Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My fancy speech

I made a fancy speech at the fancy banquet at the end of the conference that I wrote about yesterday. I was a nervous wreck.

I had been cautioned (threatened) by the staff to not say anything inappropriate, and while I do have a natural tendency for such things, and while I do love to tell scandalous stories, I also understood that this banquet was about the organization and the work it does, not how funny and/or outrageous Dawn can be. I have ample opportunity to prove that every day. This was not the time or place. Still waiting on pictures. I'll post them when I get them.

I dressed up pretty nice, sat with the big shots and managed not to get soup on my tie during dinner. At our table were me and four friends, including L, two tradeswomen (besides me) and a stock broker; and the Commissioner of the State Housing Authority, the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Labor, and a big shot administrator in the Department of Transportation. The Commissioner also happens to be the woman who founded Women Unlimited, my own personal hero and sometimes mentor for lo, these 20-some years, Dale McCormick. Dale also used to be the Maine State Treasurer, so she and my stock broker friend chatted on about bonds and rates and the financial news of the day. I was glad for that. My stock of stories seems to rely heavily on work screw-ups and things that are not appropriate dinner conversation. At least not at banquets, anyway.

I was introduced by the Deputy Commissioner, Jane Gilbert, who is a remarkable woman. It was humbling to be sure. I had a few notes that I scribbled on a hotel note pad. I set them on the podium, glanced at them once and pretty much ignored them for a while. I don't remember what-all I said exactly, but I am going to offer the best reproduction of it here. It might not be quite right, but it is as close as I can get.

When Lib first asked me to speak at this thing, she told me she needed a biographical blurb to put in the program. Somewhat daunted by this idea, I came up with something along the lines of "Dawn is a tragic example of what happens when an ADHD child grows up. Unable to sit still at a desk job and with an attitude so bad that it does not allow her to work for anyone else, Dawn is a self-employed contractor. And some days that's iffy."

{They all laughed.}

The truth is, though, that I have some real advantages in my life. I do have the benefit of a college education. But it has not been all that I had hoped it would be.

I grew up in a family that valued white collar work. I was taught early to get an education and get a job that was clean and that wouldn't break my back. My father was a machinist. He used to come home dirty and sore, smelling of metal and oil and smoke and with sharp little shards of metal in the bottoms of his boots. My mom used to complain about the metal from his boots getting in the carpet.

"Get an education, kid," he used to tell me. "You never see bankers out of work."

The stock broker at my table snickered, as did several others.

But I think my father was pretty typical of his time. Do better than me. Don't work this hard to make a living. Don't pay for your livelihood with your health.

So I went to college right out of high school. I majored in Education because it seemed like the thing to do. And about halfway through my sophomore year, around the same time I sobered up, I came to the awful realization that I do not like children. At around the same time, the university came to the decision that both it and I might benefit from a year's break from each other, and we parted ways for a while.

I came back to college after a year and a half, bounced around from major to major until somebody decided that I could write, and I ended up graduating and going into newspaper work. It seemed like a good fit, but eventually the flaws in that plan began to show through. See, reporters are supposed to be unbiased, and I am sure it will come as a shock to some here, but I've got some opinions. And reporters are supposed to not voice their opinions, and well, Dawn has never been really good at keeping her mouth shut. So I ended up getting run out of the newspaper business.

Unemployed, I did what I have always done: I fixed stuff for people. I painted and wallpapered and made repairs for folks who needed them. It wasn't big money, but it was something. Around that time a friend mentioned to me that Women Unlimited was going to be offering a 15-week class in something - bridge building, she thought maybe.

Bridge building? I didn't like to get up on the third step of a stepladder and she thought I should take bridge building? Hmph. Well, there was road construction as well, and something about a class B truck license, and that sounded cool, so I made a call and got an interview.

I got accepted to the class and we learned all kinds of things - we got our truck licenses, we learned to read blueprints and how to do construction math - cause you know there are a lot of fractions in construction, quarters and eighths and sixteenths and stuff. Well, eighths, anyway. Sixteenths are kinda fussy.

{"Sixteenths!" cried Dale from our table. She's a fussy carpenter. I'm more of a framer.}

And we learned welding and CPR and First Aid and we did a ropes course and I went up high and was OK with that. And we learned welding. Nancy Bailey of Nancy's Welding taught us how to weld, and I loved it. I came home dirty and smoky and with little shards of metal in the soles of my boots.

And my girlfriend complained about the carpet.

And I told her too bad. I love this stuff.

We got all kinds of certifications and we got some confidence in our own abilities. When I left that class, I felt that I could do whatever was necessary on a job. I knew I could learn what I needed to and that I could ask for help and that would be OK.

I went to work that spring on what is now the Donald V. Carter Memorial Bridge between Waterville and Winslow and later I went down to Portland to work on the Casco Bay Bridge there. Now remember, I had been afraid of heights before Women Unlimited. And here I was, up on the bridge, and I remember the day when I realized that the white thing that I saw blowing by below me was not a piece of paper but a seagull flying. I was up HIGH! And it was grand.

