This story isn’t mine, but I’m going to tell it like I heard it. I first heard it from an old man who drove a Ford. And I have a soft spot for old Ford men.

So there he is. The old man is driving. He sees a car on the side of the highway. A kid stands beside it. Hood open.

The man pulls over.

He’s America’s quintessential old man. He drives a half-ton Ford that he’s been babying since the seventies. He changes the oil regularly, waxes it on weekends. The candy-apple red paint still looks nice.

He looks under the kid’s hood. He can see the problem right away, (a) the transmission is shot, and (b) it’s not a Ford.

Fixing it would cost more than the vehicle.

The kid is in a hurry, and asks, “Can you give me a ride to work? I can’t afford to lose my job.”

So, the old man drives the kid across town. They do some talking. The man learns that the boy has four children, a young wife, and a disabled

mother living with him. The boy works hard for a living. Bills keep piling up.

It rips the man's heart out.

They arrive at a construction site. There are commercial framers in tool belts, operating nail guns. The kid pumps the old man’s hand and thanks him for the ride.

“Take care of yourself,” the man tells the kid.

The kid takes his place among workmen, climbing on pine-framed walls, swinging a hammer.

The old man decides to help the kid. He doesn’t know how. Or why. But it’s a decision that seems to make itself.

That same day, he’s at a stop light. He sees something. An ugly truck, sitting in a supermarket parking lot. A Ford.

A for-sale sign in the window.

He inspects it. Single cab. Four-wheel drive. Low mileage. The paint is flaking. Rust…

I don’t know what made me think of this. But I when I was a kid, I remember when our preacher would often shout the following words from the pulpit:

“When I die, folks! Don’t weep for me! For I shall be in a place where the fried chicken never endeth!”

This was a sort of joke, you understand. And it always got a good laugh from the congregation because our preacher was a very round man who definitely knew his way around a fried bird.

The reason I bring this up is probably because last night my wife made fried chicken. She’s been cooking up a storm lately.

She used a hot skillet filled with peanut oil. Then she made cornbread to go with the chicken, and turnip greens. It was pure decadence.

And while I was digesting, I got to thinking about how the best and worst periods of my life can be measured in food.

Seriously. I can look back on the most sacred memories of childhood and one of the

first things that comes back to me is the food. The smells, textures, stains on my shirt. Likewise, I can relive my saddest moments and food is often part of those memories, too.

Twenty-four hours after my father’s death, our porch was loaded with casseroles and various wax-paper-lined shoeboxes of fried chicken. Someone even brought a brown paper sack full of biscuits. There were enough hand-thrown biscuits to last until the Second Coming of Elvis.

Among my people, the period surrounding a funeral features a lot of food. Which is ironic because you don’t feel like eating after your loved one dies. Although somehow, you do.

But anyway, I can retell my entire life story with food:

Infanthood; pureed fried chicken. Adolescence; whole fried chicken. Teenage-hood; two whole fried chickens. Adulthood; cholesterol free synthetic alfalfa hay, Metamucil, and Lipitor.

Throughout my life women have always been…

DEAR SEAN:

The last several columns I’ve read from you have been about old people. May I ask why, with all of the other things happening out there, you’re always stuck on someone’s grandma and grandpa?

Can you write about something fresh and new instead of always telling us about people who are old? Not being critical. Just giving you something to think about.

Regards,
39-YEARS-OLD-IN-MODESTO

DEAR MODESTO:

Thanks for the words. Before I say anything else, let me also thank you for taking the time to sit down, look up my email address, and send a message to a complete stranger who lives 2351.4 miles away, expressing your dissatisfaction with writing that, bear in mind, ain’t exactly Whitman.

But I will make no excuses. You’re absolutely right about me writing too many old-person columns.

Which is why I want to apologize. You should not be subjected to columns about elderly persons since these people are, as the term implies, not 39-year-olds.

Like yourself.

And hey, maybe by not talking about old people you won’t ever have to

become one. If you avoid the topic long enough, perhaps someday your hair won’t fall out and your body won’t begin making vaporous noises of its own volition whenever you’re tying your shoes.

Believe me, I get it. Lots of younger people don’t want to hear about the elderly. The young are busy being young, making mistakes, learning valuable lessons, improving the world. That’s what you're supposed to do, and it's wonderful.

So keep reinventing things, blazing new paths, breaking old traditions, and making your own rules. And above all, keep believing that yours is the first generation to ever do these things. Because you’re adorable.

Besides, you’re absolutely correct. Everyone could do with a little youthfulness. Which is why after reading your email I took your advice. I looked up a few articles on popular youngish news sites to see…

I had a video conference call with Mrs. Soto’s fourth-grade class this morning. I wore a tie for old times’ sake. Although I have always looked ridiculous in neckties.

I discussed the art of creative writing. I covered topics like essays, grammar, and how I learned to use a manual typewriter in Mister Edmund’s typing class back in 1807.

Eight-year-old Akin raised his hand and asked, “Wait. What’s a typewriter?”

I found myself smiling, loosening my necktie, because at this moment I felt about as old as the Giza Pyramids.

