jobs

The Cell: Are They Really Our Friends

It was churchtime Sunday morning. I religiously pulled out my aging Power Book at the Starbucks after puring my brown libation into the receptacle beneath the carved silver goddess of the sea, stirring in just enough cream to take the edge off. There were a few couples, and a handful of solo fellow worshipers. Each of them actively accompanied by their electronic companions ~ looking longingly at them, stroking them gently, like lovers.

My iPhone got jacked out of my car last week. Mistakenly left her alone for one night in my complex’s garage and the evildoers abducted her. They broke the big, expensive window. Is there no honor amongst thieves these days? Called AT&T. No upgrade til June. So I am using this lame flip with a keypad the size of my left thumb. I had to grow nails to be able to push the buttons. All day, I’m missing my friend…

Wow ~ do I really feel like I lost a friend? Answer — Yes. It is crazy.

My daughter, 13, just walked in to meet me. In typical teen style she plops down across from me, without saying hello, pulls out her laptop. 2 minutes later she is leaning her head over our touching laptop screens demanding, at the far boarder of frustration, “I NEED INTERNET”, cause she can’t get her newly purchased Starbucks card to give up the web. Its a beautiful day, and here we sit ~ tethered to these machines.

How did these machines push their way past human relationship for the number one seat?

Michael invited me down to a latin jazz performance the other night. He was with a couple friends ~ grown-ups. Mid conversation, one was texting incessantly under the table like a schoolgirl in her desk as if we couldn’t see, saying, “this is rude, isn’t it?” She didn’t stop.

I heard Larry King once describe the hardest part of quitting his addiction to smoking was that it felt like loosing his best friend. He said butts are right there keeping you company when you want to be alone, they act like your wingman, keeping you feelin’ “Kool” when you are in public, and are the perfect partner for a drink or a cup of coffee. As smoking has been banished from our living and working spaces, our portable d-vices have become the new cigarettes ~ and it seems we are all having click-fits.

I am struggling not to replace my iPhone. Not even because there is a new one coming out in a minute. I don’t like the hold it has on me. I haven’t had a drag in a decade for the same reason. Still love em both.

At the same latin jazz show, the sister with the phone said that she was a “military intelligence” pro, soon to be working in “Northern Virginia”. I asked what she will be doing hoping this would be my first encounter with a real spy ~ at least that I know of. Turns out she will be amongst those to decide which countries get the new 83 Million dollar stealth jet that can take of and land anywhere like a helo.

Wow ~ what goes into a decision like that?

Her proud response ~ “Five years of training.” Comforting. I told her I was glad that a woman was making that decision, particularly one with a 1-year-old child. I asked her to include him, and every other child on the planet, as she parses the equation.

Daniel J Gerstle, founder of Helo Magazine, informed me that helo is what they call choppers in the world of relief work. Not sure if it’s pronounced “hell-o” or “heal-o”. Guess that depends on which application we are referring to. Won’t it be lovely when healing is the only application of our most elegant and efficient technologies.

At what point do machines deserve to be treated as our friends?

My emerging answer: When they give life rather than taking from it. I’m out of this cell ~ going to hang with my beautiful daughter on this lovely day. Leaving you with some peaceful green from the Helo crew…

Balancing Scales

I recently went before a group of folks from a foundation to pitch the idea for The Bench That Gives. The two big push backs were the scale of the endeavor, and the evidence or proof that what we are creating can work. I was told that what is needed is to produce 10s of thousands of jobs, and that it was a nice idea, but what can an handful of folk geared up to produce benches and other products achieve.

My knee-jerk response was defensive ~ trying to show that this is just a start and that as we brought more businesses into partnership to create more of the model, we would eventually reach scale. But this response does not honor what I know to be true, nor the intuitive evidence that underlies this initiative. I tossed around all night. What came to me in the wee hours, was to really listen to what I know ~ the concept that this blog is based upon ~ that it is not only huge efforts that create change, little efforts with big visions and integrity have the power to reach critical mass.

The power of an idea is not in its grandness, it is in its ability to be lifted and carried by many people. Therefore, by design, it must be small, compelling, apprehensible, and able to be transferred by those moved by it.

Seth Stevens, CWGI Advisor, retail genius, and proprietor of the successful Mount Washington Wine Company and Dogma took me out on a selling trip to introduce me to the retail products business. Seth had coached me on producing some stunning leave-behind sales materials including a spec sheet with the color pics of the bench. Our first stop was an up-scale garden center in “The County”. Seth began by saying a couple words about the bench, and I followed with an equally brief description of the project. Seth nodded to me to pull out the spec sheet. When the woman at the shop saw the pics, her head literally snapped back as she noted how beautiful the bench was. When she saw the retail price of the bench was $2500, she said, “Expensive! But we can do expensive here.” The sale wasn’t complete, but the message was clear. We left with a spring in our step. Seth leaned over and said, “That’s the evidence we needed!”

By combining the stunning design of the bench with a project that teaches folks to use their hands to “make good”, she easily got it, and was invested in both the product and the idea ~ little as they both may be. So as the bench moves from the workbench at Gutierrez Studios, out to the garden center. It gives the woman who was sold on the concept a chance to sell the concept repeatedly ~ in her own way. Each of the folks who purchase one for their yard have now been invested. It gives them the opportunity to share this story with each visitor who comments on the bench, and so on… This is in part the vision of this project ~ that each person who is “sold” on the concept of Community becomes an emissary, invested in the idea that we are all responsible for eachother’s well-being. In isiZulu this idea is known as UBUNTU. UBUNTU is the little idea with the power to help change the world to something that is giving and beautiful. Imagine the possibilities!

