August 31-September 2, 1997. Back to Jeromeville, with a new home and a new plan. (#143)

Disclaimer: Had I not taken that unplanned break, this episode would have been posted the weekend after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. By complete coincidence, this episode also takes place during a time of mourning for the British royal family. Please know that I only mentioned that in the episode for reasons of historical accuracy. I am not in any way trying to capitalize on a sad, newsworthy event to get people’s attention. I send my condolences to all who are affected and in mourning, both now and then.


“Welcome to Jeromeville Covenant Church,” Pastor Dan announced from the front of the church after the worship band finished their opening song.  “I’m Dan Keenan, the college and young adult pastor, and I always enjoy this time of year when we start to see some of the UJ students coming back.”  Dan looked around as confusion appeared to show on his face, as if he expected to see more returning university students than he did.  He continued, “Maybe not yet this week, but I thought I saw Greg Dennison around somewhere.”

I was not sure how to feel about that.  I had been attending J-Cov for a little less than a year, after making the complicated decision to leave behind the Catholicism of my mother’s Italian and French ancestors, but apparently I had already become well-known enough around church that the pastor was noticing me and calling me out in front of everyone.  I looked at Pastor Dan and waved, trying not to be too conspicuous; Dan saw me and continued, “There he is.  Welcome back, Greg.”

I had not been to J-Cov in two and a half months.  I spent most of my summer in Oregon, doing a mathematics research internship, where I had the life-changing revelation that I did not enjoy mathematics research.  I had spent the last three years at the University of Jeromeville assuming that I would just stay in school forever and get an advanced degree in mathematics, but the experience of the last two months had brought that plan into question.

While I was in Oregon, I found a church to attend, and they offered a weekly Bible study for the college and career age group.  That gave me much-needed Christian fellowship in the midst of doing math with other students with very different beliefs.  But it just was not the same.  Eight weeks was not long enough to form meaningful bonds with that group, and while they were all very nice people, I did not form the kind of close friendships with them that I did with my friends from J-Cov and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I also got involved at J-Cov as a youth group leader last winter, which made me feel more a part of the community.

As I walked out of the building after church ended, I heard a familiar voice shout, “Greg!  You’re back!”

“Hey,” I said to Ted Hunter, a boy from the youth group.  He and his friends randomly asked me to take them to lunch last year, leading to my involvement as a youth leader.  “How was your summer?  You went to camp, right?”

“Yeah!  It was so much fun!  Have you ever been to Mission Forest?”

“No, I haven’t,” I replied.

“You should go next time!”

“Maybe.”

I looked around, trying to find Josh and Abby; I saw them earlier, and I needed to talk to them, since Josh was directly involved in why I had come back to Jeromeville this weekend in particular.  “So what’s the plan for today?” I asked after I found them.

“Hey, Greg,” Josh replied.  “Welcome back.”

“We’ll come over to the apartment with a truck later this afternoon,” Abby explained.  “Are you all packed and ready?  Everything cleaned?”

“As much as I can be.  That’s what I was doing all day yesterday.”

“Great!” Josh said.

“We’re going dumpster diving this afternoon.  We’ll bring the truck by after we’re done,” Abby said.

“Dumpster diving?” I asked.  “What is that exactly?

“You’ve never been dumpster diving?”

“No.”

“It’s so much fun!  This is the week that everyone is moving, so a lot of people just throw out furniture that is still good.  You never know what you’ll find.  We’re gonna look for things we might be able to use at the new house.”

“That does sound fun.”

“Maybe you can come with us next time.”

“Sure.  Let me know.”


After I came back from Oregon, I spent two weeks at my parents’ house.  I did not do much during that time.  I had lost touch with all of my high school friends by now, and I did not do anything particularly interesting with my family.  My brother Mark got his friends together last weekend to have another Moport tournament.  Moport was a game that Mark and I invented in the yard, inspired by a game I played in physical education class in high school.  The game I learned was best described as a hybrid of soccer and rugby; our variation added hockey sticks to the mix, because more sports meant more awesome.  The Ice Monkeys of Rage, consisting of Mark and his goofy friend Eric Kingston, won this year’s tournament; they had been heavily favored to win the previous year, but were upset in the final round.

I arrived at my old apartment yesterday morning.  Brian and Shawn had moved out earlier in the summer, cleaning their rooms and taking some of the furniture.  Josh had done a lot of cleaning and packing already; he was staying with his parents in Oak Heights this week, about forty miles to the east across the Capital River.  I had to be out of the apartment by six o’clock tonight; after working hard yesterday, I had everything ready to pack into Josh’s rental truck, except for a few things that I needed.  One was the television and VCR; I put in a tape, turned on the TV, and pressed Record.  This weekend was the start of football season, and I did not want to miss the Bay City Captains’ first game.  Since I would be cleaning and packing, I would not be able to pay attention to the game today.  I would disconnect the TV and VCR last as I loaded the truck, after I knew the game would be over, and I would watch my recording of the game after we hooked everything up at the new house.

I also left my stereo unpacked and brought it to the living room; listening to music required less concentration than watching a football game on television.  I had not listened to much music when I was in Oregon except for the five CDs of Christian rock bands that I had brought with me.  Over the last couple weeks, I had discovered all sorts of new bands I had never heard before that had become popular that summer, bands with names like Matchbox Twenty and Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth.

Josh and Abby showed up with the truck around three-thirty.  “Come look what we got!” Abby said excitedly, motioning me to the back of the truck.  Inside was a beat up round wooden dining room table, a dry-erase board about three feet by four feet with no frame, a small end table that looked perfectly good, and some kind of cabinet, about five feet long and four feet tall, with glass doors.  It was probably supposed to be a display case for something, maybe the fancy plates that some people have that no one ever actually eats from.  “I was thinking we could put the table in the backyard, since it’s not in very good condition.  But the other stuff can go in the living room-dining room area.”

“What goes in that cabinet?”

“I don’t know!  But we have room for it.”

“Sure.  Sounds good.”

“Ready to start loading?” Josh asked.  We went back in the house and began carrying the remaining boxes and furniture to the truck.  Moving was tedious work.  I hated it.  But at least I had a new house to look forward to, a sort of fresh start to my living situation.  And this house was not an apartment in a large complex, so I would not have to use coin-operated laundry machines in a common area and risk my clothes getting stolen again.  Josh’s parents were currently on their way to Jeromeville from Oak Heights with a used washer and dryer in good condition.

At one point, I saw Josh carrying a box of his textbooks.  “‘Educational psychology,’” I said, pointing at a book in his box with that title.  “That’s Ed 110, right?”

“Yeah.”

“How was that class?”

“Pretty straightforward.  Are you taking it?  Does that mean you’ve decided you’re going into teaching?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out.  I want to meet with someone in the education department to talk about the options.  I didn’t like math research, and I liked helping out in the math class at Jeromeville High last year, so it seems like the route I want to go, as of now.”

“Good for you!  You’ll need that class, but it’s offered every quarter, so it’s not hard to get into.”

“I’ll probably take it winter quarter.”

“What are we gonna do with this?” Josh asked, pointing to the spot in the living room where the couch was.  At the beginning of the previous school year, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had performed a skit based on the old Scooby-Doo cartoons.  Brian had played Shaggy, and our cardboard prop of the Mystery Machine van had ended up at our house.  Brian left it here when he moved out, so apparently it was mine now.  I had been part of the skit too, in a very minor role with one line.

“Bring it with us,” I said.  “It has too much sentimental value to throw away.  I’ll keep it in my room, behind the bed or something.”

Yesterday I had meticulously disassembled the bed loft that I had bought from Claire Seaver, which her dad had made for her sister years earlier.  Now we were loading it into the truck, along with everything else left in the apartment.  We worked quickly, giving us enough time before we left to vacuum the floors in the rooms that needed it.  When we were done, I took one last walk through the apartment, carefully checking every cabinet and closet to make sure nothing was left inside.  I noticed there was one thing that we had left in the living room: the television, still recording the Captains game.  I turned on the TV, squinted my eyes so I would not be able to see the score in case the game was still on, opened my eyes when I saw that the game was clearly over, and stopped the recording.  I unplugged and disconnected everything, bringing it out to the truck.  Abby and Josh packed the television and VCR into the truck while I went to the apartment office to return the key.

“Well,” I said, “time to go?”

“Yep,” Josh replied.  “We don’t live here anymore.  Sean should be at the new house, and my parents might be there by now too.  I’ll see you there in a few minutes?”

“All right.”


I originally knew Abby from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and Josh was her boyfriend. Josh was one of my roommates at the old apartment; he had approached me a few months earlier asking if I wanted to live in his house next year. He would be rooming with Sean Richards, whom I was also friends with, and a guy named Sam whom I did not know as well.

The trip to the new house was very short, only about half a mile away in the direction closer to campus.  I drove south on Maple Lane, stopped at the red light at Coventry Boulevard, then made the next left after the light onto Acacia Drive.  I drove down a long block, with an apartment complex on the left and a row of nearly identical duplexes on the right.  I was familiar with these apartments.  Nine of my close friends from my freshman dorm had lived in three separate apartments in that complex sophomore year, and Noah and Brody, two other youth group leaders from church, would be living there this year.

At the end of the long block, the street made a 90-degree right turn.  Our new house, 902 Acacia Drive, was right on the corner, the left side of the last duplex in this row.  The living area made an L-shape, with three bedrooms on the left, a covered parking spot on the right, and a living room, dining room, and kitchen in the back.  The attached house on the right, 904 Acacia Drive, appeared to have the same floor plan, but mirrored, so that the two covered parking spots were adjacent.  Like our apartment last year, this house had three bedrooms, and I would be sharing the large bedroom.  This one had two full bathrooms, though, with one of the bathrooms attached to my bedroom.  The old apartment had one full bathroom off of the upstairs hallway and a toilet and sink, with no tub or shower, downstairs.  I found it an interesting coincidence that, last year, I was sharing the large bedroom with a guy named “Shawn,” and this year I would be sharing the large bedroom with a guy named “Sean.”

Sean Richards was tall and thin, with hair cut short.  He was in UJ’s Army ROTC program; after he graduated, he would serve for a few years as an officer in the United States Army.  Sean was in his fourth year, like me.  He was a wildlife biology major, and I had met him when I used to attend Catholic Mass at the Newman Center, but Sean also attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship sometimes.  JCF was a chapter of the nondenominational Christian organization Intervarsity, not affiliated with any specific church.

When I arrived, a middle-aged couple stood outside next to a pickup truck, with a washing machine, dryer, and other items in the back.  “Are you Josh’s parents?” I asked them.

“Yes,” the man said.  “Ron McGraw.  This is my wife, Linda.  You must be Greg.”

“Yes.  Josh and Abby should be here in a minute; they were just locking up the back of the truck when I left.”  I looked behind me, where I could see the moving truck turning from Maple Drive onto this long block of Acacia Drive, and said, “There they are.”

After Abby and Josh arrived, they began unloading a few things from the truck, when suddenly they stopped, noticing that the front door was closed.  “Where’s Sean?” Josh asked.  “He has the key.”

“His car is here,” Abby observed, pointing to a gold-colored compact pickup truck parked around the corner, just past the McGraws’ truck.

“There’s something going on inside,” Mr. McGraw said in hushed tones.  I wondered exactly what this meant.  Sean was friends with one of the guys who had lived in this house last year, a guy named Chris; was Chris not giving Sean the keys for some reason?  Were they arguing?  Did we do something wrong?  I asked what was going on, and Mr. McGraw gestured toward me as if to say to be quiet and not get involved.

Sean emerged out of the front door a minute later, leaving it open.  “Chris is still mad,” Sean said.

“I’m gonna find out what’s going on,” Mr. McGraw announced.  Josh and Sean followed Mr. McGraw back into the house, as I stayed outside with Abby and Mrs. McGraw.  I heard snippets of a discussion about Chris having said that we could start moving in today.

“I said Sean could move his stuff in and stay here,” Chris replied forcefully.  “There’s no way all of that crap in those trucks is Sean’s.”

“He’s being petty,” Abby whispered to me outside.  I nodded.

“What happens if we aren’t allowed to move in tonight?” I asked.  “Will we have to sleep in the truck or something?”

“Don’t do that,” Mrs. McGraw said.  “We can take all the stuff back to Oak Heights, and you guys can sleep in the guest room and on the couches.”

“That seems like a waste, but if we have to, I guess.”

After about ten minutes of further negotiations, which I was not part of, the others came outside.  “We made a deal with Chris,” Sean explained.  “We can move in, and he’s gonna stay here and leave his stuff in his room just for tonight, and get it out tomorrow.  So Josh will have to sleep in Sam’s room tonight, since Sam isn’t moving in until next week.  Then after Chris gets his stuff out, Josh can move into that room.”

“That works,” I said.  I was not entirely enthused by having to spend one night under the same roof as this guy who obviously believed in holding petty grudges, but at least I would be sleeping in the same room as Sean, the guy whom Chris had been friends with.  Hopefully Chris would not attack me in the middle of the night with Sean nearby.


Everything went smoothly after that little hiccup.  The newspaper arrived the next morning; Brian had canceled his subscription when he moved out of the old apartment, and I had restarted service in my name, to begin September 1, delivered to 902 Acacia Drive.  We had no kitchen table yet, and I was out of milk, so I ate bananas and toast as I read the newspaper.  Yesterday morning, the news had broken that Princess Diana and her significant other had died in a high-speed car crash, and today’s headlines were full of more stories related to this tragedy.  I generally did not spend a lot of time following all the drama and gossip surrounding the British royal family.  Celebrity gossip did not interest me.  Besides, this was the United States of America, and we fought a war in the 1770s so that we would not have to care about the British royal family.  But something really did feel terrible about this news, for someone’s life to end like this after having been in the spotlight for so long, with all of the marital problems between her and her ex-husband, the future King Charles, put on display for the world to see and judge.

At the bottom of the front page, I saw a photo from the Captains game out of the corner of my eye and pushed the newspaper aside before I saw anything else that might give away the score.  I would have to come back and read it later after I had time to watch the game.

I spent much of Monday morning and afternoon unpacking, grocery shopping, and doing other things related to having a new house.  I had already called to set up telephone service, and the phone seemed to work by Monday afternoon, so I spent Monday evening in my room using the dial-up Internet to try to flirt with girls in an Internet Relay Chat channel.  It had been some time since I had been on IRC.  While I waited for girls to reply, I worked on my silly Web series Dog Crap and Vince.  Sean was not home for much of the night; when he got home, I minimized the chat window and told him I was working on Dog Crap and Vince.  I restored the window and continued my conversations only when he was not in the room.

I finally got around to watching the Captains game Tuesday afternoon.  I would have been better off not knowing what happened.  The Captains lost, with injuries to each of their two biggest star players.  This was not looking like a promising season so far.

I went for a bike ride late Tuesday afternoon, my first time on a bicycle since I had returned Joe Ferris’ beat-up old bike three weeks earlier in Grandvale.  I rode south on Maple Lane, turned right on West Fifth, and worked my way through the trees and fields of the rural part of the UJ campus.  I took a deep breath of the warm valley air, full of the smell given off by dying grasses.  I had been waiting for months to see this view and smell this scent again.  I was finally back in Jeromeville.

