Whose Fault Is the Next Recession?

The government is tapped out.  The big banks are teetering.  Large corporations are watching their stock prices plummet, then skyrocket, then plummet again, with no idea where they’ll settle.  We are on the brink of recession.  And if we go over that edge, it will be the fault of American consumers and small businesses.

At least that’s what an article* in the Wall Street Journal suggested last week.

According to an economist interviewed in the article, consumers and businesses who worry about a recession and make spending decisions based on that worry will then, by their cautious actions, trigger that recession.  He called it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

His words make sense, but they–and the article–leave out some very important details.

The United States government has been passing a deficit budget nearly every year since around 1970.  That means that for about forty years, the government has been borrowing money to meet its expenses.  Of course, they eventually had to pay that money back, and they did that by borrowing more money, on top of what they were already borrowing.  And then, when those bills came due along with all the others, they paid those off by borrowing yet more.  It’s like someone paying all their bills with a credit card, and when their credit card bill comes due, they get a new credit card to pay it off, and on and on it goes.  The recent fiasco in congress about raising the debt ceiling came about because someone finally questioned whether it was a good idea for the government to continually get a new credit card every time they maxed out the old one.

So now the government is trying to cut spending.  And some of the things they are cutting are the safety nets.  Now I for one see a distinction between a safety net and an entitlement program, but that’s an entirely different rant for an entirely different post.  At any rate, I believe that some of those entitlements do indeed need to be trimmed.  But the entitlements benefit so many people that they have powerful lobbies, and it’s hard to touch them at all.  So the small safety nets that are still left and make the difference between life and death for a few people (comparatively speaking) are being cut or eliminated, and the backlash against the entitlements when it comes (and it will come) will cut too deeply, and then they will barely function as safety nets, either.  So watch out, citizens!  Don’t count on Uncle Sam helping you out if you get in trouble; you’re on your own.

Big banks were lending large sums of money to people with small incomes.  Mortgages were great for the banks.  The more money people could borrow, the more they could spend on a house.  As more money was available to spend on housing, the more expensive houses got.  So people had to borrow more money for less house, and with the availability of that money, houses got yet more expensive, and people had to borrow more.  Anyone not buying a house was cautioned that they’d better do it before they got priced out of the market completely, because home prices were only going to go up.  So more people felt pressured to buy, and took on interest-only mortgages with low monthly payments that would balloon later, expecting that by the time their payments went up, their house would be worth so much more than they’d paid for it that they could just tap their equity and make the house pay for itself.  Free money, free house.  Banks encouraged this by lowering their lending standards to practically nothing.

Then the banks began betting that their borrowers would default with the investment known as Credit Default Swaps (CDS).  These little beauties made it so the banks won either way: if the mortgage was paid back along with the interest due, the bank got a payoff from its investment; if the mortgage defaulted and wasn’t paid back, the CDS would pay the bank a lump sum, and the bank got a payoff from its investment.  The losers were the ones who had to pay out the CDS.  And since you don’t have to actually be the creditor (i.e. hold the mortgage) to buy a CDS, anyone can get one.  So those made their way into pension funds, mutual funds, etc., as safe investments with high payoffs, which was accurate (provided the mortgages never defaulted).  Of course, once things reached a breaking point and people couldn’t pay their mortgages, there was widespread failure across the system.  The banks, who held both mortgages and CDS, found themselves overexposed and ready to fail.  Of course if that happened, people and businesses couldn’t borrow money, and the entire economy would seize up (because we’ve already established that no one can pay for anything unless it’s with borrowed money).  So the government bailed them out and covered their investment losses (but did nothing to help the individuals who suffered losses–except make it easier for them to borrow more money to make ends meet) and took more money out of taxpayers’ pockets and gave it to the banks.  So watch out, bank customers!  Don’t count on the banks working with you if you get into trouble; you’re on your own.

Businesses have focused so much on quarterly earnings that they cost-cut their way to short-term profits while sacrificing their long-term strategies and even viability.  They lay off employees (i.e. people who are trying to work for a living and take care of themselves) and expect unreasonable levels of productivity from those who are left.  They shift more of the costs of health insurance to their employees.  They make management decisions that cause the workplace environment to become unpleasant or even unhealthy (I’m aware of one company that has removed every third fluorescent tube from their overhead lighting to save money, making the office just dim enough to cause eyestrain).  They use cheaper quality components in their products while charging their customers higher prices on account of the company’s ‘increased costs.’  And finally they take advantage of perfectly legal tax loopholes that allow them to post record profits while keeping their federal income tax liability at zero. So watch out, employees!  Don’t count on your company to value your job over their shareholders’ gains; if they need to lay you off to save a few pennies, that’s your problem; you’re on your own.  And customers, don’t count on prices going down, either.

Individuals aren’t innocent here, either.  No one was forced to take on an oversized mortgage.  If you took out anything other than a conventional mortgage with a fixed interest rate, then you contributed to the problem.  If you took out a home equity loan for anything other than major home repairs or improvements, you contributed to the problem.  If you ever used your credit card and didn’t pay off the balance in full at the end of the month, you contributed to the problem.  (I’m not talking about the occasional large purchase that took two or three months to pay off; I’m talking about if you can’t remember the last time you didn’t carry a balance on your credit cards.)  Of course, this was also in an environment when costs were going up, salaries were remaining stagnant or going down, and we were being told that it was our patriotic duty to stimulate the economy by spending money.

No one (that I’m aware of) is spouting off that ‘patriotic duty’ crap this time around, but putting the responsibility of another recession on the backs of consumers amounts to the same thing.  (It’s also notable that the American public is usually referred to as consumers, and not citizens or people–I guess it’s clear what our primary purpose is in this country.)  We’ve learned that prices are going up, jobs can’t be counted on to last, banks will gamble with people’s money and expect the government to cover their losses, our own individual taxes will have to pay for those bailouts as well as make up for the taxes the large corporations aren’t paying, and the government isn’t going to help us out if we get in trouble.  But if we practice fiscal responsibility by living within our means, saving for a rainy day, and spending cautiously, the next recession is our fault.

Give me a break.

*The article was “Penny-Pinching Puts Recovery on Thin Ice” by Ben Casselman and Conor Dougherty, in the Wall Street Journal’s online edition on Wednesday, August 11, 2011.  I have provided a link, but I believe the article is locked unless you have a subscription.

