April 19, 1997. A slightly disappointing Spring Picnic. (#128)

I was confused when I heard the knock at the door.  It was 8:41 in the morning on a Saturday.  I was not expecting a guest, and none of my roommates seemed to be home.  I opened the door a crack and saw Jane and Darrell Lusk, my aunt and uncle.  I knew they would be in Jeromeville today, so it was not entirely surprising that they would come to my apartment, although I thought the plan was to meet them later.

“Hi!” I said.

“Hi, Greg!” Aunt Jane replied, giving me a hug.  Uncle Darrell vigorously shook my hand with a tight grip.

“How was your trip?” I asked.  “I thought I was going to meet you later, at the track.”

“We were,” Aunt Jane explained.  “But we got off the freeway, and we saw the sign for Maple Drive, so we came by the apartment.  Your mother wouldn’t have let me hear the end of it if she found out we saw Maple Drive and didn’t come by your apartment.”

“Good point,” I said.

“We should have gotten off on the exit before, not on Fifth Street,” Uncle Darrell added.  “I asked, ‘What’s Greg’s address on Maple Drive?’ and she said, ‘2601.’  I’m looking around, and all the addresses are in the five hundreds, and I go, ‘We’ll be driving for a while.’  Your aunt never was good with directions.”

“I didn’t know we’d be coming here!” Aunt Jane retorted.  “I was going straight to the track.”

“Aunt Jane is right,” I said.  “You should have taken Fifth if you were going to campus.”

“See?” Aunt Jane said.  “Anyway, how are you?”

“I’m good.  Just doing school.  I’m going to have a lot of work to do tomorrow, since I’ll be at the Spring Picnic most of the day.”

“Yeah!  I didn’t know you were having a picnic!  Rick told me something about it when he called from the hotel last night.”

“Yes!  The annual Spring Picnic is more than just a picnic.  It started early in UJ’s history, when there were only a hundred students here, and they had a picnic to share their research for the year.  But now it’s grown into a huge festival with all kinds of exhibits and activities and performances.”

“Fun!”

“I’ll be walking around campus all day, checking stuff out.  What time is Rick running?”

“His first race is the 400, that starts at 1, and then he’ll be in the 4-by-100 relay at 2:30.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll head over to the track by 1.”

“Great!  We’ll see you there!  And now I can tell your mother I saw the apartment.”

“Yeah.  See you in a while!”


One noteworthy thing about the University of Jeromeville’s annual Spring Picnic is that, with so much going on simultaneously, it is not possible to see everything every year.  Although it would be nice to see everything, there are always new things to see every year.

One Spring Picnic event that I had never been to was the Track & Field Invitational.  This was a regular track meet, attended by athletes from a number of different university track and field teams, but it was always scheduled to coincide with the Spring Picnic.  North Coast State University was one of the other schools competing at the Invitational.  Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell’s son, Rick, was a freshman at North Coast State, on their track team, so I knew that the Lusks would be in Jeromeville today.

I parked my bike on campus around 9:30, near Wellington Hall on the west side of the Quad, and sat on the street reading the program of events as I waited for the parade to start.  While I waited, I read through the program of events.  I knew that two events from previous years were disappointingly missing from this year’s Spring Picnic.  Given Jeromeville’s agricultural past, and the fascination people have with weird things, one of the most popular events at past Spring Picnics was the fistulated cow.  For research purposes, cows can be fitted with a fistula, an opening connecting the stomach to the outside, so that the cow’s stomach contents can be analyzed.  For years, thousands of people lined up for an exhibit where they could stick their gloved hands into a cow’s stomach and look at its contents.  I walked past the line freshman year and decided it was not worth the wait, and that I would plan ahead and stick my hand in a cow some other year.

But then, a few months ago, animal rights activists got involved, and the department that ran the fistulated cow exhibit announced that they were removing it from the Spring Picnic program this year.  This seemed to me the most disappointing and least fun way to handle the issue.  The fistulated cow still existed, it is not possible to unfistulate a cow, and the university would still be conducting research on the contents of the fistulated cow’s stomach.  So, if the university was not going to cave all the way to the animal rights activists and stop doing fistulated cow research, why bother ending the exhibit?  I never did get to stick my hand in a cow’s stomach, something I still regret to this day.

Also missing from this year’s program was the band Lawsuit.  A couple months into freshman year, I met this cute sophomore girl named Megan McCauley, whom I very much wanted to get to know better.  Later that year, a few days before Spring Picnic freshman year, Megan told me about this band called Lawsuit that would be performing.  Their show blew me away.  Lawsuit was like no other band I had ever heard, a mix of rock, reggae, jazz, and something that Megan called “ska,” the first time I had ever heard that word.  I saw Lawsuit three more times, signing up for their mailing list, where I would get a postcard in the mail every month telling about upcoming shows.  They broke up a few months ago, with their last show being on New Year’s Eve, when I had already made plans in another state.  Since my first memory of Lawsuit was tied to Spring Picnic, I expected this year’s event to feel incomplete without seeing Lawsuit.

I looked through the program, trying to figure out what I had time to see.  The Chemistry Club did a popular show every year with flashy chemistry demonstrations.  And right near there, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student club would be making ice cream using liquid nitrogen.  Both of those sounded worth checking out.

There was nothing in the parade that I was waiting for in particular.  I watched various student and community groups pass by slowly.  I waved to local politicians, I heard marching bands, I saw floats.  After about an hour, a little more than halfway through the parade, I got bored and headed toward the chemistry building.  A long line of people was entering the building, and I could see that they held tickets.  Presumably these people were being let in for the 11:00 show.

“Are there tickets left for the 12:00 show?” I asked someone at a table near the entrance.

“We’re all out,” he replied.  “We ran out quite a while ago for all of the shows.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I’ll have to remember to get here early next year.  I’ve never been to this before, and I’ve heard it’s really good.”

“Yeah.  That sounds like a good idea.”

With the chemistry show out of the question, I walked around the corner of the chemistry building, toward Ross Hall and Baynes Hall, where the chemical engineers had set up their liquid nitrogen ice cream.  Two long lines of about fifty people each snaked toward me.  I was not excited about more waiting, but I had nothing else in particular to do, and after missing out on a chance to tell people that I stuck my hand in a cow, I did not want to miss the chance to tell people that I had eaten liquid nitrogen ice cream.  “This is the line for liquid nitrogen ice cream?” I asked the middle-aged man in front of me in the slightly shorter line.

“Yeah,” he said.  “This line is for vanilla, and that line over there is for chocolate.”

“Vanilla is fine,” I said.  I continued looking through the program of events as I waited in line.  It was so hard to choose exactly what I wanted to see among so many options.  The line began moving quickly a few minutes after I got there, but then stopped again with around ten people in front of me.  It appeared that they needed to make another batch every few minutes, adding liquid nitrogen on top of the edible ingredients as they stirred continuously.  The liquid nitrogen all boiled away as it quickly lowered the temperature of the ingredients.

Megan, the girl who told me about Lawsuit, was a chemical engineering major.  I kept an eye out for her the whole time I was in line, but she did not appear to be here at the exhibit table.  Part of me hoped she would be; she was a good friend up through the beginning of my sophomore year, and I missed just talking about things with her.  But part of me was glad not to see her.  We grew apart naturally because of life, but after we started to grow, I saw her kissing a woman.  I was embarrassed to know that the crush I had on her for a year was all for nothing, if she was not into guys in the first place.

I reached the front of the line about ten minutes after the students started making the next batch.  One of them spooned a clump of slushy vanilla ice cream into a small paper cup, stuck a small plastic spoon in it, and handed it to me.  I stepped out of the way and began eating.  It tasted just like homemade ice cream that had been frozen the conventional way, with ice and rock salt.  It probably could have been frozen a little longer, but with the line as long as it was, they probably needed to make it quickly in order to keep up with demand.  “This is really good,” I told the student who served me.

“Thanks!” she replied.

I stopped by the Math Club’s presentation next.  I had decided not to work this year’s presentation, and I only stayed for about ten minutes, since it was pretty much the exact same presentation as last year’s.  I knew some of the students working, though, and I talked to them for a bit.  After that, I was getting hungry, so I walked toward to the Quad and waited in a long line for carne asada tacos made by a Latino cultural club.

I wandered over to the track in time to see Rick run the 400 meter event at one o’clock.  Tobin Field, the University of Jeromeville stadium, always felt kind of embarrassing to me.  Jeromeville was a major university, and our stadium looked like a high school stadium, with a football field surrounded by a track, and bleachers that needed a fresh coat of paint.  Jeromeville was in NCAA Division II; we were not considered a premiere collegiate athletics program, and few of our student-athletes went on to careers as professional athletes.   But we still could do better.  Capital State, our rival school across the Drawbridge in the next county, had completed an impressive remodel of their football stadium a few years ago, and they were currently in the process of moving up to Division I.

I walked around the bleachers, sparsely populated with fans, until I saw Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell.  “Hi,” I said, approaching them.  “Is Rick running yet?”

“That’s the starting line for the 400 down there,” Aunt Jane said.  “The first heat is about to go.  Rick will be in the third heat.”

“Okay,” I said, sitting on the bleachers and watching the athletes in the distance.  Pole vaulters were warming up, and the high jump was happening on the far side of the track.

“High jump,” I said, pointing in the distance.  “My roommate Brian did high jump for the Jeromeville track team.”

“Oh!” Aunt Jane replied  “Is he jumping today?”

“He graduated last year, but he said he would be helping out with the meet today.  I don’t see him, though.”

“How was the picnic?”

“It’s been okay,” I said.  “I watched the parade for a while, then I got liquid nitrogen ice cream from the Chemical Engineering Club, then I stopped by the Math Club table.”

“That sounds like fun!  We were walking around earlier, and it looked like there were a lot of fun things going on.  I don’t think I ever realized the campus was so big!  It’s much bigger than North Coast State.  Or Bidwell State.”

“Yeah.  It really is.  It’s fascinating.”

“I heard something about wiener dog races today.  Have you ever seen those?”

“I’ve never actually watched them.  I’ve seen pictures, though.  It looks fun.”

“I wonder if we should enter Shooter for next year?”

“It’s worth looking into,” I said, even though I had a feeling it was not actually in fact worth looking into.  Shooter, Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell’s pet dachshund, was middle-aged and had poor vision.  He probably would not fare well against more seasoned competitors.

Rick finally got to run about twenty minutes after I arrived.  “I hope he does well,” Aunt Jane said.  “Do you think he got enough sleep last night after the bus ride here?”

“Nothing he can do about that now,” Uncle Darrell replied.

Rick and the other racers lined up and got ready, then all began running.  The 400-meter run was approximately one lap around the track, starting and ending on the side where we sat.  Rick kept up fairly well with the leaders at the beginning, but on the far straightaway, a few racers pulled out ahead, leaving Rick to cross the finish line in the middle of the pack.

“That wasn’t too bad for Rick,” Aunt Jane said, watching the official timer.

“He isn’t gonna make the finals,” Uncle Darrell observed.

“It looked like he was only a second off his personal best.”

“That isn’t too bad,” I said, trying to place focus on the positive.  “And he’s just a freshman.  He has three more years to compete.”

“I know,” Aunt Jane said.  “I don’t think Rick is gonna be happy with how he did, though.  He has really been improving in the 400.”

The preliminary heats for the women’s 400 began shortly after that.  Aunt Jane pointed out that a girl named Sara, who graduated from the same high school as Rick two years older,  now was on Jeromeville’s track team.  I remembered Aunt Jane also mentioning her when I first started at Jeromeville.  “Did you say you knew Sara?” Aunt Jane asked me.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.  “Which one is she?”

“That one.”  Aunt Jane pointed at Sara.  “Wow, she’s really put on weight.”

“I don’t know her,” I said.

Sara and her other competitors lined up at the starting line, and the race began a minute later.  Sara fell behind early.  “She used to be a lot better than this,” Aunt Jane explained.  “Look at how big and jiggly her legs are!  She’s a porker!”  By about halfway through the race, Sara was visibly struggling, falling into last place.  “My gosh!  She’s a whale!” Aunt Jane exclaimed.  The racers continued around the turn and down the home stretch, and as Sara plodded across the finish line in last place, three seconds behind the runner with the next slowest time, Aunt Jane repeated, “What a whale!”

I felt bad for Sara.  I felt embarrassed that she was out there trying her best while this forty-five-year-old busybody in the crowd was tearing her down.  Hopefully Sara was far enough away that she could not hear Aunt Jane’s name-calling.  But this kind of behavior was just how my mother’s side of the family operated, gossiping, obsessing over people’s bodies and appearances, and tearing people down behind their backs.  I always stayed out of such discussions when I was with those relatives.

A while later, Rick came over to talk to us.  “Hey, Greg,” he said after greeting his parents.  “What’s up?”

“Just hanging out,” I said.  “You have one more race?”

“Yeah.  100 relay.  We’ll be running in about half an hour.”

“I think you did pretty well in the 400,” Aunt Jane told Rick.

“Yeah, but I coulda done better.”  Rick sounded a little angry.

“Just brush it off and give it your best in the relay.”

“Yeah.”

Rick continued talking to us for a bit.  We made small talk about classes and comparing our university experiences.  Eventually he left to prepare for his other race.  He was in the second position in the relay, and his teammate was in third place when he passed the baton to Rick.  Rick kept up and was still in third place when he passed the baton, but his next teammate fell behind, and the North Coast State team finished fifth.

“Rick isn’t gonna be happy with that,” Uncle Darrell said after the race ended.

“He did fine,” Aunt Jane said.  “The rest of the team fell behind.”

“So that was Rick’s last race?” I asked.

“Yeah.  You can go now if you have other things to do.”

“I think I will,” I said.  “It was good seeing you guys, and good to watch Rick run.”

“Yes!  Enjoy the rest of the picnic, Greg.” Aunt Jane gave me a hug.

“Good seein’ you,” Uncle Darrell added, shaking my hand.

“Bye!” I said.


It was after three o’clock by the time I left the track meet.  The Quad was much emptier than it had been a few hours ago; all the student clubs and organizations had packed up and left.  A band played on the far side of the Quad; I listened to them for the two minutes it took to walk across the Quad.  They sounded louder and less fun than Lawsuit.

Although there are dozens, if not hundreds, of things happening as part of the Spring Picnic, many of them happen simultaneously in the middle of the day.  By this time of day, many of the events shut down.  I saw a sign for the Entomology Department’s exhibit, open until four o’clock; I walked in and looked at different kinds of bugs for a while.  At the end of the Spring Picnic, I always make my way to the Arboretum, where a number of university marching bands take turns playing until they run out of songs to play.  Jeromeville’s band was in the middle of playing “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” by Belinda Carlisle when I arrived; North Coast State’s band followed by playing the theme from The Legend of Zelda, one of my favorite video games.

I stayed watching the marching bands until around five-thirty.  The Jeromeville band played a marching band arrangement of “Zombie” by the Cranberries as I left.  I started singing along quietly as I walked back to where my bike was parked.  I always found it fascinating how anything could be turned into marching band music.

The sun would not set for a couple more hours, but my day was over, and I could not help but feel a little disappointed with this Spring Picnic, like I missed a lot of fun things.  I was not sure exactly what I missed, other than things like Lawsuit that weren’t options anymore, but I knew I missed something.  It was good to see the Lusks, but spending two hours at the track to see Rick run for a total of less than two minutes took a big chunk out of the day.  If I had seen the Lusks on another day and gotten to see more of the Spring Picnic, I would have enjoyed both experiences more.  I was, however, glad that I had not volunteered to work the Math Club table; I would have missed even more that way.

Many students’ parents come to the Spring Picnic.  I had not yet experienced this; maybe I could get Mom and Dad to come next year, so I could show them around.  Of course, they had seen the campus before, but now that I had been here for three years, I knew more details of what was worth seeing.  Whether or not that happened, the very nature of the Spring Picnic made it an event worth seeing year after year.  Even long after I moved away from Jeromeville, I would keep coming back to campus every April to experience the Spring Picnic.


Readers: What’s your favorite event or festival to visit year after year? Tell me about it in the comments!

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April 12-13, 1997. Alaina’s coffee house party, and a plan for next year. (#127)

I looked up Box Elder Court on a map before I left the apartment.  It was a few miles away, in east Jeromeville, just past Power Line Road.  I was told that the party started at seven o’clock, but I did not leave the apartment until 7:17, and it was almost 7:30 by the time I turned onto Box Elder Court.  I did not feel comfortable being the first to arrive at a party where I knew few people.

But I wanted to go.  I saw Alaina and Whitney on campus a few days ago between classes, and Alaina had reminded me, “Greg, you’re coming to the coffee house party, right?”  Besides, I liked this new group of friends.

In hindsight, I sometimes humorously referred to early 1997 as my Rebellious Period.  Right around the same time I got frustrated with the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I had made some friends who went to another college-age Christian group, University Life.  I went to University Life a few times, although I did not stop attending Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, or my church.  I had not been around U-Life enough to notice if cliques were a problem, but I did seem to notice that they were not obsessed with putting people in categories like JCF was.  Everyone at JCF wanted to lead Bible studies for future student leaders, or for transfer students, or for students of a certain ethnic or cultural background, or for women, but there were no specific groups for any category I fit into.  I had heard that there would only be one small group at JCF next year that was not category specific.  I wondered if there were others like me who did not fit into the categories; if so that would be a very large small group.  More like a medium group.

Box Elder Court was a cul-de-sac, long enough for eight houses on either side.  (Every time I use the word “cul-de-sac,” I have to mention that the term literally means “bag’s ass” in French.)  Both sides of the street were mostly lined with cars already, so I had to park at the opposite end of the street from the house where the party was.  Either this party was going to be crowded, or many people with cars lived on Box Elder Court, or both.

