Friday, January 29, 2010


I feel like I've finally arrived.

All of the details about teaching that terrified me at first are second nature to me now. Oddly enough, it wasn’t a gradual thing: it just sort of happened recently, like the flipping of a switch. Case in point: The Monday before last, I was looking ahead to tonight, thinking “Man, I am going to be so dead by then.”

It was a legitimate concern. Last week was the end of the semester, complete with final projects, final tests and a lot of grading. Last weekend was the JAM retreat, a 3-day trip up to the mountains with 18 middle schoolers and the HS INCAN team. This past week was the beginning of the new semester which meant a ton of preps and a ton of teaching (and yes, teaching is measured in tons). Basically, I was looking at two weeks of firing on all cylinders, without much rest between the two weeks.

Now, here I am safely on the other side of those two weeks, sitting in a recliner with the dog by my side and my computer in front of me, thinking “Man, that wasn’t bad at all!” I’m tired, yes, but it is the best tired that I’ve felt since I started teaching. I feel like I hit some sort of stride this week that I hadn’t hit before.

I’d always naively assumed that this moment of arrival would be heralded by trumpets and fireworks, that my students would tear the analysis pages from their lit. textbooks, and stand on their desks, saluting me: “O Captain, my captain.”

It was nothing like that. There were no trumpets or fireworks, although there were ocarinas and glow-sticks. Does that count?


and glow-sticks ( didn't believe me, did you?)

And there were no dramatic, motivational classroom moments. In fact, several of the activities I’d planned for the week fell flat, and I earned the resentment of at least a few students for instituting a stricter system of classroom rules. What was different was that I was 100% confident about every decision that I made this week, and I didn’t feel as though I was thrashing to keep my head above water (a move I’ve perfected both in school and on the dance floor). This probably doesn’t make any sense to a non-teacher, but it made a world of difference in my own outlook and attitude about the week.

I think it was this feeling of ease, of arrival, that lead me to think about a subject that hadn’t crossed my mind in some time: girls. And my conclusion? I miss girls.

I spent so much of my high school and college career whining about not having a girlfriend that I ultimately took girls my own age for granted. I just sort of assumed that they would always be there, and that things would work out for me sooner rather than later (because you know how girls go for scrawny, pale, red-haired, whiny guys…).

Now, at a time and place in my life where there are literally no girls my own age, I feel like I’ve finally moved past that whiny stage. That's called irony, for those who don't know.
Although I’m not quite there yet, I feel as though I’m closer than ever to having the perspective, wisdom and maturity to be involved in a serious relationship. Will that relationship happen soon? Probably not. I am going to have to wait a while for the right girl to come along. Perhaps that’s what maturity is—shedding that sense of urgency and immediacy—moving from “I need a girlfriend NOW” to “I need a girlfriend when God wants me to have one.”

Anyway, that’s where I am right now. This revelation has been especially shocking to me, the king of the impatient, emotionally immature whiners. Maybe I’m growing up. It’s a scary thought, but exciting too. So, I’ll wait. I’ll enjoy my new-found confidence in a job that seems more manageable than ever before, and I’ll enjoy my days of single-hood, because those days are numbered (even if I’m not sure what the number is).

This is my second time writing this blog-post by the way. The first time I got to this point, I pressed delete to fix a spelling error and Firefox backed me off the page that I was writing on. Just a temporary setback—this 2.0 version of the note is better anyway. Now, off to bed!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gomen nasai (Japanese for "I'm sorry I'm such a lazy blogger"....I might've added that last bit, actually).

Welp, that's it: 404 days since my last post. I am officially the worst blogger ever. Except for that one guy who killed all those people.

Most citizens of the blog-spot community would have given up by now, admitted defeat, and committed themselves to lives in which stories are never shared and nobody smiles and everyone wears those clinical white jumpsuits that you see in movies. Oh, but not me... I keep running back to poke the sleeping bear that is the blog-o-verse (is it still cool to make up new words based on the word "blog"? Was it ever cool? Oh how long I've been out of touch!)

I guess I should start from where I left off with my last post. On Dec. 4, 2008, I embarrassed myself yet again in what should have been an impressive and awesome display of Simpsons... well, awesomeness, really, for lack of a better word. ( Little did I know that my entire life would change the very next day.

On Dec. 5, I returned to Unity Christian High school, where I had done my first session of student teaching, to say goodbye to my former students and coworkers. The 7 weeks that I'd spent at Unity were a tremendous blessing, especially when compared to the waking nightmare that was to follow in my 2nd placement at LeMars. At Unity, I learned how to prepare lessons. Not only did I learn how to lecture, I delivered some stirring orations on a level of quality comparable to Cicero...'s dog (who I hear was a pretty decent speaker, actually).

Most of all, I loved the students. This isn't to say that there were no behavior issues or tense moments. Every class brought its own unique challenges, but I honestly don't think that I could've had a better introduction into the teaching career than the one I had at Unity.

I digress... I'm supposed to be talking about the day my life changed. So, on Dec. 5, I said my goodbyes, including far too many cliché "have a good life"s and "oh, the places you'll go"s (I couldn't resist...). As I said my final farewell to one of my favorite juniors (encouraging him to consider teaching as a profession; again with the clichés), an older man who I didn't recognize shook my hand to wish me luck. I surmised that he was a long-term sub, filling in for the math teacher who'd been about 9 months and one week pregnant as I was finishing my Unity placement.
"Any particular job waiting for you this spring?" He asked.
I shook my head. "Maybe I'll do some subbing and work part-time at the grocery store."
He leaned in a little and said, "Y'know, a good thing for a young teacher to do, is to look for jobs overseas."
"Yeah, maybe," I replied (and what I really meant was "No, never", but I was sacrificing honesty for politeness here).
He must have seen through my mechanical and artificial reply, because he raised his eyebrows and offered a testimonial: "I started out my career at a small international school in Japan."
Funny, I thought to myself. I KNOW people who teach at a small international school in Japan. The Vander Haaks were close family friends, and had been in Tokyo for over four years.
"It's not the Christian Academy in Japan by any chance, is it?" I asked.
"So you've heard of it!"
I mentioned Brian Vander Haak's name, which he recognized.
"He's the headmaster, right?"
That was news to me. Last I'd heard, Brian was the high school principal, but I figured that this fellow with ties to the school would know better than I.
"Well, think about it. Even if you are only volunteering, an overseas teaching experience is something that you will take with you for the rest of your life."

