When I was 4 years old, my mother took me to get my first library card. There are many childhood memories I’ve forgotten, but I’ll never forget Mama hoisting me to the library counter so I could autograph that card.

Of course, I couldn’t spell at that age, so my name came out looking like drunken Mandarin. But the card served me well over the years.

I grew up in libraries. I lived in them. I never quit visiting them. They were my safe haven. They were a place free of judgement.

When I worked construction, I was the guy who visited the library on lunch breaks. I would check out stacks of 10 sometimes 15 Louis L’Amour books.

A library was the only educational institution where blue-collar guys like me weren’t embarrassed about our low pedigrees and decades of bad grades. This is why, to me, libraries are the greatest institution.

All mankind’s children are welcome at the library to partake in ideas, knowledge, classic literature, and above all, free Abbott and Costello DVDs.

No entrance exams, no tuition, no standardized tests. It’s enough to make you believe in God.

Over the course of my life, however, I lost touch with the library. I attended community college as an adult, and eventually quit construction. I became a halfwit author, I got writing gigs, had back surgery, I got married, got a mortgage. Life got in the way.

Until the pandemic.

Suddenly I was at the library again. The Walton County Library system became a safe haven. In fact, it was one of the only places I felt comfortable visiting during lockdowns.

One reason is because librarians are obsessive compulsive about sanitation. They sterilize each book like they’re prepping for neurosurgery. And they always take visitors’ temperatures with their little Star Wars laser thermometers.

Throughout this pandemic I’ve gotten to know the library workers from a distance.

There’s the employee…

One week. Seven days. Boy oh boy. A lot can happen in seven days.

In less than one week there have been two mass shootings. Yesterday a 21-year-old man killed 10 people in Boulder, Colorado, at a supermarket. Five days earlier, a 21-year-old man in Atlanta killed 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian women.

Seven days.

Modern times have gotten so frightening that I’m afraid to read the news. What horrors am I going to read about seven days from now?

Sometimes I worry about this world. I worry about where it’s going. I worry it’s falling apart because that’s what everyone keeps saying. They all say the universe is coming apart. Mankind is turning inward on himself. It’s enough to make you break out into shingles.

Which is why I am writing this to you. Because although this planet sometimes seems screwed up, I want you to know about a few other things that happened within the last seven days.

Take Mike. Mike is a 63-year-old man who grew up

working various labor jobs. He has always been a blue-collar man with dirt under his fingernails.

His life reads like a tragedy in some places. Although, had his story ever been made into a literal book, Mike wouldn’t have been able to read it. Because Mike couldn’t read.

When Mike was around age 10, his father died. Mike quit school to work in his uncle’s restaurant. He had never been a strong reader to begin with. Eventually he forgot grammar-school stuff altogether.

The technological world advanced without him. In his 63 years, Mike had never owned a computer, never owned a smartphone, never sent an email, never penned a letter, never read his own junk mail. Reading-wise, Mike could do little more than sign his name and read everyday words.

But last year, Mike began taking reading lessons with a private tutor. And last Monday (less than seven…

“Will the room please settle down before the dance begins?!” says Gary to the elderly crowd in the nursing home cafeteria. “Simmer down, please!”

Gary is an old man with a saxophone dangling from his neck. He speaks over a microphone, addressing old folks who are all wearing their dancing shoes. These residents need a little fun tonight. It’s been a very long year.

“People, hush!” says Gary.

Someone goes: “SSSSSSHHHHHH!”

The murmuring stops.

“Let’s do this in an orderly fashion!” says Gary. “I need two groups! I want my men dancers over HERE! I want my lady dancers over on THAT side!”

Soon, the room is reorganizing itself like the final round of a livestock auction. It’s a downright mess.

“Quickly, people!” says Gary. “We haven’t got all night!”

It’s a good night for a dance. There has been an 82 percent drop in COVID cases among U.S. nursing homes since the vaccine, and these people need something joyous.

