Once, in a beer joint outside Mobile, Alabama, I was watching the 2013 Iron Bowl. The Tigers whooped the Righteous Tide during the remaining thirty-two seconds of the game.

Fairhope, Alabama—I am with a thousand Episcopalians in the woods at Camp Beckwith. For the entire weekend, I have been wishing someone would eventually say to me:

“The Lord be with you.”

Then, I would answer with a quick: “And also with you.”

Because I’ve always wanted to say this. This is what Piskies say to each other, before they give each other a secret handshake and discuss world domination.

But alas, nobody has said this to me since I’ve been here. And don’t it turn my brown eyes blue.

Anyway, this morning is warm. Beckwith sits on Weeks Bay, surrounded by longleaf pines, magnolias, and mosquitoes who commit immoral acts upon your skin. It’s perfect.

I am here for a weekend of festivities. I am staying in a cabin next door to a bishop.

I had to call my mother to tell her this.

“Oh my word!” said Mama. “A REAL bishop?!”

I come from deepwater Baptists. The only bishops we have ever seen are the sort on chess boards.

At last year’s camp excursion, for instance, I slept in this same cabin, next to this same bishop. I told a friend back home about it. Word spread around town.

After church one Sunday, an elderly man shook my hand and said, “So, tell me what it was like sleeping next to the Pope.”

“He’s not the Pope,” I said.

“Did he have a bulletproof limousine?”

“No, he was a bishop, and he’s just a regular guy.”

“How about a pointy hat? Did he have one of those?”


Anyway, daybreak is approaching. The sun peeks above the tree line. And all at once, the camp is alive.

Laughter. That’s the main event here. At least that’s what one woman tells me. She’s from Magnolia Springs. She is walking to the mess hall for breakfast with…

Right now, I’m writing from a hotel room. I’ve had a busy day. I’ve driven far. I've talked with people.

Colatta is her name. She and I are in the elevator together. She is pushing a large cart of cleaning supplies and mini shampoos.

Colatta is short, cheery. She’s wearing scrubs. She is pure Alabama. She has an accent that won’t quit, and wears a War Eagle headband.

“Went to Auburn,” she says. “Wanted to be a vet, but didn’t even come close to finishing ‘cause I had my son.

"Man, I thought my life was over, it was just beginning.”

Her boyfriend didn’t stick around during pregnancy. She was forced to work. Her job was in a hotel laundromat. She was promoted to a maid last year.

“Have a good day,” she says to me, rolling her cart down a corridor.

“You, too,” I say.

“Me?” She laughs. “Already HAVING me a good day. I’m so blessed it ain’t funny.”

Colatta. I love that name.

Later that day, I drive two hours east. I stop at a cafe inside a gas station. It’s a hole-in-the-wall.

After eating, I pay at the register. The cashier is older, very skinny. She places a handheld vibrating box to

her throat to speak. Her voice is robotic.

She hands me a receipt. Then, she presses the device to her neck again and says: “Have a good day. Enjoy this nice weather.”

There is a gnarled scar beneath her jaw.

And she's wishing ME a nice day.

7:09 P.M.—I’ve driven all day. I’m eating in a locals-only beer joint. People in this room are looking at me funny. I’m an out-of-towner and they smell it.

There’s an old man with a service dog—a brown Lab named Hershey.

The man wears a ball cap with a battleship on it. He shows me a tattoo on his forearm which reads: “Albert, Daniel, Adam.”

“My three brothers,” he says. “Killed in Europe. I was too young for the Big War, they sent me to Korea.”

That’s all…

This is Mosley High School. I have friends who graduated from Mosley. I am wearing a sport coat. My hair is combed. I have a breath mint in my mouth.

Lynn Haven, Florida—I’m about as close to home as I can get. Right now, I’m about to walk onto a stage and tell stories to a small auditorium.

This is Mosley High School. I have friends who graduated from Mosley. I am wearing a sport coat. My hair is combed. I have a breath mint in my mouth.

The reason I am here tonight is because…

Well, I don’t truly know why. I guess I’m here because there’s no place like home.

This town is practically in my backyard. Long ago, we used to come to Panama City to do grocery shopping, or for summer jobs. And, when I was a young man, any buck who was worth his salt would take his date to Panama City for dinner and a movie.

I live in the adjacent county, Walton County. And—it’s important that you know this—I live in a trailer. Just like my mother does. Just like a lot of people in our part of the world do.

The reason I tell you that is because I owe it to you to tell you that we are simple people who sometimes eat pimento cheese sandwiches for supper. And we are happy in our simple worlds—where front lawns don’t get mowed regularly.

This is home. I still fish the nearby Choctawhatchee Bay of my youth. My fishing hole in Hogtown Bayou, where the ashes of two good dogs are scattered.

A man backstage is tapping his watch and telling me it’s almost time to go on stage. I am nervous because I know many people in the audience.

The bluegrass band is playing before I go on. I peek through the curtains and see friends, family, and even an old boss who once fired me.

