Dear Sarah

From an online review:

Not at all in Herriot's Shadow

This book was such a colossal disappointment that I didn't even finish it. The author doesn't write much about animals at all, and never with the grace and self-deprecating humility of James Herriot. It's a didactic and overtly Christian tome. Reading it is like being stuck in a discussion with an overly prideful person who can't get over the "good 'ole days." Sarah K.

Sarah, I’ve been anxiously awaiting your input. In the nearly seven years since I’ve put “pen to paper” and Mittsy has labored to edit these chapters into form, I’ve learned a lot.

We’ve been reviewed by many in overwhelmingly kind fashion.

“Dr. Bill, thank you so much for writing this book and helping restore my faith in good people,” wrote our good friend Lisa.

“Bill, your book is better than I thought it would be; I never realized what I was missing,” from Janet Peterson.

The praise is very gratifying; I am thankful that it came first. Kind words spoken as the first few stories were printed from the likes of Don Grant: “Doc, I love the humanity of your stories,” were like hot dog bites to a lab pup learning to sit. They provided the reinforcement I needed to get comfortable “putting myself out there”.

Not every evaluation was whole-sale kind.

“I liked the book. Bill, but sometimes I just didn’t hear your voice coming through,” Mike Kelly offered over a pint on a Thursday night.

“Doc, you introduce us to all these fascinating people, then you move on. I would really to see you develop your characters more completely,” offered Carl Zinser, in the foyer of the Watertown Farm and Fleet.

The pragmatist in me always knew you were out there. I am sure that some detractors simply put it down, recycled it, or used it for kindling on a cold day; either too polite or lacking the energy to take the time to write a review. I would have preferred to smash my thumb with a ball-peen hammer than read your words, but I planned to internalize the critique, and get better.

What follows is my response to your well-thought comments.

Not at all in Herriot’s Shadow

Simply put, I chose this title as Dr. Wight was a veterinarian in a small town in England; Dr. Stork is a vet in a small town in Wisconsin. (I reckon it’s too late to choose a pen name.) I truly regret your disappointment, if you spent your hard-earned money expecting a 2014 edition of All Creatures Great and Small. I read Herriot in 8th grade, and not a word since. I call the series “the books that cost my construction-working dad an eternity of overtime and $150,000”. I don’t recall a thing about how to treat animals, if he even mentioned it. The impression that has endured for nearly 40 years is the reverential feel. The kinship he shared with his herds, patients and friends, and the nobility with which he and local icons like Dr. Leland Allenstein represented himself, his family, and our profession is well worth emulating.

The author doesn't write much about animals at all

Sarah, we let you down there. By way of full disclosure, we sent the original document to the publisher arranged roughly chronologically. We thought they would surely move Cooder, Sallie or Buck to the front of the line in order to engage the animal lovers. In hot pursuit of a deadline, that did not happen. By page 108, I made it out of veterinary school, and still had enough hair to justify going to a barber to get it cut flat on top. At that point came needy cats like Pumpkin, and comical dogs like Remmi, Cooder, and Token.

Incidentally, in a sense I am more in Herriot’s shadow than you may know, and not in a flattering fashion. Dr. Herriot was a huge soccer fan. He wrote extensively about sports and everything but animals. For twenty years his words fell on deaf ears, and those who were listening were anything but kind. Maybe I should follow his lead and send a few copies to England. When he finally sat down to write animal stories, they went nowhere in his hometown. It wasn’t until a reporter for the New York Times was moved by his work that he finally took off. Then again, he didn’t have Facebook.

…and never with the grace and self-deprecating humility of James Herriot

“Cat’s in the Cradle” was a piece written for Father’s Day. As you may have read, my dad was never too tired to play catch with his son, even after climbing crane booms 500 feet in the air with a 16lb sledge hammer. He ran any machine from a Bobcat skid loader to a 500-ton tower crane with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. There are libraries, gymnasiums, swimming pools, roads, bridges and a nuclear power plant that will stand for a century as monuments to his productivity. He defined “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health” through a decade of dementia until death did finally part he and my mother.

He refers to himself as “a dumb-ass construction worker”.

Carl Zinser could be anywhere from 65 to 110 years old. He lives in the farmhouse he was born to. Carl farms 80 acres and raises 20 or so calves a year. He wears secondhand clothes, Velcro shoes, and gloves that don’t match. He could keep my friend Neal the dentist busy for the rest of his career. He also speaks with impeccable grammar, quotes freely from the thousands of books in his library and knows the stock market like Buffet. He has contributed valuable input to these stories.

