I am not a fan of doctors. I hate going to the doctor’s office because I’m always afraid they will commit acts of Medical Care upon my body then scold me for being a beer enthusiast.

Even so, no matter how badly I dislike the doctor’s office, you shouldn’t put these appointments off.

My exam went well. Blood pressure is down. Cholesterol is lower. I’m fatter, of course, but at least I’m losing my hair.

The doctor smiled at my chart and said he’s very pleased about my health. Then he took a long gander at me and smiled. He said, “You don’t even look like the same guy I saw last year.”

And his words struck me. Because he’s right, I’ve changed a lot. The previous pandemic year has done a number on me. It’s made me a different man in almost every important area of my life.

Take beer. My beer consumption habits are very different now. Which is almost unbelievable, because to me, beer has always been beautiful stuff. Beer traditionally goes great with

every occasion: baseball games, social events, real estate closings, baptisms, days of the week containing a vowel, etc.

But something weird happened in the middle of last year. Beer became old news. All of a sudden I wasn’t drinking it. One day I realized it had been four months since I’d had any beer. And the bizarre thing is, I can’t figure out why. It happened by accident.

I realize this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you knew me you’d know I love beer. I was first introduced to the golden suds when I was a 5-year-old. My grandfather let me sip his Miller High Life because he thought it would be hysterical to watch his grandson spit and go, “YUCK!”

But his object lesson backfired because I adored the taste. At which point I attempted to drink the whole…

It came in the mail. A small package. A cardboard parcel no bigger than a VHS tape. I weighed it in my hands.

Definitely not a VHS tape. For one thing, it’s too heavy. For another, nobody even uses tapes anymore.

Not long ago, families had to rent VCRs from the supermarket if they wanted to watch video cassettes. Unless of course they were rich. In which case they went out and bought their own supermarkets.

Our supermarket movie rental selection was pathetic. The only two videotapes available were the complete first season of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and “Porky’s Revenge!”

Anyway, I’m sitting on my porch steps and opening the package with a pocket knife. I have an idea of what is inside, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions.

The first thing I see is a printed name on a book cover. Four letters.


The Gaelic spelling of my first name has long been mispronounced by P.E. teachers and telemarketers alike. It’s unclear why my mother chose this name. She

either named me after my Scotch-Irish ancestors, or she named me after 007.

My money’s on 007. She loved Sean Connery as James Bond. When we purchased our first VCR, my mother would would rent Bond movies from the local library all the time and watch them when she ironed clothes.

She and I were big regulars at the library. I got my first library card when I was in kindergarten and I can still remember signing my name on the back of that card. I signed: SEJMN. Which was close enough for 007.

After my father passed I practically lived at libraries. The elderly librarians were my friends. These were blue-haired ladies who were old enough to have single-digit Social Security numbers. But I loved them.

I read truckloads of cheap paperback books. Not high literature, but low-brow books that I should be embarrassed about.…

One of the first official dates with my wife took place at her parents’ house. That night, her extremely nosy parents promised not to spy on us, nor eavesdrop, nor bother us, nor hide behind the sofa and wait for us to kiss. They agreed to let us have the entire downstairs to ourselves.

I was very nervous. What would we talk about? What would we do?

Well, since my story takes place in an era when VHS cassettes still roamed the earth, we decided to rent a VHS movie. Although as it turned out, we were so timid we couldn’t actually decide on a movie. So our bashful conversation in the video-rental store went like this:

HER: Which movie do you want?

ME: Oh, anything you want.

HER: I don’t care, I’ll watch anything you wanna watch.

ME: Makes no difference. What do you wanna see?

HER: Whatever you wanna see.

And so it went. Because all young lovers are afraid to come right out and say something like, “Darling, I do believe I’d prefer

to watch something produced by the genius that is Monty Python.”

