The little girl talked too much. That’s what teachers said about her. On the first day of class, they moved her to the front of the room because of this.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t stop talking. It was that she couldn’t. It was involuntary. A reflex. A superpower.

Her smile is another of her gifts. It’s a quirky smile passed down from her mother. Her mother had a lazy eye and saw double. Whenever her mother smiled for cameras, she tilted her head to correct her vision.

The little girl picked up this habit. Today, she can’t smile without leaning left.

She joined the workforce at age twelve, waiting tables. By her teenage years, she worked at a nursing home.

In high school, she met this fella. He was wild, he liked to party. His major hobbies included Budweiser and ice cream. And she loved him.

They would marry. And they would make a life for themselves. The young man would work labor jobs until he became a steelworker. She too, would put in long hours

to pay bills.

In her early twenties, she was fed up with small paychecks. She wanted to go to school. It was an outlandish idea, but she enrolled anyway.

She passed her classes with flying colors. And when she finished her degree, she decided she wasn’t finished.

“I wanna go into the medical field,” she told her husband.

“Do what?” he said.

She took classes, but they were hard, and demanding, and expensive. The science courses were torture. So, she used her superpower. She talked. She made conversation with the smart students and the teachers. They helped her through. In a few years, she was a therapist. Bona fide.

Her husband was on the front row of her graduation, clapping hard.

By thirty, she tried to get pregnant. But no luck. After several failed attempts and miscarriages, doctors told her it would be…

Bossy women get a bad rap in modern society. Take Kelly. She has always been a take-charge kind of gal, but she’s often misunderstood. For example, just because she's bossy doesn’t mean she can’t be shy.

Kelly was extremely shy around Kurt. They worked at the same hardware store. She manned the cash register, he did everything else.

Her chance encounters with Kurt were the highlights of her days. Even though she usually ended up mumbling unintelligible syllables whenever she saw him.

“I just knew he was special,” she says. “I liked the way he treated people. He was just so nice, just a good guy.”

He always spoke to customers in the store as though they were the only people that mattered. He bent over backward to help those who needed assistance deciding on the right galvanized hex bolts. And, going by what Kelly says, he was also a strong candidate for the next pope installation.

“I wanted him to notice me,” she says. “But I never got much more than ‘Hi,’ out of him.”

So she let it go. Because in modern society, girls don’t ask boys out. We’ve put a man on the moon, developed breakthrough cures, and we’ve split the atom. But if a girl asks a boy on a date, she is considered bossy.

And according to Kelly, “You don’t want a guy to think you’re bossy.”

This is especially true if you happen to actually be bossy. Which Kelly is. Big time. She knows this. And she’s okay with it.

Kelly has always been naturally bossy. Even in grade school. She has always had a talent for calling the shots. And if she didn’t love her current job so much, she firmly believes that a girl like her could easily get a good gig in the mafia.

In her little church choir, for example, even though Kelly doesn’t know the first thing about music,…

Bill’s nine-year-old son was always talking about his friend Greg. And this was pretty much all Bill knew about his son’s classmate.

Until he noticed something unusual about Greg after a sleepover party. One morning, Greg offered to make everyone breakfast.

“He was nine,” says Bill. “And he cooked breakfast for us. I mean, what kind of nine-year-old knows how to make breakfast?”

This led Bill to ask his son about Greg’s home life. Bill’s son, in the tradition of all well-spoken, socially sensitive, acutely aware American nine-year-olds answered, “Can I have some new Pokémon cards, Dad?”

So Bill asked around at school, trying his best not to come off sounding like a nosy member of the KGB. He even offered Greg a ride home in hopes of learning more about the kid. But Greg declined because he said he usually rode the bus and besides, he too had a lot of important Pokémon cards to trade.

“So,” Bill says, “I staked out the kid’s house.”

Which, I want to point out, is absolutely normal for a middle-aged suburban male

like Bill to do. In terms of normalcy, conducting unauthorized surveillance on strangers’ homes is right up there with weekend basketball at the YMCA.

