I'm a former newspaper reporter who lost the ability to read and write (among other things) when a stroke sizzled my brain. Through a mix of science, hard work and faith, I was able to get my words back. Now I’m blogging about all things brain.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The bigger — and more diverse — our collective brain is, the better the stuff we’ll create.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These boys were more amusing than disturbing though.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All of this brain food from TO and Montreal is nicely feeding my writing. I’m making good progress on the fiction stuff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
P.S. Check out my daughter’s latest blog post at httpwestmeetseast.wordpress.com
Years before I started making a few shekels as an ink stained wretch, writing paid off for me.
Starting in Grade 5 I figured out that my language arts and English teacher’s dug what I put to pen. It got me through all the way to graduation and balanced off my failings in math.
Short stories, essays, reviews – I seemed to always hit the mark. I was also able to write my way through social studies. It was just a shame about math. And the sciences.
Anyway, I always took the writing thing for granted until…well, regular readers of this blog know all about my putting off the book writing thing until a stroke buzzed my brain’s ability to read and write, the struggle to relearn my abcs and all that jazz.
I’ve pumped out some good stuff since getting my writing groove back. But I’ve also struggled. When I was a news paper reporter I pounded out the stories of the day. In writing a feature on my stroke recovery, it was pretty easy to connect the dots. But I’ve done some flailing away on the edits to the book I’ve been working on about my stroke. And I’ve struggled with keeping my focus on the blog.
There’s just been something. Something wrong. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it.
Then my bride asked me if I’d like to go to the K97 classic rock show Friday night in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park. I try not to live in the past, but David Wilcox was playing. Non Canadian readers may not know this blast from my past’s work. If not, you should look him up and give him a spin.
Back in the 80s I quit a job to go see him play at a Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (I think they now call my Calgary alma mater SAIT Polytechnic) cabaret. When I asked for the night off to see David play, my boss asked me what was more important, the concert or my part time job doing grunt work at his crappy little motel.
“Thank’s for the clarity, boss,” I like to remember myself saying to him. “I’ve unplugged my last toilet for one of your guests.”
It was off to hook up with Joe, Jack and Brad, then off to see David and his band play.
Later, when I was entertainment editor of the campus newspaper I got to interview Wilcox before a show. Just me and him. No rush.
I asked him a question he told me nobody had ever asked him before. That was cool. As I recall, I asked about the way his eyes seem to bug out as he plays a solo. Also as I recall, he speculated that it may be because when he started out and he’d get into a riff, he stair off into the crowd, lost in his guitar. The thing is, the beautiful young woman dancing with her insecure and bulky boyfriend would think David was gazing into her eyes. And the trouble would begin with beefy boy and David. So, as a peace loving man, Mr. Wilcox said he just stated staring safely into the sky when he made his Telecaster sing. And that, he said, may be the cause of the eye thing.
That’s how I remember the convo, anyway.
Friday night David’s show was just as tight as it was back in the mid 80s. And he looked to be having just as much fun. It was awesome. Wilcox was followed on stage by Randy Backman of Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame.
He put on one hell of a show.
I don’t have the emotional connection to Backman that I do with Wilcox, but I was blown away by how great he sounded. And by how much fantastic music he’s pumped out. But better still, the passion he had in playing and in telling the stories behind the songs blew me away.
Backman shared intimate details of where he was when he wrote one classic. He explained nuances in the music and the work to get the stuff from his brain to his guitar to the radio.
What a great night.
But it wasn’t until the Saturday night over a few beers at a bbq my wife and I through for the neighbors that I connected a few dots.
According to Google – and is Google ever wrong? – Randy Backman is 72 year old. Another Google search put David Wilcox at 67. Backman is a gazillionare world wide selling artist and will likely make more in royalties in the time you take to read this blog than I’ll ever make. Wilcox is a journeyman musician doing just fine but on a smaller scale.
And there they both were, on stage looking in love with what they were doing after all of these years. I’m sure there are lots of reasons. But a couple came to my mind over beers in my back yard 24 hours after the show, my ears still ringing from what poured out of their Marshall amps.
These guys has the courage, the passion the whatever to do what they were meant to do. No matter what. It worked out on different levels. But it worked out. They didn’t do this music thing half assed. They did it full assed.
And that’s where Fat Man comes in.
Back in grade 5 I thought I was a pretty good story teller. And for a class early in the year I started working on a short story. My first effort was some kind of gumshoe crime fighter. Then I took a stab at a cowboy bit. Both were boring and un inspiring.
