The other day, I received the latest edition of my undergrad’s alumni magazine. Inside the front cover I encountered this photograph of a recent graduation ceremony:

Lipscomb University graduation ceremony
Though I doubt the man to the right is truly upset, he looks angry enough to push off the speaker off the stage or to start throwing those flag poles like javelins into the crowd.

Here’s a close-up:

What was he thinking?

What was he thinking?

There’s some serious wrath burning in those eyes. That, or he’s seeing dead people. My question to you is, “What was he thinking?”

“Curse that burrito!”

“I look stupid in this baggy velvet dress!”

“I need a stiff drink.”

“My life is a yawning abyss.”

Please make us all laugh by sharing your own creative captions in the Comments section.

Bless his heart.

I thought some of you might enjoy the Craigslist ad that I posted yesterday:

Hulk Hogan's 24" pythons

If Hulk Hogan donated one of his 24″ pythons to science, this television would be the result.

This television can grow Sam Elliott’s mustache, only in technicolor.

Compared to flimsy flatscreens, this television looks like a Sherman tank next to a Smart car.

This television delivers more laughs than Dane Cook, Zach Galfanakis, and Elmo combined.

This television makes Chuck Norris blush.

If this television were a statue, it would be the Statue of Liberty with a high-and-tight haircut holding an M16 in one hand and an Indiana Jones whip in the other.

If this television had feelings, it would say, “Ha!”

We’re talking 32″ of pure viewing pleasure, all your best hook-ups, a sharp picture, and enough girth to make your stereo surround sound giggle.

This television has no tolerance for high falutin’ names. Vizio, Viore, and Pegasus? Please. Hey, Harry Potter called, and he wants his mythical creatures back.Philips Television for Sale

If you want a quality, no-nonsense telly that will stand the test of time and one that doesn’t require a whole entourage of other consumer electronics to feel good about itself, then I have the one for you.

Do the right thing. Send the email. Leave a legacy.


If you find dozens of other televisions on Craigslist, how are you going to ensure that your posting stands out so that people will notice it and respond? You could offer it at a rock-bottom price and lose money, or you could make people laugh. You may remember my other post about “The Ugliest Couch in the World” that I sold on Craigslist—for more than I originally asked. Exaggeration and absurd humor make for effective marketing—just ask Old Spice…“Swan dive into the best night of your life.”

I would suggest, however, that you be honest on your resume and first dates.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen for sale?

I’ve been thinking recently about self-sabotage. I can think of at least two forms, dishonesty and conformity. I wrote about dishonesty the other day, in the form of recreational and pathological liars.

Conformity is the more subtle form of self-sabotage, and in many situations, is not only accepted but also enforced. It was the name of the game in middle and high school.

The kids who stuck out too much became easy prey for the bullies. The stinky kid, the first girl to wear a bra to school, the first boy to go through puberty and grow pit hair, the unathletic pudgy kid, the kid with painful-looking acne—I can still remember their names.

camouflaged grasshopperThe more socially adept kids learned how to wear camouflage. Smart girls, for example, learned that cute, popular boys were intimidated by girls smarter or more successful than they were. Maybe they watched certain pretty girls flirt a certain way and tried to imitate them. Maybe they felt the ironic sting of making the highest grade on a quiz only to meet their classmates’ jealousy disguised as disgust. The girls keep their excellent grades a secret, pretend to be ditzy, and being smart and working hard become un-cool.

Cool is the organizing principle of most schools.

When I was teaching English at David Lipscomb High School, I watched this phenomenon from the other side. One of my best students was a skinny, blond-haired, blue-eyed cheerleader. She may have epitomized the teenage bimbo, but she wrote excellent papers, aced tests, and turned in her homework on time.

Listening to her speak frustrated me. If you hadn’t seen her report card, you would have assumed she was two IQ clicks ahead of “Imbecile.” She said “like, ”as in “Like, can you believe, like, what happened on The Bachelorette last night,” so many times in a single sentence that I began to think her record was scratched.

It was a charade. She was playing a part that didn’t fit her intelligence and gifts. In an effort to fit in, she became a self-saboteur. I wanted to shake her and say, “You’re better than this.”

Unfortunately, shaking wasn’t allowed at DLHS.

