“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Stephen Hawking

I was touched by the death of Stephen Hawking for many reasons. He died a couple of months ago and if you don’t know who he is, you may want to look him up. He was simply a genius. Hawking’s condition was first diagnosed when he was 21, and he was not expected to see his 25th birthday. He died in March at age 76. His diagnosis was ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was in a wheel chair, was paralyzed, didn’t speak — not in the traditional sense and yet managed to show us all things while writing several books. It was not his death that was very profound (we all die) but rather what he accomplished in his life. His was not a stroke but I am taken by the inspiration that comes from the power of the mind!

Lately there has been quite a bit of information coming out about women and strokes. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. Most of this is from an article in Stroke Smart Magazine published by the National Stroke Association.

Stroke affects 55,000 more women than men each year in the U.S. It is a leading cause of disability and the third leading cause of death in women according to researchers who study this. Stroke affects more women than men in the United States and a new study pinpoints stroke risk factors unique to females.

Dr. Kathryn Rexrode, who is with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and has done an extensive study and as the study’s corresponding author says “Many people don’t realize that women suffer stroke more frequently than men, and mortality is much higher among women.” She also says “As women age, they are much more likely to have a stroke as a first manifestation of cardiovascular disease rather than heart attack.” The study attempts to better understand susceptibility.

“Why do more women have strokes than men? What factors are contributing and disproportionately increasing women’s risk?” Rexrode said in a hospital news release. Her team analyzed the scientific literature and identified several factors that increase stroke risk in women.

These include:

• Menstruation before age 10

• Menopause before age 45

• Low levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS)

• Use of birth control pills.

A history of pregnancy complications can also indicate higher stroke risk. These problems include gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during or immediately after pregnancy, the researchers said. Some of these risk factors are common and the researchers stressed that few women who have one or more will suffer a stroke. However, they said it’s important for health care providers to be aware of any heightened risk. “These women should be monitored carefully and they should be aware that they are at higher risk, and motivated to adhere to the healthiest lifestyle behaviors to decrease the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) and subsequent stroke,” Rexrode said.

By contrast, there is a study that shows that the overall rate of strokes is declining in the United States, but appears to be going down mostly in men. At any rate, we should all know FAST (Face, Arms, Speech and Time) for stroke awareness! Ten years ago I did my first e-mail (May 2008) which turned into the wordpress blog. They are all in the site. The reason I share this is because even though things change, we can continue to have an impact — life goes on (there is always something you can do).

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“But we’ve always done it this way!” Grace Hopper

I’m attributing this quote to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. She was a U.S. Naval officer and an early computer programmer. She was the developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language; at the end of her service she was the oldest serving officer in the United States Navy. I’m sure as you read that quote you immediately think of someone who has said that (or maybe you have said it). Now maybe you’ve had a job or role where you were required to think differently about things, as I have had to do. In 1987 Philip Sanchez wrote an article about her in the OCLC Newsletter called The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper and this was one of the quotes.

I’m going to tell a story that shows that maybe it’s time to think differently and question the “why”. A new bride is making her first big dinner for her husband and tries her hand at her mother’s brisket recipe and cuts off the ends of the roast the way her mother always did. The husband thinks it is very delicious, but says “why do you cut off the ends — that’s the best part”. She answers, “that’s the way my mother always made it.” The next week, they go to her grandmother’s house, and the grandmother prepares the famous family brisket recipe. The young woman notices that the grandmother cuts off the ends before she bakes it. Now questioning why that’s a part of the recipe, the young woman asks her grandmother why she cuts off the ends before baking it. The grandmother then says “it was the only way the brisket would fit in the pan!”

I’ve heard about a culture which acknowledges that we all have issues or problems. They encourage people to talk about those problems. The third time people come to talk about those problems, they must offer a solution. Most people can be divided into one of two groups: those who like problems and those who like solutions. This is my soapbox — just undoing what was previously done is not really a solution! Some times we need to rock the boat to propose a solution.

A great example of this idea is how we define victims and survivors. Yes, it is just a word, but it’s a mindset of how we see ourself! I use the word stroke survivor very intentionally. A big part of life is finding new ways to do things. I avoid the word victim because I see it as a mindset for people who see themselves as victims compared to people who see themselves as survivors. Yes, the stroke happened but there are plenty of things upon which to focus.

