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Identity. What is that? With the 9/11 anniversary imminent, Muslim identity is one of the hot topics on talk shows. With school starting again, African or Caribbean identity in our education system is on some minds although not as dominant as last year. And in cyclical fashion, First Nations identity is discussed amongst some Canadians. We’re concerned about what it means to be (fill in the blank), the stereotyping of certain peoples, and the idea that children don’t see themselves reflected in their teachers and in their classwork to their detriment.

I’m a half-breed. I’m half of a people so decimated, there are purportedly only a couple of hundred thousand left on the entire planet and whose official structure didn’t recognize me as being Parsi (they do now) because of a deal they made centuries ago in order to survive. Half of hardly anything is rare indeed. It would’ve been an astonishing day to see a person like me teaching me or mentioned in any of my studies as people to admire. I was so rare that it wasn’t until the 21st century – until after an influx of people who worked and played alongside people like half of me on the other side of the planet — that anyone knew what I was talking about when I mentioned I was Zoroastrian or Parsi. My heritage is actually writ on my face – except for my nose. And thank God for that. Parsi noses are prominent. Anyway, because of that, some Russians, Indians, and Iranians look at me and know me.

It is strange.

And I’m conflicted.

I grew up in a school system who knew no one like me. It was so bad that when I was taught classical civilizations in high school, I rooted for the ancient Greeks in their war against the ancient Persians because that’s who my teacher – the irascible Mr. Payne – rooted for. And, as well, there were lots of Greeks left to care for and advocate for their history; Parsis don’t even live in their own land anymore, never mind have control over their structures, history, and names. (Many think my name is Muslim. It isn’t, it’s a Parsi name. The co-opting of Parsi names as Muslim ones would be like Cree names being co-opted by the English and identified as English names.) And despite being an argumentative, debating lot, Parsis as a people have no voice. It was a long time before I learnt that the ancient Persians were my ancestors. And so I can’t get excited about people blaming the lack of seeing themselves in their teachers and coursework for their lousy performance. In the end, it wasn’t seeing myself reflected at school that drove me to do well, it was what I was taught at home, told over and over and over and over and over again that only good marks would do, specifically “A”s.

Yet I find myself increasingly annoyed at the token female syndrome. You know, that’s when a talk show has a panel of which only one member is female so that the show or host can say they represent all perspectives. Yeah, right. When TVO gave the boot to Paula Todd, they also gave the boot to female equality in front of the camera on The Agenda. I’m not talking about going from female-male co-hosts to male host only. I’m talking about panels of five being all male but one. And why is it panels of three can only be two males plus one female? Why never the other way around? In the 21st century, there aren’t such a dearth of expert women that it would be hard to fill a panel with them.

Seeing these token-women panels makes me feel like I don’t matter, that as a female I have a voice so long as the men around me let me have one. As a half-Parsi, half-English Christian, I don’t feel like that at all. My Parsi heritage taught me to use my voice, that it counted as much as anyone else’s. And so as a teen and adult I never let patriarchy or misogynist attitudes shut me up or to feel less than. So what gives now?

Decades of being worn down by the inequity of being female.

And moreso, losing my personal identity because of brain injury.

It’s tough enough to belong to a group no one’s heard of, but to not yourself know who you are, with no solid group identity to hold on to, is a torturous place to be. Yet that’s not as bad as inhabiting the female identity, for women are treated so badly, so routinely that the fact the glass ceiling hasn’t moved in twenty years barely mentioned a blip on the evening news. In all the discussions of how hard it is to be a Muslim in a Christian society (try being a Christian in a Muslim society, ahem), an African- or Caribbean-Canadian in the ghettoes, a First Nations member on a poor reserve with no running water, the pundits and opiners forget that to be female in any society is to be below every culture, every ethnicity, every race, every creed. Is it any wonder then that too many women who achieve success lash out at the other females and keep them off the airwaves and out of the boardrooms? To be female is to have the most contemptible identity of all.


Paradise, Your Name is Canada

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Canada Day 2011 Maple Leaf Shireen Jeejeebhoy 2011-07-01 Though not my native land, Canada is my home. She was the place my grandparents first felt settled after being kicked out of Burma by the Japanese during WWII and wandering India for decades. She was where my mother’s mother learned about “ice hockey” in her 60s and became an aficionado of Hockey Night in Canada. She is where my father made his mark, and my mother stretched her wings. Canada raised me, nurtured me, educated me (for the most part). She gave my family hope and a home.

I remember my first days here as a child. I saw empty streets, clean pee-free sidewalks, trees and more trees, and even more trees, and cool grass under the tootsies. Most amazing of all, everyone had a car!

As I grew up, I noticed other differences. Racism infected my schoolmates and Canadian society in general, yet it was not nearly as invasive as in India where there was always some reason to look down upon or despise "others" whoever the "others" were. Weather never stood still. It showed more than the two Indian  moods of hot and rain. Here hot saunas cool down into breezy nights, and trees turn red and gold. Then golden trees give way to soft white flakes falling from the sky, and in turn the greyed white blanket melts under fresh rain and warming days. In concert with the crack of the bat, growth emerges slowly over weeks in the south and up in the Yukon in a single day.

