Thursday, April 30, 2015



My friend Paul Corey was doing some routine shopping the other day and found that he had bought a nice story in the process.
Paul is a professor of stats but he's much more interesting than that sounds, a gifted teacher who is easy with people even when he suspects them of being infected with BS.
So he was shopping, on orders from his wife Mary, who has adjusted to his ways. He was in Bruno's, that fancy supermarket with the fancier prices (the one on Dundas near Royal York) when he found the store's electronics had crashed so he couldn't use his credit card.
He discovered this in the middle of kidding a young woman behind him who had switched to his line only to be stalled too.  She replied the credit machine at the other checkout was out of order too.
He confessed to one and all that he didn't know what to do with his groceries which totalled around $62 in cost because "my wife hasn't given me my allowance yet." (There is a possibility he wasn't kidding because Paul has been known to become exuberant on purchases especially when it is the discovery of a great new wine.)
Then the young woman said she would loan him the money and he could mail repayment to her. She had nice eyes to go with that kindness, Paul remembers. He said he lived nearby and it turned out she did too.
Paul then fished out his wallet and found to his surprise that he actually had $50 and some change. He handed it to the cashier who told him not to worry about the rest because he could pay  the next time he was in.
Wow! Doesn't that restore your faith in good old T.O! No wonder this big cold city is now up there in the surveys as the greatest place to live.
Now cynics might argue that this did take place in the pleasant paunch of Etobicoke, the best of suburbia in the GTA. And Bruno's may be known for its great selections in fine food but also for its helpful staff at the four locations. Paul and Mary are regular shoppers, because as great entertainers they are used to buying gourmet goodies for expansive dinner parties. So Paul may be a familiar face.
But to hell with rationalizations.
I think it was a generous moment on a quiet Thursday because of a trusting lady with nice eyes - and we men are accused of always looking somewhere else - and a cashier, Daisy,  who should be promoted or at least given a bonus for her astute judgment of some old fart from U of T.
Bruno's saved me with a delicious turkey and all the fixings one Christmas when Mary and I were both limping around  but I really am a Costco fan, especially for the meats.  I have found courteous service there when I have glitches but no Costco clerk has ever offered to let me pay some of the bill the next time I'm in.
What fine service to go with fine food!

Saturday, April 25, 2015



There's a faithful saying that goes this way. "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."
In Toronto, there's one quick path to going mad, and that is trying to make sense out of the city's utility bill.
It is so convoluted and mystifying that it is almost comic satire. I just know that if there was still a practical solid city treasurer around like William Campbell, who bizarrely was the grandfather of that clown Rob Ford, he would have eviscerated with his common sense the creators of the modern bill for water supply, sewers and the system of bins and arcane rules that has turned us all into garbage pickers.
My latest bill has 31 numerical listings on it,  like 0.613698630, which I guess is supposed to impress me about how far the bureaucrats have gone in precise calculations, but the result really resembles in the end the scrawls of a door-to-door salesman who is trying to rent you one of those water heaters at an exorbitant price.
And if that doesn't paint the picture for you, it resembles the product of a council of 44 men and women whom you and I wouldn't trust to buy our groceries.
They have certainly achieved their hidden goal, to so confuse us as to what our utilities really cost, we won't question just why they cost so much.
If someone from another city were to ask what I pay for these services and bins, I would have to confess I have no idea. All I know is that the charges go up every year, the privatized collection service works well most of the time,  and the numbers that are blitzed at us with every bill continue to be as baffling as the thought that we actually need 44 councillor and one mayor (doing his best to be all things to all activists)  to run this place in such a costly way.
No, I won't saying it was better in the old days because then we had more of those city workers pretending to work as hard as they did at election time in support of the councillors that they had conned into caring more about them than the taxpayers.
I threw the utility bill into the garbage. Probably in the wrong bin but even petty revenge is sweet.