After about forty-five minutes of riding around, I found myself in south Jeromeville, heading back north across the overpass with trees on it.  It was time to start heading home.  I liked the sound of that.  Home.  I had a home, and this time it wasn’t an apartment.  Next time I wrote someone a letter or wrote my return address on a bill payment envelope, I would write “902 Acacia Drive,” with no apartment number.  That house turned out to be my home for a total of four years, with different combinations of roommates each year.

Not only did I have a home, but I had a tentative plan for my life.  I was going to be a teacher.  Mathematics research was not right for me.  Maybe someday, but not right now.  I remember telling people that there was no way I would ever be a teacher, that I did not want to get involved with all the left-wing politics tied to the public school system.  But I did enjoy helping out in that classroom last year, I enjoyed working as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, and I did not want to let politics hold me back from doing something I loved.  I would probably have to take more prerequisite classes before I could become a teacher, and I was not sure how long it would take, but I was in no hurry.  In the meantime, I had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church to be involved with.  I did end up becoming a teacher eventually, and that is still my career to this day.

(Note: not an actual photo from 1997)

Readers: Tell me about a time you came home after a long absence.

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(Another unplanned break)

A lot of things have been coming up in real life lately.

Not all good things either.

I have a lot of burdens right now, and writing is going to have to take a back seat for a while. I’m sorry.

In the meantime, leave a comment, or fill out the contact form, or find me on Instagram, and let me know how you’re doing, or ask me stuff, or whatever. I’ll do my best to stay in touch.

I’ll probably delete this post as soon as episode 143 is done. I’m not sure if this will be an extended break, or if I’ll still post on Sundays, but not worry about it if I don’t have a post ready on any given Sunday. We’ll see.

And if you’re new here, click here to start at episode 1; you have 142 episodes to catch up on, and I should be writing again by the time you’re done. Unless you’re a fast reader with nothing but spare time.

August 12-15, 1997. My final week in Oregon. (#142)

“Any other thoughts about how Luke 18 is relevant to us?” I asked.

“I know, whenever I’m reading these Bible passages about the Pharisees, it’s easy to think of it like, this is something that happened in the past, we don’t have those kind of religious leaders occupying the same prominent position in today’s society,” Jonathan B. said.  “But, really, we do, in a way.  As Christians, we will look up to leaders in our church, or to famous Christian musicians or authors, so they kind of become like our Pharisees.”

“And when you’re in a position of leadership, it’s easy to want to put yourself on a pedestal,” Jonathan G. added.  “You have to remember to stay humble.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Like the tax collector said here, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

“Good point,” I said.  Being that this was my first time ever leading a Bible study of my peers, I quietly reminded myself to take Jonathan G.’s advice and stay humble.

“Anything else?” I asked nervously.  We had been discussing the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector for around half an hour now, and I really hoped that I had filled enough time.  We spent some time singing first, with Jonathan B. leading worship, and we would probably do prayer requests afterward, so hopefully this was enough. Joe Ferris, the leader of the college group at Grandvale Baptist Church, had asked a couple weeks ago if any of us wanted to volunteer to lead a Bible study, and I figured it would be good to try.  I asked for August 12;  if it went horribly, it was only for one week, there would only be around ten people there to see it, and it was my last week in Grandvale so I would not have to face them the following week.  I had considered being a Bible study leader for my upcoming senior year at the University of Jeromeville, but I chose not to pursue that when I got involved in youth ministry instead.

“Thank you for leading,” Joe said.  He then addressed the whole group and said, “In case you didn’t hear, this is Greg’s last week with us.”

“Back to Jeromeville already?” Alison asked.  “When do you leave?”

“Friday night.  But I’m going to my parents’ house for two weeks before I go back to Jeromeville.”

“Where do they live?” Jonathan B. asked.  “I think you’ve told me, but I forgot.”

“Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia, about an hour south of San Tomas.”

“Oh, ok.  I kind of know where that is.”

“Friday is also my birthday,” I said.

“Happy birthday!” Jonathan G. said.  “How old will you be, if I may ask?”

“Twenty-one.”

“Twenty-one!  All right!” Alison exclaimed.  “Any big plans?”

“Not this year.  My family will probably get me a few gifts, but I don’t really have any friends left back in Plumdale.”

“You should do something!”

“I’m okay with not making a big deal of this birthday.  Really.”

“What is going to stand out the most from your experience with this summer research internship?” Joe asked me.

“Honestly,” I said, “I hate to say it, but I think the biggest thing is that I don’t think math research is a career option for me anymore.”

“Really,” Alison commented, not voicing her statement as a question.

“Yeah.  I just didn’t really like it.  The kind of math that gets researched is hard to follow and hard to wrap my mind around.  A Ph.D. program would start with at least two years of studying all of this really advanced theoretical stuff that can’t even be pictured in the real world, then I would have to make new discoveries about how it connects to other stuff.  I can’t even picture what that is like, so it doesn’t seem smart to base an entire career around it right now.  But I’m glad I figured this out now, before I shell out thousands of dollars for a Ph.D. and devote years of my life to it.”

“Good point,” Jonathan G. replied.

“And honestly, I didn’t really click with the others in the program either.  That was also part of why I didn’t really like it.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Joe said.  “Can we pray for you, since this is your last time here?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Just jump in, and I’ll close.”

We all bowed our heads, and I closed my eyes.  I heard Jonathan B. begin speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for Greg.  I thank you for all the insight he brought to our Bible study this summer.  I pray that he will continue to seek your wisdom as he processes everything he learned from his research experience.”

A few others spoke in succession, praying that I would know God’s will for my career, for safe travels back home, and for a good upcoming school year.  After it got quiet for a while, Joe spoke.  “Father, I thank you for bringing Greg to Grandvale this summer.  I thank you for giving him a heart of service, that he jumped right in and volunteered to lead Bible study this week.  I pray that you will continue to open doors for him to get involved at his church back home, and anywhere else that he is part of.  I pray that you will keep him safe Friday night as he travels back home, and I pray for these last few days of his math program, as he and his colleagues present their research.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“It really has been wonderful having you be part of our group this summer.  Are you sure you don’t need a ride home?”

“I’m good.  I like going for long walks at night, as long as it’s not raining.”

“That’s another thing.  You were here in Oregon for exactly the eight weeks of great weather that we get here.”

“I got here a little too early,” I said, then explained about my first day in Grandvale when I got caught in a downpour.  “But it definitely was nice the rest of the time I was here.”

“Take care and keep in touch.”

“I will.”


I had met Joe Ferris and his family my first week in Grandvale, when I found a church close enough to walk to, and they let me borrow an old bicycle.  I rode it to Bible study tonight and left it at the house.  I would survive without it for my remaining three days in Grandvale.  The walk back to the Grandvale State campus took about half an hour.  Grandvale is far enough north that the sky was still just a little bit dusky when I left the Ferrises’ house around nine o’clock, but it was dark by the time I arrived back at Howard Hall.

Our research project was over.  Ivan, Emily, and I had submitted our paper that morning, neatly typed using LaTeX, software commonly used for mathematics publishing with powerful capabilities to format complex mathematical symbols.  I had learned recently that LaTeX was not pronounced the same as “latex,” the substance used to make rubber.  The first syllable of LaTeX was pronounced like the musical note “la,” and the second syllable was pronounced like the first syllable of “technical,” having been named after the Greek word from which “technical” is derived.  The English prefix “tech” looks like TEX when written in Greek capital letters.

Julie and Kirk presented their project first on Wednesday morning, with Marcus presenting his afterward.  I had a hard time following what they were doing; like I mentioned at Bible study, mathematics research involved topics beyond anything I knew or could visualize, even being three full years into a mathematics degree program.  After the presentations, we spent much of the rest of Wednesday hanging out in Emily’s room, playing Killer Monopoly and Skip-Bo.  Although the Monopoly board belonged to Julie, Killer Monopoly was my contribution, a game I made up with my brother Mark several years earlier and taught to this group last month.  In Killer Monopoly, players can acquire bombs and use them to blow up houses and hotels when they do not want to pay the rent.  It made for an interesting variation to the usual Monopoly game.

Ivan, Emily, and I gave our presentation Thursday morning.  Everything went smoothly, and while I was a bit nervous at first, I think I did fine.  After us, Marjorie and Jeannie gave separate presentations on their distinct but related projects involving punctured tori.  That word “tori,” the plural of torus, still made me laugh, as did most irregular plurals in general.  “Torus” was the technical term for a donut-shaped solid, and given our group’s frequent references to The Simpsons, we had jokingly begun referring to tori as “donuts,” followed by someone imitating Homer Simpson’s trademark catch phrase of “Mmm, donuts.”

After we finished presenting on Thursday, most of us began working on packing and cleaning.  At dinner time, we took one last walk to Dairy Queen.  It felt kind of surreal knowing that this would be the last time I would make this walk, having made it at least once a week for most of the summer.

“What’s Sideshow Bob’s full name?” Ivan asked me.  Quizzing each other on random facts about The Simpsons had become second nature to the point that Simpsons trivia needed no introduction or context.

“Robert… umm… I should know this,” I said, disappointed in myself.  “I don’t remember.”

“Terwilliger.”

“That’s right.”  I tried to think of a question to ask Ivan, and after a minute or so, I said, “When Mr. Burns goes after Homer’s mother in a tank–”

“Shhh!” Julie exclaimed.

I laughed, knowing that she was not actually being mean.  “When Mr. Burns–”

“Let me tell you a little story about a man named Shhh!” Julie said, laughing.  Two weeks ago, the eight of us had all gone to watch the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.  Since then, some of the others had been quoting the scene where Dr. Evil keeps telling his son to “Shhh!” on a regular basis.

I waited for Julie to lose interest in what I was saying, then turned back to Ivan and asked, “When Mr. Burns–”

“Shhh!  I have a whole bag of Shhh! with your name on it!” Julie interrupted.  “I’m just messing with you,” she continued.  “Go ahead.”

“When Mr. Burns goes after Homer’s mother in a tank, Smithers taped over his battle music with what song?”

“Oooh,” Ivan said.  “Good one.  I remember that scene, but not the song.”

“‘Waterloo,’ by ABBA,” I replied.  “I remember that one because my roommate last year loved ABBA.”

“Oh, yeah.”

I ate a cheeseburger and fries and Blizzard at Dairy Queen, and when we got back to the dorm, I finished the rest of the packing and organizing.  There was not much left to do at this point, especially since my parents had taken everything nonessential home with them when they came to visit on Saturday.  The end of this tedious summer really did feel near, finally.


Our final class Friday morning did not involve math.  It was just a social event, one last going-away party before we all returned to our regular lives across the country.  The mathematics department provided snacks.  I filled a paper plate with as many donuts and cinnamon rolls as I could fit on it and sat in my usual seat as the others trickled in.

“Before we get started,” Dr. Garrison said, “we have an important announcement.  Today is a special day for someone.”  I felt everyone looking at me as Jeannie appeared with a cupcake topped by a lit candle.  Dr. Garrison continued, “As you probably know, today is Greg’s birthday.” I smiled as everyone sang to me.

“Make a wish!” Emily said as Jeannie handed me the cupcake.

I wish that I would meet a girl this year, I thought, as images of Carrie Valentine, Sadie Rowland, Erica Foster, and all the other girls who had caught my eye back in Jeromeville came to mind.  But this seemed like a selfish wish.  God, I pray that you will lead my career decisions, I thought as I blew out the candle.  Prayers are better than wishes.  Everyone clapped.

“These are your copies of the proceedings,” Dr. Garrison said.  Each of us received a book containing all of the reports that we had written over the last week.  I was honestly not sure if I was going to read about anyone else’s research; I was ready to be done with this experience, and as I had said before, mathematics research is so hard to follow for anyone who has not studied that one specific branch of math in greater detail than anyone ever sees outside of graduate school.

Dr. Garrison continued, “And I have your t-shirts too.  They turned out really good.”  He held one up and showed us the front, then the back.  The front had the logo for Grandvale State University on the upper right, with “Mathematics REU, Summer 1997” written below.  On the back, we had written what appeared to be a mathematical theorem and its proof, typeset with LaTeX just like actual mathematical papers.  The proof itself, though, was a nonsensical jumble of mathematics symbols and references to all of the adventures we shared that summer, and the inside jokes that came from them, along with a few words related to what we actually studied.  We also threw in a few quotes from The Simpsons and Austin Powers.  “This is hilarious!” I said excitedly, reading the back of my shirt, even though I was there for most of the writing of the faux theorem and knew what it said.


Theorem 1 Grandvale State University’s 1997 REU program was sooooo fun.

Proof:

We claim ∃A = {Emily, Greg, Ivan, Jeannie, Julie, Kirk, Marcus, Marjorie} ∋ A is uniformly distributed over the Towers of Hanoi.  Through a Monte Carlo process of random events such as Killer Monopoly, Hangman, and Dairy Queen, we see that E-Dog’s Skip-Boo Transform, ξ can be applied to Marcus’ Flip-Flop Lemma giving a set of deep and profound Giddyap tori.  Mmm… donuts.  Is there anything they can’t do?

Now, given a pre-emptive Shhh!, we find that Giddyup² (mod Lan) ≡ Wannabe.  Applying this to the space of Large Marge vectors yields a Whitehead automorphism of my freakin’ ears.  Note that the question of hard or soft remains open.  Applying the above tool to A yields eight precision bowlers having fun all summer. □


“Usually they just draw something related to the research projects on the shirt,” said Dr. Schneider, one of the other professors working with the program.  “I’ve never seen a group come up with this before.”

“This is sooooo funny!” Marjorie said.

“You said it again!” Julie exclaimed.  “You said ‘sooooo!’”  Marjorie giggled.

“What does ‘mod Lan’ mean?” Dr. Schneider asked.

“Once, someone with bad handwriting wrote my name so messy, it looked like ‘Lan,’” Ivan explained.  “Some of my friends back home call me that.”

“‘Lan,’” Dr. Schneider repeated.  “From ‘Ivan.’  Wow.  And ‘mod’ like modular arithmetic?”

“Yeah.”

“Greg,” I heard Jeannie say.  I turned and looked and saw that she was holding an envelope.  “This is for you.”

“Oh, thank you!” I said, smiling.  The card had an illustration of a frog on the front.  Inside Jeannie had written:


Greg,
Sorry you didn’t have a very good time this summer.  I had a blast!  I hope things start looking up for you soon.

Jeannie Lombard


I spent about another hour making small talk with the others.  I listened to their plans for the rest of the summer.  Marcus would be going hiking the rest of this weekend, then going straight back to Minnesota for school.  Emily was talking a lot about spending the weekend with her boyfriend.  I told them about Moport, the hybrid of football, soccer, and hockey that my brother and I played for fun, and the tournament we held last summer with his friends.  Hopefully we would have a Moport tournament again this year if he could get enough of his friends together.

I spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the cleaning of my room and saying goodbye to everyone.  The Research Experiences for Undergraduates program was finally over, and I was ready to get out of here.  Sooooo ready, as Marjorie would say in her California accent.  I wanted to get back to people who understood me and shared my values.  As I sat on the plane that night headed back to San Tomas, I wondered if I would ever see any of those people again.  I had no particular desire to stay in contact with them, since I had little in common with them outside of mathematics.  Now that I was pretty sure that graduate school in mathematics was not in my future, I had even less in common with them.

I did not make an effort to stay in touch, and none of them ever took the initiative to contact me.  The only contact I had with any of the people from the REU program again was a short email conversation with Dr. Garrison the following year, when I asked him a question about how to report the stipend I received for the REU program on tax and financial aid forms.

