Three pounds. That’s not much. A pineapple weighs three pounds. So does a jar of Crisco. The human brain weighs three pounds.

That doesn’t seem like much weight, but think about it. Human brains have built modern society, fed starving nations, cured deadly diseases, and given us the U.S. Tax Code.

The human brain came up with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Einstein’s three-pounder proved relativity. And once, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, two brilliant young men combined their three-pound organs to create Delta Airlines.

I’m thinking a lot about the human brain right now. Because at this moment I am cycling on a busy Pittsburg super highway with a plastic helmet covering my brain.

My wife is pedaling behind me. Vehicles speed by, traveling 120 miles per hour. Drivers honk horns. Motorists flick cigarette butts out windows. A semi-truck blows his whistle.

How did I get here? What led me to this profound life moment? That’s when it hits me. My three-pound brain.

The reason we are in Pittsburgh is because this is where the Great Allegheny Passage

bike trail begins. And our brains thought this trail would be fun.

The Allegheny Passage is a very long trail that starts in Pittsburgh and runs through the Appalachian Mountains. It crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, the Mason-Dixon Line, and the Maryland border.

Then the trail runs into the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail which lopes hundreds of miles across historic waterways, forests, rivers, farmland, covered bridges, and small towns. It snakes through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and finally peters out in Washington D.C.

So that’s why I’m on this busy highway. We are going to ride this trail.

I’ve never been to Pittsburgh before. And to tell the truth, I visualized my first experience going differently.

On the highway, I see a police cruiser parked near the curb. I pull over to ask for directions to our hotel. The policewoman glances at…

My wife and I are on the way to Virginia, driving northward on a bumpy two-lane highway. We have a long way left to drive.

I have spent the morning riding through Tennessee, tailgating a beat up Chevy with a license plate that reads: “Virginia is for lovers.”

I’ve been staring at these four words for nearly two hours. And the slogan has started to aggravate me. What a corny phrase. I wonder what yahoo came up with that one.

Then we cross the state line into Virgina.

All of a sudden I am driving through steep green hillsides that look like they belong in Scotland. Every two minutes I pass a rural scene so arresting that I have to pull over to see if it’s real.

The mountainsides are quilted in uniform grass, dotted with trees, and the cattle are grazing. Every wildwood barn, vacant schoolhouse, dilapidated RV, and abandoned water heater is swallowed in kudzu.

“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” my wife asks.

No. I have not.

This is my first

visit to Virginia and nobody prepared me for what it would look like. In fact, I feel silly trying to describe to you all that I’m seeing.

The pavement carries us into valleys that slice through the Middle of Nowhere. We take horseshoe curves that shoot us into highlands, grasslands, forestlands, and farmland.

The farther we drive, the more churches we see. We see a new chapel every seven feet. Sometimes closer than that. There are so many churches in the state of Virginia, Bill Gaither could run for governor.

And old homes. I’ve never seen so many American farmhouses. Many of these homesteads sit on gracious cliffs. Other houses have as many as two, three, or four axles.

I pass a cow bathing herself in a craggy mountain stream, she’s looking at me. I pass a man plowing a field with a red belly…

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—It’s sunny weather. The college town is filled with frat boys and sorority pledges who buzz around the city like fire ants on a fallen Snickers bar.

The happy city that feels like Disney World for 20-year-olds this morning. There are a lot of people wearing Tennessee Orange.

Today I am meeting with my friend’s son, Peter. Peter is a 19-year-old student, and he is going to take me to visit The Mound. At first, I didn’t know what mounds were. But now I do.

The North American mounds are prehistoric hills that were formed by early-early-early Native American tribes. As it happens, there are mounds all over the Knoxville region. Some estimates suggest that there were once over 200 mounds in this area. Today, about a dozen are left.

I’ve known Peter since he was a baby, he’s always been into history-type stuff. It used to be dinosaurs. Today, it’s mounds.

Peter is a brilliant young man who looks like a college kid on the outside, but has a nuclear-physicist’s brain. He is on the

autism spectrum, and it was not always easy for him growing up.

