Late September, 1997.  The retreat with the youth group leaders and a step outside my comfort zone. (#146)

Life is full of difficult and seemingly impossible tasks.  Sometimes such tasks require hard work to complete, and sometimes I just never get motivated enough to do difficult things.  But every once in a while, everything I need to accomplish something difficult just falls into my lap, leaving me to just take the final step.

I had just spent five days away from home at Outreach Camp, the retreat for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship where we plan for the upcoming school year.  I did not go straight home to Jeromeville after that, though, because I had another retreat for the weekend, this one with student ministries for Jeromeville Covenant Church.  This encompassed youth groups for preteens, junior high school, and high school, as well as the college group.  I was a leader with The Edge, the junior high group.  The leaders for the preteen youth group were high school students, and almost all of the leaders for all of the other groups were University of Jeromeville students, like me.

Outreach Camp ended at 1:00, and the other retreat started at 6:00, and it did not take five hours to drive between them, even on curvy mountain highways, so I was the first one to arrive other than the paid church staff.  I mingled and helped them set up as others began arriving.

“Greg!” Taylor Santiago said when he saw me.  He and Pete Green, who played guitar for the college group, arrived together.  I had known them the longest of anyone on this retreat; we were all in the same dorm freshman year.  Taylor gave me a hug.

“Good to see you again,” I said.  “How was the rest of your time in Chicago?”

“Tiring, but really good.  It’s pretty intense, seeing what some of those people are going through.  It’s a world away from our kids at The Edge.”

“I’m sure it is.”

Josh, my housemate back in Jeromeville, and his girlfriend Abby showed up shortly afterward.  They pulled me aside as if they wanted to talk to me about something.  “You should know this, because you’re my housemate.  We’re gonna announce it to everyone later tonight,” Josh said.  “Last night, I asked Abby to marry me.”  Abby held up her left hand, showing off her new engagement ring.

“Wow,” I said.  “Congratulations!  Does that mean you’ll be moving out and we’ll need a new roommate?”

“No,” Josh explained.  “The wedding won’t be until summer.  So you won’t need to find someone in the middle of the school year.”

“Good,” I said.  “I don’t know if you heard, but Scott and Amelia just got engaged too, during Outreach Camp.”

“They did?” Abby said.  “Good for them!”

We all went into the main building of this retreat center to eat after everyone arrived.  After dinner, Pete and a few others led us in a time of worship music, then we had free time to hang out until it was time for bed.  “Do you know how to play poker?” Taylor asked me.

“I’m not great at it, but I know the basics.”

“I brought a poker set.  We aren’t playing for real money, of course.  Are you in?”

“Sure.”

Taylor, Abby, Josh, and I sat in a circle, along with Noah Snyder, the junior high group intern and Taylor’s best friend from high school; Adam White, the youth pastor; and Nick Hunter, a sixteen-year-old leader with the preteen youth group whose younger brother Ted was one of the junior high students I knew well.  A few hands in, I was dealt a full house, and I managed to bet big enough to get a big return but not so big that everyone else dropped out.  It did not take long for me to lose the rest of that money, though.




Most of the serious work of the retreat, specifically the things related to running the youth groups, happened on Saturday.  The leaders met in groups separated by which group we worked with, so that I was with The Edge leaders: Noah, Taylor, Abby and Josh, Martin Rhodes, and Courtney Kohl and Brody Parker, a sophomore couple who first met as Edge leaders last year.  Adam, as the youth pastor, was in charge of three of the four groups meeting here this weekend, but he met with us tonight.  Before he had a paid position at the church, he had been a volunteer with The Edge, and he had something specific to our group to talk about.

“This is it so far this year,” Adam said.  “James and Kate are going to be doing high school.  Charlotte isn’t going to J-Cov anymore.  And everyone else was either busy or too involved in other things.”

What about Erica?” I asked.  I had noticed that Erica Foster was not here this weekend.  I wondered if this meant that she was no longer a leader with The Edge this year, or if she just had other commitments.  She had been in Turkey this summer living with a family of missionaries that J-Cov supported, but I thought she must be back by now, especially with school starting soon.  I did not want to ask earlier, I did not want anyone to think it was weird that I was asking about Erica, but this time I just blurted it out without thinking.

“Oh, you’re right,” Adam replied.  “Erica is still doing The Edge.  But still, we lost six leaders this year.  Considering how many kids show up each week, we definitely don’t have enough leaders as we should have.  So, I’m proposing a challenge for all of you.  I want you to prayerfully consider, at some point this year, recruiting someone to join the Edge team of leaders.  If you know someone around church, someone in the college group, whoever, who might make a good Edge leader, invite them to come check it out.”

My heart sank.  Being a leader with The Edge was supposed to be fun.  I got to hang out with fun, energetic young teenagers, playing games with them and teaching them about Jesus.  It was not supposed to involve me having to awkwardly ask my friends to make a commitment.  I knew in my head that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the price for my sins, and that my own good works were not what got me into Heaven.  But I often felt pressure to be a better Christian because I was not constantly out there doing things.  Taylor’s mission trip to Chicago, Erica’s mission trip to Turkey, I had never done anything big like that.  And I also felt the constant pressure to reach out and invite others to church, to Bible study, and the like.  I was not good at inviting anyone to anything.  The frequent reminders at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship to invite all of our non-Christian friends just made me feel like there was something wrong with me.  I did not have many close non-Christian friends, since I had little to nothing in common with most non-Christians.  I understood well the value of inviting non-Christians to Christian events; I first got involved with JCF when my friends from freshman year invited me, and this led to me making my faith my own.  But I hated that pressure, especially since inviting people to stuff did not come naturally to me.

Of course, recruiting friends to work as leaders with The Edge was a little different.  I was looking for people who were already Christians, looking for somewhere to serve; they would not interpret my invitation as asking them to change their religion.  Still, though, any sort of conversation where I had to ask someone to do something always felt forced and unnatural to me.  It always felt like I was only talking to the other person because I wanted something.  However, I knew plenty of Christians, and I talked enough about being a youth group leader that it was certainly possible for it to come up naturally in conversation.

I woke up fairly early Sunday morning.  I put on a sweatshirt, since it was cold outside, and brought my Bible to a bench where I could sit and read Scripture and enjoy the view of God’s creation.  When I went back to the cabin, Noah was awake.  “How’s it goin’, Greg,” he said quietly.

“Okay, I guess,” I replied.  “I’m just stressing about having to recruit another leader.  I’m not good at inviting people to things.”

“Don’t feel any pressure.  Nothing’s gonna happen if you don’t.  Just think of it this way.  Keep it in mind in case it ever comes up in conversation.  If you know someone who might be interested, tell them.”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t let this get you down.”


The drive down Highway 52 to Capital City was full of mountains and rocks and pine trees.  The first fifty miles went relatively slowly, with only one lane in each direction and lots of traffic from people who came up to the mountains for the weekend.  As the road gradually widened approaching Capital City, traffic began moving faster. It took close to two and a half hours to get down the mountain, across Capital City, and back to my house in Jeromeville.

Despite the usual dread about having to get up early again for classes, the beginning of a new school year always felt hopeful.  I would have new friends to make, new professors to meet, new things to learn.  For all I knew, maybe one of those new friends I made would be my future wife.

I spent Monday running errands around campus.  I stood in a long line to buy my books.  I had told the Learning Skills Center that I was available to work ten hours per week this quarter as a tutor, so I also checked to see when I would be scheduled to work this quarter.  While I was there, the woman at the check-in desk mentioned that they needed proctors for the mathematics placement test they would be giving the next morning, so I returned to campus on Tuesday morning and got paid to work a couple hours by standing and walking around a room as incoming students took this test.

Tuesday night I went back to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s Welcome Mixer.  This year it was held in the Arboretum Lodge.  The Arboretum was possibly my favorite part of the University of Jeromeville campus, a park-like collection of plants from around the world running a mile and a half along a long, skinny lake made from a formerly dry creek bed.  Near the west end of the Arboretum was a grassy field surrounded by tall oaks, pines, and redwoods, with an event room called the Lodge at one end of the field.  I had only been inside The Lodge once, three years ago this week, for a similar beginning-of-year party for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was part of freshman year.

I was working a shift for the first hour of the night at the welcome table, filling out name tags and directing students to leave their contact information so that JCF could be in touch with them.  I was proud of myself for knowing many students’ names, but of course there were many new students to meet.  JCF had used all of their usual outreach techniques during the last few days: students lingering around freshman dorms randomly helping people move in, a table on the Quad during busy times with information about our group, and lots of signs and flyers around campus.  Last week at Outreach Camp, when they asked for volunteers to sign up for those events, this one hour shift at the name tag table was all I signed up for, since I knew I would be gone on the youth leaders’ retreat while everyone was moving in.

It would take me a while to learn all of the new people’s names, but by the time my shift was over, a few already stood out to me.  Being the secretly girl-crazy guy I was, cute girls stood out in my mind the most. I remembered in particular an attractive, bubbly girl named Brianna with curly blonde hair, and a short girl named Chelsea with light brown hair and bright blue eyes.  I looked around the room, but I did not see Brianna or Chelsea.  Among the guys, the one who stood out to me most was named Tim; he had brown hair, black Buddy Holly glasses, and a t-shirt that said “Nobody knows I’m Elvis.”  I had no idea what that meant, but this Tim guy surely was quirky, in a fun kind of way.  I saw Tim and another new guy talking to Scott and Amelia.

“Hey, Greg,” Scott said as I approached.  “Have you met Tim and Blake?  They live in the Forest Drive dorms, so they’ll be in my Bible study this year.”

“I saw you guys come in,” I said.  “I was at the name tag table.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tim said.  “Nice to meet you, Greg.”

“You too.  Where are you guys from?”

“I’m from Sullivan,” Blake said.  I knew Sullivan; it was on the drive from Jeromeville to my parents’ house in Plumdale, about halfway.