The Master’s Touch

Photograph by Julia Pearson

It was a cold night, three years ago. The fire pit was blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars for a moment before they flickered and faded. There were a hundred people huddled close. Some baking the warmth into their clothes, others pressing together in groups in animated exuberance. John had offered his amazing space to yet another friend and admirer in celebration of her birth. Farrah shone, wrapped in her grandmother’s fur like it was the best birthday ever. It was always The Best if it had anything to do with John Kennedy Gutierrez.

The drinks flowed like honeywater, painting soft our consciousness and vision ~ blurring the edges of who we thought we were. I wandered from the outside into the Gutierrez Studio showroom filled with stunning objects, armoires of shining steel and zebrawood, tables and chairs with legs of rust and patina, hanging amber light fixtures, each more simple and elegant than the last. One object captured my imagination. It was an exquisite desk lamp, honed of fine steel, delicate and sturdy ~ a cylindrical counter weight at one end, offsetting a long thin rod tipped with a tiny light. The entire piece was balanced with a polished steel ball sandwiched, well, more like suspended, between to thick steel discs. It looked like something pulled straight out of my dreams ~ the perfect object. It was blue heron-like in its hue and elegance. Like a child in a museum, I couldn’t help but reaching out to touch it. But rather than the metal-on-metal resistance I expected, the weighted rod moved as if it was floating in air. So perfectly balanced was this being from another universe, it stayed, without settling, exactly where I moved it. It was breathtaking.

I wandered around the room in awe ~ then, was overwhelmed by a feeling of deep sadness. I work in the neglected communities of Baltimore. Most people who don’t venture there imagine the pain of poverty. I see the majesty of my people making magic out of nothing. I see my young black teenage brothers in the streets pushing twisted bicycles, front wheels spinning off-kilter like tacos, slack chains, twisted handlebars. A condition that is impossible to ride. Yet, they mount these broken machines and bend the forces of space and time, hoist the front wheel towards the heavens with exquisite ease, and ride impossible wheelies for endless blocks, one hand swinging behind their backs as if to cuss back at the impossibility ~ to say, this ain’t nuthin. I knew in my soul that they deserve vehicles engineered like that lamp, and will never have access. These objects were made for those who can afford the artistry with which they were crafted.

I ran out the door to meet the man who conjured the space that created this magic. As I emerged out of the door, there was a man who towered above my 6 feet of stature, thick as a tree. He looked over at me with, olive skin, brushy brows shading sharp eyes peering through the delicately wrought glasses of an architect. His face broke into an off-kilter, snaggled smile as dimples danced up his right cheek. He stuck out his hand, which swallowed mine as if I were a child. His booming voice announced, John!

“Is that your shit in there?”, unable to pause for formalities. “Yeah, this is my place.” I don’t remember if this is true, but the residue of my memory tells me I didn’t let go of his hand. I pulled him into the showroom directly over to the “heron lamp”.

“Did you make this?”

“It was made here ~ designed by one of the craftsmen at the shop.” He walked me across the room and took me into the darkened space of the shop. He reached to flip a switch that flickered the lights to attention, revealing the caverness, cathedraled ancient space filled with machines, metal, wood, and projects in various stages of completion. It was the first time since childhood that I experienced the feeling I long to feel when I walk into a church. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reminds us, “God is in the details”.

I was standing there. I couldn’t move. “Let me run an idea by you…” I blurted in manic impatience. I sketched the image of the kids hittin wheelies on trashed bikes. I said, “What if we taught folk who can do that, to do this?” His mouth arched into that crooked smile ~ he let go a laugh and said, “Call me Monday.” That was the genesis of what will now be know as the John Kennedy Gutierrez Apprenticeship, the first project of the Community Wealth Generation Initiative.

Last week, three years later, we filmed the bending and welding of the prototype bench that will be the first product of the apprenticeship that will teach men and women in East Baltimore to do just that. The next day, I sat in the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center next to John as he labored to breathe. The next night, I stood in my living room watching the amazing footage of John’s youngest employee, Drew, heating, bending and welding the steel bench as John’s voice powered through the speakers of my stereo. I happened to record a conversation with John 6 months before. I was about to write the curriculum for the initial orientation for the apprenticeship. I asked “what do the folk we are training need to know”? John took the next 22 minutes and 40 seconds to explain what it means to be a craftsman and an entrepreneur.

As I was watching, the wind picked up outside, pushing its way through the still sticky sliding doors of my living room that John once instructed me how to fix when he was there. Moments later I received a text from John’s sister Diana that said simply, “John has left this world.”

If one is truly blessed, one is given a gift of someone with the power to bend time and space ~ to bend your life from something ordinary, into something exquisite. This is the gift that John gave to me. 500 people gathered this Monday, filling the cathedral he calls “The Shop”, that John Kennedy Gutierrez bent into being from the ashes of the Clipper Mill fire. As we pushed close to eachother around the fire pit, still blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars before they flickered and faded; I knew that I was not alone.

A man who works with his hands is a laborer;
a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman;
but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.

Louis Nizer