I asked several of my wife’s friends to say a few words for her birthday. Here is what they said:

CONNIE—After a lifetime in the family of a minister, 20 years as a journalist and nearly 10 years as a city employee, not much can make me even flinch.

But, last week I was blessed, BLESSED I tell you, to finally taste Jamie’s poundcake. It made both my eyebrows raise and praise as would happen in the early days of TV preachers.

Dear sweet baby Jesus—anyone who can bake like that deserves a day of reverence and celebration. It matches her very soul for sweetness, honesty and the sacred vessel for the Holy Spirit. And we are indeed blessed to have her and that glorious cake in our lives. Happy birthday, sweet Jamie! Keep caking!

JAMIE’S MOTHER—When she was little, Jamie had a pair of camouflage pants and wore an old felt fedora that used to belong to Mister Bob Seals, and sometimes she wore men’s neckties and colorful sneakers, and such.

It embarrassed me

at first. But I always let her be herself because she was so unique. Nobody is like Jamie.

I hope she has just the happiest birthday. I am just so proud of her. I have to get up now, my legs are falling asleep. Help. I’m hungry.

SUPERMARKET CASHIER—You want me to say something about that lady who was just in here? The one who just paid? Well. Um. She seemed like a nice lady. Is this some kinda joke?

KATIE—Jamie has this huge smile that lights up the room and an absolutely infectious laugh. As soon as we met I could tell she was someone I wanted to be friends with and I am thankful our lives crossed. The world needs more Jamies!

LANIER—There are few finer moments than when Jamie texts you and says: ‘I made too much poundcake, do you want some?’

Let’s get this out of the way upfront. I love you. I’m not making this up. Do not adjust your screen.

I don’t care who you are, what your problems might be, or how much you like pop country music. I love you no matter what your culture, affiliation, background, profession, skin color, occupation, hairstyle, belief system, faith tradition, orientation, lifestyle, TV-viewing preferences, or whether you put toilet paper on the holder correctly (over position).

I love you even if I disagree with you. I love you even if you think I’m an idiot. Read my words: I love you.

A lot of people think love is a warm squishy feeling you get when Bob Dylan sings “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But love is more than that. If you ask me, love is like electricity. It is thunderous and untamable. Gentle enough to stay behind your plastic wall outlets; strong enough to turn you into a skid mark.

Which is probably why love offends people. Some people simply cannot stand the

idea of love. It does not compute in their minds. Anger, they understand. Fighting? Yes, that makes perfect sense. Self-centered behavior is completely logical. But love? No thank you.

But even the most hopeless cannot fight against love. It is too vast. Too dense. Too overpowering. It is like trying to outrun oxygen.

Love is the motivating surge of momentum that causes the sun to rise. It is the chloryphyll in each leaf, the color of the Grand Canyon walls, the taste of dark chocolate, and the glint in your grandmother’s eye before she spanks your bare butt with a wooden spoon.

Love draws the tides to the shore. It makes your kidneys, liver, and spleen function correctly. Love caused a Hindu lawyer from Gujarat to alter world history by initiating one of the largest nonviolent movements of the modern age.

Which then inspired a young black preacher from…

We are driving through the ample forests of Gulf County, Florida, toward the beach. There are parts of this drive so serene and tree-laden that it will make you smile for no apparent reason.

The longleaf pines are still recovering from Hurricane Michael. Many are bent at diagonal angles like they’re ready for a nap.

You should have seen this place a few years ago. It was buried in a buffet of debris. They’ve made a lot of progress.

There was a time when all I did was drive. I lived on the road. Slept on the road. Ate on the road. It was the life of a writer. And I loved it because I’d always wanted to try the writer’s life on for size.

I had already lived the life of a sheet-rocker, a bar musician, a busboy, a telemarketer, an Elvis impersonating termite exterminator, etc. Being a real journalist was the stuff of dreams.

My first boyhood aspirations were to be a newspaperman, roaming the landscape with a steno pad, looking for

stories and “hot leads.”

When my mother gave me my first typewriter, the die was cast. I started walking around wearing my father’s crumpled fedora with a white card in the band that read “PRESS.”

“Got any hot leads?” I would ask elderly Mrs. Simpson, who was watering her rose garden.

“I used to,” she’d say. “But after I started having kids, men quit noticing them.”

And as it turned out, being a writer on the road was great. I drifted like a feather caught in the gusts of I-65 traffic. Never touching the ground. Always floating from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee to Wherever. Searching for hot leads.

You learn to live out of bags with wheels on them. You learn to hate airports. You do your laundry in hotel sinks and iron your pants by placing them beneath a hotel mattress. You live on…

I had a dream last night. It was a pretty cool dream. At first, I’d hoped it would be a flying dream. Because I’ve always wanted to have a flying dream. I hear they’re great. But alas, I never get those.

Oh, I’ve had lots of falling dreams. And I’ve been eaten by lots of alligators. I’ve also frequently been found standing in front of my third-grade class wearing nothing but goosebumps. But flying? Never happens.

In the dream I saw you. You were tall, lanky, with auburn hair, wearing the same shirt you died in—blue with a green stripe. Your same shoes, too. Old school Nikes.

