He was tall, lean, and young. When he approached me, he hugged me. Then, his mother hugged us both. A three-person club sandwich.

He must’ve been a foot taller than I was. His voice squeaked with adolescence. His skin was freckled. He had a long neck.

He recognized me.

“I liked your books, sir,” he said, through a nervous stutter.

Sir? No way. Such titles are reserved for men who wear penny loafers when fishing.

“I read them all when I was in the hospital,” the boy went on. “I kinda got to know you, and it was like we were friends.”

His mother tells me his story. It’s a long one, and it’s not mine to repeat. He has the determination of a saint and a long road ahead of him. He suffers more than other kids his age. And he might not survive his struggle.

Before he walked away, he told me something. Something that stuck with me.

“You know what I do when I’m down?” he said. “I list ten things I love every

day. I write’em on paper. My dad told me to do that.”

He tapped his finger against his head. “Gotta keep on thinking ‘bout things I love.”

I was mute. I couldn’t seem to find words. I noticed a large moon-shaped scar beneath his hairline. I tried to say something, anything, but I just smiled like an idiot.

He hugged me one more time. His mother took his arm, they walked away. The boy walked with a pronounced limp, holding his mother for balance. And I can’t quit thinking about him.

On the off-chance that he is reading this, I’ve come up with a few things I love:

1. I love Mexican food. In fact, I have had a lifelong love affair with it. A Mexican man I used to work with with used to make a dish called “chilaquiles verdes.” Before work,…

I don’t know many people who love dogs as much as you do.

There are pureed pumpkin smears on my pants, and I have you to thank for this, sweetie. Whenever I see pureed pumpkin, I always think of you.

Because you are the only person I know who feeds their dogs pureed pumpkin, along with other nutritious human foods such as green beans, bananas, and special organic nitrate free cookies that cost $9.99 each.


The problem, of course, is that one of our dogs is a bloodhound with floppy jowls. Food gets stuck in these jowls. Especially squishy foods. So when you feed our dog pureed pumpkin, sweetheart, only fifteen-sixteenths of the pumpkin actually gets eaten. The rest gets smeared on my pants when the bloodhound rubs her face against my leg.

But it’s okay. Because I don’t know many people who love dogs as much as you do.

I remember when we first met, you told me that a member of your family had just died. You were a wreck. I was too embarrassed to ask who you were talking about. But, judging by your

emotional state, I sincerely believed that it was an uncle, or a grandfather, or maybe even—I’m sorry, I’m just being honest here—your little brother.

Then you told me this deceased loved one had been named Sarge. I thought it was perhaps a nickname for an uncle who’d served his country. I don’t mind telling you that I mourned for that patriotic uncle of yours.

Then, you took me to Sarge’s grave located in the front yard of your parents’ house. A wooden cross was poking out of the ground. I was starting to get the Willies because what kind of a deranged nut buries their uncle in the front yard?

Then you placed a chew toy on the grave, and I understood.

You cried so hard over this dog. Which made me cry. And I knew then that I would love you forever.

While I…

A seated dinner. A conference center. I finish making a speech. I walk off stage and dodge a few airborne rotten vegetables on my way to the lobby. Which is where I meet him.

He could pass for one of my uncles. White beard, tweed jacket, big smile. He shakes my hand and holds it tight. Firm. But not ridiculously hard.

Some guys will shake your hand firm enough to crush it. There used to be a guy in our church who would shake hands so hard you could hear the bones in your knuckles break. Whenever I saw him coming I would run and hide behind a qualified church organist for protection.

But there was no escaping church handshakes. Eventually I would have to shake his hand. So I would always shake it firm and look him in the eye.

Because that’s just how guys are.

Which raises a very important point that has nothing to do with this column. Most women don’t understand how hard it is being male. Men

are expected to adhere to all sorts of gender-specific behaviors that make no sense. Shaking hands with a death-grip is only one of those things. Putting the toilet seat down is another.

The toilet-seat issue is a hot-button topic for married people. Women tell their husbands to put the seat down. But men keep forgetting and leaving it up every time they’re finished (ahem) shaking the dew off the lily.

World wars have been fought over this issue. Monarchies have fallen. But I want to set the record straight.

Ladies, if your male counterpart keeps leaving the toilet seat up, you ought to be glad. Because I have good news: This means he cares.

Any man who LIFTS the seat before using the toilet is being considerate. If he didn’t love you, he would leave it down. Lifting the seat means that your male has been raised right.…

The park is a beautiful spot surrounded by a big wood fence and pine trees. It is the official “hangout” for local dog-people. But my favorite thing about this place is watching the dog world in action.

Taking your dogs to a dog park can be a fun and exciting experience, especially if your dogs are clinically deranged like mine.

We have a nice dog park near our house. And after a day spent in this nicely maintained park, my dogs are kinder, happier, more relaxed, and less likely to destroy my baseball cap.

The exact moment we enter the park, the party begins. My dogs transform into wild creatures who are so excited they forget about normal things like behaving, using good manners, not digging unnecessary holes, and not peeing in communal water bowls.

The park is a beautiful spot surrounded by a big wooden fence and pine trees. It is the official “hangout” for local dog-people. But my favorite thing about this place is watching the dog world in action.

There are natural laws in the dog kingdom that dogs somehow know to follow.

For example: When I open the gate and present my dogs to the the other dogs, they must smell each other. Must with

a capital “M.”

Modern experts tells us that this is an ancient custom dating back to the primal civilizations of miniature lap dogs who once coexisted peacefully with early man and always chewed on early man’s Atlanta Braves baseball caps.