Earlier tonight, I met an old friend. I knew her long ago. We weren’t close, but we…

I could tell love stories all day.

I got a note from my friend in the mail. He just got married. It was a private ceremony, he didn’t invite anyone.

He enclosed a handwritten poem:

“Thought I’d be single until I rot,
But someone thought I was hot,
Look at me, I just tied the knot.”


My friend is a bona fide poet. He went to school for such things. He was an eccentric free spirit who lived alone in a poet’s ratty apartment—which smelled like a wet bird dog.

He stayed up too late, writing poet’s poems. He ate ice cream for breakfast. Cereal for supper.

He had big plans for his life.

Then she happened. He met her at his nephew’s soccer game. She had three kids.

Our middle-aged, fun-loving, bird-dog smelling bachelor became a family man with three kids, a minivan, and a backyard that won’t mow itself.

Yes. I like love.

I know another woman who found love. Her husband divorced her at age seventy-three. She was a wreck. She didn’t think she would survive.

She stayed indoors for a few years, and hardly ever saw

the sun.

Then, something happened. She began to make friends. She went to the beach some. She stayed up late, she went on dates.

Then, he happened. She met a retired boat captain—he steered barges on American river routes.

She married him. He asked what she wanted for a wedding gift. She wanted to see the world. He booked a one-year trip to Europe the very next month.

I could tell love stories all day.

Like the one about Stephanie and her husband—now there’s a story. They were told they couldn’t have kids. It devastated them.

A few years later, her best friends passed away unexpectedly. Her friends were in their thirties, with a two-year-old son.

Stephanie adopted the orphan and welcomed the child into a pink-walled nursery she’d already given up on.


Memorize jokes. Lots of them. Jokes for children. For church people. And keep plenty of jokes in your back pocket for old men. You come from a long line of joke tellers.


You’re going to think this is dumb, but my advice to you is:

Eat sunflower seeds.

You come from a long line of sunflower-seed spitters. And this is an ancient rural skill you must learn early in life, or you will be hopeless.

Crack open the tiny husks using your teeth, work out the seeds using your tongue, then spit the empty shells. It sounds easy, but it takes years of practice. Get started early.

Learn this one skill, and your whole life will work itself out on its own.

Also: I pray you grow up to be ordinary. I can’t think of any better gift than being ordinary.

A lot of people are scared of being average, but don’t be afraid. Average things are great. Take your old man, for instance. I had a 2.3 grade point average—which is actually BELOW average.

Listen, I’m not saying I don’t want you to be unique. Certainly. You ARE unique—but so is everyone else. And since EVERYONE is unique, this makes “uniqueness” pretty ordinary.

Ordinariness makes you human.

It means that you are fully one of us. Meaning: soon, you will give half of everything you own to the IRS.

Eat fiber. Seriously. Society would be better off if we all ate more fiber. If you look at television celebrities, news anchors, politicians, and daytime talk-show hosts, the message is clear. They need Metamucil.

Don’t worry about money. Not ever. Not even when you are broke. To help prepare you for adulthood, I’ve devised a financial training method for coping with how fast money can disappear once you’re an adult. Thus, on your eighteenth birthday follow these steps:

1. Place all your dollars into a shoebox.

2. Close the shoebox.

3. Pour gasoline on the shoebox and light it on fire.

See? No more money. Welcome to adulthood, kid.

The thing is, when you’re an adult, you’ll…

The band played. She swayed to the music and sang aloud. Eyes closed. It made me smile to see a woman her age so in love with music.

The first time I met Miss Joanne was in Panama City, Florida. I can’t remember how long ago it was. But I had younger skin back then, I remember that much.

She was dancing, I also remember that.

She was an old woman. Big grin on her face. Her dance was a cross between the Mashed Potato and a U.S. Army infantry march. It was precious.

About me: I have been playing music for money since I was a teenager. I wasn’t particularly good. But I was a local, and those were all the qualifications a boy needed. I played restaurants, pool halls, beer joints, churches, and on one occasion, a car dealership.

In my daytime hours, I would work labor jobs—laying tile, hanging sheetrock, installing bathrooms. But during evenings, I would travel wherever music called.

And one night, somewhere in my twenties, I was playing in Panama City. It was late. Elderly Miss Joanne was there. She approached the stage. She handed me a cocktail napkin

with handwriting on it:

It read: “Will you play ‘You Are My Sunshine?’”

The band played. She swayed to the music and sang aloud. Eyes closed. It made me smile to see a woman her age so in love with music.

On our break, she hugged my neck. She bought me a beer and sat beside me. We talked. Then, she asked me if I wanted to dance.

“Me?” I said.

“Yes, you,” she said. “I may be old, but I can dance like a teenager.”

We never danced, because I don’t dance. But I wish I would have now.

Throughout the years, I saw her a lot. She wore a sparkling clothes she’d decorated herself—adorned in sequins. She had a shock of white hair and wrinkled skin. And she always carried one cigarette in a miniature sleeve, hanging by a string around…

The park is a beautiful spot surrounded by a big wood fence and pine trees. It is the official “hangout” for local dog-people. But my favorite thing about this place is watching the dog world in action.

