I have a thing for Norman Rockwell. When I was a kid, I collected Rockwell memorabilia in the form of calendars, picture books, and posters.

In those days Norman Rockwell stuff was about as common as Coke bottles. You could find Norman Rockwell in any antique store or far flung flea market in America. I outfitted my room with his artwork. I clipped illustrations from books and plastered Rockwell photos on my walls like pinups.

Which explains a lot about my social life.

I have a few favorite paintings.

There’s “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop” (1950). The painting shows a group of old men playing music in the back room of a barbershop. Everyone is smiling. Someone’s sawing a fiddle. A classic.

“The Runaway” (1958). A cop sits in a diner alongside a little boy who is carrying a hobo’s bindle. They sit on stools. You just know the cop is urging the kid to go back home to Mama.

“Saying Grace” (1951). My favorite painting, perhaps, of all time. A crowded restaurant, somewhere in a big

industrial city, maybe Pittsburgh or Detroit. A mother and son. They sit at a table. The joint is crowded. Everyone is smoking. People in the restaurant are gawking at the mother and son because Mama’s hands are folded and the boy’s head is bowed. And they’re praying.

Every time I start thinking about this painting I get choked up. I don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because Norman saw the world differently than others. He found his masterworks in the commonplace.

Still, I’ve always wondered whether Norman Rockwell’s depictions of a kindhearted, benevolent world were true. Can human beings really be as kind as they are in his world? Are people really that goodhearted?

No. When I was a kid, I decided that people truly weren’t THAT nice. For crying out loud, read your paper once in a while. Watch the news. Everyone on this planet…

The Pleasant Hill Baptist church sits out in the country. The fellowship hall is a sardine can.

It is an old room with drooping ceiling fans, paned windows, and carpet stains that predate the Vietnam War.

There is a Kimball spinet. Folding tables. An old-school kitchen with a pass-through window, á la Brady Bunch. The place is so nostalgic it hurts.

It was a big dinner. The men wore neckties. The women wore pearls. Girls wore dresses. Boys wore blazers. Hair-color-wise, the room was evenly split. Half gray hair; half bald.

Slocomb, Alabama, is a 2,082-person town. They were all here today. Plus a few more. David Peters recently inherited his imperishable mansion. This was his homegoing service.

And what a funeral it was.

“David Peters was a good man.” That’s what everyone was saying. That’s what they always say at funerals.

They said it at my father’s funeral. They said it at my grandfather’s funeral. They will be saying it a thousand years from now. And it will always be true.

When I was kid, we called

the meal before the ceremony the “reception dinner.” Other churches called it the “mercy meal.” I once attended a Jewish funeral, they call it the “shiva.” Little country churches, way out in the sticks, call it a “repast.”

The funeral food sat piled atop card tables, forming one of the most handsome nutritional displays I’ve ever seen. I don’t have space to list all the dishes. But I’ll mention the MVPs.

Fried chicken. Butter beans. Collards, swimming in grease, adorned with chunks of pork the size of mass-market paperbacks.

Creamed potatoes thick enough to pave parking lots. Creamed corn—three varieties. Cheesy noodle casserole. Sweet potato pie. Shut my mouth. Stringbeans.

Crowder peas, zipper peas, rattlesnakes, purple hulls, and turkey craws. If you don’t know what those are, you really need to get out of the subdivision once in a while.

I almost…

I am hanging out with 300 librarians in Memphis for the Tennessee Library Association annual conference. We are in a hotel lobby, seated at the bar.

Most of the librarians are drinking whiskey sours and vodka gimlets. Some are drinking light beer.

It’s a wild night in Memphis.

Everyone is happy. Everyone is laughing and toting huge bags of free library swag. Everyone has let their hair down tonight.

“Wooooo!” shouts the librarian next to me. A woman who looks to be comfortably in her mid- to late-80s.

The library association’s annual conference is like Woodstock for librarians. They come from all over. They come from every small town, backwater, and hamlet within the Volunteer State.

Some librarians come from the sticks:

“I have worked in the poorest parts of Appalachia for almost 40 years. I’ve had teenagers come to me who never learned to read. Some have been barefoot, literally.”

They come from big cities:

“We get students in Nashville from all over the world. I’ve met med students from Africa, China, and Brazil. I’ve helped single moms

study for their GED exams.”

These librarians hail from different walks of life. Different races and creeds. But they all have one thing in common.

“We just like to help people.”

I meet one librarian who is elderly. She walks with a bent spine and an aluminum cane. She is drinking a Mick Ultra. She is wearing enough Estée Lauder Youth Dew to choke a cat.

She has been a librarian for over half a century and remembers when the most advanced technology in her library was the No. 2 pencil.

“Sure, It’s hard to be a librarian these days,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like the whole country is against you. They keep banning books. Classics and new books alike. And they portray us librarians as the enemy.”

She’s right. To be a librarian in today’s world is proving to…

Memphis, Tennessee. A cafe. The kind with vinyl booth cushions, all patched up with duct tape. I’m in town to make a speech.

She is my waitress. Her name is on her nametag. She smiles at me after she asks how I want my eggs.

Her teeth are bad. Real bad. There’s probably a story here. I’d wish I knew the rest of it.

She is mid-30s. But she looks older, the way some waitresses do after earning a PhD from Hard Knox. I was raised by one such waitress.

“You want coffee?” she asks.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Boy coffee or girl coffee?”


“It’s what my daughters call it,” she says. “Girl coffee means cream and sugar.”

“I want man coffee.”

“Sorry. We only serve that to men.”


