Tuesday, November 30, 2010



The piano notes poured over me like I was under a waterfall in Cottage Country. I relaxed and enjoyed with all my cares drowned by the music.
Then I heard it. Some damn person was humming to Chopin. It's bad enough when Toronto Symphony patrons crinkle programs or candy wrappers as if they were home on the couch. Or when they comment loudly to companions during lulls. But some idiot near me was humming to the chords, and I wasn't even sure they were on key.
I sit in the front row at Roy Thomson Hall in the seat closest to the soloists. I outlined the history of my tickets in a blog on Sept. 1, 2009 titled Erich Kunzel's Amazing Memory. (I told then of actually playing with the TSO and conducting it in very, very brief moments. I was tempted to inform the snotty usher of that when she told me recently to take my program off the stage edge as I stood during a break because that was only for, and she paused theatrically, "the artists.")
From my vantage point, I know which soloists sing in bare feet under the evening gown. I watch the hairs of the bows fray as the players saw away. Pianist tend to stare right into my eyes as they play. I'm so close that I can see that string players all wear their rings on the right hand.
I wondered during the humming if conductor Peter Oundjian ever felt compelled to turn and glare and hold a shushing finger to his lips. After all, he asks patrons to keep their coughing down when a record is being made of a performance.
I looked closely at the pianist, Andreas Haefliger, as he tinkled and pounded his way through Frederic Chopin's Piano Concert No. 2 in F Minor, OP. 21. Would the humming intrude on him despite his fierce concentration?

I don't know whether it was in the Larghetto or the Allegro vivace parts when I figured out that it was the esteemed pianist himself who was doing the humming. Then Mary confirmed that as the intermission began.
I'm sure there are classical experts who have many examples of musicians getting so wrapped in the music that they feel compelled to vocally egg on their instruments. I'm not a music expert, just a lover. I have trouble keeping track of composers and their works. But even I remember Glenn Gould, the eccentric genius from Toronto, who rebelled from concert performances and became the introverted control freak of studio recordings. Despite the care he took with every note, he became notorious for the singing and muttering that accompanied his playing. Just listen to his recordings of The Goldberg Variations which launched and then secured his world fame. You can hear him muttering over the Steinway keyboard from his slouched perch in that battered sawed-off chair.
I was tempted to call up to Haefliger, who has made some popular recordings too, and ask after his bows if he was aware of his muttering and did it encourage him. However,
in the formal structured world of classical music, where, for example, junior players never dare talk to the conductor god, such impertinence on a mere patron's part may have led to a lifetime ban.
As I write, I'm listening to Classical 96.3FM which hasn't yet been ruined by the incessant promotion of its owner, Moses Znaimer. It appears that the staff's pay is based on just how many plugs they can voice on air for Znaimer and his prospering CARP empire. (I wrote about this on Dec. 8, 2009 under the logical title of Carping About CARP.)
One of the good changes under Znaimer is listeners can request their favourite music. It's Bill's Classical Juke Box. A man just phoned in to Bill Anderson, said he was blind and that his guide dog loved baroque music. Could the station play any baroque music that it wanted because the guide dog hadn't indicated a favourite?
What a nice moment to listen to some nice music being played mainly for a dog. Later there was a comment on air about another guide dog that liked to hum. I missed the wonderful details about the public reaction as the dog led his master around and hummed happily.
As a kid reporter, I did my share of being dispatched to listen when readers phoned in to say they owned a dog that could sing. Some did... a bit. Then there were singing dogs, supposedly, on the Ed Sullivan show. I can recall that my friend, Ralph Pohlman, the irascible psychiatrist, had a wonderful dog which actually did sound like it was singing even before I had a few rums
Whether a dog is humming or singing or growling is really something that each listener has to determine for themselves. As someone has said, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the noise from an animal is in the ear of the beholder. On my recent visit to Romania, I never did get a chance to interview one of those dogs that Romanians claim are humming and others think are giving muffled growls.
I like my sounds straight up. Dogs should bark and pianists play and if they want to do a little freelancing when it comes to utterances, all they will get from me is surprise that they didn't stick to the conventional script. Of course Glenn Gould is the exception!

Monday, November 29, 2010



It's the lazy approach to politics. Instead of worrying about all the pieces in the jigsaw of government power, the voters worry only about the boss of it, the person they think holds the jigsaw.
So we had a municipal election that for most voters and the media was simply a contest between Rob Ford and George Smitherman and not the hundreds of other candidates for mayor, councillor and school trustee.
It's an old gag in Canada that voters emerge from the voter's booth waving the ballot with puzzled air and demanding to know where is the name of the person they want to elect PM or Premier, not having figured out that can only be the choice in several ridings, and that the PM or premier only gets power if they have most of the MPs or MPPs whose names are on all the other ballots.
Of course, after the elections in the senior levels of government, the voters and the media pay the most attention to the leader and, to vary a cliche, the ordinary MP or MPP is not known 100 steps away from the Parliament Buildings or the Legislature, and too many of them don't even feel they have recognition or power within the buildings.
The municipal election focussed almost completely on the views of Ford and Smitherman. Since election day, the talk is all about what Ford will do. There is the occasional story about the plans of mere councillors for the TTC or in environmental and cultural areas. But there's been drowned by the attention to whom Ford is going to choose to be committee chairs or to run important bodies.
Let's not forget that Ford is only one of 45 votes on Toronto council. With his perceived and real powers, he leads the most important voting bloc. Yet he still needs the support of 22 councillors to pass anything important.
It has always been that way in Toronto because even though a "strong mayor system" has been thrust upon it, Ford still doesn't have many of the mayoral powers of the United States where strongmen have flourished in New York, Chicago and all the other big cities.
There are many who wish the Toronto mayor had more powers. Count me out! Just look at the damage to the basic infrastructure of Toronto because Dave Miller was so busy dancing on the world environmental stage, he forgot to fill the potholes.
The people who I join in opposing a strong mayor system point out that it's fine if you get a great man or woman, but what happens if you get a lemon. You can't just make lemonade.
I summarize the argument here by reciting one of the common sense rules of life : Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
Ford has promised as his term comes to an end to deal with the size of council, perhaps cutting the number of councillors in half. Council should also decide to reduce the term from four years to three, because the first four-year term was hardly a success. I also think council and Ford should consider reducing some of the powers under our modified strong mayor system.
In 2003, the Toronto Board of Trade, to its credit, established a task force examining City Hall governance. The membership was led by Mike Wilson, the former finance minister and U.S. ambassador, Al Leach, the provincial municipal minister who brought in amalgamation, and some who had been powerful insiders at City Hall as the clerk and CAO.
Most task force members favoured Toronto adopting a strong mayor system and a longer four-year term. They argued that this would allow a mayor to implement the platform upon which he had been elected. As the only media member of the task force, I was pleased to have some former City Hall senior bureaucrats argue along with me that there were dangers in giving too much power to a mayor. He or she should have to persuade a majority of the councillors. The mayor shouldn't be able to impose the will of the office.
We also saw value in having a deputy mayor elected in each of four sections: Etobicoke/ York, Toronto/East York, North York and Scarboro. They would form a cabinet with the mayor. The position would also be a launching pad for good deputies to challenge the mayor at election time who now has the incredible advantage of being the only politician elected previously in a race over all 22 ridings.
Our report got lost in the process. I last wrote about it on July 28, 2008, under the blog headline Overdosing On Powers At City Hall.
Cub reporters are told not to write many stories about political process because most readers have little interest. Process stories are covered by the cliche that you should never watch sausages being made. Trouble is, that's when the horse-trading is done, in the backrooms, in the tedious progress of any bylaw or law through the political machine.
Tinkering with council's structure is process, not seen as important as the future of the TTC, police staffing and decayed roads. But unless we have a more efficient council in dealing with the city's needs and the voters' wants, it's a little like asking a carpenter to renovate your kitchen while leaving most of the tools in the truck.

