LAGUARDIA AIRPORT—I am in a line a mile long. Actually, it’s not a mile. I'm exaggerating for literary value. In truth, the line is three hundred thousand kilometers long.

There are two women having a conversation behind me:

The woman says, “So I just says to him, ‘Lou, I’m not gonna take it anymore.’”

“Good for you,” says the other.

“That’s what I told him.”

“You really said it?”

“I just opened my mouth and said ‘Lou, I’m not doing it, I’m not gonna take it.’”

“You go, girl.”

We’re all waiting to get through the TSA checkpoint, which is a lot like checking in to federal prison. You have to remove your clothes, take off your shoes, get frisked, and say your ABC’s backward.

The man herding people through security looks like he starred in the movie “My Cousin Vinny.”

And he only knows two words: “Quickly, please.”

Vinny is working hard, scanning people with an electronic wand, barking at children, and demanding that elderly people remove their insulin pumps and dental fillings before going through

the scanner.

“Quickly, please.”

I remove my boots and place my backpack onto a conveyor belt.

The talking women behind me never quit.

“That’s exactly how I told it to him, ‘I’m done, Lou.’”

“You really said it like that?”


“To Lou?”

“I told him.”

On my first attempt walking through the X-ray machine, I set off the alarm. I try a second time, it beeps again.

“Sir,” says Vinny. “Please remove your belt.”

“My belt?”

“Quickly, please.”

This belt buckle always gets me into trouble with metal detectors. But it is a special buckle I bought when I visited my father’s grave. I wear it every day because it reminds me of him.

It also holds my pants up.

We try the scanner again.…

“You aren’t from New York, are you? Wanna know how I know that?”

New York City—my plane just touched down. LaGuardia Airport is a nightmare.

I am here for the BookExpo America, the largest book fair in the U.S. Think: Disneyland for people with big vocabularies.

I have only visited this city once before. I was a teenager, traveling with the church choir.

I was such a nervous wreck I had a panic attack downtown. Dizziness, heart racing, the works. The choir director took me to a walk-in clinic and they gave me a sedative that made me drool on the subway ride back.

I come from simple people. My mother often told horror stories about such big cities. These urban legends were almost never true, but they freaked me out.

“Did you hear about my friend’s sister, Jeanne?” Mother might say. “Her brother’s cousin’s neighbor’s nephew was in New York for a wedding, someone shot him in the kneecaps when he was leaving church, then threw him into the Hudson River.”

Welcome to New York.

I hail a Yellow Cab. I am in the backseat.

My driver is from Indonesia. He drives like he’s clinically insane.

He is telling me about himself, but I can’t focus on a word he says because—it’s important that you understand this—there is a lizard is in his backseat.

“Where are you from?” the driver asks.

“Why is there a lizard in my seat?” I say.

“You aren’t from New York, are you? Wanna know how I know that?”

“Can we please slow down?”

“Because you are not wearing all-black Ha!”

“I think your lizard is carsick.”

The cab spits me out onto 76,397th Street, and charges me six hundred dollars. Soon, I am wandering sidewalks, looking for my hotel.

I am lost. I can’t seem to find my way. My mother’s horror stories are coming back to me.

Like the one about the man in…

My wife loves this magazine, too. When we first married, we moved into an ratty apartment. She brought a box of hardback cookbooks with her. The magazine produces a yearly compilation of its recipes.

On my mother’s coffee table. A magazine. Always, this magazine. Ever since I can remember.

To her, it was the magazine of all magazines—second only to a Billy Graham newsletter. It sat beside her Bible, between a bowl of potpourri and an ashtray for company.

I have memories of her reading recipes. Hot chicken salad casserole was one such recipe. If you have never had hot chicken salad casserole, I’ll pray for you.

She had hundreds of back issues. They sat in the corner. Over the years, they collected dust bunnies that were roughly the size of Joe Namath.

