June 13, 1997. Brian’s going away party. (#134)

I walked to the front door of the Staff House and knocked.  This time of year, it was still warm and light out at seven in the evening.  Cheryl opened the door and said, “Hey, Greg!  Come on in!”

“Here’s my letter,” I replied, handing Cheryl the piece of white paper in my hand.  I had outlined a large letter E in black marker, and inside the E, I had printed pictures of Star Wars characters that I found on the Internet.

“Give that to Alexa,” Cheryl said.  “She’s making the sign.”  I walked into the living room, where a brown-haired senior girl named Alexa Lafferty sat in a chair.  She stood on the chair and taped my E to the wall, about seven feet above the ground, next to a brightly colored S, with a red R some space to the left and another R below the other letters with a high jumper vaulting his body over the middle of the R.  Janet McAllen, who lived in this house with the other Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff, had called me a few days ago.  She explained that, for Brian’s going away party, we would be making a sign on the wall that said YOU’RE A BLESSING, BRIAN.  Each guest would be assigned a letter from that phrase to draw and decorate, and the letters would be hung on the wall as we arrived.  Some people, like me and whoever drew the high jumper, drew specifically Brian-themed decorations, and others just made designs or patterns.

“Hey, Greg,” Brian said, emerging from another room.  He looked up at the sign, now with my letter added.  “Nice!” he said.  “But you know I’m gonna have to quiz you now.  Who’s that?”  Brian pointed at one of the characters on my letter E sign.

“Han Solo,” I replied.  Although I had some knowledge of Star Wars before living with Brian for a year, I was new to being a true fan, and I had seen Return of the Jedi for the first time just three months ago.

“And him?” Brian continued pointing to characters on my sign.

“Yoda.”

“And her?”

“Princess Leia.”

“And here’s a tough one.  What’s that thing Luke is riding?”

“A Tauntaun, I think it’s called.  Is that right?”

“Very good.  You will be a great Jedi Master someday.”

As more people trickled in, and Alexa added to the letters on the wall, Brian kept making comments out loud, trying to figure out what it spelled.  Lorraine Mathews arrived with the letter O, and like me, she chose a Star Wars theme.  Lorraine had drawn the O as the Death Star, with Luke Skywalker’s X-wing, Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, and a few TIE fighters flown by Darth Vader’s minions flying around it.  “YEAH!” Brian shouted excitedly when he saw it.

“Dude!” Lorraine replied, high-fiving Brian.

Eddie Baker and John Harvey arrived next, bringing the I in Brian and the apostrophe in YOU’RE.  “Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.  “What’s up?  Glad to be done with finals?”

“Yes.  What about you?”

“I had a long paper to write, but it’s done.  Now I’m in the middle of planning for China.”

“When do you guys leave?”

“Next Thursday.  Six days.  It’s exciting to see how God will move.”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m looking forward to hearing about it.”

John spoke up, asking me, “You’re going somewhere this summer too, right?  To do research, or something like that?”

“Yeah.  Oregon.  An undergrad research internship with the math department at Grandvale State.”

Lars Ashford had walked in during my conversation with Eddie and John.  “You’re going to Oregon?” Lars asked me.  “I love Oregon!”

“Where is Grandvale State?” John asked.  “Like, how far from Portland?  That’s all I know in Oregon.”

“About ninety miles,” I replied.  “South.”

“How exactly do you do math research?” Eddie asked.

“Yeah,” Lars added.  “I hear math research, and I think of something like, ‘Today we’re gonna research the number three.  What else can we learn about the number three?  Where does it come from?  Why is it called three?  And when we’re done with that, we’re gonna research the number seven.’  But what is it really?”

“Not that,” I chuckled.  “I’m not really sure myself.  That’s why I’m doing this, to get a feel for what grad school will be like, if I decide to go to grad school.  I think math research is, like, proving new theorems.”

“What new theorems need to be proven?  I remember all the math I had to take for engineering.  It didn’t seem like there was a lot more to discover.”

“There are a lot of open questions to research in mathematics,” I explained.  “But it mostly has to do with really advanced theoretical stuff, the kind of stuff that wouldn’t apply directly to engineering.”

“But—” Lars continued.  “I don’t get it.  Why research something that isn’t relevant to the real world?”

“Because you never know what connections might be made someday.  I heard a good example once.  The ancient Greeks knew about the reflecting properties of parabolic surfaces.  But they had no idea that these same properties would be used centuries later to invent satellite dishes.”

Lars stared off in the distance.  “Wow,” he finally said.  “That’s deep.”

“So what exactly will you be researching this summer?” Eddie asked.

“I’m not really sure,” I explained.  “I think I’ll find out when I get there.  There are three professors working with the project, and the students will be put in groups to work on three different projects.”

“Is that for sure what you want to do with your degree?  Math research?  Weren’t you also thinking about being a teacher?”

“Yeah.  I helped out in a high school classroom this quarter.  I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do.  I’m exploring options.”

“That’s a good way to look at it.”

More people arrived: Kristina Kasparian.  Joe Fox.  Chris, the 1997 Man of Steel.  Melinda Schmidt.  I noticed that the party guests mostly seemed to be juniors and seniors.  This made sense, since these people knew Brian the best.  Brian had graduated a year ago, so he was the same age as current fifth-year students, a year older than current seniors, and two years older than me.  Also, most freshmen had probably either left Jeromeville already, or were busy packing tonight since the dorms closed tomorrow at noon.  I was disappointed to realize that this meant that Carrie Valentine would probably not be at this party, and neither would Sadie Rowland.

Scott Madison and Amelia Dye walked in next.  They handed Alexa two exclamation points.  “I like the way you made signs for punctuation,” I told Janet.

“We already had enough people for all the letters, and more people were coming, so we had to include them too.  So we made lots of exclamation points,” Janet explained.

“That works.  But I wonder if there was any other punctuation you could have used.  Like maybe, put it in quotes.  ‘You’re a blessing, Brian,’” I said, making air quotes with my fingers.

Janet thought about this, then started laughing.  “I thought you meant, like, ‘You’re a “blessing,” Brian.’” She paused and made air quotes, with a suspicious grin on her face, during the word “blessing” only.

“Greg?” Scott said after Janet and I were done laughing.  “How did finals go?”

“I think I did well,” I said.  “I only had two actual finals, plus a paper to write.”

“That’s a pretty easy schedule.  Did your family enjoy the chorus performance?”

“Yes,” I said.  “They brought Grandpa too.  He really wanted to hear me sing.  His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but Mom said he said we sounded really good.”

“That’s good.  My family didn’t come for this one, but they’d seen other ones before.”

“How were your finals?  I forget, are you graduating this year?”

“No.  I’m definitely going to be here a fifth year.”

“Me too,” Amelia added.

“Well, that’s good.  I get to see you guys around for another year.”


After about an hour of mingling, as more people trickled in and Brian figured out what the letters spelled, Brian, the McAllens, and Cheryl attempted to get everyone quiet for a few minutes.  “Brian has a few words to say,” Cheryl announced.  All the chairs and couch spaces were taken, so I sat on the floor to listen to Brian.

“So,” Brian began.  “Thank you all for coming tonight.”  Brian often punctuated his speech with notable pauses, then spoke his sentences quickly in between the pauses.  He gave the talk at JCF a few times this year, speaking this way, and last year, when we were making plans to get an apartment together, he left a few long rambling messages like this on my answering machine.  “Some of you have known me since freshman year… I was a new Christian then.  And God led me to get more involved in JCF… I started leading Bible studies.

“But if my life had gone to plan… I wouldn’t be here at all right now.  I took the MCAT and applied to medical school last year… and I didn’t get in.  But that allowed God to open the door for me to stay here… and go on staff with JCF.  And…” Brian gestured toward the letters on the wall.  “Your sign says that I’m a blessing… But you have all been a blessing to me too.  You’ve encouraged me when things didn’t work out the way I expected… You encouraged me to keep trying medical school.  And God opened another door.  So… as you know, I’m headed to New York Medical College in the fall.  So thank you so much… Come visit me if you’re ever in New York.  And save the date… because I’ll be out here for the New Year’s party!”  A few people cheered at this.  I was not sure what Brian was referring to, about the New Year’s party, but Brian told me earlier that he would be emailing all his friends periodically, so hopefully I would find out more as the end of 1997 approached.

After Brian finished speaking, Janet got back up in front of everyone and announced, “We’re gonna play a game now,” Janet explained.  “We’re gonna play Telephone Charades.  You’ll be in groups of five.  You’re all gonna go in the other room, except for one of you.  We’ll tell the first person something to act out.  Then the second person will come out from the bedroom and watch the first person acting it out.  Then the third person will come out of the bedroom, and the second person will act out the scene for the third person.  Then the fourth person will watch the third person act out the scene.  And we’ll keep going until we get to the last person.  And the last person will have to act it out for Brian, and we’ll see if he can guess what you’re doing.”

Janet explained again, because someone did not understand.  My group went first; I went into what appeared to be Dave and Janet’s bedroom with Alexa, Eddie, and Lars.  Brian came with us, since he had to be part of every group and go last.  Amelia was also in our group, but she stayed in the living room.  Amelia came to the bedroom to get Lars a minute later, and after another three or four minutes or so, Lars came to get Eddie.  Next, Eddie came to the bedroom to get me.