Gary says, “Alright! I want healthy dancers to the front of the line. Quiet please! Orderly fashion! Healthy knees and good

tickers up front! Anyone who’s only upper-body dancing tonight, you’re at the back of the line!”

The people in the cafeteria once again reorganize. Ladies on one side; men on the other. Even nurses and cafeteria workers are present for the fun, watching this clambake from the outskirts in case someone overdoes it.

“Okay,” announces Gary. “Ladies and gentleman, it gives me great pleasure to introduce TONIGHT’S BAND!”

Everyone claps. You would never believe a nursing home could produce so much applause. But as I said, it’s been a long year.

Each person within this cafeteria knows someone who has died from COVID-19. Each person bears the scars of a pandemic. Thankfully, everyone here tonight is healthy (knock on wood).

There are four musicians in tonight’s community band:

Lonnie (Pacific Grove, California) playing electric bass. Lonnie can’t feel his…

My wife is making seafood gumbo, and there is no better gumbo on earth than hers. Sure, I’m biased. And yes, most husbands wholeheartedly believe their wife’s gumbo is the best. But in my case it’s true.

A few years ago I wrote a column about gumbo and received a truckload of messages from Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic people who were unfamiliar with gumbo.

I was surprised especially to receive messages from people who had never heard of gumbo. Like the guy in Akron, Ohio, who wrote:

“Gumbo? You mean the flying elephant movie?”

You have to worry about some people.

Well, I’m no gumbo authority, so I won’t even attempt to define this dish from a culinary point of view because: (a) gumbo enthusiasts are fanatical nuts, almost to the point of being confrontational and aggressive, and (b) I am married to one of these people.

Here on the Gulf Coast, gumbo varies by region, many will claim their wife’s or mother’s version is the best.

My friend Brent, for example, swears by his wife’s gumbo. But I’ve tried it,

and it left me unimpressed.

Basically according to Brent, the way his wife prepares gumbo for her large family is she gathers all the leftovers in the fridge: chicken, sausage, expired hotdogs, three-year-old lasagna, past tax records, nine-volt batteries. Then she lets this simmer all day, adds hot sauce, and serves it with a side of Pepto-Bismol.

Then you have my friend Bill, in Metairie, Louisiana. His wife’s gumbo is thicker than commercial masonry adhesive. Also this gumbo is VERY salty.

Salt, you should note, is a powerful laxative when consumed in high quantities. Look it up.

Bill’s wife’s gumbo is so salty—this is a true anecdote—that at a recent get-together, after eating the gumbo, Bill’s grandmother spent the remainder of the evening in the lavatory with the door locked.

When concerned family members knocked and asked, “You alright, Granny?”…

Last night the old quilting club got back together for the first time since the pandemic. Nine older ladies gathered in Denise’s living room in rural West Virginia. They sat in a big circle, just like women did in days of yore. They had a kind of socially-distanced quilting bee.

The group welcomed a new member into the fold. Andrea, who is 14 years old. She was the youngest in a roomful of women who were all over age 70.

The first thing anyone should know about quilting is that a quilt is NOT just a blanket. The women are clear on this. Especially not a patchwork quilt. Miss Denise, who founded this group 21 years ago, describes a quilt like this:

“It’s like building a four-bedroom house with a needle.”

Miss Denise remembers her first solo quilt when she was 12 years old. She worked on it for a solid year using scrap material salvaged from her father’s old clothes. She remembers laboring on this quilt while listening to the Everly

Brothers sing “All I Have to Do Is Dream” on a record player.

“I’ve been quilting for a long time,” she says quietly.

On average, a large patchwork quilt takes about 100 hours to complete. Some quilts move quicker; others take longer. Either way, there is a lot more than just needlework involved in constructing the Great American Quilt.

Denise tells me there’s planning, drawing, gathering, cutting, arranging, sewing, fixing mistakes, binding, and constantly repouring glasses of wine.

“Yes, wine,” says Denise. “That’s an important part of our little club. I like the pink wines best. I’m Methodist, we’re allowed to drink.”

