November 5, 1997.  Another epic prank. (#152)

“Excuse me?” the employee at the grocery store told me.  “You’re not allowed to have that in here.”

“What?” I asked.

“The camera.  Those aren’t allowed in here.”

“Why?”

“Company policy.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know.  But it’s our company policy.”

“That’s dumb,” I said.

I sulked toward the front of the store, holding two 12-packs of toilet paper in one hand and the Santoros’ video camera in the other.  Taylor, Noah, and Erica were standing near the front of the store, each also holding toilet paper.  “They said we weren’t allowed to use the camera in here,” I said, disappointed.

“What?” Erica replied.

“Maybe because they don’t want competitors to find out how they do business, or what their prices are,” Noah explained.

“I guess that makes sense,” I said.  “But then we’ll be missing the start of the video where it shows all of us buying toilet paper.

“What if we film from the parking lot?  We can show each of us walking out of the store with toilet paper,” Taylor suggested.

“That’s a great idea,” I said.  “Where are Brody and Courtney?”

“Here they come,” Taylor pointed across the store, where Brody and Courtney approached us, each carrying toilet paper and giggling about something, as they often did.  The six of us all got in line to pay for our purchases.

“Wow,” the cashier commented, seeing all of us buying toilet paper together.  “Someone’s getting hit tonight.”  I laughed.

I went through the line first and waited outside, with the camera running.  We had each paid separately because we wanted to record a video of each of us individually buying toilet paper.  I stood in the parking lot and recorded Taylor, Noah, Courtney, Brody, and Erica each walking out of the store holding toilet paper, with about three seconds between each person.  I then walked inside the store and walked back out carrying my toilet paper, with Brody holding the camera, so that I could be in the video as well.


Lucky closed at midnight on weekdays, and we had finished our purchase and left the store about half an hour before closing.  It was a Wednesday night, and a few hours ago, we had all been at The Edge, the youth group for junior high school students at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  I was borrowing a VHS video camera from Zac Santoro and his family, because we were making a movie based on my characters Dog Crap and Vince.  That was the week that we had recorded the school dance scene after youth group.  The students did not know that we had plans to make another video with the same camera after they went home and went to bed.

A week ago, during our weekly meeting before the students arrive, we were talking about playing some kind of fun, non-destructive prank on a large group of students, and making a video of it to show at youth group.  “Does anyone have a video camera?” Noah asked.

“I’m borrowing one from the Santoros right now, because we’re working on the Dog Crap and Vince movie,” I explained.

“That’s perfect!”  We discussed all of the usual playful pranks that were popular at the time and made a plan.  Not everyone participated; Cambria and Hannah both had midterms to study for and could not stay up all night, as this would probably require.  Adam, the youth pastor, politely declined, although he was completely supportive of what we were planning to do.

Back then, Brody drove an old family sedan that seated six, three in front and three in back. The car had been his family’s old car.  We all piled in the car and headed north on Andrews Road, across Coventry Boulevard, toward the Santoros’ house.  We went there first because it was the closest.  “Kind of ironic that we’re using the Santoros’ camera to record the Santoros getting toilet-papered,” I remarked.

“I know!” Taylor said.

Brody stopped the car around the corner from the Santoros’ house, far enough away that they would not notice.  “Wait,” Taylor said before we got out.  “Let’s make sure to ration our toilet paper.  How many houses are we hitting?”

Noah looked at the list that we had made earlier.  “Eighteen,” he said.

“And we each got two 12-packs, so that’s 24 rolls.  Six of us, what’s six times 24?”

“One hundred forty-four,” I blurted out.

“And eighteen houses, what’s 144 divided by 18?”

“Eight,” I replied just as quickly.

“Good thing we have a math major on this adventure!” Courtney said.

“Yeah, because apparently you need my advanced math skills to do second grade arithmetic.  Just kidding.”

“So,” Taylor said, “maximum of eight rolls per house.  Ready?  Go!”

We began unwrapping the cases of toilet paper.  We carefully counted out eight rolls and walked quickly but quietly to the Santoros’ front yard, some of us carrying one roll and some of us carrying two.  Brody looked ready to throw his in the tree, but Taylor grabbed his arm.  “Wait!” he whispered.

“What?” Brody mouthed silently.

“We should show the house on camera first with no toilet paper.  So Zac can recognize his house.  Then we’ll show scenes of us TP’ing it.  And do that for all the houses.”

“Good idea,” I mouthed, nodding.  I started the camera and recorded the front of the house for a few seconds.  Then as the others threw their rolls of toilet paper into the trees and bushes, I continued recording people throwing toilet paper flying through the air, and the trees and bushes covered in long white streaks.  We stood back and admired our work for a few seconds, then quickly walked back to the car.  It was already midnight on a school night, and we had a lot of work to do.

Next, we drove the quarter-mile to Samantha Willis’ house, on the end of a cul-de-sac off of Alvarez Avenue.  We parked at the other end of the street, near the corner with Alvarez, and carried a total of eight rolls of toilet paper to the Willises’ front yard.  I had not been to this house before, but it backed up to the Coventry Greenbelt, so I had probably been on a bike ride at some point and seen the Willises’ back fence from a distance without realizing it.  The other five carefully tiptoed around the yard, throwing toilet paper up into the tree and across the bushes, as I stood back recording it all on camera.  I made sure to get a clear shot of the house, so that Samantha and her friends would recognize the house.  “This video is gonna be so cool,” I whispered to Taylor and Noah as we quietly walked back to the car.


We had been planning this event for the last week, and I had been assigned the task of making our route, since everyone knew that I was good with maps and directions.  Noah and Taylor, in consultation with Adam, had made a list of which students’ houses to visit.  We only included students from families that were regularly involved at church and families whom the youth leaders knew well.  Some of the kids came from families that would not appreciate being pranked, and some families were unsupportive of their children’s involvement with Christianity, so we did not want to get in trouble or jeopardize our relationships with those students and their families.

We hit a few more houses in north Jeromeville, then headed west across the overpass at Highway 117 to three houses in west Jeromeville.  We arrived at the Fosters’ house first of those three.  As we approached the front yard, full of bushes that could hold a lot of toilet paper, Erica turned to me and said, “This is really weird, toilet-papering my own house.”

“I know!” I said.  I kept one roll for myself, because of something I thought of on the drive over here.  When the other seven rolls had been strewn about the bushes, I unrolled mine and began decorating a large bush that had mostly been missed by the others.

As we tiptoed back to the car, I could now turn to Erica and whisper, “Your house is now the only house in the world which I have toilet-papered twice, once on the outside and once on the inside.”  I knew that Erica knew of my involvement in the prank that we pulled for her birthday last year, so I was not incriminating myself by saying that.

Erica thought about this for a second, then smiled and laughed.  “Oh, yeah!” she whispered back.  “And I never changed my answering machine from that night!  People still hear you guys singing when they call me!”

“That’s amazing!”

“I still think it’s hilarious that you filled up all those water bottles.”

“I think that was Brody’s idea.”

“Sounds like a Brody thing.”

Several houses later, we were driving along 8th Street in central Jeromeville when we noticed another car behind us turning out from a side street.  A few seconds later, flashing red and blue lights appeared from the car behind us.  Brody swore and signaled to pull over.  I looked at Taylor and Noah, horrified.  “Hide the toilet paper!” Taylor said, as we attempted to push as much of it as we could under our feet.

As Brody rolled down the window, the police officer from the car that pulled us over approached and said, “Your tail light is cracked.”

“It is?” Brody said.  “I didn’t know that.”

“Can I see your license and registration?” the officer asked.  Brody produced the necessary paperwork, and the officer filled out a ticket for Brody to repair the taillight.

“I’ll get that taken care of,” Brody said, looking at the ticket and putting it aside.

“Have any of you been drinking?”

“What?  No, we haven’t.”

“Step out of the car, please.”

Brody stepped out of the car as I sat silently in the back, terrified, looking at the others who were being equally silent.  After a couple minutes, the officer was sufficiently satisfied that Brody was sober and let him return to the car.  The police car drove off.

“Turn on the camera!” Taylor said.  I did so and pointed it at Taylor, who spoke to the camera.  “This is Taylor, reporting live from The Edge.  We just got stopped by the cops!  Brody, tell them what happened.”

I turned the camera to Brody, who said, “He said my tail light was cracked.”

“What else?”

“He wanted to know if I had been drinking.” Brody chuckled.  “Of course not.”

“We now return you to your regularly scheduled program,” Taylor said.  I turned the camera off.

A little bit later, we parked down the street from the Foremans’ house.  The Foremans had two students in The Edge, eighth-grade Shawna and seventh-grade Cory.  They lived on a cul-de-sac, this one in an older neighborhood, off of M Street just east of downtown Jeromeville.  “Be careful,” Noah whispered to the rest of us just before we got out of the car.  “They have dogs that might start barking.”  I nodded quietly.

Courtney was in the front as the six of us walked toward the Foremans’ house.  Their next-door neighbors had a tall sycamore tree that was beginning to shed leaves, and Courtney stepped on a dry, crunchy leaf as we reached the Foremans’ driveway.  As soon as the leaf crunched, two dogs began barking loudly.

“Run!” Noah whispered.  The six of us made an abrupt about-face and ran down to the car parked four houses away.  After we caught our breath, Taylor told me to start recording.  Brody turned north on M Street as Taylor announced, “This is Taylor, coming to you live from The Edge!  Shawna, Corey, we tried to include your house on this, but your dogs started barking.  If you woke up to the dogs barking in the middle of the night Wednesday night, or Thursday morning, that was us.  Sorry if we woke you up.  Hope you got back to sleep.”

We continued heading east after the Foremans’ house.  Eventually we reached Beech Drive, where the Houstons and the Suttons lived across the street from each other.  We only had to park once in order to hit both houses.

“They’re going to know right away it was us,” Noah said.  “Whoever goes outside first in the morning will notice that both of them got hit.”

“Should we only do one of their houses?”

“No, it’s okay.  Everyone will figure it out soon enough.”

I did my usual thing, recording each house from the outside first, then getting footage of the others throwing toilet paper into trees and unrolling toilet paper along bushes.  After we finished on Beech Lane, we drove all the way to Bruce Boulevard on the eastern edge of Jeromeville and crossed south of Highway 100 to hit a few houses in south Jeromeville.  By the time we finally got back to the church, where everyone had parked, it was almost three in the morning.  I walked home, since I lived just a short distance from church, and very quietly tiptoed to my bed and slept for less than four hours, since I had a full day of class and working as a tutor tomorrow.


“Greg,” I heard a woman’s voice say as I was leaving church the following Sunday.  I turned around and saw Mrs. Houston smiling at me.  “How was your week?” she asked.

“It was good,” I said.

“I was thinking about you the other day.  I was going to call you in the middle of the night and remind you that we love you.”  I looked at Mrs. Houston, a little confused, and she continued, “You know.  Because you stopped by in the middle of the night and told us that you loved us.”

“I see,” I said, chuckling.

Noah and Adam edited my footage down to a video about seven minutes long, with the Mission: Impossible theme song playing in the background.  This song, originally from an old television show about secret agents, had become popular again in recent years.  A movie based on the old show was released last year, and Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, the bassist and drummer for the band U2, had a top 10 hit with their recording of the theme song.  We showed the video at The Edge the following week, and students cheered and laughed as their houses appeared on the screen.

