Bah-Bah

Bah-Bah

My dad died on Saturday, September 11, 2021.

The guy lived a heck of a life and passed peacefully at home at the ripe old age of 93—so shed no tears, please. But even though I couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate departure for the pearly gates, there’s still an overwhelming sense of sorrow and grief surrounding his immediate absence. It’s impossible to pay homage amid the emptiness when the wounds are so fresh—but I’ll give it the old college try.

Back in 2006, as Bah-Bah was clinging to life support after undergoing brain surgery for a subdural hematoma, I wrote the following eulogy in preparation for his passing. After a miraculous recovery, I read to him what I had written. He listened stoically, inscrutable as ever, brushing it off as if somehow knowing that there was more to his story.

(Remember that the following was written nearly 15 years earlier. Please excuse the over dramatic narratives, false assumptions, and run-on sentences. As they say in the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future outcomes.)

When I was in the third grade at Picadome Elementary, our social studies class sponsored a school-wide assembly on ancient Chinese civilizations. My teacher asked if anyone in the class knew any real live Chinese people who could come and talk about their native culture and customs. I quickly volunteered my father, who after meticulous thought and preparation, pulled off a presentation worthy of the most prestigious Academy Award-winning performance. He not only kept hundreds of hyperactive elementary school kids enthralled with his pictures of ancient pagodas and his Chinese calligraphy skills, but he also dazzled everyone with his yo-yo talents and shuttlecock kicking acrobatics. Imagine the immense pride etched on the face of an insecure eight-year-old boy as 4th, 5th, and even 6th graders came up to me on the ensuing days and told me how “cool” my dad was.

OF COURSE I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. That was evident the minute he  decided to leave his native homeland, traveling a world away in pursuit of the American dream of creating a better life for his family. In 1961, while entrusting my mom, my older sister Mary, and myself to the care of relatives back in Taiwan, my father left for the United States, alone with only a small, packed suitcase and a handful of change. Today, as I gaze at my daughter Katie basking in the luxuries of American teenage life—as I stand here with my brother the compassionate physician, my sister the distinguished professor of pharmacy, and my loving and supportive wife Kanisa—I can only imagine the courage it took to make that momentous decision which would impact our family for generations to come. Visions of my father tug delicately at my heartstrings—all alone in a strange land, yearning longingly for his family back home, working diligently on his studies, while subsisting on his daily ration of tuna fish sandwiches and Ramen noodles.

I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My Dad was smart. There wasn’t a mathematical problem that ever stumped him. Whether it was solving polynomial equations, analyzing modulus of elasticity, or calculating the area under a curve, my dad always had the correct answer. I think he secretly looked forward to helping me every day with my homework, and I now treasure every single second we spent together during those personal sessions. I remember frequently showing up in class the next day taking all the credit for solving the impossible problems no one else (including the teacher) could explain. 

I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My dad never complained. Like the apostle Paul, he was always content, regardless of circumstances. The day-to-day stresses of raising a family in a strange country, language barriers, cultural prejudices, graduate and doctoral studies, occupational advancement, and health and financial challenges just never seemed to bother him outwardly. He had a peace about him, an omnipresent positive outlook, a type of concealed joy derived only from the belief that he was living a life of righteousness and virtue.

I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My dad was such a hard worker, making the most of every opportunity afforded him to teach and study. He valued education and exhibited such a passion for his profession, working long hours into the night to tweak a lesson plan or to develop a new formula. Even his retirement years were filled with doing what he loved—authoring a leading engineering textbook that is currently used by universities worldwide. Throughout it all, he never boasted, never bragged, maintaining that same, simple humble servant spirit he exhibited while filling drink cups at Wednesday night church dinners.

I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. The greatest gift he gave us kids was loving our mother so deeply. They were inseparable for fifty-one plus years. Whether they were going for walks, serving dinner, vacationing, or watching television, wherever you saw Pete, you also saw Jane. My dad frequently conveyed the need for me to “love my wife unconditionally”.  He walked his talk, and the most difficult aspect of his passing will be the painful empty void left in my mom’s own heart.

A couple of years earlier, my sister relayed to me stories of my grandmother—a deeply devout Christian woman who took it upon herself to pray daily for the presence of the Holy Spirit in her life. I frequently picture her in my mind, a feeble, stooped, well-weathered matriarch out in the bucolic countryside of a fog-shrouded Chinese river valley, surrendering herself in prayer every morning so that the salvation of her family and future generations would be secured. Today, in this bittersweet moment—a time of mourning and celebration—standing amongst a priesthood of believers, I take great comfort in knowing that my grandmother’s prayers were answered—that although we will miss my father dearly on this earth, that one day we will all experience  the inexpressible and glorious joy of being reunited as a family. I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. The angels are rejoicing! May the gates of heaven be graced with your presence! I love you Baba.

Left to Right: Number 2 son (Michael), Number 1 grandson (Gabriel), Bah-Bah, Number 1 son (me), Number one granddog (Bingo)

Of course, my dad didn’t die in 2006. In fact, he survived another decade and a half, teaching me more lessons about unconditional love that would resoundingly resonate within my own personal life and marriage. Despite everything I had written in my dad’s premature eulogy—up to that point—I hadn’t really seen anything yet!

Because almost immediately after my dad recovered, my mom started showing signs of dementia. https://huangswhinings.com/2016/04/26/mah-mah/ For those not familiar with the devastation of Alzheimer’s, let’s just say that it sucks. Watching the matriarch of our family—someone so vibrant in her youth—slowly and agonizingly lose her memory, her mind, her bodily functions, and eventually her life is beyond gut-wrenching. My heart still aches just thinking about it. For you see, up until that time, my mom handled everything in our household—from the daily chores, to the grocery shopping, to the social calendar, to paying the bills, to organizing our lives. My dad, on the other hand, would have been hard pressed to balance a checkbook or set the thermostat.

And yet, when the tables were turned, my dad rose to the occasion. He was there at my mom’s side every step of the way—from the early days of trying to keep her mind active by memorizing Scripture together, to later on by driving her to appointments and cooking her meals, to near the end where he had to spoon feed her and change her diaper. All the while, he maintained that same positive contentment that I so much admired. In caring for my ailing mom, he taught me the greatest lesson of my life. He became the inspiration for me as I struggled in dealing with my wife’s ongoing depression and mental illness. As well-meaning friends encouraged me to consider abandoning ship, there was Baba—a rock of stability in the shitstorm of life.

In the years since my mom’s death, my dad has also taught me much about two traits which I sorely lack—compassion and generosity. As I was sorting through his mail a while back, I often wondered why he received so much junk mail. It turned out that all those free gifts were due to the multitude of random checks he had given to all the various charities over the years. His philanthropy was punctuated recently by the donation of his life savings to the university and church he so dearly loved.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t bristle a bit at having my inheritance given away. But those dollars pale in comparison to the values he taught me in his life here on earth—a life lived with industriousness, integrity, fidelity, humility, and love. Yep, there’s that word “love” again. My dad loved life, he loved his work, he loved people, he loved his family, he loved his community, he loved his church, and he loved the Lord.

I picture my dad in heaven now, finally reunited with my mom—holding hands, going for walks, and pouring drinks at that great Wednesday Night church dinner in the sky. Well done, Baba. Well done! It’s not a bad way at all to spend eternity, eh?

May your legacy here on earth live on through all those you have so graciously touched.

