Not only do I feel like a non-writer, Merle, but I am a late bloomer.

“Sean, every time I sit down to write, I can’t make the words come…

“Maybe it’s because I’m not any good. I got a C in my journalism class, and I feel like I’ll never be a true writer, but a big failure. What should I do?”

This question was posed to me by a twenty-one-year-old journalism major who I will call Merle.

I call him this for two reasons. Firstly, Merle Haggard is one of my favorite country singers. Secondly, this person’s name is actually Merle.

The thing is, Merle, you have more credentials than I do. I’m not what you’d call a “true writer,” either.

A true writer finds incredible stories, then polishes them into poetry. I don’t do that.

Case in point: Once, I wrote an entire column about eyebrow hair.

This proves that I am not an “author” in the traditional sense. Actually, what I am is a “talker.” Which means I can talk at great length about topics I know absolutely nothing about. Kind of like I’m doing now.

I inherited this natural gabbiness from my mother. My mother could chat with anyone or anything.

Once, when I was a boy my mother lost her prescription eyeglasses in a JCPenney and mistakenly struck up conversation with a cardboard cutout of Brooke Shields advertising tight-fitting jeans.

After Mama’s conversation, she remarked, “That was a nice young lady, maybe you’ll meet a young lady like that one day.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “That was Brooke Shields.”

“Brooke who?”

“Shields.”

“Well, Brooke’s mother should’ve never let her leave the house in those tight britches.”

Not only do I feel like a non-writer, Merle, but I am a late bloomer.

Just last night, I was watching a baseball game. The announcer was Jeff Francoeur, a former big league right-fielder who is one of the greats.

The…

One of the first things my mother did after my father’s funeral was take us on a trip to Branson, Missouri. My uncle came along.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died Saturday. The funeral is tomorrow. You have written about your father’s funeral, and the days before and after. Is there anything we can do to make things easier for my ten-year-old son? I know he’ll have a hole in his heart forever. I want to do everything possible to support him.

Thanks,
I-LOVE-MY-SON

DEAR I-LOVE:

My mother took me to a therapist after my father’s funeral. Everyone was pretty worried about me because I quit talking.

They tried to get me out of my shell, but I hurt too badly to laugh, smile, or talk. Besides, I didn’t have anything to say.

The therapist’s office was behind a Methodist church and the doctor was a man with a New York accent who never shut up and always tossed a football in the air while he talked.

I guess this was his attempt at being a down-to-earth guy, playing with a football while he explained my father’s suicide. But it didn’t work.

Every time he spoke,

tossing that dumb ball, I kept thinking of how my father used to say, “There’s no better form of birth control than a New York accent.”

And I would start to giggle. But I still refused to talk.

He told me to stop laughing. Then he asked me to try a mental exercise. He handed me an empty mayonnaise jar and a handful of pennies.

“Put a penny in the jar,” he said.

I wouldn’t do it. So we sat for a long time and I held those pennies, thinking about how foolish I felt.

“Those are hurt-pennies,” he said. “And if you put enough hurt-pennies in your jar, one day you’ll have all your hurt in an itty-bitty place, then you can put the lid on and hurl it into the ocean.”

Then he tossed his football in…

I am telling you all this because when you feel like a loser you end up doing strange things. Sometimes, it can make you act like someone else altogether.

DEAR SEAN:

A girl I like is in my class and I like her and wanna get her to like me, too. And I wanna figure out how to ask her out, but I’m a loser most of the time.

NERVOUS-IN-ARKANSAS

DEAR NERVOUS:

You couldn’t find anyone worse to ask for advice. Especially when it comes to this subject.

But believe me, you’re not a loser. You want to see a real loser? The guy writing you is someone who once got choked up asking a girl on a date and started referring to himself in the third person.

You must never refer to yourself in the third person. It makes you sound like a serial killer with mommy issues.

This is what I told her:

“Um, yeah, Sean Dietrich really wants to go on a date with you. Sean really likes you?”

