Sunday, January 29, 2012



Wings, the first movie to win an Oscar, is also remembered in the golden footnote in Hollywood history as the last of the great silent movies. So it has just been released on Blu-ray. Now its distinction as the only silent movie ever to win an Oscar must be shared with The Artist.
Somewhere, Sterling Campbell is giving a dashing smile, just like his buddy Douglas Fairbanks for whom he was a stand-in on quiet days.
Not that there were many lazy days for the handsome pair.
Campbell's link between Toronto politics and fabled Hollywood was not really known to his neighbours on leafy Rowanwood Ave. in old Rosedale. Yet he had drank and danced and fought and directed some of the greatest names in movies. There was even a marriage to a famous star that he never ever talked about. So feature writers from other cities came calling even if the local media ignored him.
When Sterling sat and yarned over rye in the upstairs library of the big old house, with his proud wife, Margaret Campbell, sipping and smiling with him every minute into the wee hours, the talk was not of Maggie's career as a renowned lawyer, alderman, MPP and judge, but what Buddy Rogers and his wife Mary Pickford (always called Toronto's own) had done.
The flames from the fireplace would throw dancing lights over pictures of Sterling with his arm around just about anyone who was anyone in movies.
The first time he mentioned the 1927 movie Wings to me, he did so modestly, not mentioning it was the first movie to win an Oscar. His connection was enormous. Officially he is listed as the technical director of flight sequences, the supervisor of the famous dogfight scenes. Unofficially he not only flew in the sequences (he had been a World War I flying ace) but he also did some acting as he also developed his technical skills that would make him famous half a century before computer tricks.
It was his limp from a war wound that was noticed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille,  who admired veterans. So he worked with C.B.  (which he said was largely standing beside him as armies clashed below and then being told which of 31 takes should be printed.)
He worked with Howard Hawkes too, but fought too much with Howard Hughes to stay on his movies because Sterling didn't believe his guff.
His friends were the stars. He lived with Gary Cooper, the unknown whose career was launched by Wings. He danced with Clara Bow who was the star of Wings and was having a secret affair with Cooper. He golfed and joked with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and drank with Errol Flynn. He told of visiting W.C. Fields in the hospital where a stunning redhead offered him, to his puzzlement,  a vase of flowers and a straw. The vase was filled with gin to be hidden from the doctors.
His success in Wings was noticed, because Hollywood loves a winner, even if Wings was very expensive for its time. So Sterling was involved with any Hollywood movie with pilots, especially the famous Dawn Patrol.
Naturally he was pressed into service in World War Two, which came to a shuddering halt when he was smoking on deck during a blackout. A kid naval officer told him to put it out and Sterling put him out. The difference in age was enormous so the brass decided it would be safer in PR if Sterling resigned rather than be courtmartialled.
He came to Canada to direct the movie Bush Pilot and stayed to work on the early CBC series called Cannonball which is still remembered in nostalgia binges.  His life had been rich enough that he was in Ripley's Believe It Or Not but he retired to Toronto politics which was to be his third war.
The fires still burned. He threatened to get into the ring and punch out a much younger B. Michael Grayson, his wife's ward partner, who he thought had been rude to her.
 Maggie wasn't exactly a shrinking violet either. She had been a spy for Canada in World War Two and was so tough on pimps, one threatened to bomb her house. That night she went out with me and walked the so-called Sin Strip to show she was not intimidated. She was propositioned twice in five minutes and I had to play bodyguard to get her away from her horny admirers.
She only slept several hours each night because of all her energy (she claimed the rye was medicinal.) So she read and wrote and published several who-dun-its under a pseudonym. She was a loyal Toronto Maple Leaf baseball fan and had season's tickets beside the dugout. The players were intimidated by her formidable presence. She seemed a Rosedale matron but then the players found she could curse better than they could.
She got more than 50,000 votes but lost in the 1969 mayoralty race, then went to the Legislature as a Grit. I squeezed into the last pew at  her funeral with four "captains of industry," as we used to say.
Today we would call them a power couple. They sure were fixtures at all the best city events.
