It’s for the kids, really. Carol does it all for the kids. The American-flag decorations, the cookouts, the fireworks, and the patriotic bunting in the backyard. It’s all for them.

It’s going to be an interesting holiday. Normally, Carol’s family throws a shindig for the Fourth. But not this year.

Carol comes from a German family. Her great-grandparents came to the U.S. by boat. So all the ancient ways go unremembered. Carol’s grandkids, for instance, actually eat ketchup on their hotdogs.

My grandfather would roll in his grave.

The Fourth has always been the holiday when Carol’s family would visit. A big reunion. They would tell their children about the old days, and about baling hay on a Georgia farmstead. Kids love these stories.

But today there will be only three people at Carol’s house. One husband. An adult daughter. One grandchild.

There are summer disappointments like this happening all over the nation. Coronavirus is spreading faster than pee in a public pool, and everyone’s Fourth is affected.

In Ohio, Upper Arlington’s parade is marching a longer route so people can space themselves

several miles apart. Let us pray for the tuba players.

In Texas, Willie Nelson will throw his annual picnic concert—sort of. It will be a digitized virtual concert.

In Albuquerque, fireworks will be launched from four spots throughout the city so people can watch from the safety of porches.

And Carol’s family of four will eat hotdogs and potato salad in their backyard.

“The fireworks,” says Carol. “That’s all my grandkids are worried about. This virus doesn’t scare them, these kids want fireworks.”

Who doesn’t?

There will be a display downtown that people can watch from their cars. Carol will take the grandkids. They will eat ice cream in the front seat and watch the sky light up like… Well. The Fourth of July.

It’s a strange time to be alive. From Maine to California beaches are…

Yesterday I met an elderly man in the supermarket parking lot. He was loading his car, I was loading mine. He wore a surgical mask. So did I.

Beneath his mask all I could see were his bushy, white eyebrows, with stray hairs that grew 8 feet long and curled sideways like little corkscrews from hell.

Do me a favor. When I get old, if my eyebrows look like this, tie me down and take the horse clippers to me.

Anyway, my new elderly friend was very nice. He was telling me about his childhood during the 1940s. The Great Depression had just ended in the U.S. But not entirely. You don’t just snap your fingers and say, “Depression’s over!”

His family lived in mountains of North Alabama. They were poor. They used outhouses. He and his brother hauled drinking water from the creek because they couldn’ t pay their water bill. And life kept getting worse.

His mother got sick. His baby brother died. His father left for California to find work and never

came back. These were not hard times. These were horrible times.

“Listen,” the old man said, “after growing up the way I did, I figured out the trick to finding happiness. Care to guess what it is?”

No. I didn’t. Because my carton of ice cream was about to melt.

He went on, “The only way to be happy is to be unhappy.”

I had to rub my chin for a second before making a profound and thoughtful remark: “Do what?”

The old man told me that the Great Depression made him a happy man. Not at first. But when it was over, it was pure euphoria. Good jobs were suddenly available, money was better, the War had finally ended. Everyone kissed the ground and thanked the sky.

“You can’t appreciate spaghetti and meatballs until you’ve had to live on ketchup soup,” he said.

I…

COLUMBUS—I must be crazy. I am riding a bike through this Georgia town, following my wife, who is riding her bicycle with no hands.

The weather is perfect today. Birds litter the live oaks that line the cobblestone streets. The Chattahoochee River is roaring in the distance. And my wife has lost her mind.

We came to Columbus to buy two second-hand bikes that my wife found in the classified ads. They are nice bikes. The thing is, I don’t even know if I remember how to ride a bike.

I gave up riding bikes in the sixth grade. I remember the day clearly.

Robert Danielson dared me to ride no-handed. I did it for five seconds. Then I fell onto the pavement face first. My mother said it was the most expensive dental bill she ever saw.

“Slow down!” I shout to my wife.

“WHEEEEEEE!” my wife says. Then my wife removes her hands from the handlebars again.

“Stop that!”

But she can’t hear me. She is carefree, pedalling, punching the air, singing the theme

song from the movie “Rocky.”

I should not be here. I am not a fan of the bicycle. If God had wanted man to ride bikes he wouldn’t have made biking shorts look so dumb.

Still, I am a big fan of the classified ads. You can buy a lot of nice things in the classified section. And in my family, we bought used things from the newspaper all the time. Most everything we ever owned was fourth-hand stuff.

I was brought up by a man who read the classifieds like some men follow the stock market. My cradle was lined with the “Thrifty Nickel” newspapers.

My father was always looking for a deal. He believed that the newspaper was the best place to buy cars, lawnmowers, radial saws, Christmas decor, wedding anniversary gifts, etc.

The thing is, buying used stuff always requires something…

I got a letter from a man named Mark. Mark is 78 and lives alone with his Chihuahua, Boo Boo, who has a very active bladder.

“I’m always taking Boo Boo outside,” says Mark. “Even at three in the morning, I don’t want him going on my rug.”

Mark has been stuck indoors since the COVID-19 outbreak. His life is a good one.

