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Walk past a "Heavy Plant" warning and wonder vaguely if the trees thought it was for them; if whoever put it up had enough imag...

Saturday, February 21, 2004

the therapeutic hammer

My work has become consistently easier since I started using a claw hammer as a paperweight. For some reason people don’t ask stupid questions or bug you with irrelevant rubbish when there is a hammer sat on your desk. Getting rid of people that you aren’t too keen on talking to has become a matter of looking at them in a curious manner and slowly walking your hand towards the handle. My laptop seems to have taken the hint and has behaved itself remarkably well ever since I got my new paperweight, operating crash free for nearly a fortnight now. It clearly feels vulnerable. Even telephone conversations have become shorter, more to the point and more successful. Obviously this is a result of the confidence and assertiveness that the hammer instils in me rather than some mystical property of the hammer itself but is still no bad thing (not that I was short on either confidence or assertiveness to start with). Throughout the first three days of this week I didn’t have my hammer and I was having a very bad week, things weren’t getting done, I couldn’t concentrate and people wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Yesterday I put it back on my desk and miraculously things begun to turn around. In short, I have a better day when the hammer is on my desk.



I came to have a claw hammer on my desk as I was moving offices and taking apart and re-building furniture required the purchase of a hammer (on expenses naturally). I found something comforting about the hickory handle and the heft of the thing. I found myself strangely unwilling to let go of it so on my desk it stayed. I began to notice the curious effect it had on my colleagues and even the facilities maintenance guys, who surely must be used to the sight of a co-worker with a claw hammer. One of the boiler-suited knuckle-draggers had to stand on my desk to get to an access panel, seeing the hammer he rather sarcastically asked whether I had a lot of use for that in my job. Putting my head on one side and with a slightly distant smile I told him that he would probably be surprised. I turned back to my laptop and began to type furiously. He did his work swiftly, with none of the usual requests for cups of tea, cursing or obscure questions about the air conditioning, and left without another word.

The hammer effect is even more pronounced on the people with whom I work directly. A lot of my colleagues are trained counsellors and therapists and so are trained to read behaviour and interpret it. This also means that they are extremely adept at emotional and behavioural manipulation and often when told they can’t do something or given bad news will try to get around it somehow or offload it onto someone else. Often they attempt to hijack you whilst you are off guard. They arrive at the office unannounced with a written list of questions which they interrupt your work to ask you, as if you were some kind of all-seeing oracle. I have tried to explain to them that email would allow them to ask these questions from afar and would elicit a far more considered and accurate response. However, therapists almost universally regard technological means of communication with suspicion and in any case want to be there in person to read your behaviour. Whilst talking to you they adopt their listening poise of open body language and neutral face but with intense eye contact. This is extremely off-putting and induces random attacks of guilt for no good reason. You continually check yourself to make sure that you are telling the truth. Much of the time you aren’t and are having to tell them half-truths and be a little loose in your use of words doing so. Not giving this away in your body language and eye movements is a real skill. Thankfully I have some acting experience which comes in very handy for this, but distraction techniques are even better, and far more amusing. If a therapist can’t concentrate on you they can’t interpret your behaviour and jump to daft conclusions. I have employed various methods of doing this. Refusing to make eye contact and instead looking intently at whichever ear is closest to you is a good one. If they start to cotton on to this look at the tip of their nose instead, this is particularly effective as it makes you look very slightly cross eyed. Therapists are a naturally empathic lot and in conversation will usually do everything they can to avoid mentioning your “visual impairment”. Eyeing them up also works a treat as not only is this overstepping the “boundaries” of work but also the vast majority of them are the best part of twenty years older than me, of a variety of genders and sexual orientations. They will again be trying not to ask about sexual preferences in case you are a little sensitive about it. They won’t know whether to feel flattered or threatened.

Whilst effective as these games are they have only a limited lifetime with each individual. You have to balance how well each of the therapists feel they know you with how much you use each technique as eventually they will ask what the hell you think you are doing. The hammer has proved far more effective than any of these techniques, stopping awkward questions dead and actually preventing many of the problems from coming up in the first place. Attempting to negotiate with someone who keeps a claw hammer on their desk is probably not advisable. For this reason the hammer may prove to be a little more recyclable. For long periods of harmonious working the hammer may not make an appearance at all but as the therapists become more uppity and work becomes a little more fraught the tip of the handle may be visible protruding from a drawer. As things become more difficult I may hang it off the arm of my chair by its claw or have it nestled in my lap. I intend to experiment with the hammer effect by taking it to meetings and looking everyone in the room straight in the eye before slowly placing the hammer within reach, and perhaps periodically stroking it. I have a feeling that average meeting times will drop sharply and discussions will suddenly become calm, rational and well reasoned rather than impassioned and lively. Deliberately dropping the hammer at some point so that it clatters across the floor, waiting until everyone looks at me and then calmly saying “oops” before picking it up is well worth a go. The possibilities are quite mind boggling: combining the hammer dropping with a Herbert Lom style twitch, maybe even a giggle or two, using it as a gestural implement or a pointer in presentations, the list goes on. Not overdoing it will be the key to sustainability. Over-use of the hammer may result in me getting sacked for being a swivel-eyed maniac that menaces his co-workers with hand tools, which isn’t something I do, much.

Strangely it was the one therapist that I never have to distract and who is cooperative and helpful who has no problem with the hammer on my desk and who first called it The Therapeutic Hammer. I think his idea of this that if we were having a hard day we should take something satisfyingly smashable into the courtyard with the hammer and beat it ‘til it breaks. I’m finding my use of it far more therapeutic though.