I did stay in touch with a few people from my summer Bible study; for a few months, I got emails periodically from Joe Ferris and Jonathan B.  Or it could have been Jonathan G.; I’m not really sure, now that I think about it.  I had lost touch with both of them by the end of 1997.

In hindsight, I think I was much too judgmental that summer, much like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 that we had read about in this week’s Bible study.  I had spent most of my university days with a social life revolving around Christians, with little exposure to the sex and parties stereotypically associated with undergraduate life.  And while I knew on an intellectual level that Christians are sinners saved by grace, I still had a tendency to look down on those who had chosen the stereotypical undergraduate lifestyle, at least in my mind.

But, even if these people did not share my values, I had a life with them.  We had shared experiences.  We went on a road trip together.  We played games and went out to eat and watched movies, and we had tons of inside jokes that made for a hilarious t-shirt.  And they knew that I was not enjoying the summer; this was evident from what Jeannie wrote.  Knowing what I know now, as an adult, I wish that I had not been so negative.  I did not want to be seen as the only guy who was not having fun, and I certainly was not exhibiting Christlike behavior when I was aloof and judgmental.  At the time, though, I was not thinking about any of that.  I was just glad to get back to a life that felt familiar, an environment where I could be myself.  And I wanted to put Grandvale State and my seven classmates out of my mind.  I was heading home.


Readers: Tell me about a time you regretted not giving someone enough of a chance. Have you had times like that?

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August 9, 1997.  The day that Mom, Mark, and Grandpa visited me in Oregon. (#141)

“So, shall I show you around campus?” I asked.

“Sure!” Mom said.

“I was thinking we could walk to the math building, then come back here a different way, then drive around and get lunch.”

“Sounds good!  Then go see Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy, then on to Portland.”

“What?” Grandpa said.

“Greg is going to show us the campus,” Mom spoke to Grandpa, slower and louder than her normal voice, carefully enunciating.

“Okay,” Grandpa replied. I remembered a few years ago when Grandpa first had to start using a hearing aid, and these days, more and more often, Mom had to repeat things for him.

“Hey, Greg,” I heard a voice say behind me.  Ivan Winn, one of the other students in my summer research program, was getting out of the elevator.

“Ivan,” I said.  “This is my mom, my brother Mark, and my grandpa.  They’re up visiting for the day. My dad stayed home because he had to work.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ivan said as the others said hello.  “How far did you have to travel?”

“We’re from a little town called Plumdale,” Mom explained.  “It’s about a ten-hour drive, but we did most of the drive last night.”

“Still closer than my family.  I’m from New York.”

“That is far.  Greg is going to show us around the campus, then we’re going to go see some other relatives.”  Mom gestured toward Grandpa and continued, “My father was born in Oregon, not too far from here, so I have aunts and uncles and cousins nearby.”

“Those relatives from Salem who I saw last month,” I explained to Ivan, “that’s Grandpa’s brother.  We’ll see them later.”

“Nice!  Have fun!”

“I will,” I said.  After Ivan left, I explained to Mom that Ivan was the guy I had mentioned before who knew The Simpsons at least as well as I did.

“Oh, yeah,” Mom replied.

As we walked across diagonally the Quad, I pointed out the Memorial Union behind us to the right.  “I thought it was kind of funny how Grandvale State has a Memorial Union next to the Quad, and Jeromeville also has a Memorial Union next to the Quad.”

“That’s right,” Mom said.

“This is Keller Hall, where the math department is,” I announced, pointing across the Quad.  When we arrived, I unlocked the door and took my family upstairs to room 202, the study room for the summer math research students.  No one else was there on a Saturday morning.

“So this is where you have to go to use the computer to check your email and stuff?” Mom asked.

“Yeah.  And where I run code to do calculations for our project.”

“What?” Grandpa asked.

“Greg does his math research using these computers,” Mom explained to Grandpa in the same louder, clearer voice she used earlier.

“What are you researching?” Grandpa asked.

“Quasi-Monte Carlo methods using low discrepancy sequences,” I explained.  Assuming that Grandpa would not know what this was, I continued, “I’m looking at a way to approximate a certain kind of calculation that can’t be done exactly, looking at the accuracy and efficiency of a particular method to approximate the calculation.”

“I see,” Grandpa said.

“Sounds boring,” Mark opined.  “‘Chlorophyll?  More like borophyll!’” he continued, quoting from the movie Billy Madison.

“Well, it’s what I’m doing,” I said.  “You don’t have to like it.”

I walked my family back to where Mom had parked the car that she rented for this trip, so as not to put a lot of miles on the family car.  Mom continued talking and asking questions, while Grandpa and Mark remained fairly quiet.  We walked back a different way, around the other side of the Memorial Union, so I could point out a few other buildings, even though I did not know much about them.

After we got back to Howard Hall, we got in the rental car and drove to the McDonald’s closest to campus.  I did not know much about local restaurants in Grandvale, and McDonald’s was something safe and familiar that we could all agree on.  I ordered an Arch Deluxe, my usual McDonald’s order.

I sat and ate while Mom told stories about her work.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one other person seated inside the restaurant, eating alone.  As I got bored with Mom’s work gossip, I took a closer look at the other person in the restaurant, a girl about my age wearing a hat with long blonde hair in braids.  I did a double take; I knew this girl.  It was Jeannie Lombard from my math research program.  What was she doing in McDonald’s?  She told me once that she used to refuse to watch The Simpsons on principle, and it surprised me that someone that snooty would dare eat McDonald’s.  I figured she belonged in some vegan restaurant eating vegetables and tofu. Maybe I was reading her wrong.

Mom commented that the girl I was looking at reminded her of someone she knew back in Plumdale.  “That’s Jeannie,” I said.  “From the math program.”  At that moment, I felt like I should say something, because I did not want Jeannie to think I was avoiding her, but I did not make a scene either.  Jeannie was almost done eating when I first noticed her; she got up to throw her garbage away about a minute later, and I looked at her and waved.  Jeannie looked confused at first, then a look of recognition came on her face, and she walked toward us.

“Hey, Greg!” she said.  “Is this your family visiting?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “My mom, my brother Mark, and my grandpa.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jeannie said as the others greeted her in return.  “What are you guys doing today?”

“Grandpa grew up not far from here.  We’re going to visit relatives in Salem and Portland.  I’ll be back tonight.”

“That sounds nice!  Have fun!”

“Thanks!  I will!”

After Jeannie walked away, Mom said, “She seems nice.”

“Yeah,” I replied.


“Hello!” Auntie Dorothy said, greeting us from the porch as we arrived at her house.  Uncle Lenny stood behind her and waved.  We drove straight to Salem after leaving McDonald’s in Grandvale; the trip took a little under an hour.

“Good to see you again, Greg,” Auntie Dorothy said.  “Mark!  You’ve grown since we last saw you!”

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

“What year are you in school now?”

“I’m gonna be a sophomore.”

“I hear you’re playing basketball?  Or was it baseball?”

“Both.”

Uncle Lenny turned to Grandpa and said, “Hello, John,” as the two brothers shook hands.  “Peggy,” he continued, turning to Mom.

After all the greetings, we went inside and sat around the kitchen table, catching up.  This reminded me of the thing I liked least about visiting relatives, when the adults would just sit around and talk about boring adult stuff, and Mark and I had to sit there and not touch anything.  Mark was listening to music on headphones; I had no such thing to distract myself.

I heard a loud rumble outside and saw movement out of the corner of my eye through a window facing the back.  The yard backed up to a railroad track, and a train was passing by.  This was my third visit to this house so far over the course of my life, and the first thing I always think of regarding that house is hearing trains go by.

“Greg?” Uncle Lenny asked at one point.  “How’s your math project going?”

“I have a week left in the program, so we’re gonna work on writing a report of what we learned.  I pretty much know what I’m writing about.  I just need to put it all together.”

“That’s good.”

“What else did you say you were doing today?” Auntie Dorothy asked.

“We’re going to see Charlene and Bob in Portland,” Mom explained.  “And Mark wants to see the Niketown store.”

“Gonna get some new shoes for basketball?”

“Maybe,” Mark said.  “There’s this one pair I’ve been looking at that I hope they have.”

“Well, that’ll be fun.”


The drive from Salem to Portland took another hour; it was the middle of the afternoon when we arrived.  Charlene and Bob lived in the suburbs, off of the same freeway that I took riding Tony’s Airport Shuttle from the airport to Grandvale.  They had made plans with Mom ahead of time to meet us for ice cream, since Mom knew that we would have already eaten lunch by the time we saw them.

Charlene and Bob were already waiting at the ice cream shop when we arrived, and we went through all the greetings again. They asked me about my math research program, they asked Mark about baseball and basketball, and they asked Mom and Grandpa how everything was going in their lives.  Charlene and Bob were family, but the honest truth was that I did not know them at all.  Mom had explained how they were related; Charlene’s father was Grandpa and Uncle Lenny’s older brother, who had passed away a few years ago.  Mom got Christmas cards from Charlene and Bob every year.  But I could not remember ever having met them before.  When I was eleven years old, we came to Oregon for a family reunion on that side of the family, and I probably met them there, but that was almost a decade ago.  They seemed nice, though, and I was not uncomfortable meeting up with them.

“So are you thinking of math research as a career?” Charlene asked me at one point.

“I’m not sure,” I replied.  “Honestly, it hasn’t been that great of an experience this summer.  Math research is weird, and I haven’t gotten along all that well with the people I’m working with.  But if this isn’t the career for me, it’s better to find this out now after one summer than after I’ve committed a lot of years and money to a Ph.D. program.”

“Right,” Charlene said.

“That’s a good way of looking at it,” Mom added.

Charlene asked about our plans for the rest of the day, and Mom explained about the Nike store, which would require a trip downtown.  “I have an idea,” I said.  “Can we drive across the Columbia River into Washington, then go along the river to I-5 and cross back into Portland there?  I just want to see the river and the bridges.”  As one interested in highways and geography, this sounded like fun.

“Sure,” Charlene said.  “You can follow us, then you can leave straight from there.”

We said our goodbyes, with Mom and Charlene and Bob reiterating how good it was to see each other in person.  Charlene also said the same to Grandpa, calling him Uncle John.  “Follow us to the river,” Charlene said, and we got in the rental car and followed Charlene to the freeway.

“There it is,” Mom said as soon as we could see the Columbia River.  The river, forming most of the boundary between the states of Oregon and Washington, was much wider than most of the rivers I had experienced in my life.  The nearest river to Plumdale, the Gabilan River, was dry most of the year, with much of its water diverted to agriculture.  Jeromeville was on a fairly small stream called Arroyo Verde Creek, a tributary of the Capital River. The Capital was a fairly wide river, comparable to the Willamette that flowed through Grandvale, Salem, and Portland before joining the Columbia a few miles from here. But the Columbia was much wider.  I had never seen a river this big before; I had flown over the Mississippi River a few months ago on the way to Urbana, but I did not get a good view up close like this. I could also see Mount Hood rising above its surroundings to the east.

The city of Vancouver, Washington, not to be confused with the similarly-named Canadian city north of here, was across the river from Portland; we took the first exit and headed west.  But instead of driving across Vancouver to Interstate 5, Charlene got back on the freeway headed south, across the same bridge we had just crossed.  Mom followed them.

“No!” I said.  “I wanted to go across the other bridge!  I said go west to I-5.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom replied.  “Apparently they misunderstood.”

This bridge, the newer of the two connecting Portland with Vancouver, was fairly simple, looking more like a freeway overpass with water underneath, but it was still a beautiful view of the river.  I could see the airport along the river on my right as we headed back into Portland.  We waved at Charlene and Bob as they exited a couple of miles past the river on the Portland side of the river, and we continued to the next exit, onto Interstate 84 toward downtown.

“That was fun,” Mom said.  “That’s probably like if they came to Bay City, and we met up with them there, and they wanted to drive across the Bay City Bridge.”

“But what if they wanted to see the Oaksville Bridge too?” I asked.

“Oh, come on,” Mom replied.

Downtown Portland was full of dense urban neighborhoods on the west bank of the Willamette River, a few miles upstream from where it joined the Columbia.  We found a public parking garage within a few blocks of the Niketown store.  Mom took lots of pictures of downtown Portland as we walked around.  “Downtown Portland kind of reminds me of Bay City,” Mom said, “with all the tall buildings right next to the water.”

“I can see that,” I said.

Nike had a strong presence in the Portland area, with its headquarters just outside the city.  I looked around as we walked into the store, a bit overwhelmed by the multiple floors of shoes and various kinds of athletic clothing and equipment.  I was not looking for anything in particular; Mom and Grandpa and I just followed Mark around as he admired the merchandise, looking for the pair of shoes he wanted.

“Are you getting anything, Greg?” Mom asked.

“Probably not,” I replied, still looking around nevertheless.

After exhausting our search on the first floor, we climbed the stairs.  “I think that’s them over there,” Mark said, pointing.  We followed him to the shoes he saw, and after looking at boxes, he said, “They don’t have my size.”

“Really?” Mom replied, voicing disappointment.  “Let’s ask someone if there are any more in stock.”

“Fine,” Mark said, obviously annoyed, as Mom walked to the nearest employee and asked about the shoes.  The employee walked back to the stockroom to check the inventory.

“It’s okay,” Mom said to Mark.  “If they don’t have it, we’ll see if there is some way to order the shoes and have them shipped.”

“Sorry,” the employee said after returning from the stockroom.  “We’re all out of that size.  Is there anything else I can help you find?”

“No thanks,” Mom replied.  “I’ll let you know if there is.  He’s just a little disappointed,” Mom said, gesturing to Mark, “because we traveled a long way to come here and he really wanted to see the Nike store.”

“This is actually our smallest Niketown store.  I’m not sure where you’re from, but the biggest one on the West Coast is the one in Bay City.”  As the employee told us this, I looked at Mom, and we made eye contact, apparently sharing the same unspoken thought: they drove all the way to Portland to see this store when there was a better store just a hundred miles away from them in Bay City.  Later that day, after we left the store, Mom said the same thing out loud.


Mark did end up buying a different pair of shoes, so as to not leave empty handed.  We also took a detour across the other bridge and back, so I could see it; it was older, a truss bridge with girders spanning the highway.  We stopped at a Taco Bell somewhere between Portland and Grandvale for dinner, not wanting to have burgers again.

That morning, I had packed all of the things that Mom had shipped to me earlier in the summer.  I kept only what I needed for another six days, only what I could fit in my suitcase and backpack and bring with me on the airplane, and sent the rest home with Mom, Mark, and Grandpa.  I would not have my stereo and music for the next week, but it was logistically the only way to get my things home without my own car.  We said our goodbyes, and Mom, Mark, and Grandpa left Grandvale in the early evening and drove south for another two hours before stopping at a motel, so that they would not have as long of a drive the next day.

I was tired from the long day, but I still decided to walk up and down the hall to see if anyone was around.  Jason, the graduate student in engineering who hung out with those of us in the math research program, had his door open; Julie, Jeannie, Ivan, and Marcus were in his room too.  I could hear “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls playing from inside Jason’s room.

“Hey,” I said, walking into the room.

“Giddyup,” Ivan said.

“What is it with you guys and ‘giddyup?’” I replied, laughing.  That word had become an inside joke with our group over the last couple weeks.

“It’s just a funny word.”

“Is it ‘giddyup’ or ‘giddyap?’” Julie asked.  “Because once I read something that said ‘giddyap’ instead.”

