Happy Throwback Thursday! In celebration, photographer Benny Doutsh offers some truly inspiring photography gathered in the midst of his world travels for this week’s Vintage DB. These photos originally appeared in DB 11, Winter 2010.
Benny Doutsh was born in Israel and currently lives in Tel Aviv. Recently he spent time in the Himalayas, documenting the journey of Indian motorcyclists as they crossed some of the world’s highest mountains. He currently works as a photographer for YNet News, the English language website for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most-read newspaper, and FullGaz, a motor sports news website. Check out what’s up next for Benny on facebook.
Besides reading the predictably, addictively, and incessantly superfluous—email, social media, the BBC news website—I somehow find myself today, as if trying anxiously to make up for lost time, flipping among five books.
When in New York last spring I caught Caryl Churchill’s new play, Love and Information, and now I’m enjoying how stage manifests on page stunningly: 57 playlets (each only seconds long) that can be, within certain parameters, randomized for each performance, sans tags for or descriptions about who is speaking and where—the whole investigating how networked culture has turned each of us into data torrents.
For mindbreaks, it’s Sam Lipsyte’s collection The Fun Parts. Turns out Lipsyte was raised in Closter, New Jersey, which lies 7.8 miles from where I was raised, and so one of the joys of his prose for me is swimming among the voices and venues in which I grew up. Everybody talks about how funny Lipsyte’s fictions about urban/suburban lost boys and girls are, but in the end those fictions are about just the opposite: the abrupt erosion of searing humor into breakage and loss.
David Shields recently sent me a mockup of his next nonfiction, War is Beautiful, due out late in 2015. It announces itself as a large, thin coffee-table book with luscious layout, but immediately dissolves into a cloud of irony created by the discrepancy between found quotes about war and journalism and the gorgeously rendered nightmare images from the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Like Love and Information, it’s all collage, 24/7.
The last two things I’m reading feed my novel-in-progress, a retelling of the Minotaur myth, whose guiding metaphor is the labyrinth. And so: the chapter in musicologist Veit Erlmann’s Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality about muscial labyrinths and German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz’s monograph on resonance theory, which subverts Descartes’ mind/body duality by asking us to think about how we hear music, thereby complicating inside/outside and suggesting the former is always-already the latter, the latter always-already the former.
Part of my Minotaur novel-in-progress takes the form of erasures of earlier texts (by Ovid, Borges, et al.) concerning labyrinths. And so: Jen Bervin’s Nets, her amazing (a word, naturally, that holds within itself maze, a form that complicates the unicursal structure of the labyrinth) erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In each case, the gray ghost of the original haunts the bold black residue, reminding us by suggestive indirection that every body, physical or linguistic, is a haunted house.
card designed by Amy Berkowitz for Job Fair, an upcoming
performance event organized by Oakland collective The Third Thing
So, you’re in pain. Every time you sit down to write, you get a crick in your neck, a pinch in your shoulder, an ache in your forearm, your fingers go numb. Maybe it started at work, but now it’s infecting your free time, your time, your art. You know it’s not good. Maybe you’ve tried wearing a wrist brace. Maybe you told your boss. Maybe it got so bad you had to quit your job and your nice boss talked you out of applying for workman’s comp because it would raise the price of insurance for that nice non-profit arts organization you work for. Maybe you went to the doctor, but they told you there wasn’t anything you could do except stop; stop writing, stop playing music, stop drawing, stop filling out that excel sheet for work so you can pay your rent so you can afford to live in this city that wants so badly to price you out to make way for more folks who’s bodies will be exploited and ravaged by their computers and personal electronic devices. It’s not good, but it’s not the end. Let’s talk about it.
For this post, I’ve asked the help of my dear friend and colleague, Amy Berkowitz. Amy is the author of the book, Listen to Her Heart (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2012), editor of Mondo Bummer, host of Amy’s Kitchen Organic reading series, and gets her necessary cash working as a freelance writer. Amy and I have had many conversations about chronic pain over the years, since we both deal with it ourselves, so we decided to co-interview each other about our experiences as poets who’s writing is often mitigated but also inspired by pain, and the division of what physical capacity we have between our work as paid laborers and our work as artists. In fact, we cannot have a conversation about pain and writing without talking about work. Here we are having a real-live conversation on my couch in Oakland that we later shared the task of transcribing for reasons that will become obvious very soon:
Lindsey Boldt: I just heard Amy Berkowitz’s shoulder pop!
