On a November day 157 years ago:

The little Pennsylvania hamlet is thumping like a bass drum. Out-of-town visitors are everywhere. They wear their Sunday best—stovepipe hats, frilly dresses, and buckled boots.

Rumor has it that the President just arrived by train. As in: the actual President. This truly is quite a day.

Roughly 15,000 spectators are gathering in a field around a small platform stage, which is now filled with important men in black suits. This land is being christened as a cemetery today.

But don’t look around this pasture too intently, it will chill your blood. And, for heaven’s sake, plug your nose. Rotting human corpses still litter this field by the scores. The stench is overpowering, and the visuals are even worse.

Only three months ago the Battle of Gettysburg happened upon this dirt. A conflict that resulted in 51,000 casualties. After the fight, some 8,000 human bodies were left unburied here, baking in the sun.

Locals have been dealing with carcasses for months now. At night the bonfires

can be seen all over the county.

As far as the nation’s political climate goes: America hates each other. In ways you cannot fathom.

People who once shared pews on Sundays are ramming bayonets into each other. Biological brothers are killing one another. Next-door neighbors are standing toe-to-toe on battlegrounds. About 750,000 will die before this war officially ends.

The keynote speaker today is Edward Everett. He is a ball of fire. He has a shock of white hair and a face that looks like he’s dealing with moderate to severe constipation. Organizers planned this whole shindig around his busy speaking schedule because he’s famous.

The President is also attending. He might say a few words.

The ceremony is madness. Crowds are milling in clumps. The fetid battlefield is nothing but cannonball divots and stink flies. This is an eerie place to be. Human remains are scattered everywhere.…


My mom read me what you wrote about Santa last week and I’m not sure about him. Just being real. ‘Cause if people with the fake beards go play him at the stores then that means he’s not real, so he’s not, right? My mom told me to write you about it.

My parents are divorced this year. My dad has a beard too. My mom just bought me a fruitcake at Walmart and it’s yummy. I never had fruitcake till she got it, and I’m ready for Christmas this year! Sometimes I get sad but I really like your stories.

Please write back,


I agree with you wholeheartedly on the fruitcake. It’s delicious. But—wait a second—it’s too early for Christmas!

Still, because of this pandemic I think almost everyone is ready for a little “Fa-la-la-a-la” right now. So I totally get it.

You're lucky to be spending the holidays in lovely Virginia. And even though Christmastime is a ways off, I wish I were spending it there, too.

Once, I

spent the holidays in that general region when I was younger than you, which is why your letter hit home with me. I’ll never forget it. We were temporarily staying with my aunt in a tiny fleck-on-the-map town in North Carolina.

It was a tough year. My mother was thinking of leaving my father, we were there sorting out our lives. There were heavy feelings in the air. It majorly stunk.

But anyway, my aunt’s house was the berries. I loved it. I spent most of my time ice skating on her kitchen linoleum floor, wearing socks. I was a good kitchen-skater. I could do all the things real skaters did. Triple Axels, Lutzes, quadruple inverted double underpants-splitters, etc.

The only problem was, the kitchen had a floor heater that looked like a throwback to the Revolutionary War. It was old and rusty…

Margie answered her phone. “Hello?”

“Hello?” said a girl’s voice. “Someone told me your husband worked on old cars?”

“My husband? Where’d you hear that? Who is this?”

Margie’s elderly husband did in fact work on cars. It was a lifelong hobby, and he was pretty good at it. He found cars, bought them for a steal, then resold them. Viva la retirement.

Whenever Margie asked him why he worked on cars, he would always answer, “Why the heck not?”

“He’s not a professional,” Margie said into the phone. “He doesn’t fix cars for a living or anything, but, well… I don’t know if he’d be interested in helping.”

“Oh, okay, I’m sorry for bothering you, ma’am.”

“What was it you needed, sweetie? Maybe I can at least ask him when he gets home.”

Long silence. Two strangers. Stuck on the phone.

