A new chapter in the book of life

We recently revisited a chapter in our lives that closed six years ago – at the same time as new chapters are being written.

Our youngest son started graduate school this week at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. In a whirlwind weekend, we helped him move from Ypsilanti to Mount Pleasant, about a two-hour drive, to help him start a new chapter.

We drove up to Michigan Friday night to stay with our oldest son, who also helped with the move. Saturday morning in a drizzle, we loaded up our son’s belongings, then under overcast skies helped him get settled in his new apartment.

On the way, we drove past Michigan State University, where my wife and I met in the early 1980s. The sun came out during that part of our trip. Of course. The sun always shines in East Lansing, right? (Even though we had to take two detours to get from I-96 to U.S. 127.)

Saturday evening, we left our sons in Mount Pleasant (the oldest graduated from CMU earlier and planned to introduce his brother to a few friends to help him get settled). We drove to Saginaw, where our family wrote the longest chapter in our lives.

Reminiscing

We lived in Saginaw for 27 years, by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere. We raised our three sons there. We connected with a church family, our sons’ friends, people we met at their schools, volunteers we met in the community. I had a wonderful job there.

Sunday morning, we attended the church where we served while we lived there. While some people have moved on and new folks attend now, we saw many friends from that chapter in our lives.

We met several of them as soon as we arrived. “We’re having church in the parking lot,” I told the 11 a.m. worship leader, who arrived shortly after we did.

The worship leader and his wife were married the same day we were, the same year. We each raised three children alongside each other. Those kind of friendships last a lifetime.

We reconnected with friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years, since the last time we visited. We exchanged many hugs and handshakes and smiles.

We didn’t drive past the old house this time, or visit other places where memories were made. The weekend was already full. We drove 600 miles in 48 hours.

As we reminisced with old friends about good times and how life has changed for us all, we focused on the good memories. We do that, don’t we? The good old days. We overlook the hard times and remember the good times. Or, we try to.

Turning the page quickly

My job there was eliminated in 2009, and we left Saginaw in 2012. The chapters in our lives – especially mine – since then became shorter and more numerous.

A little over a year in Rockford, Illinois. A new job in Elyria, Ohio, which lasted 13 months. We’d had enough of out-of-state moves by then, so we’ve stayed here. After an 11-month search, I landed another job – the first non-office job I’d had since I graduated from college. I worked directly with adults with developmental disabilities.

That chapter in my life lasted 2.5 years, ending just a couple of weeks ago. It ended suddenly, but it was time.

I’ve always had a passion for serving my community. Even when I was working full-time and raising three children, I found time to volunteer with several organizations, mostly dealing with children or hunger issues.

In retirement, I dream of becoming a full-time volunteer, doing various things. Here in Elyria, I’ve continued one or two volunteer activities I’ve been involved with for many years. But as with any chapter in life, some doors have closed, and a few new ones have opened.

A new chapter

Now that I don’t answer to a supervisor anymore, a new chapter has just begun.

Our church is opening its third satellite campus in a nearby city. When the recently-hired pastor shared his vision for the campus with those of us who attended an informational meeting, I got excited. His vision is similar to the vision of the church in Saginaw where we raised our sons.

Is this where God wants us now? We haven’t made that formal decision yet. We’re still praying, still considering.

The pastor has organized a weekly morning prayer group at the new location – which isn’t scheduled to open for worship services until next spring, but which is launching other programs even now – to begin connecting with each other and seeing where we each may fit in. Since I’m not working now and I have the time, I showed up on a recent morning.

About a dozen of us prayed. We were done in a half-hour, so we could get on with our day. It was beautiful.

Our church has been trying to open this campus for several years, but the timing wasn’t right. Plans kept falling through. Until now.

I enjoy being a small part of something big, whether it’s a company, a volunteer agency or a church. What’s my niche?

During this transition time for me, I likely will seek new roles, as well as expand current roles.

