January 16, 1998.  A fresh cheeseburger, and a fresh take on relationships. (#160)

A few days before my high school graduation, our class took an overnight trip to Disneyland, in California.  For a few designated days in May and June, the park closes early to the general public and stays open late for these all-night graduation trips.  On the way home the next morning, near the start of the long all-day drive, we drove past a fast food restaurant on a frontage road within view of the freeway.  The restaurant had the familiar white and red building, and red and yellow sign, used by many fast food establishments, but the name on the sign was one unfamiliar to me: IN-N-OUT BURGER.

“That place looks like such a total ripoff of McDonald’s,” someone on my bus said.

“No way!” someone else replied.  “Have you ever been to In-N-Out Burger?  It’s way better than McDonald’s!”

I would learn eventually that In-N-Out Burger had been a southern California mainstay since the late 1940s, when they opened their first location based around a concept that was new for the time period: the drive-thru lane.  The earliest In-N-Out Burgers only had drive-thru lanes, a walk-up window, and a couple of picnic tables; indoor seating came eventually with future locations.

On that day I first heard the name In-N-Out Burger, they had around ninety locations spread out throughout southern California.  Unbeknownst to me, in the last couple years, In-N-Out Burger had begun expanding beyond southern California, and a month or so after that graduation trip, I would learn that In-N-Out Burger had a location under construction not far from my house.  I never got to eat there, though, because I moved to Jeromeville for school the same weekend that it opened.  My parents went there a few months later, and Mom said she liked the burger but the fries were not very good, so I spent the next three years thinking that In-N-Out Burger was not a big deal.

A few months ago, early into my senior year at the University of Jeromeville, I started hearing people say that a new In-N-Out Burger was under construction in Jeromeville.  My friends who had grown up in places with In-N-Out Burger locations all seemed excited.  In November, I took a road trip in the church van to a convention for church youth group leaders in San Diego, with the youth pastors and a few other volunteers.  On that trip, when Taylor Santiago found out that I had never eaten at In-N-Out Burger, he insisted that we go to In-N-Out Burger on the way home, so I could experience this cheeseburger.  I was instantly hooked, although by now, two months after that trip, I had only eaten In-N-Out Burger one other time, at a different location on the way home from winter break.

The last few times I had driven past In-N-Out Burger in Jeromeville, the building had looked complete, but it was clearly not open yet.  One day earlier this week, I took a walk there between classes and saw an employee outside of the closed building.  I asked him when it would open, and he said Friday, at 10:30 in the morning.

Last Wednesday, I was at church in my role as a youth group volunteer, and I mentioned to the others that In-N-Out Burger opened on Friday.  “I want to eat there as soon as possible,” I said.  “It’ll probably be crowded, but it would be fun to go on the first day.”

“I can’t go Friday,” Noah Snyder, replied.  “I’m busy all day.  And I’ve heard the lines can be pretty long on the first day.  Last year, someone I know back home drove up to Valle Luna to eat at the one there on the day it opened, and he said he had to wait almost two hours.”

“I’ll go with you,” Taylor said.  “What time are you free on Fridays?”

“I have a three-hour gap from 11 to 2.  So even if there is a two hour wait, we should make it back in time.  Hopefully if we get there early, though, the wait won’t be that long.  The guy said they open at 10:30.”

“Sounds good.  You want to walk over from campus?”

“Yeah.  That works.  Where should I meet you?”

“The flagpole at 11?  Does that work?”

“Sure!”


On Friday morning, I had my internship in Mr. Gibson’s geometry class at Jeromeville High, then I returned to the UJ campus for Abstract Algebra.  I had trouble concentrating that whole time.  It was Friday, I had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that night, and I was looking forward to relaxing and catching up on studying over the weekend, but right now all I could think of was In-N-Out Burger.  I just wanted that hot and fresh hamburger, dripping with melted cheese and soaked in special sauce, in my mouth right now, accompanied by the hot French fries that my mother did not like for some reason.

When Abstract Algebra got out, I walked across the Quad to the flagpole outside the Memorial Union.  It was a cool and cloudy day; I was wearing a jacket, the big one that I had gotten a year ago for the trip to Urbana.  I looked around; Taylor had not yet arrived.  I stood near the flagpole, slowly pacing and looking in different directions, unsure from which direction he would be coming.  A number of other people were standing around the flagpole, presumably waiting for their friends also.  The flagpole was a common meeting point on campus, particularly in 1998 when the technology of text messaging was in its infancy.  Most university students did not have cellular phones, and the phones and phone services available in 1998 typically were not capable of sending text messages. Students looking to meet face to face had to agree on a location and a time in advance.  I started to get nervous that Taylor would not show up, or that I had misunderstood and arrived at the wrong time.  Maybe Taylor had left already and was going to In-N-Out Burger without me.  What would I do if that were the case?

It was not.  Taylor showed up around 11:10.  “Hey, man,” he said.  “You ready?”

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

Taylor and I walked diagonally southeast across the Quad, toward Orton Hall, passing Old North and Old South Halls on the left.  We turned left, to the east, on the street in front of Orton Hall, called Shelley Avenue, which then became First Street off campus.

“So how are classes this quarter?” Taylor asked at one point.  “You’re graduating in June, right?”

“Yeah, and I don’t need to overload my schedule in order to complete everything.  I’m only taking 14 units.  Two math classes, Ed Psych, and interning at Jeromeville High.”

“How’s that?  You did that last year too, right?”

“Yes.  This class isn’t all college-bound students, like the one from last year was. It’s a different experience.  A lot of them are tuned out during class and don’t do their work.”

“That would be me if I were in that class,” Taylor said, laughing.

“Ha,” I replied.

“You’re not taking the Paul class with Hurt this quarter?”

“No,” I replied.  “I couldn’t fit it into my schedule.”  I had really enjoyed all of Dr. Hurt’s other Religious Studies classes on the New Testament, but the Paul class was at the same time as Abstract Algebra.  “I’ll be able to take Christian Theology next quarter, though.”

“That’s a good one.  I took it last year.  So what will you be doing next year?”

“I’m staying at UJ for the teacher certification program.”

“Oh, good!  You’ll still be around.”

“Technically I haven’t heard yet if I’m accepted, but I know the professor who runs it.  He’s the supervising professor for my internship at Jeromeville High.  And he said he doesn’t see any reason I wouldn’t get in.  What about you?  Are you graduating in June?”

“December.  I’m gonna need one more quarter.”

“And your major will be Religious Studies?” I asked, uncertain because Taylor had changed his major multiple times in the last three and a half years.

“Yeah.”

On our left, across First Street, we walked past hotels, old houses made into office buildings, and a couple of fraternity houses.  On the right, our side of the street was lined with olive trees.  When I started at UJ, a vacant field of dirt, technically part of the university, sat between these olive trees and the eastern end of the Arboretum, but last year a new housing development, around thirty small houses specifically for university faculty, opened on that lot.

“Last week,” Taylor said, “I was hanging out with Brent one night, and we were thinking of taking a road trip this summer to go to every In-N-Out Burger.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.  “How many of them are there?”

“Like a hundred and twenty, or something like that.  But they’re only in a few states, so we wouldn’t be going all the way across the country or anything.  We’d probably take about a month for it.”

“That’s still averaging four In-N-Outs every day.”

“It’s pretty intense, but it can be done.  It’ll be a memorable experience.”

“That sounds fun,” I said.  Part of me wanted to be invited along, but another part of me did not want to give up the summer after my graduation, a shorter summer than usual since my student teaching placement next year would not be on the same schedule as UJ, to eat the exact same thing multiple times per day.

“I’ve been hanging out with Brent a lot lately.  We stay up all night talking.”

“That seems exactly like something you two would do,” I said.

“Really.  Like another time recently, we were talking about women, and dating.  And how, you know, at church and at groups like 20/20 and JCF, all they ever teach you is to wait until you’re married and not rush into things.  But they never teach you the right way to form relationships.  So, we said, it would be nice if there were a group that encouraged emotionally and spiritually healthy dating among Christians.”

“That would be helpful,” I said.  “That’s a good idea.  I know I could use some guidance on that.  I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“We were talking about all these ideas, how the married couples could mentor the newly dating couples.  And everyone could encourage the singles.”

“I wonder if a real group like that could ever happen?”

“Oh, yeah, then we were talking about what you’d call a group like that.  I told Brent, ‘We should name it after you.  The Brent Wang Fellowship.’”  Taylor laughed.

“That’s hilarious!” 

“Yeah, and I told Brent we could make t-shirts with his face on them.”

“Ha!”  I laughed loudly.  “That would be awesome!”

“So we can count on you to be a member of the BWF?”

“The BWF,” I repeated.  “You even have an acronym.  Yes.  I’m in, for sure.”

By now, we had turned right onto Cornell Boulevard, under the railroad track, and we could see In-N-Out Burger across the street on the left, between the railroad track and Highway 100.  Murder Burger, an independent restaurant that had been an institution in Jeromeville for a decade, was on the right.  Many of the locals complained about In-N-Out’s proposed location, right across the street from an established local competitor, and portrayed them as a big chain store trying to put the little guy out of business.  Murder Burger countered by expanding their menu, which already offered more variety than the minimalist menu of In-N-Out.  This is the proper response to such a situation in the business world, rather than the regulations seeking to rig the system that many Jeromevillians support.

As we crossed the street, I could see a long line of cars in the In-N-Out drive-thru and a line of people extending out of the building into the parking lot.  It was long, but not as long as I had feared.  I would make it back to campus in plenty of time for my class at two o’clock.

“How is dating going for you anyway?” Taylor asked.  “Any women in your life?”

“No,” I replied dejectedly.  “I got brave and asked someone out at the end of last quarter.  She said no.”

“Aww.  Who was it?”

I hesitated.  I never liked to tell people who I liked.  I had a history of being made fun of and embarrassed on the few occasions when I did.  I trusted Taylor, though.  “Carrie Valentine,” I said in a slightly hushed voice.  “Do you know her?  She goes to JCF.”

“I’ve heard that name, but I don’t think I know her.  Sorry, it didn’t work out, man.”

“I don’t know.  Nothing about dating makes sense to me.”

“That’s why the world needs the Brent Wang Fellowship!”

“Exactly!”


We waited in line for about half an hour, but the wait for the food once we ordered was much more reasonable, about ten minutes.  It appeared that In-N-Out Burger had anticipated the large crowds and scheduled more people than usual to work today, so that all of the customers would receive their food quickly.

I sighed happily as that first bite of cheeseburger hit my taste buds.  The French fries were unusually hot as well.  I would realize over the next few months, as I made more visits to In-N-Out, that their fries have a very short half life.  They are wonderful when you eat them fresh, but they quickly become cold and turn into what are basically long potato chips.  I reasoned that this must have been why my mother did not like In-N-Out fries: they probably got cold by the time she got home and ate them.

We were done eating by 12:30.  There were many people wandering the restaurant waiting to take our table, so we went back to campus and let someone else sit in our spot.  As we were leaving, Taylor asked if we could take a picture.  He handed his camera to someone just arriving, who stepped back and took a picture of both of us outside the restaurant.

When we got back to campus, Taylor had other things to do, so we parted ways back at the Memorial Union.  I walked inside and sat down, finding a copy of the Daily Colt and turning to the crossword puzzle.

The rest of the day was a typical Friday, although I kept thinking of that wonderful lunch.  I had Educational Psychology at two o’clock, then I took the bus home and took a nap.  After I made a plate of spaghetti for dinner, I went back to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I arrived about ten minutes early and walked into the room, still mostly empty.  The first person I saw was Brent Wang, who was always there early because he was in the worship band.

“Hey, Greg,” Brent said.  “How was In-N-Out?”  It was no surprise to me that Brent knew that Taylor and I had gone to In-N-Out for lunch, since Brent was one of Taylor’s best friends.

“So good!” I said enthusiastically.

“What’s so good?” Scott Madison asked, walking up behind me.  He was with his fiancée Amelia and two freshmen from the dorm-based Bible study he led, a cute curly-haired blonde girl named Brianna and a tall, messy-haired guy named Blake.

“My lunch today,” I replied cryptically.

“Where’d you go?” Amelia asked.

“I know!  I know!” Brent exclaimed, smiling slyly.

“Did you make something or go out somewhere?” Amelia said.

As Brent continued, I realized what he was doing.  He was not saying “I know”; he was actually saying the letters “I-N-O,” the initials for In-N-Out Burger, in a way that intentionally sounded like he was saying “I know.”  “I-N-O!  I-N-O!”

“Taylor and I went to In-N-Out Burger,” I explained.

Brianna then joined the conversation, blurting out excitedly, “It’s open?”

“It opened today.”

“No way!  My roommates and I need to find a time to go!  I used to go to In-N-Out back home all the time!”

“That sounds delicious,” Amelia said.  “Glad you were able to make it.”

“We’ll have to go this weekend,” Scott added.


Taylor and Brent never did their In-N-Out road trip.  But that conversation planted a seed in my mind, a new ongoing goal in life: eat at as many different In-N-Out Burger locations as possible.  I started looking up In-N-Out Burger locations nearby every time I went on a road trip, so that I could go to one that I had never been to before.  Within a few years, I was having to make side trips or take less direct routes in order to find In-N-Out Burger locations new to me.  Sometimes, I have traveled through areas with In-N-Out Burger locations where I do not often go, stopping at multiple In-N-Out Burgers for the same meal, getting a cheeseburger at one place, French fries in the next town down the road, and a drink still somewhere else.

After a quarter-century of keeping track of all the In-N-Out Burgers I have been to, my total today, in the spring of 2023, stands at 125.  In-N-Out has been expanding steadily, now with almost 400 stores across seven states and plans to expand to two more states.  In-N-Out’s roots are in California, and most of their recent expansion has been focused on the states where Californians have fled in great numbers, as California’s quality of life has declined sharply in the 2010s and 2020s.  This is a brilliant marketing strategy, giving them a built-in fan base in their new cities.  On the average, they have opened about three new locations for every time I add one to my list.  I will likely never eat at every In-N-Out Burger in my lifetime, but this goal of finding In-N-Out Burgers new to me will nevertheless give me adventures to go on for years to come.

Taylor and Brent’s ideas for the Brent Wang Fellowship seemed silly at the time, something that a couple of girl-crazy but single university students might come up with.  But the more I thought about this over the next few weeks, it actually made a lot of sense.  Taylor was exactly right; there is a lot of discussion in church youth and college groups about what not to do as far as dating and relationships are concerned, but very little discussion about what to do.  I needed this kind of guidance.  No one had taught me anything about relationships in childhood or my teens, so I had no concept of how to express interest to a girl, or how to go on a date, or what kind of activities constituted a date and what did not.

I had not yet driven myself crazy with another unrequited crush, but there were a few girls I kind of wanted to get to know better.  Like Sadie Rowland from JCF.  I had not talked to her in a few days, she was not at JCF that week, but when we did talk, the conversation just seemed to flow naturally and effortlessly.  Or Brianna Johns, the curly-haired blonde freshman.  She had gotten excited when I said that In-N-Out Burger was open, so we definitely had one thing in common right there.  Yet something told me that if I had asked her on a date and chosen In-N-Out Burger as the destination, this probably would not be seen as particularly romantic.  But I did not know any romantic date restaurants, nor did I know what did and did not constitute a place to ask someone on a date.  This was all so confusing, and thinking about it just made me discouraged.  Maybe one day I would actually meet someone in a way that I would not have to worry about doing something stupid.


Readers: Have you ever been to In-N-Out Burger? Do you have any chain restaurants specific to your part of your country that you love? Tell me about it in the comments!

Also, this is not a sponsored post. In-N-Out Burger is not paying me to say any of this.

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.


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December 9-12, 1997.  Not everything follows consistent rules the way math does. (#156)

Three more days, I kept telling myself as I stared out the window of the bus.  Three more days, and I could finally take a break from studying.  I could take a break from everything, in fact.  It was Tuesday morning, and by Friday afternoon I would be done with this quarter.  

I arrived at campus around nine-thirty, an hour before my first final.  I had been studying abstract algebra all weekend, and I felt ready for this final.  But I still found an empty seat in the very crowded Coffee House, across the street from Wellington Hall where my class met, and reread sections of the textbook over again.  That was just who I was when it came to studying.

A few minutes after ten, I saw a girl from my math class named Jillian walk by.  She was a thin, pale girl with shoulder-length straight hair that was dyed black, and she held a large chocolate chip cookie in a paper wrapper.  I did not know her well, we had never really said more than hi to each other, but I recognized her enough to wave.  She waved back and walked toward me.

“How’s it going?” Jillian asked.  “Ready for the final?”

“I think so,” I said.  “What about you?”

“I’m freaking out.  This is gonna be so hard.  Can I sit down?”

“Sure.”

“Quiz me on vocabulary.”

“What’s a group?”

“It’s a set with, um, an operation on the elements of the set, and the inverse property.”

“And?”

“Oh.  And the identity.”

“And there’s one more thing.”

“There is?”

“Another property that the operation has.”

