Before you read on, please be warned that you’re about to take life advice from a man who spent Christmas Eve in sweatpants, eating a reheated burrito and playing Castlevania.
In all fairness, I didn’t EXPECT to spend Christmas alone, fending off Dracula in between bites of lukewarm Mexican food. After all, I do have a wife and two kids. And in a normal year, the four of us would head back to New Jersey to spend the holidays with our extended family. But this year…well, this year was different.
As many of you know, I’ve got a yellow lab — Maci — who means the world to me. We’ve been inseparable since the day we met. Back when offices were a thing, she’d accompany me to work every day, but much more importantly, we quickly became adventure partners, exploring the mountains outside of Aspen together.
The problem is…that day we met? It was damn near 15 years ago. And since the average life expectancy for a Labrador is 11 years, there’s no way to sugarcoat it: Maci is old.
I’ve tried to pretend it wasn’t happening; after all, she still begs to play every single day. But while her legs and lungs remain strong, her eyes and ears are nearly gone, and she’s definitely begun to struggle a bit cognitively.
A week before Christmas, however, reality smacked me in the face. While playing in the backyard Maci had a seizure, and as her eyes rolled back in her head and her body stiffened, I was sure she was meeting her end right then and there.
I rushed her to the vet, and she soon came around. But the prognosis was not what I wanted to hear: when a dog that age has a seizure — particularly when coupled with behavioral changes — it’s usually indicative of something growing in the brain that doesn’t belong there. From there, things usually go only one direction, and it ain’t up.
As a result, the family decided that I would stay behind this Christmas to be with Maci. And while it was certainly a bit depressing to miss one of the few remaining magical Christmas mornings for my kids, I cherished the time with my pup.
What does this have to do with you?
Well, each year for the past six, I’ve used this New Year’s Day column to dole out advice for the coming year. And usually, I’ve implored you to do things to strengthen your career, like “learn this Code section” or “write an article” or “stop smelling the receptionist’s hair, it’s inappropriate and really, really off-putting.”
But this year…this year calls for something different. The past 22 months have been hell in our industry, and as I predicted in last year’s column, we’re seeing a mass exodus from the tax world as people struggle not with making sense of the Internal Revenue Code, but with making sense of life.
And so this year, I’m turning the column over to Maci. In all likelihood, she won’t be around come New Year’s 2023, and in her fifteen years, she’s learned some things about people that she’d like to share while she still can; her unique perspective, if you will, on what we humans get right and wrong in the way we approach life. Maybe reading it will help you; I know writing it certainly helped me.
Take it away, Mace.
Resolution #1: 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 measure time only in absolutes: when you walk out of a room, to us, you’re never coming back. In other words, whatever is happening RIGHT NOW is what will happen for eternity. It’s why I’m willing to play and play and play until my tongue hangs and legs shake — because I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get to play again. And it’s also why I get so sad each and every time Tony leaves me — for fear that he will never return — and so overwhelmed with joy each and every time he does, indeed, come back.
Here’s the thing: those theories are 100% correct.
What’s interesting, however, is that you humans look at our concept of time as a sign of lesser intelligence; as some sort of detriment. You view yourselves as superior in part because of your understanding of things like tomorrow.
Now, 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 tomorrow, dogs are incapable of 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. Tony and I have seen some amazing places together. We’ve spent over a decade hiking and running and skiing in the mountains; and in our first year together it was in these moments where I watched his soul flourish. But after he got sick and the doctors had to fix his brain, 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 get to see his children grow up. Or whether his sickness will come back instead.
And in the last two years, I’ve watched his worry spread to other humans, just as this new sickness has spread around the globe. I know these are scary times, but you humans are so focused on what’s going to happen next with this new sickness that you’re forgetting to cherish what you’re experiencing right now. In your concern about endless tomorrows, you’ve sacrificed far too many todays.
I understand that as a human, you have to consider tomorrow, to have a plan. You need to stay healthy. You need to pay for your kid’s school. You need to buy that next house. But please, don’t let these plans, these worries, 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.
Resolution #2: Laugh Until it Hurts
There’s one thing I REALLY don’t understand about you humans: over the past two years, when your lives got turned upside down and you all needed each other more than ever, it seems as though you’ve let your differences drive you further apart. I see it on the news when Tony leaves the TV on to keep me company when I’m home alone: you humans are so angry with one another lately: fighting in stores, on planes, at school board meetings, and even in the nation’s capital. You all take yourselves — to say nothing of the various beliefs that divide you — far too seriously.
And what frustrates me most is that you don’t HAVE to be so angry. While there aren’t many traits people possess that we dogs covet, there is one thing you have that inspires great jealously in my species. Your sense of humor. Your ability to laugh and make others do the same. I would gladly sacrifice a year of belly rubs to experience just one moment of the unfettered laughter you people seem to enjoy daily. It’s truly the one thing that separates you from the animals; well, except, that is, for the hyena.
This is one area my human actually gets right. For all his faults, for all his worry, Tony sure values a good laugh. He’s constantly trying to make his kids giggle, even if it requires putting underwear on his head as a makeshift chef’s hat and speaking with an Italian accent when it’s time to make pancakes. He’ll laugh at ANYTHING, from life’s so-called “serious” stuff to things even I find lowbrow, and I’ve been known to eat goose poo from time to time.