I walked along the east side of the street, now in shadow.  The sun had dropped below the houses on the opposite side and was just setting.  Twilight was descending over the neighborhood.  I approached my destination, a pale blue house with a garage protruding from the front right side, the number 1402 on the wall next to the garage door.  As I walked to the left of the garage toward the front door, I could hear muffled noises suggesting a large crowd inside.  A sign on the door, on a sheet of poster board of the kind typically used for school projects, said “BOX ELDER HOUSE OF JAVA – OPEN!  COME ON IN!” Next to these words was a drawing of a mug of coffee.

I opened the door slowly and peeked my head in, then I quietly walked forward in the direction that most of the noise seemed to come from.  The house had a small living room on the left, with couches and a television; two people I did not know sat on the couch talking.  Straight ahead was a dining room area, opening to a kitchen on the left.  A hallway to the right of the dining room led to what appeared to be a bathroom and at least one bedroom, and to the right, a stairway descended from what were probably more bedrooms upstairs.  This house looked big for three girls; I did not know how many lived here in total.

Someone had pushed the dining room table aside and set up a bar stool with a microphone on a stand in a corner of the dining room.  A sign near the stool said OPEN MIC NIGHT, keeping true to the coffee shop theme.  About ten or twelve people were milling about the kitchen and dining room; a few faces looked familiar, but the only people I recognized for sure were the three girls I knew who lived here: Alaina, Whitney, and Corinne.

Whitney spotted me first.  “Greg!” she said.  “You made it!”

“Yeah,” I replied, looking toward the kitchen.  Alaina stood over an espresso machine making some kind of drink; next to the espresso machine was a conventional coffee machine.

“Hey, Greg!” Alaina said, sounding excited to see me.  “Can I get you a drink?”  Alaina gestured toward a white board, on which had been written a menu of coffee drinks.

“I’m probably not going to have coffee, but thanks,” I said.

“There are other drinks in the refrigerator if you want.  Help yourself.”

“Sounds good.”  I opened the refrigerator and took a can of Dr Pepper.  I noticed a few drawings and paintings adorning the walls around the dining room; I was no trained judge of art, but they appeared to be intentionally silly.  “I love the coffee shop decorations,” I said.  “Right down to the art on the walls.”

“Yeah,” Alaina replied, pointing to a piece of paper that had been profusely scribbled on with crayons.  “That one is mine.”

I looked more closely; a sign next to the drawing had indicated that its title was Studying for Finals, and that Alaina was the artist.  “Studying for Finals,” I said.  “That’s fitting.”  Next to Studying for Finals was a drawing in black charcoal of some kind of monster with large eyes, abstract amorphous spots vaguely suggesting a nose and mouth, and no limbs.  This drawing had been attributed to Corinne, and its title was Alaina.

“Corinne drew you as a monster?” I asked Alaina.

“Huh?” Corinne said, overhearing me call her name.

“Your drawing,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.  You know how it is, how sometimes your roommate can act like a monster.”

I chuckled at this, then noticed a sign that said PAINTINGS $5 – ALL PROCEEDS GO TO JEN’S MISSION TRIP TO BRAZIL.  “These paintings are for sale?” I asked.

“Yeah!” Corinne said.  “We thought this would be a fun way to help Jen raise a little money.”

“I don’t know if I know Jen,” I replied.  Jen was usually short for Jennifer, the most common name for college-aged girls in the United States in 1997, so there were probably multiple girls named Jen who the girls in this house knew.

“She’s coming later,” Corinne explained.  “She had something else to do today.”

“Oh, okay.  I still think this is a great idea, though.  Can I buy this one?” I asked, gesturing toward Corinne’s Alaina.

“You want to buy my painting?  Yeah!”

“Should I give you the money?”

“Just put it in the tip jar over by Alaina.  We’ll give you the painting after the party.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  I walked to the tip jar and put five dollars in it.

“What’s that for?” Alaina asked.

“I’m buying Corinne’s art.”

“Really?  Are you sure you don’t want to buy mine?”

“See?” Corinne told Alaina.  “Greg thinks you were acting like a monster the other day too!”

“I don’t want to get involved in any drama!” I said.  “I just thought it was funny.”

“We’re just messing around,” Corinne said reassuringly.  “Do you and your roommates ever argue?”

“Not really that much,” I said.  “Our apartment has been pretty peaceful.  And I lived alone before that; this is my first time having roommates.”

“Lucky.”

“And I don’t know where I’m going to live next year.  People always seem to make their housing arrangements without asking me.

“What about your current roommates?”

“They’re older.  I don’t think they’ll be in Jeromeville next year.”

“That’s too bad,” Corinne said.  “But, hey, if I hear of any guys from U-Life who need a roommate, I’ll let you know.”

“Cool.  Thanks!”

“No problem!  I’ll be right back.  Corinne left toward the bedrooms, then returned with a sticky note that said SOLD and placed it on the Alaina drawing.

I found a chair and sat and watched people for a while.  Ben Lawton had arrived while I was talking to Corinne, and Carolyn Parry was just walking in now, carrying a guitar case.  Corinne took Carolyn’s guitar back to the bedrooms, presumably to keep it out of the way of everyone.  That made a total of five people I knew by name at this party.  Carolyn looked in my direction, and I waved.

“Hey, Greg,” Carolyn said.  “Good to see you here!  What’s up?”

“Just the usual,” I said.  “Are you singing later?  Is that why you brought the guitar?”

“Yeah!  I’ll be singing a song I wrote.”

“That’s so cool!”

“How do you like the pieces for chorus this quarter?”

“I’m learning them okay.  I like them so far.  I don’t know German at all, though, so that’ll take some practice to pronounce right.”

“Yeah.  You’ll pick it up fine with practice.”

“Thanks.”

Around eight o’clock, Alaina got everyone’s attention and announced, “Make sure you sign up for the open mic!  We’ll start at 8:30.”  She put a clipboard on the dining room table, and when she saw that I was watching her, she said, “You’re gonna do something on the open mic, right, Greg?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Yes!  Sign up!  Just, like, get up there and do a math problem or something, and say it’s a poem about math.  That would be hilarious!”

“You know,” I said, “I think I’ll do something like that.”  I signed my name on the clipboard.

I did more people-watching and mingling until eight-thirty, at which time everyone gathered in the dining room around the microphone.  Carolyn went first, with the guitar she had retrieved from the bedroom.  “This is a song I wrote,” she said.  “It’s about God’s love for us.”  She then proceeded to play a fast rhythm on the guitar, singing from the perspective of God, calling someone who has been running away back into the love and hope that he offers.  I knew how it felt to want to hide from God, and his love and truth.  Carolyn was quite good as a singer, and these lyrics showed her to be just as good as a songwriter.

Next, a guy I did not know walked up to the microphone and began reciting a poem.  “Once, there was this kid, who got into an accident, and couldn’t come to school,” he said.  This was a dark poem, I thought.  “When he finally came back, his hair had turned from black into bright white.  He said that it was from when the cars had smashed so hard.”  As he continued reciting words, next about a girl with an embarrassing birthmark, I realized why this poem had sounded familiar.  He was reading the lyrics to a strange song that was popular a few years earlier, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies.  Despite being so dark, I always thought the song was oddly catchy.

A few more performers came up, performing various types of music and poetry readings.  Some were serious, others were silly, and others involved inside jokes among the U-Life crowd that went over my head.  After about seven or eight performers had gone, Alaina called out, “Next up, Greg!”

Hey, that’s me, I thought.  After signing up, I had prepared something according to Alaina’s advice.  “This is a dramatic reading of the Pythagorean Theorem,” I said.  A few in the crowd giggled, and when the giggles stopped, I began.  “In a right triangle!” I shouted dramatically.  “The square!  Of the… hy-pot-en-use!” I continued, taking frequent breaths and carefully enunciating each syllable of “hypotenuse.”  “Is equal!  To the sum… of the squares!  Of… the other.  Two… Siiiiidessss.”  I drew out that last word, pronouncing it slowly.  I walked away from the microphone, and everyone applauded.

“Good job!” Corinne told me as I returned to the crowd.  “That was perfect.”

“Thanks!” I smiled.

I stayed at the coffee shop party for another couple hours, until it wound down and the girls who lived there had begun cleaning up.  I took Corinne’s Alaina drawing off the wall when I left and hung it up in my room at the apartment, right next to Tear Down the Wall, the painting I had made freshman year with Bok and Skeeter and some others from my dorm.


The next day was Sunday, and by mid-afternoon I was still in a good mood after having had so much fun at the party the night before.  It was a beautiful day, sunny and a little on the warm side, but not hot.  Josh, the roommate I did not know as well as the other two, was actually home for once, and he seemed to be the only one home.  “Hey, Greg,” Josh said as I came downstairs to the kitchen for a snack.  “What’s up?”

“Nothing.  I’m just relaxing the rest of the day.  I don’t have any homework or studying.”

“You wanna come play disc golf?  I was just thinking, this is a perfect day for it.”

“Sure!” I said.  I grabbed the flying disc that I had gotten from Brian on the day of last year’s Man of Steel competition and got into Josh’s car.  Josh had an entire bag of discs of different shapes and sizes; he was obviously a more experienced player than I was.

We drove about a mile and a quarter south on Maple Drive and parked next to a city park near a cluster of apartments just north of campus.  I followed Josh to a concrete slab marked with a number 1.  “There’s the hole over there,” Josh said, pointing at a pole with chains around it, making a cage-like structure, and a tray below.

“So this is an actual disc golf course?  And the goal is to get the disc in the tray there?”

“Yeah.  You’ve never done disc golf here?”

“I haven’t.  The only time I’ve played disc golf was last year at the Man of Steel competition, and they just made up a course where the holes were trees or poles you had to hit.”

“Aim for those chains,” Josh said.  “Your disc hits the chains, they’ll slow it down, and it’ll land in that tray.”

“Cool,” I said.  Josh got his disc in the hole in two throws, using a different disc for the second, shorter throw than he used for the first throw.  My first throw went wildly off course, and it took me a total of five throws to make it in the hole.

“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” Josh said as we walked to the next tee area.

Uh-oh, I thought.  This was a classic move; Josh got me alone, just him and me, because he wanted to talk to me about something serious.  Maybe I was being a bad roommate, and he wanted to call me out.  Maybe I was acting inappropriately in front of the youth group at church.  Fortunately, it was not a bad thing at all that Josh wanted to ask.

“Do you have a place to live next year?” Josh asked.

“No, I don’t.  Why?  Do you need a roommate?”

“I do, actually.  You know Sean Richards, right?”

I attended Catholic Mass until about six months ago, when I got involved at Jeromeville Covenant Church instead.  Sean was one of the few other Catholic students who also attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  “Yeah,” I said.  “I know Sean.”

“What about Sam Hoffman?  Light blond hair, physics major like me, he goes to JCF sometimes?”

“I think I know who you’re talking about.”

“Anyway, Sean knows four guys who live in a three-bedroom house, and their landlord approved Sean to take over their lease.  So, Sean and Sam and I are going to live there, but we need a fourth.  You would be sharing the large bedroom with Sean.  But you two would have your own bathroom.  Are you interested?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That sounds great!”  Sharing a bedroom was not ideal, but I had been doing it all this year, so it would not be that difficult of a transition.  It was somewhat amusing that I would go from sharing a bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing a bedroom with someone named “Sean.”  “Where is the house?” I asked.

“It’s on Acacia Drive.  Across the street from the Acacia Apartments.”

“That’s a great location!” I said.  Three different groups of people from my freshman dorm lived in the Acacia Apartments sophomore year, and I used to visit them there occasionally.  I knew the area.  “I could walk to church from there,” I added.

“Yeah!  We’re gonna take a look at the house sometime next week.  I’ll let you know for sure when we do.  But we’re all pretty sure we’re gonna go for it.”

“Sounds good!  This certainly takes a lot of stress off of me.”

“I think we’ll be a fun group of guys.  And it’ll be nice having an actual house.”

“Yeah!” I said.

Josh continued to dominate our game of disc golf.  He tried to teach me to throw more straight; his pointers helped a little, but I obviously needed more practice to throw a disc straight.  The Man of Steel competition, among the men of JCF, was coming up in less than two months, and I would need to throw much straighter than that if I wanted to avoid repeating my near-last-place finish.  I found myself getting a little frustrated, but we were not strictly keeping score.  This time was more about hanging out with Josh.  He told me that he would be doing the teacher training program next year, to be a high school science teacher.  I told him about my internship helping in a math class at Jeromeville High, and about the summer internships I had applied for, so I would be able to decide between teaching and graduate school.  Josh also asked if I had heard that Shawn, our roommate who was currently doing teacher training for math, had become disillusioned with it and was considering leaving teaching.  I told Josh that I had heard this, and that it was unfortunate.

I answered emails from a few Internet friends when I got home, and I had told each of those people that I had a great weekend.  I went to a fun party with new friends, and my housing plans for the following year had fallen into place nicely.  And no one seemed to care that I was part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship but hanging out with University Life people.  It was okay to have multiple groups of friends.  It was a good thing.

Corinne Holt
Alaina, 1997
Charcoal on paper

Courtesy of the G. J. Dennison personal collection.

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March 29-April 3, 1997.  A montage of the new quarter. (#126)

“Now remember, Boz,” I said.  “When Brian finds out that you’re a Star Wars fan, he’s gonna test you and ask if you know the number of the trash compactor that Luke and the others almost got smashed in.”

“I don’t remember,” Boz replied.

“It’s ‘3263827,’” I said.

“‘3263827.’  I’ll remember that.”

I had just spent four days at my parents’ house for Spring Break, returning to Jeromeville on the Saturday morning before classes started.  Mom, my brother Mark, and his two best friends Boz and Cody followed me up for the day in a separate car.  Mom had gotten the idea that it might be fun for the boys to come visit, and with all three of them in high school now, it was never too early to start visiting universities.  We had met at McDonald’s for lunch, and now we were on our way back to my apartment.

“Hey,” Brian said when the five of us walked inside.

“This is my brother Mark, and his friends Cody and Boz,” I said to Brian.  “And you’ve met my mother before.”

“Boz?” Brian asked.

“Short for Matthew Bosworth,” I explained.

“Yeah,” Boz said.  “You can call me Boz.  Or Matt.  Either one.”

“Boz is as big of a Star Wars fan as you,” I said.

“I have a question I always ask Star Wars fans,” Brian explained, “to see if you’re a true fan.  What is the number of the trash compactor on the Death Star where they were stuck?”

“3263827.”

“Very good.”

“I have to admit, though, Greg prepared me, because he told me you would ask that.”

“Ah,” Brian replied.  “Do you have any obscure Star Wars trivia you ask people like that?”

“Sure.  Who is the director of photography?”

“I don’t know that one.”

“Gilbert Taylor.”

“Nice!  I don’t have all the obscure credits memorized.”

“I would just leave the credits on and watch the names sometimes.”

“That’s cool how each of us pays attention to different details,” Brian said.

The rest of the day went well.  I showed the boys around campus.  They came back to the apartment and played basketball in the common area.  I like to think that something from that day really made an impression, because Cody and Boz would both end up attending the University of Jeromeville after they finished high school.  My brother did not; he went to community college for a few years and then transferred to the State University of Bay City.


Sunday was Easter, my first since I began attending Jeromeville Covenant Church.  Church was more crowded than usual, but it was not as dramatic of a difference as Catholic Easter masses back home at Our Lady of Peace were compared to ordinary Sundays.

My first class Monday morning was not even on the University of Jeromeville campus.  I rode my bike along my usual route as far as the intersection of Andrews Road and 15th Street, then turned left on 15th and parked at the bike rack of Jeromeville High School.  I walked through the entrance to campus and found Mr. O’Rourke’s class toward the back of the school.  Mr. O’Rourke had told me to just sit at the table in the back, and I could help students work on problems later in the period.

Mr. O’Rourke was an older man with short gray hair and a no-nonsense personality.  After the students had arrived, he gestured toward me.  “This is Greg Dennison,” he said.  “He’s a student at UJ, and he’s going to help out in our class for the rest of the year.”  Some of the students turned around to look at me, intrigued; I waved at them.

As Mr. O’Rourke lectured, I looked around at what I could see of the class.  The class seemed very large to me; I counted forty-one students.  I was used to high school classes of around 30 students at most.  I would learn later that Mr. O’Rourke was semi-retired, only teaching the one class, and he was such a popular teacher that students would sometimes ask to be in his class even when it appeared full.

After Mr. O’Rourke finished explaining and demonstrating relationships between sine and cosine functions, I walked up to his desk.  “So, just walk around and help students now?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Mr. O’Rourke said.  “That would be good.”

My first few times up and down the rows in the classroom, no one asked me anything.  This was a precalculus class, so these were mostly honor students; maybe none of them needed help.  Eventually, though, I saw one student who was leaving most of the work blank on his paper.  “Do you need help?” I asked.  “Do you understand what to do?

“I don’t get it,” the student said.

“What do you know about sine and cosine?  Can I see your notes for today?”  I pointed out what he had sloppily written in his notebook and showed him what he could use to solve the problem in front of him.  I could not tell how well he understood.

“Is there anything else I have to do?” I asked Mr. O’Rourke when the bell rang.

“No, not really,” he said.  “At the end of the week, we’ll talk about how it’s going so far.”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As I walked toward the school entrance, past a row of lockers, I heard a female voice say, “Greg!”  I instinctively turned and looked, although as I did so I realized that I did not know anyone at Jeromeville High School.  This girl was probably talking to some other guy named Greg.  Maybe it was a student from Mr. O’Rourke’s class whom I just met this morning, but why would she need to talk to me now, outside of math class?  I saw a familiar face reaching into a locker as I turned around, and I realized that I did know someone at Jeromeville High School: Erica Foster from church.

“Hey,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“What are you doing here?” Erica asked.