“Commutative.  No, associative.”

“Associative, yes.  And a group with the commutative property also, what’s that called?”

“It’s that one that starts with A.  Crap.  I don’t remember.”

“You’re right, though.  Abelian group.”

“Oh, yeah!”

Jillian opened her textbook and skimmed through it as she took a bite of her cookie.  “It’s a little chewy,” she said after swallowing. “It’s like it isn’t cooked all the way through.”  She took another bite and continued, “I guess I should say it isn’t baked all the way through.”

“That’s weird,” I said.  “Why do they call it a cookie?  You bake it, you don’t cook it.  They should call it a bakie.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m gonna start using that,” I said.  “Chocolate chip bakies.”

Jillian looked up at me.  “How are you doing this?  We have a final in a few minutes, I’m freaking out trying to cram as much as I can, and you’re over here talking about bakies!  I wish I could be as calm as you right now.”

I laughed.  “I guess I just feel ready for this final.”

“I wish I did.”

Jillian and I sat at the table for another fifteen minutes or so, occasionally quizzing each other about abstract algebra.  When I noticed it was almost time for the final, I asked, “You want to walk over now?  It’s almost time.”

“Sure,” Jillian replied, grabbing her bag and slinging it over her shoulder.  I put on my backpack, and we walked together across the street to Wellington Hall.

“What are you doing over break?” I asked.

“Just going home.”

“Where’s home?”

“Capital City.”

“That’s not far.”

“What about you?  Are you going home?”

“Yeah.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”  By then, my fourth year at the University of Jeromeville, I no longer waited for people to ask “Where’s that?” when I mentioned Plumdale.

“How far is that?  Couple hours’ drive?”

“Yeah.  Two and a half.  Then for New Year’s, I’m going to see my old roommate at his parents’ house in Valle Luna.  He’s in medical school in New York now.  And apparently he always has these massive New Year’s parties at his parents’ house.  I’ve never been to one.”

“That sounds fun.”

The math final was straightforward, and I thought I did well.  I hoped that Jillian did well too; she seemed really worried about this final.  Although fourth-year university mathematics courses were not as easy to me as high school math was, I still felt bad for people who struggled so much with math when I did not.  Everything made so much sense, and everything followed consistent rules.  But those people who are not good at math are good at other things in life that I am not.  Unfortunately, not everything follows consistent rules the way math does.


Part of the reason I felt like the rules of life were so inconsistent were that I, like all people, was often not in control of the things that happened to me.  I had heard all of the clichés about making things happen and not being a victim of circumstances, but that could only go so far.  I was not in control, and I never would be.  But occasionally, the unpredictability of life worked out in my favor.

I had two other finals, my other math class tomorrow afternoon and English on Friday.  I wanted to find a quiet spot in the library and study this afternoon before I went home, but first it was time for lunch.  I walked back to the Coffee House where I had been sitting earlier.  The student-run Coffee House, despite its name, also sold burritos, pizza, sandwiches, and many other food items.  I got a slice of pepperoni pizza and a Coca-Cola and carried it over to the tables, and I saw something that had the potential to make this good day perfect.

Carrie Valentine was sitting at a table, eating lunch, alone.

I walked closer to make sure it was her, since she was facing away from me.  The girl at the table was taller than average, with straight brown hair, wearing a dark red long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans that were frayed at the bottom of the legs.  I approached from the side, hesitantly at first until I recognized her for sure, then more purposefully.  Carrie saw me approaching out of the corner of her dark brown eyes.  As she turned to look at me, I said, “Hey.”

“Hi, Greg!” Carrie replied enthusiastically.  “Sit down!”

I smiled and sat across from her.  “How are you?  Did you have any finals yet today?”

“I had one this morning at 8, and I have another one at 4.  I’m staying here all day to study so I don’t get distracted.  But I’m taking a lunch break.”

“I just got out of a final, for abstract algebra.”

“Abstract algebra,” Carrie repeated.  “The name of that class makes my brain hurt.”

“That’s what a lot of people say,” I said.  “The final was pretty straightforward.”

“Good!  How many more do you have?”

“One tomorrow and one Friday.”

“That’s not too bad.”

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on a new episode of Dog Crap and Vince during study breaks at home  I should have enough time to get that done this week.”

Dog Poop… what?”

Dog Crap and Vince.  I haven’t told you about that?”

“No!  What’s that?”

“Did I tell you about the movie I made with the youth group kids from church?”

“Yeah!  That sounded like a lot of fun!”

“I do a website called Dog Crap and Vince.  It’s a series of illustrated stories about two weird teenagers and their friends.  I’ve been doing things with these characters for several years now.  And that movie was based on those characters.”

“What did you say it was called?”

Dog Crap and Vince.

“Dog Crap?”

“Yes.”

“One of the guys is named Dog Crap?  Why?”

“Because I was sixteen when I made them up, and anything related to poop is funny.”

“That makes sense.  I guess, at least.  I only have a sister, so I don’t know what goes through the minds of teenage boys.  So you write a story and draw pictures to go with it?”

“The drawings really aren’t that good.  It would probably work better as animation, but I don’t have the capability to do that right now.”

“That’s so cool, though!  What’s this next one about?”

“It’s a Christmas special.  The guys and their friends do a Secret Santa exchange.”

“Secret Santa?”

“Yeah.  They all get randomly assigned someone else in the group to buy a gift for.”

“Oh, okay.  I’ve heard of that, but I’ve never called it Secret Santa.”

“Dog Crap gets someone he doesn’t know very well, and he keeps buying exactly the wrong thing.  And Vince has to buy something embarrassing for the person he has.  And then when they meet up to exchange the gifts, all these weird things happen.”

“That sounds funny!   Are you looking to get this published someday?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “For now I’m just doing this for fun.  You want to read it?”

Carrie’s eyes lit up.  “Yeah!” she said, smiling.  “It’ll probably have to wait until I’m done with finals, but I’ll totally read it!”

“I’ll send you the link when I’m done.  I should be done later tonight.”

“Thanks!”

“So what are you doing over break?”

“Just going home.  And my sister is coming over.  She’s older, she lives on her own. What about you?”

“Same, going home.”  I told Carrie about going to visit my family, and about Brian Burr’s New Year party in Valle Luna.

“I remember Brian,” Carrie replied.  “That’ll be fun seeing him.”

“Are you doing anything for New Year’s?”

“Not really.  I don’t usually.”

“Nothing wrong with that.  Brian said everyone can stay over at his house, so I can try to sleep before I drive home.”

“That’ll be good.”

Carrie and I had both finished eating by then.  “I really should get going now,” she said.  “But it was good hanging out with you!”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I’ll send you a link to Dog Crap and Vince.”

“Yes!  That’ll be good!  Good luck with the rest of your finals, and enjoy your break!”

“Thanks!  You too!”  Carrie gave me a hug, and I walked toward the library, to find a quiet place to immerse myself in number theory in preparation for my next final exam.

Later that night, after I finished the Dog Crap and Vince Christmas episode and posted it to the website, I opened a blank email and began typing to Carrie.  I copied and pasted the link to Dog Crap and Vince, then continued typing, “How did your final go?  How many more do you have?  I hope you did well!  It was good to see you today.”

Earlier today, an opportunity had fallen into my lap when I got to talk to Carrie at the Coffee House.  Now, it felt like time to seize that opportunity and use it to take a giant leap forward.  I paused, trying to think of exactly how to word the next part.  It had to be absolutely perfect.  After I deleted three or four attempts at the next sentence, I came up with this: “Would you ever want to get together for lunch again sometime?  If you’re busy with finals, we can plan for after we get back from break.  Take care, and I’ll talk to you soon.”

Now all there was to do was wait.


After I finished the number theory final on Wednesday afternoon, I felt confident.  I was pretty sure I answered everything correctly.  When I got home, the first thing I did was check my email.  I heard the sound that I had new messages, and I could feel my body tense up when I saw that one of the messages was from Carrie.  I took a few deep breaths, then double-clicked Carrie’s name to open the message.


From: “Carrie Valentine” <cavalentine@jeromeville.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 14:06 -0800
Subject: Re: Dog Crap and Vince

Hi Greg!  Your Dog Crap and Vince story was funny!  Thanks for sharing!  Also, thank you for the offer, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to get together right now.  But good luck with finals, and have a great Christmas with your family.

– Carrie


I closed the message on the screen, then climbed up to my bed on the loft above the computer and lay down, face down.  What did I do wrong?  Why was this not a good idea?  I was confused.  Did this mean that Carrie did not want to talk to me at all anymore?  Was she only being nice to my face because it was proper, and she really hated me and did not like talking to me?  Should I leave her alone now?  Should I have left her alone yesterday?  Or was she just busy with finals?

As I thought about this, I realized something.  If Carrie really was just pretending to like me, and we were not really friends, then maybe I had nothing to lose by asking her why she turned me down and finding out what was really going on.  What would happen if I asked her?  She would get mad and never talk to me again?  Maybe that was for the best.  On the other hand, if there was some other reason Carrie turned me down, then she really was enough of a friend that she might actually be honest with me.  I typed another email before I went to bed that night, trying not to sound presumptuous, arrogant, or anything else that might jeopardize this friendship that may or may not exist.  It took several tries to get the wording right, and I still was not sure it came across the way I wanted.


To: “Carrie Valentine” <cavalentine@jeromeville.edu>
From: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Subject: Re: Dog Crap and Vince

I’m sorry if I did anything wrong.  May I ask what you meant when you said it wasn’t a good idea to get together?


I spent most of Thursday studying, although the English final tomorrow would not exactly be the kind of exam where I had to memorize facts.  I went to campus for a few hours just to get out of the house.  I checked my email when I got back, and this message was in my inbox.


From: “Carrie Valentine” <cavalentine@jeromeville.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Thu, 11 Dec 1997 12:29 -0800
Subject: Re: Dog Crap and Vince

I just meant that it kind of sounded like you were asking me on a date.  I’ll see you after break.  Good luck with your last final!


I thought, what does that mean?  Of course I was asking you on a date!  Why is that a bad thing?  If Carrie really was not interested in dating me, why could she not just say so?  I noticed she did not answer the part of the question about if I had done anything wrong.  It would be nice to know if I did something wrong, so I could fix that for future interactions.  It was possible she was just not attracted to me that way; I had plenty of single female friends I was not attracted to as more than a friend through no wrongdoing of their own.  That answer would have been disappointing, since that seems to be the case with all girls I am interested in, but at least I would not be left to wonder what I did.

I thought I did fine on the English final, it seemed like a simple enough piece of writing, but when grades were released, I ended up with a B in that class.  It was my only B in five years at UJ, from freshman year through the teacher training classes I would be taking the following year.  I did not have a perfect 4.0 grade-point average before that, though, because I had gotten two A-minuses over the years and would get one more later that year, and an A-minus only counts as 3.7 grade points in UJ’s grading system.  There were now two reasons that 1997 was ending on a disappointing note.  Hopefully Brian Burr’s New Year party would be awesome enough to make up for this disappointment.

I still was not sure how to interpret Carrie’s remark about being asked out on a date.  Was the act of someone asking someone else on a date being construed as a bad thing in and of itself?  Why?  Was it not true that people asked other people on dates all the time?  If this confused me now, then it is little wonder that upcoming events of 1998 and the years beyond would find me even more confused and frustrated.  But that is another story for another time.

None of those things ended up being the reason why Carrie had written what she did.  I was a little distant for the next couple months, but Carrie and I did stay friends after this.  An opportunity arose a few years later to bring this up and ask about what happened.  By then, it was less awkward to discuss, since it was clear that it did not matter and I was not trying to rekindle anything.  Carrie and I lived sixty miles apart at that time, and she was already in a relationship with the man she would eventually marry.  I found out that the reason she rejected me was actually more complicated than any of the scenarios I had considered in my head, and her side of the story definitely cleared things up.  Because of that, it is no coincidence that Carrie is the only one of my many failed love interests at UJ whom I am still occasionally in touch with today.

But there was no such comfort in my mind as I packed my car and drove down Highway 6 through the hilly outer suburbs of Bay City to San Tomas, then down Highway 11 to my parents’ house.  All I knew was that I had failed again in making any meaningful steps toward finding a girlfriend.  This had been the story of my life so far, and I was learning nothing that would lead to more successful outcomes in the future.


Readers: Merry Christmas! I’ll be taking a break from writing for a while, as I always do whenever character-Greg takes finals in December and June. Keep in touch, and leave a comment about anything you want… something this story made you think of, something you’re doing for the holidays if you celebrate anything this time of year, or just something random and silly.

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.


Late October-early November, 1997. I made a movie. (#150)

These days, in the era of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, it is difficult to believe how recently it was that common people did not constantly make their own videos.  In the 1990s, doing so required a camera that cost hundreds of dollars, and was the size and weight of a medium-sized textbook, at minimum.  Also, it was necessary to record these videos onto a tape, and to make sure that there was enough room on the blank tape to record the video without erasing any existing footage.  Showing someone a homemade video required a television connected to a VCR or to the camera itself.  The Internet existed, but the processing and connection speeds of computers in that era limited most Internet uses to text and standard-definition photos and graphics.

I never had a video camera growing up.  I wanted one so badly.  I had many ideas for movies and shows I wanted to make.  My brother Mark and I, along with whatever neighborhood kids were around, would sometimes act out performances that would have made good home movies.  We had a weird variety show called The Mark Show, full of characters based on various inside jokes, and a game show called Messy Room, inspired by Double Dare and Fun House and the other kids’ game shows that briefly became popular in my preteen years.  For some of our shows, we would record the audio so we could at least listen to them later, but they were the kind of performances that would have worked much better with video.

Now, in my early 20s, my creative project was a website called Dog Crap and Vince, which I began shortly after I taught myself the basics of HTML, the code used to make websites.  Dog Crap and Vince was a series of crudely illustrated stories about the adventures of two quirky high school students, and it would have worked much better as video or animation.  I still did not have a video camera, nor did I have the money to buy one.  But I had more connections now than as a child, so when I showed Dog Crap and Vince to the boys from the youth group at church, and mentioned that it would work better as a TV show or a movie, Zac Santoro offered to ask his dad if I could borrow their video camera.  And thus one of my most involved creative endeavors of my life so far was born.

That night, we had talked about beginning the project Sunday after church, so when I walked up to Zac, Ted Hunter, and Danny Foster after church and asked if they were ready to start filming, I felt inwardly frustrated when Zac replied, “Huh?”

“The Dog Crap and Vince movie.  You said you talked to your dad about borrowing your video camera, and that we could start filming today.”

“Oh, yeah!  He said you could borrow it.”

“So, like, now?  Are we going to your house?”

“Sure.”

“I can’t,” Ted said.  “My mom said I have to come straight home.”

“We talked about this on Wednesday,” I reminded Ted.  “You said you’d be free on Sunday, and that you would play Vince.”

“I forgot.”

“Well, I can still get the camera, and maybe we can film some scenes that don’t have Vince in them.”

“Film some scenes?” a voice behind me asked.  I turned around to see Jim Herman.  I knew Jim from seeing him around church; he was older than me, I would guess in his mid-thirties, presumably single because I never saw him with any sort of family.  Everyone at church seemed to know Jim.  “What are you guys doing?” Jim asked.

“We’re making a movie,” I explained.  “I’m borrowing a camera from the Santoros.”

“You think I could go along and help out?”  Jim’s question caught me off guard, and when he saw me hesitate, he added, “That way you can all be on camera at the same time, and I can be the cameraman.”

“Sure,” I said.  “That would be helpful for scenes I’m going to be in.”


By the time we got to the Santoros’ house, we had already made a change to the script.  The boys had decided to film a scene that broke the fourth wall, in which I would knock on Zac’s door asking if Zac could come make a movie with us.  Although I had carefully worked on this script for several days, this change seemed like it would fit the quirky, offbeat nature of the Dog Crap and Vince world.

Zac, Danny, Jim, and I walked up to the front door of Zac’s house.  I knocked on the door, and Zac’s dad answered a minute later  “Hi, boys.  Hi, Greg,” he said, shaking my hand.  “Jim.”  Had I been more observant of body language and subtle cues, I might have noticed a shift in Mr. Santoro’s tone when he addressed Jim, but at the time I thought nothing of it. “Here’s the camera,” Mr. Santoro continued, handing me the camera.  “Please be careful with it.”

“I will,” I said.  “They wanted to film a scene here first.  Is that okay?”

“Sure!”

I handed Jim the camera as we filmed the new scene.  Zac’s six-year-old sister answered the door, and I asked if Zac was home.  Zac appeared a few seconds later, and I said, “Hey, Zac.  Let’s make a movie.”

“Okay!” Zac announced excitedly, acting overly dramatic in a way that I had not intended.

“Go get Danny,” I said.

Zac turned his head toward the inside of the house and called out, “Danny!  Let’s go make a movie!”  Danny ran out of the house a few seconds later, Zac following, me following both of them, and Jim following us with the camera.  “We’ll pick up Ted on the way!” I shouted, since Ted was not there.  The two boys, for reasons unknown other than the fact that they were teenage boys, jumped onto the hood of my parked car.

