Scaling the Heights

I’m fascinated by heights. No, not the man-made kind such as the view from the Empire State Building or the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m talking about real heights—like those from the tops of majestic mountains. There’s nothing like looking down on the rest of the world from the summit of Pike’s Peak or the tip of the Matterhorn to get your blood pulsating. Ever since Sir Edmund Hillary scaled the heights of Everest, I’ve heard the beckoning call to climb. When UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart successfully summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, the gauntlet was thrown down for me to do something just as dramatic.

You’ve no doubt heard of the Seven Summits challenge, where an adrenaline junkie with a death wish tries to climb to the top of the tallest mountains on all seven continents? Well, for somebody approaching sixty with bad feet, I’m going to try something almost as daunting. Rather than Everest, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, Elbrus, Puncak Jaya, and Vinson, I’m going to try and scale 13 summits—the thirteen highest peaks in my home state of Kentucky. Rather than the lack of oxygen in the death zone of Mt. Everest at 30,000 feet, I’ll be dealing with the thistle and bramble of rhododendron on Pine Mountain at 3,000 feet. Instead of frostbite, I’m worried about snakebite. Although there’s no chance of altitude sickness, I’ll still be dodging salmonella, sunburn, and shotguns. After all, we ARE talking about the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

This is not an expedition you want to undertake alone, so fortunately I’ve found some other brave souls who’ll be sharing in this experience with me. The core group consists of my Saturday morning running buddies. It shouldn’t surprise you that we came up with this harebrained scheme together during one of our group runs when our beer muscles were flexing and our brains were hypoxic. I thought about changing some names in this blog to protect the innocent but decided in the long run that none of these characters are really innocent.

Our expedition leader is Lee Meyer, Ag Economics Professor at UK, who in his sixties, remains an athletic freak. Lee is the only one in our group who can still go shirtless in public without shame. Politically, he’s a bit of a socialist but he had a swimming pool put in his backyard last summer so I always try to remain friendly with him.

We’re joined by Tony English, UK Physical Therapy Program Director, whose countless sidewalk consultations have undoubtedly prolonged the functioning of our geriatric joints over the past decade. Tony will serve as our medic. Although he also leans left on his political views, he’s a Texan at heart who can spin tall and entertaining tales. A bit of a renaissance man, Tony will talk your ear off–a useful addition when traipsing through bear country (or when we’re just plain bored).

Also recruited to join our escapade is Bob Stoops, chief architect of the recent upgrades at Rupp Arena. My hope is that Bob’s technical expertise will make him a modern-day mountain MacGyver, with the ability to turn shoestrings into snares and trail mix into trail magic.

Lee Edgerton, another retired UK faculty member (Do I sense a pattern here?), will also be along on this journey. Lee’s been slowed by a recent leg injury, so he’ll be playing hurt—but his penchant for common sense planning and practical advice will be critical to keeping our remaining testosterone levels in check. A gifted orator, Lee will be our spokesman should we encounter difficulties, delay, or ultimate demise.

Of course I’ll be there also to report on all the action, or to offer assistance should someone accidently break a bicuspid or muck up their molar. You just never know what might happen over the course of the next few weeks, or months, or years–or however long it takes for us to complete this treacherous adventure. Following our first climb, we might already be one and done—but I wouldn’t bet against us. Like Sir Edmond Hillary and Mitch Barnhart, we’re dauntless dudes looking to scale some perilous heights. You’re more than welcome to join us.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist turned wannabe sports journalist and travel writer. You can follow all his adventures on twitter @KYHuangs. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com.

 

In Sickness and In Health

I recently attended the wedding of the son of a very close friend of mine. The ceremony was beautiful and the bride and groom were dazzling. Embarrassingly, I found myself crying while sitting awkwardly alone in the pews without Kanisa–my beloved bride for the past 32 years. I thought of our own wedding day as the subsequent events of three decades of matrimony flashed through my brain like a hastily constructed time lapse YouTube video.

Kanisa and I had met through a mutual acquaintance and it was love at first sight. (Well, maybe second sight.) The courtship progressed quickly and we spent the next seven years in wedded bliss, traveling frugally around the world on a military member’s budget. After Katie was born, Kanisa became the perfect doting mother, pouring her heart and soul into raising our only daughter in the most creative and imaginative ways possible. We continued to travel extensively together as a family, making frequent trips to all sorts of exotic destinations far and wide. All the while, my business flourished and life with family and friends was grand. I didn’t quite appreciate how good I had it at the time.

Things are quite different now. Katie has grown into adulthood and is living in California running her own successful small business. When she left for college 7 years ago, Kanisa suffered an emotional breakdown from which she has yet to recover. In fact, she suffers from severe anosognosia, or lack of insight as a primary symptom of her mental illness. Because she doesn’t realize how bad off she is, she is unwilling to see a doctor for treatment, refuses any sort of anti-depressive or anti-psychotic medication, and has basically isolated herself from the rest of the world. This beautiful, vibrant, and loving person who was so passionate about traveling, gardening, and decorating is now a shell of her former self–literally and figuratively. She spends her days camped out in front of the TV or computer, frequently staring off into space or ranting aimlessly about this or that. Her friends and family rarely drop by anymore, understandably frightened by the bizarre behavior of this emaciated stranger they no longer recognize.