“I’m from Seger Ranch,” Tim said.  “I bet you don’t know where that is.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Scott explained.  “Greg has a reputation for knowing his way around really well.”

“This time, Tim wins, though,” I said.  “I don’t remember where Seger Ranch is.”

“Ha!  I have stumped the master!” Tim exclaimed.  “It’s down the Valley a few hours, about half an hour outside of Ashwood.”

“Oh, okay.  I bet you don’t know where Plumdale is.”

“Nope.  Is that where you’re from?”

“Yeah.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“I know Santa Lucia.”

I made small talk with Scott, Tim, and Blake for a few minutes.  When they dispersed, I continued walking around the room, next introducing myself to a girl with short brown hair whose name tag said “Hannah,” in handwriting that was not mine.  John Harvey had been working the name tag table at the same time as me; he must have filled out Hannah’s name tag.  I would have remembered, because it would have stuck out in my mind that the name Hannah is a palindrome, reading the same forward and backward.

“Hi,” Hannah said, noticing me approaching.  “I’m Hannah.”

“I’m Greg,” I replied.  “Are you a freshman?”

“Yeah!  What about you?”

“I’m a senior.”

“Cool!  Have you always been part of JCF? Since you were a freshman?”

“I started at UJ as a freshman, but I didn’t get involved with JCF until sophomore year.”

“Oh yeah?  Why’s that?”

I paused.  “It’s kind of a long story.  Do you want to hear it?  I can try to make it short.”

“Sure!”

“I grew up Catholic.  My mom’s family has always been Catholic, but it didn’t really mean a lot to me personally.  So I was going to Catholic Mass at the Newman Center.”

“Newman Center?”

“It’s like the Catholic student club at secular schools.  I lived alone sophomore year, and I had some friends from freshman year who went to JCF, so I started going just to stay close to my friends.  And the more I started meeting people at JCF, the more I realized I didn’t really know Jesus personally.  So I made a decision for Jesus that year.  I still went to Mass for a while, because I didn’t want to turn my back on my family heritage.  But eventually I felt like I needed to find a church where people were serious about learning about the Bible and not just going because that’s what you do.  So I stopped going to Mass about a year ago.”

“That’s cool, how God found you through your friends,” Hannah said.  “My story isn’t that complicated.  I grew up in a Christian family.  We’ve always been involved in church.”

“That’s good too.  You got to experience church life as a kid in ways that I didn’t.”

“I’m looking for a church in Jeromeville too.  I think someone said JCF isn’t connected to one church, right?  Is there a church where a lot of people here go?”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant Church now,” I said.  “There’s a lot of JCF people who go to J-Cov, including the McAllens, the couple who are the head staff of JCF.  And I know some people here also go to First Baptist Church of Jeromeville, and some go to Jeromeville Assembly of God.”

“I’ll try those out,” Hannah replied.  “You like Jeromeville Covenant?”

“Yeah.  They’ve got a good college group. I like the way the college pastor teaches.  And I got involved as a junior high group leader toward the end of last year.  That’s been a lot of fun, getting to work with younger kids, and getting to know their families.  It makes me feel more like part of the community.”

“That does sound like fun!  I taught little kids’ Sunday school back home, and I was thinking it would be nice to get involved with something like that.”

I felt like pieces were suddenly starting to come together in my head.  Before I could pause and overthink and talk myself out of it, I asked, “Do you want to come to junior high group sometime and see if you’d be interested in being a leader?  The youth pastor was just talking about how we needed more leaders.”

“Sure!  When is it?”

“We meet on Wednesdays, so tomorrow night would be the next time.  But really, any Wednesday.”

“Yeah!  I think I’m free tomorrow night.  How far is it?”

“About a mile past campus, on Andrews Road.”

“Can you give me directions?”

“Sure,” I said.  I wrote directions from campus to church on the back of a flyer; I also wrote the church phone number and Adam and Noah’s names, so that she could ask someone who actually worked at the church if she had any questions.

“Thanks!  I’ll see you tomorrow night, then!  It was nice meeting you!”

“Yeah!  Good luck with everything this week,” I said.  Could it really be that easy?  I just possibly recruited a new leader, the thing I had been scared of just three days earlier.  Now, hopefully, Hannah would actually show up and stick with it.


“We have two possible new leaders tonight,” Adam said on Wednesday night as the leaders for The Edge met to discuss the night.  “Why don’t you introduce yourselves.  Hannah, you go first.”

“I’m Hannah, and I’m a freshman.  I grew up in a Christian family, I taught Sunday school when I was in high school, and I just got to Jeromeville on Sunday, so I’m looking for a church.”

“Welcome,” Adam said.  “And how’d you find out about The Edge?”

“Last night, at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s welcome thing.  Greg told me about it.”

I looked up and noticed that Noah was smiling at me.  He must have been remembering when I was feeling uneasy about having to recruit a new leader.  And today, I had recruited a new leader.  Mission accomplished.

“I’m Cambria,” the other new leader said.  “I was talking to someone at church last week about wanting to get more involved, and working with junior high kids was one of the options, so I’m checking it out.  I’m a sophomore.  I recognize some of you from JCF. Like I know Greg.”  I waved at Cambria when she said my name.  I did not know that she would be coming to The Edge tonight.

“Welcome,” Noah said.

“I hope you enjoy the night,” Adam added.

Both Hannah and Cambria stayed with The Edge for the entire school year.  Hannah volunteered with the youth groups at J-Cov for the entire four years she was in Jeromeville, two years with The Edge, then two years with the high school group after her small group moved on to high school.  I had been afraid of recruiting a new leader, and Hannah was the only new leader that I ever directly invited in four and a half years of working with The Edge, but I still did what I was afraid of, and that is important.  No one I met that year became my future wife, but with classes starting tomorrow, I still had a good feeling about this year.  And it did end up being a memorable year.

By the way, two of my friends did end up meeting their future wives in this story, but I’ll get to that another time.


Readers: Has there ever been a time you had to do something scary to you that wasn’t as hard as you ended up thinking it would be? Tell me about it in the comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh!  Where are you going?”

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Greg,” Ajeet said.

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

“Nice!  Which one did you see?”

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

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

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

“I know,” Ajeet replied.

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Plumdale, in Santa Lucia County.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s cool.”


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

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

“Oh yeah?” I asked.  “Like who?”

“Darren and Katrina.”

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

“And Eddie and Tabitha.”

“Eddie and Tabitha?” I repeated.

“Yeah.”

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

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


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

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

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

“Congratulations!”

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

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

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

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

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

“How was your summer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“I think you’d be a good teacher.”

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

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

“Wow.  Yeah.”

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

“Yeah!” Sadie replied.

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

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

“Yeah.  Have fun!”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“You wanna get some sleep now?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Readers: Do you enjoy going on retreats, or just generally getting away from your regular life and being out in nature? Tell me about one such time in the comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty good.  Ready to go in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  Tell him I said hi.”

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

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

“That’s a great story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”  

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s exciting,” I said.

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

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

“That was awesome!”

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

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

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

“I will.  Drive safely!”

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


August 12-15, 1997. My final week in Oregon. (#142)

“Any other thoughts about how Luke 18 is relevant to us?” I asked.

“I know, whenever I’m reading these Bible passages about the Pharisees, it’s easy to think of it like, this is something that happened in the past, we don’t have those kind of religious leaders occupying the same prominent position in today’s society,” Jonathan B. said.  “But, really, we do, in a way.  As Christians, we will look up to leaders in our church, or to famous Christian musicians or authors, so they kind of become like our Pharisees.”

“And when you’re in a position of leadership, it’s easy to want to put yourself on a pedestal,” Jonathan G. added.  “You have to remember to stay humble.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Like the tax collector said here, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

“Good point,” I said.  Being that this was my first time ever leading a Bible study of my peers, I quietly reminded myself to take Jonathan G.’s advice and stay humble.

“Anything else?” I asked nervously.  We had been discussing the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector for around half an hour now, and I really hoped that I had filled enough time.  We spent some time singing first, with Jonathan B. leading worship, and we would probably do prayer requests afterward, so hopefully this was enough. Joe Ferris, the leader of the college group at Grandvale Baptist Church, had asked a couple weeks ago if any of us wanted to volunteer to lead a Bible study, and I figured it would be good to try.  I asked for August 12;  if it went horribly, it was only for one week, there would only be around ten people there to see it, and it was my last week in Grandvale so I would not have to face them the following week.  I had considered being a Bible study leader for my upcoming senior year at the University of Jeromeville, but I chose not to pursue that when I got involved in youth ministry instead.

“Thank you for leading,” Joe said.  He then addressed the whole group and said, “In case you didn’t hear, this is Greg’s last week with us.”

“Back to Jeromeville already?” Alison asked.  “When do you leave?”

“Friday night.  But I’m going to my parents’ house for two weeks before I go back to Jeromeville.”

“Where do they live?” Jonathan B. asked.  “I think you’ve told me, but I forgot.”

“Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia, about an hour south of San Tomas.”

“Oh, ok.  I kind of know where that is.”

“Friday is also my birthday,” I said.

“Happy birthday!” Jonathan G. said.  “How old will you be, if I may ask?”

“Twenty-one.”

“Twenty-one!  All right!” Alison exclaimed.  “Any big plans?”

“Not this year.  My family will probably get me a few gifts, but I don’t really have any friends left back in Plumdale.”

“You should do something!”

“I’m okay with not making a big deal of this birthday.  Really.”

“What is going to stand out the most from your experience with this summer research internship?” Joe asked me.

“Honestly,” I said, “I hate to say it, but I think the biggest thing is that I don’t think math research is a career option for me anymore.”

“Really,” Alison commented, not voicing her statement as a question.

“Yeah.  I just didn’t really like it.  The kind of math that gets researched is hard to follow and hard to wrap my mind around.  A Ph.D. program would start with at least two years of studying all of this really advanced theoretical stuff that can’t even be pictured in the real world, then I would have to make new discoveries about how it connects to other stuff.  I can’t even picture what that is like, so it doesn’t seem smart to base an entire career around it right now.  But I’m glad I figured this out now, before I shell out thousands of dollars for a Ph.D. and devote years of my life to it.”

