If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life. I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2. Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.
This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2. Last week, I did the same for Year 1. Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up. I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap. As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far. If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.
I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore. I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend. Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice. I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.
I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them. I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together. I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer. My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around. I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.
I turned 19 in August. The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September. Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale. I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat. As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town. Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.
I had plenty of new experiences that fall. I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus. Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.
Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics. I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me. But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends. I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me. In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.
I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over. He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life. I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes. As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came. I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell. I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me. We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.
I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me. It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend. I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone. I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.
While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes. One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met. As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself. Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.
The winter quarter was not easy academically. My classes all had their midterms on the same day. Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry. Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.
With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study. I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time. My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.
In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system. We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life. The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley. We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.
Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor. I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit. I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet. God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year. I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.
I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play. I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic. I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta. I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized. And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.
I was still doing very well in classes. Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year. Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors. As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker. I did not do too well. Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.
Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.
If you are new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life. I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2. Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.
This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 1, and next week I will do the same for Year 2. Many of my current readers have not been following the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up. I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap. As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.
In the summer of 1993, my parents took me on quick driving tours of universities, so I could start thinking about what to do after high school.
I lived in Plumdale, a semi-rural area on the West Coast of the United States. The University of Jeromeville, about a two and a half hour car trip from home, offered me a scholarship for my grades. They also invited me to be part of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, a program for honors freshmen who live in the same building and take general education classes specific to that program.
I chose to attend Jeromeville, and I moved there in the fall of 1994. I made lots of new friends in Building C, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program dormitory. Taylor, the friendly guy fond of deep conversations. Danielle, the girl just down the hall from me who sang in the school choir. Caroline, Danielle’s roommate who had lived in Australia for over a decade. Liz and Ramon, one of the first couples to form once the school year began. Pete, downstairs, who taught me the board game Risk. Sarah, a good listener with a kind heart. And dozens of others.
Growing up, my family was Catholic, but I did not attend church regularly. Mom told me to look for the Newman Center, a ministry for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, when I got to Jeromeville. The Jeromeville Newman Center held student-focused Masses in a building just off campus; my dorm neighbor Danielle also attended Mass at Newman, and sang in the choir. Many of my friends from Building C attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational organization with small group Bible studies and weekly meetings with worship music and a talk. JCF was not affiliated with a church, but many of my friends in JCF attended an Evangelical Covenant church.
In addition to my Building C friends, I had other new friends as well. I discovered this newly emerging technology called the Internet while at UJ, and I used it quite often to talk to girls on IRC, the chat room system of the early Internet. I also met people from UJ not in my dorm: Jack, a mathematics major who was in many of the same math classes as me. Mike Knepper and Tabitha, two students who lived in nearby dorms and were in the same Bible study as my friends from JCF. And Megan, a friendly resident advisor in one of the other dorms near mine. Megan was a sophomore, my first older friend at UJ other than my own resident advisors. Our conversations around the dining hall and the Resident Help Window quickly developed into a crush on my part. I considered becoming a resident advisor for sophomore year: this would give me room and board for next year, and I would get to help create the same friendly dorm environment that I experienced. Also, I would get to work with Megan, since she would be a resident advisor again the following year.
The University of Jeromeville is a beautiful campus. It is located in the western United States, in the middle of a large valley that is a major agricultural area. The university was founded as a branch campus of the state’s flagship university, for students studying agriculture. Beyond the core part of campus, next to the city of Jeromeville, the campus extends west on about three square miles of farmland used for agricultural research. A dry creek bed along the south end of campus had been converted into a very skinny lake about a mile and a half long, with an arboretum planted along both banks, for both scientific and recreational purposes. I quickly discovered how much I loved exploring this campus on my bicycle.
I was not used to staying up late. Back home, I went to bed around ten o’clock, and it took me quite some time to get used to the schedule of dormitory life, with students being noisy late at night. Quiet hours began at 11:00 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, but the resident advisors enforced this with varying levels of accuracy. One night, after a particularly bad day, I was awakened by people inconsiderately talking in the middle of the night. I opened my door angrily and overreacted, then I ran away, ashamed of having lost my cool in front of my new friends.
During that year, living in a tiny, boring single room in the dorm, I did a lot of reading and writing. I had always had a creative side that I did not show often. I started writing poetry as a hobby during that year, both funny and serious. In the spring, I added some more creative projects. During UJ’s spring break, I visited my old high school, which was not on break, and that brought back so many memories that I wrote a short novel based on my experiences senior year of high school. Also, around that time, two free-spirited girls in my dorm, Skeeter and Bok, began regularly painting abstract watercolors in the common room, with others contributing sometimes.
With Jeromeville being a fairly small city next to a large university, the rental housing market in Jeromeville was extremely tight. Students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, with there being so few dormitories, and my plan to be a resident advisor did not work out. When my friends were making plans to room together and get apartments for the 1995-96 school year, I was oblivious and missed out. My parents said that we could afford for me to get a small studio apartment, but apartments were filling up quickly. After weighing all the options, I chose to sign a lease on a studio apartment in a complex called Las Casas, about a mile north of campus and within a short walk of two other apartment complexes where many of my closest friends would be living next year.
As a student at UJ, I got to experience many of the campus traditions that have united generations of UJ students. I attended Jeromeville Colts football and basketball games and learned the cheers. I learned the hard way the importance of putting fenders on your bicycle wheels when it rains. But the best tradition of all was the Spring Picnic, the university’s annual open house that had evolved over the years into a huge festival. Dozens of academic departments, student groups, clubs, and performing groups had exhibits and shows during the Spring Picnic. In addition to all the fun I had wandering those exhibits, I also watched a band called Lawsuit, on Megan’s recommendation. The band was amazing, sounding like nothing I had ever heard before.
In school, I had always worked hard for good grades, and I was always one of the top students in my class, but never quite the top. I had kept up my good grades at UJ, with my lowest grade so far this year being one A-minus. I had not declared a major yet. My favorite classes in high school were always mathematics and classes involving mathematics, like chemistry and physics. I enjoyed computers as a hobby, but I felt my computer knowledge was too out of date for me to be a computer science major, and I grew up sheltered in an area without many high-paying jobs, so I never even considered anything like engineering because I had no previous exposure to engineering. The physics class for science and engineering majors starts in the spring, and after the first midterm, I decided to declare mathematics as my major. I still found mathematics relatively easy, as well as fascinating, whereas that physics midterm was the worst test score I had ever gotten in my life. It all worked out in the end, though.
Spring quarter was full of fun adventures. I experienced my first college party, sort of, when a bunch of people upstairs threw a party. I played Sardines in the strangest building on campus with my dorm friends. I went for more bike rides as the weather got warmer and discovered bike trails passing through some of the newer neighborhoods of Jeromeville. I got brave and called a girl from the Internet on the phone, and wrote letters to another who was going home for the summer and would not have email. But the greatest adventure of all happened on the evening of the last day of finals, when half of Building C all went out to Jeromeville’s best hole-in-the-wall burger place, and then bowling. It was the perfect end to a wonderful and life-changing year, and it left me looking forward to next year… if I could just get through three months of summer away from my new life.
Here is a bonus, something I just found a few weeks ago (altered for anonymity purposes): the only photo I have of myself in Building C. It was taken in Bok’s room at her birthday party; someone else took the picture and gave it to me.
Next week I will recap year 2. In case you missed it, here is the playlist of songs I used in year 1. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you.
Hi, friends. I’m still on hiatus. I probably will be for a while, until I get some things figured out in real life. I promise I’ll have new episodes by the beginning of May at the latest, possibly sooner. Last night I worked on outlining what would happen in the start of season 3, so that’s progress.
If you’re new here, this is not a typical post. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story set in 1996 about a university student figuring out life. Finish reading this post first, then please read some others. There are currently 88 episodes, listed either to the right or at the bottom depending on your device, so even if you’ve been following me for a while, most of you will have some that you haven’t read. So you can read those over the next few weeks while you’re waiting for me to write new ones. The episodes are best read in order, but can be read out of order, so if you’re new and ready to commit to be a fan of this site, you’re best off starting from the beginning, so you can experience the story as it unfolds. But, still, read this post first.
So I’ve been thinking about a few DLTDGB side projects, and I’d like your opinions on whether or not you’d be interested in these:
(1) A recap. I could do one post where I outline the entire plot of DLTDGB from the beginning of the prologue on July 5, 1993 until the most recent episode on June 15, 1996. I would summarize the highlights of Greg’s life so far, in a post no longer than one typical episode. I could also include links to a few episodes about the key turning points in Greg’s life, for those people who want to go more in depth without reading 88 full episodes.
(2) Avatars/Bitmoji/some kind of artwork depicting the characters visually. I can’t draw well, just to let you know. I made a bunch of fake email accounts and started using them to sign up for multiple Bitmoji accounts, with the purpose being to create Bitmoji for the main characters and show my readers what these characters look like. I did that for Eddie and Kristina and put the Bitmoji faces on top of the real faces in the photo I used for the most recent episode. I was having a hard time getting the Bitmoji to look exactly like the real people, but I know that I don’t have to make them look exactly like the people they were based on. In fact, it might be better to have them not exactly the same, for anonymity purposes. Most of the people that these characters are based on do not know that I am writing about them.
However, another glitch is that Gmail does not like that I made a bunch of fake email accounts, for obvious reasons. It makes me verify by text that I am a real person, and now it won’t even let me do that because I’ve used the same phone number too many times. I could start making fake emails with Yahoo or other free email services, I suppose. But there are so many characters that I could not possibly do this for every character, at least not with Bitmoji. I was planning on doing this for Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Liz, Ramon, Caroline, Eddie, Xander, Haley, Kristina, Brian, and Shawn, at least for now, adding others as needed if I needed to cover their faces in photos. I would not do every character, since the cast of characters for DLTDGB is just far too large. But those twelve are definitely among the most significant supporting characters at the current point of the story.
What do you guys think… is this something you would want to see? Also, if anyone knows a way to make characters similar to Bitmoji without having to have an account for each one, that would be helpful.
