Hello, Melanie,

In your recent letter to me, you told me most of your life story. Thank you for that. I read the whole thing. All 792 pages.

You mentioned that you were “screwed up” more than a few times. I won’t cite examples because your words to me are private, but I had to write you back.

I know your parents’ divorce has been hard. And I know you’ve been going through a lot, getting ready for college.

But I don’t think you’re screwed up. Actually, I think you’re swell. I would even add that you’re pretty cool. Also, your letter weighed 42 pounds.

If you ask me, being “screwed up” is just a matter of perception. Have you ever seen 1,000 identical store bought tomatoes? They’re completely uniform, they have no personality, and they taste like red clay dirt.

But homegrown tomatoes? They’re misshapen, multi-colored, lopsided, and totally screwed up. And everyone knows lopsided tomatoes taste like heaven.

People are the same way. We humans are complex, uniquely shaped biological beings, capable of incredible feelings, empathy, wit, kindness,

and unbelievable body odor.

Here’s something. In only a few millionths of a second, a human brain can compute the trajectory and velocity of a speeding softball aimed at its face.

I bring this up because you mentioned that you played first base on your softball team in your letter. I think on page 349.

Well, it only takes an average ballplayer’s brain five gazillionths of a millisecond to send electrical impulses to his or her arm to make that important catch.

That’s not screwed up. That’s a scientific wonder.

Since we were talking about baseball, do you know what I think is interesting? This: who invented baseball? And I don’t mean which PERSON invented it. I’m talking in a big-picture kind of way.

Because here’s what I know. Baseball didn’t just appear out of nowhere. A flock of people…

It was a nice ceremony, as those things go. Though it was a little weird seeing the congregation wear masks like invaders from another galaxy. But, hey, this service wasn’t about them. This was a country wedding.

The day was about two people who stood behind a hayfield, under an outdoor arbor. They were surrounded by live oaks, creeping vines, and a beautiful grove of professional photographers.

Granny was wearing more than just a medical mask. She wore clunky protective battle gear. Huge yellow gloves, plastic face shield, and an oxygen canister. When she crawled out of the SUV’s backseat in the parking lot it reminded me of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk.

But this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirit. And the bride promised me the day would be fun when she invited me. She was hellbent on this.

I don’t usually cover weddings. For one thing, I live in a wedding capital of Florida. Anyone from the Panhandle has seen so many weddings they can lip sync with the preacher.

Personally, I have worked dozens of jobs

involved with the wedding industry. I’ve been a caterer in a bowtie who takes your empty plate and asks if you want another champagne. I’ve been in the band, playing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” or “Mustang Sally.”

I’ve tended bar. Which is misery. Many people have no idea how hard it is tending bar for a party. If you want to know what it’s like, imagine that you are a fire hydrant at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Everyone visits you. Sometimes all at once. People scream their drink orders without waiting their turn. Some get impatient. And impatience spreads like a virus among the wicked.

“Hey, pal, how ‘bout my PBRs?!” “No, I wanted ONE olive in my martini, dummy!” “Beefeater? I don’t drink Beefeater gin, you boob!” “Hello? Where’s my beer?” “Easy on the cranberry juice!”

It is heart-endangering…

I was there by accident. It was night when I pulled onto the old beach road without even thinking. I guess my brain was on autopilot.

This used to be the way I took home every night. Back when my family lived up the street in a little yellow house. I live in the next town now.

I parked near the beach and hiked to the water. Just because.

The humid Gulf air has its own taste. One that stays with you. It smells like oysters and Coppertone.

You can’t really see anything on a beach at night, but there is a mysterious feeling you get when standing on a shore in pitch darkness. It almost feels like standing on the doorstep of heaven.

The Gulf’s prairie-like flatness is downright eerie. And if you look at this water long enough you will get disoriented.

Soon, it will seem like water and sky is all there is. All there ever was. And you’ll forget all about the gaudy real estate around you.

You’ll start to remember when

this was all just dunes. Back when the fishing rodeo was the biggest thing in town, and stoplights were a myth.

I saw a young couple walking on the beach. Hand-in-hand. They removed their surgical masks and made conversation. I said hello to them, but they didn’t hear me.

You can’t hear anything on a beach. It’s too loud. One of the things I love about it.

As it happens, I once stood in this exact spot when I suffered my first case of heartbreak. I was hardly a teenager. I stared across this dark water at constellations and wished God would’ve made me better looking. I felt like the ugliest boy on earth.

I also visited this shore the night before I got married. It was bitter cold because it was December. Even though I was overjoyed about my upcoming day, I felt…

I dial the number. The phone is ringing. It keeps ringing. And ringing. Click. A woman answers. It’s a youngish voice. We exchange greetings.

“Am I too late?” I ask.

“Nope, right on time, Miller is right here, waiting for you with his pen and notepad ready.”

I’ll admit it upfront. I’m not having the greatest day today. I didn’t sleep well last night. Also, we ran out of coffee and had only decaf in the house. That’s what I’m drinking now. Worthless decaf.

But I promised a young man I’d do a phone interview for his homeschool assignment. So there you are.

I don’t know anything about him, but his email seemed so sincere.

