Plain, Spicy and Extra Chunky

by Helene Louise  

In 2004, the New Yorker published an article by Malcolm Gladwell called The Ketchup Conundrum. In it, Gladwell discusses how Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher and psychophysicist, changed the food world with the results of his studies on consumer preferences. The article describes how, in 1986, Moskowitz was hired by the Campbell’s Soup Company, which also made the Prego brand of spaghetti sauce, to generate new ideas to help the tomato sauce side of the business get out of the slump that it was in.

Instead of trying to come up with the “perfect” sauce that consumers would want to buy over the competing brand, Moskowitz worked with Campbell’s kitchens to come up with 45 varieties of spaghetti sauce and then tested them in different cities. What Moskowitz found, was that there was no “perfect sauce”. In fact, overall, each person had a different idea of what the “perfect” spaghetti sauce should be like. For the most part, people’s preferences fell into one of three general categories: plain, spicy and extra-chunky. Based on these results, Prego launched an extra-chunky sauce which turned out to be extremely successful. And, this was the beginning of the trend towards many different varieties of the same product as we now see on grocery store shelves.

Why am I writing about this in the context of this project? Well, my observation is that in the same way that adults react differently to different tomato sauces, children respond differently to different things as well. For example, in the case of my daughter’s rehabilitation, for each challenge that we faced, we were generally shown a series of exercises to work on. This could be considered the plain tomato sauce equivalent—sitting down each day and just doing whatever we were supposed to do.

But in real life, kids get bored quickly and trying to fit rehabilitation activities into an already busy life is not as straightforward as it may seem. So, to keep my daughter motivated, I found that I often had to “spice things up”. It could be adding funny sounds to the exercises, making jokes, distracting her with conversation or using chocolate chips to motivate her—whatever it took to keep her on task. And finally, given everything else on the to-do list of any particular day, sometimes I just couldn’t find the time to sit down and do what needed to be done. Instead, like the randomly distributed bits of tomato in the chunky sauce, I had to fit the exercises in here and there wherever I could—like always holding her affected hand whenever we walked together and giving those muscles a good stretch without her really noticing.

Overall, I think that there will always be some who choose plain tomato sauce over spicy sauce and vice versa, whereas others, like myself, could choose either, depending on the day. The point is, that there is no “perfect” sauce that will appeal equally to all people, all of the time. In the same way, what children like and dislike, and what motivates them and what doesn’t, varies. That’s certainly been the case throughout my daughter’s rehabilitation. Sometimes a plain approach has been just fine and sometimes a spicy version is what was needed. Other times, a random extra-chunky approach has been the only way to go. For us, variety has been a key ingredient.

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Piano in the Park

by Helene Louise  


Inherent in the idea that "development is a mystery" is the idea that there is always the possibility that something unexpected could happen. No matter how long and how carefully we study something, no matter what our previous experiences might be, no matter what we think is a certain outcome, sometimes things happen that we simply weren't expecting.

 Growing up, I had the privilege of many years of piano lessons. And much later, I creatively applied what I learned in those lessons to my daughter's rehabilitation after a childhood stroke (as I explained in my book). Pianos are big, heavy instruments that are kept indoors and they're not the sort of thing that you move around just because you feel like it. Imagine my surprise then, at finding a brightly painted piano parked in front my local library—outside!

 Every day this summer, this piano has been available to anyone who walks by and spontaneously feels like sitting down and playing it. None of my previous life experiences, musical or otherwise, would ever have led me to believe that one day, I would come across such a thing. But, there it is—and people are in fact stopping to play this piano or simply marvel at the sheer unexpectedness of it all. Once again I am reminded that, no matter what your reference point is, you just never know...

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Development is a Mystery

by Helene Louise  

A couple of months ago, I attended a presentation by a pediatric psychologist. It covered everything from the major milestones in a child's development to the stages of grieving that parents typically go through when they find out that their child has a serious condition. Throughout the presentation, I desperately wished I had received that same information a decade or so earlier when my daughter was first diagnosed. What I particularly appreciated, was that a number of times, to underscore the fact that what she was explaining was to be taken as a guideline, not an absolute, the presenter said to always remember, that after all, "...development is a mystery."

