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Something new under the sun

Author’s note: This is the second part of a unified piece that runs over the span of several weeks, composed in my usual style of meandering narrative and pointless monologue. Readers who enjoy my style might appreciate that the multipart style for this piece is a stretch for me, something breaking from the usual format of this column.

My detractors, of course, will have yet another reason to pass by.

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9

More than three years into this august vocation as a reporter and paid writer has led me to take issue with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Almost every time the sun rises, there is something new under it for me to discover.

Under the sun, not under The SUN. There is a distinct difference between the sun (that big light in the sky that appears in the east and descends to the west) and The SUN (the thing you have in your hands at this moment) but both have revealed to me that there is plenty that has never been or has never been done.

Ecclesiastes makes a good point, nonetheless: our experience, no matter how novel it appears, no matter how intensely ecstatic or tragic it feels, for the most part “it” has happened at least a million times before, reaching back beyond history into the prelapsarian dust of Africa.

That Ecclesiastical point stretches all the way back to the Greeks. Sophocles smashes the illusion of existential solipsism, holding a mirror up to show us that our faults and desires are not without precedent, that no matter the nature of the brew, we all drink from the same cup of human experience.

Arguably, that shared experience gave rise to religion. Explaining the mysteries of cosmology was merely a fortunate consequence of society’s need to govern our species’ universal capacity for avarice, cruelty and dishonesty (a delicious irony that dishonesty is answered by the same — in logic the conclusion would be “true”).

Qoheleth (“The Teacher” for whom Ecclesiastes refers) advises us that, since whatever we do is “a mere breath” and evanescent, we should enjoy the moment — eat, drink and be merry.

Still, I think Qoheleth is provably wrong as far as the contention that there is nothing new under the sun (which, Ecclesiastes states at the end, should cause us to look above and beyond the sun with, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep His commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”).

If literature, from Sophocles on, supports the wisdom in Ecclesiastes, Shakespeare destroys that conclusion in a number of his plays.

In numerous plays, Shakespeare drops the mirror, showing us something new and unprecedented. His best characters arrive on stage almost fully evolved but then continue to grow with the narrative, sometimes in rhythm with the play, sometimes providing a direct counterpoint.

In his best plays, Shakespeare proves to us that there is indeed something new under the sun.

And it has been at The SUN where I’ve encountered many new things.

Whenever we encounter a slow news week, Karl says, “Go turn over a few rocks and see what crawls out.”

Sometimes I hit paydirt and sometimes I end up with bupkis.

It all depends on the momentary capacity for avarice, cruelty and dishonesty displayed by our local officials — something that doesn’t happen very often. Although no one can deny that some of our powers that be can behave with cretinous self-interest, for the most part they’re hard-working, honest, genuine people.

They have to be. This is a very small town and malefactors have a brief shelf life. Once the rock is tipped over, they flee for another dark hiding place.

Here in Pagosa Country, if “Don’t evacuate where you eat” is not a guiding principle, it’s a fundamental tool for survival.

Nevertheless, I’ve learned to apply a healthy dollop of skepticism to anything said by our local officials, double checking the facts, talking to other sources and researching the data. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, there’s no other story to report and my source in local government has been on the up-and-up.

It’s that one-in-a-hundred shot that makes the due diligence well worth it. It’s what I live for as a reporter. There’s no joy in discovering malfeasance or incompetence but there is a huge amount of satisfaction that comes with holding local government accountable. If something I’ve written has raised the ire of readers because they get that their tax dollars are being misused, the gratification I get from their feedback is immeasurable.

Also, I have to confess that when digging has unearthed something malodorous and repugnant, there’s a certain adrenaline rush that hits as the story unfolds. As facts come to light and add weight to the story, there’s a real and palpable thrill that comes with knowing that someone is about to end their trips to the till or will have to answer for their trangressions.

All accomplished without hacking into anyone’s cell phone.

If there are some things that are not new under the sun to a reporter, it’s because we’re generally creatures of habit and, yes, a bit cynical. It’s easier for us to expect the worst and hope for the best. If the worst appears, we’re not disappointed, we’ve written half the story anyway. If the worst doesn’t occur, we’re free from the oppressive pessimism that’s a symptom of chronic cynicism. Better angels are acknowledged and humanity doesn’t appear to be a pack of ravenous curs.

And yes, there is satisfaction in discovering something new under the sun, especially when it involves local government doing the right thing by the tax payer.

Needless to say, working at The SUN is not all Woodward and Bernstein or Lou Grant. As I said, there are times when the pace slows to a crawl and a lot of rocks get turned over to reveal nothing but a fuzzy, mossy underside.

Oh, it’s never boring: the newsroom is nothing short of our area’s information center. If all roads led to Rome, all local trails lead to The SUN offices.

In the newsroom, Mondays and Tuesdays are reserved for working on the stories you’ll be reading on Thursday. There are meetings to attend and cover (especially on Tuesday nights), people to call or visit, research to be done and facts to verify.

I call the first part of the week my “bare bones” days since that’s where the groundwork is laid for the Thursday’s paper.

On Wednesday, Deadline Day, we’re chained to our desks. Although we try to have stories enough by then, that’s often impossible.

For whatever reason, local government bodies, districts and agencies determined that Tuesday night was a good time to hold meetings. What that means is the story is entirely composed on Deadline Day.

Between threading together the narrative of the previous night’s meeting (in a way that breaks down several hours of proceedings into something that will interest and inform the reader), putting the finishing touches on stories started earlier in the week and providing a fresh set of eyes for stories written by other writers, Deadline Day can be stressful and exasperating.

It’s usually on those days when Karl can be heard saying, “I need that story as soon as you can get it to me,” or, more commonly, “It’s a great day to be in the journalism business!”

The guys in the press room might not agree with Karl’s latter statement as they are usually cooling their heels in the back, waiting for us to finish writing the story about Tuesday night’s meeting. The sooner we finish, the sooner the paper goes to press which means, the sooner everyone gets to go home.

At the end of it, Karl will usually come out of his cage, comment on one or two of the stories that made the front page and sometimes say, “Good work, today.”

After final proofing of the paper, we take a deep breath and relax. One more week’s edition put to bed and going to press. Whether we’ve run with a story breaking a local scandal or merely reported on yet another mundane meeting, we can satisfy ourselves with the fact that we did the best we could — and prepare for next week’s paper.

And yes, satisfy ourselves with the idea that there really is something new under the sun — and in The SUN.

jim@pagosasun.com

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