Sometimes, she used these magazines to balance rickety tables. Other times, she rolled them up tightly to use as disciplinary devices on sass-mouths.

My wife loves this magazine, too. When we first married, we moved into a ratty apartment. She brought a box of hardback cookbooks with her—yearly compilations of the magazine’s recipes.

“Are those all yours?” I asked.

“Yeah, been collecting them since I was a kid, my parents give

me a new cookbook every Christmas. It’s tradition.”

That’s when I knew I had married the right woman. The kind of woman who would never wear white after Labor Day because her mother would have strangled her with the cord from a kitchen mixer.

To the women in my life, it was more than a magazine. It was the secret to red velvet cake. It was a collection of house plans they daydreamed about. It was like Emily Post and Dale Earnhardt had given birth to a love child on Mama’s coffee table.

Every church lady revered it. Every elementary school teacher read it on lunch break.

And rumor had it—I shouldn’t be telling you this—that Michael Swanson’s mother, Miss Adeline, tattooed the famous ‘79-issue banana pudding recipe on a hidden region of her body.

You didn’t hear that from me.…

It’s late night. She’s driving an empty highway. The radio is playing something lively. She’s heading toward South Carolina. A new life. A new job. A new town.

She’s got a lot going for her. She’s fresh out of college, smart, ambitious, she comes from a good family, she’s got all the support she can stand.

She’s giddy about her new job. She starts on Monday. She’ll get her own office, good benefits, the whole enchilada. She’s wondering where life is going to take her next, and she’s feeling pure excitement.

She doesn’t see the deer jump in front of her. All she hears is the sound of crunching.

It’s over fast. She smashes into a guardrail, her vehicle tumbles a few times. There is blood in her vision, but she’s not hurt—it’s a miracle.

Her car is wrecked, she’s stuck in a ditch, but she’s alive with no broken bones. She tries to crawl out of the vehicle, but the door is jammed.

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

Her new friend says, “You’re gonna be alright.”

It’s dark. They hike toward the highway to flag a car down. When she gets to the road, the man is gone.

Here’s another:

Bill has cancer. It started as a skin problem on his back. It grew fast. It spread. Doctors operate and cut it out.

After the invasive procedure, he lies on a hospital bed, subjected to lethal doses of daytime television.

Bill is sad. He has no wife, no children, no immediate family to visit him. He’s never felt as alone as he does today.


He sees a child, standing by the open door. He doesn’t know how the boy got in. Only friends and family are allowed to visit—Bill has…

We lost touch a long, long time ago. He probably wouldn’t have been able to pick the adult-me out of a crowd.

He was unknown to you. But not to me. We were friends. Sort of.

Ours wasn’t a long lasting friendship, but we rode the school bus together. So I guess that made us friends.

He would save a seat for me; I would board the bus, walk the aisle, and plop on the cushion beside him.

He was funny. We laughed a lot. Some kids are just born to be funny.

He kept a journal of sketches. They were good. He could draw anything. And I remember when he trusted me enough to let me look through his journal. Inside were dozens of bald eagles.

“Why do you draw so many eagles?” I asked.

“‘Cause they’re cool, why else?”

He didn’t have many friends because he was shy, and shy people are like that. I was the same way.

Between the two of us we were so timid we squeaked. And if ever we saw each other outside the confines of the bus, we were even shy

around each other.

When he got a part in the school play, nobody was sure how it would go. The kid was so quiet he wouldn’t even raise a hand in class.

He was afraid to play football, he didn’t like baseball. He liked to read and draw instead.

Yet here he was playing Mayor Shinn in the Music Man.

I was in the musical, too. In fact, I played one of the guys in the barbershop quartet. Our quartet sang a song named “Sincere.”

I still remember the lyrics:

“How can there be any sin in sincere?
“Where is the good in goodbye?
“Your apprehensions confuse me dear,
“Puzzle and mystify...”

There are some things you don’t forget.