It was then that a sketch I did for art class caught my eye. I’d created and un-hero called Fat Man. He looked kinda funny in a loveablish way. I decided to call my short story The Adventures of Fat Man and I managed to put together a yarn that had all of the teachers at Chris Ackerman Elementary School in North East Calgary laughing.
The trick, I realized back then, wasn’t a trick at all. Being a writer is one thing. But to be a good or even great story teller means being true to who you are and telling those stories in the way they need to be told. Don’t try to be a great classical violinist if you’re a blue grass fiddler.
I’d like to be a jazz bassist. But I may be a punk rock guitar player. Gotta live with that and make it work.
Oh, by the way, my first born has a new blog. It’s westmeetseast.wordpress.com. The kid has game.
Oh again…if you have an Amazon Kindle, you may want to take a look at my short story, The Gunman Who forgot Who to shoot.
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. – Mark Twain.
One week has passed and I’m back here blogging. Touchdown.
I’ve actually been doing a lot of writing in the last week. I started by publishing a short story on Amazon Kindle: The Gunman who forgot who to shoot. It’s about a 1800s gunman who, ah, forgets who he’s supposed to shoot. Guess that was kinda obvious. The gunman has stroked out so he not only forgets who to shoot but has some trouble with his pistol on account of the stroke.
Say what you will about the idea, I don’t know of any other stroke westerns.
I also got some heavy lifting in on a longer short story that might turn into a novelette or novella. I expect to have it done by Labor Day and will be calling on my friend Shelagh to edit it. She just doesn’t know this yet.
It feels good to be tapping this stuff out. I’m not worrying about the business of getting this stuff read; I’m just dialed in on pumping the stuff out.
Working on this stuff, I pulled out a quote I’d jotted down from Mark Twain a few years back. “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”
Hmmm. A few things came to mind as I read and re-read this.
My first thought was how freaking cool it would be to have people quoting you years and years after breathing your last.
Second thought was wow, how long can ‘why’ take? Is it clear or is it one of those things you only realize later? Does that second important day come and go only to be appreciated near the end of life? Do some, many or even most of us never find out why?
Thinking about this ruined about an hour of my day last Thursday.
And when my head stopped spinning, I decided that I don’t care if I ever find out why. Or if there even is one why.
This week I’m just going to keep tapping on the keys and try to pump this next story out. If why strikes me, I’ll drink a toast to Mark Twain and consider myself all the better. If it doesn’t, I’ll just keep thing away.
Some things grab you by the throat and just won’t let go.
You fight for every trickle of breath you can coax in and you punch, scratch and kick with every scrap of fight remaining to loosen the grip of the thing, swearing that if you ever break free you’ll never ever get within a mile of its grip again.
It’s been a year since my oldest and I drove from Edmonton, AB, to Toronto, ON where she’s now living. This shot is in Colonsay, SK. Time keeps ticking.
Sometimes the thing is a monster – like the bitch of a stroke that wreaked havoc on me six years ago.
But sometimes the vice grip is more subtle. Like time.
My youngest turned 20 in April. I’ve been in a tail spin ever since. I now have two daughters in their twenties.
It’s not a vanity-aging thing.
It’s just a brutal reminder that the clock keeps ticking. And with every second, minute and hour I keep realizing that there’s so much that I haven’t done. Stuff I feel I’m meant to do.
So why don’t I do it?
Tick tock, tick took.
My old English teacher – John Rollins – keeps coming back to mind. His farewell note to me at the end of grade 12 was a dagger about the sin of wasted time. It seems too benign to be a sin. But I think it may be the greatest one of them all. Is there anything worse than not doing something – wasting talent, wasting opportunity, missing the chance to help somebody, letting down your friends and family? All this by not doing something.
I’ve heard it told that as fond as the Devil is of history’s greatest villains, his best work over time is done by folks just sitting back. More evil is done by what’s left undone. It just sort of slowly happens, like rot.
I kept Mr. Rollins’ note for a long time. I eventually took it to heart on almost every level. Accept when it came to writing. That all changed after I stroked out, dealt with the pain of losing my words and then scratched back to the point where I could read and write again, albeit with the aid of technology. I published some stuff, started blogging and then…
Here I am – after getting a second chance — wasting time again. I’ve only taken my rekindled writing so far. I’ve either been too lazy or afraid of failure to take it all the way. A book sits waiting for loads of edits. Stories sit locked in my brain. I’m going weeks and months between blogs.
By contrast, in the weeks since my last blog, Anna – my youngest — went off on a trek around Europe with two friends. Kristina – my 23 year old — took off to start a new adventure in Toronto almost exactly a year ago. No fear with these kids, at least not enough to hamstring them.