When I started teaching First-Year Composition 101 and 102 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I did have the pleasure of telling several students that being dumb isn’t cool in college, or in life, really. I informed a freshman named Jason that I wasn’t amused by his anti-intellectual remarks in class, no matter how many of his equally moronic classmates laughed; that I didn’t count “That’s gay!” as a contribution to the class discussion; and that he’d better find something more thoughtful and significant to say if he wanted to do well in my class.

I had his attention. We got along swimmingly after he realized that he could no longer rely on the canned meathead jokes that had served him so well in high school. Flunking expensive college courses is most definitely not Cool.

I’ve already written about Kelsey who, one day in class, said “Stop calling on me. I obviously didn’t do my homework.” That didn’t end well for her.

Conformity can serve as camouflage in middle school and high school, but by the time you get to college, the camouflage may have become an entrenched part of your personality. Where does the airhead act end and the true identity begin? How long can you stupefy yourself without becoming stupid? How long can a girl like Kelsey use her looks to manipulate people before a teacher, administrator, boss, or cop calls her bluff?

I’m confident that all three of those students are remarkable in some way. I just hope that they don’t sabotage their originality long enough to bury it.

Do you revel in your originality, or are you still afraid to be remarkable?

I have finally come to grips with my love of young adult fantasy fiction, a la The Hunger Games and Enchantment. What is one of your nerdy hobbies, interests, or passions?

Click here or on the speech bubble to the right of the date to share.

Big JugsInnuendo in church is the best kind of innuendo.

You’re not allowed to guffaw the way you would under other circumstances—say, if you were watching a movie with your wife or having coffee with an old friend—and the unseemliness or impropriety of disturbing a church’s solemnity or quiet reverence acts as a kind of thick-walled container.

The laughter and levity are the gases inside that container, and like other gases under enough pressure, they have a tendency to explode.

My youth minister in high school had an uncanny knack for Freudian slips and other verbal blunders. Once a quarter, he stand behind a podium in front of the entire congregation of around seven hundred people and pray something along the lines of,  “Thank you, God. We are so breast to be here this morning.”

I’d begin to feel that itch of a laugh trying to escape. It feels similar to holding one’s breath underwater. “Breast” itself isn’t that funny, but the context! Laughter begs for camaraderie, so I’d crack an eyelid and take furtive glances around to see if anyone had heard the mistake. I would have had about as much luck on a deer hunt in the Smithsonian, and had no choice but to sit in the pew with itchy laughs crawling around inside my chest and causing a delicious pain.

God must have known that fill-in-the-blank sermons with four cozy take-home points all starting with the letter “C” would hold my attention only so long, so he gave me a love of reading and Bibles on the back of every pew. Song of Solomon, Judges, Leviticus, and Ezekiel 23:19-20 were weekly favorites.

In retrospect, I think this was all in keeping with the spirit behind the letter. After all, Jesus was a carpenter, a construction worker; I bet Jesus knew how to tell a joke. We put more emphasis on his status as rabbi, prophet, and savior, but even during his public ministry, he spent most of his waking hours with a ragtag band of fisherman, social outcasts, and rabble-rousers. Judging by what followed, they had more rough edges than polish and more audacity than etiquette. Men can’t spend that amount of time around campfires without the conversation taking a turn for the worse now and again. Besides, I’ve never met a man as smart, powerful, and perplexing as Jesus who didn’t have a little wit up his sleeve. He sure gave the Pharisees a run for their money.

I think he smiled at what happened one Sunday morning in December at church. Tim made an announcement about going over to Guy B. Love apartments. After confirming the time, he moved on to the subject of passing out hot cocoa and cider.

“Does anyone have big jugs?” he asked, making fists and raising his elbows.

Sweet Kim who recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy raised her hand, and without so much as blinking, replied, “I do.”

God bless our tiny gathering. I looked around and couldn’t find anybody who seemed to have noticed—not a single smirk, snort, or sidelong glance.

I was alone in my appreciation. Well, Jesus was there somewhere. The rest were busy nailing down the logistics for Ciderpalooza 2010.

If a tree falls in the forest, I bet there’s one nutty squirrel who thinks it’s hilarious.

Get it? Nutty?

You people…


What’s the best verbal blunder you’ve ever heard?

If you ever have the chance to talk to a pathological liar, then I suggest you take it.

As long as you’re not married to one, or living with one, or in any way emotionally, spiritually, socially, or financially tied to one, they can be a lot of fun, like going to the zoo or watching the Miss American pageant. There’s always the chance that one of the contestants will trip and tumble down the steps.