“Good point,” Jonathan G. replied.

“And honestly, I didn’t really click with the others in the program either.  That was also part of why I didn’t really like it.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Joe said.  “Can we pray for you, since this is your last time here?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Just jump in, and I’ll close.”

We all bowed our heads, and I closed my eyes.  I heard Jonathan B. begin speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for Greg.  I thank you for all the insight he brought to our Bible study this summer.  I pray that he will continue to seek your wisdom as he processes everything he learned from his research experience.”

A few others spoke in succession, praying that I would know God’s will for my career, for safe travels back home, and for a good upcoming school year.  After it got quiet for a while, Joe spoke.  “Father, I thank you for bringing Greg to Grandvale this summer.  I thank you for giving him a heart of service, that he jumped right in and volunteered to lead Bible study this week.  I pray that you will continue to open doors for him to get involved at his church back home, and anywhere else that he is part of.  I pray that you will keep him safe Friday night as he travels back home, and I pray for these last few days of his math program, as he and his colleagues present their research.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“It really has been wonderful having you be part of our group this summer.  Are you sure you don’t need a ride home?”

“I’m good.  I like going for long walks at night, as long as it’s not raining.”

“That’s another thing.  You were here in Oregon for exactly the eight weeks of great weather that we get here.”

“I got here a little too early,” I said, then explained about my first day in Grandvale when I got caught in a downpour.  “But it definitely was nice the rest of the time I was here.”

“Take care and keep in touch.”

“I will.”


I had met Joe Ferris and his family my first week in Grandvale, when I found a church close enough to walk to, and they let me borrow an old bicycle.  I rode it to Bible study tonight and left it at the house.  I would survive without it for my remaining three days in Grandvale.  The walk back to the Grandvale State campus took about half an hour.  Grandvale is far enough north that the sky was still just a little bit dusky when I left the Ferrises’ house around nine o’clock, but it was dark by the time I arrived back at Howard Hall.

Our research project was over.  Ivan, Emily, and I had submitted our paper that morning, neatly typed using LaTeX, software commonly used for mathematics publishing with powerful capabilities to format complex mathematical symbols.  I had learned recently that LaTeX was not pronounced the same as “latex,” the substance used to make rubber.  The first syllable of LaTeX was pronounced like the musical note “la,” and the second syllable was pronounced like the first syllable of “technical,” having been named after the Greek word from which “technical” is derived.  The English prefix “tech” looks like TEX when written in Greek capital letters.

Julie and Kirk presented their project first on Wednesday morning, with Marcus presenting his afterward.  I had a hard time following what they were doing; like I mentioned at Bible study, mathematics research involved topics beyond anything I knew or could visualize, even being three full years into a mathematics degree program.  After the presentations, we spent much of the rest of Wednesday hanging out in Emily’s room, playing Killer Monopoly and Skip-Bo.  Although the Monopoly board belonged to Julie, Killer Monopoly was my contribution, a game I made up with my brother Mark several years earlier and taught to this group last month.  In Killer Monopoly, players can acquire bombs and use them to blow up houses and hotels when they do not want to pay the rent.  It made for an interesting variation to the usual Monopoly game.

Ivan, Emily, and I gave our presentation Thursday morning.  Everything went smoothly, and while I was a bit nervous at first, I think I did fine.  After us, Marjorie and Jeannie gave separate presentations on their distinct but related projects involving punctured tori.  That word “tori,” the plural of torus, still made me laugh, as did most irregular plurals in general.  “Torus” was the technical term for a donut-shaped solid, and given our group’s frequent references to The Simpsons, we had jokingly begun referring to tori as “donuts,” followed by someone imitating Homer Simpson’s trademark catch phrase of “Mmm, donuts.”

After we finished presenting on Thursday, most of us began working on packing and cleaning.  At dinner time, we took one last walk to Dairy Queen.  It felt kind of surreal knowing that this would be the last time I would make this walk, having made it at least once a week for most of the summer.

“What’s Sideshow Bob’s full name?” Ivan asked me.  Quizzing each other on random facts about The Simpsons had become second nature to the point that Simpsons trivia needed no introduction or context.

“Robert… umm… I should know this,” I said, disappointed in myself.  “I don’t remember.”

“Terwilliger.”

“That’s right.”  I tried to think of a question to ask Ivan, and after a minute or so, I said, “When Mr. Burns goes after Homer’s mother in a tank–”

“Shhh!” Julie exclaimed.

I laughed, knowing that she was not actually being mean.  “When Mr. Burns–”

“Let me tell you a little story about a man named Shhh!” Julie said, laughing.  Two weeks ago, the eight of us had all gone to watch the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.  Since then, some of the others had been quoting the scene where Dr. Evil keeps telling his son to “Shhh!” on a regular basis.

I waited for Julie to lose interest in what I was saying, then turned back to Ivan and asked, “When Mr. Burns–”

“Shhh!  I have a whole bag of Shhh! with your name on it!” Julie interrupted.  “I’m just messing with you,” she continued.  “Go ahead.”

“When Mr. Burns goes after Homer’s mother in a tank, Smithers taped over his battle music with what song?”

“Oooh,” Ivan said.  “Good one.  I remember that scene, but not the song.”

“‘Waterloo,’ by ABBA,” I replied.  “I remember that one because my roommate last year loved ABBA.”

“Oh, yeah.”

I ate a cheeseburger and fries and Blizzard at Dairy Queen, and when we got back to the dorm, I finished the rest of the packing and organizing.  There was not much left to do at this point, especially since my parents had taken everything nonessential home with them when they came to visit on Saturday.  The end of this tedious summer really did feel near, finally.


Our final class Friday morning did not involve math.  It was just a social event, one last going-away party before we all returned to our regular lives across the country.  The mathematics department provided snacks.  I filled a paper plate with as many donuts and cinnamon rolls as I could fit on it and sat in my usual seat as the others trickled in.

“Before we get started,” Dr. Garrison said, “we have an important announcement.  Today is a special day for someone.”  I felt everyone looking at me as Jeannie appeared with a cupcake topped by a lit candle.  Dr. Garrison continued, “As you probably know, today is Greg’s birthday.” I smiled as everyone sang to me.

“Make a wish!” Emily said as Jeannie handed me the cupcake.

I wish that I would meet a girl this year, I thought, as images of Carrie Valentine, Sadie Rowland, Erica Foster, and all the other girls who had caught my eye back in Jeromeville came to mind.  But this seemed like a selfish wish.  God, I pray that you will lead my career decisions, I thought as I blew out the candle.  Prayers are better than wishes.  Everyone clapped.

“These are your copies of the proceedings,” Dr. Garrison said.  Each of us received a book containing all of the reports that we had written over the last week.  I was honestly not sure if I was going to read about anyone else’s research; I was ready to be done with this experience, and as I had said before, mathematics research is so hard to follow for anyone who has not studied that one specific branch of math in greater detail than anyone ever sees outside of graduate school.

Dr. Garrison continued, “And I have your t-shirts too.  They turned out really good.”  He held one up and showed us the front, then the back.  The front had the logo for Grandvale State University on the upper right, with “Mathematics REU, Summer 1997” written below.  On the back, we had written what appeared to be a mathematical theorem and its proof, typeset with LaTeX just like actual mathematical papers.  The proof itself, though, was a nonsensical jumble of mathematics symbols and references to all of the adventures we shared that summer, and the inside jokes that came from them, along with a few words related to what we actually studied.  We also threw in a few quotes from The Simpsons and Austin Powers.  “This is hilarious!” I said excitedly, reading the back of my shirt, even though I was there for most of the writing of the faux theorem and knew what it said.


Theorem 1 Grandvale State University’s 1997 REU program was sooooo fun.

Proof:

We claim ∃A = {Emily, Greg, Ivan, Jeannie, Julie, Kirk, Marcus, Marjorie} ∋ A is uniformly distributed over the Towers of Hanoi.  Through a Monte Carlo process of random events such as Killer Monopoly, Hangman, and Dairy Queen, we see that E-Dog’s Skip-Boo Transform, ξ can be applied to Marcus’ Flip-Flop Lemma giving a set of deep and profound Giddyap tori.  Mmm… donuts.  Is there anything they can’t do?

Now, given a pre-emptive Shhh!, we find that Giddyup² (mod Lan) ≡ Wannabe.  Applying this to the space of Large Marge vectors yields a Whitehead automorphism of my freakin’ ears.  Note that the question of hard or soft remains open.  Applying the above tool to A yields eight precision bowlers having fun all summer. □


“Usually they just draw something related to the research projects on the shirt,” said Dr. Schneider, one of the other professors working with the program.  “I’ve never seen a group come up with this before.”

“This is sooooo funny!” Marjorie said.

“You said it again!” Julie exclaimed.  “You said ‘sooooo!’”  Marjorie giggled.

“What does ‘mod Lan’ mean?” Dr. Schneider asked.

“Once, someone with bad handwriting wrote my name so messy, it looked like ‘Lan,’” Ivan explained.  “Some of my friends back home call me that.”

“‘Lan,’” Dr. Schneider repeated.  “From ‘Ivan.’  Wow.  And ‘mod’ like modular arithmetic?”

“Yeah.”

“Greg,” I heard Jeannie say.  I turned and looked and saw that she was holding an envelope.  “This is for you.”

“Oh, thank you!” I said, smiling.  The card had an illustration of a frog on the front.  Inside Jeannie had written:


Greg,
Sorry you didn’t have a very good time this summer.  I had a blast!  I hope things start looking up for you soon.