The Seductive Simplicity of a Studio Apartment

Don’t get me wrong– I love my husband and my kids.  I love them more than life itself, and I wouldn’t want to contemplate living without them.  But the thing is, I have this daydream.  In my daydream, life is simple.  I live in a small, uncluttered studio apartment in the city (sometimes it’s Boston, sometimes it’s Manhattan, depending on my mood).  It’s a snap to clean, and it’s quiet.  I keep my own quirky schedule, because I live alone and I don’t have to worry about carving out time for a 9-to-5-job-holding husband or messing up the routines of two small children.  I go out frequently to shop for the necessities or run errands one or two at a time, because I don’t have a car and I’m limited by how much I can carry.  But it’s the city, so everything’s either walking distance or a short ride on the bus or subway.  My life is simple, and quiet, and flexible.

In my daydream I’m not rich, but I live so simply that I don’t need a lot of money, and I’m able to support myself with my writing.  It’s not like it was in my late teens and early twenties when I was working 60 hours a week at two crappy jobs I hated just to pay the rent on my should-have-been-condemned-by-the-Department-of-Health studio apartment.  In my daydream, my studio is very nice, and I can pay for it just from writing.

Except I suffer from chronic insomnia, and if I’m writing out of the house full-time, I’ll be spending all my time in my sleep area, making it very un-restful.  That won’t work.  I’ll need at least a one-bedroom apartment, so I can keep my sleeping area separate from my living and working area.

Wait a minute.  Living and working area?  Boundaries are important, and I’m going to need a way to unwind and relax when I’m not writing.  Just moving to the couch and turning on the TV or opening a good book won’t work if my computer is mocking me from three feet away.  Since the sleep hygiene necessary for my insomnia prohibits my moving the computer or TV into my bedroom, clearly I need dedicated office space.  So a two-bedroom apartment it is, with the second bedroom being used as office space and the living room as my living/recreation area.

Hmmm.  A nice, two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city.  Manhattan is out–no way can I afford that!  Boston’s still possible, but a stretch.  I don’t think I could do it on writing alone, not right now anyway (hopefully someday my writing will really take off and it would be possible, but right now it’s just not realistic).  So I’ll need to work an outside job.  Part-time would be preferable, but a nice two-bedroom in a nice area of Boston?  That’ll require full-time work.

A full-time job while writing part-time from my not-so-small two-bedroom apartment.  I’ll need a cleaning lady to come every other week to dust and do the floors, kitchen, and bathroom.  I hate cleaning, and that time would be better spent writing, anyway.  Oh yes, and I’ll need a car so I can do all my grocery shopping and whatnot in one quick trip.  I might need to work some overtime.

You know, my daydream is beginning to sound pretty hectic and complicated.  And lonely.  Wouldn’t it be nice to find someone to share the load, to enjoy each other’s company over the mundane things like morning coffee and supper together after work, a simple, healthy supper at home that I would cook and he would do the dishes after.

And it would be nice to have a couple of kids.  But the city’s no place to raise them–we’d have to move to the suburbs.  And daycare’s so expensive, it would make more sense for me to stay home with them.

I’m sure I could fit writing in somehow…

Time Well Lost

My internal clock is scary-accurate.  On those (extremely) rare occasions when I’m not wearing my watch and my son needs five minutes in a time-out corner, my estimate of five minutes is usually accurate within a few seconds.  I’ll drive my husband crazy when we’ve just turned out the light for the night, and I’ll say something like, “What time is it?  11:37?”  And he’ll check and then reply (rather crankily), “No, it’s 11:36.”  Actually, that’s how he used to answer.  Now he’s more likely to say, “Oh, shut up.”

This accuracy comes from a lifetime of constantly checking my watch or keeping an eye on the clock.  Even if I have nowhere I need to be and nothing going on later, I still need to know what time it is.  (This is why I have to ask my husband if it’s 11:37–he removed the clock from my nightstand because he got tired of hearing the minute-by-minute account of how poorly I’d slept the night before, what time I woke up, how long before I fell back to sleep, etc.).  I don’t know why it’s so important for me to always know what time it is, but it is, and it always has been.

But every once in a while, I’ll actually forget to mark time.  It’s an extraordinarily rare occurrence, but it does happen.  And it happened this past Saturday.

I was bringing the kids to Hampton Beach to meet a friend I hadn’t seen for several years.  She’d never met them, and I’d wanted to introduce them to the beach anyway.  We left the house at 11 AM, and I figured we’d arrive around noonish.  I didn’t anticipate the traffic.  At 1 PM, when we finally crossed the New Hampshire border, I pulled over at a rest stop to use the facilities, call my friend, and have a picnic lunch with the kids.  We got back on the road at about 1:45 (OK, it was 1:47).  We arrived at the condo where my friend was staying at 2:15, unloaded all the accessories (two small children come with lots of those!), then went in search of a parking spot.  One mile, twenty dollars, and thirty minutes later, the car was parked and the kids, the double stroller and I joined our stuff and my friend at the condo.  It took nearly forty-five minutes for me to get myself and the kids in our swim suits and well covered with sunscreen.  The beach was only a short walk away, so it was 3:30 when we laid down our blankets.

Then I did what I’d been dreading all day.  I took off my watch and put it in my beach bag.  Then I walked about fifty yards to the wet sand that was cooler and much more fun for the kids to play with.  No watch, no clock.  I was on my own.

My friend and I talked while the kids played.  The sun beat down on us, and after a while I went back to our blankets to get some water.  And check my watch.  I’d guessed we’d been there for about an hour.  I was right–it was 4:30 exactly.  I put my watch back in my bag and went back to the group, where my son was splashing in the small pool my friend had dug for him and my daughter was doing her best to become one with the sand.  Completely.

An hour later I saw the lifeguards take down their chairs and lay them against the wall near the sidewalk.  I knew it was an hour because it had felt like an hour, and I’d seen the sign on the way in stating that the lifeguards were on duty until 5:30 PM.

And then it happened.