“It’s probably one of those informal slang words with regional dialects,” I said.

Emily walked into the room.  “What’s up, E-Dog,” Julie said.

“Hey, guys,” Emily replied.  “Hey, Greg.  How was your day with family?”

“It was good.  We saw Grandpa’s brother and his wife in Salem, the same relatives I saw a few weeks ago.  Then we saw Mom’s cousin in Portland.  And my brother wanted to go to the Niketown store.  And they took home everything I won’t be able to fit on the plane.”

“Nice!  Did you enjoy the visit?”

“Yes!”

The song ended and started again.  “You have ‘Wannabe’ on repeat?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” Jason explained.  “The Spice Girls are the next big thing in music.  They’re gonna be the greatest girl band ever.”

“I need to get this CD,” Julie said.

“I can borrow Jason’s CD and make you a tape,” I said.  “Oh, wait,” I added, remembering something.  “I can’t, because my parents took the stereo back with them.  Sorry.”

“So you guys have one week left in the program?” Jason asked.  “How was it?”

Everyone said positive things, but I said, “I’m still homesick.  And I kind of feel like the biggest thing I learned was that math research might not be the career for me.”

“It’s better to figure that out now than after you’ve given years of your life to math research,” Marcus said reassuringly.

“I know.  I said that same thing to the relatives today.”

Six days left in Grandvale.  Then two weeks back home, then I could hurry up and get back to the life I knew in Jeromeville, with my roommates, my church, and my friendsFriendship never ends, the Spice Girls sang again; I had lost count of how many times, with Jason playing the song on repeat.  Wannabe was one of those songs I loved to hate, but it was somewhat catchy, and the Spice Girls were right about the importance of friendship.  I just had to make it through six more days, and finish writing a report.


Readers: Tell me about a noteworthy time that you visited relatives, or had relatives come to visit you!

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August 1, 1997. Oh, how I wish that I might be the one. (#140)

While I was in Oregon that summer, away from all of my friends and with less of a social life than I had in Jeromeville, my mind had plenty of time to explore some creative ideas.  Since I did not have my computer with me, I could not make any new episodes of Dog Crap and Vince.  I also could not work on Try, Try Again, a novel I had begun a year and a half ago about a high school student who needs a fresh start, but is not ready to move on to the next stage in life, so he runs away and fakes his age to get a few more years of high school.  That manuscript was saved on the hard drive of my computer back in Jeromeville.  By now I had lost interest in finishing Try, Try Again; I had moved on from whatever thoughts had inspired its creation.  I never worked on it again; it remains unfinished to this day.

I was playing with an idea for a multi-part science fiction story, inspired by my recent rediscovery of Star Wars.  My story began with humans living on another planet, ruled by another race.  Their rebellion against their overlords would take up the first three stories.  Then, hundreds of years later, in the next episode, it would be revealed that the alien overlords had been secretly living among the humans, plotting to reconquer their planet when the time was right.  Unlike Star Wars, I was not going to leave my readers hanging with just the middle of the story, waiting to get the beginning and end of the story in movies that would never be made.  My story had not only a beginning and a middle, but also an ending, in which hundreds more years would pass, and the humans would battle their overlords again, winning once and for all.  But then I would write one more story, in which the conquering race would reappear.  They could never truly be defeated.  This idea never made it farther than an outline in which I would summarize each of the ten tentative episodes in one sentence each.

I had no computer in my room, so if I wanted to write for an extended period of time, I either had to write by hand with pencil and paper, or walk all the way to Keller Hall and use the computer in room 202, the study room for the other students from the summer math research program.  Writing in 202 Keller carried the risk that one of my classmates would ask me about my writing.  I did not feel particularly comfortable with the idea of sharing my writing with those people.

Also, with no computer in my room, I had to do all my emailing from 202 Keller.  My mother wrote almost every day.  I also had a few girls I met flirting in chat rooms who emailed me occasionally, and a few of my friends from Jeromeville actually checked their email during the summer when school was out.  Many of my friends were currently on summer mission trips with churches or Christian ministry organizations; although they did not have frequent access to email, some of them occasionally sent out mass emails to their supporters.

I got one such email today, from Erica Foster.  It was Friday, I was tired, and I decided in the late morning while sitting frustrated in front of a computer in 202 Keller that I was done doing math research for the day.  Keith and Marjorie were sitting on a couch across the room, talking about things that were not math.  Ivan and Emily, the other students working on the same project as me, each had their own things to work on, so I was not hindering their work by taking the rest of the day off.  I closed the window in which I was writing scripts with the math software Mathematica and opened another window where I could get to my email.

This email was the first time I had heard from Erica since I left Jeromeville in mid-June.  Erica, like me, was a youth group leader at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  She was three years younger than me, having just graduated from Jeromeville High School; she would be joining me and most of the rest of the youth leaders at the University of Jeromeville in the fall.  Her younger brother, Danny, was one of the kids in the youth group at J-Cov.  Danny and his friends were a big part of the reason I got involved in youth ministry, after they randomly brought me with them on an adventure after church one day six months ago.

Erica was in Turkey for the summer, volunteering as a nanny for a family of full-time missionaries that J-Cov supported.  The concept of mission trips and full-time missionaries was relatively new to me.  I grew up Catholic, where missionary work looks a bit different from that of evangelical Christians.

In Erica’s email, she told all about the three children of the family she was helping, what they were learning in school, their hobbies, and what she had been teaching them weekly in place of a proper Sunday school.  She also talked about helping their parents with the Bible study they had started in their community, and about some of the locals who had made a decision to follow Jesus or were asking questions indicating interest in doing so.  At the end of the message, Erica had mentioned that the Turkish word for turkey, the animal, was the same as the Turkish word for India.  “I wonder what they call turkeys in India?” she wrote.  I laughed.

Erica was truly a woman of God.  It took a huge leap of faith to go overseas and do God’s work, and as much as I supported the concept, I could never see myself as the one to actually go overseas.  This trip seemed like the perfect experience for her; she had a very motherly side to her personality, suited to nannying, and having grown up at J-Cov, she had known this family that she was working with for many years.  I needed to find a woman like that for myself, one who showed through the way she lived her life that she truly loved God.

Every once in a while, a poetic phrase will pop into my head regarding whatever, or as the case usually is, whoever is on my mind at the moment, and if the right words come, I will build a poem around that phrase.  I was still thinking about Erica when I walked back to Howard Hall to warm up something in the microwave for lunch, and in my mind, I kept saying to myself, Reflected in her face, I see the Lord.  Iambic pentameter, just like Shakespeare.  This could work.  By the time I got back to my room, I had a second line: Each move she makes the love of Christ reveals.

I would occasionally hide secret messages in my stories and poems.  A few months ago, when Haley Channing told me she did not like me back and I was in the process of getting over her, I wrote a story in which the first letter of each paragraph spelled her name.  Conveniently enough, “Erica Ann Foster” had fourteen letters, and a Shakespearean sonnet had fourteen lines.  And the first two lines I thought of for my poem started with R and E, which were the first two letters of Erica’s full name spelled backward.  I could hide her name in the first letters of each line, but spell it backward.

I wrote down the start of the poem as soon as I got back to my room.  After I ate lunch, I went for a long walk around the Grandvale State campus, composing poetry in my head and occasionally taking a piece of paper out of my pocket and writing something I wanted to make sure to remember.

Erica had done another short mission trip over spring break, to northern Mexico, as part of the high school group at J-Cov.  That was a big trip with hundreds of students from all over the West, organized by a Christian university in California.  The students on that trip got a t-shirt that said “Be The One,” with a Bible verse on the back, saying to be the one that God sends out to spread the Gospel.  I wrote that down, making a note in my head to incorporate that phrase into the poem somehow.

What was I doing?  Was I developing a thing for Erica, falling for her?  This could never work.  We did not really have much in common other than being youth leaders at J-Cov.  And what if Erica did become a full-time missionary someday?  If something serious did happen between us, and we got married, I would have to follow her to some faraway land.  Should I even be letting these thoughts into my head enough to write a poem about it?

Or, perhaps, could I incorporate these thoughts into the poem itself?

Somewhere around the seventh line, I got stuck; I could not make the poem sound like I wanted while making the line start with N, to fit the secret message.  The line I had in mind started with I, and Erica’s name did have an I in it, but not at line 7.  I decided to give up on making the first lines spell Erica’s name backward, opting for the simpler task of making the first letters of each line an anagram, unscrambling to spell “Erica Ann Foster.”  This way, I would not have to change the first six lines that I had already tentatively written.

After I got back from my walk, I got out my copy of Needful Things by Stephen King, a long novel which I had been reading off and on all summer.  I was near the end.  I took a break from reading every once in a while to continue thinking about my poem.  I warmed up something in the microwave again for dinner, and by about ten o’clock I had finished the poem.  At some point, the pronouns in the beginning of the poem had changed, so that I wrote as if I were addressing the woman directly instead of writing about her.

“That I Might Be The One”

Reflected in your face, I see the Lord,
Each move you make the love of Christ reveals;
Through you, His love on everyone is poured,
Such strength in Him no worldly thing conceals.
Oh, how I wish that I might be the one
For which you save that special love, so dear,
In all your smiles I feel the shining sun,
No worries trouble me when you are near.
Now always will these dreams go unfulfilled,
Can bridges cross the years and miles between?
And we’ve no common ground on which to build
Except for Christ, Whose blood has made us clean;
Regarding this, I put my dreams aside,
And lift my cross, and let Him be our guide.

Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with the Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme, and the first letters of each line unscrambling to spell Erica Ann Foster.  It was perfect.


After my poem was done, I walked back to Keller Hall and went straight to room 202.  This was exactly the kind of quiet, boring night that seemed perfect for logging on to Internet Relay Chat and finding strangers to talk to, particularly girls.  I certainly was not meeting any girls here, and all the cute girls I knew back in Jeromeville were not keeping in touch regularly this summer.

A girl named Valerie whom I had seen off and on in this room for a long time was on tonight.  We had talked some over the last year or so; sometimes she was friendly and sweet, but other times she seemed too busy for me.  A girl who was outgoing and friendly and claimed to be young and pretty would be really popular in any Internet chat room, probably inundated with messages from lonely, horny guys like me.

gjd76: hey
sweetgirl417: hey u! what’s up ;)
gjd76: not much, bored tonight.  i told you i was in oregon for a research internship this summer right?
sweetgirl417: no! how’s that going?
gjd76: i really don’t like it.  math research is weird.  and i don’t have anything in common with the other students in the program.  i really can’t wait to get back to jeromeville
sweetgirl417: oh no :( when do you go back?
gjd76: i leave grandvale august 15, which is also my birthday.  then i’ll be with my family for two weeks.  then back to jeromeville.
sweetgirl714: happy early birthday ;)
gjd76: thanks :) i just keep telling myself it’s almost over… i’ve been telling myself that for a month now though
sweetgirl714: too bad your program isn’t here in missouri, then you could hang out with me ;)
gjd76: that sounds nice ;) i wish
sweetgirl417: so did you ever find a girlfriend? ;)
gjd76: no.  there are four girls in the math program, they’re not my type.
sweetgirl417: anyone you like back home?
gjd76: kinda.  i wrote a poem earlier today, it’s about someone i know back home who is a great girl but it just wouldn’t work between us
sweetgirl417: can i read it?

I sent Valerie my poem; she said it was really good.  I did not tell her about the secret message, and she never found it.  She asked me why I did not think things could ever work out with Erica, and I told her everything that had been on my mind lately.  Valerie then messaged me a winking face and told me again to come to Missouri.  I asked her if she had a boyfriend; she did not.  She had gone through a breakup a few months ago and had not met anyone else, and the only guy interested in her was kind of a creep.  I told her that she should come out west to see me.

After a couple hours of small talk, with lots of winking faces and some jokes about what it would be like if I went to Missouri to meet Valerie, and some talk of kissing, I asked Valerie what she was wearing.  She said a tank top and pajama shorts.  I looked around the room, hoping that, since it was almost one in the morning by now (and two hours later for Valerie in Missouri), no one would come to 202 Keller and ask me what I was doing up so late.  I attempted to take the conversation in a much more intimate direction, and I was pleased that Valerie reciprocated.  The flirty messages soon became overtly sexual, with a lot of touching myself on my end, and at one point I had to tell Valerie that I would be back in a few minutes, since I had to go to the bathroom and take care of something.  I really hoped I was alone in the building, and that no one would question an obviously aroused undergraduate wandering the halls.

I had the sense to log out of the computer before I stepped away from it, just in case anyone else came to 202 Keller while I was gone, and when I returned a few minutes later, I logged back into IRC and typed to Valerie with my recently-washed hands that she was great and that I had had a wonderful time, but I should probably go to bed.  She agreed, since it was even later for her.  I told her that we would talk soon.

I always felt ashamed of myself for having these feelings and acting on them.  My freshman year in the dorm at UJ, I had made the Walk of Shame back from the bathroom after taking care of myself in this way many times.  Tonight, the Walk of Shame was much longer, walking all the way from Keller Hall across the Quad and down the street to Howard Hall.  I was a follower of Jesus, and Jesus said that lust was a sin.  I should be stronger than this; giving in to these moments made me feel weak in my faith.

About a third of the way across the Quad, I saw someone else approaching on the same path.  Whoever it was, I hoped I was not going to have to interact; I was not in the mood.  As the thin figure approached, I realized in horror that it was Marcus Lee, one of the other students from my math program.  Now I was going to have to explain why I was making the Walk of Shame in the middle of the night.  The Quad was wide open, I was over a hundred feet from the nearest tree or any other object that I could hide behind, and Marcus was only about twenty feet away now.  There was no avoiding this interaction.

I looked up at Marcus.  “Greg?” he said.  “What are you doing out so late?”

“I was bored.  Just doing stuff on the computer in Keller.  Emailing people back home.”  I was not lying; early when I was first catching up with Valerie, telling her about the math program, I had my email open in another window, and I had replied to one message.  “I need to get to sleep.”

“Yeah, it’s late,” Marcus replied.  “Hope you sleep well.”

“Thanks.”

I went straight to bed when I got back to Howard Hall, but my mind was so full of guilt and shame that it took a long time to calm down enough to sleep.  Eventually my mind went back to the poem I wrote earlier.  Oh, how I wish that I might be the one.  Erica was a Godly woman who would never want to be with someone who talked dirty with strangers from the Internet.  And neither would any other Christian girl I would ever be interested in.  I was only making things worse for myself.

I never did find out why Marcus was out so late himself.  Could he also have been sneaking off to do something he wanted to keep secret?  Was he just out for a walk?  Or was he going to work on math all night, since he was so focused on his career?  I did not ask; it was none of my business, and if I did not want people to know where I was at night, it was not my place to care where anyone else was.

After tossing and turning for almost an hour, I read Psalm 51.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”  I knew that God was a God of love, and that he sent Jesus to Earth to atone for my sin.  I knew that no one was perfect, and that the fact that humanity needed a Savior just indicated that no one was perfect.  Psalm 51 was written by King David after he slept with another man’s wife and got the other man killed to cover up the affair.  I often read this psalm on nights like this.  I prayed for a while, that God would create a pure heart in me, just as David had asked.  I did eventually get some sleep, but not much, and I woke up with a headache.  I was tired of being alone, I was tired of all the good Christian girls passing me up, but I still had no idea what to do about any of this, so I felt stuck as I drifted off to sleep, consumed by darkness.


