We had solemnly agreed we weren’t going to cry that day. Mama and I promised each other this. We even shook on it.

I was not yet a man, but I would be married within 48 hours, so I was close to being one. It was my final day at home. I had packed the last of my belongings in cardboard boxes and was moving into a rat-trap apartment where my future wife and I would live after the honeymoon.

My old bedroom looked vacant. The walls were bare. And this was feeling weird.

No more poster of John Wayne hanging over my bed. No more desk with my manual typewriter. No more piles of dirty clothes awaiting the laundry fairy.

It must have been odd for my mother, too. Her hardest years of single-motherhood were over. No more overflowing dirty dishes. No more annoying sounds of her son practicing guitar during the wee hours. No more stocking a refrigerator that always teetered on emptiness because of a certain young man who

ate everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.

My leaving also meant there would be no more moments of minor disappointment caused by a wayward son. No longer would I come home late on an occasional Saturday night with my head down and beer on my breath. No longer would she stand in the hallway, showing disapproval. No more mending my slacks before Sunday morning services, then shoving me out the door to repent for last Saturday night.

No more suppers at her table.

I loaded the last box into my truck and it all felt so final. We stood in the driveway staring at each other. We were two adults now.

“It’s only a ten-minute drive,” I said. “Our apartment isn’t far.”

She smiled. Brave face. This woman who had survived her troubled husband’s reckless death. This woman who held a Bachelor of Science, but also cleaned…

Sunset. My driveway.

“Okay, everybody get in the truck!” I shouted, using my cheerful American dad voice.

Although, technically, I’m not a dad. In fact, I don’t even have a traditional “family” per se. Not unless you count our two dogs who weigh more than average middle-schoolers. Thelma Lou is 101 pounds of bloodhound. Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador) is 92 pounds.

I whistled and both dogs leapt into my dilapidated truck, butts wagging, ready for action.

My wife, however, did not get in the truck. She glared at me, clearing her throat loudly, tapping her foot, until I handed her my keys to let her drive.

In nearly 20 years of marriage she has never sat in a passenger seat. She gets motion-sick when I drive and tends to puke on my shoes.

I knew all this going into the marriage. Her matrimonial conditions were simple: she always drives; I never play the accordion indoors.

Don’t get me wrong, our marriage is fair. We’ve made many compromises to keep things that way.

For instance, on our wedding night I agreed to always let her operate my truck if she promised to fill our closet with 52,339 pairs of shoes she will never wear. So far so good.

But our life together has all been worth it, believe me. The woman who drives my truck could have chosen a much classier guy for herself. She could have found someone with a great job, who came from good breeding, who owned actual formalwear.

Instead, she married a dropout who went to community college for 11 years and graduated with straight Cs in his early 30s. A guy whose personal truck contains hounds that cost more than his truck did.

But we’re a happy clan, that’s what I’m getting at. And tonight we had an outing. Which is rare for us during the pandemic era. I haven’t done many social things this last…

Maybe this will be the year. Maybe this will be the Christmas that erases all the bad stuff that’s happened. Maybe the old year will disappear once the holiday arrives and all our troubles will be out of sight. You never know.

Perhaps some wonderful thing you’ve been waiting for is going to spontaneously occur this year. Maybe you’re about to be happier than you’ve ever been. Maybe a surprise will come out of nowhere.

Perhaps you’ll make a new best friend. Or you might get a new job that will put money in your pocket. Maybe the handsome guy in third period English will ask you on a date.

Maybe your cancer will respond to treatment. Maybe for once you will stand up for yourself. Maybe you’ll finally be pregnant. Maybe your father, who abandoned you when you were a kid, will call after 30 years and apologize. Maybe you will fall in love. Maybe this will be the year.

I know you think I’m full of it, but what if I’m not?

After all, this kind of stuff happens every day. So why couldn’t it happen to you? Tell me, why not? I am being serious, I would like you to explain why something wonderful can’t happen to you personally. Go ahead, I’m waiting.

