(April 2021. Interlude, part 4, and Year 2 recap.)

If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life.  I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2.  Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.

This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2.  Last week, I did the same for Year 1.  Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up.  I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap.  As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.  If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.


I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore.  I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend.  Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice.  I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them.  I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together.  I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer.  My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around.  I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.

July 18, 1995. The day we went to Jeromeville with Rick and Miranda.

I turned 19 in August.  The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September.  Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale.  I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat.  As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town.  Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I had plenty of new experiences that fall.  I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus.  Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics.  I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me.  But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends.  I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me.  In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over.  He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life.  I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes.  As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came.  I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell.  I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me.  We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.

December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me.  It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend.  I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone.  I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes.  One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met.  As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself.  Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

The winter quarter was not easy academically.  My classes all had their midterms on the same day.  Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry.  Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study.  I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time.  My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system.  We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life.  The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley.  We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.

April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove.

Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor.  I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit.  I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet.  God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year.  I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.

May 1996. Looking for a place to live.

I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play.  I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic.  I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta.  I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized.  And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.

May 11-16, 1996. A montage of awkward moments.

I was still doing very well in classes.  Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and  started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year.  Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors.  As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker.  I did not do too well.  Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.

(April 2021. Interlude, part 3, and Year 1 recap.)

If you are new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life.  I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2.  Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.

This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 1, and next week I will do the same for Year 2.  Many of my current readers have not been following the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up.  I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap.  As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.


In the summer of 1993, my parents took me on quick driving tours of universities, so I could start thinking about what to do after high school.

July 5, 1993. Prologue: my first visit to Jeromeville.

I lived in Plumdale, a semi-rural area on the West Coast of the United States.  The University of Jeromeville, about a two and a half hour car trip from home, offered me a scholarship for my grades.  They also invited me to be part of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, a program for honors freshmen who live in the same building and take general education classes specific to that program.

February 26, 1994. Prologue III: High Achieving Scholars’ Day.

I chose to attend Jeromeville, and I moved there in the fall of 1994.  I made lots of new friends in Building C, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program dormitory.  Taylor, the friendly guy fond of deep conversations.  Danielle, the girl just down the hall from me who sang in the school choir.  Caroline, Danielle’s roommate who had lived in Australia for over a decade.  Liz and Ramon, one of the first couples to form once the school year began.  Pete, downstairs, who taught me the board game Risk.  Sarah, a good listener with a kind heart.  And dozens of others.

September-October 1994. New friends in Building C.

Growing up, my family was Catholic, but I did not attend church regularly.  Mom told me to look for the Newman Center, a ministry for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, when I got to Jeromeville.  The Jeromeville Newman Center held student-focused Masses in a building just off campus; my dorm neighbor Danielle also attended Mass at Newman, and sang in the choir.  Many of my friends from Building C attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational organization with small group Bible studies and weekly meetings with worship music and a talk.  JCF was not affiliated with a church, but many of my friends in JCF attended an Evangelical Covenant church.

December 2-4, 1994. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Newman Center.

In addition to my Building C friends, I had other new friends as well.  I discovered this newly emerging technology called the Internet while at UJ, and I used it quite often to talk to girls on IRC, the chat room system of the early Internet.  I also met people from UJ not in my dorm: Jack, a mathematics major who was in many of the same math classes as me.  Mike Knepper and Tabitha, two students who lived in nearby dorms and were in the same Bible study as my friends from JCF.  And Megan, a friendly resident advisor in one of the other dorms near mine.  Megan was a sophomore, my first older friend at UJ other than my own resident advisors. Our conversations around the dining hall and the Resident Help Window quickly developed into a crush on my part.  I considered becoming a resident advisor for sophomore year: this would give me room and board for next year, and I would get to help create the same friendly dorm environment that I experienced.  Also, I would get to work with Megan, since she would be a resident advisor again the following year.

January 28-29, 1995. Captains and Toros and resident advisors.

The University of Jeromeville is a beautiful campus.  It is located in the western United States, in the middle of a large valley that is a major agricultural area.  The university was founded as a branch campus of the state’s flagship university, for students studying agriculture.  Beyond the core part of campus, next to the city of Jeromeville, the campus extends west on about three square miles of farmland used for agricultural research.  A dry creek bed along the south end of campus had been converted into a very skinny lake about a mile and a half long, with an arboretum planted along both banks, for both scientific and recreational purposes.  I quickly discovered how much I loved exploring this campus on my bicycle.

March 1, 1995. Exploring.

I was not used to staying up late.  Back home, I went to bed around ten o’clock, and it took me quite some time to get used to the schedule of dormitory life, with students being noisy late at night.  Quiet hours began at 11:00 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, but the resident advisors enforced this with varying levels of accuracy.  One night, after a particularly bad day, I was awakened by people inconsiderately talking in the middle of the night.  I opened my door angrily and overreacted, then I ran away, ashamed of having lost my cool in front of my new friends.

March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

But my friends did not react the way I expected, and to this day, that night feels like a major turning point in my life.

March 4, 1995. Friendship is special.

During that year, living in a tiny, boring single room in the dorm, I did a lot of reading and writing.  I had always had a creative side that I did not show often.  I started writing poetry as a hobby during that year, both funny and serious.  In the spring, I added some more creative projects.  During UJ’s spring break, I visited my old high school, which was not on break, and that brought back so many memories that I wrote a short novel based on my experiences senior year of high school.  Also, around that time, two free-spirited girls in my dorm, Skeeter and Bok, began regularly painting abstract watercolors in the common room, with others contributing sometimes.

Early April, 1995. Tear down the wall.

With Jeromeville being a fairly small city next to a large university, the rental housing market in Jeromeville was extremely tight.  Students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, with there being so few dormitories, and my plan to be a resident advisor did not work out.  When my friends were making plans to room together and get apartments for the 1995-96 school year, I was oblivious and missed out.  My parents said that we could afford for me to get a small studio apartment, but apartments were filling up quickly.  After weighing all the options, I chose to sign a lease on a studio apartment in a complex called Las Casas, about a mile north of campus and within a short walk of two other apartment complexes where many of my closest friends would be living next year.

April 4-6, 1995. Two big steps.

As a student at UJ, I got to experience many of the campus traditions that have united generations of UJ students.  I attended Jeromeville Colts football and basketball games and learned the cheers.  I learned the hard way the importance of putting fenders on your bicycle wheels when it rains.  But the best tradition of all was the Spring Picnic, the university’s annual open house that had evolved over the years into a huge festival.  Dozens of academic departments, student groups, clubs, and performing groups had exhibits and shows during the Spring Picnic.  In addition to all the fun I had wandering those exhibits, I also watched a band called Lawsuit, on Megan’s recommendation.  The band was amazing, sounding like nothing I had ever heard before.

April 20-22, 1995. The Spring Picnic.

In school, I had always worked hard for good grades, and I was always one of the top students in my class, but never quite the top.  I had kept up my good grades at UJ, with my lowest grade so far this year being one A-minus.  I had not declared a major yet.  My favorite classes in high school were always mathematics and classes involving mathematics, like chemistry and physics.  I enjoyed computers as a hobby, but I felt my computer knowledge was too out of date for me to be a computer science major, and I grew up sheltered in an area without many high-paying jobs, so I never even considered anything like engineering because I had no previous exposure to engineering.  The physics class for science and engineering majors starts in the spring, and after the first midterm, I decided to declare mathematics as my major.  I still found mathematics relatively easy, as well as fascinating, whereas that physics midterm was the worst test score I had ever gotten in my life.  It all worked out in the end, though.

April 28-May 2, 1995. The first physics midterm.

Spring quarter was full of fun adventures.  I experienced my first college party, sort of, when a bunch of people upstairs threw a party.  I played Sardines in the strangest building on campus with my dorm friends.  I went for more bike rides as the weather got warmer and discovered bike trails passing through some of the newer neighborhoods of Jeromeville.  I got brave and called a girl from the Internet on the phone, and wrote letters to another who was going home for the summer and would not have email.  But the greatest adventure of all happened on the evening of the last day of finals, when half of Building C all went out to Jeromeville’s best hole-in-the-wall burger place, and then bowling.  It was the perfect end to a wonderful and life-changing year, and it left me looking forward to next year… if I could just get through three months of summer away from my new life.

Mid-June 1995. The worst finals schedule ever and the last great adventure of freshman year.

Dramatis personae for Year 1 (list of characters)


Here is a bonus, something I just found a few weeks ago (altered for anonymity purposes): the only photo I have of myself in Building C.  It was taken in Bok’s room at her birthday party; someone else took the picture and gave it to me.

Next week I will recap year 2.  In case you missed it, here is the playlist of songs I used in year 1. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Back in the 1990s, all of the hottest names in alternative rock played the Lollapalooza festival.  The festival toured major cities around the United States every summer, bringing live music along with other performances and attractions.  Critics called Lollapalooza an event that changed the history of music forever.

I never attended a Lollapalooza show.  I did not go to big concerts back then, and I felt a little scared to do so, knowing the kind of people that an event like Lollapalooza attracted.  In my life, the legacy of Lollapalooza was all of the advertising campaigns, small local events, and the like with names ending in “-palooza.”  This was similar to the excessive use of the suffix “-gate” to name political scandals, after the burglary at the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. in 1972, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.  If something had a name ending in “-palooza,” everyone knew that it was going to be life-changing… or at least the person organizing and naming the event believed that it would be life-changing.

A little over a week ago, I had been at the final meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for this school year, talking to people afterward about the upcoming finals week.  Brian Burr approached me, handing out small postcard-sized flyers.  He was tall and athletic, a high jumper on the University of Jeromeville’s track team, with reddish-brown hair.  He was graduating this year, and next year he would  be staying in Jeromeville to work with JCF part-time and apply to medical school.  Brian and I were going to share an apartment next year, along with Shawn, my current Bible study leader and one of Brian’s current housemates.

“Grad-a-palooza,” Brian said in an overly dramatic and exaggerated tone as he handed me his flyer.  I took the flyer and read it.


GRADAPALOOZA!
A celebration of the graduation of the gentlemen of 1640 Valdez Street
Mr. Brian Burr
Mr. Shawn Yang
Mr. Michael Kozlovsky
Mr. Daniel Conway

Saturday, June 15, 1996
6pm until whenever
1640 Valdez St., Jeromeville


“Graduation party?” I asked.  “At your house?”

“Yes.  Saturday, the 15th.  Right after finals are done.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be there.”

In hindsight, it was not entirely necessary for me to repeat back that it was a graduation party; this was obvious from the flyer.  I suppose I asked because I was surprised; I had never been invited to a college graduation party. I did not know any seniors last year.

Yesterday, Friday, was the last scheduled day for finals, but my last final had been on Thursday morning.  I had spent the last two and a half days doing a fat load of nothing.  I went for bike rides, I read, I worked on my novel, and I wasted a lot of time on the Internet with Usenet groups and IRC chats.  It was wonderful, and so far there had not been another incident like the one a few days ago.

When I moved to Jeromeville to start school, someone gave me a camera as a going-away present.  The camera then spent twenty-one months in a drawer, unused.  Yesterday I remembered that I had a camera, and I bought film and batteries, so I was ready to preserve some memories from Brian and Shawn’s party tonight.

Valdez Street was in south Jeromeville, on the other side of Highway 100 from me.  I drove east on Coventry Boulevard and turned right on G Street toward downtown.  As I approached downtown, I drove past progressively older houses and apartment complexes; after crossing Fifth Street, G Street became a commercial corridor.  It was Saturday night, and I had to drive slowly, watching for pedestrians and bicycles.  At least three households of JCF students were neighbors on Valdez Street and Baron Court, and as I got to know these people more, I often wished I could be part of that community.  Most of these people who were not graduating would be dispersing to other parts of Jeromeville next year, though, so a community like that may not exist next year.  I at least had the new apartment with Brian and Shawn to look forward to, even if we would not be neighbors with a large group of friends.

The student population of Jeromeville was gradually emptying as students finished finals, but I still had to park farther away from Brian and Shawn’s house than usual.  I could hear muffled music and conversation as I approached the house; apparently this was a big party.  I walked in and looked around; music was playing, and people were talking loudly.  Hopefully I would be able to hear when people talked to me.

“Greg!” Brian called out, waving, as he saw me from across the room.  “Come on in!”

I had been in this house four times before, and I had never seen it this full.  People were sitting on couches, in chairs, on the floor, and on the stairs.  A streamer that said “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 1996” hung from the wall.

“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.

“I think I did well.  What about you?”

“They weren’t great, but I passed.”

“Congratulations!  Your ceremony was this morning?”

“Yeah.  Mom and Dad and my sister came for the day.  We went out to dinner, then they left about an hour ago.”

“Nice!”

“Thanks!  Enjoy the party!”

Someone I did not recognize got up and walked toward the bathroom; I sat in his vacated seat.  I knew about half the people here from JCF, and I recognized some other JCF people whom I did not know well.  I assumed that the guys who lived here probably had other friends, so not everyone here would be from JCF.  I pulled out my camera and took a few candid shots of people sitting around talking.

Kristina, a sophomore who lived around the corner on Baron Court, walked past me.  “Greg!” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  How were finals?”

“Hard!  But they’re over now!  How were yours?”

“I think I did fine,” I said. “Is–” I caught myself before finishing my question, Is Haley here?  Six years ago, in eighth grade, Paul Dickinson had figured out that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and within a few days the whole school knew.  Ever since then, any time I had any sort of romantic interest or crush, I treated it like a closely guarded secret which no one must ever find out.  “Are any of your roommates here?” I asked instead.  That way, my question would get answered without Kristina suspecting that I liked Haley.

“Kelly and Jeanette are here somewhere.  Haley went home on Thursday after her last final.”

 “Oh, ok.”  I was a little disappointed that I would not see Haley for the next three months, but also relieved that, with Haley not here, I would have no opportunities to embarrass myself in front of her.  “What are you up to this summer?” I asked.

“Taking classes.  You?”

“Same.  Well, one class first session.  Probably just hanging out here second session.  I’m going to my parents’ house next week.”

“Nice.  I’ll probably see you around campus.”

“Yeah.”

I walked around, making small talk and asking people their plans for the summer.  Most of the people here were not going to be in Jeromeville.  That did not bode well for my hope of having a social life this summer.  I knew that JCF was running one small group Bible study this summer, so that was something.  And I would still be singing at church; I knew some people from church who would be around this summer.