Sunday, November 28, 2010



The fact that we pay more for our dairy products, poultry, meat and other foods than the Americans just across the border was shoved into our face again, like a pie hitting a clown, with the kerfuffle over bringing more than one frozen turkey into Canada.
It had been reported that you couldn't even bring in one turkey without paying duty. Nope, Toronto Star readers objected, you can. The feds confirmed that, but warned if you try to bring in a second one, that would end up costing you 154.5% in duty besides the purchase price. (Let's not forget that .5 per cent because our government is always determined to get every last cent.)
Oh yes, you also need a special form from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Turkeys have been big news recently. Not only did all the American news come basted with turkey gravy for a week or so, there were more announcements that turkeys may be an incredibly stupid bird, and they've been bred so they're too top heavy to walk easily, but their meat is healthy as well as tasty.
Of course there is always the publicity over the U.S. president "pardoning" two turkeys. When I first saw that on an hilarious West Wing TV show, I thought it was a clever writer's gag until it turned out to really happen. An unpopular president pardoning turkeys is an early Christmas gift for stand-up comics. The gag for Jay Leno was that the bird pardoned by the president went on to commit a crime.
An official for the 546 turkey producers in Canada said that charging duty on two or more turkeys is needed to make sure our producers make money.
If that sounds familiar, you have heard similar arguments over the years when the media spotlight that we pay more for milk, eggs, poultry, cheese, pork, beef - and the list stretches over the horizon - because our Canadian producers have to make money.
Since many of our family farms have evolved into larger agri-businesses instead, one wonders why our giant farm businesses can't compete better with the multi-national farm goliaths south of the border. Aren't we just helping huge corporations rather than a farmer with a mixed 100-acre operation that used to beroutine in Canada until they vanished under the huge cost of land and machinery.
Why do we have to pay duty if we bring in more than 20 kilograms of any fresh, chilled or frozen poultry or meat for personal use?
My mini headline about who is looking after the food consumer is an issue that has bugged me for decades. I remember in 2001 writing about the stats in a speech by the federal agriculture minister which appeared to indicate that the value of what our farmers produced was equal to the government aid that they received. Why, I wondered in a column, don't we just forget about helping the farmer and enjoy the lower food prices when the support levels were removed. I waited for the reaction about how I had misinterpreted the figures but there wasn't a peep.
In 1990, my son John Henry, working as a consultant to Small Business Ontario, which was a creation of the provincial trade ministry, completed a study of cross-border shopping in a number of cities near the border. He found that a Canadian Tire store in Cornwall was selling a popular Nintendo video game at a lower price than any store just across the border, yet local customs records showed that between 30 and 40 of those games each day were being imported by shoppers. We're so used to bargains there than we really don't shop around here.
My son now lives in California and daily enjoys the lower costs and better service. He says a major reason Ontarians shopped in the States two decades ago was the cheaper gas and the cheaper booze because our government taxes on them are so much higher. Our booze is also more expensive because our brewers and distillers must buy their grains in Canada even though they are cheaper in the U.S.
Even our bread costs more. That is significant because there are countries like Egypt where the price of bread is kept as low as possible to keep the people happy. The same thing happened there thousands of years ago, and beer was included too. In countries like Japan today, their staple of rice is not only not taxed, the production is subsidized heavily to make rice cheap.
The turkey should be the icon for the needed debate into why Canadians have to pay more for their food than Americans, even in restaurants. After all, its nickname is "gobbler," after the call of the male. And we all know that "gobble" is not a nice term for devouring.
Which leads me to accuse the federal and provincial governments of gobbling our taxes and not being ashamed that they care more about rural voters than city voters.
Who speaks for the Canadian consumer? No one! Even the consumers' associations and food critics are brushed aside by the marketing boards who have captured the politicians and all the officials who probably used to work for the marketing boards.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010



I really like foreplay too, but I wanted your attention.
I also like puns more than jokes, mainly because too many punch lines have become predictable due to the tsunamis of email jokes flooding the Internet.
I also confess that when I coin a word, if anyone actually can claim to do that in the English language, I tend to write it into the ground. Long-suffering readers know that Grits are often "gliberals" for me, and that I've reached the "anecdotage" of my life. Hopefully, that's only the sixth stage and not the feeble last one listed by Shakespeare in the wonderful "all the world's a stage" lines in As You Like It.
I claim to be the first to dub Mel Lastman "supermouth." You know, the mouth that roared, the first mayor of Toronto's amalgamated city. The Bad Boy of excited language. Nooobody could gush or goose the language like Mel.
I remember that in my 1970s crusade for streetcars, I popularized the term "red rocket." (I don't think I would do that today because buses and reserved lanes are the better way.)
Nope, I didn't dream the rocket imagery up, some streetcar buffs did, but they told me at lunch. So I'm credited by historians in this fight with making most Torontonians familiar with the term by using it so often in my columns.
Before the explosion of media, a term spoken in the 1940s, like "Big Blue Machine" to describe the Conservative party in Ontario, could linger unnoticed for two decades before it became part of political language.
Not today. There are so many columnists, bloggers and talking heads that a word can become common in commentary in days. Think of "refudiation."
Then we have great speeches, like JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you," which really are echoes of speeches given decades or centuries before. Not that that should detract from their inspiration, luster and fame.
Towards the end of each year, we are treated by writers and newspapers to new words, puns and bastardizations from 2010 that may have been said before. But so what! Yet any person who believes that he or she was really the first to say anything is living in a fool's paradise.
The Washington Post has printed a clutch of neologisms (which are funny alternate meanings for familiar words) and entries in a contest where you are challenged to add, subtract or change one letter to give a word a great new twist.
Why do I think about "gliberals" when I survey some of the neologisms. There's "glibido" meaning all talk and no action. And "intaxication" meaning your euphoria at a tax refund before you remember it was your money to begin with. And "cashtration." And "bozone" meaning what surrounds stupid people to block bright ideas. And "sarchasm" meaning the gulf between the authors of sarcasm, who are often political commentators, and the people who don't get it.
But enough of politics and "gliberals" with their "glibidos."
I like several of the Post's nelogisms. Such as "flabbergasted" for being appalled at how much weight you've gained. And "willy-nilly" for impotence. And "balderdash" for a rapidly receding hairline. And "coffee" for the person upon which you cough.
There are also lists of words that should be retired. They include "closure, outside the box, shovel ready, czar, sexting and teachable moment." I would also like to scrap "junk" in favour of the honourable expression of "family jewels." And politicians should stop talking about "working Canadians" as if it's one group because that's almost all of us.
And then there are lists of the nicest words, which often have touches of onomatopeia - where the word has the sound of what it's describing, like thunder. You find "bucolic, dalliance, redoubtable, comely, demure, fetching and lithe." Ah yes, remember those comely lithe cheerleaders who turned out to be redoubtable when you wanted a dalliance in a bucolic setting.
A cousin, David C. Prescott, Esq., who grumbles if I don't give him credit, sends along the winning entry in the University of Arkansas annual contest for the most appropriate definition of a contemporary term.
This year's term was "political correctness." The winner wrote that it is a "doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end."
If you have coined some concoction of letters into a great word, or have a great definition, send it to me. I promise not to claim it for my own for at least a ....month.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010



The line is that figures lie and liars figure. Let's change that to Hydro lies and Hydro figures.
The public fury at Ontario Hydro bills is real and justified. There are just too many horror stories. And I will tell you one of them, and throw in another for dessert.
They're not as huge as some of the bills I've heard of. But I can authenticate every detail. It leads me to believe that we need an electric ombudsman until we can wade out of this mess, ignoring all the Hydro hype about all these smart meters and great hours to do the wash because the costs keep rising no matter what we do.
Or we should start legal action in small claim courts.
Because math teachers will testify that I am challenged arithmetically (I needed 12 courses to qualify for university) I keep every bill. And when my math seems dubious, I ask one of my three sons to double check, and if they grumble, I point out who financed their five degrees.
So I say confidently that Hydro has stolen from me on at least two of my three accounts.
I am not mollified about this promise by the sinking McGuinty Government to give us a 10% discount for five years on Hydro bills, not when those bills are supposed to rise almost 50% during the same period because of decades of stupidity, overspending, failed projects and flatulent management of the provincial utility.
Besides, since we own Hydro, this is just robbing from us to pay us, with the middle men of Hydro living obese lives. I had a secretary who had worked at Hydro. When I said no to some office equipment, she said that at Hydro she got anything she wanted. And so did everyone, from the army of PR guys with their fat expense accounts to the men who designed the huge generation projects that always cost two or three times more than estimated.

I have two meters at the cottage because my bunkie used to be a separate property. To eliminate that meter and link to the main cottage is hardly easy because the estimates and bureaucracy, from red tape to the waiting, multiplies a simple project into a costly one.
For years, my cottage neighbours and me have howled more about our Hydro bills than a wolf pack at a full moon. And it just got worse.
Last year, I paid $209.72 for service to the bunkie. Much of that was monthly charges of around $15 even when the electricity had been off for months. Just how much did I use? Well, Hydro says it was 610 kWh, of which 560 came in one monthly blow. As a result, I got a form letter saying that because I had used more than 500 kWh in 2009, I had exceeded the limit for the lowest system of billing for "secondary service" and would no longer be exempt from a monthly service charge. (So what were the monthly charges I was paying even though the bunkie was closed?)
The damning thing about Hydro's calculation is that it indicated I was consuming power at a rate two to three times what I had in previous years. Seems suspicious!