“I’m doing a Math 197 tutoring class,” I said.  “I’m TAing in Mr. O’Rourke’s first period.”

“That’s awesome!  Everyone says Mr. O’Rourke is a great teacher.  I never got to be in his class, though.”

“He seems like the kind of teacher I would have liked.”

“So you want to be a teacher?  Is that why you’re doing this?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I said.  “I’m looking at different options for the future.  One of my professors asked me if I had ever thought about being a teacher, and he set this up for me.”

“That’s cool.”

“What are you doing next year?  You graduate this year, right?”

“Yeah!  I’m going on a mission trip to Turkey for part of the summer, and then I’m still waiting to hear back from some schools, but I’m probably going to stay home and go to UJ.”

“That’s cool,” I said.

“I need to get to class, but it was good running into you.”

“Yeah.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”


A few hours later, back on campus, I had Data Structures, a computer science class.  A lower-division computer science class, Introduction to Programming, was a requirement for the mathematics major.  In addition to the upper-division mathematics units required for my major, a small number of courses in statistics and computer science, including this Data Structures class, counted in place of upper division math units.  As a kid, writing code in BASIC on a Commodore 64, I enjoyed computer programming as a hobby.  I chose against majoring in computer science, though, because my computer knowledge was out of date, and I did not want a hobby to turn into work.  But I wanted to take this class, so I could learn more about programming while working toward my mathematics degree.

Technology-related majors were very popular at Jeromeville, especially in 1997 with the Internet just emerging as a consumer technology.  Because of this, computer science and computer engineering majors had priority to register first for most computer science classes.  This was my third attempt at taking Data Structures.  The first time, I was number 19 on the waiting list, and the professor said that no new spots would open up.  The second time, I had moved up to first on the waiting list by the first day of classes.  I was hopeful, but the professor said that they had already expanded the number of spaces in class beyond what they should have.  The number of computers in the labs was too small to support this many students, so no new spots would open up.  For the other computer science classes I had taken, I did most of my work at home, dialed up to the campus Internet late at night so as not to tie up the phone line.  I suspected that lab space was not as much of an issue now that working from home was possible.  But the department had not changed their rules.

This quarter, the professor gave the usual bit about the class already being too full, and no one else being admitted from the waiting list.  But this time, it did not matter, because I already had a spot in the class.  When I called in to register last month, I expected to get put on the waiting list, but it said I had successfully registered.  This might have been my only chance to take the class, so I took it.  I told this to Eddie from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at the retreat last week, and he said this was God opening up a door for me.  Definitely.

After Data Structures, I had chorus.  As I walked toward the bass section, Danielle Coronado, who lived down the hall from me freshman year, came up to me and gave me a hug.  “Greg!” she said.  “You’re back!”

“Yeah.  I wanted to do chorus last quarter, but it was the same time as Dr. Hurt’s Writings of John class.”

“That’s right.  Well, I’m glad you’re back.”

“Thank you.”

I walked toward the bass section and sat next to a guy I recognized from fall quarter when I was also in chorus.  “Hey,” he said.  “Welcome back.  It’s Greg, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  I did not know this guy, I thought he was a music major, and I did not know the music majors very well.  I was surprised that he recognized me.

About fifteen minutes into class, after explaining some procedural matters, Dr. Jeffs, the conductor, said, “The pieces this quarter are Schubert’s Mass No. 2 and Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder.  The sheet music is at the bookstore; hopefully you all have that by now.  We’ll start on the Schubert today.”  As he began playing and demonstrating part of Schubert’s Mass, Dr. Jeffs explained that Schubert was from Vienna, so we would be using Viennese Latin pronunciations instead of Italian Latin.  When performing Schubert, the word “qui,” for example, was pronounced “kvee” instead of “kwee.”  I had never heard of such a thing.  The Brahms piece was also entirely in German, a language I did not know how to pronounce.  I was sure I would get used to it.

The spring of 1997 was an unusual quarter for me; it was the only quarter that I did not have any actual mathematics classes.  Helping in Mr. O’Rourke’s class at Jeromeville High would go on my transcript as a two-unit math class, but I did not sit in a lecture or do homework out of a textbook.  Data Structures counted as a major requirement, but was not technically a math class.

This quarter was also my lightest load by number of units; I only took as many units as were required to maintain my status as a full time student.  But it certainly did not feel like a light load, because the two actual classes I was taking, besides Mr. O’Rourke’s class and chorus, were both extremely difficult and time-consuming.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I had Philosophy and Social Foundations of Education.  I had not made a final decision about my future, but I was now seriously considering the option of becoming a teacher, so I figured it would not hurt to start working on prerequisites for the teacher training program.

I could tell after ten minutes of class on the first Tuesday that this class would be a lot of work.  As a math major, I was not used to classes with this much reading and writing.  But the subject matter looked interesting, investigating some of the difficult questions about why education is important in society, and why schooling is done as it is.  As a possible future teacher, it was important to answer these questions, and I had to take this class at some point if I were to become a teacher.  Good thing I took it in a quarter when I had a light schedule.


Wednesday evening I had The Edge, the junior high school youth group at church, for which I was a volunteer.  The staff and volunteers arrived an hour before the students, and the meeting before the kids arrived felt a little different because Taylor Santiago was not there.  Taylor had been my friend since Day 1 of freshman year, and he had encouraged me to get involved with youth ministry after he noticed some boys from the youth group take a liking to me after church.  He left last week for six months of inner-city ministry in Chicago; he would be back for the start of the school year in the fall.

As the students walked in, we usually had music playing, typically some Christian artist.  Having only been a practicing Christian for a little over a year, I was just scratching the surface of the vast world of Christian contemporary music.  Whatever this music was that played today, I found it intriguing.  It sounded like rock with horns.  I only knew of one other band that sounded remotely like this, although that other band was not Christian music; this was definitely not them.  At the Spring Picnic freshman year, I had been told to go watch a local band called Lawsuit that played there every year.  Lawsuit was a unique blend of rock with horns that some people described as “ska,” the first time I had ever heard that word.  I went on to see Lawsuit play three more times in the two years since.

I was checking in students at the entrance that day, along with Erica Foster, the girl I saw at Jeromeville High after Mr. O’Rourke’s class.  Her younger brother was one of the teen boys who had taken a liking to me.  “What is this music?” I asked Erica.

“Five Iron Frenzy,” she said.  “My brother has been listening to this a lot at home.”

“I don’t know them,” I said.  “I just got excited that there’s a Chrsitian band that sounds like Lawsuit.”

“Is this what Lawsuit sounds like?” Erica asked.  “I’ve heard of them but I don’t know anything about them.”

“Sounded like,” I corrected.  “They broke up.”

“Really?  I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.  This last New Year’s Eve was their last show.”

“That’s too bad.  I heard they were good.”

“They were!  They sounded like nothing I’d ever heard.  But now I’m gonna have to check out this Five Iron Frenzy.”

Jeromeville had a small Christian bookstore, and I went there as soon as I was done with classes the next day to find that the Five Iron Frenzy album, called Upbeats and Beatdowns, was in stock.  I brought it home and listened to it while I replied to a few emails in my inbox.  In November, I was saddened to receive a flyer from Lawsuit announcing their breakup.  I did not attend their final show, on December 31; I was halfway across the country at the Urbana conference on that day, and the show was for ages 21 and up, which I would not be until next August.  But now I was excited to discover a Christian band that sounded like Lawsuit.

I learned a few songs into the album that I had been mistaken; Five Iron Frenzy did not sound particularly like Lawsuit, beyond being rock with horns.  They had a much faster and more aggressive sound, more like punk rock with horns, a genre called ska-punk that was emerging at the time.  But it was catchy, and I could hear references to Christianity in the lyrics, at least when I could understand lead vocalist Reese Roper’s high-pitched, fast singing.

 A few minutes later, a song called “Anthem” came on, and I immediately began to regret my decision to buy this album.  Reese called America a hollow country, and sang about how he did not care about the American notion of freedom.  If the members of Five Iron Frenzy were Christians, why were they spewing this anti-American liberal crap?  As far as I knew, Christians were conservatives who loved their country.  Maybe this was not entirely true, I realized, as Reese sang about true freedom being from Jesus Christ.  But I still loved my country and did not find patriotism inherently at odds with Christianity.  Two other songs on the album besides “Anthem” directly criticized the sins of the United States and the shallow nature of the American church, but if I must be honest, these criticisms were certainly justified.

I liked most of the rest of the album.  In addition to songs praising God, the album also contained some songs that were just silly, like one about the old TV show Diff’rent Strokes and one about how Jesus is better than superheroes.  Other songs explored deep philosophical topics of interest to Christians living in this world, like one about colorful characters waiting for a bus.

The album did eventually grow on me, although to this day I still always skip “Anthem.”  I have had a complicated relationship with Five Iron Frenzy over the years, one that has featured some very personal experiences.  I sang one line on Reese Roper’s solo album in 2004, and I had an hour-long personal conversation with saxophonist Leanor Ortega-Till in 2020.  And in addition to recording some of my favorite songs ever, Five Iron Frenzy has also recorded many other songs in the same vein as Anthem that I did not particularly care for.

Currently, I have mixed feelings about Five Iron Frenzy.  They released an album in 2021 of all angry political music, with none of the Christian or silly songs.  Ultimately, though, I have always said that Five Iron Frenzy did a great job of bringing together Christian and secular fans, liberals and conservatives, just by being real.  I understand now that Christianity is not by any means limited to Americans or conservatives, and it should not be.  Paul writes to the Corinthians that different people have different gifts that are all part of the body of Christ.  Just as Boz and Brian had discovered their different takes on Star Wars trivia when they met a few days ago, people with different cultural and political backgrounds have different experiences with Christianity.  I may not agree politically with all Christians, but we are still one in Christ, each with a role in the global Church.


Hello, readers!  What’s an obscure fact about your favorite movie that you like to remember and tell people about?

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Also, the Five Iron Frenzy music video below comes from an unofficial source on YouTube.  Just in case it gets taken down, I’ll include an official audio as well.


March 22-24, 1997.  Spring Breakthrough, or whatever that retreat with the foosball table was actually called. (#125)

I put my suitcase and sleeping bag in a corner of a meeting room at the First Covenant Church of Stockdale.  I looked around, a little apprehensive about sleeping on the floor, in a sleeping bag, with eight other guys in their sleeping bags in the same room.  I did not sleep well in unfamiliar places, particularly with other people in the room who might be snoring or making noise or breathing.  But if I was tired enough, I would probably be fine.  After all, last year I almost got five hours of sleep camping illegally on the beach in Moonlight Cove, so I would probably be able to handle this.

This retreat was called Spring Breakthrough.  Or maybe it was Spring Breakaway, or Spring Breakout, or some other pun based on the retreat being during spring break.  Instead of driving up to the mountains, like we had on the other retreats I had been on with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, we were just hanging out at a church in a nondescript suburban neighborhood in Stockdale, about an hour drive down the Valley south of Jeromeville.  I would learn later that the McAllens, the head staff of JCF, had a connection to someone at this church, which is how we got it for our retreat.

Spring Breakthrough was also open only to second-year and older students.  Freshmen had their own retreat somewhere else for these same three days, called by a different one of the aforementioned cheesy names.  I forget which.  Because it took up three days of a relatively short Spring Break, and because freshmen had their own retreat, Spring Breakthrough had fewer students attending compared to other JCF retreats I had been on, around twenty.

We arrived on Saturday evening, right after winter quarter finals, and for our first meeting, Brian Burr had set up a television and VCR.  Brian, one of my roommates, was on staff with JCF part time, and he was leading this retreat along with the McAllens, the adult couple on staff full time.  I knew exactly what we would be watching, because I had seen Brian working on this video earlier in the week.  Before he started the video, Brian spoke about discipleship, the theme for this weekend.  “Discipleship is intentional by nature,” Brian explained.  “When you disciple someone, you become a part of their lives, to help lead their spiritual growth.  To start you thinking about discipleship this weekend, I have prepared a video showing a very famous discipleship relationship among certain well-known characters.”  I giggled at Brian’s description of his video.  “Pay attention to what you see about the discipling relationships depicted in this video,” Brian continued.

Autumn Davies sat next to me, and when she heard me giggling, she whispered, “What’s so funny?”

“Just laughing at the way he described that,” I said, “because I know what the video is.”

“What is it?”

It’s Brian.  I’ll give you one guess.”

“Oh!” Autumn said, a look of recognition passing over her face.

Brian pushed the VHS tape in the player and pressed Play.  The opening music and scrolling backstory of Star Wars showed on the screen, and for the next hour, we watched an abridgement of the movie trilogy, containing all of the scenes related to discipleship.  I watched Obi-Wan teach Luke about the Force.  After Obi-Wan’s death, his Force ghost led Luke to Yoda, who took Obi-Wan’s place in Luke’s discipleship.

After the video, which in our abridged version ended with Luke seeing the three Force ghosts, we got into groups of three or four to talk about what discipleship meant to us, and to share stories about someone who had discipled us.  Autumn, Janet McAllen, and Evan Lundgren turned their chairs toward me.

“So what did you guys think?” Janet asked.  “Who has discipled you?”

After a pause, in which everyone seemed to be debating whether or not to go first, Autumn spoke up.  “For me, really, it was Leah, and everyone in my Bible study freshman year.  I grew up going to church on Christmas and Easter, but it didn’t really mean anything until I got here.  I met Leah our first day in the dorm, and she invited me to Bible study a couple weeks later, and I made a decision for Jesus after a few Bible studies.”

I did some quick mental math.  If Autumn became a Christian a few weeks into fall quarter her freshman year, which was my sophomore year, that means that she had only been a Christian for a month at the most when I met her, when our group failed so hilariously badly at the car rally.  I never would have guessed this, since Autumn always seemed so intense about living for Jesus.

Evan and Janet told their stories next, and finally it was my turn.  I did not want to share.  I was a little embarrassed.  “I feel like it’s hard to talk about,” I said.  “I don’t know if I want to share out loud, because the person who first comes to mind is in this room.”

“Brian,” Janet said with a look of recognition.

“Actually, I was thinking Eddie, last year when I was having a rough night, and he took me in and invited me over.  But, yeah, Brian too.  And all of you guys.  You, when you told me about sin and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And Sarah, and…” I looked around, trying to remember if any of my other Building C friends were on this retreat; they were not, Sarah Winters was the only one.  “And my friends from my dorm, who accepted me for who I was.”

“Wait,” Autumn said.  “So you’re a pretty new Christian too?”

“Yeah.  I made the decision to follow Jesus a little over a year ago.”

“I didn’t know that.  You always seem to me like you must have been a Christian for a long time.”

“Funny you should say that.  I was just thinking the same thing about you.”

“That is funny,” Autumn said.  “I guess sometimes the Lord just finds you, and lights a fire in your heart.”

“Yeah.  Someone else said that about me once.”

We shared prayer requests, then returned to the rooms where we were sleeping, Janet and Autumn to one room with the women and Evan and I to the room with the men.  It took me a bit longer than usual to get to sleep, to get used to the unfamiliar noises and sounds, but I ended up sleeping fine after that.


We were staying at a church, and the next day was Sunday, so we all attended the service together.  The pastor of the church introduced us at the beginning of the service; people turned around to look at us, and we all waved.  

After church, we went back to the youth room, where our meetings were being held.  Eddie Baker, John Harvey, Lars Ashford, and Xander Mackey had discovered the foosball table on the opposite end of the room from where we were sitting last night.  I walked up, trying not to interrupt, since they were focused on an intense competition.  

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.

“What’s up?” Xander asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Can I watch?”

“Sure, dude,” Lars replied.  I watched as the four boys made the ball fly across the table with amazing precision that I never had known to be attainable on a foosball table.  I had played around on foosball tables off and on over the years, but I was never anywhere near this good.  As with most actual sports, everyone around me was better than I was.

John gestured out the window, where Brent Wang and a few others were throwing a Frisbee.  “I’m gonna go outside and play Frisbee with Brent,” John said after their game ended.  “Greg?  You want in?”

“Sure,” I replied.  I grabbed the handles for the defense side of John’s team, even though John had been playing offense; I hoped that Eddie would not mind playing offense.  I did not want to speak up, since that would require admitting that I was not very good at foosball, and blocking shots seemed slightly easier than flicking my wrist and sliding the handles the way the others had been in order to score.  Eddie grabbed the handles for the offense players without questioning this arrangement.

“So I found a foosball table for our house next year,” Lars said.  “It’s used, but I got a good deal on it.”

“That’s awesome,” Eddie replied.

“You guys are living together next year?” I asked.  The other three at this table had lived together last year, but this year Lars and Xander lived in one house and Eddie in another, along with John, who had been playing earlier.

“Yeah,” Xander said.  “Us three, John, and Jason and Ramon.  We got this really nice four-bedroom house on De Anza Drive.  It’s two-story, with a balcony.”

“That sounds cool,” I said as I successfully blocked Lars’ shot.  I was a little disappointed to hear that I had been excluded from The Cool House yet again, although I was not surprised.  I had been reminded so many times this year that I was on the outside of the cliques at JCF, and I had come to accept that.  I realized that I had not yet made plans for housing for next year, and while I had a feeling I would still be able to find something, I also began to panic in my mind.  This distracted me enough that Lars’ next shot went streaming past my goalie.  “Crap,” I said as Xander moved his team’s score counter up.


We had another talk about discipleship Sunday night, and another one Monday morning.  Word spread quickly that there was a foosball table in the room, and most of our free time was spent around that table, playing, watching, or waiting our turns.  Even Brent, who always seemed to bring a Frisbee wherever he went, had eschewed his Frisbee for foosball.

