Watford City, North Dakota. Population 6,027. Unless somebody died last night. You’re looking at a whole lot of rocks and dirt out here.

The town of Watford City is a fleck-on-the-map hamlet located within the Badlands of the Roughrider State. It’s your quintessential Western town. You’ve got everything here you’d need to be happy. You have a hardware store, a pharmacy, a beer joint, American Legion Post 29, and a phonebook with at least six pages.

And, of course, there is the giant eight-ton bust of Theodore Roosevelt standing outside the local motel, which attracts dozens of tourists each year.

Senior prom was last week, which is a big deal in a town like Watford City. And, thanks to the Internet Age, prom is an even bigger deal these days because of something called a “promposal.”

For those who have been living on planet Jupiter, today’s teens rarely just ask someone to prom. They “prompose.” This is like a marriage proposal for high-schoolers wherein a teen pulls an elaborate stunt to ask his

date to prom. This is usually videoed or photographed for social media.

Promposals are meant to be cute, but sometimes they can get downright freaky. Some teens go all out for their promposals.

Some young men have organized streetwide flash mobs to propose to their dates.

One kid from Pennsylvania tandem-skydived for his promposal, wearing only his underpants, carrying a banner that read “I just ‘dropped in’ to ask you to prom.”

She said no.

One poor kid in Nevada videoed his promposal by bringing donuts to a girl’s house. In the video, a girl answers the door wearing a huge smile. She is clearly overwhelmed by the gesture when she excitedly says, “Oh my gosh!”

At this point, the 16-year-old nuclear physicist holding the donuts looks shocked. There is a long moment of awkwardness before the boy finally says something like: “Wait, this is the wrong…

Monroeville, Alabama, is quiet today. The town square looks perfect at dusk. The birds are chirping. The shops are lined in tight rows. The Victory roses are in bloom. Mel’s Dairy Dream is doing steady business.

An occasional muddy Chevy truck cruises down Main Street, windows rolled down, with godawful modern pop-country music blasting, just to remind everyone that, yes, although this sophisticated town is the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” birthplace of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Truman Capote, local teenagers here, like anywhere else, still play music loud enough to fracture Pittsburgh steel.

Today is the Monroe County Public Library’s 95th anniversary. I am in town to storytell in honor of the occasion. Why they chose me for this gig, I don’t know. I come from people who used books only for fly swatters. I am a dropout with no pedigree. But here I am.

I am standing in this small-town library to honor the American institution of books, and all people who hedge their lives around the power of

sentences.

You can keep your politicians and your social influencers. Librarians are my heroes.

“I wanted our library to be fun,” says the head librarian. “I wanted kids to feel at home. I remember when I was a kid and librarians were always telling us kids to hush. That’s why we never shush children here.”

The library in this rural county has been in operation since Babe Ruth was hitting homers, movies were silent and the Model A was hot.

Meantime, in 1927, a bunch of do-gooders in Monroe County, Alabama, were deciding to offer literature to all. It was a unique time in America, an era when nearly 5 million U.S. citizens didn’t know how to read their own names. This library was a haven.

Today, this humble library owns the largest collection of books in the county. It’s also a famous place. Nelle Harper Lee and Truman…

“And that’s how it happened” said the elderly woman in the nursing home, finishing her story.

This concluded our six-hour interview.

After an interview that long, my brain’s gray matter was leaking out of my ears.

I was a younger man. I was only at this nursing home for a quick local newspaper story about the new Walmart being built. That was it. A few soundbytes. A few quotes. Everyone goes home.

The elderly woman, however, misunderstood the purpose of my visit and thought we were doing a story about her entire life. Her presentation included a long, detailed illustration of her ancestral genealogy dating back to the Phonecians.

When our interview finished, the nurse wheeled her away. I collapsed on the rec room sofa and tried to uncross my eyes.

And that’s when I met him.

He was sitting in a wheelchair parked beside the TV, wearing a large Stetson, attached to oxygen, drinking an O’Doul’s. He was watching “Law and Order.”

The man wasn’t just old. He was old-old. He looked ancient enough to have the Social Security number 4.