(3) Maps. Fantasy books with detailed geographical settings, Tolkien for example, often have maps to help the reader. Since I tend to describe Jeromeville and the surrounding Capital Valley Region in detail, I thought maybe I could do the same thing. The problem is, every time I’ve tried to draw these maps, they end up looking just like a slightly distorted version of the real-world places that inspired these stories, and while DLTDGB is based on true stories, I also want to make it my own fictional world, and I have not yet figured out how to make the maps not look like real places but still be true to the story so far. Any thoughts? Do any of you want to see maps of my semi-fictional world?
Finally, in addition to sharing any thoughts on anything above, please ask me anything you want in the comments. Questions about things happening in the story, questions about me as an adult, about the writing process… whatever you want. I’ll answer it, unless it would involve major spoilers.
Welcome! If you are new here, this is not a typical post. Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student, set in 1996. It is a story of living, learning, growing, and self-discovery, amidst a world of alternative rock and the emergence of the Internet into the mainstream.
Last week’s episode was the Year 2 season finale. I will be taking some time off, during which I will be planning for year 3. Also, in real life things may be kind of busy and unpredictable for the next few months, so I could use one fewer commitment. I do not know right now when I will start writing again, but I will someday soon. If you are new here and hoping for more episodes soon, you can always go here to read the first episode and then just read in order from there by clicking Next.
Just as with Year 1, I made a playlist with all of the music I used in Year 2:
I also added a new “Music” page to this site, with links to the playlists for each year. And I updated the Dramatis Personae, adding character bios for Abby Bartlett, Amelia Dye, Josh McGraw, and Dr. Gabby Thomas. I also added a number of new characters to the lists of other characters, and updated some other characters’ bios. I will be starting a new Dramatis Personae for Year 3 soon, removing people who are not part of the story anymore. I wonder sometimes if the large cast of characters makes the story more difficult to read or follow, or if I need more character development for the other main characters. However, in real life a university student is likely to know a lot of people, and this is primarily one person’s story, not a story with an ensemble cast. On a related note, I have considered, someday when I am done telling the main story, going back and retelling some of the more interesting episodes from another character’s point of view. Or maybe I could start doing that during these interludes, when I am taking a break from the main story.
I take a break like this after every June and December in the fictional timeline. One of the recurring topics has been the community shared by some of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship students. Eddie and his housemates had Haley and her housemates right down the street, and Shawn and Brian and their housemates around the corner, to the point that it was almost like living in a Christian dorm. In real life, I have come to learn that that kind of community among Christians is very difficult to find in adulthood, outside of the context of being a university student. I have had a lot of struggles finding a church and a community as an adult, and in talking with people I have come to the conclusion that most Christians just do not have this as adults. Instead, they have families of their own around which their lives revolve, and outside of that, church friends are just one among several compartments into which life has been divided. Will I ever find that sense of community again in real life? I do not know (and COVID has thrown more complications into this, of course).
I have often found that I need to keep reminding myself that, first and foremost, DLTDGB is a work of fiction. Much of it is based on true stories, but I stress too much about getting every detail right. Maybe two people who are in the same Bible study in DLTDGB weren’t in real life; that’s okay.
Thank you all for your support. Please leave comments. I wish people would comment more often on this blog; I enjoy interacting with my readers. If you have any questions at all for me, about anything, please ask. If I get a lot of interesting questions, maybe I’ll share them as a question-and-answer post next week. Or offer suggestions and thoughts on my writing. Some of you a while back told me that my posts were too long, and ever since then I have kept them under a certain length. Or just say hi and introduce yourself and tell me how you are doing. I want to hear from you.
Back in the 1990s, all of the hottest names in alternative rock played the Lollapalooza festival. The festival toured major cities around the United States every summer, bringing live music along with other performances and attractions. Critics called Lollapalooza an event that changed the history of music forever.
I never attended a Lollapalooza show. I did not go to big concerts back then, and I felt a little scared to do so, knowing the kind of people that an event like Lollapalooza attracted. In my life, the legacy of Lollapalooza was all of the advertising campaigns, small local events, and the like with names ending in “-palooza.” This was similar to the excessive use of the suffix “-gate” to name political scandals, after the burglary at the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. in 1972, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. If something had a name ending in “-palooza,” everyone knew that it was going to be life-changing… or at least the person organizing and naming the event believed that it would be life-changing.
A little over a week ago, I had been at the final meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for this school year, talking to people afterward about the upcoming finals week. Brian Burr approached me, handing out small postcard-sized flyers. He was tall and athletic, a high jumper on the University of Jeromeville’s track team, with reddish-brown hair. He was graduating this year, and next year he would be staying in Jeromeville to work with JCF part-time and apply to medical school. Brian and I were going to share an apartment next year, along with Shawn, my current Bible study leader and one of Brian’s current housemates.
“Grad-a-palooza,” Brian said in an overly dramatic and exaggerated tone as he handed me his flyer. I took the flyer and read it.
GRADAPALOOZA! A celebration of the graduation of the gentlemen of 1640 Valdez Street Mr. Brian Burr Mr. Shawn Yang Mr. Michael Kozlovsky Mr. Daniel Conway
Saturday, June 15, 1996 6pm until whenever 1640 Valdez St., Jeromeville
“Graduation party?” I asked. “At your house?”
“Yes. Saturday, the 15th. Right after finals are done.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be there.”
In hindsight, it was not entirely necessary for me to repeat back that it was a graduation party; this was obvious from the flyer. I suppose I asked because I was surprised; I had never been invited to a college graduation party. I did not know any seniors last year.
Yesterday, Friday, was the last scheduled day for finals, but my last final had been on Thursday morning. I had spent the last two and a half days doing a fat load of nothing. I went for bike rides, I read, I worked on my novel, and I wasted a lot of time on the Internet with Usenet groups and IRC chats. It was wonderful, and so far there had not been another incident like the one a few days ago.
When I moved to Jeromeville to start school, someone gave me a camera as a going-away present. The camera then spent twenty-one months in a drawer, unused. Yesterday I remembered that I had a camera, and I bought film and batteries, so I was ready to preserve some memories from Brian and Shawn’s party tonight.
Valdez Street was in south Jeromeville, on the other side of Highway 100 from me. I drove east on Coventry Boulevard and turned right on G Street toward downtown. As I approached downtown, I drove past progressively older houses and apartment complexes; after crossing Fifth Street, G Street became a commercial corridor. It was Saturday night, and I had to drive slowly, watching for pedestrians and bicycles. At least three households of JCF students were neighbors on Valdez Street and Baron Court, and as I got to know these people more, I often wished I could be part of that community. Most of these people who were not graduating would be dispersing to other parts of Jeromeville next year, though, so a community like that may not exist next year. I at least had the new apartment with Brian and Shawn to look forward to, even if we would not be neighbors with a large group of friends.
The student population of Jeromeville was gradually emptying as students finished finals, but I still had to park farther away from Brian and Shawn’s house than usual. I could hear muffled music and conversation as I approached the house; apparently this was a big party. I walked in and looked around; music was playing, and people were talking loudly. Hopefully I would be able to hear when people talked to me.
“Greg!” Brian called out, waving, as he saw me from across the room. “Come on in!”
I had been in this house four times before, and I had never seen it this full. People were sitting on couches, in chairs, on the floor, and on the stairs. A streamer that said “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 1996” hung from the wall.
“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.
“I think I did well. What about you?”
“They weren’t great, but I passed.”
“Congratulations! Your ceremony was this morning?”
“Yeah. Mom and Dad and my sister came for the day. We went out to dinner, then they left about an hour ago.”
“Thanks! Enjoy the party!”
Someone I did not recognize got up and walked toward the bathroom; I sat in his vacated seat. I knew about half the people here from JCF, and I recognized some other JCF people whom I did not know well. I assumed that the guys who lived here probably had other friends, so not everyone here would be from JCF. I pulled out my camera and took a few candid shots of people sitting around talking.
Kristina, a sophomore who lived around the corner on Baron Court, walked past me. “Greg!” she said. “What’s up?”
“Not much. How were finals?”
“Hard! But they’re over now! How were yours?”
“I think I did fine,” I said. “Is–” I caught myself before finishing my question, Is Haley here? Six years ago, in eighth grade, Paul Dickinson had figured out that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and within a few days the whole school knew. Ever since then, any time I had any sort of romantic interest or crush, I treated it like a closely guarded secret which no one must ever find out. “Are any of your roommates here?” I asked instead. That way, my question would get answered without Kristina suspecting that I liked Haley.
“Kelly and Jeanette are here somewhere. Haley went home on Thursday after her last final.”
“Oh, ok.” I was a little disappointed that I would not see Haley for the next three months, but also relieved that, with Haley not here, I would have no opportunities to embarrass myself in front of her. “What are you up to this summer?” I asked.
“Taking classes. You?”
“Same. Well, one class first session. Probably just hanging out here second session. I’m going to my parents’ house next week.”
“Nice. I’ll probably see you around campus.”
I walked around, making small talk and asking people their plans for the summer. Most of the people here were not going to be in Jeromeville. That did not bode well for my hope of having a social life this summer. I knew that JCF was running one small group Bible study this summer, so that was something. And I would still be singing at church; I knew some people from church who would be around this summer.
I got up to use the bathroom. A decoration on the bathroom wall above the toilet said “We aim to please, you aim too please.” At first, my mind parsed that as “we aim to please, you aim to please” with a word misspelled. I did not understand why the phrase needed to be repeated. I did not get the joke until I flushed the toilet; the second part was supposed to say “you aim too, please,” as in “please don’t pee on the floor.” I laughed out loud at my sudden realization. Hopefully no one found it strange that someone was laughing in the bathroom.
I returned to the living room, realizing that I had not talked to Shawn Yang yet, although I probably knew him the best of all the guys who lived at this house. I saw Shawn on the couch with a middle-aged Asian couple. I approached him, and he said, “Hey, Greg. Have you met my parents yet?”
“No,” I said. “I’m Greg.”
“I’m John,” Mr. Yang said, shaking my hand. “And this is Judy.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Greg is going to be my roommate next year,” Shawn explained. “And he’s a math major too.”
“Oh you are?” Mr. Yang asked. “You gonna be a teacher too?”
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I said. “I don’t really see myself as a teacher.”
“You’re not graduating this year?”
“No. I’m a sophomore.”
“You guys are from Ashwood? Is that right?”
