I am watching the Iron Bowl. It’s drizzling outside. I’m sitting in my living room, eating cheese dip, the game is on low volume.

All my fellow Bama fans in this house are fast asleep from eating way too much saturated fat and refined white flour. My dogs are snoring. My wife is drooling on my shoulder.

This is the calmest football game of my entire life. Nobody is shouting “ROLL TIDE!” There are no high fives, no pom poms, no body-painted torsos. No nothing.

Welcome to 2020.

This is very different for me. I’m used to watching the Iron Bowl in lively joints that smell like stale yeast and armpits. Places where, whenever it’s a third-down situation, 12 guys leap to their feet and spill five-dollar pitchers all over your lap while screaming, “WAR [BLEEPING] EAGLE!”

I’m accustomed to fights breaking out in the parking lot between Auburn and Alabama fans. In fact—this is true—the worst fight I ever saw happened in 2013, after the “Kick Bama Kick” Iron Bowl game, when Auburn’s

Chris Davis sprinted 109 yards and won the game with only one second remaining on the clock. The beer joint came unhinged.

A fistfight between an Auburn guy and a Bama guy exploded into a multi-man brawl, which soon included everybody within nine counties. The fracas had to be broken up by the police. I’ve never seen an altercation on such a grand scale. My cousin and I both sustained injuries when trying to exit the establishment. It was awesome.

I’m not saying I miss those rowdy days, but I do miss being with other people in public places.

Before 2020, I used to get jolts of excitement simply by being in minor crowds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I want to be in any biblical-style multitudes, but on special occasions it’s nice to pile up together.

For almost a year we’ve been avoiding…

I strolled through an old neighborhood at sunset like a stranger. My old neighborhood. I used to live here.

I weaved through the streets on foot, walking my dog, exploring old places, greeting invisible old haints. The ratty humble homes were no longer ratty, nor humble, but instead were all fixed up by homeowners who must watch a lot of HGTV. Christmas decor was everywhere.

I still remember when my family lived in this place, when it was nothing but modest homes, not far from the beach, with backyards full of sandspurs and dollarweed.

When I passed the house we used to call home I stopped walking. There was a guy on a ladder, stapling Christmas lights onto the house.

The little old place had changed so much. The house had a porch swing, a fence, and a lawn with actual grass. Unbelievable.

The man saw me staring. “Can I help you?” he said in a slightly aggressive tone.

“No, I was just admiring your house.”

He didn’t answer. He seemed annoyed.

So

I kept strolling the loop. I passed kids on bikes, people going for jogs, and puppies out for nightly walks.

Another old house on the corner had also been redone by young ambitious homeowners. It looked superb. Even so. No matter how they gussy up this area, I still associate this neighborhood with a freckled kid who had telephone-pole legs, big teeth, and no dad. Who entertained himself with a clunky old manual typewriter.

I finally exited the neighborhood and made it to the old beach access. Ah, yes. The Gulf. The water was loud, and my face was covered in seaspray. You never get tired of the feeling the Gulf imparts. It will always be home.

I saw a teenage couple walking the shore. Arms hooked. He wore a Santa hat, she wore his jacket. I don’t know what their story is, but I know this…

For Thanksgiving today, Shannon did a video call with her elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home. They are not seeing each other because of the virus.

The old woman was seated in her room, dressed in holiday finery. She wore a scarlet blouse and pearl earrings. Even her wheelchair looked snazzy, her nurses decorated it with ribbons.

Shannon could see her mother’s food tray on her phone’s video screen. On the plate was turkey, green bean casserole, mac and cheese, and a wad of mashed potatoes bigger than a regulation volleyball.

This has been a hard year. Shannon’s dad died after routine surgery. And these are her mother’s first few months in an assisted living facility. Shannon has had to make many difficult choices lately.

“I miss you, Mom,” said Shannon into the phone. “Love you!”

“Love you,” said the old woman.

“Love you so much!”

“Love you so much, too!”