Eddie began acting his scene for me when I got back to the living room, with Amelia, Lars, and everyone not in our group watching.  Eddie mimed sticking something to his shirt; I thought maybe it was a name tag.  Then he sat in a chair.  Suddenly he stood next to the chair, his mouth moving, and his arms extended up above him slightly at an angle.  Eddie then sat back down, looking up at the place where he had stood a few seconds before.  What was going on here?  Was Eddie portraying someone who was sitting down and standing up every few seconds?  Or was he playing two characters, the seated character looking confused at the standing character?  The way Eddie held his arms while standing reminded me of the way some people stand and raise their arms while singing worship music, but I did not understand what the part about sitting in the chair meant.

Next, Eddie just sat in the chair, looking more and more bored, his eyes starting to close.  Eventually he appeared to fall asleep entirely, then he jerked back and sat upright in the chair.  Eddie then repeated the whole thing, as if his character nodded off a second time.

I started at Eddie after he finished.  “I have no idea what I just saw,” I replied.

“Oh no,” he replied.  Others watching seemed to react as well.  I walked to the bedroom, feeling like I was going to let my team down, then came back out to the living room with Alexa.  “I apologize in advance,” I told her.

“Uh-oh,” she replied.

I attempted to act out everything that I saw.  I did the same thing Eddie did, alternating between sitting in the chair and standing next to it, moving my mouth and raising my arms.  I did this a few times, then I sat in the chair and pretended to nod off and wake up.

“Okay,” Alexa replied.  She then performed what she saw me doing for Lars, and Lars performed the same thing for Brian.  Lars’ performance had not changed much from mine, although his portrayal of the guy standing next to the chair with his arms raised was a bit more animated than mine.

“I don’t know,” Brian said.  “I’m thinking maybe I’m doing The Wave at a football game, then falling asleep because it’s a boring game?”

“No,” Janet said.  “Actually, it’s Brian’s first time at JCF.”  I made a note that I was correct in connecting the guy raising his hands with singing worship songs.  “A lot of new people at JCF think it’s weird when people raise their hands in worship.  And you told that story about the time you fell asleep because you thought the talk was boring.”

“Oh!” Brian replied.  “That makes more sense.”

“Is the next group ready?” Janet asked.  “The next group is Lorraine, John, Scott, Kristina, and Joe.”  Lorraine stayed in the living room, and after the others went to the bedroom, Janet said, “You’re doing the scene from Star Wars where Darth Vader fights Obi-Wan, and Luke sees it.”

“Oh yeah.  I got this,” Lorraine proclaimed confidently.  She went to the bedroom to get John, then she began performing.  Lorraine acted Obi-Wan’s part, walking into the scene, then pausing.  She pantomimed switching on a lightsaber, then she swung her arms around to fight Darth Vader with it.  After a few swings, she turned toward the people watching, with a knowing look on her face, making eye contact with an invisible Luke.  She then raised her hands in front of her face and crumpled to the ground as the imaginary Vader struck her down.  Lorraine stood back up in the place where she had looked before, now performing as Luke.  She opened her mouth widely as if to scream, then began shooting an invisible blaster.  After a few seconds, she paused to hear Obi-Wan speak to her from beyond the grave, then ran to the far end of the living room.  Everyone cheered at her flawless acting.

As the successive contestants acted out the scene, it became corrupted and less recognizable.  I was not sure if the others were unfamiliar with the scene from Star Wars, or if they just did not know the scene from memory as well as Lorraine.  By the time Brian saw Joe acting, the lightsaber fight looked more like dancing, and after Joe fell to the floor, he just ran away, shooting, no longer clear that he was now a different character.

“Huh?” Brian exclaimed.  “What was that?”

“Lorraine?” Janet asked.  “Will you act out yours again?  Because I think Brian might know it if he sees you do it.”

“Sure,” Lorraine replied.  She stood up and performed exactly the same way she did earlier, and I could tell from the excited look on Brian’s face that he knew what she was acting out.  When she got to the point where Luke paused and heard Obi-Wan’s voice, Brian shouted, “Run, Luke, run!  That was great!”

“Yes!” Lorraine replied.


There were no more structured activities for the rest of the party. I stuck around and hung out and mingled until around 11:30.  When I left, only a few guests remained besides Brian and the hosts. My plan had been to stay up late, start packing, and leave for my parents’ house early in the morning.  But that did not happen; I was ready for bed when I got home from the party.  Brian had driven separately, and he arrived home after I was asleep.  The next day, I wasted a few hours on Internet Relay Chat and answered emails before I started packing, and I took a break and went for a bike ride before I finished.  I had much more to pack than I usually do for a quick trip to my parents’ house, since I was leaving Jeromeville until late August, so I did not finish until late afternoon.

“Have a great summer, Greg,” Brian said, shaking my hand, as I was leaving.  “Keep in touch.  I’ll see you at New Year’s?”

“Sounds good,” I replied.  “Good luck in medical school.”  Turning to the other housemate who was home, I said, “Shawn, good luck with the running store.”

“Thanks,” Shawn replied.  He also shook my hand.  “So you’ll be back up here at the end of August to finish moving out?  Is that right?  We’ll clean up our parts before we leave.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Have a good summer,” Brian said.

“I will!  You too!”

Brian sent mass emails periodically for the next few years to update his friends and family on his life.  He eventually decided to specialize in pediatrics, and after completing medical school in 2001, he moved to California to begin his residency at a large, well-known children’s hospital.  At some point a couple years into his residency, Brian got too busy to send the emails regularly, so we lost touch for about a decade.  I found him on Facebook years later, when Brian was a groomsman in Shawn’s wedding.  Brian does not post often, though.

To this day, I have only seen Brian in person six more times.  Brian’s New Year parties were a long tradition going back to his high school years, and he continued this tradition for a few more years, when he returned to Valle Luna to visit his parents over the winter holidays.  I attended three New Year parties with Brian.  He also came back to Jeromeville for Scott and Amelia’s wedding.  (Oops, I guess that was a spoiler… Scott and Amelia did end up getting married.)  In 2002, I went on a long road trip to California and visited a few people I knew there, including Brian.  And both of us were in Jeromeville in 2017 for a JCF 1990s reunion.

By the time Brian got to California, Alexa Lafferty had gotten a job not far from where Brian was.  Alexa and Brian started spending more time together in person, and this eventually became a romantic relationship.  They got married and had two children.  And just as Brian had said years earlier, he did multiple mission trips over the years.

It was warm as I drove west on Highway 100, the sun still a little too high in the sky to be directly in my eyes.  I turned south on Highway 6 to San Tomas, where it ended and merged with Highway 11.  After a week with my parents in Plumdale, I would come right back here to San Tomas to board an airplane to Oregon.  I could have driven to Oregon in one long day and brought the car, but I did not particularly need it, since I would be spending most of my time on campus.  Also, after finally getting to experience flying on the Urbana trip, I wanted to fly again.  Airplanes were fun, and air travel was fitting for a new adventure.

Disclaimer: This photo is a reconstruction that I just made as I was writing this. I know that I did not have a color printer in 1997. I do not know the whereabouts of the original letters today.

Author’s Note: This is the end of Year 3, so I will be taking a break for a while. But I will have a year 3 recap post next week, and I have a few more posts I want to write before I start year 4. Make sure you are following my other projects, Greg Out Of Character and Song of the Day, by DJ GJ-64.

What was your favorite moment of Year 3? Let me know 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.

Disclaimer: All Star Wars properties are trademarks of Lucasfilm Ltd. LLC. Lucasfilm was not involved in the production of this story.


May 9, 1997. Maybe here’s where the new story begins. (#130)

“So my cousin is getting married on the beach this summer,” Lars said in his usual boisterous voice as he adjusted the heights of the microphones at the front of 170 Evans Hall.  “She wants everyone to wear beach clothes.  That just seems weird for a wedding.”

“Yeah,” Tabitha said as she plucked strings on her guitar, paying attention to a battery-operated tuner and tightening or loosening the strings accordingly.  “You don’t wear beach clothes to a wedding.”

As the worship team’s roadie, I arrived early each week to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, to help Lars, Tabitha, Brent, and the others on the worship band set up their equipment.  I got this position by virtue of having a big car, a 1989 Ford Bronco, that could fit a lot of instruments and amplifiers in the back.  We used to pull my car right up to the building, someone told me at the beginning of the year that it would be okay, but a few weeks ago I got a a parking ticket for having done so.  Since then, I had parked in the nearest legal space, about two hundred feet away, and we had had to carry the music equipment a much farther distance.  I felt annoyed every time I drove into that parking lot and paid two dollars for evening parking, because it reminded me of the time I got a ticket, so far the only ticket I had ever received.

“So are you gonna wear shorts and flip-flops to the wedding?” Brent asked.

“I don’t know,” Lars replied.

“I’m gonna ask people to wear jackets to my wedding,” I said.  Brent, Lars, and Tabitha looked at me confused.  “Because hell will have frozen over if I ever get married.”

