Saturday, April 26, 2014



There's nothing quite so fascinating as shrunken heads.
 I know. I've held them and smelled them and written about them. If I could weave a novel around them, it would be a bestseller.
For some reason, the prominent specialist from Harvard Medical School was chatting about my shrunken-head adventures during my latest, thank God, routine visit.
Just how do they shrink the skull, he asked? And we pondered that for a few minutes, which was more fun than discussing cataracts.
 I didn't know. So I asked my son Mark, the world-traveller who now lives and works in China, and he looked at me like sons do when they realize Dad isn't quite the genius they thought when they were six.
They can't shrink the bone, he said, and wondered just how bright the doctors from Harvard really were.
They peel the flesh off the skull and then shrink and tan and pickle that, he explained.
 Later, when I was checking up on him, since my sons have been known to try to pull a fast one on the old man, I read that the bare skulls then were used by tribes to plant around their borders or in streams to intimidate rival tribes.
I suspected Mark was right, though, because he was the one who introduced me to the legendary Billy Jamieson and his wonderful collection of the bizarre and the fascinating and the unique. You can get a taste of this since Billy died suddenly two years ago on his 57th birthday and Waddington's is selling his war clubs and electric chair and all the other strange stuff but not, probably for legal reasons,  the shrunken heads.
I must talk to his lady, Jessica Phillips, about that, because as I remember it, Billy guaranteed me that they weren't the products of recent murders or produced according to demand.
Once upon a time, Billy was selling a great blue whale skeleton on eBay, and Mark, who then ran some eBay departments, offered to help him by getting some publicity.
Billy sold it to an Arab sheik for  $200,000, a princely sum but only a shadow of the $2 million he got when he sold a mummy which turned out to be Rameses I to Emory University in Atlanta (but that's another story.) He took a shine to Mark who also likes to explore the Amazon and dig up ancient stuff.
So Mark, Mary and I visited his wonderful collection in his lovely downtown loft several times, including the greatest Halloween parties I've ever attended. They were the stuff of Hollywood thrillers.
I have written about Billy before, and this is the second reason I know people are fascinated about shrunken heads. I have written more than 300 blog columns, and something like 6,000 columns and 3,000 editorials, and I now know that all you have to do is put shrunken heads in the headline and your readership soars.
I will spare you all the stories I know about Billy, which my family will tell you is not normal because they claim I repeat everything...often.
But here are the headlines for some:
You may wonder about the bewildering mix of native artifacts and side-show carnie "treasures" in Billy's collection at Waddington's. Some came when he saved Canada's first public museum in Niagara Falls from extinction - which many older Canadians will remember with affection. That's is where he got the mummy which was just one of several being ignored. Most came when he wandered remote spots and yarned with adventurers over the campfires.
He was a fascinating mix of barker, archaeologist and explorer, happily juggling oddities with the macabre and anecdotes about all the caves and crannies of forgotten worlds.
For him, Raiders of the Lost Ark could have been a page from his diary.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Just as the snow melts and I dream of the cottage emerging from hibernation, the bills arrive from Hydro One with the proof that it sells the most expensive electricity in Canada.
I scanned the bills for the cottage and the humble bunkie with amazement at the gall of the provincial monstrosity. Its leaders know that they are under investigation for stupidity, mismanagement, cheating meters and arrogance towards ANY consumer complaint but they obviously have instructed their troops to keep on trucking when it comes to gouging the consumer.
I last wrote about "hydro's cheating meters" on Feb. 24. In it and columns over the years I have detailed with Hydro's figures the proof that there is something rotten in their kingdom.
When I bought my cottage in 1980, it came with the bunkie and its own meter left over from the days it was a second property and occupied by a drunk. So the Kings who sold to me bought it in self defense when the old man died.
I would remove this second service and run it all through the main cottage,  but Hydro and the local electricians have a cabal that makes it so expensive, time consuming and bureaucratic to do such a simple chore, it is frustrating but still easier just to pay the second bill  after wondering at how  wonky the "smart" meter got this time.
