A crowded restaurant. The place is full of teenagers. Everyone is on their phones. Nobody is talking. I am here with my cousin’s 13-year-old son.

He is playing on his phone when he asks, “What was it like before smartphones?”

“It was different,” I answer. “Very different.”

“Different?” he replies, whilst wrapping up his current text. “Different—like—how?”

“Well, for starters, we had real conversations.”

“What do you mean?”

I mean we actually talked to each other in complete sentences. Using audible voices. And eye contact. And body language. It was our only option for interpersonal communication other than the United States Postal Service.

“What about phones?” he says, still staring at his phone. “You mean you never called each other phones when you were kids?”

We did. But it was a lengthy process. Allow me to explain:

Let’s say you were going to call your friend, Tater Log, to finalize important weekend plans. Plans which would involve wholesome activities that included, building a fire in the woods, attaching baseball cards to bicycle spokes, and confiscating Biblical magazines from someone’s father’s dresser


First, you would walk into the kitchen, lift the 8-pound receiver on your family’s heirloom rotary phone, and you would actually DIAL Tater Log’s phone number, using a rotary dial. You would dial the number from memory.

“From memory?”

Correct. We had hundreds of phone numbers memorized. Hundreds of thousands, actually. We even memorized the local bank’s phone number which, every time you called, would tell you the current time and temperature.

“Why did you need to know the time? Didn’t you have clocks?”

You have to worry about America.

So, anyway. When you called Tater Log, his mother would answer first. Which meant you had to answer a string of complicated parental questions about (a) how your mother was doing, (b) how your granny was doing, and (c) how everyone in your direct ancestry was doing, including…

I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York City a few months ago. I spent half a day in the museum. And do you know what I remember the most about my visit? A pocketbook.

It was a lone black wallet, with dusty credit cards, covered in ash.

That’s when it hit me. It had been twenty-two years since it happened. Hard to believe. It still feels like yesterday.

Bob Gray was a captain at a rescue station in Arlington County, Virginia. His team learned that a plane went down beside the Pentagon. His jurisdiction.

“We got our stuff, took a fire truck over to Station 1, rolled up, and there was already several armed guards covering that fire station… It was just unbelievable, and my thought was just, ‘This is just feels so evil.’”

Which is maybe what I remember most, too. A feeling of pure evil. I had never felt it before. You grow up in this country, you foolishly believe your people are undefeatable. Invincible, even. You

are American, by God. You are proud. But on that day, you were vulnerable. And nude.

Dianne DeFontes was on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center. She remembers it was a serene day. The sky was cloudless. She was in her office.

“Then all of a sudden, this bang happened.”

Dianne was thrown from her chair. Her door was blown open. “...The ceiling fell down and hit the table and cracked the conference room table... I'm getting up, said, ‘Wow, how the heck did they get a bomb up this high?’ Because what else could it be?’”

It was a plane. No. It was two planes. Commercial airliners. They collided with the towers of the World Trade Center. How could this happen to us?

I remember where I was. At the time, I was getting ready for work, watching “Good Morning America.” I saw the second plane hit…

I am writing from a plane that is stuck on a runway. It’s raining. Hard. I have a screaming baby behind me. Angry passengers surround me.

I have to be in Atlanta tonight, but it’s not looking good.

We have been on this god-forsaken plane for an hour, waiting out a storm. People are fussy, children scream, a man barks at a flight attendant.

A pilot talks on the loudspeaker and says we will be grounded.

People boo. A few cuss. One man throws a rotten tomato at the cockpit.

No, I’m just kidding. It wasn’t rotten.

And we sit.

One hour.

Two hours.

Three hours.

The pilot intercoms again. He says that after three hours, the government mandates he take us back to the airport.

People boo again. More swearing. A few more rotten tomatoes.

Because the only thing worse than sitting on a plane with loud infants and people carrying exotic strains of yellow fever, would be going back to the airport and sleeping on the hard floor beneath a television that blares 24-hour news.

“Just great,” one man says.

“Well this sucks,” says

the old woman behind me.

“@#$%&!” says the priest across the aisle.

I am texting my wife because it looks like I am not going to make it to Atlanta until noon tomorrow.

The pilot taxis back to the terminal. People moan. The storm is getting worse. The rain sounds like gravel on a shed roof. We’re finished.


At the last minute, the intercom dings. The captain says there is a slight break in the weather, and we are going to “give it a shot.”

Those are his exact words, which terrify me. You don’t want to hear “let’s give it a shot” from your pilot, your dentist, your thoracic surgeon, or your tattoo artist.

Then again, anything is better than sleeping on the airport floor.

So people applaud, some cheer. The priest…

“The world’s worse off than it’s ever been,” said the man at the truckstop.

He was a young man. Maybe 25. A truck driver.

It was lunchtime. He was eating chicken tenders, and dipping them in yellow mustard, so I questioned his judgment right off the bat.

“I don’t think this world is in trouble,” I replied.

He laughed. “Respectfully,” he said. “I disagree, dude.”

Meantime, the waitress was using a remote control to browse the news channels on a TV overhead. She stopped on a 24-hour news channel which broadcasted a train of unspeakable horrors. And when the reporters couldn’t find enough horrors to broadcast, they made some up.

“This world is falling apart,” said the man, running his chicken through more mustard. “You can’t change my mind, dude.”

Still, I wonder if the venerable dude at the counter, or the waitress, knows about Deputy Bussell in Johnson County, Kansas.

