[ Ed note: In lieu of the customary Weekend Roundup, I was hoping you’d allow me a brief digression from the normal tax discussion in favor of a bit of self-indulgence.
Last Wednesday saw the birth of my second child, a beautiful and healthy daughter named Emily. When my son Ryan was born three years ago, I was barely a year removed from life-saving surgery to repair a brain aneurysm, a brush with mortality that left me keenly aware of my own frailties. Concerned that I might not be around to see him grow into a man, I wanted a way to pass along the most important life lessons I’d learned, while simultaneously urging him not to repeat my mistakes or share my shortcomings.
The result was the following letter. Though it was initially written for my son, the message holds equally true for Emily. I hope you enjoy it.]
Well, it’s been a couple of days now, and I’m starting to think you’re here to stay.
I have to admit, I’ve had a suspicion you’d be arriving for some time. My first hint came back in the fall, when I walked into your parents’ bedroom to find your Mom and Dad sharing a big hug and more than a few tears. What was different about these tears — and what has always stuck in my memory — is that they fell on smiling faces.
In the months that followed, it was clear they were scrambling to prepare for the arrival of something; reinventing the extra bedroom, frantically assembling furniture, and filling the house with wonderful new toys I was forbidden to touch.
But it was only recently when I put together who all those tears and all those tools and all those toys were for. These past few months, there’s been considerably less room on your Mom’s side of the bed. And late at night, if I snuggled up just right against her belly, I could feel the new life within.
You probably haven’t taken notice of me yet at the foot of your crib — what with all the new sights, sounds and smells you’ve been inundated with — but I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll be the best of friends before long.
In the meantime, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I sit where I do, not in some desperate ploy to garner a small piece of the attention that was once lavished upon me, but because you seem awfully important to your Mom and Dad, so I’d happily sacrifice my life to protect you from harm. This may seem a bit sudden to you, but it’s just the way we dogs are wired.
While I may look like nothing more than a lazy pile of yellow fur, I assure you I’m a lot smarter than you think. I’m five now, which puts me at thirty-five in my years. So while I’m still blessed with the beauty of youth, I’ve started to add the wisdom that comes with age.
Sadly, my accelerated maturity comes at the price of an abbreviated life span, which means I won’t always be here to look after you. That’s why I wanted to pass on some things I’ve learned from my time with your Mom and Dad that I think you’ll find invaluable as you grow into a woman.
Revisit these three rules throughout your life, Emily, and you’ll turn out just fine, despite your parents’ best efforts to screw you up.
Tell Time Like a Dog
There’s a theory about dogs and our concept of time that humans like to perpetuate. They say that dogs only understand time in terms of now and never.
Living in the now, they’ll tell you, is why I’m willing to play and play and play until my tongue hangs and legs shake. Living in the never, they’ll say, is why I get so sad each and every time your parents leave me….
…and so overwhelmed with joy each and every time they return.
Here’s the thing Emily: that theory is 100% correct.
What’s interesting, however, is that humans look at our concept of time as a sign of lesser intelligence; as some sort of detriment. They view themselves as superior in part because of their understanding of yesterday and tomorrow.
This is going to sound strange, but I beg you to spend the majority of your life telling time like a dog. What you have to understand is that by having no concept of yesterday or tomorrow, dogs are incapable of regretting the past or worrying about the future. And for that I am thankful every day of my life.
I’ve witnessed what worry can do to you humans. In the short time I’ve spent with your parents, I’ve watched them spend more and more time agonizing over what’s to come, and less and less time enjoying what’s unfolding before them. They dwell on whether they’ll be good parents, about whether they’ll have enough money to send you to college, about whether your Dad will get sick again. And all the while, the beauty of everyday life is passing them by. In their concern about endless tomorrows, they’ve sacrificed far too many todays.
Your Dad and I have seen some amazing places together. We’re always hiking or biking or skiing in the mountains; and in our first few years together it was in these moments that I watched your father’s soul flourish. But recently, I’ve found that even when surrounded by the places he most enjoys, even when doing the very things he rushed to return to after his illness, his head is elsewhere. Worried about tomorrow. About whether he’ll ever get to share these moments, these mountains, with you. Or whether he’ll get sick again instead.
It’s been painful for me to watch. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve wanted to grab your Dad with my paws and insist he stop obsessing over what may happen next and simply be present, and cherish what he’s experiencing right now. Unfortunately, I have neither the opposable thumbs nor the functioning larynx to carry out such a threat, so my message goes undelivered.
I understand that as a human, you have to consider tomorrow, to have a plan. But please, don’t let it consume you. Don’t let your life go by only to realize that you’ve spent so much time focused on tomorrow, you forgot to enjoy today. Tell time like a dog, and live in the now. You’ll be glad you did.
Laugh Until it Hurts
While there aren’t many traits people possess that dogs covet, there is one thing you have that inspires great jealously in my species. Your sense of humor. Your ability and willingness to laugh. I would gladly sacrifice a year of belly rubs to experience just one moment of the unfettered laughter people seem to enjoy daily.
For all their faults, for all their worry, your parents sure know how to laugh. They laugh at one another. They laugh at themselves. They laugh at silly stuff and they laugh at life’s so-called “serious” things. Come to think of it, your father laughs at things even I find juvenile and disgusting, and I’ve been known to eat goose poo from time to time.
