I walk a lot. When my neighbors see me on the road they recognize me and my dog. I’m a hard guy to miss. I’ve been trotting these roads for a few decades. People usually honk, or wave, or hurl steel objects out the windows.

I have been walking a lot in the past four months of quarantines since there isn’t much else to do besides eat.

My favorite time of day for walking has always been night. You sweat less. You can think more clearly. And you have no idea how immense the night sky is until you try to take the whole thing in at once.

I started this walking business after my father died. I was a chubby boy, and I was only getting chubbier. Lots of people feed you when someone in your family dies. And they just never quit. You can gain a lot of weight going to funerals.

Pretty soon I was eating homemade biscuits like they were gummy bears. And don’t get me started

on Mounds. Sweet God. There are support groups for people who like Mounds the way I did.

Above all, I was a big fan of cheese. Cheese is a lot more magical than some give it credit. There are thousands of different kinds, not just the varieties you see in the supermarket. People in European countries, for instance, name their children after cheese. Lutherans in Wisconsin, I understand, actually thank God for cheese as part of the Lord’s Prayer.

Anyway, when I was a boy, the longest duration I had ever walked was nine minutes. I know this because right before my father died I was in P.E. class and the teacher told us to walk around the gymnasium so he could time us.

I don’t know why he had us do this. Physical education class was supposed to be about dodgeball, climbing ropes, and snapping towels in the…

When Megan met Robert she was not a senior citizen. That’s the main thing she wants you to understand here.

“Don’t call me an old lady in your story,” she tells me over the phone.

So yes, she was older. Yes, she had AARP. Certainly, she can still remember what life was like when Elvis starred in “Blue Hawaii” and people still called it “oleo.” But she was not a senior citizen when she met Robert.

She was white-haired, she lived by herself, and she was lonely. And nobody tells you how bad loneliness can hurt.

Ideally, you are born into a non-lonely world. You get a mom, a dad, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, a cat, a dog, a goldfish. You grow up around lots of people. Your sister is always braiding your hair. Your brother is always placing toads into your chest of drawers. Dad is always complaining about not leaving the lights on in the other room. Mom is always there to kiss your boo-boos.

Then comes the loneliness. It happens later in life.

And it happens gradually. You make a lot of decisions that end up leading you there.

You move away from home. You don’t talk to your family much anymore because your sister lives in California. Your parents pass away. You get married, but it doesn’t last. Soon you are living in an apartment. Alone.

And years go by.

So that’s how it happened. Megan was alone. It wasn’t misery per se. Her routine was a normal one. She worked at a library, which kept her pretty busy. She went to church, she made lots of casseroles, she volunteered. But something was missing.

“It’s discouraging being alone,” Megan tells me. “You never have anything to get excited about, ‘cause it’s just you.”

Years turned into decades. Decades turned into more decades. Her most loyal friend was “Wheel of Fortune” and her cat, George.

One day,…

We are all wearing masks in the supermarket. Sometimes I’m not sure I’ll ever get use to this.

We, the masked people in the grocery store, behave a lot differently than normal shoppers used to. For example: Nobody is touching stuff on the shelves.

Remember when you used to go shopping and everyone would touch stuff? Yeah. Me too. It’s just what we did.

Young mothers would push buggies with their bare hands and inspect each label while Junior gummed up a wrapped Snickers bar.

But that doesn’t happen anymore.

I see a young woman pushing a cart. She is wearing latex gloves and a colorful mask. She is not inspecting labels, she is rushing through the store as though something is chasing her. Everyone is doing this. I don’t blame them. Nobody wants to be here.

Ever since this coronavirus hit, my wife and I have been flipping a coin to see who goes to the grocery store. If it’s heads, I go to the store. If it’s tails, we flip again.

And I’m still not used to

wearing my mask. I feel like an idiot. I wear an N95 drywall mask I used back when I used to hang sheetrock. I used to wear a mask like this all day. I didn’t mind it back then because the only other choice was a respirator with HEPA filters. Those big masks look like you’re wearing a Playtex 18-hour support bra on your face.

I remember lunch breaks when I would go out into the fresh air, rip off that drywall mask, and pull in one giant breath. It was pure rapture. You can’t imagine how good it felt to take a cleansing breath when you’d been wearing a glorified kneepad over your mouth all day.

What am I saying? Of course you can imagine what it feels like. You’re probably wearing one right now.

I know I am.


I have here a letter from Keisha, in Port Charlotte, Florida. Keisha is 14 years old, and very worried about Florida’s recent spike in coronavirus cases. Keisha says she’s nearly sick about it.

Florida’s numbers are through the roof. She says she got so concerned that she just had to write me. Which only shows you how badly her judgement has been impaired.

Keisha, while I write this, I hear ambulance sirens are whining down the street. And I am thinking about my mother because sirens used to make her VERY worried. She hates sirens. When she hears them she calls everyone she knows to make sure they’re okay.

My wife worries about sirens worse than my mother. And my mother-in-law takes the cake. When my mother-in-law hears an ambulance, she calls the hospitals and local funeral homes.

