Wednesday 29 February 2012

Depression drugs may fight cancer (from the archives)


Groundbreaking McGill research yields compelling results

Could the black cloud of clinical depression have a silver lining? A recent study by McGill researchers shows that commonly prescribed anti-depressant medications known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) may protect against developing colorectal cancer. The groundbreaking research was published in the April edition of the prestigious Lancet Oncology journal.

Previous work in mice demonstrated that SSRIs both retard the growth of transplanted human bowel tumours and make mice that are susceptible to developing colorectal cancer less likely to do so. "Serotonin has a stimulating effect on cell division and multiplication so [if] serotonin is a promoting factor, the logic for using antiserotonin drugs is strong," epidemiologist Jean-Paul Collet pointed out. "The strength of the study is that we started with a clear a priori hypothesis coming from animal studies. . . the question was to verify whether we would find the same type of association in human beings. What we found is that people with cancer had less use of SSRIs than the control subjects. This is why we think that SSRIs have a protective effect."

Jean-Paul Collet  
Photo: Claudio Calligaris

Russian doll syndrome

The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health, was conducted with PhD student Wanning Xu and Professor Stanley Shapiro, a colleague of Collet's in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Occupational Health, using the administrative databases of Saskatchewan Health and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency registry. Although over 10,000 cancer patients and 40,000 age- and gender-matched controls were studied in the population-based, nested case-control study, it took Xu only about six months to perform the actual number-crunching.

There are some caveats to the results. "The study is large by number of patients but it is not an experimental study like a randomized clinical trial, [where] you administer a placebo or a true drug and follow patients prospectively. Randomized trials are the gold standard for evidence," Collet pointed out. Observational studies such as his can be biased by many uncontrolled factors. So in the conclusion, his Lancet paper notes "we support conducting more studies about this question and maybe studying SSRIs with high risk patients [who] because of genetic factors or polyposis would have a high risk of [developing] cancer. Another interesting population would be patients with cancer to see if SSRIs could prevent recurrence or metastasis."

Collet cautions that treating millions of people with SSRIs in the hope of preventing colorectal cancer in some hundreds of thousands would be a risky business. "This type of research is extremely useful to conduct more research to determine what is the real effect." Collet likens these studies to playing with nesting Russian babushka dolls: open one and there's almost always another one inside. He's confident there will be a definitive answer to the question of using SSRIs to prevent or treat colorectal cancer within 5 to 10 years, depending on international collaborative research networks and the attitude of the pharmaceutical companies involved.

Originally published in The McGill Reporter, March 30, 2006.

Monday 20 February 2012

Agog over "Gollywog"

Though decades separate Bonnie Farmer’s two plays, her new Gollywog has the makings of a hit.

Playwright Bonnie Farmer

Bonnie Farmer was born in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and came to Montreal as a toddler when her mother went to work as a cook in a convent. “They weren’t expecting a cook with a baby in tow. Our room was right off the kitchen.” The family only lived there a year or so, Farmer explained in an interview. “I kept getting into things. It was dangerous. I remember these beautiful marble floors. I remember seeing the nuns in their pyjamas.”

But that’s not all this award-winning children’s author, playwright, avid crafter, and elementary school teacher recalls. She also nurses vivid memories of being the only black child in her grade two class when the teacher had them read books about Little Black Sambo.

“Not that there was anything wrong with the books themselves,” she points out. “The problem was the pictures.”

The Story of Little Black Sambo was written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman. Originally published in 1899, it was part of a small-format book series called The Dumpy Books for Children. Sambo, a boy from Southern India, encounters four hungry tigers. To placate and keep them from eating him, Sambo ends up surrendering his colourful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella. The vain cats, each wearing something of the boy’s, chase each other round a tree until they’re reduced to a pool of butter. Sambo gets his clothes back and his mother uses the butter for pancakes. The story was a children's favourite for over fifty years, until the word ‘sambo’ was deemed a racial slur, and the wider public understood why the illustrations were objectionable. The book has been considerably revised since then.

According to Farmer, Sambo “is really a hero. He outsmarts tigers. But the kids in class would titter and look at me. You felt singled out.”

Racist iconography is central to Farmer’s new play, Gollywog, which had a staged reading on Monday, February 13th as part of the Black Theatre Workshop’s Discovery Series.