I got to that job around the time they were finishing up the big piers in the middle (they're called bascule piers) where the works of the drawbridge are housed. They had been poured and partially finished, but needed to be completed. Bolted to the outside of the piers were these enormous brackets, and on these brackets were beams and on the beams was plywood, making an 8-foot wide platform skirting most of the pier. On that platform was mounted a handrail, kick-plate and mid rail, and four or five or six levels of blue pipe staging. It allowed the crews to work on the outside of the concrete structure as it was being constructed.

Well, when I got to the job, it was time for that stuff to be taken down. We disassembled the pipe staging and handed it in through the windows. Then we took down the hand rail and fed those pieces in through the window. (All of this material was then carried down and off the bridge via either crane or barge to trucks where it was taken back to either the company's warehouse or disposal facility.) Then we started to peel up the plywood, working our way back toward the window, standing very carefully on the beams. There was a lot of air under those beams and brackets, and not much else. We were probably 60 or 70 feet above the water at this point. Maybe more.

So we handed in the beams and the brackets, unbolting them as we went, working our way backwards, until there was one bracket left bolted to the outside of the bridge. And I was standing on it. There was nothing but air all around and the flat face of the concrete bridge and the hole of a window through which I had to go, taking the bracket with me. We ended up with me being held by my belt and lowered head first out the window to loosen the last bolt on the last bracket. It dropped and swung at the end of the rope we had tied to it, my buddies hauled me back inside and we pulled in the bracket. The side of the bridge pier was bare - nothing on it from the operator's house where the road would be all the way to the water line.

And six months earlier, I couldn't get up on the third step of a stepladder. Women Unlimited is remarkable. It gave me that experience.

I left that company to become the first woman apprentice in the Sheet Metal Worker's International Association Local 17, where I worked hard and learned a lot.

But I have to be honest here. I did not finish my apprenticeship. I left after my third year. I decided that maybe I could go back to newspapering work. And so I tried. For a lot of years, I tried.

I liken it to buying a pair of shoes that don't quite fit. Have you ever done that? You see these shoes, and they're not quite comfortable, but they are the coolest things you've ever seen and you WANT them to fit so badly that you try and try and try, and no matter what, even years later, they still give you blisters and hurt whenever you wear them. They never break in properly.

That's what white-collar desk work is for me. I really wanted to do it. I really wanted to enjoy it. I really wanted to be good at it. I was taught early on that THAT was my goal. Professional work was the ideal I was supposed to pursue. Only it never fit. I always got blisters.

It took me a long time to figure that out, too. But now I am self-employed, working as a contractor, doing jobs that are sometimes more than I can handle. But that's OK.

I am confident today, in large part because of my experience with Women Unlimited. In fact, sometimes it works against me. When people ask me what my greatest strength is, I say "my confidence." When they ask what is my greatest weakness, I say "my confidence."

It is true. I bite off more than I can chew, on a fairly regular basis. The lucky part is that I have to good sense to hire people who are smarter than me and have them teach me how to do the things I do not know. I am working on a project now where I tore down a greenhouse and am building an 8' by 16' sun room with custom windows and a hardwood floor. I never put in a window before this. I've never laid a floor. But I know people who do know how to do those things. And they help me and I learn.

I learn something on every job I do today. Each one is different and each one teaches me something new.

I think I wrapped it up in some fashion at about this point. I have no idea how I concluded, other than I thanked the staff of Women Unlimited for being so amazing and wonderful, and I thanked Dale for the gift of Women Unlimited, and I thanked the tradeswomen who attended the conference and who learned and shared their experiences with me. I remember that I thanked them for inspiring me every day.

And then I sat down. It seemed done.

Again, if you would like to support Women Unlimited, please do so by contacting them HERE. They rock. Please help them to continue to do so.

I don't do a lot of preaching or encouraging (telling) people to do this or think that or support this other thing, at least not in this space. This is my one shot. I'd really like it if you did. It is probably one of the only things I will ever ask of you. Thanks.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Of tiles and opportunity

So we are home from the conference. We are exhausted.

My session on laying ceramic tile went extremely well. I had approximately 9 people there - and since I had anticipated a crowd of maybe four or five, it was a bit of a free-for-all. A couple of the people had laid tile before and they were able to help the others who had never had the pleasure. My dear friend Lis showed up and helped me run and fetch and clean tools and keep everybody on track and up to speed. I would truly have been lost without her. The fine folks at Women Unlimited poked in occasionally to see how things were going and someone took a ton of pictures. I'll try to post them here as soon as I get my mitts on them. They're all a little fried today. I'm not going to push.

So we took eight or nine women, some of whom had never so much as picked up a tile before, and we got 'em messy, covered in glue and grout, and no longer afraid of tiles. First we had them spread the mastic (big word for tile glue) on some boards, then they laid out the tiles, using the spacers. Once the tiles were stuck down, we put aside those boards and got out the boards with tile already on them. They selected the color grout they wanted and we mixed it up with water. I got the measurements wrong on the water, so we had some fudging to do, but we got it worked out. Then we had to let the grout sit for 10 minutes while the Portland cement in it did its chemistry thing. During that time, I answered questions as best I could, admitting it when I simply didn't know. I explained how important it is for the surface you're sticking the tiles to to be extremely solid so that there were no shifts and tweaks with the seasons - those will crack the grout and allow water to leak in and rot wood, etc. I talked about the different kinds of tiles and how to cut and chip with the little plier nippers to make cutouts for pipes and faucets and such.