The art of quilting is believed by some to date back to 3400 B.C. And to give you an idea of just how old that is: the Sahara Desert began to form around this period.

The pharaohs used quilts. There is also evidence of quiltwork in…

It is the first day of spring, and somewhere in North Georgia, a newborn baby named Joy is drawing her first breaths. She was born late on Friday evening, only hours before springtime.

So even though, yes, this has been a year of hard times, as of right now: Joy is here.

Which is why Joy’s mother thought this particular name was perfect for her child, especially considering the non-joyful period in which the baby was born. Right now everyone could use a little Joy.

“I feel like we’re living through history,” says Joy’s mother, cradling her child, speaking to me via cellphone. “I want my daughter to grow up knowing that she is a huge joy during this time.”

And so it is that Joy will have some very big things to do in this world. She will make this universe more cheerful. She will do this by eating lots of pureed food, giggling a lot, and wearing lots of expensive baby onesies which she will joyfully fill with poop.

Meanwhile, over on the

Kansas-Oklahoma line, the first day of spring will be greeted by Mark and his son, Patrick. They are taking a fishing trip. They are visiting Mark’s family pond, which has been around since the late 1800s, fed by a large creek.

“The fish rarely bite there,” says Mark. “But that’s not why we go.”

Mark remembers fishing here with his father as a child. And, he also remembers taking his father fishing here shortly before the old man died from prostate cancer 12 years ago.

Mark himself was diagnosed with cancer last year and it has been a familiar, arduous battle. Treatment after treatment has weakened him. But unlike his father, Mark is winning.

“All I could think about when I was in treatment,” says Mark, “was taking my son fishing. It’s everything. That’s why we’re going.”

Now let’s go to Virginia Beach for a…

One of the first things you learn when you become a dog-person is that normal people look at you funny when you talk about your dog too much.

This is usually because these people have normal healthy lives, with real kids, real jobs, and retirement plans.

Well, I never had any of those things. I spent adulthood working crummy jobs. I don’t have kids. And retirement is a three-syllable word used in Charles Schwab commercials during baseball games.

The highlight of my workdays was coming home to find the silhouette of a bloodhound in our front window. Her name was Ellie Mae.

In her heyday, Ellie was obsessed with a cat in our neighborhood named Dexter. Dexter was born of Satan and had eyes like the kid from the movie “Poltergeist.”

Dexter would torment Ellie by visiting our backyard and sitting right in Ellie’s food bowl as if to say, “Look! My butt is on your food! How do you like that?”

And thus, Ellie became transfixed with Dexter and his feline butt. Ellie

would sometimes spend entire days at our window, keeping track of all the illegal activities Dexter committed in our yard. She would turn circles, whimpering.

Dexter would make eye-contact with Ellie through the glass. He would stare her down until she hurled herself against our window hard enough to shatter it.

Dexter was a professional competitor when it came to games between canines and felines.

There was the time, for instance, when I drove to the bank. Ellie came with me. She waited in my truck with the engine running. I ran inside. I was writing a deposit slip when the teller pointed out the window and shrieked.

“Your truck!” she hollered.

My vehicle was rolling into a flower bed.

I sprinted through the parking lot and when I reached the truck, I realized that my crazed bloodhound had knocked the gearshift out of park. She…

I was a young man. Four of us guys walked into an average Florida Panhandle Waffle House before sunrise. We did this every morning before heading to a construction jobsite.

Our routine never changed. First we visited the gas station to buy newspapers, scratch-off tickets, and Gatorades. Then we went to Waffle House. And we did most of this in silence because that’s just how guys are.

Guys aren’t big talkers. Especially at breakfast. They keep conversations to a minimum in the mornings.

Many women, of course, manage to discuss every biographical event since middle school. Whereas most males use two-word sentences to discuss the importance of a strong bullpen, then they clam up until their next birthday. Like I said: that’s how some guys operate.

Our waitress was young, lean, a happy person. There were traces of tattoos climbing her neck, and she had a sweet face. She couldn’t have been taller than five foot.

