It’s my birthday and I’m writing this before sunrise. I don’t know why. I guess, like all aging people, I have changed over the years. I don’t sleep like I used to. Once upon a time I could fall asleep during a pep rally, but now I wake up hours before my neighbor’s deranged rooster, Virgil.

Virgil is a piece of work. He crows at odd hours. And once he starts crowing, he goes all day, no matter how many blunt objects are hurled at him. Virgil is one of those chickens who, when he looks at you with his two crazy eyes, you know he’s only got one oar in the water.

The first thing I do this morning is start the coffee on the stove. Then I listen for Virgil at the back door, but he isn’t up yet.

Thank God for birthday blessings.

To kick off my big day, I play my guitar, quietly, so I won’t wake my wife. The Folgers perks on the stove while I play “After You’ve Gone.” I’ve

been picking a guitar since I was 9 years old, and in all that time I think I’ve actually managed to get worse.

The percolator starts bubbling. I put the guitar down and turn the coffee off.

This porcelain Corningware percolator was a wedding gift from my mother. I remember the day I got it. No sooner had I announced to Mama that I was getting married than she wrapped up her 1950s coffeepot in paper grocery bags and gifted it to me.

“You’ll need coffee if you’re gonna be married,” she said. And I nearly started crying because in that brief moment, before I left her home forever, life seemed so existentially real to me. I can’t explain it.

I pour a steaming cup then walk outside before sunrise.

On my porch I discover that it is colder than brass undergarments out here.…

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t think my school is going to have prom for 2021, everyone is guessing this is the case. We don’t know yet, but it’s probably not happening. It just sucks that we might not get to do this because we have nothing to look forward to.

Thanks,
A-SAD-JUNIOR

DEAR SAD:

First of all, I am sorry. I know this year has been a major let down. So I am not going to offer you some overused parental slogan like: “You oughta count your blessings, young lady.”

When I was a kid I heard versions of this phrase all the time from my mama. And I swore these words would never, EVER exit my lips. Because this is old-person talk, and I’m no fuddy-duddy.

Although, before I write another word, you should know something. Life is unfair and nothing you can do will change this. Not just a little unfair, either. A lot unfair.

Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in karaoke clubs. Have you ever been to one?

They are totally criminal. Singers with the pitch sensitivity of tugboat airhorns try to sing “I Will Always Love You” while spilling their Harvey Wallbangers all over the audience. And these people get standing ovations.

Meanwhile, the guy who sings from memory all eight verses of Allan Sherman’s masterpiece, “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadduh,” gets booed off the stage. I ask you, is this fair?

Something else unfair? The price of automotive tires. I bought new truck tires a few days ago and they cost as much as a three-bedroom rambler. I remember buying secondhand tires when I was a younger man for $19 apiece from “Al’s Used Tire Barn.” Al even threw in a complimentary emergency flare gun.

You know what else really sucks? Body pain. I had spinal surgery when I was in my mid-20s; nobody ever tells you how quickly chronic pain can ruin your…

A nameless town. A tiny place you’ve never heard of. One without a stoplight. It’s a place so small that when you dial a wrong number they supply you with the correct one. The 2020 Christmas decorations on mainstreet have started to come down today.

Once upon a time, the beautification committee would have kept decorations up until New Year’s, but it’s been a weird year. The chairwoman decided it was time to take decorations down. The New Year needs a fresh start, she said. People are ready to forget the trappings of 2020 and remember that life goes on.

So the garland on local businesses was first to go. Then the pinery on lampposts. The snowflake decals in shop windows came down too.

Meanwhile, across town, there is an old man sitting in his yard in a wheelchair. He wears a surgical mask and watches grandkids play with a Nerf football. He’s hardly moving after his recent stroke, which nearly killed him weeks before Christmas. But they tell me this man

is immeasurably determined, and even cheerful.

His granddaughter sits beside him, holding his limp hand. He has been through a lot, but there is no sadness in his mumbled responses, only reassurance to those he loves. His quivering lips seem to say, “Please don’t cry for me, life goes on, and so will I.”

