This morning I woke up to an inbox flooded with emails regarding something I wrote yesterday about hope. These were all deeply personal, heartfelt messages.

There were a few emails about divorce. Three were from people losing spouses to dementia. One older lady even sent an email detailing the many orthopedic benefits of going without a bra.

And forty-two emails were about suicide.

Here are a few sample sentences from the letters:

“I was gonna take my own life when I was sixteen… But my best friend called and told me she was thinking of me.”

“My father died by his own doing and I almost died the same way when I was depressed, but my family stepped in… I’m on medication now.”

“We never said the word suicide in my house after my brother died…”

“Well, personally, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my bra. For me, the benefits of going braless are simple, no indents from painful wires or straps on your back fat…”

The truth is, I don’t like talking about

suicide any more than I like talking about underwire bras and back fat. For one thing: I’m male. For two: My life has been tinted by suicide.

My father took his life when I was a kid. I grew up thinking about this issue a lot and it got to a point where I wanted NOT to think about suicide ever again.

In fact, this is the reason I spent a lot of time reading humor when I was a boy. Humor is not just slinging jokes and one-liners. It’s a way of looking at the world without losing your mind. It’s sharing the worst moment in your existence in story form, then breaking the tension in the room with a flippant remark about not wearing a bra.

I say all this to tell you that suicide is a very personal subject to me. And…

I saw him across the crowded restaurant with his elderly parents. They didn’t look like they’d aged a bit. But he did. His face was lean, his skin was wrinkled, he was gaunt. And he still had his trademark sense of humor.

I told him I hardly recognized him.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s this new diet I’m on, it’s called being sick, the weight just falls off.”

This is not his best joke, I’m not sure whether I should laugh.

Then he gave me the real story. It’s a long one, I don’t have room to tell it all. He became very ill with an autoimmune disease. Doctors said he was dying. His parents were braced for the worst. His mother and father became his caregivers.

His parents tell me that for two years, they did a lot of talking to the sky, asking for help.

Doctors still can’t explain how he was cured. Maybe it was the treatment. Maybe it was something else. They aren’t sure. All anyone knows is that one day he woke up better.

No traces of illness are left.

“Now all I have to do is gain weight,” he tells me.

I have another friend I wanted to tell you about. I grew up with him. We once went to Mardi Gras together when we were young men—which is another long story that I don’t have time for. Let’s just say that I almost ended up as a permanent smear on a New Orleans sidewalk.

A few years ago my friend had the worst year of his life. His marriage sort of fell apart. His wife left him and took their son with her. Next he lost his business, then his money. He became suicidal.

One night, while asleep on his brother’s sofa-sleeper he had decided that he was going to end it all on the following day. He had even worked out how he…

There is a ghost in this house. That’s what she tells me. She talks to him a lot. They were married fourteen years. He gave her three kids. You don’t just quit having conversations with someone that important. Even after they’re dead.

She is an early-forties mother. Her days revolve around cleaning. It seems like cleaning up after her three children is all she ever does.

She wakes up, cleans, makes coffee, cleans, cleans, cleans, then gets her kids ready for school because otherwise they’d sit around in their filthy underwear eating Pop-Tarts all day and playing on phones. Also, she cleans.

And somehow at the end of each day, even though she’s worked a full shift, she manages to make Hamburger Helper. Then she vacuums some more.

This is her life ever since her husband died. Her kids depend on her for everything. She packs their lunches, walks their dog, and takes them to soccer practice.

You get a sense that her kids don’t understand how much she actually does for them. Children usually

don’t. I was the son of a single mother. I still can’t comprehend the sacrifice.

One needs money for a field trip, another for a band uniform, and her oldest dropped his cellphone into the toilet at school and needs a new one. And through it all she still finds time to scrub baseboards and keep her house immaculate.

“I like cleaning,” she says. “It’s therapeutic. When my husband died, all I did was clean and talk to him. Sometimes we’d talk and clean until late at night.”

He never says anything back, but she swears that he’s here. She tells me this without even the slightest trace of irony.

Her home is a madhouse. During our interview, her kids clomp up the stairs, down the stairs, then up again. The sounds of their feet are like cinder blocks falling from a second-story balcony. She…

I am at a writer’s conference. I’m about to make a speech on a stage before a roomful of writers. Real writers.

These are the kinds of dedicated, rugged, field-journalism professionals who if they were stranded on a deserted island with nothing to eat would be experienced enough to start diagramming sentences.

I don’t even know if I remember how to diagram a sentence. Certainly, I diagrammed in grade school, but mostly because of peer pressure. Those were wild times, everyone was sneaking off and diagramming in those days.

Truth be told, I have a hard enough time figuring out how many syllables are in words. On the first day of kindergarten our teacher taught us to clap out syllables.

“TA-BLE!” she’d say, clapping, “that has two syllables. PI-A-NO! That has three.”

