Monday, November 30, 2009


Let's Treat Them As Jerks And Not Listen To Their Fibs

The couple who cheated their way into the White House party have had their minutes in the publicity sun. Now let's give them sunburn and ignore them.
Any reporter who has been around the powerful for only a year or so is familiar with the desperate hanger-ons who just ache to be noticed by the president or PM or premier and. more importantly, by the media. And the picture is important. If the Salahis had not been photographed with Barack Obama and his crew, it would have been an absolute failure. After all, they don't care about Obama and his people, they just want the rest of the world to see them mingling as if they were important too.
It's a sickness, a denial of self-worth. I have been around the rich and famous and powerful my entire life. Yet I was never under any illusion that I was that important personally. The only reason 99% of the famous had any time for me was because I was a columnist or editor. They could get their message out through me, and I used them to get a story. It was a business relationship, and both sides knew it.
I sat at a head table recently with the premier, two former federal ministers and JFK's famous speech writer and listened as a desperate climber at the back asked a garbage question. I'm sure every listener recognized that all the questioner was doing was trying to draw attention to himself. The next day, he probably boasted to every single client how he had been at a private function with one of Canada's elites and been probing with question.
Ironically, you have more success being close or even chatting with the powerful and famous if you don't try too hard. It's like those people popping up and down behind someone on TV so they will be noticed. Believe me, as someone who has been in the background of countless news events, the cameraman will keep shooting with you in the background providing you don't act like a demented kid. If you do, he goes for another angle. After all, the cameraman only cares about a background with as few distractions as possible.
For those who wonder just how it is possible to slip by the famed Secret Service security and actually pose with the president, it has to do with the audacity of a brazen couple. They had willed themselves to ignore the chance of embarrassing failure. If you don't give a damn, security isn't an insurmountable problem. Ask terrorist bombers!
I remember a huge fund-raising dinner at a giant Toronto hotel where the speaker was Gerald Ford, the veteran congressman and vice president who as president had pardoned Richard Nixon. It was around 1985 and even though he hadn't been in office since 1977, he was still very active in U.S. politics and swept into downtown surrounded by clouds of agents and police.
My wife and I were wending our way through the corridors towards the dinner when we ran into June Callwood and Trent Frayne. June, of course, was the famous writer/activist, and Trent was equally famous in sports as an elegant columnist. We were old friends and marched along the hall together, chatting. There was a room filled with waiters and people in formal dress so the four of us slipped by a knot of men at the door and went in to get a drink.
A few minutes later, I observed that we had probably crashed the VIP reception for the head table. June questioned that until I pointed out that Ford was standing just behind her. She swivelled around, looked hard at everyone, and turned back to ask me why so many of the men were hard of hearing. I was surprised that such an experienced journalist wouldn't recognize agents and their earphones and wrist microphones.
June said you're telling me that they're Secret Service. I said yes. So she stuck her tongue out at the nearest agent who was swivelling to survey the room. He looked at June before she pulled her tongue in. He looked away, then back, surprised. June was impassive, acting as if she had done nothing. I lectured her. I said I knew she wasn't a great supporter of the police but why was she mad at the Secret Service? What did they do wrong?
We stood for a few minutes, Mary and me and the Fraynes, with Ford chatting a few feet away, surrounded by Secret Service, with at least one agent wondering if the biggest threat in the room was that older lady with the mischievous tongue. But at no time did the Secret Service move us out because it was obvious from our body language that being near the former president wasn't that big a deal. I can't say that for about 20 other people in the room who were panting to touch the hand of the famous man.
When the White House gatecrashers get their fortune to tell their silly story, I for one will not be listening. And I hope the media outlet which buys the meaningless tale is rewarded with poor ratings. It's time for all of us in the media to spend on real news coverage, not trash.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Not Recommended Reading For The Politically Correct

George Smitherman is so gay, he flaunts his husband. And it will cost him because when Torontonians vote for mayor, without PC watchdogs in the little booth, suburbanites far from the gay haunts of Wellesley and Church will decide they would just as soon not have a leader from that lifestyle.
It won't help the former deputy premier that the spending scandals of eHealth, lotteries and just about everything else with the McGuinty government will be tied to him like a steak around the neck of a man facing wolves.
Taxpayers are furious at spending scandals at City Hall where bureaucrats couldn't buy a computer or even a bottle of germ killer without paying far more than market. Unions rule, not taxpayers. A refugee from Queen's Park, which lurches from embarrassment to spending stupidity, is hardly going to seem the saviour.
Now Smitherman's homosexuality won't be as big a problem in the central city which managed to elect David Miller when the suburbs preferred John Tory. The downtown likes activism, big government, gliberals and socialists. But many suburbanites are more conservative, more uncomfortable with government-knows-best, especially when it comes to culture grants, toadying and endless festivals. Most don't think we should ignore merit and discriminate against a person because of their group, whether colour, origin or sexual orientation. And that's proper. But voting is all about choosing whom you want to represent you. So you are free to dislike the individual and Smitherman as an individual is hardly my neighbours' cup of tea.
Toronto surprised Canada when it elected a Jew, Nathan Phillips, in 1955. The city didn't get around to its first Catholic mayor, Art Eggleton, for another 25 years. Torontonians aren't about to surprise the country again by electing Smitherman, and the reasons will include his attack pit bull reputation and background as a big-spending Liberal bully, but it's nonsense to pretend his homosexuality doesn't matter.

