Wednesday, December 19, 2012



The best Christmas lives only in your memory.
All the nonsense is forgotten, if you're lucky. All you remember is the nice tickling of your senses and your heart.
Despite the hassles and family nattering, it's still the nicest time of the year, the only holiday that still means something to me in our frantic commercialism of the calendar.
If you want to see a Christmas when I was a boy in Chesley, a modest town of 1,800 near Owen Sound, look at those cards with paintings of old: Snow flakes floating down on horse-drawn sleighs, skating on the river, snowmen (never a snowperson) on lawns, Christmas trees glowing softly in parlour windows as if they were dressed in jewels.
No house bedecked with outdoor Christmas lights and trappings behind the snow banks. Hydro was too costly for that, especially in Chesley.
Back in the 1940s, a sturdy team steaming in the cold each hour pulled a sleigh full of sawdust past our house from the sawmill to the big furniture factory to feed the boiler. In 2012, the sawmill is just a scar beside the Saugeen that powered it. It burned decades ago. The sprawling factory was demolished along with all those jobs. The factory whistles, which marked the work day, keep time again only in my nostalgia.
My big sisters and I have reason for bitterness when we look back on our humble lives in the tiny house near the tracks when our dour Dutch grandparents took in the orphans. The house was heated only by the cook stove which also heated some water. The outhouse was in the back kitchen, papered with GE calendars of generators.
Yet Christmas was a joy in our lives, even if most presents were clothes, which is never the way to a boy's heart, and there was never anything fashionable for Joyce and Joanne.
The plump golden turkey appeared in ads but not on our table. We had a  skinny Leghorn that was at the bottom of the pecking order from the backyard pen.. Yet it tasted like a butterball delight, and for once I got  seconds.
There were carols for the final school week at the start of each day that were broadcast all the way from the Big Smoke. We lined up in halls that were always too hot from the radiators and sang along with the early shoppers and sales clerks at Simpsons. It was a great department store, now vanished, which is a shame because it was a great place to shop.
Just imagine! Carols in schools and no mention of Hanukkah or that contrived Kwanzaa. PC jerks and activists with nothing better to do say carols and Christmas concerts in school are the devil's spawn. They should look in the mirror if they want to see anal evil because ours was a tolerant society that really believed in peace on earth and goodwill to anyone who wasn't busy murdering our traditions. Multiculturalism hadn't been invented yet, and immigrants were expected to integrate.
Newsweek says that the war in favour of authorities, card companies and stores not being afraid to actually use the word Christmas has been won. It points to the decline in media stories of silly folk banning creches, carol sings etc. I hope the magazine is right (too bad its print edition is about to vanish.)  But it sure hasn't sunk in yet with everyone, particularly with Toronto schools who are so busy being correct, they probably feel the devil should get equal billing, and that since some feel that there never really was a divine Christ, let's not mention His name until he reappears.
There are those who will say that they know all about my Christmas romanticism after too many years of reading my sentiment and my hatred for all who don't recognize that a Christian Christmas is a fundamental part of the elusive Canadian identify that welcomes everyone as long as they don't truck in their fights and garbage.
Friends and family will claim that my annual tales of frozen ears and pantomimes and treasured bananas are something I repeat in loving detail if a tree ornament even threatens to drop.
But this year I have a new story, one I had never discovered in the constant mining of my memory when I listen to the happy and solemn music of the season, like the Queen of Carols. And I swear that if I am ever near a singer who jazzes up the simple majesty of Silent Night, I will crush their chords.
I have fond memories of the kids I left behind when I returned to Toronto for most of high school. Chums who kept me going when times were tough and my spirit melted like an icicle in spring. I remember fondly every girl in my class because they were kindly and even sisterly to the thin geek in spectacles who wore hand-me-downs from antiquity.