Life does indeed go on. Just like it’s doing a few houses over, where a young man who we’ll call Billy is back home. Billy is visiting his mom for the holidays.

Billy has been sober for two years now. Although most remember him from his former days spent on a local barstool, playing the fool. But that’s in the past now. He’s dry, and constantly recovering. This makes his mama proud.

His mother, the former Sunday school teacher. The woman who taught the town’s children to memorize the Ten Commandments and recite the…

I’m going to say this now: I’m proud of you. That’s it. You can stop reading here if you want. I know you’re busy. So take the kids to karate class, scrub your bathroom mirror, schedule a dentist appointment, wash your dog, live your life amidst a worldwide pandemic.

Buy more hand sanitizer. Get some organic peach-smelling disinfectant. Scrub your surfaces, doorknobs, children, pets, and spouse head-to-toe with isopropyl rubbing alcohol. But just remember that I’m proud of you.

The thing is, I don’t think we tell each other how special we are. I don’t think people get enough attaboys, well-dones, or five-dollar beer pitchers.

So I’m proud of you. For not giving up. For eating breakfast. I’m proud of you for remembering to breathe and keep going. Really.

I’m also proud of Billy. He emailed me. He’s forty-nine. He’s been working in construction all his life, and he couldn’t read until a few years ago.

His friend gave him reading lessons every morning on the ride to work. And on weekends. They practiced on lunch breaks.

Billy started with elementary school books. Recently he

read the “Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes Stories.”

He reads aloud sometimes, during lunch break to the fellas. He said he’s been practicing reading the same stories so many times, he’s almost memorized them.

I’m proud of Leona, who had the courage to check into addiction rehab recently. She’s a young woman, and she needs someone to be proud of her. So I guess I’ll have to do.

I’m proud of her aunt, too—who is helping to raise Leona’s daughter.

And Michael, who just asked Jessica to marry him—on Christmas morning. He squatted down onto one knee in front of seventeen family members, one woman, and her three children.

He gave Jessica and each of her children a ring.

He said, “Will you be my everything, forever and always?”

Jessica’s oldest (Brooke, age eleven) got…

It happened on Christmas Eve, last night. It took place in an ordinary Georgia living room. It was late. Elevenish. The Christmas tree was glowing. A space heater was humming.

Five-year-old Samantha was fast asleep on the sofa waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.

They call her “Sam.” The girl has tight brunette curls and eyes like a Kewpie doll. The irony here is that Sam announced back in October that she quit believing in Santa. And to be honest, who could blame her? This year has been ridiculously hard on children.

When the pandemic hit, her dad lost his job. He took a new job driving eighteen wheelers, and it’s been hard on Samantha’s family. Her father has been all over the U.S. this year, far from home. In fact, he almost didn’t make it home for Christmas. This is what earning a steady paycheck looks like sometimes.

“Santa isn’t real,” Sam told her dad over and again.

“Yes he is,” said Dad.

“How do you know he’s real? Have you ever seen him?”

“Well, no, but

I’ve never seen a billion dollars, either.”

No matter how her dad tried to convince her, skepticism is a condition that cannot be undone without granite proof. Sam’s dad finally suggested how about Sam stay up late on Christmas Eve to see for herself.

Well, it sounded like a good idea. The only problem was, Sam is a girl with an IQ in the quintuple digits. She was not to be convinced easily.

Even so. Here she was, lying on this sofa, this miniature Doubting Thomas, holding onto a final thread of childhood.

The first noise to waken the girl was a deep rumbling sound. Like a diesel earthquake. This was followed by her dog, growling at the backdoor. The dog’s tail and ears were high.

“Could this be it?” she thought. “Could this be him? No way. Not possible.”

Sam arose.…

They came from all 50 states this year. Well, almost.

WISCONSIN—I know you’re not Lutheran, Sean, but I am. So I want to send these words to you on Christmas:

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

NEW MEXICO—My name is Meredith, and I wish you a merry Christmas, from me, my two sons, my three dogs, three horses, eight cats, and all our chickens. Oh, and also my husband, Brad.