As we get ready for May as Stroke Month, I would guess many are hearing about brain plasticity or neuroplasticity. The brain is not made of plastic but rather this refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout life. Strokes are called brain attacks. The human brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells. How cool is that?

It was Steve Jobs who said “Things don’t have to change the world to be important.” That quote has left a huge impression on me. Things can be subtle! I realize that ‘subtle’ is relative or dependent on the situation. What may be subtle to you, may be huge to me or someone else. How often have you done something that you describe as no big deal, but has given somebody something huge? So you may be thinking, it’s just a word or buy a bigger pan but it is about rocking the boat, stirring things up or generally doing something differently! (If the brain can do it, so can I.) In the mid-70’s a song came out called Rock the boat but it also noted … ‘don’t tip the boat over!’

You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” Oscar Wilde

I’m calling this post the Foundation but maybe it’s just about looking at what’s underneath. I recently saw a movie where a man and a woman are forced to work together. They have to go the same place and decide to walk. After a few steps he says “could you walk any slower?” She replies “we’re strolling.” They would both get there, but at different times. One is not “better” than the other. They just had different goals. She was interested in the scenery and he just wanted to get to his destination. The stroke has forced me to slow down and consequently I’m looking at a few different things.

Art is one of the things that I look at differently since I had the stroke. I can’t exactly describe the “magic” of art but then again I would imagine people having a difficult time describing the brain and how it works. Last year we got a piece by artist Kara Maria (https://karamaria.com) called Paint Palette through the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. We went to an event recently and saw other works by her. I was very taken by her work. The piece we got is not a depiction of her work but rather one can see how she uses color. I love the piece Paint Palette — the title describes it perfectly. I think we can begin to see what she is building. Her website describes her as a “visual artist working in painting and mixed media. Her work reflects on political topics—feminism, war, and the environment. She borrows from the broad vocabulary of contemporary painting; blending geometric shapes, vivid hues, and abstract marks, with representational elements”. I love this description of her and her work! How perfect is it as a parallel to describe the post-stroke effort? It’s not just about stroke renewal but many other things. I particularly like the part about ‘borrowing’. I can’t begin to describe the magic of art, but I will say that it engages a different part of my brain. There are pieces that I like more than others but that is the brain at work. One of my favorite quotes is by the French artist Edgar Degas where he says “art is not what you see, but what you get others to see.” As I looked at her work, I was reminded of this. I was as taken by the beauty of her work as well as the palette piece we got. Here’s the learning for me, it’s about life not just post-stroke — we often look at the surface while there are things that we may not see but are important to the whole.

One of the first pieces of art that we got was when we were on a trip to the state of Arizona. It is by the artist John Cogan (http://www.johncogan.com). He works in acrylic, focusing on color and the effects of light. John earned his Bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University, then an MA and a Ph.D. in experimental physics. He uses his expertise of physics in his paintings. We have a piece by him that changes as the light changes!

I’ve said that my mother is a fabulous cook. When she cooks traditional Mexican food, she uses a molcajete. I’ve said that we were raised where food and a meal were an experience. A molcajete is a stone tool (the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle) used for grinding various food product. I don’t even know where someone would get one today! I bet my mother’s is over 60 years old. I would imagine people today use a blender or food processor to perform similar tasks. Now the reason I share this story is simply that we can’t say what flavors are left in the molcajete. She can tell us the ingredients that she used. One can wash a blender or food processor to get rid of a flavor, but we don’t exactly know if the tastiness we sense is something that was left in the molcajete. My mother makes these fabulous fried potatoes. We can’t duplicate the taste (though we’ve tried). Matt jokes and says “it’s her pans”. He may be on to something.

I once took a class and one of the activities we did was to make a mask. What was unique about this experience was that we used strips of casting plaster to make our masks — they were plaster moulds of our own face. While many of us look in the mirror and have a vision of ourselves, it is interesting to look at our face from that perspective. The next step was to paint the part that people see. I painted a queen (of course)!

These examples all use something ‘underneath’ or ‘behind’ what we see. In the post-stroke effort, we draw on various resources. Well, I do anyway! I would imagine that other stroke survivors do also.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. William Shakespeare

This has been one of the major learnings in my post-stroke life. I’m calling this post “change your …” and in many ways, I would say that this seems to be something from which we can all benefit!