We had the same hem-hawing conversation about which restaurant to choose for dinner. But we went hungry because we never settled on a place. Instead we ended up driving in circles for two hours constantly saying, “Where do you wanna eat?” “I don’t care, where do YOU wanna eat?”

Eventually we returned to her parents’ house and spent the rest of the evening trying not to demonstrate symptoms of dangerously low blood-sugar.

When we entered her family’s living room, her mother and father immediately evacuated to give us privacy. Though, later that night I swear I saw their heads peeking around a corner.

As it happened, our date night got worse. Because the movie we rented turned out to be the foulest, most inappropriate skin-flick Hollywood ever released. It was so bad we…

Remember when you were a puppy? You used to sit by the front door all day and wait for your mom to come home. Because this is what all dogs do.

One reason you did this was because whenever your loved ones would arrive and see you sitting patiently by the door, they’d be so full of emotion they’d blurt out, “Who’s a good boy?! Who’s a good boy?!” And inevitably food would follow.

The truth is, all you ever wanted to hear was that you were a good boy. This phrase made all the front-door waiting worth it. Although you don’t feel too “good” right now.

Right now you’re lying on your side and there is a tube attached to your paw, and the veterinary doctor is injecting something into your bloodstream. Your mom is holding you.

You are panting slowly. You’re trying to wag your tail to show everyone that you’re a good boy. But nothing is happening, your tail muscles are too weak. And you’re struggling to breathe. Your heart is slowing. The lights

are dimming. And everyone is grim.

“Buddy,” says your mom. Because your name is all she can mouth through her tears. “Buddy.”

Somehow, within the innermost depths of your brain, you know what’s happening here. This is something big. Something frightening. Something final.

It takes a moment, but you eventually realize why the vet has a drip line attached to your veins. You understand why this room is getting so dark. This is your end.

You’ve been sick. Violently sick. You’ve been in the ER, the doctor said you have liver failure.

You are briefly sad about this. Mainly, because you are REALLY going to miss your mom. Oh, if you could only communicate to your mom in human language right now. If only there were a way, you know exactly what you’d tell her.

First off, you would thank her for being…

I believe cornbread can save humanity. Before you write me off for being a lunatic, think about it. Nobody can think negative thoughts while eating hot cornbread from a skillet. Cornbread is powerful stuff.

I don’t know if you know this, but cornbread has already saved the nation once. In fact, cornbread is one of the reasons you’re alive right now. I’m being absolutely serious. Allow me to explain:

One of the first foods Native Americans taught the pilgrims—our uptight fundamentalist ancestors—to prepare was cornbread. Thus, our puritian forefathers’ diets were heavy on the cornbread.

It is a fact that cornbread kept our fledgling infant country alive during hard winters and prevented colonists from starving in dire circumstances. Cornbread was life.

So in light of this simple information, this means that, in a manner of speaking, without cornbread, there would be no America. Simply put, cornbread is more American than Chevys, Coke floats, mailbox baseball, and pugs dressed in bow ties.

And I’m talking about the real cornbread here, not the fare from a box.

I wouldn’t feed box-cornbread to a Labrador. No, I’m speaking of corn pone cooked in a greasy iron skillet, smeared with so much butter your cardiologist disowns you.

Long ago, I used to work as a drywall man. One day my coworker, Bill, asked if I’d help drywall his basement. Males are always roping their friends into huge projects like this, often promising to pay them with beer.

The thing is, no amount of beer would have convinced me to help Bill. Because Bill and I weren’t friends. Actually, we were enemies. It’s a long story, and I don’t have room to tell it, but we had a falling out over a girl. So I responded by telling Bill to get lost.

Bill started begging. “Please? Nobody else wants to help Sheetrock my basement. If you help me, I’ll get my mom to cook for…

Let’s try something together. A positive mental exercise. Experts have named this technique with a fancy, multi-syllabled extremely hyphenated term, but I can’t pronounce big words. So I’m going to call it “remembering stuff.”