“Cut,” I said to Jim a few seconds later, taking the camera back after he stopped recording.

“Ow!” Danny said.  “You kicked me in the head!”

“What?” Zac asked.  I played the footage back on the camera’s small screen, and just before Jim had stopped recording, I saw Zac’s foot connect with Danny’s head as they climbed on my car.  “You have to leave that in the movie!” Zac said.  “Sorry, Danny, it was an accident.”

“It looks good,” I said.  “I think it would be hilarious to leave that part in the movie.  Especially since it was an accident.”


The leaders from The Edge, the junior high school youth group from church, would have dinner at the Parkers’ house before youth group on some Wednesdays.  The Parkers’ oldest son, Brody, was a sophomore at the University of Jeromeville and one of the Edge leaders, and their youngest, a girl named Michelle, was a student in the youth group, the same age as the boys I was making the movie with.  Michelle was playing Kim, Dog Crap’s love interest in the movie.  I had arranged with the Parkers and Michelle’s real life friend, a girl from the youth group named Shawna Foreman, to film a scene when the leaders came to the Parkers’ house for dinner.  The two girls were in Michelle’s room, talking about cute boys, when Michelle’s character, Kim, admitted that she liked Dog Crap.  I held the camera for that scene, and one take was good enough.

The Parkers had two telephone lines in their house.  Adam, the youth pastor, was downstairs using one phone to call the other, so that I could record Kim answering the phone in her room.  After Shawna’s character left, the final film would cut to Dog Crap fidgeting in front of his phone, working up the courage to call Kim and ask her to a school dance.

“Hello?” Michelle said in character as Kim.  The final film would then cut to Dog Crap chickening out, awkwardly shouting into the phone, “You have the wrong number!”  I continued running the camera as Michelle got a confused look on her face and said, “Oh, sorry.”  Michelle hung up the phone.  Then she looked up and said, “Wait a minute!  How could I have the wrong number? I didn’t call anyone!”

I played the tape back on the camera’s small screen.  “It looks good,” I said.  “Thanks.  We’ll do the dance scene after The Edge tonight.”

“Sounds good!”

“Do you need me again?” Shawna asked.

“Those were your only speaking lines, but you’ll be in the background at the dance.”

“Great!  I’ll see you tonight!”


Five Iron Frenzy, a punk-ska band with a Christian background who were too edgy to get much attention on Christian radio, was very popular with the Edge kids at the time.  Ted told me that he had gotten the band’s permission to use their music in our movie; he was probably not telling the truth, but I did not bother to check.  After The Edge, I filmed the school dance scene for the end of the movie in the youth room.  Five Iron Frenzy’s “Where Zero Meets Fifteen” played while Dog Crap and Kim danced.  The others in the background danced in much sillier ways than I had imagined; I was losing control of just how quirky this movie was, but I just wanted to get it done.  And quirky was good for a project like this, I thought.

“I love this song!” Zac said in character as Dog Crap.

“Me too!” Michelle replied in character as Kim.  “It’s my boyfriend’s favorite song!”

“Boyfriend?” Dog Crap said.

“Just kidding!  Vince told me to say that.”

I wanted to imply that Vince was playing a prank on Dog Crap by telling Michelle to pretend that she had a boyfriend. I wanted Dog Crap to say something like “I’ll get him back for that,” but what Zac did instead was shout, “Vince!” and run out of the room.  At this point, I was not going to be picky; that would have to be good enough.

Kim’s comment about her boyfriend was a reference to a scene from earlier in the movie.  I had to shoot the film out of order, to accommodate everyone’s schedules, and I took careful notes of what had already been done and who was needed in each scene.  In the boyfriend scene, which we had not yet recorded, Dog Crap and Vince were at school, talking at lunch.  Dog Crap said that it is hard for him to ask a girl out because, whenever he starts talking to a girl, she will start talking about her boyfriend, so that he will not ask her out.

“That’s not true,” Vince replied encouragingly.  “There’s Christine.  Go talk to her.”

Dog Crap walked up to Christine and said, “Hey, Chrsitine.  Did you figure out that one math problem you were confused about?”

“Yeah,” Christine answered.  “My boyfriend is good at math.”

Dog Crap walked back to Vince with a look on his face as if to say I-told-you-so, and Vince said, “That was just one girl.  It’s not everyone.  There’s Samantha.  Go talk to her.”

Dog Crap walked up to Samantha and said, “Hi, Samantha.”

“My boyfriend says hi to people,” Samantha replied.

At least that was how I pictured the scene in my head.  When we recorded it a few days later, Vince said “go ask her out” instead of “go talk to her” for Christine.  That seemed out of place if the whole point of the movie was that Dog Crap wanted to ask out a different girl from these two.

Christine and Samantha each had only one line, and I recorded their parts for that scene after we finished the school dance scene.  It turned out better than I had planned.  When I first started working with The Edge last year, a girl named Samantha Willis had said some awkwardly silly things to me.  When I wrote this scene, I named this character Samantha because I had Samantha Willis in mind to play the role, and fortunately, she agreed.  “My boyfriend says hi to people a lot!” she exclaimed excitedly on camera, before adding “Bye, Dog Crap!”  It was perfect.

We filmed one more scene in the youth room.  I played Matt, the school bully, who was also trying to ask Kim to the dance despite Kim’s frequent rebuffs.  In this scene, near the end of the movie, Kim turns Matt down again.  “I’d rather go out with someone who crawled out from under this table!” Michelle exclaimed in character as Kim, lightly shoving Matt away.

Just then Zac, in character as Dog Crap, crawled out from under the table, where he had been looking for something he dropped.  Dog Crap greeted Kim, who smiled at him, and he used the opportunity to ask her to the dance.  I thought that scene was particularly brilliant writing on my part, and Zac and Michelle acted it perfectly.


On Saturday, I picked up Zac, Ted, Danny, and Michelle, as well as Jim, who did not have a car.  We went to a nearby school, with classrooms that opened directly to the outdoors with no hallway in between, to film the scenes taking place at school.  It was more common in those days for school grounds to be left unlocked, open to the public, and all of the school scenes took place outside of classrooms, so this would be good enough for my purposes.

While Dog Crap was trying to find a way to ask Kim to the dance, Vince was training for an upcoming video game tournament.  My bully character, Matt, in addition to trying to steal Kim, was also bragging that he was going to win the tournament.  Dog Crap’s cousin had told him about Fish Boy, a mysterious video game master who lived in Jeromeville.  I also played Dog Crap’s cousin; my two characters were distinguished on camera by Matt wearing a hat and Dog Crap’s cousin not wearing a hat.  Of course, though, in one scene I forgot to wear the hat as Matt, and confusion resulted when I showed the movie to people later.  I did not know how to run a costume department.

In character as Dog Crap’s cousin, I suggested that we all travel to Jeromeville to meet Fish Boy, and Ted replied as Vince with a brilliant ad-libbed rant.  “Jeromeville?” he said with a crazed look, grabbing my shoulders to get my attention.  “I’ve heard about this place!  They have frog tunnels!  And roundabouts!  And you get arrested for snoring too loud!  It scares me!”

I was not expecting this, but I stayed in character and calmly replied, “But Fish Boy is there!  You’ll win the video game contest for sure.”

Vince, instantly back to normal, said, “Oh, yeah. Let’s go!”

Later, we drove around to film scenes from the Jeromeville trip.  In character, I got lost several times and made multiple wrong turns, including getting stuck in a roundabout circling multiple times.  I took Jim and Michelle home, since I was done with their scenes, and the rest of us went to the Fosters’ house to film the scenes with Danny playing Fish Boy.

Danny’s eighteen-year-old sister Erica, a leader with The Edge, joined us as we walked a quarter mile to the nearest gas station, where the characters had to stop to ask for directions.  I had intended this scene to be a shot-for-shot parody of the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker meets Yoda, without realizing at first that the little green stranger who finds him is Yoda.  The boys wanted to go into the gas station store and get snacks.  I wanted to focus on getting my movie done, but since these boys were doing a favor for me for free, I let them.  Afterward, I reminded everyone of their lines and started the camera.

“We’re being watched!” Zac said in character as Dog Crap, noticing a girl next to them.

“No harm I mean you,” Erica replied, using her normal voice but Yoda’s characteristic syntax.  “Wondering what you are doing here, I am.”

“We’re looking for a video game master.”

“Fish Boy!  You seek Fish Boy!”

“You know Fish Boy?” Dog Crap asked.

“Take you to him, I will!”

For the next scene, we returned to the Fosters’ house.  After an awkward blooper in which Ted forgot his lines, Ted, in character as Vince, angrily spoke up about how they were wasting their time.  Luke Skywalker had done the same when Yoda took him to his house.

“I cannot teach them,” Erica said, turning away.  “They have no patience.  They are not ready.”

“I was once the same way,” Danny replied from off camera.

Dog Crap and Vince looked at Erica, wide-eyed.  “Fish Boy?” they said.  They turned to each other and added, “Fish Boy’s a girl?”

“No, silly!” Erica replied, no longer speaking like Yoda.  “I’m no good at those games!  Fish Boy’s my little brother.”

Danny emerged from his bedroom, wearing some weird mask and carrying a hockey stick.  Neither of those details was in the script, but this movie was already weird enough, so I allowed it.  I continued recording as Fish Boy showed the other two shortcuts and special techniques for the game they were playing.  After we finished, I thanked Danny’s parents for letting us their house.  I took Ted and Zac home, then went home myself.


Over the next couple weeks, when I had time, I finished recording the remaining scenes.  I edited the movie with a very unsophisticated setup of two VCRs connected to each other.  We had a watch party on the big projector screen in the youth room at church after The Edge the following week; most of the Edge leaders and some of the kids who were in the movie stuck around to watch.

By modern standards, the movie was pretty terrible.  I knew nothing of acting, directing, or editing, and with my rudimentary equipment, the video and sound quality was subpar.  The characters’ clothes inexplicably changed from one shot to the next within the same scene, and twice during the movie, my shouts of “Cut!” were audible at the end of scenes, since editing a video with two VCRs was not a precise technique.  The film was only half an hour long, too short to be considered a feature film.  But we had so much fun and made so many memories during those few weeks.

The Dog Crap and Vince movie had a lasting legacy in my life.  The boys from The Edge and I quoted lines from the movie to each other for years to come.  I watched that movie so many times with so many people that I still remember much of the dialogue by heart.  And Samantha, the boys’ classmate whose boyfriend said hi to people, became a regular character in the web series.  It was later revealed that the character’s last name was Whitehead, and years later, among my adult friends, the act of bringing up a significant other in conversation out of context became known as “pulling a Samantha Whitehead.”

Those few weeks that I spent making the Dog Crap and Vince movie also set in motion a chain of events that took a much darker turn.  I had no idea at the time that anything like that would come to pass from it, or that anything like this would happen among a Christian community such as Jeromeville Covenant Church.  Looking back, though, in that context, it makes sense now why Mr. Santoro, normally a warm and friendly man, seemed aloof when he greeted Jim Herman on the day I borrowed the camera.  But that is a story for another time.

This project was also the beginning of my realization that I prefer creative projects I can do alone over ones requiring the involvement of others.  As much as it is fun to bring others into my creative mind, coordinating everyone’s schedules and dealing with flaky people caused much frustration.  The same thing invariably happened every other time I tried to involve others in Dog Crap and Vince projects.  But for the people who did stick to their commitments, I now have a record of the role they played in my life.


Readers: Tell me in the comments about something creative that you worked on with others. Did it all go according to plan or not?

As always, the episodes featuring Dog Crap and Vince were inspired by Cow Chip & Lance, an actual creative project that some people I know have worked on for decades. It has been inactive for a couple years, but some of their material is still available for viewing (click).

Also, if you like music and aren’t following my other site yet, Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64, go follow that one.

And I updated my Greg Out Of Character blog for the first time in several months, with a post that has little to do with 1997. Go follow that one too.

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.


October 10, 1997.  A silly party game at Scott and Joe’s apartment. (#148)

As I walked from the parking lot toward Evans Hall for the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship meeting, I quickly realized that I was probably underdressed wearing just a t-shirt and jeans.  October days in Jeromeville were usually still warm and summerlike; I had worn shorts to class that morning.  But the nights were quickly becoming cooler, and the sun was setting earlier.  It was almost completely dark by the time JCF started that night, and I felt a chill in the air.  Once I got inside, though, I would probably be more comfortable.

I had more friends at this point of my life than I had ever had before, but I was definitely a follower, not a leader, when it came to socializing.  Although JCF was supposed to be a time of worship, prayer, and Scripture, one of the things I looked forward to the most was the possibility of people socializing afterward, whatever form that may take.  I did not typically initiate social activities; I was nervous, and afraid of rejection, and I was not always familiar with the kinds of things that normal people did for fun.  But I also did not want to be presumptuous and invite myself somewhere that I was not welcome.  And, of course, all of this socializing had not led to any better luck with finding a girlfriend.  I had never had a girlfriend, and I had never even so much as kissed a girl.

Now that I was taking my Christian faith more seriously, I was constantly being told to pray about this and submit to God’s will, but so far God’s will did not involve a girlfriend for me.  Nothing had ever worked out with anyone from my year or the year behind me.  There were two cute sophomore girls at JCF whom I was interested in, Carrie Valentine and Sadie Rowland, but so far no opportunities had come up to make anything happen.  Maybe I would have better luck with this year’s new freshmen, although that might bring up questions of whether or not an 18-year-old was too young for me. I was a 21-year-old senior hoping to graduate in 1998.

Sarah Winters and Liz Williams were working the name tag table.  “Hey, Greg,” Sarah said, writing “Greg” on a name tag.  At the same time, a guy named Silas walked up to Liz’s table, and she filled out a name tag for him.

“Hey,” I said, noticing something interesting.  I pointed back and forth between Sarah and Silas and said, “We’re all in Math 115 together.”

“Oh, yeah!” Sarah replied.

“How do you like that class so far?” Silas asked.

“Seems pretty straightforward.  Unlike Math 150.”

“I know!  150 gets kind of weird.”

“What class is that?” Liz asked.

“Number theory,” Sarah replied.  Sarah, Silas, and I were all mathematics majors.  I found it noteworthy that Silas had already taken Math 150, since it was usually a senior class and Silas was only a junior, a year behind me.  But I knew that he was some kind of mathematical genius who had completed a lot of university-level coursework before beginning at the University of Jeromeville.

I looked around the room and found an open seat next to Scott Madison and Amelia Dye.  “Hey, Greg,” Scott said.  “What are you doing after large group?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“You’re coming to my place.”

“What for?”

“Just hanging out.”

“Okay,” I said.  Finding appropriate situations for socializing can be difficult and scary for me sometimes, but other times it was easy, like tonight.

After large group ended, Scott told me he had some things to get ready, and he reminded me to show up at his apartment in half an hour.  I walked around, looking for other people to say hi to.  I saw Sadie a few rows behind me; I walked to the aisle and back toward her.  “Hey,” I said after she turned around and saw me.

“Hi, Greg!  How was your week?”

“Not bad,” I said.  “We had a performance yesterday for chorus.  They’re renaming the drama building after a professor who was instrumental in founding the department, and we had to sing this weird-sounding modern piece with lyrics that she wrote.”

“That’s cool!  I heard about that in the newsroom.  Oh, yeah, did you see I got my first article published in the Daily Colt this week?”

“I did!  I saw your name on the article.  It was the one about the girl who didn’t know she was pregnant, right?”

“Yeah!  Isn’t that crazy?  How do you not know you were pregnant?”

“I guess it’s possible, if you don’t gain much weight during the pregnancy.  But still, her doctor told her multiple times she wasn’t pregnant.  Isn’t it your job as a doctor to know what’s going on with your patient?”

“I know.  At least she and the baby are okay.  And I didn’t really want to write fluff pieces like this, but it’s a start.”

“Yeah.  Put in your time doing this now, and then later you can write the kind of stories you really want to write.”

“I want to write about city news and politics.  Last year’s city writers were way too nice to the crazy liberals who run this town.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Someone needs to tell the truth, and not just suck up to them and their ilk.”

“Their what?”

“I never told you that story?”

“No,” Sadie replied.  I proceeded to tell her about the time I got into an argument on the Quad last year with a City Council member who was against a plan to widen an underpass.  Traffic backed up horribly at that underpass, but according to these elected officials, wide four-lane roads do not belong in a small town like Jeromeville.  “She told me that I was ‘of a different ilk.’”

“‘Ilk,’” Sadie replied.  “That’s a funny word.”

“Seriously.  Jeromeville has fifty-six thousand people.  That’s not a small town.  That’s big enough to have traffic jams.”

As the conversation paused for a few seconds, I contemplated whether or not to invite Sadie to Scott’s house, and if so, how to do so.  I did not feel right bringing an uninvited guest to someone else’s house.  But I really wanted to keep talking to her.  The point became moot, however, when Sadie said, “I should get going.  I’m really tired tonight.  I had a long day.”

