20 Things You Really Need To Know About State College

state-collegeNormally I wouldn’t respond to puff pieces on real estate websites, but a number of my Facebook friends posted a feel-good article called Twenty Things You Need To Know About State College Before You Move There, and it irked me just enough to make me want to share my take on my hometown.

I’ve lived in State College (home of Penn State University) for about 29 years. I’ve seen the town from the perspective of a teenager, college student, townie, and adult student. the article does tell a few truths and half-truths, but my take isn’t quite as sunny as most people here. FYI, even though this list is mostly a rant, it’s also intended as genuine advice.

1. The Penn State Child Molestation Scandal Isn’t Over Yet

It’s been almost two and a half years since former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 48 counts of child molestation. Even though Sandusky was tried and sentenced in 2012, the fallout from his crimes still dominates our news, and people act out about it in all kinds of annoying and embarrassing ways.

If you recall, in addition to Sandusky being charged with molesting children. three Penn State administrators were also charged with covering up his crimes. Their trials have not taken place yet. There’s not even a court date. If you move here, you will have to endure all of the ugly revelations that are certain to come out.

2. This Town Doesn’t Think Sandusky’s Crimes Were The Real Scandal; Joe Paterno’s Firing Was.

Many locals have gone out of their way to prove to the world that this town really does only care about football. You’ll see billboards and signs in storefronts decrying Joe Paterno’s firing, and every few months group of reactionary alumni, led by the Paternos and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, hold melodramatic protests complaining about Paterno’s firing. They have also infiltrated the Penn State Trustees Board, creating this weird dynamic where members are suing each other and badmouthing each other during Trustee meetings.

Aside form a few locals who’ve gotten together to raise money for charities that assist victims of child molestation, most locals care more about the fact that Joe Paterno was fired from his job as a result of the scandal.You’ll also hear a lot of outrage over the NCAA sanctions against the football team and the Freeh Report.

3. Penn State’s Academic Calendar Dictates Life In This Town Beyond Football Season.

There are about 40,000 people who live in the State College Area. There are close to 50,000 Penn State students. Businesses that don’t cater to college students tend to struggle, and the ebbs and flows between the academic calendar can be jarring. If you like peace and quiet, the summer months are great. If you like the bustle and energy the students bring, the summer months are dull.

4. Conservative Churches Love College Students; Mainline Churches Hate Them.

I’m not kidding. If you go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church in this town, you’ll see a lot of young couples and college students. They’re always striving to bring in more of them.

The mainline churches and the Catholic Churches tend to be older, grayer, and they like it that way. If you’re a college student and you show up at these churches, you’ll be treated as a nuisance and shuttled out of view until you get the message and leave. Back when I was a twentysomething hunting for a church home, a pastor explained to me that geography was the key: the closer the church was to the campus, the more hostile it was to the students.

5. If You’re A Gay Christian, You Have Three Churches To Choose From.

That number is probably a lot better than most places in rural Pennsylvania, but for a college town, the Christian community is pretty anti-gay, and only three churches accept gays as they are.

6. Be Prepared To Lose A Lot Of Friends.

My church used to call State College a crossroads town, which is another way to say that most people are here for just a few years before they move on to another town. Obviously this affects students the most, but adults tend not to stick around long, either. A long time ago I calculated that every four or five years I had to “start over” with a new set of friends because the old batch would all get jobs elsewhere by that point.

7. The Dating Scene Is Nonexistent If You’re Over 25.

The town is populated by college students, married academics, white collar workers, and retirees. Not much else. If you’re like a friend of mine who got divorced in his 40’s and only wanted to date devout Christian women his age, forget it.

8. The Schools Are Great.

This town has a lot of doctors, professors and wealth. That translates to schools with high academic standards and motivated parents and students.

9. The Cultural Opportunities Are Pretty Damn Good.

Not as good as they used to be, though. There used to be a happening bar scene with lots of good bands and great small-label acts playing. That scene is pretty dead now, but a surprising number of big-name acts do come here, and the university itself draws a lot of well-known speakers and performances.

10. If You Get A Job Offer At Penn State, Don’t Take It.

I’m serious. In spite of the image of an ivy-covered nirvana of intellectual growth and connecting with the future leaders of America, Penn State’s administrative structure is ruthlessly corporate. Pretty much every person not working in a classroom walks in fear of losing their job or getting their healthcare axed. For more than a decade the university has started the new year with by revising health care policies that screw over both employees and retirees who assumed that their healthcare plan was secure. When one plan gets shut down, you can bet that another, more aggressive plan is coming down the pike.

The university also has this really cool policy of laying off employees before they turn 65 so they can save money.

