Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Through the Eyes of a Friend, We See Clearly

My friend Patti came in through the porch screen door the other day, eyes brimming with tears, but smiling as she brought me updates about a special sight she was witnessing from the porch. It was early morning, too early for most people, and we were on the third floor of a condo in Mexico, a favorite annual getaway vacation for “the almost golden girls.” Her morning ritual of devotions and prayer time on the porch, alone, had been interrupted, gently, by the vision of something so beautiful she couldn’t just let it go unnoted.

She’d come in three times already with updates and a sense of true wonder, as she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The first description provided a clue. She said she’d seen a big burly guy walking along holding the hands of his tiny daughter, who appeared not to be even two years old, walking along the mostly deserted beach. It was still so early in the morning that most tourists had not yet found their way down. I was up at this hour, working on a rush project on my so-called vacation, without even my first cup of coffee nearby.

The first thing Patti noticed was how big and strong the man was. He wore a sleeveless t-shirt and dew rag around his head. She thought he looked more like an offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears than a dad. Her second report noted she understood once again how God was at work in her life, as well as that of the family below her.

As the daughter had been previously been exploring the beach, she was tentative, amazed and awed by the waves, but a little fearful. The dad walked behind her, closely, without her even noticing his shadow. Once a wave came along the far part of the shore, gentle to an adult, it was overpowering to the child, who was navigating the path for the first time. The third report was even more powerful.

In an instant, the youngster had been knocked over by the gentle wave, but before you could count to “3,” her father had scooped her up and restored her to her previous balance, and they continued along their path together. No tears, just restored confidence. The next time another big wave came along, the father had both of his daughter’s hands in his, and he lifted her feet high above the waves as they came crashing into shore.

The delight on the child’s face was equaled only by her trust that her dad had her safely in his grasp and sight. Patti returned inside of the condo. ”I’ve just seen the Father at work, this is exactly what God does,” as she described the next leg of the child’s journey. Finally, I grabbed my camera and went outside to see what she was talking about. And it was at that point that I was truly moved. It was a living picture of the parable about “one set of footprints in the sand.”

Though the sun had not yet broken through the fog-laden morning sky, the view was unmistakable. The father was now cradling his daughter in his arms. She had one little arm that was wrapped around one side of his neck, and her right arm sealed her connection to her dad across his chest.

Unhurried, the father walked up and down the same stretch of beach, as the sounds of the waves gently lulled his daughter to sleep. After the fourth lap of the journey, they settled atop a chaise lounge under the shade of a palapa, still alone, without disturbing the daughter’s slumber. I, too, was friend Patti grew more amazed with each vista of what she was able to see, being played out through the trust, love, and gentleness of a daughter resting in the arms of a loving father.

As he cradled his daughter, the vision of the once gentle giant had given way to a sight that Patti could not have been more accurate in describing: The Father at work. “Isn’t that just what Jesus does?” she exclaimed? He’s always there behind you or beside you to rescue you, and when you cannot travel the path alone, he holds your hands and lifts you above the waves and protects you from the harm that you’re not even aware of.” She was right.

The fifth and final report was another special scene….the child’s mother had awakened from a precious few moments’ nap inside their condo and joined her family under the palapa on the lounge chair adjacent to her husband. With his left hand securing his daughter atop his broad chest, he gently reached out for his wife’s left hand with his right hand.

Once their hands were joined, there were no footprints in the sand….that you could see…but that’s because all three in the family were being held in sight by a quiet soul who said a prayer for them, three floors above, unnoticed. How many people pray for us whom we neither know, nor see, during the course of a day? How many times do we pray for those whom we do not know? Makes you want to do that more frequently as a result of one simple parable come to life.

And, at last my early morning brain was freed from a focus on crunching through my latest checklist of due dates and must-do’s to pause and remember the one set of footprints in the sand. It was when I, too, was being carried. The Lord is everywhere with us in our daily journey, if only we’ll get up from the desk to see it and listen to friends who try and bring us closer to Him.

~~ June, 2011

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

At 103 Years Old, Mildred Still Has Spirit Left to Give, Lessons to Teach

By the time the sun grew closer to dropping from the sky on Tuesday, I’d run out of excuses for not heading up to “The Manor,” as there was only one more hour of daylight on June 5th, the day that Mildred Kennedy turned 103. A hold-out from a return visit since Christmas, I had thought up fourteen good reasons to stay at home.

I truly wanted to avoid what could be the “final” visit to my dear spiritual mentor and delightful senior friend. But, odds were going against my hiding out, because today was filled with poignant, happy, funny memories and a supreme dose of guilt if I didn’t keep my promise to her. I longed for the days, just six years ago, Birthday 2012, when Bob and Kathy Richers and I had celebrated her special day with a beautiful meal featuring Bob and Mildred's favorite food ever--chocolate.

By 2014, her birthday celebrated at The Manor showed her coping, fairly well, with her new home base and because it was not her famous Apt. 10 in Bryan, you have to imagine that anywhere but there was not going to be entirely well received. But she eventually adjusted to it and became a trooper. Never once did I hear her say, "I want to go home" or "I don't like it here." The next picture is Birthday, 2014.

As I was running the roads of Texas with a dear friend Thursday morning, on a mission to collect a beloved toddler, I began talking about Mildred, recalling having been out of town several times on Mildred’s birthday in years past but still managing to get to her “in time.” Relating that for many years after my mother's passing, my friend Donna and I would call in from wherever we were with her family and friends, sometimes from a beachside balcony. I remembered the exchange used to go, “Is it still your birthday over there?” She’d respond, “It sure is!” and so we'd sing “Happy Birthday” to her, and she’d welcome our return in person whenever it was that we got there to book her for lunch. We made sure to make the call before 10 pm her time.

Another year my longtime friend from high school, Kathy, and I treated Mildred to see Wayne Newton in concert, one of her "things she'd always wanted to do." I rented a cushy-ride Cadillac from enterprise for "the girls," and I picked up Mildred, and her dear friend, Jane Lee, and we drove to San Antonio to meet up with Kathy. These two senior troopers (that would be Mildred and Jane, ha) navigated beautifully the path to the seating in the AT&T Center and they acted younger than Kathy and I did at the concert. Make all the jokes about Wayne Newton you want, the man puts on a show every time he goes on stage. And you can't say that about all entertainers.

Every year I realized that she had enough angels in her collection, but there always seemed to be just one more that might be a new one to bring her delight. Everyone knew she loved angel figurines, so a number of her friends had kept her collection vibrant over the past 40 years. In her best days, she loved the month of June because she said it was her “birthday month.” She had so many friends from her Sunday School class and church that they all got into an unspoken queue to book her throughout the month of June to take her to lunch or dinner. Every birthday event delighted her.

Last night when I walked up the hill to the building, entered and pushed the button on the elevator, I didn’t know what I’d find but I was sure it would be a less cognizant version of my buddy compared to December. That visit had brought the reality that she really didn’t know or could not recall who I was. I was prepared for that. My courage came from my promise I’d made to her that even if she could not remember who I was, I’d always come by and reintroduce myself to her if needed and that it would not bother me if she didn’t remember me. She said, “Do you promise?” and I said, “Yes.”

So, knowing I’d be journeying on a hot-as-heck afternoon to wish her “Happy Birthday,” fully understanding ahead of time that she would neither know me or appreciate the visit did not constitute the heart full of love that I believed I should have held going in. It was duty because I’d made a promise.

Last year on ‘the day’ I'd asked a dear friend, Betsy, to go with me as we journeyed up through the byzantine labyrinth to find sleeping beauty. Even though her eyes stayed closed most of the time, when we began singing to her, she did open her eyes, caught sight of Betsy, her beloved Bible Study friend, and she beamed. No words came forth from Mildred at that time, just loving looks and smiles. Betsy and I talked to her enthusiastically and she glanced over to me as if to thank me for bringing her her present--Betsy. I nodded knowingly and smiled some more.

