December 6, 1996.  My first chorus performance.

I opened the closet door, sliding aside shirts and pants on hangers trying to get out the tuxedo from behind all of my other clothes.  When Dr. Jeffs had announced a few weeks into the quarter that we would need a tuxedo for our chorus performance at the end of the quarter, I panicked a little.  I had no idea how to get a tuxedo or how much it would cost.  A minute later, though, Dr. Jeffs mentioned that the music department had a place where they ordered tuxedos for people who needed them.  I met with a music major who handled the tuxedo orders; I recognized her from chorus, she was a soprano, but I did not know her name.  She measured my waist and inseam and arm length, just like senior year of high school when I took Renee Robertson to the prom and had to rent a tuxedo.

A week ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.  Mom wanted to see the tuxedo, and since it did not come with shoes, Mom told me we could get shoes while I was home.  I put on the tuxedo in my room, a little confused at first but eventually figuring out where to put the cummerbund and cufflinks and all these other accessories and articles of clothing that I did not normally wear.

I emerged from my room wearing the tuxedo, awaiting Mom’s reaction, wondering what she would find to make a big deal of this time.  “Look at you, all dressed up,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  Her tone quickly changed when she said, “The pants aren’t hemmed.  And they look a little bit too short.”

I looked down at the bottom of my pants, only now noticing the slightly ragged edge where the pants stopped at approximately ankle level.  I had failed; the show was just a week away, and there was not enough time to get new tuxedo pants.  “I never actually got my pants measured properly,” I said.  “The girl who ordered our tuxedos, she just asked if I knew what size pants I wore, and I told her 36-32, because that’s the size of pants I always buy.”  I paused before deciding to reveal more details of my failure.  “But people have told me before that my pants look a little too short.  Maybe they really are.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mom said.  “It probably won’t even show, if you’re going to be part of a whole choir.  And you’ll probably be in the back, since you’re tall.”

“That’s true,” I replied.

After I took off the tuxedo, Mom and I drove to Macy’s in Gabilan.  I hated shopping for shoes.  I had large, unusually shaped feet, and a few years ago I always seemed to have a hard time finding new shoes that fit me.  This traumatized me and made me afraid to buy shoes, because of all the hassle.  I wore a size 14 in athletic shoes and 13 in dress shoes, with shoes being more comfortable if they came in an extra wide option, although normal width shoes were usually not prohibitively uncomfortable.  The only black dress shoe they had that fit well had this weird scaly pattern along the surface of the shoe.  It looked like the shell of a shiny black turtle.

“Why is there that pattern on it?” I asked Mom.

“What pattern?” she said.

“This!” I replied, tracing my finger along the pattern on my shoes.

“Oh, that.  That’s what dress shoes look like.”

“What?  I’ve never seen dress shoes like that.”

“Dress shoes look like that.  It’ll be fine.  Besides, if we want anything else, we’ll have to special-order it, and it probably won’t be able to get to you in time.”

“I guess,” I sighed, resigning myself to the fact that these ugly shoes were probably the only option.  Maybe Mom was right, maybe dress shoes really do look like this, although I did not remember ever having seen shoes like these before.

I laid the tuxedo in the back of the Bronco; there would be time to change when we arrived. I had people to pick up; we had organized carpools a few days ago, and I got a car full of people I knew, which was fortunate since I did not know many people from chorus, at least not well.  Danielle Coronado and Jason Costello, were in my car, both of whom I had known since our first week at the University of Jeromeville.  We all lived on the same floor of the same dorm, Building C, when we were freshmen two years ago.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore, was also in my car; we sang together, along with Danielle, at my old church last year. After I picked everyone up, I headed east on Highway 100 toward the Drawbridge.

“How was everyone’s Thanksgiving?” Danielle asked.

“Nothing special,” Phil replied.  “Just went to my parents’ house.”

“I was at my grandma’s house in Arizona,” Jason said.  “There were a ton of people there, but it was really good.”

“Greg?” Danielle asked.  “Don’t you have a big Thanksgiving family gathering too, somewhere in the north state?”

“Bidwell.  But we didn’t do that this year,” I explained.  “My brother is in high school now, and he has basketball practice, so we couldn’t be away from home for that long.  So we just had a smaller Thanksgiving at home, just us, plus my grandparents on Mom’s side who live nearby.  Today is Grandma’s birthday, in fact.”

“How did that go?”

“It was okay.  I always used to like traveling to Bidwell, but it just hasn’t been the same since my great-grandma died.  She lived out on the edge of town on an old cattle ranch, and I used to love exploring in the hills near her house, but we don’t have that property anymore.”

“Did she pass recently?”

“It’s been a couple years.  Senior year of high school.  So how was your Thanksgiving?”

“I was just back home with my immediate family.  But it’s always kind of loud, since I come from a big family.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably like when I was a kid and all the cousins would be there.”

About ten miles east of Jeromeville, I took the exit for the Drawbridge and downtown Capital City.  “So why are we having the performance here instead of somewhere on campus?” I asked.  “Is it always here?  This is my first time in chorus, remember.”

“Usually the fall performance is here,” Danielle explained.  “Winter and spring are at the Main Theatre on campus.  But I don’t know why this one is here.”

“I think there are just a lot of other performances at the Main Theatre this time of year,” Jason explained.  “And they just couldn’t reserve the building for this night.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

A few days ago, someone had handed out a flyer with directions and a map.  I knew my way around Capital City enough that it seemed easy to find, but in the maze of one-way streets that was downtown Capital City, I got lost far more often than I should.  Complicating things further was a historic shopping district along a street that was now only open to pedestrians and light-rail commuter trains, which traveled the street at slow speed.  

In the middle of the pedestrian-only section was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the cathedral for the Catholic diocese for this part of the state and the location of this performance.   The large stone building, half the width of the entire block, was gray, with a large clock tower in front rising from the center and two smaller towers with crosses on top on either side.  A wide, low set of stone steps climbed about three feet to the entrances, three large sets of wooden double doors with statues of saints placed between them.  The middle set of doors was open.

The four of us arrived at 4:15 and walked in through the open door, through the lobby to the back of the church.  On the far side of the church, just in front of the altar, risers had been set up for the chorus to stand on.  The students who had arrived so far stood around and sat in pews, while the students from the orchestra set up their instruments.  At the side, a familiar face sat at a grand piano, organizing sheet music.  “Hey, Spencer,” I said, walking up to the piano.

“Greg!” Spencer said.  “I didn’t know you were in this.”

“Same,” I said.  “How long have you been doing piano for chorus?”  Spencer Grant lived downstairs from me freshman year, and he had gone to high school with Danielle.  I knew that he played piano, because I remembered him playing the piano in the common room of Building C many times, but I did not know that he was the accompanist for these performances.  Although I knew him to play piano, I would not have pictured him as the type to be in a performance like this.  Spencer always struck me as an odd combination of equal parts overconfident nerd and country hick, neither of which was a personality I associated with classical music.

“I started last year,” Spencer explained.  “They needed a pianist, I play piano.”

“That works.”

“Is this your first time in one of these?  I don’t remember seeing you here before.  Which group are you in?”

“Chorus.  I sing bass. And, yes, it’s my first time.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s great.  For a long time, when I was younger, I never liked singing in front of people, but it’s not so bad when I’m part of a group.”

“That’s true.”

“Section leaders, I need to see you for a minute!” I heard a voice say.  It took a few seconds to register that I was a section leader and I should be listening.  I looked over my shoulder and saw the section leader for the sopranos, a blonde girl named Carolyn, waving and calling out, “Section leaders!”

“I need to go see what that’s about,” I told Spencer.  “It was good seeing you.”

“You’re a section leader?” Spencer asked.  “And this is your first time in chorus?”

“Yeah.  No one else really wanted to do it.”

“A lot of people get talked into things that way.”

“I know.  I’ll see you later.”

I walked over to the other section leaders.  “I’m here,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“If anyone in your section doesn’t show up, be sure to let Dr. Jeffs or Sharon know as soon as possible.  If you didn’t bring your roster, here’s a copy of the program with all the names on it,” Carolyn said, as she gave the three of us programs.

I went up to the risers to stand with the other basses as I read through the program.  As the section leader, I had been responsible for submitting everyone’s names exactly as they wanted.  I listed myself as “Gregory James Dennison.”  Over the last several months, I had started using all three of my names when I had to fill things out, and I had changed my email name and signature to show all three names.  I remember passing the list around asking the basses how they wanted their names in the program, and my friend Scott Madison, whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship before I joined chorus, commented on my name.  “‘Gregory James Dennison?’  You’re using your full name now?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t know why, I just like the way it sounds.”

“Oooh.  Can I be ‘Scott R. Madison?’”

“Sure,” I said as Scott wrote “Scott R. Madison” on the form.

Phil Gallo took the form next.  “When I was in high school,” he said, “I was reading something about these gangsters from the 1920s, and they all had cool nicknames.  My friend started calling me Phil ‘The Fist’ Gallo.  He said it sounded like a Mafia name.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.

“I probably shouldn’t put that on the chorus program, though,” Phil said, writing “Philip T. Gallo” on the form.

“‘Philip T. Gallo?’” I said.  “The T stands for ‘The Fist?’”

“Haha!” Phil shouted.  “My middle name is Thomas, but I like that better.”

The dress rehearsal went well.  We had performed these pieces well enough that I knew my parts by then.  Since we had learned them out of order, though, we had only been performing them in their entirety from start to finish for a week.  We sang Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis, commonly called the Lord Nelson Mass, first.  I liked hearing it all together in order; it began quickly but in a minor key, specifically D minor; switched to D major for the Gloria, and changed to many other keys and tempos through the piece to fit the mood of the lyrics, ending with an upbeat Dona Nobis Pacem in D major.  I thought we sounded great.

After the Nelson Mass, the Chamber Singers did their part of the show.  Sharon, the teaching assistant for chorus, conducted this part of the show. We did not have to do anything during that time except stand quietly.  As one who had not studied classical music in detail, I was not sure exactly what the term chamber music even meant, what distinguished it from other music, but the Chamber Singers were a much smaller group than University Chorus.  When the Chamber Singers finished, the University Chorus performed Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a composition from the early twentieth century incorporating four existing British Christmas songs.  This one had been more difficult to learn at first, since I did not have a recording of it to sing along with, but we had rehearsed it enough that I knew it by now.


After the rehearsal, we had a break for dinner.  Despite being in the middle of a big city, with lots of interesting places around to eat, I walked down the street to McDonald’s.  I needed something simple and familiar.  Danielle walked there with me, and we saw about ten other people from chorus there too.  I ordered an Arch Deluxe and French fries, but no milkshake or Coca-Cola.  Someone had advised me not to have sweet drinks or dairy, since those might affect my voice.

We all had to be back by 7:45, and I made it in plenty of time.  Some of the audience had already arrived, and more trickled in as we waited to the side of the risers.  My mom and dad were making the drive up to see my performance, and eventually I saw them walk in.  It was close enough to the start of the performance that I could not go talk to them, but I made note of where they were sitting so I could find them quickly afterward.

At 7:55, the lights went dim, and the orchestra began playing the oddly familiar droning A note that the stringed instruments used to tune themselves.  After they finished, Dr. Jeffs stepped up to the podium and raised his baton.  The orchestra began playing as Dr. Jeffs conducted, and a few measures later, we began our choral part.  “Kyrie!  Kyrie eleison!” we sang.

I was surprisingly not nervous at all.  I had rehearsed this enough, and listened to the recording of the piece often enough, that I knew exactly what we were supposed to sound like.  The entire Mass was long, around forty minutes; I sang my part, just as we had been rehearsing, and I stood still and silent as the soloists did their parts.

