Lessons from my blind rescue dog.

—Wherever you are, find the dog-people.

—The only things in life that matter are people and food. Although not necessarily in that order.

—You learn everything you need to know about a person by the way they talk to you.

—When you are blind, friends are very important. If you hang around the wrong ones, you’ll get lost.

—Food tastes SO good.

—But not broccoli.

—If you do enough of the things that scare you, you won’t be scared of those things anymore.

—Out of all the animals on the earth, humans are the only ones who can be cruel.

—Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you will end up peeing in the house. So just remember, if you DO pee indoors, try not to walk through your own puddle.

—There is no such thing as a little triumph.

—Being afraid is okay. Everyone gets afraid. But being afraid doesn’t have to slow you down. You can be afraid and be strong at the same time. In fact, sometimes the strongest creatures are also the most

afraid.

—If you DO, however, walk through your own ginormous puddle of pee, and your feet become wet with puppy urine, whatever you do, DON’T climb onto Dad’s bed with your pee-feet and put your paws on his pillow and root around like you are searching for exotic truffles.

—There is no value in celery.

—Or spinach.

—Life is far easier if you have a bad memory.

—Follow the voice of someone who loves you and you will be okay.

—The most valuable possession you own is your trust. But trust has a shelf life. So give it to someone fast or it will spoil.

—Children are always nice to blind dogs.

—People in hotels do not like it when you sniff their butts at the communal coffee machine.

—If someone loves you, they will prove it…

I was standing in line at a gas station in rural South Carolina. I had pulled over to use the bathroom, to buy a hot cup of mud, and God willing, to purchase chili cheese Fritos.

There were two kids in baseball uniforms, standing ahead of me in line. It was October.

Little League isn’t generally played in October, I was thinking. Maybe they were attending a baseball camp. Maybe it was just a practice?

They were your quintessential American boys. White pants, stained in red clay. Jerseys untucked. Hair, bleached by the sun. They smelled like little-boy sweat.

They reminded me of a thousand feckless summers I spent shagging fly balls. I was a chubby outfielder who wore Husky jeans. But in my heart, I was Dale Murphy.

When the two boys reached the cashier, the old woman called them by name and asked how they’re families were doing. And that’s when I noticed one of the boys was missing his left arm.

The boy used several contorted movements to place his items onto the counter without dropping them.

He was buying mostly candy. Resse’s.

Crunch bar. Skittles. Starburst. Gatorade—Frost-Glacier blue. The only thing missing was the Big League Chew.

Has our culture fallen so far that young ball players no longer appreciate Big League Chew? This columnist wants to know.

The woman behind the register just smiled at him. Her voice sounded like a pack of Newports.

“How’d you play today?” she said.

He shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”

“Are you in pain?”

“A little.”

He rotated his missing arm at the shoulder socket. “I’m still getting used to it.”

She nodded. “I’ll bet.”

“It’s hard.”

Another smile from the woman. “You’re doing great, sweetie. You’ll adjust. It’ll take time, but after a while it’ll be almost second nature. Look how far you’ve already come.”

She placed his candy into a small plastic bag. “You were out there trying,…

DEAR MISTER SEAN:

I'm having doubtful thoughts with everything going on. I'm confused and disappointed. I want to ask you a question. Is God real?

Sincerely,
CONFUSED-TEENAGE-GIRL

DEAR CONFUSED:

Hoo boy. Why couldn't you have asked me about my favorite brand of mayonnaise instead? I'm an expert in the field of egg-based dressings.

I am not, however, the guy to ask about God. I have few answers on such high-minded matters. I can't even figure out which eleven herbs and spices go into KFCs Original Recipe.

And believe me, I've tried.

Yeah, I know you're confused about the current state of our world. I am, too. There is a lot of uneasiness right now. There’s a lot of confusion in the air.

All I can say is, try not to worry about it. You don’t have to understand the mysteries of the universe. Nobody does. Mankind has been fussing like this since the dawn of Duke's mayonnaise.