They must have said I love you 300 times.

Meantime, in Sacramento, Stewart’s entire family ate a holiday meal in the public park with Stewart’s

parents. Stewart’s wife, Ameliea, is a recent breast cancer survivor. She wore a bandanna to cover her bald head and kept her distance.

Everyone sat at picnic tables spaced 20 feet apart. Each family brought their own food in coolers. There were no embraces, no handshakes. Just pantomimed hugs.

Yet again, the phrase of the day was “Love you!”

And thanks to modern technology, Stewart’s mom could reportedly hear everyone’s words from miles away because she wears a new pair of hearing aids that cost more than a Mercedes-Benz-S-Class.

In Missouri, Tiffany and her husband, Marlin, went for a walk on a trail, in the cold, crisp Midwestern air. It was 39 degrees, but they were happy because, even though a coronavirus is inhibiting holiday activities for millions, they have each other.

The couple packed a lunch and ate on a blanket.…

This is Maria’s story. Why she entrusted it to a hapless boy columnist like myself is beyond me. Either way, our story begins in a humble cafeteria, filled with homeless people.

They are all here for the free annual holiday meal. All who enter are given sanitizer, surgical masks, and optional vinyl gloves. Temperatures are taken at the door.

Maria volunteers here. She has been helping serve hot meals all week, and she volunteers here year round. This volunteering tradition started many years ago. It’s a long story.

When she was a kid her late father was an alcoholic. But when Maria hit age 13, he got sober. Her father started attending AA meetings and won his life back. The main thing her father learned from these support group meetings was that (a) each meeting had donuts, which increased your pant size considerably, and (b) helping others is the only thing worth doing with your life.

Oh, how she misses him.

The mess hall is overrun with people who are dressed in raggedy

clothing. Some suffer from mental illness, some are addicted, others have breath that is 190 proof.

Maria stands behind the sneeze guard, dressed in facemask and hairnet. She serves them all steaming helpings. She is cheery, fun, and she flirts with the old guys because they get such a kick out of this.

One elderly man smiles at her. “Maria, I wish I were twenty years younger, I’d marry you.”

She throws out a hip and says, “And just what would YOU know about marriage, Mister Dan?”

“Hey, I know a lot. I’ve had three very successful marriages.”

She cackles. She gives him an extra helping of green beans and reminds him to behave.

Another old guy shuffles toward her. He wears a leather hat and a large backpack. His pants have gaping holes, he reeks of ammonia and body odor. She dishes his plate. The man’s…

People always said there would be no tears in this place. When she was still living on Earth, everyone said this. Preachers said it. Sunday school teachers said it. There were songs written about it.

But she’s here now. And she definitely sees people nearby who are having some tearful reunions. Interesting.

What a beautiful place, this heaven. It looks like a scene too grand for Hollywood to produce. Nobody could capture this. It would be like trying to fit the glory of Hawaii into a single postage-stamp. And, hey, Hawaii looks like a municipal landfill compared to these digs.

She’s been imagining heaven ever since she lost her husband. She hasn’t seen him in 30-some years.

When she first met him she was a girl. It was World War II. He he was skinny, handsome, and his smile was 2,300 watts. It was a big dance. She wore a nice dress. The band started playing something uptempo and the young man asked if she would do him the honor. He presented

his hand. She took it.

Her first words to the gentleman were, “Can you Jitterbug?”

He laughed. “Can I? You’d better believe it.”

That man. That beautiful man. They were married forever. Then he died and left her alone. After his funeral she spent the rest of her life wondering about this divine realm.

Now she stands in a single-file line of souls, they are all waiting to get in the gates.

Funny. People on Earth used to call them “pearly gates.” And she always assumed they would look like the entrance to one of those snobby private neighborhoods. The kind with the golf courses, fitness centers, and electric carts. But these gates are made of marbled light. The actually glow.

