Dogs of Destiny

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 3.56.23 PMTo celebrate the release of Percy, Dog of Destiny, written by me and illustrated by the wonderful Jennifer K. Mann, I sent out a call for photos of your dogs.

Please meet some of them, with more to come, pictured below in all their glory.

(I did not tell my own dog, Petey, about this blog post, as he would be jealous that I was looking at other dogs.)
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This very fine fellow is named Percy, just like the dog in the book. He’s a political activist. We need more public servants of his ilk.

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This little scragglepuff is Sarah Moochie. She loves hanging out in the ballet studio and chewing up ballet slippers if she can get her paws on one.

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This is Piper. This is also Piper’s ball. Do not try to take it away from her, please.

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Meet Mo. He doesn’t really play with toys, but he does love his bone.

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This fine fellow is Jackson. He’s a one of a kind Schnauzer-Schipperke mix. Currently retired from his gig as a bookstore greeter and looking to pick up some part-time work if you hear of anything.

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This is Yoda. She likes bones. Chewing is only one of her many passions, along with barking. She was feeling demure when this photo was taken.

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This is Wrigley with his kong. He grew up to be a highly trained American VetDog. He rides in helicopters, wears goggles to protect his eyes from the sun and desert sand overseas, and brings love and comfort to veterans in need. (This is all true! Google him.)

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This is Khaki with her squeaky pink dog. She might look slumberish but she’s got her eyes on you, so keep your paws to yourself.

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This is Miss Chloe. She’s two years old and she’s trained to go into nursing homes and work with folks who suffer from depression, but in her spare time she loves destroying squeaker toys. In the background is one she hasn’t yet found the key to destroy. Don’t give up, Miss Chloe. We’re rooting for you.

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This is Charlie, taking a nap with Piglet, his favourite* toy. (*Please note that Charlie spells favourite with a u. That’s because he is Canadian.)

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This is the beloved Mr. Pickles with his favourite toy watermelon. Pug sibling Pancake, also pictured, cares not for toys. (Please note that Mr. Pickles, like Charlie above, is also Canadian.)

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According to one of their humans, this is Wolf-butt and Bark-face. According to their other human, this is Finn and Daisy. According to both humans, Wolf-butt/Finn and Bark-face/Daisy are each other’s favorite toys.

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Blackie relaxing with her Lambie, which she has been known to parade back and forth before guests in an “I know you want this but guess what, you can’t have it” sort of way.

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This is Guinness (he’s an Irish terrier) happily guarding Jello, his favorite toy.

Poem of the Week, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi NyePeople who have been reading the poem of the week on this blog for years now must think, seeing this week’s selection, Wow, does this woman love Naomi Shihab Nye. And they would be right. Sometimes, walking down the street, I recite lines from her poems, maybe because they’re beautiful, maybe because they make me feel less alone, maybe because they remind me, always, that kindness is all that matters. At a restaurant a couple of weeks ago, a friend said to me, “I read a poem today that I think you would love. It’s by a woman named Naomi something”–and I said, “Naomi Shihab Nye!” Once, a couple of years ago, I saw a tiny notice in the paper that she was giving a talk that very night at a school near me –she lives in Texas and this was in Minneapolis– so I zipped right over. The talk was in a high school classroom and I sat in a chair in the front row. And afterward I asked if she minded a photo. So that’s me, with Naomi my hero, and this concludes my Naomi Shihab Nye story in favor of her beautiful poem, of which I love this line most of all: Each carries a tender spot: Something our lives forgot to give us. 

 

Jerusalem, by Naomi Shihab Nye

“Lets be the same wound if we must bleed.
         Lets fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.”
                                    —Tommy Olofsson, Sweden

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.
Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it’s ridiculous.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.

 

For more information on Naomi Shihab Nye, please click here.

The dedication behind the dedication

I dedicated my brand-neScreen Shot 2017-03-21 at 3.56.23 PMw picture book, Percy, Dog of Destiny, to my dear friend Judy Osborn. Why? Take a look at that handsome dog below. His name is Wrigley, and he’s one of the astonishing American Vet Dogs, trained to provide moral support to our troops and veterans. (See the goggles and weights on Wrigley’s back? That’s part of his training as a helicopter dog. Check out this video if you don’t believe me.) A dog of destiny if ever there was one.


