An Episcopal church. A weekday. It’s an ornate building with flickering votives in the corner. The door was unlocked so I came inside. Nobody seemed to notice me, so I pulled up a pew.

There are only two people in this chapel. Across the aisle is an older woman. Her hair is white, her head is down. Behind her is a young scruffy-looking man, head also down.

I wasn’t raised Episcopalian, but I like pretty churches. Plus, Piskies are always good about letting you just pop in and hang out with no strings attached. If I would have popped into a Baptist church they would have already signed me up for nursery duty.

But if I’m being truly honest, I came to this ornate place because I was hoping to get a column out of the deal. These words don’t just write themselves, and I needed inspiration.

Inspiration has been hard to come by this last year. Some mornings I wake up happy as a bumblebee. Other days, I wake up still feeling

the weight of last years’ chaos lingering.

A lot of little changes have occurred in my life since the pandemic. Too many changes to list in one column. Changes like, for example, my pants don’t fit anymore. Also I’m getting more stray gray hairs. And some nights I fall asleep before “Matlock” is even over.

It’s quiet in here. I’m staring at the backlit stained glass and I decide to try my hand at praying.

My problem, of course, is that I am horrible at prayer. Don’t call on me to say grace at your barbecue, I get so nervous I start reciting the preamble to the Constitution and I require an emergency Miller Lite.

The only real examples of prayer during my fundamentalist childhood came from my uncle Tommy Lee, who was an amateur Missionary Baptist preacher. He treated prayer like an improvised Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar…

She was lost. The old girl had traveled this trail before and it always led back home. But this time she couldn’t find the right smell to guide her.

Although it wasn’t for lack of trying. She kept her nose to the ground, searching for a familiar scent. But she found nothing.

She wasn’t exactly a young pup anymore. Her nose wasn’t as good as it had been. Long ago, she could sniff a person and tell their age, weight, and religious denomination. But now she was lost.

Still, she followed the smells until she found a highway. It was a busy highway. Big machines shot across the pavement so fast it made her ears hurt.

She looked across the road. The old girl wasn’t sure she should cross. But on the other side of the highway she saw an inviting neighborhood. She could see rooftops behind all the traffic.

Those homes looked safe and happy. She needed happy. Maybe she could find someone there who would love her. Her mind was getting so confused with hunger.

Should she cross this busy road? Was it suicide? Was is salvation?

She sat on the highway shoulder and thought about it. All she could feel was starvation. The poor thing needed food and water. That’s why she’d left home in the first place.

Her owner wasn’t a very nice man. He would often go days without feeding her, which had made her lean and ragged. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even give her water, she had to drink from ditches. In fact that’s why she left. She had crawled beneath the fence in search of water.

Then she got lost.

“WOOSH! WOOSH!” went the cars.

Big vehicles rocketed past her. She should’ve turned around, but hunger made her attempt to cross the highway.

She cautiously pranced on the pavement, hoping that the huge machines would avoid her. One car sped by so fast it…

DEAR SEAN:

I have no idea what to do. I had never met my biological mother until a couple months ago, and now she’s wanting to be a part of my life now.

I don’t know that I want this and it’s stressing me out. I was adopted, and I’m 53 now, it’s not like I can just be okay with this stranger who didn’t want me 53 years ago, but now she won’t leave me alone.

It’s making me feel really guilty for not being into this whole idea. What should I do?

Thanks,
SLEEPLESS-IN-BUFFALO

DEAR SLEEPLESS:

Let me introduce you to Hubert. After I received your message, I immediately contacted Hubert to get permission to share his story. Hubert is not his real name.

He grew up as an adopted child. His childhood was a normal one. He liked rock and roll, long hair, lava lamps, and ticking off his parents.

When he was in his mid thirties he decided to find his birth mother. Hubert went through a lot of trouble tracking the woman down. And

when he finally found her, he discovered that his mother was not exactly what you’d call a model citizen.

What he expected was a sedate older woman with cookies in the oven and scripture embroidery hanging on her walls. What he got was an embittered woman living in a bad situation, in terrible health, with addictions out the wazoo.

But what hurt worst of all was that this woman had four adult children. Children she’d kept.

“I couldn’t believe she’d kept them but thrown me away,” said Hubert. “I mean, I’m grateful that mess wasn’t my life, but why not me? You know, you always wonder.”

So establishing contact with his mother was not the warm fuzzy love fest he’d envisioned. And it got worse when the woman learned Hubert could help her financially. She started badgering him for cash.

This is going to sound silly, but I miss the days when people used Corningware coffee percolators. Yeah, I know this particular kitchen accessory is an antique, but not in my house.

We have been using one since our first day of marriage.

Oh, we would have gladly used an electric coffee maker if someone would have given us one for a wedding gift. But fundamentalist Baptists don’t give practical wedding gifts. They give things you will never use.

For example: Serving plates shaped like the Crown of Thorns.