 I worked late at City Hall. After I was through chasing the latest silly stories, I headed for the Campbells and the tinkling ice and the library where in the pictures coating the walls, Sterling was dancing with Mary Pickford or mugging with Clark Gable, big toothy grins under their debonair moustaches. And Maggie would listen with fond attention as Sterling fleshed out the pictures, her deep rumbles of laughter punctuating the night
I should have taken a tape recorder along, but that would have ruined the mood. After all, he was reminiscing, not boasting, and it was  nice to sit there as the fire crackled and the liquor burned too and think of yesteryear when the movie stars were the kings and queens of our imagination.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012



I'm an expert at losing weight. After all, as they say, I've done it so often. I've lost hundreds of pounds over the years but now, believe it or not, I easily stay below my highs.
What prompts these confessions of a former fat man? Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his wingman brother are trying to woo their way back into some semblance of popularity by dieting. Which is the thing you do every January, whether you're the mayor or a well-aged pundit.
Someone objected to me saying Rob had a piggish look but he does and will until the fat melts. He's hardly handsome but he will look OK when (and if) he loses 50 pounds.
After all, at 330 pounds, he should be seven feet tall, but he's not. When you're only five foot ten, you should stop talking about football - he doesn't really appear to have played much university ball - and start talking about eating less and enjoying it more.
Believe me, I know.
My wife confessed after several decades of marriage that she and her girlfriends had discussed whether she had hooked a fat guy.
I ate a lot after marriage. But then at the old Tely when I was City Editor and surrounded by free food and booze, I really got heavy. Maybe 280. So I read that a famous U of T prof named Harding LeRiche was testing appetite suppressants for the Ontario Heart Foundation.  I signed up.
I shrank to 230, which had been my weight playing high school football. ( I was one of the heaviest in the league. Obviously an eternity ago because now even the cheerleaders are heavier.)
The pills sure revved me up. That hit home when I passed the bulletin board in the City Room and found that someone had posted a petition pleading with me to stop the diet pills. It seemed everyone, including the copy boys, had signed. Seemed the City Editor was considered a tyrant.  I didn't even know that the copy boys could spell the word.
My weight went through the yo-yo boom-and- bust cycles familiar to big people. You get used to buying your clothes in big men shops and having a second slice of apple pie with cheese. And then comes January and you lose 15 pounds, for a few months before ice cream season.
One day I went to a new doctor for some ailment that had literally crippled me. It turned out I had gout,  and my former doctor was so dumb he couldn't figure out a rather common condition.
While I waited, I stepped on the scales and discovered I was 319.
It shook me. Migawd, I thought, Billy Shipp, one of the legendary linemen of the CFL/NFL, was put on a diet when he hit 300. The Chicago Bears had a famous 300-pounder nicknamed the Refrigerator who even plunged for a touchdown. Now I was 19 pounds heavier than athletes with notorious weights.
Bernie Gosevitz, one of the world's best doctors, came in and peered over my shoulder at the awful figure.
I quickly took the pledge. "You don't have to say a word," I said to Dr. G. who was too heavy himself. (I don't really deep down trust diet advice from experts who have never been fat. I remember Shakespeare's famous lines where Caesar says: " Let me have men about me that are fat. Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much."
Caesar was certainly right about Cassius, just as I'm right when I say the Cassius of Ontario is Dalton McGuinty, the premier who could use a few pound as much as a higher IQ.
Each month after that first visit to Bernie I was lighter. And Bernie kept his mouth shut. I would hit plateaus, and float, say between 270 and 280, but then I would graduate to a lower plateau.
  1. You have to make it obvious that you know you're too heavy. Don't kid yourself. Confession is good for the waist line. We were making TV commercials for the Toronto Sun and something wasn't quite right about my script. I was supposed to talk as the Editor about how we were a lean paper compared to our obese competitors like the Saturday Star. I scribbled some changes and showed them to the ad agency and our promotion people. They were surprised I would say it but thought it was just right. Which is why the TV audience heard Downing say that he was fat but his paper wasn't. The family didn't grumble at my bravado but friends did.Then I evolved into just being heavy.  Although I still had a big stomach, which Santa used to call a pot belly and our grandparents said was a bay window. (I had a disadvantage in dieting because my height and weight were inherited, which is common, since my father was also six foot two and big and my mother was six foot.)
