She was slight. Elderly. She had an old kitchen that was lit up with smells and colors.

There is no place better than the humble kitchen of an American woman. If there is, I wouldn’t care to know about it. The linoleum floor. The enamel table with chipped edges. The stove with the stubborn oven door. Brillo pads in the sink.

And Lord, the smells. I could live and die in a good kitchen.

She was dusting her counters with flour on the day I interviewed her. She covered those countertops in snow, the way our ancestors have been doing ever since they deboarded the ark.

She wore one of those aprons that looks more like a cobbler’s apron. Two pockets. Floral print. She kneaded dough with frail hands. If you are ever lucky enough to see an elderly woman take out her aggression on a lump of lifeless dough, you are lucky enough.

When I visited her little kitchen I was on a long drive from Atlanta to Birmingham. Her son asked me

to visit. I only had thirty minutes to spare.

The reason she told me to come was because she wanted to make one of my favorite casseroles, one she remembered that I mentioned in my books a few times.

I don’t even know what the casserole is called. I’m not sure it even has a proper name. It has little diced potatoes, mountains of cheese, and—this is the crucial part—Kellogg's Corn Flakes on top.

When I was a kid, there was a lady in our church named Miss Patty who made this casserole for every get-together. As an adult, I have yet to find it again. I guess it’s an outdated church casserole now. It’s probably not stylish for modern women to put cornflakes on top piles of cheese anymore.

She made more than just casseroles. She cooked for local funerals, baby showers, anniversaries. And if…

DEAR SEAN:

How do you write your columns? Is that what you call them? I want to do it too. My mom was a writer before she died, and I think I want to be a columnist like you someday.

Thanks,
YOUNG-WRITER-IN-ALBUQUERQUE

DEAR ALBUQUERQUE:

I don’t know if this is called a “column” or what. What I can tell you is that after being rejected by a handful of newspaper editors there wasn’t really any option for me but to publish stuff online. So call it whatever you want.

Some people call them blogs. But blogs weren’t around when I was young. Besides, I always had a thing for ink columns printed on gray newsprint.

I love the feel of a newspaper in my hands. And the way everyone gives the paper one hard shake to get it into position before they read it.

I used to deliver newspapers when I was younger. My mother and I would toss several million papers each morning before the sun came up. The greatest part came after

we finished. I would read my favorite columnists.

What I love about columnists is that they are, by in large, pretty crummy writers. Seriously. Most columnists wouldn't hold a candle to a Great American Author, English-wise. This is why I love them so much.

Because a Great American Author writes so beautifully that he makes the rest of us petty writers seem like Labradoodles.

It’s sort of like dating a girl who is better looking than you. She knows that she ranks WAY above you, so she sits in your passenger seat giving you the stink eye, saying, “You brought me to Waffle House for a date?”

And even though you remind her that Waffle House has award winning chili, she is disgusted.

So now you know why I call them columns, and you also know why Vanessa Spurton never returned my calls. But anyway,…

I saw an old friend today. He watched me crawl into my twenty-year-old beat-up truck and couldn’t believe I was still driving it.

“I don’t understand why you still drive that thing,” he said.

Well, it’s not difficult to understand. Vehicles are important to the ordinary people I come from.

When I was a kid, we would take long Sunday drives to nowhere. I wonder what happened to the American Sunday driver. There was a time when working-class families used to hop into station wagons and just play.

I remember one such Sunday after church. My father was on the sofa, his necktie hanging half mast. He was scanning the sports page.

“Yankees beat the Red Sox,” he said in mock amazement.

If there’s one thing I was brought up to dislike, it was the Yanks.

“Glavine pitches shutout in Atlanta. Unbelievable...”

“Gashouse Gang gets slaughtered again, fourteen to nothing, holy...”

And so on.

Usually, after he finished reading, he’d put on a pair of piddling clothes. Then he’d change the oil, organize the garage, mow the lawn twice, or repaint fifteen

houses using only one arm. My father could not sit still.

