June 11-12, 1996. The new Walk of Shame.

These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online.  Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed.  Or just use it to send emails with a new name.

In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it.  Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away.  Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it.  However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.”  This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers.  I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service.  Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.

I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer.  The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be.  My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine.  That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that.  About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus.  I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil.  About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me.  She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts.  I did not know her name.

“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.

“I think so,” she replied.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks.  You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.

While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously.  I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name.  The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished.  The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about.  I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.

I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow.  I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating.  I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final.  I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips.  I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.

All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian.  Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.  I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.

Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening.  I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen.  I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning.  I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.

When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer.  Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done.  I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it.  And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.

“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too.  He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”  My life is not my own.  I was created to serve and glorify God.  I believed.  But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him?  Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?

Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together.  I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this.  Probably not.  I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still.  I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong.  I knew I was wrong.  I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.

I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures.  Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought.  She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus.  I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me.  I was not trying to hook up with Sarah.  And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys.  I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.

No, I thought, this was not a good idea.  I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret.  I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again.  If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.

I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages.  I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient.  This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else.  On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.”  The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number.  This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person.  I took a deep breath and started typing.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name.  You may call me Joe.


I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message.  As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was.  When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it.  I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name.  I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to.  You may call me Joe.


I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down.  I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed.  I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.

By now it felt too late to do homework.  I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham.  I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly.  I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.


I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus.  I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts.  I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days.  I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material.  During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.


15358854@anon.penet.fi   Re: please read, this is real, you know me


Sarah had written back.  I opened the message and began reading.


Joe,

You are not a failure, and you have not let me down.  You definitely have not let God down.  You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.

I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up.  Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse.  Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.  Go for a walk.  Clean your house.  Do whatever it takes.  But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up.  Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me.  I will keep you in my prayers.  Take care and God bless.


I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened.  I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners.  I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked.  I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.

I read Sarah’s email again.  “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.”  I did not play an instrument.  I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played.  But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album.  I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.  The dishes had been piling up for far too long.

I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo.  Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people.  Sarah was on that trip too.  I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicion
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.

That was me.  That was exactly what I had been feeling.  Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.

Lord, be my light, and be my salvation
‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.

Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes.  I never attempted to use the service again.  I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email.  She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.

I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind.  I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians.  Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that.  Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway.  I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience.  One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.

Summer 1995. Broken glass and sad news.

I got up and walked around the store for what seemed like the hundredth time today.  I looked at my watch: 10:33. I looked for books that were out of place or crooked on the shelf.  There were none, since I had just checked ten minutes earlier and no customers had come in since then.  I wiped the shelves with a dust rag, but there was no dust because I had already dusted twice today. I felt like I had been here forever.  I sat back down behind the cash register and looked at my watch again: 10:36. This day was going by so slowly.

I picked up the book I was reading: The Chamber, by John Grisham.  It was about a lawyer defending his grandfather, who had been given the death penalty decades earlier and was running out of time to appeal his case.  I had just finished reading Grisham’s most recent novel, The Rainmaker, about a lawsuit against an insurance company.  I bought The Chamber in paperback using my employee discount, but I was not enjoying it as much as I did The Rainmaker.  I continued reading, feeling a little disappointed.  I put the book down at 11:02 and walked around to check the shelves again.  I knew that nothing would be out of place or collecting dust yet, because no customers had come in since the last time I checked the store.  I just needed to walk around again for a change of scenery.

This day was a perfect example of what my summer had been like so far: boring.  I went to a roller hockey game with Rachel Copeland, and I had lunch with Catherine Yaras once, and that was the extent of the time I had spent with friends this summer.  I had gotten letters from Sarah Winters, who had lived downstairs from me in Building C; Tiffany Rollins, who had lived in Building K and had classes with me; and Molly Boyle, my friend from the Internet who lived in Pennsylvania.  But none of them were anywhere near Santa Lucia County.   The Fourth of July, Independence Day in the USA, had been last week, but my family stayed home and did nothing. Fireworks were illegal in Santa Lucia County, and the night of July 4 had been too foggy and cloudy to see any public fireworks display.  I had some fun creative projects I was working on, though, and I was playing a lot of Super Nintendo. My game of choice at the moment was Donkey Kong Country.

In the front of the store was a tall vertical rack of greeting cards, visible from outside through the window.  I looked out the window at the parking lot. Books & More was in a strip mall anchored by a grocery store, which was ahead of me on the left.  People were entering and leaving the store, each one of them having a much more interesting day than me, purely by virtue of the fact that they were not stuck in this boring store on a slow day being forced to listen to classical music.