And I did think about it, for about 10 minutes or so, at which point I got hungry and started thinking about Pizza Ranch instead.

Six days later, I'd submitted my final education portfolio, graduated (no ceremony this time) and was busy packing my car for the 1800 mile trip home. Sitting in the driver's seat, I turned on the defrost. My phone vibrated. It was my mom.
"Did you check your email?" She asked, unable to conceal her excitement.
"No, I've been packing."
"Brian Vander Haak sent me an email, and I forwarded it to you... there's a temporary volunteer opening in the resource room at CAJ."
I think that some part of me knew in that moment that I would take the job, that there could be no other option, really. Nonetheless, I spent the next few days on the road trying to find reasons NOT to take the job, stressing about the decision and praying about it.

Fast-forward 13 months. I've been at CAJ for one year now. I am now a full-time Bible, English and History teacher. The details of how exactly that happened merit a story of their own, sufficed to say I've seen God's hand work in ways that I never expected. At the end of my student teaching experience, I would've settled down in rural Iowa for the rest of my life if I'd been offered a job. Now I'm living in Tokyo. To call that a 180˚ turn would be like calling peaches "kind of fruity", water "kind of wet", Marilyn Manson "kind of scary", or cyanide "kind of deadly."

Since I arrived in Japan, I have had the opportunity to:
-Be the only guy with a red beard in Higashi-Kurume.
-Carry an open cup of my own pee through a crowded waiting room at a local clinic. Twice, actually (and no, it doesn't get any less weird the second time).
-Learn exactly what it is that a "resource person" does.
-Become an unofficial youth pastor for the JAM middle school youth group (mostly involves chilling with, advising and helping the high school INCAN team that actually leads the youth group)
-Eat fresh sushi... and love it!
-Eat fresh natto... and not hate it! (well, not really fresh; it is a fermented bean dish, after all, and people do die from choking on it each year.)
-Travel to Hong Kong
-Take a picture of Hong Kong's cityscape from Victoria's Peak.
-Eat curry that had a health advisory warning.
-Drink $15 worth of iced tea after eating said curry (evidently refills aren't free in Hong Kong)
-Read Christian apologetics at a Starbucks in a Buddhist mountain village in Hong Kong.
-Stay with two high school guys for an entire week while their mom was in Canada (and then one of the guys got pink eye. And then they both got high fevers.)
-Develop close friendships with all the INCANers
-Say goodbye to several of those friends when they graduated in June
-Grade countless OScARs!
-Learn kana (basic syllabary component of the Japanese writing system)
-Forget kana over the summer
-Coach middle school cross-country
-Debrief the cross-country season at the sento (get it? debrief? ...I'm so sorry...)
-Chaperon several class lock-ins (one I did with a high fever! Yay for bad judgment!)
-Jump over beach-fires at Tak (one of the most beautiful places on earth!)
-Portray a corrupt CIA boss in a student film
-Portray a mad scientist in another student film
-Portray a sleazy, conceited version of myself in yet another student film
-Watch Home Alone without sound w/ the INCAN team
-Shave off half my beard as part of an illustration for a JAM talk
-So much more... Ultimately, I've had the opportunity to discover how petty and insignificant my plans are compared to God's. It's not always been easy. Some evenings, I find myself stressed to tears and unbelievably homesick as I try to fall asleep. I get frustrated with my own inability to manage what can at times seem a daunting workload. I get defensive and cross when people criticize my work. And yet... there's nowhere else I'd rather be. For the first time since high school, I am genuinely happy.
I work in one of the most supportive and encouraging school environments. I have coworkers who I respect and look up to, I have great students who sincerely want to learn, I have the opportunity to be mentored, and I have to opportunity to mentor. And I get paid to do it all. What more could I ask for ;)
Whew. I think I'll call it a night. Just had to get this all out of my system. I'm a teacher, but I'm also a writer. Not writing is like... putting marshmalllows up your nose when you're about to sneeze. Okay that analogy was lame. I'm going to bed.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Finally! A practical use for my freakishly encyclopedic knowledge of the Simpsons...

Today was perhaps the proudest moment in my career as a Simpsons nerd. I was back on Dordt's campus, and spent the afternoon typing up my final education portfolio in the Eckhart lounge.

At about 4:00, a group of theology students sat down nearby and started to discuss a project they were working on. My ears perked up when I heard them mention the Simpsons. I quickly gathered that their presentation was going to be about the impact of the Simpsons on modern religion.

One girl lamented to the rest of the group, "I know there's an episode where Ned tries to baptize the Simpson kids, but I have no idea what season that is from, or what the episode is called. Seriously, I'm going to have to spend the whole evening in the library watching through the Simpsons DVDs trying to find that clip." At this point, I was powerless to resist.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't help but overhear your predicament...", I said, walking over to their table. "...But I just so happen to be the biggest Simpsons nerd at Dordt. Perhaps the world." I paused and looked off into space for effect.
"The episode you are looking for is 'Home-Sweet-Home-Diddly-Dum-Doodily' and it is from Disk One of the 7th season."
Their jaws all dropped (out of admiration, I'd assume) and the girl thanked me, trying to stifle laughter (of joy, I'm sure).

"All in a day's work, neighborino," I said with a hearty laugh and a cheesy grin. "Up and at them!" And with that, I flew, arm outstretched, straight through the lounge window and into the twilight sky, where I was promptly sucked into a jet engine and chopped into tiny pieces. (Actually, I got as far as outstretching my arm toward the window before I realized the theology group was still watching me, and I got all self-conscious, packed up my computer and left the building)

It truly is a wonder that I don't have a girlfriend

Summer 2008

I can say with confidence that Graduation was a completely different experience for me than it was for most of my classmates. On May 9, the majority of the class of 2008 received their degrees and left to pursue "real life." I received a blank diploma which I had to turn in after the ceremony, and when I did so, the lady behind the desk smiled cheerily and said, "See you in August!"