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I’ve had the honor of watching Wrigley grow from a tender puppy (last photo below) into the soulful, beautiful dog he is now. Not in person, but through my friend Judy’s photographs. Judy, who is a civil servant by day and a dog whisperer the rest of the time, worked with Wrigley almost every weekend for a year. During the week, Wrigley was loved and trained by Sam, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, MD., and each weekend, Judy picked him up and took him with her everywhere, so that he would be as used to the enormous outside world as he was to the confines of the prison. 

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Q. Judy, what drew you personally to the Vet Dog program?

A. I’ve always loved dogs and I’ve always been interested in how dogs can help all kinds of people — kids learning to read; people recovering in hospitals; veterans dealing with PTSD or physical disabilities; prisoners who need unconditional love; senior citizens who need connection.  I became more conscious of veterans because I live near Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and I see veterans in Bethesda who are amputees.

After the recent deaths of three dear friends, I decided life was too short to wait until retirement to do what I loved. I had done some volunteering with Warrior Canine Connection (puppy petting!) but wanted to do something on a regular basis that involved dogs and vets and inmates. America’s Vet Dogs was perfect because the dogs are trained during the week by inmates and the prison was relatively close (in DC terms, anyway – an hour and a half drive). And since my commitment was only on weekends, I didn’t think I would get attached to the dog (ha ha!).

Q. You worked in tandem with an inmate to train Wrigley. What was that like?

A. “My” inmate — Sam — is an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, MD. Sam was the main trainer of Wrigley, who was his first dog, and he worked with Wrigley 24/7. My commitment was at least three weekends a month, two nights each weekend, to practice the commands in the “real” world and to socialize Wrigley, i.e., expose him to all sorts of situations, places, people, noises and smells.  Doorbells!  Garbage trucks!  Leaf blowers!  Construction sites!  People who walk funny!  Skateboarders!  Drunk people!  Clowns!  Squirrels and cats!  Bowling alleys!  Hospitals!  Libraries!  Buses!  Boats!  Subways! I even did things with Wrigley that I failed to do with my own son when he was little (a pontoon boat at a local lake). 

The list they gave us is quite extensive. We had a training book that gave us “field trips” that were appropriate for the age of the dog. Each weekend we were supposed to repeat two field trips we’d done before, and add two new ones. Sam and I made a great team. We gave each other lots of detailed information from week to week, and Sam would work on things that I found Wrigley hadn’t yet mastered in the outside world. 

Q. What was the most rewarding aspect of working with Wrigley?

A. The most rewarding thing is knowing that I helped bring the joy (and boundless energy) of Wrigley to the many veterans he will meet. He will be deployed for a while (though it’s unclear if it’s with the Army, the Air Force, or the Mass National Guard) and he will bring great comfort to our soldiers who are under so much stress. He is then on track to be a “facility dog” who will be assigned to a military base or VA hospital and get to hang out with all the veterans who are there for therapy.

Q. What was the hardest aspect of this work?

A. Saying goodbye.  Worrying about him — knowing that he doesn’t like being in a kennel; wondering how it will be for him overseas; hoping he is with people who love him and treat him well.  I miss his goofiness and his beautiful face.

And it was also tough never getting to meet Sam to talk about our boy together, since the rules prohibit any interaction. Towards the end, we both could really appreciate and understand how far we — and Wrigley — had come. We were able to share that through notes, but it wasn’t the same.  I did get permission to write Sam a goodbye letter.

Q. Do you have insight or advice for the general public with regard to vets and their dogs, or service dogs in general?

A. DO NOT PET THE DOG. Service dogs are working and having a stranger pet the dog (or even talk to the dog) could endanger the handler’s life. It’s best not to even ask to pet the dog since sometimes that can cause stress for the handler.

I did meet some wonderful people who would come up and speak to me. Lots of people wanted to know about the Vet Dog program, lots of people offered a ton of support to us and to him. Children could always pet him provided they asked first and stayed calm; I tried to make these teaching moments. One of the last weekends I met an eight year old boy at the farmer’s market. Wrigley and this little boy just fell in love with each other. So very sweet.

