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Last October, on a grant made possible by the Highlights Foundation, a not for profit organization, I attended one of their Founder’s Workshops, “The Art of Biography: Real People, Great Stories.”  The Highlights Foundation was established in 1985 with a “mission to raise the level of the offering of writing and illustration for children.”  The organization offers workshops for writers who are just starting out, as well as those who have been published, but wish to hone their skills.

Most people are familiar with the Highlights for Children magazine of their youth, or now have young children who enjoy its quality content at home, or in doctor’s offices across the nation.  If you are a writer for children, a Highlights for Children credit is something to be very proud of.

My four day Founder’s Workshop began on a Thursday with a tour of the Highlights offices and facilities in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Meeting the editors of the magazine, and those of their book imprints, was a great experience, putting a smiling face on the people who read all those submissions that are sent their way in droves.

After our tour, we drove up to the little town of Boyds Mill where we essentially cut ourselves off from the world, and got down to the business of writing, and had some fun, too.  But not until I settled into my beautifully appointed modern cabin nestled in a rustic, picture postcard setting.  On my bed, I found a tote bag filled with reading material and my itinerary that included times for three full meals each day, and yes, a wine and cheese gathering before dinner each night.  The meals I might add, like the accommodations, were first rate! Move over Martha Stewart.

All settled in, I made my way down the hill to a welcoming and warm farmhouse where all the workshop sessions would take place.  There, I met my fellow writers, seven woman from all over the country, some who came from as far away as California, and the workshop facilitator, Carolyn Yoder, Senior Editor of the Calkins Creek imprint.  Carolyn, an engaging, entertaining, and exacting writer, and editor led the workshop with non-stop energy, a constant treasure trove of information.  That first evening, we enjoyed a presentation by Gail Jarrow, author of the Middle Grade book, Robert H. Jackson: New Deal Lawyer, Supreme Court Justice, Nuremberg Prosecutor.  Gail gave us an intriguing behind the scenes account of her experience researching and writing her book which was edited by Carolyn.

The next day, it was our turn to get writing.  I have to admit, I approached my one-on-one critique session with Carolyn with a mixture of excitement, and dread.  When our time was up, she had torn apart and discarded most of my submission, leaving a kernel of the original story.  Did I dispair? No!  For in that one kernel, the possibility of a better, stronger book emerged.  I was elated, ready to start anew.  I ran up the hill to the computer cabin for more research, and some quick rewriting.  By the end of the workshop, I had a hook and the start of something exciting.

Those four days filled with, writing, revising, talking, listening, and sharing ideas and experiences with my writing comrades passed too quickly.  By Sunday, it was time to come off the mountain, and out of the clouds.  But I appreciated that rare opportunity when all I really had to do was get up, get down the hill and immerse myself in the literary world!  I left with a sense of purpose, and a signed copy Of Gail Jarrow’s book, and one of Carolyn Yoder’s excellent John Adams:The Writer-A Treasury of Letters, Diaries, and Public Documents.

I do hope to return some day, many of the attendees I met were happy and satisfied workshop “regulars.” 

As I work on my National Dog Week project, I add to and maintain a research folder for that special idea that was hatched in that farmhouse on a hillside in Pennsylvania on a bewitching Halloween weekend.  May the spirit of a Highlights Founder’s Day workshop inspire you some day.

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After my recent posting of “Dogs in Heaven,” I’ve heard from so many of you.  I received calls, e-mails, and comments from across the country from those who wanted to share warm memories spent with my family, and of course my brother, Matt, as well as some of the special pets that have been an important part of our lives.

Just to bring everyone up-to-date, I’ve only been posting for three weeks and it has been a great way to connect with so many, sharing my passion for a writing project that has been absorbing many of my waking (and sleeping) hours lately, my “pet” project you could say, about Will Judy’s National Dog Week Movement (see post of January 4 for details). 

These days, with hours spent researching, and writing proposals, queries, not to mention content, you could say I’ve been working like a dog.  As I dig, and dig for facts and information, I embody a Jack Russell terrier.  As I present my treasure to someone I think might care, I feel like a goofy Golden retriever, and as I protect my interests, honor, and time spent on such a daunting task, the Rottweiler in me emerges.