Don't you watch the U.S. health care debate and thank heavens that you live in Canada. OHIP is something we should treasure, even though our health bureaucracy is hardly a shining model of administration. (See Smitherman above.)
It was the Ontario Health Restructuring Commission nearly a decade ago that warned our health record keeping was a disaster and the dismal fact that hospitals couldn't share basic patient information via digital flow was almost an insurmountable barrier. So the health ministry finally lurches into action only to waste a billion or more on an improvement that isn't working yet.
Does it not strike you from the endless costly advertising around the swine flu shots that our public health bureaucrats do a better job of lecturing us on obesity or smoking than they do in just ordering and giving us a simple shot? After all, this was not cancer research.
I know they say older Canadians have built up more immunity than younger Canadians and didn't need to be among the first target groups to get shots.
If they're wrong, it's certainly an interesting way to lower pension costs by sneaking euthanasia into our country when our legislators keep rejecting that terrible idea of killing older and sicker people.
Now I'm just being sarcastic, some grisly over-the-top irony. But....
Consider the elderly who were shoved aside from the head of the line by everyone from hockey and basketball players to hospital directors (and probably their buddies.) For example, I know a couple who hobbled into the Etobicoke municipal centre and were rejected. Too old! She was 74 and taking eight prescription drugs. He was 73 and has atrial fibrillation and diabetes. Doctors have been inside his heart twice. Not good enough. I heard that he said he was off to commit a crime because prisoners were a priority group.
Now there has been a lot of hype and fear about what is really just another flu, and more people this year will probably die from other varieties. (One reason I always get a flu shot.) But the exaggerated concerns are not eased because we just don't trust everyone in our public health system.
But we're decades ahead of the Americans.

I got my swine flu shot on the third try at the former Etobicoke municipal centre. There was no waiting, except the bureaucracy around the shot was so intense, it took 50 minutes just to read and answer the forms and follow the rules. Seem like the process was dictated more by cover-your-ass liability lawyers than it was by health pros.
And then, when I left, with all the halls empty, some petty bureaucrat insisted I had to walk away from where I had parked my car. I pointed out that my car was in the other direction and what was the reason because the long corridor was empty. Not one other person. "Because I said so," said the pettycrat, who was obviously a failed school principal, jail guard or security domo.
The swine flu is costing us a fortune. In one room alone, there were nine people festooned with badges doing nothing but gossiping. At least we avoided a pandemic, that is if you believe the swine flu is more dangerous than the ordinary seasonal flu that kills far more than the swine flu has. One reason why I get a flu shot every year, with no fuss at all, and not one form or pettycrat in sight.

That story of the Inuit teenager who was rescued from an ice floe in Hudson Bay is a wonderful Canadian tale.
The repeated attempts to find him for three days by our military, And then the two rescuers who went into the sea. And then they had to be helped too. In the end, 10 Inuit and military were involved.
The floe was only about 50 metres by 50 metres. So when a polar bear and her cubs came near him, he shot her. And then comes all the politically correct stuff with officials explaining that he shot the bear because he feared for his life. Of course he did, The mother was stalking supper. Turns out the cubs were nearly grown and she was probably teaching them how to hunt.
Do we really always have to worry about what Greenpeace and PETA might say about the shooting of anything? Do we really have to justify the actions of a young Canadian in saving his own life? He was only 17.
Some times excuses are just galling! And they certainly are when we grovel before armchair activists who make a good living attacking those who live off the land. May they be trapped on a small floe with three bears.


Saturday, November 7, 2009


Getting Accustomed to Murder

I was startled to find inside the detailed media examination of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that many younger Germans really didn't think it was that big a deal
In the 1960s, the Wall was evil. It filled our news, and it fed our fears.
I remember my first visit a few years after it started in 1961. It still can bring a shiver to my memory. I peered into the East from a rough wooden platform. The nearest watchtower of the 300 along the Wall swung some guns towards me. And I could see glints from binoculars in other towers.
It seemed peaceful enough on that anonymous side street. The river flowed smoothly past the watchers. None of the 600 famished watchdogs barked. I almost wondered what the fuss was all about.
As I climbed down, my minder from the West German government cautioned me not to touch the Wall. Why, I wondered. "They will shoot you," he said. I scoffed. I doubted that they could even get a clear shot. He pointed to a pool of dried blood and red splatters left behind by a man three days earlier who just had to touch the infamous Wall. The minder explained that the "bastards" had built the entire Wall a few feet into Eastern Germany territory so they could shoot at people on both sides.
It was 20 years before anyone dared scrawl graffiti on the Wall.
I had devoured spy stories from John LeCarre and his colleagues all my life. I was even staying at the small Hotel Am Zoo which was featured in Len Deighton's Funeral in Berlin. It was close to one of the most famous crossings in the world, Checkpoint Charlie.
So of course I was on an old bus going through Charlie that the Volkspolezie were examining bolt by bolt. Even a big mirror was rolled underneath/ And we were going into East Berlin, not leaving.
I handed over my passport with indifference which angered a pimply-faced teen-aged VoPo. He shoved the muzzle of his gun under my chin and jerked it up. I started to rise in anger and then stopped, remembering that the VoPos, none of whom were from the city, got a bonus and a holiday back on the farm if they shot anyone.
I visited the treasures of the renowned Pergamon Museum and a huge socialist memorial park. And I wandered. Nothing in the shops. When I returned to the Wall, tired and cold, I passed through great dark grey blocks with maybe a street light per block. No people. No cars. Ahead was a line of VoPos, the line that would murder or imprison several thousands of their neighbours, and even a few foreigners, during the life of the wall. Occasionally they even left them to bleed out in the killing zone, as if they were butchering hogs back on the farm.
Behind the VoPose was a great expanse of brilliant neon and flashing signs. West Berlin. Glittering prosperity. I wondered just how long the East Germans would look across in awe and hunger and wait.
I have returned many times to Germany, and driven and dined in every nook. A print of one of my favourite spots, the walled Rotenberg on the Tauber River, hangs near me as I type. But I stayed away from Berlin and the hassles of its dividing wall.
Then I returned for the world congress of the International Press Institute. In May, 1989. Make note of that day. One main speaker was the famous Willy Brandt. He told us that it had taken a couple of hours to come to our meeting because of the Wall. The trip would have taken 15 minutes or so if it hadn't existed.
He said he had no idea whether the wall would collapse in a year or a decade but it would go eventually. It was only six months later that it did, to the astonishment of East Germany and the delight of West Germany. It surprised the world, and I wrote that we should savour the moment because, after all, it had surprised Brandt, and he was the former chancellor of the country and the former mayor of the city.
All this seems lost on those too young to remember the carnage of World War Two, the thrilling Berlin airlift, and the decade before the Wall became rooted in Teutonic history as if it was eternal.
Rest In Peace memories of the wall. But it is another page of war that we should never forget.
The Sun's Mark Bonokoski was there the night the Germans flooded over the Wall and destroyed it. He brought me a piece. Just a jagged bit of concrete, and there were more than 150 kms of walls, but it looms in my memory like a mountain.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Everyone Would Benefit If We Scrapped Royal Tours ...And Royalty

