Lessons From Lucy
I’ve always been a dog person. When I was a boy our family had a standard poodle named Mistral, which is a French word for a cold northwesterly wind. The name wasn’t our idea. Nobody in my family had ever been to France; we were the kind of family who would name a dog Buster. Mistral was named by his previous owners, a wealthy family who gave him to us because they could no longer keep him. When we got him, he was a pampered indoor dog who had one of those professional poodle hairstyles with the ridiculous poofs, including one on his head. I believe Mistral was embarrassed about how he looked, as if he’d gotten invited to a dog party where the invitation said, “Come in a wacky costume!” and he was the only dog who did.
But after a short while in the Barry household, wrestling with us Barry kids and racing around in the woods and marshes behind our house and never receiving any kind of even semiprofessional grooming, Mistral was transformed from a foo-foo house dog into a red-blooded, slobbering, leg-humping, free-range American dog so shaggy and filthy that it would not have been surprising to see soybeans sprouting from his coat.
I had a special bond with Mistral because I illegally fed him under the table at suppertime. As a child I was a very picky eater; the only foods I really liked were vanilla ice cream and ketchup.1
But we Barry children were not allowed to leave the table until we cleaned our plates. So I was in big trouble when my mother, an otherwise decent human being, decided to serve us brussels sprouts, which—this has been shown in laboratory studies—are actually the severed heads of Martian fetuses. I could not eat them. I could barely look at them. The rest of the family would finish supper and go watch Gunsmoke on the RCA Victor TV with the massive wooden cabinet housing an eleven-inch, black-and-white, no-definition screen, and I’d be stuck at the table, sitting in front of a plate of
cold green slimy alien spheres, an abused child with nothing to look forward to except a slow death by starvation.
That changed when we got Mistral. At suppertime he would camp underneath the table in front of me and wolf down anything I slipped him—meat, fish, pasta, the occasional napkin, even vegetables, including brussels sprouts. In those days there was a TV show called Lassie, wherein every week a boy named Jeff—who was, with all due respect, an idiot—would get stuck in a well, or fall into some quicksand, or get into some other dire predicament. Then his faithful collie, Lassie, would race back to the farmhouse and bark at Jeff’s parents—who were not themselves rocket scientists2
—until they finally figured out, with some difficulty (“What’s wrong, girl? Are you hungry?”), what Lassie was trying to tell them, even though this happened every single week. So they’d go rescue Jeff, and everybody would praise Lassie for being a hero.
To my mind Mistral was way more heroic. Any dog can run around barking. But show me the episode where Lassie eats Jeff’s brussels sprouts.
So I was a dog lover from the start. Our next family dog after Mistral was Herbie, who was a mixed breed, a cross between a German shepherd and an aircraft carrier. He was huge. Fortunately he was also very affectionate, although sometimes his rambunctiousness intimidated visitors who didn’t know that he was harmless.
“Herbie!” we would shout. “Put the UPS man down RIGHT NOW!”
And usually he would. Good boy!
In my adult years I’ve had a series of dogs, each of them, in his or her own way, the Best Dog Ever. For a while I even had two dogs: a large main dog named Earnest, and a smallish emergency backup dog named Zippy. I wrote a number of columns about these two, the gist of these columns being: “These are not the brightest dogs.”
Take the matter of going outside in the morning. This is a very big thing for dogs, because it’s a chance to race around sniffing to determine where other dogs have made weewee, so they can make weewee directly on top of those places. Every dog on Earth is engaged in a relentless never-ending struggle with every other dog on Earth to establish weewee dominance. It’s an immense responsibility.
So anyway, I used to let Earnest and Zippy out via a
two-stage procedure. Stage One was, I opened the back door, which led to the patio. This patio was surrounded by a screen enclosure, which is necessary in South Florida to prevent the mosquitos from making off with your patio furniture. Earnest and Zippy would race across the patio to the screen door and wait there, eagerly, for Stage Two, which was when I opened the screen door, and they were able to sprint outside and commence weewee operations.
We used this procedure for several years; Earnest and Zippy totally understood it. Then, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew roared through our neighborhood, and when it was gone, so was the patio screen enclosure.
But the screen door was still there.
Just the door, standing alone in its frame at the edge of the patio, with nothing around it.
