Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Felix and 95

My son and my niece (she, her mother, and brother lived with us back then) found 95 and his brother, Felix, under the porch of the clubhouse at the neighborhood golf course in Greene County, Virginia. They were beautiful American short-hair Tabby kittens. I never quite understood his reasoning, but my son thought that 95 was a cool name for a cat since, after all, it was 1995.

He and his cousin reared those two kittens and spoiled them. Such joyful times. A seven year old boy, his ten year old cousin, and their two cats.

At 3:25 on a Wednesday afternoon, my sister-in-law was coming back to our house after work with her two kids in the car. As she pulled into the drive, there were two large coon dogs in the front yard murdering Felix. I won't go into the details, but my niece leaped from the car and began screaming at the two dogs. They growled at her but eventually ran off. It turns out that they ran across the golf course and killed another cat and attacked its owner. Police then became involved and the two coon dogs were hunted down. Later we found out that the dogs were quarantined for 30 days and then returned to their owners in neighboring Madison County. Apparently, two blue tick coon dogs, despite their taste for blood, were too valuable to just put down.

It became apparent that the two kittens had been in our garage when the dogs came. We used to leave the garage door open for them so they could come in and go out. The old couch that we kept in there was shredded, as if the dogs had ripped it apart to try to get at the two cats. Obviously, the two bolted from there, and we know that Felix had made it as far as the front yard.

95 was nowhere to be found. We assumed that the dogs had carried him off to the woods. So we searched high and low. Nothing. My niece was devastated at losing Felix. My son was inconsolable over losing his 95.

In the predawn quiet before sunrise the next morning, the birds began their calls as they came out from their evening slumber to find their partners. My son's exhausted tears had finally given him away to sleep sometime late in the early fall night. Mixed in with the bird symphony, I thought I heard a faint meowing from my open bedroom window.

Grabbing a flashlight, I ran outside and tracked the call into the neighboring woods. By this time I was joined by the whole family, We were all calling out 95's name. We could all hear the cat's cries, but they were so faint, yet strangely close.

I'm not sure who looked up first. But that's where we found 95. He had scrambled to the top of a very, very tall eastern pine-perhaps 70 feet up. No amount of coaxing, however, could get the kitten to shinny down. So we looked in the phone book and called a tree specialist at 7 am. I must say, he wasn't very pleased to be awakened at such an hour, and he told us that the cat would come down when he felt like it...just before he hung up.

Sure enough, about 45 minutes later, with all of us standing around and cheering him on, 95 began to inch down the trunk from his dizzying height.

I can't begin to describe the joy on my son's face that moment when he held his cat once again. It was all tempered, however, by the tragic loss of Felix the day before.

The next few months came and went. 95 grew up into a delightful young cat. One cold winter day, lightning struck twice. As my son and niece were returning home from school, they saw two big dogs running from our yard. One of them had something in his mouth.

Although we searched and searched, day after day, we never found 95.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Angels are Real

My daughter hopped in her '99 Honda Civic early this afternoon to drive to Charlottesville from Roanoke for a visit with her aunt.

When she got to the I-64/Lexington interchange, she heard a loud clunk from under the car. She immediately called her mother for mechanical reassurance. It was a one-time clunk, but everything appeared to be running normally. So my wife told her to drive on.

Within a few miles, all hell began breaking loose under the car. The whole car shook with a grinding, deafening vibration. Luckily, she was right at the White's Truck Stop exit. So she pulled in and parked the car at the Burger King in front of White's and called home.

I was out on a Coke run in the "Blue Party Van" (2003 Dodge Grand Caravan Sport) when I got the call from my wife to go on a rescue mission. So I headed up I-81.

Over past few months, I'd been noticing a clunk whenever I shifted to reverse in that car. So I wondered if the transmission might have detonated.

My daughter was happy to see me, which warmed my heart. I immediately inspected the car visually side to side, peeking under, and opened the hood.

While I am a long time listener of Car Talk, I have no mechanical skill. Car Talk has taught me about sounds and probabilities. I know where things are, but generally once you put a ratchet in my hand, I become a bumbling, nervous fool.

Under the hood, I noted that the the car was past due for an oil change and was very low on oil, but no light had come on. I also noted that the transmission fluid didn't register on the stick, an ominous sign in my Car Talk book. Furthermore, there were bits of grit in the transmission stick register.

I hopped in the car, started it...no unusual sound. Then I put it in gear and moved slowly forward. The car instantly began grinding and groaning and screeching. I immediately feared the worst. The transmission. I had convinced myself.

So my daughter and I walked over to White's and bought a quart of oil and transmission fluid. I told her that sometimes when you add tranny fluid, you can keep the issue at bay long enough to have it diagnosed properly. But more than likely, the transmission was shot. She asked me if that was bad. Chip off the ole block.