After a second, the others chuckled and groaned.  “Come on, dude,” Lars said.  “Don’t say that.”  I shrugged.  These days, it certainly did feel like I would never meet anyone special.  It had been five months since Haley Channing rejected me, and nothing had happened to give me hope that things would change any time soon.  I had great friends, I was enjoying being a youth group leader at church, but I had not met any girls who seemed interested in me that way.  The University of Jeromeville was full of cute girls; they either did not like me back, or they already had boyfriends.  I saw graffiti on a bathroom wall a few days ago that said, “Jeromeville girls are like parking spaces: the good ones are either taken or handicapped.”  I had never before resonated so well with bathroom graffiti.

A few hours later, after JCF ended, I was helping the worship band unload equipment to its usual storage place, Lars’ garage on J Street.  Tabitha said, “Are you guys going to Dave and Janet’s tonight?  They’re gonna hang out and play games.”

“I’m going,” Brent replied.

“I hadn’t heard,” I said.  “But that sounds like fun.  Sure, I’m in.”

“I think I’ll pass,” Lars added.  “I need to be up early tomorrow.  Gonna go to the Great Blue Lake with Armando for the day.”

“That sounds like fun!” I said.  The Great Blue Lake attracted tourists from around the world.  I was about a hundred miles away, and I had never been there or seen it.  Hopefully someday.

“It looks like we’re done,” Tabitha said, looking at everything in the garage.  “I’m gonna head to Dave and Janet’s now.  Greg, you’re coming?”

“Sure.  But I’m gonna go in and use the bathroom first.”

“All right.  See you there!”


Dave and Janet McAllen were older than me, around thirtyish.  They worked in full-time ministry as the lead staff of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, overseeing the campus group along with a few other recent graduates who were paid part time.  In addition to their duties as leaders of an organization, part of their job also involved building relationships with university students, as a way to create a welcoming organization where students could learn about Christianity and Jesus Christ.

I talked to Xander, one of Lars’ housemates, for a few minutes before I left, then I drove to the McAllens’ house on West 15th Street.  It was almost ten o’clock by the time I finally got there.  I walked to the door and knocked.

After almost a minute, someone opened the door, but it was not either of the McAllens, or Tabitha, or Brent.  A freshman girl named Carrie Valentine stood on the other side of the door, wearing blue denim overalls with a light purple shirt underneath.  Carrie was somewhat tall, with straight brown hair extending a little past her shoulders and dark brown eyes that smiled at me.  I had met Carrie a few times before, but I had not talked to her much.  Music played faintly in the background.

“Hi, Greg!” Carrie said, smiling.  “Come on in!”

The McAllens lived in half of a duplex with roommates, including Cheryl who was also on JCF staff; this house was commonly referred to as the Staff House by JCF students.  The front door opened into a hallway, with bedrooms on the left and the living area to the right.  I followed Carrie toward the living room and kitchen and looked around.  The music was coming from a stereo in the living room, playing a local radio station.  The house appeared empty except for Carrie and me, which surprised me.  I was under the impression that a large group of people would be there.  Tabitha and Brent had left Lars’ house about five minutes before me, and many others had left JCF earlier and not had to unpack music equipment.  Surely they should be here by now.  “Where is everyone?” I asked.

“They walked to the store to get snacks,” Carrie explained.  “They just left a minute ago.  I said I’d stay back in case anyone else showed up.”

“That makes sense,” I replied.  “So how’s your quarter going?”

“Hard!  But it’s good.  I’m taking this really fun class for my major.”

“What is your major?”

“Design.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  Carrie was the first design major I had ever met, and I was not sure exactly what that was, other than that it probably involved designing things.

“What about you?” Carrie asked.  “What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“Eww.  I was never very good at math.  I take it you are?”

“Yeah.  It just makes sense to me.”

“Do you know what you want to do with your major?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I said.  “I always thought I didn’t want to be a teacher, but one of my professors thinks I would make a good teacher, so he set me up with an internship helping out in a high school class.  I’m doing that this quarter”

“That sounds so cool!  What’s it like?”

“It’s been good so far.  I’m just walking around helping students when they have questions.  And I’m taking notes on how the teacher teaches, because I’ll have to write a short paper at the end of the year.”

“So do you think you want to be a teacher now?”

“I don’t know.  I want to look into all the options.  Another professor told me about these summer research internships that other schools offer, and students from anywhere in the country can apply to, where you do research in small groups with a professor supervising.”

“So, like, math research?  How does that work?”

“Proving new theorems and stuff like that, I think,” I explained.  “I’ll find out.  I’ll be going to Oregon for eight weeks this summer.  I applied to four of these programs, I got into two of them, and I chose the one at Grandvale State University because it’s closer.  And also my great-aunt and uncle live nearby.”

“That’s so cool!  Oregon is nice.  Are you excited?”

“I am.  I’ve been to Oregon twice before, but I haven’t been to Grandvale specifically.  It’ll be nice to be somewhere new.  And it’ll be nice to learn more about what grad school in math will be like, to know whether or not that’s what I want to do.”

“Yeah!

“Do you know what you want to do with your design degree?”

“Interior design,” Carrie answered.  “I’ve always been interested in how other people’s houses look.”

“That’s cool.  I’ve never really thought about what kind of education goes into that.”

I was vaguely aware of the music still playing in the background.  The song on the radio changed to a familiar-sounding song that opened with a guitar, strumming back and forth between two chords, including a note that did not usually harmonize with the other notes in those chords.  A female voice began singing.  Whatever this song was, I knew I had heard it before, but not in some time.  “Eww, I hate this song,” Carrie said.

“What is it?” I asked.  “I know I’ve heard it before, but I can’t place it.”

“‘Here’s Where The Story Ends,’ by the Sundays.  Something about it just always bothered me.  I can’t really explain it.”

Right after I heard Carrie name the song, I heard the girl on the radio, who I would learn years later was named Harriet Wheeler, sing the line containing the title, followed by the line “It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year.”  “Okay, I remember the song now,” I said.  This part sounds familiar.”

“I never liked her voice.  And I could never tell what she was saying.  It sounded like ‘telephone ear’ to me.”

“Telephone ear,” I said.  “That’s a good one.  What is she saying, anyway?  ‘Terrible year?’”

“I think that’s it.  Seriously, do you mind if I turn it off?  I really don’t like it.”

“Okay,” I said, although now that I recognized the song, I realized that I never particularly disliked it.  It was kind of catchy.  Carrie turned the music off entirely.  “What about you?” I asked.  “Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”

“Just going home.  Probably getting a job.”

“Where are you from?”

“Westridge.  It’s between Bay City and San Tomas.”

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

“Nothing exciting like you going to Oregon, though.”

“Thanks!  I hope it’s exciting.  I’m kind of nervous, too.”

“Why?”

“Just because it’s something new.  And I’ve made a lot of new friends here this year, and I won’t be around them.” 

“Yeah.  But you’ll make new friends there, right?”

“I hope so.”

I heard a knock at the door a minute later.  “Come in!” Carrie called out.  Todd Chevallier and Ajeet Tripathi walked in.  Carrie said hello to them, and as all of them started talking, I felt a bit of disappointment that my time to talk to Carrie alone was over.  A minute later, Dave and Janet McAllen, Cheryl, Tabitha, and several others returned carrying grocery bags full of snacks.

“We’re back,” Dave said as the group sat in the living room.  “Hey, Greg,” he said, noticing that new people had arrived.  “Ajeet.  Todd.’

“Hi,” I said.

“So I was thinking, maybe, let’s play Pictionary first?” Janet suggested.  That’s a fun, easy game.  And then we can play something else later if we get tired of that.”  People responded in the affirmative.  Janet got the Pictionary box and placed it on the coffee table.  “I need to go find pencils and scratch paper,” she said.  “You guys divide into teams.”

Pictionary was a fairly simple party game in which one player would have to draw something, silently, without speaking or writing words, and that player’s teammates would have to guess what was being drawn in a certain amount of time.  I looked at Carrie, since she was still standing next to me, at the same time that Tabitha and Brent looked at us.  “We’re a team?” Tabitha suggested, pointing at the four of us.

“Sure,” I replied, nodding.

After Janet finished setting up the game, we rolled the die to see who would go first.  The team consisting of Dave, Eddie Baker, Autumn Davies, and a freshman girl whom I had not met went first.  Dave drew a stick figure with a very prominent ear; he kept circling the ear and pointing.  “Ear!  Earring!  Ear wax!  Eardrum!” others on his team shouted; none was correct.  Time ran out, and Dave’s team did not get to advance on the board.

“Earlobe!” Dave said.  “Come on!”

“Oh,” Autumn replied.  “It looked like he was wearing hoop earrings!”

“It’s our turn,” Tabitha said.  “Who’s gonna draw for us?”

We all looked at each other.  Carrie’s deep brown eyes met mine, and I looked away quickly.  “I’ll draw,” I said, almost immediately wondering if I would regret having spoken up.  I took the pencil, drew a card, and silently read the word I had to draw.  Sheep.

Brent turned the timer over, and I drew a circle for the head, then a fluffy body.  “Cloud,” Brent said.  As soon as I put four legs on the fluffy body, Carrie shouted, “Sheep!”

“Yes!” I said.  Carrie smiled excitedly, and I gave her a high five.

“How did you two get that so fast?” Tabitha asked.

“It’s clearly a sheep!” Carrie explained, gesturing excitedly to the drawing.  “It’s got all the wool, all curly like this, and it has legs!”

