Friday, December 30, 2011

The Difficulties Finding a Good Support Worker or Coach

I started writing this blog in a rage. When I finished my detailed four-page (word document format) rant, I read it through and realized that’s exactly what I had done. Rant. And rants don’t necessarily make good blogs.

While it felt good for me to give a blow-by-blow explanation of why my husband and I decided we have to fire our son’s support worker today, I realized that’s about all it did: help me get something disturbing and sad out of my system and down on paper.

But, as I said, that’s all it did. Though I think dozens of people raising children with special needs would relate to my unhappy situation (if they made it through my dense writing), it wasn’t going to work for a blog. Experience tells me that more often than not, most readers’ eyes begin to glaze over when reading (or listening to!) other people’s angry missives.

So, I’m rewriting this blog entry right now and will try to stick to the salient facts. Wish me good luck.

It has always been difficult to find good support workers (or coaches) for our son with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. When he was diagnosed with FAS at the age of six, in 1993, few professionals had heard of FAS. Many who did know about it misunderstood the condition completely (“people with FAS have no conscience”; “they’re violent”; “they can’t learn,” etc.).

So when Michael was young, we couldn’t find a support worker who had a good understanding of children with FAS or how to work with them. While we did find caring, sensitive workers, they had no specific training working with people with FAS so they often relied on therapeutic models that didn’t work, such as “Just try harder, Michael.”  Or, “You know you weren’t suppose to do that. So why did you?” Or, “You knew that 2+2= 4 last week. Why do you not know it this week?”  That kind of thing.

People who understand FAS know that many people, including our son with this neurological disorder, have poor executive functioning, bad memories and don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their action. They need external brains.

Back to the support worker. Last year, we hired Bob to work with Michael, now 24. Michael still needs help following routines of daily living and needs to improve skills which will allow him to live what is called “semi-independent living.”  Michael lives in a group home during the week and is home with us on Friday through Sundays. Michael also needs someone he can talk to.  The staff at the group home, while nice, provide minimal support.

Bob came recommended because he had worked with people with FASD before, and when we interviewed him, we were impressed with his knowledge of the disorder.

Once hired, Bob spent several hours twice a week with Michael helping him with daily routines. He took him out grocery shopping, to the library. He helped him on the public transit system and did other things to  get him out into the world. And they talked.

We thought everything was working well with Bob and Michael was content with seeing him several times a week.  Until…

Michael broke a serious rule at his group home a month ago (I don’t feel it fair to Michael to write what it was, but suffice it to say, Michael didn’t harm or affect anyone else).

Needless to say the group home workers as well as my husband and I were deeply upset about what Michael did. We met and tried to come up with appropriate consequences and reinforcements to ensure Michael understood the “wrongness” of his act and wouldn’t repeat it again.

But it’s not easy to teach someone not to do something again, even when they understand it’s wrong, when they act more on impulse rather than reason.

This is where the problem with Bob comes in. Bob decided the best way to reach/teach Michael about this issue was to berate, bully, and verbally bludgeon Michael about his misdeed. He was relentless and wouldn’t give up. He believed he had to “break Michael’s defenses down,” in order for Michael to understand the seriousness of his misconduct. He repeatedly had Michael in tears.

We didn’t know about this until Michael eventually came to us, crying, and explained what was going on. “I don’t think anyone should treat me like that.”  “He asks me questions about what I did that I can’t answer.”  “When someone is that mean to me, I dig in my heels and it makes me want to do the opposite.”  “I don’t want to work with him anymore.”  “He makes me feel bad about myself.”

You would think that would be enough for my husband and I. You’d think we would call Bob and tell him we didn’t think this approach was constructive for Michael or a way to help him learn to control his impulses better.  But we didn’t trust our instincts. Bob was a professional. He came highly recommended. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t. Perhaps we were being unnecessarily protective and defensive of our son.

So, instead, we set up a meeting with Bob for all of us to meet and decide how and if to move forward.

I’ll spare you the details of the meeting, but Bob was belittling to my husband and me (you’re too easy on Michael; you’re pretending there isn’t a problem; you’re letting Michael get away with things).  He bullied Michael when Michael tried to talk (“Speak louder.”  “You can’t just tell me you’re not going to do that again. You have to tell me how you’re going to stop yourself from doing it…”

Bingo. Time to trust my instincts. Too bad I hadn’t earlier.

This guy is a bully. Michael’s not going to learn anything from this guy. He’s going to do the opposite of what Bob says. Plus, our goal is to build Michael up, give him confidence, help him reprogram his brain in a constructive way.

As Michael said, no one should treat Michael like this.

So we’re firing Bob. One problem solved. But there’s always another.

How are we going to find someone (good) to take his place. My husband and I can do only so much. Michael’s not the only one who needs support.

Whew! I did it. The blog is now only two dense pages. Congratulations to any of my blog readers who made it through from beginning to end.

I would love to hear about any of your own experiences  (good or bad) with workers, and what you do to ensure you’ve found the right one.

Or, you might want to share experiences about a time when you did or did not trust your own instincts.

Happy New Year to you all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It’s That Time of Year (as always)

When my son with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder was growing up, people used to say to me, “I don’t know how you do it.”  I took the expression “do it” to mean raise my son, manage my family and generally, just lead a life and come through it relatively sane.

I had several responses when asked about “doing it.” My answer depended on how that day (month or year) was going. On a bad day, it was, “Quite honestly, I’m not really sure I am doing it.” Another day, feeling a bit more resilient, I’d say, “What exactly are my options?”

Around holiday time, like now, I usually revert back to the “Quite honestly…” response.

I subscribe to many blogs, websites and Facebook pages of parents (and other caregivers) talking about raising children with special needs. Their entries either break my heart, inspire me, teach me or make me ask, with remarkable respect, “How do they do it?” Especially this time of year with so many other demands on their time, energy and financial resources, I am in awe.

My hunch is, though, if asked ‘how do you do it?’ their responses  would probably mimic one of my own.

In the last few days, I’ve read about mothers: living through episodes of their child’s dangerously aggressive and/or dangerous behaviours; rushing their child to a hospital emergency; watching their child go through a surgical procedure; fretting over a daughter’s promiscuity; negotiating with police about their child’s arrest; and begging their child’s principal not to expel him from school.

These mothers amaze me. They express the horrors they are going through, they sometimes question how they will make it through the day (night, week or month), worry about how they’re going to pay for all the therapies their child needs, and often ask for support from other parents who can relate to their experiences.

Yet, considering all their daily troubles, I would say that in virtually every entry I read, the strongest feeling that I pick up from the parent (usually mother) is one of great love for their child (not anger).  And, yes, there’s another prominent feeling: hope – that one-day things will be easier for their child, and therefore, them.

As I enter the frenzied hustle and bustle of getting ready for Chanukah this year,  I think about all the other families raising children with special needs who are preparing for their own Christmases, Kwanza, Diwali, or whatever holiday it is they celebrate during this season. And I ask, with greater poignancy than ever, “How do they do it?”  

How do they buy presents, go to school concerts, trim trees, stuff turkeys or glaze hams, attend religious ceremonies, make sure everyone has proper holiday clothes (or at least clean), roll out cookie dough, send out holiday cards, make merry, look after their families and still do all the unbelievably challenging, enveloping and all-encompassing jobs required to raise a child with special needs (see above).