I finally got a win Monday afternoon.  I was playing with Autumn on my team, and Tabitha Sasaki and Evan Lundgren on the other side of the table.  None of us were particularly skilled at foosball, and Autumn and I won by a score of 10 to 8.  After that game, I stepped aside to let the more skilled players back in.

A little bit later, shortly before our final session on discipleship, I left the foosball table and wandered across the room to where we would be meeting.  Janet was writing a table of numbers on a large pad of paper attached to an easel.

Preaching to 100Discipleship of 1
1 year1002
5 years50032
10 years10001024
20 years20001048576
30 years30001073741824

“Exponential growth,” I said.

“Yes!” Janet replied.  “You get it, because you’re a math major.  Isn’t it amazing how effective discipleship can be, when people get discipled and go on to disciple others?”

“Yes.”

About ten minutes later, Janet and a few others walked around the room to gather everyone together for the talk.  When we were ready to begin, Janet announced, “Turn to the person next to you, and tell them, what do you want to take home from this weekend?”

Xander was sitting next to me.  As I tried to think of a deep answer, something I had learned this weekend that I wanted to put into practice in my life back in Jeromeville, Xander said loudly, “I wanna take home the foosball table!”  I laughed at this, as did everyone else within earshot.

“I’m still figuring out what to take away from this,” I said.  “I feel like discipleship isn’t something I’m naturally good at.”

“That’s okay,” Xander replied.  “Sometimes it’s just about how you live.  Spreading the gospel isn’t just about preaching.  People see you helping out, volunteering to help the worship team set up their equipment, stuff like that, and they can see you showing the love of Jesus.  And didn’t you say you’re doing something with the youth group at Jeromeville Covenant?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Those kids are gonna remember you.  That’s a kind of discipleship too.”

“That’s true.”

After everyone finished, Janet spoke to the group.  “I made a table here,” she said, gesturing to the easel.  “This column shows how many people get reached for Jesus if you preach to a hundred people every year.  But this column over here shows how many people you reach if you disciple one person for a year, and then each of them disciples someone else for a year, and then each of them disciples someone, and so on.  Notice how fast the number grows through discipleship.”  I smiled and nodded, thinking about having learned this in math class, as Janet continued, “And Greg can tell us why.”

What?  Me?  This was unexpected; I was not prepared to speak.  But this was math, and I knew exactly what to say.  I nervously stood up, and after no one told me to sit back down, I began.  “Preaching is a linear function.  The rate of change is always the same, so the same number of people get reached every year.  But with discipleship, the more people who get reached, the more new people they will reach.  The rate of change is proportional to the number of people reached.  That describes an exponential function.  The number of people reached grows faster and faster as more people get reached.”  I sat back down, and all the other students clapped.  I hoped that they actually learned something from my explanation, something about math and about Christian living, and that their applause was not just humoring me as I got an opportunity to use big math words.

As Janet continued talking about discipleship, I kept thinking about what I told Xander: discipleship did not come naturally to me.  I often felt like I was not a very good Christian because I was not good at inviting people to JCF or telling strangers about my beliefs.  But Xander did make a good point; living a life for Jesus can take many different forms.  I seemed to be finding a niche as a youth group leader at church.

The last thing on the schedule tonight was dinner, and we would all be headed home to our respective spring breaks tonight.  Before we went to dinner, though, Autumn suggested, “We should get a group picture!”

“Yeah!” Janet replied.  “Where should we go to get a good picture?”

“Around the foosball table,” John suggested.  “That’s pretty much what we did this whole time.”

Everyone liked John’s idea.  We all gathered around the table and gave our cameras to Dave, Janet’s husband; he took the picture many times, on everyone’s camera, and then handed our cameras back to us.

After dinner, I packed and said goodbye to everyone.  My spring break was only a week, so I would see them again soon.  I had a two and a half hour drive home, plenty of time to think about all I had learned.  I stopped at the first gas station to fill up, and while I was there I used the pay phone to call Mom with an estimate of what time I would be home.  Before I left for the retreat, I had told Mom I would be home Monday night, but I did not know yet what time.  I would not be getting home until after ten o’clock tonight; Mom told me to drive safely, and that she might be asleep on the couch by the time I got there.

I put in a new CD I had recently bought at the Christian bookstore in Jeromeville, by a new band from Georgia called Third Day.  I had heard Eddie and John play this CD the last time I was at their house, and I liked what I heard.  I still had nowhere to live next year.  Neither Brian nor Shawn, my current roommates, would be in Jeromeville next year, so living with them was not an option.  Fall quarter was six months away, but the housing market in Jeromeville was so tight that I needed to make a plan quickly.  Living in The Cool House with Eddie and those guys would have been nice, but that ship had sailed.  I knew enough people by now that if I started mentioning my need for a place to live and roommates for the 1997-98 school year, there was a good chance that someone would know something.  I put the thought out of my mind as I drove; it would be a spring quarter problem, after I got back to Jeromeville in six days.  I had a fourth roommate, Josh, whom I did not see as often, and I did not know if he would need a roommate next year.  I had gotten closer to him lately, though, since he was also a youth group leader at church, and he would be the one who led me to my living situation for the following year.  But that is a story for another time.

Much of the ministry model of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship was based on students inviting their friends to group meetings, Bible studies, or retreats.  This was how I got involved in JCF, and how I learned what it meant to follow Jesus.  But I just was not good at inviting people to things, and sometimes I felt like I was not a good enough Christian because of that.  I knew that God had a role for me in his kingdom, and at least for now, being a youth leader was part of it.  I was still trying to figure out exactly what form my acts of discipleship would take, and sometimes it was difficult to know if I was actually doing God’s will, or just doing what I wanted.


Hey, readers! Tell me about someone who mentored or discipled you in a memorable way.

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March 14, 1997.  The Lord gave you the one he took from me. (#124)

I missed class exactly six times during my years at the University of Jeromeville.  One time, I stayed home from class because I was really sick.  Four times, my appointment for the automated phone system to register for classes for the next term fell at a time when I had class.  If I was planning on signing up for a high demand class, I wanted to register as soon as possible.

The sixth time I missed class was on the last day of classes before winter quarter finals my junior year.  I went to my classes in the morning, but I left campus early, before the New Testament Writings of John class, and the reason I missed class was the most important reason in the world, at least it was if your roommate was Brian Burr.

We all met at the house where Eddie Baker and John Harvey lived, since their house was the farthest east and closest to Capital City.  The sixteen of us took four cars east on Highway 100, across the river and through downtown Capital City, to the movie theater just past Capital East Mall.

“Why are we going to Cap City to see this movie?” a guy in my car named Clint asked at one point. “Isn’t it showing in Jeromeville too?”

“Bigger theater, easier to get tickets,” I explained.  “That’s what Brian said, at least.”

A few minutes later, the sixteen of us who had carpooled from Jeromeville entered the theater, tickets for the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi in hand.  Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars movies, had recently rereleased the first two movies, with new scenes to match the original vision for the movies, and today, the final movie in the series was being rereleased.  I saw Star Wars with Barefoot James a couple weeks after it had been rereleased, and I saw The Empire Strikes Back last Saturday with Brian and some of the same people I was with today.

Brian had seen all of these movies hundreds of times over his lifetime, and The Empire Strikes Back last week was Brian’s second time seeing the rerelease.  I, on the other hand, had only seen bits and pieces of the first two movies a few times, not enough to remember all the details of the story.  The surprising revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, was common knowledge by 1997, even among those who were not huge Star Wars fans.  But the movie still alluded to secrets that were beyond my knowledge, since I had never seen Return of the Jedi.  On the way home from the theater last week, I asked Brian, “The part where Luke flies away from Dagobah, when Obi-Wan says that Luke is the last hope, and Yoda says, ‘No, there is another’… was that referring to something in Return of the Jedi?”

“Yes!” Brian said.  “And if you don’t know, I’m not telling you.  You’ll find out.  I’m not giving it away.”

I could feel the anticipation building as the movie started, with the backstory scrolling up the screen.  I read about Luke Skywalker trying to rescue Han Solo, whom Jabba the Hutt had frozen in carbonite at the end of the last movie, and the Empire rebuilding the Death Star, which the Rebels had destroyed in the first movie.  After the battle with Jabba the Hutt, in which Princess Leia wore the famous steel bikini which I was not aware of before that day, Luke left the Rebels temporarily to finish training with Yoda.  When Luke arrived, Yoda was dying, presumably of natural causes since he was nine hundred years old.  And after giving Luke some final words about confronting Vader, Yoda said, “There is another Skywalker,” as he died.  I moved up to the edge of my seat, knowing that the answer to the biggest question that the previous movie had left for me was coming.

In the next scene, the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared to Luke, and at one point,. Luke asked Obi-Wan about Yoda’s final words.  Obi-Wan explained that Yoda meant Luke’s twin sister; Luke did not know of her existence.  I gasped… it had to be Leia; she was by far the biggest female role in the Star Wars movies.  Luke figured out the same thing a few lines later.

The Rebels blew up the second Death Star, as I suspected they would, with the help of the primitive teddy-bear-like Ewoks.  I always assumed that the Ewoks only existed to be cute and cuddly, and sell Star Wars toys to girls.  Throughout the movie, Luke kept saying that there was still good in his father, and Darth Vader redeemed himself in the end.

“What’d you think?” Brian asked me as soon as we got out of the theater.

“That was so good!” I replied.

“I saw you react when they said Leia was Luke’s sister.  That was a genuine reaction.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“By the way, I’m curious… what was the next thing you thought of after that scene?”

I did not want to be put on the spot.  I did not know what Brian was getting at.  But I did remember something.  “I thought, didn’t Luke and Leia kiss in the last movie?” I said.

“Yes!” Brian exclaimed, laughing.  “That’s what’s so funny about it.”

“Wait,” Clint said.  “Greg?  You’ve never seen this movie before?”

“No.  First time.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t know how it was going to end or anything.  I didn’t know Darth Vader was going to turn good.”

“Weird,” Clint replied.  “That’s kind of mind-blowing.  To me, it’s just one of those things everyone knows.  Grass is green.  The sky is blue.  Darth Vader turns good.”

It must have been nice having a normal childhood, I thought, but I just kept my mouth shut at that.  I knew Clint did not mean to be hurtful, so I did my best not to let his comment get to me.


Had this trip to see Return of the Jedi happened in the evening, I would have gone to bed happy, feeling like this was one of the best days ever.  However, it was a Friday afternoon, so my day was not over.  I had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that night, normally a source of inspiration and fellowship, but also a source of tension at times, because of the cliques within the group.  I was still on a high from seeing Return of the Jedi, being included in that clique, and I responded with an enthusiastic yes when Eddie and John, who had also both been at Return of the Jedi, invited me to go bowling afterward.

The University of Jeromeville had a bowling alley on campus, the only bowling alley in Jeromeville, underneath the campus bookstore.  The school has a bowling team, and the physical education department offers a bowling class for half a unit, which I took in the fall of sophomore year.  I walked to the bowling alley under a sky lit by a half moon, along with Eddie and John, Kristina Kasparian, Lorraine Mathews, Tabitha Sasaki, Jason Costello, Ramon Quintero, Clint who could not believe that I had never seen Return of the Jedi, and Haley Channing.  It had been three months since Haley told me that my feelings for her were not reciprocated, and I was trying to stay friends, but it felt like we did not talk much anymore.  She was ahead of me as the ten of us walked toward the bowling alley, so all I could see was her back, but I could picture her beautiful blue eyes and sweet smile as she and Kristina talked.

“Ready for finals, Greg?” Eddie asked, snapping me back to reality.

“I think so,” I replied.  “At least as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Are you going to Spring Breakthrough?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Brian said it’s gonna be really good.”

“Good!  I’m glad you’re coming.  Are you doing anything else for Spring Break?  Going to Plumdale?”

“Yeah.  Just hanging out with my family for a while.  What about you?”

“Same.  I’m going to speak at my church back home about the mission trip to China this summer.”

“That’s cool.  How many people from Jeromeville are going to China?”

“Twelve.”

“Wow.  That’s so cool.”

When we arrived, we were assigned lanes 5 and 6.  I put on the rental bowling shoes and went to find a ball, and when I got back, the others had already divided into two groups.  Haley, Ramon, Kristina, Lorraine, and Clint were on lane 5, and I was on lane 6 with Eddie, Tabitha, John, and Jason.  I bowled a strike on my first frame and high-fived the others in my lane.  I then returned to my seat, but that strong opening did not carry through to the rest of the game.  I finished with a score of 111, very average for me.

I looked behind me at some point early in the second game, as I waited my turn.  Ramon and Haley sat at a table behind the bowling area; Ramon was talking about something, inaudible from my vantage point, as Haley listened intently, smiling, laughing occasionally.  Ramon and Haley took their turns in consecutive order on their lane, and after they finished, they returned to their more secluded table to look intently in each other’s eyes.

Being rejected was bad enough, but seeing Haley interested in someone else made the situation so much worse.  Haley’s actions were actively communicating that someone else was better than me.  Furthermore, I was not used to thinking of Ramon as a threat.  Ramon was in my dorm freshman year, and he and Liz Williams started dating just a couple weeks into the school year.  Ramon and Liz were the kind of couple who seemed destined to be the college sweethearts who stayed together forever, but they broke up at the beginning of this school year, after around two years together.  Ramon and Haley seemed to have grown close lately.  Ramon was the cool guy who spoke six languages and played all sorts of musical instruments, and his work had even been on the campus radio station recently.  But for most of the time I knew him, he had a girlfriend, and was not looking to meet girls like I was, so he and I were not in competition.

I was not mad at Haley.  She had done nothing wrong; she had been honest about not being interested in me.  And as much as I was envious of Ramon, he had done nothing wrong either.  I was mostly mad at myself, for not being good enough.  Obviously I had failed somewhere that Ramon had succeeded.  God had not allowed me to be Haley’s boyfriend, and Ramon seemed to have gotten farther than I ever did.  The Lord gave him the one he took from me, I thought.

Something clicked in my mind as that sentence formed.  The sentence was perfect iambic pentameter, like much of the work of William Shakespeare.  Every once in a while, when I am overthinking something or have too much on my mind, I will formulate a sentence that sounds particularly poetic, and the words will just keep coming.  Tonight, my mind was full of thoughts about Haley and Ramon: hearing Ramon’s music on the radio last week, growing apart from Haley, jealousy, anger, and following God’s will for my life even when it was not my own will.  I had been friends with Ramon for two and a half years, but I really did not think I could stay friends with him if he and Haley were together.  I did not want to talk to either of them right now. I did not want to look at them right now.   As I stepped to the lane to take my turn bowling, the words continued coming to mind, words in iambic pentameter, forming a Shakespearean sonnet.  I was distracted, knocking down five pins on my first roll and a gutter ball for the second.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said as I walked away from the bowling lanes.  After I used the toilet and washed and dried my hands, I pulled an extra paper towel out of the dispenser and brought it back to the lanes.  I sat a table behind the ball return machine, about six feet from the table where Ramon and Haley were still making googly eyes at each other, and began writing some of the words that had been filling my head.

I heard you on the radio and said,
This talented musician is my friend;
But this is just a lie; our friendship’s dead,
I’ve brought it quite abruptly to an end.

This poem had to be written addressed to Ramon.  The words were not working any other way.  The line I had thought of earlier had to be reworded, since it was in the third person; I almost wrote it next, for line 5, but decided it would come later, at line 7.  Another turn bowling interrupted my thoughts, but I returned to my table a few minutes later and continued writing.

Your life, your friends, your things, these things I see,
And anger builds within my jealous heart;
The Lord gave you the one he took from me,
And made our paths diverge so far apart.

I did not like “things” twice in line 5; I crossed out the first one and wrote “stuff.”  That did not sound very poetic either, but I never came up with a better word to go there.

“What’cha doin’, Greg?” Kristina asked, noticing me sitting alone.  “Writing poems on napkins?”

“Yeah,” I said, turning my paper towel over to hide what I had written from Kristina.

“My friends in high school, we used to do that all the time.  We wrote some pretty weird stuff.  I wonder if those napkins are still there, in my room back home?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really did not want to share this poem with anyone here.  Kristina walked to the lane to take her turn, not asking anything more about my poem.

Gradually, through the rest of the second game, I finished my poem:

I pray now for forgiveness; I repent,
I lift my sin to Jesus Christ above;
I’d like our path to go where it once went,
And happiness I wish you and your love.
God’s plan for me is not His plan for you,
So I will be myself, and your friend too.

Now all it needed was a title.  The poem was clearly written to Ramon, but I could not use his name, or Haley’s name, anywhere within.  After my next bowling turn, I moved back down to the seats by the ball return machine, with the poem in my pocket.

“Greg?” Eddie asked.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.  Eddie knew about my feelings for Haley, so I hoped that he would not ask any more about this.  He did not.

Toward the end of the bowling game, the title came to me: “Dear Mr. Q.”  Ramon literally was Mr. Q, his last name was Quintero, but also the name Mr. Q sounded mysterious.  I pulled the poem back out of my pocket and wrote the title at the top.

Because I was so distracted, I only bowled 101 that game, just barely keeping alive my streak of triple-digit bowling scores.  Although I did not bowl particularly often, I had not bowled below 100 since November of 1995, when I was taking the bowling class.

I studied for finals all weekend, feeling discouragement and self-loathing hanging over me.  The two math finals were straightforward, and I had no trouble with them.  Nutrition and Writings of John were a bit more challenging, since they consisted of memorizing facts and writing essay questions.  Professor Hurt had at least given us the topics of the essay questions in advance so that we could take time to prepare, but I had missed the last class to see Return of the Jedi.  I did the best I could in Nutrition, and only one question on the Writings of John final related to the class I missed.

