Archives for category: lapse in judgment

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.

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Christians love emotional datingEveryone I know has a bad break-up story. Even those people who have never dated seriously or had to make that more or less awkward exit from a committed relationship have still stumbled into one or two “emotional dating” fiascos.

Guys and girls share the blame for “emotional dating.” No DTR–defining the relationship—ever happens. No official status ever reaches the broader community. No clear promises are made or kept.

The guilty party will try to escape the social ramifications and mitigate the emotional consequences of emotional dating with the most popular vagary of our era: he or she will say, “We’re just hanging out.” When asked by smirking friends why he and Margaret have been spending so much time together, Archie waves away the question like a buzzing mosquito, “Oh, she’s just a friend.”

Really? Does she know that?

Does she send a dozen text messages a day to other of her male friends? Doe she pour out her heart and discuss in ornate detail her absentee father, alcoholic mother, and the dueling fears of abandonment and being alone that her cheating ex-boyfriend left like two reeking sacks of garbage in her broken heart?

No, of course she doesn’t. Archie is deceiving himself.

Girls don’t start marathon text conversations with guys they find unattractive. This is just one of the rules of the universe like gravity and cellulite.

This, my friends, is emotional dating, and it is particularly common among Christians who often confuse honesty with candor and intimacy with emotional binging and purging.

Take Rupert, for example. At a conference one October, he told Sadie, who has missionary parents and grew up in Zambia, that he felt called to the mission field. They began to talk about traveling and spirituality, and six hours later, at 4am, they took communion together in the empty commons at his college.

They both left with the belief that something profound has occurred. They both missed an important truth: spiritual vulnerability and spiritual modesty can and should coexist.

Confession: earlier, when I said “Rupert,” I was talking about myself.

I once took the Lord’s Supper with a girl I barely knew at 4am in Bison Square at Lipscomb University. It was just the two of us. I’m sure we both felt a powerful connection because I spent the next twelve months pursuing a romantic relationship with her.

We talked on the phone. We exchanged prayer requests. We swapped emails stretching pages. I told her things that I’d never told my best friend, and when she finally checked to make sure we were “on the same page,” I felt a hot, trembling anger.

I forced the issue: “Tell me you’re not attracted to me.” She couldn’t say no, and I realized that regardless of her true feelings, buried underneath all that indecision and fear, her tumultuous family life and ex-boyfriend made it impossible for her to commit to anything, or even be honest with herself. In words of Mumford & Sons in “White Blank Page,” she “desired my attention, but denied my affections.” Man, and woman, is indeed a giddy thing.

Physical attraction is no guarantee of emotional clarity or honesty. This discovery made me smolder for months before I finally severed the relationship by telling her exactly how felt—that I must have been in love with her.

I hear that “Just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page” from the females and that “Oh, we’re just friends” malarkey from the males, especially adolescent ones, the least likely candidates for building a mature, truly platonic relationship with a woman. My too-plentiful experience in this arena has confirmed my suspicions that one or the other of these “friends” has romantic feelings. To camouflage his passivity, the teenage male will often excuse his behavior with this lie: “I don’t want to ruin the friendship.”

Of course he does.

He wants to ruin it straight into a steamy make-out session in her bonus room above the garage. He wants to crush the soft curves of her body against his. He wants to invite her on his family vacations. He wants to pose with her for prom pictures and let his imagination leap, if just for a moment, to another realm of tuxedos, gowns, and rooms filled with friends, cakes, and camera flashes.

He wants to outgrow his tendency to fabricate excuses to catch her up in long hugs. Part of him knows how pathetically transparent his desire for touch really is.

Beware the friend who wants to hug more than twice during any interaction. Once at the meeting and once at the parting is enough. After all, affection is one sign of flirtation, and there’s no better way to confuse a “friend” than to hug that person five times in thirty minutes. Side hugs count.

Romance is messy. Emotional dating break-ups can be even messier than the ones suffered by people who acknowledged the relationship. After all, how do you break up with someone you weren’t officially dating? How do you respond when a “friend” tries to break up with you?

You can’t use the classic Let-Her-Down-Easy line:

“I just want to be friends.”

You’re already just friends, so to be anything less, you’d have to be acquaintances. And you can’t very well go back to being acquaintances after that many Meg Ryan movies and harmless back massages, now can you?

No, emotional dating break-ups are painful because during the transition, especially during the transition, one or both parties must pretend nothing ever existed. It’s like talking about tearing down an imaginary house.

“What are you talking about?” she asks with a sour look on her face.

“It was right here, I promise!” you reply with growing panic. “We listened to Ray LaMontagne, and you put your head on my shoulder. It was right here!”

So the time when she asked you if you’d ever wear a Speedo because her ex-boyfriend Jay wore a Speedo and she didn’t think it was funny, well, she wasn’t testing the waters, she was merely using bathing garments as a kind of litmus test for friendship. And the time when she asked if you’d ever cheated on one of your girlfriends, and you said no, and she got all close and cuddly the rest of the night, well, that was your fault for reading too much into it. She’s just an affectionate person, and you were seeing what you wanted to see. And the time she asked you what your deepest fear was, and you had an hours-long conversation about divorce and marriage and what you were both looking for in a mate, well, there was no denying that the two of you shared a deep spiritual connection but that didn’t mean she was imagining herself at the altar with you.

“Have you imagined yourself at the altar with me?” you ask, your heart trapped like a hot, fluttering bird in your throat.

“Of course,” she admits.

”Girls do that kind of thing all the time,” she says.