Faithful readers will recall that several years ago, when because of illness we didn't use the bunkie at all, its bills were several times higher than the main cottage. Hydro didn't even bother to dream up an excuse because you can only match such silliness with blank-faced stupidity.
Since Dec. 10, 2012, I have paid $393.47 for the 122.25 kWh used in the bunkie, which is nice and has a huge deck but without water is mainly a sleeping and sitting retreat. Each kWh cost $3.22.
For the main cottage, I have paid $768.31 for 2019.47 kWh. So each kWh cost .38 cents.
Yet Hydro One says the rate for residential seasonal, the service type classification for my cottage, is 7.2 cents per kWh rising to 12.9 cents at peak times.
The bunkie now falls under that rate since an old much reduced classification for such minimal use buildings was scrapped a few years ago because Hydro wasn't making enough money.  There are three-month periods when there is no electricity consumed  but I pay $73.20 for delivery, .75 cents for regulatory charges and $9.61 in HST.
And that charge, of course, has just gone up.  It's only gone up 1.4% according to Ontario Hydro but  when I read the propaganda of it and Toronto Hydro, I don't believe a claim or a figure.
After all, the proof of this pudding of figures is in the paying. And in the last 16 months,  power  at peak periods to my bunkie has cost 25 times that Hydro figure. Even if you add the bill for the bunkie used at most a week a year to the charge for the cottage, you have a rate more than four times the figure stated in the propaganda.
Even when you figure in the huge margin of error when you deal with government accountants, that's still a criminal exaggeration.
 You know the line about how many bureaucrats it takes to change a light bulb. Obviously with Hydro One, it's far too many, considering its expenses.
The cottage consumer just can't win. Hydro One has trouble keeping the power on. And when they do, they overcharge.  And when we turn the power off, they overcharge again. 

Friday, April 11, 2014



Sequels are all the rage in entertainment. So let me produce one in hospital care, which is never entertaining.
 This is a 2014 follow to my six-page series called Hospital Hell which appeared in the Toronto Sun and my blog in the summer of 2011.  I wish I didn't have more material but damn it...
I didn't plan to write about this because Mary may be long-suffering but even loyal spouses don't exactly like their husbands writing about their bottoms.
Except I just saw a headline that fills me with dismay: City Hospitals Want More Medical Tourists. The first paragraph in the Star story infuriated me. "Toronto hospitals are unapologetic about raising money through medical tourism and international consulting and, in fact, plan to do more of it in future. And Ontario's health minister says that's OK with her."
Well, not with me. And I heatedly discussed this with the minister, Deb Matthews, in 2011 after my difficulties in being flown back to Canada in a medical ambulance because every hospital here claimed there was no bed for me.
 I don't forget $85,000 in hospital bills for eight days in two U.S. hospitals because of that. As far as I am concerned, and no one I've discussed this with, including doctors, disagrees, I really don't give a damn about foreign aid when it comes down to a question of whether a hospital bed is waiting for me and my family, or is occupied by some rich foreigner.
It is important to realize that I have OHIPERs, the people who pay the bills,  on my side. We don't pay over 40% of the provincial budget on health to squirm waiting for non Canadians to get out of our hospital beds. Charity, health care and OHIP must begin at home.
There are too many painfully waiting for "elective" surgery to acccept the idea that foreigners can get to the few empty beds and vacant ORs first because hospitals will make more from them than from what OHIP will pay  for looking after Canadians.
It doesn't reassure me that Matthews insists that Ontarians must come first and that hospital's international work must not compromise their access.
It already happens.
This is my latest bitter proof. More than three months of anguish began for Mary as 2013 ended in frozen darkness thanks to incompetent response from Hydro to winter.
Off we went to emergency at Mount Sinai because of a rectal prolapse, which is as ugly and awkward as the words. The rectum stretches and protrudes, a curse that strikes mainly women.
Not the way you want to spend the penultimate day of the year in an ER overflowing with need. Yet the hospital's ER chief was around, despite the holidays, and Mary was helped after seven hours and armed with dismal info of what the future held.
