June 11-12, 1996. The new Walk of Shame.

These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online.  Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed.  Or just use it to send emails with a new name.

In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it.  Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away.  Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it.  However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.”  This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers.  I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service.  Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.

I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer.  The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be.  My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine.  That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that.  About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus.  I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil.  About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me.  She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts.  I did not know her name.

“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.

“I think so,” she replied.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks.  You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.

While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously.  I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name.  The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished.  The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about.  I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.

I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow.  I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating.  I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final.  I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips.  I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.

All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian.  Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.  I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.

Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening.  I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen.  I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning.  I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.

When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer.  Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done.  I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it.  And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.

“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too.  He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”  My life is not my own.  I was created to serve and glorify God.  I believed.  But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him?  Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?

Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together.  I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this.  Probably not.  I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still.  I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong.  I knew I was wrong.  I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.

I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures.  Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought.  She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus.  I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me.  I was not trying to hook up with Sarah.  And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys.  I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.

No, I thought, this was not a good idea.  I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret.  I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again.  If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.

I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages.  I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient.  This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else.  On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.”  The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number.  This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person.  I took a deep breath and started typing.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name.  You may call me Joe.


I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message.  As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was.  When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it.  I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name.  I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to.  You may call me Joe.


I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down.  I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed.  I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.

By now it felt too late to do homework.  I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham.  I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly.  I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.


I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus.  I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts.  I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days.  I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material.  During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.


15358854@anon.penet.fi   Re: please read, this is real, you know me


Sarah had written back.  I opened the message and began reading.


Joe,

You are not a failure, and you have not let me down.  You definitely have not let God down.  You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.

I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up.  Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse.  Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.  Go for a walk.  Clean your house.  Do whatever it takes.  But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up.  Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me.  I will keep you in my prayers.  Take care and God bless.


I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened.  I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners.  I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked.  I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.

I read Sarah’s email again.  “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.”  I did not play an instrument.  I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played.  But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album.  I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.  The dishes had been piling up for far too long.

I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo.  Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people.  Sarah was on that trip too.  I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicion
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.

That was me.  That was exactly what I had been feeling.  Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.

Lord, be my light, and be my salvation
‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.

Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes.  I never attempted to use the service again.  I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email.  She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.

I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind.  I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians.  Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that.  Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway.  I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience.  One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.

June 1, 1996. Sarah got baptized, and we saw real sheep.

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

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

“You saw who?” I asked.

“My professor for Abnormal Psych.”

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

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

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

“That could be it.”

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

“Once,” I said.

“You know where we’re going?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then you get dunked!” Taylor added.

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

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

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

“That makes sense,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do,” Sarah replied.

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

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

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

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

“Have you been baptized?”

“I was baptized Catholic as a baby.”

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

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

“Yeah!”

“Do you know where Sarah went?”

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

“I’m going to go find her.”

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

“Me too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!  Right there!”

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

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

“I don’t,” I said.

“Never mind.”

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

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

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

May 25, 1996. The 12th annual Man of Steel competition.

“Come in!” I heard a voice say after I knocked on the front door of 1640 Valdez Street.  I opened the door and, surveying the scene, became slightly nervous.  The living room was packed with around fifteen other guys, most of whom were speaking loudly enough that the ensuing cacophony jarred my senses.  I walked to a quiet out-of-the-way corner.

“Greg!” Brian said, writing on a clipboard.  “This is your first Man of Steel, right?”

“Yes.  What do I do?”

“Just hang out for a while.  A lot of people who told me they would be here aren’t yet.  And don’t forget to grab a t-shirt; they’re in that box over there.”

“Greg?” a large blond guy standing next to Brian said.  “This is Greg that you’re gonna live with next year?”

“Yes,” Brian said.  “Greg, do you know Mike Kozlovsky?  He’s one of my housemates.”

“I’ve seen you around,” I said.

“Hi,” the large blond guy said, shaking my hand.  “I’m Mike.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  I knew so many Mikes and Michaels that I would probably think of this guy as Mike Kozlovsky, not just Mike.

The Man of Steel competition had an entry fee, mostly to cover the cost of printing the t-shirts.  I had seen a few older JCF students wearing Man of Steel shirts from previous years, but I did not know until recently what Man of Steel meant.  I pulled an extra large size one out of the box Brian had pointed to; it was white, with a silhouette of Superman on the front.  The shirt said, “To save the world, this MAN OF STEEL is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.  But nothing he can do…”  I turned the shirt over to see a silhouette of Jesus on the cross, and the rest of the sentence: “… can cover our sins.  Isaiah 53:10-12.”  I liked that.  Hopefully no one would get in trouble for trademark infringement, for the unauthorized Superman references.

Eddie saw me and said, “Greg!  You made it!  Are you ready?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

As I mingled and talked to people over the next half hour, more guys trickled in, and over thirty young adult men packed the living room and kitchen by the time Brian called us all to attention at 10:30.  “Welcome to the twelfth annual Man of Steel Competition,” Brian said.  “The first event is Frisbee golf.  We printed out directions, and the tees and targets are marked.  Maximum score for a hole is six, so if you don’t hit the target in five throws, your score is six.  You will be in groups of four for the day, and one group will leave every five minutes.  The first group will be…” Brian looked down at his clipboard.  “Raphael, Lars, John, and Todd.”

As those four left the house with flying discs, I wandered around the room, talking to people and snacking on chips and salsa, listening for my name.  “Group 2: Eddie, Shawn, Mike Kozlovsky, and Brent,”  Brian announced five minutes later.  Five minutes after that, Brian announced, “Group 3: Xander, Matt, Greg, and Kieran.”

I stood up and walked toward Brian.  He gave the four of us a copy of the directions for the course, a pencil, and a score sheet.  “Do you need an extra Frisbee?” Brian asked me, noticing that I did not have one.

“Yeah,” I said.  Brian handed me an orange flying disc with the logo of the Big 5 Sporting Goods store on one side and his initials, BMB, scribbled in Sharpie on the other side.

“The first tee is right outside the house,” Brian explained.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks,” I said.


Twelve years ago, some guys from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship got together for something that they called the Man of Steel Competition.  It was an all-day hangout consisting of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and poker games.  Whoever was the most successful at the three events was crowned the Man of Steel and given a trophy to keep for the year.  Whoever finishes in last place is named the Weenie and receives an extra-small t-shirt as a humorous consolation prize.  The competition had been announced at JCF over the last few weeks, and Brian and Eddie had both specifically encouraged me to come.

In my group, Xander was my year, a sophomore.  I had met him in January, when he and Eddie had kindly prayed with me and invited me to hang out at their house when I was having a bad day.  Matt was a junior, who lived in the same house as Eddie and Xander, right around the corner from where we were now, on Baron Court.  Kieran was an athletically built freshman; I knew him to say hi to, but not well.

“Hole 1,” Kieran read aloud.  “The tee is the marked spot on the sidewalk, and the target is the fire hydrant down there.  A long straightaway.  Got it.”  Kieran threw his disc down the street, using a technique I had never seen in my informal experiences of tossing Frisbees around.  His disc sailed far down the street, landing about twenty feet from the fire hydrant.

“Nice!” I said.

Matt and Xander threw their discs accurately as well, but neither one ended up as close to the target as Kieran’s.  Mine curved off course to a vacant lot across the street near where some new houses were being built, less than halfway to the fire hydrant.

“Your turn,” Xander said.

“I just went,” I replied.

“You’re the farthest away, so you go first for the second toss.”

I was not aware of that rule, since this was my first time playing disc golf.  I threw my disc toward the fire hydrant; it went closer to the correct direction this time, but still landed far from the target.  Kieran hit the target in two tosses; Xander and Matt, three each; and I got five.

The second target was around the corner on Baron Court, a tree in the yard of the house where Eddie, Xander, and John lived with a bunch of other guys.  Baron Court dead-ended into a park connected to one of Jeromeville’s greenbelts; a light pole at the edge of the park was the third target.  I hit it in four throws, my best so far, although I was still far behind the others.

“Hole 4,’” I read.  “‘Dogleg around large oak tree, hit bench.’  What does ‘dogleg’ mean?”

“The disc has to go around the tree and then to the right.  You can’t cut straight across on that side of the tree,” Kieran explained, pointing.  He stood on the tee spot and threw his disc; it curved perfectly around the tree, exactly as it was supposed to.

“I see,” I explained.  I threw my disc next; it began curving to the right far too early, landing in a position where I would have to throw it even farther to make it curve to the correct side of the tree.  I groaned.

“It’s okay,” Xander said.  “Just do the same thing you just did from the place where it is now, and you’ll end up on the right side of the tree with a straight shot to the target.”

“That would be nice, if I could throw straight,” I said.

As the morning continued into early afternoon, I became increasingly frustrated, and the others sensed this.  A dead branch lay next to the lamppost that was the eleventh hole; I picked it up and threw it angrily after having scored the worst possible score of six for the third consecutive time.  “Hey,” Xander said.  “Calm down.  It’s just a game.”

“I’m terrible at this,” I said

“Don’t worry about it,” Kieran added.  “Just have fun.”

“But I’m going to be the Weenie.  If I had known that this was just another way for the popular athletic guys to humiliate me for not being good at stuff, I wouldn’t have come.  I got enough of that in elementary school.”

“Dude,” Xander said.  “That’s not what this is at all.  We don’t want to humiliate you.  It’s just for fun.  Besides, being named the Weenie is kind of an honor.  It’s just silly.”

“If you say so,” I said.  I tried to calm down and have fun.  I took a deep breath and calmly threw my disc toward the twelfth target; it traveled far in a straight line, and I finished that hole in only three throws, my best so far that day.

The eighteenth hole took us back to Brian’s house, where we turned in our scoresheet and waited for the rest of the groups to finish.  I asked a few of the people ahead of us what their scores were, and all of them made me feel more discouraged about mine, so I stopped asking and talked about other things instead.

After all eight groups had returned, Brian got our attention again.  “The next step is the hamburger eating contest.  You have sixty seconds to eat the first hamburger, fifty-five seconds to eat the second one, fifty seconds to eat the third one, and so on.  It counts as long as the whole thing is in your mouth when time runs out, and your mouth is closed.  You will go four at a time, in your same groups, called in random order.”

I watched as one of the groups began eating.  The hamburgers were the basic 79-cent hamburgers from McDonald’s, nothing big or fancy.  I did not like pickles, but for the purpose of this competition, I could make myself eat pickles this one time.  Dan Conway, a senior who lived in this house with Brian, dropped out surprisingly early; he got something stuck in his throat and could not finish his third burger, drawing a chorus of “Awwwww”s from the crowd.  James made it to eight, the most of anyone in that group.

When my turn came, I stepped up to the table with Xander, Kieran, and Matt.  “Go!” Brian said, starting the stopwatch.  I picked up the first hamburger and began taking large bites.  “Forty-five seconds,” Brian said shortly after we started, and he continued to announce the time remaining every fifteen seconds, so I stopped trying to time myself in my head.  I finished the first burger in plenty of time.  “Go!” Brian exclaimed when it was time to begin the second hamburger; I finished this one easily as well.  The third one was a little bit closer, but I swallowed the last bit of it just before Brian gave the signal.

I noticed some people dipping their hamburgers in a glass of water, presumably to make them softer and easier to swallow.  I tried this with the fourth one; it did, at least it made it easier to get it in my mouth, but it also turned it into a gooey mess that did not taste as good.  I swallowed the burger in the allotted time, though.

