A bad sign of the times

Technology has mostly been my friend post the brain sizzle thing.

The program that reads my writing back to me allows me to edit what I write. And the reading feature on my Kindle means I can get through a book or newspaper at regular speed like you and other “normal” people.

Without these bits of tech my 50 word per minute turtle reading would make getting through a book a months long project. And as far as work goes – I just wouldn’t be able to keep up with the emails, reports and constant churn of other reading that I need to get through each week.

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I don’t like to think where that would leave me and my stroke modified mind.

My mobile phone is also a life saver taking voice notes and photos that I can use to counter act my zapped reading old school writing skills. Gads of other gadgets and tech toys have made it much easier for this brain zapped boy to keep up with the rest of the world.

Yes, technology has really evened the playing field for me post stroke. But sometimes technology runs amuck. Too much of a good thing can go bad.

I was at a fast food burger joint the other day where they wanted me to order on a screen, tapping as pictures, words and dollar signs flashed by. I was with my bride and we got through. But it was touch and go there for a while.

How long will it be before all people are replaced by tech tools at checkout counters and the like? Before gadgets and gizmos that were designed to help us start running the show?

Take the checkout counter at a grocery or department store. It’s great that technology makes it easier for staff to work faster and reduce mistakes. It’s even ok to have self serve options to make things move faster on a busy day. But it seems to me that I see more machines and less people working every time I drop by a supermarket.

So many new technologies start by making things easier for average folk. But then as we get hooked on them, they often go too far. The focus becomes only about moving things along faster and cheaper and the human bits are zapped. And that’s where things go south.

Convenience is great, but I choose the real teller over the automated one because I don’t have to struggle reading the screen, I get to shoot the breeze with the teller and I help make their job continue to make sense to management. Often times a good teller provides real value – a heads up on a soon to come sale, noticing a missing button on a shirt I’m about to buy and just being nice making me more inclined to return.

It may be old fashioned, but I have a feeling that customer service and product knowledge are actually pluses that help a business thrive over the long term. Enough well trained real people in a shop actually help move happy costumers quickly. And tech gadgets make their share of mistakes, as well, BTW.

I get that some folks prefer to skip real people and that’s a choice I can accept.

But what I’m noticing with a lot of new technology is that it’s rushing folks along so quickly that it’s eliminating all human connections. You press buttons into the machine and stand silently for a few minutes with other people who’ve just tapped their orders in, somebody calls your number, your grab your stuff and off you go.

No time for convos. No time to waste. No time to get to know new folks and to learn the stuff we learn through random human contact.

For me it’s a double nightmare because I just can’t keep up to these screens. I time out, things buzz and zap and I end up with the wrong things or nothing at all.

Some stuff I can learn, like gas station pump keyboards and bank ATMs, as long as I stick to one brand or company. But the more complicated the questions and the prompts, the more likely I am to pay too much for something, get the wrong thing or wind up in secondary screening at the airport.

And every time I chose a machine versus a person, I’m missing out on a conversation. And that can cost me anything from a great story to a good deal.

The more tech becomes the norm over people at our shops and customer service counters, the fewer options folks like me and others with reading, vision and learning disabilities will have.

But that’s really only a small problem in the big picture of things. The more the norm is to connect constantly on our devises, to connect with computerized order takers and service ‘bots, the more distant human connections become. The more we’ll see groups of people in coffee shops and bars alone with their devices.

People won’t ask people to dance or strike up conversations in pubs…they’ll just hook up digitally and slowly but surely the skills and thrills of human interaction will slip away. It’s already happening. I was recently in a pub when my beer mate shuffled off to the loo. I took a peek around the joint as I sat alone and noticed at least 10 tables with two or more people where no conversations were happening. They were together but alone, focused on their devices.

If my disability keeps me talking to real people, I guess I’ll count it a blessing.

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Make’n it work takes a little longer

My bride and I recently took in the uniquely soulful sounds of Lyle Lovett. He was playing at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium – a venue with almost perfect sound.

It was something.

Fellow troubadour John Hiatt was on stage with him. It was just the two of them with a collection of amplified acoustic guitars. They went back and forth, a Hyatt song followed by a number from Lyle. And lots of stories and quirky conversations filling the spaces in between as they changed guitars and tuned.

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My cousin Carrie was there with a friend, sitting a few rows ahead of us. From what I could see, they knew every word. When it came to Lyle, Patricia and I did, too. And while we have a pile of his recordings, they don’t get played every day. But there the words were, rolling out of our minds and through our lips, quietly, though, so as not to spoil the sound coming from on stage.

