Fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham Finds Beauty on the Street
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"The wider world that perceives fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with. The point is fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization."
Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is a personal hero, and I’m not that interested in fashion. I’m inspired by who he is as a person. I keep a photograph of him tacked up in my cube with the caption "I’m looking for something that has beauty."
Cunningham is compelled by clothing — not the celebrity status or pedigree of the wearer. He champions lively personal style wherever and whenever it captures his highly-trained eye. On Sundays, I like to soak up his weekly "On the Street" feature in The New York Times. Now he’s the subject of a new documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year.
The documentary reveals Cunningham’s incredible work ethic and the ferocious joy of his work. Now in his 80s, he spends his days riding around Manhattan without a helmet on a beat-up bicycle. His film-loaded camera is always at the ready (no, he does not shoot digital), cocked to shoot someone’s interesting hat or low-rider pants.
In the evenings, he tours New York’s society circuit, snapping photos at charity benefit functions. He never eats the food at these events, and even refuses to accept a glass of water. He says this would compromise his objective stance.
While fashion has been the driver of Cunningham’s life and career, he describes his own personal style as dreary. While working, he wears a signature royal blue workman’s jacket. For years, he lived in a monk-like studio above Carnegie Hall stuffed with filing cabinets for all of his negatives. It didn’t even have a bathroom (it was down the hall). More recently, he has relocated to a bigger apartment. He asked to have the appliances and counters removed to make room for his files.
Bill Cunningham found his passion and calling in life. And because he did, he’s given a gift to the rest of us. Here’s a reminder from Cunningham to pay attention to what we see, and to look for beauty in our everyday encounters: ”Fashion comes from everywhere. It’s all here and the streets are speaking to us.”
The Work We Value, The Intelligence We Ignore: Is the Work that Made America Great Valued Any Longer?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work."
Working is part of our genetic make-up in the United States. One of my personal goals producing for this program is to present the many forms of grittier intelligence that exist in the world — reminding myself and our audiences of the intellectual integrity and the nose-to-the-grindstone beauty of people in this land I call home.
The value of work and how we work and how we become civic beings is embedded in this concept of everyday living. I ask myself, “Why did so many people love the story about the oldest living man from Montana who just recently died?” I don’t think that it was just about longevity, but that he was a railroad man who had practical advice and obvious wisdom. He distilled the complexity of life into practical advice that I believe he formed by working the lines and the farms. I think all of us long to know more about people like that, the quiescent majority.
Reading the following testimony from Mike Rowe, the creator and host of Dirty Jobs, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has reignited my urgency to find more of these voices in the months to come. Here’s his speech in its entirety; it’s well worth the time:
"Chairman Rockefeller, Ranking Member Hutchison and members of this committee, my name is Mike Rowe, and I want to thank you all very much for the opportunity to testify before you today.
I’m here today because of my grandfather.
His name was Carl Knobel, and he made his living in Baltimore as a master electrician. He was also a plumber, a mechanic, a mason, and a carpenter. Everyone knew him as a jack-of-all-trades. I knew him as a magician.
For most of his life, my grandfather woke up clean and came home dirty. In between, he accomplished things that were nothing short of miraculous. Some days he might re-shingle a roof. Or rebuild a motor. Or maybe run electricity out to our barn. He helped build the church I went to as a kid, and the farmhouse my brothers and I grew up in. He could fix or build anything, but to my knowledge he never once read the directions. He just knew how stuff worked.
I remember one Saturday morning when I was 12. I flushed the toilet in the same way I always had. The toilet however, responded in a way that was completely out of character. There was a rumbling sound, followed by a distant gurgle. Then, everything that had gone down reappeared in a rather violent and spectacular fashion.
Naturally, my grandfather was called in to investigate, and within the hour I was invited to join he and my dad in the front yard with picks and shovels.
By lunch, the lawn was littered with fragments of old pipe and mounds of dirt. There was welding and pipe-fitting, blisters and laughter, and maybe some questionable language. By sunset we were completely filthy. But a new pipe was installed, the dirt was back in the hole, and our toilet was back on its best behavior. It was one of my favorite days ever.
Thirty years later in San Francisco when my toilet blew up again. This time, I didn’t participate in the repair process. I just called my landlord, left a check on the kitchen counter, and went to work. When I got home, the mess was cleaned up and the problem was solved. As for the actual plumber who did the work, I never even met him.
It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought.
At this point my grandfather was well into his 80s, and after a long visit with him one weekend, I decided to do a TV show in his honor. Today, Dirty Jobs is still on the air, and I am here before this committee, hoping to say something useful. So, here it is.
I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce.
Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.
Alabama’s not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn’t a lack of funds. It wasn’t a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.
In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.
In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.
In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a “good job” into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber — if you can find one — is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.
I came here today because guys like my grandfather are no less important to civilized life than they were 50 years ago. Maybe they’re in short supply because we don’t acknowledge them they way we used to. We leave our check on the kitchen counter, and hope the work gets done. That needs to change.
