Coffee and Our Culture

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coffeeThe other day, I happened to notice a book on a library shelf that was about Starbucks and what it says about our culture. I didn’t have time to look at the book much, but I got the impression that the book was mostly concerned with the topics of economics and business. It looked like it discussed aspects of consumerism and marketing from the perspective of one ubiquitous company and then explained that the experiences of that business are representative of the way our economy works, on the level of individual consumers and individual products. If my impression of the book’s subject matter and tone was correct, it probably discussed the value of coffee only in terms of supply and demand, and not in terms of what coffee means to people in a more abstract and personal way. It got me thinking about what the coffee industry says about our culture if you leave the economic and commercial details out of the equation.

When I was little, I mostly associated coffee with my father, because he was the only one in the household who drank it. I remember a few occasions when he let me take a sip, and I thought it tasted pretty disgusting. My mother drank a hot beverage made from a mix that was something like hot chocolate and something like instant coffee. She called it coffee, but it was clearly a very different type of concoction from the bitter-smelling black coffee that my father made in his coffeepot. Although I don’t specifically remember it, I’m sure I also saw people drinking coffee before church on Sundays and at other church events. I do remember one time when I had a rather disturbing dream in which a member of the congregation randomly turned into a giant mug of coffee.

Before I drank coffee myself, my connotations were very different from prevalent cultural images of coffee. My father would drink coffee while sitting at the dining room table, or he would have it in his hand as he left the house in the morning. I’m not sure if I was aware that there were such things as coffee shops, that some people liked to go drink coffee from paper cups in public places that had a specific ambiance revolving around the personality and attributes of coffee. That idea would have puzzled me. I also don’t think I knew when I was little that coffee is characteristically high in caffeine and that the acquisition of the caffeine is the primary reason for drinking coffee. All of the things that people say half-jokingly about the necessity of coffee were lost on me when I was little.

Remember that time when a flying squirrel got in my dorm room and I got a picture of it on the coffee machine? Ah, good times.

Remember that time when a flying squirrel got in my dorm room and I got a picture of it on the coffee machine? Ah, good times.

I myself started drinking coffee in my sophomore of college. At first, it was a strategy for coping with a busy schedule on Wednesdays, but as it turned out, I really loved coffee. Back when I only drank one cup of coffee a week, that was one of the highlights of my week, and it didn’t take long before I increased my coffee consumption, first to twice a week, then to three times, and then to every day. Now, I drink a cup of coffee every morning and often will have a second cup later in the day, especially on evenings when I have class. I’m actually starting to get to the point where I don’t like it anymore; I just keep on drinking it for the caffeine. My brain runs on caffeine. You could say that I’m addicted to coffee, but you could say that about a significant portion of the population of this culture. Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on coffee.

As far as I can tell, there are three prevalent reputations that coffee has. One is that it is helpful in getting people going, especially in the morning, and that it is therefore an essential element of the lifestyle and daily routine of busy people, lazy people, and people who are really not morning people. A second reputation associates coffee with relaxation, peacefulness, and intellectualism, as can be seen in the coffee shop trend associated with people who are both nerds and hipsters. Thirdly, coffee has a reputation as being a dangerous habit; it’s just one more unhealthy chemical that we dumb stereotypical Americans put in our bodies without putting any thought into the impact it can have on us. (Alternatively, many studies, including some reliable ones, show that coffee does in fact have significant health benefits, which can be used to back up both of the first two reputations.)

The first of those three reputations is the one that I relate to most, and the one that I hear people talk about most. Very few people drink coffee because of the flavor; we drink it because it makes us alert. Twenty-first century Americans need help being alert because we live an exhausting lifestyle. For one thing, hardly anyone actually gets eight hours of sleep every night. Why go to bed when we can just turn on the conveniently electrical light, and there are so many things that we can do with that extra time? But besides that, we spend a lot of time staring at computer screens, which actually tires people out just as quickly (although for the opposite reason) as physical labor. Our not-so-distant ancestors who worked in the fields or built railroads had a better excuse to be tired than we do, but we are subject to fatigue anyway. Our culture also has an obsession with speed and instant gratification, which means that most jobs (as well as non-job-related tasks) are fast-paced, and that makes us collectively stressed. I think that some people exaggerate the effects of this, but it’s definitely true to some extent. (Just don’t go complaining to those aforementioned ancestors, because we sure have things easier than they did in most respects.) Even without taking into consideration the fact that caffeine is addictive, we need caffeine in order to live our exhausting lifestyle.

It's like yoga except without the part about getting out of your chair

It’s like yoga except without the part about getting out of your chair

Among people of my age and somewhat younger, the second of those three aforementioned perceptions seems to be the most prevalent and the one that contributes most to the popularity of coffee. At least among consumers in their late teens or early twenties, coffee is supposed to be associated with calmness and comfort, like the leisure of having free time and using it to read a good book, or the sensation of being safe and cozy inside on a rainy day, or the sound of James Earl Jones’ voice reading John 1 played over Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas Lullaby. People, especially in a relatively safe and affluent culture, have a craving for comfortableness, a calm and easy lifestyle, and the illusion of security that comes from placing those connotations onto something as simple and easily achievable as coffee. Of course, that falls apart when people get snobbish about their favorite brand of coffee, especially when their brand of coffee is expensive and rare. Oh self-entitled coffee-obsessed hipsters, we’re just trying to appreciate and be satisfied with the simple joys of life, so don’t try to tell us that your simple joys are better than our simple joys.

