This world is trying to break you. And I don’t care how much money advertisers spend to make you feel bad about you. It’s horse manure.

This is one exceptional girl. A senior. She makes good grades, she is lightning sharp, and kindhearted.

A little about her: she can throw a baseball, pick guitar, make jewelry, drive a stick shift, and sew her own clothes.

She is pretty, humble, studious, loyal. She has a future so bright she needs sunscreen.

And a few days ago, her parents checked her into a clinic for eating disorders.

I'm not at liberty to tell her story, so I'll stop here.

But I don’t mind telling you that I’m not happy about what’s happening to women.

I don't like what television is doing to them. And I don’t care for what fashion magazines, underwear ads, music producers, and Hollywood stylists are up to, either.

Turn on a TV. The commercials all shout the same message:

“You’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too hippy, too flat, too broad-faced, too big-nosed, too gray. Your complexion is bad, you have a turkey neck, ugly ankles, you need a facelift, your hindparts need augmentation.”

Also:

Your house is a wreck, your kids dress like chimney sweeps, your

old vacuum sucks, your husband is a minimum-wage loser, and your abs will never resemble the midsection of a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian gymnast.

So, I’m writing to the opposite sex. Every last girl, woman, and granny.

To Bobbi—who feels like the fattest, ugliest girl in her middle-school. Who gets made fun of.

To Catherine—whose husband of fifteen years left her for someone younger.

To Angelica—who’s been clinically depressed, struggling with self-esteem.

I’m writing Cassidy—the thirty-two-year-old with diabetes, who can’t seem to gain weight.

And to Michelle—single mother and nurse, who just had back surgery. Michelle is lying in bed while her sister takes care of her kids.

Katelyn—a girl once abused by her stepdad. Who can sing the yellow lines off a highway. Who's getting married this month.

To sixteen-year-old Mila, whose family migrated here…

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class. She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

She is older. Past retirement age. She stands in the Walmart checkout lane with a full cart. In her basket: Kleenex, paper towels, notebooks, number-two pencils, Scotch tape, staples. The works.

She teaches ninth grade. And she’s been doing this for thirty years.

That’s three decades of lesson plans, spitballs, my-Labrador-ate-my-homeworks, senior pranks, and pep-rallies. She is a living saint.

“When I was young,” she says. “Had this idea I was going to be a wonderful teacher and change the world.”

Her first year of teaching nearly killed her.

Ninth-graders are their own breed of domestic skunk. The children drained her youth and drove her toward a nervous breakdown.

“Almost gave up,” she says. “I actually wrote a letter of resignation after my first year. It was that bad.”

It was that bad. But she didn’t quit.

There was a girl in her class. The girl’s mother had died. She had no father. She was living with relatives.

The girl was quiet. Sad. She didn’t try in class.

She had no friends. She was a D-student, a poor reader, and a lost child.

“I knew she needed me. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna win this girl over if it’s the last thing I do.’”

She worked with the child after school hours. She ordered pizza delivery while they studied. She introduced the girl to the simple pleasures of Nancy Drew, and helped her with math homework.

She listened. Sometimes all she did was listen.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I’ll never change the world, but I can be a friend. I could show her I didn’t care about her grades as much as I cared about her.”

The girl’s grades improved. In fact, that year she made A’s in…

Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards. You’re young, pretty, healthy. You’re supposed to be happy. Instead, you’re a few dimes shy of homelessness.

You’re a single mother. Your name is Deidra. Your wallet has three bucks in it. You have an old Visa gift card with twelve dollars left on it.

Something bad happened today.

It wasn’t because of anything you did. It’s because you’re in your late-thirties, and teenagers can do your job cheaper. They cut your hours. Management’s way of firing you.

You reacted. You let your manager have it. You called him an awful name. You wish you could take it back.

You cry in your car. You wipe your face. Then cry again. You wait for your kids to exit the free daycare.

And here you are, sorting mail while you wait. Power bill. Water bill. Cellphone bill. Cable. Insurance. It never ends.

Your kids run toward you. There are kisses, hugs. You notice how tall your oldest is. Your nine-year-old colored a picture.

They talk loud and happy.

You're thinking about what’s inside your refrigerator for supper. A few slices of bologna, half a liter of Coke, old carrots, two eggs.

You

look in your purse. The gift card.

You drive to a pizza buffet. It’s six bucks for your oldest, four bucks for the youngest—not counting soda.

You slide your card and hold your breath.

Life isn’t supposed to be this way. You’re not supposed to skip suppers and feed your kids with gift cards.

You’re young, pretty, healthy. You’re supposed to be happy. Instead, you’re a few dimes shy of homelessness.

After the meal, you leave eighty-four cents for a tip. That’s all the loose change you have—you're saving your last three dollars.

You drive. Your gas gauge is on E.

You’re humiliated. That’s how poverty works. It embarrasses a person, until…

Thank you for the letter. We had a cat once. Her name was Rascal Lovebug Sassy Martin Dietrich. She had white and gray fur, green eyes, and the disposition of a cynical rattlesnake.

