I took my dogs for a walk. It was sunny. High 80s. The blossoming trees made Crestwood smell like heaven.

The first person I met was an old man, sitting in his yard. He was beneath a massive oak. He ate from a hospital tray, sipped tea from a straw. He wore a Gilligan hat. His nurse was seated with him.

I was walking past his house and he spoke to me because everyone talks to you when you have dogs. It is a universal truth, unrefuted by science.

At the time I had three dogs on a leash. A blind coonhound (55 pounds), an alleged Labrador (110 pounds), and a bloodhound (60,000 metric tons). My ligaments were being torn asunder.

I waved hello. The old man waved back. His nurse waved. I asked how he was feeling today.

“Don’t ever make the mistake of being 88,” he said.

Then he laughed. “Actually, it’s not so bad,” he added. “If you don’t mind having a titanium hip, bolts in your knees, or being violated

with catheters the size of commercial garden hoses.”

I walked onward.

Next, I met three young men who were playing catch in their front yard. And by “young men” I mean these men were still in diapers. They were maybe 2 years old.

Their mothers were outside with them. The boys were tossing a Wiffle ball back and forth. Although, technically, it wasn’t a proper game of “catch” inasmuch as nobody ever caught the ball.

I waved at them. They all waved back.

“Pet da puppy?!” one boy shouted to me.

I let the kids run their hands along the smooth coat of my blind coonhound. They enjoyed this. But not half as much as me.

After that, I met two older guys, loading a canoe atop their Honda. They had tackle boxes strewn in their driveway. Clearly a fishing trip was on the horizon.


As a boy, my father used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and drink beer in his garage.

We were Southern Baptists, and Baptists do not drink beer inside, only in the garage. Occasionally they smoke out there, too. But only when your mother is out of town visiting her aunt Cynthia.

Out in that garage I listened to 650 AM, Nashville. I heard Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Sarah Cannon, and all the greats.

If my mother happened to be home, and if she came into the garage unexpectedly, my father would quickly pass me his beer and cigarette and say to my mother, “Look what I caught your son doing.”

Foremostly, I was a kid with musical proclivity. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “musical talent.” I was, however, allowed to sing and play piano in church.

Namely, because it was only a 27-member church, and the only other in our congregation who was called upon to sing offertory hymns was Mrs. Wannamaker, who my father

said had a voice like a Buick with a bad starter.

When I was 11 my father died, whereupon I began listening to the Opry faithfully. Every Saturday. I suppose I was trying to keep him alive, somehow.

Eventually, I grew up. Eventually, I parted ways with modern country music because I preferred a style of music that didn’t involve thong underwear and three-thousand-dollar boots. I preferred my father’s style of music. Blue collar music. Tunes sung by folks who knew what it meant to work for a living. Just like my old man.

After a long, rocky childhood, and a string of persistent failures, I fell into novel writing when I was in my 30s. I enjoyed it. I was soon raking in hundreds of dollars per year.

Even so, I have been fortunate enough to produce a handful of novels, and I feel grateful for this.


The four of us were at the Chinese restaurant to celebrate the 10th year I’ve been writing a column.

It was a small dinner party. My cousin and his wife. Me and mine.

Our waiter was a cheerful guy who spoke with a heavy foreign accent. He said he was originally from—and this is why I love Asian restaurants—Mexico.

We knew this because he could not pronounce the Chinese dishes, such as zhá jiàng miàn, and zìchuān huǒguō.

He had an even harder time understanding English words. For example, I ordered a sweet tea, but he brought me a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

“This is an affront,” I said to my wife.

“I’m sorry, señor,” said my waiter, “I will take your beer back.”

“No, wait,” I said. “Let’s not react in haste.”

We ate ourselves silly. We celebrated with spring rolls. We ate Krab® rangoon. Egg drop soup. And when it came to the calamari, we were enjoying our appetizer when my cousin informed the table that this might not be actual calamari.

