There is a special way the light hits the Smoky Mountains at sundown. I’m looking at mountain grandeur right now. The view is nothing short of cinematic.

I am on a vacation, here in the arresting glory of Appalachia, and I’m wondering about where our country is going.

I wonder things about our nation. Such as, why, in America, do hotdogs come in packs of eight but hotdog buns come in packs of 12?

Why do Americans leave expensive cars parked outside, but use their garages to store worthless junk?

Why does Walgreens make sick people walk to the back of the store to buy prescriptions, while healthy people can buy cigarettes up front?

Why do Americans insist on calling them “apartments,” when they’re all stuck together?

Why does my American wife have to open her mouth to put on mascara?

These are just a few of the pressing issues facing this nation that I’m wondering about.

I’m also wondering about an old man, from Sacramento, who was in the grocery store one afternoon, buying—of all things—bananas.

Whereupon he noticed

a young Latina woman in line ahead of him. The woman’s name was Isla. Isla emailed me this story.

Isla had her four kids in tow. She was still wearing her maid’s uniform. She was counting exact change. Crumpled dollars. Loose nickels. But Isla came up short.

So the old man paid for her groceries.

Isla thanked him and began to cry. The man followed her into the parking lot and loaded her groceries. She asked if she could repay his kindness.

He smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”

But Isla insisted. She invited him for supper. He arrived at her house. He wore a nice shirt. She was welcomed into her home, which was a glorified shack. She introduced him to her dying father whom she was caregiving for. And her elderly mother, who had dementia.

That night, Isla made…

It’s is a big day for you, Mac. You’re turning 13. You are officially a teenager! Congratulations! Wear deodorant!

Seriously. If there is one piece of practical advice I have, it’s that deodorant is important for teenage boys.

This is especially true when you think you don’t need deodorant. Because chances are you probably do.

Boys, you see, have a hard time being objective about the aromas emitted from their own personal armpits. This is because male noses are less sensitive than female noses.

Take my wife. She can smell spoiled milk in the refrigerator of the International Space Station. Whereas, each morning I sniff my dirty shirts to see if I can get a few more days out of them.

So wear antiperspirant. That’s all the wisdom I have. The rest of your life will take care of itself.

The main thing is not to worry about life stuff. Our culture is very into worrying. This is why being a teenager in today’s world is far more difficult than it was for your dad and me.

A

long time ago, when your father and I were born, beneath the John Quincy Adams administration, there was very little worrying going on.

Our parents didn’t worry about dangerous things. We didn’t wear bicycle helmets or seatbelts, or catcher’s masks. We ate refined sugar, gluten, cholesterol, and we played lawn darts.

Lawn darts, for crying out loud.

We had no internet. No Whole Foods. No Disney Plus. Our televisions only received six channels, and we had to watch all the commercials.

We used old-school rotary phones which—I know this is hard to believe—did not even shoot good video. The most high-tech device my family owned was a crockpot with a timer.

Also, we had to learn cursive. In school, we would practice cursive for upwards of six hours each day at knifepoint. This is why every child in the American Public School…

Dear Anonymous,

You wrote me a letter. I know you’re going through a hard time. You emailed me from a hospital room, and I know that you’re about to crack from stress.

I don’t know how to respond. I wish I did. I know you want me to say something like: “It’s going to be okay.” But how can I say that?

Your daughter is dying in the ICU. Your life is upside down. You need real comfort. But alas, I am just a guy who maintained a 1.24 GPA in school. I can’t see the future. If I could, believe me, I would have become obscenely rich from last year’s World Series.

Still, although I’m no Stephen Hawking, I know what NOT to say in times of trouble. I’ve been through plenty of rough times in my own little life.

Without a doubt, the last thing you need is one of those B.S. clichés. “It’s gonna be okay.” Or “Trust in God, it’s all going to work out.” Blah, blah, blah.

This is the kind of nonsense

people always quote like parrots when you’re going through heartache. I know this because after my father’s suicide, people said this to me right and left. They walked through the funeral reception line and said things like:

“God has a plan.” “Trust in Jesus.” “Don’t worry, everything will work out,” “It’s going to be alright.”

