Wednesday, July 28, 2010

the real deal

You've heard me brood about not being a real artist, or a real cook, or even a real firefighter (until I rescued a real cat), but you have to wonder: how do you know when you're a "real" anything?

Take writing for example. Does typing a blog post every couple days make me a real writer? How about getting paid to write an article four times a year? Ah, the magic word . . . paid . . . money . . . now that certainly must be a determining criterion . . . or is it?

What about a chef from Atikokan who cooks but doesn't get paid. Is he therefore not a real chef? But he is a real chef because he has a real chef's license.

Hmmm, maybe that's what it takes. A license.

But what about a terrorist? There are plenty of unpaid terrorists who don't hold a license from the Al Qaeda School of Terror, but if they blow up even one plane or bus or building - or even unsuccessfully try like Bloomer Bomber - we all agree that they are real, honest-to-goodness terrorists, and lets lock them up and throw away the key and . . . don't get me started on that topic.

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's the Deeper, Inner Self that makes you a real something, aside from dollars and diplomas.

Except that when I was a bushwacker, a fisherman asked me as a "professional" (in other words, real) logger, what chainsaw brand I recommended. My Deeper, Inner Self cared as much about logging as a dolphin cares about Death Valley. I was just earning a wage until I could find something else to do. But the fisherman saw skidders and chainsaws and hard hats and piles of logs, and to him, I was the real deal.

Maybe that's what makes you real. Having the paraphernalia and doing the job.

But what about the rookie firefighter that has turnout gear, a pay cheque, an ax, and possibly even a diploma from a real fire school, but has never actually been to a fire?

Or a volunteer who doesn't have a diploma, doesn't get paid, and doesn't have any fancy equipment, but has put out lots and lots of fires?

Or a guy like me, who rescued a cat, and has done extrications and fires, but has never dangled from a helicopter, or dove into a raging river, or worn a hazmat suit, like the real, real firefighters?

This is getting more complicated by the minute.

I have friends in Toronto and Fort Frances and Thunder Bay that say I'm a real firefighter, but that's only their opinion. The Province of Ontario says I'm a real firefighter, but that's just a bureaucratic legality. How do I really know?

Years ago at a train derailment, a hazmat technician bluntly asked if my crew was qualified or just volunteer (my captain is still convinced he said real or volunteer). He only wanted to know if we could do the job. We had trucks and hose and tools. We had training, and legal standing. None of that mattered. Like John the Baptist said to Jesus, "Are you the real deal, or should we look for someone else?" [Sorry scholars, that's a paraphrase, not a real quote.]

In the end, that's what makes us real. There is no one else to look for in the 80% of Canada we protect. And if we quit, or fade into the scenery, or dwindle in numbers through attrition, we have a problem that is more real than the realest real writer or cook or firefighter that ever was.

(Real writers probably don't write sentences like that, but you get the point).

You can read my train derailment story (and see some of my non-real artwork) here, and read more on my identity crisis here.

After all that, I still don't have peace for my soul. I'm not even a real volunteer. I'm a paid chief of a volunteer department. I'm one of those hybrid guys that doesn't belong to a firefighter union or serve my community purely out of the goodness of my heart.

Volunteer vs career. That's a really scary topic, but someday I may just have to talk about it . . .

Sunday, July 25, 2010

technically nutty

I considered an attempt at technical writing once . . . for about ten seconds. That's how long it took me to realize there are plenty of smart firefighters out there doing a superb job, and that my two cents wouldn't add much to the smorgasbord of good information already out there. Besides, I don't think I could actually nail myself down to a serious topic long enough to finish it. So I stick to ramblings about firefighting in the peripheral edge of the universe, and other topics that amuse or infuriate me. If that's what you like to read, you're in the right place.

Fortunately, it's possible to make a valid and useful point without getting all serious, and "you'd better listen because your life depends on it." And so I poke fun at politicians and bureaucrats and oil barons and terrorists (and similar species). I even throw in an
original, pencil-sketched comic once in a while.

Unfortunately, just when you think you've scratched the very tip of the iceberg called "being good at something," you find a guy that is a million times better.
Paul Combs doesn't write a lot on his blog, but he doesn't have to. The artwork says it all.