Once, I saw a fight break out in an Alabama beer joint. I was young. The subject of high tension was:

God.

A loud-talking man claimed that God was nothing but barnyard fertilizer. It offended my friend, whose mother sang in the church choir. Thus, he challenged this man—who was six-times his size—to a fistfight.

Before we knew it, my buddy went down under the power. His cheeks were being polished by a man who was built like a GE appliance. A pocket-knife was pulled. And the night went to hell in a hurry.

On the ride home, we four black-and-blue teenagers discussed mysteries of the eternal, using our serious voices.

Finally, someone asked, "You think God's real?"

And I was the one who answered. I answered without thinking. And in a single sentence, 900 years’ worth of Bible-Belt heritage came out in me. I answered brashly.

I said, "You [cussword] right God’s real."

Even at this age, I regret that comment.…

She was young. She was slender. She was waiting tables at a little joint. The kind of cafe you’ve seen a hundred times before in every small town backwater from here to forever.

They served bathwater coffee. Shingle toast. Hamburgers fatty enough to cause aortic embolisms.

The waitress wore red shoes. Ballet flats. They were scuffed and faded leather. She always wore red shoes because they were her trademark. Ever since girlhood.

Growing up poor does something to a kid. Growing up during a Great Depression rewires the human brain. Whenever this girl had extra money, she bought shoes. And they were always flagrant red.

She was not yet 16. But she was like all the children in her generation, mature years before her time. She was tall and elegant. A young Katherine Hepburn comes to mind. Maybe Bacall. Her dark hair was pulled back so that her long neck showed. She looked like a queen among mortals. When she walked, every eye followed her.

There were several workmen sitting in a booth.

They were bad customers. They made her life miserable. They complained about their orders. They sent their food back to the kitchen multiple times.

She did her best to serve them with charm and grace, but she kept making mistakes. The restaurant owner was called. He took the cost of their meals out of her pay. He gave the girl a scolding in front of everyone.

And that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the disgruntled men in the booth tipped her one penny.

One.

She cried until her makeup ran. One penny was worse than getting spit at.

But this is life. You couldn’t stop working just because you got your feelings hurt. The workday must go on. This was a Great Depression. Money didn’t grow in the backyard. There were no such things as cigarette trees or big rock candy mountains.

One of…

Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Nashville. I’m here to visit a friend. She’s in Neurosurgery ICU.

Vandy is busy today. Cars everywhere. Traffic is insane. People in scrubs linger outside monstrous buildings, playing on phones. Doctors and medical staffers wander to and fro. People stand outside the towers, having emotional conversations on cellphones.

There are folks from all walks of life here. I see a young woman using a wheelchair, heading toward the hospital entrance. She is carrying a huge stack of comic books in her lap. Superman comics.

“That’s a lot of comic books,” I say.

“Yeah, they’re for my sister. She loves Superman.”

“Not many girls like Superman.”

“Who lied to you?” she says. “All girls like Superman.”

Together, we go into the main doors of the Cancer Research Building. It’s a revolving door. I hate revolving doors.

Centuries ago, I believe the inventor of the revolving door looked at an ordinary door and said, “What if I took a normal door and added severe anxiety to it?”

Soon, the young woman and I are walking through a long

corridor toward the Critical Care Tower. The walls are earth tones. The air smells like disinfectant and plastic.

The woman in the wheelchair tells me that her sister has a very serious injury. I tell her I’m sorry. The young woman tells me she believes God is bigger than injuries.

We move past people aplenty. We see down-and-outers. We see people caught within the purgatory that is the Modern Medical Waiting Room. We wander past medical personnel, weatherworn physicians, and nurses who just look tired.

We see visitors hurriedly heading for the front door to light a cigarette. We pass a man in a clerical collar. We see families who look like they’ve been crying.

We make it to the elevators.

The young woman with the comic books says, “I’ve been basically living at this hospital for two weeks.”

