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 31, 1997. Brian was known for throwing amazing New Year parties. (#158)

I packed my sleeping bag and pillow in the back of my Ford Bronco, along with a bag containing my toothbrush and toothpaste.  I had considered bringing the sweat pants I wore for pajamas and a full change of clothes, but realized I was overthinking.  I would only be staying long enough to sleep, so as not to have to drive home in the middle of the night, and leaving first thing in the morning.  I could handle sleeping in my clothes for one night.

I started the car and headed out of Jeromeville south on Highway 117, merging onto Highway 100 west toward Bay City two and a half miles down the road.  The weather was cool and cloudy but dry, typical for an afternoon in December.  It was only four-thirty in the afternoon, but the sun would already be setting soon, also typical for December.

This first part of the drive was extremely familiar to me, since it was the same drive I made every time I went back home to see my family.  I had just been this way yesterday morning in the opposite direction coming home from winter break.  I watched the fields and trees pass by as I continued heading southwest across the short dimension of the Valley at sixty-five miles per hour.  The cities of Silvey, Nueces, and Fairview passed by me as I passed slow trucks and reckless drivers passed me.  Just past Fairview, about thirty miles past Jeromeville, I started to merge into the right lane, to get on Highway 6 southbound toward San Tomas, when I realized that I was not going that way.  Almost every other time I had made this drive, I had taken 6 south, headed toward home, but today I was going somewhere else.

I took the next exit, Highway 212 west toward Silverado and Redwood Valley.  The rest of my drive would not be a straight shot down one road, and much of it would be on roads with one lane in each direction, winding through hills covered with vineyards and cow pastures.  It would be much more fun making this trip in the other direction tomorrow morning after the sun came back up, so I could actually see the beautiful countryside and the road ahead.

I crossed the Silverado River on a high bridge and followed the highway around a curve to the right, toward the city of Silverado, only to turn left at a stoplight and head away from the city on a road with just one lane in each direction.  I was trying not to drive too fast, since I had only been this way twice before and did not want to miss a turn in the dark.

I found the turn I was looking for, Highway 164 to Hillside, a few miles before Redwood Valley.  Highway 212 went directly to Valle Luna, but Brian’s directions said that there was a faster way to get from Jeromeville to Valle Luna.  I was not familiar with this area, so I took his word for it.  I had gone this way two years ago when I went to visit Renee Robertson at Valle Luna State, but the university was south of 212 so in that case it made sense to take 164 and not backtrack.

At around 5:50, I got to Hillside and turned onto Highway 11 northbound for another fifteen miles into Valle Luna, a good-sized city of about two hundred thousand residents.  Highway 212, which I had turned off of earlier, crossed Highway 11 right in the middle of Valle Luna.  I turned on 212 west and drove to what appeared to be the extreme western edge of the city, as fields opened up against the hills to the west that separated Valle Luna from the coast.  I turned right at a stoplight which took me back into residential neighborhoods, and about two miles north of 212, I turned into the Burrs’ neighborhood.

Brian Burr, one of my roommates from the previous school year, was two years older than me, having graduated from the University of Jeromeville in 1996.  His goal was to be a doctor, but he had not gotten into any medical schools.  He spent the 1996-97 school year working part time on staff with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I had met him, and also retaking all the entrance exams and reapplying to medical school.  Last fall, he moved across the country to attend New York Medical College, just north of New York City in Westchester County.  He had just finished his first semester, and he was back at his parents’ house in Valle Luna for winter break, where apparently he was known for throwing amazing New Year parties.

Brian’s parents lived on a cul-de-sac just a little way off of the main road.  It was only 6:14, still hours before midnight, but I could already tell that parking on the cul-de-sac would fill up quickly.  I parked my car in one of the last remaining free spaces and knocked on the door.

“Hi,” a middle-aged man said.  “You’re looking for Brian, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You look familiar, but I don’t remember your name.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Mr. Burr’s hand.  I had only met Brian’s dad once before.  “Brian and I were roommates last year, at the apartment on Maple Drive.”

“Oh, yeah!  Is this your first New Year’s party here?”

“Yes.”

“Welcome to our house.  It’ll be a lot of fun.”

“That’s what I hear.”

“So Brian said you’re younger than him, right?  Are you still in school at Jeromeville?”

“Yeah.  I graduate this spring.”

“What are you studying?”

“Mathematics.”

“Greg!” I heard Brian’s familiar voice say.  “How you been, man?” he asked as he pulled me into an embrace.

“Good,” I said.  “How’s medical school?”

“It’s a lot of work.  But it’s good.  What about you?  You went away to Oregon or Washington or something for the summer to do research, right?”

“Yeah.  Grandvale, Oregon.  I’m glad I went, but the biggest thing I learned was that I don’t want to do math research as a career.”

A tall blond guy around Brian’s age walked into the room.  “Greg!” he said.  “What’s up?”

“Hey, Mike,” I said.  Mike Kozlovsky had graduated from UJ the same year as Brian.  He was also from Valle Luna, and he had moved back home after graduation.  “I was just talking about last summer,” I continued.  “I did a math research internship in Oregon, and I learned that I didn’t want to go into math research.”

“Aww, bummer,” Mike replied.

“Better to learn this now, rather than after I gave three years of my life to a Ph.D. program,” I said.

“That’s a really good point,” Brian said.

“Why didn’t you like it?” Mike asked.

“Math research is weird!” I explained.  “All the things being researched are so abstract and advanced that I can’t understand them even when I’m about to finish a degree.  It’s just not interesting.  And I also just didn’t really click with the others in the program.”

“So what do you want to do now?” Brian asked.

“I’m gonna be a teacher.  Probably for high school.”

“Will you be in the same program Shawn was in?”

“That’s the plan.  I’ve applied to that.  I also thought about applying to the program at Capital State, but it’s kind of confusing how theirs works, and it won’t really be any advantage for me to do that one.  I just want to get into a classroom as soon as I can at this point.”

“Hopefully you don’t end up with the same master teacher that Shawn hated.”

“Didn’t Shawn quit the program, or something?” Mike asked.

“He finished all the classes, but he didn’t apply for any teaching jobs,” Brian explained.  “He moved back to Ashwood and opened a running apparel store with one of his old running buddies back home.”

“That’s right.”

“Is Shawn coming tonight?” I asked Brian.

“No.  He really wanted to, but he’s too busy with the store.”

“I get that.”


I walked inside and sat next to a bowl of tortilla chips as Brian mingled with people I did not recognize.  A large amount of pizza arrived about an hour after I did, and I piled about five or six slices on my plate and began eating.

As I watched people trickle in, and waved and said hi to the ones I knew: Kristina Kasparian, Lars Ashford, Lorraine Mathews, John Harvey, and several others.  But I also realized that Brian had a lot of friends whom I did not know.  I met Brian two years ago through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, when Brian was a senior and I was a sophomore, but I did not know him well until that next spring and summer when he and Shawn and I made plans to live together.  Brian had been at UJ for two years before I started there.  He had probably made friends with people who ran in different circles, or had graduated, by the time I met him.  Brian also was at his parents’ house, in Valle Luna, where he grew up, so some of these people whom I did not know were probably Brian’s childhood or high school friends.

Eddie Baker and Tabitha Sasaki had arrived separately, about half an hour apart, while I was eating chips and pizza. I had said hi to both of them, but we had not actually talked yet, so when I was done eating, I walked to where they were sitting.  “Greg!” Tabitha said, smiling and motioning to the empty couch seat on her left.  Eddie sat on her right.  “Come sit down!”

“Hey,” I said, a little louder than I would have liked since there was now music playing.  I did not recognize the song.  “What have you guys been up to?  How’s your break going?”

“Good,” Eddie said.  “Mostly just been hanging out with Tabitha.”  Eddie and Tabitha did not know each other before coming to UJ, but their families lived fairly close to each other in two neighboring suburbs of San Tomas.

“Did you go home to Plumdale?” Tabitha asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “My cousins who visit every Christmas were there.  And last weekend I made a silly movie with them, and my brother, and some of my brother’s friends.”

“That’s great,” Eddie said.  “Kind of like the Dog Crap and Vince movie you made with the kids from church?”

“Exactly!  My brother saw that when I brought it home for Thanksgiving, and he wanted to make a movie with me too.”

“How are things going as a youth leader anyway?”

“Good!  I’m going to Winter Camp in February.  That’ll be fun.”

“It will be!  Make sure you bring snow clothes.”

“I know.  I’m going to need to do some shopping.”

“What was your movie about?” Tabitha asked.

“We have this game we kind of made up called Moport.  It’s like a cross between soccer, football, and hockey.  In our movie, this bad Moport team accidentally drafts the wrong player, and he’s really weird, but they find ways to win.  And this other guy tries to sabotage the team.”

“That sounds silly.”

“Very silly,” I agreed.  


After I finished catching up with Eddie and Tabitha, I watched Brian and some others dancing to some song I did not know, with lyrics in Spanish.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye were sitting in chairs next to the snack table.  I had not talked to them yet, so I sat down in another empty chair at the table.  “Hey,” I said.

“Hi, Greg!” Amelia said, smiling.

“Greg Dennison’s Chili,” Scott added, shaking my hand, using the nickname he had recently come up with for me.  I had had a few people over the years ask me if I was related to the people who made Dennison’s brand chili (I was not), but Scott was so far the first to use that as an actual nickname.

“How’s your break going so far?” I asked.

“Pretty good.  Just doing a lot of wedding planning stuff,” Scott explained.

“And working on med school applications,” Amelia added.

“When is the wedding?”

“June 27,” Amelia explained.  “We’ll be having the ceremony at J-Cov, then for the reception we’ll all caravan across the Drawbridge to the Capital City Downtown Ballroom.”

“Nice.”

“Hey, guys,” Brian said, joining us.  “What’s up?”

“Oh!  Brian!  Guess what I’m doing in three weeks?” Amelia said excitedly.  “I have an interview at New York Med!”

“Nice!” Brian said.  “That would be cool if you two ended up moving to New York with me.”

“Yeah!  We’d know someone already there.”

“How is medical school going?” I asked Brian.

“It’s good.  So far it’s just classroom work, so not that different from what I experienced at Jeromeville.  But it was hard to get back into the routine of being in school again, after taking last year off.”

“I bet,” I said.

“We had an end-of-semester social event for all the first-year med students a couple weeks ago.  It’s a little weird that they serve alcohol at school-sponsored socials.  They just assume everyone in med school is old enough to drink.”

“That makes sense,” I said.  “Because everyone is.  Amelia?  Where else have you applied?”  Amelia listed numerous other medical schools around the country.  Much like Brian had the previous year, Amelia really had applied all over, but apparently New York Med was one of her top choices.  That would be nice if Amelia and Brian ended up at the same school.


As the night went on, the party got louder.  A few people seemed a bit tipsy, and Brian had had a few drinks, but many of Brian’s friends from Jeromeville were Christians and did not drink to excess.  At one point, someone pulled out a karaoke machine, and Brian sang “Dancing Queen” by ABBA, one of his favorites.  I had been in University Chorus three times now, but I still did not like singing solo in front of people.

Later, after the karaoke machine had been put away but with music still playing, another ABBA song came on, “Take A Chance On Me.”  Brian jumped up and began dancing with his arms in the air.  One time when we lived together, I came home from class, and as soon as Brian saw that I was home, he put on Take A Chance On Me and started doing this same silly dance he was doing now.  

A few minutes after Take A Chance On Me finished, people started saying it was time, and someone turned off the music.  It took a few seconds for me to figure out what was going on; after I remembered the occasion of this evening, I looked at my watch surprised to see that it was already close to midnight.  The night went by fast.  Someone turned on the television to one of the major networks’ New Year broadcasts, and when the countdown to midnight displayed on the screen reached thirty seconds, everyone stared at the screen and began counting out loud.  Numbers that large were difficult to count down at a rate of one per second, so I did not join in the countdown until ten seconds were left.

“Ten!  Nine!  Eight!  Seven!  Six!”

By now, people were excited enough that the counting was no longer synchronized to the clock on the television, or to each other.  As much as it bothered me to be inaccurate, I tried to stay synchronized to the majority of the people counting.

“Five!  Four!  Three!  Two!  One!  Happy new year!”

I heard those loud little confetti poppers being popped across the room.  Someone handed me one; I pulled the string and watched a small amount of confetti explode upward away from me.  Those who had drinks in glasses clinked their glasses together; Scott and Amelia were closest to me, and I clinked my aluminum Coca-Cola can to their glasses, saying “Clink!” out loud since my can did not make a clinking noise.  Scott laughed.

I stayed up for at least another two hours, talking, watching people dance, and occasionally snacking.  This kind of thing happens to me every New Year’s Day, but I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that it was 1998 already.  I was going to graduate in 1998.  That was only six short months away, and a few months after that, I would be student teaching in a high school math classroom somewhere.  As I got older, as the year number on the calendar kept going up, life just seemed to move faster and faster.

Around two in the morning, I walked out to my car and got my sleeping bag.  Brian had said to bring a sleeping bag, that we were all welcome to sleep on the floor and leave in the morning.  The party was starting to quiet down by then, since many of the locals had gone home.  It was still noisy enough that I was not expecting to fall asleep, but I was tired enough that I nodded in and out of consciousness for the next hour and a half.  I woke up having to use the bathroom at 3:30, and by then, the living room was dark, with several other people asleep in sleeping bags on the floor.