A big shout out to daughter-in-law number 2 (Michelle), who sacrificially provided Bah-Bah with all the daily comforts of home for the past three years

Me, Bah-Bah, and granddaughter number two (Katie) in our last photo together

Dr. Yang Hsien “Pete” Huang Obituary

https://milwardfuneral.com/obituaries/1315-dr-yang-hsien-pete-huang

It’s Time To Stop The Stigma!

It’s Time To Stop The Stigma!

I’m all ears at a round table discussion with Naomi Osaka at the 2019 Western and Southern Open (Photo Credit W&S Open)

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — There’s an illness lurking among us that’s just as debilitating and deadly as the Coronavirus. Unlike Covid-19 and all its variants, however, this ailment has been around since the dawn of time. Unfortunately, we’ve been hesitant to even acknowledge that it exists. We’ve buried it, blocked it out, and barricaded it behind closed doors in hopes that it’ll just go away.

Until now, that is.

With Simone Biles exiting the team competition in the Tokyo Olympics in order to “protect her mind,” perhaps the importance of mental health awareness will finally get the attention it rightly deserves. After all, if one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time—on arguably the biggest stage in sports—admits to needing some emotional help, then maybe the rest of the world will finally start listening.

Biles isn’t alone. Earlier this year, four-time tennis Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open over a standoff about her refusal to speak with media during press conferences. The Japanese American tennis icon admitted that she suffered from long bouts of depression and tried to explain how she was struggling in coping with all the stresses of stardom.

Even before Biles and Osaka, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps talked openly about his battles with anxiety and depression. After retiring from active competition, the most decorated athlete in the history of the Summer Games—winner of twenty-eight medals across five Olympics—has since become a huge mental health advocate. And yet, despite the tireless efforts of his foundation to trumpet the cause, nobody seems to have truly gotten his message either.

“We’re human beings,” Phelps poignantly stated the other night when asked about the circumstances surrounding Biles. “Nobody is perfect. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to go through ups and downs and emotional rollercoasters.”

A little closer to home, Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari also addressed the fragile emotional state of his team earlier this summer. The pandemic, together with the unspeakably tragic deaths of not one but two of their teammates, had Coach Cal on heightened alert regarding his players’ mental health.

“I’m not an expert on why it would be rising,” Calipari answered, when asked about the skyrocketing incidence of depression and anxiety among young people. “This pandemic rocked everybody…We had players last year meeting with some psychologists. We did…It’s overwhelming…We just went through Ben [Jordan] passing away, and then Terrence [Clarke]. You throw that onto the plate of these kids. And that’s why I was doing as many individuals [workout sessions] as I could do. At the end of the day, I’m not a—quote—professional. Sometimes that needs to be involved in this.”

Hang on. Before you say this issue is only about spoiled athletes going soft, you better think again. Depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders are ubiquitous—whether we’re famous celebrities or just “ordinary Joes” trying to do the best we can. It doesn’t matter whether we’re at the top of our game or struggling to make ends meet. These conditions are insidious, they’re pervasive, always prowling around looking to devour you when you least expect it.

I know. My wife has battled severe depression over the past decade. https://huangswhinings.com/2017/04/11/in-sickness-and-in-health/ Two of my best friends have been afflicted by it, to the point of debilitation. https://huangswhinings.com/2018/10/24/it-could-happen-to-anyone/ At its worst, dealing with mood swings and psychotic rants has been a living hell for everyone involved. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Even during periods of recovery, the dark clouds of worry and despair never fully go away.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 16.2 million people in the United States will have at least one major depressive episode in a given year. That translates to a lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorders of 16.9 percent among adults. That’s more than one in six of us. Not only that, but the biggest cause of disability in the worldwide workforce also happens to be depression related. We’re not talking about calling in sick due to a bad back, the flu, or the far-reaching effects of hypertension or diabetes. Nope—we’re talking mental health issues, period.

“The biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those [difficult] times,” Phelps emphasized. “It was hard for me to ask for help.”

And therein lies the danger from all of these mood disorders. It’s hard to ask for help. Because of that reluctance to reach out, those afflicted are often at high risk of suicide. Tragically, fifteen percent of those individuals living with recurrent depressive disorder will subsequently die by suicide. That’s way too many. In fact, it’s heartbreakingly unacceptable. Why the heck are people so reluctant to seek help when needed?

One word, pure and simple: STIGMA! Unlike other common physical illnesses—such as high blood pressure or diabetes—mental health disorders are buried in bias. They aren’t your typical “casserole illnesses.” In other words, when you’re recovering from a broken leg, or an emergency appendectomy, or even cancer chemotherapy, friends, neighbors, and coworkers are quick to stop by with a casserole to comfort you.

Not so with mood disorders. There’s a stigma attached—some sort of guilt, embarrassment, or shame—as if you’re walking around with a big scarlet letter painted on your forehead. No one knows what to say or do about it. No one wants to admit that they’re suffering from it. All they know is that others who haven’t experienced it are understandably clueless. It’s not a condition that you can just easily “snap out of.”

So, what can we do to help? The most important thing we can do is to STOP THE STIGMA! Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and all the various other co-occurring mental health conditions are not radically different than normal physical ailments of the body such as hypertension or diabetes. The only major distinction is that these disorders affect the person’s brain rather than their pancreas.

The sad reality is that many of our friends and loved ones suffer needlessly (and often silently) from these relentless brain diseases. During those instances, compassion and empathy are key. It’s up to us to first acknowledge their illness and then encourage them—as Coach Cal said—to seek professional help as needed.

For many, recovery may signal a long and arduous road ahead. All too often, however, people never even begin the journey. Counseling and therapy are excellent starting points. Medications—although not foolproof—can frequently work wonders. Later on, through continued public advocacy through organizations like NAMI, we can hopefully move towards getting everybody the proper help that they so desperately need.

For now, do your part to stop the stigma. Let’s all become mental health advocates. Show compassion. Be empathetic. Make a difference. Help a friend. Save a life.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, author, and editor-in-chief of www.JustTheCats.com. He currently teaches the NAMI Family-to-Family course to family members with a loved one suffering from mental illness. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

The Next Big Shot

The Next Big Shot

By Dr. John Huang

(NICHOLASVILLE, Ky.) – Scott Smith walks triumphantly off the 18th green of The Champions course at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Kentucky. His smile says it all. The affable 64-year-old dentist from Pikeville, and a big UK sports fan, has just fulfilled a once-in-a-lifetime dream by playing in his first professional golf tournament.

Although the pro-am portion of the 2021 Barbasol Championships isn’t technically part of the official Thursday through Sunday rounds, Scott realizes this will be as close as he ever gets to experiencing PGA glory firsthand. He and his playing partner, Gary Brown—a Paintsville dentist—have just spent the last six hours in paradise, crushing towering drives, sinking crucial putts, and hobnobbing and trading strokes and jokes with comedian Scott Henry and tour professionals Joseph Bramlett and Greg Chalmers.

Barbasol Championship Pro-AM “A” Team pictured left to right: Gary Brown, Scott Smith, Joseph Bramlett (pro), Scott Henry (comedian), and Silvio Dalessandri. Not pictured: Greg Chalmers (pro). (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

For a man whose passion for golf can’t be overstated, this ethereal experience is as close to heaven on earth as Scott can imagine. His wife, Jenny, jokingly told me that Scott’s long-term goal was simply to retire with just enough money so that he could play golf the rest of his life. For George Scott Smith and other serious golf junkies, that’s the best and only reason for growing your 401K.

