Somewhere in South Alabama—Waffle House is packed. Families in every booth, truckers on every stool. I have been riding the interstate all morning.

I find a seat at the counter. My waitress is young. She brings coffee before I even finish ordering it.

A man sits next to me. He smells like the outdoors, and it’s been a few decades since he last shaved. His clothes are torn. His shoes are mismatched—one is gray, the other is black.

I notice he is carrying a tent. It’s sitting beside his stool in a ratty cardboard box that reads: “Deluxe Two-Person Tent.”

He’s eating eggs and grits, moving his mouth, singing along with the music overhead.

Finally, he looks at me and smiles. He is missing teeth.

“Don’t mind me,” he says. “I’m just singing.” He starts humming again.

“Singing?” I say.

“Yeah, it helps me figure things out, and I got things to figure out, man.”

“What sorts of things?”

“That’s my personal business.”

Okay then.

This signifies the end of our


The waitress leans onto the bar and grins at him. He grins back.

“You doin’ okay?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says. “Just got a lot to figure out.”

“Maybe I can help,” she says.

“Aw, you don’t wanna hear my problems.”

“Well, maybe you wanna hear MY problems. I got a lot of’em.”

He flashes a toothy smile. It’s an old-man smile. It ought to be trademarked.

He says, “I would love to hear someone else’s problems for a change.”

There is egg yolk all over his beard. She wipes it off his whiskers with a wet rag.

Then, she tells him all about her life. She talks about how she just started working as a pizza delivery girl in the evenings to supplement her income.

She has two kids. Her…

My mother claims I never slept in a bed until I was three weeks old. I mostly slept in his arms. He would talk to me all night long in a whispered voice.

Alabama is playing Oklahoma University, and it is my birthday. And I am writing you.

As it happens, I was born during an Alabama game. Coach Bear Bryant’s final match. The Liberty Bowl was playing on the television in the corner of the delivery room the moment I drew breath.

The fighting Illini and the Crimson Tide were locked in heated battle. And by the third quarter, the doctor was holding me by the feet, swatting my white hindparts.

The score was 12 to 14. The University of Alabama was barely ahead.

They tell me that my father almost dropped me when Oliver Williams scored a touchdown for Illinois that nearly tied the game.

He was so upset that he removed his surgical cap, threw it on the ground, then shouted.

My mother says the first thing my infant ears heard was the voice of my father saying…

Well, use your imagination.

The truth is, my father hadn’t wanted kids when he was a younger

man. That’s what my mother told me.

He’d had such a lousy upbringing that he wasn’t going to have children. The details don’t matter, but his childhood was no cakewalk.

But, his best friend’s three little daughters changed his mind. My mother says he came home one night from a barbecue and announced, “I wanna have a baby.”

My mother answered, “Great. Let me know if you need any help.”

They tried, but nothing happened. My mother had a two miscarriages. The doc told her she was barren.

Then, one day my mother saw a greasy televangelist on TV who hollered:

“There’s someone out there who wants a baby, God hears you! Believe, and ye shall have a child!”

That’s all it took. My mother learned she was pregnant with me shortly thereafter, and the televangelist went down in history for being a…

So my purpose in life. I still don’t know what it is. But I can tell you my aspiration: to be nice.

You might not care about this, but fifteen years ago I didn’t know my purpose on this planet. Today, I’m middle-aged, and I can finally say I still don’t know—only, now I have a bad back.

This morning, I ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel, it should be noted, doesn’t have the greatest biscuits, but in a pinch they’ll keep you alive.

An old woman and her daughter sat at the table beside mine. The woman was in a wheelchair, with messy hair. And talkative.

“That man needs to shave!” she hollered.

Several people in the room giggled.

Cute, I was thinking, looking around the for an abominable snowman.

“He needs to SHAVE!” she shouted again, this time in my general direction.

“Mama,” gasped her daughter. “Be nice.”

I smiled at the old woman. And that’s when it hit me. This lady was yelling about me.

I am the Bigfoot.

And I became a middle-schooler again. It was like a bad dream, only without the corduroy pants and the Barry Manilow music.

The woman’s daughter apologized. But I told her it wasn’t necessary.

The old lady went

on, “Your face looks like a big, fat bear!”

Precious memories. How they linger.

Eventually, she calmed and I finished breakfast in peace. She, more or less, forgot about me—until I stood to leave. Then, she noticed me again.

Her old passions reignited.

“Go shave your dumb face!” she hollered.

The daughter whispered to me, “I’m SO sorry, my mother has no filter.”

I got into my truck and took a few breaths. I looked into the rearview mirror.

I don’t know what that woman might be going through. Maybe she’s not in control of her mind. Maybe she’s had a traumatic experience involving too much hair.

