DEAR SEAN:

I am really afraid of this virus that I basically haven’t even slept at night for weeks. No matter how much I try to stop thinking about it, it’s all I think about, and I am always worried about stuff. My mother died last year, and I am living with my grandma.

Thanks,
TWELVE-IN-SARASOTA

DEAR AFRAID:

What I’m about to say is going to make no sense, so bear with me. If you can hang in there until the end of this column, you’ll win a free toaster oven.

Think about it like this:

Pretend that you have a rabid squirrel living inside your head. Got it? Good.

This squirrel is your brain. This is not an analogy. Modern science has actually proven that human nervous systems are all controlled by small crazed furry rodents who behave as though they are on their fifth cup of coffee.

Your personal squirrel is CRAZY! He’s always running in circles. He’s never at ease.

But hey, don’t get mad at the squirrel. You need him. This squirrel

(your brain) looks out for you. He’s making sure you eat, sleep, do your homework, wear clean underpants, etc. He just gets stuck on some issues.

Speaking of which. My mother was very hung up on the issue of clean underpants. It was as though she thought government employees were going to emerge from the shadows and perform randomized underwear checks. And if I was not wearing clean underpants I would be dragged outside and flogged with rubber hoses.

So before I go on, are you following me? I am saying:

1. Your brain is a squirrel.
2. My mother is obsessed with clean underpants.

This little squirrel will eat you alive. Not on purpose, he just gets so scared that he can’t help it. He probably sits around up there all day, slogging gallons of Mountain Dew so he can keep…

I am walking my dogs through a residential neighborhood. I pass a house with open windows and an open door. I hear an old piano playing. Music drifts from the windows, out to the street.

I stop walking to listen. The music reminds me of the feeling you get when you smell fresh bread.

There is something about the way freshly baked bread smells. It’s euphoric. Whenever I get homemade bread, I don’t eat it all at once. I keep it around so I can smell it. I usually do this before bed. That’s right, I sniff bread. They have support groups for this.

So that’s what this music is like. Bread. It’s a warm, soft sound.

What is this song? I know this tune. It takes me a few seconds.

“Up From the Grave He Arose” is the melody. The international Easter song of Baptists everywhere. This is the springtime anthem of my childhood.

See, every denomination has its own favorite Easter hymn. The Methodists love “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” because it

was written by John Wesley, who, in case you aren’t up on your history, was the founder of chicken broccoli casserole and Dixie-cup baptism.

The Pentecostals sing clapping songs. The Presbyterians don’t even clap at football games. And for Easter singing, the Church of Christ people march down the street to the Methodist church and set fire to the piano.

But we Baptists sing, “Up From the Grave He Arose.” And at least we did at my church. There are two sections to this song. The first section is done slow, like a funeral dirge:

“Looooowww in the Grave he lay,
“Jeeeeeeee-zussss my saay-vior…”

But when you get to the second section, you’re supposed to sing it “bright and lively.” Our piano player, Miss Betty, would bounce back and forth on her stool like she was playing ragtime piano on the Ed Sullivan Show.…

I remember the first time someone told me I was a good writer. It was a woman. She said, “Hey, you’re a good writer.” That was all. Five words.

Nobody had ever said this to me before. It’s kind of funny how one sentence can change a guy. Which is why I am writing to you. You know who you are.

No, I don’t know you, and no, you don’t know me, but you’re reading this. So in a way that means that these words are happening inside your head. That’s how reading works.

It’s kind of like I’m wandering around inside your brain, talking to you. And let me tell you, it’s pretty spacious up here in your head. Have you ever been up here? You should see this place. There is a lot of junk up here you need to get rid of.

Over there by that patch of brain matter is an old memory of your ex-boyfriend. Why are you still keeping that memory around? And over here, behind your cerebrum is the one from when

you peed your pants in the backseat of your aunt’s Oldsmobile. You really ought to throw that one away.

Since I’m in your head right now, this means I can say things and they might—if I’m lucky—stick with you. This is the magic of reading. I could write anything at all, and you’d sort of read it using your own internal voice.

For example: I could say, “Do not envision your grandmother sitting on the toilet.” Whereupon your brain would not only read that sentence in your own personal voice, you would immediately picture Mamaw reading her morning paper.

But I’m not going to say anything like that. Because that would be totally uncalled for. Still, I do have something important I want to say. So here it is:

You’re pretty great.

A lot of people don’t believe this about themselves.…

I receive a lot of questions in the form of emails, letters, and private messages. I wish I could answer them all, but it would be impossible. Not unless I hooked myself up to the internet intravenously. So today, I’d like to take the time to answer a few questions in the Q-and-A format. I’ll quit wasting time:

Q: You say “I love you” a lot in your blogs. That’s kind of creepy, you don’t even know me, and it’s such an overused phrase. I mean, come on, why do you use it so much?

A: Because.

Q: How are your dogs doing during this quarantine? I worry about them.

A: Well, actually they’re great. My wife and I usually spend the majority of our year on the road, so that means their Aunt Michelle lives with them while we gallivant around the U.S. doing whatever it is that we do. Before the quarantine, for instance, we had been on the road for almost a month.