I woke up again at 7:42, and could not go back to sleep.  Everyone else was still asleep, and I did not want to wake anyone.  This kind of thing often happened to me when I was sleeping away from home in a group, where I was awake far earlier than everyone else, so I packed a book to read just in case, The Pelican Brief by John Grisham.  The lighting was not ideal for reading, since the sun had just come up and the drapes were closed, but I could see well enough.

A few people gradually woke up as I was reading; I waved hello and occasionally whispered when necessary.  I hated sleeping in a strange place with other people in the room, but I did not want to leave without saying goodbye to Brian.

Brian finally appeared around 9:15.  I stood up, still fully clothed from the night before, rolled my sleeping bag, and went to the bathroom, also brushing my teeth this time.  Then I walked toward Brian at the kitchen table.  “I’m going to head home now,” I said.

“Okay,” Brian replied.  “Thanks so much for coming.  It was good seeing you.”

“You too!  Thanks for inviting me!  Keep in touch.  Good luck with school.”

“Thanks.  And good luck with being a teacher.  I think you’d make a great teacher.”

“Wow.  Thank you.”

I said a quiet goodbye to everyone else who was still at the party and awake.  Some of them I would not see again for a long time.  Others who were still students at UJ I would see in a few days at most.

The drive home through the hills between Valle Luna and Silverado was, as I suspected, beautiful in the daylight.  It had rained enough over the last month that green grasses were growing in empty fields.  Many of the hillsides were planted with grapevines, which were bare this time of year, without leaves, but there was something calming about the parallel rows of grapevines and lattices covering the countryside.

As would often happen at the beginning of a year, I drove toward Jeromeville with a feeling of hope and promise.  This year had positive things in store.  In addition to graduation and starting a new phase of my education, I also had Winter Camp to look forward to.  And I was sure that the year would be full of unexpected surprises, some good, some bad.  Maybe this year would be full of new experiences.  Maybe the love of my life would be waiting just around the corner.  Who knows?


Readers: How do you usually celebrate the New Year? What’s your most memorable New Year story? Tell me about it in the comments.

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November 19-23, 1997. The road trip to the National Youth Workers Convention. (#154)

Unlike many university students, I almost never missed class.  I stayed home sick only once during my time at the University of Jeromeville, and I only skipped class to do something fun once, when Brian Burr was my roommate and we went to see the rerelease of Return of the Jedi.  Because of this, as I walked from my house to Jeromeville Covenant Church carrying a suitcase and backpack, I felt bad for having to miss chorus and cancel one of my tutoring sessions this afternoon.  Students in chorus who missed more than two rehearsals would not receive passing credit for the class, and this was the first one I had missed, so I did not have to worry about that, but I still did.

“You look like you’re ready,” Adam White, the youth pastor, said as I stumbled into the fellowship hall with my heavy bag.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.

“You excited?” asked Taylor Santiago.  Taylor and I had been friends since the first week of freshman year, and he was the one who had introduced me to youth ministry last year.  Normally, if I was walking from home to church on a Wednesday, it was because I was a leader with The Edge, the junior high school youth group.  But on this Wednesday, it was two in the afternoon, and none of us would be at The Edge tonight.  The other volunteers would have to run things without us.

“I’m excited,” I said.  “I’ve never been to San Diego.”

“It’s nice.  I’ve been there a few times.  Last time was a few years ago, during the summer.  I went to a baseball game, when the Titans had an away game in San Diego.  It’s a nice stadium.  And the beaches are nice too.  We won’t really be near the beach, though.”

“I’ll just have to go back again someday, I guess,” I said.

Noah Snyder and Brad Solano, the interns for junior high and high school ministry, also waited with us in the church office. “I was thinking we could start packing while we’re waiting.  That way, as soon as Kate gets here, we can just throw her stuff in the van and take off.”

“Sounds good,” Adam replied.  Kate, a volunteer with the high school group, arrived just as we finished packing our things.  With only six of us going on this trip in a fifteen-passenger van, we also used the entire back seat to hold luggage.

Adam pulled out of the church parking lot and worked his way to the freeway.  We crossed the river to downtown Capital City and turned south, driving through ten miles of suburbs.  This quickly gave way to the miles and miles and miles of pastures and orchards that would make up over half of the nine-hour trip to San Diego.  The major highway was built down the Valley on a different route than the earlier highway it replaced, far from most cities, to benefit long-distance drivers.  The old highway still existed parallel to this one, passing through Ralstonville, Bear River, Ashwood, and many other cities, some distance to the east.  I knew the first hundred miles down the Valley well; this was my slightly longer route to see my parents when I needed to avoid traffic in San Tomas, and it was also part of our route on childhood trips to see my dad’s relatives in Bidwell to the north.  But I had never been all the way down the Valley to the south.

After we left Capital City, I got out my backpack and began doing math homework.  “You’re doing math?” Taylor said.

“What?” I replied.  “I’m missing two days of class.  I need to stay caught up.”

“I think you’re the only one who brought homework on this trip.”

“And I probably have the best grades out of all of us too,” I replied, smirking.

“Oooooh,” Noah exclaimed, jokingly.

“Grades?” asked Adam, who had been out of school for a few years.  “What are those?”

“Seriously, though, good for you for keeping your grades up,” Taylor said.  “I kind of gave up on that freshman year.  But you know what they say.  Cs get degrees.”

“I figure I need to set a good example if I’m gonna be a teacher.”

“Trust me.  Most of your teachers probably weren’t straight A students.”

“Good point.”

Adam had a portable CD player with one of those adapters that plugged into the cassette player in the church van, with a wire extending out from it connecting to the CD player.  At some point when we were still in Capital City, Adam played the new Five Iron Frenzy album, appropriately titled Our Newest Album Ever, which had just been released a couple weeks earlier.  We listened to it three times on the way down and twice on the trip back.

By the time we reached the unfamiliar part of the highway, it was quarter to five, and the sun was about to set.  I put my books away once it was too dark to read, and unfortunately, it quickly became too dark to enjoy the view of the unfamiliar road as well.  Soon after it got dark, Adam said, “This road is evil.  But it’s less evil at night, because you can’t see how boring it is.”

“Pretty much,” Brad agreed.

With no substantial cities through this stretch of the Valley, every thirty miles or so we would pass a cluster of fast food restaurants, gas stations, truck stops, and cheap motels clustered around an interchange.  These communities built up entirely around the needs of automobile tourists and truckers.  At around six-thirty, we took one of these exits and debated where to go for dinner.  Adam suggested Jack-in-the-Box, Brad suggested Burger King, and Jack-in-the-Box won by a vote of 4 to 2, with me being the other vote for Burger King.  As we pulled into the drive-thru lane at Jack-in-the-Box, Taylor said, “Look.  There’s In-N-Out Burger.  We should have gone there.”

“I’m not in a mood for a burger, though,” Noah said.  “But we can go there on the way home.  You guys heard Jeromeville is getting an In-N-Out Burger, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I’ve never been there.  And I don’t think I’ve ever been to Jack-in-the-Box either.”

“Really?” Taylor repeated.  “In that case, we have to go on the way home.”

“My parents went to the one in Gabilan once, and they said they didn’t really like it.  But I guess I should give it a try myself.”

Adam picked up his food from the drive-thru window and passed out everyone’s food.  We did not stop to eat; Adam continued driving, and all of us, including Adam, ate in the car.  I took my first bite of Jack-in-the-Box, and after I took my first bite of cheeseburger with mustard and pickle, when I had specifically ordered no mustard or pickle, I did not return to another Jack-in-the-Box for another seven years.

When we got to the big cities of southern California, it was late enough that traffic was not too bad.  Adam’s parents lived in a semi-rural hilly suburb just south of San Diego; we stayed on couches and in guest rooms there for the weekend.  I had trouble falling asleep the first night, as I always did in an unfamiliar area, but I slept fine the rest of the week.


Youth Specialties, an organization providing resources for Christian youth groups and their leaders, held the National Youth Workers’ Convention in two different cities around the United States every year, each lasting three full days.  A number of speakers, well-known to people heavily involved in the world of youth ministry but not to me, presented at this convention, with exhibits from dozens of publishers, companies, and other organizations involved in youth ministry.  Several well-known Christian musicians and bands, including some I knew and liked, were also performing at this event.

Thursday morning we drove back north a few miles into San Diego, to the hotel that hosted this convention.  We parked and looked at an event map to determine where to go.  “We’re on Stage 2,” Adam explained.  “Apparently they filled up, so they added a second meeting room, with a different worship team and a video feed of the speaker in the main meeting room.”  It sounded like we were being treated as second-class citizens, but it was not a big deal.  In fact, when I arrived at Stage 2, they were passing out free Stage 2 T-shirts in addition to the T-shirt that all attendees had already received.  Our tardy registration had gotten me a free shirt, and everyone knows how much university students love free shirts.

I attended a variety of sessions during the day.  This convention was structured similarly to the Urbana convention almost a year ago, as well as other conventions I attended when I was older.  I attended a morning and evening session with all attendees, except that as Stage 2 attendees we were in a different room from those who were not, watching the main speaker on video.  In between those two sessions, I could select from a variety of small sessions and workshops on different topics.  Taylor had given me a bit of guidance regarding which sessions to sign up for; occasionally someone else from Jeromeville Covenant was in the same session as me.  There was also an exhibit hall to browse between sessions.

A big-name musical artist, at least a big name in the world of Christian music, performed at the end of each night.  Volunteers removed the seats very quickly from the main stage so that those of us from Stage 2 could join them, with standing room only, for the concert.  Audio Adrenaline played Thursday night.  Another band would play on another concert stage in the exhibit hall late at night, after the main concert.  Dime Store Prophets, whom I had seen once before, was the late show Thursday night.  I was looking forward to seeing DC Talk on the main stage on Saturday.  The late show Friday night was Five Iron Frenzy, but I still had mixed feelings about that band.

On Friday afternoon, I was wandering the exhibit hall.  The carpet on the floor of this building appeared to be temporary, not attached to the floor.  At one point I reached the edge of the exhibit area and realized why, as I saw concrete and white painted lines peeking out from underneath one section of carpet.  This exhibit hall was actually the hotel’s parking garage.

I saw a table for 5 Minute Walk, a record label specializing in alternative Christian music, and walked over to it.  I knew that Dime Store Prophets and Five Iron Frenzy were on this label, and as I took a brochure and looked through it, I recognized many more artists from music that we had played at The Edge.

“How’s it goin’,” the man behind the table said.  I looked up and realized I recognized him; he was the bass player for Dime Store Prophets.  His name tag identified him as Masaki Liu, and I also recognized this name from reading album credits; he was Five Iron Frenzy’s producer.  “Are you familiar with any of our artists’ music?” Masaki asked.

“You’re in Dime Store Prophets, right?” I asked.  “I saw you guys last night, and also in Jeromeville in September.”

“Yeah!  The show that was postponed because of rain.  Did you like us?”

“It was great!  I also know Five Iron Frenzy.  I had their first album, but I’m still trying to figure out if I like it.  I like some songs, but I didn’t like the way some of it was so political.”

“Yeah, they can be kind of forward about their politics.  Any chance you’ll make it to their show tonight?  I’m running sound.”

“The rest of the people I came with are going.  So I’ll probably go with them.”

“Good!  I’ll see you there.  Would you like a sampler CD?” Masaki asked as he handed me a CD in a case.  “We’re selling these for only four dollars, it’s a full-length album with music from a bunch of our artists, and the proceeds go to feed the hungry.”

“Sure,” I said, taking the disc.  I looked at the back and recognized about half the names, including Dime Store Prophets and Five Iron Frenzy.  I got my wallet out of my pocket and handed Masaki four dollars, and he thanked me.

“I’ll see you around,” I said.

“You too.  Enjoy the convention.”

I got a lot more free samples the rest of the day to add to my growing bag of brochures and free stuff.  Many of the exhibitors handed out samples of their products, and each day we received a free gift at the evening main session.  By the time I met the others from J-Cov at the Five Iron Frenzy concert, I had tons of brochures in my bag, along with several sampler CDs of music and a sample of this slime-like substance that one company was marketing as something to be used for fun youth group activities.  Tomorrow I would add a sampler of Christian music videos on a VHS tape to my bag.

“You excited for the show?” Noah asked as we waited for Five Iron Frenzy to start.

“I don’t really know what to expect,” I said.

“Have you seen Five Iron before?” Taylor asked.

“No,” I said.  “I have the first album, but…” I trailed off, trying to think of how to explain in a polite way that, if they were going to sing about how fake and shallow the United States was, then they were welcome to move to one of the many countries in the world where they would be executed for speaking against their government, instead of getting to build a career and making money from openly not loving their country.  “There were a couple of songs I really didn’t like.”

“They put on a really fun show,” Taylor said.  “I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“I wonder what Reese’s costume will be this time?” Noah asked.

“Costume?” I repeated.

“Reese always wears something funny,” Taylor explained.

“Interesting.”  Just then, the band began filing on stage, all eight members; Reese Roper, the lead singer, came on last, wearing a John Elway football jersey.  John Elway was the quarterback for Denver, where the band was based.

