Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Groovin' on a Sunday Afternoon--Giving Thanks for Joanne Lara and Autism Works Now

Or...How a Fabulous Fundraiser Brings Old Friends Together for a Wonderful Celebration of a Superb Nonprofit Organization and an Inspirational Leader

That song by The Rascals brings back memories of simpler days and times. Life was uncomplicated. Love was in the air. Livin' was easy. And the biggest challenge in your day, if you were a young person, was where you were going to hear music that would change your world, maybe even change your life.

Today, as yesterday: Music works miracles. We see it every day. Music is one of the key variables to finding “normal” however you define it. (Below: Joanne Lara is not only beautiful on the outside; her heart is equally beautiful. Clifford Bell and Kiki Ebsen agree, "We're so impressed and amazed by all that Joanne has accomplished so far with her nonprofit leadership and direction. It's our pleasure to dedicating this brunch to her and the group she continues to pour her heart and soul into," said the show producers.)

One of the prime forces in Autism Movement Therapy, Joanne Lara first entered the profession of autism research when she, as a successful dancer and actress, went back to school and studied first principles and fundamentals of education. She came through those lessons inspired and on fire to change the world. And so she has. Lara researched and worked to create a program of music and movement for autistic youth that help them express themselves in the same “language” as others on the other side of the spectrum. When children and adults flow together in music and movement, you can’t tell one from another any longer. The pieces of the classic autistic puzzle begin to come together and fit together.

Lara, also founder of national nonprofit Autism Works Now, has taken it upon herself to create a source of jobs for individuals with autism. She daily works hard to train individuals to prepare for jobs in the mainstream—interview skills, preparing resumes, how to interact with others in the workplace, and how to find and keep a job and then live on a budget and plan for the future.

She then sought out employers to hire “her kids” and when she found more obstacles to overcome, she created a business, Glorious Pies, that employs youth with autism a “job with a paycheck.”

This work is only for the strong of mind and heart. In this career field, you don’t get a standing ovation when you have success getting one young person a job. It only changes their life. In the world of a child with autism, all that parents want is to know that the future, for their child, will be multidimensional, that they won’t be stuffed into a diagnosis, never to change, never to hope to become integrated with comfort into the mainstream. Victory for a parent is to know their child will live “happily ever after.” Until that day comes, parents never fully sleep well at night.

Autism. Special Needs. On the Spectrum. These three phrases are diagnoses. They have no face or heart or soul. They are clinical terms that correctly categorize individuals who are “not like the other ones” in their age group, in their neighborhood, in their peer group, in their family. In the time that the world outside of medicine has been aware of autism, there is still so much to learn and understand about what it means to be in a world of your own, and others who are not like you are seeking to communicate with you. And there is a difference on both sides of that. There is no right or wrong. Just different ways of communicating with those who love you using different language.

On November 19, host Shannon Penrod interviewed Joanne Lara, Kiki Ebsen and Clifford Bell to talk about this weekend's upcoming fundraiser. Penrod has an important daily broadcast, Autism Live, and their conversation can be found here:

Music works miracles.

Singer Kristina Marie Aguilar has studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and is making quite a name for herself as an ingenue cabaret jazz singer across California. She’s beautiful, she’s talented and she is on the spectrum. A young woman born into a world of “different,” it was when she heard the music of Disney films, that inspired her to reach out and show others how it moved her. Today, she communicates effusively through her music, and she is at “home” in front of and interacting with crowds and confesses only to a little stage fright before a show, like every other performer! That’s absolutely beautiful. Clifford Bell discovered her and so far, her recent performances have included sold-out audiences and standing ovations. Those are her "normal" today.

And so, on Nov. 24, at the gorgeous @Feinstein's at Vitello's, the newest hot spot in Studio City, you can groove this Sunday afternoon, while world-class entertainers entertain you with hit songs from their world, each of them touched and inspired by Joanne Lara's dedication and the wonderful people who learn from her and who are inspired to create and follow their own dreams, because she did it first.

Entertainers and Co-Hosts Kiki Ebsen and Clifford Bell have designed a beautiful brunch time musical interlude for you to have “you time” as you can Groove on a Sunday Afternoon! (Below: Clifford Bell and Kiki Ebsen)

Says Clifford, “Kiki will have a chance to mix it up between Jazz, Pop, Great American Songbook and her original Singer/Songwriter creations. There's really no genre that she doesn't make 'her very own,'" Bell said.

"We're so excited to have Terry Wollman; he is a celebrated producer, arranger and iconic guitarist. He has produced music for film and TV, produced his own jazz guitar albums as well as a recent album by legendary Melissa Manchester. This savant from Berklee College some years back has become known as the go-to best studio guitarist" among his peers. And he also has his own radio show, "Making it with Terry Wollman" on EnterTalk Radio as well!

Melanie Taylor, says Bell, has one of the "warmest and most pleasing voices I'd heard in quite a while, with an emotional clarity and authority of lyric.” Melanie recently concluded another international tour supporting entertainment icon Barry Manilow, and she and husband Terry Wollman, often enjoy performing together.

Corky Hale, who first came to fame with her amazing harp player, began her career first as pianist for jazz great Billie Holiday. From there, Corky became a fantastic musician and song stylist of her own accord as well as “one of my longtime dearest personal friends,” Bell said.

Warming the hearts of all audience members will be Katrina Marie Aguilar, Bell said. “Her story is beautiful but her voice is even more beautiful.”

Stephan Oberhoff has a superb career as a renowned producer, arranger, composer and pianists. "We are so fortunate to have him join us," Clifford said.

"Drummer Tom Bowe is my first-call drummer who brings such experience and versatility to our concerts," Bell noted.

