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Ahhh ... it’s Decompression Day at The SUN

Author’s note: This is the third 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.

Honestly, even though the past two installments would seem to suggest that I’m jerking everyone’s collective chain, this series will be make complete sense as a cohesive whole, with a denouement that will astound, amuse and placate even the crankiest reader.

I swear. Stick with me, you’ll see. There are snacks and lively discussion at the end. And a puppet show.

The day after Deadline Day at the paper is a relatively low-key and laid back affair. Mondays and Tuesdays send us reporters scurrying for stories to fill the week’s edition. We’re harassing people on the phone, knocking on doors, sticking our heads into offices, stabbing pens into our thighs to stay awake during meetings and occasionally stuffing The SUN’s insolent endoscope into places the sun has not shown for too long.

On Wednesdays, the editorial staff examines the groundwork where the footwork occurred, tracing back steps as dots in need of connecting. Stories already started get their finishing touches. New narratives are strung together in an attempt to describe for our readers exactly who, what, where, when and why, usually distilling several pages of notes into a few scant column inches.

And unlike other news outlets, we don’t begin with a foregone conclusion and then slap together a concoction of conjecture, extraneous anecdotes and convenient facts to support some premeditated contention. Indeed, from beginning to end there is only an outline of what happened, and then the accompanying statements and facts are plugged in, hopefully in such a way that weaves a cogent, readable narrative. For the most part, a SUN news story simply explains how something went down, when and where it happened, who said what about it and, if we’re lucky, why, fergodssake, anyone would want to commit the felony — or the crime of wasting everyone’s precious time.

I can’t tell you how many times I thought my outline would wind up saying one thing only to have the related facts organically reshape the storyline in such a way that something entirely different ends up being said.

Is there an art to what we do? The answer is an emphatic “no.” Certainly some skill and savvy is required to achieve the kind of elementary storytelling journalism entails, but there is nothing artful about it. Elegant at times, yes, maybe even entertaining, but it never rises to the level of art, (except perhaps through the narrow filter of news writing geekdom).

Needless to say, on Deadline Day the newsroom is a cacophonous clatter of computer keys, the constant cackle of the intercom and raucous conversation as we choose gallows humor to defuse the stress of doing what we do under the constraints of a finite and minute amount of time.

Chained to our desks as we trudge our way to press time (it’s no coincidence that we each keep a bottle of antacid in our desks), there is no reprieve until Karl says, “OK kids, we’re done,” that period placed on our sentence invariably just minutes before beer thirty.

As HL Mencken said, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier,” and there is not much crazier than the crush of Deadline Day. Naturally, we’re all a bit crazier by the time the presses begin rolling and chugging (and I start my own chugging).

Having breathed a sigh of relief, the editorial staff returns (or at times does not) for what I call Decompression Day.

Although there are meetings to attend from time to time on Decompression Day — Town Council’s mid-month usually held on the third Thursday, joint town/county work session, the odd (apt turn of phrase) TTC subcommittee meeting — the pace gets ratcheted down several notches from the previous few days, especially after the chaotic and hectic marathon we ran on Deadline Day. The atmosphere is less charged, more mellow. Although we’re planning for stories the next week, our feet are off the accelerator and we allow ourselves to coast, to enjoy the scenery. We allow ourselves to breathe and take in a full course of the aromas that come with life.

It is usually during Decompression Day that the most interesting conversations take place. Philosophy, politics, art, literature, music, culture or just practicing our skills as raconteurs, everything can (and usually does) come up to spark an extended session of news room banter.

During the first three days of the week, Karl rarely makes his way out of his cave; looking through the plate glass window that separates him from the rest of the newsroom, he’s usually just a dark lump partly obscured by his large, flat-panel Apple monitor. But with space and room to breathe, he’ll venture out from behind his screen and take his place in the newsroom, sometimes spinning tales from his band days (the lore of privation and decadent excess) or his time as a teacher and itinerant artist in Denver. Sometimes, he’ll share an anecdote regarding some of Pagosa’s more colorful characters (many whose names appear on the front page of The SUN).

More often than not, Karl gets drawn into a debate when an offhand quip or comment results in some parry — the opposing view — and the ball soars back over the net. With the “fwop, fwop, fwop” of rhetorical give and take in the newsroom, Karl saunters into the fray, not satisfied with merely observing from the sidelines.

For instance, during our Decompression Day ennui a month or so ago, I made the statement that, “Temporal stability is a defining quality of art.”

What I meant was that art withstands the test of time, and that what is not art is fleeting, ephemeral, a fashion, perhaps, but not something that takes hold of consciousness from generation to generation.

Lindsey, our newest addition at the paper, took issue with my (admittedly) reactionary claim. Although she couldn’t exactly articulate her disagreement, she felt sure that there could be some inconsistency in my premise that would make my argument invalid.

