Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jury Duty

I drove by the jail the other day, and as often happens, was flooded with memories...

I think Pennsylvania's judicial system likes me. I'm only 25, but I've been called for jury duty three times, not counting several deferrals when I was in college. The first time I was called I sat in the basement of the Greensburg Courthouse for half a day and was sent home. The second time my number wasn't picked the night before so I didn't have to go. The third time was this spring.

I live in Allegheny County now, so I went downtown and was filed into a large room in the courthouse that was packed with people. We had to fill out a form answering questions about our views on things like drugs and the police and if those views would impact our ability to be on a jury. We waited for a bit and then they started breaking us in to groups to be interviewed for cases. I was picked for the second group, which was very large. So, I waited there for a while until it was time to be interviewed.

As I was sitting there, two people next to me were talking about how this is a waste of their time, they hope they aren't picked, that they should have lied on their form and said that they have many biases. I was quite surprised when they then started talking about conservative politics and both claimed to be strong patriots. My political views are often labeled as liberal, and as many people now see "liberal" and "patriotic" as complete opposites, I don't usually claim to be patriotic. But in that moment, I realized that I am strongly patriotic. I wasn't happy to spend my day sitting in a room crowded with strangers. I wasn't happy to lose pay for both of my part-time jobs. But, I believe in the right to trial by jury, and that means I must be willing to serve on a jury. Sometimes I get strong feelings about what is going to happen, and in that moment, I knew I was going to be picked for a jury. And I felt proud to be able to serve my country.

Eventually I was called up to be interviewed. The prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the defendant sat at the table. The two attorneys asked me questions, mainly about my job and my husband's line of work. The defense attorney seemed to like that I had a background in social work and that my husband and I both worked at a church. It only took a few minutes, and I returned to my seat to wait some more. Eventually they called the names of those chosen for the jury. I was juror number nine.

The defendant was charged with murder and robbery. He and another man were in an altercation about drug money that lead to the defendant stabbing the victim, removing heroin from his person, and running away. (From here on out, I'll refer to the defendant as D and the victim as V). D claimed that he knew that V was violent, and D was scared. D claimed that V started a fight, and D grabbed a kitchen knife to scare V away. V continued the fight, which lead to D accidentally stabbing V. D knew that V was injured, but was afraid of being arrested, so he decided to run away. D knew that V would be searched when the police or ambulance came, so took the heroin so that V wouldn't get in trouble for it. The prosecution's claim was that there was an altercation where D stabbed V, stole the drugs, and ran away. There was no question that D stabbed V, and there was no question about premeditation.

The trail took two days. It wasn't as glamorous as you see on TV. The courtroom was old and drab and the desks were covered with papers. The jury was ushered in and out after everyone else was in place. We walked by D each time, and I tried not to make eye contact. I tried not to look at him, his family, or V's family because I didn't want my emotions to sway me. As it was a short trail, we were not allowed to take notes, so I tried to be as alert as possible and pay close attention. We heard witnesses, police officers, and medical experts. We were shown the bloody knife and bloody clothes along with photos of the scene. D did not take the stand, though an audio recording that he made was played. He had been caught the same day as the stabbing, and said that he used the heroin because he was so upset. The recording was made soon after he was caught. He was crying and said that he admitted to stabbing V, but said that he didn't mean to do it. This tape was actually played by the prosecution, which surprised me because hearing how emotional D was lead me to believe him. Though I tried not to make eye contact with D during the trail, I did glance at him, and he showed no emotion. He just sat there each day except for the short time when his girlfriend was on the stand when he did seem to be quite agitated.

We deliberated for two days. Before the trial started, the jury was asked to pick a foreperson. We sat in the small jury room and silently stared at each other for a moment before I spoke up. I was the third youngest person in the room and often doubt my leadership abilities because of my age. I said that if no one else wanted to do it, I would do it. I didn't think about it, really. It was something that needed to be done, and since no one else spoke up, I did. No one objected to my age, so I became the foreperson. I don't think I knew what I was getting myself in to.

The first day of deliberations was terrible. The group was split. Some believed he meant to do it, some did not. Some believed that anyone involved with drugs was terrible. People became worked up, and emotionally involved. There was yelling and cursing. People were not listening to each other. They were talking over each other. And I was in charge of controlling the room. I felt sheepish telling people who were more than twice my age that they needed to be quiet. Who was I, some young girl, to tell her elders what to do? I tried to keep the peace, but that was a terribly hard day.

I prayed constantly during this experience. I prayed that I would keep an open mind and truly believe that D was innocent unless the evidence could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was guilty. I tend to be opinionated and can sometimes make snap judgments, and am convinced that without God's help, I would not have been able to keep an open mind. At the end of the first day of deliberations, I believed D's testimony. I also prayed for peace for our group and for strength as a leader. I wanted to let everyone's voice be heard. I wanted everyone to feel that their opinions were respected.

The second day of deliberations got off to a better start than the first. I think a fresh day and coffee and bagels helped. I said that I knew that we all had strong opinions, but asked everyone to please try to keep their emotions and past experiences out of the conversation, and to please try to look objectively at the facts. I said that I wanted everyone's voice to be heard and so I asked for people to raise their hands and I would call on them to talk. I couldn't believe my gumption, but I felt that something had to be done. It went alright. I had to cut some people off as they went into personal ranting, but the room was more respectful than the day before.

We had to decide between Manslaughter, Murder 3, and Murder 2, and also between two kinds of Robbery. Oh, that was a process. We were allowed to ask the judge questions, though he wasn't allowed to answer all of them. When we wanted to ask a question, we had to get our tipstaff, a man who was an officer of the court and served as intermediate between us and the judge. He gave me a form on which to write the questions, he gave it to the judge, the judge wrote on it, gave it back to our tipstaff, who gave it to us. We could also write requests for evidence. We requested all of the photographs and went over them in great detail, trying to compare them to the different testimonies we had heard. We were finding holes in the stories.
We requested the knife and clothing that D and V were wearing, and were given rubber gloves to use while handling them.