We were all supposed to have sweethearts. After all, there was Becky in Tom Sawyer. So I told everyone that my sweetheart was Nancy from just up the street, although I never held her hand or kissed her or even exchanged a confidence. Then there was laughing Sheila with the red cheeks, who I still see to exchange school tales. But I did have a yen - if that's what you call it just before the hormones really kick in - for a tiny girl named Mary who lived just around the corner.
She descended on me decades later at a reunion. She had married a medical specialist and moved to the States and he had died and she returned some of the year to a cottage. She began by talking about the years she was madly in love with me.
But you never let on, I said.  I couldn't recall any secret moment, no trying out of my wings as I grew older, just one party where some of our class had skied, and some had ridden sleds that they had outgrown, and I had just stomped around trying to limit the frost bite to my feet in the tight rubber boots. Then we were back in the pleasant living room of her house at one of those kid warm cocoa evenings that you wished would last forever because any petty jealousies were subdued.
Mary told me that she had confessed to me in the old public school a few weeks before it burned down, to our delight, that her family wasn't going to have a Christmas tree. I extracted the reasons: there wasn't much money, her father, a professional, was a bit different (he drank,)  but the final blow was he didn't believe in Christmas or in Christmas trees.
I was horrified. My grandparents bought nothing beyond the bare necessities but even we had a tree. And there were gifts, even if too many contained socks. We had Christmas stockings, even if they were filled mainly with oranges and hard candy stuck together.
But Mary told me all these years later about how I had come to her rescue. I had an interesting relationship with my teachers since I was one of the better students even if I specialized in getting the strap. (I set a record of 85 times in Grade 3, but I suspect I made the record up myself.)  So I would get 100 in an exam just before I was exiled to the gloomy cloakroom and the aroma from the winter armour mounded there in great ripe masses of galoshes and boots and mittens and wet coats and scarfs.
I confronted the principal, according to Mary, and pointed out that this was Dec. 24 and we were going home early after playing some silly games and that meant the school Christmas tree would have no more use because when we came back in the new year, all the needles would have fallen. I didn't tell him why I wanted the tree.
He didn't want to give it to me. Perhaps he worried I was asking for a favour. In that school and in that town, he was God and favours were few. Apparently I offered to buy it, although I doubt I had more than some quarters hidden at home. This apparently made him mad, but I hung in there, figuring that it couldn't get any worse. It was already going to be hell for me in January. Finally he gave me the tree IF I removed the ornaments. I lugged it several blocks to Mary's home, slipping in the snow, and then had to talk the tree into the house. Mary borrowed ornaments somewhere but I don't think she could get one of those strings of lights where none work when one is burned out.
And that was the end of her story.
Now I sound like a Huck Finn in shining armour, a paltry Sir Galahad. Yet it's hard to preen as a good guy when you don't remember one titch of the story.
After Mary told me how wonderful she thought I was then, and how she had put me on a pedestal, all I could lament was that she hadn't told me how much she loved me back in those nervous pimply days when it took half the night at a school dance for me to screw up enough courage to ask one wallflower to stumble around the floor with me.
Fifty years too late! It might have changed my life!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012



So David Miller, the vanished mayor, and his chums who are trying their best to make Rob Ford vanish too, have succeeded via the back door of red tape mischief to try to kill the Gardiner expressway again.
Don't be fooled by all the half explanations that all those annual repairs to the expressway didn't happen because, well, make up your own version rather than the cockamamie stupidities that have been dreamed up to date.
Attempts to tear down the Gardiner over the past two decades finally faltered because the excuse that it barred the city from the lake became ridiculous when it turned out that a great condo mass was being built or already existed between the workhorse road and the water.
There were reports that cheated so badly on the stats, they popped like a ripe boil. Bureaucrats, goaded by council's anti-car left wing, diddled with the figures like a pornographic priest. The number of cars that one of the busiest roads in the world carried daily was reduced, as was the cost of a replacement, while the costs of repairs and renovations were exaggerated.
We actually need a new study just to sift out all the cheating from the old reports. If a consultant liked the expressway, there was no way they got to work on any report dealing with its elimination or renovation.