I…

I went to the mailbox today and found a package. Before I opened the parcel I already knew what was inside. And it brought my whole life back in a moment.

Sometimes, my memory can be foggy. But sometimes it can be remarkably clear. On rare occasions I can remember everything.

Like the first time I went to the fair. My old man took me to ride the carnival rides with my cousin. We paid our tokens. The glorious rides only lasted a blazing 90 seconds. They were so surprisingly short that you felt cheated at the end.

Or the way I once told Eleanor Nelson I liked her, by giving her a ceramic sculpture I made in art class. A figurine of two people paddling a boat.

“What’s this?” said Eleanor.

“It’s two people in a boat.”

“Is that supposed to be me?”

“Maybe.”

“I look like I fell into a bee’s nest.”

“You mean a hive.”

“Huh?”

“Technically, bees don’t have nests, they have hives.”

“You’re a dork, you know that?”

“I do.”

I remember my first taste of corn liquor—and I’m

not making this up. My friend's father let me take a sip at a Church of God barbecue. I was only visiting. The old man’s name was Mister Travis, but everyone called him Big T.

After one tiny sip, I knew why Big T always spoke in tongues at Little League games.

My wedding ring, I remember buying it. We went to the jewelry store to pick out rings. The man behind the counter had white hair and an accent that was pure Alabama. He greeted us with:

“Well look at this pair of lovin’ younguns.”

Now there’s a little gem of a phrase.

The honeymoon my wife and I took, I’ll always remember that. It was one for the books. I had never been to Charleston before, and I certainly never thought it was possible…

Sunrise in middle Tennessee. It was four in the morning. I left my hotel early to get on the road.

I had a long way to go. There was a light dusting of frost on the Smoky Mountains. I could see my breath.

I turned on the radio and found a station playing Hank Williams’ “Alabama Waltz.”

It was a candid recording from a radio show in the 40s. Hank gave an introduction to the tune. He says, “This is a song about my home state.”

I cranked up the volume, since Hank Senior was the soundtrack of my boyhood. Every male in my life idolized Hiram King Williams. For years, as a child, I thought Hank Williams was a Bible character who played guitar.

I found the hidden backroads and headed southward toward my home in Birmingham, Alabama.

If you ask me, the modest two-lane highways that lead through the Yellowhammer State are among the most scenic corridors in the nation.

I’m not saying this because I am biased. I’m saying this because I’ve driven

backroads in 42 different American states. Alabama is up there with the best.

The scenes were arresting.

North central Alabama’s swelling Appalachian foothills were blanketed in the palettes of autumn. The whole world was golden and red. The rivers were polished chrome. It was enough to stop your pulse.

I’ve been having a love affair with this state since my youth. I grew up forty-odd miles from the state line. They called our Florida region L.A. “Lower Alabama.”

I had my first Pabst near the Coosa River. I had my first kiss in Saraland. I caught my first crappie in Houston County. I met my wife near Burnt Corn Creek.

There is something unamable about the soul of this state. Whenever I enter its borders, I feel something deep within the pit of my stomach. I can’t explain it in words. My sentences would…

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t tip at restaurants. I never tip my waitress. I am originally from the U.K. and tipping is an absolute oddity to me. Why the hell am I paying someone $10 bucks to do their job? I think tipping is stupid.

Thanks,
CONFUSED-IN-CHICAGO

DEAR CONFUSED:

You’re absolutely right, sir. There is no need to tip your servers. These people in the service industry are just looking for handouts. Screw them.

These servers ought to be grateful for the privilege of wiping your table. Tips? What a dumb notion.

Why show appreciation to ANYONE for their work? Don’t these idiots in the food-service biz know they should be grateful for their $4-per-hour jobs?

Believe me, I understand where you’re coming from, sir.

My mother worked in food service. My sister worked in food service. I worked in food service. My wife worked food service. And at one point, my mother, sister, wife, and I all worked for the same food service. I’ve met a lot of guys like you.

