He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

DEAR SEAN:

I was wondering if you have any bad habits or vices. I have a couple, drinking and smoking, mostly, and I feel like they're holding me back. Any advice?

Best,
DRINKING TOO MUCH

DEAR DRINKING:

Sure, I have bad habits. I wait too long to file income taxes. I haven’t made my bed since nineteen hundred and twenty. I avoid confrontation. And according to my doc: I eat too much barbecued pork.

I also apologize too much—which is an embarrassing habit. I don’t know why I do it.

I’m sorry.

My friend, Davey, was king of bad habits. Davey was an alcoholic for most of his life. And when I say “alcoholic,” I mean: face-down-in-his-own-vomit-for-six-hours alcoholic.

We painted houses together. At night, we played music at various bars and beer-joints.

He was an upright bassist. An ex-professor of music at Auburn University. A fanatic for Ray Charles, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, Strauss, and Hank Williams.

He was in his seventies, but years of hard living made him

look two hundred years old. He had white hair, pale skin, stubbly face.

His one-bedroom apartment was on Campbell Street. His walls were lined with books—floor to ceiling. A feral cat lived on his porch. Dirty dishes sat in his sink.

Davey puffed Winstons all day. His emphysema was so bad he barely had the diaphragm-strength to smoke.

One night, we played in a Pensacola joint. He sat on a barstool during the break. The bartender asked what he wanted.

Davey buried his head and said, “Whatever you do, DON’T give me what I ask for.”

She looked at him and blinked. He ordered a stiff drink. She told him to get lost.

“Thank you, ma’am,”…

...Even though you walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, you shouldn't fear any evil because you aren't alone. Thy rod and thy staff, and thy Louisville Slugger will comfort you.

DEAR SEAN:

My mom and dad are getting divorced and my dad is leaving us, it makes me so sad, and my brother is going away for college, too, so I won’t have him anymore starting soon.

Then my doctor told me I have a problem with my heart valve and I’m doing all sorts of tests for it. They say not to worry because it's only a small thing, but I am so scared about everything.

Help me,
SCARED IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR SCARED:

After my father’s suicide, I was scared. Very scared. My mother, my sister, and I were all terrified. I can't even tell you why, exactly.

And it was worse at night. We slept in the same bedroom for many years. I slept on the floor, at the foot of Mama’s bed.

Before bedtime, I’d push a dresser in front of her bedroom doorknob.

Irrational, I know.

But that’s fear. It makes you do strange things. And after someone dies—or when parents divorce, or when you get sick,

or when someone hurts you—you get bucketfuls of fear.

One night, my mother heard a crash downstairs. I grabbed a baseball bat—the same slugger I won regional championships with.

I walked the dark house barefoot. I trembled so that I could hardly hold the bat. My heart beat hard.

I saw glowing eyes in the kitchen. Our outdoor cat had gotten trapped indoors. She jumped onto the refrigerator and knocked something over.

I almost vomited. I dropped the bat. I collapsed on the floor and cried until my ears rang.

So, I’m the wrong fella to ask about how to not be afraid. I can’t tell you how because I don’t know.

But I can…

...When I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.

DEAR SEAN:

You’re an idiot and I’m sick of your storytime bull $@%+, you don’t know half as much about life as you think you do… And it pisses me off when you go off giving advice to people.

You’re too young, why don’t you just shut up until you’ve lived a little?

I AM UNFRIENDING YOU

DEAR UNFRIENDING:

Thank you for your words. I sincerely mean that. Even though they weren't exactly the prettiest sentences I’ve ever read, I’m grateful for them. Sort of.

Because when I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.

Anyway, I’d like to go back to seventh grade for a moment. The year my father swallowed the barrel of a hunting rifle. I lost a lot of good things that year.

I grew up rural. I did not attend high school. I worked.

My first job was at age fourteen, hanging drywall.

My peers attended proms and picked out colleges; I smiled and congratulated them from the sidelines.

The word “outsider” comes to mind.