I have often humorously wondered if God keeps some kind of record for each person of how much toilet paper everyone has used for pranking purposes and how much each person has received as the target of pranks.  If such a ledger exists, mine is far out of balance.  I have thrown many rolls of toilet paper for amusement purposes, mostly during my early twenties but also a couple of times after that, yet I have only ever received one roll in return.  During that same school year, different leaders with The Edge would take turns hosting watch parties for Monday Night Football each week.  This had been a popular tradition with previous years’ groups of students, but the students we had this year were not into football so much.  They would get bored by halftime and just to hang out or play games instead.  The Monday after we showed the video, I was hosting the football watch party, and Noah and Brody, who shared an apartment right across the street from me, were at my house.  Adam pulled me and a couple of the boys aside at one point and said that we should prank Noah and Brody while they watched the game, so in an inconspicuous span of five minutes, we walked across the street with a couple of rolls of toilet paper and decorated the bushes in front of Noah and Brody’s apartment.  The following week, I was at Noah and Brody’s for Monday Night Football, and when I got home, I noticed that someone had tossed one roll of toilet paper into the tree in my front yard.

Of course, there is no eternal consequence for being out of balance like this, and it is not something that affects my life from day to day.  All of this toilet-papering was in good fun, and as Mrs. Houston said, playful and non-destructive pranks like this are a way for recipients of the prank to know that we are loved.


Readers: Those of you who know where I live in real life, please don’t toilet-paper my house. I have enough to deal with right now. Also, tell me about some pranks that you’ve been part of.

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


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October 31-November 2, 1997.  Wrestling with God at Fall Conference. (#151)

The year that I was a senior, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had a large class of freshmen who had been very active in the group.  Also, many of the students in the class above me did not graduate in four years and were still involved in JCF as fifth-year students.  The group was the largest that it had been in the time I had been involved; its Friday night large group meetings were almost completely filling 170 Evans, a lecture hall with two hundred seats.

October 31 was a Friday that year, but there was no large group meeting, because it was the weekend of the annual Fall Conference.  Not everyone who came on a typical Friday had the money and free time for a weekend retreat, but around seventy people from JCF attended Fall Conference that year.  JCF was a chapter of Intervarsity, a nondenominational Christian ministry with chapters at colleges and universities across the United States and a few other countries.  This Fall Conference was a regional retreat, attended by students from Intervarsity chapters at six different schools around the area.  The University of Jeromeville had the largest chapter out of all of them.  Last year, about half of the students at Fall Conference came from UJ.

Those of us who were going met at four o’clock in a parking lot on campus to carpool for the hundred-mile trip north to the retreat center at Muddy Springs.  Tim Walton, a freshman with thick black glasses, approached me as I walked from my car to where the rest of the people were.  He was with another freshman, a tall, sandy-haired guy whom I had met a couple of times whom I knew only as “3.”  “Hey, Greg,” Tim said.  “We’re in your car.”

“Cool,” I replied.  “Who has the list?”

“Dave and Janet.”

I walked over toward Dave and Janet McAllen, the couple who worked full time as staff for JCF.  Janet held a clipboard and made a checkmark next to my name.  I looked to see whose names were next to mine.  Melinda Schmidt, Autumn Davies, Tim Walton, 3.  Even the carpool list just called him 3.  “Autumn isn’t here yet,” Janet said.  “Do you need the directions?”

“I remember how to get there,” I said.

I saw Melinda in the distance; I walked off to tell her that I had arrived.  She carried her bag to my car, where Tim and 3 stood waiting for me to unlock it so they could put their things in the back.  Autumn arrived about five minutes later; after she loaded her bags, the five of us got in the car and headed north on Highway 117.

The North Valley was a productive agricultural region, with a variety of crops grown.  Highway 117 narrowed to one lane in each direction north of Woodville, passing through various fields, pastures, and orchards.  This was a lonely stretch of road, with only one town of around a thousand people in the thirty-mile stretch between Woodville and the point where Highway 117 ended and merged with Highway 9.

“Can I put this in?” Melinda asked, holding up a tape.  “It’s a mixtape of Christian music.”

“Sure,” I replied.  Melinda put her tape into my car stereo; the first song was “Liquid” by Jars of Clay.  I knew that one.

“Did you guys do anything for Halloween?” Autumn asked.

“I was at the Halloween party at the De Anza house,” I said.  “They had it last night, since most of them are on this retreat.  Tim and 3 were there too.”

“How was that?  I wanted to go!”

“It was fun.”

“I wanted to go too,” Melinda added.  “I had a midterm today that I needed to study for.”

“What did you dress as?” Autumn asked.

“I just wore this old 70s-looking jacket that I borrowed it from the lost and found at church.  Xander had a great costume.  He dressed as a hillbilly, with overalls, and a cowboy hat, and a piece of straw in his mouth.  And he had a real missing tooth.”

“What?  Missing tooth?”

“Yeah.  Apparently he really is missing a tooth.  He normally wears a bridge, and he took it out for his costume.”

“Wow,” Autumn said.  “That’s dedication.”

“Lots of good costumes.  Sam Hoffman was Austin Powers.  And Ramon was Michael Jackson.  He even went to campus in costume today.  Did you see him in the parking lot?”

“No!”

“He’s still in costume, with the red jacket and the glove, and he made his hair more curly than usual.”

“That’s amazing!”

“He pulled it off really well,” Tim said.

At its north end, Highway 117 merged into Highway 9 just south of Mecklenburg, a medium-sized city about the size of Jeromeville.  From there, we drove north through various fruit and nut orchards and a few small towns.  Melinda’s tape ran out, and Tim put on a tape with some really weird songs on it.  He said it was from some TV show on a channel I didn’t get.

“You’ve never seen that show?” Tim asked, incredulously.

“I don’t have cable,” I explained.  “None of us really watch TV all that much.  And the cable provider where I grew up doesn’t have a whole lot of channels compared to most places.”

“Wow.”

Around quarter to six, we arrived in Bidwell, a city of about ninety thousand and home to one of this state’s oldest public universities.  My dad had spent his early childhood in Bidwell, and I still had relatives in the area that I had grown up visiting around twice per year.  I had applied to Bidwell State, and was accepted, but Jeromeville is a more prestigious university, and they offered me a scholarship for my grades.  I turned off of Highway 9 at the exit leading to Muddy Springs.  There was a Wendy’s just off of that exit where most of the carpools coming from Jeromeville stopped to eat.  The five of us sat at a table together, watching people from JCF who arrived before us leave and watching others arrive after us.

“I’ve never asked,” Autumn asked 3 at one point.  “Why do they call you ‘3?’”  I was glad Autumn asked, because I had been wondering the same thing since I met 3 a few weeks ago, and I thought asking would be too awkward.

“My real name is Robert A. Silver III,” 3 explained.  “Because I’m The Third, my family just started calling me ‘3’ when I was a kid.  Some people who are The Third go by ‘Trey,’ but my dad just thought ‘3’ sounded better.”

“That’s a great nickname.”

“So is anyone hoping to learn anything specific at this conference?” Melinda asked.  “God spoke to me so much on the China trip over the summer.  I can’t want to do something like that again next summer.”

“What was this China trip?” 3 asked.  Melinda explained that twelve students from JCF went on a mission trip to China over the summer as part of a large group of hundreds of students from various Intervarsity chapters around the US. 3 was a freshman, so he would not have been around last year when they were preparing for the trip.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Just whatever God wants to teach me, I guess.”


After we arrived at Fall Conference, nine miles past Wendy’s into the foothills outside of Bidwell, all six schools had a worship session led by JCF’s worship team.  A group of students, also from Jeromeville, performed a skit about a freshman experiencing Jesus for the first time. In between scenes from a day in the student’s life, Ramon danced in his Michael Jackson costume and sang a song called “Freshman,” to the tune of “Thriller.”  Liz Williams, actually a senior, played the freshman, and from the way she and Ramon behaved after the skit finished, it quickly became apparent to me that they were back together.  Liz and Ramon had been a couple from about a month into freshman year until the start of junior year, when they had an amicable breakup.  To this day, I do not know exactly how or when they got back together, or why.  I’m always out of the loop of other people’s relationships, even though I had known Liz and Ramon as long as they had known each other, and three years later I would eventually attend their wedding.

The head staff from Capital State’s Intervarsity chapter, a man in his thirties named Stan, led the teaching that weekend.  He spoke on Genesis chapter 32, in which God wrestles with Jacob and gives him the name Israel, meaning “he struggles with God.”  Jacob later would go on to be the ancestor of God’s chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel.  I was tired, so I went to bed fairly soon after Stan’s talk Friday night.  Stan continued his teaching Saturday morning, and after that session, we all received a handout, with instructions to find a quiet place and spend some time with God.  The handout listed verses to read and related questions to answer.

It was a cool morning; I put on a sweatshirt and walked around outside.  A large ninety-year-old building dominated the retreat center; it had been built as a hotel, the centerpiece of a mountain getaway resort.  It was later sold to a Christian organization, who now used the first floor as the lobby, cafeteria, and a meeting room, and the rest as a dormitory.  The paved road ended at the parking lot for the retreat center; I noticed a dirt road continuing deeper into the hills which I had never noticed before.  I walked in that direction, carrying my Bible.

The last four miles of the drive to Muddy Springs followed a canyon into the hills, and this dirt road continued to follow the small stream that formed the canyon.  Oaks grew in the valley, at least in the areas that had not been claimed for agriculture, and pines grew in the mountains; Muddy Springs was in the transition area where both grew on the surrounding grassy hills.  The hills were brown; it had not rained in at least six months.  In this part of the world, October typically felt like a milder version of summer, with sunny and pleasant days, but today was the first of November, and right around the time the calendar changed, the weather usually did too.  The rain had not returned yet, but the sky was gray and dreary, and the leaves on the oaks were becoming more brown and more sparse.  I found a large rock with a flat enough top to sit on, overlooking the canyon and the ridge beyond.

I read from the handout.  Pray that God will open your eyes and ears to His presence in your life, I read.  I did this.  I followed the succeeding prompts on the page, thinking about how I might be wrestling with God at the moment.  I prayed about my struggles with being outside the cliques.  I prayed that I would meet a nice Christian girlfriend soon, and I prayed for patience until that happened.  I continued reading the paper; it said to listen quietly until I heard God speak.  I closed my eyes and bowed my head.  After hearing nothing, I opened my eyes and looked around.  I stared at the hills around me, at the gray sky, at the trees.  I bowed my head and closed my eyes again.  Still nothing.

The schedule for the day had allotted an hour for us to wrestle with God outside that morning, and by the end of that hour, I was frustrated.  God had not even shown up to wrestle with me.  Did that mean I won by forfeit?  That was not the point; it felt more discouraging than anything, like I was not important enough for God to speak to.  I looked at my watch; it was almost time for lunch.  I started walking back to the building, defeated, and I sat and ate alone.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie Baker said, approaching me.  He had just finished eating with others, and he was walking toward the exit with Tabitha, his girlfriend.  “What’s up?”

“I’m just kind of discouraged.  I feel like God isn’t speaking to me, like he did to Jacob, or like all the stories I hear from all of you guys.  Like maybe I’m not a real Christian.  Or not a good enough one.”

“That’s not true!” Eddie replied.  “Look at how much you’ve grown the last two years.  You’ve helped out with things around here.  And now you’re working with junior high kids at church.  It takes a lot of faith to commit to something like that.”

“God speaks to everyone in his own way and his own timing,” Tabitha added.  “Don’t think of yourself as less than others because you don’t hear from him in the same way.”

“I guess,” I replied.

“I’ve been where you are, and so have a lot of us,” Eddie explained.  “This is the way that God wrestles with us sometimes.  Just keep listening for his voice.”

“And when you feel like you’re not good enough?” Tabitha said.  “That’s not God’s voice.  That’s Satan trying to distract you.”

“I know,” I said.

