Bill’s nine-year-old son was always talking about his friend Greg. And this was pretty much all Bill knew about his son’s classmate.

Until he noticed something unusual about Greg after a sleepover party. One morning, Greg offered to make everyone breakfast.

“He was nine,” says Bill. “And he cooked breakfast for us. I mean, what kind of nine-year-old knows how to make breakfast?”

This led Bill to ask his son about Greg’s home life. Bill’s son, in the tradition of all well-spoken, socially sensitive, acutely aware American nine-year-olds answered, “Can I have some new Pokémon cards, Dad?”

So Bill asked around at school, trying his best not to come off sounding like a nosy member of the KGB. He even offered Greg a ride home in hopes of learning more about the kid. But Greg declined because he said he usually rode the bus and besides, he too had a lot of important Pokémon cards to trade.

“So,” Bill says, “I staked out the kid’s house.”

Which, I want to point out, is absolutely normal for a middle-aged suburban male

like Bill to do. In terms of normalcy, conducting unauthorized surveillance on strangers’ homes is right up there with weekend basketball at the YMCA.

Bill parked across the street and watched from his minivan. There were no cars at the house, nobody was coming or going. He suspected Greg was living alone.

But as it happened, Bill—who has a long track record of this—was wrong. He learned this when he used a more direct approach. Namely, he asked Greg some questions.

“Greg,” he said, “do you live alone?”

“Nope,” Greg said.

Problem solved.

Greg explained that his father worked night shifts and slept during the daytime. And he worked three jobs.

Bill asked, “But how does your father drive to work? There are no cars at your house.”

“A van comes to get him,” said Greg.

A van? Well. It…

When I asked people to send letters to me a few weeks ago, so I could get them to Santa, I did not think that I would receive so many.

Letters came from, China, Venezuela, Alaska, and even the remote country of New Jersey. A man in Moscow sent me a fur cap with flaps, which I understand is called an уша́нка. A woman from Canada sent a harmonica. Many have sent photographs, greeting cards, business cards, and a few have even sent their income tax returns.

My desk is buried in envelopes, and I am still working on reading all the letters, I am not half way through, and more letters keep arriving. And I’ll be honest, it has been eye opening. I truly mean that.

The first thing I can honestly say I have learned after reading so many letters from so many good people is: People are alike.

No matter where they are from, no matter what someone’s age, race, or creed, I have learned that everyone genuinely wants the same basic human thing:


No, that was only a joke. What I actually learned is that everyone wants to be loved. I know this isn’t exactly new information, but if you were to read this statement over and over again, like I have, it might start to make an impression.

But enough from me. Here are a few excerpts from letters:

LAUREN, QUINCY; MASSACHUSETTS—“I want Santa to make me skinny this year. And if he won’t do it then I’ve decided I’m just going to be happy being fat.”

JULIA; WASHINGTON D.C.—“Help, I don’t know how to do calculus, Santa, and I’m barely holding onto a C, please do something.”

ZETA; ATLANTA—“Fix this weather, Santa. Hot and cold and hot and cold, I can’t figure out what to wear and it’s hard trying to dress cute.”

MYRA; HOUSTON, TEXAS—“Tell Santa that I am 24 years old,…

Sometimes I have to rack my brain about a topic for a column. But on rare occasions—call it divine intervention, the Circle of Life, or the Pythagorean Theorem—a column falls right into my lap.

Which is what is happening now. I am at a children’s choir concert with a friend. We are in a dark gymnasium, looking at a whimsical stage set crowded with small children.

The kids look like angels. Sort of. Not real angels, mind you. They are the kinds of angels who frequently shove their grubby little hands into the seats of their pants even though they are standing before an audience of three hundred spectators.

“Hands out of your pants,” the teachers keep saying.

But it’s no use.

Other children, however, spend the entire performance mumbling song lyrics halfheartedly. They are distracted because they are trying to locate their parents in the dark auditorium so they can wave to them.

Once a child has finished waving at his or her respective Mom, that child resumes digging in his or her underpants.