“All right,” I replied.  “I’ll see you next week?”

“Yeah!  Have a good night!”  Sadie gave me a hug, then walked out of the building.


Scott led a Bible study on campus for freshmen, and when I arrived at Scott’s apartment that night, a good sized crowd had already shown up.  I recognized Tim and Blake, two freshmen from Scott’s study, sitting and talking to Scott. My Bible study that year was Joe Fox, Scott’s roommate; he was sitting next to his girlfriend, Alyssa Kramer. Kieran Ziegler, John Harvey, Brent Wang, a freshman girl named Chelsea, Silas the math major, and a few others were also there.

Blake and Scott were talking about weddings. Blake said that he had recently been to his cousin’s wedding, and Scott and Amelia were currently planning their wedding next summer. I walked to a couch and sat down, not in a mood to think about weddings. I would probably never have one myself.

After about twenty more minutes of mingling and snacks, Amelia began asking if anyone had ever played a party game called Psychologist.  “Have any of you guys ever played that?  One player is the psychologist, and he has to ask the others questions?”  One other person had some vague memory of the game, but most of us did not know this game.  Amelia continued explaining, “So the psychologist leaves the room, and everyone else decides that they’re going to answer the questions, like, in some certain way.  Not necessarily if it’s true or false, but according to something else.  We all know how we’re answering, and the psychologist has to figure it out.”

“I don’t get it,” Alyssa replied.

“It’ll make more sense when we start playing.  Can we try it?  It’s a fun group game.”  No one objected.  “Who wants to be the psychologist?” Amelia asked.

“I’ll do it,” John said.  “I feel like I should, since I’m a psych major.”

John stepped outside and closed the door behind him.  Amelia explained, “So the way I learned the game is that you answer the questions as if you are the person on your left.  So, for example, Brent is sitting to the left of Greg, so if John asks, ‘Greg, are you a math major,’ Greg would say no, because Brent isn’t a math major.  If John asks, ‘Greg, do you play piano,’ Greg would say yes, because that’s Brent’s answer.  Brent plays piano.  So do we all understand?”

“What if you don’t know the answer?” Brent said.  “Like, what if he asks me, I don’t know, ‘Have you ever been to France?’  I would answer for Scott, but I don’t know if Scott has ever been to France.”

“Just say I don’t know,” Amelia explained.  “I’ll go get John, and we can start playing.”  Amelia went outside to tell John to come in.

“It’s cold out there!” John said.  “You guys ready?”

“We’re ready,” Amelia replied.  “Just start asking yes-or-no questions.”

“Okay,” John said.  “Joe, is it cold outside?”

Joe appeared confused.  “Yes?” he replied.

“You should probably ask people questions about themselves,” Amelia explained.  “That’ll make this easier to figure out.”

“Okay,” John said.  “Amelia, are you getting married next year?”

Blake was on Amelia’s left.  “No,” Amelia replied.

“Hmm,” John said.  “Greg, are you tall?”

“No,” I said.  I was six foot four, but Brent, to my left, was shorter than average for a male university student.  A few people giggled, and Brent gave me a look as if to express humorous annoyance at me calling him out for being short.

“Chelsea, are you female?”

Tim was sitting to Chelsea’s left.  “No,” Chelsea replied, trying to hold back giggles.  A few others laughed.

John continued asking questions that had very obvious answers.  “Brent, do you have dark hair?”

“No,” dark-haired Brent said, with blond Scott to his left.

“Joe, are you a man?”

“Yes,” Joe replied.  I was on his left.

“Hmm,” John contemplated.  This was the first time someone had given an answer that was actually true.  “Greg, are you a man?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Alyssa, are you a man?”

“Yes,” Alyssa replied emphatically, with Joe to her left.  John continued this pattern of asking the same question to multiple people, and after about fifteen minutes, he figured out that we were all answering as if we were the person sitting to our left.

“I wanna play again,” Blake said.

“We can’t really play again, because everyone knows the secret now,” Tim replied.

“We could just think of a different way to answer the questions,” Amelia explained. “Who wants to be the psychologist this time?”

Silas volunteered to be the psychologist; he went into the bathroom and turned on the fan, instead of going outside in the cold.  “Anyone have any ideas of how to answer the questions?”

“We could answer for the person sitting, I don’t know, three to the right,” Alyssa suggested.

“That’ll be too easy to figure out, after we did the person to the left,” John replied.

“Hey, I have an idea,” Blake said.  “We all pick someone, and we look at that person’s hand.  If the hand is palm up, we say yes, and if the hand is palm down, we say no.”

“That’s a great idea!” Amelia said.

“I’ll do the hand,” Kieran said.  “I’m sitting in an armchair, so it’s easy to see.  If my left hand is palm up, say yes, and if my left hand is palm down, say no.”

We called Silas back into the room.  Kieran sat in the armchair with his palm down.  “Tim, are you a freshman?”

“No.”

“Greg, are you in my Math 115 class?”

“No.”

“Kieran, are you a man?”

I looked around the room, where I could see people trying to hold back laughter.  Kieran’s own left hand was the only thing requiring him to claim that he was not a man, and Silas had unwittingly exposed this just three questions into the game.  But Kieran had the perfect response.  “Hmm,” he said loudly as he furrowed his brow and scratched his chin with his left hand, palm up, as if pantomiming being deep in thought.  “Yes,” he said while his palm was up.  A ripple of giggles flowed through the room, since everyone but Silas knew exactly while Kieran moved his hand that way.  Kieran then put his hand back down, palm still up.

Silas, confused about why everyone was laughing, asked, “Tim, do you wear glasses?”

“Yes.”

“Greg, do you wear glasses?”

I did not.  “Yes,” I said.

“Brent, do you wear glasses?”

Brent did wear glasses, but Kieran had switched his hand to the palm down position as Silas was asking the question.  “No,” Brent said.

The questions went around in circles for almost an hour, with people occasionally laughing when humorous answers were given.  At one point, Silas asked me if I was tall; Kieran’s hand was palm up, so I said yes.  Next, Silas asked Chelsea if she was tall; she was five foot two, but Kieran’s hand was still palm up, so she said yes.  That made people laugh.  Kieran switched his hand as Silas was asking other people if they were tall, and he inadvertently asked me again with Kieran’s palm down this time.

“No,” I said.

Silas paused, realizing what had just happened.  “Wait,” he said.  “Earlier, you said you were tall.”  I smiled silently, wondering if he was finally figuring this out.  “Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“No.”

Silas thought about this.  “Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“No.”

“Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“No.”

Kieran switched his hand, grinning.  “Alyssa, do you have brown hair?”

“Yes.”

“Greg, are the Captains your favorite football team?” Silas asked.  I was wearing a Bay City Captains shirt that night.

“Yes.”

“Greg, are the Captains your favorite team?”

“Yes.”

Kieran switched his hand.  “Are the Captains your favorite team?”

“No.”

This continued for another several minutes.  Silas seemed to be counting how many times we answered one way before switching to the other answer, and Kieran wisely switched his hand after inconsistent numbers of questions and answers.  Silas began watching things in the room more carefully, and he eventually noticed Kieran’s hand and figured it out.

“Finally!” Silas said.  “That was a good one.”

“I know,” Kieran replied.  “I thought I was in trouble when you asked if I was a man.”

“That was hilarious,” I said.  “Brilliant performance.”

By the time our second game of Psychologist ended, it was getting late, and the crowd at Scott and Joe’s apartment began dispersing.  I drove home, quietly unlocked the door because I did not know if any of my roommates were asleep yet, and went to bed.

It took me a while to fall asleep, and I thought about the events of that night as I drifted off to sleep.  Psychologist was a fun game.  I wondered if I would ever be able to introduce the game to a new group.  I never did, though, and to this day, I have only played it that one time.  The game was fascinating.  At first, everything looks like nonsense, but after asking enough questions, and making enough careful observations, some order begins to emerge in the players’ replies.

Would I really never get to experience my own wedding?  I did not know, but it sure felt like it.  Everyone else was getting into relationships.  Scott and Amelia were getting married soon, and so was Josh, one of my roommates.  I knew plenty of girls, but I did not know how to make anything happen.  Sadie was lots of fun to talk to, but she always seemed too busy to do fun things after JCF.  Carrie Valentine was not even at large group tonight; I had not talked to her all week.  When would it be my turn?  Maybe life really was like a game of Psychologist.  Maybe God was working behind the scenes in ways that I could not understand.  Things happen to everyone that make no sense.  But after asking enough questions and enough observation, an order begins to emerge.  It takes time to understand what is happening, sometimes decades or more, but God has a plan, and someday it will all make sense.


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September 15-19, 1997. Seeing my friends again at Outreach Camp. (#145)

Although I had been this way once before, this drive still felt unfamiliar enough to be exciting in its own right.  This part of the state in general was still mostly unfamiliar to me.  It was a Monday afternoon, and I had driven from Jeromeville on the valley floor east on Highway 100 for about fifty miles, across Capital City and its suburbs into the mountains.  Then, in a smaller city called Blue Oaks, I turned north on Highway 79 and drove north for another thirty miles.  As I continued climbing into the mountains, the landscape gradually changed.  Between Capital City and Blue Oaks, Highway 100 passed mostly through rolling hills dotted with oaks and covered with grass, brown now at the end of the hot, dry summer.  North of Blue Oaks, along Highway 79, the surroundings began to be dominated more by pine trees, with the grassy forest floor giving way to a coat of dead needles and cones.

After passing through two other small cities, I turned onto a rural road and drove another five miles, mostly uphill.  Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center was situated at the top of a ridge, and just past the conference grounds, the road began descending into the canyon of a river.  I turned left into the parking lot and stopped the car.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s Outreach Camp was the week-long retreat where we planned for the approaching school year, and this year it was at Pine Mountain, as it had been last year.

“Hi, Greg,” Cheryl from the JCF staff team said as I walked up to the registration table.  “How was your summer?  You did that internship in Oregon, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It wasn’t what I was expecting.  I learned that math research is not what I want to do as a career.”

Cheryl looked up from a list on a clipboard.  “Who was in your car?” she asked.  “I see you on the list, but someone didn’t write down who came with you.”

“I came by myself,” I said, “because I’m not going straight back to Jeromeville afterward.”

“Oh!  Where are you going?”

“Another retreat for the weekend.  Student ministry leaders at Jeromeville Covenant.”

“Fun!  That’s because you’re working with the junior high kids there, right?”

“Yeah.  Youth group leaders of all ages, and college group leaders, they’ll all be there.”

To the right of the parking lot was a sports field, where a group of about ten students were playing Ultimate Frisbee.  Brent Wang threw the disc a long distance downfield, where no one on his team appeared to be, but Seth Huang appeared seemingly out of nowhere, dashing downfield and catching the disc in the goal zone.  Ajeet Tripathi and Todd Chevallier sat to the side of the field, watching; I walked up to them.

“Hey, Greg,” Ajeet said.

Ajeet wore a black Bay City Titans baseball cap; I pointed at it and said, “I went to a Titans game a few days ago.  First time I’d been in three years.”

“Nice!  Which one did you see?”

“The one against Dallas that went into extra innings.”

“Sweet.  I watched that one on TV, stayed up to see the ending.”

“Brent and Seth are so good at Ultimate when they’re on the same team,” I said.  “I remember one time last year watching them play Frisbee on the Quad, and they did all kinds of crazy running throws and catches like that.”

“I know,” Ajeet replied.

“How was your summer, Greg?” Todd asked.  “Did you go home?”

“I was in Grandvale, Oregon, doing an internship.  Then I went home for a couple weeks, then back to Jeromeville for a couple more weeks.”

“Wait, Oregon?  I thought you were from the Santa Lucia area.”

“Yeah.  Plumdale, in Santa Lucia County.”

“So you were just in Oregon for this internship?”

“Yes.  Doing math research.  Sorry, I thought I told everyone last year I was going to Oregon.”

“You might have,” Todd said.  “A lot of people went places this summer.”

“Speaking of which, how was the China trip?”

“So good!  God really planted some seeds in some of the students we were working with.  We’re going to do a presentation about it at the main session tonight.”

“That’s cool.”


I spent most of the rest of that first day saying hi to people and catching up.  It was always good to see people for the first time in three months.  Saying hi to Haley Channing felt a little awkward, because of our history the previous school year.  We were friendly to each other, but I did not want to try to force any conversations or give the impression that I could not accept the fact that she just wanted to be friends.

Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, led a trip that summer where hundreds of students from all around the United States and Canada went to China to do ministry among university students.  Twelve students from JCF went on the trip, and from the presentation that night, it sounded like it was a challenging yet powerful experience.  Evan Lundgren, my Bible study leader from the previous year, was on the trip; he was also a native of Santa Lucia County, but we did not know each other growing up.  After the presentation, Evan and I were catching up, and he told me something about the trip that was not addressed in the presentation.  “We had some new couples form on the trip,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked.  “Like who?”

“Darren and Katrina.”

“Hmm,” I said.  Darren and Katrina ran in the same circles already, so this was not terribly surprising.

“And Eddie and Tabitha.”

“Eddie and Tabitha?” I repeated.

“Yeah.”

Eddie Baker and Tabitha Sasaki,” I said incredulously.  “They’re dating now?”

“Yes,” Evan replied.  I did not see this coming, probably because I considered them both close friends and had no idea that they were even on each other’s radars.  I often felt like the last to know whenever couples formed, though, so this was nothing new.


More couple-related news broke at breakfast Tuesday morning, although this involved an established couple who had been together for a year and a half, not a new couple.  As I walked to the dining hall, six girls were gathered around Amelia Dye, along with Janet McAllen, half of the couple that were the lead staff of JCF.  The girls were looking at Amelia’s left hand, which she held up as she said something about “this morning, we got up early to watch the sun rise.”  I noticed a diamond ring on her finger and put the pieces together in my mind.

“Scott proposed?” I asked as I walked by, pointing to Amelia’s ring.

“Yes!” Amelia answered excitedly.  “This was his grandmother’s ring!  It’s so beautiful!”

“Congratulations!”

This year’s JCF class had the unusual quirk that many students from the class a year older than me, including Amelia and Scott, did not graduate in four years, so they were still at the University of Jeromeville for a fifth year.  I was beginning my fourth year, and at this point it was uncertain whether or not I would be finished at the end of the year.  After discovering I disliked mathematics research, I decided that I wanted to be a high school teacher, but I had not yet figured out how long it would take to finish both the classes for my degree and the prerequisites for the teacher training program.  I had made an appointment to talk to Dr. Graf, my major advisor, next week after I got back to Jeromeville.

At the beginning of the morning session, Janet had gone over some highlights of the upcoming week.  Wednesday night, Sarah Winters would be sharing her testimony, telling the story of how they came to faith in Jesus.  Thursday afternoon we would walk down to the river where four students would be baptized.  And every afternoon, one of the campground staff would be running a ropes course, new to the center this year.

After lunch, I walked out to the ropes course, mostly because I had no idea what a ropes course was and I was curious.  A number of elaborate climbing structures had been attached to some exceptionally tall trees, one that looked like a giant rope ladder with wooden steps about three feet apart, a balance beam connecting two trees about thirty feet off the ground, and a small platform at the same height of uncertain function.  John Harvey was carefully climbing the giant steps of the ladder, pulling himself up to each step; he was attached to a rope extending above him high into the trees, through some unseen pulley, and down to where a campground staff member held the rope, probably to keep John from falling.  Several other students were standing by watching, and we all cheered when John reached the top of the ladder.

“Hey, you!” a female voice said from behind me.  I turned around to see Sadie Rowland smiling and wearing some sort of harness.  “Are you gonna go up there?  I’m going next.”

“I was just watching,” I said.  “It looks like fun, though.”

“How was your summer?”

“It was okay.  I was in Oregon doing a math research internship.”

“Math research.  That sounds like something you’d be good at, and I wouldn’t.”

“Actually, I mostly just learned I don’t like math research, and that I don’t want to do it as a career.  Math research is weird and complicated and hard to understand what you’re doing.”

“So then do you know what you’ll do after you graduate?”

“I’m going to be a teacher.  I helped out in a high school classroom last year, remember, and I really liked that.  I always thought I didn’t want to be a teacher because of the politics involved, you know, but maybe I shouldn’t let that get in the way of something I enjoy doing.”

“Oh, I know, there’s a lot of messed up political stuff in the school system.  And your coworkers will be a bunch of liberals.  But maybe you’re right.”

“Yeah.”

“I think you’d be a good teacher.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “How was your summer?”

“Nothing special.  I was just home, working.  I’m thinking about an internship too.  I found out about something for poli-sci majors where we can go intern in DC.  That would be an experience.”

“Wow.  Yeah.”

While Sadie and I continued to make small talk, John crossed the balance beam while hanging onto another rope.  He now stood on the small platform.  I could see its purpose now: there was a zip line above the platform, and another platform about thirty feet away on another tree, at a lower height, with steps leading down from it.  John grabbed the handle and slid along the zip line to the other platform.  “That looks fun,” I said as John dismounted and began climbing down from the tree.  Everyone cheered.