Q. What have your dog experiences in life thus far taught you, either about yourself or about human relationships?

A. People need connection, unconditional love, and acceptance; dogs provide all of the above. Dogs also make you live in the moment — there’s no way I can hurry through my morning to get to work without first rubbing my dog Khaki’s belly. (She goes downstairs first and lies on her back so her belly is the first thing I see when I come downstairs.)  And, as hungry as she is when I come home, she demands — and I give  — a belly rub and cuddle then too. 

For more information about America’s Vet Dogs, or to support the wonderful work they do, please click here.

Send me photos of your dogs and their toys!

img_6168That dapper little gentleman to the left is our dog, Petey. Petey is almost fourteen, and every day he wears a bandanna from his large collection. He loves pig ears. He will wade with great caution into the lake if he can a) see the bottom clearly and b) only up to his chest, at which point he will c) bow his head so that he can take a few sips before d) retreating. When his hair gets too Rasta we take him to Royal Pet and get him a puppy cut, which a) makes him look as if he’s lost ten pounds and b) prompts our neighbor Kathie to look askance and say, “I see you got him that rat cut again.”

Petey is indifferent to most dog food but he loves our cat Hobbes’ food and was known, up until a year or so ago, to leap in a catlike manner onto the counter in search of it. He is very fond of fresh-baked goods and once a) snatched an entire pound cake off its cooling rack and gobbled half of it before I ran screeching into the kitchen and b) another time somehow managed to paw two cooling racks full of oatmeal scotchies from the very back of the counter onto the kitchen floor and gobble them all down. Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 3.56.23 PM

In his early years I took him to the dog park once or twice a day, where he used to meet up with his buddies, including the fabulous Oatmeal Raisin Cookie, a basset hound who had spent her first five years living in hell, trapped in a crate so small her tail broke, and whose rescue human used to paint her toenails and lavish her with love and affection in an attempt to make up for those lost years. 

Petey’s great love, back in the dog park days, was his tennis ball. He loved to play catch with me, a game which involved me throwing the ball for him, him racing to retrieve it, and then him spending the next half hour refusing to drop the ball. Petey’s obsessive love/addiction/compulsive hoarding of tennis balls, and the zealotry with which he would guard any that came his way, was the inspiration for Percy, Dog of Destiny, a new picture book that comes out this month, illustrated by the wonderful Jennifer K. Mann. What ho!

In celebration of Percy, Dog of Destiny, I’d love to feature photos of your dogs and their favorite toys. Please send them to me! And spread the word – there can never be too many photos of dogs and their beloveds. 

 

Poem of the Week, by Miguel M. Morales

img_3440I wanted to write about why I love this poem so much, but it grabbed me by the throat and told me that it could speak for itself, thanks.

This Is a Migrant Poem, by Miguel M. Morales


This is a migrant poem 
a farmworking poem, a poem that covers itself 
in long sleeves to avoid the burning sun. 

That drinks enough water to avoid 
dehydration but not enough to get water sickness. 

This poem carries a machete, a hoe, a spade, 
a knife, shears, and a file for filo. 

This poem walks irrigated rows collecting mud 
on its boots that add five pounds to each foot. 

This poem guards the cornfield where his sister, 
his mother, and his cousins, squat to pee. 

This poem ducks down hitting the dirt to avoid the 
echoing crop duster spraying anti-poem toxins that 
burn our eyes and throats. 

This poem is egg and chorizo burritos in aluminum foil, 
steamed shut by the heat waiting for you at lunch 
in a foam cooler in the trunk at the end of rows of soybean. This poem. 
This poem smells of blood—and meat. 

This poem flows from carcasses into open drains 
of slaughter houses, on kill floors, in chilled freezers 
with knives cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting—always cutting. 

They duct tape knives into this poem’s hands 
to cut even when its cut hands can cut no longer. 

This poem is a gift of a strong back, of sturdy legs,
of silence, of patience. 

And a never-ending work ethic 
          a never ending work ethic 
                      a never ending work of ethics. 

This poem shows you the bigger picture. 
This poem is pragmatic, strategic, and erratic. 

This poem reaches as it climbs ladders, as it stoops over, 
as it pulls from branches, vines, as it unearths other poems 
and tosses them into buckets and sacks slung across its stanzas. 