If you think, however, that is just another ordinary run-of-the-mill, feel-good golf story, then think again. Because life is fragile for all of us, especially right now for Scott and Jenny. Just a week before this past Christmas, the couple received the medical diagnosis that nobody wants to hear. A CT scan had revealed a tumor on Scott’s pancreas that subsequently metastasized to his liver. The prognosis for stage 4 pancreatic cancer is understandably dire. Without treatment, the experts tell Scott that he has six months to a year and a half to live. Even with appropriate chemotherapy, the average life expectancy only stretches out to about three years.

Sadly, those of us who have been around for a while are all too familiar with stories of family members and friends unfairly stricken down in their prime. In those moments, life can feel overwhelming—like an inopportune slice, or more appropriately, like one big shank. If we’re honest, we’ve all given thought to how we ourselves might react when confronted with our own mortality. Would we cower in fear, fall apart, and shake our fist at God and cry out, “Why me?”

“The emotions are incredible,” Scott recalled, when explaining how he felt when the doctor delivered the news. “The first thing you think of is your children and your wife—how they are going to be and how you’re going to leave them. You also think about what you’re going to be going through and how this can be possible. I was a healthy individual who did basically everything. I snow skied, I played racquetball, and I played golf, so how can I be sick? That’s almost incomprehensible.”

Boyhood Dreams

Scott, a father of two grown boys, was born in Pikeville to a homemaker mom and a dad who owned a Chevron gas station. He pumped gas at the station beginning when he was twelve and quickly realized he didn’t want to do that for the next fifty years. While most of his teenage friends at the time had unrealistic dreams of playing Major League Baseball, Scott knew exactly where his career was headed.

“I went to the dentist when I was in the 8th grade,” Scott explained. “I said, ‘This is great. I love this. I think this would be something I’d be interested in doing.’ And believe it or not, I ended up doing it. How many people in the 8th grade think they know what they want to do and end up actually doing it? That’s pretty unusual.”

Here’s what else was unusual. Scott was an exceptional athlete in high school. He played in four different sports—basketball, football, track, and baseball—which all sent teams to the state tournament. When it came time to pick a college, he was accepted into West Point but turned down the prestigious military academy because he knew he wanted to go to dental school. Four years as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky followed by an additional four years at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (Class of ’84), and those prescient, 8th-grader plans for a career in dentistry suddenly materialized into reality.

Returning to his Pikeville roots, Scott started his hometown dental practice from scratch. Thirty-six years later, he was still practicing full time—up until the fateful cancer diagnosis—providing much-needed dental care for the good citizens of Pike County in eastern Kentucky. During many of those three decades, Scott worked tirelessly in his office from Monday morning until Thursday at noon. Then it was off to the local links for the rest of the extended weekend to focus on his ultimate passion—playing golf.

Passionate Beginnings

That passion started early on. Scott remembers asking for a set of clubs for Christmas when he was about twelve years old.

“Neither of my parents knew much about golf,” he said. “They got me a five iron. That was it. They bought me a single club.”

The Smith family didn’t belong to the highfalutin country club when Scott was growing up either. They had to drive thirty miles to Jenny Wiley State Park in order to play. Scott piddled around with his clubs in high school but didn’t really play seriously until he got to UK, where he finally had access to several quality golf courses.

When asked what about the game got him so hooked, the overachiever in Scott became readily apparent.

“It’s so competitive, and yet you can play by yourself,” he admitted. “You’re always trying to beat par. It’s something that you can never achieve perfection with. There is no such thing. That just enthralled me. There is no finish line.”

“I go to bed thinking about golf.” (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

Warning signs

The worrisome symptoms began last summer with occasional bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Hoping it was all just diet related, Scott put off seeing a doctor thinking the discomfort would eventually pass. When the home remedies didn’t work and the digestive problems started escalating, Jenny finally convinced him to seek medical advice.

“Two days after I had my scan done, my family physician called me,” Scott recounted. “He said, ‘I need to see you in the office first thing on Monday morning.’”

Scott and Jenny knew the news would not be good. Two weeks later, just a few days after Christmas, they were in Baltimore seeing a specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical. With five additional malignant spots on his liver, Scott’s condition was deemed inoperable, and he was sent back to Lexington for a clinical trial at UK’s Markey Cancer Center.

For the spouse and other loved ones, the cancer treatment experience can be surreal. Actually it’s more like a living hell—often more so for the spouse than for the one who is actually ill. Listening to Jenny describe the agonizing six weeks of the pulverizing nature of the clinical trial is guaranteed to bring tears to even the most calloused eye. Seeing your loved one—once so vibrant, active, and full of life—endure brutal cycles of unending malaise, nausea and vomiting, brain fog, and radical weight loss zaps you to the core of your very own existence. Your mind can go to some pretty dark places during those times.

However, just when things appeared hopeless, there came a small ray of sunshine. Out of the blue, Scott received an unexpected surprise.

Augusta Here We Come!

It’s often deemed the toughest ticket in sports. People wanting to witness the beauty and pageantry of Augusta National often wait decades before getting a fleeting chance to buy those golden tickets. Miraculously, Scott was there to witness The Masters with his own eyes in April of this year. How, you ask?

“Some buddies from my college Sigma Chi fraternity all got together and did that for me,” Scott answered. “They got me the entry tickets. They even provided a house for my family. I got to take both of my boys. I got to go with Jenny. One day I got to go with Jenny’s son, Evan. It was unreal. That is something I would never do for myself. It’s something I dreamed of but would never pull the trigger on myself.”

For Scott, watching the best players in the world play up close and personal was a fascinating experience. With Covid protocols still in place, attendance was limited, so the lucky patrons on the golf course could literally rub elbows with all the players. Television coverage also doesn’t do the course justice—especially the dramatic elevation changes. Because it’s so hilly, Scott had no choice but to ride around in a scooter (a motorized wheelchair) in his weakened state.

A memorable moment occurred when Scott and a fellow scooter rider struck up a conversation. The other man was missing both his feet. After sharing their stories, Scott discovers the man had his feet amputated because of diabetes.

“He told me he liked Chips Ahoy cookies more than his feet,” Scott said. “We then joked about racing around the course in our carts.”

The man happened to be the father of Bryson DeChambeau—the winner of the 2020 US Open. How cool was that?

Jenny describes the entire Masters experience differently. Scott felt sick most of the time. For Jenny, it was hauntingly bittersweet: an opportunity of a lifetime tempered by the specter of a sick spouse, a ticking time clock, and a terminal illness. We get it. How could anyone fully appreciate the azaleas in bloom, Amen Corner, and the iconic pimiento cheese sandwiches at a time like this?

Another Bucket List Opportunity

After six weeks of the merciless clinical trial, a new CT scan indicated a 30-percent shrinkage of the pancreatic tumor. Unfortunately, additional lesions had metastasized to the liver, so Scott was kicked out of the experimental group.

He’s now back on a standard chemotherapeutic regimen for pancreatic cancer. He’s completed three rounds so far and is scheduled for three more rounds every other Tuesday. Then they’ll do another CT scan to determine how effective the treatment has been.

Luckily, this pro-am Wednesday fell squarely between chemo treatments, and Scott was feeling fairly spry. He’s put on some much-needed weight and doesn’t feel tired all the time like he did at Augusta. Never one to seek the spotlight, he was worried about how this feature story would unfold. But how he ended up here at the Barbasol is the one tale he eagerly wanted to tell.