Either way, all I could see in my mirror was a chubby middle-schooler who looked like Cousin It. I saw a boy I’d almost forgotten.…


I can’t sleep. I am sixteen hundred miles from home (Alabama), and my grandmother isn’t doing well. I’m not mentally prepared for her to leave this earth. I’m having a hard time...

She and I are very close. If you could give me some comforting words, I would really appreciate it.

Thank you,


I wish I had words, but I don’t. Because nothing I could say would make things any better.

Sure, I could say, “You’re stronger than you think,” or something. But why should you believe a guy like me? I’m just an average Joe with crummy car insurance.


I DO have something special. And before I tell you what it is, you have to promise you won’t laugh.


No. I mean really promise.

All right.

I have a magic lamp.

Now, hold on. Before you shut off your phone, I’m serious. I bought a brass lamp at a flea market in New Orleans. When I saw it, I had to have it. It cost thirty-nine

bucks—you can’t put a price tag on genies.

Though, I haven’t used it yet. In fact, until just now I’d forgotten all about it. The thing has been in my garage.

Tonight, I’m going make a wish.

I know exactly what I’ll wish. I’m going to wish for everything go back to normal for you.

If you ask me—which you didn’t—there is nothing better than normalcy. Life has a way of screwing up normal, and it leaving everything abnormal and funky.

So if this magic lamp is the real deal, you and your granny are going to get plenty of normalcy back.

Also, I’m going to wish for the University of Alabama to win the Orange Bowl on my birthday, but whatever.

Growing up, my life was anything but normal. I…

The priest of this church was one of the first to EVER ask me to speak publicly. I’ll never forget it.

Dothan, Alabama—I am watching an Episcopalian choir sing. The music is good enough to bring a tear to a glass eye. One soprano has a voice so robust it makes the stained glass vibrate and the rafters shake.

The choir is singing in Latin. At least I think it’s Latin.

The Baptist churches of my childhood had choirs, but not like this. We did not sing in Latin. We sang in polyester and khakis.

Episcopalians are interesting birds. The “Piskies” do everything differently than the Evangelicals who raised me. They even have different terminology. I have trouble remembering all the definitions.

For example: a priest’s robe is a “cassock.” This comes from the ancient word, “cass,” which is literally translated: the American lead female singer from the Mamas and the Papas.

Some other explanations:

Those in the congregation are not “people,” but “laity.”

The area where the the laity sit is called the “nave.”

The short prayers between the priest and the laity are

called “suffrages.”

And the official title for the man who reads the scriptures aloud to the laity is: “Randy.”

After the singing, a woman takes the pulpit. She is middle-aged, wearing a cassock and surplice. She is not the priest of this parish, but a “curate.”

This curate’s name is Alice.

Like many Episcopalians, Alice was called into the ministry later in life. And this means she is, by default, a person with real life experience.

Lots of Episcopalian clergy enter the ministry later in life.

This is unlike the Evangelical ministers from my childhood. My friend Anderson, for instance, received a call into ministry around age three. He became church treasurer by age nine, associate pastor by age twelve, and he finally got his own Freewill Baptist church three weeks before he sprouted armpit hair.

Alice delivers a very brief sermon.…

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.

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 them.

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…

Hi. How have you been? I know it’s been a long time since my last letter. I just wanted to tell you that we had a good year. Maybe even one of our best.

I don’t know. How does anyone score their best or worst year?

Anyway, I don’t have time to tell you everything, but I’ll hit the highs and lows.

For starters: we lost our thirteen-year-old bloodhound this year. That was hard. In some ways, it was almost as hard as losing you—which I know must sound ridiculous. But it’s true. I never thought I’d recover.

But eventually, we did recover. We found a newborn pup who gnawed on our hearts. Imagine pure love wrapped up in floppy skin and saliva. That’s her.

We got a second dog, too, because we are clinically insane people who can’t be satisfied with simply one destructive animal.

And in other news: your daughter had her second child last week.

Lucy is her name. Lucy was five pounds and fourteen ounces. So

now you have two granddaughters. Something tells me you would’ve liked that.

Let’s see, what else?

This year, I met and interviewed Miss Betty Lynn—the ninety-four-year-old woman who played Thelma Lou on the Andy Griffith Show. She kissed me, then asked if things were serious between me and my wife.

That same day, I met the son of Floyd the Barber. And also, I met and interviewed a few others who actually KNEW Andy Griffith.

What a day that was. You were missed.

Also, I’ve been wood carving a lot this year. It’s been eons since I’ve whittled. But we are on the road so much, and it’s a good way to unwind at the end of a long day.

