As mentioned in the conclusion to part one, at the time I decided to pull back from public participation on the internet around the year 2000, the Beyond Vegetarianism (a.k.a. Beyond Veg) website that I had created a few years before had more or less accomplished my original goals for it. Other sites with allied views were now joining in to add their voices to the mix, which provided more momentum in raising awareness of the paleo vs. vegan dietary issues we had helped spearhead. It was good to see this unfolding.
The initial reason why I opted out
Gradual onset of repetitive stress injury
While the influence the website was having in its corner of the internet was satisfying, I wasn’t thinking about that as a reason for moving on at the time I dropped offline. I hadn’t really stopped that long to assess where we were at in our trajectory. That came more in retrospect in helping to support my decision. At the time, I just wanted to find the solution to a case of repetitive stress injury (RSI) I had been dealing with for a while prior to Beyond Veg, but that had gradually become more and more serious.
Slowly dawning awareness. I first began to experience initial symptoms of RSI sometime in 1996, about a year prior to beginning work on the website, but it took me a while to realize that’s what was happening. RSI cases can vary considerably from one person to the next, and in my case manifested as tendonitis after many years of working at computer keyboards, both for work and pleasure.
The first symptoms I experienced felt, oddly, like small grains of sand or grit that had gotten lodged underneath the ends of my fingernails. At first I thought it was nothing more than impact shock from the ends of my fingers hitting the keyboard. It was baffling because I had always had a fairly light touch, or at least thought I did. Using lightweight, form-fitting gloves to provide padding for my fingertips did provide help in preventing these particular symptoms. However, over time I developed other symptoms in my hands and arms that made me realize there was more to the problem than simple keyboarding trauma, even though that was one aspect of it.
Roots of the problem
Looking back, there were actually some earlier warning signs I now realize I had experienced some years before this. I can recall a couple of times having gotten a very sore little right finger from the impact of repeatedly hitting the Enter key when doing iterative global search-and-replaces on a personal computer with a crappy keyboard I had in the late 1980s/early 1990s. At that time I thought it was just a temporary overuse issue. I now realize that some people’s bodies like mine are just more prone to overuse injuries and RSIs, and this was the very first sign. But it took me months and even years to understand this.
A former advantage becomes a liability. In most cases it takes a number of years for RSI to develop, and beyond individual susceptibility, the groundwork is usually laid by any one or more of several factors. In my case, one of the most important was probably the thing that to that point in my life had always been an advantage: natural endurance (which led to my becoming a distance runner), stick-to-it-ive-ness, and the ability to maintain concentration over long periods of time. When I got on a roll writing and really got into the flow, I didn’t want to take breaks, and could work away for hours at a time straight (well, other than to pee or feed my face). Later I learned regular breaks were a must, but the field of ergonomics and RSI prevention was not something most people were very aware of at that time.
Beyond Veg not the half of it. The hours devoted to Beyond Veg were not the only hours I was spending on the computer. My career as a typesetter, then graphic designer, and for a time, ad copywriter, was also computer-based. I had been on computer keyboards since 1983 (first as a typesetter) for over a dozen years before the RSI began to become a significant issue. In the beginning I was working on proprietary typesetting equipment, which included deluxe, nicely designed keyboards that did not put undue stress on my fingers and hands.
Things began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, though, once I got my first personal computer with the above-mentioned crappy keyboard. I began using it for bookkeeping and a few technical tasks, but also for writing as well, once I began participating in offline many-to-manys (M2Ms) and internet email forums before the rise of the World-Wide Web.
Built-in breaks prior to the advent of telecommunications. But during these years, the saving grace was I had regular enforced breaks from the computer many times a day. I got at least an hour’s break usually once a day from regular pickup and delivery runs in the car, either getting typesetting and graphic design jobs from clients or dropping off finished work. These were the days just before and during the debut of desktop publishing (DTP) technology using personal computers, which took a while to penetrate the professional typesetting market.
So the typesetting I did was still output on galleys that had to be run through photographic processing tanks, hung to dry, then run through a waxing machine to prepare them for paste-up by a designer, which meant numerous short breaks throughout the workday. As the years went on and DTP began to decimate the typesetting market, I branched out into graphic design to keep my self-employed income stream going, still outputting type in galley form with my typesetting equipment, complemented by paste-up to put together designs. The paste-up work itself constituted another break from keyboarding.
