It’s 9:30 p.m. I am writing on a laptop in the middle of my backyard, sitting beside a flickering campfire. I asked my wife to go camping with me tonight, but she told me that she would rather eat a live chicken than go camping.

Those were her exact words.

I can’t explain what made me go camping in my own yard. Maybe it’s that we’ve been stuck at home for 100-some days.

Maybe it’s because a friend of mine died last week, still in his mid-forties, from heart trouble. Maybe I’m starting to realize that my own funeral isn’t exactly getting further away.

Camping is in my blood. I own a lot of camping gear that I’ve gathered over the years, but I haven’t gone camping in ages because I haven’t had time. I’ve been busy working. But now that the world has come to a halt with the novel coronavirus, I dusted off my gear.

When I was growing up we went camping because it was cheap. And because my father was under the perpetual

idea that we were still living through the Great Depression.

He grew up with parents who survived the Depression. And I think they missed the memo about it ending. After all, there were no government officials knocking on doors to say, “Good afternoon, folks, Depression’s over!”

So my father kept right on pinching pennies and using Depression-era phrases his parents used. Phrases I was too young to understand, like, “Eat your supper, there are people in China who would give anything to eat your supper.”

The first time he ever said this I just looked at my plate and marveled. I had no idea meatloaf was so popular in China.

We camped multiple times per year, sometimes multiple times per week. Beer was involved.

My father used to arrange my Little League camping trips on Mister Tolbertson’s nearby farm. We would hike for…

BREWTON—There are springtime flowers everywhere this morning for Father’s Day. The flowers hang on lamp posts, bridge rails, and they surround the welcome-to-town sign. You can smell them in the air and they make you feel sort of grateful to be here.

I love flowers. They do something to me. It’s hard to smell a flower without smiling.

The town itself is quiet today. It’s an average afternoon in a city of historic storefronts, mills, stone churches, and muddy trucks. The downtown is framed by railroad tracks that cut straight across a pretty mainstreet. There’s Belleville Avenue, with its Greek revival homes that photographers love to put onto postcards.

Today, I’m at Union Cemetery with my wife. We are visiting someone. She arranges a vase of pink Peruvian lilies for the grave of her father. I’m standing several hundred feet away, giving them space.

People need privacy at cemeteries. I’m a big believer in that. I’m a big believer in lots of things, but when it comes to grief, I believe in leaving people alone.

So

I walk the maze of headstones, reading names. There are stones for babies, elderly people, politicians, and various Alabamians dating back to 1879. I see a monument for a man who was lost at sea. Another for a woman who died from influenza. Flowers are everywhere. Roses, lilies, daisies, bright plasticized begonias.

There is a big variety in the stones, too. Simple markers and fancy ones. They are adorned with flags, flowers, potted plants, photographs, hankies, cowboy figurines, throw pillows, candles, or letters.

I have no kin in this cemetery, but I’m searching for my last name just the same. I always do this, I don’t know why. My wife says it’s morbid, but I’ve been looking for my name in graveyards since childhood.

I’ve done this everywhere from New York to South Texas. Among the places I’ve found my name were Portland, Little…

It’s almost Father’s Day, and I am sitting on the gritty beach of the Choctawhatchee Bay, watching seagulls fly. The birds are calling to each other just like they do in Jacques Cousteau documentaries.

You’ve seen the old PBS Cousteau specials. Jacques’s monotone French voice was always punctuated by screaming gulls. And he would usually say something profound like, “Ocean life, ahh, yezz.”

My father was a PBS junky. He loved Cousteau specials. He would stay up late watching those underwater films on public television. I think watching old Jacques explore exotic blue waters of Mexico made my father feel free somehow.

We hardly ever watched any other channel besides PBS. Then again, our TV only picked up three channels. Cable TV was not offered in our parts. And even if it had been, Daddy would have rather rotted in Purgatory than paid for TV.

But we always had PBS. The channel was fuzzy, but if you kicked the TV hard enough your foot would hurt and the screen would go dark.

We watched National Geographic

documentaries. We watched the Salzburg Philharmonic Orchestra play Brahms. We saw all the Cousteau documentaries.

When I was a kid, I got very into those sea exploration films. Because of this I was teased on the playground for knowing about the echolocational abilities of porpoises. Billy Tolbertson told me I was a nerdy mama’s boy, which was utterly false. So I had my mother beat him up.

“SCREECH!” a seagull screams.

The seagull lands next to me on this shore. I am watching him hop around. He stays beside me.

“Ahh yezz, ocean life…” I say to him, doing my best Cousteau.

He’s not impressed.

After my father died when I was a child, I grew to hate Father’s Day. At church, I’d see everyone acting sappy about their dads and I would get so green with envy that I resembled an early model…

The year is 1923. It is the middle of June. You are a kid in a seersucker suit, on your way to a picnic. The weather is hot. Sweltering, actually. Texas can be like a steam bath sometimes.

Today is a holiday. At least that’s what everyone is saying. But it’s a day you’ve never heard of.

“What’s Juneteeth, Daddy?” you ask.