Readers: Have you ever written anything with a secret message hidden inside? Tell me about it in the comments.

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.


(So, this week’s post isn’t happening…)

This week’s post isn’t happening… at least not yet. I have an outline and maybe two or three paragraphs written. But it was a very busy week at work. And, those of you who have been paying attention to certain little details will remember that August 15 is my birthday… so I’ve been celebrating all weekend, with friends on Saturday and family on Sunday, instead of writing. I hope you all have a good week, and DLTDGB #140 will post next Sunday, I hope.

If you are new to this site, please check out DLTDGB #1 and see how the story began, then keep reading from there.

July 22-23, 1997. Hanging out and making the most of things. (#139)

“Any other final thoughts from Matthew 20?” Joe Ferris asked the group.

“To be completely honest, I never really liked this passage,” I said.  “It seems unfair.  The workers who got there early should be paid more.”

“So you think that people who became Christians earlier in life and served God for longer deserve a better heaven than those who came to Jesus later in life?” Jonathan B. asked.  “That’s basically what the grumbling workers thought.”

“No,” I replied.  “I’m a new Christian myself.  And I understand what Jesus is trying to say here.”

“It’s not a perfect analogy,” Jonathan G. said.  “Just for salvation and grace.”

“I know.  It’s not meant to explain how we should pay workers.  It’s just making the point that God’s grace is for everyone who comes to him, no matter what we were like before that.” As I said that, I thought of something else, so I added, “And, also, none of us received God’s grace because of anything we worked for.”

“Good point!” Alison said.

“On that, it’s time to close,” Joe announced.  “Any prayer requests?”

“I’m really missing home this week,” I said.  “Pray that I’ll be able to get through the rest of the summer.”

“How much longer does your research program go?” Jonathan G. asked.

“This last weekend was the halfway point; this is week five out of eight.  Then I have two weeks at my parents’ house after that.  Then I move into my new house in Jeromeville, and I have a few weeks there before school starts.”

“You guys start late,” Alison commented.

“We’re on the three-quarter system.  So Christmas comes one-third of the way through the year instead of halfway.  We start at the end of September and go until the middle of June.”

“That’s kind of weird,” Jonathan B. said.

After we prayed for each other, I rode my bike home from the Ferrises’ house back to Howard Hall on campus.  It was close to nine o’clock, and the sun was just setting.  Grandvale, in western Oregon on the Willamette River, was the farthest north I had ever lived, and I was not used to the sun staying up this late.  I had brought my battery-operated bike headlight just in case it got dark, but I did not need to use it.  I had not used the headlight for the entire month I had been in Grandvale.

I always looked forward to the weekly Bible study for the college and career group at church.  With how out of place I felt among the other math research students, it was nice to at least have one time a week around people who believed the same thing I did.  Two times per week, actually, because some of them came to church Sunday morning as well.  I did not see them enough to build a strong social life around them, though, and the group was mostly guys this summer, so I was not meeting any girls.  I felt closest to the two Jonathans and Alison, but Alison was twenty-nine years old, not really a romantic option for my twenty-year-old self, even if my birthday was coming up in a few weeks.

“Hey, Greg,” said Marcus, one of the other math students, as he saw me getting out of the elevator on the third floor of Howard Hall with my bike.  “Where’d you go?”

“Bible study,” I replied.

“Oh, that’s right.  What did you say you were studying?  Proverbs?”

“Parables,” I replied.  “The stories Jesus told to make illustrations.”

“That’s right.  I was close alphabetically, at least.”

“True.”

“We’re all in Emily’s room hanging out if you want to join us.  I’ll be back in a while.”

“Sure,” I replied.  “Let me drop off my bike.”


When I was a freshman at the University of Jeromeville, I lived in a tiny single room in a dormitory that was reserved for students in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  It was the perfect situation for me, because I had a built in community.  If I wanted to be around people, I could just wander up and down the halls and see what people were doing, and if I did not, I could just go back to my room and close the door.  Unfortunately, student housing at Jeromeville was so full in those years that students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, so I did not have the opportunity to live in a dorm for any of my other years at Jeromeville.

Being in the summer mathematics research program at Grandvale State University gave me another opportunity to experience dorm life.  Howard Hall was normally the dorm for graduate students.  All of the rooms, at least on my floor, were single rooms, and they were much bigger than my freshman dorm at UJ.  Being in a dorm again, I reverted back to my old habit of wandering the hall to see if anyone was doing anything, just to make conversation and not be alone in my room all the time.  Emily’s room had become the one where the math research students often hung out.  Tonight, Emily, Ivan, Julie, Marjorie, and Kirk were all there, along with Jason, a tall blond guy who was one of three students on our floor not from the math program whom I had met.  I poked my head in the door and waved.

“Hey, Greg,” Emily said.  “Come on in.”

“How are those research projects coming along?” Jason asked.

“Good,” I said.  “We’re making progress.  Ivan and Emily and I are on the same project.  I wrote code to do the Monte Carlo integration that we’re studying.”

“I’m working alone, but on a very similar project as Jeannie,” Marjorie said.  “There’s a lot of stuff out there on punctured toruses, but I decided to look at toruses with one puncture, and Jeannie is doing two punctures.”

“‘Toruses?’” I asked.  “Or would that be ‘tori?’”

“Tori,” Ivan repeated as Marcus entered the room and sat next to me.  “I like that.”

“Man, I’m an engineer, I’ve taken a lot of math, but I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jason said.  “This math research stuff is out there.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I feel the same way.”

“Speaking of which, I need to go work on stuff.  I’ll see you guys later?”

“Bye, Jason,” Ivan said.  We waved as Jason left the room.

“Every time I read about what research my professors back home are doing, I feel like it doesn’t make any sense to me,” I said.  “And that’s one thing I’m worried about if I do end up going to grad school in math.  Like, maybe it’ll be too complicated for me.”

“I don’t think you’re alone in that,” Marcus replied.  “You’ll spend the first two years taking more advanced classes and learning about those things.”

“I guess.”

After the conversation reached a lull, Emily said, “You guys want to play Skip-Boo?”

“Sure,” Ivan answered, and the rest of us gave assenting replies too.  Emily had brought with her to Grandvale a Skip-Bo card game, a longtime favorite in her family, except she always pronounced it like Skip-Boo.  She said that that was how they always pronounced it back home in upstate New York; I wondered if it was a regional dialect thing, since she did pronounce other vowels differently from how those of us in the western United States did. I grew up playing Skip-Bo with my grandmother, but I had not played in probably close to a decade before meeting Emily.

Skip-Bo was a simple game, in which players had a stock pile that they were trying to get rid of, along with cards in their hands.  Cards were played on piles in sequence from 1 to 12.  I drew a 1 on my turn and started a new pile, but that was all I was able to do.  It was not until my third turn that I was finally able to play off of my stock pile.  Jeannie walked in at that moment.  “Skip-Bo,” she said.  “Can you deal me in?”

“Sure,” Emily said.  “Who has the biggest pile right now?”

“I’ve only played one,” I said.  Emily dealt Jeannie the same number of cards in my pile, so that she would not start with an advantage.

When my next turn came; I was able to play two cards from my hand, but nothing from the stock pile.  I put down my discard, and the turn passed to Marjorie.  She drew cards until she had five in her hand.  “I can’t play anything!” she said, frustrated, as she put down her discard and ended her turn.  “These cards are, like, so bad!”  She drawled out the word “so,” holding the O sound for about a full second.

“Like, sooooo bad,” Ivan said, playfully mocking her pronunciation.  “Yep, you’re totally from California.”  The others laughed, and Marjorie blushed.

“Want to play again?” Emily asked.  “Or play something else?”  The others seemed to want to play again, so Emily handed parts of the large deck to me and to Julie to help shuffle.

“I was thinking earlier, does anyone remember how to play that card game where one player is the President, and one player is the asshole, and stuff like that?” Kirk asked.

“No,” Julie replied.  No one else remembered either.  I did not know the game Kirk described.  (A few years later, I would learn a game that was probably the President-Asshole game Kirk was describing, but I have since forgotten it again.)  Hearing those two words in the description, though, I said something that I thought was hilarious: “I don’t know that game, but these days, the President is an asshole.”  Everyone in those days made fun of President Bill Clinton, and he was an arrogant elitist who looked down on common people like me and stood against everything I believed about how to run the country.

No one laughed.  Ivan said, “I voted for the President.”

“Me too,” Marjorie added.

“I did too,” Jeannie said.

“So did I,” Kirk said.

“I did too,” Emily said.

“Me too,” Julie said.

After a pause of a couple seconds, Marcus added, “I voted for Ralph Nader.”

Emily drew five cards and took her turn, playing three cards from her hand before discarding.  “I voted for Bob Dole,” I said, somewhat angrily and proudly.  Apparently I was the only one in this room not responsible for the moral decay and high taxes in this country, yet this made me feel even more out of place among the six Democrats and the Green Party radical in the math research program.  The conversation turned back away from politics as the game continued, but I did not say much the rest of the night.


Dr. Garrison, the professor in charge of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, had scheduled a meeting with me the following afternoon.  In his email, he said that he was meeting with everyone this week, now that the program was half over, just to touch base on things.  It did not sound like I was in trouble or anything, but I was still a little nervous as I entered his office.

“Hi, Greg,” Dr. Garrison said.  “Come on in.  Sit down.”  I sat in the chair facing his desk, and he continued, “So how is the program going for you so far?”

I took a deep breath, trying to decide exactly how much to tell Dr. Garrison.  I decided to just be honest and tell the truth.  “I feel like I don’t fit in with the other students,” I said.

Dr. Garrison paused, probably not having expected me to say that.  “Why do you say that?” he asked.

“I don’t have anything in common with them,” I said.  “I’m a Christian.  Most of my social life back in Jeromeville is church activities.  And these guys talk about drinking and partying and… stuff like that.”  I could not bring myself to say sex out loud.  “And I really miss my friends back home.”

“Well,” Dr. Garrison said, “the REU program always brings students from all different backgrounds.  It’s natural that some people might not get along.”

“I really don’t think they’re trying to be hurtful on purpose.  I’m just different.”

“Well, if that’s the case, just look for any common ground you might be able to find.  Have you had any good experiences with the other students?”

“Yeah.  Tonight I think we’re going to Dairy Queen.  We’ve done that sometimes.”  I also told Dr. Garrison about playing cards in Emily’s room, and about our trip to the coast.

“There you go.  Just make the best of those moments.”  Dr. Garrison then asked, “How do you feel about the math you’re working on?  You’re doing the quasi-Monte Carlo integration project with Ivan and Emily?”

“Yes.  It’s been interesting.  I’ve learned a lot, but I’m still not sure about my future.  One professor back at Jeromeville told me about REU programs, another professor thinks I would make a good teacher, and I’m kind of using this summer to figure out if grad school is a real option, or if I should focus on being a teacher.”

“I see.  Just remember this.  If grad school isn’t for you, it’s better to learn that now than after you’ve given years of your life to a Ph.D. program.”

“That’s a good point.”

“I think you’re doing fine.  And I think this is still a valuable experience for you even if you do end up a teacher.  Most kids will never have a teacher who did math research.  You’ll be able to bring them a different perspective on math.”

“That’s true.  Good point.”


The walk from Howard Hall to Dairy Queen that night took about half an hour, a mile and a half straight down Pine Street.  Dairy Queen was in downtown Grandvale, a few blocks from where we saw fireworks on the Fourth of July.  We had made this walk as a group a few times already this summer, and on our last Dairy Queen trip, Ivan and I had found a way to pass the time while we made this walk.

“Michael Jackson guest-starred, they couldn’t put his real name in the credits, so what name was he credited as?” I asked.

“John Jay Smith,” Ivan replied.  “That name just sounds fake.”

“I know!”

“What’s Nelson’s last name?”

“Crap, I should know this one,” I said.  In all my eight years of watching The Simpsons, how could I not know one of the major recurring characters’ last names?

“Yes, you should,” Ivan said.

“But I don’t.”

“Nelson Muntz.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Your turn.”

“I know, I’m thinking.”  I needed to come up with a good one to redeem myself for having missed the last one.  “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”

“That’s Bob Dylan,” Jeannie said.  “Not The Simpsons.”

“Yeah.  That’s a Simpsons trivia question?” Ivan asked.

“Yes, it is,” I answered.

“Wait.  Did Homer try to answer that question?”

“Yes.” I laughed.

“I don’t remember what he said, though.”

“‘Seven!’ Then Lisa told Homer it was a rhetorical question, and he goes, ‘Hmm… Eight!’  It was the episode where Homer’s mother comes back.”

“Oh, yeah.  And she was a hippie.”

As we stood in line waiting to order, Ivan asked me, “What does your shirt mean?”

I looked down to remind myself which shirt I was wearing today; it was a white t-shirt that said “Man of Steel” in green writing, with pictures of a Frisbee, a taco, and playing cards.  “The Christian group I’m part of back home, the guys have a competition every year, with disc golf, a taco eating contest, and poker.”  I turned around, so that Ivan could see the words on the back of the shirt: FRISBEE, TACOS, POKER, FAITH.

“That sounds awesome,” Ivan said.  “And hilarious.”

“How’d you do?” Jeannie asked, having overheard the conversation.

“Not great.  But the year before that, I was second to last, so I’m improving.”

“Maybe you’ll win it all next year,” Ivan said.

“I can’t throw a Frisbee straight, so I’d just need a lot of luck, I guess.”

I had not eaten dinner yet, so when I got to the front of the line, I ordered a cheeseburger along with my ice cream Blizzard.  Music played in the background.  When they called my number, I got up to get my food, and as I returned to my seat, the song “Lovefool” by the Cardigans came on.  Emily quietly sang along to every word.  I had never listened to the whole song all the way through, because I always found it annoying.

“This song is really kind of sad,” Jeannie said.  “The guy is obviously not into the relationship, but the girl just can’t leave him.  She deserves better.”

“I always thought it was kind of making fun of girls like that,” Emily replied.  Granted, this was my first time hearing the whole song, but it did not sound mocking to me.

“If the guy is good enough in bed, I’d stay with him,” Julie said.  “Who cares if he’s not the perfect romantic?  He’s got it where it counts!  Gimme some action!”

“Yes!” Emily exclaimed.  The two girls laughed loudly.

“How’s your burger?” Ivan asked.

“Really good,” I answered.  “A nice change from microwave food.”

“I know!”

“I tried the dining hall food here a couple times too the first week, I was thinking about buying a meal plan.  But it wasn’t really worth it.  It’s more expensive than fast food and just as mediocre.”

“Yeah, really.”

“This Blizzard is so good,” Marjorie announced.

“How good was it?” Jeannie replied, laughing.

“Sooooo good!” Marjorie said, exaggerating the word “so,” intentionally this time.

As we walked back home in the nine o’clock twilight, I came to realize that Dr. Garrison was right.  I may not have a lot in common with these people, but I was still starting to build a social life with them, between the card game nights, these walks to Dairy Queen, and the outings we had taken as a group.  We had started to develop inside jokes with each other, including Emily’s unusual pronunciation of “Skip-Boo” and Marjorie’s California beach bum accent.  This was my group for the next twenty-four days, and I was a part of it, whether I felt like I fit in or not.

