I just wanted to swim with the other kids

Originally published on Patriot Not Partisan

Me in 1980 – 4 years old.

When I was growing up, our neighbor had an above-ground swimming pool, a rarity in the tiny backyards of the homes on the Southside of Chicago. We could see the pool from our kitchen window.

I often played with the kids who lived in that house and considered them friends. But come summertime, they naturally spent their days in the pool. On any given day, lots of neighborhood kids could be seen playing in that pool. I wanted to play, too. After all, I was a neighborhood kid. But my parents said it would be impolite to ask — I needed to be invited. I watched them play from our kitchen window, sometimes even wearing my swimming trunks just waiting … but that invitation never came.

That’s the first time I learned that I was different from the neighborhood kids. Chicago was — and in many areas still is — highly segregated.  We lived in a white neighborhood. As a half-Filipino, half-white child, I was generally tolerated in my neighborhood, but never fully accepted (outside of my best friend and his family). At my Catholic elementary school, a few of my classmates would call me a “Filipino fart.” In high school, the kid who sat behind me in homeroom would often tell me to “go back to your country, wherever that is.” When I told the teacher about this, he told me to “just ignore it” and asked if I had finished my work. He completely dismissed my concerns, instead of addressing the situation.

Although I brushed off the racist rhetoric and actions, it did significant damage to my soul. I was severely wounded. I would bury myself in writing poetry, listening to heavy metal and dabbling in whatever substance I could get my hands on. One day, I wanted to end it all. And I almost did.

Twenty years later I found myself surrounded by people who accept me — and even celebrate me — for who I am. Of course, I knew there was still hate in the world. I wasn’t naive. I knew many people, especially blacks, Hispanics and gay people, still faced significant discrimination. And I always tried to stand with them. Although an ally against racism, I no longer felt like a victim. The wounds I endured in childhood were permanently healed, I thought.

Then Charlottesville happened, and more specifically, President Trump’s response. Like most Americans, I was shocked and saddened by the events of Saturday. And I was stunned by the tepid response given by the President. But I dug into my diversity training playbook and gave him the benefit of the doubt. As someone who has always been rich, white, straight and male, he cannot possibly understand what racial discrimination feels like. And on Monday, Trump at least made an effort to say the right thing.

Then his press conference on Tuesday happened. And the wounds in my soul that I thought were long healed began to flare up. When President Trump said, “there are bad people on both sides,” that little boy in his swimming trunks staring out the window occupied my mind. When the President said, there are “many fine people” among the neo-Nazis calling for an ethnic cleansing of our nation, the faces of the boys calling me a “Filipino fart” appeared. And when Trump promoted his winery in Charlottesville — “one of the largest wineries in the United States” — that teacher who dismissed my concerns was back.

In my diversity training, I learned there are actually very few racists in the world. Most people are just ignorant. I always thought our President fell into the latter category. But after his passionate statements Tuesday, and his continued unwillingness to consider the hurt his words have caused, it’s difficult not to consider him a racist.

And if you’re willing to overlook this fact and still support him, then you are no better than my high school teacher.

Chris Cornell’s suicide rooted in depression

Everything appeared to be alright.

Reunited and on tour with his original band, Soundgarden, Chris Cornell tweeted at 8:06 p.m.:

#Detroit finally back to Rock City!!! @soundgarden #nomorebullshit.

The band roared through a blistering 17-song set, playing the grunge sound they helped invent, including hard rock radio staples like “Outshined,” “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live.” Much has been made about the telling encore the band performed that night, “Slaves & Bulldozers,” that includes a snippet of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” with Cornell belting the eerie lyrics:

In my time of dying, I want nobody to mourn.
All I want for you to do is take my body home.