Bill parked across the street and watched from his minivan. There were no cars at the house, nobody was coming or going. He suspected Greg was living alone.

But as it happened, Bill—who has a long track record of this—was wrong. He learned this when he used a more direct approach. Namely, he asked Greg some questions.

“Greg,” he said, “do you live alone?”

“Nope,” Greg said.

Problem solved.

Greg explained that his father worked night shifts and slept during the daytime. And he worked three jobs.

Bill asked, “But how does your father drive to work? There are no cars at your house.”

“A van comes to get him,” said Greg.

A van? Well. It…

When I asked people to send letters to me a few weeks ago, so I could get them to Santa, I did not think that I would receive so many.

Letters came from, China, Venezuela, Alaska, and even the remote country of New Jersey. A man in Moscow sent me a fur cap with flaps, which I understand is called an уша́нка. A woman from Canada sent a harmonica. Many have sent photographs, greeting cards, business cards, and a few have even sent their income tax returns.

My desk is buried in envelopes, and I am still working on reading all the letters, I am not half way through, and more letters keep arriving. And I’ll be honest, it has been eye opening. I truly mean that.

The first thing I can honestly say I have learned after reading so many letters from so many good people is: People are alike.

No matter where they are from, no matter what someone’s age, race, or creed, I have learned that everyone genuinely wants the same basic human thing:

Money.

No, that was only a joke. What I actually learned is that everyone wants to be loved. I know this isn’t exactly new information, but if you were to read this statement over and over again, like I have, it might start to make an impression.

But enough from me. Here are a few excerpts from letters:

LAUREN, QUINCY; MASSACHUSETTS—“I want Santa to make me skinny this year. And if he won’t do it then I’ve decided I’m just going to be happy being fat.”

JULIA; WASHINGTON D.C.—“Help, I don’t know how to do calculus, Santa, and I’m barely holding onto a C, please do something.”

ZETA; ATLANTA—“Fix this weather, Santa. Hot and cold and hot and cold, I can’t figure out what to wear and it’s hard trying to dress cute.”

MYRA; HOUSTON, TEXAS—“Tell Santa that I am 24 years old,…

Sometimes I have to rack my brain about a topic for a column. But on rare occasions—call it divine intervention, the Circle of Life, or the Pythagorean Theorem—a column falls right into my lap.

Which is what is happening now. I am at a children’s choir concert with a friend. We are in a dark gymnasium, looking at a whimsical stage set crowded with small children.

The kids look like angels. Sort of. Not real angels, mind you. They are the kinds of angels who frequently shove their grubby little hands into the seats of their pants even though they are standing before an audience of three hundred spectators.

“Hands out of your pants,” the teachers keep saying.

But it’s no use.

Other children, however, spend the entire performance mumbling song lyrics halfheartedly. They are distracted because they are trying to locate their parents in the dark auditorium so they can wave to them.

Once a child has finished waving at his or her respective Mom, that child resumes digging in his or her underpants.

But one

boy in particular steals the show. I don’t know what his official role is, but in this musical production he is Bethlehem’s Nose Picker. This kid picks his nose with such sincerity that he deserves his own television show.

This kid is so far into his nostrils that his elbow joint has disappeared. Now and then he removes his upper arm from his nasal cavity whereupon he thoughtfully evaluates each booger before he eats it.

During the performance, I leave my seat to use the bathroom. In the lobby, I see an old woman and her grandson. She is scolding him. The boy drops his head.

I overhear his grandmother say, “You can’t bring Bang Snaps to a Christmas concert, Dane! What were you thinking? You’re grounded!”

“Noooo, pleeeease, Grandma,” the kid says.

Now, I know that some of you are probably wondering…

Her elderly father sits in a wheelchair in front of a television. It’s an old console TV. The kind every American family had back in the early 80s. A big bulbous screen. An archaic remote that looks like a gadget from a James Bond movie and probably interferes with air traffic. He doesn’t move a muscle.