But here is where the cat is out of the bag, literally, and figuratively!  In truth, more cats, than dogs, have been a part of my life.  Mittens, Gypsy, Jefferson, Furley, Metal, Pita, and of course our beloved Maurey, all come to mind. 

Gypsy came into our lives one warm summer evening during our nightly neighborhood kickball game up on the hill in Hackensack.  A car pulled up and deposited a squirmy duffel bag on the curb.  “It’s alive,” we cried, running towards it with no fear.  As one, two, three…five little furry heads popped out, we knew we had inherited some new pets.  Five of the most beautiful kittens I had ever seen had been hand delivered to us, a 1970s version of Petfinder.com.  We chose to keep a black and white tuxedo cat and Matt named her Gypsy after a popular song of the time.  We spent the remainder of the summer finding good homes for the rest.

Within a year or so, Gypsy was carrying kittens, or a kitten it would turn out.  On the morning of the Fourth of July, my father made an interesting discovery.  Gypsy had given birth to a tri-colored kitten on top of a folded American Flag.  Our “cat naming master,” Matt, named the patriotic kitten Jefferson.

Times may change, but pets remain a constant in our lives.  They bring us joy on a daily basis, getting us outside, connecting with someone we might never even have met without that gentle tug of the leash by your social canine.

Will Judy related through his writings how pets can be an invaluable “tool” for instilling traits of caring and responsibility in our young. Recently I submitted an article about National Dog Week to Highlights for Children.  The editor pointed out that not all children can have a dog, or any pet.  With that in mind, I presented an article with ideas and activities that could be enjoyed by those without a dog in their lives during a week that honors them.

The other day, the mother of one of my close friends sent me a blast from the past.  In my mailbox I found the book, Hackensack-A Pictoral History.  It was filled with some beautiful photos of my home town from way back when.  If you look closely I am in there, but I’d like to point out as part of the more recent past!  One of the photos in the book shows a local family sometime during the 1930s celebrating the birthday of Jackie, the family dog. As you can see, the love we feel for our canines is timeless.

Watch for future blogs about my experience with the Highlights Foundation and as I “follow”  local dog, DJ, to the Westminster Dog Show in February!

Canine Countdown to National Dog Week: 236 days!

Photos on a website featuring the dogs of Haiti tell a story of how even before that deadly earthquake hit that nation’s capital, the pets of the region, much like their human companions, suffered from abject poverty. 

With an estimated loss of lives in Port-au-Prince exceeding 150,000, and countless individuals injured, and homeless, the pets of the nation have become silent victims, there just aren’t the resources to make them a priority.

But during these desperate times, other dogs were making their way to Haiti to come to the aid of man.  Sniffer dogs and their handlers were dispatched from the United Kingdom, Holland, France, China, Germany, and the United States among other countries.  These dogs worked tirelessly with their human partners to find the injured, and as time passed, the bodies of the deceased.

In the wake of disasters, man-made like 911, or natural, like Hurricane Katrina, and now the Haitian earthquake, dogs with their uncanny olfactory senses can do work that man nor machine cannot. 

Will Judy, an expert on the anatomy, and soul, of the dog wrote that “The dog is quick to sniff, grunt, blow his breath-he inhales deeply and repeatedly; a questioning look comes into his eyes as his nose seeks to get information or solve a momentary mystery.”  Even back in 1949, Judy knew the value of the dog as the “premier hunting aid to the man…” and knew that further investigation on how to develop ways to utilize these skills for the betterment of mankind was called for.

As scientists continue to discover what dogs are capable of doing, we can be sure these amazing canines will rise to any occasion when they are needed, just like they always do.

The sniffer dogs are fortunate, when their work is done, they will return to the comfort of their homes.  The dogs, and other animals that remain, will face far less fortunate conditions.

If you log onto the Petfinder.com website, you will be instructed as to how you can help the dogs of that nation.  If others know of other ways to help, please feel free to post in comments.

Yesterday, my friends Joyce, Cheryl, Kim, Linda, and I (the true “real” housewives of New Jersey, and real women of the Jersey Shore), made our annual trek to Broadway.  We used to go during the pre-Christmas rush, but going at this time of year is so much more enjoyable, less crowds at restaurants and after theatre spots.