“You’ve never heard of a typewriter?” I asked the Future of America.

Most kids hadn’t.

I couldn’t believe this. Which got me thinking about all the other things Mrs. Soto’s kids probably never heard of. For instance, Garfunkel.

And what about Rand McNally maps? I’d like to know where those went. You can’t even buy them in gas stations anymore.

I believe maps are superior to GPS systems. Maps never recalculate, never screw up, there are no batteries, no connective errors, no robotic voices that sound like Jacques Cousteau on horse tranquilizers.

Sure with paper maps people often got lost in the wilderness, but only a small percentage of these people actually died.

So it was hard for the fourth-graders to believe that I still use an archaic device like a typewriter, but it’s true. And for anyone in Mrs. Soto’s class who is reading this column (for extra credit), I will tell you why.

For writers, the typewriter serves a sound professional purpose. And I’ll illustrate my point by telling you exactly how I wrote this column:

First, I sat down.

Next, I fired up my laptop, which is connected to the vastness of the internet.

I ate Fritos.

Then I cracked my knuckles. I started typing with greasy fingers.

Before I finished my first paragraph, I already had a problem because I knew I wanted to talk about…

A few years ago. She was in the supermarket parking lot when I saw her. My old English teacher. I was enraptured.

“Enraptured” is one of those words writers often use because it contains three full syllables. And also because it’s not a word people use in everyday conversation.

You see, occasionally as a writer you find yourself going for big words that aren’t common words. There’s a sound reason for why you do this: so people will think you’re smart.

“Behemoth” is one of these big words—it means “big.” Another word is “shibboleth,” which is not a cuss word for agricultural fertilizer, but an actual word that means “common belief.”

So if you’re a new writer, and you’re trying to sound like a big shot, sometimes you consult your big bag o’ words and pull out some doozies. Although this is a waste of effort. Because a writer ought to just say what they mean.

At least, that’s what the woman in the parking lot taught me.

I was her adult student. And she was

a beacon. A great tutor.

She taught writers there was no need for fancy words to describe beauty. In fact, this is one of the beautiful things about beauty itself. Beauty is simple. So simplicity is your best way to go.

Short words. Easy sentences. She taught that sparse elements were prettier than excess. In her opinion, the notion that writers must use complicated, flowery phrases was nothing but a big pile of shibboleth.

When I first started my community college career, I didn’t know many big words. I never considered myself to be particularly smart. I lack many educational qualifications. School was always hard for me. I believe I might have a mild form of dyslexia, but don’t quote me on taht.

All I know is that when you put me in a roomful of people at a cocktail party, I’m the guy…

I hope you have a sunny day. No matter who you are, no matter where you live. I hope the sun shines. I hope you wander outdoors and let the sunlight overtake you like chickens on a junebug.

Yes, I know sunlight won’t cure all problems. But it’s a good place to start.

I say this because I know how sad you get sometimes. Also, I know how this feels because I get sad, too. Which is why I can safely say: you’re not fooling anyone when you claim you’re doing okay. I think you and I both know this is wholesale-grade malarkey.

You’re in the dumps. Admit it. Sure, you keep a brave smile nailed to your face, but it’s plastic. This is a pandemic. You are having a hard time right now. Believe me, I get it.

Pandemic-wise, one of the most difficult things for me is bumping into friends who pretend that this year hasn’t been hard. They say they’re doing fine. They shrug off all problems and insist that the last 300-some

days have been a day at the goofy golf.

“No way!” they say. “This year hasn’t changed me.” They insist they’ve kept smiling. They’ve had fun. They’ve installed a deck. Rented a blow-up bouncy house. I find myself privately wishing for extremely committed door-to-door evangelists to visit their neighborhoods.

Because this year HAS been hard. You try to be cheerful. But no sooner have you convinced yourself to be upbeat than you wander into the supermarket and things just get weird.

Sometimes it feels as if your every movement is being narrated by Rod Serling. Employees wear hazmat suits. Cashiers in welding masks take your temperature with radar guns.

Although by now you’re used to this. It’s not nearly as bad it was when the whole pandemic started. Boy howdy. Remember those first few months? Those were a shock to the old cardiovascular muscle,…

I receive a lot of personal questions via email. Many of these are common questions while others are downright bizarre. I have compiled the most frequent questions and answered them using the Q and A format.

I’ll quit wasting time:

Q: Hi, Sean, I am an angry religious person and I want to know why you mention beer so often in your writings. It’s offensive and it sets a bad example.

A: Hi, friend. I freely admit that I like beer. Always have. I also frequently enjoy the company of Episcopalian priests who drink beer with me. Reverend Peter Wong, I’m looking at you.

Q: Where is home for you?

A: The Florida Panhandle. A place which used to be a rural fishing village but is now a spot where tourists come to hear beach-bar guitarists sing Jimmy Buffet songs about Key Largo even though we are located 794.8 miles away from the Florida Keys, a distance greater than the combined width of two average Midwestern U.S. states.

Q: Where exactly in the Panhandle? I mean, what’s your address?

A: Slow

down, you haven’t even bought me a beer yet.

