactly the same way that Lear, or Rosalind, or Coriolanus is black, and how are they going to do the special effects, and which fey old chap is Bill Nighy playing this time?

I liked the cameo by Simon Jones, the original Arthur Dent, as the holographic face of Magrathea. And the ghostly final image, at the very end of the film, of the face of Douglas Adams floating in space. It reminded me of two things: firstly that the man had a brain the size of a planet, and secondly, that the death of someone we know (or feel we know) is not unlike the sudden unscheduled end of the world at the hands of a Vogon Constructor Fleet. But as the film suggests, the key to reconstructing that beloved lost world lies deep in our own grey matter, and can be accomplished with time and imagination and the loving art of memory. In other words, don’t panic.

And best of all, I’ve been patiently watching Busytot experience an astonishing vernal growth spurt, both physical and mental. He’s growing into a really big boy, unlocking the hermetic mysteries of life, death, and bubblegum – but more of that next time. These hands need a rest.