This is why when he decided to leave home for college his parents were worried sick about him being on his own with friends. But Peter was determined to do it. So they let him go.

Peter's dad told me, “It’s hard having your son leave. He’s my best friend. Hardest thing I ever did was driving away from the school, seeing my baby in the rear mirror, waving goodbye. Ripped my heart out.”

But getting back to the mounds, Peter tells me all about them.

“The mounds are really cool,” Peter says, “Knoxville was originally built by the Mound People. They lived here back in 3500 BCE.”

Peter talks like a professional tour guide, and he keeps looking to me for appropriate responses to his speech.

“Wow,” I say.

Peter…

BIRMINGHAM—Early morning. The sun is low. Fog rests on the trees. And I have a persistent case of writer’s block.

I leave my hotel on foot because I love morning walks. They help in more ways than one. When I walk, I’m able to think in straight lines, clear my head, and most importantly, pull a hamstring.

I see a pest guy spraying outside my hotel. He wears a COVID mask, and carries a spray canister of noxious chemicals.

“How’re you doing this morning?” he asks.

“I have writer’s block,” I say.

“Oh, no. I used to get writer’s block, but I don’t get it anymore.”

“Really? What’s your secret?”

“I had four kids.”

I make my hike across a nearby parking lot, aiming toward a shopping complex. Outdoor malls are great places to walk.

This is when I hear tires squeal behind me.

I turn to look. It is a bad dream happening in slow motion. A white Mitsubishi swerves through the parking lot like a runaway diesel, roaring straight for me.

The vehicle fires forward and misses me by an eyelash. I don’t

even have time to shout any religious language at the driver.

I am left standing on the pavement. Adrenaline has made me cold. I am doubled over.

The guy with the sprayer calls out, “You okay?”

All I can do is nod. “Just dandy,” I say.

It takes a few minutes to gather myself. I am still sick to my stomach. But I keep walking.

I walk across culverts, ditches, decorative shrubbery, thorny bushes, and steep embankments until I reach the mall. My nerves are shaken, but I’m alive, and that’s the important thing.

The shopping complex is empty this morning except for a few older women out power-walking.

I pass a slew of employees in shopfronts. They’re unlocking display windows, doing inventory, drinking coffee from paper cups. And I am finally starting to calm…

Lorie was watching when the supermarket cashier told the young mother that her card was declined. She knew she wanted to help the woman. She couldn’t explain why. It was something she wanted to do.

Just because.

Maybe it was the way the girl was holding a baby on her hip and a toddler by the hand. Or it could have been the girl’s frazzled facial expression.

Maybe it was the single-file line of impatient shoppers, rolling eyes, glancing at watches, adjusting their surgical masks.

Lorie stepped forward. She spoke to the cashier. “I wanna buy her groceries,” she said, presenting her card.

The girl looked embarrassed. There’s a feeling that comes with being the recipient of charity. It’s not a pleasant one. You feel a mixture of colossal idiocy and gratefulness, combined into one giant, foul-tasting pepperoni.

“No,” said the girl. “I’ll just put all this stuff back.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lorie.

“Please, ma’am, I don’t need no charity. My boss just hasn’t direct-deposited my check, that's all.”

There is none prouder than a mother with a light wallet.

“I’m buying

your groceries,” said Lorie. “You can either take them home, or let them spoil in the parking lot. But I’m buying them.”

The young woman seemed genuinely confused. “Why are you doing this?”

Lorie thought about it for several moments. It was a very good question. What had come over her? Why was she doing this?

“Just because,” Lorie said.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just a few scant groceries. The girl had practically shoved the whole grocery store into her buggy.

She was buying the confectionary things growing children need to stay healthy and strong. Chocolate bars, chocolate milk, chocolate popsicles, chocolate chips, chocolate fudge brownies, chocolate syrup, chocolate pretzels, Swiss chocolate swizzle sticks, triple chocolate dark fudge ice cream, and a new pancreas.