Turned out that real city opinion, which hasn't really been tested by the latest polls, was that those who paid attention agreed that the city needed the Gardiner for fundamental traffic reasons and to tear it down would be like blowing up half the bridges going to Manhattan. To really replace it on the ground would have created a wide band of roads that would have been more intrusive than the overhead Gardiner. And Robert Fung and all those zealots talking about what the anti-car folk accomplished in Boston never mention that it became a embarrassment locally as its costs multiplied like bunnies at Easter.  And it took a century to complete, or so it seemed. But we should remember that it was the most costly public project in U.S. history, a dubious accomplishment that it probably no longer holds because of all the botched public projects in the United States - or in Canada and the world for that matter.
I have no wish to return to all the old debate, except to point out the basic discrimination against suburbanites and commuters from the GTA, ignored by the downtown activists, was enormous. Surely people that daily drove the road had as much of a right to look around at the lake and the Island and the skyline as those who lived in the crammed condos along its route.
Sure it's ugly. Like a furnace or a sewer. But just try doing without those ugly essentials. Turns out that public opinion which in the end made demolishing the entire Gardiner to be a political non-starter because it is so dumb and costly has been ignored inside the City Hall bureaucracy. Why? Probably because the top city officials and radical planners are paid so well they can live downtown and don't have a daily commute. They can cab it or bicycle to work on their 10-speeds while plotting to screw up the 80% of the city that moves around in vehicles and find the TTC to be awkward and time consuming.
Let's remember too that TTC riders get giant financial subsidies from city taxpayers. If we're going to go to some form of computer pass, which of course has grown enormously in development cost, one idea would be to bill the occasional rider like me, a lot less for say the first 10 monthly trips, and charge the most to those daily users who are getting far more benefit from city taxes.
Make the user really pay, a slogan which alarms the socialists and gLiberals who believe the upper and middle classes only exist to subsidize unionists and the hoi polloi.
We need a new traffic evangelism at City Hall that says a thousand cars are more important than 10 cyclists. It should remember that much of the TTC runs on roads too, and there is a transit responsibility not to interfere too much with the private vehicles that carry four out of every five Torontonians and GTA freeloaders but also make ALL the deliveries.
Ever try taking a couch home on the subway. Ever try getting from the Etobicoke Creek or the Rouge to downtown without packing a meal for the trip, like they did in 1850.
The fact that an expressway is falling down because city workers weren't even spending the minimum put aside for maintenance is far more important to me than several thousands dollars in donations to poor high school football players.
But just look at the time spent on alleged conflicts by the Star and the left when one of the most useful city assets is allowed literally to rot. Don't be fooled by the Star's rediscovery of the Gardiner issue, because it's just another way to shoot at City Hall, or the left's pretence that it has nothing to do with the infrastructure rot under the Miller Lites.
The gridlock caused by the anti-car zealots at City Hall, egged on by downtowners who are most happy when they're not bothered by suburbanites, has become a costly mess and an international embarrassment and drawback.
For shame!

Monday, December 10, 2012



When famous institutions vanish into the memory of only a few, friends of long ago can die almost forgotten,  far from the men and women with whom they once spent most of their waking time
And so it is with the Toronto Telegram, founded in 1876, died in 1971, leaving behind 1,200 employees, hundreds of whom never worked again, certainly not in the newspaper business. Gone were the curling and bowling leagues, the yarning over coffee just down from the pay office that used cash until it got robbed. Coming to work was like a long visit with your favourite neighbour. Most parties revolved around work, and some became legendary.
Ray McFadden died May 7, 2011 but it took 18 months before I learned the news. He was 93, so death was no surprise, and many of the reporters and photographer with whom he spent decades had gone before him.  He was a familiar face in Toronto evenings because he never worked days. So if there was hockey at the Gardens or a celebrity to be shot at Front Page Challenge, McFadden often was there.