And there it was. In the fall, they'd be all over the world reclaiming creation with such Reformed ferocity that it would make both John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper's jaws drop. I'd be back in Iowa completing my education degree.

It's not that I missed out on the full impact of graduation. I, too, said my final farewells to friends, roommates, classmates and fellow majors. In the weeks leading up to graduation, I wrote my last Diamond article and penned my last cartoon (in which the spiky-haired hero finally gets the girl, breaking my long-standing trend of semi-autobiographical cartoons. "Wishful thinking", a roommate kindly observed.). My roommates and I played one last song in Rock Band, one last round of Smash Brothers, made one last trip to Hardee's, etc... The list of "lasts" could go on for me, the same as it could for the rest of my classmates.

Despite these superficial similarities, there lay deeper differences. It was clearly an emotional day for many of my classmates. Looking around during and after graduation, it was hard to find a pair of dry eyes. And yet, I couldn't manage a drop. It made me feel strangely numb, robotic even. I've never been much of a crier, especially not in public. However, I'm fairly sure the same was true of at least several of my classmates, and yet there they were, emoting like normal human beings should on Graduation day.

I'm relieved to admit that the tears did come a day later as I was driving through central Montana while singing along with my choir tour CD. I'd sung the bass line to "Prepare the Way" perhaps 1000 times before in rehearsals and concerts, but only then did it strike me that I'd never sing with the Concert Choir again. And so I finished singing along, choking back sobs, as I considered all the events of the preceding four years, all my successes and failures, every opportunity taken and every opportunity missed, all of the friends I might never see again. That settled the robot question in my mind, but talk about your delayed reactions!

I digress... this note is not about graduation. It's about summer. I started by talking about my worries and concerns from Graduation Day because summer meant absolute shelter from those uncertainties, if only for a short while. Before returning to Iowa for student teaching, I had several months of familiarity: family, friends, haying, softball, crappy summer jobs, and the fair. And it was wonderful.


As tends to happen, our Scrabble game had gotten stale toward the end. We had boxed ourselves in, and none of us seemed to have the letters we needed... not for words that exist in a dictionary, anyway.

Emily stared at the board in deep concentration. It was hopeless. 'V', 'R' 'K', 'T', 'U', 'I' and 'M'. There was nowhere to lay down those unfortunate letters. Not all of them, anyway, and certainly not in any profitable manner. Then, she saw the pathetic word "OWN" hanging lifelessly off the equally moribund "YET." She raised an eyebrow and took action.

"Vr-vrownktu-i?" I struggled to pronounce it and shot an incredulous look. "Really, Emily?"

"It's Russian," she stated with mock-expertise. "68 points."

"Fine, then," I said, placing my useless double 'O's after the word POINTER. "Pointeroo. It's Australian."

And so the last few rounds saw us placing and rearranging letters to make the most outlandish combinations possible. Later, we defined each word to add a degree of credibility. I'm not sure who won or lost that game (although some hard-core players would say Scrabble itself lost a big one that night), but I'll never for the life of me forget how that board looked when we were done. Maybe because we took a picture:


"Normally I don't hire brothers," the old man peered at us over a pair of glasses that rode precariously low on his nose, "But I'll give both of you a try. I'll ease you in, a couple hours each day this week."

Walking back to the car, Ben and I congratulated each other. It was May 26. Memorial Day. Summer vacation was young and we'd both been hired as cashiers at a large outdoor produce stand in Bellingham. Ben was scheduled to work from 11:30 to 2:30 the next day, and I, from 2:30 to 5:30.

When I came in, the first thing I did was ask for a price list. After all, with more than 100 varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers for sale, I'd have to start memorizing as soon as possible.

"No list," grunted the old man, whose name was John, "the prices change every Thursday, so you'll learn as you go."

For 20 minutes, John let me watch Amy, another cashier. "Pay attention!" he'd snorted, but she rang up each item so quickly that I was left only with a jumble of prices and no idea to which product each price belonged.

Then, it was my turn. The line of customers built up and I tried feebly to recall prices (mostly I scanned the tent for the right price tag) while simultaneously learning how to work the cash register, make change, and bag the produce (yes, there is a wrong way to bag produce, and I did it many times).

"Cucumbers... $1.29 per pound," I said aloud as I prepared to ring up a middle-aged lady.

"What's that?!" John scuttled over, looking at me sideways.

"1.29...? ...a pound?" I offered, confidence draining.

"Zucchini are $1.29 a pound. Cucumber are 69 cents EACH," John replied, glaring.

"Thanks," I muttered sheepishly.

"How much?!" John demanded again.

"69 cents."

"How much?!"

"69 cents."

He asked several more times, which clearly made the lady buying the cucumbers very uncomfortable.

"It's alright dear," she told me, hastily bagging the cucumbers herself, "It's an honest mis-"

"How much?!" John cut in again.

It was trial by fire. At 5:30, I walked over to John, not feeling entirely optimistic about my chances of staying employed.

"Same time tomorrow?" I ventured.

He looked me over and nodded. Determined to improve myself, I ignored John's warning and wrote out a list of prices that I'd had particular difficulty remembering. I spent two hours the next morning memorizing the list, which included practically every item for sale.

The next day was a world of difference. I knew the prices, I knew how to run the register and I was improving at making change. Even John only stopped by to run his "How much?!" bit on me once. At 5:30, I strode up to John and as I prepared to ask about tomorrow, he said "all right, take a half-hour for lunch."

I looked at him blankly. He never told me to bring a lunch.

"Didn't you bring lunch? Well then, go drive and pick something up. Be back in a half hour."

I looked at the street, where the evening traffic was picking up. There was no way I'd be able to drive anywhere and be back in a half hour, especially not if I wanted to eat something. Not wanting to argue, however, I nodded. It occurred to me that my parents were expecting me at home for dinner and that I should call and let them know I'd be late.

