New Year’s Eve always reminds me of an elderly man in town who everyone called Bug. He was bad to drink, but nobody ever called Bug a drunk. Our parents simply warned us not to light a match within two feet of old Bug.

Whenever you’d see him out and about, red-faced, he’d always be the happiest guy you ever met. His claim to fame was that he had already chosen his life’s last words so that when he was on his deathbed he wouldn’t say something stupid.

Almost everyone in beer joints between here and the county line tried to coax Bug to reveal these words. Some even offered to pay big bucks. But nobody could make Bug say it.

One New Year’s Day, after Bug had been out all night celebrating—and this is how I heard it—Bug started having chest pains. His wife drove him to the emergency room. They hooked him up to wires and tubes.

Bug was in the bed, moaning in pain, and when his final moment came, he motioned for

his wife to come close. He whispered his last words, which would become locally famous:

“They say you only live once, but believe me, it’s a great ‘once.’”

Thus satisfied with himself, Bug closed his eyes. They say he smiled. And a few moments later, doctors told Bug that he was only suffering from gas pains and he would be perfectly fine once he pooped.

Bug opened his eyes, cussed the doctor, and lived twenty more years.

I wish I had something clever to say like Bug. In fact, I’ve been thinking about what to write all night. But I just can’t find anything. Because I’ve never been good under pressure.

Do you remember when you were a kid and everyone would play highly pressurized backyard games like football, hide and seek, or Pin The Tail on the Redhead? Do you remember when the…

I’m staying in a little house with a funky smell. It’s not a “cottage” because that word implies cuteness. It’s not cute. It’s a modest house on East Haymore Street, borderlining on ugly.

Cheap carpet, old wood, vinyl siding, nothing fancy. And for the love of God, what is that funky smell?

In the den is a sofa with faded plaid upholstery. It looks like something my granny would have owned. Like something everyone’s grandmother owned, back when grannies still watched Billy Graham on black-and-white television sets the size of chifforobes.

The ceiling has water spots. The kitchen is dated. The appliances are ancient. Especially the stove. It’s a 1950s Hotpoint electric range.

And just when I don’t think this place could get any more hideous, I see across the street—not fifty feet from my bedroom window—the dang city water tower. Two hundred stories of municipal eyesore towering overhead like a monster.

My wife rented this ugly house for my birthday. You’re probably wondering why. I am too.

Maybe she did it because I’m a low-rent kind of

guy. Maybe because I come from modest people and I’m uncomfortable in fancy digs.

When I first started public speaking for a living, I once stayed in a notable hotel that gave new meaning to the word “swanky.” I was there to entertain members of a big organization that required me to sign privacy disclosure agreements beforehand.

The elaborate shindig was held in Alabama. I have no earthly clue why they hired a yahoo like me.

It was pure extravagance. You should have seen it. The event was catered by a barbecue joint from Kansas City. A private pilot had flown the steaming pork 700 miles south while it was still hot. And, by God, they had a party.

Southern dignitaries discussed their golf swings while sipping highballs made from liquor that was worth a working man’s salary.

The organization put me…

MOUNT AIRY—It’s chilly in North Carolina. But not too bad. A light jacket will do. I am walking downtown. Hands in my pockets. It’s my birthday weekend.

I remember seeing Jack Lalane’s 70th birthday special on television. I’ll never forget it. He dove into the water of Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed and shackled, and towed 70 boats containing 70 passengers for almost two miles from the Queen’s Way Bridge to the Queen Mary.

Jack was always doing strongman stunts for his birthday to demonstrate that health and fitness wasn’t just a hobby, but good for TV ratings.

Which is why this year for my birthday, I’ve decided to follow this healthful tradition by doing something similar. Something I can really be proud of.

Namely, I will eat a fried pork chop sandwich.

In many ways, fried pork is far more dangerous than what Jack Lalane did. Ask any cardiologist and they’ll agree. Sure, towing 70 boats for a couple miles through treacherous waters is fine if you’re trying to impress your grandmother. But batter-fried

pork chops? This is for men who look death in the eye.

The particular pork chop sandwich I’m talking about is world famous. It comes from a cafe called the Snappy Lunch in downtown Mount Airy. The Snappy Lunch has been around for almost a hundred years, the building has been here even longer.

The place is a small nondescript storefront eatery. A Coca-Cola sign hangs out front beside an old-fashioned tin awning. There are a few antique cars parked on the curb. The restaurant sits at the rear of North Main Street. There is always a crowd huddled by the front window, and a long line.

They tell me visitors gather here almost daily to watch the grill-cook fry the pork chops. These are mostly tourists who come from all over the U.S. to visit this well-known little township. And if you don’t already know…


All I want this year is for this girl in my third period class to go on a date with me, but she’s way out of my league.

Please help,


I’ll put this in the nicest way I can: If you’re asking me for advice, you are officially up the proverbial creek without a roll of toilet paper.

I am the last guy to ask. When I was fifteen, there was this girl named Chloe. I liked her. And I mean “liked” with a capital L. All I wanted was for Chloe to look longingly into my eyes and utter those few words every boy wants to here: “Let’s purchase real estate together.”