Taking your dogs to a dog park can be fun if your dogs are clinically deranged like mine.

We have a nice dog park near our house. And after a day spent in this nicely maintained park, my dogs are kinder, happier citizens, and less likely to destroy my baseball cap.

The exact moment we enter the park, the party begins. My dogs transform into wild creatures who are so excited they forget about normal things like: behaving, using good manners, and not peeing in communal water bowls.

The park is a beautiful spot surrounded by a big wood fence and pine trees. It is the official “hangout” for local dog-people. But my favorite thing about this place is watching the dog world in action.

There are natural laws in the dog kingdom that dogs somehow know to follow.

For example: when I open the gate and present my dogs to the the other dogs, they smell each other.

Biology tells us that this is an ancient custom dating back to the primal civilizations of

miniature lap dogs who once coexisted peacefully with Early Man and always chewed on Early Man’s baseball caps.

Among dogs, butt-smelling is a simple ritual, full of nuance, and intrigue. Imagine: fifty-eight dogs gathering around one tail. Which sets off a chain reaction of sniffing within the pack.

Dogs begin shoving their noses into the private regions of everything located within a ten-foot radius—including oak trees, certain species of ferns, and old men on park benches.

Once this is finished, new arrivals are then issued W9’s and expected to become tax-paying members of dog society.

My two dogs have a unique set of skills which they offer the rest of the dog world.

Thelma Lou (bloodhound) specializes in smells. She is highly skilled when it comes to aromas. She takes every single smell with grave seriousness.

During our nightly walks, for instance, she can’t walk…

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

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 they think so little of themselves, they don’t like their reflection.

You pull into a gas station. You’re going to put three dollars into your old Ford Contour. Not a penny more.

You walk…

She greets each customer with sugary words and a cheek-crippling grin.

Calera, Alabama—the Cracker Barrel off I-65 is busy this morning. There are people in the dining room from every walk of life. Lots of noise.

An elderly man with military patches on his ball cap. A young couple with loud children who test the limits of the known sound barrier. An old man in a cowboy hat, sitting with his grandkids.

My waitress is Tamba. She is pretty, middle-aged, with cropped black hair, and a smile that sets the room on fire.

“How y’all today?” she says.

Her smile makes me smile. Which makes my wife smile. Which makes Tamba smile. Which makes me grin so hard my cheeks are sore.

She fills my coffee mug. She takes my order. And there’s that smile again.

My cheek muscles will never recover.

I watch her weave through the chaotic dining room like a ballerina. She takes orders from grumpy parents, over-caffeinated children, and flat-faced out-of-towners who woke up on the wrong side of the hotel bed.

She greets each customer with sugary words and a cheek-crippling grin.

She takes orders by memory. She listens when picky eaters specify exactly how they want their eggs. Before she leaves tables, she recites orders to her customers without flaw.

And I sincerely hope that John Q. Customer notices how remarkable she is. Her personality is brilliant, her sense of humor is refreshing, and her memory is the Eighth Wonder of the World.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet she could memorize the Jefferson County phonebook in one sitting and recite it with her eyes closed.

On her way to the kitchen, people flag her down.

“I need mayo!” hollers a man.

She’s got it covered.

“Ma’am!” says an impatient woman from the back. “I NEED some pepper sauce.”

Pepper sauce. Check.

“Ma’am, can I get some…

Those boyhood feelings never leave you. No matter how old you get. No matter what your station in life. Those feelings are like handprints embedded in a cement sidewalk.

Enterprise, Alabama—I stood before a small auditorium of people. Guitar strapped to my chest. I told a story about my cousin falling off a chicken house and breaking his big toe. People laughed at the punchline. I sang a song to go with it. I told another story. Another song.

And I was thinking to myself.

“I’m not qualified to be here,” that’s what I was thinking in the moment. “I’m not supposed to be doing this.”

After the show, I went to the back. I hugged necks. I shook hands with people who were kind enough to attend. One woman told me her son died this past month. Another man embraced me and said: “I’m eighty tonight, thanks for making my birthday good.”

And a nine-year-old named Emily gave me a handwritten letter. As it happens, I’ve written about Emily once before. Months ago, I mistakenly wrote that she was seven years old.

“I’m actually nine,” Emily clarified. “But you’re okay.”

Sometimes I feel like an impostor

doing what I do for a living. I mean it. I have no idea what I’m doing. Furthermore, why would anyone read my words? Why would anyone care to hear to my stories?

I’m so painfully ordinary it hurts. I grew up among lots of grass, and plain people, and tiny post offices. I was not a good athlete, a terrible student, and I was chubby. With freckles. And a big nose. And ugly hair.

I remember when Mother used to take family photographs. She would position us just right. “Say cheese!” she’d yell. She’d send me to the drugstore to pick up the photos after a few weeks.

I would open the Kodak envelope and thumb through glossy photographs. When I’d see my own picture, I wanted to crawl under a flat rock.

Nothing was “okay” with the way I was put…