Who Does a Guy Have to Piss Off Around Here?


Better to win by admitting my sin
than to lose with a halo


Vance offends half the world: 115 views, and a crapload of comments.

Vance apologizes for the offense and attempts a reformulation along more sensitive lines: 25 views, and one comment.

How’s that for a MasterCard commercial?

Welcome to the wonderful world of bits and pieces. A world in which one’s image depends on the snippet view. A world in which, as Madalyn at Wary Wonderlust pointed out, opposition often carries more weight than fellow feeling, and anger becomes the motivating force that both drives and derails our desire for communication.

Last week, I set off a barrage of protest with a post I wrote about race and gender relations. Most of the protest centered around the fact that, being neither Black nor a woman, I should check myself before venturing an opinion. Much of it was valid. And there was much of it: my blog stats went through the roof. One of those situations where your graph looks like it’s flipping you off: nothing, EVERYTHING, and then nothing again.

In my perceived offensiveness, I became a momentary celebrity. Not because I said something worth celebrating, but because I opened myself to easy attack (perhaps justified, but attack nonetheless). I painted a bullseye on my head, and people opened fire.

Okay. Fair enough.

The day after everything exploded, in an attempt to rectify whatever foul I had committed, I wrote a second post, in which I tried to explain myself more clearly and less offensively, and to acknowledge the possible poverty of my initial approach.

Then, I sat back and counted the tumbleweeds.

The pitchfork-laden crowd that had done such an effective job of raining criticism down upon my head the first time around apparently had other barns to burn. A couple of the people who had taken me to task stopped by, but for the most part…silence. No linking, pretty much no commenting. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Now, you may be tempted to take this as me making everything about Me. But I’m really not out to be patted on the head, or to be showered with compliments for addressing my own misstep. That’s just what decent people do; no big whoop there. It is telling, though, that given the central remonstrance (men never listen) offered to the first post, no one had much to say when one of us tried.

But it’s a broader point I’m making here:

This bloggy-sphere of ours is the quintessential typecasting machine. It nails us to the lowest point in our rhetoric, and leaves us there to rot. It catches us on our worst day, at our darkest moments, and etches the image in stone. We become the villain of the story no matter what that story really is.

Now, I’ve been told exhaustively that it isn’t the blogosphere that does this, and that’s a valid point. The Internet doesn’t kill people; people who use the Internet kill people. At the end of the day, it’s us. We’re the ones who determine the nature of this beast, and the fact that its nature is so prone to conflict and confrontation says far more about us than it does about the medium in question.

We tend to choose the shortest possible route from A to B, and the shortest route from post to response is too often a bloodthirsty yell. It is your label of choice. It is the distance from the target, the remove that displaces responsibility from the one who pulls the trigger.

We are all human, and we all respond to criticism or disagreement in human ways which are often less than constructive, if not outright destructive. We all have our dark side and our light. We all have our triggers, and we’re all quick to pull them. And we all leave little chalk outlines strewn behind us as we go.

Sometimes we are the villains. More often, I think (I hope), we are simply people with complicated things to say and little clue how to say them, desperate for the patience and understanding of others, but unwilling to grant either ourselves. And here’s the rub: when we’re not willing to extend the same consideration to others that we desire for ourselves, everyone becomes our enemy. We arrogate to ourselves the best of intentions while assuming everyone else is out to get us. And you know what they say about assumptions…

They make bloggers out of U and Me.


148499_10100741148544263_1419274769_nCLO warning: Confused Luddite Online.

God help me, I’ve created a Twitter account…

Two things:

  1. It is true that I have been quite vocal in the past regarding my doubts as to the real benefits of social media and online communication. That will not stop; I still have those doubts. There were, and are, doubts about every new means of mass communication ever invented: the telegraph, the radio, television, and so on. And they have each been used in ways that have both strengthened and compromised our moral identity as a people.
  2. It is also true that, as with all communications media, it is largely the user who determines the positive or negative impact of any given medium. Since the Internet is here to stay, it is up to individual users concerned about its moral and ethical implications not just to nitpick from the sidelines, but to map out ways in which those limitations may be transcended and overcome.

So, if I can’t beat them, I must join them.

Mind you, I haven’t the foggiest clue what I’m doing, and I’m more than a little convinced that I’m simply entering another arena in which silence will reign, but if I don’t try…well…

If you are interested, you’ll find me at @magnificenttoad. If you’re invested in changing the conversation, join me there. I’ll be the guy tilting at windmills.

Spread the word:

A New Day

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that to-morrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

– Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables

Do what you love.

That’s what everyone says, anyway. Do what you love. Which leads me to ask:

What do I love?

If you’ve read my last few posts, you may have noticed a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain level of uncertainty, or ennui, or angst, or whatever the YA crowd’s reading about these days. A lot of that, I think, stems from the fact that I don’t really know what I love anymore. I’ve gotten so caught up in the daily grind that I haven’t really put much thought into it lately.

