She was small enough to fit in your pocket. Blonde hair. Big eyes. Button nose. On the day she was born, I was a child—still wearing cowboy hats and cap guns.

My mother handed her to me and said, “This is your sister. Be careful with her.”

I had never seen anything so pretty.

A few years later, we were at my aunt’s house. A big barbecue. I was eight, eating dangerous amounts of pulled pork.

I remember my father, standing near the grill. My mother was beside him. I was supposed to be watching the girl, but pulled pork has bewitching powers over my delicate mind.

There was a pool at the neighbor’s house. The girl wandered off to look at it, but I was too busy smearing pork all over my face to notice.

By pure chance, I spotted her from across the yard. But I was one moment too late.

She was staring downward into the pool. She fell in. Nobody saw it happen but me.

I dropped my paper plate. I ran so hard

my legs burned and my lungs hurt. I jumped in. She had already sunk by the time I reached her.

I placed her tiny body on the grass. She coughed up mouthfuls of water. The adults came running. Lots of hollering.

The girl looked at me with weary eyes. “Let’s do that again!” she said.

When she turned five, our world turned sour.

The night after my father’s funeral visitation I was still wearing my Sunday best. She wore a black dress with lace collar.

A crowd was in our den, eating funeral food, saying things to each other like, “He was a good man.”

She was outside, knees against her chest. Numb. I sat beside her.

We spent the rest of the night, sitting in a walk-in closet, playing Candyland by flashlight. I slept on the floor beside her bed for…

DEAR SEAN:

I’m afraid of everything. I don’t know how it started, I’ve had some real bad stuff happen with my family this year and it’s made me scared all the time. I’m so embarrassed about all this anxiety and I’m going to therapy about it.

Sincerely,
NEED-A-FRIEND

DEAR NEED:

You’re talking to the 1987 and 1988 welterweight division champion of the Olympic men’s fraidy-cat finals.

I am not qualified to offer advice on any subject—such as topics concerning the opposite sex. Take, for instance, a recent column I wrote about lifting the toilet seat. I received several letters from irate females who threatened to baptize me in their own personal toilet bowls. But when it comes to being scared, I’m a certified veteran.

When I was a kid, my home life was pretty crummy. Childhood was unpredictable. We were bouncing around between different houses, my parents were arguing a lot, our lives were a mess.

One morning, I woke up puking. This vomiting problem lasted for weeks. I lost weight. At first, my mother thought

it was a virus so she gave me castor oil. Her answer for every ailment was castor oil. I am grateful that many brave Americans have since broken the silence associated with the nationwide problem of castor-oil-related child abuse.

NOTE TO YOUNG READERS: Castor oil is a unique medicine that turns the human body into a military-grade projectile weapon.

Anyway, the doctor discovered that I had stomach ulcers caused by severe anxiety. To help my ulcers he recommended a strict regimen of treatment known as—cue theme music from “Psycho”—suppositories.

Let me pause for a moment. Do you remember what I said about castor oil being bad? Well, suppositories make castor oil seem like pure joy. I won’t go into details because this is a family column. I will simply say that suppositories are little wax objects shaped like tiny surface-to-air missiles.

My mother…

When you pull into town proper you ride past churches, clapboard houses, and people sitting on front porches—even though it’s cold outside.

There are painted murals on the wide brick walls of storefront buildings. There’s a freight train cutting through town, darting past Brewton Iron Works, the T.R. Miller timber mill, and rushing into the woods. The locomotive whistle blows and you can feel this city’s little heart beating.

Brewton is the kind of place where you can dial a wrong number and the person who answers the phone will give you the correct one.

Last night I went to a local prayer meeting. At least that’s what the attendees call it. Though I don’t know why. The meeting was held at a bar inside a Mexican restaurant, nobody was praying, and everyone was cradling Coronas.

The evening’s only prayer was shouted by Miss Connie. It was six words. “Hey, God, thanks for the food!”

Then everyone ordered another round.

I asked why they called it prayer meeting.

“Because,” said Connie. “Let’s say your mom or your husband asks why you

were out late on Wednesday night. You can just tell them you were at prayer meeting and the spirits were flowing.”

That’s Brewton. You might think it’s irreverent, but that’s probably because you’re not from here.

This is my wife’s hometown. I fell in love with it from Day One. There was a time when I never thought I’d fit in anywhere, but somehow I managed to fit in here. I don’t know why, but people didn’t seem to mind having me around.

I don’t come from a town like this. I am of the Florida Panhandle, a place that was once rural, but has since been overthrown by Real Estate Developers. The first thing the developers did when they moved in was cut down a million acres of pine and establish an Olive Garden.

Does the world really…

Traffic is bad. We’re stuck in a three-mile line of cars. Total gridlock.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they drive in traffic. You have two kinds of drivers in this world: Those who weave back and forth, fighting to get ahead. And those of us who are stuck looking at their butts.

My wife and I are on the road looking at lots of car-butts today.

This is our life. Being on the road for weeks on end. Her driving. Me writing on a laptop in the passenger seat. Sometimes it feels like all we do is drive.

