“Hello. Thank you for calling customer service, website support,” says the woman’s voice, with a pronounced foreign accent. “How may I help you today?”

“Yeah, hi, I have an issue with my website. It’s not working.”

The sound of a keyboard tapping. “What seems to be the issue, sir?”

“My website. Like I said. It’s not working.”

“I see. And are you having a problem with your website, sir?”

“Yes, I just told you.”

“Describe this problem to me, please, in great detail?”

“Okay. None of my blog subscribers are receiving my blog post via email when I send the post out. Ergo, my website isn’t working.”


“That’s right. I think it’s a Latin word.”

“I don’t know this word, ‘ergo,’ sir. How do you spell it?”

“Does it really matter?”

“Will you hold please?”

“No, I will not hold. I was just on hold, waiting for forty-one minutes to talk to you, I don’t want to hold agai—”

Hold music.

Ten minutes pass.

“Hello,” says the foreign voice, “and thank you for your patience, sir, we are experiencing an unusually high call volume, but your call is important to us. What seems

to be the problem today?”

“I already told you what the problem was, remember? My blog post? It’s not going out via email?”

“I do not remember you, sir.”

“I was the one who used the Latin word.”

“Ah, yes. How can I help you?”

“I just told you, my blog isn’t working. None of my subscribers are receiving my blog post?”

Keyboard tapping. “Let me see what I can find out on my end, sir. Thank you for your patience.” More keyboard tapping. “Are you having a nice day?”

“Don’t make small talk with me. Please.”

“I’m sorry, sir? ‘Small talk?’”

“That’s right. I know you couldn’t care less how my day is going, so don’t pretend by making small talk.”

“What is this ‘small…

I arrive at the Shelby County Arts Council center. It’s early afternoon. I am here for the annual Helen Keller Art Show.

The parking lot is full of children. The kids are all dressed in their Sunday best. They are walking toward the building, accompanied by parents.

Several children hold white canes. Other kids use wheelchairs. Some are carried by their parents.

I see one blind young man run headfirst into a brick wall. He begins to cry. His mother holds him and begins crying alongside him. She is weepingly apologizing to her son for taking her attention off him.

“Hello,” says a tiny voice behind me.


“My name’s Henrietta,” says the little girl. “What’s yours?”

Henrietta is using a pink wheelchair. A seatbelt is buckled around her tiny waist. Her face is cherubic. She wears a black and white dress with a jean jacket. Her eyes are looking past me.

“My name is Sean,” I say.

“Hello, Sean.”

“Is your art in the art show?”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I won a Helen Keller award. I’m a winner.”


“Thank you.”

Henrietta has

low vision. She can’t see well. Her eyes are just one of the many organs of her body with problems. Her physical issues stem from a mitochondrial disease.

The mitochondria are what turn sugar and oxygen into energy, so when your mitochondria don’t work, this affects different systems of your body: your brain, kidneys, muscles, heart, eyes, ears. Take your pick. A mitochondrial disease is not for wimps.

“I spend a lot of time in hospitals,” says Henrietta. “Sometimes, all I do is live in a hospital.”

The disease affects Henrietta’s immune system. Whenever Henrietta gets a common cold, it’s a big deal. When she gets the flu, it’s a national emergency; get her to the ICU.

“You must be a pretty fearless person,” I say.

“No way, I’m not fearless,” she says. “To be…

A middle-aged woman peeks into his kennel. She smiles. He wags his tail. Maybe she will adopt him, he’s thinking.

Then she walks away.

Par for the course. Everyone who peeks into his kennel usually walks away. Nobody wants an old dog. At this shelter, everyone adopts young dogs who can’t control their bladders. Humans want puppies. Not geriatrics.

If only humans could understand canine language, he would’ve told the lady all about himself and what a good boy he is. It’s a shame that humans don’t speak Dog.

He’s not sure how he ended up in this place. Once he had a family. But they didn’t want him. So they left him here. He waited for them to come back, staring out his kennel door. But his owners were done with him.

