March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

As a child, I read a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  In the book, everything goes wrong for Alexander, from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed.  Some of the bad things involve his older brothers or kids at school, and some of them are just freak accidents.  Alexander repeatedly makes comments about wanting to run away to Australia, presumably to leave his bad day behind.

I felt like Alexander today.

I had math class in the morning, and I had to turn in an assignment incomplete. The problem in the textbook used something called Lagrange multipliers, another way to do minimization problems.  The example in the book was to find the dimensions of a can that has minimum surface area for a certain volume, which I already knew how to do a different way. Lagrange multipliers in the example looked simple enough, but the technique didn’t work at all with this one problem on the homework.  It was possibly the first time in my life that I didn’t understand something from math class. I sent emails to my instructor, and to everyone I knew who had taken the class before. Pete Green, who was two quarters ahead in math instead of one quarter ahead like me; the Interdisciplinary Honors Program was full of students who were ahead in their college coursework.  Gurpreet, the RA down the hall who was a computer science major. Megan McCauley, the cute RA with the green hair from Building K who was a chemical engineering major. And a girl named Mary Heinrich whom I had only met twice; she was the President of the Math Club, a senior, and also an alumna of the IHP. Pete had told me that he never understood Lagrange multipliers either, and Gurpreet said that his instructor skipped that lesson.

After math class, I went to the library to work on that paper for the South Africa class that was due in less than a week.  A couple years before I started, the UJ library stopped using a physical card catalog and switched to an electronic system. I remember feeling frustrated last quarter, trying to figure out how all that worked and how to find materials in a large university library that used the Library of Congress classification system rather than the much simpler Dewey Decimal System used in local and school libraries.  By now, though, I had figured it out. I wrote down the locations of a few books that would be helpful.

When I went to look for these books, though, two of them were already checked out, and the others had very little information that I could actually use in my paper.  I asked at the circulation desk when those two books would be back, and found out that one of them was due back next week, the day before my paper was due, and the other most likely wouldn’t come in by then.

I was having a bad day.

 

My day felt like it was starting to turn around when I got to chemistry class.  We had gotten a midterm back, and I got 100%, better than I had done on the first midterm.  After class got out, I was hungry, so I dropped off my backpack in my room and walked to the dining hall.  After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. Megan was sitting with a few other girls, probably some of her residents from Building K; she saw me and motioned for me to sit with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Megan said.  “Come sit with us.” She gave me a friendly smile, which I tried my best to return.  Early this quarter, Megan had cut her hair short and dyed it green; I liked her hair before better, personally, but I wasn’t going to say so out loud.  Her natural color, on the darker side of blonde, was growing back at the roots, and there was something strangely familiar yet out of place about that combination of hair color.

“Hey, I got your email about Lagrange multipliers,” Megan said after I sat down.  “I don’t think we learned that. I still have my Math 21 book, and I looked through that section, and none of it looked familiar.”

“A guy in my building who is ahead of me in math said the same thing.  He took 21C last quarter, and he didn’t remember learning it either.”

“Yeah.  But you said it was on your homework?”

“I don’t understand why it would be on my homework if no one learns it.”

“Me either.  Sorry I can’t help,” Megan said.  “How’s your day going other than that?”

“Honestly, it’s been a frustrating morning,” I explained.  I told her about not finding the book I was looking for in the library.  While I was telling the story, suddenly I made a connection in my mind that caused me to have to put a lot of effort into holding back a giggle.  Fortunately, I was smart enough not to say out loud what I had realized.

Megan’s hair, with the fading green and the roots growing back, looked like lawn that needed watering.

“I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” Megan said.  “But hopefully it’ll start to get better. And it’s Friday!  Are you doing anything this weekend?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “Probably working on that paper, if I can find any sources that aren’t already checked out.”

“Just relax and take it easy.  Or do something fun with your friends.”

“We’ll see.  I don’t know if any of my friends will be around.”  Besides, I thought to myself, I don’t really know how to make plans with friends.  I kept this thought to myself.

“We’re going to head back to the building now,” Megan said when I was about halfway done with my meal, and she and the others had all finished.  “I hope your day gets better, Greg.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too!”

A few minutes later, as I was climbing downstairs out of the dining hall, I saw Andrea from Building B, who was in my math class, with a guy wearing a sweater, looking more well-dressed than the typical college student.  “Hey,” she said, seeing me.

“That problem on the homework today with the Lagrange multipliers,” I said.  “Did you get that? Because I didn’t.”

“I had no idea what was going on with that problem,” she said.  “I don’t think she ever went over that in class.”

“I know.  I’m confused too.”

“Greg?  Have you met my boyfriend, Jay?”

“Hi,” I said, hoping the disappointment wouldn’t show in my voice.  “I’m Greg.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jay said, shaking my hand.

“Have a great weekend!” Andrea said.

“Thanks.  You too.”

 

I walked back to my room and lay down on the bed, face down with my head in the pillow, for a few minutes.  The cute girl from math class has a boyfriend. And the cute older girl couldn’t help me with Lagrange multipliers.  So much for the day starting to turn around.

I got off my bed after about fifteen minutes and checked my email.  None of the girls in other states and countries I’d been talking to had written back.  I had one message, and it was from Mary Heinrich, the president of the Math Club.


From: meheinrich@jeromeville.edu
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 12:44 -0800
Subject: Re: Lagrange multipliers

Hi Greg!  I’m pretty sure my professor skipped that section… sorry I can’t be more helpful! :( Hopefully I’ll see you at the Math Club meeting next week.

-Mary


So there it was.  Everyone I knew to ask about Lagrange multipliers couldn’t help me.  Shelley Bryce, the instructor for the class, hadn’t gotten back to me yet.  Her office hours were exactly the same days and times that I had the South Africa class with Dr. Dick Small, so I wouldn’t be able to go there either.  I never did figure out Lagrange multipliers, by the way.

