Yesterday I got an email from Ryan, who is depressed about the coronavirus quarantine. Ryan has lost his job, he’s got mounting bills, and he’s been stuck at home with his Mountain-Dew-guzzling children who are driving him nuts.

This is a direct quote from Ryan: “Am I being punished or something?”

And now my conscience is starting to bother me. Because if these hard times are Ryan’s punishment, then what about me? Which is exactly why I need to tell you about the fateful night I surrendered my soul to depravity.

It all started with a chili cookoff. I was a kid. The Baptist chili contest was a big deal in our little church. I don’t know how chili became so popular because it was not typical church food. But it was a celebrated event.

The problem was that the contest was rigged. Everyone knew it. Year after year, the same woman won. But more on this later.

The church ladies were VERY into this chili business. They would take sabbaticals from preparing

their usual fare, which openly flaunted the mandates of the American Heart Association, and cooked competition-style chili.

The way the cookoff worked was this: Competitors set up card tables with chili crockpots. Then, the whole community ate lots of spicy, acidic chili. Deacons judged. And the next morning, everyone in three counties called in sick for work because they were afraid to be six feet away from a bathroom.

We had many different chili varieties. Sister Carolyn, for instance, made pork chili. There was black bean chili. Mister Reginald’s venison backstrap chili was divine. Brother Hooty made a concoction nobody touched because it was either possum, squirrel, or an old Pampers diaper.

But nothing—and I mean nothing—was better than Marilyn King’s turkey chili. Her husband, Carl, was a big turkey hunter, and her chili was a labor of love. One taste was euphoria, like hugging Julia Child…

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…

It’s a long story, but it all starts with red hair. Sort of. She was a redhead, and in love. And 17-year-old redheads in love do impulsive things. It was a different era. Johnson was president.

Her parents were against the romance. His parents were against it, too. But redheads make decisions without consulting the rest of the world. When the young couple found out she was pregnant, they married.

Her father and mother were mad; she had never been so excited. They moved to California. He took a job driving a truck. He was gone a lot, making all-night runs across the U.S., but they were happy.

One lonely night she was rattled awake by loud knocking on the front door. She answered it in her bathrobe. Two patrolmen on her porch said that her husband’s eighteen-wheeler flipped, and he was gone.

She went through pregnancy alone. And on the morning she gave birth, she was unsure about what to feel. She held her boy against her chest and wept

over him with the joyful kind of tears that only widows know.

She worked low-paying jobs. A receptionist in a textile factory. An orderly in a rest home. Finally, she decided to go back to school. The night classes were hard, but she stuck with them for many years. During the same week that her son graduated from 7th grade, she graduated with her teaching certificate, and life was looking up.

First she taught elementary, then high school. She was miserable with both jobs. Children can test a woman’s patience and cause her to use very strong cuss words in public sometimes.

She applied for a position at a junior college, it was only a part-time gig, and modest pay. She loved it. The college kids were much more sincere than high-schoolers who spent the majority of their class period grabbing each other’s butts.

There was one student in…

These past few days, I’ve gotten an unusual amount of emails from people with upcoming birthdays. It seems like everyone is stuck indoors, self-quarantining, and this isn’t exactly a fun way to spend the big day. One such email comes from Abbie, who writes:

“My daughter Emma's birthday is on Sunday. She will be turning 9. She's a typical kid. Hates vegetables. Whines. Says ‘Mommy’ at least one thousand times a day. Usually her aunt and grandparents come over for a birthday lunch. Complete with cake and presents. Not this year.

“This year will obviously be different. I prepared for a breakdown when I explained what a global pandemic is and why we are quarantined. She just looked at me and said, ‘I understand. Can I help you make my birthday cake?’”

“I'm pretty proud of her and the little lady she has become.”

Well, on the off chance that Emma is reading this, I want to be among the first to wish her a happy 9th birthday. What a

great year.

When I was 9 years old, my teacher read “Where the Red Fern Grows” aloud in class. This book became a favorite book. I hope you get to read it one day, Emma. It always makes me feel good.

Consequently, that was also the year my cousin, Ed Lee, ate three worms on a bet. He did it during a baseball game. We boys sat in the dugout watching in pure amazement. When he finished, Ed Lee had earned fourteen bucks, but he had also puked in someone’s glove.

These are the kinds of stunts my generation was famous for. This is probably why the most notable cultural contributions my generation ever made to the Greater Good were: Angry Birds, air-fryers, and Spanx.

Anyway, I know it sounds silly, but did you know that I'm jealous of you right now, Emma? It’s true. Because you’re a kid. You…

I have here an email from a woman named Ella who lives in New York City. Ella writes:

“I turn 76 years old in two days... I’m trying not to lose my mind, but being trapped inside this little apartment and self-quarantining with my daughter and her roommate, I’m starting to go stir crazy!