If you counted the words I've written about the plight of rural volunteer firefighters, they would number in the thousands. Paul comes along and
says it all in one masterpiece. I'd like to be jealous of talent like that, but it's more useful to cheer him on. Go Paul!

Speaking of things I'm not technically good at, here is another recipe (non-cooks, and good cooks may be excused from class now, unless you want to stick around and laugh at me). I call it Pseudo-Mexican Chicken because, like my writing, I'm not diligent enough to research a genuine Mexican recipe. It's much easier to make something up. Here goes:

Pseudo-Mexican Chicken

  1. Skip to step 8 if you live an uncomplicated life.
  2. Negotiate a deal with your wife: she paints the boat, and you cook dinner (after you help her prep the boat for painting, which is at least half the work).
  3. Note: Step 1 is optional if you already planned to cook dinner, and/or you don't have a boat to paint.
  4. Note 2: The whole recipe is optional if you'd rather paint than cook (now we're really on a rabbit trail).
  5. Realize you have nothing new and interesting to make with the 5 chicken thighs you dug from the freezer yesterday.
  6. Remember the goofy recipe for chicken and Stilton Cheese that you read in your daughter's Geronimo Stilton book. Look unsuccessfully for the book, then give up and invent your own recipe.
  7. Now you can finally get down to business. And hurry, your wife is almost finished painting the boat (I told you that half the work was already done).
  8. Take the skin and fat off the chicken. Vow to negotiate this into her side of the deal next time.
  9. Use a food processor or some kind of chopper thingy to make bread crumbs out of a heel of bread (or take the easy way and use store bought bread crumbs).
  10. Mix the crumbs with parmesan cheese (I did about a 1/3 cheese, 2/3 crumbs ratio).
  11. Note 3: You’re supposed to use Stilton cheese, but I didn’t have any.
  12. Get sidetracked Googling Stilton cheese. Here is a link to expedite your side trip (for the cheese scholars among my readers).
  13. Add chili powder, garlic, basil, and salt to taste (it takes quite a bit of chili powder to flavour the coating), and mix into the coating.
  14. Beat an egg with a small amount of milk.
  15. Roll the chicken legs in flour, dip them in the egg/milk mixture and roll in the breadcrumb mixture.
  16. Put the chicken in a lightly oiled cast iron frying pan. Oh yeah, you should have preheated the oven to 350 right after negotiating the cooking/painting deal. If you didn’t, do it now and go read a different Geronimo Stilton book until the oven gets hot.
  17. Put the whole frying pan in the oven.
  18. Note 4: If you used one of those modern, plastic-handled or Teflon things, you’re plumb out of luck. Cook it stove top or find another pan.
  19. Bake until done (I think around 30 min.). When you stab the chicken with a fork, the juices should run clear.
  20. Take out the chicken, transfer to plate, and cover to keep warm.
  21. Put the frying pan on medium heat and stir in a cup of chicken broth.
  22. Add garlic, chili powder, basil, oregano, and salt to taste.
  23. Add a few tablespoons of cream cheese and whisk into the sauce.
  24. Thicken with a little flour or cornstarch if necessary. Alternately, you could add more cream cheese. Depends on how fattening you want the sauce to be.
  25. Note 5: You probably already know how to thicken stuff, but if you’re really stuck, send me a comment and I’ll help you out.
  26. Add some chopped, cooked shrimp and stir in.
  27. Serve the sauce over quinoa, couscous, or rice (which you should have cooked while the chicken was in the oven). Don’t forget to eat the chicken too.
  28. If you don't know how to cook quinoa, couscous, or rice, Google it.

Someday I'll add a recipe blog page to list all of my pseudo recipes in logical order. Or at least list them. Logical order might be too strong a term for a pseudo cook.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

legal tightropes, artistry, and semi futile rantings

If you've been reading, you know what I think about the precarious legal tightrope that firefighters walk, sometimes without even a proper safety net. Turns out I'm not the only one that feels that way. Check out this link to Paul Combs blog and also his website. You can read (or reread) my latest article on ludicrous liability issues here.

I like to sketch. Paul Combs, who resides in a different creative solar system, is a true, honest-to-goodness, real artist. My art is a kindergarten drawing exercise. His is the Sistine Chapel. It's awesome that Michelangelo was reincarnated as an Ohio firefighter with a message. He tells as much of a story with one picture as I do with a thousand words. You'll likely see more links to his work on my blog down the road.

