I recently read an article that said, “the days of backyard barbecues are over.” Another heartbreaking item said: “The pandemic killed potlucks.”

Say it ain’t so.

As a boy I was a perpetually chubby redhead with rosy cheeks and a T-shirt that never quite covered his belly. My favorite place in the world was a covered-dish supper at the Methodist church, Baptist church, holy roller church, or any congregation where people pronounced “Lord” as “Lowered.”

Oh, I miss tiny potlucks held in old community halls. When I close my eyes, I can still see linoleum floors, water stains on the ceiling, and I can still hear 50-some people talking over each other.

I can see the card tables, draped in red-and-white gingham. I see crockpots of chicken and dumplings, Mrs. Martin’s Chicken Divan casserole, and Mrs. Wannamaker’s godawful ambrosia.

I could talk about the food all day, but I won’t. I’ve already covered potlucks in approximately 126,498 columns. Because I am smitten with them. Also, because there is a lot more to potluck than

mere food.

Such as the seating arrangements. Have you ever noticed how people find their seats at a church social? It’s a beautiful process. There is no class hierarchy, and no seating chart at a potluck. Everyone just finds a chair.

Nine-year-old girls sit next to 89-year-old men. A young widow sits next to the preacher’s wife, who sits beside a construction lawyer, who sits beside a pipe welder, who sits beside a random fourth-grader, who sits beside an elderly man who once did time in Draper, who sits beside a chubby redhead whose T-shirt doesn’t cover his belly.

That’s what I miss.

I also miss the way people made money trees for special occasions. Have we forgotten money trees? A money tree was for when someone got married, graduated, or retired. It was a barren hickory branch, standing upright with clothespins on its twigs. People…

They were good together. That’s what everyone said about them. Their schoolmates said it. Their friends said it. Their parents even said it: “Those two are so good together.”

And they were. It was the 1940s, a different world. Girls wore ringlets. Boys pulled their slacks up to their sternums. Teenagers went to dark dancehalls, traveling in packs, necking in the backseats of Buicks, Plymouths, and Packards.

Our two lovers began as dance partners, and friends. Then Uncle Sam shipped him to France to fight a War. She wrote him every day. Sometimes three times a day. She prayed for him every night, every morning, and moments between.

Then the War was over. Young men were coming home, but everything was so bizarre. Many men seemed haunted; others had crippling shellshock.

He was one of the latter.

From the moment she greeted him at the train station he was quiet. Withdrawn. He was no longer interested in dancing. He never spoke of what happened, but it was spelled on his face. It was beneath every word

he said.

Oh, but they were still good together. And more importantly, he truly needed her. She was balm to him.

Often in the mornings he would simply appear on her porch, dressed in tan pants, crisp white shirt, hands thrust in his pockets. He was a tall glass of water with a forlorn face.

Most times he wouldn’t knock on the door, but just stand in her yard for hours, his back facing her house, gazing at the street, counting cars, waiting for his gal to awake.

She’d awake, peek out her window, and find him silent on her steps. She would trot outside wearing her robe.

“What on earth are you doing here so early?” she’d say. “Are you alright?”

He’d look at her with heavy eyes. He’d simply say, “I went for a walk and ended up here.”

So her mother…

Happy birthday, Noah. I’m sorry you’re in a hospital. And I’m sorry your party is a small one.

Although if you ask me, small parties are the best way to go. Little birthdays are WAY more fun than huge parties. They are more mellow, more meaningful, with less expectations. Any older person will tell you this.

These days, of course, many kids your age have birthday parties that are miniature versions of Woodstock. Some parents throw big todos, some even hire event decorators to orchestrate party “themes.”

One family on my street, for instance, turns their kids’ birthdays into elaborate events that are on the same scale as your typical papal installation. Last year’s theme was Disney. Our neighborhood turned into an amusement park.

Cars lined the street. Kids in their Sunday best carried large gifts. There were THREE bouncy castles in the yard. Armies of dads grilled ribeyes. Loud music played. There was a magician, and one frightening middle-aged professional clown with a voice like a tuba.

