Finding hope

PHOTOGRAPHY, PUBLISHED WORK

A Syrian refugee giving back. A child dancing after a devastating earthquake. A love-struck couple marrying after their village in Nigeria was attacked. Check out my new photo essay for UNICEF that proves hope and resilience prevail, even in the most trying of times.

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Calling Yaya

CREATIVE WRITING, FAMILY, LIFE, PUBLISHED WORK

This essay was awarded honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2015 Young Alumni Essay Contest. It was originally published at magazine.nd.edu.  

Everyone on Dallas Avenue knew Yaya’s high-pitched cackle.

My grandfather would walk home from the train station each night and hear her laugh from a block away. That’s Dorothy, he’d think to himself. She was usually on the phone. She was usually telling a story.

The phone connected Yaya to everyone she wanted to talk to and everywhere she needed to be. Even before coffee, the first thing she’d do each morning was roll over and check her stocks by punching in numbers. She wore out three keypads in just a few years of checking and trading those stocks. And she made my grandfather buy 25-foot-long cords for all phones in the house so she could chat away from absolutely anywhere.

From an early age I loved talking on the phone with Yaya and begged her to tell me the stories I knew and loved. Like the time in high school the nuns caught her smoking in the bathroom, so she filled her mouth with powdered soap to mask the smell but ended up with foam bubbling out of her mouth as she explained herself to the principal. Those stories reached a level of pure absurdity it seemed only Yaya could concoct.

We had serious conversations, too, she lying on her bed in Long Island, me on mine in New Jersey. One summer when I was around 13, a girl my age died in a tragic jet-skiing accident. A few of my friends knew her, and her death deeply affected me. I spent the night writing a poem for the girl and read it to Yaya, and then we talked about death and dying until our conversation slowed to a standstill. She was always straightforward about the topic, saying “when I die” or “will you do this for me when I’m gone, baby?” as if it were inevitable. I always hushed her and changed the subject.

***

I was 17 when Yaya passed. It was obvious her health was deteriorating. Months earlier she’d stopped dyeing her hair that signature red, a sign of defeat too painful for me to admit. Her weight had dropped below 100 pounds, her bones were brittle and her spine was collapsing inch by inch. Despite all this, her death felt sudden because I never got to say good-bye.

She died in February, the coldest part of winter. My younger sisters cried in my bed, not understanding how a person goes from being here to being gone. I thought I was old enough, mature enough, to understand her death and help my siblings properly mourn. But 17 wasn’t old at all, and since emerging on the other side of college and moving to New York City I’ve started missing her in a new way.

Yaya was a city girl, a trait that skipped a generation and landed on me. Papa often tells the story of their 1970s summer house in Greenport, Long Island, where Yaya stayed inside all day, depressed. The town was too quiet and the nearest phone was a quarter mile away. Papa says she’d press her face to the window, longingly watching car lights pass on the main road — the closest sign to civilization. All night she’d gaze at those lights, smoking her cigarettes in silence.
My grandmother needed to be around people. The house had been her idea, but within a decade they sold it.

Yaya grew up in the 1930s and ’40s in the South Bronx Irish tenements, the daughter of first-generation Irish immigrants. When she was 14 her father died suddenly of appendicitis. So her mother took a job as a housemaid at the Waldorf Astoria and moved the family out to Pelham Bay.

Yaya’s father, who’d been a carpet salesman at the flagship Macy’s store in Midtown, instilled in her a strong work ethic and sense of pride in being busy. In her 20s, she was the secretary to a high-powered lawyer at General Motors. Yaya loved showing up to the big building on Broadway, working for the big shots and going out to lunch with the other girls for special occasions. They’d pick a fancy spot like the Russian Tea Room, Tavern on the Green or an Italian place called Patsy’s that Frank Sinatra used to frequent. Birthdays and engagements never went uncelebrated.

Yaya was just around my age when she worked for GM. Even though she never told me about her 20s in Manhattan — maybe she thought I was too young — little things around the city remind me of her. My favorite photograph was taken at the Copacabana nightclub, shortly after Papa proposed to Yaya in 1959. Every time I pass the Copacabana in Times Square I think of the original Upper East Side club and my grandparents at a table inside, looking so glamorous and in love. I have the photograph saved in my phone so I can pull it up and imagine how she’d tell me the story.

My phone can tell me all about the Copacabana’s history, play videos from the nightclub’s heyday, even show me my very last email from Dorothy Coyne. But for all it’s capable of, it can’t connect me to her.

Seven years since Yaya died, I still can’t get past the urge to call her. Sometimes I feel like the helpless 5-year-old who would erupt into tears when my grandparents left after a weekend visit. I’d sit sullenly on our stoop, eyes watering as their car backed out of the driveway and escaped at 60 miles per hour down the highway.

