It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m writing you from a cold front porch in Eclectic, Alabama. Over the last years, I’ve written from some interesting places. Barbecue stands, hotel lobbies, airplanes, hurricane shelters, Episcopal beer festivals.
Funny. If you would’ve told me five years ago I’d be writing at all, I would’ve called you clinically insane. This is because most of my life’s dreams have died slow, agonizing deaths.
As a boy, I wanted to be a pianist—I don’t talk about that very often because it seems silly now. I’ve played piano since age nine. Once, I competed in a piano competition. I wore a suit and played before a large theater.
My hands were trembling. The other contestants backstage were kids from big cities who spoke with New-York accents.
One kid shook my hand and said, “I’m gonna blow you out of the water, sucker.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said I.
“Aw, your mother sniffs your underpants, loser.”
I came in last place.
As a newlywed, I tried opening a landscaping business. I sunk my savings into commercial mowing equipment. Business was bad. On weekends I’d print hundreds of flyers and shove them in mailboxes.
“FIFTY PERCENT OFF!” the flyers read. “CALL NOW!”
Pretty please. With sprinkles on top. My business folded.
I did handyman work. I laid floors, hung drywall, renovated bathrooms. I tried to do this on my own, doing odd jobs. Disaster.
I played music in rundown bars. Not fancy tourist joints. I played ugly rooms, for folks who tipped a buck to dance to “Crazy” one more time.
I’ve even worked in a few churches.
I’d rather push-mow Jordan-Hare Stadium.
After I finished community college as an adult, I applied to three major universities. The idea was to do something with my life. Writing, perhaps.
I received three response letters. Here’s one from Tallahassee: “Dear applicant, we regret to inform you that whereupon reviewing your submission and transcripts, we believe that your mother sniffs your underpants, loser.”
I worked as a commercial painter, a concrete crewman, a deliveryman, I even worked in an ice cream shop.
One night, an old friend walked into the ice cream shop to see me behind the counter. He was a contractor. His business had become an overnight success. He had a beautiful family, a Land Rover, he took hunting trips to Canada.
I was wearing a pink and gray uniform with a paper hat. I asked if he wanted sprinkles. He didn’t.
He got them anyway.
I’m older now. And smarter—I hope. And there’s a reason I’m writing this. I’m not a great writer, but it doesn’t take someone great to tell you that you’re okay the way you are.
This year, it’s okay not to achieve your dreams. It’s okay to come in last place. There is no exit exam for life. No gradebook.
Some people try for greatness. Maybe they were made to be gorgeous, important, athletic, award-winners, and to hunt endangered albino squirrels in Canada alongside CEO’s of fast-food franchises.
And then there are people like me. I was made to put sprinkles on your ice cream.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not important. And the same goes for you. People like us must mean something to the Man Upstairs, because he made so many of us.
Anyway, I’d better get back inside. It’s almost midnight, and I’m half-frozen.
I love you more than you’ll ever know.
Happy New Year.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South.