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The unfortunate story of the balloon boy has me thinking about fiction, reality, and our consumption of the two. I say “unfortunate” because of the resources wasted on a boy who never really was missing. Of course there were the rescuers, but many others were glued to the television, watching and praying.

I pity the boy. What kind of dad makes his kids lie for publicity? What kind of dad pretends that his kid might have fallen to his death? Who puts that kind of pressure on a 6-year-old? No wonder the boy keeps vomiting.

I don’t think this story could have worked as fiction. I’m trying to imagine it in a movie or a book, and it just doesn’t have the same impact. There’s something gut-wrenching about thinking that an actual, adorable little boy might climbed into a balloon, only to have his extraordinary trip cut short by a tragic fall. It wouldn’t be the same in a movie, where you know that no actors were injured in the making of this scene.

So this story only worked because it was real, but then it wasn’t. And now, as much as we hate it, even the betrayal makes for a good story. The plot worked, in its own sick way. They got publicity.

So even though this story, as we originally heard it, was false, it still illustrates that idea that truth is stranger than fiction. It seems like I’ve experienced that a lot lately. I’ve met people with stories that I could never have summoned from the land of my creative genius. I read an essay about the Great Chicago Flood of 1992 that made me wonder where I was when this story hit the nightly news (thanks Freakonomics!). As I encounter allegedly true things that exhaust my imagination, these experiences make me think that I need to read more history.

Then the cynical part of me wonders if these true stories really are true. I remember that even history is up for debate when I hear about “facts” of history that may not be as factual as we thought. Some of the historians must have gotten confused and thought they were in creative writing class. Legends didn’t end in the Dark Ages either, and now, through e-mail, they travel faster.

Even though history and current events can give us plenty of true, interesting stories, apparently they aren’t enough. We like to embellish the truth. We want to create our own stories. If those created stories are going to work, they must be believable.

Today, sometimes it’s hard to divide the facts from the fiction. We don’t just have news and stories. We have spin, agendas, and “reality” tv. It’s complicated, but then, who ever dreamed up a good story without any complications?