Maybe my day would get better if I did something else.  It was time to go on an adventure. I got in the car and headed east on Highway 100, toward Capital City.  Mom had given me an errand last night when we were on the phone. My brother Mark’s youth basketball season was ending soon, and the kids’ parents wanted to get a present for the coach.  The coach’s favorite player was future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond, who currently played for the Capital City Royals. The Royals had just changed their logo and color scheme for this current season, and Mom got the idea of all the parents chipping in to get the coach a Mitch Richmond jersey with the new color scheme.  Mom told me that, since I live near Capital City, I could go get the jersey for her, and bring it home at spring break, and she would pay me back. Normally I would be a little irritated at Mom sending me to do something that didn’t concern me, but this time I didn’t mind, because I had the money, and it meant I got to explore somewhere new.

I crossed the river into downtown Capital City on a high freeway bridge.  I saw the original Capital Drawbridge, with its two tall towers and triangular girder pattern, about half a mile upstream.  The Drawbridge was no longer the main route into Capital City; it was bypassed in 1966 by the freeway I was currently on. I could see the tall buildings of downtown Capital City on my left.  The older neighborhoods of Capital City were known for having old, tall trees along the sidewalks, and a sea of these trees, with islands of rooftops on tall Victorian and early twentieth century houses, spread out to my left between the freeway and the even taller buildings in the distance.

After passing through downtown Capital City, I turned north on Highway 51 and got off four exits later at the mall.  This mall was two stories high, over twice as big as the one back home in Gabilan. I parked the car and walked in, looking around and taking in the fact that this mall was huge compared to what I was used to.  I went through a phase in my early teens when I liked going to the mall in Gabilan, but I wasn’t so much interested in shopping as I was in the video arcade there and this really yummy cookie shop. In fact, in 2005, I just happened to be in Plumdale at my parents’ house when I read in the newspaper that the cookie shop was closing for good.  I drove into Gabilan and bought one last dozen cookies there, and I never did tell my family about that because I didn’t want to share.

I walked up and down the entire length of the mall, just to browse, and also to people-watch, or in my case, cute-girl-watch.  I walked into a music store to do more up-close browsing, and I ended up buying R.E.M.’s Monster and Soundgarden’s Superunknown.  There were a few other CDs I wanted to buy, but I didn’t feel right spending all that money.

Upstairs, I found a shop that sold sports merchandise.  I looked through the basketball jerseys and found some with names of many of the best players of the day: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Charles Barkley.  But no Mitch Richmond. That didn’t make sense. The Royals had just moved to Capital City about a decade earlier, and Mitch Richmond was the best player who had ever played in Capital City so far. He was an All-Star, and moreover, he was the only All-Star from the local team.  What kind of store doesn’t carry merchandise of an All-Star player who plays just a few miles away?

“Looking for something?” a store employee asked me, walking up next to me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“Hmm,” the guy said, with a look on his face that suggested he knew little about basketball, and that the name did not ring a bell.  “Let me go try to find one for you.” He walked into the back room. I didn’t really follow basketball all that closely in 1995; basketball was Mark’s thing.  Baseball was still on strike, and hockey wasn’t very big here in the Valley, so Bay City Captains football was the only sport I followed closely at the time. But I knew enough about basketball to have at least heard of Mitch Richmond.

“Yeah, we don’t have that,” the employee said when he came out of the back room.

“He plays for the Royals!  We’re in Capital City! This store doesn’t make sense!  It’s like a store in Chicago that doesn’t sell Michael Jordan jerseys!”  I turned my back and left the store in a huff.

At the other end of the mall was another store that sold sports merchandise.  I had the opposite problem here: there were numerous Mitch Richmond jerseys in many different sizes and in all three designs that the team used this year.  I didn’t know what Mark’s coach would want. I didn’t even know what size he wore.

“May I help you?” the guy behind the cash register said, noticing that I seemed to be having trouble with this.

“I don’t know,” I said angrily.  “I was sent here to buy a gift for someone I don’t know, and I’m not sure what he wants or what size he wears.”

“Hmm.  What is it that the person wants?”

“A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“You kind of need to know the size for that one, don’t you.  Can you find out?”

“I’ll be back,” I said, again storming out of the store.  I hated this. I didn’t understand what I was looking for, and I didn’t need to have been sent on this errand in the first place.  I was in way over my head, and I didn’t even ask to do this, and I wasn’t even going to get anything new for myself. Well, I got the two CDs, but I could have gotten those at Tower Records without having to leave Jeromeville.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll move to Australia.

I could ask Caroline for some pointers, since she was from Australia.

But I didn’t go to Australia, or to another store in the mall.  Instead, I went to a pay phone. Back in 1995, only the extremely wealthy had cell phones, and long distance phone calls cost money.  Fortunately, my parents had something called a calling card, where they could make a call from any phone in the country and have it billed directly to them.  They gave me the PIN number (PIN number is a redundant expression in the same sense as Arroyo Verde Creek), so I could call them from anywhere and they would pay for it.  I did this now.

“Hello?” Mom said, answering on the second ring.

“Why did you send me on this stupid errand?” I shouted, starting to cry.

“Whoa.  Where are you?”

“I’m at Capital East Mall, in Capital City.  I came here to look for a Mitch Richmond jersey, like you asked me to.  I don’t know what size he wears, or what design or color he wants.”

“Don’t worry about it!  If you don’t want to get it, I’m sure we can order one from that catalog Mark gets all his sports stuff from.”

“I’m all the way here.  I don’t want to leave empty handed.”

“Get any of the designs.  I’m sure he’ll like it. And he wears extra large.”

“But I don’t want to get him something he doesn’t like.”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay.  And it’s a gift. He’ll appreciate the gift.”

“Maybe.  I’ll go back to the store and see.”

“You do that.  It’s okay. How was school today?”

“I’ll call you sometime over the weekend from home, so it’ll be cheaper.  And I don’t want to have a personal conversation out in public.”

“Good idea,” Mom said.  “Are you going to be all right?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll talk to you this weekend, then.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and sat on a bench.  I tried to wipe my eyes so it didn’t look like I’d been crying.  It didn’t work. But I went back to the last store where I had been anyway.  I got a Mitch Richmond jersey, size extra large, and I picked out the black one.  Mom said get anything, so if the coach didn’t like it, it wasn’t my fault anymore.