I had a retreat coming up with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship the weekend after finals, Spring Breakthrough.  This was different from past retreats I had been on with JCF; instead of going somewhere up in the mountains, we were just spending a few days at a church in Stockdale, about an hour drive south down the Valley from Jeromeville.  I looked forward to it, though. Brian, my roommate who loved Star Wars, was on staff with JCF, and I had seen him copying clips from his Star Wars VHS tapes to use as illustrations.  He had explained that the topic of this retreat would be discipleship.  I had experienced the beginnings of discipleship, when my Christian friends from freshman year had prayed for me on rough days and invited me to JCF, and when Eddie had repeatedly reached out to me sophomore year.  But now that I was more involved with the group and had made a decision to follow Jesus, I felt less important to these people, and I felt that I would never have a girlfriend as long as I was on the outside of these cliques, or at best on the periphery.

When I talked to Haley three months ago and let her reject me, I was hoping that her definitive answer would close the door and help me get over her.  The events of that night at the bowling alley showed clearly that this had not happened.  Maybe I would never be over Haley until I got interested in someone else to that extent.  I knew of a lot of cute girls, but I was currently not close enough with anyone not already in a relationship to develop into the kind of crush I had on Haley.  Of course, when I did find someone, the new girl would probably just reject me as well, or meet someone else first, and the cycle would begin all over again. Something needed to change.


Author’s note: Tell me in the comments about a time you skipped class.

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March 4, 1997.  Of a different ilk. (#123)

“UJ Campus Radio, 90.1,” the voice on the other end of the phone call said.  I got a little nervous making a phone call early in the morning, but obviously someone at the radio station was awake, since I had the radio tuned to this station and I heard music.

“Hi,” I said nervously.  “Is this Tina?”

“Yeah!” Tina, the disc jockey, replied.  “What can I help you with?”

“This is Greg Dennison.  I lived on your floor freshman year.”

Tina paused for a second, then said, “Greg!  Hey!  What’s up?”

“I was talking to Liz and Caroline the other day, and they told me that you were a DJ for Campus Radio now, and that you were going to play that music that Ramon made on your computer.  Is that true?”

“Yeah!  That’s coming up in about 20 minutes.  Will you be around to listen to it?”

“Yeah.  That’s so cool.”

“Great!  So how are things?  Still majoring in math?”

“Yeah.  Still figuring out what to do with a math degree, though.  And I started volunteering with youth ministry at Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“That sounds like fun!”

“How long have you been a DJ for Campus Radio?”

“Since fall quarter.  It’s been interesting.  I like it.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Well, I need to get back on the air, but it was good catching up.  I’ll see you around campus, probably.”

“Yeah!  Have a good one!”

A while later, I was done with my morning cereal, reading the newspaper, with Campus Radio 90.1 still on.  This was a freeform station owned by the University of Jeromeville, broadcasting whatever its disc jockeys chose to play. I rarely listened to it, since its disc jockeys played some pretty strange music.  I smiled when I heard Tina introduce her next segment.  “Freshman year, my roommate’s boyfriend was in our room all the time, and I had a nice computer, so he used it to compose these electronic covers of popular songs.”  I smiled nostalgically as I heard Ramon’s electronic reggae version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” on the radio, the same song that I heard loudly blasting down the hall so many times freshman year.  I did not see Tina much these days, but I still often saw Ramon and Liz, the roommate from Tina’s story, at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church.  Ramon and Liz had an amicable breakup six months ago, but they remained friends.


That night, I drove to campus for University Life, the college group from another church, not the one I attended.  I made some friends from University Life through a random encounter at the Memorial Union a few months ago.  I had been feeling frustrated at being on the outside of cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, my usual group.  I had been sitting with those U-Life friends at the MU and the Quad fairly often this quarter, and tonight was my third time actually attending U-Life.

U-Life was a very large group, with around two hundred students attending an average weekly meeting.  I looked around and eventually found Alaina and Whitney, two of the U-Life friends I often sat with at the MU. Next to them was a third girl whom I had seen before but whose name I did not remember.  I sat in an open seat next to Alaina.

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

“Just having a good day.  What about you?”

“Good!  We were just talking about our coffee house party.  You’re coming, right?”

“Yeah.  I should be there.  When is it?”

“April 12.  That’s a Saturday.”  Alaina turned to the girl I did not know and said, “Greg is gonna do a dramatic poetry reading.”

“Really?” the girl asked me.  “You write poetry?  Or you’ll read someone else’s poem?”

“I don’t know,” I said, laughing nervously.  “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Come on!” Alaina said.  “You totally should.  Have you met our other roommate, Corinne?”

“No,” I said.

“Hi,” the girl who asked me about poetry said.  “I’m Corinne.  It’s nice to meet you.”  Corinne was shorter than average, with light brown straight hair and brown eyes.

“You too,” I replied.  “I’m sure I can find something to read at the party.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything serious,” Corinne said.  “This party is just for fun.”

Alaina had told me a couple weeks earlier that she and her roommates were planning a big party with a coffee house theme.  I did not know how many people I would know there, and I did not like coffee, but this sounded like a fun way to hang out with these new friends from U-Life.

After the end of the meeting, I talked to Alaina, Corinne, and Whitney for a bit longer.  Next, I wandered around the room looking for other people I knew.  Carolyn Parry, who played guitar and sang in the worship band, was putting sound equipment away when she saw me and waved.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Will you be at our show on Sunday?”

I paused for a couple seconds.  as my brain tried to remember what she was talking about.  Show?  Sunday?  Oh, chorus.  I met Carolyn last quarter when I was in chorus.  “Yes,” I said.  “It’ll be good to see everyone again.”

“Good!”

“I’ll be in chorus again in the spring.  I just had a class meeting at the same time this quarter.”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes.  I haven’t been able to do it every quarter.  I’ll see you Sunday, then?”

“Yeah!”

I walked back out to the car a bit later, heading west on Davis Drive, and then north on Andrews Road.  Today was a good day.  I had all my homework done.  I got to hear Ramon’s music on the radio.  I heard a good talk about Jesus.  And Alaina’s roommate Corinne was pretty cute.  I left campus and entered the adjacent Jeromeville city limits, keeping my speed at 25 miles per hour, which seemed unnaturally slow to me.  Jeromeville was a bicycle-friendly city with low speed limits that the police enforced strictly.  I thought of all of Jeromeville’s famous quirks as I anticipated having a peaceful, relaxing couple hours before bed to close out this great day.

And then I gasped in horror when I realized what today was.

My heart raced as I looked at the clock.  9:23pm.  I was too late.  I had failed.  I finished the trip home, disgusted with myself for forgetting something so important, and when I got home, I tried to avoid talking with my roommates, because I did not want to talk about this.


Jeromeville was a university town.  When a large university is located adjacent to a relatively small city, the university drives much of the cultural and political trends in the city.  Jeromeville had a population of around fifty-six thousand, with over a third of these residents university students; about six thousand more students lived on campus, just outside of the city limits.  Many of the adults living in Jeromeville were university faculty and staff.  As a result of this, Jeromeville readily embraced many liberal and progressive political causes and trends.

Since the 1960s, Jeromeville has made great investments of tax dollars in bicycling facilities.  I enjoyed riding my bicycle recreationally along the paths that ran through the Greenbelts in the newer sections of the city, with wide, safe bike lanes on streets connecting the different neighborhoods.  However, this made driving in Jeromeville a pain.  Many of the major streets had only one lane for automobiles and a slow speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

The five aging hippies who sat on the Jeromeville City Council embraced these causes, refusing to accept the reality that Jeromeville had grown to its current size.  Jeromeville had a well-deserved quirky reputation among people in nearby cities for all the strange decisions made by its city council.  A couple years ago, residents of an older neighborhood were lobbying the city council to pave a dirt alley behind their house.  The dirt was extremely uneven, resulting in puddles forming during the rainy season, staying full long enough to provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city refused, on the grounds that dirt alleys were historic and paving them would ruin the small-town feel of Jeromeville.  Another relatively busy street in central Jeromeville was unusually dark, with very few streetlights, and residents lobbied for better lighting.  The city responded that more lighting would ruin the small-town environment, making it harder for residents to see the sky, and attracting traffic and crime.  In the real world, the traffic was already there, and dark streets attract crime better than well-lit ones, but the Jeromeville City Council ignored such arguments.

Chain stores and real estate development were particular villains to Jeromeville politicians.  In the last City Council election, twelve candidates, an unusually large number, ran for three open seats.  I voted for the ones whose views I disliked the least, and they finished eighth, ninth, and eleventh.  To lose an election in Jeromeville, all one must do is take campaign contributions from real estate developers.  The elites in charge will repeat ad nauseam in advertisements that their opponents took money from developers; this was a death sentence to any budding Jeromeville politician.

Downtown Jeromeville was sacred ground to the Jeromeville City Council.  The city did everything in its power to ensure a healthy central business area, to avoid the flight to outer neighborhoods that had left so many nearby downtowns empty and decaying.  But this had created some growing pains of its own.  In recent decades, the city had grown across Highway 100 for the first time.  The only route from south of 100 into downtown was Cornell Boulevard, passing under three railroad tracks through a narrow underpass with room for just one lane in each direction.  This underpass was built in 1915, part of one of the original highways traversing east to west across the United States.  The cross-country route had long since been bypassed by a wide freeway, today’s Highway 100, but the 1915 underpass was still in use as a local street.  The clearance was about three feet lower than that of modern underpasses, and occasionally a tall truck would get stuck there. It also sometimes flooded during rainy times.

At certain times of day, traffic backs up terribly at the underpass and for long distances on both sides.  I had heard horror stories about south Jeromeville residents taking close to half an hour to get downtown, a trip of less than two miles.  Downtown itself was growing, making the traffic situation even worse. A shopping center had recently been completed at the corner of Cornell and First Street next to the underpass. The shopping center was controversial in its own right, since the anchor tenant was Borders Books. When this was proposed, it divided citizens into two camps, one camp feeling that Borders matched the intellectual character of Jeromeville, and the other believing that large national chain stores did not belong in Jeromeville, threatening to put local bookstores out of business.  The most vocal member of the second camp was a City Councilmember who owned a bookstore. To me, this was an obvious conflict of interest, but no one in Jeromeville seemed to care.  The bookstore was eventually approved, and many publicly vowed to boycott Borders, because this was considered the right opinion by the Jeromeville elite.

I loved Borders Books.  I went there a couple weeks after it opened, after the hype died down.  It was much larger than any bookstore I had ever seen, and it had a coffee shop where people could sit and read.  They also sold music on compact disc, with headphones to listen to samples of any recording they had in stock, so I could know exactly what music I was buying before I spent money on it.  This store became one of my go-to places when I had time to kill.  If the local independent stores wanted to stay in business, they should add awesome stuff in their stores too.  This was how the free market worked, and I supported it, although I kept somewhat quiet about it because I knew that most Jeromevillians did not approve.

A proposal had recently been put forward to build a wider underpass, two lanes in each direction with a more modern design.  Jeromeville also had a long tradition of direct democracy for certain proposals, so this underpass widening had been placed before the voters.  I had seen “No on Measure K” signs all over town, with a small sprinkling of “Yes on Measure K” signs mostly in south Jeromeville, where people are actually affected by this awful traffic jam.  Last week, I saw organized opposition to Measure K at a table on the Quad, a balding man and a woman with long gray hair.  They displayed a picture of a four-lane boulevard crossing under a railroad track, with a caption that said “IF MEASURE K PASSES, THIS COULD BE IN DOWNTOWN JEROMEVILLE!”  In the fantasy where these people reside, that statement would sway voters against Measure K, but to me the same statement was an argument in favor.

“This does not belong in Jeromeville,” the gray-haired woman at the table said to two students she was trying to sway to her position.  “Vote no on Measure K.”

“I heard that traffic is really horrible there, though,” one of the students said.

“The Power Line Road overpass just opened last year,” she explained.  “We should wait and see how that affects traffic before we spend all this money on something else.”  As she explained this, I realized that I knew who this woman was: Jane Pawlowski, one of the five aging hippies on the Jeromeville City Council. She was frequently in the local news, and occasionally national news, for making some very strange statements.  She was the one who touted the historic character of the puddles in the alleys.  And when Power Line Road was extended into south Jeromeville last year, she loudly advocated, successfully, to spend extra money on a small tunnel under the road so that frogs and other wildlife could cross the road safely.  “Lots of frogs live in that pond, and we can all benefit from knowing that we have this psychic connection with the frog community,” Jane Pawlowski had said.

“The new overpass hasn’t solved the problem,” I said loudly, approaching the table.  “People still get stuck in traffic on Cornell Boulevard.”

“But does this eyesore really belong in Jeromeville?” the balding man asked me, gesturing toward the picture of the four-lane road.

“Yes!” I replied.  “We’re a city of fifty-six thousand people, and we need to build the infrastructure to support that population.  It looks safe and modern, and traffic is going to flow freely.”

“I guess we’re just of a different ilk,” Jane said.

“You got that right,” I replied loudly.  “And that’s the first intelligent thing you’ve ever said.”  I walked away, with the other students around the No on Measure K table staring at me.

I knew as soon as I walked away that I should not have said that.  It was unnecessarily unkind.  I arrived at the Writings of John class that I had with many of my Christian friends; Taylor Santiago was standing outside waiting for people.  I told him what had happened.

“’They will know we are Christians by our love,’” Taylor said, quoting a song.

“I know,” I said.  “It just makes me angry that these pretentious intellectuals who hold on to hippie fantasies and use words like ‘ilk’ have undisputed control of Jeromeville.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Taylor suggested.  “Learn from this, and be kind if this ever happens again.  And if you really want to, you can contact her office and apologize.  She’s a politician, so she’ll have public contact information.”


I never did apologize to Jane Pawlowski.  I would take out my anger on these people with my vote.  Except, as I drove home from U-Life that night, I realized that I had completely forgotten to vote.  This vote had been on my mind for weeks, and once the day of the election arrived, I did not think about voting at all.  I had failed all of those who supported Measure K.

I read the newspaper the next morning and learned that Measure K had failed, with about 65% of the residents voting No.  My one vote did not end up making a difference, but I was still angry with myself for forgetting to vote.  It was not like me.

More interesting was the map of the vote broken up by precinct.  Every single neighborhood south of Highway 100 had a majority of Yes votes, since people on that side of town actually have to drive through the inadequate underpass. Only one of about twenty precincts north of 100 had a majority Yes vote.  At the time, Jeromeville City Council members were elected at large, by the whole city, representing the whole city.  No one on the City Council lived in south Jeromeville, and there was no requirement that members of the City Council live in different parts of the city.  The opposition to this measure was purely driven by elitists in the old part of Jeromeville, who do not use this underpass often, imposing their will on the people most directly affected by the underpass.

The next morning, I rode the bus to class, still feeling ashamed of myself.  I sat next to Tara, the cute brown-haired girl who I often saw on the same bus.  She asked me how I was doing, and I said, “Not well.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding concerned.

“I wanted to vote Yes on Measure K, and I completely forgot.  And it failed.”

“But that was a lot of money to spend on that overpass,” Tara replied.  She became somewhat less attractive to me that day when I found out she had been against Measure K, but at least she was against it because of government spending, not because of some fantasy about small-town feel.  That was a more acceptable reason to me.

The 1915 underpass remains to this day; Cornell Boulevard has never been widened.  Jane Pawlowski was right; I was of a different ilk than most people in Jeromeville.  Had I researched the local culture of Jeromeville before I came here for school, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else.  However, in hindsight, I am glad I came to Jeromeville.  I found a community here, and I found a great church where I was getting involved beyond just the college group.  Jeromeville, with all its quirks, was growing on me.  I may not ever vote for people who win elections in Jeromeville, but God was in control no matter who won elections on Earth.  And one day, I would leave this world behind and spend eternity in heaven with others who were truly of my ilk.


Author’s note: What are local politics like where you live? Share an interesting story in the comments! And don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to this blog if you enjoyed what you read!


February 24-28, 1997.  Cambria’s anthropology paper, and Bible study begins falling apart. (#122)

For the last few weeks, I had been setting my alarm for 5:30 in the morning.  I kept hearing from my Christian friends about the importance of starting every day in Scripture, so I had been trying to do that.  Shawn and I shared the largest bedroom in this apartment, and Shawn woke up just as early to travel across the Drawbridge to Laguna Ciervo for student teaching, so I was not waking him up by doing this.  I wondered, however, how effective my Scripture reading really was, considering that I spent much of my extra time being miserable about having gotten so little sleep and nodding off while I tried to pray.

I decided to try something else today.  I did not wake up quite as early, and I packed my Bible in my backpack and brought it to school with me.  After my first class, I had an hour free, the perfect time to spend with God.  I also had the perfect place in mind.

The University of Jeromeville Arboretum extended for a mile and a half along the south end of campus, following a dry creek bed that was now functionally a long, narrow lake.  On its banks were planted trees and plants from around the world, a long, narrow strip of nature right on campus.  I walked directly south from my class in Wellington Hall, past Shelley Library, past Evans Hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met, past the administrative offices in Marks Hall, and past the law school building, which backed up to the Arboretum.  I turned right and walked westward along the path on the north bank of the creek.  A large oak tree stood to the left with a cluster of succulents on the right, and the water tower loomed about two hundred feet away.  I continued walking a little ways and found a bench on the side of the path, in front of some kind of large bush, overlooking majestic oaks on the other side of the path. I sat down and opened my Bible.

In December, I traveled to a conference held by the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. All attendees received a Bible that included a plan to read the Bible in a year, a few chapters from different sections each day.  Today was February 24, but I was quite a bit behind at this point; the last day I had read was February 12.  I read the passages from February 13 next; I was not trying to catch up anymore.  I was beginning to accept the fact that I would not finish in a year, and that was okay.