“Well, ma’am, my car, they say it needs a new transmission. I can’t afford to pay what the mechanic charges. And I really need a car for work.”

“Well, I guess I can take your number.”

“Ain’t got no number, I’m calling from a payphone.”

“A payphone?”

“It’s a long


“Oh, dear.”

Margie looked at her side table to see photographs of a girl she once knew. A blond child, much like the girl on the phone. A daughter who once made her house feel alive. The same little girl who grew up to be twenty-six, then overdosed.

“It’s none of my business,” said Margie. “But do you have somewhere to stay, honey? Everything you need?”

“I’m okay. It’s just, well…” Long pause. “My parents kicked me out.”

This was all beginning to feel too familiar.

“Sweetie, you know what? I’m SURE we can help you, how about my husband comes to look at the car tonight?”

The girl sighed. “No, ma’am, I work nights.”

“Oh, I see. Honey, I don't mean to pry—and you can tell…

Stand-still traffic. I had the windows open and I was breathing in the exhaust from seven thousand cars all trying to get home. There was fruitcake sitting in my passenger seat, glazed in bourbon sauce. A Mark Twain book beside it.

The cake had arrived on my porch anonymously. Along with it, a hardback book, “Life on the Mississippi.” And a card with one sentence on it: “Thank you, Sean.”

So, right there in traffic, I began eating this fruitcake with both hands.

Meanwhile, in my windshield I saw a kid riding a bicycle along the highway shoulder. He was making better time than us motorists in pickup trucks, SUVs, and sassy sports cars.

I waved at him. He waved back. The boy looked so happy compared to the rest of us, and his smile was catching. Soon, I was smiling too. I don’t even know why.

Suddenly, my smile made me hyper-aware of the madness going on around me. It was like someone had peeled open my crusty eyelids and knocked

the fruitcake from my hands. Have you noticed how loud our world is?

Through my open windows I could hear stereos blaring adrenaline-fueled political talk radio. The vehicle behind played angry-sounding music with subnuclear bass notes that rattled my molars. A guy in a Pontiac was shouting into his cellphone. It was chaos, I tell you.

But somehow, I was still smiling in spite of it all. All because of some random kid on a bike, and one anonymous thank-you package.

Then I started thinking about how much unthankfulness is in the world, and how I don’t want to be the guy who perpetuates it.

So, while a mass of idling vehicles clogged the Florida interstate system like a kidney stone from hell, I removed a notepad and began making a list.

This is a sacred practice passed down by my mother, who made me list things I…

This morning, the cashier at the convenience store told me to “Have a nice day.” She said it from behind a glass shield, while wearing a mask.

Here’s the thing. I don’t know her. I don’t know if she and I agree on life issues. I don’t know if we have the same taste in ice cream, or literature, or if she manicures her toenails regularly or just lets them grow long.

But she told me to have a nice day. And it felt good to hear that.

The irony here is that I used to hate this little phrase. It can sound so insincere. But the more I think about it, the more it’s growing on me. After all, who doesn’t deserve a nice day?

So this morning when I sat down to clip my toenails, I decided that I wanted to tell you to have a nice day. Why not? Shoot. Have two.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about a ridiculously happy day. No. Too much happiness can make you

unhappy. That kind of elation is way too much stress. And stress is stress no matter how you look at it. Even happy stress is still stress.

You can be gut-bustingly happy on the day of your wedding, but STILL be so stressed out that you consume too many Bushwhacker cocktails—as was the case in the 2002 incident when my uncle danced on top of the groom’s mother’s table.

So I wish you easiness. Relaxation. A very mellow, simple day. Like playing table tennis without gravity. Like sitting in a comfortable chair and watching goldfish. Like sailing a boat on mirror-like water.

My father used to look at smooth water and always say, “That water’s slicker than owl spit.” I loved this particular phrase and often used it to impress my Sunday school teachers.

I hope you have an owl spit kind of day. I…

It hangs from my porch, slack on a breezeless day. It is stunning in the early sunlight. The colors are so vivid you can see them from 76 miles away. Oxide red, ivory, and ultramarine blue.