Then I’d go back inside and wait for the phone to ring.

Lessons learned from my college newspaper

CAREER, JOURNALISM, NOTRE DAME, PUBLISHED WORK

Late nights. Early mornings. Not enough coffee in the world to keep you awake during that morning calculus class. It’s a story most college newspaper editors know well but would never change. We’re willing to put in the hours not only because of the close-knit community, one of the biggest draws, but because the skills you learn working for a college newspaper are invaluable across professional industries. Here are five reasons why.

You meet a wide range of people.

College is a bubble, but working on the paper exposes you to a wide range of people and viewpoints. During my four years on The Observer at Notre Dame, I interviewed a British literary scholar, the Chief Marketing Officer of Subway, the University president and the only Orthodox Jewish student on campus. Reaching beyond the bubble has huge value later on in the working world.

You get used to criticism.

Most professors at Notre Dame weren’t outwardly critical of my writing, focusing on what I could do better instead of what I did wrong. While I appreciated this approach in my classes, criticism is an unavoidable aspect of the professional world and life in general. My freshman year, I remember the first article I received back from my editor was completely covered in red ink, entire sections crossed out. I probably went home and cried that night, but soon learned not take things so personally (and that criticism helps you improve).

You master the art of succinct writing.

I used to think the phrase “writing is an art” meant I could use an unlimited number of words to make things sound beautiful. Now I believe that regardless of the writing form, every single word needs to have a purpose. Working on the paper taught me to boil down stories to their very core, write conversationally and include only the most powerful quotes. All of this prepared me well for a career in digital media.

You get comfortable leading conversations.

Most people love talking about themselves. Once you learn that, asking questions and leading conversations isn’t all that hard. When I started out as a reporter, I was scared to even place a call to a stranger. I read and reread my emails 10 times before requesting an interview. But with experience, I gained the confidence to assert myself during interviews, pursue contacts and ask the tougher questions.

You learn to work well under pressure.

Some of my most stressful days in college, I was under deadline for an article on the same day I had a major test. I spent free moments calling sources and writing while simultaneously trying to memorize history or statistics formulas. The Observer demanded everything of you, and you had to figure out how not to let your grades slip. It took years, but I learned to stay calm and trust that everything would get done (and that the world wouldn’t end if it didn’t).

I loved being an English major at Notre Dame. But truthfully, none of my classes stand out to me years later the way my days and nights spent in The Observer office do. While I nurtured my love for literature through my major, the newspaper that gave me the hands-on, practical education I needed to jump into the real world after graduation.

In the end, I’m thankful for the sleepless nights and overconsumption of chocolate. The Observer was the best (free) course I took at Notre Dame.

*This column was originally published in The Observer 

The 42nd Street Hawker

NYC, PUBLISHED WORK

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Author’s Note: This essay received honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. It was first published at magazine.nd.edu.

I have walked past Geoff nearly every day for a year.

After getting off the bus in Midtown Manhattan, I need to cut two avenues east and seven blocks north. I always choose the path that goes down 42nd Street that passes Geoff.

Forty-second Street at 9 a.m. is one of the black diamonds of New York terrain. Commuters and tourists alike unload from buses at Port Authority — the busiest bus terminal in the world — and mix like oil and water on the streets. They mostly move in one direction, streaming through the city’s concrete arteries towards Times Square, its thumping heart.

I hit my stride as I walk down 42nd, expertly swimming through the crowds, spying then slipping into open pockets of space. I pass a glorified McDonald’s with a glittering golden arch, breakfast lines spilling onto the sidewalk. Pop music blasts from the “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” museum and larger-than-life video screens compete with the morning sun.

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But as I approach the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, a single man’s voice soars above the drone of music, cars and construction.

“Haaaave a great Monday! Enjoy that job!”

It’s Geoff, standing there in his usual spot beside the 42nd Street subway entrance. He’s handing out AM New York, a free daily newspaper popular with commuters. Geoff is a hawker, stationed at this high-traffic location and paid to deliver the paper to anyone who walks by.

“Enjoy your work, young lady! Have a great morning on your job!”

Geoff is different from other hawkers, though. He’s never aggressive, never thrusts the paper at your face, and always tells you to have a good day.

Geoff puts his entire body into the greeting, first making eye contact, then smiling and bouncing on his feet before shaking his fist in a way that says go tackle that day.Sometimes, I wonder if he thinks his job is getting New Yorkers to smile.

“Happy hump day! Knock out your work!”