“Can I pray for you?” Eddie asked.

“Sure.”

“Father God,” Eddie began as we bowed our heads, “I pray for Greg, that you will speak to him, in a way that he will hear your voice clearly.  I pray that he will shake off all of this discouragement, and know that it is not from you.  I pray that you will give him a new name and a new identity, so that he will know his identity in you, as your beloved child.  I thank you for bringing him here to Muddy Springs, and I pray that when we go back to Jeromeville, Greg will return with a renewed sense of faith and identity in you.  Amen.”

“Amen,” I said, looking up.  “Thanks.”


We had the afternoon free, so I went back to my room.  Kieran Ziegler was my roommate for the weekend.  “I love that story about Jacob wrestling with God,” Kieran said.  “Because I can tell people that wrestling is the only sport mentioned in the Bible.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, chuckling.  Kieran was on the UJ wrestling team; of course he would notice this.

“Brent is gonna get some people to play Ultimate.  You wanna come?”

“I need a nap,” I said.  “Maybe if you’re still playing when I wake up.  Or when I give up on trying to fall asleep.”

“No problem.  I’ll see you around.”

I closed my eyes after Kieran left, but I did not sleep.  I could not shake these thoughts of not being good enough.  I still felt left out of the cliques within JCF.  I wished I had been asked to live at the house on De Anza Drive, with Eddie and Xander and Ramon and Jason and John and Lars.  All the cool things in my social circle happened around those guys, like the Halloween party Thursday night.  I kept hearing people tell stories about God working in their lives, like when Melinda and Eddie and Tabitha and a bunch of others went on the China trip last summer.  Some people have said that they sometimes hear God speak audibly, and some of my friends came from the kind of Christian traditions that spoke in tongues.  Many of my friends have led others to faith; Eddie did that with his freshman dorm roommate, Raphael.  But not me.  I was not good at talking about Jesus or my faith with others, and that would probably make me ineffective on a mission trip to another country.  I had heard a speaker once highlight the importance of supporting missionaries behind the scenes, and I was all for that.  I gave money to friends’ mission trips, and to my church, which supported missionaries.  That role was more suited to me.  But it also made me feel like I was missing out on all the cool experiences.

I went outside after about forty-five minutes of not sleeping.  The Ultimate Frisbee game was still going on, but with no flat grassy field at Muddy Springs, they played on a paved basketball court, which did not exactly seem safe.  I watched the game with a few other people who were just hanging out and watching.

At the evening session, Stan from Cap State told stories from the Bible about other people whose names and identities God changed, besides Jacob.  Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who helped the Israelite spies, whose family God saved from Jericho’s coming destruction.  The invalid at the pool of Bethesda, whom Jesus healed.  And Abram, Jacob’s grandfather.  Long before God wrestled with Jacob, he changed Abram’s name to Abraham, to indicate that Abraham, an old man with a barren wife, would become the father of a great nation.  I read all of these stories again later that night before I went to bed, trying to keep these Bible stories on my mind to avoid another descent into discouraging thoughts.


When I woke up, the sky was sunny and clear.  It was still cold, but the dreary gray had departed.  My mind was also becoming sunny and clear as I kept thinking about last night, particularly about the man whom Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda.  I read his story, chapter 5 of the Gospel of John, again that morning, and something stood out to me.  I knew in my head that God was not ignoring me when he remained silent, but it seemed much more real now.

The conference center gave out name tags in plastic cases to all attendees.  I removed my name tag from the plastic case and turned it backward, so that the blank back of the card showed, then I put it back in the case and attached it to my shirt with the built-in safety pin.

The students from all six schools gathered in the main hall, in a separate building from the old hotel, for worship that morning.  Before Stan gave his final message, Janet McAllen got up and invited anyone who so desired to share something that we learned this weekend.  “Tell us your name, what school you’re from, and anything that God spoke to you this weekend,” she said.  I raised my hand, and she called on me first.

“Hi,” I said, standing up.  This was it, the moment I got to share my sudden idea. I pointed to my blank name tag and said, “I don’t have a name, because God is going to give me a new one.”  I smiled, and everyone clapped for me.  I was not doing this for applause, though.  “Sometimes I feel like I’m not really hearing from God the same way everyone else does,” I continued.  “But that doesn’t mean that God has given up on me.  The man by the pool at Bethesda waited thirty-eight years to meet Jesus.  God could have healed him earlier, but he waited until the time was right for the man to meet Jesus face to face.  The man didn’t know that.  We don’t always understand God’s timing.  But I’m going to keep listening, and following, and God will answer all these questions I have in his own time.”

I sat down again.  A few other people stood up and shared what they learned.  After one final message from Stan, we all went to lunch, then we began packing for the return trip.  No one played music on the trip home, because everyone was tired.  Autumn slept most of the way home, and 3 nodded off for a bit too.  I was okay with that.

And I was also okay with not being in all the cliques, and I was okay with not having a girlfriend.  At least I was trying to be okay.  All of those names that had been stuck in my head for years, outcast, loser, forever alone, and all the horrible names my classmates in elementary school had called me, those were not God’s name for me.  God had already changed my name.  I was his beloved child, I was forgiven, I was saved, and I was living his will for my life.  Sure, I would suffer setbacks, and life would not always go the way I wanted it to, but that was because my vision was short sighted.  God had a better long-term plan for me, and ultimately, if I was living out God’s will in my life, nothing could stop me.


Readers: Have you ever felt like you were wrestling with God, or just struggling in general with something you believe in? Tell me about it in the comments, if it’s not too personal.

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October 15-19, 1997.  Trying to figure out if I can graduate in June. (#149)

The weather in Jeromeville for most of October was typically what I could consider perfect.  Days were sunny, with afternoon temperatures in the 80s, still warm enough to be outside, but the nights were cool, so the days did not get blisteringly hot like they did in July and August.  I was still wearing shorts to class during the third full week of fall quarter, and I had some free time on that Wednesday afternoon, so I sat outside on the Quad.  I brought another book with me to campus in addition to my textbooks, and I was looking through this book when I saw Carrie Valentine walking toward me, coming from the direction of the library and headed toward the flagpole.  I waved, but she was not looking in my direction, so I quickly put my hand down, not wanting to look awkward.  I nervously watched as she approached and waved again when she turned her head toward me.  She stepped off the path and walked toward me.

“Hey, Greg,” Carrie said, smiling.  She put her bag down and sat on the grass facing me.  “Can I hang out here?”

Yes, I thought.  Of course you can.  It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve actually gotten to talk to you, and I’ll never make you fall in love with me if we don’t talk more often.  But all I said out loud was, “Sure.  What’s up?”

“I’m meeting with my Kairos leader,” Carrie explained.  “But I’m early.”

“You’re in Liz’s group, right?”

“Yeah!”

“We were in the same dorm as freshmen.  She was across the hall, one down from me.”

“That’s cool!  Whose Bible study are you in this year?”

“Joe Fox and Lydia Tyler.  The group is so huge, we usually read the Scripture together and then break up into three smaller groups.”

“How big is it?”

“Usually around twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five!  Why so many?”

“Honestly, I think it’s because, with all the Kairos groups, and all the specialized Bible studies for certain groups of people, there was only one group left for all the rest of us.”

“Interesting.  You couldn’t be in a Kairos group?”

“The Kairos ministry is for training future leaders.  You have to be asked to be in a Kairos group, and they don’t invite seniors.  Unless you’re leading a group as a senior and you were in one before, like Liz.”

“I see,” Carrie replied.  “Hmm.”

I decided not to share my exact thoughts about Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s Kairos ministry, since Carrie was part of a Kairos group.  As I was thinking about what else to say, Carrie broke the silence and asked, “What are you working on?  Is that the course catalog?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I was trying to figure out if it’s possible for me to graduate at the end of this year, what classes I still need to take, stuff like that.”

“That’s exciting!  What are you doing after graduation?”

“I’m going to be a teacher.”

“That’s so cool!”

“I’m still trying to figure out if I’ll do my teacher certification through Jeromeville, or Capital State, or somewhere else.  I know Jeromeville’s program is one year, and it’s only fall through spring.  If I graduate in June, then I’ll be able to do that, but if I don’t graduate until December of ’98, then I’ll either have to wait until the fall of ’99 to start student teaching, or see if anyone has a program where I can start in the winter.”

“I hope you get all that figured out.”

“I got this Graduation Progress Tracker form in the mail last week, I guess they send it to all the seniors.  They list all the graduation requirements and what you’ve done and what you still need.  And I also have some prerequisites for the teacher certification program that I have to be able to fit in.”  I saw a familiar face out of the corner of my eye walk up to the flagpole.  “There’s Liz over there,” I said, pointing.

“Oh, yeah,” Carrie replied.  “I should go.  Good luck figuring that out!  Keep me posted.”

“I will!  Tell Liz I said hi.”  I watched as Carrie got up and walked to the flagpole.  She said something to Liz, who then turned in my direction.  I waved, and both of them waved back.


My new house on Acacia Drive was a quick three minute walk to church, and in addition to Sunday mornings, I was there every Wednesday night as a volunteer with The Edge, the youth group for junior high school students.  Before the students arrived, the leaders met to catch up, go over the events of the upcoming night, and share prayer requests.

“What’s up,” Taylor Santiago said as I approached the group.  I had known Taylor the longest of any of the other Edge leaders; he lived on the floor above me freshman year.  Taylor was also the one who first suggested I get involved with The Edge.

“Not much,” I said.  “I’m just trying to figure out if I can graduate in June.”

“I thought you said you were going to go four years plus one more quarter.”

“I just assumed I had to, with all the math classes I still have to take and the prerequisites for the teacher training program.  But I was looking at stuff earlier, and if I understand correctly, I think I will be able to graduate.  I wanted to take some more of Dr. Hurt’s New Testament classes, but I might have to skip those if I don’t want an extremely full class schedule.  They don’t fulfill any requirements at this point.”

“Have you filed your intent to graduate yet?” Noah Snyder asked, having overheard this entire conversation so far.  Noah was the youth group intern, being paid part time by the church to lead The Edge.

“Not yet,” I replied, “but I want to do that in the next few days.  I just hope I understand everything correctly, and that I don’t get to graduation day and someone tells me that I can’t actually graduate, that I have to take more classes.”

“That won’t happen,” Taylor said.  “I’m pretty sure someone will contact you if you file for graduation and you haven’t met the requirements yet.”

“Kathleen Sutton works with the office that handles all that stuff,” Noah added.  “You could probably ask her to look over your form.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  Kathleen Sutton was a youth group parent; the Suttons occasionally hosted lunch socials for the church college group at their house. Kathleen’s daughter was in The Edge last year, and she had an older son in high school and a younger son in the preteen youth group.  “When I got that Graduation Progress form, it had a number to call.  I’m sure between that person and Kathleen Sutton, I can get all of this figured out.”

“Are you going to stay at Jeromeville for your teacher certification?” Noah asked.

“If I can, I’d like to.  I know the professor who does math education, and I’d be able to stay here and keep working with The Edge.”

“I’m going to stay in Jeromeville, but commute to Cap State for mine.  It’s cheaper, and it just works out better for me.  They have a really good program for elementary school teachers.  I’m not sure what they’re like for high school teachers, though.”

“If staying in Jeromeville ends up too complicated, I’ll look into Cap State too,” I said.  Capital State University was about twenty miles from Jeromeville on the other side of the Drawbridge, and Noah’s mention of their program being cheaper started to give me doubts about my tentative plan.  However, Mom always told me not to worry about money, that we would find a way to pay for things.  My grandmother had started a college savings account for me when I was very young, and with the academic scholarships I had received, we had hardly had to use that money so far.  I would also have to find a way to pay for school if I stayed at UJ for part of a fifth year as an undergraduate, so I would keep that under consideration if any options that did not include graduating in June were still on the table.