Amy Berkowitz: Yeah.
L: Does your body make a lot of noise?
A: That shoulder pops loudly in a way that startles people, but other than that I think it cracks a normal amount.
L: My shoulder is a bit loud too.
A: Do you want to get it on tape?
L: I don’t think it’s quite as loud as yours. I can hear it but it’s more of a grinding, of gristle…my acupuncturist actually used the word “gristle” last week.
A: That’s disgusting.
L: Yeah, it was kind of upsetting. She’s great otherwise!
L: So, Amy, when did you start having pain?
A: I was doing some market research work that required a lot of data entry with precise mouse clicking and using the number key pad and it resulted in pretty bad shoulder pain and pre-carpal tunnel: muscle spasms in my shoulder and some amount of numbness in my wrist. And then, long story short, I experienced a trauma, and the morning after that, I had pain all over my body, and that was eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia. I’m still living with that chronic pain and I also have to be aware of avoiding repetitive motion like I was doing in that job because that would aggravate the pain more.
L: Does that affect the kind of labor you can do?
A: Definitely. There have been a few jobs that I wasn’t able to do because of pain. I was going to work at Whole Foods a few years ago but had to quit to avoid a repetitive stress injury from bagging groceries. I also had to leave another job where I was doing data entry. Anyway, I am currently a freelance writer and it’s a little frustrating that my work-work uses the same part of my body as my art-work (and I know you have the same situation yourself), but I have been able to make it work. I’m using the word “work” a lot. It helps that I have some amount of flexibility as a freelance writer and some freedom to work remotely in settings where I have more control of the ergonomic setup of my desk. It also helps that I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about how to sit at my computer in a minimally damaging way.
L: You were saying earlier that when you’re working from home you feel more comfortable taking breaks and getting up to walk around.
A: Yeah, it seems more natural. At an office, even at an office where people are encouraged to live healthily, I feel like I’m being distracting if I get up and walk through rows of desks every 25 minutes as my physical therapist suggested.
L: Let alone do stretches.
A: Yeah, I’ve never seen anybody stretch at their desks.
[Here’s an excerpt from Amy’s book, Tender Points, which is forthcoming from Timeless Infinite Light:
It’s 2010 and my boyfriend’s bed is like a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Brown comforter and pillow and tan sheets the exact color of peanut butter. He makes me omelets with expensive ingredients and buys me a record player for my birthday. This, I think, is care.
I’m having a hard time finding a job because I just moved to the city and because my disability substantially narrows my options. Avoid repetitive motions. That’s kind of the definition of a job, repetitive motions.
The temp agency called it administrative slash data entry, but it turns out to be pure data entry. I’m entering data from massive binders of handwritten medical records into a series of online forms. The data is so thick with abbreviations that I have no idea what any of it means.
It’s a terrible office, with low, square-tiled ceilings; everything beige and dusty. I sit in a cubicle on a mostly deserted floor. I scavenge the empty cubes for thick reference books and a cardboard box so I can make a monitor riser and a footrest and approximate an ergonomic setup.
Despite these interventions, I can’t physically tolerate the work. By my fourth week, my wrist feels tight and numb as it hovers above the ten-key. I try wearing a brace, but it doesn’t help. I tell my supervisor, and within the hour, I get a call from the temp agency informing me that the assignment is over.
That night, I am a fucking mess. I’m angry at my body, I’m angry at the temp agency, I’m angry at the man I blame for this pain. And I’m overwhelmed thinking: how the fuck I’m ever going to support myself.
And my boyfriend says: “Well, don’t wallow in it. That’s not going to help. Just pick yourself up and get back out there.”
These are the words of a little league coach but I am not a little league team. I am a grown person with a disability.
After that, his bed doesn’t look like a giant piece of chocolate anymore. It looks like a bed.
L: You were saying that you’ve been able to strike a balance between your work life and your artistic life and have been able to have enough energy, but also lack of pain after work, to go home and be able to work on your own writing.
A: I can say that if I’ve been sitting all day at work with hunched over shoulders, for whatever reason, and having to use the mouse a lot to click into small fields I’m not going to go home and have the ability to open up my computer again and write a poem. I think it is possible if you’re really careful with how you use your body when you’re doing paid labor to feel energetic and ready to work when you get home.