Last night, dinner had been over, and everyone was back in their rooms. A dear staffer reminded me of which way her room was (I was used to going to the TV area or dining room) and as I walked in I heard a voice saying “hello?” “help!” but it wasn’t Mildred’s voice. I could see quickly that she was sleeping. The tri-divided semi-circular room accommodates three residents and the voice was coming from behind another light curtain.

I have to admit that at first my mind almost tuned out the plea for “Help” for a moment as I was so intently focused on Mildred that I only had energy enough to think about caring about/for her. My first thought the person on the other side of the curtain was having a bad dream.

I waited to hear it again, just it case it was a dream, the voice came again, “Anyone out there? I need help.” So immediately, I peered behind the curtain and said, “Can I get a nurse for you?” and she said, “No, I don’t need a nurse. I just need someone to help me get my call button. It’s dropped onto the floor.” That I knew I could handle, so I went over and retrieved it. The dear senior lady with no hair atop her head shined so radiantly and joyfully with the biggest smile as she said, clearly, “I cannot believe I’d let that drop. I've got it anchored now. Thank you so much.”

Embarrassed that I’d let 20 seconds go by before responding the first time, I said, “Thank you for letting me know you were in trouble.” She said, “You’re an angel.” And I said, “No ma’am, that title belongs to the lady who’s sleeping over there,” gesturing at a snoozing Mildred. She asked, You came to see Mildred?” and I said, “Yes, it’s her birthday today and she’s sleeping right now.” I smiled and gently made my way back to Mildred.

A fast glance around the room noted the 5x7 framed photo that I’d gifted Mildred with, holding the photo of Mildred and Hazle, the friend who dreamed up for months ahead of time what she would surprise Mildred with each year (a true soul sister of the heart).

A clear plastic container from “The Bakery” with a small round cake with pink icing on it, unopened, with an enclosed plastic fork, also unopened, were placed nearby on the small desktop near her bed, June 5, 2018. How time had flown.

Then I remembered June 5, 2012, when Mildred and our mutual friend, Myrl Sims, had joined me at the 2012 American Heart Gala, where The Buckinghams and Karan Chavis and her band were performing. I was delighted to introduce her to Carl, NIck and the rest of the band, and she loved seeing them perform.

My mind raced back to when for her 100th birthday, Kathy and Bob Richers and I had met up there and we had cupcakes for Mildred, her friends at the communal dining area, and for every staff member from every floor to come by and say hello and enjoy her day. My mind raced even further back in recalling how two of her co-celebrants had already gone to their heavenly reward, Ms. Katie Fazzino Viola (d. 7/12/17), and Sr. St. Anthony, whose last name I could not recall.

Interestingly, when I went online to the newspaper's site to search for Sr. St. Anthony, I ran the usual types of spelling search and Ms. Viola’s name had come up first. Stunned, I smiled and ran the search again, and found the name of Joann San Angelo, my mother’s best friend who had been our next-door neighbor for so many years. Another reason to smile…dear ladies who’d been members of St. Anthony’s Church and who, in their lifetimes, had spent countless hours supporting their church so lovingly and faithfully and both of whom spent their final days at The Manor.

Ms. Viola was special to me, even though she never knew my name, because through the years I’d visit Mildred and she would be there at the table, I watched her progress from going from a very restricted ability to communicate and eat her meals to one visit where we had a delightful brief communication (under Mildred’s watchful and slightly jealous eye) and I was so thrilled to see her doing so well.

Each visit of mine to Mildred usually coincided with the arrival of one of Miss Katie’s darling young family members to hug her, such as on this day, loving on her and talking to her as though she could talk back. What a thrill it was to see The Manor as a place where family members were flowing in and out for everyone there. And dear Norma Henry was such an anchor to our choir at First United Methodist Church, in addition to being a delightful, beautiful lady of her own accord. The light inside Norma's heart always shined through in any conversation with her. You can't always say that about everyone.

Another gentleman resident, too, had loving family there to hug and love him. He was often around the table when we would visit Mildred (Photos from her 100th birthday, June 5, 2015).

Sr. St. Anthony, while a resident, was really a minister of her own there, talking with everyone, maintaining a very strict discipline about making sure everyone felt as they belonged there. Even though confined to a wheelchair, her verbal skills and sharp mind made you believe she was standing right before you, smiling. I finally pulled up the right online tribute for Sr. St. Anthony Chrzanak, of the OSF, and I learned that (she’d passed away in her home on 4.27.18), she’d “ministered to patients, family members and physicians” of the CHI St. Joseph Health System.

BTW, OSF is The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, of East Peoria, Illinois, who minister to and who used to own and operate the hospital formerly known as St. Joseph Hospital, before eight, perhaps, name and staff changes. (Many locals will recall how Sr. Gretchen Kunz was a dynamo.)

Thinking of dynamos brought me back to Mildred, and her faithful ministry to so many at First United Methodist Church of Bryan. This coming Sunday marks the celebration of the church’s 150th year in Bryan and she won’t be there. But her presence will be felt as her beloved daughter, Camille, sings in choir and her adored son-in-law, Travis, now sits in what is still Mildred’s pew seat, whether or not Mildred is there.

In my frequent writings about Mildred, their focus is generally on my personal relationship with her. Be assured, though, that Camille is the best daughter Mildred could ever ask for and Mildred would tell that to virtually everyone, except for Camille, and Travis devoted many hours to "Mother K" with a true servant's heart. They are very dear people to me, and it's because of them that I get to "share" Mildred's life and claim her as part of "my family, too."

Mildred served our church on virtually every level of Christian servitude, not in leadership roles all the time, or even much of the time, but in caring ministries, writing cards to those who were sick or homebound, keeping up with all her Sunday School class members, anchoring the church’s prayer chain, serving our church faithfully in all funeral services. Protocol means and meant everything to Mildred. And no outsider was coming into “her” church without her having a watchful eye on what was, and was not, moved around.

She was sought after to be a full- or part-time employee of almost every funeral home in town, but she turned them all down, cheerfully, as she said her work was for the Lord, serving her church. She “worked” so many funerals and I remember when she was there for my Mom’s funeral. She wrote me the most beautiful card afterwards and said it was an honor to serve at that one.

It wasn’t much later when she told me, in one of our long evening visits on her porch at Waldenbrooke, that when it was my time to get married she would be proud to sit “in place” for my mom in the family pew. And, when the time came for the unity candle to be lit, if that was part of the ceremony I’d be going through (as if I might have had a choice, haha), she would be happy to stand in for Mom and represent her.

For over a decade now I kept her offer close in my heart and cherished it; I used to tease her that the venue could include a change to Las Vegas so she’d better be prepared to pack a bag and the look on her face at her opinion of that idea was priceless. Oh, how I loved to tease her.

As I stood there by her bedside last night, I remembered to talk her as though she could hear me. I didn’t have a lot to say but I shared a few things I thought might be relevant, and I sang happy birthday to her “her way” with “Happy birthday, God bless you,” as the end phrase instead of “Dear Mildred” and felt proud that I hadn’t bungled the notes as my emotions were starting to overrule me. My eyes filled with tears and I was mad about being human and a wimpy one at that, but I couldn’t help but hear the oxygen concentrator making an all-too-familiar painful memory of a sound in the background and the acceptance that her periods of sleep would be longer now as 103 years finally started to appear to have been taking their toll on her strength.

As I prepared to leave, I stopped back by her roommate’s section and asked if she was okay, and she said, “Well, they put me to bed and forgot to get me any water, so would you mind asking someone to bring me water?” The floor had been pretty quiet but I promised to see what I could do. I was delighted to find a dear LVN not too far into my search and she said, “Absolutely, right away.” I dropped back by to tell her that her water was en route and she said, “Thank you so much, you’re an angel.” I reassured her that I was anything but that, and said, “Happy to help. You have a good evening.”