I don’t know the answer. Perhaps they don’t think they really are doing it all that well. Perhaps they’ve decided to ‘cancel’ the holidays this year and stuff their heads under pillows and hibernate until the season has passed. And maybe ‘they’re doing it all,’ with the same love and devotion in their hearts like they do every other day of the year.

To all these moms, dads, caregivers (and I never forget about the caring professionals), I offer you, with the greatest of respect and admiration, my greatest wish for you this season and beyond ­ – peace. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ahmed, Me and the CBC

I hopped into the taxi, gave the driver my destination, then sat in silence for only a few seconds before he asked:

“Would you like to hear the radio?”

“I don’t think so right now, but thanks for asking,” I answered. “You’re the first cabbie to ask,” I said, thinking of the many times I’d gotten into a car with the music blaring.

“You know, according to the book,” the driver said, "we’re suppose to ask the customer before turning the radio on.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said.  “I’ve had a couple of nice experiences lately, though. Twice when I got into a cab, the driver was listening to the CBC. I happen to love the CBC.”

“Ah, yes, the CBC, my favourite, too.”

‘Ah, yes, the CBC.  My favourite, too?’  His comment both surprised and delighted me. It challenged my stereotype of who a typical CBC listener is, and like all stereotypes, it was good to be challenged. I knew my driver was an immigrant because of his strong accent. As well, I was quite sure he was Somali. I had become familiar with their distinctive facial physiognomy since large numbers of Somalis immigrated to Canada in the 1980s.
I wanted to ask my driver how he came to his love of the CBC, but didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I thought it best to talk about myself first.

“The CBC has played a big role in my life,” I said. “I’m an immigrant to Canada—from the States. Most people think there’s not much difference between the two countries, but there really is. I had a lot to learn about my adopted home when I first came here in 1970. Listening to the CBC helped me feel connected and less lonely.”

“Same here,” he said, introducing himself as Ahmed. “ I’m from Somalia. When I first came, I would listen to the CBC all day, everyday. I learned about Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton. I heard Gordon Lightfoot sing the ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’. I still listen to the station, and it’s good, but it’s not the same.”

As a longtime listener, I agreed. But before I conjured up my list of greatest laments and losses, he beat me to it. “I guess the death of Peter Gzowski and Morningside was the worst. I’ll never forget the day I picked up The Globe and Mail and saw a picture of Peter on the front page with two dates listed above his photo. I knew what they meant. I was so very sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.”

Yes, the two dates, birth and death. I, too remember seeing them.

“You’re older than I thought,” I said. “Peter Gzowski goes way back. His last radio show aired in 1997. He was really special wasn’t he?”

“Shelagh Rogers and Barbara Frum, too,” Ahmed said, referring to two other well-known CBC broadcasters. "They would interview people in Newfoundland, then B.C., then the Yukon. I’d take out my map to see where those places were.”

How well I too remembered Shelagh's contagious laugh on Morningside and Barbara’s probing interviews on As It Happens. But it was Peter who touched me the most. Home every day with my colicky first child, he made me feel I was part of the larger world. I felt like I was eavesdropping on wonderful conversations. One day he'd be talking to a woman in the prairies putting up Saskatoon berries, and the next to a man in Quebec on his way out to tap his sugar maples. Inevitably, we’d get a full weather report from these people, find out whether it was a good or bad year for whatever crop they were harvesting, and get a recipe for some kind of jam before Peter hung up.

Some people I knew hated these segments. Thought they were hokey, a little too homespun for their tastes. Not me and Ahmed. We loved hearing everyone’s stories. We thought they actually had the power to pull the country together. Or at least make us feel at home.

“I met so many interesting people.”

“Me too.”

We both laughed, realizing it was happening again. The CBC had brought us, if not the country together.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

O Canada!

I can't explain why it took me so long, but after forty-one years in Canada, I finally became a Canadian citizen yesterday. It was a remarkably moving experience.

I was one of 72 people from 36 countries who swore allegiance to the Queen (and her heirs!), promising to be law abiding citizens. It didn't take me long to break my pledge though. Probably no more than ten minutes later, I jaywalked across the street while walking with my son and husband on to our celebretory breakfast. Oh dear.

The judge read the list of countries off, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Vietnam. Couldn't tell if I was the only American in the room, but I can say that chances were pretty good that I was the only person with blue eyes.

I wasn't the only person choked up when the judge told us we were now, officially, safe in our new home. She said that many of us, particularly the refugees amongst us, had endured great hardships to get here, suffered long and worked hard to reach this day (as opposed to me who just sat on my duff for 41 years).

While I was teary, the young woman in front of me just started sobbing when the judge said this. I looked around and knew the room was full of remarkable stories, probably like hers.  I'm sorry I didn't get to hear them.

I think it was a moving day for all in the room. Heartfelt smiles, tears and inspiring words. All made me want to stand up, be proud and roar:  I AM CANADIAN.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Letting Go: it ain't easy

“We’ll meet you at the Wellesley subway stop at 10:45, ok?”

My husband is talking on the phone to our son Michael at the group home where he’s living. “You remember how to get to the Wellesley station from there, right?  So we’ll see you there at 10:45, a quarter to 11. Do you want to write that down so you don’t forget?”

“No, that’s okay, I’ll remember,” Michael says to my husband. They then hang up.

I’m standing in the background, listening to the conversation. I want to jump in before my husband ends the call. I want to say, “Tell Michael you’ll wait while he gets a piece of paper to write it all down. Or, at least, have him repeat the time back to you and describe how he’s going to get to the Wellesley station.” 

But I don’t say anything. I keep my mouth shut and get dressed. I can’t always be jumping in, trying to micromanage everything and everyone interacting with my son. At some point, I have to let go, at least a little. Michael likes feeling independent. I have to give him a chance.

We’re meeting up with Michael to go to an art gallery together. My husband Robin and Michael take a woodcarving class each week, and their teacher is exhibiting his sculptures at a downtown gallery near the Wellesley station. Michael, like us, was really looking forward to seeing the exhibit. I so very much want everything to go smoothly.

If all goes well, we’ll be meeting Michael in two hours. I can’t relax, though. I know there’s a very good chance that all will not, in fact, go well.  It’s happened too many times before.

Michael, now 24, has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). One of the symptoms he has, common in people with the disorder, is a poor memory. What he may know one day may not be retrievable to him the next.

Sure, he once knew how to get to the Wellesley station from the group home where he’ll be coming from.  But will he really remember how to get there today? Maybe or maybe not. Will he remember what time he’s suppose to meet us?  Maybe, maybe not.

To complicate the impending rendevous, Michael often believes he knows something when he really doesn’t. He often says he knows something when he really doesn’t. He often pretends he knows something when he really doesn’t. And, as I mentioned before, he often knows something one day, then not know it the next.

Therefore, both my husband and I know the chances Michael will show up at the right time and place are 50/50, if that.  

Robin and I arrive outside the subway station a little early just in case Michael shows up ahead of time and gets worried if he doesn’t see us. I can see from the look on Robin’s face that he’s as anxious as I am. We stand together for awhile, then he moves away, leaning up against the building. He pulls out a crossward puzzle he’s been working on.  I move into the sun and pull The Globe and Mail out of my bag and begin reading. I look over at Robin, now pacing and biting his lower lip.