The fifth hamburger was more difficult.  The time had decreased to forty seconds, and although the burger was completely in my mouth when the time ran out, I had not swallowed all of it.  This left less space in my mouth for burger number six, which I now had only thirty-five seconds to eat.  I got the burger completely wet before eating it, and just before time ran out, I managed to stuff the last bite in my mouth.  But I knew that I would not make it much farther in this event, with chewed hamburger piling up in my mouth faster than I could swallow it.  As I took my first bite of burger number seven, I noticed that Matt had not finished his sixth.  I felt a renewed sense of motivation now that I knew I would not finish last in my group.  I forced myself to start swallowing what was already in my mouth, so that I had room to begin chewing burger number seven and close my lips as time expired.  I now had only twenty-five seconds to eat burger number eight, and as that time quickly passed, I knew I would advance no further.  I tried my best to swallow what was in my mouth and make room for burger number eight, but I just could not.  Xander also dropped out after seven, and Kieran, after shoving burger number eight in his mouth, ran to the garbage can and spit it all out without even touching number nine.  I did much more respectably in this event, only one burger behind the leader in my group.  Around half of the people who had gone so far did not make it to seven.

As the day went on, as much as I wanted to be encouraging, I secretly felt relieved every time someone did not finish seven burgers.  Less competition for me.  I needed all the help I could get.  My score of seven felt less respectable as the event continued, though; Brian ate nine, and two guys named Lars Ashford and Alex McCann each ate ten.

I had overheard someone earlier say that Mike Kozlovsky set the record in last year’s hamburger event with eleven.  As Mike’s group began, I tried to picture how that was possible, to shove ten hamburgers in one’s mouth and still have room to fit an eleventh hamburger in only ten seconds.  Twelve was considered a perfect score, because at burger number twelve, the time to eat it would be only five seconds, and with the time decreasing by five seconds for every burger, there would be no time for a thirteenth.

Mike Kozlovsky was a pretty big guy, and he ate the first eight hamburgers effortlessly.  He even appeared to be swallowing everything.  Burger number nine, he easily fit it in his mouth, but he had not finished swallowing when his twenty seconds was up.  He dunked burger number ten in his glass of water and tore off big chunks of it, pushing them into his mouth as he attempted to swallow what was already there.  I watched in amazement as he did the same for burger number eleven; I could see his cheeks puff up from all the unswallowed burger inside.  The rest of his group had all stopped by then.

“Possible new record,” Brian said, looking at the stopwatch.  “Go!”

Mike grabbed a burger, dunked it in the glass of water, tore it into pieces, and hurriedly shoved the pieces into his mouth.  As his five seconds ran out, he just barely closed his lips.

“Perfect score!” Brian shouted as the rest of the room erupted into applause  Mike, his mouth still full, turned to the crowd and raised both arms in victory.  Then, he stood next to the garbage can, bringing his hand to his mouth and pulling out a wad of chewed beef, bread, pickles, and onions the size of a softball.  Mike tossed the wad into the garbage.

“Ew!” several in the crowd shouted.

My score of seven was somewhere in the middle for the hamburger event; hopefully that would be enough to keep me out of contention for the Weenie.  Several had eaten less than seven hamburgers, but I was not sure if any of those people were as bad at disc golf as I was.  One more event remained, poker.

I knew some of the common traditional variations, like draw poker and stud poker.  I knew how to rank the hands.  And that put me in an unfortunate position, because it left me thinking I knew how to play poker when I actually did not.  To me, at the time, the way to succeed in poker was to have the good luck to draw a good hand; I knew little of the strategy surrounding bluffing and knowing when to bet or fold.

The rules were simple.  We each got 100 pennies to use for betting, and we would play in our same groups of four for one hour.  We took turns dealing, and the dealer chose the type of poker as well as any wild cards or special rules.  If you ran out of coins before the hour was up, you were out, and the object was to finish with as many coins as possible.

We started with a few games of simple draw poker.  I had some good hands, some bad hands, and one hand where I actually won with three of a kind, so I had about the same number of coins I started with when it came around to Kieran’s second turn to deal.

“Guts,” Kieran said.  “Do you guys know how to play Guts?”

“I don’t,” I said.

“You ante one chip and get two cards.  A pair beats no pair, and other than that it’s just the highest cards, like poker.  If you want to stay in, you hold a chip, make a fist, and we all show at the same time if we’re in.  Highest hand takes the pot, and anyone who stayed in and lost has to put in as many chips as there were in the pot, so it keeps getting bigger.  If only one person stays in, they take the pot and the round is over.  I’ll explain it as we go along too.”

I did not like this game.  I did not have guts.  But it was Kieran’s turn to pick the game, so I had no say in this.  My first hand was a three and a five, so I dropped out.  All the others stayed in; Kieran won, so he took the four coins from the pot, and Xander and Matt each had to put four more coins in the pot.  My next hand was an ace and queen.  This was a much better hand; the only things that beat this were ace-king or a pair.  Although it was far from a guaranteed win, I decided to stay in.  Kieran was the only other one who stayed in, and he had a pair of sixes; he took the eight coins in the pot, and I had to pay eight coins to make the new pot.  My next hand was a four and seven; I was out, and Kieran was the only one to stay in, so he took my eight coins, and the game was over.  I was the next dealer, and I chose to go back to draw poker.  Guts was not my kind of game, especially in a high-stakes situation like this.

Over the course of the hour, I gradually lost money as I played conservatively.  I had a few wins, and a few major losses.  In one round of seven-card stud, I was dealt two queens in the hole, and after I got another queen on the second face-up card, I placed a large bet on the final round, struggling to keep a poker face.  Xander, who had two aces showing, stayed in.  He ended up having a third ace in the hole, but I finished with a full house and took the pot.

With about ten minutes to go, I had sixty-eight coins, and Kieran called Guts for the game.  I dropped out on the first deal and lost on the second; no one else had dropped out, so the pot was now twenty-four coins.  My next hand was two eights.  This was a pretty good hand; the only things that could beat it would be a higher pair.  I tried using what I had learned in Dr. Thomas’ combinatorics class to figure out my chances of winning, but I could not complete the calculation in time.  I decided I was in; Matt and Kieran stayed in as well.  We showed our hands; Matt had a king and queen, but Kieran had two jacks.  Kieran took the pot, and Matt and I each had to put another twenty-four coins in.

In the next deal, I got a pair of queens.  I felt pretty confident about my chances.  Xander and Kieran stayed in as well; Xander had an ace and nine, but Kieran had a pair of kings.  Kieran took the forty-eight coins in the pot, and Xander and I each had to put forty-eight coins in the pot.  “I’m out of coins,” I said.  “I lost.”  I put all of my remaining coins in the pot and watched the other three continue playing.

When the hour was finished, I dejectedly told Brian that I had no money left.  I also handed him the disc he had loaned me, but he told me to keep it.  “It wasn’t very expensive.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I walked over to the couch and sat.  Eddie saw me a few minutes later and asked, “How’d you do, Greg?”

“Not very well.  I ate seven burgers, but I did terribly in the other two events.  I really hope I’m not the Weenie.  I spent enough time in elementary school being made fun of for not being good at things.”

“This is supposed to be fun.  Don’t get discouraged.  We won’t make fun of you.”

“I know.  I’m just competitive.  But it was fun.  And hopefully I’ll do better next year.”

“I’m going to help count scores,” Eddie said.  “But don’t feel bad.”

It took a while for Brian and Eddie to evaluate everyone’s scores.  No one explained how exactly the scores for the three events were combined to choose a Man of Steel and a Weenie.  I knew I was not going to win; at this point, I was just hoping not to be the Weenie.

Brian emerged from the back of the house and got everyone’s attention again.  “Gentlemen, the 1996 Weenie is Dan Conway!”  Brian gave Dan his Weenie prize, an extra-small T-shirt.  “Next,” Brian continued, “the runner up… Alex McCann!”  Alex stood up, and everyone applauded.  Brian held up a small trophy and said, “And the winner of the 12th annual Man of Steel Competition, your 1996 Man of Steel… Mike Kozlovsky!”

I applauded, along with everyone else.  I was not particularly surprised by this.  Mike’s first ever perfect score in the hamburger eating event was certainly impressive.

I hung out for about another hour, talking to people, and I joined in another game of poker just for fun.  Eddie actually told me years later that Dan and I had tied for Weenie, but that he and Brian decided to give it to Dan.  Dan would get a good laugh out of it, and Eddie did not want to humiliate me, since I was new to the group and participating in my first Man of Steel.

Now that I knew what to expect, I would go into future Man of Steel competitions a bit more relaxed.  I was doing this to have fun with friends.  I would have no expectation of ever being in contention of winning this competition, because I was terrible at disc golf, my understanding of poker would only help me if I drew a few lucky hands, and while I was respectable at eating, I was nowhere near on par with Mike Kozlovsky or Alex.  This was the first of four Man of Steel competitions I would participate in during the years I lived in Jeromeville, and after having been through this first one, going into future competitions with no expectation of winning made them more enjoyable.  And, who knows… I just might surprise myself someday.

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

The Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, ASUJ for short, was the organization responsible for student activities at UJ.  They held two major festivals every year.  They were less than a month apart, since both involved traditions specific to spring.  The Spring Picnic, which began decades ago as the school’s open house and grew into a major festival, was interesting and fun.  The other festival was called the Mother Earth Festival, held on Mother’s Day weekend.  It was a bunch of hippie stuff, not really my thing.

I attended the Mother Earth Festival exactly once, in 1996.  It was a Saturday afternoon, I was bored, and I decided to check it out, so I got on my bike, parked it on campus, and walked around the Quad.

The Quad was packed.  Craft and vendor booths lined the edges of the Quad, with a sea of humanity in between.  I walked along the row of booths, peeking at what was happening inside.  Face painting.  Beads.  Tie-dyeing.  Henna tattoos.  These round things with feathers on them that the sign called dreamcatchers.  At the south end of the quad, the temporary stage where I saw Lawsuit at previous Spring Picnics was set up, and two musicians were playing instruments I could not identify while some lady in a long skirt with armpit hair frolicked and pranced on the stage.  I walked up the other side of the Quad, looking at other booths, before deciding that nothing here particularly piqued my interest.  The most memorable thing I remember seeing in the fifteen minutes I spent at the Mother Earth Festival was this girl with big boobs sunbathing in a bikini.  She and her flat-chested friend were not dressed as hippies at all, and their armpits were actually shaved.  I looked at them for about five seconds, then moved on so it would not look creepy.

As I approached the place where I had parked, I walked past a bench and saw a girl named Maria who was in my Advanced Composition class last quarter, sitting on a bench looking away from me.  I took my rolled-up copy of the Mother Earth Festival schedule of events, and I tapped her on the shoulder with it.

Maria turned to look at me, except it was not Maria.  This girl had a similar build, hairstyle, and coloring, but otherwise looked nothing like Maria.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I thought you were someone else.”  I walked away before the other girl could respond.

Why did I do that?  I kept replaying the embarrassing incident in my mind as I rode my bike back home.  Maria had not been not looking at me, I had no need to go out of my way to say hi to her, and I did not really want to talk to Maria anyway.  The angry political messages on the buttons all over her backpack clearly indicated that she was not the kind of person I wanted to get to know, and I did not find her attractive.  And now some other girl probably thought I was a weirdo, all because I had decided to be friendly.