As much as I enjoyed being in chorus, I never considered trying out for a solo.  I did not have the vocal talent to sing a solo.  The resounding deep voice of the bass soloist, the clear high tones of the tenor soloist, the warble of the alto and soprano soloists, all of those were sounds that my voice was not trained to make.  I was not a vocal soloist, but I was getting used to feeling like I at least belonged in the chorus.

The rest of the night went smoothly, just as we rehearsed.  I felt a little uncomfortable standing through the entire Chamber Singers performance, looking down on Sharon conducting the small group in front of us, but once we began Fantasia on Christmas Carols, I was sufficiently distracted that I no longer noticed my uncomfortably sore feet in the ugly shoes.  I wished I had a recording of this piece, because I really liked it; it was a different twist on classical Christmas music, beyond the same old songs I hear every year.

The performance ended, and we got a standing ovation from the audience.  The applause seemed to last a long time as each conductor and each group took bows and was recognized separately.  I was a part of that.  They were cheering for me.  I was not used to receiving applause, and it felt good.  I smiled.

Eventually, the lights came back up, and I saw people mingling with friends and family in the audience.  I turned to Phil, the nearest person from my carpool, and said, “I’m going to go say hi to my parents.  If Jason and Danielle are ready to drive back, tell them I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Phil said.

I walked over to Mom and Dad; Mom saw me and gave me a hug.  “You look good in your tux,” she said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“That was very nice,” Dad said.  “I’m glad you’re doing music again.”

“Me too,” I said.  “What are you guys doing tonight?”

“If it’s okay with you, we’re just going to go back to the motel without stopping at your house.  It’s getting late.  We’re staying at the Oak Tree Inn in Woodville, because everything in Jeromeville was either booked or really expensive.”

“Yeah, that sounds right for Jeromeville.”

“We can take you to breakfast in the morning.  Does that sound good?”

“Sure.  That works out perfectly, because there’s an after party, and I wanted to stop by.”

“Great!  We don’t want to get in the way when you’re hanging out with your friends.”

“Thanks.  So I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sounds good!”


I got home after dropping off the others in my car.  The after party was at someone’s house, not too far from my house, just off of Maple Drive on the other side of Coventry Boulevard.  I walked in and looked around.  I saw a number of familiar faces, but most of my closest friends in chorus were not here.  Danielle, Scott and Amelia, Jason, Phil, all absent.  Claire and Margaret were here, but Claire was a music major, so she knew all these people, and Margaret was her sister.

“Hey, Greg!” Claire said as Margaret waved.  “What did you think of the show?”

“It was great!  I’m glad it’s over, though.  One less thing to concentrate on as finals start.”

“I know!  This is your first chorus after-party, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Have fun!”

I walked around trying to start conversations.  Most of the conversations were about music things that I did not understand, and a lot of people were drinking.  I sat to the side making small talk with anyone who seemed interested in doing so, and I learned names of more of the people I had been singing with for three months but did not know well.  I eventually went home after a little over an hour, because this party did not really feel like my scene.

Breakfast with Mom and Dad the next morning went well.  We went to Denny’s, where I ate way too much, and Mom spent much of the time asking gossipy questions about other people in the show last night and pointing out if their noses were too big, or their eyes were too close together, or any other interesting thing to notice about them.  Mom did this kind of thing for everyone.  She also said that the Oak Tree Inn was very nice for the amount they paid.  For the rest of the years I lived in Jeromeville, my parents stayed at the Oak Tree Inn when they came to visit.  It was only ten miles away, and much less expensive than the alternatives.

I may have not fit in with the crowd at the after party, but I was starting to feel like I was actually a musician.  I had no plans to try out for a solo, but I enjoyed being in the chorus.  I would not be able to take chorus winter quarter, though.  Dr. Hurt, the professor I currently had for Introduction to New Testament, taught another class I wanted to take that met at the same time as chorus.  I would do everything I could to make sure I took chorus again spring quarter, though.  In addition to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Math Club, chorus was now one of my activities to be involved in, and I looked forward to when I could do it again in the future.  Even if it meant wearing those ugly uncomfortable shoes with the tuxedo.

The ugly shoes today, after spending a couple decades collecting dust in the bottom of my closet and not being worn. I still have them, for some reason.

Author’s note: Have any of you ever been part of a chorus or any sort of performing group? What was that like for you? Do any of you have any interesting stories about that?

Also, I thought about making the song for this episode be something from Fantasia on Christmas Carols, since I already shared a different part of the Nelson Mass in a different episode. But Fantasia on Christmas Carols is 11 minutes long and not broken into parts, and I am posting this episode in October and I have a strict personal policy not to share Christmas music when it’s not December. But if you really want to hear Fantasia on Christmas Carols, click here.

End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus.

“The mass has ended,” Father Bill said to the congregation at the Jeromeville Newman Center.  “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” many in the congregation replied.

Those of us in the church choir began singing and playing the closing song.  The choir had changed a bit from last year, since two people graduated, but most of the people I knew were still singing with us.  Danielle Coronado, a junior like me, and her sophomore sister Carly; Danielle was one of the first friends I made in Jeromeville in my freshman dorm.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore.  Heather Escamilla, a senior who was my neighbor last year before I got the new apartment and roommates.  Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell, two seniors who played guitars, who grew up in Santa Lucia County like me but went to Catholic school.  Two senior girls, Claire Seaver and Sabrina Murphy, and their freshman siblings whom I had just met today, Margaret Seaver and Chad Murphy.  A woman named Karen, not a student, who played piano.

After the last song, as we were packing up the instruments and sheet music, I asked Claire, “Can I look through the sheet music?  I have my audition for University Chorus on Tuesday, and I need to bring my own music to sing.”

“Sure!” Claire replied.  “I’m excited you’re gonna be in Chorus!”

“You are?  For sure?” Danielle asked, overhearing our conversation.  “Yay!”

“I will if they let me in,” I said.

“The audition isn’t hard,” Danielle explained.  “You’re pretty much just showing them that you can carry a tune.  And there are always more girls than guys, so if you’re a guy and you aren’t tone deaf, they’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, flipping through pages of sheet music looking for something I knew I could sing.  “I’m really nervous.”  I had no idea whether or not an audition of Catholic Church music would be frowned upon, given the reputation that large public universities sometimes had for being anti-Christian.  Christianity influenced much classical art and music, however, so I figured it would be okay, particularly if I sang something well known.  The songs were arranged alphabetically, so after about a minute I found “Amazing Grace.”  I said, “I think I can sing Amazing Grace.”  I had never sung it with the church choir, but the worship band at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had played it a few times, so I felt like I knew it well enough.

“Sounds good!” Claire said.

“Good luck,” Danielle added, patting me on the back.  “You’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

I drove home with the radio off, singing Amazing Grace to myself.  Growing up, the few occasions when I heard this song were always met with my mother saying that she hated it, particularly Joan Baez’ hippie-era recording of the song.  I mostly liked the lyrics, having recently learned about the history of the song.  The lyrics were written by an 18th-century British slave ship captain who turned to God to save him from a shipwreck, later turning away from the cruelty of the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist.  God had not saved me from anything that dramatic, but he certainly had saved me from my life of hopelessness, loneliness, and depression during sophomore year.


Two days later, I rode my bike to campus with the sheet music to Amazing Grace in my backpack, along with the usual binder that I would not be using today.  I rode all the way across campus to the east side of the Quad, with the Death Star building and Old North and South Halls on the left.  Just past the Quad, I passed the library on the right and a classroom building called Orton Hall on the left.  Beyond the library, East Quad Avenue ended in a T-intersection with Davis Drive, with the art, drama, and music buildings clustered together on the other side of the street.  I parked my bike and walked into the music building, looking for room 111.

The music building was small, with two floors.  I walked in through a lobby to a hallway extending to the left and right with a bulletin board in front of me.  I was not sure which side room 111 was on, but in a building of this size, it did not take long to find.

Room 111 was rectangular, with the entrance on the short side.  The wall to the left of me had a chalkboard along most of the length of the wall, with groups of five lines permanently imprinted on the board for writing music.  To the right were about a hundred and fifty seats, in rows which were each a step above the row in front of them, like stadium seats.  Two aisles divided the sections into thirds.  The ceiling and parts of the walls were off-white, covered in some kind of material that probably had to do with acoustics or soundproofing or something like that.  A thin woman, probably around thirty years old, with wavy hair dyed dark sat in a chair next to a slightly younger-looking man with a goatee sitting at a grand piano.

“Hi,” the woman said.  “I’m Sharon.  What’s your name?”

“Greg Dennison,” I said.

Sharon looked down at her list of students who would be auditioning today.  “Greg.  There you are.  What did you bring to sing today?”  I opened my backpack and gave her the sheet music of Amazing Grace, which she handed to the pianist.  “Amazing Grace,” she said.  “In F-major, so it starts C-F.”  Turning back to me, Sharon said, “Whenever you’re ready, Greg.”

The pianist played a C and an F, the first two notes of the song.  I took a deep breath and began singing.  “A-ma-zing grace, how sweet the sound.”  I took a breath and continued, “That saved a wretch like me!”  Another breath.  “I once was lost, but now am found.”  Another breath.  “Was blind, but now I see.”

Sharon stopped me.  “That’s good,” she said.  “Welcome to University Chorus.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  Danielle was right; this audition was not difficult at all.  I had had nothing to worry about.

“Are you Baptist, by any chance?” the pianist asked.

“No,” I said, a little confused.  “I’m Catholic.  I sing in my church choir.”

“You kind of sing like a Baptist,” the pianist explained, demonstrating how my voice tended to not quite hit the pitch of some long notes and then quickly adjust.  Hopefully I had not done something wrong.  If this was not good enough for the way I was supposed to sing in University Chorus, I would do my best not to sing that way.

“Interesting,” I said, not particularly wanting to have that discussion.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So I’ll see you Friday at 12:10?” Sharon asked.

“Yes!”


After my audition, I went to the basement of the campus store to get my textbooks for the quarter.  Chorus was technically a two-unit class called Music 144, graded pass/no-pass.  There were two thin books of sheet music on the shelf for Music 144, along with a compact disc labeled as optional which I did not buy.  The longer of the two pieces for chorus was called Missa in Angustiis, by Joseph Haydn, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass.  It was first performed right at the same time that Horatio Nelson had defeated Napoleon’s forces, in the late 18th century, and it had always been associated with that event.  The other book of sheet music was called Fantasia on Christmas Carols, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912.  I did not know that name.

Thursday, September 26, was the first day of classes.  As was often the case, Thursday was a light day for me, with only my discussion section for New Testament.  We had no class material to discuss, since the first lecture would not meet until tomorrow, so the teaching assistant just introduced the class and what we would be doing in the discussion section.  I was going back to the part-time job I had for part of last year, tutoring lower-division math classes for the Learning Skills Center on campus ten hours per week, and with only one class on Thursday, I could make myself available for tutoring on Thursdays.

My class schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was much busier, with one math class and the New Testament lecture in the morning and another math class in the afternoon.  In between, chorus met from 12:10 until 1:00.  The room was about half full when I arrived on that first Friday.  Sharon, whom I had met at my audition, sat in the front at the piano, with a balding middle-aged man in a suit also in the front of the room.  I found a seat near the right aisle and waited for class to start.  “Greg!” a familiar voice behind me said.  I turned around to see Phil Gallo from church.

“Hey, Phil,” I said.

