It takes place in the parking lot, before everyone parts ways. It’s called the Goodbye Ceremony.

A beach bar. My wife and I are with our cousins, James and Jessica. We are eating pizza. Somebody got a little crazy and even ordered oysters.

You know what my favorite part of any family gathering is? Not oysters or pizza. The part at the end. It takes place in the parking lot, before everyone parts ways. It’s called the Goodbye Ceremony.

In this part of the world, the simple act of saying goodbye can last for three hours. Sometimes longer if it’s football season.

James and Jessica are cool cousins. I once rode out a hurricane with James. I’ll never forget it. Hurricane Ivan was tearing through Brewton, Alabama. The rest of the family was downstairs, listening to a radio by candlelight.

James and I were upstairs, the ultimate thrill seekers, watching the storm. But we couldn’t see anything because it was too dark.

So our entire conversation basically went like this:

“Did you hear that?”

“Yeah.”

“What about that?”

“Yep.”

When the storm hit, we heard creaking and groaning. It sounded like the core of the planet was getting ripped from the soil and hurling through outer space somewhere above the casino in Atmore.

The next morning, the town had lost so many trees you couldn’t drive down Belleville Avenue. The power was out. It was tragic.

But Brewton’s families banded together. You could see people on porches, cooking food on gas grills, drinking beer at noon.

Because that’s what family does.

Family is important to me. It becomes even more important the older I get. I didn’t grow up with much. And at this age I have to sort of create my own, which isn’t easy because I have no kids.

This is tough sometimes because I really like kids. I like them so much that every child I meet—I know this is going to…

“Come and get it,” says my wife.

There comes a time when a man must stand up for what he believes and ask for extra gravy on his chicken fried steak. Which is exactly what I am doing.

I am asking my wife to cover my plate in white pepper gravy.

I have a long history with chicken fried steak. It goes back to when I was a child.

Chicken fried steak was a real treat in our household. We rarely ate it at home. And we hardly ever went out to eat, either. Eating out was too expensive, and my father was so cheap that he wouldn’t have given a nickel to see Jesus ride a bike.

If we ever did go out, I was only allowed to order ice water. No ice.

Until one fateful Saturday morning, for an unknown reason, my father decided to take our family to a breakfast restaurant.

I can still remember it. The place was a dive. Vinyl seat cushions. Napkin dispensers. George Jones was singing

overhead.

My father told me I could have anything I wanted on the menu. So I ordered chicken fried steak and asked the waitress for extra white gravy.

My father said, “You’ll never finish all that.”

I laughed at my critics.

The waitress brought me a steak that was about the size of Venezuela. I ate three bites and had to be carried out of the restaurant on a stretcher.

When I got older, I visited a themed restaurant outside Little Rock that claimed to have the world’s biggest chicken fried steak.

When I ordered, the perky waitress said, “You sure you wanna order that? You look kinda puny, kid.”

“I’m sure.”

My steak arrived on a platter with a Bowie knife sticking from the top. And I could swear I heard George Jones singing overhead.

“Stand back,” I said. “This could get…

We sit on blankets, we listen to the band. And I have to pinch myself. Where am I? Does it get any better than this?

The weather is perfect. Families sit on blankets, eating fried chicken that was cooked in iron skillets. A band plays music on a miniature stage. Guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.

This is the church my friend’s mother attends. It’s tiny. Most of the congregation is late-sixties or mid-seventies. But there are plenty of young families, too.

Tonight, they are having a picnic.

The chapel is the only structure around for miles, surrounded by farmland and hayfields. Behind the all-brick building is an outhouse. It’s not operational anymore, but it’s maintained for historical purposes.

“It’s a two-seater,” says Brother Williams, a deacon. “When I was a boy, I did my business out there a lot.”

How nice.

The fiddle, guitar, and mandolin are playing the song “Precious Memories.” And I can’t think of a better tune for tonight because the memories are getting thick.

These are Baptists, but not the hardshell kind. These are the sort who go to college football games toting soft coolers.

Even so, no matter what

kind they are, you can’t get Baptists together without having food. It’s in our DNA. Scripture says, “Wherever two or three are gathered, a chicken must be brutally murdered.”

There is some serious fried chicken here tonight. The real kind. Homemade. Church ladies place this food on a table that’s covered in gingham. The tablecloth is clipped with clothespins to keep it from blowing away.

In the pasture behind the church, children are playing a game of Tag.

I see an old man with a dog. He’s wearing an Auburn University cap—the man, not the dog. The dog follows the man everywhere he goes, begging for food from strangers.

I meet a woman who moved to the area from the big city.

“I used to have a good job in Birmingham,” she says. “I was in marketing, worked with some pretty big…

It’s night and I am on a beach in Destin, Florida. I am sitting on the shore, watching the mighty Gulf of Mexico. It never stops moving.

