This morning I started thinking about you. Mainly, I was thinking about what you’re going through right now. Whoever you are.

I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you. But in a way we know each other because you and I aren’t that different.

True, you probably have better health insurance than I do. And I can almost guarantee that you’re smarter than I am—you’re looking at a 2.0 GPA right here.

Still, sometimes we fools know stuff. No, we might not be good at trigonometry, but even a broken clock tells the correct time twice per day. So here’s what I know:

You will get through this.

Yes, you’re going through a rough patch right now. Yes, you’re wondering what’s around the next curve of the highway, and it’s freaking you out. Yes, everything is uncertain. But you’re going to make it.

You have a serious health issue. A doctor just gave you bad news. Your dad is in the ICU. Your mom is dying. Someone you love is secretly hurting you. You’re depressed.

Or maybe it’s simpler

than that. Maybe you’re late on your mortgage, and you feel like you're drowning in bank notes. Perhaps your kids are making complete disasters of their lives. Maybe you’re lonely.

Either way, what you usually wonder to yourself is why. Why does bad stuff keep happening to you? Why is it that lately your life could be summed up with a Morton Salt slogan?

I can’t answer that. But you don’t need answers right now. Answers wouldn’t help you anyway. None of the answers would even make sense. That’s how life works.

When I was a boy, I remember my mother’s sewing basket. It sat beside her sofa, filled with knitting and embroidery work. One time, I removed a folded-up piece of cloth from this basket and unfurled it. What I found was a tangled mess of knots and…

The middle of the night. I cannot sleep. I am lying awake, staring at my ceiling. Something is keeping me awake. But I won’t tell you what it is.

My wife is not snoring. It’s important that you understand this because women do not like to be told that they snore. It makes them very angry, and they will inflict physical pain upon those who accuse them of this vulgar thing. Which I am not doing. Nor would I ever.

As a boy, whenever I couldn’t sleep I would think about food. Some kids counted sheep, some added prime numbers, or recited their ABCs. I counted casseroles.

Before drifting off, I would visualize a grassy meadow filled with little church ladies, all carrying casserole dishes, taking turns leaping over livestock fences while the sheep watched them at a distance. And I would count.

“One chicken casserole, two chicken casserole…” And so on.

If that didn’t work, I would move on to counting pound cakes. When pound cakes didn’t work, I would count field peas.

Which is

the point I am at now.

I should probably stop here for anyone who doesn’t know about field peas. I meet a lot of people who hear “field peas” and think of English peas. Which are green pellets often served in sketchy buffet-style restaurants with glass sneeze-guards that do not protect the vats of bacteria laden food from small children who are literally at nostril-level with the mashed potatoes.

No, field peas are different. There are billions of varieties of field peas. I’ll name a few:

Crowder peas, purple hulls, Big Red Rippers, whippoorwills, Stick Ups, turkey craws, Mama Slappers, Old Timers, cow peas, Mississippi Silvers, shanty peas, Iron Clays, Wash Days, Triple Es, Sermonizers, Butt Kickers, Polecats, pinkeyes, and zipper peas.

You haven't lived until you’ve tried zipper peas with ham hocks and bacon grease.

Years ago, I visited a no-name cafe outside…

Somewhere outside Tallahassee. An out-of-the-way restaurant. The burgers are small, the beer will freeze your molars. My server is a guy who looks mid-twenties. He wears an Atlanta Braves ball cap, therefore you know he’s good people. When he delivers my burger he tells me he’s getting married.

Married? I reply.

“Yep. Just asked my girlfriend to marry me this morning. She said yes. Man, I still can’t believe it. Hey. You wanna see a picture of her?”

She’s beautiful.

“You can keep scrolling through them, my whole phone is nothing but pictures of her and her two daughters. They’re my life.”

What about this one? Where was this picture taken?

“Lake Talquin. We were fishing. That was my girlfriend’s daughter’s fifth birthday party. Caught her first fish.”

Cute kid.

“And she knows it, too. This one's from her last baseball game. Well, actually, tee-ball.”

What about this picture?

“Oh, that? That was after my accident, few years ago.”

Looks like a bad one.

“It was. Flipped my truck, almost died. Was in the hospital for a long time. Man, I got all sorts of

pins in my body now. Check out this scar. And this scar here is covered by my haircut.”

Holy cow.

“Yeah. I’m lucky to still be here. My girlfriend was beside me throughout my whole recovery, she lived in that hospital, man. Wouldn’t leave me unless the nurses physically removed her. Whenever I opened my eyes, there she was, asleep in the chair. She spent the holidays with me. Lost her job because she wouldn’t leave my bedside.

“She never let go of my hand. One time, she must’ve held my hand for eight hours straight. My hand had this huge dent in it from her holding it so long.”

She sounds like quite a woman.

“She is.”

So how did you pop the question?

“Well, I just did the down-on-one-knee thing before she left…

Tallahassee. I’m about to make a speech to a group of ladies at a luncheon. But before I do, I’m stopping at a barbecue joint for necessary fuel because this isn’t my first women’s lunch gig. I know from experience that finger sandwiches don’t fill me up.