You were the one who showed me how to whittle. Do you remember that? You and I would…

It’s winter in Western North Carolina. The hills are white. A ‘58 Chevy Impala rolls across gravel roads. A young girl is driving.

She is fifteen, not old enough to have a license. Not old enough to do much of anything except make mistakes.

And that’s why she’s leaving.

When her mother discovered she was pregnant, they had a fight. Things got heated. In a moment of fury, her mother told her, “Get outta here and never come back!” So that’s what she did.

Earlier this very morning, before sunrise, the girl stole the Chevy. It was impulsive, irrational, juvenile, and pick an adjective. She didn’t pack a coat or a change of clothes. She just started driving.

The roads are steep, covered with ice. Driving is harder than she thought. A clutch and stick shift are difficult to master.

The weather is getting worse. She cannot see where the road ends and the ditches begin.
There is a shallow bridge ahead. A guardrail. Her tires

lose traction. It happens quickly.

The car plows down a hill. It falls nose first into a creek. The whole thing happens so slowly it is almost surreal.

When she awakes, she is trapped in a car that’s filled with icy water. She is pinned inside. And maybe it’s shock, or maybe it’s because of the cold, but she passes out.

A few minutes later, she opens her eyes. She realizes she is so cold she can hardly move. She screams, but nobody is around for miles.

“This is it,” she thinks to herself. “I am going to die in this car.”

The passenger door creaks open. She sees a man plunge into the water to retrieve her. He is wearing a brown wool coat, he has silver hair.

And in her moment of delirium, she misses her late father, a man who died…

All my life, I have been a child at Christmas. Asking a blessing is typically an honor that falls to a father, or a grandparent. I am neither.

Family is all around me. Children screaming. Adults laughing, telling the same worn-out stories they tell every year. A lit tree. Bing Crosby on a radio.

We are celebrating the holiday with extended family. We do this every year. It’s a way to commune together, eat lots of food, and to try to have a good a old-fashioned nervous breakdown.

My elderly aunt made me swear not to use real names if I wrote about these people, to protect the privacy of those implicated.

Of course, she is mainly concerned about my uncle—who we’ll call “Otis.” He worries her around the holidays.

Let’s just say that Otis loves a good party. In fact, he starts practicing for Christmas around early March.

Nobody will ever forget the Christmas he stood before an in-ground swimming pool, singing “YMCA,” then did a belly flop, only to find out the pool had been drained for winter.

This afternoon, my wife and I wandered through Aunt Bea’s door carrying casseroles. We were greeted

with hugs from white-haired women who smell like Estee Lauder and wear polyester blouses.

I brought gifts for the kids, a tradition in my family. Ever since childhood, for as far back as anyone remembers, uncles and aunts have been demonstrating affection for children by purchasing heartfelt gifts that were on clearance at TJ Maxx.

Last year, for instance, I bought my cousin’s kids some patriotic tableware, and gluten-free breadsticks from the dollar bin at Marshalls. They haven’t spoken to me since.

My aunt’s house is decorated to the hilt. In her kitchen, tables are weighted with more food than I’ve ever seen.

This brings back good memories. Memories of casseroles, backyard games of Red Rover, twinkling lights. And my uncle Bill, carrying me on his shoulders, parading me through the house, asking if I’d been a “good boy this year.”

“Yeah, I’ve…

I was going to write something else. I was going to write a story about my dog, or something about winter. But I’ve changed my mind.

That’s a writer’s prerogative. A writer changes his mind all the time.

Sometimes, for instance, he changes his mind at a restaurant, mid-salad.

But today, I wanted to tell you something important. And I’m not changing my mind about this.

I hope you have a merry Christmas.

That’s it. That’s the purpose of this column. In fact, that will probably be my final sentence when it’s all over. So, you can stop reading here if you’re pressed for time.

Still, because I have a few hundred words left, I am going stretch this out. After all, if writers didn’t expound on topics, all suspense novels would only have two pages, and go like this:

“There was a guy who turned up dead. Blah, blah, blah. It was Colonel Mustard in the parlor. The end.”

And who wants to read books like that?


let me tell you about a kid I once knew:

There was once a kid who wanted to write. Sometimes, it seemed like he was no good at it. But that’s where you came in. You told him he could do it.

You took different forms, but you’re more or less the same person. You’re kindness. Charity. Goodness. You are every nice person that kid ever met.

You are the man in Piggly Wiggly who returned the kid’s wallet. You didn’t have to do that, but you did.

And you’re the man in Montgomery, who bought the kid and his wife a tank of gas when their credit card was declined at the pump.

You were the person who befriended the kid. You didn’t try to “help” the kid. You just let him talk.

And, you were the…