“Thank you!” I said, smiling.  Carrie smiled back.  I rolled 5 on the die and moved our piece ahead five spaces.  Pictionary was not normally my best game, but our team worked together unusually well that night, and we ended up winning.

A few people left after we finished Pictionary, and not too long after that, Carrie said that she was leaving too.  “I have a lot of homework to do tomorrow, and I don’t want to be up too late,” she said.  “It’s already almost midnight.”

“Good luck with that,” I replied.  “It was good talking to you earlier.”

“Yeah!” Carrie replied, smiling.  “I’ll see you before you leave, but I hope you enjoy Oregon!”

“Thanks.”  I smiled back.  “Have a good weekend!”

“You too!”


I stayed at Dave and Janet’s house for a while after Carrie left.  Janet asked me what Carrie meant when she mentioned Oregon, so I explained about my internship to the others.  I had mentioned to some of them that I was applying to these programs, but I had not told everyone that I had been accepted.

Several of the people at the party would be going to China for a month this summer, on a mission trip sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Someone asked how fundraising was going.  I had received several prayer letters about this trip over the last few weeks, from many of the students going on the trip; since I knew all of them, I made one lump sum donation of $118.24.  In the memo line of the check, I had written, “This is the day the Lord has made.  Psalm 118:24.”

“It’s funny, Greg,” Eddie said.  “At the last meeting for the China trip, we were going over fundraising totals, and every time we look at the numbers, it’s always, like, whatever dollars, and twenty-four cents.”

“Because of me,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah.  I’ve never seen anyone do that before, with the Bible verse.”

“It just came to me.  I was trying to decide how much to give, and I had read that verse recently.”

“That’s cool.  That’s why you’re a math guy, always seeing numbers.”

I eventually said goodbye to everyone and left the party around 12:30; things seemed to be winding down by then.  I had a midterm in my computer science class Monday that I needed to study for at some point over the weekend.  I had the radio playing as I was driving home, but as I lay in bed, the song playing in my mind was Here’s Where The Story Ends, not anything I had heard on the drive home.  I did not know every word and every sound of the song, so the same few lines I did know, like the part about the terrible year, kept playing over and over in my head.  I kind of wanted to hate the song now that I knew Carrie hated the song, but I also found it too catchy to hate that much.

A lot of great things had happened this school year, but it also felt like a terrible year in some ways.  Haley had rejected me, I had often been left out of the cliques at JCF, and I had come to realize that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my mathematics degree.  But maybe things were turning around.  I had been invited to hang out with those people tonight, so I was not completely on the outside.  I was exploring options for my career.  I was making new friends in different places, and maybe one of these new connections would lead to something special.  Maybe it would involve Carrie.  Maybe here was not where the story ends; maybe here was where the new story begins.  Maybe this was not such a terrible year.  Or not such a telephone ear, whatever that means.


Author’s note: What’s a song you absolutely can’t stand?

I’m not going to name mine, but I will say that there is a certain band that was very popular during the time in which DLTDGB is set which I have never mentioned once in any episode, because I really can’t stand them. I feel like their lack of existence makes DLTDGB a little inauthentic, but I justify it by saying that DLTDGB takes place in an alternate universe where this band never made it big.

Also, I have a new out of character post about some thoughts from behind the scenes while writing this episode.

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

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

“Hi!” I said.

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

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

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

“Good point,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fun!”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  See you in a while!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  That sounds like a good idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks!” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How was the picnic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know her,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye!” I said.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your drawing,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want to buy my painting?  Yeah!”

“Should I give you the money?”

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

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

“What’s that for?” Alaina asked.

“I’m buying Corinne’s art.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Lucky.”

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

“What about your current roommates?”

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

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

“Cool.  Thanks!”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s so cool!”

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

“I don’t know,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks!” I smiled.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!” I said.

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

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

Corinne Holt
Alaina, 1997
Charcoal on paper

Courtesy of the G. J. Dennison personal collection.

Readers: Have you ever performed at an open mic night? Tell me about it in the comments!

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

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

“I don’t remember,” Boz replied.

“It’s ‘3263827,’” I said.

“‘3263827.’  I’ll remember that.”

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

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

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

“Boz?” Brian asked.

“Short for Matthew Bosworth,” I explained.

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

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

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

“3263827.”

“Very good.”

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

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

“Sure.  Who is the director of photography?”

“I don’t know that one.”

“Gilbert Taylor.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t get it,” the student said.

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

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

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

“Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

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

“Hey,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“What are you doing here?” Erica asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s cool.”

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

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

“That’s cool,” I said.

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

“Yeah.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?  I didn’t know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.

“What’s up?” Xander asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Can I watch?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s awesome,” Eddie replied.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Exponential growth,” I said.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I replied.

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

“That’s true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s a new one?”

“Yeah!  With added scenes.”

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

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

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

“‘Sup, Greg?” Ajeet asked.

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

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

“None–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you guys doing?” Brent asked.

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

“What song?”

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

“I’ve never heard it.”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks!”

“See ya, Brent,” Ajeet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Alaina answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a class at 3.”

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have a good one.”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like fun!”

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

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

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

“Me too,” Ben replied.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You should!”

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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


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


January 23-28, 1997. Time to start thinking about the future. (#116)

I walked into Kerry Hall and pressed the Up button for the elevator.  As I waited for the door to open, I noticed a flyer for the event I was going to on a bulletin board.  I walked over and read the flyer, even though I already knew the time and place of the event; we had discussed this upcoming event in detail at this month’s Math Club meeting.

MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR
Presented by the University of Jeromeville Math Club
January 23 – 3-5pm – 450 Kerry

Kerry Hall, home to the offices of the mathematics and statistics departments, was easy to navigate; each of its six floors consisted of one straight hallway about two hundred feet long. Room 450 would be at the low-numbered end of the fourth floor.  The first digit of the room number was the floor, but for some reason the numbering on each floor started in the 50s at the end close to the elevators and ended in the 90s at the other end.  I wondered if this was because each floor of adjacent Wellington Hall only had room numbers ending between 01 and 30, so that way the two buildings would not repeat room numbers.  I also wondered if I was the only person on the Jeromeville campus who actually thought about such things.

I got off on the fourth floor and turned left, where I expected room 450 to be.  A sign next to an open door said 450 – GRADUATE STUDENT STUDY ROOM.  I did not know that this room existed, probably because I was not a graduate student.  On the other side of the door, a sign that said MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR had been taped to the wall.  I cautiously walked inside.

I recognized several students I knew from Math Club.  Sarah Winters was picking up brochures from a table; she looked up and saw me in the doorway.  “Greg!” she said, waving.  Although Sarah was also a mathematics major, and one of my best friends, we had never had a math class together.  I knew her because she had lived downstairs from me in the dorm freshman year, and I also knew her from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and from my church.

“Hey,” I said to Sarah.  “How are you?  What table is this?”

“School of Education,” she replied.  “I don’t know yet if I’m going to stay in Jeromeville for my teacher certification program.  I’m thinking I’ll probably move back home, but I may as well look into all the options.”

“Good idea.”

“Are you still not interested in being a teacher?”

“Probably not,” I replied.

“You’re still working as a tutor, right?  Why aren’t you interested in teaching if you like tutoring?”

“I like helping people learn math, but I don’t want to get involved in all the politics involved in public education.”

“Yeah, that’s one thing I’m not looking forward to.  What about private school?”

“Don’t private school teachers make less money?”

“Yeah, but if you really love what you do, money shouldn’t be an object.  Would you want to teach at a community college, or a university, or something like that?”

“If I stay in college forever, I’ll probably end up being a professor and having to teach.”

“That’s true.  Is that what you want to do?”

“I always kind of thought so, but I’m starting to realize I need to explore my options.”

“Well, you came to the right place.”  Sarah gestured across the room.  The UJ School of Education table where we were now was the first in a row of four manned exhibits.  At the far end of the room, the rest of the furniture that was usually in this room appeared to have been pushed to the side, to give fair attendees room to mingle.  I was not sure exactly how many exhibitors I expected at a career fair, but the answer was definitely more than four.  This was disappointing.

“I need to go,” Sarah said.  “Enjoy the rest of the fair!”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll see you around.”

After Sarah left, I walked to the next table.  “Are you interested in being an actuary?” a man in a business suit asked me from behind the table.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I’m kind of just gathering information right now.  I hear a lot about actuaries when people talk about math careers, but I’m not sure exactly what you do.”

“Basically, we predict the future,” he explained.  “We use mathematical modeling to make predictions, which are used by insurance companies to determine rates and risk assessment figures.”

“I see.”

“I represent the Casualty Actuarial Society.  We give the exams that actuaries have to pass.”

“Do you go to grad school to get a degree to be an actuary?”

“Usually not.  You get hired first for an entry-level position, and your job training includes prep for the exams.  Then you get promoted after you pass the exams.”

“I see,” I said.  “I’ll think about that.”  I took his brochure and put it in my backpack, although from his description, being an actuary sounded incredibly boring and unfulfilling.

I next went to the table for Sun Microsystems, a computer company big enough for me to have heard of it.  “Hi,” the woman at the table said.  “We’re looking for applied math majors with computer programming or computer engineering experience.  Is that you?”

“Not really,” I said.  “But can I have a brochure, in case I change my emphasis?”

“Sure!”

