If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last several hundred days, it’s that trying to write during a pandemic is like trying to draw a portrait blindfolded, with a white crayon, using only your right foot. It’s hard.

Literary inspiration is a fickle creature, it doesn’t just jump out of the wallpaper and choke you. Inspiration is a tree. You plant it, you water it, you wait for the sapling to grow, you prune it, water it, and check for apples.

The pandemic, however, was an industrial wood chipper. The pandemic turned my inspiration into organic mulch.

Before the pandemic, my columns/blogs were based on social experiences, regional travel, and meeting new friends. But without socialization, I had nothing to draw from except the letters and emails I started getting.

And, boy, was I getting some humdingers.

Often the letters I received were sad ones. Some letters were downright tragic and their words stuck with me. I once received a sober card from a guy in New York City who worked in

a hospital during the apex of the COVID crisis. It was almost more than I could read.

Also, I received lots of correspondence from kids—I didn’t think children even read my words. This just shows you how desperate the world became.

But the hardest part for me, by far, was finding the stamina to keep working on new books. In addition to this column I produce books that often go on to become doorstops, paperweights, and fly swatters. Writing a book is a time-intensive process for a slow guy like me. And this process gets even harder without the flowering tree of inspiration.

I don’t mean to reach for melodrama, but writing during a pandemic was one of more difficult things I’ve ever done except for loading the dishwasher with my wife breathing over my shoulder.

Until last year I never realized how much motivation I…

I’m on a plane awaiting takeoff. I’m departing Kansas City for Atlanta. My carry-on bag is above me in the tiny carry-on compartment—a compartment which, according to FAA regulations, is too small for carry-on bags.

There is a woman behind me trying to force her oversized roller-suitcase into storage by throwing her bodyweight against her luggage like a first-string tackle. Her efforts aren’t working because her carry-on is about the size of a 2008 Honda Civic.

But God love her, she’s trying.

A few of us passengers help her out, although we are not strong enough to bend the immutable laws of physics. In the process of helping, I meet the old man seated across the aisle from me. I’m guessing he’s late seventies. He’s in fantastic shape. Short. Wiry.

I can’t see his face to discern his age because we are all wearing masks. But his thin hair is white, slicked with either Brylcreem or industrial machine lubricant. He wears kelly green polyester trousers, unblemished sneakers, and a loud Hawaiian print shirt. I’m already in love with this guy.

“Hi, I’m

Art,” he says cheerfully, and I smell nothing but Old Spice. “I’m ‘fine art,’ too.”

He laughs at his own joke. And after his Rodney Dangerfield opener I have a feeling Art is going to try to sell me a vacuum.

“I’m from Wisconsin,” he adds, leaving his statement open ended, waiting for me to respond with something biographical.

“I’m from Florida,” I say. “Flying to Savannah to meet my wife.”

He nods. “Wives are good.” He thumps his chest. “I was married fifty-nine years.”


“Oh you betcha.” He says the words like they’re all one syllable, a Wisconsinite to the core.

“Fifty-nine years,” I say. “That’s a rarity these days.”

“Oh, yeah. I learned a long time ago that marriage is really just an agreement between two adults. You don’t try to run her life, and…

Somewhere in Kansas. I'm in town for a funeral. The ceremony is in a few hours. I stopped by this breakfast joint to meet someone. The place is packed with old men.

A gaggle of old guys sit at the bar, wearing cowboy hats. One wears an oxygen cannula and a John Deere cap. Another Stetson man is sawing his chicken-fried steak with a forty-inch stag handled pocketknife.

I’m immediately struck with the fact that this place is crawling with tough guys. Really tough ones.

I can’t help but marvel at what a wimp I am compared to the grizzled men of yesteryear. I am nothing like these old birds. They have sawdust and 10W-30 running through their vascular systems. Me? I handle sentences for a living, and I watch “Steel Magnolias” twice per year whether I need it or not.

I hold the door open for more weathered cattlemen who enter. The bell over the door dings. I wish I could take a picture of them all because they look like illustrations from a

Louis L’Amour novel.

When it’s my turn the waitress approaches and asks where I’d like to sit. I tell her that I’m meeting somebody and that I’d love a booth.

“Sure thing, hon,” she says. “Got plenty’a booths.”

The waitress puts me in a seat facing the parking lot and keeps me full of caffeine while I wait, sip, and think about the solemn ceremony ahead. I will be a pallbearer today.

After a few minutes I hear a rumbling noise. I look through the plate glass window to see a monster Ford dually charging through the parking lot. The herculean F-450 nearly takes out six Nissans, two Mazdas, and one Prius, chugging like a nuclear locomotive through a Steinway factory.

All the cowboys have paused eating to watch this giant truck make its matinee entrance.

The truck parks. The door opens. Out from the…

It is dark. Early morning. I pull my airport rental car to the curb and throw the gear shift into park. I am hoping nobody will think I am a weirdo, parking in this residential area before sunrise.

I look out my windshield at the nondescript house and keep my eyes on the garage door. It has been a lifetime since I’ve been here. Many lifetimes, actually. I almost didn’t come this morning.

But I had to see this place. In fact, as soon as my plane landed it was all I could think about. I couldn’t sleep last night, I tossed and wallowed in my sheets.

