That’s what I’ve always believed good writing feels like. Like it was written by a nice person.

DEAR SEAN:

I started reading your blog last month because some of my students follow you on Instagram and said you were “cool,” but honestly, sir, you disappoint me somewhat.

Some of your writing is nothing but flippance and poor attempts at humor that is sometimes inappropriate, and even sacreligious...

The purpose of this email is to encourage you to abandon irreverence and cheap teenage humor, and stop using fragment sentences!

Do yourself proud, Sean. Emulate the great American authors of our time, and really put yourself into it. And just like I tell my students, “If you continue to work hard, you might even get a book published.”

I’m sorry if this offends you, but I tell the truth for a living,

ENGLISH-TEACHER-IN-AUSTIN

DEAR ENGLISH:

I’m afraid you’re right about me, ma’am. I’ll admit, I’m not much of a role model. But I’d like to think I’m a nice guy. And maybe that counts for something.

You’re not alone in how you feel about me. I have a long track record of disappointing teachers.

Once, my

kindergarten teacher was leading the class in singing “America the Beautiful,” and my bladder was suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit.

I raised my hand.

My teacher said, “You’re gonna have to hold it.”

So I squeezed my thighs together and prayed. But by the time our class had started singing “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” I had already made a peaceful river all over the floor.

There’s more.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher told me I was a hopeless writer. I won’t go into details because they don’t matter. She suggested I give up the craft altogether. So, I followed her suggestion.

I believed this woman’s opinion of me. That’s part of the unspoken agreement between educators and students—students trust those who stand before chalkboards.

And when an…

“KABOOM! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!”

Let’s see what’s on the television tonight. It’s been a long day. I wouldn’t mind seeing something good.

CLICK.

“Good evening, America, I’m your host, Ken Barbeedoll. I hope you’re having a wonderful evening. In international news, a nuclear crisis threatens to end human life as we know it...”

FLIP.

“HAVE YOU BEEN IN AN AUTO ACCIDENT? DO YOU HAVE A CORPORATION YOU’D LIKE TO SUE? HAVE YOU EVER STUBBED YOUR PINKY TOE ON FAULTY DOOR JAMBS? I’M A PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY AT DEWEY CHEETUM AND HOWE, LET ME BE YOUR LAWYER AND TOGETHER WE CAN SUE THE FREAKIN’ PANTS OFF... ”

FLIP, FLIP, FLIP.

“I’ll kill you, so help me, I’ll kill you, and you will be DEAD when I am…”

FLIP.

“Thank you for watching season forty-nine of ‘The Vocalist’ a REALITY game show featuring judges in big chairs, sipping mandatory Pepsi products on camera and evaluating young talented artists who compete for serious recording contracts based on how tight their pants are...”

FLIP, FLIP.

“(Sitcom laughter!) But I swear, I didn’t

mean to microwave your dog. (Sitcom laughter!) It was an honest mistake. (Sitcom laughter!) Do you know how many people watch this sitcom? (Sitcom laughter!) Even though we have the worst dialogue in the history of human entertainment. (Sitcom laughter!) Our show is still ranked number one according to the Nielsen ratings. (Sitcom laughter!)”

FLIP, FLIP, FLIP.

“And in financial news, officials predict that by February, consumers will pay more for a gallon of gasoline than they would pay for a Melbourne Cup champion thoroughbred...”

FLIP, FLIP, FLIP.

“KABOOM! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!”

FLIP.

“Do you feel too normal? Do you wonder why you AREN’T depressed when all your friends ARE depressed? You’re not alone. You could be suffering from non-depression, which is a harmless condition affecting one hundred percent of happy people who DO NOT YET have…

On breaks, I would visit my truck only to find cooks, waitresses, and dishwashers, smoking cigarettes around my vehicle. They were running their hands along your silky coat.

It’s nighttime. I am writing you from your favorite beach, Sweetie. The sands go on for miles, the purple sky is cloudless. The Gulf of Mexico is so vast it hurts.

Fort Pickens National Park looks magnificent tonight.

This was our beach. At least, that’s what I’m calling it. It wasn’t literally ours. It belongs to everyone in Pensacola Beach, Florida. No, it belongs to everyone in America.

Well, actually, if we’re getting technical here, this beach belongs to the National Park Service, which is overseen by the United States Department of the Interior and is henceforth property of the U.S. government.

