AW Day of Listening—December 14, 2008
Chattering with the Chihuahua: Listening to Haggis
By Celina Summers

When I first made the determination to interview Haggis, it was with the full expectation that I would be sharing a series of dirty jokes and football arguments. After all, we know how he is. He’s irreverent. He’s a smart alec. He has an obsession with bones, bacon and boobs. I thought this would be the easiest of the interviews that I’d chosen to do. (I need to mention right off the bat that, out of respect for his wishes, I am not using his real name. He wishes to maintain his anonymity, although any of you with the brain God gave a goat can find it out if you so choose.)

It was with great surprise and gratification that I discovered another layer to the Haggis we all know and love. I think you’ll discover that there’s more to this man than the longing to be a yip dog riding in Paris Hilton’s purse. There’s a certain savoir faire, a gentle compassion and wisdom that make him the revered critter he is on our boards. We don’t know why we respect him; we just do. I wanted to find out why.

I knew I’d have to trick him into it.

I began with asking the expected biographical question. Haggis thought about the question for all of two seconds.

“The year, 1946. The place, Millard Fillmore Hospital, Buffalo, New York. Contrary to popular belief, I was not the runt of the litter. There was no litter. I was it, although there were two older puppies at home. The intervening 60 years were of no significance. Then I submitted my first story. It sold. To date, I have stories in Coyote Wild and Trunk Novels and one coming out next April in Necrotic Tissue. I also have a few humor articles at Raphael's Village. I graduated from the University at Buffalo. Did I tell you that Buffalo just won the MAC Championship?”

So far, so good. I’d received the sarcastic humor and the football reference I’d expected, but it was tempered with information that was important. Haggis actually was born. That meant he really existed and wasn’t a figment of my imagination.

I took a swig of beer and asked, “When you were a young adult, what initial path did you take that changed your perspective on the world?”

“I took the path of beer, bourbon and gin. Believe me—that can do a real job on your perspective. And it allowed me the privilege of taking a three year break from college—no, really, they encouraged me—and it permitted me to visit different parts of the world I never would have seen otherwise—all at government expense.”

“On your all-expense paid trip to see different parts of the world, what's the most valuable lesson you learned?”

“Always carry a condom. Joke. That's a joke. Sheesh.

“Seriously, I learned how to get along with people—all kinds of people. I worked with some folks who never made it past sixth grade and at first that was hard for me. I got through it and it was a good life lesson. If we had the time, I'd tell you a really long, boring story about an old sergeant of mine I was ready to kill until I finally realized the reason he gave me so much grief. I intimidated him. The guy had limited education and not much to work with in the first place. I posed a challenge to him. Once I realized that, I treated him differently—showed him more respect, and that helped. We almost became friends. Of course, he never did let me date his daughter…”

There it was again. The jewels of wisdom were going to be hidden behind wit. I would have to be sneakier. “What was your most important life path change? Did you switch careers, end a marriage, change your educational emphasis?”

“See, I used to drink. A lot. Beer was my best friend and his buddy, bourbon, was always welcome along for the ride. Of course, sometimes I was in a gin mood. Then gin was my best friend. I don't remember those times all that well.

“Then I got married. I suppose I cut back drinking somewhat but probably not a lot. Then I had my first daughter. Almost overnight, things changed. No, I'm not saying I quit drinking altogether. And I'm not saying I didn't still get stupid from time to time. Having kids is a life changing event. It makes you grow up and realize others depend on you. At least it should.

“I can no longer stand the smell of bourbon. I still love a good scotch, but a bottle will last me all year, and even that's shared with friends. I love a good red wine with a meal. Dog bless me though, I still love my beer. I can't drink it like I used to, but if you want to take it away from me, you'll have to pry it out of my cold, dead paws.

“So, going back to your question, if I hadn't backed off the booze, I probably wouldn't have been around to answer your questions right now. I suppose that makes it an important life path change.”

This response resonated with me. I wondered for a moment if he’d stolen a copy of my memoirs, then remembered that I don’t really like gin. So, I continued, “Considering your early path of having fun (which is one I can relate to totally) riddle me this: does the compulsion to have fun, to go out and have a few drinks, to spend the evening in a friendly neighborhood bar ever recede over time?”

“To a degree, sure. Probably to a large degree. It totally did when my kids were young. I still enjoy the atmosphere of the local gin mill. More than a couple of hours now is a lot. I'm more apt to stop in on a weekend afternoon while a game is on TV, grab a sandwich and a couple of brewskis, then go home and be in bed by 9:30. Well, okay, sometimes it's 11:30, but that's AW's fault, not the bar's. And it's certainly not mine. I'm the victim here.”