Geoff looks to be in his mid-forties. He wears a red vest and baseball cap and sets his eyeglasses perched precariously on his forehead. He’s never fazed by the swarms of people coming out of the subway or the pounding music from nearby tourist traps. For hours he yells over it all.

“Only eighteen hours till Friday! Come on, you know it. That’s all we got.”

The smiles Geoff gives often go unrequited. Once in a while, someone will emerge from the subway and greet him. How ya doin’, my man? How bout them Giants? But many ignore him — absorbed in phone conversations — or take a paper without saying anything at all.

Months after I started passing “the man who hands out the papers,” I finally asked his name. It was one morning in August when the clouds hung thickly overhead but the crowds on the street were thin. People anxiously gripped their umbrellas, prepared for the oncoming downpour. It seemed like the right time to approach him, but I felt nervous for some reason, nervous to go from just another young lady to an acquaintance.

He handed me the paper.

“Thanks,” I said. “Excuse me, what’s your name?”

“Geoff,” he replied, a slight questioning tone in his voice.

“Geoff, thanks for being so…” I didn’t immediately have words to describe what I was thanking him for, but he understood. He smiled and fist-bumped me. After a few moments I turned around and looked back through the bustling crowds, catching Geoff’s eye. He was still smiling and waving at me from 50 yards away.

The scene is so absurd. It’s 9 a.m. in New York City and thousands of people rush, straight faced, to wherever they need to be. And then there’s Geoff, relentlessly happy, sending sparks of enthusiasm to anyone who walks by. For the most part, those greetings fall short of passersby, evaporating quickly on the hot, hostile concrete. But every once in a while, someone turns and smiled.

One day, a little old man, no taller than five foot four, struggled to make his way east down 42nd Street. Surrounded by Times Square lights, this man’s life just seemed dim. Briefcases, heels and tourists in matching T-Shirts rushed by him — yet he and his wobbling cane seemed to exist alone in the crowd.

“Have a great day, young man!” Geoff called out from beneath the subway awning.“Have a great day!” The man didn’t look up. He didn’t react. He just kept pushing forward, step by step by step.

I waited to see if he would turn around. He was likely a veteran New Yorker who had long ago learned to ignore the white noise of hawkers.

New Yorkers like him don’t believe in acknowledging hawkers. Street salesmen are everywhere, calling the same things, blending into the drone of the city. Maybe he feared letting in one hawker meant letting in them all, and he was too old, too weak to fend off these intruders of personal space.

He never turned.

I wondered how many people like Geoff I pass each day, but disregard in my hurry — how many faces and voices get lost among the city’s sights and sounds.

Lula’s Café: The Community Living Room

NOTRE DAME, PUBLISHED WORK

Photo Source: 365 South Bend Blog

*Author’s note: this article was first published in Notre Dame Magazine at magazine.nd.edu. 

I had never seen this much flannel in one place at Notre Dame. The room was filled with men and women in plaid shirts, and standing at the microphone was a poetry student from Notre Dame’s creative writing M.F.A. program, reading selections from her work.

A few girls “whoop whoop” and others in the audience clapped, smiling at the student’s cleverness. This group thrived on wit, intellect and the beauty of language.

The décor was an eclectic mix of things that shouldn’t go together but somehow did. Sunflowers sprang from the walls beside oddly shaped mirrors. Shelves held books and random knick-knacks. A wall was painted in red and yellow stripes, and a dusty emerald lamp hung in one corner. None of it made logical design sense, but that was the whole idea of Lula’s—letting loose, being creative and taking risks.

Mostly M.F.A. students filled the room that night, but scattered throughout were undergrads and professors. In the middle of the readings, two huge football players walked in, dressed head-to-toe in Notre Dame gear. They were out of their element, and intentionally so. There was just something wonderful about that.

16 years of Lula’s

“It was a happy accident, really,” Lula’s owner Steve Egan ’93 told me over coffee one fall morning in 2010. “Lula’s was a hit right away.”

The idea for Lula’s was born 16 years earlier when Egan, a public accountant in Chicago, talked over dinner one night with a friend and Notre Dame alum about opening a café near campus. “There was nothing like Lula’s in South Bend,” Egan recalled. “I felt pretty confident in the idea.”

“I did the benchmarking at every café in Chicago practically, to just kind of figure out ideas, and figure out as much financial data as I could from the owners who would be forthcoming with it,” he said.

The next step was writing a business plan and executing it.

“We wanted to be close to campus, and this was a good crossroads area, with high traffic,” Egan said of the 1631 Edison Plaza location, at the Edison/23 intersection near The Linebacker. “I didn’t leave my job in Chicago until we had a location that made sense.”