So, I asked, "What time do you need me till tonight?"

John's eyes narrowed. His perpetual smirk bent into an twisted frown and he asked,

"Is that really something you need to know ahead of time?"

"It'd be nice," I told him in the politest tone I could summon, although I was starting to get annoyed.

"You know what? Just go home." He turned to study the orange bin.

I was dumb-founded.

"Are--Are you sure?" I stammered, "It's really okay, I can stay as long as you--"

"No, go home," he commanded, his voice gruff this time.

"What about tomorrow?" I asked, starting to panic.

"I'll call you," he waved his arm dismissively, still studying the oranges.

I never did hear from John, but decided to go the extra mile on my end. I showed up at 2:30 the next day only to be dismissed again:

"We don't need you today, I'll call you about tomorrow."

Of course, he never called. I'm still not sure how to characterize the end of my stint at Youngstock's Produce. I never officially quit, nor was I ever officially fired. Maybe he'll call me out of the blue next summer and say "Okay, I need you to come in today." But I hope not.


No sooner had my head hit the pillow did I hear my cell phone rumble against my night stand. "Who'd be texting me at 12:33 am?" I wondered to myself, looking at my clock.

I opened my phone to read a simple message from Andrew:

"You up?"

Not being proficient in the art of texting, I opted to call Andrew back.

"Brent and I are driving down your road," Andrew told me, "and we were wondering if we could watch the stars from one of your fields, if that's alright. We tried at Bender Fields but we got kicked out."

"I think the stallion is out in the top field, but you can watch from the basketball court. Just head straight back and--"

"Wait," Andrew stopped me, "Dude, aren't you going to watch the stars too?"

"I was actually just about to head to bed..." I said.

"How often does anybody actually just sit back and look at the stars?" Andrew asked. It was a good question.

"All right, I'll be waiting in the driveway."

So Ben, Brent, Andrew and I watched the stars from the basketball court. Were our lives a system of tired clichés, the four of us would have talked about the circle of life and other such profundities. Instead:

"Any of you ever wonder what LOST would look like if it were written by the writers of Family Guy?" Andrew asked, as though it were the most pressing mystery of life.

"DUDE!" Exclaimed Brent, as he considered this.

"They could keep all the pointless flashbacks," Ben suggested.

We laughed.

"There's an evil man in my closet who makes me push the button every 108 minutes," wheezed Andrew, in a spot-on impersonation of Chris Griffin.

We laughed harder.

I summoned up my best New England-Peter Griffin accent:

"You think THAT'S bad, remember the time I put all that metal in the Orchid Station?"

Andrew snorted and we each bust up laughing for several minutes solid. Mystery solved.


Brent, Emily and I stood quietly in left field while our coach, Brenda, hit some grounders to the infield. We had just lost our first church-league double header of the summer, but we weren’t in it to win. The members of the Wiser Lake Chapel softball team simply enjoyed playing ball on a warm summer evening. A win would be an unexpected bonus.
Still watching the action in the infield, Brent broke the silence: "Guys, Saturday's the longest day of the year."
I considered this. Even though summer officially started on Saturday, summer vacation was nearly half over.
"We should have a barbecue or something," Brent continued.
Emily agreed, "A barbecue would be nice."
"Let's plan on it," I offered, "Saturday evening at my place."
That night, I created an event on Facebook and sent out invitations to the members of the softball team. I titled the event "Summer Solstice." After all, that was how my calendar referred to the first day of summer.
A Wikipedia search would later reveal to me that "solstice" was actually a pagan holiday in which celebrants would drink lots of mead, dance around a bonfire, and sacrifice infants. I opted to keep the bonfire, but substituted the infants with s'mores (less illegal, and less screaming, too, I would imagine).


Emily baked cookies for the occasion, and as David took a bite out of one of these while making a s'more, I suggested that he put the marshmallow between two cookies, rather than graham crackers.
I was kidding, of course. That would be a near-lethal dose of sugar.
David clearly thought the idea held some merit, however, clamped two cookies down around the smoldering marshmallow and slid the roasting stick out.

He ate the confection in two bites. The rest of us stared unblinking at David. Any second and his heart might explode. This would have been a real downer, as I had specifically promised in my description on the Facebook event page that nobody would die at this party. But David's heart didn't explode. Instead, he became slightly unnerved by the rest of us staring at him.
"What?!" He demanded uncomfortably.
"How was it?" Brent asked, still bracing himself for the ventricular explosion
"Good. A little sweet maybe. But really good."

That was how we invented the “s’mookie.” By sharing this recipe with you and everyone else on the information superhighway, I am taking a huge risk. If the “s’mookie” catches on, it will hobble a nation whose knees can barely support its morbidly obese frame as it is.

After four dozen cookies disappeared in less than five minutes (along with a bag of marshmallows), we decided to play the most intense childhood game we could think of: Sardines.

Playing Sardines when you have technically outgrown it brings an entirely new flavor to the game. For example, most children would not think to use cell phones to taunt the seekers. With dusk sauntering leisurely nearer on this long evening, seven of us lay flat in the tall grass on the fringe of one of our fields. My sister, Lea, was the only one still searching.

As Lea passed by, no more than ten feet away from us, I turned to Brent and whispered, “you should text her.”

Quietly, Brent produced his phone, typed “i see you”, and sent it off. We decided too late that it would have been even funnier to take a picture of her walking past and send it to her. However, Lea did not feel her phone vibrate and missed the message altogether.

For the next three rounds after that, everyone had phones out. As I was searching for Brent, I heard a banging noise come from within our tree house. I paused and looked it over. Two seconds later, Brent called my phone and whispered, “I am not in the tree house.”
“Why are you whispering, then?” I asked, eyes still glued on the dark windows of the tree house. “Afraid that you’ll give yourself up if you speak out loud? You certainly don't seem to care how much noise you are making up there."
No response. He’d hung up.
The banging continued. Rather lame, I thought to myself, not up to Brent’s usual standards.
As Chris scaled the stairs into the tree house to investigate, the banging stopped.
“What’d he expect, thrashing around like that?” I wondered aloud.
However, Chris leaned over the railing and told those of us on the ground that the tree house was empty.
Without another word, we hurried away from the tree house without a backward glance. Whatever was banging around in the tree house, it was not Brent, who we found behind the hay barn several minutes later...