As I got back to my room, with Lovefool still stuck in my head, I thought about how God had put these people in my life for a reason.  Maybe some of them had never really known a practicing Christian before.  Maybe just by being honest, like telling Marcus about Bible study yesterday, or telling Ivan and Emily about Man of Steel, God would be planting seeds in their lives.  Or maybe God had something to teach me about what the world was like outside of my Christian bubble.  I spent some time before bed praying for my new friends in the REU program, praying that Jesus would find a way to reach them.  I prayed that Emily and her boyfriend that she talked about often would make good choices in their relationship, and I prayed that Julie would find more meaning in her relationships beyond whether or not the guy was good in bed.  And I prayed that God would lead me in making the most of my last twenty-four days here.

I did not pack a whole lot of clothes for that summer, so I really did wear that Man of Steel shirt often.

Readers: Have you ever been part of a group where you just felt different from everyone? How did you deal with it? Tell me about it in the comments!

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.


July 12-13, 1997. A weekend that felt less lonely. (#138)

It was ten o’clock in the morning, but since it was Saturday, Howard Hall was still quiet, with many students sleeping in.  I noticed that Marcus’ door was open as I walked past; I looked inside and waved.

“Hey, Greg,” Marcus said.  “What’s up?”

“I’m gonna see my great-aunt and uncle today,” I explained.  “They’re on their way here to pick me up.”

“Do they live near here?”

“Salem.”

“Oh, that’s not too far.  Like an hour away?”

“Not quite an hour, she said.”

“Well, have fun!”

“I will!  Thanks!”

I sat outside Howard Hall, hoping that Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy knew how to find it; after all, it was 1997, the cell phones owned by only a tiny percentage of the population could not access the Internet, and no one had a GPS in the car.  But I had given detailed directions, and they had suggested that they knew their way around Grandvale, at least the major streets and landmarks.  Auntie Dorothy had called me earlier this week to plan this visit; I was expecting to hear from her at some point during my summer in Grandvale.  

I also hoped that I remembered what they looked like, and that there were no senior citizen couples roaming the Grandvale State campus that morning looking for naive university students to kidnap and sell into forced labor.  I only remembered having met them twice. When I was 11, we went to Salem for a family reunion of my mother’s paternal relatives, the Weismanns, and they came to visit my grandparents when I was 14.  Uncle Lenny Weismann was my grandfather’s younger brother, and I remembered the two of them looking alike, so I just needed to watch for someone who looked like Grandpa.

I had no trouble recognizing them when they arrived, and they had no trouble recognizing me either.  “Greg?” Auntie Dorothy said after she rolled down the window.  “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I said, getting into the car.

“How are you?” Uncle Lenny asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.

“So what exactly is this program you’re in?”

“It’s a math research internship.  Students from around the country apply to these programs held at different universities.  I got into two of them, and the one at Grandvale State was the closer of the two.  I’m working with a professor and two other students, they’re from two different parts of New York, and we’re studying quasi-Monte Carlo integration using low discrepancy sequences.”  I paused, then continued explaining, hoping that I was assuming correctly that Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy did not know what quasi-Monte Carlo integration was.  “Basically, we’re looking at ways to do certain calculations that can’t be calculated directly, and studying how accurate and efficient these approximation methods are.”

“Oh, ok,” Auntie Dorothy said.  “That sounds interesting.”

We continued to make small talk for the fifty-minute drive from Grandvale to Salem, driving past the green rolling hills and farmland of the Willamette Valley.  Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy told me about their children and grandchildren, whom I did not know.  I had met some of them at the family reunion in Salem, but that was nine years ago now.  I told them about everything that happened to me in the last several months back in Jeromeville, including performing with University Chorus, my trip to Urbana, working with the youth group at church, and assisting in a high school classroom.

“A classroom,” Auntie Dorothy repeated.  “You’re thinking of being a teacher?”

“Well, that’s part of the reason I’m here this summer,” I explained.  “Trying to figure out if I’d rather go into teaching or math research.”

“What kind of work would you do with math research?”

“Get a Ph.D. and be a professor, proving new theorems and making new discoveries.  Probably also teaching university students and mentoring future Ph.D. candidates.”

“I see.  I could see you being good at either of those.”

“Thanks.”

When we got to Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy’s house, Auntie Dorothy made sandwiches for all three of us.  “Do you remember those comic books you used to draw the last time we saw you?”

“Yes!” I said.  “I stopped doing those around the time I started college.  I just didn’t have time anymore.  But then last summer I was teaching myself to make websites, and I started a new series, kind of like an online comic book.  It’s called Dog Crap and Vince.  Can you get the Internet here?”

“We have America Online.  Will that work?”

“It should!”

“I’ll go turn on the computer when I’m done eating, and you can show me.”  After we finished our sandwiches, I followed Auntie Dorothy to the computer, which whistled and hummed and buzzed as it connected to the Internet through telephone lines. I opened my Dog Crap and Vince website for Auntie Dorothy, with Uncle Lenny watching from behind.  “‘Six-O-Five Productions presents Dog Crap and Vince,’” Auntie Dorothy read.  “That’s you?  Why is it called ‘Six-O-Five Productions?’”

“I always abbreviate Dog Crap and Vince as ‘DCV,’” I explained.  “And DCV is also Roman numerals for 605.”

“That’s clever.”  Auntie Dorothy clicked through the site and read the illustrated story out loud, so that Uncle Lenny could hear also.  “So this guy is named Dog Crap, and this is Vince?  Why is his name Dog Crap?”

“I don’t know.  I just wanted something silly.”

“And why is their hair like that?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never explained their hair.  Just kind of random and bizarre.”

Auntie Dorothy continued reading the most recent episode of Dog Crap and Vince, called “What’s Cooking,” which I had written and drawn during study breaks while preparing for finals last month.  The two boys kept making a bigger and bigger mess in an ill-fated attempt to bake cookies, while Vince kept getting catchy and annoying songs stuck in his head.

“That was good,” Auntie Dorothy said.

“There are seven other episodes you can read later,” I said.  “You can email me, and I’ll send you the link so you don’t lose it.”

“Okay.”

“Greg?” Uncle Lenny asked. “Have you ever been to Salem before?”

“Just that one time when I was eleven, when we had the family reunion here.  But all I saw was your house and the park where we had the reunion.”

“We were talking earlier,” Auntie Dorothy said.  “Would you like to take the tour of the Oregon State Capitol?”

“Sure,” I said.  “That’ll be interesting.”

Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Lenny lived in an older neighborhood only about a mile from the Capitol, so it did not take us long to get there.  From the outside, the building looked different from what I expected a Capitol Building to look like; a cylindrical structure stood in the center where I expected a dome to be, with a gold statue on top.

“We don’t have a dome,” Uncle Lenny explained, noticing me looking at the statue.  “We have a pioneer instead.”

“Interesting.”

We bought three tickets for the tour and walked inside.  A tour guide showed us around the building, explaining what function of state government happened inside each part of the building.  She also pointed out the artwork in the different parts of the building and explained the stories from the history, culture, and state symbols of Oregon that the artwork depicted.  At one point, I told Auntie Dorothy, “I was just thinking, it’s kind of funny, I’ve toured the Oregon State Capitol, but I’ve never been inside my own state capitol building.  And it’s only 15 miles from Jeromeville.”

“Well, then, you’ll just have to go tour there sometime,” she replied.  (I did eventually, but not for another nine years.)

After the tour, Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy brought me back to their house for more catching up and small talk.  At one point, Auntie Dorothy asked, “You said you volunteer with a church youth group?  This is a Catholic church?”

“No, actually,” I said, a little hesitantly because I never knew how my mother’s Catholic relatives would react to my recent faith journey.  “A couple years ago, I started going to a nondenominational Christian group on campus with some friends.  That’s where I really learned what it means to follow Jesus.  But I kept going to Mass at the Newman Center, because I didn’t want to turn my back on Catholicism.  The different branches of Chrsitianity have a lot more in common than the little things they argue about.  I realized that a lot of students at Newman weren’t really serious about what they believed, they only went to church because it was part of their culture.  I wanted to learn more about Jesus and the Bible, so I tried my friends’ church.”

“What kind of church is it?”

“Evangelical Covenant.  They believe in the Bible but don’t make a lot of statements about doctrine besides the basics about Jesus dying for our sins and coming back someday.  I’ve heard someone say they’re almost like a non-denominational church.  And in Grandvale, I’ve been going to a Baptist church, just because they’re close to campus and I don’t have a way to get around.”

“God always finds a way to reach those who seek him,” Uncle Lenny said.  The Weismanns had always been Catholic; even before they came to the United States, in the German-speaking world not far from where the Protestant Reformation began, the Weismanns were Catholic.  Uncle Lenny and Grandpa had two sisters who were Catholic nuns.  So I was relieved that I was not about to ignite an argument of Catholicism versus Protestantism.

Late in the afternoon, we returned to Grandvale and stopped at the grocery store before they dropped me off at Howard Hall.  When Auntie Dorothy called earlier in the week, she asked if I wanted to go grocery shopping, knowing that I had no car; I of course said yes.  It was definitely one of the more pleasant days of my stay in Grandvale.  My grandparents both came from large families, so my mother grew up with many aunts and uncles on each side.  Five years ago, the time I gave Auntie Dorothy my comic books, I remember Mom saying that Auntie Dorothy was always her favorite aunt, because she was always so interested in whatever Mom was into.  I had noticed the same thing, five years ago with the comic books, and now today with Dog Crap and Vince.  And now I had their email, so we could plan another visit later in the summer.  “Thank you for everything,” I said, lifting my groceries out of the trunk outside of Howard Hall.

“You’re welcome.  It was good seeing you, Greg,” Uncle Lenny said, shaking my hand.

“We’ll see you soon,” Auntie Dorothy added, giving me a hug.

“Yes.  Take care.”


The next afternoon, after I finished a sandwich made from bread I got at the store with Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy, I sat at the desk in my room and took a deep breath.  I picked up the telephone handset, then hung up before I dialed.  Why was this so difficult for me?  Why could I not just use the phone like a normal person?  I took a deep breath and lifted the handset again, then hung up quickly.  I was being ridiculous.  It wasn’t like I was calling a cute girl and I did not know if she liked me or not.  It was a guy on the other end, and he was not going to judge me for calling him, especially since he told me I could in his last letter.

But was this his own phone?  Or was this a number that he shared with the people he was with?  Why did it matter?  The other people had no idea who I was, and I would probably never see or talk to them again.  As I had done so often when making phone calls, I picked up the handset again and dialed the eleven digits needed for a long distance call quickly before I had time to talk myself out of it.

“Hello?” I heard a familiar voice say on the other end.

“Taylor?” I asked.

“Greg!” Taylor replied enthusiastically.  “What’s up, man?”

“Not much,” I said.  “It’s Sunday, so I’m taking the day off from math.  I have relatives who live not too far from here; I saw them yesterday.”

“Oh, that’s good that you got to see family.  Who was it that you got to see?”

“My great-aunt and uncle.  My grandpa’s younger brother, and his wife.”

“Oh, ok.  What’d you guys do?”

“We just hung out and caught up.  They also took me to see the tour of the Oregon State Capitol, and we went grocery shopping.

“Nice!  Was the State Capitol interesting?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I told him about the pioneer statue and the lack of a dome, as well as what I remembered from the artwork inside.

“How’s your research going?” Taylor asked.  I explained quasi-Monte Carlo integration to Taylor using similar layperson’s terms that I had used with Auntie Dorothy yesterday.  “Interesting,” he said.  “And where would that be practical?”

“Anywhere you’d need to calculate an integral,” I explained.  “Areas and volumes of curved surfaces.  An average value of a set that isn’t just a finite number of things you can add and divide.  Measurements that involve multiplying, but one of the terms isn’t constant, like distance equals speed times time, so you’d need integrals if the speed is changing.”  Integrals were taught in calculus; I could not remember if Taylor had ever taken calculus.  “What I’m doing gives an efficient algorithm for approximating integrals that can’t be calculated directly.”

“Oh, ok,” Taylor replied.  I could not tell how much of that made sense to him.

“How’s your summer going?”

“It’s a lot of work.  I’ve been here since March now, and I’m getting tired.  I’ve been sleeping more than I usually do.”

“Sleep is good if you’re tired, I guess.”

“Yeah.  But I’m ready to go home.”

“Me too,” I said.  “I’m not even halfway through the program here, and I feel like I’m already counting down the days left.  It’s 33.”

“You don’t like math research?”

“It’s okay, but it’s not as interesting as I thought it would be,” I said.  “And I really miss everyone back home.  I don’t have a lot in common with the other students in the program.”

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

“Mostly because they aren’t Christians, and they’re into partying and stuff.  But there is one guy who really likes The Simpsons, so at least there’s that.”

“Nice,” Taylor said.  “Have you found a church or anything like that?”

“I’ve been going to a church right across the street from campus, and they have a college and young adult Bible study.  I only see them once or twice a week, though.  Better than nothing, though.”

“Yeah.  But being around Christians all the time isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

“I’m 20, I’m younger than average for the staff here, but I feel like I’m older spiritually than most of them.  I’ve been through a lot in life.  I’ve been on a mission trip to Morocco.  I’ve been a youth group leader for a long time.  I’ve just had different life experiences.  And when I can sympathize, I sometimes I have to tell myself not to step in with advice, because I don’t want to sound like a young know-it-all.  And the kids that we’re here to work with, new groups come and go every week, so it’s hard to bond with them.”

“That makes sense.  Hopefully you can find common ground with the other staff.”

“Yeah.  And hopefully you do with the other math students.”

“Yeah.  Emily, she’s working on the same project I am, a few nights ago we were all in her room playing Skip-Bo.  She brought a Skip-Bo game with her.  I hadn’t played that in years; I used to play that with my mom and grandma when I was a kid.  That was fun.”

“Nice!  I’ve played that, but it was a long time ago.  Hey, did I tell you I went to a Chicago Cubs game last month?”

“I don’t think so.  That’s fun!”

“Yeah!  The first interleague game in Cubs history, against Milwaukee.  The Cubs lost.”

“Wow.  You got to see history.  It’s still kind of weird to me to think that National League teams are playing against American League teams now.  But exciting too, you get to see new team combinations.”

“Yeah.  It’s interesting to see if this will stay a part of baseball.”

“I haven’t really been following baseball,” I said.

“Well, there isn’t a Major League team in Oregon, so it’s a little harder to follow there.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”  I had actually stopped following Major League Baseball three years earlier, when the last two months of the season were canceled because of a players’ strike, denying one of my favorite players the chance to chase the single season home run record.  My frustration at that situation had died down a little over the last few years.  I knew about the rule change that National League teams would now play against some American League teams each year.  In hindsight, it was ironic that the historic Cubs game Taylor saw was against Milwaukee, because the following season, Milwaukee would move from the American League to the National League and play against the Cubs every year.

After catching up a while longer, Taylor asked, “Are you going straight back to Jeromeville after your program is over?”

“I’ll spend the rest of August with my family, then go back August 31 to finish moving out of the old apartment and into the new one.”

“Are you going to the youth leaders’ retreat in September?”

“Yes.  I’ll be coming right from JCF Outreach Camp.  Two retreats back to back.”

“Busy!”

“Yeah, but I’m not doing anything else the week before school starts.”

“That’s true.  I should get going now, but I’ll see you at the retreat, if I don’t see you before then.”

“Yeah!” I replied.  “It was good talking to you!”

“Thanks for calling!  It’s good to hear a familiar voice.”

“Yeah.  Good night.”

“Good night, Greg.”