And yet…

Indians revere education. Yet Canadians did not seem to. I often heard that learning takes childhood away from children as if children by necessity do not learn every minute. Without learning, how would our young leave diapers behind, learn to speak, learn to share, learn to work with others? Children love to learn; it’s innate. It’s adults who hate it. Children are smart, for in the current information and knowledge revolution the country that respects education and begins formal learning at the youngest age possible is the one that will prosper.

And yet…

Our ancestors set us up to lead the knowledge revolution. They did not relish living in the stone age; they toiled to build a modern, prosperous, just nation from dark forests, raging waterways, and feuding peoples.

I wonder what drove them? For it seems to me that that gushing desire to create, to build a home for everyone has trickled into a puddle of complacency.

I discovered part of the answer when I travelled north, way north. Canada’s spirit lives in her wilderness. We here in Toronto can glimpse it in our deep, leafy ravines and the wildness of Lake Ontario on a stormy day. But only in the northern territories can one feel it. Seeing the young mountains of the Yukon, experiencing chicken lunch time in a small store in a small place on the one road snaking north, marvelling at a forest burnt down fifty years ago with nary a new leaf to be seen, boggling at the rigorous hike men and a few women endured to get to Dawson City while gazing upon the river churning nearby, imagining that river flowing into all the large and small waters that nourish our land, all that and more makes you feel the deep, dangerous heart of Canada, a heart that beats for her people and expects much.

That heart must’ve been what impelled our ancestors to claim cities out of impenetrable flora, to ambitiously build a railroad from coast to coast, to declare the 20th century ours, to forge a national identity on bloody battlefields, to imagine and build places like Chalk River that used to heal the world, to create a social safety net that alleviated so much worry, to bring the Constitution home, to aver that we are strong and mature enough to handle free trade. Our past leaders spoke into being vast northern dreams, and we followed them, cheering, kicking, screaming but never slowing down. Their courage, their persistence, their imagination built us a paradise.

I wish all my fellow Canadians a happy day in Paradise and for us all to remember how we came to be. On this Canada Day, I wish that we as a people will invite into ourselves that burning northern Spirit again, that we will drive ourselves off the comfortable couch to continue on with the creation our ancestors began. printed a shorter version of this piece of their Real Agenda web page in honour of Canada Day.

Brain Health

Medicine Admits Concussions Bad but Still Doesn’t Understand

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I read an article in The Toronto Star recently titled “A Blow to the Head is a Big Deal” by Megan Ogilvie (8 April 2011), and I knew I had to read it. It wasn’t long before I was grumbling and had to comment on it. So here are some excerpts with my thoughts.

““The brain goes brrrrrrrrp and is temporarily out of order,” says Richards.

This massive electrical discharge is why people who have suffered a concussion are initially dazed and confused. The hit has obliterated their short-term memory.

“They can’t remember their name, where they are, what day it is, what they are doing,” says Richards. “It’s kind of like the brain has to reboot because the seizure has wiped the slate clean.”

I don’t remember being dazed and confused or even not knowing who I was. What I remember is after impact #1, I froze, raised my hand to protect my neck (as if that would work), and then started thinking again about the book I was in the middle of writing — Lifeliner. After impacts #2/3, I had an extreme emotional reaction. (Two impacts came from the shit drivers who rear-ended us, the third from being pushed into the car stopped ahead of us. I don’t know which rear-ender shoved us into it.) And I didn’t move until I was told to get out of the car.  Later, when we were told to move to a side street, I again stayed in the car; I had no interest in what was going on.

But that’s not the same as having no memory or awareness of what happened or what is going on. I don’t know why this myth of memory or awareness loss persists, especially when the injured person remains conscious, or perhaps the loss in me was a nanosecond, but certainly imperceivable to me or anyone else.

I will say though there is definitely diminished perception and awareness to the point that you may see but you don’t really take in what you’re looking at. It was like the day six years after my injury when I stood at Bay and Bloor (an intersection I’m very familiar with and had seen many times in the previous six years) looked around, and suddenly I was seeing it as if for the first time in six years. I just stood there and gawked.

The amount of axon damage is related to the force of a hit and — more significantly, scientists surmise — the direction of the hit to the head. One that catches a person on the side of the head, twisting it sharply to the side, creates greater shearing force than a hit that rocks the skull from front to back.

During impact #1, I was staring straight ahead through the windshield of the car. Because I raised my left hand to cradle my neck, during impact #2, my head was slightly twisted to the left. So I had two directions of force on my brain. Peachy. It’s probably what created more diffuse injuries than would be expected in a straight back-and-forth slamming.

When the brain rattles from a hit to the head, cell membranes open up and a biochemical cascade washes through the tissue and disturbs its precise chemical balance. Specifically, potassium floods out of the cells, while calcium rushes in.

The cells desperately want to restore balance, which requires a huge amount of energy. For a healthy person, this is an easy thing do. But a concussion mucks up a host of other chemical processes that affect how the brain produces energy.

The first problem is that calcium, in high levels, is toxic to brain cells. Normally, the brain would lower calcium levels by drawing on the power of mitochondria— the energy factories found inside all cells. But as the mitochondria work to reduce super-high calcium levels, they clog and don’t produce enough energy.

