Monday, July 30, 2012

The Fuzzy Line between Right and Wrong

Have you read Posing as Ashley?  (Spoiler alert:  if you haven't, you may not want to read any further, as the rest of this post is about a major plot point.  I'll pause for a moment so you can turn away...)


If you're still here, I'm assuming you've already read Posing as Ashley.  In the story, Ashley's pursuing a modelling career - until her personal ethics clash with those of the clothing manufacturer who's hired her to model fur-trimmed sweaters.  Did you think she overreacted?  Is fur even relevant in this day and age?

To be honest, when I wrote the book I planned to make it about a different issue - that of product testing on animals.  My publisher, however, suggested changing the focus to fur, and after much discussion and research, I agreed.

At first, I believed that most people were already firmly on one side or the other when it came to wearing fur.  And I didn't actually see how it mattered much to my readers, who aren't blue-haired old ladies parading around town in mink coats (my own grandmother wore a dead fox around her neck - feet and all - at my wedding where MY DOG WAS THE RING BEARER!  See the irony???).

Anyway, as I researched the book, I came away with a much deeper respect for the complexities of the issue.  This article, which recently appeared in The Toronto Star, describes China's use of dog and cat fur in clothing that is regularly purchased by North Amercians.  Gross?  Maybe.  Or maybe not. 

I don't think it would be much of a stretch to say that my dog and cats live a better life with me than much of the world's population.  They have access to plenty of nutritious food, clean water, shelter and medical care.  Meanwhile, in China, (where using dog and cat fur provides a source of income for some) Forbes magazine said:
"The number of Chinese living in poverty is expected to reach 100 million if the country decides to consider people who earn up to 1,500 yuan ($229) a year as being poor, a senior poverty alleviation official has said.  To now be deemed impoverished, a person must make less than 1,196 yuan a year."

($229?  I am almost embarrassed to admit that I spent more than that on a single veterinarian bill just last week.)

If the dog and cat meat is going to be consumed as food and they are not being killed solely for their furs, maybe a dog fur vest isn't really any different than the leather jacket I wear out to my favourite steak restaurant.  And if we're buying it without asking questions about what it is we have actually purchased, who are we to complain about where it came from?

Not so simple, is it?

Monday, May 28, 2012

How I Cured the Common Cold...and why I'm going against the grain

Just when I mastered the art of breadmaking, I have discovered that I am gluten intolerant, aka I have "silent Celiac" disease, and I can no longer consume anything containing wheat, rye, or barley.  It's not a total shock, as my new Endocrinologist first suggested it last fall as an explanation for why I require so much thyroid replacement hormone (I had my thyroid removed, due to thyroid cancer, many years ago, and he felt that the high doses were due to a medication absorption issue).  A subsequent blood test looked okay, but Google said otherwise:  the test, it would seem, is not very accurate, and - worse - I had a multitude of symptoms, including anemia, lactose intolerance, frequent colds and sinus infections, migraines, a history of depression, etc. etc.  I went back to the doctor.  Still, I didn't want to give up bread and cake and normal eating!  I was HAPPY to accept my GP's declaration of a clear blood test. 

And then I went back to the Endocrinologist.  (Apparently, there is also a very strong correlation between thyroid disease and Celiac, so he sees it quite often).  He basically told me that he was still quite sure I had a Celiac issue, so I should forget the blood test which has a lot of false negatives, and take myself off of gluten.

So I did.

Mostly to prove him wrong.

The thing is, instead of seeing no change, as the blood test might have suggested, I had a lot more energy.  And I began waking up in the mornings.  (No, really - waking up!  It's a little thing, but I haven't done it properly in years, and I blamed my lack of a thyroid!).  My skin got better.  The circles under my eyes disappeared.  And, most miraculously of all, I did not get one single cold between October and May.  I work in a school.  With children.  And adults who come in sick because we all believe we are too good to let a supply teacher fill in for us.  I have never, ever, ever, EVER gone through a winter without being sick.  It was completely unprecedented.

Now, I wasn't completely gluten free during this time, as I did revert to "the old ways" during Christmas holidays, Family Day weekend in Quebec City (crepes and cheese fondue!  I'm going to miss you!), but each time I "went back" I found myself reacting more strongly to glutenous foods.  It became pretty clear that gluten is not something that should be a staple in my diet, but I still wanted to know whether I could get away with "gluten light" (as in, no toast for me, but I'll have some of that lasagna you made since I'm at your house and it's just one meal...) or whether I needed to go "not a crumb" (as required if I wasn't just gluten sensitive, but in fact was having a Celiac, auto-immune response).  Enter Enterolab, who offers testing for just such situations, without you having to go back to eating gluten.  They're still kind of controversial, but they seemed like the most logical next step for me.

And the results are in:  I am definitely gluten sensitive, and it appears to be autoimmune (silent Celiac because I am not wasting away with obvious intestinal damage). 

Part of me is mourning the loss of my favourite carrot cake.  But part of me is feeling GREAT!

I've learned that in North America, between 5 - 10% of people probably have major gluten issues, but only 1% are ever diagnosed.  So maybe I'm actually lucky.

