Archives for category: foot in mouth

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?

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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.

Even though the brunette and I had made eye contact several times over the course of the weekend, I’d never talked to her.

The two halves of the wedding party never mingled enough to provide a natural opportunity for conversation. At the dozen or so weddings of which I’d been a part, the bridesmaids and groomsmen showed up ready to be friendly and have a good time, but by contrast, most of Bear’s friends were married and uninterested in getting to know Lauren’s friends, the majority of whom were in relationships anyway. The wedding rehearsal and hours leading up to the big event looked like a middle school dance, with boys on one side of the outdoor church and girls on the other side.

Despite this segregation, the brunette acted unsurprised when I said hello and introduced myself. I mentioned the peculiar aloofness on the part of both sexes, and she echoed my surprise. We agreed that people at weddings sometimes prefer to catch up with old friends and acquaintances rather than make new ones. That was especially true, she added, of families who get to see their out-of-state cousins, aunts, and uncles very often.

Our conversation got off to a smooth start. Her name was Emmy. Yes, she danced, and yes, she would dance with me.

Asking a girl if she danced would seem like a strange question to someone who grew up outside Church of Christ culture in the South where a truly sincere Christian must practice abstinence from the Big Five: Drinking, Smoking, Cussing, Gambling, and Dancing. However, at a wedding where both of the families attended Churches of Christ and at a reception where the woman in question was taking pictures, not dancing, I had no guarantee that this lovely young woman was an infidel like me.

Once she agreed—to my great pleasure and relief—I found myself in another pickle. The band was playing a country song, and though I grew up in Nashville and own cowboy boots and a guitar, I don’t know how to dance to country. Wildhorse Saloon was never my idea of a good time.

What kind of moron asks a girl to dance, and then asks her if she minds waiting until the next song? Brilliant, Austin. Fine show.

Emmy assured me that she didn’t mind waiting. God must be on my side.

While we were waiting for the song to end, I was trying to tell her that I hadn’t done too much time bumping and grinding.

I always found myself asking the following question: How does mimicing sexual intercourse on a beer-slick dance floor glorify God? Shaking my groove thing to booty rap would confirm what I already knew —that I found the way young women move their bodies sexually stimulating. Shoot, the way a woman’s body moves of its own accord was sexually stimulating. I’d known that since puberty. Don’t get me wrong, I love dancing, but I need no encouragement in the area.

Attempting to open up this thought process for Emmy was a tactical error.

What I meant to say was, “I haven’t spent a lot of time bumping and grinding with girls. When I go dancing with a big group of friends, we all kinda dance in the same space. I don’t dance with a particular girl so much as an area.”

This is what came out instead:

“Yeah, I don’t really dance with girls.”

Emmy cocked her head to one side and looked at me as though I’d just said, “Aliens are our friends.”

“Oh gosh, that didn’t come out right,” I said.

You would have thought English was my second language the way I was stumbling over my words. Those two degrees in English were really coming in handy. If I wanted to salvage the conversation, I had one of two options—1) scramble to explain what I’d meant and risk digging a deeper hole, or 2) say something even more absurd with hopes that I would make her laugh.

I went with Option 2:

“What I meant to say was that I really only dance with guys.”

[She laughed. Phew. A narrow escape. I have got to start thinking before I speak.]

I then explained briefly that I was talking about bumping and grinding, which seemed to make sense to her. About this time, her uncle, the father of the bride, sidled up and added to the fun:

“Stop talking and ask her to dance already!”

[Wow, Mickey, thanks! This conversation was going great, and you just made it even better!]

“I already have,” I replied. “We’re just getting to know each other a little bit.”

Let’s see, what had Emmy gotten to know about me so far?
1) that I had enough guts to walk up and start a conversation with her;
2) that my thoughts and words got jumbled;
3) that I may or may not have Tourette’s;
4) that I was a prude who couldn’t bump and grind without a guilty conscience.

No doubt, she was intrigued and ready to follow me around the world.

“Good,” Mickey said with a toothy grin on his face. He drifted off.

What did this brief interaction tell me? Her family was watching us.