Something else she never realized was how dark Earth is compared to the brightness of heaven. Although it does make sense when you think about it. Earth…

DEAR SEAN:

My mom shared what you wrote about angels. I wish I could see one sometime so I knew they were real, but I really don’t know if they are.

Thank you,
TWELVE-IN-LOUISIANA

DEAR LOUISIANA:

Have you ever seen radio waves? Go ahead, turn on a car stereo. Hear that noise? Where is this sound coming from? The answer is very high frequency radio waves which are invisible. But, hey, you’re listening to them. So they must be real.

These waves can travel up to 62 miles across land or sea, unseen by the human eye, imperceptible to human ears, they are devoid of solid matter, but quite real. Radio waves have assisted EMTs in saving lives, aided policemen when finding bad guys, they have helped win wars, and made modern pop-country into the most annoying art form known to mankind.

What about gravity? Can you see THAT? Let me answer for you. No. You can’t. But gravity must exist because if it didn’t you’d be floating somewhere near the asteroid belt of Jupiter and Mars.

Can you

see oxygen? Nope. But it’s all around you. And without trusty old O2 you would be on the floor right now, flopping like a suffocating goldfish in a sandbox. Oxygen is real because, obviously, here you are, alive and everything, listening to VHF radio waves.

Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not real. The most wonderful things in the whole wide world are invisible.

Love is one of these things.

DEAR SEAN:

I go to school on computer now and we live on a farm, and with the virus out now, I have a lot to help with my dad every day and with my brother. But I’ve been writing letters in cursive so I can get better at writing. Do you think I’m good?

Thanks,
EIGHT-IN-ALABAMA

DEAR ALABAMA:

Thanks for your letter. You are awesome!…

This holiday season has the potential to be a good season as long as you aren’t a total jerk.

The question is, how do you NOT behave like a jerk when the world is full of jerks? They’re literally everywhere. Waiting on every corner. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to accidentally injure four or five aspiring curmudgeons just backing out of your driveway.

I do not mean to be critical here, and I’m not saying these people ARE jerks, but facts are facts. And the fact is lots of people ACT like jerks nowadays. It’s become “trendy” and “hip” to be a jerk. Personally, I blame the newfangled internets.

Yesterday, I was in the grocery store and I saw something very jerkish. Three strangers stood in an aisle, browsing shelves. A man, a college-age girl, and a little old woman.

They were all standing at the shelf of potato chips. You know the aisle. Every store has a potato-chip aisle. In this aisle are roughly 127,024,211 bags of Frito-Lay products.

Which just goes

to show you that times have certainly changed. When we were kids there were only three kinds of chips available. Fritos, potato chips, and those stale pretzels your mother used to buy which tasted like leftover rations from World War II.

But today, thanks to society’s great thinkers and brilliant minds, we have tons of chip-brand choices. They have such weird flavors out now that I cannot imagine normal people actually spending money on these things. Here are some of the following potato-chip flavors actually on the market:

—Cinnamon and Sugar Pringles.
—Walker’s Shrimp Cocktail Crisps.
—Flaming Steak Chips.
—Peanut Butter potato chips.
—Lay’s Nori Seaweed Flavored potato chips.

I wish I could have been at the marketing meeting when someone came up with seaweed potato chips.

“Hey, I have an idea, Frank! Let’s make a potato chip that tastes like material…

This street is lined with dozens of houses decorated with Christmas lights in mid-November. I wish you could see them. There is a whole row of homes, glowing multicolored in the night. My wife and I are on a joyride hunting for lit-up houses this evening.

Decorations abound. We see plastic Santas in front yards with electronic arms waving at us, which is creepy. There are enormous plasticized snow globes with artificial blizzards. Fiberglass reindeer, grazing in yards. And oh, the bright, twinkling, blinking, flickering lights.

I never knew Christmas lights in autumn could bring me such joy. Never.

That’s 2020 for you.

People are doing festivities earlier this year. Everyone’s getting in on the action. I know a guy who put up his tree three weeks before Halloween. And I know a lady who let her kids open some of their presents this week.

