Endeavors, Life

Battling the Whirlpool

. . . the best way forward for all of us individually and together is to turn grief into resolve and continue the struggle to save this planet from randomness, carelessness, ugliness, wastefulness, and superficiality . . .

Stefanos Polyzoides, Dean, School of Architecture, University of Notre Dame, on the passing of Richard Driehaus

This isn’t the way we planned last week. The ride was smooth all the way, until we sailed straight into a whirlpool.

My writing partner and I resigned as contributing writers with our main outlet after an unexpected fiasco (not on our end), ruined the article that came out in print. Now, I must confess that I am one of those people who second guesses myself all the time: “Was it me or was it them? Maybe it was neither of us. Maybe it was both of us.”

Why Did I Not See This Coming?

Retro-engineering what I think happened on the other end, it seems that an unintended chain of events played out when the magazine reorganized, implemented an abrupt philosophical shift (without telling us), and engaged in a number of other oddities too numerous to go into here. But suffice it to say, the whole of it created a downward spiral so that the end result, where our article was concerned (actually the entire publication), was inappropriate, embarrassing, and even a little frightening (I’ll explain this in a minute). I blame no one at this point, but simply chalk it up to some ill-advised, blind choices and an over-reliance on “change” as a virtue and an end in itself.

Because my own work often necessitates interaction with institutions, museums, specialty libraries, and other non-profits, as opposed to doing one-shot interviews that don’t require much background research, I am mindful that access and permissions from these places may be subject to strict compliance policies and agreements. Institutions that deal with intellectual properties or material culture (especially the rare kind) are often very guarded and try to oversee anything that potentially affects their public image.

Sometimes these gatekeepers request to see articles before they go to print—understandable from their point of view, but a no-no from the publishing standpoint for entirely legitimate reasons of another kind. Building trust under these circumstances requires showing oneself trustworthy all the time. A published article that falls wide of our stated purpose, the expectations of assisting persons and institutions, and policy or agreement compliance can destroy professional credibility and future assistance with similar institutions and persons—especially if they themselves are the subject of the story.

Common interest publications don’t always recognize this. Editors of academic journals definitely get it. Our work lies somewhere in between.

Damage Control

Fortunately, what happened this time was not the kiss of death, though it did affect a lot of relationships. For several days we wrung our hands wondering how we could possibly risk publishing our queue of upcoming topics if we could no longer trust the editorial process of our host publication. One of our articles involved a traveling exhibition from a very high-end art museum and another dealt with a collection of politically sensitive material at another museum.

Unfortunately, our decision to pull the article came right when it was in layout. It hurt them; it hurt us. Ironically, that very article was based on the opening quote of this post concerning the world’s problem of “randomness, carelessness, ugliness, wastefulness, and superficiality.” Our previous article was ruined by that very thing. How would we ever live it down if the article in which we addressed these matters went to the same destruction? And what would we tell those people who helped us gain access to their materials in the first place? Was it too much to expect that the trouble they went to on our behalf would be rewarded? And that the end result would accurately portray the reasons they mattered and why the public should support them?

Lessons of Bailing Out

Serendipity can be a magical and wondrous thing. Chaos, on the other hand, is a destroyer. Many cannot tell the difference between the two until something in the long line of the operation finally herniates. We were simply at the herniated part of the thing. There are so many things I wish I could say—so many lessons embedded in the heart of the mess—but the aftermath of such gut-wrenching moments leaves me drained. Perhaps it’s because I feel for everybody–the people who didn’t see it coming when they reorganized, the people who were lost in their new positions, the people who trusted us to get it right, and lastly ourselves for not seeing what was coming down the pike. (“Give the new people a chance,” I told my other half. “If it weren’t for my giving people the benefit of the doubt all the time, this wouldn’t have happened. . .” But this solves nothing.)

All is not lost, however. It just feels like it even though intellectually I know this is going to turn out okay.

Lessons were learned on both ends, and that’s always good, is it not? The path forward has not been lost for anyone who dares to observe and learn. Sometimes when everything looks wrong, it’s exactly the kind of shake-up needed to determine where the path requires you to turn next. We are moving forward again, “turning grief into resolve.” I struggle to find coherency, though. Yesterday I mopped up my sorrows with that old Peggy Lee song, wondering whether life wasn’t actually kind of funny like clowns at the circus if you just look at it with the other end of the telescope.

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