"This gifted and lovely woodwind player is really Julie Sussman, but she is so spectacular on the saxophone that we've nicknamed her 'Julie Sax' and that's who she is to us now forevermore!" Bell said.

"Paul Morin on bass has exactly the right touch for our 'Giving Thanks' show," said Clifford Bell.

"Brad Ellis knows what I'm going to sing before I sing it so he can anticipate me perfectly as I sing my favorite songs," said Bell. All artists will be supported by a single band, led by renowned producer/keyboardist Stephan Oberhoff (Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Melissa Manchester) with Tom Bowe on drums, and Julie Sax on sax and flute, and Paul Morin on bass. Special guest Brad Ellis (“Glee,” “Bunheads”) will accompany Clifford Bell on his songs.

Tickets are only $25 (require two-item minimum purchase) to $100 (for VIP seating, valet parking and pre-fixed brunch) and all proceeds go to Autism Works Now. Purchase tickets at

Music is the universal language of love. Music heals hearts that are hurt and soothes minds that cannot bear any more cacophony of an outside world that doesn’t understand them. Music is the great equalizer and when everyone is united in voice or flowing across a stage or dance floor, the pieces of the puzzle all come together.

And all you see when you look straight ahead—is a beautiful blending of life and love. When you support “Giving Thanks” this weekend at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, who knows who your funds can inspire to go live out their dreams? It's only lives you are changing with your donations. The season of "Giving Thanks" is the perfect time to support the nonprofits you respect and show love to the people who run them 24/7 and devote their lives to giving back to others. Joanne Lara, these songs are for you!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sharing and Playing Well With Others, Basketball Championships, and Attitudes for Success

Remember back in elementary school when we had the left-hand side of the grade cards for the academic aspects of our growth progress and the right-hand side was devoted to our deportment? That’s a word we rarely hear or see some 50+ years later. Under Deportment, one of the elements on the right-hand side was “Plays well and shares with others.” As I recall, I always received the grade of S+ for that element. “Stays silent in class”…well, let’s go back to “Plays well…,” shall we?

When I was a youngster, I recall being guided, trained, instructed, and otherwise subliminally exposed to the concept of sharing thanks to my mother. Mom was one of, eventually, eight children in her family and I was an only child. Mom said she had always wanted five children, that was her dream, and I was her five. Took me years to figure out that she wasn’t kidding.

Sharing, though, means more than just taking turns on your own toy. It’s a matter of taking turns on a team, allowing others to shine just as much as you get to shine. That hit home for me on Thursday, when my “I have two families” dog, Barney, had his world upended briefly by the arrival of a cold, wet guest doggie, whom I recognized finally as “Paco” from a few blocks over. I’ve already described that adventure, but I went from doggie reunion to watching the Aggie men’s game on Friday night with a longtime friend and basketball buddy.
As I watched our (young) men's team in Reed Arena really foul up, trying to pass the ball and even hang on to the ball when we got it, I was turning my head to the right—a bunch. The bursts of energy and promoted quick movement are both good concepts but unless they’re followed by play execution, they don’t mean anything. Our players had enthusiasm but they shape-shifted so often they forgot their original goals of alignment.

Sometimes you should just stop and take the shot yourself. If you’re not making your shots, though, you have to pass. Although the crowd for Gonzaga was small in number, they certainly were loud enough. When one lady took to yelling what I can best make out to have been “Theo, thee-o, thee-ooooh, theeee-o,” that sent me to Google what the heck she was yelling. Google referred me to a “wall of sound” that Gonzaga Bulldog Kennel Club fans enjoy creating that usually means jumping up and down in the bleachers.

I was reminded by that on Saturday as we all entered the beautiful, large gym at the church school as the site for “the big game.” Before the game my pal had been a picky eater, remembering “Mom doesn’t like me to eat much before the game” (wise, because it makes his tummy upset) and enjoying an experience at the Cheesecake Factory where he received three separate iPad/phone calls from his big brother, his dad and his mom, all of which couldn’t quite get through because of a bad connection and interference in a busy, loud restaurant.

But the point was made. They were right there with him in spirit, and they would remind him to practice his lay-ups. This particular weekend with parents doing things had already been set months ahead before Mom had found his basketball schedule, and that was perfectly fine with my pal. He didn’t focus on who was not there, as he knew everyone loves him and wished him the best, and he'd seen all your posts on Facebook Saturday wishing him luck in the games. So many of his "team" have seen the other games, when his siblings weren’t sick, requiring one to be home with them. This particular weekend Pippa and Poppy were keeping him and making sure he got to the game (in the correct grey uniform shirt) and Mommy had packed everything including his special basketball shoes. Those shoes are quite challenging as it took Poppy, Ms. Dawn Lee, and my pal’s team coach each a turn at tying the double-laces yesterday.

The following photos are not ALL of Hunter's team, so know that there are more even unpictured, and feel their love, too. This Pal is the reason for bringing so many people together. We all try and guess what his future career profession holds, and everyone has their favorite hopes and dreams for him, but whatever it is that he chooses to do, he will be a success, he will be a leader, and he will be a man of integrity, a positive influencer, and he will be forever loved. Of that we can all be sure.

Now let’s talk about sidelines coaching a little, shall we? I can hear my grown-up pal laughing as she just read that last sentence. It’s okay, I’ve gotta tell it like it is. Two weekends ago Pippa and her daughter (Pal’s Mommy) were taking turns correcting each other on what to yell and when. It went something along the lines of “That’s not what you say.” “You’re coaching too much.” “Pal, focus! Keep your head in the game. Pay attention.” Um…I sat there just shaking with laughter as mother and daughter could not agree on which one of them was the distractor. My little Pal just looked over and smiled and went back to the game.