I took the Sun brochure and put it with the others.  I had chosen not to major in computer science, because I did not want a hobby to turn into work.  I also knew that most of my technology skills were vastly out of date.  I had grown up with only my childhood Commodore 64 until I got my current computer as a high school graduation present, years after the Commodore had been discontinued.  I had taken two computer science classes sophomore year and learned to code in Pascal and C.  Computer Science 110, Data Structures, counted in place of an upper-division mathematics class toward my major; I had registered for the class this quarter and got put on the wait list, but I did not get in.

The fourth and final table was for Graduate Studies in the UJ Department of Mathematics.  I took their brochure as well to learn about the different programs offered, although much of that information I already knew from the course catalog.  This career fair felt like a giant disappointment.

An older student named Brandon, whom I knew from Math Club, asked me as I was leaving, “So what did you think?”

“It was a little disappointing.  Nothing really stood out to me.  I still don’t know what I want to do.”

“Don’t forget, the Engineering Career Fair is coming up on Tuesday.  You should look at that one too, if you’re looking for what you can do with a math degree.”

At that moment, a familiar woman’s voice said from behind me, “Greg? I just overheard what you were saying; can I talk to you for a minute in my office?  I have something you might be interested in.”

“Dr. Thomas,” I said, turning around.  “I didn’t see you here.”  I had taken Combinatorics from Dr. Thomas sophomore year, and she was my favorite mathematics professor so far.  She explained things clearly, in non-broken English, and she made an effort to get to know students more than most of my professors had.  She also attended Math Club meetings sometimes.

“Sure,” I said.  I followed Dr. Thomas upstairs to her office on the far end of the fifth floor.

“Are you familiar with REU programs?  Research Experiences for Undergraduates?”

“No,” I said.

“The National Science Foundation has programs that you can apply to and do research in your field.   Some of them, you can get credits for, or you get paid a stipend.  I’m trying to start an REU here at Jeromeville, but there are programs like this at schools all around the country.”

“I see.”

“A colleague whom I’ve worked with runs the program at Williams College in Massachusetts.  And three are others much closer if you don’t want to travel that far.  It’s a good way to get a sense of what graduate school is like.  Being that you’re an excellent math student, wondering about your future, I think it would be good for you to apply to REUs.”

“Sure,” I said.  “What do I have to do?”

“Here’s the brochure from the NSF,” Dr. Thomas said, handing me a paper.  “They have a website with links to different schools’ programs, and you can find all the instructions on how to apply there.”

“I will look into that,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  And whatever happens, with how well you do in math, I know you’ll figure out what you want to do.”


The Engineering Career Fair was much larger than the Mathematics Career Fair; I expected it to be, since it was being held on the floor of the Pavilion, where the UJ Colts basketball teams played.  Engineering was also a much more popular major, and one more directly connected to industry.  A sea of tables, probably close to a hundred of them, covered the floor.  The region around San Tomas, Sunnyglen, and Willow Grove, a little over a hundred miles to the south, was a hub of technology companies; I expected that many of them had representatives here looking for people with computer experience.  Surely someone here would have a career option for pure mathematics majors.

I had not brought résumés to the career fair.  Next year, when I would be close to graduation, it would be more important to do so, but today was still mostly about gathering information.  Of course, if I found an internship for this summer that I wanted to apply to, I would still need to make a résumé and send it in.  We had discussed making résumés at this month’s Math Club meeting, and I mostly just felt frustrated and unaccomplished.  “I don’t know what to put on my résumé,” I said to Brandon at one point.  “I don’t have any work experience, or skills.”

“Sure you do,” Brandon replied.  “Just put what you can do.  On my résumé, I put ‘problem solver.’  Because when you give me a problem, I’ll solve it.”

“Hmm,” I said.  I was not a problem solver like Brandon.  I had tons of unsolved problems in my life, and padding my résumé with vague embellishments that I could not back up with action or experience would not help solve any of them.

I walked to the first table in the row closest to me.  A pile of mechanical pencils lay on one end of the table.  “May I have one?” I asked.

“Sure,” the woman behind the table said.  I read the pencil: NNC DATA SOLUTIONS, INC., SAN TOMAS.  “What’s your major?” she asked.

“Math.”

“Pure math?”

“Yeah.”

“We’re looking for computer science majors with experience in coding.  I don’t think we have any positions or internships for pure math.  Sorry!”

I continued up and down each row of tables, picking up lots of free pens, pencils, notepads, and foam balls to squeeze for stress relief purposes, each with companies’ names and contact information printed on them.  And I got the same story from each one of them: they were looking for computer science or engineering majors, not me.

At one point, I walked to a table I had not visited yet, for a company in Sunnyglen called West Coast Technologies.  I grabbed their free pencil and notepad.  “Do you have a résumé?” the woman behind the table asked.

“No,” I said.

“You need a résumé to apply for a job,” the woman replied, in a condescending tone.

“I’m just gathering information this year,” I explained, trying to hide my shame and frustration.

“What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“We’re looking for computer science majors.  But, hey, maybe ten years from now, when you’re wondering why you chose math for your major, you’ll go back to school for computer science, and we might have something for you!”  She made an amused chuckle.

I walked away without saying another word to the West Coast Technologies lady.  Who does she think she is?  How exactly does mocking an applicant to his face help your company recruit employees?  If I did go back to school in ten years, I thought, I certainly would not apply to work for West Coast Technologies.  Hopefully they would be out of business by then.

I continued past the next table.  I had only three tables left to visit, and I could tell from the names of the companies represented that they were looking specifically for engineers.  I turned toward the exit, not watching where I was going, and almost bumped into someone who was facing away from me.  As I looked up at this guy, who was about an inch taller than me, I realized that I recognized this tall guy with curly dark blond hair, and I became even more embarrassed.

“Sorry, Todd,” I said as he turned around.  “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“Hey, Greg,” Todd Chevallier replied.  “No problem.  What are you up to?”

“Looking to see if there are any options for math majors here.  There aren’t.”  I told him about the condescending lady from West Coast Technologies, as well as the unsuccessful Mathematics Career Fair from the previous week.

“Well, what do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not sure.  I always assumed I would just stay in school forever and become a professor, but now I don’t know anymore.  And I’m starting to stress about it.”

“Have you thought about going into teaching? It seems like a lot of people with math degrees do that.”

“I don’t want to be a teacher,” I explained.  “I don’t want to deal with the politics involved in education.”

“Yeah, I get that.  Don’t stress, though.  You have time to figure things out.  You’re only a sophomore.”

“I’m a junior.”

“What?” Todd exclaimed, with a puzzled look on his face.

“I’m a junior.”

“But I thought you and I were both new at JCF last year.  Freshman year.”

We were.  But it was my sophomore year.  I didn’t go to JCF freshman year.”

“Really.  Wow.  It’s weird that I never knew that.  I guess you do need to start thinking about your future.”

“I know.”

“Good luck.  Pray about it.  I’ll see you Friday?”

“Yeah.”


I rode my bike home more slowly than usual, feeling disappointed and discouraged.  I pulled a random CD from the shelf; it was New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the recently released album from R.E.M.  More disappointment; I did not like this album as well as their previous ones, although it did have a few good songs. I played it anyway.

I looked through the brochure that Dr. Thomas gave me.  I connected the computer to the dial-up Internet and went to the main website for the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.  I found the list of schools offering REUs for mathematics; there were quite a few, but none were nearby.  If I ended up doing this for the summer, I would have to travel, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.

School was what I was good at, so I always assumed I would stay in academia forever.  However, even that felt uncertain now.  And unless I changed my mind about being a teacher or an actuary, I had no other career options.  The good news was that, with my future so wide open, I could try different things and see what I did and did not like.  But this would require some work, and I always felt anxious about possibly making the wrong decision.  I got out my homework for tomorrow’s Advanced Calculus class and worked on that, putting aside my career uncertainty for now.  I knew that God had a plan, and I felt encouraged that Dr. Thomas believed in me, but all of this still felt overwhelming.  It was time to start thinking about the future, but none of this was imminently urgent, so planning my future career could wait.


Readers: Have you ever been told anything unusually cruel when being turned down for a position, or for something else?

Disclaimer: None of the corporations or organizations mentioned in this story were involved in its writing or production, and this is not a sponsored post.  Some of the corporations and organizations are fictional.


October 23-25, 1996. A pen pal on another continent. (#106)

The way people communicate has changed radically over the course of my life.  When I was young, telephone calls outside of one’s own city cost a lot of money, so when friends moved away, I often never heard from them again.  Writing letters in the mail was an option as well, for people committed enough to do so.  In high school, my friend Catherine went to Austria for a year to be an exchange student, and we wrote letters the whole time she was gone.  When the young people of today have friends who move away, they stay in touch through texting and social media.  Some of them have thousands of followers on social media all over the world, some of whom they have never met before.  Many of them do not want to be bothered with traditional voice-based telephone calls, and many of them do not know how to address an envelope or use a stamp.

