DEAR SEAN:

I want to write a book but I’m afraid of starting because, knowing me, I will fail, so I keep wondering whether anyone will care. Should I do it?

Eagerly awaiting your thoughts,
THIRTY-SIX-IN-MARYLAND

DEAR MARYLAND:

What I can tell you is that writing a book will turn you into a nut job. There is no way around it. All authors are nut jobs. And when you finish your book, you will be a lovable nut job too.

Here’s a day in the life of a writer. You wake up. You brush your teeth. You wander into your office. It’s tiny. It’s messy. There is a rubber chicken hanging from the mouth of a taxidermied alligator head that’s mounted on the wall. You fire up your laptop.

Mostly your writing consists of spinning in your office chair, staring at the ceiling, trying to think deep, author-like thoughts, such as, “Was it me who put the chicken in the alligator’s mouth, or my wife?” Or “What’s the capital of New Hampshire?”

Whatever you might be thinking about, you’re NOT

thinking about your book because you’re stalling. Why? Because you’re stuck. You can’t think of anything to write, so you just—

Concord. That’s the capital of New Hampshire.

Lunch break!

Phew! What a busy morning you’ve had. So you strut out of your office, fix lunch, and hope that saturated fat will fuel some more creativity and insight. When you finish eating, you feel an overwhelming urge to get to work. So you stand, stretch, and lie down for a nap instead.

See what I mean? Total nut job.

And it’s even worse for writers during a pandemic. Right now creativity is hard to come by because the pandemic is killing creativity within every industry.

People are in slumps. Many work remotely, stuck at home, with spouses shouting from adjoining rooms, dogs barking, and screaming kids running around who…

I had a dream about him last night. It has been nearly three decades since he died, but there he was. Alive. We met in some kind of diner. A breakfast joint. Maybe this was heaven?

He was running late, I was already sitting in a booth, sipping coffee. When he arrived, his first words were: “Did you miss me?”

“No,” I said.

He studied my face to see if I was joking. He could tell I wasn’t.

I couldn’t quit staring at him. My God, it really was my father. He looked good, too. Slender, red hair, tucked-in shirt, slacks. I’d gone so long without seeing him that I’d forgotten what he looked like.

But it only takes a moment to bring it all back. I could even smell his trademarked hair oil. The day after he died I confiscated his pillow and it was covered in this same scent. I slept on that pillow for five years.

“You really didn’t miss me?” he said. There was that easy smile of his. He wasn’t offended.

“No,

I really didn’t miss you.”

He ordered a Coke. And I suddenly remembered that he always drank Coca-Cola. He never was a coffee drinker. Hated the stuff. Just one of the many things I’d forgotten.

Then I started thinking about the differences between us. There were hundreds of them.

For example: he was always well-dressed, whereas I always looked like I crawled from beneath a Chevy. He was a hard worker; I sleep in on weekdays. Everyone called him “handsome”; nobody has ever ascribed that word to me. He was a planner; there is nothing I love more than cancelled plans.

When he was alive, he expected great things from me, but I failed to deliver. From a young age I knew within my kid brain that I would never accomplish the things he hoped for me.

I’m not saying I disappointed him,…

Last night, amidst the biting Michigan cold, a baby was born at 10:03 P.M. And while none of the major news outlets or camera crews had reason to tell you about this average birth, in an average town, in an average hospital, the baby’s family doesn’t feel it was average.

The baby’s name is Kristen. And this was a happy night for her family. Kristen’s dad, for example, took 3,122,391 cellphone pictures of Kristen within the first five minutes of her life. Which is very different from how things were done when I was born shortly after the Civil War. We had delivery-room sketch artists.

I talked to Kristen’s father this morning. He was emotional on the phone. In fact, he was all-out crying about the birth of his first child. He blew his nose loudly and said, “This is the happiest day of my life.”

It’s too bad the newspeople didn’t tell you about it. Maybe they were busy.

Also, it’s a shame nobody told you about Hilary’s dog, Dingo. Last night in Albuquerque, Hilary’s

dog passed away.

A little about Dingo: He was golden colored. He loved eating corn chips, pizza, carrots, Jergens Ultra-Healing Moisture Lotion, and expensive electronics. He was a very special animal.

Dingo watched Hilary graduate high school when he was a puppy. He saw Hilary into college. He was around when she got married. He was also beside her when her first husband walked out on her. Dingo, the Lab-mix with the big smile, was the one who helped carry Hilary into adulthood. He deserved a headline or two.

Hilary knew on Friday that something wasn’t right with Dingo when he started having multiple accidents indoors. It was bad. Pancreatitis. Hilary made the decision no pet owner wants to make. They put Dingo down.

