I was not a good grade school student. It was hard for me to follow a classroom lesson. I was always distracted and lost in my own world. My teachers didn’t “get” me.

Thus, whenever I was called upon to answer serious questions in class, I would suffer a minor brain seizure then announce clearly that I had to go pee.

“Slow” was the word they used on kids like us. If you weren’t sharp, you were slow. Which meant you were, more or less, as bright as a box of mud. I once overheard a teacher tell another teacher I was slow. She meant no harm. Which only made it worse.

But it didn’t matter. Once this word is attached to you it’s all over. After this, all you want in life is to feel un-stupid. You would do almost anything to prove that you are un-stupid.

Don’t misunderstand me, all my teachers weren’t like this. One of my school teachers actually understood me. She came up with an idea to help me learn.

I came to school one morning and my desk was outfitted with crayons and paper.

She said, “I want you to color pictures during my lesson. I don’t want you looking at me, and I DEFINITELY don’t want you paying attention.”

This felt like a trick. But I followed her advice. And when her lesson finished, she called me to her desk to ask questions related to her lesson.

To my own amazement I COULD ANSWER HER QUESTIONS! I had somehow paid attention to every word she said while coloring.

It was a miracle. I was pronounced to be un-stupid. I made perfect grades all year.

But it was short lived. By fifth grade, I was back to being a mouth breather again. I had a teacher who didn’t like me. She ended up putting me in the remedial class with a few other kids.…

Joy. That’s what it was. Pure joy. If you’ve never seen a newborn panda, you’re going to want to pause right here and look at some internet pictures. That way you’ll understand the level of cuteness we’re talking about.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? Wasn’t that precious? Weren’t you just overloaded with nuclear cuteness?

Baby pandas are nothing but hundred-proof happiness. They are born blind, pink, fragile, and very uncoordinated.

And if you were to look at these panda internet pictures with my wife, chances are she would have elbowed you in the ribs and declared, “We’re adopting a panda.”

My wife cannot look at internet animal pictures without announcing plans to adopt. Even though we share our house with two dogs that resemble Anheuser Busch draft horses, lately she has threatened to adopt a pig, a three-legged goat, a baby badger, an elderly ferret, an albino squirrel, and a blind Burmese python.

It will be a cold day in purgatory before a python enters this house.

The Smithsonian National Zoo’s baby panda is still unnamed, but he is a

cute little guy. And now the zoo’s panda team has obtained genetic proof that the cub actually IS a guy—it’s not easy to tell the gender of a panda who is about the size of a stick of butter.

Anyway, I first learned about the panda pregnancy from my friend Jon, who has three daughters that are all completely obsessed with the panda.

“Yeah,” Jon remarks, “we don’t go a day at my house without panda videos.” Jon says this with no emotion in his voice.

So it wasn’t long before I was tuning in to the Panda-cam. Each morning, I would awake, open my laptop, and check on the live feed showing the pregnant panda, Mei Xiang.

The panda team at the zoo placed cameras in Mei’s pen for a 24-hour Panda Fest. At first, the team wasn’t sure…

JANE—Thank you for your column about prayer shawls. I also wanted to tell you that I started knitting scarves, blankets, and shawls in 2009 for friends who were battling cancer. I live in Virginia and my first was for a woman at my job who was diagnosed with breast cancer, it took me a week.

I told her that it was made from all my prayers and tears and we became very close and I thought I’d tell you that the prayer shawls do work wonders for people who need that. For anyone who wants to knit them, there are pattern books out there with nice designs. Thanks, Sean.

LAURIE—Hey! I want to knit these shawls for people! How do I get started!?

BARB—Is membership to the knitting club open? Do you have patterns?

GINGER—We Baptists are busy making shawls and hats, too. With the onset of COVID-19 and little to do except knit I have made and donated 85 hats for this winter. Forty went to our Mission for the homeless,

and 45 went to our veterans home. Last year I only made 40 total. This year I had a lot more spare time. Thank you so much.