I hung up.  It was a little comforting to know that I was not the only one away from home and unable to connect with colleagues.  Taylor’s situation was different, of course, but he was away from home too.  I had thirty-three days left in this metaphorical wilderness of mathematics.  I knew that the Bible had several examples of people being lost in a wilderness for an extended period of time.  God always gave his people what they needed to get through that time, and these exiles in the wilderness always served some higher purpose.

I had Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy not far away, though.  I normally thought of my Dennison relatives as distant and my Santini relatives, my mother’s maternal family, as a bunch of overly dramatic busybodies.  But Mom’s family also included the Weismanns, who were all very nice, from what I knew of them.  I just did not see the Weismann relatives as often I saw the Dennisons or Santinis.  But my day with the Weismanns yesterday, as well as the phone call with Taylor today, certainly helped this weekend feel less lonely.


Readers, what are your extended families like?

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June 28 – July 4, 1997. Outings with my new classmates. (#137)

On my second day in Oregon, when I had to make the half hour walk carrying as many full grocery bags as I could hold from the store back to my dorm room, I realized that I really should have brought my car.  I could have made the drive from home to Oregon in a day, and then I would not have to lug around these bags of groceries every few days, plus I would have a way to explore my surroundings. I chose not to drive because, shortly before I found out about this program, I had just had my first airplane trip, at least the first one that I was old enough to remember, and I wanted to go somewhere on an airplane again.  The airplane ride was fun, but had I thought things through more, I probably would have brought my car.

Of the eight students in my Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, only Marcus drove here; his trip was about as long as mine would have been.  Kirk and Jeannie, who attended Grandvale State year round, did not have cars, and the others came from farther away.  Unfortunately, Marcus’ vehicle was a small pickup truck.  So when someone suggested taking a weekend trip up to nearby Grand Mountain, then continuing over the mountains to the coast, the only way we could make it work was for most of us to pile in the back of the truck bed. 

“Is that legal here?” I asked, knowing that the laws governing motor vehicles sometimes varied from state to state.  I grew up being told it was illegal, although when I was learning to drive, I thought I saw that it was legal in my state in certain settings, even though seat belts were mandatory and pickup truck beds did not have seat belts.  This did not make sense to me, and I never did figure out exactly what the law said in my state. But knowing this was never a priority for me, since I never planned on riding in the back of a pickup truck until today, and I never have since.

“I don’t know,” Julie said dismissively, as if she did not care.

“I’ll drive extra carefully if there are people in the back,” Marcus said.  “And if I do get in trouble for it, it would be me, not you.”

“I guess,” I said, not thrilled with the idea of riding in the back, but also not wanting to miss out on this day out with my new colleagues and friends.

On the morning we left, it was mostly sunny with some clouds scattered across the sky, mostly coming from the west, the direction we would be going.  I wore long pants and brought a sweatshirt.  Back home, the weather on the coast can often be much cooler than the weather inland, and I needed to be prepared for anything.  Marcus, Emily, and I sat in the cab of the pickup truck, with Marjorie, Ivan, Julie, and Jeannie in the back.  Kirk was a local and had seen these places many times, and he had made other plans for the weekend, so he stayed behind.  We planned to take turns who would be sitting in the cab.

About five miles west of Grandvale, the road to the coast split in two, one heading west toward Baytown, the other southwest toward Forest Beach.  We turned southwest and followed that road for another five miles, then turned onto Grand Mountain Road.  A sign said that the peak was another nine miles up that road, and it became quickly evident that those nine miles would be full of sharp turns with barely enough space for two cars to pass each other.

“I like this view,” Emily said.

“Yeah,” Ivan agreed.  “Very different from back home.”  Ivan was from New York City; he probably saw forested mountains in his day-to-day life much more infrequently than I did.

It took about forty-five minutes to drive to the peak of Grand Mountain.  We parked at the small parking area at the end of the road, then walked a trail leading about a quarter mile through a grove of trees to the peak.  Two radio towers with antennae and satellite dishes stood behind a fenced-off area at the peak, with a few picnic tables just beyond this.  We walked to the picnic tables and sat, facing toward more mountains away from the radio towers.

Grand Mountain was the highest peak in the region, but from this viewpoint, it seemed to be surrounded by a sea of other mountains.  Normally, with a view like this, I would have wanted to look down on Grandvale and identify roads and landmarks, and see if I could pick out Howard Hall.  But the direction we faced from these picnic tables did not have a good view of all of Grandvale.  I could see the Willamette Valley opening up below through a break in the mountains, but from this exact spot, I mostly only saw fields in the valley.  Even if I had had a good view of the Grandvale State campus, I probably would not have been able to pick out Howard Hall to begin with, since I did not know my way around Grandvale well enough yet.

The surrounding mountains were green, thickly forested, with grassy clearings scattered throughout.  Normally, in my experience, trees on the edge of a forested area have branches covered with needles all the way up their trunks, but these trees had tall, bare trunks with a much smaller cluster of green needles at the top. It looked as if they had grown in the middle of a forest, and the adjoining half of the forest had suddenly been removed. I thought about this for a bit, then I said, “Why are there those clearings like that, with trees with no needles on the sides?  Is it because the trees next to them have been cut down?”

“I think so,” Marcus replied.  “Something like that.”

“Clear-cutting is so sad,” Julie added.

“At least they don’t cut down the whole forest,” I said. “They spread out the areas they cut down to make it easier for the trees to grow back eventually. That seems like a good way to do it.”

After we sat admiring the view for about half an hour, we drove back down the mountain and continued driving away from Grandvale toward Forest Beach on the coast.  A sign indicated that we would be passing through a town called Spruce Creek before we reached Forest Beach, and Marcus commented that he would probably have to stop there for gas.  As we arrived in Spruce Creek, Marcus said, “Looks like we don’t have much of a choice for gas,” as we drove up to one of the two gas pumps at the one general store in this town of less than two hundred people.

“This is a town?” Ivan said after we stopped.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a town this small.”

“I know they exist, but yeah,” I said, although I had not grown up around towns this small either.

After we finished getting gas, Jeannie and Julie took the next turn in the cab; I got in the back with Ivan, Emily, and Marjorie.  Five minutes later, the truck slowed to a halt.  This certainly did not seem like the kind of road to get much traffic.  I stood up to look ahead and saw a long line of cars in front of us, then just barely in the distance, as the road curved, I saw a large, newly fallen tree across the road.

“What’s going on?” Marjorie asked.

“Tree fell on the road,” I explained.

“Can we get through?”

“I see cars coming in the other direction.  There’s probably one lane open, and we take turns.”

Just as I sat back down, I felt drops of water on my head, and within about a minute, the drops had grown to a light but steady rain.  “Great,” I said, not dressed for rain.

“It didn’t look rainy when we left,” Emily observed.

“With the mountains right on the coast, the weather can probably change a lot in a short distance,” I explained.

By the time we finally got to Forest Beach, the rain had softened to a light drizzle, still wet enough to be uncomfortable considering that my clothes were already wet.  We found a place to park, for a small fee, and walked to the beach.  The gray sky made the choppy water also look gray, and the lack of sun just made the whole experience, although scenic, feel gloomy.

“Here we are,” Jeannie said.  “The Oregon coast.”

The seven of us walked down to the damp sand.  Some of the others took off their shoes and socks; I did not.  I did not want to deal with the mess, especially with my clothes already so wet.  I saw a very small but recognizable stream trickling across the sand, less than a foot wide and easy to step over.  We spent about half an hour walking up and down the coast.  Ivan was talking about something that had reminded him of some movie I had not seen, and Julie had gotten onto the topic of her favorite sex positions, and with nothing to contribute to either of those conversations, I held back a bit and did my best to enjoy the view.

By the time we got back to Marcus’ truck, the drizzle had let up slightly.  We drove back the other way, fifteen miles up the coast to Baytown and then inland on the other road leading to Grandvale.  The other road was presumably a better road, more well-traveled, and we would not have to deal with the delay caused by the fallen tree. I approved of this decision; it would give me a chance to see different scenery on the way back.  The scenery looked very similar to what we saw on the westbound trip, thickly forested mountains with clearings where logging had occurred, but it was still nice to see something new.


The Friday after our beach trip was July 4, Independence Day.  The university was closed for the holiday, and we did not have class.  After a long week of researching quasi-Monte Carlo integration and low discrepancy sequences, I was ready to take a break from mathematics today.  I spent most of the morning reading and catching up on emails, and I went for a short bike ride around campus.

After I ate a microwaved chicken sandwich in my room for dinner, I met the other seven students from the REU program. Grandvale was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century on the west bank of the Willamette River, and since then it had grown from that original downtown, mostly to the west and north, with the east side of the river remaining undeveloped farmland. The seven of us walked a mile and a half from the campus to the river, where the city’s Independence Day festival was happening today. Grandvale was far enough north that the sun would not set until after nine o’clock, so we had a few hours until it would be dark enough for fireworks.

A park extended for about the length of five city blocks between River Street and the actual river, bisected by an old truss bridge carrying eastbound traffic out of town.  A newer, wider bridge had been built parallel to this one about half a mile to the south; I could see that one off in the distance in that direction.  River Street had been blocked off to traffic for tonight, and numerous food booths, community organizations, and people trying to sell things had set up tables along the side of the street.  Large crowds roamed River Street, whic had been decorated with United States flags and various banners with a similar stars-and-stripes theme.

I saw just ahead of me a girl who looked no older than twelve or thirteen, wearing a patriotic outfit and theatrical makeup.  She pressed Play on a small boombox-like device that had a microphone attached; as music began playing, the girl started singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”  That seemed kind of strange, just out of nowhere, but at least the song was fitting for today.  After that, she started singing other songs, mostly old rock-and-roll standards.

“I never really understood the Fourth of July,” Jeannie observed.  “It’s nice to have a day off, but what are we really celebrating?  We’re not exactly the greatest country in the world.”  I wisely held my tongue as she continued.  “And why fireworks?  It seems like there must be something better to celebrate our nation than explosions.”

“Celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it,” I said, in a fake accent to match that of the man who said that to Homer Simpson as he sold him illegal fireworks. That episode, the season finale from a year ago, was one of my favorites.

“Yes!” Ivan replied.  “The M-320!”

“What?” Marjorie asked.  “Is that from The Simpsons or something?”

“Yeah,” I explained.  “The family used the Flanderses’ beach house for the Fourth of July, and Homer went to buy illegal fireworks.  And he ended up blowing up the kitchen.  And Lisa made some new friends in the beach town.  Now that I think about it, it’s probably the only one of my favorite episodes that primarily focuses on Lisa.  Usually Lisa can be pretty annoying.”

“What?” Julie said.  “She’s the only sensible one!  The rest of the family is annoying.”

“But she can be kind of self-righteous and snobby, I think.”

“You prefer Homer the buffoon?”

“Yes!  He’s funny!”

At this point, we walked past the singing girl again, in the other direction.  I noticed that she sang the same four songs over and over again, and that she had a hat in front of her for tips.  Since she sang the same songs, I could not tell if she was actually singing along to recorded background music or just lip-synching.  I had never seen a street performer this young before, and something felt a little odd about her.

“I had actually never seen The Simpsons until last week when I watched it with you guys,” Jeannie said.  “It wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be.”

“‘Wasn’t quite as bad,’” I repeated.  “I see how it is.”

“Well, I used to not watch it on principle.”

“On principle?”

“Yeah!  Watching The Simpsons is like watching Beavis and Butthead.”

Great, I thought.  Insult one of my favorite shows by comparing it to one of my other favorite shows.  You probably also agree with Julie that Lisa, the intellectual snob, is your favorite.

As the sun started to set, the eight of us found a permanent place to sit for the night, on the packed dirt bank of the river facing the other shore.  Kirk had been here before to watch fireworks, and he said that they launch from across the river, so we should have a good view from here.

“Most of the fireworks I’ve watched have been at Disneyland,” Marjorie said.  “We have annual passes.  We’re gonna go as soon as I get home.”

“That’ll be fun,” Ivan said.  “I’m not doing anything when I get back home.  School starts right away for me.”

“I’m not going straight home.  I’m spending the weekend after the program at my boyfriend’s house in Ohio,” Emily explained.  “I was talking to my sister today, and she said, ‘Mom asked me, “Do you think Emily and Ryan are having sex?”’ If my mom wants to know so bad, why doesn’t she just ask me?  It pissed me off.”  They probably were, I thought.  I knew that the norm for people my age was not the Christians I hung out with who believed in saving themselves for marriage. At least they said they believed that.

“What about you, Greg?” Emily asked.  “What are you doing after this?  When do you start school again?”

“Jeromeville is on the three-quarter schedule, so we don’t start until the end of September, but then we go until the middle of June.  So I’m still gonna have a month of summer left.  I’m going to spend two weeks at my parents’ house, then move into my new house in Jeromeville, then I’m going on a retreat the week before school starts.”

“With that church group?” Ivan asked.

“Yes.”

Around ten o’clock, when it was finally dark, a hush fell over the crowd as the first firework launched into the air, then exploded into a brilliant multi-colored sunburst.  People cheered.  The fireworks continued on for almost half an hour, with recordings of marching bands playing patriotic music in the background.  At the end of the show, several rockets launched at once, briefly illuminating the sky in bursts of color reflecting off of the smoke of so many previous fireworks.  After this, everything went dark and silent as the crowd cheered, then the lights of the surrounding park came back on about ten seconds later.

“That was fun,” Ivan said as we stood up.

“That was amazing!” I added.  “I really didn’t grow up watching fireworks.  The fireworks in Jeromeville last year were really the first fireworks I remember seeing.  And this show seemed a little longer.”

“Why didn’t you watch fireworks?” Jeannie asked.

“I don’t know.  We just never did.  And sometimes it’s too foggy for fireworks.”

“Fog?  In July?”

“Yeah.  Plumdale is close to the coast, so kind of like what we saw on the coast last weekend.”

“I guess.”

“And home fireworks are illegal in both Plumdale and Jeromeville.  So fireworks are still a new experience to me.”

I was still on a high from the fireworks as we walked the mile and a half back to Howard Hall in the dark.  Marjorie was talking more about growing up going to Disneyland multiple times per year, some of the others were talking about graduate school plans, others were sharing stories about partying, and I mostly felt left out of the conversation. I walked along the same road as them, but I was in my own little world, comforted by thoughts of fireworks and explosions and celebrating freedom.  This was a familiar feeling to me; I often felt left out when others my age talked about normal life experiences that were foreign to me.

My story was unusual in that I grew up in the United States of America without watching fireworks.  And hearing others talk about things I could not relate to, or experiences I wished I had had, always made me feel rejected.  But instead of getting angry about it, maybe I should look on the bright side. Since fireworks were missing from my childhood, I still was able to enjoy fireworks as an adult, and I had not yet become bored or jaded by fireworks shows.  This trip to Oregon was only the second time I remembered being on an airplane, so riding in an airplane was still fun and exciting in and of itself, rather than a hassle to be endured before the rest of the trip.  And even though Marjorie got to go to Disneyland as many times in a year as I had ever been in my life, this just meant that Disneyland would be fun and new to me when I finally made it back there at age thirty-one.


Readers: Is there anything your friends often talk about that you’ve never seen or done? And do you ever wish you had?

Just so you know, it is possible I might be taking a week off from writing here and there over the next few months. Life is going to be unpredictable. Thanks for being patient with me. Make sure you are subscribed, so you don’t miss an episode.