Somebody must have heard my whine that the media and the world were ignoring the Wandering River dilemma. I found an article about how the good firefighters from northern Alberta have successfully gained a few new recruits, but I don't believe they are completely out of the woods yet. The politicians make noises about helping, but I'll believe it when I see it. The general attitude of government toward volunteer firefighters is, "You've been doing this since the time of the dinosaurs. Why stop now?" and "Police and ambulance don't have trouble recruiting, what's your problem?" It could have something to do with the dollar figure poured into one police officer being more than the whole annual budget for a department like Wandering River. This article contains vague promises of "short and long term solutions" and the Alberta government being "committed to this department," but again, I'll believe it when I see it. Prove me wrong, Fire Commissioner Trent West.

Someday when I'm king of the world, this will all change. Volunteer firefighters will have state-of-the-art equipment, and shiny new apparatus, and mansions with three bay carports full of Mercedes Benzs and Lamborghinis. But for now, you'll have to be satisfied with an ant-sized fire chief jumping up and down on his peripheral edge of the universe blog platform, shaking his tiny fist, and threatening to unleash fury from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the Great Lakes to the Arctic unless governments wake up and realize that volunteerism is going extinct faster than the brontosaurus.

Did I just hear Ed Stelmach, Dalton McGuinty, and Stephen Harper yawn in unison?

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Sigh. There is much to be written concerning the David and Goliath struggle between small fire departments and the evil anti volunteer syndicates (which is more like a fight between an ant and an elephant, the ant being the firefighters and . . . okay, I'm digressing), but I promised I would write about blueberries and log cabins. So here goes.

We went blueberry picking a couple days ago.

My son and his buddies are building a log cabin.

Now can I write about the David and Goliath struggle? (just kidding).

Everyone has their own idea of a vacation. For me it would be flying to a warm, beachy island and learning how to scuba dive. For a Tahitian scuba diver, coming to Upsala and picking blueberries might be a vacation. I seriously doubt it, but the concept has a weird, edge-of-the-universe logic to it.

For me as an adolescent, blueberry picking was not fun. Hours in the scorching hot sun, combating pterodactyl-sized mosquitoes, and the threat of black bears lurking behind every tree. Yeah, fourteen year-olds tend to exaggerate, but you get the idea. Swimming and horseback riding were vacation to me in 1976. Blueberry picking was not.

Fast forward to 2010. I still think swimming and horseback riding are a vacation, but blueberry picking has become less onerous. The sun isn't as hot, the mosquitoes aren't as large or as numerous, and the bears are too busy picking their own berries to lurk behind trees. Add to those miraculous changes the fact that Erinn and the kids like to go, and you've got a family vacation within a 20 minute drive of my front door. Here are some photos:

For Phillip, heading to the bush and working on his log cabin is a vacation. If that seems strange, consider the possibility that for a career log builder, pumping gas at the Shell might be . . . um, yeah. Okay that logic didn't work so well last time either.

Yes, Phillip and his buddies like working on their cabin. But summer came, and with it summer jobs and responsibilities, and the cabin fell by the wayside. So after we went blueberry picking, we decided to spend a few hours helping Phillip on his cabin.
Here is Phillip trimming a floor board.

Erinn and Vanessa painting tin for the roof.

Erinn and Vanessa pretending to be wild bushwhackers . . . or perhaps the paint fumes got to them.

Here's the partly finished cabin.

Philosophizing cabin building into a family vacation was a stretch, but we did have fun.

And now, you evil anti volunteer syndicates, the time of reckoning has come.

Just kidding.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Anarchy, or the Power of Persuasion?

Next posting I'll talk about blueberries and log cabins, but today, allow me to indulge in a minuscule political harangue.


I have no use for anarchists. You know, those guys that think the world should be like an NHL game with no referees. I may sound like an anarchist sometimes, but I'm not really. In spite of my frequent ravings about government incompetence, I curb my primal urge to knock political heads together, and stick to simply making fun of them for the most part.

But sometimes a little anarchy might be good for the soul of the nation (I don't really believe that, but it sounded poetic). Or at least, smashed windows and torched vehicles capture our attention for a few milliseconds, and we wonder, "What's eating those idiots?"