At some point after the lifeguards left my son announced that he wanted to go back to the condo.  My friend rinsed all their toys in the ocean, and I rinsed the kids in the little pools we’d dug in the wet sand.  We returned to the blankets, shook them out, packed them up, and went back to the condo.  Once there I herded the kids into the bathroom and stuck them both in the shower, t-shirts, bathing suits, and all.  They weren’t happy.  It took as long as it took, and when they were reasonably salt- and sand-free, I sent them into the living room so I could have my turn in the shower.  I think I took a quick one, but I could be wrong.

After that, the kids and I hung out while my friend took her turn.  By that time I was wearing my watch again and sitting in front of a clock.  I remember looking at it a few times, but the positions of the hands didn’t register.  I didn’t care, and I didn’t notice that I didn’t care.  When my friend was ready, we went out in search of dinner.

We found one at a nearby restaurant, where we had a very enjoyable meal.  When we were done my friend returned to the condo to retrieve the double-stroller, so I could introduce my kids to that staple of Hampton Beach cuisine–Blink’s Fry Doe.  Not surprisingly, they’re now fans.

Having accomplished all that I’d wanted to accomplish that day, we got the car and were driving back to the condo to drop off my friend and pick up the kids’ accessories when my cell phone rang.  It was my husband.  He was worried about me, because he’d expected me home a while ago.  I started to laugh until I realized–it was full dark outside, and it had been for a while.  I looked at the clock in the dashboard, and was astonished.  “Is it really 9:20?!” I asked.  Both he and my friend assured me that it was.  I’d completely lost track of time.

I can’t say exactly what it was about Saturday after the lifeguards left that made me forget to care what time it was.  It wasn’t just that I was relaxed and having a good time; I do do that sometimes, and I still need to check my watch obsessively.  But I liked being freed from the schedule, especially with the kids.  We had things to do, and we did them, and it took as long as it took.  I know I can’t live every day like that, but I certainly hope to do it more often than I have been.  Especially with the kids.  My son is three, and every time he sees a clock, he asks me, “Mama, what time is it?”

Remembering Emma

I’d written something I was going to post today.  It was one of those witty mom posts in which I complain about my kids in a funny way and wax eloquent about how much simpler life was before I had them.  I may yet post it at some point.  But I can’t post it today.

I got word on Sunday night that Emma died.  I’ve never met Emma.  I’ve never met Emma’s parents.  My family connection to Emma is so distant that it would sound like the beginning of a bad joke if I tried to explain it here, and there’s just no room in my heart for such jokes right now.  Suffice it to say that while Facebook is sometimes criticized for inflating the importance of casual acquaintances, it sometimes does allow people to be touched by others that they wouldn’t have been otherwise.  Emma is one of those cases.  Her maternal grandfather is an old friend of my husband’s, and even though we’ve never met personally, he and I are Facebook friends.  Emma’s aunt is married to my brother-in-law, and we have met, and are also Facebook friends.  And through their status updates, I got to know Emma.

Emma was born on July 12, 2009 with a genetic defect that threatened her life the moment she left her mother’s womb.  The hospital was ready for this, having detected the defect in utero via ultrasound.  Extraordinary measures were taken immediately to give this precious child a chance at life.  I don’t have all the details, and they aren’t important anyway, but I believe she was on full life support for a time before undergoing multiple surgeries.  I don’t think her parents were able to take her home from the hospital for about six months, and to my knowledge she was always dependent on supplementary oxygen.

Through her aunt’s and grandfather’s status updates, frequently asking for prayers, I saw this little girl struggle to survive.  I saw her come through every surgery, endure every hardship, and celebrate every victory.  As she continued to grow and her family posted pictures, I could see her young personality just beginning to emerge.  I saw her smile for the camera, the oxygen tube taped to her adorably pudgy cheeks.

But such a young body isn’t built for the high levels of trauma she suffered, and the surgeries and the treatments necessary for saving her life caused complications of their own.  She caught a respiratory ailment that probably wouldn’t have been a big deal for most children, but for her it proved to be fatal.  She died on Sunday, less than two weeks after her second birthday.

My kids were already in bed when I found out.  All I wanted to do was hold them.  My son had been sick earlier, and got a second look at his supper as it coated his pillow, his sheets, and his beloved stuffed Cat (who is still drying out–Giraffe is stepping in temporarily).  I was glad that he still couldn’t sleep and needed to be cuddled.  I held him and rocked him and cried into his hair, grateful that an upset tummy can be easily soothed, and knowing there are far worse things to face than a vomit-covered bed.

A couple of hours later my daughter woke up crying.  I usually let her cry, not wanting her to get in the habit of a midnight cuddle, but this night I jumped right out of bed and held her close, stroking her wispy curly hair so similar to Emma’s.  My daughter is just four months younger than Emma.  I held her in my arms and cried, not even wanting to imagine the heartbreak Emma’s parents must be feeling.

No parent should have to bury their child.  I know it happens all the time, but it still shouldn’t be.  As Emma is laid to rest tomorrow, my heart goes out to her parents.  My prayers have been with them unceasingly since Sunday, and as Emma returned home to her Lord, she was surrounded by the prayers of hundreds of people she’d never met, but who mourn her passing.

Rest in peace, Emma.


In Memory of Emma Seraphym Ballard
July 12, 2009 – July 24, 2011

Context, Costume, and Identity

Under the best of circumstances, my children’s sermons suck.  This past Sunday was no exception.  And it was not the best of circumstances.

I’d just invited the children to come forward, and they’d all come up (all four of them–not bad, actually, for the middle of summer) and assembled themselves in a line, sitting on the stair leading up to the chancel area.  I took a breath and opened my mouth, about to launch into my vain attempt to be interesting and informative to the average six year old, when one of them spoke up and demanded, “Where’s the pastor?”

I was the only adult standing, I’d led the liturgy up to this point (with the assisting minister and reader–great lay leadership and participation in this congregation!), my clerical collar peeked out the top of my alb, and my stole matched (more or less) the paraments on the pulpit and altar.  Several people in the congregation snickered in their amusement as I said to the child, “I’m the pastor.”  He looked at me in stark disbelief, and I heard more snickering as I found myself having to explain, “I know I’m not your regular pastor, but he’s on vacation, and I’m filling in while he’s away.”  The kid seemed to accept that, and I was finally able to launch into my poorly crafted children’s sermon, which flopped as usual, and then they were free to go back to their seats and I was free to go back to my comfort zone in the pulpit.  But that child’s question, and the fact that he hadn’t recognized me as pastor even while I was in full costume and doing all the things a pastor does during worship stuck with me.

