Used to, my wife and I would keep our porch lights on for trick-or-treaters each Halloween night. We gave them homemade popcorn balls. At one time we were famous because of these popcorn confections, which were the size of regulation softballs, covered in sticky, ooey-gooey goodness.

Over the years I have seen children get into bitter arguments over these popcorn balls.

This year, however, we’re only doing pandemic-friendly plastic-wrapped candy. But then, it really wouldn’t matter what I’m handing out because there are no trick-or-treaters in sight.

Even so, I still remember when kids would climb our stoop wearing costumes purchased from department stores, or sewn by their creative mothers. You’d toss popcorn balls into their open pillowcases and they would get so excited.

After which you’d hear the voices of unseen dads in the dark saying, “Say thank you, dang it!”

Then, five or six kids would suddenly remember their manners. “Thank you!”

Oh, we would get all kinds of monsters. We’d get werewolves, vampires, swamp monsters, zombies, the undead, the extreme undead, ski-mask

killers, Texas chainsaw massacrists, and miniature congresspersons.

One time a kid came to our porch dressed as Kermit the Frog. I gave that kid a carton of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from our freezer because his was the only costume I actually recognized among all the Jedis and licensed Disney characters. He deserved WAY more than a mere popcorn ball for that.

My yearly custom has always been to answer the door in costume. I do it for the kids. Most years I dress up as an out-of-work writer plagued by crippling self-doubt and introversion.

Sometimes we would get one or two kids whose costumes wore nothing more than glorified bedsheets with holes in them. And I would give these children extra popcorn balls because not everyone’s mom had time for costumes.

We also had a stand-offish religious family in our neighborhood who dressed…

CAPE SAN BLAS—It’s a chilly morning. The beach is unpopulated at this early hour. It’s just a big sandy patch with lots of seagulls and stray crabs that run sideways. And, of course, me.

I’m walking because this is what I do when I can’t find something to write about. I walk. It works like a charm. Usually, after enough walking, reflection, and literary contemplation, I end up pulling a hamstring. Then I write about it.

But not today. Because about five minutes into my walk I notice Them. They are walking directly behind me, holding hands, leaning on each other. If I didn’t know any better I’d swear they were a four-legged love monster.

I turn back to look at the young sweethearts. They are right on my tail. There’s a huge beach out here, yet they’re practically following me.

Don’t get me wrong, love is wonderful stuff. I’m a big fan. But is there anything more irritating than a young person punchdrunk with love? I submit no.

It’s a wonder that my friends didn’t tie me up and lock me in a closet after

I first met my wife.

I can’t get these young lovers off my bumper. When I stop, they stop. When I walk, they walk. And even their conversation, which I can hear clearly, is getting on my nerves.

“I love shells.”

“Yeah, they’re great.”

“Where do seashells come from?”

“I think from little ocean trees.”

“So, they’re, like, plants or something?”

“Yeah, like underwater shell trees.”

Sound of kissing.

“I love underwater shell trees, Justin.”

You have to worry about America.

I decide to start walking the other direction and leave Bogey and Bacall to their philosophy discussion. To be fair, they seem like very good kids, but I am trying to cure writer’s block this morning. I need privacy.

So I turn. I walk past them. In a few minutes, I am by…

The beaches of Cape San Blas are sunswept and golden. I am on a porch, only 500 feet from the serene Gulf of Mexico. Palmettos and pines moving in gentle gusts of tropical air.

This is the beach where I first had the idea to ask a girl named Jamie to marry me. We vacationed here when I lost my job so that I could lick my wounds and rebuild my life. We came here after my wife’s father died, for similar reasons.

When I was rejected from a major university, sent packing with my hat in hand, we came here. Because there’s something restorative about the cape.

It does something to me. Always has. It’s like stepping into a calmer version of the world. A place free from loud, frightening headlines and cable news.

These are the same picturesque shores where huge square-rigged Spanish ships once anchored themselves. Where men in brass helmets explored for fountains of immortality and shiny rocks.

To the naked eye the cape is a peninsula dividing Saint Joe Bay and

the Gulf of Mexico. But when your feet hit this shore, there’s a rich sensation felt in your chest. It’s rejuvenating, and strong enough to make you forget about pandemics for a moment.

It’s the same wondrous feeling you get when standing on the banks of the Chesapeake, or in the Rockies, or in Arches National Park, or at Talladega Superspeedway.

Five hundred years ago the Spanish boats would have been moored within eyeshot from where I’m sitting. The ships would’ve had lots of sails, and huge crews.

Sailors would’ve been climbing the towering foremasts, mainmasts, mizzenmasts, dropping the spanker sails, and the four jib sheets. The white fabric would’ve been blinding in the Floridian sunlight.

Search parties would’ve come ashore in dinghies. Men in bright armor would have leapt out and been met by coastal Native Americans.

“Hi,” the Spanish would have said…

Here’s what I wish. I wish kids could know the thrill of doing the same low-tech stuff we did as kids. Activities that don’t require smartphones.

Such as piling four neighborhood kids onto a skateboard and rolling them down a steep hill like the U.S. Men’s bobsled team. Or picking wild strawberries. Or reading comic books. Or eating live palmetto bugs on a bet.

I’m not saying I want technology to disappear, I don’t. But did you know that the average person checks their phone 96 times per day?

And here’s another one. The average American teen spends a daily average of 7 hours and 22 minutes on their phone.

Which leads me to a friend of mine. He is an amateur behavioral scientist. And by “behavioral scientist” I mean that he is a dad.