Ready? Let’s begin. Okay. Let’s start by closing our eyes. Excellent. Now we must2i pwof -jglm2-gukmm sd,vw 23hb uwewe.

Okay. On second thought, let’s both keep our eyes open.

New plan. I simply want you to recall the happiest day of your life. Take all the time you need. I’m talking about the king daddy of your happiest occasions. The time when you were giddy with hopefulness. Any great memory will do.

The reason I’m suggesting this is because I got a letter from a young man named Josh who told me that he has been depressed lately; he’s attempted suicide twice this year. Currently, he is in a rehab, which is where he wrote me his letter.

His message reads: “I just want to feel happy again… I miss being normal. I want to feel like I’m loved.”

That’s when I

started thinking a lot about this happiness business. Recently I read somewhere that simply recalling a happy moment can trigger small flickers of happiness. Which eventually leads to more happiness. Which theoretically will lead to Gaither sing-alongs.

So I decided to take this idea a step further. I called dozens of friends and asked what THEIR happiest moments were. As of now, I’ve spent the entire morning on the phone, talking to nearly 32 bajillion people, writing these happy moments down. Here are some:

“My happiest memory,” says Michelle (age 49), “was when the doctor told me my mom would recover from COVID.”

“Happiest moment?” says Randy (82). “It was when my grandson, Beau, was born. Beau has Down syndrome and he is my heart and soul. I thought my life was complete a long time ago. But then came Beau. Tell your friend,…

I’m in a hotel dining room, eating breakfast. Everyone is wearing masks, some are wearing latex gloves. I am wearing a bandanna around my face like I’m about to rob a stagecoach.

Even so, these scary modern times haven’t changed the state of the American hotel continental breakfast. Nothing can change that. I’m pleased to report that hotel eggs still taste like they were manufactured by the Reebok corporation. And all “sausage-like” products still taste like deflated footballs that were cooked on the radiator of an old Chevy.

The first thing I see in this dining room is a young family, hands folded, eyes closed. They are saying grace. The youngest boy is bowing his head in exaggerated reverence. Eyes shut tightly.

When they finish praying, I hear a communal “amen.” Everyone lifts their masks, and begins to eat.

“Mom?” says the boy. “What does amen mean?”

I love overhearing this kind of stuff. And I’m glad I overhear the kid ask this because sometimes I wonder whether kids still ask these wonderful questions.

As it happens,

I remember when I asked my granddaddy the same thing. I was a 5-year-old. We’d just finished saying grace.

“What’s it mean?” was Granddaddy’s reply. “Aw, well, amen just means ‘over and out,’ ‘ten-four, captain, ‘aye aye, sir.’”

And the thing is, I completely understood what he meant because Granddaddy spoke fluent Kid.

So here I am eating my manufactured “meatish” product, listening to parents explain the mysteries of Ecclesiastical Latin words to a child and I’m smiling. Because I live for this kind of stuff. I love to people-watch.

In fact, during the pre-pandemic era, when I traveled a lot, hotel breakfasts were my favorite moment of the day because you could people-watch all you wanted. I’m finding that people-watching during the COVID era is just as interesting, only a little more poignant somehow.

Three tables over from me, for instance, is…

About a year ago. Before the pandemic. I saw him across the crowded restaurant with his elderly parents. They didn’t look like they’d aged a bit. But he did. His face was lean, his skin was wrinkled, he was gaunt. And he still had his trademark sense of humor.

I told him I hardly recognized him.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s this new diet I’m on, it’s called being sick, the weight just falls off.”

This is not his best joke, I’m not sure whether I should laugh.

Then he gave me the real story. It’s a long one, I don’t have room to tell it all. He became very ill with an autoimmune disease. Doctors said he was dying. His parents were braced for the worst. His mother and father became his caregivers.

His parents tell me that for two years, they did a lot of talking to the sky, asking for help.