I tried not to let it show that my eyes were welling up and I was starting to feel the tightness in my chest that is all too familiar to parents struggling to help their children with whatever challenges they may have. As I wrote in my book, despite all of the times I was told that my daughter could progress no further and what was now required on my part was a healthy dose of acceptance, I could never let go of the idea that no matter what, there was still a possibility for improvement—no matter how slight and no matter how imperceptible it may be to others. And, as it turns out, the cumulative effect of all those ever-so-slight improvements that I continued to strive for, has been that my daughter has exceeded all expectations.

The basic idea that development is a mysterious process that we can’t accurately predict is at the root of many of my choices as a parent over the last decade or so. Life is not linear, no one can know for sure what a particular outcome will be and so, development is indeed a mystery. To me, that all translates into a reason to always hold onto a little bit of hope and keep persevering, regardless of the context.

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One Day Left in July...

by Helene Louise  

One of my principles as a parent, as an employee or even just as an individual, is to always (or as much as I can) do what I say I am going to do. It could be delivering on a promise that I've made to my daughters, setting clear boundaries for the kind of behaviour that I expect from them (like being respectful and compassionate) or setting myself up to meet deadlines in the workplace. Regardless of the situation, doing what I say I am going to do has been a big part of fostering strong relationships and giving myself the sense of accomplishment that I need to continue persevering at whatever it is that I want to or have to do.

In this case, a few years ago I decided that I wanted to write exactly the kind of book that I couldn't find when I needed it the most. The kind of book that could have been a reference point for me in coming to terms with my baby having suffered a stroke and provided some insight into how someone else had dealt with the long process of rehabilitation that follows. 

Writing about that period of my life was not easy. In a way, it was like reliving the most difficult part of my life all over again, but worse. When I was living it, I tried to stay numb to my feelings and in writing it, I was being completely honest with myself. However, as I continued writing and looked at the experience with the perspective that comes with time, I also saw what beauty there was in all of the tiny triumphs that were ours to celebrate and what strength I ultimately found through it all.

I said that I would make my book available by July 2013. It hasn't been easy, but with one day left in July, I am happy to say that the very book that I wish someone had written for me to read, is now available through for whoever might like to read it.

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A Little Bit of Positive

by Helene Louise  

Sometimes, it’s very hard to see the positive side of a situation. But, the more I practice it, the more I am able to do it—even if it takes a long time and even if there is only just a little bit of positive. 

For example, I ended up studying economics further to the advice of a high school guidance counsellor. In the meeting to determine what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I said that the only thing I knew for sure, was that I didn’t want to study anything related to math. The counsellor answered that economics would then be perfect for me. It was months later, in my first few days on campus, that I realized that all my courses were going to be math-related. Now, it seems ridiculous that I was so poorly informed in what was such a key life-decision. But, what is perhaps even more surprising, is the stubbornness that I demonstrated in getting through the program, eventually even going on to do a master’s degree.

The first time I realized that all the courses in the economics program would be math-related, I felt trapped. I was far away from home, I felt isolated and, most of all, obliged to carry through with what I had signed up to do. I definitely struggled over the four-year program and in fact, on my first calculus test, I got a humiliating 27%. But, instead of quitting, my stubbornness kicked in and I made sure to get the help I needed to understand the concepts and succeed in what I had started. And, the experience of working hard at something that wasn’t easy for me, made it easier for me later on to take on and deliver challenging projects in the workplace.

The same could be said for my daughter’s rehabilitation after a childhood stroke. When I received her diagnosis, I felt trapped in something that I wasn’t at all expecting and didn’t think I could handle. But, in the same way as I had approached my studies years earlier, I sought out the help I needed, worked long hours and strategized to get the most out of every day (as I explained in my book which will be available later this month).  

I will never say that my daughter having suffered a stroke is a good thing, in any way. But, within all of the heartache and struggles, there are still some positives. Despite everything, my daughter is a courageous, capable and bright young girl. She has already learned to work hard for what she wants to achieve. She is inherently accepting of people who are different. She has already learned what it feels like to be discriminated against, how important it is to stand up for yourself and most importantly, how critical it is to believe in yourself. These are all very positive things. So, even in what was by far the most heartbreaking of situations for me, I can still see a little bit of positive.

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