A few nights ago, Johnson County Sheriff’s officer Bussell pulled over a man for a traffic violation. After being stopped for speeding, a driver told the deputy he was

undergoing some “personal challenges.”

After Deputy Bussell addressed the reason for the stop, he offered the driver words of encouragement and made sure the motorist was okay.

Whereupon the motorist began crying. Not just a light cry. But a heavy one.

The motorist timidly asked the deputy, “Can I have a hug?”

The deputy thought about it.

“I need a hug,” the driver added. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I'm sorry.”

Then they hugged. Long and hard. When the driver had sucked the snot back into his nose, he thanked the officer.

“The men and women of the Johnson County Sheriff's Office come in contact with people every day who are going through their own battles,” the department said. “We strive to be compassionate while serving our community. This is our pledge to you.”

I also wonder if…

Tonight, I met with my friend Peter at his home in Birmingham, along with a few of his other friends. Mostly, people I didn’t know. There were nine of us, gathering for a very important meeting.

A prayer vigil.

When I arrived, Peter’s two dogs started barking loudly when I knocked on the door. One of them tried to commit an immoral act on my leg. The dog, not Peter.

The dog’s name was Moose. “Moose loves people,” Peter explained. “He just wants you to know how much he loves you.”

Moose does more than love me. He is trying to start a family with my shinbone.

A few of Peter’s friends were still in work clothes. One man was dressed in an auto mechanic’s uniform. Another woman was wearing veterinary scrubs.

I, myself, had just gotten off the road after nearly 11 days. But Peter said tonight was important, so here I am.

Peter is a former resident of Butler County, Pennsylvania. He tells me that there are some 200,000 people in Butler County,

and many of them are praying for one person.

Make that 200,009 people.

We are all praying for a 17-year-old named Mason Martin, a high-school quarterback who remains in critical condition.

A few nights ago, in Karns City, Pennsylvania, something tragic happened at a football game. Karns City High School was playing Redbank Valley High School. Redbank was opening a can of kick-butt on Karns City. The score was 35-6. Mason took a bad hit.

In the third quarter, referee Mike Vasbiner noticed Mason was staggering on the field.

“I had to talk to him, and when I asked if he was alright, he told me, ‘No.’ So that’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Mason is suffering a brain bleed and a collapsed lung. The boy collapsed on the field. The game was called off. And Mason was rushed to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in…

I am a child. My father is young, shirtless. My grandfather still has color to his hair, although there isn’t much hair left.

We are outside. It’s Labor Day weekend. So it’s the last days of summer. School is about to start again, and we children know we will once again belong to communist dictators known as schoolteachers.

My father is getting ready for the shindig at hand.

Daddy is the kind of guy who works hard for a living. I have no memories of him that do not involve denim, Budweiser, or profanity.

My grandfather is always followed by children and dogs. He fought in two wars. Was wounded once. He was leading a charge, and he extended his right arm and was yelling, “Charge!” A bullet bit him in the armpit.

He was in R-and-R in “Itlee.” Where an Italian woman thanked him for delivering her people from Mussolini, and gifted him a mandolin. He impressed her when he played “Turkey in the Straw” and “Soldier’s Joy.”

Together, Daddy and Granddaddy are digging

a shallow pit in the backyard, with shovels. They are scrawny, bare chested. They are three sheets to the wind. Maybe four.

The pit is the size of a grave. Except nobody has died. At least not yet. Although my mother has insinuated, several times, that if I don’t go outside to play, and get out of her way, the pit will be my eternal resting place.

The men line the newly dug pit with concrete blocks. Then, they start a fire inside it with p’cawn and hickree.

Party goers arrive. First, my aunt: a woman who is such a staunch Methodist; she has to take Metamucil just to stay alive.

Next, my uncle, who wears overhauls, and smells like Old Spice.

More people come. Most have kids with them. We children are turned loose, without supervision. These are our final days of summer, which…

Q: Sean, I was wondering what your views are on politics. Do you mind sharing them with us all, so we know where you stand?

A: My thoughts are: There is nothing more terrifying than waking up and realizing that your high-school class is now running the world.

Q: Hi Sean, I am writing to ask if you have any Italian in your lineage. I am Italian and my mom and I were wondering what your race is.

A: I am a mutt. My dog has a higher pedigree than I do.

Q: Sean, who are your literary heroes? If you have any, will you share them with us?

A: When I was younger, I delivered the newspaper with my mother every morning. We awoke at 2:30 a.m. and wrapped roughly six million newspapers. But before I started wrapping papers in rubber bands, I always read what Gary Larson had to say.

Q: Do you believe that all denominations will go to heaven?

A: When I was a kid, my Granny used to tell

me to be good, and always behave, otherwise, when the Lord returned, with the last trumpet call, I might be left here on earth with everyone else, while all the fundamentalists would be evacuated, in heaven, singing hymns all day long, and going to Eternal Sunday School.

“You don’t want to be left behind, do you?” my granny would ask.

“Well, someone’s got to do it,” I said.

Q: Seriously, Sean, what do you believe? Do Catholics and Baptists and such go to the same place?

A: I don’t know. I suppose I believe there will be different rooms in heaven. Sort of like high school. I believe Baptists will be in their own room, playing harps. I believe the Methodists will be in another room, having a grand potluck, and laughing. I believe the Episcopalians will have a cash bar.

Q: Speaking of cash, are…