Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

  • By Dave Barry
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 240 pp.
  • Reviewed by Michael McCarthy
  • April 11, 2019

The famed humorist learns what life's about at the paws of a master.

To the surprise of no one except your friend from college who continues to post Instagram pictures of her cats in various stages of antisocial repose, it was recently reported that dogs are better. They are. They’re just better.

All right, that’s not the overall conclusion of the General Social Survey, but it’s fairly close: Dogs are great because dog owners are happier.

Satirist Dave Barry know this. In fact, in Lessons from Lucy, he’s written a how-to guide for living based on his rescue pooch, a beast whose initial penchant for devouring family-photo albums was eventually replaced by turning white couches the color of her black fur.

That Barry would write a book he’d usually spoof is a minor miracle in itself. Skeptics might think the man who finds nothing sacred — much less literary life coaches — wouldn’t be able to walk the tightrope between spleen jokes and heartfelt insights about aging, family, and happiness.

But Barry pulls it off. His book is a little gem. While he manages to convey eight lessons along the way, the Pulitzer Prize winner also crafts a series of essays that, for the first time, reveal emotional depth to the man with the prankster pen. Lucy, meanwhile, falls into a familial routine.

“When we say her name or reach down to pet her, her tail thumps the floor in a drumbeat of joy,” Barry writes. “She’s also getting to be an old soul…she has developed droopy jowls, which give her a perpetual expression of deep concern.”

Aging, the wrinkled elephant in the room, is Barry’s overriding theme: “Lucy 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 Cheez-It bags, we’d be at the stage where you’d hold the bag up and tilt it into your mouth to get the last crumbs.”

Barry comes to the realization at the age of 70 that he’s never truly learned how to be happy; he’s an introvert and a worrier. Lucy, on the other hand, has figured out the calculus of living. She makes new friends easily, whereas Barry figures getting chummy at his age is not only impossible, but also a colossal waste of precious time.

Lucy lives for the moment and the human sitting in front of her; Barry constantly checks his phone for Twitter refreshes and texts.

All of these old-man-versus-old-dog contrasts anchor chapters that tout lessons like paying attention to the people you love and relying less on material possessions. Granted, these are foundational golden rules for adulthood. And that’s Barry’s point: The rules are obvious, and yet many of us skip them.

In Barry’s case, it takes old age and a decrepit dog to remind him to follow through on these lessons. For example, Lucy never stops having fun: A ball is her happy trigger, writes Barry, and she uses it to celebrate any and all events, like, say, sunrise, or a person entering the house every 15 seconds.

He continues, “So, what I’m saying to you, especially if you’re getting up in years, is: Don’t settle for contentment. Don’t just stand around grinning. Get out there. It’s a wonderful world.”

Barry follows Lucy’s merriment angle and gets his literary band, the Rock Bottom Remainders (whose members include Amy Tan, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and Matt Groening, among others) back together for a gig at a book festival. They’re awful musicians, but it hardly matters. They’re having a blast.    

The book’s tight, breezy chapters are tied together with Barry giving himself grades for the progress he’s making on each Lucy lesson (an “A” for having fun again, a “C” for making new friends, etc.). But the most surprising twist arrives in a chapter titled One Last Lesson — surely a recent and painful story Barry hadn’t planned on telling.

His daughter, Sophie, is about to leave for college when she’s suddenly struck with a rare disease that leaves her in a hospital with no feeling in her legs or toes. She can’t walk, and the prognosis isn’t rosy. Barry’s glib observances about life vanish; the jokes fade.

This is where we meet Dave Barry the indulgent and frightened father. The old dog has delivered the maxims; now it’s up to the master to figure out what they mean when a life is on the line. Happy endings aside, Barry makes a compelling case for gratefulness every single day.

Washington, DC-based writer Michael McCarthy owns a 90-pound rescue dog named Henry, whose recent claim to fame is swiping a glazed Bundt cake off a counter and consuming it without taking a breath.

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