This year I have paid $199.38 for electricity for the few times that the bunkie was used. Oh yes, the consumption, according to Hydro, was 97 kWh for the year.
Gee, I said to a Hydro guy on the phone, doesn't that seem strange to you? Last year you claim that my consumption was six times higher, and that consumption also was several times higher than previous years.
So I go back to the lowest rate, I asked? Nope, he said, we don't know whether we're doing that any more. The way he talked, I asked if they still intended to provide any service. Oh yes, he said. Which, I guess, is a relief.
A friend who has a year-round cottage/home at Stoney Lake said he phoned Hydro about a huge bill, much larger than mine, and was told that it might be a neighbour running an extension cord into their property when they weren't around.
"But I live on top of a cliff," he said.
I feel like pushing our electric bureaucrats off a cliff.
The charges for the main cottage also are baffling, and I have suspicious thoughts about its fancy new meter that arrived early in the year. (The billing for the bunkie ignores the arrival of its new meter.) The main cottage last year used only a mystifying low of 327 kWh. Yet the annual charges were $736.68. This year the consumption was said for the summer period to be an incredible 2,202 kWh, with total consumption for the year at 2,719. The charges so far are $976.24 but I'm sure there will an ugly Christmas gift of another bill even though no electricity has been used since October.
So let me give you the executive summary, particularly for Hydro officials who are easily confused. There were no major changes in use for the two years. But last year Hydro claims I used more power in the bunkie than the main cottage. This year, it claims, I used eight times the power in the main cottage that I used last year.
Something's screwy in Cottage Country, and it's Hydro that is turning the screw into us. And it's not just in Cottage Country. In Toronto, I have paid $1,300 for electricity in 2009 and the same this year and I'm away more than I'm at home. I must see if the neighbours are sneaking in extension cords.
When I was a kid reporter, you knew you had arrived when you were invited to the big two media Christmas parties, one thrown by the vanished Eaton's empire and one by Hydro. Hydro wasn't exactly popular. One year each of us got an electric warming tray in addition to the Hydro banquet and flowing bar. Yet many overly-refreshed scribblers still threw buns at the Hydro chairman, W.E.P Duncan.
Next year there were no buns so they sailed slices of bread like frisbees. Hydro gave each of us a frozen turkey. One police beat reporter was stopped by a cop on the way home, got exasperated at the questioning, and erratically hit the cop over the head with the turkey. A deputy chief warned that some day he was going to do something really bad and would be charged.
Obviously 40 years ago we should have been throwing more questions than buns and bread at Hydro chairmen. I just hope we don't keep paying for Hydro's huge accumulated debt for the next 40 years.

On the last day of 2010, I received three Hydro bills for a total of $600. The bill for the bunkie said I had used only seven kWh after the meters were read on Sept. 8. The charge was $74.24. I guess it would have been cheaper to use batteries to light the place. The charge for the main cottage was $195.41, and I wasn't there nearly three months of the time.

Monday, November 22, 2010



After 53 years in journalism, I have no idols but some great favourites. I have interviewed some of the most famous people in the world, but have never asked for an autograph. I treasure my memories instead, but I have just been reminded that memories can leak through the holes of your nostalgia like bathwater leaving the tub.
Some of that, of course, has to do with seniors' moments, which apparently expand as old farts age. I have just read that one of my great favourites, Nora Ephron, who is only 69, also can't remember some of the more notable events of her life, like meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, Cary Grant and Dorothy Parker.
Now I am at the melting Swiss cheese stage of my anecdotage, where if I had had a drink with Parker at the old Algonquin in New York, I may not remember that repartee but would still be able to quote some of her great lines. Like "women and elephants never forget." Or "you can't teach an old dogma new tricks."
I remember interviewing an explorer who says he found Noah's Ark but not his name or anything else. (He gave me what he said was a splinter from the ark, which is lost somewhere in my home along with a mummified finger (don't ask) and my first wedding ring.)
I remember interviewing Sir Edmund Hillary and remember that he was a bluff genial sort, but apart from asking the predictable question about whether he or Tenzing were first to the peak of Everest in 1953, I can't recall anything beyond the reply that they climbed as a team.
For 15 years I was a member of the prestigious International Press Institute which met in difficult foreign locales for press freedoms and always attracted the cream of national leaders plus a smattering of Nobel laureates, former PMs etc. Most of them are a memory blur, and only if I refresh myself with old notebooks from the basement does their voice and thoughts come back...a bit.
Ephron's latest book of musings, I Remember Nothing, deals with how seniors' moments have become the Google Moment of our time, because of the irrevocable forgetting of names and faces. One example for her? She no longer knows anyone in People magazine. That resonates with me. Thank heavens, I'm not the only one who finds its people and facts to be baffling trivia.
Ephron has been making the rounds of the arduous book tour. She was on the final show of the season for Bill Maher and didn't talk enough. She was interviewed in the National Post by a fan, Nathalie Atkinson. who writes and edits, stars allegedly in that weird comic strip The Posties, and is a great cottage guest.
Let me borrow her quotes, where Ephron explains that it's not because our brains become wise enough to realize that it's not important to recognize the latest 15-minute celebrity in People.
That's just a rationalization, she says. "But the truth is when you're young, you are in a desperate need to accumulate friends and information. And you clock it all. You file it all. If you meet someone at a party, there is no chance you won't recognize them if you bump into them several days later ... That stops in a way that you have no idea. You think you have an idea because every so often something slips your mind and you go 'oh my god, am I losing it?' But you don't. But you will."
I was rereading the interview, wondering whether she was stretching it when she said she couldn't remember meeting Eleanor or Cary, when the phone rang. My friend Ted Aver wanted me to come to the Tory holy-of-holies, Toronto's Albany Club, to hear a former colleague. And Aver reminisced about politicians he had invited me to interview over the years.
"Remember that Tory from England that you wrote about. He's doing quite well. I see him on TV all the time, "Aver said. I said I had never interviewed anyone from the British Government at the club. Aver is older too, and he blanked on the name but remembered the wife had a unusual name.
So I resorted to Google, which has replaced our memories, and after 10 minutes or so, determined that yes, I had interviewed a British Tory whose wife's first name was Ffion. To my embarrassment, it is quite a famous Tory, the former party leader who is now Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague.
Maybe it's just Tories who blank out most for me. A Tory friend, Jeff Lyons, who is in disfavour due to City Hall shenanigans, once asked me to interview a western friend who was running for leader. So I had breakfast with the friend, and we talked for three hours. I drove him downtown, and thought he was a bright agreeable politician without a chance. And I forgot about him. Then when Joe Clark became leader and then PM, I couldn't find my notes and there was this black hole in my memory space.
It wouldn't be so bad but I used to be consulted when reporters needed a fact in a hurry. (I didn't remember their name but I remembered the fact.) I was the institutional memory for some organizations. I never had the photographic memory of prominent people like Senator David Smith or Conrad Black but I could hold my own in trivia contests.
Then Google made recall irrelevant. I phoned a friend, Ralph Pohlman, the psychiatrist, trivia maven, and former Sun columnist, and lamented that Google had replaced us. (My example to him is that at a party we were arguing about the height of Conan O'Brien because of his Jumping Jack style of physical humour. Within 15 seconds and Google, I knew he is 6' 4.)
Dr. Pohlman's comment on the erosion of memory is that some of his older colleagues end up with patients who know more about their conditions than the doctors remember because they've been surfing the Internet.
Fortunately, I don't have to Google many of the great Ephron lines from her romantic comedies, books, plays, articles, musings etc .... The orgasm line from her Harry Met Sally movie. The line about her second husband, Carl Bernstein, in the movie Heartburn, after his fictional double was caught in an affair with a mutual friend. He was capable of "having sex with a Venetian blind."
I once interviewed Bernstein and introduced him as a banquet speaker. I really wanted to talk more about Ephron than Watergate, but I was afraid he would stampede. He had threatened to sue Ephron but never did.
Ephron says her love affair with journalism is over, that her "pretentious days" as a scribe writing "the first draft of history" are over, just as her illusion died of reaching objective truths. "Eventually, when I started writing about what you might call fiction, it became clear to me that there was no such thing as the truth. That, except for a very few things for wont of a better word we call facts, everything is a story, a point of view. And that was a kind of revelation."
Yet she says she loved journalism, that there's no better job when you're young.
Now that is something that I will never forget.