I was the bass singer for the group. Not because I actually sang bass, but because I was…

I was a round child with curly copper hair, freckles, buck teeth, big feet, and fat knees, who mostly daydreamed about meatloaf.

Today is World Redhead Day. And as a longtime redhead, I am in full support of this important national holiday.

It is difficult growing up as a redhead. For me it was doubly hard because I was also chubby.

I was a round child with curly copper hair, freckles, buck teeth, big feet, and puffy knees, who mostly daydreamed about meatloaf.

To make matters worse, in fourth-grade P.E. class, our uniforms included a white T-shirt with our last names on the backs.

Across my shoulders, in permanent marker, was written: “DIETRICH.” Which, if you’ll notice, clearly looks like the two words: “DIET” and “RICH.”

You can imagine the jokes.

“Hey, DIET RICH! Did you eat a RICH DIET today, pucker face?”

At the beginning of each gym period we were supposed to jog around the parking lot for twelve minutes straight. I don’t know why twelve instead of, say, three, but I believe our gym teacher was a sociopath.

I ran with the same grace as John

Belushi. The P.E. teacher, Mister Danny, would sound his whistle whenever he didn’t feel I wasn’t showing enough “hustle.”

Mister Danny was obsessed with hustle. It was all he talked about. And I’m sure it was his favorite dance to perform at various wedding receptions.

But it didn’t matter if I were running harder than Forty-Mule-Team Borax, still he’d yell, “Dietrich! Show some more hustle!”

The skinny kids would howl when I lagged behind the rest of the joggers. They would run past me, fuzz my hair, and say, “Rub a ginger for good luck!”

Or: “Hey DIET RICH, Your mama should pay the ice cream man to keep on driving!”

It hurt. In fact, it still hurts. But I tolerated it because I knew that as soon as school let out, my mother would make meatloaf for supper.

And I love meatloaf.…

I am at a dinner table with two well-dressed older women, sipping iced tea before appetizers. One of them is my elderly mother-in-law, Mother Mary. The other is her younger sister, Aunt Cat.

There are sprigs of mint in the tea. Fine silver on the table. We are having a conversation.

At least, I think that’s what you’d call it.

“I just love oysters,” says Mother Mary, who wears a white blouse, pink pants, and a Life Alert bracelet.

“It doesn’t matter how they’re cooked,” Mary goes on. “I love oysters.”

“Me, too,” says Aunt Cat. “I love them, but I don’t actually eat oysters, I only like their smell.”

“The smell?” says Mother Mary. “Oysters don’t have a smell.”

“Yes they do,” says Aunt Cat. “I like the smell.”

“They don’t have a smell. Besides, you can’t love food just for its smell, you need to either sit or get off the pot.”

“I can like whichever smells I want.”

Mother Mary laughs. “That’s like saying you love Elvis

only for his shoes.”

“I happen to like Elvis’ shoes. In fact, I’m pretty sure he sang a song about shoes.”

“No, no. You’re thinking about Nancy Sinatra. And her song was about boots. That song has always brought out my sassy side. I can be sassy.”

It’s about time I interject.

“Elvis DID sing about shoes,” I add. “It goes: ‘One for the money, two for the show…’”

“That song’s not about shoes,” says Mary. “It’s about his hound dog.”

So I show Mother Mary my cellphone to prove it. On the screen is a video clip of Elvis.

“See?” I say. “It says right here, the song is entitled ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’”

“Well,” Mary says, “I’ve never heard it called that, and I’m older than YouTube. And I remember that song when it…

I have always had a soft spot for old men. From my childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body.

I am backstage, about to tell stories onstage. A woman with a clipboard announces, “Ten minutes to showtime.”

I am tuning my guitar, hoping I won’t stink tonight.

This is what all performers think about before they go onstage. They say silent prayers that all go, more or less, the same way.

“Dear God, don’t let me stink tonight.”

It’s easy to stink at storytelling because there is no school for it. There are no credentials, either.