Now, I’m not here to judge or grade the level of sidelines coaching but I will say that right after Mommy said, “work the ball up to the net and go for a layup,” my Pal nailed a half-court shot, turned and looked at Mommy, both arms extended as in “what?” as he ran back down the court. Mommy was a great sport about it.

Dad encourages layups because those are (correctly) often neglected and free points. The team all shared the ball, thanks to a truly gifted and wise team coach, who finds a way to commend every team member each week and not every player is given a medal of some kind (hurrah) as they learn to be proud of the team members who give exemplary effort and output.

After Pippa had “held forth” a little yesterday, I couldn’t resist turning around and teasing her, “Um, where do you think your daughter gets it?” And she just laughed, as she yelled out, “Focus!! Concentrate!!” That chorus was harmonized by her husband as Poppy (NZ accent and all) chimed in “Pay attention, focus, focus!” and I’m sitting there quiet as a church mouse, taking photos same as all of them. I just think it’s so cute. Now other players have their own families there and I can’t quite hear what they’re saying in my section of the symphony but that’s okay. You know everyone has a cheering section. It’s like that and it’s precious. The message is always heard: “We love you,” no matter what is being yelled.

So, Pippa piped up and asked me, “Okay, what are we doing right or wrong in the cheering? You’ve been entirely quiet down there, what should we do?” I smiled and said “Y’all are doing what you want to do, and I’m just sitting right here doing what I want to do!” and I meant it. Everyone needs to do what they feel in terms of encouraging youth. I’m just more like his another of his sets of grandparents, who smile and watch on the sidelines. Well, most of the time.

Although last week, to tell on myself, Mommy laughed at me after Pal had made a superb shot when I found myself doing the Arsenio Hall classic “whoo, whoo, whoo,” and we both laughed. Mommy nodded and said, “Uh huh. You’re in it now.” Oh, and the coach himself had signals he used with his team and did a beautiful job, too. There’s that fella! He’s really so wonderful, I cannot say enough about the special spirit of Pal’s coach.

These were definitely young person’s size basketball goals, with the height properly adjusted to the 6-yr-old and 7-yr-olds playing the game. I’ve never focused on the age and height of my pal’s teammates before because it seems like I only speak of him. But, I’ve always watched (and cheered for) all team members whenever they play out there. We all do, in fact. And we know all the players’ names, too. I’m a team player (reference: strict childhood training!)

Boys and girls are team members on each side and player heights range as much as one foot smaller and taller than the average player. Now, my 7.5 -yr-old pal is very tall for his age, but it doesn’t define him, and he doesn’t treat those not as tall any differently. I’m continually impressed how nonjudgmental this team is of one another’s height disparities. And, each week I’ve watched as often the team’s most talented player can be the tiniest one out there on the court. Not being a real coach, I’m reminded that team heartbeats such as point guards can be 5’0” tall and the game MVP.

That said, this was a game in which my Pal wasn’t the star player, as he has been in virtually every other game in this season. He is good about passing, but this time he tried to take more shots than he made and he wasn’t satisfied with his own game playing. He did pass the ball and he was wonderful in rebounding—in fact, he shined in rebounding and I was extra proud of that. But what I was most proud of was when he missed the ball, he didn’t get down on himself, and he didn’t sulk, and he didn’t do anything except concentrate more on subsequent shots, stayed moving up and down the court just as fast as he had and he never let up.

Another thing that makes me proud is that he is so good on the court, that each game the coach sits my Pal, and another player, out of the game for the first 7-minute triad (they play three 7-minute sessions) to give everyone playing time. And, my Pal accepts it so beautifully even though day and night he’s had a basketball in his hands as he loves this game with all his heart. But still, it takes maturity to show patience. And he’s only 7 ½!

The game, by the way, was a runaway win for “our” team, from the get-go in fact. And it was the smallest player on the team who drove down the court, stopped full out, aimed and took his shot and made them, one after another and another. He’s learned to dribble this season as have all the players. The refs have been very flexible on insisting on the dribbling part. And, on the opposing team, it was the player who was not even 3-feet tall who sunk a half-court shot for their side, in a lesson not to judge a book by its cover. And, it was so cute when the tiny towhead had this air pump with both fists to show something akin to an air dunk, so he was no stranger to making baskets!

About my pal not shooting at his usual exemplary level this week. This was a week in which the stakes were different. It was not as much about winning the game as getting everyone playing time, same as always, and letting each child find a special moment, memory, or basket that they could say contributed to the game's winning score. That didn't allow my Pal as much shooting time as he might have otherwise taken. My opinion...he seemed a bit disappointed in himself that he didn't make more baskets, but he did not let himself get down about it. That didn't spoil his joy in his team's victory either. That's a level of maturity that's unparalleled for a 7.5-yr-old.

He does love his teammates to pass him the ball, and he goes after rebounds very enthusiastically, when he's reminded to, and his favorite shot is the half-court shot. Look for him to be Mr. 3-point-shot as he continues to grow. Of course, his favorite player "is" Steph Curry and his coach knows that about him. This, to say, that Steph also passes the ball well, plays defense, and takes his shots but everyone on the team gets to shoot. I like that very much about my Pal's hero. Even Pal's GrandMama loves Steph Curry and the two have meaningful chats about that, and GrandMama is as much of a basketball junkie as we all are.

There are typically two coaches for each team, the main coach and the helper. The main coach finds something positive to say about each player after each game, tells them why he’s proud of them, and why they are such good team members…affirmation, repetition, support, encouragement. All those variables lead to success and self-esteem in life as well as in the game.

When your cheering section is loud and involved (to whatever extent they find comfort), the child knows you’re in their corner. We all needed that when we were growing up, and many of us had it in different quantities. Some succeeded despite no cheering sections being there because work responsibilities kept parents away so food could be on the table. That’s when a school or team coach is such a key variable. None of these concepts are new, nor are they groundbreaking.

