Saturday, December 31, 2011



One of the major campaigns in 2011, thank heavens, was the concern over bullying. May it continue for years.
I certainly have been bullied. But I must confess that I have been guilty of psychological bullying too, like most of you, where you pick the weakest member of the pack, whether at work or play or the neighbourhood, and make snide jokes at their expense and generally freeze them out.
Bullying is not just picking on the little kid or the nervous gay and beating them up.  The mind games throughout life are not bloody but more savage.
Back when I was the littlest kid in the class, and an orphan to boot, life was hardly grand in the playground or on Saturdays.
In Grade 2, a big kid cut my cheek open with a whip. It took years for the scar to disappear. It wasn't glamorous like in a musketeer movie.
Dick made life miserable for me for years too, even though, looking back, the town of Chesley, all 1,800 of us, was not really mean.
Then came my growth spurt. I went from from the smallest to the biggest in the class. Dick hadn't noticed. So he picked on me, and the circle formed, and the chant of fight fight fight went up, and I knocked him cold with one blow.
I hadn't yet become accustomed to being big, so I pleaded forgiveness for hitting so hard.
We became friends, especially when he failed a year and was wearing thicker glasses than I did. We kept in touch even after I moved to Weston, and a high school of 1,500 rather than the 250 in the school I had nervously left behind.
With good reason. There's nothing crueler to a new student than a Grade 11 class where many have been together since kindergarten. We no longer fought with fists but with words. Cold shoulders were ritualistic.
The cruelty in the relationship of children must be milked out by example and  common sense by both schools and parents. But let's not just stop there because many adults are careless in their ridicule of the funny neighbour or the strange guy at work.
At the old Telegram, we had a nervous reporter who drove all of us nuts. He was flamboyantly Jewish, which didn't help, and he was a busy body (which makes for a good reporter) who could be counted on to poison any casual conversation with prying questions.
One night shift on the rewrite desk, I listened to him shouting on the telephone and pushed down a special key to listen in. I got others to do so too. And we found he was arguing with a recorded Bell message. I told that story about Harry for years, and then he won a major newspaper award.
Good for him. Bad for me. But how many people out there wouldn't have repeated such an anecdote for years even though it made Harry look like an idiot.
You need to feed a sense of confidence and self-worth into kids, although these days some kids get drunk on entitlement and act like they're the main star in the universe.
But if you make kids feel that they matter, they can't really be bullied deep down, even if they get the occasional bloody nose.  If you won't let them push you around, the bullies moved on to softer targets.
As for the bullies who are always with us, treat them as if there were diseased and bully them right back with every law in the book. They are the jackals of society and any lion won't let them get close to the warmth of the campfire.

Friday, December 30, 2011



Cell phones are my pet peeve, but I confess some of that is envy.
If only they had been invented back when any reporter wasted precious hours trying to find a way to get the story back to the office.
If only too many cell phone users didn't abuse them.
The way they bellow, they must scare the livestock on the other side of the planet.
The way they use them in the middle of civilized conversations is a legal excuse, I submit, to throttle them.
It's distracting to have even the kids reading and texting when you are paying a visit. And at the movies or in the theatre, it makes me so mad that I can't hear for them and the steam coming out of my ears.
There's a side street feeding into Royal York Rd. just north of the bridge over the Gardiner. As you try to head north, you have to guard against speeding vehicles suddenly appearing on the bridge when you try to catch any gap in traffic. I have waited and cursed southbound TTC buses when they slow and wander and screw up the  flow because the drivers are on cell phones.
The latest law against distracted driving by drivers on their cell phone doesn't seem to have made much of an impression on the chuckleheads. It should be easy for cops to spot the offenders. All slow meandering vehicles are driven by people on their cell phones, although there may be a few who bought their licences from ethnic driving schools in a scam that the transportation ministry was slow to quash.
The cell phone in the hands of walkers who haven't talked to their buddies for at least five minutes, or  shoppers befuddled by the choices, or careening cyclists, or pedestrians strolling through a traffic signal, are annoying when they aren't irritating or dangerous.
One memorable stormy afternoon, I was walking the giant beach at Treasure Island in Florida and was ecstatic at being all alone. Just the wind and the rain and the foamy waves. A true retreat from life! If only I could have bottled the experience. Then a man appeared, bellowing into his phone. As he passed, he didn't even seem surprised when I cursed him for his noisy intrusion into my solitude.
There's a time and a place when cell phones are a wonderful convenience. I carry one but I never turn it on unless I want to use it. That's my protection against the idiots who get drunk on communicating.
If only more people did the same.
We have technological overload these days.  It's confusing. People wonder why the microwave doesn't work after they entered their password. It's so easy to buy gadgets that free your hands while driving, which makes it legal but it still hurts your concentration.
There are couples boasting on the Internet how they have adopted a policy of using cell phones only in emergency or important situations.
Wouldn't  it be more peaceful on hikes or highways or even street corners if more took such a pledge.

