The Internet Stranger

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut this is a song
for strangers in a car…
Baby, maybe that’s all
we really are.

– Marc Cohn

We don’t meet strangers. We make them.

I recently met some folks, previously known to me only via the Blogs, for the first time, and like an Austen character, I was announced upon entry as “The Internet Stranger.” (I am the Scarlet Pimpernel!!) I felt, on the instant, as if I should be caped and hooded, I should be Batman. Or at least the slightest bit mysterious. Stalking imperiously around the house, channeling Christopher Lee, laughing like the Count from Sesame Street, with constantly cocked eyebrow and penetrating stare.

But that would have been weird…

…And I digress. On reflection (which at the very least means I’m not a vampire), I ask myself: what is a stranger?

Are all the people we’ve never met “strangers”? Conversely, are all the people we already have, not? What makes someone a stranger to me? When we were children, it was simple: a stranger was some guy with a van, or anyone who offered us candy on the street. But as adults, the term is hardly so clear-cut.

Just yesterday, a fellow blogger noted that one of my older posts seemed like a letter I had written to her well before I even  knew who she was. That got me to thinking again. What if it was? Not to her, specifically, but to all the “Internet strangers” out there, written in the hopes that some of them might not be so strange after all.

This same blogger, in a recent post, asked an interesting question: faced with the ominous silence that often accompanies a blog post, why do we blog instead of just writing in a journal? Why do we keep putting it all out there, even when no one seems to be listening? Maybe this is the secret: diaries are great if you’re Anne Frank or Jan Brady, but at the end of the day, they are simply mute. You can pour your heart into them, but they will never offer anything in return. With blogging, there is hope. Hope that one day, you may get a “Polo!” in response to your “Marco!”

In blogging, we embrace an idea: the idea that strangers are only friends we haven’t met yet. Anne Shirley said it best: “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

Some people–family, so-called friends, co-workers–have known me for years, and don’t know me from Adam. Then there are others, whom I’ve never met, who’ve known me since the day I was born, and I them. We just don’t know it yet.

So, the next time that metaphorical car pulls up alongside, the door swings open, and a “stranger” beckons from inside, in the words of Marc Cohn, “are you gonna get in, or are you gonna stay out?”

Because that stranger may turn out to be a life-long friend you never knew you had.

Pros & (Emoti)Cons

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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

– Inigo Montoya

As a child, after having been caught out in some mischievous trick or another, I would look at my father and plaintively protest: “I didn’t mean to!” “Ah,” Dad would answer, “but you didn’t mean not to, either.”

I never appreciated the real wisdom in his words until I started participating in online “debates.”

We use the word “friend” a lot in social media circles. Heck, Facebook is built on the concept. It’s a noun; it’s a verb; it’s a thumbnail…and we’ve forgotten what it means.

Mental image: You’re in your car, and unbeknownst to you, your friend is lying on the ground behind it. You innocently put the car in reverse, and run him over. To this point, little blame could be assigned; you had no suspicion of what was about to happen. It was an accident.

In real life, this (hopefully) is where it would end. You shut off your car, call an ambulance, and your friend is rushed to the hospital. Another day; another life saved. In real life. But not in the wonderful world of Internet commentary.

No. In that world, you throw the car into drive, and run him over again. And back into reverse. (WHUMP!) And drive. (WHUMP!) And reverse…You get the picture.

Or, imagine that you’re watching a friend being repeatedly run over in your driveway by another friend. At what point do you intervene to stop the carnage? At what point do you bring out the lawn chair and the popcorn?

And here’s the craziest thing of all: In real life, my guess (and hope) is that, under circumstances like these, it wouldn’t have to be a “friend” for you to spring into action. You might even do it for a cat or a dog (or, if you’re my wife, a caterpillar). On the other hand, as the vitriol flies in the blogosphere and your “friends” get beaten to a bloody theoretical pulp, where are you? Do you step into defend, or at least to moderate the conversation? Or are you, perhaps, one of the bullies yourself?

