When I got my first writing gig for a tiny local newspaper with a circulation of 2.3 people, one of the veteran writers on staff told me, “Just remember, haters are gon’ hate.”

Then he added, “So whatever you do, don’t read the negative mail.”

It was sound wisdom. The only problem with this advice is that negative mail looks just like positive mail before you open it. How do you tell the two apart? At first glance, there is no way to differentiate between a friend and a hater by looking at an envelope or an email.

After all, nobody writes in bold letters on the outside of their envelope: THIS IS HATE MAIL. Neither do people fill out the subject line of an email with the words: WARNING, THIS MESSAGE IS GOING TO RUIN YOUR DAY.

So you never know whether a message is going to be positive or negative until you actually open the thing and read a few sentences:

“Dear Sean, I just wanted to take a minute

to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that you are a greasy, disgusting, faux-deep-thinking, chauvinistic pig…”

Thus, my philosophy has always been to ignore negative messages. And mostly, I’ve kept pretty true to this idea. Although I do occasionally respond to unusually ugly correspondence.

Such as the time a guy recently told me to “go to hell.” I wrote to him, saying in all honesty, that I had already visited Hell, Michigan, and frankly, I’d rather spend everlasting eternity in Detroit.

And a few months ago, I received a critical letter from a literature professor from an extremely well-known university with a world-famously bad football team. He told me I was partially responsible for the “dumbing down” of the American literary mind by “writing for likes.”

That hurt.

Still, on the infrequent occasion that I respond to nasty messages publicly, I usually try to keep things…

“My son is dying,” says the mother. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

What a heckuva conversation opener.

I am standing in an average residential home. In the entryway. Visiting a little boy.

The woman’s son is on hospice care, lying on a bed in the den. There isn’t much they can do for him, the nurse says. “We’re just making sure he’s as comfortable as possible.”

There is a TV going in the den. It’s playing some children’s show I’ve never heard of. He’s lying there. Weak.

He’s 13. He likes guitar. Sports. He loves Elvis. There is an Elvis song blasting on his iPhone.

“How’d you get into Elvis?” I ask.

He shrugs. “I just like him.”

I am sitting by his bed now. His mother gives me a sweet tea and a moment alone with him.

I am crying now.

The Elvis song is “Trouble.” Classic blues “stop-time” tune. From the movie “King Creole.” I know stuff about Elvis because my old man was an Elvis freak.

The kid wants to talk about Elvis. So we do.

We talk long and hard. I can see his parents watching from the other room. I feel a little weird being here. I don’t want to say the wrong thing.

I am here because the kid read one of my books and actually liked it. His mother contacted a friend of a friend who knows my wife. And well, here I am.

Pretty soon, he’s done talking. Now we’re just watching television. The TV is blasting some stupid car commercial, an advertisement trying to sell something. And suddenly this commercial strikes me as so insanely shallow. There are little kids lying in hospice beds. And some coporation is on TV trying to sell $180,000 luxury vehicles.

He was a foster kid. He was a “crack baby,” that’s what many called him, his mother tells me. Becuase of this, he’s…

“Dear Sean,” the letter began, “there’s a dog in my neighborhood who was lost and followed me home.

“We think he is an Irish Setter, and he has an owner already but she is an old lady who can’t take care of him any more. She says I can have him but my mom says I should ask you because its a lot of responsibility for a 10-year-old to have a dog she said.”

The letter was signed Ellen.

Dear Ellen, first off, your mother is right. Having a dog is a huge responsibility. I should know. I have three huge responsibilities.

My dogs are: Thelma Lou (bloodhound) and Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador). My third dog is Marigold, the blind coonhound who is 60 pounds. They are all curled at my feet right now as I write this daily column.

A typical day with dogs goes like this: You wake up. You feed your dogs. Then you let them all outside to go pee. Then you let them back inside.


which you will attempt to go about your day. You will get maybe 7 minutes into your workday before there is a violent scratching noise at the back door, which is the sound of a 90-pound responsibility alerting you that you need to open the back door and let your responsibility out to go pee again.

So, even though there is a doggy door installed in this door, a door which took roughly eight hours to install because the instructions were printed in French, German, Japanese, Swahili, Hindi, Cherokee, and Pig Latin—but not English—your dog still wants you to open the door because, by in large, dogs have the intelligence of—and I am not being negative here—Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

You will then be forced to get off your Blessed Assurance and open the back door because if you don’t you will hear scratching for the next three to 19 hours…

If you attend a Presbyterian funeral, pack a lunch. A Presbyterian funeral is a beauteous ceremony that will make your heart go “flip flop” with beauty. It will be a ritual to remember for the rest of your life. Namely, because at some point you might be escorted from the premises by EMTs because of low blood sugar.

No. I’m only joking. Presbyterians hold incredible services wherein they use words like “beauteous.” This is because many Presbyterians attended college. Many “Prezbies” classify themselves as “high church” people.

Some of you might be asking, what is the difference between “high church” and “low church?” The answer is simple: “High church” people practice historic religious traditions and time-honored liturgy. Whereas “low church” people, such as my family, believe in, primarily, getting home before NASCAR.