Except you need a specialist to function as the gatekeeper to check you out and either operate or recommend a surgeon. It took 16 days to see the specialist who had operated on Mary a few years ago on a similar problem. He announced without even looking that he didn't do this kind of operation. It would have been nice if we had been told that before we got the emergency appointment because of the information from Mount Sinai. I wouldn't have had to skid around the frozen University hospital corridor  in rush hour.
At least he gave us the name of a specialist at Mount Sinai. Phoned and despite the obvious need,  Mary was given an appointment two months later. And she was told in effect not to complain because it could have been a wait of four months.
So I appealed to Bernie Gosevitz, our incredibly busy and able GP who is familiar to Toronto because of Andy Donato's cartoons and columns by his many other patients/journalists, particularly around a huge fund-raising dinner in his honour last year.
Bernie put us in touch with Dr. Ted Ross, associate professor of surgery at U of T, and a colorectal expert who may be busier than Gosevitz, which I didn't think possible.
Dr. Ross did valiant surgery on his appointment book and Mary got in to see him early, meaning only a month had elapsed after the dread day when an ordinary chair turned into an instrument of torture.
So the operation was scheduled. Turned out the first delays were a grim harbinger. Surgery was booked for March 25. Dr. Ross gently explained that Mary was lucky it wasn't in late April because he just couldn't get enough time in the operating rooms of Sunnybrook, the health science centre and giant parking complex on Bayview Ave.
Ross' examination of Mary was my bitter introduction to Sunnybrook's parking charge of $4.75 each 30 minutes, where there seems to be more private security handing out tickets than docs in the emerg of Ontario's leading trauma centre.
Some days, the main trauma in that busy hospital is probably in parking.
Back we came 81 days after Mary's miserable experience began to Sunnybrook for the pre-op interviews, anxious questions and tests.
Just before Ground Zero Day, so to speak, Mary went through the nasty cleansing ordeal faced by all patients needing surgery on their bums, or for procedures such as colonoscopies. By the time we arrived in the OR holding pen, 86 days after all this began, she was so tired that she slept after the anesthetist counselled and lines were inserted in her arms. Since she hasn't had uninterrupted sleep since the start, and a simple bathroom visit is a tedious ordeal, her snores were welcome.
I didn't sleep. I had foreboding, as patients  around us may have returned from operations but nurses  talked about delays.  Finally, Mary and I and several staff were alone.  Dr. Ross arrived to say the hospital had decided it had run out of time for the day and shut down all the ORs. Her operation was cancelled. There had been extra delays due to two ORs needing additional care because of contamination from isolation patients with hospital infections, one with the deadly C. difficile, the other with MRSA, which has now become so common that it was inflicted on me for the three months I spent in four hospitals in 2011.
Naturally Mary was frustrated and I felt like punching a bureaucrat. But imagine how Dr. Ross felt! He said he had been there for six hours and only had been able to operate for two.
After $48 in parking charges for the first two visits, I had enlisted my son Mark to bring us to the hospital. Now he was off working because he didn't expect a call until evening.There was no  answer to my phone calls.
Mary wasn't about to wait in the hospital, not when just sitting had become an ordeal. Because of the prolapse and arthritis, she needed a cane or walker just to hobble to the bathroom. So she struggled to a cab and demanded to be taken home.
We just couldn't catch a break! Royal Taxi has the exclusive deal with the hospital and provides small cabs with rude drivers. The cabby didn't help when I tugged Mary into the cramped backseat with great difficulty.  At the end of the $70 ride, he refused my VISA card, then said there would be an additional connection fee if I insisted. By some miracle, I actually had enough cash.
 (I have complained about cabby 2517 to VISA. I tried to do so to the licensing commission. First the special city info number, 311, gave me the wrong number. After I found the right number, I phoned six times over three days and never got an answer. No wonder our cabs are sloppy.)
