He sits beside me on the bench beneath a clear sky outside the doctor’s office. My wife is having a routine checkup.

The guy and I are spaced apart. He wears a mask. I wear a mask. Occasionally he lowers his mask to take a draw from a vaping pen before exhaling a cloud that smells like Chanel No. 5.

He is bone thin. He is late-50s. His skin is all freckles. His ratty ballcap reads, “Presbyterianism: Est. 33 A.D.”

He inhales. Holds. Exhales. Then speaks. “S’posed to be nasty weather tomorrow.”

And already I know where this conversation is going.

Floridians have been cussing the weather since our ancestors first crawled from their prehistoric caves to get their real estate licenses.

The weather is an easy subject in the Alligator State because it’s common ground. Everyone experiences weather. Everyone gets sick of weather. To discuss weather is a grand tradition. And like all traditions, there are obligatory phrases often exchanged between participants.

Such as: “Hot enough for ya?” “Supposed to come up a storm.” And the all-time classic: “We could shore use

the rain.”

This is the stuff that makes us human.

The old man opens with an old standard: “S’posed to rain sideways this week.”

I play my role. “We could use the rain.”

Although technically we don’t need rain. Last week it rained like a son of a gun; my yard had two feet of standing water and became one with the Choctawhatchee.

The man uncrosses his legs. “You here to see the doc?”

“No, my wife’s seeing him. You?”

“Waiting on my wife to finish her checkup. Had my own appointment last week.” He thumps his chest. “Doc says I’m good to go.”


He sucks on his pen again and laughs. “Nice to be told I’m healthy for once. I’m used to hearing the opposite.”

I take the bait. “Really.”

He tugs his shirt collar…

I’m sitting on the Walton County beach, I am sipping a beer with my wife, eating Chili Cheese Fritos directly from the bag. She is hogging the bag.

The spring-break teenage rowdies have finally gone home and the median age of our town population has risen to over age fifty again.

As a teenager, I used to sit on this beach a lot. When I needed to think I would sit alone, long past sunset until I would get so cold I was no longer able to biologically have children.

Sometimes I would sit for hours after the sky went dark and stare at an endless Gulf of Mexico. The sound of wind and water does things to me.

One night, I was on the beach in the dark. I was sixteen, and I was sad because of something that truly doesn’t matter now—though, back then it felt like the end of the world.

I felt overlooked by the universe, unexceptional, and unloved. They were feelings I couldn’t shake.

I was wondering why people act

ugly toward each other. I was wondering if anything existed in the distance besides waves and foam.

That’s when I saw two shapes approaching.

Two elderly women were walking the shore, I could hear them laughing. They wore heavy jackets, wool caps, and carried backpacks. They were wiry, and athletic.

One woman was Puerto Rican, with white hair and a dark complexion. The other was from Australia. I will never forget them.

The women said they were traveling the world together on a shoestring budget. They had already visited four continents, walked hundreds of miles on foot, and relied on the kindness of strangers.

They had been sleeping in tents, riding in cabs, living out of backpacks, frequenting motels and hostels, and eating like royalty.

Then, both women sat next to me in the sand. One woman removed a hip flask. She asked if I…

“You must be Sheen,” said the old man, extending his hand. “You here for the lawnmower?”


We were somewhere outside Andalusia. I was young. I was there to buy a used lawnmower from the Thrifty Nickel ads. I was in kind of a hurry, so the quicker we cut bait the better.

The old man had a firm handshake. “Was it a long drive, Sheen?”

“Couple hours.”

We stood in a rural Alabamian field, 40-some miles from the Florida line. The man wore jeans and scuffed Double-H boots. He was mid-70s. Lean. His summerwear cowboy hat was hard, like plastic. He reminded me a little of my late father. Only older.

I released his hand and clarified. “My name isn’t Sheen, it’s Sean.”

“But the way it’s spelled...”

“You’ll have to take that up with my mother.”

