SALT LAKE CITY — Dave Barry is, surprisingly — perhaps even shockingly — 71 years old. But he's doing his best to take it in stride, however unlikely the news.
"Every single year that goes by, I get older; it's bizarre," he said in a recent phone interview.
Barry, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly column ran in the Deseret News for years, has been making people laugh for most of his life. Which is why his latest book is a bit of a departure. Not that it isn't funny — it is — but it's also thoughtful and highly personal, the reflections of a man who wants to live his life a little better than he has in the past. And for Barry, the ideal figure to help him find his better self is his dog, Lucy. In "Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog," (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages) Barry shares seven life lessons he learned from Lucy, lessons such as, "Don't lie unless you have a really good reason, which you probably don't," and "Don't let your happiness depend on things; They don't make you truly happy, and you'll never have enough anyway."
But it was the eighth lesson that has changed his life. That last lesson, one that came unexpectedly and after the book was finished, had less to do with Lucy and more with the traumatic experience of watching his daughter fight to walk again. The eighth lesson? Be grateful for what you have. (It's probably more than you think.)
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: You wrote that you haven't had great experiences with self-help authors, and yet, here you are with your own self-help book. Why did you decide to write this one?
Dave Barry: Well, originally when I envisioned it, it was more of like a standard Dave Barry humor book, but when I wrote it, I found myself thinking more about myself than I usually do. Rather than just thinking of the next funny line that I could write, (I was thinking) "Did I actually have anything to say?" And in some cases, I actually do have something to say here — which is unusual for me.
I want to stress that I never felt — and I still don't feel — that I discovered some amazing secret that nobody ever would have discovered. And I think everything that I said in this book … people who are functioning adults already know. But what I found to be true of me, and of a lot of people, is that we don't do those things. When you go to a funeral … you think, "Gosh, I really spend a lot of time on stupid crap and not enough time thinking about and being with people I love. I'm going to do that."
And of course, you go out and immediately start looking at your phone and spend 17 hours on Twitter or something like that. (Writing the book was) more like me trying to remind myself to do things than it was "Oh, I discovered something absolutely amazing nobody ever thought of before."
DN: But you found an interesting way in. You used your dog Lucy as the way to get you through this.
DB: It's absolutely true. It wasn't my idea to write about dogs, really it was my editor that said, "Oh you should write about dogs. You have a dog. You've written funny books about dogs." And I have — I've written a million columns about dogs saying, basically, dogs are idiots. They are not remarkable in their cognitive processing, but then I got to thinking about Lucy and about every dog I've ever had.
They're really happy. It's not just that they are content — they're happy. They're actually, actively happy, especially when you're around them. … It's a little bit of a gimmick to say, "Well, I'm going to do what my dog does," but not totally. (Lucy), like almost all dogs, seems to … just sort of naturally understands what really matters in life in a way that it's really easy to forget if you're a human being with your giant frontal lobe and all your technology and all of your knowledge around you.
DN: I did wonder while I was reading this, if the book could have been written if Lucy was a cat.
DB: I'm not a huge cat guy. Maybe it could have been a book written about things cats know, but it would more likely be things that you could (do) to become an evil supervillain instead of things that you can do to live a happy human life.
DN: You pulled seven lessons from the way Lucy lives. I was interested by the first one — "Make new friends but keep the ones you have" — because I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that you're shy.
DB: I think a lot of people who are humorous are very shy people. I think one of the main uses of humor is people use it to fend off intimacy. I know I have all my life. I'm not an outgoing person, even though that's the persona that I pursued for so many years as a humor columnist. But that's not really me. …
When you're sort of younger, you're naturally going to be in more social situations — in college, in the workforce, that kind of thing. But when you get old, especially, you know, when you're a writer and you're kind of a retired person, you're not really out there. And if you don't make an effort to be out there, you will not make new friends, especially if you're not trying to. I realized that I wasn't at all trying to — it's very difficult for me, which is one of the wonderful things dogs do. … Every dog I've ever had loves everybody and just gets so much joy from people and other dogs, too, and to deprive yourself of that, as I have done much of my life, is to deprive myself of a potential source of a lot of happiness and fulfillment. Of course, the price is you don't have to deal with people you don't like if you don't hang out with anybody, but more often than not you like the people.