Have you read about the “Spoon Theory”? Well, I’m very critical of it, but I think it’s useful. It was created by somebody with an invisible illness; I believe she has lupus. She was at a diner with a friend, trying to explain what it was like to live with her chronic illness. In a moment of exasperation and inspiration, she got up from their table and ran around the diner, gathering a dozen spoons. She handed them to her friend and explained that the spoons represented the finite amount of energy that someone living with a chronic illness has every day. She asked the friend to describe her daily routine, and took away spoons as she did various tasks. One for taking a shower, one for getting dressed, etc. Finally the friend was left with only six spoons, and she hadn’t even made it to work yet. Basically, it’s the one way that people with invisible illnesses have to talk about their limited energy levels, so I think it’s really useful, but it’s also a frustratingly imprecise and domestic metaphor, which I think isn’t doing any favors to a kind of illness that’s already seen as feminine and not really legitimate.
L: People have described me as “delicate”, which I really hate (laughs). That feels pretty gendered.
A: There’s something that comes up a lot in this, so I’ll just bring it up now, because it’s in everything we’re saying in a way, is how Western medicine has this very stubborn idea that the mind is not actually connected to the body and that mental illness and physical illness are two separate things, and then you have systems like Ayurveda that say, actually, it’s the same thing.
L: Right, and anyone who’s struggled with depression or anxiety knows that those illnesses manifest themselves physically too, just as an injury can trigger an emotional response.
L: Do you write art or make art differently now than you did either before you started dealing with pain?
A: I don’t write by hand as much because I find that muscle in my thumb gets tired easily. So I will for a few pages but it just isn’t practical for me to try to write very long by hand, which is a shame because when you write by hand, your mind works completely differently and makes associations in a different way. I think it works with time in a different way than when you’re typing. So, I suppose I’ve lost something there.
L: Do you notice a difference in the quality of your writing, not necessarily better or worse but what is the difference?
A: I think there have been so many other factors since I started having pain that it’s hard to isolate that as a variable. I am writing directly about pain now. I’m working on a book about having this experience of chronic pain. So that’s obviously a big difference. For me at least, it’s easier to be in a train of thought and have subconscious ideas come out when I’m writing long hand than when I’m typing. What about you?
L: Both are equally difficult for me, typing and writing by hand. I can do either for about 15 minutes before it starts to be an issue. Right now my shoulder hurts and I’m not doing anything. So if I’m starting at that base-line, and people always tell you that you should stop when it hurts, then the question becomes, should I write at all if I don’t want to further injure myself and if I’m okay with that possibility, how long can I write without the pain becoming really blaring?
When I was writing Overboard, I would write for long periods of time. I wrote hunched over a laptop, definitely not ergonomic. I would get into that mode and be able to stay in it for a long time. I can’t do that now. I have to make sure to take breaks. I miss being in that space. Even if I weren’t being good to myself and taking a break, the pain would interrupt that thought process anyway.
I started writing plays with my partner, Steve Orth partly because I couldn’t write. When we write a play, none of it is actually written. There’s a basic outline and we rehearse using that outline, but the exact dialog is never actually written down. Each performance is, in a way, new. That was a direct response to being unable to write. Last summer, I couldn’t really write at all so I started drawing and doing more visual art. I also started meditating and through that doing some automatic writing. When I do automatic writing, some sort of energy moves through my shoulder, through my right arm and through my hand. That’s where the pain is, from my right shoulder to my right hand. That’s really changed what I write about and how I write, which feels very positive, but I still get frustrated that I can’t sit down and bang out a short story the way I used to do.
A & L: Should we do advice? What has helped?
A: My answers are all about ergonomics. Well, also get enough sleep. It’s a big thing. I have fibromyalgia, which Lindsey doesn’t, and a lot of people reading this might not have either, but with fibromyalgia you have non-restorative sleep, which means that your body doesn’t feel rested no matter how long you sleep, so it’s important to at least sleep a normal amount, 8 or 9 hours. But that’s probably good advice for everyone. So that’s one thing that makes a big difference, and the other thing is ergonomics. Your knees are supposed to be below your hips when you sit; your monitor’s supposed to be eye-level; all that stuff. I brought an ergonomic footrest to the place that I’m working now, and it makes a huge difference. And they provide monitor risers and external keyboards and mice. Another thing is that I’ve started using my mouse with my left hand because my right hand gets more tired from typing. Also, it’s not super hard to teach yourself to use the spacebar with your left thumb.