Anyone can wear the costume and say they’re a pastor, but that doesn’t mean they are one.  Even someone wearing all the appropriate clothes and doing all the appropriate things in a worship setting can just as easily be an imposter.

That innocent question from a confused child had exposed me for what I’d been feeling like all along.  When I don the uniform and stand up there on Sunday mornings, I feel like an imposter.  Even though I’m technically in good standing with my roster status listed as “On Leave From Call – Family Leave,” I also can’t forget that some have labeled me (and I’ve labeled myself, if I’m going to be honest about it) as a “failed pastor.”  My last call went horribly wrong for a variety of reasons, and I enjoyed no coverage or support from my bishop or his staff.  It’s unclear if I could get another call now even if I wanted to (which, right now, I most certainly do not want).  I’ve done nothing pastoral for a solid year (no preaching, no worship planning or leadership, no teaching, no visiting, nothing).  The moment I returned to Massachusetts and made myself known to a few pastors in the New England Synod, I was immediately sucked back into the vortex of pulpit supply.  But despite the three weeks I’ve already served as substitute pastor, with two more to go (and still counting), I’ve not felt like a pastor.  At all.

An hour and a half after that six year old asked me that question, I showed up for the last day’s programming of Readercon 22.

Readercon is an annual convention of science fiction and fantasy writers and fans.  Unlike other science fiction conventions, Readercon focuses almost exclusively on the craft of writing.  I learned about it from my husband, who is an avid reader of the genre.  I have nothing against science fiction myself, but it’s never particularly grabbed me, either.  However, because Readercon focuses so heavily on the craft of writing, most of the panels are of interest to a nonfiction writer and aspiring writer of literary (opposed to speculative) fiction, like me.

I’d attended the previous two days of programming as well, and I’d pretty much blended into the scenery.  On Sunday, however, I’d come straight from worship, and even though I’d left my stole, alb, and pectoral cross in the car, I was still wearing my tabbed black clergy shirt and black skirt.  This time, I was noticed.

Why didn’t I de-tab before going in?  I could have.  But I think I was rebelling against an anti-religious sentiment that had been pervading the entire convention.  Earlier in the weekend, at different panels, I’d heard religion (particularly Christianity) referred to as — at best — a “silly superstition” and — at worst — a “dangerous colonial imperialism” that “oppressed” people.  The context was inappropriate for a debate on the merits of my particular theology, but I was in no mood to hide my beliefs, either.  I had a legitimate reason to be wearing that collar; I wasn’t about to ‘camouflage’ my uniform because many of the people there didn’t think much of what it represented.

The reaction to me was mixed.  Some people asked me, politely and (I interpreted) out of genuine curiosity, what brought me to Readercon.  I recognize that some of the anti-religious sentiment was triggered by some Christians’ very vocal opposition to the science fiction and fantasy genres as a whole.  All of it has been categorically dismissed as ‘pagan’ or ‘devil-inspired.’  My presence was a curiosity, and my uniform combined with my bearing and manner (i.e. I was engaging with the panels the way everyone else was, rather than pounding a bible and threatening hell and damnation on everyone who wouldn’t repent and be saved) made me an approachable representative of Christianity.  Some talked to me about religion.  Others disregarded my attire and talked to me as a human being (how refreshing!).  Others gave me a very wide berth when I walked down the hallway.  But no one attacked me.

And through it all, it felt right to me.  I knew I was wearing ‘distinctive’ clothing, but it felt more like a uniform than a costume.  I felt like the clerical collar represented who I was and what I believed.  As I talked with people, I was even able to bring legitimacy to my claims of being a writer because of the writing I’ve done in the course of my ministry.  I’m a writer who ministers.  I’m a minister who writes.  I can’t do one without the other.

Officially, I’m in a period of discernment as I focus on raising my kids.  (At least that’s my justification for staying on the roster, rather than just dropping off.)  I think what I need to discern is why I feel more like a pastor at a gathering of non-religious science fiction writers and fans, but I feel like an imposter at church.  What is my calling, anyway?

Reality TV and Justice

Through an unusual twist of fate which doesn’t need to be explained here, last Thursday I found myself stuck in a room for about an hour with nothing to do but watch a TV that was tuned to CNN Headline News. Given the circumstances that had me in that room to begin with, it would have been inappropriate for me to change the channel.

Last Thursday was the second day after the Casey Anthony verdict, a media circus I’d gone to great lengths to avoid. Specifically, at the time I was in that room, the judge was hearing arguments about whether or not the names of the jurors should be made public.

I know a lot of people feel pretty strongly that Casey Anthony should have been found guilty of murdering her daughter Caylee. Alan Dershowitz wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that explained why the outcome was what it was, and a couple of the jurors have publicly stated that as much as they wanted to find her guilty, the prosecution just didn’t provide enough evidence to justify that verdict.

Most of the posts I’ve seen on Facebook, however, as well as comments on online news articles and interviews with ‘random people on the street,’ suggest that many people are angry about the verdict, believing that Casey Anthony got away with murder. That’s all well and good; people are entitled to voice their opinions, and that’s what Faceook, message boards, and interviews are for.

But can we trust people to leave it at voicing their opinions on social media sites, or when asked by a roving reporter?

According to my forced TV-watching, at least one juror had expressed “very serious security concerns” to the judge, and most of the jurors had communicated to him that they wished to be left alone, to keep their privacy. A juror’s family had already reported being stalked by someone angry about the case, and the judge read one comment which involved the writer’s wish to “filet the jury, pour salt on them, and feed their legs to a piranha.”

The attorneys for the media argued that it’s in the public’s interest to know who these jurors are, and if there are credible security concerns, the jurors can and should be protected. The judge feels that these jurors were compelled to come and do their civic duty, and shouldn’t have the added burden of an unwanted spotlight being shined on them, recognizing that there is a real risk that people might take out their anger on these jurors.