“Yeah. What about you? Where are you from?”
“Plumdale.” Without thinking, I added, “Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.” Most people have no idea where Plumdale is.
“It’s nice out there!”
“Yeah. I’ll be in Jeromeville most of the summer, but I’m going home next week.”
After a lull in the conversation, Mr. Yang said, “It was nice meeting you!”
I was ready for another break from socializing, so I walked outside. It was a little before eight o’clock, and it was still light out; in Jeromeville, the sun does not set until close to nine this time of year. Two guys were throwing a Frisbee back and forth in the street, moving out of the way whenever a car approached. Eddie, Xander, Lars, and a guy I had met a couple times named Moises sat on a couch, which had been placed on the lawn for some reason.
“We’re done with another school year,” Eddie said. “Two down, two to go.”
“I know,” I replied. “I think I did pretty well on finals. How were yours?”
“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”
“Dude, mine were really tough,” Lars said.
“What are you doing this summer?” Xander asked me.
“I’m staying here. I have one class first session. When do you leave for India?”
“Two weeks. I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited! God is going to move!”
“I can’t wait to hear about it,” I said.
“Greg?” Eddie asked. “Have you decided yet if you’re going to Urbana?”
I had not decided, and now that Eddie was asking, I felt like I had dropped the ball. Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, puts on a convention every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about missions and service opportunities around the world. The convention was the last week of the year, after Christmas. “I haven’t decided,” I said. “But I’d like to if I can make it work. I don’t know if I’m ready to go on a mission trip myself, but now that I have a lot of friends doing stuff like that, I think it would help me understand what they’re doing. Xander’s trip to India, and Melinda’s trip to Russia, and Taylor and Pete and Charlie going to Morocco with Jeromeville Covenant Church.”
“Then what are you still thinking about? If it’s money, you can apply for a scholarship through JCF. Talk to Dave and Janet.”
“It’s more just the fact that it’s overwhelming. I don’t know how to book a flight or a hotel room or anything like that. And it is a lot of money, too.”
“I know a lot of people have been wanting to travel in groups and share hotel rooms,” Eddie said. “If I hear of someone who might be able to include you, I’ll have them contact you.”
“Thanks. That would be awesome.”
“Heads up!” shouted Alex McCann, a housemate of some of the guys on the couch, as a Frisbee sailed toward us. Lars stood up and caught the Frisbee in time; then, walking away from the couch, he shouted at Alex and threw the Frisbee back at him. Eddie and Xander stood up, and Eddie said to me, “We’re gonna go throw the Frisbee. Wanna come?”
“I might later,” I said. “Thanks.”
Moises stayed on the couch with me. “I think you should go to Urbana,” he said. “God is going to do great things through you.”
“Thanks,” I said, curious how he knew about God’s plan for my life when I pretty much just knew this guy to say hi to.
“Have you ever taken a spiritual gift assessment?” Moises asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“They handed one out at my church a few weeks ago. You answer questions about what skills you have and what you’re good at, and it tells you, like, if God has equipped you to preach or worship or pray or do administrative work. You can ask your pastor if he has one. What church do you go to?”
“It’s the student-led Catholic church.”
“My family is Catholic,” Moises said. “My family came here from Mexico; everyone is Catholic there. But then when I became a Christian, I realized just how much Catholics have wrong. Like, Jesus died on the cross for your sins already. You don’t have to confess to a pope.” I just nodded, not wanting to argue. Moises‘ knowledge of the inner workings of the Catohlic Church must have had some shortcomings if he believed that the average Catholic confessed to His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a regular basis. Also, although I did not think about it at age 19, I have also come to learn over the years that being a busybody like Moises is not the best way to share one’s faith with others. After studying the Bible more this year, though, I had come to agree with his point that salvation came from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not through following the rituals of Catholicism alone.
By this time, it was getting dark, so I went back inside, making more small talk and helping myself to snacks on the kitchen counter. Later that night, in the living room, Eddie, Kristina, Brian, and a few others were doing some kind of silly dance. I saw Tabitha, one of the first people I knew from JCF because she was in the dorm next to mine last year, sitting on the couch with an empty seat next to her. “May I sit here?” I asked Tabitha.
“Sure,” she said. “Actually, I was looking for you. Eddie told me a few minutes ago that if you go to Urbana, you’d be interested in going in together with someone on a flight and hotel room.”
“I was going to put something together later this summer. I’ll keep you posted.”
“I’m not going for sure yet, but I know the price goes up July 1, so I want to decide for sure by then. I’ll let you know, and you keep me posted on your plans.”
“Great! Sounds good!”
I stayed at the party until after midnight. By then, much of the crowd had gone home, the music had stopped, and I was getting tired. I said my final goodnights and congratulations to Brian and Shawn, as well as to their other graduating housemates, Mike Kozlovsky and Dan Conway. These four and all the other seniors here tonight were done with college, at least done with their bachelor’s degrees. And now I was halfway there, if I finished on schedule. It was hard to believe that it had already been almost two years since Mom and Dad helped me unpack in my tiny dorm room in Building C.
As I drove home through the dark but warm Jeromeville night, I kept thinking about how my life had changed so much, not only in the time since I came to Jeromeville, but just in this school year. I had a great time at this party, and unlike my few other experiences with college parties, people here were not getting drunk. At the beginning of this school year, I did not even know that any of these people existed, except for Tabitha, and she was not in my close circle of friends yet at the time. So much had changed for the better.
I lived alone in a small studio apartment this year because I was unable to find roommates among people I knew. Early in the year, I worried that living alone would be excessively boring and lonely, but indirectly, living alone ended up being the best thing for me. It prompted me to make more of an effort to stay connected with my friends from freshman year, which led to me finally accepting Liz Williams’ invitation to come to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. At JCF, I made so many new friends, including the people at this party, and my future roommates for junior year. And, more importantly, I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus, and how only his death on the cross brought eternal life, and hope, and inner peace.
I went straight to bed when I got home; I was tired. I would have time to pack a suitcase in the morning, and after church I would make the two and a half hour drive to my parents’ house in Plumdale. But unlike a year ago, the drive to my parents’ house would not mean the start of three months away from my friends. I was only staying there for a week this time, and I would go for another week in August after my summer class ended. For the rest of the summer, I would be here in Jeromeville. Plumdale was home, but Jeromeville was also home now.
As I drifted off to sleep, still thinking about how much life had changed during my sophomore year at UJ, I wondered what changes were in store for me in the next school year. Maybe I would find other new things to get involved with, as I had gotten involved with JCF this year. Maybe I would end up going to that Urbana convention and deciding to become a missionary. The possibilities were endless. At the time, I had no idea that the next school year would bring challenges to my faith and questions about my future. I would have to make difficult decisions. I would find myself getting involved in two new activities, one of which was not at all anything I expected to do until it happened, and the other of which I was only beginning to think about at that point. But I knew that, no matter what, with God on my side everything would work out just fine.
These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online. Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed. Or just use it to send emails with a new name.
In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it. Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away. Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it. However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.” This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers. I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service. Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.
I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer. The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be. My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine. That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that. About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus. I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil. About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me. She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts. I did not know her name.
“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.
“I think so,” she replied. “Good luck!”
“Thanks. You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.
While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously. I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name. The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished. The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about. I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.
I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow. I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating. I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final. I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips. I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.
All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian. Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.
Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening. I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen. I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning. I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.
When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer. Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done. I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it. And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too. He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.” My life is not my own. I was created to serve and glorify God. I believed. But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him? Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?
Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together. I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this. Probably not. I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still. I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong. I knew I was wrong. I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.
I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures. Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought. She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus. I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me. I was not trying to hook up with Sarah. And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys. I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.
No, I thought, this was not a good idea. I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret. I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again. If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.
I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages. I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient. This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else. On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.” The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number. This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person. I took a deep breath and started typing.
X-ANON-TO:firstname.lastname@example.org I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name. You may call me Joe.
I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message. As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was. When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it. I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.
X-ANON-TO:email@example.com I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name. I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to. You may call me Joe.
I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down. I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed. I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.
By now it felt too late to do homework. I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham. I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly. I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.
I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus. I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts. I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days. I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material. During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.
firstname.lastname@example.org Re: please read, this is real, you know me
Sarah had written back. I opened the message and began reading.
You are not a failure, and you have not let me down. You definitely have not let God down. You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t. We are all sinners saved by grace. Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.
I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up. Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse. Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t. Go for a walk. Clean your house. Do whatever it takes. But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up. Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.
Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I will keep you in my prayers. Take care and God bless.
I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened. I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners. I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked. I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.
I read Sarah’s email again. “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.” I did not play an instrument. I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played. But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album. I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen. The dishes had been piling up for far too long.
I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo. Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people. Sarah was on that trip too. I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.
What’s going on inside of me? I despise my own behavior This only serves to confirm my suspicion That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.
That was me. That was exactly what I had been feeling. Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.
Lord, be my light, and be my salvation ‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.
Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes. I never attempted to use the service again. I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email. She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.
I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind. I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians. Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that. Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway. I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience. One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.
“So how’s everyone doing today?” Taylor asked as I drove west beyond the Jeromeville city limits, where Fifth Street becomes Grant Road.
“I went grocery shopping,” Danielle said. “And I saw my abnormal professor in the store.”
“You saw who?” I asked.
“My professor for Abnormal Psych.”
“Oh,” I said. “Abnormal Psych. You said ‘my abnormal professor,’ and I didn’t know what that meant. I was gonna say I’m a math major, so all of my professors are abnormal.” The others groaned and chuckled.
Grant Road continues west in a near-perfectly straight line for about three miles after leaving the Jeromeville city limits, past an idyllic landscape of fields, pastures, and orchards. Beyond that, the road turns sharply; I was caught off guard by the coming right turn, so I pushed the brake pedal hard. Some of the others in the car reacted audibly to the sudden change in movement. “Sorry,” I said, as I turned sharply to the right, then to the left a short distance later. “I never understood why this road has all these curves in it. Everything is completely flat here.”
“To follow property lines, maybe?” Pete suggested.
“That could be it.”
“Have you been this way before?” Danielle asked.
“Once,” I said.
“You know where we’re going?”
“Of course he knows where we’re going!” Taylor said. “Greg doesn’t get lost, remember?”
