Tomorrow is the birthday of a friend. He looks pretty good for his age. He’ll be turning 187. Which makes him almost as old as Willie Nelson.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. It was late November, and colder than a witch’s underwire. His mother was not expecting him. She wasn’t even close to being ready, so she tried to squeeze him back in. But it didn't work. So out he came.

During childlabor, Halley’s comet was passing overhead, visible from the sky. The comet was a natural phenomenon that frightened a lot of people, causing many to either pray in tongues or drink whiskey. Sam’s mother did both during childbirth.

No, not really. I’m only kidding. Although, she had reason to drink. Because Sam was a lot of trouble.

For one thing, he was sickly. Nobody thought he would make it past infancy. Three of his siblings died. Being born premature in 1830s was no cakewalk. His body was puny. His complexion made Elmer’s glue look colorful.


I first saw him, I could see no promise in him,” his mother recalled.

Even so, he was whip smart. Lightning in a jar. He could memorize things. He and he could talk the paint off a wagon wheel. And lie. Hoo boy.

Sam could lie like it was his profession. The kid was such a good liar, he received annual Christmas cards from Satan.

He got into trouble, of course. The best humans always do. Nobody changes the world by being well-behaved. History doesn’t care if you were president of your chess club or class treasurer. History favors the kids who lived in detention.

Sam was that kid. He started smoking when he was still in elementary school. He could out-cuss a grown man before he was potty trained. He skipped school so often that his teachers sent flowers to his mother and asked when the…

My phone rings.

“Hello?” I say.

“Yes. Hello, ” says the child’s voice. “Is this Mister Sean?”

“Speaking. Although please don’t call me ‘Mister Sean,’ because it makes me feel like a PBS children’s host.”

“Oh. What am I supposed to call you?”

“Please, call me Your Honor. Who am I speaking to?”

“Hi, my name is Rachel.”

“Nice to meet you, Rachel, may I ask you a question?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m seven.”

“And how did you get this number?”

“Your wife gave my mom your number. She said I could call you. Is that okay?”

“Perfectly okay. What can I do for you?”

“Well. Um. My brother told me Santa Claus is fake.”

“He did what?”

“Uh-huh. And then I started crying. And my mom told me I should talk to you because you sometimes talk to kids. But nobody knew how to get ahold of you.”

“So how did you manage to reach me?”

“Well, my mom’s cousin said she knew your wife’s uncle, so my aunt called her friend in Century, and then she called a lady from Andalusia, and her cousin gave us your wife’s brother-in-law’s number, and anyway, now I’m talking to you. I

have a question to ask.”

“Okay. Shoot.”

“Do you think Santa is real?”

Long pause.

“Do I think Santa is real?”


“Of course he’s real, Rachel. Why would you even ask?”

“Because I don’t know what to believe anymore. May I ask you another question, Mister Sean. How do you know he’s real?”

“Well, for one thing, Rachel, I’ve met him.”



“You’ve met Santa? The REAL one? Because the one at the Dillards is fake.”

“First off, the one at Dillards is not fake. And the one at Super Target isn’t either.”

“They aren’t?”

“No, ma’am. These men are all Sentinels Of Santa. ‘SOS’ for short.”


“That’s right. These are men imbued with…

“I was basically invisible,” he said. “People came into the group home, mostly couples looking to adopt, and they totally didn’t see me.

“I was like a puppy in the pound that you don’t notice.”

He had low vision. Although the U.S. government would’ve called him “legally blind.”

The kid was 9 years old. He could see, but not much. His peripheral vision was nearly non-existent. He had—to use an oversimplified cliché—tunnel vision.

“I could see a tiny bit,” he said. “The glaucoma left me with an itty-bitty circle in the center of my visual field.”

But nobody wanted to adopt a kid with glaucoma. It was too much work. He needed extra care. Extra attention. He could only read large print. He had special teachers at school. And someday, he would probably go totally blind.

The volunteers at the group home were nice to him. But they weren’t parents. Not even close.