Actors Lucinda Davis, Nouella Grimes, Alexandria Haber, Christian Paul, and Brett Watson were directed by Quincy Armorer, who took the stage at the outset to explain what the gollywog was. He mentioned, too, that it’s a part of a Black history with which many people, particularly younger people, are unfamiliar.

The Gollywog is a blackfaced African American caricature created in the late 1800s. Since the 1960s, the doll has become the subject of a great deal of controversy, with Europeans attempting to decide whether it is a valuable cultural artefact or a racist insult.

A gollywog doll

Farmer described the gollywog doll's key features, which were nearly identical to Little Black Sambo’s: black skin, kinky hair, goggly white eyes, and an oversized, toothy grin. 

Gollywog’s main character, Mavis Daniels, came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as did Farmer herself. “It was the time of Black Power,” Farmer says, “and so Mavis never expected to see those racist images like the gollywog or Little Black Sambo again.” Yet gradually, Mavis starts seeing the hoary stereotype at every turn, among toys, books from her grandson’s school library, billboards, even gingerbread men.

The play opens near Christmas. Mavis’s daughter Victoria is living with Mavis, her young son Jamal in tow, while she goes back to school to study nursing. The apartment superintendent, Jeff Cochrane, their neighbour and Victoria’s childhood companion, is gradually revealed as a ne’er-do-well white sorta supremacist. Which doesn’t stop a romance with Victoria from developing. Mavis is touchy and increasingly outspoken. She starts seeing racist behaviour and imagery everywhere. There are incidents on the bus and at Jamal’s school. Is Mavis losing it? This is the world of Gollywog.

“It’s up to the audience to decide if Mavis is crazy,” Farmer says, though she herself doesn’t think so. “I’ve seen a number of ads recently that really do put me in mind of the gollywog.” She would only mention them off the record.

“Every so often, there’s an instant where white people don black face here. I think a lot of the racism in Canada is unconscious, so I’m trying to bring that across in Jeff’s character. I’m hoping the audience will see the other side of these images and the [racist] words that are said. I think in the US, people are more aware. They still use the words, but they’re not doing it unconsciously.”

It’s probably a question of numbers, she continues. “There aren’t as many black people here. It isn’t as much ‘in your face.’ Here, racism is directed against Blacks but, even more, against natives.” (More interesting discussion on this question can be found in this article by Clarence Baynes)

Farmer wrote the first scene of Gollywog in the winter of 2010; several more came during workshops she took with local playwright Colleen Curran, who was also instrumental in helping Farmer develop her first play. Irene and Lillian Forever, with Sonya Biddle and Carole Anderson, was a 1986 Quebec Drama Festival finalist and winner of Best Direction for the late Lorena Gale. Not bad for a newbie.

Farmer also wrote a play for her Master’s thesis in Concordia University’s creative writing program. Ike’s Fiddle is set in Nova Scotia and concerns two brothers and their rivalry over the wife of one of them. It’s never been produced, but something makes me think this might change in the near future…  :)

Colleen Curran

Last May, Caribbean playwright David Edgecombe mentored Farmer and Gollywog at the Black Theatre Workshop. Edgecombe was a founding member of Black Theatre Workshop and also served as resident playwright/director there. He is “internationally known for several plays, including Strong Currents and Coming Home to Roost. I’d seen his stuff 30 years ago. I had a playbill from one of the plays—” it was Strong Currents—“and I brought it for him to sign.”

David Edgecomb
Edgecomb offered Bonnie “really positive feedback.” She kept on writing and sending him the material, until the play was 76 pages and 10 scenes in length. That’s when Farmer discovered that the rule of thumb she’d been going by--that one page of script equalled a  minute of performance--was true for film scripts, not stage plays. Gollywog was already a full-length theatre piece some two hours long!

When I spoke with her several days before the final rehearsals, Farmer was clearly experiencing butterflies, excited, nervous, and altogether inspiring.

The play itself was extremely well received. It never dragged, was clear as a bell, tied up all loose ends, and provoked lots and lots of laughs. And all this over two hours and despite the total absence of sets or props.

Nouella Grimes, doing most of the heavy lifting as Mavis, was outstanding—especially during the police station monologue—and despite evident overheating in wig, turtleneck and sweater, while Lucinda Davis nailed Victoria’s more self-involved worldview. Alexandria Haber and Christian Paul played the school librarian and school principal to maximum hilarity. My sole cavil concerns Victoria’s boyfriend Jeff’s character—making him white a supremacist was a tad extreme, but his layabout behaviour and blame of others for his own failings—notably his drug and booze induced laziness—was bang on.