Among dogs, this mass butt-smelling maneuver is a simple ritual, full of nuance, and intrigue. Imagine fifty-eight dogs gathering around one tail. Which sets off a chain reaction of sniffing within the pack. Dogs begin placing their noses into the private regions of everything located within a ten-foot radius—including oak trees, certain species of ferns, and me.

Once this is finished, new arrival dogs are then issued W9’s by veteran dogs and expected to become tax-paying members of dog society.

My two dogs have a unique set of skills which they offer the rest of the dog world.

Thelma Lou (bloodhound) specializes in smells. She is highly skilled…

“I read all your books when I was in the hospital,” the boy said. “I kinda got to know you, and it was kinda like we were friends.”

I am going to answer a few messages I have gotten from actual young people who have taken the time to send me their thoughtful questions.

This idea was sparked by the letter I received from Dillon (age 9), whose mother gave him my books for his birthday. His mother used a Sharpie to mark out two words in the book.

These words weren’t cuss words, I might add. Because, as any Methodist preacher will tell you, both of these words are found in the Bible. True, the words weren’t originally intended to describe my cousin, Ed Lee, but they work in this context.

DILLON: Sean, Elvis is my new hero now because my grandma and grandpa like him, I’ve been downloading his music a lot. Do you like him, too?

A: Dillon, yes. I love Elvis, just like any red-blooded American boy. I once attended a Baptist Fourth-of-July picnic dressed as Elvis. I wore a rhinestone jumpsuit and everything. I had to be rebaptized that next week.

My favorite song is, “You’ll Never Walk

Alone.” It makes me cry every single time. I once sang it for the funeral of a very special person.

ADRIANNE (age 10): Do you ever go to people’s houses and teach them how to write about dogs?

ME: There’s a first time for everything.

SARAH (age 19): I want to study journalism, what should I do to prepare for this?

ME: Sarah, never under any circumstances do a Q-and-A and try to pass it off as serious writing. It’s what lazy people do, and it’s tacky.

BILLY (age 9): I have a dog, but how many dogs have you had? Mine is a Yorkie Poo and we thought it was a girl dog, but he’s not.

ME: I’ll have to do some counting. One, two, carry the four… I have had twenty-one dogs. Wow. I didn’t realize I was so old. Thanks for making…

Our waitress is named Katelin. She is young, all smiles, and wearing a brown apron.

PELL CITY—Cracker Barrel is quiet tonight. There are five or six tables with customers. I am tired. My wife and I have been on the road for three weeks. Five states. One hundred and fifty-two hotels. I need saturated fat.

Our waitress is named Katelin. She is young, all smiles, and wearing a brown apron.

“What can I get y’all?” she asks.

Breakfast. I am in the mood for breakfast. I love eating breakfast at night. This goes back to my childhood. It was a tradition in my house when I was a boy. Once in a blue moon, we would eat breakfast for supper.

My late father would go to great lengths to make pancakes, hash browns, cheese grits, and our house would smell like bacon even though it was almost bedtime. We called it upside-down night.

So I order eggs over easy, bacon, sausage, sliced tomatoes, biscuits, gravy, the works.

Katelin says, “No problem.”

When she leaves, she waits on two more tables with the same chipper spirit. A man and woman, for instance, are seated in

Katelin’s section. When she passes their table, she waves to them and offers a hearty greeting.

I can’t hear her words, but I can hear the friendly cadence of them. She’s probably asking something like: “How y’all doin’?” or, “You need a warm-up on coffee?” or, “Want some Coca-Cola cake?”

Katelin arrives back at our table to refill drinks and check on us. I notice that there are four stars on her apron. I’ve seen these on Cracker Barrel waitress aprons before, but I’ve never known what they stand for.

“What do the stars mean?” I ask.

“Oh, these?” she says. “We get stars when we start working here. You start with none, if you’ve been here long enough, you earn four. We call this PAR Four. I’m a PAR-four.”

I ask what being a PAR-four means.

“Well,” she says, “basically…

So what I’m saying is that as a mathematician, she has an Order of Operations for everything in life, even traveling. And this makes her bossy.

When traveling with my wife, it is important to realize that she is the boss. If you forget this, you will die.

When I say “you will die,” I don’t mean that men wearing black hoods will publicly execute you, necessarily, my wife might do the honors herself. What I mean is that she has planned our trips to a T and there is no wiggle room for doing fun or touristy things like, for instance, stopping to go pee.

My wife’s talent for being the boss stems from the fact that she is a former math teacher. I remember when she took her exam for her math teaching certification, long ago. She had to study like crazy. I helped by quizzing her with flashcards.

“Uh...” I would begin reading. “The inverse decibel is an absolute, or sublingual when found within the parenthetical equation of a biconditional Centroid Formula, and is thereby a null integer from which popular Pink Floyd album?”

Her answer would be so complex that I had no idea whether it was right or wrong.

So after her response, I would sort of nod and say, “Okay.”

Then she’d say, “Okay? Was my answer right or wrong?”

“Sweetie,” I’d say in a reassuring voice. “There are no right or wrong answers in life, only happy accidents.”

Which doesn’t work for a mathematical person. To a math-wiz, there are no such things as happy accidents, numerically speaking, only the quantified deconstruction of bivalve ellipses as expressed in the linear equation found in EXAMPLE 1:

S=15.9√ (2AB)df>L

So what I’m saying is that as a mathematician, she has an Order of Operations for everything in life, even traveling. And this makes her bossy.

She packs our car a certain way and becomes very annoyed if I so much as scratch my nose using the wrong tone. She plans our itinerary, accommodations, bathroom breaks, books our flights, makes reservations, drives…