My heart is broken. I’m constantly burdened by multiple levels of pain and guilt. I often feel a deep personal sorrow and a sense of utter helplessness and isolation. It’s an agonizing experience to see someone you love perishing right before your eyes and not be able to do anything about it. It’s especially difficult having to bear witness to Kanisa’s own daily anguish and agitation of being trapped in her own sick mind with no escape. Most tragedies in life, including death, offer some opportunity for closure and peace. Unfortunately, the hellish cycle of chronic mental illness does not.

Pain of this intensity is debilitating. It affects my health, my relationship with others, and my faith. It deeply colors my entire outlook on life. For this is the time that Kanisa and I should be enjoying our golden retirement years together, reaping the fruits of a life well lived. Instead, I spend my days planning for a far different future than what we had ever envisioned. My periods of self-pity and grief usually hit me at odd times–like when I see a happy couple enjoying a simple meal together at a restaurant, or when I run across an especially poignant social media anniversary post, or like when I’m watching a young couple at a beautiful wedding ceremony with families intact and the world at their fingertips.

I think frequently about the sanctity of my own marriage vows repeated all those years earlier…. “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as we both shall live.” It’s especially difficult embracing the “in sickness and in health” part, and I know it’s only through an undying love for Kanisa and God’s loving grace for us that I even stand a chance of upholding those vows. I seem to be surviving for now–proceeding day by day, taking on the immense challenge of caring for myself while also having to provide for all of Kanisa’s essential needs. Often times I feel I’m just one small temptation away from crashing and burning. I covet all your prayers.

But what can you do? Life goes on. Through the relentless support of family and friends, and from organizations like NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness), I press on–facing my grief head on by writing and sharing personal thoughts such as these in hopes of exposing the stigma associated with these cruel and unrelenting diseases of the brain. Writing is therapy for me. Whenever I put fingers to keyboard, I feel an overwhelming and unexplainable sense of gratitude as I’m able to openly share my struggles with those who may not fully understand the devastation caused by mental illness. Through my writing, it also suddenly dawns on me that I’m not alone after all, that many others are battling their own personal trials and private demons. Despite our hardships, we all seek the assurance in our hearts that life on earth is still worth living, even as we long to grasp the healing that is sure to eventually come.

The other day, as I was struggling with something as simple as paying a bill that was held over in Kanisa’s name, I realized that our lives are intertwined now more than ever—truly united together as one flesh, in sickness and in health. Most of the time it’s a living hell, and I doubt if this is the way God intended marriages to be. But strangely, I also still get momentary glimpses of joy when I’m taking care of her basic everyday needs. It’s a definite conundrum in my mind–all part of this mystery we call life. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m trying to—one “crazy” step at a time.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

Turks and Caicos

Goodbye Turks and Caicos, I barely knew ya! And yet, for the past four days, you welcomed me with open arms and beckoned me with your hedonistic calling. I fell in love with all my sunrise runs along your lonely stretches of palm lined beaches, snorkeling amidst your colorful coral reefs, and eating your delectable cracked conch and grilled lobster. I adored cavorting with your friendly residents and drinking your Turks Head lager while dazzled by another enchanting Caribbean sunset. Alas, I’ll always cherish doing yoga by the sea and dining beachside with my feet buried in your pristine white sand. The slightly inebriated Canadian couple who had been returning to this paradise for thirty consecutive years told me on the plane coming over, “You won’t want to leave.” They were right, but leave I must—for every Fantasy Island tryst reluctantly ends when the credits roll.

I arrived in this British Overseas Territory to meet my daughter Katie and her boyfriend Nick. Nick’s a deejay/music producer who’ll be playing a couple of sets at the Tropi Beach and Pool Parties held annually on the island. We’re staying at the brand new luxurious Shore Club Resort right on Long Beach Bay. Most of you know that I’m normally too cheap to pay for such outlandish accommodations but don’t you worry, I’ve been partially comped as part of the official performing party. I’m a two-star retiree hanging out at a five-star celebrity venue.

Contrary to what you might think, the people of Turks and Caicos want to avoid the hard partying atmosphere adopted by some of their Caribbean brethren. There are no “spring breakers” here and consequently, these types of musical events are rather scarce. It’s up to Katie and me to get these people grooving to the beat of Nick’s music. Nick knocks it out of the park. Fueled by our outlandish ministrations together with some timely liquid courage, visitors and islanders alike are soon busting out moves worthy of any Cancun nightclub. Afterwards, I’m exhausted—forsaking any post party carnality for the sanctity of the espresso coffee maker, fluffy pillows, and Andy Griffith reruns back in my luxury suite.

I’m not the only parent along for this ride. One of the other deejays happens to be traveling with his in-laws also. We get to talking and learn that we both love to write. He’s Matt Williams, writer and producer of such hit sitcoms as Roseanne, Home Improvement, and the Cosby Show. It’s a bit awkward as I never really watched or liked any of those programs. But he’s never heard of my Huangswhinings blog either so we’re on equal footing, content to lament the perils of having our daughters fall for up-and-coming musical vagabonds.

At least once a day, I’ve been offered weed on this trip. I’m told by one of the party goers that I give off the vibes of a pot smoker. Come to think of it, I do always have the munchies, and my short-term memory is frequently shot. My lack of motivation or coordination also could be dead giveaways. Or maybe it’s just the ponytail. It is somewhat amusing because it’s not exactly the aura my Sunday School class would want me to project. I guess you don’t really want me going on any mission trips in the near future.

