Mya, the reporter, and I are in my dressing room, standing before a camera.

COLUMBUS—It’s a rainy night in Georgia. I have an interview on the local evening news. This is a monumental occasion. My mother called to make sure I was wearing clean underwear.

The last time I was in Columbus, I was in college. I was wearing clean underwear then, too. I was an adult student, traveling with a bunch of eighteen-year-old music students on a school trip. That weekend, I saw some of the world’s most accomplished pianists perform in concert. And it was great.

I was a different person back then. Back then, I had this ridiculous idea that I was going to be a pianist one day.

I wish someone would’ve told me life doesn’t happen how you plan, no matter what kind of underpants you wear.

Anyway, being on the news is a big deal. I have only been on the news twice before.

The first time, I was helping judge a barbecue competition. Me and my friend Buck were interviewed on a local channel. There were cameras with blinking lights, teleprompters, cameramen giving hand signals,

and a makeup lady kept powdering my face and saying, “I’ve never seen so much oil on one godforsaken forehead.” And the interview basically went like this:

“So, tell us about the upcoming event, Sean.”

“Uhhhh…”

“Sean, what can people expect at this event?”

“I uhhhh...”

“Back to you, Terry.”

The other time I was on the news was when my cousin accidentally stole a luxury sedan. His elderly father-in-law had forgotten that he’d agreed to let us borrow his Buick for a road trip. He reported the car as stolen.

We got pulled over in Tennessee. After much confusion with local law enforcement officials, we all had a good laugh about it. And I can say one thing about the upstanding penal system in Tennessee, they serve delicious hamburger steaks.

But getting back to Columbus. Tonight’s news interview is about the…

There is a perfectly good reason why for breakfast I ate a leftover fried chicken breast that was big enough to qualify as an amusement-park ride at Dollywood. Because my wife is a Southern woman.

And this is what we eat in our household sometimes.

These days, the public image of Southerners has become skewed by popular culture. Take entertainment television.

There is a new breed of reality TV shows which often feature Southerners as leading characters. These characters often use corny “downhome” phrases which were actually invented by television script writers who all grew up spending summers in Martha’s Vineyard.

These writers come up with phrases like:

“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, son.”

And “Sweet as sugar, baby child.”

And “That is finer than THE frog’s hair.”

This is an affront. Nobody I know says, “THE frog’s hair.” There is no “the” in this well-loved phrase. When misused this way, this phrase seems to imply that there is a proverbial frog traipsing around THE Great American South wearing a little hairstyle like THE Reverend Jerry Falwell and constantly reapplying

THE Brylcreem to its little rug.

Anyone will tell you that the expression simply goes: “Finer than frog hair.”

Of course, there are regional variations of this expression.

If you travel below Tennessee, for example, you might hear, “Finer than frog hair split four ways.”

Go to middle Alabama and they will say, “Finer than frog hair split four ways, sifted ten times.”

Travel below Montgomery and they will simply say, “Day-um.”

So Southerners are often portrayed as complete idiots on television. This is sad. Because there was once a time when Jimmy Dean, Buck Owens, Andy Griffith, Dolly Parton, and Porter Wagoner graced the television air waves.

Whereas today, you see young people talking in hammed-up country accents, using the word “y’all” in the wrong place. And this is perhaps the worst offense of all.

Contrary to Hollywood’s opinion,…

My mother looked for distractions that made us laugh, things that made us smile, games, puzzles, crafts, or road trips.

I bought a jigsaw puzzle at the grocery store today. The box features an ornate cathedral with red roses and blossoming foliage. The cathedral is in Germany. The puzzle cost two bucks.

My mother and I used to do jigsaw puzzles. Big puzzles. We did them together. I was no good at jigsaws, but she was an expert.

Long ago, puzzles cost seventy-five cents, and provided hours of distraction. We needed distractions back then. We welcomed anything that took our minds off my father’s untimely death, and the gloom that came thereafter.

My mother looked for distractions that made us laugh, things that made us smile, games, puzzles, crafts, or road trips.