“Yeah!” Sadie replied.

“Are you ready?” the camp employee asked Sadie as John detached the rope.

“Yes!” Sadie replied.  “I’ll talk to you later, Greg.”

“Yeah.  Have fun!”

I watched as Sadie carefully climbed the giant ladder, a bit more cautiously than John.  I cheered with everyone else as she finished each section, and when she climbed down at the end she had a wide smile on her face.  Sadie was so easy to talk to.  I hoped to have more opportunities to do so this week and in the upcoming school year.


During my freshman year at UJ, I was part of something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  This program consisted of around seventy specifically selected freshmen who lived in the same building and took one class each quarter specific to the program.  My first friends at UJ were other students in the IHP, and I got involved in Jeromeville Christian Fellowship the following year through students in the IHP who invited me.  One of these students was Sarah Winters, a mathematics major like me.  She was a sweet, kind-hearted soul, a listening ear when a friend needed someone.  Sarah would see the good in others even when they were not acting at their best; I saw that freshman year, when I got upset and threw a cardboard box at her and she never got mad at me.  “I hope you all had a great afternoon,” Cheryl said after the worship team finished their set on Wednesday night.  “Tonight, you’ll be hearing from Sarah.  She’s going to share her testimony.”  Sarah stood and walked to the podium, and everyone clapped.  Sarah lowered the microphone a little as she began.

“I didn’t grow up in a Christian home,” Sarah began.  I had heard her say this before, but I still found it surprising.  She always seemed so strong in her faith, a good example of what a Christian woman should be like, and yet I found out later that she had only become a Christian at age 17, a few months before we met.

 “We just weren’t religious at all,” Sarah continued.  “And my parents divorced when I was eight, so I didn’t have a very stable home life, going back and forth between Mom’s house and Dad’s house.  By the time I got to high school, I was still doing well in classes, but I was starting to make some bad decisions in my social life.”  I felt myself getting scared, not wanting to know what bad decisions Sarah was making.  I did not want to be disappointed in her.  But I kept listening.

“Junior year, I played at this big marching band event, with a lot of other school bands from all over the state.  I met a guy there from another school, and we just hit it off really fast.  We even snuck off during part of the time we were supposed to be performing to go make out.  After that weekend, we stayed in touch, we called each other, we wrote letters, and a few months later he asked me to his prom.  He lived in Hilltown, near Bay City, and I lived in the Valley, in Ralstonville, so it took me a couple hours to drive there.  I didn’t want to drive home in the middle of the night, so I stayed with him.”  I was pretty sure I knew what was coming next, and it made me a little uncomfortable to hear her say it.  “And I slept with him,” Sarah continued.  “It was my first time, but I thought I loved him, so it felt right.  And that continued whenever we’d see each other in person.  He’d come see me or I’d go see him a few times during the summer, and every couple weekends in the fall.

“Then he cheated on me,” Sarah explained.  “Suddenly now I felt dirty, and ashamed, and angry.  I had given him everything, I had stayed loyal to him in a long distance relationship, and all that meant nothing to him.  And I handled it in the worst possible way: I had a fling with this guy at school who I knew liked me, because I needed to feel like someone wanted me.  And I slept with this guy too.  But this time it didn’t feel right.  I knew that I was only with this guy because I didn’t want to be alone.  So we broke up after about a month.

“I apparently didn’t learn my lesson from that, because soon after that, I had a new boyfriend.”  Some people chuckled.  I had not seen this side of Sarah before, and I was a bit unsettled.  “But this guy was different.  He was a Christian.  He invited me to church.  I avoided telling him about my past, because I knew he wouldn’t approve, but when I finally did tell him, he told me about God’s redeeming love, how the blood of Jesus Christ had washed away my sins.  Shortly after that, I made a decision to follow Jesus.  And it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned so much about how I don’t need attention from guys to be wanted and loved.  Jesus loves you just who you are.  I am a beloved daughter of the Lord.”

Dave McAllen gave a talk after this, also about the new identity we receive in Christ, but I could not stop thinking about Sarah’s story.  It brought new context to some of the other conversations we had had over the years.  More importantly, I knew that there was something I had to tell Sarah now.  She had been placed in my group for the week, so we would be debriefing together after tonight’s session talking about any thoughts we had about tonight.  

“I haven’t slept with actual girlfriends,” I told my small group after the session, “but I’ve struggled with having lustful thoughts and…” I did not want to be unnecessarily graphic, but I did not want to be vague either.  “Acting on them, alone,” I said.  “One time a while back, I was feeling particularly ashamed because of that, and I wanted to talk to someone, but I was too embarrassed to say anything face to face.  So I sent an email to someone in this small group using an anonymous emailing service, so my name wouldn’t be on it; I just said I’m someone you know and I need someone to talk to.  My friend replied, saying to read the Bible or do something to distract myself when I feel that way, but most importantly, not to get down on myself, because Jesus loves me.  I needed that reminder tonight.  That’s all I wanted to say.”  Everyone else seemed to get the hint that I did not want to talk about this in detail, and no one asked me anything more about it.

After everyone shared, we prayed to close the night.  As people dispersed to the cabins, I stayed in my seat, looking at Sarah, hoping that she had remembered that incident.  She sat next to me, put her arm around me, and said, “Jesus loves you.”  I put my head down; Sarah just stayed there silently next to me with her arm around me from the side.  After several minutes of quiet, I looked up and gave her my best half-smile.  “Are you okay?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah.”

“You wanna get some sleep now?”

“That’s probably a good idea.  Thanks for sticking around.”

“Of course.  Jesus loves you.  Don’t ever forget that.”


I heard abbreviated versions of a few other students’ testimonies Thursday afternoon at the river baptisms.  I found it interesting that Kieran was getting baptized.  Last time JCF had a baptism event, when Sarah had gotten baptized at the end of sophomore year, Kieran had made a big deal to say that he wanted to make a public declaration of his faith, but he had already been baptized as a baby and did not feel a need to be baptized again.  I wondered what caused him to decide now to be baptized after all, especially since I was also one who had been baptized as a baby and not as an adult.

I said goodbye to everyone Friday afternoon when Outreach Camp ended, but I knew I would see them soon.  At the end of the road that the camp was on, everyone turned south on Highway 73 back toward Blue Oaks, but I turned east less than a mile later, on Highway 22 toward the Great Blue Lake, since I had another retreat to get to.  I put on a tape of Third Day, a Christian rock band from Georgia that I had discovered last year, as I drove through more forests and mountains, some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever experienced.  I was in no hurry, since I left Pine Mountain a little after one o’clock and most of the group from Jeromeville Covenant would not arrive at the other retreat until evening.

Highway 22 took me back to Highway 100 eastbound, which actually ran diagonally to the northeast through that area.  I exited the freeway again on the road that eventually took me to the western shore of the Great Blue Lake, about an hour and a half after I left Pine Mountain.  The lake was huge, surrounded by forested mountains, except for the lake’s outlet through a narrow river valley that I had followed from the time I turned off the freeway.  The area was popular with tourists year-round, hiking and boating in the summer, and skiing in the nearby mountains in the winter, so traffic slowed down in some spots.  Now that I finally saw the area’s natural beauty in person, I understood why it was such a popular destination.

I drove south along a windy mountain road, down the entire western shore of the lake, stopping a few times to take pictures since I was in no hurry.  I passed through a city called Lakeview at the south end of the lake, then climbed back into the mountains over a summit on a road that would eventually lead me back to Capital City.  Six miles past the summit, I saw the road I was looking for.

At last year’s Outreach Camp, God had opened a door for me to have a specific role in JCF as the worship band’s roadie, but they did not need one this year.  I had signed up to sit at JCF’s table on the Quad during welcome week, and to help out with a welcome mixer next Tuesday night, but these were not ongoing ministries for the year.  I did have a specific ongoing ministry outside of JCF, though: I was volunteering as a youth leader at church.  God had still shown up at Outreach Camp this year in a more simple way, providing the opportunity to reconnect with my friends and hear messages I needed to hear from the Scriptures and others’ testimonies.  I looked forward to seeing how he would continue to show up in my life at this other retreat and during the first week of school.


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February 24-28, 1997.  Cambria’s anthropology paper, and Bible study begins falling apart. (#122)

For the last few weeks, I had been setting my alarm for 5:30 in the morning.  I kept hearing from my Christian friends about the importance of starting every day in Scripture, so I had been trying to do that.  Shawn and I shared the largest bedroom in this apartment, and Shawn woke up just as early to travel across the Drawbridge to Laguna Ciervo for student teaching, so I was not waking him up by doing this.  I wondered, however, how effective my Scripture reading really was, considering that I spent much of my extra time being miserable about having gotten so little sleep and nodding off while I tried to pray.

I decided to try something else today.  I did not wake up quite as early, and I packed my Bible in my backpack and brought it to school with me.  After my first class, I had an hour free, the perfect time to spend with God.  I also had the perfect place in mind.

The University of Jeromeville Arboretum extended for a mile and a half along the south end of campus, following a dry creek bed that was now functionally a long, narrow lake.  On its banks were planted trees and plants from around the world, a long, narrow strip of nature right on campus.  I walked directly south from my class in Wellington Hall, past Shelley Library, past Evans Hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met, past the administrative offices in Marks Hall, and past the law school building, which backed up to the Arboretum.  I turned right and walked westward along the path on the north bank of the creek.  A large oak tree stood to the left with a cluster of succulents on the right, and the water tower loomed about two hundred feet away.  I continued walking a little ways and found a bench on the side of the path, in front of some kind of large bush, overlooking majestic oaks on the other side of the path. I sat down and opened my Bible.

In December, I traveled to a conference held by the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. All attendees received a Bible that included a plan to read the Bible in a year, a few chapters from different sections each day.  Today was February 24, but I was quite a bit behind at this point; the last day I had read was February 12.  I read the passages from February 13 next; I was not trying to catch up anymore.  I was beginning to accept the fact that I would not finish in a year, and that was okay.

After I read, I prayed for a while.  I thanked God for this beautiful place to sit on campus, with birds chirping, squirrels running up and down trees, and ducks swimming by.  I prayed that I would stay calm and focused in studying for upcoming midterms.  I prayed for the urban missions project that my friend Taylor Santiago would be part of this spring and summer.  I prayed that I would know the career that God was leading me to.  I prayed for anything and anyone else I could think of, including Chloe, my Bible study co-leader who had recently stepped down from that position without sharing why.


The rest of that day was uneventful in a good way.  I had been home for about half an hour that afternoon, sitting at my desk working on math, when I heard the doorbell ring.  I was expecting a visitor, but it always made me nervous having someone enter my private home and see how I lived.  I had gotten used to the idea of sharing my home with roommates since the four of us moved to this apartment in September, but it still did not feel ideal.

I walked down the stairs to answer the door, but Brian was already downstairs; he got there first.  “Hey, Cambria,” he said.

“Is Greg here?” Cambria asked.

“I’m here,” I said, walking down the stairs.

“What are you guys up to today?” Brian asked.

“I’m interviewing Greg for a paper I’m writing,” Cambria explained.  “You ready, Greg?”

“Sure,” I replied.

Cambria Hawley was a freshman; I knew her from JCF.  She appeared to have mixed European and Asian heritage.  She was of average height, with brown hair and an athletic build from having played water polo in high school.  Cambria was named after a beach town in central California; her parents had vacationed there before she was born, and they liked the town’s name well enough to use it for their daughter.  I do not remember if I knew the story behind Cambria’s name yet at the time she came to our apartment.

Last week at JCF, Cambria had asked me if she could interview me for a paper she had to write in an anthropology class.  “I need to interview someone who experienced a change in their culture or belief system,” she had told me.  “Like someone who moved to another country, or someone who practices a different religion than they grew up with, or something like that.  I remember that you said you grew up Catholic, so I think you would have an interesting perspective on this.”  I had told Cambria that, yes, she could interview me, and this was why she had come over now, three days later.  She sat at the dining room table and took out a notebook and a pen from her backpack; I sat next to her.

“How old were you when you left Catholicism?” Cambria asked.  “And what exactly would you call yourself now?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “‘Christian’ seems a little vague, since technically Catholics follow Christ too.  ‘Evangelical Christian,’ maybe?”

“That’ll work.”

“It was a gradual process at age 19 and 20.”

“So this was recent?  I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.  Last school year.  I lived alone, and I wanted to stay in touch with my friends from freshman year now that we weren’t all in the dorm together.  They were all involved with JCF, so I started going to JCF large group with them.”

“That was fall quarter?  Of last year?”

“Yeah.  1995.  As I started making friends at JCF, I started hearing a lot about having a relationship with Jesus.  And something about my JCF friends just seemed different, in a good way.  One day during winter quarter, I was having a rough day, I saw Janet McAllen on campus, and we just got to talking.  She started asking me if I knew Jesus.  I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she explained to me how sin created separation between God and humans, and Jesus died to pay the price for that sin so that we could have eternal life and a relationship with him.”

“So it was mostly the influence of friends, more so than family or a pastor?”

“Yeah.”  From the way she asked that, I wondered if she was connecting my answer to something specific that she had learned in class, such as a list of ways that people may be influenced to leave their belief systems.  “Well, the McAllens are campus ministry leaders, that’s kind of like pastors in a way, but they’re friends too,” I added.

“Were you part of a Catholic church before?  What happened when you left?”

“Yes.  I went to Mass at the Newman Center.  And I didn’t leave right away,” I explained.

“Why not?”

“I didn’t feel like I had to.  Catholics believe in Jesus too, and the things I was learning at JCF helped me understand the Catholic Mass better, how all the rituals have their roots in deep worship experiences.”

“Interesting.  So why did you leave?  You go to Jeromeville Covenant now, right?”

“I started seeing more and more that the Catholic students didn’t really know Jesus, and many of them didn’t want to.  To them, Catholicism was just part of their culture; they weren’t really serious about living out their beliefs.  And the people in charge at the Newman Center had some questionable interpretations of what they claimed to believe.  I was in a place where I needed to learn more about the Bible from people who were actually living it out.  And just like with JCF, I had a lot of friends who went to J-Cov, so I started going to church with them.”

“And when was this?”

“October.”

“Just this last October?  Wow, that really was recent.”

“Yeah.”

“How is being a Christian different from being Catholic?” Cambria asked.

“There is much more of an emphasis on my personal relationship with Jesus, on really knowing Jesus personally.  And there is less of an emphasis on rituals, saying the right things at Mass, going to Reconciliation, stuff like that.”

“Reconciliation?”

“It’s also called ‘confession.’  You talk to the priest about ways you have sinned and what good things you can do instead.  Evangelical Christians focus more on telling God your sins yourself, in your personal prayer time.”

Cambria wrote some notes, then proceeded to ask me more questions, including asking about my family and friends’ responses to my newfound Christianity, and about changes in my everyday life that came about as a result of this.  After about half an hour of talking and answering questions, she told me that she had enough to write her paper.  “Thanks for letting me interview you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “I hope that helped.”

“What are you up to this week?” she asked.

“Just the usual.  It’s gonna be another busy week of school and work.  I have The Edge Wednesday and Bible study Thursday.”  I chose not to tell her that tomorrow I was going to University Life, another Christian group on campus run by a different church.  I had been feeling disillusioned with JCF at times, and I had been checking out that other group.

“What’s The Edge?”

“The junior high youth group at J-Cov.  I met some kids from there after church one week.  And Taylor Santiago is going away for the spring and summer to do a mission trip, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking his spot on the youth staff.”

“That sounds so cool!  I would love to be a youth leader!”

“It’s been a lot of fun so far.  I’ve only been there a couple weeks.”

“Whose Bible study are you in?  Is this a JCF group?”

“Yeah.  Evan Lundgren is the leader.”  I started to say that Chloe had been the co-leader, but I thought her recent decision might not be something to share with the world. I just said, “He had a co-leader, but she quit last week.”

“Quit?  Really?”

“Yeah.  I don’t know what was going on.  Evan said she wouldn’t be part of the group anymore, and that she had some decisions to make.  From what he said, it makes me think that she isn’t a Christian anymore..”

“Oh my gosh,”  Cambria said, sounding concerned.  “It sounds like there’s gotta be something else going on with this girl.”

“Yeah.  But it wasn’t my place to pry.  We were down to just five people last week.  Me, Evan, Jonathan Li, Jill Nguyen, and Amy Kilpatrick.  And I’m hearing that they want to keep expanding the Kairos ministry next year, and add other small groups that are specifically for certain kinds of people.  I’m not in any of the cliques that get picked for the Kairos ministry, and I don’t fit any of those categories, so I don’t know if there will be a Bible study for me next year.”

“I’m sure you’ll have a group next year,” Cambria said.  “They have to have one for everyone.  I’m gonna be in a Kairos group, but I know there will be other groups.”

“No offense, but why do they have to handpick future leaders like that and have separate groups for them?  It just feels exclusionary.”