But, what I did see that brought me to the keyboard are the invisible ways in which every adult who loves a child makes an impact. Last weekend my Pal and I were in the car heading to our next destination because Mommy let him ride with me, and he talked to me all about fishing and what Dad taught him. The way he described all the different kinds of fish that Dad had taught him was very clearly presented, logically so. Also, my favorite thing was when he said, “Dad said that I am now responsible enough to handle my own fishing hooks and lures so I know how to bait my own hook. I’m responsible and can do that.” I just loved that, what Dad said. And my heart skipped a beat when he said, “And Dad said that Santa might bring me my own rod and tackle box because I’m capable of taking care of them now.” “Responsible,” “capable,” and other adult words he understands and knows are his character traits.

There was a game of “H.O.R.S.E.” that Dad had played with him the week before where my Pal beat his Dad. The way my Pal described it, they were neck and neck in the game and it looked like Dad was going to win, but there was a key shot and Dad just missed it. Then Pal made his shot and won the game. They’d both been teasing each other who was going to win. And Pal said, “And he really missed it, too! Then I made mine!”

A better gift of love I cannot imagine. There’s a quite famous recent Aggie football legend whose father never let him win, not once. Ever. And, although I’m not a parent, nor do I play one on TV, I’m willing to bet the house that part of that particular adult-child’s psyche damage came from never being able to win his father’s affirmation, accolades, or genuine approval because Dad never let him win once. Pal loves his Dad and loves to challenge the envelope all the time, as any wise growing child will do. But Dad has it all dialed in and knows just how much to let out the line into the water, and when to reel it in, with patience and love.

These days with my 7½-yr-old pal are precious. Conversations we have in our time together find me continually fascinated with his mastery of his accelerated learning and understanding, of life and of book learning from school. This week we discussed reading comprehension and that the third grade means the STAAR test and Pal said he was not looking forward to those. I challenged that assessment and said, “Wait a minute. I loved reading and reading comprehension. You love reading. Why don’t you love reading comprehension?”

Pal said, “You have to read a whole chapter book and then answer questions about what’s in the chapter book.” I said, “That’s okay, honey. You read the chapter book and you have a wonderful memory. Are they questions like, “Did the farmer have four hens or five? Did they grow peanuts or corn?” “Yes,” he said, “I think so.” Then, I said, “You’re going to do well in those questions, honey, because you always remember what you read and you tell me all about the books.” “Oh,” he said, “Okay.”

Took me back quickly to when I was in first grade, and I was talking with Dawn Keogh and Carla Carter, who were in second grade, asking them about what second grade was like, what did you do in Math and what did you do in reading, etc. They reassured me that multiplication was pretty fun, that I was doing addition and subtraction and they knew I’d be really good at multiplication and the reading was fun and that I liked to read, so I’d enjoy that. Tricia Boyd reminded me that I’d love my teacher, Mrs. Kumin as much as I loved Mrs. Hines and that I shouldn't worry, to just be patient and I'll be ready for it when it gets here. I thanked them all and stopped worrying.

Now, the fact that I said what I said to my Pal? That won’t make the difference. It’s not about me. It’s about remembering that no matter our age, we are always planning ahead for the future. It’s how we travel through growth processes. We look to our peers, to our coaches, to our friends and to our family for testing out new ideas. We take in all the data we want, and others that we accept whether or not we want it, and we decide for ourselves who we will become. Watching this young version of the team “The Rockets” made me feel very happy about the world to come. There are some amazing young future leaders currently in formation on this team. They’re gonna make a lot of things better for us in the future. Sharing a few game photos of the champions. They rock!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Mercury’s in Retrograde, My Internet’s on the Fritz, and My Altice SIM Card is Getting Dusty

Oh, that darned Mercury in Retrograde again…despite my highly charged beautiful purple amethyst proudly displaced on my desk (a gift from a gifted friend who shared these beautiful rocks with all of us), it was insufficient protection against the failure of all electronic devices in my home to declare war on me simultaneously, and my otherwise calm psyche this evening. If this happens to post online consider it nothing short of a miracle.

I was minding my business this freezing Veteran’s Day evening, having loaded up Barney into the warm car and trekked out in search of dinner for his family and mine (that’s code for pizza) and I ordered two different types of “hot ‘n fresh” pizzas at Little Caesar’s window. I asked the clerk whether they were both hot and fresh and she told me honestly that one was, and the other not so much. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll wait for two fresh ones.” She said, “If you’ll just pull around front and wait for 10-12 minutes and then come inside you can have them then.”

Hmm…the point of the drive-thru was to wait in a heated car. Getting out. Okay, I’m not too old or too grumpy to disallow the possibility of freezing, only to be rewarded by pizza. I did, however, ask her for a favor (though). I said, “Could you please divide both pizzas in half and place two different halves in one box so both boxes would be the same?” Without even a second to consider it, she said, “No, we can’t do that.” “Okay,” I said and Barney and I drove around to wait our 10-12 minutes and play 3 or 4 games of Word Chums while we waited. Going inside a very nice young man, Chris, agreed to do what I’d asked before about the splitting of the pizzas, no fuss, no muss. “Yay” I thought, and then “She” saw him doing my bidding.

“She” cast eyes of disapproval toward him and my two pizzas so I boldly said loud enough for her to hear, “Yes, he knows your policy is not to do that, the dividing them into two identical pizzas but he took pity on me and made this customer very happy.” “She” didn’t look up but as she stared anywhere but at me, I could see she was disappointed at being thwarted. I mean, when you make the doggie tradeoff in 30°F weather, do you really want the hot pizza box opened in the cold weather and the swap made there? Why no, no you don’t.