Once, she took us to Branson. She took me to see a Dolly Parton impersonator. The show was spectacular. After the performance, the woman in the blonde wig hugged me so tight she nearly suffocated me with her enormous attributes.

When my mother saw me locked with the buxom woman, she shrieked and started praying in tongues. She yanked me by my

earlobe and drug me away. And I have been a lifelong Dolly Parton fan ever since.

Anyway, my mother loved doing things with her hands. She made large quilts from old T-shirts, she gardened, she did puzzle books, anagrams, crosswords, cryptograms, she knitted, crocheted, and painted.

She played cards with me, sometimes checkers, and she was a Scrabble fanatic. But jigsaw puzzles. Those were our thing.

My mother started each puzzle by saying the same thing:

“We gotta find the corners first, that’s how you do it.”

The idea was that once you found the corners, the rest of the puzzle would come together. Thus, we would sift through twenty-five hundred pieces, looking for four corners. Once we found them, we’d dig for the edges.

We’d place pieces into piles, then link them together. Piece by piece. Section by section. Mama and I could spend a…

One of my guitars is a glorified piece of garbage, but it has a story behind it.

It was built in a Jersey City factory, in the 1920s, whereupon it was shipped to an Atlanta music store. Probably during that same year, it was bought by a man who was visiting Atlanta from Britain. He took it to England, and that was that.

Almost ninety years later, I bought it from a kid who was visiting Florida from Devonshire, England. He played this old American guitar for me and I fell in love.

It was a crummy old thing. Falling apart. And really, if I’m being honest, it was a piece of junk. But I have a soft spot for old junk.

I’ve been playing a guitar for most of my life, and after all these years I can truly say that I still suck at it. I have to hold my mouth right just to play certain chords.

But the real reason I wanted this guitar was because when I

was a kid, my father bought me one just like it. Same brand, same shape, same size, and model. My father got it at a garage sale. He gave it to me one summer day and seemed to simply expect me to learn how to play it.

He was always doing things like this. Years later, when I was nine, he did the same thing with a piano. He gave me one and told me to teach myself. It took me almost a lifetime to learn to play—this is not a joke—“Happy Birthday.” Because this is not as easy of a song as you might think.

When the tune gets to the happy-birthday-dear-So-And-So part, the chord doesn’t work with the melody.

So I never quite figured it out. Which would often make me look like a complete dipstick at, for instance, birthday parties. Because during the apex of the…

I love collards. And the only way to cook greens is to serve them with the ugliest, most deformed ham hock knuckle you can find.

Fourteen-year-old Hayden from Maryland, sent me a letter asking what my favorite food is. Hayden says that her personal favorite food is apple pie with melted cheese on top.

All I can say is: Hayden, you can enjoy that pie all by yourself, sweetie. Because I’d rather lick a mule between the ears than put cheese on apple pie. But then, who am I to judge? Someone wise once said: “Just because we can’t agree doesn’t mean that you’re not a complete wacko for ruining your apple pie like that.”

Anyway, to answer your question, Hayden, my all-time favorite foods have changed over the years.

When I was a baby, my mother says that I would eat entire blocks of cheddar while in my high chair. My mother, who thought it was cute to see a child gnawing on a brick of cheese, would take photographs of this, thereby documenting the origins of my longtime childhood weight problem.

But I eventually grew out of the cheese fascination and I moved onto:

Mashed

potatoes. The women in my family make mashed potatoes using an ancient family recipe:

—1 potato.
—80 sticks of butter.
—“Days of Our Lives” blaring at high volume.

Also, my mother did not whip her potatoes with electric mixers like the pagans do. She had an actual hand masher. It was covered in rust and looked like a tiny tetanus-covered farm implement. I would always lick the masher when she finished. Though occasionally, I would lick the masher while she was still mashing.

I love collards. And the only way to cook greens is with the ugliest, most deformed ham hock knuckle you can find.

Also, bacon. And I do not believe that all bacon is created equal. The bacon I like is the hand-cut kind your granddaddy would spend his hard earned money on.

My mother told me that when she was a girl, men…

Traveling is hard work. You basically wear the same outfit for days, live out of a suitcase, and sleep on crummy hotel pillows

Before setting out for our six-week Great American Road Trip we did what all responsible travelers must do to prepare for the unforeseen dangers and dire emergencies of the highway and we packed our fifty-dollar essential oil diffuser.