 

The rest of the night was pretty boring.  I sat alone at dinner. I didn’t meet any cute girls on IRC.  There were no new interesting conspiracy theories on the Pink Floyd Usenet group.  I listened to my new CDs. They were good, but R.E.M. seemed to be going in a different direction from what their last two albums sounded like, and the Soundgarden album generally sounded darker as a whole than the two songs that were familiar to me.  I read for a while. I went to bed at the usual time, between 11 and midnight, and fell asleep quickly.

I woke up with a start when I heard voices and laughter.  They were coming from the hallway. The clock said 1:21 AM.  Whoever was talking was doing so after hours and thus breaking the rules, and I was furious because they woke me up.  Could this day really get any worse? I lay in bed for a few minutes, but the voices were just loud enough that there was no way I’d be able to go back to sleep.  Who were these rude people who wouldn’t let me sleep? Probably those weird stoners and partiers who lived upstairs at this end of the third floor.

In one corner of the room near the closet was a large cardboard box, shaped like a cube about two feet on each side.  The box had originally held my computer, but now all that was inside was the foam packing material. I used the box as a small table now.  There was nothing on it, and more importantly, it was the first non-lethal object I could find to throw at whomever was being so inconsiderate outside my doorway.  I picked up the box and opened the door, squinting at the sudden brightness coming from the hallway.

Taylor, Pete, Caroline, Charlie, Krista, and Sarah were sitting in the hallway.  This was not at all who I expected to see, not the partiers from the third floor.  And in a way, this made the whole experience feel even worse, because these people were some of my closest friends.  And they couldn’t even be considerate enough to let me sleep.

I threw the cardboard box at the wall as forcefully as I could, while glaring angrily at the others and screaming incoherently for about two seconds.  The box hit the wall and almost fell on Sarah, bumping against her shoulder. Sarah looked at me, stunned, as did the other five. I ran across the hall to the stairwell and stomped off downstairs and out of the building.

It was cold and dry outside, and it smelled like poop because the dairy barn was nearby.  I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything now. Without thinking about what I was doing, I walked to the car.  I knew I had blown it. I had made a big mistake, and everyone had seen my true colors, my inability to control myself.  It didn’t matter that I was a successful student at a prestigious university anymore. I was just that scared little kid who blew up and lashed out when life got to him, just like I had been all through elementary school.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll turn on this car and drive all the way to Australia.

I had always struggled with these kinds of outbursts all my life, although not as often as I did when I was in elementary school.  I was constantly bullied and teased all through school, called horrible names for no reason other than that I was an easy target, because I was different.  No one ever taught me to stand up for myself or to fight back. No one ever taught me how to be confident or how to find people who would build me up. So I would take it and take it and take it for days, for weeks, until I would finally explode, throwing furniture, and pushing and hitting people (and I would often get hit back even harder).  Then my teacher and my parents would scold me and say that I needed to learn to control myself, and once I got old enough that school suspension was an option, I would get suspended for a few days. That happened all through elementary school, and twice in high school as well.

I had been that kid all my life, and I always would be.  And there would always be people around me to tell me condescendingly that what I did was wrong, as if I didn’t know this already.  And some adult authority figure would come along eventually and tell me that I couldn’t do this, and that I needed to be pumped full of pills to fix me.  And the pills wouldn’t work either, because they never do, just like they didn’t work before when I was younger.

This year was supposed to be different.  I was finally free of everything that held me back in Plumdale, and I could make a fresh start in Jeromeville.  But this wasn’t a fresh start. It was the same old dumpster fire that my life had been for eighteen and a half years.  I didn’t know why I was here or what I wanted to study. I didn’t have a girlfriend. And neither of those things would change as long as I kept making mistakes like this.

I didn’t drive to Australia, obviously.  I sat in the car for about another fifteen minutes, thinking about these things and trying to calm myself down.  I closed my eyes for a while. I opened them again. I took a deep breath. Whatever I messed up tonight, whatever mistakes I made, giving up wasn’t going to make things any better.  I had nothing to lose by learning from this and moving forward. This experience really wasn’t worth quitting school over.

I was ready to put this behind me for the night.  It was late, and I was tired, and it was time to go back to bed.  I would apologize to everyone in the morning, but I knew it probably didn’t matter.  I had blown it in front of my new friends. They had seen me for what I was. I knew that what I did was wrong, and I also knew that they were all going to tell me anyway that I was in the wrong, and make me feel worse about it.  I had violated the rule about quiet hours, so Amy or Gurpreet, or both of them, would probably get involved. And I deserved all that. I was just going to have to bite the bullet and let them scold me and tell me how badly I had behaved.  I just hoped I wouldn’t get kicked out of the building, or kicked out of UJ entirely, for this.

I stepped out of the car and took a deep breath of the aromatic dairy air.  I walked back to Building C, like a dog with my tail between my legs, ashamed of the way I had behaved.  I got to the front door and scanned my key card. The door clicked, and I pulled it open.

And nothing I had seen or experienced in my eighteen and a half years of life so far had prepared me for the scene that was waiting for me in the lobby.

To be continued…

compaq box
I still have The Box in 2019.  It’s in my garage, storing a bunch of old T-shirts with too much sentimental value to get rid of.

 

January 25, 1995.  Writing dirty limericks.

I walked across the street from Wellington Hall to the Memorial Union.  I had just finished my first math midterm of winter quarter, and I felt good about it.  The topic of the test was partial derivatives, and while I had never learned about partial derivatives before, or even heard the term until a few weeks ago, everything we had done so far had seemed fairly straightforward.

I liked this math class so far.  None of my IHP classmates were in my class, but there were a few familiar faces from last quarter, including Andrea Briggs from Building B and Jack Chalmers from building F.  The instructor was a tall blonde woman named Shelley Bryce. Like Jimmy Best from my last class, Shelley was a graduate student in the mathematics department. She was a bit more reserved than Jimmy Best, and she seemed less comfortable in front of the class, but I still understood everything so far.