Let me tell you the fatigue from the brain injury and from treatments to heal it is unreal. Even brushing teeth can require a nap afterwards. (Makes you not want to brush your teeth, aside from just forgetting in the first place.) Everyone in brain injury care knows about the fatigue. But this is the first time I’ve heard a possible scientific explanation, though I had known it was something to do with the mitochondria (university studies come in handy!).

However, I decided to look into this research. So far Dr. David Hovda’s investigative work on the neurochemistry and treatment of  concussion seems to focus mostly on rodents or animals. That means this work is in its infant stages. That means he cannot mimic actual injuries that humans sustain in car crashes and sports, but at best approximate them with “controlled cortical impacts.” His work is exciting, but not yet applicable to humans in any real, practical sense.

At the same time, the brain is still seeking energy to restore its chemical balance, so it sends out an emergency signal for more glucose. Usually, glucose — the brain’s primary fuel — is carried to needy areas by an increased flow of blood.

But a concussion affects this process, too. After a hit, blood vessels constrict, making it difficult for blood to carry glucose to where it is needed most.

Oh my God! My desire for sugar — for things like pop, which I hate, or cookies — gets extreme whenever I do mental work or undergo treatments. (Otherwise my desire for sweets has dropped.) This connection became very clear to me when I began brain biofeedback treatments. After each session, I had this overwhelming desire to drink a can of ginger ale with sugar in it, not artificial sweetener. I could not resist it, and the fast downing of sugar always made me feel better. It was the only time I ever wanted to drink pop. Even today, if I’m more tired than usual (and I am always, always tired), and even if not hungry or needing food for my body, eating something will perk me up rather obviously. And, on a side note, doing things that increase blood flow helps too.

I have tried to discuss this with family, friends, health care people, anyone who can help me figure out how to feed my brain without feeding my fat because it is definitely not an empty craving but one that comes from my brain’s real need and because responding to my brain’s demands results in weight gain. This is also on top of the fact that brain injury does throw your internal functioning out of whack, something doctors simply don’t recognize.

I haven’t had much success.

I think someone has to come up with a way to get the body to send the glucose straight to the brain and bypass the fat stores — because the rest of the body doesn’t need it, it will snag the glucose and stuff it into the fat cells. The brain has to compete with the body for that glucose.

Dr. Hovda is on the right track perhaps with his ketogenic diet study, but again it’s in rats. No one seems to have studied this in humans, and certainly the medical community doesn’t even discuss diet in relation to brain injury, never mind the kind that can feed the brain sans feeding the body.

People who have a concussion will describe being overwhelmingly tired. This weariness is actually a neural fatigue, brought on when the brain doesn’t get enough fuel and must struggle to perform. Pushing through the fatigue is one of the worst things somebody with concussion can do.

“During this energy crisis, the brain wants to shut down and be very, very quiet,” says Hovda. “If you exercise the brain, or if you experience another brain injury (during this time), you will prolong the symptoms associated with concussion and extend the period of vulnerability.”

Well, I don’t know if we really know what the cause of the fatigue is. We understand its symptoms, have a visual concept of how it must be, but the mechanism details for fatigue in humans is not known. His statement that “pushing through the fatigue is one of the worst things” is theoretical, based on rat studies. How can he possibly know for sure?

If you don’t push through the fatigue, you’ll (a) be criticized and (b) won’t get the help you need. They talk about the energy crisis in this article as if it’s short term. It isn’t. It lasts years, decades. Sure, it gets better. But it doesn’t take much to land you on the couch and in front of the TV again.

Ironically, the one thing that caused a massive energy drain in me — the brain biofeedback — gave me way more energy in the end than the do-nothing approach had for the previous five and a half years.

Also, we know that basal metabolic rate consumes the vast percentage of our energy. In other words, we consume most of our energy needs just by living. Exercise adds very little to our energy consumption. Have you ever checked out how much effort you have to make before exercise makes any sort of indent into increasing your energy consumption — aka calories burned? Five minutes a day ain’t going to do it. Thirty minutes will. So why would the brain be any different? It’s already consuming vast gobs of glucose just to run your heart, lungs, digestive system, hormonal system, eyeballs, hearing, touch, taste, smell, etc. etc. How much extra energy does it take to think? To read? To write? Is it the same as exercise, that is, five minutes of reading isn’t going to make much diff but thirty minutes  will?

I know from experience that in the beginning, five minutes of reading was like studying university texts for five hours. But does that mean in order for your brain to heal, you should do nothing? Isn’t it more likely that it means you need to start slow, build incrementally, be patient with yourself until you do reach normal levels of metabolic, hormonal, and cognitive functioning in areas like attention and memory. It seems strange to say that you’ll perpetuate the potassium-calcium cascade as long as you do anything but stay in bed because if that’s true, your brain will probably die in no time. That makes no sense.

This reminds me of the old adage that after surgery or when injured, you should stay in bed and rest. But we know now that the best thing to do with post-op patients is to get them up and at em practically as soon as they come out of the anesthesia. We know that moving the operated on or injured part — wisely of course and incrementally — accelerates healing. So why not the same for the brain? It is part of our body after all.

