I met a seven-year-old girl who was in the audience. Her name was Emily. She was small and shy. She handed me a handwritten note.

Ozark, Alabama—the weekend. It’s late. I’m at an Applebee’s because it’s the only place still open. There are a few men at the bar, drinking alone. They look exhausted.

The food here is barely passable. The beer is cold. Our waitress is named Amber. Amber looks tired.

My wife and I are here with our friend Katie. You’d like Katie. She’s a hospice nurse, a priest’s wife, a mother. Women like her should be wearing capes and tiaras. She gives good hugs.

I am tired tonight. An hour ago, I spoke at the First United Methodist Church of Ozark. I’m surprised they even let me through the front doors.

I’m not a Methodist, you see. In fact, I’m not sure what I am.

After speaking, I met a seven-year-old girl who was in the audience. Her name was Emily. She was small and shy. She handed me a handwritten note.

On her letter it read: “From Emily, your number-one fan.” It was written in purple ink.


placed it into my pocket.

Emily gave me a good hug.

Good hugs are getting harder to find, if you ask me. Not everybody gives them, you know. I’ve had my share of crummy embraces.

Some folks give weak hugs. Others shrink away—raising serious questions about my breath. Some older men slap you on the back hard enough to stunt your growth. My uncle, for instance, is a notorious slapper.

Emily hugged me hard. And I noticed her wiping a few tears from her eyes. Then she was gone.

I was one of the last to leave the church. I packed my things. The building was empty. I walked past an open door in a hallway.

I passed a small chapel. I peeked into the empty room. The lights were off. The stained glass was pretty. The chapel had an old-fashioned…

So I hope you feel important. I hope you get some good news. I hope you sleep good. I hope you see some good weather.

I used bad grammar in public. And it gets worse. I did it in front of an English teacher. He almost suffered a stroke in the middle of Target. I should’ve known better. It was a careless mistake.

Here’s how it happened. I shook his hand and said the worst formed sentence in history: “I hope you’re doing good.”


My friend, an esteemed college professor, made a face.

“You hope I'm ‘doing GOOD?’” he said. “That’s HORRIBLE grammar. I thought you were a writer.”

A writer. Well, as it happens, I’m more of a saturated fat appreciator than I am a writer.

People who eat like I do, also use bad grammar from time to time. And okasionaly i eaven mispel sum wirds.

But of course, I know the rules. Our sixth grade teacher instructed us to never say things like: “I hope you are good.”

She taught us the correct way to say: “I hope you are WELL.”

Then, if you want to

really impress your socialite friends, graciously lift your pinky finger while taking a sip from your Natural Light.

But teachers don’t know everything. After all, my sixth grade teacher once told us Pluto was a planet. She was dead-wrong.

I might be a C-student, but even I know that scientists proved Pluto is not a full-fledged planet. Pluto, you see, is one of seven documented “dwarf planets” which orbit the “Snow White” galaxy, discovered in 1492 by Sir Elton John.

So, grammatical errors aside, the reason I am writing this is because I hope you are “doing GOOD” today.


It’s my favorite word. And I hope everything is GOOD for you. I hope things come easy. I hope you eat a GOOD breakfast. I hope you feel GOOD. I hope you hear a GOOD song on the radio.

And when you hear…

When they cry, squeeze their hands. When they moan, rub their backs. When they double over and sob about the injustice of it all, Lord, cry with them.

I heard it on the radio last night. I was driving. When the announcer said it, I pulled over.

The radio voice explained that a shooting had happened at UAB Highlands Hospital in Birmingham. One woman dead. A young man injured. The shooter did himself in.

UAB Highlands. The same hospital my wife has visited. The same building, same waiting rooms, same vending machines, the same weak coffee.

Nancy Swift died. She was 63. 28-year-old Tim Isley was the other victim.

While I write this, Tim isn’t doing well.

I’ve never met Nancy or Tim. And their stories are none of my business—there’s a lot that isn’t my business. But, I want to say something, if I may.