These three colors are everywhere in my neighborhood. Heck, they’re in every neighborhood in every state. They hang from patios, flagpoles, and vehicle antennas. They are plastered to bumpers, windshields, on hats, bandanas, and coffee mugs.

Sometimes you can see so many flags you forget they’re around. But believe me, they’re out there.

I’ve never done this before, but this morning I counted them. I drove around tallying up how many American flags I saw. I counted 208 within a few-mile radius. Even more if you counted the miniature flags perched in front yards.

I saw them in front windows, on warehouse rooftops, I even saw one painted on a dump truck. They hang from hardware stores, gas stations, barbecue joints, laundromats, Mexican restaurants, barber shops, assisted living facilities, newspaper offices, auto garages, churches, beer joints, synagogues, nightclubs, strip malls, vape

superstores, banks, rehabs, jails, and beach condos.

I remember seeing the Stars and Stripes in Mrs. Wilks’s kindergarten classroom. The poor woman tried to teach 18 of us kids with runny noses to recite the Pledge each morning. Her patriotic banner dangled above the chalkboard next to the alphabet posters and a painting of General Washington.

If I close my eyes, I can still see that linoleum and asbestos classroom, and I can still hear Mrs. Wilks playing the upright Mason & Hamlin while we learned the lyrics to the patriotic classics:

“...Stand beside her, and guide her…”

“...From sea to shining sea…”

“...And the rocket’s red glare…”

“...And forever in peace may you wave…”

“...My home sweet home…”

“This land is your land…”

“American woman, mama let me be…”

Well, maybe not the last one.

But you should have heard the kids…

Even though there is a lot going on in America right now, I thought you deserved a short break from TV news. Yes, I realize important things are happening in this world. But I’m going to tell you about dogs.

You can stop reading here if you would rather read something more enthralling. Believe me, I will understand.

But the reason I bring up these dogs is because after a recent column in which I mentioned Saint Bernards, the next morning I awoke to a mounding pile of emails about them. I had no idea people were so crazy about Saint Bernards.

Carrie, from Houston, emailed me several articles about the breed, and I found myself reading about these dogs all danged afternoon instead of, say, starting on my 36-month-old honey-do list.

So let’s journey across the Atlantic for a moment and go back in time. Our story opens with an ancient monastery located at 8,000 feet within the bitter Western Alps. Far, far, FAR away from cable TV.

This region

of the Alps has always been an über dangerous place. On average, 1,000 avalanches occur here each year, and they are often fatal.

If you are an alpine hiker, once you hear the crackling land-shaking boom in the distance, you are, to quote the Swiss monks, “totally screwed.” Each year about 100 people are killed in avalanches in the Alps.

Which leads us to L'Hospice du Gd-St-Bernard, a nondescript, plain-looking hostel situated off the 49-mile route that runs between Italy and Switzerland.

The monastery saw a lot of mountain travelers in its time. The monks became famous for their kindness, hospitality, piety, wisdom, and for having the most butt-kickingest homebrew beer ever.

Actually, I’m kidding about the beer. I don’t know how good it was. But what I do know is that during the seventeenth century one of these monks had the bright idea to breed dogs. And that’s…

Today I was thinking about how sometimes even though this life seems like a chaotic trainwreck of accidents, it’s not. In fact it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s almost as though the whole thing has been scripted. Like maybe there are no accidents.

Which leads me to a story sent in by a friend. Many years ago this friend, who shall remain nameless, was driving through a little town, which shall also remain nameless. He was driving a truck, which, as far as I know, has no name either.

He was listening to music, probably some Duane and Greg. And I’ll bet he was singing along. On the side of the road he saw a sign that read: “Puppies.”

My friend is a noted dog afficiondo, and he is also dad to three kids who are dog freaks. His previous dog had passed that year and he was in the market.

The handmade signs led him to a dilapidated house. And we’re talking about a true ramshackled heap. A stiff wind could have turned this

thing into a pile of pickup sticks.