Every evening, when group-home volunteers would leave for home to be with their real families, with their actual kids, he would be stuck there

at the home. Alone.

He would lie in his bunk with the other parent-less kids. In relative darkness. Crying. The reality would sink in. He was an orphan with a capital O.

An orphan, you see, grows up without confidence. You and I take confidence for granted. When you have a measure of confidence, life is okay. The world is one big opportunity. You have options.

But when you have no confidence, the earth is dangerous and unforgiving. Life is a manure sandwich. Eat it or starve.

“I didn’t like my life,” he said. “I wasn’t even 10 years old and I hated being alive.”

It was the Christmas season. A long time ago. A young woman came into the group home. She was young. Brunette. She was dressed in a fast-food uniform. She was on break and she smelled like cigarettes.


I send a happy Thanksgiving to the young girl, Leah, who wrote to me this morning because her father died in the ICU last night from a heart attack.

“It’s not a very happy Thanksgiving,” she said.

Believe me, I know it’s not, sweetie. But, you see, that’s the misnomer of the common American phrase, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Happy Thanksgiving” doesn’t actually mean to have a happy day. Not at all. In fact, “happy Thanksgiving” is code for “I love you.” Plain and simple.

And believe me, sweetie, plenty of people are wishing you a “happy Thanksgiving.”

Likewise, I send well-wishes to the woman in south Georgia who found a box of puppies on the side of the road this morning, left for dead. And now all those puppies are wandering in her kitchen, pooping on her clean floor. Happy Thanksgiving, ma’am.

And to my friend Daniel, who was just diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This is not the holiday you had in mind, Daniel. Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving to Aaron, and his mother and father and sister and wife, and daughters.

I’m praying for y’all.

To Joel and Tammy, who filled my belly today with pineapple casserole, pecan pie, kindness, love, and most importantly, high-ABV homemade beer.

To Amy, for being family.

I want to wish a happy Thanksgiving to my friends, Brett and Donna, in Chunky, Mississippi, tonight. May your holiday be filled with all the wonderful things that practicing Southern Baptists enjoy. P.S: I’m sorry I mentioned beer.

I want to wish a happy Thanksgiving to my sister and her kids and husband. It’s not fair to have a family that nice looking.

To the guy who was on the side of the road today in Birmingham, asking for money. He holds a cardboard sign which reads “Homeless Vietnam vet. Anything helps.”

This man is FAR to young to have seen action in Vietnam. He looks like he’s maybe 50.…

Nov. 26, 1863, (FREDERICKSBURG)—Dearest Brother, I suppose you are having a good time this Thanksgiving, eating plum pudding and chicken pie and cider. I hope you are, at any rate, for I want you to enjoy yourself.

I should like to be with you, and I know you would like to have me, but alas this war never seems to end.

Still, although I cannot be with you to enjoy your luxuries, and your company, I have many things to be thankful for.

I am thankful that my life has been spared to me, as many of my friends are dead. I am thankful that I still enjoy good health.

I am thus hopeful that the Union will be successful. I can hear the cannons now, down by the Rapidan River, sounding their reports. I fear we have a bloody day ahead of us. I am afraid.

I should like a few gallons of that cider you told me about in your last letter. I would like some of those pickled pig’s

feet, too, if you have time to send them.

Happy Thanksgiving. Love, your brother.

Nov. 28, 1918, (PARIS)—Dearest Wife, I miss you more than you will know on this Thanksgiving Day. But I have good news. Our corps commander received a telegram today. He told us we are coming home.

The war is over, I am scared to believe it. Our commander read that our division would proceed to the embarkation point and begin sail for America soon. I’m coming home, darling. I’m coming to see you and our little one and I shall never let you go.

Thank God for his mercy unto us. This is a happy Thanksgiving indeed.

Nov 23, 1944 (HOLLAND)—Dearest Darling, here it is Thanksgiving and we are not together. These damned holidays are the painfullest part of our separation. I am sad. But I hope we’ll be together next Thanksgiving.

Our men…

You probably didn’t hear about it. But yesterday, God visited earth.