I am actually thankful that I grew up with a father who loved Murder, She Wrote and Matlock and am married to a man who loves CSI and Law and Order. I think that while those shows were on in my home, parts of them must have gotten in to my brain subconsciously. Somehow I decided that to determine if D's story was true, we needed to act it out. We had been told the height of both men, so I found two people in the room who matched those heights. We had requested the medical examiner's images of the wound trajectories, so I had the two members see if the wounds could have been inflicted in the accidental manner that D claimed. It didn't seem possible.

We also wondered if D was crying on his taped confession because he was truly upset or because he was crashing after using the heroin. We had a nurse on the jury who knew the symptoms and timing of heroin withdrawal, so after figuring out when he used the heroin and when the recording was made determined that he would have been crashing hard at the point. So, maybe he wasn't as upset about it as I first thought.

During the trail and deliberation, we were only allowed to talk about the trail if all 12 jury members were in the room. If someone stepped out to go to the bathroom, I had to stop the conversation. When we went home, we weren't allowed to talk about it. This was awful for me. I work through my thoughts by talking. I get out stressful emotions by talking. At the end of every day, my husband asks how my day was because he is interested I am sure, but also because he knows that it is good for me to talk about it. For this week, I couldn't talk about it. I talked around it as much as I could, and I did tell him that it was a murder trial, though I shouldn't have. Every night I came home and cried. I cannot tell you the last time I felt so emotionally drained. One man was dead, the other had killed him. Though I tried not to look at both families, I saw them, and they were torn apart, crying. I had a room of eleven emotional strangers, among whom it was my role to keep the peace. And we were deciding the fate of D's life, we could help justice be served, for D or V. This was a terrible responsibility. I don't think I would have understood how emotionally draining the process was  if I hadn't lived it.

As we wear nearing the end of our second day of deliberation, we were getting closer to deciding on a verdict. We had requested detailed explanations of the different charges, and after reading the explanations and applying some simple logic I realized that Manslaughter could fit with the one type of Robbery and Murder 2 could fit with the other form of Robbery. Those were the only logical options. It took a little while for me to explain this to the group, but as others got it, they helped me to explain it again. This knowledge made things a bit easier because now we only had to pick between two options instead of piecing together between five different things. At this point I had changed my mind from Manslaughter (D killed V accidentally in a struggle) to Murder 2 (D knowingly stabbed V with the intent of stealing the heroin). It was a difficult decision, but I prayed about it and asked friends and family to pray for me to make the right decision (though I couldn't give them details), and when I came to the decision, I felt peace with it. I felt terribly emotional about the process, but knew that God had lead me to the correct decision. Slowly, others in the group who had been for Manslaughter changed their minds to Murder 2. We all felt stressed and worn. Many people cried. God helped me to hold myself together.

It was strange to be in such an emotional situation with people I had just met that week. It was also very strange for me to not speak about God throughout this process. There was enough tension in our discussions, I didn't want to upset anyone by bringing religion in to it. But, after we had made our decision and our tipstaff had taken my written verdict to the judge, I decided to chance mentioning God. I told the group that I didn't know what their beliefs were, but that I personally had been praying, and had friends and family praying for us, as we made this difficult decision. Several others said that they too had been praying. No one was offended.

Our tipstaff returned and took us back to the courtroom. I was shaking as I walked by the defendant, holding a copy of our written verdict. I had asked the tipstaff for direction in giving the verdict, and he said the judge would guide me. The judge didn't. He just asked the foreperson to stand and give the verdict. Again, I'm glad I had men in my life who watched courtroom shows! I stood, knees shaking, but spoke in a strong voice as I read through each charge. "On the count of Murder in the Second Degree, the jury finds the defendant guilty." I just about fell into my chair when I was done, my knees had been shaking so much. The judge polled the jury, and we all agreed with our finding. V's family cried. D's family cried. D sat staring. D waved his right to an appeal and was sentenced right there. I didn't know but Murder 2 comes with a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole. The judge sentenced D while he was put into handcuffs and leg shackles. Then he was lead from the courtroom. Then the jury was dismissed. I didn't hear it because I was trying to hold myself together and look strait ahead, but another jury member said that V's family thanked us. As soon as I got out of the courtroom I started to cry. I didn't let myself cry for long, but I just couldn't hold it in any more. I had just sent a man to prison for the rest of his life. He was only 24 years old.

The night after the verdict, I somewhat obsessively Googled D and V and all of the news stories about the case. They both had criminal  records, mainly for drug dealing and possession. I think that if V had been standing near the kitchen knife, the role of victim and defendant would have been reversed. They both had issues with heroin. And now, V is dead, and D has lost his freedom.

I felt emotionally shaky for the next few days. I wasn't ready to talk about the case just yet. But time passed. I talked about it. I began to heal. I still think about V and D sometimes, almost every time I drive by the jail. During the trial, I referred to V and D as Mr. So-and-so, but I've found myself thinking of them by their first names now. I pray for V's soul. I pray that D is filled with the love of God and can share that with the other inmates. I pray for both of the families. And I pray for all of the people affected by drugs and violence.

In many ways jury duty was a terrible experience, and I admit that I hope I am not called again any time soon, if ever. Some members of the jury said that if they are called again, they will say something to get themselves out of it. As much as I don't want to go through an experience like this again, if I am called to serve, I will. I will even volunteer to be the foreperson again. Trial by jury is an American right, and I am proud that I was able to serve.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

These Are a Few of my Favorite Things

I thought of writing a post about my frustration with the commercialism of Christmas, how we have let Christmastime become synonymous with extra stress, and how Christ has gotten lost in what Christmas has become, but that didn’t seem like an enjoyable post. So, instead of a religious tirade, I give you four of my favorite things about Christmastime.