Never.

A few hours ago, I was in a beach bar having dinner with an old friend. He looked good. He’s a family man now, with a good job in Birmingham. Two kids. A nice wife. I haven’t seen him in decades. Not since we were ugly young men, operating nail-guns together.

Long ago, we had things in common. His father left before he was born. Mine died when I was a boy.

Back then, we had the same idea on life. Namely, that life wasn’t fair.

We had fun tonight. There was a band playing Top Forty hits. The lead guitarist sang “Brown Eyed Girl” like a donkey with a sinus infection. And people danced.

My friend and his wife ordered fruity drinks and two-stepped until they were sweaty. I said “Goodnight, Gracie” and left early.

On my way home, I stopped here. And the memories came back by the

metric ton.

This used to be my beach. I haven’t been here in years. We lived a few streets over. Our family’s old house was yellow. And tiny. I slept on a pull-out sofa. My sister slept with my mother.

I would sit on the back porch steps when I couldn’t sleep, and look at the night. And I’d wonder things. Important things.

Things like: why does the Pope wear pointy hats? Who invented drive-thru liquor stores? Is it bad luck to be superstitious? And why does it seem like life is out to get me?

Anyway, this town has changed. Once upon a time, Destin was a sleepy fishing village. It had one traffic light—two at the most. It wasn’t swallowed by chain restaurants. There were only a few dives, a Shell Station, and the docks on the harbor.

But progress…

“Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.”

DEAR SEAN:

I know you usually write about good things, but I am pretty down and I don’t know what to do, I think about ending it all sometimes, but don’t know what to do about it. I have a wife and two young sons and dogs, and she [wife] really wants me to go to the doctor, but I hate doctors.

Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.

HELP

DEAR HELP:

I am terrified of doctors, too. I hate waiting rooms, needles, elevator music, blood-pressure cuffs, outdated issues of “Better Homes and Gardens,” the smell of rubbing alcohol, and god-awful fluorescent lighting.

When I was a boy, I disliked our family dentist so much that I would fake terminal diseases just to avoid him. My dentist was an old man who looked like Harry Caray and his breath smelled like a reclaimed water facility.

He smoked Winstons while he

worked, and listened to Glenn Miller cassette tapes. To this day, I can’t hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra without developing a nicotine buzz.

One day, the old doc looked into my mouth, he was humming along with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” breathing smoke directly into my face, and he told me that he was going to install a permanent retainer on my bottom teeth.

I got so scared that I almost Chattanooga-Choo-Chooed in my shorts.

He glued a piece of wire to my teeth with an industrial adhesive often used on commercial runways. When I left his office, I felt like somebody had constructed a Steinway inside my mouth.

But the wire didn’t last. It came loose after only a month. When the wire dislodged, it left behind huge globs of hardened glue on the backside of my teeth.

Now, I should have told…

Jacob was a foster child. He grew up in the Foster Pinball Machine. Birth to graduation. He was never adopted by a family.

He and I weren’t good friends, but we knew each other. I lost track of him at age fifteen. He moved away to a group home.

We got in touch a few years ago. I expected to learn he had a wife and kids, but that wasn’t the case. Jacob has animals.

Six dogs, three cats.

I don’t think Jacob would mind me saying that he marches to the beat of his own tuba.

He’s had little choice in the matter. His childhood was spent bouncing from family to family, looking after himself, remembering to eat regularly.

Today, he leads a good life. He’s a restaurant cook, he likes to hike, camp, and he’s had the same girlfriend for ten years.

I asked about all his animals.

“I dunno,” he said. “Just love animals.
Growing up, I was never allowed to have any.”

Jacob found his first dog after work one night. It was late. A stray black Lab was

sniffing trash cans behind a restaurant.

The dog bolted when it heard footsteps.

Jacob tried to coax it with food. The dog wasn’t interested. So, Jacob resorted to heavy artillery.

Raw ground beef.

He left an entire package on the pavement. The dog still wouldn’t come. Jacob gave up and crawled into his car to leave. Before he wheeled away, he glanced in his rear mirror.

The dog was eating a pound of sirloin in one bite.

“Started feeding him every day,” Jacob said. “I just wanted him to know somebody cared, that was it.”

For two months, Jacob cared. He fed the dog from a distance seven nights per week—even when he wasn’t working.

And on one fateful night, the old dog walked straight toward Jacob and had a seat.

“You shoulda seen how he…

“Changing diapers couldn’t be easier,” Marsha explains.

I volunteered in the Methodist nursery last Sunday. The colorful room was overrun with babies. Marsha was my team leader for the day, and the only woman with first-hand experience handling a loaded diaper.

Working in the nursery is a pretty straightforward gig. Basically, all you do is wear a nametag and wait for a baby to cry, then hold them.