My written testimony includes the details of several initiatives designed to close the skills gap, all of which I’ve had the privilege to participate in. Go Build Alabama, I Make America, and my own modest efforts through Dirty Jobs and mikeroweWORKS. I’m especially proud to announce “Discover Your Skills,” a broad-based initiative from Discovery Communications that I believe can change perceptions in a meaningful way.I encourage you to support these efforts, because closing the skills gap doesn’t just benefit future tradesmen and the companies desperate to hire them. It benefits people like me, and anyone else who shares my addiction to paved roads, reliable bridges, heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing.
The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.”
If you have suggestions for voices that could fill this gap in our coverage, please drop me a line in the comments or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Protagonists help organizations become more competitive. After all, the word compete comes from the Latin com petire, which means ‘to seek together.’ Their intent is to not to antagonize, but to drive towards something. Protagonists are willing to name things others don’t yet see; they point to new horizons. Without them, the storyline never changes.
— Nilofer Merchant, from "Are You a Rebel or a Leader?"
Hopefully this excerpt from yesterday’s Harvard Business Review provides some value for us all as we move forward in our daily work lives. Some days it’s really hard to navigate and rise above the struggles of corporate life and haggling hierarchy.
But, this piece creates a space to remember that, even in the most frustrating times, we work with many hard-working folks who have the best of intentions and different approaches to addressing issues. Perhaps it offers some helpful ways of thinking, which avoids the demonization of the other and fresh possibilities for creating new conversations with colleagues.
(photo: James Duncan Davidson/O’Reilly Media/Good Company Communications, licensed under Creative Commons)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Flight Attendants Choreograph Gaga
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
We talk about all the ways people give new meaning to their lives. The conversation points are often complex and deep. But, sometimes it just takes jazzing up the mundane tasks of our work lives, like these Cebu Pacific Airlines flight attendants did with a bit of Lady Gaga — and choreographed to boot. Fun and fantastic!
Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”
by Kate Moos, managing producer
I love Philip Levine — poet of the working stiff. I go back again and again to his poetry with its precise cadence, its anger and patience and enduring beauty. Levine, who grew up in Detroit and spent time on its assembly lines, is a veteran chronicler of work, of the work that is labor.
As you rest from your labor, assuming you do rest, enjoy the treat of reading his fine poem about learning what work is, and the further treat of hearing him tell the story behind the poem before reciting it here courtesy of the Internet Poetry Archive.
The sketch to the left is drawn by N.C. Mallory/Flickr and posted here via Creative Commons.
Valuing Intellectual Depth and Its Relationship to Work and Life in All Its Forms
by Krista Tippett, host
I was hooked by the opening lines of Mike Rose’s lovely book, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker:
"I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This, then is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work. Such work put food on our table, gave shape to stories of affliction and ability, framed how I saw the world … I’ve been thinking about this business of intelligence for a long time: the way we decide who’s smart and who isn’t, the way the work someone does feeds into that judgment, and the effect such judgment has on our sense of who we are and what we can do."
Mike Rose grew up in an immigrant family in the center of Los Angeles; I grew up in a small town in the melting pot of Oklahoma. I did not grow up around much physical work, but I did attend a school where advanced classes in languages, math, and science were axed to sustain a strong football team. His story of his late discovery of the strength of his own mind, and, even later, grasping the forms of intelligence he had known without appreciating, sparked all kinds of longing and recognition in me. Our stories taken together are disparate but kindred facets of a schizophrenia in the American story that thrives, largely unexamined, in our public life. Despite our national history of exceptional intellectual achievement, we also harbor what the historian Richard Hofstadter classically observed as a “national distaste for intellect.”
This takes the form of a defiant bias against “book learning” where I grew up. Joe Six-Pack is, after all, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s “common man.” Sarah Palin strums these guitar chords powerfully, as Mike Rose points out — a phenomenon that learned commentators deride but fail to understand. For the other side of our schizophrenia is a learned dismissal of the cognitive accomplishments of “average” people, working people, summed up in a phrase like manual labor.
Mike Rose can demonstrate the error of such dismissiveness with hard research. But his concern goes deeper than that and is relevant to us all. Failing to see and nurture the intellectual and civic substance of all kinds of work, he worries, is profoundly undemocratic. It limits our collective vision and range of action from school reform to social planning. We shape educational policies with economic competitiveness in mind; we don’t ask what kind of education befits a democracy. Mike Rose asks this question through his life story and in his scholarship, and speaking with him leaves me at once nourished and challenged.
My conversation with Mike Rose is more about intelligence and its relationship to work and life than it is about schooling per se, though he also offers very fresh and provocative observations on standardized testing and on what we might collectively learn from the controversial experience of No Child Left Behind.
Working on this show strummed some guitar chords already resonating in me and my colleagues after our show last fall titled "Learning, Doing, Being" with neuroscientist Adele Diamond. Many of you responded passionately to that show, and Mike Rose helps explain that response, I think. He calls forth — in a way we rarely do in our society, even in discussions about educational policy — the life-changing memories so many of us can summon of school or of teachers or of moments of reading or learning when our minds came alive; and how such moments formed who we wanted to be, who we are. We’ve gathered those insights on our website and would love to add yours.