That’s exactly what I needed! A bigger audience! I was so impressive to my audience of one, why not add another two dozen spectators? I always wondered what it was like for that one contestant in the Miss America pageant. One year, I was watching it with my family, and my Aunt Kay was entertaining us by pointing out which of women had breast implants—“Miss Alabama? Oh, definitely! You see how round they are? Real boobs that big aren’t perky.” Soon after Miss Alabama came Miss So-and-So, who tripped on her evening gown and tumbled head first down the steps.

What did that kind of humiliation feel like? Now was my chance to find out. Hopefully, the wedding videographer would capture some of it for posterity.

The country song ended, and the Dj put on something funky. Thank heavens. My goofiness is much less apparent on the dance floor. Emmy was fun. She obviously enjoyed dancing and was patient with my stiff gyrations. We danced for several songs, and I had a chance to ask questions about her work, her city, and her family.

She was a pharmacist, which meant that she was intelligent and had discipline. She described Winston-Salem as “a good Baptist town,” which meant that her faith was a priority. Her father was the hardest working man she’d ever met, which meant that she had respect for him. A Mississippi farmer, he’d moved his family to North Carolina to better support them by going to work for a trucking company.

Right about the time our conversation took stride, we noticed that we were the only two people left dancing. Either we could be the center of attention or walk off. We walked off.

****

Over the course of the evening, I kept asking Emmy to dance, and she kept saying yes. Mystery of mysteries.

At one point, I took a bathroom break, and while I was washing my hands, the stranger next to me broke the silence:

“Saw you out there dancing with my niece.”

[Yep, her family was definitely watching. ]

“Yeah, she’s a lot of fun.”

“She’s a pharmacist, you know.” Emmy’s uncle delivered this piece of information like he was giving away a secret: “Want to know where to get good moonshine?”

Apparently, I looked like the type of guy who needed a sugar mama.

“That’s what she said,” I replied.

“Sure is cute.”

Was he trying to sell me a car?

“Very,” I said, and wanting to change the subject, “How do you fit into this whole mix?”

He told me about his sons, how all the cousins had grown up together and were really close. I told him that I have ten first cousins on my dad’s side, and it was the same way with us. I liked big families. We shook hands outside, and he returned to his family.

This was getting better and better.

I walked with my friend Will and his wife Lacey to my truck where he was keeping his clothes, and grabbed a pen in the process.

I’d made up my mind: I was going to get her number. Taking risks is the fountain of youth, and I had nothing to lose. My cynicism needed a good punch in the mouth anyway.

Back at the reception, I picked Emmy out of the crowd.

When I touched her elbow, she turned and smiled.

“I’m leaving,” I said.

“No, not yet. My family’s staying until Justin and Lauren leave.”

“No, I’m leaving.”

“Oh! Sorry, I thought you asked… .”

“I just wanted to say that I enjoyed dancing with you and getting to know you a little bit.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“I don’t know when I’ll be in Winston-Salem, but if I am, I’d like to give you a call. Would that be okay with you?”

[Ambiguous and noncommital. Smooth move, Austin. Women love a man without a plan.]

“Yeah, that’s fine,” she said.

I reached into my jacket for my pen.

“Who knows…maybe in the next seventeen years, I’ll take a roadtrip there.”

[Just shut up, you cottonheadedninnymuggins. Shut up.]

She gave me a polite laugh. “Okay, it’s area code 803…”

I wrote her number down, and if I were smart, I would have said thanks, given her a quick hug, and made a graceful exit. Apparently, graceful exit isn’t in my repertoire. I like to make an impression, which means, I like to leave a girl feeling like she’s eaten some bad shrimp.

What I was thinking is, “It’s rare that I actually write down a girl’s phone number anymore. I always just put them straight into my cell phone.”

Is that what I said? Oh no. If I started out the evening with a moronic comment, I should finish it with another, put some pretty book ends on it.
“I couldn’t tell you the last time I got a girl’s number.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Oh gosh, I just made myself sound like a total loser.”

She laughed.

“What is I meant to say is that I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote a girl’s number down rather than putting it in my cell phone.”

Why did I think my method for securing phone numbers was worth mentioning in the first place? Was this interesting? No. Would she think I was a weirdo for writing her number down on my arm? Probably not. Did I stand to lose something by flapping my jaw? Yes. “Hey Emmy, did I mention how boring I am? That I make banal observations all the time? Didn’t mention that? Well, I do. Wanna go out on a date? No? Didn’t think so.”

