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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yoda.”

“And her?”

“Princess Leia.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  What about you?”

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

“When do you guys leave?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a good way to look at it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too,” Amelia added.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-oh,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” Lorraine replied.


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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I replied.

“Have a good summer,” Brian said.

“I will!  You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your favorite moment of Year 3? Let me know in the comments!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” Lars replied.

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

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

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

“I’m going,” Brent replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“All right.  See you there!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is your major?”

“Design.”

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

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

“Math.”

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

“Yeah.  It just makes sense to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just going home.  Probably getting a job.”

“Where are you from?”

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

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

“Hi,” I said.

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

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

“Sure,” I replied, nodding.

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

“Earlobe!” Dave said.  “Come on!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You too!”


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

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

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

“Because of me,” I said, laughing.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your drawing,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want to buy my painting?  Yeah!”

“Should I give you the money?”

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

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

“What’s that for?” Alaina asked.

“I’m buying Corinne’s art.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Lucky.”

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

“What about your current roommates?”

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

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

“Cool.  Thanks!”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s so cool!”

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

“I don’t know,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks!” I smiled.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!” I said.

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

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

Corinne Holt
Alaina, 1997
Charcoal on paper

Courtesy of the G. J. Dennison personal collection.

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

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March 14, 1997.  The Lord gave you the one he took from me. (#124)

I missed class exactly six times during my years at the University of Jeromeville.  One time, I stayed home from class because I was really sick.  Four times, my appointment for the automated phone system to register for classes for the next term fell at a time when I had class.  If I was planning on signing up for a high demand class, I wanted to register as soon as possible.

The sixth time I missed class was on the last day of classes before winter quarter finals my junior year.  I went to my classes in the morning, but I left campus early, before the New Testament Writings of John class, and the reason I missed class was the most important reason in the world, at least it was if your roommate was Brian Burr.

We all met at the house where Eddie Baker and John Harvey lived, since their house was the farthest east and closest to Capital City.  The sixteen of us took four cars east on Highway 100, across the river and through downtown Capital City, to the movie theater just past Capital East Mall.

“Why are we going to Cap City to see this movie?” a guy in my car named Clint asked at one point. “Isn’t it showing in Jeromeville too?”

“Bigger theater, easier to get tickets,” I explained.  “That’s what Brian said, at least.”

A few minutes later, the sixteen of us who had carpooled from Jeromeville entered the theater, tickets for the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi in hand.  Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars movies, had recently rereleased the first two movies, with new scenes to match the original vision for the movies, and today, the final movie in the series was being rereleased.  I saw Star Wars with Barefoot James a couple weeks after it had been rereleased, and I saw The Empire Strikes Back last Saturday with Brian and some of the same people I was with today.

Brian had seen all of these movies hundreds of times over his lifetime, and The Empire Strikes Back last week was Brian’s second time seeing the rerelease.  I, on the other hand, had only seen bits and pieces of the first two movies a few times, not enough to remember all the details of the story.  The surprising revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, was common knowledge by 1997, even among those who were not huge Star Wars fans.  But the movie still alluded to secrets that were beyond my knowledge, since I had never seen Return of the Jedi.  On the way home from the theater last week, I asked Brian, “The part where Luke flies away from Dagobah, when Obi-Wan says that Luke is the last hope, and Yoda says, ‘No, there is another’… was that referring to something in Return of the Jedi?”

“Yes!” Brian said.  “And if you don’t know, I’m not telling you.  You’ll find out.  I’m not giving it away.”

I could feel the anticipation building as the movie started, with the backstory scrolling up the screen.  I read about Luke Skywalker trying to rescue Han Solo, whom Jabba the Hutt had frozen in carbonite at the end of the last movie, and the Empire rebuilding the Death Star, which the Rebels had destroyed in the first movie.  After the battle with Jabba the Hutt, in which Princess Leia wore the famous steel bikini which I was not aware of before that day, Luke left the Rebels temporarily to finish training with Yoda.  When Luke arrived, Yoda was dying, presumably of natural causes since he was nine hundred years old.  And after giving Luke some final words about confronting Vader, Yoda said, “There is another Skywalker,” as he died.  I moved up to the edge of my seat, knowing that the answer to the biggest question that the previous movie had left for me was coming.

In the next scene, the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared to Luke, and at one point,. Luke asked Obi-Wan about Yoda’s final words.  Obi-Wan explained that Yoda meant Luke’s twin sister; Luke did not know of her existence.  I gasped… it had to be Leia; she was by far the biggest female role in the Star Wars movies.  Luke figured out the same thing a few lines later.

The Rebels blew up the second Death Star, as I suspected they would, with the help of the primitive teddy-bear-like Ewoks.  I always assumed that the Ewoks only existed to be cute and cuddly, and sell Star Wars toys to girls.  Throughout the movie, Luke kept saying that there was still good in his father, and Darth Vader redeemed himself in the end.

“What’d you think?” Brian asked me as soon as we got out of the theater.

“That was so good!” I replied.

“I saw you react when they said Leia was Luke’s sister.  That was a genuine reaction.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“By the way, I’m curious… what was the next thing you thought of after that scene?”

I did not want to be put on the spot.  I did not know what Brian was getting at.  But I did remember something.  “I thought, didn’t Luke and Leia kiss in the last movie?” I said.

“Yes!” Brian exclaimed, laughing.  “That’s what’s so funny about it.”

“Wait,” Clint said.  “Greg?  You’ve never seen this movie before?”

“No.  First time.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t know how it was going to end or anything.  I didn’t know Darth Vader was going to turn good.”

“Weird,” Clint replied.  “That’s kind of mind-blowing.  To me, it’s just one of those things everyone knows.  Grass is green.  The sky is blue.  Darth Vader turns good.”

It must have been nice having a normal childhood, I thought, but I just kept my mouth shut at that.  I knew Clint did not mean to be hurtful, so I did my best not to let his comment get to me.


Had this trip to see Return of the Jedi happened in the evening, I would have gone to bed happy, feeling like this was one of the best days ever.  However, it was a Friday afternoon, so my day was not over.  I had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that night, normally a source of inspiration and fellowship, but also a source of tension at times, because of the cliques within the group.  I was still on a high from seeing Return of the Jedi, being included in that clique, and I responded with an enthusiastic yes when Eddie and John, who had also both been at Return of the Jedi, invited me to go bowling afterward.

The University of Jeromeville had a bowling alley on campus, the only bowling alley in Jeromeville, underneath the campus bookstore.  The school has a bowling team, and the physical education department offers a bowling class for half a unit, which I took in the fall of sophomore year.  I walked to the bowling alley under a sky lit by a half moon, along with Eddie and John, Kristina Kasparian, Lorraine Mathews, Tabitha Sasaki, Jason Costello, Ramon Quintero, Clint who could not believe that I had never seen Return of the Jedi, and Haley Channing.  It had been three months since Haley told me that my feelings for her were not reciprocated, and I was trying to stay friends, but it felt like we did not talk much anymore.  She was ahead of me as the ten of us walked toward the bowling alley, so all I could see was her back, but I could picture her beautiful blue eyes and sweet smile as she and Kristina talked.

“Ready for finals, Greg?” Eddie asked, snapping me back to reality.

“I think so,” I replied.  “At least as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Are you going to Spring Breakthrough?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Brian said it’s gonna be really good.”

“Good!  I’m glad you’re coming.  Are you doing anything else for Spring Break?  Going to Plumdale?”

“Yeah.  Just hanging out with my family for a while.  What about you?”

“Same.  I’m going to speak at my church back home about the mission trip to China this summer.”

“That’s cool.  How many people from Jeromeville are going to China?”

“Twelve.”

“Wow.  That’s so cool.”

When we arrived, we were assigned lanes 5 and 6.  I put on the rental bowling shoes and went to find a ball, and when I got back, the others had already divided into two groups.  Haley, Ramon, Kristina, Lorraine, and Clint were on lane 5, and I was on lane 6 with Eddie, Tabitha, John, and Jason.  I bowled a strike on my first frame and high-fived the others in my lane.  I then returned to my seat, but that strong opening did not carry through to the rest of the game.  I finished with a score of 111, very average for me.

I looked behind me at some point early in the second game, as I waited my turn.  Ramon and Haley sat at a table behind the bowling area; Ramon was talking about something, inaudible from my vantage point, as Haley listened intently, smiling, laughing occasionally.  Ramon and Haley took their turns in consecutive order on their lane, and after they finished, they returned to their more secluded table to look intently in each other’s eyes.

Being rejected was bad enough, but seeing Haley interested in someone else made the situation so much worse.  Haley’s actions were actively communicating that someone else was better than me.  Furthermore, I was not used to thinking of Ramon as a threat.  Ramon was in my dorm freshman year, and he and Liz Williams started dating just a couple weeks into the school year.  Ramon and Liz were the kind of couple who seemed destined to be the college sweethearts who stayed together forever, but they broke up at the beginning of this school year, after around two years together.  Ramon and Haley seemed to have grown close lately.  Ramon was the cool guy who spoke six languages and played all sorts of musical instruments, and his work had even been on the campus radio station recently.  But for most of the time I knew him, he had a girlfriend, and was not looking to meet girls like I was, so he and I were not in competition.

I was not mad at Haley.  She had done nothing wrong; she had been honest about not being interested in me.  And as much as I was envious of Ramon, he had done nothing wrong either.  I was mostly mad at myself, for not being good enough.  Obviously I had failed somewhere that Ramon had succeeded.  God had not allowed me to be Haley’s boyfriend, and Ramon seemed to have gotten farther than I ever did.  The Lord gave him the one he took from me, I thought.

Something clicked in my mind as that sentence formed.  The sentence was perfect iambic pentameter, like much of the work of William Shakespeare.  Every once in a while, when I am overthinking something or have too much on my mind, I will formulate a sentence that sounds particularly poetic, and the words will just keep coming.  Tonight, my mind was full of thoughts about Haley and Ramon: hearing Ramon’s music on the radio last week, growing apart from Haley, jealousy, anger, and following God’s will for my life even when it was not my own will.  I had been friends with Ramon for two and a half years, but I really did not think I could stay friends with him if he and Haley were together.  I did not want to talk to either of them right now. I did not want to look at them right now.   As I stepped to the lane to take my turn bowling, the words continued coming to mind, words in iambic pentameter, forming a Shakespearean sonnet.  I was distracted, knocking down five pins on my first roll and a gutter ball for the second.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said as I walked away from the bowling lanes.  After I used the toilet and washed and dried my hands, I pulled an extra paper towel out of the dispenser and brought it back to the lanes.  I sat a table behind the ball return machine, about six feet from the table where Ramon and Haley were still making googly eyes at each other, and began writing some of the words that had been filling my head.