UTAH—Sean, we’re celebrating Christmas with my dad (89 years old). He had COVID-19 and almost died this year... I am eternally thankful to report that he is totally recovered and even drinking beer again.

TEXAS—Lost my business in September, but rediscovered my family. I will feed you brisket if you come to Texas.

CALIFORNIA—My mother is a nurse and is working so hard right now… They have set up medical tents behind some hospitals to deal with the influx of new patients arriving. She

is tired and exhausted and she will be working shifts on Christmas since other people need her more than I do.

MAINE—We’ve got plenty of toilet paper. Just saying.

FLORIDA—My kids and I just finished making over 300 Christmas cards for local nursing homes...

NEBRASKA—My 12-year-old son is a leukemia survivor and chose to give all his Christmas presents to other children suffering from cancer this year.

SOUTH DAKOTA—Mom and Dad are making a tremendous feast… This is the longest I’ve been away from home. I will see them tomorrow morning! (Amanda, age 19.)

VIRGINIA—My wife and I are getting back together.

MISSISSIPPI—My dad is not doing well, can you pray for him?

KANSAS—Hope you and Jamie (and everyone else in your family, no matter how many legs they have) have a wonderful holiday.

OREGON—Sean, my 10-year-old texted this…

Christmas Eve night. The mountains of North Carolina were giant silhouettes in the darkness. Sheriff Andy Taylor sat on the bench outside the courthouse, watching the stars.

It had been a hard year. Maybe the hardest of his career. The sheriff was downhearted, which didn’t happen often. But then, sheriffs have feelings too.

When it started to snow, Taylor shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets and slipped into a trance. Christmas morning was only a few hours away, and he wanted to feel cheerful, but he couldn’t seem to make it happen.

His deputy joined him on the bench. The scrawny, high-strung lawman had just finished doing his nightly rounds, shining a flashlight into storefront windows; checking doorknobs. All quiet in Mayberry.

“Whatcha doing, Ange?” said his deputy. “Why the long face?”

Taylor flashed a fake smile. “I’m just looking at stars.”

The deputy was obviously concerned, but Taylor hardly noticed. He was too busy thinking about all he’d seen during his years serving this sleepy hamlet. He’d seen it all. Or just about.

He’d

once seen the town drunk ride a cow down mainstreet. He’d seen a local goat eat dynamite. He’d jailed bank robbers, swindlers, chicken thieves, speeders, escaped convicts, moonshiners, and Danny Thomas.

Life was moving too fast. The world had gone from AM radios to color TVs. He’d watched the tailfins on Chevys and Fords get taller each year. He’d seen skirts get shorter, hairstyles get shaggier, music get louder, and people get meaner. Airplanes gave way to rocketships. A man hit a golf ball on the moon. Divorce was becoming more fashionable than blue jeans.

But this year…

This year was a humdinger. It was worse than the rest. This was the year the world fell apart. People in town were more frightened and skittish than ever before. And sometimes it seemed like nothing in Mayberry was going right.

Taylor looked at the…

I was 5 years old. I was with my friends, loitering behind the Baptist church. We sat on the concrete retaining wall overlooking the creek bed. We were practicing our spitting.

Mark Anderson arrived in a rush, rosy-cheeked, struggling to catch his breath. He held a cookie tin in his hands.

“I got’em,” Mark said.

Mark opened the tin and distributed the precious contraband. We knew he’d risked his life to smuggle this delicacy across the frontlines of his mother’s kitchen.

They were orangish strips, seasoned with cayenne. I took one bite and my world exploded.

It was like looking directly into a leafblower. The entire universe opened in a singular moment of spiritual oneness. All of a sudden, the work of Brahms, Webern, and Bartók immediately made sense. Suddenly I understood 19th century French poetry. All at once I grasped the transitory nature of existence, although, technically, I was still at an age where I peed the bed.

“What are these?” a newcomer asked with a mouthful.