Sunday, November 21, 2010



Woe Canada, the land where rural voters have more clout than big city voters, where squeaky activists get the grease of millions, where the "have" provinces give and give and give to the "have- not" provinces, where you better move out of Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary or Edmonton if you lose your job and are looking for help.
There's nothing new or questionable in my first paragraph. I wish there were. I wish someone in Ottawa could deny that last year the unemployed of Ontario and the West received only half the benefits per person that the jobless got in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, that the notorious financial cuddling of Quebecers has ended, that the failed program of bilingualism was designed only to benefit francophones and not anglophones who were also fluent in French, that the flood of billions continues to Atlantic Canada no matter how flush they are with new resource discoveries.
Of course our federal pols also are capable of discriminating within a province as well as with ridings that weren't smart enough to have an MP in government. Consider the bizarre discrepancy between all the millions that went to Muskoka for the G20 meetings, where everything went swimmingly, and the trickle that came to Toronto, which doesn't vote Tory, and was turned into an armed camp by the over reaction of cops to the jerk activists.
But let's deal with billions rather than mere millions. I was sitting on the subway during the morning rush and I had more time than I wanted to examine a National Post story about the latest study into what it called "stealth equalization."
Nope, it wasn't another story about the baffling transfer of equalization payments between the feds and the provinces. The idea is that the "have-not" provinces don't have enough economic activity to generate enough revenue to deliver adequate public services to their residents. So they get help from Ottawa's tax revenue. Politicians have been squabbling over this for years.
But there's a new wrinkle in the figures, as far as I was concerned. If you study how many federal employees each province has for each 100,000 residents, you find that Manitoba and the Maritimes have far higher levels of federal employment than if those employees had been distributed proportionally in the country.
Ironically, that is true even though the capital is located in Ontario. So you would expect to find more federal employees in and around the capital. Yet Ontario last year had 1,742 federal employees per 100,000 population while Newfoundland had 1,823, P.E.I had 3,657, Nova Scotia had 3,219, New Brunswick had 2,655 and Manitoba had 2,619.
Provinces with fewer federal employees than Ontario were Quebec, (1,378) Saskatchewan, (1,210) B.C., (1,187) and Alberta, (936).
So we know all about the gush of equalization tax money that takes from the west to give to the east. But why, for example, would Manitoba have twice as many federal employes as its neighbour, Saskatchewan?
I know figures lie and liars figure. Yet this is compelling evidence that all the salaries and benefits that flow to these extra federal employees in five provinces from the federal treasury is an additional transfer of wealth from Canada's most productive provinces to those that have failed to be successful at supporting themselves.
Some time I think we should worry more about the West leaving than Quebec.

Saturday, November 20, 2010



The pretty river town of Campbellford - the site of that Legion Halloween costume party where a KKK-cloaked man leading a man in blackface by a noose won the award - is a decent community where picking on minorities is not a sport.
The details, the fallout and the hysteria are well-known now and burned into the memories of the locals who feel betrayed.
As someone who has cottaged nearby for 30 years, and routinely walks and talks and shops there, let me offer some other thoughts.
First of all, it's illegal to paint your face black in Ontario, whether for a play or a party.
I find it remarkable that so many, including the ex-Toronto cop in blackface, didn't know that.
It is true that once upon a time, blackface was popular in vaudeville and in the minstrel shows that even churches staged to raise money. I'm sure there were minstrel shows, with blackface, darky jokes and great Stephen Foster songs, in Campbellford, just as there were in Toronto and throughout North America. I saw many shows that were jampacked with all my neighbours. Eighty years ago, two of the biggest stars in the world were Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. In blackface! Amos 'n' Andy was still around in the '60s, a hit radio show by whites about supposed black comedy.
For a century, blackface flourished. But then, thankfully, changing times, freedom marches and politicians properly sensitive to insults to blacks and other minorities, not only made blackface shows rare, a law was passed at Queen's Park to make them illegal.
You would have thought an ex-cop would have known that. What he gave us instead was crap where he says they would have left if anyone had told them it was offensive.
The ban on blackface has strained the theatre community when it recreates old shows. I recall that at the venerable Royal Alex in Toronto that the restaging of the famous operetta, The Desert Song, had at one point actors wearing green paint on their faces.
I found it bizarre when I saw it but that was the law.
It's encouraging that leaders were so deft when they waded through the poisonous commentary afterwards. For example, Mayor Hector MacMillan said how sad it all was for the families who had lived there for generations. (He's mayor of Trent Hills, composed of Campbellford, a quiet town of nearly 3,000 - hardly the tiny place pictured by the Star - Hastings, Warkworth and some township.)
One example of why I know racism hardly burns through Campbellford is that as someone who has eaten several times at Rubbs, a local restaurant, and discussed its menu often with neighbours, no one ever mentioned that the owner was a Canadian from Jamaica. Unfortunately there has been some profane reaction against him for criticizing the costume stunt, but then racist idiots also are found throughout the world.
People who care about racism, as we all should, must look beyond Campbellford and the anguish of the smear on all.
We have just had a conference in Ottawa about the relentless increase in anti-Semitism year after year. We know from the unceasing turmoil at York University that militant Muslims are determined to fight Jewish students from classroom to classroom until Israel falls into the sea.
The daily emails infesting the Internet that slander Obama for daring as a black to become president is a festering sore. It dwarfs any racist costume mistake, but far less attention has been paid to Internet poison in the last two weeks.
One exception was a Sunday Sun column on Nov. 21 which lamented and condemned the vicious profane attacks on political web sides, one term for it is flaming, where sensible debate has been drowned in a flood of poison.
When I sit on the docks with neighbours for one of those afternoons where beer follows beer until you wonder what happened to the sun, the talk is not about blacks but corruption, gangs, native barricades, native land claims, the incredible mess of Caledonia, and the erosion of rights and common sense by politically correct activists.
Oh yes, let's not forget the annoyance in Cottage Country of the crammed fishing boats of Canadians of Chinese heritage. They certainly enjoy themselves, but they're ignored as they break every rule in fishing and safety as they keep every fish, even the babies.
There's a common thread from the petty to the obscene. And what links the issues bugging Canadians - and a racist costume is barely on the radar - is the costly and frustrating failure of our politicians and police to deal appropriately with anything larger than a pothole or a ticket. Let us not be diverted from our fury at how inept our authorities have become by a brief incident in a Legion, when our Legions, the social clubs of small-town Canada, are filled with so many who have served and worked to help the rest of us.

Thursday, November 18, 2010



It was a wonderful reunion. Seven journalists, who graduated from Ryerson an incredible 52 years ago, gathered in the pleasant North Toronto home of Terry O'Connor to talk a lot and maybe fib a bit, skip over ancient feuds, sing our irreverent version of a school song, and to wonder why we don't see each other.
In those 52 years, Ryerson has evolved from an institute known to critics as Rye High to a respected university that wouldn't understand our anger at U of T in the song written by Don Hawkes and belted out by our Road Apples chorus in a closet we commandered from the authorities in a vanished barracks building.
We were a tiny class, but we went on to make an impact. And here are my classmates, all retired. Pictured from the left is Hawkes, Sun editor, with Barrie Zwicker, iconoclastic critic and Alby Sokol, jock writer, at the right rear. O'Connor, Ryerson information officer, is in front with our ladies, Shirley Gilbert, a major exec at HP, the computer giant, and Miriam Zylberberg, the anchor behind her doctor Bernie.
In the middle of our buzz, Sokol, known to generations of Telegram and Star readers, unveiled an ancient grievance.
"You know," he confided, "you gotta watch Downing. Years ago I picked up his column and read what I had told him the previous day at lunch. I had had to go out and do one of those Man On The Street surveys for the Star, and I hated them. This guy was coming down the street and I got out my notebook and as he came up, before I could say anything, he put a coin in my palm and kept on going. And the Star photog says to me, Alby, you got to dress better."
And all of us hooted. I said defensively to the panhandler for quotes that I thought then that it was the funniest thing I had heard in months, and I didn't really think it was off the record. And Alby said something like he didn't think he had to say off-the-record to a friend.
Boy, did that take me back. I was writing five columns a week, and occasionally six, and there were weeks when I wrote the daily editorial too. If anyone said anything interesting within 100 yards of me, they appeared in print. My neighbour out back, the chiropractor, said one weekend that he wanted to tell me something over the fence but it was off-the-record. I do believe I muttered something like I didn't know he ever said anything interesting enough to print, which is my normal line in such situations, but I hope I refrained.
(I loved writing columns. But I did think occasionally of Lewis Grizzard, who at his peak appeared in more than 400 newspapers. He wrote: "Being a columnist is like being married to a nymphomaniac. It's great for the first two weeks."
The engineering students at U of T used to steal a Sun every morning and then float it around the all-day classes. One day a chap across the aisle yelled at my son John Henry that "your father didn't have anything interesting to say today." John Henry demanded to know why he would say something rude like that. "Because he wrote about you," came the reply.
The family gently suggested that perhaps some of their life should be off limits, which I ignored because I found that columns about my family were considered far more interesting by many than anything I felt about politics. And my cottage retreat was right up there too.
These days I read and listen to a lot of media malarkey about off-the-record utterances. The rule that most journalists like me follow is that the person has to stipulate that it's off-the-record BEFORE he or she says anything, and the writer has to agree to that before the sensitive material is revealed.
All that really means is that you can't quote them specifically, or give revealing clues as to their identity, but there's no way you can forget what was said. So it will help shape the story, which probably is what the source wanted in the first place.
In real courts, and in what passes for courts in the movies and on TV, we have become accustomed to lawyers blurting out loaded questions with dubious details which the judges rule out of order and tell the juries to disregard. As if juries can scrub words from their memories.
The best way to stay out of the media is not to say anything. As for all those who claim they were misquoted, most are lucky they were quoted in the first place.
Maybe Alby was mad that I wrote it was a coin. After all, Star guys would expect bills.