If you would have told me seven years ago that this would be my life, I would have laughed you off your barstool. But somehow, this writing gig is the only thing I’ve ever done that works for me.

And believe me, I’ve had my share of jobs.

Right now, beside our vehicle is a woman riding a Harley. She is listening to the Doobie Brothers at full volume. Our windshield is rattling loose

from her music. I roll down my window because I sort of like this song.

“Without loooooove, where would you be now….”

She notices me listening and gives me a thumbs up. This woman is—how do I put this?—very large. She looks like she could bench press a Plymouth Voyager. But here she is, stuck looking at everyone’s butts with the rest of us. There’s something admirable about that.

“Without loooooooooooove….”

Ahead of her is a truck. Also looking at three miles’ worth of everyone’s butts. The driver is dancing to his own radio music. He must not think anyone can see him because his windows are tinted with roofing tar.

But I see him. And he looks funny. He is a middle-aged guy, and we middle-aged guys aren’t known for our dancing skills.

At my cousin’s wedding, for example, I saw…

I’m in a barbecue joint. The kind of place my father would have loved. He appreciated barbecue the same way Presbyterians appreciate “The Doxology.” He was a connoisseur of saturated fat. The man could eat a pound of pork before you finished saying grace.

It was inside a joint like this that I first graduated from a spitting, squirting baby into a man. It happened when I was a kid. There was a barbecue joint on the outskirts of town. There was nothing around for miles except cattle fields and an old filling station.

The joint was the kind of place with pinewood walls and greasy floors. It smelled like a fine blend of pecan smoke and stale beer. You ordered at the counter. Your meal came with a complimentary salad bar.

Salad bars were a new thing back then. My father didn’t care for them. He thought the idea of eating salad with barbecue made about as much sense as drinking 7UP during the World Series. But he soon discovered that he

was mistaken. Because included on the salad bar was cheese soup. He loved cheese soup.

So while my mother would be fixing her salad—which was a single sprig of lettuce topped with eight cups of ranch dressing and four pounds of crushed bacon—my father would eat himself sick on soup.

He fell in love with the concept of salad bars, namely, because they were all-you-can-eat. My father was a notorious tightwad. He was so cheap that the guest room in our house had a pay smoke alarm.

Anyway, it was on the drive to this barbecue joint that my family was making happy conversation in the car. There was always an air of giddiness surrounding barbecue. My father was driving along when:

SMACK!

We hit something with the front tires. My mother screamed. My father swerved.

“You hit a possum!” my mother shouted.

Everyone was stunned. My…

You never know how you’re going to act in front of a camera crew until you hear the word, “ACTION!” Then it’s anybody’s game. And eventually the director gets so frustrated with you that he shouts that iconic film-industry word all directors say:

“Beer! I need a beer!”

Today, I discovered exactly how I act on camera. I behave like a man having a brain seizure. Instead of using intelligent words I end up saying, “Aaahhhhhh... Ummmmm...”

“ACTION!” the director says again, placing the camera in my face until the lens is touching my chin.

“Aaahhhhhh… Ummmmm...”

“Try to relax, tell us your name.”

“Aaahhhhhh… Ummmmm...”

“Don’t overthink it, tell the viewers your name.”

“Aaahhhhhh… Ummmmm...”

“CUT!”

The word “CUT!” is an industry term. There are lots of film-industry words that you’ll have to get “hip” to if you’re going to be “shot,” “wide angle” by a bunch of “key grips” with “shotgun mics,” mounted on “booms,” held by guys eating “bags of Funyuns,” and “laughing their butts off at you.” It can all be pretty intimidating.

I am no

stranger to performing in front of people. I give a lot of speeches and have spoken at some very high-level gigs. For example, last week I received the honor of being the keynote speaker at Vertigo Villas Nursing Home. I gave my speech during chair yoga class.

But when a professional camera crew shoves space-age equipment in your face and expects you to talk enthusiastically like a qualified Honda dealership salesman, all bets are off.

Something changes inside you. You find yourself sort of trembling because you know that any boneheaded thing you say will be preserved forever.

But I’m not being fair. Being on camera isn’t all bad. The great thing about film-industry people is that they are intelligent and creative individuals. And by “creative” I mean “slap-ass crazy.”

The director had me doing many different activities I would…

It came in the mail. A small package. A cardboard parcel no bigger than a VHS tape. I weighed it in my hands.

Definitely not a VHS tape. For one thing, it’s too heavy. For another, nobody even uses tapes anymore.

Not long ago, families had to rent VCRs from the supermarket if they wanted to watch video cassettes. Unless of course they were rich. In which case they went out and bought their own supermarkets.

Our supermarket movie rental selection was pathetic. The only two videotapes available were the complete first season of the “Lawrence Welk Show,” and “Porky’s Revenge!”

Anyway, I’m sitting on my porch steps and opening the package with a pocket knife. I have an idea of what is inside, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions.

The first thing I see is a printed name. Four letters.

Sean.

The Gaelic spelling of my first name has long been mispronounced by P.E. teachers and telemarketers alike. It’s unclear why my mother chose this name. She either named me after

my Scotch-Irish ancestors, or she named me after 007.