My Irish name has long been a source of confusion for the elderly, who find the name too modern for their sensibilities. The truth is my name is the ancient Gaelic version of “John,” which was my father’s name. And it is all

I have left of him.

Also, not to be picky, but my name dates back to 1066, predating most of today’s modern names, such as, for example, Larry.

“Name’s Larry,” said the old man.

I told Larry I was in a hurry, and I needed to buy the lawnmower and skedaddle.

He beamed. “Okay then, let’s go get your mower, Shantell.”

We started walking to his barn, when he gestured to a green pasture and said, “My granddaughters are out riding today.”

As if on cue I could hear horses before I saw them. The bass notes of heavy hoofs fell hard upon the earth. I felt the vibrations beneath my boot heels.

Next, I saw two young women on horseback, in the faroff, moving at full gallop. One rode a buckskin; the other rode a chestnut. The girls…

BIRMINGHAM—There is an American flag flapping outside my hotel. A slight breeze lifts the banner while the sun rises over Magic City.

A hotel janitor with dreadlocks is standing beside me, we’re watching the flag flap while I drink my morning cup.

Two hundred and forty-four years. That’s how long the colonist’s colors have been flying from flagpoles like this. I bet the early colonist’s worst critics never saw that coming.

They are brilliant colors. To watch the 13 battered stripes flutter in open Alabamian daylight, putting on their morning matinee, never fails to move me.

“Pretty ain’t it?” says Jefferson County’s leading custodian.

I nod.

He cracks the tab on an energy drink. “My daughter’s in Girl Scouts. She folds’em sometimes. Flags, I mean.”

I’m not sure why he’s telling me this, but I grin anyway.

“How old is she?”

“Leaven. And sassy.”

“She get that trait from Mom or Dad?”


We’re quiet for several minutes.

Then: “Yeah. She practices folding flags with my mom sometimes, for Scouts. They use a big ole bed sheet so they don’t drop it. My daughter always be shooing me away, saying, ‘Daddy, get out the



He sips. “Sassy.”

And I’m thinking about how our flag was designed by New Jersey congressman Francis Hopkinson in 1777, first stitched by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross. And 244 years later Girl Scouts are still folding them into tight triangles.

He makes a professional inquiry. “So how’s your stay with us, sir?”


“Good, good.”

My hotel is nothing fancy, it’s your basic highway-side deal. But it’s clean. There’s even a continental breakfast featuring the American traveling-man’s greatest hits. You have your expired yogurt cups, English muffins suitable for usage in hockey tournaments, and “egg-like” omelettes that glow in the dark.

And, of course, there’s complimentary carbonic acid which someone mislabeled coffee.

“She sells cookies,” he says.

“Come again?”

“Scout cookies. My daughter sells’em.”

This story isn’t mine, but I’m going to tell it like I heard it. I first heard it from an old man who drove a Ford. And I have a soft spot for old Ford men.

So there he is. The old man is driving. He sees a car on the side of the highway. A kid stands beside it. Hood open.

The man pulls over.

He’s America’s quintessential old man. He drives a half-ton Ford that he’s been babying since the seventies. He changes the oil regularly, waxes it on weekends. The candy-apple red paint still looks nice.

He looks under the kid’s hood. He can see the problem right away, (a) the transmission is shot, and (b) it’s not a Ford.

Fixing it would cost more than the vehicle.

The kid is in a hurry, and asks, “Can you give me a ride to work? I can’t afford to lose my job.”

So, the old man drives the kid across town. They do some talking. The man learns that the boy has four children, a young wife, and a disabled

mother living with him. The boy works hard for a living. Bills keep piling up.

It rips the man's heart out.

They arrive at a construction site. There are commercial framers in tool belts, operating nail guns. The kid pumps the old man’s hand and thanks him for the ride.

“Take care of yourself,” the man tells the kid.

The kid takes his place among workmen, climbing on pine-framed walls, swinging a hammer.

The old man decides to help the kid. He doesn’t know how. Or why. But it’s a decision that seems to make itself.