As I venture back into the real world, one thing’s for sure about this marvelous experience. It’s not the beautiful scenery that stokes my wanderlust. If you’ve seen one beach, you’ve seen them all. You can find fine sand and blue water and swaying palms everywhere. I’ve been to the South Pacific and the Gulf of Thailand. I’m about as jaded as an emerald Buddha when it comes to natural vistas. For me, it’s the experiences along the way that you simply can’t duplicate, that keep bringing me back—those personal interactions and precious times shared with friends and strangers alike.

Whether it’s the Jamaican ex-pat bartender, content to forever serve fruit flavored libations at the swim up bar to sunburned German tourists—or the Peruvian born photographer with her Buddhist reincarnation rantings—or the playboy from France with “orgy” painted above his crotch and currently living on a sailboat, I want to discover what makes people tick, and there’s nothing like international travel that’ll quickly open your jaundiced eye. Wherever I go, I’m always fascinated by God’s creation and his wonderful sense of humor. Being reunited with Katie also makes me happy.

Goodbye Turks and Caicos. I’ll be back soon.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist turned wannabe sports journalist and travel writer. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com and on twitter @KYHuangs.

Big Blue Detox

I keep telling myself to cheer up. After all, nobody died, right? That’s the thing—every time my Kentucky Wildcats are eliminated from the NCAA tournament, I feel as if there really is a death in the family. A season that started out with so much hope and promise suddenly ends in a last-second ash heap of disappointment on the hardwood of FedExForum. I know that middle-aged men shouldn’t have their emotional state tied into the athletic prowess of 18-year-old basketball prodigies, but I grew up in Kentucky and that’s how we roll in our state. We all live and die with our Cats.

Only four times in my lifetime have the Wildcats gone on to win the title, so I’ve been through this funk many times before. The season unexpectedly ends and you’re faced with the reality of entering the real world again. No more weekends on the road, cheering your team to tournament wins. No more heartbreaking buzzer beaters or post-game press conferences. No more stories to write or deadlines to meet. No more survive and advance. It’s suddenly over and you’re back to your normal life–paying your bills, walking your dog, and mowing your lawn.

How great would it be if I could just keep living in a fantasy world for a little bit longer? What if after the final buzzer, I just escaped to some Caribbean island to watch sunsets and sip Coronas? What if I could sequester myself away from any sort of post-season basketball analysis–completely isolated from the perils of sports talk radio, newspaper headlines, and the twitter feed? It’d be like a Big Blue detox while supine in the sand, soaking up the sun, and swimming in the surf.

What’s keeping me from doing that? Absolutely nothing. I’m packed with airline tickets and passport in hand. My skin is pasty pale from the lack of winter sun. I’ve got a pot belly, love handles, and boobs to match. Too much bad food at media buffets over the course of a long season has turned me into my brother. I know I’ll stand out like a British tourist on the Costa del Sol, but I don’t care.  I’ll do anything to avoid watching Carolina win it all.

So where am I headed? Turks and Caicos! Their tourism website tells me it’s the home of “breathtaking hues from inviting waters, and legendary diving, snorkeling and fishing.” It’s also TripAdvisor’s latest pick for the world’s top island. I’ll be staying on Grace Bay Beach, voted as the 2016 best beach in the world. The skeptic in me can’t wait to find out what that’s all about, hehe.

But it’s not all about going to “the best” to escape “the worst.” I really picked Turks and Caicos because I’m meeting my daughter Katie and her boyfriend there. You remember Nick, the deejay, from my previous post?

https://huangswhinings.com/2016/12/16/meet-the-boyfriend

He’s playing a musical set on the beach at the five-star Shore Club resort on Saturday night, and I’ve been invited along as a VIP guest. The timing’s perfect. Just as Carolina takes the court, I’ll be busting out my moves on the dance floor, cutting a rug, getting my groove on as the ignominious memories of a Luke Maye buzzer beater fade into the glorious Caribbean sunset.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

24 Hours

I’ve been focusing more recently on the practice of “mindfulness”—not as some far eastern, new age religious practice, but more as a practical method of savoring all of life’s moments as they occur in the precious present. Coincidentally, many of you have been asking me what it’s like to cover the Wildcats on the road. I thought I’d try to answer that question by combining it with my newfound mindfulness discipline through a blow by blow account of my recent trip down to Athens, Georgia. Just remember as you’re reading this that one man’s “mindfulness” account may be another man’s “boring” blog post. You be the judge.

One of the most challenging aspects of media coverage of multiple sports is coordinating all the different schedules. Kentucky was playing Georgia in Athens on Saturday evening. Knowing that I wanted to cover the UK Women vs Florida in Lexington the very next day, there was really only one option—make the 7-hour drive down to Georgia to cover the men, and then drive back immediately after the game to make it in time for the women’s tip.

The day begins with a 5:30 am wake up, followed by a brisk 45-minute run with my trusty pooch, Bingo. Since this will be a jam-packed day trip, Bingo’s sitting this one out. Don’t worry though, in his place I’m riding down with the renowned, award-winning sports columnist, Keith Taylor. Keith not only happens to be a gifted journalist, but he’s also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He befriended me early on, showing me the ropes amidst the potential swimming sharks and exploding minefields of media coverage.

I leave Lexington shortly after 7, pick Keith up in Richmond and we’re on our way. You get to know a lot about someone while spending twelve or more hours alone with them in a car. Immediately, I realize Keith is susceptible to road rage as he gets flipped off by a passing motorist. My mindfulness training tells him to “let it go,” but he remains upset and keeps harping something about chasing down the “bird man” and his finger.