During my first semester at Lipscomb University, I met a fellow freshman who claimed to have played with Ryan Adams and Wilco. When asked for a private demonstration of his talent, he proved to be a mediocre guitarist and an even worse liar. He wanted to impress us—and who doesn’t want admiration?—but his relatively harmless deception elicited our pity instead.

It’s hard to love a guy who doesn’t love himself. Don’t tell people who love Ryan Adams and Wilco that you have played with them. They will turn the internet inside out to prove that you’re full of crap, and then you’ll be sitting in your dorm room on a throne of empty Domino’s boxes in a ratty bathrobe even more lonely than before.

I listened to Nels Cline shred in the Ryman auditorium, and you can only achieve that level of excellence through practice, not by prevarication. That being said, Lipscomb’s resident rock star had nothing on the only bonafide pathological liar that I’ve ever met.

I cannot tell a lie

“I cannot tell a lie.”

I was a freshman in high school when Matthew was dating my first serious girlfriend’s older sister. One night we were sitting around the kitchen table over at one set of her grandparents’ house waiting for Jennifer and Matthew to show up. If you’ve ever seen a dog shake a toy until its stuffing came out, then you get the idea of how the family was talking about him. Only half in jest, I asked, “Is this how you talk about me when I’m not here?”

They said more or less in unison, “No. We like you.”

Being the favorite, I couldn’t despise Matthew. The silver medalist may lose respect for the gold medalist who gets disqualified for cheating, but he doesn’t mind winning by default. Matthew and I rarely saw one another or talked, and he made me look good.

He was an upperclassman at Lipscomb University when I arrived. After a couple of semi-public meltdowns, his reputation evolved from less-than-cunning manipulator into full-blown crazy, and he became the stuff of legend. He showed up drunk to a party one night and told my ex-girlfriend that he was in love with her and had been dating her sister all those years for chance at the increasingly unlikely sister-switch.

My cousin Bryan was living with her current boyfriend’s older brother at the time, and the two of them went to Matthew’s dorm room to confront him about the episode. They hadn’t been there long before he burst into tears, whimpering, “We all can’t be Bryan Church, Mr. Big Man on Campus.” This bizarre, servile, implosive display was so disconcerting that they left.

Matthew dropped off the map for a couple of years, but by the time I was an upperclassman myself, he had reappeared on the scene, one of those Frat Pappys who hang around campus on the periphery of student life. You’re not quite sure if they’re trying to relive or replicate their glory days, or if they’re on the eight-year plan, or if they’re degreeless, jobless, or both, and have nothing better to do.

Matthew made appearances at concerts, soccer games, and Ultimate Frisbee games. He’d put on quite a bit of weight at this point, but still wore skinny vintage t-shirts so that when he’d jump for a catch, his hairy belly would flop out. I think it’s safe to say that he had a muffin top, but this comical physical trait didn’t help his hyper-competitive, argumentative presence on the field.

He would throw a hip into a player on the opposite team while they were both going for the disc, and when the other guy picked himself up and got in his face, he would throw up his hands as if to say, “What? It’s just a game.”

I never wanted to be on his team because something of this sort was inevitable and was totally out of place in our casual, Friday afternoon games, which were more for exercise and laughs than competition. They quickly became arguing matches that were no fun for anyone.

He was once asked to leave.

Nothing sets my blood to boiling like the instigator who tries to pass off his poor sportsmanship as another person’s temper or lack of skill. He also happened to be a pathological liar.

I was skeptical when he’d told me that the University of Colorado wanted him in a Master’s programs so badly that they offered to pay for his weekly commute by plane. The last time I had checked, I wasn’t an idiot, and I had a pretty good idea that he hadn’t even finished his Bachelor’s.

Though this story had more holes than a sponge, it was an tiny fib compared to the spectacle he made by showing up at a casual Texas Hold ‘Em game carrying a sword. He explained that he was a personal bodyguard of North Korea’s Head of State, Kim Jong-il.

While he was in the bathroom, my friend Garrett waving the katana around and mimicking our resident samurai’s fight against a would-be assassin. When Matthew returned, he flew into a rage and cut a gash in his forearm, something which he said he had to do six more times to “purify” the steel.

Yikes. Someone should have called a doctor and told him to bring some tranquilizers and a tetanus shot. Matthew’s ludicrous claims would have been funnier if he hadn’t been bleeding and holding a lethal weapon, and you might laugh if you weren’t wondering where he is and worrying that he might be your kid’s P.E. teacher.

