Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Stupid Pearson Airport Signage

I went to the airport the other night to pick up Mark, my son who lives and works in China. I prepared for the trip as if I was going in to battle. But it still went bad.
In the distant past, I worked at the airport. Since then, I have travelled hundreds of times to and from it. I am an experienced driver, having survived the rush hours of downtown London, Paris, Manhattan and, of course. T.O. But often my trips out to Pearson (I still call it Malton in my mind) leave me with murderous thoughts about the architects, engineers and signage gurus who turn signs into riddles, all of which have to be solved with limousine drivers riding your bumper.
I went to the Internet to study the plans for the garage at Terminal One because almost all my trips have been to Terminal Three and the vanished Terminal Two with a rep as one of the worst terminals in the world.
The map looks helpful but isn't. I was trying to prevent my habit of parking in the most remote corner from where my passengers emerge. So I saw I needed to go to the south elevator and then scramble. I grabbed my cell phone and a thick book, remembering that I have waited up to five hours for planes that always seem to be on the point of landing but never quite manage to do that.Driving to Terminals One and Three has been an adventure for years because the roads keep changing. And then, when you leave, you have to remember that the inside lane fisappears every 100 yards or so.
Air Canada reported that the flight from Shanghai was only two minutes late. So there I was with plenty of time driving down the road to Terminal One. There was a sign reading that if you wanted rental cars, you kept to the left, and if you wanted Arrivals and Departures, you kept right. But where in heck did you go if you wanted parking? I figured the garage also included rental car outlets so I went left, ending up in a garage with a chain of rental offices. I started driving carefully because in one rental outlet, there was a sign saying that if I backed up, my tires would be shredded.
No sign of any parking garage. I parked illegally and couldn't even find a cop to tell me I was parked illegally. So I made my way back to the enigmatic snarl of roads around the airport and managed to get back to a road leading to Terminal One This time I chose the right, to Arrivals and Departures, and some distance later found a sign for the parking garage.
Now if only the dummies had put the sign back where the first signs were, back when drivers first wanted that info.
Pulled up behind a car collecting a ticket at the garage entrance. Waited several minutes while that driver kept punching the box. Couldn't back up because a car was behind me. The driver finally succeeded. When I took my turn, I found there were two boxes and it was difficult to read anything in the dark.
At this point, the plane should have landed. So I roared through the garage. I left the car near the north elevators, since I couldn't find the south bank, noted the main number and rushed into the terminal, only to wait for 45 minutes. Even when planes are on time, you wait.
The rush came back to bite me when Mark and I couldn't find the car because I hadn't noted all the numbers in my hurry. A cold, angry search because I couldn't find any maps to help me. For the exorbitant charges for the parking (I paid $12 for under an hour) you would think there would be more help. After all, Terminal One cost more than four billion, and inside there are millions in fancy art. The airport is the most expensive one in the world for airlines to use. So there should be lots of money for extensive signage and maps.
Remember that ancient poem "'For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost." The conclusion is that the kingdom was lost because the shoe on the leader's horse was lost in the battle. You know, small actions can have large consequences. These days we call it the 'Butterfly Effect."
My problems that night, including a 15-minute search for a car in a monstrous, costly parking garage, were all triggered by one damn sign for parking that isn't in the right place.
Shouldn't all signage around giant public complexes like airports be tested by people who have no idea where they are? And they have to read any signage with jerk cabbies driving up your rear end? Since the roads in front of the terminals are monitored by cops/guards who threaten you if you pause for too many seconds, the level of anxiety is already high. And if you say the hell with it and take a cab or limousine, you run into attitude and costs that make the airport garage look like a heavenly oasis.
We need to take more trains, except one doesn't run from Shanghai.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Could We Really Handle A Pandemic?

So after the scare, the costly ad campaign, the endless lineups and the constant media attention, Canada, particularly Ontario, is left with an unused flood of swine flu vaccine. Thank heavens there was no pandemic because our health bureaucrats left me with doubts about how they would cope. It makes me fear for the future. Our medicrats don't seem to be able to deal with strep throats, let alone a real problem.