I had only been this way once, when I took a side trip on the way back from my parents’ house just to see what this part of Arroyo Verde County looked like, and I had never been west of the town of Summerfield. But a bunch of us had met in a parking lot in Jeromeville about ten minutes ago to carpool, and Cheryl of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had been there to hand out flyers, and the driving directions were very clear, just straight west on Grant Road for about twenty miles.
I had been hearing announcements at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship over the last few months about baptisms in the creek near Lake Montecito at the end of the school year. I had not expressed interest in being baptized. I had started to take my faith seriously this year through the nondenominational JCF, which was not affiliated with a specific church. The students in JCF attended a few different churches around Jeromeville, but very few of them were Catholic like me. I did not know enough about baptism at that point to know if I needed to be baptized again, and I did not want to turn my back on the Catholicism of my childhood and family without knowing the details of what I was doing.
However, I wanted to attend this baptism event. I knew most of the people in JCF on an acquaintance level, so I wanted to be there for the people being baptized. Also, one of those people was Sarah Winters, one of my close friends. I had known her since the first week of freshman year, and when I heard that she was getting baptized, I definitely wanted to be there for her.
In addition to friends from JCF, other friends and family of the people being baptized were attending this event. Danielle was not part of JCF; she was Catholic, and attended mass at the Newman Center with me. But all of us in my car were friends with Sarah from our freshman dorm, and all of them also lived in the same apartment complex as Sarah.
I continued west on Grant Road, through more occasional sharp turns and zigzags over the next few miles before the road straightened out again, now heading southwest. The midafternoon sun was still high enough that I did not have to put my visor down. “This may be a dumb question,” I asked, “but what exactly happens at a baptism in the creek? I’ve only seen Catholic baptisms, when you’re a baby, and they just sprinkle water on you in church.”
“I was going to ask the same thing,” Danielle said.
“You proclaim in public that you’re a follower of Jesus,” Charlie explained.
“And then you get dunked!” Taylor added.
“That’s pretty much it,” Charlie said.
“Why is it that Catholics baptize babies, and other Christians don’t?” I asked.
“Because if you get baptized as a baby, you’re not really making a conscious decision to identify as a Christian,” Pete said. “So if you wait until someone is old enough to make their own decision to be baptized, then it really comes from them, and it’s more meaningful than if parents just baptize a baby because you have to.”
“That makes sense,” I said.
“It’s not just Catholics versus Protestants, right?” Charlie added. “Aren’t there some Protestants who baptize babies?”
“Yeah,” Pete said. “I know Presbyterians do.”
We continued west past Summerfield. The road turned to run directly adjacent to the redundantly named Arroyo Verde Creek as the hills, which I could see from home off in the distance to the west, rose around me. Oaks dotted the hills, surrounded by grass that sprung up green and bright every year during the rainy season, but was now in late spring turning brown. The hills would remain golden brown, as they did every year, until around the following January, when the rains of November and December had sunk in.
Twenty miles west of Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek once passed through a narrow canyon just downstream of a valley. This canyon was identified long ago as a perfect place for a dam, which was built in the 1950s. The relatively small dam across the canyon flooded the entire valley behind it, creating Lake Montecito and providing a reliable water supply to the vast agricultural areas to the east. We stopped at a public parking lot just downstream from the dam; I recognized a few JCF people standing around. “There they are,” Taylor said.
The five of us walked toward the crowd. People trickled in as we mingled among the crowd, saying hi to our friends, until about a hundred people stood among the rocks and sand on the bank of Arroyo Verde Creek. I could see the dam about half a mile upstream from where we were, towering three hundred feet above the creek and spanning the entire canyon.
Dave McAllen, who with his wife Janet were the head staff of JCF, waded a few feet into the creek and announced, “Welcome.” He stood in ankle-deep water, wearing a t-shirt with swimming shorts. “You have come to watch four of your friends make a public identification as part of the Body of Christ. Baptism is an outward and public sign that you have decided to follow Jesus. Baptism was commanded by Jesus himself, as part of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, Luke writes that the people who heard Peter’s message were baptized.” Dave continued for another few minutes talking about the theology and history of baptism, about how being submerged in the water and resurfacing is symbolic of dying to your old life and being reborn in Christ. I wondered about my current situation, having been baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church, and whether or not that was acceptable to these people as a valid baptism. My question was answered as Dave said, “Before we begin our baptisms, Kieran would like to say something.”
Kieran, a freshman who had been in my group the previous weekend at the Man of Steel competition, stepped forward, not quite getting into the water. “Hi,” he said. “I’m not one of the people getting baptized today. I was baptized as a baby. But I didn’t really know Jesus until high school, when my friend brought me to youth group. Since I was already baptized, I don’t feel like it’s right to get baptized again, like it didn’t count the first time. But I just wanted to say in front of all of you that I am living for Jesus Christ.” People applauded as he finished that last sentence, and I joined in. I did not know if I would ever be brave enough to say that in front of the crowd, but Kieran’s proclamation suggested that I did not need to be baptized again.
Dave stepped aside as Janet, took his place in the water in front of the crowd. “First, I would like to welcome Sarah Winters. She’s a sophomore.” Janet gestured to Sarah to begin speaking.
“I didn’t really go to church growing up,” Sarah said. “I was a good student, I stayed out of trouble, but I also made some decisions that weren’t so great.” Sarah paused, clearly not wanting to talk about the suboptimal decisions. “But then I started going out with a guy right at the end of high school, and he was a Christian. They say missionary dating isn’t a good idea, but it brought me to Christ.” Laughs and chuckles spread throughout the crowd. I had never heard this term “missionary dating,” but I figured out from the context what she was saying. “He shared with me what it meant to really follow Jesus, and he lived it out in his life. We broke up on good terms last year, but it was for the best. And now I’m ready for whatever Jesus has for me.”
“Sarah?” Janet asked. “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”
“I do,” Sarah replied.
“Then I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Janet put one hand on Sarah’s back as she lowered Sarah backward into the water. After being fully submerged for a few seconds, she brought Sarah back up, and everyone cheered. Sarah smiled, dripping wet, as she climbed out of the creek and wrapped herself in a towel.
Three more people were baptized that day. Each had a different story, but all of their stories ended with finding Jesus and making a decision to follow him. I had a story like that now too, and it was humbling to know that this united me with so many millions of Christians throughout the centuries.
After the last baptism ended, I walked around looking for Sarah. Janet McAllen found me first. “Hey, Greg,” she said. “Wasn’t that good to hear everyone’s stories?”
“Yes. It’s always good to hear how God works in different people’s lives.”
“Have you been baptized?”
“I was baptized Catholic as a baby.”
“Oh, okay,” Janet said. “We usually don’t recommend you get baptized again if you were already baptized as a baby.”
“I had been wondering about that earlier today, and then when Kieran shared about that, it was perfect timing. Like he answered the question I didn’t even ask.”
“Do you know where Sarah went?”
“I think she’s over there,” Janet said, pointing to a cluster of people standing a little ways upstream.
“I’m going to go find her.”
“Sounds good. I’m glad you could make it here, Greg.”
I walked in the direction that Janet had pointed and eventually found Sarah. The people I came with had found her first; they were all standing together, along with Sarah’s roommate Krista and a few others.
“Congratulations,” I said as Sarah noticed me approaching.
“Greg!” Sarah exclaimed. “Thank you so much for coming!”
“I’m glad I could be here,” I said. “It’s always so good to hear stories of how people came to know Jesus.”
“Yeah. God works in everyone differently. We all have a story.”
I stood around listening to people make small talk for a while. Later, I started walking around to talk to other people, and I congratulated the other three who had been baptized as well.
The crowd gradually thinned, and we left about half an hour after the last baptism. We returned the same way we came, along Grant Road. At one point, near the inexplicable sharp turns, Danielle excitedly exclaimed, “Look! Sheep! And they’re real!” She pointed out the car window to a flock of sheep grazing in a pasture.
“Did you say ‘they’re real?’” Pete asked.
“Yeah! Right there!”
“‘They’re real,’ you said? So do you normally drive past fields full of fake sheep?” Taylor added.
“What? No!” Danielle said. “You know what I mean!”
“I don’t,” I said.
I never did figure out why Danielle was so excited about the sheep being real. Sometimes things make sense in someone’s head but do not get explained properly. But, as we drove home, my mind was more on what Kieran had said, how he had been baptized as a baby and did not feel it was appropriate to get baptized again. Although I had not studied the issue in detail or prayed about it, that was my current position. I did not want to turn my back completely on the Catholicism of my family and generations of my mother’s ancestors. Jesus commands his followers to be baptized, but from what I had learned this year from really studying the Bible for the first time, the act of baptism itself is not what brings salvation or eternal life. Catholics consider baptism to be a sacrament, but I could not find anything directly in the Bible stating that baptism affected one’s eternal fate.
It was surprising to me, therefore, when a few years later JCF held another baptism event, and Kieran was one of the people getting baptized. He made no mention of having been baptized as a baby that time. I never asked him what made him change his mind. By that time, I had had enough encounters with Christians who disparaged and belittled Catholicism that my position had become further entrenched that I did not want to be baptized a second time. I did not want to acknowledge these people’s mischaracterization of Catholicism, and getting baptized a second time felt like taking their side.
However, I did change my mind eventually, in my early thirties. By that time, I was no longer attending Catholic Mass. I knew that many churches that do not baptize babies require baptism as a condition of becoming a full church member and being able to vote on the church budget and new pastoral appointments. I had made up my mind that this would not be a dealbreaker to being part of a church, that I would get baptized as an adult if I found a church requiring adult baptism that I was otherwise ready to commit to. In the first letter to the Corinthaians, Paul wrote that, as a follower of Christ, he is no longer under the Old Testament law, despite having a Jewish background. It is not necessary for Christians to follow the rituals and customs of the Jews. However, when ministering to Jewish communities, Paul would follow their customs anyway, in order to be part of their community and build the relationships necessary to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I felt the same way about baptism by this time; being baptized as an adult was not necessary, but if I was going to become part of a community that believed this, I would be willing to follow their customs. In 2007, the church I had attended for over a year called a new pastor, and I really liked this guy, so I was baptized and became a member in order to be able to vote in favor of this new pastor. And I know that my parents did not see my second baptism as an act of turning my back on my upbringing, because they were there on that day to support me, just as I was there to support Sarah on the day she was baptized.
