categories: Cocktail Hour


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I wish I could say I was all fixed and ready to go, but two months out, physical issues remain.  The nerve that runs from its root in my neck out to my left thumb and forefinger was damaged before the operation and remains irritated.  Thumb still numb, all sorts of random pains and muscle tightness and odd sensations.  Similar to before the op, except that now I know it’s going to better and not worse, which is a big deal.  To some extent, this is a writer’s injury–if you’re using a keyboard and monitor that makes you look downward all day, and if you read with your head down a lot, you may be heading my direction.  Especially if you used to be a plumber and a sometime builder, drove a car into a telephone pole at age sixteen, had multiple ski wrecks over 50, and so on, a long list once you start compiling it, including a fall onto a pointed rock in a lake in New Hampshire a couple of years ago (just remembered that one) that left me lying face down in the water!  (My brother came running and pulled me out…).  My sense is that human males aren’t supposed to survive past about 45 years of age, and that’s with the extended warranty!

In my neck x-ray (appended) you can see the titanium plate and three of the six screws that hold it in place.  You can also see the fusion beginning, if you know what to look for, also, slips of cadaver bone where the discs used to be.  The bone is sterilized before it goes in, serves as a growth medium (they used to get it from the pelvis of the patient, leading to possibilities of further complication).  I’ve been wondering who died to give me and many others these little bits of thigh bone.  I dreamed under the influence of pain meds that it was a teen girl named Whitney in a car wreck.  I must improve my posture for her, be worthy.

My chiropractors are also friends of mine, very generous, and recently came over for lunch and to evaluate my work stations from the spinal point of view.  My studio is all wrong–desk too high, chair too low, lighting poor.  I’m going to have to invest in a really good office chair, for one thing (my pretty good one, already near ten years old, cocks my hips forward, Jason pointed out).  And, as I’m due for new computer equipment anyway, maybe a big monitor that I can look at straight on (Jan pointed out how far I had to bend my neck to use my habitual laptop).  They both talked about voice-recognition software so I could write by dictation, straight from speech to text.  Has anyone out there tried this?  Today I wrote a while at my lectern, a handsome old tall thing I bought surplus from Ohio State.  Normally it’s my dictionary stand, corner of my studio, but I propped laptop on it just to change my position.  Ernest Hemingway used to write his dialogue standing at a lectern, but with number two pencils….  I can’t hold a pencil very long, but that’s a different story–long term heavy-tool use.  Right now I’m in the house at the desktop, but typing with the keyboard in my lap.  Sitting is misery.  Standing and lying down, fine.  Walking is wonderful.  Sitting, did I say it sitting hurts?  What’s the best reading chair in the world?  Will you buy it for me?

Anyone have any writerly ergonomic advice? Know of software?  Want to be my secretary?  What’s the best desk chair?  How best to set up a desk?  How best to read?  I mean a book.  I’ve been lying on the floor on my back and holding books straight up in the air with both arms.  Works for a while.  There must be some kind of reading stand available.  I was reviewing a friend’s manuscript recently and used my music stand, kept my hands in my lap as much as possible.  My job is all reading and writing, and I’m going to have to find new ways to do it.   I’d love to hear any and all ideas….

  1. Wendy Stern writes:

    I also have a cervical fusion and also a lumbar fusion, and sitting at a computer kills me. I have made some adjustments that helped. For your laptop use a laptop stand and a extra keyboard. That will get your laptop up to eye level so you are not bending your neck all the time. It sounds like you have a good chair but double check your settings. Make sure the lumbar support is in the right place the curve of your low back. If it’s not adjust the seat back up or down. Make sure you have 2 fingers between your knee and the seat cushion. If not adjust the seat cushion forward or back. Make sure the arms of your chair let your arms rest on them but your arms should be parallel to the floor. Check the height of your chair making sure your feet are squarely on the floor and your upper thigh is also parallel to floor or with a slight slant high side your hip low side your knee. Always sit back in your chair and let the back of the chair do it’s job supporting your back. A rocking foot rest will help you keep back in your chair and takes pressure off your low back. Extra benefits include better. Circulation for your legs because you can keep your legs moving.
    Consider investing in a stand sit desk. You can use the footrest in this way too by putting one foot on the footrest. It will make standing easier.
    I do carry an awesome laptop stand from Rain Design and the rocking foot rest. Take a look.
    Good luck and I hope this helps you,
    Wendy Stern
    The Pain Solution, llc

  2. Bubba60 writes:

    I am interested in buying the set up (near the top) that shows the person sitting, has a bar that comes from the floor unit over his head and aloows what looks like up to three display monitors. Does this thing really exist? If so, where can I buy one?