Fax machines, then internet eliminate breaks for pickup and delivery. The turning point, though, that eventually began overloading my hands and arms with too much repetitive stress was, first, the appearance of fax machines. Suddenly I was no longer, or only rarely, going on pickup runs for typesetting or design work, mainly just delivery runs. (Clients were now faxing copy to be typeset over to me.) The result was I began working more hours at the keyboard instead.
After that came modems, telecommunications, email, and file uploads/downloads, which eliminated most delivery runs as well, resulting in even more hours at the computer keyboard. By this time, I had made the switch to DTP technology myself and fully joined the personal computing revolution.
More and more tasks move to the computer. The whole idea behind computers at the time, and still today, of course, was to move ever more tasks onto the computer for increasingly greater efficiency. And if one had a knack for computers, it was, of course, enjoyable working with the technology.
But this meant that a large proportion of one’s time during the day was spent mostly immobile in terms of gross-motor whole-body movement, while a much greater load was being placed on fine-motor movements of the wrists, hands, and fingers. People were not thinking about how out-of-tune this is with the human body’s need for frequent and varied overall-body movement to maintain good physical fitness and freedom from injury.
More keyboarding from fledgling writing career. On the heels of the technological shift to fax machines and — then computerized telecommunications — came a few years during the mid to late 1990s when I began a fledging advertising copywriting business, just before and during the Beyond Veg years. DTP had cut into my income significantly even though I had branched out into graphic design to try and make up the difference, and ad copywriting was something that came fairly naturally. (I picked it up almost by “observational osmosis” from the years of typesetting work I had done for ad agencies and design studios.)
Add in Beyond Veg, the result was eventual overload. Whereas previously my time on the computer had been split roughly equally between keyboard and mouse usage, with the shift into copywriting and then Beyond Veg at the same time, I was now spending much more time on the keyboard. And it was all the added keyboarding that proved to be the most detrimental for me in bringing on the RSI issues, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not that that was the only thing, however. Repetitive mouse work in applications such as Photoshop (repeated click-click-click-click-click photo-retouching sessions, for example) was also contributing to the chronic tendonitis in my forearms and upper arms.
Trial, error, and self-help. By the year 2000, I was having serious ongoing issues with tendon inflammation in both my upper and lower arms, on top of the keyboard-impact issues with my hands. (Note: most people equate “carpal tunnel” syndrome with RSI, but carpal tunnel cases actually constitute less than 10% of RSI cases. Tendonitis is far more common.) I tried switching to a pressure-sensitive graphic stylus pad for several months instead of using a mouse. But while it relieved some RSI symptoms, it caused other problems such as a chronically sore thumb from the constant pencil-grip pressure, as well as writer’s-cramp forearm tendonitis.
Somewhere along the way, I went to a medical specialist in RSIs who ran me through the standard battery of tests, and referred me to a physical therapist for consultation. But it wasn’t hard to see that the goal of the insurance industry was to run me through their gauntlet but one time, then spit me out the other end so as to avoid paying out any ongoing medical reimbursement for a chronic condition like RSI. Like most people who deal with RSI, it became clear I had little to rely on but myself in figuring out how to handle things.
The low point
At its worst, I put myself on a disciplined regimen of working no longer than about 45 minutes at a time on the computer, interspersed with breaks of 20 to 30 minutes, and limited my total work time on the computer to four hours a day. This put me on an even keel where the RSI symptoms began to stabilize and I could work, but it killed my daily productivity.
Giving up clientele and income. I had to give up my top typesetting/design client and turn them over to a friendly colleague/competitor, which impacted my income and finances significantly. Not only that, I was forced to abandon my still-newborn ad copywriting business that had been showing promising signs it could be successful long-term. Instead, I made a little lemonade out of the lemons being thrown my way by turning the proofreading skills I’d developed during the typesetting years into a small part-time occupation serving a few long-time ad agency clients to help supplement my income.
Relinquishing Beyond Veg. Finally, I felt I had little choice but to throw in the towel on Beyond Veg, and turn it over to my site partner Tom Billings. After this, it took another few years of learning and trial-and-error to begin successfully managing the RSI. I won’t go into that here except for the broad outlines, other than to say if you are prone to it, managing RSI is an ongoing discipline. (At some point I plan to make a post about what I’ve learned, with tips and guidelines for others who may have to deal with it.)
The reasons I stayed away for 15 years
Long before I got a grip on how to handle the RSI issues, though, I realized that even if they hadn’t pushed me to move on from the Beyond Veg effort, other things eventually would have. The RSI was the initial reason I ended up dropping off the ’net, but it wasn’t the reason I stayed offline for 15 years. Once I had taken some time off from “putting myself out there” online and began living on the sidelines, other things conspired to keep me there.