Currently, the only treatment for concussion is physical and cognitive rest. Doctors rely on standard neuropsychology tests to help determine the severity of an injury and whether a concussed brain has healed.

That’s old knowledge. Scientists in the US have already learned that progesterone has a positive effect, at least in severe brain injuries. They also know there are hormonal imbalances, like cortisol, for instance. Plus naturopaths already know that omega-3 fatty acids help the brain function better, as does physical exercise. Smart resting is good, but doing something to help the brain recover is better. Why do they not consider studying progesterone in concussions? Why not consider increasing omega-3 fatty acids in the diet because we know those are important in brain function? What about suggesting temporary increase in cholesterol in the diet to help regrow damaged myelin sheathes or research ways to regrow neurons such as what Dr. Michel Rathbone is doing? Or how about prescribing an exercise plan that takes into account the fatigue and sympathetic-nervous system issues?

But that would require some thinking, spending time with patients, and talking to psychologists on physicians’ part, and God forbid they do that.

As for standard neuropsych tests — pffft is what I say. All those tests said I was hunkey dorey. Yet I had to be reminded to brush teeth, feed the dog, make lunch before my stomach started screaming, make phone calls, what to say when I called people. Yet I slept for 12 hours. Yet I found crowds and groups overwhelming and would hide in the bathroom. Yet I couldn’t follow or remember what I was reading. And so on. There was way more dysfunctionality than that. And I’d get stupid comments from friends like “I never remember what I read either” — oh, so that’s why you cannot learn anything and why you cannot build on your professional knowledge, eh? Not.

It’s easy to ace those tests, not so easy to function in the real world. It’s even easier to ace those tests when they’re given to you repeatedly, as psychologists well know, as was done with me. Seven times in seven years. Those tests will never tell you if the concussion is fully healed. Idiots.

While the majority of those who suffer a concussion will get better in one to three weeks, about 15 to 20 per cent of patients will have symptoms that linger for months and sometimes years. Scientists suspect these patients may have a genetic predisposition that makes their brain more vulnerable to concussion.

The specialist who diagnosed my mild traumatic brain injury (mild! Such a misnomer!), got a complete history of my past. Although it had been nine years since a previous car crash and I had not had any clinical signs of a concussion, he said the long-term ramifications of that impact predisposed me to a brain injury.

So I’m not so sure about a genetic link.

I’m much more sure of all those little bumps on the head, those back-and-forths in fender benders or sports hits, setting you up for greater injury when you’re hit hard. But we don’t remember all those little ones, and when your memory is screwed, even less likely to remember and tell the docs.

If I’m ever hit again, my chance of severe brain injury is now much, much higher because of my previous injuries. Yet I wonder if all those brain biofeedback treatments and my regular use of audiovisual entrainment as well as acupuncture treatments has put me back into normal risk territory? I hope so, and I pray I never find out.

Researchers are also trying to figure out why only some people are affected by an accumulation of concussions by teasing out the link between repetitive injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease that seems to mirror the biology and symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Connections have also been made between accumulated head trauma and devastating diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s and Parkinson’s.

This probably has a lot to do with what kind of treatments they had received or not for each injury, whether they had support or not, what their bad habits are, what kind of diet they had before and after injury, if they were given an exercise routine appropriate to their injury, if their metabolic and internal functioning issues were recognized never mind addressed. There’s an awful lot of stuff that affects long-term outcomes, stuff that the medical and research community are ignoring, stuff that’s right in front of their eyeballs if only they’d open their lids.



From Paper to Pixels

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This is from a talk I gave to my fraternity on their Career Day.

We are in an age of transition. Like those who went from calligraphy to the Gutenberg press, so we are going from pen and print books to tablet computers and ebooks.

Up until early last century, manuscripts were written by hand. Then typewriters came along, and writers mastered the two-finger peck. Soon word processors appeared and at about the same time personal computers.

Writers now had a choice of handwriting or typing their drafts on a typewriter or on a computer. But final drafts, the ones sent out as submissions or completed manuscripts to publishers, always had to be typed or printed from a computer.

That changed after the anthrax scare, particularly in the US. Agents and publishers began to demand queries via email only and manuscripts in MS Word DOC format, also via email. But in Canada, some agents and publishers prefer the old ways; perhaps they feel it’s more literary for writing to be on paper than in pixel form. They refuse emails; they want snail mail submissions only. That slow, expensive, tree-wasting method is on the way out though, especially as more and more of us writers refuse to participate and submit only to agents or publishers who accept queries and manuscripts by email.

The revising and editing process has undergone a change too. No longer do editors mark up printed copies with pencil or red pen. Instead they use tracking changes in MS Word and communicate with authors via email. Again, in Canada, some editors still work in the dark ages of print-outs. A few even think it’s not necessary to be on the Internet or have email. Seriously. And so a Canadian author has to pay attention to what specific publishers or agents want: paper or pixels.

But despite a few Canadian anachronisms, writers today must use a computer to write the final draft, however they write their first drafts.

Then last year Apple released the iPad, and things changed radically for writers again.

Up until the iPad, even with computers, writers jotted down ideas in notebooks, sketched out floor plans on paper with coloured pencils. Writers only had one copy of these things, and we panicked if they were lost. No more. The iPad allows us writers to outline, jot down ideas, sketch settings, as well as write our manuscript, all on one electronic medium.

