Lessons From Lucy, Dave Barry

Lessons From Lucy by Dave Barry. There's a dog on the cover. There's Dave Barry on the cover. The dog looks both wise and dumb as good dogs should. Dave Barry looks like Dave Barry, I guess. The cover says New York Times Bestseller in all caps so it's not like I'm alone in liking this. Nice to be in the in-crowd. And the publisher has put a subtitle on the thing stating that it's about "the simple joys of an old, happy dog" by which I think they're referring to Lucy, but who knows what they think of Barry or how they refer to him around the office. Could go either way.

My friend Faith suggested the book, so I blame her. I've known Faith forty-one years. I remember how, on her fortieth birthday, a family friend hung a sheet or something on her house saying, "Lordy, Lordy, Faith is Forty." I also remember thinking, "wow, forty is old." And now our friendship is forty-one years old, I'm ten years older than that, and I've come around to a whole new way of thinking about these things, which is to say: wow, forty-one is ridiculously old.

The book is good and fun. It's a self-help book, but Barry knows better than that. He also understands he's stating the obvious in the book and that it's okay. Besides, it's not really a self-help book because it's funny. Self-help isn't allowed to be funny. It's not even allowed to approach funny. There are laws in all fifty states and Rhode Island about these things. Lessons From Lucy is a humor book disguised as self-help too obvious to be real self-help and couldn't be self-help anyway because it's funny, all of which is help to my self.

To give just a taste — mind you, this book tastes terrible even with chocolate sauce — discussing mindfulness, Barry reminded me of my good old days working in schools that often helped teachers by forcing them through day-long sessions about things that obviously didn't matter and would be forgotten before the end of September so that we could spend another day-long session acting as though we were invested in and listening to the presentation and definitely not watching the NCAA Tournament on our phones hidden cunningly in our laps.

I was one of the last people to find out about "mindfulness." By the time I'd heard of it, major corporations and government agencies were putting their employees through mindfulness training. I did not view this as a positive sign. In my experience, any trend that reaches the point where large organizations are inflicting it on their personnel has a high statistical probability of being stupid.

I don't remember what the second lesson for Lucy is (there are seven chapters, each with a lesson from Lucy, and (spoiler!) they follow in numerical order) but it served as an excuse for Barry to describe being a member of a precision lawnmower brigade and the band The Remainders (who play, according to Roy Blount Jr. music falls under the heading "hard listening.") I read it in bed last night and am still married because my wife remained downstairs talking with our daughter while I snorted and giggled through forty-four pages and then reread most of it to snort and giggle some more. After I'm done drafting this, I'll read it again and laugh at the exact same stuff and this may go on for days. I think this is a sign of greatness, that I derive joy from things again and again, sucking the marrow out of life as it were. I hear whispers on occasion, suggesting the possibility that I'm just a simple moron. Another thing that could go either way.

But there really is a part of this for which I blame Faith. The epilogue had me in tears. Not laughing, Dave-Barry-is-so-funny tears, but real ones I had trouble seeing through. The last eight pages I had to keep wiping my eyes and try to breathe normally. Also, I got snot on the book. For this, I apologize to the Onondaga County Library System and everyone else waiting to read Lessons From Lucy, but mostly I blame Faith. So should the librarians.

Don't worry, the dog doesn't die. Lucy doesn't even get sick. She's fine. Everybody's fine. Even me. Everyone is good except Faith who has some serious explaining to do.

Frantic Doesn't Help

There's a lot to do and learn, a whole bunch of uncertainty, and more than the usual number of things gnawing on my mind, so how about I get frantic. Yeah, that'll help.

I've had a half-caffeine coffee this morning and trouble sleeping last night. Maybe that has something to do with the worry and panic coming to a boil within me. I'm like a pan of rice. The water in me is boiling, I've added the dry rice of my to-do list, and though I've lower the heat some my anxiety continues to bubble and boil. The boiling water is flushed out from under the lid by the pressure and it hisses in the flames of the burner, maybe blowing them out, poison gas filling my kitchen.

A morning such as this, I've put the top on but things threaten to boil over. I have choices: hold the cover down in hopes the heat slackens or cock the lid to let some heat and pressure escape. There's only one sensible choice, but I push down on the cover wishing trouble away.

Okay, maybe I'm not that dumb. In the midst of this rising panic, I switched from rushing through work, boiling in my anxiety, to writing this. That may leave space between pan and lid, allow steam to quietly escape, and bring down the pressure. Maybe.

I keep running into that word: maybe. I wonder if it comes from feeling doubtful about so many things or being open to possibility. When the pressure is up I'm sure it's the former. When I calm down I know that it's the latter.