So where were these words coming from?

Even John Hiatt admitted during the show that he couldn’t quite recall the words to one song a member of the crowd shouted out for him to play. And Lyle once turned to his mobile for some memory help during an exchange between the town artists.

Yet all of the words to Lovett’s numbers from the 80s and 90s were rolling off of our tongues.

We listened to a lot of Lyle when we first start seeing each other, it was one of our musical bonds and it sparked memories beyond the music. Powerful stuff, that, I guess.

Memory – the brain – is a strange thing.

Back in the 80s I saw a lot of a mid level band called Doug and the Slugs. They had a number called Making It Work. I can’t hear somebody say; “we’ve got to make this work” without hearing that song play in my melon. And without seeing Doug and a couple of his Slugs.

But can I tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday?

Doug and the Slugs was an OK band at best. But they were fun and when I saw them it was collage days, heady times with profound experiences.

Then there is Madam Gimber. She was my Grade 7 French teacher. I had tremendous crush on her. As the class became tougher throughout the year and my concentration levels faltered more and more I dropped from a B to a D. When I struggled to make certain sounds with my monotone mouth and she’d come closer to try to encourage me along, it had the opposite effect. I’d just be gobsmaked by her presence and falter even more. She eventually told me she’d pass me if I agreed not to take French in Grade 8. I was crushed. And I can still see her crystal clear from some stored file in my head.

Memory is so strange. The brain is so complex, weird, wonderful and sometimes cruel.

There’s a spot on the QE 2 Highway between Calgary and Edmonton where I often recall the words to the Stone’s song Sympathy for the Devil. That’s where I heard it loudly; where the volume seemed to eerily increase, as I was driving home from visiting my grandfather — my mom’s dad – for the last time.

My point? I’m getting to that.

I often have friends and colleagues tell me that they are losing their minds without the assault of a stroke or brain injury. Half jokingly half with worry, they fret that it’s concerning that they’re losing mental capacity without anything be age and time to blame. And that a brain bashed dude like me has a better memory.

I don’t.

But what I learned coming out of my stroke is a brain is one of those use it or lose it kinda things. Loads of stuff is locked away in there. Even with damage like me and my fellow strokies have gone through, there are ways to find new paths to get it out.

For most average folks, it’s just a matter of working it. You can’t not have exercised since high school and expect to do 100 sit up and run 10 clicks. But you can work at it and – sooner or later – you can be back in fighting shape.

I was forced to do memory work and other mental calisthenics. I had no choice. And that’s helped me get better. I still have to work my brain to make it work well. I have to play mental games to unlock names and other stuff I need to pull out of my noodle.

Sometime choice can be a bad thing. If nothing forces you to do something, sometimes it’s easiest just to melt away. And today, with phone numbers stored on our mobiles and loads of other devices designed to do our thinking for us, it’s easy to slowly use our real minds.

My brainy advice to anybody in their late 30s and beyond is to try to remember the odd phone number and dial it rather than just hitting a prompt on your cell phone. Drive some place after looking it up on a map, try to remember the route rather than letting a voice on your phone talk you through each twist and turn.

Try to lock in experiences in your mind. Work to make day to day interaction stick like the profound situations do automatically.

This isn’t always fun. Pushing the brain can be taxing.

It can be made more fun through brain games. There are lots of them out there.

There are also more subtle things to do to spark the brain. Listen to music that’s not normally your thing. Go see a movie with subtitles. If you’re not into art, go to a museum. If you’re not into sports, check out a hockey game. This stuff sparks up the less used bits of brain. I know of advertising folks and other creatives who do stuff like this to prompt ideas outside of their norms.

Close your eyes in different settings and listen. Deeply. It’s amazing what that can spark.

Often negative memories hold stronger in your head. But that’s because these profound events don’t require trick to lock ‘em in. A car accident hold tight because you don’t have a lot of them – hopefully – and they can have such profound implications. With work you can make more routine stuff stick, too, though.

One thing that I don’t have to make any effort to recollect is my Strokeversay. It was on the first Monday of the time change to daylight savings back in 2010 when I stroked out. Every Spring forward since I profoundly recall my strokie version of that horrible day. And the days, weeks and months that followed.

I get angry that it happened. I feel fear that it could happen again. Then I make a toast that no matter what happens next, I’m not going to let my days or my brain go to waste.

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Sometimes breaking vows is a good thing. I think.

