Sadness is in the atmosphere. Even if you were to turn off your television and unsubscribe to the paper, it would crawl through your shower drains and toilets.

Birmingham, Alabama—a minor league baseball game, a well-attended one. The chatty boy sitting next to me said his name was Martin. I remember this because he said it over and over again.

Martin had Down syndrome, he wore a hearing aid, and spoke loud enough to rupture my eardrums. “MY NAME'S MARTIN!” he pointed out again.

I must've shaken his hand ninety-seven times.

After the fourth inning, they put Martin's face on the jumbo screen. It was his birthday. Five thousand folks sang to him. I don't think I've ever seen a smile that big on a human-being before.

“I love you, Martin,” said his father beside him.

Martin was ten years old.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama—it costs a small fortune for a parking spot at football games. That is, if you're lucky enough to find one. We drove slow, looking for free space to cram the truck into. A middle-aged man in his yard flagged me down. I lowered my window.

“You can park here,” he said. “On my lawn.”

“How much?” I asked, waiting for a four-digit number.

“Free. I have

a golf-cart, too. I'll even give you a ride to the stadium.”

My wife leaned over to whisper, "Honey, he might be an axe murderer."

Maybe, but this axe murderer had a golf-cart.

I tried to pay the man for his trouble. He said, "Save your money for someone who needs it."

Chatanooga, Tennessee—I saw a girl spill a Frapuccino on her skirt. It went everywhere. She didn't cry about it—though she was close.

Without skipping a beat, the young lady behind the counter came to mop up the mess. She brought a change of clothes. “They're clean,” she said. “I haven't worn them yet.”

“I can't take your clothes," said the other girl.

“Sure you can. Besides, they'll look better on you. You're prettier than I am.”

Well. Pretty is as pretty does.

The older I get, the…

Truth told, I don't know why I count. What does it matter how close the storm is? It's coming for me just the same. There's nothing anyone can do about it. You can't run.

It's raining while I write this. Hard. You ought to see the clouds. They look like dark tidal waves. And in the middle of them, flashes of light, followed by low rumbles. If I close my eyes, the rain almost sounds like a stadium full of people.

This is the best time to sit on your porch. You can see the whole forest soak in a good drink of water. If you're lucky, you might even see a tree get hit by lightning.

Just be careful.

My daddy's friend got struck by lightning once. He was on a job-site. He felt his hair

stand up. So, he laid himself flat on the ground, spread-eagle.

He said it felt like a firecracker went off in his brain. The blast blew off his shoes, burned his scalp, and ruined his hearing. He was never the same. They say he used to be a quiet man who tucked in his shirt; afterward, he was a sloppy, chatty night-owl who liked to chew ice all the time.

He told folks lightning was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Even so, Daddy said whenever it started to rain, he'd…

Hell is a remote-control away, you can see it any time you want. Which is probably why folks think there's more hate out there than love.

New Orleans, Louisiana—I saw a homeless man playing guitar. His Labrador sat nearby. His singing voice sounded like a tin bucket scraping against concrete.

The man's cardboard tip-box was overflowing. Folks took turns throwing handfuls of money in, then they stroked the dog.

The man said he'd found the dog underneath a bridge, years earlier. When he found her, she was even skinnier than he was. He gave her all the food he had, and went to bed hungry.

“This is my girl,” the man said, patting the Labrador's ribcage. "I thank God for her every day. And she's my biggest money-maker. Without her, we wouldn't eat. People just love her.”

But not as much as he does.

Mobile, Alabama—inside Target, a woman's purse fell from her cart, she didn't know it. Without skipping a beat, a scruffy boy in a hoodie came behind her. He gathered the contents, then chased after her.

“Ma'am!” he said. “Your purse!”

You should've seen the look on her face.

And mine.

Pensacola, Florida—a parade downtown. I watched an old man struggle to keep up with his family. He moved slow with his walking stick, then fell knees-first on the sidewalk. The noise of…

"I didn't need another adult patronizing me, talking about kiddy things, like comic books, cowboys, or grizzly bears."