“With just about every guy we meet,” she lies, to hide from herself the immaturity and selfishness of her behavior. She wanted all the benefits of a boyfriend without painful side-effect of having to address the fears and wounds that would have eventually surfaced like so many Loch Ness Monsters in an honest relationship.

Christians love emotional dating. It is a self-protection mechanism that creates an illusion of safety. It is a deck of fortune-telling cards that provides an unreliable means of figuring out whether that beautiful black-haired, blue-eyed girl that you made eye contact with eight times at Frothy Monkey Coffeehouse is, in fact, your soul mate before you have even spoken with her.

You flip them over in your mind, one by one.

She has a MacBook Pro. Check
She is wearing cowboy boots. Check.
She has nice boobs. Check.
She has narrow hips. Check.
She doesn’t wear too much make-up. Check.
She has a Bible and a journal. Check.
She was drinking her coffee black. Check.
She resembles Audrey Hepburn. Check.
She chats amiably with the people around her. Check.
She has no ring on her left hand. Check.
She has several Hebrew characters tattooed on the inside of her right wrist. Double check.

“Why don’t you quit being a coward and go talk to her?” your poor, unredeemed non-Christian friend asks.

What a dummy. He just doesn’t understand this business about God dropping the right woman in your lap.

“I’m not scared,” you say, feeling smug with spiritual authority, “I’m trying to give God my whole heart.”

What you meant to say was this: “God gives merit badges to men who predict the future and find a wife without getting hurt in the process.”

Christians love emotional dating almost as much as they love bad theology. Both seem to be safer than the alternative. Both give you heartburn and logorrhoea.

Every once in awhile, an unprecedented event takes place, and even while it is happening, you know the same thing will never happen to you again. Certain occurrences are more rare than getting struck by lightning, which can, in fact, strike twice.

I was stopped on Kingston Pike at the Scenic Drive light, and I had just finished talking to my friend Chris, an Anglican vicar, about communications at Apostles Anglican and the church’s new website.

WHAM!

A car had just rear-ended my 4Runner, and it rocked forward with the impact. I glanced at the rearview mirror. All I saw was empty road, no car with a crumpled hood and distraught driver. Strange.

What had just happened?

Putting my truck in park and yanking up the parking break, I stepped out and walked around to the back.

A man about my own age was busy disentangling himself from his motorcycle. Uncertain whether he was hurt or not and wobbling like a newborn calf, he rose to his feet.

“Ah, sh**! Ah, sh**!” he exclaimed over and over again. He had not yet noticed me.

He patted his chest and thighs as though searching for his keys. Assured that he wasn’t seriously hurt, he gazed down at his bike, which lay on its left side, before finally realizing that he had company. His eyes opened wide. Yes, somebody had been sitting in the stationary truck that he had hit. Imagine that.

“Oh, my bad, Pimpin’, ah, sh**! My bad–I–my–well, I was trying to stop, and one of my rotors is bent, and it wasn’t catching, so I squeezed it real hard, and then it locked up, and I slid. Ah, my bad, Pimpin’. I’m sorry.”

I assume that “Pimpin'” was a shortened version of “Big Pimpin’,” as in “We doin big pimpin, we spendin cheese” from the Jay-Z song entitled “Big Pimpin.” It is not on my playlist.

He bent over to look at the rear hatch of the 4Runner, then he looked back at me.

He started shaking his head. “I f****n’ hit the motherf****r,” he moaned.

“Yes, you did,” I replied.

“My bad, Pimpin’, my bad.”

Please stop calling me “Pimpin’,” I thought. Why not “man” or “buddy” or “sir”?

“Why don’t we pull down here off Kingston, onto Forest Glen?” I said.

The light had turned green, then red, then green again, and at around four o’clock in the afternoon, both westbound lanes were at least twenty deep with cars. We were an island of broken plastic and bits of glass in a stream of traffic. I wondered what the person in the car immediately behind us was thinking about the nervous, confused guy in a black leather jacket with neon yellow shoulder patches looking right and left as if to find a door hanging in the air to escape the situation.

“Yea, yea, that’s a good idea, Pimpin’.”

He heaved his bike onto its wheels. It was—or had been—one of those Suzuki crotch rockets, which belong on the set of Star Trek and resemble insects in garish purples, atomic greens, and black. Its front section had separated from the handlebars and dangled by a few wires.

Once we had relocated to Forest Glen, he told me his name was “K.J.” Of course he went by his initials. I would have been even less surprised if he’d asked me to call him “Tayst,” “Chillz,” or “Neezy,” an intentional misspelling, trendy “z” substitution, or nonsense word to convey toughness and individuality.

K.J. explained again what had happened and apologized two dozen more times, all the while calling me, “Pimpin’.”

I began to feel sorry for him and asked if he had insurance.

“Liability,” he answered.

“Are you okay?”

He thought so.

“You know you didn’t do that damage to my bumper and my rear door. That was already there. I did that pulling out a bush.”

This was good news to him. He grinned and started nodding. His teeth were cappuccino-colored. I felt even more sorry for him. To what degree to white teeth and good dental hygiene multiply one’s opportunities in this country?

We had nothing else to talk about except to lament the damage done to his bike.

He thanked me for being so cool, I got back in my car, and I drop fifteen feet to the stoplight. In my rearview mirror, I saw him pick up the mess of dash and windshield and drop again with a sigh. His shoulders sank. He was lucky that the collision didn’t catapult him into oncoming traffic.

I could have lied and told him that the dents in the door and the sagging bumper were his fault, but Pimpin’ don’t lie. Pimpin’ don’t be a hustler like that. Hopefully, this did K.J. some good. I hope he fixed that rotor.

