Yeah, I was surprised. Big-time surprised.

I got home at a quarter till. My car approached the neighborhood. It was the perfect December eventide. The sun was setting over Birmingham. The foothills of Appalachia were kissed by a golden sundown, like miniature mountainsides topped with Kraft Velveeta cheese.

My house was within eyeshot. I could see my porch through the windshield. My house’s porch was crowded with people. Lots of people. There were maybe a hundred.

I got out of the car. People cheered. “Happy birthday!” My wife ran up to me. She greeted me with tears in her eyes. The crowd began to sing “Happy Birthday,” off-pitch, like a choir of Labradoodles with sinus infections.

I stepped onto the porch and an ordained priest handed me a beer. “Drink up birthday boy,” said the Episcopal priest, cracking open my can.

You have to love Episcopalians.

I hugged Aaron first. Dear Aaron. Aaron and his wife, April, are family to me. Longtime friends. They are as true as the book of Leviticus; pure as Geneva County

tomatoes. “We love you, man,” he said.

I choked back tears.

Next, I embraced Julie and her husband Jake. Julie is my longtime fiction editor—God help her. Julie edited my very first novel, years ago. I will never forget it, Julie’s first manuscript note to me was: “Too many fart jokes.”

We hugged and I felt the dam begin to break.

Next came Patrick. Patrick and I play music together. Then Kelly, who also plays music with me. Then Tom and Fred, my longest held friends and bandmates.

Then my neighbors. Jeff, Donna, Kim, Mistey, and Elizabeth.

I hugged each of them. “Happy birthday,” they all said.

The tears were knocking at my door. But I was diligent to hold the weeping back because I was raised by stoic Baptists who did not cry unless Gloria Gaither said we could.

Next, I hugged Katie…


All I want this year is for this girl in my third period class to go on a date with me, but she’s way out of my league.

Please help,


I’ll put this in the nicest way I can: If you’re asking me for advice, you are officially up the proverbial creek without a roll of toilet paper.

I am the last guy to ask. When I was fifteen, there was this girl named Chloe. I liked her. And I mean “liked” with a capital L. All I wanted was for Chloe to look longingly into my eyes and utter those few words every boy wants to here: “Let’s purchase real estate together.”

But I didn’t have a chance in twelve hells because I was—follow me closely here—an idiot. Certainly, I wanted to be the sort of guy who could approach a girl, but whenever I was in the same room with even one microgram of estrogen my IQ was reduced to that of a water-heater.

So I asked my older cousin Ed Lee

for advice. As it happened, Ed Lee had extensive experience with the opposite sex and had even talked to a girl once in first grade. His suggestion for getting Chloe’s attention was simple:

Let the air out of her mother’s tires.

My cousin’s actual idea was to slightly deflate Chloe’s mother’s tires. Then, when Chloe’s mother drove her to school, one of the tires would go flat. Once the tire flattened—I think you’re catching my drift here—my cousin and I would “happen to be cruising through the area” in my uncle’s 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon. And we would be heroes.

We would pull over, stride to their car triumphantly, tell the ladies not to be afraid, then like the mechanical-expert beefcakes we were, we would call AAA Roadside Assistance.

Or even better, WE WOULD CHANGE THE TIRE. It…

Ring, ring.

I answer. “Hello?”

“Yeah, hi. Is this Sean Dietrich?”

“This is he. Who am I speaking with?”

“Omigosh. My name is Leah.”

“Hello, Leah. You sound very young. How old are you?”

“Omigosh. I’m turning 11 years old in a few days.”

“Wow. Well, happy birthday. And pleased to meet you, Leah.”

“Omigosh. This is so cool.”

“What can I do for you, Leah?”


“Well,” she began, “I don’t really know what to say. I just called because I wanted to, well, to meet you for my birthday wish, so my mom got your phone number so that we could talk.”

“I see. And how did she get this number, Leah? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Your wife gave it to us.”

“Does your mother know my wife?”

“No, but Mom is friends with your wife’s cousin’s best friend’s aunt’s nephew’s dentist’s landlord’s neighbor’s mechanic’s attorney’s plumber, who lives in Dothan, and goes to Bible study with my mother’s distant cousin in Opp. So my mom texted some people, they found your wife’s number.”