I managed to exit worried that Chris was going to get “what-for” from her over making an exception for someone who qualifies for senior pricing even if I don’t feel as though I deserve it (yet). The pizza caper behind me, I sat down to enjoy an episode of “JAG” as I knew that WGN would have a Veteran’s Day marathon as USA Network had one with “NCIS” earlier today during lunch (and the new programming on USA, by the way? A bunch of smut. Weird smut. Take it from a person who qualifies for senior pricing to tell you…pass on by. Nothing to see there. Apparently, anyone can pitch a show and the weirder it is, the more they want to pay for it. Sigh. Missing “La Femme Nikita” and “Suits” on USA already…but I digress).

Two bites of pizza in and my TV picture begins to “pixilate.” I learned that term from Suddenlink, many years ago when describing to them what happened to most all my NBC related stations’ programming. The big transponder doohickey that’s uplinked to the gizmo that travels to the fiber optic doodad…well, none of that word salad is right but let’s just say that the photographs break up into little pixels and the dialogue on TV sounds a whole like Chris Matthews reading the teleprompter every day. “Blap. Boop. Barrrp. Blep.” I don’t listen to Chris Matthews, but I know what he sounds like.

My key episode of “JAG” was slowly disintegrating in front of my eyes, sigh. Then, my internet went “out” on my computer…all three screens had the famous dinosaur pic on the google home page and the time out error and the “we can’t reach the server” message and I had planned on sending something I had edited earlier in the evening to a client…and it was a rush job due tomorrow…and I’d waited long to get our dinner simply to finish it. Dang.

I did a reboot or two of my computer. Same problem. I called my VIP phone number of Suddenlink and happened to remember my password (always a thrill not to have to look something up!) and while I’m doing this a phone call on my internet-based home line reads “Cablevision” calling and I answer, “Hello?” three times until I decide no one is there. Aw dang, do I need to block one more call today? Already blocked four of those pests before…

Well, I’m on my cell phone and have a 30-minute wait for a technician on Suddenlink…no, I’m not kidding. Yes, it was 34 minutes that I waited before “James” got on the line. Now, I have to give it to James. He’s not in the Suddenlink Tyler HQ but he’s in Florida, and it’s warm there. We try rebooting, unhooking, disconnecting, rebooting, unhooking, disconnecting and then we try my reacquainting my laptop with the good ol’ ethernet connection cable but nothing doing. Still got a pixilated Catherine Bell and David James Elliot and John M. Jackson as Admiral Chegwidden (be still my heart). And my pizza was getting cold.

I discussed with James, while we waited the 5 minutes between rebooting the TIVO and the router, his interest in playing the blues as he’s a guitarist. I told him I had the “Intermittent Connection and Pixilated Picture Blues” and he laughed. I was serious. I had work to do tonight!! Most of you who work 8 to 5 jobs have no concept of the wonky donkey hours I have been known to keep here at Headquarters, depending on the various time zones of the folks I work with. But, call whenever you want, I’ll answer the phone.

After more than one hour with James on the case, he reluctantly assigned me to a technician, but being a Suddenlink pro at this I said, “Now you’re going to tell me that the fastest you can get someone here is Friday, but that’s not going to work so I need for you to look again”…he came up with Wednesday am. Meanwhile the next JAG episode is on.

I get a wild hair to hook up an old router to see if a slower connection speed (the NOT-5g speed) might not be more stable. Nope, nope, and nope. And then I’m in the middle of rehooking up all the equipment and the “landline” phone rings again and it’s Cablevision on the phone and I answer and the man said, “This is Altice Mobile calling for Dawn Vakefield”…I said, “Yes, I’m Dawn Wakefield,” with an emphasis on the W, and I note that it’s 9:28 pm and curious as to why he’s calling so late in Veteran’s Day, grateful anyone at Altice even gives a flying fig about me at all, no matter what the time of day.

He said his name, Jake, and I know good and well it’s not Jake. It’s probably Edgar, but he wishes he’d been named Jake, and not that there are not a lot of great Edgars and all but…Just Jake and I don’t hit it off right away. He said he can’t hear me well. There was static on the line. I said, “Yes, that’s a problem I’m having with Suddenlink right now.” “I’m not with Suddenlink, I’m with Altice Mobile and I can’t help you with your Suddenlink problem.” I said, “I get that but if you want to talk to me you’re going to have to call me on my cell phone as that is the only device not on Altice or Suddenlink right now.” Then, you’d have died laughing had you heard the way in which I tried to give him my 10-digit phone number as alternate to call me back on, and the “static” kept parsing our sentences and even words and then even numbers. What was the area code again?

“979” I said. He said, “I got ’79.’”

“No,” I said, “979” and he said, “97…?” and I said “979” as fast as you could sing along to 867-5309 if you know the song “Jenny” by Tommy Tutone. (If you don’t, call me and I’ll sing it to you. Anyway.)

I then took the next 3 digits and we did those fast, too. And then to cap it off, I’m dying laughing as I try to rush the last 4 digits as well…Jake Edgar is laughing, too. He doesn’t play the guitar or care about the blues I am certain, but I didn’t even care enough about Jake to ask because when he called me back on my cell, I said, “I’m just in the middle of trying to reconnect my router and my TIVO box to see if my cable is fixed yet.”

He said, “I’m sorry I can’t help you with that, I’m with Altice Mobile.” I said, “Actually, I understand that, even though technically you’re all part of Altice now, out of the big New York City conglomerate but I’m not asking you to help me reconnect my TV, just give me a minute to finish recalling where the yellow cables go in and then undo the correct power source and then reinstall the power line.” Jake Edgar was a tad huffy as he said, “It is not productive use of my time to wait on the phone until you reconnect your cable system when I’m supposed to help you on your Altice mobile phone problem. I can call you back.” I said, “Jake, call me back in 5 minutes” and hung up before he could.