What moments in your life shaped who you are in terms of becoming, longing, hope, and possibility?
Collecting Sound in a Dining Car
Chris Heagle, producer/technical director
As we listened to the rough version of this week’s show with Mike Rose, the idea came up to drop one of the readings, which describes working in a restaurant from the server’s point of view and what it takes to be a good waitress. Sure, the reading was evocative, but we realized that since Mike spoke with such detail in our interview about his mother’s waitressing career, we might have the makings for a little sound montage. What would happen if we cut his descriptions up a bit and added some found sound of a working diner to layer in?
Fortunately for us, our studios are located two blocks from a classic American diner: Mickey’s Dining Car. A last-minute lunch was arranged and we were off to get chocolate malts and collect sounds.
When I am out looking for ambient sound for a piece, I try to think in layers, much in the same way a composer would approach a blank sheet of staff paper, and I get as many elements as possible. I know I’m going to need a foundation, something to provide continuity and serve as a base on which to add accents.
In this case, it was simply burgers frying and the din of (hopefully) unintelligible conversations. Short sections of this audio were looped to establish a steady, continuous sense of the location. With that layer in place, I added our interview clips and searched for accents from the location recording that could help support his points — things our waitress said, plates clattering, or the the ringing of the old-time cash register.
All of this seemed to work fairly well, but we also needed a bridge to take us in and out of that location. The solution came from my music choice for the original reading — the fifth movement from Bach’s Partita No. 5. Weaving in this music helped create the sense of a dance and melded well with Mike Rose’s descriptions, which, to me, really illustrated the marriage of precision and creativity that is present in those who excel at restaurant service.
Who Are We When We Are At Work?
Kate Moos, managing producer
Damon Drake, above, was one of the people taking part in an informal conversation about the role of faith and belief in the workplace one evening last week, which I happened to enjoy. Drake told about his personal mishaps as a fervent new convert to Islam 13 years ago, when he discovered that his practice of declining handshakes from women colleagues alienated them.
Now Drake says he makes accommodations in some of his religious practices if, in actuality, they subvert their original aim. On another occasion, however, he chose to leave a position when too many required business meetings were conducted in settings with alcohol. Such are the tensions of bringing our faith lives to our workplaces.
The discussion I joined was organized by Seeing Things Whole, a group that explores the value of personal spirituality and faith in organizations, theorizing that the bottom line in most organizations is best if assessed by measures in addition to profit: balance, contentment, a sense of shared purpose. The idea that the hygienic modern workplace should be uncontaminated by personal belief is appearing more and more outdated, as our lives become more global and as companies embrace diversity and pluralism as necessities. And, the idea that organizations themselves may take part in embracing a theological view is finding more ground, both in corporations and in academic settings.
In the interests of full disclosure, my invitation to take part in the discussion came from Bob Wahlstedt, a board member of Seeing Things Whole, who is, coincidentally, a benefactor of Speaking of Faith.
Michael Naughton, from the University of St. Thomas’ John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, explained the role of purpose in organizational life that, along with identity, mission, and stewardship, creates balance and success. “Purpose,” he pointed out, “aims us toward the deepest and most transcendent reason for why we work, which offers a spirituality of communion.”
In small groups we talked about our own challenges bringing our values or faith to work. Marty Kotke, a sales rep at Reel Precision Manufacturing, shared his appreciation for being able to be a Christian with Bruce Peterson, a Hennepin County District Court judge, and Kyle Smith, the president of RPM, whose lunchroom provided the setting for our gathering.
Another speaker, John Wheeler, was the general manager of the Mall of America for 18 years. A Buddhist, he learned to practice the principles of his spiritual life in what is arguably a sort of cultural icon of consumerism. “I loved my job,” Wheeler joked, “except for its true essence.” Wheeler said his grounding as a Buddhist helped him address concerns about problems with unsupervised youth at the so-called mega-mall with respect for all parties.
Who are you at work, relative to your spirituality, values, or faith? Have you experienced difficulty with your religious beliefs or practice in the work place? How do you think organizations might benefit from a “theology of organizations?”
Expressing Our Inner Gifts
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"I mean, we spend over one-third of our lives actually in the workplace, and one of the loneliest things you can find is somebody who is in the wrong kind of work, who shouldn’t be doing what they are doing but should be doing something else and haven’t the courage to get up and leave it and make a new possibility for themselves. But it’s lovely when you find someone at work who’s doing exactly what they dreamed they should be doing and whose work is an expression of their inner gift. And in witnessing to that gift and in bringing it out they actually provide an incredible service to us all."
I started to think about people who embody what O’Donohue describes — people who are living their right livelihoods. Tap artist Savion Glover quickly came to mind. I saw him perform last year in Minneapolis and was captivated. He is so precise, fluid, and joyful in his dance, as you can see in the video above.
Thinking some more, I wondered about people who live out their gifts but aren’t so famous. Then I remembered a traffic cop I used to admire when I lived in Brooklyn who exemplified grace, playfulness, and good humor as chaos and impatience swirled around him.
Who comes to mind for you: famous or not famous? How do you express your inner gifts through your work?