But one

boy in particular steals the show. I don’t know what his official role is, but in this musical production he is Bethlehem’s Nose Picker. This kid picks his nose with such sincerity that he deserves his own television show.

This kid is so far into his nostrils that his elbow joint has disappeared. Now and then he removes his upper arm from his nasal cavity whereupon he thoughtfully evaluates each booger before he eats it.

During the performance, I leave my seat to use the bathroom. In the lobby, I see an old woman and her grandson. She is scolding him. The boy drops his head.

I overhear his grandmother say, “You can’t bring Bang Snaps to a Christmas concert, Dane! What were you thinking? You’re grounded!”

“Noooo, pleeeease, Grandma,” the kid says.

Now, I know that some of you are probably wondering…

Her elderly father sits in a wheelchair in front of a television. It’s an old console TV. The kind every American family had back in the early 80s. A big bulbous screen. An archaic remote that looks like a gadget from a James Bond movie and probably interferes with air traffic. He doesn’t move a muscle.

She is mid-fifties. Pretty. She sits on the sofa next to him. She talks to him. He can hear her, but he doesn’t say much in return. He grunts occasionally.

“He’s in there somewhere,” she says. “I know it. Every now and then he recognizes me.”

But not often enough. She touches his hand and says, “Daddy, are you ready for lunch?”

He says nothing.

He has Alzheimer’s. He has good days and bad days. She lives with him. And the way it usually works for her is like this:

—When he has a good day, so does she.

—When he has a bad one, her day stinks.

“It’s just part of the deal,” she says. “When you’re a caregiver, you spend every waking

moment in his world, wiping his face, brushing his teeth, I bathe him, too. That took some getting used to.”

But this column isn’t about Alzheimer’s. Not really. It’s about the big Douglas fir in the corner.

This Christmas, she sprung for a real tree instead of a phony one. It sits beside his television, covered in lights, ornaments, and golden garland.

They just put it up a few days ago. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. It all started one morning at breakfast when her father said, “Hey, Teresa.”

And he said it just like that. No big deal. Except that it is a big deal.

“I knew it was going to be one of his good days,” she says. “I had to hurry.”

So she called her neighbor to help. They bought a tree. They brought the thing into…

MILTON—This is your quintessential West Floridian small town. It is bordered by the Blackwater River, with a cute mainstreet, and a great catfish joint. My hometown is about an hour east of here.

If you want to understand our culture in the Panhandle, you visit a place like Milton, Crestview, or DeFuniak Springs. If you want sixty-story condos with tennis courts, go thirty miles south until you see the Red Lobster restaurants and jet-ski rentals.

Tonight we’re doing a Christmas show at the historic Imogene Theatre in downtown Milton. By “we,” I mean my friends. There will be a band, a choir, and me. I don’t expect many people in the audience tonight because, like I said, this is a small town.

It’s forty minutes until showtime. My wife is with me backstage. She’s trying to stay upbeat because she knows small crowds can be discouraging. Sometimes with a tiny crowd it feels like you’re performing onstage at your own funeral reception.

I ask one of the stagehands, “Do you expect anybody to actually come to this show


The man just shrugs and says, “This is Milton,” as if this explains everything.

The bluegrass band arrives. Blue Mullet is what they call themselves. They tune their instruments and take the stage for soundcheck. I can’t help but notice they look perfect, playing in this antique room.

Behind them is a Vaudevillian backdrop—hand painted from the 1920s. The floorboards are heart pine, the brass chandeliers look original, the balcony railing is painted white.

The band plays to the empty theater before the doors open. The fiddle player is making his instrument whine. The upright bassist is “slapping the old doghouse.” The mandolinist sings into a snuff-tin microphone.

I am in the wings, watching with one of the maintenance men.

“You know,” he says, “Hank Williams played in this room.”

“He did?”

“Yep. So did Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.”


There she is. Yeah, it’s definitely her.

I haven’t seen her in years. She’s standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket, scooping mixed walnuts and pecans into a bag.

