It came in the mail. A small package. A cardboard parcel no bigger than a VHS tape. I weighed it in my hands.

Definitely not a VHS tape. For one thing, it’s too heavy. For another, nobody even uses tapes anymore.

Not long ago, families had to rent VCRs from the supermarket if they wanted to watch video cassettes. Unless of course they were rich. In which case they went out and bought their own supermarkets.

Our supermarket movie rental selection was pathetic. The only two videotapes available were the complete first season of the “Lawrence Welk Show,” and “Porky’s Revenge!”

Anyway, I’m sitting on my porch steps and opening the package with a pocket knife. I have an idea of what is inside, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions.

The first thing I see is a printed name. Four letters.

Sean.

The Gaelic spelling of my first name has long been mispronounced by P.E. teachers and telemarketers alike. It’s unclear why my mother chose this name. She either named me after

my Scotch-Irish ancestors, or she named me after 007.

My money’s on 007. She loved Sean Connery as James Bond. When we purchased our first VCR, my mother would would rent Bond movies from the local library all the time and watch them when she ironed clothes.

She and I were big regulars at the library. I got my first library card when I was in kindergarten and I can still remember signing my name on the back of that card. I signed: SEJMN. Which was close enough for 007.

After my father passed I practically lived at libraries. The elderly librarians were my friends. These were blue-haired ladies who were old enough to have single-digit Social Security numbers. But I loved them.

I read truckloads of cheap paperback books. Not high literature, but low-brow books that I should be embarrassed about. Books about cowboys, espionage,…

I’m watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” It’s late at night, and I am a lifelong fan of this program.

One of my earliest memories is watching this show as an infant, sitting before a console television, and I was gnawing on something. It’s unclear what I was chewing, but I’m pretty sure it was a wooden army-man figurine.

I chewed everything at that age, even coffee tables and the legs of furniture.

And this is probably my earliest memory from toddlerhood, aside from the memory of me peeing in Miss Frankie’s yard when I was three.

I had no idea that it was wrong to pee in public back then. All I knew was that my father always stood on our back porch and announced that he was “watering the old rose bushes.” And I would join him.

Another memory I have is watching Andy Griffith as a guest on the “Tonight Show.” He was elderly, with white hair and a corduroy blazer. He was funny. He was folksy. And I knew on that

very night, sitting in front of the television, I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to corduroy blazers. Today I own three.

Years ago, I was on my way to play a gig in South Georgia. It was the Fourth of July, a Wednesday. I stopped at a gas station to get a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos and coffee.

The newspaper machine’s headline read: “Goodbye Andy.”

I bought a paper and shook it open. His face was on the third page. His wild hair was parted down the side, looking like an advertisement for Brylcreem. A heart attack at age 86. And I cried. I know, I’m ridiculous.

I don’t know why I’m telling you about this except that lately it’s been hard finding anything on television. The days of lighthearted TV-watching are dead. The tastes of the public have changed. Sex sells.…

DEAR SEAN:

Words can’t describe how much I detest your writings now… I used to like your work, but I now think you are a fake…

I was shocked when I read a four-letter word in one of your stories… You are profane and our Holy God is going to exact judgement upon all those who profane...

Goodbye,
ANGRY-AS-SIN

DEAR ANGRY:

I want you to pay close attention when I say this, because this might be difficult for you to understand:

You cannot make me hate you.

If you get nothing else from this letter, I hope you remember this. No matter what you think of me, no matter what kind of eternal flaming Lake Superior you think I’m bound for, you can’t make me dislike you.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you coming to my barbecue, necessarily. But then again, you wouldn’t have a good time at my party anyway. There are usually a lot of flagrant Episcopalians there.

Anyway, do you want to know something? Do you know what my first reaction was when I received your eloquent

letter? If I’m being totally honest with myself, I felt kind of afraid.

“Whoa!” I was thinking. “Am I am a big fake? Is this guy right about me? Maybe he is!”

And I was genuinely scared. Isn't that pathetic? Maybe you think I’m a big old wuss for admitting this.

Don’t answer that.

The embarrassing truth is, I’ve been afraid for most of my life. In fact, growing up I was almost always afraid.

You’d have to know me to understand this. I had a traumatic childhood. I don’t want to rehash it here because it doesn’t matter. Lots of people blame things on messed up childhoods. I’m not going to do that.

Certainly, I could blame my irrational fears on the fact that my father was mentally unstable and killed himself in my uncle’s garage…

I’m in a convenience store. I’m standing in a long line. Ahead of me are three boys in soccer uniforms, several construction workers, and one UPS man. I know this sounds like a great opening line for a joke, but it’s not. There are no nuns present.

Anyway, I remember stopping at this store every morning before work when I was on a landscaping crew. Back then, there was a young guy who worked behind the counter named Doug.

Doug was about ten-foot tall and several thousand pounds of muscle. I don’t know how he fit through the door because he was built like a General Electric refrigerator. And he had the tender heart of a Beanie Baby. Doug would never let me pay for my coffee.

“But Doug,” I’d say, “I don’t need free coffee. Let me pay for it.”

