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Saturday, October 22, 2011


I am addicted to puzzles. They are probably the only reason I continue to subscribe to the local city newspaper because I prefer to do them pen in hand, unlike my writing process where the computer screen suits me better. I'm not sure I'll ever make the jump to doing most of my reading online either since something strange starts to happen to my eyes and the screen not long after I start reading.

My morning ritual is to hop out of bed early, feed the dogs, fetch the paper from the end of the long driveway (no doorstep delivery in the country), check in on Michael (this is usually long before he needs his 8:00 am dose of medication), check my email and facebook, put the kettle on for tea, then scan the paper.  I read an op-ed article or two but most of the news stories are old by the time my hands touch newsprint, news I've already heard on the CBC morning radio show. What I really want are the puzzles - all the puzzles. I attack them like a junkie on speed. My focus is complete and if I'm lucky enough, I have time to do them all before I have to clean, dress and feed Michael for the morning.  There is nothing quite so delicious as a steaming mug of tea, a quiet house and the paper spread out all over the dining room table.

I start with the Ken Ken puzzle, mysteriously hidden away all by itself in the sports section. It's a variation of Sudoku, but usually a quick study, with wild claims to "make you smarter".  I ignore the basic puzzle on offer and go straight for the advanced. I can usually, on a good morning, polish that one off in about three minutes.  Then it's on to the full puzzle page where I start with the word jumble, generally pretty easy unless it's the Sunday paper. Following that I hit the cyberquote which is a coded quotation of a few lines by a noted Canadian. I've been doing those since I was ten when I used to dream about being a code cracker in some covert spy mission. I had a wild imagination, what can I say? Then there's the Sudoku which starts out really easy on Monday, hardly worth the effort unless I'm really bored, but works up to the killer by Sunday, the day most people have a bit of time to waste on such indulgences.  I could use the challenge every day, I'm afraid, since I have nothing but time.  Finally I do the crossword, which during the week is ridiculously easy but fun nonetheless. It's the weekend papers that really dish out the posers with the New York Times crossword as well as a brand new challenger called Kakuro -  Ken Ken on crack. I have managed to complete that one only twice because it takes me a long time and I usually get drawn away to do something more important, unfortunately. One day maybe I'll master it and finish it before breakfast like all the others with the exception of the New York Times crossword which, if I have the time and the brain, takes an entire day to complete, often with a bit of healthy cheating.

So that's how I waste my time. They are like a drug I have to submit to every day. I don't exactly go into withdrawal if I miss them but I do enjoy the challenge. It's where I put my nervous energy.

It is very satisfying to see the end of something so quickly.  It's a limited task requiring a set amount of concentration with a pretty strong guarantee that I'll see completion. No loose ends.  If I get stuck, I simply walk away for a while, do another puzzle or something else entirely. Usually when I get back to it, suddenly the puzzle unlocks itself.

Conventional wisdom says these puzzles are good for guarding against dementia and general brain rot.  I'm not so sure of that but I'll tell myself that's why I'm doing them. That sounds better than the pure addiction it really is. Michael used to kill those puzzles at one time but that didn't make the least bit of difference to what has happened to his brain.  I don't believe for a second that if he had done a few more of them he'd be better today, just as I don't believe it when well-meaning souls used to tell me that maybe he just didn't eat the right foods when he was growing up.  That's just too neat and tidy and simplistic, not to mention incorrect.  If there is one thing I've learned, it's that the human body, especially the brain, is so complex that some days I think we haven't got a tiny clue what causes what; we are groping around primitively in the dark most of the time, with no neat, easy solution to most of our physical puzzles. So let's not make people feel bad that they didn't eat right, do enough puzzles or weren't adequately loved by their mothers.

It is interesting, and of course indescribably sad, to watch the rapid deterioration of Michael's cognitive skills. For a short while I was trying hard to stimulate his brain by attempting card games, board games, jigsaw puzzles, but quickly realized he just cannot fathom them most days. I got overwhelmingly frustrated, having to explain every single step he needed to play something simple like Yahtzee, a game I used to play with very young children with more success. The grid of a crossword puzzle confuses him and he ends up filling the squares with random letters.  If the clue is read out to him he can sometimes come up with an answer, just as he can knock me down with surprise with an answer to a tough Jeopardy question.  But he cannot work out a crossword grid. Even the simplest Sudoku baffles him just as very easy arithmetic sums do now. And this is a man who studied engineering and advanced mathematics, could blow anyone out the water playing games like Trivial Pursuit, and maddeningly blurt out the solution to the mystery three minutes into a complex crime show.

Things have declined hugely since the neurologist performed this very simple test on Michael nearly three years ago when he finally recognized that Michael's cognition was declining: Among other tasks, he asked Michael to draw the face of an analog clock, apparently a basic test for cognitive decline.  Michael wasn't even that bad yet, but I was shocked when he could not do it.  As I sat there next to him I wanted to whisper, "Just look at your watch," but it didn't even occur to him to do so.  I knew I couldn't help him out of this jam. After the appointment he came home and spent hours with a pen and paper trying to figure out the puzzle, as though he were studying for an upcoming exam. He drew clock after clock with my help, showing him the correct way. He'd duplicate accurately a few times then forget again. He continues to wear an analog watch but he is usually not able to tell whether he even has it on the right way up, let alone tell the time.

Today, Michael has trouble with the simplest things.  Some days the plumbing of the toilet confuses and troubles him. Anxiety can overwhelm him as he struggles to understand what is happening to his waste, so convinced is he that he is voiding onto the floor. If I'm not being watchful, because it doesn't happen that often, he will start to take things apart in his attempt to comprehend, falling back on his innate curiosity of how things work and a desire to fix them.  He is no longer allowed to touch any appliances, heavy equipment, power tools or any other electrical devices which he finds particularly confusing for some reason. In short, he's not allowed to touch anything more than the television remote control which at least he cannot damage too severely even if he can't figure it out. I spend a good deal of my day rescuing him from remote control purgatory. Most of the time he can no longer remember how to take his pills, which just started as an end of day deterioration but is now something I have to cue him for most of the time: put the pills in your hand, now put the pills in your mouth, now water. If I don't walk him through those steps, he has been known to drop the pills into the water or I'll see him just staring at them in confusion until I cue him. I don't like to jump in right away in case he can remember for himself. Some days he still can.

Michael's cognitive decline will continue and puzzling new developments will no doubt occur. How far down he will fall before he leaves us is a big unknown but one thing is certain: there will be no easy conclusion, no neat and tidy wrapping up of this puzzle.


  1. What can I say - I stat the day with the online NY Times. First the editorial cartoons. Then the columnists. The the news - especially Science, Health, and Education.

    Then the important stuff - the four Set puzzles, the four simplest Ken Kens, then the LA Times Sudoku. The NY Times crossword was usually done the night before - the next day one arrives around 10:00 pm and why wait.

    But ... you should get some help with that puzzle addiction.

  2. So I'm not alone. Perhaps there's a support group for us, Thom.

  3. I like your remarks, Claire, about not "blaming" the patient for his disease. For years I felt as though I had caused my Parkinson's by spraying my apartment with Raid to get rid of an insect problem. That may be true or it may not, given all that we read about pesticides being a factor. But it's complicated and there are also genetic predispositions and no one really knows how those interactions work. I guess I just feel it's better not to judge and cause myself unnecessary heartache. Plus to use the same logic nicotine has long been seen as a protective factor against acquiring Parkinson's, but I don't ever beat myself up for being a lifelong non-smoker! So I guess it just works better for me to let the sleeping dog of causation lie!

  4. Hey Bruce. Great typing! Glad to hear from you.