Unfortunately for me, I tended to be just as awkward around girls I actually did find attractive.  Two days later, during a break between classes, I was walking around the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I held a slice of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate and a Coca-Cola in a reusable large plastic mug.  Some division of ASUJ was handing these mugs out free a few weeks ago, to encourage people not to fill up the landfills with disposable cups.  Drinks were 25 cents less at the ASUJ Coffee House for customers bringing their own cups.  Of course, I had a disposable paper plate, but at least that was biodegradable, and bringing an actual plate to campus would be somewhat unwieldy.

I looked out the window to a courtyard-like area, which was surrounded on three sides by the building.  A large round fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, but it was dry and had been ever since I began attending UJ.  Metal tables and chairs were arranged around part of the courtyard.  I felt that familiar jolt of excitement and nervousness as I saw Haley Channing sitting at one of those tables, alone.  Finally, this might be a chance to talk to Haley one-on-one with no one else around.  I almost spilled my drink as I opened the door leading to the courtyard, but caught myself.  “Hey,” I said as I walked up to Haley.  “May I sit here?”

“Hi, Greg!” Haley replied, smiling.  “Go ahead!”

I placed my food on the table and sat down.  “How’s your day going?” I asked.

“Pretty good, except I have a paper to write.  I’m gonna be busy tonight.  You?”

“I’m good.  I have a lot of math homework, though.”

“What math class are you taking?”

“Applied Linear Algebra and Combinatorics.  Two classes.”

“I have no idea what either of those mean.”

“Linear algebra works with matrices.”

“I kind of remember matrices in high school, a little bit.”

“And combinatorics is about problems that come up with counting combinations and things like that.  If I have license plates with three letters and three numbers, and I need to figure out how many possible license plates there could be, that’s a combinatorics problem.  At least that’s what we did back in the first chapter.”

“Interesting.”

“It is.  I also really like the professor for that class.”  I looked up and saw a familiar face walking toward us; it was Claire Seaver from church.  I waved, and Claire walked over to our table.  

“Hey,” Claire said to me.  “How are you?”

“I’m doing well.  Claire, this is Haley–”

“Hi, Haley,” Claire interrupted, smiling.

“Hi,” Haley replied with a tone of recognition.

“How do you two know each other?” I asked, trying to hide my shame in not knowing this and being caught off guard.

“Chorus,” Haley replied.  “I used to do that last year.”

“I keep telling Greg he should join chorus,” Claire said.

“You should!” Haley told me.  “I’ve heard you sing.  You have a good voice.”

“Maybe,” I replied.

“How were your weekends?” Claire asked.  “Did you guys call your mothers for Mother’s Day?”

“I did,” Haley said.

“I saw this thing on the Internet the other day where you can send someone flowers by email.  You get an email, and it’s a picture of flowers with a personalized message,” I said.  “My parents just got email recently, Mom loves email, so I sent one of those to Mom.”

“That’s fun,” Claire replied.

“If I’m going to send flowers to my mother, she’s gonna get real flowers,” Haley said.  “No emails and pictures for my mother.”

“I need to get going, but I’ll see you guys later,” Claire said.  We both waved and said goodbye as she walked away.  As I took a bite of my pizza and chewed it, I kept thinking that I was probably blowing it with Haley.  I had tried to introduce herself to someone she already knew, and she disapproved of my Mother’s Day gift.  After I swallowed my pizza, I attempted to resurrect the conversation, asking, “Do you still do chorus now?”

“No.  I did last year, but I have too much going on now.”

“That makes sense.  I played piano as a kid, but I was always so self-conscious about performing for others.  But I’m starting to get over that.  This year I started singing in my church choir; that’s how I know Claire.”

“Nice!  Chorus is always looking for guys.”

“Maybe I will for next year,” I said.  We continued making small talk as we finished eating, and I hoped that she could not read disappointment in my body language.  I could not help but feel like I had embarrassed myself in front of her.


Whenever I introduce two people now, I always ask them first if they know each other; this is a direct result of that incident all those years ago when I tried to introduce Claire and Haley.  But that was still not the worst awkward moment I experienced that week.

I was back in the Memorial Union a few days later, looking for a place to study, and I saw a familiar brown-haired face sitting at a table by herself.  It was my friend Lizzie, one of those people whom I initially crossed paths with just because we knew someone in common.  Lizzie went to high school with Jack Chalmers, another math major who had been in multiple classes with me.  Last fall, Jack and I had linear algebra together, and Lizzie had a class in the same classroom right before ours.  Jack and Lizzie would say hi to each other as we waited in the hall and her class exited the room.  Jack talked a lot, and he talked fast, and sometimes he would say hi to Lizzie in the middle of a sentence with me.  He would say something like, “Hey Greg I’m totally not ready for this test and I blew off studying last night Hi Lizzie! so I hope I don’t bomb it because I totally need to keep my grades up.”  Eventually, I started saying hi to Lizzie when I saw her around campus, and we had actually had conversations beyond hello a few times.

“Hey,” I said, approaching Lizzie’s table.  “Mind if I sit here?”

“Hi!” Lizzie exclaimed enthusiastically.  “Go ahead!”

“Thanks.”

“How’s it going?”

“I’m doing okay.  Just busy with classes.  What about you?”

“Same with me.  I have a midterm tomorrow.  But the school year is almost over!”

“I know!  Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”

“Just going home and working.  I need the money.  What about you?”

“I’m staying here, taking a class.  This will be the first time I’ve been in Jeromeville for the summer.”

“I hear it gets really hot!”

“I kind of like the heat, though.”

“What class are you taking?”

“Computer Science 40,” I explained.  “I’m taking CS 30 now, it’s required for the math major, and I love it.  There’s an upper division CS class, Data Structures, that counts toward my degree in place of a math class, but it requires 30 and 40 as prerequisites.  It’s really hard to get CS classes because there are so many CS majors, and not much computer lab space, so they put a cap on how many can enroll, and CS majors have priority.  Enrollment wasn’t restricted for the summer class.”

“Smart!” Lizzie replied.  “You’re a math major, right?  That’s how you know Jack?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you major in CS, if you like it that much?”

“Because I didn’t want something fun to turn into work.  Also, my computer knowledge was several years out of date by the time I got here, and I knew I’d be competing with kids whose knowledge was much more advanced.”

“That makes sense.  So you’re just taking the one class?”

“Yeah.  First session.  I’m not taking any classes second session.  I’ll probably just hang out here and try to find something fun to do.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I’ve discovered over the last couple years that I like to write.  I’m working on a novel now, when I have time and I’m in the right mood.”

“That’s so cool!”

“Just for fun,” I said.  “I know, I’m a math guy, I’m not supposed to be a writer.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being both!  What’s your novel about?”

“There’s this guy, he’s a senior in high school, but he needs a fresh start, and he wants to leave his past behind.  So he goes away to live with relatives.  And he feels like he isn’t ready to move on to the next part of his life, so he pretends to be younger so he can have a couple more years in high school.”

“Wow,” Lizzie said.  “Where’d you get the idea for that?”

“I guess I’ve kind of wished for that myself,” I explained.  “I feel like I really grew a lot my senior year of high school, but then just as life was getting interesting, my friends and I all graduated and moved away and lost touch.  I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had another year or two to grow in that environment, if I would have gotten to experience more things I missed out on.”

“Well, I think you turned out fine.”

“Thank you,” I said.  Then, after a pause, I added, “You can read it if you want.”

“Yeah!  It sounds really good!”

“I could email you some of what I have so far.  Does that work?”

“Sure.  Let me give you my email.”  Lizzie tore off a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote on it, then passed it to me.  I opened it and read what she wrote, very confused for a few seconds, then suddenly frightened and embarrassed as I began to realize the full implications of what I read.


Lindsay’s email:
lkvandenberg@jeromeville.edu


Lindsay’s email.  I had known this girl, whom I had been calling Lizzie, for over seven months, and this whole time her name was Lindsay.  I had never seen her name in print before.  I knew her through Jack, who talks really fast, so when I heard Jack say “Hi, Lindsay,” it came out sounding like “Hi Lizzie.”  I suddenly tried to recall every time I had actually spoken to Lindsay, trying to remember if I had ever called her Lizzie to her face.  I could not remember.  I looked up at her, trying to put the name Lindsay Vandenberg to this face, and it felt weird, because she was still Lizzie to me.

“Greg?” Lindsay asked.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I was just thinking about something.  No big deal.  But I’ll send you my story.”

“Great!  I look forward to reading it!”  Lindsay looked at her watch.  “I need to get going, I have class, but I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yeah!  Have a great day!”

“You too!”

I never found out if Lindsay knew that I thought her name was Lizzie for seven months.  She was never in my inner social circle, and we did not stay in touch after we graduated, but we always said hi to each other on campus.

For some reason, I have always disliked using people’s names out loud.  It just feels uncomfortable to me, and I do not know why.  But this odd quirk may have worked to my advantage on that day, because it was entirely possible that I had never actually called Lindsay Lizzie outside of my own head.  When I saw her, I was much more likely to just say “Hi” instead of “Hi, Lizzie.”  But even if I had ever accidentally called her Lizzie, there was not much that I could do about it now.  Besides, while my realization that Lindsay’s name was not Lizzie felt awkward and embarrassing, much of that embarrassment was in my own head.  If it was unlikely that she ever heard me call her Lizzie, she would have no way of knowing that I did not know her real name for so long.

Most guys have had their share of awkward moments around girls; and, of course, this statement applied to other combinations of genders and orientations as well.  I always felt particularly prone to awkward moments, mostly because I had never had a girlfriend, and I seemed to lack successful non-awkward experience with girls.  Over the years, I would have many more experiences of getting someone’s name wrong, or saying something that was misinterpreted.  But I have seen enough over the years now to know that I certainly was not alone in this.  And many others have had awkward moments that primarily happened in their own heads, unnoticed by those around them.  I just had to accept the fact that I was not perfect, and the right people in my life would accept me, flaws and all.

Early May, 1996. A stressful week.

A few months before every Olympic Games, the Olympic torch is lit by the sun on Mount Olympus in Greece and brought across Greece and the country hosting the Games that year.  In 1996, the upcoming Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta, on the opposite side of the United States from Jeromeville. The torch would travel across the United States by way of a relay.  Thousands of people would carry the torch for a short distance, then pass it to someone else, with crowds of onlookers watching as the torch made its way across their parts of the country.

On the day before the torch passed through Jeromeville, I sat alone at a table at the Memorial Union, eating a burrito and doing the crossword puzzle in the Daily Colt.  I had work to do, I had a combinatorics midterm coming up in a few days, but I was not in the mood to do work, given everything on my mind.  I had been looking for a house for next year, with no luck so far, and I was starting to worry about this.  (This was before I talked to Shawn about looking for an apartment instead.)

I walked into combinatorics class about five minutes before it was scheduled to start; this was the last class before the midterm.  I was a quarter ahead in math entering the University of Jeromeville, so I did not take freshman calculus in large lecture halls with people who were taking math on schedule.  Because of that, this combinatorics class, with about eighty people, was the largest math class I had taken at UJ so far.  I looked around the room and saw Andrea Briggs, who had been in a few classes with me before and lived in the dorm next to mine last year. She sat next to an open seat, so I walked up to it and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” Andrea replied.

“How are you?”

