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.

June 1, 1996. Sarah got baptized, and we saw real sheep. (#85)

“So how’s everyone doing today?” Taylor asked as I drove west beyond the Jeromeville city limits, where Fifth Street becomes Grant Road.

“I went grocery shopping,” Danielle said.  “And I saw my abnormal professor in the store.”

“You saw who?” I asked.

“My professor for Abnormal Psych.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Abnormal Psych.  You said ‘my abnormal professor,’ and I didn’t know what that meant.  I was gonna say I’m a math major, so all of my professors are abnormal.”  The others groaned and chuckled.

Grant Road continues west in a near-perfectly straight line for about three miles after leaving the Jeromeville city limits, past an idyllic landscape of fields, pastures, and orchards.  Beyond that, the road turns sharply; I was caught off guard by the coming right turn, so I pushed the brake pedal hard.  Some of the others in the car reacted audibly to the sudden change in movement.  “Sorry,” I said, as I turned sharply to the right, then to the left a short distance later.  “I never understood why this road has all these curves in it.  Everything is completely flat here.”

“To follow property lines, maybe?” Pete suggested.

“That could be it.”

“Have you been this way before?” Danielle asked.

“Once,” I said.

“You know where we’re going?”

“Yes.”

“Of course he knows where we’re going!” Taylor said.  “Greg doesn’t get lost, remember?”

I had only been this way once, when I took a side trip on the way back from my parents’ house just to see what this part of Arroyo Verde County looked like, and I had never been west of the town of Summerfield.  But a bunch of us had met in a parking lot in Jeromeville about ten minutes ago to carpool, and Cheryl of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had been there to hand out flyers, and the driving directions were very clear, just straight west on Grant Road for about twenty miles.

I had been hearing announcements at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship over the last few months about baptisms in the creek near Lake Montecito at the end of the school year.  I had not expressed interest in being baptized.  I had started to take my faith seriously this year through the nondenominational JCF, which was not affiliated with a specific church.  The students in JCF attended a few different churches around Jeromeville, but very few of them were Catholic like me.  I did not know enough about baptism at that point to know if I needed to be baptized again, and I did not want to turn my back on the Catholicism of my childhood and family without knowing the details of what I was doing.

However, I wanted to attend this baptism event.  I knew most of the people in JCF on an acquaintance level, so I wanted to be there for the people being baptized.  Also, one of those people was Sarah Winters, one of my close friends.  I had known her since the first week of freshman year, and when I heard that she was getting baptized, I definitely wanted to be there for her.

In addition to friends from JCF, other friends and family of the people being baptized were attending this event.  Danielle was not part of JCF; she was Catholic, and attended mass at the Newman Center with me.  But all of us in my car were friends with Sarah from our freshman dorm, and all of them also lived in the same apartment complex as Sarah.

 I continued west on Grant Road, through more occasional sharp turns and zigzags over the next few miles before the road straightened out again, now heading southwest.  The midafternoon sun was still high enough that I did not have to put my visor down.  “This may be a dumb question,” I asked, “but what exactly happens at a baptism in the creek?  I’ve only seen Catholic baptisms, when you’re a baby, and they just sprinkle water on you in church.”

“I was going to ask the same thing,” Danielle said.

“You proclaim in public that you’re a follower of Jesus,” Charlie explained.

“And then you get dunked!” Taylor added.

“That’s pretty much it,” Charlie said.

“Why is it that Catholics baptize babies, and other Christians don’t?” I asked.

“Because if you get baptized as a baby, you’re not really making a conscious decision to identify as a Christian,” Pete said.  “So if you wait until someone is old enough to make their own decision to be baptized, then it really comes from them, and it’s more meaningful than if parents just baptize a baby because you have to.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“It’s not just Catholics versus Protestants, right?” Charlie added.  “Aren’t there some Protestants who baptize babies?”

“Yeah,” Pete said.  “I know Presbyterians do.”

We continued west past Summerfield.  The road turned to run directly adjacent to the redundantly named Arroyo Verde Creek as the hills, which I could see from home off in the distance to the west, rose around me.  Oaks dotted the hills, surrounded by grass that sprung up green and bright every year during the rainy season, but was now in late spring turning brown.  The hills would remain golden brown, as they did every year, until around the following January, when the rains of November and December had sunk in.