If a bachelor’s degree equals an extra $1,000,000 in lifetime earnings, I wonder how much some dental floss and Listerine are worth?

Farkle forces people to gamble with their comfort. That’s why it’s my favorite game.

It is similar to Truth or Dare, only without the truth option. Before the night is over, all the players know that someone will have to do some undesirable task or challenge. If, rather than bullets, Russian Roulette involved drinking the hair stripped from a hair brush then submerged in eight ounces of water, then it would be the same as Farkle.

The following are some of the consequences I have endured:

· licking a dirty basketball a full revolution
· eating a katydid
· drinking a concoction of such ingredients as Papa John’s garlic sauce, whey protein, pickle juice, habanero pepper sauce, and mayonnaise
· imitating different animals for 30 seconds
· a swirly
· spankings
· putting alligator clips on my nipples for thirty seconds
· Sharpie mustache
· a variety of activies involving various degrees of nudity
· running up a half-mile long hill in cowboy boots without a shirt on in below freezing tempature
· giving or receiving a snorkel
· wetting my face then putting it in a fireplace full of ash
· doing laps in a salt water pool in the middle of winter

All of these pale in comparison to the consequence suffered by my friend and roommate at the time, Greg Hill, on one fateful night in the spring of 2007.

Lucas had invited the eleven freshman guys in the bible study he led to come over and play Farkle. They would start showing up at our apartment in half an hour. We were trying to convince Greg that he should play with us. On his way upstairs to change into more comfortable clothes, he let out a deep breath and told us that he was tired. He’d had a long day with the after-school care program at the YMCA. Staying up late trying not to lose a game he’d never played was the last thing he wanted to do.

Your chances of losing were slim, we reasoned. After all, we would have a total of fourteen players, if he joined us.

The odds encouraged him.

“Okay, guys, I’ll do it,” he said with characteristic bravado, a smile spreading across his face. “Just don’t let me down.”

He punched me in the shoulder. He must be feeling good now. Nothing like gambling with your hours of sleep to cheer a man up.

He thumped up the wooden stairs to his room to get ready.

The pack of freshmen guys showed up soon after he came back down. We cleared the coffee table, and Lucas and I explained the rules of six-dice Farkle to all the first-timers:

· 1s and 5s always count as 100 and 50
· You can’t get on the board with a score of less than 1000 points, but once you’re on the board, you can end your turn at 50, if you want.
· Three of a kind are worth the number times 100. (For example, three 3s are worth 300.)
· Straights are worth 1000 points.
· If all the dice are scoring dice, you have to roll again. If you farkle, then you lose the point total you just earned. If, however, you roll more scoring dice, you add these points to your total.
· If any dice roll off the table, then you must roll all the dice again.
· 6 of a kind is the number times 1000. (For example, six 3s are worth 3000.) If you roll six 1s, then you score 10,000, and the game is over.
· The game goes to 10,000. After one player reaches that score, the rest of the players drive up their scores in the consolation round so as not to be in last place.
· In the game of Farkle, the point is not to win so much as not to lose. The last-place loser is the only one who suffers the consequence.

We began.

With so many players, the game started to drag. Some of the guys had trouble getting on the board, and as the other players drove their scores higher and higher, they participated less and less in the banter, and they wore the same weak smiles that you might see on a guy’s face when he runs into his ex with her new boyfriend. Greg was among these.

I hated to see him not enjoying himself. After all, I’d helped Lucas talk him into playing. He was probably cursing himself for choosing a raucous party with teenage boys instead of his pillow. He finally squeezed above 500 on one turn, and his face lit back up.

Someone broke the 10,000 ceiling, so all that was left was the consolation round.

Greg wasn’t last, but he also wasn’t out of danger.

What is it about really wanting to win or at least really not wanting to be the loser that sets us up for failure?

Greg’s turn came about halfway through the last round. His first roll produced 300 points, which, if he had stopped there, would have proved to keep him ahead of the last loser. Everybody was yelling advice at him—eleven experts who’d only just learned the rules and strategy themselves.

I tried to get Greg’s attention and persuade him to stick with what he had, but he was too distracted. It was like a scene from Wall Street, noise and mayhem, every man screaming what he wants another person to do.

Rather than silence everyone to clear his head, Greg panicked and threw the last of the dice. Nothing. He’d farkled and lost the 300.

One by one the other players rolled better scores, and in an awkward moment of silence, Greg realized his stupidity and started cursing.

That was not the moment to say I told you so.

Our apartment in Sequoyah Village was situated in the middle of Sequoyah Hills on the corner of Kenesaw and Keowee. Kenesaw ran up and over a hill and t-boned the dog park. On the other side of the park was the Lake Loudon.

Because he had lost, the male code of Farkle honor obligated him to take off all his clothes, ride three-quarters of a mile to the park, run through it, and jump in Lake Loudon.

His set jaw and deliberate stalking movements around our den were a warning that any trash talking or sarcastic congratulations might provoke violence. After putting a plastic grocery bag over the seat of my Gary Fisher, I piled in with the rest of the guys, and we drove to the park to wait for his arrival.

After about ten minutes, a tall white shape crested the hill. We started cheering. Encouraged by our support, Greg gave the air a couple of punches. He must have started enjoying himself because he was putting on a show, weaving side to side while picking up speed going downhill.

That moment of glory while he was bathed in streetlight and feeling the crisp air rush across his skin was about as good as it was going to get for Greg that night. He soon saw the same thing we did: to his right and to our left, a car was curving around the bend on Cherokee Boulevard.

I could almost see the gears turning in his head: Do I slow down and wait for the car to pass or do I try to beat it?