Thursday, April 23, 2015



So what is it really like in the real world when you have a disabled parking pass, transportation and transit companies promise to help 100% with accessibility issues, and ramps and special seating are  familiar parts of daily life?
It is still a mixed blessing. You can go from smiling thanks for the help from strangers and even governments to cursing anger with the latest stupid barrier or inept stranger.
My wife has trouble walking. Her world is one of walkers, canes and a light foldable version of a wheelchair called a transporter chair. Her aids are God-sends. Without them we couldn't travel a block.
I am an awkward steward of my wife's transportation because I had a taste of the problem.
 Three years ago after three months in four hospitals I couldn't stand or walk. I have climbed out of that pit but it has left me with a temper still swollen from outrages like the heavy doors in places like Roy Thomson Hall which are difficult to move while also helping Mary.
The days when I strolled for miles, even 32.8 miles in one charity walk, are an ancient memory. But I can walk some distance, with pauses, so I'm not complaining.
The latest mountain for us to climb was a visit to my son John Henry in California. He and my son Mark assured me that Air Canada when notified in advance would help me with Mary in her transporter chair which you can buy for around $250. Mary can use it as a walker or I can push her in it even though floors tend to sag and wander and even descend into ruts and mini potholes in terminals, subway stations and especially city sidewalks.
There was a little confusion with Air Canada but it generally worked well.  A helper pushed Mary to the side of the plane - she could handle the walk to the seat - and the chair was stowed underneath and produced quickly in Los Angeles minus one part which was retrieved. There was no one at LAX to help so I had to push Mary through construction to the luggage carousel where my son and his Marie, the artist and jewellery designer, came to my rescue.
The return trip went better because there was an Air Canada helper to push Mary the extraordinary distance between the gate and customs.
There we sat waiting in a straggle of wheelchairs at a special desk which wasn't that special in processing. After about 30 minutes of waiting, and wondering whether my son Brett would now not connect for the trip home, we reached the customs official while I contemplated complaining.
He studied my slip, asked if I was the writer, said Downing was a nice name, and waved us through. (His name was Persaud.) A soft answer, especially praise, always turns away wrath, so I would judge the trip there and back to be a great success despite that hiccup in Los Angeles.
It would have been far easier for John Henry if I had flown into John Wayne Airport south of L.A. so he wouldn't have to drive into L.A. with its terrible traffic (still better than in Toronto) but that would have meant changing at O'Hare. The transporter chair is a wonderful help but you still have to husband your energy and running around that giant Chicago airport is to be avoided if possible.
A week later I was going to take Mary via that chair to a luncheon for the Canadian Helen Keller Centre at the Royal York. Finally I went alone. Thank heavens! I worked near Union Station for 50 years but despite my intimate knowledge I got lost three times in the construction maze in and outside the station. It has been an aggravating disgrace for far too long. It is like a Devil's project designed to show off how best to screw up a major downtown.
The TTC to its credit has personnel wandering around giving directions inside Union Station.  I had to interrupt three of them gossiping with each other to get confused directions. At one point I had to be rescued by a TTC employee who took mercy on me and said I was right to be grousing.
The experiences of the last months of trying to take Mary around via the TTC and an international airline - because our damned traffic makes driving downtown a gauntlet of dangers and costly parking - have proven to me again that despite the good progress we have made in helping the movements of those who because of age or disability just can't handle the stairs and slopes and stupid heavy public doors, there is room for improvement.
After all, for the disabled, it is a daily struggle. Something I wish that tall fat bottle blonde of around 30 would have remembered when she sprawled with her parcels over two of the subway seats that are supposed to be used by those who find it difficult to stand and clutch a pole.
I wish I had taken her picture because she could be symbolic of those who really don't notice or give a damn whether some of those around them are coping with the trip.
Fortunately, I can say in my regular report card about disability mobility that most of us are doing much better. I even have praise for Air Canada, which astounds even me.
Of course that extends only to its wheelchair assistance. Service and conditions inside its planes would be considered satisfactory only by people who could sleep in a coffin and figure a jail cell is a fine living room.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015



