A Reunion of Sorts 

John Rember returns to Boise Weekly

In the July 25, 1996, issue of Boise Weekly, I published "Making Bombs," a story of a teenage gas station attendant in Stanley who constructed black powder bombs in the station's garage in his spare time. The story was one of a series of semi-fictional Boise Weekly pieces I wrote in the mid 1990s. They became the nucleus of Traplines, my 2003 memoir about life in Sawtooth Valley.

In my author's note to Traplines, I confessed that some parts of the book were history and other parts were fiction, and I wasn't always sure which was which. It was a fortunate bit of honesty. Anger at James Frey's falsehoods in his memoir of addiction, A Million Little Pieces, showed that readers and reviewers and Oprah Herself don't like it when lies are presented as fact. No one reading Traplines had to wonder if I was making stuff up, because I had already told them I was.

If what I made up came close to uncomfortable truth for some people, they must have been confusing their history with my imagination.

"Making Bombs" came to mind on April 14 of this year, when two Oregon men were injured west of Vale when their homemade bomb went off in their faces. My first thought, upon learning that the men were aged 59 and 60, was that bomb-making is something you should grow out of in your teens, and if you don't, you ought to talk the matter out with a decent Freudian therapist.

A day later came the Boston Marathon bombings. A teenager was involved, as well as victims who lost limbs and lives. The unconscious stupidity of the bombing made me think again that the line between history and fiction is, often enough, thin and hard to see.

The Boston bombers believed the lie that a bomb can help your cause, especially if you use it to kill innocent people. More people than two kids from Chechnya still believe that one.

I've wondered what would happen to my memoir's narrator if he set off the same sort of bombs in 2013 that he remembered setting off in 1968. He would likely be in jail for a long time, even though he never hurt anyone nor intended to. A national security state tends to error on the side of caution, which isn't always good for the security of the individual citizen, particularly if the citizen has a teenage boy's fascination with making bigger and better fireworks.

There, but for the grace of God, go I. I say that to myself a bunch, usually when I see an orange jumpsuit. You should too, no matter how righteous you think you are, even if you've never even gotten a speeding ticket, even if you didn't make bombs when you were a kid.

So now, 2013. Once again, I'm writing for Boise Weekly, but not about a misspent adolescence. This time it's a misspent adulthood, the one where I became a teacher and a writer instead of a CEO, hedge-fund manager, banker, senator or nuclear physicist.

For 30 years I taught people how to write. Even though I had trouble telling fiction from history, I tried to get my students to tell the truth, not because truth is any easier to tell than lies, but because it's more interesting.

"If you insist on being a writer," I used to tell my students, "be an interesting writer. Don't lie. It will only expose your depressing lack of imagination."

Here are a few things I'll look at in the next few months:

--Telling the truth even when writing fiction.

--State and national politics, although I don't expect to add cheer or hope to the discussion. It's occurred to me that if Idaho were an overwhelmingly Democratic state instead of an overwhelmingly Republican one, the same people would be in all the positions of power, working out of the same offices.

--Education, and its role in what looks more and more like a war on the young people of this country. Instead of telling young people how tough I had it as a kid, I'm going to tell them how easy it was, and how I graduated from college owing $1,200, half of which was forgiven after my first five years of teaching.

If I write about how talented teachers are driven from the profession, or, in the case of universities, never allowed in because there are higher institutional priorities than the care and feeding of faculty, I won't try to make it an exposition on the wonders of the free market when applied to pedagogy.

--A humanity that is sitting on exponential curves and feedback loops, some of which will likely prove fatal. To cite one example, Bill Joy, the former chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, wrote in 2000 that any one of three developing technologies--genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics--could result in human extinction by 2050. He makes a better case for his argument than he does for posterity.

--Life in a geographically gated community in Central Idaho.

Woody Allen famously said that half of life is showing up. I'm convinced the other half is paying attention. If you write down what you see and hear, and if you're careful and honest about it, you don't have to force people to see what you see. The world is there, ready to be witnessed, and if you focus on it and respect the fact that it's real, you can, for brief moments, share your vision with others, who will add their own perceptions and memories to yours. That's not fiction. That's story, and it's the best thing we have for pushing language in the direction of truth.

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