As an afterthought I went back into Mildred’s room one more time, why I could not begin to tell you. I had no memory of intention to do that, but as I did, I could see her right eyelid open just a tad beyond sleep state and her left one less so but still she was aware of my presence, even if she could not truly see it. I sort of wanted to tell her that I'd become a Certified Life Celebrant and was officiating funeral services (not exactly following in her footsteps but it was as close as I was going to get), just to see the look on her face, but because I knew that inherently she would neither know or understand, that one day very soon, she'd get the full story and have a better view of the situation. I'm not sure she'll approve even then, but she'd love me through it, either way.

So, I talked to her a little more, repeating some of what I’d said earlier, and then I decided to sing to her one more time. Why not? At 103, you deserve as many repeats of that song as you can have, right? To my shock, surprise and delight, by the time I got to the “God bless you” part of the chorus, she hummed the last two notes, ever so gently. She opened her mouth slightly and air pushed out, forming the notes. I assure you I was not hearing things. A smile appeared on her face and her eyes went back to her sleep state.

She’d done it again. She’d turned my reluctant, fearful visit into a joyous occasion by showing me, at 103, that she can still teach, she can still receive love and she can show love. You just have to tune in to catch it. I blew her a kiss, as I always did leaving her place at Waldenbrooke. She'd walk to her back porch window and watch me to my car to make sure I got there safely and then as I'd get in my car, I'd always look up and blow her kisses and she blew them back right to me. That's how we said goodbye each time and I can't drive down Memorial Drive without wanting to blow a kiss to someone who is not Mildred who now occupies her apartment.

I smiled as I left and walked effortlessly down the hall, having been pained as I was walking in. Exiting the building I was convinced that her days here on Earth remain few. Not because of anything specific, just the acceptance that given the circumstances and my experience in being with and around seniors being one of my most favorite pastimes, it’s an educated hunch.

Her final lesson to me was this: Don’t fear a point in life when there is nothing more you can do for someone. There’s always something you can do. Just be there. That’s it. God, or the spirit of goodness, or the goodness of the universe’s spirit, depending on your faith construct, will handle the rest. Just, if you can, be there. It’s the best thing you can do, to show love to another person. Love lives forever.


On Friday afternoon, June 8, my phone rang. It was Camille, Mildred's daughter, telling me that Mildred had lived to age 103 and one day. I asked, "You mean she passed away on Wednesday?" She continued, "It was at 1:10 pm." I'd hit "Publish" on my post just twelve minutes later that same day. I felt I would be updating my story soon, but it was a profound feeling to know she'd finished her story before I'd completed mine. I knew I would add one more photo to this story, and waited per Camille's wishes until Monday when her official notice would appear in the newspaper. It just went live online.

When I was getting ready to leave Mildred's apartment at Waldenbrooke several years ago, I was in the living room, heading for her front door, when I saw this image. I said, "Stay right there!" and she did. I've saved this one until it was the proper time. All is right with the world. Once again, Mildred has the last word.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Pauley Perrette’s exit as “Abby Sciuto” from “NCIS” is well timed

Devotees of “NCIS” know well that the No. 1 most popular procedural in America and beyond was created in the mind and from the heart of Donald Bellisario, a gifted writer and showrunner whose tendency toward perfectionism and temperament as Pater Familias caused more than occasional chaos and frustration in producing new dialogue for the actors to learn with 15 minutes until shooting. Or, so goes the legend and myth around his eventual exit after four seasons.

Bellisario, despite being the heart and soul of “Magnum, P.I.” (with co-creator Glen A. Larson), “Airwolf,” “Quantum Leap,” “JAG” and “found himself on the outside looking in" one day after four seasons, with his brainchild being entrusted to different talented personnel. After Bellisario left, Shane Brennan took over in Season Five, moving on to his own show with “NCIS: LA” and scoring a hit there. I still miss Bellisario's brilliant sense of humor and creativity. (Note: All photos by Cliff Lipson/CBS, courtesy of CBS)

It was Don's voice that was the "whoof" that you would hear at the beginning of the shows of the first season at least, indicating the scene changes. Bellisario actually placed his own photo on the "Most Wanted" wall of the NCIS squad room as one of the top enemies to search for, and he was also noted for his occasional on-camera appearances walking through. Remember the episode, "Call of Silence," which won an Emmy for actor Charles Durning? Don walked right past "Kate" before the "big dance" scene to his own amusement.

After all it was Bellisario's own father, Albert Jethro Bellisario, who became the A. J. of JAG Admiral Albert Jethro Chegwidden, and then using his father's and grandfather's names for Leroy Jethro Gibbs is oh-so-Bellisario. So much time has passed that it's relevant to remember who it was who created all this wonderment in his very creative mind.

Gary Glasberg then assumed leadership of “NCIS” and in his tenure before his untimely death at age 50 (in 2016) found a way to steer the show, despite the exit of both Cote de Pablo as “Ziva” and Michael Weatherly as “Anthony DiNozzo, Jr.” When Cote left, I remember well all the interviews that Pauley Perrette gave where she referenced “The Core Four” as having been integral to the show.

"The Core Four," of course, are Mark Harmon, David McCallum, Michael Weatherly, and Pauley Perrette. In the interim, the show stayed strong, and viewers welcomed, ultimately, Emily Wickersham as “Ellie Bishop,” who was clearly not intended as a replacement for NCIS Special Agent Ziva David, but the comparisons and emotional flailing about of some fans for a season or two eventually showed that Bishop could have a place in Gibbs’ heart, so why not give her a second chance.

That’s the key. The fans of “NCIS” have been loyal to this show for, now, 15 seasons, and CBS has inked the lifeline for Season 16, assessing a “let’s see how it goes” attitude for the one-year commitment. Fans read assorted blog posts, comment frequently on, and care deeply about the future of “NCIS.”

When Michael Weatherly first showed signs of looking around to his future, it came as an appearance as a smooth-talking felon on an episode of “Major Crimes,” a cable-TV favorite. His role was too much like the personality of wiseacre DiNozzo for comfort, so no one raved about it.

Then CBS decided to explore the fans’ loyalty to their individual characters, and they went musical. Yes, they did. Perrette and Weatherly each released a song, courtesy of the CBS Press Team, showing Perrette’s versatility as songwriter and singer, and Weatherly’s love of music going far beyond his performance of filing a report “reggae style” curbside to then NCIS Director Jenny Shepherd via earpiece. Neither found fame or further acclaim from the singing stint, but it could be that it was a programmatic attempt to keep fans aware that Michael is not “Tony,” and Pauley is not “Abby,” and that these are simply extremely talented actors portraying perfectly the characters who say the dialog written by people you never see and will never meet.

The secret to these beloved characters has always stemmed from the creative mind of Don Bellisario, and Brennan and Glasberg followed the path of the characters to play out the roles. Brennan was in for a year, one and done, onto his own show, “NCIS: LA,” which continues to be fresh, funny, and a same-but-different family feel that holds its own just as much as the original. Pauley Perrette and Mark Harmon as well as Chris O’Donnell, crossed over between the two shows, playing their same characters.

A failed pilot, “NCIS: Red” showed no ratings magic and the cast was as generic as “CSI: Kalamazoo,” or “Law and Order: Ice Cream Truck”…same base franchise name, no real variation. Then came “NCIS: New Orleans,” with Mark Harmon and Gary Glasberg taking a chance on developing a third show that would “stick” at least into five seasons to guarantee syndication. But then Glasberg died unexpectedly in 2016 at the young age of 50.

After the shows produced by Glasberg that were already in the can were released, CBS execs announced that “NCIS” would be run by veteran writers and executive producers George Schenck and Frank Cardea, who should be “any fan’s first choice” if Exec. Producer, Chas. Floyd Johnson didn’t want the job. Speaking personally, Johnson worked with Bellisario on so many shows, if anyone knew the hearts of these characters, it would be him. Yet, Schenck and Cardea wrote some of the strongest storylines and scripts over the course of the show, that they’re the “right” choice for the job.

