August 24-25, 1996. The Moport tournament.

When I was in middle and high school, everything in my family revolved around sports.  My brother Mark played baseball and basketball, and I worked the scoreboard and snack bar, because I had no athletic talent and not enough discipline to work out and eat well.

Mark and I made up some of our own sports to play in the yard.  Some were variations of actual baseball and basketball, modified to be played one-on-one in small spaces.  Some were combinations of existing sports, and some were just silly.  We would pretend to be playing as teams with multiple players, so that, for example, if a goal was scored from a certain part of the field or court, it would be credited to a different player than if it was scored from a different place.  I usually lost, since I had no athletic talent, but I enjoyed keeping statistics, such as who led the league in scoring or who needed to beat whom to make the playoffs.  We would draw posters, pennants, and trading cards representing our fictitious teams and players, most of which had names based on puns, inside jokes, poop jokes, or double entendres.

Many students will have a class at some point in which they strongly dislike the subject matter, but love the teacher.  For me, that teacher was Mr. Alfred Pereira, whom I had for physical education in ninth grade.  PE was my least favorite class.  Part of my grade was based on how fast I could run, how many pull-ups I could do (zero), and the like.  I participated every day, and I got Bs for it because I was not athletic.  But Mr. Pereira was funny, and he found ways to make his class enjoyable.  We played a game in his class called Pereiraball, which was basically soccer with hands.  A player could pick up the ball and run with it, but the other team could steal the ball by tagging the player carrying the ball.  A goal scored by throwing the ball into the goal was worth one point, and a goal scored by kicking, the normal way in soccer, was worth two points.  A header goal, hitting the ball into the goal off of an attacking player’s head, scored three points.

I taught Mark to play Pereiraball in our yard, using a Nerf soccer ball, and some old sawhorses I found in the garage for goals.  We decided to add another element to the game: hockey sticks.  All of the normal rules of Pereiraball applied, but players could also move the ball with the stick, as in hockey, and a defending player could tag a player running with the ball with the stick, as long as the tag did not aim for the head.  A goal scored off of the stick was worth two points, the same as by kicking, and just for laughs, we added a rule that a goal scored by bumping the ball off of the scorer’s own rear end was five points.

I needed a name for my modified Pereiraball, but I was embarrassed to name something after my teacher.  I called it “Modified Portuguese Football,” since Mr. Pereira had a sticker of the flag of Portugal on his file cabinet at school to honor his ancestry, and I quickly shortened that name to “Moport.”  Mom, who has a tendency to get names wrong, called it “Ball Soccer” the first time we played; after I corrected her, she called it “Mopo-Hockey” the next time.

In addition to our usual one-on-one games, we would sometimes play Moport two-on-two, with a slightly larger field, when Mark would have multiple friends over.  We used our own names as players when I kept statistics, but we had names for our teams.  Mark and Eric Kingston were the Ice Monkeys of Rage, wearing homemade uniforms of black and light blue along with matching light blue bandanas.  Cody Kaneko and Matt Bosworth were the Jammin’ Janitors; they also made uniforms, in red and navy blue.  Two of Mark’s other sports friends, Danny Tsao and Nate Fisk, did not have their own Moport uniforms, but they called themselves Team Discovery Channel, referencing a scene from The Simpsons.  Bart Simpson and his friends declare war on kids from the neighboring town, and tough kid Nelson begrudgingly pairs up with nerdy Martin, who calls their duo Team Discovery Channel.  I played with anyone who was left over not on a team, or I acted as referee and scorekeeper.  The Ice Monkeys usually dominated those games, and Team Discovery Channel had never won.

When I visited my family in June, I suggested to Mark that we have a two-on-two Moport tournament when I came back in August.  The players were Mark’s friends, not mine, but I was mostly looking forward to keeping score and statistics.  Mark liked the idea, and he found two other friends who were interested in playing, John McCall and Drew Schmidt. They did not have a name, I suggested the Unabombers, after the recently captured domestic terrorist with the wanted poster photo that I found humorous for some odd reason.   We would play the games on a Saturday and Sunday, with each team playing each other team once, and the top two teams after that playing each other for the championship.

Cody was the first to arrive, in his Jammin’ Janitors uniform, as I was outside measuring the field and placing the goals.  “Hey, Ogre,” he said, using the nickname that many of Mark’s friends had for me.  “Are you playing this year?”

“If someone doesn’t show up, I might.  Otherwise I’ll just referee and keep score like I always do.”

“Nice.”  Cody went inside to play Super Nintendo with Mark until the tournament started, and I watched them play after I finished setting up the field.

“When are you going to start playing?” Mom asked, walking into Mark’s room.

“As soon as people show up,” I said.

“I have chips and salsa, bananas, grapes, Capri Suns, and Gatorade.  I was going to make taquitos for lunch today and chicken nuggets tomorrow.  Does that sound good?”  No one said anything.

“Who are you asking?” Mark asked.

“Sounds good to me,” I said.

“Whoever.  No one is saying no.”

Over the next half hour, Eric, John, Nate, and Danny showed up.  “Where’s Boz?” I asked.  “The Ice Monkeys are playing the Jammin’ Janitors first.  The game was supposed to start twenty minutes ago.”

“I don’t know,” Cody said.

“I have an idea.  There’s no reason the games have to be played in order, as long as everyone plays each other once.  I had the Ice Monkeys against the Jammin’ Janitors first, but what if the Ice Monkeys play Team Discovery Channel first?  Everyone is here for that game.  And if the others don’t show up soon, then we’ll figure something out.  I might have to play.”

“Whatever,” Mark said, shrugging.

“Eric?  Nate?  Danny?  Is that okay with all of you?” I asked.  All three boys replied in the affirmative.  “Let’s go, then!  Or you guys can finish your game first,” I said, turning to John and Nate, who were now playing Nintendo.

After they finished, we all went outside to start the game.  As referee, I dropped the ball at the center of the field, as in a hockey face-off.  Eric used his hockey stick to pass it to Mark, who picked it up and passed it back to Eric.  Eric threw the ball toward Nate, defending the Team Discovery Channel goal; Nate deflected it sideways toward Danny.  Mark quickly ran back to defend the Ice Monkeys’ goal.  In a two-on-two game of Moport, the positions had evolved such that the goalkeeper typically would run forward to participate in offensive plays, then quickly return to the goal once his team was on defense.  The forty-foot-long field was small enough to do this effectively.

Danny threw the ball toward Mark just as he got to the goal, and Mark missed it.  Team Discovery Channel was up 1-0.  Danny and Nate high-fived and cheered.  Team Discovery Channel’s good fortune did not last, though; Mark quickly scored a kicking goal, putting the Ice Monkeys ahead 2-1, and by halftime, the Ice Monkeys were leading 8-4.

Mom emerged from the house holding a plate of taquitos.  “Do you guys have a break coming up?”

“It’s halftime,” I said.

“And how long is that?”

“Five minutes, and each half is 10 minutes long.”

“You can eat after this game, then.”

“Sounds good.”

Boz arrived as Mom was talking, leaving Drew as the one remaining player we were still waiting for.  “Should someone call Drew to find out if he’s coming?” Mom asked.  I really hoped she did not mean me.  I hated calling people, and I did not know these people well in the first place  They were Mark’s friends.

“I will,” Mark said.  He went inside and came back outside a minute later, saying that Drew would arrive soon.

During the second half, Mark decided not to play with a hockey stick at all.  When Mark had the ball on offense, I noticed that he would dribble the ball and pass to Eric as if he were playing basketball.  The game of Moport had continued to evolve as different players brought different strengths and experiences to the game.  At one point, Danny attempted to pass the ball to Nate, but Eric intercepted it; Mark had already run down the field, positioning himself near the empty goal.  Mark turned around and bounced the ball off his butt into the goal just before Nate arrived.  Five points.  The Ice Monkeys went on to win the game, by a score of 21 to 9.

The Unabombers played the Jammin’ Janitors next; Drew had arrived in time.  He and John used their hockey sticks much more often than the Ice Monkeys did.  The Unabombers did not have matching uniforms, but Drew and John wore the same color, by coincidence.  Cody and Boz played a game heavy on passing, like the Ice Monkeys did, but their defense was not as good, and the Unabombers scored the first goal off of John’s stick.  Cody quickly scored a goal by throwing just seconds later, narrowing the Unabombers’ lead to 2-1.  “Yes!” Cody said, giving Boz a high-five.  The game stayed close throughout, but Cody’s speed proved to be just a bit too much for John and Drew’s stick and throwing skills.  The Jammin’ Janitors ended up winning by a score of 18-16.

After a snack break, the Jammin’ Janitors played again, this time against the Ice Monkeys.  Mark and Eric were collectively taller than Cody and Boz, and they often used their height to pass the ball downfield effectively.  The Ice Monkeys won that game easily.  The final game of the afternoon was between the Unabombers and Team Discovery Channel, and it was also the most unusual result of the day.  The Unabombers led by a score of 11-4 at halftime; five of the Unabombers’ points came on a butt goal while Nate left the goal unattended, just as had happened in Team Discovery Channel’s first game against the Ice Monkeys.  While most of us were snacking on chips and drinking Capri Suns through straws awkwardly poked into the plastic pouches, Danny and Nate actively discussed strategy.

“Game on!” I shouted when halftime ended, resetting the timer on my watch to ten minutes.  In that second half, Nate spent more time in the backfield playing defense, so as to make sure not to give up any more empty-net butt goals.  Danny used his stick to score more often, whereas Drew and John scored most of their goals by throwing.  With about twenty seconds left in the game, Team Discovery Channel had narrowed the Unabombers’ lead to two points, with the score 18-16.  Nate passed the ball forward to Danny, who passed it back to Nate, narrowly avoiding being tagged by John’s stick.  Nate passed to Danny, who put the ball on the ground next to his stick, and hit it toward Drew in goal.  Drew blocked the shot, but Nate kept trying to tap it in with his stick; eventually Nate scored, tying the game at 18 points each.  As I counted down the final seconds, Drew threw a desperation shot that went over Nate’s head and over the goal.

“Tie game,” Danny said.  “So does it go to overtime now?”

“No,” I explained.  “It just ends in a tie, and that counts as half a win for determining who will make the final round.”

“Did we make it?” Nate asked.

“I think we still have to play tomorrow,” John said.  “Right?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  “Everyone plays against everyone, so the Ice Monkeys need to play the Unabombers, and the Jammin’ Janitors need to play Team Discovery Channel.  Then after that, the top two teams play for the championship.  So far, the Ice Monkeys are in the lead with 2 wins, then the Jammin’ Janitors at 1-and-1, and Team Discovery Channel and the Unabombers are tied with one tie and one loss.”

“So if we beat the Jammin’ Janitors, we’ll move into second place?” Danny asked.

I thought about it.  “Yes.  But if the Unabombers beat the Ice Monkeys, then they’ll be tied with you for second place, and the goal differential, the difference between goals scored and allowed, will determine who advances.”

“So we need to score a lot tomorrow.”

“Definitely.”


The Unabombers did not beat the Ice Monkeys on the second day of the tournament, surprising exactly no one.  The Ice Monkeys finished the preliminary round of the tournament with a perfect record of three wins and no losses, guaranteeing them a spot in the championship game.  Everyone showed up on time today, much to my relief.  I got a bit stressed out waiting for Boz and Drew to show up yesterday, but it all worked out in the end.

Next, the Jammin’ Janitors played Team Discovery Channel.  The winner of this game would finish in second place and play the Ice Monkeys next for the championship; in the case of a tie, the Jammin’ Janitors would advance with the better record of the two.  Danny and Nate continued their strategy of playing defense and scoring stick goals, and they kept the score close.  With less than a minute left, Team Discovery Channel trailed 14-12, and Boz tried to kick the ball to Cody, to set up a goal, but Nate poked the ball away with this stick, right in the direction of Danny.  Danny ran down the field to the empty goal, turned to face Cody and Boz who were quickly approaching, and bounced the ball off of his rear end into the goal before Cody or Boz could get to him.  Team Discovery Channel led, 17-14.  “YEAAAAAHHHH!!!” Danny and Nate screamed as they ran back across the field to defend their goal.  They blocked two more shots in the little time that remained, and when I imitated the sound of the time-up buzzer, Danny and Nate jumped up and down, cheering, as their first win in two-on-two Moport history advanced them to the final round.

“What’s going on?” Mom said, bringing a plate of chicken nuggets outside.

“Team Discovery Channel got their first win,” I explained.  “And with their tie yesterday, that’s enough to make the final round.”

“That’s Nate and Danny?”

“Yeah.”

“Good job!”

Since there were only three games today, instead of four, we took a break for about an hour to eat and let our food digest.  Someone had brought a portable stereo and was using it to play rap and hip-hop.  Dad’s pickup truck was parked in the street, and when it was time for the game to start, John, Drew, and Cody climbed in the back to watch, bringing the stereo with them.  Boz sat in a lawn chair next to the truck, and I sat on the porch next to the scoreboard.  Mom occasionally stepped out onto the porch to watch too.

Before the game started, I went into the house and came back outside holding a small trophy, about nine inches high, made from cardboard and aluminum foil.  I took the trophy to the center of the field, where Mark, Eric, Danny, and Nate had gathered.  “This is the Big Al Cup, given to the champions of Moport,” I said.  “It will be awarded to the winners of this game.”  I did not tell them why it was called the Big Al Cup.  It was named after Mr. Pereira, but no one actually called him Big Al; that was an inside joke regarding something my mother said once and some of the inappropriate humor that my family seemed to enjoy so much.

 “Shake hands and get ready for the face-off,” I said.  The boys each shook the hands of both of their opponents, then moved into position to take the face-off.  I dropped the ball and moved out of the way.  Eric hit it backward slightly with his hockey stick, where Mark was ready to pick it up.  He dribbled and passed it to Eric, who got open just as Danny was about to tag Mark.  Eric passed it back to Mark, who threw the ball toward the goal.  Nate caught it and passed it down the field to Danny, who made a throwing shot that Mark blocked.

As I watched the game and ran the scoreboard, I noticed how I had always explained Moport to people as a hybrid of soccer, football, and hockey, but now the game had evolved to the point that Mark and Eric were playing it more like basketball, and Mark was not using his stick.  They were breaking no rules.  On an actual soccer field with healthy well-watered grass, like the one we played on in Mr. Pereira’s class, it would have been more difficult to dribble the ball, but real sports sometimes have different quirks depending on what field or stadium hosts the game.  This was the same sort of thing.

I made a loud buzzing sound with my mouth ten minutes after the game started.  “That’s the half,” I announced.  “Team Discovery Channel is leading, by a score of nine to eight.”  If Moport fans existed, this score so far would have shocked them.  The Ice Monkeys had always been the dominant team when we played two-on-two Moport, and before today Team Discovery Channel had never actually won a game.  But now, Team Discovery Channel was just ten minutes away from the championship, if this score held.