I heard you on the radio and said,
This talented musician is my friend;
But this is just a lie; our friendship’s dead,
I’ve brought it quite abruptly to an end.

This poem had to be written addressed to Ramon.  The words were not working any other way.  The line I had thought of earlier had to be reworded, since it was in the third person; I almost wrote it next, for line 5, but decided it would come later, at line 7.  Another turn bowling interrupted my thoughts, but I returned to my table a few minutes later and continued writing.

Your life, your friends, your things, these things I see,
And anger builds within my jealous heart;
The Lord gave you the one he took from me,
And made our paths diverge so far apart.

I did not like “things” twice in line 5; I crossed out the first one and wrote “stuff.”  That did not sound very poetic either, but I never came up with a better word to go there.

“What’cha doin’, Greg?” Kristina asked, noticing me sitting alone.  “Writing poems on napkins?”

“Yeah,” I said, turning my paper towel over to hide what I had written from Kristina.

“My friends in high school, we used to do that all the time.  We wrote some pretty weird stuff.  I wonder if those napkins are still there, in my room back home?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really did not want to share this poem with anyone here.  Kristina walked to the lane to take her turn, not asking anything more about my poem.

Gradually, through the rest of the second game, I finished my poem:

I pray now for forgiveness; I repent,
I lift my sin to Jesus Christ above;
I’d like our path to go where it once went,
And happiness I wish you and your love.
God’s plan for me is not His plan for you,
So I will be myself, and your friend too.

Now all it needed was a title.  The poem was clearly written to Ramon, but I could not use his name, or Haley’s name, anywhere within.  After my next bowling turn, I moved back down to the seats by the ball return machine, with the poem in my pocket.

“Greg?” Eddie asked.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.  Eddie knew about my feelings for Haley, so I hoped that he would not ask any more about this.  He did not.

Toward the end of the bowling game, the title came to me: “Dear Mr. Q.”  Ramon literally was Mr. Q, his last name was Quintero, but also the name Mr. Q sounded mysterious.  I pulled the poem back out of my pocket and wrote the title at the top.

Because I was so distracted, I only bowled 101 that game, just barely keeping alive my streak of triple-digit bowling scores.  Although I did not bowl particularly often, I had not bowled below 100 since November of 1995, when I was taking the bowling class.

I studied for finals all weekend, feeling discouragement and self-loathing hanging over me.  The two math finals were straightforward, and I had no trouble with them.  Nutrition and Writings of John were a bit more challenging, since they consisted of memorizing facts and writing essay questions.  Professor Hurt had at least given us the topics of the essay questions in advance so that we could take time to prepare, but I had missed the last class to see Return of the Jedi.  I did the best I could in Nutrition, and only one question on the Writings of John final related to the class I missed.

I had a retreat coming up with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship the weekend after finals, Spring Breakthrough.  This was different from past retreats I had been on with JCF; instead of going somewhere up in the mountains, we were just spending a few days at a church in Stockdale, about an hour drive south down the Valley from Jeromeville.  I looked forward to it, though. Brian, my roommate who loved Star Wars, was on staff with JCF, and I had seen him copying clips from his Star Wars VHS tapes to use as illustrations.  He had explained that the topic of this retreat would be discipleship.  I had experienced the beginnings of discipleship, when my Christian friends from freshman year had prayed for me on rough days and invited me to JCF, and when Eddie had repeatedly reached out to me sophomore year.  But now that I was more involved with the group and had made a decision to follow Jesus, I felt less important to these people, and I felt that I would never have a girlfriend as long as I was on the outside of these cliques, or at best on the periphery.

When I talked to Haley three months ago and let her reject me, I was hoping that her definitive answer would close the door and help me get over her.  The events of that night at the bowling alley showed clearly that this had not happened.  Maybe I would never be over Haley until I got interested in someone else to that extent.  I knew of a lot of cute girls, but I was currently not close enough with anyone not already in a relationship to develop into the kind of crush I had on Haley.  Of course, when I did find someone, the new girl would probably just reject me as well, or meet someone else first, and the cycle would begin all over again. Something needed to change.


Author’s note: Tell me in the comments about a time you skipped class.

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March 4, 1997.  Of a different ilk. (#123)

“UJ Campus Radio, 90.1,” the voice on the other end of the phone call said.  I got a little nervous making a phone call early in the morning, but obviously someone at the radio station was awake, since I had the radio tuned to this station and I heard music.

“Hi,” I said nervously.  “Is this Tina?”

“Yeah!” Tina, the disc jockey, replied.  “What can I help you with?”

“This is Greg Dennison.  I lived on your floor freshman year.”

Tina paused for a second, then said, “Greg!  Hey!  What’s up?”

“I was talking to Liz and Caroline the other day, and they told me that you were a DJ for Campus Radio now, and that you were going to play that music that Ramon made on your computer.  Is that true?”

“Yeah!  That’s coming up in about 20 minutes.  Will you be around to listen to it?”

“Yeah.  That’s so cool.”

“Great!  So how are things?  Still majoring in math?”

“Yeah.  Still figuring out what to do with a math degree, though.  And I started volunteering with youth ministry at Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“That sounds like fun!”

“How long have you been a DJ for Campus Radio?”

“Since fall quarter.  It’s been interesting.  I like it.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Well, I need to get back on the air, but it was good catching up.  I’ll see you around campus, probably.”

“Yeah!  Have a good one!”

A while later, I was done with my morning cereal, reading the newspaper, with Campus Radio 90.1 still on.  This was a freeform station owned by the University of Jeromeville, broadcasting whatever its disc jockeys chose to play. I rarely listened to it, since its disc jockeys played some pretty strange music.  I smiled when I heard Tina introduce her next segment.  “Freshman year, my roommate’s boyfriend was in our room all the time, and I had a nice computer, so he used it to compose these electronic covers of popular songs.”  I smiled nostalgically as I heard Ramon’s electronic reggae version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” on the radio, the same song that I heard loudly blasting down the hall so many times freshman year.  I did not see Tina much these days, but I still often saw Ramon and Liz, the roommate from Tina’s story, at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church.  Ramon and Liz had an amicable breakup six months ago, but they remained friends.


That night, I drove to campus for University Life, the college group from another church, not the one I attended.  I made some friends from University Life through a random encounter at the Memorial Union a few months ago.  I had been feeling frustrated at being on the outside of cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, my usual group.  I had been sitting with those U-Life friends at the MU and the Quad fairly often this quarter, and tonight was my third time actually attending U-Life.

U-Life was a very large group, with around two hundred students attending an average weekly meeting.  I looked around and eventually found Alaina and Whitney, two of the U-Life friends I often sat with at the MU. Next to them was a third girl whom I had seen before but whose name I did not remember.  I sat in an open seat next to Alaina.

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

“Just having a good day.  What about you?”

“Good!  We were just talking about our coffee house party.  You’re coming, right?”

“Yeah.  I should be there.  When is it?”

“April 12.  That’s a Saturday.”  Alaina turned to the girl I did not know and said, “Greg is gonna do a dramatic poetry reading.”

“Really?” the girl asked me.  “You write poetry?  Or you’ll read someone else’s poem?”

“I don’t know,” I said, laughing nervously.  “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Come on!” Alaina said.  “You totally should.  Have you met our other roommate, Corinne?”

“No,” I said.

“Hi,” the girl who asked me about poetry said.  “I’m Corinne.  It’s nice to meet you.”  Corinne was shorter than average, with light brown straight hair and brown eyes.

“You too,” I replied.  “I’m sure I can find something to read at the party.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything serious,” Corinne said.  “This party is just for fun.”

Alaina had told me a couple weeks earlier that she and her roommates were planning a big party with a coffee house theme.  I did not know how many people I would know there, and I did not like coffee, but this sounded like a fun way to hang out with these new friends from U-Life.

After the end of the meeting, I talked to Alaina, Corinne, and Whitney for a bit longer.  Next, I wandered around the room looking for other people I knew.  Carolyn Parry, who played guitar and sang in the worship band, was putting sound equipment away when she saw me and waved.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Will you be at our show on Sunday?”

I paused for a couple seconds.  as my brain tried to remember what she was talking about.  Show?  Sunday?  Oh, chorus.  I met Carolyn last quarter when I was in chorus.  “Yes,” I said.  “It’ll be good to see everyone again.”

“Good!”

“I’ll be in chorus again in the spring.  I just had a class meeting at the same time this quarter.”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes.  I haven’t been able to do it every quarter.  I’ll see you Sunday, then?”

“Yeah!”

I walked back out to the car a bit later, heading west on Davis Drive, and then north on Andrews Road.  Today was a good day.  I had all my homework done.  I got to hear Ramon’s music on the radio.  I heard a good talk about Jesus.  And Alaina’s roommate Corinne was pretty cute.  I left campus and entered the adjacent Jeromeville city limits, keeping my speed at 25 miles per hour, which seemed unnaturally slow to me.  Jeromeville was a bicycle-friendly city with low speed limits that the police enforced strictly.  I thought of all of Jeromeville’s famous quirks as I anticipated having a peaceful, relaxing couple hours before bed to close out this great day.

And then I gasped in horror when I realized what today was.

My heart raced as I looked at the clock.  9:23pm.  I was too late.  I had failed.  I finished the trip home, disgusted with myself for forgetting something so important, and when I got home, I tried to avoid talking with my roommates, because I did not want to talk about this.


Jeromeville was a university town.  When a large university is located adjacent to a relatively small city, the university drives much of the cultural and political trends in the city.  Jeromeville had a population of around fifty-six thousand, with over a third of these residents university students; about six thousand more students lived on campus, just outside of the city limits.  Many of the adults living in Jeromeville were university faculty and staff.  As a result of this, Jeromeville readily embraced many liberal and progressive political causes and trends.

Since the 1960s, Jeromeville has made great investments of tax dollars in bicycling facilities.  I enjoyed riding my bicycle recreationally along the paths that ran through the Greenbelts in the newer sections of the city, with wide, safe bike lanes on streets connecting the different neighborhoods.  However, this made driving in Jeromeville a pain.  Many of the major streets had only one lane for automobiles and a slow speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

The five aging hippies who sat on the Jeromeville City Council embraced these causes, refusing to accept the reality that Jeromeville had grown to its current size.  Jeromeville had a well-deserved quirky reputation among people in nearby cities for all the strange decisions made by its city council.  A couple years ago, residents of an older neighborhood were lobbying the city council to pave a dirt alley behind their house.  The dirt was extremely uneven, resulting in puddles forming during the rainy season, staying full long enough to provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city refused, on the grounds that dirt alleys were historic and paving them would ruin the small-town feel of Jeromeville.  Another relatively busy street in central Jeromeville was unusually dark, with very few streetlights, and residents lobbied for better lighting.  The city responded that more lighting would ruin the small-town environment, making it harder for residents to see the sky, and attracting traffic and crime.  In the real world, the traffic was already there, and dark streets attract crime better than well-lit ones, but the Jeromeville City Council ignored such arguments.