When I got home, I went straight to my backpack, in the large bedroom that I shared with my roommate Sean.  Sean was sitting at his desk typing a paper on his computer; a cluster of helium balloons, including one that said “Happy Birthday” and another that had the number “22” written on it in black marker, was rising from the floor next to him, anchored by a weight at the end of a ribbon a few feet long.

“It’s your birthday?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Sean replied.

“I didn’t know that.  Happy birthday!  Did you do anything fun?”

“I went out to dinner with some friends from the wildlife bio major tonight.  We just got back a little while ago.  And I’m flying home tomorrow to spend the weekend with my family.”

“That’ll be nice,” I said, excited for Sean that he will get to see his family, but also excited that I would have the bedroom to myself all weekend, able to flirt with girls on Internet Relay Chat and not worry about someone looking over my shoulder.

I got out my course catalog and the Graduation Progress form.  I had completed my general education requirements and the classes required for everyone regardless of major.  The only requirement remaining was for the major itself, and I needed three more upper-division mathematics classes, including 150B, the continuation of my current abstract algebra class.  With two quarters left, I had plenty of time to take those.  I was limited in which classes I could take, since not all classes were offered every quarter, or even every year.  But I was sure I could find three that would work with my schedule.  Math 150B was offered every year in the winter, and at this point I did not really care what the other two classes would be.

The tricky part would be preparing for the teacher training program.  In my state, universities do not offer education majors; instead, teacher training is a one year graduate program taken after completing a bachelor’s degree.  I would have to reapply to UJ by the end of November, this time as a graduate student applying to the School of Education.  I was missing three classes for that program’s requirements: Educational Psychology, a lecture class offered by the physical education department called Healthful Living, and one more English class of my choice.  I looked up to see which quarters those classes were offered, and I came up with a plan.  In the winter, I would take Ed Psych, Math 150B, and some other math class that I could fit into my schedule, and in the spring, I would take Healthful Living, one more math class, and Fiction Writing for the English class.  Fiction Writing was a lower-division class, but it sounded the most fun and interesting out of all the English options, and I would still have enough total upper-division units to graduate.  Healthful Living was only a two-unit class, so I would need one more class in the spring in order to be a full-time student.  I would be able to take one more of Dr. Hurt’s New Testament classes after all; he taught Christian Theology in the spring.  For the winter, I would have just barely enough units to be a full-time student, so maybe I could look at doing another two-unit internship tutoring at Jeromeville High School, as I had done last spring.

At that moment, something caught my eye at the bottom of the Graduation Progress Tracker.  A few lines of small print at the bottom informed me of a number to call if I had questions.  Apparently, as fourth-year student, I had been assigned to a specific person, the one who had filled out this form, and that person would process my application to graduate, as well as answer any questions I might have.  The lower left corner of the form said, “Completed by,” with a blank for that person to initial, and in that blank were the handwritten initials “KS.”  I remembered Noah’s words a few hours earlier, telling me that Kathleen Sutton worked in the office that processed these forms.  Could Kathleen Sutton be the “KS” who filled out my form?  Did I just happen to get assigned to the one person in that office whom I knew personally?  How many of these graduation processing specialists were there, and what were the chances of that?  It was probably a coincidence; there were plenty of people in the world with the initials K.S.  I had nothing more to do at this point for graduation planning, and I had finished everything I needed to do for tomorrow’s classes, so I went to bed.


I saw the date on Sunday morning’s newspaper; it was my brother Mark’s birthday, sixteen years old now. I reminded myself to call home this afternoon, although I had already sent him a card with a fart joke on it.

I had not yet turned in my application to graduate.  I was nervous.  What if I was not ready to graduate?  I would apparently have my requirements done by the end of the school year, but what if I was misinterpreting the requirements?  And was I really ready to finish my undergraduate time and move on to the next phase?  A few weeks ago, when I thought I would need another quarter or two to graduate, I was looking forward to staying in Jeromeville longer.  Jeromeville was my home now.  I had a community here.  Advanced mathematics was getting weird and abstract, I did not enjoy it as much as I used to, and I was ready to be done with school.  But filing for graduation would bring closer the inevitable day when I would leave Jeromeville and go out into the world.

All of this was still on my mind when I got to church that morning.  The worship team played a fast song to begin the service, and when they played a slow song later, I sat and prayed about these things.  I asked God to give me peace about my plan to graduate at the end of the year and do my student teaching through UJ.  Send me a sign that this is your will for my life, I asked silently.

God often speaks to me through odd coincidences.  Some people have told me that I pay too much attention to this sort of thing, but God knows that it will get my attention.  The sign that I prayed for came quickly, as I was wandering aimlessly on the patio after church mingling with others.  I saw Kathleen Sutton ahead of me in the direction I was walking; she turned and looked at me, and I waved.  “Hello,” I said.

“Greg,” Kathleen replied.  “I’ve been meaning to tell you something.”

“What do you mean?”

“I work in the office that processes graduation applications.  We were doing this year’s Graduation Progress Trackers, and I recognized your name on one of the forms I filled out.”

“Oh, wow,” I said.  Kathleen Sutton was “KS” after all.

“I saw your transcript,” Kathleen continued.  “A 3.9 grade point average, and all As in all those hard math and science classes.  You have a pretty impressive academic record.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“What are you planning to do after you graduate?”

“I’m going to be a teacher.  I didn’t think about being a teacher until just last year, but I was planning out the rest of my year this year, and I’ll be able to do all the requirements for the teacher certification program before the end of the year.”

“Good for you!  We definitely need good teachers who know their subject matter.  I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“Thanks.  Oh, by the way, if I’m misunderstanding something, and I file for graduation but I don’t actually have all the right classes, will someone let me know?”

“Definitely.  But I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

When I got home, I changed into an old pair of shorts and went to the small shed in the backyard.  Our house only had a covered carport, not a locked garage, so I typically left Schuyler, my bicycle, in the shed.  I had a long ride I would occasionally do around the entire perimeter of the city of Jeromeville, and with the October days getting shorter, I wanted to do my long ride again before it got too cold and gray.  I had sat down once with a ruler and a map and estimated the ride at fifteen miles, and the fastest I had ever completed the ride was just a few seconds short of an hour.  I rode west on Coventry Boulevard across Highway 117, worked my way through the neighborhoods of West Jeromeville, then headed back east on Fifth Street along the row of walnut trees that separated the city of Jeromeville to my left from the university’s agricultural research fields to my right.  After crossing back to the east side of 117, I cut through campus, past the North Residential Area and the Rec Pavilion, and emerging into downtown Jeromeville next to the Death Star building on Third Street.  Although I was trying for record time, pedaling as fast as I could, I slowed down a little bit through downtown, with its many cars, bicycles, and people.  I worked my way to the Cornell Boulevard underpass, still too narrow for its traffic volume, southeast past Murder Burger and across Highway 100.

I had learned quickly as a freshman that I would feel a bit out of place in a university town like Jeromeville with its hippies and extreme politics.  But now, as a senior, I was on a timeline to graduate eight short months from now, and I did not want to leave.  Jeromeville had grown on me.  It was the place where I found friends, and the place where I found Jesus.  I had gotten involved with youth ministry at church and built meaningful connections beyond the campus bubble.  Jeromeville, in all its quirkiness, was home.

I continued along the southernmost neighborhoods of Jeromeville, through the neighborhood where Eddie, John, Xander, and Lars had lived when I first met them sophomore year, and into a section of the Greenbelts where those guys had held the Man of Steel disc golf competition.  I continued east all the way to Bruce Boulevard, the easternmost of Jeromeville’s north-south thoroughfares, and turned to the north.  About a mile north, I crossed back over Highway 100, where a new neighborhood was under construction, rare in a city like Jeromeville where suburban sprawl is so hated.  I turned west on Coventry Boulevard and rode for almost three miles, then turned into the Greenbelts of north Jeromeville, emerging on Maple Drive about half a mile north of my house.  I looked at my watch when I got home: 58 minutes, 57 seconds, a new record for me.

Time moves forward.  Children grow up and become university students, who then go out into the real world and have children of their own.  But, although time was definitely moving forward, maybe I did not have to leave Jeromeville yet.  I would still have one more year at UJ in the teacher training program, so I would be a registered student through June of 1999.  If I did not get into UJ’s program, Jeromeville was close enough to commute to Capital State.  After that, there were plenty of high schools in commuting distance from Jeromeville where I could work; maybe I could even teach at Jeromeville High.  If I did leave Jeromeville eventually, as I would do in 2001, it would happen when the time was right, when I felt ready to move on.


Readers: Did your education and career end up happening according to your plan or projected timeline? Did you even plan these things in advance? Tell me about it in the comments.

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October 10, 1997.  A silly party game at Scott and Joe’s apartment. (#148)

As I walked from the parking lot toward Evans Hall for the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship meeting, I quickly realized that I was probably underdressed wearing just a t-shirt and jeans.  October days in Jeromeville were usually still warm and summerlike; I had worn shorts to class that morning.  But the nights were quickly becoming cooler, and the sun was setting earlier.  It was almost completely dark by the time JCF started that night, and I felt a chill in the air.  Once I got inside, though, I would probably be more comfortable.

I had more friends at this point of my life than I had ever had before, but I was definitely a follower, not a leader, when it came to socializing.  Although JCF was supposed to be a time of worship, prayer, and Scripture, one of the things I looked forward to the most was the possibility of people socializing afterward, whatever form that may take.  I did not typically initiate social activities; I was nervous, and afraid of rejection, and I was not always familiar with the kinds of things that normal people did for fun.  But I also did not want to be presumptuous and invite myself somewhere that I was not welcome.  And, of course, all of this socializing had not led to any better luck with finding a girlfriend.  I had never had a girlfriend, and I had never even so much as kissed a girl.

Now that I was taking my Christian faith more seriously, I was constantly being told to pray about this and submit to God’s will, but so far God’s will did not involve a girlfriend for me.  Nothing had ever worked out with anyone from my year or the year behind me.  There were two cute sophomore girls at JCF whom I was interested in, Carrie Valentine and Sadie Rowland, but so far no opportunities had come up to make anything happen.  Maybe I would have better luck with this year’s new freshmen, although that might bring up questions of whether or not an 18-year-old was too young for me. I was a 21-year-old senior hoping to graduate in 1998.

Sarah Winters and Liz Williams were working the name tag table.  “Hey, Greg,” Sarah said, writing “Greg” on a name tag.  At the same time, a guy named Silas walked up to Liz’s table, and she filled out a name tag for him.

“Hey,” I said, noticing something interesting.  I pointed back and forth between Sarah and Silas and said, “We’re all in Math 115 together.”

“Oh, yeah!” Sarah replied.

“How do you like that class so far?” Silas asked.

“Seems pretty straightforward.  Unlike Math 150.”

“I know!  150 gets kind of weird.”

“What class is that?” Liz asked.

“Number theory,” Sarah replied.  Sarah, Silas, and I were all mathematics majors.  I found it noteworthy that Silas had already taken Math 150, since it was usually a senior class and Silas was only a junior, a year behind me.  But I knew that he was some kind of mathematical genius who had completed a lot of university-level coursework before beginning at the University of Jeromeville.

I looked around the room and found an open seat next to Scott Madison and Amelia Dye.  “Hey, Greg,” Scott said.  “What are you doing after large group?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“You’re coming to my place.”

“What for?”

“Just hanging out.”