But on this particular Sunday he said, “Hey, let’s all go for a drive, what d'ya say?”

My mother was knee deep in preparing cornbread and whatever else was on the menu.

“A drive?” she said, “But I’m cooking dinner.”

Sunday afternoons were the only time we called it “dinner.” Every other day of the week it was “supper.”

So my father looked at me. “How about you, Tiger? Wanna take a drive?”

A Sunday drive was big. On the occasions my father took me on these outings, I knew for certain that one thing was going to happen: Ice cream sandwiches.

We piled into my father’s ‘74 F-100, forest green, rusty, with welding equipment on the back. Oxygen canisters, cables, air hoses dangled every which way.

Once the holidays are over a lot of people curl up on their sofas and sink into clinical depression. And I am not kidding.

I base this statement on an article sent to me by Glenn, a family therapist who notices a spike in depressed patients after the holidays. He gives examples of why this occurs:

1. Less sunshine.
2. No fun stuff to do.
3. Nobody parties in January.
4. Or travels.
5. Going back to work sucks.
6. And you’re fat.

I called a family therapist to get a few comments on the issue. But I got his secretary who said that he would charge $800 per hour for a phone consultation, so I decided to:

Go roller skating.

Again, I am serious. This seemed like a good idea because evidence shows that skating might help with post-holiday blues. Also, my cousin’s children were attending a birthday party at a roller rink.

So the next thing I knew, we were in a rundown skating rink with cars arriving in the parking

lot by the dozen.

Carl, the man who runs the rink said, “Rinks like ours ain’t gettin’ much business no more.” Carl spit into a Mountain Dew bottle. “But today we got a big party, so hey, that’ll pay the light bill.”

The first order of business at any rink is to exchange your perfectly good shoes at the counter for some truly disgusting ones. Behind the counter, I met a woman who also appeared to be suffering from Seasonal Depression. I have met junkyard Rottweilers with warmer personalities.

“What size?” she said.

“Thirteen.”

“Thirteen? You joking?”

“No.”

“We don’t have thirteens.”

“How about a twelve and a half?”

She looked on a rack. “Biggest I got is an eleven.”

“That’s not gonna work.”

“Take it up with the complaint department.”

The woman slammed down a pair of skates that smelled like…

HELEN—There is a special feeling you get when you are in this Bavarian-style town nestled in the Georgia mountains. A warm feeling in your belly that makes you tingle all over. It is called beer.

This town is famous for serving German beers behind every door. It's also famous for Bavarian architecture, Appalachian views, and some truly breathtaking tattoo parlors.

But wherever you go someone is always selling beer. Even when visiting, say, the men’s room, where they sell five-dollar pints from vending machines in each stall.

It’s a tourist-driven town with shops that advertise things like 101 flavors of hot sauce, body piercing, CBD oil, and deep fried Twinkies.

The nearby vistas of the Chattahoochee River are serene. So is the earthshaking noise from gangs of thundering motorcycles riding Main Street like the allied forces invading Europe.

Even so, I found many nearby scenic views pretty enough to inspire a hymn like “Beulah Land.” Which, since we’re on the subject, is a song I have performed at more funerals than I

can count.

When I was a kid, our small church only had a handful of singers to choose from for funerals, weddings, baby dedications, and 4H competitions. You had Maude Tolbert, a proud grandmother of six who’d been tone deaf since the Lincoln administration. And Robert Vanderbilt, whose repertoire consisted of three songs: “He Touched Me,” “There’ll Be No Thorns In His Crown,” and “Are You Rapture Ready Or Will You Burn In Hell?”

So I sang a lot of funerals. The most requested song was always “Beulah Land.” I learned to sing it when I was a kid. It never fails to make me cry. And looking out at this Appalachian valley, I understand the lyrics a little better.

So there isn’t much to do in Helen unless you plan on visiting a beer palace or getting an elaborate pectoral piercing by a man named “Snake.” Many…

It’s late. She’s driving. She's on her way home. There's something in the road. She hits it. She swerves. She loses control of the car.