You already know what he chose.

Greg stood up again and started hammering the pedals. He was cranking them as fast as he possibly could, his legs a yellowish blur.

At first, we thought he was going to make it. He hit Cherokee Boulevard and was almost through the walking trail before the car’s proximity spooked him.

You’ve probably seen how cars in the distance will seem to move very slowly then all of the sudden appear right next to you. “I never even saw the car coming” is something people say after car accidents.

As Greg crossed the walking trail, the car was right there, thirty feet away.

Everybody knows you don’t hit the front brakes when you’re going really fast. Everybody knows that you always double-check which is the front brake before you go down a hill in the first place. Greg must not have reacquainted himself, because he panicked and mashed the front brakes. The disc brakes on my bike are much more responsive than ordinary v-clamp brakes. The bike kicked up onto its front wheel like an angry bronco bucking up on its two front legs.

Greg’s momentum carried him over the handlebars, and he landed right in the middle of the road.

The black Chevy Camero screeched to a stop about five feet from one of the strangest sights the driver must have ever seen: a big heap of naked man picking itself up and limping off the road. I hustled across the street to pick up my bike and waved at the driver as way of an apology. He honked the horn twice and drove off.

At this point, Greg was standing in the grass just within the curve of streetlight cutting into the darkness of the dog park. He was bent slightly forward, had his hands on his hips, and was rocking slowly backward and forward, moaning, “Uhhhhh aaaahhuhhhhh. Uhhhhh. Awwwwwwwwhhhhhhhhhh.”

“Somebody please put a towel on him!” I yelled.

One of the freshman guys ran and got a towel from one of the cars, and Lucas gave it to Greg who put it around his waist.

The rest of us approached with caution.

Greg had a tear below his chin where he’d bitten through his lower lip. His left shoulder was bright red and oozing lymph where the asphalt had scraped off the skin, and his left knuckle and knee had also made contact with the road.

We all stood in a semi-circle of awkward silence, waiting for him to say something.

“Do I still have to get in the river?” he said, his voice sounded thick from his swollen lip.

“No!” we all said in unison.

It was so pathetic it almost wasn’t funny.

The other guys all piled back into the cars, and I rode my bike home. Most of them had already left by the time I pulled up.

Greg and Lucas were upstairs where Lucas was down on two knees dabbing Greg’s knee with hydrogen peroxide and then Neosporin.

Five minutes later, Greg was in his room, and Lucas and I were in the room that we shared.

Complete silence.

“What—just—happened?!!” Lucas hissed in the dark.

“I don’t know!” I whispered.

Our laughter and incredulity had been pent up for too long. We didn’t want to laugh in front of Greg and upset him even more, but what had happened was one of the funniest and most bizarre occurrences either of us had ever seen. We hated that he’d gotten hurt, but 6’4” of naked man tumbling through the air was too good. Laughter rocked us both for the next half hour. We had to be quiet so as not to wake Greg, but trying to suppress that kind of hysterical giggling makes it even worse. Contents under pressure will explode. We laughed harder for our relief that our stupid game hadn’t resulted in Greg getting hit by a car.

How do you explain that to the ER doctor?

“Like using bricks to open windows.”

Known for his quotable quotes and colorful aphorisms, my friend Steve Loy delivered this little beauty while surveying the damage.

Let me start from the beginning.

Five holly bushes grew in front of the large, yellow American Four-Square house in which I live. My landlord and friend, Patrick, thought that “Big Bird”—as his wife has dubbed the house—would look better without the misshapened holly bushes crowding the steps up the front and left side porches.

Pretty soon after moving in, Patrick and I were able to yank two of the bushes out of the ground, using my 4Runner and a ski rope borrowed from Patrick’s father-in-law. The rope broke on the third holly bush—dry rot.

Worse things can happen.

Ten months later, the three remaining holly bushes were a constant reproach. Still intact, still ugly, they taunted me ever time I walked up the steps—“We’re still here.”

Big Bird was built in 1899, and 110 years later, he’s a little worse for the wear. He sometimes collects water in his basement, he has cracks in his ceilings, and his porches are—how should I say it?—sagging. Patrick is a pastor, and his pastor’s income stands before these major and minor renovations like David before Goliath. Patrick sometimes feels the burden of responsibility that comes with faithful stewardship of a historic building. He’ll sometimes say things like, “Why did I buy this crappy house?” We laugh as though he doesn’t mean it, but we both know better.

I thought the absence of the three remaining holly bushes might cheer him up. We’re trying to “live in community,” and to me, that sometimes means taking care of an undesirable task for a close friend, especially if he is dreading it. If you’ve ever painted a room, or even an entire house, you know that volunteering to do something for somebody else for free is a lot more enjoyable than doing it for yourself or getting paid.

On a Monday morning, I decided to “eat the frog” and rip up the holly bushes, meaning cross it off my list first thing so that I could focus on other tasks.

Steve loaned me his $300 rope with carabiners, the Arnold Schwarzeneggar of ropes, 5800 pounds of tensile strength! The rope was actually growing chest hair.

Steve offered two words of caution:

1) Use the carabiners attached to the rope, and you won’t have knots to untie.

2) An objects in motion will travel toward its anchor point.

Apparently, he had earned this wisdom the old-fashioned way: time wasted on loosening knots and a huge dent in the tail gate of an otherwise new truck.

Glad to have friends with more life experience than I have, I nodded and did what any full-grown man would do: I ignored his advice.

Neither of these outcomes could possibly happen to me. I was, after all, invincible. I didn’t have my master’s in English for nothing. Too bad about the dent though.