Carl begins every sentence with, “Now you have to realize this is coming from a dumb old farmer…"

As for the self-deprecation that you are missing Sarah, I respond twice.

The first being, that I have long felt that the enormous majority of human behavior is managing our insecurities. As optimal as my upbringing may have been, “just a dumb old construction worker” ringing in my ears may have imparted the notion that everyone else is smarter or better than me. A deficiency of self-deprecation may be a conscious effort to separate myself a bit from one thread of my bringin’ up.

Aside from that, I’ve no choice but to own my own short comings.

Secondly, on the topic of self-deprecation deficiency, I refer you to “Pumpkin” and “Under Pressure”.

As for the grace of Dr. Herriot… I can only aspire.

It's a didactic and overtly Christian tome

As for the didactic tone you felt, I admire that you exercised your prerogative. If you aren’t getting graded on it and if you aren’t pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down, then walk away and write a review.

With regard to the overt Christianity, I was concerned. Though I am a Christian and person of faith, I have no less respect for those who are otherwise aligned. My editor was raised in Tennessee as a Baptist. As an adult, she came to develop beliefs that were not consistent with the teaching of John Smyth. In that transition she developed an extremely sensitive “gag reflex” for things perceived as righteous or religious. She became my “sermon beacon”. Your threshold is more sensitive than ours and I apologize.

I am a cradle Catholic who’s morphed into the “Cafeteria” variety, and backed into aspects of Buddhism (see “I think I can”). More than denominational, I’m a person of very simple faith. Whether I’m delivering a calf or negotiating with my son, I require that I do the absolute best I can. If I have first prepared, and then spent every single ATP physically and mentally, I can accept the outcome.

Those who do not embrace the existence of a deity would argue that’s simply an exercise in trusting oneself. To which I answer, “yup, sounds good to me”.

It is my faith that accounts for the appearance of Mary at the exact moment a good man was about to end his life, Sallie barking at a stove, and Bambi. I leave others to interpret as they wish.

It is also true that many people I admire, if not aspire to, are void of those beliefs. In a story that has been written since IHS was released called “Family Tradition”, a very good friend found herself precariously balanced on the thin edge between life and death. She credits her survival to having grown up on the farm... and her will. I silently add an element of divine intervention. Leann has no such belief. It’s only a conundrum if you let it be.

Reading it is like being stuck in a discussion with an overly prideful person who can't get over the "good 'ole days"

Sarah, up to this point, I’m on board with you. But on this one, you’ve got my hackles up a bit. At no point in 264 pages of In Herriot’s Shadow or 50 years of my life have I felt an inkling of personal superiority. I’ve saved my superlatives for the people I’ve consciously borrowed pieces of.

There are times I can be moved to tears by memories of The Amazing Dick Bass; I am grateful for every minute I spent on a stool at a donut counter with him. It is not humanly possible to be overly proud to have been raised by my parents and to know Kishan Khemani, Scott Clewis, Gary Edmonds, Jay and Joy Lou Walker, Jim or Roger Kassube, Jean Jensen, The Vergenz’, Mittsy Voiles, John Humpries, DonMary Grant, Clem Mess, Vernon Strasburg, Lyle Wallace, Chris Roedl, The Haacks, The Wollins, the Healys…

“Stuck in the good ‘ole days” could imply a failure to embrace technology, to which I answer: I’m writing what you read on my laptop computer and next to my bed I have a 4G tablet to keep up with breaking news and to update the status on my 3 Facebook pages. In my pocket at all times is an Android-equipped smart phone. On it I have libraries full of high-def photos of excretions, secretions and abnormal stool from my patients. I have video sent at all hours by concerned clients whose dogs are reverse sneezing or experiencing limbic seizures, and whose cats are “looking for love”.

My son Calvin once told me, “Dad, that’s old school”.

I will not pirate the music of a musician who’s ever known my name, played for a crowd of people smaller than my immediate family, or shaken my hand.

I drive across town to buy a head of lettuce from the grocer who sponsored my son’s soccer team, and a six-pack from the family who brings their cats to our clinic.

I will pay ten more dollars to buy a cordless Milwaukee sawzall from Dave at the Cambridge Ace Hardware. He’s just down the road and stayed open late and dropped off the rinse and vac when Token was a pup.

I write of hard work, faith, family and accountability.

So, Sarah, if that constitutes being stuck in the past… guilty as charged.

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