Things my grandfather used to say:

Be nice; because if you’re not being nice, what are you being?

Don’t cut in line. Don’t interrupt. Don’t pout. Never, ever take the last biscuit.

Smile, it increases your face value.

The wise man knoweth how to dumb it down.

You can’t think your way into the right action, but you can act your way into the right thinking.

Try your hardest, do your absolute best, and when all else fails, cuss.

Always obey your mother when she is around.

Everyone should pee in his own backyard at least once.

Listen to the elderly, they’re smarter than you. Unless they are men.

Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If the Golden Rule were actually practiced today, there would be no karaoke bars.

You never know what a consummate ass you can be until you give someone else advice.

Never judge a Denny’s menu by the photographs.

Let him who is without sin throw the first boomerang.

Whenever something stinks, check your own diaper first.

Don’t point fingers unless you're standing in front of a mirror.

Always, always, always trust your gut.

Tomorrow is

a day with no mistakes in it, but you’ll change all that.

Be nice to kids, one day they’ll be running your nursing home.

Feed strays.

When in doubt, do it the way your wife told you.

Never pass up an opportunity to hold a baby.

A good wife always forgives her husband when she is wrong.

‘Fess up when you mess up. Admit when you’re wrong. Don’t gloat when you’re right. And above all, don’t act like you know everything. Know-it-alls make life so incredibly difficult for those of us who actually do.

Change your oil before you think it needs to be changed.

Quit watching the news for 72 hours and just see how you feel.

Doctors don’t know everything. Neither do preachers. Neither…

“Dear Sean,” the notecard began. It was postmarked from Texas. The handwriting was very neat.

“I’m 12 years old… And I know your really buzzy… But my mom committed suicide and my dad doesn’t live with me because he does drugs and now I dont have any one but my foster mom… I’m super embarased about who I am and stuff. Maybe we can be pin pals. Love, Susan.”


Hello. My name is Sean. I live in Birmingham, Alabama. I am red haired and very plain looking. I rarely clean up after myself. I talk too much. I like Werther’s Originals, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Chili Cheese Fritos, barbecue, and Elvis Presley.

A little about me. I was 11 years old when my dad shot himself. My father did the horrible deed in his brother’s garage. And my family completely fell apart.

After that, I grew up pretty poor. I wore clothes from goodwill. My mother worked in fast food. I thought I was a loser. And still do.

But do you know

the worst part about losing my dad, Susan? The worst part was the fear. I was always frightened. And it never left me. I am still afraid of the dark. Loud noises scare me. Fireworks especially.

Nobody tells you that grief feels a lot like fear.

Also, I was always embarrassed. I lived beneath the heavy fog of embarrassment. It was my go-to emotion. Again, I can’t explain this. So I won’t even try.

I’ll never forget when I was 13, when a popular girl named Amber invited me to her pool party. I had never been to a pool party before. I wasn’t sure why she invited me.

My father was freshly dead, and I had no friends. So my mother encouraged me to go.

I was a chubby boy. I was so embarrassed about being fat that I wore my T-shirt into the…

Our plane touched down in Birmingham at about 7 p.m. The captain said, “Welcome to the Magic City, we hope you’ve enjoyed your flight.”

My wife turned to me. I was jammed between a sweaty tire salesman from Sheboygan and a snoring 78-year-old Presbyterian named Marge.

My wife leaned across the aisle and said to me, “Yes. We ‘enjoyed’ our flight immensely.”

The passengers all came barreling out of the plane, cattle-like, onto the gangway, travel weary. Dutifully schlepping our carry-on luggage.

It never fails to amaze me. No matter how many times the airport informs passengers on the acceptable sizes of carry-on items, there are always people shoving carry-on bags roughly the size of 1962 Buick Roadsters into the overhead compartments above my seat.

We deboarded the plane in a hurry, whereupon we all stood around waiting in the restroom line, hoping to pee some time before the next papal installation.

Afterward, we shuttled downstairs to collect our baggage.

According to American tradition, your bags will always be last on the luggage merry-go-round. This is

a universal law. My wife and I stood saggy-eyed, watching luggage pass by on the conveyor belt. None of it was ours.

Eventually, after every human being in the Western World had collected their personal luggage, even people who had wandered in off the street, two pitifully familiar bags came through the chute, battered and duct taped.

We called an Uber. And within minutes, we were taxiing through the streets of Alabama’s second largest city. Birmingham. Home.

“Welcome home,” said the Uber driver.

“Thank you,” we said, in a pleasant daze.

The Uber guy looked at us in the rear-view mirror. He smiled and spoke in a sage-like voice. “There’s no place like home.”

There really isn’t.

This morning, after a week in the chilly North, I awoke in my home. There were three dogs waiting patiently for me to open my eyes. They…

The sun was setting over Hartford, Connecticut. The sky was peach ice cream. The Mark Twain House was lit by a perfect dusk, and the crickets took an encore chorus.

I was touring Samuel Clemens’ home. Which has been a lifelong dream for me.

Tonight, I would be performing my one-man shipwreck in the museum, telling stories, singing songs. Which would be one of the greatest honors of my lifetime except for the time I was an extra in a Budweiser commercial.

Before the show, our tour group was upstairs, in the Billiard Room.

And that’s where I saw the cat.

The cat was sitting on the billiard table, staring at me. He was large, intensely black, with velvety fur, and a faint fringe of white across his chest. The kind of cat not easy to see in ordinary light.

“Whose cat is this?” I asked Mallory, our tour guide.

Mallory was mid-speech. She wore a confused look. “What cat?” she said.

“The cat on the pool table.”

Everyone in the tour group glared at me like my fly was unzipped.

“I don’t see any cat,” someone said.