I find myself torn on this issue. On the one hand, I agree that there is a danger in making jury anonymity the norm. As many psychological studies have proven, people get more reckless, less responsible, and sometimes just plain mean when their actions are divorced from their identity. (Think about how many obnoxious comments you’ve read on a message board by someone named “RighteousDude447” or something like that. How many obnoxious comments are posted by someone who puts their actual name? If you are one who comments regularly, do you do it under your own name? If not, would having to put your real name change what you would say or how you would say it?) I don’t know that we want to try defendants in front of a jury of RighteousDude447s. A defendant in this country is entitled to be tried before a jury of his or her peers, and those peers are representative of the community the defendant is a part of as well as the community that has been wronged. Any one of us could end up as a defendant, rightly or wrongly, and we must rely on the representatives of our community to decide the rightness or wrongness of the charges against us. The jurors must then take responsibility for their judgment for or against one of their own back to the community which they represent. Keeping their identities secret means they don’t have to take responsibility for their decision. I agree with the media lawyers’ argument that this could cause the American public to lose faith in the judicial system.

That’s the argument for revealing the jurors’ identities.

Here’s my argument against.

We are no longer a civil enough society to expect restraint and self-control from ourselves. While most people wouldn’t get violent against these jurors, there are enough people who would that we must err on the side of caution. Even without the risk of physical violence, there are enough people who would verbally assault the jurors that I feel their requests for anonymity must be respected.

We are no longer a society that accepts representation. We want our own voices heard and heeded. Even as many of us do everything we can to avoid jury duty ourselves, we watch the trial on TV as though it were American Idol, or maybe Survivor. Or we don’t watch it at all, we just listen to the daily soundbites as our news, and we expect Casey Anthony’s guilt to be clear and obvious, and we expect the verdict to be what we think it should be, without considering the very specific mandate given to the actual jurors, and the requirements that must be met in order for the verdict to be guilty. And when the jurors do other than what we want them to do, we blame them. Some of us are willing to hear why, but many of us are too busy reveling in our righteous indignation to be bothered with the facts and the subtleties. It’s not for the sake of the public’s trust in the judicial system that people want the names of the jurors released; it’s for the entertainment value. It’s as though we’re angry about an unexpected plot twist, and we want to take it out on the stars of this new reality TV drama. But this isn’t reality TV; it’s reality. It’s life. It’s the judicial system in action, unfortunately confused with shows like Law & Order (and its many spin-offs) which are entertainment. I read an article recently that reported something like only 12% of high school seniors in the United States can correctly identify the three branches of our government.* Yet not even knowing that much about the judicial system, hoards of angry people are declaring that Caylee Anthony has been denied justice, and some of those angry hoards hold the jurors personally responsible, with one online article calling them the twelve stupidest people walking in America today. Would you want to be publicly known as one of the jurors who acquitted Casey Anthony? I know I wouldn’t.

If privacy is respected, the jurors can still choose to come forward. One that I’m aware of already has, and has given an interview, with her name attached, to ABC. Two more have spoken to the press under the condition of anonymity. And yet another one has offered to give the whole, inside story of the proceedings to whomever will pay him $50,000. That’s entertainment, folks.

In time this will all die down, and no one will care about the jurors anymore. You could say it’s just a short-term problem; fifteen minutes of fame only last fifteen minutes, after all. But some people don’t want even fifteen minutes in the spotlight, or they aren’t cut out for it, and, with the possible exception of the guy who’s willing to sell his story, none of these jurors sought it out. I’m reminded of Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who rescued “Baby Jessica” from the well in 1987. He was just an ordinary guy doing his job, but unlike most rescues by paramedics, this one came with instant nationwide fame. Very quickly he was forgotten, but his fifteen minutes in the spotlight affected him in unhealthy ways. A few years later his marriage broke up. He was accused of abusing prescription drugs, and his career was over. In 1995, at the age of 37, he took his own life. Those who knew him insist that his downfall was caused by the media attention surrounding that rescue. He wasn’t equipped to handle the spotlight. And that was before the internet, and he was known for something indisputably positive. Can we honestly say that all the jurors on the Casey Anthony trial will handle it better? Judges and lawyers know the risks of a high profile case, and choose to participate in them for their own reasons (hopefully a sense that justice must prevail, but I’m sure the money’s pretty good, too). Jurors aren’t given a choice.

Getting people to show up for jury duty is hard enough. Lost time at work, childcare issues, sometimes such heavy restrictions on your movements and conversations that your closest relationships suffer…do we really want to add the risk that you will be publicly burned in effigy by RighteousDude447 and thousands others like him? He might think it’s like reality TV, but it could be your life we’re talking about here.

* If you weren’t in that 12%, the three branches of our government are Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.

Too Offensive? Or Too Easily Offended?

I am way behind in my reading. I’ve got a stack of periodicals that are getting increasingly outdated that I’m working my way through (except for the ones that I eventually throw away without reading, because they’re just too irrelevant now).

Right now I’m working my way through the May 17th issue of the Christian Century, which also happens to be the last issue of my subscription. I like the magazine, and I get a lot out of the articles despite the somewhat liberal Calvinist perspective (I’d always thought ‘liberal Calvinist’ was an oxymoron, but apparently not!), but I simply can’t keep up with a biweekly publication right now.

A regular feature of the Christian Century is the section “Living By The Word,” in which a guest contributor writes up a reflection on the upcoming two weeks’ worth of lectionary readings. Quinn G. Caldwell, who is listed as being the associate minister of Old South Church (UCC) in Boston wrote the reflections in this issue. In his reflection for May 22 he wrote about interfaith dialogue and worship, and he described two ways of going about it. The first way waters down everyone’s faith to the lowest common denominator, so that everyone agrees to only say things that everyone else in the room can agree with. The other way, which he identifies as his preferred way, allows and encourages everyone to be unafraid about who they are and what they believe. He writes, “Rather than agreeing not to risk being offensive, we agree not to be easily offended.”

I like this approach, and not just for interfaith dialogue. What would happen if, in general, people worked harder at not being offended rather than not being offensive? Your personal faith claim of ultimate truth isn’t an attack on mine. My preferred parenting method isn’t a critique of yours. Her strong preference for the culture of a coastal city isn’t a slam against his strong preference for the community of a midwestern farming town. The way one person chooses to live his or her life isn’t a judgment on how someone else chooses to live theirs.