I attended the University of Jeromeville during an awkward transition period when both of these worlds existed simultaneously.  Some of my friends used email, some of them communicated by writing letters, and some I never heard from again once I moved.  I spent a lot of time on text-based Internet Relay Chat, usually looking for girls to talk to, because I was not good at meeting girls in real life.  I stayed in touch with some of them by email, but I also sometimes got handwritten letters from them.  Sometimes we wanted to exchange photos, and in an era when flatbed scanners were relatively uncommon and digital cameras were not yet mainstream, it was easier to send a photo in the mail.  Other times, someone I know would lose access to email temporarily, and stay in touch by writing letters.  That was the case for many of my university friends when they went for the summer.  That was also the case with Laura Little, although her story was a bit more interesting.

I met Laura on IRC in the spring of my sophomore year at UJ.  She was seventeen years old, and she lived in upstate New York, on the other side of the United States from me.  In one of our first conversations, she told me that she was going to be leaving in July for a year, to be an exchange student in Switzerland, where she would not have Internet access.  I had been getting letters from Laura regularly since she left; she had a difficult transition to life in Switzerland, and her German was not good, so she wanted to get letters to read in English.

Laura and I had never met, obviously.  I did not know what she looked or sounded like.  Right before she left for Switzerland, a romantic interest named Adam whom she also met on the Internet had come to visit her for a few days.  Whenever she mentioned Adam, her answers were a bit inconsistent and evasive; first she said they had a good time but decided to just be friends, but then in the next letter she said something about having to get her mind off of what happened with Adam, and then she said something about regretting what she did with him, that she felt stupid and that she should have known better.  Clearly I had not gotten the entire story, so the last time I wrote to her, I asked exactly what happened.

I got home in the late afternoon after a long Wednesday of classes to find a letter from Laura on the kitchen counter next to the phone; one of the other roommates had apparently gotten the mail earlier.  Shawn was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher.  When he saw me pick up Laura’s letter, he asked, “Hey, who are all these girls who write letters to you?  You’re getting letters from all over the world!  You’re a ladies’ man!”

“Not exactly,” I said.  “Laura is someone I met on the Internet; she’s from New York but studying in Switzerland this year.”  I conveniently left out the part where she was only seventeen. Even though that was only a three-year age difference between Laura and me, Shawn was turning twenty-three next month, so to him, she would seem significantly younger.

“And you got a letter from Hungary last week.”

That’s Kelly Graham.  You know Kelly.  She was roommates with Haley Channing and Kristina Kasparian last year, on Baron Court.  She’s studying abroad in Hungary this year.”

Shawn thought for a minute.  “Kelly!  Oh yeah.  And don’t you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah.  That girl from Gabilan who has written to you like four times already.  That’s where you’re from, right?  Plumdale is right near Gabilan?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Cecilia, or something like that.”

Cecilia?  From Gabilan?  I laughed loudly as I figured out who Shawn was talking about.  “That’s my grandma!” I said.

“Your grandma!” Shawn laughed.  “This whole time, I thought you had a girlfriend back home.”

“I wish I had a girlfriend back home who wrote me as often as Grandma did.”

“She sure likes to write.”

“She does.  And my cousin Rick, the second-oldest grandchild, went away to North Coast State this year, so he’s gonna get just as many letters from Grandma now too.”

“That’s nice of her, though.”

“Yeah, it is.”  I walked upstairs to read Laura’s letter.  Laura had very small handwriting; she sometimes wrote in cursive and sometimes printed, sometimes both in the same letter, and she often did not bother to separate her letters into paragraphs.  This letter was handwritten on tan stationery, with a typed paper inside the envelope as well.  The typed paper appeared to be a math assignment of some sort.


Greg,

Guten tag!  Meine Deutsch ist besser.  (My German is better.)  I understand more than I did before at least. I’m doing well.  The weather here is getting colder.  I just spent 200 francs on sweaters and a long sleeve shirt.  My mom would kill me if she found out how much money I spent.  I’m supposed to be taking this test, but it’s a take home test so I’ll make a copy and send it to you.  I’m so lost and I have told the teacher that I don’t understand any of this.  He just told me to do my best but I just sat for half an hour debating if I did the problems correct but I left half of them blank because I don’t know what to do.  Maybe you can help me.  I’ll write what it means in English if I know it.  I would really appreciate it if you could help explain these.  I know it is really sad how lost I am.  I told my mom about you and said that I was going to ask you for help with math, and she says thank you.  I do too.  So anyway, last weekend I went away on a trip with the other exchange students in my program and I got to talk in English all weekend.  It was so good.  We went to the mountains and in the morning we took a cable car to the top of a mountain and it snowed.  I love it.  And we had a big party that night.  It was cold, but we had a snowball fight and took a lot of pictures.  We have Herbstferien here, it’s a fall school holiday, I CAN’T WAIT!  I’m going to go skiing, I’ve never been before.  I hope you don’t think different of me after I tell you what happened with Adam because I know it was a mistake and I should have just been friends with him but I’m so stupid.  Sometimes when I’m put in a pressure situation I don’t think straight.  Only you and one of my friends back home know about this because I don’t want anyone to know.  I was so stupid to let it happen but it’s too late to fix it now and I just want to forget about that.


I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.  It was pretty obvious where she was going with this.  I continued reading.


Well I kinda slept with him.  Only once though but we also did some other stuff.  I don’t want to say anything more, I’m so stupid to let it happen.  But on a lighter note I got my ear pierced at the top.  It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would but I couldn’t sleep on that side for a few days.  One of my friends from school here and I got it done together.  I like it.  I’m not feeling homesick as often.  I know how to prevent it now and I don’t think it will happen again.  I know my writing is messy but I haven’t slept much.  I hope you don’t think of me different because of all that.  Oh yeah, you’ll be happy to know my butt doesn’t hurt as much when I ride my bike to school.  I’m happy now but I can’t ride long distances like you do sometimes.  How are you?  Have you met anyone yet?  It made me sad when you said you felt like giving up on girls.  Just talk to someone.  Ask her to coffee or ice cream or lunch or something.  And tell me all about her.  Any girl would be lucky to spend time with you.  I hope to hear from you soon.

❤ Laura


I was not entirely sure how to react to what she said about Adam, although I had a feeling that was what she was going to say from the moment she told me in her last letter that she regretted what she did.  Part of me was disappointed that this happened; Laura was not the kind of nice Christian girl I was hoping to meet.  She had never claimed to be Christian, though, so that was just wishful thinking on my part.

But I also did not blame her or Adam one bit.  If I had been Adam, I probably would have been having fantasies about going to bed with Laura the whole time I was visiting her, even though I knew it was wrong.  I must admit, I had had those fantasies about her before, although I could not bring myself to tell her that, of course.  This sounds paradoxical, but such are the trials of a lonely, girl-crazy Christian young adult like me.

I only had one class the next day, and one of my students for my tutoring job did not show up, so I had plenty of time to get homework done during the day.  After dinner that night, I went upstairs to my room and began writing my next letter to Laura.  


October 24, 1996

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your honesty.  Don’t worry about me thinking differently of you.  Everyone does things they wish they hadn’t afterward.  And please don’t call yourself stupid.  You aren’t.  You said you regret what you did, so learn from this.  You told me that you know you don’t think straight in pressure situations, so when you know you’re going to be in a pressure situation, set boundaries in advance.  If there’s a guy who likes you, for example, don’t be alone with him if you don’t want to feel pressured.

I wish I got a fall break.  That sounds like it’ll be fun.  I’ve never been skiing either.  I don’t know if I want to try it.  I’m not usually good at things like that where I have to keep my balance by going fast, and I would probably just get frustrated.  But tell me how it goes.  Your ear piercing sounds cute.

I started going to a new church a couple weeks ago.  I really like it.  A lot of my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship go to that church.  But I don’t want to start going there just because I have friends there.  That shouldn’t be what church is about.  So I decided for the rest of October to go to both churches every Sunday and pray about it.  So far I like the new church.  People there seem more serious about following God and reading the Bible.

Things are going well at the apartment.  I’m adjusting well to having roommates.  Four of us share a three bedroom apartment; Shawn and I share the big bedroom.  It hasn’t been a problem so far.  We both get up early for class, so I don’t have to worry about waking him up or him waking me up.  Brian is really nice too.  The fourth guy, Josh, he works weird hours, and I don’t see him very often.

I don’t have a girlfriend.  I’m not good at meeting girls.  I feel like I have a lot of acquaintances these days, but I’m kind of on the outside of a lot of my friends’ social groups.  There’s this one girl I know from JCF who I would love to get to know better and spend more time with.  She’s really sweet and she has beautiful blue eyes.  I just don’t know what to do, though.  I don’t get to talk to her very often, and lately she’s been acting a little different.  I’m not sure why.  Last week at JCF she was talking a lot with this other guy, but I couldn’t tell if they were together or anything.  I met her in January when I was having a really hard day, and this guy invited me to hang out with some of his friends, and we hung out at her house.  A couple months ago, around the time all the year leases run out, I rode my bike past their house and everything was dark, and that inspired me to write a poem.  I’ll send it to you. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet; I’ve always liked that format for poems.


I continued writing, telling her all about trigonometric ratios on the next page, which apparently her mom wanted to thank me for.  I wondered exactly how much Laura’s mom knew about me.  I told my mom very little about all the girls I had met on the Internet, although she knew about one, Molly from Pennsylvania, because Molly wrote me letters the summer after freshman year when I went home for the summer.