I vowed that I wouldn’t blog again until I’d finished my book.

Well, I haven’t quite finished that humdinger yet, so it seems the fact that you’re reading this is pretty clear evidence that I’m breaking that vow.

For new readers or those who’ve forgotten what I’m on about, I’m penning the story of the stroke that sizzled my brain’s ability to read and write, made a sieve of my memory and took my average-ish math skills to a new low. That’s among other important, life altering things. Generally speaking, I was not capable of doing meaningful work or meaningful just about anything.

But I battled back and — despite some pretty deep scars — I’ve made quite a remarkable recovery.  Even if I do say so myself.

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What gnaws at me, though, is I promised myself if I ever got my words back, I wouldn’t let them go to waste. I’d write the books that I’d been putting off all my life, either too afraid of failure or too lazy pre-stroke to complete.

But even for an ex newspaper reporter well accustomed to pumping out copy every day, writing a book is quite a grind. Especially, it seems, when virtually every page conjures up painful memories. I’ve had to put together a process that works for me and my turtle slow, technology aided reading style. And that’s taken some time to figure out and try to perfect.

At the same time, I’ve had to learn to deal with the gut ripping pain that reliving the memories of my brain battle conjures up. Hemmingway, I believe, said that writing is easy – just sit down at the type writer and bleed. OK. But sometimes I need a tourniquet when I’m penning this brain battle stuff. It’s good not to forget, but it’s also hell to remember.

Sadly, what I’ve noticed is that dealing with the hurt sometimes – often, actually – has led me down the path of avoidance. Back to that old nemesis of wasted time.

There are loads of powerful quotes that drive home the importance of spending one’s time well. Stuff like:

Time is really the only capital that any human being has, and the only thing he can’t afford to lose. ~Thomas Edison.

An ounce of gold will not buy an inch of time. ~Chinese Proverb.

Until you value yourself, you will not value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it. ~M. Scott Peck.

Those quotes have a sting to ‘em for me. Especially that last one. But what really stings is that I’ve been battling this wasted time demon going way back to high school. That’s when my amazing English teacher John Rollins gave me a graduation present in the form of a short letter. The gist of his epistle was that hours turn to days, days to weeks and weeks to years in the blink of an eye. He warned that I wouldn’t want to blink too many times and find that my aspirations were untried with the last few minutes on the clock of life ticking away.

It struck me as I’ve been working on the book in recent days that time can be pretty cruel, even when it’s not wasted. Things – life itself – can end pretty abruptly. Even with my best efforts I may never get to see my book completed or published whether or not it finds its way to bookshelves and e-readers.

I’m not meaning to be a downer, but it’s true.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy novels are worldwide best sellers that have been turned into movies. One was a Hollywood block buster. But he died of a heart attack at age 50 before seeing the success that was coming for his stories.

Pondering some recent events, it struck me that I’ve been wasting the gift of blogging. Its instant nature means that no matter what, I can get at least some of my story out there every week. If all goes well, a book, maybe books and who know what else will follow. But nothing can stop the blog. Nothing can stop it but me, that is.

So Brain Food is back, not instead of my book and not as a drain on the process of writing it.  It’s back as a piece of the pie. And if I lose my way again?

Well, if I start feeling lazy, there is Simon Fitzmaurice to think about. If he can’t inspire effort and dogged determination, there is no hope of inspiration. In 2008 the multi award winning writer and film director was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as it is also known.

He was just 34 with a young family.

The determined Irishman had two more children following his diagnosis and kept on writing. He uses a wheelchair and is attached to a ventilator that enables him to breath. He can’t speak and he’s immobile. But he continues to write and communicate using his eyes via an eye-gaze computer.

I can’t imagine how tough that must be. It seems that it would be furiously frustrating and that it would be simple – understandable, even – to give up. But Simon doesn’t seem to think that way. In fact, he wrote and directed his first feature length film, My Name is Emily. And it wasn’t just good for a guy with disabilities. It won a wack of awards last year.

Amazing. Inspiriting!

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Almost ready to rock

I was blown away by how many folks are keen to do a massive mind meld to solve brain-stroke problems. The out-pouring that followed my last blog was awesome.

Now I’m working with my buddy Moe to pull a few groups together to start the ball rolling. Following a planning call or two, we’ll be able to reach out to you all to get involved in picking some key questions, then pulling our brains together to find the answers.

What’s going to be critical is diversity.