The crowd quickly came to life as soon as the band started playing their signature blend of ska and punk rock.  I recognized most of the songs, either from the album I had or from hearing Our Newest Album Ever on the trip down.  Reese danced, flailed, jumped, and gyrated on stage as he sang, and the crowd fed off of this, bouncing up and down to the music and bumping into each other.  I sang along to the ones I knew.

“Here’s a song off our new album,” Reese said at one point.  “It’s about divorce.”  The band then played a song from the new album featuring the refrain “Have you seen my comb?”  After they finished, Adam looked at the rest of us and said, “Divorce?  I thought that song was about a comb.”

Although I already had their first album, that show in the parking garage in San Diego was what made me a Five Iron Frenzy fan.  This band had a unique ability to be serious and silly on the same album, at the same concert.  For example, I would learn later that Reese wrote that comb song about a childhood memory of losing a comb being tied in his mind with his parents still being together.  They were able to unite fans of secular and Christian music just by being real.  I would have a complicated relationship with this band over the years, and there were other times that they wrote political songs that I disagreed with.  But those are stories for another time, and the band does make the good point that, despite its reputation as a Christian nation, the United States has been associated with some very un-Christlike behaviors and practices over the years.  I bought Our Newest Album Ever a couple days later.


The DC Talk show at the end of Saturday’s session was just as enjoyable, although not as energetic as the Five Iron Frenzy show.  I also did not know much of their older music; my knowledge of DC Talk did not extend far past the 1995 Jesus Freak album, their most recent.

We had a relaxing morning; I woke up far earlier than anyone else.  I used the time to finish all the studying I did not do earlier.  We left Adam’s parents’ house after a late morning breakfast.  Traffic slowed down in a couple of spots, but not enough to delay us from being home by bedtime.

We turned off at the same In-N-Out Burger we had seen Wednesday night.  Apparently it was crucially important for me to have this burger for the first time.  I got in line toward the back of the group, so I could study the menu while others were ordering, but as I was reading the menu, it became quickly apparent that there was not much to study.

“Not a whole lot of options,” Taylor commented, noticing me looking at the menu.  He was right.  Burgers.  Fries.  Sodas.  Milkshakes.  No chicken or fish sandwiches, no onion rings, no chicken nuggets, no tacos, and no breakfast items.  This place made one thing, and one thing only, and the only real option was how big of a burger to order.  I ordered a Double-Double with onions but no tomato, fries, and a vanilla shake.  (It would be another couple months before I learned about the secret menu, and although some In-N-Out fans consider this blasphemy, I discovered I liked the regular menu better.)

We all sat together at adjacent tables.  When I got my food, I held up the burger, half of it wrapped in paper and the other half exposed.  I held the paper and bit into the exposed end.  My eyes lit up.  The meat, cheese, onions, lettuce, and sauce blended perfectly in my mouth, a beautiful explosion of flavor, not only a good meal but a fundamental way of life for so many in one geographical region that was slowly expanding and would eventually take over much of the western United States.  The French fries were not soggy and half-hearted like many other fast food restaurants; they were hot, and the right balance of crisp and soft.

“This is amazing,” I said.

“Looks like you’re hooked now,” Noah replied.

“Pretty much.”  I finished my meal, knowing that I now had a new regular fast food option.  Perfect timing, because my previous go-to burger, the McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, was now considered a massive marketing failure and was disappearing from McDonald’s menus.

Once we were back on the road, Adam started asking us what we all had learned from the convention.  Kate shared about how so many students come from such different family backgrounds, and Brad shared on the importance of learning about things the students were interested in, and how he had started listening to the kind of music his students listened to.

“Greg?” Adam asked.  “What about you?  What did you learn?”

“Honestly,” I said, “I learned a lot about what’s really important in youth ministry, that we’re doing this to love students the way Jesus did.  But I also felt like I’m just not good at this.  So many times I heard about the importance of discipleship, and hanging out with your students outside of church activities, but I’m just not good at making plans with people.”

“I think you’re doing fine,” Noah said.  “You show up every Wednesday, and you participate in activities with The Edge.  You’ll get to know kids from there, and they’ll start wanting to spend time with you.  Didn’t you say Danny Foster invited you to have dinner with his family once?”

“And what about your movie?” Adam added.  “That was a fun project for everyone.”

“I guess,” I said.  The movie I made with the kids was conceived as a project for myself, but I supposed that including them was an act of ministry as well.

As we continued driving north, I continued to experience mixed feelings.  I was on a high from all the great concerts I had seen over the last few days, as well as the wonderful new cheeseburger I had just discovered, and the experience of having visited San Diego for the first time.  But I also felt inadequate as a youth leader.  I was an introvert, not good at reaching out to these students.  The others were right; I was doing fine.  I did not have to reach out to other students in the same ways that Adam and Noah and Taylor did.  I had heard many speakers and pastors talk about the importance of different spiritual gifts, and I had ways to serve the youth of Jeromeville Covenant Church within the bounds of the way that God made me. 


Readers: Have any of you ever been to San Diego? Or did you discover a new place on a trip to a convention or an event like this? Tell me about it in the comments.

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



Disclaimer: Masaki Liu is a real person. Don’t Let The Days Go By is based on true stories, but normally I changes the names of all people involved. I have often used real names of actors, athletes, musicians, and other public figures in order to make DLTDGB historically accurate. The situation becomes more complicated in this episode, though, because the conversation with Masaki marks the first time that character-Greg actually interacts with a public figure. I actually did attend this convention, and I actually did meet Masaki at this table, but nevertheless this story should first and foremost be taken as a work of fiction, not necessarily an actual transcript of anything that Masaki actually said or did. I did not ask permission to use his name and likeness in this story.

The other episode that mentioned Dime Store Prophets (#132) contains the line “In my late twenties, two counties away, I attended a church where one of the former band members was the worship leader.” I attended Masaki’s church for about a year and a half. I have possible plans someday to write a sequel blog to DLTDGB that will open in 2004, during the time that Masaki and I were friends, and I have not yet decided how to handle the issue of whether or not to use his real name. If I do not, I may have to do some retconning to this episode. I have not stayed in touch with him, but I know people who would know how to get in touch with him in case I need to ask whether he is okay with me using his real name. I don’t believe Masaki will appear in DLTDGB again, so I have a few years to figure that out.

November 14, 1997.  Kind of brilliant, but really weird. (#153)

“I’ll see you tonight at JCF?” Sarah Winters asked as we left our math class in Younger Hall and crossed the street toward the Quad.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Have a great day!”  I watched Sarah walk toward the Memorial Union as I walked diagonally in the other direction, crossing the Quad from northeast to southwest.  It was a sunny but cool November Friday morning, and many of the trees on campus were in the process of shedding their leaves.  Beyond the Quad, walking past the library and across Davis Drive, I noticed piles of leaves accumulating along the edges of walkways.  I continued south beyond Evans Hall, where I would go later tonight for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship; apparently Sarah would be there too.  I walked past the law school building to the University of Jeromeville Arboretum, a park-like public garden of trees and plants from around the world planted along a mile and a half of dry creek bed that had been converted into a long, skinny lake.  I walked past some succulents, their fleshy spiked leaves radiating from the ground, to a bridge a few feet wide connecting the north and south banks.  I stayed on the north side of the waterway and continued walking west on the path to the next bench, about fifty feet past the bridge, and sat, overlooking the waterway and a tall oak tree of the type that grew naturally here in the western United States.

Last year, I attended a convention in Urbana, Illinois, hosted by the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The convention was for university students and young adults to learn about missions and opportunities to serve Jesus around the world.  I was a newly practicing Christian at the time, many of my friends were doing these kinds of projects during the summer, and I wanted to learn more about what was out there.  Every attendee received a Bible that included in the back a plan to read through the Bible in a year, with a few chapters to read each day from three different parts in the Bible.  Next to each day’s readings were a checkmark.  Yesterday I had checked off August 8; I knew that I was a few months behind, and I had stopped trying to finish in a year.  I would just get through the entire Bible in as long as it took.

I read the verses for August 9 and prayed about what I read as I looked up at the oak tree.  Coming to this bench to read the Bible between classes had become my routine on school days for several months.  I had often heard talks and sermons about the importance of spending time with God first thing in the morning, but this routine seemed to work better for me.

On Fridays, I only had my two math classes.  I worked part time as a tutor that quarter, and I had one group that met on Fridays, in the afternoon after my other class.  After I finished reading, I headed back toward the Quad and the Memorial Union.  I planned to look for a table in the MU where I could sit and do homework until my other class started.  I had math to do, and it was the kind of assignment that did not require my full concentration, so I could work on it and not get distracted inside a busy student union.  Maybe I would even find friends to sit with, I thought.

As I looked around the tables, I did in fact find friends to sit with.  I saw Todd Chevallier, Autumn Davies, Leah Eckert, and John Harvey from JCF talking to Cheryl Munn, one of the paid staff for JCF.  They had pushed two tables together, and there appeared to be room for me to join them.  As I approached, Autumn smiled and waved.  Cheryl, who was sitting with her back to me, turned to her left, waving her arm toward me, holding her palm out at arm’s length, and said, “Out.”

What did I do?  I thought.  Did I accidentally say something inappropriate that had made me a pariah within JCF?  Was this another one of the cliques that had formed within JCF, doing some kind of exclusive Bible study that was only open by invitation?  Maybe no one was mad at me or trying to exclude me; maybe someone was just sharing something sensitive and did not want to share with people beyond a close circle of friends.  “Sorry,” I said, starting to back away.  Maybe I would not be sitting with friends this morning after all.

“Greg,” Cheryl said, motioning toward the table.  “Come sit!”

“You just told me not to,” I said, confused.

“Huh?  I was just telling Leah that she was on that side of the table, with her back to the wall, and she could see out.”  Cheryl made the same sweep of her arm, gesturing in my direction toward the rest of the room where others sat and a continuous stream of people walked by.

I stood for a second, puzzled, then laughed.  “Oh!” I exclaimed.  “I didn’t hear any of that.  I just saw you put your arm up, and all I heard you say was, ‘Out!’  I thought you were telling me to get out.”

“No, no!” Cheryl said.  Autumn laughed.  “Please, sit down!”  Relieved that I had done nothing wrong, I sat in an empty seat on the end of the table.  Cheryl and Todd sat on my left,  Autumn and Leah sat on my right, and John was facing me on the other end. “How’s your morning going?” Cheryl asked.

“Good.  Only two classes today.  Then I have a tutoring group this afternoon.”

“How’s tutoring going?  You like it?”

“Yeah.  It’s good experience, now that I know I want to be a teacher.  I’m going to do another internship in a classroom at Jeromeville High winter quarter.  I did that last spring, and I really liked it.”

“Did you guys hear Jeromeville is getting an In-N-Out Burger?” Todd asked excitedly.

“No!” Autumn exclaimed.

“Is that place good?” Leah asked.  “I’ve never heard of it.”

“I used to live in California,” Todd explained.  “It’s huge there.  It’s so good.”

“There’s one now in Gabilan, near where I grew up,” I said.  “My parents went there and said it wasn’t all that good.”

“That’s weird,” Todd replied.  “Everyone loves In-N-Out.”

“I’ll have to try it sometime.  I love burgers.”

“Hey, are you going to JCF tonight?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

Romeo + Juliet is playing at 199 Stone tonight.  We’re probably gonna get some people together to go.  You wanna come?”

“Sure.  Is that the new Romeo and Juliet movie that came out not too long ago?”

“Yeah.  With Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.”

“Okay,” I said.  Those actors’ names did not mean anything to me, I did not follow movies closely, but I was always looking for opportunities to hang out with friends, especially those that did not require a lot of work on my part to plan.

“Isn’t Leonardo DiCaprio in that Titanic movie that’s coming out soon?” Autumn asked.

“Yeah,” Todd replied.  “That one’s gonna be good too.  I heard they built a replica of the actual Titanic for the movie, just to sink it.”

“Wow,” I said.


I was running a little late when I got to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that night, since I made spaghetti for dinner and spilled it all over myself, necessitating a change of clothes.  The worship team was already playing when I arrived, and the room was mostly full.  Maybe the spilling of the spaghetti had been divine intervention, I thought, because as I walked into the room, I found myself looking directly at the back of Carrie Valentine’s head.  She sat a few rows down, one seat in from the aisle, with an empty seat next to her.  I walked over to her, pointed to the empty seat, and nervously asked, “Is anyone sitting there?”  Hopefully she understood what I was saying over the music.

“Go ahead!” Carrie replied, smiling.  I sat next to her.  As we sang along, then listened to announcements and a talk delivered by Cheryl, I realized the great irony of this situation.  I was sitting next to a cute girl.  This would provide an opportunity for a conversation afterward.  But I could not make plans with her, because I already had plans tonight, to go to the movie with Todd and Autumn and all of them.  Go figure.  Nevertheless, after the ending song, I asked Carrie how her week was going.

“Good,” she said.  “I just had a midterm today.  I don’t think I did very well.”

“Maybe you’ll surprise yourself,” I said.  “I’ve been trying to get ahead on reading and studying, because I’m gonna miss class Thursday and Friday next week.”

“Why’s that?”

“Some of us from Jeromeville Covenant are taking a road trip to San Diego, for the National Youth Workers’ Convention.”

“That sounds like fun!”

“It will be.  Apparently a lot of big-name speakers will be there.  And a lot of Christian bands play live there.”

“Like who?”

DC Talk.  Audio Adrenaline.  Five Iron Frenzy.  The OC Supertones.  I don’t remember who else.”