“The guys at my golf club back home all got together and pitched in and knew that this would be a bucket list thing for me to participate in something like this,” Scott explained. “And literally they all got in and chipped in and paid for my entry fee.”

The guys he’s talking about belong to the Green Meadow Country Club in Pikeville. And although the $7500 pairing fee is significant, it’s not just the monetary amount that makes Scott so appreciative. It’s the act of friendship that speaks volumes to him. Gary Brown, his former dental school classmate and playing partner today, had called the guys at the country club to set the wheels in motion.

“When they first told me I would be playing in the Barbasol, I thought for sure they were pulling a joke on me,” Scott reluctantly admitted. “Then when I found out that it was true, I just was overwhelmed. The thought of friendship that deep is pretty amazing. It’s something that I would never do for myself. For me to do this on my own, I would feel like it’s very selfish and ridiculous. But for something they would do for me, it just blows me away. Absolutely makes me weak.”

Scott Smith and Gary Brown, University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, Class of 1984 (Photo Credit John Huang)

Faith to the Rescue

What struck me most when speaking with Scott Smith was just how calm he’s been during this whole ordeal. There’s a peaceful countenance about him that’s hard for many to understand. It truly is a peace that surpasses all understanding. After all, who can grasp why tragedies like this happen to such good people? I asked Scott to explain it to me.

“I’m in a real good place in my mind as far as that goes,” he readily conceded. “Faith is huge and very important to me. I know that things happen for a reason and we’re all here for a certain amount of time. I feel really good about whatever’s coming. Truthfully, I’m okay with it.”

Not only is he okay with it, but Scott—who calls Southland Christian his church home—has never questioned these timeless spiritual mysteries. He’s never been one to wallow in self-pity or direct his anger towards his heavenly creator.

“Oddly enough not yet,” he pushed back. “Hopefully, that won’t happen. I haven’t been through the ‘why me’ and ‘this isn’t fair.’ I haven’t gone through those emotions. Maybe I will. I honestly don’t know why I’m in this situation. Just the cards you’re dealt. Everybody is on a different playing field. I remember telling Jenny years ago that I wanted to enjoy life and experience different things and different places with her. I said, ‘You never know when you might get hit by a bus.’ This may be my bus. So now we’re trying to do as many things as we can and experience as much as possible while we can.”

Jenny

The Barbasol Pro-Am certainly qualifies as one of those special experiences Scott talks about. One of the most exciting rounds of his life gets off to a bit of shaky start, but Scott soon finds his groove. A tricky five-foot putt for a birdie on eleven, an artistic chip out of the sand to within three feet of the cup on twelve, and Scott quickly settles into his element. It’s readily apparent to all that he’s played this game before.

Scott’s biggest fan is his lovely wife, Jenny. She walks the entire 18 holes—a six-and-a-half-hour marathon round under the blazing afternoon sun—silently screaming for her husband’s ball to find every fairway, to gently plop on every green, and to get in every hole. She knows how much this day means to Scott.

The two met on a blind date, and about a year-and-a-half later they were married. It’s been wedded bliss for the couple for the past ten years—until the bus arrived.

It’s been a helluva bus ride for Jenny this past year also. She lost her mom, had another dear friend die unexpectedly, watched another family member battle colon cancer…and now this. I look at her radiant smile, and I wonder how she does it. I need to know. I ask her about it point blank.

“I often sense God’s presence, and sometimes I really think he speaks to me,” she answered unhesitantly. “He said, ‘I chose you to be with Scott, during this time of his life.’”

Devout faith, divine guidance, unconditional love…we should all be so lucky.

Scott and Jenny Smith. (Photo Credit John Huang)

Scott

He’s exhausted but exhilarated. Who wouldn’t be after playing with a couple of tour professionals, of having your name announced on the first tee, and of seeing the skyboxes surrounding the greens and cameras everywhere?

I asked Scott what stood out to him the most.

“My great appreciation goes out to my Green Meadow Country Club pals who made everything possible with their generosity,” he said. “[Also] sharing the experience with my wife. Having my two boys, Max and Hunter, surprise me by being there. They saw me facing the final hole. My tee shot over the lake, crossed safely, even landing on the green. I knew God was looking over me. I felt blessed to have such a great experience. Thank you, Lord!”

Scott Smith and sons, Hunter and Max. (Photo Credit Jenny Smith)

There are a lot of parallels between golf and life. The more time you have, the better you get at both. For most people, it takes patience, resolve, and a heavy dose of wisdom to navigate both courses successfully. Occasionally for people like Scott, the two worlds intersect to provide valuable life lessons for finishing strong.

“The golf course has always been an outlet of peace and a place for me to go to forget about things,” Scott clarified. “You learn to concentrate on just your golf game and the next shot. I won’t know what my next shot will be until the next CT scan comes out. But that’s the way I look at it. That’ll be my next shot. It’ll let us know what road we’re headed down, what fairway we’re in, or if we hit the green or not, or if we’re in the sand trap.”

Scott holds it together until the end of our visit when the talk circles back to his mortality and his time left on earth. He wants to say something to the people he’ll leave behind. His thoughts appear to scramble as he struggles to find the right words.

“Take care of Jenny,” he finally blurts out, his eyes overflowing with tears. “She’s been incredible. To take care of her. That would be the thing that I would hope the most for. She’s taken care of me. And I knew she could, and I knew she would. But to see her doing what she’s doing—it’s pretty amazing.”

If God hands out mulligans in life, I’ll ask for one right here. Prayers up! Stop the bus. It’s time for the next big shot.

Scott Smith with his next big shot. (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. He covers University of Kentucky and professional sports for Nolan Group Media, Sports View America, and JustTheCats.com. His book “Cut To The Chase” is now available on amazon. His newest release, “Kentucky Passion—Wildcat Wisdom and Inspiration,” is scheduled for October (IU Press).

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Don’t get me started on this topic. I’m likely to say something I’ll later regret. But for the time being, as far as name, image, and likeness (NIL) is concerned, I’M AGAINST IT!

Now I’m not against individuals making money. After all, this is America. If you’re cunning enough and motivated enough and talented enough, you can make all the money you want.

I’m also not against college athletes having a little extra change in their pockets. They certainly deserve it for all the blood, sweat, and tears they put in the gym perfecting their craft. I just don’t want some pie-in-the sky statute regarding fairness and equity ruining the college game we’ve all grown to love. Football Saturdays and March Madness weekends are part of my sports DNA. Please, don’t do anything to screw it up.

Before you accuse me of being a self-centered loser, here’s a little background information for those of you who aren’t quite sure where I’m coming from.

What is NIL?

The NCAA recently enacted legislation allowing student-athletes in college to benefit and profit off of their names, images, and likenesses. It was a reluctant move by the much-maligned governing organization which—for the past few decades—has profited heavily from the cash cow directly generated by those who they allegedly claim to serve.

Over the years, the NCAA (and the conferences and schools it presides over) has raked in millions and millions of dollars in gate receipts and television revenue while the athletes themselves aren’t allowed to participate in any of the free-for-all money grab going on around them. Supposedly, these football and basketball prodigies hammer away as indentured servants. They allegedly don’t have extra money to eat at McDonalds, to go on dates, or even to do their laundry (cue in violin music, please). All the while, the overlording rule-makers stare greedily at their own bank accounts bulging at the seams.  