However, Soundgarden performed that same song combination two weeks earlier in Concord, North Carolina. And if fans are seeking foreshadowing of his death through song lyrics, several of Cornell’s own songs provided such insight, such as the closing verse of “Searching With My Eyes Closed,” in which he verbalizes the battle inside his mind:

Stop you’re trying to bruise my mind,
I can’t do it on my own.
Stop you’re trying to kill my time,
It’s been my death since I was born.
I don’t remember half the time if I’m hiding or if I’m lost.
But I’m on my way.

Like the many rock lead singers who committed suicide before him, Cornell turned his depression into beautiful music, and his deeply personal lyrics were treasured by fans who were suffering alongside him.

Everyone has internal demons — that voice in the head that is constantly telling a person to take the dishonorable, destructive and/or selfish path when confronted with a dilemma. Most people are able to silence that voice. But for someone suffering from depression — when in a depressed state of mind — that voice can become overbearing. There are multiple ways to deal with this. Drugs and alcohol are highly effective at silencing that voice, albeit temporarily. Another effective way is to somehow dispel that negative energy through activity, whether it be physical or artistic, such as songwriting and performing, as Cornell did beautifully.

But you never know when that voice will come back. And if it comes back when you are mentally susceptible, you never know what you are capable of doing. For Chris Cornell, like thousands of others every year, the permanent solution was suicide.

Contemplating suicide? Call 1-800-273-8255.

Trump, America about to deny Jesus

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Donald Trump is likely going to sign an executive order tomorrow banning child refugees from Syria from entering the United States. Unlike his bans on other nationd that will last 100 days, his ban on Syrians is indefinite, a.k.a. permanent.

This means the families that are in the process of adopting parent-less Syrian children will not be allowed to proceed with their adoption. This means that Christian organizations that relocate child refugees to families in the United States, like Samaritan’s Purse and World Relief, will no longer be able to do their work. These children will likely die.

There is a lot of ambiguity in the Bible. Even contradictions. But the Bible’s stance on welcoming immigrants is clear.  There are more than 50 references in the Bible regarding “aliens,” “immigrants,” “foreigners” or “strangers.”
Remember, baby Jesus himself was a Middle Eastern refugee. And throughout his life, he was very clear on how we should treat refugees. In every instance Jesus comes across the downtrodden, he welcomes them.

His expectations of us in dealing with refugees is clear in Matthew 25: 34-46. This is the well-known passage where Jesus tells us that the key to pleasing God is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. In verse 35 he tells us to “invite in the stranger.” Here, it’s important to note that Matthew was written in Greek, and the original word for stranger was “Xenos,” which can be translated to English as “immigrant,” “foreigner” or “stranger.”

Donald Trump is going to sign an executive order denying refugees tomorrow. And in the process, our nation will be denying Jesus.

Dad, I really miss you


It was the summer from hell. It started on Memorial Day.
A tearful call from my mom … she said they were OK.
But the their home for many years — it was on fire.
It was caused by a fan that had a faulty wire.

What would they do? I flew to Chicago to help them find an answer.
Complicating matters was my dad’s spreading cancer.
We consulted with insurance, they set them up in a hotel.
But not used to his surroundings, my dad got out of bed and fell.

For the rest of the summer, a nursing home is where he’d live.
It wasn’t what we wanted, but without a home there was no alternative.
Living out of luggage, my mom spent hours bedside visiting her spouse,
While juggling insurance and reconstruction of their house.

Keeping my dad in the loop every step of the way,
Making it handicap accessible so in his home he could stay.
But he increasingly grew weak, they hospitalized him to be cautious.
The cancer was spreading so fast, the only place to go was hospice.

On Sept. 20, 2014, I got the call I’d come to dread.
My Ninong was on the phone to tell me my dad was dead.
I had braced for this moment for more than 10 years.
But all that preparation didn’t stop the tears.

Dad was sick for so long, but his will you couldn’t bend.
He beat death many times, but cancer was his end.
A few days after his funeral, while we were still all very sad
Their home was finally ready, but it was weird without my dad.

Looking at his handicap-accessible room, which he never would see.
I felt a breadth of emotions sweeping over me.
Hard to believe it’s been two years, the time really flew.
I still think about him every day. Dad, I really miss you.