See? You can’t do it. You can’t name one valid reason why an event that is life-changingly, unexpectedly awesome can’t take place in your life. Because the one thing we all know about this universe is this: anything can happen.

So, not to point out the obvious, but this means that on a deep level, you are aware that these miracles are always behind the gate. They can take shape as easily as clouds materialize in minutes. They can grow as simply as a sapling becomes a sycamore. As surely as a Buick burns oil.

Good things can happen as effortlessly as tragedies. And…

DEAR SEAN:

My friends and I are at odds right now and sometimes I think they are meaner than I ever remember them being. It’s never been like this. I just want to know if you think this pandemic is making us meaner?

Thanks,
NINETEEN-IN-BATON-ROUGE

DEAR NINETEEN:

I’m not going to say publicly that people are getting meaner because, for one thing, they might gut me and roast me over a shallow pit, thereby turning me into a rack of Christmas ribs. But I think people are definitely stressed out, and therefore they’re acting like it.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, just try this experiment: post something online. A picture of your cat. A selfie. A daily column that contains roughly 800 words. Give it a few minutes, eventually your doorbell will ring and a mob will be on your front lawn holding pitchforks and torches.

No, I’m kidding about the torches. They’ll actually be holding cellphone flashlights.

But the point is, yes, I think people are ticked off in general. Take me. I’m receiving

more ugly emails from readers than ever before during this pandemic. Just today, a guy in Virginia wrote, he called me a “lair and a deciever.”

I have friends who have also noticed this anger trend. One of my pals, I’ll call him Matt, is a great person, a super accomplished writer, and uses words like “ubiquitous” in conversations while keeping a straight face. Matt noticed meanness on his personal blog last month.

It started when his mother got COVID-19. She had intense symptoms. Matt wrote that he was frightened, his kids were worried, and he also asked his readers to pray.

Let’s pause here. You’d think people would’ve overloaded him with sympathy, right? You’d think little elderly ladies would have put his mother’s name on the First Baptist email prayer chain, right? Maybe sent a casserole? Wrong. People got out their pitchforks.…

One day, years in the future, when our names are forgotten, and our bodies are dust, people will remember today.

When future school children sit at desks, reading about the Great Pandemic of 2020, this Tuesday will be cited in their textbooks. And I, for one, really hope these kids will be forced to grudgingly memorize today’s date the same way we had to memorize stuff like: October 12, 1492; November 11, 1620; and the Pythagorean Theorem.

Because history was made this morning.

It happened in England, when an elderly Irish woman in a wheelchair was wheeled down University Hospital Coventry’s corridor. The hallway was lined with medical staffers, nurses, doctors, custodians, workers, journalists, and photographers who applauded her with uproarious cheers. And there were tears. Many, many tears.

The old woman’s name is Margaret Keenan, she will be 91 next week. She has red hair, a cherub face, happy eyes, a slight build, and she wore a Christmas sweatshirt with a cheerful penguin cartoon on it. Margaret smiled

so big that her grin knocked photographers backward and jolted major planets out of their periodic elliptical orbits. And she has reason to beam.

Because at 6:31 a.m., December 8, 2020, Margaret became the first woman in the Western world to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

As of this morning, the U.K. became the first Western country to start a mass coronavirus vaccination program. Health officials are calling this day “V-Day.”

Like I said. Tears.

To say that people in Britain are excited about this is like saying the Beatles were guitar owners. People have taken to spray-painting “victory” on the city walls. And the happy tears aren’t just in Britain, either, but all over Earth. In fact, one of these weepy fools happens to be seated behind my keyboard right now.

And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Medical director for the National Health Service in England, Stephen…

In Bethlehem last night only 50 people attended the annual tree-lighting ceremony. Thanks to new COVID restrictions, West Bank’s Manger Square looked empty with its small crowd. It was a humbling sight. Christmas in the biblical city hasn’t been this poorly attended since King Herod was in office.