“I just wanted someone to know about the best dog in the world,” wrote Hilary.

So now you do.

Meanwhile,…

I am digging a hole in my backyard. I’m doing this for many reasons. Namely, because it’s a pandemic and I’m stuck at home. Sometimes people who are stuck at home go batty and start digging holes for no explainable reason.

I’m also digging because this hole is going to be a rose garden. I love roses, and I’ve always wanted to try growing them. My Aunt Eulah often used to say, “I’d rather have roses on my table than gold in my pocket.”

One year ago if you had told me I’d be digging a rose garden I would’ve choked on my chili dog. Because before the pandemic I never had time for roses, I was always busy. I was usually on the road, visiting places, meeting new people, or eating cholesterol in distant airports. It was the life of a writer, and it was my life.

But now I’m at home all the time and the most active thing I do is take my dogs for potty walks. Which is a

frustrating task because one of my dogs refuses to pee on a leash. And it’s very important to make her “go,” otherwise this dog’s bladder will reach red-alert status and there will be a nuclear accident on our kitchen floor.

So my life has become uneventful. Finding material for columns has also gotten harder because most things I write about are things I read about. And most of what I read comes in the form of emails, personal letters, and messages. I get a lot of emails.

Used to, the majority of these messages were happy and encouraging. But as the pandemic raged forward the messages got angrier and more negative. Some of the comments became downright cruel. One guy told me I had a face shaped like a “football covered in hair.”

You almost have to admire that kind of verbal creativity.

Of course I also…

Thirteen-year-old Katy was diagnosed with depression yesterday. The main culprit—big surprise—is the pandemic. Katy is like many U.S. teens right now, she is stuck inside doing online school, getting little socialization, rarely leaving her bedroom.

Katy’s email to me reads:

“I’m tired of feeling this sad... My mom told me to message you to see if you had any suggestions for cheering up depressed people my age.”

Well, Katy, I’m glad you contacted me because it sounds to me like you need some major fun right now. And you’re in luck because in many circles I am known as Mister Fun. How fun am I? As I write this, I am drinking something called “panda dung” tea.

I am serious. This looseleaf tea was sent to me by a reader named Sara, from Little Rock. Along with this tea came a magazine clipping explaining that this tea is imported from Asia where it is wildly expensive, usually selling for $3,500 per 50 grams. Which means I am drinking a $75 cup of tea right now.

I called a local tea shop to ask about this tea since, call me paranoid, I was concerned about drinking anything that had been passed through the gastrointestinal system of an exotic mammal.

The tea-shop lady was nice. She said, “Oh, don’t worry, the tea has no actual dung in it, it’s only called that because the tea plants are grown in big piles of panda excrement.”

Yum! Pass the sugar!

So I’m trying to drink this tea with an open mind. And after finishing one mug I can honestly say that, even though I was skeptical at first, panda dung tea tastes exactly like the name sounds.

But getting back to dealing with depression. Something I’ve found that helps is going for walks. I realize this sounds painfully simple and a little idealistic, and maybe it is. But it actually does help.

When I…

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…

Anna is 49 years old. She is cheerful, beautiful, and her elderly mother believes Anna is a living angel.

Each morning, Anna wakes at 5 A.M. to make the coffee. While the coffee perks, she visits her mother’s bedroom. “Wakey wakey!” she says, breezing into the room.

Next Anna throws open the curtains and smiles. Then she helps her mother out of a hospital bed. Her mother is not able to walk due to hip issues.

Anna lifts her mother, then carries her into the shower using brute strength. She positions her mother in a specialized shower seat, undresses her, bathes her from head to heel, then brushes her teeth.

“Anna is my lifeline,” Anna’s mother tells me. “My daughter is an angel.”

After the bath, Anna lifts her mother into a wheelchair. She then dresses her mother, fixes her hair, administers medication, and kisses her mother’s face. “I love you Mom,” Anna reminds her mother, just in case her mother needs to hear this.

Then, Anna parks her mother near the television and starts breakfast.

Later, Anna doles out more meds, then clips her mother’s toenails, carries her to the bathroom, or pays her mothers bills.

By then, it’s about noon. A friend usually comes to sit with Anna’s mother while Anna goes to work.

Oh, yeah. By the way, Anna works full time.

After her long shift, she comes back to the apartment, and her night has just begun. Before she changes out of work attire, Anna cooks supper, then cleans the house. The night ends when she carries her mother into the bedroom. There, she dresses her mother in a nightgown, gives more meds, and reads to her.

“Sometimes Anna falls asleep beside me,” her mother says. “She’s usually very exhausted after all that lifting.”

The next morning, Anna does it all again.