“Ssshhh,” says your father, the quiet Scottish minister, who is always telling you to shush. If you’ve been shushed once, you’ve been shushed a million times. He usually follows this up with, “Ssshhh, just listen, David.”

Just listen? You’ve been just-listening for your whole life, and it never seems to get people to quit shushing you.

This morning, before your family left the house, your mother dressed you up and fixed your blonde hair to your head with industrial pump lubricant. These trousers cost your parents money they didn’t have. Your father has lost three church jobs in one year because he keeps getting fired.

When you arrive at the park, it’s crowded with an all-black gathering of folks

who eat lunch on blankets. And you discover that your family is the only white family at the celebration.

The place is alive with energy. There is laughter, games, drink, and music everywhere. Real music. The kind of modern music they’re playing in cities. They call it jazz. You’ve heard jazz a few times on your friend’s mom’s Victrola. You can’t get enough of the stuff.

“Hi, Reverend Amons,” a young black woman says to your father. “Happy Juneteenth.”

Your father takes her hand. “Delia, happy Juneteenth, sweetheart.”

“Happy Juneteenth,” your mother says, embracing the girl.

“What the heck is Juneteenth?” you announce.

“Ssshh,” your father says, straightening your jacket collar. “Just listen, David, and you might learn something.”

There he goes again.

Here come your friends running toward you. John, Jeremiah, and Terrence. They ask if you want…

It’s night. I’m outside looking at the stars. Tonight, my wife and I decided that we wouldn’t go on our annual vacation since COVID-19 is running rampant in Florida. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just that now isn’t a good time for vacation.

So my wife and I sit on the porch, retelling our best vacations to one another.

Like the times we went to the Grand Canyon. I’ll never forget camping at the Canyon. The way it looks in the early morning can change a man’s life. We hiked, ate canned food, I made coffee over the campfire and burnt the roof off my mouth so bad I required a priest. It was great.

At night, we would look at the stars from the the canyon and marvel at them. Stars are funny things. You look at them every night, but sometimes you don’t actually see them.

And the Suwannee River. Now there was another great vacation. You don’t hear many people sing the praises of the Suwannee anymore,

but it’s a truly magnificent piece of black water.

We went for my wife’s birthday once. We rented a canoe and trickled down the slow-moving river with our box lunches and sunhats.

A friend of mine had given me a cigar as a gift. I’d been saving it. I’d never officially smoked a cigar before, so I thought I’d give it a try on the Suwannee.

I lit the cigar while paddling and almost puked. I hated it. The lit stub fell into the water only a few feet from a large, scaly, reptilian head floating beneath the surface.

It was an alligator about the size of a Plymouth. My wife and I froze and tried not to breathe. We watched the gator swim through the water like a Biblical leviathan, and I immediately realized that I was wrong about this gator. He…

It was 135 years ago today. The ships from France arrived in the Upper New York Bay carrying 214 wooden crates and 350 monstrous individual pieces of iron, steel, and copper.

Everyone was talking about it, from Mark Twain to Thomas Edison.

The first guy to propose the statue was Édouard de Laboulaye, a French anti-slavery activist. His idea was that since the Civil War was over, it was a perfect time to honor human freedom.

Artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was immediately excited about the idea. He agreed to design it. He asked for help from his friend, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the same man responsible for the Eiffel Tower.

Bartholdi and Eiffel got together one night—they probably had a few beers—and brainstormed about a statue Bartholdi had been thinking about for years.

At least, it seemed like beer was involved because they ended up designing a 450,000-pound structure, gilded in pure gold, with a mind-blowing framework of iron pylons and support beams, that would double as a lighthouse.

It would take years of work

to get the idea off the ground.

For one thing, they had to get some actual Americans onboard. Which wasn’t easy because Americans were about as interested in public art as they were in fat-free mayonnaise.

So Bartholdi had to promote the tar out of this thing. He proposed building it in New York. Then, he did a lot of public relations footwork in the U.S., like demonstrating the statue’s torch at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. And even though a lot of people thought it was neat idea, most Americans were still leaning toward the fat-free mayo.

Until...

Boston said in 1882 that they wanted the statue built in their harbor. You have to watch out for Boston.

This changed everything. Up until that moment, New York hadn’t been too concerned with the statue. But now that Beantown was in the picture, it was…

I am holding a small pink rock. Rose quartz. It usually sits on my desk, just above my laptop.

Sometimes, when I can’t think of anything to write, I hold this rock in my hand and toss it up in the air a few times until either an idea comes to me, or I give myself a black eye.

I have been staring at this rock a lot during the quarantine. In fact, I spend a lot of time tossing this stupid rock into the air.

A long time ago I helped drive the church community van. It wasn’t my regular gig, I was just a volunteer. The van carried maybe five elderly people who needed help running errands. My friend Bobby was riding shotgun.

Mostly, we loaded and unloaded wheelchairs and walkers, took people to the post office, purchased their medications, carried them to the supermarket, or assisted them with “public bathroom ordeals.”

The elderly people lived alone. I believe the term the church used for them was “shut-ins.”

So we spent the whole day driving them

around. Whenever one of the ladies would start complaining about low blood sugar, we stopped by a drive-thru window.