After I read, I prayed for a while.  I thanked God for this beautiful place to sit on campus, with birds chirping, squirrels running up and down trees, and ducks swimming by.  I prayed that I would stay calm and focused in studying for upcoming midterms.  I prayed for the urban missions project that my friend Taylor Santiago would be part of this spring and summer.  I prayed that I would know the career that God was leading me to.  I prayed for anything and anyone else I could think of, including Chloe, my Bible study co-leader who had recently stepped down from that position without sharing why.


The rest of that day was uneventful in a good way.  I had been home for about half an hour that afternoon, sitting at my desk working on math, when I heard the doorbell ring.  I was expecting a visitor, but it always made me nervous having someone enter my private home and see how I lived.  I had gotten used to the idea of sharing my home with roommates since the four of us moved to this apartment in September, but it still did not feel ideal.

I walked down the stairs to answer the door, but Brian was already downstairs; he got there first.  “Hey, Cambria,” he said.

“Is Greg here?” Cambria asked.

“I’m here,” I said, walking down the stairs.

“What are you guys up to today?” Brian asked.

“I’m interviewing Greg for a paper I’m writing,” Cambria explained.  “You ready, Greg?”

“Sure,” I replied.

Cambria Hawley was a freshman; I knew her from JCF.  She appeared to have mixed European and Asian heritage.  She was of average height, with brown hair and an athletic build from having played water polo in high school.  Cambria was named after a beach town in central California; her parents had vacationed there before she was born, and they liked the town’s name well enough to use it for their daughter.  I do not remember if I knew the story behind Cambria’s name yet at the time she came to our apartment.

Last week at JCF, Cambria had asked me if she could interview me for a paper she had to write in an anthropology class.  “I need to interview someone who experienced a change in their culture or belief system,” she had told me.  “Like someone who moved to another country, or someone who practices a different religion than they grew up with, or something like that.  I remember that you said you grew up Catholic, so I think you would have an interesting perspective on this.”  I had told Cambria that, yes, she could interview me, and this was why she had come over now, three days later.  She sat at the dining room table and took out a notebook and a pen from her backpack; I sat next to her.

“How old were you when you left Catholicism?” Cambria asked.  “And what exactly would you call yourself now?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “‘Christian’ seems a little vague, since technically Catholics follow Christ too.  ‘Evangelical Christian,’ maybe?”

“That’ll work.”

“It was a gradual process at age 19 and 20.”

“So this was recent?  I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.  Last school year.  I lived alone, and I wanted to stay in touch with my friends from freshman year now that we weren’t all in the dorm together.  They were all involved with JCF, so I started going to JCF large group with them.”

“That was fall quarter?  Of last year?”

“Yeah.  1995.  As I started making friends at JCF, I started hearing a lot about having a relationship with Jesus.  And something about my JCF friends just seemed different, in a good way.  One day during winter quarter, I was having a rough day, I saw Janet McAllen on campus, and we just got to talking.  She started asking me if I knew Jesus.  I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she explained to me how sin created separation between God and humans, and Jesus died to pay the price for that sin so that we could have eternal life and a relationship with him.”

“So it was mostly the influence of friends, more so than family or a pastor?”

“Yeah.”  From the way she asked that, I wondered if she was connecting my answer to something specific that she had learned in class, such as a list of ways that people may be influenced to leave their belief systems.  “Well, the McAllens are campus ministry leaders, that’s kind of like pastors in a way, but they’re friends too,” I added.

“Were you part of a Catholic church before?  What happened when you left?”

“Yes.  I went to Mass at the Newman Center.  And I didn’t leave right away,” I explained.

“Why not?”

“I didn’t feel like I had to.  Catholics believe in Jesus too, and the things I was learning at JCF helped me understand the Catholic Mass better, how all the rituals have their roots in deep worship experiences.”

“Interesting.  So why did you leave?  You go to Jeromeville Covenant now, right?”

“I started seeing more and more that the Catholic students didn’t really know Jesus, and many of them didn’t want to.  To them, Catholicism was just part of their culture; they weren’t really serious about living out their beliefs.  And the people in charge at the Newman Center had some questionable interpretations of what they claimed to believe.  I was in a place where I needed to learn more about the Bible from people who were actually living it out.  And just like with JCF, I had a lot of friends who went to J-Cov, so I started going to church with them.”

“And when was this?”

“October.”

“Just this last October?  Wow, that really was recent.”

“Yeah.”

“How is being a Christian different from being Catholic?” Cambria asked.

“There is much more of an emphasis on my personal relationship with Jesus, on really knowing Jesus personally.  And there is less of an emphasis on rituals, saying the right things at Mass, going to Reconciliation, stuff like that.”

“Reconciliation?”

“It’s also called ‘confession.’  You talk to the priest about ways you have sinned and what good things you can do instead.  Evangelical Christians focus more on telling God your sins yourself, in your personal prayer time.”

Cambria wrote some notes, then proceeded to ask me more questions, including asking about my family and friends’ responses to my newfound Christianity, and about changes in my everyday life that came about as a result of this.  After about half an hour of talking and answering questions, she told me that she had enough to write her paper.  “Thanks for letting me interview you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “I hope that helped.”

“What are you up to this week?” she asked.

“Just the usual.  It’s gonna be another busy week of school and work.  I have The Edge Wednesday and Bible study Thursday.”  I chose not to tell her that tomorrow I was going to University Life, another Christian group on campus run by a different church.  I had been feeling disillusioned with JCF at times, and I had been checking out that other group.

“What’s The Edge?”

“The junior high youth group at J-Cov.  I met some kids from there after church one week.  And Taylor Santiago is going away for the spring and summer to do a mission trip, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking his spot on the youth staff.”

“That sounds so cool!  I would love to be a youth leader!”

“It’s been a lot of fun so far.  I’ve only been there a couple weeks.”

“Whose Bible study are you in?  Is this a JCF group?”

“Yeah.  Evan Lundgren is the leader.”  I started to say that Chloe had been the co-leader, but I thought her recent decision might not be something to share with the world. I just said, “He had a co-leader, but she quit last week.”

“Quit?  Really?”

“Yeah.  I don’t know what was going on.  Evan said she wouldn’t be part of the group anymore, and that she had some decisions to make.  From what he said, it makes me think that she isn’t a Christian anymore..”

“Oh my gosh,”  Cambria said, sounding concerned.  “It sounds like there’s gotta be something else going on with this girl.”

“Yeah.  But it wasn’t my place to pry.  We were down to just five people last week.  Me, Evan, Jonathan Li, Jill Nguyen, and Amy Kilpatrick.  And I’m hearing that they want to keep expanding the Kairos ministry next year, and add other small groups that are specifically for certain kinds of people.  I’m not in any of the cliques that get picked for the Kairos ministry, and I don’t fit any of those categories, so I don’t know if there will be a Bible study for me next year.”

“I’m sure you’ll have a group next year,” Cambria said.  “They have to have one for everyone.  I’m gonna be in a Kairos group, but I know there will be other groups.”

“No offense, but why do they have to handpick future leaders like that and have separate groups for them?  It just feels exclusionary.”

“Hmm,” Cambria said.  “I had never thought of it like that.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m just frustrated with the way this year’s group is falling apart.”

“Five people in a small group doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  You can have a more involved discussion.”

“That’s true.  I could probably step up and be more involved in the discussion, too.”

“There you go.  It’ll be a good group for the rest of the year.”


Evan and his roommate Jonathan hosted our Bible study at their apartment fall quarter, but in January Evan said that their other roommate needed the house for something on Thursdays, so they would not be able to host anymore.  I volunteered my apartment, after checking with my roommates to make sure it was okay.

On the Thursday night after Cambria interviewed me, I put my studying aside and went downstairs with my Bible after I heard Evan and Jonathan knock on the door.  While the three of us made small talk about how classes were going, Jill arrived and joined our conversation.  A few minutes after that, Evan said, “We can get started now.  It’s time, and I think it’s just going to be the four of us tonight.”

“Amy isn’t coming?” I asked.

“No,” Evan said.  “Do you know Glen Marshall?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Amy went on a date tonight with Glen.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Since being involved with JCF and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had heard multiple talks and lessons warning against becoming romantically involved with non-Christians.  Glen’s housemates all went to JCF, and I had heard them repeatedly mention that Glen was not a Christian, particularly whenever the lesson at JCF or church involved sharing the message of the Gospel with friends.  Why was a Christian girl like Amy interested in this Glen guy?  And why do these rules, which seemed to make it even harder for me to find a girlfriend, not apply to others?  Of course, I knew that I did not want a non-Christian girlfriend in the first place, but it still bothered me that people were not following the rules.

We had begun a study of 1 Corinthians in January, at the beginning of the quarter, and it appeared likely that it would take us the entire year to finish.  During the study, my eyes drifted ahead on the page to a part of the book that we had not studied yet, where Paul wrote, “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.”  It seemed like my Christian friends often made jokes about this verse, and the gift of singleness, but many of them ended up in relationships, so they obviously did not take it literally at face value.  But it was hard not to feel like God had forcibly thrust the gift of singleness upon me, and upon few to no others.


Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met the next night, and afterward I asked Cambria how her paper turned out.  “I think I did well,” she said.  “I wrote about how you went from a more ritual-based belief system to one based on an individual relationship.”

“Yes,” I said.  “That sounds right.”

“And you went from a complex belief system to a simple one.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Something about the way she said that surprised me.  I wondered if “complex” and “simple” in this case had specific meanings in that field of study, because I had never really thought of evangelical Christianity as being any less “complex” than Catholicism.  But maybe she was right.  Evangelical Chrisitanity offered a simple plan of salvation: just believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.  Catholicism had hoops to jump through and sacraments to perform, or at the very least a much stronger emphasis on these than evangelical Christianity.

But if Christianity was so simple, why did I feel like there were so many rules to follow?  Why did some people get picked to be in Kairos groups and others did not?  Why did I have to get over the head with messages about how being single is a gift from God, and how Christians should only be in relationships with other Christians, only to see Amy skip Bible study to go on a date with a non-Christian?  Something about this did not seem simple to me.  From what I heard, Amy and Glen did end up in a serious long-term relationship.  I do not know if Glen ever found Jesus.

And if it were actually true that Chloe had turned her back on Christianity, what would happen to her?  Could one who was saved by Jesus Christ be lost?  I had heard that Christians interpreted the Bible differently on that topic.  Regardless of one’s position, it was entirely possible that Chloe was really good at following the rules to give the appearance of being a good Christian, but had never had her heart completely transformed in the first place.  Only God knew what Chloe really believed in her heart.  I prayed that night that she would find her way back to Jesus.

I spent all weekend thinking about what I really believed.  I did not feel like I had an unusually strong or close relationship with God, but knowing that a Bible study leader like Chloe could just walk away from Jesus made me wonder if my faith was strong enough.  Was I a good enough Christian?  Did it mean anything that I often got left out of the cliques at JCF?

I knew that Christianity was not a religion of following rules.  But I was seeing more and more that many Christians acted like it was.  They also acted judgmentally toward those who did not follow the exact same rules as themselves. I recognized that I was judgmental sometimes as well, such as how I disapproved in my mind of Amy’s date with Glen.  It was difficult to discern sometimes which rules were God’s actual commands and which were cultural.

I do not know what happened to Chloe; I did not see much of her after she stopped attending JCF.  I hope she found her way back to Jesus somehow.  While I still had a lot of unanswered questions about myself, I knew that all I had to do was keep seeking the answers in prayer and Scripture.  God’s Word would never steer me wrong


Author’s note: Have you ever made a major change in your cultural or religious beliefs? Tell me about it in the comments.

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February 21, 1997. A productive day, in more ways than one. (#121)

“So when Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am,’ the people he was speaking to would have recognized ‘I am’ as what God said to Moses,” Dr. Hurt explained.  “Where’s Lorraine?  I feel like she would have something to say about this.”

Lorraine Mathews was a religious studies major, specializing in Christianity; I knew her from Jeromeville Christsian Fellowship.   I was not a religious studies major.  I took this Writings of John class, and its prerequisite the previous quarter, because I wanted to learn more about the Bible.  I had gotten involved with JCF sophomore year, through friends, and a year ago this month I made a decision to follow Jesus.  I grew up Catholic, where Bible reading consisted of a couple of paragraphs from three different books read aloud by the priest each Sunday, and I wanted to know more about the Bible.

I did not know why Dr. Hurt thought Lorraine would have something to say about this passage, but I did know exactly why she was not in class today.  In a somewhat uncharacteristic move for me, I spoke up, drawing attention to myself and hoping to get a laugh.  “She’s watching Empire Strikes Back,” I said, loud enough for all 150 students to hear.

“Oooooooh,” a few students said, as others chuckled.

“She skipped class for The Empire Strikes Back?” Dr. Hurt repeated.  “Hasn’t she seen that a bunch of times already?”

“This is the new one!” an unidentified student said.

“There’s a new one?”

“Yeah!  With added scenes.”

“Really.  Well, that’s too bad she missed class today.”

After the fact, I felt a little bad.  Maybe I should not have said that.  Maybe Lorraine would be unhappy with me.  She can be a bit feisty sometimes.  But I said what I said.  I wished that I had been watching The Empire Strikes Back with them.  Lucasfilm, the Star Wars production company, was in the middle of rereleasing the three movies with added and changed scenes to better match director George Lucas’ original vision.  The Star Wars movies were not a large part of my childhood, but my roommate Brian was a huge fan.  Brian had watched the new Star Wars multiple times in the last few weeks.  Today he and his friends were watching the next movie, on the first day it hit theaters.  I had seen Star Wars with my friend Barefoot James a few days ago, but Brian said that I could tag along the second time he saw Empire Strikes Back, and James could too.

After the John class ended, I wandered over to the Memorial Union to find a table and get homework done.  It was sunny but cold, so the indoor tables were crowded, but not as crowded as they would be on a rainy day.  I saw Ajeet Tripathi and Brent Wang from JCF sitting at a table.  Ajeet had a book open but did not appear to be actively reading it. 

“‘Sup, Greg?” Ajeet asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just looking for a place to sit for a couple hours.  May I join you?”

“Sure,” Brent said.  “How many more classes do you have today?”

“None–”

“Why are you still here, dude?” Ajeet interrupted.  “It’s Friday afternoon!”

“I need to go to office hours for geometry.  We have a midterm Monday, and I have a few questions.”

Todd Chevallier, another of Ajeet and Brent’s housemates, arrived at the table and said, “Greg.  How’d you beat me here?”  He was coming from the John class also.

“I don’t know.  I guess I just walk fast?”

“Maybe.  Oh, yeah, I had to pee too,” Todd said.

“Greg, did you say you’re taking geometry?” Brent asked.  “Like we all took in high school?”

“It’s a lot more advanced than that,” I explained.  “In this class, we get a lot into the theory behind it, and how to construct a proof.  We also learned about the undefined terms and the foundations of geometry as a logical system.”  I looked up and saw the blank stares on the others’ faces, a familiar sight when I explained anything I learned as a third-year mathematics major to non-mathematics majors.  “It’s the theory behind what you do in high school geometry.”

“Uhh, sure,” Todd said after a pause.  The conversation went into a lull, and I got out my geometry book to work on homework.  Ajeet started singing, “Da da,” followed by some clicking noises, then “Da da da da da da,” six notes of equal duration with the two notes in the middle a minor third lower than all the other notes.  Ajeet repeated the riff, and Todd joined in; I recognized it from a song I had heard numerous times on the radio.

“What are you guys doing?” Brent asked.

“I’ve had that song stuck in my head all day,” Ajeet explained.

“What song?”

“‘Santa Monica,’ by Everclear.  ‘We could live beside the ocean, leave the fire behind…’”

“I’ve never heard it.”

“Really?  It’s on the radio all the time.”

A while later, I looked up from my studying to see Alaina Penn walking by.  Alaina was involved with University Life, another Christian group on campus, and I knew her through mutual friends.  Alaina saw me and waved, walking toward our table.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “Mind if I pull up a chair?  If I can find one?”

“I actually need to get going,” Brent said.  “You can have my seat.”

“Thanks!”

“See ya, Brent,” Ajeet said.

“Have a great day,” I added as Brent said goodbye to us and walked away.

I was about to introduce Alaina to Ajeet and Todd, but I was quite well acquainted with the embarrassment of trying to introduce people who already know each other, so first I asked, “Do you guys know Alaina?”

“No,” Ajeet answered as Todd shook his head in the negative.

“She goes to U-Life.  I met her through mutual friends.”

“Were you at U-Life this week, Greg?” Alaina asked.  “I didn’t see you.”

“No,” I explained.  “I had other plans on Tuesday.”

“That was the night you went to see Star Wars with James, right?” Ajeet asked.

“You ditched us for Star Wars?” Alaina asked.  “It’s okay, I’m just messing with you.”

“Wait,” Todd said.  “Greg?  You go to U-Life too?”

I’ve been once.  Two weeks ago.  Alaina and her friends invited me, and I thought it might be nice to check it out.”

“I went a couple times freshman year.  Their large group meetings were a lot like JCF.”

“I noticed that too.”  I did not tell Todd or Ajeet the complete reason why I wanted to try out U-Life, that I felt frustrated at being on the outside of the cliques within JCF.

“Spring training is starting soon!” Ajeet announced.  “Do you guys follow baseball?”

“No,” Alaina answered.

“I used to,” I replied.  “I went to maybe three or four Bay City Titans games every year with my family.  I moved out right when the players went on strike, and I never got back into it.”

“Bummer,  But at least you like the right team,” Ajeet said.  “Baseball is of God.”

“Whoa,” Todd replied.  “Blasphemy?  ‘Baseball is a god?’”

“I said baseball is of God, not a God.  Baseball is God’s gift to us.”

A while later, I heard a new voice say, “Hey, guys.”  Ben Lawton and Whitney Felton, two of Alaina’s friends from U-Life, approached.  “Mind if we join you?”