I’m reading a letter written by eight-year-old Bentley, from South Carolina. The letter is written with superb penmanship:

“My mom said to ask you if I can have a cat,” says Bentley. “...I’m nice to animals and they all like me… And my mom says they are work and please tell my mom I can have a cat!”

Bentley, thank you for the letter. We had a cat once. Her name was Rascal Lovebug Sassy Martin Dietrich. She had white and gray fur, green eyes, and the disposition of a cynical rattlesnake.

Long ago, my wife found her as a kitten on the side of the road. The thing was small enough to fit in someone’s palm.

Rascal took a long time to warm up to humans. In fact, she used to hide beneath our bed during the daylight hours like any normal, domestic vampire.

She'd hiss at those walking by and attempt to draw blood from anything entering her line of vision.

Finally, she'd traipse out of the bedroom around suppertime. Then, she'd sit on our dining

table and stare at our dinner plates.

I would feel sorry for her. So, I'd offer her food. She'd thumb her nose at it, prance into the bedroom, and relieve herself on my pillow.

So we can see cats are unpredictable. In fact, for a long time, I wondered whether Rascal liked me. I know she did.

She was not a bad cat. She was merely a unique creature.

Eventually, Rascal became my friend. She’d even watch football games with me. She’d sit on the sofa. When I’d scream at the TV, she’d whip her tail along with my hollering.

And, each morning when I'd write at my desk, she’d sleep on my lap, curled tight. I came to love that.

I loved it so much, I found it hard to write without her.

Rascal lived for twenty years. That’s a long…

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood, tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

Reeltown, Alabama—I don’t know how old he is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs at their vegetable stand. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it's hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood, tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

“I’m a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not

overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fire and lived without electricity.

When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep-South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty-stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he's helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know we loves’em,” he said. “Want my whole life to belong to people who just need to know someone loves’em.”

He’s shows me a wall of license plates. Rusted car tags…

I pass bumpy creek bridges—I have to slow down to drive across. There’s a crumbling red house—probably older than the late great Kathryn Tucker Windham.

It’s morning in Alabama. I’m driving. There is green everywhere. Live oaks that are old enough to predate the Stone Age.

Tin sheds. Peanut fields with perfect rows that run for miles in straight lines.

American flags are hanging from most mailboxes, horse trailers, workshops, treehouses, and semi-truck garages.

There are plenty of curves ahead, winding through the landscape. They will take you past Faith Chapel Church, Providence Primitive Baptist Church, New Chapel Baptist, First Assembly of God, United Methodist Church. And a heap of other three-room meeting houses with well-kept cemeteries.

There’s the Perry Antique Store—which used to be a gas station one hundred years ago. It sits on approximately thirteen million acres of flat earth.

Old men sit on its porch, chewing the fat. Watching traffic.

There are ancient mobile homes with brand new Fords parked out front.

There are brand new mobile homes with ancient Fords.

I pass red-dirt-road offshoots that lead to God-Knows-Where. Horses in front yards. Cattle in backyards.

Weathered brick chimneys, standing in empty fields.

Telephone poles with signs that read: “Elect Twinkle for governor, for a brighter Alabama.”

I pass small towns, small communities. Brantley. Pine Level. Elba.

Kinston is about as big as a minute, but they have a nice baseball field.

Baseball is serious business in Kinston.

“Now entering Geneva County.”

I pass bumpy creek bridges—I have to slow down to drive across. There’s a crumbling red house—probably older than the late great Kathryn Tucker Windham.

Bass boats sit by the highway with for-sale signs. Farm-implement graveyards stretch clear to China.

There is a man, burning trash in his front lawn. There are manmade bream ponds.

Dead corn fields. Overgrown yards with rusty swing sets and children's playhouses, with wood rot.

Rusty mailboxes with flags up. Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. Lowery Church of Christ. Grain silos.

Chicken farms. Cattle farms. Tree farms. Dirt farms.

The yellow line in the center of…

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

I played music and spoke to a room of white-haired women. It was a dark-lit bar, with decent onion rings and heavy burgers.

Ladies from all walks of life held glasses of beer and wine. A few had canes and walkers.

Eighty-two-year-old, Jo, approached me first. She wore a white blouse with houndstooth scarf. She asked if she could buy me a beer. I yes-ma’amed her.

“Don’t yes-ma’am me, boy,” she said. “I’m trying to hit on you. Ruins the excitement.”

We sat at the bar together. She lit a cigarette.

“Doctor says I shouldn’t smoke,” said Jo. “But I smoke two a day. One in the morning, one at night.”

Jo is an M-80 firecracker. She is from rural Alabama and she sounds like it. She is a writer, a poet, an artist, and a shameless flirt.

She told stories, of course.

Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.

By the time her cigarette was a stub, she was talking about her husband.

“I miss him so much,” she said. “He was a precious man, the best thing in my life. You look a little like he did.”

There was another woman. Ella.

