Making Bricks in Guangdong Province

The patient and kind brickmaker taught every student how to make a brick.

Imagine standing in a waist-deep hole, muscling red clay into wooden forms to make bricks. That’s what the brickmaker in Guangdong Province was doing, in 90 degree heat, with 90% humidity, when we swooped in upon him, all ten of us in our bright-red t-shirts, Americans cycling around rural China.


Of the dozens of Chinese people we talked to perhaps the brickmaker moved me the most.  He beamed when we descended upon him. Snow, our twenty-six year old translator, explained that the students had come from America to learn about China and would like to speak to him.


He has been making bricks since he was 12, he told us. He is now 44. He does not own the clay pit; his job is to make 1,000 bricks a day.  He works 364 days a year, with time off for the Spring Festival.


These facts, on their face, appall. Yet the man contravened the facts.


He was dressed in a clean, attractive polo shirt and a gingham work apron. His bricks were stacked with an engineer’s precision, in perfectly straight, uniform rows. And he welcomed us with bright eyes and enthusiastic delight.


He invited each student to step down into the clay pit and taught them how to make bricks.  Sweep some red clay out from under the plastic tarp. Roll and shape it into a loaf-shaped bundle. Drop it into the wooden form and firmly press it into place. There must be no air bubbles, no unevenness.  As he demonstrated, the muscles on his ropey forearms stood out like gnarled tree roots.


He has a child, a fourteen year old daughter. She was at school, he told us proudly.


As the brickmaker worked with each student, the adult chaperones conferred on the sidelines. We were taking so much of his time! This generous man, so patient with our students, so calmly instructing them in his craft, what could we do for him? He had 1,000 bricks to make that day!


After he had spent almost an hour with us, we heartily thanked him and almost apologetically offered him some yuan, probably amounting to about $10.


He would not accept our money. It had been his pleasure to teach the American children how to make bricks.  But, he sheepishly said, he had never seen American money. Did we have a small bill?


We gave him $1. He studied it. He would show his family, he said. This was a treasure. He would keep it forever to remember the day the Americans visited him.


Fortunately, I also had some small gifts in my backpack, including a pencil case with a dozen new yellow pencils and an eraser and sharpener. “For your daughter,” I said, opening the case and showing him the contents before handing it to him. His eyes widened. He held the case in both hands, grinning.


“Thank you. Thank you,” we exclaimed. “Xie. Xie.” Waving, we headed back to our bicycles. Our next stop was the village school, where perhaps we encountered his daughter, one of hundreds of earnest children in aqua blue and white uniforms, studying as if their lives depended on it.





Posted by admin in Inspiration, travel, work

Doors and Windows

Tina Modotti, No. 3, 1925

Last Friday I went to a retirement dinner for a senior manager at BMD, a building materials distribution company. I didn’t expect to be moved or inspired, but I was.

BMD is located in Galt, California. They’re one of the major employers in town, which is significant, especially given the Central Valley’s current unemployment rate of 10-13%.

The retirement event was held at Brewsters, in a room with lovely old punched tin ceiling. Refreshments consisted of shrimp cocktail, cheese cubes, meatballs, carrot sticks, and pita bread with hummus. There was a cash bar. 

So the event was not glamorous. BMD is not glamorous. Mike, in fact, is not glamorous. He’s balding, with a professorial air, especially when he pushes his glasses up on his forehead and pulses his fingers together in his characteristic “spider dance.” 

And, to tell you the truth, at the beginning, before the speeches, I was wondering mostly about dinner; namely, should I fill up on meatballs and carrots or would we be going out to eat later.

But I was hooked once the stories started.  Mike’s letter requesting an interview was flashed on a screen. Chuckles erupted at the quaint sight of a letter written on a typewriter.  Then the CFO engaged the crowd in a How Well Do You Know Mike game, with categories including music, cars, sports, and trivia.

It was fun, but the emotion started to kick in with the next speaker, who clutched a fistful of blue index cards. She’d started with BMD at 17 as a very junior accounting clerk, counting pallets and boxes in the warehouse.  She trained Mike in windows, she said proudly.

Mike became her mentor and champion. She described her early days in sales, calling him after a “customer beat down,” and bawling her eyes out. “Never forget,” Mike said after hearing her out, “It’s just windows and doors.”  