Thank you Tita, Manong

Manong and me.

With both parents working and no living grandparents, I was the kid who bounced around from home to home after school. One of those homes was Tita Oding’s. She lived in an attic apartment on 112th and Avenue G, just kitty-corner from Annunciata grade school. She told me she would watch be from her kitchen window during recess. Once the school bell rang, I’d race across the street and up the 13 stairs to her apartment. I was always greeted with a warm smile and hug, and a Filipino cookie (Barquillos were my favorite). I would do my homework, watch some TV and graze on awesome Filipino food. Around 5, depending on the day, I’d say goodbye to Tita Oding and walk a few blocks, either north to the East Side Little League field for a baseball game/practice, or south a few blocks to meet my dad, who would always promptly be home at 5:30.
Manong Jun was like a drop-in member of our household. Although he was technically my cousin, he was significantly older than me, and was more like an uncle. I adored him. He took me to concerts (including the first of a half-dozen Cheap Trick concerts I’ve attended), he taught me a lot about electronics (lessons that I — and many others — have benefitted from whether its setting up surround sound for a relative or managing audio at my church), and “rescued me” from the Chicago Skyway after my first car accident. He was such a good role model. He truly lived his life selfessly, and would sacrifice anything for the people he loved.

I never had the opportunity to thank Tita Oding and Manong Jun for the impact they had on my life. They moved more than a decade ago back to the Phillippines. I became busy, with a family of my own and a growing career. At times I thought I should write them, but Facebook and email seemed so impersonal. I meant to send a card and letter, but never etched out the time to write one. I could’ve called, but I just don’t like long phone conversations.

After my dad died two years ago, my mom and I talked about planning a trip to the Phillippines together. This visit with my mom would be perfect. I would finally be able to express my gratitude to Tita Oding and Manong Jun, in person.

But it’s expensive to fly to the Phillippines. There were too many family and work commitments. It made sense to save up for such a trip rather than charging it. Maybe next year. Or the year after that.

Tita Oding died last March. And Manong Jun died last night. They died not knowing how thankful I am. They died without knowing how much they impacted me. They died without knowing how much I love them.

A character trait they both enforced in me was the importance of family. Friends are great to have, but when it comes down to it, blood is thicker than friendship. I failed to heed this wisdom. I was too busy with my own life to thank them for helping to make me who I am and how much they mean to me. And now they’ll never know.

Bye-bye Grady, from a student, staffer and teacher

After 11 years, two months and 16 days, I said goodbye to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Georgia.

It was a bittersweet farewell. Sweet, because I am starting a new path on my professional career that allows me to focus on what I love most: teaching. Bitter, because Grady is where my new professional aspirations took root, and because the halls of Grady are filled with some of the most influential people in my life. I was perhaps the only person in history to have the fortune of simultaneously fulfilling three roles at Grady: full-time staff member, student and teacher. Each role allowed me a different viewpoint of Grady. And combining all those viewpoints showed me that Grady is truly a special place.

The highly functional, dysfunctional family. From left, Dean Charles Davis, Cecil Bentley, Diane Murray, Stephanie Moreno, Karen Andrews, Joe Dennis, Sarah Freeman, Ryan Cary, Clare Wall and Hannah Bause.

Joe: The staff member

The Grady College has been an incredible place to work. In the past decade, I can’t think of one person that willingly left Grady for a lateral move somewhere else. And it’s certainly not because Grady pays well. It’s the people. The term family is often used lightly to describe cultural environments, but at Grady, there truly is a sense of family. If you’re willing to invest in the Grady family, the Grady family will invest back in you.

Of course, within the Grady family tree there are several smaller families. I was fortunate to work with the external relations team. We were a highly-functional, dysfunctional family. We all had such unique personalities and jobs that often didn’t relate to each other, but we were always there for each other: definitely in work, but also in life. And when we all got in the same room, fireworks happened — sometimes bad, but usually good. My years at Grady will likely be the only time in my life I looked forward to staff meetings.