You should have seen our McDonald’s fiascos. Trying to explain the finer points of a fast-food menu to older people with severe hearing problems was like trying to rewrite the Magna Carta with a white crayon.

“Do you want SUPERSIZED FRIES, Miss Caroline?” one of us would ask.

“Huh? I don’t know anyone who died!”

“Fries!”

“I think he died thirty years ago!”

“FRIES!”

“I have to pee.”

And so it went.

One day, we stopped at an apartment to pick up an old man I’ll call Mister Johnny. He was a recluse, and as unfriendly as a copperhead. The inside of his apartment was probably the most disgusting place on planet earth. We rolled into his driveway to find him sitting on…

I have here an email from a woman named Ellen, in Elko, Nevada, who writes:

“Your writing used to be very funny, but in the last few months it seems more reflective and almost sad. Sean, I have come to depend on your stuff to make me laugh, but lately you haven’t been doing your job! LOL! I’m just wondering if you’ll ever go back to being funny again!”

Ellen, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been tough finding humor in daily life since the pandemic hit. I hope I haven’t been too much of a buzzkill for you, I’m sorry if I have.

Humor is just one of those things that feels “off” when used at the wrong time. I’ve found that sometimes gags which are hysterical one day, can feel very impolite under the wrong circumstances.

Case in point: Once I was building a shed. My wife was my construction assistant. My wife and I have always had a running joke between us where I “goose” her when she’s not looking.

Goosing

is of course pinching someone’s hindquarters. This is not to be confused with “Christmas goosing,” which is sneaking up behind your cousin and pulling down his pants in public. Both are classic moves.

So one day my wife and I were building this shed, pounding nails with hammers. All of a sudden, my wife gets silent and turns her back to me.

I’m thinking she’s taking a break, maybe catching her breath. But little do I know that she has just smacked her thumb with a hammer and is crying silently, grasping her swollen thumbnail, which is now about the size of a grapefruit.

That’s when I sneak up behind her and goose her.

What happened next would live in local folklore for years to come, and is still talked about in many circles. I will leave out the violent details involving how she…

A little church. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere. I haven’t ventured far from my house for almost four months of quarantine.

I used to attend a church like this a lifetime ago. I played the piano on Sunday mornings. I played music for all sorts of church occasions.

One time, for instance, there was a guy in our choir who wanted to sing a Randy Travis tune for service. The song was “Forever and Ever Amen.” It’s not a church song, it’s more of a romantic song, but my buddy was in love with a soprano, so the lyrics made spiritual sense to him.

My friend and I worked on it for weeks. He sang, I played keys. Finally, we auditioned the song for the pastor. The old clergyman almost had a cardiac event. He was furious.

The preacher said that if we played another Randy Travis song on church grounds again we would be asked to leave.

We made a solemn vow to never play another Randy Travis tune in our lives. Not even “Honky Tonk Moon.”

Right now it feels good being here. I’ve been indoors, stuck on an endless repeat cycle, like an LP record that keeps skipping.

My wife and I have tried visiting friends once or twice while maintaining social-distancing regulations, but it’s weird. We end up sitting 50 yards from each other so that transit trucks and commercial airliners can pass between us. I have to squint just to see my friends from so far away.

The sanctuary is empty. I hear the air conditioner humming. I wander around, running my fingers along the window panes, flipping through hymnal pages.

I look out the window. There is one car in the parking lot, which belongs to the secretary. She said I could hang out here today if I wanted.

My wife and I are at a blueberry farm located in the middle of nowhere. My wife wears a sunhat. I am wearing a third-degree sunburn.

There are acres of blueberries stretching toward the treeline. The bushes are loaded with beautiful purple berries that are—this is a well-known fact—explosively high in fiber.

Blueberries are a big part of life in South Alabama. My wife is from Brewton, the “Blueberry Capital of Alabama.” It’s your quintessential small town, with a cute mainstreet, historic homes, and 1,228 nearby churches.

Brewton is the kind of place that dedicates entire holidays to the humble blueberry. They have the Alabama Blueberry Festival, complete with a car show, arts and crafts, and music. And of course they have the Blueberry Drop. The Blueberry Drop is a New Year’s Eve event where instead of dropping a big ball like they do in Times Square, they drop a giant blueberry behind the Church’s Chicken.

When I first met my wife, we spent a lot of time picking blueberries. One summer,

a local farmer got several volunteers from our little church to pick blueberries for a three-day weekend. I was an adult “chaperone” for the youth group blueberry squad.

Now, let me say upfront that the last thing you want to do is chaperone a youth group for a weekend in rural Alabama. It’s misery.

When youth-group kids reach a certain age, all they do is run around pinching each other’s hindparts and smuggling unfiltered Camels. And at night—at least this was true for the boys—they would sit around a campfire and hold scientific discussions about human anatomy using slang words only.

I remember when the farmer warned the youth group that blueberries were a VERY high-fiber fruit, and not to eat too many of them. The boys ignored this and ate their weight in blueberries. The next morning, these boys spent a lot of private time in the…