I know that some young men out there might be wondering what a diffuser is. But if you are a married man you are probably nodding and saying, “Yes, my wife also spends our hard earned mortgage money on essential oils, too, then pours these oils into a diffuser.”

A diffuser is basically a smell-good machine that sprays out scented fog laced with essential oils that make the air smell like cinnamon and cause you to feel drowsy.

There are supposed health benefits from diffusers. But I can only speak from experience when I say that I have been breathing diffused air for years and I, personally, have received more health benefits from Anheuser-Busch products.

Either way, we do not leave home without our fifty-dollar diffuser.

We do not travel light. My wife could

take a one-night trip to her mother’s house and still bring a Coleman cooler, a king-sized comforter, half her hanging clothes, an electric fan, a harpsichord, and of course the diffuser.

The diffuser isn’t usually a problem unless you travel by airline. In which case we put the diffuser in my carry-on bag and it becomes national news.

Whenever I go through airport security, the TSA employees always zero in on this device and squint at it doubtfully, at times even smelling it. Then they glare at me and call in the German shepherds.

But getting back to our road trip. We have been all over the place this last month, doing my one-man show. Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Lousianna, Mississippi, Tennessee, New York, Pennsylvania.

Traveling is hard work. You basically wear the same outfit for days, live out of a suitcase, and sleep on crummy hotel pillows.

Each…

The elderly couple next to me is shouting with such strong voices that I can hardly keep my mind on my own thoughts.

A crowded seafood joint. Everyone is eating. The sound of George Jones is blasting over the speakers. There are a lot of people here who eat with their hands.

The elderly couple next to me is shouting with such strong voices that I can hardly keep my mind on my own thoughts. Both of these people are wearing hearing aids and using voices loud enough to register on the Richter Scale.

The waitress brings their food then leaves. The old man looks at his food and hollers to his wife. The conversation goes like this:

OLD MAN: Honey, I asked for this burger to be cooked WELL DONE, this is rare.

OLD WOMAN: Just eat it, Jerry. It won’t kill you. Besides, you used to like it rare.

HIM: Yeah, well I also used to like spicy food and raw oysters, but you don’t see me eating them anymore.

HER: When did you quit eating oysters?

HIM: Ever since Roger ate them and came down with the gingivitis.

HER: That’s not how you say it. It’s not gingivitis.

HIM: Whatever, I don’t eat raw oysters. They’re gross. Gingivitis kills

people.

HER: It’s not gingivitis.

HIM: Well, that’s what Roger called it. His doctor said he and Shirley can’t have kids anymore.

HER: Shirley is almost eighty.

HIM: Still.

HER: It’s not gingivitis you get from oysters, you dummy. It’s MENINGITIS. Don’t you know anything? Now eat your hamburger.

HIM: It’s been thirty years since I had an oyster. My dad always said never to eat them in months that begin with “R.”

—LONG PAUSE—

HER: There are no months that begin with “R,” Jerry.

HIM: Daddy never could spell.

HER: I think you’ve got it backwards, I don’t think the expression is about months that BEGIN with “R,” I think it says not to eat them in months that END in “R.”

HIM: So people shouldn’t eat oysters in months…

The old man sips his drink and watches the game on the TV over the bar. Whenever LSU scores, he and the bartender head-butt me.

The Alabama-LSU game is on. Half the jerseys in this sports bar are Alabama-crimson. The other half are purple, worn by people who shout “GO TIGERS!”

I am wearing a crimson T-shirt, sitting at the bar, meeting my wife here for dinner tonight. She is running a little late.

There is some trash talk going on between opposing teams. Nothing too off-color. This is a game day tradition between LSU and Alabama fans. These two sets of fans are vicious enemies.

Today, it’s mostly just middle-aged guys doing the tough talking. There are no cuss words being used because most middle-aged guys are dads and have already started speaking fluent Four-Year-Old. Take my friend, John. He often uses the word “potty” in daily conversation. He will use even use this word if he is, for instance, at a monster truck rally.