Next I opened a file on my computer called “2234.”  This was the title of the poem I had mentioned in my letter to Laura, about a time when I rode my bike past the house where Haley and her roommates lived, but Haley was home for the summer and everyone else had moved out by then.  I titled the poem 2234 after the address of the house, 2234 Baron Court.  I printed the poem and put it on my desk with the rest of Laura’s letter, which I would mail in the morning.


“2234”
by Gregory J. Dennison, 1996

Inside your walls, that January night,
My life began again, in joy and love;
My brand new friends had shown to me the light;
Set free from gloom, I praise my Lord above!
Today your door is locked, your curtains drawn,
Along your quiet street you make no sound,
Your residents, and all their friends, are gone,
No sign left of the friendship I once found.
But though the cast has left, the show is done,
The drama rests forever in my heart;
This friendship still is shining like the sun,
We’re miles away, but not so far apart;
   Though now, O house, you’re empty, cold, and dark,
   My night in you forever left its mark.


I took a long time to fall asleep Thursday night.  I kept thinking about Laura, having sex with Adam and partying with all of the other exchange students, probably getting drunk in the process.  I wondered if she made any other decisions she regretted on her weekend with the other exchange students.  I knew consciously that that line of thinking was horribly judgmental, and that I was being a bad friend by entertaining those thoughts, but I could not help it.  I woke up tired Friday morning, still dwelling on these dark thoughts.

I was not feeling angry with Laura, though.  My brooding was directed more toward myself, at my failures with girls, and at a society where fake people with loose morals always got the girl or guy they were after, and guys like me were ridiculed and made outcasts.  I did not know how meeting girls and dating worked.  Laura tried to encourage me, but her suggestions just were not easy for me.  I did not know how to talk about things that girls would be interested in, and sometimes I felt like I was on the outside, or at best on the outer fringes, of cliques that seemed to spend a lot of time together.

During a break between classes, I went to the Post Office to mail Laura’s letter.  There was a small Post Office in the Memorial Union building, around the corner from the campus store.  Four people were in front of me in line, and with two friends in Europe that I was writing to that year, I had spent enough time in this line to know that I would be here for at least fifteen minutes.  Usually only one employee worked at the desk, and whenever he had to get something behind the desk, or place a package where the outgoing packages went, he seemed to move so slowly that I wondered if he was exaggerating his slow movements on purpose.  Did he have special training to learn how to work so slowly and inefficiently?  If I had been working behind that desk, I would be moving a lot faster, just because it was in my nature to get things done.  It probably would have saved time to buy stamps in the denomination of what it cost to send a letter to Europe, but sometimes I wrote long enough letters that it cost more, and I would have had to stand in line anyway to get the right postage.

I finally mailed my letter and walked toward the other end of the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I was thinking about Laura’s encouragement to talk to girls and not be afraid, and as if on cue, I saw Haley walking toward me.  Before I could overthink myself out of it, I said, “Hey, Haley.”

Haley stopped and looked up at me with her bright blue eyes, smiling.  “Hi,” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I said.  “Glad it’s Friday.”

“I know!  I had a big midterm yesterday.  It was a long week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?”  The words just came out; I was not sure where I was going with this line of conversation, but it felt right to ask.

“Not much.  But I’m going to play games at the Albert Street house tonight.  Did you hear about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“After JCF tonight. Just hanging out and play games.  I’m sure you’re invited.”

“Eddie and Raphael’s house?  That Albert Street house?”

“Yeah.  I have to get going, but will you be at JCF tonight?”

“I will.  I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah!  See you there!”

I did go to the game night after JCF that night, and it was a lot of fun.  About ten of us were there, and we played Uno and Taboo until well after midnight.  Nothing special happened between me and Haley, although we did get to talk a bit more.  That felt like progress.  Maybe next time I would ask her to do something specific, just me and her.

After the game night ended, I headed home on the nearly empty streets of Jeromeville under the dark night sky, driving over the overpass with trees on it and flipping around the stations on the car radio.  As I heard Alanis Morissette singing about how “you live, you learn, you love, you learn” in her pain-inducing voice that sounded like the sound some sort of bird would make as it was being stabbed, I instinctively reached over to change the station.  But just before I pressed the button, I stopped.  Maybe Alanis was right.  I was living my life and learning from my missteps and mistakes.  And so was Laura, on another continent.  I was not doing myself any favors when I got down on myself because of my social and romantic failures, and neither was Laura when she called herself stupid because of what happened with Adam.  Laura was my long-distance friend, and friends were there to encourage each other, and help each other learn and grow.


Dear readers: What are some experiences you’ve had with learning not to be so judgmental? Or learning from your mistakes?

Also, I know this is a day late. I might be taking an unplanned week off from writing here and there, because I’m behind on real life right now. Next time I skip a week, you can always read an episode from the archives.

June 25-27, 1996. The first week of summer session. (#89)

The architecture and landscaping around the University of Jeromeville are not the old brick buildings and towering, stately trees commonly associated with universities.  The towering trees are there, in the older parts of campus, but the buildings are a mix of architectural styles.  The traditional brick Wellington Hall, the wooden shingles of Old North and South Halls, the Spanish stucco and tile of Harper Hall, and the bizarre angled concrete of the Death Star Building are all visible just from the Quad.  Some criticize the campus for its lack of architectural unity, but I always found that this gave it character.

One of the sections of campus with the least glamorous architecture was far to the southwest of the Quad, just past the engineering buildings, east of the South Residential Area.  Two prefabricated buildings, resembling the portable classrooms on most elementary and secondary school campi in this state but larger, stood surrounded by several feet of bare dirt on each side, and more interesting buildings in view nearby.  One of these buildings was divided in half, with a sign calling it “Temporary Classrooms 1 & 2,” and the other had only one door, labeled “Temporary Classroom 3.”

I parked my bike and walked into Temporary Classroom 3.  A chalkboard ran along the side of the building to the left, and about eighty chairs with the little writing desks that fold out faced the chalkboard.  The room was about half full so far, and most of the empty seats filled up by the time the instructor arrived at noon.  I assumed that this man was the instructor, at least, because he carried a binder and stack of papers to the front of the room.  He was slender, with wavy light brown hair, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, and he appeared fairly young, probably in his early thirties.  A darker-haired man of about that age, dressed more casually, had been sitting in the front of the room the whole time.  The instructor handed the other man a stack of papers, which they began passing out to the class.

“Welcome to Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software,” the instructor said.  “My name is Tom Kroger.  This,” he said, gesturing to the darker-haired man passing out papers, “is Joe White.  He will be the TA for this class, and he will lead the discussion section on Wednesday mornings.”  The syllabus was among the papers Joe White passed out, and neither of their names had the title “Dr.” in front.  I assumed that Joe White, like most teaching assistants, was a graduate student studying computer science, and I wondered, because of his youth and lack of title, if Tom Kroger was a graduate student as well.  In my department, mathematics, graduate students sometimes taught first-year classes as the actual instructor, not just the teaching assistant; perhaps computer science did the same thing, particularly during the summer session.  (I would learn later that I was correct.)

Tom spent the first part of class explaining our assignments, the grading policy, office hours, computer lab hours, and other procedural items.  We would be using the programming language C, and the textbook for the class was called C How To Program, the only textbook I ever had with a pun for a title.  An optional supplementary book taught the basics of Unix operating systems; I bought this book too, since I had little familiarity with Unix.  For the rest of the 110-minute class, Tom lectured about high-level structured programming languages and the C standard library.  While some elements are common to most programming languages, C seemed fundamentally different than the Commodore 64 BASIC programming that I taught myself at age nine, or the Pascal language that I learned last quarter in my Introduction to Programming class.

Summer session classes teach ten weeks of material in six weeks, so the class met more often during the week than classes do during the regular school year.  The class met from 12:10 to 2:00 every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, with a discussion section Wednesday morning from 10:00 to 11:50, right before the lecture.  We would have weekly projects that would be discussed at that time.  This was the only class I was taking this summer, and I had no job, so I had plenty of time to study and get work done.

After class, I went to the Memorial Union and got a slice of pepperoni pizza.  I had not packed a lunch, I just figured that I would eat when I got home, but being back on campus for the first time in almost two weeks made me want to sit back and take in the atmosphere.  I took my lunch to a table in the courtyard by the fountain that was now kept perpetually dry.  I read the Daily Colt campus newspaper as I ate.  The name was a bit misleading, since during the summer, the newspaper only published twice a week, in a smaller tabloid format only about half as long as the regular edition. 

The campus was much quieter today than I was used to, since the majority of the student population was not in class for the summer.  Those fun times last year of running into friends around campus between classes, and all the interesting conversations that happened around those encounters, probably would not happen as often this summer.  The last time I sat at this table was when Haley Channing was sitting here, and I asked if I could join her.  For a girl-crazy, socially awkward guy like me, getting to have lunch with Haley was like winning the lottery.  Of course, I embarrassed myself in front of her a few minutes later; Claire Seaver from church choir walked by, and I tried to introduce Haley and Claire, not realizing that they already knew each other.  I would have no random encounters with Haley this summer, since she was home working a summer job, 400 miles away.

 The Daily Colt still included a crossword puzzle, which I did after I was done eating.  Even though the campus was emptier than usual, I was not completely alone.  I still had choir practice at church on Wednesdays, and I was in a Bible study that started this Thursday, so I would see some of my friends then.