“I know you write while in bars. I do too. Do you find it easier to work in such a social environment?”

“I do write occasionally in bars, but that's not a normal thing. That's more apt to happen when the muse dumps a story idea into my head and I need to get something down on paper right away. I do read at bars, though, and I like to edit there too. I'm one of those folks who has to edit to hardcopy, so I'll print out 25 or 50 pages or so and take it down to the pub. It seems to work out fine for me. It also gives me something to do besides drinking. And believe it or not, sometimes I even talk with normal people.”

Okay, so Haggis and I are a lot more alike than I realized—or wanted to admit. I wanted to switch gears. I wanted to get to the bottom of why a man like this one had turned to writing.

“Do you really want to hear this? I've written for, like, always. Almost always it was business-related—advertisements, brochures, business correspondence, trade journal articles and the like. I also helped out friends who had their own small businesses by writing newsletters, columns for their web sites and so forth. It's just something I could do, so I did it. A friend of mine belonged to an online writing site (not this one) and asked me to take a look at one of his stories. I did. I made some suggestions. Well, okay, a lot of suggestions. He kept coming back to me for more editing advice. Eventually, he talked me into joining that site. For the hell of it, I tried my hand at writing a short story—something I had not done since high school. It was awful. But you know what? There were bits and pieces that didn't really suck that much. And that's how I got hooked.

“That all happened about six years and 30 or 40 short stories ago. It might be 50 if you count all the stops and starts. I'm not sure. I have written more each year and I'd like to think they're getting better.”

“Did you feel compelled to write or was it a calculated choice?”

“It was neither. It was purely something fun to do. But after a while, I felt the urge to find out if I honestly had the chops for it. That's when I came to AW and that's when I finally began learning and submitting. Now, I suppose, it's a compulsion. I still don't know if I have the chops for it but some people think I do; so for now, that's enough.”

“If you could go back in time to your youth, what would you change?”

“I never took school seriously, and I never, ever, had a career goal in mind (well, I did take school more seriously when I returned after the army, but I still had issues with that career thingy). By the time I finally realized it would be a good thing for me to get an MBA, I had two kids, worked 70 some hours per week and bartended at wedding receptions on the weekend. It would have taken me seven years of part-time classes to complete. So I blew it off. Bad choice. If I'd done it, I'd have had that MBA for over 30 years now. Let that be a lesson to you, children. School first.”

“Considering the wealth of life experiences you've had, what is the single most important piece of advice you can offer to people facing the same paths you did?”

“I'm presuming these are young people I'm offering advice to, right? You're asking an old fart to offer advice to young people? Hell, I wouldn't have listened to an old fart's advice when I was young. Why should they? In the unlikely event that even one of them does, then I'd say education. Take it as far as you can, and don't take it lightly. You can't even begin to imagine what a difference it will make in your life. And when you're through with your formal education, keep learning. Study things on your own. I'm willing to bet that the other AW folks who are my age or older are still studying—still learning. As for me, if and when I reach the point that I no longer care about learning new things, I hope you'll call up the vet and have him load the needle, 'cause it will be time for me to go.”

“What was the one thing you swore you’d never do?”

“Agree to be interviewed.”

“Did you agree to do it and why?”

“Well, duh. Of course I did. But only because I fear you.”

I decided I needed a really serious question, one that he could sink his chops into. “Tell me how you handled a moment of great decision.”

“Once upon a time, there was a Chihuahua whose wife wanted him to leave. He did. He's much happier now.”

Obviously, I failed.

You know, sometimes it’s hard to separate the man from the onscreen personality. Every time most of us think of Haggis, we think of glowing red eyes and hypodermic needles. I discovered something in my talk with him that turned on the clichéd light bulb over my admittedly empty skull. There are all kinds of wisdom. There’s the proverbial wisdom, the kind that makes me go, “Yeah, yeah—whatever.” There’s the insidious sort of wisdom, the kind that finally struck me years later when I said, “You know, Mom was right about that key in the light socket thing. Not a good idea.”

But then, there’s the good-natured, practical wisdom. It’s the sort that’s hiding behind a sarcastic comment and a wry smile, sliding across the table with a pint of Guinness and through a haze of cigarette smoke. I’ve found during my time with Haggis that his sort of wisdom falls into that final category. He took the path less traveled and as a result left important signposts for all of us to pay attention to.

He peed on them, but we’ll remember them nonetheless.