As I looked at the people around me and watched the rest of the chorus trickle in through the door, I recognized a few other familiar faces.  Jason Costello from my freshman dorm, who also goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Danielle, Claire, and Margaret from the church choir.  A couple of faces I recognized from the dining hall freshman year.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye from JCF.  Scott saw me looking around and waved; I waved back.

Sharon stood up and spoke, introducing herself as the TA for the class.  She would be the contact person for most of our concerns.  She introduced the balding man as Dr. Thomas Jeffs, the professor who would be conducting the chorus.  Dr. Jeffs then introduced himself with a long list of accolades and prestigious choral groups that he had been a part of over his career.  As one with little knowledge of classical music, most of that meant nothing to me, other than that the accomplishments sounded impressive.

Next, a blonde girl walked to the front.  “Hi!  My name is Carolyn Parry, and I’m the section leader for the sopranos.  The section leader for altos couldn’t be in chorus this quarter, and the section leader for basses graduated.  So, altos and basses, take five minutes to find the others in your section, and decide who will be section leader.”

I had no idea who the other basses were.  I noticed that the guys mostly seemed to sit in the middle, with the girls mostly on the sides, but with a few girls near the aisle in the middle, possibly because there was not enough room for all the girls on the sides.  “Are you a bass?” one older-looking guy sitting next to me asked.

“I am,” I replied.  Apparently the seat I chose was coincidentally in the bass section.

“No one really wanted to be section leader,” a guy sitting behind me said, “so we were wondering if you’d want to do it.”

Wow.  My first day of University Chorus, and I’m already being asked to be section leader.  “What exactly does the section leader do?” I asked.

“Mostly just take attendance,” the guy who asked if I was a bass said.  “Just pass around a sign-in sheet, everyone makes sure they sign it, and then you give it to Sharon.”

“I guess I can do that,” I said.  I hoped that it was actually that simple, and that the other basses were not hazing the new guy or anything like that.

After the selection of section leaders, the actual rehearsal began.  Dr. Jeffs told us to turn to the Credo in the Lord Nelson Mass.  Each section practiced a few measures, then we sang them together.  This Credo seemed difficult to sing, because instead of harmonizing, it was sung like a round, with the sopranos and altos starting, and the tenors and basses coming in a measure later.  But unlike round songs I knew as a child, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the tenors and basses sang in a different key than the sopranos and altos, which created some very non-intuitive harmonies.  I had taken piano lessons for three years as a child, so I knew how to read music, but I quickly discovered that I was not very good at it.  I could follow along with sheet music when someone else sang or played, but I found it difficult to learn an unfamiliar song, particularly one with four part harmony, just by reading sheet music.  By the end of the class, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was not good enough for University Chorus.  But, as we were leaving, Dr. Jeffs said something that changed the whole experience for me.

“It’s about time to go,” Dr. Jeffs said.  “Section leaders, be sure to turn in your sign-in sheet for your section.  And, remember, if you don’t have the sheet music yet, go get that.  And they have a CD of the Haydn in the bookstore.  I will see you Monday.”

As soon as I left the building, I immediately headed to the campus store.  I remembered seeing that compact disc stacked there next to the books of sheet music, labeled as optional, and after today, I realized that I needed it.  I had no trouble following sheet music when a song was playing, so I suspected that I would be able to learn my part better by listening.

The first meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for the year was that night; that was when we performed the Scooby-Doo skit.  The next morning, I put the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass in my stereo and pressed Play.  I skipped to track 5, the Credo.  I knew enough from being Catholic that a Mass is the words from a church service set to music.  Although the Lord Nelson Mass was in Latin, I could understand what the words meant, since I knew the words to the Catholic Mass in English, and I studied Spanish, which evolved from Latin, for three years in high school.  The Credo was the part called the Nicene Creed in English, beginning with “I believe in one God,” or “Credo in unum Deum” in Latin.  The sections of this Mass appeared to be named for the first couple of words from each part.

I sang along while following the sheet music.  The women’s parts seemed louder than the men’s parts on the recording, but if I turned the stereo up loud enough, I could hear the bass.  Not only that, but I was able to follow along with the bass part on the sheet music.  I played the track a second time, this time singing along.  I remembered how, yesterday in class, Dr. Jeffs had reminded us to trill the R in “credo” at the beginning.  On my sheet music, where the words “cre- do” were written under the notes, I wrote “crrrre- do” underneath it, so I would remember to trill the R.  I started the song over and sang along.

My roommate Shawn came home in the middle of the song.  He poked his head in the bedroom door and asked, “What are you listening to?”

“Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass,” I explained.  “It’s one of the pieces we’re doing for chorus this quarter.”

“Oh yeah,” Shawn said.  “You’re in chorus.”

“It’s my first time doing it.”

“How’s it going so far?”

“I learned really quickly that I think I’m going to do better listening to the piece over and over again while I practice my part.  I can read music a little bit, but I don’t learn new music very well that way.  So I bought the CD.”

“Makes sense,” Shawn said.  He crossed the hall to the bathroom, and I closed the bedroom door and sang through the Credo two more times.

For the rest of that quarter, I listened to the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass over and over and over again.  When I was first learning a part of the Mass, I would follow along with the sheet music.  After that, as I was learning the part better, I would put the CD on while I was doing math homework or talking to girls in chat rooms, and I would sing along to my part.  This way, I would just learn it by performing, much as how I learned the words and tune to songs on the radio or on my other CDs by listening over and over again and singing along sometimes.

Something odd happened a few days after I got the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass.  I was sitting at my computer, at the desk under the bed loft that I had bought from Claire, doing homework for Advanced Calculus while the Lord Nelson Mass was playing.  I took a break, looking up from my textbook for about a minute.  Then I stood up and turned toward my bookshelf, about to look for a dust rag, when I realized what was happening.  In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I was back home working in a bookstore where the owner always played classical music.  The sound of classical music coming out of my stereo triggered some dormant muscle memory in my brain, memories of when the bookstore was empty of customers and I walked around to dust the shelves.  I laughed when I realized where this thought had come from.  I mentioned it to Danielle at the next rehearsal, and she laughed too, having remembered my stories from working at the bookstore that summer.

Although I loved listening to music, I always had a complicated relationship with performing music.  We had an old, out-of-tune piano in our living room at home, which had belonged to Dad’s grandmother, and I just liked playing around on it, but Mom always made a big deal of me playing piano and wanted me to perform for relatives and family friends.  I quit after three years of piano lessons in elementary school because I was self-conscious.  I never thought of performing music in front of others again until last year, when Danielle invited me to choir practice.  Now I was part of a chorus that would have to perform in front of a large audience at the end of the quarter, in a less comfortable environment than a church service, and once I got used to how things worked at University Chorus, I was excited about this.  The last year had been a time of great change and growth for me, and more changes were coming.

January 10-13, 1996. Another hopeless crush and a party.

I have always had a good ear for music, but I rarely did anything with it other than sing along in the car.  I played piano for a few years in elementary school, but according to Mom, I quit because I thought music was for nerds.  I do not remember saying that, but it definitely sounds like something that 10-year-old Greg would have said, not yet mature enough to embrace being different.  I did not perform music in front of people again until three months ago, when I started singing at 11:00 Mass at the Newman Center.

Our experience levels in the church choir ranged from people like me who just liked to sing for fun all the way up to Claire Seaver, a third-year music major who had been performing all her life.  I did not have much formal training in music, but I would occasionally try different harmonies with some of our usual familiar songs, because my ear could pick up harmonies easily.  I was excited this week when Claire brought a new song for us to learn, with four parts.  We had been practicing it all night, and the sopranos and altos had just finished doing their parts all together.  “Let’s hear just the guys now,” Claire said.

Phil Gallo and I sang the bass parts, while Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell sang tenor, Matt playing guitar as well.  We sounded okay, although there were a few wrong notes sung and played.  After this, we tried the entire song with every part singing, and after three times, it seemed like we finally had perfected the song.

“I thought that sounded good,” I said afterward.

“Yes!” Claire agreed.  “I think we’re ready for Sunday!”

“Yes,” Danielle Coronado said.  “Now I get to go home and write a paper.”

“Already?” Claire said incredulously.  “It’s the first week of class!”

“It’s only one page.  Not really a paper.  Just an assignment.”

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thanks,” Danielle replied.

“See you guys Sunday,” I said, turning back to Phil, Matt, and Ryan.

“Take it easy, man,” Phil replied.  I waved at the guys and went to find Heather, since we were neighbors and had carpooled here, but she and Melanie Giordano were busy talking, and I did not want to interrupt.  I stepped back, waiting, when I heard a soft female voice behind me say, “Hey, Greg.”

I turned around and got nervous when I saw Sabrina Murphy looking up at me.  There was just something about her that was cute, but I knew that she had a boyfriend, so any of these thoughts were hopeless.  I was not sure how to explain it, she was not drop dead beautiful by Hollywood standards, but I found something about her attractive.  “Yes?” I asked awkwardly.

“I just wanted to say you really have a strong bass voice,” she said.  “It really comes out well when we sing harmony like that.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling and blushing a little.

“Have you ever thought about being in University Chorus?  They always need more male voices.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I never thought about singing in any kind of group at all until Danielle talked me into doing this a few months ago.  She’s in chorus, right?”

“Yeah.  And Claire.  I did it freshman year, but I haven’t been able to fit it into my schedule since then.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’ll think about it.”

“You should.  I think you’d be good.”

“You ready?” Heather asked me, having walked up beside me and Sabrina a few seconds earlier.

“Sure,” I said.  “Sabrina?  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes,” Sabrina replied.  Have a great week!”

In the car on the way home, Heather asked me, “So what was Sabrina saying you would be good at?”

“She asked if I had ever done University Chorus.”

“You totally should!”

“I don’t know.  I sing in the car, but I’m not good at, like, real singing.”

“I’ve heard you sing, I think you’d be great!  Give yourself more credit.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in my apartment alone, doing math homework.  It was a Thursday night, and I was in a good mood.  Thursday was my lightest day of class this quarter, and my tutoring job did not start until next week.  But my good mood was mostly because I was still on a high from Sabrina’s compliment last night.  Maybe I sang better than her boyfriend, and she was going to leave him for me.  My attention drifted from my math assignment as I played out this scenario in my head, imagining what I would say if Sabrina came out of nowhere and confessed her love for me.  I heard a knock at the door, and with this on my mind, my heart rate spiked and I almost jumped out of my chair.

I got up and peeked out the window; it was not Sabrina.  Heather Escamilla stood in the dim glow of the porch light.  I opened the door, wondering what she wanted, since there was no choir practice or church tonight.  “Hi,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I was just thinking, I forgot to tell you last night.  Saturday we’re going to have a birthday party for Gary at our place.  And you’re invited.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Sure!  What time should I be there?”

“I’ve been telling people 7.  I don’t know when everyone will get there, though.”

“That sounds good.  Do I need to bring anything?”

“No.  Just yourself.”

“Great!  I’ll see you then!”

“Have a great night!” Heather said, waving as she turned back toward the parking lot.  I closed the door and went back to my homework.  I just got invited to a party, my first actual college party, other than the one in the dorm last year that I had walked in on uninvited.

As I worked on homework, I kept thinking about Heather and Gary’s party.  I wondered if I would know anyone there.  I wondered if anyone else from church would be there.  Maybe Sabrina would be there.  That in and of itself was enough to make me want to go.

My high had worn off by the time I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday night.  All day on campus, the universe seemed to be throwing in my face the fact that other people had boyfriends and girlfriends and I did not.  I saw a lot of couples acting coupley all over campus today.  This all-American jock type guy sitting across from me on the bus home was making out with a hot girl in a sorority sweatshirt the whole time.  At JCF, I sat next to Liz and Ramon, who were two of my best friends, and had been a couple since early in our freshman year, but something about them being a couple bugged me tonight.  And I overheard someone saying that this junior girl named Amelia Dye was going out with Scott Madison now, which meant one fewer girl left for me to possibly end up with.