“Wow!” Carrie said.  “San Diego is nice!  Have you been there before?”

“I haven’t.  I’ve only been as far south as Disneyland.  So this will be a new experience for me.”

“Have fun!  I’m jealous.”

“Thanks.  I’m excited!”

“How is that going, working with the youth group at church?  You work with junior high kids?”

“Yeah.  It’s a lot of fun.  Over the last few weeks, I did an unofficial project, not an actual church activity, where I made a movie based on some characters I created several years ago.  I got a lot of kids from the church to be in the movie.  And I filmed some of it at church, like we used the youth room for a school dance scene.”

“That sounds like so much fun!  How did the movie turn out?”

“Pretty good.  A little unprofessional looking in some spots, but it was fun.  We had a watch party after youth group this week.  Not a whole lot of people stuck around, but it was fun to watch the movie on the big projector screen in the youth room.”

“Nice!  I’ve never done anything like that.  My sister and I used to make home movies sometimes when we were kids, but nothing as complex as what it sounds like yours was.”

“That sounds like fun too,” I said.  I smiled, looking into Carrie’s big brown eyes, desperately trying to think of something to say to keep this conversation going.  I wondered if Todd would be okay with me inviting her along to see Romeo + Juliet?  “What are you doing tonight?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” Carrie replied.  “I heard some people were going to see Romeo + Juliet, but I don’t know if I want to go.”

Perfect, I thought.  Carrie knew about the movie without me having to be awkward.  “I’m going,” I said.  “I think you should too.”

“I’ll wait and see how I feel later.  I need to go talk to some people from my Bible study before they leave.  But maybe I’ll see you at the movie tonight?”

“Yeah.  I’ll talk to you soon.”


William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, spelled with a plus sign but pronounced “Romeo and Juliet” like the play it was based on, was the movie that made actor Leonardo DiCaprio a household name.  I did not know much about the movie, except that I vaguely remembered hearing about its existence last year.  The lecture hall at 199 Stone Hall showed second-run movies on weekends, and this was often a destination for people hanging out after Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on Friday nights.

Carrie did end up coming to the movie.  A group of eight of us walked down Davis Drive from Evans Hall to Stone Hall, the next building to the west.  When we left, I was in the middle of telling Autumn about the Dog Crap and Vince movie that I made with the kids from church.  Autumn and I were near the back of the group, and Carrie was closer to the front.  As we walked into the theater, I could not position myself next to Carrie without looking conspicuous and awkward.  When I sat down, Todd was to my left, then Autumn, then three more people between Autumn and Carrie.  The aisle was on my right.  Carrie was here, but I was not sitting next to her.

When I was a freshman, movies at 199 Stone would be preceded by classic cartoons, an experience normally associated with past generations of moviegoers.  This tradition had fallen away at some point since then; tonight the screen showed a silent slideshow of advertisements before the movie started.  The lights darkened, I saw the name of the movie studio appear on the screen, but I became confused when a television with a news broadcast showed up on the screen.  Was the movie starting?  Was this the movie?  Surely this television was not part of the movie, since Shakespeare’s play was set in the sixteenth century.

The reporter began talking about the Montagues and Capulets.  Those were Romeo and Juliet’s respective families, so this was definitely the movie, but why did Verona look like a city in a gangsta-rap music video?  What were these police cars and helicopters?  I quickly realized that what I was seeing was not going to be a faithful reproduction of Shakespeare’s work.  Instead, the story had been adapted to a modern urban setting, with the Montagues and Capulets rival crime families.  As the movie continued, I noticed that all of the characters still spoke their actual lines, unchanged, from the Shakespeare play.

It was kind of brilliant, but it was really weird.

As the movie continued, I noticed more and more creative interpretations of Shakespeare’s words for a modern-day context.  The police chief was named Prince, for example, and it took me a while to realize that he filled the role of the actual Prince of Verona as written by Shakespeare.  The characters fought with models of guns named after the blade weapons used by Shakespeare’s original characters.  Even with these changes, though, it still seemed odd to me that these gangbangers spoke in Shakespearean vocabulary and iambic pentameter.

When the movie ended, as the credits played, I stood and stretched.  “That was weird,” I said disdainfully.

“That was so good!” Todd exclaimed.

“It was weird!” I repeated, louder.

“You didn’t like it?”

“It just seemed really unnatural having modern characters use Shakespeare’s language.”

“That’s what makes it so good!”

“I don’t know.  I guess it just wasn’t for me.  Thanks for inviting me, though.”

“Any time.”

As we walked out toward the parking lot, many of the others talked about how much they loved the movie, and I remained silent.  I tuned out the conversation, so I did not find out what Carrie thought of the movie.  I did not want to say any more bad things about the movie, in case Carrie loved it as much as Todd did.  I may have already ruined any chance I had with Carrie by not liking the movie, and I did not want to open my mouth again and make things worse.

I never watched that movie again, although now, with a quarter-century of hindsight, I would not rule out giving it another chance if the opportunity arose.  Maybe I would enjoy it more knowing from the start that the movie was a combination of Shakespeare’s words and a modern-day setting, and not having my thoughts darkened by the frustration of not getting to sit next to Carrie.

Why was it so difficult to ask a girl out?  Why was this process so difficult for me to understand?  Romeo and Juliet had no such problems.  Romeo crashes a party because he wants to bang some other chick who he knows will be there, he and Juliet see each other, he goes to the balcony, and boom, they were in love that night and married the next day.  What was wrong with me that love never dropped into my lap like that?  Of course, as a direct result of all of this, Romeo and Juliet both end up dead after a few days.  Maybe it was for the best that my life did not turn out like Romeo’s life; this story was, after all, a tragedy.


Readers: Was there ever a movie that all your friends liked but you didn’t? Tell me about it in the comments.

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October 31-November 2, 1997.  Wrestling with God at Fall Conference. (#151)

The year that I was a senior, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had a large class of freshmen who had been very active in the group.  Also, many of the students in the class above me did not graduate in four years and were still involved in JCF as fifth-year students.  The group was the largest that it had been in the time I had been involved; its Friday night large group meetings were almost completely filling 170 Evans, a lecture hall with two hundred seats.

October 31 was a Friday that year, but there was no large group meeting, because it was the weekend of the annual Fall Conference.  Not everyone who came on a typical Friday had the money and free time for a weekend retreat, but around seventy people from JCF attended Fall Conference that year.  JCF was a chapter of Intervarsity, a nondenominational Christian ministry with chapters at colleges and universities across the United States and a few other countries.  This Fall Conference was a regional retreat, attended by students from Intervarsity chapters at six different schools around the area.  The University of Jeromeville had the largest chapter out of all of them.  Last year, about half of the students at Fall Conference came from UJ.

Those of us who were going met at four o’clock in a parking lot on campus to carpool for the hundred-mile trip north to the retreat center at Muddy Springs.  Tim Walton, a freshman with thick black glasses, approached me as I walked from my car to where the rest of the people were.  He was with another freshman, a tall, sandy-haired guy whom I had met a couple of times whom I knew only as “3.”  “Hey, Greg,” Tim said.  “We’re in your car.”

“Cool,” I replied.  “Who has the list?”

“Dave and Janet.”

I walked over toward Dave and Janet McAllen, the couple who worked full time as staff for JCF.  Janet held a clipboard and made a checkmark next to my name.  I looked to see whose names were next to mine.  Melinda Schmidt, Autumn Davies, Tim Walton, 3.  Even the carpool list just called him 3.  “Autumn isn’t here yet,” Janet said.  “Do you need the directions?”

“I remember how to get there,” I said.

I saw Melinda in the distance; I walked off to tell her that I had arrived.  She carried her bag to my car, where Tim and 3 stood waiting for me to unlock it so they could put their things in the back.  Autumn arrived about five minutes later; after she loaded her bags, the five of us got in the car and headed north on Highway 117.

The North Valley was a productive agricultural region, with a variety of crops grown.  Highway 117 narrowed to one lane in each direction north of Woodville, passing through various fields, pastures, and orchards.  This was a lonely stretch of road, with only one town of around a thousand people in the thirty-mile stretch between Woodville and the point where Highway 117 ended and merged with Highway 9.

“Can I put this in?” Melinda asked, holding up a tape.  “It’s a mixtape of Christian music.”

“Sure,” I replied.  Melinda put her tape into my car stereo; the first song was “Liquid” by Jars of Clay.  I knew that one.

“Did you guys do anything for Halloween?” Autumn asked.

“I was at the Halloween party at the De Anza house,” I said.  “They had it last night, since most of them are on this retreat.  Tim and 3 were there too.”

“How was that?  I wanted to go!”

“It was fun.”

“I wanted to go too,” Melinda added.  “I had a midterm today that I needed to study for.”

“What did you dress as?” Autumn asked.

“I just wore this old 70s-looking jacket that I borrowed it from the lost and found at church.  Xander had a great costume.  He dressed as a hillbilly, with overalls, and a cowboy hat, and a piece of straw in his mouth.  And he had a real missing tooth.”

“What?  Missing tooth?”

“Yeah.  Apparently he really is missing a tooth.  He normally wears a bridge, and he took it out for his costume.”

“Wow,” Autumn said.  “That’s dedication.”

“Lots of good costumes.  Sam Hoffman was Austin Powers.  And Ramon was Michael Jackson.  He even went to campus in costume today.  Did you see him in the parking lot?”

“No!”

“He’s still in costume, with the red jacket and the glove, and he made his hair more curly than usual.”

“That’s amazing!”

“He pulled it off really well,” Tim said.

At its north end, Highway 117 merged into Highway 9 just south of Mecklenburg, a medium-sized city about the size of Jeromeville.  From there, we drove north through various fruit and nut orchards and a few small towns.  Melinda’s tape ran out, and Tim put on a tape with some really weird songs on it.  He said it was from some TV show on a channel I didn’t get.

“You’ve never seen that show?” Tim asked, incredulously.

“I don’t have cable,” I explained.  “None of us really watch TV all that much.  And the cable provider where I grew up doesn’t have a whole lot of channels compared to most places.”

“Wow.”

Around quarter to six, we arrived in Bidwell, a city of about ninety thousand and home to one of this state’s oldest public universities.  My dad had spent his early childhood in Bidwell, and I still had relatives in the area that I had grown up visiting around twice per year.  I had applied to Bidwell State, and was accepted, but Jeromeville is a more prestigious university, and they offered me a scholarship for my grades.  I turned off of Highway 9 at the exit leading to Muddy Springs.  There was a Wendy’s just off of that exit where most of the carpools coming from Jeromeville stopped to eat.  The five of us sat at a table together, watching people from JCF who arrived before us leave and watching others arrive after us.

“I’ve never asked,” Autumn asked 3 at one point.  “Why do they call you ‘3?’”  I was glad Autumn asked, because I had been wondering the same thing since I met 3 a few weeks ago, and I thought asking would be too awkward.

“My real name is Robert A. Silver III,” 3 explained.  “Because I’m The Third, my family just started calling me ‘3’ when I was a kid.  Some people who are The Third go by ‘Trey,’ but my dad just thought ‘3’ sounded better.”

“That’s a great nickname.”

“So is anyone hoping to learn anything specific at this conference?” Melinda asked.  “God spoke to me so much on the China trip over the summer.  I can’t want to do something like that again next summer.”

“What was this China trip?” 3 asked.  Melinda explained that twelve students from JCF went on a mission trip to China over the summer as part of a large group of hundreds of students from various Intervarsity chapters around the US. 3 was a freshman, so he would not have been around last year when they were preparing for the trip.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Just whatever God wants to teach me, I guess.”


After we arrived at Fall Conference, nine miles past Wendy’s into the foothills outside of Bidwell, all six schools had a worship session led by JCF’s worship team.  A group of students, also from Jeromeville, performed a skit about a freshman experiencing Jesus for the first time. In between scenes from a day in the student’s life, Ramon danced in his Michael Jackson costume and sang a song called “Freshman,” to the tune of “Thriller.”  Liz Williams, actually a senior, played the freshman, and from the way she and Ramon behaved after the skit finished, it quickly became apparent to me that they were back together.  Liz and Ramon had been a couple from about a month into freshman year until the start of junior year, when they had an amicable breakup.  To this day, I do not know exactly how or when they got back together, or why.  I’m always out of the loop of other people’s relationships, even though I had known Liz and Ramon as long as they had known each other, and three years later I would eventually attend their wedding.

The head staff from Capital State’s Intervarsity chapter, a man in his thirties named Stan, led the teaching that weekend.  He spoke on Genesis chapter 32, in which God wrestles with Jacob and gives him the name Israel, meaning “he struggles with God.”  Jacob later would go on to be the ancestor of God’s chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel.  I was tired, so I went to bed fairly soon after Stan’s talk Friday night.  Stan continued his teaching Saturday morning, and after that session, we all received a handout, with instructions to find a quiet place and spend some time with God.  The handout listed verses to read and related questions to answer.

It was a cool morning; I put on a sweatshirt and walked around outside.  A large ninety-year-old building dominated the retreat center; it had been built as a hotel, the centerpiece of a mountain getaway resort.  It was later sold to a Christian organization, who now used the first floor as the lobby, cafeteria, and a meeting room, and the rest as a dormitory.  The paved road ended at the parking lot for the retreat center; I noticed a dirt road continuing deeper into the hills which I had never noticed before.  I walked in that direction, carrying my Bible.