“Okay,” I said.  Finding appropriate situations for socializing can be difficult and scary for me sometimes, but other times it was easy, like tonight.

After large group ended, Scott told me he had some things to get ready, and he reminded me to show up at his apartment in half an hour.  I walked around, looking for other people to say hi to.  I saw Sadie a few rows behind me; I walked to the aisle and back toward her.  “Hey,” I said after she turned around and saw me.

“Hi, Greg!  How was your week?”

“Not bad,” I said.  “We had a performance yesterday for chorus.  They’re renaming the drama building after a professor who was instrumental in founding the department, and we had to sing this weird-sounding modern piece with lyrics that she wrote.”

“That’s cool!  I heard about that in the newsroom.  Oh, yeah, did you see I got my first article published in the Daily Colt this week?”

“I did!  I saw your name on the article.  It was the one about the girl who didn’t know she was pregnant, right?”

“Yeah!  Isn’t that crazy?  How do you not know you were pregnant?”

“I guess it’s possible, if you don’t gain much weight during the pregnancy.  But still, her doctor told her multiple times she wasn’t pregnant.  Isn’t it your job as a doctor to know what’s going on with your patient?”

“I know.  At least she and the baby are okay.  And I didn’t really want to write fluff pieces like this, but it’s a start.”

“Yeah.  Put in your time doing this now, and then later you can write the kind of stories you really want to write.”

“I want to write about city news and politics.  Last year’s city writers were way too nice to the crazy liberals who run this town.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Someone needs to tell the truth, and not just suck up to them and their ilk.”

“Their what?”

“I never told you that story?”

“No,” Sadie replied.  I proceeded to tell her about the time I got into an argument on the Quad last year with a City Council member who was against a plan to widen an underpass.  Traffic backed up horribly at that underpass, but according to these elected officials, wide four-lane roads do not belong in a small town like Jeromeville.  “She told me that I was ‘of a different ilk.’”

“‘Ilk,’” Sadie replied.  “That’s a funny word.”

“Seriously.  Jeromeville has fifty-six thousand people.  That’s not a small town.  That’s big enough to have traffic jams.”

As the conversation paused for a few seconds, I contemplated whether or not to invite Sadie to Scott’s house, and if so, how to do so.  I did not feel right bringing an uninvited guest to someone else’s house.  But I really wanted to keep talking to her.  The point became moot, however, when Sadie said, “I should get going.  I’m really tired tonight.  I had a long day.”

“All right,” I replied.  “I’ll see you next week?”

“Yeah!  Have a good night!”  Sadie gave me a hug, then walked out of the building.


Scott led a Bible study on campus for freshmen, and when I arrived at Scott’s apartment that night, a good sized crowd had already shown up.  I recognized Tim and Blake, two freshmen from Scott’s study, sitting and talking to Scott. My Bible study that year was Joe Fox, Scott’s roommate; he was sitting next to his girlfriend, Alyssa Kramer. Kieran Ziegler, John Harvey, Brent Wang, a freshman girl named Chelsea, Silas the math major, and a few others were also there.

Blake and Scott were talking about weddings. Blake said that he had recently been to his cousin’s wedding, and Scott and Amelia were currently planning their wedding next summer. I walked to a couch and sat down, not in a mood to think about weddings. I would probably never have one myself.

After about twenty more minutes of mingling and snacks, Amelia began asking if anyone had ever played a party game called Psychologist.  “Have any of you guys ever played that?  One player is the psychologist, and he has to ask the others questions?”  One other person had some vague memory of the game, but most of us did not know this game.  Amelia continued explaining, “So the psychologist leaves the room, and everyone else decides that they’re going to answer the questions, like, in some certain way.  Not necessarily if it’s true or false, but according to something else.  We all know how we’re answering, and the psychologist has to figure it out.”

“I don’t get it,” Alyssa replied.

“It’ll make more sense when we start playing.  Can we try it?  It’s a fun group game.”  No one objected.  “Who wants to be the psychologist?” Amelia asked.

“I’ll do it,” John said.  “I feel like I should, since I’m a psych major.”

John stepped outside and closed the door behind him.  Amelia explained, “So the way I learned the game is that you answer the questions as if you are the person on your left.  So, for example, Brent is sitting to the left of Greg, so if John asks, ‘Greg, are you a math major,’ Greg would say no, because Brent isn’t a math major.  If John asks, ‘Greg, do you play piano,’ Greg would say yes, because that’s Brent’s answer.  Brent plays piano.  So do we all understand?”

“What if you don’t know the answer?” Brent said.  “Like, what if he asks me, I don’t know, ‘Have you ever been to France?’  I would answer for Scott, but I don’t know if Scott has ever been to France.”

“Just say I don’t know,” Amelia explained.  “I’ll go get John, and we can start playing.”  Amelia went outside to tell John to come in.

“It’s cold out there!” John said.  “You guys ready?”

“We’re ready,” Amelia replied.  “Just start asking yes-or-no questions.”

“Okay,” John said.  “Joe, is it cold outside?”

Joe appeared confused.  “Yes?” he replied.

“You should probably ask people questions about themselves,” Amelia explained.  “That’ll make this easier to figure out.”

“Okay,” John said.  “Amelia, are you getting married next year?”

Blake was on Amelia’s left.  “No,” Amelia replied.

“Hmm,” John said.  “Greg, are you tall?”

“No,” I said.  I was six foot four, but Brent, to my left, was shorter than average for a male university student.  A few people giggled, and Brent gave me a look as if to express humorous annoyance at me calling him out for being short.

“Chelsea, are you female?”

Tim was sitting to Chelsea’s left.  “No,” Chelsea replied, trying to hold back giggles.  A few others laughed.

John continued asking questions that had very obvious answers.  “Brent, do you have dark hair?”

“No,” dark-haired Brent said, with blond Scott to his left.

“Joe, are you a man?”

“Yes,” Joe replied.  I was on his left.

“Hmm,” John contemplated.  This was the first time someone had given an answer that was actually true.  “Greg, are you a man?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Alyssa, are you a man?”

“Yes,” Alyssa replied emphatically, with Joe to her left.  John continued this pattern of asking the same question to multiple people, and after about fifteen minutes, he figured out that we were all answering as if we were the person sitting to our left.

“I wanna play again,” Blake said.

“We can’t really play again, because everyone knows the secret now,” Tim replied.

“We could just think of a different way to answer the questions,” Amelia explained. “Who wants to be the psychologist this time?”

Silas volunteered to be the psychologist; he went into the bathroom and turned on the fan, instead of going outside in the cold.  “Anyone have any ideas of how to answer the questions?”

“We could answer for the person sitting, I don’t know, three to the right,” Alyssa suggested.

“That’ll be too easy to figure out, after we did the person to the left,” John replied.

“Hey, I have an idea,” Blake said.  “We all pick someone, and we look at that person’s hand.  If the hand is palm up, we say yes, and if the hand is palm down, we say no.”

“That’s a great idea!” Amelia said.

“I’ll do the hand,” Kieran said.  “I’m sitting in an armchair, so it’s easy to see.  If my left hand is palm up, say yes, and if my left hand is palm down, say no.”

We called Silas back into the room.  Kieran sat in the armchair with his palm down.  “Tim, are you a freshman?”

“No.”

“Greg, are you in my Math 115 class?”

“No.”

“Kieran, are you a man?”

I looked around the room, where I could see people trying to hold back laughter.  Kieran’s own left hand was the only thing requiring him to claim that he was not a man, and Silas had unwittingly exposed this just three questions into the game.  But Kieran had the perfect response.  “Hmm,” he said loudly as he furrowed his brow and scratched his chin with his left hand, palm up, as if pantomiming being deep in thought.  “Yes,” he said while his palm was up.  A ripple of giggles flowed through the room, since everyone but Silas knew exactly while Kieran moved his hand that way.  Kieran then put his hand back down, palm still up.

Silas, confused about why everyone was laughing, asked, “Tim, do you wear glasses?”

“Yes.”

“Greg, do you wear glasses?”

I did not.  “Yes,” I said.

“Brent, do you wear glasses?”

Brent did wear glasses, but Kieran had switched his hand to the palm down position as Silas was asking the question.  “No,” Brent said.

The questions went around in circles for almost an hour, with people occasionally laughing when humorous answers were given.  At one point, Silas asked me if I was tall; Kieran’s hand was palm up, so I said yes.  Next, Silas asked Chelsea if she was tall; she was five foot two, but Kieran’s hand was still palm up, so she said yes.  That made people laugh.  Kieran switched his hand as Silas was asking other people if they were tall, and he inadvertently asked me again with Kieran’s palm down this time.

“No,” I said.

Silas paused, realizing what had just happened.  “Wait,” he said.  “Earlier, you said you were tall.”  I smiled silently, wondering if he was finally figuring this out.  “Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“No.”

Silas thought about this.  “Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“No.”

“Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“No.”

Kieran switched his hand, grinning.  “Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“Yes.”

“Greg, are the Captains your favorite football team?” Silas asked.  I was wearing a Bay City Captains shirt that night.

“Yes.”

“Greg, are the Captains your favorite team?”

“Yes.”

Kieran switched his hand.  “Are the Captains your favorite team?”

“No.”

This continued for another several minutes.  Silas seemed to be counting how many times we answered one way before switching to the other answer, and Kieran wisely switched his hand after inconsistent numbers of questions and answers.  Silas began watching things in the room more carefully, and he eventually noticed Kieran’s hand and figured it out.

“Finally!” Silas said.  “That was a good one.”

“I know,” Kieran replied.  “I thought I was in trouble when you asked if I was a man.”

“That was hilarious,” I said.  “Brilliant performance.”

By the time our second game of Psychologist ended, it was getting late, and the crowd at Scott and Joe’s apartment began dispersing.  I drove home, quietly unlocked the door because I did not know if any of my roommates were asleep yet, and went to bed.

It took me a while to fall asleep, and I thought about the events of that night as I drifted off to sleep.  Psychologist was a fun game.  I wondered if I would ever be able to introduce the game to a new group.  I never did, though, and to this day, I have only played it that one time.  The game was fascinating.  At first, everything looks like nonsense, but after asking enough questions, and making enough careful observations, some order begins to emerge in the players’ replies.

Would I really never get to experience my own wedding?  I did not know, but it sure felt like it.  Everyone else was getting into relationships.  Scott and Amelia were getting married soon, and so was Josh, one of my roommates.  I knew plenty of girls, but I did not know how to make anything happen.  Sadie was lots of fun to talk to, but she always seemed too busy to do fun things after JCF.  Carrie Valentine was not even at large group tonight; I had not talked to her all week.  When would it be my turn?  Maybe life really was like a game of Psychologist.  Maybe God was working behind the scenes in ways that I could not understand.  Things happen to everyone that make no sense.  But after asking enough questions and enough observation, an order begins to emerge.  It takes time to understand what is happening, sometimes decades or more, but God has a plan, and someday it will all make sense.


Readers: What’s your favorite party game? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Late September, 1997.  The retreat with the youth group leaders and a step outside my comfort zone. (#146)

Life is full of difficult and seemingly impossible tasks.  Sometimes such tasks require hard work to complete, and sometimes I just never get motivated enough to do difficult things.  But every once in a while, everything I need to accomplish something difficult just falls into my lap, leaving me to just take the final step.

I had just spent five days away from home at Outreach Camp, the retreat for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship where we plan for the upcoming school year.  I did not go straight home to Jeromeville after that, though, because I had another retreat for the weekend, this one with student ministries for Jeromeville Covenant Church.  This encompassed youth groups for preteens, junior high school, and high school, as well as the college group.  I was a leader with The Edge, the junior high group.  The leaders for the preteen youth group were high school students, and almost all of the leaders for all of the other groups were University of Jeromeville students, like me.