She is mid-fifties. Pretty. She sits on the sofa next to him. She talks to him. He can hear her, but he doesn’t say much in return. He grunts occasionally.

“He’s in there somewhere,” she says. “I know it. Every now and then he recognizes me.”

But not often enough. She touches his hand and says, “Daddy, are you ready for lunch?”

He says nothing.

He has Alzheimer’s. He has good days and bad days. She lives with him. And the way it usually works for her is like this:

—When he has a good day, so does she.

—When he has a bad one, her day stinks.

“It’s just part of the deal,” she says. “When you’re a caregiver, you spend every waking

moment in his world, wiping his face, brushing his teeth, I bathe him, too. That took some getting used to.”

But this column isn’t about Alzheimer’s. Not really. It’s about the big Douglas fir in the corner.

This Christmas, she sprung for a real tree instead of a phony one. It sits beside his television, covered in lights, ornaments, and golden garland.

They just put it up a few days ago. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. It all started one morning at breakfast when her father said, “Hey, Teresa.”

And he said it just like that. No big deal. Except that it is a big deal.

“I knew it was going to be one of his good days,” she says. “I had to hurry.”

So she called her neighbor to help. They bought a tree. They brought the thing into…

MILTON—This is your quintessential West Floridian small town. It is bordered by the Blackwater River, with a cute mainstreet, and a great catfish joint. My hometown is about an hour east of here.

If you want to understand our culture in the Panhandle, you visit a place like Milton, Crestview, or DeFuniak Springs. If you want sixty-story condos with tennis courts, go thirty miles south until you see the Red Lobster restaurants and jet-ski rentals.

Tonight we’re doing a Christmas show at the historic Imogene Theatre in downtown Milton. By “we,” I mean my friends. There will be a band, a choir, and me. I don’t expect many people in the audience tonight because, like I said, this is a small town.

It’s forty minutes until showtime. My wife is with me backstage. She’s trying to stay upbeat because she knows small crowds can be discouraging. Sometimes with a tiny crowd it feels like you’re performing onstage at your own funeral reception.

I ask one of the stagehands, “Do you expect anybody to actually come to this show

tonight?”

The man just shrugs and says, “This is Milton,” as if this explains everything.

The bluegrass band arrives. Blue Mullet is what they call themselves. They tune their instruments and take the stage for soundcheck. I can’t help but notice they look perfect, playing in this antique room.

Behind them is a Vaudevillian backdrop—hand painted from the 1920s. The floorboards are heart pine, the brass chandeliers look original, the balcony railing is painted white.

The band plays to the empty theater before the doors open. The fiddle player is making his instrument whine. The upright bassist is “slapping the old doghouse.” The mandolinist sings into a snuff-tin microphone.

I am in the wings, watching with one of the maintenance men.

“You know,” he says, “Hank Williams played in this room.”

“He did?”

“Yep. So did Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.”

“No…

There she is. Yeah, it’s definitely her.

I haven’t seen her in years. She’s standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket, scooping mixed walnuts and pecans into a bag.

Nat King Cole Christmas music plays overhead. It smells like Santa Claus’ aftershave in this grocery store.

She couldn’t possibly remember me. I was the quiet man in the rear of her speech class. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.

Like most in her class, I was petrified of public speaking. So were my peers.

My first speech was one I’d like to forget. I delivered a torturous five-minute monologue on the proper way to prepare Pop Tarts.

When I finished, she gave a smile that seemed to say, “I hate my life.”

I was an adult male with two jobs, a wife, and a back surgery. I tried my best in her class. And she rewarded me for it.

I’ll never forget her for that.

My classmate, Gary, was a lot like me. He worked menial jobs, he had daughters, bills. We complained

in the breezeway before classes together.

Gary had a stutter—a crippling condition that embarrassed him. Simple conversation was difficult, sometimes almost impossible. Finishing a sentence could take ten minutes.

And when she paired students for final projects, she placed us together.

