“Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.”

DEAR SEAN:

I know you usually write about good things, but I am pretty down and I don’t know what to do, I think about ending it all sometimes, but don’t know what to do about it. I have a wife and two young sons and dogs, and she [wife] really wants me to go to the doctor, but I hate doctors.

Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.

HELP

DEAR HELP:

I am terrified of doctors, too. I hate waiting rooms, needles, elevator music, blood-pressure cuffs, outdated issues of “Better Homes and Gardens,” the smell of rubbing alcohol, and god-awful fluorescent lighting.

When I was a boy, I disliked our family dentist so much that I would fake terminal diseases just to avoid him. My dentist was an old man who looked like Harry Caray and his breath smelled like a reclaimed water facility.

He smoked Winstons while he

worked, and listened to Glenn Miller cassette tapes. To this day, I can’t hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra without developing a nicotine buzz.

One day, the old doc looked into my mouth, he was humming along with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” breathing smoke directly into my face, and he told me that he was going to install a permanent retainer on my bottom teeth.

I got so scared that I almost Chattanooga-Choo-Chooed in my shorts.

He glued a piece of wire to my teeth with an industrial adhesive often used on commercial runways. When I left his office, I felt like somebody had constructed a Steinway inside my mouth.

But the wire didn’t last. It came loose after only a month. When the wire dislodged, it left behind huge globs of hardened glue on the backside of my teeth.

Now, I should have told…

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

DEAR SEAN:

I want to be a writer, but sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t even bother to write at all since everyone else is better than I am.

Sincerely,
THIRTEEN-AND-WANT-TO-WRITE

DEAR THIRTEEN:

I think you should keep writing. Especially when you feel like you aren’t any good.

I have written my worst stuff on my best days and my best stuff on my worst days. And it’s been the greatest thrill of my life.

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

For instance, I have written a lot about my late dog, Ellie Mae. Once, she ate an entire jar of coffee grounds. I discovered that coffee stimulates the lower intestines of an animal.

Don’t ask me how I learned this.

I also wrote about the time I got stranded on an island for four hours. No kidding. My boat motor died, the current pushed me into the grass flats of the Choctawhatchee Bay. I

had to wait until I got rescued by a man with beer.

I wrote about the time I dressed up like Elvis for a talent show. And about the time I did a ventriloquist act with the puppet of a squirrel. The puppet’s name was Ernie.

The next morning I wrote about it.

There was my college professor. When my first book got published, I gave her a stack of books and told her she was the reason. I wrote about that.

And about the woman who shares my life. My wife. Once, I sat in a waiting room at UAB, asking Heaven to make her better again. And when Heaven answered, I had to write about it.

Only ten minutes after I received news that my thirteen-year-old coffee-eating bloodhound had died, I wrote about it. My face was swollen, my eyes…

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…