“What do you mean?” we said.

My cousin went on to

tell a story. He knew a guy who used to inspect meat processing plants for a state agency. One day, the man was at a farm and he saw several boxes stacked and labeled “artificial calamari.”

“What is artificial calamari?” he asked the plant manager.

“Hog rectums,” the manager replied.

We all stopped eating mid-bite.

“The industry term is ‘pork bungs,’” my cousin went on.

I ordered another “sweet tea.”

Everyone at the table stared at the plate of puckered calamari on our table. Whereupon my wife brought out her phone and started Googling the validity of the claims about alleged “seafood.”

Come to find out, there is such a thing as my cousin’s unsavory theory. However, it would be illegal in the U.S. to serve pork parts and call them “calamari.” Moreover, the USDA reports…

The following is a true story. It happened in rural Georgia. Last week. The names shall remain anonymous, to protect the guilty.

A little boy walked into the little church, unannounced.

It was a weekday. A country church. Clapboards. Tin roof. Way out in the sticks. The kind of church that—until a few years ago—only had window-unit A/C.

The boy greeted the church secretary. He asked if he could meet with the minister. The secretary was taken aback. It’s not every day a little boy walks into the church office alone.

She asked where the boy’s parents were.

“My mom’s waiting in the car,” he said. “I really need to see the preacher.”

When the young man entered the preacher’s office, the minister was at his desk, working on his sermon.

The preacher is old. He’s been preaching since the Vietnam War was only a rumor. He has seen a lot of things in his day. Including the death of a spouse. And the death of his child. But he’s never seen anything like this boy.

“What can I help you with, son?” said

the old pulpiteer.

“I need your help, preacher.”

“What kind of help?”

“My dog, Macy, she just died. And I want you to do the funeral.”

The old man looked at the boy. The child had clearly been crying. His eyes were pink and red. The old man’s heart went out to the boy.

“When did your dog die, son?”

“Last night. She was a good dog. She was my best friend.”

The preacher didn’t know what to say. So he didn’t.

“I got her from a shelter when I was a baby. And she was always so good to me. She stuck with me when my dad walked out on us. And she always ate whatever I ate, because even though I wasn’t supposed to, I fed her from the table every night.”

The preacher…

I am in the car with Bobby and Andy. Bobby is driving. We’re on our way to Blount County tonight. Three on a String has a gig, and I’m riding shotgun.

We’re crammed in a ‘95 Crown Vic, doing 75 mph on Highway 160 toward Hayden. The car is almost 30 years old, but it still rides like a cloud.

Bobby pats the dashboard.

“They just don’t make’em like this anymore,” he says.

“They sure don’t,” Andy agrees.

You’d like these guys. Bobby and Andy both have white hair, cheerful dispositions, and a lifelong proclivity toward music. They are my father’s age. I’ve always gravitated toward men who remind me of my late father.

Likewise, I’ve always gravitated toward musicians. Because, sadly, I am one.

The life of a musician is hard. The money sucks. The hours suck. And often the audiences are so inebriated you could blindfold them with strips of dental floss.

But if you’re born as a musicman, there is only one vice that will nourish your soul.

Bobby and Andy are band members of Three on

a String, which was recently inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. These guys’ names are forever engraved alongside the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Emmylou Harris, Nat Cole, Percy Sledge, and Lionel Richie.

The band has been together for 52 years. And they’re still going strong.

“I think we’ve been together since Nixon was in office,” says Bobby.

The band is in their 70s and 80s. And they have seen everything. Played everywhere. Done it all. They’ve been to every playhouse, operahouse, doghouse, henhouse, and outhouse in the U.S.

But fame has not changed them. They still drive their own beat-up vans. They still erect their own sound system. They still set up their own CD tables.

And when the gigs are finished, when the long nights are over, when the manager pays them, one of the band guys…

I am at a bar. It’s loud. There is live music. And cheeseburgers. I missed dinner tonight because I was making a speech at a dinner banquet. Which is ironic when you think about it.

