“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” L. Frank Baum

Are you familiar with the term Act II? I have a friend who says of stroke survivors and the post-stroke life, “it’s a new normal” That is right on target! Sometimes people choose to do something different and sometimes life changes on us and we have to choose to do things differently or find something new to do. This quote comes from the movie The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her dog Toto end up in the land of Oz after a tornado.

I’ve said before that I love to read. For many reasons, reading has been a hard thing to do. It is something I’ve worked a lot on in therapy. Before the stroke I had a goal of reading every book that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Just remembering that goal was a big deal to me. I was thrilled when I figured out to use some kind of ruler or bookmark to move to a new line to see the words or isolate them. In many ways this idea of reading is an important part of the journey. After 11 years, I just don’t have the stamina to do that but the whole idea of imagination (or using my mind) in the process is still important to me. Matt and I talked about it and our primary goal was to come up with a solution as an alternative so I could still enjoy the stories and use my imagination. Matt set up my Mac to download Audible Books and then I can listen to them using iTunes! So if we stay with the idea of Act II, this is definitely Scene II in that process. That makes me think of the on-going process of it all. I’ve told the story before, but one of the first therapies I did after the stroke was water therapy. Relearning to swim — really? As if once was not enough! It’s ironic that the boys are so great in water polo and Matt still swims every Sunday morning. Me? As I’ve said before … I know I was a rock in previous life! So as part of water therapy when I got to the deep end, I thought that we were done. That’s when the therapist said to me “now you have to keep moving to stay afloat.” Talk about a metaphor!

Tesi Sanchez-Halpert had a stroke when she was 48. She taught Physical Education at one of the schools in Southern California. After she had the stroke, she had to decide what to do professionally — whimsical metal sculptures (http://atesisculptures.com) of course! (Made from recycled materials, I might add.) There have been several articles published about her and what she has done. This is phenomenal. Sculpting wasn’t new to her, but her husband realized how therapeutic the activity was for her. She donates a lot to charities and she says “my new life as an artist, making my silly sculptures, has brought me lots of joy, because I can bring joy. It fees like I have a superpower that I never had before.” Now that is a great way to look at this adventure! I love this idea from the standpoint that her Act II is as much about her and about the rest of the world. I particularly like that sculpting wasn’t new to her. We often think that Act II means something completely new and maybe it just means doing something new with that skill. Last month I did a post called “Secret of Life” which is a song by former baseball pitcher Barry Zito. He played guitar and sang before, but now he’s making it more a focus on who he is and what he gives. So Act II doesn’t have to be something completely new to a person.

Do you notice that these two examples have art being the Act II? Karen Altree Pemme is the Artistic Director of The Red Ladder Theater. They have a Facebook page and one can do a ‘like’ to keep current with their activities. In a recent interview that she did with the quarterly magazine ISQ, she talks about with whom the Red Ladder works and the concept of art and the path of transformation. She has a great perspective as she talks about the path to transformation — which begins with an understanding that transformation is possible. And that’s thing about theater — that’s the thing about art. I think that is a great perspective and certainly fits in with the ideas I have. In the play As You Like It (Act II of course), William Shakespeare says “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.

Matt and I discovered a fabulous winery (https://www.scheidvineyards.com) who has their tasting room in downtown Carmel. All of their wine bottles have screwcaps. There is a whole technology about using screwcaps versus corks! Who knew? This company had a debate for years about what direction they should take. Once the science was proven then they had to consider how they would deal with perception. (This is always a concern of mine when it comes to strokes.) In May 2008 they decided to provide screwcaps on all their bottles. As they say screwcaps “aren’t cheaper to buy, they’re not easier to produce, they’re not prettier or more trendy. They’re just better. At the end of the day, isn’t that what matters most?” When the no alcohol restriction was lifted, using a corkscrew on a wine bottle was one of my post-stroke learning experiences. While it was not easy, I did it. Screwcaps are definitely easier/better as a person with limitations. There is pretty much nothing that I take for granted. (Another Act II, Scene II experience.)

I may not know the secret to life, but I know what it’s not.” Barry Zito

Made you look!