Twenty miles west of Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek once passed through a narrow canyon just downstream of a valley.  This canyon was identified long ago as a perfect place for a dam, which was built in the 1950s.  The relatively small dam across the canyon flooded the entire valley behind it, creating Lake Montecito and providing a reliable water supply to the vast agricultural areas to the east.  We stopped at a public parking lot just downstream from the dam; I recognized a few JCF people standing around.  “There they are,” Taylor said.

The five of us walked toward the crowd.  People trickled in as we mingled among the crowd, saying hi to our friends, until about a hundred people stood among the rocks and sand on the bank of Arroyo Verde Creek.  I could see the dam about half a mile upstream from where we were, towering three hundred feet above the creek and spanning the entire canyon.

Dave McAllen, who with his wife Janet were the head staff of JCF, waded a few feet into the creek and announced, “Welcome.”  He stood in ankle-deep water, wearing a t-shirt with swimming shorts.  “You have come to watch four of your friends make a public identification as part of the Body of Christ.  Baptism is an outward and public sign that you have decided to follow Jesus.  Baptism was commanded by Jesus himself, as part of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’  In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, Luke writes that the people who heard Peter’s message were baptized.”  Dave continued for another few minutes talking about the theology and history of baptism, about how being submerged in the water and resurfacing is symbolic of dying to your old life and being reborn in Christ.  I wondered about my current situation, having been baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church, and whether or not that was acceptable to these people as a valid baptism.  My question was answered as Dave said, “Before we begin our baptisms, Kieran would like to say something.”

Kieran, a freshman who had been in my group the previous weekend at the Man of Steel competition, stepped forward, not quite getting into the water.  “Hi,” he said.  “I’m not one of the people getting baptized today.  I was baptized as a baby.  But I didn’t really know Jesus until high school, when my friend brought me to youth group.  Since I was already baptized, I don’t feel like it’s right to get baptized again, like it didn’t count the first time.  But I just wanted to say in front of all of you that I am living for Jesus Christ.”  People applauded as he finished that last sentence, and I joined in.  I did not know if I would ever be brave enough to say that in front of the crowd, but Kieran’s proclamation suggested that I did not need to be baptized again.

Dave stepped aside as Janet, took his place in the water in front of the crowd.  “First, I would like to welcome Sarah Winters.  She’s a sophomore.”  Janet gestured to Sarah to begin speaking.

“I didn’t really go to church growing up,” Sarah said.  “I was a good student, I stayed out of trouble, but I also made some decisions that weren’t so great.”  Sarah paused, clearly not wanting to talk about the suboptimal decisions.  “But then I started going out with a guy right at the end of high school, and he was a Christian.  They say missionary dating isn’t a good idea, but it brought me to Christ.”  Laughs and chuckles spread throughout the crowd.  I had never heard this term “missionary dating,” but I figured out from the context what she was saying.  “He shared with me what it meant to really follow Jesus, and he lived it out in his life.  We broke up on good terms last year, but it was for the best.  And now I’m ready for whatever Jesus has for me.”

“Sarah?” Janet asked.  “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”

“I do,” Sarah replied.

“Then I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  Janet put one hand on Sarah’s back as she lowered Sarah backward into the water.  After being fully submerged for a few seconds, she brought Sarah back up, and everyone cheered.  Sarah smiled, dripping wet, as she climbed out of the creek and wrapped herself in a towel.

Three more people were baptized that day.  Each had a different story, but all of their stories ended with finding Jesus and making a decision to follow him.  I had a story like that now too, and it was humbling to know that this united me with so many millions of Christians throughout the centuries.

After the last baptism ended, I walked around looking for Sarah.  Janet McAllen found me first.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Wasn’t that good to hear everyone’s stories?”

“Yes.  It’s always good to hear how God works in different people’s lives.”

“Have you been baptized?”

“I was baptized Catholic as a baby.”

“Oh, okay,” Janet said.  “We usually don’t recommend you get baptized again if you were already baptized as a baby.”

“I had been wondering about that earlier today, and then when Kieran shared about that, it was perfect timing.  Like he answered the question I didn’t even ask.”

“Yeah!”

“Do you know where Sarah went?”

“I think she’s over there,” Janet said, pointing to a cluster of people standing a little ways upstream.

“I’m going to go find her.”