For most of my years, Cecil Bentley served as our team leader and supervisor. Always level-headed, Cecil was the calming voice when tempers flared, the voice of encouragement when egos were hurt, and the voice of silence when one needed just to vent. Forward focus. Positive attitude. And a wicked move to the basket (though he rarely makes the shot).

With a strong institutional knowledge and a strong grasp of reality, Diane Murray is the devil’s advocate. Diane has a passion for Grady that many share, but this passion is balanced with a healthy dose of common sense. This can be quite frustrating when you’re aiming for the moon, only for Diane to tell you that you have no rocket ship. But in the end, you know she is just keeping it real.

Karen Andrews is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. Whether it’s a $150/plate gala or a picnic for high school students, Karen knows how to make every person feel special. Seemingly always smiling and a laugh that echoes throughout the building, Karen embodies the “Southern Hospitality” mentality I heard so much about when I moved South. Don’t get me wrong, Karen is human and has another side, but you’ll have to get real close to her to see it. I consider myself lucky that my “sister-from-another-mister” felt comfortable enough with me to show me that side.

The four of us were the mainstays of the external team for several years, through some lean budget times. But when we finally had the opportunity to grow, Sarah Freeman was brought on board. The ultimate professional, Sarah somehow maintains her professionalism while navigating the rocky waters of the external team, dishing out ideas and compliments when needed. She is definitely the sane member of the family. But just when you’re about to feel sorry for her, she unloads a joke that cracks everyone up. And you remember, she’s one of us.

Stephanie Moreno joined the team next. Sweet, sweet Stephanie — one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. A journalist at heart, her passion for learning is evident in her work. I’ve never met another professional who continuously seeks criticism for her work. She was the baby of the family (in age and newness) for about a year, and perhaps because of this, or more likely because of her sweetness, made a concerted effort to get to know every member of the team.

Ryan Carty took the rattle from Stephanie, and certain members of the family consistently rattled their new little brother (sorry, Ryan!). But it’s his passion for Grady and incredible work ethic that define him, even if he gets a little star-struck by Ryan Cameron and forgets to take back my parking tag from the radio star. When the door locks are activated and the hallway lights shut off, Ryan is still in the building, planning new opportunities for our students.

The most recent member of the family is Clare Wall. Knowing I was leaving, I vowed on the first day I met her not to get to know her, but you can’t escape family. And dammit, I like her too. Although new to the team, Clare is not afraid to bring out the snark that has so defined our family.

There have been multiple interns that have come and gone, but Hannah Bause seemingly worked full-time during the Centennial months and became a de facto family member. Please be warned Hannah, our staff meetings are not typical. Don’t crack jokes while your boss is talking.

Speaking of boss, the functional dysfunction is certainly top-down, starting with the “My Dean is cooler than your Dean” Charles Davis. He lives and breathes Grady, and his passion is infectious. And his relaxed nature creates an environment for creativity to thrive, and maybe a little mischief to occur.

That’s my dysfunctional Grady family. But when we all get together, it works. For instance, last April in a torrential downpour after a highly successful farm party to kick off the Centennial, it was this team that went literally ankle-deep in the mud to load six cars with various items ranging from kegs to centerpieces. We were all angry, cranky, smelly and disgusting. But instead of bowing out leaving the job to another person, we stuck with it, together. Because that’s what families do.

Joe: The student

As a student, both at the master’s and doctoral level, so many faculty members have enriched and inspired me.

I had the fortune — or misfortune — of taking two theory courses with Dr. Jay Hamilton. Although I blame his courses for the doubling of my vision prescription (three course-packs … seriously?), it was his classes that showed me how to take control of my brain and grasp complex ideas.

Dr. Joe Dominick taught statistics to a group of numbers-challenged students, including myself, kicking off the semester by making us repeat the phrase: “Numbers are our friends.”