“Come in!” I heard a voice say after I knocked on the front door of 1640 Valdez Street. I opened the door and, surveying the scene, became slightly nervous. The living room was packed with around fifteen other guys, most of whom were speaking loudly enough that the ensuing cacophony jarred my senses. I walked to a quiet out-of-the-way corner.
“Greg!” Brian said, writing on a clipboard. “This is your first Man of Steel, right?”
“Yes. What do I do?”
“Just hang out for a while. A lot of people who told me they would be here aren’t yet. And don’t forget to grab a t-shirt; they’re in that box over there.”
“Yes,” Brian said. “Greg, do you know Mike Kozlovsky? He’s one of my housemates.”
“I’ve seen you around,” I said.
“Hi,” the large blond guy said, shaking my hand. “I’m Mike.”
“Nice to meet you,” I replied. I knew so many Mikes and Michaels that I would probably think of this guy as Mike Kozlovsky, not just Mike.
The Man of Steel competition had an entry fee, mostly to cover the cost of printing the t-shirts. I had seen a few older JCF students wearing Man of Steel shirts from previous years, but I did not know until recently what Man of Steel meant. I pulled an extra large size one out of the box Brian had pointed to; it was white, with a silhouette of Superman on the front. The shirt said, “To save the world, this MAN OF STEEL is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But nothing he can do…” I turned the shirt over to see a silhouette of Jesus on the cross, and the rest of the sentence: “… can cover our sins. Isaiah 53:10-12.” I liked that. Hopefully no one would get in trouble for trademark infringement, for the unauthorized Superman references.
Eddie saw me and said, “Greg! You made it! Are you ready?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
As I mingled and talked to people over the next half hour, more guys trickled in, and over thirty young adult men packed the living room and kitchen by the time Brian called us all to attention at 10:30. “Welcome to the twelfth annual Man of Steel Competition,” Brian said. “The first event is Frisbee golf. We printed out directions, and the tees and targets are marked. Maximum score for a hole is six, so if you don’t hit the target in five throws, your score is six. You will be in groups of four for the day, and one group will leave every five minutes. The first group will be…” Brian looked down at his clipboard. “Raphael, Lars, John, and Todd.”
As those four left the house with flying discs, I wandered around the room, talking to people and snacking on chips and salsa, listening for my name. “Group 2: Eddie, Shawn, Mike Kozlovsky, and Brent,” Brian announced five minutes later. Five minutes after that, Brian announced, “Group 3: Xander, Matt, Greg, and Kieran.”
I stood up and walked toward Brian. He gave the four of us a copy of the directions for the course, a pencil, and a score sheet. “Do you need an extra Frisbee?” Brian asked me, noticing that I did not have one.
“Yeah,” I said. Brian handed me an orange flying disc with the logo of the Big 5 Sporting Goods store on one side and his initials, BMB, scribbled in Sharpie on the other side.
“The first tee is right outside the house,” Brian explained. “Good luck!”
“Thanks,” I said.
Twelve years ago, some guys from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship got together for something that they called the Man of Steel Competition. It was an all-day hangout consisting of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and poker games. Whoever was the most successful at the three events was crowned the Man of Steel and given a trophy to keep for the year. Whoever finishes in last place is named the Weenie and receives an extra-small t-shirt as a humorous consolation prize. The competition had been announced at JCF over the last few weeks, and Brian and Eddie had both specifically encouraged me to come.
In my group, Xander was my year, a sophomore. I had met him in January, when he and Eddie had kindly prayed with me and invited me to hang out at their house when I was having a bad day. Matt was a junior, who lived in the same house as Eddie and Xander, right around the corner from where we were now, on Baron Court. Kieran was an athletically built freshman; I knew him to say hi to, but not well.
“Hole 1,” Kieran read aloud. “The tee is the marked spot on the sidewalk, and the target is the fire hydrant down there. A long straightaway. Got it.” Kieran threw his disc down the street, using a technique I had never seen in my informal experiences of tossing Frisbees around. His disc sailed far down the street, landing about twenty feet from the fire hydrant.
“Nice!” I said.
Matt and Xander threw their discs accurately as well, but neither one ended up as close to the target as Kieran’s. Mine curved off course to a vacant lot across the street near where some new houses were being built, less than halfway to the fire hydrant.
“Your turn,” Xander said.
“I just went,” I replied.
“You’re the farthest away, so you go first for the second toss.”
I was not aware of that rule, since this was my first time playing disc golf. I threw my disc toward the fire hydrant; it went closer to the correct direction this time, but still landed far from the target. Kieran hit the target in two tosses; Xander and Matt, three each; and I got five.
The second target was around the corner on Baron Court, a tree in the yard of the house where Eddie, Xander, and John lived with a bunch of other guys. Baron Court dead-ended into a park connected to one of Jeromeville’s greenbelts; a light pole at the edge of the park was the third target. I hit it in four throws, my best so far, although I was still far behind the others.
“Hole 4,’” I read. “‘Dogleg around large oak tree, hit bench.’ What does ‘dogleg’ mean?”
“The disc has to go around the tree and then to the right. You can’t cut straight across on that side of the tree,” Kieran explained, pointing. He stood on the tee spot and threw his disc; it curved perfectly around the tree, exactly as it was supposed to.
“I see,” I explained. I threw my disc next; it began curving to the right far too early, landing in a position where I would have to throw it even farther to make it curve to the correct side of the tree. I groaned.
“It’s okay,” Xander said. “Just do the same thing you just did from the place where it is now, and you’ll end up on the right side of the tree with a straight shot to the target.”
“That would be nice, if I could throw straight,” I said.
As the morning continued into early afternoon, I became increasingly frustrated, and the others sensed this. A dead branch lay next to the lamppost that was the eleventh hole; I picked it up and threw it angrily after having scored the worst possible score of six for the third consecutive time. “Hey,” Xander said. “Calm down. It’s just a game.”
“I’m terrible at this,” I said
“Don’t worry about it,” Kieran added. “Just have fun.”
“But I’m going to be the Weenie. If I had known that this was just another way for the popular athletic guys to humiliate me for not being good at stuff, I wouldn’t have come. I got enough of that in elementary school.”
“Dude,” Xander said. “That’s not what this is at all. We don’t want to humiliate you. It’s just for fun. Besides, being named the Weenie is kind of an honor. It’s just silly.”
“If you say so,” I said. I tried to calm down and have fun. I took a deep breath and calmly threw my disc toward the twelfth target; it traveled far in a straight line, and I finished that hole in only three throws, my best so far that day.
The eighteenth hole took us back to Brian’s house, where we turned in our scoresheet and waited for the rest of the groups to finish. I asked a few of the people ahead of us what their scores were, and all of them made me feel more discouraged about mine, so I stopped asking and talked about other things instead.
After all eight groups had returned, Brian got our attention again. “The next step is the hamburger eating contest. You have sixty seconds to eat the first hamburger, fifty-five seconds to eat the second one, fifty seconds to eat the third one, and so on. It counts as long as the whole thing is in your mouth when time runs out, and your mouth is closed. You will go four at a time, in your same groups, called in random order.”
I watched as one of the groups began eating. The hamburgers were the basic 79-cent hamburgers from McDonald’s, nothing big or fancy. I did not like pickles, but for the purpose of this competition, I could make myself eat pickles this one time. Dan Conway, a senior who lived in this house with Brian, dropped out surprisingly early; he got something stuck in his throat and could not finish his third burger, drawing a chorus of “Awwwww”s from the crowd. James made it to eight, the most of anyone in that group.
When my turn came, I stepped up to the table with Xander, Kieran, and Matt. “Go!” Brian said, starting the stopwatch. I picked up the first hamburger and began taking large bites. “Forty-five seconds,” Brian said shortly after we started, and he continued to announce the time remaining every fifteen seconds, so I stopped trying to time myself in my head. I finished the first burger in plenty of time. “Go!” Brian exclaimed when it was time to begin the second hamburger; I finished this one easily as well. The third one was a little bit closer, but I swallowed the last bit of it just before Brian gave the signal.
I noticed some people dipping their hamburgers in a glass of water, presumably to make them softer and easier to swallow. I tried this with the fourth one; it did, at least it made it easier to get it in my mouth, but it also turned it into a gooey mess that did not taste as good. I swallowed the burger in the allotted time, though.
The fifth hamburger was more difficult. The time had decreased to forty seconds, and although the burger was completely in my mouth when the time ran out, I had not swallowed all of it. This left less space in my mouth for burger number six, which I now had only thirty-five seconds to eat. I got the burger completely wet before eating it, and just before time ran out, I managed to stuff the last bite in my mouth. But I knew that I would not make it much farther in this event, with chewed hamburger piling up in my mouth faster than I could swallow it. As I took my first bite of burger number seven, I noticed that Matt had not finished his sixth. I felt a renewed sense of motivation now that I knew I would not finish last in my group. I forced myself to start swallowing what was already in my mouth, so that I had room to begin chewing burger number seven and close my lips as time expired. I now had only twenty-five seconds to eat burger number eight, and as that time quickly passed, I knew I would advance no further. I tried my best to swallow what was in my mouth and make room for burger number eight, but I just could not. Xander also dropped out after seven, and Kieran, after shoving burger number eight in his mouth, ran to the garbage can and spit it all out without even touching number nine. I did much more respectably in this event, only one burger behind the leader in my group. Around half of the people who had gone so far did not make it to seven.
As the day went on, as much as I wanted to be encouraging, I secretly felt relieved every time someone did not finish seven burgers. Less competition for me. I needed all the help I could get. My score of seven felt less respectable as the event continued, though; Brian ate nine, and two guys named Lars Ashford and Alex McCann each ate ten.
I had overheard someone earlier say that Mike Kozlovsky set the record in last year’s hamburger event with eleven. As Mike’s group began, I tried to picture how that was possible, to shove ten hamburgers in one’s mouth and still have room to fit an eleventh hamburger in only ten seconds. Twelve was considered a perfect score, because at burger number twelve, the time to eat it would be only five seconds, and with the time decreasing by five seconds for every burger, there would be no time for a thirteenth.
