When I read the email, I realized the person who wrote this letter was not being funny, but was having a dire emergency.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know jack diddly about teenage romance, which is why I am answering an important email on teenage romance.

This morning, I got an email with the subject line:


Almost anyone can relate to the urgency of this six-exclamation-point statement. We’ve all been there, sitting in third-period algebra, filled with teenage angst and confusion, but all we can do is daydream because in our heart of hearts we aren’t exactly sure what a “bpy” is.

When I read the email, I realized the person who wrote this letter was not being funny, but has a dire emergency.

Here’s part of the message:

“There’s a guy in my class [eighth grade] who is cute and I want to talk to him, but he doesn’t even know I’m alive, and my mom told me I should ask you because you’re also a guy. I hoped you might have some advice for me.”

Well, the first thing I want to say is that I am jealous of my parents and grandparents. They had it a lot easier than we do. There have been some major changes in the field of romance within the last sixty years.

The uncharted waters of teenage love were a lot easier to navigate back when Sandra Dee was still playing Gidget and people were still using the word “gosh” before each sentence.

Let’s take, for example, the movie “Beach Blanket Bingo,” which was on cable a few nights ago. Fifteen minutes into this movie and you can see how much society has changed.

For one thing, fashion is different. Men quit wearing skimpy swim trunks, and ladies quit wearing those massive conical brassieres that resembled military defense machinery capable of taking out entire villages. For another thing, nobody uses the word “spiffy” anymore.

We can…

The waiter said, “No sir, I didn’t forget your bill, there is no bill, someone paid for your pizza.”

Recently, I went to the gas station to get a newspaper, coffee, and lottery ticket. My bloodhound, Thelma Lou—poster child for moderate hyperactivity disorder—usually goes with me.

The way our morning routine usually works is simple: I buy a newspaper, maybe some powdered donuts; she steals my donuts, and eats my newspaper.

But on this morning, when I walked into the gas station, something was wrong. Before I even got to the donuts, I could tell the air was tense.

The scene was this:

The cashier behind the counter was frazzled. She obviously did not know how to use the computerized cash register.

A customer at the counter was aggravated with her. There were five customers in line. They were all displaying universal gestures of annoyance.

Clearing throats. Folding arms. Tapping feet. The woman in front of me glanced at her watch. One man sighed hard enough to knock over a circus tent.

“Not-niceness.” That’s what we’re dealing with here. And it’s running rampant in today’s world.

The customers were

growing not-nicer by the minute. Finally, a man slammed his change on the counter. Another man mumbled a cuss word before storming out.

One woman shook her head and said, “Learn how to do your JOB, sweetie.”

When I got to the cashier she was too overwhelmed to say anything. Who can blame her? It’s not every day five customers behave like walking-talking jack mules.

She was a woman who looked older than she was. Her hair was blonde. She had tattoos on her arms, and on her hands.

“People can certainly be mean,” I remarked.

“Yeah,” she said. Then, she sort of broke down. She placed her head in her hands.

“I just CAN’T figure out this computer,” she said. “I ain’t stupid, I know how to do stuff, but this thing’s acting weird.”

So, I made conversation.…

Then I got some literary advice from my late father—I don’t know how he knew to tell me this. He told me to simply run my mouth, and write it down.

The clouds in the distance look like something from a storybook illustration. I am looking at them long and hard. Thinking. I don’t know what I’m thinking about. Everything, I guess.

When I was a kid, I had this idea that I would grow up to be a writer. I was terrible at it. Mostly, because good writers are expected to use similes. But I was as bad at similes as a goat trying to recite Shakespeare.

See? Case in point.

Then I got some literary advice from my late father—I don’t know how he knew to tell me this. He told me to simply run my mouth, then write it down.

Then he added, “Not everything you write has to be perfect, just heartfelt.”

I am a talker. I have always been good at running my mouth. The teachers in school would place me at the front of the classroom so they could keep an eye on me. Because my mouth never stopped.

I could make conversation with almost anything, including paper-mâché, and certain

varieties of soybeans.

And there was always so much to talk about. The weather, for instance. Also, ham! OH MAN! I love ham! And what about tomatoes? Do you know how GREAT tomatoes are!?

I would run my mouth so much that my teacher seriously considered taking up heavy drinking for a new hobby.

Both my parents were talkative, too. My father spoke loud and fast. My mother could talk the paint off a Volkswagen.

I was more talkative than all my friends combined. This bothered some of my pals because when I told stories, I never paused to take a breath. And my stories could go on forever. And ever.