From the very beginning, Lula’s was meant to be more than just a café — inspiring the sharing of ideas and life stories. And Lula’s was always intended as a bridge between South Bend and the surrounding campus communities, including Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) and Bethel College.

“We wanted to break down barriers … misconceptions that people from town have about people from campus, and vice versa,” Egan said in 2010. “We wanted to appeal to all demographics. I think that’s one of the tricks to Lula’s, that it’s been able to appeal to a lot different types over a long period of time.”

But after 16 years it became apparent that Lula’s time — at least its time on Edison Road — was limited. On October 5, 2010, Egan spoke to an entrepreneurship class at Notre Dame. The very next day, he was surprised with a notice that his lease would not be renewed.

Egan had just 50 days to vacate Lula’s.

After months of searching for a new location, Egan let go of the dream and took a job with Anthony Travel. Egan said one of the blessings of going through this change was hearing what Lula’s had meant to so many different people.

“It’s kind of like getting to hear your own eulogy when you’re alive,” he said then. “That’s a powerful affirmation that Lula’s has mattered to a lot of people. Lula’s has meaning outside of just a restaurant or coffee shop. There’s something deeper here.”

“The community living room”

Over the years, Lula’s was called “the community living room,” “the gateway to South Bend,” and “the place in Michiana where people come to try to save the world.” Lula’s embraced open-mindedness, encouraging its customers to sit, talk and stay awhile. Students perched at corner tables with laptops, books lined shelves like a library, and cards and board games invited customers to play over coffee or after meals.

“We created so many collisions,” Egan said, explaining that Lula’s was a crossroads for people, communities and ideas. The cozy, thought-provoking space attracted college students, Midwestern hipsters, counter-cultural high school kids, professors and professionals.

“Somebody said, ‘That’s one great thing about Lula’s: you can be next to a nuclear physicist, two high school kids on a date, and two grandmas playing Scrabble,” Egan recalled.

Egan attributed Lula’s success to its customers and staff, the good food and drink, the community and cultural events it hosted, and its general “vibe.” He said customers who recently moved to South Bend were told, “the first place you need to go is Lula’s. That’s where you need to start connecting to people.”

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 2008, I struggled to find a place that felt just “right.” As a quiet freshman uprooted from my New York City suburb, I needed more than Notre Dame football and tight-knit dorm life to feel at home. I often complained to my family that I hadn’t found a community of writers on campus. In fact, I hadn’t found any arts community at all.

One day I heard about a poetry reading at Lula’s Café, which was close enough to campus to walk. I fell in love at first sight. The relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff and delicious food welcomed me right away. Lula’s became a refuge when campus was overwhelming or when I just needed to think.

And Lula’s had been that safe haven, that escape, that home away from home for many.

Matt Storin, a former Boston Globe editor who worked and taught at Notre Dame, said Lula’s helped compensate for South Bend’s inadequacies as a college town. “I was originally attracted to Lula’s because it reminded me of what a college-town coffee house or restaurant should look like,” he said. “Being from the East Coast, I felt that it had a kind of Cambridge-like feel.”

Lula’s last call

Egan said closing time was bittersweet, but he felt an outpouring of support as Lula’s history at Edison Plaza came to an end.

“The last day was a tremendous day,” he said. “Both Tuesday and Wednesday were two of the best days we ever had. I gathered the staff at about nine, and in true Lula’s fashion there were customers and friends of staff just hanging around. We all went around and talked about what Lula’s means to us and the community.”

Lula’s final day of operation was Wednesday, November 24, 2010. It closed for good on Thanksgiving Day. Lula’s staff spent the next few days taking the restaurant apart, and by November 30, all that was left at 1631 Edison was an 8×11 inch sign on the door.

Another café followed but didn’t stay long, and the space once filled with Lula’s is still vacant.

Metropolitan Diary: A Silhouette in the Rain

LIFE, NYC, PUBLISHED WORK

Exciting news- a story and photo of mine, about a fleeting moment I experienced in New York City one night, were published today on the NYTimes.com Metropolitan Diary page! (Check out the article here or click the image above.)

The Metropolitan Diary has existed for over 30 years as a place for New Yorkers to share odd or inspiring moments. Recently, the collective diary has taken to the online sphere, and one entry is published each weekday on The Times’ website. For those still in favor of the printed word, some entries appear in the newspaper on Mondays.

In the old days, according to the site, the Diary mailbag weighed 20 pounds, and published contributors were rewarded with a champagne delivery.

While storytellers no longer receive champagne, “today’s reward is a bylined entry into New York’s story canon, an ingredient of ‘this elegant cocktail of the city.'”

I’ll take that.