I got up to use the bathroom.  A decoration on the bathroom wall above the toilet said “We aim to please, you aim too please.”  At first, my mind parsed that as “we aim to please, you aim to please” with a word misspelled.  I did not understand why the phrase needed to be repeated.  I did not get the joke until I flushed the toilet; the second part was supposed to say “you aim too, please,” as in “please don’t pee on the floor.”  I laughed out loud at my sudden realization.  Hopefully no one found it strange that someone was laughing in the bathroom.

I returned to the living room, realizing that I had not talked to Shawn Yang yet, although I probably knew him the best of all the guys who lived at this house.  I saw Shawn on the couch with a middle-aged Asian couple.  I approached him, and he said, “Hey, Greg.  Have you met my parents yet?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

“I’m John,” Mr. Yang said, shaking my hand.  “And this is Judy.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Greg is going to be my roommate next year,” Shawn explained.  “And he’s a math major too.”

“Oh you are?” Mr. Yang asked.  “You gonna be a teacher too?”

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I said.  “I don’t really see myself as a teacher.”

“You’re not graduating this year?”

“No.  I’m a sophomore.”

“Oh, ok.”

“You guys are from Ashwood?  Is that right?”

“Yeah.  What about you?  Where are you from?”

“Plumdale.”  Without thinking, I added, “Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”  Most people have no idea where Plumdale is.

“It’s nice out there!”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in Jeromeville most of the summer, but I’m going home next week.”

After a lull in the conversation, Mr. Yang said, “It was nice meeting you!”

“You too!”

I was ready for another break from socializing, so I walked outside.  It was a little before eight o’clock, and it was still light out; in Jeromeville, the sun does not set until close to nine this time of year.  Two guys were throwing a Frisbee back and forth in the street, moving out of the way whenever a car approached.  Eddie, Xander, Lars, and a guy I had met a couple times named Moises sat on a couch, which had been placed on the lawn for some reason. 

“We’re done with another school year,” Eddie said.  “Two down, two to go.”

“I know,” I replied.  “I think I did pretty well on finals.  How were yours?”

“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”

“Dude, mine were really tough,” Lars said.

“What are you doing this summer?” Xander asked me.

“I’m staying here.  I have one class first session.  When do you leave for India?”

“Two weeks.  I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited!  God is going to move!”

“I can’t wait to hear about it,” I said.

“Greg?” Eddie asked.  “Have you decided yet if you’re going to Urbana?”

I had not decided, and now that Eddie was asking, I felt like I had dropped the ball.  Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, puts on a convention every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about missions and service opportunities around the world.  The convention was the last week of the year, after Christmas.   “I haven’t decided,” I said.  “But I’d like to if I can make it work.  I don’t know if I’m ready to go on a mission trip myself, but now that I have a lot of friends doing stuff like that, I think it would help me understand what they’re doing.  Xander’s trip to India, and Melinda’s trip to Russia, and Taylor and Pete and Charlie going to Morocco with Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“Then what are you still thinking about?  If it’s money, you can apply for a scholarship through JCF.  Talk to Dave and Janet.”

“It’s more just the fact that it’s overwhelming.  I don’t know how to book a flight or a hotel room or anything like that.  And it is a lot of money, too.”

“I know a lot of people have been wanting to travel in groups and share hotel rooms,” Eddie said.  “If I hear of someone who might be able to include you, I’ll have them contact you.”

“Thanks.  That would be awesome.”

“Heads up!” shouted Alex McCann, a housemate of some of the guys on the couch, as a Frisbee sailed toward us.  Lars stood up and caught the Frisbee in time; then, walking away from the couch, he shouted at Alex and threw the Frisbee back at him.  Eddie and Xander stood up, and Eddie said to me, “We’re gonna go throw the Frisbee.  Wanna come?”

“I might later,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Moises stayed on the couch with me.  “I think you should go to Urbana,” he said.  “God is going to do great things through you.”

“Thanks,” I said, curious how he knew about God’s plan for my life when I pretty much just knew this guy to say hi to.

“Have you ever taken a spiritual gift assessment?” Moises asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“They handed one out at my church a few weeks ago.  You answer questions about what skills you have and what you’re good at, and it tells you, like, if God has equipped you to preach or worship or pray or do administrative work.  You can ask your pastor if he has one.  What church do you go to?”

“Newman Center.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the student-led Catholic church.”

“My family is Catholic,” Moises said.  “My family came here from Mexico; everyone is Catholic there.  But then when I became a Christian, I realized just how much Catholics have wrong.  Like, Jesus died on the cross for your sins already.  You don’t have to confess to a pope.”  I just nodded, not wanting to argue.  Moises‘ knowledge of the inner workings of the Catohlic Church must have had some shortcomings if he believed that the average Catholic confessed to His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a regular basis.  Also, although I did not think about it at age 19, I have also come to learn over the years that being a busybody like Moises is not the best way to share one’s faith with others.  After studying the Bible more this year, though, I had come to agree with his point that salvation came from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not through following the rituals of Catholicism alone.

By this time, it was getting dark, so I went back inside, making more small talk and helping myself to snacks on the kitchen counter.  Later that night, in the living room, Eddie, Kristina, Brian, and a few others were doing some kind of silly dance.  I saw Tabitha, one of the first people I knew from JCF because she was in the dorm next to mine last year, sitting on the couch with an empty seat next to her.  “May I sit here?” I asked Tabitha.

“Sure,” she said.  “Actually, I was looking for you.  Eddie told me a few minutes ago that if you go to Urbana, you’d be interested in going in together with someone on a flight and hotel room.”

“Definitely.”

“I was going to put something together later this summer.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“I’m not going for sure yet, but I know the price goes up July 1, so I want to decide for sure by then.  I’ll let you know, and you keep me posted on your plans.”

“Great!  Sounds good!”

I stayed at the party until after midnight.  By then, much of the crowd had gone home, the music had stopped, and I was getting tired.  I said my final goodnights and congratulations to Brian and Shawn, as well as to their other graduating housemates, Mike Kozlovsky and Dan Conway.  These four and all the other seniors here tonight were done with college, at least done with their bachelor’s degrees.  And now I was halfway there, if I finished on schedule.  It was hard to believe that it had already been almost two years since Mom and Dad helped me unpack in my tiny dorm room in Building C.

As I drove home through the dark but warm Jeromeville night, I kept thinking about how my life had changed so much, not only in the time since I came to Jeromeville, but just in this school year.  I had a great time at this party, and unlike my few other experiences with college parties, people here were not getting drunk.  At the beginning of this school year, I did not even know that any of these people existed, except for Tabitha, and she was not in my close circle of friends yet at the time.  So much had changed for the better.

I lived alone in a small studio apartment this year because I was unable to find roommates among people I knew.  Early in the year, I worried that living alone would be excessively boring and lonely, but indirectly, living alone ended up being the best thing for me.  It prompted me to make more of an effort to stay connected with my friends from freshman year, which led to me finally accepting Liz Williams’ invitation to come to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  At JCF, I made so many new friends, including the people at this party, and my future roommates for junior year.  And, more importantly, I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus, and how only his death on the cross brought eternal life, and hope, and inner peace.

I went straight to bed when I got home; I was tired.  I would have time to pack a suitcase in the morning, and after church I would make the two and a half hour drive to my parents’ house in Plumdale.  But unlike a year ago, the drive to my parents’ house would not mean the start of three months away from my friends.  I was only staying there for a week this time, and I would go for another week in August after my summer class ended.  For the rest of the summer, I would be here in Jeromeville.  Plumdale was home, but Jeromeville was also home now.

As I drifted off to sleep, still thinking about how much life had changed during my sophomore year at UJ, I wondered what changes were in store for me in the next school year.  Maybe I would find other new things to get involved with, as I had gotten involved with JCF this year.  Maybe I would end up going to that Urbana convention and deciding to become a missionary.  The possibilities were endless.  At the time, I had no idea that the next school year would bring challenges to my faith and questions about my future.  I would have to make difficult decisions.  I would find myself getting involved in two new activities, one of which was not at all anything I expected to do until it happened, and the other of which I was only beginning to think about at that point.  But I knew that, no matter what, with God on my side everything would work out just fine.

May 25, 1996. The 12th annual Man of Steel competition.

“Come in!” I heard a voice say after I knocked on the front door of 1640 Valdez Street.  I opened the door and, surveying the scene, became slightly nervous.  The living room was packed with around fifteen other guys, most of whom were speaking loudly enough that the ensuing cacophony jarred my senses.  I walked to a quiet out-of-the-way corner.

“Greg!” Brian said, writing on a clipboard.  “This is your first Man of Steel, right?”

“Yes.  What do I do?”

“Just hang out for a while.  A lot of people who told me they would be here aren’t yet.  And don’t forget to grab a t-shirt; they’re in that box over there.”

“Greg?” a large blond guy standing next to Brian said.  “This is Greg that you’re gonna live with next year?”

“Yes,” Brian said.  “Greg, do you know Mike Kozlovsky?  He’s one of my housemates.”

“I’ve seen you around,” I said.

“Hi,” the large blond guy said, shaking my hand.  “I’m Mike.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  I knew so many Mikes and Michaels that I would probably think of this guy as Mike Kozlovsky, not just Mike.

The Man of Steel competition had an entry fee, mostly to cover the cost of printing the t-shirts.  I had seen a few older JCF students wearing Man of Steel shirts from previous years, but I did not know until recently what Man of Steel meant.  I pulled an extra large size one out of the box Brian had pointed to; it was white, with a silhouette of Superman on the front.  The shirt said, “To save the world, this MAN OF STEEL is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.  But nothing he can do…”  I turned the shirt over to see a silhouette of Jesus on the cross, and the rest of the sentence: “… can cover our sins.  Isaiah 53:10-12.”  I liked that.  Hopefully no one would get in trouble for trademark infringement, for the unauthorized Superman references.

Eddie saw me and said, “Greg!  You made it!  Are you ready?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

As I mingled and talked to people over the next half hour, more guys trickled in, and over thirty young adult men packed the living room and kitchen by the time Brian called us all to attention at 10:30.  “Welcome to the twelfth annual Man of Steel Competition,” Brian said.  “The first event is Frisbee golf.  We printed out directions, and the tees and targets are marked.  Maximum score for a hole is six, so if you don’t hit the target in five throws, your score is six.  You will be in groups of four for the day, and one group will leave every five minutes.  The first group will be…” Brian looked down at his clipboard.  “Raphael, Lars, John, and Todd.”

As those four left the house with flying discs, I wandered around the room, talking to people and snacking on chips and salsa, listening for my name.  “Group 2: Eddie, Shawn, Mike Kozlovsky, and Brent,”  Brian announced five minutes later.  Five minutes after that, Brian announced, “Group 3: Xander, Matt, Greg, and Kieran.”

I stood up and walked toward Brian.  He gave the four of us a copy of the directions for the course, a pencil, and a score sheet.  “Do you need an extra Frisbee?” Brian asked me, noticing that I did not have one.

“Yeah,” I said.  Brian handed me an orange flying disc with the logo of the Big 5 Sporting Goods store on one side and his initials, BMB, scribbled in Sharpie on the other side.

“The first tee is right outside the house,” Brian explained.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks,” I said.


Twelve years ago, some guys from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship got together for something that they called the Man of Steel Competition.  It was an all-day hangout consisting of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and poker games.  Whoever was the most successful at the three events was crowned the Man of Steel and given a trophy to keep for the year.  Whoever finishes in last place is named the Weenie and receives an extra-small t-shirt as a humorous consolation prize.  The competition had been announced at JCF over the last few weeks, and Brian and Eddie had both specifically encouraged me to come.

In my group, Xander was my year, a sophomore.  I had met him in January, when he and Eddie had kindly prayed with me and invited me to hang out at their house when I was having a bad day.  Matt was a junior, who lived in the same house as Eddie and Xander, right around the corner from where we were now, on Baron Court.  Kieran was an athletically built freshman; I knew him to say hi to, but not well.

“Hole 1,” Kieran read aloud.  “The tee is the marked spot on the sidewalk, and the target is the fire hydrant down there.  A long straightaway.  Got it.”  Kieran threw his disc down the street, using a technique I had never seen in my informal experiences of tossing Frisbees around.  His disc sailed far down the street, landing about twenty feet from the fire hydrant.

“Nice!” I said.

Matt and Xander threw their discs accurately as well, but neither one ended up as close to the target as Kieran’s.  Mine curved off course to a vacant lot across the street near where some new houses were being built, less than halfway to the fire hydrant.

“Your turn,” Xander said.

“I just went,” I replied.

“You’re the farthest away, so you go first for the second toss.”

I was not aware of that rule, since this was my first time playing disc golf.  I threw my disc toward the fire hydrant; it went closer to the correct direction this time, but still landed far from the target.  Kieran hit the target in two tosses; Xander and Matt, three each; and I got five.

The second target was around the corner on Baron Court, a tree in the yard of the house where Eddie, Xander, and John lived with a bunch of other guys.  Baron Court dead-ended into a park connected to one of Jeromeville’s greenbelts; a light pole at the edge of the park was the third target.  I hit it in four throws, my best so far, although I was still far behind the others.

“Hole 4,’” I read.  “‘Dogleg around large oak tree, hit bench.’  What does ‘dogleg’ mean?”

“The disc has to go around the tree and then to the right.  You can’t cut straight across on that side of the tree,” Kieran explained, pointing.  He stood on the tee spot and threw his disc; it curved perfectly around the tree, exactly as it was supposed to.

“I see,” I explained.  I threw my disc next; it began curving to the right far too early, landing in a position where I would have to throw it even farther to make it curve to the correct side of the tree.  I groaned.

“It’s okay,” Xander said.  “Just do the same thing you just did from the place where it is now, and you’ll end up on the right side of the tree with a straight shot to the target.”

“That would be nice, if I could throw straight,” I said.

As the morning continued into early afternoon, I became increasingly frustrated, and the others sensed this.  A dead branch lay next to the lamppost that was the eleventh hole; I picked it up and threw it angrily after having scored the worst possible score of six for the third consecutive time.  “Hey,” Xander said.  “Calm down.  It’s just a game.”

“I’m terrible at this,” I said

“Don’t worry about it,” Kieran added.  “Just have fun.”

“But I’m going to be the Weenie.  If I had known that this was just another way for the popular athletic guys to humiliate me for not being good at stuff, I wouldn’t have come.  I got enough of that in elementary school.”

