Thursday, February 11, 2010



I bought my first Toyota in 1972 when it wasn't the world's largest carmaker. I had to explain to friends and neighbours that this exotic Corona was said among car writers to be the best bet for a economical small family sedan to do the gruntwork for many years.
It did too. Survived sons ripping the sides off and other indignities until some time in the 1980s when it was retired as basically a sturdy engine and sturdier transmission surrounded by rust. It had been a gamble, because I don't think you should buy into a car model in its first year.
I drove one of the first front-wheel-drive cars in North America, an Austin 1800. I remember a trip to the U.S. where the attendant checked my oil (now isn't this history) and called everyone out of the sleepy gas station so they could stare at the first engine they had ever seen mounted sideways. Then the starter started sticking and I had to unbolt it and hammer it and bolt it just to start the car. Happened daily, but the repair bill was more than the car was worth.
I drove a Ford Taurus within a month of it being launched as a radical new look and the transmission dropped out two weeks later. Lovely car though.
Over the decades, four of my new cars were chosen Car of the Year. Yet you pay a price until all the bugs are worked out. Yet I thought the Corona was a good bet, even though it seemed a mystery just what year it was in because it was sold under other names in other countries. Now the name has been retired.
So Toyota established a basic trust with me for dependable quality. Still seemed pricier than the more modest offerings of the Big Three.
I drove a series of company cars, from Fords and Dodges to even a BMW. (A deal too good to miss.) But then the Grand Caravan started to limp in my early retirement and I followed my heart back to a 2005 Toyota Sienna. After all, Toyota stood on the pinnacle of being a leader in quality and satisfaction.
It has been a delightful highway car, just perfect for the trips to Florida and the cottage. A bit cumbersome for driving inside Toronto though. I press the old BMW into service because parking then is not an adventure. And only one problem beside routine maintenance. The rods holding the rear door gave up the ghost in the middle of a trip, meaning I had to carry a pipe to prop it open during loading.
Then the slight inconvenience of one of the two sliding power doors freezing shut on occasion became a daily battle with both doors. And the Toyoto dealership who pooh poohed the problem (owned by a friend) was no help. The service adviser said it happened to all vans with sliding doors. And we sprayed the rubber with silicone. Both doors were frozen within an hour.
For weeks, people had to scramble in the back. My veteran mechanic advised pouring hot water down into the gaps, and that generally worked. Or I poured quarts of windshield washer fluid. However, I didn't feel like going around pouring boiling water and alcohol on the sides of my van. Not great for the paint
I found out after hours on the Internet that there were frustrated Toyota Sienna owners in every cold nook of the world. They were furious that Toyota refused any help or solution for a problem that had existed since 2004. Safety concerns were cited, like a family trying to get out of a Sienna with frozen doors after an accident. Perhaps they were supposed to wait for any flames to thaw the doors.
My disappointment in Toyota was of the variety where the great beauty turns her face to you and you discover an ugly blotch. You shake your head and wonder how that was allowed to happen. How can the largest and best car maker in the world not care about a problem every wintry day that drives Sienna owners into a fury?
And then I find that Toyota hasn't led the world in flaw-free production for some years. And then comes the recalls, the hundreds of thousands of recalls, and they don't exactly spring forth in response as quickly as they should. So there were 8.5 million drivers at various stages of anger and the goliath moved at a grudging pace.
When the big boss finally makes his apology, there's the stiff bureaucratic crackle of the old Japan which feels superior to the world and refuses to allow any foreigner to become a citizen.
Toyota has slipped from the peak and can never climb back despite all the PR tricks. You never forget major hassles with your cars. I remember all of mine going back to my first, a 1930 Model A Ford bought for $75 and sold for $80.
Toyota may well continue to make the best selling models in the world and it and Ford will be the car companies to imitate in the immediate future. But you can't have recalls of this staggering magnitude without giving doubts to millions.
And when you make so many cars, it's inevitable you are going to have cars with chronic problems beyond the recalls. There are former Toyota fans like me who come out of the house on wintry mornings and when the damn doors won't open, bow deeply towards Tokyo and curse.