When the second half began, Team Discovery Channel moved the ball forward using hockey sticks, leading to a shot on goal that Mark blocked and picked up.  Mark and Eric began advancing down the field, passing the ball to each other to avoid Danny and Nate’s tags, but Nate blocked Mark’s thrown shot.  Both teams played defense well, and no one scored again until four minutes had passed, when the Ice Monkeys tied the game.

“Come on, Nate, we can do this,” Danny shouted as Nate passed the ball using his stick.  Danny faked a shot as Eric ran toward him, then stepped toward the goal and shot the ball off of his stick; the shot caught Mark off guard and went into the goal.  Each team scored a few more times as the game continued, and with about thirty seconds left, Team Discovery Channel led by a score of 16-14.

“Thirty seconds!” I called out.  Mark dribbled the ball and passed it to Eric, who held it waiting for Mark to get closer.  As Eric looked to the side of the field toward the street, waiting for the right moment to pass it to Mark, Danny approached Eric from the other side of the field and tagged him with his stick.

“Tag!” I exclaimed.  “Discovery Channel’s ball!”

“Aw, man,” Eric said as he dropped the ball to the ground.  Danny picked up the ball and threw it behind him to Nate, who then threw it back to Danny.

“Five seconds!” I called out.  Danny threw the ball up in the air vaguely in the direction of the goal; all he had to do at this point was stall for time, since his team led.  Mark caught the ball just before I made the sound imitating a buzzer.  “That’s game!” I exclaimed.  “Team Discovery Channel are the champions of Moport 1996!”

“Wooooo!” Danny shouted, hugging and high-fiving Nate.  The two of them ran to the porch and held up the Big Al Cup.

“Wait,” I said.  “If you’re going to pose with the Big Al Cup, you need to wear these.”  I ran inside and got out the gold medals I had made from string and yellow paper, and strung them around Danny and Nate’s necks.  “Good games, everyone,” I announced.  “Thanks for coming, and we’ll do this again next year!”

Team Discovery Channel, the perennial underdogs of two-on-two Moport, had won the championship.  It was their only championship; we did this tournament a total of three times, and the Ice Monkeys won both of the other ones.  I was glad that Moport was over for the year.  I had a lot of fun, and the players seemed to as well, but it was stressful getting everything organized and worrying that some of the players might not show up, especially yesterday.  That happened the following year; Drew did not show up the second day, so I got to play in one game for the Unabombers.  We lost that game.

Although we played Moport off and on for several years, to my knowledge no game of Moport has been played since the 1990s.  But many important life lessons can be learned through sports.  Never give up.  Do not underestimate anyone, especially someone who is determined to succeed.  Most importantly, though, I noticed that some of the teams had changed their strategies depending on what their strengths were, like Mark and Eric bringing moves from basketball into Moport.  My future seemed uncertain, but I knew that my strength was being good at school, particularly at mathematics.  I had two years left as an undergraduate, and I needed to start thinking about my strengths, so I could make a decision about what I would be best suited to doing after I finished my degree.

August 15-21, 1996. My final week in Apartment 124.

The closest thing Jeromeville has to an industrial area is East Second Street.  East of downtown, the street follows a railroad track all the way to the city limits, running parallel to Highway 100 just on the other side of the railroad track.  I drove down East Second Street, past the frog pond, under the new overpass that had trees in it, and into the small parking lot of Second Street Self Storage.  The entrance to the office opened to the right side of the parking lot.  Behind the parking lot and office were about five or six long buildings with dozens of garage-type doors on each side; a sliding gate separated the parking lot from this area.

I walked into the office, where a middle-aged man sat at a desk.  “Hello,” he said.  “May I help you?”

“I called about fifteen minutes ago, asking about the 6 by 8 unit,” I replied.  “Was that you that I talked to?”

“It sure was.  You’re still interested?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I’ll need you to fill this out,” he said, handing me a small stack of papers.  He explained the terms and conditions, the hours that I was able to access the storage unit, and what I would have to do in order to get my cleaning deposit back.  “Do you know if you’re going to keep the unit long term, or just temporarily?”

“Probably just for one month,” I replied.  “I just need a place to put my stuff until my new apartment is ready, and that’ll be the first week of September.”

“I see.  We get a lot of one-month rentals around this time of year for that reason.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  Most of the large apartment complexes in Jeromeville use the same lease terms, specifically written in coordination with the Associated Students organization, in order to be favorable to student renters.  Leases usually begin September 1 at noon and end August 31 at noon, leaving students who do not renew their leases for the following year without a place to stay for one night.  During the end of August and beginning of September, cleaning and remodeling crews in Jeromeville are working overtime, cleaning apartments as soon as students move out and hurrying to have them ready before new students move in.

After I filled out the papers, I got out my checkbook and wrote a check for the rent and cleaning deposit.  “May I see your ID?” the man asked when I handed him the check.  I handed him my driver’s license.  He looked at it, started to look at the check, but then did a double take and read my driver’s license again.  “It’s your birthday,” he said.

“It is,” I replied, smiling slightly.

“Happy birthday.”

“Thank you.”

I went home after I finished at Second Street Self Storage.  I had no special birthday plans.  Tonight was Bible study, but that was my normal plan for Thursdays.  I had not made a big deal of my birthday in a long time.  I remember my family having birthday parties for me in early childhood.  I had my sixth and seventh birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s, which was new to my area at the time.  After that, I decided I did not want birthday parties anymore.  The other kids in my class were mean to me, so I had no one I particularly wanted to invite.  I would get presents from my family, but other than that, little recognition was made of my birthday, at my own request.  That was what I was used to.

When I arrived home, before I went to the apartment, I walked to the mailbox.  I saw three envelopes in my mailbox.  One was a credit card bill.  One appeared to be a birthday card from Mom.  The third envelope had unfamiliar handwriting; I got excited at this, hoping that it might be from Haley Channing since I had written to her early last week.  It was not from Haley; the return address said, S. Madison, 809 Walnut Lane, Sunnyglen.  It took me a few seconds to process why someone named S. Madison from Sunnyglen, over 100 miles away, would have sent me a birthday card.

“Ha!” I exclaimed out loud when I figured out what this card was.  Six months ago, I had been sitting at a table on campus with my friend Scott Madison.  He was showing me his fancy new organizer.  As a joke, I flipped ahead to August 15, and wrote “Greg’s birthday” in Scott’s organizer.  Scott went home for the summer, but apparently he was still using his organizer, because he had actually sent me a card.  My little joke had turned into a thoughtful gesture.  I opened the card when I got home; it had a drawing of sheep on a roller coaster, and on the inside it said, “Hope your birthday is filled with sheep thrills!”  Scott had written, “Happy birthday, Greg!  I hope that you’re having a good summer.  I’m working, but I miss Jeromeville a lot!  See you in the fall!”  I do not know if Scott remembered my birthday in future years, but I do get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.

The light on my answering machine was blinking, one blink with a long pause in between, meaning that I had one message.  I pressed Play.  “Hey, Greg.  This is Shawn Yang.  I was just checking when the new apartment will be ready, so we can figure out who will be first to move in, get the keys, all that stuff.  Call me back.  Bye.”  I picked up the phone and dialed Shawn’s number at his parents’ house in Ashwood.

“Hello?” a voice that sounded like Mr. Yang said.

“Hi.  Is Shawn there?”

“He went out for a run.  He’ll be back soon.  Who is this?”

“This is Greg.  I’m one of his roommates for next year in Jeromeville.  I met you at the graduation party.”

“Oh, yeah!”  Mr. Yang exclaimed.  “The tall Mexican guy!”

I snickered a little, trying to hold back laughter, hoping that Mr. Yang could not hear my reaction.  “Tell him to call me back.  I’ll be at Bible study from seven to nine tonight, but I’ll be here the rest of the day.”

“I’ll do that.  You have a good day.”

“You too.  Bye.”  I hung up the phone and started laughing loudly at Mr. Yang’s description of me.  I was not Mexican, although I did occasionally get mistaken for Mexican, because of the dark complexion that I got from the Italian great-grandfather whom I never met.  A few months after this, Shawn said something about his father having no filter.  I told Shawn about this conversation, and he replied incredulously, “He actually said that?”  We both started laughing.

Shawn did call me back later; I would be the first to arrive at the new apartment on September 2, with Shawn arriving the following weekend.  Shawn would relay the message to the others; he thought Brian was moving in the same weekend as him, and none of us had heard from Josh yet.  I went to Bible study later that night, and after the study, Lillian and Chris, the leaders, asked if anyone had prayer requests.  A few people asked for prayer for classes, roommate drama, and a friend who did not know Jesus.

“Any other prayer requests?” Lillian asked.

“I have one,” I said.  “My mom is coming up next Tuesday.  We’re going to move my stuff into storage, and then I’m going home for a couple weeks, and when I come back, I’ll move into the new apartment, with Shawn and Brian and Josh.  I’ve never had roommates before.  So just pray that the moving process will go well.”

“We can do that.”

“I think you’re really gonna like living with those guys,” Amelia Dye added.  Amelia was a year older than me; I had met her at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at some point during the previous school year.  She was the girlfriend of Scott Madison, who had sent me the card with the sheep.

“I hope so,” I replied.

We began prayer requests a few minutes later.  Each person took turns praying for the person sitting to our left.  I prayed for Amelia’s friend who did not know Jesus.  As the others finished their prayer requests, I heard someone get up and move, but I thought nothing of it at the time.

“Father God,” Lillian said, “I pray for Greg’s living situation.  I pray that the move will go smoothly, that he and his mom will be able to get everything packed and cleaned.  I pray that Greg will adjust to living with these other men of God.  I pray that Greg, Shawn, Brian, and Josh will enjoy fellowshipping with each other, and that as roommates, they will grow closer to God together.  And I pray for all of us, that we will take what we learned in our study tonight and apply it to our lives this week.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”  I opened my eyes; Amelia was no longer sitting next to me.  Lillian spoke again before the group had time to disperse.  “One more thing,” she said.  “We heard it’s Greg’s birthday, so we have cupcakes tonight.”

Wait, I thought, what?  Cupcakes?  For me?  As Lillian finished speaking, Amelia and Chris emerged from the kitchen, each carrying a muffin pan with twelve cupcakes.  The cupcakes in Amelia’s pan had chocolate frosting, and the ones in Chris’ pan had white frosting.  The cupcakes had lit candles on top.  Lillian led everyone in the room singing “Happy Birthday.” I smiled through the entire song.

“Make a wish!” Amelia said.

I closed my eyes.  I wanted to wish for better friendships with my JCF friends in the next school year.  I also wanted to wish that I would get to go on a date with Haley Channing after she came back to Jeromeville next month.  I panicked and blew in the general direction of the cake before deciding which one to wish for.  I opened my eyes; all the candles had been extinguished.  At that moment, I noticed that exactly four of the two dozen cupcakes did not have candles in them.  “Twenty candles,” I said.  “I just noticed.  Nice.”

“Is that right?” Chris asked.

“Yes.  I turned 20 today.”

As I bit into my cupcake, one of the ones with white frosting, I wondered how they knew that it was my birthday.  I had not told Lillian or Chris.  But after Bible study last week, I had mentioned my upcoming birthday to Ramon and Jason.  Also, since Scott remembered to send me a card, he could have easily told Amelia.  I was pretty sure he knew that we both attended this Bible study for the summer.  I realized a minute later that this had been the first time in thirteen years that I had celebrated my birthday with friends.  I stopped celebrating my birthday as a child because I did not have friends that I wanted to celebrate with, but this year was different; I had friends, and I got to celebrate with them.


Five days later, I sat in my apartment reading, waiting for the knock on the door that eventually came in mid-afternoon.  I got up to open the door.  “Hello,” Mom said, entering the apartment after I stepped aside.  She had made the trip in Dad’s gray Ford pickup truck, which was now parked just outside.  She gave me a hug.  “This is for you,” she continued, handing me a rectangular wrapped gift.  “The rest of your presents are back home.  Most of them are things for the new apartment, so it didn’t make sense to bring them now.  But you can have this now.”

I took the gift; it was unexpectedly heavy, probably a book.  I opened it; it was The World According to Dave Barry.  Dave Barry had a weekly column that appeared in newspapers around the country; I faithfully read his column and found him hilarious.  “Thank you!”  I said.  “So where do we start?”

“What still needs to be done?” Mom asked.

“Pretty much everything.”  Mom and I started with the closet, putting clothes in boxes but setting aside one change of clothes for tomorrow.  From there, we moved to the living room, packing books in boxes, but deciding to wait until tomorrow to disconnect the television, stereo, or computer, in case we still needed to use any of them.

After working for a couple hours, I was hungry.  “Are we going to go out to dinner?” I asked.

“No,” Mom replied.  “We have to use up all the food in your refrigerator.”

“Oh, yeah,” I replied, disappointed.  I was in the mood for an Arch Deluxe, and it would have been nice to have Mom pay for it, but she was right.  I had not been thinking about the upcoming move in my recent grocery store trips, so I did not make a conscious effort to keep the refrigerator and freezer empty.  We had to eat the food I already had, so it would not go to waste.  We ate Hungry-Man dinners while Mom told me about her drive up here and shared the latest drama with her coworkers.

“I’m off work for Labor Day on September 2, and Dad was able to get that day off work,” Mom said at one point.  “So we’ll come up that day with the truck and help you move into the new apartment.  Does that still work?”

“Yeah.”

“When are the other guys moving in?”

“Shawn and Brian will be up the weekend after Labor Day.  I haven’t heard from Josh.”

We continued packing and organizing that night, staying up until almost midnight.  Mom brought a sleeping bag; I offered for her to use the bed, and I would sleep on the floor, but she insisted that I use the bed.  The next day, she complained quite a bit how uncomfortable it had been to sleep on the floor.  I said that she should have taken the bed, but she still insisted she was okay.

After a breakfast of more Hungry-Man dinners, we finished packing, putting everything into boxes until the boxes were full.  We used trash bags for the clothes in my closet.  Mom had brought a cooler with ice packs to salvage what food was left in the refrigerator, but some of it we had to throw away.  We made two trips to Second Street Self-Storage during the course of the day, both with the truck completely full.  I had hoped that we would only need to make one trip, but that was unrealistic.

We returned from Second Street Self-Storage early in the afternoon.  The apartment had been emptied of all of my things; all that remained was the refrigerator and microwave that came with the apartment and the cleaning supplies that Mom had brought.  We spent the afternoon cleaning.  Mom started in the kitchen, and I started in the bathroom, although I felt that I did not know what I was doing.  The toilet paper roll handle had begun coming loose from the wall a couple months ago; fixing that would probably come out of my deposit.  The bathtub was covered in soap scum and mildew, because I had never lived on my own before and I did not know the importance of regular cleaning.  This was the first time the bathtub had been cleaned since I had moved in a year ago.  Even with lots of spraying and scrubbing, the soap scum and mildew did not all come off.  The toilet and sink were easier to clean, fortunately.