By 9 am, after the obligatory Mickey D’s breakfast stop, we’re cruising past the familiar sights of Jellico Mountain and subsequently head on past Knoxville. Just last week, Bingo and I had made this same trip to cover the UK Women against UGA. At that time, I made the mistake of taking the less traveled route directly through the mountains. Unbeknownst to me, there was no phone/GPS service along part of that route and I ended up getting lost and Bingo ended up getting car sick. Wisely today, we decided to head east toward Asheville instead, taking the Lake Junaluska I-40 exit before stopping in Waynesville, NC for lunch shortly after noon.

I’m not sure whether it was the scenic beauty of the Smokies or being in good company or simply my mindfulness training, but our lunch at the Church Street Depot was exquisite. The blended burger of beef and brisket served on a freshly baked bun with fries and an orange Nehi was one of the best meals I’ve had in a while. The succulent beef juices oozing past my parotid glands as my molars gently caressed the luscious texture of the gluten rich bread dough was enough to send me into a state of mindful bliss. I glanced over at Keith and the look on his face told me that it was as good for him as it was for me.

As we exited the restaurant, we were met by the owner who we discovered pretty much owned all the establishments on that street. She graciously offered us a tour of her Wine Seller—a quaint and cozy wine bar decorated in the style of a 1920’s speakeasy, and stocked with an assortment of vintage wines that would make even the most snobbish sommelier cringe with envy. I couldn’t help but be a little self-conscious through the whole experience, especially with me being the only non-Caucasian in sight. Perhaps I was making history as the first Asian with a ponytail to set foot in this little hamlet tucked away in the Carolina mountains.

Shortly after 3, we’re 15 minutes outside of Athens and we decide to stop at a convenience store and change into our working game attire. As I’m standing in the parking lot outside the car putting on my coat and tie (yes, I’m overdressed as usual), a middle aged African-American woman pulls up with the cutest little girl beside her and politely asks me, “Do you speak English?” After I assure her that I do, she goes into a sob story about needing gas money to take her little baby to the hospital for a liver transplant. Knowing better, I peel off a fiver and send her on her way to buy more cigarettes or lottery tickets.

Meanwhile, Keith spends the next ten minutes locked in the convenience store bathroom transforming himself. After he walks out, he claims he shaved and changed clothes but honestly, I can’t tell any difference. I jokingly say something to that effect, but he doesn’t smile or laugh. Immediately I feel kind of bad and wished I’d kept my mouth shut.

The game experience is awesome. We park in the garage right next to Stegeman Coliseum. It’s free of charge and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about media, it’s that we like “free.” The media buffet is also “free” and today’s menu includes pork loin, glazed carrots, (overly) seasoned rice, and a salad. The dessert bar with an assortment of scrumptious brownies sends my blood sugar spiking. While dining, I also see an assortment of familiar faces—the usual and customary pool of reporters following the beloved Wildcats like a gaggle of lost geese.

I’m sitting at a meal table with the distinguished audiologist/photographer Victoria Graff, the heralded writer Fletcher Page of the Courier Journal, the celebrated Cats’ Pause columnist Alex Forkner, and the eminent reporter and great hair model of SEC Country Kyle Tucker. It’s informal times like this that I not only learn the most about UK media coverage but that I also enjoy the most about my current gig. We’re joined by a former administrator in the UGA program who regales us with Tubby Smith nice guy stories. Breathe in, breathe out—it doesn’t get any better than this.

You can read about the game itself in my official media column at

http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/kentucky-basketball-its-a-doggone-win/.

Sitting on media row, I’ve got Nick Roush of KSR and Forkner of the Cats’ Pause on my right, Ron Hamblin and Ricky Blair of Bluegrass Sports Nation on my left. We marvel at the number of Kentucky fans that invariably invade each and every road venue as the chorus of “Go Big Blue” reverberates throughout the arena. During the game, we send tweets to each other, like school girls trying to outdo one another with the next best quote or clever rebuke. Through it all, long time Herald Leader columnist and UK Basketball beat writer Jerry Tipton remains steadfast. Say what you may, Jerry appears to me to be a true professional, one of the hardest working writers around, always arriving early and staying late to meet the never-ending demands of his deadline-driven profession.

With the UK victory in hand, we head down to the media room for the compulsory post-game press conference with coaches and players, where we scramble like cockroaches to evoke the latest and greatest quotes in preparation for our stories and write-ups. It looks like an abbreviated version tonight as the team is whisked through the formalities and out to the waiting buses within an hour of the final horn. I catch a few parting snippets from De’Aaron Fox as I’m mesmerized by his new stylish man bun, or whatever that is.

Hamblin and Blair are headed to Atlanta and graciously extend an offer for us to tag along. Without asking them what their intentions are, I politely and wisely decline. Perhaps that’ll be an entertaining blog post for another time and place, but we’ve got places to go and people to see. As we walk back to the car, Keith hands out business cards to anyone who will take them. He’s like a celebrity working the crowd, giving me an important lesson in the basics of grass roots marketing.

It’s 9:15 pm as we head out of Athens. I’ve got the driving honors as Keith works feverishly on posting his game column. I dial up Matt Jones on iheart radio and settle in for the grueling midnight drive home from Georgia. With Keith typing frantically in the passenger seat, I suddenly notice the dreaded blue lights of the law flashing behind me. I glance down at the speedometer and thankfully see that I’m “only” doing 75. Nevertheless, I pull over and the Georgia State Trooper informs me that I’m doing 78 mph in a 65-mph zone. I want to say, “Come on officer, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not even doing 80. Don’t you have real criminals to pursue? Is this some sort of racial profiling (see above reference to Asian with ponytail)?”

