Cracker Barrel is quiet this time of morning. Our waitress is standard issue. Slightly older, a buck five sopping wet, cheerful face, silver hair that leans a little toward the purple side.

She looks like my granny did when I was a kid, and her smile makes me nostalgic for those simpler times. It’s a smile that says she’s exhausted, running on caffeine, but proud to be here.

I half expect the old woman to kiss me on the forehead when she greeted me, the way my Granny might have.

She opens with, “What’cha wanna drink, shug?”


Before I order, she removes her notepad and she actually touches the tip of her pencil to her tongue.

God love her. I’ll bet she still drives a Buick, too.

“Coffee, please,” my wife and I say.

“Comin’ right up, shug.”

My wife and I have been on the road for a few days. We stopped at Cracker Barrel to use the bathrooms, to eat, and to buy mountains of festive-smelling holiday decor from Cracker Barrel’s Old Country Store.

While my wife

was wandering around the general store earlier, maxing out our Amex, I bought some horehounds and ate half of the bag.

Ah, horehounds.

I always purchase horehounds at Cracker Barrel because they are a thing of the past, and this store is the only place in the USA where you can buy them anymore.

I’ll pause here for the young people. “What’s a horehound?” I can hear the collective youth of our nation asking since, after all, many don’t know what horehounds are. In fact, whenever some people hear such a word they start thinking it’s vulgar.

Let the record show that horehounds are candy. They are about as American as the Lone Ranger, and older than the Pharaohs.

Mankind has been using horehounds since the first century BC, shortly after the construction of the first Cracker Barrel. Alexander the…

Private Billy Gustavson was sitting on his M1 combat helmet, watching the moon over Italy with a Lucky Strike hanging from the corner of his mouth. Thanksgiving was on its way.

The distant gunfire sounded vaguely like a typewriter. Crickets screamed. A dog barked. Meanwhile, a few of the soldiers nearby were playing poker, laughing loudly, listening to a Bud Freeman record.

Just a few of the strange sounds of Hitler’s War.

Billy’s cigarette was lit, even though smoking outdoors was expressly forbidden. A glowing ember could be seen by snipers from a mile away in the dark. A fella smoking in the open-air darkness usually ended up in the obituaries.

But tonight, Billy was preoccupied, busy dreaming of home the way all privates do. The way all officers do. The way all boys from Billy’s Minnesota hometown did whenever they crossed the Goodhue county line.

“What’cha daydreaming about?” asked Billy’s friend, Chappy.

Chappy was not an official military chaplain, but all the guys viewed him as one, hence the name. He was a lay minister back in his hometown in Georgia. Chappy

was thirty-one. In military years that made him a granddaddy.

“I kinda miss my mom tonight,” said Billy.

“And where is your mom right now?”

Billy blew smoke. “Died when I was fifteen. Bled to death when she had my little sister.”

“And your dad?”

“He’s back in Red Wing. Remarried. His new old lady’s a nightmare.”

Chappy said nothing.

They listened to the nightscape. The insects, distant shells exploding, a corporal screaming about a straight flush, and Bud Freeman tearing up his tenor horn.

“You shouldn’t be smoking outside,” said Chappy. “You know the rules. Snipers would love to grease another one of us.”

“Nah, they don’t care about a peon like me.”

Chappy pulled rank and yanked the cigarette from the boy’s lips. He stabbed it out, and to his surprise, Billy started crying.


So there I was, on the phone with my friend Daniel. Daniel is an old pal. He lives in southeastern Montana, a father of four, and he is Cheyenne.

If I’m being completely honest, I’m never sure what the appropriate term is; whether to call Daniel a Native American, an American Indian, or what.

Daniel clears things up with a laugh, “Just call me Cheyenne. It’s what I am.”

I dialed him yesterday so that I could get in touch with Daniel’s grandfather, who happened to be puttering around Daniel’s house.

When the elderly man got on the phone, his voice was soft, dry, and worn, like old leather.

“Hallo?” said the aged man.

I reintroduced myself.

“You’re who?” he said.

“You probably don’t remember meeting me, it was a long time ago.”