Everytime a rush of people come out of the subway station, I peak up from the paper to see if Michael is one of them. He’s not. Something churns in my stomach.

Fifteen minutes have passed. It’s now 11:00. Then 11:05. Michael’s now 20 minutes late.

“I’ll call the group home to make sure he’s left,” Robin says. After a brief call, he tells me, “They say he left around 10:30, so he’ll probably be here soon.” I’m not totally sure whether Robin believes it, but we both take our positions again. Neither of us wants to admit defeat.  So we wait.

I’m starting to think we may have to consider giving up, but I don’t say a word. Neither of us wants to be the one to say, “I guess we better go on without him.” 

I took comfort in knowing that though we would be terribly disappointed if Michael didn’t show, we at least wouldn’t have to worry about him. Even if he got lost finding the subway station or messed up with the timing, he would know how to get to our house. We’d practiced that with him on the subway line for what seemed a million times and a million different points on the system.

I kept looking at my watch. It’s now 11:15. He’s half an hour late.  11:20, 11:25.  11:30. Now forty-five minutes late.

“What do you think?”  I say. “Should we just go?”  I really don’t want to, but it was probably time.

“I guess we can safely assume he’s not coming,” Robin responds.

And wouldn’t you just know it. Right then, Michael walks cheerfully out of the subway station in his black hoodie and jeans with a big grin on his face, looking as proud and cheerful as could be.

“Hi, Mike,” I say, putting my arm around him. “We were just about to leave. We were afraid you got lost or something. You’re forty-five minutes late.”

“Really? he said. “What time was I suppose to be here?”

“10:45” I say.

“Oh, I thought you said 11:45.”

“Nope, 10:45. Did you have any trouble finding the station?”
“Naw, I know the subway system really well.”

“We’re just glad you made it,” I said. We really were.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wounded in the Womb

Wounded in the Womb

I’d like to alert my readers to an excellent series of articles published this week in the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free Press about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Wounded in the Womb, is available for reading online at   

A wide variety of articles, research findings, photos, diagrams,  interviews and even videos about FASD can be found under the following topics in the series:

    * What is FASD?
    * Crime and FASD
    * Child and family services
    * FASD in the schools
    * Diagnosing FASD
    * Prevention and solutions
    * The Voices of FASD

I commend the Free Press editorial staff for developing this special series. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is considered a significant problem in Manitoba by many FASD advocates in the province, though they’re concerned the real number of people with the syndrome, as elsewhere in the country, is underdiagnosed, and therefore, underserved.

According to an article published in the Free Press last February, FASD experts say the commonly used estimate of a 1% prevalence rate of FASD in the province is seriously lowballing the number. They believe the danger of this guesstimate is that it’s and used to justify the paltry sum of money allocated by the government to FASD prevention and treatment.

Brenda Bennett, director of FASD Life's Journey said, "We're all just guessing."  Bennett, an advocate for adults with FASD in Canada says, "When I know the majority of people with FASD in Manitoba go unidentified and unserved, it's really heartbreaking.

“If each child were screened for FASD at birth or in elementary school, she continues, "they wouldn't be a mystery to every teacher, every foster parent, every social worker, every guidance counsellor, every judge and legal aid lawyer..."

Unfortunately, there’s no easy test like a blood test or brain scan to diagnose FASD, and according to the government, no mass scale screening for it was on the near horizon in the province. They’ll address the problems associated with FASD through education and programming, they say.

Huh? Ok, sure, you can educate the public about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy without having a body count. But come on. Without knowing who has FASD, who exactly is their so-called “programming” going to be for?  You need a target to target programs, don’t you?

Albert Chudley, a Winnipeg pediatrician, professor and FASD expert sees this as a problem, too. "For 18 years, we've been dragging our feet, collectively," said Chudley. "To say, 'We don't want to count, we just want to prevent' -- the two are very closely related.”

Young people in the province with FASD may be a long way off from getting young the treatment and programs they need. Besides difficulties in diagnosis, Chudley identifies another impediment. “FASD is also seen as an aboriginal disease so it goes under-reported among non-aboriginals.

According to the February Free Press article, “Experts such as Chudley say it's likely doctors treating the troubled children of white, middle-class parents zero in on similar cognitive problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and never think about prenatal alcohol exposure.”

Wounded in the Womb has timely, important information about FASD. Check it out. Maybe we can all get our local newspapers to do something similar?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

FASD and the Law

There’s good news from government about FASD. Unfortunately, the news isn’t Canadian.  Not yet, anyway.

Readers of my blog may have read my entry earlier this month about the Canadian government’s proposed get-tough-on-crime Bill C-10  and its potential negative affect on the Youth Justice system. If the bill passes, it could mean more and longer jail time for young offenders, a potentially disturbing consequence for some young individuals with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) who may get caught in the new system’s dragnet. What these young people need is improved services and supports, not jail time (if you too are concerned, please contact your MP and MPP).

In light of this potentially bad news for Canada, good news is coming in from Illinois:

  • the first state in the country to require FASD instruction in sex education classes.

  • State Attorney Robert Berlin is heading an FASD Task Force aimed at creating a system to provide mental health screening for all youthful offenders for symptoms of FASD.

  • All county clerks are supposed to provide a pamphlet describing the cause and effects of fetal alcohol syndrome to couples seeking marriage licenses.

These developments were announced by Appellate Court Justice Joseph E. Birkett, the former DuPage County State’s Attorney, speaking at an educational event his office organized for attorneys, judges, teachers, social workers and legal professionals to ensure the legal system is better educated about FASD.

Commenting on the large number of people attending the conference, Birkett said, “It’s good to know that people are willing to learn so we can improve the treatment of those suffering with FASD when they come into contact with the legal system.”

As a whole, the announced changes in Illinois are admittedly minor, yet I see them as enlightened first steps. These legislated changes show a recognition of issues related to FASD and the law, and were introduced by the State Attorney, an elected official who represents the State in criminal prosecutions, and often the chief law enforcement officer of a jurisdiction.

What I find most encouraging about the Illinois situation, if it comes to pass, is the proposed system to provide mental health screening for all youthful offenders for symptoms of FASD.

Though there is strong anecdotal evidence about the high prevalence of young offenders with FASD within the justice population in Canada, the rate has not been fully established, according to the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Justice website (developed by The FASD ONE Justice Committee of FASD ONE (FASD Ontario Network of Expertise) with funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Department of Justice Canada, Youth Justice Policy.)

While studies have been carried out on prison populations, “forensic inpatients,” and youth on probation for criminal activities to determine the rate of FASD among these groups, two major studies suggest that individuals with FASD are not being identified in the justice system in Canada (Burd, L. 2003, DOJ, 2005).

In another study, however, researchers screened offenders undergoing preliminary assessment at Stony Mountain Institution near Winnipeg concluded that the incidence of FASD was ten times greater in the study sample compared to the general population (MacPherson, P. 2007).

The prevalence of victims of violent crime with FASD is not clear either. In 2009, researchers interviewed victim service workers across Canada who work with victims with FASD.  Anecdotal information suggested that FASD is under-diagnosed among victims of crime (Fraser, C. 2009).

