I am sitting on the porch, eating a bowl of Cheerios, trying to think of something to write about. Almost every morning I combat writer’s block with a bowl of Cheerios.

Cheerios are a proven cure for writer’s block. I know this because when we used to take multiple-choice tests in grade school, our teachers always told us to eat a healthy breakfast beforehand so we could focus.

And it must’ve worked. Because most of my classmates ate Cheerios and made great scores. Sadly, I ate Captain Crunch and i wuz held bak a cuple grades.

But somewhere along the way I switched to eating Cheerios during boyhood, and my grammar immediately became a lot more gooder.

The truth is, eating Cheerios is one of the few boyhood habits I still engage in on a daily basis aside from taking Flintstone vitamins and cleaning my nostrils manually.

I love Cheerios. I’m crazy about them. I don’t need fancy flavors like honey-nut, cinnamon-sprinkled, yogurt-covered, or coconut-toasted. Just give me the classical yellow box and a

jug of two-percent and I’m good to go.

I’m sure you’ve already heard, but Cheerios turned 80 this year. And while the birthday of a famous General Mills breakfast cereal might not strike you as a big deal, it is to me. And there’s a very important reason why: Because I needed a topic to write about this morning.

Think about it. How many old-world American brands are still around? How many products from the golden days of your youth are still on the store shelves?

Each year we lose another iconic institution that made our childhoods special: Chiclets, Slo Pokes, Woolworths, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, General Foods, Billy Beer, etc. Those things are gone now.

The world changes so fast that it’s impossible to keep up. Each morning you awake only to discover that a new Olive-Garden-Old-Navy shopping complex has popped up in your backyard. American nostalgia…

It’s early evening. The sun is setting over Birmingham. My wife and I are out for dinner at a nice restaurant, which is a rarity. I am wearing a sport coat.

Even bigger rarity.

It’s been a long time since we’ve gone out for dinner. Too long. This is because my wife has been my mother-in-law’s primary caregiver for the last few years. And in the months leading up to the end of her mother’s life, we didn’t get many opportunities to paint the town.

No, when you’re a caregiver you pretty much say goodbye to a personal life. You bid farewell to fancy restaurants and movie dates. Instead, you end up eating a lot of leftover meatloaf on the sofa while watching HGTV with your mother-in-law who often shouts, “This meatloaf needs salt!”

But tonight, here we are in the big city. And it’s nice. Actually, it’s better than nice. Tonight, I actually remember what it feels like to be human. Which is a sensation easily forgotten among caregivers.

We are sitting at an outside table, enjoying the

autumn weather when a Chevy Suburban pulls to the curb. A middle-aged guy with salt-and-pepper hair hops out of the driver’s seat and trots around the vehicle to open the rear hatch.

He unloads two large wheelchairs, one walker, and an oxygen canister on wheels. He parks the chairs on the sidewalk, then positions the roller-walker beside the corral of equipment. It looks like he’s about to stage a geriatric chorus line.

“Hold on, Mama,” the man shouts back to the car. “I’m coming for ya.”

Next, the man places women’s purses into each wheelchair. A large knit bag sits on one chair, a Burberry plaid handbag sits in the other chair.

My wife and I exchange looks. We’re both thinking the same thing. My mother-in-law used to have a plaid handbag.

It’s the little things.

Next, the man throws open…

Jackson, Georgia. Just off I-75. A tiny chapel sits in the middle of a truck stop parking lot. The house of worship is actually just an semi-trailer parked outside the filling-station-slash-IHOP, welcoming all sinners, seekers, and pancake aficionados.

Just look for the bright neon cross perched atop the trailer, lit up in the darkness. You can’t miss it.

Tacked to the chapel door was a sign which read: “Open.” So I stepped inside.

Sixteen chairs faced a pinewood pulpit. The walls were the same cheap wood paneling everyone’s family used to have in 1970s. The place was, more or less, your run-of-the-mill church.

