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Reporter's Notebook: Happy headlines, haircuts a repose from crazy world
August 02, 2006 · Sarah Leavenworth


Two serial killers are completing for body counts and notoriety in a typically quiet Arizona community. Police apparently have few leads. The reported Lebanese death toll - including children - has climbed past 650 and 50 Israelis have died in the newest conflict to engulf the Middle East. Heat waves are evident all over the country, and it seems crime rates, natural disasters and other tragedies are on the rise along with temperatures. The world is reaching a boiling point, literally and metaphorically.

Whether you are listening to National Public Radio, scanning the pages of a daily newspaper, or flipping through TV news programs, happy headlines in statewide, national and international media are becoming increasingly scarce. In fact, small communities like Mount Vernon and Lisbon may be the last refuge of the positive news story. At the Sun, we typically feature more than our share of the happy, inspirational and sometimes amusing facets of our communities in the pages of our newspaper.

During my tenure as a news reporter at the Sun, I have covered Mount Vernon and Lisbon gatherings such as Chalk the Walk, Sauerkraut Days, Heritage Days, high school and community theater plays and art shows. We have devoted pages of this paper to successful students ranging from national merit finalists and state champions to leaders and volunteers.

Cancer survivor and Lisbon native Jase Jensen was featured on our front page when locals held a benefit in his honor. Other charitable endeavors, such as Cornell College's Relay for Life, a Lisbon resident training for a fundraising marathon in California and kids selling lemonade and baked goods to raise money for charity, often appear in the pages of the Sun.

Last week, however, I wrote two stories that made me wonder if, in this time of enormous human tragedy around the world, our little Iowa meccas are as immune to negative news stories as I like to think.

The first story concerned a registered sex offender moving from one campground to another in state and county parks. As I conducted interviews and did research for the story, I was torn between my tendency to expect the best from everyone and my horror at the atrocities some people commit to the most vulnerable in our society.

In a sense, the story elicited in me the same emotions I experience when new reports detail the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East. As simplistic as it sounds, the question I have been wrestling with lately is what makes people treat other people so badly?

I was again conflicted as I wrote a story about the Fontenettes, a family "blown" from New Orleans to Iowa in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. On one hand, the unsung generosity of a local church warmed my heart. Alternatively, however, I was somewhat devastated by the fact that nearly one year after the tragedy, the family still faces seemingly insurmountable challenges but has been for the most part forgotten by the media, government entities and the public.

Since hurricane Katrina, I have written several stories about the family but have seen few, if any, tangible results. I am guessing that many of you who follow the local, state, national and international news may feel the same way I do: we are helpless bystanders watching as serial killers and sex offenders claim their next victims, people die from famines, earthquakes and tsunamis, and war ravages country after country. We may even feel powerless to help our own neighbors.

I am not sure if the solution to global tribulations and problems in our own communities lies in religion, charity, diplomacy or a celebrity rock anthem that unites the world across cultural lines. I did, however, take a small step last week toward lifting myself out of the depression the news can cause: I got a hair cut. As 11 inches of my hair fell to the ground, I felt a strange sense of empowerment. I have no control over what happens in the middle east, in Phoenix or even in this town. I do, however, have control over the little things in my life that make me happy.

Please keep stopping the Sun office to share your good news stories. E-mail me your engagement, anniversary and birth announcements. Write letters to the editor highlighting the simple things that make Mount Vernon and Lisbon special. I think we could all use a small-town good news story - and a summer haircut - to get us through these crazy times.

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