“Small world.”

“Is this a bad time? I can call back.”

“No, Leah, this is a perfect time. How are you doing?”


okay, I guess. I mean, the doctor says I’m doing okay. So I guess I’m good.”

“The doctor?”

“Yeah. He’s really hopeful.”

“Hopeful about what?”

“That I’m going to go into remission.”


More silence.

“It’s not all that bad, being sick, Mister Sean. Don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t care about losing my hair. The only thing I don’t like is when there’s a little tiny bit of hair left on top my head. That’s why I told my mom to just shave it off because I feel weird, I can’t stand the little patches of hair on a bald head, you know? It just looks stupid.”


“Yeah, so my mom shaved my head with my…

Goodbye old year. You were a decent year, I don’t care what they say about you. Yeah, a lot of crummy stuff happened in 2022. But a lot of good stuff happened in 2022.

For starters, scientists finally pinpointed the origins of the universe. Researchers theorized that a chain reaction of exploding supernovae, 14 million years ago, created a 1,000-light-year-wide bubble, at the epicenter of which lies our humble galaxy.

Many top scientists agreed that this galactical event could NOT have happened by randomized chance.

When skeptical scientists were asked whether this new galactical discovery proved or disproved the existence of, ahem, Intelligent Design, they remarked, “We, um, well, next question.”

Also, this year marked the first year in history that women refereed the men’s World Cup. Which is a big deal in soccer world. And even though, personally, I only follow sports involving either Richard Petty, Dale Murphy or Miller Lite, I am very proud of my fellow soccer-loving human.

Also, this year Victoria’s Secret featured its first model with Down syndrome, Sofía Jirau,

who writes:

“When I was little, I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘I'm going to be a model and a businesswoman.’”

Today, Sofía can be seen sporting a high-dollar bra “in my favorite color, pink,” Jirau said. “Victoria’s Secret, I love it.”

Sofía’s story was shared with me by my friend, Kandy, from Cleveland, Ohio, whose adult daughter has Down syndrome. Kandy writes:

“Before the ‘80s, the majority of people with Down syndrome were shoved into institutions, but today people with Down syndrome are kicking butt, contributing to their communities, becoming famous. We aren’t just talking about changing the world anymore, we are actually doing it.”

Also this year, my truck hit 189,000 miles. I don’t know how my Ford F-150 manages to keep running even though it is 20-odd years old, but it does.

This truck has been so abused and battered,…

I feel good.

Maybe it’s the way the sun is hitting this farmland I’m driving past. The scalped fields. The blue skies. Or maybe it’s the way my waitress kept smiling at me earlier this morning.

I was at a truckstop, eating breakfast. It’s a good feeling to eat eggs in a room full of handle-bar mustaches.

Shaniqua was my server. It was on her nametag.

“I’m super happy today,” Shaniqua said. “Just told my husband he gonna be a daddy. He started crying. He's a big ole Teddy bear.”

She was pure euphoria.I wish I would’ve had a wallet full of fifties.

Then again, maybe it’s the semi-truck, carrying pallets of bricks, ahead of me in traffic right now. There’s a giant tarp. It’s tattered, flapping in the wind. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The driver must know this because his hazards are on. He’s driving slow—probably looking for a place to pull over.

God love him.

There’s a sticker on his bumper which reads: “How Am I Driving?” and “If you don’t like my driving call “1-800-How’s-My-Driving?”

I dialed the number before I hit Pintlala, Alabama.

“Hello,” the woman’s voice says.

“Yeah, I’d like to report that one of your drivers is quite exceptional.”

“You wanna what, sir?”

“That’s right, just wanna inform you that one of your drivers deserves a fat raise.”

More silence. "Is this real?”

“It is.”

“Okay, I'll write it down, sir.”

“Happy New Year, ma'am.”

She'd already hung up.

Or maybe I’m happy because of the way my dog is sleeping in the passenger seat. She’s snoring.

Why can’t I be more like a dog? It takes so little to satisfy them. A belly rub, dry food, a quick roll in a foul-smelling substance, and (snap!) euphoria.