Q: I want to be a writer, how can I do that?

A: Just write. I know it sounds simple, but you would be surprised at the people I meet who want to write a book, but haven’t gotten around to it. Just start moving your pen.

Q: But what if my writing sucks?

A: As you can see from this column, this never stopped me.

Q: Speaking of columns. What do you call this? A blog? A column? Essays? Stories? Articles?

A: Yes.

Q: No, seriously.

A: You can call it whatever you want. I like the name “column” because it has nine letters whereas blog only has five.

Q: Are you really as in love with your wife as you claim?

A: My wife and I have been…

Our story takes place on a bright Sunday morning. It was a story told to me, by the 48-year-old granddaughter of an anonymous Alabama woman.

It happened long, long ago, during an era which, to you and me, seems ancient. It was an age when homes were lit with gas lanterns. The Civil War had been over for several decades. The automobile was becoming a thing.

And on this particular Sunday morning, a poor blond girl in a rural Alabama town found something lying near a church sidewalk.

The orphan girl was outside playing. She wore a rag dress. Her shoes had dollar-sized holes in them.

She came from unfortunate circumstances. Her parents died, she was being raised in a loveless, poverty-stricken home by a drunk uncle. It was a house full of violent people. Her uncle made her sleep in a chicken shed whenever he wasn’t smacking her around.

Beside that church sidewalk she saw something glittery, lying in the grass. A golden pendant. She lifted it into her baby hands.

It was the prettiest thing she had ever seen. It must have belonged to someone in the church house.

It was an African-American church, and the place was busy that morning. Crowded to capacity. Because, like I said, it was Sunday morning.

The girl, with her torn dress and unwashed hair was not dressed for church, but she figured someone inside was missing a necklace. So she marched up the steps and into the clapboard meeting house.

The first thing she realized was that the chapel was HOT. People were fanning themselves. Women wore hats, men wore sweat-stained suits. And everyone seemed so happy.

She searched for an adult to return the necklace to, an usher maybe? Perhaps a minister?

But service was already underway. People were snug in their pews. The music began. Everyone stood. People sang loudly and clapped in rhythm.

The girl was immediately captivated…

There was a book on her nightstand the evening she died. A novel. She was halfway finished. Chapter eleven.

The old woman was a great reader. Reading was her thing. Her tranquilizer. Her therapy. The old woman’s bedroom was littered with mass-market paperbacks. Adventure novels, romances, humor, cheesy books that no literature buff would be caught dead holding in public unless enrolled in the Literature-Persons Protection Program.

The old woman was an English teacher. But that’s not how her love of reading began. Her journey began during a poverty stricken childhood, when the only things to do were to read library books and play cards.

As a girl she did plenty of that. She played LOTS of cards. She knew every card game in the book. They tell me she was vicious at the poker table. Each of her adult children still owe their mother roughly $7,000,000.

When the old woman was a girl, she helped raise her family after her mother died. Those were very different times, she was the

oldest daughter. No, it wasn’t fair. But it’s what people did.

Still, she never quit reading. She kept up her education by visiting libraries. Daily visits. And when her last sibling left home, the girl enrolled in college, availing herself to a much larger university library.

On her first day of college, she took an English course. It was love at first sentence. The woman knew she wanted to become a steward of the most beautiful, most audibly pleasing, most confusing, hardest to grasp, most ridiculously illogical language known to man.

After graduation, she taught English in high school. She hated it. Most students were more interested in pinching one another’s butts than they were in Shakespeare. She got a job teaching at a junior college for a little while. She hated that, too. So she quit.

She got married, made a family. But she couldn’t stay away from…

I’m watching TV with my elderly mother-in-law “Mother Mary.” I’m writing this column during a commercial break. So I don’t have long.

But I just wanted to pass along an important message Mother Mary wants America to know. Here it is:

“People should have more fun.”

Currently, Mother Mary is drinking a vodka gimlet to prove what a dedicated fun lover she is. This is a woman who looks like a Methodist granny, sipping a drink powerful enough to make a dog go bald. She is a fun expert.

Mother Mary raises her glass during the commercial break and speaks words of wisdom: “F-U-N. I want you to tell people I said FUN is the point of life.” Then she giggles and adds, “Put that in your column and smoke it.”

Now, let me be clear, Mary is NOT suggesting that alcohol is the source of fun. I can already envision the emails I will get tomorrow. So please do not misunderstand, we in this household do not believe libation is necessary for genuine fun

unless of course a national championship is involved.

No, the kind of fun Mary is hinting at is much more elusive.

The sad thing is, the older we get, the more we are discouraged from fun. If you’re a young person, this unspoken message will hit you from every angle. “Quit horsing around!” people will say. Your shift supervisor is only one example.

And so far this has been the basic motto of our modern culture. “Don’t have fun!”

Maybe this is why today you see elementary-school kids on their way to class dragging heavy rolling airline suitcases that are roughly the size of the Jefferson Memorial.

Last week I asked one such kid what made his case so heavy. He shrugged and said, “I have a lot of homework.”

Homework is not fun. Homework sucks. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t do homework. They should.…