Jeannie Lombard


I spent about another hour making small talk with the others.  I listened to their plans for the rest of the summer.  Marcus would be going hiking the rest of this weekend, then going straight back to Minnesota for school.  Emily was talking a lot about spending the weekend with her boyfriend.  I told them about Moport, the hybrid of football, soccer, and hockey that my brother and I played for fun, and the tournament we held last summer with his friends.  Hopefully we would have a Moport tournament again this year if he could get enough of his friends together.

I spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the cleaning of my room and saying goodbye to everyone.  The Research Experiences for Undergraduates program was finally over, and I was ready to get out of here.  Sooooo ready, as Marjorie would say in her California accent.  I wanted to get back to people who understood me and shared my values.  As I sat on the plane that night headed back to San Tomas, I wondered if I would ever see any of those people again.  I had no particular desire to stay in contact with them, since I had little in common with them outside of mathematics.  Now that I was pretty sure that graduate school in mathematics was not in my future, I had even less in common with them.

I did not make an effort to stay in touch, and none of them ever took the initiative to contact me.  The only contact I had with any of the people from the REU program again was a short email conversation with Dr. Garrison the following year, when I asked him a question about how to report the stipend I received for the REU program on tax and financial aid forms.

I did stay in touch with a few people from my summer Bible study; for a few months, I got emails periodically from Joe Ferris and Jonathan B.  Or it could have been Jonathan G.; I’m not really sure, now that I think about it.  I had lost touch with both of them by the end of 1997.

In hindsight, I think I was much too judgmental that summer, much like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 that we had read about in this week’s Bible study.  I had spent most of my university days with a social life revolving around Christians, with little exposure to the sex and parties stereotypically associated with undergraduate life.  And while I knew on an intellectual level that Christians are sinners saved by grace, I still had a tendency to look down on those who had chosen the stereotypical undergraduate lifestyle, at least in my mind.

But, even if these people did not share my values, I had a life with them.  We had shared experiences.  We went on a road trip together.  We played games and went out to eat and watched movies, and we had tons of inside jokes that made for a hilarious t-shirt.  And they knew that I was not enjoying the summer; this was evident from what Jeannie wrote.  Knowing what I know now, as an adult, I wish that I had not been so negative.  I did not want to be seen as the only guy who was not having fun, and I certainly was not exhibiting Christlike behavior when I was aloof and judgmental.  At the time, though, I was not thinking about any of that.  I was just glad to get back to a life that felt familiar, an environment where I could be myself.  And I wanted to put Grandvale State and my seven classmates out of my mind.  I was heading home.


Readers: Tell me about a time you regretted not giving someone enough of a chance. Have you had times like that?

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August 9, 1997.  The day that Mom, Mark, and Grandpa visited me in Oregon. (#141)

“So, shall I show you around campus?” I asked.

“Sure!” Mom said.

“I was thinking we could walk to the math building, then come back here a different way, then drive around and get lunch.”

“Sounds good!  Then go see Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy, then on to Portland.”

“What?” Grandpa said.

“Greg is going to show us the campus,” Mom spoke to Grandpa, slower and louder than her normal voice, carefully enunciating.

“Okay,” Grandpa replied. I remembered a few years ago when Grandpa first had to start using a hearing aid, and these days, more and more often, Mom had to repeat things for him.

“Hey, Greg,” I heard a voice say behind me.  Ivan Winn, one of the other students in my summer research program, was getting out of the elevator.

“Ivan,” I said.  “This is my mom, my brother Mark, and my grandpa.  They’re up visiting for the day. My dad stayed home because he had to work.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ivan said as the others said hello.  “How far did you have to travel?”

“We’re from a little town called Plumdale,” Mom explained.  “It’s about a ten-hour drive, but we did most of the drive last night.”

“Still closer than my family.  I’m from New York.”

“That is far.  Greg is going to show us around the campus, then we’re going to go see some other relatives.”  Mom gestured toward Grandpa and continued, “My father was born in Oregon, not too far from here, so I have aunts and uncles and cousins nearby.”

“Those relatives from Salem who I saw last month,” I explained to Ivan, “that’s Grandpa’s brother.  We’ll see them later.”

“Nice!  Have fun!”

“I will,” I said.  After Ivan left, I explained to Mom that Ivan was the guy I had mentioned before who knew The Simpsons at least as well as I did.

“Oh, yeah,” Mom replied.

As we walked across diagonally the Quad, I pointed out the Memorial Union behind us to the right.  “I thought it was kind of funny how Grandvale State has a Memorial Union next to the Quad, and Jeromeville also has a Memorial Union next to the Quad.”

“That’s right,” Mom said.

“This is Keller Hall, where the math department is,” I announced, pointing across the Quad.  When we arrived, I unlocked the door and took my family upstairs to room 202, the study room for the summer math research students.  No one else was there on a Saturday morning.

“So this is where you have to go to use the computer to check your email and stuff?” Mom asked.

“Yeah.  And where I run code to do calculations for our project.”

“What?” Grandpa asked.

“Greg does his math research using these computers,” Mom explained to Grandpa in the same louder, clearer voice she used earlier.

“What are you researching?” Grandpa asked.

“Quasi-Monte Carlo methods using low discrepancy sequences,” I explained.  Assuming that Grandpa would not know what this was, I continued, “I’m looking at a way to approximate a certain kind of calculation that can’t be done exactly, looking at the accuracy and efficiency of a particular method to approximate the calculation.”

“I see,” Grandpa said.

“Sounds boring,” Mark opined.  “‘Chlorophyll?  More like borophyll!’” he continued, quoting from the movie Billy Madison.

“Well, it’s what I’m doing,” I said.  “You don’t have to like it.”

I walked my family back to where Mom had parked the car that she rented for this trip, so as not to put a lot of miles on the family car.  Mom continued talking and asking questions, while Grandpa and Mark remained fairly quiet.  We walked back a different way, around the other side of the Memorial Union, so I could point out a few other buildings, even though I did not know much about them.

After we got back to Howard Hall, we got in the rental car and drove to the McDonald’s closest to campus.  I did not know much about local restaurants in Grandvale, and McDonald’s was something safe and familiar that we could all agree on.  I ordered an Arch Deluxe, my usual McDonald’s order.

I sat and ate while Mom told stories about her work.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one other person seated inside the restaurant, eating alone.  As I got bored with Mom’s work gossip, I took a closer look at the other person in the restaurant, a girl about my age wearing a hat with long blonde hair in braids.  I did a double take; I knew this girl.  It was Jeannie Lombard from my math research program.  What was she doing in McDonald’s?  She told me once that she used to refuse to watch The Simpsons on principle, and it surprised me that someone that snooty would dare eat McDonald’s.  I figured she belonged in some vegan restaurant eating vegetables and tofu. Maybe I was reading her wrong.

Mom commented that the girl I was looking at reminded her of someone she knew back in Plumdale.  “That’s Jeannie,” I said.  “From the math program.”  At that moment, I felt like I should say something, because I did not want Jeannie to think I was avoiding her, but I did not make a scene either.  Jeannie was almost done eating when I first noticed her; she got up to throw her garbage away about a minute later, and I looked at her and waved.  Jeannie looked confused at first, then a look of recognition came on her face, and she walked toward us.

“Hey, Greg!” she said.  “Is this your family visiting?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “My mom, my brother Mark, and my grandpa.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jeannie said as the others greeted her in return.  “What are you guys doing today?”

“Grandpa grew up not far from here.  We’re going to visit relatives in Salem and Portland.  I’ll be back tonight.”

“That sounds nice!  Have fun!”

“Thanks!  I will!”

After Jeannie walked away, Mom said, “She seems nice.”

“Yeah,” I replied.


“Hello!” Auntie Dorothy said, greeting us from the porch as we arrived at her house.  Uncle Lenny stood behind her and waved.  We drove straight to Salem after leaving McDonald’s in Grandvale; the trip took a little under an hour.

“Good to see you again, Greg,” Auntie Dorothy said.  “Mark!  You’ve grown since we last saw you!”

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

“What year are you in school now?”

“I’m gonna be a sophomore.”

“I hear you’re playing basketball?  Or was it baseball?”

“Both.”

Uncle Lenny turned to Grandpa and said, “Hello, John,” as the two brothers shook hands.  “Peggy,” he continued, turning to Mom.

After all the greetings, we went inside and sat around the kitchen table, catching up.  This reminded me of the thing I liked least about visiting relatives, when the adults would just sit around and talk about boring adult stuff, and Mark and I had to sit there and not touch anything.  Mark was listening to music on headphones; I had no such thing to distract myself.

I heard a loud rumble outside and saw movement out of the corner of my eye through a window facing the back.  The yard backed up to a railroad track, and a train was passing by.  This was my third visit to this house so far over the course of my life, and the first thing I always think of regarding that house is hearing trains go by.

“Greg?” Uncle Lenny asked at one point.  “How’s your math project going?”

“I have a week left in the program, so we’re gonna work on writing a report of what we learned.  I pretty much know what I’m writing about.  I just need to put it all together.”

“That’s good.”

“What else did you say you were doing today?” Auntie Dorothy asked.

“We’re going to see Charlene and Bob in Portland,” Mom explained.  “And Mark wants to see the Niketown store.”

“Gonna get some new shoes for basketball?”

“Maybe,” Mark said.  “There’s this one pair I’ve been looking at that I hope they have.”

“Well, that’ll be fun.”


The drive from Salem to Portland took another hour; it was the middle of the afternoon when we arrived.  Charlene and Bob lived in the suburbs, off of the same freeway that I took riding Tony’s Airport Shuttle from the airport to Grandvale.  They had made plans with Mom ahead of time to meet us for ice cream, since Mom knew that we would have already eaten lunch by the time we saw them.

Charlene and Bob were already waiting at the ice cream shop when we arrived, and we went through all the greetings again. They asked me about my math research program, they asked Mark about baseball and basketball, and they asked Mom and Grandpa how everything was going in their lives.  Charlene and Bob were family, but the honest truth was that I did not know them at all.  Mom had explained how they were related; Charlene’s father was Grandpa and Uncle Lenny’s older brother, who had passed away a few years ago.  Mom got Christmas cards from Charlene and Bob every year.  But I could not remember ever having met them before.  When I was eleven years old, we came to Oregon for a family reunion on that side of the family, and I probably met them there, but that was almost a decade ago.  They seemed nice, though, and I was not uncomfortable meeting up with them.