I had a two hour break before chemistry class, so I rode back to my room.  I turned on the computer and checked my email. There was only one message.  It was from Brendan Lowe, who lived upstairs in room 322 and had a really sick sense of humor.  The subject of the email said “FW: Fwd: Re: FW: FW: Dirty limericks.” In other words, this was going to be something wildly inappropriate that he received from someone else and passed on to the rest of the IHP, just as he did at least once a day on average.  Hopefully, he took Karen Francis off of his forwarding list; I learned the hard way a couple weeks ago that Karen did not like getting chain emails like this one.

The dirty limericks that I read were so funny, and caused me to laugh so loud, that Aaron heard me through the wall and asked me later that day what the commotion was.

My chemistry class that day was about easy stuff, so I was really only half paying attention.  The other half of my brain was attempting to think up my own dirty limericks to go with the ones that Brendan had shared.  I started thinking of words that could rhyme. I thought of names of places, so I could use them in the first line. “There once was a man from Jeromeville,” I wrote; I crossed it out a minute later when I realized that nothing rhymes with Jeromeville.  I tried thinking of other towns nearby that might be easier to make rhymes with, and after about five minutes, I scribbled this:

A pretty young girl from Blue Oaks
Made a dildo from bicycle spokes.
Now she’s doing all right
‘Cause she gets some each night
But she always complains how it pokes.

Next, I started thinking of body parts.  Penis. Dick. Cock. Wiener. This could work.  By the end of class, I had another one written in my notebook:

There once was a man named McGee
With a small dick that no one could see.
I’d bet, I’m no liar
That unlike Oscar Mayer,
This wiener you’d not want to be.

Earlier in the week, I had been sitting at the dining commons with Gina Stalteri and some others from my building.  I walked up to the table as Gina was making a joke about a tool that was designed to measure a guy’s penis size. Later, she started talking about her roommate Skeeter frequently staying up late on an IRC chat talking to some guy in another state.  Skeeter’s real name was Jennifer, but everyone called her Skeeter because one of her friends from childhood had thought she looked like Skeeter from the Muppet Babies cartoon. I could definitely see the resemblance. Also, having a distinct nickname made life easier when you had a common first name like Jennifer.

I had one more class that afternoon, but my mind was still on writing dirty limericks.  I kept going back to the things Gina was saying at dinner the other night. And, not long afterward, I had this:

There once was a roommate named Skeeter;
This IRC guy liked to greet her.
If the two ever met,
She may finally get
To use Gina’s new Peter Meter.

I heard the professor saying something that reminded me that I was still in class and had better pay attention.  So I started taking notes more carefully and put the dirty limericks aside for a while.

 

At dinner that night, I looked around for a place to sit.  I saw Sarah, Krista, Ramon, Liz, Pete, Tabitha from Building B, and a girl with curly brown hair whom I did not recognize, at a table with one open seat between Liz and Pete.  I walked over and asked if I could join them.

“What’s up?” Ramon asked, seeing me approach.

“Hi, Greg!” Liz said.  “Come join us!”

“This is Jeanette,” Sarah said, gesturing toward the curly-haired girl.  “And this is Tabitha,” she continued, gesturing toward Tabitha.

“I’ve met Tabitha,” I said, as Tabitha simultaneously said, “I know Greg.”

“How are you?” Sarah asked me.

“I’m good.  I had a math midterm this morning.  I thought it was pretty easy.”

“Have you gotten your payment turned in yet?” Tabitha asked Krista.

“Yes,” Krista said.  “I’m going for sure.”

“Good!”

“What are you going to?” I asked.

“We have a retreat for JCF coming up next weekend.  It’s at a Christian conference center in the hills outside of Bidwell.”

“That sounds fun!  Are a lot of people going?”

“I heard that probably about 50 people from Jeromeville are going.  I don’t know how many people are coming from the other schools.”

“Other schools?”

“Jeromeville Christian Fellowship is part of an organization called InterVarsity,” Liz explained.  “They have chapters at colleges all over the USA and a few other countries. And the chapters from Cap State and Bidwell State and a few other schools will be at this retreat too.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “Sounds like a fun time.”

The conversation then turned back to classes.  Given the fact that the entire rest of the table had just been talking about their church retreat, I figured that now would not be a good time to mention my dirty limericks.

 

After checking the mail (I had none), I walked back to the building.  Gina, Mike Adams, and David were sitting in the common room having a rather loud conversation.

“Charlie told me that last night, he was coming back from a late class, and he walked in on Pat and Karen.  They were so loud, they didn’t even notice he came in.”

“Whoa!” Mike shouted.  “They didn’t even notice?”

“That’s what Charlie said– Oh, hey, Greg.  What are you up to?”

“Actually,” I said, “remember the other day when Brendan sent those dirty limericks?”

“Those were hilarious!” Mike said.

“I know.  I’ve been writing some dirty limericks of my own.”

“No way!” Gina exclaimed.  “Let’s hear one!” I told her from memory the one about Skeeter, and she opened her mouth as if to say that she couldn’t believe I said that.  “That’s great!” she said, laughing hard. “You even got the Peter Meter in there!”

Next, I shared the one about the bicycle spokes; the two guys were listening as well by then.  “Ouch!” Mike exclaimed. “Who would do that? I mean, it isn’t like it’s hard to find a dildo! Why make one from bicycle spokes?  That’s brilliant!”

“Did you write any other ones about people from here?” Gina asked.  “You should write one about Karen and Pat.”

“That would be funny!” I said.  I started thinking aloud. “There once was a girl named Karen… what rhymes with Karen?”  I sat and thought. “There once was a girl named Karen, at whose tiny breasts Pat was starin’.”  The three of them laughed, but I said, “I don’t really like it. I think I can do better than forcing words that don’t really rhyme.”

The others started talking about something else, but I continued to work on my poem about Karen.  What else rhymes with Karen? Maybe I could do something better if Karen wasn’t the word that I was trying to rhyme.  Hmmm…

“There once was this girl, Karen Francis,” I said, “who always let Pat in her pantses.”