I’m not being critical, Noah, but after

parties like that, your average adult party will reek by comparison.

Someday you might find yourself celebrating your birthday with a flat tire, stuck in a desolate truck stop, drinking cold coffee that tastes like carbonic acid. Before the waitress even takes your order she will further ruin your day by saying: “Sorry, hon, but we’re outta bacon.”

Not that this has ever happened to me.

So enjoy your easygoing day. Sure, there’s no mind blowing euphoria, but all those feel-good neuro chemicals swimming around in your brain would only leave you in a stupor tomorrow.

I’m not kidding, either. Have you ever noticed how immediately after Christmas morning life stinks? What kid doesn’t know the personal anguish of the post-Christmas blues?

All that holiday hype can be a recipe for disaster when you think about it. There are whole months of excitement, build-up, singing,…

The email came last last night. A 14-year-old named Alessandra sent me a message containing only four words—four words. After reading her message, I wore a large smile because I needed those four particular words.

Yesterday I looked over my pre-pandemic photos because my phone began throwing old memories in my face. And do you know something? My life was once so full.

Before the virus, I was traveling, doing fun stuff, eating at restaurants, going to ballgames, dancing the Mashed Potato with officially licensed team franchise mascots while holding a 24-oz beer can. Those days are over—at least for now.

On my phone I saw photos from the work trip my wife and I took to New York a few years ago. What a trip it was. I couldn’t believe how wonderful the tomato pies were, or how the cab drivers cheerfully drove upwards of 120 mph on sidewalks.

There were photos from our visit out West. My wife and I were posed beside various mountains, canyons, and rust-colored hillsides.

I have photos taken in Texas. We pulled over at a barbecue joint. There were no structures around for miles. Only a tin shack on the plains. A waitress came to our table, she had no menus, she simply said, “Food or beer?”

“Both,” we said.

And that was that. When our mountain of brisket arrived, it came served in zinc motor-oil pans. The beer was so cold it hurt your teeth. “Welcome to Texas,” the waitress said.

We have photos from our extensive travels through Alabama. Alabama is the state that adopted me when nobody else would. And although I am not a native son, the Yellowhammer State lies a few dozen miles from my hometown, and our preachers often quote Bear Bryant from the pulpits.

So I miss seeing the U.S. I miss the way things used to be before we humans had so much fear to…

Yesterday morning you asked if I thought you looked old.

You stood before our bathroom mirror, brushing your hair. I answered, “No, of course you don’t look old, honey.” Then we dropped the subject.

But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Which is why this morning I am writing to you, while sitting on our little porch, attached to our little house, tucked in these woods.

I’m a middle-aged man, watching Floridian fog move through our forest. The mist looks like a poem to me. Long ago, before the Age of Real Estate Development reached these woods, I used to watch deer high-step through this wandering fog.

Have you ever watched a doe graze at daybreak? A doe moves like she is made of pure imagination. She is confident. Wise. Half spirit, half muscle. One flick of her mighty thigh and she is in the next county.

But she is also gentle and humble at heart. And within the presence of such beauty I usually pause my breath.

Nearly twenty years ago, I remember

feeling that same way when I met you. I felt almost breathless when we sat on a beach together, watching the Gulf at dusk until our lower backs were sore and sand had painfully worked its way into the crevices of our youthful butts.

But we refused to leave the shore until the moon came out. Why? Because leaving meant we would be apart, and it would be hours before we would be reunited. I tell you I couldn’t stand it.

So we sat. We leaned against each other. I recall the way your shampoo smelled. And your perfume. Also, I will never forget how you rested your head on my shoulder, making me feel strong.

Of course I’m not strong. That’s the irony. Nobody knows a guy’s weakness better than his wife. You’ve seen my worst. You have watched me play the fool. You…

I have never been to Montana, but I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve always wanted to witness the acclaimed sundowns. They tell me one Montana sunset can cause people to spontaneously believe in heaven.