“I’m great!” she said.  “Jay came to visit this weekend, and he proposed!”  Andrea held up her left hand, with the third finger now bearing a diamond ring.

“Congratulations!” I said awkwardly.  Was that the right thing to say in response to this?  I was not sure.  As far as I knew, she was the first of my friends to get engaged.  This was a completely new experience to me.

“What about you?” she asked.  “How are you?”

“My week hasn’t been nearly as exciting.  I had a quiz in my other math class this morning.”

“Which class?  How’d you do?”

“167, with Dr. Ionescu.  I’m getting an A in that class, but I feel like I’m not learning anything.  Most of what we’re doing is just review from 22A.  And the entire grade is based on surprise quizzes every three or four classes, so there’s no reason to remember anything.”

“Yeah, that’s weird.  But at least you’re getting an A.”

“Yeah.”

Gabby, the combinatorics professor, began lecturing about generating functions for recurrence relations, so I stopped talking and began taking notes.  Dr. Gabrielle Thomas was my favorite math professor at UJ so far.  She was fairly young, I would guess in her thirties; she spoke English clearly; and she told us to call her Gabby, which seemed refreshingly informal to me.  That made her feel more like a human being, whom I could relate to, compared to many of my other professors.

I tried to focus on what Gabby was saying, because of the upcoming midterm.  I still had not mastered recurrence relations, but I thought I would probably do fine once I took the time to study and practice the material.  However, I had a hard time concentrating today.  I kept wanting to sneak glances at Andrea’s left hand, not because of any particular curiosity about what her ring looked like, but because she had one in the first place.  I was over Andrea as a possible love interest; I found out over a year ago that she had a boyfriend.  But it just felt weird, and discouraging, that I was at the age when my friends would be getting married.  Andrea would soon be committing herself to one man for life, probably starting a family with him after she finished school, and I had still never kissed a girl.

After class, as I headed back to the Memorial Union where my bicycle was parked, I saw Danielle Coronado and Claire Seaver from church sitting at a table talking.  Danielle was one of the first friends I made at UJ; she lived down the hall from me in my dorm last year.  “Hey,” I said as I approached them.

“Greg!” Danielle said, smiling and waving.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire said.  “Have you started your project yet?”

“Kind of.”

“Which math class do you two have together?” Danielle asked me.

“Anthro 2,” I explained.  “Not math.”  Danielle’s assumption was warranted, however, because Claire was a music major with a minor in mathematics.

“That’s right, anthro,” Danielle said.  “With that professor who did a class for the IHP last year.”

“Yes.  Dick Small.”  I still found that name hilarious, because of my extensive background in dirty jokes.  “I’m going to observe and write about the IRC channel FriendlyChat,” I continued.

“Is that that thing where you talk to strangers on the computer?”

“Yeah.  Internet Relay Chat.  I was in FriendlyChat earlier today, and there’s some kind of complicated leadership structure with who gets to be a channel operator, and all these rules that they get mad at you for not knowing.  And when I kept announcing that I was doing an anthro project, as the ethics of anthropology require, some of them got mad at me for spamming.  So I’m off to a frustrating start.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll figure out a way to get your project done.”

“I hope so.  I’m just stressed about a lot of things.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I want to go see the torch tomorrow, though,” I said.

“Oh yeah!  When is that supposed to be?”

“It’ll be passing along Fifth Street between 1 and 2.”

“I have class,” Danielle said, feeling slightly disappointed.  “But have fun!”

“I will!  I’m going to head home now, but I’ll see you guys soon.”

“Bye, Greg,” Claire said.

“Bye,” Danielle added, waving.

I waved at the girls as I walked to my bicycle and went home.  I was riding a little more slowly than usual.  I felt weighed down by my upcoming midterm, the anthro project, looking for a house, and my fear of being left behind now that people I knew were getting married.


I had most of the next day free.  After I finished my one class, I planned to stay on campus and get work done until around noon, eat lunch, then go find a place to watch the Olympic torch.  I walked into the Memorial Union after class and looked for a table.  I saw Sarah Winters, whom I knew both from the dorm last year and from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sitting by herself at a table, reading, with a notebook and textbook open.  I walked to her table and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Yeah!” Sarah said.  “How are you?”

“I’m stressed,” I said.

“What’s going on?”

“I’ve been trying to find a house for us next year, I’ve looked at a bunch of places, and I haven’t heard anything back yet.  And I have a big midterm for Math 145 tomorrow.  And I’m frustrated in general with Applied Linear Algebra, Math 167.  That class is a waste of time, and I’m not learning anything.”  Sarah began writing something as I continued speaking.  “And I just found out that someone I know, her boyfriend proposed.  I’ve never even had a girlfriend, and now I have friends who are getting married.”  As Sarah continued writing, I wondered if I was bothering her, if I should let her work on whatever she was doing.  “And I have this big project for Anthro 2 that I need to work on, and what I wanted to do hasn’t been working out so far.”  I stopped talking now, because Sarah was clearly busy with whatever she was working on.  I got out my combinatorics textbook and began looking over the section that would be covered on the test tomorrow.

“This is for you,” Sarah said, as she placed the paper she had been writing on top of my textbook. I read what she wrote:


“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6


I looked up and saw Sarah looking at me with a peaceful, contented smile on her face.  “Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile in return.

“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Sarah said.  “Really.”

“I know,” I said.  “But–”

“You’ll be okay.”

I took a deep breath.  “I’ll be okay.”

We sat there for the rest of the hour studying, occasionally making small talk.  “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sarah asked at one point.

“I’m done with classes for the day.  But I’m gonna go see the torch.”

“Fun!  I can’t.  I’ll be in class during that time.”

I looked again at the note that Sarah wrote.  God had a plan for me.  My grades, my house for next year, my future wife, all of this was in God’s hands.  Trust God.  The second verse, from Proverbs, was a little bit familiar to me already, because there was a song we sang at Bible study sometimes based on that verse.  I had made a decision that I was living my life for Jesus, and now it was time to trust him to make this all work out somehow.  

Sarah left to go to class a bit later.  As I continued studying combinatorics, I really did begin to feel better about tomorrow’s midterm.  At noon, I got out the sandwich I had packed that morning, and when I finished that, I headed toward Fifth Street at the northern edge of campus.  Crowds waiting to see the torch were already beginning to line the street.  I found a spot next to an aged olive tree and leaned against the tree, waiting.  I had my backpack with me, so I continued studying combinatorics while I waited for the torch to arrive.

After I had been waiting for about forty minutes, I saw police cars approaching slowly, stopping drivers and pedestrians from entering or crossing Fifth Street.  This must be it.  Behind the police cars were a number of official vehicles with US and Olympic flags; a truck from Coca-Cola, the event’s sponsor; and finally someone wearing running shorts holding the Olympic torch.  I did not know if the torchbearer was someone famous or not.

I looked up at the torch in wonder.  That flame was ignited on the other side of the world and brought all the way here, continuously burning.  That felt kind of surreal.  This was a symbol of one of the biggest athletic events on Earth.  In two months, the world would be watching athletes from every inhabited continent competing for Olympic glory, and this same flame would burn over the shiny new stadium that Atlanta had just finished building for these Games.  People cheered at the moment that the torchbearer passed in front of them, and I joined in as he passed me.

A few minutes after the torch passed, when the entire entourage had moved beyond where I was standing, I turned around to go back to the Memorial Union, where my bicycle was parked.  “Excuse me?” a man asked me.  He had a fancy camera on a strap around his neck and a small Coca-Cola logo embroidered on his shirt on his chest to his left.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Can I get a picture of you holding this?”  The man handed me a full, unopened Coca-Cola plastic bottle.

I was confused.  “Why me?” I asked.

“No reason.  I’m just looking for people to photograph with Coke bottles, for our promotional materials.”

“Okay,” I said.  I smiled at the camera, holding the drink up, as he clicked the shutter a few times.

“Thank you!” the photographer said.  “You can keep the Coke.”

I walked back toward my bike as I drank my free Coca-Cola.  To this day, I never saw my picture in any Coca-Cola advertisements, so I do not know if they ever ended up doing anything with the picture.  But I got a free drink out of it.


When I got home that afternoon, I turned on the computer and connected to the campus Internet, listening to the whirs and clicks of the modem dialing the access number.  I opened a text terminal and connected to Internet Relay Chat, then entered the FriendlyChat channel using my usual screen name, “gjd76.”  About a minute after I joined, I copied and pasted the same message I copied and pasted every fifteen minutes while I was working on this: “I am working on a project for an anthropology class, making observations of the culture in this channel.  I will not use your actual names or actual screen names.”

“gjd76, u might not wanna tell us that, people might act different if they know ur studying them,” one person typed.

“true, but my professor says it’s unethical not to tell people they’re being studied,” I replied.

“Let me know if I can answer any questions for you,” one of the channel operators said.

“i will,” I typed back.  So far, this was going much better than yesterday; people were actually being helpful.

As I reached for my notebook in my backpack, I found the note that Sarah had written to me, with the Bible verses on it.  I read it again.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm youTrust in the Lord with all your heart.  Good advice.  I took two push pins and attached Sarah’s note to the bulletin board above my desk.  That way it could be a reminder for me while I was sitting here at the computer; I could look up and see those Scriptures.

I spent about an hour and a half in the FriendlyChat channel, and this time I was able to make much more meaningful observations and have more meaningful interactions with the people in the chat than I had yesterday.  If I had a few more days like this, I would have plenty of material to use to write my paper.  I also felt much better about my midterm for combinatorics, after having studied today.  I had still not heard from any of the houses I was looking for, but the more I thought about this, I decided I would talk to my roommates for next year and find out if they would be willing to look for an apartment instead.  They were fine with living in an apartment, and we did end up getting one, as I told before.  And while I was still discouraged with my own lack of romantic relationship in light of Andrea being engaged, the Lord had a plan for her that was not his plan for me, and I was not ready to begin thinking about marriage with anyone right now.  I was better off trusting in His timing.

I would learn later in life that the quote from Jeremiah is often derided as one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context.  Reading the chapters around it reveals that God declared those words to a specific group of people at a specific time, not to everyone reading them throughout all of history.  However, statements like that reveal the character of God, and although Jeremiah was not writing to me, the God who had a plan for his people thousands of years ago did also have a plan for me in 1996. The precise concept of “prosper” may not have involved material wealth in my case, but I just had to trust that God knew what was best for me.  Those two verses became ones that I have known from memory ever since.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding,” I began singing under my breath.  I liked that song, the one I had heard at Bible study before.  I did not know any of this at the time, but the original vocalist of that song was the same age as me, and still a teenager when the song was recorded.  The guitarist, who actually wrote the song, was not much older.  The two of them and their band would go on to have a major pop hit a few years later, which would confuse me a little in a time when I tended to draw very strict lines between Christian and secular music.  But that is a story for another time.

May 3-5, 1996. Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly.

“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later.  What was this?  I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos.  Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video.  But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.

The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built.  Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF.  By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects.  The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.

A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter.  He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer.  Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject.  Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that.  But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that.  Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane.  I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport.  The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.

Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF.  He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana  Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana?  Are you gonna go?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that.  And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer.  And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco.  So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”

“It would!”

“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”

“That makes sense.  You have a while to think about it and save up for it.  The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Are you going?”

“I’m planning to.  Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it.  It sounded really great.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around.  I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well.  Melinda saw me first and waved.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.  “How was your week?”

“It was good,” I said.  “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”

“I just finished one.  I hope I do well.  Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing.  Why?”