P.S. Things have just kept getting worse for the fallen icon of the automotive world. It's as sad as watching GM founder under all the goodies that the unions negotiated away from the incompetent managers for decades.
Turns out that there wasn't just a problem with the cars but with the managers. Their arrogant disregard of faults that have existed for years verge on the criminal, and they deserve everything that the governments of North America, indeed the world, throw at them in the way of fines and sanctions and public condemnations.



People around the Florida pool can be as insistent as the emails from Toronto about opinions on the Toronto mayoral mess...I mean race.
Offering views from this distance can have dubious accuracy, like trying to pick out what's in a garbage dump using binoculars. But at least I don't get the stink.
I wait for the ninth innings, stretch runs and fourth quarters before I can get a good sense of winners. I feel the same about major political races. While I, like many in the media, used to fill space with punditry long before the election day, I always warned there can be many a slip between the cup and the lip, and this was before the days of sexy text messages that could be used to betray anyone for a little glory.
It makes little sense in February to predict what's going to happen in November. Let the mud wrestling go for a few months. Let all the extra sexual partners declare themselves. Let the socialists messiahs of the Star declare their candidate and then get into bed with them in a political menage a trois. Let the Laschingers and the Leans and the Gossages that now infest these races run around with their bloated rhetoric. And after all the shit and the experts hit the fan, maybe we will have a glimmering.
One thing's for sure. The best guy never entered the race. And while I can say good for John Tory and his family, I say bad for Torontonians trying to keep their head above the cess pool of taxes. We needed Tory more than the slipping radio audiences of CFRB.
I am not assuming we have seen all the candidates yet. After all, as is evident from these guys, just about anyone can run. Experience isn't considered essential. You need experience before you get a licence to drive a car but not before you run for mayor.
I was on the subway a few months ago in the morning rush when Adam Giambrone got on with a woman. I watched them chat. (No, she wasn't the woman with him when he announced for mayor.) I was curious only because he was the first TTC chairman in 50 years that I didn't know. I used to talk to some chairmen several times a week. I became such an expert on the TTC that I was asked to write its official history and turned down a senior post.
Those days are long gone but I still care about the TTC. Its problems are obvious and its union is difficult. But going to an all-politician board has added to the subway rust and the surly staff.
And the boy wonder who had been national NDP president seemed more bureaucratic shell than inspirational leader. It's a wonder he was a lover, although the NDP on a per capita basis have been the greatest stickmen in Canadian politics, as they know all the way to Rideau Hall.
I urge you to snicker away the gushings of Patrick Gossage about the courage that Giambrone displayed in this farce. He lied to the largest newspaper in the land. He lied to at least one mistress. He lied to his live-in. I think that is the most shameful thing of all. She must have know what he was, and went along, but then he confessed to at least one young buxom temptress that he was only living with this woman for political reasons. What a jerk!
And obviously he attracted jerks to work for him because one is quoted as saying that all Canadian men should consider what they've done before attacking Giambrone. No we don't.
I've never been that sleazy, even though I covered politics for 50 years. And most decent Canadians would think it was creepy to act like Giambrone, as if all the world's a stage and you can do anything upon that stage if it furthers your career. Even lie to your supposed beloved.
City Hall, like any larger collection of ambitious men and women, has testosterone mist flying out of the reflecting pool out on the square. There are affairs, babies, mistresses (I can't help it, I'm attracted to his power) seducers and horny men who massage every girl within reach.
There was the ugly alderman who lasted at two levels of politics despite having a baby with another married politician. Didn't bother insiders who gave her a major appointment. Then he coupled enthusiastically with a colleague's wife who later became a power in her church.
So there's hope for Giambrone. He should be bounced from the TTC but if his ward decides to put up with his shenanigans, he may rehabilitate himself in a few years. Voters will forgive, but no they won't forget. Nor should they have to.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010