A female reporter gushed the other day in the National Post about how Prince Charles had actually LOOKED right at her and SMILED. I hope this was all just irony or sarcasm attacking royal tours in Canada. But if that was worth a newspaper story, then my tales about royals could become a series.
A Star columnist detailed at great cost to at least one woods how she got to shake hands with a royal. Wow!
Now it may be true that none of my anecdotes match the famous account of Prince Phillip in Yellowknife as the motherly waitress cleared the head table. She tapped the Duke on the shoulder and said "keep your fork, Duke, there's pie." There are variations and even different locales but I know it was reported there by my friend Allan Dickie for The Canadian Press.
But I could have sparked an international incident if I had reported that the Duke of Edinburgh had grumbled to me that he worried about the horses that were to compete in the Mexican Olympics because the *#@%@#* Mexicans didn't know how to handle horses. Since he was head of the world equestrian association at the time, his worry about mistreatment of the jumpers would have been headline stuff.
But there is a custom that the media don't report immediately on personal conversations they have with the royals. But a lot of years and tours have passed and, thank heavens, I will never have to report a tour again. Not that I dislike the Queen or Duke. Even though I think Prince Charles is an interesting man who would make a decent king, surely we should end this anachronism after the gracious and competent Queen leaves our throne.
But back to my anecdotes. It was 1961 and the royals still had the yacht Britannia. I was sent to the waterfront to see if anything happened when the Queen disembarked for the day. There was a knot of six people or so at the foot of the gangplank and a crowd kept behind barriers 40 yards away.
Nathan Phillips was still the mayor of Toronto and he knew me well. (I later wrote his memoirs.) He called me out of the crowd and told the police to leave me alone. He wanted to know if his great mane of white hair had looked silly the previous day as it blew in gusts when he greeted the Queen. We didn't notice that the Queen had joined us and, indeed, seemed to want to know the answer to the mayor's question. Phillips mumbled something, the Queen shook his hand, and the hands of the finance minister and premier and then, as she offered me her hand, noticed my press credentials. She gave a puzzled smile and left.
In those days, that wasn't enough for a story. We didn't yet gush over a mere smile. In the afternoon, I stood in the middle of a park to see if the Queen looked at a tree she had planted years before. She didn't. Just another waste of time, which is the main ingredient of royal tours.
The Duke visited the Toronto Press Club in the early 1970s and sympathized with me in the receiving line when I said I was membership secretary. I said it wasn't that bad. "But don't you have to keep out some people who aren't qualified," he asked. I said yes. Then he confided that he had nominated a friend for one of his London clubs. He explained that members voted by sticking their hand through a velvet sleeve into a wooden box. If they dropped the ball, fine. But if they tucked it into a little ledge on one side, it was a veto, a black ball. "How would you like to be married to the Queen of England," the Duke said, "and have two bastards blackball your friend."
I received an invitation to be one representative of the Toronto media at a reception in the Royal York at the start of one tour. It read that dress was lounge suit. So I phoned the veteran press wrangler for royal tours, Jim McPhee, who had been taking time off since 1939 from jobs like lieutenant colonel or press secretary to Premier William David to help the royals.
McPhee said lounge suite meant a dark suit. I said I would wear my best attire of navy blazer and flannels. "Do that and I won't let you in," McPhee said and hung up. I arrived at the Ontario Room to find the receiving line consisted of McPhee and the Queen. He was dressed in a wine blazer and grey flannels. I grumbled: "You said I couldn't dress like this but look at what you're wearing. " Then I noticed to my horror that the Queen had finished with the person ahead of me and was listening with great interest. I said: "I'm sorry Maam, but Lieut.-Col McPhee and I are old friends." The Queen smiled and said "obviously."
All the people, like police chiefs, who would be important to the tour's success had gathered in groups around the room. And the Queen circulated. My group didn't seem that lively, so I figured it was up to me to keep the conversation going. So I talked about jet lag and whether she kept her watch on London time when she joined us. She is a champion of small talk, so everything went well.
So I decided to really fly. She was here to preside over the Queen's Plate. I asked what horse she liked, because the Queen is famous for her knowledge of race horses. She diplomatically didn't mention names. I said that there was a longshot in the Plate and maybe she would be interested. I asked if she bet, and she said she had a lady-in-waiting do it for her.
Then she smiled and went to dazzle another group. When the Plate was run, my longshot finished dead last, in fact so far back, it may well have been dead.
I often quote the Duke when I pass a washroom in a stadium or on a tour. I once asked Prince Philip what was the secret of surviving tours when you're married to the Queen. "Never miss a chance to take a piss," he said. I've always liked that, scorning the politer version of "pee." It's the sailor in him. And I find it refreshing in these politically correct days to have a world figure who blurts out exactly what he thinks. Thank heavens there's at least one. Probably one reason the Queen married him.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Part Five: The Great Cottage Renewal

