I went to a dinner party at a nice house. The house was in a slick part of town with manicured lawns and sidewalk lighting.
It was the kind of neighborhood where a guard at the gate gives you a disapproving look before he lets your noisy truck into the community.
I helped construct the house where the party was held. A long time ago, I worked in construction when this subdivision was being built.
The irony is, the people I come from don’t use words like “subdivision.” Furthermore, my people have a hard time understanding why anyone would pay association dues when covenants and restrictions prohibit Uncle Bill’s Winnebago from being parked in the driveway.
The house is a four-bedroom-four-bath, and it was one of the first I ever helped build. I was a kid, I still had plenty of freckles, and I was slow at reading a measuring tape.
Anyway, the dinner party was nice, if you’re into that sort of thing. It was catered by a chef who had a lot of class.
The appetizer was tomato aspic. The main course was quail, topped with soy glaze and mint. This marks the first time I’ve ever had quail that wasn’t retrieved by my uncle’s Labrador.
The portions were microscopic—Barbie could lose weight on meals bigger than this. But then, I was too busy to eat. I was looking at the ceiling.
The sheetrock had a nice orange-peel texture. I hung that sheetrock.
The chef cleared his throat. Fourteen high-society people wouldn’t stop talking long enough to listen. So he rang a little bell. A hush fell over the table.
The chef explained exactly what we would be eating. He used lots of culinary words that went miles over my head.
After his speech, I excused myself to the restroom. I was impressed by the tile-work in the bathroom. I inspected the grout lines around the toilet.
I remember laying this tile. I remember taking measurements and manning the wet saw. I remember the other guys laughing because using a wet saw is not easy when you’re a kid.
I rejoined the dinner party. The conversation was getting very work-centric.
An older woman asked a man in a baby blue suit what he did for a living.
Baby Blue said, “Oh, I trade.”
Nobody batted an eye.
“Fascinating,” said one woman.
Somehow, I got the feeling this man wasn’t talking about Topps baseball cards.
Another man said he ran the marketing departments for some very big companies. And by the way he said this, I knew that his Rolex watch was not a knock-off.
One woman said she worked in governmental law. Another man explained that he’d just taken a job at his father’s firm.
I started to feel funny. I didn’t know what I was doing in this room, or how I got invited to eat tomato aspic with a bunch of consenting adults. I am a man whose bloodhound is worth more than his truck, whose truck is worth more than his trailer home.
I looked at my place setting and I felt out of place.
I didn’t know which fork to use, which glass to drink, or why anyone in their right mind would serve quail with soy glaze—my uncle used to serve quail with frozen tater tots.
Most “dinner parties” I’ve attended had coolers on the back porch with men lingering nearby, conducting serious talks about the possibility of building an above-ground swimming pool behind the septic tank.
The polite dinner conversation turned to me. One man said, “So, I understand you’re a writer.”
I was in an ethical dilemma. I was staring at a house that I helped construct. My chair was resting on tile I helped lay. A writer? I don’t know.
“I guess I am,” I said.
But I didn’t feel right saying that. Because I’ve never known what I am. I’ve had an even harder time figuring out WHO I am.
Still, after some years, I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter what I do. What matters is that I am here. What matters are people I’ve known, and beautiful things I’ve loved, and sunsets I’ve seen.
What matters is my family. My wife. And the nights I’ve stayed up late with friends, sitting on tailgates, laughing together, staring at a moon, dreaming out loud, with a very expensive dog sleeping on my lap.
I am proud of my people. The silent but hardworking, unsung, and dedicated sort I come from. The ones who build things. I will always be one of them.
“You have a very pretty house,” I told the host.
“Thank you,” she said. “Would you like some more quail?”
You bet your tomato aspic I would.
Karen - March 16, 2019 8:49 am
Sean, you know who you are. You are Sean Dietrich, the writer. You were probably the reason the dinner party was held. You are probably the only one there who truly appreciated that house.