Doctors still can’t explain how he was cured. Maybe it was the treatment. Maybe it was something else. They aren’t sure. All anyone knows is

that one day he woke up better. No traces of illness are left.

“Now all I have to do is gain weight,” he tells me.

I have another friend I wanted to tell you about. I grew up with him. We once went to Mardi Gras together when we were young men—which is another long story that I don’t have time for. Let’s just say that I almost ended up as a permanent smear on a New Orleans sidewalk.

A few years ago my friend had the worst year of his life. His marriage sort of fell apart. His wife left him and took their son with her. Next he lost his business, then his money. He became suicidal.

One night, while asleep on his brother’s sofa-sleeper he had decided that he was going to end it all on the following day.…

“Yeah, I played ball with Hank Aaron,” said the old man on the phone. “Long time ago. He was a good man.”

Eighty-five-year-old Howie Bedell played with the Milwaukee Braves during the golden era. He started playing professional baseball during an era when names like Mays, Mantle, Snider, and Jackie were household names.

I talked to Howie this afternoon. He was in his living room in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. I’ve never met Howie before today. Actually, the way we met was: I looked his name up in the phonebook and took a chance.

When he answered the phone I could hear a TV blaring in the background. I heard a dog barking at the back door. I heard his wife whisper, “Who’s on the phone?”

He shushed her and said, “It’s someone calling about Hank.”

So I asked a few questions.

“Well,” Howie began, “I first met Hank Aaron at spring training in Bradenton, Florida. I was a rookie, I drove down to Florida from Pennsylvania in my first car after I signed.”


year was 1957. Eisenhower was president. Patsy Cline was on the radio. Gasoline was 30 cents a gallon. The Little Rock Nine had just enrolled in high school.

Howie was 22, newly acquired by the Braves minor league system. He batted left. Threw right. He stood six-one. He was 185 pounds of legs that could sprint to first base in 2.9 seconds.

“When I showed up to practice, I was nervous. I’s sitting in the dugout when someone said, ‘Hey, Howie, take the field and warm up.’”

Howie jogged to the outfield in an empty stadium. Two other players also exited the dugout: the 26-year-old third-baseman, Eddie Matthews; and a 23-year-old centerfielder from Alabama who everyone called Hank.

Howie’s heart was pounding in his throat. He stood in centerfield, crouched in a fielder’s stance, punching his mitt, trying to breathe.

Howie watched young Aaron limber up with…

I am walking in the woods on the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. I’m in a world of slippery elms, black oaks, and chinkapins, strolling through the Tennessee forest. The last time I walked this trail I was an 8-year-old, holding the hand of my late father. We were singing at the tops of our voices.

There are horses on the trail today. I’m walking beside one such horse, a cocoa-brown animal named Danny Boy. The older man who rides Danny Boy is kind enough to keep pace beside me because he knows I am obsessed with his horse.

I have known this animal for approximately two minutes and I’m already professing my love.

I can’t think of a prettier place to be introduced to a horse than on the Natchez Trace footpath. This famous trail spans three states, stretches 444 miles, weaves from Mississippi to Tennessee, and dates back to 800 A.D., shortly before the birth of Mick Jagger.

Amazingly, much of this national treasure remains almost unchanged by history. But for some reason, the trail wasn’t

as well known in nearby Nashville like I’d expected.

For example, at my hotel I asked some employees where the Natchez Trace trailhead was located and they looked at me like I had boogers.

“The WHAT trail?” said a guy at the desk.

“The Natchez Trace?”

“You sure you’re saying it right?”

“I believe so.”

“Wait. Is that the nightclub where the waiters set the martinis on fire?”

You have to worry about America.

Either way, I finally found the trail. And I couldn’t be happier because the footpath is the same as it was when I hiked it with my father.

The Natchez Trace is the granddaddy of American trails, predating the United States itself. In fact, this trail was here before the Chikasaw, the Choctaw, and the Cherokee.

It gives me chills to think this trail existed during the same…