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Tunnel in a teapot

Toronto Police Services' Mark Saunders addresses media about tunnel discovery (courtesy CBC).

Toronto Police Services’ Mark Saunders addresses media about tunnel discovery (courtesy CBC).

Radio, television, the newspapers and most of social media were all buzzing, Monday night, because Toronto Police had found a tunnel a stone’s throw from an indoor tennis court facility in northwest Toronto. It wasn’t just any tennis court. It wasn’t just any tunnel. The tunnel was big enough to live in and apparently pointed in the direction of the Toronto Pan-American Games tennis venue – the Rexall Centre. But when asked at a press conference if he thought the tunnel was part of a terrorist plot, Deputy Chief Mark Saunders had a simple response:

“There’s no criminal offence for digging a hole,” he said. [more…]

What giving 110 per cent really means

Olli Jokinen at first Leafs' press conference

Olli Jokinen at first Leafs’ presser (Toronto Maple Leafs)

I read the newspapers over the weekend. I expected to see news about a trade involving the Maple Leafs. And there it was on the front page of Monday’s Toronto Star sports section. Defenceman Cody Franson is gone. So is perhaps the hardest working forward on the team, Mike Santorelli. Then, Tuesday online, I caught a bit of the reporter scrum involving Toronto’s newest acquisition in the deal, 36-year-old Nashville Predator Olli Jokinen responding to the question: “Are you surprised?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” he told the Star. “Why wouldn’t I be?” [more…]

Gotta versus oughta

17th century historian and writer James Howell

17th century historian and writer James Howell

As I do fairly regularly, I ran into the mayor enjoying a cup of coffee with friends last weekend. As we regularly do, we exchanged greetings. I asked her if she’d taken in a movie that everybody was talking about. She said, what with lack of time and the amount of work on her plate, that she hadn’t. I mentioned that I’d had the same problem trying to get some of my own writing done versus marking the writing of my students. I came up with what I thought was a constructive solution.

“Maybe if we gave half of the time we have available to do half of what we have to do… and then devote the other half of the time we have available to do what we want to do,” I said, “that might be more satisfying.” [more…]

The urge to DIY

Even just knocking down an old garage took somebody who knew what he was doing - not me.

Even just knocking down an old garage took somebody who knew what he was doing – not me.

A good friend of mine – a designer by profession – has decided to take on something new in his life. It’s really only a slight turn in his career. He’s created masterful book designs for Canadian publishers for years. But when he and I recently put our heads together in front of a computer to work on my latest book design, he told me he’d bought a property in a neighbouring community, an older house, one we used to refer to as “a fixer-upper.”

“And I’m doing most of the interior renovations myself,” he said. “I just thought I’d like to try my hand at it.”

“You’re a better man than I,” I told him. And I meant it. [more…]

Liberation not a moment too soon

Ninety-nine percent of the time Larry Mann performed in studio, on camera for voice-over to make us laugh.

Ninety-nine percent of the time Larry Mann performed in studio, on camera for voice-over to make us laugh.

Most of the time, Larry D. Mann was a comedian. In the 1950s, when I met him, Larry would warm up audiences for my father’s television show, The Barris Beat, on CBC. He also appeared in comic sketches on the show. His perfect delivery of punch lines, his deadpan facial expressions and his huge guffaws broke up every audience he ever met. Once, however, Larry Mann made me cry. He described a day in the spring of 1945.

“We weren’t prepared for what we saw when we arrived at the concentration camp,” he said. “We couldn’t get in the front gate because there were bodies, hundreds of bodies, piled up like cordwood. We hadn’t seen the pits yet…” [more…]

The plastic brain

Dr. Norman Doidge

Dr. Norman Doidge

At Centennial College where I work in Toronto, this past week, I faced new students, people with different destinations than my students last fall. As I asked them about their aspirations for the course I was about to teach, one asked about what I do. In passing, I mentioned I’d be interviewing a doctor who believes the human brain can change, adapt, and even heal itself. Curious, I asked the class if anyone had ever had a traumatic brain experience.

“When I was young, I had a stroke,” one student said. “It took away my speech. I couldn’t talk.”

I nodded that her current speech suggested a full recovery. “What happened? How did your speech come back?”

“They taught me Italian,” she said. “I didn’t know a word of it. But in learning the Italian I got my English speech back.” [more…]

Just how cold was it?

That Fort McMurray hilltop where we tried to beat the cold with our introductions, in November 1985.

That Fort McMurray hilltop where we tried to beat the cold with our introductions, in November 1985.

We had been sitting inside our TV crew van for about 15 or 20 minutes, waiting. We weren’t about to venture outside until things were ready for us. Meantime, my co-host – Lee Mackenzie – and I, rehearsed what we would say. We wanted to make sure, the moment our producer called for us to speak our lines in front of the camera, outside, that we could deliver the introduction to our TV show in one take (without any mistakes). Why? Well, our camera location was on a hill overlooking Fort McMurray, Alberta, in wintertime. The temperature outside our van that day was about –40. Eventually, all was ready and we dashed outside, took our spots, rolled the video and spoke our lines.

“Hi, I’m Lee Mackenzie,” she said.

“And I’m Ted Barris,” I said. “Welcome to ‘Monday Magazine’ from Fort McMurray…” [more…]

The challenge of sitting

In their day, paddlewheel steamers cost thousands and took months to build...

In their day, paddlewheel steamers cost thousands and took months to build. I had to build mine in minutes for nothing.

It was one of those moments you can turn into something brilliant. Or, just as easily, one you can see yourself going down in flames. It happened over the holidays. I was suddenly thrust into the position of having to do some babysitting of our grandchildren at our daughter’s and son-in-law’s house. The three grandkids had finished dinner. Their parents had dashed off for some quality time away from the kids. And I had to come up with something creative for entertainment. I asked the eldest grandchild – the six-year-old – what she wanted to do.

“Let’s make something really cool,” she said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but let’s draw it first.” [more…]

Is Christmas relevant?

"It's Christmas Eve" brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.

“It’s Christmas Eve” brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.

A number of Christmases ago, my father Alex called me. He was worried about something. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was facing a dilemma. He had just written a Christmas song and wanted one of our two daughters to record it. Since both were good singers, he didn’t know which to choose.

“Dad, I don’t see a problem,” I said. “They both sing. Why not ask them to record it together? They can sing it in harmony.”

Well, it was one of those times in my life when instinct proved to be bang on. My father approached both our daughters – Quenby, the teacher, and Whitney, the actor/singer – and they agreed to work on it together. [more…]

Rancher prisoner teacher and champ

Noreen and Art Hawtin pose with the sign identifying their ranch est. 1936

Noreen and Art Hawtin pose with the sign identifying their ranch est. 1936

One of rancher Art Hawtin’s closest friends, another rancher in Beaverton, Ont., told me that Art had two personalities. One personality Art exhibited around family and friends, when he was soft-spoken and easy-going. Then, whenever he herded his cattle, he exhibited the firmness and purpose required. When he moved cattle into pens or onto trucks, his friend said, Art seemed to be able to speak to the animals with his eyes and his body posture.

“It was as if the cattle figured that it was their job to get into the chutes or onto the truck,” Bob Robertson told me this week. “Art made them do whatever he wanted.” [more…]