Princess Pink opens gifts, using both hands. The wrapping paper doesn’t stand a chance.

I’m in a Mexican restaurant. I’ve been driving. I’m tired. I’m here to enjoy cold beer and something salty.

Earlier, I tried visiting the joint up the road. The place has allegedly good barbecue. I left after three seconds. They had a band that only knew two volume levels: loud, and nuclear holocaust.

So I’m here.

Behind my booth are children. It’s a birthday party. There are at least fifteen. They sit around a long table which is mounding with gifts. They holler and laugh.

A few wear pointy hats. I didn’t know kids wore pointy hats anymore.

My waitress brings my beer, and I overhear all the Top-40 hits of childhood happening behind me.

“Gross, you eat boogers?”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

“My dad could beat up your dad.”

“COOTIES!”

How have we come this far as a civilization, and still not eradicated cooties?

Then, parents hush kids. Children's voices run quiet. A mother walks to the door and looks through the glass.

"Here she comes,” the woman says to her group. “Get ready.”

There is a pregnant pause. I am holding

my beer with both hands, watching the door.

The door opens.

Children scream “Happy Birthday!” loud enough to break stained glass. Then, applause.

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

Her father helps her to the table, holding her arms. The girl sits and covers her face. She’s blushing.

“YOU GUYS!” she says.

Her smile is bright enough to tear the cotton-picking world in half.

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents sing. Every able-bodied patron sings. I sing. And for a moment in time we are eight years old again.

Princess Pink opens gifts, using both hands. The wrapping paper doesn’t stand a chance.

“Tell her what gift you gave her,” the princess’…

The smell of chicken soup is strong, wafting through the cracks in the windows and beneath the doors. Suppertime approaches, and I am getting hungry.

It is raining. It has rained all day. My wife is making chicken soup because soup goes with rainy weather. It’s been a lazy, wet, boring, sleepy day. My wife has had the soup simmering since breakfast.

“The secret to good soup is plenty of time,” my wife told me earlier. “Time equals flavor.”

I liked that phrase so much I had to write it down on a legal pad. The same pad I am using to write you. I made a note to work that clever little sentence into this column.

“Time equals flavor.” That’s good.

Anyway, my dogs have been cooped up because of the weather. Around ten o’clock, they finally went stir crazy and started a professional wrestling league in the den.

So I left for the quiet porch with my legal pad. I have been here all day, listening to rain.

Only one week ago, I was in New York City. It rained downtown. It didn’t faze the city buzz. Life kept moving. Horns kept

honking. People kept racing from Point A to Point B.

But here in the woods, a good rain stops everything. In this weather, our small world becomes lethargic.

I can smell my wife’s soup from here. She made it from a chicken we bought from our friend, Lonnie. Lonnie is a strange hippie who names all his animals. Apparently, the chicken’s name was “Daisy” before the bird met its end.

My wife likes to know these things before she buys chicken. She likes to know the bird had a good life, and if possible, a Christian name.

Once, Lonnie tried to sell us a frozen chicken he had named “Mary.” My wife wouldn’t take it because Mary is her mother’s name.

The rain keeps falling.

I take a break from writing to read a book. It’s not high-brow literature. I’m a little…

A Little League game. The crickets are out tonight. So are the yellow flies. And the mosquitoes. Welcome to West Florida. If the insects don’t get you, the snakes will.

The game just ended. The Little Leaguers are doing what every boyhood team has done since the creation of mud. They form a single-file line, walk past the other team, and give high-fives.

They say “Good game,” to each player.

The kids mumble this with the same sincerity it would take to scratch their hindparts. But the point is: they say it. And I hope this tradition never dies.

I was not a good athlete. I was a chubby child with red hair, my only gift was sarcasm. Also, I could make noises with my armpits.

Our third baseman—who I’ll call Gary—was a true athlete. Sports seemed easier for Gary than for others. He was all business when it came to baseball.

Once, my cousin Ed Lee brought a package of Red Man chew to

the field. During the seventh inning, he gave every boy a pinch. But Gary wasn’t even interested. He was only there to play.

“Keep it in your cheek,” my cousin told us. “Whatever you do, don’t swallow your spit.”

When I got up to bat, I was in a stupor.

“What’s wrong with you?” said the coach, who also happened to be my father.

I took one swing and spun so hard that I swallowed the tobacco. That was a pretty bad day.

That was the same game when Gary hit a grand slam. My father was so proud that he lifted Gary onto his shoulders and marched him around the field.

I disliked Gary for this. I disliked him a lot.

Because I could never impress my father the way Gary always did. Gary could swat anything with a bat—including some…

I see them in the dining room. The man keeps his shaky hands in his lap, but it doesn’t stop him from moving. He looks uncomfortable in his own body.

It’s early evening. We are waiting for a table. My wife and I are standing in a long line of people who all had the same brilliant idea—to take the interstate exit and visit Cracker Barrel.

Behind me is a Baptist youth group. Mostly boys. I saw their vans in the parking lot. There must be fifty of them, and they all smell like hormones.