I then correctly reconnected the yellow cable line from TIVO box to router and you’d have thought I held a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, when I completed all three tasks without having any extra parts left over.

Anyway, Jake called back and I said, “Look, let’s start over. I wanted to reconnect the cable in the event you asked me to access my Altice mobile account online which I couldn’t, thanks to Suddenlink and by the way, you couldn’t understand me on my home phone you called because it’s a home phone on the Suddenlink $10/month bundle package for old people for life and it’s driven by the cable system which was going in and out constantly.” He said, “oh.” And I thought that was his wisest sentence to date.

I said, “Now I am going to tell you why you are calling me.” He said, “okay.” I said, “SEVEN days ago, I called Altice Mobile for the 7th time in 4 weeks hoping to know when my cell phone service would have my number “Ported over” from AT&T the way your reps promised me it would be “soon.” Now, here’s the deal Jake, 5 weeks ago your Suddenlink rep, Christy, told me that I was paying too much to AT&T for my cell phone for unlimited talk and text and with a quick, easy process I could go to save $600/year “for life” for exactly the same service and I could bring my same number.

Christy, I thought then, should have been the President of Suddenlink that night when we were working on my Suddenlink account. I had made my usual “Let’s talk about this latest bill” phone call to them when they thought I’d won the jackpot and decided to raise my monthly bill by 70% and Christy managed to keep my business with Suddenlink so I could start my 23rd year of being held hostage, err, I mean, being their customer.

All y’all Verizon people…it’s better in big cities but in Mayberry, Verizon, aka Frontier Communications is not the way to roll. Neither are T-Mobile, Sprint or Cricket, not all the places I find myself using the phone across the wide USA. I need these Suddenlink people and I thought AT&T could do no wrong. Well, forget that.

All it took was a phone call to AT&T, keep my account active, Christy had advised, and then request them to “unlock” my phone. I did. I got my account number and my Secret Squirrel Pin number and those were what I had to give Christy to get the move started. She created an Altice account for me and I didn’t write down the number but she said, she’d send my new SIM card out right away. A few days went by and no SIM card. Hmm.

Then I saw a message on my home phone (powered by Suddenlink); we’re talking still early October. A person named Yolanda was kind enough to call me and ask if I were expecting anything from Altice Mobile, and if so, her phone number was XYZ and to give her a call. I was thrilled she could find me because land lines are rarely in the book…and my land line is really a Suddenlink fiber optic internet-powered thingy but no matter, she found me. Turns out she lives 3 miles away in a nearby neighborhood…I know two folks who live on that block…but there was no way it should have gone to her and she had not recently changed over to Altice Mobile. Hmm…a mystery. I should have looked for Mercury back then.'

So, I insert the SIM card and the number that came up was “NOT” my regular number. I also could not receive any phone calls, messages, or text messages at my “old” number with the new SIM card in. Had to replace AT&T SIM card and I was getting reallllllllly good at popping those little teeny micro cards in and out of the SIM card slot. I’m thinking I am doing a Post-Doc in Electrical Engineering to switch out these cards. I live in an alternate reality sometimes, so just humor me. It’s warm there and they know me. I’m good.

So, Christy said, “It can take a few days so hang in there.” Two weeks later, I have people texting me saying, “I called you and left you a voice mail at your new number. Did you get it?” Um, what new number and what voice mail? Turns out when I texted them on old AT&T SIM card but they see an entirely different number on their screen…I sent an e-mail to 12 colleagues to let them know to call me on my old number and no matter what they see on the screen when I reach them, it’s really “good ol’ me.” Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and last week I went up to the Suddenlink office after Melinda, on instant chat at the Altice Mobile site, said I really needed to go into the store and they’d have it all fixed up for me.

Entering the office, I saw a lady who’d worked there since it was Community Cablevision 40 years ago. I didn’t get to see her. In fact, I had a full 30-minute wait and my back had been realllly bothering me that morning. Another lady behind me came in wearing socks and Adidas sandals because her back was hurting her, and so we practiced alternating sitting 5 minutes at a time in the one chair available there, and we saved one another’s place in line each time. We bonded over back pain. It’s Mayberry and everyone just shares, frankly, and we all work together to help one another through whatever. It’s just what we do here.

Finally reaching the rep at one desk, I turn around to hear a tiny lady about 50 years old, wearing British Carnaby Street hat and perky little outfit 20 years too young for her. She was loud and insisting someone had been taken in line ahead of her. She was so disagreeable that I thought I was going to have to go back there and perform a citizen’s arrest, complete with adrenaline, as she was really getting ugly with the service reps. One rep came over and confronted her, only to have her say, loudly, “You’re messing with me today and God is my number one!” I turned to look back at my rep, who looked back at me and I said, “I’m not sure God is here right now at Suddenlink but if He were, I’m not altogether convinced that he’d want to claim that one.” The rep she was regaling against said quietly…”he’s my number one, too.” Boom.

Then five minutes later, another woman went off on another rep, loudly, and I wondered which local pharmacy had run short on their recipes for peace and quiet…when both of these women seem to have run out of theirs…because surely they were in need of some calming influence (had they run out of hooch? I wondered). I was much taller than the little loudmouth ladies, so I was prepared to go all NCIS over them, should someone need a special agent, haha, but the supervisor managed to politely handle them and invited one of them to leave, which she did.