Leo Tolstoy said that every man thinks to change the world, but no man thinks to change himself.

Shall we all try to be a little more honest this year?

If you need some inspiration, click here, and if you like what you read, you can sign up to receive free future e-newsletters in your inbox.

Some kinds of expertise will benefit you the rest of your life. My friend Gregg cycled from coast to


Other kinds of expertise are like chinchillas.

coast, my friend Ben enjoys riding the Virginia Creeper trail once or twice a year, and my friend George tears up Knoxville’s mountain biking trails weekly. Other kinds of expertise are like chinchillas: once you have them, you don’t know what to do with them.

If I am ever again sitting across from Hunter on a train to Budapest, Hungary, while he realizes that he has forgotten both his passport and his Eurail pass, and watching while guards with sour faces, thick arm hair, and semi-automatic rifles escort him off the train, I will go with him.

I know how to get a passport renewed in less than twenty-four hours, but that’s not the kind of expertise I ever want to use again. I also survived a circumcision.

I have successfully extracted a “yes” from my beloved, and once was enough. I escaped various sticky situations: I drove to Nashville under the pretext of giving my Dad a check, looked at several rings, had one appraised, created a “You’re not going to believe what happened…” ruse to figure out Megan’s ring size, bought the ring, transported it from Nashville to Knoxville without detection, elicited Megan’s best friend Whitney’s approval of my choice, planned a decoy trip to the beach with friends, and sat on all those secrets, lies, and life-altering decisions for three months.

Let me share some my expertise in getting engaged: don’t hold onto the ring for three months. The anticipation began to feel like wearing an iron football helmet.

And if you’re old-fashioned like me and want to ask for her father’s blessing, don’t be thirty minutes late.

And don’t chose a Starbucks as the meeting place.

Of course, there was more than one on Winfield Dunn Parkway (I-40, exit 407). This is Starbucks we’re talking about! Only three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and a friendly Starbucks near you—now with free WiFi.

I left with plenty of time to spare for the twenty-mile drive, and I even grabbed my bible and journal in case Ash was late. You never know how these future father-in-law characters will upset your cool, so it’s best to go prepared.

At five minutes to nine, I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot, which was about eight miles from the interstate. I didn’t see Ash’s green Chevy truck, but I went in, sat down, and opened my bible to Jeremiah 34.

People came and went. I read the chapter slowly, then checked the time:

9:15. Hmm.

I decided to give Ash a call. After three or four rings, he answered, “Hello?” but the line went dead.

I dialed again. No answer. I dialed a third time and got his voicemail. Strange.

Ash called me back.

“What’s up, brother?” he said.

“Hey, Ash,” I said. “Did you remember that we were supposed to get breakfast this morning?”

“I sure did. I’m sitting right here at the Starbucks.”

“Well, that’s strange. I’m sitting in the Starbucks too. Which Starbucks are you at?”

“The one at the Bass Pro.”

“There’s a Starbucks inside of the Bass Pro Shops?”


“Ah, there’s our problem. I should have known. I’m at the one about eight miles down Winfield Dunn Parkway. When I did a Google search to get directions, this was the only one that came up. I didn’t know there was one in the Bass Pro Shops.”

“Do you want me to come to you?”

“No, I’ll come to you. I’ll be there in about ten minutes.”

“Alright. See you soon.”

I found the Bass Pro Shops without any trouble. It’s near a steakhouse and a beef jerky outlet. Imagine that.

Ash was waiting outside for me.

When I’d called him a few days earlier and invited him to breakfast, I ended the conversation by telling him not to tell Megan that we were getting together.

“Oh. Okay,” he said. “OH! Okay! I think I know what you mean, and I’m excited about it.”

Though his reaction gave me a good idea how Ash would respond to my request to marry his younger daughter, I was still nervous. You can’t talk to a woman’s father and still have a clean break-up. This was getting serious. This was like a tattoo or mortgage, plastic surgery, or adoption. No going back.

Nothing to do but order a grande Vanilla Latte and make small talk.

Ash thought he knew a good, quiet place outside that we could talk, so we went back to the entrance and to a right. He led the way to a patio with a bench wrapping 180˚ around a table. We sat down, and I asked him if we could pray. As soon as I finished and opened my eyes, I saw that we had company.