“I’ve been thinking about the butterfly effect.”
I don’t remember which of us said this, but regardless, this statement sparked the weirdest conversation ever to grace the Lynden Dairy Queen.
There were six of us in that booth: Dave, Chris, Emily, Brent, Lea and myself. We’d just spent a hot July evening picking up 400 hay bales from the field and stacking them in the barn. Four hours of continuous hard work, not to mention several pounds of hay-dust inhaled between us. None of us were in what one would call a “lucid” state of mind.
Since I don’t remember who said what, and neither does anyone else who was present that evening, I’ll distribute the dialog arbitrarily.
I’m going to go ahead and say that it was Emily who asked, “The Butterfly Effect? Like the movie or the actual effect?”
Nobody responded, and for 45 seconds we sat in total silence, save for the sound of Lea sucking her chocolate shake through the straw.
“Both.” It was Brent who spoke up, although I’m fairly certain he hadn’t actually started the conversation. “I mean, think about it—even our smallest action can set off a chain of events which can snowball into something major.”
“Wait, wait a sec…” Chris said, “What would be an example of that, in real life?”
“Well…” I offered tentatively, “…Say I have a hole in my pocket. One day, I’m walking down the street, and some change falls out of my pocket, onto the street. Later that day, a little kid is walking with his mom and he sees the spare change. He runs out onto the street to pick it up, right into traffic. He gets hit by a car, and dies.”
“That’s terrible,” Lea rolled her eyes at me. Being my sister, she’s been forced to perfect the eye-roll.
“Terrible, yes, but that’s a practical example of the butterfly effect. A hole in my pocket indirectly results in a child’s death.”
Lea was still glaring at me, so I continued, “O.K, ethical question: Is the child’s death really my fault?”
Nobody said anything, although I noticed Dave nodding.
“Does my having a hole in my pocket make me a bad person?” I asked.
“Yes. Yes it does,” deadpanned Lea.
“What if I intentionally left the money on the road?”
Lea sputtered, visibly torn between amusement and repulsion. Before she could scold me, Brent jumped in: “Maybe he left the money there for the homeless, Lea. Maybe he was trying to be really generous. Is it still his fault, then?”
Lea shook her head, but asked if I couldn’t have thought of a better place to leave the money.
"No, I couldn’t."
“Great,” said Emily, “Now I am afraid to do anything, because I could end up killing a little kid indirectly.”
“Emily, you’ve killed like, three kids already today, and you know it,” said Chris.
“Oh no, what if I have?” Emily was starting to panic.
The panic spread around the table with the realization that we could all be unintentional killers.
“D-do you think I should turn myself in?” I asked, a little more than half-serious.
“We could all go at the same time, and turn ourselves in together,” Emily suggested.
“Yeah, how’s that going to sound?” Brent asked, “Excuse me officer, but we think that we may have murdered little children at some point in our lives. We’re not sure, but we think it has to do with the butterfly effect.”
“You’re right…” I said. “They’d probably test our hair for drugs, though.”
“If hay dust was an illegal substance, and they checked our lungs, we’d end up in jail, anyway” said Brent.
“So, is there anything I can do about those kids I might have killed?” Emily asked. Clearly the issue was still bothering her. “Is there any way I can avoid it?”
Brent answered: “In the movie, Ashton Kutcher goes back in time and tries to change things so that his girlfriend doesn’t die.”
“So I need to go back in time?” Emily asked.
“Well, no matter what he did, he couldn’t save his girlfriend,” Brent explained, “but don't let that stop you from trying."
“Wait, when you go back in time, do you become your younger self?” Chris asked, “Or are there two of you: Past you and present you?”
Brent stared at the table. “THAT… is a good question.”
Dave, who had been quietly eating his blizzard next to the window until now, finally spoke up: “What if there are two of you, and you drop your change, which indirectly kills the young you?”
“My head hurts,” Emily said.
“It’s about to get worse,” I warned her. “What if we all decide to study time travel after this conversation, and in the future, we travel back to the past and meet ourselves when we were young. Wouldn’t that change the course of our lives? So much that maybe we wouldn’t be around to pick up hay on this evening, or go to Dairy Queen? What would happen to us now? Would we just disappear, or would we teleport to the new timeline?”
“Dude!” Brently mused. “…Dude.”

And so, our discussion rambled on for nearly a half an hour. It likely would have lasted longer, had not Emily randomly commented that dipping french fries in chocolate milkshake was delicious. Several of us didn't believe her, and so began a new post-haying, dust-induced philosophical debate...


“Okay, somebody tell a happy story.” An hour before, it had just been “Somebody tell a story”, but Emily felt that she needed to clarify now. Not that she didn’t have good reason.

We had, in fact, told stories, but they were far from happy. Emily herself started a gruesome tale about a resourceful murderer, a paranoid victim, and the victim’s trusty dog, but was interrupted enough times by her brother that she gave up and let him finish telling the story. We shared horrifying (and true) accounts about the Midwest, and the perils of snow, sleet, slush, ice and winters in general. We discussed the urban legend of the bathroom-dwelling “Bloody Mary”, and the rural legend of the Flynn Road Devil, who supposedly loitered around a bridge near Lynden, sending the occasional car-stalling puddle.
Finally, I wondered aloud whether the woods, no more than 100 meters away, were haunted. I recalled that the previous owner’s son had committed suicide in those woods years before. The story had chilled me the first time I heard it and had seemed to explain every single bump-in-the-night that I’d heard as a child.
The very possibility of a ghost in the woods had always haunted me, I explained. Nobody else said anything for a while. I immediately regretted sharing this particular piece of property history.
By then, it was past 2 a.m., and the campfire had diminished into two or three pale orange coals. Despite a luminous sea of stars stretching in every direction through the clear night sky, the dying fire made the hilltop feel unnaturally dark.
Near the fringe of the field, the same woods loomed, black. The night was so perfectly still that we half-expected to hear a blood-curdling scream erupt from within.
So, after Emily finally broke the silence with her request for a happy story, we breathed a collective sigh of relief when Chris volunteered.