This summer after his kids had been trapped at home for COVID, he and a few other dad-scientists did an informal summer camp experiment with their children.

The rules were simple. No phones, tablets, video games, computers, TVs,

music, or smartwatches. Instead kids did stuff like archery, leathercraft, wood carving, and basically every other activity modern kids think is stupid.

“Compared to their video games,” said one dad, “it was slow torture at first. They all looked at us like, ‘Archery? Really?’”

Who can blame them? What kid wants to shoot a flimsy fiberglass arrow at a bale of fescue when you could hold a digital plasma laser rifle, slaughtering the undead on planet Zurkon with 2,500 of your closest online friends?

The dad-scientists had their work cut out for them.

Before camp kicked off, kids were unknowingly part of a little preliminary social test. When the children arrived, parents put them in small groups to see what they would do without their phones.

Would the young people naturally strike up conversations? Would they do what generations of our ancestors have done at summer camp,…

Mary wants to be a writer. She is 19 and already a good one. Her literary influences are Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and the immutable Samuel Clemens.

But when Mary published some of her first writings online, several of her college peers returned her efforts with the following comments:

“What the heck did I just read?” Only the commenter didn’t use the word “heck.”

Another commenter: “This has a lot of misspellings, learn to proof.”

And: “Nah thanks.”

Whatever that means.

So a saddened Mary emailed me asking for my opinion about the issue of negativity in the modern world. And I’m glad she did because Mary and I actually have a lot in common.

Like Mary, I also admire many classic authors. In fact, one of my primary literary influences is Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side.” I’m also a veteran when it comes to mispeling wurds.

The first thing I’d like to say, Mary, is that no matter how adult you feel, when people throw rotten tomatoes at your proverbial theater stage, it hurts.


are a LOT of grumps out there, and as a writer you’re going to meet them all. And you'll constantly be asking yourself the question: “Who carries rotten vegetables to a theater?”

But no sooner will you have posed this question than some irate commenter will remind you that tomatoes are fruits not vegetables.

One of the first writings I ever had published by a newspaper was a piece I went to great lengths researching. I traveled to a distant town, interviewed residents, and painstakingly sampled the local beer.

For me, it was a dream gig. The most fun I’d ever had. The pay was squat, I covered my own travel expenses, but I loved it. What I produced was a feel-good story. Granted, it wasn’t Bill Shakespeare, but it wasn’t that bad.

Do you know what happened when the story ran?…

Rural Georgia, 1954. Gas is 22 cents per gallon. Plaid dresses are the rage. Men still wear their trousers up to their armpits.

It’s a good year for America. There is a lot of money going around after the war. Cars are being churned out by factories, all painted bright and happy colors, with tailfins so big they could slice low hanging telephone wires. Everyone's feeling pretty good about life. Cholesterol is still king.

Enter Marian. She’s not that old and she’s alone. She is a Georgia woman, and you know what they say about Georgia women. They are proud.

Her husband was killed in a Korean war, and she is childless. All she wants is a family of her own and to get in on all the good vibes going around in jolly ‘54. She wants a picket-fence. She wants two-point-five kids. She wants someone to love. And above all, she wants to ride in one of those huge cars with the exotic tailfins.

But alas, all Marian

has is an old farmhouse that her late father left her. No family. And Marian suffers from the aftereffects of childhood polio. She has a pronounced limp. Her legs don’t work well. Marian has found that most bachelors in her era are not interested in a woman who limps.

So she is afraid she is turning into a spinster. An old maid. A fuddy-duddy. Arsenic and Old Lace.

On top of all that, her farmhouse is going downhill. The siding is rotting, the roof leaks. She doesn’t have the wherewithal to take care of this homestead, let alone to manage her chickens and victory garden. She could ask for help from her church, but Georgia women, as you’ll recall, have their pride.

Autumn comes. It brings crisp weather and new possibilities, which come in the form of two drifters. They are young, with fedoras and duffle bags. They are lanky, with…

I asked several of my wife’s friends to say a few words for her birthday. Here is what they said:

CONNIE—After a lifetime in the family of a minister, 20 years as a journalist and nearly 10 years as a city employee, not much can make me even flinch.

But, last week I was blessed, BLESSED I tell you, to finally taste Jamie’s poundcake. It made both my eyebrows raise and praise as would happen in the early days of TV preachers.

Dear sweet baby Jesus—anyone who can bake like that deserves a day of reverence and celebration. It matches her very soul for sweetness, honesty and the sacred vessel for the Holy Spirit. And we are indeed blessed to have her and that glorious cake in our lives. Happy birthday, sweet Jamie! Keep caking!

JAMIE’S MOTHER—When she was little, Jamie had a pair of camouflage pants and wore an old felt fedora that used to belong to Mister Bob Seals, and sometimes she wore men’s neckties and colorful sneakers, and such.

It embarrassed me

at first. But I always let her be herself because she was so unique. Nobody is like Jamie.

I hope she has just the happiest birthday. I am just so proud of her. I have to get up now, my legs are falling asleep. Help. I’m hungry.

SUPERMARKET CASHIER—You want me to say something about that lady who was just in here? The one who just paid? Well. Um. She seemed like a nice lady. Is this some kinda joke?

KATIE—Jamie has this huge smile that lights up the room and an absolutely infectious laugh. As soon as we met I could tell she was someone I wanted to be friends with and I am thankful our lives crossed. The world needs more Jamies!

LANIER—There are few finer moments than when Jamie texts you and says: ‘I made too much poundcake, do you want some?’