My money’s on 007. She loved Sean Connery as James Bond. When we purchased our first VCR, my mother would would rent Bond movies from the local library all the time and watch them when she ironed clothes.

She and I were big regulars at the library. I got my first library card when I was in kindergarten and I can still remember signing my name on the back of that card. I signed: SEJMN. Which was close enough for 007.

After my father passed I practically lived at libraries. The elderly librarians were my friends. These were blue-haired ladies who were old enough to have single-digit Social Security numbers. But I loved them.

I read truckloads of cheap paperback books. Not high literature, but low-brow books that I should be embarrassed about. Books about cowboys, espionage,…

I’m watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” It’s late at night, and I am a lifelong fan of this program.

One of my earliest memories is watching this show as an infant, sitting before a console television, and I was gnawing on something. It’s unclear what I was chewing, but I’m pretty sure it was a wooden army-man figurine.

I chewed everything at that age, even coffee tables and the legs of furniture.

And this is probably my earliest memory from toddlerhood, aside from the memory of me peeing in Miss Frankie’s yard when I was three.

I had no idea that it was wrong to pee in public back then. All I knew was that my father always stood on our back porch and announced that he was “watering the old rose bushes.” And I would join him.

Another memory I have is watching Andy Griffith as a guest on the “Tonight Show.” He was elderly, with white hair and a corduroy blazer. He was funny. He was folksy. And I knew on that

very night, sitting in front of the television, I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to corduroy blazers. Today I own three.

Years ago, I was on my way to play a gig in South Georgia. It was the Fourth of July, a Wednesday. I stopped at a gas station to get a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos and coffee.

The newspaper machine’s headline read: “Goodbye Andy.”

I bought a paper and shook it open. His face was on the third page. His wild hair was parted down the side, looking like an advertisement for Brylcreem. A heart attack at age 86. And I cried. I know, I’m ridiculous.

I don’t know why I’m telling you about this except that lately it’s been hard finding anything on television. The days of lighthearted TV-watching are dead. The tastes of the public have changed. Sex sells.…

DEAR SEAN:

Words can’t describe how much I detest your writings now… I used to like your work, but I now think you are a fake…

I was shocked when I read a four-letter word in one of your stories… You are profane and our Holy God is going to exact judgement upon all those who profane...

Goodbye,
ANGRY-AS-SIN

DEAR ANGRY:

I want you to pay close attention when I say this, because this might be difficult for you to understand:

You cannot make me hate you.

If you get nothing else from this letter, I hope you remember this. No matter what you think of me, no matter what kind of eternal flaming Lake Superior you think I’m bound for, you can’t make me dislike you.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you coming to my barbecue, necessarily. But then again, you wouldn’t have a good time at my party anyway. There are usually a lot of flagrant Episcopalians there.

Anyway, do you want to know something? Do you know what my first reaction was when I received your eloquent

letter? If I’m being totally honest with myself, I felt kind of afraid.

“Whoa!” I was thinking. “Am I am a big fake? Is this guy right about me? Maybe he is!”

And I was genuinely scared. Isn't that pathetic? Maybe you think I’m a big old wuss for admitting this.

Don’t answer that.

The embarrassing truth is, I’ve been afraid for most of my life. In fact, growing up I was almost always afraid.

You’d have to know me to understand this. I had a traumatic childhood. I don’t want to rehash it here because it doesn’t matter. Lots of people blame things on messed up childhoods. I’m not going to do that.

Certainly, I could blame my irrational fears on the fact that my father was mentally unstable and killed himself in my uncle’s garage…

I’m in a convenience store. I’m standing in a long line. Ahead of me are three boys in soccer uniforms, several construction workers, and one UPS man. I know this sounds like a great opening line for a joke, but it’s not. There are no nuns present.

Anyway, I remember stopping at this store every morning before work when I was on a landscaping crew. Back then, there was a young guy who worked behind the counter named Doug.

Doug was about ten-foot tall and several thousand pounds of muscle. I don’t know how he fit through the door because he was built like a General Electric refrigerator. And he had the tender heart of a Beanie Baby. Doug would never let me pay for my coffee.

“But Doug,” I’d say, “I don’t need free coffee. Let me pay for it.”

“Nah, I always pour out the old coffee every morning, it just goes to waste. Just look at it this way, you’re drinking waste.”

“Doug, please.”

“Your money ain’t no good here.”

I’d keep trying to pay.

He’d keep refusing. Round and round we’d go until I finally accepted the coffee. This is a ceremony of sorts among decent people. A ritual dance. Nobody ever accepts free things without protest.

I never knew Doug outsider the store, but after he quit working here I missed seeing him.

For years, I also stopped at another convenience store like this one, on the other side of town. Usually on Sunday mornings. I had to wake up early for church because I helped clean the chapel before service. I was sort of a glorified janitor you could say.

I straightened hymnals, adjusted microphones, and made sure the Baptist choir loft didn’t have any liquor bottles or racy magazines hidden in the tenor section.

An hour before service, I would fly into the convenience store to buy gas, coffee, and a honeybun. One…