Luckily, before I could say anything else to make Emmy pity laugh, groan, or yawn, the Dj put on “Sweet Caroline.” I grabbed her hand and said, “C’mon, we have to dance with this song.”

Thanks, Neil Diamond. You saved me yet again.

The song ended, and I said goodbye to Emmy without further incident. After doing some silly dancing with Joe, the groom’s 77-year-old father, and some of the groomsmen, I drove home.

****

A few weeks later, I was telling my friend Patrick’s wife Caroline about the wedding. The stories in which I say something stupid to a girl are her favorites. I wish I had fewer of them. After I finished recounting the latest series of blunders, she shared an insight:

“You’re not very smooth.”

She has a point. Other people don’t have these stories, and being bold and being smooth are not the same thing. In fact, unless accompanied by confidence, poise, and charisma, boldness may simply set the stage for bad jokes, not wit; awkward conversation, not flirtation and laughter; hasty apologies and retreats, not chemistry and the prospect of romance.

Of course, making conversation with a woman carries inherent risk. She could snub you, or she could give you the local Rejection Hotline. Or, she could be a complete psychopath and tattoo your face on her abdomen. You never know what’s going to happen.

However, swallowing my insecurity, complacency, and cynicism to walk across that cavernous room, or pick my way across that crowded dance floor, or maneuver around the tables at that coffeeshop, reminds me that though fear of rejection may cast a long shadow, it is innocuous when I stand over it.

Taking risks keeps the rust knocked off my courage.

The enduring value of those conversations, no matter how brief, and interactions, no matter how warm or forced, is what they teach me about myself. Embarassment cannot kill me.  Though enjoyable, the admiration of a pretty woman cannot tell me who I am as a man, and her affection cannot guarantee happiness or wholeness. Rejection may cut my pride, but it can say nothing about my worth in the eyes of God.

It took me a long time to realize that most girls are nervous when a random guy walks up: What if he’s a creep? What if he only talks about himself? What if he’s cheesy and I have to be nice and laugh at his bad jokes? What if he’s funny and sweet and smart but doesn’t ask for my number?

Their confidence is as imperfect and liable to falter as my own. They know they should just be themselves and offer an ultimatum, “Accept me as I am or leave me alone,” but they also have to fight the compulsion to impress.

What happened with Emmy? I’m not telling, but I’ll share what I learned:

If I sometimes lack heart-melting swerve, then perhaps I can offer a woman honesty, authenticity, and a willingness to admit my faults. These have more mileage in any relationship, and my female friends have reassured me that kindness and sincerity cover a multitude of amorous evils. Even saying the wrong thing can be endearing.

That’s good news for a man with plenty of guts and unreliable game.

I’m a recovering cynic.

I’m getting to the age where all my friends are married, engaged, or in serious relationships, so when I’d see a girl my age at a wedding without a rock on her finger or a guy standing next to her, I’d assume that she was carrying around enough baggage to move to Europe.

About six months ago, I had the realization that if any of these single women noticed that I was wearing no wedding band and had brought no date to the rehearsal dinner or ceremony—the perfect way to ruin otherwise good friendships with females—then they were probably making the same assumption and concocting alibis for me: “He’s a player” or “He must be gay” or “He was born with both male and female genitalia” or “He eats children.”

A by-product of disappointments and heartbreaks that we’ve left unaddressed, this subtle cynicism uncorks the finest vintage of our creativity. I often overlooked the simplest, and most plausible, explanation, “Like me, she just hasn’t met the right one.”

I recently attended the wedding of a high school friend, Bear, which caused us to miss our annual flyfishing trip in central Idaho. His wedding was the first of four over four weekends in four different cities. He asked me to be an usher, which meant buying a summer suit for $100 at S&K. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Why ask your friends to pay $150 to rent a tux that they can only wear for one night when you can ask them to buy a suit that they can wear for ten years?

Bear always was practical, and there’s nothing like a suit or tuxedo to put me on my worst behavior. By worst behavior, I mean the type of boldness that has for years helped me entertain my friends and family with the cringe-worthy tales that result. I have a reputation to keep up.

Married men never cease to live vicariously through single men, and my friends at the wedding were no exception. They were all concerned with whether or not I found any of the women attractive.

My flyfishing buddy Rob was the most persistent:

“Dude, you need to be meeting these girls!”

“Why?”