When I was just a young pup, after Tony came home from the hospital, 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 him would change him 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. In the face of unexpected adversity, my human actually increased the amount of time he spent joking around. The same has happened over the last two years: while the angst of the current climate is palpable, in my house, the joking, laughing and smiling have only increased. It’s as if Tony 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.
Now, more than ever, make sure to take the time to chuckle at the silliness of it all. We’ve been dealt a situation we never saw coming, but it can’t strip away our joy for life. Being angry all of the time because some people don’t see the world the same way you do seems like an awful waste of time, energy, and most importantly, the gift of laughter. Someone doesn’t agree with you? Find some common ground, share a laugh, and realize that you’re not so different after all. I’ve seen Ryan and Emily’s worst days turned around by the simplest of Tony’s jokes, and I’ve seen the effect it has on his heart when they give in and let loose a giggle. There must be magic in laughter, so it seems to me the world would be a much better place if you all did it more often.
Resolution #3: Look Before You Leap, but I Highly Recommend Leaping
If I may, I’d like to share a story from my life with you in hopes of illustrating a point. But first, some background…
I have to confess, much like Tony, 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 to go bigger.
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 sensation of flying, the rush of the impact, or the instant change of sensation upon hitting the water, but either way, I’m hooked.
One Fall when I was just a pup, 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 a visit to the doggie ER. 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 Tony got me through it by stroking my head while the doctor did his thing.
Two weeks later, after the stitches had been removed, I was cleared to swim again. As Tony 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 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 the story is that life, at one point or another, will deal you an unexpected blow, and boy, has it ever done just that over the past two years. As a result of these setbacks, you all know adversity, and you have all learned 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 person.
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 borne from adversity to paralyze you, and you’ll find that life has passed you by without ever having experiencing anything worth experiencing.
Yes, the world feels like a scary place right now. But it’s still a big, beautiful world that’s meant to be explored and enjoyed. When you’re comfortable, when you’re ready, get back out there and learn to fly again. Meet new people. See new places. Don’t let fear change who you are, or what you want to become.
Resolution #4: Prioritize the Pack
For as long as I can remember, people have called me a “one-human dog.” I understand where they’re coming from: when people come over the house, I won’t so much as prod them for a pet, but I will hop up onto Tony’s lap and sit there as long as he allows me to. And when we’re outside, I’d much prefer to play fetch with him than to wrestle around with other dogs. So, people assume, I love Tony, and that’s it.
But I’ve got two problems with that moniker. First, it’s not accurate. I would gladly lay down my life for any member of my family, which at the very least, makes me a “four-human dog.” And second, they say it like it’s an insult; as if I don’t have the capacity to love anyone outside of my own home.
And that, to me, is ridiculous. I am fiercely loyal to my humans because THEY love ME. And in return, I will love them, protect them, and spend every waking moment I possibly can with them. It’s what you do when you’re part of a pack.
But you humans…you do the weirdest things. You’ll betray your pack for people you’ve never even met. Look at Tony: I’ve spent my lifetime showing him what loyalty looks like, and he has yet to learn his lesson. He wants to make EVERYONE happy, even if it’s his pack who suffers.
For the last two-thirds of my life, Tony spent much of his time flying around the country as part of his job, leaving his pack behind. And the craziest part is: no one FORCED him to do it, they simply asked, and, wanting to please, he said “yes.”
And the more he said “yes,” the more people asked. And the more they asked, the more he said “yes” again. And soon, he was spending nearly all of his time trying to make total strangers happy: writing an extra article here, teaching an extra class there, and flying everywhere. It got so bad that this past Spring, when we would go to Ryan’s weekend baseball games, rather than play fetch with me in between innings as he always had before, he would open his computer and do his work, leaving me to wonder where I had gone wrong.
But he’s learning. I’ve seen it in his eyes over the past few weeks. The ear scratches and belly rubs he gives me last a lot longer than usual, and he tells me repeatedly how happy he is that I am his dog, and that he is my human. He takes me for more walks than ever, and gives me all of my favorite foods (yes, even Slim Jims). He knows my time on this earth is coming to a close, and the tears I see in his eyes when he lays with me at night tell me that if he could go do it over again, he’s spend more time with his pack, and less time saying “yes.”
It’s funny; fifteen years is such a short span of time in a human’s life, and while the last fifteen years were the very years Tony had to make a name for himself at his job and in his industry, they also happened to be the entirety of my existence. Part of his pack will soon be gone, and while we spent more time together than most, well both always wish for just a little bit more.
Be loyal to your pack. You can spend your life seeking approval from everyone and anyone, but I promise you, they’ll never love you the way your pack will for just…being you.
Resolution #5: Live and Learn
Fifteen years. That doesn’t feel long enough for a dog’s life, does it? And therein lies the BIGGEST difference between us and you humans. I’ve learned so much during my life, and there is no shortage of things I’d do differently if only I had more time. But I don’t.
But you…you humans live for an eternity. Don’t waste it. It’s perfectly fine to make mistakes, but what’s not OK is for you to repeat them over and over and over again. You could be THREE times older than me, and still have half your life ahead of you. It’s never too late to figure things out.
So take my advice and grow from it. Focus on enjoying each moment and limiting your time spent worrying about tomorrow, laugh as often as possible, don’t let the inevitable negative experiences keep you from taking the risks necessary to experience a full and rich life, and be loyal to those who are loyal to you, and you’ll enjoy more happiness than most, I promise you.
And if that doesn’t work, you can always just curl up on the chest of someone you love and take a nap. That’s always worked for me.