The woman stops by a table of guys in police uniforms. The officers look ragged. I’m guessing they are just finishing up a midnight shift.

I have a friend who is a cop in a major city, who used to work the midnight shift. He said it was misery. I cannot, however, imagine what a midnight shift in Memphis must

look like for law enforcement.

Recently, Memphis was ranked as the most dangerous city in the U.S. And yet, unlike other dangerous cities, Memphis is also a tourist destination.

Which means the Memphis downtown is always full of Midwesterners in Reeboks and Boy Scout troops, buzzing around attractions like the Rock ‘n’ Roll museum, the Peabody Hotel, or Graceland.

These guys work hard.

“How y’all doing today?” the waitress asks the peace officers.

Grunts from the table.

She smiles her broken smile at them. It’s the kind of warm face that brings grown men out of their shells. Although her teeth are missing, her face is cherub-like.

“Don’t grunt at me,” she says. “I asked y’all a question.”

The officers look at each other and laugh.

“We’re doing okay,” one officer…

The email came yesterday evening. The guy was from Baltimore.

“Dear Sean, you’re a [expletive] idiot. I have been so put off by your ‘spiritual’ commentary. I am an atheist, I do not believe in God…”

So I went and got another beer before continuing.

“…Your God is [another expletive] dork. God cannot be good and all-powerful at the same time. Because if he were, there would be no disease, tornadoes, starvation, mass shootings, genocides, murders, or suffering.

“He cannot be omnipotent and concomitantly allow evil, you can’t have it both ways… There was recently a mass hooting in Kentucky, where was your God then?

“...Sorry Sean, I’d like to believe in a Higher Power, but my heart and brain both say ‘Hell no.’”

Dear Friend,

I’m no theologian. I’m not even much of a church guy, either. Religious? No. Not unless it’s a pennant race. I’m more of a Pabst Blue Ribbon enthusiast.

Moreover, you’ve written to an uneducated man. I had to look up the word “concomitantly.” I’m still not sure how to use this word.

Namely, because I’m not

a smart man. My grade school teachers called me “slow.” Other adults called me “challenged.” But as it happens, I’m neither slow nor challenged, I just have slydexia.

So I am not exactly the guy you should be approaching with this kind of high-minded email. I can already tell you’re much sharper than I am. Any response I make will make me look like a complete expletive.

There is, however, one thing I do know.

I once met a woman from Illinois who was born blind and deaf. Just like Helen Keller.

I’d like to tell you about her. She was remarkable. You would have liked her.

The percentage of deaf-blind cases in America is low. You’re looking at a population of about 11,000 in the U.S.

Moreover, 90 percent of deaf-blind people also have medical, physical, or…

Birmingham. I met the old woman for coffee. She was small and slight, with a mane of white. She spoke with a thick Latin accent.

“I have a story for you,” she said.

I’m a sucker for a good story.

She worked three or four jobs. Sometimes more. She cleaned hotel rooms. She worked as a seamstress. She worked on construction crews. She was a dishwasher at a little restaurant. She was a house painter. The worst job she ever had, however, was working with a plumber. She dug ditches. Literally.

“I was not so very happy digging the ditches.”

No kidding.

Her lowest point came when her ‘83 Toyota gave out. It was the day of her son’s 12th birthday. She had been picking up extra gigs lately so she could afford a birthday present for her boy.

This meant she was working more hours. Which meant she was never home for more than 10 minutes at a time. She got used to sleeping in her car. “It was no so much fun.”


day, the woman was on her way to a cleaning gig. Her car sputtered and stopped on the side of the highway. It was rush hour. And her car was deader than disco. She sat in her front seat crying. This was in an age before cell phones.

The woman stepped out of her car and looked heavenward. “Don’t do this to me,” she said in Español, as cars whizzed past her by the dozen.

If you’ve ever had an automotive crisis, you know how many highway vehicles pass you by. Hundreds. Thousands even. Motorists will lock eyes with you from behind windshields, smile curtly, then fly by at 75 mph without even glancing back.

She was about to give up any prospect of help and start walking home when a truck pulled over.

Enter the mysterious stranger.

The driver was male. Bearded. Longish hair.…

Dear Aaron,

You are my best good friend. In many ways, you are the brother I never had. I’m not sure that’s a title you want to bear. I’m sort of a degenerate.

But I love you, brother. So help me, I do.

I met you while we were playing music, years ago. Which is typical for me. All my friends are musicians. Because, you see, from birth I was damned to be a hapless musician. It’s a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, because there is nothing more gratifying than producing music; the cadence of a good tune, throbbing in your brain and bones, is like a narcotic. A curse, because being a working musician sucks; a musician without a van or a girlfriend is, essentially, homeless.

My life has been lived out on plywood stages, in tobacco-fogged rooms, playing songs I hate, for drunk people who can’t dance, at 1 o’clock in the morning, as I beg for tips over the mic.

I met you in Tallassee, Alabama. You were playing the fiddle like your

face was on fire. I was playing guitar (poorly). We were in the band together, at the Mount Vernon Theater.

We hit it off. I admired the way you sawed on your Stradivarius like the Paganini of South Alabama. You liked me, heaven knows why. And that was how our friendship started.

It turned out you were from Slocomb, Alabama, making you my one and only friend from Slocomb.

The closest I’d ever come to Slocomb was when I got my picture made with the Slocomb Tomato Queen at the Peanut Festival—that was a wild night.

So anyway, I liked you, you liked me. And that’s basically how friendship works, really. You meet someone you like, then you just go around doing stuff together.

We did stuff. We’ve played a bunch of gigs together. We’ve shared many a malted beverage. We’ve been on…