Lord, have mercy. What are people coming to when they explode on people who are actually trying to help them? Egad. Well, after Sharon, my counter rep and I spent 20 minutes on ‘chat’ with the Altice Mobile reps, she said that I’d have to now create an account, which we did together, so Christy had not created the full account info for me, aha, and that Sharon had heard that a colleague that worked with her had waited 10 days for AT&T to port the number over to Altice. Ruh-ro. I was in for a long, hard winter, I feared.

Last Saturday, the one 9 days ago, I got a text from Top Client asking me did I still have two phone numbers and which should he call me on. Sigh. It would be one of two almost identical texts from two Top Clients with the question “How much longer do we see the ‘wrong’ number when you text us back?” Heck if I know. So, I signed into my Altice Mobile account, and did the chat portal for the 7th time in 2 weeks. My rep, Chantel, and I decided she would escalate my claim and I’d hear back from “Engineering” within 48 hours. Oh good! Last Monday came and went and no call from Engineering, Escalation, or even Escalators…nothing.

So, tonight, amidst my literal entanglement of cables, cords, power wires, and a portable speaker I never use on this TV (don’t want to hurt Barney’s supersensitive ears by playing my music on TV too loud to suit him) and well…Jake Edgar got a bit of my wrath at that point. I did point out to Jake Edgar that my 48-hour escalation had taken an additional 168 hours to be fully escalated to crisis stage.

So, Jake Edgar wrapped up by saying, “I’m so very sorry this happened to you. It will be a very quick fix to get that portal thing done and I promise you they will call you immediately when it’s done.” I think it was the quiver in my voice that caused him to apologize for my inconvenience I’d experienced these past 6 months. I guess the extra $79 for another useless month of AT&T and an extra $20 two weeks ago to start off my lifetime of savings with Altice Mobile, so far has cost me $100 but to save $600 a year on cell service seems worth it. AT&T wants to make it hard for me to save money but I’m scary stubborn and determined to save so I can buy more dog treats for Barney (wait, who typed that? Who wrote that? Barneyyyyy!) I’m determined to save and that’s the end of that sentence.

Now, here we are at 1:37 am, and I’ve had functioning e-mail now for about 24 minutes…the TV pic is not pixilated any more and though "JAG" ended, Gibbs is back. And more importantly, I’ve been able to send 3 work projects without the “Lost internet connection” symbol popping up. Whew! Goodbye Ethernet cable, goodbye slow router, goodbye waiting forever to see a web site populate my screen.

Now, oopsie, there’s a little pixilation now and then on a channel here and there but I’m up to 95% consistent speed and considering it’s 35°F right now and no rain, we’re good. The internet cable from the pole to the houses are swinging in the wind no doubt…and I’m going to make sure that technician comes out on Wednesday to triple-check all my connections. After all I pay that extra $6.99/month for the privilege when it used to just be $4.99/month. Ah, the price of technology and its maintenance.

Oops, the screen is pixilating a little, and the internet connection is blinking a little as the wind roars like a train engine coming round the bend out there. While I can, I’m going to get a little rest until some phone rings telling me I’m now with Altice Mobile. It won't be a call from Christy. I texted her today (on her personal cell number she gave me so I wouldn't be bounced around 100 reps?) and she told me that she had moved to another city and quit her job at Suddenlink (who sold the Altice mobile product to me) because her uncle had died. Sigh. I expressed my condolences and...well, you just knew that was going to happen, didn't you?

E-mail me if you need me until I get the other communication devices in and out of the Mercury in Retrograde in Scorpio Repair Shop. That's where I believe we'll all be for the next 8 days.

Monday, October 14, 2019

In Loving Memory of Barbara Denise Cusack Squires

August 9, 1947 – October 4, 2019

On October 4, my friend Barbara Cusack Squires, passed away at age 72—too soon for anyone’s liking. Although she’d battled serious health challenges for the past 15 years that I’d known her, she had an indefatigable spirit of bouncing back, Irish stubbornness that wouldn’t quit, and a joie de vivre that was infectious, to say the least.

Barbara gifted me with many things over the years, her time, love and care as a friend, and time with her family. You’re a friend of one Cusack, you’re a friend of the entire Cusack clan. That’s how she rolled…and rolled she did.

Famous for her love of Cadillacs, sometimes you couldn’t see her coming because of the blur created by her lead foot and ability to outdrive any police car that might be even remotely interested in snagging her with a speeding ticket. Her dad was a cop and she started driving in middle school (never mind she may or may not have had a license).

Barbara grew up in Chicago, and I learned from her to back into a parking space (for a faster getaway)…at the time she offered that instruction, I was slightly mystified as to why I might need that skill, but later I learned just to listen and remember what she said.

Growing up in Chicago can mean many things to many people, but to a Chicagoland native, that means understanding the neighborhood where you are from. She was an MC…not emcee, but MC as in Madison and Central. She had respect from the locals anywhere she went. If you were her friend, you knew it. If she was mad at you, you knew it.

She was a larger-than-life Leo and given her Irish temper, there were times when you’d be on the receiving end of her thoughts…but you learned to wait until the storm passed and then she was gentle as a lamb and always seeing what she could do to help you out with something.

She welcomed me at her family gatherings for holidays in my earliest years after my Mom had passed away, which allowed me not to prolong grieving my loss because I was busy celebrating life. Those were wonderful occasions filled with laughter, great food, and she was the quintessential hostess. And she loved music, especially 60s music and especially The Buckinghams.

Long story short, she told me had a good friend from their days as teenagers in Chicago, Carl Giammarese, and she invited me to join her the next time The Buckinghams played in Las Vegas. In 2006, Barbara, her daughter Tara, sister Candace and Candace’s daughter Natalie went for a girls’ trip and included me.