But, since the government uses citizen tax dollars to maintain this federal land and pay its staff of allegedly friendly park rangers a salary with benefits, yeah, this beach is basically mine.

Anyway, I’m getting off track.

When we first met, you were a bloodhound, with crooked teeth and droopy eyes. I loved you from the beginning. And this beach was your favorite place on earth.

For many years, every weekend I’d travel to Pensacola to play pitiful bar music at local dives. I didn’t earn much money, but every little bit helped. You traveled with me.

By day, I worked menial jobs. And at night I played music for people who held brown bottles and wanted to dance to “SOMETHING FUN!”

That’s what all drunken dancers say. “Hey, you with the gee-tar! PLAY SOMETHING FUN, DUDE!”

Then some guy in the crowd raises a beer and shouts, “‘Freebird!’” and laughs until he loses all bladder control.

You and I would spend the weekends camping at Fort Pickens for only sixteen bucks per night. We’d stay here together. And we’d rough it.

I cooked meals over a propane burner, and washed our plates with a waterhose. We bathed in public showers, and I did laundry in the Gulf…

Her digital recorder sat on the table. She gave me a bottled water. She also had prepared homemade pimento cheese.

I was interviewed by a nine-year-old. I’ll call her “Kay,” but that’s not her name.

Kay is my hero. Kay is a foster child who loves Auburn University football. Kay is also serious about the sanctity of the interview process. Kay wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.

Her digital recorder sat on the table. She gave me a bottled water. She also had prepared homemade pimento cheese.

It was very good cheese. However, instead of using pimentos, Kay used homegrown habanero peppers from her foster-mother’s garden. Lots and lots of peppers.

The skin on my tongue will be forevermore mutilated by these peppers. My lower intestinal tract will never be the same.

The interview was for Kay’s school. Kay was supposed to be writing about people who were fascinating. But, she couldn’t find anyone, so she wrote about me.

She pressed the button on the recorder. “Please state your name,” said Kay, her pencil poised.

“Sean Dietrich.”

“Your FULL name, please,” Kay said, preventing obstruction of justice.

“Sean P.

Dietrich.”

“What does the ‘P’ stand for, please?”

“Percivus.”

“Really?”

“No, not really, I was just trying to make you laugh.”

But Kay does not laugh or smile. Kay would make a very good poker player.

“Sean, tell me how you started writing?”

“With a pencil,” I said.

“Please be serious.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m a writer by accident, really.”

“Accident?”

“I was no good at anything else. And believe me, I’ve tried it all. I’ve worked a lot of jobs.”

“What kinds of jobs?”

“Oh boy, let’s see…. I’ve been a drywaller, a landscaper, an electrician’s assistant, a commercial framer, a house painter, an ice-cream scooper, a commercial fishing deckhand, a church pianist, and once, after a wild night in Biloxi, I was ordained.”

“Is that true?” said Kay. “Were…

It’s a nice day for driving. I am on my way to attend a Baptist church in country. There are fourteen members in this church. Eleven of them have white hair.

I arrive. They weren’t kidding when they called this place “small.”

It’s a thirty-five-foot long room with mildewed ceilings, a piano, and rugs over the linoleum floor. I am the second one here this afternoon. The preacher, Brother Will, got here an hour before me to turn on the window-unit air conditioner for service.

This church is part of the rural quiltwork that is America. Simple, plain. This is a place our people gather to sing songs they’ve been singing since the invention of mud.

Hymns about enduring. Melodies about hard times. About believing.

Brother Will is sitting on the front pew, alone. Legs crossed, arm slung over the back. He is staring at the ceiling. The sun is setting through the windows.

He doesn’t hear me come in because he is hard of hearing

at this stage in his life.

We shake hands. He is tranquil. His face is lined with smile marks. His hair is salt and pepper. I sit beside him.

“I knew a woman, once,” he says. “A good woman.”

He is not speaking to me in the preacher-voice of a clergyman. Preachers of my childhood used tones of voice that Harvard professors might use. But this man is not like that. He is talking with me, not above me.

“She was a good woman,” he goes on. “She had two kids, one of them was really sick. Her husband didn’t make much money, worked at the mill.”