This is a deceptively simple game. The teacher gave me the word “fire” to clap out before class. I dare you to try it. I’ve always understood “fire” to have two syllables. Just like “chair” and “floor” and “is.”

But anyway, I don’t feel

confident enough to talk to these writers. Namely, because I don’t really know what I am. I don’t consider myself to BE anything other than consistently late.

I’ve never known what I am. In fact, this has been one of the main issues of my lifetime. You could call it sort of an existential unsolved math equation. What am I? I ask my wife this all the time. She usually smiles and says, “Take out the trash and we’ll talk about it later.”

There’s a lot of pressure on people today to figure out what they are. Have you ever noticed that people at parties always ask the same two questions when they shake your hand? They ask what your name is, and they ask what you “do.”

“Hi, my name’s Joe,” says Joe Mercedesbenz, chewing the olive from his Manhattan. “What do you…

MONTGOMERY—A barbecue joint. An old place with faded walls and perfect Boston butts. A TV above the counter shows footage of helicopter-crash wreckage. The headline reads “Kobe Bryant Dies in Helicopter Crash.”

The young woman behind the bar turns the volume up. It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon, there are no customers in the restaurant but me and my wife.

The news reporter says, “...NBA legend was killed this morning in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of the passengers aboard including Bryant’s thirteen-year-old daughter...”

“Oh no,” says the girl behind the counter, covering her mouth.

The cook and a dishwasher have come out of the kitchen to watch. Everyone is silent.

The TV reporter goes on, “Kobe Bryant was forty-one years old…”

When I pay my tab the cashier remarks, “He was so young.”

“Too young,” the cook says.

“Way too young,” adds the dishwasher.

This is what all people say when a young man dies. It’s a ritual of sorts. My father also passed away when he was forty-one. People said this millions of times. Always in this exact way.

Anyway, the

cashier hands me my change and I know it sounds silly, but the first thing I usually do is inspect the pennies in my pocket change.

“What’re you doin’?” she asks.

“Looking for pennies.”


“Old habit.”

She looks at me funny.

The penny thing is kind of a weird story. Maybe too weird for your taste. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you stopped reading right here.

But ever since boyhood I’ve had a knack for finding special pennies. Don’t misunderstand me, I never find any real money in the form of dollar bills, blank checks, or winning scratch-off tickets. Just pennies. And each time I find one, I always check the penny’s date.

I come from a long line of superstitious people who believe that a found-penny’s date means something. Namely, it means…

She was small enough to fit in your pocket. Blonde hair. Big eyes. Button nose. On the day she was born, I was a child—still wearing cowboy hats and cap guns.

My mother handed her to me and said, “This is your sister. Be careful with her.”

I had never seen anything so pretty.

A few years later, we were at my aunt’s house. A big barbecue. I was eight, eating dangerous amounts of pulled pork.

I remember my father, standing near the grill. My mother was beside him. I was supposed to be watching the girl, but pulled pork has bewitching powers over my delicate mind.

There was a pool at the neighbor’s house. The girl wandered off to look at it, but I was too busy smearing pork all over my face to notice.

By pure chance, I spotted her from across the yard. But I was one moment too late.

She was staring downward into the pool. She fell in. Nobody saw it happen but me.

I dropped my paper plate. I ran so hard

my legs burned and my lungs hurt. I jumped in. She had already sunk by the time I reached her.

I placed her tiny body on the grass. She coughed up mouthfuls of water. The adults came running. Lots of hollering.

The girl looked at me with weary eyes. “Let’s do that again!” she said.

When she turned five, our world turned sour.

The night after my father’s funeral visitation I was still wearing my Sunday best. She wore a black dress with lace collar.

A crowd was in our den, eating funeral food, saying things to each other like, “He was a good man.”

She was outside, knees against her chest. Numb. I sat beside her.

We spent the rest of the night, sitting in a walk-in closet, playing Candyland by flashlight. I slept on the floor beside her bed for…


I’m afraid of everything. I don’t know how it started, I’ve had some real bad stuff happen with my family this year and it’s made me scared all the time. I’m so embarrassed about all this anxiety and I’m going to therapy about it.



You’re talking to the 1987 and 1988 welterweight division champion of the Olympic men’s fraidy-cat finals.

I am not qualified to offer advice on any subject—such as topics concerning the opposite sex. Take, for instance, a recent column I wrote about lifting the toilet seat. I received several letters from irate females who threatened to baptize me in their own personal toilet bowls. But when it comes to being scared, I’m a certified veteran.

When I was a kid, my home life was pretty crummy. Childhood was unpredictable. We were bouncing around between different houses, my parents were arguing a lot, our lives were a mess.

One morning, I woke up puking. This vomiting problem lasted for weeks. I lost weight. At first, my mother thought

it was a virus so she gave me castor oil. Her answer for every ailment was castor oil. I am grateful that many brave Americans have since broken the silence associated with the nationwide problem of castor-oil-related child abuse.

NOTE TO YOUNG READERS: Castor oil is a unique medicine that turns the human body into a military-grade projectile weapon.