I do feel a little sorry for these nutcase wackos though. They are not taken seriously. The only time you hear about them is when the G8 leaders have a billion dollar party (or 'summit,' as it's called). Thinking about that much money spent on who-knows-what makes me want to smash something too.

When people on a mission are consistently ignored, they are driven to illogical, counterproductive action. Such is the life of the anarchist. The only way to be heard is to act like a spoiled toddler who just discovered the Molotov cocktail.

Then there are volunteer firefighters. They have nothing in common with anarchists, except that they are consistently ignored as well. They don't flip cruisers and smash plate glass in protest, but they do try to get the attention of their leaders, who are busy fiddling while Rome burns.

Click here and here for recent stories of volunteers vying for the attention of their leaders. It's curious how one mayor plays the "public first" card. I wonder if that card was cut from the deck when Council reduced the department's budget.

I understand the reasoning of the mayor and council: if they cave in, anarchy will ensue and democracy will give way to mob rule. However, ignoring the volunteers sends a clear message too: "we don't have to listen to you because you care too much to quit for real." And politicians know that such protests only grab the attention of the public for a millisecond.

Volunteers are at a distinct disadvantage in the political tug of war arena. They really do care too much, and everyone knows it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

pet peeve

They say that pets tend to look like their owners, but I don't believe it.

Then again, I never believed those wild theories that the sky is blue and the grass is green either.

My dog Sasha (who has her own Facebook page) wasn't impressed by the above photo, by the way. She advised me not to flatter myself. But then, she was having a bad day after sneaking a large chunk of ham off the table and suffering the Mother of All Bellyaches for a couple days after. That's enough to make the most angelic dog a little grumpy.

You can see some resemblance to humanity in the dog in this next video too. Thanks to my mother-in-law for this one.

If you are one of the 3,053,837 people that have already seen that video, I hope it at least made you smile again.

I've always had a soft spot for animals of any description. It started with a beagle named Jennifer who used to terrify me by putting her front paws on my shoulders (I was about four years old . . .).

Then it was a cat named Pickles, who was named after Pickles the Firehouse Cat. It must have been destiny, knocking at my childhood door. Little did I know that I would grow up to be a real firefighter, who rescued a real cat from a real tree, while my deputy chief simultaneously tried to steady the ladder and stifle real laughter.

In my teens, I became interested in horses, and spent the next seven years in their company . . . farming, logging, riding . . . it was a horse-lover's paradise. I will eventually get around to posting some of those old photos here, but for now I have to stick to my theme.

My theme . . . which was . . . ah yes, pet rescues. At least that's what I turned the theme into. I've personally been involved in dog, cat, cow, and sheep rescues. I've come to the aid of numerous horses, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. I know a firefighter who resuscitated a fish. I read about some firefighters that responded to a python rescue. I draw the line at snakes, by the way, animal lover that I am. Come to think of it, are snakes even in the animal kingdom?

Firefighters will continue to be called upon to rescue furry, scaly, and slimy critters of all descriptions. It isn't in the Firefighter Manual, or the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Firefighters, or even the Firefighter's Job Description. But they will continue to call us for one simple reason:

We don't say no.

Friday, July 9, 2010


The stress of single-handedly combating evil syndicated world systems that plot dastardly designs against volunteer firefighters was taking its toll, and it was time for a furlough from the front lines of activism and politicking.

Actually, it was Erinn and my 17th anniversary, so we left the kids with their grandparents and drove to Rossport, which is hidden away off Highway 17, and draped across the rocky shore of Lake Superior.

(I know. The furlough from mortal combat against evil anti-volunteer syndicates sounds more glamorous than an anniversary getaway, but I've never been good at fibbing, not even through the filter of the Internet.)

I was about 10 years old the first time I saw Lake Superior. I remember gluing my face to the window of our VW van during the trip from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay, and only peeling it away on the stretches where the lake was out of view. The largest and most unspoiled of the Great Lakes has never lost its magic, and kayaking was a good way to enjoy the the emotion of the scenery even more. Photography is like trying to catch the breeze in a bottle, but here are some attempts.

If you ever travel the north shore of Lake Superior and have time for a one-kilometre side trip, stop in Rossport. For a tiny hamlet with a handful of people, it has more than its fair share of attractions. It features an exotic gift shop, a potter who wood fires his own pieces on site, a fabulous restaurant, an outfitter to fix you up with a kayak or canoe, and several Bed and Breakfasts, most of which have splendid views of the lake. We stayed at the Willows B&B, in a room fit for royalty at a price attainable to even a two-bit fire chief from the peripheral edge of the universe. If you miss Rossport, you miss one of the best getaways in the world.