And I should. So here goes:

I love writing. That’s a gimme. More specifically, I love words. I love the power contained in such tiny vessels: one syllable can change the world, one letter can spark off unending controversy. You say homoousios, I say homoiousios. (What’s life without the occasional obscure church history joke?)

I love to travel. Balls to the wall. No preplanned tours for me. I want to mark out the beaten path, and then avoid it at all costs. I want the old diner by the side of a wooded, two-lane highway, where no stranger has gone before, and from which no one departs a stranger. I crave hairpin curves, iron lattice-work bridging, and populations under one thousand. That’s where the stories are. And I covet them.

I love food, but I’m not a foodie. I’m an anti-foodie. Someone once asked me whether I preferred quantity or quality. My reply? Why not both? I want a recipe as old as the woman preparing it, and her mother, and her mother’s mother. I want six-person capacity, classic fare: keep your truffles; I’ll take a slab of good, honest bacon any day of the year. And I want to eat that bacon elbow-to-elbow with Farmer Bob, while his John Deere waits patiently outside.

I love conversation. Which is why I prefer Farmer Bob to the faceless masses in overpass fast food wastelands. I love to talk, and I love to listen. I want to know what makes you tick; I want to know what you love. I want to share, and to be shared with. I love conversation because I love history, and I believe the history that matters is all the stuff of life unfolding around us all the time, each moment of every day. And I believe the only way we can save history from itself is by learning from each other, together.

Words. Travel. Food. Conversation. Put them all together, and what do you get?

Well…Me. The Toad. The longer I’m deprived of any of these things, the less myself I am. I am the words I write. I am the back roads I travel. I am the greasy bacon burgers I eat (which can’t be healthy, right?). And I am the dialogue I inhabit. My loves make me who I am.

So here I am. Being the Toad. Having great adventures, remembering who I am, and seeking out amazing people with whom to share it all.

And that’s you.

And thanks to you, the Toad goes ever, ever on…

Pros & (Emoti)Cons


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?


I feel it necessary to address the tendency of people today to take offence at pretty much anything. It seems that everything from a sonnet to a sneeze must these days be accompanied with a declaration of the issuer’s non-participation in the opinion thus expressed. “The views I express in my own words in no way reflect my own views or opinions, and anything in my views or opinions which resembles my own views or opinions must be taken as nothing more than pure coincidence.”

If I like vanilla, but you like chocolate, you take offence. If I am a Republican and you are a Democrat, you take offence. If I’m a dog person and you are a cat person, you take offence. If you’re in the street and I hit you with my car…well, a pattern emerges. I mean, seriously, people–is there no end to the cycle of indignation?

I long for a forum in which honest debate is not only welcomed but encouraged, where opposing viewpoints are taken as helpful contributions rather than personal attacks. Where the conversation proceeds along lines other than: “You suck!” “No, you suck!” A forum in which we can tell each other the ever-lovin’ truth, for Pete’s sake!

Orthodoxy is the refuge of complacency and intellectual cowardice. Answers are to be found not in constant, rote agreement, but in the midst of sharp disagreement; not in the isolation and segregation of the like-minded, but in the collision of disparate worldviews; not in unanimity of opinion, but in unanimity of purpose.

In any case, the answers are not what define us. What defines us is how we deal with the questions.

But you didn’t hear that from me…


Just Be

My interest as I move through my life, day to day, is in doing right. Being right, on the other hand, concerns me less and less with every step that I take.

We waste so much time in this life trying to be right. We enter every conversation as if engaging in battle: communication is nothing; ammunition is everything. Politics, religion, social concerns–all the things that define us as individuals–there’s a reason they tell you never to talk about these things in public. There’s a reason they call them hot-button issues.

Don’t get me wrong: I make arguments for and against things as much as the next guy (possibly even more). But there is a foundational principle I seek to embrace in every conversation I have, every defense I undertake, and every explanation I attempt to give. It is a simple one: say what you believe, and expect to be wrong sometimes. Nay, even a lot of the time.

Now, I daresay my success in upholding this foundational principle is probably spotty at best. I am, after all, still human; I still enjoy the selfish satisfaction of a point scored at the expense of a mate or two. And I understand that the way I try to present myself and the way I come across to others may not be one and the same: as much as I want to value understanding over one-upmanship, the fine line between listening and pontification is rarely walked with complete balance, and this failure often determines whether I’m perceived as opponent or confidante.

Nothing kills heart-to-heart conversation so quickly as a participant who feels himself so justified in everything he thinks or believes that he assumes the other person has nothing substantive to say. This leads to the infamous one-sided argument (if you use Facebook at all, you’ll be quite familiar with this phenomenon): ripostes and parries fly with little or no attention paid to anything anyone else is saying; there is no chance for growth because the underlying assumption is made that my presence in this discussion can serve as corrective only, as I am right, which means everyone else–by definition–is wrong. So why listen, when I can talk instead?