The truth is, we survived on our tips. Our

electric bills were paid with tips. We were tip-dependent.

If it weren’t for tips, we would have defaulted on our rent. We would have been without gasoline. We would have gone without groceries.

But who cares about all that? Tips schmips.

I applaud you for your individuality, sir. You’re probably the kind of person who also walks past homeless persons on the street, without even looking at them.

Good for you. This country needs more people like you.

It doesn’t matter that one third of the homeless population in the U.S. suffers from mental illness. Not your problem. Am I right?

Screw them. Screw their daddy issues. Screw their PTSD. Screw their exemplary service in past wars. They need to get a freaking job.

Tipping is much the same in your mind. Why should you care? Why should you…

Nashville is screamingly busy today. This swollen town almost looks like New York, or L.A. Except for all the out-of-towners in cowboy hats and tennis shoes.

I come from cow-people. We had an expression for folks like this: All hat and no cattle.

I meet a young man from Cleveland, wearing a huge Stetson. He is half tight, enjoying the scenery.

He says, “Everyone’s a cowboy in Nashville, man.”

I am standing on Fifth Avenue. At the Ryman Auditorium. Home of the Opry.

I’m here to pay my respects to an old friend. I drove a long way to be here.

The brick and stone tabernacle is the mother church of country music. And when I say “country,” I mean old country. Not the modern sewage of today. The stuff on the radio today is pure-T carrion. And you can quote me.

The Grand Ole Opry began on November 28, 1925. It was a holy day. Radio host George Hay took the mic. He introduced the maiden broadcast by announcing to the world, off the cuff:

“Ladies and

gentlemen, for the past hour we’ve been listening to music from the Grand Opera, in New York City, but we now present the Grand Ole Opry.”

And the world was never the same.

Those days are gone, however. The Opry is dead. They still do the Opry broadcast at Opryland. But it’s not the same. Think: Disney World with fiddles.

Beside the Ryman, on the sidewalk, is a bronze statue of Loretta Lynn. She’s not far from the statue of Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass. They both played here.

Loretta is posing with her Epiphone Excellente. She’s wearing her Western fringe.

She died a few days ago. And country music lost its matriarch.

She got her first guitar when she was 18. Which sounds young, except it wasn’t. Not for her.

Not when you consider that Loretta was married to an Army…

South Carolina. The distant backroads. I am driving in the deep forest, stuck behind an asthmatic pickup.

The truck is a ‘78 Ford. F-100. Two-tone. Brown and vanilla. Five liter engine. Probably a three-speed manual. I know this because my old man drove the same truck.

The Ford travels 49 mph. The driver is in no hurry. His arm is hanging out the window. And I’m transfixed by his license plate.

The South Carolina license tag has a motto printed on it. The motto is located at the top, in white text. Just beside the $640 registration sticker.

“While I breathe, I hope,” says the adage.

I’ve never known a more beautifully optimistic state motto. Especially when you consider some of the other state mottos.

Such as North Carolina’s motto: “Esse quam videri,” which means, literally, “To be, rather than to seem.” Which sounds like the Walmart version of a Bill Shakespeare quote.

California’s motto is one word: “Eureka!” Idaho’s is, “Let it be perpetual.” Florida’s state motto is: “Ask about our grandkids.”

But I like the

Carolina license plate slogan. Namely, because it’s been a hard year for me. Exactly 365 days ago, the doctor thought I had cancer.

I went through a long miniseries of misery, only to find out that I’m okay.

Still, the year itself was double, double toil and trouble. Within that year, I lost six friends to the C-word. And one to suicide. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

But here I am, 12 months later, driving South Carolinian backroads. My dog is in the passenger seat. The sun is blaring through the windshield. Kris Kristofferson is singing on a staticky AM station.

I am still alive. And the Eighth State couldn’t look any nicer.

It’s funny. I've always heard South Carolina is an arrestingly gorgeous place. But until today, I’ve only visited the touristy destinations. I’m like any other…