by Cooper Lee Bombardier, Collaborative Editor
Recently I scheduled a spate of visits with my chiropractor because the chronic triangle of stiffness and pain that radiates from beneath my right shoulder blade, along my right trapezius, and into the right side of my neck—my “pirate shoulder,” I call it—had devolved into numbness and tingling down my right arm and into my pinky finger. And telegraphing in the other direction, a strange, tingling numbness began to creep across the right side of my face, into my lower lip. After a moment of panic that included me asking my wife to look up symptoms of a stroke, I booked in to see Dr. Bonecracker, who slapped a pressure point chart hanging on the wall of her treatment room. Turns out there is a nerve in the crux of the neck and shoulder that maps out across the side of the face—on the chart it looked like a green handprint in the exact location of my own strange sensations. I inhaled with relief; a pinched nerve is preferable to a more dire diagnosis. After several sessions, most of my symptoms—the most alarming of them, anyway—had dissipated.
But how did I get here? Quelle surprise! I thought, as I surveyed my workspace setup. I had a beautiful, rustic desk bought secondhand off of Facebook Marketplace for fifty bucks, and it sat just a bit too high, causing my wrists to tweak up at an unfortunate angle as I pecked away at my keyboard, which to be honest, I’ve spent a lot of time doing, especially over the past nearly two years of working remotely—freelance editing, teaching online, and working on my own writing projects. I used an ergonomic chair borrowed from my partner that, paired with the desk set at the wrong height, did little to add much erg to my situation.
Suddenly I remembered when, during the late aughts, I decided to train to ride the Santa Fe Century, a hundred-mile bicycle race around the mountainous outskirts of that four-hundred-year-old capital city. I had no idea how one began to train for such an effort, so I signed up for Team in Training, a nonprofit that conditions athletes for distance events like centuries and marathons to raise funds for leukemia research. In exchange, each athlete gets people in their lives to sponsor their rides. I rolled up for the first day of training (we’d do long-distance training rides as a group every Sunday) with the steel road bike I’d bought from the local anarchist bike collective for forty dollars and got skeptical eyeballs from all of the older, wealthier people I’d be training with, who each seemed to be sporting brand new carbon-fiber, top-of-the-line steeds. One guy told me, your bike is like the Mississippi River: old and full of creaks [sic]. But what I really remember is that one of the coaches said that if you don’t have a bicycle that is fit to you, you will end up fitting to your bicycle.
And that’s not good. I did my best training with what I had, unable to afford a new ride at the time, and I rather loved the scrappy bike, especially when I’d leave my cohort and their new Cannondales in the dust. But now here I was, older, wiser, and achier—and realizing that my body was fitting to my work setup rather than me creating a setup that fit me. I remembered that one of the profs in my MFA program had emphasized how important it was to have the right equipment for your job, and how important it was to invest in equipment that supported your body. I swiftly ordered a new desk chair and an electric sit/stand desk. From what I read, sitting in one position for hours on end is the real coffin nail, and what we need are options. The electric sit/stand desk gave me options. I immediately noticed a sense of having more energy while I stood to teach my university classes online. The new desk offers options and microadjustments, and I wanted to kick myself for not changing my setup sooner. My next purchase will be a small, foldable kneeling chair to switch up from sitting in a traditional chair or standing. I guess some might like to swap out their desk chair for an occasional perch on a Swiss ball, but I am worried I’d keel over, and besides, my office is so tiny, there is little room for such an unwieldly object when not in use.
I use a MacBook Pro tethered to a large external monitor to help out my eyes, and a USB wireless Logitech keyboard and mouse to give my desk setup a bit more space and ergonomic possibility than pecking away on the laptop keys can offer. Sort of reminiscent of my punk road bike, these invaluable tools were hand-me-downs from my partner and a friend who works in tech, and they transformed my work in enormous ways. But the question remains—why didn’t I take initiative myself to have everything just so, to support my body and mind as I worked? Maybe it was due to some vestigial ethos of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (until it breaks?), or maybe I didn’t think about my material health and safety in my job as a writer in the same way I exercised hypervigilance around health and safety in previous jobs I’ve had, like welding in a shop, or cooking in a restaurant. I wouldn’t have dreamed of, say, welding up a steel tube set piece without the proper PPE: steel-toed boots, safety glasses, protective leathers, and a welding helmet, but now, in my “real job” as a writer, I wasn’t taking my own health and safety seriously. This need for an attitudinal shift was perhaps the most important takeaway for me.
We should normalize asking our peers what their setups are, how they schedule not only their work time but also their breaks throughout the day, and their time off. One side effect of working from home is that it feels harder to not be working. Knowing when to punch out on the time clock is crucial. The amazing thing about that MFA prof that I mentioned above is that she wasn’t an academic—she was a working writer who came in to teach for a semester. And so she often talked to us about the material conditions of being a writer for a living. No one else in my MFA program was talking to us about this stuff. She told us about how she wanted to become a writer while working a full-time day job in a nonprofit. Writing couldn’t become my full-time job, she told us, until I made it my part-time job. She encouraged us to start a savings account where any money we earned from our writing, no matter how small, would be saved. That money would eventually add up, she advised, and then we could use it to take time off to write. These kernels of advice thrilled me—the corporeal fact of our bodies in the world tethered to earth the abstract sense of making art—of making Literature—that I gleaned from other graduate classes.
For those of us who spend our days writing or working on the writing of others or teaching writing, we need to figure out for ourselves the proper material conditions to support this work we love to do. This might mean investing in new or upgraded equipment, reevaluating the amount of time we spend at work, setting reminders for breaks and stretches every forty-five minutes, and booking in for bodywork, which is the most important element of all—how to best take care of our bodies and minds so that we can come to our desks feeling fresh and energetic, and enjoy ourselves, pain-free, in the rest of our lives.
Cooper Lee Bombardier is a writer, editor, and educator who has a vast collection of foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and therapy bands, all of which he needs to use on a more frequent basis.
Great reflections, Cooper. Glad you’re feeling better outfitted and equipped for the writing ahead!