As I sat at my desk listening to the whirs and whistles of the modem connecting to the email server, I saw in the corner of my eye the contact list for the Newman Center choir.  Sabrina’s name was misspelled on the contact list; it had her listed as “Sabrina Murpy.”  I would have spelled it right had I typed the list; maybe Sabrina was into guys who could spell.  Maybe I would call Sabrina sometime this weekend, just to talk, to be friendly.  Was that okay?  I did not know.  She probably would not be home.  Her roommate would answer and tell me that she was out with her boyfriend.  Sabrina and her boyfriend were out there driving a knife through my heart, unknowingly digging my grave.

“She’s out there, unknowingly digging my grave,” I said to myself.  Very poetic.  That has a nice rhythm to it.  It was 9:45, I was home alone on a Friday night; maybe tonight would be a good night to write poetry.  I put my sweatshirt back on and took a walk around the apartment complex and through a little bit of the Greenbelt behind the apartments, trying to think of more lines for this poem.  When I returned about twenty minutes later, I wrote down all of the words that had come to mind, and by the time I went to bed, I had this:


“Hello, kid!  How are you?  How’s everything been?”
I’m really stressed out, if you know what I mean.
And how about you?  Got exams coming up?
“I’ve got one on Friday, I need to catch up.”
I called you to see if your roommate was home.
“She’s not, at the moment, I’m here all alone.
Today, it’s not homework that keeps her a slave,
She’s out there, unknowingly digging your grave.”



In November, I had started writing a novel; it was about a high school student who changes his name and goes to live with relatives to make a fresh start.  I had written around forty pages so far.  I had named the novel Try, Try Again, referencing the old saying about what to do if at first one does not succeed.  The character, Mike, felt like he was not succeeding in his old life, so he is trying again.  I worked on Try, Try Again for a few hours the next morning.  It had been a month since Mike had made his new start, and he had found his way into a popular group of friends.  A girl named Erin had taken an interest in him, and after spending a lot of time together at and after school, Mike got brave and asked her to a movie.


Three previews came on before the movie.  Mike did not think any of the movies previewed looked good.  When the movie itself started, he got comfortable in his seat, placing both arms on the armrest.  A minute later, Erin placed her hand on top of his.  Mike looked at her and smiled.  He liked Erin.  After a while, while he was watching the movie, he felt Erin’s hand move from his hand to his knee.  He liked it there too.  Eventually Erin moved her hand off of Mike for good.  Mike, instead, reached over the armrest and took her hand in his, placing it on the armrest.

Mike took his eyes off the movie and looked at Erin.  She did the exact same thing a few seconds later.  He tightened his grip around her hand for a couple seconds, then loosened it again.  Erin began to kiss him.  He liked it a lot.  It was nothing too unusual for most kids his age, but he had never been kissed so passionately in his life.  He tried to return it the best he could, and he felt that Erin liked it as well.  Their mouths slowly separated.  “Thanks,” Mike whispered.  Erin gave him a huge smile.

Mike’s eyes turned back to the movie.  He reached his right hand over to her right shoulder and touched it.  Erin moved her body a little to the left, closer to Mike.  They stayed in that position for the rest of the show.


I wished I could be at a movie with Sabrina, kissing her lips, running my fingers through her pretty red hair, and seeing her cute smile as she looked at me afterward.  What did her boyfriend have that I did not?  A few months ago, I wanted to be kissing Megan McCauley, until I found out that she also was with someone.  And before Megan there were lots of other girls who either had boyfriends or were just not interested in me.  Sometimes it felt like the entire single female population all over the state were conspiring to make sure I never had a girlfriend.

Later that night, I left my home and walked to Heather and Gary’s apartment, in the same complex as mine.  The party started half an hour ago, but I did not want to be the first one there, since I did not know if I would know anyone.  I knocked on the door, and Heather answered.  “Hey!” she said.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.  “Happy birthday, Gary!” I called out across the room when I saw Gary wave at me.

“Thanks!” Gary replied.

I looked around the room.  Six other people were there besides Heather and Gary.  I recognized Melanie from church, but no one else; Melanie was there with her boyfriend.  Sabrina was not there.  I made small talk with Heather and Gary for a bit, talking about school and my trip to Disneyland with my family.

“You actually drove past O.J. Simpson’s house?” Gary said, laughing.  “That’s hilarious!”

“I know.  Mom kept saying she couldn’t believe we were actually doing that.”

“What about O.J. Simpson’s house?” a girl I did not recognize said, walking up as she overheard us.  She had long straight hair and olive skin.  I repeated my story in abbreviated form, and she said, “My apartment isn’t too far from O.J. Simpson’s house.”

“This is my sister, Mariana,” Heather explained.  “She’s visiting from California.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

“So how do you know my sister?” Mariana asked.

“From church.  We both sing in the choir.”

“How fun!  I wish I could hear you guys sing in the morning, but my flight back home leaves at 12:15, so I need to be on my way to the airport by then.”

“Aww.”

“I was in choir in high school and college, but I graduated last year, and I’m not doing any kind of singing right now.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“Santa Teresa,” Mariana said as Heather and Gary went to greet more people who were just arriving.

“That’s cool.  I’ve never been there, but two of my friends from high school go there.”

“Oh yeah?  What are their names?”

“Paul Dickinson and Jackie Bordeaux.  They would have been freshmen last year.”

“Nope, I don’t know them.  It’s a big school.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“You go to Jeromeville?  What are you studying?”

“Math.”

“Math,” Mariana repeated, making a face.  “That was not my class.”

“A lot of people say that,” I said, laughing.

“Well, if you’re good at it, go for it!  Do you know what you want to do with your degree?  Do you want to be a teacher?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t think I want to be a teacher, though.  Too much politics involved in education.  I just figure I’ll stay in school until I figure it out.”

“I understand that.  I majored in English, but I’m not really using it.  I work in an office.”

“Yeah.  I was never very good at English in school.  I never understood what I was supposed to get from the novels and poems that we had to read.”

“I did a lot of BS’ing on assignments like that, to be honest.”

“I see,” I replied, chuckling.  “But the weird thing is, even though I was always bad at English class, I like to write.”

“Oh yeah?  What do you like to write?”

“Sometimes I have a thought stuck in my head, and it’ll become a weird poem.  And last year I wrote a short novel.  I had a really interesting year when I was a senior in high school, so I turned that into a novel.”

“That’s so cool!”

“And right now, I’m working on another novel.  It’s about a guy who runs away to live with relatives, because he wants a fresh start.  But he pretends to be sixteen instead of eighteen, because he realized he missed out on a lot of experiences in high school, and he wants a second chance.”

“That’s interesting.  Where’d you get that idea?”

“Probably just because sometimes I wish I could do that.”

“You feel like you missed out on a lot?”

“Yeah.  Like I said with the first novel, I grew a lot my senior year, but then we all graduated and moved away.  I feel like if everything that happened my senior year had happened earlier, I would have graduated as an entirely different person.”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mariana contemplated.  “Hmm.  Interesting.”

“If you want, I can send you some of my writing,” I said.  “Or at least I’ll send you what I have so far.”

“Yeah!  That would be so cool!”

“Do you use email?”

“I don’t,” Mariana said, disappointedly.  “Is that a problem?”

“You can give me your address, and I can mail it to you.”

“Sure!  I’ll do that.  Let me go get a piece of paper.” Mariana walked off and came back a minute later, handing me her address.

“Thanks!” I said.

Mariana and I talked for about another hour, about life, the past, the future, and many other things on our minds.  I could not help but wonder, could there be something here?  Might she be interested in me that way?  She was a few years older than me, that would be different; hopefully she did not see me as some immature little kid.  I had a way to keep in contact with her, and that was the important part at this moment.

“I’m going to get another drink,” Mariana eventually said.  “But, hey, it was really good talking to you!  Send me your story!”

“I will.  Thanks.” I smiled.

“We’ll probably talk more later tonight.”

“Yeah,” I said.

No one else that I knew ever showed up to the party.  I talked to Melanie for a bit about my winter break, and one of Gary’s engineer friends was drunkenly asking me about math at one point.  The party got louder as the night went on, and I went home around 10:30.

As soon as I got home, I printed out a copy of the unfinished Try, Try Again to send to Mariana, and I excitedly mailed it with extra stamps the next day.  This weekend sure turned into a great one.  I met a girl who talked to me for a long time and was interested in my creative work.  Maybe I did not need to hope for Sabrina to leave her boyfriend after all.  Life was finally looking up for me.

Except it never happened.  I never heard from Mariana again.  I never found out if she read my story.  She never wrote back, and Heather never mentioned her around me again.  I could have asked, of course, but I never asked others about girls I was interested in.  I was embarrassed for anyone to know that I liked a girl, ever since eighth grade when Paul Dickinson told the whole school who I liked.

Why did Mariana act so friendly if she did not want to talk to me again?  Things like this had happened before.  Jennifer Henson had been friendly to me all through senior year of high school, then that summer she moved away suddenly without leaving me a way to contact her.  Many other girls would treat me like this throughout my life, and I had a tendency to misunderstand the intentions of others.  People are complicated, reading and understanding them is hard, and I still had a lot to learn.  Maybe I would figure all of this out someday.  Until then, I had plenty of material for poetry and fiction.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

I locked my bike outside Wellington Hall and walked down the hall, joining about five other people waiting outside room 109 for the 9:00 Math 22A class.  Another class met in this room at 8:00, and I always arrived early enough that the other class had not been dismissed yet.  I learned the hard way on the first day of class not to open the door this early.

“Hey, Greg,” Jack Chalmers said.  I knew Jack from last year; we had had two classes together, and we lived in nearby dorms and ate at the same dining commons.

“Hi,” I said.

“Finding inverses of matrices is hard!” Jack exclaimed, speaking quickly and eliding syllables here and there, as he normally did, but I understood what he was saying.  “The homework took me forever!”

“I know.  It seems like there should be an easier way.  Maybe we’ll learn one later.”

As Jack continued, I became aware of the classroom emptying.  “I just hope every assignment in this class isn’t gonna be that long.  I’m already pretty busy this quarter.  Hey, Lizzie.”

“Hey, what happened last night?” a girl leaving the classroom asked Jack.  I recognized Lizzie, because I had seen Jack say hi to her before as we waited for her class to finish and ours to start.  Lizzie was fairly short, with brown eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

“I had so much homework!” Jack told Lizzie.

“That’s too bad,” Lizzie replied.  “Hopefully I’ll see you this weekend?”

“Yeah.”

Lizzie looked at me for a second before she turned to walk away.  “Bye,” I said, waving, even though I did not know Lizzie at all beyond always seeing her leave this class, and I had no idea what plans Jack had missed out on.

“Bye,” she replied, smiling.

I walked into the room along with Jack and the others waiting for our math class.  I spent the next hour listening to the instructor, a curly-haired man named Anton, explain properties of matrices and their inverses.  Anton demonstrated how to prove the invertibility of a matrix, in his usual broken English.  He told us to call him Anton; I was not sure if this was because his last name was difficult for English-speakers, or because calling professors by first name was the norm in his home country.  I never did figure out exactly which country this was.