Then the Tely disappeared and he moved to Markdale, away from the lanes he knew like the back of his hand. And so the glare from his flash went away too. But I hope not his nostalgia because there were good times before the early morning poker games in the darkroom.
McFadden bridged between Speed Graphics and #5 flashbulbs, and the elegant by comparison roll film cameras and strobes that transformed his difficult business.  In its day, as big a change as the digital cameras of today. With each improvement, the number and quality of pictures that you could take quickly exploded, and the job became simpler.
McFadden and I lived together for a year or so before I got married, and we took a great trip to Hawaii which we tried to finance by shooting a travelogue. It was shown on Channel 9 but I never got to see the final product of pineapple plantations and pounding surf. And I never got any money either because McFadden knew how to squeeze a buck.
We called him Gaylord, because he liked women and they liked him. My strangest date came in Honolulu when I came back from buying some Bacardi to find him in our closet tapping out Morse Code to the next room. He had been in the RCAF in the second world war teaching the dots and dashes and somehow had found the only two women who still could read the code were vacationing in the next room.
The evening went downhill from there.
I hope there was an old Tely hand at his funeral because we have grown fewer in the last 40 years. I remember the funeral of George Kidd, once such a fixture on the entertainment scene that he was given a lifetime pass to the Symphony when he retired. I was the only one from the Tely at the service and there had been only one other Tely visitor, Frank Drea, the tempestuous labour reporter and Ontario cabinet minister.
I envy the annual pages in the Toronto Star where they keep track of the service record of all their employees. At least they do one thing right. Unfortunately such a page at the Toronto Sun would be out-of-date in a week.
I can't say I'm an ardent fan of Facebook, especially the contributions from those who feel they have something to say every day, and they don't generally. But Facebook is nice in helping you track old colleagues. Even from the 1960s. I just came across Sylvia Sutherland, quickly accepted as a good Tely reporter before she became a stalwart Peterborough mayor,  talking to Jack Hutton, a Tely education reporter who was one of the best beat reporters I've ever seen.
Facebook mimics what we used to have in towns where you knew just about everyone, or when you worked at a company that had been around for decades and there seemed to be people who had been there from the start. Like an extended family with the grumps and precocious and quiet and vain, and the guy who always knew the latest joke.
But it will never be the real thing.

Sunday, December 9, 2012



Just getting to the annual luncheon of the Hall of Fame can be challenging.  But I keep my mouth shut when I get there among the wheelchairs, walkers, white canes and cheerful disabled Canadians who face accessibility challenges every second.
It is my annual kick-in-the-ass, something to think about when I feel sorry for myself.  I am fortunate when you consider what life has dumped into the lives of many of our neighbours and friends and that chap just trying to limp across the slippery street and survive.
There were friends at the Hall's 19th annual induction ceremonies who asked how I felt. After all, I spent three months in four hospitals last year and came out unable to stand or walk. Just sitting was a chore because of the enormous bedsores that St. Joseph's Health Care Centre let fester over my tail bone.
Since one questioner was Anne Johnston, the feisty former councillor who had driven to our jammed downtown from near Peterborough despite her walker (and the pacemaker that has now improved her life,)  I  kept my reply to a few words, which would astound my family.
Johnston has a lifetime of work for the physical disabled. She is an original member of the Hall's selection committee, as I am, but she and others, like the chair, David Crombie, the Hall's creator,  retired senator Vim Kochhar, and the happy warrior, Linc Alexander, brought an amiable knowledge to the process that I can only envy.
The Canadian Room of the Royal York, once the largest banquet hall in the country when the old hotel was THE hotel of Ontario, was filled with those who know personally what it is like to plan each day like chess moves because just going from A to C makes B difficult.
I remember when levering myself into a wheelchair and just moving around my hospital room took 15 minutes. When I could sort of walk again, I went to the opening of the 2011 Canadian National Exhibition because as the former president I had always been assured how accessible we were.