In the past I liked structure. My primary job was newspaper copy editor. While the news changed every day, the deadlines I faced did not. I knew my role, and tried to do it well. Reporters love the variety in their job – new experiences, new people to meet, not knowing what they were going to write about that day. My job, in the office, was to take those written experiences and help transform them into a newspaper.

News happens 24/7 but a copy editor’s job occurs on a regular schedule, so the paper reaches your doorstep at roughly the same time every day. Everyone at the paper plays a part in making that happen. Everyone – reporters, editors and many others – is needed.

Until newspaper executives started eliminating copy desks, including the one where I worked, to save money. But that’s a different story.

Bottom line: When that job ended, the structure in my life ended too.

I haven’t always handled it well.

An open book

I do have a creative streak in me. Will it come out now? Can I be flexible? Can I be happy doing different things each day?

These decisions don’t have to be made immediately. We will see how God leads me, and us.

The next chapter of my life begins with a blank page. It’s not entirely blank, of course; I’m not starting over completely.

But I am changing direction.

Has God been preparing me for this moment?

Perhaps I’ll have an answer for that question soon; possibly, it will take some time before I know.

Either way, it’s time to start writing.

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Witnessing tennis history

My oldest son and I saw a piece of history last week in Mason, Ohio, 25 miles north of Cincinnati.

In between raindrops, we saw tennis superstar Novak Djokovic of Serbia struggle to win three-set matches on Thursday and Friday against Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria and Milos Raonic of Canada, respectively, on his way to winning the Western & Southern Open title.

Dimitrov won the title last year. Raonic has a huge serve – he routinely topped 140 mph on his serves, the fastest we saw during our two days at the weeklong tournament.

The men

Djokovic won the Cincinnati title for the first time. He became the first player to win all nine Masters 1000 Series titles – a group of tournaments around the world that rank in importance just below the four major championships. (Djokovic has won all of those as well.)

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On Sunday he defeated Roger Federer of Switzerland in straight sets to enter the record books. Federer had won the Western & Southern title seven times, never losing in the finals until this year. In contrast, Djokovic had reached the finals five times previously, losing all of them – three to Federer and two to Andy Murray of Great Britain, who lost in the first round this year.

This was our third year attending the Western & Southern Open, a tune-up for many of the tennis world’s top players before the U.S. Open, the final major of the year, which concludes Labor Day weekend in New York City.

We have attended Wednesday and Thursday matches because we figure many of the top players will still be in the tournament, and there’s enough matches scheduled on multiple courts to make the days fun.

Of course, there always are upsets. We have yet to see either of the Williams sisters play. Last year, Serena was pregnant and didn’t come, and Venus lost early. This year, Venus didn’t play and Serena lost before we got there.

Maybe next year.

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The highlight of our week was seeing Federer play. He didn’t compete in Cincinnati the previous two years because of injuries. At age 37, the married father of four continues to play at a world-class level.

Federer was scheduled to play Thursday night, but for the second year in a row, the Thursday night session got rained out.

aretha

Unlike last year, it rained during the day as well. We walked from our motel to the tennis center, about three-quarters of a mile, in a drizzle that morning. Play was supposed to start at 11 a.m. but didn’t start until about 3 p.m.

During that delay, we learned that Aretha Franklin had died earlier in the day. A somber moment in a dreary morning.

When action started we saw less than one game of a match between Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina and Hyeon Chung of South Korea before the rains came again – only for about 10 minutes, though.

But that was enough to drench the court, and it took the ballboys and others nearly an hour to dry the playing surface.

Eventually, we saw del Potro defeat Chung in the grandstand, then Djokovic play Dimitrov on Center Court. After a couple of rain delays, the public-address announcer said, at about 9 p.m., that the day-session match was postponed until Friday. (The Center Court seats got crowded as day-session and night-session ticket holders decided who would sit where. Since the match was considered a day match, even though it was well past dinner time, the daytime seat-holders took precedence.)