“So are you thinking of math research as a career?” Charlene asked me at one point.

“I’m not sure,” I replied.  “Honestly, it hasn’t been that great of an experience this summer.  Math research is weird, and I haven’t gotten along all that well with the people I’m working with.  But if this isn’t the career for me, it’s better to find this out now after one summer than after I’ve committed a lot of years and money to a Ph.D. program.”

“Right,” Charlene said.

“That’s a good way of looking at it,” Mom added.

Charlene asked about our plans for the rest of the day, and Mom explained about the Nike store, which would require a trip downtown.  “I have an idea,” I said.  “Can we drive across the Columbia River into Washington, then go along the river to I-5 and cross back into Portland there?  I just want to see the river and the bridges.”  As one interested in highways and geography, this sounded like fun.

“Sure,” Charlene said.  “You can follow us, then you can leave straight from there.”

We said our goodbyes, with Mom and Charlene and Bob reiterating how good it was to see each other in person.  Charlene also said the same to Grandpa, calling him Uncle John.  “Follow us to the river,” Charlene said, and we got in the rental car and followed Charlene to the freeway.

“There it is,” Mom said as soon as we could see the Columbia River.  The river, forming most of the boundary between the states of Oregon and Washington, was much wider than most of the rivers I had experienced in my life.  The nearest river to Plumdale, the Gabilan River, was dry most of the year, with much of its water diverted to agriculture.  Jeromeville was on a fairly small stream called Arroyo Verde Creek, a tributary of the Capital River. The Capital was a fairly wide river, comparable to the Willamette that flowed through Grandvale, Salem, and Portland before joining the Columbia a few miles from here. But the Columbia was much wider.  I had never seen a river this big before; I had flown over the Mississippi River a few months ago on the way to Urbana, but I did not get a good view up close like this. I could also see Mount Hood rising above its surroundings to the east.

The city of Vancouver, Washington, not to be confused with the similarly-named Canadian city north of here, was across the river from Portland; we took the first exit and headed west.  But instead of driving across Vancouver to Interstate 5, Charlene got back on the freeway headed south, across the same bridge we had just crossed.  Mom followed them.

“No!” I said.  “I wanted to go across the other bridge!  I said go west to I-5.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom replied.  “Apparently they misunderstood.”

This bridge, the newer of the two connecting Portland with Vancouver, was fairly simple, looking more like a freeway overpass with water underneath, but it was still a beautiful view of the river.  I could see the airport along the river on my right as we headed back into Portland.  We waved at Charlene and Bob as they exited a couple of miles past the river on the Portland side of the river, and we continued to the next exit, onto Interstate 84 toward downtown.

“That was fun,” Mom said.  “That’s probably like if they came to Bay City, and we met up with them there, and they wanted to drive across the Bay City Bridge.”

“But what if they wanted to see the Oaksville Bridge too?” I asked.

“Oh, come on,” Mom replied.

Downtown Portland was full of dense urban neighborhoods on the west bank of the Willamette River, a few miles upstream from where it joined the Columbia.  We found a public parking garage within a few blocks of the Niketown store.  Mom took lots of pictures of downtown Portland as we walked around.  “Downtown Portland kind of reminds me of Bay City,” Mom said, “with all the tall buildings right next to the water.”

“I can see that,” I said.

Nike had a strong presence in the Portland area, with its headquarters just outside the city.  I looked around as we walked into the store, a bit overwhelmed by the multiple floors of shoes and various kinds of athletic clothing and equipment.  I was not looking for anything in particular; Mom and Grandpa and I just followed Mark around as he admired the merchandise, looking for the pair of shoes he wanted.

“Are you getting anything, Greg?” Mom asked.

“Probably not,” I replied, still looking around nevertheless.

After exhausting our search on the first floor, we climbed the stairs.  “I think that’s them over there,” Mark said, pointing.  We followed him to the shoes he saw, and after looking at boxes, he said, “They don’t have my size.”

“Really?” Mom replied, voicing disappointment.  “Let’s ask someone if there are any more in stock.”

“Fine,” Mark said, obviously annoyed, as Mom walked to the nearest employee and asked about the shoes.  The employee walked back to the stockroom to check the inventory.

“It’s okay,” Mom said to Mark.  “If they don’t have it, we’ll see if there is some way to order the shoes and have them shipped.”

“Sorry,” the employee said after returning from the stockroom.  “We’re all out of that size.  Is there anything else I can help you find?”

“No thanks,” Mom replied.  “I’ll let you know if there is.  He’s just a little disappointed,” Mom said, gesturing to Mark, “because we traveled a long way to come here and he really wanted to see the Nike store.”

“This is actually our smallest Niketown store.  I’m not sure where you’re from, but the biggest one on the West Coast is the one in Bay City.”  As the employee told us this, I looked at Mom, and we made eye contact, apparently sharing the same unspoken thought: they drove all the way to Portland to see this store when there was a better store just a hundred miles away from them in Bay City.  Later that day, after we left the store, Mom said the same thing out loud.


Mark did end up buying a different pair of shoes, so as to not leave empty handed.  We also took a detour across the other bridge and back, so I could see it; it was older, a truss bridge with girders spanning the highway.  We stopped at a Taco Bell somewhere between Portland and Grandvale for dinner, not wanting to have burgers again.

That morning, I had packed all of the things that Mom had shipped to me earlier in the summer.  I kept only what I needed for another six days, only what I could fit in my suitcase and backpack and bring with me on the airplane, and sent the rest home with Mom, Mark, and Grandpa.  I would not have my stereo and music for the next week, but it was logistically the only way to get my things home without my own car.  We said our goodbyes, and Mom, Mark, and Grandpa left Grandvale in the early evening and drove south for another two hours before stopping at a motel, so that they would not have as long of a drive the next day.

I was tired from the long day, but I still decided to walk up and down the hall to see if anyone was around.  Jason, the graduate student in engineering who hung out with those of us in the math research program, had his door open; Julie, Jeannie, Ivan, and Marcus were in his room too.  I could hear “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls playing from inside Jason’s room.

“Hey,” I said, walking into the room.

“Giddyup,” Ivan said.

“What is it with you guys and ‘giddyup?’” I replied, laughing.  That word had become an inside joke with our group over the last couple weeks.

“It’s just a funny word.”

“Is it ‘giddyup’ or ‘giddyap?’” Julie asked.  “Because once I read something that said ‘giddyap’ instead.”

“It’s probably one of those informal slang words with regional dialects,” I said.

Emily walked into the room.  “What’s up, E-Dog,” Julie said.

“Hey, guys,” Emily replied.  “Hey, Greg.  How was your day with family?”

“It was good.  We saw Grandpa’s brother and his wife in Salem, the same relatives I saw a few weeks ago.  Then we saw Mom’s cousin in Portland.  And my brother wanted to go to the Niketown store.  And they took home everything I won’t be able to fit on the plane.”

“Nice!  Did you enjoy the visit?”

“Yes!”

The song ended and started again.  “You have ‘Wannabe’ on repeat?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” Jason explained.  “The Spice Girls are the next big thing in music.  They’re gonna be the greatest girl band ever.”

“I need to get this CD,” Julie said.

“I can borrow Jason’s CD and make you a tape,” I said.  “Oh, wait,” I added, remembering something.  “I can’t, because my parents took the stereo back with them.  Sorry.”

“So you guys have one week left in the program?” Jason asked.  “How was it?”

Everyone said positive things, but I said, “I’m still homesick.  And I kind of feel like the biggest thing I learned was that math research might not be the career for me.”

“It’s better to figure that out now than after you’ve given years of your life to math research,” Marcus said reassuringly.

“I know.  I said that same thing to the relatives today.”

Six days left in Grandvale.  Then two weeks back home, then I could hurry up and get back to the life I knew in Jeromeville, with my roommates, my church, and my friendsFriendship never ends, the Spice Girls sang again; I had lost count of how many times, with Jason playing the song on repeat.  Wannabe was one of those songs I loved to hate, but it was somewhat catchy, and the Spice Girls were right about the importance of friendship.  I just had to make it through six more days, and finish writing a report.


Readers: Tell me about a noteworthy time that you visited relatives, or had relatives come to visit you!

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August 1, 1997. Oh, how I wish that I might be the one. (#140)

While I was in Oregon that summer, away from all of my friends and with less of a social life than I had in Jeromeville, my mind had plenty of time to explore some creative ideas.  Since I did not have my computer with me, I could not make any new episodes of Dog Crap and Vince.  I also could not work on Try, Try Again, a novel I had begun a year and a half ago about a high school student who needs a fresh start, but is not ready to move on to the next stage in life, so he runs away and fakes his age to get a few more years of high school.  That manuscript was saved on the hard drive of my computer back in Jeromeville.  By now I had lost interest in finishing Try, Try Again; I had moved on from whatever thoughts had inspired its creation.  I never worked on it again; it remains unfinished to this day.

I was playing with an idea for a multi-part science fiction story, inspired by my recent rediscovery of Star Wars.  My story began with humans living on another planet, ruled by another race.  Their rebellion against their overlords would take up the first three stories.  Then, hundreds of years later, in the next episode, it would be revealed that the alien overlords had been secretly living among the humans, plotting to reconquer their planet when the time was right.  Unlike Star Wars, I was not going to leave my readers hanging with just the middle of the story, waiting to get the beginning and end of the story in movies that would never be made.  My story had not only a beginning and a middle, but also an ending, in which hundreds more years would pass, and the humans would battle their overlords again, winning once and for all.  But then I would write one more story, in which the conquering race would reappear.  They could never truly be defeated.  This idea never made it farther than an outline in which I would summarize each of the ten tentative episodes in one sentence each.

