The nursing home was done up for Thanksgiving. There were stuffed turkeys on bookshelves, twinkly lights on the nurse’s station, and one of the cafeteria workers wore a puritan hat shaped like a traffic cone.

I was here to make an appearance at the book club.

The nurse buzzed me through the front doors. She gave me a name tag.

“They’re ready for you,” she said. “Follow me, please.”

We walked past a hallway adorned with colorful artwork. One wall featured a dozen tempera-paint handprints on individual sheets of construction paper. The handprints were decorated to look like turkeys.

“Art therapy,” the nurse explained. “Our residents just did fingerpainting. I’ll be cleaning paint off the ceiling till June.”

I felt vaguely like I was touring a kindergarten classroom. All that was missing was a portrait of George Washington and the class hamster.

She led me to the garden area where a small group of elderly people sat in a semicircle beneath the North Florida sunshine, waiting for yours truly. They were seated in folding chairs, wheelchairs, and roller walkers.

“Okay,” announced the nurse.

“Let’s give today’s guest author a warm welcome.”

When the deafening applause from my six-person audience finally died down, club meeting was in session.

It bears mentioning that I don’t get many requests for in-person book club visits anymore. I used to, but these days most book clubs prefer internet video calls.

I faithfully fielded questions from club members. The inquiries about my book came in all shapes and sizes.

“Your chapters were too short,” said one man.

“You bounce around topics too much,” said another. “I couldn’t follow your writing.”

Another woman weighed in. “The print was too small. I had a headache five minutes in. I couldn’t finish your book.”

I smiled.

Another lady cheerfully added, “Did you bring any peanut butter?”

And then it was time for lunch.

On my way out, I listened…

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…