L: I use an ergonomic keyboard that has touch-sensitive keys. It’s flexible so I can move it into different positions. I have an ergonomic mouse that’s a vertical mouse. I also know that some graphic designers will use foot mice. I mouse with my left hand a lot. I think it’s good if you can distribute the ‘wear’, which sounds gross. I do a lot of various kinds of healing practices: I get acupuncture regularly and they give me herbs. I make bone broths because they’re supposed to be very healing and restorative. I’m trying to eat a lot of protein so that my body can repair itself better. I’m a big stress case so I’m trying to do things to relax while I’m writing or working but also after. I use lavender essential oil (either put it on myself, burn it in an evaporator or put it in a bath). I drink chamomile tea which sounds lame but it is actually proven to relax the nervous system. And that makes a big difference because then my shoulders don’t tense up nearly as much. I take baths and soak my shoulder. I just got a hot water bottle, which is pretty awesome. I was told by an acupuncturist and a physical therapist to take breaks every 30 to 45 minutes. There is free software you can install that will remind you. Get up and actually move around, do some stretches. Physical Therapy is awesome, definitely do that if you can. Maybe I should take pictures of myself doing my stretches.
DON’T: Here’s Lindsey hunched over her laptop. Don’t do it!
DO: Here’s Lindsey with laptop plugged into a monitor and external ergonomic keyboard. She is also using an ergonomic mouse and good posture! Way to go, Lindsey!
A: I feel like it’s really easy to get sucked into just looking at the internet because there’s a lot of stuff on the internet. But when you think about how important and limited your body’s energy is like you should just use it for stuff that’s gonna get you paid or stuff that’s gonna make your art. Like don’t read the comments on HTMLGiant. Don’t read HTMLGiant.
L: I realize that when I take a break from working to look at facebook I’m still clicking my mouse, maybe more than when I was working. So that’s not really a break. I’m burning up my art making powers!
I feel passionate about this because it changed my life, for good and bad. It has made working and writing a lot more difficult but also a lot more intentional. I don’t take for granted sitting down to write which I think was a real privilege when I was younger.
I feel very adamantly that if you are dealing with pain because of a work situation, and even if you’re not yet, your employer should be responsible for providing you with the ergonomic equipment that you need, or they should at least be supportive of you getting that equipment, or taking breaks. [Do you hear that non-profit arts organizations? You are not exempt!] I was talked out of getting workers comp by an employer because I developed my injuries on the job and it would have raised their insurance. And this was one of those cool non-profit arts organizations. So, you are not safe in the non-profit arts world! Actually they probably have a better time getting you to make sacrifices.
A: Well and you have sympathy for them because they’re a cool non-profit arts organization.
L: Yeah and you’re already giving up the money you could get somewhere else, so don’t hurt your body for them. It’s not worth it.
A: You were saying earlier that you had hesitations about the way that you’d be talking about this because you didn’t want to come off as being, like pro-work? Like, “Work mortifies the body and ruins the mind, but let’s make it more fun…” Work is kind of evil, and people don’t need to work for eight hours a day. And that’s kind of why it degrades your body: because we weren’t meant to do the same kinds of motions for that long. And so this is not just a guide to let that not kill you, but also a guide to let that not kill you so that at the end of the day you can go home and be an artist.
L: But also while you’re making your art to be good to your body too so you can keep making art. Because if you were writing eight hours a day, writing whatever you wanted, you could still hurt yourself. Musicians get carpal tunnel too. Be nice to your body. If you’re more productive at your job as a result of doing these things, cool, I guess, but that’s not really the point.
A: I think the point is having energy leftover; spoons, if you will.
L: If you come home and your body doesn’t hurt and you’re not tired, then you can come home and make some art, rather than watching a dumb TV show, or a good TV show.
DON’T: Here’s Amy after a crappy day, watching some TV because her body hurts. Sure, this happens, but try to avoid it!
DO: Here’s Amy after a good day of treating her body well, writing a poem. Way to go, Amy!
[I also want to add that Amy and I are unsure whether this whole interview will get transcribed by deadline because there is so much typing involved!]