I’ve learned something fascinating about people. After your Dad came home from the hospital a few years ago, I was scared the mood of the house would change; that the severity of the situation would make our daily lives more somber. I was certain that the harsh dose of reality dealt to your parents would change them in irreversible ways, and the laughter that had filled our home would diminish or disappear.
What I was amazed to find, however, is that just the opposite was true. With their lives turned upside-down by unexpected adversity, your Mom and Dad actually spent more time joking with one another. It’s as if they realized that some things in life are so unpredictable, so beyond your control, that at times the best you can do is have a good laugh and live to fight another day.
I implore you to seek out others who show a willingness to laugh. If you surround yourself with people who can’t find humor in the illogicality of daily life, you’ll start taking yourself far too seriously, and that’s among the worst sins a person can commit.
In choosing your friends and eventually your mate, know that laughter is more than a moment of levity; it’s a wonderful indicator of intellect. More than anything, it’s the ability to laugh that separates man from the animals…well, except the hyena. Having a sense of humor shows that you not only recognize the things that are right with the world, but also the ridiculousness of the things that aren’t.
As you go through life, make sure to take the time to chuckle at the silliness of it all. I’ve seen your Mom’s worst day turned around by the simplest of your Dad’s jokes, and I’ve seen the effect it has on his heart when she gives in and lets loose a giggle. There must be magic in laughter, Emily, and I hope to hear it from you often.
Look Before You Leap, but I Highly Recommend Leaping
If I may, I’d like to share two stories from my life with you in hopes of illustrating a point.
The first tale is set in my days as a young pup, not much older than you are now. At that age, the world was mine to be explored. Every scent represented a wonderful new discovery, every stick, scrap, or shoe a potentially delicious meal, and every dog a possible new playmate.
I harbored no fear of the unknown. Nor should I have, as up to that point, I had seen nothing to indicate the potential cruelty life can wield.
One day, while walking with your Dad, I ran up to the wrong dog in the wrong place. He wasn’t a bad dog, per se, he just thought I posed a threat and did what came naturally to him as a response. Unfortunately for me, what came naturally to him landed me in the emergency room with punctures in my ear and head that required stitches.
It would have been easy to let this incident scar me permanently. I could have made great efforts to avoid all strange dogs from that point on, or even worse, turned aggressive towards dogs and even people.
But I didn’t. Instead, I took the lesson learned from that incident and changed my approach to making new friends. If a bigger dog approaches, I’ll cower like a Frenchman for a few moments, allowing them to take a sniff and decide if they want to play…
You see, while I’m not going to ignore the knowledge gained from that unfortunate incident, I’m also not going to allow one bad moment to rob me of the opportunity to wrestle around with a new playmate. It’s simply not worth it.
Let’s fast forward to last fall.
I have to confess, much like your Dad, I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie. While many dogs — and all self-respecting Labradors – love to swim, I discovered early on that merely paddling around in the water wasn’t going to cut it. I needed more.
To that end, I found myself seeking out the highest entry point into the pool or lake or bay, getting a good head of steam going, and launching myself into my big blue landing zone. I don’t know if it’s the brief feeling of flying, the rush that accompanies the impact, or the instant change of sensation upon hitting the water, but either way, I’m hooked.
This fall, as the water in the lake behind our house started to recede, I finished one of my trademark leaps by landing on a rock that had once been well submerged, but now lurked just beneath the water’s surface.
This caused a nice sized gash in my knee, and another visit to the doggie ER. This time, they had to stitch me without any anesthesia, as I’d had a bad reaction a couple of months prior. It hurt more than you can imagine, but your Mom got me through it by stroking my head while the doctor did his thing. She’s good at that sort of thing, you’ll find.
Two weeks later, after the stitches had been removed, I was cleared to swim again. As your Dad let loose a tennis ball deep into the belly of the lake, I approached cautiously, gradually accelerated, and by the time I hit the down-sloping edge of the water, felt compelled to leap.
As I was engulfed by that familiar splash, I knew I’d made the right decision. Was I scared I’d get hurt again? Sure I was. But I didn’t really have a choice. After all, if you refuse to launch, how can you ever know what it feels like to fly?
The moral of these two stories, Emily, is that life, at one point or another, will deal you an unexpected blow. You’re going to go on to do things much more precarious than making new friends and leaping into lakes, and along the way, you’re going to get bit and you’re going to come up short, just as I did. As a result of these setbacks, you will know adversity, and you will learn fear. But it’s how you handle that adversity, what you do with that fear, that will ultimately be the measure of who you become as a woman.
A little bit of fear is a healthy thing – a wonderful thing – as it helps us negotiate that fine line between aggressiveness and foolishness. But allow the fear that is born from adversity to paralyze you, and you’ll find that life has passed you by without ever having experiencing anything worth experiencing. And that, my new friend, is THE worst sin a person can commit.
Emily, I realize it may seem odd to receive your first piece of life advice from a dog, but trust me, I’ve learned a lot in my time with people about the things that do — and more importantly do not — make them happy. Focus on enjoying each moment, limit your time spent worrying about tomorrow, laugh as often as possible, and don’t let the inevitable negative experiences keep you from taking the risks necessary to experience a full and rich life, and you’ll enjoy more happiness than most, I promise you.
And if that doesn’t work, you can always just curl up on your Dad’s chest with your brother and I and take a nap. That always makes us plenty happy.