So I have the building permit in the window, the contractor and I have agreed to a price of around $50,000, and both of us have a clutch of drawings. The ship is launched for the new addition. But watch out for the reefs.
As noisy proof that my new great room will rise soon in front of the old tired cottage, up the lane rumbles the equipment of Darrell Brunton, a local who can peel a hardboiled egg with his power shovel while giving the history of Nappan Island just across the Trent River.
By the end of the day, many shrubs and a tree have been skinned from the cottage and transplanted or mangled. And I wonder, sadly, where the humming birds are going to nest now after undisturbed decades. I rather liked all the greenery in which the cottage roosted, but there was no way anything could be built if the leafy walls remained.
Unfortunately all this created the illusion that the finish line, after so much stalling, was just months away. The reality turned out to be a year before the addition was finished, corrections were made, and we had finished all the other improvements as the renewal kept snowballing. We tackled every problem, even the listing main permanent dock.
Maybe we did the other stuff to kill time when the carpenters disappeared or we waited for deliveries or even new excuses. For example, I remember the night when the electrician missed his long-promised appointment and when we phoned, said he had other work and never even apologized. So Steve Buchanan, the main contractor, did the work, thanks to his rich apprenticeship.
It truly is extraordinary. No matter how much we yarn or joke about it, getting a plumber or a painter to come two days in a row seems an impossible task. They're not even embarrassed. And when they do show, they can arrive late, take a long lunch and leave early, explaining they have to take the boy to ball.And some times the hiccups in their work becomes truly baffling. We had a deck in front of the cottage for weeks without stairs. So Mary wrenched an Achilles' tendon jumping down, meaning she limped through a Russia tour while we wondered if there was any work being done back home.
The problem is obvious. Trades people take on several projects at the same time - because they fear the lean periods - and then fib to everyone that they have no other work. It's standard operation. You call and they lie about coming next week.
You can try being philosophical, saying the best workers always will be the busiest. And there can be good too. They can win you back with careful craftsmanship. In my case, a sensible roof over the door (not in the plans) a pleasant wooden counter for a pass-through between the old and new cottage, and the mantel around the propane fireplace that they created from a picture. (We added it after we got the permit.) Nice work! Then they suggested an additional window, which has worked. They merged a pump house into the new building. And ruling over everything was Buchanan, a talented adviser on colour, walls and flooring.
We had to replace wallboard that rippled because there wasn't a solid base. Their fault . And minor repairs were needed too, but in the end we had a graceful room with an archway into the old cottage and a lovely pine ceiling that is 27' wide and 17' deep. It reaches out to the river with a front wall of six windows, two sliding doors and a deck. When fishing at night on the point, I look back and the great room seems to float in light.
Burnt Point has been transformed. From comfortable dishevelment, with blistered siding and homemade windows, to a main roomy cottage and a bunkie which also has new siding, windows and doors (Ostaco in Markham.) Some environmentalists will grumble that I bought vinyl siding but I saved the old cottage, bunkie and boat house. No waste there. We didn't scrap anything that could be saved, so the old half of the cottage looks like it did when I bought it. And I put a composting toilet in a new small room in the bunkie, and hired Darrell Brunton to come back and give me a new septic field ($2,339) after I got another damned permit ($350) from the conservation authority.
Of course I had to do another site sketch. Thank heavens, my son Brett, armed with his U of T degree in computer science and a couple of decades of tricky programming, kept churning out whatever was the latest sketch or plan needed as we had to complete nine major sets of forms. Occasionally we had to guess at the demand for slope degrees etc. Brett also produced various configurations on his computer, so we could get an idea how things would look and work. I wonder how cottagers without such resources manage to cope. It certainly would add to the cost of construction. As it was, Brett and another son Mark and I did several weeks of work plugging the gaps.Dave Rogers, the building boss, made the last of his three inspections in mid-2008. We were finished, officially. Yet it is only now in 2009 that I feel it's all over. The lot scars have healed and there are flower beds around the new building. There's a wildflower meadow over the septic field, edged by rescued cedar posts and rocks unearthed from the excavation. Even the boat house doesn't lean so much thanks to new studs and beams and a lighter roof. (About $1,000 and a lot of cold work in October.) And its overflow goes to a new tool shed.
Brett even built a treehouse for the grandkids. And they built a chipmunk temple in the Mayan style. More importantly, for t
he women, our only bathroom is new and
looks great. The old one was an embarrassment when we moved in. Even the outhouse looked better.By the time we were done replacing and repairing beyond the new big room, we had spent another $25,000. But the point is now a lovely mix of pleasant old and nice new, which is the way a cottage should be. We built on our past to enjoy our future. And in a few decades our children will do another renewal, and another phoenix will flutter above the point.
One of the nicest tribute came from
the fishermen who love to anchor off my point for the fish who hang just off the main curr
ent. They observed in silence as the trucks came and went. And then came the friendly shouts that they really liked what we had done to the old place. So do the Downings. In the foul fall weather, Mary and I sat in the heat of the fireplace and stared at the waves pounding the point.
We could have been in the mid-Atlantic. There was no thought of going home because now our retreat is one for all seasons. And we no longer
have to procrastinate.


