The letter came from a 19-year-old student named Margaret.

“Dear Sean,” she began, “I want to attend [Blank] University, but I am forced to attend [Blank] Community College where I am receiving very little advice on how to actually BE a professional writer… All my podunk professors seem to do is grade papers and get excited over college football. Should I change schools?”

I’m going to stop you right there, Margaret.

First off, I seriously doubt that the only thing your professors get excited about is college football. There is also college baseball.

Secondly, you probably don’t mean to belittle your teachers by calling them “podunk,” but it isn’t fair to discredit your community-college professors simply because they don’t teach at a prestigious State U.

There is only one difference between community-college professors and big-boy-university professors, and it can be summed up in one simple word: Medical benefits, baby.

As we can see, math is not my strong suit. But then, there is a valid reason for this. I went to

community college. This means that during all my math-class exams, most of my adult classmates were busy changing their babies’ poopy diapers directly on their desks. So I was distracted.

Still, I am a proud juco grad. It took me 11 arduous years to get through county college, and I appreciated each golden hour spent at my alma mater.

During my time at school, my college went through a series of name changes. The institution began in 1963 as Okaloosa-Walton Junior College. Years later it changed to Okaloosa-Walton Community College. Then the school renamed itself Okaloosa-Walton College, before it finally morphed into Northwest Florida State College. Meaning, I currently hold degrees from four institutions.

The fact is, when I was your age, Margaret, I would have given my left kidney to attend a major university. I wanted this more than anything. But now that I’m older, I realize that…

I prayed for you tonight. Before bed. I’m serious.

I don’t get down on my knees or do anything crazy like that. I don’t kneel. Namely, because if I knelt I wouldn’t be getting up again without the assistance of EMTs.

So you might be wondering what I prayed for. Well, that’s easy. I prayed for you to laugh. That’s how I start every prayer for you.

I can’t know what you’re going through right now, nor how badly you hurt. But I know one thing: there is no better feeling than laughter.

I prayed this for Robert and his wife, Cynthia, who have practically been living at the oncologist’s office recently. I pray this for my cousin Cosby, and for my cousin Bentley, to laugh so hard they spill their beers.

I prayed for Sherry, and her husband, Lyle, my surrogate parents—they know why. Please help them to laugh, God.

I prayed for the family of the guy down the street—the ambulance was at their house today, and everyone was in the yard weeping as a

covered gurney was wheeled away.

Also, I pray tomorrow will be better than today.

I don’t care if today was a decent day, I pray tomorrow is off the chain. I pray that you have a brief moment of awareness tomorrow, as you eat your PBJ, or your Swiss Cake rolls, wherein you say to yourself, “Man, this is a pretty good day.”

I pray this for my friend Loe, who just lost her nephew. And for Regina, whose grandson has been fighting for his life. I pray this for Mark, whose dad is now on hospice care. For Laney (6 years old) whose dog died. And for Jon (15) who has his very first date with his very first female on Friday.

And normalcy. That’s a big one. I also pray for you to have some normalcy.

There is no sensation more…

Mama lived on 1st Street in the old cinderblock house. Hers was the place with the blue shutters, the scraggly live oaks, and the iron gnome on the front porch we nicknamed The Shin Killer.

I knocked on the door. My sister answered.

My kid sister was 14. Rosy cheeks. Sun-bleached hair from too much time on a bicycle. All tomboy. She still dressed in clothes with grass stains, and she still smelled like a kid, too. All kids have that trademark scent.

My new wife was standing on the doorstep with me. We were both carrying wrapped gifts with yellow ribbons.

“Happy birthday, kid,” I said to my sister.

Her cheeks were redder than normal. Her eyes were bloodshot, like she’d been crying. She bolted from the door, covered her face, and ran away.

I’m not the brightest bulb in life’s marquee, but I had a feeling something was wrong.

I walked into the kitchen. Mama’s house was one of those houses where you had to walk through the kitchen to get anywhere. The TV in the back

room was blaring “Oprah” at a volume loud enough to affect bird migratory patterns.

Mama was banging in the kitchen loudly. She slammed cabinets, clanged pots, and muttered angry words beneath her breath.

