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.

 

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Caffeine Culture

COFFEE, FOOD & DRINK, NOTRE DAME, OPINION, PHOTOGRAPHY, PUBLISHED WORK

Published in The Observer

If you’re anything like my friends and me, Starbucks downs your flex points just about as fast as you down its tall vanilla lattes.

I don’t even drink coffee just to stay awake. There are so many other great reasons to grab a cup: to fill an awkward break between classes, to catch up with friends, to procrastinate studying and to keep warm when the temperature goes subzero.

We live in a caffeine culture, and the ridiculously long coffee lines between classes prove that. You can even tell a lot about a person based on their caffeine preference.

We have the Waddicks types, who linger at the coveted red booths, reading Chaucer or discussing philosophy, slowly sipping large pumpkin spice coffees.

You know someone’s got a long day when their tumbler is filled to the brim with Grab and Go coffee and secured in the net pocket of a protruding backpack.

And then there are those who are perpetually holding Starbucks — never straight coffee but always with an excess of adjectives like nonfat, extra whip, unsweetened, light ice and no foam.

I may be stereotyping, but at Notre Dame getting coffee is a more social thing for girls than for guys. You are much more likely to see four PW girls in LaFun gossiping over coffee, than to see four Siegfried guys crowded around a Burger King table, chatting and sipping their nonfat lattes.

On the other hand, unlike guys, girls don’t typically purchase energy drinks to have fun with their friends. Let’s take the case of Five-Hour Energy shots. Girls never brag about taking them. In fact, most girls will down them in the privacy of a Subway booth or in their own rooms. But when guys pop open that small bottle, they have to broadcast it to whoever they pass by. It’s always like, “Dude, I’m so ridiculously awake now, I just took a Five-Hour Energy. Love that stuff.”

Addiction? Possibly. Problem? Not really.

But the Five-Hour Energy shot poured into the coffee? Yes, I’ve seen it done. Now that’s a problem.

At Notre Dame, we like to think that while we “play hard” on the weekends, during the weekdays we are studious, diligent and in control. However, our coffee drinking habits are oddly reminiscent of our weekend drinking habits. Why else would we order a double shot of espresso on a Monday morning, or claim that “one more cup” of coffee won’t hurt us? Why else would we suffer through headaches at 11 a.m., just because we didn’t have that morning cup?

Whether you’re a social coffee drinker, a caffeine addict, or, gasp, you “don’t like coffee,” there’s no denying that we live in a caffeine culture.

Of course, there are those out there who claim to survive without any caffeine at all. On good, old-fashioned sleep, they say. I still think there has got to be some method to that madness, but for now, more power to them.

What I Don’t Know

NOTRE DAME, OPINION, PUBLISHED WORK

Published in The Observer

Last week, a friend told me light roast coffee has more caffeine than dark roast.

“Um, that can’t be true,” I said as I frantically turned to Google to verify my preconceived understanding of the beverage. It’s a Wikipedia-confirmed fact, however, that caffeine content is actually burned off during the roasting process. In most cases, the darkest roasts are the least stimulating.

I tried to justify why I’d assumed the opposite, but came to no conclusions. Everything I thought I “knew” about coffee was shaken. I was a victim of the placebo effect.

This incident got me thinking about all the things I “know” and “don’t know.” About the many things I have always assumed to be “true,” without ever consciously arriving at their truth.

In a college environment like Notre Dame, we’re constantly revising, molding and adding to our perspectives on truth. The process is both exciting and uncomfortable. It reminds us of how little we know.

In an introductory history class my sophomore year, I assumed the entire semester a girl I had befriended was a freshman, simply because almost everyone was. On the second to last class day, she arrived wearing an engagement ring and brought up her plans to get married after graduation.

She was a senior? And getting married? I couldn’t believe it.

My views on her were turned entirely upside down. I realized she had knowledge I didn’t have — about relationships, Notre Dame and life in general. I didn’t know how to relate to her because I was no longer the older one.

I felt ridiculous for making that assumption, because while other characteristics might have led me to realize her age, the fact that she was in a freshman class overruled them all. First impressions do matter — I had closed my mind off to revisions after that first class day.

As a senior English major, I’ve realized the liberal arts education is as much about changing one’s way of thinking as it as about studying texts. The liberal arts education forces students to be cautious about making assumptions.

Every point must be supported, every thought defended. Reasoning and critical thinking are essential. These skills are applicable not only in the job world but in everyday life, and I’d argue that’s what makes a liberal arts education so strong.

Over my four years, I’ve gained a wide range of knowledge, some of which I’ve retained and some which is stored in some locked part of my memory.

But my English major education has also encouraged me to be comfortable with the unknown.

It’s a terrifying thought that in a few months, I’ll be leaving a place of comfort, a place that was home for four years. But it’s also it’s thrilling. There are so many things I don’t know.

Facebook breaks wall between digital, real life

NEWS, NOTRE DAME, PUBLISHED WORK, TECHNOLOGY

Published in The Observer

Take a photo. Photoshop. Upload to Facebook.

The steps sound simple, but Notre Dame professors said more thought goes into the process than most people realize.

Jessica Collett, assistant professor of sociology, said we are much more “intentional” in our online interactions with others.