As soon as math class finished, I crossed West Quad Avenue and walked to the far end of the Memorial Union building, near the campus bookstore, to a stairway leading down.  The basement of this building contained a game room with 16 lanes of bowling, along with pool tables, pinball machines, and coin-operated video games.  Here at the University of Jeromeville, students got two appointments to register for classes, three weeks apart, using an automated telephone system.  On the first appointment, students may only register for up to thirteen and one-half units, enough to be classified as a full time student, but limited so that not all classes fill up before everyone has had a chance to register.  I registered for bowling and weight training just to make sure I had enough classes, intending to drop these once I added chemistry on the second pass, but I ended up keeping bowling and only dropping weight training.

Today, the bowling coach, Frank White, demonstrated the proper release of the ball, with a flick of the wrist giving the ball a bit of spin.  We began learning this last time, on Monday, and I was terrible at it.  My mind began to wander, and I spent a few minutes starting at a plaque on the wall with names of everyone who bowled a perfect game on these lanes.  So far, there were eight perfect games.  This was the fourth time bowling class had met this year, and I had been bowling down here a few times last year, but today one of those names jumped out at me that I had never noticed before.

FRANK WHITE
4/29/89

Frank White was my instructor, the man standing here in front of me explaining how to release the ball.  Apparently he bowled a perfect game here six years ago.  That was quite an accomplishment.  I watched carefully, paying close attention to what he was doing.  By the end of class, though, it seemed like my technique was worse than ever.  I had not bowled this many gutter balls since I was a child.

I had an hour between bowling and chemistry lecture, which I used to work on the new math assignment due Friday.  After chemistry, I had another hour before physics lecture; I spent it sitting on the Quad, eating the lunch I packed and reading the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt.  After physics, I returned to Wellington, where my math class had been in the morning.  Room 102 was a large study room, with a row of comfortable chairs, and six cubicles each containing a table and a small chalkboard.  A few students sat quietly in the chairs, and two students worked together in one of the cubicles.  I noticed the cubicles had signs with numbers on them.  Four other signs placed in prominent places around the room announced that These cubicles may be reserved by the Learning Skills Center.

That was me.  This was my first day on the job for the Learning Skills Center.  I walked to table 3, where two students named Yesenia Fonseca and Kevin Dunnigan were assigned to meet me.  A short girl with olive skin and long brown hair most of the way down her back sat at the table.  I wondered if she was waiting for me, or if she just sat there not knowing that the table was reserved.

“Are you Yesenia?” I asked.

The girl’s face lit up.  “Yeah!” she exclaimed enthusiastically.  “You’re my tutor?”

“Yes.  I’m Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!  Is it just us or will there be a group?”

“There’s one other person signed up, a guy named Kevin Dunnigan.  Do you know him?”

“No,” she said.   “But he might be in my class.  It’s a huge class.”

“I think usually they put students together from the same class, so he probably is,” I explained.  Yesenia and Kevin were taking Math 21A, the beginning quarter of calculus.  Students who begin calculus fall quarter get a large lecture hall class..  I skipped a quarter since I had taken the Advanced Placement test in high school, so I started fall of my freshman year in 21B, and since fewer students take 21B in the fall compared to 21A, my classes were smaller.

“We can wait a few minutes to get started, see if Kevin comes,” I said.  “It’s early.”

“How does this work?”

“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” I said.  “This is my first time tutoring, ever.  I think I just answer any questions you have about anything you’ve been going over in class.  Or we can work on stuff from your homework.  You can do it while I’m here, so you can ask for help if you need to.”

“That sounds good.  So what year are you?”

“I’m a sophomore,” I said.

“I’m a freshman.”  Yesenia smiled apologetically, as if to say that she knew that freshmen were traditionally on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  I did not care that she was a freshman.

“How do you like Jeromeville so far?” I asked.

“I love it!  I’ve already made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Good.  Which dorm?”

“South Area.  Building C.”

“Building C!” I exclaimed.  “I was in Building C last year!”

The IHP!”

“Yes!  I loved it too!  I felt like the IHP gave me a smaller community within the large university.”

“That’s a great way of describing it.”

 A boy with dark hair and an athletic build approached our table, looking at a sheet of paper on which he had written something.  “Are you Greg?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Kevin?”

“Yeah.  You’re my tutor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  Kevin Dunnigan did not look like what I expected of someone with an Irish-sounding name; I wondered from his appearance if his mother was Asian.  “Do you two know each other?”

“No,” Kevin said.

“I’m Yesenia,” Yesenia said, extending her hand.  “I think I’ve seen you in class.  10:00 with Dr. Hong?”

“Yeah.”

I spent the next fifty minutes working with Yesenia and Kevin, talking about limits of functions and how to calculate them.  This was the class that I had skipped; I had not technically taken it before.  I was familiar with most of what they were doing, of course, but one question on their assignment involved the epsilon-delta proof of finding the limit of a function.  My calculus class at Plumdale High did not go that in depth.  However, I was able to figure it out; I had done enough similar problems in other classes since then.

“It’s about time to wrap up,” I said at the end of the session.  “Any other questions before we leave?”

“I’m starting to understand this a lot better,” Kevin replied.

“Me too,” Yesenia added.  “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “See you guys next week?”

“Yeah!

 

It was almost 4:30 by the time I finally got home.  I spent some time on the computer catching up on emails, and I put a frozen pot pie in the oven for dinner.  I still had to do my pre-lab for physics tomorrow.  But my night was not over yet, because it was Wednesday, and I had choir practice at church.  Last week was the first time I had ever sung at church, and one of the others in the group, Heather Escamilla, had mentioned carpooling since we were neighbors in the same apartment complex.  At 6:40 that night, after eating the pot pie and writing my pre-lab, I walked to Heather’s apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg,” Heather said, opening the door.  I could see a guy with long brown hair inside the apartment, sitting at a computer typing; he looked up at me.  “This is my boyfriend, Gary,” Heather said.

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Gary replied.

“You ready?” Heather asked.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

Heather locked the door behind her, and I followed her to her car, a Jeep Cherokee.  The way Gary sat at the computer made me wonder if he and Heather lived together.  Being Catholic, there was all that stuff about fornication and adultery and things like that which suggested that it was wrong for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together.  Maybe they lived together in separate bedrooms.  It was none of my business, so I did not ask.  On the way to the church, I told Heather about my first day of tutoring, and she told me about the midterm she had in the morning that she would be up late studying for.

When we arrived, I noticed that Danielle was there with her sister, Carly, a freshman.  I had met Carly twice before, once at church this year and once last year when Danielle’s family came to visit her in the dorm.  I thought it was interesting that Carly was singing too.  Danielle had told me over the summer that Carly was coming to Jeromeville, and Danielle was a little bit upset that Carly had chosen the same major and was in one of the same classes as her.  And now Carly was following her big sister to choir at the Newman Center.  I hoped that there was no drama going on with them.

“Hi, Greg,” Danielle said.  “You remember my sister, Carly?”

“Yeah.  Good to see you again.”

“You too,” Carly replied.  Carly was a few inches taller and somewhat thinner than Danielle, with straight brown hair.  They did not look very much alike, but considering that my brother Mark does not look like me, I no longer found it surprising when siblings did not look alike.  For as much as Danielle was a good friend, I had to admit that Carly was better looking.  I wondered if, growing up, Carly got more attention from boys, and if this had been part of the reason Danielle felt uneasy about Carly being in the same major and one of Danielle’s classes.

A few minutes later, Claire, a junior who seemed somewhat to be in charge of things, gave us all a stack of papers.  It was an address and phone list of all of us doing music at 11:00 Mass.  I scanned the list to make sure that my information was correct; it was.  I read through the other names.  I recognized some of the names.  Danielle Coronado.  Carly Coronado.  Matt Jones.  Heather Escamilla.  Some of the last names were unfamiliar to me, because I had only met these people by first name last week.  Claire Seaver.  Sabrina Murpy.  That was an unusual last name; I wondered if it was a typo and her name was actually Murphy.  (It was, I would learn later.)  I continued reading.  Phil Gallo.  Ryan Gambrell.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body, and I did a double take and read the name again.  My brain made a flurry of connections between things said a year ago and things said last week.  Matt said last week that Ryan was his friend from high school.  Matt went to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, so Ryan also went to St. Luke’s.  Right near where I grew up.  I looked at Ryan, now seeing his mysteriously familiar toothy smile with new eyes.

“Ryan Gambrell,” I said.

“Yeah?” Ryan replied.

You’re Annie’s brother.”

Ryan looked confused for a second, then surprised; clearly he was not expecting me to say that.  “Yes,” he said.  “How do you know my sister?”

“I went to Plumdale High.  A class I was in and a class she was in did a project together my senior year, her sophomore year.  And now I remember I told her I was going to Jeromeville, and she said her brother goes there.”

“How funny.  Small world.”

“Tell her I said hi.”  I wanted to tell Annie so much more than hi.  I wanted to tell her all about how I was doing here.  I wanted to know where she was applying to school, since she was a senior this year.  I wondered what to make of the fact that she was always so nice to me when I was a senior, and she wrote something really nice in the back of my yearbook, but she had not stayed in touch at all.  I wanted to tell her to come visit me if she ever came up here to visit Ryan or to tour the campus.  And I was curious if she and her boyfriend were still together, because as long as they were, all these feelings I had felt wrong and forbidden.

“I will,” Ryan said.

Choir practice continued uneventfully for the rest of the night.  One song I did not know well, but I figured it out fairly quickly and felt that I would be able to sing it with everyone else in front of the congregation on Sunday morning.  On the way home, in Heather’s Jeep, I mentioned to her about knowing Ryan’s sister from high school.

“Whoa,” Heather said.  “It’s weird how that kind of thing happens.”

“I know.”

“Gary told me once he was in Capital City, and he ran into this guy he knew from when he used to live in Arizona as a kid.”

“Wow.  That’s even crazier.”

I got home and listened to music while I opened an IRC chat on the computer; although I was messaging a girl on there, I could not stop thinking about Annie Gambrell.  I wondered if I would ever see her again.  Even though she had not written to me, I had a connection with her again, in that I knew her brother.  But I also felt that this crush was one I needed to keep secret, because the entire time I knew her in person, she had a boyfriend.  Annie’s boyfriend was one of the popular guys from the class a year older than her and a year younger than me.

In the time that I knew Ryan, I ended up not talking to him much about Annie.  Annie was off limits.  Most of the best girls were off limits.  It was not my place in life to be romantically involved with the popular girls.  The concept of high school popularity does not carry over to the culture of a large university, but still felt, deep down inside, that I probably did not have much of a shot with friendly and attractive girls here either.

 

 

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.

August 10-23, 1995.  Voices of Austria and birthday surprises.

My brain tends to do weird things when I am in a familiar place and I see a familiar face that has no connection to that  place.  That happened one Thursday morning when a short girl with long red hair walked into the store.

“Hey,” I said, in a familiar tone, because I knew her.  Of course I knew her; it was Renee Robertson, and she had been my prom date a little over a year ago.  My brain caught up then and became confused, because I did not expect to see Renee in Books & More.  Somehow my brain took those thoughts of confusion and turned them into the spoken words, “I know you.”

Renee appeared to be as surprised as I was when she turned and looked at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “I forgot you worked here.”

“How are you?”

“Actually, I’m here for Catherine.  I’m putting these flyers up around town.  Do you think I’d be able to put one up here?”  Renee put a flyer on the counter.  I read it.


VOICES OF AUSTRIA
Choir & Orchestra Performance

Wednesday, August 23, 1995, 7:00pm
Good Shepherd Church, Gabilan


 

“So this is a choir made up of people Catherine knew when she was in Austria?”

“Yeah.  She put together this trip where we’re going to do a tour of performances around here.  Gabilan, Mount Lorenzo, San Tomas, and Bay City, I think.  And we’re going to sing the national anthem at a Titans game.”