He

glared at me, took a sip from his longneck, and announced that he had to visit the little boys’ room.

I looked around for a nurse. There were none.

So he made stronger eye contact with me. “I said I have to take a leak. It’s kinda urgent.”

I blinked. “Are you talking to me?”

“No, your guardian angel. Yes, you. Take me to the john or run and fetch a mop.”

I wheeled him out into the hallway and looked around for a young person in scrubs to save me. But there were no medical staffers.

When we arrived at the bathroom the man upturned his wheelchair footplates and looked at me. “Don’t just stand there. Help me.”

“Uh,” I said, “I’m not sure I’m supposed to be doing this…”

“So you’re just gonna let me…

DEAR SEAN:

I just lost my mom, and now I have some hard decisions to make. I feel so lost and broken, I have been trying my best, but I feel like I failed. I was wondering if you had any advice on dealing with the loss of my mom.

Thanks,
BROKEN-IN-KANSAS

DEAR KANSAS:

The imaginary scenario I’m about to describe is going to sound far-fetched and weird. So just humor me.

But first, I want you to breathe. Seriously. Before you read another word.

In. Out. Big. Soft. Long. Deep. Breaths. Relax your jaw. Loosen your shoulders. Turn into a big blob of Jello pudding.

Seeeeeee the pudding. Beeeee the pudding.

Good.

What I want you to do is visualize a large white world. Not white like cotton sheets or snow. But white like sunlight. Like staring at the noon sun with eyes wide open.

White light is everywhere within this new world. In fact, you aren’t even sure how big this new space is because it’s too bright to see anything. It could be the

size of a closet, or it could be bigger than Asia. No way to know.

At first the light hurts your eyes. It gives you a headache. And it doesn’t let up. It just gets stronger until it singes your hair and burns your skin.

Eventually, the brightness works its way into you. Past your adipose tissue, vascular system, kidneys, and spleen. It bores into muscle and bone and finally gets down into the Real You.

The Real You is an interesting thing. I don’t want to get all hooky spooky here, but think about it. A person’s soul is literally inside their body, but no surgeon can find it. No one can point to your ribcage and say, “Ah, yes, your soul’s right there. Just to the left of your colon.”

So for the purposes of this imaginary scene, right now,…

Today is National Columnists’ Day. Someone just told me. It’s a holiday for honoring those depraved, half-crazed individuals who crank out 500 to 800 words each day beneath rigorous deadlines and still manage to remain, technically, married.

I remember when I unofficially became a columnist. Sort of.

I was a boy. I was in my room, pouting.

My room looked like any little boy’s room. It was messy. It smelled funky. There were underpants scattered on my floor. There were Hardy Boys books, aquariums featuring dead goldfish, and half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches that predated the Carter administration.

I was having a particularly bad day. Namely, because my friends were playing outside and they had not invited me to join them. I could see my pals from by bedroom window. They were having fun, but they didn’t want me around.

When a kid’s father dies in the shameful way mine did, that child is not exactly the hippest kid in the county. I was forgotten. And it hurt.

There was a knock on my door.

It was my mother.

“What’re you doing in here all alone?” she said.

“Nothing.”

She glanced out the window. “You’re pouting.”

“No I’m not.”

“Then go outside and play with your friends.”

“They’re not my friends anymore.”

My mother was carrying something behind her. She placed a gift-wrapped box onto my bed. It was the size of a small suitcase, and heavier than a sack of Quickrete, wrapped in Christmas paper, although it was July.

“What’s this?” I said.

“Open it,” she said.

“I don’t feel like presents.”

Her face tightened. “Well, maybe when you’re done wallowing in self pity, you will.”

Then she left.

Mama always had a way of putting things.

I tore open the packaging. Inside was a vinyl case containing a manual typewriter. Sea-foam green. The spacebar was a little crooked, the S and D keys were faded, the ribbon was new.

Easter Sunday. An Episcopal church in Birmingham. Vaulted ceilings. Ornate masonry. A pipe organ. A choir dressed in lacework cottas. Individual stained-glass windows that cost more than tactical government helicopters. The whole works.