“How are you doing?” Mom came in to ask after I had been working in the bathroom for about an hour.

“The soap scum isn’t really coming off,” I replied, gesturing toward the bathtub.  “And the handle of the toilet paper roller is loose.”

“You can try spraying it a second time.  Some of that just might not come off, and it’ll come out of our deposit.”

I tried cleaning the bathtub a second time after I finished with the sink.  A little bit more of the soap scum came off eventually.  “What should I do now?” I asked Mom when I finished.

“Start scrubbing dirt off the walls,” Mom answered.  “I’m almost done in the kitchen.”

“How?”

“You can use a sponge with soap, and then rinse it with a damp paper towel.  They’re probably going to paint, I would think.”

A large dark discoloration spread for about three feet across the wall, a foot up from the floor, in the spot where my computer and table had been.  I realized that this was the spot where I often put my feet while I was working at the computer, and that is what had caused this dirty spot.  Disgusting.  I scrubbed it off after much scrubbing with the sponge, along with some of the paint underneath.

“I need a break,” I said.

“Don’t take too long of a break!” Mom replied, sounding annoyed, as she worked on mopping the kitchen floor.  “We need to get this done soon!  I have to work tomorrow, and you need to turn in the keys.”

“All right,” I said, moving on to other dirty spots.  I was exhausted and dripping with sweat, but I kept going.  We finished at 5:37, twenty-three minutes before the apartment office closed.  I went through the apartment one last time to get everything we had left behind.  I took out two large bags of trash and went back into the apartment one last time to make sure the lights were turned off.  I went to the office to turn in my keys, checking the mailbox on the way; all I had was junk mail, still no card from Haley.  I also made sure that I had packed my car with everything I needed for two weeks back home.

“That’s it,” I said.  “Ready to go home?”

“Yes.  I’ll just see you there.  You know the way; we don’t need to try to stay together.”

“Sounds good.”

Mom pulled out of the parking lot at Las Casas Apartments, and I followed her.  We turned west on Coventry Boulevard and then south on Highway 117, following it to westbound 100, southbound 6, and southbound 11 until we reached Plumdale.  It was almost dark when we finally arrived home at a quarter to nine.  I showered as soon as I got home; I usually did not shower at night, but I still felt so dirty from all the cleaning today.  I went to bed early.

My year of living alone was over, and so were my teens.  I did not take the best care of that apartment, but I had learned some things to do differently next time, and I did get a little bit of my security deposit back.  When I got back to Jeromeville, I would have a new challenge of learning to live with roommates, including sharing a bedroom with Shawn.  But I would also be much less disconnected, having people in the apartment with me.  My little studio apartment number 124 had served its purpose well, but now I had moved on to something else for the beginning of my twenties.

August 10, 1996. One thousand red roses would not be quite enough.

I did not grow up attending concerts, and I do not know why, considering how I have always loved listening to music.  I just assumed that going to concerts was something that rich people did, or adults who had cars to drive to wherever the bands played.  My parents went to concerts; Dad saw the Grateful Dead many times, and my parents went together to see bands of their generation who were still touring, like Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  

The University of Jeromeville hosts a large open house festival event called the Spring Picnic every April.  In the days leading up to the Spring Picnic freshman year, I heard people talking about a band called Lawsuit that would be playing there.  I listened to their show, and I was blown away.  I had never heard music like this before.  Lawsuit had ten members: in addition to the usual vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, they also had a second drummer who played congas and bongos, and several horn players.  Many of the members of Lawsuit grew up in Jeromeville, and they had a bit of a following locally.

After I watched Lawsuit at the following Spring Picnic, sophomore year, I signed up for their mailing list.  That was a little over three months ago, and I had been getting postcards and emails about upcoming shows.  One of the flyers a few months ago mentioned something called One Thousand Red Roses, a benefit concert to raise money for the Art Center in Jeromeville.  I had no strong feelings either way about the Art Center, but I did have strong feelings about seeing Lawsuit, especially since the show was on a Saturday after a week when I had absolutely no plans.  I went out and bought a ticket as soon as they were on sale.

As the show approached, it was difficult to hide my excitement and anticipation.  Two days before the show, I was at Bible study, and as people were arriving, someone made small talk by asking what everyone was doing for the weekend.

“I’m going to see Lawsuit!” I exclaimed.

“Lawsuit, the band?” Amelia Dye asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve seen them at the last two Spring Picnics, and I really like them.”

“I’ve heard them before.  Scott has their album.”

“I remember that.  We were talking about Lawsuit at that party at your house.”

“They’re good,” Ramon Quintero said.  “I saw them at the Spring Picnic once.”

“Who’s Lawsuit?” Tabitha Sasaki asked.

“A local band,” I explained.  “Their music is… well, hard to describe.  It’s like rock with horns.  But not really.  Kind of like jazz sometimes too.  And reggae.”

“Interesting.  Have fun!”


On the corner of Coventry Boulevard and G Street, adjacent to the large park where I had watched fireworks on July 4, stood a small building called the C.J. Davis Art Center.  In this building, named for a local philanthropist who was instrumental in its founding, children and adults took classes in various forms of art, music, and dance.  Among those heavily involved in the local arts scene in Jeromeville was the Sykes family, and the siblings, siblings-in-law, and cousins of this large family included several members of Lawsuit.  The band put on a concert every summer, called One Thousand Red Roses, on a temporary stage in the parking lot of the Art Center, to raise money for it.

Although I knew from reading the CD booklet and the band’s website that some of the members of Lawsuit were related, I learned much more about the Sykes family from a tragic occurrence a few months ago, when a Sykes sibling not in the band died in a car accident.  The obituary in the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper mentioned much about the family’s philanthropic and artistic endeavors, including Lawsuit.

The show began at eight o’clock; I left my apartment at 7:15, since I did not know what to expect in terms of crowds.  I also walked, since I did not know how hard it would be to find a place to park, and the Art Center was only about a mile from my apartment.  The weather had been warm, but it was just starting to cool off as the sun sank lower in the sky.  I was sweating a little as I arrived at the Art Center, but if this concert was similar to Lawsuit’s performances at the Spring Picnic, I expected to get sweaty as the night went on, with people standing and moving around to the music.

A temporary fence around the parking lot had been installed so that only ticketed guests could see the stage.  I handed my ticket to the person at the door and walked inside.  About a hundred guests were already mingling about the floor in front of the stage; there were no seats, as I suspected.  Roadies were setting up the stage, which was already full of guitars, drums, horns, microphones, amplifiers, lights, and speakers.  The back of the stage appeared to be a chain link fence, decorated with banners and road signs.  A large fan blew air across the stage, probably to keep the band cool on the warm Jeromeville night surrounded by hot equipment.

Since I still had time before the show started, I walked over to the merchandise table and looked at the band’s t-shirts.  Most of them had the band’s name accompanied by some sort of random drawing, which apparently had some significance that I was not aware of.  I pointed to one shirt, light gray, with a drawing on the front of a surprised-looking man with his hat falling off.  On the back was the name of the band, LAWSUIT, accompanied by a collage of newspaper headlines containing the word “lawsuit.”  That was clever.  “Do you have that one in an extra large?” I asked.

“Let me check,” the man behind the table replied.  He turned around, looking through boxes, for about a minute, then turned back toward me.  “We’re out of that one in extra large,” he said.  “We have some of the others in extra large.  And I know we’re getting a new shipment in soon, so if you want to pay for it now, and leave your name and address, we can mail it to you.”

“That’ll work,” I said, a little disappointed but hopeful that the shirt would arrive soon.  He got out a spiral notebook and wrote “Gray Headline Shirt XL” and handed it to me.  I wrote my name and address and handed it back to him along with the money.

I looked back toward the stage, where instruments were being tuned and amplifiers were being connected.  I was not sure if the people on stage were band members or crew, since I did not recognize all of the band members by face.  I would have recognized Paul Sykes, the lead singer, from the two other times I saw them play live, but he was not currently on stage.

By the time eight o’clock approached, the crowd had grown in size considerably, as several hundred people and their alcoholic beverages packed into that fenced-off parking lot.  I was starting to feel a little bit crowded by the people around me on all sides.  Eventually, about fifteen minutes after the show was scheduled to start, a master of ceremonies walked on stage and gave a short speech about the C.J. Davis Art Center, its importance in the community, and the generosity of the Sykes family.  He finished his speech by announcing, “The name of this band is Lawsuit!”

The crowd began cheering wildly; I joined in, clapping.  The ten members ran up the stairs on the side of the stage, one by one, and took their positions, getting their instruments ready.  They began the show the same way they did when I saw them in April at the Spring Picnic, by playing the music from the song “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang, with Paul rapping, his lyrics fast enough to be barely intelligible to me.  After Paul rapped about Lawsuit not being a rap band, the hand drummer began playing a faster rhythm, and the rest of the band segued into a song of their own called “Thank God You’re Doing Fine.”  This had been the first Lawsuit song I ever heard when I saw them at the Spring Picnic freshman year, and to this day it is still my favorite song of theirs.  Toward the end of the song, I started mouthing some of the words: “When it comes to the end of the world, you’ve got only one thing left to do, and that’s thank God, thank God you’re doing fine.”  I had heard the song dozens, if not hundreds, of times by then, and it just occurred to me in that moment that Lawsuit may have been making an intentional allusion to R.E.M., who famously sang nine years earlier that “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

About half an hour into the show, I realized that I only knew about half the songs they were playing.  Lawsuit had five albums, and I only had the two most recent ones.  I did not know if the unfamiliar songs they played were from older albums, or originally by other artists, or new songs they had written but not recorded yet.  Some of the unfamiliar songs sounded delightfully catchy, whereas others were just strange.  One of the songs was about a couch, told from the first-person perspective of the couch.  The crowd’s enthusiastically positive reaction to hearing that song made me feel somewhat like the song was a big inside joke, and I was the only person there who was not in on it.

Midway through the show, as one song entered, Paul and another band member began bantering about the daytime TV drama Days Of Our Lives, and a few of the instrumentalists played the beginning of the show’s theme song.  Yet another inside joke I was not part of, I supposed; I associated Days Of Our Lives with old women and housewives, not the kind of people who were in one of the coolest bands ever.  After that, they transitioned into an uptempo song about a girl who had an ugly butt.  I laughed out loud when I heard them say that the first time.  This band was amazing.  They had everything… they had songs that sounded like regular pop-rock, songs that sounded more like punk with horns, songs that had more of a jazz-swing beat… and songs about an ugly butt.  Why did this band not get more attention in the mainstream?  Sometimes, their monthly postcards with information about upcoming shows said at the bottom, “Don’t forget to bug your radio stations!”  This band was better than a lot of stuff on the radio.

After the song about the ugly butt, one of the horn players apologized to anyone who actually had an ugly butt who might have been offended by that song. Then another of the horn players, I think she was Paul’s sister, or maybe sister-in-law, sang the first verse of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as a segue into “Useless Flowers,” a song of theirs that I knew well with Paul back on vocals.  The last line of Useless Flowers was “All the money I failed to make can’t buy me love,” with those last four words sung and played on the exact same notes, in the exact same rhythm, as the classic Beatles song of that title.  I always thought that was a clever reference.

The concert continued for what seemed like a blissful eternity.  The other two times I had seen Lawsuit in person were at the Spring Picnic, where bands only played for around 40 minutes before clearing the stage to prepare for the next band playing.  But this show was all Lawsuit, and it lasted for over two hours.  As much as I enjoyed the two hours of music, though, this long concert carried a downside: the people around me became progressively more drunk, raucous, and clumsy as the night went on.  I was just standing there, trying to enjoy the music, and I got bumped by the people around me numerous times.  I had moved progressively farther from the stage as the night went on, as I got jostled and crowded out of my spot, and someone’s spilled beer had splashed on my shirt.  And although the weather cooled somewhat after the sun went down, the stage area still radiated with the body heat of hundreds of concertgoers, and I still felt a little sticky and sweaty.

Toward the end of the night, Paul sang and the band performed a song where the character in the song was trying to convince a girl of his desirability, punctuated by the more direct phrase “let’s go to bed.”  This prompted cheers from the drunks around me.  After that song ended, Paul gestured for everyone to get quiet.  After about ten seconds of silence, he looked upward, as if toward heaven, and shouted into the microphone, “Hey, Dave!  This one’s for you!”  That was nice, I thought, a fitting tribute to his brother who had died in the accident.  Then, as the band began playing “Picture Book Pretty,” a song I knew from one of their albums I had, I wondered how such a loud shout was legal, considering that Jeromeville had strict laws about loud parties.  Maybe the law didn’t apply to events put on by those who were well-connected locally, like the Sykeses.  The title of this annual benefit concert came from a line from this song: “One thousand red roses would not be quite enough, ‘cause she’s picture book pretty.”  The album version of the song said “one dozen red roses,” but they always changed it to “one thousand” in live performances.

After Picture Book Pretty ended, Paul said, “Thank you so much!  Don’t forget to support local arts and music!  We have a mailing list and merchandise at that table in the back.”  As he pointed toward the merchandise table, he continued, “Thank you, and good night!”  The band began filing off the stage as the crowd cheered loudly.  I started to step backward away from the stage to head home when I noticed that no one else was leaving; everyone just kept cheering loudly.  I wondered if they knew that something more would happen after the last song.  This felt like another of those moments where the band and most of the others here were in on some inside joke that I was not aware of.

Of course, this was not some Lawsuit inside joke; the crowd wanted an encore.  It was standard practice at the end of a concert like this to cheer loudly until the band came back out to play another song or two.  But I had never been to an actual concert, so I knew none of this.  The band did come back out after about two minutes; the drums, bass, and horns began playing a low, quick, repetitive melody.  Paul began rapping atonally about Albert Einstein, combining historical facts about Einstein’s life with whimsical comments about his hair and silly statements about Einstein playing football and baseball.  This was a strange song.  They followed this with one more song that I did not recognize and ended the show for real this time.

The people around me mingled and talked, and some headed toward the merchandise table.  I noticed some of the band members walking around talking to fans.  That would be fun, to meet the band.  I looked around to see if Paul was anywhere nearby, and I saw him talking to a few other people in front of the stage.  I worked my way over to where Paul was standing and politely waited my turn.  After a few minutes, the people in front of me left, and Paul turned to me.  “Hi, there!” Paul said.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a flyer about upcoming shows that I had taken from the merchandise table before the show started, along with a black ballpoint pen that I carried around in my pocket sometimes.  “May I have your autograph?” I asked.