In the front yard were several kids playing. On the porch was their mother, smoking a cigarette. He leapt out of the truck and waded through the lawn of dead appliances, rusted bikes, and rain-soaked trash.

The house was even worse than he thought. There were threadbare tarps over the roof, and windows missing. The kids were in bad shape, too. They looked like they hadn’t bathed since the Punic Wars.

He saw no puppies, but there on the porch, sitting beside the woman was the most beautiful adult dog he’d ever met. A Saint Bernard.

Many people have never seen a Bernard except in the movies, and they’re unprepared for how impressive these creatures are. A Saint Bernard is not just a dog. It’s a breed that’s been around since the seventeenth century with a reputation, historically speaking,…

It’s November, but Mike is already getting the red velveteen suit from the closet. Because Christmas is getting closer, and Saint Nicholas has work to do. Namely, his dry cleaning.

The first time they ever asked Mike to play Santa he was hurt by the suggestion. Sure, he’s a bigger guy, but he didn't see himself as having a “bowlful of jelly” tummy. Still, when someone asks you to play Father Christmas they aren’t exactly asking you to pose for a Calvin Klein underwear ad.

“Yeah, I've always been overweight, but I was a little offended,” said Mike.

He played Santa anyway, and he had big fun. It came easy to him because he’s a nice guy with a cheerful face. He looks like the real deal. Over the years he’s grown into his role.

“My first professional gig was at PetSmart, in a cheap Party City suit, posing with animals. The ferrets were a hoot. But fifteen minutes before I was done, I saw this woman in line holding plastic boxes... Snakes, it had to

be snakes.”

After that, the Santa gigs kept rolling in. Soon it had become more than just a job. Mike realized he was tending to the wonder and imaginations of children.

Many people might not see the role of Santa as that important, but just think about it: where would your childhood have been without the Big Guy? It would have been in the pits, that’s where.

The magic of youth is easily extinguished by a stiff breeze. It is only kept alive by men and women who guard it with their lives. Every time a Santa puts on his suit, he is defending innocence. And every year he hears the same things all practicing Saints hear.

“My dog died.”

“My mom has cancer, I’m scared.”

“Can you bring back my dad from Heaven?”

“Will foster parents ever want to adopt me?”

And Mike…

Used to, my wife and I would keep our porch lights on for trick-or-treaters each Halloween night. We gave them homemade popcorn balls. At one time we were famous because of these popcorn confections, which were the size of regulation softballs, covered in sticky, ooey-gooey goodness.

Over the years I have seen children get into bitter arguments over these popcorn balls.

This year, however, we’re only doing pandemic-friendly plastic-wrapped candy. But then, it really wouldn’t matter what I’m handing out because there are no trick-or-treaters in sight.

Even so, I still remember when kids would climb our stoop wearing costumes purchased from department stores, or sewn by their creative mothers. You’d toss popcorn balls into their open pillowcases and they would get so excited.

After which you’d hear the voices of unseen dads in the dark saying, “Say thank you, dang it!”

Then, five or six kids would suddenly remember their manners. “Thank you!”

Oh, we would get all kinds of monsters. We’d get werewolves, vampires, swamp monsters, zombies, the undead, the extreme undead, ski-mask

killers, Texas chainsaw massacrists, and miniature congresspersons.

One time a kid came to our porch dressed as Kermit the Frog. I gave that kid a carton of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from our freezer because his was the only costume I actually recognized among all the Jedis and licensed Disney characters. He deserved WAY more than a mere popcorn ball for that.

My yearly custom has always been to answer the door in costume. I do it for the kids. Most years I dress up as an out-of-work writer plagued by crippling self-doubt and introversion.

Sometimes we would get one or two kids whose costumes wore nothing more than glorified bedsheets with holes in them. And I would give these children extra popcorn balls because not everyone’s mom had time for costumes.

We also had a stand-offish religious family in our neighborhood who dressed…