Family & Friends
Friends and family seem to congregate around Christmas. Those of us who are students get a break from classes (hurray!), and many get time off from work. My friends have spread out as we’ve gotten married and found jobs, but we always seem to come together at Christmastime. Hugs, laughter, and good conversation always ensue. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are spent with family, who I don’t always get to spend enough time with even though we live near each other.

Christmas Decorations
There is something cozy about a house decorated for Christmas. Decorating our tree is fun for me because all of our ornaments have a story to go with them. I have ornaments from my childhood, my husband and I have received ornaments as gifts, and we like to get an ornament whenever we travel to a new place. I also made paper ornaments when we were first married and didn’t have enough to fill the tree. I planned to use them just until we got new ones, but now they are some of my favorites.

I also love the twinkle of Christmas lights. On the way home from church on Christmas Eve, my family would always drive around town to look at all of the homes covered in lights. I admit that I can be quite critical about light displays and feel that most people haven’t figured out that “less is more.” But, this year I realized that being critical misses the holiday spirit and the message of Christ and decided to just enjoy the festive decorations. I’ve found that my neighborhood seems more magical as a result.

Christmas Cookies
I love sweets! I like to bake sweets and I like to eat sweets, so Christmas cookies are one of my favorite things. For as long as I can remember, my family made cookies every year at Christmas. We never made anything fancy – just Christmas M&M cookies and peanut blossoms, sometimes cut-out sugar cookies. Now, I usually try a new recipe each year too. Baking is a fun creative outlet for me, and it is meaningful because I know that I am going to give most of what I make to friends and family (except for the few that I eat myself!)

Giving Gifts
I like to give gifs to my loved ones to show them that I was thinking of them. It is fun for me to plan the perfect gift for someone, and I enjoy the challenge of doing so in the most economical way possible. I often make gifts, which adds extra fun to the process because I love crafting. I also like to think of gifts that give back in some way – like adopting a friend’s favorite animal from a local zoo or shopping at Ten Thousand Villages.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Her Way

Hello blog. It's been a while. I've missed you. This fall was busy! I feel cliche saying that because aren't we all terribly busy all the time nowadays? But, alas, I was given extra hours at work this fall, and this semester of grad school was more challenging that last. These two things took up the majority of my time, so I took a break from some of the enjoyments in my life like blogging. I am continually learning how to prioritize and manage my time. Some sacrifices had to be made in the past few months, and I've missed my creative and social outlets.

I felt discouraged at times this fall. I worked at the library, I came home and did school work. I exercised and cooked easy healthy meals because I realized that I had let myself slip up to an unhealthy weight. I did make time to rest and spend time with family and friends, but not as much as I would have liked. There were times this fall when I felt like I was going nowhere. I like my job, but I'm a library assistant, not yet a librarian, so I am limited in what I can do. I also like school, but due to financial restrictions I have to go full time, and I felt that I would learn more and perform better if I didn't have to try to balance three classes and work and the rest of life. I was annoyed that I had let myself get into such unhealthy habits and wanted to loose the extra weight right now. My negative thoughts can easily spiral, leaving me feeling discouraged.

Ed Sutter gave a sermon at the Bridge (the modern worship service at my church - you should come!) this Sunday that was exactly what I had needed to hear. (Note: When I refer to someone's work, I like to link to their webpage, blog, etc., but Ed has no internet presence, so I will just provide you with this fantastic picture of him.)

Ed started his message with the music video for the band Ok Go's song "This Too Shall Pass."

Everything that happens in the video starts with one domino. Barrels, full-size cars, and a grown man are flying around all because one domino was knocked over. Ed encouraged us to remember that our small actions can lead to big ones. The small things we do today can have a great impact tomorrow. This made me think of Mother Theresa's quote, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

I was already starting to feel better before I heard Ed's message. My work hours had returned to normal, my school semester was almost done, and I was seeing results in returning to a healthy weight. This message really helped me to reflect on the fall and put everything into perspective. I may not be able to do all that I would like to at the library, but I am certainly working towards it. The extra hours I put in show my commitment and give me opportunities to learn. I may not be able to give as much time to my studies as I would ideally like, but I am still highly committed, doing well in terms of grades, and most importantly, learning. I did not drop the extra weight right now, but I have made significant changes to my eating and exercising habits that I will carry with me beyond reaching my goal weight.

I found that one little domino can send me into a spiral of negative thoughts and discouragement, but a different domino can also lead to positive changes. I may not be doing great things, but I am giving my all to the small things.

"She wasn't where she had been. 
She wasn't where she was going
...but she was on her way." 
~ Jodi Hill

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Voting Conundrum

When I first started this blog I decided not to write about anything controversial because I didn't want to offend anyone. Obviously I've strayed from that decision, and any hope of clinging to it is about to go out the window. I still aim to not offend anyone, but straying from any issue that could be controversial would make this a very boring blog. So, let's talk politics.

It is political ad season, and I've noticed that the theme of many ads for Democratic candidates is, look how much like a Republican I can be! As a disclaimer, I don't consider myself to be a Democrat or a Republican. I am aligned with the Green Party, whose candidates, I realize, will probably never have a chance of being elected. But, they often represent my beliefs. Seeing as there are rarely Green candidates on the ballot, I often support Democrats. This creates a conundrum for me next Tuesday because I feel like almost none of the candidates represent my views. I am a huge proponent of voting, and making an informed decision not just voting for a strait party ticket without knowing the candidates or picking a name because you saw it on a sign on the side of the road. So, what do I do when none of the candidates espouse the values I believe in? I vote anyway, because I am proud to have that right as an American, but I pick the candidate I dislike the least, which is disappointing. I know I can be an idealist, and there may rarely be a candidate I can really get excited about, but I've had this quote from (what else?) The West Wing swimming around my head.