Outreach Camp ended at 1:00, and the other retreat started at 6:00, and it did not take five hours to drive between them, even on curvy mountain highways, so I was the first one to arrive other than the paid church staff.  I mingled and helped them set up as others began arriving.

“Greg!” Taylor Santiago said when he saw me.  He and Pete Green, who played guitar for the college group, arrived together.  I had known them the longest of anyone on this retreat; we were all in the same dorm freshman year.  Taylor gave me a hug.

“Good to see you again,” I said.  “How was the rest of your time in Chicago?”

“Tiring, but really good.  It’s pretty intense, seeing what some of those people are going through.  It’s a world away from our kids at The Edge.”

“I’m sure it is.”

Josh, my housemate back in Jeromeville, and his girlfriend Abby showed up shortly afterward.  They pulled me aside as if they wanted to talk to me about something.  “You should know this, because you’re my housemate.  We’re gonna announce it to everyone later tonight,” Josh said.  “Last night, I asked Abby to marry me.”  Abby held up her left hand, showing off her new engagement ring.

“Wow,” I said.  “Congratulations!  Does that mean you’ll be moving out and we’ll need a new roommate?”

“No,” Josh explained.  “The wedding won’t be until summer.  So you won’t need to find someone in the middle of the school year.”

“Good,” I said.  “I don’t know if you heard, but Scott and Amelia just got engaged too, during Outreach Camp.”

“They did?” Abby said.  “Good for them!”

We all went into the main building of this retreat center to eat after everyone arrived.  After dinner, Pete and a few others led us in a time of worship music, then we had free time to hang out until it was time for bed.  “Do you know how to play poker?” Taylor asked me.

“I’m not great at it, but I know the basics.”

“I brought a poker set.  We aren’t playing for real money, of course.  Are you in?”

“Sure.”

Taylor, Abby, Josh, and I sat in a circle, along with Noah Snyder, the junior high group intern and Taylor’s best friend from high school; Adam White, the youth pastor; and Nick Hunter, a sixteen-year-old leader with the preteen youth group whose younger brother Ted was one of the junior high students I knew well.  A few hands in, I was dealt a full house, and I managed to bet big enough to get a big return but not so big that everyone else dropped out.  It did not take long for me to lose the rest of that money, though.




Most of the serious work of the retreat, specifically the things related to running the youth groups, happened on Saturday.  The leaders met in groups separated by which group we worked with, so that I was with The Edge leaders: Noah, Taylor, Abby and Josh, Martin Rhodes, and Courtney Kohl and Brody Parker, a sophomore couple who first met as Edge leaders last year.  Adam, as the youth pastor, was in charge of three of the four groups meeting here this weekend, but he met with us tonight.  Before he had a paid position at the church, he had been a volunteer with The Edge, and he had something specific to our group to talk about.

“This is it so far this year,” Adam said.  “James and Kate are going to be doing high school.  Charlotte isn’t going to J-Cov anymore.  And everyone else was either busy or too involved in other things.”

What about Erica?” I asked.  I had noticed that Erica Foster was not here this weekend.  I wondered if this meant that she was no longer a leader with The Edge this year, or if she just had other commitments.  She had been in Turkey this summer living with a family of missionaries that J-Cov supported, but I thought she must be back by now, especially with school starting soon.  I did not want to ask earlier, I did not want anyone to think it was weird that I was asking about Erica, but this time I just blurted it out without thinking.

“Oh, you’re right,” Adam replied.  “Erica is still doing The Edge.  But still, we lost six leaders this year.  Considering how many kids show up each week, we definitely don’t have enough leaders as we should have.  So, I’m proposing a challenge for all of you.  I want you to prayerfully consider, at some point this year, recruiting someone to join the Edge team of leaders.  If you know someone around church, someone in the college group, whoever, who might make a good Edge leader, invite them to come check it out.”

My heart sank.  Being a leader with The Edge was supposed to be fun.  I got to hang out with fun, energetic young teenagers, playing games with them and teaching them about Jesus.  It was not supposed to involve me having to awkwardly ask my friends to make a commitment.  I knew in my head that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the price for my sins, and that my own good works were not what got me into Heaven.  But I often felt pressure to be a better Christian because I was not constantly out there doing things.  Taylor’s mission trip to Chicago, Erica’s mission trip to Turkey, I had never done anything big like that.  And I also felt the constant pressure to reach out and invite others to church, to Bible study, and the like.  I was not good at inviting anyone to anything.  The frequent reminders at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship to invite all of our non-Christian friends just made me feel like there was something wrong with me.  I did not have many close non-Christian friends, since I had little to nothing in common with most non-Christians.  I understood well the value of inviting non-Christians to Christian events; I first got involved with JCF when my friends from freshman year invited me, and this led to me making my faith my own.  But I hated that pressure, especially since inviting people to stuff did not come naturally to me.

Of course, recruiting friends to work as leaders with The Edge was a little different.  I was looking for people who were already Christians, looking for somewhere to serve; they would not interpret my invitation as asking them to change their religion.  Still, though, any sort of conversation where I had to ask someone to do something always felt forced and unnatural to me.  It always felt like I was only talking to the other person because I wanted something.  However, I knew plenty of Christians, and I talked enough about being a youth group leader that it was certainly possible for it to come up naturally in conversation.

I woke up fairly early Sunday morning.  I put on a sweatshirt, since it was cold outside, and brought my Bible to a bench where I could sit and read Scripture and enjoy the view of God’s creation.  When I went back to the cabin, Noah was awake.  “How’s it goin’, Greg,” he said quietly.

“Okay, I guess,” I replied.  “I’m just stressing about having to recruit another leader.  I’m not good at inviting people to things.”

“Don’t feel any pressure.  Nothing’s gonna happen if you don’t.  Just think of it this way.  Keep it in mind in case it ever comes up in conversation.  If you know someone who might be interested, tell them.”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t let this get you down.”


The drive down Highway 52 to Capital City was full of mountains and rocks and pine trees.  The first fifty miles went relatively slowly, with only one lane in each direction and lots of traffic from people who came up to the mountains for the weekend.  As the road gradually widened approaching Capital City, traffic began moving faster. It took close to two and a half hours to get down the mountain, across Capital City, and back to my house in Jeromeville.

Despite the usual dread about having to get up early again for classes, the beginning of a new school year always felt hopeful.  I would have new friends to make, new professors to meet, new things to learn.  For all I knew, maybe one of those new friends I made would be my future wife.

I spent Monday running errands around campus.  I stood in a long line to buy my books.  I had told the Learning Skills Center that I was available to work ten hours per week this quarter as a tutor, so I also checked to see when I would be scheduled to work this quarter.  While I was there, the woman at the check-in desk mentioned that they needed proctors for the mathematics placement test they would be giving the next morning, so I returned to campus on Tuesday morning and got paid to work a couple hours by standing and walking around a room as incoming students took this test.

Tuesday night I went back to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s Welcome Mixer.  This year it was held in the Arboretum Lodge.  The Arboretum was possibly my favorite part of the University of Jeromeville campus, a park-like collection of plants from around the world running a mile and a half along a long, skinny lake made from a formerly dry creek bed.  Near the west end of the Arboretum was a grassy field surrounded by tall oaks, pines, and redwoods, with an event room called the Lodge at one end of the field.  I had only been inside The Lodge once, three years ago this week, for a similar beginning-of-year party for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was part of freshman year.

I was working a shift for the first hour of the night at the welcome table, filling out name tags and directing students to leave their contact information so that JCF could be in touch with them.  I was proud of myself for knowing many students’ names, but of course there were many new students to meet.  JCF had used all of their usual outreach techniques during the last few days: students lingering around freshman dorms randomly helping people move in, a table on the Quad during busy times with information about our group, and lots of signs and flyers around campus.  Last week at Outreach Camp, when they asked for volunteers to sign up for those events, this one hour shift at the name tag table was all I signed up for, since I knew I would be gone on the youth leaders’ retreat while everyone was moving in.

It would take me a while to learn all of the new people’s names, but by the time my shift was over, a few already stood out to me.  Being the secretly girl-crazy guy I was, cute girls stood out in my mind the most. I remembered in particular an attractive, bubbly girl named Brianna with curly blonde hair, and a short girl named Chelsea with light brown hair and bright blue eyes.  I looked around the room, but I did not see Brianna or Chelsea.  Among the guys, the one who stood out to me most was named Tim; he had brown hair, black Buddy Holly glasses, and a t-shirt that said “Nobody knows I’m Elvis.”  I had no idea what that meant, but this Tim guy surely was quirky, in a fun kind of way.  I saw Tim and another new guy talking to Scott and Amelia.

“Hey, Greg,” Scott said as I approached.  “Have you met Tim and Blake?  They live in the Forest Drive dorms, so they’ll be in my Bible study this year.”

“I saw you guys come in,” I said.  “I was at the name tag table.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tim said.  “Nice to meet you, Greg.”

“You too.  Where are you guys from?”

“I’m from Sullivan,” Blake said.  I knew Sullivan; it was on the drive from Jeromeville to my parents’ house in Plumdale, about halfway.

“I’m from Seger Ranch,” Tim said.  “I bet you don’t know where that is.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Scott explained.  “Greg has a reputation for knowing his way around really well.”

“This time, Tim wins, though,” I said.  “I don’t remember where Seger Ranch is.”

“Ha!  I have stumped the master!” Tim exclaimed.  “It’s down the Valley a few hours, about half an hour outside of Ashwood.”

“Oh, okay.  I bet you don’t know where Plumdale is.”

“Nope.  Is that where you’re from?”

“Yeah.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“I know Santa Lucia.”

I made small talk with Scott, Tim, and Blake for a few minutes.  When they dispersed, I continued walking around the room, next introducing myself to a girl with short brown hair whose name tag said “Hannah,” in handwriting that was not mine.  John Harvey had been working the name tag table at the same time as me; he must have filled out Hannah’s name tag.  I would have remembered, because it would have stuck out in my mind that the name Hannah is a palindrome, reading the same forward and backward.

“Hi,” Hannah said, noticing me approaching.  “I’m Hannah.”

“I’m Greg,” I replied.  “Are you a freshman?”

“Yeah!  What about you?”

“I’m a senior.”

“Cool!  Have you always been part of JCF? Since you were a freshman?”

“I started at UJ as a freshman, but I didn’t get involved with JCF until sophomore year.”

“Oh yeah?  Why’s that?”

I paused.  “It’s kind of a long story.  Do you want to hear it?  I can try to make it short.”

“Sure!”

“I grew up Catholic.  My mom’s family has always been Catholic, but it didn’t really mean a lot to me personally.  So I was going to Catholic Mass at the Newman Center.”

“Newman Center?”

“It’s like the Catholic student club at secular schools.  I lived alone sophomore year, and I had some friends from freshman year who went to JCF, so I started going just to stay close to my friends.  And the more I started meeting people at JCF, the more I realized I didn’t really know Jesus personally.  So I made a decision for Jesus that year.  I still went to Mass for a while, because I didn’t want to turn my back on my family heritage.  But eventually I felt like I needed to find a church where people were serious about learning about the Bible and not just going because that’s what you do.  So I stopped going to Mass about a year ago.”

“That’s cool, how God found you through your friends,” Hannah said.  “My story isn’t that complicated.  I grew up in a Christian family.  We’ve always been involved in church.”

“That’s good too.  You got to experience church life as a kid in ways that I didn’t.”