The last four miles of the drive to Muddy Springs followed a canyon into the hills, and this dirt road continued to follow the small stream that formed the canyon.  Oaks grew in the valley, at least in the areas that had not been claimed for agriculture, and pines grew in the mountains; Muddy Springs was in the transition area where both grew on the surrounding grassy hills.  The hills were brown; it had not rained in at least six months.  In this part of the world, October typically felt like a milder version of summer, with sunny and pleasant days, but today was the first of November, and right around the time the calendar changed, the weather usually did too.  The rain had not returned yet, but the sky was gray and dreary, and the leaves on the oaks were becoming more brown and more sparse.  I found a large rock with a flat enough top to sit on, overlooking the canyon and the ridge beyond.

I read from the handout.  Pray that God will open your eyes and ears to His presence in your life, I read.  I did this.  I followed the succeeding prompts on the page, thinking about how I might be wrestling with God at the moment.  I prayed about my struggles with being outside the cliques.  I prayed that I would meet a nice Christian girlfriend soon, and I prayed for patience until that happened.  I continued reading the paper; it said to listen quietly until I heard God speak.  I closed my eyes and bowed my head.  After hearing nothing, I opened my eyes and looked around.  I stared at the hills around me, at the gray sky, at the trees.  I bowed my head and closed my eyes again.  Still nothing.

The schedule for the day had allotted an hour for us to wrestle with God outside that morning, and by the end of that hour, I was frustrated.  God had not even shown up to wrestle with me.  Did that mean I won by forfeit?  That was not the point; it felt more discouraging than anything, like I was not important enough for God to speak to.  I looked at my watch; it was almost time for lunch.  I started walking back to the building, defeated, and I sat and ate alone.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie Baker said, approaching me.  He had just finished eating with others, and he was walking toward the exit with Tabitha, his girlfriend.  “What’s up?”

“I’m just kind of discouraged.  I feel like God isn’t speaking to me, like he did to Jacob, or like all the stories I hear from all of you guys.  Like maybe I’m not a real Christian.  Or not a good enough one.”

“That’s not true!” Eddie replied.  “Look at how much you’ve grown the last two years.  You’ve helped out with things around here.  And now you’re working with junior high kids at church.  It takes a lot of faith to commit to something like that.”

“God speaks to everyone in his own way and his own timing,” Tabitha added.  “Don’t think of yourself as less than others because you don’t hear from him in the same way.”

“I guess,” I replied.

“I’ve been where you are, and so have a lot of us,” Eddie explained.  “This is the way that God wrestles with us sometimes.  Just keep listening for his voice.”

“And when you feel like you’re not good enough?” Tabitha said.  “That’s not God’s voice.  That’s Satan trying to distract you.”

“I know,” I said.

“Can I pray for you?” Eddie asked.

“Sure.”

“Father God,” Eddie began as we bowed our heads, “I pray for Greg, that you will speak to him, in a way that he will hear your voice clearly.  I pray that he will shake off all of this discouragement, and know that it is not from you.  I pray that you will give him a new name and a new identity, so that he will know his identity in you, as your beloved child.  I thank you for bringing him here to Muddy Springs, and I pray that when we go back to Jeromeville, Greg will return with a renewed sense of faith and identity in you.  Amen.”

“Amen,” I said, looking up.  “Thanks.”


We had the afternoon free, so I went back to my room.  Kieran Ziegler was my roommate for the weekend.  “I love that story about Jacob wrestling with God,” Kieran said.  “Because I can tell people that wrestling is the only sport mentioned in the Bible.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, chuckling.  Kieran was on the UJ wrestling team; of course he would notice this.

“Brent is gonna get some people to play Ultimate.  You wanna come?”

“I need a nap,” I said.  “Maybe if you’re still playing when I wake up.  Or when I give up on trying to fall asleep.”

“No problem.  I’ll see you around.”

I closed my eyes after Kieran left, but I did not sleep.  I could not shake these thoughts of not being good enough.  I still felt left out of the cliques within JCF.  I wished I had been asked to live at the house on De Anza Drive, with Eddie and Xander and Ramon and Jason and John and Lars.  All the cool things in my social circle happened around those guys, like the Halloween party Thursday night.  I kept hearing people tell stories about God working in their lives, like when Melinda and Eddie and Tabitha and a bunch of others went on the China trip last summer.  Some people have said that they sometimes hear God speak audibly, and some of my friends came from the kind of Christian traditions that spoke in tongues.  Many of my friends have led others to faith; Eddie did that with his freshman dorm roommate, Raphael.  But not me.  I was not good at talking about Jesus or my faith with others, and that would probably make me ineffective on a mission trip to another country.  I had heard a speaker once highlight the importance of supporting missionaries behind the scenes, and I was all for that.  I gave money to friends’ mission trips, and to my church, which supported missionaries.  That role was more suited to me.  But it also made me feel like I was missing out on all the cool experiences.

I went outside after about forty-five minutes of not sleeping.  The Ultimate Frisbee game was still going on, but with no flat grassy field at Muddy Springs, they played on a paved basketball court, which did not exactly seem safe.  I watched the game with a few other people who were just hanging out and watching.

At the evening session, Stan from Cap State told stories from the Bible about other people whose names and identities God changed, besides Jacob.  Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who helped the Israelite spies, whose family God saved from Jericho’s coming destruction.  The invalid at the pool of Bethesda, whom Jesus healed.  And Abram, Jacob’s grandfather.  Long before God wrestled with Jacob, he changed Abram’s name to Abraham, to indicate that Abraham, an old man with a barren wife, would become the father of a great nation.  I read all of these stories again later that night before I went to bed, trying to keep these Bible stories on my mind to avoid another descent into discouraging thoughts.


When I woke up, the sky was sunny and clear.  It was still cold, but the dreary gray had departed.  My mind was also becoming sunny and clear as I kept thinking about last night, particularly about the man whom Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda.  I read his story, chapter 5 of the Gospel of John, again that morning, and something stood out to me.  I knew in my head that God was not ignoring me when he remained silent, but it seemed much more real now.

The conference center gave out name tags in plastic cases to all attendees.  I removed my name tag from the plastic case and turned it backward, so that the blank back of the card showed, then I put it back in the case and attached it to my shirt with the built-in safety pin.

The students from all six schools gathered in the main hall, in a separate building from the old hotel, for worship that morning.  Before Stan gave his final message, Janet McAllen got up and invited anyone who so desired to share something that we learned this weekend.  “Tell us your name, what school you’re from, and anything that God spoke to you this weekend,” she said.  I raised my hand, and she called on me first.

“Hi,” I said, standing up.  This was it, the moment I got to share my sudden idea. I pointed to my blank name tag and said, “I don’t have a name, because God is going to give me a new one.”  I smiled, and everyone clapped for me.  I was not doing this for applause, though.  “Sometimes I feel like I’m not really hearing from God the same way everyone else does,” I continued.  “But that doesn’t mean that God has given up on me.  The man by the pool at Bethesda waited thirty-eight years to meet Jesus.  God could have healed him earlier, but he waited until the time was right for the man to meet Jesus face to face.  The man didn’t know that.  We don’t always understand God’s timing.  But I’m going to keep listening, and following, and God will answer all these questions I have in his own time.”

I sat down again.  A few other people stood up and shared what they learned.  After one final message from Stan, we all went to lunch, then we began packing for the return trip.  No one played music on the trip home, because everyone was tired.  Autumn slept most of the way home, and 3 nodded off for a bit too.  I was okay with that.

And I was also okay with not being in all the cliques, and I was okay with not having a girlfriend.  At least I was trying to be okay.  All of those names that had been stuck in my head for years, outcast, loser, forever alone, and all the horrible names my classmates in elementary school had called me, those were not God’s name for me.  God had already changed my name.  I was his beloved child, I was forgiven, I was saved, and I was living his will for my life.  Sure, I would suffer setbacks, and life would not always go the way I wanted it to, but that was because my vision was short sighted.  God had a better long-term plan for me, and ultimately, if I was living out God’s will in my life, nothing could stop me.


Readers: Have you ever felt like you were wrestling with God, or just struggling in general with something you believe in? Tell me about it in the comments, if it’s not too personal.

Check out my other projects, Greg Out Of Character and Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64.

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September 12, 1997. My return to the baseball stadium. (#144)

I was never an athlete.  My brother Mark got all the athletic talent in our family.  I played tee ball when I was six years old; all I remember is that we did not keep score, which I thought was dumb, and the coach made me cry once.  My high school football career lasted one day, before I realized that I was in way over my head and badly out of shape.  Despite that, though, I still grew up around sports, watching games on television and working the scoreboard and snack bar for Mark’s baseball and basketball games.

I went to my first professional sporting event, a Bay City Titans baseball game, in 1982, the summer after I finished kindergarten.  A few years later, the four of us in our family started going to games more regularly, a few times every year, until the summer of 1994.  By that time, several months of negotiations had failed to produce a resolution between the players’ union and the team owners on money issues.  The players voted to strike, and the last month and a half of the season was canceled, as well as all postseason championship games.  The strike was not resolved until a few weeks into the 1995 season.

I moved to Jeromeville for school during that players’ strike, and with no baseball that fall and no cable TV with which to watch games once baseball resumed in the spring, I stopped following baseball closely.  Besides, I was still upset that the previous season had been canceled.  One of my favorite players, Matt Williams, had 43 home runs at the time the strike began, giving him a legitimate chance to break the record for home runs in one season, which was 61 at the time.  He never got that chance, and he never hit that many home runs in another season.  Baseball had broken my trust.

The strike did not affect the minor league teams playing in smaller cities, and some national television networks began showing high-level minor league games.  A new independent league, with players and teams not connected to the big leagues, formed in the western United States in 1995.  This league included a team in Santa Lucia County where I grew up, the Gabilan Peppers.  I went to a few games with my parents over the years when I was home during the summer, and they were always lots of fun.  Unfortunately, the Peppers only lasted a few seasons before folding.

I did not think about going to a baseball game again until just recently.  I had stayed in touch off and on over the years with Mrs. Allen, my English teacher from both seventh and eighth grade.  Seventh grade had been a very difficult year for me, I was going through things that I could not share with anyone around me, and I did not really have friends.  Mrs. Allen had been a positive influence for me that year, someone who believed in me and showed me that school could be a safe place.  Last week, shortly after I moved back to Jeromeville for the fall, I got an email from Mrs. Allen, asking how I was doing.  Among other things, she asked if I had been following the Titans, because they had a chance to win their division and make the playoffs.  She was a season ticket holder, and she invited me to come to a game with her before classes started again for me.  I told her that I had not been following closely since the strike, but it would be good to see her, and good to go to a game again after three years.

It was mid-afternoon on a Friday as I left Jeromeville for the Titans game, driving west on Highway 100 toward Bay City.  The first half hour of the drive, as far as Fairview, was very familiar to me, because that was also the first part of the drive to my parents’ house.  But after Highway 6 split off from Highway 100 to the south, the next thirty-two miles of busy freeway from there to the Bay City Bridge was a road I had only been on twice.  The first time was that weekend trip sophomore year when I rode in Eddie Baker’s car and kept hoping for a chance to talk to Haley Channing, and the other time was last year seeing the other major sports team in Bay City, the Captains football team.

In Oaksville, as I approached the bridge, traffic slowed to a halt.  This was normal for this area, especially on a Friday afternoon as people tried to get home from work and get either away from or into the city for the weekend.  I had left earlier than I needed to, expecting to hit traffic.  I inched forward at a crawl for about fifteen minutes leading to the toll booths.  I gave the toll taker one dollar, which was the toll on most of the area’s bridges at the time before it increased dramatically over the next couple decades.

Oaksville and Bay City were separated by about four miles of water.  Most of my trips to Bay City as a child were to watch Titans games, and the stadium is at the extreme south end of the city, so that I would not see much else of the city on those trips.  I had also been to a few other places that required driving across the city from south to north.  This spectacular view I had now of entering the city from east to west, with all of the tall buildings of the city’s downtown rising from the water below, was one I had only seen a couple times before.  I did not grow up around buildings this tall, and the concept of such a densely populated city fascinated me.  I could not fully admire the view, however, because I had to pay attention to where I was going.  The freeway was extremely crowded at this time of day, and I had to make sure that I was not in an exit-only lane, and that I would end up in the correct lane to continue onto Highway 11 southbound at the point where Highway 100 ended, two miles after the bridge.

After taking almost half an hour to drive the seven miles from the bridge to the stadium, I found a parking spot in the vast asphalt lot, among the sea of cars surrounding the stadium, and began walking toward the entrance.  The Titans’ stadium was built in the 1960s, during an era when the construction landscape in professional sports was dominated by huge concrete structures on the fringes of cities with little character on the outside.  Being in Bay City, there was at least the view of the bay, but even this was removed from the inside of the stadium in 1971 when the Captains began sharing the Titans’ stadium.  New seats were added to accommodate the larger crowds for football, surrounding the entire field 360 degrees in a misshapen ring, distorted to account for the different shapes of baseball and football fields.

Mrs. Allen had told me to meet her outside one specific entrance to the stadium, and as I approached, I was surprised that I found her relatively quickly, considering the size of the crowd.  She looked pretty much the same as she had when I was first in her class nine years earlier, a heavy-set woman in her late forties, with long hair typical of one her age who had been a hippie in her twenties.  She wore a Titans jersey and jeans.  I waved as I approached her.  “I hope you weren’t waiting long,” I said.  “I hit traffic.”