Chain stores and real estate development were particular villains to Jeromeville politicians.  In the last City Council election, twelve candidates, an unusually large number, ran for three open seats.  I voted for the ones whose views I disliked the least, and they finished eighth, ninth, and eleventh.  To lose an election in Jeromeville, all one must do is take campaign contributions from real estate developers.  The elites in charge will repeat ad nauseam in advertisements that their opponents took money from developers; this was a death sentence to any budding Jeromeville politician.

Downtown Jeromeville was sacred ground to the Jeromeville City Council.  The city did everything in its power to ensure a healthy central business area, to avoid the flight to outer neighborhoods that had left so many nearby downtowns empty and decaying.  But this had created some growing pains of its own.  In recent decades, the city had grown across Highway 100 for the first time.  The only route from south of 100 into downtown was Cornell Boulevard, passing under three railroad tracks through a narrow underpass with room for just one lane in each direction.  This underpass was built in 1915, part of one of the original highways traversing east to west across the United States.  The cross-country route had long since been bypassed by a wide freeway, today’s Highway 100, but the 1915 underpass was still in use as a local street.  The clearance was about three feet lower than that of modern underpasses, and occasionally a tall truck would get stuck there. It also sometimes flooded during rainy times.

At certain times of day, traffic backs up terribly at the underpass and for long distances on both sides.  I had heard horror stories about south Jeromeville residents taking close to half an hour to get downtown, a trip of less than two miles.  Downtown itself was growing, making the traffic situation even worse. A shopping center had recently been completed at the corner of Cornell and First Street next to the underpass. The shopping center was controversial in its own right, since the anchor tenant was Borders Books. When this was proposed, it divided citizens into two camps, one camp feeling that Borders matched the intellectual character of Jeromeville, and the other believing that large national chain stores did not belong in Jeromeville, threatening to put local bookstores out of business.  The most vocal member of the second camp was a City Councilmember who owned a bookstore. To me, this was an obvious conflict of interest, but no one in Jeromeville seemed to care.  The bookstore was eventually approved, and many publicly vowed to boycott Borders, because this was considered the right opinion by the Jeromeville elite.

I loved Borders Books.  I went there a couple weeks after it opened, after the hype died down.  It was much larger than any bookstore I had ever seen, and it had a coffee shop where people could sit and read.  They also sold music on compact disc, with headphones to listen to samples of any recording they had in stock, so I could know exactly what music I was buying before I spent money on it.  This store became one of my go-to places when I had time to kill.  If the local independent stores wanted to stay in business, they should add awesome stuff in their stores too.  This was how the free market worked, and I supported it, although I kept somewhat quiet about it because I knew that most Jeromevillians did not approve.

A proposal had recently been put forward to build a wider underpass, two lanes in each direction with a more modern design.  Jeromeville also had a long tradition of direct democracy for certain proposals, so this underpass widening had been placed before the voters.  I had seen “No on Measure K” signs all over town, with a small sprinkling of “Yes on Measure K” signs mostly in south Jeromeville, where people are actually affected by this awful traffic jam.  Last week, I saw organized opposition to Measure K at a table on the Quad, a balding man and a woman with long gray hair.  They displayed a picture of a four-lane boulevard crossing under a railroad track, with a caption that said “IF MEASURE K PASSES, THIS COULD BE IN DOWNTOWN JEROMEVILLE!”  In the fantasy where these people reside, that statement would sway voters against Measure K, but to me the same statement was an argument in favor.

“This does not belong in Jeromeville,” the gray-haired woman at the table said to two students she was trying to sway to her position.  “Vote no on Measure K.”

“I heard that traffic is really horrible there, though,” one of the students said.

“The Power Line Road overpass just opened last year,” she explained.  “We should wait and see how that affects traffic before we spend all this money on something else.”  As she explained this, I realized that I knew who this woman was: Jane Pawlowski, one of the five aging hippies on the Jeromeville City Council. She was frequently in the local news, and occasionally national news, for making some very strange statements.  She was the one who touted the historic character of the puddles in the alleys.  And when Power Line Road was extended into south Jeromeville last year, she loudly advocated, successfully, to spend extra money on a small tunnel under the road so that frogs and other wildlife could cross the road safely.  “Lots of frogs live in that pond, and we can all benefit from knowing that we have this psychic connection with the frog community,” Jane Pawlowski had said.

“The new overpass hasn’t solved the problem,” I said loudly, approaching the table.  “People still get stuck in traffic on Cornell Boulevard.”

“But does this eyesore really belong in Jeromeville?” the balding man asked me, gesturing toward the picture of the four-lane road.

“Yes!” I replied.  “We’re a city of fifty-six thousand people, and we need to build the infrastructure to support that population.  It looks safe and modern, and traffic is going to flow freely.”

“I guess we’re just of a different ilk,” Jane said.

“You got that right,” I replied loudly.  “And that’s the first intelligent thing you’ve ever said.”  I walked away, with the other students around the No on Measure K table staring at me.

I knew as soon as I walked away that I should not have said that.  It was unnecessarily unkind.  I arrived at the Writings of John class that I had with many of my Christian friends; Taylor Santiago was standing outside waiting for people.  I told him what had happened.

“’They will know we are Christians by our love,’” Taylor said, quoting a song.

“I know,” I said.  “It just makes me angry that these pretentious intellectuals who hold on to hippie fantasies and use words like ‘ilk’ have undisputed control of Jeromeville.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Taylor suggested.  “Learn from this, and be kind if this ever happens again.  And if you really want to, you can contact her office and apologize.  She’s a politician, so she’ll have public contact information.”


I never did apologize to Jane Pawlowski.  I would take out my anger on these people with my vote.  Except, as I drove home from U-Life that night, I realized that I had completely forgotten to vote.  This vote had been on my mind for weeks, and once the day of the election arrived, I did not think about voting at all.  I had failed all of those who supported Measure K.

I read the newspaper the next morning and learned that Measure K had failed, with about 65% of the residents voting No.  My one vote did not end up making a difference, but I was still angry with myself for forgetting to vote.  It was not like me.

More interesting was the map of the vote broken up by precinct.  Every single neighborhood south of Highway 100 had a majority of Yes votes, since people on that side of town actually have to drive through the inadequate underpass. Only one of about twenty precincts north of 100 had a majority Yes vote.  At the time, Jeromeville City Council members were elected at large, by the whole city, representing the whole city.  No one on the City Council lived in south Jeromeville, and there was no requirement that members of the City Council live in different parts of the city.  The opposition to this measure was purely driven by elitists in the old part of Jeromeville, who do not use this underpass often, imposing their will on the people most directly affected by the underpass.

The next morning, I rode the bus to class, still feeling ashamed of myself.  I sat next to Tara, the cute brown-haired girl who I often saw on the same bus.  She asked me how I was doing, and I said, “Not well.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding concerned.

“I wanted to vote Yes on Measure K, and I completely forgot.  And it failed.”

“But that was a lot of money to spend on that overpass,” Tara replied.  She became somewhat less attractive to me that day when I found out she had been against Measure K, but at least she was against it because of government spending, not because of some fantasy about small-town feel.  That was a more acceptable reason to me.

The 1915 underpass remains to this day; Cornell Boulevard has never been widened.  Jane Pawlowski was right; I was of a different ilk than most people in Jeromeville.  Had I researched the local culture of Jeromeville before I came here for school, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else.  However, in hindsight, I am glad I came to Jeromeville.  I found a community here, and I found a great church where I was getting involved beyond just the college group.  Jeromeville, with all its quirks, was growing on me.  I may not ever vote for people who win elections in Jeromeville, but God was in control no matter who won elections on Earth.  And one day, I would leave this world behind and spend eternity in heaven with others who were truly of my ilk.


Author’s note: What are local politics like where you live? Share an interesting story in the comments! And don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to this blog if you enjoyed what you read!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s a new one?”

“Yeah!  With added scenes.”

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

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

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

“‘Sup, Greg?” Ajeet asked.

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

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

“None–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you guys doing?” Brent asked.

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

“What song?”

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

“I’ve never heard it.”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks!”

“See ya, Brent,” Ajeet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Alaina answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a class at 3.”

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have a good one.”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like fun!”

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

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

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

“Me too,” Ben replied.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You should!”

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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


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


February 13-14, 1997.  Fall away. (#119)

I clicked Print and watched the printer run, then I stapled the three pages of my story together.  I glanced over it, proud of my little creation, feeling especially clever since I had hidden a secret message in the story.


“Fall Away”
by Gregory J. Dennison, February 1997

Here we go again, I thought, as I opened the door and saw her sitting there, her hair gently blowing in the light breeze.  She was talking with someone I did not recognize.  I wondered how I should react.  It seemed like a little devil and a little angel had appeared on my shoulder, as if in a cartoon.  The former told me to walk on by and say nothing, and the latter told me I should try to be friendly and at least say hello.  I wasn’t sure how to act, since I still had trouble dealing with the time she rejected me.  I have tried my hardest not to be bitter.  I watched her as I walked by.  She did not see me, so I kept right on walking.

Also, over the past few weeks, it seems like she and I have been drifting apart.  We were once such good friends, and I had hoped so much that our friendship would turn into something more.  When I finally got brave enough to ask her out, she rejected me.  It was a friendly and sympathetic rejection, but a rejection nonetheless.   A movie was playing on campus that night, and we had mentioned that we both wanted to see it.  I asked her if she wanted to see it with me, and she said she would, but she had to get up early the next morning.  She did not want to stay out late.  That was kind of the last straw for me.  A couple weeks later, I told her how I felt about her, and she told me she did not feel the same way back.  I decided, though, that our friendship seemed too important to throw away, so I would try to stay friends with her rather than avoid her.

Love never works like that, though.  Another month had passed, and my feelings for her were coming back.  In light of this, I became hesitant to pursue our friendship, because I feared that my feelings would get in the way like they did before.  Also, in the past month or so it has seemed like she and I have naturally drifted apart.  When she and her friends are all together, it seems like they stick together and don’t really include me as much.  I would still consider them my friends on a one-to-one basis, but as a group they seem kind of exclusive.

Every table seemed full as I scanned the room for a place to sit and eat lunch.  I spotted two of my friends next to an open seat, but it looked like they were busy talking about something serious, so I didn’t want to bother them.  I continued looking and saw someone else I recognized, but I heard someone calling my name first.  I looked up and saw a girl who I had met about a month ago, sitting with a bunch of her friends who I barely knew.  She asked me if I wanted to sit down, so I did.

“You look tired,” she said.  I agreed.  I proceeded to get out the lunch I had packed, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of tortilla chips.  After saying a short prayer, I began eating.  I thought about the situation.  I looked at the people around me at the table.  I didn’t really know them well, but they seemed really friendly.  This was also the second time this week that I had sat with them at lunch time.  Maybe this group was destined to become my new friends.