Dear Lord:

You have no reason to listen to me. I know that billions of other messages are filling your inbox while you read this. And I know you’re very busy.

I’ll make this quick.

If there’s any real magic in you, like the preachers say, use it. Send it to the families who need


That’s what I ask.

Do your thing. Do it big. Throw your weight around. Help the grieving feel strong. Make Tim Isley all better. Give the families of the victims all sorts of things to believe in.

It’s hard to believe in anything this day and age, God. I don’t know if you know this. After all, you’re not human like we are. We’re frail. We lose hope too easily.

So that family needs you to do something. Make some miracles in the sky, give them special dreams, do something incredible. Let them see beauty. Let them feel something other-worldly.

I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud here. You’re the one with all the ideas.

Anyway, remind them to eat. It’s easy to forget food during a time like this. And help them get plenty…

She is powerful and gentle. She is a classroom hero. A doctor, a nurse, a waitress, a teacher, a custodian, an artist, writer, singer, or poet. She is a mother, a granny, an advice giver.

“You’re fat.” That’s what a classmate told freshman, Cassidy Torres, in P.E. class. A boy said it. And it’s too bad he didn’t get his hindparts worn out.

It all happened in a gymnasium. Students were standing in a single-file line. They were doing body-mass-index calculations with calipers and measuring tapes.

Cassidy’s numbers were higher than the recommended baseline. You can only imagine the laughs and animal sounds that followed.

The aforementioned boy made a comment. Cassidy was in tears.

Amd you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking. Which is: “Great, just what every insecure freshman needs. Calipers.”

Well, not that it matters what I think—because it doesn’t—but I don’t think measuring the bellies of high-schoolers qualifies as gym class.

What ever happened to good old-fashioned P.E.? I’m talking sadistic American games like dodgeball, unsupervised rope-climbing, and of course, lawn darts.

But measuring body fat in public? I wouldn’t wish that experience on even the worst IRS agent—let alone a shy freshman.

Anyway, to dig up more answers on this matter, I interviewed noted expert, and acclaimed commentator on

adolescent issues—my friend’s daughter, Kayleigh.

Kayleigh is your typical sophomore. She’s in chorus, math club, and on a volleyball team. She likes Dr. Pepper, Cheese Nips, rap, Labradors, and she thinks she’s fat.

I asked Kayleigh why she thought this. She had a lot to say on the matter. Her answer:


My guest today has been Kayleigh Williamson.

The thing is, Kayleigh is as lean as they come. And she can bench press her bodyweight. Her mother has a theory.

Her mother points to the magazines on Kayleigh’s nightstand and says, “Those dumb magazines are messing with her mind.”

Kayleigh shows me one such beauty magazine. The cover model features a young woman who weighs less than a rice cake in a water shortage, with abs sharp enough to grate parmesan.

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

His real name doesn’t matter. So let’s call him Steve.

Steve made a mistake. He went to prison. The details aren’t important.

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

Steve made friends with the chaplain—who discovered that Steve couldn’t read or write.

The chaplain taught Steve the basics. ABC’s, cursive, grammar. In a few years, Steve went from reading Doctor Seuss to Walt Whitman.

He enrolled in a GED correspondence course. After that: onward and upward. It took years to earn college credits through the US Mail.

He graduated with an associate’s degree.

And when the chaplain baptized Steve in a feed-trough, Steve rose from the water and hugged the chaplain.

Steve told him, “I wish I was hugging my mama right now.”

“This hug is from her and me both,” said the chaplain.

Steve’s mother passed while he was inside.

Years later, our hero joined civilian life as an older man. The world

felt like a foreign place. He found a job on a concrete crew. He grew his hair long because he could.

At work, Steve made friends with a twenty-six-year-old man who we’ll call DeRonn.

DeRonn and Steve grew close. They had deep conversations at work. DeRonn admitted that he’d once wanted to study art, but never did.