As the evening drew to a close and the audience rose from the not-ready-for-prime-theatre-time seating, I asked Bonnie how she felt. Which was redundant, really, because the answer was writ large on her face: "Great!"

Originally published on The Rover.

Sunday 19 February 2012

"Pie" at Third Sunday Blog Carnival

Just thought I'd point you to a new resource for getting more eyeballs on your work: the Third Sunday Blog Carnival, run by Adriene (A.D.) Joyce, aka Sweepy Jean.


Sweepy Jean is "a poet, writer, and editor who is inspired by the creativity of other artists that abounds on the internet. Hosting the Third Sunday Blog Carnival is one of the best ways I can think of to share what I find and to help keep the writing arts in the forefront–where they belong."

"Pie's" link is now live at the Third Sunday Blog Carnival! You can see it here:

Adriene has some lovely feedback on "Pie," too: "Great characterization. Heartbreaking."

She also says: "Please share this link with your readers/followers. Visit the links of your fellow bloggers and let them know if you enjoyed their post.

"Thank you for your participation. Please feel free to submit a post for the March 18th edition.

"All the best,

Thursday 16 February 2012

The Meaning Of Children e-book cover

Thought I might consult the hive mind about a possible cover for the e-book version of The Meaning Of Children.

Probably the text needs a bit of work.

I would be grateful if you had a moment to give me a thumbs up or down...and if you have any thoughts on self-publishing, they'd be right appreciated, too!

Friday 10 February 2012

Glob & Pail on the Census: ASTOUNDING!

Dear Glob & Pail

Your coverage of the recent census reveal is nothing short of ASTOUNDING!! John Ibbitson and your Folio pages, in particular, are textbook illustrations of how to lie with statistics.

Certainly, the growth of Alberta and Saskatchewan is notable, but news? Hardly. You stress growth rates and the West’s supposedly increased clout as a result of this, and yet sweep under the rug—if a newspaper can do such a thing!—the essential fact that Ontario and Quebec still account for two-thirds (or is it three-quarters? Who can tell, from your coverage?) of the country’s population, and will for some time to come.

Oh, and another thing that isn’t news: the gutting of corporate taxes, tariffs, import quotas, regulations, and so on—free trade, in short—is the reason we now have a “rust belt,” a diminishing middle class, and a widening gulf between society’s “haves” and the other 99 per cent. In other words, the “fall” of Ontario was engineered by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, and it will only get worse with this lot and their scorched earth mentality (maybe they got the idea from the tar sands).

And as for the tar sands—excuse me, oil sands—Alberta Inc. is happy to ship the oil and the thousands of jobs associated with it out of Canada because our governments lack the will to ensure that processing be done here. As Jeffrey Simpson notes in his column of today, even in Alberta no one governs with the long term in mind.

If they did, they would realize that we need the oil for our own country.

You suck!


Bev Akerman

PS: today marks the 25th anniversary of Michael Moore's first video camera shoot for what would become his first film, Roger and Me. In a letter marking the event, he also notes that today marks another significant milestone:

"The middle class and the American Dream were born 75 years ago today, on February 11, 1937, the day the Flint workers won their struggle [for a living wage, union, safe workplace]. And for the next 44 years, working people everywhere got to own their own homes, send their kids to college and never worry about going broke if they got sick. That belief, that life would be good if you were a good citizen and a hard worker, now seems out of reach for nearly half the country which is either living in or near poverty. Perhaps people wouldn't mind it as much if the burden were being evenly shared. But everyone knows that's not the case. In a time of record personal bankruptcies, record home foreclosures, record family and student debt, there are a group of people having the best years of wealth and profit ever recorded in human history. And it is those very people who have made the decisions to export our jobs, to decimate unions, to make college unaffordable, to start wars and to pay themselves with gluttonous joy while paying little or no tax -- this is the 1% that has created the burden so many Americans (and people around the world) now share."

Thursday 9 February 2012

Canada Reads: the Brouhaha Continues

As described in The Globe and Mail today, Marina Nemat has responded to Anne-France Goldwater's comments, and Me Goldwater has also defended her own position

It seems clear that Goldwater read reports that others had denied the veracity of Nemat's account, especially of the near-death experience.