I visited the library a lot. Once per week, Miss Terri, a short white-haired lady, hand-picked stacks of books for me.

She chose subjects like: chemistry, botany, ornithology, American history, agriculture, wood joinery, classic literature, and Western novels.

I read until my eyes went blurry.

When I hit my mid-twenties, I met an older man on a construction jobsite who had his masters degree. He was swinging a hammer just like me.

I clocked off work early and rode to the local community college. I walked inside and told the…

I remember nearly every bad word used on me. In sixth grade Doreen Severs called me “chunky.” I was a round-faced, chubby kid. Her remark made me cry for forty days and forty nights.

DEAR SEAN:

What should I do when a boy calls me fat? I’m not super skinny or anything, but I’ve always thought I was regular.

I want guys to like me, but this guy called me fat and got me thinking I'm ugly and fat, and now I'm wondering what I should say back.

My mom told me to message you.

Thank you,
FIFTEEN IN ALABAMA

DEAR FIFTEEN:

First off: I’m going to tell you what my granny would’ve told me. Though you might not want to hear it—God knows I never did.

Compliment that hateful boy. Tell him how nice he looks. Make a remark about his shoes. Tell him he’s got lovely eyes. Anything sweet.

You don’t even have to mean it.

Of course, this is the last thing you want to do. But it’s an old rural trick which folks like Granny called: drowning outhouse flies in honey.

Something you don't see many people do these days.

Listen, I wish I could tell you how to forget the insults, but that's silly. You can’t forget them any more than you

can forget being kicked in the teeth.

I remember nearly every bad word used on me. In sixth grade Doreen Severs called me “chunky.” I was a round-faced, chubby kid. Her remark made me cry for forty days and forty nights.

My mother forced me to approach Doreen the next day and tell her she had marvelous brown eyes.

I almost gagged on my words. But you should've seen Doreen’s face. You could’ve knocked her over with a residential lawn mower.

She never gave another lick of trouble.

The truth is, I don’t know much, but I can tell you the problem isn't you. Neither is the problem the boy.

It's much bigger than him.

In fact, it’s so big that it's almost invisible. And it can be found in magazines, swimsuit ads, underwear commercials,…

His daughter told me he parked himself by the window and talked to his best friend every day—morning until night.

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t mean this to sound mean-spirited, but I've read some of your stuff and I can’t tell if you’re a real Christian or not.

There are no gray areas, sir, you’re either all in, or not. Your use of swear words is not cool, or glorification of alcohol and tobacco... Substances that promote destructive lifestyles.

I’m just trying to figure out what you believe, as well as urging you to consider your eternity. No offense.

PRAYING FOR YOU

DEAR PRAYING:

None taken. I wish I could answer this, but I don’t know how. Most anything I say will be the wrong thing. And I might inadvertently cause you to worry for my soul even more.

So.

Yes. It’s true. I cuss sometimes—mostly on accident. Some phrases come from my blue-collar ancestry.

And I promise: I only use three of the six major swear words. Though in very rare cases—like blunt trauma to the kneecap—I’ll use a fourth.

But I still haven't answered your question. So let me tell you what an eighty-nine-year-old preacher once told me.

I'll call him Brother Jay. I wrote

a report for a world-religion class. I visited Jay at his home. He was white-haired and slumped in a wheelchair.

His daughter told me he parked himself by the window and talked to his best friend every day—morning until night.

I saw him by the window, moving his mouth. I didn’t see anybody with him.

Jay was a preacher’s son. His uncle—also a preacher—sexually abused him as a boy. When Jay blew the whistle, his mother sent him away to a boys home.

He grew up an orphan. His family never visited. Not ever. The word loneliness comes to mind.

A woman took him under her wing. She was a custodian at the shelter. She brought him home with her. She took him to church. She introduced him to his best friend.

Then, something…

Have you seen what’s on television? This country is in the worst trouble we’ve been in and you’re talking about happy-go-lucky (double bleep)…

DEAR SEAN:

I just read a few things you wrote, and I have to say that I refuse to see life through the rose-tinted glasses you obviously wear. I can’t agree with the bull (bleep).