My mother grew up in society. She was a debutante. She taught me to use the right fork, and sent me to finishing school.
I went to college at a university where I earned my degree in nursing. That is how I learned who I am.
As a nurse, you deal with real people in real life. You have to be tough to watch 2 year olds die from meningitis, to see babies born who are not breathing, to work a full blown code blue on someone who does not make it. I worked 14 days in a row, evening and night shifts, holidays and weekends. There was no “Baylor plan” for me. I held the hand of a 30 year old woman as she endured the final grip of breast cancer and entered the gates of heaven. I learned that heaven exists, because the grimace on her face turned to a broad smile, and suddenly all expression left her face, at the moment of her death.
I helped a frail, white haired man to sit on a bedside commode, day’s before he died. He looked at me and said, “I used to be the chief of staff at this hospital. Look at me now.” I was 22 years old.
You are one of the lucky ones, Sean, because you have learned exactly who you are and what really matters in life. You get to write about how you learned that. I am grateful that I get to read your words every day. Thank you.
Debbie - March 16, 2019 12:52 pm
Wow! Who could add to Karen’s remarks……?! Riding by the kind of houses you wrote about, one can’t help but wonder if all that really equals happiness….. and I think not.
Dru - March 16, 2019 3:23 pm
And here is another writer!
Laurie - April 13, 2019 1:06 pm
Karen, that was beautifully said. I think Sean is a wonderful writer, but he might have some competition if you decide to retire from nursing. Thank you for your dedication and hard work. Nurses are heros. God bless.
sparkerlpc - March 16, 2019 9:08 am
Yes! What Karen said!^^^^
Marilyn - March 16, 2019 11:02 am
Every day your writing causes me to think and be thankful for where I am in life.
Nell Thomas - March 16, 2019 12:44 pm
Karen and Marilyn- well said.
Jess in Athens, GA - March 16, 2019 12:50 pm
Sean, whenever I read what you have written I am struck by how similar our lives have been. I come from humble beginnings like you. I worked in construction for a few years. I’m not sure how long you worked construction, but I figured out quickly that I didn’t want to do that for my livelihood. I was a tile-setter’s helper and that was hard work, especially when we worked on multi-storied buildings and I had to carry buckets of “mud” upstairs to the tile-setter. Made me find a different line of work. I’ve never owned any expensive dogs so we’re not alike in that. My latest dog is a rescue dog that my wife got for me, following the passing of a free dog that I had for about twelve years. You love your wife deeply as I love my wife. Like you I’ve been to social gatherings where I’m not totally comfortable and when the conversation turns to “…and what do you do for a living?” I can kill all conversation at the table by saying, “I served twenty-six years in the Army.” Most people I’ve met since I retired have never served in our military and that’s okay with me, but people just don’t know what to say whenever they learn I’m a retired military person. Oh, well, keep writing Sean because you’re one of the very best writers out there.
Bill - March 16, 2019 12:54 pm
Sean, this was one of my favorites. I came from even poorer circumstances than you. I worked my way up to a professional career, but I am happily defined by my earlier life. I have known the discomfort of fancy settings where I could seem to “fit in”, but did not fit in at all. My earlier life was spent with real down-to-earth people, and that is who I am. You do a great job of relating us all to that real world. Thank you. .
I should add that I loved Karen’s comments!
Terri C Boykin - March 16, 2019 1:00 pm
I think you know that what’s important is the heart and soul of a person, and you are at the top of that at most any party you attend. Carry on. Love you much Sean.
Penn Wells - March 16, 2019 1:31 pm
Karen needs to write a book, too. Really well done,
Anybody who has any semblance of grace has been where you were that night, Sean. I grew up in a world very much like you. Absentee father, mother who worked two jobs to provide for her son. But I’ve grown and had the opportunity to meet and observe folks on both ends of the social/economic spectrum. I’ve learned that there are folks you can learn from in both quadrants, just as there are frauds in both. The trick, I guess, is to not only listen, but to feel entitled to listen and make up your own mind. Critical thinking I believe it’s called.