Curious to see what was happening around me, I looked up.  I saw the girl I saw earlier that day, the one who had rejected me.  She was talking to the two friends I had almost sat with.  I looked down, unsure of what to do.  Friendship is a valuable treasure, and I really hate to lose a friend.  But ever since that day she turned down my offer for a date, I have found it so difficult to connect with her.  We had talked a few times in the weeks since that happened, but it never seemed the same as it was before.  We rarely hung out together anymore, and when we talked, it was rarely anything more than hi and how are you.

Her pretty blue eyes looked in another direction, away from my table, as she began walking toward me.  I quickly moved my head down and looked intently at my food for about thirty seconds, so that when I looked up again I could be sure that she was gone.  I began to regret my decision after it happened.  I felt like a really unfriendly jerk.  I wondered what had come over me.  I’m not exactly the most friendly person in the world, but I have never noticed myself consciously avoiding a friend either.

Although I convinced myself after the rejection that nothing would ever happen between us, and I was comfortable with this decision at first, I seemed to feel worse about it every day.  Something had gone wrong.  I had wanted to remove my desire for a romantic relationship with her in exchange for a continued friendship.

Nothing I tried was working, though.  I had discussed my feelings with a close friend of ours.  He had felt the same way toward the same girl at one time.  He finally told her the truth, and although she did not feel the same way toward him, they had grown closer as friends.

None of this happened in my case.  I never told her how I felt about her, but more importantly we have not stayed friends.  I have a really hard time carrying on a conversation with her.  Maybe I should just have a long talk with her, apologize for avoiding her, and let her know that I wish we could talk more like we used to.

I finished eating and decided to go to class some time later.  I made up my mind that I would deal with this situation again as soon as I had an opportunity to talk to her.  A friend is a terrible thing to lose.  God would want me to face my problems and not run from them like this.  

Now, though, might not be the time to stay friends.  It would make it harder for the feelings to go away, for me to get over her rejection.  I did not know what I should do.  As I walked along, thinking about what I really felt toward her, I saw her, sitting at a table eating lunch.  She did not see me.  I started to go talk to her.

Going that way suddenly felt like a bad idea; I took one step toward her and chickened out.  I looked at her, to see if her eyes would drift up in my direction.  They did not.  I had run away from her again, the third time that day.  And somewhere, off in the distance, a rooster crowed.


It was late afternoon on Thursday, and I had been working on this story off and on for a week.  Most of the events in the story actually happened to me.  One day last week, I saw Haley Channing three times during my lunch break at the Memorial Union, and I just could not bring myself to talk to her.  I thought that telling her how I felt two months ago was the best course of action to get over her.  There was an outside chance that she liked me too, but if she did not, at least I would know.  It hurt to hear that, but some things have to hurt before they feel better, like ripping off a bandage quickly.  Things had not gotten better; now I just felt awkward around her, and my rejection felt like another painful reminder of the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and my position on the outside.

After the third time I ignored her, I thought about Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed.  The title of the story was taken from Jesus’ words preceding this incident: “You will all fall away.”  Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing, but he did, and he heard a rooster crow afterward.  I had just denied Haley three times, and I added the part about the rooster at the end of the story to allude to Peter’s denials.  I did not actually hear a rooster in real life.

The new friend who called me over to sit with her on that day was Alaina from University Life, the college ministry of a different church from the one I went to.  A while back, on another crowded day in the Memorial Union, I was looking for a place to sit.  I saw Ben, an acquaintance who was involved with U-Life but also attended JCF sometimes, and he was sitting with Alaina.  Since then, I had often seen one or both of them at lunch, and I had met some of their other friends.

Two days ago, I took a significant step closer to this other group.  I headed to campus in the evening and paid two dollars for a parking spot in the public lot on Davis Drive near the Barn.  I hated paying for parking.  A daily parking permit cost one dollar my freshman year.  The following year it increased to two dollars for the day, but still one dollar for evenings for people arriving after five o’clock.  This year the price increased to three dollars for the day and two for the evening, and I heard next year it would be three dollars any time.  The cost was increasing much faster than inflation, tripling in three years.  If this exponential increase continued, the cost of a daily parking permit in the year 2021 would be $19,683.  (The actual cost of a daily parking permit in 2021 was twelve dollars, increasing twelvefold in twenty-seven years; I still found that outrageous.)

I crossed the street and walked into Harding Hall, looking for the big lecture hall inside.  I followed the faint murmur of voices down the hall.  As I approached the room, I saw a large sign that said WELCOME TO UNIVERSITY LIFE with a large Christian cross on the left.  The setup looked very much like that of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, with people filling out name tags near the entrance and a live band in the front, probably to play worship music.

“Hi,” the guy with the name tags said.  “What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

The guy wrote my name on a name tag, unpeeled it, and handed it to me.  I stuck it on my shirt in the center of my chest.  I walked into the large lecture hall, looking around for a seat, but before I sat down, I heard someone calling out, “Greg!”

I looked around and saw Alaina waving at me.  “Hey,” I said, walking toward her.

“You made it!  Come sit with us!”  Alaina led me to a seat near the center of the lecture hall, next to her roommate Whitney, our friend Ben, and a few others whom I had met but needed to look at their name tags to remember their names.

The rest of the night at U-Life was structured much like JCF; I would not have been able to tell the difference, other than the presence of different people there.  The group was led by an adult, the college pastor from the church that ran U-Life.  The band played a few worship songs, someone made announcements, the pastor gave a talk about something from the Bible, and they finished with more songs.  I saw a few other familiar faces around the room.  Carolyn Parry, whom I knew from being in chorus last quarter, was in the worship band.  I also recognized another math major named Melissa Becker, several people from my Introduction to New Testament class last quarter and New Testament Writings of John class this quarter, and Rebekah Tyler from my freshman dorm.

I enjoyed U-Life, with the intent to come back some other time.  But I did not want to give up on JCF, even though it was cliquish and I would run into Haley there.  Yesterday, the day after I went to U-Life, I finished writing my story, “Fall Away,” which I had been working on over the last week.  I printed it just now, when I got home from class.  I was still holding the printed copy of Fall Away when my roommate Shawn walked into the room.

“Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s that you’re reading?”

“I wrote a story,” I replied.

“Really?  What’s it about?”

“Something that happened to me last week that I thought would make a good story.”

“Can I read it?”

I debated whether or not to let Shawn read the story.  My desire to share and discuss my work won out over wanting to keep the details of my romantic pursuits private.  I handed Shawn the story as I got out my textbook for Euclidean Geometry and began working on homework.

“‘By Gregory J. Dennison,’” Shawn read aloud.  “What’s the J for?”

“James.  It was my dad’s brother’s name.  He died in an accident before I was born.”

“I’m sorry.  But you have a story to go with your name.”

“Yeah.  And Gregory was after one of my dad’s good friends.”

“That’s cool,” Shawn said.  “My parents named me Shawn because they liked the name.  And they spelled it right too.  None of this ‘Seen’ stuff.”  Shawn had intentionally mispronounced the traditional spelling of Sean as if it rhymed with “mean,” and I chuckled.  “I mean, I know it’s Irish, but hey, do I look Irish to you?”  Shawn definitely did not look Irish; he was born here in the United States, but he was of Chinese descent.  This made me laugh even harder.

Shawn continued reading my story as I turned back to my math homework.  A few minutes later, he said, “That was pretty good.  So there’s a girl you liked, and she didn’t like you back, and you can’t get her out of your head?  And you didn’t want to say hi to her?”

“Pretty much.

“Is it someone I know?”

“Maybe.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“Come on, you can tell me.”

I had a feeling Shawn might want to know whom the story was about.  I could have told him I did not want to reveal this information, but I had a feeling he would keep bugging me about it.  Besides, my story had a secret, which could make this fun.  “Promise you won’t tell anyone.  Or make fun of me.”

“I promise.”

“I hid a secret message in the story.”

“What?” Shawn said.  I put my math homework aside, watching Shawn’s reaction as he searched for the secret message, looking carefully at the words on the page.  “I can’t find it,” he said finally.

“Read it out loud,” I said with a mischievous grin.

“‘Here we go–’”

“Stop,” I interrupted.  “Now go to the next paragraph.”

“‘Also, ov–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

“‘Love ne–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

Shawn looked over the entire story, then began reciting the first words of each paragraph.  “‘Here, also, love, every, you, curious, her, although, nothing, none, I, now, going.’  I don’t get it.”

“Try again.  Start from the beginning.

“H–”

“Next paragraph,” I interrupted, as soon as I heard Shawn make a sound.

“A–”

“Next paragraph.”

“L– Oh, wait a minute.”  Shawn flipped the three printed pages back and forth quickly, with a look of understanding on his face.  He had figured out that I was trying to tell him to look at only the first letter of each paragraph, not the first word.  “Haley Channing,” he said.  “It’s too bad she didn’t like you back.  She’s a cutie.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“You know what they say.  Women… can’t live with ‘em…”

“Can’t live without ‘em?” I added

“Can’t shoot ’em,” Shawn replied, finishing a famous comedic quote.

I chuckled.  “I’ve never heard that.”

“Women are always trouble.  If it weren’t for women, O.J. Simpson wouldn’t be in the news all the time.  You heard he lost the civil case, right?”

“Yeah.  And now he owes the families millions of dollars.”

“He totally did it.  He should be in jail.”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously, though, don’t give up.  If something was meant to be, God’ll make it happen somehow.  And don’t let it get you down.  Just live your life.”

“I know.”


Despite Shawn’s advice not to let my romantic failures get to me, I still decided to wear black for Valentine’s Day the next morning.  I did not wear solid black, though; I wore faded blue jeans with the black t-shirt from Urbana that said “What have you seen God do lately?”

The bus was crowded today; the air was damp, the sky was gray, and the weather forecast called for rain by mid-morning at the latest.  No one I knew got on at this stop, although I recognized some people from previous bus rides: a pale-faced guy with a big blond beard, an Asian guy with unkempt hair, and a pretty girl with wavy brown hair and big brown eyes.  When the bus arrived, I was one of the last from our stop to board.  Even though this was only the second stop on the route, the 8:35am bus on a cold, rainy day filled up fast, with over half of the seats already taken.

I looked up and breathed in sharply when I saw the pretty brown-haired girl right in front of me, next to an empty seat.  “May I sit here?” I asked her.

“Yeah!” she replied.  She smiled.

“Thanks.”  The bus stopped once more on Maple Drive, then turned left on Alvarez Avenue and stopped twice more.  I looked up and saw that the girl next to me was looking in my direction, so I turned and made eye contact.  “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

“I’m okay.  Glad it’s Friday.”

