When I first attended this school, it was called Okaloosa Walton College. It was about the size of an area rug back then.

NICEVILLE—The Northwest Florida State College parking lot is swarmed with cars. Families are hurrying toward the gymnasium, dressed in their Sunday best.

I pass a man wearing denim. There are grease smudges on his jeans. Holes in his work shirt.

“I’m gonna see my son graduate,” he tells me, lighting a cigarette. “I can hardly believe it.”

Tha man’s name is Danny, he drove here from DeFuniak Springs to see his boy walk across a stage to receive a degree.

“My son’s the pride of our family,” he says. “I love that boy so much.”

Inside the arena is a huge crowd. In the center of the basketball court are hundreds of students in black gowns and square caps. Their faces, happy. Their smiles, blinding.

I stand in the nosebleeds beside Danny. He uses his phone to capture this moment.

Danny tells me his bossman didn’t want him leaving work today. But Danny said, “Damn that, I’m gonna see my boy walk, sir, and if you don’t like it, that’s

too bad. I’ll be back after lunch.”

When we sing the national anthem, Danny removes his cap and holds it over his heart. He sings louder than anyone.

Then he waves at his son. But his son doesn’t see him.

“There he is,” Danny says, pointing. “See him?”

“I see him,” I say.

When I first attended this school, it was called Okaloosa Walton College. It was about the size of an area rug back then.

This was the only place that would take an adult dropout like me. And it is the only alma mater I have ever known.

It’s funny. I was afraid to enroll here as an adult. I was worried everyone would think I was stupid. I was embarrassed on my first day of class. But I got over it. It took me less than…

I don’t know a thing about the nature of life, but I don’t think happiness is something a young man can whip up. I believe over time it grows on him, like algae.

Port Saint Joe is painted with late afternoon sunlight, and I am walking downtown with my wife.

The small Panhandle city is busy with pre-summer tourists. The storefronts look the same way they did in the 1950’s. The old theater marquee reads, “God bless Port Saint Joe.”

I love it here. Long ago, I wrote a novel here. Actually, it was more like a novella. It wasn’t thick enough to balance a wobbly table, but I’ll never forget the sense of accomplishment it gave me.

I didn’t think I could do it. I had almost no faith in myself. To write it, I had camped in a small sixteen-foot camper with my dog.

It was my pal, Lyle, who first encouraged me to do it.

He said, “If you don’t give yourself permission to do something you’ve always wanted to, then what the hell’s your life all about?”

So I tried it. I camped. I wrote for hours, then I ate oysters for supper and drank Red Stripe beer. My bloodhound could eat nearly as many raw oysters as I could.

My bloodhound was born in Indian Pass, just down the road from Port Saint Joe. When I first got her, she was the kind of pup who had saltwater in her blood. She lived for this water.

Throughout her life, we would visit often. I loved watching her run these beaches. She was a special dog.

Some of her ashes sit on my mantle, some ride in my truck. I also brought some of her on this trip.

I put a few spoonfuls of her ash into a Red Stripe bottle, with a cork in the top and rocks in the bottom. And there was a handwritten poem inside.

It was short:

“I love her, Ellie Mae,
Though she is now above,
May she rest forever on…

Breakfast was a grand production. And my girlfriend, Jamie, was in charge of making the biscuits. She was fixing her Granny’s recipe. I almost proposed.

Cape San Blas—The Gulf of Mexico is outside my window. I am eating breakfast. These are some very good biscuits.

Biscuits are the reason I am writing this. I love biscuits, you see. When I was a boy, my mother made them by dusting the counter with flour and stamping dough with a drinking glass. Hers were big enough to be used in professional wrestling matches.

Right now, my wife and I are in Cape San Blas, staying in a rented beach house with the windows open. The kitchen is tiny, but my wife managed to whip up magic.

In its lifetime, the cape has seen its share of hell. Four historic lighthouses have come and gone due to hurricanes. Storms have been beating this peninsula ever since Adam’s heyday.

Recently, Hurricane Ivan, Katrina, and of course Michael. But you can hardly tell it. The remote cape looks as lovely as it always has.

“If you live in Cape San Blas,” said one local man, “you expect

things to get rough, but we don’t worry too bad, that’s life, man. You get your tools and rebuild.”

There’s something poetic about that.

Years ago, I had the first breakfast my wife ever prepared for me, right here in Cape San Blas. We weren’t married. I was a younger man.

My father had been dead for years. I was damaged goods, but somehow I managed to get a girlfriend. I was staying with her family in a rental house on the cape. That first breakfast lives in my memory.

Her father was frying sausage, her mother was eating a grapefruit with sugar, and her brother was getting his fishing rods ready.

There was an old man in a recliner, they told me he was a politician once. He wore seersucker. He was reading the Port Saint Joe Star.

Breakfast was a grand production.…

Port Saint Joe—It’s early morning. It’s dark outside. And it’s cold enough in our room to hang meat.

This is my wife’s doing. She cranked the AC to negative eighteen degrees. I can see my breath.

We’ve been on the road for weeks now, and my wife has enjoyed sub-arctic conditions in various hotel rooms across the Southeast. My nose is about to develop frostbite.

Funny. I remember when my father got frostbite on his ears when I was a kid. He’d been welding outside one January day. He came home in bad shape, the tips of his ears were black.

He wore bandages over his ears for a week.

“Why do you have to work outside?” I asked Daddy.

“Because I love you,” he said. “That’s why.”

“You must REALLY love me.”

“I do.”

“How much?”

“Oh, s’pose you take the stars in the sky, multiply them times a billion, then wrap them in sunshine… That’s not even CLOSE to how much.”

I don’t know why good men die so young.