I had no computer in my room, so if I wanted to write for an extended period of time, I either had to write by hand with pencil and paper, or walk all the way to Keller Hall and use the computer in room 202, the study room for the other students from the summer math research program.  Writing in 202 Keller carried the risk that one of my classmates would ask me about my writing.  I did not feel particularly comfortable with the idea of sharing my writing with those people.

Also, with no computer in my room, I had to do all my emailing from 202 Keller.  My mother wrote almost every day.  I also had a few girls I met flirting in chat rooms who emailed me occasionally, and a few of my friends from Jeromeville actually checked their email during the summer when school was out.  Many of my friends were currently on summer mission trips with churches or Christian ministry organizations; although they did not have frequent access to email, some of them occasionally sent out mass emails to their supporters.

I got one such email today, from Erica Foster.  It was Friday, I was tired, and I decided in the late morning while sitting frustrated in front of a computer in 202 Keller that I was done doing math research for the day.  Keith and Marjorie were sitting on a couch across the room, talking about things that were not math.  Ivan and Emily, the other students working on the same project as me, each had their own things to work on, so I was not hindering their work by taking the rest of the day off.  I closed the window in which I was writing scripts with the math software Mathematica and opened another window where I could get to my email.

This email was the first time I had heard from Erica since I left Jeromeville in mid-June.  Erica, like me, was a youth group leader at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  She was three years younger than me, having just graduated from Jeromeville High School; she would be joining me and most of the rest of the youth leaders at the University of Jeromeville in the fall.  Her younger brother, Danny, was one of the kids in the youth group at J-Cov.  Danny and his friends were a big part of the reason I got involved in youth ministry, after they randomly brought me with them on an adventure after church one day six months ago.

Erica was in Turkey for the summer, volunteering as a nanny for a family of full-time missionaries that J-Cov supported.  The concept of mission trips and full-time missionaries was relatively new to me.  I grew up Catholic, where missionary work looks a bit different from that of evangelical Christians.

In Erica’s email, she told all about the three children of the family she was helping, what they were learning in school, their hobbies, and what she had been teaching them weekly in place of a proper Sunday school.  She also talked about helping their parents with the Bible study they had started in their community, and about some of the locals who had made a decision to follow Jesus or were asking questions indicating interest in doing so.  At the end of the message, Erica had mentioned that the Turkish word for turkey, the animal, was the same as the Turkish word for India.  “I wonder what they call turkeys in India?” she wrote.  I laughed.

Erica was truly a woman of God.  It took a huge leap of faith to go overseas and do God’s work, and as much as I supported the concept, I could never see myself as the one to actually go overseas.  This trip seemed like the perfect experience for her; she had a very motherly side to her personality, suited to nannying, and having grown up at J-Cov, she had known this family that she was working with for many years.  I needed to find a woman like that for myself, one who showed through the way she lived her life that she truly loved God.

Every once in a while, a poetic phrase will pop into my head regarding whatever, or as the case usually is, whoever is on my mind at the moment, and if the right words come, I will build a poem around that phrase.  I was still thinking about Erica when I walked back to Howard Hall to warm up something in the microwave for lunch, and in my mind, I kept saying to myself, Reflected in her face, I see the Lord.  Iambic pentameter, just like Shakespeare.  This could work.  By the time I got back to my room, I had a second line: Each move she makes the love of Christ reveals.

I would occasionally hide secret messages in my stories and poems.  A few months ago, when Haley Channing told me she did not like me back and I was in the process of getting over her, I wrote a story in which the first letter of each paragraph spelled her name.  Conveniently enough, “Erica Ann Foster” had fourteen letters, and a Shakespearean sonnet had fourteen lines.  And the first two lines I thought of for my poem started with R and E, which were the first two letters of Erica’s full name spelled backward.  I could hide her name in the first letters of each line, but spell it backward.

I wrote down the start of the poem as soon as I got back to my room.  After I ate lunch, I went for a long walk around the Grandvale State campus, composing poetry in my head and occasionally taking a piece of paper out of my pocket and writing something I wanted to make sure to remember.

Erica had done another short mission trip over spring break, to northern Mexico, as part of the high school group at J-Cov.  That was a big trip with hundreds of students from all over the West, organized by a Christian university in California.  The students on that trip got a t-shirt that said “Be The One,” with a Bible verse on the back, saying to be the one that God sends out to spread the Gospel.  I wrote that down, making a note in my head to incorporate that phrase into the poem somehow.

What was I doing?  Was I developing a thing for Erica, falling for her?  This could never work.  We did not really have much in common other than being youth leaders at J-Cov.  And what if Erica did become a full-time missionary someday?  If something serious did happen between us, and we got married, I would have to follow her to some faraway land.  Should I even be letting these thoughts into my head enough to write a poem about it?

Or, perhaps, could I incorporate these thoughts into the poem itself?

Somewhere around the seventh line, I got stuck; I could not make the poem sound like I wanted while making the line start with N, to fit the secret message.  The line I had in mind started with I, and Erica’s name did have an I in it, but not at line 7.  I decided to give up on making the first lines spell Erica’s name backward, opting for the simpler task of making the first letters of each line an anagram, unscrambling to spell “Erica Ann Foster.”  This way, I would not have to change the first six lines that I had already tentatively written.

After I got back from my walk, I got out my copy of Needful Things by Stephen King, a long novel which I had been reading off and on all summer.  I was near the end.  I took a break from reading every once in a while to continue thinking about my poem.  I warmed up something in the microwave again for dinner, and by about ten o’clock I had finished the poem.  At some point, the pronouns in the beginning of the poem had changed, so that I wrote as if I were addressing the woman directly instead of writing about her.

“That I Might Be The One”

Reflected in your face, I see the Lord,
Each move you make the love of Christ reveals;
Through you, His love on everyone is poured,
Such strength in Him no worldly thing conceals.
Oh, how I wish that I might be the one
For which you save that special love, so dear,
In all your smiles I feel the shining sun,
No worries trouble me when you are near.
Now always will these dreams go unfulfilled,
Can bridges cross the years and miles between?
And we’ve no common ground on which to build
Except for Christ, Whose blood has made us clean;
Regarding this, I put my dreams aside,
And lift my cross, and let Him be our guide.

Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with the Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme, and the first letters of each line unscrambling to spell Erica Ann Foster.  It was perfect.


After my poem was done, I walked back to Keller Hall and went straight to room 202.  This was exactly the kind of quiet, boring night that seemed perfect for logging on to Internet Relay Chat and finding strangers to talk to, particularly girls.  I certainly was not meeting any girls here, and all the cute girls I knew back in Jeromeville were not keeping in touch regularly this summer.

A girl named Valerie whom I had seen off and on in this room for a long time was on tonight.  We had talked some over the last year or so; sometimes she was friendly and sweet, but other times she seemed too busy for me.  A girl who was outgoing and friendly and claimed to be young and pretty would be really popular in any Internet chat room, probably inundated with messages from lonely, horny guys like me.

gjd76: hey
sweetgirl417: hey u! what’s up ;)
gjd76: not much, bored tonight.  i told you i was in oregon for a research internship this summer right?
sweetgirl417: no! how’s that going?
gjd76: i really don’t like it.  math research is weird.  and i don’t have anything in common with the other students in the program.  i really can’t wait to get back to jeromeville
sweetgirl417: oh no :( when do you go back?
gjd76: i leave grandvale august 15, which is also my birthday.  then i’ll be with my family for two weeks.  then back to jeromeville.
sweetgirl417: happy early birthday ;)
gjd76: thanks :) i just keep telling myself it’s almost over… i’ve been telling myself that for a month now though
sweetgirl417: too bad your program isn’t here in missouri, then you could hang out with me ;)
gjd76: that sounds nice ;) i wish
sweetgirl417: so did you ever find a girlfriend? ;)
gjd76: no.  there are four girls in the math program, they’re not my type.
sweetgirl417: anyone you like back home?
gjd76: kinda.  i wrote a poem earlier today, it’s about someone i know back home who is a great girl but it just wouldn’t work between us
sweetgirl417: can i read it?

I sent Valerie my poem; she said it was really good.  I did not tell her about the secret message, and she never found it.  She asked me why I did not think things could ever work out with Erica, and I told her everything that had been on my mind lately.  Valerie then messaged me a winking face and told me again to come to Missouri.  I asked her if she had a boyfriend; she did not.  She had gone through a breakup a few months ago and had not met anyone else, and the only guy interested in her was kind of a creep.  I told her that she should come out west to see me.

After a couple hours of small talk, with lots of winking faces and some jokes about what it would be like if I went to Missouri to meet Valerie, and some talk of kissing, I asked Valerie what she was wearing.  She said a tank top and pajama shorts.  I looked around the room, hoping that, since it was almost one in the morning by now (and two hours later for Valerie in Missouri), no one would come to 202 Keller and ask me what I was doing up so late.  I attempted to take the conversation in a much more intimate direction, and I was pleased that Valerie reciprocated.  The flirty messages soon became overtly sexual, with a lot of touching myself on my end, and at one point I had to tell Valerie that I would be back in a few minutes, since I had to go to the bathroom and take care of something.  I really hoped I was alone in the building, and that no one would question an obviously aroused undergraduate wandering the halls.

I had the sense to log out of the computer before I stepped away from it, just in case anyone else came to 202 Keller while I was gone, and when I returned a few minutes later, I logged back into IRC and typed to Valerie with my recently-washed hands that she was great and that I had had a wonderful time, but I should probably go to bed.  She agreed, since it was even later for her.  I told her that we would talk soon.

I always felt ashamed of myself for having these feelings and acting on them.  My freshman year in the dorm at UJ, I had made the Walk of Shame back from the bathroom after taking care of myself in this way many times.  Tonight, the Walk of Shame was much longer, walking all the way from Keller Hall across the Quad and down the street to Howard Hall.  I was a follower of Jesus, and Jesus said that lust was a sin.  I should be stronger than this; giving in to these moments made me feel weak in my faith.