I hear the sound of a little kid breathing on the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Miller. Sorry I’m a little late calling, I got tied up this morning.”

“You did? Doing what?”

“Well, if you must know, I was walking my dog and she ate something funky. And then I discovered that all we had was decaf. Not the greatest day. It’s a long story. Do you have a dog, Miller?”

“Well, no, but

my grandma has a cat, Jilly Billy, we named her that ‘cause we don’t know if she’s a boy or a girl.” Then the kid changes gears. “I’m gonna record this interview with your permission. But before we start, I just wanna say thank you.”

“For what?”

“For, I dunno, just talking to me.”

Next, I hear the sound of a soda can cracking open. And the noise of a satisfying slurp.

“Let’s begin,” says Miller.

“Fire away.”

“What’s it like to be a writer?”

This is probably not a good day to answer this question. I’m a little too decaffeinated. Also lately I’ve been a rollercoaster of emotions when I think of how turbulent the world is right now. “It’s great.”

I hear the noise of a young person scribbling notes…


I sent you a letter a few weeks ago about my dad’s funeral and I was really hoping you’d write me back because I’m a wreck. Did you receive it?



I did get your letter. And I was sorry to hear about your father’s death. I actually wished I could’ve attended the funeral, but we’ve never met in person before so that would have been pretty weird. Besides, this is a pandemic going on. So I’ll just say this:

Your dad loved you.

No, I never knew your father, but after your letter, I feel like we’re friends. And I think it’s important to keep hearing that he loved you because death should only be about love. So should life.

Society gets death all wrong. We make it into something it’s not. Sometimes we make life’s final ceremony into sadness, organ music, and black dresses. But death is more than that.

Nobody tells you that death can be perhaps the most beautiful life event there is. Certainly, it’s tragic. Yes, it’s a sad thing. I’m sure as heck

not saying we should all break out the party hats.

What I mean to say is that death is not hideous, or shameful, or ugly, or dark. It is remembering something beautiful.

It is the Grand Canyon, slowly being chipped away by the Colorado River. It is a supernova, exploding in the far-off like a million balls of lightning.

A man’s life can seem so ordinary here on earth. But after he dies his entire existence becomes amplified beneath a huge magnifying glass, and everyone suddenly realizes that this man was not ordinary.

That can’t be all bad.

My father’s death was the most profound moment in my early life. And when the crashing breakers of grief died down, I realized something: I’d never really looked at my father’s life in its entirety.

I’d only…

Ribs. That’s what I need right now. Big, fat, juicy, thick, obscenely greasy, dangerously smoky, cardiac-distressing, country-style ribs.

Here’s the thing. Today was supposed to be our barbecue blowout rib contest. It would have been held in an Alabama state park, open to the public, and very fun.

I’m totally serious. Before the coronavirus hit, we were toying with the idea of throwing a rib contest on National Relaxation Day. Which was today.

It would have been easy to participate, free to attend, everyone would’ve been cheerful, and nobody would have been trying to sell you timeshares in Key Largo.

We would have had live music by a band that didn’t suck. A beer truck. And—here was my favorite part—there would’ve been dogs.

These would have been shelter-dogs who needed families. Like the rescued dog I just met a few days ago. His name was Bill.

Bill’s original owner was the kind of upstanding citizen who left Bill in an outdoor kennel for 6 weeks without much food or water. Bill survived on rainwater and even ate dead leaves.

When rescuers found him he was underweight and had mange so bad he couldn’t open his eyes.

I don’t want to say anything ugly here, but cruelty toward animals is the blackest of evils.

So at my rib contest these shelter-dogs would be spiffed up, spanking clean, walking around on leashes. They’d be greeting kids, licking babies, eating free meat chunks. Anyone who wanted to adopt a dog like Bill could take him home THAT DAY.

Also, anyone who wanted to be a judge could be one. And I mean, literally, anyone who could prove they had a pulse.

At least this was the idea.

Food-wise, the only rule to the contest was that it was solely about ribs. No pork. No brisket. No tofu.

And it would’ve been great. People milling around, classic-country music playing, everyone chewing, laughing, grinning. I…

Jeannie was depressed. She walked into the little back room of the Methodist church. She was giving therapy a try.

She is a mother of four, works part-time, and somehow manages to scrape dinner together every night. She wonders how her mother did it when she was growing up. Her mother was single, overworked, and strong. She never showed a hint of depression.

Depression. That horrible word. How could Jeannie be such a wimp?

But then COVID-19 hit. Followed by unemployment. Followed by more bills. And fear.

She managed to get a new job working at a local hotel cleaning rooms for a pittance. But the world is not the same as it was. And neither is Jeannie. Depression is real.

The Methodist back room was dimly lit, with soft music playing. A little bookshelf. Scented candles. An older woman welcomed Jeannie into a little den she lovingly called the “upper room.”

Methodists call everything the upper room. Even the family dog.

Jeannie sat on a sofa, embarrassed to be there. Therapy does that to newcomers.

It makes some feel ashamed.

But this was not “therapy” in the official sense. The woman was clear about this. This was not a professional consultation. This was just two ladies talking.