Being on the sidelines didn’t mean dropping off the internet. As mentioned in Part 1, I want to clarify that being “on the sidelines” just meant that I withdrew from public participation and running a growing website, which meant I was no longer involved with writing, other than limited forms such as email. Aside from that (both personal and business email), I frequented Amazon and bought books; followed other interests online such as distance running and track; read website and blog articles; researched whatever subjects caught my interest; and so forth.
Passive vs. active internet use. These were from my point of view passive activities, though, both in terms of consuming (instead of creating) content, but just as importantly in terms of the RSI. Surfing the web and reading involve mostly intermittent mouse-clicking and little keyboarding, so weren’t much of an aggravation repetitive-stress-wise. Later, once I had the RSI under better control, I got involved with an online business and website, Leeward Productions, my custom promotional car tags operation.
In terms of reading and research interests, though, I moved on to other things besides nutrition and the paleo vs. veggie debates. I did check into the veggie and paleo scenes once in a great while to catch up on key issues I might have missed, but otherwise kept away from the fray.
Looking back, the reasons I stayed away from active participation on the ’net as long as I did could be divided into practical issues, on the one hand, and those related to my personality type as an introvert, on the other. At first, the practical issues took precedence, while the personality issues began exerting their influence over time.
RSI: learning how to manage the beast
The most pressing practical problem, of course, was the RSI. As mentioned earlier, I won’t go into the details about how I dealt with it here. But here’s just a brief taste. Most people who have had a chronic case will tell you it is a very thorny predicament. In most cases, you don’t solve it easily, or quickly. If you make your living working at the computer, and you don’t figure out a way to handle it, RSI can take your career and your livelihood away from you.
Medical treatment, insurance of little help. The medical profession is often clueless what to do, despite lip service about posture, ergonomics, physical therapy, etc. The insurance industry just plain doesn’t care. They have won the precedent-setting legal cases, and if you get RSI, you are basically SOL (look up the acronym) in terms of medical reimbursement for any ongoing expenses that might mount up.
That said, insurance may pay for doctors to cut on you, if you want that (if you get a reimbursable diagnosis), but it’s far better avoided if you value your long-term functionality and well-being. What it will usually not pay for are the things that are most effective: ongoing long-term therapy such as regular deep-tissue massage, for example, in my case.
Little understanding from other people. Family members may think you’re being a wimp or a whiner or should just be tougher. Employers may believe you’re malingering, when in fact it is the hardest workers who tend to get RSI. Usually, you have only yourself to rely on, with the aid of internet support forums, websites, and books. Those have been the sources I have relied on.
Few cures for RSI — instead you learn to proactively manage it. In perhaps the majority of cases, you never really cure RSI. Instead you learn to “manage” it, on multiple fronts. To keep it at a low ebb. A more ergonomic overall workstation setup, ergonomic keyboards, better mouse usage, or mouse alternatives. You try to work on better posture, take regular breaks, do stretching and/or get regular deep-tissue work or massage done, work on more balanced physical fitness, not just stretching, but strength work and aerobics. You learn to limit or avoid certain types of work.
RSI can push you to live a more balanced overall life. Even if you would prefer to approach your passions in a single-minded way, you may find focusing too intently on any given pursuit isn’t healthy for you, even if you love that single thing (writing), as I did, and do. You develop alternate ways of approaching your passions. You moderate your habits. You may need to work at a slower pace, to work smarter instead of harder, with more forethought, to exercise more patience and perseverance.
I was fortunate that during the very worst stages of the RSI, I was self-employed and could control my hours and breaks more or less as I saw fit, even giving up a good client, though it cost me income. But eventually, due to the continuing erosion of the graphic design market from the inroads of desktop publishing, I faced a crossroads in my career. The difficulty was this came before I had really gotten a very good grip on managing the RSI.
Self-employment was no longer bringing in enough income, and I couldn’t figure out where to head next. What I needed was a way to get sufficient income flowing in again, but at the same time provide myself with enough time and space in my life inside and outside of work to gradually experience and learn the ropes of what it was going to take to deal with the RSI problem.
DTP had eliminated many typesetting and design careers. Income-wise, DTP had seriously eroded the middle of the graphic design market. The high end, such as ad agencies and boutique/hotshot design studios, was not materially affected. The low end burgeoned because of the democratization of DTP and people working out of their basements and bedroom offices. But it did so by taking business away from the vast middle of the market — where I was — which lost serious market share. Since my graphic design talents lay more in the typographic and layout end of things, and not the chic, high-end design segment, that left me out, more or less.