How do you think Earnest and Zippy responded to this new situation, when it was time to go out in the morning? If you’re a dog person, you have already guessed. I’d open the back door, and the two of them would sprint to the screen door—which I remind you was surrounded by nothing—and stand there, waiting for me to open it. I swear I am not making this up. It took them a couple of weeks to fully comprehend that they no longer needed to follow the two-stage procedure for going outside.
Earnest and Zippy provided me with a lot of entertainment. They were a comedy team, like a low-IQ version of Abbott and Costello. Sometimes when I was working they’d settle down snoozing on opposite sides of my office door—Earnest usually inside with me, Zippy outside in the hallway. They’d lie quietly, sometimes for hours, while I tapped away on my keyboard.
Suddenly, one of them would be activated by something. Dogs do this; they’ll be sound asleep, then, for no apparent reason, they’ll leap up, barking furiously. My theory is that there’s a Dog Satellite orbiting the Earth, emitting signals that only dogs can hear as it passes over. Whatever it was, one of my dogs, usually Earnest, would hear it and start barking. This would awaken Zippy, on the other side of the door. He assumed Earnest was barking at something important, so he would start barking and leaping against the door, trying to get it to open so he could come in and help Earnest bark at whatever it was. Hearing this, Earnest would assume Zippy was barking at something important, and she (Earnest was female) would start leaping against the door from her side, which would make Zippy even more excited.
Now the two of them were hurling their bodies against the door in an escalating frenzy of dog alertness, by which
I mean stupidity. They would keep this up until I got up and opened the door. Earnest would then bolt out of the office, barking; Zippy would charge into the office, also barking. The two of them would eventually conclude that there was no threat, or that they had scared it away. I’d close the door and they’d resume snoozing on opposite sides of it, and the office would be peaceful again, until the next transit of the Dog Satellite.
So Earnest and Zippy were not geniuses. But they were fine dogs, and I was sad when I lost custody of them via divorce. I then entered a period of doglessness that lasted for ten years. When I remarried, I tried repeatedly to convince Michelle that we needed a dog, but she had never had a dog and was firmly opposed to getting one. Her view was that dogs are dirty, smelly animals that bark and slobber and chew things and jump up on you and deposit turds all over your yard.
All of which is of course true.
“But dogs are affectionate,” I’d argue. “They make great companions.”
Michelle would respond that she preferred companions that did not display their affection by suddenly thrusting their snouts into your groin.
“But dogs are funny,” I’d argue. To illustrate how
funny dogs are, I told her the story (this is a true story) about a boyhood friend of mine who had a dog named Boomer who, while riding in the car, saw another dog and jumped out the car window while the car was traveling at a fairly high rate of speed. Upon landing, Boomer broke a number of important bones. He had to wear casts during a long and difficult recovery. Finally he healed, and not long after, he was again riding in the moving car, and he saw another dog. With no hesitation whatsoever he jumped out again.
“Why is that funny?” said Michelle.
“Because he jumped out again,” I said.
“Why did they have the windows down?” said Michelle.
“They never thought he’d jump out again,” I said. “But he did! Ha ha!”
Somehow this line of argument failed to convince Michelle that we needed a dog. And so we were dogless, and I thought we would remain dogless.
Then we had Sophie. From the start Sophie loved animals, all animals, and they loved her. She gave off some kind of vibe that resonated with them. Butterflies—I am completely serious here—would land on her hand, or in her hair, and just stay there. Cats—cats—would seek
her out and rub against her, purring. Once we were in a rain forest in Costa Rica, and we saw a baby deer, which looked like Bambi, only cuter, standing a little way off the trail. A crowd gathered to take pictures and go aww, and the baby deer, instead of running away, came out of the forest, went directly to Sophie and licked her face. I know this happened because I took pictures.
Naturally Sophie loved dogs. When she was a baby, she would toddle up to dogs, even large dogs, and throw her arms around them in a big happy hug. The dogs would wag their tails and lick her; if we’d have let them, they’d have carried her off and raised her in the canine faith.
So now I had an ally. Now Michelle was constantly hearing a nagging, whiny voice: “Please can we get a dog? Please please PLEASE??” There was pouting and sulking. Sometimes there was sobbing and screaming, and floor-pounding tantrums.
That was all from me. Sophie was much more mature about it, but it was obvious that she, too, really wanted a dog. Michelle tried to placate her with tropical fish, but a fish cannot match a dog’s ability to sense and respond to your emotional state, as we can see from this chart:
Your Emotional State
You feel happy.
You feel sad.