I like visiting Tallahassee. Always have. The colossal oaks, the Spanish moss, the old homes, it’s perfect.

When you arrive here you immediately sense the energy of a college town. And, of course, since Tallahassee is also the state capital, the downtown has the uptight vibe of a city that suffers from severe gastrointestinal distress.

But it is this combination of youth, academia, and state politics that gives this place a uniquely diverse feel.

Take this barbecue joint. At the table behind me is a frat boy with shaggy hair and flip flops. He sits directly beside a guy who looks like a wealthy congressman. The frat boy smiles at the congressman and, without a shred of awkwardness, elbows the guy and says, “Yo. Pass the barbecue sauce,

bro.”

That’s Tallahassee.

The strange thing is, I’ve always had bad luck in this town. I don’t know why. Don’t get me wrong, I love this city, but I have history here.

It all started when I applied to Florida State University several years ago. At the time, I was an adult student with little more than a GED and a smile. I freely admit, as a high-school dropout I wasn’t exactly Mister Academic. But, hey, I was trying to make something of myself.

My dream was to earn a degree from a State-U. So I rented a nearby apartment and enrolled in an arts program. I met with the professors and basically begged them to let me into school. I vowed to work hard, and I promised to bring the teachers lots of apples.

But the professors never let me finish my interview. I…

I paid five bucks to attend the fundraiser potluck dinner. I drove into the woods of West Florida until I found a tiny chapel with mildewed aluminum siding, a recently mowed lawn, and a smattering of modest, earth-tone-colored vehicles parked out front.

I entered the itty-bitty fellowship hall. I deposited my suggested five-dollar donation into the basket. I was hugged by a woman named Margie who smelled of Chanel No. 5 and fried poultry. I was handed a paper plate.

“We’re glad you could make it, Mister Writer You,” said Margie. Then she winked. Although I’m not sure why.

The buffet was the size of a landing strip, the table’s surface was weighted with enough casseroles to compromise the foundation. You’ve never seen such a spread. And it was all organized according to category.

You had your chicken dishes—lemon chicken casserole, chicken divan, fried chicken, chicken à la King of Kings.

There were the cold salads—butter bean salad, corn salad, potato salad, pasta salad, and a host of other concoctions from your granny’s recipe-card box.

The dessert table was ridiculous. The church ladies were just showing off. Many of the desserts I'd never even heard of, and I thought I’d seen it all.

There were various exotic delights with names like cappuccino cream cake, Georgia Pawnee pecan pie, tiramisu brownies, and lemon icebox pie, otherwise known as “Baptist crack.”

There were pound cakes of every persuasion— blueberry, strawberry, chocolate, banana-mango. And, oh yeah, strawberry pretzel salad. Enough said.

There were, of course, the occasional Tupperware containers filled with store bought fare, rumored to be purchased from the Piggly Wiggly. Nobody touched this stuff. Bringing store-bought food to a covered-dish gathering is a grievous sin, and grounds for horsewhipping, punishable by mandatory nursery duty.

One poor woman brought a seven-layer Publix cake. I heard that she was later asked to resign from the Monday night women’s Bible study.

Nobody was more…

I have here a letter from Alan in Winston Salem, North Carolina, which reads:

“Hi Sean, my oldest daughter is getting married in a few weeks. It is, of course, customary for the father of the bride to give a toast at the reception. I can’t begin to say how thrilled I am... But I’ve never been comfortable speaking before crowds. Do you have any advice?”

Well, Alan, you came to the right guy. I have been public speaking for years. Before the pandemic I was giving three or four speeches per week at various high-society gigs, such as Rotary Club meetings at Shoney’s, or leading the opening prayer at Monster Truck-A-Palooza.

So I’ve been around.

Plus, I have mucho experience at weddings. In fact, before I fell into the public speaking bit, I was a bandleader in various musical groups. Pretty much all my band did each summer was play wedding receptions. So I have witnessed—literally—hundreds of wedding toasts, and given dozens myself.

I have come up with a few bullet points for public speaking:

1.

Check your fly.

You probably think I’m kidding. I’m not. Take my word for it, you do not want to learn this lesson the hard way.

2. Don’t sing. Now, I realize this sounds like common sense, and the idea to belt out a song probably never crossed your mind. But trust me, there are people who sing when they make wedding toasts. I have seen it happen.

You have never known true misery until you have watched someone’s 76-year-old grandmother sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for a wedding toast even though she couldn’t carry a tune if it were tattooed on her palm.

3. Be funny. Don’t be afraid of humor. A lot of speakers are scared of levity because they equate humor with irreverence. Not so.

I have found that most audiences want to laugh—unless, of course, they are Free Will…

“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 man’s name is actually Merle.

The thing is, Merle, you already have more credentials than I do. I never took a journalism class. In fact, 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” per se, at least not 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 life-sized cardboard cutout of Brooke Shields who was advertising tight-fitting jeans.