  2. Things settled down a few years ago. My weight floated between 240 and 260 and I could now wear a 48 rather than a 54, and my shirts no longer had to be a 19.
How did I do it? By eating less. I still eat everything but there's only one piece of pie. And I try to walk and swim. Exercise can be a problem since I love to swim long distances. After  1 1/12 kilometres in Memorial Pool or around the cottage at Burnt Point, you inhale just one slice of pie.
Lately,  I can't swim because of bed sore ulcers that have lingered for nine months after my three months in hospital. The only good thing about being incarcerated in hospital hell was that my weight now varies between 215 and 220 which is great for blood pressure and just about everything else.
My suggestion to Mayor Rob and his brother and all the other dieters this January? Keep on eating what ever you want but just eat less. If you like chocolate chip cookies, have one, not three. If there are still Christmas chocolates around, let someone else empty the box.
I used to start the day with oatmeal, tomato juice and green tea. In my campaign to keep that weight near what I was in high school, I skip grains 99% of the time and mourn my loss of cheese bagels from Tim Hortons.
My breakfast is a Downing smoothie from the blender: tomato juice, cinnamon, banana, apple, pear and flax seed. Good for all parts from prostate to heart. And it allows me to cheat just a  tad later.
Oh yes, you don't have to starve like a fasting monk. Just feel virtuous every time you eat less, whether it's a forbidden goody or Greek yogurt. And if you don't feel like a brisk wall,  just stroll. Studies show that's 70% as good as the joggers pounding by you, who will need knee and hip surgery while you're still ambling along smelling the flowers.
Oh yes, find a doctor who was heavy (fat) once. Never listen to sanctimonious dieticians who have never known the joys of a cheeseburger or a grilled cheese sandwich. I still munch such delights, after discarding half the bun or bread.
After a few months,  not only will you be slimmer but hopefully so will  Mayor Ford.  Now if only that happened to the city budget.


Monday, January 16, 2012



What used to be the only phone company - and it acts as if it still is - is known to investors as BCE.
As I discovered years ago in a newly fashionable museum, the mystifying initials of BCE also stand for Before Common Era, as non-Christians, the PC folk and academics ditched the old dating system of AD, or Anno Domini, to mark exhibits that dated before the birth of Christ two thousand years ago. Using BCE instead of AD started small in the 1700s and has become very in.
The two meanings for BCE come together in my mind because the phone company operates as if it were a couple of thousand years old, at least in technological terms.
I am almost embarrassed to admit I'm still suffering with Bell because most logical people would have ditched it long ago.
Although now Bell has lost me, the final blow, or the telephone pole that broke the camel's back, having come with the latest bill. A petty sum but I hate being gouged even in petty ways!
Once again I'm embarrassed to confess I actually still pay some monthly bills and don't have them  automatically deducted from my bank account. The reason in Bell's case is I don't trust it to dip into my bank without scrutiny because lately bills have been as mystifying as the accents when I call the call centre located in India or beneath the polar ice or some place other than the best country in the world which needs such routine jobs.
When I pay via TD on line, I dutifully authorize the payment a few days earlier than the due date, as instructed, although I notice the bank can process the payment the same day when it wants. (Are the banks making money on this?)
 Lately there have been problems with Amex saying it got the money from TD late, and my cottage phone payment being credited to my home phone account.
By the time I straightened that one out, Bell said I owed nine cents for a cottage phone that is out of service. Not really a big deal.  Only nine cents. But Bell's computers charged a "regulated" late payment fee of thirty seven cents and then $2.20 for a late "unregulated" fine.
So the nine cents became $2.66, which my son Mark informs me - since my arithmetic isn't great - is 2,855 % in penalty.
It's not that long ago that such amounts when it came to fines or credit card charges were considered usurious and illegal as well as immoral.