Enough dreamy reminiscences about anniversary getaways. Actually, it wasn't enough. A week would have been better than two days, but somebody has to keep the evil anti-volunteer syndicates in line.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

furiously extreme

It's here. My July column for Fire and EMS Quarterly, that is. You may remember me mentioning in my March 1 post that I was going to write furiously about legal sharks (disguised as Mad Hatter lawyers) eating firefighters for lunch. Or maybe you don't remember. Either way, the March 1 post was the beginning of the July column.

If it doesn't look like furious writing, it's because the deadline for the column wasn't until April 28, so I had time to water down the pointless insults and useless ravings that I intended to hurl at our gigantically ridiculous legal system. Insults and ravings are marginally acceptable on an unedited blog from the edge of the universe, but they wouldn't go over well in a nationally read magazine. Fire and EMS Quarterly editor Laura King already puts up with a lot of wacky stuff from me, and I don't want to push my luck.

Successful writers are often extreme people, so it doesn't bother me that I have extreme tendencies. However, unsuccessful writers are also often extreme people. Finding the right kind of extreme is the million dollar dilemma. Luckily, I get another chance, and I have some extreme ideas for my September column . . . which isn't due until August 17.

Just enough time to water down my crazy notions into something that people might actually want to read. I hope.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

of bureaucrats and politicians

It's odd how a stop-you-in-your-tracks story evaporates when the media decides it's lost its market value. The Wandering River Fire Department story generated a hurricane of opinions from a wide range of people. There were boneheads that understand volunteer firefighters less than BP understands oil well capping. There were government officials that care as much about recruitment as a moose cares about a mosquito. In between were the volunteers who know the issues better than Ed Stelmach, Hector Goudreau, and Stephen Harper put together and multiplied to the 10th power. That's a lousy comparison, by the way. Zero multiplied ever so many times still equals zero. The volunteers really do understand the issues, in all of their nitty, gritty, relevant details.

After all that kerfuffle, you'd think there would be follow up stories about politicians brainstorming a solution, or bureaucrats putting their heads together with the municipality, or at least Ed Stelmach flying over Highway 63 to view the unattended car wrecks, but there is nothing. The news is as devoid of Wandering River as Parliament is of good manners during question period.

These volunteers deserve to not be swept under the rug. Not because they are better or nobler or truer than other volunteers (although they may be). This issue deserves attention because it is indeed the tip of an iceberg. Most of Canada is serviced by volunteers. Our elected leaders pay lip service to their hard work and dwindling numbers, then ignore them at budget time.

I feel an article coming on. Time to write furiously.

Before I do, let me say that I met a nice politician last evening at Upsala's Peripheral Edge of the Universe fireworks display. No, I'm not even being sarcastic. John Rafferty is the NDP member of Parliament for the Thunder Bay-Rainy River riding. He was touring his domain yesterday and landed in Upsala at dusk.

John was a teacher by profession, which makes me like him. That's no reason to support someone, I know. The guy could be an ax murderer in his spare time, but I like him because he was a teacher? But there's more. My wife likes him, and she's a good judge of character even if I'm not. His party is also introducing a volunteer firefighter tax credit as a private member's bill, which is a good reason to like someone. And the clincher: of all the places that MP Rafferty could have been last evening, generating lots of support and shaking lots of hands, he chose to stop in Upsala where there were more mosquitoes waiting than loyal constituents.

Of course he could have had ulterior motives. He may have divined that I would say nice things about him in my blog, and that my readers would read those nice things and support him in the next election. But not likely. He was a teacher by profession, not a politician, so he's smart enough to know that as many moose read my blog as Thunder Bay-Rainy River constituents. And moose have not yet won the right to vote. Yet another cause for me to champion.

By the way, my letter to Mr. Rafferty (link to template included in my last post) was supposed to be in the mail today. He personally encouraged me to send it. But the weather was hot and sunny, and my family was all home, and the lake called, so we went boating and tubing and knee boarding instead. The letter can wait until Monday. I'm sure the issues will still be there waiting.

And now, it's time to write furiously.

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