So why did the NCAA finally reverse course and cave?

Public pressure for one. When individual states (including Kentucky) started enacting legislation giving student-athletes free rein to cash in on autograph signings, appearances on Cameo, and t-shirts and sponsorships bearing their faces, the Big Bad NCAA and its president—Mark “Darth” Emmert—was forced into action.

Why Everybody Loves NIL

Everyone (but me) seems to be applauding and cheering on this new legislation. Coaches like Mark Stoops and John Calipari have both put on happy public faces. They really don’t have any choice but to clap loudly, or else they’ll come off looking like jerks. Think about it. If you’re making millions coaching these young men, you have to feel obligated to give them a little extra piece of the pie—or you really are a jerk.

Media people all seem to love the decision too. They see themselves as the ones anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and the release from darkness for the prisoners. They’re all celebrating (at least outwardly) the clarion call of all these previously oppressed athletes rising up on a level playing field and sticking it to “The Man.”

Of course the athletes themselves are ecstatic. “It’s long overdue,” they cry. “Here we come. Better put a few more Big Macs on the grill.”

Why I Don’t Like NIL

Here’s the way I look at it. The NCAA set up and organized the platform for all the players to compete. They put in the effort, took the initial risk, financed the infrastructure, made all the network deals, and promoted the heck out of their product over all these years. Why shouldn’t they continue to reap the fruits of their labor? If athletes can get a better deal somewhere else, then just go outside the system and do it. No one’s stopping you.

NIL Cheapens the Value of a Scholarship

If you’re telling me that a free-ride lifetime athletic scholarship isn’t an overly fair tradeoff for playing the game you love, then you’re  devaluing the worth of a college degree. My parents, frugal as they were, advised me to spend money freely on two things: my home and my education. I’m proud to say that my UK degree remains to this day my most valuable asset.

I also just spent a small fortune putting my daughter through a private out-of-state university. If the University of Southern California had offered to pay for all her tuition, books, room and board, private tutoring, first class travel, deluxe hotel accommodations, and state-of-the-art medical care for her entire four-year stay, I would have gladly kissed the feet of Tommy Trojan (and retired earlier).

Current UK athletes should value their education in the exact same vein. The University of Kentucky, with its rabid Big Blue Nation, has already increased the value of their individual names, images, and likenesses—several fold—just by inviting them into the successful UK corporate brand. They’ve just been given the best education money can buy—without having to plunk down a single penny.

NIL Invites Too Many Outside Influences

And yet, even with this glorious free ride, everyone demands that these student-athletes share in the pot. As I said earlier, that’s fine with me—just not at the expense of choking the golden goose that has fueled our appetite for amateur sports as we know it. Unscrupulous agents descending on campus, rival deals between teammates dismantling team chemistry, and member institutions losing significant portions of their revenue stream to boosters paying the athletes directly could all potentially upset the apple cart.

And this doesn’t even include what could happen in the media world. Imagine a scenario where the best player appearances, the best player interviews, the best of anything media related always goes exclusively to the highest bidder. If you’re an outlet with cash to burn, then you’ll control the flow of information. That type of police state can’t be good for the game (unless you’re JMI Sports—UK’s current multi-media partner). And that certainly doesn’t bode well for all the other legitimate and hard-working journalists scrambling for their livelihoods to report news and maintain accountability.

To me, all these risks simply aren’t worth it for what amounts to the nickel and dime benefits that NIL legislation targets. Many ivory tower purists will argue that it should come down to what’s best for the student-athlete. Here’s where it gets hairy because what appears good on the surface is what could ultimately cause the entire system to crash and burn.

The Ultimate Demise

I never played college sports, but I do listen to people who did. The other night, while I was waiting to go on as a guest on Dick Gabriel’s Big Blue Insider radio show, I heard some insightful comments from the guest who was on ahead of me. Former UK linebacker Kash Daniel, who could have personally benefitted immensely if NIL had been enacted during his playing days, had these extremely perceptive thoughts.

“Scheduling is one of the biggest challenges these programs are going to face,” Kash said. “Playing college athletics at the Division I level, no matter what sport it is, is a full-time job—plus going to school. When you’re not in class or with tutors or anything that requires your academic attention, you’re in practice, you’re in treatment, you’re in extra study hall, you’re watching extra film. You’re literally doing everything you can to be the best player you can be…I don’t really know how you could do [NIL activities] during the season.”

“It really just comes down to the administrators, the head coaches, the team captains to say, ‘Hey, this is great. We get to make a little extra coin off our name now. But remember why we’re here. Remember that we still play for the University of Kentucky, we still play for Coach Stoops, and we still play for one another.’”

College coaches, like Calipari and Stoops, have always harped endlessly about player distractions—friends and family whispering in your ear, girlfriend problems, impending career choices, and mental health challenges all vying for those precious 24 hours in your day. NIL could easily become the TOP distraction. Remember, these ARE student-athletes. Their focus needs to be in the classroom and on the court—not on making money, analyzing contracts, and paying taxes. They don’t need the stress of another full-time job. They should enjoy their college experience—perhaps the best four years of their life—without having to compete with fellow teammates for a table at the next car dealership giveaway.

The truth is that NIL will not be a good thing for the majority of student-athletes. It’s an additional headache that will simply not be worth it.

It certainly won’t be worth it if it messes up my Football Saturdays, my College World Series, or my NCAA tournament. Everyone agrees that there are already plenty of outside influences affecting the purity of the college game. Welcome now to the Wild Wild West. NIL could be like that thief in the night, signaling for all of us the beginning of the end.

Granted, for those very few uber-talented student-athletes who are graced with wise outside counsel, these next few months could provide for a significant personal financial windfall. More power to them.

My prayer is that for the rest of us mortals in the sporting world, NIL proves eventually to be much ado about nothing.

Rupp Arena Upgrades Will Blow Your Mind (and blow up your wallets)

Rupp Arena Upgrades Will Blow Your Mind (and blow up your wallets)

The President’s Lounge area at the newly renovated Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Here’s where UK President Eli Capilouto will be hosting all the deep-pocketed donors and bigwigs prior to tipoff.

It’s about time.

In their effort to keep up with the Joneses, the powers that be in charge of the Central Bank Center expansion have finally put their money where their mouth is. A $241 million construction upgrade—which began in the Summer of 2018—is well underway and is targeted for completion in Spring of 2022.

They tell us that when finished, the newly-refurbished convention center will house over 200,000 square feet of exhibition, ballroom, and meeting space (nearly a 40 – 50% increase from before).

As far as our beloved basketball home is concerned, we’ve already seen the brand spanking new chairbacks added to the upper levels of Rupp Arena as part of the radical redesign. What they’ve yet to reveal to the public eye, however, are the state-of-the-art luxury lounges, the expanded concourses, and the environmentally friendly and energy-efficient features of an iconic (but dated) building looking to blast off into the 21st century stratosphere.

I got a chance to take a sneak peek behind the scenes today to see what all the fuss is about. Sure, I was impressed by all the planned highfalutin amenities, but I’ve got some mixed feelings about all the changes about to be unveiled.

You see, I’m a bit of a traditionalist at heart. I remember Rupp Arena back when it first opened in 1976. I recall Rick Robey hitting the first basket while Adolph Rupp looked on from his mid-court recliner. Through the years, my mind goes back to all the many memorable games and championship runs. Minniefield to Bowie’s halfcourt alley-oop dunk; Tayshaun and those five three-pointers versus North Carolina; John Wall in his debut against Miami (OH). I don’t want any of those memories to fade.