Part Four: The Great Cottage Renewal

Our histories are filled with the lore of buildings, whether great castles or log cabins. Can you imagine trying to build one of those today, whether castle or cabin, without the permission and the endless forms of countless officials? If only....
There used to be jokes about how the Old Testament would play out with today's bureaucracies. Now you would have to get an environmental impact study first before you parted the Red Sea or dropped the walls of Jericho. As for the great pyramid, for get about it.
But back to my stupid idea that since I now knew what I wanted and I actually had cornered an agreeable contractor without an escape route that the rest would be simple.
As a reporter and editor, I have covered every level of government and sat through endless hours about rules 'n' regs and bylaws and codes. Decades of a ring-side seat watching red tape snare us all.
Since I had raised the roof on my modest home in 1979, I knew a trifle about the process. But I had been aided by my architect being friends with the building commissioner and my contractor being a friend.
I was not prepared for what loomed ahead. It was the best of times and the worst of times. Just when I was prepared for an official to growl at me and say no, he was nice, and just when I thought clear sailing was ahead, there was another fee and frustrating form. By the time my phoenix rose from the past, there had been nine major forms and too many drawings and calculations.
Turned out that even if my contractor Steve Buchanan could do everything himself, and we were just building a big room, that wasn't minor enough for the municipal and provincial bureaucracies. I needed real official plans, complete with the BCIN number of an architect or architectural technologist or engineer who would guarantee the building wouldn't collapse about my ears.
I understood the basis for that, to reduce the shoddy, dangerous construction that you could see in old Canada or now in parts of the modern world like Turkey or China. Some of those buildings don't need a lot of help from earth tremors to collapse.
But my cottage could have been transformed safely by Buchanan without a peep from any official. But oh no, you can't build a castle or a cabin or a room without the almight approval of every agency that wants to stick an oar into your project. I even hear rumours about experienced builders without that BCIN who find someone with it to stamp their plans. In effect, renting the number.
Since I had heard horror stories for years about the tyrant building inspectors in cottage country, especially when you didn't use locals, Buchanan, Mary and I booked a preliminary discussion armed with Steve's sketches.
Turned out to be brief and pleasant. Dave Rogers, the chief building official of Trent Hills, gave us advice, thought our plan was feasible, and steered us to call first on the Lower Trent Region Conservation Authority. And he slew the $25,000 dragon for me. He wasn't bothered by the fact that the old cottage "floated" without a real foundation or that we didn't plan to put a foundation under the addition. He said he wouldn't have allowed us to do that in case the two structures twisted at different rates from frost.
I anticipated no problems with the Lower Trent because a few years before, I has asked the authority for preliminary approval. Mike Lovejoy, billed as the Hazard Lands Program Coordinator, had measured the difference between the high water mark and the bottom of the cottage and said an addition was doable.
So I called Lovejoy again, and paid a $200 fee. There was a bit of a glitch because he was annoyed at something I said. And then when he entered into a Dick-and-Jane explanation of conservation authorities, I pointed out that I had been a member of the Toronto conservation authority (and reeve of its Black Creek Pioneer Village) so I knew what they were all about.
I thought we would have to appear before a committee of adjustment because one wall of the old cottage was 40' from the river instead of the municipal setback requirement of 50'. And we were extending that wall. Because the point has an irregular shape, another addition corner would come close to water too.
Except the design's thrust was out the centre of the point. And it was plain it was old river bank and not landfill that happened after the Trent-Severn international waterway was constructed in 1880. The front of some properties are landfill, and expanses of water are actually flooded farm land. In the old days, Burnt Point Bay on one side of my cottage was called Mud Lake after the flooding, but that was dropped because farmers wanted to sell some land..
Lovejoy visited again and gave his approval. I didn't realize how crucial that was until Rogers said he was guided by the conservation officials and if what I was doing was OK with them, it was fine with him.

Now I had to fight with the 2006 Ontario Building Code that insisted I needed drawings stamped with that BCIN.
So I turned to Nigel McLean (McLean Architectural Technologist, Whittle Rd. Mississauga) who grew up on the next street to my city home and had been a pleasant member of the gang that my middle son Brett kept bringing to the cottage to compete in various games, including chugalugging, with a second pack of friends led by my youngest son Mark.
Not only did I not have to explain the cottage and the point to McLean, I figured he owed me for all my rods and lures that he had mangled over the years. And McLean and his staff set to work, armed with Buchanan's sketches and my ideas.
It took six months before the final drawings were accepted by the conservation authority and municipality. Some of the problems just baffled me. For example, the code required a heat loss figure. I reminded Trent Hills it was a seasonal cottage now heated only by a little space heater. But I was putting in a propane fireplace, I was reminded. So I took some whispered advice and dropped the fireplace from the plans, which is easy to do when computer graphics produced such drawings,. The savings for not getting that calculation was around $400 because McLean or Buchanan would have had to hire an outside expert.
I was grateful for any savings because by the time the building permit was issued on June 12, 2007, at a cost of $660, I had paid out $869 for permits and $2,104 for drawings. (And that was a break because McLean gave me a "family" rate. Some professionals will charge 10% of the cost of construction.) Yet there was one hopeful sign. Just when complexity threatened to swamp me, I found McLean or Buchanan had solved a problem with an official without involving me. Thank heavens for small mercies.!
(Next: Hurry up and wait):

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Part Three: The Great Cottage Renewal

Mary and I had boxes filled with cottage dream clippings, a shelf of every issue of Cottage Life magazine, and neighbouring cottagers wondering endlessly whether we were really serious about making the cottage match the charm of the point.
But nothing ends procrastination quicker than a wife who says, by actions if not words, that enough is enough. And Mary was slower than usual in helping to open the cottage, and in late October and November, when the bass and pickerel were really biting but it was time to close up, I was there by myself. In the cold!
Our best bet for a contractor had always been a nice chap who could do everything and was very agreeable except he kept slipping through our grasp. Steve Buchanan (of Buchanan Kitchen and Bath, Lansdowne St., Peterboro) had grown up in Havelock and along with a buddy started building houses.
A great apprenticeship that prepared him to do everything himself, or deal with temperamental carpenters, balky plumbers and haughty electricians. He knew everyone in our nook of the Kawarthas, including the trades to avoid. A good example of his work stood just down our road, a house he had built that his sister now occupied. We became interested when a neighbour hired him several times and praised him, which caught our attention because this was one strange neighbour.
So Steve came around and thought fixing up the cottage and the bunkie would be a cinch. As a sensible fellow, he ignored the boat house. And we had long and pleasant planning sessions before he vanished.
A year later, under prodding from Mary, I phoned Steve on a chilly January Sunday. He said he had some ideas and would fax them within a week. Nothing happened! And so I closed the book on Steve. It became a family legend - the builder who died, the builders who were busy, the builders who wanted too much, the builder who disappeared...
Mary stayed on the scent. She found Steve doing more work for the cranky neighbour and he came over, explaining that he had left the contracting business to design kitchens and bathrooms but now he was back building.
And so, in the warm sun, with the river gurgling by, we drank and dreamed and drafted. I still have his rough sketch on a napkin (I really don't understand napkins at a cottage but Mary disagrees.) Later the design graduated to three sheets of graph drafting paper with rough but sure working drawings. And they resemble what finally was built, after the architectural technologist and the bureaucrats and the forms and the adjustments made in the midst of the hammering and sawing.
What I wanted, I said to Steve, was just a big room out front of the box. The old weather-beaten cottage was 500 square feet (about 46 square metres) and I wanted to double it. I was tired of never having space, whether at my 1 1/2 storey city home or the cottage. Cathedral ceiling. No walls. Fireplace. Nice wood. V front. Deck. An archway into the old cottage where the three home-made windows were. And new windows, doors and siding on the cottage and the bunkie.
And so we entered what I hoped was the stretch run of the restoration of Burnt Point. And this time I wasn't going to lose the jockey, my contractor Steve.
(Next: Hurdling the barricades)