Carl, in Atlanta, does the same thing with his dad. Carl bathes his father,…

Last night the windchills in Texas were below freezing. The electricity was out. And 83-year-old Cindy sat in her den wearing a parka.

Surrounding her were two cats, a kerosene lantern, a popping fireplace, and her grandchildren, clad in winter caps and double socks. And they were all singing.

Cindy made everyone sing because her grandkids were getting panicked about what was happening. And singing is how Cindy’s own mother used to calm the family during dire moments like this.

So the old woman draped blankets over her babies and taught them the lyrics to “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Rock of Ages.”

She could see their breath vapor rising in the darkness.

Right now, 3 million Texans have lost power and are covered in snow crust. And, if that’s not enough, another 100 million Americans are braced for more oncoming ice and snowfall. Record temperatures have been recorded from Minneapolis to Galveston.

Texans are getting pommeled. Without electricity, some hospitals are losing water pressure.

Carbon monoxide poisoning has become another local problem for those trying heat their homes. Harris County alone had 200 people suffer carbon monoxide poisoning.

Some Texans have frozen to death. Others are hungry. Most are just worried.

I’m told the overwhelming quietness outside is weird. In some places it’s a new level of silence that many have never experienced before. There are no ambient noises to cut the stillness. No heat pumps churning, no idling air compressors, no refrigerators humming, no distant TVs, no appliances running. And there’s hardly any traffic noise.

Elderly Cindy takes it all in stride. “My daddy was a farmer. He used to say the only difference between an adventure and an ordeal is how you look at it.”

Her father, the third-generation Texan, was like most men of the southern Plains in his time. He raised a family during a Great Depression. He…

To the 2 million homes in Texas without power right now. To the millions covered in snow, who cannot keep their houses warm during freezing temperatures.

To Karen and Joe, in North Texas, who can see their breath vapor while lying in bed; who are eating cold cans of tuna in the dark, covered in blankets; who are constantly telling their anxious children, “Everything will be okay.”

To Lynn, the single mother with a 6-month-old who was so cold last night she crawled into her idling car parked in the driveway; who cranked the heater and cradled her child; who stayed there until three in the morning until her vehicle ran out of gas.

To elderly Miss Susan, who invited 14 neighbors into her house to share the warmth of her fireplace. She turned it into a party with games, music, and everything.

To Rod, the 32-year-old in Houston who opened his home to three homeless guys he found on the street. Rod welcomed them into his

living room and showed them to his gas fireplace. Rod gave them new clothes, hot showers, then fired up his outdoor grill and barbecued a rack of Saint Louis ribs. They ate supper by candlelight.

And to those same long-bearded men who slept in Rod’s living room last night. They were men who, just yesterday, had snow encrusted whiskers and ice-covered eyebrows. As I write this, they are asleep on Rod’s floor, buried beneath a Pikes Peak of quilts, nestled beside a glowing hearth, enjoying full stomachs.

To the 27,229 homeless men and women in the state of Texas who are lost tonight. Most of them are people who have no family ties. Some are mentally ill. Each one is lonely. Almost all have been forced to huddle against buildings, in ditches, or in tents, simply to overcome below-zero wind chills.

To the emergency workers, the EMTs, the sheriff departments, the police officers,…

I had a dream. It was a vivid dream. It was sunny. I was in my childhood Sunday school classroom, alone. It was like nothing had changed.

The paned windows were slung open. It was a magnificent day outside. The daylight was so bright it hurt your heart. The sound of starlings came from the trees.

It was your typical church classroom. There was a flannel board, with paper Bible-story characters stuck to the felt. I stood to examine the storytelling board for old time’s sake.

Apparently some kids had taken Sharpies to the cutout characters because Paul and Silas were defaced. Paul was smoking a cigarette, and Silas had a tattoo of a woman on his forearm. The kid responsible for this would be sentenced to hard time mowing the church lawn until he was forty.

My attention moved from the classroom when I heard a sound. A melodic noise coming from the other room. People singing. I knew this song. I can still remember the words.

“O there’s sunshine,
“Sunshine in my

soul,
“Blessed sunshine,
“Blessed sunshine in my soul…”

It’s been a while since I’ve heard this standard. Heck. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that many people in one room, singing, smiling, exchanging germs.

But in my dream, it was olden times. I wandered into the tiny sanctuary. The sight made my insides turn to Jello. Just seeing those recognizable faces, the battered pews, the towhead children holding hymnals.

I saw the whole gang. There was elderly Mister Dan, balding, with a crown of white fuzz around his head. He was red faced, because he was bad to drink.

And old Miss Eleanor, wearing her weird hat. I think they buried her in that hat.

And look! There’s my cousin! He’s so young! Look at him, standing next to my aunt. And who is that standing beside… Wait! That’s me! There I…