We are once again preparing for a trip to our home in Mexico. Our plan is to get down there twice a year if at all humanly possible. With the date fast approaching I am just now realizing that I haven’t yet posted anything about Paducah. That would put me in the position of writing a blog post from Mexico a week or so from now with never a mention that we’ve been doing in Paducah for all this time. It’s possible I could use the excuse that the life here seems less exotic, somehow less noteworthy. Or maybe the weblog has taken on a “Life in Mexico” flavor that I find hard to shake. Or it could be that I suffer from classic writer’s block. Actually all these things apply to some degree. Add in a healthy dose of being preoccupied with adjustments to home making in Paducah, taking on a full-time job, etc., and the elements for the long silence begin to add up. The truth is, I’ve started writing several times and always came up empty. The sparks never seemed to create the flame. This morning is a little chilly so I’m getting out my flint to try again.
Paducah is a wonderful place. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a town more friendly and gentle. The pace of life is a true antidote to the disease of urban frenzy and the mild weather in general is a balm. The members of the artist’s community have been all of the things we expected; stimulating, committed, fascinating and kind. We did arrive at a somewhat awkward moment here with the community undergoing some fractious upheaval. None of it is unexpected as part of the growing pains of this noble experiment as it emerges from it’s heady visionary days and aims towards solidifying and institutionalizing it’s gains. I say “noble experiment” because the concept of an artist’s relocation program contains just enough of that element of intentional community to supercharge the group dynamics. Since we are all in a sense stakeholders in this project, there is no avoiding the inevitable clash of opinion over the direction in which we move.
At this point I really hesitate to revisit the particulars of the period recently past. But I do feel the need to at least talk in general terms about some of the lessons we can draw on in retrospect. Much of the emotional hurt was unfortunate and avoidable. Some of it was inevitable since a large part of the community decided that it was necessary to create an alternative organizational structure for the artists of LowerTown. Some building blocks for that structure were inadvertently dropped on some people’s toes. The truly curious element in the whole tussle was (and is) the part that e-mail played in actually militating against communication. We have an e-mail group via Google Groups called “LowerTown Artists Forum.” It was established to provide for the dissemination and cross-fertilization of ideas. While it does serve those functions adequately as far as getting news and questions out to the group quickly, it suffers from two very significant shortcomings.
The first might be characterized as; “I didn’t know it worked like that!” This is the shock (and shockwave) that comes from realizing you’ve just sent a very personal and pointed opinion out to the entire group when you just meant to talk to one confidant. The e-mail forum concept was simply too new and unfamiliar to many and simple mistakes in addressing messages soon turned into major flaps. In an e-mail forum, the dreaded “reply” button turns into a broadcast medium, blanketing the entire forum. Private thoughts promptly become public knowledge simply because the sender neglected to check the address line carefully before sending. I want to emphasize that the mistake made here isn’t in having the sentiment. We all tend to air our most strident opinions only in safe (read: “private”) contexts. This context is crucial for us all to vet our opinions so that they may be brought to the larger stage based on feedback received in the private setting. The mistake arises only from a simple lack of knowledge about a very new media. I’m sure that in the early days of telephone usage people didn’t understand the function of a hand over the mouthpiece.
The other shortcoming of the e-mail method is the “Alternative to face time” dilemma. We use e-mail because it is convenient, free and has the nice quality of instantaneous reward. It’s truly amazing to think that we actually lived without it all these years. But a huge problem with e-mail is that we now use it as a substitute for face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction. Time and again, a contentious issue would emerge in the forum and promptly degenerate into personal attack based on a misreading of tone and nuance. We rely on a whole variety of subtle cues to communicate nuance of meaning, most of them are visual and auditory. All of this can be lost in translation between the voice in our head when we write and the voice that is heard by the recipient of our e-mail. This is especially true when motives are in question or mutual trust begins to break down. The solution to a situation like this where intentions are misread is simple but takes some courage and a bit of generosity of spirit; pick up the phone and call. Just call. Begin with something like; “I thought we should just talk to each other because the last thing I intended was a personal attack on you.” The price we pay by not talking to each other is immense.
Since I’ve now jumped up on my soapbox to provide my “how to” guide to e-mail usage let me make another suggestion. Resist the urge to present yourself as cheerily constructive and positive in the open forum while flaming the person you contend with in the private e-mail channel. Don’t do it. The validity of your opinion rest squarely on personal integrity and the respect it engenders and by doing this little “one – two” you throw away any chance of being perceived as someone who sets aside personal issues in the interest of reasoned discussion. The public forum may be fooled, especially if the victim of this maneuver is sensible enough to not expose your duplicity in the public forum. The more important focus of your effort (the person you are in discussion with) is not. In the best-case scenario you’ll get a phone call and you can both talk it all over.
I think this may be my reason for my not writing about Paducah as of yet. I had to get this out of my system before I could move on. I realize that no one is asking for my advice and I that I don’t really know all the ins and outs of this situation. These humble suggestions are only offered in the spirit of fostering community health. But please remember that I need this advice as much as anyone. If my underlying thought in this post is; “we need to stop acting petty”, that’s plainly a projection of what I need to remind myself.
The community here is maturing. We arrived late to the effort but it seems the early “settlement” days are behind us. Ahead lies the challenge of developing the vision into a day-to-day reality. We will continue to disagree because much is at stake and we each have our unique perspective. Now, more than ever, we can’t afford to let our lesser natures dominate. We are muddled people. We are also good people.