“Dude,” Xander said.  “That’s not what this is at all.  We don’t want to humiliate you.  It’s just for fun.  Besides, being named the Weenie is kind of an honor.  It’s just silly.”

“If you say so,” I said.  I tried to calm down and have fun.  I took a deep breath and calmly threw my disc toward the twelfth target; it traveled far in a straight line, and I finished that hole in only three throws, my best so far that day.

The eighteenth hole took us back to Brian’s house, where we turned in our scoresheet and waited for the rest of the groups to finish.  I asked a few of the people ahead of us what their scores were, and all of them made me feel more discouraged about mine, so I stopped asking and talked about other things instead.

After all eight groups had returned, Brian got our attention again.  “The next step is the hamburger eating contest.  You have sixty seconds to eat the first hamburger, fifty-five seconds to eat the second one, fifty seconds to eat the third one, and so on.  It counts as long as the whole thing is in your mouth when time runs out, and your mouth is closed.  You will go four at a time, in your same groups, called in random order.”

I watched as one of the groups began eating.  The hamburgers were the basic 79-cent hamburgers from McDonald’s, nothing big or fancy.  I did not like pickles, but for the purpose of this competition, I could make myself eat pickles this one time.  Dan Conway, a senior who lived in this house with Brian, dropped out surprisingly early; he got something stuck in his throat and could not finish his third burger, drawing a chorus of “Awwwww”s from the crowd.  James made it to eight, the most of anyone in that group.

When my turn came, I stepped up to the table with Xander, Kieran, and Matt.  “Go!” Brian said, starting the stopwatch.  I picked up the first hamburger and began taking large bites.  “Forty-five seconds,” Brian said shortly after we started, and he continued to announce the time remaining every fifteen seconds, so I stopped trying to time myself in my head.  I finished the first burger in plenty of time.  “Go!” Brian exclaimed when it was time to begin the second hamburger; I finished this one easily as well.  The third one was a little bit closer, but I swallowed the last bit of it just before Brian gave the signal.

I noticed some people dipping their hamburgers in a glass of water, presumably to make them softer and easier to swallow.  I tried this with the fourth one; it did, at least it made it easier to get it in my mouth, but it also turned it into a gooey mess that did not taste as good.  I swallowed the burger in the allotted time, though.

The fifth hamburger was more difficult.  The time had decreased to forty seconds, and although the burger was completely in my mouth when the time ran out, I had not swallowed all of it.  This left less space in my mouth for burger number six, which I now had only thirty-five seconds to eat.  I got the burger completely wet before eating it, and just before time ran out, I managed to stuff the last bite in my mouth.  But I knew that I would not make it much farther in this event, with chewed hamburger piling up in my mouth faster than I could swallow it.  As I took my first bite of burger number seven, I noticed that Matt had not finished his sixth.  I felt a renewed sense of motivation now that I knew I would not finish last in my group.  I forced myself to start swallowing what was already in my mouth, so that I had room to begin chewing burger number seven and close my lips as time expired.  I now had only twenty-five seconds to eat burger number eight, and as that time quickly passed, I knew I would advance no further.  I tried my best to swallow what was in my mouth and make room for burger number eight, but I just could not.  Xander also dropped out after seven, and Kieran, after shoving burger number eight in his mouth, ran to the garbage can and spit it all out without even touching number nine.  I did much more respectably in this event, only one burger behind the leader in my group.  Around half of the people who had gone so far did not make it to seven.

As the day went on, as much as I wanted to be encouraging, I secretly felt relieved every time someone did not finish seven burgers.  Less competition for me.  I needed all the help I could get.  My score of seven felt less respectable as the event continued, though; Brian ate nine, and two guys named Lars Ashford and Alex McCann each ate ten.

I had overheard someone earlier say that Mike Kozlovsky set the record in last year’s hamburger event with eleven.  As Mike’s group began, I tried to picture how that was possible, to shove ten hamburgers in one’s mouth and still have room to fit an eleventh hamburger in only ten seconds.  Twelve was considered a perfect score, because at burger number twelve, the time to eat it would be only five seconds, and with the time decreasing by five seconds for every burger, there would be no time for a thirteenth.

Mike Kozlovsky was a pretty big guy, and he ate the first eight hamburgers effortlessly.  He even appeared to be swallowing everything.  Burger number nine, he easily fit it in his mouth, but he had not finished swallowing when his twenty seconds was up.  He dunked burger number ten in his glass of water and tore off big chunks of it, pushing them into his mouth as he attempted to swallow what was already there.  I watched in amazement as he did the same for burger number eleven; I could see his cheeks puff up from all the unswallowed burger inside.  The rest of his group had all stopped by then.

“Possible new record,” Brian said, looking at the stopwatch.  “Go!”

Mike grabbed a burger, dunked it in the glass of water, tore it into pieces, and hurriedly shoved the pieces into his mouth.  As his five seconds ran out, he just barely closed his lips.

“Perfect score!” Brian shouted as the rest of the room erupted into applause  Mike, his mouth still full, turned to the crowd and raised both arms in victory.  Then, he stood next to the garbage can, bringing his hand to his mouth and pulling out a wad of chewed beef, bread, pickles, and onions the size of a softball.  Mike tossed the wad into the garbage.

“Ew!” several in the crowd shouted.

My score of seven was somewhere in the middle for the hamburger event; hopefully that would be enough to keep me out of contention for the Weenie.  Several had eaten less than seven hamburgers, but I was not sure if any of those people were as bad at disc golf as I was.  One more event remained, poker.

I knew some of the common traditional variations, like draw poker and stud poker.  I knew how to rank the hands.  And that put me in an unfortunate position, because it left me thinking I knew how to play poker when I actually did not.  To me, at the time, the way to succeed in poker was to have the good luck to draw a good hand; I knew little of the strategy surrounding bluffing and knowing when to bet or fold.

The rules were simple.  We each got 100 pennies to use for betting, and we would play in our same groups of four for one hour.  We took turns dealing, and the dealer chose the type of poker as well as any wild cards or special rules.  If you ran out of coins before the hour was up, you were out, and the object was to finish with as many coins as possible.

We started with a few games of simple draw poker.  I had some good hands, some bad hands, and one hand where I actually won with three of a kind, so I had about the same number of coins I started with when it came around to Kieran’s second turn to deal.

“Guts,” Kieran said.  “Do you guys know how to play Guts?”

“I don’t,” I said.

“You ante one chip and get two cards.  A pair beats no pair, and other than that it’s just the highest cards, like poker.  If you want to stay in, you hold a chip, make a fist, and we all show at the same time if we’re in.  Highest hand takes the pot, and anyone who stayed in and lost has to put in as many chips as there were in the pot, so it keeps getting bigger.  If only one person stays in, they take the pot and the round is over.  I’ll explain it as we go along too.”

I did not like this game.  I did not have guts.  But it was Kieran’s turn to pick the game, so I had no say in this.  My first hand was a three and a five, so I dropped out.  All the others stayed in; Kieran won, so he took the four coins from the pot, and Xander and Matt each had to put four more coins in the pot.  My next hand was an ace and queen.  This was a much better hand; the only things that beat this were ace-king or a pair.  Although it was far from a guaranteed win, I decided to stay in.  Kieran was the only other one who stayed in, and he had a pair of sixes; he took the eight coins in the pot, and I had to pay eight coins to make the new pot.  My next hand was a four and seven; I was out, and Kieran was the only one to stay in, so he took my eight coins, and the game was over.  I was the next dealer, and I chose to go back to draw poker.  Guts was not my kind of game, especially in a high-stakes situation like this.

Over the course of the hour, I gradually lost money as I played conservatively.  I had a few wins, and a few major losses.  In one round of seven-card stud, I was dealt two queens in the hole, and after I got another queen on the second face-up card, I placed a large bet on the final round, struggling to keep a poker face.  Xander, who had two aces showing, stayed in.  He ended up having a third ace in the hole, but I finished with a full house and took the pot.

With about ten minutes to go, I had sixty-eight coins, and Kieran called Guts for the game.  I dropped out on the first deal and lost on the second; no one else had dropped out, so the pot was now twenty-four coins.  My next hand was two eights.  This was a pretty good hand; the only things that could beat it would be a higher pair.  I tried using what I had learned in Dr. Thomas’ combinatorics class to figure out my chances of winning, but I could not complete the calculation in time.  I decided I was in; Matt and Kieran stayed in as well.  We showed our hands; Matt had a king and queen, but Kieran had two jacks.  Kieran took the pot, and Matt and I each had to put another twenty-four coins in.

In the next deal, I got a pair of queens.  I felt pretty confident about my chances.  Xander and Kieran stayed in as well; Xander had an ace and nine, but Kieran had a pair of kings.  Kieran took the forty-eight coins in the pot, and Xander and I each had to put forty-eight coins in the pot.  “I’m out of coins,” I said.  “I lost.”  I put all of my remaining coins in the pot and watched the other three continue playing.

When the hour was finished, I dejectedly told Brian that I had no money left.  I also handed him the disc he had loaned me, but he told me to keep it.  “It wasn’t very expensive.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I walked over to the couch and sat.  Eddie saw me a few minutes later and asked, “How’d you do, Greg?”

“Not very well.  I ate seven burgers, but I did terribly in the other two events.  I really hope I’m not the Weenie.  I spent enough time in elementary school being made fun of for not being good at things.”

“This is supposed to be fun.  Don’t get discouraged.  We won’t make fun of you.”

“I know.  I’m just competitive.  But it was fun.  And hopefully I’ll do better next year.”

“I’m going to help count scores,” Eddie said.  “But don’t feel bad.”

It took a while for Brian and Eddie to evaluate everyone’s scores.  No one explained how exactly the scores for the three events were combined to choose a Man of Steel and a Weenie.  I knew I was not going to win; at this point, I was just hoping not to be the Weenie.

Brian emerged from the back of the house and got everyone’s attention again.  “Gentlemen, the 1996 Weenie is Dan Conway!”  Brian gave Dan his Weenie prize, an extra-small T-shirt.  “Next,” Brian continued, “the runner up… Alex McCann!”  Alex stood up, and everyone applauded.  Brian held up a small trophy and said, “And the winner of the 12th annual Man of Steel Competition, your 1996 Man of Steel… Mike Kozlovsky!”

I applauded, along with everyone else.  I was not particularly surprised by this.  Mike’s first ever perfect score in the hamburger eating event was certainly impressive.

I hung out for about another hour, talking to people, and I joined in another game of poker just for fun.  Eddie actually told me years later that Dan and I had tied for Weenie, but that he and Brian decided to give it to Dan.  Dan would get a good laugh out of it, and Eddie did not want to humiliate me, since I was new to the group and participating in my first Man of Steel.

Now that I knew what to expect, I would go into future Man of Steel competitions a bit more relaxed.  I was doing this to have fun with friends.  I would have no expectation of ever being in contention of winning this competition, because I was terrible at disc golf, my understanding of poker would only help me if I drew a few lucky hands, and while I was respectable at eating, I was nowhere near on par with Mike Kozlovsky or Alex.  This was the first of four Man of Steel competitions I would participate in during the years I lived in Jeromeville, and after having been through this first one, going into future competitions with no expectation of winning made them more enjoyable.  And, who knows… I just might surprise myself someday.

May 3-5, 1996. Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly.

“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later.  What was this?  I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos.  Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video.  But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.

The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built.  Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF.  By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects.  The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.

A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter.  He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer.  Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject.  Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that.  But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that.  Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane.  I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport.  The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.

Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF.  He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana  Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana?  Are you gonna go?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that.  And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer.  And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco.  So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”

“It would!”

“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”

“That makes sense.  You have a while to think about it and save up for it.  The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Are you going?”

“I’m planning to.  Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it.  It sounded really great.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around.  I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well.  Melinda saw me first and waved.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.  “How was your week?”

“It was good,” I said.  “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”

“I just finished one.  I hope I do well.  Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing.  Why?”

“Come over!  Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”

“A cat birthday party,” I repeated.  “How does that work?  Do I bring a present?”

“No.  Just bring yourself.”

“I should be able to make that.  Where do you live?”

“Pine Grove, number 202.  Do you know where that is?”

“Pine Grove Apartments?  Yeah, I know where that is.”

“Great!  Come over any time after six.”

“I’ll be there!  Sounds good!”


A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice.  The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller.  Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove.  This had been a deciding factor for me.  But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.

Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus.  I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202.  I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.

“Greg!” she said.  “Come on in!”

I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual.  Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there.  Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.

“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.

“Not much,” I said.  “I got all my homework done for the weekend.  But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”

“When’s it due?”

“Not until the 29th.”

“Then why are you thinking about it now?”

“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would.  That’ll take time.”

“Yeah, but you have the whole month.  It’s not going to take that long.”

“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked.  “That sounds awesome!  Is that your major?” 

“I’m a math major.  I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class.  And I know the professor.”

“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”

“I hope so.  Tabitha is in that class too.”

“What?” Tabitha said.  She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.

“I was talking about the anthro project.  I said you’re in that class too.”

“Oh, yeah.  Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”

“I was thinking I might do a chat room on IRC.  That way, when I’m wasting time on the Internet talking to strangers, I can tell myself I’m doing homework.”

“Smart,” Tabitha said.  “I was thinking I might do University Life.”

“That would be funny,” Joe said.  I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student.  That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment.  What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.

Over the next hour, more people trickled in.  I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others.  Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa.  There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me.  As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat.  I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

“He’s in my room.  He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”

“But this is his party!”

Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice.  “That was really just an excuse to have a party.  We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”

“Oh,” I said.  That thought had honestly never crossed my mind.  I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.

Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them.  After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly.  My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed.  Others generally found the buzzer annoying.

Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening.  He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment.  Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting.  She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.”  As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.

“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said.  “Who wants cake and ice cream?”  Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream.  Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating.  I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.

When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds.  “Sure!” she replied.  “There’s plenty.”  I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me.  A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit.  “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.

“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked.  “I made this mixtape for this party.”

“Yes.  I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.”  I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.

A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope.  “Greg?” she asked.  “Can I ask you something?

“Yeah.  What is it?”

“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer.  I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me.  Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”

“Sure,” I said.  It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer.  I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”

“Are you going to Urbana?  You’ll find out a lot there.”

“The video last night was the first I had heard of this.  I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money.  I don’t know.”