Undoubtedly, identifying individuals with FASD who find themselves in the criminal justice system, as proposed in Illinois, would be a major step toward improving the investigation, pretrial, trial and sentencing of such offenders. As well, a clear idea of the prevalence of the problem would hopefully increase  recognition of the problem and encourage interventions to address them.

But as anyone familiar with FASD knows, this is no easy thing to do. FASD is a spectrum disorder. It’s not always easy to diagnose. The number and severity of symptoms vary from person to person and are sometimes masked by other disorders. Any assessments undertaken through the legal and criminal system need to be undertaken by qualified, experienced medical professionals trained in identifying FASD. Without such people in place, I would think assessments for FASD would be meaningless. I’m assuming they know that in Illinois.

Excellent work regarding FASD and the justice system has been undertaken in Canada. .
I’ll cite two here.

For detailed information about court cases, trials, bail, sentencing, etc. related to FASD and the Justice System, please see Information available in both English and French.

For a detailed bibliography and links to American and Canadian FASD-related legal cases, research, and papers about FASD and the Criminal Justice System, go to B.C.’s Asante Centre’s website

Monday, October 24, 2011

Apple Fritters (and my son)

My son with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, now 24, lives in a group home during the week and is home with us on the weekends. We love seeing him and he loves being here, though he spends most of the time quietly in his room, often carving wood.

He’s a very sweet, quiet young man, but completely without the gift of conversation. Though we don’t get much back in words, my husband and I always chat with him about things going on, ask him questions, and like to hang out with him if he’s willing.

While I know he’s a loner and not usually comfortable with people, I see him light up when he actually does make some sort of “connection” with people. I, therefore, as his mum, try to bring him out of his isolation. I think part of the reason he likes coming home is because we make him “connect,” and he therefore feels connected. Who, in this great big world of ours doesn’t need that?

Nevertheless, the strength of our connection is not based on words. When he was little, we could lavish physical affection on him, and it helped us build a strong bond – us with him and him with us. Unfortunately, the physical affection route to building our relationship with him is long gone. It’s hard to get even a hug out of him these days. I guess it’s age appropriate, and that’s a good thing. But I miss the physical connection with my son. It was reciprocal.

I know that all the attempts in the world at conversation isn’t going to maintain our connection. Fortunately, like other mothers, I know that another good way to my son’s heart is through his stomach.

Since it’s fall, I decided to take advantage of all those beautiful, juicy fresh Empire and Cortland apples I bought at the St. Lawrence Market on Saturday morning. I whipped out the recipe for Apple Fritters I had been drooling over in my latest edition of Canadian Living magazine, and got cracking. I convinced myself, without much difficulty, that deep fried and battered apple slices would be good for the family.

I was right. They were heavenly. As my husband said, “Tastes like we’re at the State Fair.” When he said, “They’re great,” I could only reply, “Of course they’re great. They’re sweet and fried. Always a winning combination.”

My son was grinning from ear to ear with each bite of the fritters. Seeing him like that was almost worth the extra inches on my waist. Forget the almost. It was worth it. As I walked him to the front door on his way back to the group home, he looked at me and said, “The fritters were great, mum. You’ve got to make them again.” Boy, will I.

Besides my joy, let me share with you the winning Apple Fritters recipe from Canadian Living: 

Apple Fritters

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp cinnamon
1/ tsp salt
1 cup soda water
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, separated
3 apples
Oil for deep-frying
Icing sugar

In large bowl, whisk together l ¼ cups of the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt; whisk in soda water. Whisk in butter and egg yolks; cover and let stand for 2 hours.

In separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff not not dry. Fold into batter. Place bowl in larger bowl of ice water; let stand until cold, about 15 minutes.

Peel and core apples. Cut into ½ half inch cubes. Toss with remaining flour. Fold into batter.

Meanwhile, in deep fryer, work or wide saucepan, heat about 2 inches oil unter deep-fry thermomenter reads 350 degrees F. Using ¼ cup measure, pur in batter, 4 at a time.

Fry, turning once, until golden, 3 – 4 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve warm.



Canada’s crime rate continues to fall. So why Bill C-10?

Continuing the downward trend of the past decade, the crime rate in Canada dropped by 3 per cent in 2009 and was 17 per cent lower than in 1999, according to Statistics Canada in July, 2010.

Nevertheless, on September 20, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government tabled C-10, the government’s new let’s-get-tough-on-crime and beef-up-the prison-system bill.

Formally known as The Safe Streets and Communities Act, the bill actually comprises nine small bills that were introduced by the Conservative government during its minority rule, but were never passed.

For good reason.

Smack dab in the middle of the omnibus crime bill are major changes for the youth justice system that would put more young offenders in jail for longer periods in time.

This is of concern to many parents of children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, like myself. Some of these young people find themselves in and out of the criminal justice system because they lack good judgement; are vulnerable and easily manipulated by people with criminal intent; and have difficulties understanding consequences related to cause and effect. These young people need better supportive services, not jail.

Want to create a hardened criminal? Put a youth offender in jail for a really long time.

The Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children know this. They believe Youth Justice was not properly studied or debated in the last election, and they question if putting more people in jail would really deter them from criminal activity and increase public safety.

They also ask the following questions: Does broadcasting young people’s names help them become responsible adults, and what actions actually do reduce violence against young people and by young people?

The Coalition believes that if the government really wants to prevent violent crime committed by youth, they should provide more funding for professionals in the schools and health system who can recognize problem youth, and give those youth help before they become a problem. “You'll spend a lot less money long-term, and help create a more civil and bearable society.

“It has been proven in the U.S. over and over that the proposed tactics don't work. So why are they even on the table?” The Coalition is concerned that the government knows nothing about youth offenders, or drug addicts, and “is proud of the fact that they don't consult anybody who DOES know about them, and puts solutions like this on the table in the absence of any reliable input.”

Concerned parents and the Coalition aren’t the only people who think the government’s get-tough-on-criminals plan is, well, just plain criminal.

According to The Globe and Mail, Canada’s youth crime plans bewilder international observers in “countries whose systems, for the most part, closely resemble Canada’s – can’t figure out why this country is planning to shift toward a jail-intensive approach. Everyone else seems to be doing the opposite, not for ideological reasons, but because evidence shows it works. ”

Even Texans believe the “send them to prison” approach to crime is dumb. And that's something.

CBC political reporter Terry Milewski quotes Conservatives in the United States' toughest crime-fighting jurisdiction — Texas — who say the Harper government's crime strategy won't work.

"You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up," says Judge John Creuzot of the Dallas County Court. "And there will come a point in time where the public says, 'Enough!' And you'll wind up letting them out."

Adds Representative Jerry Madden, a conservative Republican who heads the Texas House Committee on Corrections, "It's a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build 'em, I guarantee you they will come. They'll be filled, OK? Because people will send them there.

And if people from Texas­ believe that, you can only imagine how the  rest of the informed world thinks.

For further information about the Bill and its effects on young people, please see the Coalition's website

Better yet, contact your MP and tell them issues need to be studied and reassessed before passage of the bill. Make yourself heard.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Local school boards dealng with special needs children

My husband and I have worked with many wonderful people who have eased our way while raising our son with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)  – teachers, doctors, fellow parents, social workers, friends and family.