“Sure!” Paul replied, smiling.  He took the flyer and pen, turned the flyer to the blank side, and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Greg,” I said.

Paul began writing.  “G-R-E-G?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

Paul scribbled a few things on the paper and handed it back to me.  “Here you go.”

“Thanks so much,” I said.  “It was a great show.  I had fun.”

“Thanks!  I hope to see you at another one soon.”

“I will!”

I stepped away as Paul turned to talk to other people waiting for him.  I looked at the back of my flyer to see what he wrote:


To Greg-
Have fun!

Love,
Paul Sykes


The name on the bottom was barely legible, like most celebrity signatures.  But I know who it was and where I got it.  Later that night, when I got home, I retired the pen Paul touched and never used it again, keeping the pen and autographed flyer in a box so that I could remember the time I saw Lawsuit live and met Paul Sykes.

I looked around and noticed that some people had begun trickling out of the gated stage area, headed home as well, while others were still standing around with their friends.  I had met Paul, I had no other accomplishments to complete that night, so I began walking toward the gate.

In keeping with the One Thousand Red Roses theme, someone stood at the gate and handed a long-stemmed red rose to everyone leaving the show.  I took mine and walked back down Coventry Boulevard toward my apartment, on an excited high from the amazing live music I saw that night.  The walk home took about fifteen minutes, and it was mostly quiet and peaceful, since the people leaving the concert were dispersing in multiple directions.  It was around eleven at night, and a cool breeze had picked up, cool enough that I would not normally be outside wearing shorts in this temperature.  I was not uncomfortable, though, because at the concert I was surrounded by other sweaty people, and now I was moving, expending energy to walk back to my apartment.

I unlocked the door and took off my shirt, which smelled of sweat and other people’s beer, and put on a new shirt. Then I walked to the kitchen.  I was not sure what to do with a cut rose.  I had seen people put flowers in vases of water.  I was not classy enough to have a vase, particularly since I pronounced vase to rhyme with “base,” not like “vozz.”  I found an empty 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola in the box I used to hold recyclables, rinsed it out, filled it water to make a makeshift vase, and put the rose inside.  I then sat down at the computer, because it was not particularly late and I was used to staying awake much later than this.  I typed an email to a girl in New Zealand whom I had met on the Internet recently, replying to her email about classes and telling her about the concert.

Paul had told me that he hoped to see me at a show again soon.  I hoped to go to a show again soon.  Lawsuit played all up and down the state, but they played in this area fairly often.  They also played in Bay City frequently, still within a day trip distance.  I would definitely be watching the monthly flyers I got in the mail for shows I might be able to go to.  And I would tell people about this band.  Once that t-shirt I bought tonight came back in stock, I would wear it around campus and to class and to the grocery store, so I could tell people about Lawsuit, and be identified as a Lawsuit fan to any other Lawsuit fans I might meet.  That plan did not get off the ground as I had hoped, for reasons including the t-shirt taking two months to finally arrive.  But I tried.  I had already told one person on the other side of the globe about this band, so that counts for something, and Lawsuit is still in my music collection and playlists today.


Author’s note: Sorry this was a day late!

July 18-20, 1996. A new creative project and a new cheeseburger.

In 1996, the Internet was coming into the mainstream.  Average citizens were communicating by email, discussing topics on a Usenet forum, chatting on Internet Relay Chat, and using the Netscape browser to surf the World Wide Web, a platform for informational documents that could be linked to each other.  Advertisements were beginning to include the websites of the companies involved, where anyone in the world with an Internet connection could look up information about the product in question.

The truly computer savvy individual in 1996 had a personal website.  The academics, scientists, and government officials for whom the Internet was created used personal websites to share about their careers, their research, and contact information, which was useful for their colleagues and students to have.  A few people I had met on the Internet had personal websites, and mostly they consisted of a picture or two and a little bit about the author, with links to other relevant websites.  Some of my friends had personal websites too.  Eddie Baker had a link to his personal website on his email signature.  Eddie’s website had a picture of himself, another picture with his seven roommates, some of his favorite Bible verses, and a link to the University of Jeromeville page.

I wanted so badly to make a personal website, although I had no practical need for one. Unfortunately, this feature was not possible with a UJ student account.  This guy named Carl who I met on IRC had access to some kind of personal server, where he gave me an account for free so I could fiddle with making a website.  I taught myself basic HTML, the code used for making websites.  I found a computer lab on campus with a scanner and scanned a copy of my senior picture from Plumdale High, so I could put that picture on my website.  I don’t know why I did, though; I always hated that picture.  I wrote a little bit about myself, with links to the pages for the University of Jeromeville and a Bay City Captains football fan page I found.  Back in those days, jokes and chain letters circulated by email, the forerunners of the memes and viral posts of the 21st century, and I copied and pasted some of my favorites on my page.

Eddie’s page was hosted by a UJ Computer Science Department account; he was an International Relations major, but had taken a couple of computer classes.  When I took Introduction to Programming in the spring, I got a Computer Science account, so I did not need Carl to host my site anymore.  At some point after I finished my current Introduction to Software class, I would have to move my site again, since I would not be taking a Computer Science class in the fall.  Eddie’s site would probably get deleted eventually as well.  I needed to find out if I could get a Mathematics department account and host a personal website on that.

One Thursday night, after I got home from Bible study, I was bored.  I was caught up with homework for my class, and I had finished reading everything I was reading for fun.  I sat down in front of the computer and dialed into the university’s computer network.  I got on my usual IRC chat channel and looked for someone to talk to.  A girl named Laura, whom I had been talking to for a few months, was on, so I messaged her.  Laura was 17 years old and lived in upstate New York.

gjd76: hi :)
lauragirl17: hi greg! how are you?
gjd76: really bored. i’m caught up with all my work.  how are you?  i haven’t talked to you in a while.  how were things with adam?
lauragirl17: i know, i wasn’t on as much when adam was here.  we had a good visit.  it was a little weird at the end though
gjd76: why?
lauragirl17: just some stuff happened and i think we’re just going to be friends
gjd76: aww.  i hope everything is ok.  i wish i could meet girls i knew on the internet
lauragirl17: have you ever met someone from the internet in real life?
gjd76: just once. it was another girl from jeromeville, turned out she lived right down the street.  we just hung out and talked for a while, i could tell she wasn’t really my type
lauragirl17: aww. she’s missing out :) maybe i’ll be able to come to jeromeville someday
gjd76: that’d be fun :) well, you could come right now, i gave you my address
lauragirl17: yeah you did! i leave on tuesday, i’m so nervous but so excited too, i’ll write to you as soon as i get settled.  it’s kind of weird to think that i’ll be in switzerland this time next week
gjd76: i’m excited for you :) this will be a great experience… one of my best friends in high school, she was an exchange student in austria, and she loved it
lauragirl17: i know, it’s just going to be a big adjustment
gjd76: of course
lauragirl17: well it’s really late here, i should get to bed… but it was good talking to you
gjd76: you too! good night, sleep well :)

I hoped Laura would actually write to me from Switzerland.  One of my friends from school, Kelly, was going to be studying in Hungary next year, so between Kelly and Laura, I could possibly be writing and receiving letters from Europe often next year.

Someone else from the chat posted a link to his personal website; I opened it in another window in between messages from Laura.  In addition to pictures of himself and links to his university, he also had a story about this party he had attended last month, with pictures from the story and paragraphs telling what happened.  I wished I owned my own scanner, so that I could share pictures on the Internet too.

That guy from IRC with the story about his party gave me an idea for something to add to my website.  A few years ago, Nintendo released a game called Mario Paint.  It was not a game at all, it was more like rudimentary but functional drawing and animation software.  It came with a mouse, which was easier to use for drawing than the standard Super Nintendo control pad.  Three years ago, I used Mario Paint, two VCRs, and a microphone to make a short film about two strange teenage boys with a weird neighbor.  The film was influenced by the buddy comedies of the time period, like Wayne’s World and Beavis and Butthead.  I called my creation “Dog Crap and Vince.”  I made a few other Dog Crap and Vince short films over the next couple years, and the most recent one I made after I bought this computer, so the screenplay was still saved on this hard drive.

I opened my screenplay and read it.  Dog Crap’s cousin came to visit, and while throwing a football around in the yard, Vince threw it too hard, and it got run over by a truck.  The boys found a football at a garage sale to replace the one they lost, but it was so old and hard and brittle that it cracked open when it landed on the ground.  That was inspired by an inside joke; once, a strange neighbor back home gave my brother and me an old football that had belonged to her son when he was young, and it hit the ground and cracked open just like that.

I opened Microsoft Paint, the drawing software that came with Windows 3.1, and drew the opening scene, where Dog Crap opens the door and lets his cousin in.  I then drew the next scene, where the two of them watch television with Vince.  Both Dog Crap and Vince always had strange multicolored hair, and I never explained their odd appearance in any of the short films.  I also never explained why Dog Crap’s name is Dog Crap, and in their fictional universe, no one questions this.

I continued illustrating scenes from this Dog Crap and Vince story until around one in the morning.  The following day, after I finished a morning bike ride, I continued working on Dog Crap and Vince, illustrating the rest of the scenes from the story.

Next, I began typing the HTML code.  I typed the lines of dialogue and description for the story, in prose instead of the screenplay format I had written for the Mario Paint film.  It did not feel like an actual story, since the illustrations left most of the descriptions unnecessary; the remaining text was very heavy on dialogue.  But this was a new format for me, and I did not really have a template or precedent on which to base my work.  This story really was designed for animation, but in the absence of that kind of technology, this would have to do.

When I finished writing and debugging the HTML, I uploaded it, and all of my drawings, to the website.  I also updated the home page, trying to think of what to call my creation… was it a story, or a comic, or a script, or what?  I ended up calling it a story.  “Read my story: ‘Dog Crap and Vince, episode 1: ‘Football,’” I typed.  I made that line a hyperlink, so that someone could click on it to go to the story.  I read through my entire Dog Crap and Vince story again.  I was proud of my work.  Now I just needed someone to share it with.


Many of my friends who lived in this part of Jeromeville left for the summer, but some of them were still around.  Ramon and Jason were still in their apartment on Hampton Drive, and Caroline still lived upstairs from them.  Liz, Ramon’s girlfriend and Caroline’s roommate, had gone home for the summer.  By Saturday afternoon, the day after I finished Dog Crap and Vince, I was in a mood to socialize, so I walked over to Hampton Drive, about a quarter mile away.  Caroline saw me first; she was standing on the balcony, attaching some kind of wire mesh to the balustrade and railing.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you working on?”

“I’m going to let Henry come out here.  I’m putting this up so he doesn’t accidentally fall.”

“That’ll be fun.  The cats we had growing up were always outdoor cats.  It’s weird to me to think that Henry never goes outside.”

“When we got Henry, we knew he had to be an indoor cat,” Caroline explained.  “The apartment wouldn’t allow it otherwise.”

“Makes sense.”

I heard the door on the downstairs apartment open.  “Hey, Greg,” Ramon said.  “I thought I heard your voice.”

“I just wanted to come say hi.”

“Stick around.  Liz is on her way up; she should be here soon.  She’ll want to see you.”

“Oh.  Cool.”

I went inside to watch TV with Ramon and Jason.  Ten minutes later, Caroline came down to tell us that the cat-proofing of the balcony was finished.  All of us went to the living room of the upstairs apartment and watched as Caroline opened the door to the balcony, picked up Henry and put him outside.  Henry looked around skittishly, then cautiously walked around, sniffing things.  Caroline tossed him his toy, a plastic ball with a small bell inside; Henry sniffed the ball and swatted it away, then chased his little furry black and white spotted body after it.

“It’s like he doesn’t quite know what to think of the outside,” Caroline said.

Just then, we heard Liz’s voice saying “Hey, guys!”  She walked into the apartment and put her bag down.  When she saw me, she looked surprised for a second, then smiled.  “Greg!  It’s good to see you!”

“How are you?”

“I’m good.”  Liz turned to see what everyone was looking at on the balcony.  “Henry’s outside!” she said.

“Yeah,” Caroline replied.  “I just wanted to try it.”

“It looks like he likes it.”

Liz moved her bag into the bedroom.  After she came back out to the living room, Ramon said, “Jason and I have been wanting to try that new Arch Deluxe burger at McDonald’s.  Greg?  You can come with us if you want.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I haven’t eaten yet.  And I haven’t tried that either.”

“It’s supposed to have more of an adult taste,” Jason explained.

“What does that mean?  How do hamburgers have adult tastes?” Liz asked.

“I don’t know,” Jason said.  “It’s being marketed as more sophisticated.”

Across the street from their apartment complex was the back of a shopping center facing Coventry Boulevard.  After making sure Henry was securely inside again, the five of us walked there.  The McDonald’s was in the middle of the strip mall part of the shopping center and had no drive-thru.  We each took turns ordering; I got an Arch Deluxe, eagerly anticipating what this adult cheeseburger would taste like.

“What have you been up to, Greg?” Liz asked as we waited for our order numbers to be called.  “You’re taking a class, right?”

“Yeah.  Computer Science 40, Intro to Software.  It’s going well.”

“Good!”

“Today I made something new for my website.  Just for fun, not part of the class.”

“Oh yeah?  What is it?”

I told them about Dog Crap and Vince, how I had created the characters with Mario Paint a few years ago, and about the illustrated story I had written.  “I’ll show you guys when we get back to the apartment, if you want.”

“Sure,” Ramon said.

Jason’s meal had arrived by then; he bit into the Arch Deluxe.  “This is pretty good,” he said.  “It’s different, I’m not sure exactly what is adult about it, but it’s good.”

“What does Dog Crap and Vince mean?” Caroline asked.  “What does dog crap have to do with the story?  Does Vince always step in dog crap?”

“Dog Crap is his friend’s name.  So the title refers to the two main characters, Dog Crap and Vince.”

“Why is his name Dog Crap?”

“I’ve never explained that.  It just is.”

“Okay,” Caroline said, as if not sure what to make of this.

The cashier called my number, and I went up to the counter to get my food.  I sat down and opened the cardboard Arch Deluxe container.  The burger had a different kind of bun, looking more like a sandwich roll, but round.  I opened it and removed the tomato slice.  “You don’t like tomatoes?” Liz asked.

“No.”

“May I have it?”

“Sure.”

I passed my tomato to Liz and took a bite of what remained of the burger.  I liked it.  Definitely different from most other McDonald’s products; it tasted like it was made from higher quality ingredients.  “This is good,” I said.  Growing up, I was a connoisseur of Chicken McNuggets; I did not usually eat hamburgers at McDonald’s, but I was willing to reconsider this position because of the Arch Deluxe.

We sat together at McDonald’s catching up for a while.  Liz told us all about her summer with her family, and those of us who were taking classes shared how our studies were going so far.  At one point, during a lull in the conversation, Ramon said, “Has anyone ever noticed that this song is the same four chords over and over again?”