The operation was rescheduled for April 8, now 100 days after that first grim run to Mount Sinai. By some miracle, that day started smoothly because we had had sort of a "dry" run, Mark had stayed from his job in China to help and we actually made it to Sunnybrook  and back without taking out a second mortgage for parking.
It even looked like the operation could be early. Then hours evaporated. I paced. I listened for gossip, like two weeks before when someone said they had 25 patients in the ER and no beds and Mary was cancelled at the OR door. Now I was getting ready to push her bed myself into the nearest OR.
Thank heavens! They took Mary away and for the first time in 100 days, we had real hope. Bliss was Dr. Ross telling me more than two hours later that everything had gone fine. I felt like kissing him but Sunnybrook probably would have charged me with sexual assault.
My sister, Joanne, a veteran head nurse, was incredulous when I told her they only planned to keep Mary for the night. We hoped Dr. Ross would give a day or so of reprieve. But the hospital phoned at 8.40 a.m. and told me to collect her. By the time I had survived the rush hour, and arrived, nurses had phoned three more times because there had been stabbings and they needed four more empty beds at least for starters.
Yet Minister Matthews lets the hospital establishments say there's plenty of elbow room to let foreigners buy their way in to service. That bugs me more than the fact that the Canadian Medical Association and other groups have said for several years that hospital parking charges are hurting medicare, yet no changes have happened.
Unfortunately, Mary and I may be fans of medicare but we have been victims of what happens when you need a bed or an OR for "elective" treatment where you are not going to expire if medicrats drag their feet.
After my 2011 Hospital Hell series, the health minister phoned to tell me she was having officials and the industry investigate my complaint that Canadians face horrendous medical charges while waiting to return from U.S. hospitals because Canadian hospitals put such patients at the bottom of their wait list because, after all, they already are in a hospital.
Since the vultures that control travel insurance will cheat, steal and prevaricate rather than pay your bills or make you suffer first if they finally do pay, you want to get back to Canadian hospitals ASAP.  They're often better and they're nearly free,  except for the parking.
In my case, TIC Travel Insurance officials dreamed up phoney excuses not to pay my $85,000 American medical bill,  based, they said, on evidence from my doctor's files. Except Gosevitz said they were wrong. It took 55 letters, six months, legal threats, appeals to the ministry and a newspaper series to force TIC into paying. (Those initials still make me feel like vomiting.)
 By the time the ordeal ended, I had two U.S. collection agencies after me and had to wear an awkward  therapeutic air pump every minute of every day for a year. The cost to taxpayers was enormous because I required 129 home visits from CCAC community nurses because of the deep bed sores that inadequate care at St. Joseph's gave me.
 It took 11 months after I was first incarcerated in two American and two Toronto hospitals before the operation at a fifth hospital, Western, and then another one the next day in the sixth hospital,  St. Mike's, tidied me up and restored me to reasonable health.
Believe it or not, it all started when I became ill on the way home from Florida because one of the more trivial body parts, my gall bladder.
There are enough problems for Ontario hospitals to solve before they hunt for "medical tourists." Administrators should be forced to sign a certificate for every foreign patient they accept stipulating that there is no one from Ontario that day waiting for admission.
Enforce it by fining every offending hospital. For starters, confiscate their parking revenue for the day.  As for the minister and hospital CEOs who think everything is okey-dokey, let them wear adult diapers for 100 days as both Mary and I have had to do because of their incompetence.



I have reached the years where my friends read the obits in the papers first.
I don't, because if I manage to get  up, I know my name isn't there.
I write about a trio of passings who were honourable hard workers who wore well on the rest of us because they were decent and able and understood BS without flinging it like a Jays pitcher on a bad day..
Back in the mists, I remember a song that became far more famous than the singer, Kitty Kallen, who made it a huge hit. The key line was "little things mean a lot."
And they do for me because they matter more in politics and journalism and life in general than the big set pieces, the big deal performances, whether the budget speech, the huge scoop of a headline, or some grand formality of camaraderie.
It's how you act when the lights are on someone else that are the measure of the man. I have never forgotten that the legendary Johnny Carson, during the two-minute breaks for commercials, ignored totally his guests with whom he chatted with charm when the cameras were live.