“That’s so cool!” I said.

“Yeah.  Just contact Catherine for tickets.”

“For sure!  I will!”

“So where can I put the flyer?  Do you need to ask your supervisor?”

“She isn’t here right now, but I’ll ask her later this afternoon.”

“Great!”

“How is your summer going?” I asked.

“It’s pretty good.  I’m mostly just hanging out with family and Anthony,” Renee answered.  “I’m glad he was able to come home.  It was hard having him so far away last year.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“How’s your summer?”

“Nothing too exciting here.  Just working here.  I’ve been going to a lot of San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games.  And I took a day trip to Jeromeville with my family and my cousins.”

“That sounds fun.  I haven’t been back to Valle Luna all summer.  Hey, I need to get going and put up the rest of these flyers.  But it was good seeing you!”

“You too!  I’ll definitely be at your show.  Say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will!  Thanks!”

Jane arrived about an hour later, and she approved of me putting the Voices of Austria flyer in the window.  She wanted to know more about what exactly they would be singing.  I did not know anything beyond what was on the flyer, and I told her so.

When my shift ended that day, I did not go straight home.  Instead, I went to the Lucky grocery store across the parking lot from Books & More.  Lucky stores disappeared a few years later in a merger with Albertsons, and they reappeared in the early 21st century when Albertsons sold all of their holdings in this part of the country, including the Lucky name, to another company.  I walked straight to the greeting card aisle and looked for birthday cards.  Greeting card companies made special cards for 18th and 21st birthdays, because of the legal milestones involved, and special cards for people turning 30, 40, and 50.  But to my knowledge there were no cards for turning 20, as the person I was shopping for was doing.  My own birthday was coming up next week also, and there were definitely no special cards for turning 19.

After a few minutes, I chose a card that had a cartoon drawing of an elephant, saying, “Of course I remembered your birthday!”  On the inside, the card said, “Who are you?”  I chuckled loudly for a second, in the middle of the store, when I read that.

After I got back to the car, I thought for a few minutes, then started writing on the inside.


Megan

Happy birthday!  How are your classes going?  I hope you’re doing well.  Things really aren’t very exciting for me.  One of my friends from high school came into the store today; that was a nice surprise.  I can’t wait to get back to Jeromeville and see everyone again.  I hope you have a great birthday!  What are you doing for it?  My birthday is coming up on the 15th, but I don’t have anything planned, probably just cake and presents with my family.  See you soon!

Greg


 

I had carefully prepared for this moment.  I left the house today knowing that I would probably have to mail Megan’s card today in order for it to get to Jeromeville by August 12, her actual birthday.  I had a stamp and a scrap of paper on which I had written Megan’s address in the glove compartment.  I put the stamp on the envelope and copied the address onto the envelope: Megan McCauley, 2525 E. 5th St. #202, Jeromeville, followed by the state abbreviation and ZIP code.  I knew that the mail at the nearest Post Office did not get picked up until five in the afternoon, so I drove there to mail Megan’s card, which would most likely get it to Jeromeville in two days.  

I drove home, still nervous about what I had done.  Sending a friend a birthday card should not have been a big deal, and Megan and I had been periodically in touch by email for most of the summer.  But this was not just any friend.  Megan was a year older than me, the first older friend I made at UJ other than my dorm’s resident advisors.  She was so nice.  And she was cute.  I felt kind of dumb.  I probably didn’t have a chance with her.  She probably saw me as a silly little kid.

 

Ten years earlier, my childish lack of self-control led to a new family tradition in the Dennison household.  I had asked for an obscure computer game for my birthday, the first birthday after our family got our first computer.  I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 3:30, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 5:00, asking if it was time to open presents, and Mom handed me a box, saying, “Here’s your stupid game!  Now let me sleep!”  Since then, we have always opened mine and Mark’s birthday presents on the night before, so I would not be too excited to sleep on the night before receiving presents.  To this day, I visit my parents every Christmas, and we still open Christmas presents on the night of December 24.

My 19th birthday was August 15, five days after the day Renee came into the store.  Although I felt that I had probably outgrown the insomnia-inducing excitement on the night before receiving birthday presents, Mom still insisted on giving my presents on the 14th after dinner.  Many of this year’s gifts were practical things for the new apartment.

“Thank you,” I said after opening a cookie sheet.  As I began opening a package the size of a compact disc case, Mom said, “This is more of a fun gift.”

“It looks like music,” I replied.  I thought I knew what it was, because I had only mentioned one CD that I wanted, and I was right.  It was the album Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish.

“And I thought you would like this,” Mom said, handing me what appeared to be a wrapped paperback book.  I had spent enough time around books that summer that I recognized the shape and size.  But as I began unwrapping it, it felt like it was not entirely solid, more like it was several thin paperback books.  “Oh!” I said as I had removed enough wrapping paper to see the name Stephen King on the side of each thin paperback.  “The Green Mile.”

“Part 6 isn’t out yet.  So you’ll have to watch for it at Books & More.  Or at the campus store in Jeromeville.”

“I can do that.”  I had read that Stephen King had been working on publishing a novel in monthly installments, but I knew nothing about the story.  I read the descriptions on the backs of the first two books, something about a murder and prisoners awaiting execution and something mysterious happening at the prison.  Of course there was something mysterious happening; it was Stephen King.

green mile

The best birthday surprise came two days later when I got home from work.  After Mom said hi to me, she said, “That girl you know who is in Jeromeville this summer, is her name Megan McCauley?”

I felt a jolt of excitement.  “Yes,” I said, trying not to draw attention to my thoughts.

“You got something from her. It looks like a birthday card.  I left it on the table.”

“I see it.  Thanks.”  I picked up Megan’s card from the table and took it to my bedroom.  Looking at the envelope, I realized that I had never seen Megan’s handwriting before.  It did not look like what I would have expected; the lowercase letters were much smaller than the capital letters, with a lot of space between them.  After so many years of being in school and seeing people’s handwritten work, it seemed odd that I could know someone for a year and never see her handwriting.

I opened the envelope.  Inside was a card with a picture of a birthday cake with candles, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in large colorful letters above it.  The printed text on the inside said, “Celebrate your special day!”  Megan had added a note in her own handwriting.


Happy birthday!  Thanks for the card!  I hope you’re enjoying your summer!  I’ll see you in the fall.

-Megan


 

It wasn’t a very long note, but it was better than nothing, and I was getting emails periodically from Megan so I already knew the basics of what was going on in her life.  Still, though, it was nice that she thought of me and took the time to send a card.

 

Mom and Dad and I arrived at Good Shepherd Church slightly better dressed than usual.  I was wearing a shirt with a collar and no writing on it.  I saw an older couple dressed nicely and realized that I might be under-dressed for an event like this, but looking around I also spotted others dressed similarly to me, so I was probably okay.

 I was unsure what to expect.  I looked through the program and saw names of pieces of music that I did not know, many of which were in German or Latin.  A few of the composers’ names were familiar, like Mozart, and that made me feel a little smarter.  This was no big deal; I should not be this nervous.  I was watching my friends in a performance; I belonged here just as much as anyone else.  No one was going to judge me for not knowing classical music.  I continued looking through the program and recognized the name of a song: Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music.  I had seen that movie many times.  It was one of Mom’s favorites, although watching it with her meant having to hear her sing along to everything.

Mom nudged me, with her program open.  I looked up.  She pointed to the last three words of the title “Gott nahe zu sein, ist mein Glück,” and whispered, “It’s my gluck,” pronouncing the last word as if it rhymed with “pluck.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” I said, trying to stifle giggles at this silly randomness.

A few minutes later, the performers walked onto the stage, the choir standing on risers placed in front of the altar, and the orchestra seated in front of them.  Catherine walked to the front of the stage.  “Welcome to Voices of Austria,” she said.  “My name is Catherine Yaras.  I grew up here, but I spent my senior year studying in Austria.  I performed with some of these musicians here during that year.  Now they have come out here to perform and do some sightseeing.  This is the first of six performances we will be doing, including the national anthem at a Bay City Titans baseball game.  So please sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

As they began singing and playing, I started to feel out of place again.  I did not know what to expect at a classical music performance.  I guessed it was probably frowned upon to sing along or wave lighters or shout “FREE BIRD!” in between songs.  Everyone else seemed to be sitting still and clapping at the end of each song, so I did the same.  I wondered if any customers from the bookstore were in attendance tonight.  This was their world.  Probably not, though.

As much as I did not know classical music or understand the lyrics, I really did enjoy the performance.  All of them sounded beautiful, and for as much fun as rock and pop music could be, classical music had complexities far beyond that of most rock and pop music that gave it a pleasing sound.

When they got to the Glück song, I noticed that that word was not pronounced like Mom said, rhyming with “pluck,” but with a vowel that does not exist in English, close to rhyming with “Luke” but not exactly.  I leaned over to Mom and whispered, “It’s ‘Glück, not gluck,” attempting to replicate that sound.

“I hear that,” she whispered back.

At the end of the performance, I waited in my seat, watching for Catherine and Renee so I could go talk to them.  When I saw them come out from the room behind the altar, I said to Mom and Dad, “I’m going to go say hi to Catherine and Renee.”

“Okay,” Mom replied.  “We’ll wait over here.”

I approached Catherine and Renee; they were with a few of the other performers.  “Greg!” Catherine said as she saw me approach.  She walked up and gave me a hug.  “Meet my friends.  This is Helga; she was my sister when I stayed in Austria.  Helga, this is Greg.  He was one of the people who wrote me letters that year.”

“Oh, yes,” Helga said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I replied.

“And this is David, Matthias, Lisi, and Katharina,” Catherine continued as she introduced me to the rest of the group.

“Hi,” I said as they waved and greeted me in return.

“I’m so glad you could make it!  Thank you very much!”

“I enjoyed it.  You guys are really good.”

“Thanks,” Renee replied.  “I felt like I messed up my part on one song.”

“I didn’t notice,” I told her.  “I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, so if one part is a little bit wrong, I won’t know.”

“That’s what I said!” Catherine exclaimed.  “So have you ever thought about performing in a choir?”

I was not expecting that question.  “Me?” I asked.  “I’m too self-conscious up on stage.  You know that.”

“I think you should try it!  Find a group to sing with in Jeromeville.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

“It’ll be good for you.”

“So you guys get to sing at a Titans game?  That’s really cool.”

“I know!  A baseball game seems like such an American thing to do.”

“I haven’t been to a game in two years.  I’m still kind of upset at baseball for being on strike last year.  Matt Williams was going to break the home run record.  But I’m sure you guys will have fun.”

“I need to go say hi to some other people, but it was great seeing you!  When do you go back to Jeromeville?”

“End of next week.  September 2.”

“And is that when classes start?  I thought you guys started later?”

“We do.  But my apartment lease starts September 1, and I’m kind of ready to be back up there.”

“That makes sense.  I don’t know if I’ll get to see you again before then, though, since I’ll be busy with these guys for the next week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “If not, I’ll be home for Christmas.”

“Call me before you leave, okay?”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.  Thanks again for coming.”  Catherine hugged me.

“Bye,” Renee added.

“See you guys later.  Enjoy the rest of your performances.”

I walked back to the car with Mom and Dad.  “That was really good,” Mom said.  “They’re all really musically talented.”

“I know,” I said.

“Yes,” Dad agreed.

“I know I say this all the time, and I don’t want to bug you, but I always wish you would have stuck with music.  You were always good at playing piano and singing.”

“I guess,” I said.