This year, we chose to see Memphis, maybe one of the best things I’ve ever seen on Broadway.  Excellent performances all round, great sets, and of course, don’t forget the lyrics written by Jersey’s own David Bryan, founding member of Bon Jovi.

Last year, my husband and I had the pleasure of meeting David at a charity event hosted by my good friends Laura and John Brunetti at the Deal Country Club.  My sister, Manette, and I have known Laura since our days spent in the halls of Hackensack High School. Laura,  a tireless supporter of the arts and artists was the honorary guest of the evening, an event that raised funds for those who suffer from the “invisible” disease of mental illness.  At that event, diners offered bids to have Mr. Bryan sing and play keyboard for attendees, not before he mingled with the crowd.  My husband and I, not really knowing who he was spent a great deal of time chatting with him about life and family, and other assorted items, but he definitely wasn’t boastful about the depth of his talent.

In his Playbill interveiw, David spoke of how it was possible for two guys from Jersey to write a play about “race” music, and the deejays of the south who helped to promote a new sound that appealed to blacks and whites in an unlikely place.  In answer to that, David’s writing partner and collaborater, Joe DiPietro commented that Rodgers & Hammerstein didn’t spend a lot of time in Oklahoma either.

That comment made me laugh because my research for my book about Will Judy and the National Dog Week Movement brings me to places where I am definitely not in my element.  One publisher asked me, “Who do you know in the dog world.”  I answered promptly, “I know my dog!”  He laughed, but his query was not unique as I have learned that the “dog world” can be a very tight knit circle.  All the more reason for me to be thankful to all those who have generously helped me with my questions and requests for information that has not always been readily available.

My dog Hooper, although a purebred, is not registered with the AKC, but she is AKC (All kisses and cuddles) and that is how dogs can be effective therapists.  Will Judy wrote that dogs are natural psychiatrists, and I have seen the positive effects that dogs have on those who have difficulties making it through hard times, people who need a non-judgemental companion that makes them feel special 24/7.

Now is the time to think about ways we can carry on the mission of those who started and continued to keep the motion in the National Dog Week movement.  Let’s use it as a time to make sure all those who need and deserve trained therapy dogs have the opportunity to obtain one.  I look forward to your stories and input!

And hopefully, more people will join in on the development of my NDW project as I have been invited by the editor of a large national publication to hopefully share my story with their readers!  Some days, despite some nay-sayers, I feel like the Little Engine that Could. If my essay is published, you all will be among the first to know.

By my count, we have about 242 days  to make those plans for National Dog Week. Please let me know how you can be part of the big picture.

Growing up in my family was sometimes like growing up in a menagerie.  My sister, Manette, brought the horse, my brother, John was our tropical fish and reptile guy, I specialized in dogs (a duck, some gerbils and white mice, and a bird or two), and my brother Matt, despite his nickname of “Matty Dawg,” was our cat man.

I recall many years ago returning home on a college break only to be warmly greeted by a young grey Tiger cat.  Matt, then 12 or so, had asked my parents for a kitten.  Upon answering a classified ad, Matt returned not with a tiny kitten, but this nearly full grown cat.  My family was disappointed at first, but not for long.  Matt named the cat Morrison after Jim Morrison of The Doors, Morrey for short.  Morrey quickly won everyone’s affection, and became one of our family’s most beloved pets.  He was a big cat that liked to wander, returning home each morning with battle wounds from the night before.  But with humans, he was gentle and attentive, the kind of cat even people who didn’t like cats came to love,  a cat that behaved more like your typical dog.

If Matt was still with us, he would have turned 44 today.  He was, and always will be, our “baby” brother.  Matt was born during the Year of the Horse, and like a horse he was strong, independent, always at your service, reliable, and sometimes a little wild. A champion of the under dog, Matt always went out of his way to help those less fortunate than he. 

Will Judy believed that there was room for dogs in heaven.  As the editor-in-chief of Dog World, he was once asked that question by a young reader, a 10 year old boy who was upset at being told by his teacher that dogs did not go to heaven because there was no room for them.  Will Judy, trained for the clergy, never lost his sensitive touch.  He had great respect for children and assured this reader that dogs had a special place in heaven because it would be a lonely place without them. 