A part of me wants to remember Rupp Arena just as it was: Big Bertha, rafter banners, regular fans packed in like sardines in the upper decks—in their seats an hour before tipoff just soaking in the rarified atmosphere. I want to remember record-setting crowds of 24,000+—not the reduced-capacity 18,000 or so that now pass through the turnstiles.

Will the newly updated Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center conjure up the same type of sweet memories? I’ll let you be the judge. Here are my top-5 significant changes I see coming into play.

1. If you’ve got deep pockets, your pre-game experience will be out of this world. Imagine being invited to the President’s reception. You’re rubbing elbows with the bigwigs, choking down shrimp cocktails, and helping yourself to endless shots of Pappy Van Winkle. As you make your way into your seats in time for tipoff, you’re so tipsy that you don’t care who the Cats are playing. I made sure I walked around every square foot of these opulent luxury lounges. Unless I win the lottery, it’s probably the last time I’ll set foot in one of these VIP havens.

2. The outside of Rupp Arena will no longer be the brown corrugated box we’ve all come to know and hate. Instead, they’re replacing it with a modern, sleek veneer like something out of the Jetsons. The triangular-shaped glass projection design above the entrance to the grand lobby promises to be the most dominant architectural structure anywhere in Kentucky. At least that’s what Bill Owen, Lexington Center President and CEO, tells us. If you’ve driven past High Street any time recently, you know the entire construction area still looks like a war zone. I guess I’ll believe it when I finally see it with my own eyes.

3. If you’re  hosting an event and want to further entertain and impress, there’ll be multiple options to choose from within the center. Picture this: having your reception on an elevated outdoor concourse overlooking the garden grounds of the Mary Todd Lincoln home. It’s happening (and I thought my back deck was looking nice). This’ll be something out of a fairytale, so make sure to book your plans early.

4. You want concerts? You got them, beginning with Eric Church on September 17 of this year. I learned today that many top musical acts (i.e. Bon Jovi) wouldn’t play Rupp previously simply because of the upper-level bleacher seating arrangements. As I mentioned earlier, that’s no longer a factor. Also, now with the numerous additional loading docks and the two giant drive-in doors, concert efficiency has improved a thousand percent. Even a Taylor Swift over-the-top production—with its multiple mobile dressing rooms and semi-trailers loaded with Taylor Swift type stuff—will now be able to maneuver seamlessly throughout the streamlined convention center grounds.

5. So what about the “average Joe” fan just wanting to take in a UK basketball game? If you haven’t made it into Rupp the last couple of years, you probably won’t recognize what you’re seeing. There’s a new video scoreboard, a circular ribbon board, and of course the new chairback seats up above. The arena is still as spacious and as symmetrical as ever, but it’s got a completely different feel than the Rupp of the past. The upgraded culinary facilities are certainly top notch, but I’m not sure if that will ever trickle down to any of the game-day concessions. I hope so because Rupp Arena still has some of the worst concession food of any of the college sports venues I’ve visited.

There you have it. You’re up to date now. Better convention hospitality, better concerts, better food (maybe), and better basketball (hopefully). It’s the new Rupp Arena at Lexington Center. I can’t wait to see the final product. Get your wallets out, folks. Whether you like it or not, you’ll be footing the rest of the bill.       

The Most Interesting UK Basketball Player In The World

The Most Interesting UK Basketball Player In The World

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Just last week, I participated on a media videoconference featuring the newest addition to the UK basketball roster. Savhir Wheeler, a transfer from Georgia who led the SEC in assists last season, knocked it out of the park with all the media members in attendance. The 5’10” guard was engaging, articulate, and knowledgeable when responding to the various reporter queries. In a virtual world fraught with one-sentence answers and predictably canned responses, I left the twenty-minute session thoroughly impressed.

That got me to thinking: what are some individual qualities that make for an interesting player interview? Or more specifically, who were the players that are considered the best interviews ever in the history of Kentucky Basketball?

Those are certainly tough questions to answer, especially for a media novice like me. I’ve only been at it for the past five or six years, so my knowledge is circumspect and my experience a bit limited. Plus, who’s to say what makes for a great interview?

I can say that during my short time on the beat, the sophisticated eloquence of a Reid Travis or the infectious personality of a Tyrese Maxey certainly stand out. But to even come up with a partially inclusive list, I knew I’d have to dive deeply into the history of the program.

Who better to do that than Alan Cutler and Larry Vaught? The two media stalwarts are older than dirt, but they’re also uniquely gifted at doing what they do best—drawing meaningful responses and getting great answers from those being interviewed. They operated, however, under two somewhat different parameters.

For Cutler—the iconic, longtime LEX18 anchor and reporter—honesty and trust were at the top of his list. He learned early on that trust between media and players worked both ways. He had to first gain the players’ trust before he could even attempt to penetrate their outer shell. Only afterwards would they then start telling him things that they wouldn’t have otherwise revealed.

Rex Chapman has been the most honest interview at UK for me,” Alan admitted. “He’s not afraid to be vulnerable and tell the world how he really feels, even if it hurts.”

That same type of honesty and vulnerability could be found in two other Cutler favorites, both cut from the same cloth.

Ed Davender—I would purposely ask him tough questions because he could handle it,” Cutler explained.  “We both come from Brooklyn. I don’t think anyone else at UK called me Cutler to my face. It still hurts anytime I hear his name. He should have played in the NBA forever.

“As for Jamal Mashburn, he was tough—a strong New Yorker. He told me in his first interview that being a successful businessman was his road after basketball. BINGO!”

Larry Vaught—a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award—had a slightly different ranking system. For him, relatability and spontaneity were the attributes he most valued.

Willie Cauley-Stein once told Larry that he could not go to the NBA because he would have to figure out where to eat and pay his bills on his own if he did. Likewise, the lovable Melvin Turpin once revealed to Larry going into Rupp Arena that if he messed up in game, Coach Hall was going to make him run stairs during the game—and he believed it.

Those types of answers are always endearing—and anticipating the unexpected is something every reporter relishes. If only the players of today would more often speak their minds.

“With Dirk Minniefield, you never knew what he would say,” Vaught volunteered. “And with DeMarcus Cousins—enough said—every quote was golden.”

Like Cutler, honesty and openness are also commendable traits in Vaught’s book.

Derek Anderson was never afraid to be blunt and honest,” Vaught emphasized. “And Derrick Miller always called me Mr. Vaught, and even in tough times was always very honest and willing to talk with me. Roger Harden could always analyze a game and never made excuses.”

For both Cutler and Vaught, just being friendly, gregarious, and affable were slam-dunk qualities that often made a big difference. For Cutler, players like Reggie Hanson and Sean Woods were the life of the party. Reggie’s “million-dollar smile” and Sean’s playful sense of humor made for many hilarious soundbites and memorable stand-ups.

For Vaught, an engaging Rick Robey (like after the scolding he gave Jim Master when he showed up late for Robey’s summer camp at Centre College) or a charming Richie Farmer with his eastern Kentucky twang were always good for a story AND A LAUGH.

To be honest, both Alan and Larry admitted that this list could go on and on—and that inevitably, there would be many others that would rightfully deserve to be included. They’re both correct in that because in this world of media interviews, relationships are ultimately what matters. Develop a good relationship with any player, and you’ll eventually get a story worth reporting.