So I had to steal a Corningware percolator from my mother’s cabinet on my wedding day. I’m not proud of this, but she had three of them in her kitchen.

And while we’re talking about kitchens, I also miss the era of kitchen phones. Do you know how long it’s been since I used a rotary phone? A long time.

I realize that kids who were raised on cellphones might not know what rotary phones are, but they are missing out. The wall-mounted kitchen phone was an

important device in my personal childhood, and the world changed when we lost them.

Before the age of smartphones, there was only one way to talk to the opposite sex after school hours. You had to physically walk into your mother’s kitchen, dial a telephone number in front of God and country, and endure Twenty Questions from your mother.

“What’re you doing?” your mother would ask, using the same tone she used when she suspected babies of having full diapers. “Are we calling a special someone?”

And it got worse.

You knew that after you dialed the number the girl’s father would answer first. Her father was a man who worked at the mill, who shaved his back with a dull axe blade, who weighed more than a Chevy Impala, who was a decorated war hero with battleship tattoos on his forearms.

This man…

SAVANNAH—It’s hard not to love this town. The scenery is easy on the eyes, colorful, historic, and there are flowers everywhere. There are also sweaty tourists out and about on foot, exploring Georgia’s oldest city on a sunny afternoon. And everyone is playing on their phones.

Have you ever noticed how many phones you see in public these days? They are in nearly every hand.

My wife and I take a city stroll, and I’ve learned a lot about Savannah on our walk. The first thing I learn is that the historic downtown is hotter than the fires of hell. It is 102 degrees outside. My boot rubber is softening. I’ve sweat through my shirt.

Which is actually a valuable lesson because this heat reminds me of how artificial modern life can be. We high-tech Americans pamper ourselves with air conditioning, streaming digital entertainment, prepackaged food, and round-the-clock Walmarts where you can buy Fritos at any odd hour of the night. But that’s not real life.

Early Americans’ lives were filled with nature, agriculture, back-cracking

work, and their phones didn’t even shoot good video. They cooked over wood fires; we modern folks stand in front of microwaves and shout, “HURRY UP!”

In other words, I’m spoiled.

My wife and I walk over to Oglethorpe Square for a look around. The place is filled with dozens of tourists, many seated on benches. I notice most of them are playing on smartphones.

We walk to Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, I count four young persons sitting nearby, also playing on phones.

Next we hike to the Juliette Gordon Low Museum—the first Girl Scout headquarters. There, fourteen people are mindlessly scrolling on phones. Fifteen if you count me.

Over by the famous in the Bonaventure Cemetery, I see a guy giving a well-rehearsed spiel to a small crowd. He, too, is using his phone to reference his lecture notes. But as it happens, nobody…

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last several hundred days, it’s that trying to write during a pandemic is like trying to draw a portrait blindfolded, with a white crayon, using only your right foot. It’s hard.

Literary inspiration is a fickle creature, it doesn’t just jump out of the wallpaper and choke you. Inspiration is a tree. You plant it, you water it, you wait for the sapling to grow, you prune it, water it, and check for apples.

The pandemic, however, was an industrial wood chipper. The pandemic turned my inspiration into organic mulch.

Before the pandemic, my columns/blogs were based on social experiences, regional travel, and meeting new friends. But without socialization, I had nothing to draw from except the letters and emails I started getting.

And, boy, was I getting some humdingers.

Often the letters I received were sad ones. Some letters were downright tragic and their words stuck with me. I once received a sober card from a guy in New York City who worked in

a hospital during the apex of the COVID crisis. It was almost more than I could read.

Also, I received lots of correspondence from kids—I didn’t think children even read my words. This just shows you how desperate the world became.

But the hardest part for me, by far, was finding the stamina to keep working on new books. In addition to this column I produce books that often go on to become doorstops, paperweights, and fly swatters. Writing a book is a time-intensive process for a slow guy like me. And this process gets even harder without the flowering tree of inspiration.

I don’t mean to reach for melodrama, but writing during a pandemic was one of more difficult things I’ve ever done except for loading the dishwasher with my wife breathing over my shoulder.

Until last year I never realized how much motivation I…

I’m on a plane awaiting takeoff. I’m departing Kansas City for Atlanta. My carry-on bag is above me in the tiny carry-on compartment—a compartment which, according to FAA regulations, is too small for carry-on bags.

There is a woman behind me trying to force her oversized roller-suitcase into storage by throwing her bodyweight against her luggage like a first-string tackle. Her efforts aren’t working because her carry-on is about the size of a 2008 Honda Civic.

But God love her, she’s trying.

A few of us passengers help her out, although we are not strong enough to bend the immutable laws of physics. In the process of helping, I meet the old man seated across the aisle from me. I’m guessing he’s late seventies. He’s in fantastic shape. Short. Wiry.

I can’t see his face to discern his age because we are all wearing masks. But his thin hair is white, slicked with either Brylcreem or industrial machine lubricant. He wears kelly green polyester trousers, unblemished sneakers, and a loud Hawaiian print shirt. I’m already in love with this guy.

