The kid was playing guitar in a beer joint. He was pretty good, too. He was mid-20s, he had a ponytail, tattoos, and his face looked like someone dipped it in a bucket of hair. He was a big guy, nice-looking. Maybe six-one. His voice had experience in it.

I was in the seating area, watching him work. Nobody else was paying attention. Everyone else was at the bar, lost in their own world. The male patrons were flirting with anything that moved. The female patrons were trying not to move.

The kid was providing background music. He was playing Merle Haggard, and he wasn’t just playing hits. This kid was playing B-side stuff. Such as, “This Time I Really Do,” “The Longer You Wait,” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”

Then he started playing Willie, Lefty Frizell, Tex Avery, Bob Wills, and Spade Cooley.

Most folks don’t even know who Spade Cooley is.

This kid deserved someone to pay him attention. Might as well be me.

I used to play music for a living.

Just like him. I played music in rooms where people smoked fistfuls of Marlboros and laughed too much.

On my plywood stage was a repurposed Sam’s Club mayonnaise jar labeled: TIPS.

My highest aspiration was to play a song that would inspire someone to leave a $100 bill in my jar.

That only happened one time. I have played thousands of gigs in my lifetime, from Atlanta to Chiefland. But I have only played one gig where a man tipped a hundred bucks.

I was playing “Amazing Grace” in Pensacola, Florida. The man in the audience was weeping. His son had just died in a car wreck on I-10. The man said his son loved “Amazing Grace.”

The man tried to give me a hundred bucks, and I refused. Namely, because he had been overserved. His breath was potent, and you wouldn’t have wanted to light…

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was on television yesterday when my cousin texted urgently:

“Check out that bloodhound!”

I tuned in. I was immediately introduced to Trumpet the bloodhound, who paraded across the purple carpet, his handler trotting beside him, frantically trying to keep up.

The Westminster Dog Show is America’s second oldest sporting event after the Kentucky Derby. And Trumpet is—drumroll please—the first bloodhound to win Westminster’s best in show prize.

Trumpet is your quintessential blood. His loose skin looks like he is wearing a bear-skin robe nine sizes too big. He has enormous lion-paw feet attached to four telephone-pole legs. His prodigious nose can smell what you had for dinner on Saturday night, June 23, 1979.

I have had a longtime love affair with bloodhounds. I’ve had the pleasure of being owned by four hounds in my life, and they have been my greatest friends. There is something special about the breed.

Maybe it’s the gallons of drool they produce. Or maybe it’s the way they shake their coats, causing stringy, snot-like globules

of saliva to fling onto walls and furniture, leaving long tendrils of mucous dangling freely from the ceiling fan.

Or maybe it’s the bloodhound’s voice. A bloodhound does not bark. They bay. Each bloodhound I have owned has had a unique voice that sounds like a lifelong smoker singing Whitney Houston in the shower.

Bloodhounds are obstinate creatures. They do what they want. When they want. How they want.

There is an old saying among bloodhound owners: You do not “train” a bloodhound; you drink.

Also, most bloodhounds have a genetic condition called dysmetropsia, which is a size-preception handicap. This brain disorder causes 100-pound creatures to mistakenly view themselves as six-pound animals. Which is why bloodhounds believe it is their constitutional right to sleep in people’s laps, even if this causes severe groinal injury to lap owners.

My first experience with bloodhounds was with…

You went to heaven yesterday. It was the first day of summer, of all days. You died on the summer solstice.

This world already feels weird without you. Like someone adjusted the picture on the TV screen of existence and screwed up the reception. The colors are off. The sky is a strange shade of blue. The songs of the birds sound mechanical and fake. Nothing feels right.

You made us all love you. I don’t know how you did that. But you did. You had that unique human talent of amiability. People were drawn to you like fruit flies.

I was one such fruit fly.

I was aimless when we first met. A lost kid. Confused about who he was. You were older than me. You were an artist. You loved your life. I wanted to love my life the way you did. I wanted to find joy the way you did.

So you helped me. You and your husband took me in like a stray mutt. You fed me from your

table. You told me I was somebody. You gave me free haircuts.

My wife woke me up this morning to tell me the news of your departure. I couldn’t cry. In fact, I couldn’t feel. I am still pretty numb. And a little sick. It’s like when you touch a stove. That nanosecond before the pain sets in, your whole body is still trying to figure out what just happened. That’s how I feel.

I have had all the normal thoughts that accompany death and dying. I keep thinking: “Life isn’t fair.” “Life is too short.” “Why is life so cruel?”

Sometimes I have thoughts about how maybe it’s God who is cruel, and not life. After all, how could a loving universal creator snuff out the life of an angel while he allows a dictator to die of old age? How, I ask you.

But then…

When I set out to be a writer, years ago, I wanted to write humor. Plain and simple. I’m not a particularly smart guy. My vocabulary stinketh.

I knew I’d never be a prose writer. Mostly because—technically—I don’t know what “prose” is.

But I liked humor. That was what I cared about. So that’s what I wrote.

At the start of my fledgling career, I began writing humor for a teensy local newspaper with a circulation of 2.3 readers. I wrote 600-word columns that were meant to be irreverent and sort of silly.