“Nah, I always pour out the old coffee every morning, it just goes to waste. Just look at it this way, you’re drinking waste.”

“Doug, please.”

“Your money ain’t no good here.”

I’d keep trying to pay.

He’d keep refusing. Round and round we’d go until I finally accepted the coffee. This is a ceremony of sorts among decent people. A ritual dance. Nobody ever accepts free things without protest.

I never knew Doug outsider the store, but after he quit working here I missed seeing him.

For years, I also stopped at another convenience store like this one, on the other side of town. Usually on Sunday mornings. I had to wake up early for church because I helped clean the chapel before service. I was sort of a glorified janitor you could say.

I straightened hymnals, adjusted microphones, and made sure the Baptist choir loft didn’t have any liquor bottles or racy magazines hidden in the tenor section.

An hour before service, I would fly into the convenience store to buy gas, coffee, and a honeybun. One…

She was eating dinner by herself. White hair. Five-foot-tall I’d guess. She was staring straight forward, chewing in silence. The hostess sat us beside her table.

My wife and I were there for an early dinner. I was scanning the menu, but couldn’t figure out what to order.

“Get the calamari,” the white-haired woman suggested. “It’s the best in town.”

“The best in town?” I said.

“Best in town.”

She was pure Lousianna. You can tell a Lousiannan accent when you hear it. It sounds exactly like a Jerry Lee Lewis record played at half speed.

When the waiter asked what we wanted, I ordered the calamari.

“You won’t regret it,” she said. “It’s the best in town.”

We started talking. Her name was Maria. Her job is sitting with people. Elderly people, sick people, and the unwell.

“Sometimes I sit for ten hours with folks if they need me. Just listening is really all I do.”

She was married once. For thirty-six years. Her husband died unexpectedly. Now she lives alone.

“He died from gallbladder surgery,” she said. “The surgeon nicked him.

He was gone pretty fast.”

When she met him she was nineteen and he was twenty-three. It was just one of those things, she said. When you know, you just know.

“He didn’t even have no wedding ring, he just gave me his class ring until he could afford one.”

This makes her laugh.

They got married in ‘65. It was a big year for America. Johnson was in office, the Cold War was getting hot, Sandy Koufax was pitching, Bob Dylan went all-electric.

And Maria was in love. They moved all over the U.S. He worked in retail, she had a slew of jobs. It wasn’t easy, but they made ends meet and had fun doing it. Some people only dabble in marriage. These two were professionals.

Our calamari came.

And Maria’s story was just getting…

I have here a letter from 19-year-old Chase Waters. The handwriting is messy, just like mine has always been. This letter could have come from 19-year-old Me.

“Sean, I don’t know what to do with my life... My mom wants me to stay in college but I hate it and if I drop out now I’ll probably never go back and she’ll kill me. I know I should follow my passion but I don’t know what career path to choose.”

Chase, the important thing to remember here is that I’m a painfully unqualified guy to ask. You’re talking to a major dork who when he was 8 years old owned two pet rabbits named Fred and Ginger.

Still, this phrase about “following your passion,” it stinks. So does “career path.”

For starters, “passion” is a trendy word used by hip advertising executives who strongly want you to have passion for everything, including automobiles and filing income taxes. The underlying message is that the only things in life worth doing are FUN things.

Well, bologna.

Case

in point: I am not ecstatic about walking my dogs. My dogs sniff every square inch of earth between Here and Eternity before finally deciding to poop on our kitchen floor. But I do it. Is it my passion? No.

The thing is, 70 years ago, I don’t think the word “passion” was said much. Back then it was generally used to describe either (a) Harlequin romance novels, or (b) the crucifixion.

I’ll bet your grandparents didn’t have much career passion. They probably just went around doing ordinary stuff like everyone else.

When the motor oil in the ‘51 Nash Rambler needed changing, your granddaddy simply did it. And it was the same with everyone’s professional lives, too.

Not so long ago, people had jobs, not careers. Jobs were something you did, not who you were. Many folks worked jobs with the same attitude you’d…

“Go! Go! Go!” shouts the guy at the bar.

“Run! Run! Run!” screams another.

“Touchdown!” says the rowdy behind me.

“Aw [bad word]!” shouts the bartender, throwing a wet rag across the room.

The people in this joint are going nuts. Even my wife is part of the pandemonium. Half the patrons in the room are wearing Clemson University orange, the other half wears Louisiana State University purple-and-gold.

I glance out the window. I scan the parking lot to make sure my truck is still there. This is an old habit of mine.

Tonight is the National Championship college football game. And in our part of the world this is the height of our year.

In other nations, the most important calendar days are religious holidays. But in the sleepy hamlets and electric burrows of the USA, football is religion. And the National Championship is high mass.

My wife and I are in a typical bar. It’s dark. Ugly wood paneling. Long ago, I remember when they still allowed smoking here. This room used to be

nothing but fog from unfiltered Camels. Now it just smells like French fries and stale beer.

Everyone leans on the bar and watching the television. During crucial plays many scream. Some cheer. Some boo. Some pound chests and make Tarzan calls. It’s great.

I walk to the window again to make sure my truck is still there.