This poem is paid by the word, by the piece, 
by the hour, by the day, by the acre. 

This poem has no benefits, no days off, 
no health insurance, no childcare. 

This poem is child labor. This poem is sexual assault. 
This poem is deportation. This poem is missing wages,
broken vehicles, sunstroke. 

This poem avoids irrigation ditches where 
La Llorona hopes to drown it. 

This poem knows she commands water and sends waves 
of humidity and tempting mirages of cool rippling lakes. 

This poem wears a rosary and a scapular and prays to St. Francis of Assisi 
to protect them from snakes and rats that live in the fields 
and to St. Michael the archangel to protect them from the farmer’s son 

who watches his sisters 
          who follows his sisters  
                     who pulls at his sisters. 

This poem wakes up early, works all damn day, sweats all damn day. 
This poem always needs a shower to wash off the dirt, to wash out the dirt, 
to wash away the dirt. 

This poem goes to bed early to do it all again 
                                                                        tomorrow. 

This Poem is a Migrant Poem. 
A. Farm. Working. Poem.

For more information on Miguel M. Morales, please click here.

“Matylda, Bright and Tender”

IMG_6459Behold the beautiful cover of my sister Holly’s beautiful new children’s novel Matylda, Bright and Tender (a title I love so much that I say it to myself over and over). Matylda is a leopard gecko, cared for with wonder and devotion by two nine-year-old best friends named Guy and Sussy. There’s a special kinship between Guy and Matylda, whereas Sussy is a little more diffident, a little unsure of herself. Sussy wonders whether Matylda will ever be as close to her as she is to Guy.

But when something awful and unpredictable happens, Sussy is all Matylda has left. It’s up to Sussy to go on alone without her best friend, the one who intuitively understood their pet. Sussy has taken a vow to carry on and do right by Matylda, but at the same time, the mere act of living, of going on with her own life, let alone caring for Matylda, is almost more than she can handle.

This novel is one of those small books that feels vast in its encompassing of tragedy, longing and, ultimately, redemption. How do you go on in the face of something unbearable? Something that no matter how much you wish you could undo, you can’t? Something that, no matter how surrounded you are by love and support, you have to go through alone? The day she lost Guy plays over and over in Sussy’s head. Reconfiguring her life in the face of this new reality is a task she doesn’t know how to do.

Adults who read this book will remember in their bones the long-ago day that time turned for them in just this heartbreaking way. And children will find, in Sussy’s honesty and grief, a memory of courage and love to store away in their own hearts for the future, when they will need it. This is a beautiful book.

 

Poem of the Week, by Tim Nolan

img_6107A long, long time ago I read Innumeracy, a slender, astonishing book by the mathematician John Allen Paulos, in which he explains how the inability of most of us to deal rationally with enormous numbers results in confused personal decisions and public policy as well as susceptibility to pseudoscience of all kinds. In one chapter Paulos lays out the fact that, on average, every breath we take contains a minimum of three molecules of air breathed by every single person who ever lived and breathed on this planet. I think about this fact every single day. It has influenced every aspect of my life, not least of which is that in times of deep grief, it brings me comfort. Breathe in, Alison. Remember that you’re breathing in some of the same air that every single person you love, the ones who are living and the ones who are dead, have breathed. This lovely, elegiac poem by Tim Nolan, one of a series about his mother and her passing, brings me that same sense of loss and comfort.

 

The Blue Light, by Tim Nolan

I asked her to come to me
in whatever way she chose

As the wind, as the ruffling
water, as the red maple leaf

So today I closed my eyes
halfway toward sleep

And she came in a blue light
blue as a tropical ocean

Turning toward a darker blue
as the Sun passed

Coming in blue waves coming
in from the side of my eyes

Somehow bathing me in blue—
a blue that seemed to be

Her gaze –turned to blue—
just as she was a few weeks ago

Her blue eyes and mine meeting
in that long long look

 

For more information on Tim Nolan, please click here.

My dear Mary

IMG_6363August 25th, 1849

My dear Mary,

You would long since have received a letter from me had it not have been for want of leisure. You who have lived here must remember what a scene of hurry & bustle the house always presents, but more particularly in the Summer season, and although my own little home was one of quiet and calm, yet my children and household cares employed the most of my time. But although I would not write you my thoughts were very often with you and I looked forward with a great deal of pleasure to receiving a visit from you in my home (I know no sweeter name to call it).