This pandemic has changed everything. And everyone.

Take me. When I began writing this column years ago, most of my writings were intended to be funny. I love

humor. I was always the clown in school, and I could make milk exit the nostrils of even the most hardened fourth graders.

But then along came a pandemic and I turned into a big sack of blubbery emotion. Being humorous just felt irreverent in light of mounting death tolls, mortality rates, and sad headlines. It would have been like bringing a whoopee cushion to a Saturday night prayer meeting. Which I have never done.

The COVID era changed me as a human being. But also as a writer. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. And I shudder to think about what my current critics might say about that last sentence.

Because, heaven knows, that’s another thing that’s changed in this world. Some people have become hyper-critical. I receive a handful of nasty emails each morning from disgruntled people I’ve never met who, for some…

Leah is not her real name. But I like that name, so let’s call her that. She is a single mother of three boys with a full-time job. She lives in a rural Tennessee neighborhood with several kids on her street.

Family is important to Leah since she didn’t have many family ties growing up. Today she has her kids and her dogs, and that’s about it. To her, family is everything.

A few months ago, a little girl moved into the neighborhood. Leah’s elderly neighbors adopted their young niece. It’s been a hard situation for the girl. Her aunt is sickly, and her uncle, bless him, does his best to be a full-time caregiver, cook, and housekeeper, while also raising a little girl.

Leah didn’t know the child’s backstory, but somehow she knew that this old double-wide trailer was the girl’s last stop. Her heart went out to the child. Each evening at sunset, when Leah would get home from work, she’d pass the girl’s home and see her sitting on the front stoop,

counting cars, looking lonely as a cloud.

And that is where our story begins.

It was last week. The weather was getting cooler, signaling the arrival of the holiday season. Leah’s neighbors had all started putting up Christmas decor early even though it wasn’t yet Thanksgiving because, as you have probably noticed, 2020 sucks.

Leah walked to the end of the street and invited the child over for tea and sandwiches. She brought a handwritten invitation and everything. She told the girl she would be delighted if she would join her.

The girl got excited. She ran inside and asked her uncle. In a few moments the girl was accompanying Leah home and it was a real treat. While Leah’s three heathen boys ran around the backyard, playing, breaking bones, and shouting obscenities like boys do, Leah and the little girl sipped Early Grey.

The…

Yesterday I received several emails after I mentioned my guardian angel, Bud, in a recent column. One of the emails read: “Are you joking about your angel, or are you for real?” Another read: “Tell us about Bud!” And yet another urgent email read: “Cure male pattern baldness in 30 days! GUARANTEED!”

So let me set the record straight. Yes. I have a guardian angel, and yes, his name is Bud. I never intended to talk about him publicly. But I will tell you about him.

It all started with my granny, who was an extremely bossy woman. And I mean very bossy. EVERYONE obeyed my granny. And I mean everyone. That’s just how she was.

When she wanted a 14-metric-ton birdbath moved, it was moved. When she told you to take your shoes off the coffee table, you did. When she told my retired grandfather to quit loafing around the house, he found a part-time job faster than you could say George Beverly Shea.

My grandmother died on a

sunny day, attached to a ventilator. The commanding four-foot-eleven woman with the lazy eye was only 69 when she entered Glory. Cancer is a vicious killer. The Winston filter-tips didn’t help, either.

My mother left the funeral service without speaking. She drove straight across town to my granny’s vacant single-wide trailer. She started cleaning furiously to keep herself from crying. In a few moments she was scrubbing baseboards and beating rugs, but it didn’t work. Tears dripped from her chin.

The mobile home was filled with faded Bibles, religious leaflets, mounding ashtrays, and embroidered scripture wall-hangings. One of these hangings read:

“Angels shall bear thee up in thy hands lest thou dash thy foot against a stone…”

A few days later, my mother was holding that embroidered piece when she told me she was going to give me a gift. She made me sit still and explained that she was…