Maybe doesn't apply to whether or not I'll be okay, whether or not I'll learn how to do a new job, whether or not I'm able. I've done more difficult things. I've come through troubles and this is decidedly not trouble. It's a good challenge.

There's also no maybe around whether or not I'll feel panic and anxiety from time to time. Of course I will. I'm starting new things, still dealing with old things, and living a life with a family and all the wondrous complications that involves.

The maybe comes from how I will deal with these things. The pan is on the stove. Water and rice have come to a rolling boil. Through the glass lid I see the white bubbles froth. Steam spurts out time to time and rattles the lid. Maybe I'll deal with the situation before it boils over and makes a mess. Maybe I'll make a mess and clean it up later. Either way, I suspect I'll manage. Being frantic, though it feels like my natural inclination, won't help much. Might as well calm down and have some decaf.

Do Tell

Most of what I thought I was keeping private I've really been keeping secret. The former is keeping confidence for the sake of others, not revealing something because it would be a burden for them. The latter is hiding. I'm speaking here of the secrets and privacy of the self, myself really. Secrets can be valuable when carried for a loved one. Secrets kept about myself seem less so. Also, privacy, like solitude, feels healthy and good while secrets, like loneliness, mostly do damage.

Don't worry though, I'm not about to reveal my deepest secrets here today. That's another kind of burdening that does damage. Instead I'm looking to consider the effects I'm feeling of having let go of a couple secrets.

Start easy with one I've talked about before: I'm quitting my job after this school year. That's the sort of thing I would usually kept to myself worrying What if my employer and colleagues find out? What if I change my mind? Fearing these things, I have the habit of making such decisions but keeping them secret. Privacy isn't motivated by fear, but secrets usually are. My habit says, don't tell anyone.

I bucked that habit and have announced the decision and then some. The effects help me see the value of going public. I have been surprised by the support, suggestions, and gratitude with which my announcement has been received. I expected it to be a burden to others, but it turns out to be a type of kindness.

It has been kind to me as well. There have been other times I've said I need to quit my job, but that was only my inner voice echoing inside the empty warehouse of my skull. I kept it secret because the idea felt shameful and made me seem weak. Transforming the secret through telling, I felt lighter and open to ideas. The secret had me thinking I had to go on until retirement. Telling others had me feeling the truth of it.

A second example. At my in-laws, talking about my job, I said it was making me sick. To show I wasn't just whining, I let go of a secret: I'm 219 pounds, technically obese. My mother-in-law was shocked and did not want to believe. No way, she said. That's not possible.

I never want to reveal that I'm fat. It's embarrassing and feels like failure, a lack of will, and weakness. Being fat is something I keep secret out of shame. This is what I've learned. That's my habit.

Saying it didn't change my weight but I felt lighter, less trapped in my weight or held down by it. Letting go of the secret I found that no one reproached me. There was no shame. There was understanding and I felt good.

My recent experience has been that sharing secrets is strengthening. Still, I resist the urge to share because shame, the heaviest of weights, feels so crushing. Shame drives my habit of hiding, of keeping secret while claiming privacy. The habit is so strong it overcomes most logic and experience.

Of course it matters how the secret is told. It's no surprise that telling honestly and in straight-forward fashion without hoping to elicit any response, least of all shock is best. I didn't want to shock my mother-in-law. Instead, I wanted to share something and help her understand how bad my job has become. I told her about my weight not to say, Look at me! but more to offer, This is me. Here I am. I was giving instead of asking for something. For me, that's a radical approach.

There are implications in this for writing. When I tell of my job and weight, I'm not looking for a result, effect, moral, or even an ending. There is no moral. I don't know how the story will end. It's a thing in process. I tell the story without drama or effect and go forward in the belief that someone, maybe me, might benefit. Secrets are hidden stories. Telling in the right amounts — and here there is a border to explore — is good for all.

Why Are You Here?

In bed Sunday morning at quarter to eight I felt anxious that I was late. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, but the feeling rose in me nonetheless. I closed my eyes tight but darkness made the anxiety stronger. Then I asked it a question:

        Why are you here?

Yeah, I talked to my anxiety. Usually I battle it, push against it, try to tamp it down. I try to stop anxiety, kick it in the knees. What else is there to do with something I fear? These things rarely work but are the habits I've developed. Today I took a different tack. I talked with it the way I want people to talk with me.

        Why are you here?

In case you're worried, my anxiety doesn't reply. There is however a child-like voice in me that said, I don't know. And with that my anxiety began to drain away. It didn't disappear in a flash but I felt it ebbing. Having asked the question, gotten something of an answer, I opened my eyes and felt ready to get out of bed. I had writing to do.