The first and smallest bush came out easily. This boded well.

For the second, I backed the 4Runner into the yard and wound the rope a few times around the trunk of the largest bush then passed it through the carabiner.

Tying the other end to the towing package on my truck, I had too much rope to spare, so I doubled it over and used three cinch knots to make it fast.

Here comes the fun part.

I dropped the truck into low gear and gave it some gas. The engine roared, the tires tore up the grass, the rope creaked, and the bush…

stayed.

Crappers. I thought I might get lucky, have to dig around the roots first.

When I went back around to the back of the truck, I saw the error of my ways. I should have listened better to Steve: a fist-sized rock of rope had replaced my knot.

My fingers came nowhere close to budging any of the pieces of rope. Who would have thought that the force of a V6 engine and the grip of new Michelin tires could do that?

Idiot.

How was I going to pay for that rope if I had to cut it? A master’s in English doesn’t go as far as you might think. Or as far as I thought, I should say.

Over the next forty-five minutes, I used the following items in an attempt to loosen it: two hammers, a flathead screwdriver, a wood chisel, the arm to a car jack, a pick ax, WD-40, a crow bar, and a spattering of bad language.

Much more was on the line than having to pay for a new rope if I cut off the old one.

Knowing how to use tools is a kind of credibility with men, like winning an arm wrestling contest or charming women. None of these is something you could put on a resume, but “I can crush this can on my forehead” is certainly more impressive than “I can do your accounting” on your average Saturday night.

Though I suppose you can get paid for a operating a backhoe is worth something, the lack marketability of using many tools doesn’t discourage us from placing weight on the ability.

My friend Bear can get just about any machine started. He’ll tinker with it, adjusting the choke and throttle, checking the oil and gas, making sure the sparks plugs and wires are clean and tight, and then he’ll yank a cord or flip a switch and the engine will come to life. I, on the other hand, might need fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ll succeed eventually, but he just has the knack. I respect that.

The bottom line is that men love to exude an aura of competence, confident control, inexhaustible resourcefulness.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not haunted by feelings of inadequacy. The question, “Do I have what it takes?” doesn’t plague me. I know my worth isn’t tied up in changing a flat tire in five minutes or less. However, I’d still rather my hands be skillful allies than a source of embarrassment. I think most men would agree, and I challenge you to find a man who doesn’t care whether or not he can build a good fire. If he really doesn’t care, I guarantee that he owns a pair of high heels.

Remember in cartoons how when one of the characters was facing an ethical dilemma, a six-inch-tall blue angel and a red devil of similar height would materialize on either shoulder and give their arguments for right or wrong. Instead of the angel and devil, my peanut gallery is a group of older men who stand in the corner of my mind and evaluate my performance.

If I excecute well, they say nice things:

“That boy can swing an ax!”

“That man can certainly use a hammer.”

“That guy knows how to back up a trailer.”

If I screw up, they shake their heads and glance knowingly at one another.

None of us can possibly be good at everything, but even though the ability to code a website is much more lucrative these days than building a deck, there’s some mysterious authority in sweat, brawn and deftness with tools. Being called incompetent is close to being called a coward.

A scene from Castaway speaks to the heart of this seeminly innate desire to be capable, physically strong, dextrous. Tom Hanks’ character finally succeeds in building a fire, and then dancing around it, he cries, “Ah, look what I have created!”

I’d like to believe that if the world to revert to the Stone Age, or Bronze Age, or feudal Europe, I wouldn’t end up with my skull staved in and my woman somebody else’s concubine. I’d like to believe I could survive in the wilderness. I’d like to believe I’d survive a war.

Why is “expertise” such an attractive word?

I don’t think I’m alone in this. If you don’t know how to hunt, fish, cook over a fire, land a punch, and romance a beautiful damsel, then what have you got going for you? A high-definition television? Leather upholstery in your luxury sedan? Perhaps these measures of our substance are the residue of gender roles reinforced by centuries of patriarchy.

Women have another type of inheritance altogether. How is a woman made to feel about herself if she can’t have children? Can’t cook? While men are off winning bread with the sweat of their brows, women run the household. One woman receives a compliment on her dress, and she responds by confiding what an incredible deal she found at T.J. Maxx. Of course, she doesn’t want the other woman to go buy the dress, she merely wanted her to know that she knows how to shop, how to stretch the cents. This expertise is a kind of credibility. Women sniff out sales while their men build the Tower of Babel.

“Take one small bite and be as a god? What a ridiculous bargain! I mean, why wouldn’t I taste the forbidden fruit…for free! It would be a sin not to.”

So you see why I had to undo that blasted knot even if it made my fingers bleed. We’re talking about the difference between respect and being denied entrance into the fraternity of men. Getting that rope off my truck was a guarantee that I would never need Viagra.

After much self-deprecatory interior monologue, I finally freed the rope.

I said thank you to Jesus and meant it.

I’m not proud of what happened soon afterwards.

I dug around the roots of the holly bush, reattached the rope, and climbed back into my 4Runner.

Nothing happened.

I went inside and changed into my Mountain Khaki shorts and tennis shoes. I took off my glasses and put in my contacts. Business time.

Round 3.

Nothing happened.

Round 4.

Nothing happened.

Now I was getting a wee bit irritated.

I hacked at the roots of the holly bush as though they were responsible for my broken leg in eighth grade. My broken heart at 16. Not getting into Columbia for grad school. (I didn’t want to pay that much for a writing degree, but it would have been a nice gesture on their part.)

In my truck, I put it in the lowest gear and slammed on the gas.

Tires screeching, back end fishtailing, then…

WHAM!