“Go for it,” I said.  The table next to us was now empty, and I moved aside so that they could push the empty table next to us and make more room.  Whitney introduced herself to Ajeet and Todd; Ben had met them before, since he occasionally attended JCF also.  It was Ben who had first introduced me to Alaina.

“What are you up to the rest of the day?” Ben asked me a bit later.

“I’m going to a professor’s office hours.  What about you?”

“I have a class at 3.”

“A class Friday at 3,” Todd repeated.  “That’s brutal.  It’s bad enough that Ajeet and I have class Friday at 2.”

“We should probably get going for that,” Ajeet added.  “It was nice meeting you guys.  Greg, I’ll see you tonight at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have a good one.”

I continued working on homework.  A few minutes after Ajeet and Todd left, Alaina said, “So Whitney and I had this great idea the other day.  We’re gonna throw a coffee house party.  We’ll make all kinds of special coffee drinks, and we’ll decorate the house like a coffee shop.”

“And we’ll have poetry readings, and we’re hoping someone will play live music for part of the night,” Whitney added.  “And we’ll make art to put on the wall.”

“That’s a great idea,” Ben said.  “When is this?”

“Oh, not any time soon.  We’re too busy this quarter.  We’re thinking maybe April.”

“Sounds like fun!”

The three of them started discussing who they could ask to play music and make artwork, naming people I did not know.  At one point, Alaina asked, “Greg, what do you think?”

“Oh,” I said, unaware that I was included in this discussion since it seemed to revolve around U-Life people.  “That sounds like a lot of fun!  Keep me posted.”  I left out the detail that I did not like coffee; it still sounded like fun even without coffee.

At around quarter to three, I stood up and said, “I should probably get going.”

“Me too,” Ben replied.

“You know what’s really funny?” I added.  “When I sat down here two hours ago, it was all JCF people at this table.  And the table gradually transitioned into U-Life people.”

“That is funny!” Alaina said.  “Greg, you just have a lot of friends.”

“I guess I do.  Have a good weekend, you guys!”

“Thanks!” Whitney replied.  “You too!”


For the last year, I would have said that Dr. Thomas was my favorite mathematics professor, but now it was a toss-up between her and Dr. Samuels.  Dr. Samuels was a much better teacher than most of the professors I had.  His was the only math class I ever took that did not feel like just a lecture.  He called on students at random, like a high school teacher might, and he would pause class a few times each hour and tell us to turn to our neighbors and summarize what we just learned.  This helped, especially on days when I could not stay awake.

Four other students came to Dr. Samuels’ office hours that day; apparently I was not the only one who needed refreshing on these topics.  From this class, I was beginning to see geometry in a new light.  My high school geometry textbook had said that every logical system had to begin with undefined terms, and that “point,” “line,” and “plane” were undefined terms in Euclidean geometry.  Why were they undefined, I thought?  It seemed lazy.  One could at least describe the concepts of points, lines, and planes using English, right?

After Dr. Samuels’ class, the concept of undefined terms made more sense.  Geometry begins with basic postulates, such as that two points determine a line.  The terms are undefined because these assumptions determine all the properties that a geometer would need to know about points and lines.  Furthermore, one could construct a geometric system where “point” and “line” were understood to mean something else, and all of the theorems would still apply in that system, since they were based on those basic assumptions.  If “point” were understood to mean what would normally be called a line, and “line” were understood to mean what would normally be called a point, some of the basic postulates would still be true.  Two lines, in the real world sense, determine one point.  This thought blew my mind.

After Dr. Samuels answered my question, he said, “By the way, Greg, can you stick around for a while?  I want to ask you something after we’re done here.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I was going to listen to everyone else’s questions anyway.”  I felt a little nervous over the next twenty minutes, wondering what Dr. Samuels wanted to talk to me about.  Was I in trouble?  I did my best to concentrate on what my classmates were asking.

After the last person left Dr. Samuels’ office, he said, “So, Greg.  What are your plans for after graduation?  I always ask this of strong students like you.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied sheepishly.  If Dr. Samuels thought I was a strong student, I should have a better answer than that.  “I’ve been trying to figure that out.  I went to the Math Club’s career fair, and nothing really stood out to me.  Dr. Thomas told me about REU programs, so I’m thinking about that for this summer, to get a sense of what grad school would be like.”

“Have you ever considered being a teacher?  I’ve done some work with secondary education, and I’ve heard the way you explain things to others in class.”

Of all the reasons Dr. Samuels might have wanted to talk to me individually, this was not what I was expecting.  For years, I had said that I would never be a teacher, because of the politics involved in public schools.  Many of my high school teachers were active and outspoken politically, with views that I disagreed with.  I had always assumed that I would stay in school forever and become a mathematician, but my disillusionment with the career fair had left my future plans undecided.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I didn’t think much about teaching at first, but everything feels up in the air now.  And I work as a tutor at the Learning Skills Center, and I do enjoy that.”

“If you ever want to give it a try, you can get two units on your transcript as Math 197.  You’ll help out in a classroom at Jeromeville High for the quarter, and at the end you’ll write a short paper about what you did and what you learned.  If you’re trying to figure out your career plans, it would be a great way to immerse yourself in the world of teaching.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It sounds like it.  When do I have to let you know by?”

“Sometime next week should be good.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Thanks for letting me know about this.”

“You’re welcome.  This state is always looking for good teachers, especially ones with strong mathematics backgrounds.”

“Yeah.”

I left Dr. Samuels’s office and walked toward the bus stop.  This was a new wrinkle in the fabric of my life.  Could I be a teacher?  I tried to picture myself in a classroom with thirty sullen teenagers who called me Mr. Dennison.  I was sure it would be challenging, but it could be fun and enjoyable as well.  I enjoyed my tutoring job, I always enjoyed explaining math to people, and I had been spending a lot of time around younger people through volunteering with the youth group at church.

“Greg!” an enthusiastic female voice shouted as I approached the bus stop.  I saw Yesenia Fonseca, one of the first students I ever had as a tutor, waving at me.  “What’s up?”

“Just thinking,” I said.  “My professor just asked me if I had ever considered being a teacher.  I’d never really pictured myself as a teacher.”

“You’d totally be a great teacher!” Yesenia replied.  “I had another tutor last spring quarter, and she wasn’t good at explaining at all, like you were.”

“He said I could get units for helping in a classroom at Jeromeville High.  I’m thinking I might do it.”

“You should!”

Yesenia’s bus arrived just seconds before mine; we said goodbye and headed home.  Shawn, one of my roommates, was studying to be a math teacher.  He was doing his student teaching at Laguna Ciervo High School, across the Drawbridge in a suburban neighborhood just outside of Capital City.  When I got home, I told Shawn about what Dr. Samuels had said.

“You should go for it,” Shawn said.  “I think you’d be a good teacher.  We definitely need good teachers.  The teacher I’m working with is terrible.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He’s just mean.  He keeps telling kids, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’  I mean, I get you have to establish authority, but there’s got to be a better way.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t see you like that.  I think you should try it.”

All weekend, I could not get this off my mind.  This had been a productive day, in more ways than one.  I had gotten a lot of work done sitting in the Memorial Union.  I had learned of an upcoming party at Alaina and Whitney’s house, another connection with a new group of friends.  And Dr. Samuels had given me something to think about regarding the future.  Me, Mr. Dennison, teaching high school kids about algebra and geometry.

Sure, Shawn was not having the best experience with student teaching.  But I was not Shawn.  Hopefully I would have a better experience.  Yesenia had told me that I would make a good teacher, and as a former tutee, she would know.  I would tell Dr. Samuels on Monday that I wanted to help out at Jeromeville High; the worst that could happen was that I would discover that I would not like it.  I would still get two units for it.  It was an option to explore, and that was what I needed right now.


Author’s note: Who was your favorite teacher, and why?


February 14-18, 1997.  Taking my first step into a larger world. (#120)

I was nine months old when the world first experienced the Star Wars phenomenon in 1977.  As such, I was too young to have seen the movie, or its first sequel The Empire Strikes Back, on the big screen in its original run.  I remember the hype surrounding the next movie in the series, Return of the Jedi, which was released when I was six.  I did not see Return of the Jedi, but I saw the other two movies a couple times over the years during my childhood.  Star Wars creator George Lucas had repeatedly said that he planned to make more movies past Return of the Jedi, as well as three other movies telling the backstory of how the primary villain Darth Vader turned to evil.  In the fourteen years between Return of the Jedi and my junior year at the University of Jeromeville, no more Star Wars movies had been made.

I recognized most of the major characters from Star Wars, but by age twenty, I did not have a detailed recollection of the specific storylines of the movies.  Star Wars just was not a huge part of my childhood.  Therefore, when George Lucas’ company announced that the original three movies would be rereleased in theaters in early 1997, with new scenes to match his original vision, I at first considered this a minor curiosity, something that might be fun to go see, but not something around which to revolve my life.

For my roommate Brian Burr, seeing Star Wars on the big screen again, in this new Special Edition, was a huge deal.  Brian was older than me; he would have been three and a half when Star Wars was first released, so he grew up with Star Wars more than I did.  He announced a while back that he was going to see each movie on the big screen three times.  The movies were being released on Fridays, and Star Wars was not worth missing class over, but I told Brian to keep me posted about the second or third times he saw the movies, so I could go too.

The Special Edition of Star Wars was now entering its third week in theaters, but so far Brian had not said anything to me about seeing the movie.  I was starting to feel left out, like I had from so many cliques already over the last few months.  Furthermore, today was Valentine’s Day, and even though I had gotten brave and talked to the cute girl on the bus this morning, my general failures at love still made me feel discouraged.

After my two math classes, I had New Testament Writings of John with Dr. Hurt.  Dr. Hurt’s New Testament classes were very popular with Christian students at UJ.  I was part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship; I had recently started attending Jeromeville Covenant Church and their college group, 20/20; and I had friends who were part of University Life, the college group from the First Baptist Church of Jeromeville.  The Writings of John class had around 150 students; I knew and was friends with many of them.

I had taken Introduction to New Testament with Dr. Hurt last quarter to satisfy a general education requirement, and I was taking this class just because I was interested in the topic.  I was learning a lot about the Bible and life as a Christian from JCF and church, but Dr. Hurt’s classes taught me to look at the Bible from a scholarly perspective, which I had never done before.  Earlier in the quarter, we spent two whole days studying one word in the first verse of the Gospel of John, for example.  In English, the verse was usually translated as “In the beginning was the Word,” but “Word,” Logos in Greek, could mean word, study, reason, discourse, or a number of other concepts that were difficult to translate.  God’s Word in this sense was more than just words, it was what God used to speak the universe into being, and Jesus was this Word in human form, in a way that twentieth century English could not explain well.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” Taylor Santiago said as we walked out of Dr. Hurt’s class.  Brent Wang, Noah Snyder, and Mike Knepper had all been sitting near us, and we all walked outside together.  “I see you’re wearing black today.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled.  Bah, humbug to Valentine’s Day, I thought.

“Was the black shirt on purpose?”

“Kinda,” I said.  “Did you guys see Eddie today?

“No,” Brent replied.

“He was wearing a shirt that said, ‘I’m available.’”

“No way!” Taylor exclaimed, laughing.

“But then on the back,” I continued, “it said, ‘Send me.  Isaiah 6:8.’”

“That’s awesome,” Brent said.  Pete and Mike laughed.

“Hey, guys, what’s so funny?” Barefoot James said, walking up to us.  James was a sophomore, a year younger than us.  Two weeks ago, I had started volunteering with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at J-Cov; James was also a volunteer with that group, as were Taylor and Noah.  I told James about Eddie’s shirt, and he replied, “Oh yeah!  I saw that!  That was great.”

“So do any of you have plans for Valentine’s Day?” Brent asked.

“Nope!” Taylor replied.  The others all replied in the negative as well.

“Things didn’t work out for you guys, Mike?” Noah asked.

“I told you,” Mike replied, “Courtney just wants to be friends.”

“Aww,” Taylor said.  “What about you, Greg?  Any ladies we should know about?”

“No,” I said.  I did not know how, or when, to take the next step with the cute girl on the bus.  It happened all too often that I would meet a cute girl and never see her again, or I would take my time getting to know a cute girl while some other guy was busy asking her out.

The others here did not understand; they, or at least some of them, had had girlfriends before.  Taylor and Pete had both been romantically linked to a girl in our freshman dorm, Danielle; she was not together with either of them anymore.  And a few months ago, I thought for sure something was going on between Mike Knepper and Courtney; if I could see it, it must have been really obvious.  Mike had even told me once that he liked Courtney.  But apparently she had just wanted to be friends.

Courtney was a total babe, a freshman, friendly and flirty, with long blonde hair.  I had been seeing more of her the last couple weeks, since she was also a leader at The Edge.  She seemed to spend a lot of time around another of the leaders, Brody Parker, and I was starting to wonder if there was something going on between them. That would explain why she was no longer interested in Mike Knepper.  Although Courtney was very attractive on so many levels, I never considered myself to be interested in her as more than a friend, with all of that competition from other guys like Mike and Brody.

I was ready to talk about something other than Valentine’s Day, so I mentioned the other thing I had been brooding about inside.  “I also still haven’t seen the Star Wars Special Edition,” I said.  “I wanted to go, because I barely remember the original movies.”

“I haven’t seen it yet either,” Barefoot James replied.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “You wanna go see it?”  I had been waiting for two weeks for an opportunity to see Star Wars, and when my mind processed that a chance had fallen into my proverbial lap, I took it.

“Sure,” James replied.

“When?  What works for you?”

James thought for a minute, then said, “Tuesday night?  I don’t have anything going on then.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll look up the times it’s playing.  Will you be at church on Sunday?  We can figure it out then.

“Yeah,” James said.  “Sounds good.”  Of course, Barefoot James on Tuesday night was not exactly a Valentine’s Day date, but at this point what mattered was that I really wanted to see Star Wars.  I made plans with someone, and this was progress.


It turned out that the only show that worked on Tuesday night for Barefoot James was at 10:20, later than I would have liked to start a movie on a school night.  But I really wanted to see this movie, and I had already made a commitment to James.  I could survive on one day of getting less sleep.

I drove downtown and arrived at the theater a few minutes after ten o’clock.  I did not see James outside, nor could I see him inside in the lobby.  I was usually early showing up to things like this, so I stood outside the entrance, waiting for James to arrive.

As my watch ticked past 10:10, 10:15, 10:20, I continued looking across the nearly deserted G Street, wondering where James was.  Had he stood me up?  Had he forgotten?  Had something happened to him?  I wondered what the protocol was for this kind of situation.  How long should I wait before assuming that James would not come?  And in that situation, should I buy a ticket and watch the movie by myself, or should I just go home?  If I did give up on James and watch the movie by myself, how would James know that I was inside the theater?

I got excited when I saw a guy with light brown hair and stubble approach from my left, but as I started taking a step toward him, I noticed that this was clearly not Barefoot James.  As this guy’s facial features came into view, he began to look less like James, and I also noticed at that moment that he was wearing shoes.  It was now 10:26, and my mind was still racing, confused about how to handle this.  Maybe I should just go inside and watch the movie before I missed too much of it.  But if I told the person at the ticket booth to watch for someone fitting James’ description, to pass on the message that I was inside, would she do that?  Would the girl at the ticket window pack up soon if there were no other shows starting that night?  Had the movie even started yet?  How much did I miss?  How much time did I have?  Or should I just go home?  I would give it five more minutes before I decided.

Fortunately, I did not need to make this decision, because James approached from my right on the opposite side of the street at 10:29, waving when he saw me.  He was wearing sandals; I had known James for over a year now, and this was the first time I had ever seen him not barefoot.  “Sorry I’m late,” James said.  “Let’s go.”  As we bought and paid for our tickets, James explained, “I would have been on time, except I got halfway here and remembered that I wasn’t wearing shoes, so I had to go back.  This movie theater is one of the only places I’ve never been able to get into without shoes.”

“I see,” I said.  As we walked toward our theater, I asked, “Why don’t you wear shoes anyway?  I’ve never known.”

“I’ve just never liked shoes,” James explained.  “I think they’re uncomfortable.”

“I see,” I replied.  It was true that shoes were often uncomfortable, but personally, my feet would get too cold if I always went barefoot.  I did not like going barefoot.

The movie theater in Jeromeville had six screens; Star Wars was in theater 3.  We walked in while a preview for an upcoming movie played.  “Oh, good,” I said.  “We didn’t miss anything.”

The theater was about half full; we sat toward the back near the center.  The preview that played as we sat down was the last one, and the movie began after that.  I felt anticipation building as the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, the Lucasfilm logo, and the text “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on the screen.  A few people cheered as the music started and the backstory text scrolled up the screen; I clapped with them a few times.

I had only seen Star Wars a couple times in childhood, and it had been several years, but I remembered bits and pieces of the plot.  Although the characters were familiar, most of the movie felt like a new experience to me.  I watched intently as Princess Leia hid a top secret message inside the memory of the droid R2-D2 and launched him and his companion C-3PO in an escape pod to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. The droids were found by scavengers and sold to a farm boy named Luke Skywalker.  Luke helped the droids find Obi-Wan, who then explained to Luke about the Force.  Obi-Wan said that the Force was an energy field that holds the galaxy together.

“Sounds kind of like the Logos,” I whispered to James.  “In the beginning was the Force.”

“Whoa,” James replied.  “That’s probably some kind of blasphemy or something.”

A few minutes later, in the movie, Luke and Obi-Wan met the pilot Han Solo in a seedy bar. They paid him to take them and the droids to Leia.  As they left the bar, a green-skinned gangster stopped Han and asked him about a shipment that Han had previously lost.  The gangster shot his blaster, missing Han to the side; the special effects for that part looked uncharacteristically awkward, not the smooth, realistic effects that Star Wars was known for.  Han then shot back, killing the gangster.

