On leaving the building

This is my 121st column for Boise Weekly. It's also my last. It's time to hang up the keyboard, rise from my hard writer's chair and lurch slowly outside, pale and blinking in the fall sunshine. There's a whole world out there, I've heard.

I exaggerate. But writing a column takes time. Having a deadline causes anxiety. Anxiety causes clicking on Huffington Post articles about 25 celebrities who have aged horribly. You can lose whole days that way.

And getting a complex idea across in 900 words requires careful editing and a presumption that your un-concussed readers can make the occasional cognitive high-dive into the deep end of the ambiguity pool.

It hasn't always worked. People like certainty, and one of my tasks in this life, it has become clear, is to decertify easy solutions to complicated problems. I'm inherently suspicious of the corporate press release and of the writer who wastes his or her talent writing schmaltz.

Good writing requires an awareness of one's own dark side and the dark sides of everybody else, I used to tell my journalism students. They were to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two unless they got out on the streets to see what the afflicted look like.

"People will want you to write funny little stories that will make them happy," I told my classes. "If you're going to do that, you can make more money as a press secretary, where you actually get paid to lie."

Which brings up the joy of working for Boise Weekly. Not once in my 121 columns did Zach Hagadone soften what I had to say. I was trying to tell the truth, and he respected that, even when he got flack from the flacks, as it were. Since becoming editor, he's assembled a team of intelligent and skilled writers who put the truth into words, and for that reason Boise Weekly makes Boise a better, smarter city. It also keeps the Idaho Statesman honest, which is no small thing.

All newspapers exist on a spectrum. On the left is the crusading social-justice broadsheet that rakes muck and exposes rot and tends toward the irreverent. On the right is the chamber of commerce rag, with only good news and a serious booster mentality that promotes growth and progress and national monuments and real estate sales in the best little city in the best little state in America, wherever it might be.

All newspapers get pressure from their advertisers to move to the right end of the spectrum. They resist this pressure by putting a firewall between their editorial and advertising departments, but over time the firewall gets breached. Advertisers—the not so bright ones—start demanding only good news. Newspapers—especially when they're part of giant corporations—cave. "Everything is just zippy," becomes the message.

The truth suffers. Content suffers. Corrupt politicians get endorsed. Horrible government and corporate decisions get supported. Good writers turn into hacks. People start complaining that "there's nothing in the paper anymore." Few newspaper chains in America have escaped this process.

That is not the fate of Boise Weekly. I'm certain that there are advertisers out there who want a more conscious city, even if that consciousness now and then focuses on the unsustainability of freeways, strip malls, real estate bubbles and a formerly middle class being devoured by the health care industry, education loans and underemployment. Boise Weekly exists for those intelligent advertisers, who aren't afraid of unsoftened reporting, who value truth above all.

Regrets? I've had a few. I wish I'd spent more time on what's going to happen to the planet with a baked-in 4C average temperature increase. Climate change is going to trump every other issue by 2030. It's going to dictate where we live, what we eat—if anything—and how many people are on the planet—if any.

I'm sorry I didn't write the column on industrial complexes. Besides the military-industrial complex, there's the medical one, the educational one, the real estate one, the transportation one and the financial one, and they each want their 20 percent of the economy. Ordinary people get what's left over.

I wanted to write the column on the F-35 as an example of how an industrial complex can spend a couple of trillion on a machine that will be obsolete before it's ever deployed.

I planned to write a column titled "Mormons and Me," about how as a teenager I wanted to marry a nice Mormon girl—I had one all picked out—who would support me and obey me and pick up all the dropped balls and keep things running smoothly while I was nominally in charge. It would have been a life that combined the self-righteous with the unselfconscious, which appealed to me when I was 18.

Finally, I wanted to write about finding meaning—however ambiguous—in a world that conspires to destroy its own future.

Too late for that. I'm going back to writing short stories—funny little things that make people happy—and after I get an unambiguous woodpile in the backyard, I'll get right on them. I'm determined to be somebody's press secretary, sometime before the end of civilization.

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