Cussword.

I put it into park, got out, and walked around to see what had happened.

The rear door was dented in two places: on the right side of the fender and on the left side of the door itself above the license plate, below the window.

Idiot.

I sat down in the middle of the road.

Steve Loy: 2.

Austin Church: 0.

The peanut gallery of tool-proficient men didn’t even shake their heads. They just walked away.

About ten seconds later, Patrick and Jason emerged through the hedge that separates our side yard from the alley.

“What happened?” they asked.

“I’m an idiot,” I said.

“At least you didn’t break the window or one of your tail lights,” Jason said.

True enough.

Everyone had some commentary to offer.

Caroline observed, “Your morning of manly endeavor didn’t go so well,” to which I replied, “When does manly endeavor ever go well? This is how wars get started.”

Our neighbor, Ty, told Caroline later in the day, “That man just needs to get laid.”

Maybe so. I don’t really know much about that sort of thing. I never got the sex talk.

Rather than rip out the final bush, I took my new ax and hacked it up. Don’t ask me why I didn’t do that to the other two and save the body damage to my truck, not to mention two hours of my time. You may as well ask why people are violent.

Before you get depressed, I want to reassure you that this story does have some redemption in it.

When I backed into an old red Pontiac Grand Am in the Walgreen’s parking lot, my fender was already dented, so you couldn’t even see the new damage. Great.

First kisses can beautiful, psychedelic, and terrifying experiences.

Like LSD, crystal meth, or hallucinogenic mushrooms, they can forever alter your neurochemistry. “Just one,” you tell yourself. “I’ll just eat one of these bright red Amanita Muscaria mushrooms and have a story to tell my friends.”

Oh contraire, my friend. You’ll ruin your life.

I was in the 8th grade. Sarah’s friends made it known to me that I should make our mutual crush official by asking her to “go” with me. That seemed so 5th grade to me, yet going against their better judgment to appease the women they want is something that men do all the time. Pubescent males, in particular, have this Achilles’ heel, not that they have much wisdom or discernment in the first place.

I’d grown up hearing my parents preach that compromise is to relationships what oil is to engines, so I went ahead and asked her.

I was fifteen and couldn’t go pick Sarah up, which meant that my dear old dad had to drive me out to her house anytime I wanted to see the object of my affections. Sarah and I always came back to my house, or my parents took us to the movie theater or mall.

Sarah and I made plans to have a date the same night that my parents were headed over to my grandparents house to play cards. We were stuck. We had no choice but to tag along.

My dad was driving the blue Suburban, my mom was riding in the passenger seat. Sarah and I were sitting in the second seat. I was trying to figure out how to hold her hand without my dad being able to see in the rearview mirror, as if he would have cared.

As I was conceiving my plan of attack, my dad slammed the brakes, something smashed into our truck, and gray-brown fur flashed across the windshield.

We’d just bagged us a whitetail deer.

Back in 1997, a lot of the land on either side of Hillsboro Road, heading into Green Hills, was still undeveloped, and the woods ran right up to the road. Opossums, raccoons, deer, coyotes, foxes, rabbits, and roughly a billion suicidal squirrels would cross from patch of trees to the other. Sometimes, you’d see the carcass of a smushed opossum or the sharp stink of a careless skunk.

My dad drove straight to my cousins’ house, and Uncle Scott came out to look at the damage. He stuck a fingertip in some mud on the side of the truck, and after smelling it, wrinkled his nose and frowned. It wasn’t mud.

“You scared the crap out of that deer,” he said.

How come he got to say “crap,” and I didn’t?

Eventually, we did make it over to my grandparents’ house. The adults played Hearts upstairs, and I escorted my lady down to the basement where the cousins played pool on the same table our parents had grown up using and ping-pong on the table that Granpa Parkes had built himself.

I hadn’t made up my mind to kiss Sarah that night. Just the thought of actually closing my eyes, leaning in, and pressing my lips against hers made my stomach feel as though I’d lost my wallet or caught a kickball with my groin. When Sarah and I were together, I could think of little else. I mean, how did it feel? Would I be “good”?

I’d experienced the paralysis that came from a similar interior monologue while sitting next to a girl in a dark movie theater. Staring at her hand out of the corner of my eye, I faced that moment of truth:

“Do it now, Austin. Take her hand right now. Okay, okay, relax. Oh no, I’m sweating! Cardinal Sin of Handholding #1: Nobody wants to hold your sweaty hand. Why does she look so calm? She’s just sitting their watching the movie like I’m not even here. Maybe she doesn’t even care if I hold her hand. Maybe she doesn’t even want to be here. She probably doesn’t even like me. What was that? She smiled at me! There is hope! Okay, do it now, Austin. Take her hand right now…” and so on.

I’m sure the girls had it just as bad, if not worse. They had to worry about some putz asking them out on dates. Even if they liked the guy, they had to think about what they were going to do if Prince Charming got handsy. Or, maybe he was a really nice guy and lacked boldness, and she had to sit there wondering what was taking him so long.

Well, cowardice, for one thing. Fear of rejection. Insecurity. Ladies, you can be guaranteed that no matter how exciting or suspenseful the movie, your date took you to a movie for one reason and one reason alone: to hold your hand, put his arm around you, make out, or something similar.

However much we men may love superheroes or cowboys or chase scenes or watching the good guy get the girl while reducing the villain to a mewling babychild, we love females more. Have you ever stopped to wonder why movies are the default date? Movies are about the worst possible way to get to know someone and find out what you have in common. Spending two hours sitting next to someone you barely know and watching as a man and woman onscreen end up together in bed despite all the odds isn’t the best way to decide if you want this woman to be the mother of your children, if you want this man to open salsa jars and drive to the store for tampons.