Thursday, December 29, 2011



This may seem a tad egocentric but I'm weary of explaining. Besides, I'm a columnist and we're used to poking at our own entrails to see if there's a message for anyone, even the dog.

And while I'm at it,  Merry Christmas! And may all your New Year's resolutions come true! 

Mary and I aren't trying to save on postage but there hasn't been much time to deal with cards in between medical visits. And Mary is about to go to hospital for more carpentry work.

In the Queen's words of the famous Christmas message, this has been an annus horribilis for the Downings. Before I departed in a huff from my Grade 12 class in Latin after a mean SOB Wes Christie accused me of cheating on the Easter exam, I learned that meant horrible year.

Things were so bad  that if I had written friends one of those chatty year-end state of the family newsletters, it would have been banned from most homes.

But back to mopping up!

The other day, Doug Holyday, Toronto's stalwart deputy mayor, lamented he hadn't seen me in the Sun the week before, and he really did like reading my columns.

There are cottagers near me at Burnt Point who tell me regularly that they never miss my column in the Sun.

At a Christmas party, a senior writer retired from the Toronto Star asked whether I'm still writing for the Sun.

Even my relatives have asked.
I tell them to read my blog because the 
answer is humbling, especially for a columnist who feels that he was one of the peacocks, like all the other columnists and pundits think when they're being honest.
Our tail feathers become bedraggled when it turns out readers really don't know whether you're still strutting your views or whether you have vanished into the long night.
 I haven't been a regular columnist for any newspaper for several years, although I do pontificate regularly here.
I only returned from formal media death when the Sunday Sun ran six columns this summer on my experiences during three months in hospital, dubbed "hospital hell", and three columns on the Ex, the provincial Tories and Toronto traffic. (Only the CNE was successful in that triumvirate of opinion.)
So I'm not writing for the Sun but people still think I am. After 50 years in journalism, I actually understand why.
Columnists may be stars in the firmament of their own paper but anonymous to those who read other newspapers. If  any.
Rosie DiManno may appear some days to write half the Star but Sun readers may think the name is a species of flower. Christie Blatchford in the Post and Margaret Wente in the Globe may also be among the finest columnists in North America but if you don't read their papers, they're just some one who may have a vaguely familiar name.  Maybe TV actors?
When I'm interviewed, I scramble to remind everyone I'm no longer a Sun columnist. Yet John Tory on CFRB kept calling me that out of old habits.
 I'm still involved in several boards and organizations and find myself listed as columnist or even Editor of the Sun, a post I retired from in 1997.
Of course some of this is the nice residue of writing and editing in the Sun for 36 years after 14 years at the late and lamented Tely.
From 1971 to 1985, I wrote the first column in the paper on Page 4 five or six times a week, and filled in for Editor Worthington when he took a break from saving the world for democracy.  Even then I scrambled daily to produce columns that were longer than the present versions.
Then I became the Editor, who in those days reported directly to the Publisher, but still wrote two columns weekly, which I continued for a decade after I sort of retired.
Still, readers think I'm still there. It can get amusing. I was dropping off a son in the confusion at the airport and had to squeeze by a bus with an open door. I grumbled loudly at the driver who retorted "Why don't you write a column about it?"
I was as surprised as the day I was standing in a queue and grousing to Mary when a man asked if I was Downing. He was a faithful CBC listener and knew my voice from a decade of a weekly radio commentary. and another five years on a political panel show.
There are those, including Sun staffers, who asked why I didn't continue after nine Sun columns this year.  Well, the editor of the opinion section disappeared, leaving an interregnum between the coronations. During the search I asked about payment. Associate Editor Lorrie Goldstein said in future I would get the amount I used to pay columnists I was trying to ditch, which is less than half of my old column rate. Oh yes, because the "hospital hell" columns had been modified from what had appeared on my blog, I would get only half of even that, and nothing for my pictures. (Even the tight-fisted Star pays $50 a picture to writers.)
And if I wanted to submit more columns, Goldstein, who was filling in for the fired editor, told me rudely, I would have to audition my ideas. After all, I've only written more than 5,000 columns, several thousand editorials and hundreds of blogs and articles, so maybe I hadn't got the hang of it yet.
Gee, I thought, back when we Day Oners started the little paper that grew, I owned half of one percent. How the pioneers have dwindled along with my financial position.
 Finally, SIX MONTHS after my burst of columns, my bank got a deposit for the minimum rate for every column, even a small payment for the pictures. So a new and more sensible editor had scuttled the argument that a paper didn't have to pay even the minimum if much of the material had also been on a blog. 
In evangelical circles, ministers were said to be preaching for a call when they gave guest sermons.  There is also the expression about whether there's a light in the window.
Nope, there was no call here. As for a light in the window, not even a reflection from the Sun.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011