“Hi, I’m

Art,” he says cheerfully, and I smell nothing but Old Spice. “I’m ‘fine art,’ too.”

He laughs at his own joke. And after his Rodney Dangerfield opener I have a feeling Art is going to try to sell me a vacuum.

“I’m from Wisconsin,” he adds, leaving his statement open ended, waiting for me to respond with something biographical.

“I’m from Florida,” I say. “Flying to Savannah to meet my wife.”

He nods. “Wives are good.” He thumps his chest. “I was married fifty-nine years.”

“Really.”

“Oh you betcha.” He says the words like they’re all one syllable, a Wisconsinite to the core.

“Fifty-nine years,” I say. “That’s a rarity these days.”

“Oh, yeah. I learned a long time ago that marriage is really just an agreement between two adults. You don’t try to run her life, and…

Somewhere in Kansas. I'm in town for a funeral. The ceremony is in a few hours. I stopped by this breakfast joint to meet someone. The place is packed with old men.

A gaggle of old guys sit at the bar, wearing cowboy hats. One wears an oxygen cannula and a John Deere cap. Another Stetson man is sawing his chicken-fried steak with a forty-inch stag handled pocketknife.

I’m immediately struck with the fact that this place is crawling with tough guys. Really tough ones.

I can’t help but marvel at what a wimp I am compared to the grizzled men of yesteryear. I am nothing like these old birds. They have sawdust and 10W-30 running through their vascular systems. Me? I handle sentences for a living, and I watch “Steel Magnolias” twice per year whether I need it or not.

I hold the door open for more weathered cattlemen who enter. The bell over the door dings. I wish I could take a picture of them all because they look like illustrations from a

Louis L’Amour novel.

When it’s my turn the waitress approaches and asks where I’d like to sit. I tell her that I’m meeting somebody and that I’d love a booth.

“Sure thing, hon,” she says. “Got plenty’a booths.”

The waitress puts me in a seat facing the parking lot and keeps me full of caffeine while I wait, sip, and think about the solemn ceremony ahead. I will be a pallbearer today.

After a few minutes I hear a rumbling noise. I look through the plate glass window to see a monster Ford dually charging through the parking lot. The herculean F-450 nearly takes out six Nissans, two Mazdas, and one Prius, chugging like a nuclear locomotive through a Steinway factory.

All the cowboys have paused eating to watch this giant truck make its matinee entrance.

The truck parks. The door opens. Out from the…

It is dark. Early morning. I pull my airport rental car to the curb and throw the gear shift into park. I am hoping nobody will think I am a weirdo, parking in this residential area before sunrise.

I look out my windshield at the nondescript house and keep my eyes on the garage door. It has been a lifetime since I’ve been here. Many lifetimes, actually. I almost didn’t come this morning.

But I had to see this place. In fact, as soon as my plane landed it was all I could think about. I couldn’t sleep last night, I tossed and wallowed in my sheets.

So I got up early, before the hotel staff started serving the systematic hell they call “continental breakfast,” I crawled into my rental, and I followed empty highways until they led me here.

Parkville, Missouri, is a small town. There are about five thousand living in Parkville proper. There are antique shops, galleries, a little historic downtown. It’s your quintessential American hamlet.

The town was founded

in 1836, and was originally called “English Landing,” it was once a port on the Missouri River for tobacco and hemp. Today, I’m told it’s the kind of place where old guys from the American Legion chew the fat and tell flagrant lies about the fish they’ve caught.

My father ended his own life in Parkville. He did the horrible deed in his brother’s house. Nobody saw it coming. They found his body in my uncle’s garage. And the sad irony is, if you’d known my father, you’d know that he probably chose the garage so he wouldn’t make a mess inside the house.

Strangely, my father talked to me on the phone only minutes before he pulled the trigger. He said he loved me. It was just a casual call, and it was a nonchalant “I love you.” The words were said the same way he…

ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities. But if you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.

My mother used to “force” me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that gave us bacon came up with mucus pudding.

But if you were to ask me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.

Right now I am thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about this city because I am standing in a 32-mile long line in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, awaiting airport security to strip search me.

We in the crowd of air passengers have been dutifully removing our belts, earrings, shoes, dentures, and insulin pumps, waiting to get past the Transportation Security checkpoint and board the plane. But I just tripped the metal detector for the second time, which

is a lot like winning the lottery.

A friendly veteran TSA representative informs me that she is eager to help me through the frisking process. “Halt and put your hands where I can see them, sir,” she says in a helpful voice. “Now.”

So I have plenty of time to remember things during this moment. Things like, for instance, gag-inducing tapioca.

And while I’m being fondled by TSA, I’m also thinking about the days when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my life, back when newspapers were still newspapers.

We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and I loved the AJC newspaper. Each morning I would be the first to retrieve the news. My uncle thought this was hysterical, a kid fetching the paper.

“That’s a pretty good trick, Fido,” he’d say. “How about I teach you to…