Have you seen what’s on television? This country is in the worst trouble we’ve been in and you’re talking about happy-go-lucky (double bleep)…

The last thing we need is another ignorant redneck on Facebook telling everyone how great things are... So go back to your cornfield and just shut the (unprintable word) up.

Regards,

CALLING IT LIKE I SEE IT IN BIRMINGHAM

DEAR BIRMINGHAM:

Firstly: Nice to meet you. Remind me to invite you to my annual coon roast and rat-killing party. I'd like you to meet my uncle—who holds the national award for most tobacco-spit stains on a truck interior.

Secondly: I can bear being called a redneck—I come from a long line of men with farmer tans and bad handwriting.

But ignorant.

I would rather be quartered with a cheese grater and strung up in front of the A&P.

Look, maybe you’re right about the world. Maybe this is

the biggest trouble we’ve ever known.

Maybe when my great-great grandaddy marched in the Battle of Cumberland Church—during a time of 620,000 civil soldier-deaths on American soil—it was only child’s play.

Maybe the Great Depression itself—a period when those fancy Birmingham subdivisions were once pinewood poverty shacks full of starving kids—was peanuts compared to this.

Maybe the Second World War—60 million deaths worldwide—was a walk in the park compared to your Facebook feed.

Maybe.

But does that mean I should ignore those like Kiera Larsen? She died shoving a toddler out of the path of an oncoming SUV. She ran in front of the vehicle, screaming. The toddler lived.

Kiera was 10 years old.

Or: Lourdes Sanchez, the black newborn whose drug-addict parents left her in a dumpster. She got adopted by a Mexican-American…

Long, long ago, in a land far away, there was a chubby little first-baseman who enjoyed sourdough biscuits and fried fish. Like you, his family changed. His daddy disappeared.

DEAR SEAN:

We just moved to Clovis, New Mexico. I really miss home and all my family are in Florida. I am nine years old… My parents are divorced. And I am a very good artist.

I was wondering if you could tell a story about our situation. ...If you don't mind, I would like you to use words kids understand (but still a make it funny and emotional).

Your friend, KAYLIE

DEAR KAYLIE:

I have a story.

Long, long ago, in a land far away, there was a chubby little first-baseman who enjoyed sourdough biscuits and fried fish. Like you, his family changed. His daddy disappeared. And when that happened, the first-baseman’s world turned black.

One day, this boy went walking in the woods—for it is well-known that first-basemen love forests—and he found a creek near the river.

It was filled with magic catfish who talked to him in small voices, saying:

“No fishing poles you use,
Nor trotlines will ever work,
You will never catch us,
You chubby little jerk.”

This made the boy angry. For who were catfish to talk

this way? The first-baseman had been fishing since before he played first base.

So, the next day he visited with a fishing rod. But as it happened, the boy had lost all faith in himself after his daddy died. Because of this, he caught no fish.

The catfish teased:

“Try and try,
You dumb pup,
You'll catch us never,
You've already given up.”

Their singing displeased the first-baseman, for he knew the mystical scum-suckers were wrong about him.

So, the next day he fished again. Nothing.

And the whisker-fish sang:

“Fish, ye, at sundown,
Fish, ye, at sunup,
It won't work, ye young fool,
Because you’ve given up.”


Now the boy KNEW the fish were…

You're probably WAY too old to believe in magical things like Santa, Easter Bunnies, Saint Francis, or Nick Saban. But this is serious. I’ve seen angels with my eyes.

DEAR SEAN:

There's a murderer on the run in Baldwin County and that's where I live. And he’s killed three people... My mom is at work and I'm home with the flu. My aunt and I are locked in the bedroom watching TV and the weather’s getting really bad, too.

...I’m actually scared so much my stomach is truly, literally hurting. My aunt told me I should write you to take my mind off it...