Several years ago, I watched a National Championship in a crowded big-city bar with friends. The University of Alabama was playing the Texas Longhorns. Three of my pals were Alabama fans, the other two were Texas sympathizers. I will never forget it.

That night, I was the designated driver—which is why I still remember the night with clarity.

At halftime, two of my friends (the Texans) snuck outside. They told me they were going to make a phone call. This seemed odd since nobody in these parts—not…

A newsroom. I was in my mid-twenties. Unruly red hair. Big nose. A necktie that was suffocating me. Don’t ask me how, but I had a job interview. I was pure nerves.

I had no business being there. But then, I have a well-documented history of being in places I shouldn’t be.

“No journalism degree?” the editor said, squinting at my resume which read like a Hardee’s breakfast menu.

“No ma’am.”

“So, what’s your degree in?”

I explained that, at the time, I was in my ninth year of community college. And I was showing true potential as a promising liberal arts major.

“Aren’t you a little old to be applying?” she said. “What exactly do you want?”

It paralyzed me. I didn’t know how to answer. She waited. I made no human-like sounds. She asked me to leave.

Goodnight John Boy. Thanks for playing.

I loosened my necktie. I ordered three tacos from a Mexican dive downtown. The tacos came doused in a red sauce that would forever burn the protective lining from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

I sat on a curb.

What DID I want?

I saw a group of young men, walking the street, wearing suits and neckties. They did not look like me. They were cleancut, perfect teeth.

They probably had vocabularies which did not contain words like, “y'all,” and “twelve-pack.”

I was interrupted.

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I sort of had to bear-hug her sister to lift her out of the passenger seat.

And this did something to me. I discovered what I wanted.

And I’ll share it with you, if I may:

First: I want my friends to feel important. I want children to feel loved—all children. I want dogs…

It’s raining tonight in the Florida Panhandle. My wife is sitting on our sofa watching television. Our two ninety-pound dogs are asleep on her lap. There is no room for me on the couch. I am sitting on the floor.

Long ago, our couch was a nice-looking one. I should know since I’m the one who bought it for fifty bucks from the newspaper classifieds.

The ad read: “Nice leather couch, $50, OBO.”

Fifty bucks. What a deal. There’s nothing that the men in my family loved more than bragging about our good deals. My father, for instance, would drag innocent pedestrians into our garage just to show off his used Ford station wagon because he got a good deal on it.

He would say, “Can you believe the deal I got on this heap? IT WAS THE DEAL OF THE CENTURY!”

Everything was always the “deal of the century” to my father. Even clearance spaghetti sauce at the supermarket.

Anyway, when I bought this sofa I had just recovered from lower back

surgery. The surgeon warned me not to lift anything heavier than a ham sandwich. To move it I enlisted the help of my buddy, Lyle, and my wife, Jamie.

We all arrived at the enormous high-rise condo across town. The unit was located on the 22nd floor. It wasn’t the highest floor, but it was high enough to wave hello to low flying aircraft from the balcony.

The place was grungy and looked like a frat house apartment. No sooner had we walked through the front door than we were greeted by a pile of stinky laundry the size of Mount McKinley, several old pizza boxes, and a half-clothed female.

A young man with a ponytail introduced himself as “Shark.” He smacked the upholstery and said, “She’s a good little sofa, bro. Lotta good memories on this little baby.”

Then he removed a stale slice of pizza…

I am in a rundown breakfast cafe. The kind with torn vinyl seats and Formica countertops. The TV above the bar plays news headlines.

One of the TV’s talking heads shouts, “HOW ARE WE GONNA SAVE THIS WORLD?”

At exactly this moment my waitress appears. She places a plate of hot biscuits before me. She turns off the television and says, “This is how you save the world. Biscuits.”

She laughs at her own remark and walks away. And I am left looking at steaming biscuits, wondering if this woman isn’t correct.

Biscuits are one of those mysterious things that bring out the best in mankind.

Think about it. Have you ever seen anyone rob a bank or hotwire a car while simultaneously eating a biscuit? No. But you’ve probably seen plenty of career criminals eating Miracle Whip. Thus, we can conclude that Miracle Whip is of the Devil. Also, low-fat cottage cheese.

But biscuits? They are downright holy. There are too many varieties to name, but here are a few:

Rolled biscuits, fried biscuits, beaten biscuits,

drop biscuits, angel biscuits, shortcakes, widowmakers, heartstoppers, eye-poppers, Alabama sin cookies, Mississippi mantrappers, Georgia homewreckers, Texas tummy-tuckers, Louisiana lard pellets, buttermilk biscuits, sourdough biscuits, Dutch-oven biscuits, and of course the immortal cathead biscuit.

When I first started writing in earnest, my work was published in a tiny regional newspaper. The editor asked for professional byline—which is a mini biography. But I had no byline since I had never written anything more than a classified ad about a 1986 Ford.

So the editor tried to come up with a few words on my behalf. She asked, “What’re some of your major achievements?”

Achievements? I thought long and hard. “Well, I can swallow my tongue.”

“No, that’s not what I... Wait. Really?”

“Wanna see?”

“Yes. Actually, I would like to see that.”

So I did it. She stared into my open mouth then made a…