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]…

They called her Mama. Everyone at Waffle House knew her that way. Few knew her real name. To them, she was “Mama.”

“She was everyone’s mother,” said the Waffle House cook, standing over a flat-top stove. The older woman was cooking my eggs, reminiscing about the 69-year-old waitress who died suddenly two days ago.

The Opelika Waffle House is decorated with pictures of the late waitress. Mama. She was a white-haired woman, with a warm smile and the face of a matriarch.

“We started calling her Mama when her daughter got a job here. Her daughter would call across the dining room, ‘Hey, Mama!’ and we all thought that was hysterical. The name Mama just stuck.”

They would never call her anything else.

Mama worked for Waffle House for over two decades. There were ribbon-cut potatoes in her blood.

“She was middle-aged when she started working here,” said the cook. “She was born for this job. She brightened this whole place.”

Rebecca Ella Yarbrough lived in Opelika all her life. She grew up in Pepperell Mill Village,

near the old mill. Her life revolved around the mill. Rebecca’s first job was working as a textile weaver until the mill shut down. At which point Rebecca applied at Waffle House. On her first day, something just clicked.

“Being a waitress is all about personality. It ain’t about hard work. It’s about putting up with people’s B.S. It’s about personality. Some have it. Some don’t. Mama did. She ain’t never met a stranger.”

They tell me Mama treated you like you were family, no matter who you were.

“You coulda been a drunk, from off the street. But when you come in here, Mama treated you like the Prince of England. She loved everyone the same.”

Mama worked from Can to Can’t to support her family. She worked Thanksgiving. She worked doubles on Christmas. She took the New Year’s Eve shift. She…

I saw them picking up garbage. At the time, I was at a filling station, located in the wilds of rural Alabama. I was pumping gas when I saw three men.

They wore neon vests. They carried sharp sticks. They were meandering along the county highway, collecting litter and placing it into satchels.

They were old guys. Dressed like your granddaddy’s generation. Pants pulled up to their armpits, á la Fred Mertz. Between three of them, there were six hearing aids.

“We do this just because we can,” said one guy, using a sharp stick to stab a crumpled Wendy’s cup in the grass.

Another man chimed in. “Everyone claims they care about this country, but when you see the litter we see, most of’em are lying.”

They are in their eighties. The oldest is 86. The youngest is 81. “It’s good exercise, gets us outside, gets us moving. Gets the blood going. Cheaper than a membership to one of those gyms where everyone wears tight britches.”

Another man puts it a different way.

“You don’t stop going because you get old, you get old because you stop going.”

A few times each week, the old guys meet in the morning. They eat breakfast at some restaurant. Eggs and bacon and toast with lots of butter. All the things their doctors tell them not to eat.

They drink too much coffee. They tell the same stories they’ve been telling since Americans drove Packards. They flirt with their waitress. They visit the men’s room, which, at this age, they tell me can take about as long as dental school.

Then it’s time to go to work. They hop in the truck. They find a stretch of highway.

“We just drive until we see trash. Just last week, we saw a bunch of Mountain Dew cans scattered on the median, like someone just threw cans from their car. So we started there.”

It was late. I pulled into the campus after seven o’clock to attend my last class of the semester. My last college class. Ever. It was a night class.

In America, most self-respecting people my age were finishing supper, settling down to watch “Wheel of Fortune.” But I was in school.

I had been attending community college for 11 years. I had been taking a lot of night courses. Which meant that I had perfected the art of eating supper in my truck, on the way to class. I drove with my knees, ate with my hands, and controlled the radio with my big toe.

Supper often consisted of foil-wrapped tamales, purchased from Carmela, a middle-aged Mexican woman who visited our construction jobsites. Carmela traveled in a battered ‘84 Nissan Maxima that looked like a roving salvage yard.

Every time I’d buy a tamale, Carmela would pat my cheek and say, “Joo are very sweet boy, but joo need a bath, joo smell like goat butt.”

So parked my truck. I

rushed into class, smelling like the fundaments of a horned barnyard animal.

Eleven years it had taken me to finish school. Me. A middle-school dropout. My formal education ended in seventh grade, after my father took his own life with a hunting rifle. I simply quit going to school. I was a rural child. It wasn’t a big deal. Nobody seemed to care what rural dropouts did.

I got my first job hanging drywall at age 14. I started working in bars, playing music shortly thereafter. I had a lot of jobs. I hung gutter. I worked as an ice-cream-scoop. I was a telemarketer. I was a nobody. I was white trash.

Until I enrolled in community college.

I enrolled as an adult, and my life changed. I became alumni at Okaloosa-Walton Community College.

I completed high-school equivalency courses. I finished the collegiate coursework. It took me eleven years.…

He was unknown to you. But not to me. We were friends. Sort of.

Ours wasn’t a long lasting friendship, but we rode the school bus together. So I guess that made us friends.

He would save a seat for me; I would board the bus, walk the aisle, and plop on the cushion beside him.

He was funny. We laughed a lot. Some kids are just born to be funny.

He kept a journal of sketches. They were good. He could draw anything. And I remember when he trusted me enough to let me look through his journal. Inside were dozens of bald eagles.

“Why do you draw so many eagles?” I asked.

“‘Cause they’re cool, why else?”

He didn’t have many friends because he was shy, and shy people are like that. I was the same way.

Between the two of us we were so timid we squeaked. And if ever we saw each other outside the confines of the bus, we were even shy around each other.

When he got a part in the school play, nobody

was sure how it would go. The kid was so quiet he wouldn’t even raise a hand in class.

He was afraid to play football, he didn’t like baseball. He liked to read and draw instead.

Yet here he was playing Mayor Shinn in the Music Man.

I was in the musical, too. In fact, I played one of the guys in the barbershop quartet. Our quartet sang a song named “Sincere.”

I still remember the lyrics:

“How can there be any sin in sincere?
“Where is the good in goodbye?
“Your apprehensions confuse me dear,
“Puzzle and mystify...”

There are some things you don’t forget.

I was the bass singer for the group. Not because I actually sang bass, but because I was chubby. Chubby children were expected to sing bass come hell or high water.