Part Two: The Great Cottage Renewal

Deciding to expand a cottage is like deciding to get some more room in the marriage bed.
At the start, maybe even for a few years, you can put up with so little space that you have to plan ahead just to move a chair.
But then it makes you cranky.
Like when you wake up in the night and wish you had just a little more space on your side of the bed, the happy days of always spooning or sleeping intertwined no longer a daily memory.
My Burnt Point retreat continued to be a wonderful escape from reality, even when zebra mussels waited to inflict paper cuts on feet and hands, even when the water weeds exploded in growth because the mussels had let so much sun through to fertilize the river bottom and change fishing patterns forever.

The days were endless pleasure. My sons and their friends romped from pup tents to the bunkie deck with their beer games and kidding. I hated to interrupt their camaraderie to ask who broke my favourite fishing rod and ran the boat out of gas. The barbecue glowed and the delicious smell of burning grease cut through all that fresh air that makes you sleep an extra hour or two or three.

But in the chill of spring and fall, or when the rain persists, it's nice to have space to snuggle, maybe even before a fireplace instead of the rusting space heater.
And so Mary and I would return to expansion schemes. And I put some money aside, along with hopes that renewing Burnt Point wouldn't be a hassle of red tape, trades folks and bills.
I would go to the shows of Cottage Life and Sportsmen's, Mary would give me catalogues of cottage plans for Christmas (hint, hint), and pull out the latest dream cottage from the Cottage Life magazine. But somehow reading in my air chair was more attractive on a summer afternoon than talking to local builders.
We tried surveying the market. At one point, I contemplated buying a new cottage with a century-old cottage inside, along with a spa and sauna. A lighted tennis court was on the second lot. Wow! Maybe even affordable. But somehow I was now programmed to drive the 189 km from central Etobicoke to my cottage on the Trent south of Havelock (on the river above Healey Falls.) And so we stopped with the hunt, and dreaming up excuses for why everything we looked at didn't measure up to the views from Burnt Point.
My neighbours were no help. Bob Clement, who has cottaged there since the days of Adam and Eve, said why didn't I just bulldoze the cottage and start again. And while I was it, knock down the damn unsightly boathouse. And the bunkie was no hell..
Then Connie and Glen Woodcock built a new house just off Highway 45 and said their builder, a Dutchman who was a whiz at drywalling and just about everything else, was economical and good. So I called him. We drafted a crude plan of a two-storey wing connected with a breezeway. A shallow V. Would cost $80,000, he figured. I gagged.
He said he would be back after taking his wife on an trailer trip through the U.S. Never heard from him. Which didn't quite surprise me since this had happened with several builders at that point
Next spring, I decided to track him down and found that his son was building a house south of Campbellford. Quite nice too.
I kidded the son about his father not coming back and, shocked, he said his father had dropped dead the night he returned from the U.S.
My luck didn't improve. Two builders told Mary that they were booked for two years. Apparently the economy was better in the Kawarthas than it appeared. We talked to an innovator who used straw-stuffed blocks. I worried about what would happen if the Trent waterway flooded but it didn't matter because he wasn't really interested.
When two contractors were working in the neighbourhood, I asked them over for some ballpark estimates. They both hit home runs, estimating that it would cost at least $25,000 just to pick my cottage up to put a foundation underneath before they did anything else. There was a hint they would knock my boathouse down for free.
You see, my cottage and bunkie were "floating," to use the term for cottages who don't have a concrete foundation but are perched on piles or blocks or just the ground.
And so the "floating" term poisoned the planning for several years, the local lore being that the tyrant of a local building official would never let me build anything attached to the cottage without putting in a real foundation first. And so Mary and me put our renovation dream on hold, a $25,000 hold.
(Next- Actually getting shovels in the ground)


