It was my twelfth birthday. I blew out the candles and made a wish. If you would have asked what I wished for I might have told you: (a) to meet Jim Varney, and (b) to be a columnist.

I fell in love with columnists when I was young. For extra money my mother and I used to throw the newspaper at 2:30 A.M. each morning, and as a result I read the newspaper religiously. I came to idolize old-school newspaper men.

I bring this up because today is the birthday of this column/blog/whatever-you-call-it. And it has me feeling nostalgic. I’ll never forget when a small newspaper in Texas told me they were going to actually run a few of my columns, I got so excited when they sent me copies in the mail.

“This makes you a real columnist!” insisted my wife, waving the paper like a street-corner newspaper hawker.

And although I wanted to believe her, I didn’t. Because columnists, you see, are educated smart guys. They have multiple degrees, career accolades,

and they drive Mercury Grand Marquis sedans. I drove a beater pickup. I typed 12 words per minute using only my index fingers.

Not long after that, I got another job writing short columns in Georgia. Whereupon I drove all the way to Savannah, carrying along a small manual typewriter. I wrote a few 500-word columns about baseball while seated at a KOA picnic table, eating a cold can of baked beans. I can’t remember feeling so happy.

“See?” my wife announced when she held a Georgia newspaper. “Now do you believe me? You’re a columnist now.”

Silly girl. You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken doo.

The hard truth is I’m not much of a writer. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not putting myself down. And believe me, I love writing. But I’m no fool, either. There are artists out there who are true poets.…

The elderly man at the deli counter was undecided. He looked at the lineup of cold salads behind the glass divider with a serious face behind his surgical mask.

It was the kind of face that deep thinkers wear.

“Lemme try a sample of the chicken salad,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

“It’s REALLY good,” said the cheery young woman with the mask and hairnet. “I just made it, it’s world famous chicken salad, at least that’s what my son says. Every time I make it, I just HAVE to take a few pounds home to my son, my son LOVES my world famous chicken salad, he’s the kind of boy who just loves anything with mayo, and I try to tell him, ‘If you keep eating all that mayonnaise, you’re gonna just swell up like a big ole balloon…’”

The man interrupted, “Lemme try the broccoli salad, please.”

“Sure,” said Miss Sunshine, scooping another sample. “Do you know we put CURRY in our broccoli salad? I used to think curry was

gross, but I was wrong, curry’s good, I eat it all the time now—the broccoli salad I mean, not the curry by itself. I don’t think anyone would do that, eat curry by itself, but you never know, people do some weird things...”

The grumpy man cut her off. “That’s nice, Miss, I wanna try the Waldorf salad, now.”

“Comin’ right up,” she said. “It’s funny, all the old ladies come in here and get the Waldorf salad, and I just laugh, they’re the cutest things, they used to come in every week to eat and talk, but if you ask my opinion, I hate Waldorf salad because I don’t like fruit and mayonnaise to EVER touch each other, that’s gross, I don’t know why anyone with half a brain would put mayonnaise and fruit together, but you know what I always say? I say,…

Last night, while America was fast asleep, stuff happened. Lots of stuff.

Take the two college guys named Greg and Blair. They were driving toward Florida, careening along an interstate.

These are your average college age kids. They had loud music blaring, they were laughing, talking about a topic all college boys talk about. Hint: rhymes with “whirls.”

At first glance Greg and Blair might look like typical teens who skip haircuts, wear unwashed clothes, bathe once per presidential administration, and eat pizza six times per week. But they’re so much more than that. They also eat tacos.

When Greg and Blair saw a compact car on the side of the road last night, they stopped to help. The car was owned by a middle-aged woman who was struggling with a scissor jack, lying beneath her vehicle. Her kids were in the backseat, eating from a jumbo-sized bag of Jolly Ranchers. The woman was praying a semi didn’t run her over.

When Greg and Blair pulled behind her, the woman became guarded. This is a dangerous world,

and being a female alone on a major highway in the middle of the night is not exactly an ideal scenario.

Not to mention the boy’s pandemic-style surgical masks made them look like train robbers.

She gripped a tire iron in her hand until her knuckles went white.

“Need any help?” shouted one boy over the din of traffic.

Greg saw her squeeze the iron harder.

“We’re friendly,” said Greg, hands held in surrender.

Her tough demeanor broke. She almost started to cry. She admitted she had no idea how to position a scissor jack. “Thank you.”

The young men got to work. They attached her spare within minutes. When it came time to tighten the lugnuts with a tire iron, rather than ask for her tire iron—which she still clutched in a death grip—Greg retrieved one from his own car.

After the…

The phone rings. I hear a click when the old man answers. But no voice.

“Hello?” I say.

But I only hear rustling on the other end of the line. “Hold on!” says the elderly voice. “I’ve dropped my dang phone in the couch!”

So I wait. And wait. I can swear I hear a hand grasping, searching for a dropped phone. Finally the voice comes through. “Phew! Sorry, my phone dropped between my cushions, and I was trying to put my hearing aid in at the same time. Sorry.”

“Is this Stuart?”

“I’m Stuart.”

“Hi, Stuart. I’m calling because your wife said you had a story for me.”