The woman took in wash to pay family bills, keep cupboards filled, and pay doctor bills.

“But her husband cheated on her,” says Brother Will. “It was awful. The man left her. She was alone with her…

When I first started speaking, I used to get so nervous than I do now—and I’m not proud of this— I used to speak with my eyes closed. Eventually I got over it, but a lot of people still remember those days.

Hartford, Alabama—a Future Farmers of America banquet. I am about to speak for a group of Minnesotans. These are rural people with Northern accents. Gentle people who know how to handle large animals, and how to milk them.

I’ve never performed before any Minnesotans before. In fact, I don’t know much about Minnesota, except that it’s somewhere below the Arctic Circle.

The truth is, I don’t know why anyone would ask me to speak over a microphone at all.

The first time I ever got on stage, I was seven. I sang at our church. It was a Wednesday night. I was so nervous I nearly puked. My father gave me some sound advice beforehand:

“Imagine the entire audience in their underpants,” he said.

“Do what?”

“That’s right,” he went on. “Pretend they’re all wearing underwear.”

This, he claimed, would take the sting out of my nervousness and help me remember that everyone is virtually the same beneath the surface.

It sounded like a good idea. And it

might have worked if the front pews hadn’t been filled with members of the women’s Bible study group. Because when I envisioned twenty-one elderly women of virtue in their tighty-whities, I choked.

My Aunt Eulah was in the front row, smiling. I couldn’t help but visualize her wearing a granny girdle, nylons, and a military-grade underwire.

I was supposed to sing “Rock of Ages” that Wednesday, but I ended up singing “Honky Tonk Woman.”

Anyway, this is a yearly thing here in Hartford. Every November, high-schoolers from Hartford’s sister city in Litchfield, Minnesota, visit this town to experience life in the South.

Tonight, I am seated at a table with some of these quiet Minnesotans. We are eating downhome cuisine, sipping sweet tea. My new friends do not know what sweet tea is.

They have also never eaten collards, hog head…

And maybe you’re like me. Maybe you wake up in the mornings and turn your TV on. Maybe you flip channels. Maybe you see talking heads in business suits.

I watched a fifteen-year-old boy with cerebral palsy hit a baseball. It was something else. His father pitched full speed from the mound, just like a major-leaguer. The boy held the bat with unsteady hands.

Crack.

Base hit.

The kid smacked it so hard it made the fence. His mother cheered in the bleachers. So did I.

The fifteen-year-old didn’t even run. He started to cry. So did his daddy. They held each other in the batter’s box for awhile.

“You don’t understand,” said his mother. “They’ve been working on just HOLDING a bat for years. He NEVER gets a hit.”

He did today.

Tanya—I meet her in the Walmart. She has six children with her. The oldest is pushing the cart. Two are in the basket. Three follow.

These are not her biological children.

Tanya’s been fostering for a long time. She used to do it with her husband—he died several years ago.

Her husband had been raised in the foster system. He had been passionate about fostering.

“We used to spend every dime we made on these kids,” she says. “My

husband would say, ‘If you only knew how hard it is growing up feeling like nobody wants you. I know what it’s like.’”

After his death, she carried on his tradition. And even though she’s unmarried, she welcomes new kids by the handful.

Yolanda. She is from Ecuador. She was a victim of human-trafficking. She was saved. Since then, she’s made a new life for herself. She is about to become a certified personal fitness trainer.

As part of her rehabilitation, she started spending time in gyms. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to make it her profession.

“I LOVE working out,” says Yolanda. “I take out all my angry thoughts on these machines.”

Yolanda has a boyfriend. They just got engaged last month. He is from Mexico. He is a Pentecostal preacher.

“I’m always…

On the day I was born, the doctor who delivered me happened to be a redhead. The first thing the he saw when I exited the birth canal was my hair.

It’s National Redhead Day so I went to get my haircut. Because I am a committed redhead.

On the day I was born, the doctor who delivered me happened to be a redhead, too. The first thing the he saw when I exited the birth canal was my hair.

They tell me he high-fived my father—who was also a redhead. My mother says they shouted, “We redheads gotta stick together!”

And when nurses handed me to my mother, she was so overcome with maternal emotion that she touched my hair and her first words were: “Why is my son’s head shaped like a triangle?”