Nat King Cole Christmas music plays overhead. It smells like Santa Claus’ aftershave in this grocery store.

She couldn’t possibly remember me. I was the quiet man in the rear of her speech class. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.

Like most in her class, I was petrified of public speaking. So were my peers.

My first speech was one I’d like to forget. I delivered a torturous five-minute monologue on the proper way to prepare Pop Tarts.

When I finished, she gave a smile that seemed to say, “I hate my life.”

I was an adult male with two jobs, a wife, and a back surgery. I tried my best in her class. And she rewarded me for it.

I’ll never forget her for that.

My classmate, Gary, was a lot like me. He worked menial jobs, he had daughters, bills. We complained

in the breezeway before classes together.

Gary had a stutter—a crippling condition that embarrassed him. Simple conversation was difficult, sometimes almost impossible. Finishing a sentence could take ten minutes.

And when she paired students for final projects, she placed us together.

We worked on our speeches one evening at a sports bar. We set up shop in a booth on a Saturday night and watched the Alabama-Georgia game while scribbling speech notes on paper.

Gary purposed we make our speeches on the crisis facing modern paternity in a national economic holocaust.

“Yawn,” said I. “Let’s speak about baseball, America’s greatest pastime, or stock-car racing, or the ever-elusive, yet highly-documented and indisputably-real Bigfoot.”

We finally agreed on writing about our parents. I don’t remember much else that night, except that our notebooks had beer-stains.

And: Alabama lost to Georgia,…

The last thing anyone wants to do in cold weather is deal with self-centered, rambunctious, barnyard pigs. At least that’s what Gayle tells me.

Try to imagine this scene: Gayle is standing in a hog pen, wearing her nightgown, slippers, and a winter coat, swinging a garden rake at a bunch of pigs. Why, you might ask?

Let me back up.

Earlier that morning, Gayle’s neighbor Rob was feeding his pigs. The excited pigs acted like they hadn’t eaten in a decade—even though Rob had fed them hours earlier. They rammed Rob against the fence.

They knocked him down and trampled his leg. He screamed. And he discovered he’d broken his leg and couldn’t walk.

Luckily Rob had his cellphone. He called Gayle, his closest neighbor, while he was lying in the mud. He barely knew her, but she was closer than a hospital.

Gayle answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Gayle,” he said. “It’s your neighbor, Rob.”

“Hi, Rob, what’s up?”

Rob, lying in the mud, glanced at the greedy pigs, eating slop over his limp and lifeless body. “Oh, not much,” he said. “What have

you been up to lately?”

“Not much. How are you?”

“Can’t complain. Hey listen, are you busy?”

At the time, she was babysitting her daughter’s children. She was making breakfast, baking cookies, doing grandma things.

“A little busy,” she said. “Why?”

“No reason,” he said. “I’ve broken my leg and I think I’m dying.”

She threw the kids into the truck, then raced to Rob’s house. She found him lying in the pen, covered in muck.

“I don’t know how Gayle did it,” Rob explains. “I thought I was hallucinating, I mean here comes this crazy lady in a nightgown, fighting pigs with a garden rake, lifting me into the truck all by herself.”

But Gayle’s not crazy. Not technically. She was a fifty-seven-year-old, independent, and tough woman. She’d survived one husband and raised…

A trailer park. I am sixteen. I am a dummy. Lots of sixteen-year-old boys are. Today, there are three dummies here to help Johnnie Miller’s mother decorate her trailer for Christmas.

His mother goes all out for Christmas even though his house is—how should I put this?—a dump. It’s an ugly, brown, sixty-foot mobile home, with a rusted roof, and a hot water heater in the backyard.

She has lights, giant lawn figurines, a plastic Santa with reindeer. She owns a lifetime’s worth of Christmas junk, and her collection only seems to grow each year. Johnnie has been putting up these decorations each December since he was old enough to sprout armpit hair. This year he’s recruited help.

We boys climb on ladders. We deck the halls and decorate every square inch of the ugly house. The windows, trim, gutters, eves, porch posts, even the steps.