Who knows the truth of Nemat's experiences? You'd think people had never heard of fabrication in journalistic or memoir circles! It isn't that far back that James Frey created a sensation with A Million Little Pieces: 

From Wikipedia

"On January 8, 2006, The Smoking Gun website published an article: "A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey's Fiction Addiction" alleging that Frey fabricated large parts of his memoirs, including details about his criminal record.[6] One incident in the book that came under particular scrutiny was a 1986 train-automobile collision in St. Joseph Township, Michigan.[7]

The website alleged that Frey had never been incarcerated and that he greatly exaggerated the circumstances of a key arrest detailed in the memoir: hitting a police officer with his car, while high on crack, which led to a violent melee with multiple officers and an 87-day jail sentence. In the police report that TSG uncovered, Frey was held at a police station for no more than five hours before posting a bond of a few hundred dollars for some minor offenses. The arresting officer, according to TSG, recalled Frey as having been polite and cooperative.

The book's hardcover (Doubleday) and paperback (Anchor Books) publishers initially stood by Frey. But examination of the evidence caused the publishers to alter their stances. They released a statement noting, "When the Smoking Gun report appeared, our first response, given that we were still learning the facts of the matter, was to support our author. Since then, we have questioned him about the allegations and have sadly come to the realization that a number of facts have been altered and incidents embellished."[8] As a consequence, the publishers decided to include a publisher's note and an author's note from Frey as disclaimers to be included in future publications.[9]"
Then there was the story of journalist Stephen Glass, who "who came to prominence when it was uncovered that he had fabricated several magazine articles in 1998."

And then there was the story of Janet Cooke and "Jimmy's World"...

What amazes me: in Nemat's Globe and Mail response to Goldwater, she goes on and on about AFG denying the torture. To the best of my recollection (and you can watch the podcast yourself, I believe the fireworks start somewhwere around 33 mins in), Goldwater never said WHAT it was she found hard to believe...and Ghomeshi never pushed her to do so, either.

It isn't impossible that some of the events Nemat recounted are inaccurate...but frankly, that is beside the point, IMHO.

My main issue is that those who invited Goldwater to appear on Canada Reads did so knowing full well that she is a shark not a chihuahua. 

At least, they should have known.

They must have hoped for a brouhaha...and they got one.

Was Goldwater a bully? Should Ghomeshi have demanded she provide at least an example or two of the statements she found hard to swallow? After all, he HAD noted how detailed her annotations were!

For me, the bottom line is that Canada Reads is a 'battle of the bands concept' applied--simplistically applied!--to books. 

One thing is sure:  Nemat can now ride her outrage and high dudgeon all the way to the bank.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

"Can you handle the truth, Canada Reads?" No More Ms. Nice Guy

The kerfuffle on Canada Reads, where one of the country’s most successful and prominent lawyers ever, Anne-France Goldwater, annihilated her competition on Day 1, was an amazing demonstration of the power of the adversarial system. Goldwater is the lawyer who, on her clients' behalf, pushed Canada into legalizing same sex marriage and, for the moment, has won spousal support rights for unmarried spouses who separate (and against a Quebec billionaire, yet!).

Now, Canadians are supposed to be, above all,  nice. Pirouetting little peaceniks and peacekeepers. 

Host Jian Ghomeshi is probably the epitome of what a multiculti Canada wants to believe itself to be, a good looking vaguely failed rocker who asks questions of successful people, and looks good in a nice suit.

What Me Goldwater did, as far as the typical nice Canadian is concerned, was enter the competitors' arena, both barrels blazing. Everything about her was most unCanadian. 

She branded one memoirist a terrorist and the other a liar.

What she did was doubly instructive:  an unabashed advertisement for lawyers, cogently demonstrating that “an untrained person who acts as her own lawyer has a fool for a client.” 

And it also shows how pusillanimous the show’s concept really is.

As a bonus, it pinpoints why a House of Commons full of lawyers (and other professional debaters) is as dysfunctional as it is. You asked for a debate, Me Goldwater sort of said, at one point. It doesn't mean that anything I said was true...

Goldwater took a flamethrower to the place.

Let's face it: Canada Reads, from what I can tell, is about looking good, not about being smart. I mean, a book from 1983 about hockey?

Imagine, a show where two memoirs are challenged for their veracity and no one even recalls James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces? Hard to believe…for well-read people, I mean.

I’m a reader and I’d never heard of any of the books in contention. And last year’s winner, The Best Laid Plans, may have had Terry Fallis laughing all the way to the bank, but he's probably the only one who laughed much at that book. A mildly entertaining page turner, a pathetic champion.