So this is heaven for the dogs. They get to see us all day

every day. We even bathe together. They get to sleep in our bed. I get to sleep on the sofa.

Q: How did you start writing?

A: It’s sort of a double answer. When I was a kid I always wrote stuff. When I got older, I tried to do something with my work, but nobody wanted to publish a construction-working bar musician, and I couldn’t blame them. So I started a blog/online column/whatever-you-call-this. And my life was never the same.

Q: What’s your sign?

A: Thanks, but I’m already in a committed relationship.

Q: I once saw you playing music at a place in Destin, Florida, many years ago. You were playing accordion. Was that really you?

A: Who wants to know?

Q: Quit fooling, I mean for real.

A: I play piano, guitar, and accordion. I am mediocre…

MINNEAPOLIS—There isn’t much you can do when you’re stuck inside during a quarantine except sit. Sometimes, you catch yourself thinking about what daily life was like before the quarantine, but you try not to think too long about this because you’re stuck indoors and this really stinks.

So you watch the news to stay informed, but this only stresses you out, because each few minutes the reports get worse. And worse.

And worse.

You turn 84 today. What a crummy birthday. It’s a shame because your life is a good one. You live alone because you are in perfect health, except for your hip. Your family all gets along. You have an obedient cat named Harry. In fact, you have all you need.

But a quarantine is a quarantine. No matter how you look at it, it’s the pits.

To be perfectly honest, you’re not sure which is worse, the isolation, or the actual virus. Either way, it’s miserable being in this stuffy house all day where you’re about to die from boredom—not literally, of course.

This morning,

you had the ceremonial video calls from your grandkids who wished you happy birthday. That was nice. There were a few people who sent birthday emails. Big whoop. Emails are great, but they only go so far.

Of course you’re not complaining. After all, you’re no stranger to hardship. You have seen tough times. It's not that. It’s that you miss your family.

So you sit on your easy chair. It’s suppertime. You’re eating your microwaved frozen dinner. Thank God for the grocery delivery service or else you and Harry would have starved.

You turn on the TV. This is your life now. Television. You flip past the news channels because you don’t want to watch more frightening headlines.

You flip past the home-improvement channels where the hosts get deathly excited about things like shiplap. You scroll past the home shopping networks…

I got a letter from Mona, who writes: “Sean, will you write more about food? It makes me feel better during these scary times.”

Mona, as it happens I am looking at a cookbook right now. The cookbook I am holding is old. It is every hometown recipe book you’ve ever seen. Spiral bound, thick, stained, and there is a sketch on the cover featuring stately oaks draping over a shaded street.

Inside are the four gospels: church food, wedding food, funeral food, and congealed salads.

You won't find many things holier than these recipes. They are American history, described in standard measurement form.

I once knew an old Sunday school teacher who made buttermilk pie that made grown men loosen their neckties. Once, at a Fourth of July supper, she gave me a slice and told me:

“God wants all his children to be a little soft in the middle.”

And I’ve always believed that.

This particular cookbook I am holding, however, comes from the Brewton Civic League. The recipes within are everything you need to find

a happy life.

Cheese grits, Squirrel D’ete, Congealed Cantaloupe Salad, mint juleps, Miss Paula’s pickled shrimp, and Coca-Cola salad—whatever that is.

None of them use the word “margarine,” but “Oleo.” And in this book, you will also find the secret to perfect fried chicken—peanut oil and Jesus.

You will discover that measurements are open to loose interpretation. A “handful” here, a “passel” there. A “dash,” a “pinch,” a “dusting,” or a “touch.”

Also, there are a dozen variations of chicken-broccoli casserole. Though, the only discernible differences are the varying amounts of cheese.

In this book you will find the exact deviled eggs approved by the Methodist church.

But anyway, I have a long history with homemade cookbooks. In fact, the article you’re reading was typed on a manual typewriter that once typed a similar cookbook.

Many moons ago, I typed 418 recipes…

We Southern Baptists had an expression growing up which was: “You cannot be a deacon if your waist is less than 38 inches.”

The idea is that nobody can trust a skinny deacon who doesn’t understand the finer points of fried chicken, which is the basis for fundamentalist religion.

We also had a cute expression in our church that went: “If you dance at a wedding reception you will rot in hell.”

Ha ha! We Baptists sure were a fun group. This is why many of us still see therapists on a weekly basis.

But our deacons really did have large waists. One of my childhood deacons was a big man named Brother Willie. Willie sold insurance, hunted deer, and did not go to wedding receptions unless they had fried chicken. He was a chicken fanatic.

Willie was always first in line at potlucks. He would cut in front of everyone, including kids, elderly people, and brittle diabetics. Without the slightest shred of humor, he’d say, “Excuse me, ma’am, official chicken gizzard

inspector.”

At first, most people thought he was joking. But you should have seen the way Deacon Willie ate gizzards. It was anything but comedy. It was more like a steamy romance.

But I’m getting off track here. Ever since my wife and I have been self-quarantining due to the COVID-19 outbreak, my wife has been cooking a lot. And I mean all day. There is not a moment when she is not flouring counters or warming the butter by placing the butter dish on the clothes dryer.