These women have become so worrisome that whenever I hear sirens in the distance, no matter where I am, I wait for my phone to ring. And it always does.

“Are you okay?” the voice on the other end of the line


“I’m fine,” I’ll answer.

“I heard an ambulance.”

“I’m fine.”

“I almost called the emergency room.”

I should admit right away that I am a worrier, too. I’m not proud of this, but you can’t change who you are. There are some traits you inherit. And I have inherited the ability to watch the ten o’clock news and have a panic attack.

Throughout my life, I have worried about the stupidest things because it’s in my nature. I worry, for example, that this little bite on my leg is actually a brown recluse bite. I worry about my transmission. I worry about poison ivy.

I have lost sleep over poison ivy. In fact, I don’t even want to be writing these sentences because I am deathly allergic to the stuff.

A few years ago, I was at a friend’s…

Today I am taking my dog for a walk on a remote trail. We jump out of the truck. I turn him loose.

At home I have two dogs, but I only brought one with me. This is Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador), who I can let off leash. He won’t go far.

My other dog is a bloodhound. She is not with me because if you let her off leash she will find a way to make national news.

Otis bounds along the trail, I see his black and white body turn into a streak. He runs far from me so that I am meandering alone.

So much for man’s best friend.

On the trail I meet an old woman in a sunhat, wearing a surgical mask. She is out here watching for birds. Today, she has seen red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, mockingbirds, and starlings. And she swears that she has even seen an oriole. I have never seen an oriole before except at Major League Baseball parks.

“Birds have meaning,” she says in

a low voice. “They represent spiritual, universally cosmic truths, about life and death.”

“Would you look at the time?” I say, cheerfully hiking forward. “Have a great day!”

I love birds. I don’t know much about them, but I’m a fan. Probably because they can fly. Then again, I come from country people who were always attaching meanings to birds. A notion I’ve always thought was farfetched.

My mother, for example, used to sit on our porch and watch the pond behind our little house, talking to God. If a certain species of bird showed up on the water, this was a good omen. Likewise, if my Uncle John showed up in his RV, looking for a place to crash for the month, this was a bad omen.

I can hear people talking ahead of me on the trail, laughing. I hear my dog’s collar jingling.…

Remember back in church when they used to tell us to pray for the shut-ins? Well, that’s exactly what I’ve become. A shut-in.

A lot of people have become that way since this coronavirus thing started, millions have been stuck inside. And it’s the little things we’ve lost that hurt the most. Things like baseball.

I could have endured this quarantine if I would have had baseball. But it’s the fourth official day of summer and baseball is still in limbo. Summer without baseball isn’t summer.

We lost more than just baseball. We lost eating at restaurants where waiters don’t dress like masked ninjas. We lost the pleasure of meandering in the grocery store without feeling like you’re racing toward the last chopper out of Saigon.

Yesterday, I saw my neighbor in Publix, wearing a surgical mask. I waved at him, but he didn’t see me. He was busy sprinting for the door while disinfecting his hands with isopropyl alcohol.

Right now, my wife and I are on a leisurely drive because I had to get out

of the house. Nobody tells you how hard it is to be stuck indoors. If I would have known how difficult it was, I would have prayed harder for the shut-ins.

So we’re riding dirt roads. Hank Williams plays on our radio. I don’t know what we’re looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it.

And there it is.

A painted sign on a red-clay road that reads: “tomatoes.” I feel a thrill beneath my ribs. I haven’t felt this good in 109 days. Our vehicle splashes through mud puddles. Hank Williams sings another chorus of “Dear John.”

After a few hours of following cow paths through a Floridian wilderness, passing trailer homes, swamps, creeks, and horse pastures, we find it. A vegetable shack in the distance, tucked among live oaks and magnolias.

An old man with a white beard is…

I’m sitting in a space-age medical chair, gazing into high-tech eye-doctor equipment. The optometrist is shining an aircraft landing light into my eyes and giving me an exam.

The doctor sort of talks to himself while inspecting me. He clicks his teeth and makes doctor sounds, like: “Mmm hmm, yep. Oooooh yeah.”

And I keep asking what’s going on, but he doesn’t answer me.

I don’t like to admit this about myself, but I don’t like doctors. They scare me because they are always doing More Tests. It’s just part of who they are.

You have a doctor sitting in an office full of high-dollar, kick-butt, slick-as-a-whistle medical equipment and you can bet your HMO he’s going to do More Tests whether you need them or not.

“Am I gonna pull through?” I ask.

He laughs and says, “This is just an eye exam. But just to be sure, we need to dilate your eyes.”

Dilate? This sounds like a very invasive procedure. I am suddenly lightheaded.

“I think I need to sit down,” I say.

“You are

sitting down.”

So, basically, I need eyeglasses. And why not? Everyone I know wears them. My mother wears glasses. My wife wears them. My dogs chew up about three pair each week.

My father wore them, too. Though, he didn’t need them. What happened was that my father wanted to wear glasses because he thought they made him look cultured. He believed eyeglasses made him appear like the kind of high-society guy who ate his fishsticks with a fork.