“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”

“I know.  And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”

“Totally!  Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope.  “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll read it.”

U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape.  I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me.  Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song.  The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times.  We  shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.

“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto.  Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing.  When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.

“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott.  He smiled and returned the high five.

As I looked around that room, I realized something.  None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.)  I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends.  By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.


The next day, Sunday, after singing in the choir at church, I went to lunch at Bakers Square with some of the others from choir.  Danielle Coronado, one of the people from Building C last year who remained in my inner circle, sat across from me.  “We should have gotten Mexican food,” she said.  “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”

Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me.  “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied.  She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here.  I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.

“It was good,” I said.  “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”

“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments?  I don’t remember the people’s names.”

“Yeah.  Amelia and Melinda.”

“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.

“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased.  “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”

“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire.  “We were just holding hands.  Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday?  Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”

“Urbana?  Yeah, I saw the video.  I don’t know if I’m going to go.  It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before.  But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”

“Yeah, that’s it.  Pete’s thinking about going.  He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”

“Greg?  What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire.  She was also in my anthropology class.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”

“That would be interesting!  Timely, too.  Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”

“True.  What about you?”

“I’m not sure.  I have a few things in mind, though.”

I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car.  Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself.  When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.

“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button.  “You have one new message.”  The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home.  I dialed the numbers and waited.

“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Greg.”

“Hello!  Where were you?”

“I went out to lunch with some people from church.  And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”

“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”

“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party.  The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”

“I see.  And you said these are people from JCF?  That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”

“Yeah.”

“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.  I’m glad you’re making friends.  See?  I knew you could do it.”

“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.

Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes.  Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year.  By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life.  But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life.  Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group.  But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church.  This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life  But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.

April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove.

“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” the voice on the car stereo sang, followed by some other mumbling words and then guitars and more words.  At least it sounded like those were the words, although it seemed like an odd choice of lyrics for a rock song.  The song contained that exact line several more times.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.

“DC Talk,” he replied.  “I made this mixtape of Christian music for when I’m in the car.”

I nodded.  I had once seen another student at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship wearing a t-shirt that said DC Talk, but I had no idea what that meant.  Apparently DC Talk was a band that sang Christian music.  Other than stuff we sang in church, the only Christian music I was aware of was this Christian soft rock adult contemporary radio station back home in Santa Lucia County, which I never listened to.  But this Jesus Freak song was awesome.

For the first forty minutes after we left Jeromeville, headed west on Highway 100, we passed orchards and pastures and fields interrupted by a few small and medium-sized cities, Silvey, Nueces, Fairview, and La Yegua.  After Fairview, the flatlands of the Capital Valley gave way to grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks.  Eddie had offered me the front seat, since I was the tallest of the five of us; Sarah, Caroline, and Raphael were in the back.  Just past La Yegua, we crossed a bridge over the mouth of the Capital River where it empties into the Bay.  “Hey,” Sarah said when we were halfway across the bridge.  “There’s the other car.”

I looked to the left, in the direction Sarah was pointing.  A small sport-utility vehicle passed us with Tabitha looking at us through the window in the back seat, grinning, and Xander making a funny face over her shoulder.  Haley sat in the front seat, smiling and waving.  Five of the ten people on this trip were neighbors on Baron Court, and the rest of us met there to carpool.  I had hoped that I would end up in the same car as Haley, but I did not want to be too obvious about it.  Since Eddie had invited me on this trip, it had seemed more natural to be in his car.  Kristina drove the other car, and I could see a silhouette of John behind Xander in the back seat.  I waved, although I was not sure anyone could see me from the front passenger seat.

We continued driving through the hills lining the shore of the Bay, through an industrial area, then through several cities and towns that all ran into each other.  In Oaksville, Highways 100, 150, and 88 all met at the entrance to another large bridge.  Eddie drove across the bridge as we saw the lights and buildings of Bay City approaching.

“This is such a great view,” Sarah said.

“Yes,” Raphael agreed.  “One of the greatest cities in the world.”

“I’m not used to seeing it from this side,” I said.  “When we came to Bay City, we always came up 11, and usually it was for Titans games on the other side of the city.”

“Have you never seen downtown Bay City before?” Eddie asked.

“Just twice.”

“It’s pretty awesome.”

We turned onto Highway 11 north, which became a city street, Van Winkle Avenue; the freeway was never completed across the city.  About two miles up Van Winkle Avenue, Eddie pointed across the street and said “There it is.”  I saw the sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, on a building on the corner.  We found a nearby parking garage and walked to the entrance, where the group from the other car waited for us.


The Hard Rock Cafe was loud and crowded.  The walls were covered with music memorabilia, and music played loudly over speakers.  While we waited to get our seat, I read a sign on the wall telling the history of the Hard Rock Cafe.  Two Americans living in London in 1971 started the first Hard Rock Cafe as a place to serve American food and listen to great music.  Eric Clapton became a regular customer, and he hung a guitar on the wall above his favorite seat.  The restaurant incorporated this into their decor and soon opened other locations in big cities and tourist traps worldwide, with music memorabilia on the walls of all of them.

I got up to use the bathroom and took my time getting back to my seat, admiring photographs, posters, guitars, and fancy costumes on display, each with a plaque explaining whom it belonged to and its significance.  I also saw a sign saying “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed.”  I rolled my eyes… hippies.  I could not find my friends in the lobby when I returned, so I walked around the restaurant, looking to see if they had been seated and admiring more rock memorabilia as I looked for them.  When I found them, I smiled nervously at my good fortune; the seat that they had left open for me, coincidentally, was next to Haley.

“Hey,” Haley said when I sat down.  “You found us.”

“Yeah.  I was just looking at stuff on the wall.  It’s really cool.”

“Have you been here before?”

“No.  Have you?”

“Not this one.  But I’ve been to one in Hawaii, on vacation with my family.”

“Nice.  I’ve never been to Hawaii either.”

“I’ve only been once.  It’s so beautiful!”

“I can imagine,” I said.  “So how are your classes this quarter?”

“They’re definitely keeping me busy.  I’m taking a lot.”  Just then the server came and interrupted our conversation.  I ordered a cheeseburger, nothing too adventurous.

All of us talked more about life and classes and things while we waited for the food to arrive.  At one point, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on; I thought this was the Hard Rock Cafe, not the Hard Rap Cafe, but I did not complain.  Kristina started rapping along with Coolio.  “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she began.

“That’s in the Bible, you know,” Eddie said to no one in particular.  I did not know the first time I heard the song, but I did now; it was from Psalm 23, one of the more famous passages in the Bible.  The song was from the movie Dangerous Minds, and I still had a negative memory of that movie, because of what I saw a few rows in front of me when I watched it.

By the time the food arrived, I was starving.  I ate my cheeseburger quickly.  I looked around; Haley was eating a chicken salad, and John, on my other side, had the same cheeseburger I did.  “How is it?” I asked Haley.

“It’s really good,” she said.  “You must have liked yours.  You ate it fast.”

“I did.  And I was starving.  I hadn’t eaten since noon.  It’s after nine o’clock.”

“Yeah, we’re eating late.  Do you know about this place we’re going next?”

“We’re going to sleep on the beach next, aren’t we?”

“Apparently we’re going somewhere else first,” Haley explained.  “One of the guys’ other roommates told us we have to see this thing, but Eddie said it’s a surprise.”

“He didn’t tell me.”

Eddie jumped into our conversation.  “Seriously, it’ll be worth it,” he said.

When the waiter brought our checks, he also gave us each a small button with the Hard Rock Cafe logo in flames.  “1971-1996, 25 Years of Rock,” it said.  Kristina pinned hers to the strap of her purse.  I did not know what I would do with mine; stick in a box somewhere, maybe.

And then 25 more years will pass, and I’ll write about that trip and remember exactly where I put that button.



After we finished paying for the meal, we went back to our cars.  Eddie worked his way southwest across the city, and at a red light he handed me an unfolded map.  “I need someone to help me navigate; I have to watch the road.  This is where we’re going,” he said, pointing at a green spot on the map labeled Bosque Hill Park. “Can you read maps?”

I grew up fascinated by maps, and up until that moment of my life, it had never occurred to me that some people could not read maps.  “Yeah,” I said.  It was a strange question to me.  I was reminded of those first few days of freshman year in Building C, talking about my fascination with maps.  I looked over my shoulder at Sarah in the back seat, grinning; she made eye contact with me and started laughing loudly.  I laughed too. She was thinking of the same thing.

“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.

“At the start of freshman year, the day I met Greg,” Sarah explained, “someone told me that he loved maps.  So he made me tell Greg the highways near my house, to see if Greg could guess where I was from.  And he was right, and Greg and I have been friends ever since.”

“Good job!” Eddie said.

We arrived at Bosque Hill and parked on the street.  Street parking is usually scarce in Bay City, and when Raphael saw another spot open, he suggested we stand there and save the spot for Kristina’s car.  I wondered what was so special about Bosque Hill.  I had seen it on a map, and I had read that it was the highest natural elevation in Bay City, around 1000 feet.  I guessed that the surprise would be a spectacular view of the city lights at night.

After the other car arrived, we began climbing the hill on a well-worn dirt path.  A few people carried flashlights.  The path was surrounded by trees and brush on both sides, and the chirps and buzzes of bugs intertwined with the distant dull roar of the city.  A few times, I could see sweeping views of city lights below, but that was not the surprise Eddie was showing us.

The path turned a corner, and I could see the top of the hill, where a giant cross stood, towering over us, taller than the six-story building where my mathematics professors’ offices were.  What was this?  Why was it here?  I walked closer and read a plaque, identifying this cross as a memorial to pioneers who came from around the world and settled the area.  I looked up and saw that all my friends had adopted postures of prayer, so I did the same.  I looked up at the cross and prayed silently.  Jesus Christ, I thank you for this reminder that you died on the cross to save me from my sins and bring eternal life.  I thank you for the beauty of your creation, even here in the middle of the city.  I thank you that these friends, these brothers and sisters in Christ, invited me on this trip, and I pray that we will have safe travels.  No one spoke for about ten minutes.  I wondered how long we were going to stay here, but I did not want to interrupt everyone’s prayers, so I just kept praying until I saw people start to walk downhill.

“That was pretty cool,” I said when we were back in the car.  Eddie was driving toward the coast on the west side of the city, along the open ocean.  “I had no idea it was there.”

“I was thinking on the way down,” Caroline said.  “When we’re all standing there praying to a cross, couldn’t that be considered idolatry?”

“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily idolatry,” I answered.  “We’re not praying to the cross.  We’re praying to Jesus, and the cross is a symbol reminding us of him.”

“That makes sense,” Eddie said.

“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.

“Thanks,” I replied.

The coast south of Bay City was rugged and hilly, and we drove along the road that hugs the shore for about half an hour, to a town called Moonlight Cove.  I had never been this way before.  The town must have been named on a day unlike today, because tonight it was cloudy and no moon was visible.  “How does this work?” I asked, being completely unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping outside.  “Do we just put down our sleeping bags and sleep on the beach?”

“Pretty much.”

Kristina’s car had beaten us here by a few minutes this time, and we parked next to them.  “Look,” I said as we were unloading.  “That sign over there says ‘No Camping.’  Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

“Yeah, but they never check,” Eddie explained.  “My friends and I in high school came here and slept on this beach a few times.”

“My family lives just over those hills,” Caroline added, “and we came to this beach all the time.  We never spent the night, but I don’t remember anyone patrolling the area or anything.”

“If you say so,” I said, still dreading the fact that we were doing something illegal.  After staying up talking for a bit more, someone pointed out that it was almost midnight, and we decided to go to sleep.

Today, as an adult, I recognize the value of experiences, and I have stayed up all night enough times to know that doing so will not kill me.  But in 1996, I felt like I desperately had to sleep, so when people kept talking as others drifted off to sleep, I felt a need to move somewhere out of earshot.  I quietly told them so, and I dragged my sleeping bag inland about a hundred feet to a slightly more secluded spot near some large rocks.  If the police caught us camping and hauled us off to jail, maybe they would not see me.

Even in my new spot, though, sleep eluded me.  I always had a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was uncomfortable sleeping on sand with the ocean roaring nearby and the wind blowing.  After tossing and turning for a long time, I realized that I had to pee, but there was no bathroom.  I carefully walked behind the rocks, relieved myself, and returned to the sleeping bag.  I looked at my watch; it was 1:29.  I tossed and turned as my mind raced.  I felt somehow inferior to the others since I could not sleep outside, and since my life did not include sleeping outside in any childhood experiences.  I also had homework to do at home.  I tried to think happy thoughts.  Eddie inviting me on this trip.  Sitting next to Haley at the Hard Rock Cafe.  Driving places I had never seen before.  Haley’s pretty blue eyes.  Hiking to the top of Bosque Hill.  The way Haley’s whole face lights up when she smiles.  I got up to use the rocks again at 2:11, then I began praying like I did at the top of Bosque Hill.  I thanked Jesus Christ for all he had done for me and tried to listen to see if he was speaking to me.  I closed my eyes.


The next thing I knew, it was light out.  My watch said 7:02.  I had slept for almost five hours, and given the circumstances, that was probably as good as it would get.  As I returned from using the rocks as my toilet again, I noticed that no one else seemed awake.  I lay in my sleeping bag, enjoying the view, for about forty-five minutes, until I saw Eddie clearly moving around.  I walked back out of sight of the others and changed into the other clothes I had brought, then rolled up my sleeping bag and walked to the others.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie whispered.  “You sleep well?”

“Eventually, but it took a long time to fall asleep.  I never sleep well in unfamiliar places.”

“But you did sleep.”

“I did.”

“Hey, guys,” John whispered, joining the conversation.

Everyone else woke up over the next fifteen minutes as we spoke in whispers.  Once everyone was awake and speaking at a normal volume, Sarah asked, “What’s for breakfast?”

“I was thinking we could go into town and just pick up a few things at Safeway,” Kristina suggested.  “Anyone want to come with me?”

“Sure,” Haley said, getting out of her sleeping bag.

This was my chance.  “I’ll come,” I said.

“Great!” Kristina said.  “Ready?”

As I walked with Kristina and Haley to the parking lot, I realized that I had not showered or brushed my teeth or put on deodorant.  This may not be the best time to be talking to Haley.  But, then again, she probably had not done any of that stuff either.

“I was thinking, get some bagels, and fruit, and juice.  And we need cups for the juice.  Does that work for you guys?” Kristina asked.