"Because I am tired of working for candidates who make me think I should be embarrassed to believe what I believe, Sam. I'm tired of getting them elected. We all need some therapy, because someone came along and said that liberal means "soft on crime." Soft on drugs. Soft on communism. Soft on defense. And we're gonna tax you back to the stone age because people shouldn't have to go to work if they don't want to. And instead of saying, 'Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, Leave-it-to-Beaver-trip-back-to-the-fifties!' we cowered in the corner and said, 'Please. Don't. Hurt. Me.' No more. I really don't care who's right, who's wrong. We're both right, we're both wrong."
We're both right. We're both wrong. Wouldn't it be amazing to have a true civil dialog between candidates who are firm in their beliefs instead of saying what they think people want to hear so that they can be elected? As I said, I'm an idealist, but at least that means I can always dream and always have hope for a better day.

My all-time favorite commercial, from 2000.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

*Please wear purple tomorrow, October 20, for Spirit Day. Show your support for gay teens, and remember the tragic loss gay teens to suicide.*

I was glad to read that a bit of progress has been made in overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The Pentagon told military recruiters to accept openly gay applicants if they meet all of the other requirements. There is still a chance of this being overturned, but I have hope.

I can't understand why we would want to turn people away from serving the country simply because of their sexual orientation. I am not going to address my views on war or the military in general in this post, but I will say that I sure as heck don't want to serve in the military. If there are people who feel that calling, please let them. I understand that it would be a change. In those close quarters, it could be difficult to work next to someone who might be attracted to you in a way that you do not return. But don't men and women serve together? Surely there must be some unrequited feelings among heterosexuals in the military. The West Wing (my all-time favorite show, as you have probably figured out if you've read some of my other posts) also makes a good point through Admiral Fitzwallace. The quality of the video below is poor, so I also listed the text of what I think is the most important part.

Sir, we’re not prejudiced toward homosexuals.

You just don’t want to see them serving in the Armed Forces?

No sir, I don’t.

‘Cause they oppose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion.

Yes sir.

That’s what I think too. I also think the military wasn’t designed to be an instrument of social change.

Yes sir.

The problem with that is that what they were saying to me 50 years ago. Blacks shouldn’t serve with Whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I’m an admiral in the U.S. Navy and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff...Beat that with a stick.

I don't pretend to know a lot about the military. But I do know that all people deserve to be treated with honor and respect.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Taking My Own Advice

On Tuesday, I took my own advice.

I think it is important to take time in our busy lives to rest. I have loved ones who are extremely committed to their jobs and volunteer work, and I encourage them to step away from the workaholic mindset and take time to relax and unwind. This is often counter-cultural, but I think it is important for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. God even thinks it is a good idea. The longest of the Ten Commandments is the fourth commandment, which says,
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
I think taking time to rest is important and I encourage those I love to do so. But this doesn't mean that I always take my own advice. I get wrapped up in work and grad school and church and family and friends and, and, and... These are good things, important things, but when all of my time is schedule, my brain starts to get fuzzy and my energy level goes down. I start to feel cranky and disconnected.

Early Monday evening I tried to figure out why I felt so tired and realized that I had a day free of work and school in at least 15 days. So on Tuesday, I took the day off. I read for pleasure. I took a nap. I did yoga. My husband came home from work late in the afternoon for a few hours before he had to go back for a meeting. This was when I started to feel guilty for taking the day off. I thought that if Jason worked all day, I should do something too or I'd seem like a waste. Fantastic husband that he is, he talked me out of it. I did tidy our desk with intentions a bigger cleaning project, but then I returned to my book instead. It was a wonderful day.

After my day of rest, I felt energized. I was more focused on my schoolwork and more alert when I was at work. I think taking a day away from work helped me to accomplish more in the days that followed. And I felt more relaxed, happy. Hopefully I'll continue to remember to take my own advice.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

No Hate

My heart broke when I heard about Tyler Clement (this article explains), and I agree with Ellen. The bullying needs to stop. The hate needs to stop. I personally do not believe that being gay is a choice or a sin. Even if that is your view, I think we can both agree that every person deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of sexual orientation. In the articled linked above, Tyler Clementi's parents said that they hope their son's death "will serve as a call for compassion, empathy, and human dignity." I pray that it will be. 

To take a small step to help end the hate, you can add your name to this letter that will be sent to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asking that gender identity and sexual orientation be included in anti-bullying programs. And check out the NOH8 Campaign because that is what we need - no hate.

Friday, October 1, 2010

It's a Book

I was poking around the bookstore the other day and came across It's a Book by Lane Smith. It is a picture book about books and technology, and it is laugh-out-loud funny. The three characters are Monkey, Mouse, and Jackass (more on his name in a minute). Monkey is trying to read a traditional paper book, but Jackass keeps interrupting by asking questions about the book's features. "Can it text? Blog? Scroll? Wi-fi? Tweet?" Jackass asks. Monkey continually, and with growing annoyance, answers, "No. It's a book." I think my favorite part is when Jackass, thinking the book is a computer, asks where the mouse is, and Monkey lifts his hat to reveal the third character in the book, Mouse. Donkey finally takes the book from Monkey and becomes engrossed in it.

It is a fantastic picture book. I do think some parents will object to the character name of Jackass instead of Donkey, and because of this I was surprised to see that seven libraries in the Allegheny County system (including my own USC Township Library) have ordered copies in their children's sections. The first definition in the dictionary for the word jackass is "a male donkey," though.

I like Smith's humorous take on our increasingly digital world. I am obviously not anti-technology or I wouldn't be blogging on the internet, but I do think that we need to be aware that our lives are now permeated with technology. I also think that as great as e-books may be, physical books have a certain magic to them. In an interview, Smith said, "I wasn't trying to make a statement or get all preachy or anything. I just thought it [digital v. traditional] would make a funny comedic conflict." I completely agree.