The rack of greeting cards squeaked as I turned it.  The cards were all straight and in the right place, just like they were an hour earlier the last time I checked.  A poster of a painting of flowers, in a frame behind glass, sat on the floor leaning against the wall between the window and the shelf that held magazines.  As I turned around to go back to the desk, I accidentally bumped the poster. It fell forward and landed on the ground. The short, coarse carpet was not enough to break its fall, and the glass shattered.

Crap.

It had happened.  The first time I had ever seriously screwed up at work.

My brain shut down for a few seconds.  What do I do? I did not know, but I was going to have to tell Jane.  I would not be able to hide this. I messed up, and I needed to take responsibility.

Of course, just at that moment, with a mess of broken glass on the floor, a woman walked in.  “Hi,” I said, smiling. “Don’t go over there,” I continued, pointing to the broken picture frame.  “There’s broken glass, and I didn’t get a chance to clean it up yet.”

“That’s ok,” the customer replied.  “I was just wondering where I could find the children’s section.  I’m looking for a birthday present for my niece.”

I pointed the customer in the direction of the children’s books and stood near the broken glass.  I needed to tell Jane and find out what to do, but I did not want to leave the customer unattended, nor did I want to risk other customers coming in and stepping in the glass or cutting themselves.

After the woman bought the gift for her niece, I went into the back room, where Jane had been making phone calls and doing bookkeeping.  “Jane?” I said. “There’s a problem.”

“What is it?” she asked.

I explained about knocking over the poster and breaking the glass.  “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was an accident.”

“There’s a broom and dustpan over there, and a vacuum cleaner.”

“What about the poster?  How would I fix the glass for that?”

“You can take it to a glass shop.”

“Do you know where one is?”

“You can try the phone book,” Jane told me.

That would work, I thought.  Jane did not come across as sarcastic to me; she was probably trying to help me figure things out on my own.  I did not ask whether or not I would be paying for this myself; I just assumed I was, since it was my fault.

I carefully picked up the large pieces of glass and threw them in the garbage.  I swept as much of the rest as I could into the dustpan, throwing that away as well, and I vacuumed the area for several minutes, making sure to get all the glass.  I had cleaned up the mess, but there was still the matter of getting new glass put into the frame.  I had never done this before. I did not know how to deal with glass shops. And I had no idea how much this would cost.

I looked up “Glass” in the yellow pages section of the phone book.  Back in 1995, search engines on the Internet were in their infancy, and most small local businesses did not have Web sites, since most of their customers were not regular Internet users.  I found one not too far away called Bill’s Glass Shop. I had heard that name before; I had seen their trucks around town, and I think my parents got a new window there once, when I was a kid and I hit a baseball through my bedroom window.

I picked up the phone to call Bill’s Glass, but I got nervous and hung up before I dialed.  I needed a plan. I would explain to them when I did. I would ask if it could be fixed, how much it would cost, stuff like that.  I took a deep breath and picked up the phone again, this time actually dialing the number.

“Bill’s Glass,” a male voice said on the other end.

“Hi,” I said.  “I accidentally knocked over a poster in a picture frame, and the glass broke.  Can you fix that?”

“Sure we can.  How big is it?”

“I didn’t measure it.  It’s like a regular poster size.”

“So about 24 by 36?”

“That looks about right.”

“We can get that done for you today.  Can you bring it in now?”

“I should be able to soon.  How much will it cost?”

“Including labor and everything, let’s see, around thirty dollars.”

That seemed reasonable to me.  I did not like the idea of spending money on the fact that I was clumsy, but I had no choice now.  “Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll bring it down as soon as I can.”

“You know where our shop is?” the man asked.  I told him the address I got from the phone book, and he confirmed that I was correct.  “See you soon,” he said.

“Thank you.”  I hung up and walked to back room.  “Bill’s Glass says they can do it today,” I told Jane.  “Should I take it there when my shift is over, or should I go now?”

“You can go now,” Jane replied.  “I can take a break from this and work the front until you get back.”

“I’ll be back soon,” I said.  I carefully put the poster and picture frame in the back of the car and drove toward Bill’s Glass. It took about ten minutes to get there.  I had no trouble finding the shop. When I got there, I parked and took the poster inside.

“What can I do for you?” the man behind the counter said when I walked in.

“I called a few minutes ago about the poster in the picture frame?” I said nervously.

“Oh, yeah!” the man said.  “Let me take a look at that.”  I handed him the poster, and he looked at it, assessing the work that needed to be done.  “We can get this done right now. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I sat in the lobby of the shop, staring awkwardly at everything on the wall for a few minutes.  I saw a newspaper sitting on a table next to my chair; I started reading that.  How did this work? Did glass shops have waiting rooms? Was I supposed to wait here? Should I go back to the car? I felt completely out of place, but I just sat there, trying to act like I knew what I was doing.  After I finished reading the newspaper, I stared at the same things on the wall that I had stared at before.