Part One - The Great Cottage Renewal

Mary and I sit on our cottage deck with the new room rising like a graceful phoenix behind us. All windows and angles! The beer is cold, the sun is still warm, the Trent sparkles, and our conversation turns again to why we waited so long to revive, or was it more of a resurrection, our old cottage.
We were really the king and queen of procrastination.
When we bought the simple 50-year-old cottage box three decades ago, we were charmed by its location on the point jutting into the broad river. Maybe 350 feet of water frontage around over half an acre, but so irregular in shape that even a computer would have to guess at the figures. But the cottage was too small with just an old pump sucking out of the river for one toilet, two battered sinks and a metal shower stall that may have been old in 1930.. There was a small bunkie with no facilities and a one-slip boathouse that leaned to all points of the compass.
It was the first cottage we ever looked at buying. But it was just too cramped. And so we wended the rest of that Saturday through the Kawarthas looking at cottages in the $45,000 range (remember this was 1980) that had a lot more to offer in space and facilities but didn't perch like a nesting loon surrounded by river.
We kept thinking of the trees and rocks of Burnt Point. And we were moved by its owner. The Kings had loved their retreat and planned to live there most of the time. So they fixed a bit, upgrading from the outhouse that still is hidden in the evergreens. They poured their own patio by the dock. And they spent as little time at their downtown Toronto apartment as possible, even coming in the winter for skating parties and then thawing around a small oil space heater.
But tragically, they were hit by the same curse that strikes too many couples who wait too long to retire. The husband was struck down by leukemia just months into the cottage retirement. And the new widow couldn't bear to live there without him. So three months later, she had some sand dumped to cover the rocky bottom, trimmed some evergreens and listed.
Mary and I were the first couple to see the apple of her eye. At 9 a.m. And her love for it shone through. It trumped the lack of indoors for our three sons. She wanted around $45,000, I offered $39,000 five days after I saw it, we compromised at $40,000 and we moved in two weeks after I first fell in love with Burnt Point. My birthday present!
The legal deal wasn't settled for four months but neither side worried. And I was happy with the extras because Mrs. King moved to B.C. and left behind everything: memories, bedding, even a car top boat with an old Evinrude Fisherman that worked for another 15 years.
The local real estate experts, Connie (Sun columnist) and Glen (big band host on Jazz 91), said I had paid too much. And they had moved all around Toronto, Port Hope and Trent Hills, maybe 14 times. But I didn't listen because I had dreamed about a cottage all my life and now I had one.
Looking back, I wonder about the blissful days. After all, I got about three TV stations if I was lucky. On rainy days, we were on top of each other. There was no phone (and cells hadn't been invited ) so the OPP had to come when relatives died. Then I became the Editor of the Toronto Sun and the new publisher, Paul Godfrey, who gets nervous away from city asphalt, insisted I had to call in daily even on my holidays.
Some things were easy to solve, like hot water. Some were harder, like propping up the boat house. The telephone took longer.
The land over which the line could come was owned by a motorcycle gang boss who refused permission. Godfrey and I worked on everyone from the Bell president to vice-presidents but had no luck. Finally a retired Bell PR man phoned the woman who was in charge of our area and a $54,000 marine line was strung to my neighbours and me. Our problem is we had tried the top of the chain of command without asking those who actually do the work.
It was wonderful. No longer did I have to drive 4 km to a phone booth every morning to try to deal with the latest episode in the newspaper wars. And gradually, bit by bit, life became easier, although I confess nothing was quite so wonderful as satellite TV. Beats endless Scrabble and Monopoly, no matter how much you love those games.
Burnt Point was and is my escape from reality. I could drive the 1.6 km in from the nearest public road, and the trees would slam the door behind me. I could read and fish and swim and snooze, and forget about deadlines and news brass, and that every day of my working life I had to produce a column or editorial and try to pretend I was thinking clever thoughts.
Ah yes, Burnt Point kept me sane. If only it wasn't so damn crowded.
(Next: Salvaging and planning and waiting.)

Monday, November 2, 2009


No Sales Clerks And Unintelligible Call Centres

I searched a store the other day for a clerk. No luck. So I left. No sale!
I called Bell to have my cottage phone turned off for six months. They call it, I believe, interrupted service, which sounds like normal Bell service. Talked to some person for half an hour in some foreign language which was supposed to be English. It should have been a simple understandable operation.
I believe the bank has upgraded our credit card without charge, and there are supposed to be marvelous but unknown advantages, but it will take at least an hour to figure it out. And I just don't have the patience, having dealt with TD-Canada Trust over my internet banking account on three occasions in the last week. My threshold for pain is high, but not that high.
I wrote Sept.3 about my last misadventure with Bell. I called it The Wrong Numbers of Bell. Things haven't improved but then no one, including frustrated Bell staff, figured they would. So Bell will slip into oblivion, just like its old subsidiary of Nortel. I must sell my stock before it falls even more.
I have written about the Sears repairman coming to look at the squeak in the dryer who stalked out without doing a thing after I complained he had parked across my driveway. He said he wasn't allowed to leave his truck on the street. I said it was on the street, only it was across my driveway. Phoned Sears and they were aggressive in his defence. Haven't seen him since, so Sears also won't see a new cheque for their useless service contract.
But then the call centre wasn't even in the Greater Toronto Area. At least it may have been in Ontario. I almost don't mind when the telephone operator that comes on the party line at the cottage when I phone long distance talks first in French. I can understand French better than that last call to the Bell call centre which may have been in India or on the moon or ....
I didn't want to sound racist so I kept apologizing after each of her sentences, saying that I had no idea what she was saying. I am saving my anger for Bell bureaucrats and the cunning merchandisers of Walmart and all the stupid retailers who figure that the way to prosperity is to have as few staff around as possible. And if they can, let's have them in some remote foreign city where people get paid only a fraction of Canadians while pretending to give service as Canadians.
It is time to put the service back in the service industry. After all, it is not as if there aren't many people just aching for a job. Unemployment in this country is 8.4%. It's even higher in Toronto, but the figures don't show it, because we are surrounded by people, especially youths, who have given up trying to find real work instead of just frying on weekends.
Just imagine how many people would be hired if our companies stopped doing everything on the cheap. Imagine how many people would love even a $12-an-hour job instead of just spending the day staring into space.
What we need is our stores and giant companies to start hiring again instead of trying to be lean and oh so mean.
You know what, I would patronize those stores and companies ahead of all the jerk outfits which just want to make a buck and the unemployed are out of luck. Might even pay a bit more for the item, because after all there would be a clerk to serve me.
There should be a Canada label with our lovely flag on it that companies could display when they stopped outsourcing to the Third World. They could display this symbol if they had a decent number of staff. There could be an Internet site where people could squeal on companies that cheat. They wouldn't be able to use the symbol in their advertising if phone calls were answered by machines that told you that real people might be available in 10 minutes or so. Or you have to listen to directories of supposed services.
I routinely use the Internet for info and even to buy stuff. Of course it's economic for companies to use the Internet as a sales and marketing tool. But there are many Canadians, because of age or circumstance, who don't use computers or have Internet links. Why do so many companies ignore that fact in their operation? Why do they make it so difficult to wring service out of them.
I don't mind the absence of staff in Costco because the prices are so low and the quality is so high. But like Tom Friedman of the New York Times, the perennial Pulitzer winner who told in his best seller The World Is Flat how much he hates Walmart because of the primitive cheap way they treat their staff, I don't shop in a chain that relies on sweat shops. (Friedman likes Costco, by the way.)
There are companies making obscene profits which keep firing at the same time. Sun Media makes a lot of money even though , to judge by the empty desks at their flagship operation The Toronto Sun, it acts like it's bankrupt. Just in the morality at head office!
In the Financial Post Magazine's latest survey of Canadian CEOs, Pierre Karl Peladeau is ranked 110th, which seems awfully high. He runs Quebecor, some would say into the ground. Quebecor, which owns Sun Media, had a profit last year of $187,300,000, while Peladeau himself was paid a basic $1.2 million before various goodies.
Wouldn't it be nice to see stories in the newspapers about companies saying they were hiring 10% more staff. Instead we have the reverse, a daily diet of layoffs. And so, in a sour economy, the blight of unemployment is never going to ease because too many companies fire rather than hire. And then some close, because in the end, there are fewer employed people to buy their products.
Answering machines and foreign call centres aren't consumers. But even the humble people who just answered the telephone were. The jerks should bring back the clerks!
The dead hand of all the firings and layoffs doesn't just blight the unemployed. It also has a toll on those left behind, all those at Bell and the Sun who now have to do more, a lot more.
As David King, executive vice president of a staffing firm, Robert Half International, said in a recent National Post interview, their research showed the vast majority of employees being "somewhat happy" with their jobs. But it's not necessarily because they love their job, they just appreciate they have to cut costs because of the economy. When the economy improves, King warns, half of them plan to leave their current employer. Hardly a happy work force, at Bell or the Sun or indeed in the entire country.
Is there anyone foolish enough to think that the 50% who contemplate quitting are running around right now doing a lot of consuming? They just go home at night aching right into their bones with fatigue and become couch potatoes, many leaving the shopping beyond the necessities to the few who are confident about their future.
The foolish few!