I hope Bill Davis and his adviser buddy Clare Westcott saw the news story about a Japanese magnetic levitation train setting a speed record of 580 km/h.
It is now more than 40 years since they dreamed of mag-lev trains floating above the right-of-way zipping from Toronto to Ottawa, and if Quebec cleaned up its act in time, from Windsor to Quebec City, a fabled link that has seized the imagination of transportation engineers since the 1960s.
We didn't realize at the time but Davis turned out to be our best premier, and the most successful, for the several decades after the Tories seized power in the 1940s.  Davis intended when he began in 1971 to keep the Big Blue Machine humming with schemes cooked up by Westcott who could charm the spots off a ladybug..
One way was to cancel the Spadina expressway, a stupid decision but one that endeared him to the lefties and gLiberals who normally would vomit at being associated with a Tory.
Another was to create Ontario Place, which was a chance to recreate the charm and mystique of the Ontario Pavilion at Expo '67.
And then there was the creation of an urban transportation experimental agency using the same bright guys behind Ontario Place and the successful display at Expo.
The idea was to create trains that would float on magnetic cushions and thus be very fast and efficient because it wasn't wheels grinding on steel rails.
The first test was to run a train around the Ex, and there are still a few bits of the concrete supports left there, almost as a memorial to the 60 trees that were cut down.
The Sun was new and I made it a campaign to hammer the idea on Page 4 every day. I attacked it as expensive and massive unproven technology - which makes it sounds like something proposed by the Liberals.
The Tories dispatched the top bureaucrat to try to shoot me down in a meeting with Sun publisher Doug Creighton. Doug called me in and listened impassively while we shouted insults and facts at each  other and then phoned his friend, the premier, and said he wasn't about to muzzle me.
Ontario spent hundreds of millions but no mag lev vehicle ever carried a passenger in Ontar-ar-ario, the way we sang about the province in the Bobby Gimby folk anthem made famous at Expo.
Queen's Park sold some transit bits of new people carriers  to Vancouver and Seattle and managed to lose more millions in the process. And then, thank heavens, it went out of the business and restricted itself to endless arguments about new subways in Toronto.
Decades later. since the world also started dreaming about the advantages of magnetic levitation if it really could be made to work, there was actually a stub of a mag-lev system running to the Beijing Airport. And now we have train speed records being set in Japan.
But let me issue a warning, folks! IT WAS ON A TEST TRACK!!!
Yes, the hot dream of train experts is still not quite here as a regular train service. And so, the grandiose Conservative announcements  of 1972 still have not been fulfilled with regular mag lev service over any distance longer than a midway ride.
It might seem a long time but, after all, this was a political promise, and they take a very long time to come true in Canada, and never, it seems, in the United States where failed process is still their most important product.



You use an elastic band these days that has been touched by the sun for a few hours and it snaps. To me it's symbolic of the lousy quality control that means everything from your refrigerator to your weed wacker stops working the day after the warranty expires.
I have a regular supply of elastic bands since the newspaper delivery guys use them whenever they don't leave my papers in a puddle or somewhere beyond hailing distance of the porch.
I use the bands to anchor a disabled parking permit in my car. It's a great aid by society to my wife who has trouble walking and I want to make sure the parking vultures see it. I find that two elastics are good for several days if I don't touch them.
I realize that kitchen appliances that used to last forever now blow up after 10 years plus one day. I have come to accept that the computer on which I am typing this seems to be obsolete after a year or two and one sneer from a millennial.
All this bugs me a lot. And thanks to the lousy manufacture of the elastic bands used by the Star and Post, I am reminded regularly of this when a simple elastic band can't stretch in the sun without getting melanoma.
(It also bugs me that there is this evil coalition between the electricity producers and the appliance manufacturers that pump out the propaganda that any device older than a year is a terrible waster of electricity.
You know, almost as much as the smart meters that don't work yet are used to savage me with high bills for an unused cottage.
I inherited a fridge when I bought my house half a century ago (which actually seems just yesterday. ) I used it for 10 years and then it spent several decades as a beer fridge as we bought several replacements which were a lot larger and a lot weaker.)
I know that most Canadian appliances are made by just one company. You would think that with all the practise they would make a better product. They slap different names on them, and the more expensive ones have costlier trim, but are never sturdier for some suspicious reason.
And yet the various provincial and municipal power vultures, which are supposed to care more about the public  than private companies,  encourage us to scrap any old fridge that lasts on the grounds it's a power hog. Well, it takes one to know one!
I remember when an elastic band was sturdy enough to survive a morning of being shot around a public school classroom at any exposed neck, except for the girls of course who tended to tattle when you hit them.
The good old days, when things didn't wear out just after you took them out of the package.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015