“Come over!  Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”

“A cat birthday party,” I repeated.  “How does that work?  Do I bring a present?”

“No.  Just bring yourself.”

“I should be able to make that.  Where do you live?”

“Pine Grove, number 202.  Do you know where that is?”

“Pine Grove Apartments?  Yeah, I know where that is.”

“Great!  Come over any time after six.”

“I’ll be there!  Sounds good!”


A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice.  The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller.  Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove.  This had been a deciding factor for me.  But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.

Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus.  I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202.  I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.

“Greg!” she said.  “Come on in!”

I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual.  Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there.  Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.

“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.

“Not much,” I said.  “I got all my homework done for the weekend.  But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”

“When’s it due?”

“Not until the 29th.”

“Then why are you thinking about it now?”

“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would.  That’ll take time.”

“Yeah, but you have the whole month.  It’s not going to take that long.”

“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked.  “That sounds awesome!  Is that your major?” 

“I’m a math major.  I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class.  And I know the professor.”

“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”

“I hope so.  Tabitha is in that class too.”

“What?” Tabitha said.  She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.

“I was talking about the anthro project.  I said you’re in that class too.”

“Oh, yeah.  Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”

“I was thinking I might do a chat room on IRC.  That way, when I’m wasting time on the Internet talking to strangers, I can tell myself I’m doing homework.”

“Smart,” Tabitha said.  “I was thinking I might do University Life.”

“That would be funny,” Joe said.  I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student.  That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment.  What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.

Over the next hour, more people trickled in.  I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others.  Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa.  There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me.  As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat.  I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

“He’s in my room.  He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”

“But this is his party!”

Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice.  “That was really just an excuse to have a party.  We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”

“Oh,” I said.  That thought had honestly never crossed my mind.  I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.

Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them.  After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly.  My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed.  Others generally found the buzzer annoying.

Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening.  He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment.  Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting.  She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.”  As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.

“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said.  “Who wants cake and ice cream?”  Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream.  Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating.  I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.

When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds.  “Sure!” she replied.  “There’s plenty.”  I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me.  A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit.  “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.

“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked.  “I made this mixtape for this party.”

“Yes.  I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.”  I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.

A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope.  “Greg?” she asked.  “Can I ask you something?

“Yeah.  What is it?”

“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer.  I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me.  Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”

“Sure,” I said.  It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer.  I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”

“Are you going to Urbana?  You’ll find out a lot there.”

“The video last night was the first I had heard of this.  I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money.  I don’t know.”

“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”

“I know.  And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”

“Totally!  Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope.  “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll read it.”

U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape.  I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me.  Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song.  The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times.  We  shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.

“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto.  Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing.  When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.

“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott.  He smiled and returned the high five.

As I looked around that room, I realized something.  None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.)  I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends.  By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.


The next day, Sunday, after singing in the choir at church, I went to lunch at Bakers Square with some of the others from choir.  Danielle Coronado, one of the people from Building C last year who remained in my inner circle, sat across from me.  “We should have gotten Mexican food,” she said.  “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”

Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me.  “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied.  She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here.  I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.

“It was good,” I said.  “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”

“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments?  I don’t remember the people’s names.”

“Yeah.  Amelia and Melinda.”

“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.

“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased.  “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”

“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire.  “We were just holding hands.  Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday?  Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”

“Urbana?  Yeah, I saw the video.  I don’t know if I’m going to go.  It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before.  But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”

“Yeah, that’s it.  Pete’s thinking about going.  He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”

“Greg?  What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire.  She was also in my anthropology class.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”

“That would be interesting!  Timely, too.  Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”

“True.  What about you?”

“I’m not sure.  I have a few things in mind, though.”

I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car.  Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself.  When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.

“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button.  “You have one new message.”  The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home.  I dialed the numbers and waited.

“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Greg.”

“Hello!  Where were you?”

“I went out to lunch with some people from church.  And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”

“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”

“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party.  The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”

“I see.  And you said these are people from JCF?  That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”

“Yeah.”

“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.  I’m glad you’re making friends.  See?  I knew you could do it.”

“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.

Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes.  Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year.  By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life.  But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life.  Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group.  But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church.  This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life  But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.

May 1996. Looking for a place to live.

“So let’s talk about next year,” Brian said after we made small talk.  “I definitely want my own room.”

“Me too,” Josh replied.  This meeting with my roommates for next year was my first time meeting Josh.  He was stocky and a little on the short side, with light brown hair and pointy facial features.

“So I guess we’re sharing a bedroom, unless we can find a really cheap four-bedroom place,” Shawn said to me.

“I can do that,” I said.  I hoped the disappointment was not evident in my voice.  I did not particularly want to share a bedroom, but I was not going to make a fuss over it.  “Are we definitely looking for a house, not an apartment?  Is an apartment out of the question?”

“A house would be nice,” Brian replied, “but if we can’t find a house, an apartment would be better than nothing.”

“What else do we need to look for?” I asked.  “Anything else we need to get?  Like, do we want to make sure the place has a dishwasher?  Anything like that?”

“I think most places will have a dishwasher,” Josh said.

“I just said that because my little studio apartment I have now doesn’t have a dishwasher,” I explained.

“Really?” Josh asked.

“Actually, we have a dishwasher,” Brian said.  “His name is Shawn.”

“Come on,” Shawn replied.  “I’m not going to clean up after all of you.”

“I’m just kidding.  But Shawn always does a good job of keeping the kitchen clean.”

“Good to know,” I said.

We spent the next half hour or so discussing our budget, our schedules, and anything else we could think of related to being roommates, or just getting to know each other in general.  I was not sure how old Josh was, but I was guessing that I was the youngest one in our household.  Shawn and Brian were both 22 and graduating this year; Shawn, a mathematics major like me, would be in the teacher training program at UJ, and Brian would be on staff with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship part time while he applied to medical school.  Josh worked the night shift at an assisted living facility, and took classes, so he would have an unusual schedule, but he was a heavy sleeper.

“I think Greg is probably going to have to be the contact person for looking at houses and signing the lease and stuff,” Shawn said.  “I don’t mean to dump all the work on you, Greg, but the rest of us have a lot going on, and you’re the only one who will be here this summer.”

“Makes sense,” I said.


I left Shawn and Brian’s house that night with a sense of mission.  I had a job to do.  The next day, I looked at classified ads in both the campus newspaper and the local newspaper.  I called phone numbers to ask about houses for rent.  I left messages, most of which were never returned, and I made appointments to look at houses, on the rare occasion I got someone to answer the phone or actually call back.  Within a couple of days, I had appointments to look at four houses.

The first two appointments were on the same day, an hour apart.  I pulled up to the first house, just a block north of campus near the North Area dormitories.  Living within walking distance of the campus boundary would be convenient, for sure.  The house was painted a pale yellow color; it was in an older neighborhood and showing its age, although nothing appeared to be obviously wrong with it.  This house was a little bit above our price range, but I figured it was worth a look, particularly because it was so close to campus.  If we got it, maybe I could talk the others into paying a little bit more.  A middle-aged man stood on the porch, holding a folder.  I nervously got out of the car and approached him.

“Are you Greg?” the man asked me.

“Yes.”

“I’m Ed.  It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Come on in,” Steve said.  “Let’s take a look at the house.”  I followed Ed into the living room, where a guy with unkempt hair sat on the couch watching TV, ignoring the open textbook on his lap.  “This is Joe, one of the current tenants.”

“Sup,” Joe said in my general direction.

“Hi,” I replied.

I followed Ed around the house.  The living room seemed reasonably sized, and I noticed that the kitchen had a dishwasher.  Ed mentioned that one of the bedrooms was pretty large with a bathroom attached, but that the current tenant did not want people seeing it.

“And the third bedroom is a converted garage,” Ed said as we entered the room, stepping down because the floor was slightly lower.  It was much larger than the other bedroom that he had shown me.  Shawn and I could comfortably share either of the two large bedrooms.

“The biggest selling point of this house, though, is that it’s so close to campus,” Ed explained. “You might be able to find a bigger house for this price in east Jeromeville, but then you’ll have a long trip to school every day.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“So are you still interested?” Ed asked.

“Definitely.”

“Now, just to be honest, a few other people have looked at the house, so I can’t promise you’ll get it.  But fill this out, and I’ll get back to you in a few days.”

“Thank you,” I said.

The next house was only a quarter mile away, and by the time I was done looking at Ed’s house, it was almost time for my other appointment.  The landlord whom I had spoken with was a woman named Barbara, and she said to meet her outside the house.  This house looked a little more well kept up from the outside, but it was slightly smaller by total square feet.  An older gray-haired woman sat on the porch; I walked up and asked, “Are you Barbara?”

“Yes,” she said.  “You must be Greg.”

“Yes.  It’s nice to meet you.”

“Someone else is coming now to look at the house too, just so you know,” Barbara said.  I had no idea if it was normal to show the house to two competing prospective tenants at the time time, but I found this discouraging and also a little bit rude.  Barbara asked me about what I was studying, and about the others who would be living with me, as she waited for the other prospective tenant to show up.  Three girls drove up a few minutes later and introduced themselves to Barbara.

“This is Greg,” Barbara said to the girls.  “He’s looking at the house too.”

“Hi,” one of them said unenthusiastically.  I greeted her back.

“This is the living room,” Barbara said as we walked into the house.

“I love the color of the paint!” one of the girls said.

“Thank you!” Barbara replied.  I looked for the dishwasher in the kitchen as we walked through it, and then Barbara opened the door and showed us the backyard.

“Those flowers are really cute,” the girl who liked the paint said.

I could tell that I was not going to get this house.  The girls seemed to know all the right things to say to Barbara.  I continued going through the motions and following Barbara and the girls through the house, even though it seemed pointless.

The next week was more of the same.  Between classes and homework, I found time to look at four other houses.  Each of the landlords had mentioned that other people had already looked at the house.  One of them pointed out that it was a brand new listing that had just gone on the market today, but by the time I got there, still someone else had looked at it already.  Ed never called me back, Barbara never called me back, and neither did any of the others.  I called Shawn and explained the situation.

“That sucks,” Shawn said.

“Do you think I should start looking at apartments instead?” I asked.  “I don’t know if we’d have any more luck there, but at least we’d have a place to live.”

“That’s true.  I mean, a house would be nice, it’d be great to have our own washing machine, but if all you can find is an apartment with a laundry room, it’s not that big of a deal.”

“I guess.  Should I tell the other guys what’s going on?”

“I’ll tell them.  You just keep looking, and let us know what you find.”

“I will.”


The juxtaposition of a large and growing university next to a small city hostile to growth made rentals difficult to find in Jeromeville, especially now, two months after apartments went up for lease for the fall.  The day after Shawn gave me the approval to start looking at apartments, I walked to the office for Las Casas, my current apartment complex, and asked if any of the three-bedroom apartments were still available for fall.

“No, sorry, we don’t have any left,” the woman at the desk said.  “But the company that owns us, we own 15 different complexes all around Jeromeville, and some of them have three-bedroom apartments.  You can try calling them and see what is left.”  She handed me a brochure.

“Thanks,” I replied, walking back toward my apartment.  This brochure appeared to contain no new information that was not already in the Apartment Guide that Associated Students published every year.