“Sure,” Haley said.  I nodded.

We arrived at the store, took a cart, and walked through the aisles together.  After Kristina walked forward to look at different kinds of bagels, Haley asked me, “So did you ever figure out where you’re going to live next year?”

I’m going to live with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr.  Shawn is going to be student teaching, and Brian is going to work with JCF part time and apply to medical school.”

“Oh, wow.  Older guys.  Isn’t Brian applying to medical school right now?”

“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”

“Really.”

“He’s on a waitlist at one place, so plans might change if he does get in, but right now he’s planning to live in Jeromeville another year.  And there’s a fourth guy, Josh McGraw, he’s Abby Bartlett’s boyfriend, and he commutes to Jeromeville now and wants to move into town.”

“I don’t know Josh, but Shawn and Brian are great guys.  You’ll like living with them.”

“You’re living with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr next year?” Kristina said, putting bagels in the cart.  “Awesome!  Where?”

“We don’t have a place yet.  We’re going to get together sometime soon to make plans.”

“That’s cool!”

We returned to the beach with the food a few minutes later.  This was not my usual routine of cereal in milk for breakfast, but it was food and that was the important thing.  After we finished eating, Xander walked to the parking lot and returned with a guitar.  “I’ve been learning some worship songs,” he said.  He started playing some of the songs we sang at JCF large group, as well as a few that I did not think I had heard before.  Tabitha asked for a turn with Xander’s guitar, and she played and sang a few songs too.  We all just sat there for over an hour, praising God through music and enjoying the beauty of his creation.

In the early afternoon, we packed everything up and got ready to head back to Jeromeville.  “What are we doing for lunch?” Kristina asked.

“I know this great sandwich place where I used to go with my family when we would come here,” Caroline said.  “Does that sound good?”

“Sure!”

We got back into the cars, and Caroline directed Eddie to the sandwich shop in Old Town Moonlight Cove, about two miles from the beach where we were.  The others followed in Kristina’s car.  This place was much smaller, quieter, and less flashy than the Hard Rock Cafe, unsurprisingly.  I ordered a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese; it was very, very good.

“I like this place,” I said to Caroline.  “Good suggestion.”

“So what was your favorite part of the trip, Greg?” Eddie asked me.  He had been asking everyone this.

“Probably the Hard Rock Cafe,” I said.  “I liked all the music stuff on the wall.”

“Do you play an instrument or anything?  You said you sing, right?”

“I sing at my church.  And I’ve always liked listening to music.”

“You seemed to like my mixtape too.”

“Yeah.  I haven’t really listened to a lot of Christian pop and rock music.”

“You should.  I think there’s some stuff out there that you’d like.”

After lunch, we got back in the cars and began the two hour drive back to Jeromeville.  Eddie put on a different mixtape of Christian music.  As we crossed back east over the Bay City Bridge, leaving the city, I heard familiar guitar chords coming from Eddie’s mixtape.  “Rain, rain on my face, hasn’t stopped raining for days,” the voice sang.

“Hey, I know this song,” I said.  “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”

“Jars of Clay,” Eddie replied.  “I know, I’ve heard it on 100.3.  It’s cool to hear Christian music get played on secular radio stations.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I had not listened to the lyrics closely enough to recognize it as Christian music, but it all made sense now.  “Lift me up when I’m falling.  I need you to hold me.”  

Somewhere around Nueces, Eddie’s mixtape ended, and he put on the first mixtape with Jesus Freak again.  I was definitely going to look more into this Christian music.  We arrived back at Eddie’s house in Jeromeville in the late afternoon.  Kristina’s car arrived a minute later and parked nearby, and everyone who did not live on Baron Court began unloading and moving their things to their own cars.

“Thanks for driving, Eddie,” I said.  “And thanks for inviting me.”

“Thanks for coming!” Eddie replied.  “Have a great rest of the weekend!”

“I’m glad you could make it, Greg,” I heard Haley say.  I turned to her and saw the smile I had been thinking of earlier.  She stepped forward to hug me, and we embraced.

“I’m glad you went too,” I said.  “Have a good rest of the weekend.”

After everyone said their goodbyes, I drove back to my apartment in north Jeromeville. This was the best weekend I had had in a long time.  Once I got inside with the car radio off, that Jesus Freak song started going through my head again.  This was my life now.  I was a Jesus Freak.  The despair of the past was behind me, and I was following Jesus with a supportive group of brothers and sisters in Christ.

I knew that the point of following Jesus was not about being part of the in-crowd, but it still felt good that the in-crowd was including me.  I had a group of friends who genuinely cared about me, something that I had not had for most of my life, and I was going to be living with cool older guys next year.  Of course, God had a lot to show me about how life really works over the coming years, but for now, life was good.

April 9, 1996. Friends all over campus and a new plan.

Two years ago, when my university applications were being processed, I got invited to something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at the University of Jeromeville.  This was a program for around seventy high-achieving freshmen; among other things, we all lived in the same building, and we had to take one class every quarter specifically for IHP students, which counted toward general education requirements.  I was particularly attracted to the idea of being part of a relatively small group of students.  Jeromeville was a huge university, with around 25,000 students on a main campus that took up a square mile, adjacent to several more square miles of farmland used for research.  I found my high school of 1400 already far too big to know everyone, so a school this big seemed intimidating.  Being part of a small group of students who knew each other seemed attractive to me, and this was part of the reason I chose Jeromeville over Central Tech and Bidwell State.

Despite those numbers, however, UJ was starting to feel much smaller now that I had been around for a while.  I encountered people I knew more and more often around campus and around town.  In addition to my friends from the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, I had friends from classes, church, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, the Math Club, people I knew through mutual friends, and people who I just saw around enough that I started to recognize them and say hi for no other reason.

As I got on the bus that morning, I wondered if I would see Tiffany Rollins.  Tiffany was a civil engineering major, and we had been in a few of the same mathematics and physics classes in the past.  We had finished all of the classes that her major had in common with my mathematics major, though, so we would probably be seeing less of each other as time went on, but last week I saw her on the bus both Tuesday and Thursday morning.  She lived in an apartment complex just down Alvarez Avenue from mine, at the bus stop just before my stop.  I boarded the bus, showed my ID card to the driver, and spotted Tiffany sitting near the back of the bus.

“Hey, Greg,” Tiffany said as I approached her and sat next to her.

“Hey,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  One of my classes is really hard already.  I was up late last night studying.”

“Yeah.  Mine aren’t too bad yet.  I’m just starting to stress over not knowing where I’m going to live next year.”

“You aren’t keeping your studio apartment?”

“I didn’t renew.  I was hoping to find friends to live with.  I almost had a plan, but it fell through.”

“I hope you find something!”

“Me too.  I’ve been asking around.”

“I can let you know if anyone I know is looking for a guy.”

“That would be nice,” I said, although I was really hoping not to have to do that.  I wanted to live with people I knew who would be fun to be around, not some strangers who happened to know Tiffany.  Granted, those strangers could end up becoming friends, but they could also end up being my worst nightmare.

I was still thinking about this all through weight training class.  Yesterday, when I got home from campus, I had a note in my mailbox at the apartment saying that I had a package to pick up.  When I went into the office to get my package, the woman at the desk had asked me how I was doing, and I explained that I was worried about not having a place to live for next year.

“I have a note here from the other front desk person that someone came in here earlier looking for a roommate,” she said.  She wrote “Alex Davidson” and a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.  “I guess Alex renewed his lease but his roommate is moving out, so maybe you should give Alex a call.”

I gave some kind of noncommittal answer and returned to my apartment.  I would not be giving Alex a call.  Because Jeromeville was a small world and I knew a lot of people, I was familiar with the name Alex Davidson.  The front desk person had not spoken to Alex directly, so she did not realize that Alex was a girl.  I did not know her well, but she was in my Chemistry 2B class a year ago; I remembered seeing her write her name on something, and her name stood out to me because most people named Alex I knew were male.  I did not feel comfortable with a female roommate.  It would just feel weird, and also I ran with circles that would question the nature of the relationship of a single male and a single female living together.  Sure, Heather Escamilla from church lived with her boyfriend, but I also knew people that had the same judgmental attitude toward that arrangement.  I did not find Alex Davidson particularly attractive, though, so if somehow we did end up living together, we probably would not develop any kind of awkward sexual tension.

After weight training class, I walked across campus toward the Memorial Union.  I had been coughing and sniffling off and on for the last few weeks, not enough to feel sick and stay home from classes but enough to notice.  As I approached the Memorial Union, I saw a quiet short-haired girl sitting quietly on a bench reading.  It was Skeeter, a friend from the IHP who lived upstairs from me last year.  Just as I was about to say hi, I coughed, and Skeeter heard me and looked up.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.

“Hi.  How’s it going?”

“It’s funny.  I recognized your cough.”

“Wait, what?”

“I heard a cough, and I thought, ‘That sounds like Greg.’”

“Really,” I said.  “I didn’t know I had a distinct-sounding cough.”

“I’ve never thought about it before.  It’s really weird.”

“Yeah.  I would not have thought of that,”  I said.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“You too!”

Last night, I went grocery shopping, and I had to use my credit card to pay because I did not have enough cash and I forgot to bring my checkbook.  My bank had an ATM on the far side of the Memorial Union building, so I went there next.  After I withdrew cash, I turned toward the east entrance of the building near the campus store.  A guy at a table was enticing students to sign up for credit cards with free gifts.  I recognized Autumn, a freshman girl who went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, filling out an application on a clipboard.  I met Autumn a few months ago when I did a car rally with JCF; she got put in my group, and we failed miserably that night.

“Hey, Autumn,” I said.

Autumn looked up at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” she said.  She finished filling out the application and handed it to the guy.  He gave her a baseball cap.  “Do you like my hat?” Autumn asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  The cap was black, with the logo of one of the credit card companies that this man represented subtly stitched into the side.  No other writing or decoration was on the cap.

Autumn put on the cap, with her hair coming out of the hole in the back just above the strap to adjust the size; she tied her hair into a ponytail.  “I’ve never had a hat like this!” she said.  “I’m excited!”

“It looks good,” I said.  “I like it.”

“Free gifts!” the guy running the table called out to people walking by.  “This guy got two free gifts yesterday!” he said, pointing at me.

“You signed up for two credit cards yesterday?” Autumn asked.  “What free gifts did you get?

“The pen and the mug,” I said.  After I filled out those two applications yesterday, I wondered why I had done it.  I was never the type to spend money I did not own, so I did not need a credit card, although it would have been useful for an emergency, or for making large purchases without carrying around cash or a checkbook.  I had a credit card through my bank, the same one I had used at the grocery store last night, but it had a very small limit.  I had signed up for two more yesterday, but I stopped when the man with the applications, the same one who was here today, put a third application in my face.  The new cards would have much higher credit limits than the one from my bank.  In a fit of simplifying and downsizing, I canceled one of the cards about five years later, but I still have the other one, a Discover Card, today, and I use it as my primary credit card.  Also, I still pay it off every month; I know too much math to carry a balance and burden myself with impossibly high interest rates.

“So how are things?” I asked Autumn when she finished the credit card applications.

“Good,” she said.  “I like my schedule this quarter.  How about you?”

“I’m doing okay.  I’m kind of stressing over not having plans for where to live next year.”

“What are your roommates this year doing?” Autumn asked.

“I live alone.  I don’t want to live alone again.  I want to live with people.  Having roommates seems fun.  And it’s a lot less expensive.”

“Yeah.  Have you asked around JCF?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t heard anything for sure.  Pete Green and Charlie Watson were looking for a third person, but Mike Knepper got that spot before I told them for sure.”

“Bummer,” Autumn replied.  “Well, if I hear of any guys looking for a roommate, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.  Do you know where you’re living next year?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in south Jeromeville with Leah and two other girls she knows.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“I need to go, but it was good running into you.  I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Bye!”

I walked into the Memorial Union building, going all the way across it to the Coffee House on the other side.  I was done for the day, weight training was my only class on Tuesdays, but I usually stayed on campus until around lunch time, to get work done.  This was a busy time of day, when finding a place to sit in the Coffee House could be difficult.  But today, I just kept running into people I knew everywhere I went, and this would provide me with a place to sit.  I saw a dark-haired girl named Lizzie sitting by herself at a table of four, putting a notebook away in her backpack.

“Hi,” I said.  “May I sit with you?”

“Hey!” Lizzie replied.  “How are you?”

I met Lizzie in the fall through a mutual friend, a math major my year named Jack who had gone to the same high school as Lizzie.  She had a class in the same classroom as our class an hour before, and Jack would always say hi to Lizzie as she was leaving class.  She became a familiar enough face that I had started saying hi to her around campus.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’m done for the day, I only have one class on Tuesdays, but I’m going to hang out here and work on stuff for a while.”

“That sounds good.  I actually was just getting up to leave.  But you can have my table.”

“Thanks.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“I will!”

I got out my textbook for Linear Algebra Applications with the intent of working on homework, but that did not happen right away.  I had a feeling I was not going to like this class.  The professor for this class seemed a little odd.  In addition to so far just repeating things out of the book instead of actually teaching, she had told us that the entire grade would be based on unannounced quizzes.  No midterm, no final, and homework was not graded.  Something about that did not seem right, although I felt pretty confident about how I did on the first such quiz yesterday.

I then made the classic overthinker move of replaying all of this morning’s conversations in my head.  I noticed that I had not mentioned my roommate search to Skeeter or Lizzie.  I did not know Lizzie well, and I did not know anything about the guys she would know, so if my goal was not to live with strangers, I would have had no reason to tell her about that.  And, although Skeeter’s nonconformity was part of why we were friends last year in Building C, I doubted that I would want to live with the kind of crowd she ran with.  Granted, one of her roommates this year was Danielle, who had been a close friend since our first week in Building C, but Danielle had told me some stories about Skeeter as a roommate that made me wary of associating too much with her crowd.

The rest of my day went smoothly without any surprises.  I came home in the early afternoon, took a nap, and wasted time on the computer chatting on IRC and reading Usenet groups.  I went to Bible study that night, and Lillian, one of the leaders, asked at the end if people wanted to share prayer requests.

“I still haven’t found roommates or a place to live yet,” I said.

“We can pray for that,” Lillian replied.  “Anyone else?”