Instead, mindfulness training kicks in and I politely tell him we were covering the UK/UGA game and are headed back home to Kentucky. He takes my license and Keith’s registration and we spend an interminable amount of time sitting like convicted felons exposed naked in front of other snickering passing motorists. After 10 minutes go by, I begin to wonder what’s going on. I look over at Keith still furiously pounding away at his keyboard and wonder if Mr. Police Officer has stumbled upon Keith’s hidden serial killer background. After all, what do I really know about Keith Taylor?

After what seems like 30-minutes, Mr. Police Officer returns and apologizes for the delay, tells me to slow it down, and sends us on our way. What? Just like that? Woohoo! Better than winning the lottery! Needless to say, I’m wired and jacked the rest of the way, but adhere unwaveringly to the posted speed limits. The miles go by quickly as Keith and I debate the major social issues of the day, solve all the world’s problems, and listen intently to Coach Cal spread the manure during his most recent podcasts.  At around 4:00 am, after a 64-ounce caffeinated beverage and a bag of M&M’s, I’m still going strong as I drop Keith off and head back to Lexington. Shortly thereafter, right around 5:00, I walk in my kitchen just in time to take Bingo for another morning run. It’s been a heck of a 24 hours! Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist turned wannabe sports journalist. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com and on twitter @KYHuangs.

Keith Taylor is a Columnist/Senior Sports Writer at KYForward. Please check out his work at www.kyforward.com. You can also reach him at Keith.Taylor@kyforward.com.

Richard and Kay Miller are the proud proprietors of Church Street Depot and the Wine Seller in Waynesville, NC. Please check out their fine establishments at www.ChurchStreetDepot.com and www.classicwineseller.com.

 

To Retreat or Not to Retreat

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

With apologies to John Donne, I’ve always enjoyed my time alone. There’s something uniquely comforting about being totally isolated with only your own thoughts, feelings, and actions to guide you. I actively seek out those precious moments in my life when I AM an island. Given the choice between a good book or dinner with the neighbors, I’ll choose the good book any day of the week. In fact, I’ll probably choose a bad book over any sort of idle chitchat with people I don’t know all that well. I like going to movies by myself and vacationing with my dog. It’s not that I’m anti-social. It’s just that sometimes, as the Southwest Airlines commercial says, you “wanna get away.”

So with that introduction in mind, I’ve decided to attend the annual Centenary Church Men’s Retreat. In the interest of full disclosure, this won’t be my first rodeo. I’ve been to these before—even led a couple of recent sessions. I’ve also been to other similar Promise Keeper type of events with tens of thousands of men in attendance. Just so you know, a stadium packed full of strangers singing, hugging, crying, and washing each other’s feet isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. I prefer a more low key personal approach, like that of the Trappist monks in the Gethsemane Abbey near Bardstown, living out their vows of silence. I’m hoping the Centenary retreat will be more like that experience. Some quiet spiritual renewal without too much interpersonal contact or hugging.

The event basically consists of a couple of days of being sequestered together with guys—some you know and some you don’t. You spend much of your time in worship together, learning about and discussing various spiritual topics supposedly relevant to men. The food during the retreat is pretty good—provided you’re not worried about cholesterol or A1c levels. The sleeping arrangements are four to a room in bunk beds for most of the participants. There’s the ubiquitous snoring, grunting, and rhythmic wheezing of the occasional CPAP machine to keep even the most hardened sleeper awake throughout the night. I guess I’ve become a creature of comfort in my old age. I don’t relish being greeted by strange bedfellows or random toilet seats upon waking in the morning.

There’s just something about the experience, however, that keeps me returning year after year. The retreat this year is held out at Aldersgate Camp near Ravenna in Estill County. Those of you familiar with the area know that it’s pretty isolated. There’s no phone service, no internet, and no GPS guidance. Like many other rural areas in the commonwealth, you may not be able to get there from here.

This year there are around 40 men, ranging in age from 18-82, from all different occupations, backgrounds, and stages in our spiritual journey. As radical evangelicals, however, the one thing we all have in common is how we all cling to our guns and our religion. Upon arrival the first evening, we decide to forego our religion and go straight for the guns. We divide into teams and engage in fierce competition—shooting BB guns at aerosol cans, hitting flaming tennis balls with golf clubs, and smashing ceramic tiles with rocks. As the competition winds down, my spectacular, Willie Mays, over-the-shoulder dive and attempted catch (and crash and burn) of the projectile fired out of the homemade air bazooka heroically vaults our Team Foxtrot out of last place. With my bruised shoulder and ego barely intact, shivering in 20-degree temperature, I start wondering if this is how Jesus and his disciples initially bonded together.

After a rejuvenating run and breakfast the next morning, we’re ready to get back to our religion. The lesson this weekend is from the “33 series”—appropriately named for Jesus’ 33 years before his death and resurrection. During that time, he roamed the earth–sharing his ministry and leaving a legacy that would shape the history of mankind for the next couple of millennia. He forged relationships with 12 other men that would forever model life in community. Sure, he occasionally retreated into solitude as one of his necessary spiritual disciplines, but I remind myself constantly that he was no Ted Kaczynski, living alone in the Montana wilderness.