The discussion Wednesday morning was also in Temp 3.  It was required, and the class was not split into multiple small discussion groups, so all of the students were there.  Joe White introduced our first project.  It seemed fairly straightforward, a project designed mostly just to acquaint students with the system and the basics of coding in C.

At two o’clock, after the lecture with Tom Kroger, I went to the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall.  It was spread out across five rooms, and being an afternoon in summer when only a few computer science classes were offered, all of them were mostly empty.  When I had come here during Intro to Programming last quarter, there were usually many more people down here.  These computers ran X Window, a graphical interface for Unix-based computers that bore a superficial resemblance to the Microsoft Windows 3.1 that I was familiar with.  I opened a text editor in a new window, where I typed my code as a text file, which I would later compile into an executable.

I stayed in the lab for about an hour working on my project, and by that time I felt comfortable with how this system worked, as well as with C in general.  I still had a lot of work to do on the project, but I had a week to do it.  I was in no hurry; I just wanted to make sure I was familiar with the computer system before it was too late.


Since many UJ students leave to spend the summer at home or get summer jobs or internships elsewhere, the Newman Center only offers two Sunday Masses during the summer instead of three.  I would learn later that many other churches in Jeromeville also decrease the number of services during the summer, for the same reason.

When I got to choir practice on Wednesday night, some familiar faces were missing, and others had taken their places.  I knew that the Coronado sisters had both gone home to Desert Ridge for the summer, and a few others, including Phil Gallo and Melanie Giordano, were absent as well.  I recognized a few people from events that the church had held, and I assumed that these new people were singers from the early morning Mass, who were combined with us now.

“Greg!” Claire said when I walked in.  “You’re here!  Are you gonna be here all summer?”

“Mostly,” I replied.  “I wasn’t here last week because I went home to see my family.  But I’m back for the summer.  At least most of it.”

“How was that?”

“It went well.  My brother and I made a silly board game out of all of our inside jokes.”

“That sounds fun!”

“It was!”

I walked over to the music stand with my copy of this week’s music.  A girl I did not know stood next to me.  She was short, with short chin-length brown hair and brown eyes.  “Hi,” I said.  “I don’t think I know you.”

“I’m Ellen.”

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

“You too.”

“Are you from the early service?” I asked, assuming that the answer would be yes.

“No,” Ellen said.  “My family goes to Mass here.  I’m going to school in San Diego, and I’m home for the summer.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

“Do you know Kevin Stark?  He’s my dad.”

“I think I know who he is.  He’s a professor of pomology, or something like that?”

“Yes!  It’s funny, that’s what everyone seems to remember about him.”

“I remember him talking about his research once.”

“Yeah, Dad always tells people he studies fruits and nuts.  Then he adds, ‘The kind that grow on trees.’”

“That’s funny,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah, but it’s less great when you hear him say it all the time.  Dumb jokes get old.”

“True.  That makes sense.  So what’s your major?”

“Marine biology.  You?”

“Math.”

“Wow.  That was never my favorite class.”

“I get that reaction a lot,” I said.

At this point, I realized that the rest of the room had become quiet and was staring at us.  “I was just saying, it’s time to get started,” Claire explained.  We mostly did familiar songs that week, so we got through choir practice relatively quickly.  Ellen had a nice voice.  I was looking forward to singing on Sunday.  While I still held out hope that something would work out with Haley eventually, I could not help but wonder if Ellen had a boyfriend.  


Thursday felt like a Friday to me, since I knew that it was my last class for the week.  With only one class this summer, I was going to have a four-day weekend every week.  I liked this schedule.  After class was over, I rode my bike into downtown Jeromeville and went to Tower Records.  After browsing the entire store, I bought the new Dave Matthews Band CD, Crash.  I listened to it as soon as I got home.

That night, after dinner, I drove to Pine Grove Apartments, about a mile to the south.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship did not have their large group meetings on Fridays during the summer, but there were two Bible studies meeting this summer, one here near campus and one on the other side of Jeromeville.  I found the apartment I was looking for and knocked on the door.  “Come in,” someone said from inside.

“Greg!” Lillian greeted as I opened the door.  Lillian was a year older than me, and she had co-led my Bible study during the school year.  Her co-leader this summer with a guy her year named Chris.  

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

“Not much.  Just taking a class and hanging out.”

“Which class?” Lillian asked.

“CS 40.  Intro to Software.”

“I’ve heard that’s really hard,” Chris said.  “My roommate is a CS major.  And you’re taking it in the summer, packed into six weeks?  Good luck.”

“I like it so far,” I said.

“Do you need computer science for the math major?” Lillian asked.

“CS 30 is required; I took that last quarter.  110 is optional, it counts in place of math units, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110, so I figured I would take 40 in the summer, when it’s easier to get into.  And programming is something I was always interested in.”

About five minutes after I arrived, we started with worship music as Chris played guitar and we all sang.  When it came time to begin the study, Lillian explained that we would be studying the First Epistle of John this summer.  I knew most of the people in this Bible study, after having spent most of the last school year going to JCF.  Tabitha Sasaki read the first half of the chapter out loud, and Jason Costello read the second half.  A verse that Tabitha read stuck out in my mind: “We proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

We spent the next forty minutes or so discussing what John meant in writing these verses.  I kept thinking about that verse about proclaiming eternal life, which I was not good at.  I preferred to mind my own business when it came to telling people about my faith, this came more naturally to me, but I often worried that this was not enough.  I had friends who were good at inviting their friends to JCF; some people, including myself, had come to faith by being invited to JCF.  I had friends who were proclaiming eternal life this summer in Morocco, India, and other nations where Chrsitianity was not a dominant part of the culture.

The parent organization of JCF, Intervarsity, put on a convention every three years in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.  Many of my friends were going, and I was considering going as well, although the thought of spending a few hundred dollars to register for this, and a few hundred more to fly to Illinois, was overwhelming.  An early bird price offered a significant discount to anyone who signed up before the end of June, which was only a few days away.

After we finished studying the chapter from 1 John, Chris asked, “Are there any prayer requests?”  A few of the others shared concerns about sick relatives and overwhelming school workloads.

I spoke up after a few minutes.  “I still haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to Urbana,” I said, “and I want to decide before the price goes up.  That’s in a few days.”

“I think it’ll be a really good experience for you,” Lillian said, “but I know, it’s a lot of money if you’re not really committed.  We’ll pray for you.”

After everyone shared their prayer requests, we all went in a circle, praying for the person next to us.  “God,” Tabitha said, “I pray for Greg.  I pray that you will give him wisdom to know whether or not Urbana is right for him.  I pray that Greg will know your will, and that you will speak to him all the great things you plan on doing through him.  I pray that he will find a way to make the finances work out, if this is your will.”

“Lord, I pray for Jason,” I said after Tabitha was done.  “I pray for his busy schedule, that you will help him stay focused on classes.  I pray that he will manage his time well, and find a balance between spending time in the Word and spending time on studies.”

After we finished prayer requests, and the study ended, Tabitha asked, “What are you up to tonight?”

“Just going to work on my project for class,” I said.  “I’m going to see if I can figure out how to connect to the CS computer lab from my computer at home, so I don’t have to go into the lab.”

“Let me know as soon as you’ve decided on Urbana.  I still want to get a few people to go in together on a flight.  I told you about that, right?”

“Yeah.  I will let you know.”

“Perfect!”

After I got home, I turned on the computer, listened to the beeps and whirs of the dialup modem connecting, and connected to the computers in the basement of Kent Hall.  I opened a second window and connected to my usual IRC chat channel, so I could find people to send messages to while I was working.  I put on the new Dave Matthews Band CD for the second time that day.

By the end of the night, I had decided that I preferred this setup over physically going to the basement of Kent Hall.  Writing code from home gave me the opportunity to listen to music and have a chat room open at the same time.  For certain types of studying, like those involving large amounts of reading, I do not do well while listening to music, but I enjoyed listening to music during other types of studying, like math homework or computer science projects.

The obvious drawback of doing computer science work from home, of course, is that I could not use the telephone while I was connected to the Internet.  Anyone who tried calling me would get a busy signal.  Although I did not get many calls, I did not want to tie up the phone line; I always held out hope that maybe I would get a phone call from a cute girl, or that someone would invite me to something awesome.  But since I did not have to get up early most days, I could wait until after ten o’clock, when I was unlikely to get phone calls, and work on coding late into the night.  I managed to train myself to sleep in until around ten in the morning, since my class did not begin until noon, although I had to make sure to get to bed earlier on Tuesdays so I could get up in time for the Wednesday morning discussion.  Once my body got used to staying up late and waking up late, that schedule worked very well for me.  I did not set foot in the basement of Kent Hall again for the rest of the summer.

When I finally went to bed that first night, at 1:46 AM, I closed my eyes and prayed again that God would show me the right decision about going to Urbana.  By that time, though, I felt like I already knew the answer.  I had found Jesus, and I needed to know what the next step in my faith journey would be.  I also had many friends who were traveling overseas to spread the Gospel, and I did not know how to support them, or even the nature of their work in the first place, in some cases.  I mailed my registration form the following morning.  I now had six months to work out the details, but I already had a head start since Tabitha was putting a flight together.  It was a wonderful first week of class, and as I drifted off to sleep, I felt optimistic for the rest of the summer.