My wife and I with chronic health conditions were turned away from an early clinic because we were too old and maybe had acquired some resistance. Yet the system that turned us away has a surplus of 4.5 million doses of vaccine just in Ontario. Now we're thinking of donating 10 million doses to other countries. Yet there were lineups and people turned away , and then they end up with empty clinics filled with yawning emergency staff and giant coolers stuffed with vaccine.Thank heavens my wife never got sick or they would have had to place a guard around the health minister and the provincial MOH. They both get an F for flunking Emergency 101.
I fear the flu. I have got a flu shot every year since they were invented. I have written columns saying that nurses, paramedics and hospital support staff who won't get the shot each fall should be fired because they increase the danger to the rest of us, particularly the vulnerable sick. I listen to the jerks preaching against any variety of shot and wonder why they are putting my family at risk because they are increasing the risk of epidemics.
There are reasons I get the flu shot. There was a flu epidemic just before World War Two that killed my father, a doctor, through overwork. The Spanish epidemic of 1918-1919 ruined the health of my uncle, also a doctor. It took a year for him to recover. When my first two grandsons were born, both 40-ounce preemies, the hospital wouldn't let us in unless we had flu shots. A sensible precaution. I sat on the board of a chronic care hospital where board members had to get the shot because a flu outbreak could decimate our patients.
I wrote about the swine flu in a blog on Nov. 13 with the headline Snapshots. As I said then, I treasure our health system because all you have to do is listen to the American health care debate to realize how fortunate Canadians are. Trouble is, our system is infected by a cover-your-ass attitude where the health pros seem to care more about liability than treatment.
One problem is the leftist approach by our public health medicrats who have raised political correctness to the dais as the most important goal. Privacy is king. Let's not embarrass people when the kids have funny things crawling through their hair. Take the fact that we were told to call this strain of flu H1N1 so we wouldn't upset the pork producers. So a catchy name was dropped, which meant, I bet, that the slower among us didn't know what in heck they were talking about.
Of course the old days of compulsory reporting of VD contacts etc. are now frowned upon. Remember when doctors nailed a sign to the door to warn the neighbourhood that the kids inside had some infectious disease. My father and other doctors carried such warning signs routinely in their black bag or car.
Those were the days when the fewer number of doctors in this city actually made house calls. But we have made giant strides in medicine, or so they tell us, and now we can line up for hours to get our health care after we drag ourselves to the office. Isn't progress grand!

Monday, December 14, 2009


An Era That Will Never Return

The announcement that the 54-year-old TV soap opera As The World Turns is ending as the last of the soaps slammed a door in my nostalgia. Nope, never watched it. But this ends a phenomenon - entertainment that was the commercial backbone of radio and filled the void on early TV.
Soap operas started in the hungry 30s as a great escape, bloomed in the 1940s, and then evolved to the little screen as TV took its baby steps. They were dubbed soap operas by newspapers. A funny nickname really, combining a basic purchase with an elite entertainment patronized then only by the rich. Oxymoronic!
It is estimated that in 1940, 90% of the commercial revenue of daytime radio came from the giant soap companies. So many housewives listened to the soaps after World War Two that as a boy I could walk down the street on a summer day and not only listen to the same program drifting out of every open window, I knew the time.
If Ma Perkins came on, it was 3 p.m. If it was Pepper Young's Family, it was 3.30. Between the soaps and the whistles from the furniture factories and CN locomotives, there was no need to wear a watch in the town of Chesley up near Owen Sound.
I didn't have a normal boyhood with the radio 60 years ago. My grandmother, who was five foot square and tough, never allowed me to do much of anything, and I certainly never got to turn on the radio. But she did daily, her only escape. In our little house near the tracks, we listened to Jim Hunter with the 8 a.m. news from CFRB, soaps from 11 a.m. to noon, soaps from 3 p.m. to 4. and then Wes McKnight with the news at 6.30. I'm sure I would have been strapped if I had ever tried to listen to the radio shows that my buddies did, like The Shadow and the Green Hornet.