Anyway, I have to say I’ve met a lot of Real people at hoity-toity events, and some not so Real…they’re pretty easy to spot, just like the ones in the group eating sardines out of a can and saltines in a convenience store parking lot before a we started the day cutting right of way for Georgia Power. It was from one of those guys that I learned something that I carried with me to a career on Wall Street – and that I used to tell the people who worked for and with me when we had to make a decision about a banking deal. “You know what we’re not gonna do?”I used to say, “We ain’t gonna draw no crowds.” You either understand what that means, or you don’t. It doesn’t get more Real than that.
I love your writing. It’s important to read. And listen. And to think…sometimes critically (honestly).
Barbara Pope - March 16, 2019 1:43 pm
You made those people’s day. I think they get bored with each other.
Connie Havard Ryland - March 16, 2019 1:55 pm
I think we all love you because you are us. At least, you are the same people I am. Back porch musicians, pick up trucks, motorcycles and country roads. Blue collar, hard working. Tile layers and brick masons. Long haul drivers and steel construction workers. For the most part, poor in things, rich in family and tradition. And good cooks. Love and hugs.
Meredith Smith - March 16, 2019 2:04 pm
Sean each day I read your column and I find myself speechless in the end. You capture the readers heart and soul with your stories, always punctuated beautifully with hilarious idioms. You are nothing less than a professional writer who has a following that can’t wait for the next days read. Anything else that you do is pure bonus and happenstance.
Love you Sean and Thank You for brightening my mornings.
Cathy Moss - March 16, 2019 2:31 pm
Her Sean, you can sit at my dining room table any day of the week. Always be proud of your heritage. Always. Furthermore, I have never met a real man who cared for tomatoe aspic. Also, let me add that my small but mighty Mississippi grandmother who could outcook anybody in Panopa county, cooked Quail in an iron skillet and smothered it to perfection. Food for The Gods, she would say. I would not let a drop of soy sauce touch my quail. You are the bomb. Happy Saturday?❤️??
Jamie Byers - March 16, 2019 2:37 pm
I’d rather spend 1,000 evenings with you, Sean, than a plate of tomato aspic. You ARE a writer. And WE are blessed to read your words. God bless you and your storytelling abilities. As I’ve said to you before, it gives us time to escape our lives.
Cat - March 16, 2019 2:47 pm
My favorite people are real. You are real. That’s the “who” that you are.
Lana Jones Barbaree - March 16, 2019 3:13 pm
I’m with you.
Dru - March 16, 2019 3:20 pm
“I looked at my place setting and felt out of place.” Brilliant. You are the best “who” anyone can be. You are a light in this world.
Becky - March 16, 2019 3:31 pm
Sean, though we’ve never met, you have the ability to keep a lot of your readers centered, including me, Your writing style of straightforward thoughts, honest perspective, and hints of humor are a like a recipe for “keeping it real.” Thank you!
Jack Darnell - March 16, 2019 3:46 pm
As you know, too much water in the wet saw is trouble and not enough is bad. HA. When you have to hold you head to the side to see your cut you go home with the white shoulder, and that is not the perfume. LOL For some reason I was never invited back to a dinner party, but then I only built two classy houses. LOLO
Sherry & jack (I just unloaed my wet saw to get ready for my LAST house), I am 80years + now. But Imma gonna do one more with two tile baths. Come on up and help!
Carol - March 16, 2019 4:06 pm
I’d rather party your way any day of the week.
I’ve been to both kind and never understood why some people don’t know how to have a good time and just enjoy life and laugh and eat with plastic or fingers and dogs and children running around!
I’m with you!!
Carolyn Allen - March 16, 2019 5:09 pm
Years ago my in-laws were keeping my children while my husband and I were out of town. One night she made tomato aspic for dinner (I’m sure she was trying to “culturize” her grandchildren).
