Middle Tennessee. She was waiting tables in an old bar. The waitress was young, but she had a face that made her look older. I was thinking late 40s. But she might have been 30.

“Something to eat?” she asked.

“I’ll take the burger,” said I.

“You don’t want our burger,” she whispered.

“Why not?”

“The owner is a tight wad. He cuts our ground beef with breadcrumbs to save money. It ain’t a real burger.”

How about that.

“Well, then what should I order?” I asked.

“Between you and me?” she said. “You should get the fried chicken sandwich. It’s a great sandwich. Can’t screw up chicken.”

So I ordered the chicken and a cold drink. The drink came in a longneck bottle. They brought me a basket of fries big enough to require insurance.

Meanwhile, there was a band playing on the stage. They were young guys. Their music was allegedly country, but sounded like a nuclear field test. Three electric guitars, cranked to capacity, and one bass guitar that sounded like an F/A-18 Hornet.

But I was applauding them, because I have

been that kid, standing on that little stage before. And it stinks when nobody pays attention to you.

The waitress checked on me. “This band’s pretty good, huh?”

I smiled. “They’re clearly audible.”

“The one playing the red guitar is my son,” she said.

“He’s very talented.”

She grinned at me. Then at him.

“When his daddy died,” she said, “I started him on guitar lessons, to give him something to do. He took lessons three times every week. Cost me an arm and a leg.”

I didn’t ask how his dad died. But she offered it. “His daddy overdosed. Pain meds.”

Neither of us said anything after that.

I noticed the boy looked young to be in a bar. But I didn’t comment. Namely, because the first bar I played in, I was 14…


Hi. I am 9 years old and I have always wanted to meet you because my mom has been reading me your stories since I was little. Can we meet? Can I be in your truck and see your dogs? I’m a nice girl and smart and I have a pet turtle named Milton and I am learning to play ukulele. I am good in school, especially P.E. My hair is brown. Are you a big talker because I am. I love macaroni and cheese, what do you like? Will you write me back? I know you’re busy, but my dad died just like yours did. So we are really simular.

Thank you,


I would love to meet you. You are welcome to come for a ride in my truck provided you (a) bring a parent, and (b) have had all your shots. A little about me:

I am middle aged, goofy, and not super smart. My hair is red.

I was never very good in P.E.,

which my generation did not call “P.E.” We called it “gym” because that’s the location where it took place. The gymnasium.

Our gym teacher was a part-time middle-school football coach and a part-time heavy equipment operator who often forced us to do the same activities that inmates are compelled to do in prison camps. Such as dodgeball, tight-rope walking, or climbing the 100-foot rope. Which is an archaic form of torture, especially for kids who were deemed “overweight.”

Which I was. I was a chubby child. Being chubby and having red hair at the same time is like having a bullseye tattooed on your buttocks.

So whenever I climbed the 100-foot rope—also known as the Rope of Death—I was only able to climb about three feet off the ground before I gave up and let go and fell belly-first onto the flimsy wrestling mat, which was a…

I am playing the banjo, sitting near the swimming pool at my hotel in Pensacola. I’ve been on the road for six days, playing music and performing my one-man spasm in different states.

There are a bunch of kids out by the pool, playing on cellphones, texting each other although they are two feet apart.

There is a blaring radio playing “Beat It” (1983) by Michael Jackson, a song which sounds remarkably like garbage can lids being played by guys with socket wrenches.

The song I am practicing is the old-time tune “Blackberry Blossom” (1860), a song my grandfather loved and often played on mandolin. I am not a great banjo player. But you see, that’s the thing about the banjo, you don’t have to play well to sound truly awful.

One of my uncles picked a banjo. He always said the beauty of the banjo was that, no matter where you were, no matter how many people were around you, everyone nearby would suddenly leave the room.

But that is not the

case this morning. As I am playing, a young man quits playing with his phone and wanders toward me and. Without saying a word, he sits in a patio chair beside mine. He listens to a few songs. And when I am finished, he applauds.

Finally, he speaks. “Is the banjo hard?”

“It is for me.”

The kid just sits there and keeps looking at me. “What’s the difference between a banjo and a guitar?”

“When you play a guitar you flatpick the strings and cause vibrations to resonate from a spruce top. Whereas when you play the banjo you will die unmarried.”

I hand him the banjo, and he tries to play. The music he makes sounds truly horrible. Welcome to the club, I tell him.

So I give the boy a cursory lesson. I teach him to play an old song named “Do Lord, Do…

I awoke early and went for a walk with my dogs through Magic City. The sun wasn’t up yet, so I had to let my eyes adjust to the tar darkness.

The locals call this the greatest city in the world. Which is sort of stupid, if you ask me. Birmingham is a pretty small city, compared to your mega-cities. The greatest?

Come on.

We have nearly 1 million in the metropolitan area. And three barbecue joints on every block. The area we live in is not swanky. I tell all visitors to carry a baseball bat.

Even so, it’s a nice town. The cashiers at the supermarket know my name. The guys working the local taverns know which variety of Ovaltine I always order. It’s nice.

Once upon a time, Birmingham’s primary employer was the steel manufacturing industry. Now it’s healthcare. We have hospitals out the wazoo. In short, this city saves more helpless souls than Oral Roberts and Doctor Ruth combined.