What fertilizer.

I have a friend, for instance, who has been stuck in the hospital for 5 months. He’s going to die. The doctor is telling him he has a 2 percent chance of living. His organs are shutting down. His heart is wearing out. Are you going to tell HIM “it’s going to be okay”?

Or what about the young woman, Sierra, who is dying of kidney failure in the ICU, as we speak, in North Dakota? Her family emailed me this morning. A dozen people…

Live Oak, Florida. Population 6,843. A tiny town in north central Florida, the county seat of Suwannee County. There are oaks everywhere, hence the name. Each limb is drapes in Spanish moss, which, ironically, is neither.

Meet Quiet Will Carpenter. He’s a soft spoken kid. He doesn’t talk much. He is your all-American college kid. Honey brown hair. Honest smile.

Last year, he was a freshman at the University of Central Florida. A fierce swimmer, a competitive fisherman on the UCF Bass team. Will is also a football fanatic and pulls for the Jacksonville Jaguars—but hey nobody’s perfect.

He was studying mechanical engineering. A sharp kid like Will is talented enough to be designing space probes for NASA. Classic overachiever. This kid is going places.

He doesn’t talk much, but he’s the genuine article.

Last year, on Christmas Eve, Will had a sinus infection. No big deal. His lymph nodes were pretty swollen so his mother took him to the hospital. They were on the way to Christmas dinner with family when they made

the detour to the emergency room.

The doctor looked him over. It was no run-of-the-mill sinus infection. It was worse. Much worse. They never made it to Christmas dinner.

Within days, Will had already left school and began hardcore treatment. The mild mannered fisherman was subjected to the systenatic that is American Healthcare. He underwent all the usual oncology stuff. He was exposed to chemo, meds, and obscene amounts of daytime television.

His family survived on vending machine food. Slept in waiting rooms. Waited on test results. They cried. They prayed for miracles. Doctors ran more tests.

Will received radiation treatment on his face, spine and shoulder. He was administered every drug you’ve ever heard of, and many you haven’t. And recently, he was fitted with a gastronomy tube, simply so he can eat.

To say this past year has been “hard” is like saying World…

The dusk is reflecting off Douglas Lake. I am nestled in the French Broad River valley, seated on the porch of a log cabin, watching the Great Smoky Mountains continue to be Great.

I am playing the mandolin with some friends. There is an upright bass, a flat top guitar, and a Deering banjo. I have known these fellas since I was a kid. They are bluegrass musicians, passing through Tennessee on the way to a gig. We are playing a few old tunes.

We are all outside. On the deck of my rental cabin. The distant blue mountains are laced with wisps of low-hanging fog. The trees are leafless and stoic. God was showing off when he made Appalachia.

The tune we play is called “Old Joe Clark.” We sound about as good as a dump truck driving through a Steinway factory. But that’s not the point. The point is, we’re having fun. And that’s what this New Year is all about.

Today is the first day of 2023, and the keyword

of this current year is “fun.”

This past year, I didn’t have nearly enough fun. The reasons don’t matter, but this upcoming year is going to be different for me. This year, I am making a fresh start. This year, the F-word is going to be my go-to experience.

Fun.

Last April, I wrote a column about a 100-year-old woman in a nursing home located in rural Virginia. I traveled to interview her in a rundown elderly care facility that looked like a condemned shack. Her name was Miss Lorena. She was in bad shape. She received two insulin shots during our interview.

She passed away before the column ever ran in the local papers. She never read what I wrote about her. Still, her parting words have been lodged in my brain.

“In all my years,” she said, “I’ve finally discovered the meaning of life.”

“What…

The New Year is only minutes away. The TV is on. My wife is snoring softly as I watch a perky, hip television host deliver a broadcast live from Times Square, speaking in a tone of voice not unlike a squirrel on amphetamines.

So I change the channel to see Miley Cyrus hosting a New Year’s special while wearing a strand of dental floss.