The real irony here is that several years ago, I suggested to a friend that maybe HE had Celiac.  His doctor pooh-poohed the idea (no pun intended) becaue he didn't have that classic, wasting-away appearance.  Now that I know more, I think I might have actually been right.

Celiac blood test:  $100.  Enterolab testing:  a lot more.  Not being sick all the time?  Priceless.

At least steak and chocolate are gluten free. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Getting Bitchy

Everyone knows February is the month of Valentines...but did you also know that it is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month?  

I have to confess:  I didn't.   But I've been thinking about the subject of dating violence a lot lately, for a variety of reasons.  Tonight, while reading the newspaper, I ran across two articles in different sections that reminded me of the need to keep spreading the message that DATING VIOLENCE IS NOT OKAY!

Celebrities Chris Brown and Rihanna are back in the news, apparently reunited (or at least acting as if there are, for publicity reasons) just a few years after he was charged with assaulting her.

What I found most interesting in the article?  This:

“We can never ignore the fact that many abused women actually love the men who hit them because the men who hit them don’t always hit them,” says DeKeseredy.
While there can be situational reasons for a woman’s return, adds Stosny, affection and guilt often play a greater role: “When you talk to the women who go back, they rarely will cite fear, finances or social pressures. They will just say that they still love him.”
One of the biggest criticisms of my book Painting Caitlyn is that some people think Caitlyn is stupid to stay with Tyler when he begins to display controlling and violent behaviour.  But domestic violence prevention organizations such as Sprucerun recognize that getting out - and staying out - is not just about practicalities for many women.  Whitney Houston was another example of someone who had trouble escaping her own violent situation:  her husband, Bobby Brown, was charged with domestic assault years before they divorced. 

Both Rihanna and Whitney Houston have/had the financial means to escape abusive relationships.  But clearly, they were lacking the necessary self esteem.

Here's another article  from tonight's newspaper, describing the trial of a man accused of stabbing his girlfriend through the stomach, forcing her to clean up the mess and have sex with him, and then leaving her alone to die.  They weren't teenagers, but this part struck me:  

"When the friend was about to call 911, Jamieson said he was on probation and supposed to stay away from Brunet, whom he had previously been convicted of punching in the mouth. He said: “Well I don’t need this kinda stuff . . .” and fled."
It wasn't the first time.

She may not have felt that she had the financial means to be alone.  She may have worried about social pressures.  She probably even loved him.  But the minute he assaulted her, she needed to leave.

If dating violence is affecting you, TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  There are lots of resources out there to help.  Start here.

Of course he (or she) has redeeming qualities.  You wouldn't even consider staying with him if he didn't.  But you have good qualities, too.   And you don't deserve to be mistreated.  Nobody does.

And yes, it might hurt emotionally more than it ever hurt physically.  There are chemical reasons for that - quitting love can be like quitting a drug.  And you'll feel like a bitch.

But if someone's treating you badly, maybe you need to get bitchy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Letter Someone Didn't Want you to See

For my 100th post (!) I'm going to share with you a letter that someone else didn't want you to see.

Intrigued?  So was I, when Google Alerts notified me of this book review, recently posted on YouTube.   Woohoo!  I thought to myself.  A video review of Maybe Never, Maybe Now!

I clicked on the link...the video loaded, and then, (before even watching the review) I saw the following comments from the reviewer:

"Heres my opinion on a terrible book.

Things I forgot to add in this video:
-Most unoriginal names ever. Tyler, Caitlyn, Conner? Wow. We're just missing Alex and Julie.
- It was really annoying when she explained what the french meant because I already understood what it meant. Its not that bad if you don't understand what une baguette is but if you're bilingual like me, do yourself a favor and don't read it.
...ALSO on it said this book was for: (ages 13 and up) ... it doesn't seam that way AT ALL"

I'm sorry she didn't like the book, but obviously, that sometimes happens.  The reviewer goes on to describe everything she hates, and then, she tempts me by saying "sorry if you're the author and you're watching this".

So yes, I replied, asking her to be fair and post my comments along with hers.  She didn't post my response, which is her prerogative, but since she is using a public forum to question me, I am using this public forum to address those questions.

And so, my reply:

"Hey there!  I’m sorry I don’t know your name.  Surprise! I AM the author of Maybe Never, Maybe Now, and there are no apologies necessary for your very honest review:  nobody likes everything, and I was well aware of that fact when I “put myself out there” with a publisher.  I do hope, however, that you’ll grant me the courtesy of reading (and posting) my response as I’d like to address some of your comments.

If you are in grade 11, you are much older than the target audience of 13+, so I am not surprised that you found the book too short and lacking in detailed description.  As you mentioned in your review, Maybe Never, Maybe Now is actually the sequel to Painting Caitlyn, so was written in the same spare style.  The quick pace and deliberate lack of extraneous description helped all of my books win numerous awards, and Painting Caitlyn’s appeared on the American Library Association’s prestigious “YALSA Quick Picks” list for Reluctant Readers in 2007 along with New Moon and a number of other more well known works by authors with whom I am truly honoured to be associated. 