Ahead of me, an elderly couple. She’s pretty, wearing a floral shirt. He is two feet taller than she is, with wide bony shoulders. He is wearing a ball cap and holding her arm.

His hands are trembling. His head bobs back and forth. He doesn’t seem to have control over his movements.

The hostess calls them.

The woman says into the man’s hearing aid, “Table’s ready.”

He smiles. It’s a nice smile. I wish my smile was half as inviting as Old Blue Eyes.

I see them in the dining room. The man keeps his shaky hands in his lap, but it doesn’t stop him from moving. He looks uncomfortable in his own body.

She

is playing the wood triangle game. I’ve never been very good at this novelty test. And apparently, neither has she.

No sooner has the waitress delivered their plates of food than the old woman takes a seat beside Old Blue Eyes. She tucks a napkin into his collar. She spoon-feeds him.

His shoulders start to toss violently. His head jerks to the side. He’s a making a mess.

She stops feeding and waits.

The shaking gets so bad that he starts rocking in different directions. It’s hard to watch.

But not for her. She talks to him like nothing is wrong. And even though he flails, even though the eyes of the restaurant are watching, she’s unaffected.

Finally, he calms down. She feeds him again. She dabs his chin with a napkin. She touches his forehead. She grins at…

I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget him.

We just got home from a week on the road. It’s been a busy seven days. I told stories in four different states, I ate a lot of barbecue, I saw a ballgame in Atlanta.

When we arrived home, our dogs were psychotic. Otis (alleged Labrador) was barking. Thelma Lou (bloodhound) was howling in a low-pitched voice.

If you ever hear a bloodhound howl, it will bless your heart.

I’m starting to sound like my parents. My father used to use that phrase a lot, long before it became a T-shirt cliché. Whenever he talked about anything that was particularly good, that phrase was used.

For example: “Try the cornbread, it will bless your heart.”

Or: “There’s nothing like hearing Bill Gaither hit them high notes, it’ll bless your heart.”

Years later, people started sending cutesy chain emails about this phrase and ruined it for the rest of us.

I remember once, when our church was shorthanded on nursery workers. Someone asked my father to help hold the newborns.

My father was in the nursery all Sunday. You couldn’t drag him away from that room. The blue-collar man rocked a hundred babies and kissed two hundred fat cheeks.

And when my mother asked him how it went, he said, “Volunteering in the nursery will bless your heart.”

I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget him.

After my dogs mauled me, I unloaded luggage from our vehicle. I heard a horn honking. It was the UPS truck.

The deliveryman handed me a package and bid me good day.

When he drove away, I tore the manila paper and felt my breath catch. I wasn’t expecting it. It was a book. A novel. Written by me. My name was on the dust jacket.

It had an actual dust jacket.

My wife put her arms around me and I felt hot…

The first dish on the line was always squash and cheese casserole.

MONTGOMERY—I am giving a speech to six hundred Methodists tonight.

These are happy people who smell very nice. Their combined scent in this auditorium is so wonderful that I could keep breathing until I hyperventilate.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Methodists. I’ve known a lot of them. I even married one. Well, sort of. My wife is half Methodist on her mother’s side.

My buddy Allen went to a Methodist church and after every service they had huge potlucks. The first dish on the line was always squash and cheese casserole.

The church also had a bell choir. You’ve never seen anything more fun that a bell choir.

Methodists set up fifty bells on tables and ring them at rehearsed intervals. Some musicians are better than others.

If you are good bell-ringer, they let you play more than one bell. If you are great bell-ringer, they put you on salary.

Once, I was in the Methodist bell choir. I was filling in

for Miss Henrietta, who had hip replacement surgery. Miss Henrietta was also the church pianist. I filled in for her on piano, too.

After service, we visited Henrietta in the hospital. Her visitors brought so much cheesy squash casserole the nurses had to tell people they weren’t allowed to bring any more.

When Henrietta got released, they say it took seven coolers to store all her squash casserole.

The very next Sunday, she played piano at service. They dedicated the service to her as a surprise. After the singing, people got up and read memories about her.

There were a lot of memories to be read, the old woman had been attending that church since Calvin Coolidge was in office.

At the end of service, she was invited to say a few words to the congregation. She was overcome, all she could manage to say was,…

The older you get, the more important the little pieces of your past become. You find yourself wanting to remember the itty-bitty details. Things you didn’t even know you cared about. Because they are not just memories, they’re you.

ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities, but I don’t mind Atlanta.

If you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.

My mother used to force me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of old-person snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that invented bacon, airplanes, and the Thigh Master, came up with tapioca.

But like I was saying, if you asked me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.

Right now I am driving I-285, through Atlanta’s congested traffic. The long line of vehicles moves five feet per hour. It’s miserable.

I have plenty of time to remember all kinds of things in this gridlock. Things like, for instance, tapioca.

And I can recall an era before smartphones, when newspapers were works of journalism, before they

got swallowed by internet agencies who produce articles entitled: “TWENTY-ONE REASONS WHY BOTTLED WATER WILL KILL YOU.”

And I remember when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my day.

We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and each morning I would be the first to retrieve the newspaper. My uncle thought this was hysterical.