“Hey, Mama,” I said.

She slammed a cupboard.

Mama’s kitchen was every fundamentalist kitchen you’ve ever seen. More linoleum than wood. Window over the sink. And porous walls that smelled like 200 hundred years’ worth of chopped onions, giblet gravies, fried chicken thighs, and pecan pies rich enough to short circuit a grown man’s endocrine system.

My mother leaned against the sink and began sobbing. She was covered in flour, and her hair was out of place.

“Your sister and I had a fight,” she said. “I lost my temper.”


The ancient Frigidare hummed a middle C, Oprah Winfrey gave way to a Toyota commercial, and Mama’s…

Morningtime. Grand Chute, Wisconsin. It’s cold in America’s Dairyland. Last night it got down to negative 4 degrees. Tomorrow night it’s supposed to drop into the negative double digits.

The streets in Outagamie County look like iced-over freezer shelves, and the Starbucks has resorted to serving coffee on a stick.

Grand Chute is a smallish town about half an hour south of Green Bay. The place is chock-full of nice people, good food, an Old Navy, and a shipload of Lutheran churches—in a six-mile radius there are over 30 Lutheran congregations. That’s a lot of hotdish.

Our story today, however, takes us to one of Grand Chute’s residential areas, on Stewart Avenue. A two-mile street lined with modest split-levels, ranches, and dated brick homes.

It’s nothing fancy. It’s your all-American neighborhood. Think: blue-collars and working-class Packers fans who bleed green and Schlitz.

Visit the street in the early morning and you won’t see much activity. Maybe a schoolbus, a couple Fords idling, mailboxes topped with snow, and a scant few plastic-wrapped “Post-Crescent” newspapers in the driveways

of those who still care about the printed word.

But if you pay close enough attention, you will see the trademark of suburbia itself lining the curbs.

The green garbage bin.

The waste-management bins are everywhere. It was garbage pickup yesterday. The multitudes of plastic bins parked by the road this morning are empty. Which means someone has to walk them back to the house. Uphill. Through the snow. In sub-zero temperatures.

Enter Dick Pontzloff.

Dick is your quintessential old guy. He’s 75 years old and he dresses the part. He wears saggy sweatpants, oversized parka, stocking cap, and even though it’s barely above zero, he doesn’t wear snow boots. Instead he wears lace-up Merrell boat shoes á la Jimmy Buffet.

Each morning at 8 a.m., the bootless old man comes pedaling down Stewart Avenue, whistling a happy tune. He dismounts, unfolds his kickstand,…

Danny and the boys arrived late to the nursing home. They were running behind schedule because of traffic on I-65. But they were here, and that’s all that mattered.

And they brought their instruments.

“We’re all waiting for you, Danny,” said the nurse, leading the band toward the rec room.

Residents filled the day-use room, wall to wall. There were dozens of wheelchairs, O2 canisters, and a corral of roller-walkers stabled near the door like Appaloosas on the open range.

Residents had donned their Sunday best. Old men wore ballcaps with KOREA and VIETNAM embroidered on the fronts. Old ladies sported oversized tennis shoes and hairdos which hadn’t changed since the Johnson administration. Everyone’s hearing aids were cranked up.

The musicians set up near the spinet piano. Then Danny introduced the band over the mic.

There was Roger on the drums. Roger is no spring zucchini, he’s been playing the skins since Buddy Holly was a household name.

Albert was on double bass. I asked how long Albert has been playing the upright. His only

response was, “I have underpants that are older than you.”

And of course, there’s Danny, playing his collector’s item candy-apple-red Country Gentleman guitar, which is worth about as much as an amphibious aircraft carrier. Danny’s mother bought him this guitar in 1960. “My mom gave me this guitar for my thirteenth birthday,” he said.

The band opened with a few easy numbers. Just the classics. “Summertime,” by Gershwin. That always gets the collective heart rate up. Then “Fly Me to the Moon,” the older crowd loves that one.

One man in the front row became so excited that he began to shout, “I have to pee!” Whereupon the rowdy stood and attempted to demonstrate this for his fans just before the nurse escorted him from the room.