She’s been cooking so much that our walls are covered in a film of pure grease. If you trace your finger along our ceiling you’ll find a centimeter of peanut oil and atomized chicken sludge.

We have been eating tons of fried chicken. Not only because my wife and I were both raised Baptist, but because we have been stuck…

I am walking my dogs. They are dragging me along the road. My shoes make skid marks on the pavement.

Walking my dogs is like trying to walk a herd of caffeinated water buffalo. My dogs exert so much pulling force that my shoulders pop from their sockets. When this happens, I generally say bad words. Neighbors who happen to be nearby glare with disapproving faces. But I am used to these kinds of scowls because I was raised Southern Baptist.

Right now, I’m taking the dogs to the bay. There’s a spot near the water where everyone from nearby neighborhoods visits. It’s beautiful. There is something enchanting about our bay.

If you visit this secluded spot at sunset, you will see lots of people who had the same idea you had. Husbands and wives. Kids on bicycles. A happy young couple. A teenager with a fuschia mohawk and multiple facial piercings.

It wasn't always crowded. Long ago, my wife and I would visit this spot and we'd be alone. Then word got out. Today, everybody

and their brother knows about it, so at sunset it’s a Gaither Homecoming.

But tonight it’s empty. There is nobody here except me and some lady. We’ve met before, but nothing more than a few neighborly greetings. I don’t know her name.

She is late sixties maybe early seventies. She sits on a log, overlooking the big water. Our bay is 127 square miles of brackish blue and, like I said earlier, there is something enchanting about it.

The woman’s head is bowed, she doesn’t look like she wants to be bothered. I keep quiet.

Then again, I have enough of my mother inside me that I have to ask questions. I am nosy. There is nothing I can do about this. I don’t even try to fight it anymore.

“Ma’am, are you okay?” I ask.

She opens her eyes. And I feel bad…

Thank you. That is the​ purpose of this column. I want to say “thanks.” I don't know you, but I believe in the good you do. Especially right now.

In public, I used to see you sometimes and think to myself: "I wish someone would thank them." But I never do because if I did, you’d think I was a complete nut job.

Maybe I am a nut job. But I’m allowed to be that way. After all, I am a columnist—sort of—and that means my proverbial box is missing a few crayons.

Long ago, I used to deliver newspapers with my mother. We used to deliver to a fella who would answer the door in pajamas. He had messy hair and a bushy white beard. He always gave me a five-dollar tip.

He was generous. If he wasn’t home one day, he would pay me ten bucks the next day. He was a columnist, my mother told me. And that’s why he was such a weirdo in weird pajamas. Even his house smelled weird.

I suppose I ought to thank him while I am at it.

Also, thanks to the man I saw in the gas station who bought a lottery scratch-off ticket. Who won thirty bucks, then turned around and gave the cash to a woman behind him in line. What a guy.

The woman thanked him in a language that sounded like Russian, but he didn't seem to understand, so he answered: “Alright.”

Thank you, Cindy—the woman who translated one of my speeches in American Sign Language for the front row​. She told me I talked very fast and now she has problems with her rotator cuff.

She also taught me how to cuss in sign language.

Thank you to the seventy-year-old man who went back to school to get his GED. And his forty-six-year-old daughter, who tutored him.

And you. You deserve thanks, but you don't…

I hear them talking through the trees. They are my neighbors. On a calm night like tonight, I can hear their whole conversation.

I hear the young mother saying, “It’s our twelfth day of quarantine, Daddy, what about you?

In response, I hear the digital cellphone-voice of an old man saying, “I dunno, haven’t been keeping count.”

“GRANDPA!” shouts another young voice. A boy. Toddler age.

“Hi!” says Grandpa. “I miss you.”

Their conversation lulls back and forth. Woman, then kid, then old man, repeat. Almost like ping pong.

Speaking of ping pong, I was always a pitiful ping pong player. I don’t know what it is about me, but it’s one of those sports that I just can’t seem to get.

Tennis is even worse. I’ve played tennis only once. I borrowed my buddy’s expensive racquet. I played until I passed out. When I awoke in the hospital severely dehydrated with a slightly torn groin, I swore off the sport forever. But I digress.

“GRANDPA!” says the neighbor boy. “GUESS WHAT!”

“What?”

“I’M NOT IN SCHOOL!”

“Wow,” says Grandpa’s electronic voice.

“That’s right,” says

Mom. “He’s home, twenty-four seven.”

“Lucky you,” says Grandpa.

“Lucky me,” says Mama.

Lately I’ve been wondering how kid-me might have felt about school being permanently cancelled.

When I was young, springtime was intoxicating. I have golden memories of running through fields, splashing through creeks, catching crawfish, and drinking too much Coca-Cola.

But for us, there was always this twinge of sorrow during spring because, in your heart, you knew that you had to go back to school when the break was over. You’d have to write more essays, memorize more stuff about the War of 1812, and learn more about the unique bones that comprise the human nose. So spring was always a little sad.

But if someone would have said, “Hey, guess what? You don’t have to go to school for the rest…