When our grout was cured enough, we mixed it again and then spread it on the pre-laid tiles. Everyone had different tiles to work with, so everyone had a little different experience, but I noticed that they all seemed to be checking out how the others were doing and commenting on the differences and similarities. (I made sure we all wore gloves to save our fingers from the chemicals in the grout.) Then we wiped down the tile boards, exposing the finished product. Everyone seemed very pleased with how their efforts came out, and then - bless them all - they helped clean up so the next session could come in and learn in a room that was not trashed. We had it cleaned up sufficiently and on time and they left exhilarated at their new-found skills. I left thrilled that we would not be billed for a carpet.

One of the most poignant encounters of the day involved a woman who helped me out when I was setting up the session. She worked in housekeeping, cleaning rooms and doing traditional housekeeping stuff at the hotel. She spoke with some of the Women Unlimited folks upstairs, she told me, and asked for a job bank application. She helped me change the room around to accommodate a messy project, found me some extra trash bags, and even got me access to an empty hotel room across the hall so we could fill our rinse pails in the tub there and dump the dirty water into the toilet. She hustled around to help me. I never got her name, but she was a lifesaver that morning.

I could tell she was interested in what we were doing by her eyes. They were curious and almost jealous - there was wonder and yearning in them. I got the feeling that she was not really thrilled with her lot, cleaning rooms in a hotel in Augusta, Maine. Looking around her, she saw lots of women doing lots of things that were more interesting and pretty much guaranteed to pay more than whatever it is that she's making now. The wheels were nearly visible, turning in her head as we went about the conference and she went about her housekeeping tasks.

I learned later from the Women Unlimited staff that she returned after her break with the job bank application all filled out. She wants to be a part of what she saw that weekend. She wants to do something more meaningful than scrubbing hotel toilets and making beds. She wants to make better money, she wants to have the skills and confidence she saw Saturday at that conference.

It is my hope that we see her again at next year's conference, wearing boots and Carharts and talking about her first season working on a road crew or with a flagging operation or operating some kind of equipment. From the look I saw in her eye, I think it is a real possibility.

God, but that is why I love Women Unlimited. Women Unlimited changes lives. Period. It is what they do. It gives hope and opportunity in places where no one else has offered such things.

If you are interested in helping them continue to perform miracles, get in touch with them HERE and make a donation. If you're not long on money, that's OK. Little donations are good too, as are materials. They always have a list of stuff they need. Hand tools, lumber, odds & ends. Check them out. Give if you can. Tell 'em Dawn sent you. They'll know you're OK.

And yeah, I made a fancy speech on Saturday night at the banquet. I'll write about that tomorrow. I am still processing it all. And stay tuned for pictures, too.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

pushing things

Here you see the remnants of our first grilled outdoors steaks of the season. Couple of nice little boneless rib eyes, rubbed vigorously with coarse salt and pepper, then grilled rare and doused with A-1 sauce for L, and (sorry Robin) Blue Cheese dressing for me. Served with garlic mashed potatoes made with real sour cream and butter and peas. With butter. Well, duh. Of course.

I needed to cook outside today. It was not the warmest day we've had so far, but I think my area has had all it can stand of a long, miserable winter and reluctant spring. We had a few days a while back when the temperature got up over 50 degrees - and those were wonderful - but we knew they were anomalies. We're almost into April now, and we just can't stand it any more.

I met a friend for coffee today. She showed up in her Saab with the top down. While we chatted, a young man and his girl rode by on a motorcycle. The thermometer didn't ever nudge past 45 here today.

We can't wait any longer for spring. Odds are we'll get one more snowstorm, but we won't shovel it. "Screw that," we'll say. "Nature put 'er down, Nature'll take 'er away. No sense gettin' a hernia over something that's gonna melt inside a week."

No shit. We do that.

Even if it's a foot.

Our New England gets up and just refuses to be bullied by the weather one more time this season. So there. Time will win out, after all. Spring will come. It always has.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tiles are taking over...

I had planned to post the recipe for tonight's supper - carrot ginger soup - but it appears that I already did that. Oh well. It was as yummy tonight as it was back in August when we made it.

Not much to report today. I am still semi-consumed by this tile workshop thing and have been practicing on L. Yesterday I made her learn to put tiles down with the adhesive and today I taught her how to apply grout. She has decided that I do not charge nearly enough for installing tile. Heh.

L has been extremely patient with me as I have practiced teaching people how to lay tile. Yesterday, I put on my teacher voice and we spread adhesive on some plywood and then laid out the tiles.

We each did a couple of boards of tiles so that there will be something ready to be grouted at Saturday's workshop. Here are a couple of samples ready to go.

We did a couple boards with that cool artisan-made tile I got down on Little Deer Isle and for fun today, I taught L how to apply grout and then clean the tiles. Here is the finished product of her efforts. She and I are both quite proud!

That's it for today. Writing over at the other blog is taking some of my time, but not as much as I had feared. It is the research that is exhausting!

Friday, March 20, 2009

back again

like a bad penny.

Please accept my apology for my recent absence. Had some stuff I had to get down and written over at the other place. To make up for it, here are some pictures of what I have been up to.