The girl agreed to let Lorie buy her items. But before…

Dear Young Person

I am an imaginary old man. I am every World War II veteran you never knew. I am each faceless GI Joe from a bygone European War.

I am hundreds of thousands of infantrymen, airmen, sailors, marines, mess sergeants, seabees, officers, engineers, doctors, buck privates, and rear-echelon potato-peelers.

We hopped islands in the Pacific. We served in the African war theater. We beat the Devil. Then we came home and became the old man next door. We are in our 90s and 100s now.

Today was our holiday. It was on this day, September 2, 1945, that the war officially ended.

Wartime was a wild era to be young. When we went overseas we were teenagers, scared spitless, with government haircuts, wearing new wedding rings.

We hadn’t seen action yet. We were so jittery we smoked through our week’s rations of Luckies in one day.

Then it happened. It was different for everyone. But it happened. Shells landed everywhere. People screamed. And in a moment our fear melted away.

Suddenly, we had war jobs

to do. And it didn’t matter who we were, or which posts were ours. Everyone worked in the grand assembly line of battle.

When the smoke cleared and the action was over, we had new confidence in ourselves. And we were no longer children.

No two experiences were alike. Each man had his own story. And we weren’t only men, either. There were 350,000 women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. People forget that.

Speaking of women. We guys were always talking about our sweethearts, wives, and mothers. If you even mentioned someone’s girl, a man would talk for hours about her. Then he’d show you wallet-sized pictures.

And even if you’d already seen his photos, you never interrupted a man who talked about his sweetheart. Because eventually, you’d be telling him about yours.

Everyone wanted to go home. Though, don’t get me…

It’s a great day for a drive in the Azalea City. The afternoon sun is on the bay. The grass flats are stretching toward the horizon like furry islands.

I ride through the tunnel, which shoots me beneath the Mobile River and spits me into a mild-mannered, picturesque French colonial city. I love it here.

I had a friend from Mobile once say that if you want to make locals angry, tell them Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans.

“These are fighting words,” said my pal.

If you say such a thing to a Mobile-person, their face will contort, their nostrils will flare, they will speak in strange tongues, and their head will rotate 360 degrees.

Then they will spit out facts about how Mobile has the oldest organized Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. They will also explain that Mobile’s Mardi Gras fun was happening in 1703, long before New Orleans was even wearing a training diaper.

Then they will fling beads at you.

When I was a young man, I played music in

a crummy bar band. We were always getting gigs in Mobile. The guys in the band would carpool together, and I was usually the driver.

This was before GPSs, back when early man was still using Rand McNally products. The truck would be loaded with musical junk, amplifiers, and instruments. And five of us idiots would be riding through town looking like the cast members from “Hee Haw.”

To us, Mobile was the biggest city around. Three times the size of Pensacola or Dothan. It wasn’t like other mega-cities, either. People were friendly in Mobile.

As long as you didn’t ask stupid questions about Mardi Gras.

The first thing I’m always struck with here is that this is a baseball town. Hank Aaron was born Down the Bay. And so was Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige. And Satchel Paige is one of my all-time heroes.

They…

DEAR SEAN:

My mom doesn’t want anything to do with me, I haven't seen her in like six years, and she doesn’t even wanna meet her granddaughter, my daughter. I feel so alone and just, like, I don't know. I don’t have any family who cares. Why are families so [bleeped] up?

Sorry I cussed,
FAMILY-LESS-IN-CHICAGO

DEAR FAMILY-LESS:

When I was growing up, there was an embroidered proverb hanging in my aunt’s laundry room. Framed in glass. The text read: “You can’t choose your family.”

I remember this because when I was supposed to be folding clothes I would be looking at it, thinking about what it meant. This is one of the first things I learned how to read, ironically.

I always wondered why anyone would go to the trouble of embroidering such an obvious statement.

I mean, hello? People can’t choose their family? This is no newsflash. So why embroider it? This would be like embroidering: “Yes, you can eat pickles.” Or “Your mother’s brother is also your uncle.”