That was a lifetime ago. Since then, he’s been stuck in this loud room of kennels with dogs who cry all day long.

He’s overheard the humans’ remarks about him. “How old is that dog?” they ask, pointing at him. “He looks kind of gray.”

“Mommy, I don’t want an old dog.” “Poor old guy, nobody’s gonna want an elderly dog.”

Elderly. Who would want an elderly dog? The worst part is, it’s been so long since he’s been touched. When you’re a puppy everyone showers you with affection. They’re always touching you. But when you’re an old dog, they just ignore you.

He wishes he could tell the humans what a good dog he is, tell them about all his skills. Being old has its advantages. For starters, he can hold his bladder, he knows how to watch TV, he knows how to cuddle, how to be patient, he knows how to fend off dangerous UPS men.

But it doesn’t matter. This kennel is life now. He knows that one day he will be led to the back room with the doctor, like all the other…

He is older. I see him standing outside the supermarket. Scruffy beard. Pitiful shoes. He smells like a substance plentiful to barnyards and sheep pens. His clothes are threadbare.

He is asking for food. Not money. Not handouts. Just something to eat. He holds no cardboard signs. He’s not bothering anyone. His name is Sam.

“Can you spare some change?” he asks me.

A cigarette is cupped between his fingers. A heavy backpack sits beside his feet. He’s been asking passersby if they can spare change for a Snickers all day, or maybe a sandwich from the deli. A bottle of water even. No takers.

“Anything at all,” he says. “I’m hungry.”

Most don’t acknowledge him. Most treat him as a non-entity.

“Manager told me not to stand out here,” said the man. “Said I was detracting from business, said she’d call the cops. I would leave, but I’m hungry, man. You do weird things when you’re hungry.”

He’s a veteran. Vietnam. Former Marine. “I was 17 when I went over. I was an athlete. Used to play basketball. I

wasn’t always this way, man. I had a wife once.”

I ask what happened to the wife.

“One day she realized she’d married a drunk.”

On cue, a woman walks past the sliding doors of the grocery store, exiting into the parking lot. The woman is dressed in business casual. Fancy pocketbook. She doesn’t even glance at my new friend.

“You stand out here and you’re basically invisible. People won’t even make eye contact. To them, you’re a piece of [bad word]. Maybe I am [same word]. Folks treat stray dogs better than stray people.”

An employee exits the store next. A young woman in her mid-20s. She is unfriendly. Her name tag says manager. She tells the man he needs to keep moving. She says the police have already been called. She is firm with the man. A real…

I stand behind them in the checkout aisle. It is a youth group, or maybe it’s a class trip. Either way, I know that they are excited to be on vacation because one boy actually shouts, “I’M SO EXCITED TO BE HERE!”

The boy who hollers is using crutches, the kind that clasp to his arms. He is using a cheerful voice and from what I gather, he is excited to be on vacation.

The adult chaperone who accompanies the kids looks stressed out. There is a look adults often wear when they are responsible for large groups of kids. It’s a look I can spot from a mile away because I have been a youth-group chaperone before.

Going anywhere with a large clot of young people is a test of your humanity. You can not walk into a grocery store without kids running the aisles like rabid cats.

And when you finally find the miniature heathens, usually they’re doing something like playing a game of Butt Swat in the produce section. The rules of Butt

Swat are unclear to me, but apparently the game involves stalks of celery being used as weapons.

But these kids aren’t like that. They are happy kids, and well-behaved. They wear matching yellow T-shirts, and they smile a lot.

I talk to Peter, who is head chaperone.

“We’re from Atlanta,” he says. “We’re here at the beach for a vacation, these kids deserve a little fun.”

Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

“Most of our kids are differently abled,” says Peter. “We don’t like the term ‘disabled.’ We teach our kids not to use it.”

A few in the group have cerebral palsy, another has a congenital heart defect, others face mental health issues, and some children have mild autism.

