Saturday, October 30, 2010

Stopping that Gravy Train Might Not be so Easy

What did he say? “We have to stop the gravy train?” Or was it, “We have to stock the gravy train?” Rob Ford uttered those words so many times over these past months that sometimes they sounded blurred. But he had one message throughout his campaign for mayor and he stuck to it: “End the wasteful spending, lose the perks, cut the taxes.”

If he isn’t careful, he’ll end up “stocking” the train rather than “stopping” it. And if he doesn’t deliver early on, he won’t be back after four years. “The party with taxpayers money is over, ladies and gentleman,” Ford declared during his victory speech. “We will stop the gravy train once and for all! We are going to get the city back on its financial feet.”

There is no end to the clich├ęs; the words spill out of his mouth like a song he can’t stop singing.

61% of the Toronto voting population came out to vote on October 25th—the largest turnout the city has ever seen. And with over 50% of the vote (he was declared mayor ten minutes after the polls closed), Ford has a clear mandate to put his plan into action. But first he has to make some friends on council. He may have a few already, but he’ll have to scratch a lot more backs if he wants them to jump on his bandwagon. Let the politicking begin!

Forty-four councillors with forty-four different platforms. These leaders may have some concern for city-wide mandates but, at the end of the day, they are there for their own ward, and that’s who they’ll be fighting for. As respected Toronto businessman and former candidate John Tory said, “Rob Ford has his work cut out for him to get his agenda implemented. He has the pulpit, but not necessarily the power.” Tory’s advice: “Do a careful excavation and build on strength as opposed to cutting things down.”

Spending cuts sounds great in theory, but two billion is a lot of cash. Adam Vaughan, city councillor for Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina, said, “If Ford chokes growth there will be adverse consequences. You need to make big changes to come up with that kind of money.”

The unions may create further roadblocks. Ford says he’ll negotiate in good faith with them, but he is going to open the gates to full, transparent competition. They didn’t like him to begin with so it will be interesting to see how this not-so-warm-and-fuzzy relationship unfolds. Both sides will have to move their backs away from the wall if there is any chance of conciliation.

After Ford’s win, unions like the The Central Ontario Building Trades, representing over 60,000 Toronto construction workers, are reeling. Six days before the election they threw their support behind Smitherman (abandoning Pantalone because his chances of winning were near impossible), but to no avail. They were Miller supporters all the way and doing battle with their nemesis will likely end in deadlock.

Ford’s message was clear, concise, and well-communicated. But sounding good isn’t the panacea to Toronto’s problems. Now that he has jumped on the tracks, we’ll be watching to see if he has the ability to slow the train down let alone stop it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Highway to a Heart Attack

Weary, stressed, and often late. This is the common plight of Toronto drivers. Contending with multiple routes disrupted by construction, or roads closed because of events such as parades and marathons, motorists are losing their patience and clamouring for action—before a heart attack happens at the wheel. Make sure you have your health card handy in case you need to make a detour to the hospital.

What to do? Call a city councillor, elect a new mayor? The mismanaged roads in Toronto are a travesty. We think of ourselves as a world class city, but our road infrastructure is about as leading edge as our dysfunctional subway system. As I write this, my husband is trapped on the Gardiner once again, inching his way home after a twelve-hour work day. He called an hour and a half ago to say he was en route; the drive should have taken thirty minutes from downtown to our west end home—I’m keeping his chicken warm, but maybe he’ll be too stressed too eat it.

My husband could have taken the subway to work instead this morning, but since it broke down yesterday, he thought he’d take the car. Seems that the better way is just as bad. But the TTC is a whole other story.

How long can this go on? People’s lives are being impacted adversely almost every time they commute. A half-hour drive should not turn into a ninety minute road trip each time we travel in and out of the city. The Jameson bridge midway across the Gardiner has been under construction since the spring of 2010 and will not be ready until the fall of 2011. The closed exit and the reduced lanes are the source of constant gridlock. Funny that whenever I pass the site, the workers are nowhere in sight; maybe they’re busy fixing the subway.

Driving-induced stress is no small concern. I’d like to see a study on how many accidents occur because of highway construction and reduced lanes. I’d like to know how many people have heart attacks or strokes or anxiety attacks because of the increased stress caused by traffic congestion. Studies show that our blood pressure goes up while we’re stuck in traffic. What is the impact on healthcare costs? And how many working hours are wasted while trying to get to our jobs.

Sure, the city needs to maintain roads and highways, and to allow for recreational activities like marathons, but perhaps it’s time to review the pitfalls and benefits of how these things are implemented in our city. Does one section of a major highway really require eighteen months to be repaired? Must we use downtown streets for marathons? Do two important highways need to be closed at the same time?