“Yeah.  Me too.”

Trying to think of something else to say, as we headed south on Andrews Road, I asked, “What class are you headed to?”

“Bio 101.  It’s really hard.”

“I’ve heard.”

“What about you?  What classes do you have today?”

“Advanced calculus, Euclidean geometry, and New Testament Writings of John.”

“How is that John class? I’ve heard good things about it.”

“It’s good.  I have a lot of friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship in that class too.”

“My roommate and I were talking about looking for a church.”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant,” I said.  “The one right back there, on the right.  And Jeromeville Christian Fellowship too, but that isn’t affiliated with a church.”

“Maybe I’ll check those out sometime.”

“Yeah.  That would be cool,” I said.  “Hey, what’s your name?  I know I’ve seen you on the bus before.”

“Tara.”

“I’m Greg.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Tara said, motioning to shake my hand.

“Nice to meet you too,” I replied as I shook Tara’s hand.  She smiled, and I smiled back.  Maybe this Valentine’s Day would not be so bad after all.


Author’s note: Did you find the secret message? Have you ever written something with a secret message hidden inside?

“Fall Away” is an actual story I wrote when I was younger. I hope I have grown as a writer since then, because reading it again now, it really wasn’t that good. I only made minimal changes to it for inclusion in this episode, in order to resolve continuity errors between the original story and the way I have told the backstory now.


February 5, 1997. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. (#118)

I walked toward the church and entered the fellowship hall building, which was called The Lamp.  The building was quiet and empty, much different from Sunday mornings when 20/20, the college Sunday school class, met here.  A small group of people around my age sat in a circle near the middle of the group, reading what appeared to be copies of the same paper.  I recognized most, but not all, of the people in the circle from the college group.

“Greg!  You made it!” Taylor Santiago called out from the circle, motioning me over.

“Yeah,” I said.  “So what do I need to do?”

“Just hang out.  After everyone gets here, we’re going to go over the plan for the night.”

I sat in the circle in between Taylor and a girl with bushy light brown hair whom I did not know.  Taylor handed me my own copy of the paper; it said THE EDGE, 2/5/97 at the top.  Below this was a schedule for the night, along with a discussion outline for small groups at the end of the night, and a list of which students would be with which leaders in these small groups.  I noticed that one group was listed as “Taylor/Greg,” and that this group included Ted, Zac, and Danny, the three students whom I knew.  Taylor had told whomever made this schedule that I would be coming tonight.

“How’s it going, Taylor?” Noah Snyder asked.  I knew Noah from the college group; he and Taylor had been friends since their early teens, before they both came to the University of Jeromeville.  I had also seen his name in the church bulletin with the title “junior high intern”; I thought that meant that he actually got paid part time to have a leadership role with The Edge, the group for junior high school students here at Jeromeville Covenant Church.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  I was vaguely aware that someone else entered the room during our conversation, but I did not pay attention until I heard a familiar female voice say, “Greg?”

I looked up and saw a girl with straight dark blonde hair standing next to her boyfriend, a stocky, muscular guy a little bit shorter than her.  “Hey, Abby,” I said.  “Josh.”

“Greg?  Are you gonna be an Edge leader?” Josh asked.

“Maybe,” I replied.  “I’m checking it out.  I might be taking Taylor’s spot when he leaves spring quarter.”

“Well, I hope you enjoy it!”

“It’s so much fun!” Abby added.

Across from me in the circle was a tall guy who looked older than me, maybe around twenty-five.  He had short, almost buzzed hair, and a toothy grin; I knew from having been around J-Cov the last four months that this was Adam White, the youth pastor.  “You two know each other?” Adam asked when he saw Josh talking to me.

“Yeah,” I said, although the fact that Josh lived under the same roof as me, and I had no idea that he was an Edge leader, made me wonder if I really knew him at all.  I did not say this, though, because I really did feel bad that I did not know this.  I did not know that Abby was an Edge leader either, and I had known her even longer than Josh.  “He’s my roommate.”

“That roommate you never see who works weird hours?” Taylor asked.  “That’s Josh?”

“Yeah!”

“I never knew that!”

A few minutes later, after everyone had arrived, Noah gathered us to begin the night.  “We have a new leader,” he said.  “Greg, why don’t you introduce yourself?”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’m a junior, a math major.  I’ve been going to J-Cov and 20/20 since October.  But I know a lot of you from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and Taylor was in my dorm freshman year.  Three boys from The Edge decided they wanted to hang out with me a few weeks ago after church, so I’ve been getting to know them.  Taylor told me about how he’s going away for six months, and since I’ve been hanging out with those boys, he asked if I’d be interested in trying out The Edge and taking over his small group for the rest of the year.”

“So they just decided they wanted to hang out with you?” Noah asked.  “Who are they?”

“Ted Hunter, and Zac, and Danny,” I said.  “I don’t know the others’ last names.”

“Danny Foster,” the bushy-haired girl next to me said.  “That’s my brother.”

“Oh, okay.” 

“That’s hilarious that the kids just went out and found you to be their leader,” Adam said.  “I’m Adam.  I’m the youth pastor.  Who else here do you know?”

I looked around the circle, pointing at people.  “Taylor, Noah, Martin, Courtney,” I said.  “Abby and Josh.  And James,” I added, purposely not calling him Barefoot James to his face.  I knew these people either from rom JCF or 20/20, or both, but some of them I did not know were Edge leaders.  The others introduced themselves next; Danny Foster’s sister was named Erica.  A scruffy-looking guy I had seen at 20/20 but did not know was named Brody, and a girl with long dark hair was named Kate.  Finally, a girl with short, chin-length blonde hair introduced herself as Charlotte; I had never seen her before.

“Nice to meet you guys,” I replied.

Noah then discussed the plan for the rest of the night, and when we finished this, he asked if there were any prayer requests.  “I have one,” I said.  “Pray that I will seek God’s will for my life, that I’ll know if working with The Edge is part of it.”

“That’s a good one.  Anyone else?”

Each person in the circle shared a prayer request.  Some were specific, like Taylor’s upcoming mission trip, Charlotte’s midterm, and Kate’s sick uncle; others just asked to thank God for a good week.  We each then took turns praying for the person on our left.  When my turn came, I said, “God, I thank you that Taylor has this opportunity to go to Chicago, to serve you.  I pray that all of those around him will see your love and your message of salvation through his actions and his attitude.  I pray that you will bless him with safe travel, and a good adjustment to a new living situation.”

After everyone finished praying we all looked back up.  “Go love those kids!” Noah said in a way that suggested that he said this every week at this point.

“So what do I do now?” I asked Noah.

“Just hang out.  It starts at 7, but kids will gradually trickle in, and we’ll do announcements at 7:15.  If kids ask you who you are, just tell them.”


Over the next twenty minutes, the room gradually filled with twelve- through fourteen-year-olds of all shapes and sizes.  Of the boys I knew, Ted was the first to arrive.  “Greg!” he shouted when he saw me.  “You’re here!”

“I know!  And I’m going to be in your small group with Taylor.”

“Great!”  Ted saw Danny walk in and motioned for him to come over.  “Danny!” Ted exclaimed.  “Look!  Greg’s here!”

Zac arrived a minute later, and the boys moved on to do something else a minute after that.  I walked around, trying to take in the atmosphere.  Music that I did not recognize played on the speakers, something that sounded like the typical girl-rock of that era, but this singer had a distinct voice, a little bit like that girl from the Cranberries, but not really. The lyrics, and the fact that we were at church, made me think this was a Christian singer.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Taylor.

“Sarah Masen,” he answered.  Yeah, I did not know that one.  Working with The Edge, I learned quickly that there were many, many Christian singers and bands that I did not know.

“Are you a new leader?” I heard a voice say next to me.  I turned and saw a small girl with blue eyes and brown hair looking up at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m just checking it out for now.”

“You’re tall.”

“Yeah,” I chucked.  “I know.”

“What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

“I’m Samantha.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said.

At 7:15, Adam called everyone to attention, speaking through a microphone.  Around forty students were in attendance.  “Is there anyone new here tonight?” he asked.  Two students walked up to the stage.  I saw Taylor motioning for me to follow them, so I did.

After Adam introduced the new students, he came to me.  “Greg, what’s your name?” he asked.  He had done this for the new students as well, using their names while asking for their names, and the first time, students laughed at this.

“Greg,” I said.

“Where do you go to school?”

“University of Jeromeville,” I answered.  When the new students named their schools, students from that school cheered, but for me, everyone cheered for UJ.

Adam asked the new students a silly would-you-rather question next, and I was no exception. “Would you rather wear shorts in freezing weather or long pants in hot weather?”

“Neither,” I said.  “But if I had to pick, probably long pants in hot weather.”

“Everyone, welcome Greg!”  The students cheered for me again..  When the room got quiet, Adam said that it was time to play a game.  “Tonight, we are going to have a giant rock-paper-scissors tournament!”  Some of the students made excited cheers, while a few groaned in disappointment.  “You just walk to someone, count one-two-three, and then make the sign for rock, paper, or scissors.”  Adam demonstrated the three hand signs, a fist for rock, all the fingers lying flat next to each other for paper, and two fingers extended for scissors.  “Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock.  If you lose, go to the back of the room.  If you win, find someone else who won, and play again.  We’ll keep playing until there are only two people left, and the winner of that final game gets…” Adam trailed off as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the grand prize.  “A five dollar gift card to Lucky!”  During our meeting earlier, I wondered aloud if students would really be motivated by a grocery store gift card; Noah assured me that, to junior high schoolers, the thought of being able to spend five dollars on junk food was major excitement.  The reaction from the crowd when Adam showed them the gift card confirmed Noah’s statement.

A few minutes of mass chaos ensued as students ran off to find opponents.  As a leader, my job was to watch for students who had lost and were trying to jump back into the game.  I noticed one, and when I told him to go sit in the back, he refused, but he lost his next match anyway.  Finally, the group had been winnowed to two: Ted Hunter and a girl named Shawna.  The rest of the students had gathered around either Ted or Shawna, with most of the boys cheering for Ted and most of the girls cheering for Shawna.

“Here we go,” Adam announced.  “This is the final game, Ted versus Shawna.  Ready?  One, two, three!”  Ted placed his hand in the rock position, and Shawna chose paper.  Paper covers rock.  Shawna made an excited exclamation, and her supporters cheered wildly as Adam presented her with the grocery store gift card.

Courtney and Brody took the stage next for announcements, most of which involved the upcoming Winter Camp.  A week from Friday, many of the students would be traveling up to the mountains for the weekend.  In addition to fun activities and Bible lessons, some of the students would visit a nearby ski resort on one of the days, with everyone else staying behind to play in the snow.  In this part of the United States, only high elevations got snow, and most of the population lived in low-lying valleys.  I did not travel to snow regularly growing up, and I had only seen snow three times.  Winter Camp sounded like fun; maybe if I was still volunteering with The Edge a year from now, I would go to Winter Camp.