“I was in Canada over the weekend,” Chris began, “and my friend and I went to the beach. While we were there, we found a shoe that had washed up.”

I must say that there was nothing so relaxing to hear about right then, as a day spent at the beach, picking up trash. The story was not over, however.

“I don’t know if any of you heard, but there’s a serial killer in Canada who cuts off his victims’ feet and throws them in the ocean. People have found shoes washed up on the beach with severed feet inside.” Chris reported breezily.

“Chris, this isn’t a happy story,” Emily pleaded with her brother, “Somebody tell a happy story.”

“Just wait. Wait until you hear where I’m going with this,” Chris assured her.

“Okay,” he continued, “So we just thought it would be really funny if we found a fake foot in the shoe…" he paused, "…But we didn’t. The end.”

“Did the police ever catch the foot-removing-serial-killer?” Brent asked.

“I’m not sure,” Chris replied, “I don’t think so.”

We all fell silent once again, feeling thoroughly un-reassured. I discerned the shuffling sound of several pairs of legs tucking in to shield the extremities from the exposed and potentially psychopath-filled field.

I lay down on my back and pulled my dew-dampened blanket up to my chin. A shooting star cut across the sky. I believe that we all wished the same thing that night, and moreover that the wish came true: We all still had our feet the next day.


"You know what we should do? We should go hiking."
I am not sure who originally made this suggestion, only that it was mid-July when the idea first struck. Emily, Brent and I all agreed that hiking would be a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and added it to our list of things to do before summer ended. Like so many of the other brilliant ideas on our list, we talked a lot about the hike, but the plans never materialized.

Skip ahead to Saturday, August 16. The three of us were at the Fair. We had spent every day of the week (in some cases as many as 16 consecutive hours) working at my family's Haflinger Horse display. As Saturday evening rolled around, we gradually shifted our internal clocks out of the chaotic blur of "Fair time" and back into Pacific Daylight Time.

At approximately 6:43 pm, the realization dawned on us that Summer was over--Brent had already packed his Subaru with all of his earthly possessions, and would be leaving for Pullman the next day. I'd be returning to Iowa a few days later.

It took a minute to get over the initial shock of this sobering thought... or maybe it took an hour? Who knows? Time travels at a surreal pace within the fences of the Lynden Fairgrounds. We sat under the large canopy in silence, simply staring at random items strewn across our plastic table. After a while, I spoke up, eyes still glued to a half-eaten bag of pale green cotton candy:
"Well, maybe we should still try to get that hike in."
Emily nodded, continuing to stare at three withered curly fries in a paper tray.
Brent, who was himself concentrating on the Purell bottle, agreed, "I really don't have to hit the road until tomorrow evening, anyway."
"Good," I replied without looking up. "The hike is on... Yaaaay..."

True to form, however, we failed to plan any further, silently staring at trash being a much better use of our time, and all.
After church the next morning, panic mode set in and we planned the logistics of our hike in roughly ten minutes over cookies and coffee. Despite our embarrassing lack of planning, we managed to convince Kate, another friend, to join our expedition.

"Who's driving?" I asked, "Brent, you wiling to do that?"
"Fo sho," Brent replied. Then, he grimaced, "Oh wait--I already packed my car, there's no room."
"The van has a full tank of gas," Emily offered.
I blinked. The Vander Haaks' Dodge Ram Van was a mammoth of a vehicle. It ate subcompacts and crapped scooters. All the same, I was not about to turn down the offer.
"Thanks Emily--now, what should we do about lunch?"
"You and I can run to Safeway quickly and pick up stuff for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Brent suggested.
“Great, Kate and I will go pick up the van,” Emily said. “Where should we meet?”
“My place, at…” I glanced at my watch—10:45. “11:30.”

Kate was about to start her car when she suddenly opened the door and asked, “So wait, where are we going to hike?”
Brent and I looked at each other blankly. We had forgotten to decide where we were going in the first place.
“I’ll tell you at 11:30.”
After hurriedly consulting Dad, who was in the process of counting the offering money with several other elders, I settled on Skyline Divide, which would take up most of the afternoon.

“Are you sure this is the right road?” Emily asked, with a trace of concern.
“Yes,” Kate replied, looking over the MapQuest directions.
We had turned at the sign marked “Skyline Divide”, but that had been nearly 20 minutes before. The road had narrowed to one lane of gravel, and we seemed to have suddenly reached a staggering elevation.

Out the window to the left was a towering wall of tree trunks. To the right, the treetops below us seemed no bigger than the parasols that accompany tropical drinks.
“Dude. That is a long ways down,” Brent gaped at the view.

“OH--Sweet.. mercy..” I stammered as Emily rounded a narrow bend at 40 mph.
“I’m sorry!” Emily said, “We’re not going to die, I promise.”
400 yards ahead, an oncoming car rounded a corner into view. The road was barely wide enough for the van as it was.
“Never mind, we might actually die,” Emily said. “What should I do?”
“Pull over onto the shoulder a bit,” Kate recommended. The “shoulder” was the two-foot-wide strip of level ground that preceded the plunge.

Emily eased the van over, while the oncoming car hugged the bank on the other side. Had the rearview mirrors been level to each other, we might have been in trouble. Instead, we passed the other car without incident. Brent looked out the window.
“Whoa, kinda looks like we’re hanging over the edge.”
“As long as we all don’t lean right at the same time, we should be fine,” I explained.
Emily edged the van back onto the main road, and we reached the trail entrance several minutes later.