I like to think that there is plenty of room for every pet up there, and that Matt, Morrey, Coco Puff, are all together, enjoying the company of others who loved their pets, and still do.

Tomorrow I will celebrate a birthday, spending the day as a substitute teacher in a Third Grade class.  By three o’clock, I will be so worn down, I won’t even notice another year has gone by.  Actually, spending time with kids is a great way to truly understand just like you sometimes can’t control a roomful of kids, you can’t control the passing of time.  It puts things in perspective.

I will interject here, that I think that I was destined to always seek out the company of canines.  Chinese astrologists might make something of the fact that I was born during the year of the dog, during the hours of the dog.  That definitely is a “Sirius” qualification, something not to be ignored.  My nephew, Zac, also born during a dog year shares my fondness of them.

So on this very cold winter day, I will take this opportunity to thank my parents Jack and Cindy for all they have done for me over the years.  On my tenth birthday, for instance, they succumbed to my whining ways and bought me my very own puppy, a purebred Chocolate Toy poodle.  Its AKC registered name was Princess Sheri Cocoa Puff, but just plain Coco to the family.  She was a tiny thing, definitely not cut out for life in our noisy, chaotic household.

I remember going to the breeder’s home on a cold January day and taking home that little ball of fur.  After a while, it was clear, although she was technically “my” dog, my mother did all the work, and my father received her love and adoration.

Coco survived that terrible car accident in Colorado (I wrote about it a few days ago), and while living in Boulder,  chased another dog onto a busy road and was struck by that dog after it was struck by a car (I still can’t picture that).  My father revived her in the kitchen sink.  Finally, poor Coco, at age seven, met her end in a sad incident at a family reunion.

In hindsight, a larger, more durable breed might have been a more suitable choice as our family dog.  I didn’t know that as a kid, but I am well aware of it now.

This Christmas, my brother, John, gave me a signed copy of Jon Katz’s book A Dog Year.  It was a great read, really getting across the message of how different breeds  fit into different lifestyles and the lessons they teach us when they come into our lives.  In Jon’s book, the way he contrasts life with Yellow Labs and Border collies is just perfect.  But he learned to love the special characteristics of each, and took the time, and made the sacrifices to be the best human he could be to each of them.

I’m not sure if Jon Katz is aware of National Dog Week and its mission, but I think he might appreciate the concept.

So thanks, Mom and Dad, for getting me my first dog.  It must have made a lasting impression on me, because many year later, I was bitten by the “dog bug” again, whining to my husband, Rich, for a dog.  This time around, I think we made a more educated choice, and by that time, I was grown up enough to take good care of Hooper.  And some things don’t change, I do most of the work when it comes to her care, but my husband gets the adoration!

When the First Family welcomed a Portuguese water dog named Bo into the White House last year, I knew the balance of power in that home might soon shift!

Not only had the Obama’s never owned a dog, they had selected a breed that has been deemed by many dog experts as “not a dog for beginners.”

I know this first hand, because as you must know by now, we have lived and travelled with our “Portie” Hooper for 8 years.

I first became aware of the breed after watching a show on Animal Planet.  I just fell in love with their looks, appearance, and spirit, as well as their connectedness to the world of water, webbed feet and all.

My husband, and I are boaters.  In 15 years, we have possessed a power boat, two kayaks, a canoe, and now a sailboat.  So, for us, a dog that took to the bays, oceans, pools, and canals of our lives, this dog was a good choice to say the least.  A perfect choice, you might add.

But nothing is perfect, not even the best dog.  What fun would that be?  When we “acquired” Hooper, our breeder, Carol Irragi of North Star Portuguese water dogs, gave us fair warning, telling us on several occasions that PWDs are not for the faint of heart.  Smart, energetic, fun loving, they are also headstrong, and stubborn, always trying to rule the home, or the boat.

Loyal to a fault, Hooper is always at our sides, underfoot, literally in our faces, watching our every move.  Nicknamed “velcro dogs,” Hooper, like most of her breed, attach themselves physically to those they love!  But this love, unfortunately, does not extend to other dogs, in my dog’s case anyway, making visits to dog parks out of the question.