But as parents of special needs  children know, you also have to deal with people who make life more difficult than it already is. In particular, many parents run into problems dealing with their local school boards while trying to get their child a proper education.

Our son had trouble the minute he entered Grade 1 in the public school system in Toronto. Within a few months, we were told that we had to attend a meeting called an IPRC where a committee would determine whether Michael would be placed in a Learning Disability class or a class called Behavioural. 

The unpleasant experience we had at this meeting taught me one important lesson. My husband and I would have a long future advocating to make sure our son's needs were met. Clearly, no one else was going to do it. 

The episode was a real eye-opener.

I'd like to share with you (below), an excerpt from my recently finished memoir where I describe our experience at the IPRC meeting. My hope is that it can provide other parents the strength and courage they need to speak their mind when dealing with similar situations.

                                                 * * *
Robin, Michael’s previous Montessori teacher and I walked into the dimly lit corridor of a1950s-built elementary school and up the stairwell to the second floor. As we entered the conference room, a thin woman in a dark-grey tailored suit motioned for us to take a seat on what turned out to be remarkably uncomfortable chairs.
We sat facing a long table occupied by six people looking like bone-tired members of a jury who had just delivered a guilty verdict to their previous guest. The woman introduced herself as the chairwoman. No one else gave their name, smiled or said hello. Robin and I looked at each other and telegraphed ‘what did we just walk into?’

“We’ve had a look at Michael’s files and have made our decision,” the chairwoman said to us. I was dumbfounded. We had spent hours preparing presentations about Michael for the committee. What was going on?

I felt compelled to say something before the chair went any further. There was no time to confer with Robin or Kathleen.  “Excuse me,” I said,  “but we’ve each prepared a presentation for the panel. We were told we would have the opportunity to speak before you made your decision.”

The chair looked at the other panel members, several of whom gave her minimalist nods. 

“Alright then,” she said, not sounding overly pleased.

Kathleen spoke about various accommodations made at the Montessori school for Michael, how easy they were to make, how little time they consumed. Yes, Michael was in some ways different than the other children, but that didn’t pose any problem. “He was so creative and fun, he inadvertently became a leader,” she added. “We just had to be careful what he was leading the other kids into,” she concluded, with a good-natured chuckle, “but all in all, he was a real asset.”

Kathleen spoke so assuredly, it buoyed my spirits. Robin and I then spoke about Michael’s strengths, our concerns that he may have an undiagnosed learning disability, and our desire to get proper help for him.
There was silence when we finished. No one on the panel blinked, spoke or asked a question. Their response bordered on weird. Eventually, a voice. “Thank you, Linda and Robin. Thank you Kathleen,” said the chairwoman, barely moving a muscle on her severe face. I found it eerily reminiscent of an imperious Queen Elizabeth delivering her yearly televised Christmas message to the world.
 “As I mentioned before you spoke, we have made our decision about Michael’s placement. An opening has come up in a Behavioural class in this district. Our funding formula dictates that the classroom has to be filled, so Michael will be labeled Behavioural.”
She was clear. The sheer inappropriateness of their placement, our willingness to take Michael to a school in another district or to wait for an opening in a learning disability class had no bearing on their decision.
I clenched my hands. “Is there anything further I can say or do to convince you that Michael belongs in LD?” I asked. 
“To get him labeled LD, you would have to attend an IPRC next year and make a case to get the label changed on his official record.”
What happened to this year? “Even if a learning disabilities class comes up next week, we can’t put Michael in it?” 
“Correct. He wouldn’t be eligible.”
“Can we appeal your decision?” I asked, trying to hide my fury.
“Yes, there is an appeal procedure,” the chair said, noticeably stiffening into her chair and pulling down her pencil skirt. “I can explain the process after our meeting.” Her mild display of displeasure – the first crack in her well-fitted armour – fueled my resolve.
“I understand you’ve made your final decision,” I continued, attempting to sound conciliatory. “However, we’re not really clear that you have taken all the relevant factors in Michael’s case into your decision-making. We’re likely to appeal. So may I suggest something?” I paused.
“I’d like you to consider a dual designation for Michael. Instead of labeling him ‘behavioural,’ label him ‘behavioural/learning disabilities.’” They could put Michael into the behavioural class for now, but we’d have the opportunity to get him into LD if space came up. “It would spare us all the cost of an appeal or another time-consuming IPRC.”
Until that moment, committee members had appeared so utterly bored, I wondered if the proceedings had overlapped with morning nap time. But they were now rotating their heads, scanning from left to right, like owls waking in the night. The lay of the land had changed. They were sniffing for scent of the chair’s next moves.
“Yes, alright,” she said. “The committee can do that. We have dual designations.”
I wanted to scream, ‘Oh, you can do that, can you? You uncaring cows. Why didn’t one of you let me know I had the right to appeal? Why didn’t one of you suggest a dual designation? It was pure fluke I came up with the term. I had no idea if such a thing even existed. What will happen to the next poor fool who sits in front of you?’ 

Instead, I said, “Thank you. So Michael will be designated LD/Behavioral.” It was a victory, of sorts. We should just get the hell out. 
Robin, Kathleen and I rushed out of the school. It wasn’t long before we came to the same realizations. Michael’s needs were never on the committee’s agenda. It wouldn’t be the last time this happened. If Michael was to get what he needed in his life, it would be up to Robin and I to get it for him. This was likely just the beginning.

“It’s ironic,” I said, as we walked to the street. “In the 1960s, I was fighting for other peoples’ sons – the demonstrations, pickets, sit-ins, the marches. We were all desperately trying to stop the War in Vietnam and bring our troops home to safety. Well, look how times change. I don’t have to fight for other people’s sons any more,” I continued, “ I have to fight for my own.”

My husband Robin and I looked at each other knowingly. We both knew. This was the first of many battles that lay ahead of us.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

ADHD in Adults: A Hidden Malady?

I was sitting having my morning cup of (way too strong) coffee, reading The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, when I glanced at an article on ADHD. I scanned the first paragraph, and thought I’d scream. I can’t begin to count the number of times I have heard people, including my mother, give, what the article refers to, as The Case Against Adult ADHD:

“ Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a dubious condition promoted by Big Pharma to push stimulant drugs; the small number of children with true ADHD (rather than lax parenting) will outgrow it by their teens, so adults have no business using the diagnosis  as an excuse for failing to meet their commitments as employees, spouses and parents.”

Not so fast.

ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that interferes with executive functioning – an umbrella term for thinking processes that include planning, attention, working memory and impulse control.

According to researcher Dr. Russell Barkley, as quoted in  The Globe, the disorder persists in adulthood for as many as two-thirds of children with ADHD, and 4 to 5 per cent of all adults have ADHD. It’s one of the most impairing disorders Barkley sees in his psychiatric outpatient clinic in North Carolina

One-third of people with ADHD never finish high school, he says. As adults, they tend to have a checkered work history, money problems, broken relationships and inconsistent parenting skills. They are at high risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, dangerous driving and impulsive behaviour.

I have been hearing part, if not all of the Case Against Adult ADHD along with the Case Against ADHD In General since we decided to give our son meds for the ADHD diagnosed at the same time as his Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS, now part of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, FASD).  He was six. After the ADHD diagnosis at The Hospital for Sick Children here in Toronto, Michael was put through a rigorous three-week, triple-blind study to see whether his behaviour and ability to learn might improve on Ritalin, and if so, on what dose.