We climbed out of the van and into the muggy afternoon air.
I stretched, took a deep breath and in my best English documentary-maker’s accent, “Ah, nature!”
Ahead of us, several hikers emerged from their car with a Golden Retriever.
“SHH!” I hushed Brent, Emily and Kate, “Look over there. Oh, I can’t believe we are seeing this, ladies and gentlemen! That creature right there,” I pointed at the Golden Retriever, “That is a Northern Golden Fetching Wolf. Exquisite specimen, but cunning and deadly. I knew they were native to these hills, but I’d heard they were practically extinct.”
“Wow,” the others chuckled out of courtesy.
The dog trotted alongside its owner and licked his hand.
“This one appears to be domesticated,” I observed in awe.

Although the hike through the woods was torturous, steep, humid and infested with ravenous mountain flies, which seemed to have developed a taste for bug spray (and flesh), we knew the ordeal had been worth it when we emerged at the foot of the divide.

Perched on a green hill with a front-row seat to snow-capped peaks in several directions, we ate our peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and drank our CapriSun.
“So I think the quote of the day is Nate’s ‘Golden Fetching Wolf’ comment”, said Brent, chuckling as he took a bite of his sandwich.
He chewed, swallowed and continued, “Classic. I don’t know if it was domesticated, though.”
He took another bite. “It almost reached in and tore out my gizzard!!!”
The rest of us burst out laughing, spraying bits of peanut butter and jelly.
“I think we have a new quote of the day,” I said.

The wind blew gently, cool and refreshing. I put down my sandwich and took a minute to appreciate my surroundings, my eyes following Skyline Divide to the horizon, and then carefully studying the mountaintops ahead. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. On Wednesday, I would pack up my Ford Taurus and leave for Iowa. It would be hard to leave behind this beauty behind again.
In that instant, the fears and uncertainties of graduation day returned in full force. Was I really supposed to go back? What if I got in front of the classroom and realized that I wasn’t supposed to be a teacher? How would I survive the semester? Just what was I supposed to do with my life?
As long as I could remember, I had believed that God had a plan for me, but somehow, in that moment I found trusting harder than ever.
No longer hungry, I put the half-eaten sandwich back in the zip-lock bag and placed it in the lunch sack.
The others finished eating and we began to walk away from the hilltop, and into the woods; away from summer and into the unknown.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Graduation Speech (a blast from the past!)

I was looking through some old files on my computer this evening and found this, so thought I would share. It is the speech I gave as class speaker at high school graduation in front of 1500 people (man I was brave back then!).


Jack Handey says that “before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes.

Well, it is my hope that as you listen to our memories and goals from the past 13 years, you will walk a mile in this class’ shoes.

As soon as I was selected to give this speech, classmates were telling me, “Nate, it has to be funny.” The pressure must’ve gotten to me, because when I sat down to write, I couldn’t think of anything funny.

So, I resorted to asking several teachers for help. First, I asked Mr. Ypma for some jokes. All he said was, “yah, you know, Gibson, um, think of your own jokes. Umm, yah, you know, I need my own jokes for my own uh, speech. ” Then, I asked Mr. Kredit, who said, “Mr. Gibson, if you want to keep a large audience entertained, simply direct their attention to the western sky and talk about the planet Venus. It’s simply phenomenal! And, tell them to keep their eyes open for a green flash at sunset!” It’s a little early for Venus, and as our Senior Biology class well knows, the green flash is a hoax. Finally, I talked to K-8 principal Don Kok, who gave me a long list of jokes to use. I was going to throw the list away, but I got desperate, so I will read one. What kind of car does Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend drive? A Minnie-van. HAHAHA ha heh heh... Oh. All right… time to move on…

Who is this class of seniors? Who are we, the class of 2004? 84 soon-to-be alumni. A list, ranging alphabetically, from Beamer, Jana to Vos, David. Of our 84 graduates, 44 have been together at LC since kindergarten. Many new friends have come, many old have gone. Our class has had many unique experiences, such as in 2nd grade, when pop corn legend Orville Redenbacher visited our school. Even more unique was the sight of him sneezing repeatedly on several surprised 1st graders. Such an experience affected us in a meaningful way. For example, several people in our class cannot bring themselves to eat Orville Redenbacher popcorn ever again.

Then came our experiences in middle school music, which few can forget, though many have tried. There was that one concert in 5th grade, when we were forced to sing the infamously humiliating Dog Song, which went, “oh its rough rough rough rough bein’ a dog” and went on for like, 10 minutes. I recall seeing many audience members eyeing the exits anxiously during the 7th minute of the song, when we started singing the dog rendition of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.

Then, came our 6th grade musical, Barbecue for Ben, a musical version of the parable of the prodigal son, set in the 1950’s. Our class learned three valuable lessons from participating in this torturous experience. The first was that the story of the prodigal son should not be set to 50’s music. Under any circumstance. Ever. The second was that even if the prodigal son was set to 50’s music, the real prodigal son would not have responded to his bankruptcy by singing Whoops, my pocketbook’s empty! The third and most important lesson was that even if your name is Little Augie Holtorf, God loves you. And that was the theme of the musical: God loves you, no matter what your life experience is.

Represented here today are 84 different lifetimes of experiences. Some include hardships and loss, the death of a loved one, a serious injury, illness and grief, and just this week, the loss of a much-loved 5th grade teacher. Among our numbers are people from around the world. Graduating with us are Tony and Harvey from Taiwan, and HaeJu from South Korea. In the past four years, we’ve also had classmates journey to our halls from Germany and The Netherlands. Represented here are also a variety of talents, including sports, academics, music, drama, FFA, cheerleading, and getting stuck in lockers.

As we, this diverse bunch, sit here one last time, before scattering to all corners of the earth, we cannot help but wonder exactly what it is that draws us together. We, the 56th graduating senior class of Lynden Christian, have been united by a common educational journey. Many different factors have made this journey possible. On behalf of my classmates, I would like to thank the following: our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, pastors, alumni, each other, especially Megan and Riley, who wanted me to mention them, George W. Bush, the movie Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Cocoa puffs, the late Mr. Rogers, the cop who sits on Drayton just waiting for someone to mess up, the guy on the Oatmeal Box, Jello pudding, Al Gore, who popularized the phrase ‘I demand a Recount’, the Bolshevik Revolution, and speakers who go off thanking random people and items ceaselessly, and show no sign of stopping, even though they should move on to the next point. Thank you all for contributing to a quality education.