Unfortunately, good relationships take time. It’s next to impossible—in this one-and-done era—to get to know someone in the few short months they’re on campus. Throw in the limited access imposed by the pandemic and the UK Athletics powers that be, and it’s no wonder that everyone starts reporting on the exact same drivel.

I’m not giving up, though. Somewhere out there, there’s an Antoine Walker, a Ramel Bradley, or a Lukasz Obrzut just waiting to break the internet. Like Jack “Goose” Givens or Kenny “Sky” Walker, it’s just a matter of them sticking around long enough for us to get to know them better…or for legendary journalistic pros like Alan Cutler or Larry Vaught to finally coax it out of them.

Who’s your vote for the most interesting UK Basketball player in the world?

Hey Kentucky!

Hey Kentucky!

Derby week brings in a lot of out-of-state visitors. Here’s how to entertain and impress—even if you know nothing about horses, bourbon, or burgoo.

I’ve lived in the commonwealth for over the past half a century. Although not technically a native, I thought I knew enough about everything within our borders to qualify as an honorary Kentucky Colonel. Unfortunately, a first-time visit to the bluegrass state by my dear cousin, Linda, exposed me as a counterfeit fraud.

The truth is, I didn’t know nearly enough about the Kentucky I claim to love. When I tried to come up with a list of things that truly defined my home state, all I could muster was a weak and pathetic “we’re usually good at basketball.” I realized right then that to be a true Kentucky ambassador, I needed to repent and recommit.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s not too late for you to learn. Here are five easy steps to capturing visitor hearts.

Shower them with gifts immediately upon arrival

Making Linda feel welcome started me back on the road to redemption. Thank God for my sister-in-law Michelle. She came to the rescue and assembled a gift basket worthy of Daniel Boone.

Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Ale-8-One, and Ruth Hunt Candies got us all in the proper mood. Mix in a bag of Mingua Beef Jerky, throw in a couple of cellophane-wrapped Moon Pies, and you’ve got the makings of a distinctive bluegrass bounty.

Alan Cutler bonus tip: Anchor the basket with an autographed copy of Cut To The Chase!

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08GTJ2DSC

Dive right in with an afternoon at Keeneland

Fiancee Chris, Cousin Linda, Sister-in-law Michelle, and Brad Pitt in front of iconic Keeneland clock

What I really wanted to give Linda, however, was a true Kentucky experience. If it’s April or October, what better way to spread the love than by spending an afternoon at Keeneland? I’m not usually one for big crowds, loud drunks, or losing all my cash, but you have to admit that watching those regal animals run against such a stunning central Kentucky backdrop was like money in the bank. Linda, and her fiancée Chris, didn’t strike gold on the afternoon, but I’m sure they felt forever enriched by the totally novel encounter.

Tom Leach bonus tip: Bet on the burgoo. It’s a sure-fire winner every time.

A horse farm adventure gets you up close and personal

The horse escapades continued the very next morning with a tour of Mill Ridge Farm. Around eight hundred acres just a stone’s throw from Keeneland, Mill Ridge is a photographer’s paradise. I’ve never been on a horse farm tour. Have you? For California city folk used to urban blight and traffic jams, the gentle rolling hills, painted fences, and thoroughbreds galore provided for a fairytale oasis. More than once, Linda said to Chris, “Let’s get married here.”

Michael Bennett bonus tip: Need a jolt of testosterone? Be sure to meet Stud Stallion Oscar Performance just outside the breeding shed.

One of these studs gets to “perform” three times a day

Finding the perfect distillery tour

John, Chris, and Michael–Three stooges in search of the perfect Kentucky bourbon

What’s more Kentucky than bourbon, since 95% of the world’s bourbon is made right here in our own backyard? For a quick and convenient bourbon experience, we took Linda and Chris to the historic James E. Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street. How they resurrected the iconic brand is a story worth listening to. Of course if you’re there to drink bourbon, the free sample tastings will not disappoint.

Larry Vaught bonus tip: A ginormous slice of Goodfellows Pizza next door will quickly cleanse the white lightning burn from your soiled palate.

Linda and Chris. Nice appetizer. What’s for dinner?

The open road beckons

I’ve traveled the world over, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen natural beauty like you see in central Kentucky. The natives take it for granted. The kaleidoscope of colors with the dogwoods, crabapples, and redbuds in bloom—set against the dense greenery of the sloping hills and sleepy hollers—can’t help but flood your senses with the beauty of God’s creation. Pack a picnic lunch and just go wherever your heart leads you. If you have to set your GPS, a quick detour to Midway, an afternoon at Shakertown, or a leisurely stroll through Berea might be just what the doctor ordered.

A leisurely drive through horse country is as idyllic as you can get

Sister-in-law Michelle (former Ms. Wolfe County) bonus tip: Red River Gorge is the most beautiful place on earth. Miguel’s Pizza offers a little slice of heaven.

It’s always about the food

Foodies like us live to eat, and the perfect Kentucky experience has to satisfy the stomach. Kentucky is much more than just KFC. Whether it’s a Kentucky hot brown at Ramsey’s, a prime center-cut Anthony Davis NY strip at Malones, or spoon bread at Berea’s Boone Tavern, a bluegrass culinary extravaganza must leave you nearly crippled and comatose. Forget the calorie count and crash diets. You only live once, right?

Michael Huang bonus tip: Why leave home at all when Huang’s hometown kitchen offers the best in boiled crawfish, tomahawk steaks, and Chinese hot pots.

John, Michael, Michelle, Gabriel, Linda, Chris, and our 93-year-old family patriarch, Grandpa Pete enjoying a Kentucky crawfish boil in Huang’s hometown kitchen

When I asked Linda what she enjoyed most about her bluegrass visit, her answer was a bit surprising. “Just being with family,” she said.

That spoke volumes to me, and it’s part of my closing bonus tip: It doesn’t matter if you’re on the Champs-Elysees, sipping champagne and dining on escargot, if you don’t have someone meaningful to share it with, it probably won’t be memorable.

Our true and lasting memories begin and end with those we love. Everything else is just Facebook fluff. So, wherever you are on this particular Derby week, just give your loved ones a great big hug, throw some brats on the grill, and savor again the lasting memories of your Old Kentucky Home.

And one more thing…Kentucky is now very good at Volleyball!

My Most Embarrassing Easter Moment

My Most Embarrassing Easter Moment

When I was in elementary school, my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Lyons, held a class activity during Holy Week that traumatized me for life. She called each of us, individually, to the front of the room and asked us an apparently simple—but loaded—question: What does Easter mean to you?

Yikes! For an immigrant kid from Taiwan who had rarely been to church, the prospect of making a fool of myself discussing spiritual issues in front of my American peers nearly had me wetting my pants.

I remember sitting agonizingly at my desk waiting my turn. As the students with names beginning with letters at the front of the alphabet took their spot at the podium, I listened intently for something I could plagiarize. However, statements like “Jesus died for us” and “the blood of the lamb” made absolutely no sense to me. It’s as if they were speaking a completely foreign language.

Having no way to fake it, I hesitatingly made my way up toward the teacher’s desk before my classmates’ laser-focused eyes. To make matters worse, Mrs. Lyons prefaced my impending humiliation by enthusiastically exclaiming, “I can’t wait to hear John’s answer. He’s from China. Class, listen up. This should be quite interesting.”

