Mining for Fun

. . . in the Hard Crust of Technical Documentation

by Desmond Rutherford

In my work, I seek fun every day. It’s not as easy as flicking a light switch or dialing up my furnace to warm my home. It takes focus, mind games, heart games, and empathy. I must dig deep, turn over odiferous diatomaceous earth to reveal shining nuggets of fun to brighten up my gray cube walls, inspire my coworkers, and whistle through the day as a motivated Funman. But too often it’s pickaxe hard to break through the barriers of the daily chores.

I do instructional design consulting work for a utility company. A typical day can include several hours of reading technical documents and complex procedures, and while eyeball deep in this reading I don’t feel very fun and sometimes forget what fun can be. I travel in my mind through large natural gas transmission lines, under several hundred pounds of pressure, trying to develop training for workers who cut into these lines in order to tie in new paths for gas transmission and distribution. This is the work that ultimately results in my ability to turn a dial and heat my home, something I took for granted until I started to do this work. I’ve developed a deep respect for the people that make this happen. It involves isolating, at times, miles of pipeline, purging the gas from the line, and cutting out an old section to create new paths. Because it can be gravely dangerous to isolate a gas line (e.g., the control valves leak, or the landscape is too severe to work safely), work must be performed “hot.” Working hot means using a welding torch to cut into a pipeline while it is still filled with pure natural gas. The right mixture of gas and air is incredibly explosive. I try to be empathetic.

It’s empathy that changes the game for me. I imagine what it must be like to do this work. Truly, I can’t – these linemen are a tough breed and work under conditions I haven’t the courage for. However, I do appreciate their commitment in the midst of a complex, difficult, dangerous, and volatile environment that can turn catastrophic. Real fast. While I may not be the guy to perform these feats, I can create training to keep them safe and potentially save their lives. It’s more than just a motivation – it’s literally a matter of life and death. The better I understand the conditions, the more I can make that difference.

It helps that I also get to interview people who have been doing this work, in some cases for more than 30 years. They tell hair-raising, blood-curdling stories of things gone awry, of people on fire. Breaking down each moment, each movement, and isolating the second when something goes wrong is what I do to improve how people do this work and ensure that they get into their cars again at the end of a shift. I’ve discovered there’s nothing more fun than being focused on a task you have deep empathy for, a task that has real purpose.

Not every job I do is about saving a life, but keeping my mind and heart centered on who benefits from what I do is central to having fun at work. We all do (or hope to do) work that, in some measure, helps our own species. This is true whether we prepare food, sew a garment, create art, write code, tune an engine, or prepare a serum to keep a disease at bay. We work to serve the purpose of helping each other. Having empathy helps us to see how we do that and hold each other up. It fuels our drive, and our ability to appreciate the bigger picture. With a clearer aerial view, it’s easier to understand how even seemingly innocuous activities are the scaffolding for a bigger structure. I chose to inject empathy into the daily grind to soften the hard crust I must drill through to cultivate purpose – and to harvest fun.

Fun with Pain

We’re all familiar with pain, and most of us are blessed to be free of it for the vast majority of our lives.  I personally have a high pain threshold, and I’m often asked, “What happened to your hand?” and am unable to summon a response.  I don’t know.  I’m sure I bashed it against something sometime, but I don’t keep track.  It doesn’t matter much, or make an impression.

But pain.  Real pain, pain you can’t ignore.  Pain that reaches out of your soul and says, “Hi!” and no mistake about it.  My worst was an earache when I was a child, an earache that lasted for days and just pushed everything else out of my consciousness.  Pain that went on and on and nothing else mattered.  I’ve also had telescope bowel (you ladies imagine giving birth through your belly button), second and third degree burns over almost half my body, and other bowel-shaking painful episodes, so I have credentials – but I think we’ve all had at least a few moments of monumental pain.  Real pain.

Pain is the opposite of fun – at least that’s how we play it.  Break your arm, hurting and a bit spiteful, and you’ll likely underplay the pain when asked with a response like, “This is no fun.”  Pain isn’t fun.  But you can have fun with pain.

Okay, this seems over the top.  Here’s Richard with his New Age, groovy, Zen master take on pain:  we can make it fun!  Woo-hoo!  Let’s march right over to the terminal cancer ward and cheer those folks up!  Get them enjoying their Parcheesi and dancing the tango instead of suffering with pain that opiates can’t help!

That’s not fun with pain – or at least it’s not the core of what I’m trying to say.  Fun with pain is making a victory.  Not a victory from defeat, but a victory in the face of defeat.  Pain will win, pain wins and you lose, but it doesn’t have to win everything.  You can be injured or suffering a chronic disease that leaves you in constant physical pain, or depressed or despairing and suffering the tortures of the psychologically damned – and still snatch a fragment of food from the devouring maw of misery, still grab a scrap of a win from a sure loss.  Fun with pain is beyond the usual range of deciding between a state that’s nice and one that’s not so nice – it’s a metaphysical, existential battle for yourself with the inevitable forces of the universe, or, more cruelly, with your own body.  Fun with pain is suffering but not failing to notice that the sunset is particularly fine, or bantering with your nurse because you notice she’s suffering and your tiny drop of unexpected happiness from a sufferer means a lot.

Fun with pain is real fun, fundamental fun.  Fun is easy with friends at the bar, or watching a gorgeous Hawaiian sunset after snorkeling, or celebrating success after your latest hostile takeover.  Fun in the midst of misery is a flag that everyone should salute, a testament to belief in the beauty of being a human being on this planet.  It’s showing respect for the many, many moments that you weren’t in pain – or that you were, and could forget the pain for a moment to hear the waves going rhup rhup rhup on the shoreline and know that life is good, even if you aren’t really.

Fun with pain is making your box very very small.  It’s shrinking your moment down to the point that you can notice potential pleasure despite the onslaught of unrelenting pain.  I’ve seen it in my family, friends, and most clearly in my father, who suffered perhaps the most existential torture of all – Alzheimer’s disease.  The pain of loss of self, gradual but while self-aware – even as self-awareness took on a whole new meaning in the face of loss of self.  Near the very end, days before my father died, I looked into his eyes and saw little of the awareness that made him what he was – sharp, a bit unforgiving, but warm – but there was a little.  A tortuously little, enough to know that inside this husk that used to be the man I looked up to more than anyone in the world lived a homunculus of him that knew what was happening, and was so sad.  But within this hopelessness and pain could emerge moments, little teeny eeny weeny bits of victory.  In the forbidding face of clumping proteins and neurodegeneration were real moments of laughter and touch.  I touched my father before he died, and it was good.  He couldn’t remember my name, or really recognize me in the way we usually know the word, but he did feel happy to be with me.  He had a little teeny eeny weeny bit of fun in the face of disaster.  I did too, even if I cried.

Don’t forget that.  I’ve never, and I never will, forget that it’s never, ever, ever too late to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  And that victory in defeat is the best success . . . perhaps a victory that will never be celebrated, or even noticed, but a victory that is fun at it’s purest. It’s laughing at the end of it all and shaking your fist at the sky, it’s poking your great-grandchild until she cries and making her have nightmares about wrinkly faced old guys with bad breath (that’s how I remember my grandfather – but I do remember). Have a little bit of fun now, even (especially) if you aren’t in pain.  And later, maybe just a teeny bit more.  And repeat.

Have fun.