I dedicated the following Saturday to finding a place to live.  I looked through the Apartment Guide and made a mark next to every complex that had three-bedroom apartments.  Since Jeromeville was a university town with many people in shared living situations, three-bedroom apartments were more common here than they were in most cities.  Still, though, many apartment complexes, particularly the older ones close to campus, only had one- and two-bedroom apartments.  Pine Grove Apartments, which had been my second choice a year ago, had the only three-bedroom apartments right next to campus.  I called Pine Grove and was promptly informed that they were completely full for fall.  No surprise there.

The area where I currently lived was part of a roughly L-shaped row of apartment complexes along Alvarez Avenue and Maple Drive, about three-quarters of a mile east to west and half a mile north to south.  I made some phone calls and found three three-bedroom apartments in our price range available in this neighborhood.

I first went across the street to a place called Fleur-de-Lis Apartments.  Apartment complexes always have such weird names, often seemingly having little to do with the surroundings.  I told the person at the desk that I had called earlier about the three bedroom apartment, and a man with a clipboard came to show me what the apartment looked like, explaining that the one he was showing was not the actual unit that would be available for fall.  He called the tenants who had agreed to let him show their three-bedroom apartment; no one answered, so he left a message telling him that we were coming.

He unlocked the door, and we walked inside.  The living and dining areas were a bit smaller than those of any of the houses I had seen.  I saw a dishwasher in the kitchen.  He showed me one of the small bedrooms first; they seemed adequately sized.

“And this is the master bedroom,” he said, opening another door.  “We have the largest master bedrooms of any three-bedroom apartment in Jeromeville.  Some people arrange their furniture so there is a separation between the two halves of the room, so it’s almost like having two bedrooms.”

“That is nice,” I said.  “And there’s an attached bathroom?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “Do you think you’re interested?”

“My roommates trusted me with the decision,” I explained, “but I have two other apartments I’m looking at today, and I like to take time to think about big decisions.”

“Don’t take too long to decide,” the man said.

“I know.  The apartment could be gone by then.  I’ll get back to you by tomorrow at the latest.”

After he gave me all of the necessary paperwork and brochures, I went to Alvarez Grove Apartments, a quarter-mile east on Alvarez Avenue.  I went through the same procedure of telling the man at the desk that I had called about the three-bedroom apartment, and he showed me a three-bedroom apartment which the current tenants had agreed to let him show.  The living area was about the same size as the one at Fleur-de-Lis, and there was a dishwasher.  A hallway extended to the right of the living area; he showed me the bathroom, just off this hallway, and one of the three bedrooms.

“What about the other bedrooms?” I asked.

“They’re all the same.”

“Same size and everything?”

“Yes.”

I took his brochure and politely acted like living at Alvarez Grove was still an option, but at this point I knew that I was not interested in this apartment.  With me and Shawn having to share a bedroom, we definitely needed one of the bedrooms to be larger than the others.  This apartment also only had one bathroom, which was workable but not ideal.  It was the least expensive of the three apartments I was looking at, only $900 per month (which was inexpensive given what the market in Jeromeville was like), but I did not like the idea of sharing a small bedroom.

The last apartment I looked at that day was in a complex called Sagebrush Apartments, in the narrow strip of land between Maple Drive and Highway 117.  The woman from the office unlocked a three-bedroom apartment, reminding me that this was identical to the unit for rent but not the exact unit, and let me in.  I waved hello to a tenant who was home.

This apartment had two uncommon features immediately visible: a wood burning stove with a tall chimney leading to the roof, and a stairway, to the left of the entrance.  The bedrooms were upstairs, in the style of apartment that I have heard some people refer to as a “townhouse.”  The living room was to the right of the entrance, with the dining area straight in front of me, and the kitchen to the right of the dining room, with a bar between the kitchen and living room.  The woman from the apartment office led me around the dining room and kitchen.  “There’s a half-bathroom back there,” she said, pointing to the right of the dining room behind the kitchen.  “Now let me show you upstairs.”

I followed her up the stairs, which were a little narrow but appropriate for a compact living space like this one.  At the top of the stairs was a small loft-like area; I turned around and looked down on the living room, with the black metal chimney of the wood-burning stove in front of me.  “Is that a patio?” I said, looking out the window facing the front of the apartment.

“Yes,” she replied.  “You can get to it from the entrance.”

She showed me the two small bedrooms next, on the back side of the apartment, and the large bedroom in front, above the kitchen and living room.  It was smaller than the one at Fleur-de-Lis, but still adequately sized for two people to share.  She also showed me the inside of the full bathroom upstairs.

“Are you still interested in the apartment?” she asked.  I told her the same thing I had said at Fleur-de-Lis, that I had options to think over and I would get back to her later tonight or tomorrow.  By now, business hours were probably almost over, so if I called back first thing in the morning, hopefully the apartment would not be gone by then.

After I got home, I needed to unwind, so I went for a bike ride, thinking about all of this.  When I got home, I showered, ate dinner, and did math homework.  Later, I looked over the brochures from Sagebrush and Fleur-de-Lis again.  Both apartments looked similarly sized, and both of them would work just fine as far as I was concerned. Shawn, Brian, and Josh seemed to trust my judgment.  We agreed on a budget of $1000 per month when we met to talk about the living situation, and the Fleur-de-Lis apartment rented for exactly that.  Rent at Sagebrush, however, was only $925, and I liked something about the two-story layout.  I knew that I was still going to wait until morning to make the call, but at this point, unless I discovered something earth-shattering, I would be saving my roommates $75 per month and calling Sagebrush in the morning.  I looked over the brochures again.  I read the passage in the Bible from last night’s talk at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and prayed about it.

And in the morning, I called Sagebrush.  The apartment was still available, so I told them I was ready to commit.

Later that afternoon, after I had signed paperwork, I called Shawn.  I was nervous.  What if the other guys did not like Sagebrush?  What if I just made a costly mistake?  “Hello?” Shawn said on the other side of the phone.

“Shawn?”

“Yes.”

“This is Greg.  I got an apartment.”

“That’s great!  Where is it?”

“Sagebrush.  It’s on Maple Drive, north of Safeway.  It’s $925 a month.  It’s two stories, with the bedrooms upstairs and the living room and kitchen downstairs.”

“That sounds perfect!  I’ll tell the others.  Thanks for all your help with this.”

“You’re welcome.  Thanks for letting me live with you guys.”

I took a deep breath and lay down for a nap, finally feeling relief about my plans for next year for the first time in two months.  I had great roommates, and I had a place to live.  Next year was going to be awesome.  I would have to get used to sharing a bedroom, that was certainly not an ideal situation, but it was better than being homeless or sharing a bedroom with a total stranger.  Living with other Christian men would hopefully present opportunities to grow both socially and spiritually.  I just wish we did not have to wait until September 1 to move in.  I did not realize at the time that I had overlooked something, but it ended up all working out.

April 20, 1996. Working a table at the Spring Picnic.

I biked to campus full of anticipation on that cool, cloudy Saturday morning.  Today was the Spring Picnic.  In the last three months, I had made a new group of friends and taken an overnight trip with them, and I had discovered my purpose in life, but if this year’s Spring Picnic was anything like last year’s, it would rival those days as one of the best days of the year. (I should point out that I had no idea in 1996 of the fact that today’s date, April 20, meant something to marijuana users. My day had nothing to do with marijuana.)

Last year, I had heard some older students say that it always seems to rain in Jeromeville on the day of the Spring Picnic, but the weather last year was perfect.  Today rain looked a bit more likely, but I was determined that even the ominous sky would not ruin this day for me.

I arrived early, parking at a bike rack next to Wellington Hall a little after nine o’clock.  I had stopped to pick up a schedule of events on the way in.  I turned the pages to see what was happening this early, and to my dismay, there was not much.  The alumni breakfast was for alumni only and required a ticket purchase.  The Chemistry Club show was later in the day, but people were lining up for distribution of tickets already.  I had heard good things about that, but spending a long time in line to get a ticket did not appeal to me enough to actually do it, at least not this year.  Other than that, not much was happening this early.  The opening ceremony was at 9:30 not far from here, which led into the parade; maybe I could find a good seat for that.

I walked north to the end of the block, where a grandstand had been set up just around the corner from the Quad.  It was full, but not completely full, so I found an empty seat and looked through the schedule again as I waited.  I read the article on the history of the Spring Picnic, about how in 1909, the small group of professors and the newly founded university’s student body of about a hundred invited the public to a picnic, so they could display their research and show off a new building.  Thousands of guests flooded the campus, and a new tradition was born, growing into a major open house event for the university.

Many musicians, bands, and performing groups play the Spring Picnic every year, and last year I had discovered a band called Lawsuit, with some members who had roots here in Jeromeville.  I read an article in the Daily Colt this week about highlights of this year’s Spring Picnic, and it specifically said that Lawsuit would be playing on the Quad Stage at 3:30.  I looked in the schedule to confirm this and found it quickly.  That was definitely the one part of today that I did not want to miss.  I would be busy for part of today, though, and I specifically scheduled that so as to be finished by 3:30.

At 9:30, someone came on stage and took a few minutes to introduce the grand marshal of the parade, gushing on and on about this woman’s academic accomplishments, whoever she was.  The grand marshal spoke next, talking about passing on traditions, and history, and also finding a way to work in a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo. Go figure.

The parade began after that, and I followed along in the schedule of events to see who the groups were.  The Spring Picnic parade featured numerous student clubs, academic departments, and fraternities and sororities, as well as local businesses, community organizations, and a few high school bands from all over the state.  Parades are inherently fun, but part of the fun of the Spring Picnic parade is looking to see who all the different groups are and where they come from, like the giant cow on the float I saw approaching now.  I looked in the schedule; it was Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students.

About half an hour into the parade, the Campus Tour Guides marched through, walking backward.  That made me laugh; walking backward is an important part of being a tour guide after all.  Haley Channing, the girl from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship whom I secretly had a crush on, was a tour guide; I spotted her walking backward in the side of the group farthest from me.  I called out to her and waved, but she did not see or hear me.

The Interdisciplinary Honors Program marched in the parade this year, carrying a sign and wearing graduation caps.  I wondered how this year’s IHP got into the parade, because I was in the IHP last year and no one ever talked about being in the parade.  I knew one of this year’s IHP students, a girl named Yesenia; she was easy to spot, with hair almost all the way down her back.  I had better luck getting her attention than I did with Haley, because she was walking closer to me.  “Yesenia!” I called out as she passed by.  She looked up, saw me waving, and pointed at me.  “Greg!” she shouted, waving back.  I smiled and continued waving.

By 11:00, I had been watching the parade for an hour, and I decided to go do something else.  I wandered down the west end of the Quad, following the parade route, crossing Shelley Avenue at the south end of the Quad and entering the library.  The library’s Spring Picnic exhibit was always something out of the Special Collections; this year it was photographs from the early days of the University.  The campus had changed so much since the early twentieth century; I only recognized one building in the pictures.

I left the library a bit later walking in the opposite direction from where I came.  The art building was open with a sign out front, so I walked in.  The lobby and a hallway were lined with paintings and sculptures made by students.  Some of them were fairly recognizable, like portraits of human beings and landscapes.  Others were much more abstract: lumps of clay that made no recognizable shape, multicolored lines crossing and intersecting across a canvas, and splashes of color that looked like something that someone dropped a bunch of paint on a white piece of fabric but was still considered art, probably because of the statement they made or something like that.  It was still interesting to look at everything.