Strolling On The Poles And The Moon

I spent an unforgettable Halloween, the new feast day for kids, surrounded by real mummies, authentic shrunken heads and at least one ghost. I wouldn't have been surprised to find among the costumed guests the real Count Dracula licking a death mask.
The location was the downtown loft/museum of the unique Billy Jamieson, dressed appropriately as a barker. The man who helped repatriate the mummy of Ramesses I to the land he once ruled as pharaoh -and there are many other exploits too - but I wrote about them in a Feb. 1 blog titled Come Smell My Shrunken Head. (That's one of my favourite headlines out of the thousands I have written over the decades.)
We were surrounded by the curiousities you used to see in midway museums but there was also, if you had just a routine imagination, the smell of the sea, the vistas of the ice sheets around the Poles, the warm stink of the jungle, and the thrill of walking far beyond the package tours.
I grew up in a town so small - as someone has written - that you didn't have to use your turning signals because everyone knew where you were going. Halloween for me was an old sheet and some coal dust for the face and hands. All I can afford, but no one in Chesley wore costumes like the ones which are routine today. But then Halloween has exploded as an annual event. If we had decorated our houses in the Fifties the way they do in 2009, neighbours would wonder if you should be committed.
So Jamieson's party is the pinnacle of my Halloween experience. To top that, I would have to be taken by time machine back to the sack of Rome.
But before it began, the Ontario-Nunavut chapter of the Explorers Club had a speech and honours presentation. This is a branch of the famous Explorers' Club of New York, the launching pad of countless expeditions and adventures, whose members have walked the Moon and visited the Poles and the deepest trenches of the sea so many times that they talk about it as if they were going to the corner store.
And it all came flooding back as I listened to their tales and the conversation around me of people who trot around the Arctic each summer and wonder about just how many great ruins are still hidden in the mountains around Machu Picchu.
This is the stuff of my boyhood daydreams. I have forgotten all those books about epic explorations that I used to devour. It comes back sporadically, like when I cried when I looked at the diary of Scott of the Antarctic in the British Museum. He perished nearly a century ago. And as Captain Scott succumbed and froze to death, he scrawled in pencil a plea for those left behind to look after his family. And then the pencil trailed off.
There was the movie and the book, and nations of boys who wondered if they had the stuff to walk out of the tent into a blizzard and sure death, as one of Scott's companions did when he didn't want to be a burden.
The guest of honour for the night - detained elsewhere to give an important lecture- was Dr. Wade Davis, described in a major interview that day as a Canadian Indiana Jones. Davis carries a business card saying he is Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic. He worries about our vanishing cultures, about the disappearances of language. He is quoted as saying language is the canary in the coal mine. The world should fear the thousands of languages slipping from its memory.
Tim Leslie gave a speech on the atmosphere from the perspective of a former major who is now director of flying operations for the National Research Council. Among those being honoured was Dr. Louis Fortier, who knows more about the thickness of the ice above Canada than anyone. From the heights to the depths.
It makes me almost ashamed that I am about to lounge on the warm sands of Cuba, sipping the endless drinks, when I should be off on the headwaters of some great river. trying for a glimpse of a tiny tribe that has not yet been spotted or ruined by civilization. But then they might be headhunters and there are enough dried samples of their work around the walls of Jamieson's museum.