I was not a real writer per se. I was a jokester. I was ridiculous. I’m not saying humor writing is easy. It’s not. It’s difficult. Some people think humor writing is all about telling tasteless jokes about bodily movements. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are also tasteless jokes about religion.

So things were going okay for my writing. Sometimes people would offer to buy me a beer because they liked a column I wrote.

Occasionally, someone might cut my column out

of the newspaper and stick it to their refrigerator, nestled between their grandkids’ artwork and their reminder for an upcoming appointment with the proctologist.

I had fun being irreverent. It suited me. I once got invited to speak at a dinner for humor writers and cartoonists, and the emcee introduced me as a “humorist.”

Nobody had ever called me that before. I was so flattered. A humorist. Me. Unreal.

So I wrote columns about how my mother-in-law once walked in my house when I was naked. And about how she once told my family at Thanksgiving dinner that her son-in-law was a cute little “ding-a-ling.”

I wrote a column about a man who had llamas attend his wedding, who enlisted a goat for his best man.

I wrote my journalistic tour de force when I hired two highly trained culinary judges (my cousins Ed…

DEAR SEAN:

My dad committed suicide last night.

I just need to tell someone,
ELEVEN-IN-EAST-FLORIDA

DEAR ELEVEN:

I have only one thing I want you to know. I want you to know that I love you. I truly mean it. I love you.

Read that last sentence again. Read it often.

You don’t know how much I love you. You will never know how much. But it doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t know because it wouldn’t change how much I care about you.

And I am only one person. I am one of thousands who love you. Millions. Septillions. Octillions. Nonillions. Decillions. We all love you.

That’s a lot of love with your name on it.

I bring all this up because the first thing you’re going to feel after losing a loved one to suicide is that you live in a loveless world. This is how I felt when my family endured the suicide of my father. I was about your age. I felt, for some reason, that nobody in the world cared about

me.

I have spoken with thousands of people throughout the years who have undergone the same trauma. They all say pretty much the same thing. They feel like the love has been sucked out of their whole existence. They feel as though they themselves are unloved.

So in the following weeks, you might start to mistakenly think this world is totally against you. You might start to think life is full of people who are self-centered, self-righteous, self-congratulatory, self-important, self-seeking, self-interested, self-whatever.

You might feel that nobody is really paying much attention to you. You might feel unloved. Unseen. Misunderstood.

And, to be fair, you aren’t totally wrong. People are selfish in this world. They are uncaring. They are indifferent. They are cold. Not everyone is paying attention to you. Some are too concerned with themselves right now.

Believe me, over the…

A weary President Lincoln was in his railcar, legs crossed, reading “Aesop’s Fables” by lamplight before bedtime.

A gray cat was in his lap. They were somewhere over the Indiana-Illinois border, careening through the night toward D.C.

The cat was named Equality. It wasn’t a very common name, he knew that. But it worked. Lincoln always was a big fan of equality.

The cat was an adopted rescue. Abraham found her on the campaign trail, several years ago. It had not been a fun campaign. In fact, it was hell.

He had just made a fiery speech at the Planter’s Hotel, in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he denounced slavery and preached his typical equality message. And the crowds ripped him a new one.

“All men are created equal,” he always shouted from the lectern. And he always meant it. But claiming all men were created equal in the mid-1800s was not a way to win friends and influence people.

Even so, it was his message. It was his belief. It was his praxis. And it

made him unpopular.

There was that one time at Petersburg, Virginia, where he was heckled for half an hour before he ever got a chance to open his mouth and campaign. People honked horns at him, cat-called him, blew tin trumpets, and flung manure at his face.

There was another time in Illinois, where he waited for the heckling to stop for almost an hour, but it never did. Whereupon his audience drilled him with rotted chicken parts and overripened tomatoes.

Who brought vegetables and chicken carcasses to a campaign rally?

And so it was, one night while boarding the train after a speech gone terribly wrong, he saw the little gray feline, wandering near his train, hungry.

Lincoln was a 50-year-old man at the time, hoping to win the presidency. He had been wrestling with chronic depression for his entire life. He just wanted to…

I was a kid. The “Grand Ole Opry” had recently moved to Opryland. My old man was working in Spring Hill, Tennessee, building the GM plant. We were living nearby. It was a July evening and my father was young. Younger than I am now.

My father came home from work one evening, covered in soot and sweat. His red hair was a mess from wearing a welding helmet all day. He had raccoon eyes and the artificial sunburn that come from wearing goggles and holding an oxyacetylene torch.

He announced that we were going to the Opry. Just me and him. To see Ernest Tubb.

Mama dressed me in red Dennis-the-Menace overalls, a Willie Nelson T-shirt, and teeny Converse Chuck Taylors. Then she combed my hair with one of those black nylon hairbrushes that shredded your scalp and gave you a subdural hematoma.

We piled into my father’s truck. It was an F-100, forest green, with a welding-machine trailer attached to the back.

It was a 40-minute drive into Nashville

proper. We entered the city. It was magnificent. The lights. The people wearing cowboy hats. The scent of French fries and pork fat in the air.