The entire process can now be done on some form of computer. And everything can be saved and backed up to the cloud and shared with others or between our own computers.

Writers are no longer limited to physical media like the typewritten page or thumb drive.

The ability to save one’s work in the cloud means that a writer can work on a manuscript on any computer, tablet computer, or smartphone wherever we are, whenever the mood strikes or a free moment appears.

For those who like to revise on a printed copy, printing itself has undergone a change. With the advent of networked printers, one can print from anywhere on the planet to the printer at home.

In addition to all that, the traditional process of writing, revising, and editing has had a new step inserted: Beta Readers.

Beta readers love to read. They may be strangers or people in one’s writing club. They read our manuscripts and comment on anything from writing style to plot to characters to endings or mood, depending on what their strengths are as readers.

Beta Readers can often be found on social media. When we writers engage with people on Twitter and they begin to read our blogs as well and get to know our long-form writing style, they may well offer to read our manuscripts.

That is just one of the many benefits of social media. Twitter also has a thriving writer community, which holds regular writer chats. So in addition to the traditional associations like the Canadian Authors Association, which provides opportunities to meet fellow writers face-to-face in our own regions, Canadian writers can now talk with writers from all over the world in cyberspace.

After we receive feedback from our Beta Readers, we revise once more and then send out the manuscript to agents or small publishers. Or not. Publishing too has changed.

Traditionally, a book writer would seek out a publisher directly, for the publisher would handle all the chores except the writing. (The publisher choosing the title and front cover still bugs me. I cannot imagine why writers in times past gave up that control.) It was very difficult for a writer to self-publish as printing and distribution were expensive and not easy to arrange.

But that has changed. First, traditional large publishers — the big six — began accepting submissions from agents only. Only small or indie publishers accept submissions from authors directly today. An author still has to wait a week or 6 months to hear back though. Although most agents and small publishers have long since allowed simultaneous submissions, realising writers can’t waste half their lives watching the mailbox, the waiting time can still be excessive. I have already spent over a year trying to find an agent with a few nibbles but no bites.

Then the rise of print-on-demand shifted this balance of power towards the author. It has become more feasible financially for authors to self-publish and nix the long, long process of traditional publishing, although it is controversial to turn one’s back on the traditional way.

As a result, in the last decade, companies that support self-publishing authors sprang up. AuthorHouse is the big one today (I won’t use them — see my adventures with iUniverse). But there are others like Lulu and CreateSpace. They provide whatever service an author needs, from editing to printing, for a fee.

But it is the ebook that has truly exploded author emancipation.

The publishing world has been turned upside down in the last year. Ebooks cost virtually nothing (aside from the essential professional editing step) for the multi-competent writer to create.

Readers like their eReaders. Some tell me no one can pry them out of their hands. They also prefer ebooks under $6.99, maybe up to $9.99. Traditional publishers prefer to price their ebooks high — $12.99 is their low end — and release them after hard cover editions. Both readers and authors are unhappy with that.

This traditional-minded approach gives indie authors an edge. They can price their ebooks at a level readers are willing to pay and release them at the same time as the print books, thus allowing readers to buy their preferred format when the book first comes out. After all, books are written for readers. It’s not for us to tell them which format they should read first. It’s the content that’s paramount, not whether the words are printed on paper or shown in pixels.

Ebooks themselves are in transition as different companies support different formats. PubIt! by Barnes & Noble supports ePub, as does Smashwords, kobo, and Sony Reader. Amazon’s Kindle uses the mobi format. Luckily, it’s become easier to publish in all of them, thus covering eReaders from Kindle to Kobo.

Since traditional publishers support only best-selling authors fully, mid-list and small authors now have an alternative to being ignored: self-publish ebooks.

Regardless of which path an author takes, all authors, except best sellers, have to market their own work. And that’s the hardest job in writing.

But here again, the online revolution has made it easier than ever for an author. Social media is a must. Virtual book tours, book trailers on YouTube, pages on Amazon and Chapters are now possible.

A Facebook Page, Twitter, and an author website are the foundation upon which to build a marketing plan. The writer begins building this foundation while still outlining the book, and does not talk just shop online, but shows the whole of who they are. Readers like to know their authors (well, maybe not all, but followers become readers when they get to know the author as a person first, then become intrigued enough to find out about the author’s works).

The author’s Facebook Page — not Profile — shows their professional side, things like writing-related blog posts, book events, links to reviews, and so on.

Twitter is where the author converses on many different topics, showing off their various interests and connecting with other writers. It is also an excellent place to publicize one’s blog posts, books, poetry, etc. via links.

The author website will not be just for blogging but a place where people can find out about the author’s background and how to contact them (really important, contact info is), their writing, and where to buy their books or articles. It needs to be kept up to date, else people will think you, the author, have died and stopped writing.

One caveat to authors: Do not post your drafts or any part of your book online. Some writers do. But your work has value. Your blog posts and status updates are free. Your work writing, your books, are not free because they’re your income and they’re worth the money for the time and effort you’ve put into them. Treat them that way.

Goodreads is a site for readers, but it also has Author Pages, which authors can use to connect with their readers as readers themselves. The most important part of writing is reading. Here the author can foster that side long before publishing that first book.