Then I asked the old man if he would do me a favor. I asked if he would recite a Native prayer I once heard him pray at a Presbyterian wedding when I was young. I asked him to offer a prayer of peace. For a friend.

“Peace,” he said

soberly. “Nanomónestôtse. Who is it that needs peace?”

So I told the elder all about it. I guess I might as well tell you, too.

My friend is named Tiffany. Although, technically, I’ve never met her. But then you don’t have to know someone to be their friend.

She is thirty-three years young, freckled, redheaded, and right now, she is located roughly 1,702 miles away from the old man’s Montana living room, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Right now her infant daughter is in the neonatal intensive care unit with meningitis. Tiffany, her husband, and family are living across the street from Erlanger Hospital in the Ronald McDonald House, trying to stay sane.

“Mmmmm,” said the Cheyenne man. “That poor family.”

The day Tiffany’s daughter was born went sour in a hurry. Not long after the glowing success of…

It was late. The young man was sitting on the edge of his cheap motor-inn bed, staring at the mildewed wallpaper. He was weeping.

There was a small orange bottle of pills on the nightstand. He kept glancing at them.

His was a long story, one you’ve probably heard a million-and-one times. He simply couldn’t get out of his malicious brain. He could not exit the dark place.

Ultimately, this wasn’t his fault. It never is, you see. That’s the unspoken lie we feed people about their mental health problems. “This is all your fault.” When the truth is, life thrusts itself upon you. Our circumstances are dished out to us like bowlfuls of cold gruel. Eat up.

But he was finished suffering. He was really going to do it this time. No chickening out. There was no point to living. Not anymore. Ergo: the pills.

He flipped on the blaring motel TV for distraction, and casually opened the nightstand drawer. He didn’t know why he was opening the drawer. Probably just stalling.

Then again, maybe he opened

the drawer because on some level, he knew it would be there.

Yep. There it was.

A book in the drawer. Harbound. Crimson cover. The gilded symbol of a two-handled pitcher and a torch embossed on the cover.

All at once a memory came back. In his child-mind he could recall a white-haired gentleman visiting his second-grade classroom. The old man was passing out miniature pleather-bound books of the New Testament to students.

The old man had explained that his organization distributed these books to prisons, violence shelters, schools, EMTs, jails, military facilities, nursing homes, hospitals.

And, of course, motels.

The young man began to sob. He wiped his tears, then weighed the cumbersome book in his hand. Loose leaf notebook pages fell onto the floor. Lots of pages.

“What in the…?”

It wasn’t just one page. It wasn’t just two. It…

I was recently invited to participate as a guest judge for the Pensacola EggFest barbecue competition, an event which raises lots of money for charity, and spikes my LDL into the critical zone.

This was my fourth consecutive year as an expert judge, although to be quite honest, the extent of my official barbecue knowledge is, hey, barbecue tastes good.

That’s not to say that I’m not qualified in the area of smoked meat. I am, inasmuch as I eat so much barbecue my gastroenterologist has disowned me.

Either way, competitive barbecue critiquing is tough work. Yesterday, for example, I showed up to Blue Wahoo Stadium bright and early before the competition, ready for a long day. No sooner had my fellow judges arrived than we were all required to sample peanut-butter flavored bourbon from a contestant who also happened to be running for public office.

“Bottoms up, y’all,” said the politician, who was already repouring a few cups.

This is the kind of dedication you find among our committed barbecue experts. And

this is exactly why the EggFest competition is one of the highlights of my year.

Because this isn’t a pretentious contest with snooty judges carrying around food-grade thermometers shoved in their rear pockets. This is an easygoing contest with loud music and the occasional competitor whose breath fumes are highly flammable.

This is nothing like the other barbecue contests I’ve judged before. In the past I have had the opportunity to be a guest official for a few uppercrust barbecue competitions alongside actual Kansas City Barbecue Society certified judges. One team I was with was like the IRS of the competitive barbecue world.

I remember we judges had to walk around the fairgrounds in tight V-formation, refusing to smile or wave at any entrants. We weren’t even allowed to have secret code names.