Jim Flaherty would probably have been as good a premier and a better prime minister. Willis Blair was appreciated but should have had a bigger platform. Vince Devitt was the sort of tough experienced veteran that any good newspaper needs in its spine.
I remember one agreeable August morning when we were opening the Ex and I found Faherty standing alone and unannounced to one side of the crowd before the ceremonies. We gossiped about how things were going in the quiet days in Ottawa and at Queen's Park, the circuses he had dominated with the ease of the ringmaster.
I said of course he would have to say a few words, and he said that wasn't necessary, but we both knew that with an election coming, no politician of his worth would ignore any crowd larger than a couple.
Turned out, however, that when I raised this with colleagues running the opening, they were opposed because the invited dignitary was a provincial Liberal minister who had given us a grant.
 I said Flaherty may be a Tory but he was also the federal finance minister, the second most important politician in the country, and you just don't ignore such a man. Besides, I said, he was a pro who would give a short graceful speech and not raise partisan hackles.
 Flaherty performed as advertised. And everyone was pleased that someone of such note who had been coming to the Ex his entire life had said a few words without us having to go through the normal hassles of getting a major operator to the fair.
He may not have been big like Blair, a baron of beef in a blue double-breasted suit who had been East York mayor, but you could imagine a scrappy Irishman dominating Princeton hockey back in his scholarship days.
For Blair, baseball was the game and long after  he had left formal politics, we would chat at Jays game because he had been a loyal supporter from the start and very helpful in the bargain $17.8 million conversion of Exhibition Stadium for baseball. (If only all our stadium deals could be so economical and easy on the taxpayers.)
Blair was into curling too and brought the World Junior Curling Championship to East York in 1975. It produced a sports anecdote I will always treasure. As part of a PR stunt to promote the event, Blair had the reigning champs from Switzerland play Don Chrevier and two CBC types, with me as lead. We won 4-0 and enjoyed watching their supercilious smiles at the old farts freeze to frowns.
Blair and I were in the City Hall cafeteria one day when a man shyly came up to his mayor for advice. He volunteered that Blair didn't know him but about a minute later, the guy would  have thought Blair knew the age of his kids and how many dandelions were on his lawn.
If only all our councillors could have the common sense and good humour that Blair had even in the face of some of the stupider votes and rhetoric of the lefties whom he deplored.
The provincial government knew his worth, had him on the OMB, the supervisory planning board,  and had him tackle municipal assessment, always a thorn in the side of everyone associated with the issue. Blair's shrewd report as a commissioner for Premier William Davis stated baldly on the first page that something like 2.1 million properties in Ontario paid no municipal taxes at all.
Just how the hell does that happen, I demanded of Blair. He said it happened "by hook or by crook," an old English expression meaning by any means necessary, whether that meant crooked bureaucrats and assessors, or just properties that had managed to escape detection.
Afterwards, there were a lot more people paying municipal taxes, although Blair in his agreeable  way never boasted about reforms.
With his encyclopedia knowledge of Torontonians and politics, Blair was a stalwart source, one that as a reporter, columnist and editor I relied on to give me the inside on what was going on without malicious overtones. I would imagine Devitt did the same, as a veteran of everything in newspapering who ended up on the inside as a press secretary to Premier Davis.
Devitt and I went through the wars together, and shared many of the same scars, whether the wounds came from provincial and federal elections and leadership contests,  or whatever  the major story was.
At the end, I was the editor and he was the reporter on whom I had to depend to sort Star blarney from Globe fiction.  On several occasions, thousands of dollars in street sales depended on the advice he gave me minutes before the edition.
For example, the Saturday Star had a headline story during the 1970 kidnapping of James Cross, the British diplomat, about FLQ terrorists hidden inside the wall of a house being searched by police. The Mounties had leaked such a story to the Star but Devitt, the Tely's main man on the story, couldn't confirm it. I finally decided, based on Devitt, not to "scalp" or copy the story,  so the second-largest  edition in the country came out that noon without that exciting angle.