It’s funny what you think

about when you’re folding towels. And my aunt was big on folding towels. Her towels had to be just so.

In my life I have since learned that every woman has her own way of folding laundry. My mother, for instance, folded clothes one way. My aunt folded things a different way. And when I got married, I was taught that males should not fold anything because we have the domestic intelligence of lukewarm pizza.

Every time I fold a towel in my house, a random woman appears out of the shadows to unfold my towel and refold it the correct way.

This is also true when it comes to loading the dishwasher.

Dishwasher loading is a sacred art only known by the chosen sages who walk among us. Once, at my in-laws’ house, I literally saw the same dishwasher reloaded five or…

A brilliant sunset. I’m on the porch. My neighbors are on their porch. We can’t see each other. I am eavesdropping because I am a semi-professional eavesdropper.

The people are talking and sipping. I hear the sound of ice clinking in glasses, and I overhear average people making conversation.

And there is a baby cooing.

An older man’s voice says to the baby, “Wook at Gwanddaddy’s wittle gull. Hey! You’ve got Granddaddy’s nose!”

The voice that belongs to his wife answers, “Give back Granddaddy’s nose, pwecious wittle gull.”

“Who’s Granddaddy’s wittle baby gull?”

“Jenna! Come outside, quick! She’s got Granddaddy’s nose!”

Yes. There’s a lot to be excited about at the neighbor’s house tonight.

For me, one of the hardest things about the quarantine was the lack of conversation. I miss it. I think I could endure anything if I had enough chit-chat. But without it my mind starts to worry and I work myself into a frenzy.

In the past I’ve interviewed old men who spent their youth in World War II foxholes. Men who didn’t speak about the war until they were in their eighties.

Something they said was that during lulls between fighting, it was the gentle art of conversation that kept them sane.

One man told me that infantrymen would have conversations lasting six or seven hours sometimes. Maybe longer. Until their voices gave out. Until they couldn’t speak the next day.

They would talk about how they missed their hometowns, about their best girls, their kid brothers, their favorite dogs, their childhood sweethearts, their mother’s cooking.

They talked to keep from losing it. They laughed to keep from being afraid.

My neighbor’s voice: “Who’s Granddaddy’s wittle gull? Are you Paw Paw’s wittle baby gull?

I hear them laugh.

I lean my head backward and close my eyes. I could listen to their happy cadence all night. Nobody is talking about a virus, national death tolls,…

“Buy you a beer?” said the elderly man at the restaurant bar beside me.

I was waiting on takeout food, and he was enjoying a frosty mug. We both wore surgical masks. He sat five feet away. One side of his face was scarred from some kind of serious burn. His skin was marbled and smooth, the color of a pink crayon.

Me? You wanna buy ME a beer?

“Yeah, you. I’ve read a few of your columns. Let me buy you a beer. That way we can talk.”

Okay, sure. Thank you.

“Don’t mention it. What’ll you have?”

Anything cold.

The bartender served me a tall glass and we touched our rims. The man’s hands were scarred, and underneath his burns was a face that looked happy.

“I got a bone to pick with you,” he said.

With me? Okay, why not? It’s your paycheck in my glass.

“You wrote once in your column that you loved everybody. Well, I wanna know if it’s B.S. You can’t love everyone, can you? Do you remember writing that?”

Yes, I recall writing that.

“So

you mean to tell me you love crooked businessmen who destroy the earth and strip this world of everything good? You mean to say that you love history’s evil armies who invaded countries and killed others for no reason but lust for power?”

Well, uh, I guess I never...

“How about racists? People who, even though they have no reason to hate or degrade others, hate and degrade others? You love them? Or were you just writing words?”

I, uh…

“And what about ruthless dictators who murdered millions of men, women, and children simply because of their nationality or creed? Or how about murderers who kill families during home invasions? What about wife beaters? Politicians? People who hum obsessively?”

Well, you see, sir, I was just…

“How about the guy who breaks into your car and steals…