I had somewhere to be at noon.  I had about twenty minutes to walk back to the Quad, eat, then head to the walkway between Wellington and Kerry to the table I would be working.  The east side of the Quad was full of student organizations selling food; many were cultural organizations selling food from their parts of the world.  I got in line for the Filipino Club’s lumpia table, but the line moved so slowly that it soon became apparent that I would not get my lumpia in time.  By 11:55, there were still seven people ahead of me, so I left the line and walked back across the Quad toward the table where I was working a shift.

Four long folding tables had been arranged in a line next to the entrance to Kerry Hall.  A handmade sign on poster board that said MATH CLUB AT UJ stood propped up on one of the tables.  The tables held various math puzzles and games.

“Hey, Brandon?” I asked a tall blond guy standing behind one of the tables.  “I’m here.  What do I do?”

“Just pick a table and talk to people.  If you need solutions to any of the puzzles, if you can’t figure out how to explain it to someone, it’s in that box there.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked to the table on the end farthest from the Quad, with a cardboard model of the Monty Hall problem and a Towers of Hanoi puzzle.  I had studied the mathematics of both of these puzzles extensively and felt qualified to explain them to passersby.

“Hey, Greg,” a junior girl named Susan said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good.  I didn’t do much today.  Saw the parade, and the old pictures in the library, and the art department exhibit.  What have you done so far?”

“I went to the Chemistry Club show.”

“What’s that like?” I asked.  “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never been.  I don’t want to stand in line to get tickets.”

“It’s so worth it!  You should!  Lots of cool demonstrations.”

“Maybe next year.”

I started attending Math Club meetings off and on last year, although I have not been very active in the club.  I knew Brandon and Susan and some of the others to say hi to, and some of the younger people in Math Club I had been in classes with, but I was not particularly close with any of them.

“Hi,” I said as a boy walked up to my table, looking at the Monty Hall problem poster.  “What’s this?”

“The Monty Hall problem,” I said.  “Have you heard of this?”

“I don’t think so.”

I set up the game, putting a card representing a new car behind door number 2.  “Suppose you’re on a game show.  Behind one of these three doors is a new car, and the other two have a goat.  You choose one.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah.”

He thought for a few seconds, then said, “Number three.”

“So before we say where the car is, I’m going to open door number 1,” I said.  I showed him the goat behind the door.  “Now, do you want to stick with your answer of door number 3, or switch to door number 2?”

“Hmm,” the guy replied.  “I’m going to stick with my original choice.  Door number 3.”  I opened door number 3 to show the goat.  “Aww,” he said, as I revealed the car behind door number 2.  I wrote the results of his game on a scoresheet we had made for that purpose.  “What’s that?” he asked.

“We’re keeping track of everyone who plays today, whether or not you switched doors, and whether or not you won.  Mathematically, you actually have a better chance of winning if you switch doors.”

“Really,” he said.  “How does that work?”

I had a small poster explaining the problem mathematically that I was instructed to keep covered until after the contestant had played; I showed it to him now.  “Basically,” I said, “you had a 1 in 3 chance of being right when you said door number 3.  I opened a door that I know is wrong, but that doesn’t change your 1 in 3 chance of being right.  So if you switched, knowing that door number 1 was not the prize, you would have a 2 in 3 chance of being right.  At the end of the day, you can come back and look at the score sheet, to see if the people who switched were actually right more often than the people who didn’t.”

“Interesting,” the guy said.  “Why is this called the Monty Hall problem?”

“He was the host of Let’s Make A Deal.”  The guy gave me a blank stare, so I added, “That was a classic TV game show that inspired this problem.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I remember when it stirred up controversy in Marilyn Vos Savant’s column.  Do you know about that?”  He shook his head no, so I continued explaining.  “Marilyn has one of the highest known IQs of anyone, and she writes a newspaper column.  She wrote about this problem a few years ago, and all sorts of people, some of them claiming to have math degrees, wrote to her telling her that she was wrong.  But she wasn’t.”

“Whoa,” the guy said, looking unimpressed.

“Enjoy your Spring Picnic!” I said as he walked away.  I had learned more and more these days that my peers just did not read news in print like I did, nor did they grow up watching game shows.

“Greg!” a familiar voice said a while later.  I looked up to see Sarah Winters, whom I had known since my first week at UJ.

“Hi, Sarah.  How are you?”

“I’m good!  How are you?  Did I tell you I’m changing my major to math?”

“No!  When did this happen?”

“I want to be a teacher, I’ve known that for a long time.  I decided that math is what I like teaching best.”

“Nice!  Maybe we’ll have some classes together someday.”

“Yeah!  What’s this thing?” Sarah asked, pointing to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.

“You have to move all five discs on this spindle to one of the other two spindles,” I explained.  “But you can only move one at a time, and you can only put a smaller disc on top of a larger disc.”

“I see.”

“It’s significant because it’s an example of recursion.  Each time you get to the next bigger disc, you have to solve the same problem for one fewer disc.  And the number of moves you need follows a nice exponential growth pattern.”

“I see,” Sarah said, playing with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, trying to move the discs accordingly.  “So you’re part of the Math Club?”

“I go to most of the meetings,” I said.  “But this is the first time I’ve ever done anything for Math Club.”

“What kind of things do you do in Math Club?”

“Math games, outreach, talking about careers in math, stuff like that.”

“I might have to check it out sometime!”

“That would be cool!”

“What else are you doing today?” Sarah asked.

“I’m going to go see the band Lawsuit after my shift here.”

“That’ll be fun.  I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”

“You too!”


My shift ended at three o’clock, and I still had not eaten.  At one of the tables, we were giving out candy to people who could solve the puzzles, and I had been sneaking candy when no one was looking for the whole three hours I was there.  When I got back to the Quad, all the student-run food booths had shut down, but a truck with typical fair and festival type food was open on the far corner of the Quad near the library.  I went there and bought a hot dog.  Not as exciting as lumpia, but I was hungry.

I crossed to the east side of the Quad, across the street from the oldest buildings on campus, and watched a band finish playing.  I looked through the schedule of events while that band took their equipment and instruments down and Lawsuit set up, looking for something to do after their show.  Most of the events and shows would be shut down by then; the only thing going on that late was the Battle of the Bands, where the marching bands from UJ and several other universities in the region play on into the night.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone finally said on stage around 3:45, “the name of this band is Lawsuit!”  Paul Sykes, the lead singer, began rapping while the rest of the band played the background music of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” a song from the 1970s that had become popular again recently because it was in the movie Pulp Fiction.  This segued into “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” the song they had opened with when I saw them last year.

Lawsuit was a difficult band to categorize.  Their music crossed the boundaries of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, and something called “ska” which apparently meant rock with horns.  The band had ten members, and during a long guitar and bass solo, the members of the horn section did a strange dance.  I sang along quietly, since I knew this song, and cheered loudly at the end.

Lawsuit played for almost an hour.  I knew about half the songs, since I now had a bootleg tape of their newest album that I had copied from someone in my dorm last year.  Last year I knew nothing of their music, but this year I knew around half of the songs from that tape.  The others, mostly older songs of theirs along with one that they said was from a new album coming this summer, included one about a couch and one about Einstein.  One thing I always noticed about Lawsuit was that their music felt at times like one giant inside joke that I was not in on, but I enjoyed it anyway.  I had been looking forward to this show since the moment that Lawsuit’s show at last year’s Spring Picnic ended, a year ago.

“We have one more song for you,” Paul said after they had been playing for a while.  “Before you go, make sure you sign up for our mailing list, and we also have CDs and merch.”  He then went into a song from the tape I had called “Picture Book Pretty.”  In the middle of the song, I noticed that he sang “one thousand red roses would not be quite enough,” instead of “one dozen red roses” like he says on the album.  I was not sure why he changed it.

After the show, I walked to the table in front and put my name and address on the mailing list.  This was how bands stayed in touch with their fans in 1996; there was no social media or YouTube back then, and email and websites were themselves brand new technologies just beginning to break into the mainstream.  By filling out this mailing list, I would get a postcard in the mail every month or two from Lawsuit.  They did also have an email list, though; I signed up for that too, even though the postcards and email would probably say the same thing.

“Hey, Greg,” someone said as I turned to leave the merch table.  I looked up; it was Christian Channing, a senior whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the older brother of Haley, my tour guide friend whom I wanted to be more than a friend.  “I didn’t know you liked Lawsuit.  Is this your first time hearing them?”

“I saw them at last year’s Spring Picnic.  They’re so good!”

“I know!  My little brother, he’s 15, I gave him a tape of Lawsuit last year, and now he loves them too.  Last summer we went and saw them when they played back home.”

“That’s awesome.”

“Hey, I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

I walked to the lake in the middle of the Arboretum near Marks Hall, where the Battle of the Bands was, and stayed there for about another hour.  The band visiting from Walton University always played a song that was about forty minutes long; I left around six o’clock in the middle of that song dragging on and on.  Seeing Lawsuit was great, and working the Math Club table was something new, and it did not end up raining. But despite all that, this year’s Spring Picnic felt disappointing.  Because I had volunteered three hours of my time, I missed out on my favorite part of the Spring Picnic: walking around campus looking at random exhibits.  The University of Jeromeville was so huge that no one could possibly see everything, so there would always be new things to see every year at the Spring Picnic. I got to see very little of that this year, since I spent so much time at the Math Club table.  I learned my lesson from this, though; this was the first Spring Picnic for which I volunteered for something, and it would be the last.

This was also the last Spring Picnic that Lawsuit played, although I would see Lawsuit play live again.  But that is another story for another time.


Note from the author: When I wrote about the previous year’s Spring Picnic, in December 2019, I said that I would be spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic in April.  That prediction did not age well; the 2020 and 2021 Spring Picnics were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not having the Spring Picnic for two years in a row has been difficult for me…

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

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

“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just twice.”

“It’s pretty awesome.”

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


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

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

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

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

“Have you been here before?”

“No.  Have you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He didn’t tell me.”

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

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

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



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

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

“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.

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

“Good job!” Eddie said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.

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

“That makes sense,” Eddie said.

“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.

“Thanks,” I replied.

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

“Pretty much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“But you did sleep.”

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Great!” Kristina said.  “Ready?”

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

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

“Sure,” Haley said.  I nodded.

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

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

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

“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”

“Really.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s cool!”

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

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

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

“Sure!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You seemed to like my mixtape too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 9, 1996. Friends all over campus and a new plan.

Two years ago, when my university applications were being processed, I got invited to something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at the University of Jeromeville.  This was a program for around seventy high-achieving freshmen; among other things, we all lived in the same building, and we had to take one class every quarter specifically for IHP students, which counted toward general education requirements.  I was particularly attracted to the idea of being part of a relatively small group of students.  Jeromeville was a huge university, with around 25,000 students on a main campus that took up a square mile, adjacent to several more square miles of farmland used for research.  I found my high school of 1400 already far too big to know everyone, so a school this big seemed intimidating.  Being part of a small group of students who knew each other seemed attractive to me, and this was part of the reason I chose Jeromeville over Central Tech and Bidwell State.

Despite those numbers, however, UJ was starting to feel much smaller now that I had been around for a while.  I encountered people I knew more and more often around campus and around town.  In addition to my friends from the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, I had friends from classes, church, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, the Math Club, people I knew through mutual friends, and people who I just saw around enough that I started to recognize them and say hi for no other reason.