“Yeah, I got a story. Are we ready to start? Do you have a pencil ready?”

“Actually, it’s a gel pen.”

“You gonna ask questions, or should I just start talking?”

I’m thankful he says this because interviews are hard enough for me as it is. But phone interviews are WAY harder when I have to think up more leading questions while simultaneously taking notes. It’s a lot like trying to walk and chew bubblegum while reading Marcel Proust in

the original French at the same time.

“You know what, Stuart? You just start talking, I’ll listen.”

He clears his throat. “Okay, but you’ll be sorry. My wife says when you pull my string I can talk for hours.”

Then he proves his point.

“You see, it’s a long story. I’s a kid when it all happened. I fell off a patio balcony, almost two stories down, I don’t remember much. All I know’s I was out cold.”

“I see.”

“So then I hear screaming from my mom, and my little brother, and something’s off, ‘cause I can see them, but I’m floating above them.”

“Floating.” I stopped writing.

“That’s right. Floating. Didn’t anyone warn you I was crazy?” He laughs.

What in God’s name have I gotten myself into.


Peggy was married when she was 18 years old. Her parents weren’t in favor of the wedding, but Peggy was in love. Hopelessly in love. He was a good man. He called her “babydoll.” She called him “love nugget.”

The two love nuggets moved to northern Alabama. He got a decent job. So did she. They were the poster children for their generation. They listened to Perry Como, drove enormous cars with big tailfins, ate congealed salads. It was a good marriage all the way. They didn’t just love each other, they truly liked each other.

The first obstacle, however, was having children. The doctor told Peggy she was barren. That’s the exact word old-time doctors used.

There weren’t any modern infertility treatments. In those days, a family doctor would merely tap his unfiltered Camel over his medical-grade ashtray and tell you that you were barren.

So Peggy planned to adopt. She was not daunted by the news about her infertility, not even remotely. She is tough. And she was not

about to pass her lifetime without holding a tiny love nugget in her arms.

Peggy would find her nugget many years later, one summer afternoon, by way of a civic women’s group meeting. She remembers the exact day it happened.

She was in a school assembly hall. She was sitting in a metal fold-up chair. These were the kinds of rusty metal folding chairs every church, civic league, and PTA once used in America.

Peggy recalls this chair with vivid clarity because when someone at the meeting told Peggy about an abandoned newborn at the local hospital who needed adopting, Peggy stood abruptly from her chair and announced, “Take me to the hospital right now.”

But when Peggy shot to her feet she heard something rip. Her skirt had become stuck in the inner workings of this folding chair, and now it was torn. It took three women to…

The first rule of bloodhound ownership is do not ever let a bloodhound lick your face. Bloodhounds commonly eat things found in litter boxes and drink openly from toilet bowls, you don’t want this stuff on your face. So never—I repeat, never—let a bloodhound lick you above the neck.

This is easier said than done. My bloodhound is always trying to lick me, and sometimes I can’t prevent it. Her tongue is nine feet long and capable of seeing around corners like a U-boat periscope. She licks everything.

One time I came home to find that my dog had stolen the mail from our counter and licked it all. Mind you, she didn’t chew the mail, neither did she attempt to eat the mail like normal dogs, she licked it until the ink smudged. Try explaining this to the IRS.

Truthfully I can’t come up with a rational reason for dog ownership. I have owned many, many canines throughout my life and every time I try to explain my reasons to non-dog

people, they laugh at me then begin plucking dander off my shirt.

Sometimes I start to wonder why I love dogs. After all, when you own a dog your life pretty much becomes about two things: (a) food, and (b) other people’s food. These things are all your dog cares about. Although squirrels come in as a close third.

Oh, and walks. The most important event in your dog’s personal life will be the doo-doo walk. This is never a leisure event with my bloodhound. Because of my dog’s powerful nose, whenever we go for walks we’re always on tactical military missions, sniffing for missing persons.

My bloodhound follows unseen scent trails on high-alert, dragging me on the other end of her leash. She darts back and forth with such force she almost dislocates my shoulder. One of these days someone is going to see my dog running…

In my front yard is something beautiful. Something living. Something that sometimes reminds me of my mother.

You might not notice this particular something. In fact, most would probably walk by and never truly see it. But trust me, it’s there. It is a tree, about eighty feet tall, with a gnarled trunk, long limbs, and thick waxy leaves.

When we were building our little home, some twenty years ago, a hapless workman with a chainsaw tried to cut this tree down. I rushed to its rescue and stood between his chainsaw and the tree, shouting, “Turn that thing off!”

Later that day I tied a pink nylon ribbon around the trunk, reminding all workmen not to harm this beautiful thing.

On cool mornings I often sit beneath these branches, reading, sipping coffee. This softwood is home to many local creatures like neighborhood cats, squirrels, lizards, butterflies, ladybugs, moths, and 52,349 birds who twitter above me and occasionally drop air-to-surface poop artillery onto my hair.

Don’t get me wrong, this tree

is not exceptional looking. Actually, it’s average as trees go. Its bark is peppered with scars, knots, and blotchy steel-colored freckles. Its oval leaves are stiff, the size of a grown man’s hand. The boughs are wild and unruly, like a mother’s arms, reaching for her child.