They gave me a new scooter which I so jammed into an elevator corner, I was afraid I couldn't get out without a small crane. I fled the building only to face doors so heavy, it took two smiling families in tandem to get me through.
Right now some readers, or those having this read to them, will tell me to get on with it because now that I can walk again, although occasionally when tired like a drunken sailor, I have left the disability world behind me.
No, I could never forget the Hall, a pantheon of 86 Canadians such as Edwin Baker, Rick Hansen, Bob Rumball, Whipper Billy Watson, Cliff Chadderton and Jeff Healey who left their names engraved on the histories of everything from wrestling and football to jazz, the CNIB and War Amps. And let's not forget David Onley, who was a best-selling author and TV personality before he reminds us daily with his presence as the Queen's rep in Ontario about all those who just can't move around easily.
(What, you say, where's Terry Fox? The hall originally bore his name and supported his wonderful cause but the family for some bizarre reason wanted to remove his name.)
Tracey Ferguson, one of Canada's most accomplished Paralympians, winning gold medals in wheelchair basketball in three world championship and three Paralympics, is an honourable addition to the Hall which trumpets our world contribution in sport and administration to the Paralympics.
Ann Caine is the inspiration behind the Sunrise therapeutic riding and learning centre which has so often been the source of those media pictures that tug at you when you see a little crippled kid perched on a big horse. Learning independence on the back of an accepting animal.
Robert Hampson is only 20 but has had lifetimes of chemotherapy, needles, operations and trips to emergency. It doesn't stop him from his commitment to Variety Village and competitive swimming.
Joyce Thompson, a former colleague on the Hall's selection committee, is remembered for her prodigious contribution to the deaf-blind who she once described to the Sun as an entire hidden population with no support. She certainly provided decades of that before her death.
When Mary and I left the luncheon, moving carefully because of her hip and knee replacements, I refrained from my usual cursing frustration at the mazes that pedestrians and motorists must endure at such major intersections as Front and Bay and Front and Spadina. We are herded like cattle, that is when we can move at all in the confusion where escalators often don't work and stairs are like mountain slopes.
Just a more arduous passage for Mary and me. Not like those we left behind when the mountain of the downtown hotel is like a medieval castle with moats and drawbridges and the enemy is your dwindling energy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012



I am on a bed of pain, meaning a supposedly comfortable dentist chair, when I overhear an animated conversation in the next cubicle about Mayor Ford and that stupid conflict-of-interest charge. Then comes talk about Olivia Chow as his successor.
And that makes the pain increase.
To know her is not to like her. Translation?  To really know her as a politician is to think that she is best as a defeated candidate. An old line that I've stolen so far from the past that I can't remember who first said it, saving me from a charge of being a deliberate plagiarist.
Yet I see from some polls that Chow, the widow of former NDP leader Jack Layton, is rated highest among candidates to replace Ford if he is turfed from office by judges too circumspectly blind not to see that a stupid law is being used to kill rather than give the strap.
And I say that as a columnist who wrote the columns that led to the conflict-of-interest conviction of Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, where there was major money involved, and also of two trustees who were teachers but didn't bother to refrain from voting on teachers' pay.
Ford handled himself here, and in too many other issues, with all the subtlety of an overweight tank. Except this was hardly a secret issue. There was a very public debate about whether several thousand dollars should be repaid by him to donors who didn't want the money back after they responded to solicitations for a charity for poor high school footballers run by a councillor/coach who used City Hall stationery that, unlike his critics, he bought himself.
There should be more praise for Ford for helping poor kids to play high school football. I played on a championship Weston Ironman team in second-hand high tops where the cleats had worked through into my feet. I like his passion for coaching kids. To hell with leftwingers who make it sound like he's running masturbation classes.
But let's not be distracted by Ford's floundering into his own legal swamp from a discussion of Olivia Chow's gigantic unsuitability to run anything, whether it be a dog house or Canada's largest city. Unfortunately, we already have too many lefties and gLiberals running around politically pickpocketing.
Just like Chow.