Now that Sarah Palin is credited with the best new word of the summer - or was it the year - it is time to tell the critics to hush on this particular proof of her lack of knowledge of real English and confess that we've all been there.
When she used refudiate on a Twitter message, we all knew (A) there was a good reason the new fad starts with twit (B) what she really meant.
So the Palin that deliberately uses folksy language to talk to the conservatives, red necks and chuckleheads of the U.S. doesn't have to resort to arguments that Shakespeare used new words too. People understand. And my mind simply refuses to make the comparison with our greatest writer since the huntress who talks about mamma bears when she wants to shoot a vote is hardly capable of a real sentence - let alone a sonnet.
Today's great riddle in the U.S. is to try to figure out her IQ. Does she have hot flashes of insight to break up the expanses of dumb logic? Or is she just a pretty face who doesn't do her homework? The 50% who approve of her in polls are forgiving the gaffes, family scandals, lies, fibs, half-truths, and self-marketing, so what's a mangled word.
There isn't a leader or a pro talker or even a parent who doesn't occasionally trip over words and names. Generally they slur into the proper word. Consider how often loving parents call one son by another son's name, and they never get over it, or you use a word that is wrong but sounds right.
However, it's nonsense for some dictionary company to ordain a malapropism as some great new word. I love those year-end lists of the best new words, which often are clever linkage of words or puns - my own creation was anecdotage - but let's not get into mangled language. Besides, it's all just a PR gimmick to get some attention, like the worst-dressed list by a designer than no one had ever heard of before.
So I excuse Palin and understand her but pray she doesn't keep doing it. There are already too many screwing up good words and old expressions. For instance, I give a damn that so many write they "don't give a tinker's damn. " The expression means that something is as worthless as the temporary DAM that was used when a tinker soldered a kettle.
Another reason I'm not bothered with refudiate is I made a worst mistake in front of millions watching the main CBC news show. I was the guest expert on the National for the 1985 provincial election. Because the Ontario race was undecided for so long, there were three Nationals that night, one for the Maritimes, one for central Canada, and one for the West.
So there I was, bathed in hot TV lights for three newscasts in a row, knowing that my boss, Doug Creighton, would be furious that his new Sun Editor was out of the office for hours, trying not to look stupid when anchor Barbara Frum asked her insightful questions.
At one point, and horror has scrubbed the actual non-word and timing from my memory, I used a word that doesn't exist. It wasn't even close to anything. Frum, startled, looked at me closely and repeated my awful creation. So I bluffed and said it again, as if Frum should know. As a nice pro, she went on to another question. But at the next off-air break, she said: "John, there isn't such a word." I said, "of course there isn't, Barbara. But you don't have to try to point that out before millions."
I returned to the office where an irate Creighton lambasted me for my absence and insisted that I had to write the editorial saying the Tories should end their reign because they got only 52 seats and the Grits had almost as many at 48. I appealed to Paul Godfrey, arguing that if a newpaper backed a party, it shouldn't abandon it election night. So that's the way the editorial read, although Creighton was mad for weeks.
That election is famous at Queen's Park. And I had a ringside seat at the changing of the guard.
The Lieutenant Governor was John Black Aird, who looked like just another corporation lawyer, but he had been a populist success. He had the humanity to learn sign language and travel widely, even playing floor hockey at Variety Village with the disabled kids, despite excruciating back pain.
Aird, a former Liberal insider/bagman, sensed beforehand that the election would be close. So his adviser, the famed lawyer John J. Robinette, showed up at 9 a.m. the next day to review his powers as to who should rule.
Two days later, on May 4, Aird came to an honours luncheon at the Toronto Press Club. Knowlton Nash, the legendary CBC personality, whose famous voice is stilled by disease, knew Aird, and so did I. Without preamble, he dragged both of us off to a private corner, asked what we would do about the near dead heat, and explained his options.
Perhaps it was the rum. Perhaps it was the thrill of apparently being consulted before a major decision. But Nash and I said plainly that the electorate was vote-weary. If Aird was to allow or suggest that the 48 Grits join with the 25 New Democrat in some pact, most voters would accept that as better than another election.
After Aird left us, Nash, who had begun as a wire-service political reporter, and I knew then what was going to happen. "This is a scoop," Nash said. I agreed. Then I said that while Aird, the gentleman, hadn't said it was off-the-record, we were in a club and that was the normal rule, and I thought that Aird expected us to behave honourably. And Nash agreed.
When it was announced the Liberals and New Democrats had formed an "accord" that would last eventually two years, there were at least two journalists who weren't surprised at the change of government.
Yet Bob MacDonald, the vitriolic Sun columnist, poured his acid all over Aird for allowing his Grit cronies to rule. I never did confront him and refudiate his views.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010



Trent Hills council, led by their mayor Hector Macmillan on Nov. 15, unanimously passed a motion requesting the Royal Canadian Mint to strike a coin to honour the Highway of Heroes, the stretch of Highway 401 that honours the passage of Canada's war dead coming home to their final resting place.
The council and Macmillan, encouraged by two Sun Media journalists, may be the first of the councils and mayors to say that a Mint that can honour whales and football teams can also honour dead Canadian soldiers.
But they won't be the last.
Macmillan is sending the motion to the more than 400 members of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. He is also sending it at my suggestion to Toronto council, which is not an AMO member. And just in case it gets lost in the shuffle of new business at City Hall, a copy has gone to Councillor Doug Holyday, who will play a major role in the new Rob Ford administration and has promised to back such a resolution with all his heart and skill.
The resolution from Trent Hills, a municipality of 12,000 that includes Campbellford, Hastings, Warkworth and townships like Seymour, says that the Highway of Heroes "plays a significant role honouring our fallen Canadian soldiers" and has become "a remarkable venue."
As Toronto Sun readers will know from the Nov. 6 column by Joe Warmington, his friend Pete Fisher of the Cobourg Star has led the way to get the coin. And he and Warmington and Macmillan will get the commemorative coin because honour and good sense will win the day. And if they don't, I would expect the Prime Minister and his government to order that coin.
As Fisher said in a letter to Macmillan after he and Warmington met him while covering the Halloween embarrassment at the Campbellford Legion, the Highway of Heroes crosses Northumberland County - where Trent Hills is located - on its way from CFB Trenton to Toronto.
The highway honour has universal support, and if it doesn't, the critics better keep their heads down. When the hearse and honour cars pass beneath the bridges with the latest victim of Afghanistan, Canadians with their flags and tears stand above. Fisher says that for the watchers, there "is a feeling of great pride, and sadness." He wrote that because of the vigils, the families of the fallen know that "they are not alone, and we, as a country, grieve with them, and support them."
It was on a family visit to the Mint last year that Fisher learned of how new coins are chosen. So he requested one for the Highway of Heroes, perhaps of mourners on an overpass with flags.
First the Mint seemed enthusiastic, then it said the design would be too difficult.
The Mint better be able to prove it is too difficult when the protest floods over them from councils and mayors and media like the Sun bulldogs. There is also an Internet link for a petition: http://www.petitiononline.com/hhyoh123/petition.html. It's a call to action for MPPs and MPs.
If we have to, we could probably find a suitable design from someone like Andy Donato, a cartoonist, artist and graphic artist who has done everything from catalogue illustrations to Sun symbols.
Because people like Donato care about those who were killed or maimed on the other side of the world.
So far, the Mint bureaucrats haven't shown that they do too.