We worked on our speeches one evening at a sports bar. We set up shop in a booth on a Saturday night and watched the Alabama-Georgia game while scribbling speech notes on paper.

Gary purposed we make our speeches on the crisis facing modern paternity in a national economic holocaust.

“Yawn,” said I. “Let’s speak about baseball, America’s greatest pastime, or stock-car racing, or the ever-elusive, yet highly-documented and indisputably-real Bigfoot.”

We finally agreed on writing about our parents. I don’t remember much else that night, except that our notebooks had beer-stains.

And: Alabama lost to Georgia,…

The last thing anyone wants to do in cold weather is deal with self-centered, rambunctious, barnyard pigs. At least that’s what Gayle tells me.

Try to imagine this scene: Gayle is standing in a hog pen, wearing her nightgown, slippers, and a winter coat, swinging a garden rake at a bunch of pigs. Why, you might ask?

Let me back up.

Earlier that morning, Gayle’s neighbor Rob was feeding his pigs. The excited pigs acted like they hadn’t eaten in a decade—even though Rob had fed them hours earlier. They rammed Rob against the fence.

They knocked him down and trampled his leg. He screamed. And he discovered he’d broken his leg and couldn’t walk.

Luckily Rob had his cellphone. He called Gayle, his closest neighbor, while he was lying in the mud. He barely knew her, but she was closer than a hospital.

Gayle answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Gayle,” he said. “It’s your neighbor, Rob.”

“Hi, Rob, what’s up?”

Rob, lying in the mud, glanced at the greedy pigs, eating slop over his limp and lifeless body. “Oh, not much,” he said. “What have

you been up to lately?”

“Not much. How are you?”

“Can’t complain. Hey listen, are you busy?”

At the time, she was babysitting her daughter’s children. She was making breakfast, baking cookies, doing grandma things.

“A little busy,” she said. “Why?”

“No reason,” he said. “I’ve broken my leg and I think I’m dying.”

She threw the kids into the truck, then raced to Rob’s house. She found him lying in the pen, covered in muck.

“I don’t know how Gayle did it,” Rob explains. “I thought I was hallucinating, I mean here comes this crazy lady in a nightgown, fighting pigs with a garden rake, lifting me into the truck all by herself.”

But Gayle’s not crazy. Not technically. She was a fifty-seven-year-old, independent, and tough woman. She’d survived one husband and raised…

A trailer park. I am sixteen. I am a dummy. Lots of sixteen-year-old boys are. Today, there are three dummies here to help Johnnie Miller’s mother decorate her trailer for Christmas.

His mother goes all out for Christmas even though his house is—how should I put this?—a dump. It’s an ugly, brown, sixty-foot mobile home, with a rusted roof, and a hot water heater in the backyard.

She has lights, giant lawn figurines, a plastic Santa with reindeer. She owns a lifetime’s worth of Christmas junk, and her collection only seems to grow each year. Johnnie has been putting up these decorations each December since he was old enough to sprout armpit hair. This year he’s recruited help.

We boys climb on ladders. We deck the halls and decorate every square inch of the ugly house. The windows, trim, gutters, eves, porch posts, even the steps.

And his mother doesn’t use modern Christmas lights. These are the kind from 1951, with thick bulbs and aluminum wiring you often hear about on the evening news. (“And in

local news tonight, a sixteen-year-old boy electrocuted from faulty Christmas lights, police used fingerprints to identify the melted body. Back to you, Lisa.”)

Johnnie and I and two other boys are working from noon until night. And after several hours of work, it occurs to one of us: “Hey! Why doesn’t your mom just leave the decorations up year round?”

Johnnie’s mother overhears this. She is standing on the lawn, smoking a cigarette.

“It ruins the excitement,” she says. “There’s nothing special about decorations if you leave them up.”

She is older than other mothers. She has white hair, she looks like she’s lived a hard life. Her voice is like a tuba, and she always wears embroidered sweatshirts.

We work on the house until dark. We are ready to go home because we think we’re finished. But we discover that we aren’t even…