I had discussed our dilemma with the clerk at White's and she assured me that she had names of flatbed tow operators who could return the car to Roanoke for me.

After adding the fluids, I took a slow test drive around the pumps, and the horrible sounds were still there.

We were about to walk back to White's to make the call when we noticed that a guy in a nice '91 Mustang had pulled up beside us in the Burger King parking lot. He got out of his car and began tinkering with it. So in a friendly tone, I asked him if he'd ever heard the sound of a dying transmission. He told me that he had many times because he was a bit of a mechanic. So I explained my situation.

Intrigued, he came over and immediately suggested that what we were hearing most likely wasn't a transmission problem. So I asked if he'd hop in and listen. So we backed up and pulled forward. Immediately, he knew what the problem was- stuck brake caliper.

So, he suggested that I jack up the front and he would try to get it freed up. I couldn't believe our fortune. I got the cheap Civic jack and popped that tire off the ground, He got his deluxe lug wrench out and

took the bolts off the tire.

While we worked, I learned a lot about our angel. He is about 30 years old and his name is Jason Meredith. He was visiting a girl back in another part of Virginia. I won't go into all the personal details here, but Jason was feeling a little down on his luck and glum. He told me that he had been doing "man jobs" ever since high school and had never had the opportunity to go to college. I told him I went to college and never bothered to learn "man jobs."

Once the tire was off, he began looking around the caliper area...While he was doing that, I made a stunning discovery. A loose bolt was wedged into a crotch in the frame behind the front right tire, a large bolt. Jason immediately knew that the bolt had come from the brake casing. It seems it had shed one of the two bolts and was barely hanging onto the rotor. I lined the casing back up and he screwed it on, making extra sure to tighten it down thoroughly.

Problem solved. Crisis averted. No pain. No injury. I was amazed that the bolt hadn't fallen to the pavement and been lost for all time. Jason was amazed that the whole unit hadn't dislodged and ripped apart the rim, rotor, wheel well, and fender. My daughter was glad the whole thing didn't fall apart when she was traveling at 65mph down I-81. Certainly she was fortunate that her angel was watching out for her.

After we chatted for a few minutes about the VT/WV rivalry in football, the fortunes of the WV basketball game, and what a scumbag RichRod was for lying to WV, he went on his way with my thanks.

So to Jason Meredith of Charleston, WV, you are a kind gentleman and a great representative from your state. Go 'Eers!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A Tangled Net

I lead an aimless life these days. Unfocused. I spend unhealthy evenings sitting in front of my computer screen clicking from link to link. Website to website. Facebook is rising up within me. It's all an escape, I think. A way to avoid painful chapters.

My days are spent teaching school. These are not happy times in schools. Many of my colleagues from across the county are worried that they will lose their jobs. It seems our "Jobs Governor" meant something other than what you might think when he was elected Presid...Governor in the Fall. At school this is the stress time; the month before the high stakes state examinations. How I'm professionally treated next year largely depends upon how well my children do on the examinations this year. Some nights I spend my evening at school board meetings listening to how bad the financial times are for schools. Those poor teachers have every reason to be worried.

After school these days I sometimes head over to my mother's house. My father passed away on January 17 after a long and courageous battle with emphysema. Spring was our time together. I used to visit after school and perform many odd yard jobs for him. In the past few years, I'd prepare his garden and eventually plant most of it. After all work was done, we'd relax on the deck with my mother and sister sipping beers.

My mother has difficultly remembering things these days. When I visit her, I usually have to remind her of where my children go to school and who is currently living at my home. Sadly, I have to frequently inform her that her husband has died and won't be coming back. We've recounted the story over and over since January 17. Today was no different.

"My mind just keeps going in and out and I just can't keep things straight."

I wait for her to go on. I know where she is heading with this conversation. I've heard it before.

" I need to know... is Dad here?" Her tone seems resigned to the inevitable answer. It's as if she knows already, but is hoping to just wake up from the horrible nightmare of reality.

"No Mom, Dad passed away on January 17." I see her eyes well up in pain. "He died peacefully on his own terms. You know he had struggled so with his breathing this past year, and he just couldn't go on anymore."

Her tears flow freely now.

"I know, I know. It's just so frustrating. I can't keep it all straight. I know now that I was there that Sunday sitting beside him on his bed. He didn't say anything, but he could hear everything I said to him."

My thoughts were taken back to that particular moment in that long vigil. I'll never forget my mother sitting beside my father that last time as she gently stroked the peaceful face of the man she'd loved for 65 years. His breathing became slower as the blessed morphine allowed his body to finally give in to the nature of his disease. Then, without a word, he stopped.

By now I was crying as well. As I watched her relive her husband's death again, I couldn't help but view it as some sort of cruel, heartless joke. Day after long day, her mind erases the events in her life and scrambles her thoughts. Several times each day, she confronts and tests her "horrible dream", checking reality. Each day she discovers that her husband is dead and never coming home. Each day, she grieves all over again, as fresh as the moment death walked into her life.