Notice the question mark on the end of that last sentence, which made my voice slightly higher pitched. We can see from further grammatical analysis that I had forgotten how

to function in American society.

I ended up making such a fool of myself that she told me to get lost.

Anyway, do you know who I wish you could talk to? My grandmother. She would’ve been the right person to ask. She knew everything.

The only advice my grandmother ever gave when it came to the opposite sex was this:

“Treat her better than you’d treat your mother and you can’t lose.”

I can attest to this being true.

Something else I have learned about girls: It’s a bad idea to try to get them to notice you through strange and unusual means.

For example: Once, I followed my uncle’s advice and played guitar on a girl’s front lawn at one in the morning. I sang “Happy Together” by the Turtles.

As it happened, the…

DEAR SEAN:

My dad just left my mom and me… He’s a real *&@#$ and I’m so pissed off, I don’t even know why I’m writing you…

I am so mad and I wish we could make him pay for this in some way if that could be possible…

I just can’t figure out why.

Thanks for reading this,
JACOB, (13 years old)

DEAR JACOB,

Before I answer you letter, I want to say one thing, and it’s a little off the subject, so bear with me.

Have you ever watched any old Westerns? I’m talking silver-screen heroes in ten-gallon hats with quickdraws, who call everyone “Pilgrim.”

No, you probably don’t watch movies like that. Only geeks watch those sorts of movies. Geeks like me.

Still, it makes me sad that we don’t have Westerns like that today. There was a time when mankind was fortunate enough to have Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Glenn Ford, Randolph Scott, and the immortal John Wayne.

Anyway, we don’t know each other, so you probably

don’t want any advice from a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me.

But.

If you WERE to ask me for some advice, which you didn’t, it is my basic belief that all 13-year-old boys need classic Western movies in their lives.

Look, just because there are no great silver-screen cowboys in today’s age doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the old vaqueros. The Duke is still alive and well in digital color. Hopalong couldn’t look any better. And don’t forget “Maverick,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Bonanza.”

If you were to ask me which old Western movie to start with, I would have an answer for you.

“Stagecoach.” John Wayne’s first big movie. The Pilgrim himself, saving the day.

Then I’d tell you to watch “True Grit,” and “Red River.” From there you could work your way up to “The Searchers,” and…

DEAR SEAN:

I really enjoy your daily postings, but it bothers me when your grammar is incorrect. I don’t know if it is on purpose to be more folksy? Dumbed down? or what, but someone who is a writer should really be more cognizant of how his words impact the reader.

When I read a sentence with blatant incorrect usage, it is jarring and lessens my respect for what you are saying—and I’d rather that didn’t happen...

THANKS-FOR-LETTING-ME-SAY-MY-PIECE

DEAR SAY-MY-PIECE:

You’re absolutely right. I have terrible grammar. I’ll admit it like a man. When I first learned this about myself, I was in community college. I was in my late twenties.

My English professor had cotton hair, and every word she uttered sounded like rural Mississippi.

I remember my first class. I was nervous. I had just left work, I was wearing sweaty clothes.

Underneath my breath, I talked to myself. “You’re not a stupid man, Sean,” I was saying. “You’ve got this.”

Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I am

not a complete ignoramus.

One trick I’ve learned is to remember the people who believed in you.

My fourth-grade teacher, for example.

She encouraged me to write stories. My grammar was atrocious. I was the son of an ironworker, and I was born naked at a very young age. My sentences read like they were written by a plain hick.

Example sentence:

“I once seen Johnnie Andrews with a big old kite fixed to his back, and Lord, he jumped off the dang roof! He broke his ankle and everything!”

My teacher would correct my paper in red ink, then hand it back to me. At the end of every draft, she would include a note that read:

“YOU’RE MY FAVORITE WRITER, SEAN!”

These simple words are actually code for “I love you.” And they inspire me.…

I met him when I worked on a landscaping crew. He had just turned his life around and moved in with his brother. He was short, built like a refrigerator, and could bench press a Pontiac.