Above is the trailer for It's a Book. Ironic?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Don't Read That!

It is Banned Books Week, so I thought I'd share some banned titles (and reasons for banning) that surprised me.

Negatively portrays the logging industry

Portrays racism

Too depressing

Contains offensive words

Offensive language: "hell" and "damn"
(The greatest irony -- banning a book about the evils of banning books.)

I don't flaunt banned books, but I like Banned Books week because it reminds us to think. There are definitely books that are inappropriate for certain age groups, and there are books that even some adults would not feel comfortable reading. If you are an adult, then you can simply choose to not read a book that is offensive to you. If the concern is for a child, it is the role of the parent to help determine what is age-appropriate reading. I think we need to be careful not to shelter children too much, though. Of course The Diary of Anne Frank is depressing; it was written during the Holocaust. Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird contains racism; standing up to that racism was the focal point of the book. Explaining the context of the book seems to be a much better solution to me than banning the book entirely.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Small Things

I just read an
article and then saw a segment on the NBC Nightly News about poverty rates in the US. They didn't surprise me, but they still broke my heart. Poverty rates in the US are up, the highest they've been in over 50 years. 43.6 million Americans are considered by the government to be living in poverty, though in reality this number is much higher because of the outdated method of calculating the poverty line (from the article, "The US government considers an annual income of $21,756 to be the poverty line for a family of four").

I wish I was writing because I had a fantastic idea about how to work on a large level to eradicate poverty, in the US and worldwide. Unfortunately, this isn't the case, but I felt I had to write something. All I know to do are little things. Make donations of money, food, and clothing, no matter how small. Volunteer at a local shelter or food pantry. Pray. Love. As Mother Teresa said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Love Our Neighbors

I wrote a short post last month about interfaith harmony, but recently read an article titled "Fellow Americans' Suspicions Frustrate US Muslims" and want to share some of it. 
Nine years of denouncing terrorism, of praying side-by-side with Jews and Christians, of insisting "I'm American, too." None of it could stop a season of hate against Muslims that made for an especially fraught Sept. 11. Now, Muslims are asking why their efforts to be accepted in the United States have been so easily thwarted. ... U.S. Muslim condemnations of terrorism have failed to persuade other Americans.
 Some Americans are protesting Park51, threatening to burn the Qur'an, and vandalizing and shooting at US mosques. Why aren't we loving our neighbors?
...ignorance about what Islam teaches is widespread. More than half of respondents in a recent poll by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life said they knew little or nothing about the Muslim faith.
"I think that part of the reason the general American public is not listening is the common human impulse to fear and mistrust what we don't know or understand," said Abdullahi An-Na'im, an expert in Islam and human rights at Emory University School of Law.
We fear what we don't understand. And we protect ourselves from feeling fear by emitting hate. It's a tragic tale that has happened countless times before in history. 

But, we can fix it. If hate comes from fear and fear comes from lack of understanding, then let's increase our understanding. Take a class, read a book or website, or have a conversation with a practicing Muslim. Islam is a peaceful religion, and Muslims are our neighbors. Let's show them some love.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Get Out!

This is my article for the October edition of my church's newsletter, the Spire.

I recently checked out a book from the public library called Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future by Judy Molland. It is a short, easy read for adults who care for children. Experiencing nature is important for children’s physical, cognitive, social, and spiritual development, and this book helps adults to nurture children’s interaction with nature.

Get Out! has five sections, and below is one of my favorite ideas from each.

Get Started: Cool Ways to Embrace Nature Today
15: Get to know local trees. Autumn is the perfect time to observe the trees in your yard or local park. Go on a walk with your child and pick up leaves as you go. Ask your child to compare the leaves’ colors and shapes, and learn what type of tree they came from.

Go Further: Projects, Plans, and Outings
52: Take nature and wildlife photography. Molland says that “everyone from small children to adults can do this, and it will develop the habit of looking closely at the world.” This is a great way to explore God’s earth with your child, and the photos can be family mementos.

Get Smart: Be Green Consumers—and Eaters!
75: Donate and purchase used clothes. The church rummage sale is the perfect place to teach your children about the environmental and economical benefits of recycling clothing. Help them to pick some of their old clothes to donate, and then take them to the rummage sale to buy a new item that they need.

Get Active: More than Just the 3 Rs
102: Make art. Molland suggests that you “see what you and your kids can make with old bottle caps, old wrappers, ribbons, bows, milk cartons, and toilet paper rolls.” Children are naturally creative and can make beautiful art out of common items that we might usually take for garbage. As I child, I loved creating crafts from bits of things that I found around the house.

Get Involved: Take a Green Stand
140: Defend an endangered species. Help your children learn about endangered species (on websites for Kid’s Planet, World Wildlife Fund, or the National Wildlife Federation) and then choose one to help protect. By making a small donation, you can adopt an endangered animal. The money goes to help protect the species, and your children usually receive additional information and a picture of their animal.

Get Out! provides fun ideas to help adults bond with their children and learn about the environment. As we help children to grow closer with nature, we are also helping them to grow closer to God.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Humanity at the Grocery Store

I went grocery shopping on Friday. This doesn't sound like anything out of the ordinary, but I rarely shop -- for anything. My amazing husband, Jason, does the majority of our grocery shopping. My desire to decrease my materialism paired with losing the salary from the job I left when I decided to give the University of Pittsburgh thousands of dollars each year has made not shopping a necessity. I occasionally use the internet to buy something we need, and once in a while I pop into the grocery store, but weeks go by without me buying anything.