About a third of the way across the Quad, I saw someone else approaching on the same path.  Whoever it was, I hoped I was not going to have to interact; I was not in the mood.  As the thin figure approached, I realized in horror that it was Marcus Lee, one of the other students from my math program.  Now I was going to have to explain why I was making the Walk of Shame in the middle of the night.  The Quad was wide open, I was over a hundred feet from the nearest tree or any other object that I could hide behind, and Marcus was only about twenty feet away now.  There was no avoiding this interaction.

I looked up at Marcus.  “Greg?” he said.  “What are you doing out so late?”

“I was bored.  Just doing stuff on the computer in Keller.  Emailing people back home.”  I was not lying; early when I was first catching up with Valerie, telling her about the math program, I had my email open in another window, and I had replied to one message.  “I need to get to sleep.”

“Yeah, it’s late,” Marcus replied.  “Hope you sleep well.”

“Thanks.”

I went straight to bed when I got back to Howard Hall, but my mind was so full of guilt and shame that it took a long time to calm down enough to sleep.  Eventually my mind went back to the poem I wrote earlier.  Oh, how I wish that I might be the one.  Erica was a Godly woman who would never want to be with someone who talked dirty with strangers from the Internet.  And neither would any other Christian girl I would ever be interested in.  I was only making things worse for myself.

I never did find out why Marcus was out so late himself.  Could he also have been sneaking off to do something he wanted to keep secret?  Was he just out for a walk?  Or was he going to work on math all night, since he was so focused on his career?  I did not ask; it was none of my business, and if I did not want people to know where I was at night, it was not my place to care where anyone else was.

After tossing and turning for almost an hour, I read Psalm 51.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.”  I knew that God was a God of love, and that he sent Jesus to Earth to atone for my sin.  I knew that no one was perfect, and that the fact that humanity needed a Savior just indicated that no one was perfect.  Psalm 51 was written by King David after he slept with another man’s wife and got the other man killed to cover up the affair.  I often read this psalm on nights like this.  I prayed for a while, that God would create a pure heart in me, just as David had asked.  I did eventually get some sleep, but not much, and I woke up with a headache.  I was tired of being alone, I was tired of all the good Christian girls passing me up, but I still had no idea what to do about any of this, so I felt stuck as I drifted off to sleep, consumed by darkness.


Readers: Have you ever written anything with a secret message hidden inside? Tell me about it in the comments.

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(So, this week’s post isn’t happening…)

This week’s post isn’t happening… at least not yet. I have an outline and maybe two or three paragraphs written. But it was a very busy week at work. And, those of you who have been paying attention to certain little details will remember that August 15 is my birthday… so I’ve been celebrating all weekend, with friends on Saturday and family on Sunday, instead of writing. I hope you all have a good week, and DLTDGB #140 will post next Sunday, I hope.

If you are new to this site, please check out DLTDGB #1 and see how the story began, then keep reading from there.

July 22-23, 1997. Hanging out and making the most of things. (#139)

“Any other final thoughts from Matthew 20?” Joe Ferris asked the group.

“To be completely honest, I never really liked this passage,” I said.  “It seems unfair.  The workers who got there early should be paid more.”

“So you think that people who became Christians earlier in life and served God for longer deserve a better heaven than those who came to Jesus later in life?” Jonathan B. asked.  “That’s basically what the grumbling workers thought.”

“No,” I replied.  “I’m a new Christian myself.  And I understand what Jesus is trying to say here.”

“It’s not a perfect analogy,” Jonathan G. said.  “Just for salvation and grace.”

“I know.  It’s not meant to explain how we should pay workers.  It’s just making the point that God’s grace is for everyone who comes to him, no matter what we were like before that.” As I said that, I thought of something else, so I added, “And, also, none of us received God’s grace because of anything we worked for.”

“Good point!” Alison said.

“On that, it’s time to close,” Joe announced.  “Any prayer requests?”

“I’m really missing home this week,” I said.  “Pray that I’ll be able to get through the rest of the summer.”

“How much longer does your research program go?” Jonathan G. asked.

“This last weekend was the halfway point; this is week five out of eight.  Then I have two weeks at my parents’ house after that.  Then I move into my new house in Jeromeville, and I have a few weeks there before school starts.”

“You guys start late,” Alison commented.

“We’re on the three-quarter system.  So Christmas comes one-third of the way through the year instead of halfway.  We start at the end of September and go until the middle of June.”

“That’s kind of weird,” Jonathan B. said.

After we prayed for each other, I rode my bike home from the Ferrises’ house back to Howard Hall on campus.  It was close to nine o’clock, and the sun was just setting.  Grandvale, in western Oregon on the Willamette River, was the farthest north I had ever lived, and I was not used to the sun staying up this late.  I had brought my battery-operated bike headlight just in case it got dark, but I did not need to use it.  I had not used the headlight for the entire month I had been in Grandvale.

I always looked forward to the weekly Bible study for the college and career group at church.  With how out of place I felt among the other math research students, it was nice to at least have one time a week around people who believed the same thing I did.  Two times per week, actually, because some of them came to church Sunday morning as well.  I did not see them enough to build a strong social life around them, though, and the group was mostly guys this summer, so I was not meeting any girls.  I felt closest to the two Jonathans and Alison, but Alison was twenty-nine years old, not really a romantic option for my twenty-year-old self, even if my birthday was coming up in a few weeks.

“Hey, Greg,” said Marcus, one of the other math students, as he saw me getting out of the elevator on the third floor of Howard Hall with my bike.  “Where’d you go?”

“Bible study,” I replied.

“Oh, that’s right.  What did you say you were studying?  Proverbs?”

“Parables,” I replied.  “The stories Jesus told to make illustrations.”

“That’s right.  I was close alphabetically, at least.”

“True.”

“We’re all in Emily’s room hanging out if you want to join us.  I’ll be back in a while.”

“Sure,” I replied.  “Let me drop off my bike.”


When I was a freshman at the University of Jeromeville, I lived in a tiny single room in a dormitory that was reserved for students in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  It was the perfect situation for me, because I had a built in community.  If I wanted to be around people, I could just wander up and down the halls and see what people were doing, and if I did not, I could just go back to my room and close the door.  Unfortunately, student housing at Jeromeville was so full in those years that students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, so I did not have the opportunity to live in a dorm for any of my other years at Jeromeville.

Being in the summer mathematics research program at Grandvale State University gave me another opportunity to experience dorm life.  Howard Hall was normally the dorm for graduate students.  All of the rooms, at least on my floor, were single rooms, and they were much bigger than my freshman dorm at UJ.  Being in a dorm again, I reverted back to my old habit of wandering the hall to see if anyone was doing anything, just to make conversation and not be alone in my room all the time.  Emily’s room had become the one where the math research students often hung out.  Tonight, Emily, Ivan, Julie, Marjorie, and Kirk were all there, along with Jason, a tall blond guy who was one of three students on our floor not from the math program whom I had met.  I poked my head in the door and waved.

“Hey, Greg,” Emily said.  “Come on in.”

“How are those research projects coming along?” Jason asked.

“Good,” I said.  “We’re making progress.  Ivan and Emily and I are on the same project.  I wrote code to do the Monte Carlo integration that we’re studying.”

“I’m working alone, but on a very similar project as Jeannie,” Marjorie said.  “There’s a lot of stuff out there on punctured toruses, but I decided to look at toruses with one puncture, and Jeannie is doing two punctures.”

“‘Toruses?’” I asked.  “Or would that be ‘tori?’”

“Tori,” Ivan repeated as Marcus entered the room and sat next to me.  “I like that.”

“Man, I’m an engineer, I’ve taken a lot of math, but I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jason said.  “This math research stuff is out there.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I feel the same way.”

“Speaking of which, I need to go work on stuff.  I’ll see you guys later?”

“Bye, Jason,” Ivan said.  We waved as Jason left the room.

“Every time I read about what research my professors back home are doing, I feel like it doesn’t make any sense to me,” I said.  “And that’s one thing I’m worried about if I do end up going to grad school in math.  Like, maybe it’ll be too complicated for me.”

“I don’t think you’re alone in that,” Marcus replied.  “You’ll spend the first two years taking more advanced classes and learning about those things.”

“I guess.”

After the conversation reached a lull, Emily said, “You guys want to play Skip-Boo?”

“Sure,” Ivan answered, and the rest of us gave assenting replies too.  Emily had brought with her to Grandvale a Skip-Bo card game, a longtime favorite in her family, except she always pronounced it like Skip-Boo.  She said that that was how they always pronounced it back home in upstate New York; I wondered if it was a regional dialect thing, since she did pronounce other vowels differently from how those of us in the western United States did. I grew up playing Skip-Bo with my grandmother, but I had not played in probably close to a decade before meeting Emily.

Skip-Bo was a simple game, in which players had a stock pile that they were trying to get rid of, along with cards in their hands.  Cards were played on piles in sequence from 1 to 12.  I drew a 1 on my turn and started a new pile, but that was all I was able to do.  It was not until my third turn that I was finally able to play off of my stock pile.  Jeannie walked in at that moment.  “Skip-Bo,” she said.  “Can you deal me in?”

“Sure,” Emily said.  “Who has the biggest pile right now?”

“I’ve only played one,” I said.  Emily dealt Jeannie the same number of cards in my pile, so that she would not start with an advantage.

When my next turn came; I was able to play two cards from my hand, but nothing from the stock pile.  I put down my discard, and the turn passed to Marjorie.  She drew cards until she had five in her hand.  “I can’t play anything!” she said, frustrated, as she put down her discard and ended her turn.  “These cards are, like, so bad!”  She drawled out the word “so,” holding the O sound for about a full second.

“Like, sooooo bad,” Ivan said, playfully mocking her pronunciation.  “Yep, you’re totally from California.”  The others laughed, and Marjorie blushed.