Contrary to what you’ve heard, God is a big fan of people. He’s a huge fan. In fact, that’s why he came.

His visit was an under-the-radar thing. It was non-publicized. God wasn’t in it for press.

First, he came to Birmingham, Alabama. Of all places.

He stepped into a sleepy hospital corridor last night, and wandered the aisles barefoot. He stopped in the room of a little girl with terminal brain cancer.

The little girl was sleeping. He touched her bald little head. She never even knew he was there. All she knew was that she was dreaming of “angels and stuff.”

When the little girl awoke, something wonderful had happened. Something almost too impossible to believe.

Her mother was seated beside her bed. Asleep in her chair. The little girl sat upright. She stretched her arms. She yawned. She remarked how good she felt. Doctors checked her out. They couldn’t believe she felt “good.”

Because for the last six months, the child has felt like

heck. For the last six months, the little girl has been dying. But today, something had shifted. All the treatments. All the therapy. Something was working.

Turns out, the scans the doctor sent away had come back all clear. The child okay. Not just a-little-bit okay. She is totally fine. No traces of cancer. Not a single bit. This child will live.

“My baby will live,” said her mother.

After that, God went to Oklahoma City. It’s not clear how he got there. Maybe he took a Greyhound. Maybe he flew. Maybe God doesn’t take public transportation. Maybe he just did the Star Trek thing, and beamed himself up.

Either way, he landed in a little town outside Oklahoma City. A dusty town which shall remain nameless, because it is small, and everyone knows everyone’s business.

There was an old man who…

A crowded seafood joint. Everyone is eating. The sound of George Jones is blasting over the speakers.

The elderly couple next to me is shouting with such strong voices that I can hardly keep my mind on my own thoughts. Both of these people are wearing hearing aids and using voices loud enough to register on the Richter Scale.

The waitress brings their food then leaves. The old man looks at his food and hollers to his wife. The conversation goes like this:

OLD MAN: Honey, I asked for this burger to be cooked WELL DONE, this is rare.

OLD WOMAN: Just eat it. It won’t kill you. Besides, you used to like it rare.

HIM: I also used to like spicy food and raw oysters, but you don’t see me eating them anymore.

HER: When did you quit eating oysters?

HIM: Ever since Roger Collins ate them and came down with the gingivitis.

HER: That’s not how you say it. It’s not gingivitis.

HIM: Whatever, I don’t eat raw oysters. They’re gross. Gingivitis kills people. His doctor said he and Shirley can’t have kids anymore.

HER: Shirley is almost eighty.

HIM: Still.

HER: And it’s not gingivitis you get from oysters, you dummy. It’s MENINGITIS. Don’t you know anything?

HIM: It’s been thirty years since I had an oyster. My dad always said never to eat them in months that begin with “R.”


HER: There are no months that begin with “R. And the expression is about months that END in “R.”

HIM: So then I can eat all I want in August and July?

HER: Yes.

HIM: And May and June?

HER: And March. Now eat your hamburger.

HIM: What about April?

HER: What about it?

HIM: Roger ate his oysters in April and got his conjunctivitis.

HER: It’s not conjunctivitis, how many times do I have to tell you? It’s GINGIVITIS. Our food’s getting cold.

Birmingham. Magic City. Early morning. I showed up to Regions Field at 7 a.m. I arrived by Uber.

I called an Uber because I didn’t want to fool with parking downtown. Not on a busy day like today.

Oddly, I have only taken an Uber a few times in my life. I come from people who wouldn’t eat canned vegetables unless they came from Ball jars. Uber would have been a grievous sin.

It was 33 degrees. All I had on were skimpy running shorts and a light jacket. I located the race-day registration and packet pickup booth.

“Name?” the woman said.

“Sean Dietrich,” I said.

She found my name in a ledger.

“Are you the guy who writes those deals on Facebook?” she said.

“No,” I said.

“Oh. Good. Because he really gets on my nerves.”

She gave me a bib with a number on it. I was number 750. I got a T-shirt which read “Magic City Half Marathon and 5K.” I put it on and looked like a dork.

