I’ve Just Been F-Bombed by a Total Stranger

I unleashed a bit of political snark on Facebook recently and got these responses:

“[FU] mark and everything about you too.”

Soon followed by, from the same person:

“You have no idea who I am. But I know exactly who you are.”

I have abbreviated the F-bomb. A quick Google search suggests that Medium would let me get away with spelling it out. But my history with the word makes me leery of using it in anything other than a private conversation. The incident triggered memories and raised a troubling question: What did the F-bomber really know about me?

I grew up in a household with a foulmouthed father, though my mother and sisters didn’t do pottymouth and I took after them. I left home for an elite college where I was invariably the dumbest person in the room. I noticed that my smartest and nicest friends weren’t habitual F-bombers.

On the one occasion when I loosed one in a public forum, the results were catastrophic. My freshman-year Work/Study job — funded by a federal program — was in a library used by graduate students and scholars. Library workers kept a notebook behind the desk, called the Joke Book, in which they recorded the endearing or annoying foibles of library users, called “citizens.” Nowadays the Joke Book would operate online — it was basically a handwritten forerunner of social media.

If the Joke Book was a test of my budding social media skills, I flunked decisively. One day a coworker wrote something that poked fun at me. For a library worker to be the butt of humor in the Joke Book was unexpected. I might have responded in kind with a gentle poke. Instead I got mad and dropped the bomb.

To say it did not go unnoticed would be an understatement. For the next several days I was the subject of page after page of commentary in the Joke Book. I had earned myself a nickname: Funnybone. Then the Joke Book was withdrawn by the head librarian, earning me the resentment of my fellow library workers. I had ruined a good thing for everyone. Going to work for the rest of my freshman year was quietly excruciating.

When I returned to work in the next academic year, I was no longer welcome at the library. My supervisor had recommended that I not be rehired, then went off to have a baby, so I could not discuss it with her. Her decision was justified; in her place I might have done the same. Nonetheless, incandescent in my immaturity, I cried real tears over this.

They were tears of remorse tinged with stark fear. I was terrified of having blown a large hole into my financial aid package. Fortunately, while I might have been blackballed out of the library system, I still managed to get another Work/Study job. My new job paid more and equipped me with skills that came in handy later in my career. I lucked out. The short-term consequences, however, were devastating and I have been reluctant to drop the F-bomb in public ever since.

Three decades later one of my former coworkers at the library became the first classmate — in fact, the first person — to invite me to become a Facebook friend. Was this forgiveness? Redemption? The classmate died before I could ask him but it was heartening for old Funnybone to be given a second chance.

I now have a carefully curated list of 164 FB friends. My requirements: You have to be someone I’ve met at least once in real life. And, like my long-ago boss at the library, I enforce a no-jerk policy. Snark, OK. Jerk, not OK.

Another decade later, in the present day, I considered how to respond to my F-bomber. Should I snark him some more? I thought of a few joke responses: “But what about our relationship?” “It was wrong for the children to call you Funnybone. I will have a word with them about it.”

But it would have been mean to pick at someone else’s wounds, and as the original Funnybone, I should know better. I am also trying to limit my participation in flame wars, especially on the FB pages of other people. So I remained silent. That might not have been the perfect response either; the silence probably seemed pointed. The bomber explained himself at length, then fizzled out.

I have dropped a few F-bombs myself on Facebook. However, they are limited to my own original posts and nearly always appear in quotes or memes. So yes, I’ve toyed with the bomb — but I’m reluctant to drop it in public situations where I know it will blow up in my face (again).

In private conversation, I drop the bomb once in a while, but not often. The professional writer in me feels obligated to find better words, to be like the smarter and nicer people who surrounded me in college. The feeling of being the dumbest guy in the room has never quite left me.

Beyond the F-bomb, a few other things about the exchange struck me. The F-bomber was absolutely correct when he accused me of not knowing who he was. A few minutes spent with his Facebook profile and personal website brought me up to date. He is a spiky and colorful character.

To paraphrase the rest of his diatribe in the way that makes the most sense to me, my F-bomber said he knew exactly who I am and hated everything about me. This was more provocative than the F-word. We had never met; what was his source of information? Was he lurking in the bushes outside my building? Shadowing me in the street? Getting the Russians to hack my emails?

The obvious answer is that a writer never has an entirely private life. I have written for a lot of print and web publications and my work has been seeping onto the internet for decades. Like my F-bomber, I maintain a personal website. It promotes my books and indexes my greatest hits, such as they are. Some of my work uses the first person and is about things I care about deeply.

My Facebook profile is not available to the F-bomber — he seems less paranoid about his privacy settings than I am — but he did get an eyeful of my icon, a thumbnail of Hillary Clinton munching on a bowl of popcorn. Sometimes I get violent reactions on FB from people who don’t know me, not realizing until later that an image celebrating the first woman president is a provocation in itself.

I actually considered offering my F-bomber a Facebook friend invite, ignoring my usual requirement for prior face-to-face contact. We might have had some interesting dialogues. Then again, he might have turned out to be a high-maintenance friend. So he’ll never get to know as much about Funnybone as he thinks he already does.