Adam brought a guitar on stage next for worship, and Abby joined him, along with Courtney and Brody who were already there.  The first worship song was one that I did not recognize; it sounded much more like a children’s song than the worship songs we sang in the college group or at JCF.  Courtney and Abby got on stage to lead the students through hand motions during the refrain of the song.  Many of the students got excited to do the hand motions.  Personally, I thought the hand motions were dumb.  I stood in the back and sang without doing the hand motions.  I had never spent time around Christian youth group kids, so it was surprising to me that these students enjoyed the hand motions and did not find them corny and distracting, like me.  I was glad that they were having fun, though.

After the third song, Adam stayed on the stage, alone, with the microphone.  “How many of you have ever experienced getting picked last for a team?”  A few hands went up.  “How many of you always get picked first?”  A few other hands went up, with murmurs of arguments from some who seemed to disagree with those students’ assessments of themselves.  Adam then read from the First Book of Samuel about God sending Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem, to choose a King of Israel from among Jesse’s sons.  Samuel saw seven good-looking young men pass by, but God instead chose David, the youngest, who had not been invited to meet Samuel.

Adam then read names of students and told them which small group they were in.  I assumed that someone adjusted the list as students were arriving, since the boys Taylor and I got did not exactly match the list I received at the beginning of the night.

Taylor and I walked with Ted, Danny, Zac, and three other boys to one of the children’s Sunday school rooms, in another building closer to the parking lot.  The boys sat in small child-size chairs around a table, and Taylor sat in an adult-size chair, facing them.  I could not find another adult chair, so I sat uncomfortably in a child chair next to Taylor.

“Have any of you ever been picked last for something?” Taylor asked.

“I hate when they have students pick teams like that,” Zac replied.  “One time, in, like, fourth grade, we were playing basketball in PE, and I got picked last  But I ended up scoring the winning basket.  It was awesome.  It was my only basket too.”

“Was that the game where you accidentally tripped Jonathan?” one of the other boys asked.

“Yeah!  And he got a bloody nose!”

“Why do you think David’s dad didn’t ask him to come meet Samuel?” Taylor asked.

Zac, whose Bible was actually open, said, “Because the rest of his family probably thought there’s no way he would be the king.”

“Yeah.  Pretty much.  David was the youngest.  They just thought he was only good for feeding the sheep.  But what did God see in him?”

None of the boys said anything, so I decided to jump in with a hint.  “It’s right there in the Bible passage we were reading.”

“The Lord looks at the heart!” Danny exclaimed excitedly, pointing at those words in his Bible.

“Good!  Now turn near the back of the Bible, to First Timothy 4:12.  Does anyone want to read?” Taylor asked.

Zac and Ted argued over who would read, then they began reading together.  “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.”

“Paul wrote this to Timothy, but he could have written it to you,” Taylor explained.  “Just because you are young, it doesn’t mean you can’t influence the world around you for Jesus. 
King David was young too, and he led the nation of Israel and wrote a bunch of the Psalms.”  

The small group met for a total of about twenty minutes.  We discussed more about God looking at what is on the inside, and young people making a difference for Christ.  We got more distracted as the night went on.  Taylor asked me at the end of the small group time if I would close the night in prayer.  I was not prepared for this, but I figured I could easily wing it.

“Jesus,” I said.  “Thank you for this opportunity to be a leader with The Edge.  Thank you for all of the wonderful students I met tonight.  I pray that all of us will realize that, even though we are young, we still have a role to play in the Kingdom of God.  I pray that we will remember this as we go through the week.  In the name of Jesus, Amen.”


The students and leaders mingled in the fellowship hall after small groups finished. Parents came to pick up students, and when the crowd had thinned significantly, we began putting things back in closets and cleaning the fellowship hall.

“So what did you think?” Courtney asked me as we moved a folding table to a closet.  “Are you gonna come back next week?”

“Yeah!” I said.  “This was a lot of fun!”

“Good!” she replied.

The events of the night replayed in my mind as I drove home, around nine o’clock, and as I worked on math homework for the rest of the night until bedtime.  If The Edge became a permanent activity for me, I would not have time to be a Bible study leader with JCF, as I had thought about doing over the last couple months.  But maybe that was a good thing.  Maybe God wanted me here, working with junior high school students and this friendly group of youth leaders at J-Cov, instead of navigating the cliques that seemed to dominate JCF.  

Since Jeromeville is a university town, many students spend all of their time there interacting almost exclusively with people affiliated with the university. But when I went to church the following Sunday, I realized that I recognized some of the students from The Edge at church.  Danny and Ted sat next to me, and as I was leaving, I saw Samantha, who told me again that I was tall.  I reminded her that she had just told me this on Tuesday, and she replied, “I know.  I’m just in awe of your height.”  I smiled.  At six-foot-four, I towered over this petite young teen by more than a foot, so I guess that was pretty impressive to her. If Samantha wanted to remember me as the tall guy, that was fine with me.  Certainly I could have been remembered for something worse.

I was looking forward to being a leader with The Edge for the rest of the school year, and possibly for longer after that.  I had only been attending Jeromeville Covenant for four months, and I was already making connections beyond the college group, on the other side of Jeromeville not associated with the university.  J-Cov was starting to feel like my new home.


Readers: Are you, or were you ever, part of a church youth group? Or any other type of youth group? What was your favorite thing about your youth group? Tell me in the comments.


February 3, 1997.  Taking inventory. (#117)

I pulled into a parking place at Capital East Mall with Evan Lundgren, Tabitha Sasaki, and two freshmen whom I did not know well in my carpool.  A few weeks ago, the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had asked for volunteers for a service project.  The Nordstrom department store in Capital City took inventory once a year, hiring many one-day temporary employees to help complete the job in a reasonable amount of time.  Some of these temporary employees came from church groups, with the money they got paid going directly to the group.  The money that JCF raised tonight would be used for scholarships to send students on retreats that they might not otherwise be able to afford.

As we walked into the store, I looked around.  I had never been inside Nordstrom before.  “This is definitely fancier than anywhere I shop,” I said.  “So where do we go now?”

“The Customer Service desk in the back of the first floor,” Tabitha replied, pointing.  “Over there.  Follow Eddie and Raphael and Armando posing as Lars.”

We caught up to the other guys from JCF whom Tabitha had pointed out.  I looked at Armando, who Tabitha said was “posing as Lars.”  I had only met Armando a few times; he was one of Lars’ roommates, but he did not attend JCF.  I noticed that he was wearing what appeared to be Lars’ usual pair of Birkenstocks, with a flannel shirt tied around his waist, exactly as Lars would be dressed.

“So why is Armando posing as Lars?” I asked when I caught up to the group.

“Lars had to back out at the last minute,” Armando explained.  “And someone needed to take his place, because we signed up to bring a certain number of people.  So I’m Lars tonight.”

“That makes sense,” I said.  I found it amusing that Armando had gone so far as to dress up as Lars.

“It’s kind of weird experiencing life as Lars, dressed like this,” Armando said.

“Last year, when we did this, I got assigned to lingerie,” Eddie said.  “We got there, and all the guys were like, uhh…”  I laughed.

After we checked in at the Customer Service desk, we were ushered into the employee break room in the back.  We then waited around for half an hour, to give the actual employees time to close the store.  Other temporary employees besides our group were waiting in the break room, and more people trickled in over the next half hour.  I wondered where these other people came from, if Nordstrom just advertised for one night temporary employees off the street, or if they came from groups raising money like we did.

A well-dressed woman stood up in front of the group, welcoming us and explaining how things would work.  Each of us had been assigned to a specific department within the store, and each of us would be paired with a Nordstrom employee.  She explained the procedure for counting, double-checking, and recording the numbers on a form.   “Remember, you’re here to work for the next five hours,” she reminded us after explaining everything else.  “If you finish your department early, you will be assigned to another department that isn’t done yet.  The store is closed, so you’re not here to shop.  If you need a bathroom break, return quickly.  And no unnecessary conversations.”

As soon as she said that last part, I suddenly felt much worse about this night.  Unnecessary conversations were what made tedious nights of menial labor fun.  Oh well, I thought.  I was here to serve God, to raise money for JCF, not to have fun.  And if the night was too terribly miserable, I would remember this and not sign up to work this event next year.

The woman began naming names and telling us to go to different departments, where a manager from that department would give us further instructions.  After a few minutes, she said, “Ramon Quintero, Anna Lam, Raphael Stevens, Greg Dennison, Autumn Davies, and Sarah Winters.  You’re in women’s shoes, on the second floor.”  Women’s shoes.  Good, I thought. No awkwardness of staring at panties and bras all night.

When we arrived at the shoe department, six Nordstrom employees, well-dressed like the manager from downstairs, waited for us.  I looked at them to see who we would be working with.  A middle-aged woman with glasses and hair in a bun.  A slim, straight-haired Asian girl in slacks.  An attractive blonde girl around my age with a sweet smile, wearing a dress that showed off her figure in a way that was flattering but not sleazy.  An older man in a dress shirt, who made me think of Al Bundy from the TV show Married With Children, who also sold women’s shoes for a living.  Two other young adult women whom I did not get a good look at.

“Hi, I’m Cathy,” the woman with the bun said.  “I’m the manager of the shoe department.  Each of you will be partnered with one of us.  I’ll be working with Raphael.  Where are you?”  Raphael raised his hand, and she continued assigning partners as we raised our hands to indicate who we were.  “Sarah, you’ll be working with Jennifer.  Ramon, you’re with Ron.  Greg, you’re with Keziah.”

“Huh?  Who?” I said awkwardly, suddenly startled.

“Keziah,” Cathy repeated.

“Keziah,” I said back, a little confused.  I was expecting someone with a normal name like Jennifer or Kimberly or Amy.  I had never heard of anyone named Keziah before.  As Cathy finished assigning partners, I looked over the six employees, wondering which one was Keziah.  I assumed that Ramon’s partner Ron was the man.

“We’re almost ready to start.” Cathy said after assigning the rest of the partners.  “I’ll show you which aisles you’ll be working on.  Keziah, can you go get the clipboards?”

“Sure,” the attractive blonde said, walking toward the door to the storeroom.  I felt like I had hit the jackpot.  Of course, it was a typically cruel twist of fate that I would be working with a total babe but prohibited from having unnecessary conversations with her. Maybe I could at least impress her by doing a good job.

“I’m Greg,” I said to Keziah after she returned and passed out the clipboards.  “I’m your partner.”

“Hi, Greg!  Nice to meet you!”

“You too!  Keziah, was it?” I asked, pronouncing it like Cathy did with the accent on the middle syllable.  “Is that how you say it?”

“Yeah!” Keziah replied.