Most people who follow Major League Baseball will say January is typically a very long drawn out period. The regular baseball season is over, the playoffs are completed, the holidays have passed and now we wait! People who follow a particular team can probably tell you the day pitchers and catchers report in February. (It’s a baseball reference.) The following week, the position players report, then it’s Spring Training (pre-season) and the regular season starts at the beginning of April. We have season tickets to Stanford Baseball because college games begin in February. Is that great? My post for this month is called “Secret to Life” . It’s the title of a song by Barry Zito (https://youtu.be/Ux5ogOeD3Uc). I am using it as my New Year’s resolution. I actually think there are multiple secrets to life. Barry Zito was a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants from 2006 to 2013. He came from the Oakland A’s (American League) and won two Cy Young awards while he was there. He went back to the A’s organization after his stint with the Giants. He was left off the roster for the 2010 World Series. He had a huge hit in the 2014 World Series. A big difference between the American League and the National League is the Designated Hitter Rule. The rule means that the pitcher doesn’t bat as he has a designated hitter when it is his turn to bat. The manager/coach strategy changes. In the National League, the manager has to figure a way to move existing runners over when it is the pitchers turn to bat. This concept is a big deal to me. As a stroke survivor, I often think about using everything I have in the journey. The pitcher in the National League typically does a sacrifice bunt to move another team member along when someone is on base. As a general rule, I like it a lot. I think it’s a huge deal to use everything including what we usually see as our weaknesses as part of strategy. (Starting pitchers pitch every fifth day or so, so they do not have the repetition or the regular practice of batting.) I summarize it simply as working with what you have. Barry Zito’s talent was an ok addition to the Giants pitching staff as far as I’m concerned. But he proved to us that professional baseball players bring a lot more to the mix. I think people are surprised by what Zito is doing now. This is a country song and I don’t know if people are more surprised by the fact that he has reinvented himself as a singer or that it is a country song. I love it. Zito had a great curve ball. It’s fitting that he is still throwing those curve balls. I imagine most people are thinking — of course she has figured a way to make the resolution about baseball!

Matt and I have a saying that it’s easier to dress down than dress up. We don’t mean it literally but rather as a metaphor. It’s about thinking what could happen. We can’t always anticipate what’s going to happen, but we can think about the future and plan for it. It’s a mindset. Some friends recently invited us to an evening in San Francisco. She called it “Speakeasy Fun.” It’s difficult to explain the evening but we went to dinner first and then to the event. We knew very little about the activities. We basically knew about the advent of speakeasies (why they became popular). We knew about Prohibition and the Great Depression (U.S. history) and so we dressed accordingly — how we thought people dressed in the 20’s and 30’s. We parked in a garage a couple of blocks from the restaurant and as we walked over there, we were surprised by how many people commented on Matt’s hat. He wore a top hat and spats with his tuxedo! I always say “act like you belong” and that also means “dress like you belong”! Now the reason I point it out is this — as a stroke survivor it may be difficult to dress the part, but we can have a mindset consistent with the activities. So we can involve our minds in the process along with what we wear. I’m going to give a post-stroke example of this idea. It’s a simplified version and I’ve talked about it before. It’s about my ataxia. I’ve said that with the stroke, I have ataxia which is worse on my right side than my left. Consequently, I’ve had to learn to do pretty much everything with my left hand rather than my right. Yes, I was right-handed before the stroke. Things I did automatically with my right hand, now I have to think about. I’ve said before even when we go out to eat at a restaurant, I have to think about what seat to chose so I can eat with my left hand. I always hold the cane in my left hand (I don’t know which side needs it more) because it doesn’t make sense to me that it would be helpful in a shaking hand! Something as basic as which hand to use to hold the phone, becomes something to think about. That is an important aspect for me as a stroke survivor who has ataxia.

One of my favorite lines from the movie “The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is when Necie (Shirley Knight) says “I hope this isn’t a real emergency, I only brought one bottle of vodka.” I loved the book, also. Vodka was one of the first words I could say after the stroke. (I lost all ability of speaking when I had the stroke.) Needless to say, I’m partial to anything having to do with vodka. It’s a staple in our house. I’ve told the story before. I remember very little (almost nothing) about being in the first hospital after the stroke. One of the things I remember was when I had stared speaking and a Speech Therapist came to my room and said that she had several sentences that she wanted me to complete. She went on to say that there were no right or wrong answers. So because it fit and I could say the word, I answered “vodka” to every sentence or question she asked. (She said there were no wrong answers.) Thanks for always keeping the vodka filled, Matt. One really never knows what’s in store, so it’s important to always be prepared. It’s the little things that make a big difference (and that just might be one of the secrets to/of life)!