I have loads of interested stroke survivors keyed up. And I have some great Canadian contacts to draw on — associations, medical types. But most of my contacts in this realm are in Alberta. And for this to work at it’s best we should be drawing on from across Canada, the US and world wide.

So, if you know or if you are a patient advocate, doc, therapist etc. and would like to add your melon to the mega brain we’re putting together, please reach out. Either through this site or by email (timseefeldt@shaw.ca).

The bigger — and more diverse — our collective brain is, the better the stuff we’ll create.

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Shifting gears

I had a great time the last two weeks in Toronto and Montreal.

I was 100 per cent out of work mode. I was enjoying two great cities. And best of all, I was hanging out with Kristina and Patricia. I also managed to find time to meet up with a couple of buddies I hadn’t seen in far too long.

One convo with one of those pals got me to thinking. And the result of that brain work is this — it’s time to shift gears with the blog thing.

Over a pint, my buddy and I talked about the ways we’ve worked together in the past to help folks draw out the best thinking of people facing difficult problems and challenges. Over a second pint, we talked about using this blog to do that again.

So for the coming months at least, Brainfood is going to get more focused. I’m going to use it to tap into my network, and with your help, readers’ communities to use our collective minds to solve challenges and tackle problems of the mind.

My buddy is going to help.

You see, I’ve learned in past lives and through recovering from the stroke thing that the answers to many of the problems and questions that befuddle us are out there, well understood by other folks sometimes in other places. Sometimes it’s straight forward. Sometimes there are context issues. Other times some creativity is required.

But we don’t know what we don’t know. And what we don’t know can’t help us.

A story or two…

Back when I was at the stage in my stroke recovery that saw my comprehension improve to normal levels I was still suffering with speed. I could only read at 50 words per minute. Average readers fly along at about 200.

I had a program to deal with this problem on my computer. But when it came to books, newspapers and magazines, I was out of luck. One fix was to go to the library and pick up a book and then look for another copy on tape. Then I’d listen to some actor read the words as I followed along with the book. It was clunky.

It was tough to read for pleasure or learning using the thespian aided method.

Then while doing some research, I connected with a speech language pathologist from Chicago. At the end of our interview, I kibitzed about my book reading problem.

She asked: “Don’t you have Amazon Kindle in Canada?”

“Indeed we do,” I said.

“Then get yourself one. It has a text to speech program.”

Indeed it does. Who knew? Lots of people, just not – until that day – anybody that I knew.

I’ve been reading books, magazines and newspapers with my Kindle ever since.

I’d also been frustrated that I’d never been able to talk to anybody else facing my kind of brain buzz from a stroke. None of the strokies I’d met had lost their ability to read and write, so none had had to relearn their ABCs. Then one day I had the TV on to BBC while I was doing some work and a Toronto writer named Howard Engel was featured. He’d had a stroke. While it wasn’t like mine, it had caused him to lose his words, too. And he’d battled back and kept writing.

Even though our issues were different, it was inspiring to hear about a guy like this who I could relate to.

I looked Mr. Engel up in the phone book and was able to chat with him a few times. He was a real gentleman to me. And a great inspiration.

It would be fantastic if more of these kinds of connections and the fixes to problems and inspiration they bring could happen by design rather than by chance. That’s what I’d like to help spark with this blog.

That’s what I’m going to do, that is. With your help.

We’re going to identify some of the problems that are driving us crazy. And we’re going to use some techniques and this blog to find the answers. We’ll spark conversations that will help us act as one big brain to fix problems. Small problems. Complex ones. Frustrating conundrums. Whatever.

We’ll pick them off  a few at a time.

But, like I said, I’ll need your help.

Shortly I’ll post a blog that will flesh out more details. But basically, I need you to come forward with some initial problems. Then I need you to help draw in your networks – docs, therapists, patients, families and friends, support works of all kinds, researchers – folks with any interest and experience with the brain work that’s going on out there.

From all over the globe.

I’m looking forward to this!

Stay tuned.

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Riding the rails and drinking in TO and Montreal

Smart as I am, when the signs on the stores we passed on our VIA Rail train were no longer written in English, I figured out they were in French. And that meant that we’d crossed the border between Ontario and Quebec.

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Seeing Quebec roll by from the ground for the first time was tres bien. And entering Montreal on the train route was a complete different experience than driving in from Pierre Trudeau airport. Very cool.