Mike’s ability to listen, to connect, was legendary. A sales manager described his introduction to Mike 20 years earlier. He’d gotten off a roof at a construction site, shaken the dirt out of his hair, and raced to a job interview, hoping he didn’t smell too bad as he put on a white shirt in the BMD parking lot. The interviewer had liked his technical knowledge but doubted his people skills. As a concession, she’d asked Mike, then sales manager, to talk to the kid for ten minutes. “Mike spent more than an hour with me,” he said. “I drove away not knowing if I had a job, but at least knowing I’d had a great conversation with a great man.”

Another speaker described Mike’s wisdom as life-changing. “I was a Jersey kid, having a tough time, going through a divorce.  I needed a change. And Mike said he needed me on the West Coast.  Mike met me at the Oakland airport. He got me through the rough patches. I got a happy marriage now and four kids. I tell my kids they’re here because of Mike.”

Don’t get the idea that Mike was a feel-good, softie though. The work mattered. We’re not just selling windows and doors, he frequently said, we’re helping build people’s homes. He had high expectations. His constant refrains. Make the customer happy. Do it right. If you don’t do it right, make it right.

You didn’t want to get called into his office and see him leaning back, fingers doing the spider dance, a sales rep said. And then if he said, “What? No letters? No cards?” you knew you were in trouble. Probably you’d had some kind of problem you hadn’t taken care of.

Mike did not single-handedly create a work culture based on integrity and respect. He was hired into a company where those values were already in place. Over the past 30 years, BMD has been carefully bought out from the original family owners and is now an employee-owned company, where every single employee has a stake in the business.

Three generations of management showed up at the retirement dinner. One of the most startling stories of the evening was told by the recently retired company president. During a serious down turn in the building industry, BMD was facing a financial crisis. It was at a pivot point and needed a loan, but the bank required more collateral than the company possessed. Three key players, including Mike, put up their personal homes as collateral. BMD got the loan, survived the crisis, and is now thriving.

I’m sure Mike will thrive too, in his next career as a walnut farmer. He’ll also continue to be part of  BMD since he’s been invited to join the board.

The image above is Tina Modotti’s, No. 3, 1925, courtesy of the Getty Museum’s Open Content program.


Posted by admin in Inspiration, work

A Persistent Joy


My husband and I just spent the night with friends at their Forest Service Cabin near Kyburz, California. It’s a beautiful, rustic place, on the edge of the South Fork of the American River, which was in full voice. We were there for Alan’s 60th birthday, which he’s celebrating by spending 60 days at the cabin.

Alan is also a hand builder of amazing clay vessels, and he laid out an assortment of pots for his visiting friends to choose from. We brought home a deeply contoured, cobalt blue, straight-sided bowl, which I filled with lemons.

I met Alan 35 years ago, at a dark and confusing time, just after I flung myself out of law school, not knowing what would come next. Alan hired me as a paralegal, and we worked together until my husband and I moved to the country, 5 years later. By then we had formed a deep friendship. It was not the typical work relationship, if there is such a thing. But Alan is an unusual person—a superb professional, a playful artist, and a grounded, practical man.

After we established our working relationship, we moved into deeper territory, exploring our mutual love of art. On lunch breaks, we’d wander over to the art museum on Van Ness. I don’t remember who thought of it first, but we soon developed a game. In a gallery, one of us would keep eyes shut, while the other kept eyes open and described a painting. The speaker strove to convey the essence of the painting: its colors, mood, textures, composition—everything but the obvious narrative; i.e you could not say, “It’s a windmill.” Then the other would open eyes and try to find the painting. It was an exhilarating game, both as listener and as speaker. Try it some time.

Once we held a talent show, nominally in honor of everyone’s birthday. We remembered the event with great delight last weekend, more than 30 years after it had taken place. The talent show was held at Alan’s house. The talent he offered to us was cooking, and he made a feast. I recited poetry I’d written. Alan’s devoted secretary (Yep, we called her a secretary back then) taught us snazzy tap dancing moves. The receptionist told jokes, and her husband, a graduate of an art school, brought an inflatable sculpture, which was met with gasps of surprise and delight. My husband showed slides of his geological adventures in the Arctic. I’m sure we all drank plenty, but the real inebriant was joy—a joy that has persisted.

You can see some of Alan’s ceramics here.

See The World As Garden, a poem I wrote 15 years ago celebrating my friendship with Alan.


Posted by admin in arts, friendship, work