The others shared their prayer requests: difficult classes, an upcoming summer mission trip to Mexico, a sick friend, a friend going through a difficult time.  We went around in a circle, each person praying for the prayer request of whomever was on the left.  After that, the group would normally end, and people would either leave or stick around for a while and socialize.  This week, while people were socializing, the other leader, Shawn, approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” he said.  “I might have an answer to your prayer.”

“Yes?”

“I’m graduating, but I’m staying in Jeromeville next year for the teacher training program.  I didn’t make housing plans either, because I was waiting for some of my roommates to decide what they were doing next year.  My roommate Brian applied to medical school, but he didn’t get in anywhere, and there is only one place he hasn’t heard from yet.  He’s heard that school usually sends acceptances early, so he thinks he probably didn’t get in.  He’s now planning to stay in Jeromeville next year, applying again and working part time on staff with JCF.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And Abby has a boyfriend who is moving to Jeromeville.  You know Abby Bartlett?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, her boyfriend, his name is Josh McGraw, and he commutes to Jeromeville from his parents’ house in Oak Heights.  He wants to move to Jeromeville and not have that long drive.  I want to save money, but Josh and Brian want their own rooms, so we were thinking if we got a three-bedroom place with a master bedroom, then I could share the big room with someone.  Are you interested?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Keep me posted.”

“Definitely!  We will!  It’s hard to get all four of us able to meet in the same place at the same time, Josh has a really weird schedule, but I’ll try to get a meeting set up in the next week or two so we can work out the details.”

“Sounds good.  Thanks!”

“I was going to ask you about this tonight, I remember you asking for prayer about that last week, but I didn’t get a chance yet.  Then you prayed about it again.  It’s cool how God works like that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It is.”

“Just so you know, there’s still an outside chance that Brian will get accepted to that one med school, so if that happens we might have to find someone at the last minute.”

“Right.  That’s okay.”

Sharing a bedroom did not feel like an ideal situation, but most people had to endure doing that with a complete stranger during freshman year, and I had had the good fortune to avoid that.  I thought I could handle it, though, especially with someone I already knew.  Shawn seemed like a decent guy.  I did not know Brian well, but he seemed very involved with JCF socially, and if he was going to be paid to work with the group next year, living with him sounded like a promising opportunity to make more social connections within JCF.  Josh was a bit of a wild card, I had never met him, and although his girlfriend Abby seemed nice, I did not know her well.  At this point, though, I would just have to take what I could get, and this situation seemed good enough.

I drove home a little later feeling much more at peace.  I still did not have a place to live, but I had roommates, and to me that meant that the hardest part was over.  This new plan was taking shape. I was no longer alone in my search for housing.  I was not the most social or popular student in my circles of friends.  I have a history of being a bit of an outcast and a loner.  But I was starting to open up, to make friends from many different walks of life, and that finally appeared to open a door to a new home for next year that would be much more fun than this lonely studio apartment.

April 3-5, 1996. I look like a deranged serial killer.

Back in 1996, only rich people had mobile phones, because they were large and expensive.  If I wanted to call someone in another city, I had to make a long distance call from my landline telephone, and I would get billed for the call by the minute.  The University of Jeromeville got some kind of deal with MCI, a major company in the telephone industry at the time until they were acquired by Verizon in the early 2000s.  MCI provided new state-of-the-art student identification cards to all of us students, and in exchange, we got to use MCI to make long distance calls at a slightly discounted rate.  I had no plans to use this service; I already had long distance service on my phone with another company, and I did not make long distance calls very often except to my parents.  But because we were getting new ID cards, all students had to get our pictures taken again at some point during the first week of spring quarter.

“You said it looked bad!” Danielle was saying as I walked into the Newman Center chapel Wednesday night for choir practice.  I looked up to see what was going on; Danielle was holding one of the new student ID cards.  “I think this is a good picture.”

“No I don’t!” Danielle’s sister Carly exclaimed, trying to take the card away as Danielle held it away from her.

“Greg!” Danielle called out as I approached the others.  “Isn’t this a good picture of Carly?” Danielle asked as she tossed Carly’s ID card to me.

I caught the card and looked at it as Carly said, “Eww! Give it back!”  In the picture, Carly was smiling, and her straight brown hair looked neatly groomed.

“Here,” I said, handing the card back to Carly.  “I think you look just fine.”

“I should have taken my glasses off,” Carly said.  “But, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

“Can I see your new picture?” Danielle asked me.  “Did you get it yet?”

“I didn’t.  I’m probably going to go tomorrow.”

Phil Gallo turned toward us.  “I heard that people are upset because apparently MCI has all of our personal information now.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  That sounded a bit unsettling, but there was not much I could do about it at this point, except possibly boycott MCI and not use their service.

“How’d your week go, Greg?  What classes are you taking this quarter?” Danielle asked.

“Two math classes, Computer Science 30, and Anthro 2.”

“Is that the same Anthro class that Claire’s taking?”

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

“What?” Claire said, turning toward us. “I heard my name.”  Claire Seaver was a junior with a background in music, and although there was no formal leadership structure in our church choir, she performed many leader-like activities for the group.

“You’re in my Anthro 2 class,” I said.

“Yeah!  And we have to miss it on Friday because we’re singing here for the Good Friday Mass.”

“I know.  I hope we don’t miss too much.”

“Do either of you guys know someone who you can ask to take notes?” Danielle asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Tabitha Sasaki is in that class too; I already asked her today if I could copy her notes for Friday.  I’ll ask her if I can make an extra copy for Claire.  Danielle, do you know Tabitha?  She goes to JCF, and she lived in Building B last year?”

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

“Okay, everyone, we need to get started,” Claire called out.  “We have a lot of new music to practice this week, because we have Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.”

Choir practice that week took much longer than usual, over two hours.  We had more music to practice for the upcoming Holy Week services, as well as songs specific to Easter Sunday.  By the time I got home, it was nine-thirty, and I was too tired to do any more homework.

Fortunately, the next day was Thursday, my lightest day of the week that quarter.  I was done with lower division mathematics, so for this quarter I signed up for Combinatorics and Linear Algebra Applications, two upper-division classes for which I had taken the prerequisites.  The mathematics major also required one of two possible lower division computer science courses, and being one who liked to play around with computers, I was excited for that class, Introduction to Programming.  I completed my academic schedule with Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.  This would satisfy a general education requirement, and I already knew the professor, Dr. Dick Small.  He taught a class I took last year for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was in, about the literature and culture of South Africa. I always thought that Dr. Dick Small was one of the most hilariously unfortunate names that one could possibly have.

When I was signing up for classes this quarter, I noticed that all four classes that I took were only offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And, without realizing it, I noticed after the fact that I had left my Tuesdays and Thursdays completely empty, having chosen an anthro discussion on Wednesday and a computer science discussion on Monday.  Since I had also decided to take the quarter off from my part-time job tutoring at the Learning Skills Center, I had no reason to get out of bed on a Tuesday until Bible study in the evening, and no reason to get out of bed on a Thursday at all.  Some of my friends had told me that they would be perfectly happy with a schedule like that, but I did not think it would be good to be that lazy and antisocial.  The UJ physical education department offered a number of half-unit classes twice a week, and I decided to take weight training this quarter just to give me something healthy to do on these days.  I had taken bowling in the fall, for a similar reason.

The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds that Thursday morning, so I rode my bike to campus instead of taking the bus.  I parked outside of the Recreation Pavilion, where the weight room was.  Those first few classes the first couple weeks of the quarter, we learned a little bit about technique, and the rest of the hour we just lifted weights.  After class, I changed into normal clothes.  I also put on the jacket I had bought a couple months ago when a theft in the laundry room had forced me to buy new clothes; I had worn the jacket on my bike but taken it off for weight training.  This jacket had a black torso made from the same material as athletic wear and lined with something warm, but the sleeves were gray, made out of the same material as sweatshirts.  The jacket also had a dark green hood, but I did not put the hood on that morning.

I got back on my bike and decided to try something new today.  I rode east across campus, past the Memorial Union and the Death Star building, on the path that became Third Street.  I crossed A Street, which marked the border between the university and the city, and parked my bike about a hundred feet past A Street.  Next to this bike rack was a coffee shop called Espresso Roma.  I walked in and continued to the counter, where one person was in line in front of me.

I did not drink coffee, but at that time I had a bit of a curious fascination with coffee shops.  It seemed like hanging out in coffee shops was the cool thing to do, and I wished I could experience that, despite the fact that I did not like coffee.  The Coffee House on campus at the Memorial Union was more like a student union than an actual coffee shop.  I had seen Espresso Roma before, to my knowledge it was the closest coffee shop to campus, so I figured I would give it a try.

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

“Yes.”  The hot chocolate at the Coffee House on campus did not come with whipped cream, so this place was better in that sense.  I found a table and took off my jacket, placing it on the back of the chair.  I got out my backpack and combinatorics textbook, and looked around.  Last week, I was back home in Santa Lucia County on spring break, and I went to a coffee shop in Gabilan called the Red Bean with my friend Melissa.  Espresso Roma did not look much like the Red Bean.  Although in an old neighborhood like the Red Bean, Espresso Roma was in a much more modern-looking building.  The interior had a concrete floor with electrical conduits and air ducts visible in the ceiling above.  Floor-to-ceiling windows, with wood borders around the glass making them look more like doors, faced Third Street; one of them actually was a door, leading to outdoor tables.

I got my hot chocolate a couple minutes later and sat back down.  I had plenty more to do after I finished my combinatorics homework, since I got nothing done after choir practice last night.  I spent almost two hours in Espresso Roma reading and studying and doing homework.  I went back there several more times over the next couple years for hot chocolate and a different place to study other than the Coffee House in the Memorial Union and the library.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays that quarter, my only class was the weight training class.  I could go back home any time I wanted. But today, I had one more important thing to do before I left campus: I had not yet taken my photo for the new student ID card.  The photographers had set up in the Recreation Pavilion on the basketball court; I had seen them on the way to weight class this morning.  When I unlocked my bike, I noticed that the sky had turned gray; it had mostly been blue when I arrived at Espresso Roma two hours ago.  I felt what seemed to be raindrops on my head; that was not a good sign.  By the time I rode past the Death Star building a minute later, the rain had become much more steady.  I pulled my hood on, hoping that wearing my hood would not make my hair look funny for my picture.

It only took five minutes to get to the Recreation Pavilion by bicycle, but in that five minutes the rain quickly became a heavy downpour.  By the time I walked into the building, I was drenched.  My jacket had kept my torso sufficiently dry, but the sleeves, not being waterproof, had soaked through to the long sleeves I was wearing underneath

“Your old card, please?” a woman asked as I walked inside.  I handed over my old card, and the woman who took my card pointed at a line for me to stand in.  I could have come back tomorrow when it might be dry, but by giving her my old card, I had made my decision.  I would be looking a little bit wet in my new student ID photo.  It was no big deal.

A few minutes later, I set my jacket and backpack down when I got to the front of the line to get my picture taken.  “Looks like you got a little wet today,” the photographer asked.  “Is it raining?”

No, I thought, I was wading in the creek and I dropped something, so I had to reach in with both arms and get it.  But somehow my torso stayed miraculously dry.  “Yeah,” I said out loud.  “It just started coming down hard all of a sudden while I was on my way here.”

“You sure you want to take your picture like that?” he asked.

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

I stood and looked where he told me to.  In every ID card and school picture I had taken, I always tried my best to smile, and I hated the way I looked in every one of these pictures.  So I deliberately did not smile.  I kept my face in as much as a natural position as possible, and not smiling was natural for me.  I stared at the spot that the photographer had told me to until I heard the click and saw the flash.  “Thank you,” the photographer said.  “Go over there, and they’ll have your card ready in about ten minutes.”

A while later, I heard someone call my name from the table with the card printer on it.  A guy sitting there handed me my new card, along with a sticker to put on it to show that I was registered as a student this quarter. Whatever look I was going for, being wet and disheveled and not smiling, it did not work at all.  My face appeared angry and unstable, my hair was messy, and my wet arms were visible on the sides of the picture.  Smiling for school pictures did not work, and apparently not smiling did not work either.  The photos on ID cards just did not look good, and this was something I would have to come to accept.  And as if to drive home the point that I was just cursed with bad luck when it came to ID card photos, the weather was dry by the time I left the Recreation Pavilion, and it stayed dry for the rest of the night.


(Author’s note: This is a reconstruction, made with the help of Bitmoji. I still have the original card, but the photo is smeared and scratched after having been put in and taken out of my pocket for years, and the original card has personal information on it that I do not wish to copy here.)

The rest of the week went as planned.  I sang at both the Holy Thursday and Good Friday Masses.  Friday night I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, hoping that Tabitha would be there and that she had remembered to bring her notes from anthropology class.  I noticed a few of the regulars were missing, probably because it was the weekend of Easter and some people had gone home to be with their families for the weekend.  Tabitha was there, and after the last worship song, I walked over toward her.  She was talking with Eddie, Haley, Kristina, and a guy whom I had seen around but had not met yet.  I walked up, not saying anything, not wanting to interrupt.

Eddie acknowledged me first.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Did you get your new student ID yet?  We were just talking about that.”

I pulled my new ID card out of my pocket.  “I look like a deranged serial killer,” I said sheepishly as I handed Eddie the card.

“Why is there a shadow on your arms?” he asked.

“My arms were wet,” I said, explaining the sudden downpour and my jacket.

“I want to see the deranged serial killer!” Kristina shouted.

“Is it ok to show the others?” Eddie asked me.

“Sure,” I replied.  Eddie passed the card to Kristina; Haley and Tabitha also looked at the card.

“You’re not smiling,” Haley pointed out.  “How come?”

“I smiled for my driver’s license, and all my high school yearbook pictures, and my old student ID, and I never liked the way those looked,” I explained.  “So I tried something different.  That didn’t work either, apparently.”

“It’s not bad.  But I think you would look better if you smiled.”

“Thanks,” I said, making my best attempt at a smile.  Then, turning to Tabitha, I asked, “Tabitha?  Do you have your notes from anthro today?”

“Yeah,” she said, reaching down under her chair and picking up a notebook, which she handed to me.  “I think I got all the important things Dr. Small said.”

“Can I give this back to you Monday in class?  Or do you need it sooner?”

“Monday is fine.”

“Greg,” Eddie said.  “I was going to ask you tonight.  Are you busy next weekend?”