So Jeannie told her everything. She told her how difficult it was being a 44-year-old who should have her life together, but didn’t. She told her about the dark days. The thoughts of self harm.

The lady therapist offered no judgments. In fact, since this was not technically a consult the woman simply listened.

When Jeannie finished talking, the older lady took the opportunity to speak. She told Jeannie that depression doesn’t work the way most think. It’s not a devil cloud from the primordial underworld. It’s a medical thing. It’s situational. It’s complicated.

Depression can be just like breaking your foot, or spraining your ankle. So why be humiliated about it?

MONTGOMERY—The college kid at Alabama State University’s front gate is greeting cars and giving directions to new incoming students.

“Hi!” she says to me. “Are you moving into the dorms?”

Moving in? I’m flattered she would say such a thing. But I’m a little long in the tooth to be moving into any dorms. I have tennis shoes older than this kid.

“No,” I say. “Just here to look around campus.”

“Okay, have a good one! Go Hornets!”

“Go Hornets,” says her friend.

It’s move-in day at the university. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic these students are excited for the new semester. Their modern music blares from car stereos all over campus and sounds like a choir of tone deaf chainsaws.

You have to worry about America’s youth.

Classes begin Monday. Hundreds of freshmen in surgical masks are buzzing around this place like… Well. Hornets.

On the opposite side of ASU’s campus, over by Hornet Stadium, is the historic clapboard house I came to see. The university relocated the structure here from its original location

on Saint Johns Street years ago, then renovated it. It looks roughly the same as it did in 1919 when Nathaniel Adams Coles was born here.

It’s a plain-looking home, painted lead-white, with a tiny porch, and a piano in the front room. Ironically, it looks like my grandmother’s house. Except, her den had a record player as its main centerpiece, not a piano.

Goodness knows that woman loved her music. She would smoke endless chains of Winstons, listening to Nat King Cole records, singing along in her hoarse voice until it was time to start supper.

I peek into the back bedrooms of the home. A great man was born in one of these rooms.

Nat “King” Cole was an easy going boy, an ardent baseball fan, and he had a great personality. He was the son of a Baptist preacher,…

BIRMINGHAM—The 16th Street Baptist Church is your quintessential church. It’s a stout building with real downtown character. Red clay brick. Ornate stained glass. The whole enchilada.

There are homeless men seated on the curb. One man is asking people for money. He zeroes in on me.

He’s smoking a cigarette while wearing a medical mask at the same time. Which is impressive.

“You wanna know more about this church?” he asks.

His old T-shirt is ratty and stained. His skin is aged. He offers to tell me the church’s story in exchange for a few bucks. A “donation,” he calls it.

I bite.

He pockets the money and launches into a spiel.

“This structure was designed in the turn of the century by a dude named Wallace Rayfield.” He pushes his mask aside and lights another bent Camel.

Rayfield was American history’s second black architect. He was formally educated in Columbia University, and in 1899 he was a unique treasure. A lot of people consider this building to be one of his masterstrokes.

He designed buildings all over

the U.S., there are nearly ten in Birmingham alone. He built others in New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Chicago, Pensacola, and one located in the little crossroads of Milton, Florida.

His creations are works of art in any town. Though you have to know where to look for them. Rayfield’s buildings recede into a cityscape like they’ve always been there.

“This church congregation is old, dude,” the man says. “Goes way back in time.”

This church was founded in 1873, it was the first organized black congregation in Birmingham. Some very well-known American men and women have spoken from this pulpit. People you’ve heard of, like W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The old man goes on, “The last time Doctor King came here, this place was, like, standing room only. And it was hot, brother. The…

ANDALUSIA—The first thing I always do in this town is eat ice cream. I order a Blizzard from Dairy Queen. If I’m in a good mood I might even get a Dilly Bar.

When I was dating my wife, I took her to this Dairy Queen for one of our first dates. Times were tight, I was really trying to stretch my cash. I ordered a large Blizzard and a tap water. We split the Blizzard.

She called me “Mister Big Spender” after that. She still calls me this.

This is not a term of endearment.

We are rolling into the drive-thru right now. It’s a summer afternoon. I’m idling behind three cars in the to-go line. One Oldsmobile, one Pontiac, and a Chevy Z71 truck.

The Dairy Queen on East Three Notch Street is among the finest in the nation. And that’s not an opinion. There aren’t many like it left in the U.S.

If you’re passing through this Alabamian hamlet with time to kill, order a single dipped cone from this 1950s-style establishment and see

what I mean. You’ll forget all about the coronavirus for a few minutes. You might even find that you need a Dilly Bar.

The DQ’s dining room isn’t open right now because of COVID-19, but the drive-thru is. Which is similar to how Dairy Queens worked back in the ‘50s. Most stores did walk-up business only.

I pay for my Blizzard. The girl at the window hands me a tap water and says, “Have a nass day.” She is a ray of sunlight.

I park near a curb. My wife and I remove our surgical masks to eat. I play some early Hank Williams on the radio. We take big slurps from our cups. My Blizzard is so thick it could be used in a Quikrete advertisement.

After two sips I develop an ice-cream headache.

My wife laughs. “Mister Big Spender has a…