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.

Hobby Lobby’s Slippery Slope

Hobby-LobbyI scoffed at the Hobby Lobby case when I first about it. I figured the company’s position on birth control coverage would be easily dismissed on the grounds that Hobby Lobby  is a nonreligious, for-profit entity, and therefore its complaints regarding birth control coverage were as irrelevant as a complementation business owner’s views on women working outside the home.Since complementarians must hire women no matter how zealously they dislike women with careers, I incorrectly assumed the Hobby Lobby case would be dismissed.

But now that there’s a good possibility that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, I think we’re faced with the possibility (and maybe even the probability) that Obamacare may ultimately become a trojan horse for the Right. Rather than usher in a new, more liberalized society, Obamacare may help reverse reproductive rights in this country.

I know that sounds alarmist, but it seems as though every concession Obama makes for conservatives, and every ruling the courts make, has undermined health coverage for women. Keep in mind that the very same companies who are complaining about Obamacare’s contraceptive policy had outsourced their insurance coverage to companies who did offer contraceptive coverage. Forcing women to pay out of pocket for contraceptives will mean fewer women have access to them. Combined with the war on women and the mass closing of women’s health clinics, I believe that we’re facing a return to the institutional misogyny of the 50’s.

Annual costs for contraceptives range between $131-$172 a year per person. That may not sound like much, but for many women that’s a financial hit they won’t be able to afford, and that in turn will result in more unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

And more than any principled stance against contraceptives, more unwanted pregnancies are social conservatives’ primary goal. Liberated women who are able to live the life they choose and marry whom they want to, when they want to, and have children when they want to (if they want any children at all) are viewed as The Enemy. In the view of social conservatives, modern society exists because patriarchy has lost its grip, and the best way for patriarchy to regain its hold over society would be to subjugate women, leaving them at the mercy of their reproductive system.

This also explains why evangelicals have so eagerly embraced their inner Catholic. What’s fascinating is how rapidly they’ve shifted from a long history of dismissing (and even mocking) the Catholic Church’s stance against contraceptives, to recasting their reading of scripture so it falls in line with an anti-contraceptive stance. Once again evangelicalism has shown itself to be extremely malleable when their societal ambitions conflict with their traditional theology, and society as a whole is being forced to submit to their views.

Thinking Outside The Box On Abortion

Recently I got into a surprisingly civil discussion about abortion on Facebook.

Because of my beliefs I find these debates easier to navigate than most people probably do, since I can find common ground with both sides. The downside is of course that finding common ground with both sides means that I’m not perfectly aligned with either of them.

As I see it, we need a solution to the abortion issue that gives both sides something they want. Odds are my ideas will make both sides more unhappy than not. But this is my Quixotic attempt at finding a compromise.

Full confession up front: I am pro-choice. But i do think that the pro-choice side is on the losing side of the moral debate over the viability and humanity of the fetus. And as science improves, there will be more opportunities for treating infant disabilities and maternal health concerns in utero, which are two of the reasons women may choose abortion. In other words, over time science will shrink the number of cases where the life of the mother is at risk. Medical research will eventually reduce the number of cases where the child is irreversibly severely or fatally disabled.

I’ll address my moral reasoning on abortion in a future post. I want to spend this post on the policy solutions I have come up with. I presented these ideas to my pro-life friends, so much of this is skewed towards meeting their concerns. I hope that tucked within these solutions are ideas that will appeal to pro-choice people as well. I confess that most of these solutions play down my belief that a woman’s right to do what she wishes with her body outweighs the fetus’ life. However, since I geared these solutions towards my pro-life audience, the language here will mainly address their concerns.

First, the context. The conversation arose when a Christian friend of mine made the statement that he would be willing to go along with any politician or policy if it meant saving children from abortion. I was impressed with the flexibility within his statement.

You can parse whether you thought he really meant it, but I decided to treat his statement as if he did. It’s rare to get someone from the pro-life position make such a statement, so I leaped on the opportunity to get on my soapbox.

I began with presenting him with some rough date. The demand for adoption isn’t high enough to meet the number of abortions. Every year there are roughly 1 million abortions and 100,000 adoptions. I knew that in recent years the number of abortions has declined in the neighborhood of 700,00, but since most past years it has hovered around 1 million, I decided to go with it rather than debate data specifics.

While in an ideal world I’d love to see the the number of abortions go to zero and have all women give birth to babies who are healthy and loved and have no impact on overpopulation concerns, that’s not reality. We have to deal with the world we live in.

So to begin with, if we are going to fulfill my friend’s goal and save a million babies per year from abortion (or as close to that number as can be achieved), there has to be a place for those babies per year to go. I will assume her that Roe V Wade will not be turned ove. Again,I’m setting aside the debate over whether the Supreme Court might overturn it or the awful ways states are denying women access to health care and abortion.

So let’s look at some of the key reasons why women choose abortion. Among the most common reasons are: health of the mother or child; ignorance about birth control; inability to access birth control; concerns over quality of life for the child;  and concerns over career or losing a job to care for the child. I know that there are a lot of other reasons, and I think that all of these are good reasons to have an abortion. But I think there are ways we can address them to reduce the number of them.

As I see it,  adoption is a persuasive alternativs because many mothers are concerned about their child’s prospective quality of life. For a variety of reasons they may be financially unable to care for the child or fear they wil be unfit mothers. Adoption  helps assuage some of these concerns.