My father took me to get ice cream before the show. We sat outside on the curb and I spilled my vanilla on my Willie shirt. So he took my shirt off. I was bare chested beneath my little red overalls.

We pulled into the Opryland parking lot before showtime. We were walking into the building when a man approached my father. He had white hair. He was dressed in rags. He asked my father for money.

My old man never carried much money, for his own protection. Not protection against thieves, but protection against himself. “If I have money I’ll spend it,” he always said.

So he never carried much more than a few tens. He was a notorious tightwad. He was…

You’d never know there was a mass shooting in Vestavia Hills last night.

I drove through Vestavia today. It was sunny. There was a decent lunch rush at Martin’s Barbecue Joint. There were roadside posters advertising the chamber of commerce’s upcoming “I Love America Night,” which will feature a picnic, a firework show, and a Baptist orchestra playing Sousa marches for the whole family.

Just another day in Birmingham.

I got my haircut in town. I asked the barber what he thought about the recent shooting. He stopped snipping and said grimly, “I guess this is just the world we live in now.”

I keep hearing that phrase. “This is the world we live in now.” Occasionally I hear variations of the theme. But it’s all the same. People are basically saying, “Hey, this world sucks, but you can’t change it, so get used to it.”

I went to a lunch spot in Vestavia today, and I asked the waitress what she thought about the shooting. She said, “I guess this is our

life now.”

I went to the bank. I asked the clerk for his reaction to the shooting. He said, “This is the new normal, I guess.”

Last night, at a potluck at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, a 71-year-old gunman opened fire and killed three. They say the gunman was stand-offish at supper. Church members asked him to sit with them, but he refused. People were kind to him. Friendly. Hospitable.

Whereupon he removed a pistol and started pulling the trigger. He killed Walter Rainey, 84, of Irondale; Jane Pounds, 84, of Hoover; and Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham.

This happened 8 miles from my front porch.

In other words, this doesn’t feel like national news to me. Not now. This happened to my people. This happened at a church where I have attended.

I called several friends who live in Vestavia Hills to see…

The light clicks on in the United Methodist Church basement. The coffee is made. The old women sit in a large semi-circle, positioned on folding chairs.

Their hair is stark white, leaning a little more toward the blue side. And they knit. They knit for hours.

They are making shawls. Prayer shawls.

Take Marie. Marie is the one wearing the T-shirt that says, “Life is Good.” She received her first prayer shawl when her husband was dying.

The shawl is fire-engine red. A stranger gave it to her. Marie was in the hospital corridor, weeping, when a woman sat next to Marie, unannounced, and said, “Here. God bless you.”

“The lady said it was a prayer shawl,” said Marie. “I didn’t even know what that was.”

The mysterious woman told Marie that she had spent several hours knitting this garment, praying over with every stitch.

Marie used the shawl daily. It went everywhere with her. It was with her on the day of her husband’s funeral. It lay beside her at night, when she couldn’t sleep

because her bed was empty. She carries it with her all over.

And now she knits shawls, too.

“I can knit one in about eight hours,” Marie said between needle strokes. “I give them to whomever God tells me to. Doesn’t matter who it is. Could be a little boy, could be an old man.”

Another woman adds, “I have given away over two hundred since I started making them.”

Others chime in to say similar things. Between members of group, they estimate they have given away at least a thousand shawls. Maybe more.

You might not know this, but there are throngs of prayer shawl clubs and needlecraft ministries around the United States. Not just a few. Millions. More than you or I can possibly imagine.

From Trinity Episcopal Church in Thorington, Connecticut; to Saint Henry Catholic Church in Gresham, Oregon; to Saint…

Birmingham. I saw something shocking. I was in a parking lot when I saw two young men fighting. They were mid-twenties. They were screaming. Their shirts were torn. They were rolling on the ground, kicking each other. They were bleeding.

There was a crowd of onlookers. Someone threatened to call the cops. But the two young men were too busy mauling each other to care.

“Stop this!” a young woman cried.

And I felt helpless.

Our world is full of fighting people right now. Not metaphorically, but worse, digitally. Right now, people want to hurt each other. People want to win. People want to be right.

I learned how to fight as a boy. I come from blue-collar men who believed in using their fists. I was taught at a young age how to execute an uppercut and a left-hand jab. I was schooled on the necessity of violence by rough-handed men who said asserting oneself was the only way to defend against an indifferent world.

But I don’t believe this. In fact,

I couldn’t disagree more.

I once got roped into a fight with DJ Newman in the fifth grade after he accused me of cheating at tetherball.

I kindly informed DJ that he was full of a substance common to barnyards and hogpens. Whereupon DJ announced that, when school was finished, he was going to remove my head and deposit it into a well-known orifice of my body.

DJ was an enormous fifth-grader who looked like he could have played fullback on an average SEC wishbone offense. So for the rest of the school day I was a wreck.

So, I faked the flu in hopes of getting sent home. The school nurse, Miss Albertson, who also taught my Sunday school class, knew something was wrong with me.

I told her about how DJ Newman said he was going to smear my backside on the asphalt like the…