After Mama’s pleasant conversation, she remarked, “What 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 britches.”

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

Just last night, I was watching a baseball game. The announcer was a former big league right-fielder who is considered…

My phone rings. I answer it.

“Hello,” the young voice says. “Is this Sean Deet… Deet... ”

My last name has always been a source of frustration for telemarketers and non-German speakers. I help the poor girl out. “Sean Dietrich,” I say.

“Thank you, Mister Dietrich. I’m writing something for my school newspaper and your wife scheduled this interview for us. Is now a good time?”

“I have all the time in the world. Can I ask your name?”

“Oh, shoot. Sorry, yes. My name’s Lindsey.”

“Hi, Lindsey.”

Long silence. The sound of rustling papers. An electric pencil sharpener.

“What grade are you in, Lindsey?”

“Fourth.”

“Fire at will.”

“Um… My first question is, what do you like about writing?”

A very good question. In fact, I have done more than a few interviews, but I rarely get straightforward questions like this. I have to think for a few moments about how to answer.

Finally, I say, “I guess I like how it makes me feel, the act of writing, I mean. I can’t explain it. Writing is fun.”

Bill Shakespeare eat your heart

out.

She says in a whisper, “How… It... Makes… Him… Feel...”

“And I also like meeting new people who I get to write about. I enjoy meeting people.”

“...Meeting… New… People…”

More silence. Followed by paper sounds. The noise of a child clearing her throat.

“Are you happy with your life, Sean?”

This child is aiming straight for the jugular. She’s asking existential questions right off the bat. Questions I don’t know whether I have answers for. Besides, what is happiness, really? Is this a yes or no question? Or is it a matter of percentages? Is anyone ever truly happy? If so, do they stay that way forever, or only for a few weeks? I mean, I know some who have everything they want—health, stuff, money, family, success, a pasta maker—and they still want more.

It’s late morning in Brewton, Alabama. Sunlight peeks over the trees. A distant train whistle whines. The scent of the nearby paper mill stinks up the air. My wife and I are driving through her little hometown, watching the brick storefronts and begonias go by. I am crazy about small towns.

But I don’t see a town today. You know what I see?

I see part of my adult life. I see the time Hurricane Ivan made landfall here. I see the summers I went fishing on Keego Pond with my father-in-law, when he squeezed fish bladders and made them pee on me.

I see one the first dates my wife and I had at Jalisco’s Mexican Restaurant, where I had one too many margaritas and started singing “People Will Say We’re In Love” from “Oklahoma!” right in the dining room. A few people applauded. I made five bucks in tips.

That’s what I see.

When you’re young, nobody tells you that you don’t marry a girl. Not really. You marry her family. You marry her

community. You marry her circle of friends. You marry this young woman’s life.

When I married Jamie Martin, I inadvertently married a whole township. Back then I didn’t know it was possible to marry an incorporated Alabamian community, but there you are. And this little town turned out to be her gift to me.

I didn’t come from a stable home. I didn’t have a warm and fuzzy Hallmark Channel movie childhood. But my wife pretty much did, and she shared it with me as easily as someone splitting a pizza.

So when I visit this place, one of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store, or the catfish joint, or a beer joint, and listen to people tell stories about my wife’s childhood.

I love imagining her in pigtails, without her front teeth, with skinned knees, and dirt on…

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a nuthouse. I’m in the boarding area awaiting my delayed plane.

I exist in that numb mindspace you’re in when your aircraft has been delayed for—get ready—seven hours. You become a zombie. You lose the will to go on. You grow to despise vending machines.

Pretty soon you get to the point where you realize you would have been better off walking home.

I am jolted from my thoughts when I am tapped on the shoulder. I turn to see a young man who is an oak tree, towering over me. He is maybe six-nine. His shoulders are Paul Bunyan; his face is “Leave It to Beaver.”

“Do you dip?” the kid says.

I am confused. “Beg pardon?”

“You look like someone who dips. You know, tobacco?”

The giant hands me an unopened tin of snuff. I stare at the container with the bewilderment of a guy who just woke up with his head stapled to the rug. Immediately I start looking around for Alan Funt and the “Candid Camera” crew.

“What?”

“Well,” he

says, “my dad dips, and you look like my dad, only older. This is a brand new can of Skoal, but I don’t need it anymore because I’m going to basic training tomorrow.”

So he presents the tin. “Here.”

I have to shake my head and laugh because (a) I am not overjoyed about being profiled as a snuff dipper, and (b) who’s he calling old?

“Sorry,” I tell him, “I don’t dip snuff.”

Although I come from people who do. In fact, the first time I ever tried snuff was in the Little League dugout. Randy Matthews snuck some wintergreen snuff from his granny’s sewing kit. When I went to bat I accidentally swallowed my chaw. They had to revive me with defibrillator paddles.

Still, I’m sensing that this kid isn’t really concerned about snuff. I have this gnawing…