“It’s been a long two years for me, I have survived breast cancer, and an autoimmune disease, please write something upbeat just for me that doesn’t even mention COVID-19 and take my mind off of it.”

Ella, since we don’t know each other, and since I don’t have your personal details, I guess I’ll just start writing something based on what I DO know about you.

For starters, you’re turning 76. This means that, if we do some basic math… Subtract the six… Carry the two… Divide the coefficient… Take the remainder and shove it up the cosine’s exponent… Made a mistake and kissed a snake, how many doctors did it take...?

You were born in 23 BC.

No wait. That can’t

be right. I’m sorry, Ella. Math has never been my strong suit. Let me try that again. You were born in 1944.

Before I wrote this, I was doing some research on your birth year and found out that ‘44 was a pivotal year. The war was still on, Navy ships were still being attacked, Roosevelt was president, America’s most edgy pop-star was Bing Crosby. There were also several historical figures born that year, such as Diana Ross, Jerry Springer, and of course Boz Scaggs.

Boz Scaggs. Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in ages. Do you remember him? Of course you do, who doesn’t? He was a singer-songwriter who had a big hit from the movie soundtrack “Urban Cowboy,” starring John Travolta. The song was titled “Look What You’ve Done to Me.”

This song was majorly depressing. My friend’s older sister, Sandy,…

If you get a free moment today, smile. But don’t do it with your face. Try smiling with your heart.

Yes. I realize what I just said seems very stupid. It almost sounds like something a weirdo hippie therapist would say after an hour of hand-puppet therapy out in his yurt. “Alright everybody, let’s hold hands in a circle and smile in our big ole hearts.”

But I’m being serious. Close your eyes and give it a whirl. Smile with your chest region. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? You felt it, didn’t you? That faint fluttery thing happening in your chest. Kind of cool, huh? Great, now I’d like us all to hold hands in a circle and start chanting in Pig Latin.

No, I’m only kidding.

I can’t take credit for this heart smiling thing. An old man used to tell me this. He was a friend of mine. In some ways, he acted like a father to me after my father died. He was white-haired and a lot older than my father.

Alzheimer’s eventually took

him from the world. When the disease hit, it moved fast. Pretty soon he didn’t know who I was.

The last time I saw him, he kept calling me Lucinda. I don’t know who Lucinda is, but I will say this: Lucinda must be a very handsome man.

My friend was the first one to tell me, “Smile with your heart.” Truthfully, I thought it was pretty dumb. I didn’t fully appreciate his words until I got older.

Come to find out, the phrase didn’t originate with my friend. It comes from an old American song, popular during my pal’s heyday. A song you probably know the words to. The tune is “My Funny Valentine,” written in 1937, back when the whole world was Depressed.

My friend used to tell me stories about life during the Depression. He once told me how he…

You awake in a barbershop. It’s filled with old men. They are laughing. Talking. Carrying on. You are wearing plaid pajamas, and your hair is a mess. Where are you? How did you get here? Why are you in pajamas?

Oh well, it could have been worse. At least you didn’t awake standing before your fourth-grade class buck naked again. Thank God for small blessings.

Anyway, the last thing you remember was watching the news on your sofa. It was late. The newscasters were talking about the coronavirus because that’s all anyone thinks about now. Even ocean-dwelling creatures living 35,853 feet below the water are social distancing right now.

Then (boom) you were here. Just like that.

The man in the barber chair is telling a story. It’s wonderful. It isn’t so much what he is saying, but how he’s saying it that makes you smile.

It's a happy, humorous conversation. He’s not using the buzz words you’ve been hearing lately. Like “self-quarantine,” “mortality rates,” or “interpersonal airborne viral transmission ratio.” He’s talking about fishing.

The old men puff leather-scented smoke from

pipes. A few wear fedoras. You find yourself carried away in their conversation. The more they talk, the more you forget the things you’ve been worrying about all week.

It seems like the fear comes in waves lately. Sometimes, you’re fine. Other times, if you hear the word “coronavirus” once more you are going to lose it.

But right now, you’re not worried about viruses. Not in this shop.

You say something to the barber but he doesn’t respond. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge you. None of the men notice you. Maybe it’s because you’re wearing dorky pajamas.

“This is weird,” you’re thinking. “Why won’t they look at me?” So you wave your hand in front of a guy’s face, but he stares right through it. “Hello?” you say.

Nothing.

Now you’re really freaking out because you…

I’m playing cards with my wife outside on our porch. We never do this. In fact, I can hardly believe this is happening. It’s almost like a dream.