Runners showed up by the hundreds. Regions Field was

alive with athletic people completely devoid of body fat.

There were old folks, young folks, and everyone between. Fit people, ultra-fit people. And people like me—Frito Lay enthusiasts.

There were also hundreds of little girls wearing colorful tutus. Some of them were accompanied by fathers who were also wearing tutus.

“What’s with the tutus?” I asked one father.

“Girls On the Run,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“An organization,” he answered, as though reading a cue card. “Girls On the Run focuses on the whole girl. Girls meet in small teams or connect virtually, and well-trained volunteer coaches inspire girls to build confidence and incorporate important life skills by using dynamic, interactive lessons and physical activity.”

Well, okay then.

I was here to run a race today. Me and all five thousand little girls. Along with other serious runners all…

I’m stuck in Nashville traffic. And so, apparently, is everyone else in the Western Hemisphere.

Nashville scares me. The main culprit here is the highways. Nashville’s highway system is a mess because these roads were built to accommodate approximately 11 cars, whereas there are currently 229 trillion Nashville residents.

So this is a problem. A big one. Because right now I am idling in a thousand-mile line of cars, stuck in a cloud of blue exhaust, and we are moving approximately one nanometer per hour.

I think I’ve figured out the problem in this city. The problem is, everyone in the state of Tennessee is trying to use the interstate at the same time. Which is a bad idea, this is just common sense.

If we all tried to take a shower at the same time each morning, the world would run out of water. It’s the same principle. A plus B equals C.

But the traffic problem isn’t getting any better. Because nobody is doing anything about it except buying more electric cars.

Tennessee Department of Transportation reports that, on any average afternoon, in Davidson County, there are strings of electric cars longer than the ladies-restroom line at a George Strait concert.

If you took all the electric cars in the world and placed them end to end, you’d have Nashville.

“The traffic is really hard,” says my friend who lives outside Nashville and commutes to work. Each morning, he spends 120 minutes in his SUV, fighting hundreds of motorists just backing out of his driveway.

He wants a new job, but of course, there are no new jobs in Nashville, only new buildings. Because new construction is out of control here.

Nashville is one of the leading cites in the nation for adding new real estate. In the time it’s taken you to read these paragraphs, Nashville has already built two arenas and one NASCAR súper-speedway.

And they…

OXFORD, Miss.—It’s a beautiful night in the Little Easy. I’m walking downtown. Taking in the chilly evening. It’s cold. I can see my breath. My hands are numb. The rock rattling around inside my shoe is my toe.

I am walking these arctic streets tonight because I have a hunch that I’m going to find inspiration for a column here. And that’s all being a writer is, really. You work from hunches.

The city is busy. There are college kids everywhere, laughing and carrying on. Live music drifts from pocket saloons. Restaurants are thumping. The air smells like Mick Ultra and adolescence.

There is, apparently, a college-age dress code this evening. College guys all wear warm jackets. College girls all wear miniskirts so short they wouldn’t qualify as belts.

“College girls have antifreeze for blood,” says a local lady on the sidewalk.

I walk inside Square Books to escape the cold and browse the shelves. On cue, a group of college kids traipses past loudly. They reek of perfume and kid-sweat.

“It’s Thursday night,” a store employee explains. “Thursdays

are party nights in Oxford.”

“How long does a typical party night last?” I ask.

“Until they graduate.”

Oxford is the “Literary Center of the South.” The mecca of the printed word. Think of this town as Dollywood for authors.

You can’t spit in Oxford without hitting a published author. They’re everywhere. And you can always spot published authors on the street. They’re the ones eating supper out of garbage cans.

Because being a professional writer is hard. Few realize how difficult. Hardly anyone gets rich by constructing sentences. The only way to make a small fortune as an author is to start off with a big fortune.

Moreover, it’s tough putting yourself out there. Being a writer is all about rejection. Rejection is an everyday routine. Rejection is the breakfast of the artist. An average writer will get rejected at…