“Hmm,” Cambria said.  “I had never thought of it like that.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m just frustrated with the way this year’s group is falling apart.”

“Five people in a small group doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  You can have a more involved discussion.”

“That’s true.  I could probably step up and be more involved in the discussion, too.”

“There you go.  It’ll be a good group for the rest of the year.”


Evan and his roommate Jonathan hosted our Bible study at their apartment fall quarter, but in January Evan said that their other roommate needed the house for something on Thursdays, so they would not be able to host anymore.  I volunteered my apartment, after checking with my roommates to make sure it was okay.

On the Thursday night after Cambria interviewed me, I put my studying aside and went downstairs with my Bible after I heard Evan and Jonathan knock on the door.  While the three of us made small talk about how classes were going, Jill arrived and joined our conversation.  A few minutes after that, Evan said, “We can get started now.  It’s time, and I think it’s just going to be the four of us tonight.”

“Amy isn’t coming?” I asked.

“No,” Evan said.  “Do you know Glen Marshall?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Amy went on a date tonight with Glen.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Since being involved with JCF and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had heard multiple talks and lessons warning against becoming romantically involved with non-Christians.  Glen’s housemates all went to JCF, and I had heard them repeatedly mention that Glen was not a Christian, particularly whenever the lesson at JCF or church involved sharing the message of the Gospel with friends.  Why was a Christian girl like Amy interested in this Glen guy?  And why do these rules, which seemed to make it even harder for me to find a girlfriend, not apply to others?  Of course, I knew that I did not want a non-Christian girlfriend in the first place, but it still bothered me that people were not following the rules.

We had begun a study of 1 Corinthians in January, at the beginning of the quarter, and it appeared likely that it would take us the entire year to finish.  During the study, my eyes drifted ahead on the page to a part of the book that we had not studied yet, where Paul wrote, “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.”  It seemed like my Christian friends often made jokes about this verse, and the gift of singleness, but many of them ended up in relationships, so they obviously did not take it literally at face value.  But it was hard not to feel like God had forcibly thrust the gift of singleness upon me, and upon few to no others.


Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met the next night, and afterward I asked Cambria how her paper turned out.  “I think I did well,” she said.  “I wrote about how you went from a more ritual-based belief system to one based on an individual relationship.”

“Yes,” I said.  “That sounds right.”

“And you went from a complex belief system to a simple one.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Something about the way she said that surprised me.  I wondered if “complex” and “simple” in this case had specific meanings in that field of study, because I had never really thought of evangelical Christianity as being any less “complex” than Catholicism.  But maybe she was right.  Evangelical Chrisitanity offered a simple plan of salvation: just believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.  Catholicism had hoops to jump through and sacraments to perform, or at the very least a much stronger emphasis on these than evangelical Christianity.

But if Christianity was so simple, why did I feel like there were so many rules to follow?  Why did some people get picked to be in Kairos groups and others did not?  Why did I have to get over the head with messages about how being single is a gift from God, and how Christians should only be in relationships with other Christians, only to see Amy skip Bible study to go on a date with a non-Christian?  Something about this did not seem simple to me.  From what I heard, Amy and Glen did end up in a serious long-term relationship.  I do not know if Glen ever found Jesus.

And if it were actually true that Chloe had turned her back on Christianity, what would happen to her?  Could one who was saved by Jesus Christ be lost?  I had heard that Christians interpreted the Bible differently on that topic.  Regardless of one’s position, it was entirely possible that Chloe was really good at following the rules to give the appearance of being a good Christian, but had never had her heart completely transformed in the first place.  Only God knew what Chloe really believed in her heart.  I prayed that night that she would find her way back to Jesus.

I spent all weekend thinking about what I really believed.  I did not feel like I had an unusually strong or close relationship with God, but knowing that a Bible study leader like Chloe could just walk away from Jesus made me wonder if my faith was strong enough.  Was I a good enough Christian?  Did it mean anything that I often got left out of the cliques at JCF?

I knew that Christianity was not a religion of following rules.  But I was seeing more and more that many Christians acted like it was.  They also acted judgmentally toward those who did not follow the exact same rules as themselves. I recognized that I was judgmental sometimes as well, such as how I disapproved in my mind of Amy’s date with Glen.  It was difficult to discern sometimes which rules were God’s actual commands and which were cultural.

I do not know what happened to Chloe; I did not see much of her after she stopped attending JCF.  I hope she found her way back to Jesus somehow.  While I still had a lot of unanswered questions about myself, I knew that all I had to do was keep seeking the answers in prayer and Scripture.  God’s Word would never steer me wrong


Author’s note: Have you ever made a major change in your cultural or religious beliefs? Tell me about it in the comments.

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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.


Early December, 1996.  We were all just kids. (#111)

When I was growing up, no one ever taught me anything about girls or dating or relationships or anything like that.  My parents had been married since before I was born, but they were not visibly affectionate with each other, and my dad spent all his time working, so I never had a healthy relationship to watch and emulate.  And since I did not know how to tell a girl that I liked her, the way to act in a relationship or marriage was a moot point for me.

When I got to the age where I started paying attention to girls, my parents would sometimes notice and point out my behavior in a teasing and humiliating way.  At age thirteen, my friend Paul Dickinson noticed that I had been paying attention to a girl at school named Rachelle Benedetti, and he asked me if I liked her.  There was no teasing or judgment in Paul’s question, unlike what I had experienced from my parents, so I admitted that, yes, I did like Rachelle.  Shortly after that, it felt like the whole school knew, and that was inherently embarrassing to me even if I was not actively being teased for it.  Because of that, whenever I liked a girl, I kept my feelings a closely guarded secret.  I had learned by now that a girl was not going to walk up to me out of the blue and ask to be my girlfriend, so now I was twenty years old, I had never had a girlfriend, and I did not know how to change that.

I had known Haley Channing for almost a year now.  I met her one night after Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, when I was upset and had a lot on my mind. Two guys, Eddie Baker and Xander Mackey, asked me what was wrong, and they ended up inviting me to hang out with them and their friends.  Haley was there that night.  She had pretty blue eyes, a cute smile, and a kind heart.  We had gotten to be friends since then, but I just did not know how to tell her that I wanted to be more than friends.

A couple weeks ago, I thought I had a chance.  I was mingling with people after JCF, and for a brief moment, I saw Haley sitting not too far away and not talking to anyone.  I walked up to her and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Haley replied.  “How are you?”

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

“I’m doing okay,” she said in a tone that suggested that everything was not exactly okay.  Haley had lost her mother to cancer recently, and Thanksgiving was next week.  My go-to small talk that time of year was to ask people their plans for Thanksgiving, but I figured that it might be best to avoid that topic with Haley this year.  “What are you up to?” she continued.

“Just looking for something to do,” I said.  JCF met on Fridays, and people often hung out afterward, playing games, eating, or watching movies in room 199 of Stone Hall, a large lecture hall that was converted into a second-run theater on weekends.   I became unusually brave and floated an idea, saying, “Mission: Impossible is playing at 199 Stone tonight.  I was hoping people might be going.”

“I haven’t seen that!  I want to!”

“You want to go?”

“I would, but I have to get up early in the morning,” Haley said.  “Maybe another time?”

“I understand,” I said.  I did not end up seeing that movie until months later, on a rented VHS tape, and I ended up just going home that night.

A while later, a few days after I got back from having Thanksgiving with my family, I was walking through the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit and study in between classes.  It was cold outside, so the indoor tables were crowded.  I saw Haley sitting with Kristina Kasparian talking to Janet McAllen from JCF staff.  A fourth seat at their table was open. 

“Hey,” I said, walking toward the open seat.  “Mind if I sit here?”

“Actually, we’re working on Kairos group planning,” Janet explained.  “Sorry!”

“Oh.  That’s okay.  I guess I’ll see you guys later.”

“I’ll see you Friday?” Haley said.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Actually, no.  Friday is our concert for chorus, so I won’t be at JCF.”

“Oh, that’s right!  Have fun!  I’ll be at church on Sunday, I’ll probably see you then.”

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

I walked across the Memorial Union, unable to find a table, and ended up sitting cross-legged against a wall.  The Kairos group clique strikes again.  The Kairos ministry within JCF involved small groups designed to prepare students for leadership in ministry.  The students from each year’s Kairos group would lead a group the following year, handpicking the students in their group.  From my outsider perspective, the main purpose of these groups seemed to be the establishment and perpetuation of cliques.  I thought it sent the wrong message, especially since many of the friends who were part of my best University of Jeromeville memories so far were in the cliques and I was not.  And I could not help but wonder if these cliques were the reason things were not working out with Haley.

A few days later, back at the Memorial Union, I saw Eddie Baker eating lunch by himself outside on a picnic bench.  I did not particularly want to eat outside, it was sunny but not very warm, but I was also in the mood to socialize.   Also, Eddie was a Kairos group leader, and I had not talked to him as much this year.  “Mind if I sit here?” I asked Eddie.

“Go ahead,” he replied.  “How are you?  Getting ready for finals?”

“I’m getting there.  We also have the concert for chorus tomorrow night.  This is my first one, I don’t really know what to expect, but I think I know the music by now.”

“That’ll be fun!  Scott and Amelia are in that too, right?”

“Yeah.  And Jason Costello too.”

“Well, good luck with that!”

“How have you been?”

“Just busy with school and JCF.  You’re going to Urbana, right?  Are you excited?”

“Yes!  I can’t wait to see what it’s like.  I don’t know that I’m ready to pack up and go serve God in another country, but I know a lot of you guys do stuff like that, and I want to find out more about what’s out there, so I know how to support people who do mission trips.”

“That’s a good way to think about it,” Eddie said.  “There’s gonna be so many people there.  Twenty thousand students all worshiping God.  We might not even see each other.”

“I know,” I said.  The thought of being thousands of miles away and not seeing my friends who were also there was a little disappointing, but maybe it wouldn’t be like that after all.

“How’s life other than that?” Eddie asked.

“Well…” I said.  I debated how much to tell him, and eventually decided to say everything except her name.  “There’s this girl I would really like to get to know better.  But I just don’t know how.  I’ve never been good with girls and dating and stuff like that.  I’m starting to think that maybe I need to just tell her how I feel, and let her reject me, so I can just move on.”

“I think we all know how that feels,” Eddie replied.  “Is it someone from JCF?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I have an idea who it is.  Do you mind if I ask?” Eddie asked.

I did not expect this question.  I trusted Eddie, and I did not think he was going to make fun of me, but I still was not used to sharing these secrets with others.  “I guess you can say it,” I said, “but I don’t know if I want to admit whether or not you’re right.”

“That’s fair,” Eddie replied.  “I think it’s Haley.”

Apparently subtlety was not one of my strong points, I thought.  I wondered how many other people knew.  But if Eddie had figured it out, there was no point in hiding this from him.  “Yes, it’s Haley,” I said.  “Please don’t tell anyone.  How did you know?”

“I’ve just noticed the way you act around her sometimes,” Eddie explained.  “And remember that night at JCF, right after her mother passed?”

“Yeah.”

“I noticed the way you kept trying to talk to her.  That was kind of unusual.”

“I just saw someone I cared about upset, and I wanted to make sure she knew that I was there for her if she needed to talk.”  I did not understand what was so weird about that, although I do remember some of the others who were there that night acting like I was intruding on something.  I had assumed it was because I was not in their clique.

“I’m gonna be honest with you,” Eddie said.  “I really liked Haley too, freshman year.  We hung out a few times.  I told her how I felt, and she didn’t feel the same way back.”

“Aww,” I said.  It felt weird knowing that Eddie used to like Haley too.  Maybe every guy at JCF liked Haley.  I would had no chance with all of that competition.

“But talking about it, being honest with her, that was good.  I feel like we grew closer as friends after that.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“If you do tell her how you feel, I know she’ll appreciate the honesty.”

“That’s good to know.”


The next night was the concert for chorus, and I spent most of Saturday studying for finals.  Sunday morning at church I went to 20/20, the college Sunday school class, before the service, and I had a hard time concentrating because Haley was there.  I could not stop thinking about her all weekend.  I had to know if I had a chance with her.  Ever since she turned down my offer to see the movie, with the ambiguous caveat of “maybe another time” which never happened, I felt like I could not continue not knowing.  With JCF done for the quarter, and finals and winter break coming up, this may be the last time I saw her for a month.  I knew that if she was here at church today, that would most likely be my last chance.  All morning, I had been playing in my mind how I would approach her and what I would say, which made the teaching of Dan Keenan, the college pastor, difficult to follow this morning.

After 20/20 ended, as people were standing around the room and gradually trickling out headed toward the main building for the regular service, the opportunity presented itself.  Haley stood by herself about ten feet away from me, and I knew that I had to go for it now, or else I would hate myself through my entire winter break for not having said anything.

“Haley?” I asked as I approached her.  “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” she replied.  “What’s going on?”

“Can we step outside, away from everyone?”

“Yeah.”  Haley walked outside a few feet away from the entrance, and I followed her.  “What’s going on?  Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I…” I trailed off, trying to remember the conversation I had rehearsed many times.  “I’m really glad I met you last year.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, and I’d really like to get to know you… as more than just a friend.”

Haley thought for a few seconds, apparently processing what I said.  She probably was not expecting to hear this.  “Greg,” she said.  “You’re a really nice guy.  But I just don’t see you that way.  Please don’t be upset.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “I had a feeling you didn’t feel the same way.  I just felt like I needed to know for sure.  Like, if I never said anything, I’d never know.”

“It’s okay.  I’m glad you said something.  And I hope you meet the right person soon.”

You’re the right person, I thought.  And you’re standing right in front of me.  If you really meant that, you would give me a chance.  But then I realized that maybe Haley was not the right person after all.  If she was, then we would both feel the same way.  “Thank you,” I said.  “And I meant what I said before: I know you’re going through a rough time right now, and I’m always here if you need to talk.  Even if we are just friends.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.”


The next morning, Haley’s rejection felt like a dark cloud hanging over me as I got out of bed, showered, and dressed.  The t-shirt I ordered with the logo for the upcoming Urbana ’96 convention had arrived in the mail on Saturday, and I wore it for the first time that day.  I went to campus and took my final for Advanced Calculus, and even with the rejection still on my mind, I felt like I did well on the exam.

After the exam, I left Wellington Hall and crossed the street to the Memorial Union, looking for a table where I could study.  I saw Eddie sitting at a table talking to Raphael Stevens, his roommate.  Todd Chevallier and Ajeet Tripathi, two sophomores from JCF, were also there.  I walked over as I heard Ajeet say, “Man, I need more coffee.  I was up way too late last night.”

“Yeah,” Eddie replied.  “Maybe last night was a bad idea.”

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.

“How are finals going?” Raphael asked.

“Good.  I just got out of Advanced Calculus; I think I did well.”

“Advanced Calculus,” Eddie repeated.  “Just saying those words stresses me out..”

“I think I’ll be ok.  I’ve been studying.”

“Studying!” Todd said.  “That’s what we were supposed to be doing last night.”

“What happened last night?” I asked.

“We invited Ajeet and Todd and their house to our house for a study break,” Eddie explained.  “We ended up watching movies until around two in the morning.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’d invite you to sit down,” Eddie explained, “but there isn’t really room at our table.  You could pull up a chair, if you could find one.”

“That’s okay,” I replied.  “I should probably go study anyway.  I’ll see you guys around.”

“Yeah. Good luck with your final.”

“Bye, Greg,” Todd said.

Apparently I had been left out of something else now.  I would have come over to Eddie and Raphael’s study break if I had known about it.  I scanned the room, still looking for an empty seat; I found one at a table next to a tall guy with brown wavy hair who looked familiar.  I had seen this guy somewhere before, but I could not remember where.  A large girl with long, straight brown hair sat with him.  I walked to them and asked, “You guys mind if I sit here?”

“Go ahead,” the guy said.  “I don’t remember your name, but you go to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, right?”

“Yes,” I said.  Apparently this guy had seen me around before too.  “I’m Greg.”

“I’m Ben,” he said.  “And this is my friend Alaina.  We go to U-Life, but I also go to JCF occasionally.”  University Life was another large Christian student group on campus.

“Okay.  I knew I had seen you somewhere before.”

“How’s your finals week going?” Alaina asked.

“Pretty good.  I just got out of Math 127A, and I have Math 128A tomorrow.”

“Those sound hard.  What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“That makes sense,” Ben said.

“Are you going to Urbana?” Alaina asked, noticing my shirt.

“Yes!” I said.  “It’s going to be overwhelming, but I’m excited.”

“A couple of our other friends are going.  I’ve heard good things about it.”

“Yeah.  I’ve never been to Illinois.  I’ve never even been that far away from home at all.  It’ll also be my first time on an airplane, at least as far as I remember.”

“Wow,” Ben said.

“My mom says I was on a plane once as a baby, but I don’t remember it,” I explained.

“Sounds like you’ll have a great trip,” Alaina said.