11. Our Idiots Tend To Be A Little Smarter Than Most.

I didn’t realize this until I started traveling to churches across the country. The concentration of academia here tend to add a little complexity and nuance to even our most conservative churches (hence the fact that I belonged to an evangelical church that counted three evolutionists on its Deacon board, including myself.) The obvious first tip is that people here tend to have a better vocabulary and manner of expressing themselves. You still get a lot of Christians who buy into the Glenn Beck/ Sarah Palin political views, but    somehow they’re less off-putting because they can actually sit down and debate with you rather than scream “Obama’s A Socialist!” over and over.

12. This Town Is Like A Lunar Colony.

Like the article says, drive 15 minutes in any direction and you hit farmland. What it doesn’t say is that you have to drive 90 minutes before you hit the nearest city, Harrisburg.

13. It’s A Great Town If You’re Disabled.

That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. The presence of students combined with the high elderly populations means that the public transportation is excellent, and most sidewalks and buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

14. People Are Very Nice, But Skittish About Making New Friends.

See Point 6. A lot of people carry those scars with them. I can get off the mat and make new friends more easily that most people, but a lot of townies just get burned out and tired of having people come and go in their lives, so they hold onto the friends they have with every fiber of their being and don’t let others into their circle.

That said, State College is refreshingly devoid of the kind of snobbishness you see in towns where the population is static and people have lived there for generations. The snobbery here tends to be directed towards all those drinking and sex-crazed students passing out on their lawns in the middle of the night.

15. The Downtown Scene Is Dead..

This is the one point the article got blatantly wrong. State College has struggled for decades with businesses closing downtown due to high taxes and lack of business. As student housing has spread towards the northern end of town,the downtown situation has become more lifeless.  The bar scene is lively, but the kind of people inclined to visit a real estate website won’t care about that. The restaurant selection is pretty good, but the only stores that succeed are Penn State memorabilia stores, kitschy trinket stores, and pizza joints. And there’s a bank on every block.

16. Penn State Students Tend To Be Politically Lazy.

I say this because some people might be hopeful (or worried) that moving to State College will mean seeing dozens of angry sophomores railing against The Keystone XL or either side of the abortion debate. Don’t worry about it. Once in a blue moon you’ll see a protest, but the only ones that draw a consistent crowd are hellfire preachers who come in from out of town to rile up college students, and Franco Harris’s crew.

17. You’d Be Surprised How Racist This Town Is.

In spite of #11, idiocy is idiocy. Bigots here tend to be very cautious before they show their cards, but if you’re around you long enough that they think they can trust you, you might hear rants about darkies or niggers.

18. If You’re An Evangelical, You Have Five Churches To Choose From.

And if you have teenagers or are a college student, you’re going to Calvary Baptist Church. There’s no point resisting it. Pretty much every evangelical in this town has either become a member of Calvary Baptist or attended enough services there to feel like a member. These churches tend to shuttle members back and forth; if things go bad at one church, you move onto one of the other four. And Calvary will be one of your choices. You cannot resist it.

19. We Turn Centre County Blue.

After almost every election, you’ll see a little blue trianglish-shaped spot in the red conservative “T” Pennsylvania is famous for. That’s Penn State voters flexing their political muscle on the conservative boonies that surround us. Oddly enough, the conservative presence here was much more vibrant in the 90’s. Now it’s a given that Democrats will win most of our local elections.

20. There Are (Almost) No Bookstores.

Back in the 90’s, downtown State College had six bookstores, in addition to two more out in the shopping centers. There were great bookstores with really eclectic and interesting stuff- the kind of bookstores you’d dream a good college town would have. Barnes & Noble and the internet killed off all but one of them. Now we have Webster’s, which is a great used bookstore and Cafe, and a shell of what used to be Barnes & Noble. Oddly enough I’ve gone from resenting our Barnes & Noble store to pitying it, and wishing it could survive. But half of the store space has been converted to a toy store (yes, a toy store!). At least Circuit City had the guts to just pull the plug on itself instead of living off an IV Drip of Monopoly games.

Campus Crusaders Pt 10: Methodist Madness

Islamic Madrassa Students Burn DVDs And Music CDs In CapitolIf you read my last post, then you’re probably wondering why I went off on a tangent about the Methodist church in the middle of series that’s supposed to be about my Campus Crusade Bible Study. I did that for a couple of reasons:

1. I wanted to establish that I was living in two very different Christian circles at this time. Even though I hung out with the Campus Crusaders, I didn’t even attend an evangelical church service until I soured on the Methodists (more on that later).

2. I wanted to contrast how Methodists viewed me versus how my Campus Crusade friends viewed me. Because there were good reasons why I didn’t just ditch the Campus Crusaders and embrace the Methodists.

Both groups diagnosed me with the same illness: pop culture had corrupted my worldview, and my fondness for secular TV, movies, and music was getting in the way of my relationship with God.