“I, um,  just wanted to make sure I was saying it right.”

“You got it!  I know it’s unusual.  I was named after my great-grandma.”

“That’s cool.  It sounds Old Testament.”

“I think so.  I don’t really know the meaning of the name,” Keziah said.  “So are you ready to get started?”

“Sure.”

“We’re over here.”  Keziah led me to our first aisle, where she said, “So we just count the number of boxes on each section of each shelf, and we record it here.  Do you want to count or record?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter to me either.  We’ll be trading off anyway.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll start by counting.”  I counted the first two sections, then said, “I feel like I should know who Keziah was in the Old Testament, since I’m here with a Christian group.  But I don’t.”

“Who are you here with?”

“Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  It’s a chapter of an organization called Intervarsity.”

“We have Intervarsity too, I think.  I’ve seen signs around campus.  But I’ve never been.”

“Where do you go to school?”

“Cap State.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.  Keziah did not seem to be a stickler for the rule about unnecessary conversations, so after I counted a few more shelves, I said, “I went to Intervarsity’s national convention in Illinois over winter break, and we all got Bibles with a daily reading plan in the back, to read the whole Bible in a year.  I’m going through that, but I’m a few days behind.  So eventually I’ll learn who Keziah was.”

“That’s cool,” Keziah replied.

We continued counting the boxes on the shelves.  I called out a number, which Keziah wrote on the clipboard.  “What are you studying at Cap State?” I asked when we got to the end of an aisle.

“Early childhood education.”

“Nice.  You want to be a teacher?”

“Yeah.  Hopefully something like second or third grade.”

“That’s cool.  I’m a math major.”

“Math.  Math was always a struggle for me.”

“That’s because you never had me for a tutor,” I blurted out awkwardly.  “I work as a tutor also.”

“You’re probably right,” Keziah said, smiling, as she wrote more numbers.  “What do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not sure.  I’m trying to figure that out now.  We’ve been talking a lot about careers in Math Club.  I just know I like math.”

“If you like tutoring, would you want to be a teacher?”

“I don’t know.  I always thought I wouldn’t, because of all the politics involved.”

“That’s true,” Keziah said as I counted more boxes and told her my totals.  “We need good teachers, though.  I had a really bad teacher in high school who ruined math for me.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.  “So that’s the end of the aisle.  Now we double-check, with you counting instead and me recording, right?”

“Yeah.”  Keziah handed me the clipboard as we walked back to the beginning of the aisle.  All of our numbers matched for the first several sections.  We eventually got to one where we did not match, so we counted a third time, very carefully, until we agreed on the correct count.

“Did you grow up around here?” I asked as we approached the end of the aisle.

“Yeah.  I was born in Pleasant Creek, but we moved to Capital City when I was four.”

“That’s cool.  I’m from Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.   I’ve been to Santa Lucia a few times with my family.  I love it there!  Did you go to the beach a lot growing up?”

“Kind of,” I said.  “Mostly when I was little.  It’s usually too cold for the beach, I think.”

“True.  I remember it doesn’t get very hot there.  But it feels nice going there when it’s hot here.”

“It does.  At least at first.”

After we finished that aisle, Keziah and I had three more aisles of shoes to count.  We recorded and double-checked all of our numbers, and we routinely violated the rule about unnecessary conversations for much of that time.  I learned about many things, including Keziah’s most memorable family vacation, her annoying roommate from last year, and why her old math teacher was so awful.  I carefully avoided football as a discussion topic, since she went to Capital State, Jeromeville’s bitter football rival.  Fortunately, no one was there to get us in trouble for talking.

When we finished filling out our final counting form, Keziah said, “That’s it!” 

“Yeah,” I replied.  “And with over an hour left.”

“Good job!”  Keziah smiled and put her hand up, and I high-fived her.  “I get to go home now, and hope to get some sleep before my 9am class.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I have to get up early too.  I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.  But I think I have to go be assigned to help somewhere else, until we’ve done the whole five hours.”

“Oh, that sucks.”

“But we’re raising more money for our group.”

“True.  That’s a good way to look at it.”

“It was really nice meeting you,” I said.

“Yeah!  Have a good night!  I hope you sleep well!”

“You too!”

I walked back downstairs to the break room, to wait for a new assignment.  I kept thinking about how Keziah had probably walked out of my life forever, and I had just let her go without doing anything.  Should I have said something, or would that have just made things worse and more awkward?

“You okay, Greg?” I heard Sarah Winters’ voice ask.  I looked around; I had been staring off into space, not noticing people around me, while awaiting a new assignment.  Sarah and Angela had also recently finished counting women’s shoes, and Eddie was also there, from another department, waiting for a new assignment.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Just thinking.

The manager from the beginning of the night walked into the room.  “They need four people upstairs in lingerie,” she said.  “I’ll tell them you four are coming.”

“Lingerie,” I repeated.  “Of course it had to be.”

As we approached the lingerie department, walking past aisles of women’s underwear, Sarah turned to Eddie and me and said, “Fix your eyes on Jesus,” chuckling.

Since the actual Nordstrom employees got to leave when they finished their assigned section, those of us who were just arriving in the lingerie department were no longer being paired with an employee.  I began counting bras, but Eddie realized he did not have the correct form, so he went to find the lingerie department manager.

I found a bra on the floor and picked it up.  “Why is this on the floor?” I asked.  “I found a bra on the floor; do we count this?”  Eddie was talking to a manager and did not hear me.  I looked down at the bra that I was holding; it was quite large.  Trying to get the attention of someone who could answer my question, I asked loudly, “I found a 38-DD bra on the floor; do we count this?”

“Greg!” Sarah said from the next aisle over.  “Shhh!”

I did not know what to do with the bra, nor did I find any like it on the rack, so I put it with some 38-C bras that were nearby.  Close enough.  They did not appear to be strictly sorted by size anyway.  Eddie returned, and we began counting bras and writing numbers on the clipboard, focusing on our work and not saying much.  I missed working with Keziah.  She was fun to talk to.  Keziah and I seemed to hit it off well, and now I was probably never going to see her again.  

 By the time we finished counting the bras, it was almost time to leave, and most other departments had finished as well.  We returned to the break room to wait for everyone else to finish, and once Tabitha, Evan, and the rest of my carpool had arrived, we walked back to the cars.

“How’d your night go?” Evan asked as we walked toward my car with the others in our carpool.

“Good.  I got a really friendly partner who wasn’t too strict about the no-talking rule.”

“That was nice that you guys got to talk.  We didn’t.”

As I drove across Capital City and crossed the river back into Arroyo Verde County, the rest of my car was quiet.  Since it was very late at night, and most of us had classes in the morning, the others used the twenty-five minute ride back to Jeromeville to doze off, giving me time to ruminate on the events of that night.

I felt like I had missed an opportunity.  I had enjoyed talking to Keziah, getting to know her, and now I would probably never see her again.  I wished I knew how to ask her out.  I wished I knew how to ask if we could be friends and stay in touch.  The obvious answer of just telling her would not have worked for me.  I would have found a way to make it awkward and uncomfortable just by trying to be honest; being awkward just came naturally to me.

Also, if I did that, it might become public knowledge that I liked Keziah, which felt like it would be too embarrassing to deal with.  Seven years ago, in middle school, I admitted to Paul Dickinson that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and I was mortified over the next couple months to learn that many other people knew that I liked Rachelle.  Back then, I imagined people making fun of me for thinking that I had a chance with Rachelle, just as people now might hypothetically make fun of me if they found out that I liked Keziah.  I had no chance with a girl like that, so I should just forget about her.

Keziah probably did not like me back anyway.  She probably had her pick of all the big men on campus at Capital State and had no need for an awkward guy from the other side of the Drawbridge.  Maybe we were doomed from the start, with Jeromeville and Capital State being such bitter football rivals.  I also had no idea whether or not she was a Christian.  I kept hearing from JCF and the college group at church that I should only be dating Christians, because relationships should be built on a solid foundation of faith.  Also, Christian women were less likely to be involved in things that I found unattractive, like excessive drinking or promiscuity.  I was probably better off not pursuing Keziah romantically.

But, as I dropped off everyone in my carpool and headed back to my apartment, I could not help but wonder if I was selling myself short.  Maybe Keziah and I would have been compatible after all.  Maybe I was making too many assumptions.  Either way, I would never see her again, and she would become another missed opportunity to toss on my ever-growing pile of regrets in life.  I went to bed, with my alarm set to go off in less than five hours, hoping to sleep off the stench of failure.


Readers: Tell me in the comments about someone you wish you could have stayed in touch with.

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post. Nordstrom, Inc. was not involved with the creation of this post.


January 19, 1997.  Hey, you!  Wanna go to McDonald’s? (#115)

Some of the major events of my life were the result of careful planning, such as getting good grades in challenging high school classes to prepare for university studies.  But other major events in my life came out of nowhere and took my life in directions I had never considered before.

As church ended, I stood up and turned to Taylor Santiago, standing next to me.  “What are you up to today?” I asked.

“Studying,” Taylor replied.  “Two weeks in, and I’ve hardly done any reading for any of my classes.  I’m so behind.”

“I have some of that to do too.  But with the holiday tomorrow, and no football to watch today, I should have enough time to catch up.”

“Yeah.  Who are you going for in the football championship next week?”

“I don’t really care,” I said.  “The Captains aren’t in it, and I can’t root for whoever is playing against the Toros because they aren’t in it either.”

“Good point.  I’m for Wisconsin.  Coach Mike Holmgren is a Christian, you know.  Noah and I met his kids at a church camp once.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I didn’t know that.”

“Well, I should get going.  Enjoy your day off tomorrow.”

“I will.  Thanks.”  I walked around after Taylor left, looking for someone else to talk to.  I wandered outside and saw a guy named Jim talking to three teenage boys.

“Come on!” one boy with light brown wavy hair said to Jim.  “Take us to McDonald’s!”

“I can’t,” Jim replied.  “I have work to do.”

“Maybe someone else will take us to McDonald’s,” another boy said.  This one was thin, with dark hair.

“Hey, you!” the third boy said, turning in my direction.  “Wanna go to McDonald’s?”

I looked behind me, trying to see who this boy was talking to; no one was there.  The boy was still looking at me.  He had shaggy dark blonde hair and a wide grin.  “Me?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Let’s go to McDonald’s.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but have we met?”

“My name’s Ted.”

“I’m Greg,” I replied.  “So why do you want to go to McDonald’s with me?”

“You seem like a cool guy.”

“Thanks,” I said, still a little confused.

“Let’s go!” the boy with wavy hair said.

“Okay.”

McDonald’s was in the shopping center on the corner of Andrews Road and Coventry Boulevard, just a few hundred feet from the church.  I learned on the walk over that the dark-haired boy was named Zac and the wavy-haired boy was named Danny.  “What grade are you boys in?” I asked.