I doubt that anyone was surprised at the Toronto audit report that one out of every five calls go unanswered when taxpayers call the hotline 311 service when they need help with municipal problems.
What I would like to see is an audit report into how many of the 80% of  taxpayers who do get through are satisfied.
Then there are the 10% who have to wait more than three minutes for someone to answer.
So it's not just the councillors who are dysfunctional.
I have had a ringside seat watching bureaucracy at all levels, beginning in 1957. It didn't start well.
I was thrown out of the first political meeting I ever attended, Whitehorse council. The mayor couldn't believe that the kid editor of the local newspaper actually wanted to watch and not just accept what he was told later.
Since then my attempts to observe and cut through red tape have gone downhill faster than an Olympic skier. If you think the politicians are bad, you should observe the uncivil service.
It can be symbolized by the spectacle of the typical five-man city crew digging a hole. There will be a foreman who of course just supervises. Then there is the brown noser trying to become the foreman by not doing anything. Then there is the guy with the headache who sits to one side, the guy who gets coffee and, oh yes, the guy who actually digs.
That is if they're not on their break.
The 311 service is relatively new in Toronto, but other cities like Ottawa and New York have them too. Except in Toronto, only half of the 108 staff meet the minimum daily target of dealing with 80 calls  while in the other cities the average number of calls taken is 90.
But then the Toronto staffers aren't exactly the cream of the uncivil servants. Some are more like the dregs, troublesome workers dumped by their managers when the 311 service began. It was designed to eliminate the mind-boggling 75 different numbers that the public had to call previously to get action, real or pretend.
The absentee rate early this year was 12%. So maybe some of the bosses are satisfied when an employee just shows up and don't mind them answering only 30 calls instead of 80.
The 311 service cost $38 million to establish and $19 million annually to operate. It is said this was a pet project of former mayor David Miller. Good for him!
It's much more useful to Toronto even at half power than all his attempts to strut on the world stage as an advocate for the environment and just about every other darling scheme of the left.
Now if we can only get it to work.
My local councillor, Peter Milczyn, is the politician who has done the most work on the trouble call centre. He grumbles that this great step forward in service was opposed by all senior managers. I would imagine this is still happening, because nothing bugs a commissioner more than workers not under their thumb determining a department has goofed.
This prompts the basic question about just why we need 311 in the first place. Heaven knows we pay city workers enough, so they should be happy to ensure they actually do a good job when they manage to work.
 Most municipal service issues are studied almost to death before they begin. So the grey areas and the loopholes should be known. It's not rocket science!
Yet we have 44 councillors with a couple of assistants each,  the mayor's staff and all the flunkies around each commissioner, who keep telling us how busy they are dealing with calls from the public.
Then there are the constituency offices of MPs and MPPs who also get the calls from all the people who haven't a clue as to who does what in government. Maybe the MP can help with better garbage collection instead of just making more of it.
The city's audit committee wants to see if parts of 311 can be privatized. Perhaps it would  work better if we just outsourced all dealing with complaints to some centre in India where they would answer 80 callers a day even if you aren't always sure what they're saying.