I love that word. Euphoria. For years, I used it wrong. I thought it was a continent that Napoleon conquered after he sailed the Ocean…

I am only telling it like I heard it. I don’t know whether you believe in God, and I don’t care. I am only the messenger.

Our first tale begins on Christmas, 1972. Canton, Ohio.

It was quite a year. Idiocy ruled the world. The top grossing movie was “The Godfather,” which was basically two hours of gunfire interrupted briefly by gratuitous sex scenes. The hottest song was “American Pie,” a two-chord song which lasted longer than veterinary school.

And Romy was dying.

Romy was 23 years old, she had brain cancer. No treatments were working. She was going to die.

The doctors told her. Flat out. “You’re going to die, Romy,” the doctor said.

Her health was fading. A little more every day. She was losing her faculties. It was hopeless.

On Christmas her father got off work from the mill and sat beside her in the hospital. The man held her hand. “Please don’t let my daughter die, God.”

It was on Christmas Eve that a young woman walked into the hospital room and approached Romy. Nobody else recalls seeing

this particular woman except Romy’s father.

The woman wore a green dress, she had flaming red hair. Her skin was the color of snow. She seemed to glow.

She was obviously not a nurse. She was apparently not a medical staffer. The young woman approached Romy’s bedside and placed a hand upon her forehead.

“Do you know my daughter?” Romy’s father asked.

“Oh, yes,” said the young woman in green.

“Are you a friend of hers?”

“You could say that, yes.”

“How do you know her?”

“I was assigned to her a long time ago.”

“What are you doing to her?“

“Ssshhh,” was all the woman replied.

The next morning, came. Romy felt remarkably better when she awoke. The doctors said that sometimes the human brain does strange things. Sometimes patients have good days. Sometimes they have bad…

Granddaddy placed me on his knee, he fuzzed my hair and smoked his Bing Crosby pipe. The world smelled like Prince Albert in a can.

“The year was 1862,” Granddaddy began his story. “The day was Christmas. The place was eastern Virginia.”

East Virginia. God’s country. Where the Rappahannock River traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains, then dumps itself into the Chesapeake like a pitcher of ice tea. The War was on. The landscape was torn up from war.

“And it was so cold,” said Granddaddy.

Paralyzingly cold. The winter of 1862 was brutal. You could break a tooth eating a bowl of soup.

Eighteen-year-old privates were sleeping on barren earth, huddled together like puppies beneath woolen blankets. Grown men—military men—spooned together, just to survive.

But this cold snap was nothing compared to the hunger. Some soldiers were so hungry they were eating their tobacco. There are stories about soldiers eating their own shoe leather.

Christmas morning came with fresh misery. A wet snow had fallen overnight. Gaggles of army boys awoke with frostbitten noses and frozen

earlobes. Others were coughing themselves to death.

The opposing armies were camped on opposite sides of the river. Gray coats on one side. Blues on the other. Before evening, these countrymen would probably be killing each other. “It was a hell of a time to be a soldier.”

I interrupted my Baptist grandfather. “Grandaddy, you can’t say ‘hell.’”

My grandfather, the grizzled veteran who spent his youth dodging shells in Anzio, Italy, said, “Son, there is no other word for war but hell.”

That morning, a few young soldiers were on patrol near the banks of the Rappahannock. They stopped patrolling when they saw the enemy on the other side of the river, also patrolling.

Both groups halted.

Soldiers on both sides of the river were skin and bones, with sunken eyes and the pallor of cadavers.

It was a stare down between adversaries.…

I almost didn’t write this because I swore I’d never tell anyone what I’m about to tell you. But I have to.

A few weeks ago I received a letter postmarked from Nunavut, Canada. An invitation said that I had been selected along with a few other writers for an exclusive, one-on-one interview with a very important person who wears a red suit and owns a lot of reindeer and is not Oprah Winfrey.

The next day, I was on a plane from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, flying to Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. Our plane landed in a bunch of Midwestern gray snow. And I mean a bunch of snow.

Milwaukee was as cold as a witch’s underwire. I don’t know why anyone would choose to live in Milwaukee in the winter. Which brings up a joke my mother’s friend Judy, from Milwaukee always tells:

“What do you call a good looking man on the streets of Milwaukee?” “Frozen to death.”