As I got on the bus that morning, I wondered if I would see Tiffany Rollins.  Tiffany was a civil engineering major, and we had been in a few of the same mathematics and physics classes in the past.  We had finished all of the classes that her major had in common with my mathematics major, though, so we would probably be seeing less of each other as time went on, but last week I saw her on the bus both Tuesday and Thursday morning.  She lived in an apartment complex just down Alvarez Avenue from mine, at the bus stop just before my stop.  I boarded the bus, showed my ID card to the driver, and spotted Tiffany sitting near the back of the bus.

“Hey, Greg,” Tiffany said as I approached her and sat next to her.

“Hey,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  One of my classes is really hard already.  I was up late last night studying.”

“Yeah.  Mine aren’t too bad yet.  I’m just starting to stress over not knowing where I’m going to live next year.”

“You aren’t keeping your studio apartment?”

“I didn’t renew.  I was hoping to find friends to live with.  I almost had a plan, but it fell through.”

“I hope you find something!”

“Me too.  I’ve been asking around.”

“I can let you know if anyone I know is looking for a guy.”

“That would be nice,” I said, although I was really hoping not to have to do that.  I wanted to live with people I knew who would be fun to be around, not some strangers who happened to know Tiffany.  Granted, those strangers could end up becoming friends, but they could also end up being my worst nightmare.

I was still thinking about this all through weight training class.  Yesterday, when I got home from campus, I had a note in my mailbox at the apartment saying that I had a package to pick up.  When I went into the office to get my package, the woman at the desk had asked me how I was doing, and I explained that I was worried about not having a place to live for next year.

“I have a note here from the other front desk person that someone came in here earlier looking for a roommate,” she said.  She wrote “Alex Davidson” and a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.  “I guess Alex renewed his lease but his roommate is moving out, so maybe you should give Alex a call.”

I gave some kind of noncommittal answer and returned to my apartment.  I would not be giving Alex a call.  Because Jeromeville was a small world and I knew a lot of people, I was familiar with the name Alex Davidson.  The front desk person had not spoken to Alex directly, so she did not realize that Alex was a girl.  I did not know her well, but she was in my Chemistry 2B class a year ago; I remembered seeing her write her name on something, and her name stood out to me because most people named Alex I knew were male.  I did not feel comfortable with a female roommate.  It would just feel weird, and also I ran with circles that would question the nature of the relationship of a single male and a single female living together.  Sure, Heather Escamilla from church lived with her boyfriend, but I also knew people that had the same judgmental attitude toward that arrangement.  I did not find Alex Davidson particularly attractive, though, so if somehow we did end up living together, we probably would not develop any kind of awkward sexual tension.

After weight training class, I walked across campus toward the Memorial Union.  I had been coughing and sniffling off and on for the last few weeks, not enough to feel sick and stay home from classes but enough to notice.  As I approached the Memorial Union, I saw a quiet short-haired girl sitting quietly on a bench reading.  It was Skeeter, a friend from the IHP who lived upstairs from me last year.  Just as I was about to say hi, I coughed, and Skeeter heard me and looked up.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.

“Hi.  How’s it going?”

“It’s funny.  I recognized your cough.”

“Wait, what?”

“I heard a cough, and I thought, ‘That sounds like Greg.’”

“Really,” I said.  “I didn’t know I had a distinct-sounding cough.”

“I’ve never thought about it before.  It’s really weird.”

“Yeah.  I would not have thought of that,”  I said.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“You too!”

Last night, I went grocery shopping, and I had to use my credit card to pay because I did not have enough cash and I forgot to bring my checkbook.  My bank had an ATM on the far side of the Memorial Union building, so I went there next.  After I withdrew cash, I turned toward the east entrance of the building near the campus store.  A guy at a table was enticing students to sign up for credit cards with free gifts.  I recognized Autumn, a freshman girl who went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, filling out an application on a clipboard.  I met Autumn a few months ago when I did a car rally with JCF; she got put in my group, and we failed miserably that night.

“Hey, Autumn,” I said.

Autumn looked up at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” she said.  She finished filling out the application and handed it to the guy.  He gave her a baseball cap.  “Do you like my hat?” Autumn asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  The cap was black, with the logo of one of the credit card companies that this man represented subtly stitched into the side.  No other writing or decoration was on the cap.

Autumn put on the cap, with her hair coming out of the hole in the back just above the strap to adjust the size; she tied her hair into a ponytail.  “I’ve never had a hat like this!” she said.  “I’m excited!”

“It looks good,” I said.  “I like it.”

“Free gifts!” the guy running the table called out to people walking by.  “This guy got two free gifts yesterday!” he said, pointing at me.

“You signed up for two credit cards yesterday?” Autumn asked.  “What free gifts did you get?

“The pen and the mug,” I said.  After I filled out those two applications yesterday, I wondered why I had done it.  I was never the type to spend money I did not own, so I did not need a credit card, although it would have been useful for an emergency, or for making large purchases without carrying around cash or a checkbook.  I had a credit card through my bank, the same one I had used at the grocery store last night, but it had a very small limit.  I had signed up for two more yesterday, but I stopped when the man with the applications, the same one who was here today, put a third application in my face.  The new cards would have much higher credit limits than the one from my bank.  In a fit of simplifying and downsizing, I canceled one of the cards about five years later, but I still have the other one, a Discover Card, today, and I use it as my primary credit card.  Also, I still pay it off every month; I know too much math to carry a balance and burden myself with impossibly high interest rates.

“So how are things?” I asked Autumn when she finished the credit card applications.

“Good,” she said.  “I like my schedule this quarter.  How about you?”

“I’m doing okay.  I’m kind of stressing over not having plans for where to live next year.”

“What are your roommates this year doing?” Autumn asked.

“I live alone.  I don’t want to live alone again.  I want to live with people.  Having roommates seems fun.  And it’s a lot less expensive.”

“Yeah.  Have you asked around JCF?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t heard anything for sure.  Pete Green and Charlie Watson were looking for a third person, but Mike Knepper got that spot before I told them for sure.”

“Bummer,” Autumn replied.  “Well, if I hear of any guys looking for a roommate, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.  Do you know where you’re living next year?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in south Jeromeville with Leah and two other girls she knows.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“I need to go, but it was good running into you.  I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Bye!”

I walked into the Memorial Union building, going all the way across it to the Coffee House on the other side.  I was done for the day, weight training was my only class on Tuesdays, but I usually stayed on campus until around lunch time, to get work done.  This was a busy time of day, when finding a place to sit in the Coffee House could be difficult.  But today, I just kept running into people I knew everywhere I went, and this would provide me with a place to sit.  I saw a dark-haired girl named Lizzie sitting by herself at a table of four, putting a notebook away in her backpack.

“Hi,” I said.  “May I sit with you?”

“Hey!” Lizzie replied.  “How are you?”

I met Lizzie in the fall through a mutual friend, a math major my year named Jack who had gone to the same high school as Lizzie.  She had a class in the same classroom as our class an hour before, and Jack would always say hi to Lizzie as she was leaving class.  She became a familiar enough face that I had started saying hi to her around campus.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’m done for the day, I only have one class on Tuesdays, but I’m going to hang out here and work on stuff for a while.”

“That sounds good.  I actually was just getting up to leave.  But you can have my table.”

“Thanks.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“I will!”

I got out my textbook for Linear Algebra Applications with the intent of working on homework, but that did not happen right away.  I had a feeling I was not going to like this class.  The professor for this class seemed a little odd.  In addition to so far just repeating things out of the book instead of actually teaching, she had told us that the entire grade would be based on unannounced quizzes.  No midterm, no final, and homework was not graded.  Something about that did not seem right, although I felt pretty confident about how I did on the first such quiz yesterday.

I then made the classic overthinker move of replaying all of this morning’s conversations in my head.  I noticed that I had not mentioned my roommate search to Skeeter or Lizzie.  I did not know Lizzie well, and I did not know anything about the guys she would know, so if my goal was not to live with strangers, I would have had no reason to tell her about that.  And, although Skeeter’s nonconformity was part of why we were friends last year in Building C, I doubted that I would want to live with the kind of crowd she ran with.  Granted, one of her roommates this year was Danielle, who had been a close friend since our first week in Building C, but Danielle had told me some stories about Skeeter as a roommate that made me wary of associating too much with her crowd.

The rest of my day went smoothly without any surprises.  I came home in the early afternoon, took a nap, and wasted time on the computer chatting on IRC and reading Usenet groups.  I went to Bible study that night, and Lillian, one of the leaders, asked at the end if people wanted to share prayer requests.

“I still haven’t found roommates or a place to live yet,” I said.

“We can pray for that,” Lillian replied.  “Anyone else?”

The others shared their prayer requests: difficult classes, an upcoming summer mission trip to Mexico, a sick friend, a friend going through a difficult time.  We went around in a circle, each person praying for the prayer request of whomever was on the left.  After that, the group would normally end, and people would either leave or stick around for a while and socialize.  This week, while people were socializing, the other leader, Shawn, approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” he said.  “I might have an answer to your prayer.”

“Yes?”

“I’m graduating, but I’m staying in Jeromeville next year for the teacher training program.  I didn’t make housing plans either, because I was waiting for some of my roommates to decide what they were doing next year.  My roommate Brian applied to medical school, but he didn’t get in anywhere, and there is only one place he hasn’t heard from yet.  He’s heard that school usually sends acceptances early, so he thinks he probably didn’t get in.  He’s now planning to stay in Jeromeville next year, applying again and working part time on staff with JCF.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And Abby has a boyfriend who is moving to Jeromeville.  You know Abby Bartlett?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, her boyfriend, his name is Josh McGraw, and he commutes to Jeromeville from his parents’ house in Oak Heights.  He wants to move to Jeromeville and not have that long drive.  I want to save money, but Josh and Brian want their own rooms, so we were thinking if we got a three-bedroom place with a master bedroom, then I could share the big room with someone.  Are you interested?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Keep me posted.”

“Definitely!  We will!  It’s hard to get all four of us able to meet in the same place at the same time, Josh has a really weird schedule, but I’ll try to get a meeting set up in the next week or two so we can work out the details.”

“Sounds good.  Thanks!”

“I was going to ask you about this tonight, I remember you asking for prayer about that last week, but I didn’t get a chance yet.  Then you prayed about it again.  It’s cool how God works like that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It is.”

“Just so you know, there’s still an outside chance that Brian will get accepted to that one med school, so if that happens we might have to find someone at the last minute.”

“Right.  That’s okay.”

Sharing a bedroom did not feel like an ideal situation, but most people had to endure doing that with a complete stranger during freshman year, and I had had the good fortune to avoid that.  I thought I could handle it, though, especially with someone I already knew.  Shawn seemed like a decent guy.  I did not know Brian well, but he seemed very involved with JCF socially, and if he was going to be paid to work with the group next year, living with him sounded like a promising opportunity to make more social connections within JCF.  Josh was a bit of a wild card, I had never met him, and although his girlfriend Abby seemed nice, I did not know her well.  At this point, though, I would just have to take what I could get, and this situation seemed good enough.

I drove home a little later feeling much more at peace.  I still did not have a place to live, but I had roommates, and to me that meant that the hardest part was over.  This new plan was taking shape. I was no longer alone in my search for housing.  I was not the most social or popular student in my circles of friends.  I have a history of being a bit of an outcast and a loner.  But I was starting to open up, to make friends from many different walks of life, and that finally appeared to open a door to a new home for next year that would be much more fun than this lonely studio apartment.