by Anna Cooke
The annual Festival of Reading took place over a recent weekend on the St. Petersburg campus of USF. A pre-arranged 15 minute interview with author and journalist Dave Barry had been set up by his publicist, Larry Hughes, and the Festival’s Author Coordinator Lori Gaudreau. Our meeting was scheduled 45 minutes before Dave was to take the stage in front of what would be a standing room only crowd.
Having read Lessons From Lucy to review in The New Barker, my one takeaway from Dave’s book about his dog was this quote from him, which appears in the book: “I have a black belt in instantly hating strangers.”
I sort of get that. While I don’t instantly hate strangers, if I were to meet Dave and his dog Lucy at the same time, it’s a pretty good bet my arms would end up around Lucy, not Dave.
Photographer Jacqui Silla and I arrived a solid 45 minutes before Dave was set to meet us in the green room, which is actually called the Coral Room, on the second floor of the University Student Center. We rearranged the seating, looking for the best possible lighting for the photos. I reviewed my notes and Jacqui had to keep reminding me to breathe.
Outside the room, a crowd was already beginning to wind around the lobby in front of the auditorium like a haphazard queue at a tourist attraction. At 12:05, 10 minutes before Dave was to arrive for our scheduled interview, Jacqui suggested I make a call to Lori to make sure everything was okay.
There’s been a slight change in plans, said Lori, and would I mind coming to where they were? She had Dave right next to her, she said, in the writer’s lounge. “We’re just across the street from where you are,” she said.
Just across the street on a college campus from the second floor of another building was not as easy as it sounded. I had just stopped profusely perspiring from our trek here, and the jitters were still trying to take over my stomach. Blisters had already formed on my toes from the high-heel boots I decided to put on that morning after not having worn them for more than a year. What was I thinking?
We would never make it on time. I imagined us arriving at the writer’s lounge only to see Dave being whisked away for his talk back at the University Student Center, where Jacqui and I already were. Seriously, the scenario played out in my head like the screen from a Super Mario Brothers game.
Lori patiently listened as I told her that a photographer was with me and we were all set up in the location we were originally instructed to meet: the green room, which is actually the Coral Room, and, by the way, there is a large crowd for Dave already forming outside the auditorium. Lori answered, “Oh. Most of the journalists just come by themselves, not with a photographer.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself, “She just referred to me as a journalist.” My second thought was, well maybe most journalists don’t find themselves in a position where they’re about to meet and interview one of their favorite writers for the first and, very likely, last time.
Dave Barry wrote a nationally syndicated humor column for the Miami Herald for 22 years. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary (1988) and the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism (2005). In addition to his book, Lessons from Lucy, he’s written 50+ other books, including I’m Mature When I’m Dead and Boogers are My Beat: More Lies, But Some Actual Journalism. Yes, literary masterpieces. He is also part of the Greatest Rock Band Ever (of authors).
Besides, I politely argued into my phone, isn’t Dave scheduled to give his talk in the building we’re in now? “Yes,” Lori answered. “But, before that he has another meeting scheduled back in this building, where we are now.”
Poor Dave. He was being tossed around the St. Petersburg campus of USF like a freshly-opened bag of Cheetos in a college dorm room.
Quickly, I thought: If I make Dave trek across campus to meet me, I’ll have made a person, who is already loathsome of strangers, hate me even more for having made him run across campus – twice. He probably won’t even look at me much less talk to me. This will be the worst interview ever.
Then I heard Lori say into my phone: I’ll bring him to you. That did not make me feel any better.
Breathe, Jacqui reminded me again. “Here, drink some water. You’re gonna do great.”
Yes, I thought to myself. This will all be over very fast. As he walks into the room, Dave will zap me instantly with his death glare, and that will be that. He’ll go on stage to an adoring, unknowing crowd, while I lay crumpled under a heap of clothing, only my high-heel boots peeking out. Much like that scene from the Wizard of Oz when the house drops on the Wicked Witch of the West.
Dave arrived, just a bit disoriented from his back and forth traversing, not a hair out of place. As he walked through the door, he straightened out his blue blazer and began to compose himself for what was to come next. He was gracious, adorable, as nervous as I was, and genuine.
Probably my most disingenuous question was to ask how Lucy, his dog, was doing. I thought it would be the best way to quickly ease into what would be a fast-paced interview.
“Lucy is doing great,” said Dave, his eyes darting around the room. “First of all, we have to agree how much better dogs are than people,” he went on. Now, he was beginning to make a little eye contact. “They’re always looking up at you with those eyes. No matter what, they’re happy to see you; to be with you. And, that’s just great, especially with the way things are now in the world.”
On being a grandparent, Dave said, “It’s great. We just had a new one. Five months old. First of all, they’re not my kids. They’re grandkids. So, I can love them, then hand them back to their parents. I look at my son and daughter-in-law and wonder how they do it. How do they keep up mentally and physically with these kids? Lucy loves the grandkids. She thinks it’s her job to protect them.”
On fame. “Oh, Lucy is more famous than me now. When we go for walks or go anywhere in public together, people always remark, ‘Look, there’s Lucy.’ They don’t even notice me anymore. Which is fine.”
On helping shelter dogs during his book tours to promote Lessons From Lucy. “I’ve been able to do quite a bit of fundraising for rescue groups and shelters in Miami, thanks to my good friend [Miami philanthropist, pet rescue and child advocate] Yolanda Berkowitz. I don’t take Lucy to these events, though, because I really want the spotlight to be on the rescue dogs.”
Lessons From Lucy devotes seven chapters to showcase seven lessons Dave (who thinks he’s an old guy) has learned from Lucy, the aging family dog. As is Dave’s often self-deprecating, sarcastic writing style, the lessons are humorously presented. Every dog lover will recognize themselves and appreciate the lessons.
After Dave completed the book’s manuscript and sent it off to his editor, his daughter Sophie was getting ready to start her freshman year at Duke. “We had plans. Life was orderly. Life was good,” wrote Dave. “On Saturday, August 18, two days before we were going to take Sophie to Duke, she woke up paralyzed from the waist down.”
In the final chapter “One Last Lesson,” added after the book was completed, Dave drops the humor, but not his honesty, to recount every parent’s worst nightmare. He shares one more lesson with the reader. It’s one we already know, but need reminding of every day: Gratitude and appreciating the goodness in our lives.
It’s been a little over a year since Sophie’s illness, and she is thriving at Duke. “We couldn’t be happier,” said Dave.
We touched on the book’s last chapter, and I wondered aloud, “Now that everything in life is back in order, and life is good, it’s easy to fall back into old routines. Do you remember to practice gratitude?”
“I think about that every minute of every single day,” Dave said, looking right at me.