I almost had a chance to visit the 41st State as a teenager. I was supposed to help my friend’s uncle work on his cattle ranch. Sadly, his uncle passed away before I got the opportunity.

But I wish would’ve visited. I know exactly what I would have done. I would have spent every evening sitting on a log, watching the sunsets over the windswept plains. Or walked the famous Going-to-the-Sun-Road at dusk.

A few years ago, Montana residents reported that the sky was having some highly unusual sunsets. In some regions, the skies were turning electric purple and indigo. This mystified many, including multi-generational Montanans and meteorologists.

(Cue “Twilight Zone” theme music.)

Finally, science discovered the reason for these sunsets. The answer lay across the Pacific Ocean with the Raikoke volcano, between Japan and Russia, and the Ulawun volcano in

New Guinea.

Both volcanoes had recently erupted, sending volcanic material 60,000 feet into the stratosphere. When volcanic aerosols drifted into the stratosphere above Montana, they scattered blue light particles, which mixed with the reddish sky colors to produce deep purple sunsets.

The effect was heaven-like. No wonder they call it the Big Sky Country.

Montana is also where an old man named John once lived. You’ve never heard of John, he wasn’t famous.

At the start of John’s adult life, he was your average Montanan. He had an okay job, three happy kids, loving wife. Theirs was a good life. They attended a clapboard church. The family was a tight-knit one.

John’s wife died at 39, leaving him with three children, and it was like having his limb amputated.

John’s adult son recalls, “My dad became old overnight. His hair literally went white in a…

When I was 4 years old, my mother took me to get my first library card. There are many childhood memories I’ve forgotten, but I’ll never forget Mama hoisting me to the library counter so I could autograph that card.

Of course, I couldn’t spell at that age, so my name came out looking like drunken Mandarin. But the card served me well over the years.

I grew up in libraries. I lived in them. I never quit visiting them. They were my safe haven. They were a place free of judgement.

When I worked construction, I was the guy who visited the library on lunch breaks. I would check out stacks of 10 sometimes 15 Louis L’Amour books.

A library was the only educational institution where blue-collar guys like me weren’t embarrassed about our low pedigrees and decades of bad grades. This is why, to me, libraries are the greatest institution.

All mankind’s children are welcome at the library to partake in ideas, knowledge, classic literature, and above all, free Abbott and Costello DVDs.

No entrance exams, no tuition, no standardized tests. It’s enough to make you believe in God.

Over the course of my life, however, I lost touch with the library. I attended community college as an adult, and eventually quit construction. I became a halfwit author, I got writing gigs, had back surgery, I got married, got a mortgage. Life got in the way.

Until the pandemic.

Suddenly I was at the library again. The Walton County Library system became a safe haven. In fact, it was one of the only places I felt comfortable visiting during lockdowns.

One reason is because librarians are obsessive compulsive about sanitation. They sterilize each book like they’re prepping for neurosurgery. And they always take visitors’ temperatures with their little Star Wars laser thermometers.

Throughout this pandemic I’ve gotten to know the library workers from a distance.

There’s the employee…

One week. Seven days. Boy oh boy. A lot can happen in seven days.

In less than one week there have been two mass shootings. Yesterday a 21-year-old man killed 10 people in Boulder, Colorado, at a supermarket. Five days earlier, a 21-year-old man in Atlanta killed 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian women.

Seven days.

Modern times have gotten so frightening that I’m afraid to read the news. What horrors am I going to read about seven days from now?

Sometimes I worry about this world. I worry about where it’s going. I worry it’s falling apart because that’s what everyone keeps saying. They all say the universe is coming apart. Mankind is turning inward on himself. It’s enough to make you break out into shingles.

Which is why I am writing this to you. Because although this planet sometimes seems screwed up, I want you to know about a few other things that happened within the last seven days.

Take Mike. Mike is a 63-year-old man who grew up

working various labor jobs. He has always been a blue-collar man with dirt under his fingernails.

His life reads like a tragedy in some places. Although, had his story ever been made into a literal book, Mike wouldn’t have been able to read it. Because Mike couldn’t read.