He would go into antique stores, pick up pairs of antique eyeglasses, and try them on for kicks. The glasses would usually make him look like Buddy Holly on an algebra field trip. My mother would see him and say “Take those off, you look ridiculous.”

The thing is, my father had perfect vision, and this always disappointed him somehow. He wanted to…

It’s 9:30 p.m. I am writing on a laptop in the middle of my backyard, sitting beside a flickering campfire. I asked my wife to go camping with me tonight, but she told me that she would rather eat a live chicken than go camping.

Those were her exact words.

I can’t explain what made me go camping in my own yard. Maybe it’s that we’ve been stuck at home for 100-some days.

Maybe it’s because a friend of mine died last week, still in his mid-forties, from heart trouble. Maybe I’m starting to realize that my own funeral isn’t exactly getting further away.

Camping is in my blood. I own a lot of camping gear that I’ve gathered over the years, but I haven’t gone camping in ages because I haven’t had time. I’ve been busy working. But now that the world has come to a halt with the novel coronavirus, I dusted off my gear.

When I was growing up we went camping because it was cheap. And because my father was under the perpetual

idea that we were still living through the Great Depression.

He grew up with parents who survived the Depression. And I think they missed the memo about it ending. After all, there were no government officials knocking on doors to say, “Good afternoon, folks, Depression’s over!”

So my father kept right on pinching pennies and using Depression-era phrases his parents used. Phrases I was too young to understand, like, “Eat your supper, there are people in China who would give anything to eat your supper.”

The first time he ever said this I just looked at my plate and marveled. I had no idea meatloaf was so popular in China.

We camped multiple times per year, sometimes multiple times per week. Beer was involved.

My father used to arrange my Little League camping trips on Mister Tolbertson’s nearby farm. We would hike for…

BREWTON—There are springtime flowers everywhere this morning for Father’s Day. The flowers hang on lamp posts, bridge rails, and they surround the welcome-to-town sign. You can smell them in the air and they make you feel sort of grateful to be here.

I love flowers. They do something to me. It’s hard to smell a flower without smiling.

The town itself is quiet today. It’s an average afternoon in a city of historic storefronts, mills, stone churches, and muddy trucks. The downtown is framed by railroad tracks that cut straight across a pretty mainstreet. There’s Belleville Avenue, with its Greek revival homes that photographers love to put onto postcards.

Today, I’m at Union Cemetery with my wife. We are visiting someone. She arranges a vase of pink Peruvian lilies for the grave of her father. I’m standing several hundred feet away, giving them space.

People need privacy at cemeteries. I’m a big believer in that. I’m a big believer in lots of things, but when it comes to grief, I believe in leaving people alone.


I walk the maze of headstones, reading names. There are stones for babies, elderly people, politicians, and various Alabamians dating back to 1879. I see a monument for a man who was lost at sea. Another for a woman who died from influenza. Flowers are everywhere. Roses, lilies, daisies, bright plasticized begonias.

There is a big variety in the stones, too. Simple markers and fancy ones. They are adorned with flags, flowers, potted plants, photographs, hankies, cowboy figurines, throw pillows, candles, or letters.

I have no kin in this cemetery, but I’m searching for my last name just the same. I always do this, I don’t know why. My wife says it’s morbid, but I’ve been looking for my name in graveyards since childhood.

I’ve done this everywhere from New York to South Texas. Among the places I’ve found my name were Portland, Little…

It’s almost Father’s Day, and I am sitting on the gritty beach of the Choctawhatchee Bay, watching seagulls fly. The birds are calling to each other just like they do in Jacques Cousteau documentaries.

You’ve seen the old PBS Cousteau specials. Jacques’s monotone French voice was always punctuated by screaming gulls. And he would usually say something profound like, “Ocean life, ahh, yezz.”

My father was a PBS junky. He loved Cousteau specials. He would stay up late watching those underwater films on public television. I think watching old Jacques explore exotic blue waters of Mexico made my father feel free somehow.

We hardly ever watched any other channel besides PBS. Then again, our TV only picked up three channels. Cable TV was not offered in our parts. And even if it had been, Daddy would have rather rotted in Purgatory than paid for TV.

But we always had PBS. The channel was fuzzy, but if you kicked the TV hard enough your foot would hurt and the screen would go dark.

We watched National Geographic

documentaries. We watched the Salzburg Philharmonic Orchestra play Brahms. We saw all the Cousteau documentaries.

When I was a kid, I got very into those sea exploration films. Because of this I was teased on the playground for knowing about the echolocational abilities of porpoises. Billy Tolbertson told me I was a nerdy mama’s boy, which was utterly false. So I had my mother beat him up.

“SCREECH!” a seagull screams.

The seagull lands next to me on this shore. I am watching him hop around. He stays beside me.

“Ahh yezz, ocean life…” I say to him, doing my best Cousteau.

He’s not impressed.

After my father died when I was a child, I grew to hate Father’s Day. At church, I’d see everyone acting sappy about their dads and I would get so green with envy that I resembled an early model…