I remember the trips to Florida when we loaded up on fruit the minute we crossed the state line. Now I spend my time trying to give away bags of grapefruit.
I remember the amazement of a friend from Toronto when I refused her shopping bag of grapefruit. This was a few years ago and the news had not yet spread, certainly not a popular subject in a citrus state, that grapefruit was not healthy but harmful for those on various prescription drugs.
In fact, it had proven to be deadly for too many people after the harmful side-effects were discovered in 1989.
For the millions on Coumadin (warfarin), where the INR is monitored on a weekly or monthly basis, and is expected to be between 2 and 3, even missing one regular pill of 5mg or doubling up can knock the INR for a loop.
INR stands for a gauge of the slipperiness of your blood, and if you have heart problems like atrial fibrillation, it's your shield against heart attacks. So when patients regularly enjoying big juicy grapefruits (with sugar) for breakfast started toppling over in the middle of Florida vacations, the entire world started paying attention.
Perhaps the natives of Barbados knew something because after it arrived there from its birthplace in Jamaica, it was called the forbidden fruit.
There was nothing forbidden about it in North America before 1989 because when the ladies-who-lunch gathered to stretch before the mirrors, they compared notes on their grapefruit diets.
Newspaper women pages would recirculate the grapefruit diet every few years, alternating with the cabbage soup diet. Doctors raised their eyebrows but mostly recommended moderation.
Turned out it should have been abstinence, for patients on warfarin and many other prescription drugs where grapefruits exaggerate the impact.
There are some readers who will say they have known this for years. Every doctor and pharmacist warns you. They say warning labels are pasted on prescription vials along with the ones about take with water or without food etc
All I know is that I have been fleeing to the sun of Florida, Cuba and Mexico every winter since 1997 and there are always a few sun tanners around the pool with bulging bags of grapefruit. And they are indignant when you refuse.
I arrived to meet my new landlord and immediately offered him a sack of fruit that I had been given despite my rejection. No thanks, he said, my mother-in-law has a tree. I can't eat them, I said. Neither can I, he replied.
Right now, the U.S leads the world in production of the fruit, followed by China. So there's a task for all the food engineers who want to expand the markets. Produce a safe grapefruit. After all, I always liked the grapefruit diet, not that it ever worked.

Sunday, February 7, 2010



I last wrote about a shuttle launch on March 22, 2009 under the headline A Shuttle of Past Glories. So when son Mark, home from living in China, wanted to drive across Florida to see the launch scheduled for 4.39 a.m Feb. 7, a chilly Sunday morning, it seemed a great family adventure.
After all, Mark said, there are only going to be four more, and none at night when it seems a giant celebration candle has been lit to lift our spirits.
And I still felt a trifle guilty about the launch a year ago. Good heavens, all I had to do was turn
my head and there the tower of flame was. No planning. I didn't know it was about to happen on a pleasant St. Petes Beach evening when I was seeking relief from the noise and smoke of a condo party.
But when it came time to launch this Downing adventure, I felt a little under the weather, no make that 40 fathoms down.
So Mark set off on his own. After all, he's a man who plowed through the 1,000 difficult pages of James Michener's book called Space when he was only about nine. He cared more about the space race than I did, and knew more about it.
Mark said the trip was easy, through Tampa and around Orlando to the magic place names of space documentaries and media glories. About 250 km, but the traffic did get busy towards the end. Florida may have been in the countdown of the Super Bowl too but there was veterans of many launches already in position and waiting for a few seconds.
Mark found a deadend road lined with the eagerly waiting and was nicely in position when the dreaded news of the postponement spread like the stink from a dead fish. Back at the condo, I staggered out of bed and just made it past the TV when my wife said it was postponed with only a few minutes to go. I cursed. My son had flown from China to Toronto and driven with us to St. Petes, and then driven back across Florida only to be done in by clouds and winds.
Mark was not discouraged. Back he went the next cold morning, determined to capture a bit of history. And this time, he saw, thank heavens. He grumbled about how everyone but one other person had left in the seven or eight minutes before the flame disappeared. They make all that effort and then their attention span splutters out after a few minutes.
I am relieved to report that even though I didn't know the launch was a few minutes earlier than the first attempt, I did manage to make it to the balcony when the TV said this was the final minute of countdown. I shivered in the cold, looked to the east, and there it was. What a sight! I watched it to the last too, a little embarrassed I had almost missed the grand spectacle after Mark had spent so much time and effort to get his view.
But then my record on space is spotty. The family were in a motel on a trip to Florida the night of the lunar landing. I was exhausted. I kept coming too just long enough to see the crucial parts but then I would fade into sleep again. I've always felt guilty about that. But at least Mark has retrieved some family honours with 12 hours of driving.