    • Bill writes:

      It really exists–I forget where I found it. Google ergonomic desks and see what you come up with!

  3. nasher writes:

    I am sort of recovering from bad PC & reading habits!

  4. Mindy writes:

    Hi Bill, have you considered a treadmill desk? I couldn’t live without mine, and many of my writer friends use them as well. Those of us who write all day but have back problems find the best solution is in changing positions every few hours. Personally, I rotate between a regular desk, a standing desk, a treadmill desk, an easy chair desk, and working as I’m lying down. As long as I remember to make the switch consistently, I’m fine. You can see several of my desks, including my treadmill desk, at Hope that helps!

    • Bill writes:

      I’d like to try that! I have a standing work station, a Herman Miller Embody chair, a hammock, and a couch. It’s been working!

  5. Cheryl writes:

    Just wondered who makes the wonderful looking chair that is first displayed (the one with the smiling man – he must not have a sore back and hips and shoulders and arms and wrists. . .). I do medical transcription all day and would also love to have someone buy me such a desk/chair. Ergoquest also makes zero-gravity chairs/desks that are made to fit.

    • Bill writes:

      You know, I’m not sure anymore. But if you Google ergonomic chairs (images) you’ll probably find it. And if you do, please do report back. I want to give them credit. And wish I had a chair like that, too! And a big enough studio to accommodate it.

  6. Mike writes:

    Bill- there may be some products offered by the company I work for:, but I wouldn’t count on it- actually, many so called cures will make your condition worse. I practiced Yoga three times a week for 3 years and I have been pain free going on 6 years…. whatever works!
    Keep the faith-

  7. Libby Evans writes:

    Hi Bill,

    So sorry to hear about all of your problems, but glad that things are looking up. Does that plate stay in your neck? On the positive front, you still have some nice healthy curvature in your cervical spine and the operation seems to have restored the proper space between your discs– it’s looking pretty good in there (aside from those unsightly screws).

    Pragmatically speaking I was going to start from the other end (no, not that end!) , I mean your thumb. Have you tried those small neoprene thumb braces that isolate and protect your thumb? They could be useful to protect your thumb and those aggravated nerves while you work. There are many iterations of those braces, from whole wrist braces to the one I mentioned that just isolates the thumb. They are relatively cheap, available at PT stores and could help as part of the solution for writing without pain.

    Of course, the big picture solution that I would offer is this: sell your soul (or not) and write a number one best seller, with the proceeds, hire a sexy secretary who takes shorthand. (Remember those?). To prevent marital strife, hire a sexy female secretary MWF, and a sexy male secretary for Julia’s benefit on Tuesday and Thursday… I know it seems unfair that you get three days and Julia only two, but you are paying with the proceeds of the best-selling novel that you either sold or did not sell your soul to write.

    Best wishes for a healthy recovery,

    • Bill writes:

      Libby, thanks. I will look for thumb braces… And meanwhile, do you need a job?

      • Libby Evans writes:

        Ha! I think I would be too much like Mrs. Huh-Wiggins from the Carol Burnett show! I never learned short hand or even had a proper typing class. I am the slowest typist ever. Very sad for an aspiring writer. My husband, who is a finance guy types three times as fast as I do– I find that quite depressing. I’ll ask him what he’s doing Tuesdays and Thursdays… 🙂

        In the meantime glad to find that the innervation to the funny bone is completely in tact in your case. Carry on and more wishes for a speedy and smooth recovery,

        • Bill writes:

          Oh, I forgot about Huh-Wiggins… Slow can be good… Hope you haven’t been flinging your camera around the woods out there too much!

  8. Tommy Taylor writes:

    Bill, sorry to hear of your painful operation and recovery. Why nature designed our backs as the weakest link in a human’s chain of bones, we’ll never know.

    I also sit at a computer all day. Twelve years ago, I suffered a neck injury from craning over my laptop, as you describe. I couldn’t turn my head, and my right arm was numb down to the tips of my fingers. During physical therapy, I was given a bunch of advice on what works for computer geeks like us.

    >> I put my laptop in a docking station, and got an external monitor, keyboard and track ball.

    >> I got an ergonomic tilted keyboard stand. It tilts your keyboard up at the back, so your hands recline with the wrists up, fingers angled downward.

    >> I use an 18″ external flat screen monitor that rests on an adjustable swivel stand. This keeps it at the appropriate height so that my neck is not craning and my head remains level. Note that a really big monitor is not necessarily a good idea, as your eyes and head may have to roll up, down and sideways a bunch more. I tried that with a 21″ screen and quickly tired of it.