“Han shot first,” James whispered.

“Huh?” I replied.

“Han shot first.  You know about that, right?”

“Oh, yeah, I read about that,” I said as the significance of that scene dawned on me.  The most controversial change made for the Special Edition of Star Wars involved Han Solo’s gun battle with someone named Greedo.  In the original movie, Han shot Greedo unprovoked, but in the Special Edition, the scene was altered to make it look like Han shot in self-defense, so as not to portray Han as a cold-blooded murderer.  Many fans believed that the original scene was more in line with Han’s smuggler and mercenary background.  I did not realize at first that this dead green gangster was Greedo.

I continued to watch the movie.  Obi-Wan began to teach Luke about the ways of the Force.  Darth Vader found Luke, Obi-Wan, Han, and the others, and battled Obi-Wan to settle some unfinished business from their past.  Luke escaped that battle and found the Rebels, who then began making plans to go on the offensive.  I tried to take in as many details as I could, so that I would be able to discuss the movie with Brian and other Star Wars fans.

As the movie ended and the credits began, I said to James, “That was good.”

“Yeah.  That new scene with Jabba the Hutt was interesting.”

“Honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Star Wars.  What was that part like before?”

“It just wasn’t there.  It was a whole new scene.  Jabba didn’t show up until Return of the Jedi.”

“Oh, okay.”

“So do you have plans to see The Empire Strikes Back yet?” James asked as we left the theater.  “It comes out Friday.”

“I know Brian and his group already got tickets for Friday.  But I heard him say he’ll want to go a second time.  I’ll ask if I can get in on that, and I’ll let you know.”

“Great, man.  I need to get to bed, I have class in the morning.”

“Me too.  I’m gonna be tired tomorrow, but it was worth it.”

“Yeah!  I’ll see you tomorrow at The Edge?”

“Yes.  Drive safely.”


I did not see Brian until I got home from school Thursday, two days later.  Brian was busy for much of Wednesday, and I was gone for much of the day at school and at The Edge.  Wednesday evening at The Edge.  (After the students went home from The Edge, Courtney and Brody sat in a corner talking, oblivious to the world; it really did look like something was going on between them.)

Brian was happy to hear that I had seen Star Wars with Barefoot James.  “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world,” he said, quoting what Obi-Wan had said to Luke after beginning to teach Luke about the Force.

“Are you still going to see Empire again after the premiere?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Brian said.  “Probably on a weekend, next week or the week after.  You wanna come?”

“Yes!  And James does too.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll keep you posted.”

I may not have grown up with Star Wars, like many kids my age, but tonight I really had stepped into a new world. I was a Star Wars fan now.  This movie was going to be part of my life.  Or at least I would be a Star Wars fan after I saw Return of the Jedi, since I still had no idea how the trilogy ended.  My Jedi training was not complete yet.  Brian had the original versions of all three movies on VHS tapes, but I wanted to wait and see the other two Special Editions with friends first.

After I saw all three Special Editions, I watched all the movies again, using Brian’s tapes.  I bought my own copy of the Special Editions on VHS later that year.  The first of the prequels, telling the story of the future Darth Vader when he was a child, was released in 1999, and one of the most exciting moments of my Star Wars fandom was seeing the first showing of that in a group of sixty of my closest friends.  Yes, sixty.

But that is a story for another time.


Author’s note: Are you a Star Wars fan?


February 13-14, 1997.  Fall away. (#119)

I clicked Print and watched the printer run, then I stapled the three pages of my story together.  I glanced over it, proud of my little creation, feeling especially clever since I had hidden a secret message in the story.


“Fall Away”
by Gregory J. Dennison, February 1997

Here we go again, I thought, as I opened the door and saw her sitting there, her hair gently blowing in the light breeze.  She was talking with someone I did not recognize.  I wondered how I should react.  It seemed like a little devil and a little angel had appeared on my shoulder, as if in a cartoon.  The former told me to walk on by and say nothing, and the latter told me I should try to be friendly and at least say hello.  I wasn’t sure how to act, since I still had trouble dealing with the time she rejected me.  I have tried my hardest not to be bitter.  I watched her as I walked by.  She did not see me, so I kept right on walking.

Also, over the past few weeks, it seems like she and I have been drifting apart.  We were once such good friends, and I had hoped so much that our friendship would turn into something more.  When I finally got brave enough to ask her out, she rejected me.  It was a friendly and sympathetic rejection, but a rejection nonetheless.   A movie was playing on campus that night, and we had mentioned that we both wanted to see it.  I asked her if she wanted to see it with me, and she said she would, but she had to get up early the next morning.  She did not want to stay out late.  That was kind of the last straw for me.  A couple weeks later, I told her how I felt about her, and she told me she did not feel the same way back.  I decided, though, that our friendship seemed too important to throw away, so I would try to stay friends with her rather than avoid her.

Love never works like that, though.  Another month had passed, and my feelings for her were coming back.  In light of this, I became hesitant to pursue our friendship, because I feared that my feelings would get in the way like they did before.  Also, in the past month or so it has seemed like she and I have naturally drifted apart.  When she and her friends are all together, it seems like they stick together and don’t really include me as much.  I would still consider them my friends on a one-to-one basis, but as a group they seem kind of exclusive.

Every table seemed full as I scanned the room for a place to sit and eat lunch.  I spotted two of my friends next to an open seat, but it looked like they were busy talking about something serious, so I didn’t want to bother them.  I continued looking and saw someone else I recognized, but I heard someone calling my name first.  I looked up and saw a girl who I had met about a month ago, sitting with a bunch of her friends who I barely knew.  She asked me if I wanted to sit down, so I did.

“You look tired,” she said.  I agreed.  I proceeded to get out the lunch I had packed, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of tortilla chips.  After saying a short prayer, I began eating.  I thought about the situation.  I looked at the people around me at the table.  I didn’t really know them well, but they seemed really friendly.  This was also the second time this week that I had sat with them at lunch time.  Maybe this group was destined to become my new friends.

Curious to see what was happening around me, I looked up.  I saw the girl I saw earlier that day, the one who had rejected me.  She was talking to the two friends I had almost sat with.  I looked down, unsure of what to do.  Friendship is a valuable treasure, and I really hate to lose a friend.  But ever since that day she turned down my offer for a date, I have found it so difficult to connect with her.  We had talked a few times in the weeks since that happened, but it never seemed the same as it was before.  We rarely hung out together anymore, and when we talked, it was rarely anything more than hi and how are you.

Her pretty blue eyes looked in another direction, away from my table, as she began walking toward me.  I quickly moved my head down and looked intently at my food for about thirty seconds, so that when I looked up again I could be sure that she was gone.  I began to regret my decision after it happened.  I felt like a really unfriendly jerk.  I wondered what had come over me.  I’m not exactly the most friendly person in the world, but I have never noticed myself consciously avoiding a friend either.

Although I convinced myself after the rejection that nothing would ever happen between us, and I was comfortable with this decision at first, I seemed to feel worse about it every day.  Something had gone wrong.  I had wanted to remove my desire for a romantic relationship with her in exchange for a continued friendship.

Nothing I tried was working, though.  I had discussed my feelings with a close friend of ours.  He had felt the same way toward the same girl at one time.  He finally told her the truth, and although she did not feel the same way toward him, they had grown closer as friends.

None of this happened in my case.  I never told her how I felt about her, but more importantly we have not stayed friends.  I have a really hard time carrying on a conversation with her.  Maybe I should just have a long talk with her, apologize for avoiding her, and let her know that I wish we could talk more like we used to.

I finished eating and decided to go to class some time later.  I made up my mind that I would deal with this situation again as soon as I had an opportunity to talk to her.  A friend is a terrible thing to lose.  God would want me to face my problems and not run from them like this.  

Now, though, might not be the time to stay friends.  It would make it harder for the feelings to go away, for me to get over her rejection.  I did not know what I should do.  As I walked along, thinking about what I really felt toward her, I saw her, sitting at a table eating lunch.  She did not see me.  I started to go talk to her.

Going that way suddenly felt like a bad idea; I took one step toward her and chickened out.  I looked at her, to see if her eyes would drift up in my direction.  They did not.  I had run away from her again, the third time that day.  And somewhere, off in the distance, a rooster crowed.


It was late afternoon on Thursday, and I had been working on this story off and on for a week.  Most of the events in the story actually happened to me.  One day last week, I saw Haley Channing three times during my lunch break at the Memorial Union, and I just could not bring myself to talk to her.  I thought that telling her how I felt two months ago was the best course of action to get over her.  There was an outside chance that she liked me too, but if she did not, at least I would know.  It hurt to hear that, but some things have to hurt before they feel better, like ripping off a bandage quickly.  Things had not gotten better; now I just felt awkward around her, and my rejection felt like another painful reminder of the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and my position on the outside.

After the third time I ignored her, I thought about Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed.  The title of the story was taken from Jesus’ words preceding this incident: “You will all fall away.”  Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing, but he did, and he heard a rooster crow afterward.  I had just denied Haley three times, and I added the part about the rooster at the end of the story to allude to Peter’s denials.  I did not actually hear a rooster in real life.

The new friend who called me over to sit with her on that day was Alaina from University Life, the college ministry of a different church from the one I went to.  A while back, on another crowded day in the Memorial Union, I was looking for a place to sit.  I saw Ben, an acquaintance who was involved with U-Life but also attended JCF sometimes, and he was sitting with Alaina.  Since then, I had often seen one or both of them at lunch, and I had met some of their other friends.

Two days ago, I took a significant step closer to this other group.  I headed to campus in the evening and paid two dollars for a parking spot in the public lot on Davis Drive near the Barn.  I hated paying for parking.  A daily parking permit cost one dollar my freshman year.  The following year it increased to two dollars for the day, but still one dollar for evenings for people arriving after five o’clock.  This year the price increased to three dollars for the day and two for the evening, and I heard next year it would be three dollars any time.  The cost was increasing much faster than inflation, tripling in three years.  If this exponential increase continued, the cost of a daily parking permit in the year 2021 would be $19,683.  (The actual cost of a daily parking permit in 2021 was twelve dollars, increasing twelvefold in twenty-seven years; I still found that outrageous.)

I crossed the street and walked into Harding Hall, looking for the big lecture hall inside.  I followed the faint murmur of voices down the hall.  As I approached the room, I saw a large sign that said WELCOME TO UNIVERSITY LIFE with a large Christian cross on the left.  The setup looked very much like that of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, with people filling out name tags near the entrance and a live band in the front, probably to play worship music.

“Hi,” the guy with the name tags said.  “What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

The guy wrote my name on a name tag, unpeeled it, and handed it to me.  I stuck it on my shirt in the center of my chest.  I walked into the large lecture hall, looking around for a seat, but before I sat down, I heard someone calling out, “Greg!”

I looked around and saw Alaina waving at me.  “Hey,” I said, walking toward her.

“You made it!  Come sit with us!”  Alaina led me to a seat near the center of the lecture hall, next to her roommate Whitney, our friend Ben, and a few others whom I had met but needed to look at their name tags to remember their names.

The rest of the night at U-Life was structured much like JCF; I would not have been able to tell the difference, other than the presence of different people there.  The group was led by an adult, the college pastor from the church that ran U-Life.  The band played a few worship songs, someone made announcements, the pastor gave a talk about something from the Bible, and they finished with more songs.  I saw a few other familiar faces around the room.  Carolyn Parry, whom I knew from being in chorus last quarter, was in the worship band.  I also recognized another math major named Melissa Becker, several people from my Introduction to New Testament class last quarter and New Testament Writings of John class this quarter, and Rebekah Tyler from my freshman dorm.

I enjoyed U-Life, with the intent to come back some other time.  But I did not want to give up on JCF, even though it was cliquish and I would run into Haley there.  Yesterday, the day after I went to U-Life, I finished writing my story, “Fall Away,” which I had been working on over the last week.  I printed it just now, when I got home from class.  I was still holding the printed copy of Fall Away when my roommate Shawn walked into the room.

“Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s that you’re reading?”

“I wrote a story,” I replied.

“Really?  What’s it about?”

“Something that happened to me last week that I thought would make a good story.”

“Can I read it?”

I debated whether or not to let Shawn read the story.  My desire to share and discuss my work won out over wanting to keep the details of my romantic pursuits private.  I handed Shawn the story as I got out my textbook for Euclidean Geometry and began working on homework.

“‘By Gregory J. Dennison,’” Shawn read aloud.  “What’s the J for?”

“James.  It was my dad’s brother’s name.  He died in an accident before I was born.”

“I’m sorry.  But you have a story to go with your name.”

“Yeah.  And Gregory was after one of my dad’s good friends.”

“That’s cool,” Shawn said.  “My parents named me Shawn because they liked the name.  And they spelled it right too.  None of this ‘Seen’ stuff.”  Shawn had intentionally mispronounced the traditional spelling of Sean as if it rhymed with “mean,” and I chuckled.  “I mean, I know it’s Irish, but hey, do I look Irish to you?”  Shawn definitely did not look Irish; he was born here in the United States, but he was of Chinese descent.  This made me laugh even harder.

Shawn continued reading my story as I turned back to my math homework.  A few minutes later, he said, “That was pretty good.  So there’s a girl you liked, and she didn’t like you back, and you can’t get her out of your head?  And you didn’t want to say hi to her?”

“Pretty much.

“Is it someone I know?”

“Maybe.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“Come on, you can tell me.”

I had a feeling Shawn might want to know whom the story was about.  I could have told him I did not want to reveal this information, but I had a feeling he would keep bugging me about it.  Besides, my story had a secret, which could make this fun.  “Promise you won’t tell anyone.  Or make fun of me.”

“I promise.”

“I hid a secret message in the story.”

“What?” Shawn said.  I put my math homework aside, watching Shawn’s reaction as he searched for the secret message, looking carefully at the words on the page.  “I can’t find it,” he said finally.

“Read it out loud,” I said with a mischievous grin.

“‘Here we go–’”

“Stop,” I interrupted.  “Now go to the next paragraph.”

“‘Also, ov–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

“‘Love ne–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

Shawn looked over the entire story, then began reciting the first words of each paragraph.  “‘Here, also, love, every, you, curious, her, although, nothing, none, I, now, going.’  I don’t get it.”

“Try again.  Start from the beginning.

“H–”

“Next paragraph,” I interrupted, as soon as I heard Shawn make a sound.

“A–”

“Next paragraph.”

“L– Oh, wait a minute.”  Shawn flipped the three printed pages back and forth quickly, with a look of understanding on his face.  He had figured out that I was trying to tell him to look at only the first letter of each paragraph, not the first word.  “Haley Channing,” he said.  “It’s too bad she didn’t like you back.  She’s a cutie.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“You know what they say.  Women… can’t live with ‘em…”

“Can’t live without ‘em?” I added

“Can’t shoot ’em,” Shawn replied, finishing a famous comedic quote.

I chuckled.  “I’ve never heard that.”

“Women are always trouble.  If it weren’t for women, O.J. Simpson wouldn’t be in the news all the time.  You heard he lost the civil case, right?”

“Yeah.  And now he owes the families millions of dollars.”

“He totally did it.  He should be in jail.”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously, though, don’t give up.  If something was meant to be, God’ll make it happen somehow.  And don’t let it get you down.  Just live your life.”

“I know.”


Despite Shawn’s advice not to let my romantic failures get to me, I still decided to wear black for Valentine’s Day the next morning.  I did not wear solid black, though; I wore faded blue jeans with the black t-shirt from Urbana that said “What have you seen God do lately?”

The bus was crowded today; the air was damp, the sky was gray, and the weather forecast called for rain by mid-morning at the latest.  No one I knew got on at this stop, although I recognized some people from previous bus rides: a pale-faced guy with a big blond beard, an Asian guy with unkempt hair, and a pretty girl with wavy brown hair and big brown eyes.  When the bus arrived, I was one of the last from our stop to board.  Even though this was only the second stop on the route, the 8:35am bus on a cold, rainy day filled up fast, with over half of the seats already taken.

I looked up and breathed in sharply when I saw the pretty brown-haired girl right in front of me, next to an empty seat.  “May I sit here?” I asked her.

“Yeah!” she replied.  She smiled.

“Thanks.”  The bus stopped once more on Maple Drive, then turned left on Alvarez Avenue and stopped twice more.  I looked up and saw that the girl next to me was looking in my direction, so I turned and made eye contact.  “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

“I’m okay.  Glad it’s Friday.”

“Yeah.  Me too.”

Trying to think of something else to say, as we headed south on Andrews Road, I asked, “What class are you headed to?”

“Bio 101.  It’s really hard.”

“I’ve heard.”

“What about you?  What classes do you have today?”

“Advanced calculus, Euclidean geometry, and New Testament Writings of John.”

“How is that John class? I’ve heard good things about it.”

“It’s good.  I have a lot of friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship in that class too.”

“My roommate and I were talking about looking for a church.”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant,” I said.  “The one right back there, on the right.  And Jeromeville Christian Fellowship too, but that isn’t affiliated with a church.”

“Maybe I’ll check those out sometime.”

“Yeah.  That would be cool,” I said.  “Hey, what’s your name?  I know I’ve seen you on the bus before.”

“Tara.”

“I’m Greg.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Tara said, motioning to shake my hand.

“Nice to meet you too,” I replied as I shook Tara’s hand.  She smiled, and I smiled back.  Maybe this Valentine’s Day would not be so bad after all.


Author’s note: Did you find the secret message? Have you ever written something with a secret message hidden inside?

“Fall Away” is an actual story I wrote when I was younger. I hope I have grown as a writer since then, because reading it again now, it really wasn’t that good. I only made minimal changes to it for inclusion in this episode, in order to resolve continuity errors between the original story and the way I have told the backstory now.