And yet, the dimensionality of the show was up for grabs the season after “Bishop” came in. Weatherly likely saw the writing on the wall that if ever he were going to be known as anyone but DiNozzo, it better be “now.” When he left, it was to the guaranteed hit slot between two “NCIS” shows, and in a project that showed him looking and acting nothing like DiNozzo as the ersatz creation of former jury consultant Dr. Philip McGraw, aka “Dr. Phil.”

America loved Weatherly and it is through “Bull,” that his fans actually focus on his real name. They ‘know’ a real Dr. Phil, aka “Dr. Jason Bull,” so now the fans see Michael and know “Weatherly.” Smart move.

Cote de Pablo had likely left for the same reason so people would forever not be calling her Ziva. Wonder how well that has worked for her. An initial CBS project was a nice one-shot but not a series. She will return to the screen no doubt, but maybe film vs. TV. And so, what about Pauley?

After Cardea and Schenck blew up Ziva’s home (maybe Ziva, maybe not Ziva) and Tony went off to raise Tali in unidentified job, fans still tuned in to see the (now) core 2.5: Harmon, Perrette, and somewhat less of Ducky (McCallum). David McCallum continues to bring dignity and grace to whatever role he’s given fans over 50+ years, and he is a stellar actor. He was not pegged as Illya Kuryakin when he became Dr. Donald Mallard. Everyone has had plenty of time to watch Brian Dietzen grow and stretch perfectly in the role of Dr. Jimmy Palmer to be accepting of McCallum’s absences this season and potential retirement next season.

But in Season 14, if Pauley Perrette was ever going to feel her role diminished, it was proven so with the addition of three new NCIS agents (presumably to take the place of one Tony DiNozzo) in Alex Quinn (Jennifer Esposito), Nick Torres (Wilbur Valderrama), and MI6 agent Clayton Reeves (Duane Henry). That season was mostly a friendly clusterstorm of “remember how much you love ‘NCIS’…well hang in there with us while we figure it out.”

Esposito left and Maria Bello was brought in as a new character, Jacqueline (Jack) Sloane, who Gibbs can resonate with. FBI agent Tobias Fornell was weaved in and out of a few episodes and now that you’ve been reading for three paragraphs, where the heck was Abby Sciuto? Right? Entirely forgotten, dismissed, and irrelevant as the unnecessary but necessary forensic scientist in a role that anyone could play.

Abby had had no real major storylines in months and months, at least in my perception. And Perrette may have, wisely, seen that being a “favorite beloved character” all the time meant being forgotten. Her early announcement that Season 15 would be her last gave Schenck and Cardea plenty of time to give her a two-part season finale exit.

But, on Tuesday night, had I had an object in my hand to throw at the TV set, I would have tossed it that direction, given what the writers did to Abby’s character as the episode closed out. The “plan” and plot and dialogue was absolutely off-base, misguided and beneath the intelligence of the character Bellisario created.

Thanks to media access, I had seen a photo of the “Two Steps Back” (Part II after this week’s “One Step Forward”) finale. Abby’s not going to die. That much I know. Even so, the entire premise of the week’s cliffhanger is off target. Remember the show again. The show revolves around the true-life need for assistance to our nation’s veterans in multiple ways, which continues to not be met commensurate with need. The softer side and more back story to introduce viewers to more of Clayton Reeves’ nature set the predicate for Abby’s choosing him to go to the dinner she’d “won” mysteriously at the descriptively noted “Igloo” restaurant supposedly booked months in advance.

No one, not one person, questioned the way the pop-up came onto Abby’s screen, telling her she was the winner of this dinner for two? Abby is supposed to be a forensic scientist with particularly special computer hacking/restoring/repairing/recovering skills and she didn’t question a pop-up? Nope. The entire show drifts along leading viewers to wonder who she’d be taking as her escort. Remember they had her prior love interest as Bert, the very nice park ranger? No one had seen or heard about Bert since no one had seen or heard about Abby much. And, so…here we are after leaving Igloo, the one place she was easily going to be predictably found.

And this well dressed robber with carefully coiffed hair has a gun at both Reeves and Abby; Reeves sort-of steps in front of her to protect her, yet he moves away from shielding her to allow her to both interact with the robber and be in his perfect shot sight. An MI6 agent doing that? No, just no. C’mon George and Frank, you know better! Then, it’s not clear that the robber is homeless. But Abby talks to him about wanting and offering to get him help. Several seasons ago, Abby had interactions with a young homeless woman whom she was able to help, but “this” wasn’t “that.”

Fade to black. Commercials. Return to preview next week’s season finale. Gibbs whispers: “I know I let you down, Abbs. I said that I would always keep you safe.” Concerned looks on faces. Gurney with Abby entering hospital “She’s coding,” an offscreen voice says. Now, Frank and George…seriously? That’s the best you can do? Even caused E! Online to write the headline “Will Pauley Perrette’s Abby Die in Her Final NCIS Episode?”

Now, next Tuesday more will be revealed, and here’s a picture proving that Abby is alive. (Note: Photo by Patrick McElhenney/CBS, courtesy of CBS)

But if the premise for Abby’s leaving the only people she has as true family (Gibbs, McGee, and Ducky) is even the least bit hokey, the fans will likely let the showrunners hear about it. But, they didn’t have to shoot Abby to prepare viewers for her exit. Everyone knows she’s leaving. Imagine if she could have just grown up and moved on to a career position of her dreams somewhere so compelling that she would willingly leave her safe family behind?

Instead viewers are going to have to endure the return of some previous season miscreant who is “targeting ‘NCIS’ personnel” as the reason for this, the first hit of the planned shootings, trying to ruin Gibbs’ happy days, one team member at a time.

Col. Merton Bell is gone. La Grenouille is also, Ziva took out Ari Haswari, Trent Kort is gone, the entire gamut of people who had it out for Gibbs (hurt his family, hurt him) are seemingly gone, or are they? It’s not Benham Parsa. Harper Dearing (Richard Schiff) is dead, and the Phantom Eight went up with the almost-loss of McGee still inside the building, trying to back up the computer before running for his life. Sergei Mishnev was killed by Fornell. But, wait, is Alejandro Rivera (Marco Sanchez) dead or just in prison? The remaining member of the Reynosa cartel had threatened Abby once before. Could be he’s out of jail for good behavior and is ready to try to take revenge, again, against Gibbs for the death of his father, Pedro Hernandez and his sister, Paloma Reynosa. Five days will provide the answer, and you can count on the fact that he’s going down.

Pauley Perrette definitely picked the right time to leave. She’s not typecast forever as the loveable forensic scientist. As to her “real reasons for leaving,” they should be hers to keep. She left with grace and only pleasant things to say about her experiences that propelled her to a position of worldwide fame and acclaim. Life’s been tough on her, as well, during the fame, so there’s nothing wrong with wanting a “normal” life outside the world of flashing light bulbs of surreality.

Her plans aren’t a case to be explored ala “NCIS” style. An in-depth CBS “Sunday Morning” interview didn’t get one new iota of information out of her except she loves being with her chihuahuas and vague projections for the road ahead. Pauley has been a lovable, bright spot on Tuesday nights for 15 years, and she deserves to do whatever she wants to do.

Next season won’t be the last one for “NCIS”—as long as the scripts continue to bear quality. The Bello-Gibbs matchup is good for another season. Won’t miss Jon Cryer (the original “Ducky”) one little bit, seriously. Done and done. There have been hints and myths that Gibbs will leave the heart of the action and take on another more supervisory role, but most of all that is likely the fodder of the myriad of bogus online blogs masquerading as legit news sources. They’re filled with misspellings and incorrect facts, so forget them.