Remember that teeny delivery shed I was working on? Well I got it done and here it is just after we placed it in its (hopeful) permanent location. There may be some maneuvering around come spring, but we're hoping this will be the place it wants to stay. The bungee cord is still through the hasp gizmo.

And here is a couple pictures of the inside. I know it doesn't seem like all that much, but this is primarily for package and dry-cleaner delivery, so a closet pole makes a world of sense, even if the thing looks like the world's smallest privy out there on the lawn.

And here is a shot of it with the door open. Isn't that a snazzy door? It's made of v-notched matched pine boards. First time I ever made one that came out the way it was supposed to. I was very pleased with myself.

And here is a shot of the shed from the back and side. Notice the dark gray asphalt shingle roof with real metal drip edge. This thing was really a miniature building. And the bonus? The roof was exactly one sheet of shingles wide. Sweet. It took under one bundle of shingles to do the whole thing and required very little cutting. I was sooooooo happy!

The customers are still raving about how happy they are. I am glad. I fussed and fretted over this for a while. I am pleased with how it came out, and am more pleased that they are happy.

Next, I recently had to go visit a friend down at a funky neat and cool interior design/decoration place on Little Deer Isle. Place is called Harbor Farm and they donated a bunch of colored tile samples for me to use in my workshop next weekend.

First, let me show you the approach to the bridge over the narrows out to Little Deer Isle.

Yes, the bridge does go straight friggin' up. Just like that.

It is not an optical illusion. It goes way the hell up.

Damned if I know why. Perhaps so tall boats can go under? I've never seen it, but that does not mean it doesn't happen. Anyway. One lane out to the islands, one lane back. Up and over. Not for the faint of heart. Especially on windy days - whew!

The bridge is the exact same design as the ill-fated Tacoma Narrows Bridge out in Washington State. I just love this video. It is silent, so don't worry that your computer isn't working. Just incredible.

My friend Lib narrates this in wonderful fashion. She'll do it again at the conference next weekend. I may or may not attend her session. Depends on what else I may have to be doing at that time.

In order to prevent a similar catastrophe happening to the Little Deer Isle bridge, engineers rigged these triangular wind buffers to prevent the wind from catching in the tall girders and thrashing the bridge around like the one in Tacoma. They work pretty well, from what I hear, but only the hardiest of souls venture across when a gale is blowing out of the northeast. Here's a shot of the buffers.

So out I ventured onto Maine's connected islands to collect colored tiles for this project I am doing. Here is a sample of the more than 100 4-inch, mostly artisan-made tiles we got.

I am now sorting and fussing and sorting and fussing to make them work and fit in some kind of series of patterns. Working up the patterns and making it all fit onto the boards is going to be more involved than I had anticipated. I am glad I am doing the prep work in advance. If I had tried to throw this stuff together the night before the early morning session, I'd have been screwed.

So that's what I have been up to. I also put up the wood trim on that sun room project, with help from a friend who taught me volumes about how to be patient and do the fussy stuff. I don't have pictures of that just yet, but hopefully I will later this week. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Amateur Hour

St. Patrick's day always brings a conflicted tangle of emotions for me.

I am of Irish ancestry, as is evidenced by my pale skin and my remarkable ability to blush crimson right up to (and including) my scalp. There is no small amount of pride for me in St. Pat's day.

I was also adopted, and March 17, 1966 is the day I was brought home to live with my aunt and grandparents by my miscreant of a father. This brings feelings of gratitude that almost, but not entirely, make up for the underlying feeling of abandonment and lingering anger and resentment for the less fun bits of my growing-up years.

And today is the day when everyone likes to pretend that they are Irish.

And that is offensive to me.

A very wise friend once said to me that when I have the urge to say "this might piss some people off, but..." to shut the hell up (OK, she was way nicer than that, but still the message was there).

But you know what? This is one of those times I am going to forge ahead.

Why is it acceptable for people to dress up in green, get blind drunk on Guinness and stagger around trying to speak in a badly affected brogue?

For me, personally, that behavior is as offensive as someone wearing blackface would be to an African American.

It is insensitive. It is biased. It is mocking an ethnic heritage that is ancient and proud.

Please think of that tomorrow as you drink your green beer and eat your corned beef and cabbage. For some of us (OK, for me,) this is a high holy day to respect and honor an ancient, beautiful, proud heritage. Please don't ridicule it.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Because I am going to lead a workshop session and be a speaker at the conference, the organizers asked me to write up a short biographical blurb for the program. They reminded me again of the special rules I must operate within: No profanity, no sex, no dungeon furniture. Thus limited, I came up with these four options, hoping one will fit the bill for the program.

1. Dawn is a 1995 graduate of a Women Unlimited 14-week Bridge and Road Construction Program and has worked since then on two Maine bridge projects, as a union sheet metal worker apprentice, a truck driver for a Midwestern agricultural coop, a metro bus driver in Minneapolis, MN, and Ellsworth, Maine, and is presently working as a self-employed contractor on Mount Desert Island. She has also worked in journalism, which accounts for her grumpy attitude. On good days she strives to fix more than she breaks.

2. Dawn is a case study in what happens when ADHD children grow up. Unable to sit still at a desk job and with an attitude so poor that it precludes her from working for someone else, she is now a self-employed contractor on Mount Desert Island. Even working for herself is touchy some days, although she has never had to fire herself.