SANDIE—I was the recipient of a prayer shawl when I contracted an autoimmune disorder that my doctors could not figure out. My shawl was given to me by friends from Saint Michael Catholic Church who told me their whole church group prayed for me.

My autoimmune problem eventually lessened into a non-existent issue and is still considered to my doctors as a mystery.

Please don’t mistakenly think this is a miracle blanket, it’s so much more than that.

MARTINA—My mom knit me one for when I was at the hospital with my 9-year-old son. He had a brain tumor. We used the shawl to keep him warm because those hospitals get so cold at night in many more ways than one.

She’s every Methodist woman you grew up with. She is elderly, but still cooks.

She can turn anything into a casserole or a deep-fried surprise. Hand her an old softball and, with enough peanut oil and flour, she’ll make supper. She makes a killer pound cake. Her chicken and dumplings is off the chain.

And she knits. A lot.

She knits prayer shawls for anyone undergoing medical treatment or suffering disaster. Sometimes the shawls are given anonymously. Other times at special occasions. Wrap one around yourself and you will instantly smell like her living room.

She is one of an army. There are millions like her. From Sasketchwan to Birmingham. From Beijing to Texarkana. These women live under the radar. They rarely talk about their artwork because their creations are not earthly objects. And these are not proud women.

Their prayer shawls are not for sale. They are reserved for oncology units, emergency rooms, intensive care, and funeral parlors.

Visit any pediatric cancer ward. Peek into rooms and you’ll see these prayer shawls.

They’re draped over beds, wrapped around young shoulders, laid upon the deceased, or used to mop the tears of the grieving.

They are used for comfort, assurance, bereavement, stress, fear, clinical depression, marriages, birthdays, suicides, chemotherapy, baby showers, adoptions, reunions, death row inmates, dedications, homegoings, homecomings, hospice care, graduations, COVID-19 victims, and broken hearts.

The whole thing started with two ladies from Hartford, Connecticut. Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo started knitting special shawls for friends and family 22 years ago. Almost overnight their idea spread like a brushfire on the plains.

The creation process is straightforward: a shawl maker begins knitting while simultaneously praying. The craftswoman whispers her prayers the whole way through, with each movement of her needles.

The shawls take about 20 hours to make. Which is roughly 1,200 minutes’ worth of Granny’s sincerest prayers.

And not just old women make them. Prayer shawls come…

Andy Griffith. He would definitely be near the top of my list. I can’t think of many things better than Andy and Barney.

Next would be barbecue. In fact, it’s a toss up between Andy and barbecue.

Some of the best pulled pork I’ve ever had was at Tin Top Barbecue Restaurant, in Columbiana, Alabama. If you ever visit, tell them Sean sent you. They will look at you funny and say, “Who in the Sam Hill is Sean?”

Also, I love pictures of my friends. I recently had a picture taken with a buddy. When I saw the photo, I noticed how old I look. And it was a bittersweet feeling. It was a feeling that, perhaps, I need to cut back on carbs.

Laughter from a child. Especially a child who considers you to be their favorite non-parental adult.

Cowboy hats. I love them. As a child, I admired cowboys so much that I started collecting cattleman hats. My wife says I own WAY too many, and is threatening to have a neighborhood bonfire.

Good T-shirts. They’re hard to find. I don’t want slogans printed on them, or brand names. I just want a plain color, loose collar, and I need it to be soft. Maybe a few peanut butter stains on the chest.

Dogs who sleep all day. I love lazy dogs. In fact, you could say that I aspire to be one.

Typewriters, fresh newspapers, the sounds of lawnmowers in the distance, Hank Aaron, Shirley Jones singing “Goodnight My Someone,” John Wayne, and black-and-white photographs.

Garlic, cooking in a skillet. Homegrown heirloom tomatoes. Conecuh Quickfreeze sausage. The fuzzy storyboards from Sunday school class.

A good book. One that’s written by someone who isn’t trying to impress you with five-dollar words.

The color yellow.