Your other job—and this is an important one—is to sniff the air and locate Number Two.

Marsha is very proactive when it comes to finding Number Two. She is constantly on the lookout for Number Two. Sometimes she even interrupts adult conversations to shout, “I smell Number Two!” Then she conducts randomized diaper checks.

I get the impression that going Number Two is all babies ever do. And don’t ask me where it all comes from because during snack time, I couldn’t get any babies to eat their pureed sweet potatoes without spitting up on themselves.

But let me assure you, these kids are definitely eating when nobody’s watching.

Because every kid in the room waddles as though his or her diaper contains a No. 6 bowling ball.

Before today, I hadn’t changed many diapers. As a boy, I helped change my kid sister’s diapers. But I don’t remember much about it.

All I can recall is that my mother used cloth diapers and washed them outside with a garden hose and a crucifix.

But Marsha has her finger on the pulse of today’s diaper scene, which is very different from the old days. Modern diapers are made of plastic, with ventilation systems, and color-coded accident indicators, which work sort of like mood rings.

“Changing diapers couldn’t be easier,” Marsha explains.

All you do is lay the baby down, keep the kid still, remove the kid’s recent installment, wipe the baby’s legs, sanitize the child, apply baby powder, and tag his or…

“Gulf Shores sure has changed over the years,” I say. “I don’t even recognize the town anymore.”

GULF SHORES—I have always liked this beach town. There is something about it. Not only is it situated on the Gulf, but wherever you go there is a feeling in the air that seventy percent of the tourist population has been drinking since noon.

I have good memories here. My wife went to college here. A good friend got married on these beaches. I have fished here.

Right now, Earl is giving me a ride in his truck.

Earl is white-haired, and quiet. He drives while I sit in the passenger seat.

It is night. I have just finished doing my one-man show in an auditorium where I told stories, jokes, and sang for two straight hours. I am exhausted and I have lost my voice.

When I exited backstage, Earl was waiting beside his truck.

Earl’s job is to give me a ride to the other side of the building so I can stand by the door, shake audience members’ hands, and apologize for ruining two

hours of their lives.

Earl is relaxed and easygoing. He can sense that I am tired.

“How about we go for a drive?” Earl suggests. “So you can catch your breath.”

I nod because my voice is shot.

Soon, I am lost in thought. And do you know what I am thinking?

I’m thinking that for most of my life, I’ve never felt like I did a “good job” at anything. Sure, I’ve done okay, but I never felt like I did anything worthy of a pat on the back.

I realize that admitting this makes me seem pathetic. But then, I come from perfectionists who used to mow their lawns twice per week. These were men who would see tiny patches of grass the lawnmower missed and freak out. Then, they would jog outside to clip the grass with scissors.

But as…

Last week, I played music and spoke to a room of white-haired women. It was a dim-lit bar, with decent onion rings, heavy burgers, and waitresses who call you “sweetie.” Not exactly the place you’d expect to see the White-Haired Beauties of America.

But they were here. Ladies from all walks of life held glasses of beer and wine. A few had canes and walkers. A few got too loud. I was entertainment.

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’ammed 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 fired up her vaporizer cigarette.

“Doctor says I shouldn’t smoke,” said Jo. “But still I smoke two a day. One in the morning, one at night, and I vape until my throat’s raw.”

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 she had worn out her butterscotch vaporizer, 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. That’s when he blew out his back.

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

“Always had me a few boyfriends,”…

Today is an important day. Maybe one of the most important of my life. I have been looking forward to this day since childhood, and now that it’s here I don’t know how to feel.

Today is National Cow Appreciation Day.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You didn’t even know there was such a holiday. But it turns out there is. And in honor of this day, my wife’s 2003 Dodge Durango died in the post office parking lot with us inside it.

It was ninety-eight degrees outside. I tried to flag someone for help. Many of these people simply waved at me, then pointed to their wristwatches, and drove away.

So that’s where I am now, waiting for a tow truck, writing to you on my phone.

But like I said, nothing can bring me down today. Nothing. Because you know what else today is? The Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

That’s right. All year, we baseball fans have been waiting for our

favorite players to form the All-Star team.

These are professional athletes who play the sport purely out of love. And also, because they make millions of dollars and sometimes throw huge parties on their yachts wherein partygoers drink so much champagne they push the piano overboard.

But.

That's not why today is special, either. No, sir. Today has nothing to do with cattle, or baseball, or Dodge Durangos that are as dead as iced catfish.

Today is important because of an orange hardback book, stolen from the Nashville Public Library in the early 1980’s.

Let me explain:

This old dusty book dates back to my late father, who was an avid reader. He was a blue-collar man who worked on steel every day of his life, and he read two or three books per week.

I remember him reading this exact book when I…