“Mark Twain was a big cat lover,” said Mallory, dubiously. “But there are no cats here.”

On cue, the cat sprinted from the room like a small-caliber bullet.

“Look!” I said. “There he goes now. Can’t you see him?”

My wife felt my forehead.

So I excused myself. I left the group and showed myself out. I followed the cat through Mark Twain’s 150-year-old old home. Down the dark-wood staircase. Through the ornate entryway. Onto the ancient porch.

It was funny. You could tell this wasn’t an athletic cat. This wasn’t a cat who climbed trees or terrorized rodents. This was a big Bambino, with a waistline the size of a 40-year-old preacher. This was a cat who ate hot meals on bone china.

I jogged after the animal. And I was…

Our train came into Hartford at about one o’clock. The Vermonter eased into Union Station, and we deboarded after the ticket collector shouted, “Hartford, Connecticut!”

The station is built of brownstone and gracious glass windows. It’s a trip backward in time. Like visiting the 1880s.

No sooner had I deboarded than I met an old man, struggling with his heavy baggage. He was using a walker, limping. I helped him into the station. Soon we were seated on oaken pews in the old depot. He was breathing heavily from exertion. I was breathing heavier.

“Thanks for the help,” he said. “Sometimes I forget I’m an old fart.”

“No problem,” said I.

Hartford Union Station is just a giant room. Because that’s all train stations were, long ago. Big rooms. This particular room housed thousands who would embark and disembark for parts unknown.

There’s an adventurous feeling you get inside old train stations. A feeling you don’t get in, say, LaGuardia’s Fifth Circle of Hell.

Long ago, you could have come to Hartford Union Station to travel anywhere you

wanted to go. North to Montreal. West, to Santa Fe. Or south, to the Big Easy.

The old man looks around the station. He’s overcome with nostalgia. My granddaddy always said nostalgia was a crippling narcotic.

“We came to this station all the time when I was a kid.”

He grew up in Hartford. He visited this station with his mother. Each year, as a boy, he would take a solo trip to his aunt’s Pennsylvania. His mother would pin a strip of paper inside his little coat. The paper was labeled with his home address.

The note would read: “IF THIS CHILD IS LOST, PLEASE RETURN TO…” Then, his mother would tuck five dollars into his shoe.

“Everybody’s mom did that back then. People were very trusting.”

The old man points to the ticket booth and rifles through the last 100…

It was the dogs. The dogs are what got me.

When you tour the 9/11 Memorial Museum, you see a lot. You see twisted steel girders. Baby-faced portraits of the deceased. Mutilated emergency vehicles.

But it was the dogs that wrecked me.

The dog exhibit is pretty small. Located in the far corner of the museum, with photographs of search and rescue dogs.

You see dogs nosing through rubble, wearing safety harnesses. You see them in their prime. They’re all deceased now. But they were spectacular.

There was Riley. Golden retriever. He was trained to find living people. But, he didn’t find any. Instead, he recovered the remains of firefighters. Riley kept searching for a live survivor, but found none. Riley’s morale tanked.

“I tried my best to tell Riley he was doing his job,” said his handler. “He had no way to know that when firefighters and police officers came over to hug him, and for a split second you can see them crack a smile—that Riley was succeeding at doing an altogether

different job. He provided comfort. Or maybe he did know.”

There was Coby and Guiness. Black and yellow Labs. From California. Surfer dogs. They found dozens of human remains.

And Abigail. Golden Lab. Happy. Energetic. Committed. Big fan of bacon.

Sage. A border collie. Cheerful. Endless energy. Her first mission was searching the Pentagon wreckage after the attacks. She recovered the body of the terrorist who piloted American Airlines Flight 77.

Jenner. Black Lab. At age 9, he was one of the oldest dogs on the scene. Jenner’s handler, Ann Wichmann, remembers:

“It was 12 to 15 stories high of rubble and twisted steel. My first thought was, ‘I can't send Jenner into that…’ At one point, [Jenner] disappeared down a hole under the rubble and I was like, ‘Ugggggh!' Such a heart-stopping moment..."

Trakr. German Shepherd. Tireless worker. Worked until he couldn’t stand up anymore.…

The memorial sits on 180 Greenwich Street. Smack-dab in lower Manhattan. The memorial is busy today. But then…

“It’s busy every day,” says a cop standing nearby. “This is what everyone comes to see in New York. Everybody in the world remembers exactly where they were that day.”

It’s cold outside. Biblical throngs of tourists are bundled in jackets, sipping from obligatory Starbucks cups. Conversations come in all languages.

This isn’t like other New York tourist attractions. This isn’t “Hamilton,” or the Met. The mood is somber. People are reverent.

A family from Ohio peers into a gaping hole where the north tower used to stand. There are manmade waterfalls rushing into a cavern. A cavern where bodies were once found. Approximately 3,000 of their names are engraved around the memorial.

“I was on my way to work that day,” says the mother of the family. “I was getting dressed, after a shower. I saw the second plane hit, I was dripping wet, and I went numb.”

Almost as if on cue, a

commercial airliner flies overhead, past the One World Trade Center skyscraper above us. The plane flies well below the summit of the tower, an eerie reminder.

There is an old man escorted by a young woman. They are hooking arms. He is from Santee, California. He remembers where he was.

“I was in a coffee shop,” he says. “In San Diego. The shop closed down, that’s how serious it was.”

Tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum are cheap. One ticket will buy you admission into hell on earth. This is a hard place to visit.

The museum is impossibly crowded today. Standing room only. It’s worse than a major airport. And yet this is the quietest place in New York. There is no laughter. No idle conversation. You can hear your own heartbeat.

There are artifacts that survived the attacks. A blackened wallet. A mangled shoe.…