So I got up early, before the hotel staff started serving the systematic hell they call “continental breakfast,” I crawled into my rental, and I followed empty highways until they led me here.

Parkville, Missouri, is a small town. There are about five thousand living in Parkville proper. There are antique shops, galleries, a little historic downtown. It’s your quintessential American hamlet.

The town was founded

in 1836, and was originally called “English Landing,” it was once a port on the Missouri River for tobacco and hemp. Today, I’m told it’s the kind of place where old guys from the American Legion chew the fat and tell flagrant lies about the fish they’ve caught.

My father ended his own life in Parkville. He did the horrible deed in his brother’s house. Nobody saw it coming. They found his body in my uncle’s garage. And the sad irony is, if you’d known my father, you’d know that he probably chose the garage so he wouldn’t make a mess inside the house.

Strangely, my father talked to me on the phone only minutes before he pulled the trigger. He said he loved me. It was just a casual call, and it was a nonchalant “I love you.” The words were said the same way he…

ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities. But if you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.

My mother used to “force” me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that gave us bacon came up with mucus pudding.

But if you were to ask me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.

Right now I am thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about this city because I am standing in a 32-mile long line in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, awaiting airport security to strip search me.

We in the crowd of air passengers have been dutifully removing our belts, earrings, shoes, dentures, and insulin pumps, waiting to get past the Transportation Security checkpoint and board the plane. But I just tripped the metal detector for the second time, which

is a lot like winning the lottery.

A friendly veteran TSA representative informs me that she is eager to help me through the frisking process. “Halt and put your hands where I can see them, sir,” she says in a helpful voice. “Now.”

So I have plenty of time to remember things during this moment. Things like, for instance, gag-inducing tapioca.

And while I’m being fondled by TSA, I’m also thinking about the days when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my life, back when newspapers were still newspapers.

We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and I loved the AJC newspaper. Each morning I would be the first to retrieve the news. My uncle thought this was hysterical, a kid fetching the paper.

“That’s a pretty good trick, Fido,” he’d say. “How about I teach you to…

The Smallest Church in America sits in McIntosh County, Georgia, about forty minutes south of Savannah, just off Interstate Exit 67.

The ten-by-fifteen cinderblock structure is tucked in the deepwoods, nestled among miles of kudzu. There is a steel cross mounted on the roof. A flagpole out front clangs gently in a faint breeze.

I pull into the parking lot alongside a lone rusty truck with a camper shell. In the front passenger seat of the idling truck is a boy, clutching a stuffed animal.

The vehicle is loaded with junk. Lots of junk. And through the camper shell windows I can see a made-up mattress with some pillows. It looks like someone is living in this vehicle.

I wave to the boy. He waves back. He looks Latino, maybe four or five years old.

I approach the tiny church only to find someone seated inside. It’s a woman. Her head is in her hands. She must be the boy's mother. I suddenly feel awkward about invading someone’s privacy so I turn to walk back

to my vehicle and give her space.

But when the woman hears my feet make noise she shoots up from her seat. She quickly makes the Sign of the Cross in the doorway before leaving the building.

When we pass each other I can see she is Latina, like the kid, with delicate features, caramel skin, and midnight hair. I can also see that she is young. And she has a black eye.

I am no expert, but black eyes don’t usually appear without outside help.

“Hi,” I say to her.

The woman smiles nervously. She’s missing a front tooth, too. And I notice her bottom lip is split open.

“Hello,” she says with a heavy Spanish accent. “Sorry I take so long.”

“No hay bronca,” I say.

I learned this phrase from Alejandro, my former construction coworker and beer-swilling protege. The phrase is Mexican…

Coastal Georgia. It was dark and rainy when we pulled into the tourist-trap restaurant parking lot with 4,236 other cars. We were running on fumes, we were low on calories. We’d been on a highway for six hours, our stomachs were empty.

All evening we’d been hunting a place to eat, but everywhere was slammed with tourists. Each local restaurant had one-, two-, or three-hour wait times. This particular seafood joint only had a 25-minute wait.

I gave the hostess my name. The perky high-school-age girl added us to the list and told us we would have to wait outside. But there was a big problem with this.

“It’s raining,” I said.

Although the word “raining” would be putting it mildly. It was Hurricane Hugo out there. Furthermore, this restaurant had no covered porch or outdoor shelter. Only a dirt parking lot.

“Why can’t we wait inside?” I asked.

She shook her head. “We don’t allow people to wait inside, sir. Ain’t enough room for the servers. If you wanna give me your cell phone number, I’ll call you when your table’s ready.”

I pointed to the empty bar at the rear of the restaurant. “Can’t we just sit at the bar and wait?”

A second head shake. “Bar’s closed. You’re not allowed to sit there.”

“You won’t even know we’re there.”


I turned to look at the Old Testament rainshower outside the window. A sudden clap of thunder exploded, shaking the windows and dimming the lights.

“You’re actually going to turn us out into the driving rain?”

The hostess reached behind her lectern and handed me a plastic-covered menu. “Maybe you can use this as an umbrella?”

She was all heart.

So my wife and I raced back to our car, through the muddy parking lot, clomping through hip-deep puddles. After waiting 25 minutes in our front seat I had received no phone calls.

I charged inside to…