There are many other social media sites. It’s tempting to join all of them, but over time too tiring. It’s better to focus on a few and be active on them than spread oneself out too thinly.

The move from paper to pixels lets us authors take control and speeds the publishing process; it gives readers their choice of format; and the trees flutter their leaves in joy.


Tax Relief in Canada for Those With Disabilities

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You’re an adult, you’re tripping along, living life, working hard, and then the universe sends you splat, and suddenly you’re seeing doctors, suffering, in pain, not working, and watching your bank account slide into the red. While you may be receiving good help for what ails you, you’re probably not getting good help for what ails your bank account. I’ve learnt recently how few know about Canada’s disability tax credit; worse, I’ve also learnt how community care workers don’t know the difference between net and gross income (!) or between taxes and government support programs. With such gross ignorance in the professional population, how then can people with disabilities in Canada know what’s available to them, especially those with brain injuries? Well, for tax information, this blog post will help. I hope. I won’t be covering government support programs, which have their own separate application programs and serve a totally different function. Tax credits and benefits are strictly to help income-earners reduce their tax load. Government support programs provide direct financial support for those who can hardly work, if at all.

To begin: after, or while, you’re in the process of applying for CPP Disability and/or your province’s disability support program (in Ontario it is ODSP or Ontario Disability Support Program), it’s also a good time to look at tax relief.

The first and biggest one is Canada’s Disability Tax Credit Certificate or Form T2201. Basically, if you’re disabled, working or earning an income above the basic personal exemption, this will help you reduce your tax load. Remember CPP disability is taxable so you may not be working or working minimally but will still have to pay taxes. (This is so unfair, I think. But the government gives with one hand and takes back half with the other as they did to me with my first CPP cheque. The rest not so bad. Still…) But if you, the disabled person earns nothing or so little the tax credit doesn’t apply, then your spouse or common law partner or the person supporting you financially — Canada calls that person the “support person” — can use the disability tax credit to get relief from their taxes. And as a third option, you can both use it if you’re working enough to need some of the credit but not all of it. What you don’t use, your support person can.

You fill out the basic information, and you take the form to your GP or primary specialist who knows your disability best. They then fill it out, after which you mail it off. Do NOT mail it in the same envelope as for your tax return. You should hear back in 12 to 16 weeks. I’ll also say for those with brain injuries, this form will seem daunting, overwhelming, and not doable. Forget about that. Just focus on your name and address portion and let your most trusted doctor take care of the rest.

As a person with a disability, you’ll have medical and disability expenses. I learnt recently that there are medical expenses and then there are disability expenses, both of which you can claim. You can only claim medical expenses when they reach at least 3% of your net income. However, there’s a caveat. Not all medical expenses are eligible. Those vitamins your doctor insists you take and that do make you feel better are not eligible but prescribed medications not reimbursed by an insurance plan or provincial drug plan are. It is important to keep all your receipts (easier said than done I know when you can’t remember where you filed the darn things) not only for your tax return but also in case you’re audited a few years down the road. The same holds true for all expenses you claim.

In addition to medical expenses, you can claim disability supports that you need in order to work, study, or do research for which you have received a grant. There is quite a range of eligible disability supports from job coaching and note taking (something I definitely would need if I ever got to the point where I could study again) to voice recognition software. So it’s worth checking out.

There are many more credits and deductions that you may be able to claim. The government’s website has a full list and explanation of each one. I suggest you peruse it as it’s pretty extensive covering everything from spouses to caregivers to children to tuition.

Since people with disabilities are usually the poorest Canadians, you will probably be eligible for GST and/or HST credits. These are tax-free quarterly amounts intended to reimburse you for goods and services taxes paid, and they are paid directly into your bank account — whenever possible have the government deposit funds right into your account rather than mail you a cheque. First off, you won’t have to remember to deposit it. Secondly, you have limited energy or time, so don’t spend it on stupid little chores like depositing cheques when computers can do that for you more quickly and safely.

Also there are a host of things that are GST/HST exempt. Check out this list to ensure you’re not paying unnecessary sales tax.

If you are under 49 years old* and receive the Disability Tax Credit, there is a savings account available for you: the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP). (Some in the media say this is for parents to set up for their children with disabilities. It is but it’s also for adults with disabilities to set up for themselves. Children will benefit more only because they and parents can contribute for more years.) Basically, you open an RDSP at a bank and put in up to $1,500 per year up until you turn 49. And the government will match your funds and double or triple them; plus if you cannot contribute anything or have very low income, the government will deposit $1,000 per year. This is strictly a savings vehicle; there are no tax advantages. Anyone can contribute to your RDSP. However, you cannot withdraw funds — yours or the government’s — for 10 years minimum after you deposit else you will lose the government’s matching amounts. The idea is to save for your future, and the rules are in place to ensure you don’t take the funds out prematurely.