It’s early morning. A dog barks. A distant train sounds. A cop car passes me

at slow speed.

Not long ago, newspaper carriers would have been out at this hour, throwing papers. But those days are gone. Birmingham has no physical newspaper anymore. Neither do many American cities. For the last few years, America has been losing two newspapers per day.

Readers in Birmingham now get their daily columns from hack writers on the internet.

Take, for example, this column.

I wound through old neighborhoods on foot, passing old houses which have been standing here since the Titanic was a household name.

On my walk, I passed a few joggers. They were running at breakneck paces, covered in sweat.

“Morning,” they wheezed.

“Good morning,” said I.

They looked like they were going to die.

Those poor souls. Personally, I make it a point not to engage in strenuous exercise. My most vigorous form of exercise comes from…

Becca arrives at the pool before noon. She is wearing a purse that is pink. Pink shorts. And running shoes.

Becca is 11, and she is blind. Her body is peppered with scars from past medical operations. Open heart surgery. Lymph node removal. You name it; Becca has undergone it.

The lady behind the pool check-in desk asks me to sign a waiver, assuming responsibility for this child. I hesitate. My wife and I are childless. The closest I will ever come to having a child is watching the CBS Peanuts Christmas episode.

So I sign my name. Becca is my friends’ youngest child. If anything happens to my friends’ child, it will be my everlasting aspirations on the line.

My wife takes Becca to the girl’s locker room and gets her changed into her suit. I wait in the hallway. This takes four or five presidential administrations.

When the females emerge, Becca holds my arm for guidance as we wander through the hallways. When we get to the water, Becca eases into the


Once she is in the pool, she is no longer blind. I don’t know how to explain this, but it’s like Becca was born in chlorine.

And although I know this sounds crazy, sometimes when I look at Becca, I don’t see her at all. I see her mother. A mother who I assume Becca resembles.

I see Becca’s little profile, and I see a wayward young teenager so addicted to drugs that her child was born with a number of maladies. I wonder where that poor young woman is today. Or whether she is alive.

Meantime, Becca is playing in the water with my wife. They are splashing each other. They keep asking me to join them in the water, but I don’t do pools.

Namely, because I have a hairy back. It’s not pretty when I take my shirt off, so my policy…

There are three or four neighborhood cats who sit on my porch each morning as I write. They are feral animals. They were here when we moved in. Nobody owns them. But they are fixtures in our neighborhood.

My morning writing routine is pretty predictable. I awake early. I go out to the porch. I sit in my patio chair and work on writing projects while my neural networks, still hazy from sleep, struggle to spel wurds corectly.

Meantime, the cats just sit there, perched on a ledge, looking directly at me as I tap a laptop. Sometimes I have to stop typing because I can feel their gazes weighing on me.

“Are you hungry?” I sometimes ask them.

They don’t even blink.

“I said do you want to eat?”


So I stand up to go inside and get some cat food and they all skitter away as though I am going to fetch an axe.

Cats are funny. Entirely different from dogs. I am a dog lover. I have been owned by 16

dogs in my lifetime. And what I’ve learned about dogs is that they are mostly fun-loving creatures who—and I mean this with all sincerity—have the intelligence of potato salad.

Dogs are cheerful, trusting, and generally get excited about almost anything. I could hold up a head of expired iceberg lettuce and talk in a high-pitched voice and my dogs would start wagging their tails. “LOOK! HE’S GOT OLD LETTUCE!” they would be thinking.

I am convinced, dogs will be the first creatures admitted to heaven because they are guileless. After all the dogs have been admitted into heaven, if—and only if—there is any extra room up there, cats might get in. Because cats are streetwise and worldly creatures.

If cats had cellphones, they would never text you back. Not even if your house was on fire. You would text a cat all day long and…

“You are feminist moron...” one email read. The next cheerful message read, “You’re a woman hater…” Another message said, “Why don’t you take a new Barbie doll, remove it from the box, and wedge it in your…”

I won’t finish the previous sentence because this is a family column. I will, however, say that Matel would not be thrilled about what the author suggested.

These messages were in response to a column I recently wrote about seeing the movie “Barbie.” At the time I wrote the column, I had no idea mentioning one movie would stir up such consternation.

So I would like to apologize.

I also want to say that I am actually a Barbie doll fan. Not a huge fan, mind you. But Barbie dolls have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

As a boy, my sister played with Barbie dolls. My mother had an old collection of vintage Barbies from her own childhood. Flight Attendant Barbie (1961), Career Graduate Barbie (1962),

Astronaut Barbie (1965).

So there were lots of Barbies in our house. And we neighborhood boys were very curious about these dolls. Which is why we boys performed all sorts of experiments with our sisters’ Barbies.

You must understand, of course, that we were guys. Guys are naturally curious. We boys, for example, learned that the limbs of Olympic Skier Barbie (1975) do not bend unless they are first prepared in an oven preheated to “broil.”

We also discovered that Aerobics Instructor Barbie (1984) hair is highly flammable. My cousin Ed Lee also stumbled on the amazing possibilities of combining Barbie dolls with over-the-counter bottle rockets.

My sister even had Shaving Ken; you could actually shave Ken’s five o’clock shadow with a sponge-tipped razor. Although Shaving Ken was not true to life. At least not in my experience, inasmuch as men in my family had hair on their backs, not…