We were expected to evaluate dishes based on texture, marinade salinity, bone-in guidelines, plate…

Let’s talk about confidence. Self-confidence. Not the corny brand of confidence found in many self-help books where you repeat a motivational key phrase before the mirror for guaranteed success—or your money back!

No, I’m talking about the kind of unwavering confidence found within exceptional people who routinely sing karaoke or pass highway patrol vehicles on the interstate. Confidence.

I bring up this subject because today I was standing in line at the supermarket when I met a retired psychologist. She was mid-eighties, with white hair and Coke-bottle glasses. Her name was Doctor Don’t-You-Dare-Use-My-Real-Name.

We got to talking and I casually asked the old physician which mental health problems she encountered most during her career.

Her answer came quickly. “Lack of confidence.”

“Really?” I said.

“Definitely,” she said as our cashier was ringing up the old woman’s—I swear—box of prunes.

I was surprised by her answer. I was expecting her to say the most frequent disorders were anxiety, depression, or as in my case, clinically obsessive avoidance of mowing my lawn.

“Well,” answered the shrink. “Lack of confidence is

a problem that helps fuels those other problems. People who quit believing in themselves fall apart or they overcompensate. Both are dangerous.”

Statistically, two thirds of Americans suffer from lack of self-confidence. In one study, researchers found that a quarter of people under age 35 admitted to disliking themselves. And in a recent survey eight out of ten teenage girls admitted to practically hating themselves.

“Lack of confidence isn’t just a little problem,” said the clinician. “It’s the iceberg that sank the Titanic.”

By now, the cashier and everyone else in line was listening to our conversation as the doc went on to explain that most people without confidence have lost the ability to think positively. Which is a fatal problem.

“Unconfident people don’t believe anything good can happen to them personally. They don’t feel they deserve good things. They don’t believe…

Hi. This is your late loved one speaking. I don’t have long, so listen up because I have a lot I want to tell you.

First off, I get it.

Ever since I left this world you have missed me, and I know you’re bracing for the holidays without me. No matter what anyone says, this year’s festivities are going to be really tough.

In fact, let’s be honest, this festive season will probably suck pondwater. But then, Thanksgiving and Christmas are tough holidays for a lot of people. You’re not alone.

See, the misconception about the holidays is that they are one big party. That’s what every song on the radio claims. Each television commercial you see shows happy families clad in gaudy Old Navy sweaters, carving up poultry, smiling their perfect Hollywood teeth at the camera. But that’s not exactly reality.

In reality, fifty-eight percent of Americans admit to feeling severely depressed and anxious during November and December. In reality many folks will cry throughout the “most wonderful time of the year.”

Well, guess what?

Nobody is crying up here in heaven. This place is unreal. There is, literally, too much beauty to take in. Way too much.

For starters—get this—time doesn’t even exist anymore. Which I’m still getting used to.

Right now, for all I know, the calendar year down on Earth could be 1728, 4045, 1991, or 12 BC. It really wouldn’t matter up here. This is a realm where there is no ticking clock, no schedule. Up here there is only this present moment. This. Here. Now. That’s all there has ever been. And there is real comfort in this.

I know this all seems hard to grasp, but if you were here you’d get it.

Also, for the first time I’m pain free. I feel like a teenager again in my body. You probably don’t realize how long I’ve lived with pain because I…

I am sitting on a boat indoors. I’m in a large marine showroom, in Pensacola, Florida, where they are holding a high-brow culinary competition cookoff. I am on this pontoon because I am an introvert and I’m hiding even though, technically, I’m one of the contest judges.

Of course, it’s bad luck to sit on a boat that’s on dry land. Any sailor will tell you. Even so, I have no choice but to sit aboard because there is nowhere else to put my beverage.

This is a huge party. There are hundreds of guests milling around, weaving between showroom yachts, holding plates, sipping adult beverages, and exchanging business cards like people do at trade shows.

I am not good at this kind of professional socialization because—and I think I already mentioned this—I’m an introvert.

PARTY GUEST: Hi, I’m Jim, I sell insurance for Mutual of Sheboygan. Here’s my card. So what do you do?