“Hellooo, because some of them are hot.”

“Like who?”

“What about her?” He pointed out a blond girl on the dance floor, holding up her dress with one hand and punching the air with the other to The Commodores’ “Brick House.” She was more like a stone castle.

“Yeah, don’t think so. Maybe her?” I pointed out a really cute brunette on the opposite side of the dance floor. She was taking pictures of the other bridesmaids dancing.

“Why don’t you go talk to her?” he asked.

“Do you really think I’m going to meet somebody at a wedding? Does that actually happen outside of romantic comedies?”

“People do it all the time.”

“Well, I did ask Bear about her. She’s a cousin of the bride, and she lives in Winston-Salem. Long distance relationship. Don’t know how I feel about that.”

While I was talking, the brunette had walked around the dance floor with her camera and was now standing about fifteen feet away with her back to us.

“What have you got to lose? I think you should go talk to her,” Rob said.

I knew that Rob had no expectation that I’d actually do it. I wanted to see the look on his face, and he was right, I had nothing to lose.

“You’re right,” I said and walked over to her.

Here we go, I thought.

I generally avoid patronizing bloated national corporations that devour small businesses and cripple local economies, but Panera makes a decent Everything bagel and the hot tea is tolerable. I could get out of there for under $5, which complimented the pittance I earned as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Tennessee.

One morning at the Panera on the Strip in Knoxville, I ran into Becky, a nursing student whom I’d met through Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at UT. We chatted and joked while she organized some notes on her computer and I congratulated myself on getting up early, which, I have discovered, is my Achilles’s heel and the key to getting anything done.

Becky and I have similar senses of humor, and we’d spent enough time together for her to know my character. For a woman to know your values, lifestyle, and the substance of your relationships is important if you plan on making sexist, politically incorrect, irreverent, suggestive, or awkward jokes. You have to establish a rapport before trying out some of your edgier material. Otherwise, she’ll tell all her friends that you’re a misogynist, bigot, God-hater, pervert, or social bumpkin. Seizing that golden “That’s what she said,” opportunity in mixed company isn’t worth the fleeting pleasure of a few chuckles from the guys and stink eyes from the women. One unsavory comment can cement your reputation as an all-around creep.

Believe me.

Another nursing student named Jane came up to the table where Becky and I were sitting. Silky blond hair, blue eyes, delicate features, dazzling white smile—Jane possessed the classic kind of beauty that causes men double take over their shoulders and have car accidents.

I was definitely headed for a wreck.

Jane asked Becky how she thought she’d fared on a test they’d taken that morning. Neither was confident in her answer to one particular question: what did the letters of the nursing association, N.H.P., represent? They tossed ideas back and forth.

“National Healthcare Professionals?” Jane asked.

“No,” Becky said, “I don’t think that was it. Maybe Nursing & Healthcare…something?”

While they were trying to unravel this mystery, I was strategizing—1) how to enter the conversation; 2) how to impress Jane with my intelligence and charm her with my wit; and 3) how to make her fall in love with me without falling in love myself. I needed to do all this in sixty seconds or less. After all, the future of our children depended on it.

One of girls was suggesting another option:

“Nurses for Healthy… .”

I had my door. Time to walk through it.

“Pornography?” I said.

Becky chuckled. She gets my sense of humor, and knows I’m not a pervert.

Jane, on the other hand, stared down at me, a mixture of shock and disgust on her face. She looked at me like I’d just confessed to cheating on her best friend or like she’d just caught a noseful of hot trash. I represented everything that she hated about men.

Well, that didn’t go well, I thought.

One type of humor involves predicting what people expect you to say then defying those expectations. For example, if someone asked, “Hey Austin, what’d you do today?” I might reply, “I spent all day cremating bodies and drinking lemonade.” Of course, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, no matter what I actually did that day. That’s what makes it funny. Perhaps I have a warped sense of humor, but this type of absurd response to a common question gets a laugh most of the time.

You also have to consider the questioner’s lifestyle and sensibility. For example, when my grandmother asks me how I’ve been spending my time, I like to tell her that I’ve been doing speed and carousing with beautiful women. Does she get offended? No, she giggles, and tells me that I remind her of her husband, my grandfather. She has never used illegal drugs or engaged in promiscuity, and she knows I haven’t either. Telling my Grandma about it even if I had would be ludicrous. That’s why it’s funny.