Irish Boys of Brooklyn: New Year’s Eve 1973

CREATIVE WRITING, NOTRE DAME, PUBLISHED WORK

Author’s Note: This article was first published in Notre Dame Magazine at magazine.nd.edu.

***

Some would say bartenders John Pelan and Harold Kelly had the best spot in the house that New Year’s Eve.

All night, off in an alcove behind their simple makeshift bar, Pelan and Kelly poured foaming pitchers of Budweiser and stirred up the occasional whiskey and ginger ale. A radio in the corner spouted updates from the Notre Dame-Alabama national championship game.

Beyond the alcove, men in suits with skinny ties and women with beehive hairstyles danced the waltz and fox trot to a live band.

It was the final night of 1973. About 200 gathered in the auditorium of Notre Dame Parish in New Hyde Park, Long Island, for the annual New Year’s Eve dance. Among the revelers were my grandfather, Patrick Coyne, and my grandmother, Dorothy.

Friends crowded around tables for 10; plastic cups quickly emptied. Men were making regular jaunts back to that little alcove to refill pitchers for their group.

Regular jaunts, of course, to the radio at the bar.

“Wives would be wondering, ‘What’s taking the hubby so long to get a pitcher of beer?’” my grandfather said. “But it was kind of exciting times, and you couldn’t walk away.”

As the time till midnight grew shorter, the beer runs grew longer. Every man wanted an excuse to slip into the little alcove and catch the latest on the game. And as the game moved into the fourth quarter, they lingered longer, crowding around that radio the way they might crowd around a campfire.

“Then it went down to 24-23 [Notre Dame], and Alabama had the ball now with only like a minute and 48 seconds left,” Papa said. “But that could take a lifetime to play.”

Within the parish, alliances to Our Lady’s university ran deep. Most members were first-generation Irish-Americans who had grown up together in immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens.

The majority had not gone to college. Those who did went on the G.I. Bill. To my grandfather’s knowledge, none had gone to Notre Dame.

But since childhood they had idolized the Irish.


Patrick Coyne, an Irish fan for 70 years, on Notre Dame’s campus for the 2008 game against StanfordPatrick Coyne, an Irish fan for 70 years, on Notre Dame’s campus for the 2008 game against Stanford

My grandfather was raised in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, in the 1930s and ’40s, an area teeming with poor Irish, Italian and German immigrants, called the “Ninth Ward” by Brooklynites. His father, a longshoreman, worked hard but sometimes drank even harder.

Despite the crowded apartment, tattered clothes and meager, unstable income, Papa looks back at those years fondly.

Children in the tenement had few possessions but vast, sprawling imaginations. For the tenement kids, the streets, the parks, the abandoned lots and the stoops were their kingdom.

Papa remembers waiting on the street corner for the 8 p.m. “bulldog edition” of the Daily News — only 2 cents then — to arrive. He’d flip to the sports section to read about the “Fighting Irish,” the only college football team he and his buddies took interest in.

On Saturdays, Papa and his friends might head to the theater to see a double feature for 25 cents. A newsreel of current events always played between the two films.

“The [newsreel] would have a less-than-a-minute snippet of the Notre Dame game,” Papa said. “That’s all we waited for, that was the whole thing for us.”

The boys took their love for the Irish out of the theaters and into the streets. But since the movies were in black and white, kids from Papa’s neighborhood never knew what colors Notre Dame really wore.

“When we played organized football we’d call ourselves the ‘Fighting Irish’ and we’d get green and gold uniforms,” Papa said. “When they’d line up behind the center, our quarterback, Marty Dougherty, would say something like ‘down big green and gold!’ Meanwhile, we were these scrawny-looking skinny Irish kids.”

Papa and his friends were just a few of Notre Dame’s poor but passionate “sidewalk alumni.”
Sports journalist Jimmy Cannon also grew up in an immigrant neighborhood of New York City. In a 1967 column for the Daily News, he writes about the pride that bonded the Irish slums of New York to an affluent university over 700 miles away.

Like movie stars, Cannon says, Notre Dame players were revered from afar.

“Football was important. But Notre Dame was a cherished symbol,” he writes. “In our neighborhood, where a good education meant graduating from grammar school, the Notre Dame football players were the perfection of our kind.”

“On our mean streets, no band played and a pennant never waved when Notre Dame won,” Cannon writes. “But we were as much a part of that distant university on the prairie as though we had a diploma to prove it.”

As a child, my grandfather barely crossed the boundaries of New York City. So for all he and his buddies knew, South Bend, Indiana, could have been a landlocked Emerald Isle.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s remoteness made it even more captivating.


As the boys of Brooklyn built their careers and rose into the middle class, they moved east into modest homes on Long Island but have remained close friends for over 70 years.