A: Right, so that’s part of it. Also, I came over two hours late, because I needed a lot of sleep. I was catching up on sleep I didn’t get this week.
L: And as I’m saying these things I feel like I sound like a lazy jerk. “It’s so much typing” (whining voice).
A: No but we just gave a whole interview about how it’s about pain.
L: But that’s the voice in my head that I have to argue with all the time.
A: Maybe we should just post the audio.
L: Maybe we should.
[Many, many thanks to Amy Berkowitz, without whom the writing of this post would have been so much more painful, in more ways than one. Hurrah for Amy! Hip-hip-hooray!]
And now, for the outro…
Two wrist-brace themed music videos!
Honestly, fuck a wrist-brace (humiliating shame garments), but if you must wear one, imagine that you are Kathleen Hannah (or whoever this is) dressed in a jumpsuit and banana hat or Beyonce (Sasha Fierce), wearing a metallic claw of power and be sure to take breaks every 30-45 minutes to dance.
Dear ones, this does not have to be you. You do not need a robot hand.
I want to add that throughout the day Amy and I spent together walking around my neighborhood, eating soup and talking about writing and pain we kept circling back to work, but we also kept circling back to misogyny and gendered violence. Throughout our conversations about our bodies and the pain they feel, and about our struggles to communicate our experiences to friends, family and especially co-workers and bosses, it seemed that everything was inflected by a silent and sometimes not so silent accusation of hysteria. Maybe it’s just plain disregard for a body in pain, or an inability to empathize because the person you’re trying to make understand just does not know what it feels like. Maybe we feel used and exploited because our bodies are not our own while we’re on the clock. When the same boss who talks you out of workman’s comp makes leering comments about how good your jeans look and laughs both off, it is hard to separate the two kinds of pain that enter your mind and body. It’s hard to shake the thought that misogyny or at the very least, Patriarchy, has had a role to play here. If we were men, would we have demanded more? If we were men, would our pain be better understood? If women are thought of as “delicate” and our pain no surprise, then, why is it we are called hysterical when we name that pain and ask for accommodations?
Let’s be good to our bodies and to other people’s too. If you’re not sure how, consider the witch’s creed: “Do what you will and it harm none.” If you’re not sure if what you’re doing or asking someone else to do will cause them harm, ask.
- LINDSEY BOLDT
Lindsey Boldt is a poet, performer, editor and educator living in Oakland. She is the author of the full-length book, “Overboard”, and the chapbooks, “Oh My, Hell Yes” and “Titties for Lindsey”. With her partner Steve Orth, she co-edits Summer BF Press and writes, directs and performs plays in the style of “Oakland Poetic Realism”. Recent productions include “Dating by Consensus” and “The Reading”. She is also an editor with The Post-Apollo Press.
Just when you thought you had seen it all…. Reb Livingston’s “Give Boot to the Muse; Behold the Power of Duende” is the first essay to be featured as part of the Vintage DB series! Crack open the dusty virtual pages of DB 4, Spring 2002, and you’ll find that this expository piece is a delicious bit of food for thought.
“It is easy to understand how the bull is the matador’s drunken beast—irrational, powerful and elusive. The artist who deals with his page, canvas, voice, clay with the same approach is the artist in search of duende.”
Reb Livingston is a prolific writer of both verse and prose. She has authored several books including her upcoming novel, Bombyonder, to be released by Bitter Cherry Books this October. Additionally, she curates the awesome Bibliomancy Oracle (bibliomancyoracle.tumblr.com) and is the editor/publisher of No Tell Books. Go check out all the cool stuff she does here: reblivingston.net.
Hiding within the “Canadian Strange” section of DB 8, Fall 2006, lurks this week’s intriguing vintage highlight. Reminiscent of journeying via guided meditation, listening to Catherine Kidd’s recording of her piece, “Blue Orb,” is sure to take you to new and interesting places.
“…this wisp of a sheep lay curled on my tongue
with an imaginary number painted on its side.
I supposed that it somehow got lost from the fold
or else just needed somewhere to hide…”
Catherine Kidd has written, performed, and recorded numerous pieces of prose and poetry. Her first novel, Missing the Ark, came out in April 2007 while her latest work includes “Hyena Subpoena,” a combination of poetry and soundscape. Find out about her latest ventures at her website: catkidd.com