For example: Let’s say that I was telling a story about something that had happened when I was riding my bike past the retired Methodist minister’s house, Brother Tony, who was a good guy,…

This is all a beach vacation is. You carry enough raw materials to the beach to construct a patio, then you lug it all back

CAPE SAN BLAS—It’s nighttime. I am walking the beach. I am lost. Bad lost. All the beachfront bungalows look the same in the dark. I have no idea which one is our vacation rental cottage.

I am tired. Depleted. I’ve been walking for a long, long time. Almost ten minutes now. I will probably die on this beach. They will find me curled up dead, clutching my last will and testament, which will be written on a Piggly Wiggly receipt that was in my pocket.

It’s been a busy day. We spent the whole day on the beach doing family-style beach things like hauling beach equipment to the beach then setting it up. Then, once we finally got our equipment situated, we took a deep breath and spent the rest of the day hauling it back to the house.

This is all a beach vacation is. You carry enough raw materials to the beach to construct a patio, then you lug it all back. If you

finish your vacation without needing spinal fusion surgery, you did it wrong.

That’s life. Vacations come and go, but you can’t put a price on chronic joint pain.

I have a lot of memories here. Long ago, I was a redheaded kid without much going on in the looks department. I met this girl at church. I liked her and she seemed to like me.

She invited me on her annual family vacation to Cape San Blas. I agreed to join them because this girl was very cool.

A few weeks later, I met them here on the Cape—which is a promontory headland that extends into a body of water. In this case, the Gulf of Mexico. I was so nervous I could hardly think straight.

When I pulled into the cottage driveway, the girl came traipsing down the steps to meet me. She was wearing a…

I stood before each painting and stared for a long, long time. Long enough to watch mildew grow. I even cried at a few paintings. I don’t have many heroes, but Norman is one of them.

When I was a kid, I came across boxes of “The Saturday Evening Post” at a flea market. Hundreds of issues. Each one had a Norman Rockwell illustration gracing the cover.

I clipped all the covers from the magazines and pasted them to my bedroom walls until no wall showed behind them. It took me an entire afternoon to completely wallpaper my bedroom in Norman Rockwell.

When my mother saw this, she almost had a nervous breakdown because, in her own words: “It looks like a French bordello in here.”

I had no idea what bordellos were, but if my mother was right about what they looked like, I hoped to visit one someday.

My father came to my room. I was sure he was going to get upset because I’d ruined the walls. Instead, he admired each illustration like a man attending an art exhibit.

As it happens, I have only been to one art exhibit in my life. It was a Norman Rockwell show

at the Birmingham Museum of Art, years ago. To be honest, I don’t know how I heard about the show. I am not exactly the kind of guy who keeps his finger on the pulse of the art world while sipping from a bottle of expensive vintage Château Lafite.

Actually, I don’t know much about art. And when it comes to wine, the only time I’ve ever tasted an expensive label was when my band played at a bar in Orange Beach.

After hours, the bartender said, “I gotta get rid of some opened wine or it’ll go bad, y’all want some?”

The wine was one hundred years old and cost several hundred bucks per bottle.

My fiddle player, Dewey, spit out his Red Man chew and said, “Bring on the vee-no, Frenchy!”

The waiter poured three glasses. We band members clinked the rims together…

The sun rose over the Alabamian highway, and it was pure majesty. The sound of birds was music. I was on my way to speak to a book club who finished reading my book.

I don’t usually speak to book clubs, namely because I’m no good at it. I’ve found that avid readers are smarter than I am. Most often, it goes like this:

A man in steel-rimmed glasses stands and asks a question like: “What was your subjective motivation within the pretext of the outlined apparatus of your—dare I suggest?—almost quasi-static prose?”

I usually just mumble something about current tax laws, take a sip of water, and say my closing remarks:

“It’s been a bona fide treat, folks. A bona fide treat.”

Then it’s off to KFC for some bona fide supper.

This book club, however, is different. These are thirteen-year-olds.

A girl named Claire emailed me several weeks ago. She told me their group of friends formed a club that reads books instead of playing

with phones.

At club meetings, members store cellphones in a locked safe. Their mothers serve pimento cheese sandwiches and juice boxes. And the kids talk about, say, Leo Tolstoy.

They are smart kids. They read authors like Robert Frost, Carson McCullers, Walt Whitman, and one redheaded writer whose truck has needed new brake rotors since 2002.

I arrived in a residential neighborhood of manicured lawns. I wasn’t sure whether I should wear my tweed jacket with the elbow patches. I decided against it.

Their mother invited me inside. I shook hands with kids and parents. A kid named Brad held his hand out and said, “Cellphone, please, sir.”

He locked my cellphone in a fireproof safe with the other phones, then showed me to the den. The living room was full of kids sitting on the floor.

The round table started by discussing…