“Huh?” Caroline asked.

“This song,” Ramon repeated.  Blues Traveler’s “Run-Around” was playing in the background of the restaurant.  “It’s the same four chords over again.”

I listened carefully to the guitar and bass playing behind the energetic harmonica solo.  “You’re right,” I said, pretending to sound like I knew what I was talking about.  I had three years of piano lessons in my past, and I had been singing in the choir at church for almost a year, but Ramon was a much more accomplished musician than I was.  “I always thought it was catchy, though.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s catchy,” Jason agreed.

 We walked back to the apartment after we finished eating.  “Greg?” Ramon asked.  “Did you still want to show us that Dog Crap thing?”

“Sure.”

Ramon turned on his computer as Jason found something to watch on TV.  He opened Netscape and asked, “What’s the address?”  I typed the address for my website, then clicked on the link for Dog Crap and Vince.  Ramon began reading silently as Liz and Caroline and I watched the screen.  I felt slightly awkward. Was I supposed to read it out loud to them?  How would Ramon know when everyone was done reading?  At the end of the first page, Ramon asked if everyone was done reading before he continued to the next page.  That would work.  The others laughed a few times, such as when Dog Crap and Vince saw the Unabomber at the garage sale.

“That’s pretty funny,” Ramon said when he finished.

“You did a good job with the website,” Liz added.  “Are you going to do more Dog Crap stories?”

“Eventually, yes.”

“I’ll keep watching for those.”

“Thanks!”

The four of us hung out watching television and just talking for another couple of hours.  I walked home after that and got out a sheet of paper.  Future Dog Crap and Vince Ideas, I wrote at the top, then I added, Dog Crap is playing guitar, but he only knows four chords, and Vince says he can still play that Blues Traveler song.  I used a variation of that line in another episode later that year, and I made it a habit to write down anything funny that I thought of or saw that could be used in future episodes.

Today was a good day.  I would be eating many more Arch Deluxes in the future; this would become my new go-to order at McDonald’s.  However, sadly, the product was considered a massive failure.  The Arch Deluxe never caught on as a popular item once the initial hype faded, and a few years later, it disappeared from McDonald’s menus.

Dog Crap and Vince, however, did not disappear from my life.  I continued making new episodes of the series for eleven years, with more animated short films after that.  I also did numerous other side projects involving Dog Crap and Vince.  Many of my friends have been involved in a Dog Crap and Vince project at some point.  These two characters spawned a fictional universe that became a major part of my life for a long time.  The world of Dog Crap and Vince even seemed to take on a life of its own at times.  The cast of main characters grew from two to at least six, with many other recurring characters in their world, and at times, their stories seemed to take on lives of their own.  I never would have believed, on that day three years ago when I drew those two silly-looking boys on Mario Paint, that this would become such a major part of my life.


Author’s note: Dog Crap and Vince is not real.  It is based on an actual project called “Cow Chip & Lance.”  I’ve known the guys behind those characters for many years, and I’ve done some work behind the scenes for them.  They were thinking about reposting their web series from the 90s, and I’m writing about the 90s, so we decided to join forces on that project.  Go check them out.


June 25-27, 1996. The first week of summer session.

The architecture and landscaping around the University of Jeromeville are not the old brick buildings and towering, stately trees commonly associated with universities.  The towering trees are there, in the older parts of campus, but the buildings are a mix of architectural styles.  The traditional brick Wellington Hall, the wooden shingles of Old North and South Halls, the Spanish stucco and tile of Harper Hall, and the bizarre angled concrete of the Death Star Building are all visible just from the Quad.  Some criticize the campus for its lack of architectural unity, but I always found that this gave it character.

One of the sections of campus with the least glamorous architecture was far to the southwest of the Quad, just past the engineering buildings, east of the South Residential Area.  Two prefabricated buildings, resembling the portable classrooms on most elementary and secondary school campi in this state but larger, stood surrounded by several feet of bare dirt on each side, and more interesting buildings in view nearby.  One of these buildings was divided in half, with a sign calling it “Temporary Classrooms 1 & 2,” and the other had only one door, labeled “Temporary Classroom 3.”

I parked my bike and walked into Temporary Classroom 3.  A chalkboard ran along the side of the building to the left, and about eighty chairs with the little writing desks that fold out faced the chalkboard.  The room was about half full so far, and most of the empty seats filled up by the time the instructor arrived at noon.  I assumed that this man was the instructor, at least, because he carried a binder and stack of papers to the front of the room.  He was slender, with wavy light brown hair, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, and he appeared fairly young, probably in his early thirties.  A darker-haired man of about that age, dressed more casually, had been sitting in the front of the room the whole time.  The instructor handed the other man a stack of papers, which they began passing out to the class.

“Welcome to Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software,” the instructor said.  “My name is Tom Kroger.  This,” he said, gesturing to the darker-haired man passing out papers, “is Joe White.  He will be the TA for this class, and he will lead the discussion section on Wednesday mornings.”  The syllabus was among the papers Joe White passed out, and neither of their names had the title “Dr.” in front.  I assumed that Joe White, like most teaching assistants, was a graduate student studying computer science, and I wondered, because of his youth and lack of title, if Tom Kroger was a graduate student as well.  In my department, mathematics, graduate students sometimes taught first-year classes as the actual instructor, not just the teaching assistant; perhaps computer science did the same thing, particularly during the summer session.  (I would learn later that I was correct.)

Tom spent the first part of class explaining our assignments, the grading policy, office hours, computer lab hours, and other procedural items.  We would be using the programming language C, and the textbook for the class was called C How To Program, the only textbook I ever had with a pun for a title.  An optional supplementary book taught the basics of Unix operating systems; I bought this book too, since I had little familiarity with Unix.  For the rest of the 110-minute class, Tom lectured about high-level structured programming languages and the C standard library.  While some elements are common to most programming languages, C seemed fundamentally different than the Commodore 64 BASIC programming that I taught myself at age nine, or the Pascal language that I learned last quarter in my Introduction to Programming class.

Summer session classes teach ten weeks of material in six weeks, so the class met more often during the week than classes do during the regular school year.  The class met from 12:10 to 2:00 every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, with a discussion section Wednesday morning from 10:00 to 11:50, right before the lecture.  We would have weekly projects that would be discussed at that time.  This was the only class I was taking this summer, and I had no job, so I had plenty of time to study and get work done.

After class, I went to the Memorial Union and got a slice of pepperoni pizza.  I had not packed a lunch, I just figured that I would eat when I got home, but being back on campus for the first time in almost two weeks made me want to sit back and take in the atmosphere.  I took my lunch to a table in the courtyard by the fountain that was now kept perpetually dry.  I read the Daily Colt campus newspaper as I ate.  The name was a bit misleading, since during the summer, the newspaper only published twice a week, in a smaller tabloid format only about half as long as the regular edition. 

The campus was much quieter today than I was used to, since the majority of the student population was not in class for the summer.  Those fun times last year of running into friends around campus between classes, and all the interesting conversations that happened around those encounters, probably would not happen as often this summer.  The last time I sat at this table was when Haley Channing was sitting here, and I asked if I could join her.  For a girl-crazy, socially awkward guy like me, getting to have lunch with Haley was like winning the lottery.  Of course, I embarrassed myself in front of her a few minutes later; Claire Seaver from church choir walked by, and I tried to introduce Haley and Claire, not realizing that they already knew each other.  I would have no random encounters with Haley this summer, since she was home working a summer job, 400 miles away.

 The Daily Colt still included a crossword puzzle, which I did after I was done eating.  Even though the campus was emptier than usual, I was not completely alone.  I still had choir practice at church on Wednesdays, and I was in a Bible study that started this Thursday, so I would see some of my friends then.


The discussion Wednesday morning was also in Temp 3.  It was required, and the class was not split into multiple small discussion groups, so all of the students were there.  Joe White introduced our first project.  It seemed fairly straightforward, a project designed mostly just to acquaint students with the system and the basics of coding in C.

At two o’clock, after the lecture with Tom Kroger, I went to the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall.  It was spread out across five rooms, and being an afternoon in summer when only a few computer science classes were offered, all of them were mostly empty.  When I had come here during Intro to Programming last quarter, there were usually many more people down here.  These computers ran X Window, a graphical interface for Unix-based computers that bore a superficial resemblance to the Microsoft Windows 3.1 that I was familiar with.  I opened a text editor in a new window, where I typed my code as a text file, which I would later compile into an executable.

I stayed in the lab for about an hour working on my project, and by that time I felt comfortable with how this system worked, as well as with C in general.  I still had a lot of work to do on the project, but I had a week to do it.  I was in no hurry; I just wanted to make sure I was familiar with the computer system before it was too late.


Since many UJ students leave to spend the summer at home or get summer jobs or internships elsewhere, the Newman Center only offers two Sunday Masses during the summer instead of three.  I would learn later that many other churches in Jeromeville also decrease the number of services during the summer, for the same reason.

When I got to choir practice on Wednesday night, some familiar faces were missing, and others had taken their places.  I knew that the Coronado sisters had both gone home to Desert Ridge for the summer, and a few others, including Phil Gallo and Melanie Giordano, were absent as well.  I recognized a few people from events that the church had held, and I assumed that these new people were singers from the early morning Mass, who were combined with us now.

“Greg!” Claire said when I walked in.  “You’re here!  Are you gonna be here all summer?”

“Mostly,” I replied.  “I wasn’t here last week because I went home to see my family.  But I’m back for the summer.  At least most of it.”

“How was that?”

“It went well.  My brother and I made a silly board game out of all of our inside jokes.”

“That sounds fun!”

“It was!”

I walked over to the music stand with my copy of this week’s music.  A girl I did not know stood next to me.  She was short, with short chin-length brown hair and brown eyes.  “Hi,” I said.  “I don’t think I know you.”

“I’m Ellen.”

“I’m Greg,” I replied.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

“Are you from the early service?” I asked, assuming that the answer would be yes.

“No,” Ellen said.  “My family goes to Mass here.  I’m going to school in San Diego, and I’m home for the summer.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

“Do you know Kevin Stark?  He’s my dad.”

“I think I know who he is.  He’s a professor of pomology, or something like that?”

“Yes!  It’s funny, that’s what everyone seems to remember about him.”

“I remember him talking about his research once.”

“Yeah, Dad always tells people he studies fruits and nuts.  Then he adds, ‘The kind that grow on trees.’”

“That’s funny,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah, but it’s less great when you hear him say it all the time.  Dumb jokes get old.”

“True.  That makes sense.  So what’s your major?”

“Marine biology.  You?”

“Math.”

“Wow.  That was never my favorite class.”

“I get that reaction a lot,” I said.

At this point, I realized that the rest of the room had become quiet and was staring at us.  “I was just saying, it’s time to get started,” Claire explained.  We mostly did familiar songs that week, so we got through choir practice relatively quickly.  Ellen had a nice voice.  I was looking forward to singing on Sunday.  While I still held out hope that something would work out with Haley eventually, I could not help but wonder if Ellen had a boyfriend.  


Thursday felt like a Friday to me, since I knew that it was my last class for the week.  With only one class this summer, I was going to have a four-day weekend every week.  I liked this schedule.  After class was over, I rode my bike into downtown Jeromeville and went to Tower Records.  After browsing the entire store, I bought the new Dave Matthews Band CD, Crash.  I listened to it as soon as I got home.

That night, after dinner, I drove to Pine Grove Apartments, about a mile to the south.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship did not have their large group meetings on Fridays during the summer, but there were two Bible studies meeting this summer, one here near campus and one on the other side of Jeromeville.  I found the apartment I was looking for and knocked on the door.  “Come in,” someone said from inside.

“Greg!” Lillian greeted as I opened the door.  Lillian was a year older than me, and she had co-led my Bible study during the school year.  Her co-leader this summer with a guy her year named Chris.  

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

“Not much.  Just taking a class and hanging out.”

“Which class?” Lillian asked.

“CS 40.  Intro to Software.”

“I’ve heard that’s really hard,” Chris said.  “My roommate is a CS major.  And you’re taking it in the summer, packed into six weeks?  Good luck.”

“I like it so far,” I said.

“Do you need computer science for the math major?” Lillian asked.

“CS 30 is required; I took that last quarter.  110 is optional, it counts in place of math units, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110, so I figured I would take 40 in the summer, when it’s easier to get into.  And programming is something I was always interested in.”

About five minutes after I arrived, we started with worship music as Chris played guitar and we all sang.  When it came time to begin the study, Lillian explained that we would be studying the First Epistle of John this summer.  I knew most of the people in this Bible study, after having spent most of the last school year going to JCF.  Tabitha Sasaki read the first half of the chapter out loud, and Jason Costello read the second half.  A verse that Tabitha read stuck out in my mind: “We proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

We spent the next forty minutes or so discussing what John meant in writing these verses.  I kept thinking about that verse about proclaiming eternal life, which I was not good at.  I preferred to mind my own business when it came to telling people about my faith, this came more naturally to me, but I often worried that this was not enough.  I had friends who were good at inviting their friends to JCF; some people, including myself, had come to faith by being invited to JCF.  I had friends who were proclaiming eternal life this summer in Morocco, India, and other nations where Chrsitianity was not a dominant part of the culture.

The parent organization of JCF, Intervarsity, put on a convention every three years in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.  Many of my friends were going, and I was considering going as well, although the thought of spending a few hundred dollars to register for this, and a few hundred more to fly to Illinois, was overwhelming.  An early bird price offered a significant discount to anyone who signed up before the end of June, which was only a few days away.

After we finished studying the chapter from 1 John, Chris asked, “Are there any prayer requests?”  A few of the others shared concerns about sick relatives and overwhelming school workloads.

I spoke up after a few minutes.  “I still haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to Urbana,” I said, “and I want to decide before the price goes up.  That’s in a few days.”

“I think it’ll be a really good experience for you,” Lillian said, “but I know, it’s a lot of money if you’re not really committed.  We’ll pray for you.”

After everyone shared their prayer requests, we all went in a circle, praying for the person next to us.  “God,” Tabitha said, “I pray for Greg.  I pray that you will give him wisdom to know whether or not Urbana is right for him.  I pray that Greg will know your will, and that you will speak to him all the great things you plan on doing through him.  I pray that he will find a way to make the finances work out, if this is your will.”

“Lord, I pray for Jason,” I said after Tabitha was done.  “I pray for his busy schedule, that you will help him stay focused on classes.  I pray that he will manage his time well, and find a balance between spending time in the Word and spending time on studies.”

After we finished prayer requests, and the study ended, Tabitha asked, “What are you up to tonight?”

“Just going to work on my project for class,” I said.  “I’m going to see if I can figure out how to connect to the CS computer lab from my computer at home, so I don’t have to go into the lab.”