“Pantses!” Gina said, laughing.  “This is great! I didn’t know you could write like this!”

“I really didn’t either.  I tried making a few Weird Al-type song parodies as a kid, but they were terrible.”

“So what’s the rest of it?”

“I haven’t thought of it yet.  Maybe it’ll come to me if I take a walk.”

“Go for it.”

I left Building C.  It was dark by now, and cold outside.  I should have brought a sweatshirt. I could always go back and get one if I end up being out here a long time.  I walked from one end of the South Residential Area to the other, in between the twelve identical lettered buildings, the trees planted around them, and the grassy area in front of the dining commons.  I heard the faint sounds of music playing from some of the buildings. It was a clear night, but I could only see a few very bright stars, because of the light posts along these walkways. The moon was not out.  I contemplated what the rest of the poem could be about, and I kept coming back to what Gina had said about Charlie walking in on Karen and Pat. I thought of other words that rhymed with Francis and pantses. And over the course of about five minutes, as I wandered between the buildings of the South Residential Area, it came to me.

I returned to the common room of Building C; Gina and Mike and David were still there.  As soon as I made eye contact with Gina, I began reciting my poem:

“There once was this girl, Karen Francis,
Who always let Pat in her pantses.
Charles came in and said,
‘Stop using my bed
For doing your horizontal dances!’”

“Horizontal dances!  Where do you come up with this stuff?” Gina asked.

“It just kind of came to me.”

“You’re hilarious!  You should keep doing this.”

“Thanks.”

“I didn’t know you wrote.  You’re a math guy. Have you ever thought about doing anything with your writing?”

“Not really.  This is new to me too.”

“Well, I think you’re hilarious.  I need to go study, but this was fun.  Thanks for the laugh.”

“You’re welcome.”

Gina, Mike, and David all climbed the stairs.  I followed them, getting off with Mike on the second floor as Gina and David continued up to the third floor.  Writing for fun really was pretty new to me. I did have a creative side going back to my childhood. As a kid, I often got great ideas for video games, but my limited programming skills and the limited hardware capabilities of the Commodore 64 left almost all of my video game ideas unfinished.  In my teens, I would draw comic books and copy them on the copier at my mom’s work; my brother and some of his friends got involved in my little publishing business too. But my artwork was terrible, and the story lines were shallow and childish. Mom probably saved a lot of those in a box somewhere in the attic, but I haven’t looked at them in decades.

These limericks, along with the depressing poems I wrote a few weeks earlier while I was listening to Pink Floyd, were really the start of my hobby of creative writing for fun.  I never wanted to make a career out of it, and it isn’t something I do on any sort of a regular basis. I just have a lot of thoughts in my head that I want to share. Sometimes I just write to make people laugh, like with these dirty poems.  But sometimes writing also helps me to sort out thoughts on my mind, and sometimes other people’s reactions to my writing help me see a different perspective on the situations that inspired me to write. Obviously, I still write today, because you’re reading this right now.  So feel free to leave comments and help me see the memories of my past from a different perspective.

(Author’s note:  Again, these are all real poems that I actually wrote in 1995.  Most of the other dirty limericks I found from that time involved inside jokes that were too much to explain now.  I don’t even remember some of those inside jokes.)

Mid-December 1994. My first finals week at UJ.

Finals week… two words that strike dread into the heart of every student.  The final exam alone makes up a significant portion of the grade in most classes, and there was always a lingering fear that one bad day during the final can derail your grade for the whole class.

The schedule for finals week at the University of Jeromeville was different from the rest of the quarter.  The last day of fall quarter was Friday, December 9, and finals started the following Monday. Finals week lasted six days, so the latest possible final was Saturday, December 17.  Finals week was the only time during the quarter that classes could possibly fall on Saturday.

I later heard stories from people at other universities with more traditional semester-based schedules that there was a “dead week” in between regular classes and finals, a period of about a week without classes when students prepared for finals.  UJ didn’t have that, with the faster pace of a three-quarter schedule. We got a weekend, and in some quarters we didn’t even get that.

The length of time I would have to study, however, varied depending on which days my finals actually were.  The finals schedule didn’t match the normal daily schedule of classes. The quarterly schedule of classes, which was a booklet that we had to pick up every quarter, had a list of all possible class times and the times for the final depending on the time the regular class met.  So, for example, my math class was Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8am, and the schedule said that finals for classes at that time were Tuesday morning at 9:00.

I had spent most of Monday sequestered in my room, studying for the math final.  I reread every chapter that we covered. I looked at old homework to make sure I knew how to do the problems.  I redid some of those problems. I recalled from memory the integral table in the back of the book, at least the parts that we went over.  My whole day, like much of the previous weekend, was consumed with u-substitution, integration by parts, trigonometric identities, and word problems about area and volume and work done and distance traveled.  I took a break for lunch, I took a few breaks to check my email and reply to a girl in Texas I’d been talking to online, and I took a break for dinner.

After I got my tray of food, I looked around the dining room to see if anyone I knew was there.  I saw Rebekah and Tracy from the big room on the third floor, with another girl from a different building who I knew of as Rebekah’s friend from high school.  I think her name was Christine or something like that. I walked over and asked if I could sit with them, and Rebekah said sure.

“You ready for the math final tomorrow?” Rebekah asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’ve been studying all day.”

“You’ll do fine.  I don’t get why you’re so stressed about this.”

“Are you guys in the same math class?” Christine asked.

“Yes,” Rebekah said.  “Greg has the highest grade in the class, by far.  The professor even assigned this really hard extra credit assignment, and right in the middle of class, he points at Greg and says, ‘Greg, don’t even think about doing the extra credit.  You have the highest grade in the class, by far, and you don’t need the extra credit.’”

“You guys got extra credit in your class?” Tracy said.  “I didn’t have extra credit in any of my classes this quarter.”  Tracy was right. That was the only time I had ever had the option of extra credit in any of my university classes, ever.  And even though Jimmy Best specifically told me not to do the extra credit, I did start to work on it. It was a very challenging problem that appeared to require researching some advanced math, though, so I didn’t finish it.