As soon as I entered I was immediately greeted by a welcome table bearing the accoutrements associated with twentieth-century evangelism—donation envelopes, newsletters, brochures, donation envelopes, gospel tracts, prayer hotline numbers, donation envelopes, free crucifixes, and of course, in case you missed them, donation envelopes.

I visited this small trailer today because I am a columnist, and columnists must visit places like this. Otherwise, columnists end up writing multiple boring columns about their dogs.

Which I would never do.

In the chapel, sitting up front, were two men. Heads bowed. Eyes closed. I’m guessing they were truck drivers.

One man was large, wearing a sleeveless shirt. The other had heavily muscled arms that were painted in multi-colored tattoos, and he wore a beard that looked like it belonged on an Oakridge Boys album cover.

I quietly made my way to the back row and had a seat.

One of the men opened his eyes when he heard my footsteps and made eye contact with me. Then he closed his eyes and resumed whatever he was doing. Praying, I guess.

Truthfully, I’ve never known exactly what prayer is. Oh, I’ve heard all the definitions. But for some reason, I’ve always felt that prayer is one of those things that I gravely misunderstand.

I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition…

Dearest Jamie,

I’m going to be honest with you. In our two decades of marriage, I have never known exactly what our roles are. It’s never been clear to me. I’ve always been confused about hierarchy in our household.

See, when I was a kid I was led to believe that males were supposed to “wear the pants” of the family. But that’s not you and me.

I became acutely aware of this about ten minutes into our marriage when you signed all the checks, paying the wedding florists, photographers, and caterers. Then you wrote a check to me.

I asked what my check was for.

You replied, “It’s your monthly allowance.”

I quickly realized that I would not be wearing the proverbial pants. In fact, I would be wearing the proverbial cutoff jean shorts, like the shorts my cousin Beverly wears when she wants attention.

And I’m okay with that.

Because the truth is, you’re stronger than I am. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. It’s just a fact.

Used to, it made me feel like less

of a man to know that my wife was made of tougher mettle than I was. But not anymore. No, these days I’m just proud to be married to such a sturdy person.

And you are sturdy. That’s why you’re the one who does the important stuff in our life. You do the planning, the organizing, the deep thinking, the bill-paying, the technical troubleshooting.

You are the one who keeps our world going. Without you, it’s a mess.

Which is why after you went to Canada for your friend’s wedding, the day you returned home, the fire department was parked in our front lawn. Sirens flashing. The fireman informed you that it was the third time they’d visited our house in the last week. He also took away my deep-fryer.

Also, you are a powerful woman. Not just psychologically,…

It was the fourth game of the World Series, Braves against the Yanks. I was fifteen, chubby, and redheaded. I was out for my nightly walk, sweating, and breathing heavily beneath the rigors of exercise.

Chubby boys and exercise mix about as well as milk and Mountain Dew.

It was late October. People on nearby porches watched me pass by—like they did every evening—waving hello to the chunky kid doing cardio.

“Hey, Critter,” said Jermaine, who was sitting on the porch with his father, watching the game on a portable television.

Jermaine was my age. His old man played piano at their church. His family called me “Critter” sometimes. I don’t know why.

I waved back. “Hey, Jermaine.”

“You wanna watch the game with us, Critter?” his father asked.

I removed the Sony transistor radio from the pocket of my Husky jeans and waved it. “No thanks, I’m listening to it now.”

He smiled.

And I kept walking.

I passed the porch of Mrs. Renteria, the old woman who prepared hundreds of tamales in her kitchen and carried them to local construction job

sites in Igloo coolers, selling them for a dollar a pop. She was raising two granddaughters and a grandson with those tamales. I once ate nineteen in one sitting.

Nineteen.

“How about those Braves?” said Mrs. Renteria.

“Vamos, Bravos!” I said, just like she’d taught me.

This brought a grin to the Mexican woman’s antique face.

I passed Mister Alverado’s house. He was in a wheelchair from an accident at a factory. He was listening to the game on a boombox. Mister Alverado raised his Coors as I passed by.

“Them Yank pitchers are killing us,” he shouted. “We need to get this offense going.”