Right now, the sky looks like a blue bunch of nothingness. The same way it looked when I was twelve. Back then, I'd lay on top round bales of fescue, looking upward. If I held my head right, I could see all blue—even in the corners of my eyes.

It was enough to disorient you, and make you forget about solid ground.

Daddy died in September. A few days before he passed, I'd spent the day trying to catch crawfish in the creek. And it was during this mundane afternoon that I felt as happy as I've ever been. It took forty-eight hours for the whole world to go to hell.

Anyway, so there I was on a hay bale, looking at the sky, still in my funeral clothes. I wore Daddy's glasses—even though I had no eye trouble. I also wore his oversized sport coat.

My uncle found me laying there.

“What're you thinking about?” he asked.

I gave no response.

“Hey," he went on. "You wouldn't happen to like bears, would'ya?”

"No," I said, hoping he'd leave. I didn't need another adult patronizing me, talking about kiddy things, like comic books, cowboys, or grizzly bears.

He dug something…

Listen, I don't know where the world is going. To tell you the truth, just the prospect makes me sick to my stomach.

Birmingham, Alabama—in traffic, a busy intersection. I saw a man with a long wiry beard wander between the cars, holding a cardboard sign that read: “God bless you.”

The car ahead of me opened its passenger door. A young boy leapt out and handed the man a box of pizza. No sooner had he done so, than someone from another car gave the man bags of groceries. Then, someone gave him money. Then another person.

And another.

Soon, there were twenty hands poking out

of car windows. I wish you could've seen that fella's face.

Santa Rosa Beach, Florida—I got home from work to find my wife playing cards with a complete stranger. A sixteen-year-old girl, with dreadlocks, glittery-jeans, and a smile on her face.

“This is Taniqua,” said my wife. “Her car broke down, we're waiting for the tow truck. Wanna play five-card draw?”

I stood dumbfounded.

Of course…

Because the truth is, being human hurts like hell. That’s not exactly something people talk about during graduation ceremonies, but it’s true.

Kids, enjoy your life. God knows, you only get one crack at it, and then before you know it (snap), it's game over.

If you're like me, you'll get everything wrong. You'll follow the wrong career, wrong ideas, wrong people, lose money. Don't worry about it. Everyone gets it wrong. Mistakes are free. And chances are, if you haven't thrown a wrench into your own plans, your parents already did this for you several years ago.

Go buy an ice cream sandwich, have a good cry, and try to be happy.

Because the truth is, being human hurts like hell. That's not exactly something people talk about during

graduation ceremonies, but it's true. The moment you declare yourself an adult, you turn into a frightened coon—you might dodge the hunter a few times, but in the end, your tailsection becomes a hat.

Oh sure, I like inspirational speeches about success, fame, fortune, and how working hard pays off. Promises of how you'll be rolling around in piles of cash if you think successful thoughts and say some trademarked magic words.

Well, permit me to give you my opinion:

Chicken fertilizer.

Life is not about fame and fortune. Some folks crave…

I guess what I'm trying to say is: right now, the entire universe is only a few seconds away from bursting into applause.

I love the sun. Any time of day, but especially morning. I also like paper plates—the flimsy kind that aren't stiff enough to hold a spoonful of potato salad. And barbecues. I like conversations at barbecues. Folks hardly ever talk about work, or bills. But about kids, sports, and how crazy Uncle John is.

He's nuts.

I'm crazy about pencils, rickety screen doors, old folks, quiet folks, loud folks, zinnias, and mobile homes. I like the sound of wind blowing through the woods—like the earth exhaling.

And coffee.

I once spent an entire summer in Georgia with relatives who drank decaf. Worst summer of my life. I didn't have the

personality God gave a houseplant.

And, I like yellow. As a boy, I preferred blue. But someone told me blue was depressing. So, I tried to like yellow. After several years, I can't get enough of it.

I like George Jones, Steel Magnolias, Delta Burke, and stories told by people with white hair. Girls who wear hunting boots. And boys who say, "Yes ma'am," to girls their own age.

I like tiny churches.