There is an old man at the bar beside me, an LSU fan. He is old. Reserved. Wearing purple. He drinks gin and tonic. He and the bartender start talking about LSU.

She’s in a purple jersey, too. She is from Louisiana and she even sings a little of the LSU fight song, “Hey Fightin’ Tigers.”

“Hey fightin’ Tigers,
“Fight all the way,
“Hey fightin’ Tigers,
“Win the game today…”

I have known all kinds of fans in my time. LSU fans are a different breed. I once dated a girl from Baton Rouge. She was so passionate about her school that it’s a wonder she’s not in jail on assault charges.

She and her mother and her sisters would often burst into singing the LSU fight song at the most bizarre moments. It didn’t matter if they were cooking spaghetti, or at a Junior League meeting. When the mood hit, they would sing “Hey Fightin’ Tigers” and then headbutt whoever dared oppose them.

Ask me how I know this.

Alabama fans aren’t that way. We…

TALLAHASSEE—he was homeless. Long beard, weathered skin. I was sitting in traffic. He walked between lines of vehicles at the stoplight. He carried a cardboard sign. I rolled down my window and handed him all the cash I had—which wasn’t much.

Maybe fifteen bucks.

He smelled like an open bottle. He stood at my window and said, “I don’t know you, but I love you.”

Those words. I’ve thought about them for days. I thought about them when I drove past an ambulance this morning.

Two cars looked like crushed Budweiser cans. Traffic backed up for a mile. EMTs loaded a stretcher.

One paramedic was hugging a child in the median. The kid squeezed him and cried his eyes out. The EMT squeezed back. I’ll bet they don’t teach that in EMT training.

Here’s another:

After my friend’s wife died, he adopted a cat. It didn’t take long before he’d spoiled the animal rotten. He bought toys, an outdoor pet bed, a food bowl, a collar.

The next morning, he woke to see three feral cats on his porch. So, he

did what any self-respecting man would. He named them.

The following day, two more feral cats.
“I went from being lonely,” he said, “to being Doctor Freaking Doolittle. Cats just trust me.”

Last week, I met an old man who sat at the bar of a rundown beer joint. He was watching the band play. He was deaf. In a loud voice, he asked if he could buy me a beer. I accepted.

He told me he’d totally lost his hearing a few years ago. He woke up one morning and he was fully deaf. His life changed. It forced him to retire early. It’s been hard.

Last year, his nine-year-old granddaughter begged him to attend her school concert. He showed up with a sour attitude.

For the school’s final musical number, one hundred and twenty elementary students…

So you can’t tell me that a guy spends that kind of money on a boat because he’s serious about fishing. No. It’s about more than that.

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he will come home late, severely dehydrated and malnourished, because the only thing he had in his cooler was Natural Light beer and a package of expired Oscar Mayer bologna.

I hate Natural Light beer. It tastes like something that has been passed through the system of a diabetic house cat. But long ago this was the beer we young fishermen bought because it was super cheap. We would stock our coolers with Natural Light, and whoever gagged first lost a substantial bet.

Today, I went fishing with my buddy because I haven’t fished with him in years. We didn’t bring any Natural Light. My friend had some medical troubles a few years back and decided to quit drinking.

I have to admit, it was a little weird, fishing with a cooler full of nothing but raspberry-flavored La Croix, but whatever.

Because fishing is not truly about fishing. It never has been. If

a man ever looks you dead in the eye and tells you that fishing is actually about fishing, this man is the kind of man who will lie to his own mother.

Every fisherman knows that fishing is not really about fishing. It is about the outdoors, the sound of an outboard motor, the clicking of a baitcast reel, and most importantly, about raspberry-flavored La Croix.

Case in point: I have a friend who bought a very fancy boat. I’m talking a ridiculous superboat. It came with GPS, depth-finder, two trolling motors, and ten outboards that were powerful enough to blow the water out of the Baltic Sea.

When we asked how much he paid for the boat, he told us a price and I almost choked on my Oscar Mayer bologna.

That next weekend, he took several of us fishing. It was swanky. He had a cooler full…