3. Dawn is a 1995 graduate of Women Unlimited, where she learned welding, blueprint reading, first aid/CPR as well as getting her class B truck driver's license. She presently uses all of those skills in her job as a self-employed contractor on Mount Desert Island, doing home repair and light construction. In the past year, Dawn has installed a fiberglass shower stall, built a screen porch, painted the interiors of many houses, installed gutters, re-built window sills, washed and stained several decks, built a brick threshold, pruned trees, trimmed shrubs, created and tiled a shower stall, repaired a rotted shower enclosure and floor, demolished a greenhouse and built a custom sun porch, and built a delivery shed. She likes to weld and cook in her spare time. She is ruled by a small, bouncy dog.

4. Dawn prefers to lounge around days in her pajamas, playing on the Internet and face book. Unfortunately, she has not yet found a patron to support this passion, so she works as a contractor on Mount Desert Island. She can usually be counted on to say and do the wrong thing, but comes through with the right ones often enough to be asked to speak at this conference. She has a bad attitude and especially hates mornings.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

An honor (and the bit you won't get to hear)

Every year there is a conference for tradeswomen in Maine. Not Surprisingly, it is called the Maine Tradeswomen's Conference. It is a two-day affair, with a Job fair on Friday afternoon and dinner, plus a full day of workshop sessions and seminars and hands-on stuff on Saturday.

Because of my overwhelming charm (and a solemn promise not to say anything inappropriate), I have been asked to be one of the speakers at the Saturday night dinner hour. The chief woman in charge of this shindig is a friend and her instructions to me were: No swearing. And no sex talk.

Well shit, then. What am I supposed to say?

Something about being a self-employed contractor, work for myself, every day is something different, independence, freedom, yadda yadda. But none of the good stuff. Phooey. That's ok, though. I'll do it and be honored for the chance.

I have also been asked to do a session on installing ceramic tile. Seems I've done a couple tile jobs lately that make people think I know what I am doing. Got 'em all fooled, I say.

Actually, I am looking forward to the tile thing. I've been busy making lists and preparing lesson plans, such that they are. I was in the big city of Bangor yesterday and found some affordable trowels and tools and such, so I picked them up. I'll find some more at my local Reny's. There is a place called the Re-store that sells odd sized and leftover materials from construction jobs. I hope they might have some tiles that we can pick up on the cheap.

And I have been sworn to NOT share the story of my first tile job. Wanna hear? Of course you do. If not, you know where the knitters are. Have fun.

Many years ago when I was single (both are key points here), I lived in the big city of Portland. I was working with the union as a sheet metal worker apprentice and was doing the usual cycle of work like crazy, get laid off for a month or more. During those down times, it was nice to find little jobs to help supplement the unemployment pittance.

I had a friend from my old college days who I stayed in touch with off-and-on through the years. Back in college, I was hopelessly in love and devoted to my first girlfriend. Strictly unavailable. This friend of mine had a more, shall we say "fluid" understanding of relationships and would often swing by the newspaper office to flirt outrageously, get me all flustered and blushing and then flounce off to have coffee with friends.

We have always been close, and at one point she even posed for me when I did a series of black and white nudes for a class. She was enormously pregnant at the time. They are still some of my most treasured works. Interesting thing: when protected by a camera, I am unflappable. Same goes for when I am bartending. Behind the bar, nothing phases me. I can flirt and talk trash and be outrageous. I could light cigarettes, and make the girls blush.When I come out from around there, well, let's just say not so much swagger. Ahem. It is a sad truth of being me.

So anyway, years have passed, I was no longer with that first girlfriend, and I have been spending some time on the phone with this old friend. As is typical with me, I often cannot tell when a woman is flirting with me. Often we both have to be entirely naked before I am really sure that I am reading things properly. So she's lamenting that she doesn't like the tub enclosure in her house. I ask what she'd like. Tile, she says. I can do tile, I say, thinking with some other part of my anatomy besides my brain.

I had never held a ceramic tile before that day. Ever.

But, blessed (or cursed) with extreme confidence, I figured there were some pretty moronic tile guys out there. If they can do this, I can certainly figure it out. We scheduled a three-day weekend when I could come up and do this job, she flirted some more, I blushed some more, and we both marked our calendars for a weekend in October.

Another thing that might be of interest here is that this friend of mine was married back then. In fact, she married a guy in college - and had a baby with him - who had previously identified as gay. I don't have to tell you that this caused enormous concern and confusion among the gay community on our tiny little campus. Our numbers were small enough, but when something like that happens, it strikes at the dating pool of both genders. But, accepting as we were, we all said OK, whatever floats your boat, and we went to the wedding. I even took the pictures.

By the time she and I were talking about tiles, they had split up. He had his own place across town and they were doing the child-care and custody shuffle. So now I am dealing with a single mom. This is an utterly foreign thing to me, so I called another friend who was a single mom and ran the scenario by her. Am I reading into this more than I should? I asked. Not on a bet, she said. If she's sending the kids to be with dad for the weekend, that's a sign. As a single mom, I can assure you, you're in.

So I headed up the highway with a truck full of tools and a light heart (or whatever) filled with anticipation.

Only I arrived there late at night on the day before I was to start the job, to find her girlfriend in residence. Her on-and-off-for over-a-decade-rumored-to-be-violently-crazy-girlfriend.