“I’m looking for a church in Jeromeville too.  I think someone said JCF isn’t connected to one church, right?  Is there a church where a lot of people here go?”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant Church now,” I said.  “There’s a lot of JCF people who go to J-Cov, including the McAllens, the couple who are the head staff of JCF.  And I know some people here also go to First Baptist Church of Jeromeville, and some go to Jeromeville Assembly of God.”

“I’ll try those out,” Hannah replied.  “You like Jeromeville Covenant?”

“Yeah.  They’ve got a good college group. I like the way the college pastor teaches.  And I got involved as a junior high group leader toward the end of last year.  That’s been a lot of fun, getting to work with younger kids, and getting to know their families.  It makes me feel more like part of the community.”

“That does sound like fun!  I taught little kids’ Sunday school back home, and I was thinking it would be nice to get involved with something like that.”

I felt like pieces were suddenly starting to come together in my head.  Before I could pause and overthink and talk myself out of it, I asked, “Do you want to come to junior high group sometime and see if you’d be interested in being a leader?  The youth pastor was just talking about how we needed more leaders.”

“Sure!  When is it?”

“We meet on Wednesdays, so tomorrow night would be the next time.  But really, any Wednesday.”

“Yeah!  I think I’m free tomorrow night.  How far is it?”

“About a mile past campus, on Andrews Road.”

“Can you give me directions?”

“Sure,” I said.  I wrote directions from campus to church on the back of a flyer; I also wrote the church phone number and Adam and Noah’s names, so that she could ask someone who actually worked at the church if she had any questions.

“Thanks!  I’ll see you tomorrow night, then!  It was nice meeting you!”

“Yeah!  Good luck with everything this week,” I said.  Could it really be that easy?  I just possibly recruited a new leader, the thing I had been scared of just three days earlier.  Now, hopefully, Hannah would actually show up and stick with it.


“We have two possible new leaders tonight,” Adam said on Wednesday night as the leaders for The Edge met to discuss the night.  “Why don’t you introduce yourselves.  Hannah, you go first.”

“I’m Hannah, and I’m a freshman.  I grew up in a Christian family, I taught Sunday school when I was in high school, and I just got to Jeromeville on Sunday, so I’m looking for a church.”

“Welcome,” Adam said.  “And how’d you find out about The Edge?”

“Last night, at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s welcome thing.  Greg told me about it.”

I looked up and noticed that Noah was smiling at me.  He must have been remembering when I was feeling uneasy about having to recruit a new leader.  And today, I had recruited a new leader.  Mission accomplished.

“I’m Cambria,” the other new leader said.  “I was talking to someone at church last week about wanting to get more involved, and working with junior high kids was one of the options, so I’m checking it out.  I’m a sophomore.  I recognize some of you from JCF. Like I know Greg.”  I waved at Cambria when she said my name.  I did not know that she would be coming to The Edge tonight.

“Welcome,” Noah said.

“I hope you enjoy the night,” Adam added.

Both Hannah and Cambria stayed with The Edge for the entire school year.  Hannah volunteered with the youth groups at J-Cov for the entire four years she was in Jeromeville, two years with The Edge, then two years with the high school group after her small group moved on to high school.  I had been afraid of recruiting a new leader, and Hannah was the only new leader that I ever directly invited in four and a half years of working with The Edge, but I still did what I was afraid of, and that is important.  No one I met that year became my future wife, but with classes starting tomorrow, I still had a good feeling about this year.  And it did end up being a memorable year.

By the way, two of my friends did end up meeting their future wives in this story, but I’ll get to that another time.


Readers: Has there ever been a time you had to do something scary to you that wasn’t as hard as you ended up thinking it would be? Tell me about it in the comments.

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September 15-19, 1997. Seeing my friends again at Outreach Camp. (#145)

Although I had been this way once before, this drive still felt unfamiliar enough to be exciting in its own right.  This part of the state in general was still mostly unfamiliar to me.  It was a Monday afternoon, and I had driven from Jeromeville on the valley floor east on Highway 100 for about fifty miles, across Capital City and its suburbs into the mountains.  Then, in a smaller city called Blue Oaks, I turned north on Highway 79 and drove north for another thirty miles.  As I continued climbing into the mountains, the landscape gradually changed.  Between Capital City and Blue Oaks, Highway 100 passed mostly through rolling hills dotted with oaks and covered with grass, brown now at the end of the hot, dry summer.  North of Blue Oaks, along Highway 79, the surroundings began to be dominated more by pine trees, with the grassy forest floor giving way to a coat of dead needles and cones.

After passing through two other small cities, I turned onto a rural road and drove another five miles, mostly uphill.  Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center was situated at the top of a ridge, and just past the conference grounds, the road began descending into the canyon of a river.  I turned left into the parking lot and stopped the car.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s Outreach Camp was the week-long retreat where we planned for the approaching school year, and this year it was at Pine Mountain, as it had been last year.

“Hi, Greg,” Cheryl from the JCF staff team said as I walked up to the registration table.  “How was your summer?  You did that internship in Oregon, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It wasn’t what I was expecting.  I learned that math research is not what I want to do as a career.”

Cheryl looked up from a list on a clipboard.  “Who was in your car?” she asked.  “I see you on the list, but someone didn’t write down who came with you.”

“I came by myself,” I said, “because I’m not going straight back to Jeromeville afterward.”

“Oh!  Where are you going?”

“Another retreat for the weekend.  Student ministry leaders at Jeromeville Covenant.”

“Fun!  That’s because you’re working with the junior high kids there, right?”

“Yeah.  Youth group leaders of all ages, and college group leaders, they’ll all be there.”

To the right of the parking lot was a sports field, where a group of about ten students were playing Ultimate Frisbee.  Brent Wang threw the disc a long distance downfield, where no one on his team appeared to be, but Seth Huang appeared seemingly out of nowhere, dashing downfield and catching the disc in the goal zone.  Ajeet Tripathi and Todd Chevallier sat to the side of the field, watching; I walked up to them.

“Hey, Greg,” Ajeet said.

Ajeet wore a black Bay City Titans baseball cap; I pointed at it and said, “I went to a Titans game a few days ago.  First time I’d been in three years.”

“Nice!  Which one did you see?”

“The one against Dallas that went into extra innings.”

“Sweet.  I watched that one on TV, stayed up to see the ending.”

“Brent and Seth are so good at Ultimate when they’re on the same team,” I said.  “I remember one time last year watching them play Frisbee on the Quad, and they did all kinds of crazy running throws and catches like that.”

“I know,” Ajeet replied.

“How was your summer, Greg?” Todd asked.  “Did you go home?”

“I was in Grandvale, Oregon, doing an internship.  Then I went home for a couple weeks, then back to Jeromeville for a couple more weeks.”

“Wait, Oregon?  I thought you were from the Santa Lucia area.”

“Yeah.  Plumdale, in Santa Lucia County.”

“So you were just in Oregon for this internship?”

“Yes.  Doing math research.  Sorry, I thought I told everyone last year I was going to Oregon.”

“You might have,” Todd said.  “A lot of people went places this summer.”

“Speaking of which, how was the China trip?”

“So good!  God really planted some seeds in some of the students we were working with.  We’re going to do a presentation about it at the main session tonight.”

“That’s cool.”


I spent most of the rest of that first day saying hi to people and catching up.  It was always good to see people for the first time in three months.  Saying hi to Haley Channing felt a little awkward, because of our history the previous school year.  We were friendly to each other, but I did not want to try to force any conversations or give the impression that I could not accept the fact that she just wanted to be friends.

Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, led a trip that summer where hundreds of students from all around the United States and Canada went to China to do ministry among university students.  Twelve students from JCF went on the trip, and from the presentation that night, it sounded like it was a challenging yet powerful experience.  Evan Lundgren, my Bible study leader from the previous year, was on the trip; he was also a native of Santa Lucia County, but we did not know each other growing up.  After the presentation, Evan and I were catching up, and he told me something about the trip that was not addressed in the presentation.  “We had some new couples form on the trip,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked.  “Like who?”

“Darren and Katrina.”

“Hmm,” I said.  Darren and Katrina ran in the same circles already, so this was not terribly surprising.

“And Eddie and Tabitha.”

“Eddie and Tabitha?” I repeated.

“Yeah.”

Eddie Baker and Tabitha Sasaki,” I said incredulously.  “They’re dating now?”

“Yes,” Evan replied.  I did not see this coming, probably because I considered them both close friends and had no idea that they were even on each other’s radars.  I often felt like the last to know whenever couples formed, though, so this was nothing new.


More couple-related news broke at breakfast Tuesday morning, although this involved an established couple who had been together for a year and a half, not a new couple.  As I walked to the dining hall, six girls were gathered around Amelia Dye, along with Janet McAllen, half of the couple that were the lead staff of JCF.  The girls were looking at Amelia’s left hand, which she held up as she said something about “this morning, we got up early to watch the sun rise.”  I noticed a diamond ring on her finger and put the pieces together in my mind.

“Scott proposed?” I asked as I walked by, pointing to Amelia’s ring.

“Yes!” Amelia answered excitedly.  “This was his grandmother’s ring!  It’s so beautiful!”

“Congratulations!”

This year’s JCF class had the unusual quirk that many students from the class a year older than me, including Amelia and Scott, did not graduate in four years, so they were still at the University of Jeromeville for a fifth year.  I was beginning my fourth year, and at this point it was uncertain whether or not I would be finished at the end of the year.  After discovering I disliked mathematics research, I decided that I wanted to be a high school teacher, but I had not yet figured out how long it would take to finish both the classes for my degree and the prerequisites for the teacher training program.  I had made an appointment to talk to Dr. Graf, my major advisor, next week after I got back to Jeromeville.

At the beginning of the morning session, Janet had gone over some highlights of the upcoming week.  Wednesday night, Sarah Winters would be sharing her testimony, telling the story of how they came to faith in Jesus.  Thursday afternoon we would walk down to the river where four students would be baptized.  And every afternoon, one of the campground staff would be running a ropes course, new to the center this year.

After lunch, I walked out to the ropes course, mostly because I had no idea what a ropes course was and I was curious.  A number of elaborate climbing structures had been attached to some exceptionally tall trees, one that looked like a giant rope ladder with wooden steps about three feet apart, a balance beam connecting two trees about thirty feet off the ground, and a small platform at the same height of uncertain function.  John Harvey was carefully climbing the giant steps of the ladder, pulling himself up to each step; he was attached to a rope extending above him high into the trees, through some unseen pulley, and down to where a campground staff member held the rope, probably to keep John from falling.  Several other students were standing by watching, and we all cheered when John reached the top of the ladder.

“Hey, you!” a female voice said from behind me.  I turned around to see Sadie Rowland smiling and wearing some sort of harness.  “Are you gonna go up there?  I’m going next.”

“I was just watching,” I said.  “It looks like fun, though.”

“How was your summer?”

“It was okay.  I was in Oregon doing a math research internship.”

“Math research.  That sounds like something you’d be good at, and I wouldn’t.”

“Actually, I mostly just learned I don’t like math research, and that I don’t want to do it as a career.  Math research is weird and complicated and hard to understand what you’re doing.”

“So then do you know what you’ll do after you graduate?”

“I’m going to be a teacher.  I helped out in a high school classroom last year, remember, and I really liked that.  I always thought I didn’t want to be a teacher because of the politics involved, you know, but maybe I shouldn’t let that get in the way of something I enjoy doing.”

“Oh, I know, there’s a lot of messed up political stuff in the school system.  And your coworkers will be a bunch of liberals.  But maybe you’re right.”

“Yeah.”

“I think you’d be a good teacher.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “How was your summer?”

“Nothing special.  I was just home, working.  I’m thinking about an internship too.  I found out about something for poli-sci majors where we can go intern in DC.  That would be an experience.”

