Book Talk: Mary M. Mitchell goes to the dogs with a friend

LONDON Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:49am EST

LONDON Jan 17 (Reuters) - Etiquette expert and Reuters columnist Mary M. Mitchell found that using a dog as an intermediary helped to take the sting out of tricky discussions with a treasured friend.

Mitchell created an email personality for her French bulldog ZsaZsa LaPooch and began sending her friend Nessa emails from the dog as a bit of fun, but then discovered during more than two years of correspondence that it was a good way to deliver difficult messages and explore emotions.

The straight advice offered up by ZsaZsa in Mitchell's book "Woofs to the Wise: Learning to Lick at Life and Chew on Civility" later becomes a two-way blessing for Mitchell and Nessa, when the latter struggles to discuss the emotional side of her battle with terminal cancer.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I began the book as a lark. I finished it as a final promise to my closest friend.

Q: Is this meant to be taken seriously?

A: Although Woofs is often hilarious and sometimes wistful, the book carries a very important "serious" message: good relationships are the hallmark of a life and career well lived. Clear communication and kindness are at the heart of any solid relationship.

Q: Have you always had a fondness for animals?

A: I was never interested in having a dog around until I met ZsaZsa. At three weeks of age, she and her four siblings were set down in front of me; the other four wandered around aimlessly, whereas she trundled right over and sat on my foot.

Q: What's the top lesson you have learned from ZsaZsa?

A: ZsaZsa taught me to see things differently. She taught me how to play; how to live in the moment, appreciating every moment; and she taught me patience.

Q: Why would you write this from a dog's point of view?

A: Sometimes we have tough things to say to people, things they might not like to hear. A middleman, or in this case, a middledog, made saying tough things easier to hear, especially when humor was part of the delivery vehicle. Communication is all about the other person. If I say something to you and you are not clear on what I meant, all I've done is spoken out loud. In the case of Woofs, my friend was driving me crazy micro-managing her visit to Seattle, where I live. I used ZsaZsa to clarify that she was coming for a fun-filled vacation, not a corporate conference.

Q: What's so important about civility in a dog-eat-dog world?

A: Good manners grease the skids of life. Good manners will get you more tasty treats. It's that simple.

Q: When did you and Nessa decide to start talking doggie?

A: Once Nessa got over the shock of receiving an email from a dog, she let loose her wicked wit and began writing to ZsaZsa every day. ZsaZsa is a terrible typist, so I helped her with her responses. Nessa was, in her own words, "a highly evolved 21st century diva," so she began coaching ZZ on matters from possible careers to boyfriends. ZsaZsa, of course, rose to every occasion and immediately realized what a tremendous resource Nessa was.

One storyline in the book involves ZsaZsa on a new job search. She had been a therapy dog in my husband's medical office. Four years ago he closed his practice, so ZsaZsa was out of a job. Now he teaches yoga, but that's another book...

ZsaZsa sought Nessa's considerable wisdom on a number of career issues because Nessa had been a potent mentor to many, many, younger people throughout her life (although never before to a dog).

Q: Did the correspondence and then book help Nessa cope with her illness?

A: The book in no small way kept Nessa alive throughout her battle with pancreatic cancer. She was wholly dedicated to life, not to answering questions about her treatment. Woofs became a creative outlet for her. Nessa said things to ZsaZsa that were too hard for her to say herself. Nobody likes to feel vulnerable, especially when you are the product of a tremendously successful career and used to being in charge. Losing control was hell for Nessa, as it would be for me and I daresay for most of us.

Later in the book, Nessa began asking ZsaZsa for advice with her illness, and so the career storyline came full circle, as ZsaZsa again found herself in the position of therapy dog. Finishing the book provided Nessa with a potent stimulus to keep fighting in her terminal battle. The night before she died I promised her we would get this book published; she was no longer able to talk, yet she squeezed my hand in acknowledgment.

Neither of us ever lost sight of the fact that our intent for the book was to contribute all its profits to a foundation for educating middle school children in the arts.

Q: The idea of manners and etiquette seems very 19th century. Is it really necessary to know where to put your fork or whether you can put your mobile phone on the table at lunch any more?

A: ZsaZsa and I both believe that kindness is timeless. That is what good manners are all about. They come from the inside. They are translated through etiquette, which comes from the outside - they're the rules. Good manners create harmony and etiquette helps control chaos. Etiquette is very practical. If you think about it, rules free us. Imagine what life would be like if there were no directional street signs - car crashes everywhere.

When we understand the rules, we can get where we need to go much more easily. The rules change constantly, and they are different in every culture. What matters is knowing how you are expected to behave in a given setting - peeing and pooping only in approved places, for example.

And as for cell phones on the table - think about where your cell phone has been, what it's come in contact with, and whether you really want all those germs close to your meal.

Q: What's the biggest change to etiquette and manners you've seen in the past 20 years?

A: The computer age is absolutely the most powerful factor influencing our behavior in the past two decades. The rules of etiquette always change by virtue of the economy, they always change by virtue of industrialization, and they always change by what's going on in the workplace.

For example, I doubt if 20 years ago a series of emails would have made a book. People dealt with each other much more face-to-face and by telephone. Not long ago, I actually had a company engage me to encourage its employees to walk down the hall or across the room to talk with each other rather than text and email.

My hope is that many who would never pick up a conventional etiquette book, thinking that it would be too stuffy and boring, will learn a great deal about manners in a most enjoyable way by reading this book, to the benefit of humans and dogs alike. (Reporting by Paul Casciato, editing by Stephen Addison)

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