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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

My life as an hysterical woman

Some thirty years ago, I had the misfortune to work in an office where the Assistant Director in Charge of Paperclips was an awful little oik named Ted.  He bore that title because I gave it to him after he committed repeated acts of vindictive spite against me, or more commonly, against third parties, decent and competent people for whom I was trying to do the right thing.  I was one of that old-fashioned breed that really meant it when I said "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."

I learned some years later that he hated me because he had once crossed swords with my late father and been mauled.  Or so I was told by an unreliable source.  It doesn't matter, he was out to get me.  My father and I differed in many things, but neither of us offered even medium-length shrift to fools.

Ted was a fool to think that having a go at me was a good idea, because I had been home-baked, honed on the hard stone my father's idea of perfection.  I had also been to master-classes in dirty verbal and organisational fighting before I decided that politics was not the life I wanted.  I never did play office politics, but I was good at playing the hedgehog when people started kicking butt.

There had been a period at the end of 1985, when I was leading a major rescue, brought about because a large number of examination papers had to be reset and reprinted because the Government Printing Office people had made a total mess of their security.  In New South Wales, students at the end of their last year of High School, sit public examinations, and the system had been sabotaged.

My job was quality control. I was brought in, well into the year 1985 (guess which nasty little scrote engineered the delays that prevented a timely start!).  My task was to prevent the errors that had happened in the two previous years, and we did all of that.  Now, with the last-minute security breach at the end of the year, I had to get a very large number of papers reset in an impossibly short time. Luckily, my immediate boss had asked me to come up with a War Book, a set of contingency plans.

Being subversive, I assembled the original thinkers from around the office, the perceived "misfits" and the mavericks, people who thought like me and cared about the job of serving the public. Because I had the cream of the crop, when the alarms sounded, we had a plan for just about everything.

I had, on instructions from above (not all the high and mighty are complete idiots), interviewed old former administrative and clerical staff, and gathered their dismal forebodings, as well as what they had planned to do if one of their fears became real.

At that time, staff were either "Professional", meaning graduates, generally teacher-trained, many of whom were refugees from the classroom, and A&C, people who had started as clerks, and worked their way up.  Like the professionals, they were a mixed bunch, but at the time, the professional people were taking more and more of the senior jobs, and feelings were a little tense.  Because I was my father's son, and he (as a graduate) had gone from "Admin and Clerical" across to "Professional", he had been seen as having a foot in each camp, and some of them had known me since I was in short pants. The result was that I had unique access, and I used it.

Being me, I had registered the file as A Compendium of Disasters Great and Small.  That, my crew and I all agreed, was a great name for it—which tells you a lot about us.  In the end, we only needed only one of the many plans, but we had the one we needed.  It wasn't spot on for what happened, but we had a plan for those consequences, caused a different way.

I will say more about the process of applying that plan some other time, because our travails in implementing it in the face of a stampeding herd of fear-sodden superordinates (note that I do not, for good reason, refer to them as "superiors") makes a textbook case of what happens when people panic. For now, I will stick to the main story. (Looking ahead, a note in mid-2015: I will invoke the Thirty Year Rule in the near future, and tell all.)

Everything was done in Ministerially mandated secrecy, behind locked doors.  I designated a cheap but reliable worker to control the locked door, so my "friend" Ted took away his services.  Because he controlled the funds, he could do that.  I found another source of funds that he could not control, and put my own guard in place.

Our big worry was that a TV crew would bust in and film enough to reveal who was involved, and the politicians wanted a tight lid.  Ted organised the placement of security warning signs which were on an ascending scale of severity, clearly spelling out where the activity was going on. (Think of the children's game "cold", "warm", "hot", and you will get the idea.)

My loyal crew of mavericks, answerable only to me, and all having been targeted by Ted in the past, adopted a regular routine of moving the signs so they led away from where we were working, ending up in front of a broom cupboard.  In any media invasion, that should delay things and give us time to drop the blinds, lock the doors and call the cops.