Devitt never mentioned it to me again, although my bosses certainly did because of the loss of sales. He expected that the Telegram would do the honest thing for its readers and not repeat a phoney story.
He repaid me in a way weeks later when I was in Montreal to buck up our troops. We all ended up in the lamented Montreal Press Club, a normal gathering after big stories then.
A Boston Globe reporter announced he was about to beat the shit out of me. As I turned to face him, Devitt inserted himself. I was the biggest and youngest in the coming fight but for Devitt - and Flaherty and Blair for that matter -  you always jump in to help your friends.
The Globe reporter warned that we should be careful because he had been the boxing champ of the U.S. Marines. (Strangely enough, that turned out to be true.) Devitt replied: "Screw you, I was a Toronto bartenders.) (Which he had been to get enough money to attend Ryerson Journalism school two years ahead of me.)
And that was that. We didn't even stop drinking. After all, it was only 5 a.m, and these were the glory days of newspapers when work consumed your life.
These are the things you remember when you sift through the obits,  after you are grateful that you haven't yet made it into print, the faces and events that will never fade.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014



The number of Ontario public employees paid out of taxes who made more than $100,000 last year has grown 11% to nearly 98,000, but public outrage hasn't thundered out against the traffic cops, parking ticket officers, jail guards and assorted civil servants who make a lot more than most of us thanks to overtime and inflated salaries.
In fact, a respected news letter out of the Legislature called Inside Queen's Park has noted the lack of fury and the fact that it wasn't raised during Question Period and suggested the annual list be scrapped because it's not worth the bother.
That would be unfortunate. I have often referred to the compulsory reporting of maximum compensation under the Sunshine Law and suspect that many find it useful, even if they don't foam at the mouth because we have become too accustomed to the outrages.
I wonder what has happened to my old friend Bono, who now advises Tory Leader Tim Hudak on verbal strategy from speeches to questions.
Does the volcano slumber?
Surely Mark Bonokoski, after decades as a reporter, columnist, editor, commentator and publisher with the Sun chain, hasn't mellowed to the degree that he thinks the overburdened middle class accept this guff, especially as they run around pulling together all the info they need to pay too much income tax.
I shared an office with Bono during some chaotic days, when he marched around rehearsing his invective, bellowing into an unneeded phone to his buddies about his latest cause. It was a wonder that afternoon that the murderer could get through to tell him the cops had arrested the wrong guy.
I know his feelings about overpaid civil servants. Wotinhell is going on, Bono, the opposition should be going after the provincial treasurer, Charles Sousa, who was silly enough to say the latest Sunshine listing shows Ontario runs the leanest government in Canada.
What crap! Is that a civil servant thanking him, or do they aim lower down?
Why do I keep thinking of blaring brass bands when I listen to barrages of hot air from some guy named Sousa?
This rich "cream" making more than double the average wage curdles to a nasty total of $12.5 billion. That's disgusting in a province that now has a debt that some said erroneously was larger than California. That would have been obviously wrong in the old days, but it's nauseating that spending grew so gross in Ontario that we would even be mentioned with a state that was so notorious for  financial ruin before its death bed conversion.
There are plenty of  Grit bull's-eyes around to shoot at but the Tories should blaze away at this one too because the New Democrats certainly won"t.
The average guy, according to StatsCan, is struggling to get to $50,000 a year. The average woman is concentrating on just keeping the job where she earns less than the guy.
You think it doesn't bother them that some cop lounging in the back of traffic court, or some parking  ranger circling the glory pits around hospitals, is making more than $100,000 a year when some of the time they'r just struggling not to doze off.
You think it doesn't bother the robbed middle class that the shuffle of incompetents out of political offices, which is greased with platinum handshakes and deals on benefits, is the only time we hear of changes in departments and agencies.
I think we should continue the law forcing the reporting of public pay over $100,000 but give it another name.
Rogues' Gallery.  Most Unwanted.  How You Wasted Your Taxes.