“Life is short. Eat dessert first.” Jacques Torres

I love this quote! Doesn’t everybody want dessert before anything else? So what does this mean? Well to me it’s about doing what brings joy. If you query this saying, you’ll most likely get a post on quintessential quotes. Most of this comes from that entry. We love dessert. I think it means to do what you love, whether that be spending time with family and friends, reading a book, going on an adventure or even eating dessert first! We never know when our life will be over. It could be tomorrow, could be next year, could be in many years. That’s why we need to focus on living the way we love to live. I’ve said before that one of the first things that I could taste after the stroke was chocolate and shortly after that, I could taste almonds. Consequently, I try to eat an Almond Joy daily as a reminder of that whole experience. We get a variety pack of candy to give out for Halloween and Matt has me go through the pack looking for the Almond Joys before we hand out the candy. Now before the stroke, I was not a chocolate fan at all. (The post also states that stressed is desserts spelled backwards!)

I’m going to continue on the subject of dessert. My maternal grandfather was a serious person. I doubt anybody would argue with that. He had a saying that we still use today. You may need your Spanish dictionary, but I’ll try to explain it. My grandmother was a fabulous cook and occasionally after a meal, my grandfather would say “me quedó un huequito.'” Huequito is a diminutive of hueco, which is a hole or a hollow. Isn’t that a great visual image? That concept of a hole has stayed with me.

I know many don’t celebrate Christmas for various reasons but I do and want to point out that one of my favorite Christmas songs is one by Amy Grant that was released in the early 90’s. It’s not about Santa or Jesus. It’s called Mary’s Song. Amy Grant has a fabulous voice and lest we get caught up in that, it’s a song that gives Mary’s perspective of the events during her pregnancy. This really speaks to me. I see quite a bit about the fact that we should always be kind because we really don’t know what someone has gone through or is currently going through. This song is a reminder about her perspective and generally a reminder of other’s perspectives on the journey.

I’m going to stay with the song theme here. A musical artist I like is Tom Waits. I have liked him for many years and have followed his work closely. In 1973, his first album came out (I don’t even know if people call them albums anymore) and was called Closing Time. The first song on that album is called Grapefruit Moon. I’m imagining that the title alone conjures a picture for most of us. With that image comes a memory. For years, Tom Waits has used the theme of moons in many songs. Recently he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are many interpretations of the meaning of the moons, but for me moons equal mooning. That’s all. Over the last few months my posts or e-mails have been more “generic”. They are not specific to my post-stroke life. I’ve done that intentionally. My favorite line from the song Grapefruit Moon is “and the grapefruit moon, one star shining, can’t turn back the tide”. You’ve heard the saying “you can’t unring a bell!” I think that one line sums the whole thing up for me. Can’t turn back the tide. His second album The Heart of Saturday Night was released in 1974. It contains many great songs including San Diego Serenade. The first line of that song is “I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night.” That is a great way to look at the whole stroke journey. For me, it’s important to have memories of pre-stroke life as well as remember the current events of post-stroke life. I started out my post calling it “When pigs fly”, but I realize that for me it’s about the whole picture and that involves being aware of somebody else’s perspective and sometimes that requires us to look at things differently and not just about waiting for the unexpected. (I also thought about calling it “When Hell Freezes Over” but that was used by many U.S. periodicals when the Chicago Cubs won the baseball championship this year. The last World Series they won was 1945!) Yes, the unexpected happens and we cheer that event but it may take a long time and rather than wait for it, we honor the things that are in our life. One of my favorite songs from that Tom Wait’s selection is the song named after the title of the album (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night. When Matt and I first got together, I used to listen to this song regularly. It’s more true today than ever before. If you’ve not heard much of his work, start with these two. It’s what the holidays are about — the whole picture (and that may require us to look at things from a different perspective).

Merry Holidays!

“There’s no lemon so sour that you can’t make something something resembling lemonade.” This Is Us

November is typically my “gratitude” post, so this title may require some explanation. Most people know I love television. One of my favorite writers of shows is a man named Aaron Sorkin. (This maybe specific to U.S. television.) Whenever I see that he writes a show, I make an effort to see it. He is a very talented and intelligent writer who usually incorporates current ideas and events into his writing. He treats viewers like intelligent beings and that is an important part for me. The last episode of the show The Newsroom (on HBO) was called “What kind of day has it been?” I remember reading that and thinking, I had heard that before! So I went searching for information and I found an article where Aaron Sorkin talks about this in an interview. He has used this title a couple of times. In the article, he tells the story that he wrote a play. During rehearsals and previews of the play, the director and he would meet with the producers, the stage manager and key department heads late at a nearby bar. The lead producer would always begin the meeting by asking “so what kind of a day has it been?” I was/am taken by this statement. The main reason I love this concept is this — simply that the big picture is important, but it is just as important to view the little things. If we look at life after stroke, we can look at all that’s been accomplished and we should also value what today was like. Isn’t that a great reminder?