I’m not pointing fingers here–we all do this, at least from time to time. And we often don’t notice, precisely because we’re all convinced that we have, a la Ben Franklin, overcome this particular weakness and moved on to the next. We all like to believe that we’re just a little better at attaining that “objective view” everybody talks about all the time, be it through advanced education, or spiritual discipline, or whatever. We all fancy ourselves paragons of humility. But, as a professor of mine once noted, humility is an interesting thing: the second you claim it, you lose it. Oh, yes–it is a strange thing but true: one of the world’s greatest sources of unadulterated (and destructive) pride is too strong a confidence in one’s own humble nature. If you don’t believe me, just ask Uriah Heep.

As long as conversation is perceived as contest, we are all just ships passing in the night, and tooting our horns as loudly as possible as we go by. We miss opportunities, not just to impact the lives of others, but to be impacted ourselves. We wear our opinions like bullet-proof vests, and fire them off like armor-piercing rounds. We never learn new lessons, and we teach them much more rarely than we often realize. We walk in a world of strangers, thinking ourselves kings.

So, let’s stop worrying so much about being right, and spend some time learning to just be. We might learn something else in the process.

Shut Up and Talk

Is a toy in the hands
Of the broken-hearted.

Dearly departed, fleeting
Smile: wait just a while and
Try to remember feelings
Dismembered, fast-cooling
Embers of passion gone by. Time
Flies in the face of progression.

(Or is it

Infinitesimal steps, new
Directions, new
Inflections, early detection, genuflection
Discreet and incautious. It’s making me
Nauseous, all this palaver; wouldn’t you rather
With me?

The Big List of Stuff We All Should Read (and Then Discuss in a Friendly and Respectful Fashion)


Someone recently gave me an idea for an interesting project (which you may or may not find equally interesting, or even remotely intriguing). Anyway, a comment was made on one of my posts about things that should be required reading, and I think this is an angle that warrants further exploration. Because, you see, all too often we waste our time talking at cross-purposes, like the Bushman in Africa who thought the Coke bottle came from the heavens. (Back in the day, kids, Coke came in little glass bottles. God, I’m old…) Ordinary conversation mystifies us; we don’t recognize it when we see it; we assume disagreement implies an inability to communicate, and consequently what is presumed to be inability becomes mere unwillingness. We don’t trust each other in the zero-sum world created by partisan pundits and ad hominem politics, and if we don’t trust, what could possibly inspire us to share? We don’t really even speak the same language anymore, it seems…

Except we do. Over the centuries, thinkers have wrestled with the same communications difficulties our minds are boggled by today; they have poised themselves on the same dotted line as we do, separating black from white, right from wrong; they have stared into the heavens and into their hearts in search of truth, that ever-elusive ideal that terrorizes and inspires us all. And in many cases they have written it down, out of the blindness of their finite little hearts, and left it as a marker for those of us carrying the torch through the next stage of this existential marathon we call human history.

What we need is a common language, a lingua franca, a cultural Esperanto that allows us both to understand what others are talking about and where they’re coming from, and that maybe (just maybe!) inspires us to hold our tongues and listen instead of just spouting off. Better to be a sugar bowl than a teapot, if you know what I mean. So, what we need is a common language, and in the written works of our forebears and our contemporaries, I believe we may find it. We may just discover a key that will unlock the way the minds, hearts, and souls of others work, what makes them tick.

(Quick sidebar: We may also discover that we don’t like some of them very much; for that matter, they might not have liked us very much, either, had we been their contemporaries. An interesting mental exercise is to ask myself whether, had I been around during Augustine’s time, there might not have been a Contra Vancus in the offing. However, the negative is as much a part of the picture as the positive; we need it all if we are to understand each other and the world we live in. We need to embrace the frogs along with the princes [or princesses]. Take offense, if you will, but then take that offense and turn it into a solution.)

Anyway, the idea is to create a list that we think will help us all get past the epistemic block and start to hear and understand all that gobbledygook coming out of other folks’ mouths. What are the things YOU think we should all read? Books, articles, blog posts, Chinese takeout menus–anything will do. In future posts, I will begin to compile a list of my personal picks. When you think of something, if you wish, please send me the title (along with a link if it’s web-based) and a brief explanation of what it’s about and why you think it’s an important contribution, and I’ll post it along with the others.

I dream of a time when public discourse is reclaimed by the public and no longer left to the “pundits abundant” that yell at us every time we turn on our televisions, radios, computers, etc. Is this just a pipe dream? The romantic idealist inside me refuses to accept that. I hope you do, too…