“Why not?” asked Steve.

“Because,” said DeRonn. “I dropped out at sixteen when my girlfriend got pregnant.”

A few days later, an envelope appeared in the front seat of DeRonn’s car. Inside was a little cash, wrapped with a rubber band, and a note which read:

“That’s to help pay for art school.”

That was two lifetimes ago. DeRonn is not a kid anymore. And he’s not sad, either. And as it happens, he did finish school. His degree…

She offered him a smoke. He thanked her. He tinkered beneath her car with a ratchet—cigarette wedged in his lips. She held the flashlight steady.

She reads the Bible every morning. She also smokes off-brand cigarettes. To a lifelong Methodist like her, the two go hand in hand.

She’s eighty-four and frail. She digs a cigarette from a carton, her daughter lights it. The doctor says she shouldn’t smoke, but the Good Lord understands.

She tells a story.

“After my husband left us,” she begins, “I was raising my kids, doing all I could to survive. He left me with eighteen bucks in our bank account—no lie.”

Then, the worst. One day, she walked into work and her boss fired her.

Instead of crying, she lost her temper. She attacked him. She threw a lunch bucket at him. She landed several good slaps to his face. Her friends pulled her away.

This woman is a regular barrel of gunpowder.

That night, she loaded her children into a station wagon and drove straight for her sister’s in South Carolina. Radio blasting. Cigarettes burning.

“I was crying,” she says. “And worried about everything, I was sick.”

Her car broke down somewhere outside Athens, Georgia. Two in the morning. An empty highway. Not a soul for miles.

Her station wagon sat in a ditch. Her children were in the backseat, asleep. She leaned against her steering wheel and the tears came.

This was rock bottom.

Her sobbing was interrupted by the sound of transfer truck brakes. A big rig pulled behind her. Earth-shaking engine. Headlights blaring.

A man stepped out of the cab and walked toward her.

“I was scared,” she says. “Here I was, a young woman, middle of nowhere, and this man comes walking up.”

He was tall. She remembers this very clearly. And older.

He asked if she needed help. She told him what had happened, using a nervous voice.

His smile put her at ease. He said, “Pop the hood, ma’am. Lemme…

The national news called the rural lawman a hero, but Joe didn’t see it that way. While they wheeled him to the hospital, someone asked the sheriff how he felt.

Sunset in Alabama. The woods of Butler County are something else tonight. The crickets are out.

I’m chewing the fat with men who know a thing or two about these woods. They’re sipping beer, eating pulled pork, swatting gnats.

These men are peace officers. This party is being thrown in honor of Sheriff Joe Sanders. The sheriff has been dead a long time.

But he’s not dead tonight. At least, not when they retell his stories.

People form a semi-circle. Former deputies, family, in-laws, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. They tell tales they’ve been retelling for decades. Good stories about an even-tempered man who once watched over Butler County.

There’s the story about the sheriff handling an armadillo problem for a local farmer. Or the time he bought snuff for a woman he was carrying to jail.

They talk about how he used to sleepwalk in his skivvies; how he’d been married for fifty-three years; or how he always ate lunch at the Chicken Shack.

But those stories are only warm-ups. Everybody

here knows the best story. It’s about when the sheriff was held hostage.

I’ll hit the highlights:

Thirty years ago. A Monday. A gunman walks into Butler County courthouse and takes a courtroom hostage. The sheriff uses his natural charm to negotiate.

“If you let these folks go,” says the sheriff, “you can hold ME hostage.”

It’s a gutsy move. The gunman lets the people free. The sheriff is his bargaining chip. Things are going fine until a struggle erupts and shots are fired by the gunman. Sheriff Joe takes a bullet.

Things go from bad to worse. The gunman holds the sheriff at gunpoint. The sheriff is losing blood. A six-hour standoff ensues.

We’re talking FBI, out-of-town cops, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, snipers, and national-news choppers.

Greenville is the epicenter of the world.

One former deputy remembers: “It…