Which leads me to ask: “What am I doing with my life?”

I am still unclear on how I started telling stories for a living. The only education I have in storytelling came from elderly men who wore Velcro shoes.

I have always had a soft spot for old men. From childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body. I never fit in with peers. This was only made worse by the fact that I was raised fundamentalist.

As a young man, I would find myself in a crowd of teenagers who were smoking cigarettes, sipping longnecks, far from parental eyes. And for some reason, nobody ever offered me any real chances at sinning.

I would have appreciated the opportunity, but they viewed me as different. It was as though I were elderly.

Once, as a joke, my friend Jordan handed me a lit cigarette in front of everybody. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a wimp, so I took the biggest drag I could. I almost died from a coughing fit.

My friends howled when they discovered that I had peed my pants a little from hacking so hard.

I can’t believe I just told you that.

Thus, I was blacklisted. I was the old man of the group. During social situations, I would generally hang in the corner, drinking prune juice, adjusting my Velcro…

My cousin Ed Lee claims that, after many years of personal research, he has found a sure-fire repellent for the yellow fly.

And on the Eighth Day, when the Lord finished creating the world, and was leaning back into his recliner, watching Golden Girls on TV Land, the Devil snuck into Heaven’s control room and said unto himself, “Let there be yellow flies.”

And up from the pit of Hell, where the worm dieth not and the creator of Miracle Whip is imprisoned forevermore, arose a swarm of Floridian yellow flies (also known as deer flies). And the Devil saw it and he said that it was “pretty good.”

And here we are.

The Panhandle yellow fly is a vicious, aggressive, bloodsucking insect. When they bite, two things happen. First, you swell up like a water wing. Second, you die.

My cousin Ed Lee claims that, after many years of personal research, he has found a sure-fire repellent for the yellow fly.

“Beer is the secret,” Ed Lee explains. “Seriously, there are complex B vitamins in beer, they come out through your pores and yellow flies don’t want nothing

to do with B vitamins.”

A few nights ago, on Ed Lee’s porch, he tested his hypothesis with an adult beverage in his hand. Ed Lee’s bare legs were covered in yellow flies.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked. “You have yellow flies all over your legs.”

“You worry too much,” came his response.

Long ago, I dated a girl who moved to Florida from Arkansas. She said they didn’t have yellow flies up there.

A few yellow flies got trapped in her mother’s car while she was driving. They bit her mother twenty-eight times. When she got home she called for her husband, he was bitten thirty-six times. A few days later, they moved back to Arkansas.

And one time my uncle’s friend, Jerry, was sitting on a screened porch. There was a rip in his screen door. Flies came in by the dozen.…

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.


I want to be a writer, but sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t even bother to write at all since everyone else is better than I am.



I think you should keep writing. Especially when you feel like you aren’t any good.

I have written my worst stuff on my best days and my best stuff on my worst days. And it’s been the greatest thrill of my life.

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

For instance, I have written a lot about my late dog, Ellie Mae. Once, she ate an entire jar of coffee grounds. I discovered that coffee stimulates the lower intestines of an animal.

Don’t ask me how I learned this.

I also wrote about the time I got stranded on an island for four hours. No kidding. My boat motor died, the current pushed me into the grass flats of the Choctawhatchee Bay. I

had to wait until I got rescued by a man with beer.

I wrote about the time I dressed up like Elvis for a talent show. And about the time I did a ventriloquist act with the puppet of a squirrel. The puppet’s name was Ernie.

The next morning I wrote about it.

There was my college professor. When my first book got published, I gave her a stack of books and told her she was the reason. I wrote about that.

And about the woman who shares my life. My wife. Once, I sat in a waiting room at UAB, asking Heaven to make her better again. And when Heaven answered, I had to write about it.

Only ten minutes after I received news that my thirteen-year-old coffee-eating bloodhound had died, I wrote about it. My face was swollen, my eyes…