Triple-blind means no one knew what Michael was being given each week: not us, his parents; not his teacher, not Michael himself, nor the doctor at Sick Kids. The only person who knew whether he was receiving a placebo or drug was the pharmacist.  At the end of each of the three weeks, my husband and I as well as Michael's teacher had to fill out forms describing Michael’s behaviour, mood, attention, ability to learn, etc. Michael's opinions were delivered directly to the doctor.

The results were blindingly clear to all of us, including Michael. The first day of the week he was on the dose of Ritalin thought to be the right one for him, he came home from school and said to me. “Mum, there’s a tunnel now between me and my teacher.”  I wasn’t quite sure what he meant until I realized it was his way of saying that he and the teacher were now connected. He also said “The pills make my ears pop.” That too dumbfounded me. Then I realized. He could now hear what people were saying.

Not everyone was happy with our decision to give Michael meds, though. My mother began sending me clippings from her local newspaper in Florida, relaying the following messages: ADHD enormously over-diagnosed. The invention of Big Pharma.  Boys being boys labeled with ADHD when  just full of energy. Lax parents can't keep kids under control so ask doctors to prescribe drugs. Doctors prescribe to keep parents happy. Cut sugar out and everything will go away.

The numbers of children diagnosed with ADHD is high.  It probably is overdiagnosed, particularly by family doctors who aren’t specialists in what may be a more complex, undetected neurobiological disorder.  ADHD may only be a symptom of something else. But not in our case, the pills Michael was prescribed for the ADHD aspect of his FAS have been a godsend. With them, Michael  could stand still long enough to sing ‘O Canada’ at the beginning of school with the rest of the kids. But most importantly, he learned to read and write, both things he had been struggling with without success until the meds came into his life.

Michael didn’t grow out of his ADHD when he became an adult. I can’t imagine he ever will, nor are doctors telling me he will. Years ago, before ADHD was well-studied, the theory was that kids would outgrow it when they got into their teen-age years. It was a temporary blip that would just disappear, people thought. Maybe some people do outgrow it, but it’s not what I hear from people who have it.

Unfortunately, ADHD can plague people all their lives. I know several adults who were diagnosed with ADHD late-in-life. All believe the diagnosis explains why they’ve suffered all their lives with issues related to time management, organization, anger, money, low productivity and lack of success in school, work and relationships. Each of them wish they had been diagnosed earlier. Perhaps they could have done something to change their patterns, even turn their lives around. They'll never know.

I expect my son will be on the ADHD meds (Concerta is the long-lasting from of Ritalin he's now on) his whole life. It’s not something I relish. But I feel lucky we live in a world where the ill effects of ADHD are beginning to be understood, and glad that Big Pharma, not generally my friend, has found something to help my son.

The following books may be of interest to readers who’d like to learn more about adult ADHD and the devastating effects it can have on people’s lives. All three books are highly recommended and offer constructive, positive advice.

Driven To Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood by Edward  Hallowel, MD

Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder by psychiatrists Edward (Ned) Hallowell and John Ratey  This is a follow-up to  Driven to Distraction. Both books deal with the challenges of ADD/ADHD and offer advice on treatment and how to live successfully with the disorder.

And some couples might find this useful: The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps: Melissa C. Orlov. Ms. Orlov also has a website that's worth checking out.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Should you get your child "labelled?"

I was speaking yesterday to a mother whose child in Grade 1 is acting up in school. The kid can’t sit still so runs around the classroom. He interrupts the teacher when she’s reading to the kids. He’s throwing stones in the playground, at both teachers and students.

“They want to do some testing on him, but I’m afraid of getting him labeled,” the mother said to me.

Whoa! Did that set off a trip down memory lane for me. “I don’t want to get him labeled,” kept resonating through my brain after she said it.

I was thinking, “Huh? You don’t want to get him labeled?  You actually think he’s not ALREADY labeled? Take it from me. He’s labeled. He’s the "bad kid.”

Though I was not close with this woman and didn’t know her child personally, I decided to share thoughts about my own situation with our son when he was in Grade 1. I’m usually loathe to extrapolate my own personal experiences onto others, yet I felt this was too important to let go. I decided to  speak up. The mother would of course make her own decision about her son, but I wanted her to have another perspective on the situation.

When my son Michael entered Grade 1 after several successful pre-school and kindergarten small classroom experiences in a Montessori school, everything started falling apart. Like this woman’s son, he was disruptive, couldn’t sit still, was throwing stones in the playground during recess, didn’t play well with the other children.Though I knew part of the problem was a large classroom and less personal attention, that couldn't be the only issue.

I spent umpteen hours meeting with his new teacher and the principal trying to come up with ways to help Michael adjust to a 30-kid classroom, without demanding too much of the teacher’s time. Why should my kid eat up the time of a teacher who has so many other children to take care of?

But the teacher, who was new to teaching, basically didn’t try any of the accommodations we came up with. She saw my son as a serious behavioural problem. He was a kid who “acted-up.” And in fact, he WAS all that she said he was. The problem was, she wasn’t interested in why or trying to do something about it.

My son was suffering terribly from all the reprimands and disdain from other kids. They started bullying him, calling him names. They liked seeing him get into trouble and purposely triggered his anger  to see him act up. Michael became more isolated and unhappy. His behaviour was getting worse. He didn’t want to go to school anymore.

My husband and I decided it was time to get a psycho-educational assessment. Our family doctor, who had always thought of our son as just a “busy, active” boy who would outgrow his restlessness, agreed it was time. He was getting into too much trouble.

We got an appointment at the Child Development Clinic at the Hospital for Sick Children here in Toronto.

It was time. Michael was about to be expelled. When they let him back in the following semester, the plan was to put him straight into a classroom for children with behavioural problems. They didn't even consider the classroom for children with learning disabilities. Nor did we. We didn't know if he had any.

When I told my friends about the appointment for an assessment, several were shocked, and said so. “You’ll get him labeled.”  “A label will follow him the rest of his life.”  “Teachers will just see him as a label.”  “He’s just a busy, creative guy. The teachers don’t appreciate how smart and creative he is.”  “They might want to give Michael drugs.”  “Michael’s just his own person. Don’t let anyone put a label on him because he’s a little different.”

I was pretty shocked myself. With them. Why were they so adamant? What was so bad about a label? What if Michael had a learning disability or other, perhaps physical problem that affected his ability to learn and get along with other children in school?  If we understood the problem, we could get help for him. Intervene. He was suffering with the status quo. Do kids act up and get in trouble for no reason?

I began thinking that perhaps people’s stridency against testing and possible use of medication  reflected an ideology more than it did actual concern for the well-being for my son. Teachers are bad. Psychologists are bad. Labels are bad. Drugs are bad. Maybe, but not necessarily. I’m smart enough to know when I’m getting bad information or advice. No one knows my kid better than I do.  I’m not going to let anyone put my kid on a drug without thoroughly assessing the situation. Why should knowledge or input from other people be a bad thing?

Back to the original issue. Afraid to get the kid labeled?  He’s already labeled.
He’s bad.