“Let me know as soon as you’ve decided on Urbana.  I still want to get a few people to go in together on a flight.  I told you about that, right?”

“Yeah.  I will let you know.”

“Perfect!”

After I got home, I turned on the computer, listened to the beeps and whirs of the dialup modem connecting, and connected to the computers in the basement of Kent Hall.  I opened a second window and connected to my usual IRC chat channel, so I could find people to send messages to while I was working.  I put on the new Dave Matthews Band CD for the second time that day.

By the end of the night, I had decided that I preferred this setup over physically going to the basement of Kent Hall.  Writing code from home gave me the opportunity to listen to music and have a chat room open at the same time.  For certain types of studying, like those involving large amounts of reading, I do not do well while listening to music, but I enjoyed listening to music during other types of studying, like math homework or computer science projects.

The obvious drawback of doing computer science work from home, of course, is that I could not use the telephone while I was connected to the Internet.  Anyone who tried calling me would get a busy signal.  Although I did not get many calls, I did not want to tie up the phone line; I always held out hope that maybe I would get a phone call from a cute girl, or that someone would invite me to something awesome.  But since I did not have to get up early most days, I could wait until after ten o’clock, when I was unlikely to get phone calls, and work on coding late into the night.  I managed to train myself to sleep in until around ten in the morning, since my class did not begin until noon, although I had to make sure to get to bed earlier on Tuesdays so I could get up in time for the Wednesday morning discussion.  Once my body got used to staying up late and waking up late, that schedule worked very well for me.  I did not set foot in the basement of Kent Hall again for the rest of the summer.

When I finally went to bed that first night, at 1:46 AM, I closed my eyes and prayed again that God would show me the right decision about going to Urbana.  By that time, though, I felt like I already knew the answer.  I had found Jesus, and I needed to know what the next step in my faith journey would be.  I also had many friends who were traveling overseas to spread the Gospel, and I did not know how to support them, or even the nature of their work in the first place, in some cases.  I mailed my registration form the following morning.  I now had six months to work out the details, but I already had a head start since Tabitha was putting a flight together.  It was a wonderful first week of class, and as I drifted off to sleep, I felt optimistic for the rest of the summer.

June 18-21, 1996. The time my brother and I turned a bunch of silly inside jokes into a board game.

It had been two years since I graduated from high school, and I had only heard from two high school friends in the last couple months: Melissa Holmes and Rachel Copeland.  Neither of them was in town during the week that I came home, after the end of the school year at the University of Jeromeville and before the start of my summer class.  Plumdale was not exactly the world’s most exciting place; neither was Gabilan or Santa Lucia or anywhere else in Santa Lucia County.  Santa Lucia was on the beach, but it was usually windy and not very warm, not what I call beach weather.  Gabilan had a low-level minor league baseball team; in the long tradition of unusual team names in Minor League Baseball, the team was called the Peppers.  I went to one Peppers game with my family that week.  The Peppers lost.

Usually, when I came home on school breaks, the only friends I saw were my brother Mark’s friends, who were all 14 and 15 years old.  There was Cody Kaneko, a teammate and opponent of Mark in baseball and basketball whose parents had known mine for decades.  Another one was Matt Bosworth, Boz for short, a unique combination of silly and intellectual who also had no sense of smell, so we could fart in front of him all we wanted.  Mark and his friends and I had a lot of inside jokes.  Many of them came at the expense of Mark’s other friends, like Ryan Lathrop, who always seemed a bit out of it, or goofy Eric Kingston.

Eric Kingston came over one day during the time I was home.  I was in Mark’s room playing Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo, alone, while Mark and Eric played basketball in the backyard.  After my game ended, I went outside to watch them.

“For three!” Mark shouted, shooting the ball some distance from the court. The ball cleanly sailed through the hoop.  Eric took the ball to the back of the half-length court, then he ran around the court, holding the ball instead of dribbling and flapping his arms like wings, making a vaguely bird-like noise that sounded like “Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!”

“What’s that?” Mark shouted.  “Traveling!”

“No, it’s not traveling,” Eric explained.  “It’s the Flying Bacaa.  That means I don’t have to dribble.  Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Eric shot the ball from just a few feet away; it missed.  All three of us started laughing hysterically.

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” I crowed, running around the yard and flapping my arms in imitation of Eric.  Eric and Mark started laughing harder.

After Eric and Mark got tired of basketball, all three of us went back inside to Mark’s room, trying to decide what else to do.  I saw a Monopoly game through the open closet door, and suggested, “Let’s play Killer Monopoly.”

“Okay,” Mark said.

“Killer Monopoly?” Eric asked.

“Yes,” I explained.  “It’s like Monopoly, but with a few extra rules.  We use the house rule about getting money on Free Parking.  And also, there’s no limit to how many houses and hotels you can build, and you can build more houses after you build a hotel.”

“Can’t you always do that?”

“Not according to the actual rules.”

“Well, that’s how I’ve always played.”

“But the most important rule change is, when you land directly on Go, instead of the two hundred dollars, you get a bomb.  And if you land on someone’s property and you don’t want to pay rent, you use the bomb to blow up their houses and hotels.  And if you use two bombs, the whole property goes back to the bank.”

“That sounds cool,” Eric said.

We began playing, aggressively buying property.  After a few times around the board, Mark had all three of the light purple properties.  He landed on Free Parking on that round and used the money to put two houses on each property.  Eric landed on Go on his next turn, just as Mom opened the door to check on us.  Julio, a large orange and white striped cat, one of four cats who lived here, walked into the room when the door opened.

“I got a bomb!” Eric said.

“A bomb?” Mom asked.  “In Monopoly?”

Killer Monopoly,” I corrected.  “I tried teaching it to you a few days ago, but you weren’t interested.  You just said you hated Monopoly.”

“I do!” Mom said.

“No, no, Julio,” Mark said, pushing Julio away to make sure he did not walk across the board and knock over pieces.

“You come with me,” Mom told Julio, picking him up.  She patted him on the head, saying, “You feel better now, don’t you.”  Turning to Eric, Mom explained, “He had worms in his butt.  But the doctor gave him medicine, and now he’s all better.”  Eric got a horrified look on his face.  He looked at Mark, then back at Mom.  “Oh!” Mom said, laughing.  “You thought I was talking about Mark!  No, I meant Julio.  The cat.”

“Oh!” Eric said, laughing.  I laughed too.

“I don’t have worms in my butt!” Mark shouted.

After Mom left with Julio, I took my turn and landed on Mark’s St. Charles Place, with two houses.  I begrudgingly handed over the rent, leaving me with very little money left.  “I wish I had a bomb,” I said.  “Maybe we need something so you can escape paying rent, but without blowing up the property.  I know!  We should make a Community Chest card that you can keep, like the Get Out Of Jail Free card, and when you play it, you just run away and reappear somewhere else. Like, it takes you the space farthest away from where you are.  It can be the Flying Bacaa card.”

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Eric squawked.

“We can use the ‘You have won second prize in a beauty contest’ card for that.  I always thought that card was silly anyway.”

Eric went home late in the afternoon.  Mark went out to the living room and put in a VHS tape of shows he had been recording.  First on the tape was a recent episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a popular sitcom starring Will Smith as a city kid who moved in with wealthy relatives to keep him out of trouble.  Will’s cousin Hilary had gotten a job hosting a television talk show, and the family was talking about William Shatner being a guest on the show.

“Have you seen this one, Greg?” Mom asked me.

“No,” I replied.

“It’s hilarious!  We have to watch it!  You know the show ended this season, right?”

“I don’t know if I knew that.”

“Mark?  Do you have the last episode on this tape?”

“I think so,” Mark answered, sounding annoyed.  “I’ll look for it later.”

I continued watching as Carlton embarrassed himself trying to impress William Shatner, accidentally breaking his tooth with a pool stick and taking him to the dentist. William Shatner got doped up on laughing gas just in time for the interview on Hilary’s show.  Mom and Mark and I laughed hysterically through the entire episode.  Mark pressed fast-forward to look for the finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but stopped when an episode of Beavis and Butthead came on.  “This one!” he said.  “Plant Man!”

“Yes!” I shouted. The show Beavis and Butthead alternated between a silly story involving the two teenage boys of less than stellar intellect and scenes of the boys watching music videos.  In this episode, they were watching a very strange video called “Plant Man,” by Gary Young.  One part of the song featured Gary Young banging on the drums, and Beavis commented that he could play drums like that.  It was not the first time seeing this episode for any of us.

“Beavis and Butthead sure do watch the strangest music videos,” Mom said.

“I know!” I replied.

Mark found the other episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on the tape.  While he fast-forwarded to skip commercials, I said, “I like that idea of adding a Flying Bacaa card to Killer Monopoly.”

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Mark said.

“We also need to get Plant Man in that game somehow.”

“Maybe Plant Man should fight the Monopoly guy.”

“That would be funny,” I said.  “Or maybe we should leave Killer Monopoly alone and make a new game with the Flying Bacaa and Plant Man.”

“And Erzix,” Mark added, using an old nickname for Eric Kingston from a few years ago.  Eric was playing a video game that asked for your name, and he started entering Eric but finished with nonsense letters.  Erzix was pronounced “air-zicks,” with the first syllable pronounced like the first syllable of Eric.

“Yes!” I said.  “The Adventures of Erzix.  You have to go around the neighborhood fighting Plant Man and a bunch of other weirdos.  And you can get items to help you win a fight.”

“If you land on the same space as another player, you have to fight the other player.”

“But first, you have to ask them, ‘Pardon me, sir, but do you have any Grey Poupon?’” I suggested, quoting a TV commercial.

“Yes!”

“Let’s go work on this!”

We went back to Mark’s room with a pen and paper.  I began drawing four glorified stick figures resembling Erzix wearing a basketball jersey and colored them different colors.  “Don’t forget, he has an earring now,” Mark said.  I drew an oversized hoop earring on each of the four Erzices.  (Since I was one to use irregular plurals facetiously, I had decided years ago that the plural of Erzix was “Erzices,” analogous to the plurals of “matrix” and “vertex” being “matrices” and “vertices.”)

“Who else should you have to fight besides Plant Man?” I asked as I drew Plant Man.

“Putnam,” Mark said.

“Who’s Putnam?”

“You don’t know Putnam?  Let me bring you up to Putnam.”

“Huh?” I asked.  Mark told me about some funny-looking annoying kid at his school named Putnam, then proceeded to draw a caricature of a face with a bad haircut and exaggerated features. I cut out the Putnam picture and glued it to the front of a playing card, from a deck that was missing cards anyway. Those cards would become the cards for the Erzix game.

Mark had a stuffed figure of Pepe the Pepper, the mascot of the Gabilan Peppers baseball team, on a shelf.  Pepe was an anthropomorphic jalapeño with a mustache and baseball cap.  As I stared at that shelf, I asked, “What about Pepe? Should he be one of the enemies?”

“No!” Mark said.  “Pepe is awesome!  He should be on your side instead!”

“What about, you can go to the stadium and get Pepe, and then he follows you and helps you in the next fight?”

“Yeah!  Let’s do that!”


The next day, I typed the rules for The Adventures of Erzix on the family computer.  When I went to print the rules, I noticed the printer was not working, so I asked Mom about that.

“We just got a new printer,” she said.  “And we haven’t set it up yet.  We were waiting for you to come home so you could help.”

I rolled my eyes.  The directions for setting up a printer were not difficult.  You plug it in, you put the CD in the computer, and you follow the prompts it gives you.  I did exactly that.  About halfway through the installation process, I said, “It wants you to name the printer.  What do you want to name it?”

“Carlton!” Mom said, after the character from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

“Really?” I asked.  “You’re gonna name your printer ‘Carlton?’”

“Sure!  Why not?”

I typed “Carlton” in the box and waited for the printer to finish installing.  When it was done, I printed the rules to The Adventures of Erzix; it worked.  “Printer works!” I called out.

“Good!” Mom replied.”




Later that week, Cody and Boz both came over on the same day.  While waiting for a turn on the Super Nintendo, I said, “We should play The Adventures of Erzix.  All four of us.”

“Yeah!” Mark said.

“We should play what?” Boz asked.

“The Adventures of Erzix.  Mark and I made a board game.”

“You made a board game about Erzix?” Cody asked.  “I gotta see this.”

I unfolded the game board and set up the pieces as I was explaining the rules to Cody and Boz.  “I have the rules right here,” I said, holding up the typed rule sheet, “so you know I’m not making anything up.”

We began the game, taking our turns and drawing Item cards when we landed on certain spaces.  Boz was the first to land on a Fight space.  He drew an Enemy card.  “Putnam,” he said, laughing at the drawing.  “The items that say ‘roll 1 to win fight,’ I can play that now and I also win by rolling a 1, is that how that works?”

“Yes,” I said.  “With no item, you have to roll higher than whatever the card says.”

“Then I’m going to play this Giant Otter Pop, and hit Putnam with it.”  Boz rolled the die; it was a 1.  “Got him!”

Cody took his turn next.  He landed on an Item space and drew a card.  “Go to Ryan’s Fart Station,” he read aloud.  He laughed, then asked, “What the heck is Ryan’s Fart Station?”

“One time we were playing Legos with Ryan Lathrop,” I explained.  “He found a piece that said ‘STATION,’ it’s supposed to be for a train station, and he goes, ‘I’m going to build a fart station!’  I have no idea what it means.”  I pointed to Ryan’s Fart Station on the board, and as Cody moved his piece there, I added, “You have to shuffle your items and discard the top one.”

“What?  Why?”

“Because Ryan’s Fart Station stinks so bad, it makes you drop something!”

“Like this?” Mark said.  He farted loudly, and the rest of us laughed.

“Eww!” I screamed as the smell of Mark’s fart hit my nose.

“Boz!” Mark exclaimed.  “You’re lucky you can’t smell that one!”

Just then the door opened.  “What’s going on in here?” Mom asked.

“Mark farted, that’s what’s going on,” I said.

“Whew!  I can smell it!” Mom exclaimed, and the four of us all started laughing again.  “Are you actually playing that Erzix game that you’ve been working on?”

“Yes!” I said, proud of my creation.

“I want to see how this works.”

“Okay.  Whose turn was it?”

“Mine,” Mark said.  Mark rolled the die, moved, and landed on Flying Bacaa.  “Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” he shouted, flapping his arms, as he moved his Erzix token across the board.

“Wha– what?” Boz asked.  “What even is a Flying Bacaa?”

“Some weird Erzix thing,” I said.  “My turn.”  I landed on a Fight space and drew an Enemy card.  “Ogre,” I said, as I drew a card with a drawing of myself on it, complete with Jeromeville T-shirt.