ME: I’m a writer, what about you? What do you do?

GUEST (staring at me flatly): Insurance.

Right now, a DJ is playing

Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” and the aroma of food is everywhere. I’m watching the whole soirée safely from the pontoon cockpit with my pal, Steve, captain of the Pensacola Police Department. Another introvert and fellow competition judge.

We both know we should be down there with the rest of the mass of extroverts, yucking it up. But this would require physically leaving our pontoon. So here we are.

The pontoon we have selected tonight is a Scout Luxury Center Console model. This is not your granddaddy’s pontoon. This boat has a maximum of 350 horsepower, comes with two full-sized electronic lounge chairs, and is approximately the same price as the Jefferson Memorial.

This is a very different pontoon than the kind from my childhood. My uncle Ray Ray used to patrol Lake Martin in a vessel he named…

The Florida Powerball jackpot is up to a cool 173 million, and I speak for the entire Sunshine State when I say that it’s my turn to win.

I buy a lot of lottery tickets. I know, I know. It’s not the smartest way to spend your money. My uncle used to say the lottery was a tax on stupid people.

This from the same uncle who once tried to eradicate squirrels in his attic with a Browning shotgun. At the same time, my aunt was sitting in the den watching “General Hospital.” She heard a loud blast, then her plaster ceiling caved in and crushed her TV.

Well, I’m no nuclear physicist, but there’s nothing “stupid” about the lottery.

When Gloria C. McKenzie, of Zephyrhills, Florida, stood before camera crews in 2013 holding a giant check for 590.5 million bucks, the largest jackpot ever paid to a sole Powerball winner at the time; she wasn’t exactly dumbest gal in the room.

So shortly after sunup this morning, I crawled into my truck, rubbing sleep from my eyes,

and I drove to the filling station like I often do.

There, I usually buy a small coffee, and when I checkout the young cashier, Tray, greets me with, “What’s up, Sean?”

Whereupon I will answer, “Make me a millionaire today, Tray.”

Then I pick my lottery numbers.

This morning, while Tray was printing my ticket he used the opportunity to explain that Florida law stipulates that gas-station cashiers who sell winning lotto tickets are entitled to half the winnings.

“That can’t be true,” I told him.

“It was on the Internet,” Tray said. “So I has to be true.”

You have to worry about today’s youth.

Fact is, I don’t actually expect to win the jackpot. Truthfully, it’s less about the lotto ticket and more about the ceremony of it all. I’m a routine oriented guy. Plain and simple. I like…

I receive a lot of questions in the form of emails, private messages, and glacially slow federal mail. There is no way I could answer all these questions, so I have compiled some commonly asked questions into the popular Q-and-A format and answered them here.

I won’t waste any more time.

Q: How in the heck are YOU a writer? No offense, but I’m an English major/teacher/professor/professional writer/constipated person/expert, and your stuff stinks.

A: I appreciate you taking the time to write that. Means a lot.

Q: Wait? Aren’t you gonna argue and try to shut me down?

A: Nah. After all, you made a fair point. My stuff ain’t exactly Joyce. Remember, this writing is something you found on the internet.

Q: So, you mean you think your work is subpar too?

A: Sometimes, sure. Sometimes it reeks.

Q: Then why do you keep writing?

A: Because sometimes it doesn’t.

Q: When I first started following you, I didn’t think you were a spiritual person. But sometimes your writing gets way too spiritual sounding for me, where do you stand on religious things?


Q: Really? You’re not

going to answer that?

A: It doesn’t matter what I believe. What matters is what you believe.

Q: Oh, give me a break. What a cop out. Surely you can tell me your religious views.

A: I don’t believe that heaven waits for only those who congregate. I’d like to think that God is love. He’s down below, He’s up above. He’s watching people everywhere, He knows who does and doesn’t care.

Q: Did you just quote a Don Williams song?

A: You bet your astrological sign I did.

Q: Man, Don Williams was great.

A: Tell me about it. I saw him in concert once in New Orleans when I was young. I had driven all day only to be left standing outside the theater, in the frog-choking rain, because…