Dr. Lou Benjamin and later Dean Dr. Cully Clark showed me how to critically study, appreciate and recognize the importance of history.

Dr. Carolina Acosta-Alzuru taught me how to parlay my interviewing and reporting skills into critical and cultural analysis … even though I still don’t understand telenovelas.

Dr. Kent Middleton stoked my fascination in law and government and how it applies to the media, while helping me understand a second language: legalese.

Dr. Leara Rhodes helped me understand other cultures and how mass communication plays different roles around the world.

The late Professor Conrad Fink lifted the layer of journalism that was always foreign to me — the business side — teaching me the fundamentals of the industry, and also how to read an annual report to investors.

Picking up where Fink left off, Dr. Keith Herndon uncovered the incredible potential for journalism’s future in an age of digital and social media.

Mark Johnson taught me the critical role visual plays in journalistic storytelling, and he also stoked my interest in all things Apple.

And just when I felt confident in my journalistic writing abilities, Professor Pat Thomas taught me that there is always room for improvement, and reinforced in me the importance of using journalism to positively impact social change.

The danger in any list is leaving off people. For a complete list of every faculty member who influenced me, visit http://grady.uga.edu/directory/show2/category/all_grady_faculty/

Yes, that’s the directory of ALL Grady faculty. Whether in a class, a conversation or a presentation, every single Grady faculty member has shaped who I am. They taught me to think critically, the importance of research, how to teach and of course, a lot about mass communication.

Joe: The teacher

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to teach at Grady, home to the best students on campus (literally … check the GPAs). I never thought I would feel pride in the accomplishments of someone who is not a family member or friend, but over the years, several students have proved otherwise.

I’m in a unique position at Grady, because I meet many students when they are in high school, and get to see them through graduation. Also, as adviser of UGAzine, I’ve worked with some of the “best of the best” at Grady. Finally, as director of GSPA, I’ve worked with many students at our annual events. Nothing impacts me more than when a student offers words of appreciation long after graduation, or seeks you out for a visit or cup of coffee when in town.

Thanks for reinforcing in me my desire to teach, and for making me feel special.

I started to make a list, but then kept realizing I forgot someone. You know who you are …


God is always there

by Joe Dennis

“The Lord is near to those who are discouraged; he saves those who have lost all hope.” –Psalm 34:18

Little thought went into it, and it likely took a few seconds to write. It was a text I received on Sept. 11, 2014 from a former student (who was in my class in fall 2011):

I was thankful for the millionth time that I learned the silence interviewing technique from you. Amazing what people will decide to share during a 5-second lapse in conversation. Thank you!

This seemingly nonchalant text may have changed my life, as it came at one of the lowest points of my life. The text came at 7:12 that evening, as I was in the middle of a breakdown. Hours earlier I had just left the hospice where we had transferred my father. With my flight back home in just a couple hours, I had to hurriedly say goodbye to my dad and kissed him on the forehead. I knew that was the last time I would talk to him.

My mom was an emotional wreck so I was trying to stay strong for her while at the same time keeping one eye on my watch to not miss my flight. I knew I had to see Carla and the boys — I had been home so little the last few weeks that Matthew thought I had moved out. Work wasn’t even on my radar. My inbox was so full of angry emails and my suitcase was packed with ungraded papers, that I feared venturing into work.

I sat in my airplane seat as tears streamed down my face. I had hastened my last conversation with my dad. I had evaded my mom’s emotional pleas. I have ignored my wife, my kids, my colleagues and my students. I had failed everyone. I had lost hope.

Then that text came.

It came seconds before I had to shut off my phone, leaving me the 2-hour flight to feel its impact: in a moment in which I’m feeling my absolute worst, I was still affecting someone else’s life for the better. That simple text message was the best thing that could’ve happened to me in that moment.

The message came from a former student, but I know it also came from God, lifting me up when I most needed it.

Prayer: God, in the time when we most need you, you are there. Help us see you, and thank you for being there for us. Amen.