Somehow, we’d managed to choose the Bass Pro Shops’ smokers’ pit. Over the next hour, a dozen different people joined us. They smoked cigarettes or Black & Milds while I told Ash I wanted to marry Megan. They packed big dips into their lips and gossiped and joked around while I asked Ash if he thought there was anything about Megan that might make our marriage difficult.

We laughed and cried a little, and our oblivious friends went back to their places in the world’s largest hunting and fishing superstore.

I was amazed that none of the employees picked up on the seriousness of our conversation and migrated elsewhere to get their nicotine buzzes. Perhaps I’m too much of an eavesdropper, but I can usually detect whether my presence is welcome, unwelcome, or passing unnoticed. C’mon, people.

Perhaps, those green aprons were a kind of omen: be careful with your expectations. Few things work out perfectly, especially if other people are involved. Their addictions will be more important to them than your privacy.

I don’t blame them for wanting a break from the sheer volume of stuff available for purchase. Nothing about Bass Pro Shops says “moderation,” not that I haven’t spent my share of money there. A boy has to acquire his Yo-Zuri crankbaits somewhere.

This store could only occur in America: tree stands and turkey calls; an enormous fish tank with bored-looking largemouth bass and rack after rack of camouflage; flannel shirts, waders, shotgun cases, fishing poles, and thousands of other goodies manufactured in China. Bass Pro Shops is either the Promised Land or hell, depending on your mood.

I couldn’t help but commemorate the occasion with a new fly box, which I’ll be able to use a long, long time, unlike my newfound expertise. Perhaps it will be of some use to all those you men out there with knees knocking just thinking about popping the question.

Learn from my mistakes:

  1. Limit the number of days that pass between picking up the ring and proposing to what you can count on one hand. Don’t buy the ring three months in advance. It will burn a hole in your dresser drawer, your closet, your cedar chest, or wherever you choose to hide it. It will feel like the All-Seeing Eye of Mordor. You will obsessively take it out and look at it and stroke it and put it on your pinky finger and imagine how she will respond when she sees it for the first time and then the full import, the tremendous psychical weight of a life spent with only one woman will begin rolling toward you like that giant stone ball in that Indiana Jones movie and like Indie, you’ll want to run, run away into chronic singleness and selfishness and impossible fantasies of a devastatingly beautiful heiress, part Cate Blanchett and part Penelope Cruz, who has never lived and never will, and then you realize you’re running from yourself and not to a perfect relationship. This woman is good for you precisely because she holds up a mirror. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray, you see yourself in her as you actually are, not as you imagine yourself to be, and this jolt of reality, this woman who calls you to be a better man, scares you because like Jesus Christ dying for his church, you will have to die for her. The relationship will fail or sink into mediocrity if you don’t. Sigh. Put the ring back in the box. Hide it in a different place because your paranoia knows no limits, and try to get some to sleep.
  2. Choose an easy, unmistakable place to have a conversation with the woman’s father, if appropriate. Don’t go to Starbucks or any other franchise. Otherwise, you could be thirty minutes late and arrive with sweaty armpits and a mouthful of excuses.
  3. Tell as few people as possible. I probably told a hundred people, and though you should be excited about engagement, you don’t want that many leaks.
  4. Create a beautiful memory for her by making the proposal as unique and specific to her personality as possible. Don’t just take her to an expensive restaurant and drop to one knee.
  5. Try to follow up the ring with a party. Ask a couple of your friends and hers to help you get all her favorite people in one place for pictures and congratulations because as soon as she has the rock on her finger, she’ll want to show it off.
  6. Think through every detail, including what you’re going to say. The more time and attention you put into the experience, the sweeter it will be, unless she says no. In that case, you should move to Denver or an island in the South Pacific. Or you should grow a beard and kill a bear.
  7. Have a Plan B.

If things don’t go according to plan, it’s okay. Your future father-in-law will probably forgive you, or you’ll just spend the rest of your life alone.

Please click here or on the thought bubble next to the title to leave other advice for anxious young men. Horror stories are also appreciated.

Do your family and friends a big favor, and try not to confuse sending this holiday email forward with spreading Christmas cheer:


Holiday Email Forwards





What’s that taste in my mouth? No, not candy canes. Oh yes, that’s the taste of bile!