Anyway, the doctor discovered that I had stomach ulcers caused by severe anxiety. To help my ulcers he recommended a strict regimen of treatment known as—cue theme music from “Psycho”—suppositories.

Let me pause for a moment. Do you remember what I said about castor oil being bad? Well, suppositories make castor oil seem like pure joy. I won’t go into details because this is a family column. I will simply say that suppositories are little wax objects shaped like tiny surface-to-air missiles.

My mother…

When you pull into town proper you ride past churches, clapboard houses, and people sitting on front porches—even though it’s cold outside.

There are painted murals on the wide brick walls of storefront buildings. There’s a freight train cutting through town, darting past Brewton Iron Works, the T.R. Miller timber mill, and rushing into the woods. The locomotive whistle blows and you can feel this city’s little heart beating.

Brewton is the kind of place where you can dial a wrong number and the person who answers the phone will give you the correct one.

Last night I went to a local prayer meeting. At least that’s what the attendees call it. Though I don’t know why. The meeting was held at a bar inside a Mexican restaurant, nobody was praying, and everyone was cradling Coronas.

The evening’s only prayer was shouted by Miss Connie. It was six words. “Hey, God, thanks for the food!”

Then everyone ordered another round.

I asked why they called it prayer meeting.

“Because,” said Connie. “Let’s say your mom or your husband asks why you

were out late on Wednesday night. You can just tell them you were at prayer meeting and the spirits were flowing.”

That’s Brewton. You might think it’s irreverent, but that’s probably because you’re not from here.

This is my wife’s hometown. I fell in love with it from Day One. There was a time when I never thought I’d fit in anywhere, but somehow I managed to fit in here. I don’t know why, but people didn’t seem to mind having me around.

I don’t come from a town like this. I am of the Florida Panhandle, a place that was once rural, but has since been overthrown by Real Estate Developers. The first thing the developers did when they moved in was cut down a million acres of pine and establish an Olive Garden.

Does the world really…

Traffic is bad. We’re stuck in a three-mile line of cars. Total gridlock.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they drive in traffic. You have two kinds of drivers in this world: Those who weave back and forth, fighting to get ahead. And those of us who are stuck looking at their butts.

My wife and I are on the road looking at lots of car-butts today.

This is our life. Being on the road for weeks on end. Her driving. Me writing on a laptop in the passenger seat. Sometimes it feels like all we do is drive.

If you would have told me seven years ago that this would be my life, I would have laughed you off your barstool. But somehow, this writing gig is the only thing I’ve ever done that works for me.

And believe me, I’ve had my share of jobs.

Right now, beside our vehicle is a woman riding a Harley. She is listening to the Doobie Brothers at full volume. Our windshield is rattling loose

from her music. I roll down my window because I sort of like this song.

“Without loooooove, where would you be now….”

She notices me listening and gives me a thumbs up. This woman is—how do I put this?—very large. She looks like she could bench press a Plymouth Voyager. But here she is, stuck looking at everyone’s butts with the rest of us. There’s something admirable about that.

“Without loooooooooooove….”

Ahead of her is a truck. Also looking at three miles’ worth of everyone’s butts. The driver is dancing to his own radio music. He must not think anyone can see him because his windows are tinted with roofing tar.

But I see him. And he looks funny. He is a middle-aged guy, and we middle-aged guys aren’t known for our dancing skills.

At my cousin’s wedding, for example, I saw…

I’m in a barbecue joint. The kind of place my father would have loved. He appreciated barbecue the same way Presbyterians appreciate “The Doxology.” He was a connoisseur of saturated fat. The man could eat a pound of pork before you finished saying grace.

It was inside a joint like this that I first graduated from a spitting, squirting baby into a man. It happened when I was a kid. There was a barbecue joint on the outskirts of town. There was nothing around for miles except cattle fields and an old filling station.

The joint was the kind of place with pinewood walls and greasy floors. It smelled like a fine blend of pecan smoke and stale beer. You ordered at the counter. Your meal came with a complimentary salad bar.

Salad bars were a new thing back then. My father didn’t care for them. He thought the idea of eating salad with barbecue made about as much sense as drinking 7UP during the World Series. But he soon discovered that he

was mistaken. Because included on the salad bar was cheese soup. He loved cheese soup.

So while my mother would be fixing her salad—which was a single sprig of lettuce topped with eight cups of ranch dressing and four pounds of crushed bacon—my father would eat himself sick on soup.

He fell in love with the concept of salad bars, namely, because they were all-you-can-eat. My father was a notorious tightwad. He was so cheap that the guest room in our house had a pay smoke alarm.

Anyway, it was on the drive to this barbecue joint that my family was making happy conversation in the car. There was always an air of giddiness surrounding barbecue. My father was driving along when:


We hit something with the front tires. My mother screamed. My father swerved.

“You hit a possum!” my mother shouted.

Everyone was stunned. My…