As we’re sitting in one of our breakout sessions, it dawns on me why I keep returning year after year. God created human beings to live in community. As much as I want to deny it, this truth keeps surfacing throughout my own life story. I can give you a thousand examples of how being “in touch” saved me from imminent self-destruction. It’s through my relationship with my nurturing biological family, my supportive church family, my intimate men’s small group, my teachers and mentors, my professional colleagues, my dear friends and neighbors—and yes, with my new acquaintances at a men’s retreat– that my earthly life takes on meaning.

Just as I wallow in my own self-pity, I draw inspiration from someone else who has been down that same path of suffering. Just as I learn to overcome my own shortcomings, I develop the necessary compassion to comfort others who are hurting. Just as I feel a need to boast about my own accomplishments, I’m humbled by the generosity exhibited by the two dudes sitting next to me.

Through my interaction with my Christian brothers, I realize that we all struggle with the same temptations, fears, hardships, and persecution that life throws our way. We’re all easily susceptible to the idolatry of control, recognition, and comfort that often plagues us as men. Life isn’t about accumulating things, or gathering awards, or visiting exotic places. Rather it’s all about storing up treasures for heaven through the relationships developed here on earth. We can’t do that through dinner and a movie with ourselves, or long walks through the woods with our dog, or even a loving marriage with our spouse. No, our issues as Christian men—as spiritual leaders and as high-priests of our families—can only be unpacked through genuine relationships and fellowship with other like-minded Christian men.

As we closed out the retreat in communion together, I realized that John Donne had it right after all. No man is an island, entire of itself. We’re all a part of something much bigger than our individual selves. In Romans 12:5, the Apostle Paul put it another way— “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” To all my other body parts—see you at next year’s retreat.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs

Cherish the Precious Moments Along the Way

I’ve been officially retired from dentistry now for 506 days and 14 hours, but who’s counting? It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago, I was still arguably a respected and productive member of working society. Now here I sit on a typical Thursday morning—unshaven, disheveled looking, half-naked with my dog at my feet—typing random essays to people I don’t know and attempting to connect with colleagues I’ve never even met. Like many of you, I never really thought much about retirement while I was working. The months and years invariably sneak up on you, suddenly and sadly without much warning at all.

On a recent trip out of town, I ran into a previous patient who asked me if I missed my work. What should have been a simple answer turned out much more complicated than you might imagine. Sure I miss sticking my fingers into someone else’s mouth every once in a while, but you can bet that there are many other aspects of my previous work life that I simply don’t miss at all. Let me try to explain.

One of the things I DON’T miss are the early morning wake-up calls. In order to complete my morning rituals in time to be the first one at the office, my alarm was always set for the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. Even for an early riser who spent ten years in Uncle Sam’s Army, that takes its toll over the course of several decades. To make up for all those years of early morning exercise, chart reviews and staff huddles, I now restfully roll out of bed each day long after sunrise, casually read the paper over a leisurely breakfast, and head out on my hour long jog with the pooch in tow. When 10:00 rolls around, I’m finally ready to start my day. Score one point for retirement.

Trust me, my day no longer consists of putting out office fires. You know the drill (pun intended). It’s taxing enough spending most of your schedule hunched over the dental chair coning down teeth, but to also be required to address the sphincter tightening surprises that inevitably pop up during the course of a normal dental day could send any competent CEO reaching for the nitrous. Over the years I’ve arrived to a completely flooded office, a bogus law enforcement warrant, psychopathic patients, employee meltdowns, compressor AND suction malfunction, on site burglaries, inner office thermostat wars and the occasional staff mutiny.

As an orthodontist, I survived countless years of the daily afternoon rush where school lets out and your clinic blows up. Combine that with the usual assortment of non-compliant patients, divorced parents who refuse to pay, ambulance chasing attorneys and greedy landlords and you can easily wonder how I survived at all. Oh yeah, did I mention the jaw clenching MSO litigation that dragged on for years? Or how about the time that my business partner invited Dateline NBC in for an interview regarding recycled brackets? What the….?

Even with all that said, the thing I probably miss the least of all is being a slave to my work schedule. For my entire professional life, I danced in 10-15 minute intervals from dental chair to dental chair, controlled by whatever appointment procedure was booked at a particular appointment time. Regardless of what the management consultants and office gurus proclaim, dentists all know that we’re at the mercy of our chairside appointment books. Holiday excursions, family vacations and CE trips are unfailingly arranged with that schedule in mind—redeye flights from New Zealand and Chinese jet lag just normal fallout from the profession we have chosen. Simple errands during normal business hours become virtual impossibilities because we’re all too busy juggling dental chairs and coddling patients.

That’s enough whining about the things I don’t miss—what are some of the things I do miss about working? First and foremost, I do miss the paycheck—Hey, C’mon, I’m just kidding. Dentistry has provided me far more than what a nerdy first generation immigrant growing up in a midwestern city could ever hope to achieve. What I really miss most of all are my patients. There’s something intensely satisfying about seeing one of your patients grow up right before your eyes, self-esteem and confidence blossoming–due directly to the smile you helped create. Or how about the personal pride of seeing one of your own go on to compete in national pageants or successful business careers or even lucrative NBA contracts? I miss the gratification of former patients bringing their children in for treatment and sending their friends to see me for no other reason than knowing that I’ll take good care of them. I miss being able to provide dental care to deployed soldiers overseas, to underserved children denied access to care through no fault of their own, and to adults who after painstakingly providing for their own children, finally have time to seek treatment for themselves. I especially miss the hugs and celebrations on that special day when treatment is complete and those braces come off.