Movies are really about that electricity of touch. Darkness dials up the voltage. I want to get drunk on her perfume, her closeness, her warmth, her softness, our arms grazing, a glance, one corner of her lips turned up in a smile. Of course, the uncertainty enhances the excitement, and as the feelings fade, a deeper, more stable intimacy should replace the physical and emotional fireworks.

Perhaps I had no intention of kissing Sarah for the first time. Perhaps I had every intention of kissing Sarah for the first time. Considering all the hormones coursing through my veins, I’ll bet it was both—hoping that I had the guts to kiss Sarah for the first time.

The year before, my seventh grade year, I’d dated a girl named Lauren. Our group of friends went trick-or-treating in Kyle’s neighborhood on Halloween night. To encourage me to make a move, my buddies and the rest of the girls kept on walking ahead of Lauren and me to give us time to ourselves, only to catch up with us after a couple of minutes, pull me aside, and ask, “Did you do it? Did you do it?”

I was always a romantic, and my first kiss seemed like a special rite of passage, not the sort of thing you waste on any girl who catches your eye. This type of nudging from my friends diminished its significance. I really just wanted them to leave me alone and make up my own mind about when was the right time and which was the right girl.

Though I meant it as no slight, I never did kiss Lauren. Still a lip virgin a year later, I was in my grandparents’ basement teaching Sarah how to play pool, which supplied a convenient pretense for putting my arms around her.

At one point, I tickled her, and when she wriggled away and faced me, our eyes locked and with that peculiar gravity, I leaned in and touched my lips to hers.

When I pulled back, she was smiling.

I was very pleased with my boldness and with her reaction, and planned no other operations for the evening. We continued playing pool until my dad yelled from the top of the stairs that it was time to go.

The wonderful thing about tickling is that the girl inevitably ends up in your arms. So long as you can discern when enough is enough, tickling is one of the most effective and versatile tools in our flirtation arsenal. On the way to the stairs, I grabbed Sarah’s calf or jabbed her in the side.

Apparently, this set the mood because when we got to the stairs and I flipped off the overhead basement lights, the yellow light from the stairwell caught Sarah’s face, and she had The Look. How I knew what The Look looked like or what it signified, I cannot tell you. No one taught me. I just knew somehow that The Look means business time.

I leaned in to kiss her again. Our lips met, and something strange happened. She stuck her tongue in my mouth.

Woah! I guess I figured that we were working on my timeline. One thought entered my foggy mind: “I have to fight back.”

I returned the favor, and we had a fist fight with our tongues for a couple of seconds. Then, it was over. Sarah wiped her mouth, and not knowing any better, I thought this was normal and did likewise.

Unfortunately, I chose to commemorate that momentous occasion by making an observation.

“That was weird,” I said.

Sarah just smiled and started up the steps.

“Idiot!” I thought. “Why’d you have to go and open your stupid mouth and say the something so stupid?”

****

I thought about nothing but kissing and my embarrassing little speech for the next twenty-four hours. Sarah and I talked on the phone the next night. I couldn’t leave it alone. I couldn’t let her think I was that uncool.

I took the conversation there: “I can’t believe what I said after we kissed last night?”

“What?” she asked.

Surely, she couldn’t have forgotten.

“Don’t you remember?” I said. “Right after we kissed I said, ‘That was weird,’ like the dumbest thing of all time.”

“I completely forgotten about that!” Sarah said and start laughing.

“Idiot!” I thought. “Why’d you have to go and open your stupid mouth and say the something so stupid?”

At that point in time, I was unacquainted with a quote that is most often attributed to Mark Twain: “It is better to be thought a fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Moral: After kissing a girl, say nothing. Give her a hug, hold her face in your hands and smile at her, or tuck her hair behind her ear—all these are fine. If you must wipe your mouth, do so discreetly, and make a note to yourself to learn better technique. If the kiss is a disappointment, you can whisper, “Let’s try that again,” but don’t come crying to me if that backfires. I warned you.

Does anybody have any good first kiss stories?

One of the crowning achievements up to that point in my life was knocking a squirrel out of a tree with a rock. It fell off the branch, hit the ground, popped up without the slightest trace of embarassement, and ran right back up the tree. 

Throwing one object at another seems to be hardwired into boys. 

Most sports are built around this concept. I’ve thrown rocks at squirrels, poppers at passing cars, donuts at windshields, water balloons, snowballs, grapes at my tennis coach, queso dip at a girl named Sarah, darts, Frisbees, pencils at acoustic ceiling tiles, eggs at everything, pieces of firewood at streetlamps, bottles at road signs, coins, mud, and large insects.

Now that I think about it, I realize that a large portion of my life has been spent chucking the any projectile at hand at a target.

Don’t think that this stops when boys grow into men. 

I was teaching English to four classes of juniors and two classes of freshmen at David Lipscomb High School. Quite a few of my students sang in Concert Choir, Chorale, or the Freshmen Choir, and on one particular day most of my second class of freshmen were gone all day because they were singing at a choir festival on Lipscomb University’s campus.

I was twenty-three years old at the time and had zero education classes under my belt, but I was no dummy. I wasn’t about to teach that day’s lesson to half the class only to repeat the exercise the next day. What I didn’t know then but soon discovered was that I’m a better mentor than high school teacher anyway. I loved spending time with my students outside of class because that’s when real learning was most likely to happen. I jumped at any opportunity to escape those four white cinderblock walls with them.