So, this morning I’m writing you—because I don’t know what else to do while my wife slumbers in this icy, artificial climate. I can’t feel my toes.

This woman. She and I have gone through several phases of life together. We’ve changed careers a dozen times.

I laid tile; she worked in a hospital cafeteria. I hung gutters; she taught preschool. I worked landscaping; she was a nanny. I worked nights, playing guitar at an all-you-can-eat-crab-leg joint; she babysat weekends.

Years went by, and my Great Career Ferris Wheel kept spinning. Then, I got laid off.

It was quite a blow. We didn’t know what to do. So we did what all half-broke couples do. We took a lavish vacation.

Well, it wasn’t exactly lavish. We went camping in Indian Pass, Florida—a sleepy North Floridian…

They were children, young adults, teachers, adjunct professors, and custodians. Some of the students might have been sitting in their classrooms daydreaming about the same things I once thought about in college.

I turned on my television. A reporter announced that there had been a school shooting at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte campus.

The TV showed scenes from a nightmare. Paramedics. People on stretchers. Police cruisers. The reporter said that two people were killed, four had been injured.

I didn’t mean to, but I started crying. It just sort of happened. You can’t control these things.

My dog began scratching the door to go outside. So I wiped my face and took her for a walk to help clear my head.

The sun was lowering, the sky was orange, the clouds were perfect. And I started thinking about the devastated students in Charlotte.

They were children, young adults, teachers, adjunct professors, and custodians. Some of the students might have been sitting in their classrooms daydreaming about the same things I once thought about in college.

Maybe they wondered if they would pass algebra. Maybe they wondered if the blonde in social science class ever noticed them. Perhaps they wondered why professors

go to the trouble of printing syllabuses when nobody reads them.

Then. All hell broke loose.

The thought made me cry again. “Get a hold of yourself,” I whispered. “You’re turning into an old woman.”

That’s when I saw my neighbor’s children, playing in the street. A girl knelt on a skateboard, dressed as Batman. She had the mask and everything. Her brother was rolling her on the pavement.

The girl threw her arms outward, her cape waved behind her. They wore smiles bright enough to set the woods on fire.

I doubted that these children had any idea about what happened today in Charlotte. Thankfully.

The little girl whizzed by.

“I’m flying!” she screamed. “Can you see me?”

“I see you!” her brother shouted. “You’re doing it!”

It was sweet enough to bring a tear to a glass eye.…

I wanted to call her “Thelma Lou” after Barney Fife’s girl on the Andy Griffith Show. Because in the sitcom of life I am a lot like Barney Fife.

I’ll never forget it. One year ago, we pulled into a long dirt driveway in Molino, Florida. The grass was long. The sky was blue. A farmhouse sat in the distance.

I opened my truck door and saw a litter of bloodhound puppies running in all directions. One puppy in particular caught my attention. A girl.

She ran slower than the rest. She had paws that were ten sizes too big for her body. Her ears were long enough to be featured in a Disney animated film. Her clumsy gait was more bounce than run.

“She’s the runt,” said the man. “Can’t quite keep up with the others, bless her heart. She tries so hard.”

The puppy’s brothers and sisters had left her in the dust. They were chasing something together in a pack, but their runt sister was too far away to catch up. So she stopped and caught her breath, watching them play without her.

“See?” said the man. “She’s sorta slow, they always leave

her out, but she sure is sweet.”

I wandered toward her, talking to her in a high-pitched voice.

I come from rural people. Something within my DNA makes me use a high-pitched voice around babies, animals, and during arguments with my wife.

The dog looked at me. And because she descended from generations of rural dogs, something inside her said “attack him.”

The puppy bounded toward me like a floppy piglet. I dropped to my knees. She tackled me. She ate my hat. Then she chewed on my earlobe.

And I knew that Heaven had made her just for me.

I wanted to call her “Thelma Lou” after Barney Fife’s girl on the Andy Griffith Show. Because in the great sitcom of life I am a lot like Barney Fife. I would love to be heroic like Andy, but I’m not. If you ever…

You might meet a new friend. A lover. A kid. A feral dog. An angel. See, while I write this, the sun is about to rise, and this seemingly normal morning might actually be a spectacular day in disguise.

I’m warning you beforehand, what I’m about to say is going to seem utterly ridiculous.

Here goes:

My mother once told me that I could conquer the world if I ate a decent breakfast. The whole world. All because of breakfast.

See? I tried to warn you.

Anyway, to this very day I’m still not sure how this meal can make conquering the world possible, but my mother never lies.

I remember the day she told me, I was having a devastating morning. I was about to take an entrance exam into the sixth grade. And this was a big deal because earlier that year, I’d failed fifth-grade—which drained my confidence.

But back to breakfast.

Mama made the greasiest meal. Three eggs, cooked in fat from a Maxwell House can, bacon, potatoes, grits, and toast hearty enough to sand the hull of a battleship.

I passed my test. I made it to the next grade. And eventually, my confidence began to improve. Thusly—and I’ve always wanted to use that word—I can

only assume that breakfast played an important role.

Since then, I’ve always believed in the first daily meal. I ate a good breakfast the day I got married. A big one. That day, the waitress kept bringing me plates of pancakes.

“You must be starving, honey,” she said.

I smiled. “Thusly,” said I.

But I was only nervous-eating. Truth told, they weren’t even good pancakes—the blueberries tasted like freeze-dried goat pellets.

I also ate a big breakfast the day I got fired. My boss called me into his office and chewed me a new nose-hole. He said things so hateful I can still remember them. I quietly walked out of his office before he finished speaking.

I went to eat breakfast. I read the paper, I watched the sunrise. I had one of the best mornings I’ve had in years.…