I’m not kidding about this. When I was a newborn, I had a pointy head and bore a striking resemblance to a sharpened No. 2 pencil. Because of this, my mother made me wear a stocking cap for the first three years of my life.

Anyway, I normally get haircuts by Miss Connie, who has been cutting my hair for a long time.

She’s a sweet lady, and I know she won’t mind me telling you that she has a wandering eye.

The first time I ever met Miss Connie, I was the only customer in the empty salon. She greeted me at the door. One eye was staring at me, the other was not.

She smiled and said, “Don’t freak out, I know I’m cross-eyed, but I cut good hair. Now, which one of you boys wants to go first?”

She laughed.

“Just kidding,” she said. “I can see fine, Sweetie. In fact, I have double vision, which means I see TWICE as good as you.”

She laughed again until she choked.

I considered throwing myself in front of a moving bus to avoid her scissors, but that woman ended up giving me the best haircut I ever had in my life. I’ve been going back…

The next morning, I found her sitting cross-legged on an easy chair. Her eyes closed, whispering to the ceiling fan. The skin around her eyelids wrinkled like tissue paper.

My earliest memory is of my mother. She’s at a breakfast table. She sits alone in a gaudy brown kitchen, head bowed, hands folded.

She is speaking in a whisper, I don’t know who she’s talking to. I’m too young.

Her eyes are closed. The sun is rising in the window behind her. She’s dressed for work, sipping coffee.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

“That’s between me and the Good Lord,” she says.

My teenage years. A few years after my father took his own life. These were hard years. She sat on an a burgundy sofa. She closed her eyes and whispered toward the ceiling.

I couldn’t make out her words.

“What’re you doing?” I asked.

“It’s between me and the Good Lord,” she says.

Over time, I grew into my big feet, and my large nose. I turned into a man—sort of.

My mother fell ill. Deathly ill. She moved to Atlanta so my aunt and uncle could care for her.

I drove to Clayton County to visit her. She greeted me in the driveway at 2 A.M. on a cold November morning.

In

the glow of my headlights stood the once-healthy woman who raised me. She was nothing but hickory sticks and muscle.

The next morning, I found her sitting cross-legged on an easy chair. Her eyes closed, whispering to the ceiling fan. The skin around her eyelids wrinkled like tissue paper.

Doctors told us the disease would kill her. The illness was eating blueberry-sized holes in her muscles. It would eventually reach her heart.

“What’re you doing?” I asked.

She didn’t answer.

Then, she touched my hair. “You know that when you were a toddler, I used to rub your hair like this, and it would make you go to sleep?”

She rubbed my hair. I leaned into her lap the way I did when I was a child.

The woman held a grown man the…

Some kids did math homework, others were talented athletes. I memorized the one about the farmer’s daughter and the preacher.

A little restaurant. The men in the booth behind me are old. They are telling jokes to one another. They are loud men. They have white hair, mugs of coffee, hearing aids.

One man wears overalls. Another wears suspenders with bass fish on them. Welcome to Rural America.

Whenever one man finishes a joke, the others slap their knees and say, “Hooooo boy!”

My waitress tries to take my order, but she can’t concentrate, we’re both eavesdropping on the old men.

An elderly man says:

“So a fella and wife go to Heaven. There’s a BIG CROWD, standing around. And Saint Pete says to everybody:

“‘Men, listen up! Whichever men wore the pants in their household, form a single-file line over HERE! And all men who were henpecked by their wives, stand over THERE!

“And almost every man went to the henpecked line. Except ONE guy, who stood alone in the other line. So Saint Pete shook the man’s hand and said, ‘Sir, I just wanna congratulate you.’

“‘For what?’ the

guy said. ‘I’m only here because my wife told me to stand here.’”

The punchline hits like an atom bomb. One man laughs so hard he almost ruptures his gallbladder.

“Hoooooo boy!”

When I was a boy, my father had hundreds of jokes like this. I would overhear him tell these anecdotes to his roughneck friends and I wished I were like him.

The men I come from speak the language of humor. They gathered on the courthouse steps, or at barbershops, not to discuss feelings or family issues, but to tell funny stories.

As a boy, I wanted to be my father. I wanted to know his stories and tell his jokes. Some kids did math homework, others went to football practice. I memorized the one about the farmer’s daughter and the preacher.

My father would place me on a…