In our case, after an extremely thorough assessment of tests, exams and interviews, Michael was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS),  brain damage caused by the alcohol his birth mother drank during her pregnancy with him. Michael’s FASD  (as they now call it) manifested itself in several ways. Severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Learning disabilities. Mild Asperger’s Syndrome-like tendencies as well as mild Obsessive Compulsive symptoms (amongst others). I learned that children with such symptoms, particularly learning disabilities, often exhibit behavioural problems because of their difficulties communicating, understanding social cues, and constant failure in the classroom. They're acting out of desperation. I would too.

Though it was, to put it mildly, disturbing to get the diagnosis, we had come out of the dark. We knew what was wrong with Michael and had some direction how to go about helping him. There were of course no easy answers about “fixing him,” but we knew Michael was no longer bad. It also helped us feel less guilty. Bad parenting wasn't at the root of Michael's problems, as we often feared.

Sure, Michael got another label to replace the old 'bad kid' one, but his diagnosis engendered compassion and empathy from other people. Not scorn and disdain. Once Michael was diagnosed, the Toronto District School Board then actually "labelled" him using the term  LD (learning disablity) as opposed to "Behavioural,"  their designation for two types of children with special needs in the classroom. He was placed in an LD class, rather than the other.

I often worried about the kids labelled "Behavioural" and sent to those classes,. How many may have had problems, whether physical, psychological, emotional or environmenal that hadn't been diagnosed and were interfering with their ability to function in the classroom.

Yes, it’s true. Michael's new FASD diagnosis has followed him all his life (Michael is now 24). But along with it has come with a roadmap. A roadmap to help us, and other people not only help him, but understand him.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Video Trailer Coming To You: My Life in One Minute

 My husband and I are making a one-minute video about my recently completed memoir. It’s a little exercise I plan to post on my blog and circulate however and wherever I can to create interest in my manuscript as I move toward publication.

Needless to say, you can’t say much in one minute. How am I going to sum up a book I spent years writing? It has complex plot twists, myriad of characters, scene changes and a variety of themes running through, and turn it into a one minute visual?  Simple answer. I don’t have a clue how I'm going to do it.

But that’s the challenge. When trying to interest an agent or publisher, I’m going to get one, or at most two paragraphs in my query pitch my book. These are busy, burdened people with a lot of other manuscripts and queries piling up, waiting for delicate responses. If I don’t grab them in my one paragraph, they’re not going to be the least bit interested in reading more. Doesn't matter if my book is beautifully written, has fantastic characters, charming anecdotes and great drama. No one but me is going to know  if I don’t get my pitch short and right on my first, and unfortunately, only try.

No second chances here, and no feedback on where I might have gone wrong.  O’ cruel world.

So in creating my pitch and video, I’ll have to do what fledgling screen writers do when the Hollywood bigwigs come to town, inviting them to give 30-second pitches about their screenplays. The producers, looking for the next Fight Club or Fargo blockbuster, are all ears. For 30 seconds, that is. Gotta use your time well.

Attention spans of producers, agents and publishers are, how do you say politely, similar to a gnat’s newborn. Miniscule, if registerable at all.. So tighten, tighten, tighten.

I’m fortunate that my husband was a documentary film maker with the CBC for over 25 years. Lucky, in that he sees things in pictures. I see things in words. So my challenge is to tell him, in ONE good sentence, or maybe two if he’s being nice that day, what my book is about, so he can put it in pictures. He has of course read the book, but he’s challenging me to get my pitch as tight as I can.

It hasn’t been pretty between us.

According to Leon Kaye in Making A Short Pitch Better, “In short, unless it (the pitch) involves the plot…learning, understanding, musing, rediscovering, etc. do not belong in a short pitch.  It has to be about the lead, his/her goal, the inciting incident, and possibly the complication.  And that's it.”

He also said, that if you’re pitching a particularly complicated story, he’s found it helpful to start the query with a question. Then answer it. So though I’ had already written my pitch a million times, or so it seems, I decided to try it again, this time starting with a question. So today’s pitch for my book, reduced as best I can, and starting with a question, is below. It’s probably not my last try, but I’m giving it a go. Here is the pitch for my new book: 

Love, Complicated

Love, Complicated

My life took a major turn when my adopted-at-birth son was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) at the age of six. According to statistics at the time, his diagnosis was a sentence for failure: he'd drop out of school; he'd be incapable of holding a job; he'd live on welfare, on the street or worse. The brain damage, they said, was irreversible.

With all the love, devotion, hope and medical knowledge I could accumulate, I set out to change the predicted course of events, illustrating the expectations that those of us raised on the activism of the 1960s brought to bear on our lives and families. My struggle to help Michael find his place in the world continues. Life, like love, is complicated.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Honey Cake for a Sweet New Year

Jews, including me, celebrate Rosh Hashanah this week. It’s the Jewish New Year, a two-day holiday that begins at sunset on Wednesday, September 28, and continues until sunset on Friday the 30th to usher in the year 5772 on the lunar calendar.

Rosh Hashana is a quiet, serious holiday for Jews. No vodka shooters. No silly hats, no noisemakers. Rather than merry-making, we are encouraged to reflect on our deeds of the past year, and to ask forgiveness for whatever sins we may have committed, either against God or people. Not a bad thing, of course.

We don’t make this forgiveness thing easy, however. No intermediaries to get us off the hook.  Rather, we’re suppose to either talk directly to god to ask forgiveness for moral transgressions of the ethical kind, or go directly to the people we have transgressed against. We can’t ask God to put in a good word for us. We’ve got to clean up our own messes. Not his job. Not even the rabbi's.

Wish it were.  I’ll tell you. I’d rather walk anonymously into a little dark booth to get things off my chest than walk up to a friend or family member, remind them of the shitty thing I did to them, and then ask them to forgive me. Couldn't I just say a few mea culpas, pound my chest and give an extra few bucks to my charity of choice?

Fortunately, there’s a light side to Rosh Hashana as there is to all Jewish holidays. The food. To affirm our hopes for a sweet new year for our loved ones and ourselves, sweet foods are staples on the Rosh Hashana dinner table. So much so, my husband, a non-Jew, is never really sure when we’ve finished main course dishes and moved onto dessert since the sugar content of each isn’t all that different.

But he’s learned. When the glazed carrots and honey-roasted chicken have been removed from the table, it signals time for dessert. And that dessert, in most Jewish homes, is a rich, dark, dense, spicy, moist, and I must say, delicious honey cake. You don’t have to be Jewish to love it. You just have to have the right recipe, make sure it’s cooked all the way through before taking it out of the oven, and allow it to sit for a day before eating.

There are a million Jewish honey cake recipes in Jewish cookbooks and on the internet, so I’ll spare you the trouble of finding the right one. Toronto food writer, Lucy Waverman printed her honey cake recipe this past week in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, and it’s a winner. Lucy’s recipes always have a flavourful punch because she never stints on the spices needed to bring foods alive.

I wish you and your loved ones a sweet and healthy new year.

Rosh Hashana Honey Cake

Servings: Serves 10 to 12, but lasts for 2 weeks well covered.


3½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup strong coffee
1¼ cups honey
4 eggs
1 cup light brown sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup golden raisins or chopped dates
1 apple, grated
Icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 300 F. Heavily grease and flour a 10-inch bundt pan.