Still burned into my memory is that preamble from Our Gal Sunday about whether a girl from a little mining town in Colorado could find happiness after she married a British lord and moved to Black Swan Hall in Virginia. The soaps were just mindless fluff really, where nothing really happened in each show's 15 minutes, but my grandma, who never left the kitchen and only read the Bible, used to gobble them up endlessly.
The soaps dominated radio and the entertainment of the masses to a degree that will never be repeated. After all, with the explosion in the media, with hundreds of outlets pouring out news and weird reality programming 24/7, any new programming is devoured and becomes a failure in the ratings after only a few seasons. New soaps wouldn't last decades, not unless they had real plots.
Another factor is the giant soap companies that paid for them no longer dominate advertising. The days when every single Canadian knew that Ivory was 99 and 44 one hundred percent pure have passed because we now wade our way through tsunamis of ads and pitches and BS.
I do have a soft spot in my heart for Colgate Palmolive and the two summers that it helped pay for my university. An honourable place to work (I buy their products first) because even when I goofed, they paid me. I was once assigned to make soap flakes (this is really ancient history, isn't it) and fell asleep in the oven heat from the machine on the hottest day of the year. As I drifted away, I punched the wrong button, meaning an entire floor of the old factory on Carlaw was flooded with an inch of liquid soap. Every worker in the company had to help me scrape the floor.
Colgate had then moved on to TV shows, and its big star was Lassie. The company would bring a Lassie to each of the factories to build morale. I lined up to pat one (there were actually a dozen male dogs playing the role) and I later boasted to Grandma about it but she as not impressed. For her, TV didn't have the same magic as when she had to build mining towns in her memory and agonize over faltering marriages, when radio was more than just sports, talk and music.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Moses Znaimer: Self-Appointed Genius

For years if you came to my house, car or cottage, you would listen to either jazz or classical on the radio. These days it's more jazz from Jazz 91 because Classical 96.3 has turned into a propaganda instrument for the glorification of Moses Znaimer and the financial advancement of his lobby group and budding media conglomerate.
Znaimer has driven his word Zoomer into the side of the Boomer generation and intends to zoom his way to fortune and fame, again, on the back of pensioners and classical fans who don't realize that the revived FM station under Znaimer, his AM oldies station, his Zoomer magazine, his CARP lobby and other bits and shows all intertwine like mating octopuses.
Znaimer wants us to drown in ads for Boomers, Zoomers and pensioners (presumably without the zip of Zoomers.
The cross fertilization has Znaimer on the cover of his Zoomer magazine, his sister doing Zoomer reports on 96.3, which are a warmed-over collection of medical reports you've heard before, his wife doing a pleasant show on 96.3 just before midnight, the pathetic news reports on 96.3 suggesting an article several days before by a CARP VP is the most important news in the country, the constant ads for Zoomers to buy car insurance and house insurance through CARP ,... and so on ad nauseam.
Ironically, I agree with much of Znaimer's posturing on behalf of pensioners. And I may even make a bit of money from his incessant self-promotion because the Canadian financial goliath, Fairfax, led by one of the world's savviest investors, Prem Watsa, has bought 28% of ZoomerMedia. And I have too much of my retirement tied up in Fairfax shares.
But it grates on my nerves to listen to a radio station pretend that it's giving news when it's just publicizing another part of the company and its founder's ego.
Woven through everything are the initials CARP. I suppose it once stood for the Canadian Association for Retired Persons but there must be a dictate that it must never be spelled out now. Look at all the material and do a Google search and it's always just CARP. The reason is cynical and obvious. Znaimer has no wish to limit himself to retired people because he wants to sell as many $34.95 annual memberships as possible.
So CARP, we're told, is for people over 50. Yet there are also ads saying it's for people over 45. And I even heard on 96.3 that people who are only in their twenties would benefit from CARP membership.
This is nonsense. What is good government strategy for Canadians who are 25 is not necessarily good for people who are 50, and people who are 50 do not have the same political goals as people in their seventies.