That same day, he’s at a stop light. He sees something. An ugly truck, sitting in a supermarket parking lot. A Ford.

A for-sale sign in the window.

He inspects it. Single cab. Four-wheel drive. Low mileage. The paint is flaking. Rust…

I don’t know what made me think of this. But I when I was a kid, I remember when our preacher would often shout the following words from the pulpit:

“When I die, folks! Don’t weep for me! For I shall be in a place where the fried chicken never endeth!”

This was a sort of joke, you understand. And it always got a good laugh from the congregation because our preacher was a very round man who definitely knew his way around a fried bird.

The reason I bring this up is probably because last night my wife made fried chicken. She’s been cooking up a storm lately.

She used a hot skillet filled with peanut oil. Then she made cornbread to go with the chicken, and turnip greens. It was pure decadence.

And while I was digesting, I got to thinking about how the best and worst periods of my life can be measured in food.

Seriously. I can look back on the most sacred memories of childhood and one of the

first things that comes back to me is the food. The smells, textures, stains on my shirt. Likewise, I can relive my saddest moments and food is often part of those memories, too.

Twenty-four hours after my father’s death, our porch was loaded with casseroles and various wax-paper-lined shoeboxes of fried chicken. Someone even brought a brown paper sack full of biscuits. There were enough hand-thrown biscuits to last until the Second Coming of Elvis.

Among my people, the period surrounding a funeral features a lot of food. Which is ironic because you don’t feel like eating after your loved one dies. Although somehow, you do.

But anyway, I can retell my entire life story with food:

Infanthood; pureed fried chicken. Adolescence; whole fried chicken. Teenage-hood; two whole fried chickens. Adulthood; cholesterol free synthetic alfalfa hay, Metamucil, and Lipitor.

Throughout my life women have always been…


The last several columns I’ve read from you have been about old people. May I ask why, with all of the other things happening out there, you’re always stuck on someone’s grandma and grandpa?

Can you write about something fresh and new instead of always telling us about people who are old? Not being critical. Just giving you something to think about.



Thanks for the words. Before I say anything else, let me also thank you for taking the time to sit down, look up my email address, and send a message to a complete stranger who lives 2351.4 miles away, expressing your dissatisfaction with writing that, bear in mind, ain’t exactly Whitman.

But I will make no excuses. You’re absolutely right about me writing too many old-person columns.

Which is why I want to apologize. You should not be subjected to columns about elderly persons since these people are, as the term implies, not 39-year-olds.

Like yourself.

And hey, maybe by not talking about old people you won’t ever have to

become one. If you avoid the topic long enough, perhaps someday your hair won’t fall out and your body won’t begin making vaporous noises of its own volition whenever you’re tying your shoes.

Believe me, I get it. Lots of younger people don’t want to hear about the elderly. The young are busy being young, making mistakes, learning valuable lessons, improving the world. That’s what you're supposed to do, and it's wonderful.

So keep reinventing things, blazing new paths, breaking old traditions, and making your own rules. And above all, keep believing that yours is the first generation to ever do these things. Because you’re adorable.

Besides, you’re absolutely correct. Everyone could do with a little youthfulness. Which is why after reading your email I took your advice. I looked up a few articles on popular youngish news sites to see…

I had a video conference call with Mrs. Soto’s fourth-grade class this morning. I wore a tie for old times’ sake. Although I have always looked ridiculous in neckties.

I discussed the art of creative writing. I covered topics like essays, grammar, and how I learned to use a manual typewriter in Mister Edmund’s typing class back in 1807.

Eight-year-old Akin raised his hand and asked, “Wait. What’s a typewriter?”

I found myself smiling, loosening my necktie, because at this moment I felt about as old as the Giza Pyramids.

“You’ve never heard of a typewriter?” I asked the Future of America.

Most kids hadn’t.

I couldn’t believe this. Which got me thinking about all the other things Mrs. Soto’s kids probably never heard of. For instance, Garfunkel.