My wife and I arrived late. The place was loaded with parishioners in pastel colors. There were no available seats in the back.

“We have room on the front row,” said the usher.

“The front row?” I said. “Isn’t there anywhere else? Somewhere less… Frontal?”

He shook his head. “Full house today, sir.”

I am not a front pew guy. I come from mild, soft-spoken fundamentalist people who hug each other sideways; we prefer to fill up the sanctuary from the back to the front.

He guided us to the front pew so that we were practically sitting in the priest’s lap. The whole church was looking at us.

Service began. The organ bellowed. People stood.

Before we sang the first song, a kid in the pew behind me started making flatulent sounds with his mouth. I could not concentrate.

As a former little

boy, I am qualified to tell you that these were not just your run-of-the-mill mouth-based sound effects. These were long, juicy, squirty sounds that, if I hadn’t known better, sounded like minor digestive issues.

And he never quit. During the communal singing, the kid made this noise. During the call to worship: The Noise. During the Lord’s Prayer: nuclear blasts.

Spittle was flying onto the back of my neck as the boy’s sustained raspberry sounds reverberated off the stone walls. I was certain someone would tell the boy to knock it off, but it never happened.

So I turned around to give the child a stern look.

He might have been 3 years old. The kid was blond, plump, dressed festively in a seersucker jumpsuit adorned with lace.

His mother smiled. I grinned back, hoping she’d get my drift and put an end…

First off, I want to wish a happy Easter to the Wong family. Especially to Father Pete, the Episcopalian priest who taught me, a non-Episcopalian, to say “And also with you,” at the appropriate time during a ‘Piskie service. These words are code for, “I love you.”

He was the same clergyman who once told me, as it says in Scripture, that whenever two or three Episcopalians are gathered, there is a fifth.

Happy Easter to Tessa, who is in the ICU with a serious infection right now. Tessa (age 23) will be celebrating this holiday by binge watching “Monk” episodes with her dad. Her father, a Lutheran minister, will be skipping his first Easter Sunday service in 22 years to sit beside his sick child.

“Pray for my daughter,” says Tessa’s dad. “Please.”

And to Don, who was stuck in traffic when he sent me an email from his phone this morning. Don is trying to make it to Georgia to see his newborn boy, Joshua, born

last night at 11:43 p.m.

Don was on a business trip in Indiana and missed the agonizing childbirth. Thankfully, Don’s sister-in-law videoed the entire messy experience in great detail, then sent it to Don. Don watched the video and remarked: “Just imagine passing a kidney stone the size of a second-grader.”

Happy Easter to Aaron and April, my distant cousins, who are having Easter dinner with their daughters Rachel and Kendall, and all their friends. And especially to Aaron, who helped me move a heavy couch today and walked with a limp thereafter no matter how much medicinal beer we administered. The least I can do is mention his name here.

To Veronica, the Guatemalan woman who has been waiting on her U.S. citizenship to be approved for two years. She was approved yesterday. “I am an American now,” said Veronica. “I am weeping as I write this because I am so…

The old man answered the phone.

“Is this Herschel?” I asked him.

I heard a loud TV playing in the background. A dog was barking.

“This is Herschel. Who’s this?”

I recited my name, rank, and credentials, each of which are so unimpressive they qualify as a punchline. But when I told the old man I was a writer working on a story for Jackie Robinson Day, which is today, it was enough to get him talking.

And talk he did.

“Jackie Robinson Day?” he began with a laugh. “Shoot, man. Didn’t know there was such a thing. Sure, I’ll tell you about Jackie Robinson.”

Herschel was just a kid when he first saw Jack Roosevelt Robinson play. He was living in Chicago. One afternoon, Herschel’s parents took him to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs square off against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a matchup that drew 47,000 people in attendance.

His whole family was excited to see the famed Number 42. And by “excited,” I mean Herschel’s father bought everyone new dressy outfits for the occasion.

I asked whether

Herschel’s father was a big Jackie Robinson fan. The old man’s answer was an emphatic, “Shoot, man.”