Thank you for your time and supportI want to thank all those faithful readers who gave me the generous gift of time and support by filling out the short survey that I created last Friday. Thanks to your thoughtful feedback, I’ll be making some important changes to gu.e in 2011:

· Clear overarching vision and mission for gu.e
· At least two posts a week in 2011
· More short snippets between longer posts
· More guest posts
· Convenient archive links
· More intuitive navigation
· Easy-to-access comments section
· More stories about my wife Megan and what I do for a living
· Facebook fan page where gu.ebers can meet one another

To recap, you can expect more writing and more surprises with that familiar emphasis on humor and desire to rethink the good life.

If you have five minutes, you can still put in your two cents by clicking on this link. If you’d prefer to leave your ideas right here, click on the quote bubble underneath the title to the left of the date and leave a comment.

Thank you all again for caring, and Merry Christmas.

If you were born in the early to mid-eighties, you may remember the rumors about subliminal messages in Disney movies, such as Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid. This blog post on the subject explains some of them.

Back in the early 90s, we had a coterie of conspiracy theorists who saw a phallus in every blade of grass and animated feature film. I guess it is a man’s world. I’m just glad they had the wisdom and foresight to decry the Harry Potter books and Dark Materials trilogy.

There’s nothing like a good book banning to help one firm up a new reading list, and nothing like some tasty fundamentalist Christian accusations—e.g., J.K. Rowling spreading witchcraft and Phillip Pullman pushing atheism at children—to remind one to relish every controversial word.

I remember watching The Lion King frame by frame trying to find S-E-X in a cloud of leaves. I  rewound Aladdin again and again to confirm whether he did, in fact, say, “Good children take off their clothes.”

I can’t remember what I hoped to accomplish by confirming or discrediting the rumors. What was the big deal? Aladdin might simply have been an advocate for good hygiene. Disrobing is, after all, as necessary for bathing as for lovemaking, and even if some disgruntled illustrator or soundtrack engineer did succeed in slipping in a few frames of nudity or some lewd message, it’s not like bare breasts would have caused a pandemic of orgies and STDs.

On the contrary, silence on the subject of sex is what stigmatizes, leaving pubescent children receptive to false information and vulnerable to emotionally, physically, and spiritually destructive experiments. That, or they spend their adult lives feeling that sex is somehow bad. Guilt taints their natural, God-given desires, and they miss out on a delightful, challenging, disappointing, and hilarious gift. Sex is quite good, really.

But pious busybodies will always be in need of boogeymen or a good scandal to justify their roles as cultural watchdogs and to divert their attention from their real responsibilities, such as caring for the poor and hungry:

“I’m sorry that I didn’t have time to stop by, Mrs. Simpson. I know you’re still grieving the loss of your husband and need some company, but I was on the phone with Disney all day complaining about an indecent sippy cup. I know you understand.”

My friend Allison took this picture. I’m don’t know if a sippy cup can fuel months of lobbying, sign waving, and product recalls, but perhaps this failure in good taste and design will spark such rabid public outcry that thousands of malnourished children will be forgotten.

belle from beauty and the beastApparently, the beast finally vowed, “Enough is enough!” Dancing dinnerware and sassy candlesticks? Can’t a man-beast have some peace and quiet in his own home? He harpooned Belle through the belly button. She’s not going to be bouncing back from that flesh wound. It’s always sad to hear about the murder of a cartoon icon.

Named “Buzz Lightyear Funtime Tumbler,” the Buzz version is downright shameful, earning the “Inappropriate Toy of the Day” award on this British news site.

Unfortunate straw placement” is an understatement, but I prefer it to the term “crotch straw.” I wish Buzz and Woody still meant two resourceful pals saving toy world. I hope that the toy designer got canned and that the dimwits at quality control got no severance. Where are the bold men and women on the marketing committee who will stand up and say, “I don’t care if you think I’m a pervert for noticing, but those sippy belong in a novelty shop, not a nursery school.”

If you’d like to commemorate your fight for the right, you can buy the Belle sippy cup here for $8.50, and the Buzz Lightyear Funtime Tumbler for the low, low price of $6.99. If you act now, you may be able to get it in time for Christmas, though I’d recommend tithing or supporting one of these excellent non-profits instead: International Justice Mission, Save the Children, Heifer International, or Kiva.

When the old heavens and earth pass away and a new heavens and new earth take their place, I’m afraid that people, not sippy cups and sickly moral imperatives, will put on incorruptible flesh.

Don’t blame me.

Gift giving is like packing a parachute. If you don’t do it right, you’ll probably have a big mess to clean up.

A set of embroidered Pierre Cardin handkerchiefs, a book about whales, and an eighteen-piece Christmas dinnerware set from Walgreens all qualify as “bad gifts.” But “bad” is too broad an adjective.