“We’re a wild and crazy group is what we are,” adds Peter. “Any day…

“Hi, Sean,” the message began, “please tell me, how do you come up with something to write about? I write a column for my school paper, and I don’t have any ideas. I am 13, my mom has breast cancer, and it’s been crazy lately at my house. I like to write, but I always come up blank and never have any new ideas. Thanks.”

Dear Kid, I’m going to let you in on a secret about professional writers. None of us have any new ideas. Moreover, you don’t need ideas to be a writer. You don’t even need to hav gud gramer. I am a prime example.

I think the problem is, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Pressure will constipate you, my friend. Pressure is the government cheese of the literary world.

In school, we are all exposed to a lot of good books, with the exception of “Lord of the Flies.” Our English teachers are constantly exposing us to classic literature, and this can be intimidating to young writers.

“How am I

ever going to write anything like THAT?” young writers often immediately ask themselves after reading the ceremonious hell that is “Moby Dick.”

The short answer is, you won’t. You will never write the next “Moby Dick.” And you wouldn’t want to because—don’t tell anyone I said this—“Moby Dick” is the worst book ever written.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a professional writer, it’s simple: Go milk a cow.

Bear with me while I explain.

I grew up around country people. My uncle had dairy cows. One time I lived with my uncle for a summer. I had no choice but to live with my uncle during this particular summer because I had recently been accused of setting off a cherry bomb in the girl’s restroom toilet at the Methodist church during VBS. I was innocent, of course.

While living…

My friend’s mother, Miss Sylvia, is making cornbread. Her house is alive with the smell. The seventy-two-year old woman cooks cornbread the old-fashioned way. An iron skillet in the oven. Lots of butter.

Sylvia tests the hot bread by poking it with a broom bristle. If the bristle is gummy, she licks the bristle then returns the skillet to the oven. If not, it’s Cornbread-Thirty.

I watch this bristle maneuver. She breaks a piece of straw from her broom. And I don’t want to ask, but I have to.

“Is that broom clean?” I say.

“Relax,” Sylvia says. “It’s just one bristle.”

“But is it clean?”

“Define clean.”

“Has it been used to sweep your floor?”

“This particular broom? Yes.”

“Your dusty, residential, hepatitis-C floor?”


So this cornbread is contaminated and will probably kill me. But then, I’m a dinner guest, I HAVE to eat it even though the old woman’s floors are frequently used by a family dog who is nicknamed “Egypt” because wherever he goes he makes little pyramids.

Still, I love cornbread. I was raised on

the stuff, just like everyone else in America.

My mother used to make cornbread a few times per week. Sometimes more. Primarily because it was cheap, and my family ate cheap food.

You always knew when it was cornbread night because my mother would make a fresh pot of boiling bacon grease with a few navy beans floating in it. She called it bean and ham soup, but I call it cardiac arrest stew.

Either way, you would use your bread to sop the sides of the bowl. Occasionally, while doing this you would get so giddy that you’d break into song and sing a number from “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man,” or in extreme cases “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

All my life, I considered cornbread to be the fingerprint of a good cook. No two cooks make it alike, and I…

RONALD—I was walking to school in Michigan, I was 11 years old. We walked to school back then, I know that sounds like a cliché today, but it’s true, back then a lot of us walked a couple miles to school and we never thought twice about it.

This truck pulled up beside me and this weird guy started talking to me and my sister through the open window, and he tried to get us into his vehicle. I started running away, but he chased me.

He jumped out and got me on the ground, and I didn’t know what that man was going to do to me. In a few seconds, this other guy came out of nowhere and yanked my attacker off me. My rescuer was wearing plaid, like a lumberjack, and he looked like Santa Claus. He threw my attacker to the ground and told me to “Run!” So I did, and when I stopped to look behind me, there was nobody there. The Santa

guy in the plaid was nowhere. For years, I’ve tried to figure out what happened, but I have no answer.