After all these years, just replaying this horrific unfolding horror scene still sends shivers up my spine. Much of it remains repressed for my personal self-preservation, but I do remember mumbling something about hunting for eggs and getting gifts from a rabbit.

Immediately afterward, the incredulous looks on my classmates’ faces and the guffaws that followed my “answer from hell” shamed me to no end. Red-faced and nearly in tears, I was exposed on the spot as a heathen among believers—a true alien from another land who knew nothing about Jesus, Chevrolet, or the American way. Mrs. Lyons politely dismissed me, but I knew my reputation was toast.

Well, over a half a century later, I’m now looking to redeem myself.

In the midst of another Holy Week, it’s time for all of us to ponder the question: What does Easter mean to us?

Surprisingly, it’s still a difficult question to answer. Even after years of studying the Bible, listening to countless sermons, and examining church doctrine, I’m not sure I could give a better response than my eight-year-old self caught in the crossfire.

Ask me to explain the significance of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and you’ll probably get an incoherent word salad of religious gobbledygook. Quiz me about what goes on at a Seder meal or Tenebrae services, and my primitive answers would no doubt make you cringe—just like Mrs. Lyons when I described my encounter with the Easter Bunny.

Here’s the one thing, however, I now know about Easter that I didn’t know back then. On this coming Easter Sunday—and every upcoming Easter Sunday—believers like myself will acknowledge and commemorate the moment that Jesus Christ, our blessed Lord and Savior, rose from the grave and conquered death.

That’s important to know. In fact, as Christians, that may be THE most important thing to acknowledge about our faith. Everything else about Jesus—his miracles, his ministry, his morality—they all become secondary by comparison. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

It’s only through the resurrection—through the conquering of death—that our faith has significance. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?

Because Jesus conquered death, those of us who believe have now been given eternal life. That magnanimous act is still hard for me to comprehend. There’s a lot about grace and truth that goes into the explanation behind it. We can talk about that some more at another time. But given my cultural background, I’ve eagerly accepted that precious gift. I hope you have too.

Remember, regardless of your pedigree or heritage, that same gift of salvation is free to all. I promise it’s the best gift you’ll ever receive from anybody—rabbit or otherwise.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.     

A Slanty-Eyed Man Responds to Dr. Seuss Controversy

A Slanty-Eyed Man Responds to Dr. Seuss Controversy

First it was Mr. Potato Head. Now it’s Dr. Seuss. We’re definitely living in some crazy times.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, two of my childhood icons have been in the news lately. OK, maybe Mr. Potato Head doesn’t qualify for iconic status, so we’ll save his predicament for another time. But Dr. Seuss under attack? C’mon Man!

Like many of you, I grew up learning to read with Dr. Seuss. To this day, I can still recite parts of The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham by rote. What’s more, I can also picture all the vivid illustrations that accompanied the catchy text jumping at me off the printed page. Just thinking right now about all those warm and fuzzy childhood narratives puts me immediately in my happy place.

So, imagine my surprise when I heard accusations that people were branding Dr. Seuss (whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel) as a racist and banning some of his books due to racist imagery. My immediate reaction was disbelief—almost a “you gotta be kidding me” type of denial akin to being told that the Kentucky Wildcats would be 8 – 15 this year.

I hastily started investigating, and sure enough, I discovered that what I had heard was true. The company that oversees the publishing of his works confirmed that six books—If I Ran the Zoo, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra! Scrambled Eggs and Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer—would never again see the light of day because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

Now I was really curious. Inquiring minds want to know, right? What in the world was hurtful and wrong about my beloved Dr. Seuss?

My curiosity was piqued even greater when word leaked out that there were demeaning Asian stereotypes peppered throughout these publications. Now you really had me going. This was personal. You talk about a man on a commando mission. I had to get to the bottom of this.

You see, I’m an Asian American—a full-blooded Chinese dude who has lived in the United States for over half a century. I was born in Taiwan and moved with my family to America at the age of four as my parents went in search of the American dream. Growing up in Kentucky in the 60s and 70s, there simply weren’t many Asian folks around. In fact, I seem to recall being only one of two “Orientals” in my elementary school and, for a time, I was the only “Chinaman” in my junior high school class.

You know how mean kids can be. They subjected me to every racial taunt and limerick known to mankind. My classmates pulled their eyes back and bucked their teeth out ad nauseum. They spewed nonsense in a sing-song manner as if I understood what they were saying. I was called “Chink” and “Gook” as I went to the bathroom and lined up for lunch in the school cafeteria. I even had to lay low on Pearl Harbor Day—even though I wasn’t Japanese. You get the picture.

So what was Dr. Seuss saying about Asian people that was so horrific that his books would be taken off the shelf?

Upon further review, I discovered that it was indeed his character portrayals that came under critical fire. The Mulberry Street book evidently included a drawing of a Chinese man with slits for eyes. It also contained a supposed controversial illustration of an Asian man holding chopsticks and a bowl of rice whom the text called “A Chinese man Who eats with sticks.” If I Ran the Zoo describes Asian characters as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell.”

Excuse me? I’ve been subjected to far worse cultural derision in my neighborhood potlucks. Besides, all those descriptive examples are kind of true for me. My sloping eyes do often give me a different slant on things, I love eating rice, and I’m a whiz at using chopsticks. In fact, I’m damn proud of my Asian heritage. I’m not offended at all by diverse appearances or customs, nor do I think that you should be either. I bet you can’t spell G-U-A-N-G-X-I.

Look, I get it. Stereotypes are often insulting and demeaning. At the very least, they can lead to some pretty awkward moments. I can’t tell you how many times well-meaning adult acquaintances have unintentionally said something culturally insensitive or hurtful right before my eyes. Left unchallenged, these inadvertent racial gaffes can grow into something far more insidious. The recent increase in violent acts against Asian Americans (or anybody for that matter) is disturbing to me. As part of God’s master creation, we should never face discrimination based on the color of our skin. Red or yellow, black or white, we are all precious in his sight. Those who think otherwise need to be educated and/or held accountable.

But let’s not all go ballistic over a few descriptive words penned at a time when there was far less scrutiny about such things. Let’s not overreact for the sake of twenty-first century political correctness. Geisel’s writing was a product of a different time. Plus, there’s no compelling proof that the guy was racist at all. Just the opposite by many accounts. For good measure, his family and the company that preserves his work have acknowledged the errors, they’ve apologized, and they’ve agreed to take these books in question out of circulation.

So what’s the big deal? It pains me to see the good doctor under attack. There’s no need to skewer the brilliant man’s legacy. You have to think that those who are doing so are just piling on.

Now I hear that many school districts have also decided to no longer promote Dr. Seuss’s books on Read Across America Day. On Monday, President Joe Biden also refrained from mentioning Dr. Seuss in his Read Across America Day proclamation.

That’s disappointing to hear. Because in this world we live in, nobody’s perfect. You have to take the good with the bad. And with all that Dr. Seuss has done—gifting us all those formative hours spent learning to read, broadening all our imaginations in his colorful make-believe world, and leaving us all with those impressionable flashback memories of Horten Hears a Who, or The Lorax, or How The Grinch Stole Christmas—his good FAR supersedes any hint of bad that troublemakers are trying to stir up.

From my slanty-eyed perspective, Dr. Seuss’s stories will always remain Pulitzer worthy.

And here’s a final piece of world-wide truth for citizens around the globe. Chopsticks work better than forks.