DEAR SEAN:

I am writing on behalf of my twelve-year-old son, tell me how I’m supposed to deal with a bully at school, this isn’t easy.

Sincerely,
MOM-WITH-A-BROKEN-HEART

DEAR MOM:

You wrote the wrong guy. I hate to disappoint you, but I am too underqualified. Still, I wish my friend, Paulo, could chime in on this. He would have a good answer.

Years ago, I found some used lumber for sale in the classified section. I drove to South Alabama with Paulo to pick it up.

Paulo moved here from Los Angeles, he comes from a large Mexican family. His sister-in-law made the best homemade chicken mole you’ve ever had, his brother was a preacher.

Paulo grew up in gangs—and I don’t mean the kind that play patty cake after soccer practice.

Paulo had been to prison. He had ornate tattoos on his arms, hands, and one large design on his neck.

I met him when I worked on a landscaping crew. He had just

turned his life around and moved in with his brother. He was short, built like a refrigerator, and could bench press a Pontiac.

The address in the newspaper led us to a farmhouse that had a long driveway, blocked by a livestock gate.

I dialed the number in the ad and told the lady we had arrived. The gate opened automatically, via electronic remote.

“Wow,” said Paulo. “Now that’s what I call a FANTASTIC gate.”

You will note, I am using substitute words. Paulo is from East L.A. He would never use the word “fantastic.”

We drove toward the house. I saw the pile of cheap used lumber calling my name. Paulo and I tossed pieces into my trailer until it was lunchtime.

I explained to the lady that we were breaking for lunch and would be back in a few…

DEAR SEAN:

My mother died last Saturday...

Write back to me, please, I really hope you read this and get back to me…

I just don’t know what I’m going to do now.

Thanks,
ALL-ALONE-IN-THE-WORLD

DEAR ALONE:

For a moment, let’s pretend.

Okay, ready?

Go.

You’re a twelve-year-old boy. It’s the day after your father’s funeral. Family swarms your home. They cook for you. They clean for you. They bombard you.

That night, instead of sulking—which you REALLY want to do—you sit around a campfire with uncles and cousins. The fire blazes, and you wish you weren’t there. You wish you could be somewhere else.

That’s when you notice a cow is standing behind you, near the fence.

Someone stabs the fire with a stick, sparks shoot into the night.

You are as alone as a kid can be. Earlier that day, at your father’s visitation, you shook a lot of hands with very nice people. But these folks don’t understand you.

They can’t understand. They have normal

lives. And after your father’s service, their normal lives resume. They take off neckties and dress shoes, but your life is just beginning.

This is what you’re thinking.

But around this campfire, nobody gives you time to be alone with your thoughts. Instead, your uncle tells a story about driving to Georgia, and how the bumps on the roads almost rattled his RV into nuts and bolts.

Another uncle tells the story about when he was three, he tried to hammer a nail into his brother’s head like one of the Three Stooges.

What’s wrong with them? How can anyone make jokes at a time like this?

While they talk, you are staring at the cow near the fence, and you feel like she’s the only one who understands you. Maybe you’re losing your mind,…

Listen, I’m not a particularly smart man, friend. But then, you don’t have to be smart to know what I know. Life evaporates. It rises toward heaven so quick that you’re lucky if you catch a glimpse.

DEAR SEAN:

My dad died last year and I just don’t really know what to do with myself anymore. I know your dad died when you were my age I think, so how do I be like normal again?

Really hope you write back,
FOURTEEN-IN-VIRGINIA

DEAR FOURTEEN:

I’m the wrong guy to ask about normalcy. I haven’t been normal since the third grade when I peed my pants onstage at a school assembly.

Even our school nurse remarked, “That child’s one rung short of a step ladder.”

She was right. But then, I don’t believe in “normal.” It’s a made-up word. And not that it matters, but I don’t believe in magic beanstalks, pop-stars, Florida Powerball, high cholesterol, or daylight saving time, either.

Years ago, while driving through South Alabama, I saw something. It was an overcast day and the world was colorless. My wife and I had just left a funeral. There was a sadness over our vehicle.