Believe it or not, the Campus Crusaders were much more reasonable about this than the Methodists were. The Bible Study gang tried to get me to like Christian rock. They’d play the latest CCM hits with the hope that I’d enjoy it enough to throw out all of my Nirvana cd’s. They showed me brightly colored charts geared towards young people looking to make the jump away from secular rock  (i.e. “If you like Pearl Jam, try DC Talk…”). It was a Christianized version of Amazon’s recommendation list.

In spite of their obvious distaste for secular music, I often exchanged mix tapes with them, and they’d listen to them with me or give me feedback about the music itself. While they found the songs I gave them “too depressing”, I give them credit for taking the time to listen to them frequently enough to form opinions on specific tracks.

Things got more awkward when it came to movies and TV, though. I’d always end up suggesting movies that had ended up on Focus On The Family’s blacklist of stuff to avoid, and they’d always get whispery and nervous when I made an inappropriate suggestion. Sometimes, they’d come out and tell me why a movie was dangerous (usually it was because of a sex scene). Other times, I’d go back home and rewatch the movie in question and try to figure out which scenes had flipped their red alert switches.

The Methodists, on the other hand, wanted to do an intervention. I remember one particularly haughty couple who kept advertising their desire to go into my house and scour it for inappropriate media that they would then throw out or burn. They couldn’t fathom why I declined their offer.

So the difference between the Methodists and the Campus Crusaders was twofold: the evangelicals assumed that my taste in media was evidence that I wasn’t a Christian. They wanted me to choose to toss out my secular stuff. Tossing it out would be evidence of my desire to cast aside worldly influences and devote myself to Christ. The Methodists, on the other hand, didn’t really think in terms of getting me born-again or saving my soul. They approached me as if I had a psychological affliction – some invasive pop culture surgery was necessary to heal me and help improve my spiritual outlook. Even though the Bible Study’s assumption about my spiritual state was more extreme, their approach was much more diplomatic.

And for what it’s worth, the Methodist church’s library had all of James Dobson’s books in its library.

Campus Crusaders Pt 9: Methodist Misery

financesAside from Campus Crusade’s operatic dysfunction, I had a few other things going for me that prevented me from fully assimilating into the evangelical subculture. One of them was the Methodist church. In contrast to Campus Crusade, the Methodists were refreshingly apolitical, although they did seem a bit more preoccupied with the culture wars than you might expect.

I had become a regular attendee at the Methodist church a few months before Kaitlyn first invited me to join her Campus Crusade Bible Study.  So early on in my churchgoing adventures, my energy was focused on establishing a home with them. This was not an easy task. I wouldn’t find out until much later, but there ‘s a weird dynamic in town where the closer your church is to the university, the more hostile your congregation is to college students. I was a few years older than the 40,000 kids that swarmed Penn State for nine months each year, but due to my youthful looks, the Methodists had me pegged as One Of Them. And since the church was located right across from campus, the animosity against college students ran long and deep.

My first clue that the Methodist Church might not be the best fit was my brief stint on the church’s  financial committee in the winter of ’93, right before I joined Campus Crusade. I’ve always been the kind of guy who’s eager to volunteer. Whatever your church needs, sign me up. I didn’t mind the church’s skeptical reaction to my desire to offer my time and talents, because I was still getting acclimated to church services. Hell, I still hadn’t learned that drawing funny cartoons on the church bulletins and passing them on to the bored kid in front of me was bad form.

It took a bit of nagging before the pastor finally said that the finance committee needed volunteers. I could by his harrumph that this would not be a pleasant assignment. But I was eager to help, and now I was plugged in!

I went into my first meeting wide-eyed with optimism. My biggest worry was that I sucked at math. Instead I got sucked into a vortex of nihilism and resentment that soured my enthusiasm for my newfound home in a hurry.

The only thing the finance committee hated more than their miserable lot in life was the church itself. Every meeting was full of gossip and pessimism. And it wasn’t even interesting gossip. It was all about who didn’t tithe, who’s marriage was a sham, and how church’s latest project was always doomed to failure. If the project defied their expectations, then it was horrible idea. But they saved most of their ire for the pastor. He struck me as a nice guy: aloof but well-meaning. This was when I learned that Methodist Church has a policy of shuttling pastors in and out of churches every few years to keep things from becoming too hidebound. Even though he had a few years left on his term, the finance committee was counting the days until the guy left.

And the funny thing is, they didn’t really have any reason to hate the guy. There were no lurid backstories or shocking revelations that turned me to their side. They were the problem. They just plain didn’t like anyone, and it was easy to see why they had been annexed off to the finance committee. By the time Kaitlyn asked me to join the Campus Crusade Bible Study, I was dying to make a quick exit from the finance committee without feeling guilty about it.