“It’s not that we want to put up an image of ourselves that is untrue or inaccurate,” Collett said. “[But people] are going to look for clues about who you are. Because we only have that split second, that first impression … we’re going to choose pieces of information to put up there that we think reflect who we really are.”

As a result, the effects of Facebook can extend far beyond online profiles and into people’s lives and relationships.

She said others will often treat us according to the image of ourselves we present on Facebook. In turn, we act according to how we are treated.

“If we have a preconceived notion about somebody, then we’ll interpret any kind of information in ways that support that [notion],” she said.

Collett said Facebook also prompts us to define and categorize ourselves based on our interests.

“Facebook is really about us putting forth our identities,” she said. “That when we say that we like a particular [TV] show, we’re not just trying to say that ‘This is what I watch,’ we’re saying something about … the kind of person we are.”

Susan Blum, a professor of anthropology who has studied the effects of new media on the “self” for the past decade, said Facebook can function to prove or validate occurrences in our lives.

“People are very aware of the way they’re being seen,” she said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, wait until I post this on Facebook.’ So as they’re acting, they’re simultaneously conscious of the fact that their real-life action will become almost ‘realer’ when it’s posted.”

Dangers to identity

Blum said one of the potential downsides to using Facebook, or any similar social media site, is that it causes people to perform an exaggerated identity that may or may not be real.

“I think there’s plenty of motivation to do that in our lives anyway, and so Facebook increases that tendency,” she said.

Collett said these exaggerations of identity can trigger anxiety as relationships transition from the digital world to the real world.

“Sometimes you can believe that what you’re presenting isn’t accurate … maybe you choose your most flattering picture, and then you meet people who maybe you haven’t even met in person yet, and then there’s just this stress [of] living up to expectations,” she said.

Facebook use also becomes risky, Collett said, when digital identities are too calculated.

“I think it can be dangerous … if people get too caught up in the way that they’re presenting themselves, and don’t have a space where they feel like they can be their authentic selves,” she said.

Blum said she questions whether online interaction makes face-to-face interaction even more “scary” than it already is.

“Facebook, you can control because you do it at your own pace. You can almost post something, and change your mind,” she said. “In speaking, there’s all this sort of uncontrollable stuff that happens, which is why human speech is so powerful.”

But Blum said interactions on social networking sites can actually augment real life interactions.

“There’s been what sociologists call ‘moral panic’ about social media, [concern about] the fact that people are more comfortable interacting digitally than they are face to face,” she said. “But there was a recent study from the Pew [Research] Center [that shows] the more active people are in social media, the more real life interactions they have as well.”

Public sphere

Anita Kelly, a professor of psychology who has researched the effects of public versus private self-representation, said what we choose to say publicly has a much greater impact on our identity than what we say privately.

She said the public nature of Facebook is what makes it so influential.

“To the extent that Facebook is more public, it has great potential to help or harm that identity,” she said. “Once you think others have this view of yourself, you feel you have to behave in a way that [confirms] those views.”

Collett said that on Facebook, we must live up to a multitude of identities because different “types” of friends see us in different ways.

“You have this clash of worlds … and it can incite drama,” Collett said. “So, it’s not just your Notre Dame friends, but it’s your high school friends … and it’s your friends from back home and it’s your grandmother and your aunt.”

The question is, who will see that wall post or status update?

Blum said college students usually think of their intended audience as their peers despite having a wide range of Facebook friends.

“You’re creating a persona, as we do all the time in our real life, but you have time to create it and you’re aware of all the eyes that will be seeing it,” Blum said. “Although if you have 1,000 friends, that’s a lot of eyes.”

Kelly said people should be more aware of just how much Facebook profiles impact the way others view us.

“People should be more careful,” Kelly said. “There’s a mentality of ‘it doesn’t matter what people think,’ but no one [really] believes that,” she said.

She said negative images posted on Facebook can be forgotten, but not if they are vivid.

“People remember things that are prototypes of a broader category, [for example] dancing on a tabletop without clothes, that fits the prototype of wildness,” she said. “It’s hard to undo that.”

Past, present and future 

Blum said the extent of the cyber footprint we leave on Facebook is striking.

“There’s a sort of a digital self that’s out there, and even though Facebook only started seven or eight years ago, it’s going to predate itself [for example] by finding our baby pictures that people have posted, so pretty soon our whole life and biography will be digitally mapped,” she said.

She said psychologists and sociologists have conducted extensive research on the way Facebook affects identity, but the enormous amount of data Facebook houses is used in other settings as well.

“It’s an interesting idea that there is all this data out there … which is somewhat terrifying,” Blum said. “And Facebook, like Google, can analyze it and organize it with no volition on our part, no intention on our part.”

Collett said the new Facebook Timeline profile, which offers users the opportunity to sort and highlight life events chronologically, also makes it easier for users to look back on the past.

And sometimes, looking back on the past lies outside our comfort zones.

“We like to be selective about what it is that we remember, in the same way that we like to be selective about what it is we put forth [on Facebook],” Collett said. “I do think the Timeline is about people suddenly feeling, ‘Oh my goodness, am I defined by this page?'”

But regardless of how Facebook is formatted, Collett said the site still reflects our identity in much the same way.

“[People] are reacting against the fact that [Timeline] feels like it’s defining your life for you, but ultimately actually that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time,” she said. “I would argue that for a long time Facebook has been representing who we are, as far as our identities go.”