So, when I do go to the store, it is always a bit of a shock. I also decided to go on the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend. Great plan for someone who gets overwhelmed by crowds, specifically rude, determined, grocery-shopping crowds. I am always amazed (read: disgusted) by the way people behave in the grocery store. They don't look where they are going with their carts, then don't say "excuse me" if they bump into you. They walk briskly as if they are on a very important mission. Why are all of you people in my way? Don't you know that I have some very important grocery shopping to do? And I need to get out of here quickly. It is very important that I buy this food as quickly as possible.

*Sigh* Why do we act like this? As though we own the world, everyone else is in our way, and that everything must be done so quickly? These feelings are contagious, and so another reason why I don't go shopping is because I can't stand how I start to feel and even act. Rudeness in others brings out my own rudeness and negative thoughts. It's terrible. How blessed are we to have a huge store filled with food, medicine, and hygiene products within minutes of where we live? I know I often take this for granted, but it is absolutely amazing when you think about it.

So, that is what I decided to do on Friday at the grocery store. I thought about my blessings, how thankful I was for each item I placed in my basket. And I smiled at other people, said "excuse me" even when it wasn't my fault, and tried very hard not to let others' negativity impact me. And then I noticed some others doing the same things. A gentleman said "pardon me" as I almost bumped into him, and he let me walk in front of him. I noticed two women with full carts on line at the self-checkout. The store was very busy, lines were long, and employees who bag groceries were scarce. Woman #1 was starting to scan her items, and woman #2, a complete stranger, offered to bag the groceries for her. Woman #1 was stunned and very gracious in expressing her thanks. Woman #2 said that it was no big deal, that she was happy to help. I smiled.

The positive things can be just as contagious as the negative. Sometimes we may just have to look a bit harder for them.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Return to Modesty

I recently read A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. A friend lent it to me quite a while ago actually, and it was in my ever growing pile of books to read for longer than I'd like to admit. I am fascinated by non-fiction, but will almost always pick up a novel or a memoir over anything else if given the choice.

A Return to Modesty is a cultural history of women's sexual modesty. It was published in 1999 (which seems like it shouldn't be more than a decade ago), but it is still pertinent. Shalit sees herself as falling somewhere in between "conservatives" and "feminists" (her terms) on the issue of modesty. She believes in equality of the sexes, but thinks society has warped this to mean that the two sexes should be the same. My pastor lent me several books when Jason and I got married that addressed differences between the sexes. Men and women are equal, but we are not the same. Certainly all members of one sex cannot be painted with the same brush, but there are traits that tend to belong to each males and females. Unfortunately, I think that some of the traditionally female traits have been seen as worth less than traditional male traits, so women have felt the need to act like men in order to succeed.

Shalit sees this need for sameness as taking away from women's ability to be feminine, including exercising modesty in dress and in actions. Revealing clothing and premarital sex are now the norm. Shalit connects this to problems in our society such as harassment, stalking, and rape (which made the first section of the book, "The Problem," difficult for me to read). Shalit says that when she was in high school, being modest wasn't cool. I think that often this is still the case, which breaks my heart.

"Respect for modesty made women powerful," Shalit says. "Women who dress and act 'modestly' conduct themselves in ways that shroud their sexuality in mystery. They live in a way that makes womanliness more a transcendent, implicit quality than a crude, explicit quality." Modesty in dress doesn't mean that you can't be fashionable, and modesty in action doesn't mean that you must be a prude or a bore. I feel that modesty is really about self-respect, and I like the way that Shalit phrases this idea: "So one of modesty's paradoxes, then, is that it is usually a reflection of self-worth, of having such a high opinion of yourself that you don't need to boast or put your body on display for all to see."

A Return to Modesty isn't a page-turner, but it is interesting, and I think that Wendy Shalit raised good questions and made interesting points. And, I think, she showed that modesty is sexy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Water for Elephants

My dear friend Emily and I decided to start intentionally reading the same books and chat on the phone about them. We live about 250 miles away from each other, so we don't see each other often and thought this would be a fun way to keep in touch. (I wouldn't call it a book club because club makes me think of more than two people, and who get to meet in person.)

For our first book she suggested Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, so I checked it out of the library. I had started reading it once before but didn't get very far into it when I put it down because it seemed too sad for the mood I was in at that moment. The book is a bit dark, but it's fantastic, and as most of it takes place during the Great Depression and a murder occurs in the prologue, dark is appropriate.

In the first chapter of the book Jacob Jankowski says that he is "ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." He is depressed that his children placed him in a nursing home and reflects back on the younger years of his life with The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob was the show's vet, and worked with the circus's menagerie, including their elephant, Rosie. Working for his charismatic but sometimes violent boss, August, could be dangerous, especially when Jacob fell in love with August's wife, Marlena, an equestrian in the show.

Circus life was gritty, which is why this book is shelved in the Teen or Adult section of the library. Gruen did extensive research about circus life, and this book transported me to the circus train in the early 1930s. In an interview, Gruen said that many of the incidents in the book actually happened; she discovered them in her research and felt they were too good not to include in the story. I highly recommend it and suggest reading it before the movie comes out next year.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Going Green/Back to School

This is my article for the September issue of my church's newsletter, the Spire. I should have posted it here sooner.

A new school year is about to begin – new teachers, new experiences, and, a chance to take a few new steps to care for God’s creation.

For many, the back-to-school season means one thing: shopping. The average family with school-aged children will spend almost $600 on back-to-school purchases this year. I admit that in K-12 I looked forward to new clothes and school supplies each year (especially the school supplies, a love I inherited from my dad). I’m not saying that you shouldn’t purchase anything in preparation for a new school year, but consider being conscious of the impact that your purchases can have on the earth. Try to buy school supplies (pens, pencils, etc.) made from recycled materials, especially notebook paper. Each ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water. (And don’t forget to recycle your old paper in the bin in our north parking lot!)

Also consider using reusable supplies. Mechanical pencils and refillable pens work just as well (if not better than) the disposable versions. A large amount of waste is created each year from disposable lunch packaging as well as from office supplies. Switch to reusable lunch boxes, utensils, napkins, and food and drink containers to save approximately 67 pounds of waste per student each school year.