The more outlandish, illegal, or immoral the activity I proffer, the more delighted the other person typically is. I say “typically” because on occasion I do misread my audience.

N.H.P. could not possibly be “Nurses for Healthy Pornography,” but it still wasn’t a hit with Jane. You win some, you lose some.

Rather than risk being turned to stone by Jane’s gaze, I got back to work on my laptop.

****

Fast forward about two years.

I went to see my friends, the Dirty Guv’nahs, play at The Square Room. After the show I found a camera on the stage. Looking at some of the pictures gave me a pretty good idea that it belonged to one of Jane’s friends because Jane was in a lot of the pictures. A guy named Casey I’d met a few times knew Mary Catherine, the owner, and promised to return it to her. I met Mary Catherine later at a Sundown in the City and told her about my encounter with Jane.

Mary Catherine shed some light on her friend’s reaction to “Nurses for Healthy Pornography.” The time I offended her in Panera coincided with Jane’s discovery of her boyfriend’s second computer which he used to look at pornography. He kept his other computer clean because he knew that she checked the cache on a regular basis.

In using that word “pornography,” I had churned up for Jane three years’ worth of deceit, anger, frustration, disappointment, and disgust.

Oops. How do you apologize for that?

Here’s the apology I would have given:

“I’m sorry that many men settle for false intimacy, and rather than address their own fears and insecurities, they make a hiding place in lust and perpetuate an industry that objectifies women and adulterates the good gift of sex. I’m also sorry that I have a twisted sense of humor and made light of something that has been a source of pain for so many.”

Mary Catherine assured me that Jane is a kind, gracious, and forgiving person and that if I had chosen any other word, my first interaction with her would have been much different. Why couldn’t I have just said “puppies” or “pepperoni” or “prancing”?

My sense of humor is always getting into trouble. It needs a good spanking.

Moral: N.H.P. stands for “Never Horse around about Porn.”

I am fortunate to come from a family of verbal blunderers.

My mom has often brought laughter to dinner conversations without ever intending to make a joke.

Her younger sister Amy was born the year my mom married my dad. Amy is only about six years older than me and has always been more like a cousin, but she is definitely my mom’s sister, as the following story illustrates.

We were celebrating my brother-in-law Jim’s birthday with my mom’s side of the family at P.F. Chang’s.

Jim was sitting in the middle of our big table on the opposite side from me. Different family members assembled a few cards and a wrapped gift in front of him.

Amy was sitting a few seats to his right.

There was a brief lull in conversation.

You know the kind. They happen for a number of reasons. Someone makes an awkward or offensive remark. Two people are angry with one another, and this conflict balloons into a palpable discomfort. Or, perhaps, nothing at all is wrong, and the momentary silence signifies a simple shift in a number of conversations, all at the same time. When I was younger, I remember other kids pinning superstitions to this kind of pregnant pause—a ghost passed through the room, an earthworm died in France, an angel got its wings. I believe in supernatural occurrences like miracles, but I don’t think two seconds of silence in a room mean that a sherpa in Tibet got indigestion from unpasteurized yak’s milk at the same time a 23-year-old gas station attendant outside of Glasgow found some euros in an old jacket. C’mon, people.

In an Asian fusion chain restaurant on West End Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee, my aunt Amy scanned our faces and offered her explanation for those two seconds of silence:

“We were all just sitting around staring at Jim’s package!”

I, for one, was doing nothing of the sort.

Amy’s observation created another two or three seconds of silence before we all burst into laughter.

Amy was confused.

“Think about what you just said.”

Her double entendre finally sank in, and she turned red.

My family isn’t one that passes around lots of dirty jokes and sexual innuendo, so Jim’s birthday was a very special occasion indeed.

So my family has started reading Gu.e.

They now stop themselves in the middle of telling stories: “Oh, I shouldn’t say that. It might end up on Austin’s blog.”

Great. Now they’re going to practice self-restraint and try to be normal, and I’ll have nothing to write about.

I think that if I am going to write, then using family for material is a given. Flannery O’Connor is known for saying that if you make it out of childhood, you have enough to write about the rest of your life. Well, I never plan on making it out of my childhood, so let the anecdotes, absurdities, and irreverent banter continue to flow.