“What are you doing the rest of the night?” Rebekah asked me.

“Studying for math.”

“Me too, for a while, but Christine and I are going to hang out too.  We need a study break.”

“I’ve been taking too many breaks all day.”

“No you haven’t.  You’ve been in your room all day.  Just take the night off and relax.”

“I’ll have plenty of time to relax at home next week.  I have a final tomorrow. And so do you.”

“I’ll be fine.  And you will too.”

“I hope so.”

 

After dinner, I went downstairs to check my mail.  I had a letter from Melissa Holmes from back home. I took it back to Building C and climbed the stairs, where I found a cluster of second-floor residents standing in the hallway next to my room.  Aaron, my next-door neighbor was there, along with Caroline, Keith, and Liz and Ramon. Well, technically, Ramon lived on the third floor, but now he was spending so much time in Liz’s room that it felt like he lived there too.  Ramon had even moved the sign on the door with his name on it from his actual room upstairs onto the door of room 222 next to Liz’s sign and her roommate’s.

“Some of my friends back home got us tickets to see Live,” Keith said.  “It’s going to be a great show.” Live was the name of a band that had a few big hits in the mid-1990s.  I knew a couple of their songs. They were catchy, although their music seemed to be very critical of organized religion, and something about that kind of bothered me now that I was going back to church regularly.  But their music was good.

“Tickets for what?” Aaron asked.

“The Live concert.”

“You said that.  What band are you going to see?”

“Live,” Caroline said.

“Yeah, but who is playing live?” Aaron asked.

“They’re going to see the band Live.”

“I don’t get it!  What band are they going to see live?”

“Live,” Ramon said.  “The name of the band is Live.  You know, they sing that song ‘I Alone.’  And ‘Selling the Drama.’”

“Oh,” said Aaron, finally understanding.  “I haven’t heard of them.”

“You might recognize the songs if you heard them.”

“Maybe.”

“Hey, Greg,” Liz said.  “What are you doing over break?”

“Just going home with my family,” I said.  “Nothing special.”

“Same for me,” Aaron said.

“I need to go study,” I said.

“I should too,” Caroline replied.

“Good luck!” Liz told me as I went back into my room.  I chuckled at having witnessed a real-life version of Who’s On First.  Aaron had acted like he really hadn’t heard of Live, and that he hadn’t just been messing with them.

A couple hours later, I remembered that I hadn’t read Melissa’s letter yet, so I took my final study break of the night to read it.

 

Dear Greg,

How is school going?  I’m doing well in all of my classes so far.  I have some papers to write, and then it will be time to study for finals.  Are you keeping your grades up? Are you still getting the highest grade in your math class, like you always did in high school?

I loved your stories about all the people you’ve met in the dorm.  I’m really glad to hear that you’re enjoying dorm life! That’s one thing I haven’t gotten to experience, since I live with relatives off campus.  I’m trying to get involved in things. There is a club for pre-med students, and I have been to some of their activities.

When will you be in Plumdale for the holidays?  Call me after you get home. We’ll make plans to hang out and catch up.  I’d like to hear more about how you’re doing.

 

Melissa went on to write about her classes, what her family would be doing for the holidays, and something funny that her younger brother heard from a teacher at Plumdale High who remembered Melissa and me.  It was nice that I didn’t completely lose touch with all my friends back home.

I spent the rest of my night in much the same way as that entire Monday: studying math.  I eventually went to bed a little after 11, fairly confident in my mathematical abilities, but still uncertain of what to expect from the final.

 

“You ready?” Rebekah asked me as we waited in the hallway for the math final to start.

“I hope so,” I said.  “I just don’t know what to expect.  What if the questions are all really hard?  Or what if he asks about things we didn’t spend a lot of time on in class?  What if I run out of time?”

“Seriously, Greg.  What is your problem?  You’re gonna do great. We both know that you’re really good at math.”

“Thank you.  I just wish I knew more of what to expect.  This is my first college final.”

The final wasn’t really anything unexpected.  It wasn’t super easy, but in terms of the kinds of things we had studied, it was relatively straightforward.  I worked every problem thoroughly. I checked and double-checked my answers. For the problems where the answer was an algebraic expression instead of a number, I made up a number for x so I could use my calculator to see that I had done it correctly.  When I was confident that I had completed the test to the best of my ability, I handed it in and left. There were about ten people still working, out of around forty or fifty in the class. Among the people in the class that I knew, Rebekah had left already, and Andrea from Building B had left just a few minutes earlier. I handed in my test and walked out of the room… no going back now.

As soon as I got back home, I started reading through all of my notes for Rise and Fall of Empires.  I reread as many chapters in the book as I could, or at least skimmed through them. I went through all of my handwritten notes.  The first time I read through them, I typed them on the computer, thinking that I would have to pay attention to them as I was typing, and this would help me remember.  Also, that way I would have a more legible copy of the notes to read through in my later studies. Nothing eventful happened the rest of the week, just a lot of studying.  And, since I didn’t have any finals on Thursday morning, I stayed up really late on Wednesday night chatting on IRC. I met this girl from Missouri who wanted me to write her back, and the girl from Texas whom I had been emailing was online.

 

Friday was an overcast but dry day.  I got back to the building a few minutes before noon, having just finished my last final of my first quarter of college.  When I got back to Building C, I put my backpack in my room, and I immediately left to go to lunch. I got a cheeseburger and a huge plate of French fries, to celebrate being through with finals.  I was planning on spending the afternoon relaxing, taking a nap, walking around the dorm to tell people that I’d see them in a few weeks, and emailing the girls I’d been chatting with to tell them that I wouldn’t have access to email for a few weeks.  Then, later that day, I would pack and head home. The dorm didn’t close for the holidays until Sunday at noon, but I didn’t particularly feel a need to stay for very long. I was ready to go home.

At some point during the afternoon, I decided to walk around before I did any packing.  I found Taylor Santiago’s door on the third floor open, so I poked my head in and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  “How’d finals go?”

“I think I did okay.  I’m trying not to worry too much about it.  How were yours?”