From recesses to off campus lunches, from learning to read in Kindergarten using those cheesy inflatable letters to reading the Bible with enhanced understanding, what has been the point of this education? Our school mission statement says, “to help produce transforming influences.” This sounds like a lofty goal, but in reality, each of us has seen this message lived out by our teachers for 13 years, and we, ourselves, have been transformed by them.

But what about the future? Here we are, 17, 18, 19 years old, the rest of our lives stretched out before us. I’d like to share with you the words of an old preacher: “Everything you do today, or I do, affects not only what is going to happen but what has already happened, years and centuries ago. Maybe you can’t change what has passed, but you can change all the meaning of what has passed. You can even take all the meaning away.” This quote may sound confusing. Sure we can affect the future, but how do we affect the past? The answer lies in the vulnerable legacy left to us by our parents and teachers. If we treasure their words, remember their successes, and learn from their mistakes, their life’s work will increase in meaning because they have taught us well.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, if we don’t learn a thing from them, despite their attempts to teach us, their efforts will appear pointless. The past loses its significance and ability to transform us. So, what must we do to lend meaning to our parents’ and teachers’ life work? The answer lies in our class verse, Colossians 3:17: “…and whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

That is what Lynden Christian has taught us. That is the point of over 13,800 hours of education. That is what draws us together today. We have been called to live our lives in the name of Jesus. He is the one who gives and guarantees meaning in not only the life experiences of our parents and teachers, but in our own life experiences, as well.

I’d like to close with the last verse of a Korean hymn and may this be our hope and prayer as we leave this place: “Help us live in peace as true members of your body. Let your word dwell richly in us as we teach and sing. Thanks and praise be to God through you, Lord Jesus. In what e’er we do let your name receive the praise.”

To my fellow LC graduates, the class of 04: So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodbye, Ahn yawng hee kah seh yoh, Sanga'ay hanto, Git R done! and God Bless.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Coping Mechanism

The sea breeze caught me as I walked along the shore today--cool and crisp. I paused to breath it in--it smelled mild, salty and damp.

I looked out over the ocean. Waves rippled gently across the surface, which stretched longingly toward the farthest reaches of the horizon, finally touching the sky at some unknown point--perhaps the edge of the world?

Over the steady crashing of the waves, I heard a gull calling in the distance. I closed my eyes and appreciated the peacefulness of the moment.

My reverie was broken when the gull landed on a powerline nearby and called again. It was not a gull at all, but a hawk.

The ocean became a vast Iowa cornfield, the cool breeze turned stagnant and humid, and the mild salty scent rotted into the tangy stench of hog manure.

As I walked back to my car, I thought to myself, "What a blessing it is, that the landlocked mind is entitled to wander."

Friday, May 2, 2008

Full Circle

Four years ago, I was a senior in high school. By Spring, as debilitating senioritis was setting in, I had finalized my plans to attend Dordt College in the fall. My plan was to major in journalism and write for the school paper. At the time, I did not even consider the possibility of auditioning for a choral ensemble. I'd participated in school choirs since junior high, but I figured that only music majors were allowed into college choirs. I had grown up listening to the Dordt Music Department's annual tapes and CDs, and believed that I was nowhere near that level of skill.

Then, my former choir director, a recent graduate of Dordt and an alum of the concert choir, contacted me. He told me not only to audition for choir at Dordt, but to audition for a music scholarship. The suggestion caught me off guard. How far out of my league would I be, if I actually tried out for a scholarship? Anyway, the deadline for sending in audition tapes had long since passed, I informed Mr. Visker.

However, Mr. Visker had an answer for that, too. He told me that Dr. Ben Kornelis, the director of several Dordt choirs, would be visiting family in Lynden the upcoming weekend and that he would be willing to hear me audition live.

If sending in an audition tape would have been intimidating, this was even scarier. Nonetheless, Mr. Visker convinced me to meet with Dr. Kornelis. After church one Sunday, Dr. Kornelis stopped by and listened to the two pieces I had prepared: "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miserables and "Be Thou My Vision", my favorite hymn. To my surprise, I actually felt good about the audition. My family, friends and random people from church who had lingered in the sanctuary long enough to hear me sing (further adding to the intimidation of the audition) told me that I had done very well.

This was the first time that being a part of a quality college choir actually seemed like a possibility to me. So, I waited patiently for the results. Several weeks later, I got a letter in the mail informing me that I would be receiving a $2000/year scholarship to sing in a choral ensemble every semester and to take four semesters of voice lessons. I was overjoyed. God had opened a door for me where I had only seen an empty wall before.

Throughout my years at Dordt, I sang in a number of ensembles, starting in Chorale my freshman year and joining Concert Choir from sophomore year on. I also spent two years in Kantorei, and a year in the men's glee club, the Canons. The opportunity to sing with other committed, Christian peers, under a talented director (Dr. K would tell me I was being obsequious) was a tremendous blessing. Few experiences in life are as simultaneously fun, meaningful and utterly exhausting as a choir tour. After each concert on the road, we would form a circle (or oval, or amoeba-shape), join hands and sing the last few measures of "Praise to the Lord." In these moments, as our voices faded into the night sky, we knew as a group that the Lord had listened to our concert and that despite any wrong notes, tired voices, offbeat Dutch clapping, or missed cut-offs, He had taken joy in our praise.

Tonight, I sang in my last official Dordt concert. My long day at Dordt was finally closing. The realization struck me as we sang our final song of the night.

The song was "Be Thou My Vision."

The last four years have been incredible, and I am ever-grateful for the opportunity I had to be a part of the choirs here. I will share with you now the words to "Be Thou My Vision", which bookended my career as a student and singer at Dordt:

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom and thou my true word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
Thou and thou only first in my heart,
Great God of heaven my treasure thou art.

Great God of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heaven's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision O ruler of all.