Jacob found his first dog after work one night. It was late. A stray black Lab was sniffing trash cans behind a restaurant.

Jacob was a foster child. He grew up in the Foster Pinball Machine. Birth to graduation. He was never adopted by a family.

He and I weren’t good friends, but we knew each other. I lost track of him at age fifteen. He moved away to a group home.

We got in touch a few years ago. I expected to learn he had a wife and kids, but that wasn't the case. Jacob has animals.

Six dogs, three cats.

I don’t think Jacob would mind me saying that he marches to the beat of his own tuba.

He’s had little choice. His childhood was spent bouncing from family to family, looking after himself, remembering to eat regularly.

Today, he leads a good life. He’s a restaurant cook, he likes to hike, camp, and he’s had the same girlfriend for ten years.

I asked about all his animals.

“I dunno,” he said. “Just love animals. Growing up, I was never allowed to have any.”

Jacob found his first dog

after work one night. It was late. A stray black Lab was sniffing trash cans behind a restaurant.

The dog bolted when it heard footsteps.

Jacob tried to coax it with food. The dog wasn’t interested. So, Jacob resorted to heavy artillery.

Raw ground beef.

He left an entire package on the pavement. The dog still wouldn't come. Jacob gave up and crawled into his car to leave. Before he wheeled away, he glanced in his rear mirror.

The dog was eating a pound of sirloin in one bite.

“Started feeding him every day,” Jacob said. “I just wanted him to know somebody cared.”

For two months, Jacob cared. He fed the dog from a distance seven nights…

There wasn’t much breeze. They tell me most of the dust fell like sand. But it was a beautiful ceremony, nonetheless.

She and her daughter visited the beach. She's up in age—walking through sand can be an ordeal. She carried a Foldger’s coffee can. The old metal kind people keep roofing nails in.

They walked toward the Gulf of Mexico and removed the lid. They scattered brownish powder into the water.

There wasn’t much breeze. They tell me most of the dust fell like sand. But it was a beautiful ceremony, nonetheless.

“My husband and I kinda grew up coming here,” said the old woman. “Before all the big condos and high-rises. His family had a place down that’a way.”

She was nineteen when she met him. After a few dates with the skinny boy, he invited her along on an annual family beach vacation.

The family stayed in a big camp-house cabin. They went fishing. They sat on swings, stayed up late, talked, watched the moon above the bay.

He was almost three years younger than her. He called her an old lady, it infuriated her.

They

made a nice family. Two girls, they adopted a son. They took walks after supper. They played cards. They traveled.

He inherited his family’s service station. He could fix anything with wheels. It was a lifelong obsession, tinkering beneath hoods. They weren’t rich, but in many ways they were.

A drunk driver killed him.

It was a twenty-year-old girl with friends in her car. Nobody knows what happened exactly. The theory is: he was doing sixty-five and the girl was doing ninety. She tried to pass him. He switched lanes to let her over. She was going too fast. Four people died.

It happened almost sixteen years ago, her wounds have turned into scars.

Ever since his funeral, he’s been sitting on her closet shelf, in a…

Look, most people are going to tell you to pick something safe. And I’m not qualified to contradict them. I have no letters behind my name. I am a writer myself, and I drive a sixteen-year-old Ford with a rusted tailgate.

DEAR SEAN:

In August I will be a senior in high school. I'm trying to choose colleges, and what to major in. I want to become a writer, but every time I tell people that, they always say choose something different, or they tell me how bad a journalism career is.

I'm on my school’s newspaper and I fell in love with writing. I'm stuck. Do I follow my passion and become a writer or do I pick something safe?

Sincerely,
THE LOST GIRL

DEAR LOST:

I almost wrote something else today, but your letter really struck a chord with me.

Look, most people are going to tell you to pick something safe. And I’m not qualified to contradict them. I have no letters behind my name. I am a writer myself, and I drive a sixteen-year-old Ford with a rusted tailgate.

Others may tell you that to be a deeply satisfied human being you must (1) be a professional success, and (2) have decent retirement options.

And maybe they’re right.

But this isn't how people like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Davy

Crockett, Buffalo Bill, Mark Twain, Betty Crocker, Andy Griffith, Mother Teresa, or Willie Nelson changed the world.

I’m no expert, but I think the problem might be: you have loudmouth for a heart.

Well, join the club, sister.

Your heart feels things. It knows things. And if your heart is anything like mine, it’s probably searching for something. Fulfillment might be a fitting word—but that makes me sound too much like a yoga instructor.

So I'll call it happiness, plain and simple.

Hearts aren’t stupid. They’re interested in this happiness deal. Also: love. Kindness. Loyalty. Giving money to homeless people. Good friends. Biscuits and gravy with hickory smoked Conecuh Quick Freeze sausage.

Your brain, however, thinks about things like: money, safety, and the dangers of saturated fat.

I won't lie to you, following your heart could ruin…

To him, she is more mother than sister. She raised him. She did all things mothers do: diaper changing, wiping hindparts, and she’s washed enough laundry to populate the county landfill.

She lives in a forty-foot single-wide trailer with her brother. She’s in her early thirties, but seems older. And wiser.