Which apparently means “yes.”

“Everyone in my whole neighborhood was a Jackie fan,” the old timer went on. “Our preacher even announced the game on Sunday. Whole church showed up to the park just to cheer him on.”

Herschel’s family walked several miles to the ballpark to save the price of a streetcar fare. When they arrived, Herschel’s six-foot-five father was drenched in perspiration, sweating through his hatband, there were blisters on his feet, and he looked like he’d just discovered teeth.

“My dad felt the same way about baseball as Abe Lincoln felt about education.”

The throng waiting at Wrigley’s entrance was downright biblical. They stood in line for hours and paid a small fortune to get past the baffle gate. Herschel’s…

Fried bacon pieces set. Hand drawn watercolor illustration isolated on white background

The Cracker Barrel is slammed. And loud. Inside, there isn’t much in the way of elbow room. There are heaps of people eating dangerous amounts of biscuits. And I am trying to master the wooden Triangle Peg game.

The object of this game, of course, is simple. Leave the fewest pegs remaining on the triangle as possible.

Let’s say, for instance, you finish a game and only one peg is left. This means you are a NASA-level genius. Two pegs; you are moderately clever. Four pegs; your parents are first cousins.

I love it at Cracker Barrel. But then, I have a long history with this institution. I’ve eaten at Cracker Barrels from Beaverton, Oregon, to Prattville, Alabama. I’ve eaten here on Thanksgiving, the day I graduated college, the morning after my wedding, and the day after my father died. The food suits me.

The overhead music always has steel guitar in it. The people in the giftshop always ask how you’re doing. And if you’re bored, you can always embarrass your wife by

buying a Davy Crockett hat and wearing it into the dining room.

Today, an elderly couple is sitting next to me as I fiddle with the peg game. The old man is skinny. She is frail. They are shoulder to shoulder. The man is wearing a hospital bracelet. His entire lower leg is in a medical brace. His face is bruised purple. There is dried blood on his forearms. He is resting his head onto the old woman’s shoulder because it looks like he’s been through hell itself.

She is helping him drink his Coke with a straw.

“I love you, Judy,” he says between sips.

She just pats his head.

On the other side of the dining room is a table of paramedics. They are young, wearing buzz cuts, clad in cargo pants, with radios mounted on their shoulders. Their eyes are drooping, and the…

I’m 5 years old. On Mama’s stove is a steaming stock pot, filling the world with the essence of chicken and dumplings.

I’m watching her use her fists to mercilessly beat a lump of flour that will become dumplings. She punches the dough, making loud grunts, striking terror into the heart of childhood.

“What’re you making?” I ask her.

“Hush now,” she says.

For many years I sincerely believed that chicken and dumplings were called Hush Now. We ate a lot of Hush Now in my house.

Mama then tells me to “Go outside and play.”

Such was the fate of little boys. Any time you opened your mouth to ask a question, you were sent outside to “go play.” God help the child who told Mama he was bored.

“BORED!?” she’d shout. “I’ll show you bored!”

Then Mama’s eyes would fill with holy fire and she would wave her rolling pin around, sermonizing about idle hands. Frankly, you’d be safer telling my mother you were a communist.

So I walk outside to ride my bike.

Back then we all had bikes.

Every last one of us. Bikes were everything. A kid in the saddle was limitless.

Sometimes we would be gone for hours on our Schwinns. Nobody worried about us because there wasn’t much to worry about. Our parents weren’t like today’s parents. We didn’t carpool to soccer practice in hybrid vehicles while buckled in FDA-approved car seats, staring at the opiate glow of our iPads.

Our parents drove big-bodied vehicles with names like Lincoln Continentals, Custom Cruisers, and Ford Country Squires. We had no seatbelts except Mama’s right arm. Moreover, we didn’t know what soccer was.

So there I am, riding bikes with my pals. We pull over at a friend’s house. We dismount, midair, while traveling upwards of 89 mph.

We sprint to our friend’s doorstep to ring the doorbell. We are breathless and rosy-faced from exertion.