Since I now have to be careful what I say about my family—poppycock!—I’ll only be sharing hypothetical stories. Writing a book like Frank McCourt‘s Angela’s Ashes could get me in big trouble. His memoir didn’t exactly describe his family’s halos and laud their generous virtues.

I’d rather not have a falling out with my family. Spending time with them is one of my favorite pastimes, and I’m still on my parents’ cell phone plan. There’s a lot I stand to lose by alienating them.

I’ve been told that I’m allowed to write about my relatives after they’re dead.

Super. What if I die first and the world misses out on all those stories? I have a responsibility that I intend to honor. My family toes the line of sanity, and people need to know about all that ridiculousness.

I drank an Americano and came up with a solution: anytime I write about my family from now on, I’m writing about hypothetical situations. Understood? I’m not saying it did happen, I’m saying that on December 23, 2007, the following situation unfolded, and the family involved may or may not have been mine. I’m not pointing fingers.

That said, if you happen to know someone in my family, don’t go up and say, “Hey, I read Austin’s blog post, ‘Mexican Ketchup,’ and I can’t believe you said that.” You could make a fool of yourself because IT MAY HAVE HAPPENED TO SOMEONE ELSE’S FAMILY. Ha.

Do we have an understanding? (I’m narrowing my eyes and giving you a significant look.)

Good.

****

Every year, the dad’s side of somebody’s family eats at Kobe’s Steakhouse off of West End Avenue. We’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.

Kobe’s is a hibachi-style Japanese restaurant where a chef cooks your food right in front of you. The chef’s antics and canned jokes make the meal more a performance than a quiet affair. He’ll use a spatula to flip shrimp tails into his shirt pocket, his hat, or someone’s glass of water. He’ll stack slices of onion into the tapered cone of a volcano, pour vodka through the hole in the center, and light it on fire.

This particular year, our chef was Hispanic, not Asian.

No biggie, right? I’m sure he’s got the skills if he’s got the job. What does his race have to do with anything?

He says hello to everyone and begins setting out the shallow rectangular dishes for the dipping sauces. While he’s ladling out the soy-based sauce for steak, he says, “Japanese A1.’

Ha, ha, we’ve heard it a dozen times before. Everyone gives a courtesy laugh, and we go back to our conversations. This is what is expected of us. We know the script, and we play our part.

Once the Hispanic chef has passed out the Japanese A1, he starts on the reddish dipping sauce for chicken, seafood, and vegetables.

“Japanese ketchup,” he says.

Ha, ha. We all laugh, and we turn back to our conversations, but wait, our hypothetical Grandma has something to say.

She leans forward, making sure that he notices her, then makes a joke of her own, “You mean Mexican ketchup?”

He gives her a crooked smile, then turns back to his work.

[Silence.]

What just happened?

Did she really just say that?

I don’t know what was worse, what she said or what my hypothetical self did before I could catch him.

I kneed her under the table. She was sitting to my left, and I whacked her with my bony kneecap.

What just happened?

Did I really just do that?

She turns to look at me with a smile on her face. She shakes her shoulder and crinkles her nose—that posture that says, “I made a funny, didn’t I!”

Yikes.

Grandmas are tricky creatures.

You never can tell what they’re going to say. They are given to extravagant acts of generosity and waking up at 4am to do crossword puzzles. They know how to make biscuits, and they know all the high-scoring two-letter words in Scrabble.

I have two of them. They never cease to amaze me. I might get a random check for $100 in the mail for “gas money” or I might get something less tangible, like a story to tell.

But like I said before, I am not saying that this happened in my family. This may just be something I heard about on Facebook or CNN. Okay? Do we have an understanding?

Good.

I took my first trip out of the country the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My three best friends and I went to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with our youth group from Hillsboro Church of Christ.

At this point, I had two years of Latin under my belt and spoke not a lick of Spanish. We visited a cathedral on a hill overlooking the city, and my classical training enabled me to translate a passage of scripture on one of the stained-glass windows: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52)

Pretty impressive, right? I could conjugate the crap out of the Latin verb meaning “to kill”—neco—but I couldn’t communicate with other human beings. Try this on for size: “Ego amo magnam tuum praedam.” “I love your big booty.” I put together that sentence for the construction paper cards we made on Valentine’s Day. 