I know that in truth, many people would rather be offended, and expect the world to fully agree with and affirm their choices or preferences. It would be much easier and nicer to live where we never felt like an outsider, or in any way different. And I acknowledge that sometimes people really are being attacked for their differences, and that is wrong. But not everything is an attack or a judgment. Sometimes two people just see things differently, and agreeing to disagree is the only way to fully respect both parties, rather than asking one or both to play down who they are or what they believe. As Caldwell writes in his May 22 reflection, “[T]he great challenge of our day is not to learn to live with watered-down versions of other faiths, but to live with them in all their fullness. What could I possibly learn about Islam from a Muslim who’s pretending not to be one?”

I’m sure that every time I speak to someone, either publicly or privately, my words could be interpreted as offensive by someone. Increasingly people who do speak publicly are having to be more and more careful what they say, because someone somewhere is sure to be offended. As a result, we are saying less and less. We are not dialoguing with each other about anything important; we are monologuing at each other about nothing at all. We are not learning from each other, because we’re too afraid to say anything. So we’re all retreating to our own safe little enclaves of like-minded people and becoming more and more isolated from each other, and entrenched in our own positions and beliefs, and stagnant in our growth as people, and ignorant in our knowledge of the world.

Back in seminary I was asked to lead a devotional for the Wartburg Association of Students. I’d found a poem inspired by a verse from John’s Gospel, written about a hundred years ago. The poem used masculine pronouns for God, which was contrary to Wartburg’s gender-neutral language policy, but I didn’t want to rewrite the poem in the name of political correctness. So before I read the poem I explained the age of the piece, and that it did include these pronouns, and that I hoped everyone would be able to look past that and hear what the poem was saying. As far as I could tell, everyone did, and it was clear that despite the presence of the pronouns some in the room found offensive, by choosing not to be offended by them they were able to hear the beauty of the sentiment the poet was trying to express.

We can do it. Something else seminary taught (drilled into) me was this: it’s not about you. Next time you hear someone saying something you don’t agree with, don’t assume it’s an attack or a judgment on you. Instead, try to hear what they’re saying, and understand what it means for them. Don’t demand that everyone else be inoffensive; work a little harder at not being so easily offended yourself.

Gay Marriage in America

New York has now joined Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington DC in allowing gay couples the right to marry. As expected, the reactions to this range from jubilation to rage, from optimism to cynicism.

This is not the first time this drama has played out in a state legislature and on the national stage, nor, I imagine, will it be the last. What fascinates me is why this is an issue at all.

Its importance as an issue to those who support homosexuals’ right to marry is obvious: marriage affords legal benefits, protections, and legitimization that cannot be achieved any other way, not to mention the emotional and psychological benefits of having a publicly recognized union (this list of reasons is in no way intended to be exhaustive). That these benefits exist for some but not others seems to be inherently unfair and inconsistent with living in the Land of the Free. That’s all obvious. But what’s less obvious to me is why people want to restrict the freedom of gay couples.

The first and most obvious is the religious objection. Many organized religions define homosexual behavior as sinful, and those who engage in it sinners. Catholics and evangelical Christians have been the loudest religious voices in this debate.

Let me first speak to those whose faith permeates all aspects of their lives. I recognize that you are not voting or speaking out of hatred, malice, or bigotry, but rather that your understanding of God’s will for you personally and for all of humanity is your guiding principle. I understand that when you vote, you vote your conscience, and that this nation allows you the right to voice your opinions and influence others in an effort to shape the society in which you live. But please understand that the United States of America is not now nor has it ever been a Christian theocracy, and Christian definitions of sin and morality cannot and should not be our nation’s rule of law. Ignoring for the moment the existence of other religions in America, which Christian belief system could we all agree on to set the laws for the rest of us? Catholics? Evangelicals? Seventh Day Adventists? United Church of Christ? Each one has a set of principles or practices unacceptable to other Christians, let alone to people of other faiths or of no faith. The price of living in a place where we are free to practice our faith as we choose is that we cannot assume that our faith and practice is the rule and norm for all. The law allows divorce, interfaith marriage, and, in some places, marriage between two consenting adults of the same gender. But the law does not require any person whose faith rejects any of the above to get divorced or marry someone they find objectionable. These laws allowing people to do things that your faith and understanding of God’s will reject don’t interfere with your practicing your faith. (I understand that there is debate over whether nonprofit religious institutions can ‘discriminate’ against those who don’t adhere to that religion’s moral code, and let me state clearly that I fully support and defend those institutions’ right to do so. The acceptability of homosexuality within Christian communities is an entirely different discussion, to be addressed at another time.) Bottom line: the first Amendment of the Constitution of the United State of America guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Legally denying the freedom to marry based on your religious beliefs is tantamount to establishing your religious beliefs as law. You are welcome to proclaim your beliefs and teach them within your churches, but they cannot be codified in law.

Let me now speak to those who raise religious objections to gay marriage but who don’t themselves routinely darken the door of a house of worship or allow their faith and the bible to guide their own relationships, behavior, leisure activities, or spending decisions: knock it off! You’re giving the rest of us a bad name! If your religion isn’t strong enough to compel you to give more to charity than you spend at Starbucks, then you don’t have the right to use it to dictate to someone else whom they can or cannot marry. Quit hiding behind the easy objections and try to figure out what’s really bothering you.

Removing theology (and theologically-based morality) from the question leaves us with a few more objections I’ve heard.

1) Marriage is a sacrament of the Catholic Church, and the First Amendment protects from government interference in church practices.

2) Homosexuality is against nature.

3) Gay marriage contributes to the ‘normalizing’ of homosexuality in the media and especially in state-run (i.e. public) schools.

4) Gay marriage is a slippery slope that could lead to the abolition of the age of consent and the legalization of bestiality and polygamy.

First regarding marriage as a sacrament of the Catholic Church: The institution of marriage existed long before the Catholic Church, and still exists for non-Catholics. I’ve not been Catholic for over two decades, and my husband has never been Catholic, yet we still had to apply for a marriage license from the state. Just because the Catholic Church has chosen to understand marriage as a sacrament doesn’t nullify its non-Catholic forms. Allowing gays the right to marry does not impact the way the Catholic Church practices the sacrament, as the Catholic Church is still permitted the right to refuse to marry those who don’t meet their criteria (just as laws permitting divorce do not compel the Catholic Church to marry individuals who have been divorced).