The Canadian Mint announced several weeks after I wrote the column on Nov. 16 that it will issue the coin after all. Congratulations to Peter Fisher, the journalist who began it all, and Trent Hills Mayor Hector Macmillan who had his council be the first body to support a nice tribute to those who have had to pass in tearful calvacade along the Highway of Heroes.
I guess Mint officials would say that it responded to public interest but isn't it too bad that it had to be whipped into this by council motions, petitions and angry columns.

Sunday, November 14, 2010



It does sound like that movie If It's Tuesday It Must Be Belgium. After all, we were in nine countries in 18 days, with a day at either end for flying - which daily grows more of a hassle.
The link was the Danube River stretching between Bulgaria and Romania and Germany and the Czech Republic. From swimming in the cold Black Sea to the great steps of Prague Castle.
Sadly, the Danube is not the blue delight of the song. Its waters more closely resemble dirty sock water. It's a river of the tugs and barges of commerce, the major artery through Eastern Europe.
A few days after we passed through Western Hungary, a reservoir wall gave way and the floods of toxic waste killed nine and injured 150. As the respected Economist magazine observed on Oct. 14, "the Danube basin is littered with accidents about to happen."
Still the trip through the the ancient glories and the modern curses left behind by communism was the "odyssey" promised by Viking (in the ancient name of Homer for an epic journey.) The scenery was often a picturesque movie, with the ruined factories and leaking storage facilities left by dictators obscured by the pleasant banks of a mighty river.
I would be happy to sail the Primadonna again, a giant catamaran accommodating 148 guests, and a tiny but efficient staff. It sailed so smoothly, you didn't know it had left the dock.
It was the key to the odyssey because we sailed the Danube in our cosy cabin and wonderful dining room, and were bused with guides chatting over our earphones to the major points of interest. If we had travelled instead by plane, train or bus, our nerves would have been as frazzled as the ruined countries left behind by the cruel and discredited communists.
The 40-year-old movie about Belgium - which has become the cliche condemnation of package tours -no longer resonates with me and other travellers, because we've done it the old way, searching vainly for hotels and restaurants with tattered guidebook in hand while night looms.
We prefer more of the comfortable cocoon, knowing where we're going to eat and sleep each night.
My wife and I have searched the lanes of Cairo and Jerusalem while sweat smarts the eyes.
We've spent a night in Brussels in a whorehouse with no bedroom ceiling and the toilet down the hall. The only bed we could find at midnight. Yet Mary wasn't about to sit in the railway station all night.
I have too many such stories about the perils of doing it on your own, even if you have rented a car and have a vague idea what part of the country you may be in.
A photographer and I once went around the world on a day's notice, with me carrying only a one-suiter for two weeks. I could do it again, providing I had a bathing suit and cold beer. But it's nicer to have company when misery creeps into the trip, and there's always some boring bit.
Our tour group called the Intrepids is based loosely on Humber Valley United Church members in Etobicoke led by the indomitable Cathy Wilkes. We adopted the name when we went to Turkey despite a new Iraq war along one border. They've also been to Egypt and other African countries, and Russia, China and Japan. We will continue sailing off into the sunset as long as airline security doesn't grow so tight, they will no longer allow any passengers at all.
Our river cruise displayed the glories of the past and the emerging good and the awful residue of communism and war. It included the usual tour stuff of lofty cathedrals and lowly old churches disguised to protect Christians. We saw the ancient houses of the rich.
We explored the grotesque rock formations of Belogradchik in Bulgaria, shaped by erosion, and the scenic stretch of the Danube in Serbia known as the Iron Gate. And we listened to the waltzes and classical music of old. (The best music for a Danube cruise is Smetana's Moldau . The Czech's most famous tune has the surges and flowing water of notes as brooks and rivers merge near Prague.)
There were hitches. One of the Primadonna's great engines failed for a day or so, so the excellent guides had to scramble to patch the schedule.
So we were packed off to a stud farm for the Lippizaner white horses of war. Not well done. Besides, there are too many places claiming to be the original home of the famous horses.
Mary and I know the truth because we once spent a great day and night on what's really the home, a stud farm at Lipica in Croatia. At least I got a nice shot in Vienna of three of the famous horses. It will hang on my wall to jog my memory, and my thoughts will be good.
Yet not all the memories of Eastern Europe are, not when the Balkans have long been one of the notorious trouble centres of the world.
We visited the Croatian city of Vukovar where 2,000 amateur soldiers held out for 87 days against the professional killers of Serbia - 36,000 soldiers, 110 tanks and dozens of war planes.
After the Serbs killed the defenders and demolished the port city and the war ended in 1995, 800 Croatians were missing and 22,000 killed or exiled. There had only been 30,000 residents.
So the dateline of Vukovar is a bitter reminder of the insanity of war between ancient enemies. The jagged walls of shelled houses still remain on too many streets, while the Croatians have left the huge water tower standing as a monument that was holed like Swiss cheese by artillery.
The hatred still festers in much of the disintegrated Yugoslavia.
In the giant church cave still under construction of St. Sava in Belgrade, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, a Serb I was talking to cursed the Slovenians for departing the Yugoslav federation on Jan. 25, 1991, one day before the Croatians. The Serbs abandoned their war on the tiny pastoral country after only 11 days because of the stiff resistance where 67 were killed, most of them Serbs. The angry Serb's curses were drowned by the pealing of the bells above the huge white structure. The guide was mortified because all of their commentary as we floated from country to country was carefully correct and neutral.
As we idled down a street of restaurants, Mary asked a lounging maitre d' how the Serbs said thank you. Then she asked how the Slovenians did and explained her parents had come from Slovenia. Young punk waiters said they had never been to Slovenia, which is as close there as Toronto to the Falls. Besides, one sneered, Slovenians were lazy and murderers.
Imagine! Spewing racist hatred to casual tourists. And the Serbs wonder why so many hate them. Back on the Primadonna, the staff was embarrassed again.
Yet most of our travels were good, even if Bulgaria and Romania are filled with the derelict buildings and economic rust left by failed communism. Empty fields, or with just a few animals, closed factories and shops, and the unemployed sitting on corners. Bulgaria is the poorest Balkan member of the European Union and EU officials grumble that they allowed it and Romania in too soon. Now the European hassle is over the gypsies from Romania
Mary and I had a chance to return to fabled Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had a marvelous time there once with our son John Henry, when we still travelled on our own and came across a enormous bargain of room, dinner and beer for $20.
The great beer centres that gave us Budweiser and Pilsener are near the lovely Bohemian centre. I told my fellow travellers how the arrogant brewers of American Budweiser went after the brewery in Budvar over naming rights and were reminded that the Czechs had been brewing Budweiser before the U.S. existed.
Ah, Cesky Krumlov, one of the best preserved cities in the Czech Republic. The beautiful baroque, Gothic and renaissance architecture. The market square. The bridges over the curving river.
It often pops up when I think of travels. For me it's like the Brigadoon of movie musical fame which comes to life one night each century. I would love to spend years there.
There are many who rave about Vienna. I've found in three visits that it is too full of itself, from the imperial Ringstrasse that encircles the inner city to St. Stephan's Cathedral which is always being scrubbed. The Viennese boast of their elegance and romance, of their musical heritage and their food. Demels lives up to its rep as a great bakery of confections and cakes but on a previous visit I found the famous tort at the Sacher Hotel behind the restored State Opera House - one setting for the fabled Third Man movie - to be a dry chocolate cake that people would send back in Canada.
I much prefer the crowded streets of the people's Prague to royal Vienna. Our visit was a post-cruise extension. There were literally thousands of young people swarming the cobble lanes and compact medieval centre of the city of a hundred spires. Occasionally it seemed they were all on my street.
The Charles Bridge is unique in a world filled with great bridges. No visit to Prague is complete without seeing the grand pedestrian bridge that began in 1357 and is lined with 30 Gothic religious statues that artists use as backdrops as they paint their tourist patrons.
Then there's the 600-year-old Astronomical Clock which has had dials, facades and moving statues added over the centuries. Crowds of tourist worship its hourly wonders, carpeting the square underneath to watch.
A great walking city, and walk we did for two days, from Wenceslas Square to the Old Jewish cemetery, with time out for beer and sausages.
Nothing like munching and sipping a real Bud and talking about the wonders of past days, like the 900-year-old Melk Abbey perched on sheer cliffs above the Danube, with rainbow colours splashed on the walls and ceilings inside the abbey church making up for the arduous climb. And the twin cities of Buda and Pest with the massive hilltop castle and the lovely stonework of the restored Parliament.
A grand trip. One we would like to do again. And I will. Especially Prague.