Everyone at this big banquet was eating hors d’oeuvres, sipping expensive chardonnay, and chowing down on Maine lobsters the size of baby grand pianos.

I could hardly keep my mind on my speech because the ballroom was full of people in tuxedos, all wearing little plastic bibs, making a chorus of slurping, sucking, licking sounds.

A woman at the head table who looked like Queen Elizabeth II was wearing a bib. She kept asking me, “Now, how exactly were you invited to this dinner again?”

Each time I answered, she would get this far-away look in her eyes and start sucking meat from a lobster leg like a baby Wolverine.

So I felt out of place. I felt even worse when the waiter informed me that the bar didn’t stock Natural Light.

Pretty soon, Queen Elizabeth forgot all about me. Butter sauce

dripped down her chin, all over her bib. She would lick her hands violently when she didn’t think anyone was watching. And I don’t mean just her fingers. This woman was actually licking her forearms and her tennis bracelet.

When my speech was done, the last thing I wanted was to stick around and eat lobster with the Royal Family, so I found a beer joint that was open late. Which is where I am now.

It’s a dump, and there are lots of people here. There’s a guy playing guitar. He plays a rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” and sings in a voice that is faintly reminiscent of the late Daffy Duck.

The lady bartender gives me a menu and asks, “What’re you so dressed up for?”

“I was just at a banquet.”

“Wow. Fancy pants.”

“You shoulda seen them eat lobster.”

They cut down the old oak tree today. It was an enormous tree. One of the biggest I’ve ever seen.

I was on my walking route when I heard the chainsaws running. I stood by the curb and watched the young worker crawl up the trunk and take it down from top to bottom.

They scaled it like trapeze artists, swinging from limbs with chainsaws strapped over their shoulders.

There was an old man by the street, with his dog on a leash. He was watching. He was stock still.

“That tree’s been here a long time,” he said. “It was here since my parents were babies.”

“You know this tree?”

He nodded. “My mother grew up beneath that tree. She rocked me to sleep underneath that tree when I was born. We used to live in this house. A long, long time ago.”


Another nod. “Used to sit underneath that tree with my grandparents. They used to visit us all the time. My granddaddy showed me how to polish my own shoes under that tree. Do

kids still polish their shoes?”

“No, sir. I don’t think they do.”

He smiles mournfully. “Well, we used to. My granddaddy was a World-War-I guy, kept his shoes polished to a mirror finish. He’s dead now.”

The old man sighed.

“Granddaddy only came to one of my baseball games in his whole life, because he grew up in Walker County. He was from the country. He grew up hard, he didn’t even know how baseball was played.”

The top of the tree fell. The green wood cracked loudly. And I could not help but feel like the world was losing something important.

The young treemen were attacking the fallen logs with chainsaws as though the logs had insulted their mother.

“A rope swing used to hang on that tree,” said the old man. My mom used to swing on it. My last…

Today I am visiting the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind I’m Talladega.

I meet a lot of people.

My tour starts in preschool. I watch children, small children, with hearing loss and visual impairment, learn to speak American Sign Language. Their little hands are unsure and shaky. They are just learning the gestures. Some are shy. Others are animated and wild.

I sit in on the pre-K class American Sign Language class and learn to sign “thank you,” and “nice to meet you,” and “I really have to pee.”

I also learn how to make the ASL gesture for applause, which is like making jazz hands. I get plenty of practice at “applause.” I also learn that all kids love making the ASL sign for applause almost as much as they love, for example, candy.

Next I visit the Helen Keller School. I meet middle-school kids who are dissecting frogs in biology class.

Hell hath no greater torment than frog dissection.

“Stick around,” says the teacher. “After lunch we’re dissecting a fetal pig.”


I learn how to sign, “fetal pig,” in ASL. Which is not nearly as fun as “applause.”