Mike Kozlovsky was a pretty big guy, and he ate the first eight hamburgers effortlessly. He even appeared to be swallowing everything. Burger number nine, he easily fit it in his mouth, but he had not finished swallowing when his twenty seconds was up. He dunked burger number ten in his glass of water and tore off big chunks of it, pushing them into his mouth as he attempted to swallow what was already there. I watched in amazement as he did the same for burger number eleven; I could see his cheeks puff up from all the unswallowed burger inside. The rest of his group had all stopped by then.
“Possible new record,” Brian said, looking at the stopwatch. “Go!”
Mike grabbed a burger, dunked it in the glass of water, tore it into pieces, and hurriedly shoved the pieces into his mouth. As his five seconds ran out, he just barely closed his lips.
“Perfect score!” Brian shouted as the rest of the room erupted into applause Mike, his mouth still full, turned to the crowd and raised both arms in victory. Then, he stood next to the garbage can, bringing his hand to his mouth and pulling out a wad of chewed beef, bread, pickles, and onions the size of a softball. Mike tossed the wad into the garbage.
“Ew!” several in the crowd shouted.
My score of seven was somewhere in the middle for the hamburger event; hopefully that would be enough to keep me out of contention for the Weenie. Several had eaten less than seven hamburgers, but I was not sure if any of those people were as bad at disc golf as I was. One more event remained, poker.
I knew some of the common traditional variations, like draw poker and stud poker. I knew how to rank the hands. And that put me in an unfortunate position, because it left me thinking I knew how to play poker when I actually did not. To me, at the time, the way to succeed in poker was to have the good luck to draw a good hand; I knew little of the strategy surrounding bluffing and knowing when to bet or fold.
The rules were simple. We each got 100 pennies to use for betting, and we would play in our same groups of four for one hour. We took turns dealing, and the dealer chose the type of poker as well as any wild cards or special rules. If you ran out of coins before the hour was up, you were out, and the object was to finish with as many coins as possible.
We started with a few games of simple draw poker. I had some good hands, some bad hands, and one hand where I actually won with three of a kind, so I had about the same number of coins I started with when it came around to Kieran’s second turn to deal.
“Guts,” Kieran said. “Do you guys know how to play Guts?”
“I don’t,” I said.
“You ante one chip and get two cards. A pair beats no pair, and other than that it’s just the highest cards, like poker. If you want to stay in, you hold a chip, make a fist, and we all show at the same time if we’re in. Highest hand takes the pot, and anyone who stayed in and lost has to put in as many chips as there were in the pot, so it keeps getting bigger. If only one person stays in, they take the pot and the round is over. I’ll explain it as we go along too.”
I did not like this game. I did not have guts. But it was Kieran’s turn to pick the game, so I had no say in this. My first hand was a three and a five, so I dropped out. All the others stayed in; Kieran won, so he took the four coins from the pot, and Xander and Matt each had to put four more coins in the pot. My next hand was an ace and queen. This was a much better hand; the only things that beat this were ace-king or a pair. Although it was far from a guaranteed win, I decided to stay in. Kieran was the only other one who stayed in, and he had a pair of sixes; he took the eight coins in the pot, and I had to pay eight coins to make the new pot. My next hand was a four and seven; I was out, and Kieran was the only one to stay in, so he took my eight coins, and the game was over. I was the next dealer, and I chose to go back to draw poker. Guts was not my kind of game, especially in a high-stakes situation like this.
Over the course of the hour, I gradually lost money as I played conservatively. I had a few wins, and a few major losses. In one round of seven-card stud, I was dealt two queens in the hole, and after I got another queen on the second face-up card, I placed a large bet on the final round, struggling to keep a poker face. Xander, who had two aces showing, stayed in. He ended up having a third ace in the hole, but I finished with a full house and took the pot.
With about ten minutes to go, I had sixty-eight coins, and Kieran called Guts for the game. I dropped out on the first deal and lost on the second; no one else had dropped out, so the pot was now twenty-four coins. My next hand was two eights. This was a pretty good hand; the only things that could beat it would be a higher pair. I tried using what I had learned in Dr. Thomas’ combinatorics class to figure out my chances of winning, but I could not complete the calculation in time. I decided I was in; Matt and Kieran stayed in as well. We showed our hands; Matt had a king and queen, but Kieran had two jacks. Kieran took the pot, and Matt and I each had to put another twenty-four coins in.
In the next deal, I got a pair of queens. I felt pretty confident about my chances. Xander and Kieran stayed in as well; Xander had an ace and nine, but Kieran had a pair of kings. Kieran took the forty-eight coins in the pot, and Xander and I each had to put forty-eight coins in the pot. “I’m out of coins,” I said. “I lost.” I put all of my remaining coins in the pot and watched the other three continue playing.
When the hour was finished, I dejectedly told Brian that I had no money left. I also handed him the disc he had loaned me, but he told me to keep it. “It wasn’t very expensive.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked over to the couch and sat. Eddie saw me a few minutes later and asked, “How’d you do, Greg?”
“Not very well. I ate seven burgers, but I did terribly in the other two events. I really hope I’m not the Weenie. I spent enough time in elementary school being made fun of for not being good at things.”
“This is supposed to be fun. Don’t get discouraged. We won’t make fun of you.”
“I know. I’m just competitive. But it was fun. And hopefully I’ll do better next year.”
“I’m going to help count scores,” Eddie said. “But don’t feel bad.”
It took a while for Brian and Eddie to evaluate everyone’s scores. No one explained how exactly the scores for the three events were combined to choose a Man of Steel and a Weenie. I knew I was not going to win; at this point, I was just hoping not to be the Weenie.
Brian emerged from the back of the house and got everyone’s attention again. “Gentlemen, the 1996 Weenie is Dan Conway!” Brian gave Dan his Weenie prize, an extra-small T-shirt. “Next,” Brian continued, “the runner up… Alex McCann!” Alex stood up, and everyone applauded. Brian held up a small trophy and said, “And the winner of the 12th annual Man of Steel Competition, your 1996 Man of Steel… Mike Kozlovsky!”
I applauded, along with everyone else. I was not particularly surprised by this. Mike’s first ever perfect score in the hamburger eating event was certainly impressive.
I hung out for about another hour, talking to people, and I joined in another game of poker just for fun. Eddie actually told me years later that Dan and I had tied for Weenie, but that he and Brian decided to give it to Dan. Dan would get a good laugh out of it, and Eddie did not want to humiliate me, since I was new to the group and participating in my first Man of Steel.
Now that I knew what to expect, I would go into future Man of Steel competitions a bit more relaxed. I was doing this to have fun with friends. I would have no expectation of ever being in contention of winning this competition, because I was terrible at disc golf, my understanding of poker would only help me if I drew a few lucky hands, and while I was respectable at eating, I was nowhere near on par with Mike Kozlovsky or Alex. This was the first of four Man of Steel competitions I would participate in during the years I lived in Jeromeville, and after having been through this first one, going into future competitions with no expectation of winning made them more enjoyable. And, who knows… I just might surprise myself someday.
The Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, ASUJ for short, was the organization responsible for student activities at UJ. They held two major festivals every year. They were less than a month apart, since both involved traditions specific to spring. The Spring Picnic, which began decades ago as the school’s open house and grew into a major festival, was interesting and fun. The other festival was called the Mother Earth Festival, held on Mother’s Day weekend. It was a bunch of hippie stuff, not really my thing.
I attended the Mother Earth Festival exactly once, in 1996. It was a Saturday afternoon, I was bored, and I decided to check it out, so I got on my bike, parked it on campus, and walked around the Quad.
The Quad was packed. Craft and vendor booths lined the edges of the Quad, with a sea of humanity in between. I walked along the row of booths, peeking at what was happening inside. Face painting. Beads. Tie-dyeing. Henna tattoos. These round things with feathers on them that the sign called dreamcatchers. At the south end of the quad, the temporary stage where I saw Lawsuit at previous Spring Picnics was set up, and two musicians were playing instruments I could not identify while some lady in a long skirt with armpit hair frolicked and pranced on the stage. I walked up the other side of the Quad, looking at other booths, before deciding that nothing here particularly piqued my interest. The most memorable thing I remember seeing in the fifteen minutes I spent at the Mother Earth Festival was this girl with big boobs sunbathing in a bikini. She and her flat-chested friend were not dressed as hippies at all, and their armpits were actually shaved. I looked at them for about five seconds, then moved on so it would not look creepy.
As I approached the place where I had parked, I walked past a bench and saw a girl named Maria who was in my Advanced Composition class last quarter, sitting on a bench looking away from me. I took my rolled-up copy of the Mother Earth Festival schedule of events, and I tapped her on the shoulder with it.
Maria turned to look at me, except it was not Maria. This girl had a similar build, hairstyle, and coloring, but otherwise looked nothing like Maria.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought you were someone else.” I walked away before the other girl could respond.
Why did I do that? I kept replaying the embarrassing incident in my mind as I rode my bike back home. Maria had not been not looking at me, I had no need to go out of my way to say hi to her, and I did not really want to talk to Maria anyway. The angry political messages on the buttons all over her backpack clearly indicated that she was not the kind of person I wanted to get to know, and I did not find her attractive. And now some other girl probably thought I was a weirdo, all because I had decided to be friendly.
Unfortunately for me, I tended to be just as awkward around girls I actually did find attractive. Two days later, during a break between classes, I was walking around the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit. I held a slice of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate and a Coca-Cola in a reusable large plastic mug. Some division of ASUJ was handing these mugs out free a few weeks ago, to encourage people not to fill up the landfills with disposable cups. Drinks were 25 cents less at the ASUJ Coffee House for customers bringing their own cups. Of course, I had a disposable paper plate, but at least that was biodegradable, and bringing an actual plate to campus would be somewhat unwieldy.
I looked out the window to a courtyard-like area, which was surrounded on three sides by the building. A large round fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, but it was dry and had been ever since I began attending UJ. Metal tables and chairs were arranged around part of the courtyard. I felt that familiar jolt of excitement and nervousness as I saw Haley Channing sitting at one of those tables, alone. Finally, this might be a chance to talk to Haley one-on-one with no one else around. I almost spilled my drink as I opened the door leading to the courtyard, but caught myself. “Hey,” I said as I walked up to Haley. “May I sit here?”