Regarding the claim that homosexuality is against nature: Um, what are you basing this on? Whether this behavior has been observed in the animal kingdom? (Do we really want to take our lead from animals?) If so, what about the two male penguins at the Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany who tried to mate with each other and then raised an abandoned chick together? If you’re basing it on the idea that sex is for procreation, then you’re claiming that all sexual acts performed for pleasure and not for procreation are unnatural, which includes all sex performed by infertile couples, childless-by-choice couples, elderly couples, and anyone who uses birth control for any reason. If you’re referring to–to put it delicately–logistics and mechanics (insert your favorite nut and bolt analogy here) then you’re claiming that all forms of oral or anal sex are unnatural, which puts a large number of married heterosexual couples committing these same unnatural acts which you want to ban.

Regarding the normalizing of homosexuality in the media and in schools: Who decides what’s normal? ‘Normal’ in society is an ever-changing idea. Most middle-class families currently have both parents working outside the home. That didn’t used to be normal, but now it is. It used to be contrary to ‘normal’ society (and illegal, for that matter) for couples of different races to marry. Is that something we should be returning to? It’s only been in the last hundred years or so that adolescence has emerged as a distinct stage of life; before that it was normal and necessary for society to function that boys learned a trade at an early age while girls learned how to tend house, and once they were past childhood (anywhere from age twelve to seventeen) they married and assumed the responsibilities of full adulthood. Again removing theologically-based morality (as well as the vague and unhelpful protest that “it’s just wrong”), society is not harmed by showing healthy relationships between two adults of the same gender. Personally I find the behavior normalized in most reality TV shows far more damaging to us as a society, but that, too, is an entirely different post. And as far as not wanting it taught in schools, well, it’s not the public schools’ responsibility to uphold some groups’ religious or moral beliefs. There is nothing stopping you from homeschooling or enrolling your child in a private school more to your liking.

And finally there’s the slippery slope. Here there may be legitimate cause for concern. While I don’t believe there is much risk that the age of consent will be abolished, or that bestiality will be legalized (both involve ‘entities’ that are understood to be incapable of giving informed consent), this may open the door for a discussion about polygamy, polyandry, and other group marriages. However, the issue before us at the moment is marriage between two people of the same gender, and I believe that we should consider that issue on its own merits. Not doing so because we don’t want to have a different conversation at a later date is simply illogical.

Most of the arguments against allowing gays to marry are weak and/or faulty. The religious objections may be more solid, however they simply do not apply given the very intentional separation of church and state that the founders wrote into our governing documents. There are some very serious problems facing this nation. Can we please just allow gay couples the right to marry across the board, and refocus our energy and resources on addressing poverty, hunger, immigration, the economy, and the environment? Please? Pretty please? With sugar on top?

Faithfully Insane

One commonly accepted definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I think I’m there.

I attended church this past Sunday morning, and I was very moved by the temple talk given by a young woman who is just finishing up her first year of college. She was talking about campus ministry, and how helpful it’s been for her. She began sobbing as she described her difficulty transitioning into adulthood, and how angry she was at everyone else for being fine. She described how she was attending church regularly and praying every day, and how angry she was at God for ignoring her prayers, and for being totally useless in comforting her and helping her to find her way.

I found myself sobbing along with her, my own eyes filled with tears, because I could relate. I’m well beyond the whole transitioning-into-adulthood thing, but I’m very familiar with the feeling of not being fine when everyone else seems to be, and with yearning for God’s mercy and receiving at best silence or at worst more pain.

She talked about how a peer minister with her college’s campus ministry had reached out to her and got her involved in serving others. She talked about how she began to see God’s love in the people she helped, and the people she served with. She talked about how she’s now become a peer minister and council member herself, and how even though some of the work of leading the ministry is tedious (three-hour council meetings) she is still aware of God’s presence and love in the people around her.

That’s what I want. That’s what I’ve always wanted, first as a parishioner, then as a pastor.

I’ve never really experienced it.

I was humiliated and shunned by the Catholic church of my elementary school days. I was ostracized by the Evangelical church of my high school days. I got mired in the inertia at the UCC church of my discernment days. I was too stressed and depressed to notice much good during my internship days. I suffered through an utterly demoralizing personality conflict with the senior pastor at my first call. I experienced it briefly when I served as an interim in New Hampshire, but that was by design temporary, and could not last. Both I and my husband were violently rejected by the people at my most recent call.

From the UCC experience onward, I was in service with and to the people of God. Each time I was hurt by the church–ignored, judged, or even outright attacked–and I wondered how God could let people who call themselves Christians do this to me. Didn’t they realize they were acting in God’s name? Didn’t God realize it and want such misrepresentation to stop? And each time I remembered that the church is a congregation of sinners (including me), and none of us is perfect. So I’d do my best to forgive (I still have a long way to go for some), and I’d hope that I’d find a gathering of God’s people who would welcome me, hurt and wounded as I am, and be Christ for me as I tried to be Christ for them, as I was taught all baptized Christians are called to do, ordained or not. And I’d go someplace else, holding onto that hope, and get used and abused again.

And here I am, at a new congregation, getting misty-eyed at the testimony of a young woman who seems to have found what I’ve been seeking. Yes, I’m a little jealous of her (back to that bit about everyone else seeming to be fine when I’m not). And I found myself fighting the tears, because I didn’t want anyone in the congregation to see me crying. That’s a weakness, and my experience tells me that church people exploit weakness just as well as non-church people do. It’s much safer to keep the walls up, and keep your vulnerability hidden.

The pastor came up to me afterwards and asked me how this morning went for me. He knows some of my story, knows I’m pretty fragile right now, and I think he saw the wadded up tissue in my hand. I told him that the service had struck a tender spot, and I was struggling a bit. He assured me that I was in the loving arms of Trinity, and I was safe.

I might be insane, but I find myself daring to hope that he’s right.

Welcome Back, Now Bend Over!

For all the years I spent trying to get out of Massachusetts, I was actually very happy to be returning. I like the culture, I like the diversity, I even like the climate (yes, really!). My new neighbors have been very nice, with several stopping by the house to introduce themselves, sometimes bringing bagels or brownies. Old friends have contacted me to reconnect, and all in all we’ve felt very welcomed.