“These,” said Mark sagely, “are my mom’s cheese

straws.”

Cheese straws.

If you’ve never had cheese straws, I hope you get some this Christmas. They will blow your hair back. Imagine a crumbly, savory, buttery, floury concoction, baked with enough cheddar to turn your bowels into stone.

Mark Anderson’s mother delivered her cheese straws to our doorstep every Christmas season. Her straws would inspire fistfights within my household.

No sooner would her biscuit tin arrive than my old man would confiscate the container like a purse snatcher. My mother would cut him off at the backdoor, threatening to alter his anatomy with a melon baller.

One year my mother actually tried making cheese straws, but it was a disaster. Her straws came out like briquettes of Kingsford charcoal, only with less flavor. Because as it turns out, cheese straws are fragile things to prepare. Almost like a fine soufflé, or a batch…

Today I had a phone interview with a 6-year-old from Wyoming. The reason for this interview was because this boy has alleged magical powers. I had to get to the bottom of these claims.

Of course I was excited to meet someone possessing supernatural abilities. But if I’m being honest, I was more excited to meet someone from Wyoming. I’ve never met anyone from this state. I was beginning to wonder if Wyoming existed.

Have you ever seen satellite images of the United States at night? The photos show lights from major cities, stringing across North America like a giant glowing vascular system. There is always a huge dark spot over Wyoming.

This is because Wyoming only has 579,000 residents. And to give you an idea of how few that is: the Atlanta metro area has 6 million.

To put it another way: Wyoming is 97,914 square miles, but within the entire state there are only two escalators. This is absolutely true. They’re both located in the town of Casper, and they’re both in banks.

So it was important to investigate these magic claims. You can’t have 6-year-old Wyoming residents going around professing otherworldly capabilities. Next thing you know, you’ll have 6-year-olds in Michigan claiming Detroit has a professional baseball team.

This whole thing started last week when an ordinary 6-year-old boy learned that his uncle was going through a painful divorce. The boy became so concerned about his uncle that he told his mother he wanted to use his “magical powers” to make his uncle feel better.

“Magical powers?” his mother said. “What?”

The boy’s powers consisted of dictating a message to his mother who typed an email that read:

“You’re an awesome uncle and I love you so much because you’re the best! I’m thinking about you today!”

The uncle was so touched by this magic that he almost cried. Except that men from the Cowboy State don’t…

Carol was depressed. Long-term isolation does that to people. She has a compromised immune system, so she’s been isolating for about a year.

Lord, has it been that long already?

Her groceries come by delivery. Her dinners are microwavable. She watches a lot of TV. Many of her friendships have fallen by the wayside. So have activities like church, shopping, volunteering, holiday potlucks, and exchanging Christmas gifts.

So when Carol saw the furry creature on her porch last Monday night, it made her feel something warm inside. She felt a little less isolated. The kitten was tan-colored, curled beneath one of her porch chairs, meowing.

The irony here is that Carol is not a cat person. She normally dislikes cats. But then, this wasn’t a cat, was it? This was a friend.

She stooped to pick up the kitten. She fed it. She stroked its fur. It was an instant love connection. She told the cat there was one simple rule to be observed: no sleeping indoors. The animal was to sleep only in

the garage. But cats aren’t big on rules. So currently, each night the kitten sleeps on Carol’s forehead.

“I think this cat saved me,” she said. “My house isn’t empty anymore.”

Meanwhile, in Southern Illinois, Larry’s mother passed away. The funeral was socially distanced, only 11 people attended. The family took no chances with its elderly. People spaced themselves apart. The preacher wore a respirator.

After service, Larry was cleaning out his mother’s bedroom when he found boxes in her safe. They contained love letters between Larry’s mother and late father. Hundreds of them.

Each letter, written in perfect penmanship. Each one, using the poetic, flowery language that American lovers once used before they eventually discovered the lyrical qualities of, for example, the pile of poo emoji.

Larry read all the letters in order. He was able to recreate the entire romance between his parents. He…