“Uhhhhh….” Taylor paused and laughed.  “Well, there’s one I’m pretty sure I did well on.  The others, not so much.”

“Hopefully you did better than you thought,” I said.

“What are you doing over break?”

“Just going back to Plumdale to be with family.  I don’t think I’m doing anything special. One of my friends from high school who goes to San Angelo wants to hang out and catch up sometime.  That’s about it.”

“Does your family do anything special for Christmas?”

“We all meet at my grandma’s house.  And we’ve had a long-running tradition of playing Trivial Pursuit on Christmas.”

“Interesting.  Are you guys trivia buffs?”

“Some of us are.  I am. People have told me for years that I should go on Jeopardy.”

“I can see that,” Taylor said.  “Our family just has a big dinner together.  I think we’re hosting it this year. But a lot of people show up.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“When do you leave?”

“Later tonight, probably.  I’m not really in a hurry, but I don’t want to wait too long.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said.  “So in case I don’t see you again before you leave, drive safely, and have a great Christmas!”

“You too!  Do you want the door open or closed?”

“Open just a little.”

“Sounds good.”  I left the room, left Taylor’s door open just a little, and walked all the way down the third floor hallway to the other end of the building.  I noticed that the door of room 316 was open; this was the four-person room where Rebekah and Tracy lived. I was ready to go back to my room and start packing, though, so I didn’t stop or look toward the open door.  But as I was between that open door and the stairs, I heard Rebekah call out, “Hey, Greg. You got 99 percent on the calculus final.”

I stopped.  I turned around.  I walked to the open door of Rebekah’s room.  I looked at her, and she looked back, smiling.  “What did you say?” I asked.

“You got 99 percent on the calculus final.”

“But… how do you know?”

“Jimmy said he was going to post the grades this morning.  Remember?”

I hadn’t remembered; in fact, I had completely forgotten.  Was my grade just plastered on the wall for everyone to see?  No… the grades weren’t supposed to be posted by name. “The grade printout only has us listed by ID number, right?  So how did you know which one was mine?”

“I remember what you got on all of the other midterms.  So I could see which one was you.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty brilliant.”

“I know.  I surprise myself sometimes with my brilliance,” Rebekah said sarcastically.  “I was only brilliant enough to get a B-plus on the math final, though.”

“That’s not bad.”

“You know what I’m going to do differently next time?”

“What?”

“I’m going to freak out and go crazy like you did.  Because maybe then I’ll get a 99 percent. It worked for you!”  She laughed. I laughed back.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I needed a good laugh.”

“Any time.  Are you leaving soon for break?”

“Tonight.  I’m going to go start packing now.”

“Well, then, have a good break!  I’ll see you in a few weeks!”

“You too!”

 

I drove home that night, going the long way down the Valley to avoid traffic in San Tomas and the other cities that way.  It was dark by the time I left Jeromeville, so I didn’t see much on the way home. I just put on some good music and sang along like I didn’t care who was watching… except I did care, because if anyone actually had been watching, I wouldn’t have been so loud, or switched back between singing high and singing an octave down, since a lot of rock vocals are above my vocal range.

I did it.  I had finished one quarter of college, and I had survived my first finals week.  I had learned a lot over the last three months, both classroom learning and life lessons brought on by being on my own for the first time.  And although I didn’t realize it at the time, something about today has stood out in my mind for years.  Rebekah had playfully pointed out that I had freaked out over a final exam in a class that I was doing very well in.  I could have avoided all of that stress just by believing in myself and not letting the unknown seem so scary. Rebekah had been much more relaxed all week than I was, and she had still gotten a B-plus. If I had gotten a B-plus on that final, I still would have finished the quarter with an A because my grade was so high going into the final.  Studying is important, sure, but I probably didn’t need to study quite so hard, especially in classes that came easy to me to begin with. I could have had a little more time to relax, or to spend with friends, during finals week, while still getting good grades. And the fact that I was still so obsessed with getting the absolute highest grades possible, at the expense of time with friends and possibly my own mental health, was proof that I still had many more life lessons to learn.

October 21, 1994.  Good things come in threes.

Another week done.  Another sunny and warm Friday afternoon.  I didn’t know if it was normal to still be sunny and warm this late into October.  I grew up in a different part of the state, and with the ocean and all the mountains nearby, the weather was often drastically different in different parts of the state.  The weather back home in Plumdale is usually still nice in October, but I already knew that Jeromeville gets hotter in the summer than Plumdale does.  Plumdale is close to the Pacific Ocean and its cold marine layer.

I got on my bike after my last class got out and pedaled down a road that passed by several tall and mysterious-looking buildings.  I turned left onto another path, and stopped at a stop sign at Davis Drive, the main street that ran east-west through campus. This was the street that led past Thong Bikini Hill toward Highway 117, which was the way we entered the campus when my family and I first visited a year ago.  I crossed Davis Drive, and continued on the path past a parking lot and a cluster of small buildings that reminded me of portable classrooms at elementary and high schools. I had no idea what any of the buildings I had just passed were used for. I knew that there was at least one medium-sized lecture hall in the first of the mysterious tall buildings I rode past, but I knew nothing about any of the others.  They were probably laboratories of some sort.

Just past the buildings that resembled portable classrooms was the South Residential Area, buildings A through M.  I parked my bike next to Building C and walked up the stairs to my room, where I planned on lying down for a bit and reading something that wasn’t a textbook.  As I opened the door to the second floor hallway, I heard footsteps above me and looked up to see Rebekah Tyler coming downstairs from the third floor. She and I were in the same math class, and we had gotten our first midterm back today.

The concept of “midterm” confused me a little.  The word “midterm” suggests an exam in the middle of the term.  However, many of my classes at UJ had two midterms, sometimes even three, so they did not always come at the same time in the term.  Also, because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, the term was only 11 weeks long including finals, so in many classes there was a test of some sort every three weeks or so. The word “midterm” at UJ was used for any test that was not a final exam.