    >> I found that a mouse makes my wrist painful and numb, so I switch to a trackball. Took some getting used to, but it was a 100% successful fix.

    >> I got the Herman Miller Aeron chair. It’s perfect.

    >> Do you wear glasses for near/far-sightedness, or for reading, or none at all (yet)? The correct progressive lenses or bifocals can help a ton with the neck craning situation.

    >> The things that helped me the most are, in order: the tilted keyboard stand, track ball in lieu of mouse, properly positioned monitor, and Aeron chair.

    >> All of this works at a standard desk with sliding keyboard tray. It’s been twelve years injury free for me.

    Definitely work with a good physical therapist who specializes in this stuff. Here’s a link to office ergonomic products:

    Good luck!


    • Tommy Taylor writes:

      Need to to clarify the keyboard tray scenario. I tried bolting an adjustable keyboard stand to the bottom of my desk when I was battling my neck injury. It wasn’t as adjustable as the pundits claimed, and I returned it. It was also very expensive.

      My physical therapist expressed the importance of “negative tilt,” and he pointed out this “Adjustable Negative Tilt Tray.” I’ve been using it these past 12 years. it rests on your desk’s slide-out keyboard tray. I also got the matching mouse stand.

      Good luck with your recovery.

    • Bill writes:

      Tommy, these are all really great ideas. I’m going to start PT soon, and I know I’ll be read the riot act…. I’ve got a lot to learn about all this… Very glad to hear you speak of your neck issues in past tense!

  9. Mike Land writes:


    It sounds like you’re systematically moving through the challenges, and giving me a lot to think about, too. I’m still laptop bound, but in a recliner, as you might remember, which brings me almost eye-level. But your diagrams have me thinking about moving back to the bedroom table and desk unit.

    Hang in there, and keep us apprised.


    P.S. Glad to say I finally saw “Rabbit Hole”; you were right. Fine film.

    • Bill writes:

      Mike, we will bury you in that recliner. I’m still thinking on the desk issue…

  10. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Bill, as far as the healing process I recommend massage . . . and acupuncture for lingering nerve issues. In my experience, it helped. About six or seven years ago the AMA finally admitted it worked, said no one knows why, and it doesn’t matter how it’s done. A grudging endorsement, to be sure, but true in my experience in the sense that of at least half a dozen acupuncturists I’ve tried, they all have done it differently and it all seemed to work. Something about sending the impulses back in a new direction.

    I now write in a La-Z-Boy recliner, mostly. Sounds like you would fall immediately asleep, however . . .

    • Bill writes:

      Richard, thanks–I am going to try acupuncture, and everything else, if for no other reason than to write about it…. As for La-Z-Boy, I don’t actually think I could sleep any more than I already do while writing…

      • Richard Gilbert writes:

        Ha! Bill, you must count sleeping as writing time, along with gardening and birdwatching. I know I do!

        Meant to say before that I used a dining room chair carried upstairs to my desk as my office chair five years ago when I started my memoir. My back soon broke down–it was rather amazing. Oh, the pain. Just from a chair, the wrong chair. I got a Herman Miller number and the woes stopped.

        Now I have a different office and, as I say, migrated to the La-Z-Boy.

        • Richard Gilbert writes:

          Oh, and for soothing your aches and pains (other than bourbon, of course) I highly recommend IBU Relief 12: it is a salve that is topical Ibuprofen. It works instantly, unlike the stuff you eat.

          When I run out, I google it on the internet and order, costs about $20 for a container like the size of Pond’s cold cream. Now, I don’t know possible side effects or doses or interactions, so read the directions. I never have, but don’t be like me. I am telling you, it is amazing stuff if you need it. I rarely use it, but when I do it’s the bee’s knees. I have always presumed it’s safer than pills because it doesn’t run through your liver, but I may be wrong about that.

          • Bill writes:

            I’ll check out the IBU Relief 12, for sure… I bet it does run through your liver, though… anyone out there know? Thanks, Richard, for all your ideas–I’ve never taken office furniture seriously enough, obviously… And I need a bigger studio to accommodate all the ideas I’m getting!

  11. Roseann Fitzgerald writes:

    Bill, In my office many are opting to sit on exercise balls (seriously). I’m still sticking with a chair and a desk. I’m sure you’ve asked your physician for recommendations for a good chair and the Aeron Chair looks like the type of chair that might work (but I don’t know). Also, I think the Dragon Software is a great idea but saw this good video about some of the perils of voice recognition technology:

    Also here’s one on the “Perfect Ergonomic Desk”– it’s all about making sure it’s adjustable:

    Good luck with your decision, Bill. I’m sure you’ll find something that will work for you!