Until my husband went to register the cars at the RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles, for any non-Massholes reading this).

We expected that there were going to be hefty registration fees, and while we certainly didn’t like it, we were OK with it. What we didn’t expect, however, was the sales tax scam being run by the state with the full cooperation of licensed auto dealerships.

Let me back up. In July of 2007, when Tom and I were legal residents of New Hampshire, we bought a car at a licensed dealership in Acton, MA. Why did we go to Massachusetts to buy a car? Because we were looking for a very specific type of car (Volvo station wagon of a certain vintage with a manual transmission), and we would go any reasonable distance to get it. A dealership in Acton had it, so we bought it.

Now, usually you pay sales tax on a purchase at the point of sale. Massachusetts changed the rules for vehicles, most likely because of all the Massholes who were going up to sales tax-free New Hampshire and buying their cars there. So in Massachusetts, you pay sales tax for your car when you go to the RMV to register it. Well, we lived in New Hampshire, so we registered it there, where we paid all applicable taxes and fees. No, we didn’t pay a sales tax, but we did pay a vehicle license tax which is based on the car’s purchase price when it was new (even if you bought it used, which we did). Not an insignificant amount of money.

Fast forward four years. Since purchasing the car, we’ve moved to Iowa, New York, and now Massachusetts. Each time we properly registered all of our cars, and we properly retitled them in each state. My husband went to the RMV to do the whole song and dance again in Massachusetts (by now an old hand at it), and was told that he can’t register the cars without a bill of sale for each vehicle. Massachusetts didn’t dispute that we legally own the cars (our valid New York titles are sufficient proof of that); they just wanted to ensure that we acquired them legally and paid all applicable taxes. How conscientious of them. So after much digging, we found the bills of sale from my car (bought four years ago) and one of Tom’s cars (bought seven years ago), both obtained from licensed Massachusetts dealers and legally registered in New Hampshire at the time of purchase. Our ‘spare’ car was purchased from a private party in New Jersey six years ago, and Tom had to provide that person’s name and address.

Having to find that paperwork was bad enough, but here’s where it got ugly.

The Mass RMV accepted the car purchased from a private party in New Jersey six years ago as being on the up and up, and just collected the regular registration fees that we were expecting to pay. But the cars purchased in Massachusetts were another matter. Buried deep in Massachusetts law is the following: “If a nonresident of Massachusetts purchases a motor vehicle in Massachusetts and takes title to and/or possession of the vehicle in Massachusetts, the sale is subject to the Massachusetts sales/use tax irrespective of whether the nonresident intends to use the motor vehicle within or outside Massachusetts.” (Chapter 64H) How is this to be done if the purchaser is not registering the vehicle in Massachusetts? Letter Ruling 77-13 states: “No dealer can make delivery of a motor vehicle to an out-of-state purchaser who takes delivery of the vehicle in Massachusetts without first receiving evidence that the required sales tax has been paid. This payment is made on Form ST-7R at either the registry or any state tax office and the dealer must retain evidence of payment in case of an audit.” In other words, the dealerships were legally required to fill out this form and inform us of our tax liability, and then NOT release the titles to us until we could prove that we’d paid the required tax. Neither of them did that. They just took our cash and gave us the titles, with no hint that there was anything more we needed to do.

So when Tom went to register the cars and produced bills of sale from Massachusetts dealers, he was informed of his tax liability, along with the nice detail that we were now also on the hook for penalties and interest, plus we would be assessed at the current 6.25% rate, not the 5% sales tax rate that was in effect at the time of purchase. The penalties and interest more than doubled what we owed for my station wagon. Did the RMV care that the dealerships were negligent in their legal responsibilities? Not their problem, mon. Furthermore, the woman Tom dealt with at the RMV went on a bit of a rant about how this happens all the time, and how few if any dealerships comply with this requirement, leaving people like us screwed for hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than they should have paid. (You know it’s bad when an RMV employee is doing your complaining for you!) The biggest victims, according to the woman at the RMV, are retirees who split their time between Massachusetts and Florida.

This isn’t a new requirement. That letter ruling I referenced dates back to 1977, and it hasn’t been superseded. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t bother enforcing this law because it’s a cash cow for them. Enforcement would cut their revenue drastically. So instead they stick it to people who would be happy to comply with the laws if the people responsible for informing us of them actually did what they were supposed to do. After all, if ignorance of the law is no defense, and violation of the law results in higher revenues, of course they want to keep people as ignorant as possible!

Massachusetts does have a reciprocal relationship with most states. If this whole thing had happened this way except we’d lived in New York (which also collects sales tax at the time of registration) instead of New Hampshire, then Massachusetts would have credited us with the amount of tax we’d paid in New York and only charged us the difference (plus penalties and interest on that difference), if any. But they don’t recognize the vehicle license tax we paid in New Hampshire, because technically it’s not a sales tax, so we’re considered delinquent on the whole amount.

If we had known about this at the time we purchased my station wagon, we would have paid the $50 or $100 to have the dealership deliver the car to us in New Hampshire, which, according to Massachusetts General Laws, would have exempted us from the tax liability entirely. But we weren’t informed, and the dealership illegally released the title to us when we picked up the car in Acton, so now the state gets hundreds of extra dollars.

The obvious thing would be for us to go after the dealerships themselves, if the state won’t. Unfortunately, both dealerships have since closed, even though at least one of them is currently operating in a new location under a new name (same owner). But it’s legally a different entity, and therefore not responsible for the actions of its former existence. How convenient.

Yes, this has turned into more of a rant than I’d intended, but it’s really frustrating to get hit with a four-figure registration fee that should have been half of that when you’ve tried to do everything right. It’s not like the state caught up with us after we spent years flouting the law; the law was concealed from us by the dealerships’ illegal actions, and by the failure of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to enforce their own 30+ year old law.

Massachusetts, I realize you’re having trouble balancing your books, along with virtually every other state in the union (except North Dakota, I think). But please don’t attempt to solve your fiscal woes by screwing over your citizens. Taxes are bad enough; partnering with auto dealerships to stick consumers with exorbitant penalties is just obscene.