It's not in the interests of people who are 30 or 55 to have pensions increase - unless they are supporting aged parents- because they are the taxpayers who will pay for that added burden.
Lobby groups always want to spread their grasp so they can boast to politicians about how many members they have. Except politicians and bureaucrats aren't stupid. What Znaimer has done now is blunt the impact of his lobby because it no longer represents just seniors. So CARP is larger as a lobby, but has mixed its message.
Znaimer has made an interesting choice in having Susan Eng as the chief agitator for CARP. Eng is a tax lawyer who was a disaster on Toronto's police commission. There are many older politicians who still roll their eyes when they talk about her. No, not because she was a tough opponent but because she was such a dumb left-winger.
I tangled with Eng a few times. I recall the TV debate where she was on the verge of calling me a racist. Except I pointed out that I had been the official sponsor of 43 Vietnamese refugees into Canada. Since she couldn't match that, she tried another gambit.
She is a minority woman with an activist record of piggybacking on causes, so she would appeal to this brilliant promoter who knows all about how to create a useful image, from scrawny pony tail to skeletal visage to boasting about only four hours a night of sleep to monotone delivery of his latest insight.
Znaimer was a boy wonder at the CBC and might still be at his invention, CITY TV, if his ego hadn't grated on his colleagues. He may do well for Zoomers and Boomers, but younger people he tries to grab for his closing act should head for the hills. At 67, aged wunderkind have the problem that they may exasperate most of their audience who will then flee from the boom of his zoom that he knows everything about everything, from a to z, from the abracadabra of his approach to the zenith which may now be passing.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Not Always A Jolly Season

I used to be over six feet and 300 pounds. I had a white beard. And I loved everything about Christmas. Naturally I got pressed into service a lot as Santa Claus. (And if you're still a true believer, just consider me a helper to jolly old St. Nick.)
I've shrunk a bit in height and a lot in weight. I still love Christmas and despise its critics. I'm semi-retired as a writer and as a Santa, but still am ready to strut the stage on occasion.
Looking back, playing Santa wasn't always a joy. A lot of sweat in my eyes, ungrateful brats, and squeezing into costume in failed closets. But generally it was fun standing in for a legend for children (and a lot of adults. There was always a blonde wanting to sit on my knee.)
High on my list of memories is the time I got fired by a jerk and the painful occasion when I almost neutered myself. And then there were those stupid cops....
In the tense days around the Toronto Sun in 1998, when the fear was we would be taken over by the mechanical Toronto Star, the staff was thrilled when we were rescued by Quebecor, not realizing we were jumping into the cannibals' pot.
I had retired as the Editor but remained as a columnist. Only twice a week, which was a breeze compared to the five or six a week I had produced on Page 4 when the Sun first rose. Someone in the Sun hierarchy asked me if I would play Santa and deliver the Christmas bonuses to my former colleagues on the executive floor,
So there I was in my costume, ringing a bell, shouting ho ho hos, and handing out envelopes to department heads and a growing number of brass. I thought as I played postman/Santa that we had certainly grown in execs since the three Sun founders shared one office and secretary.
Yet some key officers were empty.And I ran into the reason at Paul Godfrey's door. Out came Godfrey, the Sun CEO, Trudy Eagan, the COO, several senior people and some male model showing all his teeth.
They looked curiously at me but when I wished them Merry Christmas, Godfrey and Eagan said why it's Downing. And they introduced me to the toothy model. This is the columnist who just retired as Editor. And so I shook hands with Pete Carl Peladeau, who was just starting his reign ruining Quebecor and being the Sun's high executioner. (The stock market rule is to avoid companies where the offspring have taken over from the founder. The Eatons are another example.)Eagan explained that Pete had just bought the Sun. And she said why didn't I come to the second-floor Atrium, where all the Sun's pronouncements were made, and introduce the purchase announcement as a gift by Santa to the great Sun staff.
Everyone muttered agreement. So we loaded ourselves into the elevator on the sixth floor. As we descended, Pete Carl started thinking aloud about how having Santa as part of the announcement sort of detracted from it. So let's not do it. I said it hadn't been my idea and that was fine with me. I punched the button and got off at the third floor. As the door closed, Pete Carl said good heavens, I've just fired Santa Claus. And there was nervous laughter.