That’s how the letter begins. It was found in an estate sale box filled with old envelopes and stamps, handwritten on a 15.5″ x 10″ piece of paper, in copperplate script so elegant that somehow it makes me sad when I look at it. Did the writer use a quill pen? How did she keep her lines so even and straight – did she use a ruler? After she wrote the letter, she folded the large piece of paper in half, then in thirds, then in thirds again, so that it became both letter and envelope. She sealed the envelope with red sealing wax and addressed it to Mrs. William Summer of Grimsby.

At first it was hard to decipher that lovely, antique handwriting, but it got easier as I went along. The letter is long, from a woman to her granddaughter, filled with news of the health of family members and friends, the longing of the writer for some peace and quiet, her silent worry over her grandniece’s sweetheart, who had left for Provence a month ago. She has not heard from him since he left the isthmus but has been expecting a letter from him for a month past. We all feel a great deal of anxiety about him but we hope and trust for the best.

The letter sits on the table where I’m typing this blog post. Surrounding it is a computer cable, my Precise V7 Rolling Ball black pen, a glass of water, my credit card, a box containing a deck of cards and the score of every one of the hundreds of rummy games the painter and I have played over the last four years, my cell phone, and a plastic hair clip. The letter is the only item on the table that existed, or even could have existed, 168 years ago when it was written.

Do you want to know how the writer ended her letter, the last paragraph of which is not the perfect copperplate of the rest but almost a scrawl, and which also contains an uncharacteristic misspelling? Now my dear Mary I must bid you good night for it is getting late and baby is crying. You and Willie must come up as soon as possible you do not know how anscious I am to see you both up here and I hope you will not let any thing prevent your coming. Believe ever affectionately, your GrandMadame.

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Poem of the Week, by Elizabeth Acevedo

img_2654That photo over there to the right is the very long tail of a very large rat that ran over my bare feet as I stood at the stove cooking dinner. The story behind the tail is one of intrigue and horror – me sauteeing vegetables at the stove while chatting with The Painter who was seated behind me, me suddenly feeling a squirrel or a small cat run over my bare feet, me shrieking and whirling around to tell The Painter that a squirrel or a cat had run over my bare feet, The Painter trying desperately to contain his horror because he had witnessed exactly what ran over my bare feet and rats are not cats. 

Here’s a writing exercise for you: Write about something that the world considers ugly but you secretly think is beautiful. The results might make you feel the same way I did when I read this stunning poem below.

 

For the Poet Who Told Me Rats Aren’t Noble Enough Creatures for a Poem, by Elizabeth Acevedo
        

Because you are not the admired nightingale.
Because you are not the noble doe.
Because you are not the blackbird,
picturesque ermine, armadillo, or bat.
They’ve been written, and I don’t know their song
the way I know your scuttling between walls.
The scent of your collapsed corpse bloating
beneath floorboards. Your frantic squeals
as you wrestle your own fur from glue traps.

Because in July of ’97, you birthed a legion
on 109th, swarmed from behind dumpsters,
made our street infamous for something
other than crack. We nicknamed you “Cat-
killer,” raced with you through open hydrants,
screeched like you when Siete blasted
aluminum bat into your brethren’s skull—
the sound: slapped down dominoes. You reigned
that summer, Rat; knocked down the viejo’s Heinekens,
your screech erupting with the cry of Capicu!
And even when they sent exterminators,
set flame to garbage, half dead, and on fire, you
pushed on.

Because you may be inelegant, simple,
a mammal bottom-feeder, always fucking famished,
little ugly thing that feasts on what crumbs fall
from the corner of our mouths, but you live
uncuddled, uncoddled, can’t be bought at Petco
and fed to fat snakes because you’re not the maze-rat
of labs: pale, pretty-eyed, trained.
You raise yourself sharp fanged, clawed, scarred,
patched dark—because of this alone they should
love you. So, when they tell you to crawl home
take your gutter, your dirt coat, your underbelly that
scrapes against street, concrete, squeak and filth this
page, Rat.

 

For more information on Elizabeth Acevedo, please click here.