About twenty minutes after I got there, the man brought out Jane’s flower poster with the glass in the frame repaired.  “I got you all fixed up,” he said.

“Thank you,” I replied.  I paid him, took the poster back to the car, and left.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead came on the radio.  I turned it up and started singing loudly. My dad loved the Grateful Dead, and he often saw them live when they were playing on this side of the country.  My parents had been eating Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia flavor ice cream, since long before Ben & Jerry’s was trendy, just because the flavor was named after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.  Once when I was in high school, Dad invited me to come with him to a Dead concert. I said no, because I had heard stories about the kind of things that Deadheads are into, and I wanted to stay as far away from that stuff as possible.  Also, although I did not particularly dislike them, I only knew a few Grateful Dead songs at that point in my life. I felt like I would not be able to appreciate the music well enough.  A little over a year ago, Dad had tickets for a Dead concert that he ended up not being able to go to, because we were in Jeromeville for an event for incoming freshmen.  I do not know if he ever got to see them again.

Touch of Grey was my favorite Grateful Dead song.  Many rock bands that stay together for a long time seem to end up having one more big hit late in their career.  The Grateful Dead was a product of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, but their most commercially successful album was In the Dark, released in 1987.  Touch of Grey, from this album, was also the first Grateful Dead song to have a music video, which I often saw on MTV at the time.  I have a theory that the album was successful because many of the Deadheads of my parents’ generation had gotten real jobs by 1987 and were actually able to afford to buy the album.

As I drove back toward Books & More, singing “IIII WIIIIILL… GET BY” along with the radio,  I thought about the odd situation I found myself in. I had a piece of fancy artwork in the back seat.  Not original artwork, of course, it was a copy, but it was some fine classy painting of nature by some artist with a name in another language that I could not pronounce, the kind of artwork that belonged in a store that played classical music.  And I was sitting up front, blasting the Grateful Dead. I guess that’s just me. I don’t fit neatly into stereotypes and cliques.

“It’s fixed,” I told Jane as I walked back into Books & More, holding the poster.

“Thank you,” Jane replied.  “I’m going to put this back in the office until I can hang it properly, so this doesn’t happen again.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Jane went back to the office with the poster and stayed back there to work on bookkeeping, leaving me up front at the cash register.  Business did not appear to have picked up while I was gone; the rest of the day was just as slow, and I spent much of it reading The Chamber with classical music in the background.  It was a slow day, but I felt like I accomplished something.  Maybe I would have been better off not having broken the glass in the first place, but now I knew how to get picture frame glass fixed if it ever came up again in the future.

I find it somewhat amusing that I spent the summer working in a stuffy bookstore with art on the wall and classical music playing, yet I have multiple memories of that job that revolve around the Grateful Dead.  About a month after the broken glass incident, I arrived at work on a day that I was working the opening shift with Paula, the other part-time employee who also knew my family.  Paula coincidentally arrived at the same time I did.

“Good morning,” I said to Paula as I got out of the car.

“I just heard on the news this morning that Jerry Garcia died,” Paula said.

I stood and stared for a few seconds, feeling shocked.  “Wow,” I replied.

“Yeah. I hope your dad is taking the news okay.”

“I know.  I feel bad because Dad always wanted to bring me to a Grateful Dead concert, and I never did because I was afraid of what kind of things happen at Grateful Dead concerts.  Now we’ll never get the chance.”

When I got home from work that day, Mom and Dad were both sitting in the living room.  “Did you hear the news?” Mom asked in kind of a somber tone.

“You mean that Jerry Garcia died?” I asked.

“Yeah.  People have been calling all day to make sure Dad is okay.”

“Are you ok?” I asked Dad.  He shrugged noncommittally.

Every year after that, when shopping for Christmas presents for my family, I always got Dad a Grateful Dead book or calendar if one was available.  In recent years, the Bay City Titans baseball team has done some sort of Jerry Garcia or Grateful Dead tribute every year in August, since Jerry’s birthday and death anniversary are both in August, and I have been to this event multiple times with my parents.  The last time I attended this  event, I listened to the Grateful Dead channel on SiriusXM satellite radio every time I was in the car for a week before the game. But I still regret never having been to an actual Grateful Dead concert with Dad.  Sometimes, windows of opportunity close with no warning.  It is difficult to find that balance of going out and taking advantage of every opportunity, yet still getting enough rest to avoid exhaustion. I still struggle with that balance today. Sadly, missed opportunities are just a natural part of life.  No one can possibly do everything, so all I can do is make the most of what I have and do my best to live my life.

jerry g
Jerry Garcia bobblehead, from the Titans game on what would have been Jerry’s 70th birthday, August 1, 2012.

That’s a great video, but the song is edited, missing the guitar solo.  Click here to hear the full version.