DN: And, you wrote, that can be especially true for men.
DB: Men, especially as they get older, they are less likely to make friends or more likely to be lonely. After I wrote this, people — knowledgeable, authoritative people — start telling you that "Oh, yeah, the problem with older men. They tend to get into their shell and be gone."
DN: The next lesson really surprised me as well — learning how to have more fun.
DB: When you get older, you're just less open to new experiences, partly for physical reasons or financial reasons, but you're just less open and your fun tends to be whatever you've done for your (whole life), like golf. Yeah, it's some activity and that's great, and it's good to have something that makes you satisfied. But if we become less open to new experiences (we miss out on) new ones, crazy fun.
Like I described in the book, the old-people-fun depicted in every ad that I ever see is just: standing around grinning. They're not doing anything that looks like fun —they're just grinning. That's why I talked about things that I've done in my life — and that I'm lucky enough that I can still do, if I make myself — that are different or are wilder, or are a little less controlled — like playing in a really bad rock band.
DN: How is that going, by the way: Are the Rock Bottom Remainders back together?
DB: We are! We're gonna play in Minneapolis — there's some big book festival there in May, and the entire band is getting back together. We're so bad as a band — I mean, we're bad musically — but we're so bad, we can't even break up.
We're fumbling back together and fumble back out on stage. So we are, yeah, we're gonna play a day. And as far as I know, everyone is pretty up for it. (But) we're not getting back together out of any popular demand.
DN: Well, by the end of the book, there was a very unexpected lesson. And the lesson was: Be grateful for what you have; it's probably more than you think. But it came in an unexpected way. Would you mind telling me just a little bit about what happened?
DB: Yeah. I will try to do this without crying.
I was all done with the book and it had lessons and some humor and whatever. The book was supposed to come out, my daughter Sophie was about to go to college and life was very orderly for me. And then our world just fell completely apart on August 18 when Sophie woke up paralyzed from a rare immunological autoimmune disorder called transverse myelitis.
The thing about it is there's no guarantees — nobody knows what really causes it, nobody knows how to cure it and nobody can promise any good outcome from it. That was the really terrifying part. … Your mind goes to some pretty dark places when your daughter can't move her legs, and the doctors are telling you that there's nothing they can do. They can try to control the symptoms but they can't really promise anything, and a fair amount of the time people don't recover from it.
We just went from: everything was fine, our lives were good, our amazing daughter was on her way to Duke, to: we're in the worst place. Sophie was watching all her friends go off to college and she was in intensive care with tubes in her and doctors were, you know, poking her legs, saying "can you feel this?"
If you had told me then that I was going to write a chapter for this book about that experience, I would have been very surprised, and in fact, I had kind of forgotten about the book altogether and cancelled the book tour. I told Simon & Schuster, "I can't go on tour, I don't know what we're going to be doing for the next month, the next week, the next rest of my life. I don't know where I'm going to be."
We were lucky. Sophie recovered. She has a few issues still but she's basically recovered. She is at Duke — which is a miracle and totally unexpected — and out of that I thought, "I need to address this in this book. If it's going to come out, you know, my supposed self-help book, I need to talk about the most difficult thing that ever happened to me."
And so I wrote that last chapter and basically it says you should be grateful, which is a weird thing to say when you've been through a horrible experience, but you do learn — it is really hard to avoid it. You learn what's really important in your life when everything important is taken away — in this case, our daughter's life. We didn't think she was going to die, but we did think her life was going to be irreparably damaged, and you begin to see that all of this other crap doesn't matter compared to that. That's what led to this last chapter. (It's) an examination of what is really important in life and why you should be grateful for what you do have instead of, as we tend to do modern American society, be obsessed with all of the things that are wrong and that we don't have and be angry.