Inevitably, when my students discovered a wrench in the gears of our normal routine, they would ask to go to Lipscomb University’s Student Center, which was a short walk across campus and sold all kinds of food and candy.

I had no reason to say no that spring day, so we strolled across campus. They scattered into the bookstore, Uncle Dave’s, and couches and chairs all over the lobby.

We hung out for a while talking and cutting up until it was time to shepherd them back for their next classes. We walked from the main lobby through the bookstore to a door on the side of the building, which lets out onto the lawn between the Student Center and Elam, one of the girl’s dorms.

For some reason, Anna was carrying around a tape ball, and when I saw Jennifer, a girl who had been in the youth group when I was the interim youth minister at Hillsboro Church of Christ, a sequence of synapses fired down an old path and all my boyishness was brought to bear on the situation at hand. 

[Enter slow motion.]

Jennifer and her friend Kayce were walking up the stairs to the side entrance of Elam.

I held out my palm to Anna, and said one word: “Ball.”

For whatever reason, she didn’t hesitate and dropped it into my hand without question.

I’m left-handed, so I switched hands, reared back, and hummed that tape ball straight at Jennifer.

Or so I thought.

Somehow, in the immediacy of the moment, my vision became skewed, and I missed a key element in the equation: another girl, a stranger to me, was walking up the stairs ahead of my friends.

Oh no.

As I mentioned before, I had at this point entered samurai consciousness, and the action was unfolding frame by frame.

The stranger stepped up onto the short covered walkway that led to the door. She must have seen movement with her peripheral vision because she turned to her right.

At that very moment, the tape ball made impact with her forehead, right between her eyes. This was perhaps the finest result that my otherwise average throwing arm has every produced.

She roared something like, “BRRroagggghh!” and bent over double. With her left hand still covering her face, she used her right hand to pick up the tape ball, which she then tossed over the railing with the sissy throw of a very angry and unathletic person.

“I’m so sorry!” I yelled. “It was an accident. I wasn’t aiming for you at all!”

She said nothing, just yanked open the door and disappeared inside. 

The door shut with a click.

Perfect silence.

Jennifer and I stared at each other. We both turned to look at the blank face of the door. I turned to my left and right and looked at my kids. They looked back at me. Their eyes were wide, but no one moved.

Then, we all started laughing, and continued to laugh for the next thirty seconds.

My boys unfroze and gave me high fives. With their jaws dropped, my girls said, “Mr. Church, that was terrible.”

Twenty yards away, Jennifer was wiping tears from her eyes. She threw the ball back to me, and I returned it to Anna.

“Do you know her?” I asked.

“No!” Jennifer said.

This precipitated another round of laughter.

“Well, if you ever see her again, tell her I’m sorry, will you?”

We said our good-byes then walked back over to the high school.

News of my latest goof as a young, inexperienced teacher circulated amongst my other classes. If anything, my students treated me with more respect. After all, my aim that day was awe-inspiring. Yes, I was a human being who sometimes exercised poor judgment but at least was willing to apologize for my lapses and missteps. 

The tape ball incident also helped cement my reputation as a teacher unafraid of throwing curveballs at my students. They couldn’t pigeonhole me as some curmudgeonly young fart without a funny bone in his body. Being consistently unpredictable can be the most effective form of classroom management. 

Teach with no regrets.

Moral: Everything you need to know about teaching you learned at recess in middle school.

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Allow me to make a recommendation.

If you are fifteen and snot locker drunk on the hormone cocktail that God designed to turn us into adults, I’d advise you to go bite your pillow or journal or take a walk rather than say this to your parents:

“You’re not my moral compass anymore.”

They won’t think it’s cute. They won’t respond to your newfound autonomy with pride, excitement, and encouragement. 

If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep such epiphanies to yourself.

During the train ride home the full implications of the day’s events began to sink in. 

Where was Hunter?

The day had started with a good jolt of adventure, eating a Käsekrainer and running through the streets of Vienna to catch our train. Once we had crossed the Hungarian border, Hunter realized he’d left both his Eurail pass and his passport on his dresser in the hotel. He’d told me to have fun for the both of us, so against my better judgment, I rented an inappropriate bathing suit and spent an hour or two exploring the amenities of the largest medicinal baths in Europe.

I’d eaten dinner by myself in a Chinese restaurant with plenty of time to catch a train back home to Vienna.

Now, as the train finally pulled into the Westbahnhof and I took the U-bahn from Reumannplatz to our familiar stop at Südtirolerplatz, I grew more and more anxious. 

I may as well have run I was walking so fast. I should have gotten off the train with him. What was I thinking? I was so shocked to see men with guns take him off the train that my thinking was sluggish. What he said had seemed like the best idea until the doors to the train closed in a rush of air. I had abandoned him.

I grabbed the first person I recognized and asked him if he’d Hunter.

“Sure, he’s upstairs in your room.”

I ran up the five flights of stairs and burst through the door.

He was sitting on his bed, looking calm as can be.

He looked up when he heard me and grinned.

“What happend?!!”

“Well, they kept me in some building for a couple of hours. I just journaled the whole time. It really wasn’t bad at all. Then, they put me on a train back to Vienna and gave me this letter.” He showed me the piece of paper, an official-looking document in Hungarian.

He continued: “You know how Anna who works at the front desk is Hungarian? Well, I got her to translate it for me.”

“What’d it say?”

“It said I’m not allowed to go back to Hungary.”

On one glorious day in the fall of 2002, I rented a speedo in Budapest while my best friend of sixteen years was deported and asked never to return.

We both laughed until we cried. 

Serious lapses in judgment become some of our best stories.