I once knew a pastor of a microscopic Baptist congregation—a factory-worker by day. He wouldn't accept a…

Let me be frank, sometimes I don’t know what’s happened to the world. Each day it’s something worse. If it’s not a mosquito-borne disease killing babies, it’s a terrorist massacre in a public place.

I'll call him Bobby. He was a sheriff's deputy for a small area. Bobby stopped on the highway to help a young mother with a flat tire. While the woman's four-year-old watched Bobby loosen lug nuts, a car swerved toward them. Bobby's first instinct was to shove the child out of the way. He did.

After years of physical therapy, and handfuls of surgeries, Bobby uses a walker and drools while he eats.

He says, with labored speech, “I'd do it all over again. In a heartbeat.”

A heartbeat.

Here's another: in the supermarket parking lot, a teenage girl choked inside her car. By pure chance, two construction

workers pulled alongside the girl and noticed her in the front seat, red-faced. When they tried to open her car door, it was locked—the girl almost unconscious.

One of the men used a hammer to smash her window, dragged her out of the car, then performed the Heimlich.

Today, she's a real estate agent.

Outside Alexandria, Louisiana: two teenagers discovered a homeless man's camp one day while he was away. The next day, the kids delivered several wagons of canned food, pasta, rice, potatoes, snacks, and coffee. Enough provisions to last a…

I watched a woman’s credit card get denied. Her three children had already finished their suppers.

Once, I saw a middle-aged man stop four lanes of traffic, just outside Atlanta. He did it for a confused dog. The frightened thing stood in the center of the interstate, panting.

When the man loaded the dog into his car, he said, “This old fella's gonna be nineteen tomorrow. He gets mixed-up, but he's a good boy.”

He looked like a good boy, too.

Shreveport, Louisiana: at Waffle House. I watched a woman's credit card get denied. Her three children had already finished their suppers. The woman hung her head and actually offered to return later and wash dishes.

The cook stepped in. “Sweetie, supper is on me.”

Without hesitation, the man removed his wallet and paid for the meal himself. Fifteen minutes later, as if on cue, four truckers tipped that man four twenty-dollar bills.

Enterprise, Alabama: I saw a child climb too high in a tree. He froze when he got to the top. A slew of parents tried to talk him down. No dice. Finally, a teenage boy kicked off his shoes and scurried up like an acrobat.

“Get on my back,” said the teenager.

That teenager carried sixty pounds all the way to the bottom.…

Not that it matters what I think, but this world is a mess. Open your newspaper, turn on your television. Selfishness is for sale, and it's selling at clearance prices.

New Orleans, Louisiana: I once saw a teenage boy, lean as a two-by-four, tap-dancing on a sheet of cardboard. His brother beat a plastic bucket with drumsticks. The percussion got faster; so did the kid's feet. Before long, fifty spectators had gathered. The kid danced until he broke a sweat.

For his big finish, so help me, the kid did a backflip. I found myself applauding and carrying on.

When the boys finished, all they'd earned were seven dollars in tips. I know this because five dollars in that box came from me. The disappointed young dancer swallowed his pride and yelled to everyone, “God bless y'all!”

And he looked like he meant it, too.

Chipley, Florida. Piggly Wiggly. A young girl and her boyfriend stood ahead of me in line. Her, with a baby on her hip. Him, covered in sawdust. On the conveyor belt: basic groceries, baby food, diapers, and formula.

The skinny boy reached into his pocket to pay. When he did, the manager came over and whispered

into the young man's ear, then winked at him. The kid put his wallet away, and with sincerity he said, “God bless you, sir.”

They left with a full buggy.

Mobile, Alabama: my truck broke down. It was raining. And during the dark-ages, before cellphones, to be stranded meant exactly that.

Four Mexican construction workers on their lunch break approached me. One of them was a mechanic. He fixed my truck right there. I tried to pay him, he refused. He slammed my hood shut, shook my hand, and left me with a "God bless you, my friend." He said it in such a thick accent I almost missed it.

Not that it matters what I think, but this world is a mess. Open your newspaper, turn on your television. Selfishness is for sale, and it's selling at clearance prices.

But to those of you who tap dance; who…