A loud crash. A bounce. She’s going downhill. She's rolling. Her car is really rolling.

She screams.

And in this moment, she’s thinking, “I wish I could tell my children I love them.”

Funny. In critical moments, nobody says to themselves: “I wish I had better retirement options.”

She's tumbling down an embankment toward an icy river, thinking simple things.

Like the day she slid a ring onto her husband’s finger and promised to love him until death.

She thinks about holding her newborn daughter. The same daughter who was born with an extra digit on her left hand. A “supernumerary finger” doctors called it.

She thinks about how she nicknamed her daugher “Six.” And how the name stuck, even after surgeons removed the appendage.

She remembers her son. And Little League games. And the day after school, when he told her that he’d found hair in his armpits.

One second. That’s all it takes. One second to relive her

entire life.

How strange. Only a few minutes ago, her life felt permanent. And now, it’s too short.

Her car hits water. She is upside down, dangling. Blood in her eyes. She is too beat-up to even cry. She is falling in and out of sleep.

The water is above her head. Then it's touching her hair. Then her forehead. Then her eyebrows. Her nose.

In her stupor she manages to say one word before she's submerged. A three-letter name which, despite what many claim, has nothing to do with politics, wars, or religion.

She swallows a lot of water. The world goes black.

Then.

Sharp sickness in her gut. It is overwhelming. A burning in her lungs. A headache which feels like she’s had an argument with a hammer.

“I’m alive,” she’s thinking.

Her…

The North Georgia mountains are cold tonight. I am inside a cabin with my wife. It’s late. Music is playing. I am watching a fireplace.

We are minutes away from a new year, I am keeping an eye on the clock. Nobody here is watching the Time Square ball drop on TV. For one thing, there is no television in these remote woods. For another, you can’t replace Dick Clark.

But there is a record player. I am listening to Ray Charles sing. My wife and I are drinking glasses of magnesium citrate because my wife’s favorite sport is taking vitamins.

I know we should be drinking champagne, or beer, or something fun. But it’s just too dang late. We are middle-aged people who don’t even eat spicy foods past 5 P.M. anymore.

So we drink fizzy magnesium which my wife forces down my gullet each night because it helps with “regularity.” And she wants me to be a “regular guy,” if you catch my drift. My wife stole this particular concern directly from my mother’s playbook.

When I was

younger, New Year’s Eve was a wild holiday. Mainly because ever since my teenage years I played barroom music after hours. On New Year’s, anyone who owned a guitar played a party.

Thus, every December 31st of my adult life was spent with a band on a rinky-dink stage, playing for people in sparkly hats.

We used to play some big shindigs. We wore neckties, sang until morning, and the money was always good. When the clock struck midnight, we would play “Auld Lang Syne.” Whereupon the guys in the band would hug each other and make deeply emotional remarks like, “How much will you pay me to drink bourbon out of Mike Brahm’s shoe?”

“Ten bucks.”

“I’ll pay twenty if you do Fireball.”

“I’ll take that action.”

“Count me in.”

“You can’t plug your nose though.”

Before the night…

New Year’s Eve always reminds me of an elderly man in town who everyone called Bug. He was bad to drink, but nobody ever called Bug a drunk. Our parents simply warned us not to light a match within two feet of old Bug.

Whenever you’d see him out and about, red-faced, he’d always be the happiest guy you ever met. His claim to fame was that he had already chosen his life’s last words so that when he was on his deathbed he wouldn’t say something stupid.

Almost everyone in beer joints between here and the county line tried to coax Bug to reveal these words. Some even offered to pay big bucks. But nobody could make Bug say it.

One New Year’s Day, after Bug had been out all night celebrating—and this is how I heard it—Bug started having chest pains. His wife drove him to the emergency room. They hooked him up to wires and tubes.