“Hi, Greg,” Mrs. Allen replied, giving me a side hug.  “I haven’t been here that long.  I figured traffic might be bad coming over the bridge.  How are you?”

“Pretty good.  Ready to go in?”

I followed Mrs. Allen to our seats, toward the back of the lower level.  The evening air was cool, because of the bay nearby, and would only get colder as the night went on.  Night games in Bay City had a reputation for being cold, and the stadium had been built in one of the coldest and windiest parts of the city, simply because it was one of the few places in the city with open land at the time.  I had been carrying a jacket, the same jacket I got for the trip to Urbana last winter, but I was not quite cold enough to put it on yet.  I was a little sweaty from walking from the car to the stadium.

“So how was your time in Oregon?” Mrs. Allen asked.  “What exactly were you researching?”

Quasi-Monte Carlo integration using low-discrepancy sequences,” I explained.  “I was looking at ways to efficiently approximate integrals that can’t be calculated exactly using conventional means.  ‘Monte Carlo integration’ uses random numbers to make this approximation; that’s why it’s called Monte Carlo, because of random numbers being associated with gambling.  We were looking at ways to choose numbers that give more efficient and accurate approximations than just purely random numbers.”

“That’s all a bit beyond me,” Mrs. Allen said.  “When would you use something like this?”

“Any time you need to calculate an integral that can’t be calculated using normal methods.  Integrals are used for finding area and volume of irregular shapes.  And for any problem where you have to multiply, but the things you multiply are changing.  Like, for example, you multiply speed times time to find distance.  But if the speed is always changing in some predictable way, you would use an integral to find the total distance.  And some integrals can’t be calculated using regular techniques like adding and multiplying, so we need efficient ways to approximate them, and we need to know how accurate those methods are.”

“I see.  So what did you learn from your research?”

“Honestly, I’ve been telling people that the most important thing I learned was that I don’t really like math research.  But I’m glad to have learned this now, before I go invest years of my life and thousands of dollars in a Ph.D. program.”

“That’s a good point.  Graduate school is a huge commitment.”

“I know.”

“So do you know what you’re doing instead after you graduate?”

“Even though I said a few years ago I never wanted to, I’m now looking at being a teacher,” I explained.  “One of my professors set me up helping out in a high school classroom last spring, and I really enjoyed it.  I know I need a few more classes I hadn’t planned for as prerequisites for the teacher certification program.  I’m taking one of them this next quarter, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get them all in during this year.  So I don’t know yet if I’m going to graduate in the spring.  I might have to wait to start student teaching until the fall of ’99.  I’m also going to look into options for other teaching programs besides Jeromeville, but one of the professors from the Jeromeville program I’ve met before, so if I stayed at Jeromeville, I’d have that familiarity.”

Mrs. Allen had a look of excitement on her face; I could see that she approved of this career choice.  “Good for you!” she exclaimed.  “I think you’ll make a great teacher.”

“Thank you.”  It was an honor to know that I had Mrs. Allen’s vote of confidence, since she had been such an influential teacher in my career as a student.

“I’ll have to tell Mr. Colby when I see him on Monday,” Mrs. Allen said.  “I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear you’re looking into teaching.”

“Yes.  Tell him I said hi.”

“He used to tell that story all the time about the time he had to step out of the room, and when he came back a few minutes later, you were teaching the class.”

“I remember that,” I said, laughing.  “Someone asked me if I knew how to do a homework problem, and I didn’t want to scribble all over her paper, so I went up to the board to do it.  And when I was done, I turned around and everyone was watching me, and they started asking me more questions.”

“That’s a great story.”

The baseball game had begun by then.  The opponent was the Dallas Armadillos, and because of the recent changes made to baseball scheduling, this was the first time the Armadillos and Titans had ever played each other.  Before this year, teams in the two baseball leagues did not play each other until the end of the season, when the two champions would face each other.  Dallas was in the other league, and they had never been in the championship, so they had never played Bay City until this year.

The Titans scored first with a home run in the second inning, but their lead did not hold.  Three Dallas players got hits in the fourth inning, and two of them scored.  The game was then boring for about an hour as the teams took turns not scoring for the next few innings.  Mrs. Allen and I used that time to catch up and make small talk.  I told her more about my new house and roommates, as well as volunteering with the church youth group and being in chorus last year.

“When do classes actually start for you?” Mrs. Allen asked.

“September 25.  But next week I’m going on two retreats.  Monday through Friday I’ll be in Pine Mountain with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Then I’ll be leaving straight from there to a retreat with the youth group leaders from church, somewhere up near the Great Blue Lake.”

“That sounds like it’ll be fun!  A good way to spend the last week before school starts.  What classes are you taking?”

“Number theory, abstract algebra, writing in education, and chorus.”

“I’m glad you’re still doing chorus.  You were never doing anything with music back in middle school, were you?”

“No.  I was too self-conscious back then.”

“That’s too bad.  But I’m glad you found chorus eventually.”

“Thanks.”  

The crowd became more lively after the Armadillos’ pitcher threw two walks and gave up a hit, loading the bases for the Titans.  A new pitcher came in for the Armadillos, and the next Titans batter hit a ground ball and was thrown out for the second run of the inning.  The runner on third base was fast enough to score, giving the Titans a tenuous lead of three runs to two, and the crowd cheered loudly.

I stood and cheered, then sat back down a minute later. “It’s cold,” I said; more of my body’s surface area had been exposed to the cold night wind when I had stood, and I had no more layers of clothing to put on.

“It’ll be nice when the new stadium gets built,” Mrs. Allen said.  “The new location is supposed to be less windy.”

“So did they decide on a new location for sure?” I asked.  The team had been trying to get this old, windy stadium replaced for a long time.  Five years ago, the old owners tried to sell to a group that was going to move the team out of state, but the other teams in the league voted the sale down.  The owners then sold the team to a group committed to keeping them in Bay City with a plan to build a stadium close to downtown and the bridge.

“Yes.  It’s the same place they’ve been talking about for years, near the bridge,” Mrs. Allen explained.  “But they had to go through a long process to finally get everything approved.  Construction is supposed to start later this year, but it’ll be a couple more years until it’s done.”

“That’s exciting,” I said.

Both teams scored again shortly afterward, and by the end of the eighth inning, the score was tied at four each.  No one scored in the ninth inning, and the game went to extra innings.  I shivered in the cold wind as I watched the game and continued to make small talk with Mrs. Allen.  Neither one of us wanted to leave the game early, but I felt miserable sitting outside in the cold, even with a jacket.  The jacket did not stop the wind from blowing into my face, and I only wore one layer over most of my legs.

But my persistence paid off.  In the bottom of the twelfth inning, a new pitcher entered the game for Dallas, and he did not seem to have a good command of where his pitches were going.  He walked the first batter he faced, then two batters later, with one out, he gave up a double to the outfield.  With runners on second and third base, the next Titans batter got a hit, scoring the runner on third and giving the Titans a win, by a score of 5-4.  I jumped up and began screaming and clapping loudly.  I reached over and gave Mrs. Allen a high-five.  “Someone’s excited,” she said.

“That was awesome!”

I walked Mrs. Allen back to her car.  “Thank you so much for inviting me,” I said.

“Tjhank you for coming!  It was so good to see you.”

“Yes.  Say hi to all my other old teachers.”

“I will.  Drive safely!”

“You too!”

Even though it was still technically summer, I turned on the heater when I got back to my car.  I was cold.  This was my first time watching a big-league baseball game in over three years, and tonight was the perfect experience to reintroduce me to the sport.  The Titans had gotten a win in dramatic fashion, and they had a good chance to make the playoffs.  This was also the first time I had ever stayed to the end of a night game that went to extra innings, and sitting through the cold made it feel more like I earned the win.

It had been a long game, and it was well after eleven o’clock by the time I got back to the car.  The drive back to Jeromeville would have taken about an hour and a half in good traffic, but traffic after a major sporting event is rarely good, so I did not get home until one-fifteen in the morning.  Traffic was mostly stop-and-go for the first couple miles, and it slowed down in other spots elsewhere in the city.  By the time I finally got to the bridge, traffic was moving again, and the rest of the drive home was smooth and uneventful.

The Bay City Titans did in fact end up with the best win-loss record in their division, but they lost in the first round of the playoffs.  It would be over a decade before I would get to see them win a championship in my lifetime, but I would go to many more Titans games over the next few years.  I was at the final game played in this stadium, and while I was not able to go to the first game in the new stadium, I was at the fifth one, the first Saturday game in the new stadium.  

Mrs. Allen is the only teacher from my childhood whom I have stayed in touch with semi-consistently for my whole life, although Mr. Colby did find me on Facebook when I was in my late 30s.  I tend to see Mrs. Allen every few years, through a combination of planned events and chance encounters when I am back in Santa Lucia County.  We met for lunch the last time I visited back home, in June of 2022; she is now in her mid-seventies, with much shorter hair, and has been retired for some time.

I have also been on the other side of some of those teacher-student relationships, since I grew up to be a teacher myself.  Many students I have never seen again after they finished their time at my school, or after I left their school, whichever the case may be, but there have been a small handful who have stayed in touch to various degrees.  I have watched some of my former students grow up and become parents themselves, I have attended three weddings of former students, and I have experienced at least one hilarious awkward encounter with a former student who knew I looked familiar but could not place how she met me.  All of those are stories for another time, but those stories are part of what keeps me going in the demanding and exhausting field of education.


Readers: Do you follow baseball? Do you have any fun stories about memorable baseball games you’ve been to?

I know I’m a day late this week, and it’s for a reason kind of appropriate to this episode: I was in Bay City yesterday at a Titans game, with my parents and the Kanekos, at that new stadium that got built a few years after this episode.

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


July 12-13, 1997. A weekend that felt less lonely. (#138)

It was ten o’clock in the morning, but since it was Saturday, Howard Hall was still quiet, with many students sleeping in.  I noticed that Marcus’ door was open as I walked past; I looked inside and waved.

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

“I’m gonna see my great-aunt and uncle today,” I explained.  “They’re on their way here to pick me up.”

“Do they live near here?”

“Salem.”

“Oh, that’s not too far.  Like an hour away?”

“Not quite an hour, she said.”

“Well, have fun!”

“I will!  Thanks!”

I sat outside Howard Hall, hoping that Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy knew how to find it; after all, it was 1997, the cell phones owned by only a tiny percentage of the population could not access the Internet, and no one had a GPS in the car.  But I had given detailed directions, and they had suggested that they knew their way around Grandvale, at least the major streets and landmarks.  Auntie Dorothy had called me earlier this week to plan this visit; I was expecting to hear from her at some point during my summer in Grandvale.  

I also hoped that I remembered what they looked like, and that there were no senior citizen couples roaming the Grandvale State campus that morning looking for naive university students to kidnap and sell into forced labor.  I only remembered having met them twice. When I was 11, we went to Salem for a family reunion of my mother’s paternal relatives, the Weismanns, and they came to visit my grandparents when I was 14.  Uncle Lenny Weismann was my grandfather’s younger brother, and I remembered the two of them looking alike, so I just needed to watch for someone who looked like Grandpa.

I had no trouble recognizing them when they arrived, and they had no trouble recognizing me either.  “Greg?” Auntie Dorothy said after she rolled down the window.  “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I said, getting into the car.

“How are you?” Uncle Lenny asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.

“So what exactly is this program you’re in?”

“It’s a math research internship.  Students from around the country apply to these programs held at different universities.  I got into two of them, and the one at Grandvale State was the closer of the two.  I’m working with a professor and two other students, they’re from two different parts of New York, and we’re studying quasi-Monte Carlo integration using low discrepancy sequences.”  I paused, then continued explaining, hoping that I was assuming correctly that Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy did not know what quasi-Monte Carlo integration was.  “Basically, we’re looking at ways to do certain calculations that can’t be calculated directly, and studying how accurate and efficient these approximation methods are.”

“Oh, ok,” Auntie Dorothy said.  “That sounds interesting.”

We continued to make small talk for the fifty-minute drive from Grandvale to Salem, driving past the green rolling hills and farmland of the Willamette Valley.  Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy told me about their children and grandchildren, whom I did not know.  I had met some of them at the family reunion in Salem, but that was nine years ago now.  I told them about everything that happened to me in the last several months back in Jeromeville, including performing with University Chorus, my trip to Urbana, working with the youth group at church, and assisting in a high school classroom.

“A classroom,” Auntie Dorothy repeated.  “You’re thinking of being a teacher?”

“Well, that’s part of the reason I’m here this summer,” I explained.  “Trying to figure out if I’d rather go into teaching or math research.”

“What kind of work would you do with math research?”

“Get a Ph.D. and be a professor, proving new theorems and making new discoveries.  Probably also teaching university students and mentoring future Ph.D. candidates.”

“I see.  I could see you being good at either of those.”

“Thanks.”

When we got to Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy’s house, Auntie Dorothy made sandwiches for all three of us.  “Do you remember those comic books you used to draw the last time we saw you?”

“Yes!” I said.  “I stopped doing those around the time I started college.  I just didn’t have time anymore.  But then last summer I was teaching myself to make websites, and I started a new series, kind of like an online comic book.  It’s called Dog Crap and Vince.  Can you get the Internet here?”