And his mother doesn’t use modern Christmas lights. These are the kind from 1951, with thick bulbs and aluminum wiring you often hear about on the evening news. (“And in

local news tonight, a sixteen-year-old boy electrocuted from faulty Christmas lights, police used fingerprints to identify the melted body. Back to you, Lisa.”)

Johnnie and I and two other boys are working from noon until night. And after several hours of work, it occurs to one of us: “Hey! Why doesn’t your mom just leave the decorations up year round?”

Johnnie’s mother overhears this. She is standing on the lawn, smoking a cigarette.

“It ruins the excitement,” she says. “There’s nothing special about decorations if you leave them up.”

She is older than other mothers. She has white hair, she looks like she’s lived a hard life. Her voice is like a tuba, and she always wears embroidered sweatshirts.

We work on the house until dark. We are ready to go home because we think we’re finished. But we discover that we aren’t even…

There are customers at the tree lot tonight. A young family. The old man leaves his TV dinner to help them.

Trees everywhere. Big balsam firs. The old man who runs the Christmas tree lot is almost seventy-three. He keeps a small travel trailer, sixteen feet, with a television, a bed, and a microwave. When things are slow, he’s inside, eating his TV dinner.

He has a dog. The dog’s name is Brownie. He doesn’t even remember how he named this dog because Brownie is pure white.

“He pees all the time,” says the old man, poking a fork at his dinner. “Brownie loves to pee on people’s tires, I don’t know why.”

The old man is a friendly salesman. When customers look at his trees, he accompanies them and entertains. He has a little routine, complete with jokes, and hard candy for the kids. Sometimes horehounds, which is a candy I haven’t had in ages. My grandfather used to eat horehounds.

“I used to give out caramel chews,” the old man says, “But they’re expensive.”

Brownie runs all over, wandering between trees. He checks on people, and gets free rubdowns from anyone who will touch him.


he’s a little Cassanova,” says the man. “Never met a stranger, and never met a car tire he don’t wanna tee-tee on.”

The old man’s son helps manage the lot. But he and his son aren’t “super close,” as the man puts it. The old man admits that he walked out on his son and his family when his son was a little boy. Years later, they reunited, but it’s been slow going.

“When you screw up like I did,” says the man, “there’s no coming back from it. All you can do is try to be in your kid’s life, be a friend.”

There are customers at the tree lot tonight. A young family. The old man leaves his TV dinner to help them. They have two kids; a boy and a girl. The man does his usual routine, a joke or…

When you were a kid, December was your favorite month. It was the best month of all. There was magic in the air in December. You knew this because there were hundreds of cheesy television advertisements telling you about “the magic of Christmas.”

Which was easy to believe because when you’re a kid everything is magic. Your entire life is about fairytales, cowboys, international spies, firing cap guns, or galloping around on a stick-horsey.

But one day you got older and realized you were mistaken about the magic of life. Real life was about a lot more than stick-horseys.

Real life was rough. Real life was having your tonsils ripped out with medieval salad tongs by a family doctor who smelled like Old Spice and Lucky Strikes.

Also, real life was about the monkey bars, a good game of tag, or kisses from girls.

In grade school, you weren’t sure how life suddenly became about kissing girls, but everyone was getting kisses, so you thought, “Hey, why not?”

Then something went wrong.

Somehow you ended up with not just one, but TWO girlfriends—Katie and Gladys.

You’d get a kiss from Katie in the morning, and one from Gladys in the afternoon. Soon, the girls got into a fight, with bloody noses and everything. This would be the only time in your life when two girls would ever fight over you. So you tried very hard to enjoy the magic of it.

Time marched forward. Eventually, you learned that life was not about kisses, but trees. Big ones, tall ones with lots of limbs. You climbed these trees, one at a time. Until one day you were picking mulberries from one and you fell.

You landed on your shoulder. You were certain it was broken, but your mother declared that it was not. Which was a rotten deal because when Fred Thompson broke his arm he lived like the king of…