So the acquisition was announced in the Atrium, which looks like a stage set. And I stood in a corner, wanting to hear details. Hugh Wesley, then our great chief photographer, was running around trying to organize a different front page picture. He descended on me. recognized my voice and said good, I want to have you and Pete Carl and Godfrey together and you can be pretending to pull the sales document out of your sack. No thanks, Hugh, I said. I've already been fired once today as Santa.
Sun photographers were often my downfall. One year our promotion people and Dave Garrick of the Canadian National Exhibition got the idea of a carol sing at the foot of the Carillon at the Ex, which is too little used. I was to be Santa, and since reindeer were in short supply, the idea was I was to arrive by a small stagecoach pulled by ponies. There was no way for me to fit inside, even without the bag of canes, so I climbed on top. We arrived in a flourish of bells and I went to climb off before several thousand people. The blooming coach was decorated with four big corner knobs on top. And I dragged an important part of my anatomy over one decoration.
I was screaming Merry Chrismas an octave higher than any Santa in history, when photographer Norm Betts yelled that he had to get back to the office immediately and I had to pose with a child for the front page of the Sunday paper.
I was looking around for a child when Betts, impatient as always, grabbed the nearest tot and thrust him into my arms. And I looked into the face of my youngest son, Mark. I would have loved to have my son on the front page, but that was not the best way to grow circulation. Give me another child, I said. Betts said this one is fine. Mark was startled to have Santa reject him in a pushing match with some strange man and was on the verge of tears. I grabbed another child, the picture was taken and Betts roared off, leaving behind one sad tot and a lot of puzzled carolers.
We had 50 pounds of candy canes left over. Needless to say, Mark had all the candy he wanted into the new year. But for years he was always thoughtful around Santa.
Santa should always play it straight. Don't get sarcastic when the little girl says all she wants for Christmas is world peace. Don't get flustered. If the kid is dripping, let the elves handle it. Don't get clever. I remember one Sun Christmas where it was obvious that the child on my lap came from the grinning parents, Chris Blizzard, the columnist, and Dave Blizzard, the computer guru. So you're a Blizzard, I boomed. I felt quite proud of myself. Then Chris told me that her child had left me and said Santa must work with you because he knew my name.
Neighbours asked me to play Santa one Christmas Eve. I don't like leaving the nog that evening. But Mary ordered me to be the merry old gent in the neighbourhood before I became merrier at home. I asked one family to let me walk through their backyard without their lights on to help me create more Santa mystery. Everything was fine until the older brother switched on the lights and, surprised, I ran into a tree, one branch of which hit me in the eye and knocked my glasses flying.
I retrieved my glasses and fled the scene, weeping from an eye. Mary collected me and drove me several blocks to another friend. Here I decided to walk up around the curve of the suburban street and stand on the lawn, ringing bells and wishing Merry Christmas. As I walked along the middle of the street, chiming and shouting ho ho ho at 6 p.m., a cruiser pulled up and the cops asked what I was doing.
At the bay window ahead, the 10-year-old sister to the waiting tot shouted out that the cops had just busted Santa. Her father, a prof but the son of an Edmonton cop, looked out just as I shouted at the two cops to fuck off. I think Santa has told them where to go, he told his daughter. (I wrote about it and the police chief phoned to say he didn't realize he employed two of the dumbest cops in the world.)
I remember the Christmas at a family farm when I walked outside in the dark to help my costume camouflage me but one son announced I was Santa because I hadn't bothered to change my boots. I remember the Mexican resort just before a Christmas when the MC of the evening show pressed me into service as Santa, because my hair and beard were longer in vacation mode. So there I was, sunburned, filled with rum, bouncing kids on my bathing suit who didn't seem to mind my lack of costume. And that's the crucial thing, of course, letting the kids paint in the illusion, trying not to be too cute, trying not to get in the way of their enjoyment of an enchanted bit of childhood.