I love all media.  Newspapers, of course. Radio. Television is a great eye on the world, even if it needs drops.
I still get two newspapers a day, slimmer now unfortunately, and read others on the computer. Love long car trips listening to the radio and only put in a CD in desperation. Watch TV every night but find the banquets of childproof movies and good sit-coms have turned into wilted salads with yesterday's meats. I still buy books.
The biggest decline in the media, despite the obituaries about newspapers, has come with television. I liked it better before this 24-7 schedule means there's something for insomniacs to watch at 4.30 a.m., the hour of death for both humans and TV. Why don't they husband their apparently limited resources and go dark for four or five hours every night instead of running archival crap?
What bugs me most is the proliferation of the same ad running 20 or 30 times a day for weeks if not months on some stations. It gets so bad that each day I spend a few minutes preparing to tape various programs so I can fast-forward through the ads. It saves some time and a lot of irritation.
One of the worst offenders in running the same ad over and over and over is BNN. The business channel should have lots of resources because as we are told regularly it is owned by the rich fat giant of BCE.
Yet during the two one-hour Market Call shows at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. where weekday viewers email or phone with their questions  (commentaries are squashed by the host) we are bombarded with a phoney Shakespearean actor emoting about damage in an insurance commercial and a bossy brat demanding construction paper for a school project in a credit card commercial.
I understand the ads pay for the telecasts. And I can switch to another channel which is probably running another clutch of ads over and over and over.  I'm not a fan of the CRTC, an inept manager of the public air waves which too often doesn't really protect the public. But surely even the CRTC has rules about one station running the same ads ad nauseam.
You would think that advertising and television companies would realize that the endless repetitions of the same commercials are starving the geese that lay the golden eggs. Perhaps, with the new CRTC rules about subscribers not having to take border-line cable stations, a few geese will be killed here and there.
As it is, I tape more and more and watch fewer and few commercials. As far as I'm concerned, I don't really care if that Shakespearean actor buys construction paper for the brat, or whateverinhell the commercials are promoting.