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

“We’re planning a sophomore class trip.  We’re going to go to Bay City on Friday night, eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, then find a place to sleep on the beach.  We’ll be home Saturday night so everyone can go to church Sunday.”

This invitation came as a surprise to me, I had never done anything like this, but I was intrigued.  “Who all is going?” I asked.

“All of us,” Eddie said, gesturing at himself and the others I had been talking to.  “I’m going to invite a few more people, but I don’t know yet who is going for sure.”

This was not my usual reality.  I had never been to a Hard Rock Cafe, I had never slept outdoors, and taking a trip like this was not something I normally would do on short notice.  But I learned the hard way recently that hesitating on a big decision had consequences.  Also, this trip would be a chance to spend time with friends; my 19-year-old boy mind was specifically excited about the thought of spending time with Haley.  “Sure, I’m in,” I replied.  “I should bring a sleeping bag?”

“Yeah.  I’ll call you in a few days with more details.”

“Sounds good!  May I have my ID card back?”

“Oh yeah,” Kristina said, handing me the card.

I really was okay with the fact that I was stuck with this horrible picture on my ID card for the next few years.  Everyone seemed to have a bad student ID or driver’s license picture at some point in their lives, and now I had one with a good story behind it.  I had learned two important lessons that day.  First, my jacket was not completely waterproof, and second, I may as well smile in pictures because I did not look better not smiling.  Smiling still did not feel natural to me, but maybe I could just make myself think happy thoughts when I was posing for a picture.  And now Eddie had included me in this upcoming trip, and Haley was going to be on the trip too, and all of that certainly gave me a reason to smile.

February 29 – March 6, 1996. That time I thought it was a good idea to give my home address to some underage girl from the Internet whom I had only known for a couple hours.

Finished.  Done.  This English paper was due tomorrow, and I was expecting it to take all night to finish, because earlier in the week I just could not get myself motivated to write it.  But I was finished now, and it was not even eight o’clock yet.  I had a few good hours left before bedtime, and I planned on spending them not studying or doing homework.

I scrolled back up to the top of the document I had been typing in Microsoft Word, making sure my name was on the top of the paper.   Gregory Dennison.  English 101 – Dr. Paris.  February 29, 1996.  I always felt some odd fascination with writing the date February 29.  I only got to write it once every four years, after all.

After my English paper finished printing, I connected to the Internet, listening to the familiar beeps and whistles and clicks as my computer dialed the number to connect.  I hoped that those sounds would bring me a cute girl to talk to and flirt with on Internet Relay Chat.  I went to my usual channel and looked at the list of names; no one I recognized was on there.  There was someone in the room named “floridachick”; I assumed she was a girl, since she had “chick” in her name.  I sent Floridachick a message, and she never replied.  I said hi in the main chat, and a few other people greeted me back.  Someone named Psychogirl, typed “hi how r u?”

“Psychogirl, good, how are you?” I typed back.  As the messages scrolled past, I saw Psychogirl tell me that she was “not so good.”  I switched to private messages to continue the conversation with Psychogirl.

gjd76: what’s wrong?
psychogirl: my mom and i got into a fight and i ran away
gjd76: oh wow.  so where are you now?  are you safe?
psychogirl: ya im at my dads
gjd76: what’s your asl?
psychogirl: 15/f/ok

Nowadays, with it being such a big deal to protect children from sexual predators on the Internet, it makes me uneasy to remember that sometimes I used to talk to and flirt with underage girls when I was in my late teens and early 20s.  Granted, I was not that much older than Psychogirl, but by today’s standards a 19-year-old boy talking to a 15-year-old girl seemed inappropriate.  None of that crossed my mind in 1996.  I do not know if that was because it was not a big deal in 1996, or if online chat and messages were still far enough out of the mainstream that the general public did not realize that the problem existed.  Or maybe I was just sheltered.  Probably some combination of all of those.  I replied to Psychogirl, telling her where I was from, and that I was a 19-year-old male.

psychogirl: whats ur name?
gjd76: greg.  what about you?
psychogirl: stephanie
gjd76: hi stephanie, nice to meet you 🙂
psychogirl: u too
gjd76: i haven’t seen you in this chat before
psychogirl: i dont get on much.  my mom doesnt have internet.  i come on here sometimes when im at my dads but that isnt very often
gjd76: i see.  what do you look like?
psychogirl: 5ft5, 130lbs, dyed black hair, kind of pale, green eyes.  u?
gjd76: 6’4, dark brown hair, brown eyes, about 220lbs
psychogirl: oh ur tall, i like tall guys 😉
gjd76: aww thanks 🙂 do you have a boyfriend?
psychogirl: no. i was with this guy for a while but we broke up.  he said he didnt think we were right 4 each other but i think he was cheatin on me
gjd76: wow, i’m sorry.  sounds like it was his loss
psychogirl: aww.  what about u? gf?
gjd76: i don’t have a girlfriend
psychogirl: y not?
gjd76: i liked this girl last year but she was a lesbian and i never knew it
psychogirl: wow that sounds awkward
gjd76: it was kinda
psychogirl: what do u do? like do u have a job or r u in school
gjd76: i’m a math major at the university here, and i tutor math too
psychogirl: u can be my tutor, i failed math last semester.  what university?
gjd76: jeromeville
psychogirl: i havent heard of that.  what’s that by?
gjd76: just outside capital city.  it isn’t very well known outside of the state

Maybe I was biased, but Jeromeville was a world class university, consistently one of the top-rated public universities in the United States.  It was unfortunate that it was not more well known; I suspected that this was because of sports.  The Jeromeville Colts were not a Division I athletic program, and football and basketball seem to be where the general public outside of academia hears about colleges and universities.

psychogirl: oic. have u ever been to oklahoma?
gjd76: i haven’t
psychogirl: ur not missin much.  i cant wait 2 get out on my own
gjd76: haha.  i know the feeling, that’s why i moved here as a freshman
psychogirl: my grades arent good enough to go away to college
gjd76: that’s a bummer… are there any classes in school that are your favorites?
psychogirl: english, i guess i hate english the least
gjd76: i was never good at english.  in high school i got a b-minus in 10th grade english, that was the lowest grade i got in all of high school
psychogirl: ur crazy, a b minus was the highest grade i got last semester, u must be smart
gjd76: i don’t know, school was just always easy for me
psychogirl: i wish school was easy for me. im not good at anything
gjd76: that’s not true
psychogirl: im not.  im a loser.  i only have 1 friend at school
gjd76: well you seem nice to me, all the people who aren’t your friends are missing out
psychogirl: thanks
gjd76: so, if i may ask, why did you run away?
psychogirl: my mom hates me, she doesn’t understand me
gjd76: what do you mean?
psychogirl: like i like to wear black and im into really dark stuff and she just doesnt get it.  she tells me to just be happy and go make friends but the kids at school dont want to be friends with me.  i dont wanna be like the other kids, theyre dumb
gjd76: haha i get that
psychogirl: but yesterday my mom was cleaning and she found an empty bottle of whiskey in my room
gjd76: oh… do you drink a lot?
psychogirl: so now shes yellin at me saying im an alcoholic and an addict and she threatened to send me to rehab.  i dont even drink, it was just that 1 time, my friend brought it over when she stayed the night and i didnt even like it that much
gjd76: i see
psychogirl: and i was crying and crying all day yesterday and she still came in just to yell at me.  so i packed a bag and got on a bus and went to my dads house but i still cried a lot
gjd76: you live with your mom? any siblings?
psychogirl: i have a little sister.  and moms bf is over all the time, he doesnt like kids
gjd76: that’s too bad 😦
psychogirl: my dad wants custody of us, but my mom doesnt trust him because he hit her once
gjd76: oooh
psychogirl: he never hit me or my sis but i dunno if i wanna live with him.  i dont really wanna live with mom either.  i feel so alone.  sometimes i wish i was dead
gjd76: please don’t say that
psychogirl: but whats the point, mom doesnt care about me, dad only wants custody because he hates mom, and kids at school dont like me

It hurt to read what Psychogirl was writing.  I had felt alone before.  I had been through times when I felt like no one was there for me.  And I certainly knew how it felt for my parents to not understand me.  I always felt like they spent a lot more time and money on my brother Mark’s hobbies and recreation than they did mine.  That was probably because Mark was into things that my parents understood and enjoyed, like basketball and baseball, and I was into things that they did not understand, like math and computers and video games.  But my parents were still together.  I had no concept of being stuck in the middle of a contentious custody battle. And I had never been in trouble for hiding alcohol or drugs in my room. I believed Psychogirl that she was not an alcoholic, but I hated to think that all that was going on in her mind might drive her to more risky behavior in the future.  I continued typing.

gjd76: i’m your friend. i know we just met, but i would miss you
psychogirl: aww thanks 🙂 ur sweet
gjd76: so are you.  the world needs people like you in it
psychogirl: but all i do is go to school and come home and cry, no one wants that
gjd76: it’s hard feeling alone.  i’ve been there.  i couldn’t find anyone to room with this year, my parents were willing to get me a small studio apartment by myself, but i get lonely.  last year i was in a dorm so a lot of my friends were right there in the building, and now i hardly ever see them.
psychogirl: ya
gjd76: i sing at my church, and i started going to a bible study last week through a nondenominational christian club at school.  i’ve made a lot of new friends there.  i will pray for you. 
psychogirl: im not really religious but thanks
gjd76: it’s ok.  you’ll be ok.
psychogirl: i just feel like such a loser, no one wants me around and i hate it at home
gjd76: you’re not a loser.  you’re a unique personality that some people don’t understand because they are too shallow to appreciate someone who doesn’t follow the crowd.  i’d probably be friends with someone like you
psychogirl: really?
gjd76: yes… i’m glad we met tonight… i wish i could give you a big hug and just hold you and tell you everything was going to be ok
psychogirl: and i would hug u back so tight… ur such a great guy… i dont deserve this
gjd76: stop.  you’re my friend, i’m here for you
psychogirl: thank u so much… this means a lot 2 me
gjd76: so will you be ok?
psychogirl: i guess.  i still dunno what to do, mom is probably still mad at me
gjd76: here’s what i think you should do.  it’s late.  go to sleep.  do you have school tomorrow?
psychogirl: ya but i dunno if im gonna go
gjd76: so in the morning, go back to your mom’s house.  and calmly tell her what happened with the empty bottle, that you just tried it once and didn’t like it.  tell her you understand why she’s upset, but you wish she would listen to your side of the story.  and also listen to her side of the story
psychogirl: i guess
gjd76: maybe your mom will still be upset and yelling.  if so, that’s her problem.  but if she’s calm, maybe you can make some progress
psychogirl: maybe
gjd76: you’re going to be ok.  really you are
psychogirl: 🙂
gjd76: i give you a big hug and little kiss on the cheek
psychogirl: thanks but my cheek has tears streaking down it, you dont wanna kiss it
gjd76: that’s ok.  i kiss it anyway.  we all have rough days
psychogirl: thank u so much 🙂 ur so nice
gjd76: 🙂 am i ever going to talk to you again?
psychogirl: i dunno, i dont get on here very often and i can only get on at my dads house
gjd76: i wish we could keep in touch
psychogirl: i know 😦 id get in so much trouble if i called u, phone calls are expensive
gjd76: do you have email?
psychogirl: no 😦
gjd76: if i gave you my address, would you write to me? like in the mail?
psychogirl: sure!

I hesitated a little before I typed that last part.  One can never tell who is on the other end of an Internet chat, and horror stories about personal information falling into the wrong hands were becoming more and more common as the Internet became more mainstream.  But in the last year, I had already given out my address to girls I met on the Internet four times.  Two of those were girls who wanted to stay in touch but would not have access to email for a while, and the others were to exchange pictures, since scanners and digital cameras were not yet things that everyone had.  No one had broken into my house or stolen my identity yet, and Psychogirl really did not seem like a scammer to me.  If she was, she would have offered promises of sex or money, not a story about a distraught teenage girl running away from home.  I typed my address in the chat.

psychogirl: thank u so much 🙂 🙂 🙂 ill write u for sure
gjd76: good, i look forward to hearing from you 🙂 you’ll be ok, i care about you and so do other people.
psychogirl: so will u! i need to go to bed but i really liked talking 2 u tonight
gjd76: likewise 🙂 take care… i tuck you into bed and kiss you on the forehead and smile
psychogirl: 🙂 good night!


Life continued to move on for me, with classes, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and singing in the choir at church. I had two weeks left before winter quarter finals, and all my midterms had wrapped up.  I still had physics labs, and I had one more paper for Dr. Paris’ English class due a couple days before finals.

On the following Wednesday, March 6, I got home from a long day of classes and checked the mail on the way from the bus stop to my apartment.  Along with advertisements and coupon books, I saw a small envelope in my mailbox that looked like the kind of envelope my grandma would use to send a letter.  Upon closer inspection, however, the handwriting was not my grandma’s.  I noticed the postmark next: TULSA OK 741 – 2 MAR 1996.  Tulsa, Oklahoma?  I did not know anyone in Tulsa.  Next I looked at the return address in the corner: it was from someone named Stephanie O’Connell, with an address at an apartment in Tulsa.  Stephanie O’Connell, Tulsa, Oklahoma, I thought… Psychogirl!  That is who this is!

I opened Psychogirl’s letter as soon as I got back to the apartment.


March 1, 1996

Greg-
Thank you for listening to me and especially for letting me have your address… that meant a lot to me, more than you’ll ever know.

After I got home, my mother talked with me about what she saw and how it made her feel when she saw it, and it went well, I thought – no yelling or screaming from her or from me.  So I’m feeling happy about that today.

Daddy still wants to get custody of me and my sister and mom is really scared because of it.  I don’t know who I want to live with, honestly I don’t, and my mother doesn’t understand. I feel terrible, and I feel like crying a lot.  But you really did make me feel better last night.

Well, I have more things to do today, so I should get started on that now.  Bye!

Thanks again!

Stephanie (Psychogirl)


Stephanie wrote her address again at the bottom of the page below her name.  To me, that was an invitation to write back and stay in touch.  I did just that a few days later, starting my letter between classes on Friday and finishing it over the weekend.

Unfortunately, I never heard from Stephanie again, and I do not know what happened to her.  Hopefully things started to get better in her life.  Did she stay with her mom, or did her dad get custody of her and her sister?  Was there less yelling between her and her mom in the future?  Did she stop writing because something bad happened to her, or did life just get in the way?  Did she move on to something else like a typical whimsical teenager, or did she get in trouble for writing to me?  Was she actually a 55-year-old man named Chuck? If not, she would be around 40 today… was she still into dark stuff and wearing black, or was that a phase she grew out of?