I met them out there and we had an amazing concert evening. She told Carl, “you two need to meet each other; Carl, Dawn Lee writes and Dawn Lee, Carl writes.” Now, I’d written her a long opinion piece regarding Carl’s first solo album, “Trying Not to Fade.” I had no idea but she’d sent it to him. That’s when our dialogue and ultimate writing collaboration began, thanks to Barbara. Just another of her random acts of kindness.

Throughout these past five years, my journey has whisked me away from what I “used to do” and instead finds me “doing different things.” Barbara never ceased to be encouraging of my goals, whatever they were. Even when we’d not spoken in person or by phone in the past two years, she’d like or comment on my Facebook posts. I was stunned when I went to her Facebook page today and saw that she’d recently shared two photos of me in the midst of my recent work out west…and that made me smile.

She knew that about me…that I am in my “happy place” when I am able to introduce light and love into the world and tell the stories of success that people have accomplished, both during their lifetimes and afterwards. She loved that I’d become a Certified Life Celebrant and reminded me of why she thought I was good at it. 😊

Briefly, her passing was quick and her suffering was brief…she’d gone back home to Chicago (without telling her family) for her high school class reunion, and for one last look, as it would turn out, at the others who’d grown up with her in school. Those of us who insist on keeping up with our high school friends (my hand is in the air) know better than most how precious life is and how, with each passing year, we lose one or more of each other from our ranks.

So, we gather, frequently, usually twice a year, leaving aside differences in opinions and judgments of same, to simply celebrate life together and “remember when” life was simpler, clearer, and the entire world was still ahead of us.

I’m aware that Barbara kept details of her health challenges to herself mostly, and if you asked her how she was doing, she’d lean back, laugh her trademark laugh, and say, “Just shoot me” and then she would turn the conversation to a different topic as quickly as she could. In her lifetime, she loved deeply, made her way in this world and took control of things she could and waited out the hard times with a good spirit and faith that never failed her.

She brought into this world two wonderful children who became terrific adults. She lived to know and love her grandchildren, seeing many of them through to adulthood. Daughter Tara inherited her beauty and her determination to make her way in this world, to love her kids and love everyone around her. Barbara sang Tara’s praises to everyone (except Tara, of course); she was so proud of her work ethic and her parenting skills.

Son Martin was a rock for her and no matter where he was in the world, she always knew he was a phone call away. And he was. Grandsons Brandon, Jake, and Martin III (M3, now in college), and granddaughter Sophie and Martin’s wife Kelli brought great joy…there were so many times she spoke of them and shared photos so proudly…and when one of them had a ceremony, everyone in the family turned out en masse!

Barbara’s richest treasures on this earth were her family…and she was a wealthy woman in that regard. Husband Charlie stood by Barbara and would slyly smile as he’d turned a Chicago city girl into a Huntsville country girl (she once said to me, “Do you know I never once wore a pair of jeans in Chicago?

I didn’t ever wear those until I wound up on a ranch with Charlie!! And, by the way, there’s a cow in my front yard right now, waiting for me to go swimming in the pond out front with her!”). She never said “y’all” that I can recall, and she never lost her Chicago roots, but she survived Texas well (as long as the a/c in her Cadillac was on full blast)!!

Her nieces and nephews called her AB (short for Aunt Barbara), and she was as proud of each of them as she was of her own. She adored her ‘baby brother’ Bil, and longed for the days they could get away for an Italian beef sandwich together. She was so proud of her nephew Chris, and his amazingly brilliant Houston restaurant ventures.

She loved how her niece Natalie sang, and how another niece, Tiffany, was a fabulous mom, and how another niece, Ashley, was blowing the tops off the test scores in college. There are more relatives and love she shared, but sadly I’d lost touch with her the last few years to know the details. Barbara loved going to casinos with her sister Candace, to hear live music with Bil and Karen, and sister Kim, who adored her big sis and shared many of her same loving traits. She’d always include you in the gang if she was going to hear music she knew you’d like.

I’ll never forget the concert at the Woodlands when there were about 7 Cusacks and two others of us in one entire row to hear Earth Wind & Fire and KC and the Sunshine Band. In case you were wondering, no, none of us sat down the entire time as we were up dancing along. That’s just what you do. Everyone was on their feet, lovin’ the music.

Times with the Cusacks were fun…you might be in a hilarious gift exchange at Christmas, enjoying barbeque outdoors while trying to hold your own in dominoes, or just sitting in a lawn chair holding her little chihuahua because well…he just was too cute not to hold and cuddle. I remember once I got to babysit Lucky here at my house (I had no warning I was about to do that one day, she’d forgotten to tell me (or ask me), but he and I became fast friends) for a week, and he was so precious.

Barbara grew up with a famous mother (at least in Arizona and Texas) who was often in the spotlight on TV or newspapers. For a time in the 1960s, she and her mom (Joanne) worked in PR for Pat Boone she said one day, matter of fact as though everyone had done it. In her late teens, she worked for photographers on some modeling assignments, and then later she organized runway shows in Houston when she managed a boutique dress store. Barbara became famous in her own right, and many championed her as a success in the worlds where they met her.

Upon reflection, she was a force larger than life in many ways and she loved as large as she lived. She would find her heart crushed from time to time, and Leo that she was, if she was happy, you knew it and if she wasn’t, you heard about it, too.

She likely outlived many prognoses that she refused to admit to hearing (or was willing to share that she heard), and she survived open heart surgery two years ago without having told many people. In the end, pneumonia won out, but as she knew better than many, this world is not where everything ends that it doesn’t begin anew somewhere else.

One thing is for certain…in her lifetime she loved many people and she knew that she was loved every day of her life. Her family will need some time to process their reality, and grief, and decide on their plan for life without her, but they also know that they carry with them her abiding love. God bless you Barbara Cusack Squires, and thanks for the good times. Those are the ones we’ll always remember.