She was eighty-nine. She asked if the band would play “Tennessee Waltz.” We played it at an easy tempo.

She slow-danced with her son. He was careful with her. When he dipped her, she was nineteen again.

Ella’s husband died when she was forty. She never remarried.

“Always had me a few boyfriends,” she said. “Seems like I went dancing almost every weekend. My sister would watch my kids, us girls would go out jukin’.”

So I’m doing a lot of thinking about Brian. I’ve never met him, and I have no idea how his daddy met his end. But I know this kid. In fact, I’ve lived with him all my life.

Whataburger is crowded with little boys in dusty baseball uniforms. The place is alive with laughing, happy voices, and cleats clicking on the floor.

They stand in line and pay with handfuls of sweaty cash.

When the herd gathers around tables, nobody is eating. Not yet. They are waiting for something.

One of the adults tells the boys to remove caps. Everyone bows heads.

“Dear Lord,” the man says. “Bless this food…”

All eyes close tight. All mouths clamp shut.

“And God,” he goes on. “Be with Brian and his family tomorrow, when they put his daddy to rest.”

One boy starts crying. The prayer stops.

The kid is becoming hysterical. A team-mother takes him outside. I can see them through a window. She lets him cry into her shirt.

Another boy follows outside. Then another. Soon, the team is huddled together on the sidewalk.

Brian.

So I’m doing a lot of thinking about Brian. I’ve never met him, and I have no idea how his

daddy met his end. But I know this kid.

In fact, I’ve lived with him all my life.

A little about him: he's a first baseman. He likes cowboy movies, he wants to learn guitar one day.

He likes biscuits and gravy—but only the kind his mama makes. He likes old and rusty things. He likes anything Ford. He has imagination, and sometimes this lands him in trouble.

He fishes, but isn’t very good at it. He climbs trees, but scares when he gets too high.

I also know that on the day after his father’s funeral, the kid will sit in his father’s work truck and talk to a ghost.

The truck smells like his daddy. There…

I don't know what's happening to the world. People are angry. TV personalities earn seven-digit incomes by getting peeved.

How I got invited to a corporate business convention isn’t the story here. But let's just say there are lots of people wearing nice suits and finishing sentences with: “Did I already give you a card?”

There is a guest speaker. He is famous. I don't care for him. His talent: complaining.

He complains about America, religion, the economy, pro-sports. About lukewarm fried eggs.

The people love him. They applaud after each purple-faced rant.

The woman next to me says, “Oh, I watch his show on TV all the time. Don't you just love him?”

I do not. If you ask me, he needs more fiber in his diet.

I leave the main event and make the long drive back home. The sun is setting. It is a stunning sky.

I don't know what's happening to the world. People are angry. TV personalities earn seven-digit incomes by getting peeved.

Well, maybe I am feeling particularly inspired by the guest speaker. Because I have a mind to make a list

of my own complaints.

My first complaint: sunsets.

Sunsets don't last long enough. They only give a few minutes of sky-painted glory, then it’s goodnight, Gracie.

I know. That's not a real complaint, but give me time, I'm new to this.

Complaint two: puppies. They grow up too fast. There is nothing half as marvelous as razor-sharp puppy teeth.

I'm also complaining that there aren't more barbecue joints.

I don't mean the fancy kind where waiters wear all-black and use iPads to email copies of your receipt. I'm talking concrete-block joints with ugly bathrooms, decent service, and food served in red plastic baskets.

Something else: I wish people gave more compliments for no reason.

Hardback hymnals. I’m…

“Mister Latham was what being an educator is all about,” said one coworker. “Shoot, he was what being a decent human is all about.”

Steve Latham died this morning. They tell me he slipped in the shower. His brother, Aubrey, was able to be with him during his final moments.

I still can't believe it.

Steve was a big man. He wore a Santa-Claus beard and had the jolly disposition back it up.

He was a writer. A teacher. A media specialist. A good man. And he liked Andy Griffith more than anyone I know.

We spoke a few days ago.

“Remember that one episode?” said Steve. “When Andy thinks about leaving town? And Barney tries to talk him out of it?”

Do I.

It’s a classic. Andy gets offered a job in Raleigh. He considers taking it. Barney tries to convince him to stay. It's TV magic.

“I truly understand how Andy felt,” Steve said. “Andy just wanted to start the next chapter of his life, that’s kinda how I feel.”

As it happens, Steve did just that. He retired earlier this year from the Shelby County school system. He

was going to start his own new chapter.

He was going to write.

“I've always been a writer,” Steve told me. “I just haven't taken the final leap to let myself BE a writer.”

He deserved that much. After thirty-two years of helping Shelby County’s youth achieve their dreams, it was Steve's turn to follow his.

I drove four hours to attend his retirement party. I stood in the high-school library with my shirt tucked in. A handful of his friends and family were there.

Folks told heartfelt stories. I watched Steve wipe his eyes when Patricia, Ann, Rose, and Aubrey took turns hugging his neck.

There were tears. Laughs. People took pictures with him.

One woman thanked him…