You feel scared because armed robbers have broken into your home and tied you up.
Lick the robbers.
So Sophie and I kept working on Michelle, and finally, one evening at a sushi restaurant, possibly under the influence of green tea, she caved and said: “OK, we can get a dog.” Sophie and I were so happy we almost broke our chopsticks.
We began the search that very night. We wanted a rescue dog, so we looked at rescue-agency websites, which had photographs of the available dogs with brief descriptions. There were some cute puppies; Michelle and I assumed that Sophie would want one of those. But the photo that caught her attention barely looked like a dog at all. It was a very low-quality image of a black dog. All that were really visible were the dog’s eyes, which reflected the camera flash, so what you saw were these two glowing orbs surrounded by a black blob. It looked like the Demon Dog from Hell.
This dog, a female about six months old, had been found a couple of months earlier wandering loose in Miramar, Florida, with another dog. They had no collars, no tags, no identification; somebody had abandoned them to roam the streets. The rescue agency, Paws 4 You, called them Paris and Monaco, just to give them names. The one that caught Sophie’s attention was Monaco. The description with her photo said “she couldn’t be sweeter if she tried.” It also said that she never ate food from the other dogs’ bowls.
Michelle and I kept pointing out cute puppies, but Sophie kept going back to the hellish glowing orbs that were Monaco. We asked her if she was sure that was the one she wanted.
“It says she couldn’t be sweeter if she tried,” she said.
So we made an appointment to meet Monaco. We wanted to make sure Monaco would be good with kids, so we took along Sophie’s friend Stella. When we got to the rescue agency a volunteer brought Monaco outside on a leash to meet us. She was still in the late stages of puppyhood, well on her way to being a good-sized, and very strong, dog. She was thrilled to have company. Tail wagging wildly, she towed the volunteer over to Sophie and Stella—she could have towed a freight train—and the three of them commenced a lovefest, rolling around the grass, Monaco licking the girls and lying on her back, paws in the air, while Sophie and Stella climbed all over her.
“I guess she’s good with kids,” I said to Michelle.
In theory we were going to wait until after this meeting to decide whether we wanted to adopt Monaco. In actual fact the decision was made the instant Sophie and Monaco laid eyes on each other. We now had a dog, whose new name, bestowed by Sophie, was Lucy.
When we brought Lucy home she quickly adapted, as dogs do, to her new environment, except for one element: photo albums. We have a lot of albums; Michelle usually makes one after we take a vacation. I don’t know
why they and Lucy could not coexist peacefully. Perhaps tens of thousands of years ago, Lucy’s ancestors were attacked by primitive photo albums, which in those days were much larger and more aggressive than the ones we have today. Whatever happened, Lucy had not forgotten it, and on several occasions during her first few months with us we came home to find an album from one of our family trips chewed into small pieces, leaving little shredded fragments of our happy decapitated vacation faces smiling up from all over the floor.
When this happened we would discuss our concerns with her (“NO! NO!” etc.) and she would usually be good for a few days. But then one of our photo albums would do or say something to trigger her again, and another trove of precious vacation memories would be converted into small wads of chewed paper.
Eventually Lucy made peace with our albums and became a good dog. Except for the matter of the living room sofa.
This sofa, which was not inexpensive, is white, in contrast to Lucy, who is black. She also sheds a lot. She’s like a low-lying cloud that is constantly drizzling little black hairs.
When the new sofa arrived, my wife, Michelle, explained
to Lucy that she was not allowed on it. Michelle did this by pointing at the sofa and repeating “NO!” in a commanding voice thirty or forty times. “No” is one of the eight words that Lucy definitely understands, the other seven being:
“Bubbe” refers to my mother-in-law, Celia Kaufman, who always gives Lucy a dog biscuit (“cookie”) when she visits us. If you tell Lucy, “Bubbe’s coming!” she will go to the front window to watch the street, awaiting Bubbe’s arrival. She will wait patiently for as long as it takes—I believe she would stay there for days—because she knows that at the end of her vigil Bubbe will appear and give her a cookie. This makes Bubbe Lucy’s favorite human, along with pretty much every other human on Earth.
Getting back to the white sofa: the first night we had
it, as we prepared to go to bed, Michelle reminded Lucy about the Official Policy by pointing to the sofa and saying “NO!” another thirty or forty times. Lucy listened attentively, looking at Michelle with a somber and alert facial expression. There is no question she was getting Michelle’s message (specifically, “No”).