A small step to take that can make a big impact is for students to ride the bus instead of getting a ride in a car. Though the average school bus is not good for the earth, one bus is better than the 72 cars it would take to drive each of those students individually.

These small steps may not seem like much, but Psalm 24:1 says that “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it,” and I think God appreciates every step we make to care for his world.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Free Click-to-Donate

I'm a big fan of click-to-donate websites. They are just what they sound like -- a simple click of the mouse creates donations from sponsors to organizations that support charities. You can click once each day on each cause, and it only takes a few seconds.

My favorite click-to-donate site is I found it sometime in the late 90s, and I've been clicking ever since. There is a lot to this site, a lot more than I've explored: news, e-cards, social networking, and easy actions that can be taken to help the world. Care2's current click to donate causes are children, rainforests, big cats, breast cancer, pets, seals, oceans, primates, global warming, stopping violence, and wolves.

A similar site is the Greater Good's Click to Give. On this site you can click to support charities related to hunger, breast cancer, literacy, child health, rainforests, and animal rescue. This site has a shop that sells clothes, jewelry, home ware, and other items. Proceeds from all purchases also go to charity. They now have an iPhone app called Touch to Give based on Click to Give.

This site lists other click-to-donate pages. They're a quick and easy way to make a difference. I try to remember to click every day. It is a small thing, but it adds up and does help to make a difference.

I've been thinking that it is time for me to do more than just the small things, though. And I think it involves a trip to Haiti....

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Interfaith Harmony

Both my husband and a good friend blogged about this recently, so I won't say much, but I've been planning to blog something about the hoopla surrounding the proposed mosque (which is actually a cultural center) at Ground Zero (though it is actually two blocks away). I read
this Q & A to better inform myself. The name for the center was to be the Cordoba House, after a medieval Spanish town where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in a harmonious interfaith community. The name was changed to Park51 (after the location) following criticism of the name Cordoba House. I don't understand why anyone would object to a name, or a center, that encourages interfaith harmony. It deeply saddens me that misunderstanding about Islam leads people to believe that all Muslims are hateful and violent, when that is far from the truth. This analogy about Islamic extremism seems shocking, but it is truthful and important to remember:

Islamic Extremism is to Islam as The KKK is to Christianity.

One of the founders of the center said, "we want to provide a counter momentum against extremism. We want peace, and we want it where it matters most. This is where it matters most." How can we argue with that?

What Type Am I?

I got What Type Am I? Discover Who You Really Are by Renee Baron out of the library before I went on vacation and read it at the beach. I love personality theories; they're fascinating to me. Baron's book is an easy-to-access version of David Keirsey's Please Understand Me II, which was based on the classic Meyers-Briggs Type IndicatorPlease Understand Me II was my first introduction to personality types when I borrowed it off of my dad's bookshelf when I was in junior high. It is a fascinating book, but long and dense at points. Baron's What Type Am I? is much lighter and easier to read, complete with silly but helpful comics to explain the different personality types. Baron also includes a sorter to help the reader identify his/her type.

Meyers-Briggs believed that "people are born with preferences ... ways in which we naturally 'prefer' to do certain things." Their indicator lists four pairs of opposite preferences (from Baron's book):

Extroverting (E) and Introverting (I)
This pair refers to where we prefer to focus our attention and what energizes us. People who prefer Extroverting get their energy from the outer world of people, activities, and things. People who prefer Introverting get their energy from their inner world of ideas, impressions and thoughts. 

Sensing (S) and iNtuiting (N)
This pair refers to how we prefer to take in information. People who prefer Sensing pay attention to information taken in directly through their five senses and focus on what is or what was. People who prefer iNtuiting pay attention to their sixth sense, to hunches and insights, and they focus on what might be.

Thinking (T) and Feeling (F)
This pair refers to how we evaluate information to make decisions. People who prefer Thinking make decisions in a logical, objective way. Those who prefer Feeling make decisions in a personal, values-oriented way.

Judging (J) and Perceiving (P)
This pair refers to our lifestyle orientation. People who prefer Judging tend to live in an organized, planned way. People who prefer Perceiving tend to live in a spontaneous, flexible way.

I think that the words they chose can be misunderstood today. If you prefer Judging, it does not mean that you are judgmental, and contrary to common opinion, extroversion is not synonymous with being outgoing, nor is introversion synonymous with being shy. It is also important to remember that everyone uses all of these options, but most people simply feel more comfortable in one option or the other.

Baron pointed out something that is very interesting to me: some people do not feel comfortable with their natural preferences because they go against cultural conditioning. In the US, "women are often socialized to behave like Feelers and men are often socialized to behave like Thinkers," which could lead to men and woman who prefer their non-culturally conditioned option to feel as though something is wrong with them. This can also happen if one child has a different preference from the rest of his/her family.

I know that some people feel that personality sorters try to put them into a box, but, to quote Elizabeth Bennet at the end of Pride and Prejudice, "my feelings are quite the opposite." Learning that I am an ENFJ has helped me to learn so much about myself. It has helped me to understand my motivations, which have helped me to improve my life and my relationships with others.

To learn more, read the book or even check out What's Your Personality Type? on Blogthings. It is actually quite accurate... and lots of fun!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Being Rich a Sin? -- A Response

My friend Ian Gallo wrote this blog post entitled "Is Being Rich a Sin?", and asked for my thoughts (and then said it is ok for me the share my response to him on my blog). I've been thinking and praying about what Ian wrote. I struggle with many of the same questions, and am not exactly sure how to respond. This is an emotional issue for me, which makes it difficult for me to put my thoughts into words. I don't feel that I can give answers, but I will share some of my thoughts and struggles.