Whoops. OK. I did misread all of that flirty stuff. I'm just here to fix the bathroom. Whatever. Gotta call that friend when I get home and tell her she's full of shit. I laid myself down in the spare bedroom and went to sleep.

In the morning I awoke to find that the girlfriend had just left for a four-day haul driving a truck.


It was a little unnerving, but not one to cross relationship lines, I grabbed firmly hold of the notion that my old college chum was in a relationship and thus off-limits, and I set to work on the upstairs bathroom. I worked and worked and ripped and tore and made it up as I went along. We drove to the big box hardware place and bought tile and cement and grout and she flirted and I blushed, but remained resolute in my understanding of the binary state of things. (She had a girlfriend, thus she was unavailable to me. Period.)

At the end of day two, a harsh rain blew in, covering the full moon with a storm front that sent my senses off the edge. I am sensitive to weather and the phases of the moon and have been known to make some of my most ill-advised decisions ever at the height of one or the other. We went to the local hotel spa to sozzle and shower, then out for dinner. The flirting increased. A delicate negotiation followed. More flirting. It all felt very "Dustin Hoffman saying 'Why, you are seducing me, Mrs. Robinson!' Pause. gulp. 'Aren't you?' " Are you sure about this? Quite and very. Well. Ahem. Yeah. Ahem again.

I gained a new respect for the heretofore in my experience largely unseen physical strength of moms.

The weekend went well. The almost ex-husband came over to say hi and check progress. If he noticed which bed was slept in and which wasn't, he didn't mention it, and he took the kids to his house for the night again. I dearly wish he had not turned out to be such an ass, but I did adore him for that one weekend.

When the tiles were up and done, the faucet and shower stuff put back together, and my tools were getting loaded onto my truck, I heard my - what? customer? client? Those words suddenly seemed awkward at best - friend on the phone. The girlfriend had just crossed back into Maine and would be home in a few hours.

I hit the road back to Portland, just a little bit shaken by the whole experience.

I vowed off tile jobs for a very long time after that. Too complicated, I said. No thanks. Oh yes, I do know how, it's just... well ... why don't you have me build a deck instead, hmm? Or paint the kitchen. Yeah, just not tiles.


And I don't get to tell that story, either in the workshop session or at dinner Saturday night. Can you imagine? Feh.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

March in Maine

"There's no place like Bermuda"


"There's no place like Bermuda"


"There's no place like Bermuda"


*opens eyes and looks around and the slushy slop*


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

more food porn

Today was not nearly as miserable as yesterday. I still had to shovel some, but the sun was out, the wind was mild, and it was a much nicer day all around. The weather forecast calls for four days with no snow or rain, so I went to the lumber store and picked up some lumber for a project I am working on. That's a good feeling. Gonna fire up the compressor tomorrow and bang some high-speed nails. Yee-haw. Or whatever. It's gonna be cool, I know that.

So tonight I decided to use the nice little pieces of flounder I found at the store yesterday. Six fillets weighed just 1.25 pounds - just more than we need for dinner.

Now this is a recipe that has a history to it. In 1983, my grandmother died. It was my freshman year at college, and it left my aunt and I very much alone in the world, it seemed. I came home for the funeral and such, and then had an already planned weekend home a couple of weeks later. I came home for it and we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. Not without Nana there. Fortunately, a friend brought over this dish with easy instructions and a recipe card attached. It is so easy that we immediately adopted it as a staple and still enjoy it to this day. It is light and elegant and takes less than a half-hour from start to finish.

1 pound flounder or sole fillets (SERVES TWO! Add two fillets - or one half pound - per additional person)
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 box frozen broccoli spears, thawed
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese


Preheat oven to 350 degrees
sliver the almonds if you were cheap and bought whole ones like I do

Line pan with foil and drizzle olive oil in the bottom

Lay the fillets in the pan, ugly side down and put the thawed broccoli on the fillets.

Sprinkle the slivered almonds onto the broccoli.

Fold the fillets over the broccoli and almonds.

Put in the oven for 10 minutes.

This is a good time to shred the cheese. I love these cheese graters - this is the sister one to the one I used last night to make soup. My aunt slices the cheddar to put on the fish, because, well, these graters used to be my grandmother's and now they're mine and my aunt can't for the life of her remember where she put hers..... ahem.

Remove fish from oven to discover that the fillets have UN-folded themselves. Bastards.

Try to fold the fish back over the broccoli (usually with limited success).

Turn the oven to BROIL.
Sprinkle the fish and broccoli with the cheese.

Put back in the oven, using one of the lower racks. (I used the next-to-the-bottom one. Cook for 5 minutes or until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbled.

Serve with rice pilaf or couscous.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Food porn: Cheddar-broccoli-potato soup

Oh man.

It sleeted here today. It snowed overnight and then it sleeted. Little balls of ice fell from the sky and collected in yards and driveways and front walks and I had to go move them around.

This is the damnedest stuff. It's like trying to push tiny little BBs around and pile them here and there. They just won't stay. They won't stick to each other. What a pain.

And speaking of pain, it's amazing how sharp a teeny little ROUND ball of ice can feel when it hits the skin of one's face. A and I both worked with hoods up and heads down today. Miserable stuff, that sleet. And bitterly cold.