Hugh Mullin, one of those friends, broke the good news about the championship outcome that New Year’s Eve of 1973. He had disappeared back with John Pelan and Harold Kelly — much to his wife Mary’s chagrin — and wasn’t seen again until around 11 p.m.

“Hughie came running back, yelling, ‘They won, they won, they won, they beat Alabama!’” my grandfather said. “He was jumping up and down, and then everybody was jumping up and down.”

Even the previously irritated wives joined in on the excitement. The band played The Victory March.

“The revelers went crazy with joy,” Papa said. “The real party had begun in earnest.”

When 1974 arrived at midnight, the bittersweet words of “Auld Lang Syne” soared through the auditorium and couples swayed in beer-fogged bliss.

“But needless to say, the ringing in of the New Year was a bit anticlimactic,” Papa said. “By the time 12 o’clock rolled around, we had already done all our [real] celebrating.”

Thirty-nine years will have passed when Notre Dame faces Alabama again in another high-profile matchup for the national title. Since then, Papa has had a son and a granddaughter graduate from Notre Dame. He has visited campus countless times with his buddies from Brooklyn, watched it blossom beyond the original quads. He’s discovered South Bend is a second home for the Irish but no replica of the Emerald Isle.

For my grandfather, he certainly won’t be in a church gymnasium this time around with the Crimson Tide.

“Before, I could go to the dance,” he said, laughing at the absurdity of listening to the game on a bar radio. “Now, I couldn’t go to a dance. No way.”

ND Magazine: The Light of Loneliness

CREATIVE WRITING, LIFE, OPINION, PUBLISHED WORK, TECHNOLOGY

Author’s Note: this article was first published in Notre Dame Magazine at magazine.nd.edu

***

The Light of Loneliness

BY SARA FELSENSTEIN ’12

PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER 14, 2012 POSTED IN: ALUMNI BLOGS

It’s 2 a.m. and for whatever reason you’re lonely.

Maybe family issues have escalated, or the guy you like barely waved at the bar, or you’ve been holed up at work alone for the last three days. But right now you need the quickest distraction you can find, a barrier from your thoughts.

You grab your laptop from its resting place on the bed. It had been humming, sleeping quietly at your feet. You open it, and for a moment feel relief as you prop it up on a pillow and your fingers resume their familiar places on the keyboard. You begin typing “facebook.com” except all you really need to type is “f” and the site loads instantly.

No real notifications, other than a mass invitation to a concert in Chicago you can’t go to. And a slew of notifications from a picture you now wish you hadn’t commented on.

False hope.

Your newsfeed offers unlimited stories and photos, a colorful digital collage so bright it strains your eyes. As you trudge through this wealth of stimulation, other people’s lives become a distraction from your own. But watching as friends post Instagram-filtered pictures of pomegranate mojitos isn’t helping the lonesomeness.

It’s not helping at all.

But you keep staring. That computer backlight — steady, sterile — at this time of night is like the light of loneliness. It reminds you that at any moment in time you could be connected to anyone but at this very moment you’re alone. The light serves no purpose other than to illuminate the infinitely more fabulous lives of others.

What are you looking for? Not what you’re finding. You scroll and scroll. You’re looking for validation, but of what sort you don’t know.

It’s 3 a.m. now. The laptop heats up and the fan starts going, puncturing the silence. Nothing exciting is on Facebook anymore but you keep “watching” it, blankly, blindly, your fingers dragging languidly down the touchpad.

You close the laptop, shove it away. You’re done. Time to sleep, but you’re less tired than ever. The bright computer backlight is gone but now the small light on the side of your Macbook pulses in the darkness. You cover it with a pillow and everything is dark.

You push off the pillow.

You open the laptop.

You click click click click. This isn’t like watching TV before bed, when sounds eventually turn rhythmic and distant, luring you to sleep. No, the computer keeps you constantly engaged, and the only way to sleep is to close it.

You’re not the only one. Other people peruse Facebook late at night, circling like hawks on friends’ walls, revisiting friendship pages with exes, desiring nothing but distraction from whatever they’re thinking about. But Facebook is so overwhelmingly positive, select moments from the best of times, it’s much too easy to forget that.

It’s too easy to forget that a few nights ago, others may have enviously come across your own photos from an evening out in the city, feeling the same feelings you’re feeling right now.

Tonight, though, you’re on the other side of the virtual wall.

Your last resort is to log onto Facebook chat. Late-night chats tend to be unfulfilling, and the people available at those times are never the ones you want to chat with, but a small bead of hope rises in your chest. But the only “friends” you even recognize are your fifth cousin and some people you barely knew in high school who “friended” you three years into college.