I did not do my best at concentrating on my studies that day.  I was still thinking a lot about Haley’s rejection, and about everything that my friends were leaving me out of.  I also talked to Ben and Alaina a bit, who I noticed were definitely not a couple.  They seemed like nice people; maybe they could be a new group of friends for me.  I wondered if University Life had the same problem with cliques that JCF did.


I stayed in Jeromeville for a few days after finals ended.  I had three weeks off, and taking a few days off in my apartment, reading, going for bike rides in the Greenbelts, and staying up late talking to girls on Internet Relay Chat was worth having a little less time with my family.  Although I did fine on finals, I felt like the quarter ended on a bad note, considering the conversation with Haley and all of the times I was left out.  I now knew that Haley definitely did not feel the same way about me that I felt about her.  In theory, now that I knew, I would be able to move on, but it did not always feel so easy in practice.  I still felt like I had failed.

As for the cliques, I was probably not being intentionally singled out every time.  Eddie and Raphael’s study break, for example, was a last-minute unplanned thing, and those two households just happened to be right around the corner from each other.  The most likely reason I was not invited was because I lived on the other side of town.  But I also felt left out in that they did not invite me to be roommates with them in the first place.  I thought that living with Brian and Shawn this year would help, since they were not only part of the in crowd but older.  It did help in some ways, like when they invited me to toilet-paper Lorraine.  But Brian spent a lot of his spare time applying for medical school, and Shawn was busy with student teaching, so they were less social than in previous years.

Looking back on these days as an adult has given me a bit of a different perspective on what was going on.  The Haley situation was not at all a failure on my part.  Sometimes one can do everything right and still lose.  Sometimes someone is just not interested in someone else like that.  Over the course of my life, I have been on both sides of those conversations many times.  Being rejected is just a part of life, not necessarily a sign of failure.

I was still bothered by the cliques within JCF.  But, ultimately, I was not involved in JCF to be one of the cool kids; I was there to learn about God and serve him.  I had the trip to the Christian student convention in Urbana to look forward to; hopefully I would learn more about how God wanted me to serve him, and stronger relationships with peers could come out of that. 

It took me years to realize this, but when I look back, I have to remember that we were all just kids back then.  Being rejected, being left out of groups, those are common to most young people, no matter where they are or which God they claim to worship.  As a newly practicing Christian, I saw many of my Christian friends as very mature spiritually, because they had grown up more involved in church than I had been, or because they spent their summers doing service projects in other countries.  But true maturity often comes with age and cannot be forced.  Eddie and many of the other key individuals in leading me to Christ were the same age as me in school, twenty or twenty-one years old.  Brian and Shawn had each just turned twenty-three.  On the JCF staff, Cheryl was twenty-five, and Janet and Dave, the oldest of my spiritual mentors, were twenty-eight and thirty respectively.  As an adult, I know plenty of people that age whom I would not consider mature.  Many of my JCF friends were more mature than average, of course, but being between twenty and thirty years old, they still had a lot to learn themselves, just as I did.  And over the next several months, as my third year at UJ continued, I would learn much about myself, and life, and God, and much of that learning would come from unexpected sources.


Author’s note: This is the mid-season finale for year 3, so I’ll be taking a break for a month or so. I will probably make an interlude post or two, maybe revise the Dramatis Personae page or organize the site, maybe do some supplemental projects, but there won’t be another episode of the main story for a while.

What do you think about the events of Year 3 so far? Does anyone have any predictions about what will happen to character-Greg, or any of the other characters, in the rest of Year 3? As always, if you’re new here, you can start with the first episode here and read all 111 episodes in order, or you can read the summary and abridgement for Year 1 and Year 2., then start from the beginning of Year 3.

Mid-November, 1996.  A loss, a birthday, and a poem. (#109)

“Is that everything?” I asked as Lars Ashford and I finished loading a heavy guitar amplifier into my Ford Bronco. 

“I think so,” Lars answered.  “Let’s go!”

We left Lars’ house, in the old part of Jeromeville on the corner of Sixth and K Streets, and drove multiple cars across downtown to campus, to haul all of the equipment.  I turned on the radio; the song “Roll To Me” was on, by a one-hit wonder called Del Amitri.  We parked on the south side of campus in the lot next to Marks Hall, the administration building, and unloaded the equipment into room 170 of Evans Hall, a medium-sized lecture hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met.  A few months ago, I had been praying that God would find a specific way for me to get more involved with JCF, and the prayer was answered almost immediately, when Tabitha Sasaki asked if I would be willing to volunteer my time and my large car to be the worship band’s roadie.

Most of my duties as the roadie involved carrying equipment from Lars’ house to Evans Hall before the JCF large group meetings, and back to Lars’ house afterward.  With five of us working, it really did not take long.  I usually arrived early enough to hang out and talk with Lars, Tabitha, Brent Wang, and Scott Madison for a bit before we started working, and, honestly, this was my favorite part of the experience.  I had made so many new friends last year when I started attending JCF, and through them, I had learned a lot about what it means to really follow Jesus.  However, I also felt like JCF was still cliquish, and I had not broken into the group’s inner circles, despite being part of the worship team.  I had found out recently that JCF was phasing in a new exclusive invitation-only small group ministry that, from my perspective, entrenched cliques into the fundamental structure of the group, and of course I had not been invited to participate in that ministry.

“‘Look around your world, pretty baby, is it everything you hoped it’d be?’” Tabitha sang as she assembled a microphone stand.  I attached the snare drum to its stand as Tabitha continued, “‘The wrong guy, the wrong situation, the right time to roll to me.’”

“We had the same station on the radio on the way over,” I said to Tabitha.  “I just heard that song too.”

“Haha!  That’s funny.”

As I worked on reassembling Scott’s drum set, Lars plugged cables into the guitars, keyboards, and microphones.  Tabitha and Brent spoke into the microphones to make sure everything worked.  When we had all finished, Tabitha said, “All right, guys, let’s pray.”  The five of us stood in a circle and bowed our heads.  “Father,” Tabitha said, “I pray, Lord, that we will glorify you through our music tonight.  I pray, God, that you will be with Dave as he gives the talk tonight.  Give him the words he needs to say, Father, and open people’s hearts who need to hear that talk.”  Tabitha paused, then added, “Amen,” which the rest of us repeated.

I looked up and turned around, still in the front of the room but now facing the seats.  The time for the meeting to start was approaching soon, and about twenty people had trickled in so far while we were setting up.  I noticed a group of about eight of my friends gathered in the back in an unusual way, with serious looks on their faces.  I walked toward the back of the room to see what was going on.

Haley Channing sat in the center of this group, looking like she had been crying.  Eddie Baker, Kristina Kasparian, Lorraine Mathews, Ramon Quintero, and a few others sat and stood around her, some with their hands on Haley’s back and shoulders.  They took turns speaking softly and just sitting in silence at times.

“Haley?” I asked, approaching the group.  “Are you okay?”

Lorraine looked up and glared angrily at me, making me wonder exactly what I was doing wrong.  Haley looked up next, not angrily but with the puffy-eyed look of one who had been crying.  “My mother died this morning,” Haley said.

My heart sank.  This was something far more tragic and heavy than I was prepared to deal with.  “How?” I asked.

“Cancer.”

“I’m sorry,” I told Haley as Lorraine and now Kristina glared at me.  “I’m here if you ever need to talk, okay?”

“Thanks,” Haley replied.  I walked away; I was clearly interrupting, and some of the others seemed to be unhappy with my presence, even though I was only trying to help, just like everyone else was.

I prayed for Haley and her family while the worship team was playing that night.  I remembered meeting her parents once last year; they had come to Jeromeville for a weekend, and they had come to JCF that Friday.  Haley had an older brother who had recently graduated from the University of Jeromeville and still lived here, and a younger brother in high school on the other side of the state.  They must all be going through a very difficult time right now.  I did not know how long Haley’s mother had been battling cancer, if it was something that the family had time to prepare for emotionally, but it was not easy to deal with either way.

I thought back to when I met Haley’s parents; I remember noticing that Haley’s mom was wearing a big straw sun hat indoors at night, but I thought nothing of it.  I thought maybe she just liked the hat.  Now, though, it made more sense: she had probably lost her hair from cancer treatments, and she wore the hat to hide her missing hair.

After the meeting ended, I walked around, mingling and saying hi to people.  I noticed that Haley left early, which was completely understandable.  After about fifteen minutes, I noticed the worship team working on putting the instruments away.  I grabbed two guitars in cases, brought them out to the Bronco, then stared at the sky for a few minutes, thinking about Haley.  I would not know what to do if I lost one of my parents; for as much as I felt like they got in the way sometimes, I really was not ready to live completely on my own.  I wanted to be there for Haley, to listen and to have something comforting to say for my friend.  I wanted to help her feel better, and I wanted her to see what a nice guy I was and maybe be more than just friends.  But apparently this was a bad time for that.

“Greg?” Tabitha said, bringing me back to reality.  “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Just thinking about stuff.  Sorry.”

I followed Tabitha back to 170 Evans to finish loading the musical instruments and gear.  After we finished unloading everything at the house on K Street, I just went home and read a book for the rest of the night.  I was feeling sad enough that I did not even try to find people to hang out with afterward.


I spent all day Saturday careful not to divulge a secret.  A few days earlier, I was at home watching TV while Josh ate at the dinner table.  It was a rare occasion that Josh was actually home.  I felt like I still barely knew him, despite living in the same apartment for over two months, because he worked odd hours.

Shawn walked into the apartment after a run.  “Hey, guys,” he said.  “Brian’s birthday is coming up.  I’m going to surprise him with a trip to Redwood Valley Saturday night.  And he doesn’t know this, but one of our roommates from last year who lives out that way will be meeting us there for dinner.  Greg, you remember Mike Kozlovsky, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you guys free Saturday?  Can you come?”

“I have to work,” Josh said.

“Bummer,” Shawn replied.  “What about you, Greg?”

Saturday night… Let’s see… I have a date with a really hot girl, then I’m going out clubbing with my friends.  No, that is definitely not happening.  “Yeah, I can go,” I said.  “That sounds like fun.  What time are we leaving?”

“Five o’clock.  I’ll drive.”

“Sounds great,” I said.

Now, shortly after five o’clock on Saturday, Brian and I were in Shawn’s car, driving across downtown Jeromeville headed toward Highway 100.  Brian had been contemplating out loud where we might be going, and Shawn and I had not revealed anything.  Shawn drove under the railroad track on Cornell Boulevard, driving straight toward the freeway overpass, toward south Jeromeville and the ramp to eastbound 100 and Capital City, but then made a sudden swerve to the right, as if he had been feigning that we were going one way before actually going the other way.  Shawn turned onto 100 westbound.

“We’re going west!” Brian exclaimed as we entered the freeway.  We continued driving west for about half an hour, past Fairview.  Shawn’s car did not have a CD player, so Brian had brought a bunch of tapes he made from his CDs; he put on ABBA’s Gold greatest hits album first.  I did not know much of this group growing up, but apparently they were still popular among students here in Jeromeville, despite having broken up over a decade earlier.  Brian sang along enthusiastically to some songs, which I found quite amusing.

In Fairview, Highway 212 merged with Highway 100 for a few miles, and when the highways split again, Shawn took 212.  “We’re going to Silverado-Valle Luna!” Brian said, reading the two destination cities on the sign.  I had only been this way once before, when I had gone to visit a friend from high school a year ago, but I could not enjoy the scenery much because it was dark by the time we got there.  Brian had grown up in Valle Luna, so this was a familiar drive to him, and Mike Kozlovsky, the guy we were meeting, was also from this part of the state.

We drove through Silverado and into the hills to the west.  This was a world-class wine producing region, and even in the dark I could see grapevines covering the hills.  About halfway between Silverado and Valle Luna, we passed through a town called Redwood Valley.  I had never been here before; the center of the town featured a number of historic buildings, including what was once a mission from the Spanish colonial era.  We parked about a block from the mission and walked toward an Italian restaurant called Calabrese’s, where a tall, stocky blonde guy and his curly-haired girlfriend of average height and build stood outside waiting for us.

“Mike!” Brian said as the two embraced.  “Hey, Jeanette,” Brian said to the curly-haired girl, who said hi back.  Mike said hi to Shawn, then to me, and shook our hands.  I said hi back, then said hi to Jeanette.  Mike, like Shawn and Brian, had graduated from the University of Jeromeville the year before, when they had all shared a large house with a few other guys.  Jeanette was my age and still lived in Jeromeville; I figured that she had probably come to see Mike for the weekend.

I looked around inside the restaurant as the server led us to our table.  The room was dimly lit and full of candles, with red and white checkered tablecloths on all the tables.  I imagined this was the kind of place where people would go on romantic dates.  It was definitely not the kind of restaurant I was familiar with.

I ordered lasagna; it was fairly expensive, compared to most restaurants I had been to, but it was very good.  Much of the conversation at the table involved Shawn and Brian catching up with Mike.  I did not know Mike as well as the other guys knew each other, so I did not have much to say.  Mike did ask me how my classes were going at one point, though, so I did get to talk about those.  As the night went on, Mike and Jeanette seemed to tune out the rest of the conversation, getting sort of lost in their own little couple world.  I kept looking at them, wishing I had someone to get lost with.

I enjoyed the evening away from Jeromeville, but on the way home, I could not get the thought out of my head of Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette being cute and coupley.  I wanted so badly to know what that felt like.  I wished I knew how to talk to girls, how to ask someone out.  Even the fun road trip music on the drive home was not enough to shake my discouragement.


We got home from Redwood Valley a little after midnight.  I woke up around seven-thirty on Sunday morning, a normal amount of sleep for me, and drove to church in time for 20/20, the college class on Sunday morning.  Haley was there, and I said hi, but I did not try to intrude any more, since I did not want to repeat the awkwardness of Friday.  After 20/20, I went to the regular service, and after the service, Pete Green mentioned that a few people from 20/20 were going to have lunch at Dos Amigos.  I had never been to this place, but it sounded like Mexican food, so I said sure.

Five of us ended up going: me, Pete, Noah Snyder, Mike Knepper (a different Mike from last night, I knew a lot of Mikes back then), and a friendly blonde freshman girl named Courtney.  As I waited in line, looking at the menu, I felt in over my head; this was different from the Mexican food at our go-to Mexican restaurant back home, Paco’s Tacos.  There I usually ordered a bean and beef burrito with sides of beans and chips.  I found the beans and chips on the menu, but most of the burritos did not appear to have beans, and some of them had ingredients unfamiliar to me.  I ordered something called a Southwest Burrito with steak, with sides of beans and chips. (I would learn years later that Dos Amigos was inspired by a trip to Santa Fe, and that Santa Fe-style Mexican food was different from most of the Mexican food in this area, but that distinction was lost on me at the time.)

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Pete asked when we got to the table.

“Pretty good,” I said.  “Last night Brian and Shawn and I went to Redwood Valley for Brian’s birthday.  Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette met us there.”

“That sounds like fun.  How do you like having those guys as roommates?”

“It’s been good,” I said.  Good enough that I’m getting over missing out on my chance to live with you guys, I thought without saying it out loud.  I heard loud giggling from the other side of the table; apparently Mike Knepper had said something funny, and Courtney laughed.

My food arrived on three separate plates; I was not expecting this.  One plate had the burrito along with a small handful of chips; a second, smaller plate held my side of beans; and the third plate, the same size as the first, was full of chips.  “I think I got too much food,” I said.  “I didn’t know there’d be chips with the burrito.  The Mexican restaurant we always go to back home, you have to order chips separately.”

“On the bright side, now you have a lot of chips,” Noah said.  “And these chips are really good.  You should go try the pico de gallo.”  Noah gestured toward the small cup of chunky tomato salsa next to his plate, fortunately, since I had no idea what “pico de gallo” meant except that it was literally something about a rooster.

Noah was right; the pico de gallo was excellent.  So was the rest of the food.  I definitely wanted to come back to this place.  Noah and Pete and I talked about life and classes and things while Mike Knepper and Courtney made googly eyes at each other and giggled the whole time.  It sure looked like something was going on between them, or at least that one or both of them was interested in the other.  I looked down dejectedly at my plate for a while, but tried to keep up with the conversation and not give away what was on my mind.

After I got home from Dos Amigos, I spent most of the afternoon studying, although my mind was elsewhere and I could not focus.  I kept thinking about Haley, about the passing of her mother, and how I wanted to be there for her, but I did not get the chance.  I wished I knew some way to spend time with her.  And I really hoped that nothing was developing between her and Ramon, and or anyone else.  I did not know how to tell her that I liked her, and I also did not want to mess things up so badly that we could not salvage a friendship afterward.  Friendship was important to me too; she was there for one of my darkest nights last year.

I felt like the world was conspiring against me to shove it in my face that so many people around me were in relationships, and I was not.  Of course, I was overreacting, but I still felt frustrated and angry that everyone else who had normal childhoods seemed to know some secret about how to talk to girls and go on dates, and I did not.  Mike Kozlovsky and Jeanette had been in a relationship for a long time.  Mike Knepper and Courtney seemed to have something going on.  I wished I knew how to tell Haley how I felt.