The band followed this with “You’re Not Mine Anymore,” by Willie Nelson. A song which debuted in 1954,…

This week. Houston, Texas. The package showed up at noon on Tuesday. The UPS man rang Michael’s doorbell and propped a large box against the door.

Twenty-two-year-old Michael shuffled to the door, leaning on his forearm crutches.

Walking is no easy chore for Michael. He has cerebral palsy. He has only been living on his own since November.

It was a major life adjustment, getting his own pad, but so far he loves it.

“I basically survive on Ben and Jerry's,” says Michael. “Sometimes I eat ice cream for all three meals. I’ve gained 14 pounds.”

His mother is so proud.

Lately, Michael has been living largely, and trying new activities he never thought his condition would allow. Such as playing guitar.

He’s been taking lessons for months now. His current guitar is an inexpensive pawn-shop instrument that, when strummed, sounds about as melodic as a skillet being beaten with a dead squid.

But that all changed this week.

Michael opened the anonymous parcel on his porch and inside was a top-of-the-line Martin guitar. I asked Michael how much money

a Martin of this caliber would cost.

“Well,” says Michael. “Let’s just say it’s worth a lot of ice cream.”

He still has no idea who sent the instrument. Mom and Dad didn’t send it. Neither did his grandparents. And none of Michael’s friends have enough cash to buy a gift like this, let alone pay their own car insurance.

“I want to thank whoever sent this gift,” Michael wrote in an email. “Maybe you can thank the anonymous person for believing in me.”

Meantime, up in Western Pennsylvania, where it’s colder than a witch’s Playtex clothing accessory, they accumulated about nine inches of snow this week.

On Monday, Coach Brian DeLallo at Bethel Park High School near Pittsburgh told his football team that their daily workout was scratched.

“Due to the expected severe weather,” Coach posted online, “Monday’s weightlifting…

God lives in Woburn, Massachusetts. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s true. He lives just nine miles north of Boston, off I-93.

Woburn isn’t a huge town. These people love their high-school football, they bleed black and orange. Woburnians also love their history—the town was settled in 1640, shortly after the birth of Dick Clark.

It’s a blue-collar city with a decent mall, lots of porches, and Italian restaurants up the arrivederci.

It gets cold here. Nobody knows why God allows his hometown to get so cold, but maybe God is warm natured. Last week, for example, it was in the low 20s.

Recently, the mailman was on his beat, sidling the quiet streets of Middlesex County in the biting frost, trying not to freeze his government-issue britches off, when he arrived at Angelina Gonsalves’ house.

He rapped on the door.

Meet Angelina. Angelina is pushing 90. Her husband, Johnny, died six years ago. They were your quintessential American suburban couple. Cute house. Dependable cars. Five-point-one kids.

Johnny and Angelina were married for 61 years. To give you

an idea of how long that is, on the day of their wedding, gasoline was 27 cents per gallon.

She hobbled to the door.

The mailman tipped his hat. “Afternoon.”

They exchanged basic pleasantries. Then the mail guy asked Angelina a question.

“Wasn’t your husband in the service?”

It was an odd question. Angelina and her husband were puppies when World War II broke out. At the time, practically every living thing in America was in military service. Including women, dogs, and certain breeds of potatoes.

“Yes, he was,” said the old woman.

The mailman smiled. He presented her with an envelope. “Well, I think I have a letter for you, Angelina.”

She took the letter into her old hands and inspected it. The woman got a funny feeling inside when she saw this letter.

The envelope was aged and yellowed with…

The supermarket checkout line. She was white-haired and frail. Her buggy was filled to capacity so that it looked like she was pushing a coal barge up the Mississippi. The first item she placed onto the conveyor belt was an extra-large case of Coors.

“That’s a lot of beer,” said I.

She smiled. “On sale.”

“Are you the one who drinks it?”

She nodded. “Two beers a day keeps the doctor away.”

“I don’t think that’s how the saying goes.”

“Yeah, well, I hate apples.”

Her voice had the same timbre as a tuba. She wore a pink silk jacket draped over her shoulders, buttoned at the top, á la 1952. She wore green polyester slacks such as I haven’t seen since Florence Henderson was on primetime. You could have smelled her floral scent from across the county lines. Ea du old lady.