Short-term ad agency job to the rescue. To get back on my feet financially, I took a job with an ad agency (formerly a proofreading client) that valued my proofing skills, technical production-art abilities, and miscellaneous jack-of-all-trades graphics and computer know-how enough they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and cut me a little slack time-wise. Other employees in the design department may have had to work 50 hours a week, where I was allowed to cut it short at 40. And part of my job (proofreading) gave me a break from the computer side of it, which itself was not as demanding keyboard-wise as the work some of the other employees had to do, and as what I had done in my own business.
During this time I had the breathing room I needed and slowly began figuring how to handle the RSI, though not without periodic setbacks and flare-ups. When the ad agency job came to an end after a couple of years, I talked with my friend Lee Shiney who was looking for help starting his custom promotional car tags business back up as he recovered from cancer treatment. It was a good opportunity to become self-employed again, and we formed an equal partnership, combining our first names and calling it Leeward Productions.
Becoming self-employed again. It was a good thing I had been able to arrive at some strategies for minimizing the RSI issues, because the start-up phase was very time-consuming. Lee handled the “back-end” tasks of screen-printing and shipping of car tags, while I took care of the “front end”: creating and maintaining our business website; programming our order-tracking database, along with performing the ongoing data entry for orders; dealing with customers by phone and email; and designing license plates.
Fortunately, the work involved was varied enough in terms of the keyboard and mouse work required on the computer, with adequate break time in the form of customer phone calls, talks with Lee, and so forth, that I was able to handle the significantly longer work hours everything demanded. This was another practical reason for staying on the sidelines of the internet: I just didn’t have the time I did previously. And because most of my creative energies were going into this new venture, I didn’t miss the thick-and-thin of having been involved with a popular website and related subculture on the web like I might have before.
Too much blather about food
Something that followers of Beyond Veg might have been surprised to know was that dietary issues and the “paleo vs. veg” arena weren’t actually that big a focal point in my day-to-day life, at least not long-term. I started the website because finding answers to this conundrum had been an important issue in regaining my health after a serious downfall. At that time, what I and the other site contributors were researching and writing about were key areas of inquiry for me.
Inquiry and discovery the important thing. But it is the process of inquiry itself and investigating the possible answers — to open up the mind to new vistas and enlarge one’s perspective on and understanding of life — that was and is the underlying driving force for me. Once the terrain in a particular area has been mapped out and filled in with enough detail to get a good view of the landscape and the big picture begins to emerge, then I’m ready to move on. If one stays in place too long repeating themselves, for me at least, things become… boring. It is discovery that makes life interesting. It is too easy to become self-satisfied and get mired in a stagnant point of view that takes the life out of life. I am not built that way.
Nutrition and diet not the center of my life. To put it a little more bluntly, I realized I was tired of talking about food. It is food — for me, more of a functional thing to support health and gustatory pleasure, not a religious sacrament or pursuit. You eat a meal, you are done, your hunger is satisfied, you move on to the next thing in your day, until you become hungry again. It has its place, but why the endless preoccupation and blather over it? My perspective, of course. I understand some people base their hobbies and in some cases careers on this, but it wasn’t me.
It turned out that, when I considered it, I had said just about all I had to say on the topics of vegetarianism and paleo diet I felt was worthwhile at that time. This was not the center of my life. It had been an intense and important interest for me for a certain stretch of time. But as some wag once said, “When you get the message, you hang up the phone.”
I did not have a lifetime-avocation type of interest in these subjects like so many people whose lives seem to revolve around them. They do remain touchstones I return to from time to time to see what’s been happening, to see if anything might have changed, and to make sure I am not neglecting anything health-wise, but… the universe of diet isn’t something that holds me mesmerized in its tractor-beam, like UFO-believers gathered round when the mother ship is landing.
The multi-headed Hydra of uncomprehending, paper-bag thinkers
Emotionally driven reactions. Once out of the main arena of discourse, I realized I was tired of dealing with the same hackneyed objections, myths, and logical fallacies over and over, which would reappear like the heads of a Hydra in myriad forms, from unblinking, uncomprehending, ignorant, harping, carping, angry, small minds — vociferously stuck in endlessly repeating tape loops. Lost in emotional reaction, unable to reason coherently, to think their way out of a paper bag, to see the bigger picture. I had tired of the mindset and factions that approached dietary tenets as a religion to be loyal to, rather than as guideposts toward optimal health that are best held in mind flexibly, and modified, even cast aside and completely reformulated, if found wanting.