It was bizarre seeing you in such an outdated outfit. When you died, those clothes were the apex of high fashion. Today you look more like Forrest Gump.

I’d never been to a universe like the one in my dream. Where was I? There was nothing but grass and sky for miles. The pasture was rich ochre, the sky was French Ultramarine Blue. It was like a Monet,

only without the haystacks.

I was starting to get the sense that wherever this place was it was more ancient than the young place I came from.

When you noticed me you didn't do much. You didn’t even move. You just waited. But eventually you recognized me because you started waving. And it wasn’t a small wave, either. It was a big, huge, country-come-to-town wave.

I started jogging toward you. I immediately forgot about trying to play it cool. I was sprinting.

And mini flashbacks kept coming to me. Even in this virgin land of grass and sky, I still felt a twinge of pain when I thought of you. I was unprepared to feel pain here. The Gaithers never covered any of this in the manual.

I was remembering things like the time when I was a boy and I overheard the county deputy…

This story is not mine. But I’m going to tell it anyway. And our story begins at night.

Nighttime in the countryside can feel eerie to city folk. They aren’t prepared for that level of quiet. Many city dwellers have never seen so many stars at once. It makes them jumpy.

Don was feeling jumpy. This was the wrong place to have his car break down. He had hours left to travel, and this was the Georgia boonies. He was about to have a panic attack here in the middle of nowhere. He tried calling a tow truck, but he had no cell reception.

He slammed the phone onto the dashboard and used colorful expletives often heard in barroom brawls and major motion pictures.

He was exhausted, hungry, and scared. What he needed was rest. So he crawled into his backseat and curled into a ball. He had never noticed how comfortable the backseat of his Nissan was. It actually wasn’t bad provided you didn’t mind having seat-belt receptacles jammed into your vital organs.

He awoke the next morning to lumbar muscles that were sore, and a neck that was kinked with the charley horse from hell. His stomach was rumbling like a bowling alley.

He stepped out of the car, caffeine deprived, headachy, famished, and disoriented. He checked his phone. Dead battery. He’d tried recharging it, but it wouldn’t work unless the car was cranked.

This just kept getting better and better.

Don looked in all directions, but there were no vehicles on this dirt highway. So he started walking. Before long he was covered in sweat, foot blisters, and he was half lost.

Finally, in the distance, salvation cometh. He saw a camper. It sat perched on a sprawl of acreage with cattle grazing near it. In the yard were cheap lawn ornaments, gaze balls, and a satellite dish.

A saintly old woman answered the door. She was…

The supermarket cereal aisle. I love this aisle. There are hundreds of boxes of cereal lining the shelves. Sugary confections that will rot your teeth, pump you full of vitamins, or liquify your colon.

But when I am in the cereal aisle, I don’t think about roughage. I think of somebody I once knew.

Her name was Ellie Mae. She was a black-and-tan bloodhound. Lanky. Long-eared. Her face had a perpetually ancient look. It was as though she’d been alive long before the invention of the chew toy.

She ate meals with me, showered with me, watched professional sports alongside me. She slept in my bed, head resting upon my chest until my arm went numb. We were fishing buddies.

Whenever I went into town, she rode shotgun. And in the supermarket parking lot, I would leave her in the parked car, windows rolled down, so she could sniff the breeze and greet anyone fortunate enough to fall into her houndish gaze.

One day—I will never forget it—I was browsing in the grocery

cereal aisle, and I saw something traipse past me. Something furry and familiar. I turned to see a 90-pound black hound prancing through the sterile white linoleum supermarket aisles.

The dog was wholly oblivious to the cashiers, the bag boys, and the manager who chased her.

Then I realized that this was my dog. She had leapt from my truck’s open windows and come into the store after me. I felt like an irresponsible pet owner and a horrible person. Ellie Mae could have been hit in the parking lot, or wandered off. What a young fool I was.

But I was overtaken by the beauty of the scene. It was almost an ethereal experience, watching Ellie in that store. She was looking for me. And I can’t explain why, but I’ve never felt more loved by a dog than I did in that cereal aisle.

“Stop…

DEAR SEAN:

My dad is in the process of dying. He has mild dementia and he’s bitter right now, and is lashing out at all of us around him, and I don’t know how to keep it together, honestly.

I just need you to make me laugh or something. I am so totally stressed with caregiving and I don’t even know why I’m here all the time, helping him because my dad was never there for me and my mom growing up, but left us when I was four years old.

Thanks,
FORTY-AND-STRESSED

DEAR FORTY:

There once was an old man who lived on a big hill. He was a bitter man, and his vision was bad. His weak eyes could see vague blurry shapes and colors, but only enough to get around.

He didn’t like people. He didn’t want to be bothered. We’re talking about a major-league jerk here. The blurry-eyed man lived for years on his lonesome hill, in his little backwoods shack by himself.

Every morning he would hike to the nearby river

to fetch drinking water for the day. This was the hardest part of his entire existence. Because this was a very, VERY steep hill.

Thus, at sunrise he would carry a huge bucket uphill from the river, climbing a treacherous dirt path home. Always the same. Downhill. Uphill. Back and forth. Year after year. It was exhausting work.