They don’t seem hung up on what’s practical versus what’s possible.
I believe this, too. I just don’t act on it. Why?
I recently spoke at a conference for speech language pathologists. If you looked at me six years ago, this would have seemed impossible. But there I was, putting together words that made sense despite having had my brain fried by the stroke and my words taken away.
If I can do that, maybe I can be more like my girls?
Step one was publishing a short story on Amazon Kindle yesterday. The Gunman who forgot who to shoot, under the name T.J. Seefeldt. It’s a very short yarn about a stroked out 1800s western hit man. More shorts are coming soon.
I’ve always been a fan of short stories and novellas. I still re-read Hemmingway’s and Steinbeck’s all the time. And Elmore Leonard’s. I only discovered his short stuff after years of reading his novels. The great movie 3:10 to Yuma is based on the short story of the same name. The Hernando Tellez short, Just Lather, That’s All is amazing in how much it says with such economy of words.
I pumped out quite a few short stories myself years ago. But I couldn’t find any place for them. I got discouraged. This seems to have changed these days with Kindle Singles. We’ll see.
After my bride’s amazing news that she’d kicked cancer’s ass, I started thinking about ‘why.’
Not right away.
At first I was just happy. Thrilled for her. Ecstatic for my girls. Jazzed for me.
But after awhile I started to get sore.
Why did she have to go through all of this? The pain, the fear. It was awful for her.
Why did my kids have to live this nightmare? It was frightening for them.
And why me? I’m sick of this shite.
My parent’s deaths – mom passing away before she could meet her grandkids – cancer battles for Pat, a stroke for me. It starts to wear on a fella.
In this state I can’t seem to stop myself from torturing my mind with more ‘why’ questions.
Why do some people seem to escape all tragedy? Why are their lives so charmed? Why do they have it so easy?
At this point, I can’t stop myself.
Why do some of us live with so much while so many more live with so little? Why do those with extreme wealth and resources want to hoard it from so many others? Why do those goobers – alleged goobers – implicated in the Panama Papers believe that it’s OK to cheat to keep even more of the wealth they have to themselves? Allegedly, that is… I don’t want those alleged goobers coming after me, I couldn’t afford that J.
Why don’t they flinch when they walk past a homeless man or when they hear about the dollars needed for research to fight cancer, stroke, heart disease…
Why, why why?
But asking why is a mugs game. Why doesn’t matter.
Why not? is a better question.
How many great athletes and musicians were told they weren’t good enough? Many of those who responded with why not? instead of why me? went on to be game changing athletes. Or to write music that has impacted people world wide.
I think we need to learn how to bottle why not?
Spurred on by Patricia and my girls, it was why not that helped me relearn to read and write when the stroke took away my words. Why not? helped me to reboot my brain to the point where I could pull out of it the melon power that I needed to make a living, to be a real dad and a husband again. It wasn’t just why not? There was a lot of rehab, a lot of great therapy, a lot of a lot of things.
But it all started with why not?
On another note, Today –April 9 – is my first born’s birthday. 23. And for the first time in all of those years we’re apart on her birthday. Very sad. She’s in Toronto working on the final strokes of her masters.
While it is very sad not to be with her, I’m so proud of all that she’s doing and I’m so excited to see the great places it will take her. Thank God for Face Time and cheap long distance.
It was ten years ago today that my dad breathed his last breaths.
With me and my sister Shelly sitting at his side in his home in Innisfail, Alberta, he left us. As death goes, it seemed peaceful enough. But I know that it was at the end of months of physical and emotional agony. I was with him much of the time.
I can’t believe that it’s been a decade without him.
It makes me sad that he’s had to miss my kid’s growing up. It makes me angry that my girls couldn’t have him for longer in their lives. But knowing that he still has so many people thinking of him so fondly all of these years later gives me piece knowing that he lived so well.
My dad always taught me, usually without me realizing that he was teaching me. He even did so in dying.
As I saw him deal with the frightening madness that hit him when the cancerous tumor took over his brain I saw something in his eyes and felt something in his spirit that told me that he wasn’t really as ‘gone’ as people thought.
In his last days, knowing the end was soon, I saw concern for those he was leaving behind outweighing his own fear.
When I stroked out four years later, his courage fueled me. I knew no matter what happened, I didn’t have to give in.
A day doesn’t pass without a lump in my throat at some point as I think of my dad. Never will.
Cheers to a great life lived. Great, because he touched so many people in such a personal and powerful way. What could be greater than that?