Who would be up at 3:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, anyway?

You close the laptop, tenderly this time, like you’re caring for a child.

But now it’s just you and your thoughts. And that light of loneliness — persistent, gnawing, refusing to subside until you slip into sleep. For all you know it will vanish by morning, but it’s so potent right now.

The light on the side of your MacBook keeps pulsing, ominously. Like someone sleeping beside you. Like millions sleeping beside you. It’s a very small light, just a heartbeat, and it hardly breaks the darkness.

You click Apple, Sleep and pray that you can too.

ND Magazine: Looking out, looking over

FOOD & DRINK, LIFE, NOTRE DAME, NYC, OPINION, PUBLISHED WORK

Author’s Note: this article was first published in Notre Dame Magazine at magazine.nd.edu.
***

Looking out, looking over

BY SARA FELSENSTEIN ’12

After work one night in September I met up with a friend from Notre Dame, Meg, for drinks at a rooftop bar in New York City. We’d been talking about doing this for a while, getting to a rooftop bar before things got too busy and the summer passed right by. After consulting timeout.com and conversing via Facebook we chose The Press Lounge, located on the West Side and overlooking the Hudson River.

It was something to look forward to, something to break up the monotony of the week. And in a way, going to a nice bar like this after work on a weekday feels like a young-professional-in-New-York-City rite of passage.

We arrived around seven, ordered glasses of Pinot Grigio and took a prime spot facing the city to watch the sun set while we caught up on our new lives. We talked about how beautiful the city looked from this angle and how we hoped to never become one of those jaded New Yorkers who goes about life in such an irritated rush that the place loses its awe-inspiring quality.

Meg and I graduated from Notre Dame the same year and both grew up in New York City suburbs. We talked about college, of course, but it was strange how removed we felt from it after only three months as young alumni.

We realized there is a clear disjointedness to those two lives, college life in the Midwest and home life outside of New York City.

Those two lives don’t seamlessly meld into one another, but rather seem to be self-enclosed bubbles of months or years, sharing adjacent positions on the timelines of our recent pasts.

It’s odd too thinking that during those undergrad years, college was everything. Total immersion in papers, practices, clubs and parties meant I’d sometimes lose track of major news events, even family updates — as if all that mattered was Notre Dame.

Despite semesters in different countries, summers in various cities or breaks at home, as soon as we were back on campus and thrust into the regular workload, those other experiences faded.

It was like we had never left.

Then, all through senior year, our impending graduation was this distant siren growing louder by the month, but never quite loud enough to demand serious acknowledgement. Even weeks before graduation, some of us were still in denial it would happen.

If we remained firmly grounded in this place, in everything Notre Dame, how could we suddenly end up on the other side?

Of course, after summer break ends and students move back in — that’s when the reality of graduation really sets in.

I think that’s what Meg and I realized that September night at the rooftop bar, surrounded by dresses and suits and foreign accents, wondering how much this vibrant place surrounding us was actually our place. Letting go of the feeling that this could be any other summer we worked in the city, that our professional lives were just practice for later and we could still be going back and accepting that four years of college is actually a relatively small amount of time.

It’s hard to keep that perspective as a student, to really feel how short four years are.

Until they’ve passed.

So yes, college was dearly, dearly missed. But we were also thrilled with being in New York and completely in awe of the sights in front of us. We couldn’t stay out until 4 a.m., but there were no tests, papers or job applications in our immediate future.

We were “done for the day,” a brand new concept.

One that we very much liked.

ND Magazine: The Subscription Dilemma

NOTRE DAME, NYC, OPINION, PUBLISHED WORK, TECHNOLOGY

The approach of another new year begs the question: is it time to give up our print subscriptions? Check out my first blog post for Notre Dame Magazine below!

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The Subscription Dilemma

BY SARA FELSENSTEIN ’12

PUBLISHED: OCTOBER 18, 2012 POSTED IN: ALUMNI BLOGSSCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY, AND SOCIETY & CULTURE Bookmark and Share

I remember one morning as a 10-year-old I was up early, reading a book by the living room window. A black car slowed before our house, the window rolled down and a package was thrust onto our driveway. I paused for a moment before running outside to retrieve the paper, thrilled that I’d actually seen the man who delivers The New York Times. My excitement was a mere step below seeing Santa or the Tooth Fairy. The paper’s magic was still preserved — I didn’t know where exactly they came from — but I was one step closer to solving the mystery.

That was 12 years ago. Twelve years ago, we had barely purchased our first bulky Dell, much less consider taking the morning news from a backlit screen. Twelve years ago, we still had dial-up Internet, woefully barren email inboxes and asked Jeeves instead of Googling.