Sometimes when I feel so melancholy, I reach for a random book, one in which I've only lightly read in the past or that I have long forgotten. I'll page through that book until I find something that strikes me.

The book I picked out this evening, is one I used for an Appalachian Folklore class a few years ago. It's called The Earth-Man Story by Darwin Lambert. In this book, Lambert journaled about time spent in Shenandoah National Park. One passage I flipped to lifted my spirits and helped me remember times I've spent outside in the woods at night as the clouds whirl through a moonlit sky.

Clouds come from behind the ridge imperceptibly, as if accompanying the moon, at first seeming to overtake and play at blindfolding it, then lagging while it finds a thin spot to shine through. I blink, and seem to feel earth floating in space. The moon and the widespread dimpling clouds constitute the firmament as the ridge sinks to reveal more of that stationary sky...Whatever else the moon has been-a reflector of romance or light from the sun-its primary function now must be to serve as a mirror of earth, helping us see ourselves and our home in the heavens in truer perspective.

I wish so many things were different about my life right now. Despite the troubles of the day or the pain that surrounds me, I'm buffered by the calmness gained through immersion in the complexity of simplicity; a bird calling from a tree, an individual snowflake melting on a leaf, a crow flying by with straw in his beak, and orange sunlight returning the day.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Sting

The Sting

A lot of experienced teachers awoke this morning before the sun came to visit. They showered, poured a cup of coffee, opened their morning newspaper…

Teachers will likely feel sting of shortfall

Teachers over age 50 and those with fewer than three years of experience are likely to be most affected by budget cuts.

…and spilled their coffee all over themselves. Exactly a month too early for April Fools’ Day, teachers all over the area perked up and stared at the headline from Courtney Cutright’s front page article in The Roanoke Times in disbelief.

Although the headline was screaming at the top of its lungs this morning, the information within the article really didn’t surprise teachers and educators in Roanoke County; however, the article did break new ground. Teachers in the county have been aware for some time now that non-renewals and reductions are a distinct possibility. We also have known that salaries will most likely be frozen, and that the school board is working diligently to lessen the impact of the state’s insane budget cuts.

The revelation that teachers over age 50 are likely to be most affected by the cuts is a bit of hyperbole. We’ve known since the last school board meeting that the board is offering a new retirement deal for teachers over the age of 50 with at least ten years of experience. These teachers may choose to retire and accept $2500 for five years toward the county health insurance premium or they may choose a lump sum of $12,500 if they do not wish to receive health insurance from the county. Deadline to apply for this offer in writing is March 19. So, it’s not really true that those over 50 are likely to be most affected. Those educators will only be affected by their own choice.

Teachers with less than three years of experience, however, are certainly in line to be most affected by any reduction. Generally, the county will process all possible nonrenewals before dipping into the well to reduce continuing contract teachers. What that means is that teachers, who do not have tenure, will be let go first if positions need to be eliminated. The idea seems straight-forward as well as unavoidably tragic.

That being said, there is some murkiness in county policy regarding Reductions in Force (RCPS Policy 5.38) and elimination of teaching positions. The policy alludes to “Senority Lists” for continuing contract teachers, but there is no mention of what these lists are and when they are to be published or released to the teachers. For transparency-sake, this list should be available to all teachers in a timely manner so that they can be prepared in case a reduction creeps into their category.

Non-tenured, non-continuing contract teachers have “no official standing.” This means that the county can dismiss them without cause given as long as the county follows The Code of Virginia § 22.1-305. Their contracts are simply not renewed. There is nothing in RCPS Policy 5.38 that addresses any particular order in non-renewing, no mention of any seniority considerations for non-tenured teachers. How such de-staffing is approached should be clearly defined and explained to any teachers potentially affected as soon as possible. Will the personnel department, utilizing defined categories, base nonrenewals on contractual hiring dates? Will de-staffing happen within each school base with the site administrator making the final determination on who is released? A clearly worded definition of procedural intent would be appropriate and welcome.

Courtney Cutright’s article is her best education piece to date. She took time to research carefully the financial side of the budget equation and delivered information and content that no media source has reported. Ms. Cutright relied on information gained through her Freedom of Information Act request. She mixes in timely reactions from the school board leaders in both Roanoke City and Roanoke County and infuses excellent VEA Research information to create a factual, balanced piece.

“Teachers will likely feel the sting of shortfall” is no surprise for educators in Roanoke County, but it may come as an eye-opening bucket of cold water on the heads of the public. What the State of Virginia is about to do to our public school system is reprehensible and destructive. There’s simply no way around that. Teachers, parents, and, most importantly, children- will feel the sting of this shortfall.