No wonder my book club friends laugh outright when I suggest a novel that made the Giller or Governor General short lists.

Me Goldwater’s sin was that they sent a lawyer to do a model-slash-musician’s job. She isn’t gorgeous and she wasn’t gentlemanly. They hired her--or chose her, anyway-- as an advocate, she gave it her best shot, and she blew the competition--and host--right out of the water.

Too bad for Jian and the rest of the lightweights that no one realized the extent by which Goldwater outclassed the rest of the field. 

Though someone must have had a clue what would happen: they gave her The Tiger to defend, after all.

Anne-France Goldwater doesn't belong on nice, bland Canada Reads: she belongs in Rideau Hall. 

From Goldwater Dubé's website:

·       Me Goldwater's practice highlights include establishing precedents on the recognition of parental alienation syndrome by the courts, the right of children to the attorney of their choice and to claim party status, as well as disparate children’s rights such as lump sum support and mandatory reinstatement in a private educational institution. She also successfully challenged federal and provincial laws forbidding marriage for same-sex couples, thereby obtaining the right of same-sex couples to marry.

·       She successfully challenged the validity of laws preventing women from executing their own alimony and child support orders. She advanced the protection of privacy rights in family matters in the context of paternity litigation. She has obtained the highest child support orders in Quebec, and the highest provisions for cost in a matrimonial matter.

·       She is perhaps best known for her success in the case of Eric vs. Lola, in which she successfully challenged the validity of laws denying common law spouses the right to claim spousal support upon separation, in a unanimous Court of Appeal judgment.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Meaning Of Children: on Mother's Day and Abortion

Just listening once more to my interview with the lovely, charming, and whip smart Anne Lagacé Dowson, a wonderfully generous interviewer and person. And I came across this discussion near the end about motherhood, feminism, abortion, and mother's day that I'm really happy with...she made it so easy to talk with her and I'm really grateful to her and to everyone who took the time to help nurture my little here's a transcript of part of the interview, and I'll post the Youtube video below. 

Hope you enjoy and find some food for thought here. And, of course, in The Meaning Of Children!

Anne Lagacé Dowson

BA: ...As feminists coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we were so keen on making the best of all the opportunities that had been denied us for generations that I think we bought into the idea that teaching and nursing and mothering and care giving are lesser occupations. And of course they aren’t. They’re very, very important to all of us, especially as we age and become more and more dependent on caregivers. So I just am hoping partly to honour that fact of women’s lives.

ALD: In time for mother’s day. So if you are casting about for the perfect mother’s day gift, this might be it. The book is called The Meaning Of Children by Montreal author Beverly Akerman and it’s a collection of 14 short stories which sort of covers the range of experience from the point of view of children, Mums, and also aging parents as well. It’s all there in this lovely little book…short stories about life in a family that might just resemble yours…

You do make a lot of Montreal references in some the stories…and it’s very fun to read stories based and rooted in Montreal…lots of references to the Jewish community and family practices and so on…

What’s your sense of how your feminism has coloured the stories?

BA: I think it definitely has coloured the stories. There’s a story about abortion…I’m a prochoice feminist. It’s a very hard decision for a lot of people but I’m still glad that it’s a decision that is ours to make and not some external group trying to run our lives…

ALD: I thought that was a very brave story, actually, that you wrote. Because I think you’re writing about something that a lot of people have experienced but still feel very badly about talking about. It’s not out there in the civil discourse or in the public discussions of what family life is about.

BA:  I don’t think people feel comfortable acknowledging that they have had an abortion or that they’re related to someone who has. It’s still a very private family matter…

We’re very, very lucky to have grown up in the era in which we have where we do have so many more options than our mothers and grandmothers had. And we have to protect those options for the future generations. I think that’s very important too.

ALD: What will you be doing on mother’s day?

BA: I guess going to brunch with my parents! I’m lucky enough to have both my parents so…and getting cards and kisses from my kids.

ALD: And flowers, hopefully. That’s always a nice feature of mother’s day. But really, mother’s day should be each of our respective birthdays in some sense. You were speaking about some family member…

BA: My father-in-law thought on your birthday you should go and honour your mother because she went through so much. And he would know, he put his parents through a lot.

ALD: Well, we all do. Anyway, I wanted to congratulate you on the publication of this book and I hope it goes far, far afield for you.

BA: Thank you very much. I hope people enjoy it.

ALD: A wonderful gift for mother’s day, perhaps more long lived than the usual cut flowers...