I swore then that Ted would get his comeuppance.  We got through the reset on time and everybody but Ted got praise and promotions.  That was a nice start, but it wasn't enough.

The following year, we had a flare-up of cases repetitive strain injury, RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome in our work force.  This was the time when old-style typists were moving onto computers without any real training in ergonomics.  Then Ted made his mistake in a meeting of senior management, where I was the junior at the table, but I still had a seat.  "It's odd," he said, "how it only affects hysterical women."

I had him. "Are you sure it's only hysterical women?" I asked gently.  He sneered his affirmation.

"In that case, " I said, "I must be an hysterical woman as well."

This led to general laughter, but I had their attention as I explained in clinical detail what RSI was, what it felt like, and what its causes were.  I added that I was suffering it because I was writing a lot of correspondence for the Minister, adding casually that I had talked with people in the Ministry about it.

All of a sudden, the nasty old sexist was out on his own.  Nailed.  Nobody was sure whose ears I might have reached, but Ted had crossed every one of the people around the table in the past, I learned later.  They sat there, grinned, discussed the issue and agreed on a proper plan of action.

Anyhow, the point is that I have been managing arm, wrist and back problems for many years.   Dancers end up with crippled feet, fast bowlers in cricket, like writers, end up with arm and back problems.  I have lost most of the last three weeks of writing time because I was somewhere between severe pain and agony.  The diagnosis was that the problem came from me sitting too much.

Now since my initial self-outing as an hysterical woman, I have taught a lot of people how to manage things.  I knew the signs. I accepted the warnings.

Problems shouldn't have happened to me: I had a desk at the right ergonomic height, I had the best of chairs and the right foot-rest. The trouble was that the best of chairs was so comfortable that I spent too long sitting in it, an intervertebral disc played up (as it had been doing in mild form for the past 53 years, I realised later) and I was in real trouble.  It was worse than RSI, but part of the same family.

I did what was necessary to avoid being crippled.  I switched to typing standing up. But I knew I had to get things ergonomically correct. I started with a table top supported by boxes and a varying number of books as I zeroed in on the right level.  Notice how, in the third shot, my arms are flat on the table surface.


The monitor is still too low, but it came up for the last shot, seen on the left, taken a few days later.  At this point, I knew the necessary height, so all the books and boxes went, replaced by a skeletal table.

I fine-tuned the set-up, but after it took a steroid shot in my sciatic nerve to stabilise things, I decided to hasten slowly.  I think I may eventually drop the level another 2 centimetres.

See the notes in blue italics to the left.
[Added later] On the right, you can see  the final rig that I established. This is, in essence, a light table carcase, with a heavy top. If other people were likely to stray in there, I would have added stabilising screws or hooks,

And most importantly, if other people had to use it, I would have added some method of changing the height, because good ergonomic design demands that the height be precisely set to match the user, as outlined above.

The whole episode was brought on by frantic work to meet a deadline that was a bit too optimistic.  I may still meet it*, but it will be close.  In a sense, it was my own fault, because I was pushing along, ahead of schedule, so I had room to cover anything going pear-shaped—and in the process, I made my spine go pear-shaped.

Boys and girls, men and ladies, don't let this happen to you.  Sit right, exercise right, and don't try to beat a mad deadline.

In the long run, it really does detract from the joy of writing.

But no matter how miserable I get, I will always recall with joy and real pleasure how I identified with the hysterical women.
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* Footnote: I did, in fact, meet the deadline for the Big Book of Australian History, but when the second edition was being prepared in September 2014, I had reverted to sitting, and I nearly did my back in again.  As soon as I felt the signs, the standing desk was (and is) still there, and I only needed to move the monitor and the mouse from the corner to the right of the computer in the picture above, back to where you see them above. I avoided trouble, just!

Moral: the price of mobility is eternal vigilance!

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