If the man would have lived in town proper all he would have had to do was turn on a faucet. But embittered people make things hard for themselves.

One morning, he was on his way to the stream when he sensed a stranger nearby. He heard the voice of a little girl and saw the blurriness of her shape.

“Who are you?” he grumbled. “And what’re you doing on my river?”

The girl told him that she had wandered away from home and was…

“Quit thinking about baseball,” whispered the Voice of Reason while I was sleeping.

I hate this voice in my head. But I’ve been trying to listen to it.

I awake early. Around sixish. I make coffee. And I promise the Voice I won’t think about the big Braves game tonight. I actually say these words aloud.

“I will not think about the big Braves game tonight.”

I don’t have time to get stressed about whether Atlanta Braves make it to the World Series. I have a life. I have things to do. True, America’s Team is only innings away from Ultimate Glory. But you can’t let this sort of thing make you a nervous wreck.

You have to move on with life. You have to keep living. Keep feeding yourself. Keep bathing once per week.

The coffee perks and my dogs, Thelma and Otis, are begging for a pig ear. They love pig ears. They get one each morning. They are very forceful about their morning pig ears.

They herd me into the laundry room

where we keep them. One dog pushes me, the other pulls. This is all they care about. All they think about. If one morning, God forbid, I were found dead in my bed, my dogs would find a way to drag my limp corpse to the laundry room so they could have a pig ear.

So I give them a pig ear, pour the coffee, then I crawl into my truck to visit the gas station.

True to my word, I’m not thinking about baseball. Neither am I thinking about how some members of Atlanta’s pitching staff choke harder under pressure than a kid trying to swallow a brick. I’m not thinking about any of it.

I push open the filling station door. A bell dings. The girl behind the counter calls me “sweetie” even though she’s 15 years my junior. I’ve known her for…

The year was 1992. It was Game Seven of the National Championship Series. Atlanta was playing Pittsburgh. Sid Bream slid into home like a Pontiac Trans Am piloted by Burt Reynolds.

Bream outran the throw from Barry Bonds, hit the dirt, and scored. The whole world exploded into confetti.

I was a chubby kid, watching the game at my aunt’s house. After the win, my cousin and I started dancing like James Brown, knocking furniture over, spilling my uncle’s beer on the sofa.

We cheered along with the broadcast voice of Skip Caray, who was shouting:

“BRAVES WIN! BRAVES WIN! BRAVES WIN! BRAVES WIN!”

“Braves win, Braves win...!” we cried, while the coffee table tumbled.

Then my aunt beheaded us with a dull spatula.

Fernando remembers that game, too. He’s 44 years old and a certified baseball lunatic.

This week, while Atlanta fights for a chance at the World Series, Fernando has been watching games from a hospital bed with his leg in a sling. He broke his femur recently from a bad fall.

His wife emailed

me. She told me that Fernando has been rooting so loudly in his room that hospital nurses have threatened to gag him with his own sock and sedate him with veterinary-grade tranquilizers.

And there’s Madison, a beautiful 15-year-old girl in Tennessee. Madison is Deaf. Baseball is one of the main things she shares with her father. She also plays third base.

Madison’s messaged me after the Braves victory. She is too young to remember Sid Bream, but we speak the same language.

“Braves win, Braves win, Braves win!” she wrote.

I’ve been getting a lot of emails like this recently. They are sent mostly from fellow enthusiasts who suffer from seasonal psychosis like I do. And now that America’s Team stands on the precipice of the 2020 World Series, people like us are extremely stressed out.

My friend Todd is the biggest Braves…

I’m a decent Scrabble player. I don’t want to toot my own trombone, but I’m not easy to beat. Scrabble is the only game I’m any good at. And I mean the only game.

I stink at all other forms of play. When I play chess, my opponent has to constantly remind me not to use the bishop piece to clean my teeth. I have never won at Monopoly. Playing Twister is how I ended up married.

When I was a kid, I liked playing Operation. But my gameboard never had batteries, so we played using the honor system. This led to many fights among boys. So my mother threw it away.

No, Scrabble is my game. And make no mistake, I am a fearsome opponent.

A common myth among the uninitiated is that Scrabble is for people who have big vocabularies. Not at all. The path to victory is knowing a little-known list of bizarre two-letter words that you would swear are fake words, but are actually in the official

Scrabble Dictionary. Words like: “ao,” “ko,” “xu,” “ua,” and my all-time favorite, “za.”

You throw “za” onto the board at just the right moment and you’re looking at a possible 2,457 point lead. Maybe more. I have won a handful of matches with this one word.

My mother taught me how to play Scrabble. I was a child and not that interested in the game at first. My mother is a passionate Scrabble player.

I remember that first game. The pieces came in a nondescript 1950s burgundy box. It looked nothing like the entertainment sold in today’s world. There were no flashy graphics, no bright colors. Only little wooden tiles and a beige gameboard that looked about as interesting as an air-conditioner service manual.

To kids many kids of my era, Scrabble was considered lame. In some circles, it was called “el lame-oh.” On the International Fun Scale, it…