It was a cardboard box in my garage. It was marked, “Sean’s Stuff.” That was it. Two words. It’s been sitting in my garage since the construction of the pyramids.

My garage looks like the aftermath of an atomic explosion. There are boxes everywhere, along with wounded furniture, elderly lawn mowers, arthritic hand tools, dead tennis rackets, and an asthmatic GE refrigerator.

I don’t even remember what I was looking for when I found this box. There were spiders inside. I am a well-noted spider hater. I released the spiders outdoors instead of killing them because it just didn’t seem sportsmanlike.

Also inside the box was an old deck of cards, comic books, a baseball cap, and an empty Schweppes ginger ale bottle. Then I found it. My old teddy bear.

He was a good bear. Actually, he was my best friend once. It is a natural thing for boys to call stuffed animals close friends. I have even met grown men who admitted to almost making a teddy bear the best

man at their wedding. Don’t force me to start naming names.

My bear was named Teddy just like every kid’s bear probably was. I should have named him something original like “Herman,” but there was a factory tag on his butt that read “Teddy.” So who was I to change it? A man is entitled to keep his name.

When I was a child, I remember one time I was sick with the flu, and I held onto this bear for dear life.

Late that night my father told me the story of how the American teddy bear got its name. At the time, I was borderline delirious. Hot. Sweaty. Out of it.

My father suggested that I drink ginger ale to calm my stomach. This was his answer for any ailment. To my father, if it couldn’t be fixed with castor oil, Mentholatum, or ginger ale, you…

WINFIELD—If you’re just passing through, you might not even notice this tiny Alabamian town. But the people here are great.

I once had a friend from Winfield. Every time we saw each other he gave me a gift, without fail. I once asked why he did this.

He shrugged and said, “‘Cause that’s just how people from Winfield are.”

Which isn’t hard to believe. The town is roughly twenty-five miles from the Mississippi line, and about as wide as it is high. Let’s just say that if you took the population of Winfield and crammed them into a football stadium, you’d fill up one row. Maybe two.

The downtown is nice and maintained. You could pitch a baseball from one end to the other.

A few months ago, Winfield celebrated Mule Day Festival, an annual tradition. A mass of jack Mules parade up the streets towing wagons, getting showered with affection.

The festival started as a downhome parade. Today, it draws nearly 25,000 people from across the southeast who come to honor the American Mule.

“Mule Day’s great,” says

one old man. “Lotta people forget, but our nation was built by a lotta purebred jackasses.”

He laughs at this. Because like my pal once said, that’s just how people in Winfield are.

Well, yesterday afternoon the good people of Winfield were lining the quiet streets. They had gathered to see a different kind of parade. Some held banners or balloons. Others were bundled to fight the chill. Everyone was there.

They were waiting for Wyatt.

Wyatt Spann is four years old. Last year, he was your typical toddler. He loved dinosaurs, cartoons, and especially trucks. Then he took ill. When he wouldn’t quit vomiting his parents took him to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.

His mother said, “We thought he had a stomach virus that had been going around.”

That’s what doctors thought too. But the blood work came back normal.…

I hope this doesn’t come across wrong. Yesterday I hung out with college kids, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve had more fun eating raw papier mâché. Which I actually did once when I was nineteen.

I was expecting to have a wild and crazy time since these were, after all, nineteen-year-olds. It was anything but fun. It was sleep inducing.

Don’t get me wrong, these sophomores were great kids. Well-behaved, good grades, nice-looking, polite. It's just that they were too busy thumb-typing on smartphones to notice me.

We were at the mall because my wife and everyone’s parents were seeing a movie together. It was a romance movie and I didn’t want to go. Mostly because “romance movies” are rarely about real romance. They are usually about two people who yearn for three hours then kiss right before the credits.

That’s not romance. Ask any married guy. Romance is when a man, acting of his own free will, picks up his dirty laundry from the bedroom floor and places it into a hamper without

being asked. When a man does this he is transformed from a North American sasquatch into George Clooney.

So the college kids and I were wandering around a shopping complex. But nobody was talking. Which brings me to my main point (and I promise I will be sensitive when I say this since teenagers might actually read it):

Get. Off. Your. Phones.

Don’t even finish reading this stupid column. You’re not missing anything worthwhile, I promise. Just put the phone down and go find some papier mâché.

Of course I have no room to judge. Who am I to point the finger? Nobody, that’s who. My parents used to warn me that TV would turn my brain into slush, but did I listen? No. An jus lookit me noww.

But when I was in this crowded mall, I noticed almost everyone beneath age ninety-seven was…

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…