“You’re fetching the paper?” he said. “That’s a pretty good trick, Fido. How about next I teach you to shake, roll over, and tee-tee on command?”

But I already knew how to do those things.

So I would open the paper to read my favorite columnist. Then, I would cut out the column with scissors because it was the brightest spot of my day.

Later, when my uncle would shake open his newspaper, he would find a gaping hole where…

It was an accident. That’s all it was. I am not getting old.

I wasn’t particularly tired yesterday, but something came over me. I was on the sofa, eating lunch, watching a daytime ballgame, sipping iced tea, drowsing off.

The next thing I knew, I awoke two hours later, disoriented, covered in iced tea, ice cubes melting on my chest, and I was drooling.

My wife found me. She looked shocked. She said, “Were you just taking a nap?”

“A nap?” I said. “Don’t be silly. Naps are for people with AARP cards, and I’m WAY too young for those.”

“You were napping.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

“No. I was practicing mindfulness.”

I have my dignity to preserve.

When I was a kid, I remember my mother once saying, “You know you’re getting old when you fall asleep and spill food on yourself.”

That’s never been me. I was a fast-moving kid with a taste for danger, always looking for international thrills.

My bicycle had baseball cards on the spokes, and I knew how to beat the Jacob’s Ladder game without even trying.

I knew the rules to Texas Hold’em, and played for high stakes behind the fellowship hall with Jay Ray, Ed Lee, and the janitor, Mister Stew. To this day, Mister Stew still owes me nine hundred thousand dollars.

Who has time for naps? Not me.

Growing up, I strapped a transistor radio to my bicycle handlebars and rode gravel roads, listening to “Hit the Road Jack” until the speaker popped.

I had dirt beneath my fingernails. I could climb any tree. I was raw energy. Everyone knew this about me.

Case in point: when I was seven, I was in the school production of Handel's Messiah, and the teacher had to write brief biographies about the soloists in the bulletins.

She wrote about…

A pilot talks on the loudspeaker and says we will be grounded.

I am writing from a plane that is stuck on a runway. It’s raining. Hard. I have a screaming baby behind me. Angry passengers surround me.

I have to be in Atlanta tonight, but it’s not looking good.

We have been on this god-forsaken plane for an hour, waiting out a storm. People are fussy, children scream, a man barks at a flight attendant.

A pilot talks on the loudspeaker and says we will be grounded.

People boo. A few cuss. One man throws a rotten tomato at the cockpit.

No, I’m just kidding. It wasn’t rotten.

And we sit.

One hour.

Two hours.

Three hours.

The pilot intercoms again. He says that after three hours, the government mandates he take us back to the airport.

People boo again. More swearing. A few more rotten tomatoes.

Because the only thing worse than sitting on a plane with loud infants and people carrying exotic strains of yellow fever, would be going back to the airport

and sleeping on the hard floor beneath a television that blares 24-hour news.

“Just great,” one man says.

“Well this sucks,” says the old woman behind me.

“@#$%&!” says the priest across the aisle.

I am texting my wife because it looks like I am not going to make it to Atlanta until noon tomorrow.

The pilot taxis back to the terminal. People moan. The storm is getting worse. The rain sounds like gravel on a shed roof. We’re finished.

But.

At the last minute, the intercom dings. The captain says there is a slight break in the weather, and we are going to “give it a shot.”

Those are his exact words, which terrify me. You don’t want to hear “let’s give it a shot” from your pilot, your dentist, your thoracic surgeon, or your tattoo artist.

Then…

“‘Bondad’ means ‘goodness’ in Spanish and it’s my favorite word.”

Nashville, Tennessee—Nathan is twelve. He is on his way to soccer practice. His mother is driving. He is in the backseat of the car. He sees something.

“Pull over, Mom!” says Nathan.

She does.

It’s a family, walking along the shoulder of the road. They are Hispanic. A woman pushes a stroller, two young boys walk behind her. None of them speak much English.

But this is no problem. Nathan has been taking Spanish in school. Nathan translates. He tells his mother that the family’s car has broken down.

So, his mother calls a tow truck. While they wait, Nathan’s mother treats the family to supper. They carry on choppy conversations in broken tongues. Nathan translates the best he can.

By the end of the night, two families have become friends. And to shorten a long story, today Nathan is a grown man who can say things in Spanish, and explain them.

For instance, Nathan tells me: “Did you know that ‘bondad’ means ‘goodness’ in Spanish? It’s my favorite word.”

Bueno, Nathan.

Katy, Texas—She is an EMT student. She doesn’t know whether she wants this for a career. She’s been on ride-alongs, sitting in ambulances, watching emergency workers. She has seen some terrible scenes.

“The first accident I ever saw,” she says, “was so traumatic, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months. I just didn’t know if I was cut out to be a paramedic.”

One night, she is walking into a movie theater. She sees an old woman leaving the theater. The woman stumbles on the curb and falls onto her face.

Blood. Broken bones. Hollering. It is a mess.

The EMT in her kicks into action. The staff brings her an emergency first-aid kit. She dresses the woman’s wounds just like she’d been studying. She immobilizes the woman’s neck. She keeps her calm.

“I was cool…