Monday, March 23, 2015



There isn't a day that I as a writer don't marvel at how much easier my life is because of computers. Anyone who has ever written several books on a typewriter, as I have, knows what I am talking about.
But there also isn't a week that I don't curse as my computer balks or freezes or asks me for some unknown password or to search for some baffling icon.
Thank heavens I have three computer-literate sons, and when Mark is here briefly from his Dell job in China, I can turn my computer problems over to him.
Yesterday I was talking to him in Dalian, China, over FaceTime, a wonderful way to keep in touch with your children after we sort out the inevitable problems. This time I couldn't hear him. Mark is a sympathetic helper because he candidly admits he has problems with computers too. And so he gave me advice on my computer problems of the last week.
In case you are feeling superior about this point, I recall a bull session at the cottage where Mark, with a MBA from one of the top business schools in the world, HKUST, and several of his friends, were listening to me rant in the sun over a cold beer about computer mysteries. Every one of them had at least one graduate degree, and one lectured at Princeton. They all said that routinely they had  computer hassles.
In case you are still feeling superior, I recall a head table conversation I had with Gil Amelio, who ran Apple briefly before Steve Jobs, who hated him, returned to the company. Amelio had  patented inventions to go along with his doctorate. Yet he confided as an expert that the computer world should spend more time simplifying and demystifying their devices rather than just building faster slicker new ones.
Remember the old joke about the homeowners who taped over the blinking 12:00 time signal on their  devices because they didn't know how to  dump it or set the real time. Amelio, the CEO  of at least two giant companies that I know of, said he felt that it was more embarrassing to the industry than it was to the failed nerds when they ignored eliminating such a simple problem.
I persevere through my electronic hurdles, however, and mix my happiness at the ease of editing on a computer with my curses when it decides to act illiterate. On my computer, I research through the marvels of Google, order stuff from prescription drugs to a ladder, and do most of my banking and bill paying. I even read my magazines on the iPad when it isn't hiccuping.
But then there comes simple tasks which becomes far more complicated just because corporate giants like Rogers bleed too many workers out of the arteries of their service. On behalf of all frustrated cable customers, and all the jobless who have given up looking even for a minimum job and would like to fill some of these jobs, let me shout from the rooftops that the automated answering snares of North America should have many more humans injected into the process so you don't sit on hold for 10 minutes or wait for a callback or have to play numbers roulette trying to get to the right department.
In the drive to increase the corporate profits, there aren't enough knowledgeable people staffing internet departments. And so the simplest questions and tasks, ones that a real clerk used to solve at a counter in seconds, becomes a gauntlet thanks to all the ultra modern internet tricks that allow you to do it from home....if you have the time and the patience and enough curses to see you through the experience.
  I carried an ancient cell phone only for emergencies. So Mark suggested I use his old Apple smart phone and instead of paying $35 monthly, pay $113 in advance for something like $1 a terse call over many months. (Nice phone if you don't squeeze it. Then it won't work.)
So I called Rogers. Waited seven minutes. Then retreated to a call back. Waited.  Woman didn't understand. Persisted. Switched to another department. Waited. Explained. She offered other plans. Finally my deal was done. Sort of.  I couldn't pay with VISA over the phone. I would have to go to a store. Asked for supervisor to explain why one department wouldn't accept payments for another. Waited 12 minutes. Hung up.
Tried again two days later. And it all happened again. Then I was cut off. (No wonder I love to let Mark deal with the Rogers red-tape empire.)
Tried the next day. This time I almost got all the way to the promised land but I had to go of course to the outlet at Royal York and Bloor to buy the time. Went. Waited 15 minutes. The part-time employee was really helpful but couldn't sell me the cash top up without more info from the call centre. So he called. Then I was put on the phone.  Switched to another department. Put on hold with a promise that if I was cut off again, they would phone the store and have me paged. An eternity on hold, which would only be nice if you were in heaven. Finally it was arranged and the sales chap went to input the PIN number showing the payment but by this point, the phone had died.
Went home, charged the phone,  but couldn't input the PIN number because the recorded voice kept saying I couldn't use it unless I bought time.  Returned to the Rogers outlet. Waited. Guy went into a mysterious closet or something and got the phone to accept the PIN.
Got an email message from Rogers asking if I was satisfied with how my needs were met. You have just got to be kidding. Is there anyone out there who really is satisfied with Bell or Rogers? Just why am I suspicious that Rogers hates this sparse pre-pay plans and would prefer to stick you with monthly fees.
Ah, the myriad wonders of the modern telecom age! Now we have to pay monthly insurance just to ensure that Bell will come inside your house to fix a problem.
The other day, I felt a frisson of joy that I had gone a few months and hadn't had to complain to Rogers about cable service. Did that ever backfire! The next three programs I tried to record on the super duper Rogers equipment recorded all right, it was just I couldn't play them back. So I unplugged the set and waited and plugged it back in and waited and finally I could see the programs.
Just imagine that every time your car didn't work, the first suggestion of the mechanic was to unplug the battery and wait a few minutes and then plug it back in. There would be a revolution if there wasn't a government inquiry. Any kid in any school who screwed up as much as the modern products of the electronic industry would be failed even in this permissive society. Imagine if your fridge malfunctioned as much as your computer. You would be throwing out food monthly.
I have to reboot my computer regularly, and it's less than a year old, and it's fed through a giant company with supposedly 28,000 employees, which includes maybe 100 who know how to fix things, providing you wait from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for them to favour you with their presence.
So in the house there are seven phones, four TVs,  three computers, two copiers and a intercom system (not counting the old versions stuck in crawl spaces or the garage) and most of the time they work, and when they don't, the technical service people and the sons treat me as if I'm the village idiot who is flummoxed at changing a light bulb.
Yet once upon a time, the RCAF gave me a perfect mark in the final test turning on and operating a complicated radar system.and asked me to teach the next course. But all our devices have become much more sophisticated, or so we're told, than the electronics that help win World War Two.
Ain't progress grand, when it doesn't have to be rebooted!