Many of the lower-division mathematics classes at UJ were not taught by the regular full-time professors.  Some were taught by lecturers, who were hired only to teach and not do research. Some were taught by Visiting Research Assistant Professors, who were in Jeromeville only for a temporary time period and often did not speak English as a first language.  And some were taught by graduate students, like my instructor this quarter, a young guy probably no more than 30 years old working on a Ph.D. His name was Jimmy Best, which is a great name no matter what your job is. He made a typical teacher joke on the first day of school when he said that he was the Best teacher ever.  Today, when he passed back the midterm, he announced that the highest grade had been 99 out of 100.

“Hey, Greg,” Rebekah said, seeing me downstairs.  “Let me guess. You were the one who got the 99 out of 100 on the midterm.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.  Apparently the reputation I had at Plumdale High for being good at math followed me to Building C, although being that we were all Interdisciplinary Honors Program students, I figured a lot of students around here were like me.  “How’d you do?”

“90.”

“That’s not bad.”

“I have another midterm right now for my engineering class.”

“Good luck!”

After spending a few hours reading, writing emails while staring out the window at the beautiful day outside, and playing a game on the computer, I walked down to the dining hall.  Tonight’s special was spaghetti and meatballs, which I spooned onto my plate. I looked around for a seat. I didn’t see any of my friends around. I started to walk toward an empty table, but then I noticed that a girl sat by herself at the table next to the one I was walking toward.  She had straight light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, blue eyes, and she wore a striped shirt and tan pants. I knew this girl. Well, I didn’t exactly know her, I didn’t know her name, but I had seen her before. She was in my math class.

“May I sit here?” I asked, gesturing to the chair across from her.

“Sure!” she said.

“We’re in the same math class, aren’t we?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I’m Andrea.”  She pronounced it with the stress on the first syllable.

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

“You too.”

“How’d you do on the midterm?”

“I got 86,” she said.  “I thought I did pretty well, but there was one question I just couldn’t remember anything about at all.”

“Aww,” I said.  “I was the one who got 99.”

“I figured,” she replied.  I didn’t understand this. How does someone I just met know that I’m the one who got the highest score on the midterm?

“What’s your major?” I asked Andrea.

“Math.  I want to teach high school math.”

“Good for you,” I said.  “I don’t think I could ever be a teacher.  I’d get tired of the politics involved in the education system.”

“I know what you mean,” she replied.  “I just know I want to teach.  I’m just hoping all that stuff doesn’t bother me.”

“Makes sense.”

“What’s your major?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said.  Saying that always felt wrong, like this was something I should know by now.  “I know I’m good at math, and physics, and chemistry. I’m kind of thinking one of those, although math is the only one of those classes I’m taking right now.”

“What about engineering?  Are you considering that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We’ll see.” What I didn’t tell Andrea, and what I was a little ashamed to tell any of the engineering majors in IHP, was that I really didn’t know what an engineer was, and that was the main reason I never considered it as a major.  I grew up very sheltered in a blue-collar part of the state where not many people have advanced degrees. My mom worked in an office, and my dad fixed and maintained agricultural equipment. Jobs like engineer didn’t really come up in my very limited world view.  “Where are you from?” I asked.

“Irving,” she said.  “Near San Tomas.”

“Oh, yeah, I know where that is.  I’m from Plumdale. In Santa Lucia County.”

“I know Santa Lucia.  I’m not sure I know exactly where Plumdale is.”

“In the hills to the north.  It’s not very big.”

“Which building are you in here?”

“C.”

“I’m in B.  I know a few people in Building C.  Liz Williams? And Pete, the guy with the beard, I don’t remember his last name?  They’re in C, right?”

“Yeah.  Pete Green.  I know both of them.  Liz is just down the hall from me.”

Andrea was finished with dinner by then.  “I have to get going,” she said. “It was nice meeting you!  I’ll see you around?”

“Yeah.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too!”

After I finished eating, about five minutes later, I walked downstairs to the mail room and noticed an envelope in my mailbox.  I read the return address and smiled. It was from Melissa, my friend from high school who lived down south now.  I had written her during the first week of school, and now she had written back.  This was the first time I had heard from any of my high school friends.

Sarah and Krista from the first floor of Building C were walking toward the dining hall as I walked in the opposite direction.  “Hi, Greg,” Sarah said, smiling. “You got a letter!”

“I did.  It’s from a good friend from high school.”

“Good!  Did you eat already?  You want to come to dinner with us?”

“I just finished eating.  Sorry I missed you guys.”

“That’s ok!  We’ll see you back in the building.”

“Yeah.  Have a good dinner.”

I walked back to my room and opened the letter.  It was mostly just the usual stuff. Melissa told me about her classes.  She told me what it was like living with her grandmother and asked if I had made a lot of friends yet.  She apologized for missing Homecoming, saying that she wanted to go but she ended up having a paper to write that weekend and having to do something with her relatives.  She mentioned that her family was taking her out to dinner this weekend for her birthday. I made a mental note that I had forgotten Melissa’s birthday, but now I could write her back with a belated birthday card.

After I read the letter, I walked upstairs, but I walked all the way up to the third floor because there was something I was curious about.  The door to room 316 was open a little, so I knocked and stuck my head inside.

“Hi, Greg,” Rebekah said.  “What’s up?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I just saw Andrea from our math class in the dining hall.  How is it that everyone knows it was me who got the highest score on the midterm?”

Rebekah laughed.  “Probably because you’re always the one participating in class and answering questions.  Everyone else is still half asleep at eight in the morning.”

“I’d never thought of that,” I said.  “You’re probably right.”

“I wish I was as lively as you are in the morning.”

“I guess that’s just how I am.”

I went back to my room a few minutes later and looked out the window at the sky. which was now quickly getting dark, but there was no fog coming in as there usually was in coastal Plumdale at this time.  Life was so different now compared to a month ago. College is different than high school. Jeromeville is different from Plumdale.  But tonight I felt at peace. I did very well on my first math test. I finally heard from one of my old friends.  And I had a new friend who lived in a different building… and not just any new friend, it was a cute girl who liked math. It is often said that good things come in threes, and I was three-for-three today.