Kuya Egor was a cool dude

Kuya Egor died last week, one of thousands of victims of coronavirus.

My Kuya Egor was a really cool dude.

Growing up as child in a first-generation American Filipino family, it seemed I was meeting a new family member at every gathering — and there were A LOT of family gatherings throughout the year. When I first met Kuya Egor, who had recently married my Ate Regie, I instantly fell in love with him. It was the late 1980s and much to the dismay of my parents, I was getting into the “heavy metal” music of the era and simultaneously was discovering my passion for radio, and like every Chicago boy was a huge fan of Michael Jordan. Kuya Egor talked to me about music, popular Chicago morning man Jonathan Brandmeier and the Chicago Bulls, and I knew this was one cool dude. He always made a point to check in on me at family gatherings, offering advice and encouraging me to pursue my dreams. I didn’t think much about it then, but now I realize how much that meant to me.

Being a cool dude, it’s not surprising that Kuya Egor made our supersized Christmas gatherings extra fun. I always enjoyed going to the home of Kuya Egor, Ate Regie and my supercool cousin Mikki. As karaoke was booming in the Philippines (to this day, the karaoke capital of the world … at least according to an episode of The Amazing Race), Kuya brought karaoke into the family, etching it into family tradition. When it was my turn, he would always have a Guns N’ Roses or Bon Jovi track that he purchased just for me. Kuya Egor was also very generous with his gifts, and would frequently attach a $2 bill to gifts for kids. A highlight of the adult white elephant gift exchange was finding Kuya’s gift, because we knew there was a good chance of some extra cash hidden in there. And for the kids, he would literally make it rain money into the living room from the upstairs loft in his home.

My favorite memory happened when I was “around 21” and my Kuya Bong was visiting from Switzerland. At Kuya Egor’s house, we met up with Ninong Ver and Manong Jun — and we all drank whisky until the next morning. That was the moment when I crossed the threshold to become one of the “Filipino men” of the family. I don’t remember much about that night, but I swear for the first time I started to understand Tagalog!

Although my interactions with Kuya Egor grew less and less over the years as I moved to Georgia, he always reconnected with me when I went back home. And he was the first member of my extended family to visit us in Georgia, dropping by for a visit en route to taking his family to Disney.

Looking back for photos of Kuya, it’s not surprising that the only ones I can find (besides shots of the whole family) are ones of him interacting with my kids as they were growing up. Jaydon, Jackson and Matthew instantly connected with him, as is evidenced in the photos.

That’s not surprising, because Kuya Egor was a really cool dude.

Anna

I looked at my class roster today, and cried.

There was one less name than there was yesterday. And although I barely knew the student taken off my list of students, it crippled me emotionally.

I love getting to know my students. It’s why I became a teacher. It’s why I choose to teach at a small college. By the end of the semester, I get to know all my students — some more than others, but a little about each person. And they learn a little about me. But I’ll never get that chance with Anna.

I met Anna three times, to be precise: summer orientation, fall orientation and in the first meeting of the freshman experience class I teach. That means I called her name three times, and she responded each time, either by saying “Here,” but more likely by simply raising her hand.

I take that simple process for granted. When I call a student’s name, most will usually be present. There’s always some absences, but I never worry about the missing student. Whether they’re legitimately missing class or just skipping it, they always come back.

But Anna, who’s still on the class roster I printed out at the beginning of the semester, will never come back. Of course, I could print out the new roster with her name removed, but that doesn’t seem right. She didn’t drop the class. She didn’t change majors. She didn’t fail.

She died on her way to class. Tragically killed by another driver who hit her car head-on after crossing the center line on a busy highway.

She’s no longer on my class roster. She’s not on my list of advisees. Her seat will be empty in my classroom. But even though I never got to know Anna, I get this sense that I’ll never forget her.

Devotional: Recognizing God

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 16, 2018

Psalms 27:4: One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

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“Wow. That is so cool that you have your own flower blooming just for you,” one of my advanced writing students said as she walked into my office.

“What are you talking about?” I asked

“Out your window. You haven’t seen it?” she said as she pointed out my office window.

“Oh. Wow. Yeah. That is really cool. I love that!” I answered.

Of course, this was the first time I ever recognized that flower, or any flower that blooms outside my window. Honestly, I can’t even remember the last time I looked out that window. My attention has been laser-focused on the 1,000+ unanswered emails on my computer screen, the stacks of papers and tests to grade sitting on my desk, and countless students coming in and out of my office for writing one-on-ones.

I had to lie to my student. We just spent the last class discussing the importance of taking in scenes and environments when conducting in-person interviews or covering events. Journalists have to be the eyes and ears for their readers, and in some cases the nose, hands and taste buds. It’s important that writers recognize the entire scene around them, always observant, like a detective looking for clues. But here I am, failing to recognize the scene around my own office, where I spend several hours each day.

Carla often tells me I have “tunnel vision.” I’m good at reaching the finish line, but bad at recognizing the environment along the way. Although this tunnel vision can serve me well in some situations — such as meeting deadlines or coming through in the clutch — it does impair my ability to recognize God’s beauty around me.