So it makes for a good soup night. And not just any thin, watery broth with flimsy vegetables and a couple of noodles floating in a bowl kind of soup, but a hearty, thick, creamy, stick to your ribs kind of soup.

I went online and dug around for a bit. I wanted potato and cheese soup. Maybe with broccoli, maybe not. It would depend on the recipes I found. I dug and looked and found one that looked like a good jumping-off place. What I did to it rendered it sufficiently different from what was published that I feel zero compunction about not citing a source. Trust me, this ain't that lady's soup. I doubled some stuff, tripled some others, left out the bullion (in potato soup?? wtf?) and added a goodly lump of first-class pancetta. Bullion? Puh-lease.

Bear with me here. Some of my pictures washed out with the flash, so there are some dark ones. My apologies.

I started with butter - about 3 tablespoons of it. Plunk, in a pot.

Then I took that goodly hunk of pancetta. I have no idea how much was there - about an inch and a half thick chunk, I think.

and I cut it into cubes and introduced it to the butter. Pig fat, meet milk fat.

They became fast friends.

Then I tossed in about three cups of large-diced onions and let them all sautee around together. while I peeled and diced (about 3/4 inch big) between 3 and 4 pounds of potatoes. In this case, we ran out of the yellow potatoes we had, so L ran to the neighbor's and borrowed five medium-to-small red skinned ones. Cool. Those cook faster than the yellows, so they went in after the yellows, and I didn't peel them, either. There are no pictures here of onions or potatoes. If you need pictures of onions and potatoes, you have no business in a kitchen. Stop reading now and go see what Mel is knitting at Cabezalana. I think he is headed to India on vacation this week. Maybe he's knitting something. There are often kitty and puppy pics. Check it out.

I'm sorry, where was I? Right, soup. We're making soup.

So after the onions are translucent (mine caramelized a little bit - no biggie) add a couple cups of water and the diced potatoes. Bring the pot to a boil, cover and let bubble for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

While that is happening, thaw about 20 ounces of frozen broccoli florets in whatever method you prefer. I run warm water over them in a colander in the sink. Just so long as they're not frozen when you add them to the soup.

Now is also a good time to grate about 16 ounces of decently sharp cheddar cheese and set it aside.

Remove about half of the potatoes to a bowl. Turn the burner heat down to very low.

And using an immersion blender, smush around the stuff remaining in the pot. It will look kinda nasty. Add milk here - maybe a cup - to thin it out a bit. It does not have to be a super-smooth puree, just moderately smushed. I suppose you could use an old hand-operated potato masher, but with that sexy stainless boat motor, why would you?

Anyway. Then you add the broccoli and stir it all around. (I whizzed it a little with the blender just to mush some of the broccoli, too, but only a few pieces.) Let it come up to temperature and then begin adding the cheese, a little at a time, allowing it to melt and incorporate into the soup as you stir. when the cheese is all added and melted, return the potatoes back to the soup and stir until everything is back up to temperature. Be careful, the cheese and potatoes will want to stick to the bottom of the pan, so stir often and don't be tempted to turn the heat up.

Serve in large bowls. Salt and pepper to taste. Serves four or five hungry people for supper, six or more as an appetizer.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

25 authors meme

Ms. Lady Deborah over at FROM MY BROWN EYED VIEW has tagged me for this little meme. Sometimes I get to the memes when I am tagged, and sometimes I do not. But this tagging so moved an impressed me that I have moved some things around in order to meet the challenge.

The deal is I am supposed to list 25 authors who have influenced my writing. Then I tag some people at the end and they make up their own list of 25 and tag other people. It is the living next generation of chain letters that my stepmother used to believe in so fervently. Whatever. I know that this will not make me rich, nor will it boomerang back around so that I have a ready-made cookbook of two hundred recipes. This is a task designed to prompt me to share a little bit about myself and to poke some people into doing the same. We may not all get rich, but there is a possibility that we could be enriched along the way. And that works for me.

Here is my list:

1. Herman Melville - Moby Dick was the first book I remember reading where the words felt as though they were meticulously and lovingly crafted by a master artisan.
2. Dorothy Allison - with dirt poor, dysfunctional white trash roots, Dorothy Allison writes from the gut and speaks to my experience.
3. Carolyn Chute - Author of "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" Like Dorothy Allison, but with a Maine accent. Unafraid to write tomes that would sink a ship and still gets them published. Wow.
4. A. A. Milne - some of the simplest, most beautiful prose I have ever read. His stories carry childhood innocence from generation to generation.
5. Gerry Boyle - Maine author of murder mysteries. He used to be my night editor when I worked in newspapers. Always gentle and kind, even as he hacked up my copy.
6. Bill Roorbach - probably considered a Maine author now, even though he is from away, he wrote "Summers with Juliet" and "Temple Stream." He also taught a class in advanced non-fiction writing back when I was in college and showed me that stories don't have to fall into the binary world of complete fiction or dry reports. Non-fiction storytelling can be creative.
7. Randy Shiltz - "The Mayor of Castro Street" and "And the Band Played On" non-fiction can be gripping drama. It can also inspire people to action.
8. Maureen Dowd - Acerbic wit, Irish heritage and fabulous hair. Perhaps she'll run away with me.
9. Molly Ivins - unafraid to gore sacred cows, and brave to the end.
10. Tabitha King (but not for the reasons you'd think) She is a horrible writer with far more ego than her modest talent merits. Married to Stephen (he's written some scary novels), she refuses to allow anyone to edit her material and thus has shown me that no matter what your name is, you need an editor.
11. Rick Copp - Another Mainer. He's written some murder-mysteries, but that is not what inspires me. He was one of the original writers on the television series "Golden Girls." That was the first show I ever saw that stopped me cold with the thought "I want to be a WRITER on that show. Holy shit."
12. Frank McCourt - "Angela's Ashes" and "'Tis" his words show a real representation of the Irish American experience. And his dialogue is beautiful.
13. Barry Longyear - "Manifest Destiny", "Naked Came the Robot", "St. Mary Blue", "It Came From Schenectady" (and many, MANY more) A science fiction writer and another college instructor, Barry challenged me to write clean dialogue and share things from the deepest point of my own vulnerability.
14. Marge Piercy - is still teaching me that there is poetry that speaks to me without being dull.
15. Rita Mae Brown - illustrates to me that a writer must still work very hard to produce quality material, even after they get famous and date Martina Navritalova. Unfortunately, she has not always done that.
16. Ernest Hemmingway - "The Old Man and the Sea" made me weep at its beauty. I want to write so that you can taste the salt on the pages.
17. Edgar Allen Poe - masterful, morose, dark. Not all writing has to be happy.
18. Rhys Bowen - Marvelous spinner of mystery tales in historical settings, her Molly Murphy series was delightful in its description of New York City in the early 20th century.
19. Dale McCormick - "Housemending: Home Repair for the Rest of Us", and "Against the Grain: a Carpentry Guide for Women" Not only has Dale inspired me to use my hands to earn my keep, but she shows me that many of the mysteries of the trades can be figured out with some patience and common sense. A good pencil-drawn diagram can be vital as well, and there is no sin in relying on pictures to show what words might not.
20. Nanci Little - "Grass Widow", "First Resort", "Thin Fire" shows me that lesbian fiction need not be over-mushy like Harlequin Romances nor hard-core, but can be good fiction in its own right. And she introduced me to my little dog.
21. Joan Nestle - because sometimes lesbian fiction can be Harlequin-esque
22. Pat Califia - because sometimes it can be hard-core.
23. Douglas Adams - Hitchiker's Guide series. One of the few things I can re-read again and again. Brilliantly funny with crisp, punchy writing. Love it.
24. Virginia Wolfe - for starting not just a sentence, but a whole book, ("A Room of One's Own") with the word "But." Take that, you stuffy old grammarians!
25. David Sedaris - shows me how to use his own true voice and be poignant and wet-your-pants-funny at the same time.

There are others, I am sure, but this is what I am coming up with today.

Now, Ms. Lady Deborah did not give a little blurb about each one of her authors, but I did. Nobody says you've got to or you don't, just do it the way you'd like. The people I tag are going to do that anyway, without me telling them so.

Here are the people I'm tagging:

Sharon over at the Queen's Blog
dolphyngirl at The Verbosery
Elizabeth at Random Thots
Crum at Lost in the Bozone
Carole McDonnell
Jen at Never a Dull Moment
Bull at Cthulu's Family Restaurant
Joy at A Spot of T
Karen Zipdrive at Pulp Friction
Gladys at Gladys Tells All
Claire at Unmitigated
Kay at Perhaps we learned something...

A final word on this meme and a bit of an explanation as to why it was so important for me to honor it. Ms. Lady Deborah reads my blog nearly everyday. She leaves nice comments. I read her blog every day. Sometimes I leave comments and sometimes I don't. Much of what she writes about is the African-American experience that is her life. Often I have no words to offer. As a white woman living in a predominantly white world, her blog is a window into a world I can never know. I understand discrimination - I am lesbian, after all - but I cannot know her experience with it. I read because the writing is good and because I learn something every day.

When she listed her authors, there were some I knew, many I had heard of and some that were utterly foreign to me. That is to be expected. Then she tagged her people. First was Rippa, a very cool guy with a very cool blog; second was Sojourner's Place, another amazing blog; then Verite Parlant, whose blog is called "Whose Shoes Are These, Anyway?" I love it. Then there was Revvy Rev, a very cool progressive man of the cloth, and then me. Me. ME?! I hardly feel worthy to be grouped with such smart, thoughtful people. Me? Little old grumpy, middle-aged New England lesbian of Irish heritage? I was - and remain - profoundly touched to be included. Of all of the blogs she reads and follows, there was ample opportunity to make up a list entirely of quality bloggers of color. But she included me. I am at once humbled and honored.

I felt a little self-conscious about my list as I wrote it up. It seems I am indeed a product of my own heritage and experience. I have no authors who are people of color. I have a healthy dose of Irish ancestry sprinkled throughout, some women, some gay men, some lesbians, at least one transgender person, but no people of color. Lots of white guys, some quite old and dead, and some women, some similarly old and dead, but nobody that doesn't look like they could have come from my (extended) family tree. I am ashamed of that. It seems that my cultural education is lacking. I will take Ms. Lady Deborah's list and head to my local library to see what I can find. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing others' lists as they respond to this thing.