“We have America Online.  Will that work?”

“It should!”

“I’ll go turn on the computer when I’m done eating, and you can show me.”  After we finished our sandwiches, I followed Auntie Dorothy to the computer, which whistled and hummed and buzzed as it connected to the Internet through telephone lines. I opened my Dog Crap and Vince website for Auntie Dorothy, with Uncle Lenny watching from behind.  “‘Six-O-Five Productions presents Dog Crap and Vince,’” Auntie Dorothy read.  “That’s you?  Why is it called ‘Six-O-Five Productions?’”

“I always abbreviate Dog Crap and Vince as ‘DCV,’” I explained.  “And DCV is also Roman numerals for 605.”

“That’s clever.”  Auntie Dorothy clicked through the site and read the illustrated story out loud, so that Uncle Lenny could hear also.  “So this guy is named Dog Crap, and this is Vince?  Why is his name Dog Crap?”

“I don’t know.  I just wanted something silly.”

“And why is their hair like that?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never explained their hair.  Just kind of random and bizarre.”

Auntie Dorothy continued reading the most recent episode of Dog Crap and Vince, called “What’s Cooking,” which I had written and drawn during study breaks while preparing for finals last month.  The two boys kept making a bigger and bigger mess in an ill-fated attempt to bake cookies, while Vince kept getting catchy and annoying songs stuck in his head.

“That was good,” Auntie Dorothy said.

“There are seven other episodes you can read later,” I said.  “You can email me, and I’ll send you the link so you don’t lose it.”

“Okay.”

“Greg?” Uncle Lenny asked. “Have you ever been to Salem before?”

“Just that one time when I was eleven, when we had the family reunion here.  But all I saw was your house and the park where we had the reunion.”

“We were talking earlier,” Auntie Dorothy said.  “Would you like to take the tour of the Oregon State Capitol?”

“Sure,” I said.  “That’ll be interesting.”

Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Lenny lived in an older neighborhood only about a mile from the Capitol, so it did not take us long to get there.  From the outside, the building looked different from what I expected a Capitol Building to look like; a cylindrical structure stood in the center where I expected a dome to be, with a gold statue on top.

“We don’t have a dome,” Uncle Lenny explained, noticing me looking at the statue.  “We have a pioneer instead.”

“Interesting.”

We bought three tickets for the tour and walked inside.  A tour guide showed us around the building, explaining what function of state government happened inside each part of the building.  She also pointed out the artwork in the different parts of the building and explained the stories from the history, culture, and state symbols of Oregon that the artwork depicted.  At one point, I told Auntie Dorothy, “I was just thinking, it’s kind of funny, I’ve toured the Oregon State Capitol, but I’ve never been inside my own state capitol building.  And it’s only 15 miles from Jeromeville.”

“Well, then, you’ll just have to go tour there sometime,” she replied.  (I did eventually, but not for another nine years.)

After the tour, Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy brought me back to their house for more catching up and small talk.  At one point, Auntie Dorothy asked, “You said you volunteer with a church youth group?  This is a Catholic church?”

“No, actually,” I said, a little hesitantly because I never knew how my mother’s Catholic relatives would react to my recent faith journey.  “A couple years ago, I started going to a nondenominational Christian group on campus with some friends.  That’s where I really learned what it means to follow Jesus.  But I kept going to Mass at the Newman Center, because I didn’t want to turn my back on Catholicism.  The different branches of Chrsitianity have a lot more in common than the little things they argue about.  I realized that a lot of students at Newman weren’t really serious about what they believed, they only went to church because it was part of their culture.  I wanted to learn more about Jesus and the Bible, so I tried my friends’ church.”

“What kind of church is it?”

“Evangelical Covenant.  They believe in the Bible but don’t make a lot of statements about doctrine besides the basics about Jesus dying for our sins and coming back someday.  I’ve heard someone say they’re almost like a non-denominational church.  And in Grandvale, I’ve been going to a Baptist church, just because they’re close to campus and I don’t have a way to get around.”

“God always finds a way to reach those who seek him,” Uncle Lenny said.  The Weismanns had always been Catholic; even before they came to the United States, in the German-speaking world not far from where the Protestant Reformation began, the Weismanns were Catholic.  Uncle Lenny and Grandpa had two sisters who were Catholic nuns.  So I was relieved that I was not about to ignite an argument of Catholicism versus Protestantism.

Late in the afternoon, we returned to Grandvale and stopped at the grocery store before they dropped me off at Howard Hall.  When Auntie Dorothy called earlier in the week, she asked if I wanted to go grocery shopping, knowing that I had no car; I of course said yes.  It was definitely one of the more pleasant days of my stay in Grandvale.  My grandparents both came from large families, so my mother grew up with many aunts and uncles on each side.  Five years ago, the time I gave Auntie Dorothy my comic books, I remember Mom saying that Auntie Dorothy was always her favorite aunt, because she was always so interested in whatever Mom was into.  I had noticed the same thing, five years ago with the comic books, and now today with Dog Crap and Vince.  And now I had their email, so we could plan another visit later in the summer.  “Thank you for everything,” I said, lifting my groceries out of the trunk outside of Howard Hall.

“You’re welcome.  It was good seeing you, Greg,” Uncle Lenny said, shaking my hand.

“We’ll see you soon,” Auntie Dorothy added, giving me a hug.

“Yes.  Take care.”


The next afternoon, after I finished a sandwich made from bread I got at the store with Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy, I sat at the desk in my room and took a deep breath.  I picked up the telephone handset, then hung up before I dialed.  Why was this so difficult for me?  Why could I not just use the phone like a normal person?  I took a deep breath and lifted the handset again, then hung up quickly.  I was being ridiculous.  It wasn’t like I was calling a cute girl and I did not know if she liked me or not.  It was a guy on the other end, and he was not going to judge me for calling him, especially since he told me I could in his last letter.

But was this his own phone?  Or was this a number that he shared with the people he was with?  Why did it matter?  The other people had no idea who I was, and I would probably never see or talk to them again.  As I had done so often when making phone calls, I picked up the handset again and dialed the eleven digits needed for a long distance call quickly before I had time to talk myself out of it.

“Hello?” I heard a familiar voice say on the other end.

“Taylor?” I asked.

“Greg!” Taylor replied enthusiastically.  “What’s up, man?”

“Not much,” I said.  “It’s Sunday, so I’m taking the day off from math.  I have relatives who live not too far from here; I saw them yesterday.”

“Oh, that’s good that you got to see family.  Who was it that you got to see?”

“My great-aunt and uncle.  My grandpa’s younger brother, and his wife.”

“Oh, ok.  What’d you guys do?”

“We just hung out and caught up.  They also took me to see the tour of the Oregon State Capitol, and we went grocery shopping.

“Nice!  Was the State Capitol interesting?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I told him about the pioneer statue and the lack of a dome, as well as what I remembered from the artwork inside.

“How’s your research going?” Taylor asked.  I explained quasi-Monte Carlo integration to Taylor using similar layperson’s terms that I had used with Auntie Dorothy yesterday.  “Interesting,” he said.  “And where would that be practical?”

“Anywhere you’d need to calculate an integral,” I explained.  “Areas and volumes of curved surfaces.  An average value of a set that isn’t just a finite number of things you can add and divide.  Measurements that involve multiplying, but one of the terms isn’t constant, like distance equals speed times time, so you’d need integrals if the speed is changing.”  Integrals were taught in calculus; I could not remember if Taylor had ever taken calculus.  “What I’m doing gives an efficient algorithm for approximating integrals that can’t be calculated directly.”

“Oh, ok,” Taylor replied.  I could not tell how much of that made sense to him.

“How’s your summer going?”

“It’s a lot of work.  I’ve been here since March now, and I’m getting tired.  I’ve been sleeping more than I usually do.”

“Sleep is good if you’re tired, I guess.”

“Yeah.  But I’m ready to go home.”

“Me too,” I said.  “I’m not even halfway through the program here, and I feel like I’m already counting down the days left.  It’s 33.”

“You don’t like math research?”

“It’s okay, but it’s not as interesting as I thought it would be,” I said.  “And I really miss everyone back home.  I don’t have a lot in common with the other students in the program.”

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

“Mostly because they aren’t Christians, and they’re into partying and stuff.  But there is one guy who really likes The Simpsons, so at least there’s that.”

“Nice,” Taylor said.  “Have you found a church or anything like that?”

“I’ve been going to a church right across the street from campus, and they have a college and young adult Bible study.  I only see them once or twice a week, though.  Better than nothing, though.”

“Yeah.  But being around Christians all the time isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

“I’m 20, I’m younger than average for the staff here, but I feel like I’m older spiritually than most of them.  I’ve been through a lot in life.  I’ve been on a mission trip to Morocco.  I’ve been a youth group leader for a long time.  I’ve just had different life experiences.  And when I can sympathize, I sometimes I have to tell myself not to step in with advice, because I don’t want to sound like a young know-it-all.  And the kids that we’re here to work with, new groups come and go every week, so it’s hard to bond with them.”

“That makes sense.  Hopefully you can find common ground with the other staff.”

“Yeah.  And hopefully you do with the other math students.”

“Yeah.  Emily, she’s working on the same project I am, a few nights ago we were all in her room playing Skip-Bo.  She brought a Skip-Bo game with her.  I hadn’t played that in years; I used to play that with my mom and grandma when I was a kid.  That was fun.”

“Nice!  I’ve played that, but it was a long time ago.  Hey, did I tell you I went to a Chicago Cubs game last month?”

“I don’t think so.  That’s fun!”

“Yeah!  The first interleague game in Cubs history, against Milwaukee.  The Cubs lost.”

“Wow.  You got to see history.  It’s still kind of weird to me to think that National League teams are playing against American League teams now.  But exciting too, you get to see new team combinations.”

“Yeah.  It’s interesting to see if this will stay a part of baseball.”

“I haven’t really been following baseball,” I said.

“Well, there isn’t a Major League team in Oregon, so it’s a little harder to follow there.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”  I had actually stopped following Major League Baseball three years earlier, when the last two months of the season were canceled because of a players’ strike, denying one of my favorite players the chance to chase the single season home run record.  My frustration at that situation had died down a little over the last few years.  I knew about the rule change that National League teams would now play against some American League teams each year.  In hindsight, it was ironic that the historic Cubs game Taylor saw was against Milwaukee, because the following season, Milwaukee would move from the American League to the National League and play against the Cubs every year.

After catching up a while longer, Taylor asked, “Are you going straight back to Jeromeville after your program is over?”

“I’ll spend the rest of August with my family, then go back August 31 to finish moving out of the old apartment and into the new one.”

“Are you going to the youth leaders’ retreat in September?”

“Yes.  I’ll be coming right from JCF Outreach Camp.  Two retreats back to back.”

“Busy!”

“Yeah, but I’m not doing anything else the week before school starts.”

“That’s true.  I should get going now, but I’ll see you at the retreat, if I don’t see you before then.”

“Yeah!” I replied.  “It was good talking to you!”

“Thanks for calling!  It’s good to hear a familiar voice.”

“Yeah.  Good night.”

“Good night, Greg.”

I hung up.  It was a little comforting to know that I was not the only one away from home and unable to connect with colleagues.  Taylor’s situation was different, of course, but he was away from home too.  I had thirty-three days left in this metaphorical wilderness of mathematics.  I knew that the Bible had several examples of people being lost in a wilderness for an extended period of time.  God always gave his people what they needed to get through that time, and these exiles in the wilderness always served some higher purpose.

I had Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy not far away, though.  I normally thought of my Dennison relatives as distant and my Santini relatives, my mother’s maternal family, as a bunch of overly dramatic busybodies.  But Mom’s family also included the Weismanns, who were all very nice, from what I knew of them.  I just did not see the Weismann relatives as often I saw the Dennisons or Santinis.  But my day with the Weismanns yesterday, as well as the phone call with Taylor today, certainly helped this weekend feel less lonely.


Readers, what are your extended families like?

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June 28 – July 4, 1997. Outings with my new classmates. (#137)

On my second day in Oregon, when I had to make the half hour walk carrying as many full grocery bags as I could hold from the store back to my dorm room, I realized that I really should have brought my car.  I could have made the drive from home to Oregon in a day, and then I would not have to lug around these bags of groceries every few days, plus I would have a way to explore my surroundings. I chose not to drive because, shortly before I found out about this program, I had just had my first airplane trip, at least the first one that I was old enough to remember, and I wanted to go somewhere on an airplane again.  The airplane ride was fun, but had I thought things through more, I probably would have brought my car.

Of the eight students in my Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, only Marcus drove here; his trip was about as long as mine would have been.  Kirk and Jeannie, who attended Grandvale State year round, did not have cars, and the others came from farther away.  Unfortunately, Marcus’ vehicle was a small pickup truck.  So when someone suggested taking a weekend trip up to nearby Grand Mountain, then continuing over the mountains to the coast, the only way we could make it work was for most of us to pile in the back of the truck bed. 

“Is that legal here?” I asked, knowing that the laws governing motor vehicles sometimes varied from state to state.  I grew up being told it was illegal, although when I was learning to drive, I thought I saw that it was legal in my state in certain settings, even though seat belts were mandatory and pickup truck beds did not have seat belts.  This did not make sense to me, and I never did figure out exactly what the law said in my state. But knowing this was never a priority for me, since I never planned on riding in the back of a pickup truck until today, and I never have since.