What does need to happen, imho, is for viewers to stop having to spend time on the backstories of Reeves, Torres, and Sloane, as most really, really don’t care. Great acting on the parts of the actors—nothing to criticize but gone are the days of the compelling backstories. Come up with some intricate multi-episode stories as you have been doing. Then, include Gibbs saying, “Grab your gear,” focus on the heart and soul of the primary characters, and let Abby be forever a fond memory and quirky character.

The character, Kasie, portrayed by Diona Reasonover, was introduced a few weeks back probably as a possible replacement. She will be fine and she won’t “name” her equipment (ala Major Mass Spec), but she’ll get the data to the team.

“NCIS” can endure as long as Mark Harmon wants to be there. His is the pivotal character around which the show was built. Without him, there’s no show. Farewell Pauley, and thanks for 352 episodes of fun.

The "real" Pauley, as beautifully captured for CBS "Watch" magazine by photographer Cliff Lipson, shows the lovely actress beneath the character. Pauley Perrette is wisely moving on, and she’ll find success in whatever she does in the future. Viewers have had 15 enjoyable seasons of a quality show, and this is in substantive measure to "The Core Four," who were there at the start. Ooh-rah, Abbs. And then there were two.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

College Station’s New Century Square Development Hosts Delightful Surprises!

On Saturday, March 10, I had the opportunity to drive by the new Century Square development in College Station, and I saw a band setting up to entertain the crowd that was made up of residents from the nearby 100 Park apartments located in nearby Century Square, and residents who were staying at two of the newest hotels in the Valencia Group collection: The George and Cavalry Court.

I’d already been to one of the Cavalry Court’s restaurants/clubs, “The Canteen” to hear music from local favorites “Hi-Fi Band” and “Ruben V” and his cool jazz/blues band from San Antonio late last year when construction was still going on. I was curious about this great new development in the heart of Aggieland.

Last Thursday, the Texas Aggie Women’s Basketball team hosted a Tournament Tip-Off event at the Century Square green, prior to Friday’s opening round game between the Aggie women and Des Moines, Iowa’s Drake University. (We won, by the way.) After the yell session, friends and I surveyed the Century Square development again, to decide whether to eat at Hopdoddy or Blaze Pizza. Who won? Both. We enjoyed eating at the tables outside on the green.

Everyone had fun watching families being amused by the children who were using the wooden toys available out there along fountain walls. The complex is so new they’re still working on the fountain but when it’s done, it will be amazing. The new astroturf/grass surface that has just been placed and it’s an inspiration setting to relax. It’s the first (non-city) park where I’ve felt like it was just “home.” At the top of the lawn was Poppy, the new restaurant I’ve been hearing good things about.

I was curious, so I did a little research and learned it was actually part of The George and this is definitely upscale dining from the beautiful vistas looking out onto the green, the warm lights inside making it a perfect place for academics to entertain visiting guests, and for locals to experience a special night out that specifically caters to those very used to fine dining.

This means you’ll have small portion sizes on intricate stoneware with phenomenal presentation and you’ll feel “anywhere else but in the Brazos Valley.” It is really wonderful to see another restaurant of the caliber of (Bryan's own) Christopher’s located in College Station, within walking distance of campus.

Found out that the name of the restaurant was an homage to our nation’s 41st president, as everyone knows that in addition to being called Former U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush, his most important nickname stems from his grandchildren calling him…”Poppy.” Makes perfect sense, then, since the hotel complex the restaurant calls home is…”The George!”

The Canteen around the corner, tied to the Cavalry Court property, features authentic ol’ Army type plates and utensils. You even get your check placed on a pewter plate with a toy soldier on top of it! The amazing fried potatoes can’t be beat!

Another great new business in Century Square is the "Hey Sugar" candy store. The good news is that there is an amazing unparalleled candy store in town. At long last we have a fun place where you may need an hour before you load up your baskets with the latest in the yummiest temptations perfect for March Madness munching (not that I’d know anything about that).

In walking the property, I found a sign noting that every Second Saturday of the month, there’s free music outdoors for everyone to enjoy. I was even more curious about Poppy, so I found the menu online; it’s definitely ‘farm to fire’ dishes, including rock shrimp ceviche, black buck tatar, wild boar, wood-fired Bandera Quail and Halibut, so it’s definitely worth trying, particularly those with authentic Texas taste buds!

Poppy is anything but stuffy or pretentious, so it’s a greatly appreciated addition to the community. It’s clearly designed for adult professionals in B-CS. The City of College Station brought something really powerful to town. The developers relocated four 50+-year-old oak trees carefully within the Century Square property before they built anything else, so they really did properly invest in the community.

Gone are the ramshackle buildings that once were graduate student housing; you’ll find the university’s new buildings further back behind the development, but they are still within walking and biking distance to campus. Next, I’ll be glad to see the Star Cinema Grill when they open. Saw a sign that says they’re hiring, so hopefully soon, there will be another place to be incredibly spoiled…a full-service restaurant delivered to your seat for the movies.

Last week I drove down Harvey Mitchell Parkway (which old-timers just used to call “FM 2818”), and I’ve never seen such an explosion of apartment complexes as are currently under construction right now…on its way to that area is the new HEB at Jones Crossing. Let’s face it…we’re no longer a small town in central Texas.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Houston Musician Samantha Banks Needs Our Help

On Friday, Feb. 23, percussionist extraordinaire Samantha Banks suffered “a major hypertension event that caused bleeding in her brain” and is currently in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster shared this news on her Facebook page this morning. A GoFundMe account for Samantha has been established by organizer Fabian Perez to provide immediate funds for Banks’ medical expenses.

In just 14 hours, 20% of the modest $10,000 goal had been met by 26 people. There’s still a long way to go. Excitedly, after 15 hours, it was already up to $3561 given by 43 people. But $10,000 is only the minimum to meet what will be potentially high hospital expenses, plus rehabilitation in coming weeks, involving daily transportation to and from the hospital, medicine, and living expenses. So please don’t stop getting the word out. The goal is first for her to wake up and make a full recovery, as everyone is praying for and expecting, as we ask for, walking on faith. Ruthie Foster's fan base is a great start; Houston fans who watched Ms. Banks grow up is another.

A Houston musical prodigy, Banks attended HISD’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and went on to study jazz at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Studies there included Percussion Performance, Music Theory and Composition and Music Education. In the Brazos Valley, we’ve been fortunate, for almost two decades, sheer joy in fact, every time we’ve seen Banks on stage performing with Ruthie (sometimes with bassist Larry Fulcher and guitarist Renn Carson]. That’s been a magical music combination.

Samantha’s talents shine through all her music, whether using a full drum kit or creating a perfect rhythm with a set of spoons and a tambourine.

Because Samantha is presently not conscious, the power of music has shown a true healing effect on her in just the past few days. Ruthie shared that Samantha’s daughter, Briana, “played music for her, and her blood pressure lowered, so we believe she can hear us.” Messages of hope and prayers for healing, plus financial gifts in any amount are what are most needed right now.

Independent musicians are classically underinsured. In fact, anyone in the music business understands that, as a group, you play for love, not money, to pursue the dreams in your mind and the music in your heart.

Those who make it into a superstar category are the exception to the rule. The music that Texans all flock to hear, the music that Samantha plays, is heard in concert halls like the Cultural Activities Center in Temple, Texas, Kerrville’s Folk Festival, SXSW in Austin, and the Main Street Crossing in Tomball, Texas. There's every small club, outdoor venue, and path down long dirt roads involved just to play the music that fuels your spirit.

Here’s a portion of “Another Rain Song,” with the band of Ruthie and Samantha, from April, 2017.

Ruthie asks, in behalf of Samantha’s daughter and mother, for prayers and words of affirmation and joy. Everyone can go to Ruthie’s Facebook page and add your words of support there. As Foster explains, they are reading every message to Samantha, even though she remains unconscious. The power of love is mighty and strong. The power of faith is welcomed and requested.