“Wow.  Yeah.”

While Sadie and I continued to make small talk, John crossed the balance beam while hanging onto another rope.  He now stood on the small platform.  I could see its purpose now: there was a zip line above the platform, and another platform about thirty feet away on another tree, at a lower height, with steps leading down from it.  John grabbed the handle and slid along the zip line to the other platform.  “That looks fun,” I said as John dismounted and began climbing down from the tree.  Everyone cheered.

“Yeah!” Sadie replied.

“Are you ready?” the camp employee asked Sadie as John detached the rope.

“Yes!” Sadie replied.  “I’ll talk to you later, Greg.”

“Yeah.  Have fun!”

I watched as Sadie carefully climbed the giant ladder, a bit more cautiously than John.  I cheered with everyone else as she finished each section, and when she climbed down at the end she had a wide smile on her face.  Sadie was so easy to talk to.  I hoped to have more opportunities to do so this week and in the upcoming school year.


During my freshman year at UJ, I was part of something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  This program consisted of around seventy specifically selected freshmen who lived in the same building and took one class each quarter specific to the program.  My first friends at UJ were other students in the IHP, and I got involved in Jeromeville Christian Fellowship the following year through students in the IHP who invited me.  One of these students was Sarah Winters, a mathematics major like me.  She was a sweet, kind-hearted soul, a listening ear when a friend needed someone.  Sarah would see the good in others even when they were not acting at their best; I saw that freshman year, when I got upset and threw a cardboard box at her and she never got mad at me.  “I hope you all had a great afternoon,” Cheryl said after the worship team finished their set on Wednesday night.  “Tonight, you’ll be hearing from Sarah.  She’s going to share her testimony.”  Sarah stood and walked to the podium, and everyone clapped.  Sarah lowered the microphone a little as she began.

“I didn’t grow up in a Christian home,” Sarah began.  I had heard her say this before, but I still found it surprising.  She always seemed so strong in her faith, a good example of what a Christian woman should be like, and yet I found out later that she had only become a Christian at age 17, a few months before we met.

 “We just weren’t religious at all,” Sarah continued.  “And my parents divorced when I was eight, so I didn’t have a very stable home life, going back and forth between Mom’s house and Dad’s house.  By the time I got to high school, I was still doing well in classes, but I was starting to make some bad decisions in my social life.”  I felt myself getting scared, not wanting to know what bad decisions Sarah was making.  I did not want to be disappointed in her.  But I kept listening.

“Junior year, I played at this big marching band event, with a lot of other school bands from all over the state.  I met a guy there from another school, and we just hit it off really fast.  We even snuck off during part of the time we were supposed to be performing to go make out.  After that weekend, we stayed in touch, we called each other, we wrote letters, and a few months later he asked me to his prom.  He lived in Hilltown, near Bay City, and I lived in the Valley, in Ralstonville, so it took me a couple hours to drive there.  I didn’t want to drive home in the middle of the night, so I stayed with him.”  I was pretty sure I knew what was coming next, and it made me a little uncomfortable to hear her say it.  “And I slept with him,” Sarah continued.  “It was my first time, but I thought I loved him, so it felt right.  And that continued whenever we’d see each other in person.  He’d come see me or I’d go see him a few times during the summer, and every couple weekends in the fall.

“Then he cheated on me,” Sarah explained.  “Suddenly now I felt dirty, and ashamed, and angry.  I had given him everything, I had stayed loyal to him in a long distance relationship, and all that meant nothing to him.  And I handled it in the worst possible way: I had a fling with this guy at school who I knew liked me, because I needed to feel like someone wanted me.  And I slept with this guy too.  But this time it didn’t feel right.  I knew that I was only with this guy because I didn’t want to be alone.  So we broke up after about a month.

“I apparently didn’t learn my lesson from that, because soon after that, I had a new boyfriend.”  Some people chuckled.  I had not seen this side of Sarah before, and I was a bit unsettled.  “But this guy was different.  He was a Christian.  He invited me to church.  I avoided telling him about my past, because I knew he wouldn’t approve, but when I finally did tell him, he told me about God’s redeeming love, how the blood of Jesus Christ had washed away my sins.  Shortly after that, I made a decision to follow Jesus.  And it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned so much about how I don’t need attention from guys to be wanted and loved.  Jesus loves you just who you are.  I am a beloved daughter of the Lord.”

Dave McAllen gave a talk after this, also about the new identity we receive in Christ, but I could not stop thinking about Sarah’s story.  It brought new context to some of the other conversations we had had over the years.  More importantly, I knew that there was something I had to tell Sarah now.  She had been placed in my group for the week, so we would be debriefing together after tonight’s session talking about any thoughts we had about tonight.  

“I haven’t slept with actual girlfriends,” I told my small group after the session, “but I’ve struggled with having lustful thoughts and…” I did not want to be unnecessarily graphic, but I did not want to be vague either.  “Acting on them, alone,” I said.  “One time a while back, I was feeling particularly ashamed because of that, and I wanted to talk to someone, but I was too embarrassed to say anything face to face.  So I sent an email to someone in this small group using an anonymous emailing service, so my name wouldn’t be on it; I just said I’m someone you know and I need someone to talk to.  My friend replied, saying to read the Bible or do something to distract myself when I feel that way, but most importantly, not to get down on myself, because Jesus loves me.  I needed that reminder tonight.  That’s all I wanted to say.”  Everyone else seemed to get the hint that I did not want to talk about this in detail, and no one asked me anything more about it.

After everyone shared, we prayed to close the night.  As people dispersed to the cabins, I stayed in my seat, looking at Sarah, hoping that she had remembered that incident.  She sat next to me, put her arm around me, and said, “Jesus loves you.”  I put my head down; Sarah just stayed there silently next to me with her arm around me from the side.  After several minutes of quiet, I looked up and gave her my best half-smile.  “Are you okay?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah.”

“You wanna get some sleep now?”

“That’s probably a good idea.  Thanks for sticking around.”

“Of course.  Jesus loves you.  Don’t ever forget that.”


I heard abbreviated versions of a few other students’ testimonies Thursday afternoon at the river baptisms.  I found it interesting that Kieran was getting baptized.  Last time JCF had a baptism event, when Sarah had gotten baptized at the end of sophomore year, Kieran had made a big deal to say that he wanted to make a public declaration of his faith, but he had already been baptized as a baby and did not feel a need to be baptized again.  I wondered what caused him to decide now to be baptized after all, especially since I was also one who had been baptized as a baby and not as an adult.

I said goodbye to everyone Friday afternoon when Outreach Camp ended, but I knew I would see them soon.  At the end of the road that the camp was on, everyone turned south on Highway 73 back toward Blue Oaks, but I turned east less than a mile later, on Highway 22 toward the Great Blue Lake, since I had another retreat to get to.  I put on a tape of Third Day, a Christian rock band from Georgia that I had discovered last year, as I drove through more forests and mountains, some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever experienced.  I was in no hurry, since I left Pine Mountain a little after one o’clock and most of the group from Jeromeville Covenant would not arrive at the other retreat until evening.

Highway 22 took me back to Highway 100 eastbound, which actually ran diagonally to the northeast through that area.  I exited the freeway again on the road that eventually took me to the western shore of the Great Blue Lake, about an hour and a half after I left Pine Mountain.  The lake was huge, surrounded by forested mountains, except for the lake’s outlet through a narrow river valley that I had followed from the time I turned off the freeway.  The area was popular with tourists year-round, hiking and boating in the summer, and skiing in the nearby mountains in the winter, so traffic slowed down in some spots.  Now that I finally saw the area’s natural beauty in person, I understood why it was such a popular destination.

I drove south along a windy mountain road, down the entire western shore of the lake, stopping a few times to take pictures since I was in no hurry.  I passed through a city called Lakeview at the south end of the lake, then climbed back into the mountains over a summit on a road that would eventually lead me back to Capital City.  Six miles past the summit, I saw the road I was looking for.

At last year’s Outreach Camp, God had opened a door for me to have a specific role in JCF as the worship band’s roadie, but they did not need one this year.  I had signed up to sit at JCF’s table on the Quad during welcome week, and to help out with a welcome mixer next Tuesday night, but these were not ongoing ministries for the year.  I did have a specific ongoing ministry outside of JCF, though: I was volunteering as a youth leader at church.  God had still shown up at Outreach Camp this year in a more simple way, providing the opportunity to reconnect with my friends and hear messages I needed to hear from the Scriptures and others’ testimonies.  I looked forward to seeing how he would continue to show up in my life at this other retreat and during the first week of school.


Readers: Do you enjoy going on retreats, or just generally getting away from your regular life and being out in nature? Tell me about one such time in the comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Friday is also my birthday,” I said.

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

“Twenty-one.”

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

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

“You should do something!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Good point,” Jonathan G. replied.

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

“Just jump in, and I’ll close.”

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

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

“Thank you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Take care and keep in touch.”

“I will.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Terwilliger.”

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

“Shhh!” Julie exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Proof:

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

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


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

“This is sooooo funny!” Marjorie said.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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


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

Jeannie Lombard


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Sure!” Mom said.

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

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

“What?” Grandpa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice!  Have fun!”

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

“Oh, yeah,” Mom replied.

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

“That’s right,” Mom said.

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

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

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

“What?” Grandpa asked.

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

“What are you researching?” Grandpa asked.

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

“I see,” Grandpa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds nice!  Have fun!”

“Thanks!  I will!”

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

“Yeah,” I replied.


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

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

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

“What year are you in school now?”

“I’m gonna be a sophomore.”

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

“Both.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s good.”

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

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

“Gonna get some new shoes for basketball?”

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

“Well, that’ll be fun.”


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

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

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

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

“Right,” Charlene said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, come on,” Mom replied.

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

“I can see that,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Hey,” I said, walking into the room.

“Giddyup,” Ivan said.

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

“It’s just a funny word.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice!  Did you enjoy the visit?”

“Yes!”

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

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

“I need to get this CD,” Julie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good point!” Alison said.

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

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

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

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

“You guys start late,” Alison commented.

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

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

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

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

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

“Bible study,” I replied.

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

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

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

“True.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too,” Marjorie added.

“I did too,” Jeannie said.

“So did I,” Kirk said.

“I did too,” Emily said.

“Me too,” Julie said.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a good point.”

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

“That’s true.  Good point.”


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

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

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

“I know!”

“What’s Nelson’s last name?”

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

“Yes, you should,” Ivan said.

“But I don’t.”

“Nelson Muntz.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Your turn.”

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

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

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

“Yes, it is,” I answered.

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

“Yes.” I laughed.

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

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

“Oh, yeah.  And she was a hippie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s your burger?” Ivan asked.

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

“I know!”

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

“Yeah, really.”

“This Blizzard is so good,” Marjorie announced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Do they live near here?”

“Salem.”

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

“Not quite an hour, she said.”

“Well, have fun!”

“I will!  Thanks!”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said, getting into the car.

“How are you?” Uncle Lenny asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

“We have America Online.  Will that work?”

“It should!”

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

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

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

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

“And why is their hair like that?”

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

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

“That was good,” Auntie Dorothy said.

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting.”

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

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

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

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

“What kind of church is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  Take care.”


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

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

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

“Taylor?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, ok.  What’d you guys do?”

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

“Nice!  Was the State Capitol interesting?”

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

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

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

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

“How’s your summer going?”

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

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

“Yeah.  But I’m ready to go home.”

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

“You don’t like math research?”

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

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.  That’s fun!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Busy!”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Good night.”

“Good night, Greg.”

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

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


Readers, what are your extended families like?

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