Mom started talking about something else as Dad pulled out of the parking lot, which was good because I was tired of this topic.  I took piano lessons when I was a kid.  I quit when I was 10.  I was too concerned with my image, and playing piano did not seem cool to me.  But also, more importantly, I got tired of Mom making a big deal of my piano playing and making me perform every time we had company or relatives come over.  I was too self-conscious to perform music in front of people.  I love music, but as for performing, I was content to sing along in the car while driving alone.

But Mom and Catherine had basically told me the same thing tonight, that I should get into music again.  I could not even remember if Catherine had ever heard me sing.  And three years earlier, in tenth grade, I had attended our school production of The Sound of Music (Catherine played the Mother Abbess), and one of my teachers, Mrs. Norton, asked me why I wasn’t up there singing and performing.  I knew Mrs. Norton had never heard me sing.  It was strange.  Did Catherine and Mrs. Norton see something in me that I did not see in myself?  Was being part of a choir singing in front of a group something that I could do?

As I sat in the car headed north on Highway 11 on the way home from the Voices of Austria concert, I had no idea that that question would be definitively answered less than two months later.

voices of austria
A big thank you to Catherine for finding this t-shirt from the tour at her parents’ house.

April 20-22, 1995. The Spring Picnic.

Every weekend, all across America, small independent local bands play live music to crowds in bars and small music venues.  University neighborhoods are a natural breeding ground for live music, and Jeromeville was no exception. One of the biggest such bands around here in the 90s was called Lawsuit.  This band had 10 members playing all sorts of different instruments, touring up and down the western United States playing shows in clubs and bars, and at fairs and festivals.  Some of the members of Lawsuit grew up right here in Jeromeville, so it was always a big deal whenever Lawsuit played a show here.

I first heard the name Lawsuit on a Thursday night in April, right after the bombing in Oklahoma City happened.  In the middle of hearing  about that in the national news, I kept encountering in the local news something called the Spring Picnic.  Apparently this was an annual event that would be happening this coming Saturday on the University of Jeromeville campus. The Daily Colt billed the Spring Picnic as the largest student-run event in the USA, but the flyers I kept seeing were somewhat less clear on what actually happened at the Spring Picnic.  It sounded kind of like a fair, from what I had read about it.

The days were getting longer that time of year.  I walked from Building C to the dining hall at 6:03pm under a blue sky, the sun low on the horizon but still shining.  Much of the walk was in shadow because of the three-story dormitory buildings surrounding me.

After I got my meal, I looked around the room to see if anyone I knew had an empty seat nearby.  I saw Megan, the RA from Building K, sitting with a guy and a girl who I thought were other RAs from other buildings.  I walked toward them.

“Hey, Greg!” Megan said as I approached.

“May I sit here?” I asked.

“Sure!”

As I began eating, Megan asked me, “How’s your week going?  Are you going to the Spring Picnic?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think so.  I’m still not really sure what it is, though.  I had never heard of it until about a week ago.”

“You’ve never heard of the Spring Picnic?”

“I’m not from here, remember.”

“It’s so much fun!  It’s like a giant open house for the university.  There are exhibits for departments all over campus, and student groups have performances and food tables and stuff like that, and there’s a Battle of the Bands with marching bands from different universities.  And there will be free outdoor concerts. Lawsuit is gonna be there! Have you heard Lawsuit?”

“I don’t think so.”

“They’re so good!  They’ll be playing at 3:00, I think.”

“I’ll have to check them out, then.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  You’ll enjoy it.”

“Sounds like it.”

In 1995, with no social media or hashtags, student groups and organizations advertised in more low-tech ways.  Groups put flyers on bulletin boards all over campus. Sometimes someone would just walk into an unlocked classroom and write an announcement for an event on the chalkboard.  The class where I had math Friday morning had the words “SPRING PICNIC IS TOMORROW” written on the far right side of the board. The instructor was showing us how to calculate a vector cross product.  It was a fairly involved process, which seemed somewhat arbitrary and counterintuitive at first, although I would learn soon that this had applications in physics and engineering.

When the instructor ran out of room on the board, he started to erase the Spring Picnic announcement.  “You all know Spring Picnic is tomorrow, right?” he said. A few people in the class laughed.  I did know that. I knew now, at least. The instructor erased the announcement and continued working on the problem.

After math, I had an hour break, then physics.  I went back to my room for lunch after that, picking up a copy of the Daily Colt on the way.  It seemed unusually thick today; I unfolded it to see why, and I discovered a copy of the Spring Picnic Guide inside.  The guide contained a complete schedule of events, along with a campus map and parking information. I didn’t need this because I was a student and I lived on campus and knew my way around; apparently this same guide would be given to visitors from out of town who might need that information.

The schedule of events alone covered several pages.  Events were grouped by type: student organizations, academic departments, animal events, performances, athletics, and the like.  Everything happened simultaneously all over campus, and it would be impossible to see everything. Being that this was my first Spring Picnic, I did not have anything set in mind that I had to see, other than Lawsuit (the guide said they were playing at 3:00, just like Megan said, on the Quad Stage).  One page was dedicated to listing participants in the parade and a few paragraphs about this year’s Grand Marshal of the parade. The parade started at 10:00, so that would be a good place to start my day.

I was still holding the Daily Colt and the Spring Picnic Guide when I walked into Building C.  Pete, Charlie, Sarah, Danielle, and Taylor were sitting in the common room.  Pete and Charlie spent so much time in the common room that quarter that they had joked about moving in there.  They had taken the signs from their doors with their names on them and attached them to the wall in the entryway to the common room, and they had put duct tape in the shape of the digits “110” on the wall next to their names.  The first room on the first floor, Bok’s room, was room 112, and their signs were on the same side of the building as Bok’s room, so the next even number counting down would be 110.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  He was sitting next to Danielle on a couch, and Pete and Sarah were sitting together on the other couch.  Charlie sat in a chair next to Pete and Sarah’s couch. Taylor and Danielle kind of looked like a couple, and so did Pete and Sarah, although these days they all spent so much time together I couldn’t tell if they were actually together or just good friends.  I tend to be the last one to know when couples get together.

“Is that the schedule for the Spring Picnic?” Danielle asked, noticing the guide in my hand.  “You have to come see us tomorrow. 1:00 outside the music building.”

“Who is ‘us?’” I asked.

“University Chorus.”

“Sure.  I don’t really know much about the Spring Picnic.  I don’t have a plan. I’m just going to wander around and look for cool stuff, I guess.”

“Are you going to the chemistry magic show?” Pete asked.  “I’ve heard that’s good.”

“That’s the one you have to line up for tickets, right?” I replied.  “I was reading that in here. I don’t know if I feel like getting up early and standing in line.  I haven’t decided yet.”

“What about lining up to stick your hand in a cow?” Taylor asked.  “Are you gonna do that?”

“Ewwww!” Danielle exclaimed.

“I read about that too,” I said.  “I might. It depends on how long the line is.”

Scientists can surgically attach a structure called a fistula to the side of a cow, providing a window to observe inside the cow’s stomach, for the purposes of studying and researching bovine digestion.  The window can open, allowing a researcher to insert a gloved arm inside the cow and remove and analyze the contents of her stomach. I read an article in today’s Daily Colt saying that a popular Spring Picnic exhibit involved people standing in line to stick their arms into a fistulated cow.  This all sounded intriguing, but I didn’t particularly feel in the mood to stand in line for a long time. I would wait and see how long the line was.

I had one more class later that afternoon, and I spent the rest of the night doing homework and reading and studying.  It wasn’t exactly the most exciting Friday night of my life, but tomorrow looked like it would be a long, fun day, so I figured I would get ahead while I could.  I went to bed around 11, excited to see what this Spring Picnic tomorrow would bring.

In 1905, the state legislature passed a bill calling for the establishment of an agriculture campus for University of the Bay,  the state’s only public university at that time.  Agriculture was, and still is, a major industry in this area, but the urban Bay campus gave students nowhere to practice what they learned in agriculture classrooms. So the University Farm was born, and the location chosen was sixty miles away from the Bay campus, in Arroyo Verde County.  The University Farm would be next to a tiny town called Jeromeville, on land that had once been the ranch of the town’s namesake, the Jerome family. It took a few years for the Farm to get running, but the students eventually came.

An article in the Daily Colt explained more of the history of the Spring Picnic.  In 1909, at the end of the first full school year on the University Farm, the entire 26-man faculty, and the entire student body of 112 male students, held a picnic to share what they had learned.  The picnic was open to the public, to serve as an open house to present their research and show the brand new dairy barn to residents of the surrounding region. The crowd of visitors overwhelmed the campus as over two thousand people picnicked on the Quad and nearby fields.  The picnic became an annual tradition, eventually being taken over by the Associated Students organization instead of being run by faculty. The Jeromeville campus grew, becoming independent of the University of the Bay in 1959, and the Spring Picnic grew with it as other departments and student organizations used it as their open house.  The west half of the Quad was still designated for picnics, although picnicking was no longer the focus of the event.

I left the South Residential Area around nine-thirty Saturday morning, after showering, eating, and reading the newspaper.  I had heard older students say that it always rained on the day of the Spring Picnic, but today was sunny and mild without a cloud in sight. I could already tell that it would be no ordinary day.  Normally, the campus was mostly empty on a Saturday morning, but today people were walking around, and not all of the people looked like students. Many were middle-aged and older adults, and some had children with them.

I walked toward the Quad by way of the chemistry building.  As I approached the building, I could see a line extending from the large lecture hall on one side all the way around the opposite side of the building.  The line was not moving. I continued walking toward the Quad, ignoring the line. I would see the chemistry show some other year; I didn’t feel like standing in line today.

At the Quad, people sat and lined up all along both sides of the parade route. I had to look around for a bit before I found a place to sit on the curb.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked a woman next to the empty spot. She had a toddler with her, a boy with bushy red hair.

“No,” she said.  “Go ahead.”

I pulled my copy of the Spring Picnic Guide out of my pocket, reading through the parade lineup.  I heard amplified voices, unintelligible from here, in the distance on my left. I turned to look, but all I saw was a line of people sitting and standing under the tall cork oaks lining West Quad Avenue.  The street was mostly empty, except for a few bicyclists riding past occasionally. The voices seemed to be coming from around the corner at the end of the street. I thought I saw something about some kind of opening ceremony at the beginning of the parade route, which is what I was probably hearing.  I read through the parade lineup as I waited, then I looked through other parts of the guide, looking for other things I would want to see.

The parade began at 10:00 and reached my location around 10:10.  I watched as dozens of groups and floats marched past. Student organizations and clubs, academic departments, fraternities and sororities, community organizations, children’s groups, marching bands from other colleges and high schools, and local political figures all marched and walked past.  Some groups walked carrying banners, some rode on floats, some rode in fancy vehicles, and because this was Jeromeville, a few groups were on bicycles. Some sorority sisters walked past, handing out candy to little kids. The boy sitting next to me got a Tootsie Roll, and his mother said, “Can you say thank you?”  The boy shyly hid his face. I wanted a Tootsie Roll too, but I didn’t make a big deal of it.

I got a good laugh out of some of the parade entries.  The Associated Students Tour Guides walked through the parade backward.  The MBA students from the UJ School of Management wore suits and ties over shorts that said “Cover Your Assets” across the butt.  Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students, had a float shaped like a giant cow. When the group from Jeromeville College Republicans walked by, I cheered loudly, and I noticed some people nearby giving me dirty looks.  They handed me a small US flag. The little boy next to me got one too, and his mother said nothing; I could sense a subtle look of disapproval on her face.

After about an hour, about three-fourths of the parade groups had passed by.  There was nothing in particular I was waiting for in the rest of the parade, so I got up and walked to the path between Wellington and Kerry Halls, where the Math Club had their tables.  I had attended Math Club twice so far this year, and I was on their email list.