The beauty of a collective group of strangers, one to another, when rallied for a singular goal is the power of love. As Ruthie sings and Samantha plays in Ruthie's song, "Full Circle," you know the refrain, “Everything that goes around comes back around again.” It’s time today to rush in and make a contribution to Samantha’s fund--in any amount--for the long way back to the stage. Your gift can be anonymous if you prefer.

Please share your message for Samantha on Ruthie Foster's Facebook page and the direct link to the GoFundMe account is there as well. Get well soon, Samantha; we want to be first in line for your first concert back in action! STORY UPDATE: As of 3.17.18, this is the progress on the funding goal. $33,060 of $50,000 goal Raised by 465 people in 18 days Updates are posted on the GoFundMe page, so check here for the latest information:

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Rev. Billy Graham, Angels, and Tiny Bubbles: A Story of Hope and Love

On Wednesday, Feb. 21, a man some described as “America’s pastor,” the Rev. Billy Graham, died at age 99. That single event set in motion an adventuresome trip down memory lane for me, as I reflected at length and in depth about my childhood, where I’d first heard him preach in person. He was appearing at the open-air Alamo Stadium, constructed in San Antonio’s Monte Vista district, in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration project (thanks Wikipedia). In those days…life was different.

My mom had decided that since my great aunt Emma and our family friend Charlotte wanted to go hear him, and they didn’t drive, we’d all go to hear him. As a child of six, I was naturally inquisitive, pelting my mom with questions before the service began. Why was church outside and it wasn’t a Sunday? Were these bleachers called pews? Why was there such a long distance between the “congregation” and the minister? Mom patiently answered my questions, the woman who should have been awarded some kind of medal for surviving the raising of an overly inquisitive child.

And then it began. George Beverly Shea sang. I think that’s what I’d once thought the “voice” of God must sound like. Booming, full, inspired, and amazing. I listened to Shea’s voice on his songs, not the lyrics, all except for the alter call: “Just As I Am.” That one, I found myself singing along to, as best I could back then. I was oblivious to the thousands of people around me that day. I was remembering this week what might be my first memory of being lost in meditation or fully in faith.

As an adult, I’m less fixed on structure for terms that relate to a higher power by a name. I generally describe my faith in terms I learned growing up, but I’m open to a greater, more inclusive or less restrictive understanding wherein there is essentially the presence of the spirit I feel is holy, wholly.

At the end, Rev. Graham invited the audience to come forward if we wanted to be “saved.” Again, I whispered to mom, “Mom, do I need to go down there to be saved?” She smiled her angelic smile and shook her head no, saying, “No, honey you were saved when you were born because I gave you back to God. You are his child. You’ve been baptized and there’s no need to go down there.” “Okay,” I answered, strengthened in my decision to remain in my bleacher, err, pew.

Fast forward many decades. Church worship is a subject fraught with a list of “terms and conditions” that many impose on what it feels “right” to do, and when and where and how one can worship. Some Sundays I find comfort in gathering in pews or folding chairs, with longtime friends as family, surrounded by love and belonging. Other Sundays, I can walk in nature, observing the awesome wonder of the world we live in, expressing my appreciation as best I can. There’s no right or wrong for me, really, just a choice that feels like I’ve emerged from my reflection on the week as a stronger person, renewed to try the week ahead with energy and intention. I acknowledge my sins in prayer and ask for forgiveness and a clean slate to try again to do better. I don’t like hearing politics in church, ever, so when I do, I tend to bug out and head for the hills until I’m prepared to return with a calmed heart.

The week behind me had been filled with challenges, some exciting and delightful; others found me in uncharacteristic intense melancholy. I was “stuck” and I didn’t seem to be able to get out of the mud. Along my path came a call from dear friend, to chat about things we had an exciting time discussing, and that conversation cheered me greatly. I had almost snapped out of my blues, intensified by the gray, sun-scarce skies and falling rain. Even with every light in the house on, it wasn’t quite enough to turn the melancholy to cheer.

I kept my head down and kept working, a sure-fire cure for what ails you…make forward progress every day if you can. If you can’t, try anyway. Keep trying.

When she called back an hour later, I fully expected to hear more surprising delightful news. Instead she asked me point blank: “Are you happy? Is everything in your life the way you want it to be right now?” I blinked, swallowed and said, “Well, it’s okay. It will get better. Just staying focused.”

“That’s not good enough,” she said. “What are you going to do to change it?” Fast forward to my receiving a lovely good “talking to,” one that left us both reminded to never give up on our dreams, no matter how absurd or outlandishly unrealistic.

It was in that moment that I snapped to…and was grateful for someone bravely stepping out and sharing truth…I let go of the need to control. And I returned to wait patiently, eyes wide open. Whoa, Nellie. Answers began appearing everywhere around me.

Back to Billy Graham. I thought about him being the minister for so many presidential inaugurations, during the days he preached actively, and his may have been only one of the people in the 60s you could send something to by mail (for a $.03 stamp) just addressed to “Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota” and it would reach him. That’s impressive.

Plenty of time to reflect in the past 72 hours and seeing challenges met, obstacles overcome, and a renewed focus on my dreams, with no need to control the outcome. All because a faithful friend reached out to ask a question: “What are you going to do to change it?”

Can’t speak for everyone, but the more I thought about the lifelong goal of Billy Graham to serve God and help others, the words to “Just as I am,” and the words of truth I’d heard, they were signals of changes coming for the good, in not only my life but in the lives of many around me who similarly needed to know that they’re not “stuck.”

Saturday morning was priceless time spent, surrounded by 120 (we know, as we counted them) Crayola Crayons, paper, and an active imagination of a 5-year-old and an almost 1-year old and their Pippa. I witnessed unbridled inspiration at work. These are two youngsters who inspire more than they’ll ever know, and they teach equally as much as they enjoy life.

When the 5-year-old was building a house from box and paper, and little brother crawled over to “participate” and ripped the roof off while smiling, I saw an angel in action as his older brother smiled at him, retrieved the paper, and put the roof back on without even as much as a blink of an eye. A little later I suggested we put some of his little brother’s building blocks inside the house to elevate his project. He shook his head no.

“Why not?” I asked. His reply: “Because if we use up a lot of his blocks, he won’t have many left to play with.” Facepalm. V-8 moment. I’m so jazzed about the unconditional love I saw so early between two angels, seen only because I was lucky enough to be there at that moment. If only adults could be so wise.

Saturday night we blew bubbles. Well, I did. And he karate kicked and kung-fu’d them, complete with gales of laughter, a rap verse he made up by himself, and some awesome dancing to a song he heard in his head. Whoa, Nellie. Children are smarter than the rest of us. All the time.

He asked my opinion about how to decorate the roof (now safely reaffixed to the house). Wisely, I didn’t answer his question with my thought, but with another question, “How do you think you’d like to decorate it?” That wasn’t original to me. I’d learned that process from a wise creative named Thomas Bähler, whose own father used that same technique to answer the question “How do you be creative,” asked that way when Thomas was about the same age as my young pal. His answer? “I think it should be a rainbow,” he said, and he proceeded to create a marvelous rainbow.

And then another amazing angel went on an errand with me at my request. Without even questioning why, off we drove in order that I could find a way to break through one final barrier of languishing in “shoulda, coulda, woulda, used to, don’t any more,” and I emerged, quite quickly, renewed and affirmed that life has always been grand, and the past is the past and is just fine safely tucked in the past, and today is the future just around the corner. Put a bow on that box of regrets, sealed it shut and sent it off to the Dead Letter Office. Zoom! Path cleared.