Sunday, December 4, 2011



So my friend Dave Garrick tells me a funny story about medical mistakes.
I laughed, and then I worried.
Dave was famous around Toronto for his wit, community service and leadership at the Ex, CN Tower, SkyDome (which apparently has another name) and Winter Fair. Now he and Joy live in and enjoy Kingston, which is just more proof that Toronto is no longer the greatest place to live because of hassles like traffic.
Dave had an operation recently and as part of the post-operative care, the doctor prescribed a stool softener. When he collected it at the drugstore, the instruction on the vial read: "Take one capsule twice daily into left ear for constipation."
On another occasion, the phamacist gave Dave the medicine for another person, and just to balance things out, gave that person Dave's medication.
I wrote about medical mistakes in my blog on August 15 titled Post-Mortem On Hospital Hell. It was my conclusion to a five-part series in the Sunday Sun and on my blog.
My incidents were dangerous since two could have killed or crippled me.
And they keep happening to the Downings.
I took Mary to the hospital for a wonderful surgeon to check on her knee replacement  that he did several years ago. Now her hip was bugging her and perhaps she needed the other knee done as well as a hip.
 We waited for two hours past the appointment time and then a resident working under the surgeon said she also needed to have X-rays done on her hips as well as her knees. Mary had wanted that done at the start but was ignored.
 So another two hours later the same training doctor calls up an X-ray on the computer screen, shows us the arthritis in the hip area and says that it's up to his boss to make the decision but it seems obvious she needs a hip replacement.
He leaves and as we hunker down in the long wait for the surgeon, I wander over and look at the X-ray. The resident wanders by and I call him into the cubicle. I point to the X-ray and the data listed in the upper right corner. I told him it was the X-ray of a woman 19 years younger than Mary.
No surprise! No apology! He just searched for the right X-ray and came to the same conclusion.
Hospitals now go to elaborate procedures to ensure that doctors operate on the right part. When Mary had her knee replacement, there were eight or nine checks to ensure that everyone knew exactly which knee joint was to be removed. It got tedious but after the old horror stories of the wrong limbs being removed, it is understandable.
I'm sure many of you have received purported stories/nonsense off the Internet about the annual number of deaths caused in the United States by mistakes by doctors, hospitals and pharmacists.
The so-called authoritative studies are permeated by hysteria by the usual suspects. There are also campaigns by activists pushing alternative medicine. I really don't know what to believe.
They say that doctors and hospitals kill more people than guns do. The annual toll ranges from 120,000  up to 250,000. Or so they say.  Stories insist that medical mistakes are the third-largest cause of death in the U.S.
 It's obvious this "menace" would be hard to  pin down because doctors and hospitals aren't running around broadcasting mistakes and the cause of death is often hard to determine.
It's up to you to make sure you're not a statistic.
When I see a doctor, I carry a notepad like I did as a working journalist. I date the page and scribble  the main points.  In the last three years, twice I have found wrong info in my file. There was also the "disappearance" into the system of a morning of crucial esting on my heart. It was only retrieved and studied by the cardiologist after I pointed out the absence.
Medical care today is wonderful but also is a bewildering maze where you have to pay attention and not just take things for granted and every off-hand remark by a doctor as law.
 In the words of the patrol sergeant in the old TV hit police show as he sent his constables out on the street: "You be careful out there."

Saturday, December 3, 2011



When I was a kid reporter,  I was assigned by Art Holland at the lamented Telegram to leaf through the Canadian Medical Association Journal and other medical publications, especially the famous New England one, to see if there were stories the paper could pursue.
We had a medical reporter but for some suspicious reason I got to do a lot of reading. After all, I was the son of a doctor and nurse.
Never did I come across an editorial that resonated through me like the editorial in the latest Journal saying it's time hospitals abolished parking fees for the sake of their patients.
As my beloved grandfather used to shout out during the service in the little Baptist Church on the hill, Amen Brother!
The editorial says the parking charges amount to nothing more than user fees and so are an impediment to health care. In fact, it suggests, there may be legal challenges under the Canadian Health Act.
An example was given about patients who have been waiting weeks to see a doctor who rush through the consultation when they realize they will have to pay more, say $5, for parking if they stay. Since I visit a hospital every two weeks as an outpatient, I can sympathize with that situation since you can wait hours past your appointment time just to get to the doctor and the parking charges can soar.
The Star dug out examples of Toronto hospital parking charges and reported all the usual malarkey from excuse spokesmen about how the money goes to patient care, general operations and research. I know the drill as a long-time member of a hospital board. (We also had a barrage of complaints from  neighbours about all the parking by staff and visitors in front of their homes even though after 60 years it was obvious the hospital had been there long before them.)
After spending three months in four hospitals earlier this year, I can testify in any court that parking costs were a continual headache for my family and visitors. In fact some only came to see me when they figured there was a chance to park on the street instead of paying the $2.50 for 30 minutes at St. Joseph's Health Care Centre.
Turns out that St. Joe's is almost angelic compared to other Toronto hospitals, like the $4 for 20 minutes at Mount Sinai.  The excuse person there said it helped support programs and equipment upgrades. (I thought that was the responsibility of the costly medicare program.) I am being sarcastic when I say that at least Mount Sinai has a $2. At the University Health Network (TGH, Western) it's $28 and $4.50 for 30 minutes.
No wonder outpatients drag themselves there by the TTC. Just don't bleed on the subway car.
I remember a few years ago when my late brother-in-law was in York County Hospital (now Southlake ) in Newmarket that I almost didn't have enough cash to pay for the parking. I had remembered the hospital as a modest operation because over the decades before when I visited my sister who was one of the head nurses, parking was easy and cheap.
 Now even suburban hospitals rush to gouge you so they can balance their budgets. Except for families of modest means, already rocked by the alien experience of having their routine interrupted by a loved one being incarcerated, parking is a significant cost that may well cause some to skip a visit when that may be the best medicine that could be given that day.
Toronto hospitals may pretend they're not in the parking business when they have their lots and garage that can accommodate a thousand or more cars each but it's just another commercial operation like the coffee, gift and sandwich shops.
Oh yes, they do operations on the side, besides the ones on our wallets.