Most of us have heard the saying “can’t see the forest for the trees”. It is used of someone who is too involved in the details of something to look at the situation as a whole. I totally get that. But sometimes, we start by looking at the trees. Some people know what I’m talking about when I mention the grove of Eucalyptus trees that are planted on Freeway 101 just south of San Juan Bautista in California. I love that grove! It reminds me of great things and places. I’ve mentioned that with the stroke I lost my sense of taste and smell. It has slowly come back. Every time we drive down to Carmel, Matt opens the sun roof of our car as we go through that grove to see how my sense of smell is progressing. (It hasn’t helped to have had a drought in our natural water supply for the last few years.) While it has been difficult, there are times I have been able to smell the trees. We have had some bad forest fires in the state recently, and while I understand how devastating those fires have been for many, I sure loved that smokey smell with the Eucalyptus!

In the zodiac calendar, I am a Scorpio. Generally I don’t believe in putting labels on a person, but I will be at the head the line of anyone who says I am a good (true) Scorpio. If you look up the traits of a Scorpio, you will find that they are very fierce. They love a good fight, can give intensity a run for its money, they are strong, commanding, passionate and zealous, They are dedicated and loyal, as well as ambitious and security-loving. Sound familiar? These things don’t change because of a stroke! I see all these traits in a positive light and I’m sure anyone else who was born in the Scorpio sign feels the same way. I share this because I think anyone would be happy to have a friend who demonstrates any one of these attributes!

I recently told Matt this story. I was working at a start-up company about 30 years ago. The President of the company said to me “you think in colors, not numbers.” He meant it as constructive criticism, I took it as a complement. Matt asked me what this meant to me. So I said you know how colors have shades of themselves? Take blue for example. When someone says their favorite color is blue, one immediately conjures an image of navy blue, or royal blue, or pale blue, or robin’s egg blue and/or many other images. You get what I’m saying? But when someone says their favorite number is 3, one knows exactly what they mean. I still think in colors. That is another thing that is not affected by the stroke. That’s been a big part of the journey. This whole aspect of thinking in colors has been invaluable.

I know an artist who does fabulous paintings among other things. The paintings are abstracts. He has a website (http://dickrichardsart.com) and recently wrote a piece called What Did You Have In Mind? He says that the question he is asked most often about his art is some version of “Do you start with something in mind?” (I was one of those people.) He says his answer is “Yes, but what I have in mind is probably not what you would expect. It is never an object, person, or place. What I have in mind when I begin is a collection of colors and a process for working with them.” I get that completely! As a general rule, we like to put things in boxes that we know. He goes on to say that in his type of work, it is imperative to have no subject in mind — no reality at all. “Viewers want to ‘see’ something — some hint of reality in abstract work. In order to produce them, I must avoid beginning with ‘something’ in mind or letting myself get attached to ‘seeing’ something.” How great is that? I love this whole thing as a way to view life after stroke — not letting us get attached to seeing something! Beautiful and yet probably not in a box we are used to seeing. A great example of renewal compared to recovery. The video he has about his work sums it up beautifully — painting in the abstract is like life itself.

The quote that I’ve used at the top of this post is from a new TV show called This Is Us. I would put it as one of the new great television shows. I don’t know if it airs for you locally or where the show is going but something I read about it rings very true — sometimes life surprises you. The pilot or first episode left me in complete surprise, much like the stroke has with my life. In Episode 5, one of the characters (Kevin) shows a colorful painting that he made. He is an actor and made a painting when he got a script of his latest play. In describing it, he says that life is full of color and we keep adding color until the colors disappear, but we are always in the painting. I totally got that and later in that same episode the sister Kate talks about the sport of football and what it means to her. We can’t really put it in a box. It’s how I view baseball. It’s a very sentimental thing for me. It’s about family. It’s about bonding. Might as well make that lemonade. For those who are thinking, “what does that really mean?” Most of the time, the lemonade is obvious but sometimes you have to look for it (like looking at the trees or having a color in mind), but we can usually find something good and beautiful in all situations, no matter how painful things are. Don’t I know? That’s where gratitude begins for me.

Making lemonade (or limoncello)!