“Hi, Greg!” Haley replied, smiling. “Go ahead!”
I placed my food on the table and sat down. “How’s your day going?” I asked.
“Pretty good, except I have a paper to write. I’m gonna be busy tonight. You?”
“I’m good. I have a lot of math homework, though.”
“What math class are you taking?”
“Applied Linear Algebra and Combinatorics. Two classes.”
“I have no idea what either of those mean.”
“Linear algebra works with matrices.”
“I kind of remember matrices in high school, a little bit.”
“And combinatorics is about problems that come up with counting combinations and things like that. If I have license plates with three letters and three numbers, and I need to figure out how many possible license plates there could be, that’s a combinatorics problem. At least that’s what we did back in the first chapter.”
“It is. I also really like the professor for that class.” I looked up and saw a familiar face walking toward us; it was Claire Seaver from church. I waved, and Claire walked over to our table.
“Hey,” Claire said to me. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well. Claire, this is Haley–”
“Hi, Haley,” Claire interrupted, smiling.
“Hi,” Haley replied with a tone of recognition.
“How do you two know each other?” I asked, trying to hide my shame in not knowing this and being caught off guard.
“Chorus,” Haley replied. “I used to do that last year.”
“I keep telling Greg he should join chorus,” Claire said.
“You should!” Haley told me. “I’ve heard you sing. You have a good voice.”
“Maybe,” I replied.
“How were your weekends?” Claire asked. “Did you guys call your mothers for Mother’s Day?”
“I did,” Haley said.
“I saw this thing on the Internet the other day where you can send someone flowers by email. You get an email, and it’s a picture of flowers with a personalized message,” I said. “My parents just got email recently, Mom loves email, so I sent one of those to Mom.”
“That’s fun,” Claire replied.
“If I’m going to send flowers to my mother, she’s gonna get real flowers,” Haley said. “No emails and pictures for my mother.”
“I need to get going, but I’ll see you guys later,” Claire said. We both waved and said goodbye as she walked away. As I took a bite of my pizza and chewed it, I kept thinking that I was probably blowing it with Haley. I had tried to introduce herself to someone she already knew, and she disapproved of my Mother’s Day gift. After I swallowed my pizza, I attempted to resurrect the conversation, asking, “Do you still do chorus now?”
“No. I did last year, but I have too much going on now.”
“That makes sense. I played piano as a kid, but I was always so self-conscious about performing for others. But I’m starting to get over that. This year I started singing in my church choir; that’s how I know Claire.”
“Nice! Chorus is always looking for guys.”
“Maybe I will for next year,” I said. We continued making small talk as we finished eating, and I hoped that she could not read disappointment in my body language. I could not help but feel like I had embarrassed myself in front of her.
Whenever I introduce two people now, I always ask them first if they know each other; this is a direct result of that incident all those years ago when I tried to introduce Claire and Haley. But that was still not the worst awkward moment I experienced that week.
I was back in the Memorial Union a few days later, looking for a place to study, and I saw a familiar brown-haired face sitting at a table by herself. It was my friend Lizzie, one of those people whom I initially crossed paths with just because we knew someone in common. Lizzie went to high school with Jack Chalmers, another math major who had been in multiple classes with me. Last fall, Jack and I had linear algebra together, and Lizzie had a class in the same classroom right before ours. Jack and Lizzie would say hi to each other as we waited in the hall and her class exited the room. Jack talked a lot, and he talked fast, and sometimes he would say hi to Lizzie in the middle of a sentence with me. He would say something like, “Hey Greg I’m totally not ready for this test and I blew off studying last night Hi Lizzie! so I hope I don’t bomb it because I totally need to keep my grades up.” Eventually, I started saying hi to Lizzie when I saw her around campus, and we had actually had conversations beyond hello a few times.
“Hey,” I said, approaching Lizzie’s table. “Mind if I sit here?”
“I’m doing okay. Just busy with classes. What about you?”
“Same with me. I have a midterm tomorrow. But the school year is almost over!”
“I know! Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”
“Just going home and working. I need the money. What about you?”
“I’m staying here, taking a class. This will be the first time I’ve been in Jeromeville for the summer.”
“I hear it gets really hot!”
“I kind of like the heat, though.”
“What class are you taking?”
“Computer Science 40,” I explained. “I’m taking CS 30 now, it’s required for the math major, and I love it. There’s an upper division CS class, Data Structures, that counts toward my degree in place of a math class, but it requires 30 and 40 as prerequisites. It’s really hard to get CS classes because there are so many CS majors, and not much computer lab space, so they put a cap on how many can enroll, and CS majors have priority. Enrollment wasn’t restricted for the summer class.”
“Smart!” Lizzie replied. “You’re a math major, right? That’s how you know Jack?”
“Why didn’t you major in CS, if you like it that much?”
“Because I didn’t want something fun to turn into work. Also, my computer knowledge was several years out of date by the time I got here, and I knew I’d be competing with kids whose knowledge was much more advanced.”
“That makes sense. So you’re just taking the one class?”
“Yeah. First session. I’m not taking any classes second session. I’ll probably just hang out here and try to find something fun to do.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve discovered over the last couple years that I like to write. I’m working on a novel now, when I have time and I’m in the right mood.”
“That’s so cool!”
“Just for fun,” I said. “I know, I’m a math guy, I’m not supposed to be a writer.”
“There’s this guy, he’s a senior in high school, but he needs a fresh start, and he wants to leave his past behind. So he goes away to live with relatives. And he feels like he isn’t ready to move on to the next part of his life, so he pretends to be younger so he can have a couple more years in high school.”
“Wow,” Lizzie said. “Where’d you get the idea for that?”
“I guess I’ve kind of wished for that myself,” I explained. “I feel like I really grew a lot my senior year of high school, but then just as life was getting interesting, my friends and I all graduated and moved away and lost touch. I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had another year or two to grow in that environment, if I would have gotten to experience more things I missed out on.”
“Well, I think you turned out fine.”
“Thank you,” I said. Then, after a pause, I added, “You can read it if you want.”
“Yeah! It sounds really good!”
“I could email you some of what I have so far. Does that work?”
“Sure. Let me give you my email.” Lizzie tore off a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote on it, then passed it to me. I opened it and read what she wrote, very confused for a few seconds, then suddenly frightened and embarrassed as I began to realize the full implications of what I read.
Lindsay’s email: email@example.com
Lindsay’s email. I had known this girl, whom I had been calling Lizzie, for over seven months, and this whole time her name was Lindsay. I had never seen her name in print before. I knew her through Jack, who talks really fast, so when I heard Jack say “Hi, Lindsay,” it came out sounding like “Hi Lizzie.” I suddenly tried to recall every time I had actually spoken to Lindsay, trying to remember if I had ever called her Lizzie to her face. I could not remember. I looked up at her, trying to put the name Lindsay Vandenberg to this face, and it felt weird, because she was still Lizzie to me.
“Greg?” Lindsay asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was just thinking about something. No big deal. But I’ll send you my story.”
“Great! I look forward to reading it!” Lindsay looked at her watch. “I need to get going, I have class, but I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”
“Yeah! Have a great day!”
I never found out if Lindsay knew that I thought her name was Lizzie for seven months. She was never in my inner social circle, and we did not stay in touch after we graduated, but we always said hi to each other on campus.
For some reason, I have always disliked using people’s names out loud. It just feels uncomfortable to me, and I do not know why. But this odd quirk may have worked to my advantage on that day, because it was entirely possible that I had never actually called Lindsay Lizzie outside of my own head. When I saw her, I was much more likely to just say “Hi” instead of “Hi, Lizzie.” But even if I had ever accidentally called her Lizzie, there was not much that I could do about it now. Besides, while my realization that Lindsay’s name was not Lizzie felt awkward and embarrassing, much of that embarrassment was in my own head. If it was unlikely that she ever heard me call her Lizzie, she would have no way of knowing that I did not know her real name for so long.
Most guys have had their share of awkward moments around girls; and, of course, this statement applied to other combinations of genders and orientations as well. I always felt particularly prone to awkward moments, mostly because I had never had a girlfriend, and I seemed to lack successful non-awkward experience with girls. Over the years, I would have many more experiences of getting someone’s name wrong, or saying something that was misinterpreted. But I have seen enough over the years now to know that I certainly was not alone in this. And many others have had awkward moments that primarily happened in their own heads, unnoticed by those around them. I just had to accept the fact that I was not perfect, and the right people in my life would accept me, flaws and all.
A few months before every Olympic Games, the Olympic torch is lit by the sun on Mount Olympus in Greece and brought across Greece and the country hosting the Games that year. In 1996, the upcoming Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta, on the opposite side of the United States from Jeromeville. The torch would travel across the United States by way of a relay. Thousands of people would carry the torch for a short distance, then pass it to someone else, with crowds of onlookers watching as the torch made its way across their parts of the country.
On the day before the torch passed through Jeromeville, I sat alone at a table at the Memorial Union, eating a burrito and doing the crossword puzzle in the Daily Colt. I had work to do, I had a combinatorics midterm coming up in a few days, but I was not in the mood to do work, given everything on my mind. I had been looking for a house for next year, with no luck so far, and I was starting to worry about this. (This was before I talked to Shawn about looking for an apartment instead.)
I walked into combinatorics class about five minutes before it was scheduled to start; this was the last class before the midterm. I was a quarter ahead in math entering the University of Jeromeville, so I did not take freshman calculus in large lecture halls with people who were taking math on schedule. Because of that, this combinatorics class, with about eighty people, was the largest math class I had taken at UJ so far. I looked around the room and saw Andrea Briggs, who had been in a few classes with me before and lived in the dorm next to mine last year. She sat next to an open seat, so I walked up to it and asked, “May I sit here?”
“Sure,” Andrea replied.
“How are you?”
“I’m great!” she said. “Jay came to visit this weekend, and he proposed!” Andrea held up her left hand, with the third finger now bearing a diamond ring.
“Congratulations!” I said awkwardly. Was that the right thing to say in response to this? I was not sure. As far as I knew, she was the first of my friends to get engaged. This was a completely new experience to me.