I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for Ian to go from a trip to Haiti to Upper St. Clair (a wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh, PA). I've never been to a developing nation. I've barely lived outside of the suburbs of western PA. I did an internship for a year working with low-income older adults in East Liberty (a low-income section of Pittsburgh, PA), and it broke my heart. I started struggling with the issue of money at a young age. My parents tell me that once when I was in early elementary school, we were driving around to look at Christmas lights, and I went off on a rant about how the houses we passed were too big and people shouldn't spend their money that way. But, how many toys did I have? The answer is a lot. 

I have never known what it is to go without. As a twenty-something grad student in the early years of my marriage, I've had times where money was very tight, but by American standards. We've had times where we needed to wait a few days until a paycheck came in to do a big order at the grocery store, but we would never go without food. If things were really tight, we could cancel our internet service, my cell phone, or Netflix to save money. We have parents, friends, and a church community who could care for us if we needed them to. I've worried about how to manage money and how to pay all of our bills, but I've never worried about going hungry.

I have been working on lessening my materialistic nature. I have never been one to purchase expensive things (my mom taught me at a young age how to be a bargain shopper), but I used to shop the sales racks quite often. But, just because I found a sweater on sale doesn't mean that I needed another sweater. I used to buy a lot of stuff -- a lot of stuff I didn't need. I've been thinking about that a lot lately: what do I really need? I've been trying to find a balance. I do not like how much stuff I used to have. I don't like that I used to buy things all of the time. I don't like that shopping was an activity for me. (I won't get started on the term "retail therapy.") So, I rarely go to stores anymore. I take myself out of the temptation.

"Need" is difficult to define. Compared to the people in Haiti, I don't need most of the things that I have; I only need the very basics. To work at a library and go to grad school, I need more things (appropriate work clothes, transportation, a computer, and internet access). I strongly feel that God has called me to school and library work, and I could not do those things if I sold everything I own. So, my level of need goes up. But of course I still completely surpass that. My biggest struggle is determining what is something that I am blessed to have and what is just unnecessary.

I found this Bible passage and have been thinking about it:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. -- Deuteronomy 8:10-14

I think there is a difference between being rich (having a lot of money) and being covetous ("inordinately or wrongly desirous of wealth or possessions; greedy" according to I see this passage as warning us that having money or possessions (being rich) can lead to pride and greed -- forgetting that all we have is a blessing from God. And that is the true problem. A rich person can have a pure, God-filled heart. A person can have a lot of money but live simply. My mom worked with a man who is a millionaire, but she only found that out after knowing him for years. He lived in a nice house, but not a mansion, and wore suits but wasn't flashy. He was a devout Jew and gave a lot of money each year to his synagogue and charities.

What I am not sure of is how do we know where to draw the line of acceptability? How do we know what is ok to have and what isn't? I think I am just repeating some of Ian's questions. I don't want to just defend living the lifestyle I want, but I think the state of our hearts in relationship to our wealth and possessions is the most important thing, and a desire to do more, care more, and love more, with everything we are and everything we have.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Red Pyramid

I just read Rick Riordan's new book, The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid. I was on a long hold list at the library for the book, which wasn't surprising because there seem to be hold lists for all of Riordan's books right now. The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is very popular, and I read it soon after starting to work at the library at the beginning of this year. It's a fantastic fantasy series (Can you do that to the English language? Fantastic fantasy?) revolving around the Greek gods of Olympus.

The Red Pyramid is the first book in the trilogy The Kane Chronicles, which are set in the 2010s, but include themes from ancient Egypt. Sadie and Carter Kane are siblings who have been raised apart after their mother died -- Sadie in London with their grandparents and Carter traveling around the world with their Egyptologist father, Dr. Julius Kane. The book starts with a biennial visit between Sadie, Carter, and their father. Dr. Kane takes them to the British Museum, where he accidentally causes and explosion and releases Set (the ancient Egyptian god of chaos), who "banishes him to oblivion and forces the children to flee for their lives." Sadie and Carter embark on a journey to stop Set, save their father, and uncover the secrets of their family history.

The book is written as a transcript of a recording made by Sadie and Carter. It mainly reads as a normal story but is occasionally interrupted by Sadie and Cater's sibling banter. As with the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Riordan's writing in The Red Pyramid is witty and at times laugh-out-loud funny. I learned a lot about ancient Egypt, but the information was tied in with the story, which kept it from feeling like a text book. The second book will be released in the spring of 2011 and the third in the spring of 2012. I can't wait!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Homophobia Is Gay

Last week Proposition 8 was overturned in California. Prop 8 was a ballot proposition, which amended the California Constitution to outlaw gay marriage (more info here). Depending on the outcome of the appeals process, the Prop 8 situation may go to the Supreme Court. If that happens, I hope that its unconstitutionality is upheld, setting a standard for our other 49 states. I just don't understand what the big deal is about gay people getting married.

I've heard that gay marriage is going to ruin families in America (and many other claims as seen in this video from 2008 after same-sex marriage was made legal in Massachusetts). This argument doesn't make sense to me. It might if gay people were inherently bad parents, but this study and knowing caring, competant gay people tell me that this isn't true.

And then the Bible is used as an argument against not just gay marriage, but gays in general. The verse typically cited is Leviticus 18:22, which says, "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable." This verse doesn't address sexual orientation. It says that men should not have sex with other men. But... This verse comes from a section of the Bible with many rules that seem to no longer be applicable, as seen in the examples in this speech from The West Wing:

President Josiah Bartlet: I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination. 
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus. 
Dr. Jenna Jacobs: 18:22. 
President Josiah Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? 

It saddens me that some Christians cling to Leviticus 18:22 and let themselves be filled with hate for people who are gay. 
When Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest (Matthew 22:37-39), he responded by saying, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." The second most important thing we are to do in our lives is to love our neighbors as our selves. All of our neighbors. Including our gay neighbors.