“Want to play again?” Emily asked.  “Or play something else?”  The others seemed to want to play again, so Emily handed parts of the large deck to me and to Julie to help shuffle.

“I was thinking earlier, does anyone remember how to play that card game where one player is the President, and one player is the asshole, and stuff like that?” Kirk asked.

“No,” Julie replied.  No one else remembered either.  I did not know the game Kirk described.  (A few years later, I would learn a game that was probably the President-Asshole game Kirk was describing, but I have since forgotten it again.)  Hearing those two words in the description, though, I said something that I thought was hilarious: “I don’t know that game, but these days, the President is an asshole.”  Everyone in those days made fun of President Bill Clinton, and he was an arrogant elitist who looked down on common people like me and stood against everything I believed about how to run the country.

No one laughed.  Ivan said, “I voted for the President.”

“Me too,” Marjorie added.

“I did too,” Jeannie said.

“So did I,” Kirk said.

“I did too,” Emily said.

“Me too,” Julie said.

After a pause of a couple seconds, Marcus added, “I voted for Ralph Nader.”

Emily drew five cards and took her turn, playing three cards from her hand before discarding.  “I voted for Bob Dole,” I said, somewhat angrily and proudly.  Apparently I was the only one in this room not responsible for the moral decay and high taxes in this country, yet this made me feel even more out of place among the six Democrats and the Green Party radical in the math research program.  The conversation turned back away from politics as the game continued, but I did not say much the rest of the night.


Dr. Garrison, the professor in charge of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, had scheduled a meeting with me the following afternoon.  In his email, he said that he was meeting with everyone this week, now that the program was half over, just to touch base on things.  It did not sound like I was in trouble or anything, but I was still a little nervous as I entered his office.

“Hi, Greg,” Dr. Garrison said.  “Come on in.  Sit down.”  I sat in the chair facing his desk, and he continued, “So how is the program going for you so far?”

I took a deep breath, trying to decide exactly how much to tell Dr. Garrison.  I decided to just be honest and tell the truth.  “I feel like I don’t fit in with the other students,” I said.

Dr. Garrison paused, probably not having expected me to say that.  “Why do you say that?” he asked.

“I don’t have anything in common with them,” I said.  “I’m a Christian.  Most of my social life back in Jeromeville is church activities.  And these guys talk about drinking and partying and… stuff like that.”  I could not bring myself to say sex out loud.  “And I really miss my friends back home.”

“Well,” Dr. Garrison said, “the REU program always brings students from all different backgrounds.  It’s natural that some people might not get along.”

“I really don’t think they’re trying to be hurtful on purpose.  I’m just different.”

“Well, if that’s the case, just look for any common ground you might be able to find.  Have you had any good experiences with the other students?”

“Yeah.  Tonight I think we’re going to Dairy Queen.  We’ve done that sometimes.”  I also told Dr. Garrison about playing cards in Emily’s room, and about our trip to the coast.

“There you go.  Just make the best of those moments.”  Dr. Garrison then asked, “How do you feel about the math you’re working on?  You’re doing the quasi-Monte Carlo integration project with Ivan and Emily?”

“Yes.  It’s been interesting.  I’ve learned a lot, but I’m still not sure about my future.  One professor back at Jeromeville told me about REU programs, another professor thinks I would make a good teacher, and I’m kind of using this summer to figure out if grad school is a real option, or if I should focus on being a teacher.”

“I see.  Just remember this.  If grad school isn’t for you, it’s better to learn that now than after you’ve given years of your life to a Ph.D. program.”

“That’s a good point.”

“I think you’re doing fine.  And I think this is still a valuable experience for you even if you do end up a teacher.  Most kids will never have a teacher who did math research.  You’ll be able to bring them a different perspective on math.”

“That’s true.  Good point.”


The walk from Howard Hall to Dairy Queen that night took about half an hour, a mile and a half straight down Pine Street.  Dairy Queen was in downtown Grandvale, a few blocks from where we saw fireworks on the Fourth of July.  We had made this walk as a group a few times already this summer, and on our last Dairy Queen trip, Ivan and I had found a way to pass the time while we made this walk.

“Michael Jackson guest-starred, they couldn’t put his real name in the credits, so what name was he credited as?” I asked.

“John Jay Smith,” Ivan replied.  “That name just sounds fake.”

“I know!”

“What’s Nelson’s last name?”

“Crap, I should know this one,” I said.  In all my eight years of watching The Simpsons, how could I not know one of the major recurring characters’ last names?

“Yes, you should,” Ivan said.

“But I don’t.”

“Nelson Muntz.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Your turn.”

“I know, I’m thinking.”  I needed to come up with a good one to redeem myself for having missed the last one.  “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”

“That’s Bob Dylan,” Jeannie said.  “Not The Simpsons.”

“Yeah.  That’s a Simpsons trivia question?” Ivan asked.

“Yes, it is,” I answered.

“Wait.  Did Homer try to answer that question?”

“Yes.” I laughed.

“I don’t remember what he said, though.”

“‘Seven!’ Then Lisa told Homer it was a rhetorical question, and he goes, ‘Hmm… Eight!’  It was the episode where Homer’s mother comes back.”

“Oh, yeah.  And she was a hippie.”

As we stood in line waiting to order, Ivan asked me, “What does your shirt mean?”

I looked down to remind myself which shirt I was wearing today; it was a white t-shirt that said “Man of Steel” in green writing, with pictures of a Frisbee, a taco, and playing cards.  “The Christian group I’m part of back home, the guys have a competition every year, with disc golf, a taco eating contest, and poker.”  I turned around, so that Ivan could see the words on the back of the shirt: FRISBEE, TACOS, POKER, FAITH.

“That sounds awesome,” Ivan said.  “And hilarious.”

“How’d you do?” Jeannie asked, having overheard the conversation.

“Not great.  But the year before that, I was second to last, so I’m improving.”

“Maybe you’ll win it all next year,” Ivan said.

“I can’t throw a Frisbee straight, so I’d just need a lot of luck, I guess.”

I had not eaten dinner yet, so when I got to the front of the line, I ordered a cheeseburger along with my ice cream Blizzard.  Music played in the background.  When they called my number, I got up to get my food, and as I returned to my seat, the song “Lovefool” by the Cardigans came on.  Emily quietly sang along to every word.  I had never listened to the whole song all the way through, because I always found it annoying.

“This song is really kind of sad,” Jeannie said.  “The guy is obviously not into the relationship, but the girl just can’t leave him.  She deserves better.”

“I always thought it was kind of making fun of girls like that,” Emily replied.  Granted, this was my first time hearing the whole song, but it did not sound mocking to me.

“If the guy is good enough in bed, I’d stay with him,” Julie said.  “Who cares if he’s not the perfect romantic?  He’s got it where it counts!  Gimme some action!”

“Yes!” Emily exclaimed.  The two girls laughed loudly.

“How’s your burger?” Ivan asked.

“Really good,” I answered.  “A nice change from microwave food.”

“I know!”

“I tried the dining hall food here a couple times too the first week, I was thinking about buying a meal plan.  But it wasn’t really worth it.  It’s more expensive than fast food and just as mediocre.”

“Yeah, really.”

“This Blizzard is so good,” Marjorie announced.

“How good was it?” Jeannie replied, laughing.

“Sooooo good!” Marjorie said, exaggerating the word “so,” intentionally this time.

As we walked back home in the nine o’clock twilight, I came to realize that Dr. Garrison was right.  I may not have a lot in common with these people, but I was still starting to build a social life with them, between the card game nights, these walks to Dairy Queen, and the outings we had taken as a group.  We had started to develop inside jokes with each other, including Emily’s unusual pronunciation of “Skip-Boo” and Marjorie’s California beach bum accent.  This was my group for the next twenty-four days, and I was a part of it, whether I felt like I fit in or not.

As I got back to my room, with Lovefool still stuck in my head, I thought about how God had put these people in my life for a reason.  Maybe some of them had never really known a practicing Christian before.  Maybe just by being honest, like telling Marcus about Bible study yesterday, or telling Ivan and Emily about Man of Steel, God would be planting seeds in their lives.  Or maybe God had something to teach me about what the world was like outside of my Christian bubble.  I spent some time before bed praying for my new friends in the REU program, praying that Jesus would find a way to reach them.  I prayed that Emily and her boyfriend that she talked about often would make good choices in their relationship, and I prayed that Julie would find more meaning in her relationships beyond whether or not the guy was good in bed.  And I prayed that God would lead me in making the most of my last twenty-four days here.

I did not pack a whole lot of clothes for that summer, so I really did wear that Man of Steel shirt often.

Readers: Have you ever been part of a group where you just felt different from everyone? How did you deal with it? Tell me about it in the comments!

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

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

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

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

“Do they live near here?”

“Salem.”

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

“Not quite an hour, she said.”

“Well, have fun!”

“I will!  Thanks!”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said, getting into the car.

“How are you?” Uncle Lenny asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

“We have America Online.  Will that work?”

“It should!”

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

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

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

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

“And why is their hair like that?”

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

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

“That was good,” Auntie Dorothy said.

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting.”

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

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

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

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

“What kind of church is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  Take care.”


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

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

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

“Taylor?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, ok.  What’d you guys do?”

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

“Nice!  Was the State Capitol interesting?”

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

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

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

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

“How’s your summer going?”

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

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

“Yeah.  But I’m ready to go home.”

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

“You don’t like math research?”

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

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah?  Why do you say that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.  That’s fun!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Busy!”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Good night.”

“Good night, Greg.”

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

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


Readers, what are your extended families like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like this view,” Emily said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” Marjorie asked.

“Tree fell on the road,” I explained.

“Can we get through?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” Ivan replied.  “The M-320!”

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

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

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

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

“You prefer Homer the buffoon?”

“Yes!  He’s funny!”

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

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

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

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

“On principle?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With that church group?” Ivan asked.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Fog?  In July?”

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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


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

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