But I didn’t have a chance in twelve hells because I was—follow me closely here—an idiot. Certainly, I wanted to be the sort of guy who could approach a girl, but whenever I was in the same room with even one microgram of estrogen my IQ was reduced to that of a water-heater.

So I asked my older cousin Ed Lee

for advice. As it happened, Ed Lee had extensive experience with the opposite sex and had even talked to a girl once in first grade. His suggestion for getting Chloe’s attention was simple:

Let the air out of her mother’s tires.

My cousin’s actual idea was to slightly deflate Chloe’s mother’s tires. Then, when Chloe’s mother drove her to school, one of the tires would go flat. Once the tire flattened—I think you’re catching my drift here—my cousin and I would “happen to be cruising through the area” in my uncle’s 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon. And we would be heroes.

We would pull over, stride to their car triumphantly, tell the ladies not to be afraid, then like the mechanical-expert beefcakes we were, we would call AAA Roadside Assistance.

Or even better, WE WOULD CHANGE THE TIRE. It…

I’m going to say this now: I’m proud of you. That’s it. You can stop reading here if you want. I know you’re busy. So take the kids to karate class, scrub your bathroom mirror, schedule a dentist appointment, wash your dog, live your life. Just know that I’m proud of you.

The thing is, I don’t think we tell each other how special we are. I don’t think people get enough handshakes, back-pats, or five-dollar beer pitchers.

So I’m proud of you. For not giving up. For eating breakfast. I’m proud of you for remembering to breathe. Really.

I’m also proud of Billy. He emailed me. He’s forty-nine. He’s been working in construction all his life, and he couldn’t read until three years ago.

His friend gave him reading lessons every morning on the ride to work. And on weekends. They practiced on lunch breaks.

Billy started with elementary school books. This year he read the Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes Stories.

He reads aloud sometimes, during lunch break to the fellas. He said he’s been practiced reading the same stories so many times, he’s almost memorized


I’m proud of Leona, who had the courage to check into addiction rehab last week. She’s a young woman, and she needs someone to be proud of her. So I guess I’ll have to do.

I’m proud of her aunt, too—who is helping to raise Leona’s daughter with Down’s syndrome.

And Michael, who just asked Jessica to marry him yesterday—on Christmas morning. He squatted down onto one knee in front of seventeen family members, one woman, and her three children.

He gave Jessica and each of her children a ring.

He said, “Will you be my everything, forever and always?”

Jessica’s oldest—Brooke, age 11—got so excited she blurted an answer before anyone else.

“YESYESYESYES!” Brooke said.

I’m proud of Boyd, who got his first job as an electrician. And Lawrence, for…

It’s Christmas night, I am thumbing through some old college essays I wrote for English class long ago. Oh boy. These are truly god-awful.

When I first seriously began writing it was during my community college years. All eleven of them. My English teacher read one of my early papers and paid me a compliment by saying, “This paper is terrible.”


“This essay, it’s WAY too polished, Sean. There are NO mistakes in it. Where are the mistakes?”

“I don’t understand, ma’am.”

“I WANT you to make mistakes, Sean. I don’t want perfect papers, why would I want perfect papers?”

I was starting to think this woman had suffered a minor neurological event. A stroke perhaps. I expected to see Allen Funt walk from the back room with a TV crew and shout, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”

She went onto say, “Write how you talk, and don’t be afraid to be messy, make a lot of mistakes.”

So I rewrote my story for this woman. An essay which was supposed to be about childhood.

I wrote about my first bicycle. I was six or seven when I first attempted to ride a bike. My father’s idea of teaching me to ride a bicycle was:

1. Place me on a bike.
2. Drink beer.

Before he let go of my bike my father reminded me “DO NOT TURN LEFT!” Because we were on top of a hill. On the left was a valley that looked like the sloping descent of Mount Vesuvius. And of course, anyone who is familiar with situational comedy already knows what happened next.

I veered left. And instead of learning to ride a bike, I learned how to roll down 3700 feet of treacherous rocks and I lost forty teeth.

After that, I was big-time scared of bikes. Sometimes, I would even wake up late at night to check beneath my bed for bicycles.…

It is only seven hours until Christmas. I am buying a last-minute present for my wife. And apparently I am not alone.

There are males all over this store, crawling on top of each other like hungry grizzly bears. Some men grasp for last-minute gifts in such desperation that they don’t even know which items they’re carrying to the cashier.

I overhear a conversation between a man and his teenage son in the checkout lane:

SON: Dad, I think you grabbed the wrong box.

DAD: What do you mean? This is a robot vacuum for your mom.

SON: That’s a deep fryer.

DAD: Well I’ll be a [non-family-friendly word].

While I wait in line, I read a magazine article entitled “The War on Christmas.” The article is about whether it’s culturally correct to say “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy holidays.” And don’t even get the article started on “God bless you.”

As it happens, most of the article’s multicultural experts say that these holiday phrases are non-offensive just as long as you never say them, write them, read them, or think them.

Another expert

recommends using neutral alternative Christmas greetings in public such as, “Merry winter,” or, “Happy Solstice,” or “Here’s my wallet, ma’am, please don’t be offended.” So in other words,—and this is a classic example of today’s journalism—huh?