I stopped at the first table, where a tall blond student whom I didn’t know stood in front of a wooden puzzle.  The puzzle had three vertical pegs in a row. Five wooden discs of different diameters were stacked on the leftmost peg, with the largest on the bottom.

“Hi,” the blond guy said when he noticed my interest.  “The object is to get all of the discs on a different peg.  But you can only move one at a time, and–”

“You can’t put a larger one on a smaller one, right?”

“Yes.  Have you seen this before?”

“The Towers of Hanoi puzzle,” I said.  “I saw something about it in a math book.  Let me see if I remember how to do it.”

“What’s your major?”

“I’m not sure,” I said as I picked up the smallest disc, and placed it on the middle peg.  “I haven’t declared yet. But I’m thinking math. Maybe physics or chemistry.” I placed the next smallest disc on the right peg, and I put the smallest disc on top of this one.  I had moved two discs successfully, with the middle peg empty.

“Have you been to our Math Club?” the student asked me as I put the third disc on the middle peg.  If I remembered correctly, the point of this puzzle was that each step was recursive. Move the third disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first two on top of the third, since I already successfully moved two discs.  Move the fourth disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first three on top of the fourth, since I already successfully moved three discs.

“I’ve been a couple times, yeah.”

“I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Brandon.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Brandon’s hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

After a few more minutes, I finished the puzzle, with all five discs now stacked on the middle peg.  “You got it,” Brandon said. “Good job. You get a prize.” He handed me a fun size bag of Skittles, the size given to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.  I never understood why those tiny little candies were called “fun size.” It’s no fun when you run out of Skittles so quickly.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’ll see you at the next Math Club meeting?  Second Wednesday of the month in 108 Wellington?”

“Yeah.  Probably.”

At the next table, Mary Heinrich, the Math Club president, stood next to three puzzles requiring separating interlocked objects that looked like they could not be separated without cutting or breaking.  “I’m terrible at these,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Mary said.  “How are you?”

“Good,” I replied.  I had met Mary through Math Club, and I also knew that she had been in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program as a freshman, the same program I am in now along with everyone else in Building C.  “This is my first Spring Picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  There’s so much to see!”

“I know!  So far I’ve just been watching the parade.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day!  Are you coming to the next Math Club meeting?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll see you then!”

After the Math Club exhibit, I walked back to West Quad Avenue and crossed it; the parade had finished by now, but the entire campus had become even more crowded.  During the lunch hours, some student organizations sold food at booths on the east side of the Quad. Many of these were cultural organizations selling food from their cultures.  Nu Alpha Kappa, a fraternity for Latinos, sold carne asada soft tacos; I bought two of them and took them back over to the west side of the Quad, where I sat under a tree and ate them.

I had not seen anyone I knew yet that morning, other than Mary from Math Club.  I was okay with that. At events like the Spring Picnic, I could wander around alone for hours and be completely entertained.  I got to the music building shortly before the start of the performance Danielle had invited me to, where I saw people I knew for the first time since leaving Building C this morning.  Besides Danielle, Claire from church was in chorus too. The singers stood on portable risers in the patio in front of the music building. A crowd was gathering, sitting and standing around the building.  I saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Caroline, Charlie, and standing near the street, facing the chorus.

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Greg!” Taylor replied.  “Come on over.” The group moved over to make room for me.  Liz and Ramon arrived a few minutes later, just as the performance was starting.

I didn’t know the piece they were singing.  I knew very little about classical choral music in general.  I had never been to a performance like this, so I didn’t have much to compare it to, but they sounded good together.  Two people I didn’t know, a soprano and a tenor, had solos, and both of them had much better voices for this type of performance than I could ever have.  The only singing I do these days is in the car along to the radio,

The performance lasted about fifteen minutes.  After it ended, Danielle came over to all of us to say hi.

“I liked that,” I told her.  “I’ve never really seen a chorus perform like this before?”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad we sounded good.  We rehearsed it yesterday, and I didn’t think we sounded very good.”

“You probably think about that more than the audience does, since we don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like.

“Yeah.”

“What are you guys up to the rest of the day?” Liz asked.

“I have a ton of homework to do,” Caroline said.  “But I’ll probably check out a few other things first.  One of my professors wants me to go look at an exhibit with some of his research.”

“I’ve just been wandering around all day,” I said.  “And I’m enjoying it. I’m going to go see Lawsuit on the Quad Stage later.”

“I wanted to see them too,” Ramon said.  “I heard they were supposed to be good. What time is that?”

“Three.  So, like, an hour and a half from now.”

“I need to go help put the risers back inside,” Danielle said.  “I’ll see you guys maybe at dinner tonight?”

“Yeah.”

We eventually all walked off in a few different directions.  I walked toward the dairy facilities, and as soon as I found the line for the fistulated cow, I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to wait to see it and still make it back to the Quad in time for Lawsuit.  Maybe next year I’d plan ahead. 

I walked back toward the Quad looking inside any building I could find that had an open exhibit with no line.  I saw interactive exhibits about weeds, mosquitoes, and different types of soil. In the library, I saw a display of books from the special collection about the history of Jeromeville and the UJ campus.  Very interesting old pictures. Most of these buildings I walk past every day without knowing what happens inside, but today at the Spring Picnic I got to see some of the research that happens at this university.  It fascinates me to this day how large this campus is and how many different things all happen here.

I started walking toward the Quad shortly before Lawsuit was to go on stage.  A crowd had already assembled as people on stage set up musical instruments and sound equipment.  I saw Megan in the middle of the crowd with a few faces I recognized from the dining hall. Megan was still fairly easy to spot, with her short blonde hair still having traces of the green dye from a few months ago.

“Hi,” I said walking up next to Megan.

“Hey, Greg!  You made it! This is going to be a great show!”

“I know!  I keep hearing great things about this band.”

“What all have you seen today?”

“The parade, Math Club, chorus, and I walked around some displays about weeds and mosquitoes and stuff.”

“That’s the great thing about the Spring Picnic.  There are so many random things to see.”

“I know!”

“I was working a table earlier for Society of Women Engineers.  That’s about all I’ve done so far.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone on stage said as the crowd started quieting.  “The name of this band is Lawsuit!” I heard the sound of bongo drums and turned toward the stage.  Lawsuit was huge; I counted 10 members of the band, eight men and two women. This band had bongo drums, regular drums, bass and regular guitars, and a variety of horns.  The drums and bass joined the bongos, followed by a horn blast and then the vocals. The lead singer had a distinct voice, higher than most male pop and rock singers but not screeching glam rocker high.  He sang two verses, a chorus that repeated the line “thank God you’re doing fine,” and then a long instrumental section, first featuring a guitar solo and then the horns. During the instrumentals, band members who weren’t playing walked around the stage in rhythm and performed silly little dances.  The vocals returned to sing one more bridge and chorus, and the song ended with another horn-centered instrumental.

I loved this song.  I loved this band. And I had only known them for five minutes.

The band members did not appear to be students.  I would guess they were mostly in their mid- to late 20s.  They looked and sounded nothing like any band I had ever heard before.  They had guitars and drums, but they also had horns. Some of their songs had rhythms typical of pop and rock songs, but others sounded more like jazz or swing.  I wasn’t even sure if they would be considered pop, rock, jazz, reggae or what. “What do you even call this kind of music?” I asked Megan, shouting slightly so I could be heard over the music.

“Ska,” Megan said.  “I guess.”

I had never heard the word ska before.  I would learn later that ska shared its Caribbean roots with reggae, but was usually faster.  However, I would hear much more ska music in the mainstream over the coming years, and Lawsuit did not sound much like the great ska bands of the 1990s.  Ska, like reggae, has a distinct rhythm with accents on the off beats, and many of Lawsuit’s songs did not have this. This was truly a band that defied categorization.

Another of their songs seemed to contain names of states and puns that sounded like names of states.  I heard the lead singer sing “I got a note from Michigan,” and I got a little scared, because just last night I had been talking and flirting with a girl from Michigan on IRC, and she had emailed me back this morning.  Did this singer somehow know the secrets of my online life? (He didn’t. And the actual lyric is “I got a note from Ish again,” with Ish presumably being someone’s name. This was one of the many somewhat nonsensical state name puns in the lyrics of this song, because “from Ish again” sounds like “from Michigan.”)

I could have stood here listening to this band for the rest of the night, but the show was over after about an hour.  “That was really good!” I said to Megan. “I love those guys!”

“I know!  This is the fourth time I’ve seen them!  They’re so good!”

“Thanks for telling me about them.”

“Yeah.  It was good to see you here.  What are you doing the rest of the day?”

“What else is going on?  It looks like most things close up by now.”

“The Battle of the Bands goes on into the night.”

“That’s the marching bands at the Arboretum?”

“Yeah.  I can’t watch them this year, I have to get back to my building, but I was there last year.  That was fun.”

“I’ll go check that out.”

“I’ll see you later?  Maybe at dinner?”

“Yeah.  Have a good rest of the day.”

“You too!”

I walked past the library and the music building to the adjacent section of the Arboretum, then west toward Marks Hall, the administration building, where I heard marching band music and saw a huge crowd.  The marching bands from Jeromeville and five other nearby universities were playing, taking turns one song at a time. According to the Daily Colt, they had to keep playing until they were out of songs to play.  Bands could not repeat songs, and they could not play their school fight song until they had played every other song they knew.  A band playing their fight song meant that they were giving up. Because of the crowd, I could not find a place to sit where I could actually see the bands well, so I only stayed about 45 minutes.  No one had given up by then. But many of the marching bands played pop and rock songs, and this made me laugh. The band from Walton University, the wealthy private school located in between San Tomas and Bay City, dressed in crazy costumes, and as much as I hated Walton because they rejected me, I thought their costumes were funny.  A sousaphonist from University of the Bay had painted the bell of his instrument to look like a Grateful Dead logo. I wished I had brought a camera, so I could take a picture of that to show Dad.

When I got back to Building C, around 5:30, I took a shower and ate, then spent the rest of the night unproductively.  I was tired from all that walking, and I didn’t feel like doing anything more. But it was a good day. My first Spring Picnic was so much fun, and I was already looking forward to next year’s Spring Picnic.  With so many things happening at the same time, there was no way I would be able to see everything every year, so Spring Picnic would seemingly never get old.

Starting with my first Spring Picnic in 1995, I have spent the entire day at Spring Picnic every year, with two exceptions.  In 2000, a new baseball stadium had just opened in Bay City, and tickets to games were hard to come by. Taylor got a group of us together to go to a game, but the day that worked best was the same day as the Spring Picnic.  The baseball game was in the afternoon, though, and when we got back to Jeromeville, the Battle of the Bands was still going on, and I went for about an hour. The only time I missed Spring Picnic entirely was in 2006, when I traveled 200 miles to my cousin Miranda’s wedding.  I wore a tie with Jeromeville Colts logos on it to remind her of the great sacrifice I had to make to be there. And Miranda knew of the existence of the Spring Picnic, so she could have planned better, but her special day doesn’t revolve around me and I didn’t complain. A little over four months from now, as I write this, I am planning on spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic, my 24th time.

This was also not my last time seeing Lawsuit.  I saw their CD in Liz’s room a few days later and borrowed it and made a tape of it.  I never did ask if that CD belonged to Liz or Ramon or Liz’s actual roommate, although I did ask if I could borrow it.  Years later, when I had the capability of burning CDs, I borrowed that same CD from someone else and burned a copy, and later saved it to my computer where it remains in my music collection to this day.  The band broke up long ago, that’s another story for another time, but great music never dies as long as people keep listening.