    • Bill writes:

      I’ve seen several (doctor’s) office people sitting on exercise balls… I’m afraid I’d roll off and land on my neck, but… Would be a lot cheaper than some of the stuff I’m seeing!

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Roseann–These videos amaze me–all the stuff available, and all the pitfalls. Funny, too, thanks!

  12. John Jack writes:

    On the standing typewriting and reading ergonomics. Stand-up desks might be a way to go, but costly. Key West Writing Desk Base price $1.395.00. I’d make one for myself though for about a tenth the cost. I’d add a monitor shelf so the screen middle was about eye height and with the keyboard at about elbow height. For a laptop either a peripheral monitor or a peripheral wireless keyboard, which would be the simplest and less expensive option.

  13. Pat Shipley writes:

    Bill, get your physical therapist to do an ergonomic evaluation of your “work station”. The adjustment of desk and chair height, distance from the computor, wrist supports and in your case a bit of backward tilt and head support would likely help. One of my patients is a writer who has every possible modification and he is finally comfortable.
    I am a Dragon failure. I think the above note that it is best for those who dictate is accurate. If you are used to seeing your words appear rather than hearing your voice I think it would be hard for a writer (especially one with precocious development of typing skills). Although I dictate my chart notes Dragon’s learning curve was too steep. I would try to teach it to recognize “saccadic pursuit” (choppy eye movements) but would always get” psychotic pursuit”. You might want to play with Dragon (hey, I’ll send you mine, it’s in the basement). I’m going to try the Dragon app on the IPad to see if it’s any easier.
    It your PT isn’t into the ergonomic home evaluation let me know and I’ll send you some info.
    Healing is a slow process. You will get there.

    • Bill writes:

      Pat, thanks as always… I’m definitely going to get advice and invest in these tools of the trade… psychotic pursuit… saccade is one of my favorite words, btw, just the sound of it… I knew it from horses, but now I know it’s eyes, too… like when we were kids we’d watch each other’s eyes in the car trying to follow the power lines, a series of jerks… I mean of the eyes, not that we siblings were jerks… My siblings are very nice… I don’t know how I’ll do with voice recognition… I’m a bit of a mumbler….

  14. Susan Pearsall writes:

    Could you read in a reclining chair? It would be more comfortable for your back than sitting. A good friend with back problems was able to write on a laptop in a reclining chair. You might have to use something to raise the laptop. Ask an occupational therapist for ideas. Good Luck!

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks Susan… I can read in a reclining chair, but only about a half page before I’m snoozing! Back in the day I’d fall asleep with my head on the typewriter and wake up with the impression of keys on my forehead, letters and all…

  15. John Jack writes:

    I have Dragon Speaking Naturally voice recognition software. Use it passably. It has a steep learning curve and a lengthy voice recognition training period for it to reach maximum efficiency, ~90%.

    My preferred method is to speak aloud into a digitial recorder and render from the recording into text then edit. Otherwise, I get caught up correcting as I speak into the software as it types as I speak.

    I’ve noticed a marked difference in my writing when composing aurally and when composing by typing. I’m not too enamoured of my spoken writing. Too much telling, not very close narrative distance. It’s okay for sketching, outlining, and drafting preliminaries. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach a point where I’m practiced enough to write creatively solely with the program. I’m too self-conscious, I guess. I kinda hoped it would all gel by using voice recognition. It didn’t. Wishes and pipedreams. Maybe if I could let go of my doubts and inhibitions.

    My digital recorder is a music player and USB thumb drive also. An Olympus, it’s about the size of a five-count box of candy cigarettes. I’m not an iPod head. Listening to some Ray Charles, “Here We Go Again.”

    • Bill writes:

      I’ll look into Dragon… And would hope at best it gave me first drafts to work with?

      • John Jack writes:

        Could be Dragon would do for drafts. My discussions with other Dragon users illustrated there’s people who are natural aural composers and find voice recognition a godsend. Others like me have to work at it. The divide I noted is between writers who are at ease speaking their thoughts aloud–like doctors dictating medical notes, lecturers, preachers, business executives, transcriptionists, and stenographers–and writers who aren’t as at ease speaking aloud.

        You’re experience as a professor speaking aloud might place you in the former group. Standing up speaking you might need a large-screen monitor to see. I set text size large in my medium size laptop monitor so I can see it clearly while I aurally type.

        Dragon also works with other applications. Browsers, e-mail, DragonPad is the wordprocessor it comes with, an extension of Wordpad, though the program also works with WordPerfect, Word, Wordpad, Notepad, etc. I find composing in Notepad most straightforward.