SCARED IN BALDWIN COUNTY

DEAR SCARED:

I'm glad you wrote me. I have a feeling that as soon as I write back, authorities will have caught this joker and none of the following will apply.

Even so, here's what you should know:

There’s no way in hell the peace officers in lower Alabama are going to let anything happen to you. Because they have guns.

And I know men from Baldwin, Escambia, and Santa Rosa County. These boys have been shooting dove, deer, duck, and wild turkey since they were old enough to say, “Look, Mommy, I make poopy.”

This dude's in trouble.

But never mind. You asked for help getting your mind off this topic. So I'll tell you what my mama told me when I was terrified.

There are angels around you.

Big ones. I know. You're probably WAY too old to believe in magical things like Santa, Easter Bunnies, Saint Francis, or Nick Saban. But this is serious. I’ve seen angels with my eyes.

Once, we wrecked in North Carolina. Mama hit a deer. It was late at night on a very dark, empty road. A stranger from nowhere helped us. He even knew my name.

Then he disappeared.

Another story: I know a woman who went swimming in the river with her friend. They got swept into the current. They nearly died. A man swam to them and pulled them ashore. Then he vanished.

You want more? Fine.

Listen, one day your world won't be this dark, darling. It might happen when a worthy person comes along. It will be someone smart enough to look in your eyes and see more than your eyes.

She wrote a letter to me.

She started by saying, "I know you're probably too busy to answer..."

Then, she explained that her parents are getting divorced, that her father's been cheating. Before he walked out, he got mad.

He called her and her mother "a couple'a fat pigs."

She closed her note, saying:

"You wrote once about losing your confidence, and I think I'm losing mine, too... I'm sixteen, and I really do feel fat and ugly. And I just needed to tell somebody...

"...And you actually seemed cool. I feel like I can trust you. If you share this, please keep my identity secret."

Well.

Firstly, I am NOT cool. Case and point: I once tried to eat so much peanut butter that my wife had to get paramedics involved.

Secondly, I might not know you, but I knew someone like you. He looked like you, talked like you. It was hard for him to feel cocky after his father's funeral.

His confidence dried up. He felt like the ugliest, most intellectually challenged dunce God ever had the misfortune of

creating.

But this isn't about him.

Okay. So your father—let's call things what they are—is a lost soul. I'm sorry, but you asked for my ten-cent opinion.

You, darling, are nothing like the world's lost princes and princesses—who have bucketfuls of self-assurance.

People like you and I are bullfrogs.

Try to stay with me.

I believe this big fairytale is full of people who consider themselves royalty. They've got royal confidence, too. Plenty of it.

We're not like them. We have gangly legs and big eyes. We don't think much of ourselves, we walk with bad posture. Big deal.

So you're feeling bad. Don't fight it. Look in the mirror and let those feelings happen. Cry. Cuss. Feel lousy. Let it wash over you.

And once you're finished, don't ever do it again.

Because there's too much living…

I know you're confused about the current state of our world. I am, too. There is a lot of uneasiness right now. Try not to worry about it. Mankind has been fussing like this since the dawn of Duke's Mayonnaise.

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, REGULAR TEENAGE GIRL

DEAR REGULAR GIRL:

My God, darling. 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 fella 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 KFC's 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. Try not to worry about it. Mankind has been fussing like this since the dawn of Duke's Mayonnaise.

Once, I saw a fight break out in a Pelham, Alabama, beer-joint. The subject of tension: 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.

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

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

I answered without thinking. And in a sentence, nine-hundred-year's worth of Bible-Belt heritage came out.

I said, "You damn right he's real."

And I sounded like a boy who needed help spelling his name.

The fact is, when some folks talk about God, they're not talking about God at all. They're speaking about miracles, greasy televangelists, faith healers, or a celestial Santa Claus with a white beard. I may be uneducated, but those aren't God.

Nevertheless, you asked me a straight question, so here's my answer: Cassidy.

She's my answer.

Cassidy was nineteen. Beautiful. Her parents died. Her grandmother raised…