The tree-lighting event was virtual this year. “Virtual” is the most popular buzzword of 2020. Everything is virtual now. It’s only a matter of time before we have virtual dating, virtual weddings, and Zoom delivery rooms with virtual OB/GYNs. Don’t get me wrong, virtual things are great, but there’s nothing like “real” stuff.

Bethlehem’s scant crowd was mostly journalists, religious leaders, and various important people with names I can’t pronounce. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh attended. So did Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman, who said:

“We resorted to modern technology and to the virtual world to celebrate the lighting of the Christmas tree, wishing hope and optimism would flutter upon Palestine and the world.”

Normally at Christmastime, Bethlehem is overrun with non-virtual people. But

those days are gone for now.

The devastating thing is, the Christmas season is usually Bethlehem’s money-making season. The December holidays are to Bethlehem what spring break is to Panama City Beach. The profits locals make in the tourist season hold them over for 11 months. I know this because (a) I live 20 minutes from Panama City Beach, and (b) I once knew a man from Bethlehem.

The latter happened purely by chance. I was introduced to my Bethlehem friend in one of those serendipitous moments you never see coming. He owned a sandwich shop near a hardware store. He was a rotund man, with a white walrus mustache, and skin like bronze.

I was at the hardware store on a construction-jobsite errand, picking up wax O-rings for toilets—I wasn’t a plumber, I was a tile guy. But somehow we lowly tile trolls got stuck with commode detail…

This Christmas story was first told to me by an elderly preacher long ago. I do not know whether it was true. What I know is that pulpiteers can tell some good ones, and this old revivalist delivered his story well. I never forgot it.

The small, silver-haired clergyman hobbled before our full chapel and spoke quietly. I was 15 years old. He had us in his palm that night.

He told of an icy, white, Oklahoman landscape covered in snow. And a tiny bus, almost microscopic when viewed from a distance, crawling across a flat alabaster prairie. Inside the bus was a teenage girl, pregnant, and bound for Texas, looking for a clean start.

The bus rocked back and forth. Her hands rested on her belly. She watched the snowscape go by like a lead-white diaorama. This was an era when Americans were rejoicing that Hitler’s war was finally over, things were returning to normal. Except, things weren’t normal. Not for the girl. It was almost Christmastime and her life

was wreckage.

Midway through the journey the big vehicle stopped at a filling station located in no man’s territory. It was a pit stop with a general store, hot coffee, cold sandwiches, beer, and outhouses. It was the only structure around for miles. The passengers availed themselves to the facilities.

The young woman used the privy just like the others, but pregnant women are not quick in cramped lavatories, so things took longer than she’d planned. When she finally finished her business she discovered that the Greyhound was gone.

She almost couldn’t believe what she was seeing. This couldn’t be happening.

But it was. The driver had forgotten her. Her world was now a vacant highway covered in flurries. She cried. Namely because even though, yes, her life had been bad before, now it was bad AND she had no luggage.

The girl had a meltdown inside the filling…

It was only a matter of time. I woke up with a stuffy nose. I have been sneezing all morning and using mountains of Kleenex. My poor reddened schnoz looks like it belongs on the face of Jimmy Durante.

I keep reminding myself, “Don’t freak out, don’t freak out, it’s just a sniffle [ACHOO!], I’m gonna be fine. I’m gonna be [ACHOO!] dandy.”

I mean, come on, it’s just runny nasal passages, which is harmless, right? I’ve had hundreds of sniffles in my lifetime. No, millions. In fact I pretty much spent ages 1 through 25 with a drippy nose and a full diaper. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that for eight months I’ve been reading internet news and watching network headlines about COVID, that’s the big deal. On many of these news channels they display odometer-style counters on the screen which represent death tolls. And you don’t forget things like mortality rates when you get a sniffle, believe me.