It’s not especially old, either. This particular tree is pushing 50 years old, although the one in my backyard is closer to 120. Still, many of these tough trees have endured droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the devastation of real estate development.

The older ones have lived through eras of war, stock market crashes, the ragtime age, the jazz age, the disco age, and these trees will survive the veritable hell that is the pop country age.

When I look at my tree I am fascinated by its tenacity. I am told that these things are hard to kill. They won’t die as…

I recently saw a man in a gas station scream at a cashier. The cashier was a young girl. She made a mistake and overcharged him for gas. The man lost it. I watched the whole thing happen. He stormed out of the convenience store and sped away, leaving skid marks.

She was embarrassed.

“Oh, man,” she said. “I really screwed up.”

“No you didn’t,” said a nice man standing in line. “He did.”

Be nice. That’s what my mother always told me. And I never knew her to be wrong. This was her highest aspiration for my life. She wanted me to use a soft voice, good manners, and to treat people the way I’d treat Pope Francis.

Admittedly, I have failed her many times. There was the time I was watching the Iron Bowl at a tavern in Columbus, with friends. I was seventeen, but I managed to sneak into the joint.

There was a man at the bar in an Auburn T-shirt who kept shouting ugly things to my pals. When he tossed

a glass of beer into my friend Arnold’s face things went crazy.

Arnold weighed a buck five, soaking wet, and had a stutter, he could not seem to defend himself. It took three of us to pry the man loose.

The rowdy hit me beneath the jaw so hard I bit my own tongue and said a word that is not approved by the Southern Baptist Convention™.

In the heat of the moment, I sat on the man’s chest because I didn’t know what else to do. That wasn’t very nice. My other friends joined me. Three of us sat on him like we were waiting for the three o’clock bus. My mother would’ve disowned me.

The bartender, a graduate from the University of Auburn, splashed a glass of ice water in the man’s face and shouted “You schnoz-whistle! People like you give us…

The expert on television said that post-pandemic life would never return to normal. He insisted that handshakes, crowds, parties, and hugs will forever be extinct.

“The world will probably never go back to hugs,” he said into the camera. “I seriously doubt whether we’ll see people hugging in twenty years.”

I turned off the TV, it was making me queasy. Namely, because I don’t want to live in a world without hugs. I need hugs. I miss hugs. My mother used to say the only cure for crying is a mama-hug.

Usually she would say this to a child who was crying. Then she would demonstrate.

Today I was thinking about all this when I was rifling through old photos. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Have you looked at your old photos lately?

These pictures will shock you because: (a) you used to have more hair, and (b) in every old photo you’re in a crowded place, or with a gathering, or standing in a group with arms slung

around each other, half hugging.

In many of my photos I am seated in a restaurant with others, sharing appetizers, double dipping, graciously distributing my personal bacteria among friends. My glowing face looks like it is made of neon joy.

There were the photos from baseball games in Atlanta. My wife and I were in a stadium with 42,000 other fans. I was eating nachos served in a helmet, cheering alongside strangers, exchanging germs with half of Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Fulton County.

And there were the photos from a past wedding anniversary. My wife and I went to a fancy Mexican restaurant. The waiters misunderstood when I told them it was our anniversary, whereupon fifteen employees swarmed our table to sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish.

They placed a sombrero on my head and coerced me to ingest a shot of birthday-boy tequila. I tried to explain that I…

Monday morning. The young animal doctor knocked on the door of the mobile home, reminding himself to “be professional.” Today was going to be a hard day. A little professionalism would go a long way.

“Don’t cry this time,” the young doctor was whispering to himself. “Crying is highly unprofessional.”

An old man in a surgical mask answered the door. The old man showed the doctor into his dingy home. The doc could see right away that this was your typical elderly person residence: two TV trays, two recliners, sticky notes on every surface, prescription bottles, knitting paraphernalia.

“Where’s our patient?” the doc said, trying to sound a little too professional.

“Over here.”

The patient was lying on her dog bed, panting. The dog was honey-colored, the white on her muzzle gave away her age.

The old man knelt beside her. “She turned thirteen last month. She’s a good dog. Loves riding in the car. Ever since my wife died in December she’s been everywhere with me. We eat meals together. She’s my friend.”

Be professional.

The young doctor opened his kit. The physician’s

bag still smelled like new leather. The bag has hardly been used. He hasn’t made many house calls yet. In fact he has only recently graduated.

The doc did a brief examination then re-explained the diagnosis, just in case the man didn’t understand fully. An inoperable tumor was killing the animal.

“I understand,” the old man said.

The sound of the old man’s voice caused the dog’s tail to go THUMP THUMP THUMP.

“She's in a lotta pain.” The doc added.

“Yes. I know.”

“So if you’re ready, we can…” The doc’s voice broke. “She won’t suffer, I promise.”

Quiet filled the trailer like water in an aquarium. A television gameshow played on mute. The hum of a refrigerator. The clacking of a ceiling fan. The old man wasn’t answering.

The doctor glanced at his bag…