For whatever reason, the minute we start commenting online, some switch is flipped, and decency flies out the window. We act toward digital “friends” in ways we would never act in real life. And we patch it up with that epitome of the pseudo-personal touch: the emoticon.

“I’m sorry if I mauled you like a bear in front of God and everybody.” Sad face. Sad face. Sad face.

I didn’t mean to. Ah, but you didn’t mean not to, either.

With emoticons like these, who needs enemies?

Toad Wars, Episode V: Toad Strikes Back

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He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

In January 2014, I walked away from the Toad. But I can’t get away from him. Not altogether. The Toad, you see, is who I am.

I’ve said for quite some time that there are no endpoints on the human voyage of discovery. There are no answers without their own sets of brand new questions. Or old ones. But I let my head get too big for my britches (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor); I decided that, while I might not have ferreted out all the answers, I had at least mastered the art of searching.

Pride comes before a fall, I guess…

So, the Toad returns, shamefaced, to his former antics: there is a time and a place for everything, except for abandoning my true self. And that is no Zen statement–I’ve made more of those recently than benefits anyone, and as it turns out, nothingness is just that…nothing.

I am Toad. Hear me ribbit!

Bicentennial

Anybody can pull a rabbit out of a hat. For my 200th post, I wanted desperately to pull a hat out of a rabbit. But then it occurred to me that I’d first have to feed a hat to a rabbit, and then PETA would get involved, my wife–who belongs to every conservation and animals’ rights society known to man–would move me into the garage, and, to top it all off, all I’d have to show for my efforts would be a fairly nasty hat and a rabbit with a grudge.

So, instead, I’ll just say “Holy crap! That’s a lot of posts!”

Live and let live, rabbit. Live and let live…

200

The Human Me

Writers who wish to do more than bear witness to human suffering or add to the overburden of entertainment have a responsibility to advocate for justice, humility, and compassion.

– Alison Hawthorne Deming

Recently, a friend of mine slapped me upside the head. Not literally, of course, and not intentionally; figuratively only, and in a good way, a necessary way. She posted the above quote on her blog’s Facebook page. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I went to bed thinking about it; I got up thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.

There is so much truth in that short little statement that I have no idea how to begin to unpack it. What exactly am I up to here?

As a writer and a human being, I am under a dual obligation, both to tell the truth and to be the truth. And it’s that second one that gets me. It’s so easy to take a bird’s-eye view when I’m sitting at my keyboard, communing with a lifeless monitor; so easy to expound upon the errors of others and lay out a carefully-crafted philosophy for living as a corrective to the world’s ills. But if I put down the message along with the pen, if I follow pontification with prevarication, then my work becomes all plot and no action: my life is, to quote the Bard, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Moreover, to act in the moment as the moment demands (one of my favorite Zen teachings, and one that challenges me every time I attempt to live it) is more difficult, more threatening, than we often imagine. True spontaneity is a rare gift; it is also the essence of authentic living; it is also usually just beyond my grasp. To be truly spontaneous is to respond to the exigencies of the moment simply because they are there, thoughtlessly, not in the sense of acting carelessly, but in the sense that action follows opportunity naturally, as inhalation follows exhalation. And for me, anyway, that sort of open response to unfolding circumstance is much more easily said than done.

I want to know how to marry deed to word. I want to be that finished product, The Compleat Writer, that Alison Hawthorne Deming references in her quote. But how to do such a thing? Will Wheaties-eating do the trick? Is it enough to say what needs to be said and hope to hell someone’s listening? More importantly, am I listening? Am I the same guy, out there in real life, that I am when I’m all crammed into this blog post?

Writing humanity is a difficult task: character development, authentic dialogue, the ability to tap into the core of human emotion–all these things require great skill in the best of writers. But humanity in writing is another thing altogether: I can’t afford to be just another one of my own characters, and my dialogue can’t get by just sounding real. I have to be willing to let others tap those human emotions right out of me; I have to bleed so they can see it; the ink and the sweat must mix.

This is a responsibility I cannot ignore. It is also one I all too often pass over unthinking. So thank you, my friend, for the wake-up call. I needed that…

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