Eventually what was rumbling through Finn’s mind emerged, not in speech but in words. He had kept his anger and channelled it into something more creative.  What resulted was a piece of brilliant writing that seemed to set the universe right again.

The local print newspaper responded quickly to Finn’s request to write a column on the need to see the Third Place for the remarkable operation that it really was. He told us nothing about it, but the newspaper had offered him a feature column in its Op-Ed section on a Saturday a few weeks following the online publishing of the university’s piece.

It was Daisy that had risen early that morning and collected the paper from the front doorstep.  After sitting down for a cup of coffee before preparing the dining room for the breakfast patrons, she abstractly thumbed through the sections until her eyes lit on a column heading that captured her attention.  Quickly realizing that the piece was about the very restaurant she was sitting in, Daisy sipped her coffee and began reading.

 

Innovation: Beyond Age

by Finn Dawson

Just as one might have hoped that this community would get its act together and heal our divisions, we were reminded by an article in our local university paper (online and paper editions) that biases are still prevalent among us, perhaps especially that between the generations.

The trouble with much of what passes as communication today is that it’s all crosstalk.  It’s a din, not a dialogue.  We fire salvos of information across the Internet, and increasingly in print, texts or blogs.  But is anyone really paying attention?  Because if they are, they would understand why the university article has done us all a great disservice.

The centre of all these exchanges has been the Third Place – a restaurant in the Old Village of our city, that has enjoyed lineups for years for its menu and belief in the kind of conversation that really matters.

It’s owner, Everton Overly, established the business over 15 years ago on the belief that good food isn’t worth much if can’t draw us together and consider how we might create a better community.  Somehow the university column misses that in its unfortunate drubbing of this remarkable community experiment.

The noisy chatter reflects the fact that we don’t really know how to engage one another in authentic conversations.  We simply haven’t learned the skills of listening closely to each other, of engaging in meaningful exchanges, and of finding shared sources of meaning.  We lack the know-how and the tools and it shows.

As we move into times of accelerating change and deepening uncertainty, we need to get smart about how to talk to one another.  We need to be able to overcome differences, find common ground, build meaning and purpose and set directions together.  We need to be able to think together as groups, as citizens, as committees, and as communities.

The way to do that is through dialogue – that it’s only by reasoning together that we are able to uncover the truth for ourselves.  It is based on the understanding that if two or more people are unsure about a question, they can accomplish something together that they can’t do on their own.  By questioning and probing each other, carefully dissecting and analyzing ideas, finding the inconsistencies, never attacking or insulting, but always searching for what they can accept between them, they can gradually attain deeper understanding and insight.

When done well, the benefits can be extraordinary.  Long-standing stereotypes can be dissolved, mistrust overcome, and visions shaped and grounded in a shared sense of purpose.  People previously at odds with one another can come into alignment on objectives and strategies.  New perspectives and insights can be achieved, new levels of creativity stimulated, and bonds of community strengthened.

This might sound somewhat far-fetched in this day of 24-hour assault and distant engagement, but it’s exactly what the Third Place has been practicing and refining every day.

There’s just one main problem and it is increasingly becoming an impediment our community development.  The Third Place is operated and owned by a man nearly 60 in a three-story house over 150 years old and in an older traditional sector of our city.   In other words, at least in the mind of the university paper, it’s a throwback to a previous era that, just because of its age, must be cast aside in favour of progress and innovation.

But that then poses another problem.  The Third Place has provided this author, at 22 years of age, an opportunity to learn about the essence of a kind of citizenship that requires face-to-face contact in order for it to function effectively.  A growing portion of the restaurant’s customers are under 25. Cellphones are put aside in favour of the kind of communication that urges people to say their words in the presence of a direct audience.

Yet there’s more.  What isn’t innovative about citizens of all ages frequenting an establishment that calls on them to treat one another respectfully and to find paths ahead when encountering disagreement?  How can it be that a restaurant that establishing signs with helpful ideas on how to build a kind of dialogue that has larger effect in the broader community can be viewed out of date?

Can this not be accomplished online?  No more than political parliaments, funerals, town halls, Christmas gatherings in the park, dating, bringing up children, or bringing neighbours together in an emergency are able.  There is an important place in all of this for virtual citizenry, but it remains a supplemental role because citizens are human and require that human contact responsible for bringing out the better angels of our respective natures.

We need to find places to come together that permit us to explore our collective identity as a community and potential as citizens.  More than most, the Third Place gives us that opportunity and thousands of locals avail themselves of its inspiration every year.  It is where we are experimenting with ourselves to see if we are capable of more.  This is innovation at its most informative and adaptive.  Innovation itself belong to us all, just as this community does, and only when appreciated this way will we at last discover our collective future.

 

I wasn’t prepared for my own response to this remarkable column.  The prose wasn’t merely a revelation of the restaurant but of Finn himself.  He possessed a depth that most of us had missed and the article altered how we collectively perceived him.

Dad came downstairs around 10:30, grabbed a coffee and sat on a window seat to scan the paper.  We all watched as he turned to the Op-Ed page and did a double-take.  He folded the paper to focus on the article.  On his face were the etchings of gratitude.  A smile emerged as one paragraph followed another.  He grabbed a sip of coffee and proceeded to read it all again.

“Thoughts?” I asked, moving toward him.

“This was Finn?” he asked, pointing to the article.  “I mean he hasn’t been here all that long but he gets what we’re trying to do here – exactly.  And he’s young, which makes this column so important.  Human interaction is the same for every generation and Finn sees that.  Remarkable.”

Daisy came up to join us, carrying a stack of napkins, and caught those last few sentences.  We smiled at each other.  The gloom that had occasionally hung over all of us since that first article had clearly lifted.  Finn’s rebuttal had elevated our spirits at the same time as it reminded whoever read it that the Third Place remained a unique presence in our community.

 

Next chapter – The Worst of Times