“Get over here and help me,” she said to me, as she struggled to unload her buggy.

She didn’t say please. She didn’t say, “Young man, would you be so kind…?” She told me to “get over here.”

So I helped her.

“You’re a

nice guy,” said the woman, watching me labor beneath the weight of her 1,439-pound bag of Pedigree dog food.

“Tell that to my wife,” I said.

“So you’re married?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I was married once.”

“Is that right.”

“Yep. I was happily married for ten years. Ten outta fifty-three ain’t bad.”

Then the woman cackled and told the bag boy to fetch her a carton of cigarettes. Marlboros. Menthols.

After which she dug into her purse and removed a stack of coupons roughly the size of a Tolstoy novel and gave it to the cashier.

The cashier girl accepted the coupons hesitantly and flashed me a look indicating that she was not enthusiastic about her career path right now.

“What was his name?” I said.

The woman looked at me. “Whose…

One day you will laugh. I promise. Probably not today. Probably not tomorrow, either. But soon.

Right now you are a premature newborn, lying in the NICU, inside a plastic bubble, just trying to breathe. Your name is Harley. Your tiny heart is struggling to beat, and your little nervous system is doing its level best to keep you alive.

You have mini-electrodes, sensors, itty-bitty tubes connected to your frail preemie body, and a knit cap to keep your head warm. Your life is devoid of humor right now.

But someday, Harley, you will be a normal, healthy baby. And you’ll eventually do what all normal babies do. You’ll eat, sleep, cry, pee, and seriously attempt to swallow your entire foot. And you will laugh.

You will also create digestive messes that will cause your parents to gag. Like the legendary mess my sister made when she was 9 months old and her cloth diaper spilled its contents into her crib. Whereupon my sister engaged in some good old-fashioned finger-painting on

the bedroom wall.

After exhaustively cleaning the walls with Clorox, my father announced that he would not be eating meals again until his 90th birthday.

You will do things like that, Harley. You will grow. You will become handsome. You will stun us all with your talent. You will finger-paint.

But at some point in life, the sting of adulthood will find you. It finds us all. Someone will break your heart, you will become disillusioned, or you will lose something precious. Your health will fail. You will experience sadness, loss, or God forbid, spite.

You will learn that life is not as gleeful as depicted in the movies. Not every story has an idyllic sunset. There are no such things as unflawed heroes. Nothing works out the way you think it should.

The hard truth is, people can be mean, and life’s circumstances can be exponentially meaner. If…

A small town. The kind of American hamlet that causes you to start looking around for the Norman Rockwell signature. Hanging begonias. Storefronts with colorful awnings. A cute downtown.

There was a loud party happening on Main Street.

I followed the sound of distant music and many voices. I suddenly realized I was still wearing my pajamas. I shuffled into town barefoot, with sleep crusted in my eyes.

The sun was shining. Birds were cackling. People were everywhere. It was a veritable town-wide hoedown.

I saw women positioning casseroles on card tables. I saw children playing tag. Old men in aprons were deep frying hunks of fish.

There was music playing at the hardware store. Good music. The kind with twin fiddles. People were dancing before a plywood stage. Each front porch was crowded with people drinking lemonade and sugary tea.

Everyone was there, the whole gang. I saw them all. All my loved ones who died and left me behind. All my friends who met untimely ends. All my relatives who were called

home too early. All my kin.

They were all right here, holding plates of hot food, mingling with one another. Everybody was smiling, throwing their heads back, laughing until they couldn’t breathe.

I saw grandparents, deceased uncles, departed aunts, and cousins who died before they were old enough to know what life was about.

I saw multitudes of unfamiliar children, dancing while the musicians played “Turkey in the Straw.” I asked an old woman nearby who all these children were.

“Those are the babies who died in the womb,” the woman said. “Aren’t they precious?”

We were interrupted when a large pack of dogs came running through the town, careening up Main Street. They came stampeding like a herd of bison. Among them, I saw six of my own dogs.

I saw Lady, the cocker spaniel who died in my arms when I was a teenager.…