I visit the music building on campus. The building is a state-of-the-age music facility, with grand pianos galore. I meet the piano teacher. She shows me a book of braille sheet music.

I ask her if braille sheet music is more difficult than normal sheet music. Her response is to laugh at me until she his out of breath, then wipe her eyes.

I meet one pianist, a kid who is wearing sunglasses. He is playing incredibly well alongside a band of students who have hearing loss and vision impairment.

When they finish, I make the sign for applause.

The kids seem unimpressed by this. So I try the sign language gesture for “I have to pee.”

One kid furrows his brow and asks if I need…

I have a confession to make. I am addicted to my cellphone. I’m not proud of it. I don’t like admitting it. But I’m coming clean, publicly.

I feel naked without my phone. I shower with my phone. In fact, on many occasions—I am not making this up—I have ordered dog food in the shower.

It’s gotten bad. When I wake up, the first thing I do is check my phone. When I make coffee, I’m reading email.

When I wander outside to let my dogs sniff every blade of grass in the known universe simply so they can pee in the exact same spot they’ve peed upon for the last 3,298,119 consecutive mornings, I’m scrolling social media, viewing photographs from people I don’t even know, reading about what they ate for supper last night.

I’m hopeless.

Last night, for example, I lost my cellphone in the car, and it was dark. I looked for my phone for 15 minutes, USING THE FLASHLIGHT OF MY PHONE.

This is shameful. There used to be a time when we

had no smartphones. I remember the tech-free era because I grew up during this period.

My generation had no computers, no cellphones, no smartwatches, indoor plumbing, etc. We entertained ourselves with only Highlights Magazines, Slinkys, and Polio vaccines.

You see, kids, during my childhood, shortly after the Spanish-American War, our phones were not smart. They were dumb phones. They were big, black phones which could only be installed by the phone company. They were Soviet-style phones, mounted in the kitchen, with 500-foot cords, rotary dials.

Back then, our phones were made of steel, industrial plastic, and asbestos. The phones weighed about 1,900 pounds and—hard as this is to believe—they did not even shoot good video.

Even so, as a kid, you spent very little time talking on a phone. Namely, because you were always on your bike.

You grew up on your bike.…

Dear little girl, you are not ugly.

I say this because currently, over 78 percent of American young girls think they are ugly. Over 78 percent of girls hate their physical appearance. Seventy-eight percent despise their own self-image. Seventy-eight percent are disgusted with themselves.

You know who you are. And you know how you feel about yourself.

You are bombarded with an onslaught of online images from a body-obsessed culture. Your sense of self-worth is sinking. You constantly compare yourself to the phony models you see on your phone screen.

Social media is full of such plasticized figures with impossibly tiny waists, pronounced cleavage, and enlarged assets.

And even though all these online images are fake, they make you feel unpretty. Unspecial. Unseen. You walk into a room of your peers and you feel less-than. You feel under-confident. Underloved. Under everything.

Maybe you feel overweight. Maybe you think you’re too skinny. Too tall. Too short. Maybe you think your hair is too curly. Too straight. Too stringy. Too thick. Too coarse. Maybe you have a particular physical

feature you hate. Maybe it’s got you depressed.

Maybe you have complexion problems. Maybe you have acne. Maybe your teeth aren’t the way you want them to be.

Either way, you feel unbeautiful. Unlovely. Unattractive. Un-spectacular. Un-special. Uncool.

Oftentimes you see yourself in the mirror, or in photos, or in candid cellphone videos (God help us all), and you dislike what you see. Namely, because you’re comparing yourself to an image you’ve seen in a magazine, or on TV, or social media.

Over time, this distaste for yourself festers. Soon, you start to dislike yourself. Soon, it’s not just your appearance you hate, it’s the whole enchilada.

Is any of this ringing a bell?

I thought so.

Well, you aren’t alone. And it’s not much better for boys. According to research, 58 percent of boys dislike their bodies. What are we doing to…