The sun is setting. It’s a pleasant spring evening. The North Florida mosquitoes are the size of Volkswagen Jettas. My wife and I are sipping beers, playing five-card draw. It’s been years since we’ve done this.

You know, in some ways this coronavirus quarantine thing isn’t all bad. Yes, I know the newscasters are constantly reminding us to stay inside our living rooms, and to keep our televisions cranked up loud so we don’t miss urgent commercials about reverse mortgage offers. But I need a break from TV.

I’m sort of getting into the spirit of this quarantine. Right now I feel the same as I did when I was a kid and school got cancelled. Whenever school closed it was like getting set free from Alcatraz. That’s how today feels.

Anyway, I love playing cards. There was a time in childhood when I

was always coaxing my friends to play Crazy Eights, War, or gin rummy. Sometimes, we would sneak into the Baptist church shed, where no fundamentalist mothers could find us, and we would play poker. We played high-stakes tournaments. The game was Omaha hi-low split-eight or better, no limit. If you can just imagine.

We once played a three-hour game with Brother Gary, the church maintenance man. Brother Gary must have smoked three packs of cigarettes that afternoon. Wherever he is today, Gary still owes my cousin, Ed Lee, roughly $800,000.

As a young man, we used to play cards during lunch breaks on construction jobsites. We would toss dollar bills and quarters onto the lunch table. One day, I lost sixteen bucks and I was sick about it. It’s funny how a man changes with age. If I lost sixteen bucks today, it wouldn’t matter. But back then…

DEAR SEAN:

Do you think we are going to get through this thing? My dad keeps telling me not to worry, but I can’t help it, I’m honestly scared about this coronavirus thing and of what’s happening to everybody. I wish you and I could hang out, ‘cause I bet you could calm me down.

Thanks,
EIGHTEEN-IN-ATLANTA

DEAR EIGHTEEN:

Listen, I’m flattered. But I don’t think I could make you feel calm. Not because I don’t want to, but because if we did hang out, you’d hear me speak out loud and say to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute, this guy’s a hick!” And I would lose all credibility in your eyes.

This is why all your trustworthy TV experts are Harvard graduates, Yale lawyers, or certified nuclear proctologists. They are smart, well-spoken, and they wear enough hair product to deflect small-caliber bullets. But they are never hicks.

Me? I can’t seem to tame my hair. And believe me, my mother has squandered years of her life trying to get it to stay put.

The reason I

tell you this is because if you and I actually met in person, you’d most certainly figure out that I have no idea what I’m talking about. In which case you would start worrying again.

But as it happens, I do know a little about worry. I had a crummy childhood, just like a lot of people. I dealt with stomach ulcers, anxiety, night terrors, and other things that go along with fear.

The fear was because my family went through a lot of trauma surrounding my father’s death. After he died, we all slept in the same bedroom together for a while. That’s how scared we were. Sometimes before turning out the lights, we would use pieces of furniture to barricade the bedroom door because that’s what irrational fear does to people. It makes them a little crazy.

One time when…

MEQUON, Wis.—It’s cold in Wisconsin. Try 29 degrees on for size. This is definitely not the time of year you want to run out of toilet paper because of a coronavirus epidemic.

But I suppose Wisconsin people are used to the cold. I talked to one Wisconsin lady who said, “This is nothing, last year it was so cold that if our thermometer woulda been an inch longer, we woulda froze to death.”

The Mequon Pizza Company is making the weather and the virus pandemic a little more bearable with regular pizza deliveries. Their deep-dish pies are the best in town. Their hand-rolled mozzarella sticks are to die for. And if you order today, your large pizza comes with a free side of Cottonelle 2-ply toilet paper.

That’s right. Toilet paper is on the menu at Mequon Pizza Company. They are delivering rolls of toilet paper all over the area.

An official company spokesperson announced online a few days ago: “Did you run out of toilet paper? If so, the Mequon Pizza Company

has your back! ...We will give you a free roll of Cottonelle 2-ply toilet paper if you need it! Just ask!”

There is a limit to six rolls per customer. One dollar for each additional roll. But the main thing to remember here is: The Mequon Pizza Company has your backside.

I wish they delivered to Florida.

PORTLAND, Ore.—Wanda is reading bedtime stories to her grandchildren via video phone calls. She has been doing this every night.

“You have no idea how alone I feel,” said Wanda. “To be a lonely senior citizen, sometimes going to the grocery store or the post office was the only socialization I got.”

She reads to her grandchildren from the same book each evening. Her grandchildren end every phone call by kissing the camera and saying, “We love you, Grandma.”

“It’s all I have to look forward to right now,” says…