And what about Rand McNally maps? I’d like to know where those went. You can’t even buy them in gas stations anymore.

I believe maps are superior to GPS systems. Maps never recalculate, never screw up, there are no batteries, no connective errors, no robotic voices that sound like Jacques Cousteau on horse tranquilizers.

Sure with paper maps people often got lost in the wilderness, but only a small percentage of these people actually died.

So it was hard for the fourth-graders to believe that I still use an archaic device like a typewriter, but it’s true. And for anyone in Mrs. Soto’s class who is reading this column (for extra credit), I will tell you why.

For writers, the typewriter serves a sound professional purpose. And I’ll illustrate my point by telling you exactly how I wrote this column:

First, I sat down.

Next, I fired up my laptop, which is connected to the vastness of the internet.

I ate Fritos.

Then I cracked my knuckles. I started typing with greasy fingers.

Before I finished my first paragraph, I already had a problem because I knew I wanted to talk about…

A few years ago. She was in the supermarket parking lot when I saw her. My old English teacher. I was enraptured.

“Enraptured” is one of those words writers often use because it contains three full syllables. And also because it’s not a word people use in everyday conversation.

You see, occasionally as a writer you find yourself going for big words that aren’t common words. There’s a sound reason for why you do this: so people will think you’re smart.

“Behemoth” is one of these big words—it means “big.” Another word is “shibboleth,” which is not a cuss word for agricultural fertilizer, but an actual word that means “common belief.”

So if you’re a new writer, and you’re trying to sound like a big shot, sometimes you consult your big bag o’ words and pull out some doozies. Although this is a waste of effort. Because a writer ought to just say what they mean.

At least, that’s what the woman in the parking lot taught me.

I was her adult student. And she was

a beacon. A great tutor.

She taught writers there was no need for fancy words to describe beauty. In fact, this is one of the beautiful things about beauty itself. Beauty is simple. So simplicity is your best way to go.

Short words. Easy sentences. She taught that sparse elements were prettier than excess. In her opinion, the notion that writers must use complicated, flowery phrases was nothing but a big pile of shibboleth.

When I first started my community college career, I didn’t know many big words. I never considered myself to be particularly smart. I lack many educational qualifications. School was always hard for me. I believe I might have a mild form of dyslexia, but don’t quote me on taht.

All I know is that when you put me in a roomful of people at a cocktail party, I’m the guy…

I hope you have a sunny day. No matter who you are, no matter where you live. I hope the sun shines. I hope you wander outdoors and let the sunlight overtake you like chickens on a junebug.

Yes, I know sunlight won’t cure all problems. But it’s a good place to start.

I say this because I know how sad you get sometimes. Also, I know how this feels because I get sad, too. Which is why I can safely say: you’re not fooling anyone when you claim you’re doing okay. I think you and I both know this is wholesale-grade malarkey.

You’re in the dumps. Admit it. Sure, you keep a brave smile nailed to your face, but it’s plastic. This is a pandemic. You are having a hard time right now. Believe me, I get it.

Pandemic-wise, one of the most difficult things for me is bumping into friends who pretend that this year hasn’t been hard. They say they’re doing fine. They shrug off all problems and insist that the last 300-some

days have been a day at the goofy golf.

“No way!” they say. “This year hasn’t changed me.” They insist they’ve kept smiling. They’ve had fun. They’ve installed a deck. Rented a blow-up bouncy house. I find myself privately wishing for extremely committed door-to-door evangelists to visit their neighborhoods.

Because this year HAS been hard. You try to be cheerful. But no sooner have you convinced yourself to be upbeat than you wander into the supermarket and things just get weird.

Sometimes it feels as if your every movement is being narrated by Rod Serling. Employees wear hazmat suits. Cashiers in welding masks take your temperature with radar guns.

Although by now you’re used to this. It’s not nearly as bad it was when the whole pandemic started. Boy howdy. Remember those first few months? Those were a shock to the old cardiovascular muscle,…