The rainout forced Djokovic, like many players – including Federer, for the first time since 2004, he told the crowd in a post-match interview – to play two matches in one day. Djokovic dispatched Dimitrov, rested for a couple of hours, then defeated Raonic in a late-afternoon match.

The women

Oh, yes: The women played as well. Last year, for whatever reason, the women’s bracket provided the better matches, while this year, the men’s side did. Each tournament is unique, for sure.

On Thursday, we saw two women’s matches. Elise Mertens of Belgium upset Sloane Stephens of Plantation, Fla., and Madison Keys of Rock Island. Ill., defeated Angelique Kerber of Germany.

On Friday – a day with no rain and plenty of good tennis – we saw two more women’s matches. Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic beat Mertens in a difficult three-set match; Mertens easily could have won.

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Later, Simona Halep of Romania, the No. 1 seed and top-ranked women’s player in the world, defeated Ashleigh Barty of Australia. Halep eventually would lose in the final to unranked Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who won the biggest title of her career.

Takeaways

We saw del Potro play three times in two days – two full matches and a snippet of his middle match, against Nick Kyrgios of Australia, one of the more entertaining players you’ll ever see. He frequently hits the ball between his legs during a match – most of the time landing the ball in play. He also has a wicked serve, but del Potro managed to outlast him.

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After defeating Kyrgios early on Friday, del Potro had to play later that day against David Goffin of Belgium, who I didn’t know anything about until this match. He’s an excellent player and defeated del Potro, then retired in the semi-final against Federer with a shoulder injury. All those rain-compressed matches took their toll. (On Halep too, I would guess – she ran out of gas in the finale.)

In the past two years, we’ve seen far too much rain. This year, Cincinnati got 5 inches of rain on Thursday – shattering the rainfall record for the day. At that rate, I’m surprised we saw any tennis at all.

Rain affects all outdoor sports, tennis more than most because the court must be completely dry for the players. Even a drizzle halts play, making the surface too slippery for the running, sliding athletes.

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I’m always impressed how hard the players hit the ball, both men and women, and how low to the net they keep it. They hit the lines and corners routinely. They serve hard, and place their serves exactly where they want them.

It’s what they do for a living, so they practice a lot. It shows. Many of them get upset when they miss a shot – and give a fist pump when they nail one. Emotions remain just below the surface, until the point ends.

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Sportsmanship is paramount, for the athletes and the fans. As spectators we are to remain quiet during play. No cell phones or loud camera clicks either.

Respect for the game. World-class athletes performing at the highest level.

 

Especially in the grandstand and court 3, the spectators are very close to the players. We see their facial expressions, their muscles tense as play begins, the squeak of their shoes as they chase down a shot.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Finding passion in the midst of constant change

Nothing lasts on Earth. Nothing at all.

Is that a good thing?

Depends on your outlook.

If you are adventurous, you like doing new things all the time. You create change. Things that last probably bore you.

If you prefer security, commitment and long-term involvement, then change gets in the way. You might even fear it.

What if change comes, and you wish it wouldn’t?

I’m finding it hard to remain committed to much of anything these days. Maybe I have some secret anger, a restlessness, an insecurity, an impatience with something that keeps me from things that last.

Perhaps it’s none of those things. Perhaps this is just the way life is.

Short-term volunteering

For example, I enjoy mentoring elementary-age students through local schools. Many children these days need a good male role model. If I can help, I enjoy doing that.

Our church in Saginaw, Mich., partnered with the elementary school across the street, and that’s where I first got involved. I showed up at lunchtime and played games with the student, ate lunch with him, and gave him encouragement. Sometimes I helped him with homework that he didn’t finish in the morning.