He gets his groceries delivered. He has a guy cut the lawn once per week. But he feels pretty depressed lately, being stuck in his den. He was so sad that he wrote to me.

Here’s what’s on his mind:

“When I was young,” says Mark, “I always wanted to see Europe, with a backpack, and just live my life, but I never did it, I guess it’s too late now. Isn’t that silly?”

Silly? No. In fact, I got to thinking about all the bucket-list things that I have wanted to do but probably never will. Such as rope a steer, win the lottery, or figure out how to make beer.

Also,

I have always wanted to hang glide. One time, I actually got a chance to hang glide with a professional. He gave me a call one morning and asked if I wanted to come. Free of charge. I told him I was busy.

I realized a valuable lesson that day; I do not want to leap off a cliff.

Although I did go bungee jumping once. I do not recommend it. The reason this happened was: My wife called me a wuss in public.

My wife was only taunting me. I am a cautious guy who has a hard time paying a hundred bucks at an amusement park to throw himself off a building. Which is basically what bungee jumping is.

“I am not a wuss,” I insisted.

“Are too,” she said.

The next thing I knew, a few teenage experts were leading me…

I walk a lot. When my neighbors see me on the road they recognize me and my dog. I’m a hard guy to miss. I’ve been trotting these roads for a few decades. People usually honk, or wave, or hurl steel objects out the windows.

I have been walking a lot in the past four months of quarantines since there isn’t much else to do besides eat.

My favorite time of day for walking has always been night. You sweat less. You can think more clearly. And you have no idea how immense the night sky is until you try to take the whole thing in at once.

I started this walking business after my father died. I was a chubby boy, and I was only getting chubbier. Lots of people feed you when someone in your family dies. And they just never quit. You can gain a lot of weight going to funerals.

Pretty soon I was eating homemade biscuits like they were gummy bears. And don’t get me started

on Mounds. Sweet God. There are support groups for people who like Mounds the way I did.

Above all, I was a big fan of cheese. Cheese is a lot more magical than some give it credit. There are thousands of different kinds, not just the varieties you see in the supermarket. People in European countries, for instance, name their children after cheese. Lutherans in Wisconsin, I understand, actually thank God for cheese as part of the Lord’s Prayer.

Anyway, when I was a boy, the longest duration I had ever walked was nine minutes. I know this because right before my father died I was in P.E. class and the teacher told us to walk around the gymnasium so he could time us.

I don’t know why he had us do this. Physical education class was supposed to be about dodgeball, climbing ropes, and snapping towels in the…

When Megan met Robert she was not a senior citizen. That’s the main thing she wants you to understand here.

“Don’t call me an old lady in your story,” she tells me over the phone.

So yes, she was older. Yes, she had AARP. Certainly, she can still remember what life was like when Elvis starred in “Blue Hawaii” and people still called it “oleo.” But she was not a senior citizen when she met Robert.

She was white-haired, she lived by herself, and she was lonely. And nobody tells you how bad loneliness can hurt.

Ideally, you are born into a non-lonely world. You get a mom, a dad, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, a cat, a dog, a goldfish. You grow up around lots of people. Your sister is always braiding your hair. Your brother is always placing toads into your chest of drawers. Dad is always complaining about not leaving the lights on in the other room. Mom is always there to kiss your boo-boos.

Then comes the loneliness. It happens later in life.

And it happens gradually. You make a lot of decisions that end up leading you there.

You move away from home. You don’t talk to your family much anymore because your sister lives in California. Your parents pass away. You get married, but it doesn’t last. Soon you are living in an apartment. Alone.

And years go by.

So that’s how it happened. Megan was alone. It wasn’t misery per se. Her routine was a normal one. She worked at a library, which kept her pretty busy. She went to church, she made lots of casseroles, she volunteered. But something was missing.

“It’s discouraging being alone,” Megan tells me. “You never have anything to get excited about, ‘cause it’s just you.”

Years turned into decades. Decades turned into more decades. Her most loyal friend was “Wheel of Fortune” and her cat, George.

One day,…

We are all wearing masks in the supermarket. Sometimes I’m not sure I’ll ever get use to this.

We, the masked people in the grocery store, behave a lot differently than normal shoppers used to. For example: Nobody is touching stuff on the shelves.

Remember when you used to go shopping and everyone would touch stuff? Yeah. Me too. It’s just what we did.

Young mothers would push buggies with their bare hands and inspect each label while Junior gummed up a wrapped Snickers bar.

But that doesn’t happen anymore.

I see a young woman pushing a cart. She is wearing latex gloves and a colorful mask. She is not inspecting labels, she is rushing through the store as though something is chasing her. Everyone is doing this. I don’t blame them. Nobody wants to be here.

Ever since this coronavirus hit, my wife and I have been flipping a coin to see who goes to the grocery store. If it’s heads, I go to the store. If it’s tails, we flip again.