Our church has been focusing on “listening” this Lent. I’ve realized that if I take the time to listen, my sense of hearing will not be the only sense impacted by this practice. Focusing on listening allows my other senses to come alive. As I write this on the bleachers of a baseball field, I feel God’s presence in the gentle, cool breeze interrupting the still air. I smell God’s creation in the freshly cut grass. And I can see God’s miracles as children run around with pure joy.

God has flowers blooming for me, all around me. But one place they’re not growing is in my tunnel. I need to make more conscious efforts to peek outside my tunnel and take in God’s beauty with all my senses.

Prayer: God, you are all around me. Arouse my senses so I can enjoy your beauty. Amen.

Devotional: God appears

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 1, 2018

Philippians 2:13 (NIV): For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

 “Third place: Georgia Highlands College.”

This is good news, I thought. We finished second last year in the Georgia College Press Association contest, the first time Piedmont College’s student newspaper was named a “General Excellence” publication in more than a decade. And my students worked really hard in 2017. Another second-place finish would solidify our reputation as one of the best small-college newspapers in the state.

“Second place: Berry College.”

Holy smoke! Berry is consistently at the top! When I arrived at Piedmont three years ago, my goal as adviser of the newspaper was to elevate it to the top of the rankings within five years. Could we be two years ahead of schedule? My heart started racing. I could barely contain my excitement. I am the best college media adviser in the history of the world! Here we go …

“First place: Abraham Baldwin College.”

What? My heart sank. As Abraham Baldwin students celebrated and rushed to the stage to collect their award, I could barely make eye contact with my students. I don’t understand this. Over the past year our newspaper raised its standards dramatically, covering issues such as domestic abuse, transgendered student discrimination, guns on campus and the challenges faced by a Piedmont student about to lose DACA protections. What could Abraham Baldwin possibly have covered to earn first place? Was there a cow tipping scandal?

Honestly, I should’ve seen it coming. It was a fitting end to a crappy week. I was on my fifth consecutive 12-hour workday, I unintentionally ditched two important meetings the day before and I was furious at a couple students who bailed at the last minute to make the trip. I was also struggling to get along with anyone in my family – even the dog would snap at me.

I had to hold it together for my students. They needed a good leader, and a good time. We ditched our per diem and drowned our sorrows in overpriced pasta, ultra-rich chocolate cake and gourmet coffee. It was a truly great dinner. The camaraderie of the team overshadowed any disappointment we had.

But the inevitable happened a few hours later. I was alone facing a 55-mile drive home. And the emotions hit me.

I tried to ignore the voices telling me I was a loser and I let my students down. But they persisted.

I tried praying, asking God to help me, but the voices grew louder. Why is God abandoning me?

Tears were streaming down my face, and I was heading down a familiar spiral into depression.

Then I received a text alert on my phone. It was from one of my students.

“Hey Joe. Did you make it home?”
“En route,” I replied.
“K. Don’t text while driving, Just wanted to tell you you are the best. Thanks for being the best.”

My tears of self-loathing turned into tears of pride, and even laughter. How could I get so upset over something so trivial? What’s really important is how incredible my students are, and obviously I’m making a positive impact on them.

The text was from Page, my news editor. In hindsight, I know it was also from God.

Prayer: God, thank you for always being there for me. Thank you for working through other people to influence my life. Help me be a tool for you to impact others.

Devotional: Listen

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

Feb. 15, 2018

Mark 4:9: “Let the person who has ears to hear, listen!”

When I learned the theme for our Lenten season is “Listen,” my mind couldn’t help but recount the song of the same name from Atlanta band Collective Soul …

Hey, you now wander aimlessly around your consciousness.
Your prophecies fail, and your thoughts become weak.
Silence creates necessity.
You’re clothing yourself in the shields of despair.
Your courage now impaired.
Hey, why can’t you listen?
Hey, why can’t you hear?
Hey, why can’t you listen as love screams everywhere.

As a former rock radio disc jockey, I’ve probably heard this song more than 1,000 times (it was a #1 rock radio hit in 1997). Its mesmerizing guitar hook and catchy chorus made it a popular song. Ironically, through all those times I’ve played the song, I never actually listened to the lyrics of “Listen.” But as the song was replaying in my head, it took on a much deeper, spiritual, meaning.

I’ve been “feeding my mind with selfishness” for a long time. From the iPhone to the Echo, I’ve always tried to have the latest gadget. From HBO to satellite radio, I’ve always afforded myself with as many entertainment options as possible. From announcing UGA hockey games to joining yet another committee, I’ve always attempted to keep myself busy.

And at the end of the day, before my “thoughts become weak” and I clothe myself in “shields of despair,” I take two different antidepressant drugs and fall asleep … before waking up and doing it all over again.

I haven’t talked to God in a long time.

“Silence creates necessity,” but I haven’t given time for the silence I need to hear God. I haven’t listened to God.

This Lent, I’m going to make the time.

Prayer: God, I know you’re trying to talk to me. But I keep shutting you out by occupying my life, my mind with a million other things. I promise to try, but I’m also asking for you to help me open up, and listen.