A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Love Never Dies

On this day in 1979, there was a knock on my door, and I opened it to find four little kids from the elementary school across the street, holding a tiny gray tabby kitten.
"Mister, did you lose this kitty?" they asked.
"No," I said, "but I'll take her."
This was my introduction to Eliza Doolittle, my first cat. We were together for almost 17 years.
Eliza died in 1996. Since then, she has been succeeded by Nelly Custis (who, alas, was killed when she was still a kitten) and the current incumbent, Phoebe Pember.
I love Phoebe dearly, and we've been together for almost 15 years. But I still think of Eliza every day, and I still miss her (as I do Nelly).
If there really is a heaven, I don't want to see my parents or a lot of other people I knew. But I'd give anything to see Eliza again.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Knowledge Is Power

Wilson Elementary School in Richmond, where I used to work as a substitute teacher, is an example of everything that's right and everything that's wrong with our schools.
The right part is the students and teachers. The kids are so sweet and so eager to learn. And the teachers are so dedicated, despite laboring under constant fear of losing their jobs.
But the wrong part is the appalling lack of resources. All the cultural enrichment programs have been cut, and these are kids who desperately need them because many have never had the cultural experiences that you and I take for granted.
Many have never been to a ball game. Or the library. They have never traveled on BART. Or seen San Francisco, or the ocean, or snow. They have never seen the Cal campus, much less allowed themselves to dream that they might go to school there someday.
But for the past 28 years a non-profit support group called the West Contra Costa Public Education Fund - Ed. Fund for short - has tried to fill in the gaps. A few years ago it gave a $500 mini-grant to Wilson to fund a music program - the only music program in the school. The grant paid for tiny flutes called soprano recorders.
$500 isn't much, but it's made a huge difference. Now 180 4th, 5th and 6th graders each year have instruments to play. There's nothing cuter than little kids singing and playing their flutes. There's such joy on their faces.
And the ripple effects keep coming. The children are not only learning to work with others, they're learning a priceless life lesson: If you keep practicing something, you get better at it.
Oh, and by the way, their test scores are climbing, even in non-musical subjects. Not surprisingly, so is their self-esteem.
The Ed. Fund has distributed 67 mini-grants like this at 36 different schools in the district over the last 12 months, impacting nearly 10,000 children.
At Wilson the grant went for musical instruments, but at other schools the money pays for phys ed, which has also been cut.
At yet another school, the mini-grant funded a science project called the Egg Drop Challenge, where the kids learn the mathematical relationships between mass, velocity, elevation and acceleration by dropping eggs from steadily increasing heights until they break.
The teachers come up with the ideas themselves, then the Ed. Fund comes up with the money.
And the more money the Ed. Fund has, the more worthy projects it can underwrite. It throws an annual Excellence In Education Banquet as its chief fundraiser of the year, and this year the big bash will be at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond on May 20.
It's always a great party. "We want people to be so wowed that they'll come back in droves again next year," says executive director Joel Mackey.
This year, the entertainment will feature the Jazz Mafia All-Stars, which includes some of the finest jazz musicians in the Bay Area, as well as the Pinole Valley High School Jazz Band.
For information and tickets, call 510-233-1464 or visit www.edfundwest.org. If you can't make the party but would still like to help, you can also contribute on the website.
Remember what Hilary Clinton said about it taking a whole village to raise a child. We are that village.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Safe And Sound

Bella the cat is back home, safe and sound, after a three-day ordeal atop a 30-foot utility pole in Rodeo.
Bella, a 10-year-old tortoise shell, was spotted on April 15 by Ivy Ludwig
"The pole is in front of my home," she said. "Every time I walked out my front door, this poor cat was looking down at me with an expression that said, 'Please help me!"
Ludwig called the fire department and was told, "It'll probably come down by itself." But the next morning, the cat was still there. Not even a plate of tuna fish could tempt it to come down.
"That's not unusual," commented Gail Churchill of Island Cat Resources and Adoption, a feline rescue group in Alameda. "Most people don't realize that it's much easier for a cat to go up a tree or pole than to come down again because of the way its claws are curved."
Next, Ludwig called PG&E and was told the same thing: Wait for it to come down by itself.
The dispatcher told her it was too risky to attempt a rescue unless the power was shut off, which PG&E was reluctant to do.
"Had we de-energized our line, it would have caused a temporary outage in the neighborhood, and we always prefer not to disturb our customers," PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkisian explained later. "We're not going to leave an animal up there, of course, but we do want to give it a chance to come down on its own."
Another day and night went by, and the cat was still there. That's when another neighbor, Jerry Johnson, got involved. He called the sheriff's office, who referred him to Contra Costa Animal Control.
"I had to do something," he said. "That cat had been up there for three days, and rain was in the forecast for that evening. I was getting really concerned."
Animal Control Officer Kelly Molino arrived and quickly sized up the situation.
"The cat was very tired, trying to lay down and find a place to rest her head. But she couldn't because of all the wires. It must have been very scary holding onto the top of that pole for three days."
Molino called PG&E, who told her they couldn't do anything without a request from the fire department. So she contacted Capt. Rick Perez of the Rodeo-Hercules Fire Department, who quickly arrived with Battalion Chief Bryan Craig, Engineer Skye Johnson and Paramedic John Bischoff.
Soon afterward, PG&E troubleshooter Anthony Miles arrived and huddled with Molino and the firefighters. They decided the best course would be to send Miles up in a bucket lift.
Ironically, they didn't turn the power off. "It turned out to be a secondary line, which wasn't as dangerous," Sarkisian explained.
Meanwhile, around the corner, Patricia Murray had been frantically trying to find her cat, Bella, who had been missing for three days.
"I was worried sick. She always comes home at dinnertime. I knew something was horribly wrong, but I had no idea where she was."
Back at the power pole, a small crowd of about a dozen people had gathered to watch the rescue. Tim Cagle, who just happened to be walking by, looked up and said, "Hey, I think that's my girlfriend's cat!" And he went home to fetch Murray.
Sure enough, it was Bella.
Miles tried to lasso Bella with a loop attached to a stick - the kind they use to capture stray dogs - but that didn't work. So he simply reached out and grabbed her, to cheers from the crowd.
"It was all over in five minutes," said Johnson. "You couldn't write a movie script better than that."
Miles descended and handed Bella to Molino, who promptly turned her over to Murray.
"She was purring like crazy," says Murray. "I wrapped her in a towel and took her home, and she did nothing but eat and sleep for the next 24 hours. But she's fine - not cuts, no broken bones, and no sign of being traumatized."
But it could have turned out very differently if Ludwig and Johnson hadn't called the authorities.
"The callers are the true heroes," said Molino. "We can't be everywhere, so they are our eyes and ears. That one phone call can save an animal's life; and the faster they make that call, the better. Time is precious."