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

Tick tock, tick tock – can’t stop the clock

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.

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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.

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Dummy! Or, stupid is as stupid does

Brain buzz or no brain buzz, I can be a first class fool. And, sadly, I can’t blame it on sizzling my melon when I stroked out.

Last week I was cut off while driving.

“Idiot!” I shouted to myself in the car as I hammered on the horn. “Where do these people learn to drive?”

A day or two later, I cut somebody off. I figured it out when their horn sounded an attack. They went with a long first trumpet then followed with a series of short bursts. It sounded to me like; “Idiot! Where did you learn to drive?”

“Jerk,” I thought. “He must have been speeding. Where’d she come from, anyway? I bet they changed lanes. Where do these people learn to drive?”

It was only later that I pondered my reactions. What did I mean when I thought “these people?” I didn’t see the driver in either case. Man, woman, young, old, race, I had no clue. Did I have an unfortunate stereotype of what a bad driver looks like? My pondering made me uncomfortable, so I shelved it.

But I couldn’t forget what shelf it was in and I had to open it up again when I went out for a walk with my wife a little while later. Patricia is convalescing from a major, painful and scary surgery. Among other things, it’s made it tough for her to walk. And speed, right now, is not an option. But she has to walk as part of the rehab.

Some of this walking has been outdoors, but shopping malls have a nice even track with no worry of rain or wind, so we’ve made use of them.  The down side of malls is that they can be very busy. And choppers and staff are often intensely focused, determined and aggressive as they get from their Point A to Point B. I’ve learned they’re not super keen about slowing down to get around slow pokes convalescing from major surgery.

Now, the surgery was such that I can’t have my bride getting checked by aggressive mall types.  So, I’ve developed a few blocking techniques. Turns out that those years spent playing football weren’t a waste of time even if there was no room in the pros for a 5’10’ slow corner linebacker and special teams dude. I know how to block and, if necessary, how to tackle. Maybe not to the level needed in the NFL or CFL, but I do fine in a mall.

However, needing to run interference to protect Patricia from contact while in a shopping mall put me in an ugly game day state of mine. And I’d become tense and angry that people were putting her in harm’s way.

“Can’t people see that you’re not ship shape?” I steamed. “Jerks. Where did these people learn to drive, I mean, walk through a mall?”

Then Patricia said something I hadn’t considered. Something that somebody with my history of stroke and being the one time victim of stereotypes should have had top of mind.

“You don’t know what’s going on with them, Tim, just like they don’t seem to know what’s going on with us,” she said. “Maybe their boss just screamed at them, or fired them. Maybe their child or their mom is in the hospital.”

In Patricia’s job she drives a lot from client to client and walks through harried stores. She always has stories about bizarre road mayhem.  So if she can throw out a little empathy I suppose I can. And should.

She made me think about a story I heard Stephen Covey tell years ago when I went to an event he spoke at in Edmonton. Covey was a thought provoking speaker and the author of many books including The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

On the day I heard him, Covey told of being on a New York City subway on a weekend morning when a man walked on with a pile of rambunctious kids. To hear Covey tell it, they were running amuck on the train, yelling, knocking in to people while the dad did nothing.

Covey eventfully became too angry and frustrated to stay silent and asked the dad why he didn’t do something about his kids.

The dad, a stunned look on his face, took a peek at his marauding brood and said something like; “Ya, I guess I should. We’ve come from the hospital where there mother just died. I guess I just don’t know what to say or do.”

Covey told us that he immediately made the shift from anger to empathy. A few words changed everything. The circumstance made the facts seem different. Nothing practically had changed. Yet everything had changed.

We can wait for these shifts of points of view to happen and maybe they will or maybe they won’t. If Covey hadn’t said anything, he’d have left the train, angry about the many and disgusted with his children.  But, if as my wife suggests, we try to shift our point of view on our own, well, we’ll be in a better place. That’s good for our own minds and souls. And we may even be able to lend a hand to somebody else from time to time.

Go figure.

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Technology & research are key helpings of brain food