Besides my patients, I also miss the staff members I worked with. The number of loyal, dedicated and hard-working individuals who poured their heart and soul into making our practice successful is long and diverse. Sure there were the occasional cat fights, bad apples and episodes of intense personal drama, but those things happen within every family unit. And that’s exactly how I hope each and every one of our staff viewed themselves—as part of our practice family, bonded together by a common purpose and always having each other’s back. Boy, I do miss that part of work a lot– that honor, privilege and camaraderie of serving together with a winning team, now reluctantly forsaken for the independence inherent in being put out to pasture.

It hasn’t taken me long in my new life to adjust to my newfound freedoms, though. Discounted mid-week airline flights and shoulder season vacation packages are now a regular part of my retirement arsenal. Instead of dancing from chair to chair, I just dance now—period. I’m no longer a slave to my schedule and feel a definite sense of liberation of being able to write and teach and study at my own leisurely pace. I’m able to savor the time together with friends and family who are important to me and to participate in volunteer projects, mission trips and business opportunities I care deeply about. If all that isn’t exciting and fulfilling enough, I’m also able to travel around the country reporting on my favorite sports teams. It’s literally a dream come true and I owe it all to bad teeth and crooked smiles. I feel blessed to have been able to make a difference in people’s lives and you should, too, through your calling as a dentist. It hasn’t always been easy, but as someone who has experienced many of the highs and lows, the exhilaration and heartache, the good and the bad of our noble and esteemed profession, I’m telling you to cherish all the precious moments along the way. One day you’ll probably miss it. Or if you’re retired like me, maybe you won’t.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist from Lexington. He currently writes a weekly sports column for regional media outlets in Kentucky. You can reach him at www.huangswhinings.com.

 

This blog posting was initially published in the November/December 2016 edition of the Kentucky Dental Association Today Journal. It subsequently appeared in the April 17,  2017 edition of the American Dental Association News national publication.

 

Cardinal Daze

I love the city of Louisville. I worked in the River City for several years so I’m somewhat familiar with its spirited vitality. I love the variety of cultural opportunities and the bustling restaurant scene. I love the vibrant downtown energy and the area by the waterfront. I love the museums and the parks and the people. I love Churchill Downs and Thunder Over Louisville. What I can’t seem to love are the Louisville Cardinals sports teams.

Over the years, I’ve tried to support the dirty birds. After all, I’m a Kentuckian and I’m quite proud whenever in state schools do well. I love it when Eastern or Western or Murray or Morehead win and advance against other teams, but I just could never get myself to cheer ever honestly for that grating shade of red and black. The closest I ever got to rooting for the Cardinals was a mindset of tepid neutrality. There was polite applause for Darrell Griffith, Bobby Turner, and the Doctors of Dunk, maybe a nod of acknowledgement for Never Nervous Pervis, a tip of the hat to the gentlemanly Denny Crum—but nothing ever bordering on any type of full fan support.

When Rick Pitino became Louisville’s coach back in 2001, the floodgates opened, replacing my lukewarm neutrality with outright contempt. I’m a “loyalty” kind of guy and what Rick did was unforgivable. I appreciate what he accomplished at UK but I’ll never understand anyone turning Benedict Arnold. You don’t sleep with the enemy, stab your former employer in the back, or marry your ex-wife’s best friend. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat. I think that’s the problem with Rick—he was never really a Wildcat. Even when Little Ricky was leading Kentucky to the ’96 national championship, I always felt he was just a displaced big city dude thinking he was doing us hayseeds a giant favor. Maybe that says more about my own personal insecurities regarding my Kentucky roots than anything else, so who am I to judge?

But animosity toward Pitino is the one major reason UL’s 73-70 win over UK hurts so much. It’s like your enemy twisting the knife and gloating—as if this one solitary victory somehow validates Rick’s entire decision to leave my beloved university. I see him and UL athletic director Tom Zurich pounding down ribeye steaks in celebration, endlessly reliving Quentin Snider’s game-of-his-life performance over premium shots of Woodford Reserve.

Even with the loss, I must say that the atmosphere in the YUM Center was predictably electric, as it always is when these bitter rivals meet together for their yearly Armageddon showdown. As John Calipari aptly stated, “Everyone makes it life and death and it’s not life and death. It’s worse than that.” Louisville fans decked out in nerdy red Christmas sweaters and carrying Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump Fatheads were out for more blood than usual this evening, trying desperately to root their team on while grasping for recollection of what it actually felt like to win one of these season-defining games. At one point, their ear-splitting screams became guttural, transcending the humanity of a mere basketball game and plunging the entire experience into a cesspool of vitriol and venom. With the game tied at 57 and the arena ready to explode, I realized that this rivalry was indeed something very special. These fans wanted not only to win, but to humiliate their hated oppressors. I could literally sense evil permeating the arena air as they sought my head on a platter. For a sports lover like me, there was no other place I would rather be.

Afterwards, I asked Rick why he thought this rivalry was the best in all of college basketball–from his unique perspective of having been the head coach at both of these elite programs. This is what he said. “The Yankees don’t like the Red Sox and the Red Sox don’t like the Yankees, but they take it to a new level. The reason I think it’s the best rivalry is because of the fanbases and not the teams. Everybody lives for this game. Everybody in Carolina and Duke doesn’t live for that game because you also have Wake Forest when they’re good. You also have N.C. State. This is it for us. We have no professional teams so this is it. And they’ve dominated us for a while now, so it’s good to get a victory.”