My Sunday morning began beautifully, though, because before I went to sleep last night, a very overworked but very strong friend of grander faith than I have ever had reached out to me to send me an inspirational set of lyrics she wondered if I’d heard…they were new to me, but wonderful. As we “chatted” back and forth via e-mails later into the night, she asked me what had been on my mind this week. And I told her. Her reply to me and the devotional she wrote for me personally arrived this morning on my e-mail. And I smiled, uplifted, and got ready for church. She’d taken the time to start a grand day in motion. Was I ever lucky!

Made it to church, only four minutes late. Thanks to dear friends insisting I sit with whenever I’m there…I took a seat in the pew in front of them and felt welcomed. I was about to stare a hole in the stained-glass window to my left as I waited for inspiration. Nothing was flowing to mind as I waited.

Suddenly, 10 minutes into the service, the children’s anthem, “This Little Light of Mine,” blew me out of my discomfort and into sheer joy. I saw the oldest daughter of two dear friends singing her heart out, correctly with all the motions, joyfully. And then there was one voice up there not quite in sync with the rest of them.

Not quite sure who it was—she had a good, strong, voice, but she had her own timing, and her own movements—she had the “X factor” of pizazz. She just wasn’t in lockstep with the rest of the children, but she didn’t seem perturbed, nor did her fellow singers. Again, with children and their unconditional ability to love.

I’d spotted my kindred spirit up there…I understood her. At the end of the song, the audience, err, congregation clapped, and the one I’d spotted, sure enough, waved joyously to the crowd after the applause, in you know, “the God bless you, thank you, and drive safely” benediction, with joy. Reminded me of another dear friend right after she’s received a standing ovation. That unparalleled joy and showing love of music—that’s what to aim for! Sing your song, shine your light, make a difference, even if you don’t accomplish it in a traditional way.

Five minutes later, at the end of my pew came a gentleman whose appearance was slightly disheveled, though to be fair, there had been quite a bit of wind and weather that had blown all of us through the doors of the sanctuary this morning. Two people in a pew, as far apart from one another as one can possibly be spaced, because we’d both entered the pew from different doorways to reach our spot du jour.

As my mind wandered slightly during the service, I’d contemplated my seatmate, who focused straight ahead, intently, doing a far better job of paying attention, I suppose, than I was. As the end of the service approached, I’d reached the inevitable decision point. You know how, at the end of services, the minister asks you to reach out and take the hand of the person next to you during the group prayer? I knew that was coming.

And I didn’t fear taking his hand. I just didn’t want to scare him off. Sometimes when you’re in the company of people who all seem to be different in that they all seem to know each other, the separation created by being “new” or “different” can be more daunting to the newcomer.

One thing our church does well, at least by many members, is to welcome people around them with sincere greetings and warm handshakes and exchange of kind words. I love that. Two of my three seatmates/buddies behind me grew up in this church, and they are primo at inviting people to join them. But it was all about my duty to be welcoming, and it was just me and the stranger in my pew.

After the sermon and the acolytes had extinguished the candles, the pastor was inviting us to stand. So, I stood and moved gently down the pew to the stranger, all the while thinking that, even though he didn’t know me, I hoped he trusted me to stay there and not take off out the door wanting to exit before the rest of us. He stayed firm.

The pastor then invited anyone in the congregation to come forward to the altar rail to pray as long as they wanted to (shades of Billy Graham again) as the organist began to play, and we began to sing, all the verses of “Just As I Am” (Really? I’d forgotten just how many verses there were. Oddly I didn’t have to look up at the big bouncing letters on the screens…they just came back from my retrograde memory).

With the first note of the song, he left the pew and went down to the altar to pray. My three pewmates behind me jettisoned down the same direction so that he wouldn’t have to be up there alone while praying. Still others went down to pray. I stayed behind. Before the end of the song, he returned to our pew again. For that entire song, I’d felt his pain. Whatever was seemingly troubling him, or was it me, just seered through me like a lightning bolt. I began to find tears welling up and then stinging my eyes as they rolled down my face. Darn it. Why did I have to cry? BFF says, “Don’t fight the feeling when you cry; you need to cry.” Okay. Noted.

When next the congregational prayer time came, I reached for his hand and he held mine securely. His hands had seen a hard day’s work, but they were gentle as he held mine in his. I placed my left arm on the right shoulder of the young man in front of me, whose hand I have held the past few weeks. He is an amazing child whose struggles with a spectrum make his accomplishments more powerful than grownups twice his age.

Children, you know, feel everything even when they don’t understand it. He saw the tears in my eyes and moved his left hand around his chest and up onto his shoulder placing it over mine, comforting me. A powerful healing and repair of my spirit of hope happened, and I felt it. As the prayer ended, the gentleman looked at me, even though my red eyes and tear-stained face were probably pretty scary.

“God bless you,” he said, as he looked deep into my eyes, waiting for mine to look back and see his spirit behind his face. I did. I found my voice and said, “Thank you, and God bless you.” He smiled and said, “He has blessed me. You see, I’m an evangelist and I travel all around preaching God’s word, and starting all kinds of trouble everywhere,” he said with a light smile. I knew what he meant. Disrupting status quo can freak some people out, but the true search for a higher power, some call it God, some call it Spirit or the Divine, means searching your own soul for truth and finding kindred souls and spirits who resonate on the same wavelength you do, I think.

As he left the church, a friend behind me said she’d seen him outside the church before service began, seemingly walking past our church and down a few blocks towards the main intersection. She said, “I guess he decided to come back into our church this morning.” I nodded and said, “Yes, he did. He picked our church to join us this morning.”

People have their choices of worship across our twin cities. Some congregations gather together because they believe the same thing. Others gather in mega groups to provide a haven from those who believe the same thing or their thing or our thing. I’m the most multi-ecumenical person I know, in that I feel at home in every denomination and those places without, because I’m there to hear a word of hope and reassurance that this world with all its imperfections is not “all there is.” And I find comfort in that.

I went to church this morning, and “they took me to church this morning.” The little girl who waved broadly and smiled at the crowd when she’d completed her song. The gentleman stranger who revealed himself as an evangelist before leaving the congregation. And, the appearance of loved ones in my life throughout the past four days, finding their way into my world from places seen and unseen, and the powerful lessons of never giving up on your dreams really packed a wallop. Yet, I was rejuvenated rather than exhausted with the transformation that happened.

My takeaway from the activities and experiences is this: angels are all around us, some we see, others we can’t spot. We have this day to express love to all those in our lives, whether we know them or not. Children are the most honest group of people you can ever hope to meet. The love of children heals adults with hugs.

As our nation heard from young adults in Parkland, Florida this week, the future of our country is in good hands. We are right to have hope, even when you think it’s time to throw in the towel. This is not about politics. It’s about the willingness of young people to speak up and take a stand, any stand they wish, but to speak up and express their opinions. These young people who needed healing the most were the ones doing the healing by reassuring a nation that they were determined is the major gift of the week. Powerful.

And while Billy Graham went to his heavenly home this week, if you’ll allow me my childlike construct of what we all call “the next place,” it seems that hundreds of angels appeared in our world to continue his spirit of goodness, love, light, and sharing what they believe with those who will listen.

To share unconditional love with others is a wonderful goal of the day, every day. Tiny bubbles blown into the air that caused a child to laugh with joy and gift me with his wisdom; the silent expression of love that an energetic infant makes as I hold him close and he surrenders his energy to my shoulders, to take comfort and rest; worship songs from old hymnals reminding us of rituals of childhood that were as much a part of our DNA as they remain today. Sharing time with friends and loved ones, in person or by phone or by e-mail—all these things together represent so many reasons to be joyful, optimistic, and unceasing in being hopeful about tomorrow.

Just as I am, indeed. Rest in peace Rev. Graham and thank you for reminding us through your life that one person can make an impression, one that can last a lifetime. Here’s to a grand week ahead for everyone.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Violation of Team Rules Cause Aggie Women’s Basketball Team Embarrassing Loss to Miss. St.