Saturday, November 13, 2010



The HST is here to stay. Get used to it. But we don't have to accept the HST being applied to every facet of our lives except breathing.
(By the way, HST stands for Harmonized Sales Tax, the combining of federal and provincial sales taxes, not Harmonized Stupid Tax, which is more apt.)
It shook up many readers when the Editor of The Toronto Sun supported the GST. When I wrote the editorials I pointed out that the GST was a logical replacement for a tax that had been around for years and was not loved by business. We had to accept that the feds needed some form of a federal sales tax.
Unfortunately, the critics of the GST concentrated on condemnation rather than on reform. What they should have been demanding is that it be eliminated from many of the new targets. Taxing books, including Holy Books, had been a government no no as long as there had been governments. When the bureaucrats included the PST in the price to be taxed by the GST, like on gasoline, that had been considered illegal and immoral for decades.
Which brings me to the HST which I hope brings down more politicians than just a B.C. premier. How about Dalt0n McGuinty next October. How about federal politicians who don't
realize that while Canadians should accept some form of HST, we should fight like hell against all the extra targets, the services and products that were targeted by the GST and have now been expanded under the HST.
The Ontario Government boasts that there was no new HST on 83% of products and services.
Consider its cunning double talk. The key is the word new. Yes, Queen's Park does tax many products and services that we shouldn't, like Bibles, but we only increased the tax on 17% of products and services. Sure, on everything from having your hair done to paying the onerous bills of lawyers. Let's not forget home heating and electricity.
There have been many heated arguments over the HST but I was in a strange one with Senator Nancy Ruth. Nothing new about that since she as a militant declared lesbian is used to rocking the boat, trying to make men fall out, on everything from her name to her advocacy of women's rights.
The occasion was the induction luncheon of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame. (I wrote about it on Nov. 11.) The senator, who goes only by two first names, loudly declared at the table (where she had ignored fellow diners, and had busied herself with her dumbphone to ignore the inductions and speeches) that she was furious the government had waived the HST on the red poppy.
She then ripped one up and used the innard and part of a program to make a crude white poppy, which is supposed by tiny groups of women and peaceniks to represent peace and not all those nasty men who died fighting for peace.
She complained loudly, as an arrogant activist used to bellowing her views, that look at all the charities that have to pay the HST. Why make an exception for veterans, she said? She grumbled about the male-dominated war stuff on TV that she said ignored the contribution of women.
Since it was the day before Remembrance Day, since red poppies bloomed throughout the concert hall in honour of those immortal words from John McRae in 1915 - "In Flanders fields the poppies grow" - since there were men in the room who had heard the brazen throat of war, her words were like a sour trumpet.
I said that at least 95% of Canadians would be okay with no HST on poppies. She said it would be 50-50 at best. I challenged her to have a vote in the Senate. I said why didn't we get John Wright of Ipsos-Reid to include that question in his next poll. I challenged her to have a vote at the luncheon, perhaps run by her brother Hal Jackman, the former lieutenant governor. She refuses to use the Jackman name, an honourable one where her grandfather and father had been MPs (she was defeated federally twice, which showed voter wisdom.)
She wondered why I was so upset. I said her wearing her crude white poppy demeaned the icon of the red poppy, just as much as her carping at a tax break the day before we remember, sorrowfully, our fallen in war, was insensitive and dumb.
It was a profane act by a profane politician who uses fuck as an action verb when she isn't pulling such stunts as changing the words of O Canada.
Imagine! A senator opposed to a break on the HST for an honourable reason. Just as bad as all the politicians who don't understand that overtaxed Canadians will bite the hand, and throat too at election time, of any pol who wants to tax every activity of our lives.
In England, Muslim demonstrators against the British military burned a giant red poppy and scandalized other Muslims. Muslims disrupted the moment of silence on Remembrance Day. Jerks! But what about the people here who should know better, especially when Henry Jackman, the MP father of Nancy, idolized Winston Churchill and was an important link between Canada and England during World War II.
The red poppy honoured his service too.

My friend, David Smith, a leading Liberal senator, later mentioned my confrontation to Senator Nancy. (She said she was a Progressive Conservative when she was appointed by Paul Martin but then became a Conservative.)
She said, in effect, that I was a loudmouth jerk. Maybe Smith held off on rougher adjectives because even my family has called me that.
She chaired a Senate human rights committee on Women, Peace and Security which said in a report, according to its summary, that UN states, peacekeepers and other stakeholders "must take varying steps to ensure that efforts to prevent, resolve and rebuild from armed conflict incorporate the perspectives of women."
Such careful bland generalities makes me wish that the senator saved more of her fire for conflict belligerents and less for Canadians honouring our dead in war.

Friday, November 12, 2010



For 17 years, it is an event that awes and humbles me when we honour the men and women who turned their major problems of physical disabilities into minor hurdles that they vaulted with a smile.
They're the ones who led the way in kicking the old term of handicap in the teeth. As David Crombie, the former Toronto mayor, said as he chaired the presentation luncheon: "They work, go to school, raise families and get involved - and they do it with all the passion, talent and ability of their able-bodied peers. This is the real message of the Hall and it's a message that we hope one day all Canadians will take to heart."
Crombie has been the Hall chair, along with the founder, Vim Kochhar, a new senator, of the selection committee and the event itself. I have been a committee member since it began and was known as the Terry Fox Hall of Fame before Terry's family, to their discredit, decided that somehow this Hall subtracted from Terry's honourable memory and bled off a few donations.
I think another message from the Hall is for Canadians to get off their fat rumps and do more without grumbling about aches.
It certainly is a prod in my life. This year the Hall inducted David Shannon, a Thunder Bay lawyer who has reached the North Pole and jumped in a parachute from nearly 30,000 feet DESPITE THE FACT HE IS A QUADRIPLEGIC.
Not only is Shannon a confident champion for his causes, he also has a sense of humour. When he and his friend who pulled the sledge, Christopher Walkins, reached the Pole, they planted an accessible parking sign.
(There must be something special in the water in Thunder Bay. A firefighter from that city who had received a heart transplant has skied to the North Pole and climbed a mountain in Antarctica. He was accompanied by my cardiologist, Heather Ross, in charge of heart transplants at the University Health Network. Dr. Ross is not exactly an easy person if people complain about exercise.)
The magazine for the luncheon has always been titled WhyNot. And why not indeed! This year, one cover picture belonged to its publisher, Jeff Tiessen, whose gold medal time in the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul still stands as the record. Tiessen is a tireless advocate for people with disabilities, has been an original member of the Hall's selection committee and is a successful publisher.
Oh yes, no arms!
Our cheerful Lt. Governor, David Onley, also presided over the induction of Colette Bourgonje, a nine-time Paralympian whose treasure house of medals resulted in her receiving a major world achievement award at the games in Vancouver. A phys ed teacher in a wheelchair who put away the memory of the near-death car crash.
The final recipient is Alan Dean, who after his loss of a leg became a pioneering sports administrators and Secretary General of the International Sports Organization for the Disabled.
Onley, of course, is in a wheelchair. His deteriorating condition from polio didn't stop him as a TV personality and best-selling author on space. What a wonderful example he is for all the kids who can't run like their friends....or even walk.
A nice finish came this year during a speech by Gordon Nixon, the Royal Bank president. On each table sat a glass piggybank, and Scotia Bank pledged to match all the donations from the diners. Nixon said RBC would match all the money in the piggybanks too, and he was sure his banking rival wouldn't mind having to double their contribution.
A fine bit of fiscal gamesmanship that fit right in with the warm feeling in the banquet hall from the many people there who know all about having to deal with people who think it's not a disability but a handicap.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010