A lot has changed in 12 years. That’s why my mom recently sat my dad down at the kitchen table to bring up a two-word, volatile phrase in my household: digital subscription.

“Bruce,” she said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we get a digital subscription to The Times?

I knew where this conversation would end even before it started. My dad shook his head and sighed.

“Sally, please. We’ve talked about this. It’s really not that much cheaper. We’re just not getting one.”

My mom protested, laying down her arguments. That we read the news on the NYTimes.com each day, pretty much only reading the physical paper on car trips. That it’s a heck of a lot of recycling and wasted paper for a low percentage of use. That the most functional purpose of the paper at this point is not the paper itself but the blue plastic bag it arrives in, which we collect and use for doggie waste receptacles.

“It’s an unnecessary expense,” my mom argued.

“We’re keeping the subscription,” my dad said, and that was that.

While it wasn’t my place to weigh in on this discussion, partly because I’m not paying for the subscription but mostly because I read news online 95 percent of the time, I was privately relieved at my dad’s decision.

As a member of the digital age, I spend most of my day working and socializing in the online sphere. But with The Times, I wasn’t ready to go digital. Somehow, making my life both wireless and paperless feels less like moving forward and more like giving in.

I tried to determine why I am so attached to print newspapers when reading news online is more convenient for my lifestyle. I guess I’m nostalgic for “old times,” remembering the excitement I felt as a kid when “I read an article Mom!” or picked up the morning paper and the ink was still wet. Even at a young age, I had a basic understanding of what amazes me today — that all of these stories were compiled, researched, written, packaged and delivered — in the span of one day.

That sense of a day’s entirety is lost on the homepage of a website. The NYTimes.com constantly updates and changes its top stories throughout the day. I rarely do it, but I want the possibility of reading from cover to cover, the satisfaction of tackling the news without the nagging feeling that some bold headline appeared just as I looked away.

The scope of The Times website is infinite — between all of the articles, archives, photo galleries, timelines and podcasts, I can never read enough, be on top of the news enough. Sometimes, this wealth of information and visual stimulation is exactly what I’m looking for. But I do find myself flitting from headline to headline and am much more committed to a story when I read it in print.

Those are my reasons for being conflicted. Of course, my dad has his own.

With the click of “submit,” so goes another year, another print subscription. Yes, we’re essentially buying the paper for the off-chance that we go on a car trip, that we want to read in bed, that the Internet goes out, but for now, that’s good enough.

I’ve decided The New York Times and the NYTimes.com are not interchangeable.


This article was published first in Notre Dame Magazine.  

Praying for headlights

LIFE, OPINION, PUBLISHED WORK

–Published 4/16/12 in The Observer.

“Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show is one of those songs college students love.

The moment that distinctive introduction blares from the speakers, arms link, glasses clink and the room erupts in cheering.

In true spring break road trip style, “Wagon Wheel” played multiple times on our drive from South Bend down to South Carolina a few weeks ago.

The first time it came on, I was behind the wheel and we had just crossed the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. We had all been silent for awhile, enjoying the green and gold scenery that unfolded before us. The open road softly rose and fell as we sped at 80 miles per hour south down I-75.

The lyrics of “Wagon Wheel” filled the empty space between us, representing all the things we were thinking, but hadn’t said.

In my head, I tried to define what the song is about. On one level, the song is about freedom — having the freedom to pursue what matters most. It’s about remembering the people and places you care about after being away for a long time.

As a senior in college, this aspect of the song seems especially relevant. I’ve spent months abroad and summers away in different cities. In four years, my younger siblings have grown up, and people in my childhood neighborhood have moved out. Like the narrator, I’ve gone away to mature, and will return both different and the same.

“Wagon Wheel” is also about the beauty of simplicity — that life can be reduced to a single person, a single car and a single desire. You don’t need to know the song to relate to it — the music reflects some reality about the future we all can find truth in.

On our way back to South Bend after spring break, “Wagon Wheel” came on again while I was driving. This time, it was about 10 p.m., dark and raining, and the song had a much more sobering effect.

I realized then that the song is bittersweet, even sad. Loneliness and regret infuse the lyrics because the past still weighs him down. It’s possible that after all those years of longing, after seventeen-straight hours of driving, his vision for a new life could be shattered.

At its core, however, “Wagon Wheel” is about faith. It’s about having faith that the one you love will still be there when you come home, about having faith that you can drive straight into the unknown and everything will end up okay.

With May 20 quickly approaching, I feel like I’m speeding at 80 miles per hour towards graduation, and after that, the unknown. But before then, I hope to share a few more swaying “Wagon Wheels” at Finny’s, indulging in one of those rare moments when we all feel exactly the same thing.