Did I mention her energy level?  At age 8, she still runs and leaps like a two year old pup, clearing shrubs, and fences.  She swims like a Seal, and her tail (rudder) can leave welts during a bout of excitement.

She is a constant challenge.  We have endured the Turkey Incident of the Thanksgiving of 2008, the Wine Spill Incident of 2009, the after sail Cocktail Party Seasick Episode this past summer, and the famous Amelia Island Closet Incident of March ’09.  I would elaborate, but I am warehousing these “tails” for future short stories or a memoir.

Will Judy advised humans who sought to add a dog to their lives to choose carefully.  “Know thy breed,” he might have advised.  I kind of knew what we were getting into with adding Hooper to our family, but despite all the craziness, I am committed to giving her a good home for as long as she lives.

In the weeks following Bo’s arrival at the White House, Carol received an increase in the calls she got about the breed.  But these breeders are a tight circle.  There was a time, not too long ago, when the Portuguese water dog was almost extinct.  No longer needed by the Potuguese fishing industry, it wasn’t until a breeding pair was brought to the United States that they began to make a comeback.  It is no wonder that by working together, these dedicated breeders protect these special dogs, keeping them out of the greedy hands of puppy mills and pet shops.

Will Judy would be proud of us, we do know “our breed.”  We made our choice, and sometimes we just have to put up with our dog’s particular breed characteristics, like bossiness.  Like at the Obama’s place, Bo may rule the house, but in our corner of the world “Hooper drives the boat, Chief!”

It’s hard to believe that at one time in our nation’s history, dogs, and their humans really put on a show during National Dog Week. From Los Angeles to New York, and points in between, the week presented a Carnival of Canines.

Will Judy might have gotten the National Dog Week Movement started, but other individuals and organizations have kept it going throughout the years.  For example, if it hadn’t been for the writings of one man, National Dog Week might have faded from American calendars for good.  In 2005, the late Captain Arthur Haggerty, in his quest to pay tribute to Will Judy, launched a website just for Dog Week.  The site, no longer up, was a great eye opener for me, a pricelss piece of dog history.  Fortunately, I made a copy of it and it has become my blueprint for the book.

Captain Haggerty was a legendary dog trainer, a pioneer in the field of dog obedience.  His talent for working with dogs was limitless, he trained dogs for military work, and then went on to train them for movies.  Along the way, his dynamic presence landed him supporting roles in some of them, alongside his trainees!

Fascinated with my new-found knowledge, I contacted his daughter, Babette Haggerty, an accomplished dog obedience trainer in her own right.  Babette was very receptive to my ideas and was so generous to have written the Forward for my book (name to be revealed in time).  Without having ever met me in person, her faith in my goal was very inspiring.

Sadly, Captain Haggerty passed a year after his efforts on behalf of National Dog Week.  Today, this falls to a dedicated group of individuals of the American Dog Owners Association (ADOA) , a group I will be posting more about soon. With all the issues they must deal with, it is just too much to expect one group to bear the responsibility for running the show.  To that end,  my book sets out to help spread the message of Dog Week so that others can realize the great potential it can have in small towns and cities across the nation.

Captain Haggerty got it right when he said, “It’s all about the dogs.”

If at least but for one week!

The phone rang at 6:00 this morning and it was back to the real world.  My services were needed at the school down the road, First Grade.  Due to unusually heavy snow here, school was out the week before Christmas, with an additional week off for the holidays.  These kids came back to their regular teacher on January 4, only to have him out sick, with another sub for a few days.  It now came down to me to end their week on a sane note. 

My day was made when upon my arrival, I learned that at 1:00 the kids would be having a delayed holiday party, complete with a Chocolate Fountain.  Let’s just say, every ten minutes I was asked when the fountain would arrive.  That happy thought got me through the day, especially during my lunch duty where I peeled two bananas, speared five juice boxes, consoled a sobbing child, pilfered milk and snacks for the hungry, and opened numerous pudding packs and pouches that were almost impossible for me, or the custodian to open!  But there would be a chocolate fountain…

When I’m subbing (I like to call myself a guest educator) the teachers that know about my book about National Dog Week are always eager to hear about how things are coming along.  They really are interested, and want to know if they can someday use this material as a teaching tool in the classroom.  That’s music to my ears, because it is a perfect place for its lessons to be learned.

