Rural Illinois. It’s been a hard year for 10-year-old Greg. It’s not just global pandemics, scary events in Washington D.C., nor the fact that it’s colder than eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death outside. It’s more than that. Greg’s mother has breast cancer. So everything stinks.

Greg decided it was time to make his own fun. The problem is, of course, all the conditions were against him. The winter sky looked like pewter. And it was so cold you had to open the fridge to heat the house.

But then, nothing is impossible for a dedicated child. Greg decided he was going to get up a baseball game.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking the same thing. What an unfitting season to have a ballgame. Especially when your region is experiencing lows of 20 to 30 degrees.

But it’s been a weird year for Greg, completely devoid of fun. He and his brother have watched his mother fight with her own body. And they have watched Greg’s father learn to do laundry, cook suppers, and become

a caregiver. They needed fun.

First, Greg approached Jason (age 9) and Andrew (10), who said they were all in for a ballgame. Next, the boys talked to Jon (10) and his brother Van (13). Everyone said, yeah, a baseball game was totally doable.

Whereupon they all biked to Martin’s (11) house, and pitched the idea. Martin was immediately onboard. But there was a snag. Martin’s sister, Laura (7), wanted to play too.

At which point Martin’s mother (42) said the boys had better include Martin’s sister or else they would have to clean the gutters for their Granny (74).

“Laura plays too rough,” explains her brother. “But we said she could play if she didn’t punch anybody.”

Laura crossed her heart. So things were working out.

Then Jon’s mother got involved. Mainly, because Jon’s mother is one of those type-A people who actually enjoys organizing…

If you would’ve told me 10 years ago I’d be receiving letters from people who wanted to be writers, I would have laughed and asked you to refill my Ovaltine.

But the truth is, I receive messages about this very thing from aspiring writers all the time. Nearly without fail, most of them actually use the word “aspire” in their letters.

Here are some excerpts:

“I’m an aspiring writer, please help me figure out how to go about this.”

“I an aspiring author… I’m 18, I’d like to know what my next step should be.”

“I’m 71 years old, I aspire to be a writer, do you have any tips...?”

So I wanted to depart from my usual subject matter and take a moment to address these letters. Because I know from my own pitiful experience that there is nothing more frustrating than wanting to BE something but not knowing how.

Which leads to my first point. And this is the main thing I want to tell the good people who have contacted me: Quit calling yourself an

“aspiring writer.” You are not an aspiring writer. You are a REAL WRITER.

Simply put, if you write, you’re already the real deal. I truly believe this.

After all, you don’t aspire to be alive, do you? Nobody living in New York aspires to be a New Yorker. Birches don’t aspire to be trees. Episcopalians don’t aspire to be Episcopalians; they simply open a Pabst Blue Ribbon and shout, “And also with YOU!” ‘Piskies are fun!

Skill has nothing to do with who you are. Who you are is who you are. And if you like writing stuff, you are a writer. Not an aspiring one. A true writer.

Now you say it.

See how easy that was? You’re legit now. Identity crisis solved. Now you can go on with your life.

I realize you probably think I’m being lighthearted here, but…

“So you’re the writer who wants to hear my story?”

Yessir. I’m the guy. Thanks for taking my call, I know you’re a busy man.

“Busy? In a retirement home? Yeah, I’m slammed. Say, I knew a Dietrich when I was in high school, ‘bout 70 years ago. In Chicago. Bill, Bill Dietrich. You related to him?”


“Well, good for you. Bill was a sorry piece of work. Nobody would wanna be related to him.”

Your daughter Janell told me you have a story.

“Story? Aw jeez, I wish she wouldn’t have told you that. I don’t like telling that story on account of people think I lost my mind. I’m sorry, sir, I don’t think I want to tell it today. I’m just not in the mood.”

Okay. I absolutely understand.

“It all started like this, you see. I’s working in sales in Chicago, I never got to see my family. It was real hard, my kids hardly knew me, I missed their birthdays and everything. But when you’re a young guy, you only care about money.

“Well, back then they didn’t pay for salesmen to fly

unless you were a hot shot, so I drove everywhere. Had a ‘66 Chevy Caprice, I’d driven it to almost every state.”

That’s a lot of driving.

“Don’t I know it. So one night, I’m driving, and I’m missing my daughter’s birthday because I’m on the road to some little Indiana town. It’s late, I’m riding over this big, tall bridge over a river or creek or something. Listening to the radio. And I see an enormous light coming toward me. I mean big.”

A light?

“Yep. And the closer I get, I can see it’s actually TWO SETS of headlights, coming at me.”

And you’re on a bridge?

“A very tall bridge.”

So what happened?

“Well, right away I can see it’s two delivery trucks, and the idiots are passing…

I received an anxious email from 26-year-old Candace, who, among many other things, writes:

“I’m so [expletive] mad right now… America is a [double expletive] trainwreck... And why are people are so evil? What’s going to happen to us?”

At first I was not sure how to answer this message, since I’m no expert. But then it dawned on me, I can actually answer her question.

Which is rare for me. Many times I am asked questions I cannot answer. Questions such as: “What is the capital of Ohio?” “Are you Episcopalian?” and “Why didn’t you pull over when I flashed my blue lights, sir?”

So I’ll answer your question outright, Candace. I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen to America next. Play by play.

The first thing that will happen tomorrow is that at 6:42 A.M., in my hometown, the sun will rise. It will rise at 7:11 in Boston; 7:42 in Atlanta; 7:17 in Saint Louis; 6:51 in Las Vegas; and in Seattle meteorologists expect to see the sun

in mid-July.