We have a week at the Carmel Highlands as part of the Hyatt Residence Club. We entered into that contract just before I had the stroke. Yes, it’s a timeshare and before you roll your eyes (I can see/hear that), I’ll share why it’s been a good thing for us. When they told us about it, we found out that there were a few two-bedroom units. That was huge. It wasn’t just about us. We could have family and friends overnight and they could have their own space. For us, this whole experience has not been just about us but includes others in the process. We have not banked any weeks or gone anywhere else. Carmel is a little over an hour drive, which is something I can do when we go somewhere. That seems to be just about my maximum travel time. It’s not a distance thing but rather a duration issue. Camelot and Carmel both start with a ‘C’. That is not a coincidence. Our unit has an ocean view and we can see parts of the state preserve of Point Lobos. We try to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium every year. There’s a quote at one of the exhibits by Anne Stevenson that says “the sea is as close as we come to another world”. We missed the first year after my stroke for obvious reasons, but we have gone every year since. It’s a beautiful unit and a great experience. Here’s the big deal for me today. We go on vacation every year. I totally subscribe to the concept that a change is a good thing. It would be a very simple thing to get caught up in the whole stroke survivor thing and not focus on anything else. I would add the same concerns for Matt as a caregiver. It’s important to treat ourselves! If you don’t value and honor yourself, your history, or your talents then others probably won’t. It’s at this point that I would imagine many are thinking that this is very uncharacteristic — maybe it’s time to change (slowly and gradually).

It’s February! That means the U.S. college baseball season starts and in professional baseball, the players report for Spring Training (pre-season)! Last year, the Houston Astros won the World Series Championship and here’s my theory about ‘why’. The manager A.J. Hinch, like Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants, is a former catcher. Those who follow baseball or are familiar with the positions know that the catcher is the only player on the team who sees the whole field during the game. As a catcher, they have a different perspective of what goes on during a game. Here’s another thing for me about sports in general. College sports teams have a ‘shelf life’ of the time people are in college. Professional players usually retire from the sport by the time they are 40. This concept of what do have right now (not forever) is a big deal to me. People who manage the ‘business’ of sports are always thinking about this. I like this concept a lot.

We have shared with people the game of CASHFLOW. It trains players on the fundamentals of finance. It is based on the book Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. The main thing about it is that by playing the game over and over, we see the value of changing our attitudes and language as it relates to money.

If I were to title this paragraph, it would be ‘I’m a shopper; he’s a buyer’. Here’s a story I told on Facebook. Before I had the stroke a good friend gave me a bottle of limoncello that she made. She has a Meyer lemon tree in her back yard. It was very good and since we too have a Meyer lemon tree, I was inspired! I went looking for a recipe and found that the main ingredients are vodka and lemons and it takes a while to cure. There are two stages in the process. I wasn’t sure which vodka to use that would make the best limoncello. I mentioned this to Matt and while I was in my ‘shopping’ mode and trying to decide which vodka to use, he went out and bought several varieties of vodka, ranging from inexpensive to expensive. I have brands of vodka that I think are very good, so when people ask me about which vodka makes the best limoncello, I usually pick one of those, but really it doesn’t matter. They are all very good. The learning for me was that I need to change my mind about the limoncello! Maybe it’s the type of lemon that’s the key or maybe that it’s made with lots of love. Another vodka story about “change your ….”, when Matt fixes me a vodka rocks cocktail, he usually adds a couple of olives to my drink. It’s his way of getting ‘greens’ in me. (Most of us have been told that every meal needs greens.)

I mention several pre-stroke memories in my posts and it’s not because I wish to go back to that in my post-stroke renewal efforts. It’s simply that those are an important part of me. I remember once in Pilates, we were doing something new and I was struggling with it and my Pilates instructor (who is also a Physical Therapist) said “your muscles will remember.” That was very important for me. I’m not saying the renewal process is as easy as “change your …” but it’s a start. What does she mean by ‘change your ….’? Well start with change your words, instead of saying “spoiled” say “loved” and instead of saying “I’m nervous”, say “I care”. Feel what that simple shift does?

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