Incidentally, when you think about it, it’s kind of silly to associate coffee with calmness and relaxation, since that is the opposite of what caffeine does to our bodies. Both of coffee’s other two reputations, that of a benevolent deliverer of caffeine and that of a harmful chemical, are much more self-explanatory and accurate. It is true, though that, coffee is usually served as a warm beverage, and people experience warm beverages as being soothing. Tea and hot chocolate are also warm beverages, with a much lesser amount of caffeine, but I guess we prefer coffee as our go-to comfort drink because it’s something that so many of us drink on a daily basis anyway.

coffee machineSo what does our relationship with coffee say about our culture? It says that we live busy and tiring lifestyles, hence the need for so much caffeine. It says that we feel an emotional need to be comfortable in our everyday lives. But I think that mostly, it says that, as a collective group, we’re kind of obsessive when we decide that we like something.

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On Autumn and Hipsters

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AutumnYesterday was the official first day of autumn. The new season arrived at 3:44 in the afternoon, because that’s the precise minute when the equinox occurred. Of course, from most people’s points of view, the weather and social traditions are what really determine when the seasonal transitions occur. Depending upon how you look at it, you may think that autumn started over Labor Day weekend, or on the day that you saw a yellow leaf for the first time this year, or on the first day of school, or on an arbitrary day when you suddenly noticed that it’s getting a lot cooler. I personally don’t have a particular day in mind for when it started being autumn, but I definitely already considered it to be autumn long before yesterday afternoon.

I don’t really have a favorite season of the year, because there are things I especially like about all of them. (I specify that I’m talking about seasons of the year because the word “season” can also refer to “seasons of Doctor Who,” which is what I normally mean when I use that word.) In general, my favorite times of year are the beginnings of each season. And according to that general rule, now is one of the best parts of the year. I am kind of excited to be wearing sweaters, igniting autumnal-scented candles, and watching for the leaves to start changing colors.

AutumnBut the sad thing is that it has become cliché to love this time of year. The average hipster’s favorite season is fall. You can tell because they want everyone on the internet to know how excited they are about fall, and they express this excitement by stating it in captions for artsy photographs of their non-store-brand coffee in non-cardboard cups, and almost-full-body shots of people wearing clothes in autumny colors, with the subjects’ faces out of the frame. Meanwhile, many people who don’t share this eagerness about autumn are making fun of the white girl stereotype that includes an obsession with anything related to the fall season. (I have noticed that the white girl stereotype refers specifically to hipster Caucasian females, not just any Caucasian females.)

Here is another autumn picture, even though it doesn't relate to this paragraph.

Here is another autumn picture, even though it doesn’t really relate to this paragraph. It’s the image of a tree reflected on my car.

I would like to point out the extreme irony of the hipster trend. It has become a pretty large and prominent subset of popular culture even though it characteristically rejects popular culture. (It is worth noting that the term “hipster” has been around for generations and has meant different things at different times.)The current hipster trend involves an unusual taste in music, dressing according to a personal fashion sense instead of following styles, and a lack of interest in celebrity news and other such plebian interests. Hipsters associate themselves with higher intellectual interests and more refined tastes by virtue of the fact that they choose their interests and preferences themselves instead of following the whims of society as a whole. And as far as that goes, I would consider myself part of that movement. I have always preferred oldies to current hits, and I have always ignored current fashion trends. I fully agree with the stereotypically hipster sentiment that there is nothing more comfortable and safe than a good book and a quiet, private place to read. Never have a felt any need to keep track of what is “in.” The hipster cliché about liking something before it became cool applies to me very much; there are a number of times that I’ve started wearing clothes with a certain design or pattern (peace signs and leopard print, for example) or started using a certain phrase shortly before it suddenly became “mainstream.”  Essentially, I was a hipster before it was cool to be a hipster.

But interestingly enough, hipsters form their own subculture that is about more than just a rejection of pop culture. While the stereotypical hipster traits aren’t necessarily true of every hipster, that label is something that a person generally chooses for him or herself, so you really can’t blame non-hipsters for classifying hipsters as if they share personality traits and a lifestyle as well as their opinion of pop culture. Even though hipsters all dress according to their own personal fashion taste, it seems that most hipsters dress more or less the same. Even though they all decide upon their opinions for themselves, it seems that most hipsters have a similar political agenda and consider themselves to be environmentalist activists. Even though they all pursue their own interests, it seems that most hipsters are into photography, poetry, coffee, and their obscure musical tastes that they share with mutual hipsters. Hipsters are considered to be pretentious and selective, as demonstrated by their tendency to look down on anything or anyone that is mainstream and to disapprove of anyone who doesn’t know offhand the geographical origin of the beans that were used to make their coffee. And, as previously noted, a hipster’s favorite season is fall, which they celebrate by drinking pumpkin-flavored organic coffee and taking artsy autumn-themed pictures and posting them on the internet.

Here is a picture that I took and used as my facebook cover photo for a few weeks last year. Yeah, I did admit that I do have follow some aspects of the hipster trend.

Here is a picture that I took and used as my facebook cover photo for a few weeks last year. I did already admit that I do relate to some aspects of the hipster trend.

Obviously, anyone is free to love autumn, regardless of what it is that they love about autumn. My appreciation of autumn weather and colorful leaves, my affinity for sweaters and for foods that are associated with autumn, and my fond memories of childhood Halloween traditions are no less valid than someone else’s enjoyment of posting pictures of fall-themed outfits on the internet or the pleasure they get from their pumpkin-flavored coffee. I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong either with the enjoyment of those things or with those things themselves. But I do slightly resent that it would be cliché and stereotypical for me to make a remark that I like this time of year.