When she wasn’t looking they would try and sneak some to our cocker spaniel and he wouldn’t eat it either. That’s still one of our favorite family stories‼️ Sean please, please don’t ever change and get too big for your “britches”. Your honesty about your background encourages all of us to be honest about ours and to be proud of who and where we came from….no matter how humble our beginnings. Thank you.
John - March 16, 2019 7:10 pm
Another A+!!! I have hosted a party like this one at my 8500 sq ft home on the country club golf course, but couldn’t take it any more. Now I love haveing my friends over for homemade pizza with a cooler of beer at my modest home while wearing my Costco jeans. Nice to be in touch with what is important.
Shelton A. - March 16, 2019 8:16 pm
Sean…you are a writer. You have many books and now a novel. You may have a noisy truck, but even the new ones are loud (I think they make ’em that way). You married the love of your life and you have (and had) good dogs. I call that a good life and your stories are something I look forward to every day. I’ve thanked the person who told me about you and I am thankful I signed up. You are a writer and a storyteller. Ain’t life grand!
Mark Miles - March 16, 2019 8:36 pm
Are you a writer? You bet your tomato aspic you are!
Susan Kennedy - March 17, 2019 1:28 am
Sean, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 61 years, it’s that being authentic is under-rated. I want to be authentic and I want to be around people who are authentic. Being the “real deal” is more important than status. I love you because you are authentic. Please don’t ever change! ?
Charaleen Wright - March 17, 2019 3:09 am
Charaleen Wright - March 17, 2019 3:19 am
I was asked “What do you do?” I replied, “Lunch.”
Sandi in FL. - March 17, 2019 4:41 am
Sean, sincere thanks for being so down-to-earth and not putting on any ‘airs’! Never change!
Robert Chiles - March 18, 2019 12:49 am
I used to work at a place where the guy would read the tape, “Three foot nine and two little black marks and a red mark.”
Ann - March 18, 2019 3:37 pm
it’s nice to fit in both worlds. Just like Jesus.
Ann - March 18, 2019 3:42 pm
Lol…oh and in that picture you drew. The drink glass goes on the right; the bread plate goes on the left. How do I know that? Make the letter “b” with your left hand and the letter “d” with the right. You’ll always know which is yours at a dinner party. People always ask “what are you doing with your hands?” when I’m at a fancy dinner. Happy Monday!
Mary - March 18, 2019 7:50 pm
“my uncle used to serve quail with frozen tater tots.” Bet it tasted better than soy glaze!
Kathryn Thimpson - March 19, 2019 3:58 am
I read what you write every day, and it is a rare piece that doesn’t bring tears to my eyes. Your simple words touch the hearts of each of us and for that we are all grateful. In this crazy, complex world, it is so nice to share a quiet moment reflecting on the truth of our own humanity. This one reminded me of the times in my life when I’ve felt a little out of place. Coming from a family of 7 kids, we didn’t eat fancy meals and I had no idea what soy sauce or tomato aspic was until I was grown! Thanks for being just who you are. And for reminding us who WE are.
Jon Dragonfly - March 19, 2019 3:27 pm
Anybody who has had a good wife and a good dog has had a Good Life.
Linda Moon - March 22, 2019 7:12 pm
This just about said it all about your DINNER SOIREE, until I listed to the Radio Show Podcast. I could imagine being there and hearing you politely compliment the host on her pretty house, with perhaps a bit of tongue curled up in your cheekful of quail and aspic.
Cece Garrison - April 13, 2019 12:27 pm
Sean, you should have known you were in the wrong place when they served aspic!
Tammy Cazad - April 13, 2019 12:55 pm
Loved this story Sean. I wish people would stop asking one another “what do you do?” Let’s replace it with “Where do you find your joy?”. I imagine it would bring a lot more heartfelt answers, and allow us to really get to know one another. Thanks for sharing your joy every day.