Four of us piled into her booth. She doled out silverware and menu-placemats. She took our beverage

orders then announced, “Four coffees, coming up.”

Old-school waitresses are a dying breed, but Waffle House never seems to be short on them. I have traveled a lot during my halfcocked career as a writer; Waffle House always has great service.

Elsewhere in the world, food service workers are not always so amiable. And believe me, I am not being critical because I once worked in food service.

I’ve worked kitchen duty, manning fryers, scrubbing flat-tops, washing stacks of filthy dishes that were roughly the same height as the Space Needle. I’ve also worked front of the house—bussing, refilling glasses, and serving customers who INSIST on having their salad dressing served “on the side” only so they can dump the whole thing on their salad three seconds after you deliver it.

I read somewhere that one one out of five food service workers develops a drug or…

DEAR SEAN:

My 49th birthday was spent in the hospital where I was diagnosed with stage four neuroendocrine carcinoid tumors that had invaded multiple organs.

I have survived this ugly disease for 20 months now. I have good days and bad days. Some days I'm happy; some nights I pull the covers over my head and cry myself to sleep.

I find myself feeling alone and struggling. Not struggling with how to die with dignity, but with how to find the purpose to live the last part of my life for however long that may be. What do I do? Where do I go? How do I fill my final days and nights that are passing too quickly? I figured if anyone could share some heartfelt words it would be you.

Sincerely,
LOOKING-FOR-MY-FINAL-PURPOSE

DEAR LOOKING:

I am the wrong guy to talk to. I have no words because I am severely unqualified. In fact, I am so inept that in many circles I used to be known as “Critter,” and any guy

bearing such a piteous nickname probably knows jack squat about life.

You know who I wish you could talk to? My friend Martin. Sadly, Martin is no longer alive. Martin would have known just what to say here.

Oh, you would have loved Martin, which was not his real name. He was a mess. He was loud, outgoing, sturdy-built, with a unique New Jersey accent. He was the main attraction of every party.

And I’m not exaggerating because whenever people invited me to parties, I often realized it was only because I could bring Martin.

These people would always remind me, “Hey! Don’t forget to bring Martin!” Which made me feel about as interesting as underprepared bratwurst.

Years ago, Martin had skin cancer that moved from his shoulder-blade region to his organs. He went through the medical care gauntlet. This drew out for months, then years.

One…

It was an accident. That’s all it was. I am not getting old.

I wasn’t particularly tired yesterday, but something came over me. I was on the sofa, eating lunch, watching a spring training ballgame, sipping iced tea, drowsing off.

The next thing I knew, I awoke two hours later, disoriented, covered in iced tea, ice cubes melting on my chest, and I was drooling.

My wife found me. She looked shocked. She said, “Were you just taking a nap?”

“A nap?” I said. “Don’t be silly. Naps are for old people, I’m too young for those.”

“You were napping.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were.”

“No. I was practicing mindfulness.”

I have my dignity to preserve.

When I was a kid, I remember my mother once saying, “You know you’re getting old when you fall asleep and spill food on yourself.”

That’s never been me. I was a fast-moving kid with a taste for danger, always looking for international thrills.

My bicycle had baseball cards on the spokes, and I knew how to beat the Jacob’s Ladder game without even trying.

I knew

the rules to Texas Hold’em, and played for high stakes behind the fellowship hall with Jay Ray, Ed Lee, and the janitor, Mister Stew. To this day, Mister Stew still owes me nine hundred thousand dollars.

Who has time for naps? Not me.

Growing up, I strapped a transistor radio to my bicycle handlebars and rode gravel roads, listening to “Hit the Road Jack” until the speaker popped.

I had dirt beneath my fingernails. I could climb any tree. I was raw energy. Everyone knew this about me.

Case in point: when I was seven, I was in the school production of Handel's Messiah, and the teacher had to write brief biographies about the soloists in the bulletins. She wrote about me: “Sean Dietrich makes enthusiasm seem like an inadequate word.”

Those were her exact words.