When I first came to the paper, James Robinson played that verbal tennis match with me, always with satisfying and entertaining results. After his departure to Washington state, it was just Karl and I (for the most part). Lindsey Hope Bright brought not just the promise of her name but a renewed vigor to those Decompression Day conversations.

As an English teacher (and an avowed Bardophile), I was certain that Lindsey would have concurred with me, at least on that one point. However, she felt that there were other qualities that also defined “art” beyond temporal stability. I didn’t disagree — art can be many things — but at the end of the day (and at the end of time), what remains in our collective lexicon of definable art is all that we have to define it.

She offered a decent thought experiment, however: What if we were at the last day of time, when at the end of the day, everything ended. Furthermore, what if someone revealed one of the greatest works of art ever created? Would the fact that it was lost to time, that it was only recognized as art for a single day negate its worthiness of being called “art”?

Very good, I said, but responded that at that point, it wouldn’t matter; there would not be anyone left to observe it, qualify it, appreciate it — – indeed, it would not exist as “art” because we would not be there to perceive it as it was. Even then, I said, with all the intrinsic pieces in place, the potential for that defining temporal stability (given the object of her thought experiment was indeed a great work of art) would be there even if our timeline had run its course.

I quoted Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as an example of what I was referring to:

“I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear —

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

While most interpretations of Shelley’s poem see it as a commentary on the folly of empire and the shifting sands of history, I said that I took it as a treatise on art; Ozymandias as the long-dead fashion maven, frozen in time with a sneer of cold command” that was self-assured in what “art” was for that forgotten millennium.

Enter Karl, also unsure that my premise was entirely correct. Although we both agreed that art is unquantifiable — a computer program would never be able to determine what art is based on some algorithm — we did agree that, outside of individual subjectivity, “art” has defining qualities: What “you” define as “art” might not be what “I” define as “art,” but there has to be some consensus within society upon which the definition, and the members of the set defined within, have agreement.

I mentioned that Immanuel Kant determined that aesthetics, because of its subjective nature, was outside the domain of philosophy. Nevertheless, Kant agreed that something deemed as “art” was not necessarily judged so universally but determined through reason — and time.

Karl responded that, although Kant asserted aesthetic was not within the purview of philosophers, the dude sure devoted a lot of time writing about it. Furthermore, Karl wasn’t convinced that a “temporal stability” quality was all that essential in defining what “art” is or is not.

We did a little back and forth as far as the importance of Kant in modern philosophy, leaving the “what is ‘art’ or can it be defined” argument for another day. My contention that Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was art (especially in comparison to Pat Boone’s white bread, lamed-down version) was met with a collective blank stare. Apparently, for that Decompression Day, our conversation had run its course, to be considered (or not) for another Thursday.

Karl returned to his cave, Lindsey ran off to conduct an interview for the next week’s story and I stepped out back to smoke a cigarette, satisfied with what had just taken place: intelligent conversation, free-flowing and uninhibited, three smart individuals sharing their opinions in the midst of a place where opinion takes a back seat to reporting the news.

For the other days of the week, we strive to tell stories in such a way that breaks down the event, and the facts in such a way that the readers can judge for themselves what the facts in the article say. The countless hours spent in meetings distill what took place into something that takes five minutes to read. From the onset, there is no other purpose than to report what went on, what was said, what was accomplished (or left incomplete) and then allow each reader to make up their own mind about the contents of the article.

Are we without bias? Of course not, we’re human. Like the reader, this is our community, and we are no less invested in its future than anyone who gives a damn.

And it’s impossible to sit through countless hours of meetings and not give a damn.

However, it is the burden of the reporter to sit through those meetings and, despite whatever opinion is formed, no matter what feelings arise, put those thoughts aside and allow the issues to speak for themselves, to transcribe the words of the actors and not compose the play (no matter how much the urge to be a playwright nags at us). It is the constant working of the phone (and holy hell, I can’t tell you how much I feel like a telemarketer at times), knocking on doors and sitting in someone’s office, for the sake of getting “the other side of the story,” that reminds the reporter of the need to remain detached.

Decompression Day is not just about taking a breather from the culminating weekly stress test that is deadline. It is more about allowing us to be who we are, to speak our minds and assert that we do indeed have an opinion about something.

It is our chance to step out of our reporter suits, for just a while, and speak our truth, those things we feel deeply about and grind in our soul. It is our one day a week to reclaim our humanity when the job — our convictions, our ethics, our commitment to writing the story in an unbiased and factual way — demands our complete detachment.

With the paper freshly printed, on Decompression Day we can read what we’ve written for that week and satisfy ourselves that we did the best we could, to turn these stories (and all they imply) over to the community, to allow the residents to determine what they will think about, or do with, the facts. And then, we can talk about what we’ve written in the same way our readers do: pointedly, with humor or anger or sympathy, but with feeling, and with the freedom to be engaged in what is happening.

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