Which is what I had been forced to do myself, and not willingly at first. I had been a vegetarian myself from age 16 to age 33 for 17 years, a near-vegan for the last few years of that stretch, and had plenty invested in it intellectually. But when I began to find the framework did not reflect reality, after a period of unsettling disbelief while trying to establish new bearings, I could not deny what my body, and just as importantly the research, was telling me. Because what can you do instead? Soldier on, beholden to a myth that manifestly isn’t working, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to something that has betrayed you? That betrays itself when it is willing to uphold a diet over an individual’s health?
Unthinking objections vs. careful research. Dealing with the hive-mind of buzzing, flitting objections was hard work. Which I didn’t mind in and of itself. Except that it was an asymmetrical task in terms of the effort required to deal with speculative objections from people voicing an opinion based on no evidence, or bogus evidence, to be met by carefully researched answers that might take us hours, days, even weeks to properly research.
Burden of proof. The adage that the burden of proof rests with those making a claim or an objection was something that we followed on the site, but one that those taking the other side could not be bothered to honor, or only rarely, even if they knew what it entailed. And that was if they did not misunderstand what we were saying to begin with, which was the usual state of affairs.
For example, after pointing out how different meats are when raised paleo-style (grass-fed) in terms of the fat profile and ratios compared to feedlot-raised beef, people would still make objections that illustrated they hadn’t understood the point, unawarely lumping both meat sources together with the indiscriminate term “meat” or “omnivorous diet.” Yet they might then turn right around and castigate others for lumping together all vegetarian diets as the same.
Degrees held made little difference in ability to reason. The most frequent and typical example we observed here, even from R.D.s, M.D.s, and Ph.D.s who should have known better — and you still see this frequently today — was the citation of clinical studies seemingly indicating a vegetarian diet to be more healthy than an omnivorous diet. But it turned out that for “omnivorous diet,” the studies used control subjects who ate a standard American diet including junk food, and presumably indiscriminate factory-farmed feedlot meats, since no effort had been made to control for the composition of the meat. Which doesn’t prove much, because there aren’t too many things that are not healthier than a typical American omnivorous diet.
Knee-jerk emotionalism. Researching and basing articles on scientific citations when addressing objections or criticisms, and doing so fairly, is not easy. Those taking the potshots, on the other hand, would base their objections on little more than knee-jerk emotionalism and speculative hot air in most cases.
There was a “psychological war games” aspect required in planning the outline of a paper or post, anticipating the anger something was likely to provoke, heading off illogical objections at the pass in advance, occasionally even setting traps that you knew people who were emotionally reactive and could not think logically would fall into, thereby discrediting themselves. Not because that would convince them — impossible, really — but because the real audience was those on the fence, the onlookers not participating in the debate, who would make the judgment.
For me, this eventually became tiresome, and as noted above, we had already accomplished the main goals I had had for the site.
The devolution of civil discourse
Nutcases and bullies. This is not to mention that there were some crazies and nutcases out there as well. My site partner Tom Billings even received threats of violence from a few angry vegans — who supposedly, ironically, upheld an ethic of nonviolence. Whether they would ever have followed through is debatable, but it showed the depths to which people could stoop. I didn’t receive any such threats myself because I worked mostly behind the scenes, while Tom was more the “front man.” However, the attempted bullying gave an indication of the kind of kooks and extremists who were out there, and how emotionally threatened they felt.
Now, some may say that nutrition is one of the most strife-ridden topics out there. Even if I moved on from it, weren’t there other topics one could become involved with online that aren’t so contentious, acrimonious, and riddled with unreasoned emotion? To a point, yes.
Polarization or echo chamber, take your pick. As time has gone on, however, one thing I think everyone has probably noticed is how polarized America has become, and it seems to be dominating the content and infecting discussions on the internet more and more and more. The advent of blogs some years ago has also made the burden of entry so low that it is now very difficult to winnow the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. (I have a saying: 90% of everything is s#&t. But online, it’s gotten to be more like 97% or 98%.) For me, it became difficult to find worthwhile, thoughtful reading that wasn’t either polarized in tone, or simply tedious via sheer repetition of the same things everyone else was saying, in just slightly different words.
The upshot: It sure was easier to just not bother with it. So the years began to pass by.