Bug was in the bed, moaning in pain, and when his final moment came, he motioned for

his wife to come close. He whispered his last words, which would become locally famous:

“They say you only live once, but believe me, it’s a great ‘once.’”

Thus satisfied with himself, Bug closed his eyes. They say he smiled. And a few moments later, doctors told Bug that he was only suffering from gas pains and he would be perfectly fine once he pooped.

Bug opened his eyes, cussed the doctor, and lived twenty more years.

I wish I had something clever to say like Bug. In fact, I’ve been thinking about what to write all night. But I just can’t find anything. Because I’ve never been good under pressure.

Do you remember when you were a kid and everyone would play highly pressurized backyard games like football, hide and seek, or Pin The Tail on the Redhead? Do you remember when the…

I’m staying in a little house with a funky smell. It’s not a “cottage” because that word implies cuteness. It’s not cute. It’s a modest house on East Haymore Street, borderlining on ugly.

Cheap carpet, old wood, vinyl siding, nothing fancy. And for the love of God, what is that funky smell?

In the den is a sofa with faded plaid upholstery. It looks like something my granny would have owned. Like something everyone’s grandmother owned, back when grannies still watched Billy Graham on black-and-white television sets the size of chifforobes.

The ceiling has water spots. The kitchen is dated. The appliances are ancient. Especially the stove. It’s a 1950s Hotpoint electric range.

And just when I don’t think this place could get any more hideous, I see across the street—not fifty feet from my bedroom window—the dang city water tower. Two hundred stories of municipal eyesore towering overhead like a monster.

My wife rented this ugly house for my birthday. You’re probably wondering why. I am too.

Maybe she did it because I’m a low-rent kind of

guy. Maybe because I come from modest people and I’m uncomfortable in fancy digs.

When I first started public speaking for a living, I once stayed in a notable hotel that gave new meaning to the word “swanky.” I was there to entertain members of a big organization that required me to sign privacy disclosure agreements beforehand.

The elaborate shindig was held in Alabama. I have no earthly clue why they hired a yahoo like me.

It was pure extravagance. You should have seen it. The event was catered by a barbecue joint from Kansas City. A private pilot had flown the steaming pork 700 miles south while it was still hot. And, by God, they had a party.

Southern dignitaries discussed their golf swings while sipping highballs made from liquor that was worth a working man’s salary.

The organization put me…

MOUNT AIRY—It’s chilly in North Carolina. But not too bad. A light jacket will do. I am walking downtown. Hands in my pockets. It’s my birthday weekend.

I remember seeing Jack Lalane’s 70th birthday special on television. I’ll never forget it. He dove into the water of Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed and shackled, and towed 70 boats containing 70 passengers for almost two miles from the Queen’s Way Bridge to the Queen Mary.

Jack was always doing strongman stunts for his birthday to demonstrate that health and fitness wasn’t just a hobby, but good for TV ratings.

Which is why this year for my birthday, I’ve decided to follow this healthful tradition by doing something similar. Something I can really be proud of.

Namely, I will eat a fried pork chop sandwich.

In many ways, fried pork is far more dangerous than what Jack Lalane did. Ask any cardiologist and they’ll agree. Sure, towing 70 boats for a couple miles through treacherous waters is fine if you’re trying to impress your grandmother. But batter-fried

pork chops? This is for men who look death in the eye.

The particular pork chop sandwich I’m talking about is world famous. It comes from a cafe called the Snappy Lunch in downtown Mount Airy. The Snappy Lunch has been around for almost a hundred years, the building has been here even longer.

The place is a small nondescript storefront eatery. A Coca-Cola sign hangs out front beside an old-fashioned tin awning. There are a few antique cars parked on the curb. The restaurant sits at the rear of North Main Street. There is always a crowd huddled by the front window, and a long line.

They tell me visitors gather here almost daily to watch the grill-cook fry the pork chops. These are mostly tourists who come from all over the U.S. to visit this well-known little township. And if you don’t already know…