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Dave Barry talks about his new book, 'Lessons From Lucy,' and his daughter's frightening illness

Humorist Dave Barry’s new book, “Lessons From Lucy,” is about what he has learned from his dog. It also includes a chapter about his family’s fears and his daughter’s eventual recovery from a health issue. [Photo by Jeffrey Salter]
Humorist Dave Barry’s new book, “Lessons From Lucy,” is about what he has learned from his dog. It also includes a chapter about his family’s fears and his daughter’s eventual recovery from a health issue. [Photo by Jeffrey Salter]
Published Mar. 27

Last August, Dave Barry was getting ready to go on a book tour.

Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog is the humorist's 50th book (counting several collaborations), so he knew the drill. Barry's 18-year-old daughter, Sophie, was making preparations of her own to start her freshman year at Duke University.

Then Sophie woke up one morning in their Miami home unable to move her legs.

There had been no accident, no illness. But the healthy, athletic teenager was suddenly paralyzed.

Barry and his wife, Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman, were baffled. Just stress, they thought, a reaction to all the changes of going off to college; Sophie will be fine.

But at the emergency room their daughter was whisked off for MRIs and other tests. The diagnosis: transverse myelitis, an autoimmune disorder affecting her spinal nerves. One-third of patients never recover from it, a doctor told them.

From the hospital at which Sophie would spend the next 40 days, Barry called his publisher. "I said, I can't go on the book tour. I honestly don't know if I can ever go on a book tour again," he says.

What followed was weeks in the "sleepless nightmare" of what Barry calls "Hospital World." He writes about his family's fears and Sophie's eventual recovery in what's now the final chapter of Lessons From Lucy, which will be published April 2..

"It seemed weird to have a book about life lessons without the biggest one I've learned," Barry says in a recent phone interview.

So when Sophie was done with the hospital and rehab and back home, Barry asked his publisher, Simon & Schuster, if he could add the epilogue. "It was hard to write. It was like going back over everything that happened.

"It's not my usual book," he says of Lessons From Lucy. "I've been Mr. Booger Jokes forever. But I really felt that chapter needed to be there."

Barry, who actually does have a book titled Boogers Are My Beat, is one of America's most beloved humor writers. From 1983 through 2004, he wrote a column for the Miami Herald that was nationally syndicated, winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988. In 2005 he won the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. His annual year in review and holiday gift guide columns remain reader favorites.

Peter and the Starcatchers, one of nine books for young readers Barry has co-written with Ridley Pearson, became a hit Broadway play. In the 1990s, the sitcom Dave's World, based on two of his books, ran for four seasons on CBS.

At 71, Barry could probably rest on his laurels. But, he says, his editor at Simon & Schuster, Priscilla Painton, "said, 'Why don't you write a book about dogs? You love dogs, you've always written about them.' "

"What I'd written had basically always been 'Dogs are stupid,' " Barry says. "In a lovable way, of course, but you don't want dogs flying your plane."

He had already been contemplating writing a book about aging. "I didn't sit down and think, hey, I'll write a self-help book based on my dog.

"But one day it came to me. I was sitting there staring at her and I thought how happy she was. She's here right now. She's in the room, she sees me talking, she looks up when I say her name. She's just happy to be with her people. So that was the genesis."

The family adopted Lucy from a rescue group; Sophie chose her from a website. "But the photo that caught her attention barely looked like a dog at all," Barry writes in the book. "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."

Sophie was won over by the description of the dog's personality: "It says she couldn't be sweeter if she tried." That rescue pup, who is (according to her DNA test) a boxer-Dalmatian-chow chow-golden retriever mix, was 10 years old by the time Barry wrote the book.

The lessons he learns from her are simple ones: Make new friends, don't stop having fun, pay attention to the people you love. "Everyone in the world knows everything in this book," Barry says.

"We do it every time we go to a funeral. We say, why am I obsessed with all this stupid crap? I'm going to start paying attention to what's really important.

"But we don't apply it. Dogs are really consistent about applying it. From puppyhood to old doghood, they focus on the things we don't. We stop playing, we stop making friends. Dogs keep on."

One lesson Barry writes about is Lucy's utter lack of stress about things like "her career, or the future, or who the president is, as long as he doesn't try to give her a bath."

Barry's humor has often been political, but that's largely absent from this book.

"We get so obsessed with things that are not really affecting our lives. We've been led to believe that every idiot thing some idiot politician says in Washington affects us. You can spend all day being infuriated, but is it really changing the world for the better?"

He says, "When Sophie was in the hospital, Michelle and I talked about this. We didn't even read the newspaper. We didn't care. Whatever the current debate was on Fox or wherever was just not important."

He does write in the book about some of the experiences that have made him happiest, among them his performances with the all-author rock band the Rock Bottom Remainders, of which he's a charter member. Founded in 1992, the band is described this way on its website: "Over 350M books sold. Forty New York Times #1 Bestsellers. One lousy band."

Playing occasionally and exuberantly, mostly at benefits and book events, the Remainders have raised more than $2 million for charity. They disbanded in 2012 but have played a few concerts since then, and Barry is eagerly looking forward to their next show on May 10 in Minneapolis at that city's Wordplay literary festival.

The band's membership is fluid, but the Minneapolis show will include Barry, Pearson, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Mary Karr, Mitch Albom and more. "I love all those people," Barry says. "I just love them."

With Sophie doing well at Duke and on track to catch up with her class by summer, Barry is also going on the book tour. He'll make a dozen stops all over the country in April to talk about Lessons From Lucy.

"It's not my ordinary book," he says. "Usually people come out of my books stupider than they went in."

This time, he says, "I was writing a book about making your life better."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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

By Dave Barry

Simon & Schuster, 225 pages, $26

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