We briefly discussed our mutual hatred for the Bronx Bombers.

And I walked onward.

I went for a lot of walks back then. Because, you see, the doctor told me I was…

Savannah is a cool town. The farmer’s market is thumping this morning in Forsyth Park. There are food wagons, peanut vendors, farmers, growers, butchers, artists, buskers, hipsters, and tourists crawling all over, hawking their wares.

This little market is located within the heart of the oldest planned city in the U.S., beneath the canopies of mossy oaks, and you can feel that heart beating today.

There are lots of families here. There are children running around with ice-cream smears on their cheeks. There are sleep-deprived parents, sipping coffee from paper cups, pushing strollers that are the size of Honda Civics. There are golden retrievers wearing Atlanta Braves jerseys. There are Midwesterner tourists clad in T-shirts which read: “I’m Not Being Rude, I’m From Minnesota.”

I meet an old man who sits on a bench, braiding a crucifix from a palmetto frond, humming to himself.

“Yo, dude,” he says as I walk by. “Here you go.”

He presents me with the crucifix.

And since this isn’t my first visit to Savannah, I reach into my wallet and give the man a twenty.

“Thanks,

dog,” he says, fumbling a cigarette into the corner of his lip. “You got a light?”

“Nope, sorry.”

He smiles and shrugs. “Don’t apologize, dude. Don’t ever apologize for things you can’t control.”

Philosophy lessons are free here in Savannah.

Savannah is one of my favorite cities. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve been to New York City; it gave me panic attacks. I’ve been to Philly, Newark, D.C., Vegas, L.A., and once I almost died of hypothermia in Chicago while waiting for the El train. You can keep your major cities.

I prefer Savannah. Maybe what I love is the history, or maybe it’s the way the sunlight hits the cobblestones. Or perhaps it’s that everyone here always seems like they’re in a great mood. I don’t know.

Either way, this is the town that birthed American hospitality.…

I was a kid. We were staying in my aunt’s upstairs bedroom in Atlanta, trying to make sense of our world after my father died. Daily life was getting tense because we lived in a household of many females.

It’s never a good idea to have several strong-minded women crammed into the same tiny house. It’s a recipe for an estrogen apocalypse.

My mother decided we needed a break from the family dramatics. We needed a break from grief. We needed to temporarily forget my father, the man who ended his life and dragged the memory of our family into the grave with him. What we needed was to feel normal.

Just for seven days.

So she rented a cottage at Tybee Island—about four hours southeast of Atlanta. The irony was, we were not beach people. I don’t know what kind of people we were, but we definitely weren’t the beachgoing type. I wasn’t the sort of kid you wanted to see clad in a bathing suit. I was chubby, pale, and built like

the spokesperson for Pilsbury.

But when we arrived at Tybee, that all changed. We crossed the bridge arching into the little beach town, cruising at forty-five, and I felt my stomach tingle and my heart opened like a butterfly.

We stopped at a seafood shack for lunch and ordered grouper sandwiches. When the waitress placed the food onto the table before us, she had a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth and said, “This fish ain’t real grouper. The chef is a [cussword] liar. It’s tilapia.”

So we were off to a great start.

Our cottage was charming, and the city of Tybee Island was postcard pretty. We bought groceries at the IGA, we developed sunburns at the beach, we climbed the lighthouse tower, we ate ice cream until our pancreases begged for mercy.

One morning, I awoke to find my mother having coffee…

DEAR SEAN:

How do you go about writing one of your stories? What is your process like?

Love,
TWENTY-FOUR-AND-WANT-TO-WRITE

DEAR TWENTY-FOUR:

There are many people who can tell you more about the writing process than I can. But I’ll tell you how I do it.

The first thing to know is that writing requires brain power. And studies tell us that the human body gets its strongest surge at 5 A.M. This surge typically lasts until 5:03 A.M. Unfortunately, I am asleep during the surge and I am wholly unaware of it.