Today I attended my first Presbyterian funeral. I entered the sanctuary and my breath got stuck in my throat. The simple beauty was overwhelming.

The stained glass was purple and gold, lighting the room like a veritable Monet. There

were vaulted ceilings. Everything was made of oak. There was an organist playing. The elders were dressed in Geneva robes with long stoles.

And when the ministers spoke, they did not address the congregation the way my Baptist childhood ministers addressed church goers. My preachers called everyone “friends,” “y’all,” and occasionally “boneheads.” No, these clerical men used proper grammar.

I was raised as a Baptist. Our preachers wore JCPenney suits. And in the middle of my childhood services, elderly gentlemen would frequently rise and excuse themselves from the sanctuary. And everyone knew what the oldsters were going to do.

They were leaving to have an important meeting with Brother Copenhagen, or Reverend Marlboro. There were spittoons on our church’s front porch.

Presbyterians are not like that. You will not find a spittoon within 600 yards of a Presbyterian church. And most have never heard of Richard Lee Petty.


ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities. But if you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.

My mother used to “force” me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that gave us Willie Nelson came up with mucus pudding.

But if you were to ask me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.

Right now I am thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about this city because I am standing in a 32-mile long line in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, awaiting airport security to strip search me.

We in the crowd of air passengers have been dutifully removing our belts, earrings, shoes, dentures, and insulin pumps, waiting to get past the Transportation Security checkpoint and board the plane. But I just tripped the metal detector for the second time,

which is a lot like winning the lottery.

A friendly veteran TSA representative informs me that she is eager to help me through the frisking process. So I have plenty of time to remember things during this moment. Things like, for instance, gag-inducing tapioca.

And while I’m being fondled by TSA agents, I’m also thinking about the days when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my life, back when newspapers were still newspapers.

We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and I loved the AJC newspaper. Each morning I would be the first to retrieve the news. My uncle thought this was hysterical, a kid fetching the paper.

“That’s a pretty good trick, Fido,” he’d say. “How about I teach you to pee in the yard on command?”

But, of course, I already knew how to do those…

It’s a gray afternoon and we are traversing Alabama. Today, we make our run across the Yellowhammer state. My wife only ever pulls over to buy gas or let me pee.

This is how we live. In the past years we have traveled all over the U.S. doing my little one-man show, living on gas-station burritos, while our friend stays at our house watching the dogs.

In the backseat is a guitar, along with all our hanging clothes. We travel, eat, work, and sometimes sleep in our little white van, which resembles a plumber's van. It’s the same kind of van driven by the LabCorp guy who visits your place of employment to collect urine samples.

It’s not a masculine looking vehicle. It’s small, a four cylinder. When the engine revs it sounds like a little cat hacking up a hairball.

In our years traveling we’ve become connoisseurs of gas station restrooms. We can simply look at a filling station and know whether the bathroom is going to be a total horror show.

Like last week,

a restroom in South Georgia took the grand prize. The men’s room urinal was detached and lying on the floor. And the commode had been removed so that there was nothing but a giant festering hole in the ground. And that’s not even the worst part. I WAITED IN LINE TO USE THIS BATHROOM. But I couldn’t do it.

My wife and I turned right back around and ran to the van. I told my wife, “Quick, find a cow pasture!”

Believe me, I know I’m giving you too much information, but I’m only telling you that we have spent a lot of quality time in cow pastures together over the years.

But anyway, when you travel you have to make do. Especially when it comes to creature comforts. That’s why we love our van. It’s sort of like our mini home. I’ve seen…

Your name is Sam, but most people call you “Partner.” You’ve been riding the range all your life. Your old hat is starting to get a little floppy. Your boots are wearing thin, out here in this dry country.

When you started this cattle drive you were fresh, wiry, and energetic. But all the dust storms, the desert heat, the dangerous river crossings, the lonely nights in the middle of the sagebrush, it’s all starting to take its toll. Life is wearing you thin, Sam.

Excuse me. I mean, Partner.

You haven’t shaved in weeks. You caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror back in Taos. You almost didn’t recognize yourself. Rugged. That’s what you were. Your stubble had turned into an area rug, your skin was sun-worn, like boot leather. You’ve lost so much weight that you resemble a San Pedro cactus. It’s all part of being a cowboy.

A few days ago you went out looking for those mares who busted free from the corral and got away. When you found them,

they were halfway to Mexico. You captured them and were bringing them home when...

It happened.

(Cue melodramatic music.)

You ran into Evil Eddie. He is the most evil outlaw in the West. The fact that Evil Eddie has the same name as your little brother who just stole your LEGO NASA spaceship set is only a coincidence. Make no mistake. Evil Eddie is dastardly, the most fearsome criminal this side of the Sierras.

When you happened upon him, he was even more evil than you thought. He was busy counting stolen money beside a campfire. His gang was with him. He was laughing, and you could see his yellow teeth. That’s right, yellow teeth. Outlaws are notorious for having gum disease.

You knew where Evil Eddie’s money had come from. You’d heard all about the stagecoach robbery. Evil Eddie robbed the stage and kidnapped…