When Mike was around age 10, his father died. Mike quit school to work in his uncle’s restaurant. He had never been a strong reader to begin with. Eventually he forgot grammar-school stuff altogether.

The technological world advanced without him. In his 63 years, Mike had never owned a computer, never owned a smartphone, never sent an email, never penned a letter, never read his own junk mail. Reading-wise, Mike could do little more than sign his name and read everyday words.

But last year, Mike began taking reading lessons with a private tutor. And last Monday (less than seven…

“Will the room please settle down before the dance begins?!” says Gary to the elderly crowd in the nursing home cafeteria. “Simmer down, please!”

Gary is an old man with a saxophone dangling from his neck. He speaks over a microphone, addressing old folks who are all wearing their dancing shoes. These residents need a little fun tonight. It’s been a very long year.

“People, hush!” says Gary.

Someone goes: “SSSSSSHHHHHH!”

The murmuring stops.

“Let’s do this in an orderly fashion!” says Gary. “I need two groups! I want my men dancers over HERE! I want my lady dancers over on THAT side!”

Soon, the room is reorganizing itself like the final round of a livestock auction. It’s a downright mess.

“Quickly, people!” says Gary. “We haven’t got all night!”

It’s a good night for a dance. There has been an 82 percent drop in COVID cases among U.S. nursing homes since the vaccine, and these people need something joyous.

Gary says, “Alright! I want healthy dancers to the front of the line. Quiet please! Orderly fashion! Healthy knees and good

tickers up front! Anyone who’s only upper-body dancing tonight, you’re at the back of the line!”

The people in the cafeteria once again reorganize. Ladies on one side; men on the other. Even nurses and cafeteria workers are present for the fun, watching this clambake from the outskirts in case someone overdoes it.

“Okay,” announces Gary. “Ladies and gentleman, it gives me great pleasure to introduce TONIGHT’S BAND!”

Everyone claps. You would never believe a nursing home could produce so much applause. But as I said, it’s been a long year.

Each person within this cafeteria knows someone who has died from COVID-19. Each person bears the scars of a pandemic. Thankfully, everyone here tonight is healthy (knock on wood).

There are four musicians in tonight’s community band:

Lonnie (Pacific Grove, California) playing electric bass. Lonnie can’t feel his…

My wife is making seafood gumbo, and there is no better gumbo on earth than hers. Sure, I’m biased. And yes, most husbands wholeheartedly believe their wife’s gumbo is the best. But in my case it’s true.

A few years ago I wrote a column about gumbo and received a truckload of messages from Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic people who were unfamiliar with gumbo.

I was surprised especially to receive messages from people who had never heard of gumbo. Like the guy in Akron, Ohio, who wrote:

“Gumbo? You mean the flying elephant movie?”

You have to worry about some people.

Well, I’m no gumbo authority, so I won’t even attempt to define this dish from a culinary point of view because: (a) gumbo enthusiasts are fanatical nuts, almost to the point of being confrontational and aggressive, and (b) I am married to one of these people.

Here on the Gulf Coast, gumbo varies by region, many will claim their wife’s or mother’s version is the best.

My friend Brent, for example, swears by his wife’s gumbo. But I’ve tried it,

and it left me unimpressed.

Basically according to Brent, the way his wife prepares gumbo for her large family is she gathers all the leftovers in the fridge: chicken, sausage, expired hotdogs, three-year-old lasagna, past tax records, nine-volt batteries. Then she lets this simmer all day, adds hot sauce, and serves it with a side of Pepto-Bismol.

Then you have my friend Bill, in Metairie, Louisiana. His wife’s gumbo is thicker than commercial masonry adhesive. Also this gumbo is VERY salty.

Salt, you should note, is a powerful laxative when consumed in high quantities. Look it up.

Bill’s wife’s gumbo is so salty—this is a true anecdote—that at a recent get-together, after eating the gumbo, Bill’s grandmother spent the remainder of the evening in the lavatory with the door locked.

When concerned family members knocked and asked, “You alright, Granny?”…