(Left to Right) Donna, Debbie (my host), Virginia, Angela, Darcy, me & Matthew in Abingdon on Wednesday night
On Monday afternoon I walked to the small town of Emory, VA, home to the fighting Wasps of Emory & Henry College. I decided to take a novel approach in finding a place to stay in Emory. A week before arriving I emailed the school chaplain Mary K. Briggs and asked if she could help. She didn't hesitate in asking around and finding a place for me to stay with a group of students who live in a designated Spiritual Living house (House 17) on campus. She even had the forethought to leave me two meal tickets for dinner and breakfast so I could eat with them at the cafeteria.
Three of the five housemates met me on the steps of the chapel at 5pm along with two of their friends. We started to exchange the usual introductions and all was going smoothly until I reached the last guy.
I shook his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Garth" and waited for him to reply in kind. "Hi" he said. Then he added, "Garth." There was an awkward pause. I waited for him to tell me his name. Nothing came.
I decided to help him out. "And what's your name?" I asked. He looked at me oddly, waited another beat and then said, "I'm Garth."
For a second it simply didn't compute. Then it dawned on me. At this very moment, in the second month of my 37th year on this earth, I was being personally introduced to the first Garth I have ever met. I felt myself get excited, like Lewis & Clark glimpsing the Pacific coast for the first time. Wow! Another Garth. How cool is that? I felt an instant bond with this freshman. He knows my pain. He has experienced the Garth Vader jokes, the Wayne's World references, the cliched "what is your last name ... Brooks?" comments that all Garth's are expected to chuckle at as if they have never heard it before.
This Garth has a good reason for his name. His father is named Garth. For me it was apparently some name my parents plucked from a name book after a few too many glasses of Merlot and the B side of a Peter, Paul and Mary album. I'm only kidding. In all seriousness I have never been a huge fan of my name. Up until this night the one benefit has been that wherever I am, no matter how large the group of people, I know that when someone says Garth they are talking to me.
This Pavlovian reaction to hearing my name turned the rest of the night at House17 into a mild Vaudevillian comedy. The first couple of times housemates came in and would say "Hey Garth, how's it going" and I would launch into an answer before realizing they weren't talking to me. Later, when they were talking to me, I would have these long awkward pauses before I answered while I tried to make sure I was the object of their conversation. I just couldn't get the hang of it. Turns out having a roommate named Garth wouldn't be as cool as I might have initally imagined. Take away the uniqueness from my name and what do I have? An oddly sounding moniker that half the world's cultures have a hard time pronouncing because of the "th" sound. Maybe I should just start introducing myself as Sheldon.
For those of you who don't remember, or who were missing a Y chromosome, here is a snapshot of the life of the college male. College guys pretty much live in a state of loosely organized chaos. There is almost always nothing in the fridge. Bathrooms range from nominally clean to outright disasters. There is a lots of video game playing, the coffee table is piled with a mixture of empty cups, snack food and various remote controls and clean towels are inevitably in short supply. There is a lot of good-natured humor but far less conversation that could be classified as "emotionally vulnerable". Wait a second, I think I just broadened out to describe the whole male species, regardless of age. Either way, I can pronounce myself an expert because I am a man and as recent as 14 years ago I was still a part of that college genum. Monday night simply allowed me to relive that experience with a new generation. The only thing that has changed is the sophistication of the video games. Tecmo Bowl, Rest in Peace.
All kidding aside I understandably felt very comfortable in this environment on Monday night, like returning to my former tribe. Kyle, Alex, Garth and Noah were all exceedingly nice and hospitable to me. College students usually have five to 18 things going on at the same time, so there was a lot coming and going, but it was nice to just be able to sit there, watch some Monday night football and be talk to them about life at Emory & Henry.
Tuesday night in Abingdon was quite a bit different. I spend part of the night at a birthday celebration for a woman who is a close friend of my host Debbie Harvey. Debbie had graciously agreed to host me on somewhat short notice after being contacted by Pat Holden who I stayed with on the first Saturday night of my trip. But given that she had an existing committment to go out for pizza to celebrate her girlfriend's 50th ... er, I mean 29th birthday I got to join the group for the night. Debbie did invite her son Matthew to come as well so that I wouldn't be the lone male at the table.
Conversation at this table did not revolve around World of Warcraft or the Washington Redskins. Professional women with kids in college don't seem to care a lot about either of those topics. They talked about their kids, about their jobs, about what is going on in their lives. It was an altogether different energy. Then, after I destroyed some amazingly good riccota and broccoli pizza, it was time to break out the present's for Angela's birthday. She gave her friends some specially embroidered key chains that slip around your wrist. In turn they gave her specialty picture frames, candles and body lotions. Most of the gifts came with a cute card, gift bags and colored wrapping tissue. Somehow I have a hard time picturing one of the guys at Emory & Henry buying one of their roommates a scented candle for his birthday, let alone taking the time to think about wrapping it.
Lest I miss the forest through the trees there were vastly more important things that united these two evenings. Laughter. Friendship. Fun. A group of people who choose to spend time together because they care about each other, even if they express it in vastly different ways. One other thing. Both the college guys and the mothers of college girls made a 36 ... er, 29 year old stranger feel very welcome for a night. Highlighting differences might make for better comedy, but remembering what makes up our common humanity makes for more grateful living.
Now where is that scented body lotion catalog? My dad's christmas gift isn't going to buy itself.