“Ogre, like the nickname that Mark’s baseball team used to call you when you worked in the snack bar?” Mom asked.  “You’re in this game?”

“Yeah.  It was Mark’s idea.  But my Erzix doesn’t have to fight Ogre, because I have this,” I said, playing an Item card from my hand.  “I’m going to use the White Bronco to drive away!”

“Yes!” Cody said, laughing.

“White Bronco?” Boz asked.  “Like O.J. Simpson’s car?”

“Yes!” I shouted.  “My turn is done!  Your turn, Boz.”

Boz drew the Item card that says to challenge another player to a game of one-on-one.  He took Mark’s piece and moved them both to the Basketball Court space. Mark rolled higher, so Boz had to give Mark his last two Item cards.

Cody took his turn next.  He landed on a Fight square and drew an Enemy card.  “Plant Man!” he said, laughing at the drawing resembling Gary Young in his furry green suit. Cody pulled an Item card out of his hand, saying, “I’m going to use this Picture of a Butt, to get an extra chance to win.”

“What?” Boz said, reading the card to make sure he heard right.

“You guys are silly,” Mom said.  


A couple weeks after I moved back to Jeromeville for my summer class, I heard from Mom that Eric Kingston had come over and played The Adventures of Erzix with Mark.  He got a good laugh out of the whole thing, although he said that my drawing of him did not look like him.

We dragged the game out a few more times when I came home on school breaks.  After that, it spent twenty-four years in a closet at my parents’ house, where it remains today.  The game was not a regular activity for our family for long, but it had an important legacy in my life.  It served as a sort of first draft for another silly board game I would write a couple of years later.  The later game had a very similar style of play to The Adventures of Erzix, but with the game rules reworked and improved a little.  Over the years, I taught that later game to many other groups of friends, and I was still playing it regularly for most of my adulthood.  One of my friends who now lives in another state just recently, a few days before I wrote this, dragged out her copy and taught it to some people she knows now.  That other game is another story for another time.

This story has had one more lasting legacy in my life.  In the years since I helped Mom set up Carlton the printer, I have bought three more printers, and every one was named after a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air character.  I keep print copies of all of my writing, so if you will excuse me, I need to go print this on my printer, Aunt Viv.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.

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

“They weren’t great, but I passed.”

“Congratulations!  Your ceremony was this morning?”

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

“Nice!”

“Thanks!  Enjoy the party!”

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

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

“Not much.  How were finals?”

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

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

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

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

“Taking classes.  You?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“No,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

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

“Nice to meet you.”

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

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

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

“You’re not graduating this year?”

“No.  I’m a sophomore.”

“Oh, ok.”

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

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

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

“It’s nice out there!”

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.  That would be awesome.”

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

“I might later,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

“Newman Center.”

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

“Definitely.”

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

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

“Great!  Sounds good!”

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

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

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

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

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

September 18, 1995. New frontiers and new area codes.

Sleeping in was always a foreign concept to me.  I was a light sleeper, and I was used to waking up early for school.  Even when I wanted to sleep in, I woke up early.  But after two weeks in the new apartment, having no class or job to wake up for, and regularly staying up late reading, looking for girls to talk to on IRC chat channels, or just playing around on the computer, my body was gradually getting used to sleeping later.  This morning, I did not wake up until 9:30; I could not remember the last time I had slept in that late.

The morning was uneventful.  I spent a couple hours on IRC.  I had nothing to read, since I had recently finished part 5 of Stephen King’s The Green Mile and I had yet to make it to the bookstore to buy part 6.  I had been playing around with teaching myself HTML, the code used to make websites, although I had no way to share the files anywhere on the Internet for others to see.  University of Jeromeville student accounts did not have this feature.  A guy I knew from IRC said he could give me an account on his server, but he had not done this yet.

Around five o’clock, I went for a bike ride.  This had become part of my routine over the last couple weeks.  It was very hot during the daytime, and it did not begin to cool until around five at the earliest.  It was a dry heat, and the sun was low enough by five that it actually felt nice being outside.  I had explored much of Jeromeville on my bike over the last two weeks.  I had ridden extensively through the greenbelts of North and West Jeromeville.  I had seen all of campus, including the outlying agricultural areas and research buildings.  I had explored a new neighborhood still under construction at the northeast edge of town, and I had even explored some of the rural areas north of the city limits.  But one last frontier of Jeromeville remained mostly unexplored to me, and this would be my destination this afternoon.

I began my ride on very familiar routes.  I took Andrews Road all the way south into campus, past the Recreation Pavilion and Thong Bikini Hill, following it east through a 90 degree turn to the water tower.  From there, I took the narrow path into the Arboretum, continuing northeast to downtown Jeromeville.  I turned right on First Street.  At the next traffic light, where E Street became Cornell Boulevard, I turned on Cornell.

Cornell Boulevard headed diagonally southeast under a railroad track, through a very narrow underpass.  This part of the road was built in 1917, part of the first paved highway to connect Capital City with Bay City.  This road was no longer a main highway, having been bypassed by a freeway in the 1960s, but it was still the only connection between downtown and that freeway, and it had never been widened, resulting in horrific traffic jams at certain times of the day.  A pedestrian and bicycle path ran parallel to the street through its own small tunnel under the railroad track, allowing me and my bike to bypass the traffic jam.  I had walked through this smaller tunnel three months earlier, when a large group of people from my dorm had eaten at Murder Burger on the last night of the school year.

On the other end of the tunnel, pedaling uphill, I rode past Murder Burger, a hotel, an Italian restaurant, and, on the opposite side of the street, a gas station.  I continued against gravity as Cornell Boulevard crossed the freeway on an overpass, then I stopped pedaling for a while and coasted downhill into South Jeromeville.  The area known as South Jeromeville was actually southeast of downtown, but the name stuck because it was the only part of the city south of Highway 100.

I continued east on Cornell Boulevard, past some large office buildings, sprawling apartment complexes, and vacant lots yet to be developed.  When the road curved north back toward Highway 100, I turned south on a street called Valdez Street, which then curved east.  This was a residential neighborhood, with houses mostly on culs-de-sac, and it was still under construction, full of vacant lots and houses in various stages of completion.  At the end of one of the culs-de-sac, I saw what appeared to be a connection to a bike path, reminiscent of culs-de-sac in North Jeromeville that connect to the greenbelts.  The short connecting path led through an opening in a fence.  Could there be another greenbelt here?  I turned that way to investigate.

Behind the fence, I found a much longer path, running east-west along a dry creek bed.  On the other side of the creek was open farmland.  I knew where I was now.  In the late 19th century, after multiple floods in Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek was diverted into a parallel channel two miles to the south.  Later, the part of the old channel running through campus was dammed at both ends to make a long narrow lake, and the Arboretum on campus was planted around this lake.  But downstream from campus, the dry creek bed, called North Fork Arroyo Verde Creek on maps, remained dry, except to collect storm drain runoff during the wet season.  This is what I saw in front of me.  A park bench was on my right.  Trees grew between the path and the creek, oaks and wild walnut trees and others that I could not identify.  The ground was covered in grasses and weeds that had turned brown over the hot summer.

I turned left, heading east.  The creek was on my right, and to the left was a fence separating me from the construction site, a fence which would eventually be the back fence of people’s houses.  A couple hundred feet beyond this, another greenbelt split off of this one to head north.  I made a note to come back and explore that way later.

2019 south jville greenbelt
(Photograph taken June 2019.  The trees behind the fence at the upper left were much smaller in 1995 when the neighborhood was new.)

Short connecting paths to three more streets branched off to the left.  This neighborhood was complete, and the view to my left looked much like the greenbelts near my apartment: a thin strip of vegetation next to the path, and beyond that, fences separating the greenbelt from backyards, interrupted every few hundred feet by a path connecting to a residential street.  After this, the greenbelt path came to an end.  To the left, this street was a narrow residential street that continued some distance to the north, and to the right, the street crossed the creek bed, becoming a private dirt road leading to the farms beyond.

I turned around the way I came, back along the creek bed, and turned north to follow the other greenbelt that intersected this one.  I passed a playground, a field that looked big enough for soccer, and tennis courts.  A large apartment complex was behind the tennis courts, probably the same apartments I had seen on the corner of Cornell and Valdez.  An empty field lay across the path from the tennis courts.  Continuing north, I felt the path incline downward as it led into a tunnel under a street, and beyond that, back on ground level, I saw trees and fenced backyards on either side.

I followed the path about another half mile to Cornell Boulevard, running right next to Highway 100.  I wanted to continue exploring.  I had not seen much of this side of Jeromeville, and I had not explored the other direction of the creek.  But I also knew I had to get home.  I had been gone for well over half an hour, and I was still quite some distance from home, and I was getting hungry.

I turned west on Cornell toward home.  The road ran adjacent to the freeway for the first few hundred feet, with only a small barbed wire fence and a line of leafy, shady walnut trees between them.  I squinted a little, riding close to the direction of the setting sun, inhaling the scent of dry vegetation.  Something about this made me feel peaceful.  The weather was pleasantly warm with the sun shining at a low angle.  I was back in Jeromeville where I belonged, and this town still had a lot of unexplored territory for me.

I crossed back over the freeway and through the tunnel into downtown.  Instead of going back the way I came, I turned right on First and left on G Street, past the movie theater, the train station, a hardware store, and a few blocks of restaurants and bars, into a very old residential neighborhood.  I eventually turned left on 15th Street and right onto the path leading to the North Jeromeville greenbelts.  I crossed Coventry on the bike overpass and turned left on the part of the greenbelt that headed west, past tall leafy trees that cast shadows over parts of the path, eventually taking me right to the parking lot by my apartment.

I had been on my bike for a little over an hour, and I was drenched in sweat, but it was a good feeling.  After showering and eating a microwaved frozen dinner, I turned on IRC and went to my usual chat room to look for anyone I recognized, or possibly meet someone new.  I saw that Mindy Jo was in the room.  

gjd76: hi :)
MindyJoA: hey you
gjd76: how was your day?
MindyJoA: it was monday, nothing exciting.  i had class.  have you started classes yet?
gjd76: no.  thursday the 28th.
MindyJoA: i just don’t understand your school’s schedule.  i mean, you explained it to me, but it’s weird that you start so late
gjd76: we go later than you too, until the middle of june.  i kind of like it though, having september off has been really nice, it’s perfect weather here
MindyJoA: that makes sense. it’s really hot and humid here today

Mindy Jo was a fifth-year undergraduate at West Georgia College.  I had never been to Georgia, or anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, and when people from there described the weather as “hot and humid,” I had no concept of what that felt like.  I grew up with cool humid Pacific coast weather in Santa Lucia County, and now I was familiar with the hot dry summers here in the Valley, but hot humidity was a completely foreign concept to me.  I did not know how to react.  The next thing I typed was not about weather at all; it was a spontaneous thought that had popped into my head a few minutes earlier.

gjd76: hey, can i call you?
MindyJoA: huh? you mean like on the phone?
gjd76: yeah, i just feel like doing something different tonight
MindyJoA: sure.  770-555-0130
gjd76: ok.  give me a minute

After the incident earlier this month with Allison DarkSparkles, I was definitely not ready to meet another girl from the Internet in person.  But talking on the phone felt much safer than meeting in person.  I was not putting myself physically in unknown surroundings, and I had nothing to lose but the cost of a long-distance phone call.  It would be fun to finally hear the voice of someone I had been chatting and emailing with for several months.

I picked up the phone and dialed the number, pressing buttons quickly so I did not talk myself out of doing this.  It was fairly late at night in Georgia, but Mindy Jo was expecting my call, so I was not worried about waking her.

“Hello?” a voice said through the telephone.  Even with that one word I could tell that she spoke with a different accent from mine.  This was not surprising, since she was from Georgia, but when reading emails from her I never imagined her speaking like that.

“Mindy Jo?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Is this Greg?”

“Yes it is.”

“It’s good to hear from you.  It’s interesting to hear your voice.  It’s not quite how I imagined it.”

“Same with you,” I said.  “I didn’t think about the accent.”

“That’s funny.”

“This is going to sound weird, but did your area code just change recently?”

“It did.  About a month ago.  How did you know?”

“I’ve always had this weird fascination with area codes.  I used to want to memorize every area code someday.”

“Interesting.  I could see you doing that.”

“Yeah.  So I noticed once that all area codes have a middle digit of either 0 or 1.  That’s how the phone can tell that you’re dialing a different area code.”

“Really.”

“Yes.  But there aren’t any area codes left.  More people, more phones and stuff.  So apparently the technology is here now that area codes don’t have to have 0 or 1 in the middle digit.  I always look at the area code map in the phone book every year, and just this year I started seeing some new area codes that don’t have 0 or 1 in the middle.  Like your 770.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever dialed an area code without 0 or 1 in the middle.”

“I never would’ve thought about that.  It’s interesting the way your mind works.”

“Yeah.  I know.  And that’s probably why I can’t find a girlfriend.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mindy Jo said reassuringly.  “You’ll find someone.  I don’t understand why you’re still single.  You seem like a really great guy.”

“Well right now it’s because a lot of students haven’t moved back here yet.  But I just don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just ask.  If there’s a girl you like, just talk to her.  And say something like, hey, you want to go grab coffee after class, or something.”

“I don’t like coffee.”

“You can get hot chocolate.  Or something else.  Or go get ice cream or eat lunch instead.”

“I guess.  It just seems weird.”

“What’s weird about it?”

“She probably won’t like me.  Or,” I said, trailing off.  I had sudden flashbacks of lunch time in 8th grade, when I would sit vaguely near Rachelle Benedetti and look in her direction, but never actually say anything.  Paul Dickinson noticed me and asked if I liked Rachelle, I told him that I did, and by the end of the week the whole school knew.  Even some teachers knew.  I was embarrassed.  “Someone might find out I asked her out, and that’s embarrassing,” I continued.

“So what?  This isn’t junior high.  You’re an adult.  No one cares, and everyone gets turned down sometimes.  But you’ll never know what’ll happen until you try.”

“I guess,” I said.  “What about you?  Any guys in your life?”

“I’ve been on a few dates lately.  But nothing serious.  I need to concentrate on school this semester, so I can graduate at the end of the year.”  I wondered what she meant by a few dates but nothing serious.  Was she just hanging out with these guys?  Were they kissing?  Were they doing other stuff together?  These ordinary words about dating made no sense to me.

I stayed on the phone with Mindy Jo for another half hour.  I told her about my bike ride today, the time I met Allison DarkSparkles, and my classes for the upcoming quarter.  She told me about her classes, a terrible professor, and an awkward moment from last week when she ran into an ex-boyfriend.  After that, she told me she had to go to bed.  “But hey, I’m glad you called,” she said.  “I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yes.  Sleep well.”

“Good night, Greg.”

“Bye!”