The problem with adoption is twofold: the demand isn’t high enough to meet the number of abortions per year, and the process takes too long and is too strict and costly for many prospective adoptive parents to endure.  Again, keep in mind that my language in these solutions was skewed towards a pro-life audience. My ideas are sincere, but I avoided making apologies or defending the pro-choice position in order get my ideas across:

So my first suggestion would be to make adoption as easy as having a child by pregnancy. Drop all fees related to the process. The only people who should be screened out are people with a criminal record related to abuse of children. Accept the fact that this will mean lots of abuse cases and awful stories. Since they believe that a live child with bad parents is better off than a dead child, let’s respect one of their primary solutions and expand it.

2. Guarantee that a woman can keep her job at full salary if she gets pregnant. Set up a government fund where the employer can apply for financial aid and temp assistance if needed. Make the employer rather than the pregnant woman obligated to apply for aid, because the goal is to eliminate areas of concern that might lead a woman to abortion.3. Treat sexual politics the way we treat other facets of political life. In my view, most Christians recognize that good foreign policy and good economic policy often results in actions that are inconsistent with scripture. My friend is a Republican so I knew I had a different set of moral inconsistencies in mind than he has. But aside from pacifists, even most liberal Christians agree that going to war against Hitler and Al Quaeda were justifiable actions even though they violated Jesus’ teachings. Heck, a good case can be made that the Revolutionary War was unbiblical. But consciously or not, almost all Christians accept that there are times when our worldly concerns supersede Biblical edicts against violence, deception, or loving our international neighbors.

(I don’t personally equate abortion with Hitler, by the way. But pro-lifers do. And if you’re going to persuade them to see the unfeasibility of their political positions on sex, then you have to point to an example they may be willing to concede. I know plenty of conservative Christians who will admit that killing Bin Laden doesn’t line up with the Bible, but they justify in secular terms. That’s an opening that allows for my analogy as a path into their thinking.)

But more than any other topic, Christians tend to want to have “everything” with sexual politics: abstinence, patriarchy (obviously I didn’t bring up that one!) and a culture that has a conservative Christian outlook towards sexuality and life. Waiting for that to happen is like waiting for all of the terrorists to drop their weapons and accept Christ. As I see it, to meet their goal of saving babies from abortion, the pro-life movement has to accept that their values (especially their conservative Christian values) are not values shared by most people who live in this country. Even those who self-identify as conservative Christians tend to prefer a secular society over a Theocratic one.  So they need to meet the interests of  people who would never seek out a church or a Crisis Pregnancy Center, or anyone else who might judge them for their pregnancy.

Currently studies show that usage of birth control prevents more pregnancy than abstinence education does. Abstinence education will persuade a percentage of women, so keep it for those families who will support abstinence values. Yes, I know that currently many states insist on abstinence only. That needs to change.

But I think we have to be realistic about the values at home. A teenager who gets an abstinence education but shares none of the values intrinsic towards abstinence education will end up being a person with a poor or misleading sexual education and no moral inclination to wait for sex until marriage. Studies show that teen pregnancy is most common in Red States, so obviously many teenagers aren’t on board with abstinence education. That said, I think we should give pro-lifers abstinence as an option for their child . It’s naive to believe that a “secular” sexual education wil get support in a conservative Christian home. These parents will nullify the benefits of a good sexual education by giving them alternative views that cause their kids to distrust and reject their  “secular” sexual education.

4. In terms of pro-life interests, the people who don’t accept abstinence values are the ones they need to be reach if they want to lower the number of abortions. (By “reaching” I mean options that do not include their pro-life intervention or their sexual values.)

So make it very easy for women (even teens) to gain access to contraception. No screening or judgement. Put the proverbial condom machine in the school if necessary. Since their primary goal is to lower the number of abortions as much as possible, they must sacrifice other related concerns. They can still teach their kids the value of abstinence, but they have to drop the push for getting other people to live they way they want them to. An atheist teen won’t see any point in waiting for sex until marriage, so they have to stop pretending that they can persuade them. Denying them contraception just raises the number of unwanted pregnancies and therefore the number of abortions.

Finally, I think we should invest a huge amount of money into foster homes, prenatal care, and childcare. There should be almost as much money invested in supplying pregnant and new mothers with care and support as there is the elderly. Personally I would go for universal healthcare (even socialist health care). But we’ll never win them over on that cause.

The point here is if women live in a society where they can’t afford a child, then create a society where all women can afford one. Conservative Christians can continue their ministry services for pregnant women as they always have, but their goal should be to reach those women who would never walk into a Crisis Pregnancy Center. In other towards, forget the humiliating ultrasounds, denying access to Planned Parenthood clinics, and the “slut shaming’ they love to engage in. Accept that women will make sexual choices they disagree with in the same way they accept that women will make religious choices. (Despite what it may seem, most Christians- even fundamentalists -care more about the culture wars than they do evangelizing.)

I don’t pretend that all of this jibes with scripture or addresses every issue related to abortion. I realize that most of my solutions address teen pregnancy, but for now that’s where most of my ideas are. But if the goal is to lower the number of abortions as much as possible, then conservative Christians have to give up on a large cross-section of the culture wars.