“Sounds good.  I’m glad you could make it here, Greg.”

“Me too.”

I walked in the direction that Janet had pointed and eventually found Sarah.  The people I came with had found her first; they were all standing together, along with Sarah’s roommate Krista and a few others.

“Congratulations,” I said as Sarah noticed me approaching.

“Greg!” Sarah exclaimed.  “Thank you so much for coming!”

“I’m glad I could be here,” I said.  “It’s always so good to hear stories of how people came to know Jesus.”

“Yeah.  God works in everyone differently.  We all have a story.”

I stood around listening to people make small talk for a while.  Later, I started walking around to talk to other people, and I congratulated the other three who had been baptized as well.

The crowd gradually thinned, and we left about half an hour after the last baptism.  We returned the same way we came, along Grant Road.  At one point, near the inexplicable sharp turns, Danielle excitedly exclaimed, “Look!  Sheep!  And they’re real!”  She pointed out the car window to a flock of sheep grazing in a pasture.

“Did you say ‘they’re real?’” Pete asked.

“Yeah!  Right there!”

“‘They’re real,’ you said?  So do you normally drive past fields full of fake sheep?” Taylor added.

“What?  No!” Danielle said.  “You know what I mean!”

“I don’t,” I said.

“Never mind.”

I never did figure out why Danielle was so excited about the sheep being real.  Sometimes things make sense in someone’s head but do not get explained properly.  But, as we drove home, my mind was more on what Kieran had said, how he had been baptized as a baby and did not feel it was appropriate to get baptized again.  Although I had not studied the issue in detail or prayed about it, that was my current position.  I did not want to turn my back completely on the Catholicism of my family and generations of my mother’s ancestors.  Jesus commands his followers to be baptized, but from what I had learned this year from really studying the Bible for the first time, the act of baptism itself is not what brings salvation or eternal life.  Catholics consider baptism to be a sacrament, but I could not find anything directly in the Bible stating that baptism affected one’s eternal fate.

It was surprising to me, therefore, when a few years later JCF held another baptism event, and Kieran was one of the people getting baptized.  He made no mention of having been baptized as a baby that time.  I never asked him what made him change his mind.  By that time, I had had enough encounters with Christians who disparaged and belittled Catholicism that my position had become further entrenched that I did not want to be baptized a second time.  I did not want to acknowledge these people’s mischaracterization of Catholicism, and getting baptized a second time felt like taking their side.

However, I did change my mind eventually, in my early thirties.  By that time, I was no longer attending Catholic Mass.  I knew that many churches that do not baptize babies require baptism as a condition of becoming a full church member and being able to vote on the church budget and new pastoral appointments.  I had made up my mind that this would not be a dealbreaker to being part of a church, that I would get baptized as an adult if I found a church requiring adult baptism that I was otherwise ready to commit to.  In the first letter to the Corinthaians, Paul wrote that, as a follower of Christ, he is no longer under the Old Testament law, despite having a Jewish background.  It is not necessary for Christians to follow the rituals and customs of the Jews.  However, when ministering to Jewish communities, Paul would follow their customs anyway, in order to be part of their community and build the relationships necessary to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I felt the same way about baptism by this time; being baptized as an adult was not necessary, but if I was going to become part of a community that believed this, I would be willing to follow their customs.  In 2007, the church I had attended for over a year called a new pastor, and I really liked this guy, so I was baptized and became a member in order to be able to vote in favor of this new pastor.  And I know that my parents did not see my second baptism as an act of turning my back on my upbringing, because they were there on that day to support me, just as I was there to support Sarah on the day she was baptized.

April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove. (#78)

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

“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just twice.”

“It’s pretty awesome.”

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


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

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

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

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

“Have you been here before?”

“No.  Have you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He didn’t tell me.”

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

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

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



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

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

“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.

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

“Good job!” Eddie said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.

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

“That makes sense,” Eddie said.

“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.

“Thanks,” I replied.

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

“Pretty much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“But you did sleep.”

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Great!” Kristina said.  “Ready?”

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

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

“Sure,” Haley said.  I nodded.

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

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

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

“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”

“Really.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s cool!”

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

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

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

“Sure!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You seemed to like my mixtape too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 3-5, 1996. I look like a deranged serial killer. (#76)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monday is fine.”

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

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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