PHYLLIS—I was 40 when I found out I had stage-four cancer. I was in the hospital after chemo because I got so sick. The doctors told me I probably wouldn’t live. That night in the hospital, I was sleeping pretty soundly when I saw this woman standing beside my bed. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not. Maybe I was, I don’t know. The woman told me not to be afraid, because I was going to keep living, and I was going to have four grandbabies. Today, I am 78 years old, and I have four grandchildren. I have never told this story to anyone before.

MATT—When I was a kid, nobody had cell phones or anything. So that makes this story almost eerie to me. I was…

Please don’t give up. I know you’re hurting. I know it’s hard. But please, don’t check out. Not yet.

Yes, I realize you have every reason to quit. Yes, I know you’d be totally justified in giving up. Your child has stage-four cancer. Your son was murdered in a home invasion. Your daughter died in a car accident on Interstate 65.

Your dad is dying of liver failure. Your girlfriend broke up with you because you’re both, quote, “going different directions.”

Your wife was diagnosed with glioblastoma. Your mother has pulmonary fibrosis. Your child is going blind. You have an auto-immune disease the doctors can’t figure out. You are a caregiver for your parents/sibling/spouse/family member.

Your foster child hates you. You are on a waiting list for a kidney. You are filing bankruptcy. You are in federal prison.

You are an addict in recovery; each day is an obstacle. Your teenage daughter is pregnant. Your dad has ALS. Your husband of 21 years decided he wanted a 23-year-old girl.

You are contemplating ending your own life; you even bought a

handgun last week.

The circumstances don’t matter. What matters is that you’re a mess right now. A real mess. You don’t know where life is going. All you know is that you’re experiencing hard times.

Every day, life gets a little harder. Each morning, you awake waiting for life to reset itself, but it never does. And it’s so frustrating. Because this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, dammit.

What’s going on here? Why is everything so hard?

When you were a kid, nothing bad ever lasted. Suffering was always brief. You fell down and got a boo-boo, and after 48 hours, the boo-boo was healed. No big deal.

But these days nothing bad ever goes away quickly. Hard times just linger outside your front door. Bad things keep coming, like artillery from a celestial machine gun.

Your prayers remain…

Selma, Alabama. The church is gone. All that remains of the Reformed Presbyterian Church is a log pile and some crumbled bricks. You can’t even tell it was a church.

There are 145-year-old beams, buried in the mud. Loose-leaf hymnal pages are scattered to the wind. This church used to be a school for freed slaves after the Civil War. It was a landmark. Now it’s rubble.

“Crazy, ain’t it?” says one local man, standing beside me on the sidewalk.

The man wears a University of Alabama ball cap. He is tall and lean, chewing something that requires him to spit occasionally. There are holes in his jeans and in his shoes. He lives nearby, and he’s surveying the church’s damage.

“Can’t believe it’s gone,” he says.

Last week, an EF-2 tornado tore through Alabama like a hellhound. This storm ripped into Dallas County, killed seven in Autauga County, then visited Georgia, where it killed two more. Including a little boy.

To quote my new friend, “This town got totally [bleeped], man.”

He’s right. Selma looks like

someone tried to wipe the city off the map. Rooftops were waylaid on front lawns. Live oaks look like fallen soldiers. An uprooted oak on Mabry Street was hurled into a century-old home.

Local churches got it, too. The steeple at Fairview Baptist was ripped off. Crosspoint Christian Church had 70 daycare kids and 14 staff members inside when the rooftop was sucked off.

Sheila Stockman was one of the teachers. “I was actually on the phone with my mother asking her where the tornado was. She said ‘It's heading directly to you!’”

My new friend and I are interrupted when a Toyota SUV passes us slowly. Maryland tags. Inside is a guy photographing damage from the driver’s window. He uses the kind of camera that costs more than dental school.

“Crazy, ain’t it?” says my new friend in mock disbelief.

“Those [bleeping]…