“Popularity” in books is actually harder to assess than you may realize.  Did you know that publishers actually have to PURCHASE the front page space on websites such as Amazon, and the good display tables in bookstores?  The bigger the publisher, the more they can spend convincing you to buy their books, so a whole table of one author doesn’t necessarily mean that the books are amazing, but it probably means the publisher has lots of money – and they may also have a larger budget for producing so-so books.  Smaller publishers actually have to be much more careful with what they publish, and will often turn out great stuff that’s critically acclaimed, but harder to find, because bookstores might only carry one or two copies on the shelves, with the spines turned outwards instead of the covers.  (Note that I’m not claiming to be great [though all of my books have been critically acclaimed by major reviewers] I am simply pointing out the irrelevance of describing a book as “popular” or “not very popular”.)

Character names, obviously, are always a matter of personal preference.  I addressed the name issue both on my website (ie. how I chose the names) and in my blog (ie why I hate strange character names), so take a peek at both articles if you’re interested.

By day, I am a teacher of both French and English.  The French teacher in me LOVES that you are bilingual, and apologizes for annoying you with translation, but hopes that you can recognize how unique and special your bilingualism makes you: translations were absolutely necessary for most readers.

The English teacher in me worries that you identified only the literal journey of going on an exchange to Quebec, and completely missed the figurative journey of learning to trust yourself again after you’ve been mistreated by someone you believed in.  I know I did my job as an author and managed to make that message accessible to readers because School Library Journal recognized that the story “is about the emotional journey of healing and forgiveness…”

The reader in me knows that nobody enjoys everything they read.  I HATED The Great Gatsby in high school for one of the same reasons you hated Maybe Never, Maybe Now:  I couldn’t understand why the guy kept mooning over Daisy and didn’t just get on with his life.  The thing was, at the time I read it, I’d never actually been in love, so I couldn’t identify with the characters or make any personal connections to the story.  But guess what?  When I had to re-read it, three years later in university after a devastating break-up, I felt Gatsby’s pain.  I understood Daisy’s flirtations.  I got it!  And I loved it. 

I receive lots of emails and letters from girls and women all over North America who identify with Caitlyn and her experiences.  Many of them make me cry as they describe their own history of abusive relationships, and the lasting scars that result.  So you know what?  The woman in me is actually HAPPY that you did not relate to this character.  I wish you continued joy and success in life, and in romance."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The End of the Innocence

(With apologies to Don Henley for stealing his song title to label this post)

When did you lose your innocence?  No, not that kind of innocence.  The kind where the magic of Christmas is so strong - so unquestionably permanent in your schema - that you can't imagine it ever going away?

I lost mine at sixteen.  I woke up early on Christmas morning and felt the usual thrill of holiday excitement that normally would have propelled me out of bed in the dark to see what Santa had left me.  Only, that year, I glanced at the clock.  And something shifted.  I realized, in an instant, that if the gifts were already down there, they'd still be there in another hour.  Or two.  And then I did what up until that moment in my life would have been unthinkable:  I rolled over, and went back to sleep on Christmas morning.

I've always described that morning as the day I "grew up".  I actually thought it was sort of cool that I could pinpoint one specific moment in my emotional development that signified maturity and self-control.

But it wasn't until the other night, on a different Christmas Eve, that I realized the truth: my father had died ten months before that morning, and that was the first Christmas without him.

My decision to stay in bed probably didn't have anything to do with facing reality:  it was actually all about avoiding it.

It seems obvious, as I type this, but it took me twenty-six years to make that connection.  So maybe I really did hold on to my innocence a lot longer than I've always believed.

Or maybe now, at least, I know where it went.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Finally! The Secret of the Sisterhood!

I'm a big fan of Ann Brashares' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.  I didn't think I would be, as the premise of four girls sharing one pair of jeans seemed a little bizarre to me, but once I picked up the series, I grew to love the characters. 

I did get over the idea of them sharing the pants, but I always wondered about their "you must never wash the pants" rule.  Even in the movie version, this rule was addressed with an "EWWW".  Today, Yahoo has provided me with their secret.  I share it with you now:
"Denim retailers from Levi's to Gap want you to stop washing your jeans after every wear. Ultimately, the more you wash, the more water you waste and the more your denim will fade. To benefit the planet and your wallet, freeze your jeans instead. By slipping your pants into a plastic bag and tossing them in the freezer for a night or two, you can kill odour causing bacteria, preserve your worn-in fit, and maintain the colour so that they'll look brand new way longer. Plus, you will end up doing laundry less frequently. Time for a bigger freezer."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November is National Novel Writing Month!

...and while I don't expect any of us with "day jobs" will end up with final, polish works, the challenge of writing a set number of words every day could be just the motivator we need to hammer out a draft.  I thought about my first novel, Painting Caitlyn, for years.  But thinking didn't get it written.  The Random House contest for a first Young Adult novel did inspire me to write, because I had a set deadline.  I didn't win, but I ended up with a solid draft that only needed a bit of editing before Lobster Press picked it up. After that, I've written to contact deadlines (eg.  I submit an outline of what I think will happen in a book, sign the contract, and THEN write it.)  There's nothing like a little external pressure

And so, write away - after all, it's National Novel Writing Month!