We rode through miles of farmland. My wife yelled, “LOOK!”

I glanced out the window. It was spectacular. I pulled into a cow

pasture. We stepped out. We ran through acres of cow pies and green grass.

A rainbow.

And so help me, the colors were touching the ground. The tail was diving into the dirt like a spotlight. I’d never seen anything like it.

The cows watched us with big eyes while we behaved like six-year-olds. We took turns swatting the colors. I don’t know exactly why we did this, but I would’ve regretted not doing it.

Here’s where it gets somewhat magical.

The colors disappeared when I got too close. They reappeared when I took several steps back.

Closeup, they were gone. Far away; voila! The colors were there, but not always visible.

Eventually, the sun came out and the rainbow vanished completely.

We hiked back to the truck. I took in a breath of morning air and…

DEAR SEAN:

I can’t sleep. I am sixteen hundred miles from home (Alabama), and my grandmother isn’t doing well. I’m not mentally prepared for her to leave this earth. I’m having a hard time...

She and I are very close. If you could give me some comforting words, I would really appreciate it.

Thank you,
PRAYING-FOR-GRANDMA

DEAR PRAYING:

I wish I had words, but I don’t. Because nothing I could say would make things any better.

Sure, I could say, “You’re stronger than you think,” or something. But why should you believe a guy like me? I’m just an average Joe with crummy car insurance.

But.

I DO have something special. And before I tell you what it is, you have to promise you won’t laugh.

Promise?

No. I mean really promise.

All right.

I have a magic lamp.

Now, hold on. Before you shut off your phone, I’m serious. I bought a brass lamp at a flea market in New Orleans. When I saw it, I had to have it. It cost thirty-nine

bucks—you can’t put a price tag on genies.

Though, I haven’t used it yet. In fact, until just now I’d forgotten all about it. The thing has been in my garage.

Tonight, I’m going make a wish.

I know exactly what I’ll wish. I’m going to wish for everything go back to normal for you.

If you ask me—which you didn’t—there is nothing better than normalcy. Life has a way of screwing up normal, and it leaving everything abnormal and funky.

So if this magic lamp is the real deal, you and your granny are going to get plenty of normalcy back.

Also, I’m going to wish for the University of Alabama to win the Orange Bowl on my birthday, but whatever.

Growing up, my life was anything but normal. I…

We were going through the motions, doing what regular people are supposed to do during December. Gifts, festive music, cheap decor, blah, blah, blah.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died three years ago this February, and I know you grew up underneath the same shadow with your father. My son is fourteen, I’m afraid he will never have any joy whatsoever again.

More than anything, I want his Christmas to be awesome, but I am at a complete loss. Does it ever get any better?

GRIEVING-AT-CHRISTMAS

DEAR GRIEVING:

Decades ago. The downtown was decorated with tinsel and little plastic bells hanging from streetlamps. Santa and his reindeer were strung across the rooftops of Mainstreet.

The fiberglass Santa had his right hand outstretched in a perpetual wave to passerbyers. Though, something was very wrong with Santa. Very, VERY wrong.

But more about that later.

Anyway, I was in town with my mother. We were shopping for the holidays.

My father had died a few years earlier. My mother was not the woman she used to be. She was sad. So was I.

Also, I had gained roughly fifteen pounds that year

because I was, and still am, an emotional eater. This is why football season continues to wreak havoc on my body. Also, I have had a lifelong love affair with Chili Cheese Fritos.

That holiday season felt like torture. Everyone else was happy, but not us. We couldn’t laugh, joke, or crack smiles.

We were going through the motions, doing what regular people are supposed to do during December. Gifts, festive music, cheap decor, blah, blah, blah.

That day in town, my mother turned me loose in the department store. I had fifteen dollars to spend on friends, foes, and kin.

Oh, how times have changed. Today, fifteen bucks wouldn’t even buy an iPhone charger.

I wandered through the store with no idea how to spend my money. After all, why should I care about stuffed animals, jars of pepper jelly, barrels of popcorn,…