Will Judy knew the power of our pups as educators.  He believed that dogs built character in our young, and taught kindness.   He wrote of how children who at an early age cared for pets learned “a sense of responsibility for others-a teaching our schools can give only after some years.”

So the answer is yes, the teachings of Will Judy, and the lessons of National Dog Week can easily be brought into the classrooms of schools across America.  I really do hope to hear about some ways this has been done, or will be done this September.

I ended the day with a Scholastic Newsletter featuring “Bo” Obama on its cover.  I told the class about my Hooper, who looks a lot like Bo (you can’t see all her white markings in the posted photo). If you need to pass some time during a school day, just ask kids about their dogs, or the dogs they hope to have someday.

Today was a good day, I enjoyed my “dog” talks with my students, and fellow educators, and yes, there was chocolate!

Standby for future posts to include some information  about some other fascinating key players of the National Dog Week Movement, and some insight on what it is really like to live with a Portuguese water dog.

What rhymes with log, fog, bog, smog and blog?  Dog? Not if you live in the state of New Jersey!

As a substitute teacher, I love to teach Literacy.  More often than not, that entails having students make new words by changing the first letter(s) of a word to make a new one.  Recently, I was teaching a First Grade class to make words that contained “og.”  All was fine until we got to the word, “dog.” 

“Mrs. K,” said a boy.  “Dawg” doesn’t rhyme with fog.”  We all read the words out loud, but when we got to dog, something was amiss. I explained that in most regions of the United States, it was pronounced as D-ah-g.  But there was no denying, that in most cases, a dog is a “dawg” in Jersey.

I recall as a visiting teenager in Boulder, Colorado, the look I got when I answered  classmates questions about where I lived.  “North Brawdway,” I would answer.  They either laughed, or looked confused, not knowing I was trying to pronounce “Bra-dway.”

My niece, 8 year old, Olivia, is spending a few days visiting her Aunt Manette and Uncle David in Hackensack.  Livie, as we call her moved to upstate New York several years ago, so I am not sure which version of dog she is using now.  But poor Liv battled a fear of them in her early years.  Just the sight of Hooper lopping towards her for a kiss sent her screaming, climbing up on kitchen counters, curling up on top of sofas in sheer terror.  Hooper, who was used to warm welcomes would just cock her head, and look at me puzzled.  This went on for years and usually required Hooper to be sequestered out of sight for hours.  It was a challenge for all.

Thankfully, Livie overcame her fear.  For several months, her family served as temporary caretakers for Sophie, a sweet Border collie mix.  Soon, she began to warm up to Hooper and now, she calls Hooper her best cousin, giving the greatful dog hugs and kisses.

Will Judy, founder of National Dog Week,  believed that dogs had a great deal to teach kids.  Judy, who had been trained as a minister once wrote, “The dog is a daily, living sermon, without offense, without preaching.  He teaches his young overlords out of a book of life-his own life.”

But, it is important not to force any relationship. With Livie, we used patience, tolerance, and required good behavior, especially when in my niece’s presence.

On-line, we read about all the fun and fancy ways to observe National Dog Week, but for Will Judy, the week was about so much more.  At its crux, was his belief that humans still really didn’t get how much our dogs can offer us if we only would let them.  It urged that caring dog “owners” take the time to nurture their special bonds with their best four-legged friends. 

Enlightenment begins with our young, and they are the ones who will carry the torch for the National Dog Weeks of the future. 

By the way, in 2006, the state of NJ, officially recognized NDW as something to be observed the last full week of September each year.  But, something tells me, like Scooby-Doo, we still have a lot of work to do, now!

Mark your calendars now to remember National “Dawg” Week this year!

Hooper

"Is it dog week yet?"

"Is it dog week yet?"

Michelle Mongelli and Wheezey

Pike, at Geiger Key

Hooper in the Keys

Hooper in the Keys

“Two Culprits” by Steven Hall

Logan & Koda

DJ

DJ Goes to Westminster

Zac and Cooper

"Look daddy, I can fly!"

“Hooper” – Best in Snow

Pita in Matt’s Garden

Hooper with cousin Roxy, Summer 2009

Me and my “Hoop”