So the layover wasn’t too bad. Neither were my other connecting flights to Tacoma,

British Columbia, and Fairbanks International Airport.

When I reached Alaska, things were touch-and-go. I caught a commuter flight to Deadhorse Airport, near Prudhoe Bay—which is basically the edge of the world where the temperature drops to forty below zero sometimes.

The next commuter plane was piloted by a Norwegian guy named Arvid who, while we were flying through a heavy blizzard, remarked, “I have never flown in an actual blizzard before.”

So things were going great. When we finally touched down, Arvid made the Sign of the Cross, and I changed my trousers.

We were on the remote Fosheim Peninsula at a research facility on Ellesmere Island. This facility has been continuously manned since 1947 and was covered in about ten feet of snowdrift. But the men who run the place are very friendly. Which is remarkable considering they are isolated from modern civilization and most of…

Afternoon. First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. America’s oldest continuously occupied city. Look it up.

Taylor has a lot of work to do today. It’s the Christmas season, and this is the biggest day, annually, of Taylor’s career.

Taylor is an officer with the Pensacola Police Department, a detective of sorts. Electronics-detection. Taylor’s day job is catching bad guys who abuse kids. In fact, you could say that Taylor’s life is all about protecting children.

Taylor is 4 years old. He is an English Labrador.

Before he came to the PPD, he was a failed service dog for the elderly. His trainers flunked him because he kept trying to play with the tennis balls on people’s walkers.

“Friendly animal,” his former trainers noted, “but lacks focus, and talks too much in class.”

So he was trained as a police dog. He was an instant success.

“And he’s great with kids,” says one officer. “He’s one of our most valuable guys on the force. We don’t mind that he drinks from the toilet.”

Today, however, Taylor is serving as police liaison to a

bunch of kids.

1:44 p.m., Officer Taylor arrives at First Baptist with Officer Ike Isenberg, his partner. Taylor’s tail is wagging so hard his butt almost falls off.

The church parking lot is chock-full of busted Hondas, dilapidated Chevys and outmoded Nissans. There are cop cars galore.

Taylor excitedly bounds out of the vehicle and prances toward the church.


December has been a busy month for the department. All month, officers have been buying gifts for underprivileged kids in town.

These are kids whom officers run into on the job. Maybe the child’s family member was arrested. Maybe someone in the home has been murdered.

No matter what the issue, when an officer identifies a kid who is going to have a hard candy Christmas, the kid’s name goes on The List.

Come December, the whole department…

I’m proud of you. That’s the entire point of this entire column/essay/article/Facebook post/English travesty/verbiage trainwreck/whatever you call it. So if you’re pressed for time, you can quit reading here.

Just know that I’m proud.

I’m nobody. So my proudness means nothing, really. But nonetheless, I am very proud of you. I hope you’re proud, too. You’re pretty great.

Over the next few days, you’re going to be getting together with family members. It’s the Christmas season. You will be with out-of-towners. Sons and daughters. Mothers and fathers. Brothers and sisters. Or—God have mercy—in-laws.

Or perhaps YOU are the out-of-towner. Maybe you’re the outsider at the table

Either way, you’re going to be hanging out with people seated across from the holiday supper who silently judge you.

People who smile at you in that fake, nasty-nice way. These Cherished Family members will be polite to your face, but will make you feel like turd soup.

You’ll feel under scrutiny. What does your house look like? Is it a mess? How about your life? Is it a wreck? How about your job? Is it

a good one? What about your kids? Are they screwed-up? Or are they successful human beings with eight-digit incomes?

What about your current health? Are you sick? Are you in tip-top shape? Do you do cardio? How about yoga? Are you overweight? How about your financial portfolio? Stock options? How’s your guest bathroom? Is it clean? Or do you have a pink-carpet toilet seat cover that screams “Hints from Heloise” circa 1959?

Are you kick-butt successful? Are you a wealthy person with a current-model Land Rover Autograph, who has a financial advisor with Roman numerals after his name?

Or do you drive a 1992 F-150 with 197,623 miles, crumbling upholstery, rusted fenders, a busted stereo, dog-nose-slobber on the windows, and three pistons that misfire?

It doesn’t matter what your situation is, what I’m getting at is that you…