Lamps with shades. I am serious about that. I cannot stand harsh overhead lighting. It makes me uneasy. I cannot think of a…

I just want to say that Michelle is very incredible. Publicly. I don’t know her, I’ve never met her. But she’s had quite a hard year and she deserves a little noticing.

After her parents’ divorce, Michelle’s dad decided to move out of state, she hasn’t heard from him in nine months. He won’t take her calls. Her brother left for college. And her mother got a new full-time job with a long daily commute. Michelle is lonely and having some major confidence issues this year.

Oh, and today is her 14th birthday.

So if you are reading this, Michelle, I want you to stop thinking about crummy stuff for a few minutes. And think about how indubitably awesome you are. I mean it.

Quit reading. Take a few seconds. And think about the Miracle that is You.

Now I realize that we are basically strangers. All I am is text on the screen. And you probably don’t think you’re miraculous. But here’s the thing: you are.

For one thing, you’re reading these pixels, and they are actually making sense to your ridiculously

advanced mammal brain.

You’ve probably never considered what’s involved in the simple act of reading. Truthfully, I never have, either. Not until I wrote this column.

Before I sat down to type the following paragraphs I did some research on the anatomy of the human eyeball. And all I can say is, whoa, it really opened up my aqueous humors.

Here’s what I found out:

While you’re reading these words, the lens of your eyeball is focusing and refocusing like a high-tech camera. It’s filtering lightwaves through your vitreous humor—a clear jelly substance in the back of your eyeball.

THEN, your retina transforms this image into tiny electrical impulses which are carried by the optic nerve to the brain.

But wait. There’s more.

All these alphabetic symbols and pixels that I’m writing have no real meaning. Not…

I am taking my dog for a walk among the thick longleaf pines of the West Floridian woods. I am on a trail that cuts across marshland, swampland, farmland, grassland, and every other kind of land.

Autumn is in its infancy in the Sunshine State. The air is cool. And I just read in the newspaper that there have been 712,000 cases of COVID-19 within our boundaries. Not to mention all the damage from Hurricane Sally.

Oh, it’s been quite a year.

I am here because I needed to see some trees. I needed a pine-scented breeze. I needed this.

The Florida woods are not like other places. You don’t get a sense of how big they are when you’re in them. You can only feel their immense size. It’s disorienting. Your phone loses reception, so you have no GPS to gauge your mileage. And even if you did, who cares?

You don’t come out here to play on phones.

The woods are a cathedral. These trees do something to you. They remind you that

this world isn’t exactly what we think it is.

You leave your house and immediately you’re within the Age of Concrete. You see only what highway engineers want you to see. Overpasses, big box hardware stores, flashing lights, signage, and here comes another strip mall. Goodness knows how much we love our strip malls.

But that’s not the world. That’s not life. It’s only one tiny part.

America is one third forest. There are the boreal forests in Alaska, the tropical forests of Hawaii, the majestic old growths of Appalachia. Maine is 89 percent forest, West Virginia is 78 percent forest. My home state is over 50 percent forest.

I have a friend who once hiked the entire Florida Trail, which cuts 1,000 miles of old forest from Big Cypress National Reserve to Fort Pickens.

I’ve also hiked and camped small parts of the Florida…

DEAR SEAN:

My life is coming apart, I’m depressed and I’ve been this way since this dumb pandemic started. I want to be happy, for my son who is 4 and needs me, but I can’t pull myself out of it, I just don’t know. I just had to tell someone and you seem like a nice person.

Sincerely,
NURSING-STUDENT-IN-SAN-DIEGO

DEAR SAN DIEGO:

Right now, the sun is blazing, the air is crisp. I’m listening to the Carter family sing “Keep On the Sunny Side,” circa 1926, on a Zenith turntable. My aunt sent me these old records.

I don’t know if you like old songs on scratchy vinyl, but this is a good tune.

“Keep on the sunny side,
“Always on the sunny side,
“Keep on the sunny side of life…”

It just so happens that there is a lot of science to back up this sunshine business.