That lasted a couple of years, until we moved to Rockford, Ill. A month or two after we moved there, I found a reading program through Rockford Public Schools. That winter/spring and the following fall, I spent an hour in a classroom, reading with four students whom the teacher sent to me in 15-minute segments. I assisted them with words they had trouble pronouncing, and I helped with their comprehension – do you understand what you are reading?

We moved away after a year to Elyria, Ohio. I found a lunchtime mentoring program at Midview Schools in nearby Grafton. After a year, that program disappeared and I never heard from the school district again.

So I connected with Greater Cleveland Volunteers, which introduced me to My Mentor My Friend, a lunchtime mentoring program at four elementaries in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.  I picked the school on the west side of Cleveland (the other three schools all were on the east side), and mentored three students there in a little more than a year.

Trying to make a difference

My first student there moved away in the summer. My second student, probably a loner like me, seemed uncomfortable with the one-on-one attention and dropped out of the program. My third student also moved away this summer.

That’s the lifestyle of the typical low-income inner-city student. Many live with one parent, or in the case of one of my students, with Grandpa. The parent often rents and moves across town frequently. My last student told me his dad got a job in Arizona, and he was planning to move out there to be with him. Dad said Cleveland was too violent. The student had anger management issues and it wasn’t unusual for him to be on suspension when I showed up to mentor.

Did I make a difference? Only God knows. I will never see the long-term results of any student I have mentored thus far, in any district in any state.

That’s just the way it is.

And now, My Mentor My Friend lost its United Way funding and has ended.

The Cleveland school district might keep the mentoring program going on its own. We’ll see. I’m also looking into another mentoring program in Lorain, which is nearer to my home. Either way, it’s another new start.

Elyria City Schools doesn’t have a mentoring program, a teacher there told me recently, because of the work involved to set up and administer such a program. I get that. When a man wants to work with children, red flags go up, don’t they?

At each school district, I had to pass a background check. In Cleveland, I also faced two interviews, fingerprinting and had to provide references – as intensive as any job interview I’ve had.

A year and a half later, is it all for naught?

Where’s the passion?

I’ve had trouble keeping jobs long-term as well. I had one job that lasted eight weeks. The job in Rockford lasted 14 months. My first job here in Elyria lasted 13 months. My next job lasted 2.5 years, but I got burned out. Without going into details, that job is over too.

I enjoy volunteering in the community. Mentoring, yes, but doing other things as well.

It’s me and God now. I no longer answer to a supervisor.

Will I find work again? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Financially, we are doing well.

And, as I said, I’m burned out. Impatient. Perhaps angry.

I have no home on Earth. I’ve felt that way for a long time.

The Rev. Doug Mater, who is the current pastor of a former church where we worshipped and served, wrote the following in a church newsletter earlier this year:

 

How often do we let our God-given strengths go to waste? We spend so much time trying to overcome our limitations by doing things we are not equipped to do. On the contrary, we should consider our special talents for ministry and focus on doing these things better, asking ourselves if we are trying to do something that we are not equipped to do, just for the sake of thinking I need to be different. …

We must continue to be the best we can at these talents so that others will see us as Christians who care about others and want them to share in the joy that we have in Jesus Christ. So, I ask you to look at your talents and keep practicing them. … Let us excel for God with the talents He has given us for his glory.

 

That’s a great message. Often we focus on our weaknesses and try to get better. Or take a job, any job, just to meet the budget.

Instead, we should emphasize our strengths and do them with passion.

What am I “equipped to do?” Do I have any “special talents?” How can I “excel for God?”

As I face yet another transition in my life, this is a good time to ponder such questions.

The journey continues.

Drivers under the influence of their own arrogance

A local columnist I read recently rightly worries about letting her teen son test for his driver’s learning permit. She tells the story of a driver under the influence of a narcotic who caused a three-vehicle crash not far from their home.

Drivers under the influence of a narcotic aren’t the ones that worry me.