Play some music and relax while you’re stuck in traffic, a therapist recommends. Think of something positive; imagine yourself on the beach. Make eye contact with other drivers and smile, a well-intended website suggests.

Solid solutions are not straightforward. They require consultation, collaboration and communication—and perhaps a municipal shake-up. For now, how about investing in more expedient highway repairs, which can only help the economy through increased employment and ultimately, a more productive workforce. And as far as road closures are concerned, a little planning goes a long way. Shutting down two major thoroughfares on one busy Saturday does not make sense. Let’s get all our ducks lined up and figure out a plan.

This city tries to heal and repair our traffic problems with Band-Aids and knee-jerk fixes rather than make the investment and perform the crucial surgery that’s required. But the Band-Aids keep falling off and the operating costs become greater as the injuries get worse. In the meantime, drivers are at risk of becoming road-weary and sick. As the city population continues to grow and our citizens continue to age and rage, we’ll need more than a few Band-Aids to keep our roads and our drivers from breaking down altogether.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A New York Jaunt, an Intriguing New Film

My friend Trish and I flew to New York City last weekend to attend the feature film premiere of my actor cousin and her writer/director husband’s debut movie, JIM. I’d heard about this work in progress during intermittent visits over the past several years and was always intrigued by the latest developments. I recall our conversations about the screenplay as it was being written, the production plans, and the film shoots, which took place in St. Louis, New Jersey and NYC. Produced by the husband and wife team Jeremy and Vanessa Morris-Burke, the indie sci-fi film drew a large crowd on its opening night.

Jeremy Morris-Burke, who wrote and directed the movie, is a talented and tenacious entrepreneurial type, with a diverse theatre background and a highly creative imagination. Once he had the story in mind, there was no stopping him. My cousin, Vanessa Morris-Burke, is a New York stage actor who has performed in various productions and has worked as a theatre producer.

Playing the cancer-stricken wife of the soon-to-be widowed Jim, Vanessa takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. We’re devastated by her prognosis, encouraged by her near-recovery and then bludgeoned by her sudden demise. Her dying scene is so authentic that her mother (the executive producer of the film) cries every time she watches that scene. A review in the New York Times noted that Vanessa’s work “stands out” in the film.

Notwithstanding my 'cousin' status, I was immensely proud watching Vanessa's dramatic performance. My friend Trish, perhaps a less biased critic because she’d never met Vanessa before, was equally impressed. The lead actor, Dan Illian, also making his film debut, came across a seasoned screen actor, immediately drawing us into his character’s miserable plight. The rest of the acting, the music composition, the special effects, the filming and editing, all came together in a seamless way, engaging the packed theatre for the full hour and forty minute duration.

After the movie was over, we were treated to a Q & A session, where the producers and some of the cast and crew provided insights about the making of the movie. When Jeremy was asked, “What’s next?” he said he needed to focus on the film’s distribution and then take a breather, but I got the feeling from talking to him later that he’s also itching to move on to his next project.

Here’s the plot as described on the film’s website

‘Jim’ is a new science fiction drama that juxtaposes a seemingly inevitable near-future of genetic commercialism against a distant post-human dystopia. A desperate, unemployed widower seeks to salvage his legacy by hiring Lorigen, a biotech firm specializing in genetic wares, to create an enhanced child in memory of his wife. Meanwhile, a corrupt industrialist presides over a dead planet awash in genetic inferiority. Nature intervenes and these two worlds converge through an impossible shared dream which will make or break humanity for the long haul…

The film offers a powerful vision of the difficult choices that advancements in science and technology will be forcing people to make in the not so distant future.

Click on the above website if you’d like to see the trailer and if you want to learn more about the movie and the people behind its creation.

As a writer, I know how difficult it is to make headway in the cash-strapped, competitive, ever-struggling world of ‘the arts’; it often takes years of doggedness to finish a project and then additional years of tough slugging to get your work out into the marketplace. You also need really thick skin to withstand the slings and arrows of rejection and criticism. To put things in perspective, Stephen King wrote five novels before he finally got published (Carrie was his break-out novel).

My hat goes off to Jeremy and Vanessa, the production team, and all the cast and crew who joined forces in making this movie a reality. JIM just may be the precursor of the blockbuster waiting to emerge. The Village Voice, the first and largest alternative newsweekly in the U.S., says, “His (Morris-Burke’s) technical virtuosity and thematic ambition mark him as a filmmaker of promise.”

What a thrill to partake in this occasion and to experience the palpable excitement surrounding the opening of a new film. If you happen to be in LA this week, or in any of the places where the film will be playing in the next few months (see the website calendar), be sure to check it out. You will see a mass of young talent who are sure to reappear in other great projects down the road.

JIM is playing an extended run at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village until Oct. 21.