Digging for Small Stories in a Shrinking World

Before I made it to the corner newsstand, I shared breakfast at my budget hotel with Matt, an archaeologist in town to attend a conference. I asked him where he calls home. He hesitated. “Here for now, I guess. Yes — London.”

His tenuousness fits a pattern visible in Britain, and emerging in most western democracies. Government is struggling to “get its house in order” after the Great Recession, which is code for cutting public benefits. Almost anyone with a PhD in any humanities field has made a lifelong wager on long-term vision and open-minded thinking. It’s not looking like a good bet at the moment, least of all in Britain.

This week’s election results back home also fit the pattern. “Nothing new” won everywhere voters were offered it. Incumbents won. Fern Ridge, Harrisburg and Eugene rejected school funding measures that would have cost voters more money. Only Eugene’s school bond measure, which was calibrated to match the current tax burden, passed. Voters asked for more of the same, no change, no drama.

Message received.

Matt (I didn’t ask his last name) doesn’t know when or from where his next paycheck will come. Britain’s conservatives are cutting budgets boldly and many Republicans in America would like us to follow suit. Archeologists or untenured professors or last-hired-first-fired schoolteachers will not soon be offered billboards to tell their story, but their stories consume roughly their entire lives. And that must count for something.

Archaeologists and journalists do some of their best work when they tell the stories of everyday people. History is written by the winners, with the dissonance and texture of those who didn’t win being carefully expunged. Stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative are imperiled from the start. But just because a story may not be remembered is not to say it needn’t be told.

Indeed, those stories destined to be forgotten are the same stories that most resemble our own stories, assuming we aren’t among the rich, the powerful, the bibliographiable. Documenting everyday stories affirms life as you and I know it. That affirmation mixed with recognition combusts an everyday power, the one that propels most us. It is the power to keep going.

I’ve stopped in London on my way to Egypt, hoping to gather some of those stories.

I’ve always considered time with a host city’s newspaper as a legitimate part of the hospitality experience. The Times of London didn’t disappoint.

Archaeologists dig up moments from the past that were omitted from the history books. Journalists do the same for the present. When newspapers offer their readers occasional glimpses of lives that resemble their own, that readerly connection addresses their worry that they have “no time to read.”

The Times sent a reporter to cover the penultimate Space Shuttle flight. Beside the main story was a profile of Brevard, Florida, a town filled with astronaut heritage, but now as unsure of its future as my overnight neighbor Matt. Astronauts and those whose careers supported them can join the lunch line of those who invested in long and wide.

The Times excels at telling tiny stories in great detail.

Jerome Starkey’s had a harrowing night on an overloaded tugboat, bringing ammunition and cigarettes to Libyan rebels. The comfortable surroundings of a teahouse in Hangzhou, China ease the extraction of corruption confessions from public officials. Zurich, Switzerland defeated a referendum aimed to curb “suicide tourism.” Erik Prince has a new half-billion-dollar contract to use his Blackwater contacts to build a commando force to protect United Arab Emirates potentates from pro-democracy protesters.

(If bin Laden’s place on our Public Enemies list hasn’t been filled, I’d nominate Erik Prince, who has relocated himself and his American billions to Abu Dhabi, where nothing is lacking except an extradition treaty with the United States.)

Who couldn’t love a newspaper town that uses words like leitmotiv and shilly-shally without irony? Not to mention those classically clever headlines. My favorite, over a story about a man who spent a day soliciting tips as a human statue: “Freeze a Jolly Good Fellow.” Oops. I guess I just mentioned it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. Photos and daily updates are supplied at www.facebook.com/dksez and www.twitter.com/dksez.