I always talk, think and write about being back to normal. After a stroke, that’s what a fella wants. Normal = good. You want to blend in. At least for me, there’s still a fear that somebody will notice a slight hesitation in my speech or catch me struggling to retrieve a memory. If a regular Joe or Jane forgets a name it’s just a sign of a busy life. If someone whose brain has been sizzled does the same, could it be a sign that they aren’t firing on all cylinders? Are they damaged goods? Are they capable? Do they require pity? Arggg! I imagine it’s much the same for folks who’ve suffered other assaults on their minds. The fact is though, that you’re never the same after your brain has been blitzkrieged. The difference can be in how you feel, how you function or both. It doesn’t mean that you’re not capable. But it might mean that you need some help or tools to do what you used to do. Imagine if a mind like Stephen Hawkings was trapped inside his disability? What if he was born in a time and place where sharing his mind with the world wasn’t possible? Or if his part of the world had been cut off from the possibilities that helped set his brain free? I fear that that could be happening today. I’m actually pretty sure that it is. I’m certainly not in Hawking’s league. But whatever I have to offer would be largely muted without the help of technology. As I’ve written before, even the healed Tim Seefeldt’s reading speed is just over 50 words per minute. An average person reads at between 150 and 190 words per minute. You can’t do the work I’ve done through my career without being able to read and write. And, you sure can’t write without being able to read. Or to find a cheat. It doesn’t take a mind like Hawking’s to figure out that I’d be up the creek without a little help. More than a little. My equalizer is software originally designed for kids with learning disabilities called WordQ. WordQ literally allows me to keep up to the rest of you in reading the reams of material that comes across my computer each day. It allows me to edit my own writing to make sure that it’s up to snuff. I use it to edit and review everything I spit out, with the exception of very short emails. Bottom line is, without it, I don’t make a living the way I’ve been trained to make a living and I’m in a spot of bother when it comes to paying the bills. And, there’s no book (BTW, agents/publishers I’m still waiting to hear from you!) and there’s no blog. Beyond the practical, a large part of me would be gone without being able to write. Technology is a game changer for many of us in regular day to day life. And it can be especially critical for those of us who’ve suffered a few bumps along the way.  It’s not just high tech tools that can help heal damage and improve brain function for the unbroken, either. I’d also like to be a clearing house of ideas for stuff that’s working for folks whether it’s some form of physical exercise or meditation.  Personally, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the spiritual piece. And today, a big part of my day to day is yoga. My downward facing dog looks more like a rat, but it’s helped me a lot, from shoulders to toes and between the ears. The thing is, there’s so much out there and things change so quickly that it’s virtually impossible to keep up to speed without help. And to separate the good, the bad and the ugly. So, in that spirit, here are a few things readers have mentioned. What do you think? Some American readers have noted the work done by Bioness Inc. Their electrical stimulation devices are being used to help people with arm and leg mobility issues. Their stuff is aimed at helping folks with foot drop or hand paralysis as a result of stroke, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, incomplete spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy. I’d love to hear from more folks who’ve used this and to see if there are other tools targeting these issues. I’ve also heard from readers who’ve read about potential benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for those suffering ischaemic strokes. This one’s right out of left field for me. Are there any professional readers who can shed some light? Let’s try to work as a clearing house of sorts for some of the stuff that’s out there for stroke survivors and those suffering other brain trauma. Also for brain health. The way I understand it, it’s never too late to start trying to make the ole ticker work better. As well, the thinking that the clock was ticking after a stroke and that you could only make improvements within a short window of time is now, I believe, considered bunk. I’ll be waiting to hear from you. Meantime, I’m also waiting to hear from a concussion expert. I’m expecting some pretty interesting stuff to share with you on this front soon. -30-

Brain health clearing house

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last blog, but I’m back with a different state of mind.

Some travel set me behind. Then, interviews I was planning for a few posts on concussions were delayed. I didn’t want to just tell my story all of the time. I felt I’d hit a wall. And it was compounded by that personal issue I wrote about a few blogs back.

Then I got an email from fellow ex-reporter, Ron, that set my mind right.

Ron’s wife had a stroke 18 months ago. He’s by her side at their home just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ron read about my story while doing some research on the National Stroke Association’s website (http://www.stroke.org/) where I’d posted a piece on their ‘faces of stroke’ page.  He tracked me down.  Reporters, even us ex-reporters, are good at this stuff.  Now two ex-newspaper guys — one from the South Eastern US and one from Western Canada – were connected.

Reporters — again, even us ex-reporters — are also good at asking questions. And in his emails to me, Ron asked a lot of good questions about life after stroke and support, tools and the like that are out there for recovery. He made some excellent points, like the ‘facts’ on the time after stroke that a person can still make gains seems to be greater than the experts used to think.

I realized from his questions that I’d forgotten one important thing about my recovery. As much as we now know about stroke, we’re still at the early stages of understanding the brain. New ideas are being floated every day. And advances and aids for stroke victims – and those suffering other brain conditions and injuries – are being made and discovered all of the time. And it’s happening all around the world. The point is, if you suffer a stroke or a brain injury in Vancouver or Miami or anywhere in between, all of the brain power you’ll need to help you isn’t sitting in a neat package in one convenient spot. You’ve got to do some digging.

As I’ve written, I had amazing care in Edmonton. And still, I learned about the reading feature in the Amazon Kindle through a speech language pathologist I connected with in Chicago. In our conversation, I told her how I was getting books from the library, then finding the same book on CD. I’d play the CD while following the words in the book. As I’ve said in earlier blogs, I can ‘read’ along with words being read out loud at normal speed, but I slow down dramatically when the recorded voice is shut off. Letter combinations don’t immediately appear to me as they do to you.  But they do when I hear the word along with seeing it. Weird, I know. At first I used this technique to speed up my reading. I seem to have hit a wall with speed, so now I need help just to keep up with the rest of you and not spend a frustrating month reading a short book.

The Chicago speech language pathologist asked me why I didn’t just get a Kindle, which has a feature where a computerized voice reads out loud, allowing me to follow. I’d not heard of this before. What a breakthrough that was for me.

I also craved having someone like me to confab with who understood exactly what I was going through with my lost words. Nobody I met or heard about had my reading issues. Then, by chance, I spotted a documentary featuring Oliver Sacks, the UK born, American based writer/neurologist who suffers a unique brain issue himself. The special talked about a Canadian novelist who had a stroke and lost the ability to read. His circumstances were different, but still. I tracked Howard Engel down and had some great, helpful and inspiring telephone conversations with him.

These were watershed moments for me. Colossal breakthroughs, huge inspiration.

Ron reminded me that I can use this blog to help spark some breakthroughs for others who’ve suffered stroke and brain injuries. To provide a voice for those who’ve come up with devices, tools and techniques to help with brain function and improvement. Whether it’s help for those of us who’ve been buzzed or those trying to fight off decay.

So, please, reach out to me with what you know and what you have. Share research you’re working on or have heard/read about.  I’ll share them in this blog. I’ll dig into them and do some old fashioned reporting on them.  I’ll spiderwep from your ideas and tips and dig up more exciting and helpful stuff.

Ron’s already started me with some great ideas you’ll read about soon.

Thanks, Ron!

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