My phone rings. It’s an unrecognizable number. Maybe a spam call. I answer.

“Hello?”

The voice is male, with a pronounced Hindi accent. “Are you Shane Deeter?”

“Not exactly.”

“Are you sure?”

“Fairly.”

Whereupon the caller informed me that he had important information about my automotive warranty. He was very adamant about this, and assured me that he could definitely assist me more effectively if he could gain access to my AmEx number.

I reminded him that this was New Year’s Eve. He replied, “That’s why this is so important, Sam.”

What a nice guy.

He was mid-speech when I hung up. Then it suddenly occurred to me that New Year's Eve has always made

me a little sad. I don’t know why, exactly. But I always choke up when people sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

What is it about this holiday that gives me the blues?

Maybe it’s the idea that time keeps moving faster. Or maybe it’s the idea that I’m getting older. Or maybe it’s the way everyone pretends to be excited about even though January 1 is no different than, say, August 23, or May 9.

But do you want to hear something bizarre? Even though, admittedly, this upcoming year scares the stew out of me, for once in my life, the New Year worries me less than it has in the past.

Probably because I know upfront that this year will be exactly like every other year. Likely, it will bring heartache, happiness, pain, and the agony of watching your football team…

Yeah, I was surprised. Big-time surprised.

I got home at a quarter till. My car approached the neighborhood. It was the perfect December eventide. The sun was setting over Birmingham. The foothills of Appalachia were kissed by a golden sundown, like miniature mountainsides topped with Kraft Velveeta cheese.

My house was within eyeshot. I could see my porch through the windshield. My house’s porch was crowded with people. Lots of people. There were maybe a hundred.

I got out of the car. People cheered. “Happy birthday!” My wife ran up to me. She greeted me with tears in her eyes. The crowd began to sing “Happy Birthday,” off-pitch, like a choir of Labradoodles with sinus infections.

I stepped onto the porch and an ordained priest handed me a beer. “Drink up birthday boy,” said the Episcopal priest, cracking open my can.

You have to love Episcopalians.

I hugged Aaron first. Dear Aaron. Aaron and his wife, April, are family to me. Longtime friends. They are as true as the book of Leviticus; pure as Geneva County

tomatoes. “We love you, man,” he said.

I choked back tears.

Next, I embraced Julie and her husband Jake. Julie is my longtime fiction editor—God help her. Julie edited my very first novel, years ago. I will never forget it, Julie’s first manuscript note to me was: “Too many fart jokes.”

We hugged and I felt the dam begin to break.

Next came Patrick. Patrick and I play music together. Then Kelly, who also plays music with me. Then Tom and Fred, my longest held friends and bandmates.

Then my neighbors. Jeff, Donna, Kim, Mistey, and Elizabeth.

I hugged each of them. “Happy birthday,” they all said.

The tears were knocking at my door. But I was diligent to hold the weeping back because I was raised by stoic Baptists who did not cry unless Gloria Gaither said we could.

Next, I hugged Katie…

DEAR SEAN:

All I want this year is for this girl in my third period class to go on a date with me, but she’s way out of my league.

Please help,
FIFTEEN-AND-PATHETIC-IN-BIRMINGHAM

DEAR PATHETIC:

I’ll put this in the nicest way I can: If you’re asking me for advice, you are officially up the proverbial creek without a roll of toilet paper.

I am the last guy to ask. When I was fifteen, there was this girl named Chloe. I liked her. And I mean “liked” with a capital L. All I wanted was for Chloe to look longingly into my eyes and utter those few words every boy wants to here: “Let’s purchase real estate together.”

But I didn’t have a chance in twelve hells because I was—follow me closely here—an idiot. Certainly, I wanted to be the sort of guy who could approach a girl, but whenever I was in the same room with even one microgram of estrogen my IQ was reduced to that of a water-heater.

So I asked my older cousin Ed Lee

for advice. As it happened, Ed Lee had extensive experience with the opposite sex and had even talked to a girl once in first grade. His suggestion for getting Chloe’s attention was simple:

Let the air out of her mother’s tires.