“I don’t know,” Julie said dismissively, as if she did not care.

“I’ll drive extra carefully if there are people in the back,” Marcus said.  “And if I do get in trouble for it, it would be me, not you.”

“I guess,” I said, not thrilled with the idea of riding in the back, but also not wanting to miss out on this day out with my new colleagues and friends.

On the morning we left, it was mostly sunny with some clouds scattered across the sky, mostly coming from the west, the direction we would be going.  I wore long pants and brought a sweatshirt.  Back home, the weather on the coast can often be much cooler than the weather inland, and I needed to be prepared for anything.  Marcus, Emily, and I sat in the cab of the pickup truck, with Marjorie, Ivan, Julie, and Jeannie in the back.  Kirk was a local and had seen these places many times, and he had made other plans for the weekend, so he stayed behind.  We planned to take turns who would be sitting in the cab.

About five miles west of Grandvale, the road to the coast split in two, one heading west toward Baytown, the other southwest toward Forest Beach.  We turned southwest and followed that road for another five miles, then turned onto Grand Mountain Road.  A sign said that the peak was another nine miles up that road, and it became quickly evident that those nine miles would be full of sharp turns with barely enough space for two cars to pass each other.

“I like this view,” Emily said.

“Yeah,” Ivan agreed.  “Very different from back home.”  Ivan was from New York City; he probably saw forested mountains in his day-to-day life much more infrequently than I did.

It took about forty-five minutes to drive to the peak of Grand Mountain.  We parked at the small parking area at the end of the road, then walked a trail leading about a quarter mile through a grove of trees to the peak.  Two radio towers with antennae and satellite dishes stood behind a fenced-off area at the peak, with a few picnic tables just beyond this.  We walked to the picnic tables and sat, facing toward more mountains away from the radio towers.

Grand Mountain was the highest peak in the region, but from this viewpoint, it seemed to be surrounded by a sea of other mountains.  Normally, with a view like this, I would have wanted to look down on Grandvale and identify roads and landmarks, and see if I could pick out Howard Hall.  But the direction we faced from these picnic tables did not have a good view of all of Grandvale.  I could see the Willamette Valley opening up below through a break in the mountains, but from this exact spot, I mostly only saw fields in the valley.  Even if I had had a good view of the Grandvale State campus, I probably would not have been able to pick out Howard Hall to begin with, since I did not know my way around Grandvale well enough yet.

The surrounding mountains were green, thickly forested, with grassy clearings scattered throughout.  Normally, in my experience, trees on the edge of a forested area have branches covered with needles all the way up their trunks, but these trees had tall, bare trunks with a much smaller cluster of green needles at the top. It looked as if they had grown in the middle of a forest, and the adjoining half of the forest had suddenly been removed. I thought about this for a bit, then I said, “Why are there those clearings like that, with trees with no needles on the sides?  Is it because the trees next to them have been cut down?”

“I think so,” Marcus replied.  “Something like that.”

“Clear-cutting is so sad,” Julie added.

“At least they don’t cut down the whole forest,” I said. “They spread out the areas they cut down to make it easier for the trees to grow back eventually. That seems like a good way to do it.”

After we sat admiring the view for about half an hour, we drove back down the mountain and continued driving away from Grandvale toward Forest Beach on the coast.  A sign indicated that we would be passing through a town called Spruce Creek before we reached Forest Beach, and Marcus commented that he would probably have to stop there for gas.  As we arrived in Spruce Creek, Marcus said, “Looks like we don’t have much of a choice for gas,” as we drove up to one of the two gas pumps at the one general store in this town of less than two hundred people.

“This is a town?” Ivan said after we stopped.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a town this small.”

“I know they exist, but yeah,” I said, although I had not grown up around towns this small either.

After we finished getting gas, Jeannie and Julie took the next turn in the cab; I got in the back with Ivan, Emily, and Marjorie.  Five minutes later, the truck slowed to a halt.  This certainly did not seem like the kind of road to get much traffic.  I stood up to look ahead and saw a long line of cars in front of us, then just barely in the distance, as the road curved, I saw a large, newly fallen tree across the road.

“What’s going on?” Marjorie asked.

“Tree fell on the road,” I explained.

“Can we get through?”

“I see cars coming in the other direction.  There’s probably one lane open, and we take turns.”

Just as I sat back down, I felt drops of water on my head, and within about a minute, the drops had grown to a light but steady rain.  “Great,” I said, not dressed for rain.

“It didn’t look rainy when we left,” Emily observed.

“With the mountains right on the coast, the weather can probably change a lot in a short distance,” I explained.

By the time we finally got to Forest Beach, the rain had softened to a light drizzle, still wet enough to be uncomfortable considering that my clothes were already wet.  We found a place to park, for a small fee, and walked to the beach.  The gray sky made the choppy water also look gray, and the lack of sun just made the whole experience, although scenic, feel gloomy.

“Here we are,” Jeannie said.  “The Oregon coast.”

The seven of us walked down to the damp sand.  Some of the others took off their shoes and socks; I did not.  I did not want to deal with the mess, especially with my clothes already so wet.  I saw a very small but recognizable stream trickling across the sand, less than a foot wide and easy to step over.  We spent about half an hour walking up and down the coast.  Ivan was talking about something that had reminded him of some movie I had not seen, and Julie had gotten onto the topic of her favorite sex positions, and with nothing to contribute to either of those conversations, I held back a bit and did my best to enjoy the view.

By the time we got back to Marcus’ truck, the drizzle had let up slightly.  We drove back the other way, fifteen miles up the coast to Baytown and then inland on the other road leading to Grandvale.  The other road was presumably a better road, more well-traveled, and we would not have to deal with the delay caused by the fallen tree. I approved of this decision; it would give me a chance to see different scenery on the way back.  The scenery looked very similar to what we saw on the westbound trip, thickly forested mountains with clearings where logging had occurred, but it was still nice to see something new.


The Friday after our beach trip was July 4, Independence Day.  The university was closed for the holiday, and we did not have class.  After a long week of researching quasi-Monte Carlo integration and low discrepancy sequences, I was ready to take a break from mathematics today.  I spent most of the morning reading and catching up on emails, and I went for a short bike ride around campus.

After I ate a microwaved chicken sandwich in my room for dinner, I met the other seven students from the REU program. Grandvale was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century on the west bank of the Willamette River, and since then it had grown from that original downtown, mostly to the west and north, with the east side of the river remaining undeveloped farmland. The seven of us walked a mile and a half from the campus to the river, where the city’s Independence Day festival was happening today. Grandvale was far enough north that the sun would not set until after nine o’clock, so we had a few hours until it would be dark enough for fireworks.

A park extended for about the length of five city blocks between River Street and the actual river, bisected by an old truss bridge carrying eastbound traffic out of town.  A newer, wider bridge had been built parallel to this one about half a mile to the south; I could see that one off in the distance in that direction.  River Street had been blocked off to traffic for tonight, and numerous food booths, community organizations, and people trying to sell things had set up tables along the side of the street.  Large crowds roamed River Street, whic had been decorated with United States flags and various banners with a similar stars-and-stripes theme.

I saw just ahead of me a girl who looked no older than twelve or thirteen, wearing a patriotic outfit and theatrical makeup.  She pressed Play on a small boombox-like device that had a microphone attached; as music began playing, the girl started singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”  That seemed kind of strange, just out of nowhere, but at least the song was fitting for today.  After that, she started singing other songs, mostly old rock-and-roll standards.

“I never really understood the Fourth of July,” Jeannie observed.  “It’s nice to have a day off, but what are we really celebrating?  We’re not exactly the greatest country in the world.”  I wisely held my tongue as she continued.  “And why fireworks?  It seems like there must be something better to celebrate our nation than explosions.”

“Celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it,” I said, in a fake accent to match that of the man who said that to Homer Simpson as he sold him illegal fireworks. That episode, the season finale from a year ago, was one of my favorites.

“Yes!” Ivan replied.  “The M-320!”

“What?” Marjorie asked.  “Is that from The Simpsons or something?”

“Yeah,” I explained.  “The family used the Flanderses’ beach house for the Fourth of July, and Homer went to buy illegal fireworks.  And he ended up blowing up the kitchen.  And Lisa made some new friends in the beach town.  Now that I think about it, it’s probably the only one of my favorite episodes that primarily focuses on Lisa.  Usually Lisa can be pretty annoying.”

“What?” Julie said.  “She’s the only sensible one!  The rest of the family is annoying.”

“But she can be kind of self-righteous and snobby, I think.”

“You prefer Homer the buffoon?”

“Yes!  He’s funny!”

At this point, we walked past the singing girl again, in the other direction.  I noticed that she sang the same four songs over and over again, and that she had a hat in front of her for tips.  Since she sang the same songs, I could not tell if she was actually singing along to recorded background music or just lip-synching.  I had never seen a street performer this young before, and something felt a little odd about her.

“I had actually never seen The Simpsons until last week when I watched it with you guys,” Jeannie said.  “It wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be.”

“‘Wasn’t quite as bad,’” I repeated.  “I see how it is.”

“Well, I used to not watch it on principle.”

“On principle?”

“Yeah!  Watching The Simpsons is like watching Beavis and Butthead.”

Great, I thought.  Insult one of my favorite shows by comparing it to one of my other favorite shows.  You probably also agree with Julie that Lisa, the intellectual snob, is your favorite.

As the sun started to set, the eight of us found a permanent place to sit for the night, on the packed dirt bank of the river facing the other shore.  Kirk had been here before to watch fireworks, and he said that they launch from across the river, so we should have a good view from here.

“Most of the fireworks I’ve watched have been at Disneyland,” Marjorie said.  “We have annual passes.  We’re gonna go as soon as I get home.”

“That’ll be fun,” Ivan said.  “I’m not doing anything when I get back home.  School starts right away for me.”

“I’m not going straight home.  I’m spending the weekend after the program at my boyfriend’s house in Ohio,” Emily explained.  “I was talking to my sister today, and she said, ‘Mom asked me, “Do you think Emily and Ryan are having sex?”’ If my mom wants to know so bad, why doesn’t she just ask me?  It pissed me off.”  They probably were, I thought.  I knew that the norm for people my age was not the Christians I hung out with who believed in saving themselves for marriage. At least they said they believed that.

“What about you, Greg?” Emily asked.  “What are you doing after this?  When do you start school again?”

“Jeromeville is on the three-quarter schedule, so we don’t start until the end of September, but then we go until the middle of June.  So I’m still gonna have a month of summer left.  I’m going to spend two weeks at my parents’ house, then move into my new house in Jeromeville, then I’m going on a retreat the week before school starts.”

“With that church group?” Ivan asked.

“Yes.”

Around ten o’clock, when it was finally dark, a hush fell over the crowd as the first firework launched into the air, then exploded into a brilliant multi-colored sunburst.  People cheered.  The fireworks continued on for almost half an hour, with recordings of marching bands playing patriotic music in the background.  At the end of the show, several rockets launched at once, briefly illuminating the sky in bursts of color reflecting off of the smoke of so many previous fireworks.  After this, everything went dark and silent as the crowd cheered, then the lights of the surrounding park came back on about ten seconds later.

“That was fun,” Ivan said as we stood up.

“That was amazing!” I added.  “I really didn’t grow up watching fireworks.  The fireworks in Jeromeville last year were really the first fireworks I remember seeing.  And this show seemed a little longer.”

“Why didn’t you watch fireworks?” Jeannie asked.

“I don’t know.  We just never did.  And sometimes it’s too foggy for fireworks.”

“Fog?  In July?”

“Yeah.  Plumdale is close to the coast, so kind of like what we saw on the coast last weekend.”

“I guess.”

“And home fireworks are illegal in both Plumdale and Jeromeville.  So fireworks are still a new experience to me.”

I was still on a high from the fireworks as we walked the mile and a half back to Howard Hall in the dark.  Marjorie was talking more about growing up going to Disneyland multiple times per year, some of the others were talking about graduate school plans, others were sharing stories about partying, and I mostly felt left out of the conversation. I walked along the same road as them, but I was in my own little world, comforted by thoughts of fireworks and explosions and celebrating freedom.  This was a familiar feeling to me; I often felt left out when others my age talked about normal life experiences that were foreign to me.

My story was unusual in that I grew up in the United States of America without watching fireworks.  And hearing others talk about things I could not relate to, or experiences I wished I had had, always made me feel rejected.  But instead of getting angry about it, maybe I should look on the bright side. Since fireworks were missing from my childhood, I still was able to enjoy fireworks as an adult, and I had not yet become bored or jaded by fireworks shows.  This trip to Oregon was only the second time I remembered being on an airplane, so riding in an airplane was still fun and exciting in and of itself, rather than a hassle to be endured before the rest of the trip.  And even though Marjorie got to go to Disneyland as many times in a year as I had ever been in my life, this just meant that Disneyland would be fun and new to me when I finally made it back there at age thirty-one.


Readers: Is there anything your friends often talk about that you’ve never seen or done? And do you ever wish you had?

Just so you know, it is possible I might be taking a week off from writing here and there over the next few months. Life is going to be unpredictable. Thanks for being patient with me. Make sure you are subscribed, so you don’t miss an episode.

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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.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

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

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

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

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

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

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

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

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

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

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 1996. Looking for a place to live.

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

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

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

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

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