It’s a nice place. Decorated. Frilly curtains. Laundry hangs in the backyard. Photographs on the coffee table. A few scented candles.

Her younger brother is making a sandwich in the kitchen. He’s skinny, tattoos cover his arms. He walks into the living room.

He hugs her before leaving and says, “Love you, Sissy, I’m working late tonight.”

To him, she is more mother than sister. She raised him. She did all things mothers do: diaper changing, wiping hindparts, and she’s washed enough laundry to populate the county landfill.

Her mother died when she was nine. She and her brother lived with their grandfather in this single-wide.

“I remember when I was thirteen,” she says. “I realized it was up to ME to be a mom.”

On the wall is a photograph of her grandfather. She’s in the photo, too. She is young, blonde. She stands behind the old man—arms wrapped around his neck.

“Cancer,” she tells me. “He was seventy.”

He was diagnosed when she

was a sophomore. She cared for him during the last few years of his life.

On his final day, she drove him to the emergency room because he couldn’t catch his breath.

In a hospital bed, he told her, “I’m so sorry, baby. First your mama left you, now I’m leaving you.”

Those were his last lucid words.

But.

I’m not here to write something that makes you feel sorry for her. She's too exceptional of a person for pity. I’m writing about something else.

She met someone.

He is a fireman-paramedic. When they were first introduced, he asked her on a date. She refused.

“I’d never BEEN on a date,” she says. “I was so awkward and just so nervous that he would even ask me.”

He persisted. She gave in. He took her…

The first time he used serious medication for motion-sickness was on a cruise a few years ago. He went on the cruise for his wife.

The geniuses at the airline screwed up. They overbooked my plane. A woman with chopsticks in her hair approached me.

“Sir?” she said in a the-principal-will-see-you-now voice, “We overbooked your flight.”

I congratulated her.

Thus, she offered to compensate me and my wife:

We could either (a) stay in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for four hours, or (b) ride home with a herd of USDA registered scrub cattle on the next Norfolk Southern livestock car.

“Can we at least get food vouchers?” I countered.

“How about bottled waters?” she said.

These people don’t even try.

I had a seat. The elderly man next to me had dandelion-fuzz for hair. He laughed at me. I suppose he knew what I’m too young to know. Life doesn't give food vouchers.

He was talkative. He rolled up one of his shirtsleeves and showed me a medicated patch on his arm.

“It’s for motion-sickness,” he said. "I'm flying to Texas to see my kids."

He gets nausea so bad

he can’t ride in the backseat of a car without chanting Psalms. Because of this, he hasn’t boarded a plane since the sixties.

“I am deathly afraid of planes,” he explained. “I get sick anytime the floor moves.”

The first time he used serious medication for motion-sickness was on a cruise a few years ago. He went on the cruise for his wife.

Because for his entire marriage, he’d refused nautical activities—since nausea is its own kind of Purgatory.

The couple lived slow-paced lives. They hardly traveled. They raised two kids and led a quiet existence outside Atlanta.

Until her diagnosis.

It was bad. A mastectomy. Chemo. She wasted away. Treatment bought her little time. That's when something…

But when those fireworks go off tonight, I'll be watching. And thinking. Thinking about single mothers, mechanics, dental students, pain-pill addicts, homeless drunks, county prisoners, veteran amputees, immigrant students, preachers, burnt-out bartenders, football coaches, nurses, electricians, factory workers, janitors, writers. You.

DEAR SEAN:

The nation is going down the toilet, bro, and it is people like you (no offense) who are inadvertently doing more harm than good.

I don’t mean to be a hater, but Americans suck right now, dude. I know you mean well, but nothing's going to change if you keep writing little candy-coated vignettes and ignore our problems.

Thanks,
NOT FEELING VERY PATRIOTIC THIS YEAR BRO

DEAR UNPATRIOTIC:

A few candy-coated vignettes for you:

Meet Mary—single mother with three kids. Her husband shot himself with a hunting rifle after serving in Iraq.

She goes to baseball games, soccer games, piano recitals, 4H Club, Girl Scouts, and still finds time to make supper.

She works as a receptionist, and helps her brother-in-law landscape on weekends.

“Some days I don’t know if I’m gonna cry or scream,” she told me. “I keep telling myself, God’s gonna gimme strength.”

Here’s some more candy-coating:

John. Guitarist and singer. He’s played in small bars since high school. His father called John a “loser,” and “lazy.”

Not true.

John met a girl. A dental assistant, attending school to become a dentist. Her parents are

immigrants, she doesn't have much money.

They got married. John gave up music to work three jobs and fund her tuition.

“I spend my days on scaffolding,” said John. “Painting commercial buildings, and part-time with an electrician, man I’m hauling ass, but I love her.”

God bless love.

Another: I’ll call her Candy —that seems appropriate. She met a man. She was a hairdresser, he was military.

He got deployed. There was an incident. Now he has a prosthetic leg.

She had children with him. They’ve gone through hell.

Today, be stays at home, caring for kids, packing lunches, kissing scraped knees. She cuts hair.

“You wouldn’t believe our cool life,” says Candy. “Having kids has actually healed my husband's heart.”

Her oldest brought her husband to classroom career…