Today, the No. 17 Texas A&M Women’s Basketball team put on their single-most embarrassing effort this season, as they unfortunately cratered, faded, and tanked, 76-55, against the now-SEC Champions, the No. 2 Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs, playing in Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi. And that was before the game had even started. Everyone could see the “L” coming home on the plane with the team. Why?

Because without even a media press release sent out to alert beforehand, the TV announcers had only seconds before game time to note for the audience that freshman Chennedy Carter and senior Khaalia Hillsman would not be starting the game today for a “violation of team rules.”

Announcers were quick to say that the players had “been late to an important team event,” just so the audience would know it was “different” than the violations of team rules that members of other Aggie teams have committed, also the most selfish acts of irresponsibility on their parts.

No matter the circumstances, it’s reasonable to say that this irresponsible behavior cost the Aggies the game today. How selfish is that? Immeasurably. In the first few minutes of the game, without the whirling dervish centerpiece around which the Aggie offense must revolve, and the absence of the post player to prevent opponents from easy access to drive to the basket, it was no surprise that Mississippi State jumped out to an early 11–0 lead.

If there was ever a slim chance of staying close in the game, it was already a major fail with this opening move. You have to commend Aggie Head Coach Gary Blair for enforcing team rules, because to do so meant accepting the predictable loss. You can’t begin a championship caliber game with two “star” players on the bench the first three minutes and expect the other team members to be able to run plays around which they were not the original focus. It was a confusion-laden offense, reminiscent of clown cars driving in every direction at Ringling Brothers Circus again.

No, it didn’t have to be this way. All good things considered, with preparation and mental toughness, it would have been just as easy to walk in there, having prepared, and desiring with passion and determination to be the team that turned the Lady Bulldogs into 27-1. Imagine what a victory like that would have done for the No. 17 Aggie women? Tomorrow, that No. 17 will disappear as quickly as the two hours of today’s game.

Four years ago, Mississippi State’s team didn’t execute the plays the way they did today; they didn’t have the physicality that they did today. They didn’t seem like a powerhouse on the court, but off the court, they were a team united by example, by force, and by fierce insistence of the man whose nickname here was the “Secretary of Defense.” On the court, that gentleman is far from warm and fuzzy.

The Lady Bulldogs began building this year’s team four years ago, and four of the five starters are seniors. They couldn’t recruit nationally—they drew from Mississippi, an even more important accomplishment. So, 2018 is their year. Next year, there will be an all-new group of players on their court. And Coach Schaefer’s lawn will be a little less busy, or maybe it won’t be.

But who and what has taken over the Aggie court, and who has changed this team from a group of nationally recruited players to the team on the court today? Last year Danni Williams was the team hero, more so than any other player, and remained humble and felt the respect and regard of her team. This year, Williams has had moments, or games, filled with self-doubt. Or, she’s been double-teamed out of key position, and is trying to fight her way out of that slump, and there’s no pressure like not performing this year as you did last year.

What does it say about Aggie post play when the smallest Lady Bulldog on the court, Morgan William, whose listed 5’5” height is about 5 inches too generous, was able to drive right to the basket, undaunted?

Another good question is why is Anriel Howard always in double-doubles for her shooting and her rebounding? Simple. Anriel fights for that rebound every single time there’s a shot. She winds up getting her own misses and going for second-chance shots, often getting them.

Jasmine Lumpkin’s shooting time has increased the last few games, mostly because she’s worked herself into an open spot on the court and has the guts to shoot, no matter the outcome. She has no reason to be anything but proud of how she played today. Her defensive abilities are exceptional. But she can't do it all by herself out there, though she fights every play of the game. It doesn’t matter about her missed shots—at least she took shots.

If you’re looking for one potential source of the biggest problem in todays’ loss, assuming that the Aggies did well the second quarter and really kept Mississippi State contained well, the stat sheet has the answer. Courtesy of Asst. SID, David Waxman, here’s how today’s game stacked up.

Five Mississippi State players scored in double figures, and Victoria Vivians had 26 on the day, with 2 assists. Vivians also had 12 rebounds and teammate Teaira McCowan had 11 rebounds. The Lady Bulldogs had 10 of 21 three-point shots fall their way, compared to 1 of 12 by the Aggies, the 1 three-pointer going to Chennedy Carter.

Roshunda Johnson scored 16, point guard Morgan William scored 12, Blair Schaefer had 11, and Teaira McCowan had 11 points…a very nice spread. Only five Lady Bulldog players scored. Morgan William, by the way, led the team with 7 assists, and guess how many assists Aggie players had for the game: 3. Just 3 assists. Anriel had one, Jasmine had 1 and Chennedy Carter had 1. There’s your loss. No one was getting the ball to the open person.

To be fair Mississippi State played a swarming defense, yet not every Aggie was covered all the time. Apparently, every time Chennedy Carter had the ball, she shot it. She made 12 of 29 field goals, 1 of 8 three-point attempts, and 6 of 7 free throws. She held the ball 37 times compared to her teammates. The most shots attempted by any other Aggie were 7 by Howard (making 3), 7 by Williams (making 0), 7 by Hillsman (making 2), and 3 by Lumpkin (making 0).

Right as the game began, the announcers spoke glowingly again of the value of having Chennedy Carter in the lineup for the Aggies (noting how they were scoreless without her), and how she’s surely freshman of the year, having shot 46 points in one game and 36 (I think) in another.

That’s too much pressure on one child, and apparently she’s put it on herself to carry this team when she thinks they can’t perform. And yet, shooting 12 of 29 field goals and 1 of 8 three-pointers is hardly freshman of the year material, nor is it anything like shooting lights out. It’s just volume, volume, volume.

Anriel Howard and Jasmine Lumpkin continued to be the MVPs of Aggie team play, as Anriel was perfect on free throws, making 8 of 8. Jasmine made 3 of 4. This duo also led in rebounds (Anriel had 10, Jasmine had 7). One bright new spot is that Caylinne Martin was thrust into starting role and got 2 points and 5 rebounds in 10 minutes of play, compared to 4 points and 8 rebounds in 30 minutes of play by Hillsman. Martin is finding herself more at home when in the game. Still plenty of teaching time ahead.

Carter can be proud, individually, that she is now third place on Texas A&M’s single-season point list, with 605 points this season; her 31 points “tie for the third-most for a Texas A&M freshman in a single game,” and today her fifth 30+ point game of the season. But her team lost, so…so what?

After this game, the team will have a chance to talk to one another and determine how they will play Arkansas, Missouri, and in the SEC Tournament. Change has to begin from the bottom up. The coaches can’t fix this. They’ve done everything they can. They’ve taught the players, supervised them, coached them, encouraged them and even coddled some of them. But their job ended with the end of this game.

Only the players can effect positive change, which begins in their attitudes, their commitment to this team, and their passion for winning. No ball will go unrebounded. No shot will not be followed up, and no opposing team will slip past them every single play in the future--if they choose to win.

Today's attendance was 9933 fans of Mississippi State--that's another record to match as well.

Meanwhile, quoting Vic Schaefer, God bless and Go Dawgs, to Aggie Coach Vic Schaefer, Associate Head Coach Johnnie Harris, Director of Operations, Maryann Baker, and Director of Scouting/Video Coordinator, Skylar Collins, and congratulations to Teaira McCowan, Blair Schaefer, Morgan William, Roshunda Johnson, Victoria Vivians, Jazzmun Holmes, Jordan Danberry, Zion Campbell and Chloe Bibby on being the SEC Champions.

It was indeed the day for Coach Vic Schaefer and all of his staff and team to celebrate their SEC Championship. They earned it. And one thing is clear: they celebrated as a team.

Either this team will return as the fightin’ Texas Aggies that everyone sings the song about, or they won't. One thing is sure: they'll either be united or untied. By Thursday the fans should know for certain. Aggie fans are hoping for the best.