That headline about the "lesser of two weevils" won a newspaper award for Rik Davie and his newspaper The Scugog Standard. The substance of those weevil stories should have impact far beyond the weedy shores of Lake Scugog
They show how an environmental group, with the support in varying degrees of the community, conservation authority and the municipality, can help win at least one battle in the expensive war against the water weeds which threaten to carpet Cottage Country since the invasion of zebra mussels let them run amuck.
The lesson should not be lost on Queen's Park and any municipality that has more than one cottage. After all, not only does the explosion of water weeds hurt the enjoyment of Cottage Country, and the real estate values, it also results in a public loss because cottagers have their municipal taxes reduced if they have a water weed problem.
And I'm not saying it has to be as bad as some of my neighbours have at the height of the season when the weeds stretch from dock to dock in a smelly, unsightly mess. They have to carve channels for their boats and swim elsewhere.
So my municipality of Trent Hills has a financial stake in the plight of their cottage residents. If the council was to aid the cottagers in the harvesting or destruction of weeds, and the provincial ministries were more involved, tax money would be regained.
The councils should ask their reps on the board of the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. to get their assessors to give ballpark figures on the total cost in Ontario because of all the lowered assessments.
The Scugog Lake Stewards, a nicely named environmental group, bought thousands of weevils in 2009 from EnviroScience in the U.S. (10 beetles to each milfoil stalk) and planted them near King's Bay in Lake Scugog. Last summer, the result was impressive. The weevils had almost eaten themselves out of house and home because there were empty stretches in between all the dead and dying plants.
There is an advantage in using weevils as a biological control. Not only are they native to the Kawarthas, they leave native plant species alone. There's always a threat when you import a solution that you tip the balance in nature. Unfortunately the world is full of examples. .
The stewards got a mixed reaction when they pitched their scheme. But the Baagwating Community Association donated $25,000 to the pilot project. The township was lukewarm. That council had hired a company at $8,000 to cut water vegetation in Port Perry in 2009 but didn't do it again because of questions about the effectiveness.
Yet the weevils certainly seem effective. A conservation authority official was quoted by the Standard as saying the destruction of weeds is impressive. Yet as I survey what the experts interviewed by the Standard think, and after a message from Davie, I would guess that some in the Kawarthas would only go for weevils if there were countless examples of success.
But the weevil experiment is hardly unique. It has been tried in many waters choked with weeds in the U.S. and the success has lasted from four to 10 years. Yet too many are uncomfortable about anything new.
However, consider the alternatives. There's Reward (diquat) that can be sprayed on the water, which is short-term and expensive or you can cut the weeds, which means they return.
My neighbours, and other groups on the Trent River, have tried Reward and found it not rewarding. Queen's Park controls its sale, and makes it so expensive, the herbicide might as well be liquid gold. The permission process is so extensive, it bothered my neighbour who completed forms for us, and he's a CA used to nitpicking. My conclusion is that the government really doesn't want us using the stuff. If they did, it would be cheaper and easier to obtain.
Now the municipalities could be involved more in cutting the weeds, which they call harvesting. Surely it makes as much sense to do this, perhaps charging cottagers half the cost on a frontage basis, as it does to cut the grass at the side of roads. They certainly have been doing that for years while leaving the water weeds up to the cottagers. And so they lose.
Queen's Park and the municipalities have to get off their fat rumps and participate in weed control as if they actually cared. They can do that with experts to advise cottage associations in language that doesn't read like a PhD thesis. They can do that by helping to pay for pilot projects instead of sticking a community group with the cost. They can do that by buying weed cutting equipment, and if they don't want to get involved, rent them out.
This is also a cause for ratepayer groups, like the North Seymour Ratepayers Association to which I belong. The annual picnic, which is a great bargain in the $10 membership, had displays in July about the latest menaces in water weeds. It's great that the bureaucrats are so quick to deal with the new curse of water soldier. But what about all the old?
Let's put this into perspective. There are only a couple of water soldier plants in my stretch of the Trent. Yet there are millions of plants (probably not much of an exaggeration) of milfoil, the pondweed family etc. I don't pretend to be an expert, not knowing a coontail from a hydrilla, or chara from muskgrass (that's a trick, they're the same) but I do know how water weeds have hurt my point since that foreign freighter dumped its ballast water (with zebra mussels) twenty years ago.
Each summer morning, I cut weeds so that visitors and my grandkids don't grumble incessantly about icky stuff. I'm eager for new solutions. Wouldn't it be great if we could figure out how to cook them so they would be the new Ontario fiddlehead?
There's no benefit for the cottager from water weeds, not even as fish habitat, because there's plenty of vacant shoreline for that. Our area boasts that it is 25 kilometres between the locks at Healy Falls to the one at Hastings. So that means, considering the Trent's meandering path, islands and great expanses of shallows, that there are at least 30 kilometres of shoreline where the weeds can proliferate to the joy of fishermen and environmentalists without hurting cottagers. All you have to do is read the shoreline guide to a healthy waterfront by the Federation of Ontario Cottagers' Association about "keeping aquatic plant population intact" and you realize there are some who really don't give a damn about our problem.
Queen's Park spends almost all its cottage time protecting endangered species and habitat, and ensuring we are harassed bureaucratically and financially if we dare build anything. The water patrols by the OPP are a joke since the cops are more concerned about a bottle of beer in a boat than a speeding yacht. Rural Hydro prices are a scam.
The politicians better start realizing that cottagers figure they're shortchanged when it comes to the benefits they receive. Giving even some feeble assistance with this blight would be a start at a better deal for our taxes. Cottagers would be willing to participate in costs if it loosened the stranglehold on our waterfront. And if FOCA wants to worship aquatic plants, it better do that away from my cottage neighbours.



I am the beneficiary of friends and relatives bombarding me daily with emails. Great! But there is a nasty downside to the flood of cartoons, jokes and polemics because too many people forward crap to me as well.
By crap, I mean nasty racism in stories and jokes. (That conference in Ottawa on anti-semitism found that there is now a record flood of hatred against the Jews.)
I mean mini sermons that are filled with malicious information and contrived propaganda.
I mean information about politicians that is so slanted and mean, you wonder if the sender understands that democracy only works when you have honest debate over the two (or three or four) sides of an issue. You don't have to dream up hateful stuff about politicians simply because they disagree with you.
Spare me the garbage over Barack Obama's birth certificate and religion. Spare me the murderous rhetoric of the anti-abortionists. Don't give me amateurish insights into possible conspiracies. Don't forward golfer jokes that were circulating before Tiger exposed himself.
An easy estimate is that I get at least two emails about any new joke that is around. As for the old ones, often I stopped thinking they were funny ten years ago.
It is time for people to think before they forward an email. I don't want another set of garbled figures about how refugee claimants do better financially than Canadian pensioners since those figures were shot down half a decade ago. Our governments at every level give us plenty of legitimate targets to attack without us having to make stuff up like that.
For years I have lectured journalism students and cub reporters to beware of EVERYTHING they read on the Internet. Just because someone has access to a computer and knows how to put a blog together doesn't mean they also have something insightful or revealing to say.
I read about the supposed $200 million a day cost of Obama's travels just hours before I heard it at dinner from a respected retired journalist who should have known better. Another journalist and me pointed out that the figures were so huge and the source so doubtful, it wasn't hard to know it was a hoax.
The next night, Bill O'Reilly of the anti-Democrat Fox News, just waved the figures away as nonsense when Jon Stewart raised it on his show, expecting O'Reilly to take the bait and to start foaming at Obama. Since then various spokesman for the Administration and various rational talking heads have blown the "scandal" to smithereens, pointing out, for example, that all the U.S. ships that were supposed to have accompanied Obama to India would have been a tenth of the U.S. Navy. So the number was ridiculous. Yet suckers are still spreading the story.
It may have been started by an anonymous blogger in India quoting an anonymous Indian official. I can tell you that any newspaper larger than a free shopper would never have accepted that as the basis for any story. Most newspapers have at least three sets of eyes on any story before it gets into print. So I recommend, using that as a foundation, that you should never accept anything on the Internet unless, as a minimum, the writer has achieved some credibility or there are other sources, especially major newspapers and magazines.
So keep the emails coming, friends, but remember that if you forward obvious nonsense, it will reflect on my opinion of you. No sermons, please, or diatribes. I can write that nonsense myself, without research.
In the glory days of the Toronto Sun, most columns that I wrote, according to readership surveys, were read by a million people. When I did my research and when I wrote, I knew that libel lawyers and friends of the boss would be scrutinizing any accusation along with nitpicking readers. Legal costs and angry memos hovered over my head like the sword of Damocles. When your credibility and readability slip away, so does the job.
That's the way newspapers work. That's the reason why they will survive in some form. People know, and their numbers will only increase, that they can only believe a story on the Internet when they find embedded in it enough verifiable facts about the writer and the item to determine it wasn't just some nut telling us about his latest hallucination.
There has been an explosion in the media: 24/7 TV and radio news, community weeklies, magazines and on-line access to newspapers and magazines. Then we have the huge and confusing world of the Internet, bloggers, the baby talk of twitter and social media.
It has never been harder to figure out what's really going on. And too many of our high school grads don't even know how to read a label. Google has replaced thinking and in-depth research. At such a time, we can't let the anonymous mobs that stampede around the Internet poison the wells from which we draw the information that govern our lives.