And I’m still not used to

wearing my mask. I feel like an idiot. I wear an N95 drywall mask I used back when I used to hang sheetrock. I used to wear a mask like this all day. I didn’t mind it back then because the only other choice was a respirator with HEPA filters. Those big masks look like you’re wearing a Playtex 18-hour support bra on your face.

I remember lunch breaks when I would go out into the fresh air, rip off that drywall mask, and pull in one giant breath. It was pure rapture. You can’t imagine how good it felt to take a cleansing breath when you’d been wearing a glorified kneepad over your mouth all day.

What am I saying? Of course you can imagine what it feels like. You’re probably wearing one right now.

I know I am.

It’s…

I have here a letter from Keisha, in Port Charlotte, Florida. Keisha is 14 years old, and very worried about Florida’s recent spike in coronavirus cases. Keisha says she’s nearly sick about it.

Florida’s numbers are through the roof. She says she got so concerned that she just had to write me. Which only shows you how badly her judgement has been impaired.

Keisha, while I write this, I hear ambulance sirens are whining down the street. And I am thinking about my mother because sirens used to make her VERY worried. She hates sirens. When she hears them she calls everyone she knows to make sure they’re okay.

My wife worries about sirens worse than my mother. And my mother-in-law takes the cake. When my mother-in-law hears an ambulance, she calls the hospitals and local funeral homes.

These women have become so worrisome that whenever I hear sirens in the distance, no matter where I am, I wait for my phone to ring. And it always does.

“Are you okay?” the voice on the other end of the line

says.

“I’m fine,” I’ll answer.

“I heard an ambulance.”

“I’m fine.”

“I almost called the emergency room.”

I should admit right away that I am a worrier, too. I’m not proud of this, but you can’t change who you are. There are some traits you inherit. And I have inherited the ability to watch the ten o’clock news and have a panic attack.

Throughout my life, I have worried about the stupidest things because it’s in my nature. I worry, for example, that this little bite on my leg is actually a brown recluse bite. I worry about my transmission. I worry about poison ivy.

I have lost sleep over poison ivy. In fact, I don’t even want to be writing these sentences because I am deathly allergic to the stuff.

A few years ago, I was at a friend’s…

Today I am taking my dog for a walk on a remote trail. We jump out of the truck. I turn him loose.

At home I have two dogs, but I only brought one with me. This is Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador), who I can let off leash. He won’t go far.

My other dog is a bloodhound. She is not with me because if you let her off leash she will find a way to make national news.

Otis bounds along the trail, I see his black and white body turn into a streak. He runs far from me so that I am meandering alone.

So much for man’s best friend.

On the trail I meet an old woman in a sunhat, wearing a surgical mask. She is out here watching for birds. Today, she has seen red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, mockingbirds, and starlings. And she swears that she has even seen an oriole. I have never seen an oriole before except at Major League Baseball parks.

“Birds have meaning,” she says in

a low voice. “They represent spiritual, universally cosmic truths, about life and death.”

“Would you look at the time?” I say, cheerfully hiking forward. “Have a great day!”

I love birds. I don’t know much about them, but I’m a fan. Probably because they can fly. Then again, I come from country people who were always attaching meanings to birds. A notion I’ve always thought was farfetched.

My mother, for example, used to sit on our porch and watch the pond behind our little house, talking to God. If a certain species of bird showed up on the water, this was a good omen. Likewise, if my Uncle John showed up in his RV, looking for a place to crash for the month, this was a bad omen.

I can hear people talking ahead of me on the trail, laughing. I hear my dog’s collar jingling.…

Remember back in church when they used to tell us to pray for the shut-ins? Well, that’s exactly what I’ve become. A shut-in.

A lot of people have become that way since this coronavirus thing started, millions have been stuck inside. And it’s the little things we’ve lost that hurt the most. Things like baseball.

I could have endured this quarantine if I would have had baseball. But it’s the fourth official day of summer and baseball is still in limbo. Summer without baseball isn’t summer.

We lost more than just baseball. We lost eating at restaurants where waiters don’t dress like masked ninjas. We lost the pleasure of meandering in the grocery store without feeling like you’re racing toward the last chopper out of Saigon.

Yesterday, I saw my neighbor in Publix, wearing a surgical mask. I waved at him, but he didn’t see me. He was busy sprinting for the door while disinfecting his hands with isopropyl alcohol.

Right now, my wife and I are on a leisurely drive because I had to get out

of the house. Nobody tells you how hard it is to be stuck indoors. If I would have known how difficult it was, I would have prayed harder for the shut-ins.

So we’re riding dirt roads. Hank Williams plays on our radio. I don’t know what we’re looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it.

And there it is.

A painted sign on a red-clay road that reads: “tomatoes.” I feel a thrill beneath my ribs. I haven’t felt this good in 109 days. Our vehicle splashes through mud puddles. Hank Williams sings another chorus of “Dear John.”

After a few hours of following cow paths through a Floridian wilderness, passing trailer homes, swamps, creeks, and horse pastures, we find it. A vegetable shack in the distance, tucked among live oaks and magnolias.

An old man with a white beard is…