Yet, if I’d drifted away from the group, I wouldn’t even have been able to stop someone and ask, “Have you seen a big group of loud gringos carrying bags full of tourist crap?”

As much as I loved my Latin teacher Miss Tracey and appreciated her willigness to treat me as a unique person and not just another drone passing through her class, Señora Lindsey, David Lipscomb High School’s Spanish-speaking titan, might have saved me from my most embarrassing moment in Honduras.

Our group was staying at Baxter Institute, a bible school that trained preachers to minister in Honduras and other countries in Central and South America. We ate our meals with the faculty and students in an expansive dining hall in the campus’s main building. Scott, my youth minister, encouraged us to spread out and try to get to know some of the students while we were eating. Some of them spoke a little English, but most smiled and said, “Buenos,” the same as us.

One morning at breakfast, my gregariousness got the best of me. As I put my tray down and settled into my seat, I turned to the young Honduran man next to me and said, “Me llamo Austin.

He told me his name.

“¿Cuantos anos tienes tu?” I asked. I thought I was saying, “¿Cuantos años tienes tu?”

What’s the difference? you might be wondering. Well, the difference is you either ask a guy how old he is or you make a complete fool of yourself. The accent mark above the “n” in “años” is called a “tilde” and happens to be crucial.

I found this out the hard way. Tildes signifies that you’re supposed to add a “y” to the pronunciation of años, as in  “AHN-yose,” not “AHN-os.” Latin has no tildes.

I asked, “¿Cuantos anos tienes tu?” and thought I was saying, “How old are you?” or literally, “How many years do you have?”

My new friend was confused. He leaned away from me, looking at me like I’d just grown horns. He turned to his friends at the table. For a moment, everyone was silent, then they all erupted into laughter.
He turned back to me and held up a pointer finger. 
“Uno,” he said.

Why is that little tilde crucial? 

Because I’d just asked a stranger, “How many anuses do you have?” 

I’m just glad his answer was one.

If anybody has Rosetta Stone software for Spanish, please let me know.

Never entrust your sense of humor to people you don’t know.

I attended W.P. Scales Elementary from Kindergarten through the Fourth Grade. At the end of every year, each grade invited the parents to the special presentation the grade as a whole had been working on for weeks.

One year, we wowed them with a square dance in the gym. Rumor had it, Amanda B. was crushing on me, and that’s why she chose me as her partner. She was a pretty blonde girl about six inches taller than me. Holding her hands felt like digging a soda out of a cooler full of ice. “Cold hands, warm heart”? Well, her bloodpump must have been hot enough to make Satan green. With envy.

I also have hazy memories of performing on a stage of some sort—costumes made from construction paper; singing songs about American freedom or Johnny Appleseed; the tone-deaf kid causing all the songs to bottom out, bless his heart; flashes of light from the dark, gently quaking audience.

Another year, we painted a map of the United States on the playground blacktop that doubled as a basketball court. Each state was a different color. We were very proud.

On the big day, the parents met us in our respective classrooms, then we filed out in a mass of excited children and faking-it parents. I lost my parents in the tumult and ended up walking beside a girl from another homeroom.

An overweight woman was lumbering up the hill in front of us, one step at a time. We had to slow our pace to keep from bumping into her.

I turned to the girl and said under my breath, “Boy, that lady is struggling,” and chuckled to myself.

Her eyes flashed daggers as she responded, “That’s my mom.”

I slackened my pace to let my new friend walk on ahead.

My dad’s side of the family tells me I take after my Grandpa, Roger, meaning that, like him, I have a propensity for sticking my foot in my mouth.

I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria, the autumn of my Sophomore year of college. My younger sister started at Lipscomb University as a freshman while I was gone. She’s only a couple years younger than me, so we were very close growing up. Once spring semester began, I had a lot of catching up to do, meeting all her new friends, many of whom would become friends of mine.

One Wednesday night, we were at the college class at Harpeth Hills Church of Christ. She introduced me to a petite blond girl, very cute, a freshman like my sister. Let’s call her Sarah. 

We got to talking, and Sarah was really sweet. I was happy that class started soon after, so we had to sit next to each other.

She kept coughing.

I couldn’t just leave it alone. I had to be Mr. Funny Guy and charm her. I leaned to my right and whispered in her ear, “Maybe you should get that checked out.”

She leaned to her left and whispered back, “I have cystic fibrosis.”