Nevertheless, the next morning, we realized that somebody had been on the sofa, and all the evidence pointed to one suspect, whose name you have no doubt already guessed: Bubbe.
No, seriously, the evidence pointed to Lucy, as follows:
Exhibit A: There were seventeen million tiny black hairs on the sofa.
Exhibit B: These hairs were arranged into an arrow pointing directly at Lucy.
Exhibit C: Lucy, who clearly had just jumped off the sofa, was on the floor with her head down, not making eye contact, which is the technique she uses when she wants to render herself invisible to humans.
So Michelle discussed the situation with Lucy at some length (“NO!” “NO!” “NO!” etc.), then painstakingly cleaned all the hairs off the sofa. That evening she again explained the Official Policy to Lucy and, as an added precaution, used chairs and a coffee table to form
a barrier in front of the sofa. But this failed to prevent Lucy—who, when she is motivated, has a vertical leap of twenty-seven feet—from spending the night on the sofa.
That was the beginning of the Great Sofa War, which was not a happy time. Every night Michelle, who is not a quitter, would lecture Lucy and barricade the sofa; every morning we would wake up to find a hairy sofa and Lucy flattened against the floor, a black rug of guilt. The household grew tense. I attempted to lighten the mood by suggesting that we could solve the problem by dyeing Lucy white, but Michelle was not amused.
Fortunately, before we had to resort to extreme measures—erecting a wall around the sofa and forcing the Mexican government to pay for it, for example, or hiring a guard dog to guard our sofa from our dog—we found a solution. Instead of barricading the sofa at night, we started putting small electronic devices on it. Lucy is deeply suspicious of anything that involves electricity. I don’t know why. Maybe electricity smells bad. All I know is, if Lucy is trotting toward you, and you show her, say, a mobile phone, she will slam on the brakes and back away with an expression of alarm, as if you’re holding a rattlesnake, or—this is even scarier, because it means bath time—a bottle of dog shampoo.
So now, at bedtime, Michelle arranges a variety of small electronic items—a guitar tuner, a remote control, etc.—on the sofa cushions. This has worked beautifully; each morning the sofa is as hairless as a frog’s belly. I suspect that during the night Lucy conducts regular surveillance missions into the living room to determine whether the sofa situation has changed, only to be forced to retreat when she sees that the devices are still vigilantly manning their posts. I like to think that if Lucy gets too close, the guitar tuner emits a low but distinct electronic “No!”
So we have won the battle, but I’m not so naïve as to think the war is over. If, one night, Michelle forgets to position the devices, Lucy will be back on the sofa. Because she is also not a quitter, and I’m sure she hasn’t changed her mind about where she should sleep.
But aside from that, Lucy has been—as most dogs are—the Best Dog Ever. Despite their differences on sleeping arrangements, she managed to convert Michelle from a person who thought dogs were unhygienic and yucky into a person who would willingly permit a dog—a dog that only minutes earlier could have been conducting a deep probe of its own butt, or chowing down on another dog’s poop—to lick her passionately on the face.
Lucy also won over Michelle’s mom, a.k.a. Bubbe, who is no pushover, by being an attentive audience for Bubbe’s repertoire of traditional Spanish and Yiddish songs.3
When Bubbe sings to her, Lucy sits utterly still, staring at Celia soulfully, as if deeply moved by the music. In fact she’s probably thinking, This is the person who gives me cookies! Maybe she will give me a cookie! But whatever Lucy’s thinking, Bubbe loves her.
So Lucy is family, the way dogs become family. She is around us all the time; she is the soul of our house. She follows us from room to room, waiting to see where we settle so she can settle nearby. When we say her name or reach down to pet her, her tail thumps the floor in a drumbeat of joy. When we leave the house, she follows us to the door and watches us go, sad but resigned. When we return home she’s waiting right there at the door, and she greets us joyfully whether we’ve been gone for five minutes or five hours. She is always happy to see us, always happy to be touched, always wildly enthusiastic about going for a walk. Always. She
is—except when we leave, or it’s bath time—a happy soul.
She’s also getting to be an old soul. Lucy turns ten this year. Her once jet-black face is now mostly white, and she has developed droopy jowls, which give her a perpetual expression of Deep Concern:
We love Lucy’s face, but not everybody sees what we do. Recently Michelle and I were taking Lucy for her morning walk when we encountered a woman walking a well-groomed, obviously purebred dog with strikingly pointed ears. The woman and I had the following exchange:
ME: What kind of dog is that?