We're all angry at each other all the time. Our political system is based on hatred and anger now, it seems. You just realize that a lot of that stuff is stupid, mindless (and) meaningless compared with the great things that we have that are good, that are real and that are part of our everyday lives.
So that's what led to (the last chapter.) It was not really a lesson from Lucy; I kind of had to connect it. I wanted to write about it, because it was a lesson I learned from the pattern of thinking of looking for lessons that had come from Lucy, but in a way, I thought, "This is something Lucy knows, as well." Dogs are very grateful. They're creatures of gratitude. They don't sit around sulking about what they don't have. If you're gone all day, they're sad that you're not there, but they don't hate you, and the second you're home, they are just so happy and so grateful for every second they get to spend with you. That kind of thinking dogs already have that I didn't. So it wasn't a lesson from Lucy, but it's one that she certainly knows.
DN: I wonder if writing "Lessons From Lucy" was sort of well-timed to make you a little more open to finding a positive lesson in Sophie's challenge.
DB: Yeah, I mean, it was weird the way it happened and it was really wonderful. In December, when it was beginning to be clear that Sophie was going to come out of it — she was still in rehab, but she was walking and Duke was looking like it was really going to happen — I wrote my editor that I really want to write one more chapter. (I didn't know) whether the book had already been printed, (but) I said I would pay to have (the chapter) printed separately and just put in with the book, just because I think it's important, and she said "No, no, we will make it part of the book."
So it really worked out for me that way — not what I planned, exactly, but it worked out and, you know, again, I'm not a self-help book writer, but I do hope this book, especially that last chapter, is useful to people because it's one of the rare cases where I felt … I had a little bit of authority to talk about (an) issue.
DN: I wondered if there was one of these lessons from "Lessons From Lucy" — other than the final one — that was the hardest for you to learn.
DB: There are two that I still have trouble with: One is letting go of anger, although I've gotten better at it, but I am quick to be annoyed.
I really have to fight to control (my anger), especially because I drive in Miami where everyone is driving according to the laws of their individual country of origin. There's a lot of frustration here. I'm (more) inclined to think, "This is really bad," instead of, you know, "It's a 10-second delay in my life. I don't need to get fired up about it." I fight that all the time.
And the other was the first one we talked about — I still have trouble making friends. I have made a real effort to connect with old friends. I write it down now to … call these people that I know, that I don't talk to and just see how they're doing, which I never, ever used to do.
I'm having trouble making new friends. (laughs.) I'm shy! When you're a 71-year-old guy, there are a lot of things I'm not interested in that other people would be — I'm not interested in golf! I have to work at being open when I'm in a public situation. My wife's a sports writer and I was at a sports event just tagging along with her, and a guy came over who I didn't know, but he knew who I was. That's common here in Miami — a lot of pepole know who I am and they want to come over and talk. I used to be much more likely to kind of come up with a humorous way to brush them off, (but) I thought about it for a second (and thought), "Well, I'm going to talk to this guy." And I ended up kind of liking him. I don't think we're going to be close friends but it was a pleasant experience that I might not have had six months ago just because I was trying, so maybe I'll get better at that.
DN: I have to ask you: I know we're only three months in, but how how's the year shaping up?4 comments on this story
DB: Every year I write about the year in review and people like it, which is why I keep doing it. Of all of the things I write, that's the one that seems the most popular and it is so hard to do because I start, like, in the fall and I look at the headlines for the whole year. The headlines are all, like, mass murders and bombings and horrible scandals — it doesn't seem very funny and I'm supposed to make this into a humor piece. (But) it usually works out.
But I would say that because of the election, this year is shaping up (nicely). The potential for humor is just pretty huge — we have at least 3,000 people running for president alone. So that alone gives it strong potential.
DN: Any final words of advice for the good people of Utah?
DB: I love Utah! Hello, people of Utah!