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We walk out of the VIA station, roller suitcase in tow just after noon. We found a patio on Phillips Square — Le Grand Comptoir — and fortified ourselves for the afternoon. We had a great, simple lunch under perfect patio weather, just shy of 30 C. The square out front and the slow traffic creeping past us provided perfect views for taking in the city. The only downside were the Canadian, German and Brit business dudes sitting next to us. They were all trying to impress each other with their biz smarts and used F bombs as verbs, nouns, adjectives and just about everything else. I’m not against a good Fbomb. I just appreciate variety and creativity in cursing. And I try to avoid the nastiest words in all-age public settings.

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These boys were more amusing than disturbing though.

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After eating, we headed towards Patricia and Kristina’s friend, Francois’s place. It was a great stroll, even with the bag in tow. He lives near Ste Catherines’. Which we strolled along much of the way. We also had a coffee on Ste Denis. It was great to sit there and restore my memories of Montreal.

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We met Francois after he was done work and went for dinner at Le Steak House Du Village — a great choice for us Albertans. After a long meal on the patio combined with great people watching and conversation, I now count Francois as a friend.

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We had a fabulous time in Montreal — great dinners, amazing walks, incredible sites. The pictures attached tell the story best. Old Montreal, Crescent Street, up and down Ste. Catherine’s street. Wow.

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We took the train back to Toronto on Saturday. Dinner in Leslieville and then Saturday afternoon we watched the Blue Jays beat Minnesota, staying on top of the American League East pennant race. We watched the sun go down at Yonge and Dundas square.

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Monday we paid a visit to BMV books and then strolled over to China Town and Kensington. I still can’t visit Kensington Market without humming the King of Kensington theme song to myself.

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All of this brain food from TO and Montreal is nicely feeding my writing. I’m making good progress on the fiction stuff.

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All aboard…

On the via rail train heading east of Kingston. On the way to Montreal. Blow at High Dough from the Hip is going through my mind. It’s less than a week since Gord Downie and his fellow tragically hipsters played the final show here on their farewell tour.

I like the way those guys think. Downie gets diagnosed with inoperative brain cancer and they go blow it out on the road one last time. To hell with you cancer, I’ll go out on my terms, he seems to be shouting to that bitch of a disease. Who knows, maybe he’s got more music in him still.

This is my first Canadian train trip. After all of these years.

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Toronto from VIA Rail tracks.

 

I’ve done a bit of the train thing in Europe. Done plenty of city trains throughout Canada and the US. And I’ve even taken a few old fashioned trains at theme parks like Fort Edmonton and Heritage Park in Calgary. But this is my first Via Rail in Canada. I’m sorry I waited this long.

On board with my bride and first born, this is a pretty cool perspective of a part of the world I’ve only seen from the air. There’s a touch of elegance to rolling this way, even back here in economy.

Patricia and I are in the early days of a couple of weeks in Toronto and Montreal. Montreal is where we’re heading now. We flew in Monday night and crashed at daughter Kristina’s place near Queen and University. A brisk predawn walk to the subway taking us to Union Station woke us up after dinner last night with our friend Richard. He just hit the same unmentionable birthday that I recently did, so we celebrated at Biff’s Bistro, a great French spot that I haven’t been to since my pharma days on Front and Yonge.

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It’s been over a year since my last visit to Montreal. And this will be the first time there with my gals (two out of three, anyway). Really looking forward to that. I’ll also get to meet their friend (and Richard’s) Francois. He’s generously opened his doors to us. It’s great to live as a local when travelling.

This will be fantastic brain food.

If you’ve been to Montreal, you’ll know that it is North America’s best taste of Continental Europe. You’ll also know that the people there are as friendly as they come. I’ve found that to be true even with my poor French. When I say poor, I should say basically non existent. A combination of bad public school French when I was a young lad and the fact that all of my French speaking friends having excellent English which they like to practice. I also lay blame on my lack of French skills on the beautiful French teacher I had in grade 7. She agreed to pass me — just — if I promised not to take her class again. I was devastated. And the reason I struggled in her class was mostly because her presence scrambled my mind, I just couldn’t concentrate on French or anything else when she was in the room. C’est la vie.

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It’s quite spectacular to watch the country side role by at train speed. You can take things in, even at train speed. And the way you intersect the smaller communities as you role in comes with a sense of nostalgia. And it’s lovely to hear the train whistle blow from inside our care. More nostalgia, I suppose.

We’re now stopping in Cornwall, ON. That’s enough blogging for now. I’ll dial in again from Montreal. Au revoir.

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P.S. Check out my daughter’s latest blog post at httpwestmeetseast.wordpress.com