So I generally wake up exhausted at about 7:30 A.M. Then, I complain about how badly I slept the night before. When you get older, you don’t sleep as good as you used to.

My mother used to warn me about this. I would laugh at her and say “Ha ha! No way, I’ll sleep great forever! And I will always be able to eat acidic foods after six o’clock, too!”

No.

You quit sleeping well around your thirties. And food? Once upon a

time, I could eat an extra-large five-alarm beef burrito and finish the day like a caffeinated squirrel. Nowadays, if I eat one French fry I have to take a four-hour nap.

So anyway, after morning coffee, I wait for my mood to improve. I am not a morning person and never have been. My happy mood in the morning is always fake.

This is because when I was a boy I used to wake up with a bad attitude. My father took me aside once and said, “You'd better learn how to fake a good mood, or your mother’s not gonna make pancakes anymore.”

I’ve been faking good moods ever since.

When my caffeine takes effect, I go to my office. In my office, I have just about everything a writer needs to have around him. I have things like toddler toys, Superman…

Morningtime. I am bound for Savannah, riding in our little white utility van. My wife is driving, and I am in the passenger seat writing to you.

We are flying past farmland and cattle, occasionally stopping at side-of-the-road veggie stands, or filling stations, trotting inside to conduct a thorough inspection of the commodes.

On top our dashboard sits a stack of classic country CDs, teetering like a famous tower in Pisa. There are maybe forty separate albums from the golden days of Nashville twang and fringe. Everything from Ernest, to Acuff, to Loretta, to Willie. The old highway hums beneath my tires as Tammy Wynette reminds her listeners to stand by their male counterparts.

Funny. These CDs used to belong to my mother-in-law. They were her prized album collection. After she passed a few months ago, we were sorting through her belongings when I came across all her beloved LPs, forty-fives, cassettes, eight-tracks, and CDs. Nobody wanted them so I confiscated the lot. She would have wanted it this way. We shared

an impeccable taste in music.

Anyway, this morning it’s almost hard to believe that my wife and I are on the road again. We used to go on the road all the time. We used to live on these old highways.

Such is the life of a hack writer.

People are always asking you to speak at events after you write a few books. Usually, it’s Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis meetings, church groups, or the chair yoga class senior at the citizen’s center.

We did it all. No speaking gig was off-limits. No journey was too far. My wife and I visited almost every state in the Union in our little secondhand Labcorp van. We’d wake up in some no-name Montgomery hotel, eat a meager breakfast of Pop Tarts, whereupon I’d deliver a speech in a conference room to a bunch of people playing on phones.

After which, we’d…

They are holding hands. I like it when young couples hold hands. I don’t see many kids do this very often anymore.

They are sitting on the same side of the booth. I like it when they do that, too.

This is why I loved the bench seats in old cars and trucks. God bless the bench seat. It’s extinct now. But before automobiles lost these long seats, young men and women would sit close when driving. They would love up against each other.

If ever my mother spotted a truck window in traffic with two heads leaning close, she would remark, “Aw, look. That girl’s holding him up so he can drive. Ain’t that sweet?”

It sure is. For a boy, there is nothing sweeter than the feeling of driving a truck with a pretty head resting on your shoulder.

The couple in the booth is somewhat of a rarity. They are not holding cellphones, they aren't texting. They are saying things in soft voices. And it’s great.

I came here this morning for breakfast, I brought

a newspaper with me. But I can't seem to read it. Not when I am people-watching in a classic American scene.

I flick open the newsprint. I watch the couple from the corner of my vision.

They talk to each other. She is your typical teenager—happy and rosy-cheeked. He is your basic high-school boy. Skinny, a little awkward, a touch of Norman Rockwell to him.

The waitress refills my coffee. I am grateful for hot joe this morning. I didn’t sleep well last night. The folks in the hotel room above me were having a jump rope competition that ran until the wee hours.

“Anything good in that paper?” the waitress asks, nodding to the front page.

“Not today.”

“Yeah, I can't read the news anymore, it’s too depressing, makes me sad.”

She's right. The newspaper is just one disaster after another…