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…