If you’re going to survive this Christmas, you need to be able to accurately identify the enemy. You need the literary equivalent of the ruler decal next to the convenience store door. Was your bad gift about six feet tall and wearing aviators? Did it smell like cigarettes and walk with a limp?

eharmony mishapIf you’re too polite to reject the regifted socks, used Christmas tree angel shedding her glitter, or manicure kit with the yellow Dillard’s clearance sticker still on it, you should at least soak up all the details so that you can entertain friends with holiday horror stories. Making fun of your dysfunctional family helps you bury the anger and biting disappointment and convince yourself that their lack of generosity and thoughtfulness no longer affect you.

To that end, let’s begin with one of my favorites, the gift with the hidden agenda. I don’t know anyone who has ever received the legendary lump of coal. We receive more subtle reproaches or not-so-subtle hints in the form of a stocking full of breath mints or acne cream. Thanks for the Pro-Activ, Mom!

A gift with hidden agenda, reproach, or hint can be no gift at all.

Just ask Tony.

Tony forked over $550 to fly from New York City to Louisville to spend Christmas with his parents. His older sister was spending the holiday with her in-laws in Charlottesville, and he didn’t want his parents to have an empty house. His pastor had preached a good sermon about grown children needing to become givers, not takers, in their families, and he wanted to make good on a new resolution to give back to his parents.

“Merry Christmas, Tony!” they exclaimed on Christmas morning, handing him an envelope. The card was a piece of printer paper folded in half twice, and judging by the poor ink quality, they had printed it off the Internet on the circa-2001 dinosaur in the bonus room.

The picture on the front showed a tall, dark-haired man in a green sweater hugging and kissing the cheek of a slim, attractive brunette. She was smiling at the camera with all the triumph of a woman who is truly adored and finally engaged.

Tony gave an involuntary shudder.

The text inside informed Tony that someone must really want him to be happy because he now has a year’s subscription to eHarmony.

Did that imply that he was unhappy now, being single? His stomach and bowels contracted, and the familiar wave of frustration washed over him. Singleness was not a problem to be fixed, like a flat tire or leaky toilet.

“What do you think?” they ask. With their satisfied smiles and bright eyes, they resembled the people on the card. The way they unconsciously leaned forward to hear his answer, you would have thought they had him just handed him a ticket to a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean.

That would have been nice. He loved to travel.

When he visited Louisville, Tony often lapsed into an interior monologue in which he either expressed what he was really feeling: “I wish you would have given me something that took my interests and hobbies into consideration rather than something you thought would be ‘good for me,’ as though I were still a child needing constant correction.”

Tony crossed his arms. Though roughly 5 million women lived in New York, his parents obviously thought he needed a bigger field.

Toward the end of each stay, once his patience had worn thin, his interior monologue would tend more toward vicious ripostes—“eHarmony? More like eHominy. This gift sucks grits. You can stick it in your cornhole.”—or a mixture of honesty and passive-aggressive sarcasm:

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mom and Dad. Thanks for calling attention to my singleness, as though it were a character flaw or congenital disease. No, I don’t want to be introduced to ‘that lovely young woman who teaches the five-year-olds at church.’ She’s single because when her father left the family, he also left the door open to fear, anxiety, and depression. I’m single because I have bigger dreams than popping out 2.5 children before I’m 30. No, I’m not still healing from my break-up with Christina. No, I’m not gay. And now that I think about it, no, I won’t be coming home for Christmas next year. I’ll be spending the holidays with people who don’t make me feel like crap; people who sometimes even make me feel good about myself. I have a name for them; I call them ‘my friends.’ Remember earlier when you asked why I never visit? Because there’s a greater chance I’ll get mugged in my childhood home than in Manhattan, and it’s easier to buy another wallet than to protect my dignity. Merry Christmas indeed.”

Tony didn’t like the person he became when he was around his parents. Despite his best efforts, he fell right back into their idea of who he was, as though they were willing his long legs to shrink and fit his old bunk bed.

He felt deflated, taken from himself.

As he hesitated, trying to find the right words, the light faded from their eyes, and he began to feel like he was the disappointment.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll have to check it out.” He took a deep breath.

“But I really need to talk to you guys about some things that have been on my mind.” When he said it, his heart skipped a beat and pushed into his throat, but he knew that things were going to get much, much better.