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.


Kay said...


I knew you were a mighty wonderful woman… I now have proof! What an inspirational story! Thank you so much for sharing it!

Carla Ganiel said...

This is so amazing. It gives me hope that I might be able to find a pair of shoes that fit and the bravery to put them on. Thank you.

Dusty said...

Jaysus Christo, you so rock Dawn!!!

This was a great read, and I feel somehow that I know you better. ;)

You are a gifted writer m'dear!

Robin said...

They rock, but so do you my friend, so do you.

It could never have happened if you hadn't had that same drive and strength and willingness to believe inside of you.

Diane said...

To thine own self be true...and you are. In mid-life, I'm just learning how. This is great stuff. Thanks :)

Chef Cthulhu said...

Great speech; very interesting and well put.

Heights made me skittish as well...my current job involves a lot of climbing, and got me over it, somewhat.

Anonymous said...

Well done, my friend! :) I hope someday I can find my own pair of shoes and that the fit as well. It's the shopping for them I don't like...

Anonymous said...


I am proud of you for speaking so eloquently. You were completely engaging and the entire staff of Women Unlimited are proud of you.

To anyone else reading this, we did not make special rules for Dawn, we just asked her to live within our own code of conduct. She managed to do it for at least one good hour of the conference. She was great, in her workshop and her speech, Dawn rose to her finest moments.

Thank you,


Anonymous said...

This is simply terrific.

I feel so silly, now, here at my desk.


CaroleMcDonnell said...

That was so good. I like getting to know folks' lives. (I also love dressing up and going to places and being the center of attention.) It sounded absolutely wonderful. -C

Th' Rev said...

you fucking rock Dawn...:)