After sunrise, people will stumble out of bedrooms, yawning, dressed in pajamas. Well, technically, only 52 percent of Americans will be wearing pajamas, the other half will be buck naked.

I’m completely serious. Roughly 48 percent of Americans sleep unclothed, or partially clothed. And in the coming years this statistic will change because a survey recently discovered that two-thirds of millennials sleep “in the raw.”

So after we Americans stagger from bedrooms, wearing nothing but the Joy of the Lord, do you know where this country will be heading next? That’s right. The coffee pot.

Currently, 150 million Americans drink coffee. This means that each morning, as a nation, we fiddle with Japanese manufactured coffeemakers to brew the sacred life-juice that nurses our stimulant-deprived animal brains into low-level awareness.

What happens to our nation next? Glad you asked. Something urgent. While coffee perks, 85 million U.S.…

He stands before his mirror, adjusting his collar, fixing his white hair until it’s just so. He’s thinking of her.

She always took care of him. He was used to having her do all the little things. Not just the laundry and cooking. Any trained dog can learn to do his own laundry. It was things like stocking his favorite snacks in the pantry, always refilling his prescriptions, or remembering to replace the toilet paper.

Above all, he says he misses having her beside him in bed. King beds don’t feel the same without the weight of another person beside you. A bed can feel like a tomb when you sleep alone.

Her dog, Martin, misses her too. The first day she didn’t come home, he took Martin on a walk and the loneliness was overwhelming. This Labrador was her friend.

Martin sleeps beside him at night now, in her old spot. But it’s just not the same.

He’s switched to using instant coffee because he can never remember to set the coffeemaker. Besides, he doesn’t see

the point of making a full pot for just one person. It’s funny how dependent a man can become on another. He says he hasn’t made his own coffee in half a century. Or eggs. He can’t figure out how to flip them without breaking the yolks.

He says, “Nobody tells you that you’re going to be afraid a lot when you lose your wife. You know, even though you’re the man of the family, and always have been, she was kinda your strength.”

He’s adapting though. In the last few years he’s come to truly enjoy his daily walks with Martin. They follow the same route she used to take through the neighborhood. When he gets home, he and Martin eat lunch. Then they piddle.

He says the memories of her don’t hurt anymore, they just make him warm.

“We watched each…

Louisiana. A minuscule town. Grace’s mother watches her daughter get ready for her big date tonight. She is reminding herself not to cry. Although she wants to shed tears. Because kids grow up so very fast.

Sixteen-year-old Grace is seated before her mirror, cross-legged on the floor. Her mother is fixing her hair. Grace’s mother used to be a hairdresser in a former life, so she knows what she’s doing. They aren’t even close to the makeup application stage yet.


Over at Chad’s house, Chad’s dad comes barreling into the hallway after work, clueless as a Clydesdale. He finds Chad’s mom spying on her 17-year-old son.

Mom is camped outside the boy’s room. “Ssshhh!” she says.

Chad’s father peeks into the bedroom. Chad is wearing a brand new shirt. And—WHOA!—is Chad wearing hair gel?! Dad suppresses a laugh. He turns to see Mom smiling, too.

Back at Grace’s house. Grace and her mother have now moved on to the makeup phase launch sequence. This is going to take a while.

Her mother is positioning trays and brushes on

the dresser like Rembrandt at the easel. Grace seems like she’s having a hard time getting a deep breath tonight.


Her mother places a hand on Grace’s shoulder to steady her. This year has been a difficult year for American teenagers. Pandemics, social unrest, social distancing, and now the horrific events in our nation’s capital. What a hellish time to grow up. What an era to be a kid.

At the same time, 12 miles away, Chad has again stripped off his outfit. He now decides he hates his entire wardrobe. His bedroom floor is an ocean of failed clothing options. He browses his empty closet, dressed in only his underpants. His skinny, pale torso contains 0.0003 ounces of body fat. Every rib shows.

Chad’s mother wants to help her son dress, to put him in a shirt that will…

I have here a message from 12-year-old Amy, who wrote me today. The main thrust of her email was this:

“...I’m really scared about what’s happening in the world, can you make me feel any better?”

Well, you’d have to be an ostrich not to know which world events Amy is scared about. In fact, there are too many frightful events to list here.

Not only has this year been fraught with viruses, unemployment, and deadly scenes taking place in Washington D.C., but as I write this, the current year is only 10 days old.

So you have every right to be afraid, Amy; you are a human being. And you’re not alone, either. This morning after reading the newspaper the first thing I did was pour myself a stiff shot of Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed.

But if you ask me, your biggest problem (and mine) is not current events. It’s fear. Which has a lot to do with how we mammals are wired. We have low thresholds for stress.

Take the rhinoceros.

This is a powerful animal who can withstand predators, hunters, droughts, and even confinement. But when a rhino sees a vehicle chasing it, do you know what sometimes happens? It drops dead.

We’re talking about one of the oldest surviving species on this planet, a creature which existed alongside sabre-toothed cats. Not to mention that a rhino can weigh upwards of 5,100 pounds and grow 11 feet long. But it’s terrified of a Jeep Wrangler.

Deer are even worse. There are cases of deer getting trapped in wire fences only to die from fright when a farmer tries to free them.

Horses too. I’ve read about horses who died during noisy fireworks displays. The cause of death? A “twisted gut” from fear.

And rabbits. A rabbit can die from cardiac arrest in the presence of loud rock-and-roll music.

Sheep and goats sometimes have heart attacks…