She benefits, of course, from having been married to Layton. And they certainly were a power couple, double-dipping on anything they could extract from taxpayers in living allowances etc. Layton became a huge public hero by dying before his shortcomings became more obvious on the national stage.  We certainly knew all about him in Toronto where he harvested only 32% of the mayoral vote after a council career where he was noted more for obstructionism than achievement. And Chow is still floating on these cushions of approval that mystify many of the politicians who served with both but don't want to say publicly what they really think because it would sound like they're kicking icons in the teeth.
My introduction to the fact that Chow was hardly, as they say on the back concessions, the sharpest knife in the drawer, came one morning when a Metro Morning producer phoned just before 8 a.m. to plead with me to debate Chow at 8.30 a.m. on some issue dear to the heart of NDP councillors but of little interest to a conservative columnist.
I had done a weekly radio commentary for the CBC for more than a decade but had been shoved into the penalty box for being nasty about some left-wing idol. So I agreed to participate, thinking that the CBC would thaw about me as a regular paid talker.
I cleaned her clock. I even felt sorry because she was so inept in making her case when she should have had every fact memorized. Maybe I was too successful because the program never called me again but kept Chow as a reliable manure-spreader of socialist propaganda. She has always made a comfortable living as a political animal who has never seen a left-wing cause she doesn't want us to fund.
I disagreed with just about every position that Layton took on anything but I found while working with him on his Open College show (students could earn a Ryerson university credit via the radio) that there was almost a candid amiability about him in debate. His public service while being mortally ill was wonderful. And it is fortunate that academics like him don't sit on their doctorate in a cushy tenured post but actually get into the trenches even if he was on the other side.
Yet his rep shouldn't dust the widow with credibility. And Chow as mayor would be destructive to those of who care about reducing public spending. She would undo any accomplishment that city council did under Ford in cutting spending and contracting out. One of her former colleagues disagrees with me when I say she's not that bright. He argues she's quite good as a strategic thinker for all the right politically-correct causes, which makes her a deadly enemy of the policies that swept Ford to power.
It's nonsense for her to project an image of being a humble achiever when she and Layton, who was born in prosperous circumstances to a father who became a federal cabinet minister, were more silk-stocking Rosedale socialists, to use an old expression. If you don't know what that means, consider left-wingers like John Sewell, who became mayor,  or Gord Cressy, the councillor and vice-president of two universities and various charities, who came from rich homes to bug the rest of us about how little we do for the lower class.
There are councillors who think that Ford can win a byelection if judges thwart the electorate wishes and force that on the city. There is a better chance of Ford doing that if the right doesn't split the vote. Remember that Sewell got defeated by Art Eggleton because Paul Godfrey and his backroom boys persuaded Tories and Liberals not to have any other candidates like Eggs.
Fortunately for Ford, two logical candidates will not run in any byelection. And both would have been better mayors than he was even when he was winning.  Doug Holyday, the deputy mayor, would have achieved fiscal improvements without alienating as many supporters. And John Tory is a talking mouth at a sinking radio station and enjoying the time he spends with his family while remaining somewhat in the public eye. If only he had run in the real election.
Council's left wing is not as certain to unite behind Chow who, after all, is already living comfortable as an MP. There's Adam Vaughan, who still thinks he's a TV wise guy, Shelley Carroll, who is probably anonymous even to her cousins, and Karen Stintz, who still sounds as if she is taking speech lessons.
It is to be hoped that we will not have the expense of a byelection. To do so because of this alleged conflict of interest would be bizarre. If Torontonians really want to punish Ford (and his support has eroded quicker than a snowman in May because of policy belly flops) they can do so at the next real election. And there are reasons, not this supposed conflict, to do so. After all, Ford has proved to be a mayor who may have his conscience in the right place financially but his brain is out to lunch.
Shakespeare, as he normally did, got it right when he wrote "a plague on both your houses." It could be the battle cry for all those yearning for a mayor who isn't Ford or Chow.