Not all banks are participating — it’s most disappointing to see that that great savings bank ING does not offer the RDSP — and of those few who do, only one seems to know what they’re doing. I suggest calling around before locking in with one bank. And, as well, because most banks offer a terrible savings rate, I recommend putting in just the $1,500 in order to receive the maximum matching grants and bonds, and then if you have additional funds put them in a Tax-Free Savings Account, which is not only more advantageous tax-wise, but will also give you greater choice in decent interest rates. And if you have more than that, put them in a safe savings vehicle that’s insured under the bank act. IMHO, these are not funds to put in stocks or mutual funds, but in vehicles that only go up, even if slowly. But you may disagree!

(*You will only receive matching government grants and bonds until age 49, but you can contribute until age 59. There are maximum contribution limits too.)

If your income is low, you have a disability, and your tax situation is simple, Canada will help you file your taxes through a community volunteer program. Just call 1-800-959-8281.

And finally Canada has the Working Income Tax Benefit for low income earners. There is also a disability supplement to this benefit. If you are eligible, then you may be able to apply for advance payments for the next tax year. In other words if you receive the benefit for the tax year you filed for it, you may receive advance payments for the following tax year. The government has a handy calculator (or try the online one) so that you can see if you qualify and if so, how much of a benefit you will receive. Very low income earners won’t be able to take advantage of this benefit, from what I understand.

The government has been slowly adding tax credits and benefits to help those with a disability but it has a long way to go. There is one particular glaring hole: no national pharmacare, vision care, and dental care program. Being able to claim medical expenses doesn’t help pay for medications, eyeglasses, and the dentist if your income is too low to take advantage of it. If you’d like to see more help, I recommend getting in touch with your MP. If you know of anything not covered here, please leave a comment and a link to where to find the tax credit or benefit. And remember whatever tax credits you receive federally, you also receive provincially because of the integrated income (and in some provinces, goods and services) tax system.

[And for Toronto homeowners with disabilities or low income, there are the property tax relief programs, the water rate relief program, the side door garbage pick-up program, and the snow shovelling program. You’ll either have to call 311 or your Councillor to get help with the latter two. Unfortunately, there’s no public transit program like Calgary has for those who find the TTC unaffordable.]


Nibbles of Chocolate

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“Never trust anyone who tells you they don’t eat desserts. You know, those people who look at you smugly when you offer your pièce de résistance and say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t; this dessert is too rich!’ We simply respond with, ‘We don’t understand the concept of ‘too rich’ — or ‘too chocolaty’ for that matter.” Susan Mendelson and  Deborah Roitberg, Nuts About Chocolate

Amen to that! There is nothing on earth too chocolaty.

“This book is about obsession.

Once The Trellis opened, I enlisted the pastry chefs to create some devastating concoctions from chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate. Customers oooo-ed over The Trellis’ Caramel Banana Chocolate Chip Ice Cream….But then came the dessert that broke the chocolate barrier — Death By Chocolate.

I discovered then that I was not alone in my obsession.” Marcel  Desaulniers, Death by Chocolate

No, you’re not alone Marcel! My obsession began the day a local shop-owner leaned over and gave my too-young self a small, plain-looking, dark piece of chocolate. I took it warily from his hand, gingerly put it in my mouth, sucked, and hit heaven. Like any right-minded kid, I wanted more. I’ve been addicted ever since.

Later, as an adult, when gorging on chocolate truffles, I used to say it was good for me just so I could legitimize my addiction. And then I heard that it actually may be good for you. Without hesitation, I looked into it. And then I wrote a three-part series on it, titled A Nibble of Chocolate (Parts One, Two, and Three). I invite you to check it out. Click on each of the pix below and enjoy!

Book Reviews

Agatha Christie Muses on Euthanasia in “Curtain”

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I have not read all of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books, but he’s such a timeless character, the series not needing to be read in order, that I recently devoured the very last Poirot book: Curtain.

I’ve been reading Christie for as long as I can remember. Well, maybe not since the age of 2, but at least since my early teens. I’ve enjoyed her books as light reading, not-so-easy mysteries to solve, escapism, but never as social commentary. But as I was reading Curtain, I started to see that a very real discussion was under way in Christie’s mind about the worth of life. She several times brings up the idea of lives that are sick, injured, in pain, old, disabled in some way — in other words “weak” — as not really worthy of life, and she culminates it in a big discussion between several of her characters in chapter 11. She has one character say, rather shockingly, “Unfit lives, useless lives — they should be got out of the way.” Isn’t that how many perceived Robert Latimer’s daughter? And not just her?

I had always thought euthanasia was a fairly recent trend, but given she wrote this 60 years ago, apparently not.

Christie wrote Curtain during World War II, when bombs and guns snuffed out lives in hundreds of thousands in a never-ending barrage. The sanctity of life must’ve become rather theoretical when so many people were dying, when so many made daily decisions about who would die. War makes one nation a bit god-like over deciding the human worth of another nation. Yet living in peace does not seem to have changed attitudes much. Despite society deciding to close institutions for the mentally ill 30 or so years ago and recently institutions for the intellectually disabled, on the basis that these lives are worth more than being shut up in a warehouse, the public showed more sympathy to Latimer the murderer than to his daughter the victim. People are averse to disease, afraid of weakness, and this showed up blatently over the Latimer reaction. His life was worth more than hers, the Canadian public decided.