Sometimes people only cross paths for a brief time, but that brief moment can make a huge impact.  I hope that I was like that for Stephanie.  Maybe she just needed someone to talk to, someone to care for her and tell her that everything would be okay, so that she would make it through the night.  Maybe God put me there to rescue her that night, because he was planting a seed for something that would come to her later.  I would probably never know, but maybe, just maybe, Stephanie was still out there somewhere, with a memory of the night she made a new friend who helped her see life, and herself, from a new perspective.

February 20-21, 1996. Studying the Bible and disapproving of political correctness.

“We have a new member tonight,” Lillian said.  “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

“Sure,” I said, looking at the mix of new and familiar faces in front of me.  Some of my friends from last year were in this Bible study, but I did not recognize everyone else.  “I’m Greg,” I announced.  “I’m a sophomore, majoring in mathematics.”

“Hey!” Shawn, the other leader, said.  “I’m a math major too!”

“Really?  I don’t meet many other math majors.”

“What do you want to do with it?” Shawn asked.  “Are you going to be a teacher?”

“Probably not.  I’m not really sure.  I just know I like math.”

“I’m going to teach high school.  I don’t think I can deal with kids younger than that.  And I would have summers off to train.”

“What are you training for?”

“I do triathlons and marathons.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I definitely do not have that kind of athletic endurance.”

“It takes practice.”

“I’m sure it does.”

After the others all said their first names, we said an opening prayer and sang a few songs.  Pete Green, whom I had known since my first day at the University of Jeromeville, got out his guitar and started playing as people passed around lyrics.  I recognized the songs from JCF large group.  Before the last song started, Shawn said, “Greg, our theme for this quarter is that we’re looking at the Scriptures in some of the songs we sing at JCF.  Tonight we’re going to be doing Create In Me.”

I followed along with the words on the lyric sheet; I had heard this song before, but it was not one we sang often.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” I sang.

After we sang the song through twice, since it was a short song, Lillian opened her Bible.  It was much thicker than mine, with many papers, bookmarks, and Post-It Notes stuck inside.  It appeared to be a study Bible, with extra notes and commentaries built in.  I wondered if I should get one of those someday.  I had noticed a lot of students at JCF who had big study Bibles.

“The song is from Psalm 51,” Lillian said.  “So open your Bible to Psalm 51.”

I found the passage quickly, since I knew approximately where the Psalms were found in the Bible.  A few weeks ago, I made some new friends hanging out after JCF.  It came up in conversation that night that I did not have a Bible, so one of those new friends, Kristina, gave me an extra Bible that she had.  Ever since Kristina had given me that Bible, I had been reading it often, occasionally just flipping through it for fun, familiarizing myself with all the different books.  I was glad I had done this, because I would have been embarrassed to have to ask someone for help finding a book.  Psalms, containing worship music and poetry from the Old Testament time period, was one of the longest books in the Bible, so it was easy to find.

JCF ran many small group Bible studies, and I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, that none of the new friends from that night were in this one.  With so many JCF people in their neighborhood, I figured there would be other Bible studies meeting on that side of town.  I really wanted to get to know that group better, both because they were very nice people, and because they seemed to have full social lives revolving around other Christians.  They were the cool kids of JCF.  One of the new friends from that night, Haley, was really cute; I especially wanted to get to know her.

After we all found Psalm 51, people then took turns reading a few verses at a time.  The song came from verses 10 through 12:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
  and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

“Any initial thoughts?” Shawn asked.  A few people went around and shared things.  Liz Williams, a friend from last year who had invited me to this Bible study, asked what “hyssop” was.  That word appeared in verse 7, and I did not know it either; someone thought it was a plant with medicinal properties.

I noticed that the beginning of the Psalm said, “A psalm of David.  When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  I knew what adultery meant, but it sounded like that was referring to some other incident in King David’s life that I was unaware of.  I wondered if this other incident was mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, but I did not ask since I did not want to look dumb.  Maybe this was something that everyone else who was not Catholic knew about.  JCF was not affiliated with a specific denomination, and there were very few Catholics in the group that I knew of, just me and one other guy who showed up occasionally who was not in this small group.

Fortunately, I did not have to ask, because after we discussed our initial thoughts, Lillian said, “So at the very beginning of Psalm 51, it says when David wrote it.  Turn to 2 Samuel, chapter 11.”  I flipped through my Old Testament, looking for that book; it was long enough that it did not take long to find.  The backstory for Psalm 51 made up two entire chapters, so Lillian and Shawn paraphrased, adding direct quotes from the Scripture for emphasis.  Apparently King David saw an attractive woman bathing, so he had sex with her and got her pregnant.  Her husband was fighting in a war, so David devised a military strategy that ensured that her husband would get killed.  God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David, and the child died, although David later married the woman and had another child with her, the future King Solomon.  I had never heard that story before.  Apparently the Bible was full of interesting stuff.

We spent the next hour talking about Psalm 51 in great detail.  We discussed sin and repentance, and restoration and forgiveness.  Someone noted that parts of this Psalm seem to foreshadow Jesus coming to be our sacrifice once and for all, replacing the system of temple sacrifices that dated back to the time of Moses.  We talked about the wording of the song being different from the Bible.  I did not say much, since I was new to this, but I did have one thing to share.  At one point, a tall, deep-voiced guy named Evan, whom I had just met that night, said, “Why is it that the end of the song says ‘renew a right spirit,’ but the Bible says, ‘grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me?’”

No one answered after a couple seconds, so I said, “Probably just the songwriter matching the words he used at the beginning, for poetic effect.”

“That makes sense,” Liz added.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “Probably.”

After we finished discussing Psalm 51, Shawn said, “Does anyone have prayer requests?”  We went around in a circle sharing, and when it came to my turn, I said, “I have three midterms on Friday.”

“Ouch,” Shawn said.

“Again?” Pete asked.  “Didn’t you just have a bunch of midterms on the same day a few weeks ago?”

“I did,” I replied.  “I have the worst midterm schedule ever this quarter.”

“We’ll definitely pray for you,” Lillian said.  We each took turns praying for someone else, and I was assigned to pray for Liz, who asked for prayer regarding a mission trip to Mexico in the summer.  “Jesus,” I began, “I pray for Liz’s trip to Mexico.  I pray that the plans will come together, and that she will have safe travels.  I pray that you will be with her as she works with the church down there, and I pray that you will give her wisdom.”

Pete’s turn to pray for me was next.  “Lord, I thank you for bringing Greg to our Bible study,” he said.  “I pray, Father, that you will continue to work in Greg’s life, as he grows closer to you and studies your word.  I pray that you will take away the stress that he is experiencing with these midterms.  I pray, Lord, that you will help him remember what he knows when the tests come, and that he will remember that you love him unconditionally, and that his worth does not depend on his grades.”  I liked that.  My worth did not depend on my grades.  I wanted to succeed in school, but God loved me no matter what.

When we finished praying, I stuck around for a bit to talk to people before I went home.  “So what did you think?” Liz asked.

“It was good.  I like the way you guys do things.”

“Are you going to come back next week?”

“Definitely.”

Evan, the deep-voiced guy whom I did not know, walked over to us.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “I’m Evan.”

“Hi,” I replied, shaking his hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Liz told me you’re from Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I replied, wondering where he was going with this.  Did I know him back home and not remember him?

“I’m from Gabilan.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said.  I probably did not know him, but I wondered if my mother did, or if she had heard of his family, since she grew up in Gabilan and seemed to know everyone.  But I did not feel comfortable saying this now.  (I mentioned Evan to Mom a few weeks later, after I learned his last name, and I was correct; Mom did know of his family.)

“Do you go back home very often?” Evan asked.

“Not really.  Usually just quarter breaks.”

“Same with me,” he said.  “Did you go to Plumdale High?”

“Yeah.”

“I have a friend from there.  I wonder if you know her.  Her name is Melissa Holmes.”

“Yes!  I know Melissa!  She’s one of my best friends.”

“Wow.  That’s cool.

“She’s one of only a few high school friends left who I still hear from.  I’ll have to tell her I met you.”

“Yeah.  Tell her I said hi.  I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

“I will.  I should get home, I still have to study.  But it was nice meeting you.”

“You too, Greg.”


The following night I had choir practice at the Newman Center.  I usually carpooled with Heather, another choir member who lived in the same apartment complex as me.  It was Heather’s turn to drive, and when she knocked on my door that night, she was with Melanie, another choir member.

“Mel and I are hanging out tonight,” Heather explained, “so she’s driving.  Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied.  We got into Melanie’s car and drove to the church.  When we walked in, Claire Seaver, a music major who was informally the leader of the choir, was getting our sheet music organized; she handed me my copies of this week’s songs.  I set them up on a music stand.  Sabrina Murphy, the cute redhead who, unfortunately for me, had a boyfriend, began setting up the music stand next to me.

The first song we practiced was called Hosea.  We sang this one once before, back in the fall, and I liked it, although I did not understand the title back then.  I did now, though, or at least I knew what Hosea meant.  As if on cue, as if God knew that I was waiting for the chance to demonstrate my newfound knowledge, Sabrina pointed at the word Hosea in the title and whispered to me, “What does that mean?”

“Hosea is a prophet in the Old Testament,” I replied, smiling.

“Oh,” Sabrina said.  I doubted that my knowledge of the Old Testament prophets would make Sabrina leave her boyfriend and go out with me instead, but I could dream.  It did not seem to matter, though, since that would never happen.  Besides, I liked Haley Channing from JCF now.  And my knowledge of the Old Testament still was not much.  I had not yet read the Book of Hosea in the Old Testament, nor did I know how these lyrics, which began “Come back to me with all your heart,” related to the story or writings of Hosea.  But I had seen that name while flipping around my recently acquired Bible over the last few weeks.

“What’s next?” Matt Jones asked after we finished.  Like my new friend Evan, Matt was from Gabilan, and my mother knew his family.  I always felt weird about my mother knowing my friends, just because she talks about people behind their back so often.  But nothing weird had come up with Matt so far.

“‘On Eagle’s Wings,’” Claire replied.  “We’re singing the female version.”  I was not sure what “female version” meant, but I knew this song well; it had been around for a while.  I looked at the fine print at the bottom of the sheet music, as I had been doing recently now that I was reading the Bible; it said “Copyright 1979,” and also mentioned that the text was derived from Psalm 91.  I had not read Psalm 91 yet; I would have to look that up.

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life,” I sang.  Something sounded off, like everyone else had been singing something different at one part.  It almost sounded like the others had said “in her shadow for life.”  I remembered at that moment that there was a time last year, before I had joined the church choir, when I thought the choir had sung “hold you in the palm of her hand” at the end of the chorus, instead of “palm of his hand.”

At the next lyric containing a pronoun, I abruptly stopped singing so I could hear everyone else.  “And she will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” everyone else sang.

“Wait,” I said.  “Is that what the female version means?” Everyone else stopped singing and playing instruments.  “We sing feminine pronouns instead?”

“Oh, yeah.” Claire answered.  “Remember, everyone, feminine pronouns!”

“Why?” I asked.  This made no sense.  Catholics did not believe in Goddess.

“We always do certain songs this way,” Heather said.

“But why?  Is that allowed?  To call God ‘she?’”

“Sister Mary Rose wants it that way,” Claire explained.  “Especially when we do a lot of songs with ‘he.’”  I shrugged my shoulders, and we continued practicing, but I mumbled every time we sang a feminine pronoun.  Calling God “she” just felt wrong to me.  To be clear, I never thought of women as second-class citizens, and my understanding of God was that he transcended the human idea of sex and gender.  But it seemed arrogant and disrespectful to fly in the face of thousands of years of tradition just to keep up with liberal college town political correctness.

After we finished choir practice, Heather and Melanie and I got back into Melanie’s car and headed home.  As we pulled up to the red light at Andrews Road and Coventry Boulevard, Melanie was telling a story about having been in a coffee shop studying yesterday while enjoying a latte.

“I hope it was actually a latte, and you didn’t grab someone else’s drink by mistake,” Heather said.

“Oh my gosh,” Melanie laughed.  “That happened one time.”

“Did you ever find out what you actually drank that night?  You were so messed up!”

“No!  It was strong!”

“Remember when you went up to that guy and kissed him on the cheek?”

“That was so embarrassing!”

I was not there for whatever happened that the girls were talking and laughing about, but it sounded like it would have been fun to watch.  The light turned green as the two girls continued laughing.  The two cars in front of us drove through the intersection as we remained stopped in the middle of the street.  “The light is green,” I said.

“Oh my gosh!” Melanie said, laughing loudly.  “That night was so crazy!”

“You were so funny!” Heather exclaimed.

“The light is green!” I repeated, trying unsuccessfully to get Melanie’s attention.  

“What was it that you kept saying that night?” Heather asked, still laughing.

“GREEN LIGHT!” I shouted.

“No, that wasn’t it,” Heather answered.  “Greg, you weren’t even there!”

“Oh!  Green light!” Melanie finally said.  As she started to pull the car forward, the light turned yellow; it was clear she would not make it through before the light turned red.  She pulled up to the intersection and stopped again.  All three of us laughed.

“Good thing there’s no one behind us,” Heather said.

“I was saying ‘green light’ the whole time,” I said.

“Sorry!” Melanie replied.

After we finally made it across Coventry Boulevard, Melanie dropped me off at my apartment.  I had three midterms coming up on Friday, but I did not feel like studying anymore tonight.  I turned on the computer and decided to unwind on an IRC chat for the rest of the night.  As I listened to the whistles and chirps of my dialup Internet connecting, I thought about the events of the last two days.  I did not want to sound like some kind of sexist pig, but using feminine pronouns for God really bothered me.  There seemed to be no precedent for that in the Bible, as far as I knew, and going against Scripture and Church teaching seemed to be a dangerous slippery slope.

As I looked through the list of people chatting on this channel, looking for possible girls to flirt with, I kept thinking about Bible study last night.  “Create in me a pure heart, O God,” King David had written.  He wrote that Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba.  I had not committed adultery in the technical sense, but I felt just as guilty sometimes when I talked dirty with girls on the Internet.  That was a slippery slope as well, and I did not want to fall into old patterns that were not God’s will for my life.  I read Psalm 51 again and kept my chat clean that night.