WOMAN: A Belgian Malinois.
ME: It’s a beautiful dog.
WOMAN: Thank you! (She looks at Lucy.) Have a good day!
But we don’t care what anybody thinks. We think Lucy is beautiful, inside and out. Especially inside. I don’t want to sound all Californian here, but there’s something spiritual about dogs. If you’ve ever had a dog, you know what I mean; you can see it when you look into their eyes. Dogs aren’t people, but they’re not mollusks, either. Lucy is somebody. Lucy has feelings, moods, attitudes. She can be excited, sad, scared, lonely, interested, bored, angry, playful, willful.
But mostly she’s happy. She sleeps more than she used to, and she moves a little slower, but her capacity for joy, her enthusiasm for life, does not seem to have diminished with age. Michelle and I often marvel at Lucy’s ability to be happy, especially compared with our own. We know, when we stop to look at the big picture, that we should be happy, too: we’re very fortunate people leading very good lives. But we hardly ever stop to look at the big picture. We’re almost always looking at the little picture, which is a random collage of pesky chores, obligations
and annoyances—deadlines, bills, doctor appointments, grocery lists, the insanely complex carpool schedule, the leak in the roof, the car with a tire that’s losing air (not to be confused with the car that needs an oil change), the odor in the kitchen that we hope will go away on its own and not turn out to be a deceased rat in the wall like last time, and on and on. When we think about bigger things, they’re usually things that worry us—disease, aging, death, politics, the economy, terrorism, the decline of the once-great American newspaper industry into a big frantic Twitter account.
So we spend a lot of time thinking about things that make us stressed and/or unhappy. Whereas Lucy never thinks about any of these things. Sometimes when I’m working I’ll pause from tapping on my keyboard and look at her, sprawled on the floor at my feet, emitting extravagant dog snores and the occasional dog fart, not concerned in the least about her career, or the future, or who the president is, as long as he doesn’t try to give her a bath.
I envy Lucy’s ability to not worry about things. I once got a letter from the Internal Revenue Service stating that I was going to be audited and would be required to produce basically all my financial documents dating back
to middle school. I totally freaked out. This letter was all I thought about for weeks. Whereas Lucy, if she got exactly the same letter, would react by sniffing it to determine whether it had been peed on by another dog, in which case she would also pee on it. That would be the extent of her concern. If the IRS sent armed agents to arrest her for noncompliance, she would be thrilled to have company. She would greet the agents joyfully at the door and sniff them and lick them and go get her squeaky toy so she could play the game where she runs around squeaking her toy as you try without success to take it from her. If the agents took her to prison, she would go happily. She would enjoy the car ride; she would enthusiastically greet and lick the prison guards; she would vigorously inhale the exciting new pee aromas of her fellow inmates.
She would not dwell on the fact that she was in prison. She would accept her new situation, whether it lasted a day or the rest of her life. She would find a way to make the best of it.
That’s what Lucy does: she makes the best of things. She’s way better at this than I am. I know much more than she does, but she knows something I don’t: how to be happy.
And that’s the idea behind Lessons from Lucy. This book represents my attempt to understand how Lucy manages to be so happy, and to figure out whether I can use any of her methods to make my own life happier. Because—not to get too dramatic—I don’t have that much time left. I turned seventy, which means I’m the same age as Lucy is in dog years. She and I are definitely getting up there. If our lives were football games, we’d be at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. If our lives were movie credits, we’d be way down at the bottom, past the assistant gerbil wrangler. If our lives were Cheez-It bags, we’d be at the stage where you hold the bag up and tilt it into your mouth to get the last crumbs.
In other words: The End Is in Sight. Whatever time I have left, I want it to be as happy as possible. And I’m hoping Lucy, who is aging so joyfully, can teach me how. Obviously I’m not saying I should behave exactly like her. For example, it would probably be a mistake for me to lick an IRS agent. (Although for the record I definitely would, if it would help.)
But I really do want to learn what Lucy can teach me.
However much time I have left, I want to make the best of it.
I want to age joyfully, too. 1
Although usually not together. 2
For example, Jeff was eventually replaced by an entirely new boy named Timmy, and they didn’t even notice that. 3
Michelle’s family is Cuban-Jewish, or as they call themselves, “Jewbans.” They didn’t travel from Cuba to the US on rafts; they parted the Caribbean.