Earlier this summer my Aunt Eulah mailed me several Carter family records and a book when she heard I’d been mildly depressed. I was in the

dumps because of something going on in my life which I will, for the purposes of privacy, refer to as an Unprecedented Global Pandemic Involving Every Single Human Being Alive.

My aunt’s old Carter family records were great. The book, not so much.

The book is a glorified science textbook. And I am not a science guy. Actually—and I mean no disrespect to Aunt Eulah—this book was about as fun to read as getting electrocuted by a kitchen appliance.

The book was all about the human brain. One of its main points was that being depressed is not caused by one specific event in life, nor by one specific system in the brain. Depression is caused by a traffic jam of things happening at once.

I don’t want to bore you, but imagine your brain is a map showing each U.S. airport.…

MURRAY, Utah.—John works at a Nissan dealership in the service department. A customer called and said they had a big problem.

John explains, “I took a call from a very distraught lady this morning, stating their new kitten had gotten stuck behind the dash in their car.”

So, drawing upon his years of automotive customer service insight, John suggested that the woman “Bring it in.”

In the garage, three technicians began disassembling her dashboard with tools and flashlights. Which is not an easy job. They removed the stereo, the glovebox, and components of the AC unit. Finally, after a lot of work, one of the guys announced, “We have a tail!”

Applause.

Technicians shined lights into the deep crevices of the vehicle until one man rolled his sleeves up and said, “Okay. I’m going in.”

And anyone who has ever retrieved a sharp-clawed domesticated creature from a tight space such as, say, a set of box springs at your in-laws’ house, knows what an ordeal it is.

Imagine, several burly auto mechanics who often eat undercooked

red meat for supper and wash it down with Anheuser Busch products, trying to coax a kitty out of hiding. The men used very high-pitched baby voices and said things like, “Come here, cutie wootie. C’mon, you can do it. Come on, cutie wootie.”

Finally, a gray kitten emerged and an entire auto garage cheered. One of the mechanics even held the cat to his face and kissed her, saying, quote:

“She’s such a cutie wootie. Yes she is. Yes she is.”

Afterward, the large men had their pictures taken with the kitten.

John reports, “In my job, you never know what can happen.”

VICTORIA, Au.—Three brothers in Australia won the lottery yesterday. They’ve been playing the same numbers faithfully for 40 years.

It takes a lot of determination to play a game of chance for that long. Especially one that has left you…

I got a letter from a boy named Jason, in Albuquerque, who asked if I think he should adopt a puppy. He’s got his eye on a border collie mix from a shelter. Jason wants to name this dog Teddy. Or possibly Frank.

First off, Jason, thank you for the message. Fuzzy puppies are exactly what I need to be thinking about tonight. I’m grateful you brought up the subject. The world is an ever-loving mess right now, and canines are good medicine.

So to give you the short answer in case you’re pressed for time: Yes. Get the puppy.

Now here’s a longer answer:

A puppy is not a puppy. A puppy is a baby. A real, living, breathing, delicate infant. True, it’s a dog-baby, but it’s still a baby. This baby requires your whole heart. Not just half.

Now before you nod your head and agree with me, I want you to think about this for a second. You’re a 13-year-old kid. Are you ready to raise a real baby?

Having an infant in the house is not easy. Ask any saggy-eyed parent of a newborn. Being a parent is a full-time, round-the-clock, lifetime gig. You do not get time off. There is going to be a lot of pee involved.

Border collies can live 17 years. This means you could be a dog daddy until you are 30 years old. By then you might be married and have a big fat adjustable-rate mortgage.

If you decide you are ready, are you prepared to say goodbye to things like free time, peace and quiet, and regular sleep?

Because your dog will sleep on your bed. Always. End of story. There is nothing you can do to stop a dog from claiming your bed. All night he will constantly be readjusting himself, engaging in acts of personal hygiene, keeping you awake, and nudging you off your mattress. And if…