Combine flour, baking powder, soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger in large bowl. Set aside. Stir together coffee and honey in a separate bowl. Set aside.

Beat eggs until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in brown sugar. Stir in vegetable oil until just combined.

Beat together half of flour mixture and all of honey mixture into egg mixture. Stir in remaining flour mixture, raisins and apples.

Pour batter into prepared bundt pan and bake for 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes or until cake is springy to the touch, has begun to come away from the edge of the pan and releases a cake tester cleanly. Let cool in pan for 20 minutes. Run the point of a flexible knife around the edge, unmould onto a rack, cool fully and leave in a cool place, covered, for 24 hours to allow flavours to mellow. Dust with icing sugar just before serving.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Have Platform Will Publish

Just returned from a beautiful bicycling trip for a few blissful days with my husband through the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Unpacked the bags, got a few hours of sleep, sat down at the computer, and there I was. Back at it again.

“It” is researching how to expand my “author platform,” that ubiquitous term I keep running into everytime I read about getting a book published these days. All the articles or blogs I read are talking about platform, as in, ‘If you want a publisher to take note of you, you gotta have a platform. No platform? Fugeddaboudit.” Full stop.
Like it or not, I have to take this platform thing seriously if I want to find a publisher for my recently-completed memoir.  But no matter how many publishing experts promise they can teach me to build my platform in three easy pieces, it makes me tired just thinking about it. People have been telling me for years that it’s easy to knit socks, tighten my abs, make strudel and dye my own hair. I know better.

I do take some comfort, however,  hearing that blogging is a good form of platform-building. I blog, therefore I platform-build.

Platform is what you use or do to make you and your work stand out and build a following. Blogging and tweeting are great ways of building platforms. Linkedin and Facebook pages are good platforms, too. I would imagine skywriting is probably even better than any of those. Hard to sustain though, I suppose. But I’m not completely counting it out yet. Note to self: google skywriters, Toronto.

“Platform maven” Christina Katz, author of Build Your Author Platform says, “Through your platform you sustain an engaging and dynamic presence among fellow writers; develop a devoted following of readers; identify and capitalize on your unique areas of expertise …”

In other words, an extensive platform tells publishers that you’re visible. That you have an audience. People already know who you are, think you have something to say, care about what you have to say, and…drumroll… may even buy your book because they like you (and what you have to say) so much.

In these uneasy times for publishers, I figure that an author platform is a little like Xanax. It will reduce anxiety and increase feelings of tranquility. What publisher couldn’t use a little of that these days?

So I’ll give it to them. It’s the least I can do. I will  build my platform, like the good people say. As some of my readers may know, I’ve already taken one piece of expert advice directed toward increasing readership in my blog,  I’ve taken what they say to mean, ‘focus young lady’. So, I’ve become more focused.

Instead of talking about 62 different subjects in 62 days of blogging as I’ve done (probably a Guinness record of non-focussed blog writing), I’ve narrowed myself down to three topics. I’m writing about my book/memoir. I’m writing about the roller coaster ride otherwise known as getting a book published, and from time to time I’ll write about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the condition my son suffers from – brain damage caused by the alcohol his birthmother drank when pregnant with him. Besides it being an issue close to my heart, it is, not surprisingly, a major theme running through my memoir.

Speaking of focus, I’ll now get back to platform building. So how committed to this grand little exercise am I? I guess I’ll know for sure in the next few days as I decide whether to sign up for September's Writer’s Digest Premium Collection Program of books, webinars and independent study workshops called:  Build an Author Platform. 

Normally $428.97, but for me (and you), only $119.99. A 78% discount just for taking the trouble to register. Only 115 copies left.

The package marketers have pretty much got me hooked with their promises of what their package can do for me: Stand out to editors and agents! Determine what you want to get out of social media then go after it! Promote your talents and credentials in clever, continuous ways at no cost! Build an enviable author platform! Create a 6-point platform strategy!

I think I’m gonna do it, sign up that is. I’m fully aware that parting with a few bucks is probably the easy part. I’m also signing up for a lot of work once I digest the material and have to get cracking.

On second thought, maybe I should make that strudel after all.

If any of my readers have had experience taking Writer’s Digest courses or webinars, or ordered books from their Writer’s Digest Shop, please let me know what your experience has been. It would be good to share it with other readers, too. You can help me build my platform! For free.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Call me a bibliophile

I think a bound book, with good design, lush paper and a venerable typeface is a beautiful thing. For me, a well-crafted book lifts a writer’s words off a page and provides a bonus of respectability to a writer’s art.

People like me love holding a book in our hands. We leap to the back of the book to find out what typeface the printer used, we run our fingers over the paper, and study cover illustrations before deciding whether they ‘work’ or not.

We like knowing little things about publishing, like the top 10 typefaces used by book design winners, which happen to be: Minion, ITC Baskerville, Adobe Garamond, FF Scala, FF Scala Sans, Trade Gothic, Electra, Dante, Fournier and DIN. 

We daydream about which of the 10 we’ll use when our own books are published.
We love books, not just words, information and stories. We’re bibliophiles. 

I’ve been called worse.

Not everyone notices the kind of details about books that we do. Most hardly remember the name of the author when they reach its last page. Most people, understandably, care about content mainly. They don’t get what the big deal is when it comes to font, cover stock or layout. Once they’ve read a book and taken from it what they will, they’re done. Who cares if the publisher used Garamond or Helvetica. 

Unlike some of us bibliophiles, they don’t look at a book thinking the margins should have been a little wider or the paper less glossy.

It’s not a bad thing, actually, especially in today’s publishing world, where more and more people are self-publishing. From what I can see, self-publishing, first and foremost, is about getting a book on the market economically, not about craftsmanship. Most self-publishing companies offer a limited number of design templates and packages for writers to choose from. If you care too much about design details for your tome, you’re in trouble.

No one’s saying ‘it doesn’t matter how your book looks.’ That would be just plain foolish. But self-publishing companies know the design options for writers have to be limited to be economical. Unless you want to spend extra bucks to get your book custom designed, it makes sense to buy a package. Go for the “premium” design package if you want to go the extra inch.

But what does someone like me do?  I care so very much how a book looks, feels and even sounds when you first open it. But if I self-publish, my hunch is that if I have even the slightest practical bone in my body, I’d be smart going for a package. Would it really be worthwhile to spend a heap of money on a designer, and then spend hours upon costly hours with him/her to create the book design of my dreams? 

But am I capable of such compromise? Not sure. I’m going to have to do more research. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a self-published book that it my opinion looks “good.”  That might be because I don’t realize that some really good-looking books I’ve seen are self-published. Or it may be because the price to get a good-looking book printed costs an arm and a leg and no aspiring self-publisher thinks it’s worth putting that kind of money into the design.

Or maybe, there really aren’t any good-looking self-published books out there.

Please tell me if I’m wrong. I truly want to be. You can also tell me if the kind of things I care about, in the end, don’t make any difference. If I want my book published, and no traditional publishing house is going to pay for me to have the gold standard, maybe I just need to ‘let go.’ Forgeddaboutit, as Tony Soprano would so.

I’m not trying to be a snob. I just love books. And, I’m never completely sure if, and when, compromises are, well, worth the compromise.