Fright on the freeway

My wife and I late one Friday afternoon were traveling on eastbound I-90. Suddenly, a driver in a black sports car sprinted across three lanes of traffic to reach the I-271 interchange east of Cleveland. I slammed on my brakes and horn at the same time, or I’d have broadsided him – at 60 mph.

Behind me, the driver of a flat-bed semi honked at me for slowing down in the middle of a busy highway. Obviously not paying attention until the last split-second, he swerved to my right, flew past me and cut me off – with his flatbed trailer – then sped on ahead.

This all happened in just a few seconds. I had no time to panic or be afraid.

People die in that situation.

A couple of weeks later, my wife and I were traveling westbound on I-90 approaching the state Route 611 exit not far from our home. Driving in the right-hand lane, we approached a police car with its lights flashing that had stopped a vehicle on the shoulder.

Following state law, I slowed down, since I was unable to move to the left lane due to traffic. A driver in a small car behind me drove up to my bumper. After we passed the police car and traffic lightened a little, he sped around me and jerked in front of me, nearly hitting my vehicle, to get to the 611 exit immediately in front of us.

Seriously?

These are the drivers that scare me. They aren’t under the influence of anything except their own arrogance.

I see them nearly every day. Even though I see police cars all the time, I’ve never seen worse drivers than I have in Northeast Ohio.

I don’t get it.

I have more stories. I bet you could tell some, too.

Cut off in the city

Several times, drivers have swerved past me when I’m in my work van and cut me off just to get to a gas station or convenience store immediately ahead. That unsafe pass saved them three seconds – literally. Do they even know that?

Or, they speed past just to get to the red light a little faster than I do.

I have pity on such drivers. Why are they in such a hurry? Can’t they relax, even a little? Perhaps they need to set their alarm clock five minutes earlier – or actually get out of bed when the alarm goes off.

I drive for a living now. Before I got this job, I enjoyed taking a ride through the countryside just to relax. If I had some down time, I’d put the key in the ignition and go. No agenda, no destination, just a time to see someplace new.

Driving for fun

A few times, instead of the countryside, I toured the city. I visited Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland a couple of times, where my grandparents and uncle are buried. I had a job interview in Sandusky three years ago, and I drove up there a couple of days before the interview just to get a feel for the city and find the building where the interview would take place.

When I graduated college more than 35 years ago, I accepted a job as a reporter/photographer/ad salesman/page designer/newspaper deliverer for a weekly newspaper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I turned in mileage reimbursement sheets. It wasn’t unusual for me to submit 300 miles of work-related mileage in a week. It was nothing to drive 50 miles round-trip to cover a meeting.

I rarely saw a traffic light up there. Just get in my car and go. Most towns had one – count ’em, one – blinker light.

That was the toughest part about moving downstate to Saginaw, Mich. – traffic. Sharing the road. Stopping at red lights. Construction zone detours.

I learned, because I had to. I’ve never been in a crash, either. It can be done.

It’s called defensive driving. Expect other drivers to do stupid things, so I’m not surprised when they actually happen.

When our three sons learned to drive as teenagers, I impressed upon them the need to get where they were going. No matter how long it takes, get there. Reach your destination. If you’re stuck in a construction zone, for example, be patient. You’ll get through it.

So you think you can merge

Even today, I am amused when construction narrows three lanes to two, or two lanes to one, and drivers think they can beat the system by driving right up to the flashing arrow or orange barrels and hope someone will let them in. We let them in every time, don’t we?

But that slows everyone down. If we all just got in line, that line would flow smoothly – slowly, sure, but smoothly – through the construction zone. Try it sometime.

Chill out, people. Enjoy the ride. Not just for the sake of teens learning to drive, but for the rest of us too.

Whether on the highway or in the city, I don’t appreciate you taking my life in your hands, as well as your own.

(Side note: If you truly liked your car, SUV or truck, you wouldn’t risk damaging it with unsafe driving. Must be nice to have the money to replace your ride often. I don’t. Just so you know.)