At 71, Dave Barry doesn't shy away from comparisons to an old dog. In fact, he embraces them.
Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist and bestselling author, also realizes that his family's beloved 10-year old companion, Lucy — who he writes looks "vaguely Lab-ish" although actually a "Boxer, Dalmatian, Chow Chow Golden Retriever Cross" (courtesy of a DNA check) — has a lot to offer about what it means to have fun, appreciate life and basically just be happy.
In my recent conversation with Barry, he talked about his new book, "Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog," as well as a profound lesson he learned last fall when his 18-year-old daughter Sophie became seriously ill just days before she was scheduled to leave for her freshman year at Duke University.
Q: Why do you believe we have to think more about being happy as we age?
A: We start out knowing how to be happy as children, but as we get older, we have our jobs, our careers, we get married, and all of that is important. We have kids, and that brings us pleasure — but then they go away! We've lost that rich family life that was so rewarding, and there is nothing waiting to replace that. And we start focusing on concerns like health, retirement and things that make it harder to enjoy yourself.
Q: In the book, you talk about your past participation with the World Famous Lawn Rangers, saying that you want to reconnect with that precision lawn mower drill team because "I need a fix of stupid, immature fun." Why do people, but not dogs, shy away from pure fun as they get older?
A: You forget that you can have fun. You think it's inappropriate. But dogs never think "I can't do that." Lucy never thinks about looking silly — never crosses her mind. We have to overcome our natural inhibitions, just go out and have fun.
Q: One of the topics in the book is about the stronghold the internet and social media have on our time … giving us the power to waste a lot of it.
A: Facebook is for old people [laughs]. You can just sit in front of your computer and there's a whole community in front of you. It's good in some ways — I've reconnected with several people on Facebook — but it's not a good substitute for seeing people. Or going outside. It can become an obsession and obsessions never end very well.
I'm always amazed when I see a couple sitting at a restaurant and both of them are looking at their phones. Why did they even bother to go out? They could have stayed home, ordered pizza and looked at their phones.
Q: We all need friends, but later-in-life friendships can be challenging, perhaps especially for men. Why?
A: I think men are more reluctant to put themselves out there. For someone like me who's shy, but doesn't come across that way, it's hard. I'm always amazed how quickly my wife Michelle connects with people and how easily she makes friends. When I was writing this book, I made a commitment to call two friends every day, sometimes just to ask them if they were still alive [laughs]!
It's different from the days when your kids were younger and they played a sport. Our daughter Sophie played soccer, we'd go to all the games and I didn't have to make an effort. There were groups of people there, we could talk about the game. Now, that's completely gone from my life. But my wife and I still go to high school soccer games. She cheers louder than anyone and she doesn't have anyone on the team. It's embarrassing [laughs].
Q: What have you learned from Lucy about letting go of anger?
A: Lucy gets very mad at the garbageman, but she doesn't wake up at 3 in the morning wondering why we let him take our garbage away. She doesn't hold grudges; she lets everything go. It's easy for everyone to get mad and to hold a grudge, but when you're older, the fact is, you don't have that much time. Is the point of pride more important than the relationship? It's not; let it go.
A last lesson about gratitude
In the book's epilogue, Barry shifts gears to write poignantly about his daughter's illness late last summer; two days before they were set to bring Sophie to Duke, she woke up and was paralyzed from the waist down. The cause was an autoimmune disorder called transverse myelitis, which targeted her spinal cord.
The family spent days in what Barry calls "Hospital World," agonizingly waiting to see if Sophie would be able to move her legs again. After 10 days, she did, and as Barry writes, it was "the happiest moment of my life." After several weeks of work with physical and occupational therapists, Sophie was able to walk again. She started college in January.
Q: How is Sophie doing?
A: She's doing great. She's thriving at Duke and we couldn't be happier.
Q: How did that experience change you as a parent, and as a person?
A: As a parent, you always know this, but when something happens, the only thing that matters is your kids. And I think, long term, you realize that most things people worry about or get angry about are unimportant. They waste so much time ignoring the really great things in their lives.
Lucy's lesson about appreciating goodness in life
In the final chapter of the book, "The Last Lesson," Barry writes that while he didn't learn about appreciating all the goodness in life directly from Lucy, he could have.
He wrote: "Lucy, like most dogs, overflows with gratitude. She knows what's most important in her life — the people she loves — and she never takes us for granted, which is why each time we return to our house, no matter how brief our absence has been, she greets us with quivering, unbounded joy."
This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.