Mindy Jo was the third girl from IRC whom I had spoken with on the telephone, and once she answered I did not feel nervous.  That was mostly because she was expecting my call, though.  Calling a girl out of nowhere and asking her to get coffee still terrified me.  Maybe it would be less scary if I liked coffee.  Maybe I needed to teach myself to like coffee, so that I would be able to ask girls out.

But Mindy Jo was right that I would never know what would happen unless I tried.  And I was trying new things.  I was exploring.  I was finding new parts of Jeromeville I had never seen before.  I tried meeting Allison DarkSparkles in person, and it did not go well.  I tried calling Mindy Jo on the phone, and it did go well.  And maybe someday, I would meet a girl and figure out a way to ask her out.  A new school year was about to start, I would be meeting new people in new classes.  Maybe when the right girl comes along at the right time, there will not be anything to figure out, and everything will just fall into place naturally.  Maybe she will open the metaphorical door, and all I will have to do is step through it.

Something kind of like what happened the following week, in fact; at least it felt that way at the time.  But I will save that story for later.

August 10-23, 1995.  Voices of Austria and birthday surprises.

My brain tends to do weird things when I am in a familiar place and I see a familiar face that has no connection to that  place.  That happened one Thursday morning when a short girl with long red hair walked into the store.

“Hey,” I said, in a familiar tone, because I knew her.  Of course I knew her; it was Renee Robertson, and she had been my prom date a little over a year ago.  My brain caught up then and became confused, because I did not expect to see Renee in Books & More.  Somehow my brain took those thoughts of confusion and turned them into the spoken words, “I know you.”

Renee appeared to be as surprised as I was when she turned and looked at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “I forgot you worked here.”

“How are you?”

“Actually, I’m here for Catherine.  I’m putting these flyers up around town.  Do you think I’d be able to put one up here?”  Renee put a flyer on the counter.  I read it.


VOICES OF AUSTRIA
Choir & Orchestra Performance

Wednesday, August 23, 1995, 7:00pm
Good Shepherd Church, Gabilan


 

“So this is a choir made up of people Catherine knew when she was in Austria?”

“Yeah.  She put together this trip where we’re going to do a tour of performances around here.  Gabilan, Mount Lorenzo, San Tomas, and Bay City, I think.  And we’re going to sing the national anthem at a Titans game.”

“That’s so cool!” I said.

“Yeah.  Just contact Catherine for tickets.”

“For sure!  I will!”

“So where can I put the flyer?  Do you need to ask your supervisor?”

“She isn’t here right now, but I’ll ask her later this afternoon.”

“Great!”

“How is your summer going?” I asked.

“It’s pretty good.  I’m mostly just hanging out with family and Anthony,” Renee answered.  “I’m glad he was able to come home.  It was hard having him so far away last year.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“How’s your summer?”

“Nothing too exciting here.  Just working here.  I’ve been going to a lot of San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games.  And I took a day trip to Jeromeville with my family and my cousins.”

“That sounds fun.  I haven’t been back to Valle Luna all summer.  Hey, I need to get going and put up the rest of these flyers.  But it was good seeing you!”

“You too!  I’ll definitely be at your show.  Say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will!  Thanks!”

Jane arrived about an hour later, and she approved of me putting the Voices of Austria flyer in the window.  She wanted to know more about what exactly they would be singing.  I did not know anything beyond what was on the flyer, and I told her so.

When my shift ended that day, I did not go straight home.  Instead, I went to the Lucky grocery store across the parking lot from Books & More.  Lucky stores disappeared a few years later in a merger with Albertsons, and they reappeared in the early 21st century when Albertsons sold all of their holdings in this part of the country, including the Lucky name, to another company.  I walked straight to the greeting card aisle and looked for birthday cards.  Greeting card companies made special cards for 18th and 21st birthdays, because of the legal milestones involved, and special cards for people turning 30, 40, and 50.  But to my knowledge there were no cards for turning 20, as the person I was shopping for was doing.  My own birthday was coming up next week also, and there were definitely no special cards for turning 19.

After a few minutes, I chose a card that had a cartoon drawing of an elephant, saying, “Of course I remembered your birthday!”  On the inside, the card said, “Who are you?”  I chuckled loudly for a second, in the middle of the store, when I read that.

After I got back to the car, I thought for a few minutes, then started writing on the inside.


Megan

Happy birthday!  How are your classes going?  I hope you’re doing well.  Things really aren’t very exciting for me.  One of my friends from high school came into the store today; that was a nice surprise.  I can’t wait to get back to Jeromeville and see everyone again.  I hope you have a great birthday!  What are you doing for it?  My birthday is coming up on the 15th, but I don’t have anything planned, probably just cake and presents with my family.  See you soon!

Greg


 

I had carefully prepared for this moment.  I left the house today knowing that I would probably have to mail Megan’s card today in order for it to get to Jeromeville by August 12, her actual birthday.  I had a stamp and a scrap of paper on which I had written Megan’s address in the glove compartment.  I put the stamp on the envelope and copied the address onto the envelope: Megan McCauley, 2525 E. 5th St. #202, Jeromeville, followed by the state abbreviation and ZIP code.  I knew that the mail at the nearest Post Office did not get picked up until five in the afternoon, so I drove there to mail Megan’s card, which would most likely get it to Jeromeville in two days.  

I drove home, still nervous about what I had done.  Sending a friend a birthday card should not have been a big deal, and Megan and I had been periodically in touch by email for most of the summer.  But this was not just any friend.  Megan was a year older than me, the first older friend I made at UJ other than my dorm’s resident advisors.  She was so nice.  And she was cute.  I felt kind of dumb.  I probably didn’t have a chance with her.  She probably saw me as a silly little kid.

 

Ten years earlier, my childish lack of self-control led to a new family tradition in the Dennison household.  I had asked for an obscure computer game for my birthday, the first birthday after our family got our first computer.  I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 3:30, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 5:00, asking if it was time to open presents, and Mom handed me a box, saying, “Here’s your stupid game!  Now let me sleep!”  Since then, we have always opened mine and Mark’s birthday presents on the night before, so I would not be too excited to sleep on the night before receiving presents.  To this day, I visit my parents every Christmas, and we still open Christmas presents on the night of December 24.

My 19th birthday was August 15, five days after the day Renee came into the store.  Although I felt that I had probably outgrown the insomnia-inducing excitement on the night before receiving birthday presents, Mom still insisted on giving my presents on the 14th after dinner.  Many of this year’s gifts were practical things for the new apartment.

“Thank you,” I said after opening a cookie sheet.  As I began opening a package the size of a compact disc case, Mom said, “This is more of a fun gift.”

“It looks like music,” I replied.  I thought I knew what it was, because I had only mentioned one CD that I wanted, and I was right.  It was the album Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish.

“And I thought you would like this,” Mom said, handing me what appeared to be a wrapped paperback book.  I had spent enough time around books that summer that I recognized the shape and size.  But as I began unwrapping it, it felt like it was not entirely solid, more like it was several thin paperback books.  “Oh!” I said as I had removed enough wrapping paper to see the name Stephen King on the side of each thin paperback.  “The Green Mile.”

“Part 6 isn’t out yet.  So you’ll have to watch for it at Books & More.  Or at the campus store in Jeromeville.”

“I can do that.”  I had read that Stephen King had been working on publishing a novel in monthly installments, but I knew nothing about the story.  I read the descriptions on the backs of the first two books, something about a murder and prisoners awaiting execution and something mysterious happening at the prison.  Of course there was something mysterious happening; it was Stephen King.

green mile

The best birthday surprise came two days later when I got home from work.  After Mom said hi to me, she said, “That girl you know who is in Jeromeville this summer, is her name Megan McCauley?”

I felt a jolt of excitement.  “Yes,” I said, trying not to draw attention to my thoughts.

“You got something from her. It looks like a birthday card.  I left it on the table.”

“I see it.  Thanks.”  I picked up Megan’s card from the table and took it to my bedroom.  Looking at the envelope, I realized that I had never seen Megan’s handwriting before.  It did not look like what I would have expected; the lowercase letters were much smaller than the capital letters, with a lot of space between them.  After so many years of being in school and seeing people’s handwritten work, it seemed odd that I could know someone for a year and never see her handwriting.

I opened the envelope.  Inside was a card with a picture of a birthday cake with candles, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in large colorful letters above it.  The printed text on the inside said, “Celebrate your special day!”  Megan had added a note in her own handwriting.


Happy birthday!  Thanks for the card!  I hope you’re enjoying your summer!  I’ll see you in the fall.

-Megan


 

It wasn’t a very long note, but it was better than nothing, and I was getting emails periodically from Megan so I already knew the basics of what was going on in her life.  Still, though, it was nice that she thought of me and took the time to send a card.

 

Mom and Dad and I arrived at Good Shepherd Church slightly better dressed than usual.  I was wearing a shirt with a collar and no writing on it.  I saw an older couple dressed nicely and realized that I might be under-dressed for an event like this, but looking around I also spotted others dressed similarly to me, so I was probably okay.

 I was unsure what to expect.  I looked through the program and saw names of pieces of music that I did not know, many of which were in German or Latin.  A few of the composers’ names were familiar, like Mozart, and that made me feel a little smarter.  This was no big deal; I should not be this nervous.  I was watching my friends in a performance; I belonged here just as much as anyone else.  No one was going to judge me for not knowing classical music.  I continued looking through the program and recognized the name of a song: Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music.  I had seen that movie many times.  It was one of Mom’s favorites, although watching it with her meant having to hear her sing along to everything.

Mom nudged me, with her program open.  I looked up.  She pointed to the last three words of the title “Gott nahe zu sein, ist mein Glück,” and whispered, “It’s my gluck,” pronouncing the last word as if it rhymed with “pluck.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” I said, trying to stifle giggles at this silly randomness.

A few minutes later, the performers walked onto the stage, the choir standing on risers placed in front of the altar, and the orchestra seated in front of them.  Catherine walked to the front of the stage.  “Welcome to Voices of Austria,” she said.  “My name is Catherine Yaras.  I grew up here, but I spent my senior year studying in Austria.  I performed with some of these musicians here during that year.  Now they have come out here to perform and do some sightseeing.  This is the first of six performances we will be doing, including the national anthem at a Bay City Titans baseball game.  So please sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

As they began singing and playing, I started to feel out of place again.  I did not know what to expect at a classical music performance.  I guessed it was probably frowned upon to sing along or wave lighters or shout “FREE BIRD!” in between songs.  Everyone else seemed to be sitting still and clapping at the end of each song, so I did the same.  I wondered if any customers from the bookstore were in attendance tonight.  This was their world.  Probably not, though.

As much as I did not know classical music or understand the lyrics, I really did enjoy the performance.  All of them sounded beautiful, and for as much fun as rock and pop music could be, classical music had complexities far beyond that of most rock and pop music that gave it a pleasing sound.

When they got to the Glück song, I noticed that that word was not pronounced like Mom said, rhyming with “pluck,” but with a vowel that does not exist in English, close to rhyming with “Luke” but not exactly.  I leaned over to Mom and whispered, “It’s ‘Glück, not gluck,” attempting to replicate that sound.

“I hear that,” she whispered back.

At the end of the performance, I waited in my seat, watching for Catherine and Renee so I could go talk to them.  When I saw them come out from the room behind the altar, I said to Mom and Dad, “I’m going to go say hi to Catherine and Renee.”

“Okay,” Mom replied.  “We’ll wait over here.”

I approached Catherine and Renee; they were with a few of the other performers.  “Greg!” Catherine said as she saw me approach.  She walked up and gave me a hug.  “Meet my friends.  This is Helga; she was my sister when I stayed in Austria.  Helga, this is Greg.  He was one of the people who wrote me letters that year.”

“Oh, yes,” Helga said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I replied.

“And this is David, Matthias, Lisi, and Katharina,” Catherine continued as she introduced me to the rest of the group.

“Hi,” I said as they waved and greeted me in return.

“I’m so glad you could make it!  Thank you very much!”

“I enjoyed it.  You guys are really good.”

“Thanks,” Renee replied.  “I felt like I messed up my part on one song.”

“I didn’t notice,” I told her.  “I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, so if one part is a little bit wrong, I won’t know.”

“That’s what I said!” Catherine exclaimed.  “So have you ever thought about performing in a choir?”

I was not expecting that question.  “Me?” I asked.  “I’m too self-conscious up on stage.  You know that.”

“I think you should try it!  Find a group to sing with in Jeromeville.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

“It’ll be good for you.”

“So you guys get to sing at a Titans game?  That’s really cool.”

“I know!  A baseball game seems like such an American thing to do.”

“I haven’t been to a game in two years.  I’m still kind of upset at baseball for being on strike last year.  Matt Williams was going to break the home run record.  But I’m sure you guys will have fun.”

“I need to go say hi to some other people, but it was great seeing you!  When do you go back to Jeromeville?”

“End of next week.  September 2.”

“And is that when classes start?  I thought you guys started later?”

“We do.  But my apartment lease starts September 1, and I’m kind of ready to be back up there.”

“That makes sense.  I don’t know if I’ll get to see you again before then, though, since I’ll be busy with these guys for the next week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “If not, I’ll be home for Christmas.”

“Call me before you leave, okay?”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.  Thanks again for coming.”  Catherine hugged me.

“Bye,” Renee added.

“See you guys later.  Enjoy the rest of your performances.”

I walked back to the car with Mom and Dad.  “That was really good,” Mom said.  “They’re all really musically talented.”

“I know,” I said.

“Yes,” Dad agreed.

“I know I say this all the time, and I don’t want to bug you, but I always wish you would have stuck with music.  You were always good at playing piano and singing.”

“I guess,” I said.

Mom started talking about something else as Dad pulled out of the parking lot, which was good because I was tired of this topic.  I took piano lessons when I was a kid.  I quit when I was 10.  I was too concerned with my image, and playing piano did not seem cool to me.  But also, more importantly, I got tired of Mom making a big deal of my piano playing and making me perform every time we had company or relatives come over.  I was too self-conscious to perform music in front of people.  I love music, but as for performing, I was content to sing along in the car while driving alone.

But Mom and Catherine had basically told me the same thing tonight, that I should get into music again.  I could not even remember if Catherine had ever heard me sing.  And three years earlier, in tenth grade, I had attended our school production of The Sound of Music (Catherine played the Mother Abbess), and one of my teachers, Mrs. Norton, asked me why I wasn’t up there singing and performing.  I knew Mrs. Norton had never heard me sing.  It was strange.  Did Catherine and Mrs. Norton see something in me that I did not see in myself?  Was being part of a choir singing in front of a group something that I could do?

As I sat in the car headed north on Highway 11 on the way home from the Voices of Austria concert, I had no idea that that question would be definitively answered less than two months later.

voices of austria
A big thank you to Catherine for finding this t-shirt from the tour at her parents’ house.