“What about you?” she asked. “How are you?”
“My week hasn’t been nearly as exciting. I had a quiz in my other math class this morning.”
“Which class? How’d you do?”
“167, with Dr. Ionescu. I’m getting an A in that class, but I feel like I’m not learning anything. Most of what we’re doing is just review from 22A. And the entire grade is based on surprise quizzes every three or four classes, so there’s no reason to remember anything.”
“Yeah, that’s weird. But at least you’re getting an A.”
Gabby, the combinatorics professor, began lecturing about generating functions for recurrence relations, so I stopped talking and began taking notes. Dr. Gabrielle Thomas was my favorite math professor at UJ so far. She was fairly young, I would guess in her thirties; she spoke English clearly; and she told us to call her Gabby, which seemed refreshingly informal to me. That made her feel more like a human being, whom I could relate to, compared to many of my other professors.
I tried to focus on what Gabby was saying, because of the upcoming midterm. I still had not mastered recurrence relations, but I thought I would probably do fine once I took the time to study and practice the material. However, I had a hard time concentrating today. I kept wanting to sneak glances at Andrea’s left hand, not because of any particular curiosity about what her ring looked like, but because she had one in the first place. I was over Andrea as a possible love interest; I found out over a year ago that she had a boyfriend. But it just felt weird, and discouraging, that I was at the age when my friends would be getting married. Andrea would soon be committing herself to one man for life, probably starting a family with him after she finished school, and I had still never kissed a girl.
After class, as I headed back to the Memorial Union where my bicycle was parked, I saw Danielle Coronado and Claire Seaver from church sitting at a table talking. Danielle was one of the first friends I made at UJ; she lived down the hall from me in my dorm last year. “Hey,” I said as I approached them.
“Greg!” Danielle said, smiling and waving.
“Hey, Greg,” Claire said. “Have you started your project yet?”
“Which math class do you two have together?” Danielle asked me.
“Anthro 2,” I explained. “Not math.” Danielle’s assumption was warranted, however, because Claire was a music major with a minor in mathematics.
“Yes. Dick Small.” I still found that name hilarious, because of my extensive background in dirty jokes. “I’m going to observe and write about the IRC channel FriendlyChat,” I continued.
“Is that that thing where you talk to strangers on the computer?”
“Yeah. Internet Relay Chat. I was in FriendlyChat earlier today, and there’s some kind of complicated leadership structure with who gets to be a channel operator, and all these rules that they get mad at you for not knowing. And when I kept announcing that I was doing an anthro project, as the ethics of anthropology require, some of them got mad at me for spamming. So I’m off to a frustrating start.”
“Well, hopefully you’ll figure out a way to get your project done.”
“I hope so. I’m just stressed about a lot of things.”
“Sounds like it.”
“I want to go see the torch tomorrow, though,” I said.
“Oh yeah! When is that supposed to be?”
“It’ll be passing along Fifth Street between 1 and 2.”
“I have class,” Danielle said, feeling slightly disappointed. “But have fun!”
“I will! I’m going to head home now, but I’ll see you guys soon.”
“Bye, Greg,” Claire said.
“Bye,” Danielle added, waving.
I waved at the girls as I walked to my bicycle and went home. I was riding a little more slowly than usual. I felt weighed down by my upcoming midterm, the anthro project, looking for a house, and my fear of being left behind now that people I knew were getting married.
I had most of the next day free. After I finished my one class, I planned to stay on campus and get work done until around noon, eat lunch, then go find a place to watch the Olympic torch. I walked into the Memorial Union after class and looked for a table. I saw Sarah Winters, whom I knew both from the dorm last year and from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sitting by herself at a table, reading, with a notebook and textbook open. I walked to her table and asked, “May I sit here?”
“Yeah!” Sarah said. “How are you?”
“I’m stressed,” I said.
“What’s going on?”
“I’ve been trying to find a house for us next year, I’ve looked at a bunch of places, and I haven’t heard anything back yet. And I have a big midterm for Math 145 tomorrow. And I’m frustrated in general with Applied Linear Algebra, Math 167. That class is a waste of time, and I’m not learning anything.” Sarah began writing something as I continued speaking. “And I just found out that someone I know, her boyfriend proposed. I’ve never even had a girlfriend, and now I have friends who are getting married.” As Sarah continued writing, I wondered if I was bothering her, if I should let her work on whatever she was doing. “And I have this big project for Anthro 2 that I need to work on, and what I wanted to do hasn’t been working out so far.” I stopped talking now, because Sarah was clearly busy with whatever she was working on. I got out my combinatorics textbook and began looking over the section that would be covered on the test tomorrow.
“This is for you,” Sarah said, as she placed the paper she had been writing on top of my textbook. I read what she wrote:
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6
I looked up and saw Sarah looking at me with a peaceful, contented smile on her face. “Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile in return.
“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Sarah said. “Really.”
“I know,” I said. “But–”
“You’ll be okay.”
I took a deep breath. “I’ll be okay.”
We sat there for the rest of the hour studying, occasionally making small talk. “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sarah asked at one point.
“I’m done with classes for the day. But I’m gonna go see the torch.”
“Fun! I can’t. I’ll be in class during that time.”
I looked again at the note that Sarah wrote. God had a plan for me. My grades, my house for next year, my future wife, all of this was in God’s hands. Trust God. The second verse, from Proverbs, was a little bit familiar to me already, because there was a song we sang at Bible study sometimes based on that verse. I had made a decision that I was living my life for Jesus, and now it was time to trust him to make this all work out somehow.
Sarah left to go to class a bit later. As I continued studying combinatorics, I really did begin to feel better about tomorrow’s midterm. At noon, I got out the sandwich I had packed that morning, and when I finished that, I headed toward Fifth Street at the northern edge of campus. Crowds waiting to see the torch were already beginning to line the street. I found a spot next to an aged olive tree and leaned against the tree, waiting. I had my backpack with me, so I continued studying combinatorics while I waited for the torch to arrive.
After I had been waiting for about forty minutes, I saw police cars approaching slowly, stopping drivers and pedestrians from entering or crossing Fifth Street. This must be it. Behind the police cars were a number of official vehicles with US and Olympic flags; a truck from Coca-Cola, the event’s sponsor; and finally someone wearing running shorts holding the Olympic torch. I did not know if the torchbearer was someone famous or not.
I looked up at the torch in wonder. That flame was ignited on the other side of the world and brought all the way here, continuously burning. That felt kind of surreal. This was a symbol of one of the biggest athletic events on Earth. In two months, the world would be watching athletes from every inhabited continent competing for Olympic glory, and this same flame would burn over the shiny new stadium that Atlanta had just finished building for these Games. People cheered at the moment that the torchbearer passed in front of them, and I joined in as he passed me.
A few minutes after the torch passed, when the entire entourage had moved beyond where I was standing, I turned around to go back to the Memorial Union, where my bicycle was parked. “Excuse me?” a man asked me. He had a fancy camera on a strap around his neck and a small Coca-Cola logo embroidered on his shirt on his chest to his left.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Can I get a picture of you holding this?” The man handed me a full, unopened Coca-Cola plastic bottle.
I was confused. “Why me?” I asked.
“No reason. I’m just looking for people to photograph with Coke bottles, for our promotional materials.”
“Okay,” I said. I smiled at the camera, holding the drink up, as he clicked the shutter a few times.
“Thank you!” the photographer said. “You can keep the Coke.”
I walked back toward my bike as I drank my free Coca-Cola. To this day, I never saw my picture in any Coca-Cola advertisements, so I do not know if they ever ended up doing anything with the picture. But I got a free drink out of it.
When I got home that afternoon, I turned on the computer and connected to the campus Internet, listening to the whirs and clicks of the modem dialing the access number. I opened a text terminal and connected to Internet Relay Chat, then entered the FriendlyChat channel using my usual screen name, “gjd76.” About a minute after I joined, I copied and pasted the same message I copied and pasted every fifteen minutes while I was working on this: “I am working on a project for an anthropology class, making observations of the culture in this channel. I will not use your actual names or actual screen names.”
“gjd76, u might not wanna tell us that, people might act different if they know ur studying them,” one person typed.
“true, but my professor says it’s unethical not to tell people they’re being studied,” I replied.
“Let me know if I can answer any questions for you,” one of the channel operators said.
“i will,” I typed back. So far, this was going much better than yesterday; people were actually being helpful.
As I reached for my notebook in my backpack, I found the note that Sarah had written to me, with the Bible verses on it. I read it again. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Good advice. I took two push pins and attached Sarah’s note to the bulletin board above my desk. That way it could be a reminder for me while I was sitting here at the computer; I could look up and see those Scriptures.
I spent about an hour and a half in the FriendlyChat channel, and this time I was able to make much more meaningful observations and have more meaningful interactions with the people in the chat than I had yesterday. If I had a few more days like this, I would have plenty of material to use to write my paper. I also felt much better about my midterm for combinatorics, after having studied today. I had still not heard from any of the houses I was looking for, but the more I thought about this, I decided I would talk to my roommates for next year and find out if they would be willing to look for an apartment instead. They were fine with living in an apartment, and we did end up getting one, as I told before. And while I was still discouraged with my own lack of romantic relationship in light of Andrea being engaged, the Lord had a plan for her that was not his plan for me, and I was not ready to begin thinking about marriage with anyone right now. I was better off trusting in His timing.
I would learn later in life that the quote from Jeremiah is often derided as one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context. Reading the chapters around it reveals that God declared those words to a specific group of people at a specific time, not to everyone reading them throughout all of history. However, statements like that reveal the character of God, and although Jeremiah was not writing to me, the God who had a plan for his people thousands of years ago did also have a plan for me in 1996. The precise concept of “prosper” may not have involved material wealth in my case, but I just had to trust that God knew what was best for me. Those two verses became ones that I have known from memory ever since.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding,” I began singing under my breath. I liked that song, the one I had heard at Bible study before. I did not know any of this at the time, but the original vocalist of that song was the same age as me, and still a teenager when the song was recorded. The guitarist, who actually wrote the song, was not much older. The two of them and their band would go on to have a major pop hit a few years later, which would confuse me a little in a time when I tended to draw very strict lines between Christian and secular music. But that is a story for another time.