Saturday, August 15, 2009

Left turns, ear plugs and people watching

There's nothing quite like life around a race track.
It's hot. It's noisy. And most of all, it's loud. Painfully loud.
But on race day, it's passionately energetic.
Fans wearing baseball caps with numbers embroidered on them snake through large crowds, hoping to get a closer look at NASCAR's main event.
For those willing to pay, pit passes allow fanatics to maneuver through the garage area – a virtual backstage pass to the sport's biggest names. Fans carry digital cameras, snapping photos of cars and their drivers, hoping to get a glance at their favorite NASCAR characters.
Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson. Dale, Jr.
In racing circles, drivers are known either by their first name or their numbers. In NASCAR parlance, drivers are identified by the number painted on the side of their cars.
"The 24 car just got loose on Turn 4," race announcers report.
And without any sort of master roster, fans know where to look and who's in trouble.
On steamy summer days, fans pack into seating that overlooks the main stage. They whoop and holler, cheering on their favorites.
At track level, the most passionate of fans walk around with earbuds blaring radio traffic into their ears, keeping track of communications between driver and their crew chief.
The reporters who cover NASCAR range in knowledge from veteran know-it-alls who have worked in each of the circuit's media rooms to newbies just trying to figure the sport out.
But spend time walking around the pits and around the garage area and one thing becomes abundantly clear: People who love NASCAR are among the most passionate sports fans that exist.
On some level, they connect with their heroes – whether it be by wearing the same number they do, drink the same beer they do or drive the same make of car they do. They are self-admitted rednecks, unashamed of their love for auto racing.
And there's nothing wrong with a little passion for something that gets your engine revved up.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A different perspective

One of the greatest aspects of my journalism career is the people I meet.
At times in the past while rushing to chase after the biggest paper and the best beat, I neglected to truly tell stories of the people I met, satisfied to take them at first blush.
Sam Meija is different.
I met Sam this week in the offices of a Washtenaw County social services agency that serves the area's homeless population.
I had read briefly about his story on and in the Detroit Free Press, chronicling a journey that started in North Carolina and that continues at the University of Michigan. In between, Sam - who is 35 – endured being homeless, often spending nights in the woods behind the University of Michigan hospital.
In the woods, Sam felt safe, creating a barrier between himself and the cruel stares of those who judge people like him.
Until you get to know him, Sam is quiet and unassuming. But as his personality begins to blossom in front of you, you come to meet a man determined not to be defined by the hand life has dealt him.
At one stage of his homeless existence, Sam decided that for some reason, he had been cast into this life. But after examining what is inside of him, he found that life's circumstances wouldn't keep him from reaching his full potential.
He started by completing his GED. He enrolled at a local community college and then transferred to Michigan. He is now studying mechanical engineering – a year after Sara Silvennoinen discovered him in an Ann Arbor homeless shelter.
Like Sara, I am amazed at the turnabout Sam has brought in his life. Undeterred by his hardships, Sam is determined to make a life for himself – all the while overcoming the odds that have been stacked against him for much of his life.
So Sam, thanks for the life lesson and thanks for teaching me the valuable lesson that people are often so much more than they first appear.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The new adventure begins

Today, I turn 40.
So far, I have gotten one humorous birthday card reminding me of how things were when I was younger. I have gotten my share of Facebook greetings referring to me as Old Man. My favorite came from a college roommate who simply wrote, "Good Lord, you're old."
It's all good.
I am sure I pestered friends older than I when they turned the dreaded 4-0. Turnabout is fair play.
For the past year now, I wondered what my big great adventure would be. One of my college friends climbed Mt. Everest when he turned 40. This summer, he was planning to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and invited me along.
I'm not sure he ever made it. Obviously, I did not. But the thought of traveling to Africa to climb a mountain was romantic to think about, leaving me to live vicariousy through my friend Nathan, who traved to Africa to make his own great climb only to discover a much bigger adventure.
In one of our discussions, Nathan told me not to worry, I would get to Africa one day.
My Africa, it turns out - at least for now - is finding that my adventure isn't so much a destination, but the greater story discovered on the way.
In the past few weeks, I have watched my newspaper close, I have begun a new venture at and have considered doing some freelance public relations work for friends. I have also been asked to consider working part-time at our church, helping new members become engaged in our congregation by using their gifts to serve the greater good.
My new adventure includes a change in priorities. After years of defining myself by my journalism career, I have learned that work – while still a passion – can no longer be my identity. There are greater sources of happiness and a greater purpose.
I will no longer choose to find complete satisfaction in marquee assignments or high-profile bylines. There is more inside of me that is begging to be used to serve a higher purpose.
The journey to the top of my mountain won't be a short one. Nor will it be completed overnight. But my recent first step into my 40s has reminded me that it's OK to stop and take a glimpse of what's around me rather than focusing solely on the final destination.
Next stop, Africa.
And yes, Nathan, one day I will get there.