“Eighth,” Danny said.

“Nice.”

“What about you?  Are you in school?”

“Yeah.  I’m a junior at UJ, majoring in mathematics.”

“Math!” Ted repeated.  “Eww!  Why?”

“I’ve always been good at math.”

“I hate math!”

“I always liked math,” Zac said.

“That’s because you’re weird,” Ted said.

“You’re not weird,” I told Zac.

We ordered and sat down.  Danny started talking about something called Winter Camp.  “Are you going to Winter Camp, Greg?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.  “I don’t think I know what that is.”

“We all go up to the mountains for a few days.  And we go sledding and snowboarding and have snowball fights.  And we learn about the Bible.”

“That sounds fun.  Who is ‘we?’  What group is this?”

“The Edge.  The junior high youth group.”

“I see.  That’s the group that Taylor Santiago is one of the leaders for, right?”

“Yeah!” Ted replied excitedly.  “You know Taylor?”

Taylor and I lived in the same dorm when we were freshmen,” I explained.  “Who are the other leaders for that group?”

“Adam is the youth pastor,” Zac said.  I did not know Adam.

“And there’s Noah, and Martin,” Ted added.  “And Courtney.  And a bunch of other people.”

“I know Noah and Martin and Courtney,” I told them.  “So are you guys out of school tomorrow too?”

“Yeah,” Zac said.

“What are you guys doing?”

“Sitting around all day playing video games!”

“Same,” Danny added.

“That sounds fun,” I said.  “I have homework to do.”

“Eww,” Zac replied.

As we finished eating, I realized that I had no idea where, or who, these kids’ parents were, or how they were getting home.  “How are you guys getting home?” I asked.  “Is someone going to come pick you up?”

“Danny and I were going to go to Ted’s house.  You wanna take us to Ted’s house?  You can see the raft.”

“I guess.  Do your parents know you’re going there?”

“We’ll call them when we get there.”

“Okay,” I said.  When I was growing up, it was normal to turn kids loose to go play at each others’ houses, especially by the time they reached eighth grade, so I did not question this.  The three of us walked back to my car, and I drove out of the parking lot toward Andrews Road.  Zac handed me what he said was a mix tape of Christian music and asked if I would play it. A song I did not know, something about a big house, came on. “Which way?” I asked.

“Left,” Ted said.  I turned onto the street, then he continued, “Turn left up here at the light?”

“At Coventry?”

“This street here at the light,” Ted repeated, pointing to the traffic light at Coventry Boulevard.  “I don’t know what it’s called.”  I thought it was odd that Ted would not know the name of one of Jeromeville’s major streets, particularly one on the route from his home to church, but I had realized over the previous few years that many people do not pay attention to details like street signs and maps the way I do.

“Who is this singing?” I asked.

“Audio Adrenaline,” Zac said. I did not know that band, but they had a cool name.

I turned left on Coventry, crossed Highway 117, and continued driving.  As we approached the four-way stop at Lakeside Avenue, the last intersection in the city limits of Jeromeville before the subdivisions gave way to fields and orchards, Ted had not given me any further instructions.  “Do I turn here?” I asked.

“No.  Keep going straight.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.  I live kind of far out.”

I hoped that Ted was right, and I did not entirely trust his sense of direction since he could not identify Coventry Boulevard by name earlier, but I kept driving west.  If Ted was correct, then he lived pretty far out in the country.

Almost four miles past Lakeside Avenue, Ted finally said, “Turn here, where you see that white mailbox.”  I saw the mailbox on the other side of an approaching bridge over a small stream; I slowed down and turned.  A dirt road followed the stream, curving around to the southeast.  Ahead of me, I saw a very old looking farmhouse, painted a distinct pale green color.  Three tall palm trees stood at the end of the dirt road in front of the house.  I walked past the trees and followed the boys to the front porch, which was up a set of stairs about five or six feet off the ground.  The boys walked in the door, and I followed them, looking for an adult.

“Hey, Ted,” I heard a man’s voice say from somewhere in the house.  “Danny.  Zac.  How’d you guys get here?”

“Our new friend Greg brought us,” Ted replied.

As I stood in the doorway, I heard footsteps approaching.  A middle-aged man with unkempt brown-gray hair and glasses walked up to me.  “Hi,” he said.  “I’m Carl Hunter.  I’m Ted’s father.”

“Greg,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Are you a leader with the junior high group?”

“No,” I said, “but some of my friends are.  I just saw these guys after church, and they asked if I wanted to go to McDonald’s with them.  And they said something about showing me the raft.”

“Really,” Dr. Hunter chuckled.  I did not know yet on that day to call him “Dr.,” but I would learn later that Carl Hunter was a professor at the university, with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.  “Do you go to the college group?  20/20?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, welcome to our home.  The raft is out back, by the slough.”

I walked across the house in the direction Dr. Hunter pointed, noticing several other children of various ages.  I found Ted, Zac, and Danny to my left as I stepped into the backyard, in the direction of the stream I had noticed earlier.  “Are all those kids your brothers and sisters?” I asked Ted.

“Yeah.  I have an older brother and four younger sisters.”

“Wow.  So what’s this raft you were talking about?”

“Here.”  Ted gestured toward a large piece of plywood with large chunks of plastic foam from the insides of packages attached to the bottom.

“Can that thing hold all four of us?” I asked.

“Probably not, but it can hold two of us.  My brother and I were in it together before.”

“Who’s going first?”

“You and me.  Come on, Greg.”

Ted and I dragged the raft down the bank of the slough, about a five foot drop in elevation.  Ted stepped on the raft, holding a long pole, and placing one end of the pole in the water all the way to the bottom.  The water was muddy, but it appeared to be only about a foot deep.  I stepped onto the raft with Ted.  I felt the raft sink a little, but it remained afloat.

“It works,” I said.  “You built this?”

“Yeah.  My brother and my dad helped.”

“Where are we going?”

“That way!”  Ted began using the pole to push and steer the raft upstream.  The water was relatively still, without much of a current.  The banks of the slough were lined with bushes and trees, many of which had lost their leaves for the winter.  We rowed upstream as far as the bridge where Coventry Boulevard crossed the slough, then Ted turned the raft around back toward where Zac and Danny were waiting for a turn.  “Hi!” Ted called out, waving to Zac and Danny watching us from downstream.  Zac and Danny waved back.  “So, Greg, how old are you?”

“Twenty.”

“When’s your birthday?”

August 15.”

“No way.  You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not.  Why?”

“Because August 15 is my birthday.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s so cool.”

“And my brother is August 14, and Zac is August 12.”

“That’s crazy.  So many of us with August birthdays.”

“I know!  Like, what are the chances?”

I thought about this, trying to answer Ted’s question seriously.  “I can’t do that calculation in my head,” I said.

“You’re such a math guy,” Ted said.

After we returned to where we started, Zac and Danny got on the raft, pushing it to the bridge and back just as we did.  I asked Ted, “So what do you guys do at youth group?”

“Well, we have fun, mostly.”

“I figured that.  I mean, like, what goes on in a typical youth group meeting?  I didn’t grow up with a youth group, so I don’t really know.”

“We play a game.  Then we sing.  Then we break into groups and learn about the Bible.”

“That sounds nice,” I said.  “I’m part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on campus.  It sounds kind of like your youth group, but without the game.”

“That’s too bad.  The games are the best part.”

“Yeah, but this is a group for UJ students, so they aren’t going to play kid-type games.  But a lot of times we hang out afterward.”

“That’s fun.”

I ended up staying at the Hunters’ house for about another hour after we got off the raft.  Ted showed me around the rest of the house, and I watched them play some racing video game.  I took a turn myself, but did not do well, since I was not used to the controls.  When it came time for me to leave, I asked Zac and Danny, “Do you guys have rides home?”

“If you can take us, that would be great.”

“You both live in Jeromeville?” I asked, slightly wary after discovering that Ted lived so far outside of town.

“Yeah.”

“Sounds good.”  I went to find Ted’s parents, to tell them that I was taking the other boys home.  “Thanks for letting me hang out here this afternoon,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” Dr. Hunter replied.  “You’re welcome here any time.”

“It was nice meeting you,” Mrs. Hunter added.

“You too,” I said.  “I’ll see you around.”

Danny lived in west Jeromeville off of Lakeside Avenue, and Zac lived off of Andrews Road about half a mile north of the church and fairly close to my apartment.  When I got home, Shawn was upstairs in our shared bedroom, sitting at his desk writing something.

“Hey, Greg,” Shawn said.  “How was your afternoon?”

“Weird,” I replied.  “But fun.  Three teenage boys from church, whom I’ve never met before, walked up to me and decided they wanted to hang out with me.  We went to McDonald’s, and then we went to one of their houses, which backs up a slough, and we got on the water in a raft.”

“Wow.  That is interesting.  Kind of random.”

“Yeah.”

I took my Bible, the daily devotional book I had bought at Urbana, and the notebook I was using as a prayer journal and sat on the couch on the landing on the top of the stairs.  I opened the devotional book and read the Scripture for the day.  I began writing in the notebook, thinking of things to pray for.  Seeking and knowing God’s will.  Wisdom to know where God wanted me to serve.  To come to terms with Haley’s rejection.

I started thinking about everything I had learned at the Urbana convention three weeks ago.  I had gone to that convention wanting to learn more about missions, but also seeking some specific role to play in the body of Christ.  What if this was an answer to prayer?  What if God was using Ted and Zac and Danny to show me my role?  Maybe God is calling me to youth ministry, I wrote in the journal.

Over the next few weeks, I kept praying about this.  I also hung out with those boys after church a few more times.  Sure, I was several years older than them, but they were fun, and they were interested in what I had to say.  They taught me some of their favorite video games.  I showed them my creative project, my comic-book-like stories called Dog Crap and Vince.

About a month later, in mid-February, Taylor approached me after church one day.  “Hey, Greg, I have a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve noticed you’ve been hanging out with Ted and Zac and Danny after church lately.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m taking spring quarter off.  I’m going to be doing an urban missions project in Chicago for the spring and summer.  I told you that, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I was wondering, since you get along with those boys so well, that maybe you might want to take my spot as a leader with The Edge.  Those boys are all in my small group.  You could try it for the next month while I’m still around and do the small group with me.”

Thank you, God, for bringing another answer to prayer directly to me, I said in my head.  It was at least worth a try.  “Sure,” I said.  A month after that day with the raft, I began volunteering with the junior high group at church, which I would go on to do for the next four years.


Readers: Have you ever had a memorable moment hanging out with random strangers?

Also, if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out these two guest posts I wrote for other blogs, about two childhood Christmases. Merry Christmas!
December 23-25, 1985. A new family tradition born of immaturity and impatience (for Tall Blonde Tales)
December 25, 1986. The decorative candles (for My Days In Montana)