Maybe that was the wrong approach, I thought.  Maybe I just needed to forget about her and move on.  She and her friends certainly did not seem to want me around Friday night.  Maybe it was time to find out for sure.  I love you, but I’ve never let you know, I said to myself in my head, realizing immediately afterward that this phrase was iambic pentameter.  I excitedly stood up and started thinking of other phrases in iambic pentameter relevant to the situation.  By the time I was waiting for the bus home Monday afternoon, I had an entire Shakespearean sonnet.

I love you, but I’ve never let you know,
My secret crush I’ve buried deep inside;
I fear the time has come to let it go,
These days it causes pain I cannot hide.
The time has come, it seems, to run away,
To change the subject running through my mind;
You have so many friends that I would say
You’ll never know I’ve left you far behind.
But how can I desert a friend like you?
I cannot leave you in this time of need;
As jealousy I’ve buried now breaks through
I must be strong, and not succumb to greed;
   Though lovers we will likely never be,
   Our friendship is worth more than eyes can see.

By the time I finished writing the poem, I was starting to consider telling Haley directly how I felt about her.  This kind of conversation was painful and difficult for me.  I had done this once before, with Melissa Holmes our senior year of high school.  She did not feel the same way about me, but she was honest about it, and I did feel free to move on once I got over the rejection.  Melissa and I did stay friends after that, and we continued to stay friends for about twenty years, until we just grew apart naturally.  It felt like a long shot with Haley; I did not seriously expect her to tell me that she liked me back.  But if she did not, I could at least know for sure and get on with my life.  And on the bright side, maybe she would give me a chance.  I was not ready to do this right now, but the whole situation had me so messed up in the head that I was ready to consider the option as the next few weeks unfolded.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place. (#68)

I had been in a bad mood all week.  I woke to rain Tuesday morning, and since then clouds had covered Jeromeville the entire time.  My week had been boring and uneventful, and I was feeling particularly grumpy about not having a girlfriend.  Earlier today, I saw Sabrina Murphy from church on campus, and she introduced me to her boyfriend.  I knew she had a boyfriend, I had been through the disappointment of learning that a month ago, but meeting him felt like a reminder that I was not good enough to date a girl like Sabrina.

It was now Friday evening, and once I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship tonight, I would be alone studying the entire weekend.  The National Football League championship game was coming up Sunday afternoon, but this year I would probably be watching it alone in my apartment.  Maybe that was a good thing; the team I despised the most, the Texas Toros, was heavily favored to win.

Dave McAllen of the JCF staff team spoke that night.  “‘I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel,’” Dave said, reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  “If you look back in Acts chapter 19, it tells about when Paul first visited Philippi.  The first Philippian to receive the gospel was a woman named Lydia.  It says, ‘When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.’  Paul and his companions did not just baptize her and take off.  They started a church that met at her house.”

I had been attending JCF since October.  At first, most of my thoughts during the group meetings were on learning people’s names, figuring out how the group worked, and wondering whether they would have a problem with me being Catholic.  But now that I had been part of the group for a few months, I was paying more attention to the actual content of the message.  I got a different perspective on Scripture from JCF than I got from Mass at the Newman Center.  Father Bill’s homily was usually something fairly brief and general, vaguely related to that week’s Scripture, but the messages given by Dave and the JCF staff applied specific Scriptures in relevant ways for university students in 1996.  Relationship was a big part of spreading the Gospel at a large university.  It was also, unfortunately, something deficient in my life.

After Dave’s talk and the final worship song, I stood and turned to my friends.  I had been sitting next to Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, and Jason Costello, all friends from my freshman dorm last year.  “How’s it going, Greg?” Charlie asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  “Except all my classes have midterms this week.”

“Good luck,” Caroline said.  

“Where are Liz and Ramon?” Charlie asked.

“They went to go see Ramon’s parents this weekend,” Caroline replied.

“Ramon said they’ll be back Sunday morning,” Jason added.  “I need to get going.  I had a midterm today, and I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Yeah,” Caroline said.  “I need to go too.  I need to start my paper.  It’s due Monday.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.  “Is anyone else doing anything tonight?”

“Not me,” Pete replied.  “I have to study all weekend.  I’m so behind in all my classes.”

“Pete’s my ride,” Charlie said, “and I’m behind too.”

“Good luck with your studying,” I said.  “I’ll see you guys later!”

The others said their goodbyes, and I walked around the room.  I knew that learning about the Bible should be the most important part of these meetings, but I was also enjoying the social aspect.  Dave spoke tonight about building relationships, so being social is important too, apparently.  Last week I went to a movie with those friends after JCF, and I was hoping something like that would happen tonight too.  If it did, though, it would not be with them; my opportunity had been stolen by studying, and by Liz and Ramon doing couple stuff.

A freshman named Brent Wang saw me and waved.  I approached him and the others standing next to him.  “Hey, Greg,” Brent said.  “How’s it going?”

“Not bad.  Just busy with school.  How are you guys?”

“I had a midterm today.  I don’t think I did too great.”

“I had one too,” said a tall curly-haired boy whose name I thought was Todd.  “I know I didn’t do too great.”

“That’s too bad,” I replied.  “But you never know.  What are you guys up to tonight?”

“We’re having an overnighter at our Bible study leader’s apartment,” Brent explained.  “Just something for the guys of our group to get to know each other.  We should actually get going; we told him we’d be there in just a minute.”

“Have fun!” I said.  “See you guys next week!”

Over the next twenty minutes, I had some positive small talk experiences but was ultimately unsuccessful in finding something to do.  By now, only ten people remained in the room, and most of them seemed to be helping clean up.  I sat in a seat by myself away from people and put my head down.  What was wrong with me?  Why was it so hard for me to make friends?  I hated being me sometimes.  I hated living alone and feeling out of the loop, and the only reason I lived alone was because I was out of the loop when people were making housing plans for the following year.  And would I ever know the feeling of being in love?

I looked down at the floor, fighting back tears, as I heard more and more of the few remaining students putting things away, saying goodbye, and leaving the room.  When the room was silent, as the last people were getting ready to leave, I heard footsteps approaching, probably to tell me that it was time to go, that they had to lock up.

“Are you okay?” a voice asked.  I looked up to see two guys of average height and build now sitting next to me.  The closer one had black hair and olive skin, and the one behind him had light brown hair and pointed features.

“I’m okay,” I said.  “I’m just having a rough night.  I feel like I don’t fit in around here.”

“Why’s that?  Did something happen?” the dark-haired guy asked me.  He was the same one who had spoken before, and I had seen him around JCF; I was pretty sure his name was Eddie.  I did not know the other guy.

“I haven’t been going here very long.  I don’t know a lot of people.  And the people I do know, sometimes I feel like I’m not really part of their group.”

“Your name’s Greg, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Eddie, and this is Xander.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Who would you say you know here?”

“Pete Green, Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, Jason Costello, Sarah Winters, Krista Curtis… we were all in the same dorm last year.  A lot of them weren’t here this week, though, and the ones who were went home early.”

“Sometimes people just have stuff going on,” Xander said.  “Don’t take it personally.”

“I know.”

“So you’re a sophomore?” Eddie asked.  “We are too.  Do you have roommates?”

“No.  I was in a single room in the dorm last year, and when everyone was making their plans for this year, I didn’t know what was going on until everyone had plans already.”

“Living alone can be nice,” Xander said.  “We live in a big house with eight of us total, and it gets noisy sometimes.”

“Yeah, but it gets lonely too.”

“Can we pray with you?” Eddie asked.

“Sure,” I said.  I found this to be another difference between students at JCF and students at the Newman Center, the willingness to pray for people openly in public like this.

Eddie placed his hand on my back and began speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for bringing Greg to JCF and having our lives intersect tonight.  I pray that Greg will know that he is loved.  I pray that he will experience your love in a whole new way this weekend.  I pray that you will come in and transform his life.  Wash away all the hurt and the pain and show him your blessings anew.”

“Jesus,” Xander added.  “I pray that you will help Greg find his place in our community.  I pray that he will hear from you and know your plan for his life.  I pray that you will bring him into the community you have prepared for him, and I thank you that we got to talk to him tonight.”  After a pause, he concluded, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Do you have any plans this weekend?” Eddie asked.

“No.  Just study and homework, but it won’t take the whole weekend.”

“Tonight we’re going to play games with some girls from JCF who live down the street from us.  And we’re going to watch the football championship on Sunday.  You want to come hang out with us?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Where do you guys live?”

“I’ll draw you a map.”  Eddie tore off a piece of paper and drew a map to a street called Baron Court, near Valdez Street and Cornell Boulevard.  He marked two locations at opposite ends of the street, labeling one of them “2212 – Eddie & Xander” and the other “2234 – Girls.”  “Do you know where that is?” he asked.  “It’s in south Jeromeville.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can find my way there.  Are you guys going there now?”

“Yeah.  We said we’d be there a while ago.:

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you in a bit then.”



Baron Court was about two miles from campus on the other side of Highway 100.  I had explored this neighborhood on my bike a few months earlier.  On one side of Baron Court was a large apartment complex with its main entrance around the corner on Valdez Street, and a row of duplexes lined the other side, ending in a cul-de-sac opening up to one of the Greenbelts.  The girls lived in the second to last duplex.  I did not know who these girls were, and I did not know if Eddie and Xander had arrived yet.  If I knocked, and they were not expecting me, would they be comfortable letting some strange man into their home at ten o’clock at night?  After waiting in the car nervously for over five minutes, I had not seen Eddie and Xander arrive, so I assumed that they had gotten there before me.  I walked up and rang the doorbell.

A shorter than average girl with dark curly hair opened the door.  Behind her I could see Eddie and Xander sitting on a couch, looking at the door as if they were expecting me.  “Greg!” Eddie said.  “You made it!  Come on in!”

“Hi, Greg.  I’m Kristina,” said the girl who answered the door.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  We shook hands, and I walked to the couch and sat next to Xander.  On a second couch, placed against the front wall out of view of the doorway, sat two other girls, one small and thin with brown hair and an athletic build, and one average height, but the tallest of the three, with bright blue eyes and straight light brown hair just past her shoulders.  I could not remember ever having met any of these girls before.  Around 150 students attended JCF on an average Friday, so I had not met everyone yet.  “These are my roommates, Kelly and Haley,” Kristina said.  “Six of us live here, but the other three went home for the weekend.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You too,” Kelly, the small athletic one, replied.

“So you go to JCF?” Haley asked.  “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

“I’ve only been going for three months.  I don’t know a lot of people yet.”

“I didn’t have that experience.  It seems like everyone knew me the first time I went to large group,” Haley said, and the others chuckled.  I got the impression that she was referring to something specific that I did not know about, and just as I was about to ask, Eddie explained, “Haley’s brother goes to JCF too.  He’s a senior.  Do you know Christian Channing?  Glasses, goatee, about the same color hair as Haley.”

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

“Are you a freshman?” Haley asked.

“Sophomore.”

“Me too.”

“All of us are,” Kelly added, gesturing toward the six of us in the room.

“How’d you find out about JCF?” Kristina asked.

“A bunch of my friends from my dorm last year invited me.”  I told Kristina which JCF people lived in my dorm, and she and the other girls nodded.

“Are you in a Bible study?” Xander asked me.

“I’m not,” I said.  Hoping that this would not make my new friends gasp in horror, I added, “I actually don’t even have a Bible.”

“I think I have an extra Bible,” Kristina said.  “I’ll go look for it before you can leave.  You can have it.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “That would be nice.”

“So what do you want to play?” Eddie asked.

“We can always start with Uno,” Kristina replied.  “Is everyone okay with Uno?”

“Sure,” I said.  Kristina got up and returned a minute later with Uno and a few other games.  She dealt the cards, and we began playing, taking turns trying to match the color or the number of the previously played card.  We made small talk while we were playing, about classes and other things going on around JCF.

Xander played a red 3 card.  My turn was next, but Kristina jumped in and played the other red 3 card, out of turn.  “What?” I said.  “It’s my turn.”

“I had the other red 3,” Kristina explained.

“What do you mean?  Why did you play out of turn?”

“Because I had the exact match.”

“I don’t think that’s an actual rule,” Eddie said.  “Greg, you don’t play that way?”

“No.  It’s not a rule.  I read the rules when I was a kid.”

“That’s how we always play,” Kristina argued.

“That’s fine, as long as I know about it.  Are there any other made-up rules?”

“What about adding to draw cards?” Eddie asked.  “Like if I play a Draw Two, then instead of drawing two, Xander can play another Draw Two, and you would have to draw four.  And if you play another Draw Two, Haley would have to draw six.”

“I don’t know that one either, but that sounds interesting.”

We played three long games of Uno with these house rules that were new to me; I did not win any of them, but it was fun, especially when Kristina, after a great deal of playful trash-talking, had to draw twelve when three Wild Draw Four cards were played consecutively.  After Uno, we played Scattergories.  In this game, each player was given a list of categories and a short amount of time to write things in each category beginning with a predetermined letter.  Only unique answers, different from those of all other players, counted for points.  For the first round the letter was B.  I read the categories and began writing.

Heroes: Batman, but I made a note to change it if I had time, since someone else would probably say that.  Terms of endearment: Babe.  Same thing, someone else would probably say it.  Tropical locations: Bikini Atoll.  Items in your purse/wallet: Bucks.  As in money.  That was creative.  Things that are black: Barry Bonds.  Not exactly politically correct, but good for laughs, and I would get two points for using something with two B words.  I started to panic as the timer inched closer to 0.  At the last minute, I crossed out Batman and put “Bueller, Ferris” for Heroes.  In the movie, Cameron calls him his hero, so I thought I had a good argument.

When the timer went off, we began reading our answers.  “Heroes,” Kristina said.  “Batman.”  Kelly and Xander both groaned that they had also written Batman, so I had made a good choice to change mine.  “Bueller, Ferris,” I said.  Imitating Cameron from the movie, I added, “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero,” in an exaggerated nasal deadpan.  The others laughed and agreed that my answer counted.

“Items in your purse,” Eddie said.

“Big bills!” Kristina shouted.  “Two points!”

“Isn’t that only one point?” I asked.  “Because ‘big’ isn’t really a necessary part of the answer.  It’s just ‘bills.’”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “I think you only get the point for ‘bills.’”

We continued reading our answers; I scored eight points that round.  We chose a new list for the next round, and Kelly rolled the alphabet die; it landed on C.  I read my new categories and tried to think of C words.  Famous females: Christina Applegate.  Things made of metal: Crowbar.  Medicine/Drugs: Cocaine.  Names in the Bible: This is where my lack of a Bible might hurt me.  I wrote Caleb; I was pretty sure there was a Caleb in the Bible.

“Famous females,” Eddie said as the timer went off.

“Christina Applegate,” I said.  No one else had that.

“Sheryl Crow!” Kristina exclaimed loudly.

“That’s only one point,” I said.  “Sheryl is spelled with an S, not a C.”

“Well, aren’t you the king of not letting me get two points!” Kristina said with mock indignation.

“And you’re the queen of answers that don’t count,” I replied.  Everyone laughed.

It was past midnight by the time we finished the third and final round of Scattergories.  “We should probably get going,” Eddie said.  “It’s getting late.  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Probably,” Kristina replied.  “Wait.  Hang on.”  She walked out of the room, then returned a minute later holding a Bible, which she handed me.  “Here, Greg.  You said you needed this.”

“Yes!  Thank you!”

“It was nice to meet you, Greg,” Haley said, smiling.

“You too.”  I looked at her and smiled back.

“Yeah,” Kelly added.  “Nice meeting you, Greg.”

As we left, walking outside toward the sidewalk, I pointed to my left and asked, “So your house is right down there?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “We’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes.  I’ll be there.  Thanks for inviting me.”

“Drive safely,” Xander said.  “See you Sunday.”

“See you guys then,” I replied.

I got in my car and put Kristina’s Bible on the front seat.  Things really turned around tonight.  Dave spoke tonight about the ministry of the early Christians being built on relationships, and Eddie and Xander heard that message loud and clear, reaching out to me to build friendships that have lasted to this day, even though we now live far apart.  Decades later, I was given the chance to pass on this message about ministry through building relationships.  I was invited to speak at JCF’s Alumni Night in 2016, and I told the students about the night I got upset and threw a cardboard box at Sarah Winters and my friends prayed for me, as well as this night, when Eddie and Xander invited to play Uno and Scattergories.

I went to bed shortly after I got home that night.  It felt like pieces were finally falling into place.  I had many more pieces to go to solve this great puzzle of life, but I felt a little closer to figuring things out tonight than I had earlier.  As I drifted off to sleep, I felt at peace, thinking about my new friends, how Eddie and Xander had included me in their life tonight.  I was going to see them again on Sunday, and it was going to be awesome.

And I also thought quite a bit about Haley Channing and her beautiful blue eyes.  I really, really hoped that she did not have a boyfriend.

The actual bible Kristina gave me on that day, a bit more worn now.