My alarm went off this morning at 6:45am, the same time it usually does on a Monday morning. But as I rolled over to turn it off, I remembered that this wasn't an ordinary Monday. It was the first Monday in more than a decade that I wouldn't be earning any money.
Due to the budget crisis at the university where I'm employed, all faculty and academic staff are mandated to take four unpaid furlough days, one each month from February through May. It's a strategy that many universities and other organizations have taken across the nation to deal with staggering shortfalls of revenue. None of us particularly likes losing about four percent of our salary each month this spring, but if it can help the university stay operational and avoid widespread layoffs, I haven't met a person who isn't willing to take their fair share of the financial pain.
The spacing of the furlough periods has synchronized rather well for me, as I already had four days this semester (one in each furlough period) where I needed to cover when my son was out of school and my wife had work responsibilities. Today was the first of my furlough days, on a day where my son was off school for President's Day.
I'd decided when the furloughs were first announced that I wanted to spend the days doing things I normally don't have the opportunity to do during the work week -- concentrate on my writing and photography and spend more time outdoors with my son. As the hours quickly ticked past this morning after we all rolled out of bed around 8am, I saw my first furlough day disappearing into the familiar cadence of a lazy Saturday at home. I was buried in my laptop, checking the news, Facebook and Twitter. My son feverishly worked on his own computer. As 11:30am came and went, I knew the window of opportunity to make something of the day was narrowing.
Fortunately it didn't take a whole lot of arm bending to convince my son that it would be fun to get outside for a while and go for a hike. After running down the list of our favorite hiking places, I threw out a new locale -- a park on the northeast side of town that we'd never explored before. He was game, and we were off.
Our town was covered by a couple of fresh inches of wet snow late last night. We arrived at the park, my camera in hand, and a determination in his devilish smile to have some fun. The park's 90 acres surround a lake created in the late 1800s by the damming the Saline Branch. Today, the frozen lake was nearly invisible, blending almost seamlessly with the surrounding woods under a carpet of snow. After a quick lesson on how to identify the water's edge, we started out on our hike.
A blanket of overcast covered us today, but there was evidence everywhere of the yesterday's sun. The main bridge crossing the lake was lined with an army of icicles, which the kid gladly dispatched as he ran across the span. Although the snow near the parking lot was powdery and hard to pack, across the bridge we found a couple of acres of fresh snow, ready to easily form into the most perfect snowballs. Hanging up my camera on a nearby sign, we commenced a small pitched battle of frozen zeal.
Throughout the park, there were official warnings to stay off the frozen lake and river. On this grey day, the red danger signs caught your attention at every turn. Judging by the human footprints across the center of the lake, not everyone had heeded the message. So we decided to build a snow sentry to provide further guidance to the foolish souls who were venturing out onto the ice.
Along the way, we heard the first animal noise of the day. Coming from a towering oak tree was the familiar tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker. It took us a few minutes to locate his red head moving with each hammer, as his plumage blended perfectly with the shaggy bark of the tree.
We arrived back at the parking lot, cold and wet but refreshed from our short hike along the lake and river that was full of smiles and laughter. It may have been hard to find the silver in an overcast day, but we certainly found a beautiful snowy lining in a day we'll never forget. I may not have earned a dime while on furlough, but I can't imagine a more valuable use of my time.