And if Bell keeps doing it without us rebelling, BCE stock will be worth a lot more than the current record of around $42.
I don't know anyone who is happy with Bell service. I wrote on Dec. 30, 2010, about the screwing up of the "do not call" list, and also on Sept. 3, 2009 ( The Wrong Number of Bell ) when the staff's  incompetence left us without service for nearly two weeks.
Unfortunately for Bell, its bill arrived the same day as a brochure from Primus.  So I know that I don't have to pay $25.02 for basic service (Primus $9.59) or $6.95 for long distance (free with Primus) or $2.80 for touch tone (.40 with Primus.)
The one that really galls me is the $6.95 for "wire care maintenance" so a Bell worker will come inside your home without charge.  Since phones are so inexpensive, you just can throw away a phone that doesn't work, these days it has to be a line problem if there is no dial tone.  (Oh yes, at the cottage, I have to pay $2.95 monthlyfor a phone, even though it's my phone, or Bell won't give me the rural service.)
I'm not recommending Primus because I haven't done comparisons with other companies. All I know is it's obvious there are better deals out there, and there aren't penalties of 2,855 % when either the bank or I goof and are allegedly slow with payment.
I feel like I've just kicked an old lady down the stairs but Ma Bell hasn't been serving tea or any service  for years.

Monday, January 2, 2012



And so I greet the new year with mental scars, real scars and a wound on my bottom which won't heal.
When people wish me Happy New Year, I say 2012 has to be a improvement because there's no way it could be worse than 2011.
When unsuspecting neighbours and relatives asked me about my three months in hospital, I said that if they really wanted to know, I have a 20-minute lecture. And there's a PowerPoint and 20 pictures that I can download to any pad or computer. I pretend there is a test afterwards, and anyone who gets over 50% wins an autographed copy of my essay on what to avoid with hospitals and travel insurance.
Strangely, no one wants the lecture.
For all those incarcerated within the OHIP system, and all the relatives and friends who brave the exorbitant parking costs in order to visit, I have two laughs, even if the first is more bitter than funny.
I wade each day through my emails about alleged jokes and great pictures. I pass on only about 1%.
But I just received one about the sweet grandmother who telephoned a hospital and asked timidly if it was possible to find out the condition of a patient.
Now as many of us know,  often that would be refused on the grounds of confidentiality and general cussedness but the hospital operator took pity.
"I would be glad to help, dear," she said. "Just give me the name and room number."
The grandmother in a trembling voice said: "Norma Findlay, Room 302."
The operator said: "Let me put you on hold and I will check with the nursing station."
After a few minutes, the operator reported: "I have good news. Her nurse just told me that Norma Findlay in Room 302 is doing well, her blood pressure  is fine, the blood work just came back normal,  and her physician has just scheduled her to be released tomorrow."
The grandmother said: 'That's so wonderful. I was so worried. God bless you for the good news."
The operator replied: "You're more than welcome. Is Norma your daughter?"
"No," the grandmother said. "I'm Norma Findlay in Room 302. And no one tells me anything."
Now this Internet anecdote is circulating with a tag saying it's real and happened at St. Joseph's.
And I believe it because I was a patient in St. Joe's for more than a month and got most of my info from my family.
One of my nice hospital visitors was an old friend who walked from his central Etobicoke home, just like he had been doing from his office at University of Toronto where, armed with his doctorate from Johns Hopkins, he teaches a tough stats course mainly for graduate and doctoral students.
Despite all the walking and paddle tennis even in the cold, he developed chest pains which they were sorting out at Trillum Hospital. The goods news was that the side with the pain was OK but the bad news was the other side needed a triple bypass.
So the cardiac surgeon came to see him. And Paul, who prides himself on all the work he has done over the decades to put names and faces to his students and not treat them as anonymous blobs, said to the cardiologist that he looked familiar.
"I took your course," the surgeon said.
And Paul replied: "If you didn't get a good mark, I would be happy to fax in a higher mark for you."
And everyone laughed, and everything was fine, and Paul got home in a fraction of the time that I spent in hospital.
There are a million  stories in the hospital system of Ontario. And few of them are funny.