As I listened to his answer I realized a change in my own perspective. Maybe I’m just mellowing with age but it suddenly dawned on me that my love for UK Basketball has nothing to do with Rick Pitino. Rick Pitino, or any one person for that matter, isn’t bigger than the program and shouldn’t influence my emotional state or Wildcat passion as a fan. Kentucky didn’t lose tonight because of Rick Pitino. The Wildcats simply lost because they missed crucial free throws, didn’t play solid defense when the game was on the line, and responded in typical youthful fashion in front of a hostile crowd. Unless the Cats learn their lessons, it’s exactly the type of game that can end your season come March.

It’s the Christmas season, so I’ll go ahead and forgive Rick Pitino for jilting UK over two decades ago, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ever cheer against his loathsome Louisville Cardinals. As we saw tonight, a dash of venomous vitriol adds a bit of spice to any such rivalry regardless of who’s coaching. L’s Down! We’ll see the Cards in the tournament.

This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

Meet the Boyfriend

A city such as Las Vegas brings out the suppressed foodie in all of us. Ever since the wheels of our plane touched down, I’ve been craving everything under the desert sun. In a futile effort to battle the calories, I went for an early morning run right on the Vegas Strip. My well-worn Nikes brushed past the asphalt sidewalks and concrete walkways of this slumbering megalopolis, still littered with the leftover carnality of the night before—a broken liquor bottle, a pile of vomitus and the litany of abandoned business cards from the various escort services. What a great way to start your day!

Yesterday didn’t start too great for our party. It’s never a good day when you get the dreaded “fraud alert” warning from American Express, and that’s exactly what happened with my brother Michael. Call it a Vegas coincidence, but someone, somewhere, somehow comprised his account. Whether legally or illegally, some shady huckster in this city is going to find a way to take your money. Everyone here has their own particular shtick, whether it’s “Serengeti” our cab driver promoting his Kenyan Safari tours, or “Gator” scrolling through seductive photos of his various girlfriends on his iPhone to show us pictures of his alligator farm. Although I didn’t just roll off a turnip truck, it does take a bit of effort to keep your money in your wallet in this town.

We closed out the evening last night in typical Vegas style with dueling pianos at the Times Square Bar in New York, New York. The scene was just as you might picture it. A couple of once talented “has-beens” tickling the ivories while playing long forgotten requests from over-the-hill patrons nursing overpriced drinks served by weathered, balloon chested waitresses. Honestly though, it’s not quite as sad and pathetic as I just described. My grandmother would have enjoyed the rousing rendition of Young Girl by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.

Today is shaping up to be a bit better. It’s Spago in Caesar’s Palace for lunch and this evening we’re dining at Nobu in the Hard Rock. World renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa has brought his critically acclaimed signature fare from New York and we’re here to partake. We’re joined by my daughter Katie and her boyfriend Nick from Los Angeles. I’m meeting Nick for the first time so it could get kind of awkward. He’s a freelance music producer/Deejay by trade, but I’ve gotten over that by now. I’m used to the fact that no one in LA ever has a real nine-to-five job anyway, so I’m not holding that against him. In all the pictures Katie has shown me, Nick looks the part—unshaven, ripped jeans and hat on backwards—not exactly the kind of possible future son-in-law you’ve been praying for. I guess one man’s “cool” is another man’s “loser” look. Katie claims Nick treats her exactly how a husband should treat a wife as described in the fifth chapter of Ephesians. I don’t like any boyfriends in general, but if that’s true, then I told her it’s good enough for me.

I resist the urge to start the conversation by asking Nick to give me his theological discourse on predestination versus free will. Instead, we chit-chat about such mundane topics as Kentucky basketball and Katie’s business venture. At one point our discussions drift to spoken world languages. Get this—this homeboy from Nashville speaks Mandarin Chinese. We immediately start scripting out how we’re going to freak my brother out by speaking in our native tongue. Katie is the one that’s freaking though as we hammer out our imbecilic plot. It’s really surreal—kind of like Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in a scene from Dumb and Dumber. Like many moments in my life so far, things don’t quite go exactly as I had rehearsed them in my mind. Man plans while God laughs.

Our awkward moments together are only mollified by the scrumptious fare of our eight-course sushi tasting dinner. Our palates are tantalized with an initial serving of yellowtail jalapeno sashimi followed up by a delectable scallop and octopus sushi. In between courses of tuna sashimi salad and Chilean Seabass Pomodoro, I fantasize about Nick being served some exotic pufferfish, improperly prepared so that the poison seeps under his hairy chest, sending him into frightful convulsions before the paramedics arrive—a bit too late. I’m jolted out of my revelry with the arrival of the Wagyu Ribeye—one of the finest cuts of meat I’ve ever tasted. The aromatic mushroom soup and the apricot filled beignets ala mode made for the perfect climax to our food porn encounter.

There’s just something about a good food experience that speaks to us in ways that nothing else can. It’s not just what we are eating, it’s also who, where, and when we’re eating it with. How many of our most memorable life moments have been crafted around the communal dinner table. Take some great food, add some friends and family, throw in a pinch of Las Vegas and the unpredictability of meeting your daughter’s boyfriend and you’ve got the ingredients for a captivating narrative. I can’t say for sure where Nick will fit into the scheme of Katie’s future life, but as my taste buds were gently caressing and massaging that wagyu beef earlier in the evening, I just knew everything was going to work out fine.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.