Christie hammers over and over the idea of euthanasia as good, the value of playing god and snuffing out weak lives, the idea that “Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live.” But in the end, she neatly flips all those ideas on their head in Poirot’s own mortal-taking decision. Any Poirot fan knows how immodest he is. He is supremely confident always in his “little grey cells,” his deductions, his decisions. Poirot is the antonym of humble. Yet after his final act, he expresses doubt, soul-deep doubt: “But now I am very humble and I say like a little child ‘I do not know…'”

Curtain. After finishing this book, that simple, single word means so much more than Poirot’s last case. Curtain: the last of Poirot. Curtain, the end of a famous life. Curtain, the end of the idea of human life being sacred. Curtain: healthy, god-like humans bring it down on the weak. And yet Curtain: the worth of life is not black and white, not so easy to decide.

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The Soft Light of Christ(mas)

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The woman stands at the tall lobby window, staring out into the night, waiting. The car races down the darkened road. The crosswalk lights sway erratically in the black wind, casting shifting shadows onto the melting snow. People jostle strangers in the light-bright mall, un-noticing. The mother cooks in the kitchen. The father sits on the phone. The older kids wrap presents, each in their own room; while the younger kids jump and run, watching the clock, watching their gifts, watching the clock, eager for Santa Claus.

Into this lonely night’s sky, a distant star grows, its rays pointing to a soft, silent light that never dies, never blows out, never expires.

The word made flesh.

That light shines and reaches out into the dark, to anyone, to everyone, asking them to reach back to him. The woman standing alone in the artificial light, waiting for her ride, keeps her hands firmly in her pockets. The driver pushing on the accelerator with his impatient foot keeps hands on wheel. The people struggling with bags and coats and money have their hands full. The mother stirring the soup reaches with her free hand for the salt. The father gripping the telephone receiver uses his free hand to write notes on his conversation. The older kids wrapping never still their hands as they fold, crease, tape, cut, curl ribbon. The younger kids flying back and forth through the house, caught up in their desires, flap their hands eagerly, almost touching that soft light they barely sense.

But Jesus waits. Always there, his soft light reaches out to anyone, to everyone, even the lonely who affear to take hands out of comfortable pockets, to separate arm from safe side and reach back to accept that light.


The Toronto Public Library Rewires Human Brains

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As promised, here is the essay I wrote on the Toronto Public Library way back in 1997. I’ve been informed that nothing has changed, except that the catalogue is now driving everyone nuts.

The future looks bleak for the Toronto Public Library (TPL). Its budget has been downsized, users continue to pour in, while it struggles to retain old-fashioned service and a good stock of books.

Keeping track of those books is a computer’s job. Several years ago, books got their own Social Insurance Numbers, so to speak, because a computer understands numbers better than words. Publishers made it easier for computers everywhere by imprinting their books with UPC codes. But the TPL preferred a different way. It printed its own UPC labels to stick on its books, thus saving money and covering up author names.

We worry about humans becoming just another number; well, now library books are just another number. This system works well for paperbacks, if not for the paperback patron. As one librarian explained to me, paperbacks don’t last long — three loans and they’re dead. Thus coding the excessive information of author name and title into the TPL’s own paperbacks’ UPC codes is expensive; of course, using publishers codes is too logical. And so it codes all paperbacks as “ADULT FICTION.” Now, if I misplace a book, the librarian tells me simply that I have overdue fines. Pressed, she says that I have one book still out. Asked for specifics, she recites “ADULT FICTION.”

But given the harsh times, the TPL needed to save smarter, particularly since more and more Torontonians insisted on traipsing into new or newly renovated libraries just to take books out.

More and more, librarians were stamping due dates on thin white strips stuck on hundreds and perhaps thousands of book covers over and over and over again. They stuck on white strip over white strip till author names and book titles were properly obscured. With all that stamping and sticking, they injured themselves and cost the TPL extra money. Suddenly it had an idea. It was a win-win solution — for itself. No more repetitive strain injuries, and lots more money flowing in from regular paperback patrons like me.

It bought gizmos that spit out books’ due dates on thermally printed paper. Now the librarian doesn’t stamp due dates on books; instead the computer prints out a list of the three “ADULT FICTION” paperbacks that I’ve just borrowed with their UPC codes and due dates. The librarian even provides a handy magnet to put that first slip of paper on the fridge among all the cartoon clippings.

Soon slips of paper littered my fridge and my tabletops, although some had wafted away into hidden corners, lost forever. I puzzled over how to match up the remaining ones with the right books. I tried rewiring my brain to think of Agatha Christie as “39100 . . . ,” but I just couldn’t do it. I tried writing down all the book titles on a chalk board with their due dates, but forgot to look at the board, and then they were overdue. I tried using the papers as bookmarks, but that only solved the problem for the first book I read — I couldn’t figure out which “bookmark” belonged to the other books.

My overdue fines were piling up. At this rate, I will be buying a new Star Trek collection, I thought. And then I realized: A confused populace of paperback readers means a windfall of overdue fines. The TPL’s financial woes were over.

I decided to be smarter. Now I write down the names of all the books I borrow in my DayTimer on the day before they are due. So far I have reduced my donations to its coffers. But I look forward to the day when the TPL, or perhaps the new amalgamated version, once again accords paperbacks respect and puts their real names beside their due dates on those teensy papers.