So I put the magazine down.

You should see the males in this store. They are going totally ape for gifts. There are hundreds of men elbowing each other, racing, panicking, and in some cases, biting.

An older man in my checkout line says, “This is madness, isn’t it?”

I smile at him and answer “Merry Solstice, sir.”

He frowns. “Merry what?”

He’s a nice guy. Tall. White hair. Slender. We have a conversation. He tells me his wife died six years ago. They were supposed to retire and do some intensive traveling in an RV. But ever since she died,…

I am at my sister’s house. Our families are having an early Christmas. Kids are running around barefoot. Music is playing. Family pictures are everywhere. Chocolates. Cookies. Meatballs. My mother roasted some some nuts. My wife cooked fifty pounds of egg casserole.

I see an old picture of myself on a side table. I am maybe four years old in the photo. God, I looked like a little goober. Thankfully, I am all grown up now and have blossomed into a much bigger goober.

On my sister’s Christmas tree hangs a homemade ornament. I made this ornament when I was in preschool. My mother sees me looking at it. She smiles because she is happy to have her family in one place today.

She says, “My cup runneth over.”

Which is a cheesy phrase I never really understood. When someone says this, it means they’re supposedly happy. But if my cup were runnething all over the place, I’d tell the bartender to bring me a new one.

I remember the first Christmas after my

father died when I was a child. There were no overflowing cups. Nobody felt like celebrating. Still, somehow my mother managed to put up a tree.

This felt pointless. Why? That was my main question. Who gave a rip about Christmas when we weren’t sure what was going to happen to our family? My father had just removed himself from the world. We were a local charity case.

Don’t get me wrong, people are very nice when you go through something bad. But people can only be so nice without getting weird. After a while, you’re tired of weird people.

All you want is for everything to go back to the way it was. You want your dead father to burst through the door and say, “Surprise! I’m alive! It was all a joke!”

But getting back to my story. On this particular Christmas, my mother…

About twenty years ago, Luís wanted a miracle at Christmas. He wanted Jessica to fall in love with him. The only problem was, in Luís’s own words:

“I was a big dork.”

Hey, it happens to the best of us. Many of us spend half our lives being dorks. Though Luís believes he was a dork simply because when it came to ideas for winning Jessica he had none.

Luís was Jessica’s friend. They weren’t close, but they were casual pals. Sometimes he would give her rides home after work. He took her out to the movies occasionally, but that was pretty much it.

“Somehow,” says Luís, “I felt like I had become her brother. I was stuck in the friend zone.”

This is not uncommon for people whose DNA comes from Dorkish descent. Luís was experiencing what many of us dorks have suffered before. Namely, Luís wanted Jessica to see him the way many women might see George Clooney or Leonardo DiCaprio. Instead, she viewed him as Norm from “Cheers.”

But everyone has to start somewhere. So that’s what Luís did. He developed a plan.

This romantic plan was called “Operation Woo Her.”

Luís’s thinking was: “Hey, if I’m gonna ask Jessica to be my girlfriend, I’m gonna go all out. If I fail, I’m failing BIG TIME.”

It was a plan of dork-like proportions, a little juvenile, very off-the-wall, but romantic nonetheless. Here was his plan:

Late one night, Luís would arrive on Jessica’s lawn with a mariachi band. He would sing a Spanish song until either his lungs popped or Jessica agreed to bear his children. I asked Luís where he got this level headed idea.

“My mom is Mexican,” he said.

Luís goes on, “All the leading guys on her Mexican soap operas sing to girls outside their windows, and it always works on TV.”


The only problem was—and this was just a minor issue—Luís…

Winter. The year is 1949. The war has been over for a while, but it’s still fresh on everyone’s minds. Which is why people are having babies like crazy. War does that to people.

This new generation of babies will be known as the Baby Boomers, and each day they are being born by the truckload. These children will grow up one day and change the world by inventing revolutionary things such as DNA fingerprinting, the World Wide Web, the portable dialysis machine, and Donny Osmond.

But not all babies are lucky enough to be born into good lives. By which I mean that some babies have fathers who don’t want them. One woman—I will call her Macy—was pregnant with a baby like that.

So Macy’s mother did what lots of small-town mothers did in those days, she sent Macy away. Macy was supposed to go live with her aunt in Illinois, but it didn’t work out. So Macy tried Kansas City. That didn’t work either. And this brings us to the

beginning of our story.

Macy was alone. And penniless. Without a friend in the world. If we were to describe her situation with the blunt terms that my grandfather might have used: “Macy didn’t have a pot to [ugly word] in, or a [ugly word] window to throw it out of.”

She used her last few bucks to buy a bus ticket to Omaha, because she believed that this was a place where she could make a better life. Maybe nobody would ask questions about illegitimate babies in Omaha. Maybe nobody would bat an eye if she told them she was a widow.

So her bus was purring along when some very crummy weather hit. The weather went from snowstorm to deathstorm in only a few hours. History would later remember this weather system as one of the century’s worst blizzards to hit the Plains.

The bus rolled…