The irony here is that I’ve never been remotely concerned about catching a cold before.

After all, the common cold only lasts two weeks, although thanks to modern medications the duration has been cut down to 14 days. This nose issue could be mere allergies for all I know.

But it’s not allergies or common colds that concern me. What I’m worried about is, what if this sniffle isn’t a cold? What if it’s…?

I cannot bear to think about it.

[ACHOOOOOO!!]

“Be reasonable,” I’m saying to myself while wiping sneeze spray from my keyboard. After all, people in my family have survived COVID. Several of my friends have recovered from it. I even interviewed an 80-year-old lady who survived it.

So I’m trying to relax. But this is a pandemic, you don’t sneeze until your eyeballs dislodge then simply shrug it off.

There is a lot of fear swimming around in the universe right now.…

According to an article I just read, Christmas house parties have disappeared forever. The article also says that a staggering percentage of American millennials have never even attended a house party; most have no interest in them.

And now, thanks to a pandemic, experts believe that house parties are not just fledgling, but already resting in peace. The article named technology as the main killer of the American get-together.

Well, I don’t mean to be Debbie Depression here, but if this article is true, it’s sad news. Because no amount of video calls, text messages, or online hangouts can compete with the holiday celebrations of yesteryear. Yes, I realize that during the past eight months we’ve lost many things, not to mention our mental health, but please, Lord, don’t let us lose Christmas parties forever.

If you’re like me, you remember an era filled with grand Christmas parties. It was also an era without the internet, back when the most advanced technology in your home was the four-ton electric KitchenAid mixer

your mom used for making cookies.

Christmas parties were our fundamental forms of holiday socialization, and almost everyone considered these to be big deals. Adult men dressed in Santa hats and hideous neckties. Ladies wore hosiery and dresses. Elderly women wore tweed skirt suits with holly-berry brooches. Old men pulled their trousers up to their armpits and reeked of Old Spice.

Our mothers would spend weeks decking the halls with ACTUAL boughs of holly. This is not a figure of speech. Our hallways were literally festooned with plastic greenery.

Also poinsettia plants. Everyone’s mom had a minor poinsettia obsession. Our mothers were constantly reminding us kids not to eat these poisonous poinsettias because one bite could kill you. Which was a weird thing to be worried about if you ask me.

It was as though our moms thought poinsettia-eating was a serious temptation among America’s wayward youth. As though…

I got a letter from 8-year-old Anna, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who asked me what I believe Christmas is all about. This is part of a virtual school assignment. It’s not every day a kid asks ME such philosophical questions, which just shows you how bad off our educational system is right now.

To answer your question, Anna, I can only tell you what I once learned in fourth grade, which I am happy to share:

As a kid, our school had a nativity play enacted solely by children. Back then, every school in the nation had nativity plays enacted by children. There were no such things as a nativity plays with adult casts. In fact, the whole reason these pageants occurred was so that fundamentalist parents could experience the joy of seeing uncoordinated 6- and 7- and 8-year-olds wear fake beards and recite intricate passages of middle-English scripture while holding live screaming babies in swaddling clothes.

All I ever wanted was to play Joseph. I can’t remember wanting a

role more, except during our church’s Fourth of July pageant, entitled “Heroes of American Faith,” in which my mother desperately wanted me to play the role of Oral Roberts.

But Christmas held my heart. More specifically, it was Mary I loved. The role of Mary was played by Christina Moss, the Farrah Fawcett of the fourth grade. Every fourth-grade boy was in love with her. Or, as my cousin Ed Lee often put it: “Christina’s so pretty that I would crawl across a sea of broken glass to hear her belch on the phone.”

He was a very gross child, Anna.

So it was shaping up to be a great year. We had a solid script. Mrs. Everheart wrote the screenplay. She also served as director, assistant director, associate director, producer, diaper-changer for the Christ Child, and she played King Herod during the slaughtering of the innocents scene.

It was…