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June 26, 1997. Hearing presentations, a familiar name, and a used bicycle. (#136)

On Thursday morning, as I had every other day this week and would for every day of this program, I walked from my room in Howard Hall to the classroom in Keller Hall where I had my class every morning.  I did not see any of the seven other students in the program leave, so I walked alone today.  It was cool and breezy, but the sky was blue, and I suspected it would warm up later.

Five others had arrived before I did.  In addition to Ivan Winn and Marcus Lee, whom I had met on Sunday when I arrived, Kirk Stone and Emily Sanders were already sitting in the room.  Emily was from upstate New York and pronounced some words in a distinct accent different from that of the West Coast.  She was a little shorter than average, slim with curly brown hair to her shoulders.   Kirk was one of two students in the program who actually attended Grandvale State, instead of having traveled here from elsewhere like me.  He was thin, with wavy brown hair and a build that I associated with typical Pacific Northwest outdoor activities like hiking or rock climbing.  Kirk, as a lifelong Oregonian, had made sure to educate all of us from out of state about how to pronounce local place names.  The last syllable of Oregon was pronounced more like “gun” than “gone,” and the Willamette, the river flowing through Grandvale, was pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.  “It rhymes with ‘damn it,’” he had said.  The beginning was not pronounced like actor Willem Dafoe, and it was definitely not pronounced like William.  I knew all of this, though.  I had relatives in the area on my grandfather’s side, and we took a road trip for a family reunion when I was eleven years old, in 1988.  My mother had corrected my pronunciation of Willamette on that trip.

I sat in an empty seat next to Ivan. “Hey, Greg,” Ivan said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I replied.  “The guy who led that Bible study I went to on Tuesday said he has a bike I can borrow for the summer, so I’ll probably walk to his house and get that this afternoon.”

“Good.”

“That’ll be nice,” Emily said.  “You said you’re into cycling?”

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘cycling,’” I explained.  “I don’t have a nice, expensive bike or anything.  But bicycles are really big in Jeromeville.  The newer parts of town have bike trails connecting the neighborhoods, and the campus extends into the rural area outside of town, since they do agricultural research there.  There are a lot of fun places to explore on a bike around Jeromeville.  And it’s flat, so it’s easy riding.  I started going for bike rides when I was bored freshman year, and I just never got out of that habit.  It’s pretty much the only exercise I get too.”

“I’m glad you found a bike, then,” she said.

The three missing students all arrived together about five minutes after I did.  Jeannie Lombard, the other student from Grandvale State, had long blonde hair and usually wore sandals, sort of a hippie look.  Julie Callahan was from Connecticut; she had chin-length brown hair, and was built like she might have played basketball or softball when she was younger, but had not kept it up into young adulthood.  And Marjorie Tanner, short and energetic with short curly brown hair, was a bit of a contradiction.  She was originally from California and talked like the stereotypical ditzy surfer girl, but she attended Harvard during the school year, so she was not actually ditzy, at least when it came to academics.

“Hey,” Julie said as the three of them entered.

“Hey, Julie,” Kirk said.  “What’s up?”

“Nothing.  What do you guys think of the presentations so far?  Any of them you really want to do?”

“I’m probably going to do one of the topology ones with Dr. Garrison.  But I want to look into applying topological methods to other areas,” Marcus explained.  “I didn’t think I was going to do topology this summer, but he had some very interesting things to say about that.”

After an introduction to the program on Monday, the rest of this week’s class time would be spent hearing the three professors working with the program talk about the areas of research that we could work on this summer.  Dr. Garrison had proposed some applications of topology, the study of properties of surfaces and how they are affected when they are stretched and twisted.  His talk focused on a surface called a punctured torus, a donut-like shape with one point missing.  I had not taken any classes about topology, so I was thinking that I would probably not do a topology-related project.

Today, a professor named Dr. Schneider was talking about Monte Carlo integration.  I learned how to calculate definite integrals in calculus in high school, but for some functions, the values of its definite integrals cannot be calculated exactly.  Various methods for approximating these values existed, with varying levels of complexity, efficiency, and accuracy.  The simpler methods tended to be less efficient, less accurate, or both.  I had studied some of these methods last year in a class called Numerical Analysis.  Monte Carlo integration used random numbers to produce a reasonably accurate result for these integral problems; the method was named for the famous gambling resort in Monaco, because of its reliance on random numbers.  Such methods could be improved upon; by choosing certain other sequences of numbers in place of the random numbers, a more accurate result can be obtained with fewer calculations.  This project sounded more interesting than the others that had been presented so far, mostly because I could actually follow what was going on in the talk.


The eight of us in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program were given the use of a study room with couches, tables, and three computers.  I went there after our morning class ended, to check my email.  The most interesting message I had was from my mother, updating me on everything going on with her, my father, my 15-year-old brother Mark, and other people back home I might know.  I began typing a reply, telling my mother about my last few days, about the Bible study I had been to and the possible research projects for this summer.  I was staring at the wall trying to think of ways to explain Monte Carlo integration to someone with no knowledge of calculus when Kirk, Marjorie, and Julie walked in.  I said hi to them, and they said hi back.

As I was typing my email to Mom, I was vaguely aware of the other three playing Hangman on the chalkboard on the wall to the left of me.  After I sent the email, I walked to the others.  Marjorie stood at the board, with Kirk and Julie guessing letters.  Marjorie had written the category as “thing,” and her puzzle had two words, of nine and five letters, respectively.  The first word had an N for the third letter, and an E in the second to last position, and the second word had an O in the second position and ended with S.  The letters A, L, and H had been guessed and were not in the word.

_ _ N _ _ _ _ E _
_ O _ _ S

“I,” Julie guessed.

“No I,” Marjorie replied, writing I with the other letters not in the puzzle.

“No I?” Julie exclaimed.  “Where are all the vowels?  What is this?”

“I know,” I said.

“What?”  Kirk replied.

“I know what the puzzle is.”

“How do you know?” Julie asked.  “What is this word with no vowels?”

“You haven’t guessed all the vowels,” I said slyly.

“Fine,” Kirk replied indignantly.  “U.”   Marjorie filled in the blanks for the three Us in the puzzle.

_ U N _ _ U _ E _
_ O _ U S

“There are the vowels,” Julie said, “but I still don’t know it.”

“I don’t want to interrupt your game,” I said.  “You guys were trying to figure it out.”

“You can play if you want.”

“I’ll play the next one.  I’ll let you guys figure this one out.”

I turned my attention to a bookshelf next to the chalkboard.  The bookshelf contained the proceedings from previous years’ REU projects; I grabbed one at random and began flipping through the pages.  This one was from 1996, last year’s program.  Since I still had no idea what I was doing this summer, I thought that looking through these might help me get some ideas of what my final report should look like, even if the mathematics itself would end up being wildly different.  Each book contained a different number of reports, depending on how many students worked on each project.  Some students who worked with the same professor wrote separate reports, and others seemed to work together, with multiple names on one report.  Most likely, the nature of the research being done dictated whether it required separate reports or a collaborative report.

Kirk guessed T in the Hangman game.    Marjorie filled in the two Ts in the puzzle, and Kirk groaned when he realized that the answer was “punctured torus,” a word from yesterday’s math presentation.  Kirk took the next turn, and as he stood at the chalkboard thinking of a word, I picked up a different book of REU proceedings.  This one was from 1994; Dr. Garrison was still the lead professor, and Dr. Schneider worked on this one too, but the other two professors were names I did not recognize.  I glanced at the list of participating students and the universities that they were from, to see if any of them were from anywhere interesting, and I felt that weird jolt pass through my body as I read a name that I recognized.

“Hey,” I said.  “Someone I know is in here.”

“What is that?” Marjorie asked.

“The proceedings from this program in 1994.”  I turned the book to the others so that they could see what I was pointing to: Mary Heinrich, University of Jeromeville.

“Oh, wow,” Marjorie observed.  “Someone else from Jeromeville.”

“And you actually know her?” Kirk asked.

“She was a senior when I was a freshman,” I explained.  “And she was President of the Math Club that year.  I didn’t know her well, but that year I knew her to say hi to.”

“That’s cool,” Marjorie said.

As we guessed letters in Hangman, I thought about what it meant that Mary Heinrich had also done the REU at Grandvale State.  Probably nothing, in the grand scheme of things.  Dr. Thomas had probably recommended the REU to many promising mathematics students, as she had done with me.  Mary probably noticed the same thing I had, that Jeromeville gets out for the summer a month after most other universities, and after many REU programs begin.  Students from Jeromeville doing an REU would be limited as to which ones they could apply to without missing spring quarter finals, so maybe REU students from Jeromeville tended to end up at the same few programs.  Still, it was interesting that, although I had never heard of this program until a few months ago, and only a few students participate each year, I knew someone else who had been in the program.


I arrived in Grandvale four days ago, in the late morning on a Sunday, and I quickly found a church that had an evening service.  I had told the greeter at church about my situation, that I was only in town for two months for a research internship at the university, and she forwarded my contact information to the college and young adult pastor, a man in his thirties named Joe Ferris.  He invited me to the weekly Bible study for that age group that met on Tuesdays, and it was at Bible study that he mentioned that he had a bicycle I could borrow.

After playing a few more rounds of Hangman, I went back to my room and made a sandwich, then I called Joe Ferris and asked if I could walk to his house and pick up the bicycle now.  He said that he and his family might be leaving the house for a bit around the time I got there, but they would leave the bicycle in the side yard with the gate unlocked for me.

The Ferrises, a family of five, lived in the central part of Grandvale on 16th Street.  I walked the route that had become very familiar to me over the last few days, as if I were going to class in Keller Hall, but when Keller approached to my right, I continued walking north to Maple Street, the boundary between the campus and city.  I then crossed Maple Street and walked north on 21st Street, past small apartment complexes and old houses.  I had been this way once before, to go grocery shopping on Monday.  This was a major thoroughfare leading to the northern part of Grandvale, but in this old neighborhood, the street was narrow, with only one lane for cars in each direction.

I passed a commercial area about half a mile past the university, with a pizza place, the grocery store I had gone to earlier in the week, a coffee shop, and other stores.  Beyond this was a traffic light at Cedar Street.  I crossed the street at the light and then turned east.  As I walked down Cedar Street, I heard honking from an approaching car.  I looked up and saw the Ferrises driving west.  Joe waved at me from the driver’s seat, and I could see his wife, Anne, in the passenger seat, and their three daughters waving from the back.  I waved back.

When I arrived at the Ferrises’ house, the bicycle was on the side of the garage, just as Joe had said it would be.  It was green, a cruiser-style bicycle with a chain guard and clunky fenders, although the fenders would come in handy if it rained again.  It looked like it was probably at least over a decade old.  It was not pretty or sleek in any way, but it was a bicycle, and it was free to use.

I rode back down 16th Street and turned on Cedar the way I came.  I was pedaling fast and not getting very far, so I shifted the front dérailleur to a higher gear.  I heard the chain make a funny noise, then suddenly felt no resistance in my pedaling.  The chain had slipped off of the gears.

No problem, I thought.  This happened all the time with Schuyler, my bike back in Jeromeville, and usually I can just pedal while I shift the front to its highest gear, and the chain will drag back into place.  But this slip happened when I was in the process of shifting to a higher gear, so now I was not sure what to do.  I tried pushing the shift lever as far as it would go, and the chain did not reattach.  I tried frantically moving both dérailleurs as I pedaled, and nothing seemed to want to make the chain reattach.

I turned the bike upside down to see what was happening closer up.  With Schuyler, it would have been easy to push the rear dérailleur loose, grab the chain, slip it around the gears, and then let the rear dérailleur spring back into place.  But this bicycle had a chain guard, so I could not easily grab the chain from that side.  I tried grabbing it from the side that was normally on the bottom, away from the chain guard.  A thick layer of black grease immediately covered my hand; at this point, I did not care, I just had to be careful not to stain or damage any of my clothes permanently.  I tried to move the chain into position, but I could not get it in place no matter how hard I pulled.  I tried again, pulling in a slightly different direction, and I felt a tooth of one of the gears scratch my skin.  I was bleeding now, and I was going to need another shower when I got home.

After about ten minutes of fiddling, shifting, and swearing, I finally felt the chain start to catch on a gear as I pushed the pedal forward with my hands.  I slowly continued turning the pedal, and the chain clicked into place.   Finally.  I turned the bike right side up on its wheels and began pedaling home.

Now how could I make sure that this did not happen every time I rode the bike?  I had been shifting gears on the rear dérailleur repeatedly before I attempted to shift the front, and nothing had gone wrong.  Maybe I was going to have to spend the entire summer only shifting gears in the back.  I supposed I could get used to that.

Now that I had a mode of transportation, I wanted to explore more of Grandvale.  But I was dirty, and still bleeding a little, and getting cleaned up and staying in my room seemed like a much more appealing way to spend the evening.  I had work to do, books to read, and letters to write.  I walked the bike into the Howard Hall elevator and got off on the third floor; Emily was walking past when I got out of the elevator.

“Hey, Greg,” Emily said.  “Is that the bike you’re borrowing?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I learned the hard way that it doesn’t shift properly in the front.”  I showed her my right hand, still covered in black grease with a few small blood stains.

“Wow.  Are you okay?”

“I will be.  Just grease and scratches.  I have Band-Aids in my room.”

“Okay.  Be careful.”

“I will.”


Mom had told me in her email earlier that she would be sending my package of things I needed for the summer, but was not able to pack on the plane, on Friday morning.  That was tomorrow, so I called Mom later that night and told her to send the bike lock in the package.  That way, if I had to ride to the grocery store or anywhere else, I would be able to leave the bike unattended.

I saw the Ferrises at church on Sunday, and Joe told me that they had seen me on the side of the road trying to fix the chain as they returned home. “I thought about honking and waving again, but I didn’t. We had a good laugh at that, though, since that bike always does that.”

“I got it eventually,” I said. “A reminder not to shift the front would have been helpful, though.”

“Sorry. I just forgot. Didn’t think to say anything.”

It was fun being on a different campus in a different state, but it was starting to get difficult being this far out of my comfort zone.  I missed my normal life in Jeromeville.  I missed my friends.  I missed Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the youth group kids at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  I missed having a computer in my room.  I missed riding Schuyler on the bike trails in Jeromeville.  Of course, I still had no idea what experiences waited for me in the time I had left in Grandvale; maybe I would be surprised at everything that would happen.

Also, many of my Jeromeville friends were also leaving their comfort zones this summer.  Brian Burr, my roommate last year, was moving to New York later this summer to start medical school.  Taylor Santiago left in March to work at an urban ministry center in Chicago, volunteering with church youth groups from around the country that take week-long trips to Chicago to do urban ministry projects.  Jennifer Dawson, an acquaintance from another church in Jeromeville who knew the people who had the coffee house party in April, was going on a mission trip to Brazil this summer; I had donated money to her mission trip at that party.  And Eddie Baker, Melinda Schmidt, Tabitha Sasaki, Evan Lundgren, and seven of my other friends from JCF were leaving this week to spend a month in China, preaching the good news of Jesus to university students in a very hostile country.  If all of these people could handle being that far away from home to serve the Lord, surely I would be just fine spending eight weeks in Oregon doing mathematics.  Especially since I had already found a Bible study full of brothers and sisters in Christ who could help me with things like finding a used bicycle.  God would be with me wherever I went, according to several passages in the Bible.

The bicycle (with the lock that Mom sent)

Readers: Tell me an interesting story about a time you were away from home for an extended period.

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