My cousin’s actual idea was to slightly deflate Chloe’s mother’s tires. Then, when Chloe’s mother drove her to school, one of the tires would go flat. Once the tire flattened—I think you’re catching my drift here—my cousin and I would “happen to be cruising through the area” in my uncle’s 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon. And we would be heroes.

We would pull over, stride to their car triumphantly, tell the ladies not to be afraid, then like the mechanical-expert beefcakes we were, we would call AAA Roadside Assistance.

Or even better, WE WOULD CHANGE THE TIRE. It…

Ring, ring.

I answer. “Hello?”

“Yeah, hi. Is this Sean Dietrich?”

“This is he. Who am I speaking with?”

“Omigosh. My name is Leah.”

“Hello, Leah. You sound very young. How old are you?”

“Omigosh. I’m turning 11 years old in a few days.”

“Wow. Well, happy birthday. And pleased to meet you, Leah.”

“Omigosh. This is so cool.”

“What can I do for you, Leah?”

Silence.

“Well,” she began, “I don’t really know what to say. I just called because I wanted to, well, to meet you for my birthday wish, so my mom got your phone number so that we could talk.”

“I see. And how did she get this number, Leah? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Your wife gave it to us.”

“Does your mother know my wife?”

“No, but Mom is friends with your wife’s cousin’s best friend’s aunt’s nephew’s dentist’s landlord’s neighbor’s mechanic’s attorney’s plumber, who lives in Dothan, and goes to Bible study with my mother’s distant cousin in Opp. So my mom texted some people, they found your wife’s number.”

“Small world.”

“Is this a bad time? I can call back.”

“No, Leah, this is a perfect time. How are you doing?”

“Omigosh,

okay, I guess. I mean, the doctor says I’m doing okay. So I guess I’m good.”

“The doctor?”

“Yeah. He’s really hopeful.”

“Hopeful about what?”

“That I’m going to go into remission.”

“Oh.”

More silence.

“It’s not all that bad, being sick, Mister Sean. Don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t care about losing my hair. The only thing I don’t like is when there’s a little tiny bit of hair left on top my head. That’s why I told my mom to just shave it off because I feel weird, I can’t stand the little patches of hair on a bald head, you know? It just looks stupid.”

“Um.”

“Yeah, so my mom shaved my head with my…

Goodbye old year. You were a decent year, I don’t care what they say about you. Yeah, a lot of crummy stuff happened in 2022. But a lot of good stuff happened in 2022.

For starters, scientists finally pinpointed the origins of the universe. Researchers theorized that a chain reaction of exploding supernovae, 14 million years ago, created a 1,000-light-year-wide bubble, at the epicenter of which lies our humble galaxy.

Many top scientists agreed that this galactical event could NOT have happened by randomized chance.

When skeptical scientists were asked whether this new galactical discovery proved or disproved the existence of, ahem, Intelligent Design, they remarked, “We, um, well, next question.”

Also, this year marked the first year in history that women refereed the men’s World Cup. Which is a big deal in soccer world. And even though, personally, I only follow sports involving either Richard Petty, Dale Murphy or Miller Lite, I am very proud of my fellow soccer-loving human.

Also, this year Victoria’s Secret featured its first model with Down syndrome, Sofía Jirau,

who writes:

“When I was little, I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘I'm going to be a model and a businesswoman.’”

Today, Sofía can be seen sporting a high-dollar bra “in my favorite color, pink,” Jirau said. “Victoria’s Secret, I love it.”

Sofía’s story was shared with me by my friend, Kandy, from Cleveland, Ohio, whose adult daughter has Down syndrome. Kandy writes:

“Before the ‘80s, the majority of people with Down syndrome were shoved into institutions, but today people with Down syndrome are kicking butt, contributing to their communities, becoming famous. We aren’t just talking about changing the world anymore, we are actually doing it.”

Also this year, my truck hit 189,000 miles. I don’t know how my Ford F-150 manages to keep running even though it is 20-odd years old, but it does.

This truck has been so abused and battered,…