Reading Fatigue: Pulling Myself out of a Literary Rut

By Erika Nelson

Every month, the Goodreads newsletter pops into my inbox. These emails taunt me by singing the praises of newly-published books: colorful rectangle covers lined up into neat rows by genre; enticing blurbs draw me in. I used to pore over these newsletters and make library holds based on book suggestions, but now emails from Goodreads just evoke guilt.

I love to read. As an English major, I think that goes without saying, but I love to read more than the average person. I’ll read pretty much anything. Fiction and nonfiction. Science texts and sci-fi novels. The latest poignant, “deep” literary triumphs alongside “comfort food” stories from childhood. A few years ago, I consumed the New Yorker cover-to-cover in an evening.  I read a book (or more) every couple weeks. More recently, however, my “to-read” list has grown longer and longer, my Goodreads account sits in stagnant silence, and I rarely read for fun anymore. Why?

College involves a lot of reading, and majoring in English involves even more reading. I read so much for school every day that by the time I have some free moments the last thing I want to do is pick up another book. Instead — and I hate to admit this — most of my spare time is spent glued to my phone. I keep up on news articles and current event pieces online and off … but when it comes to reading for the sake of reading, anything longer than 280 characters doesn’t have much of a chance.

Reading fatigue is fairly common in academic circles. In a recent discussion post on D2L, I asked classmates if they had any ideas to wake up from my word fugue. People commiserate and several expressed the same problem. They had some great ideas for combatting reading fatigue: reading while sipping my morning coffee, having a specific reading space, and reading in bite-sized pieces. From their suggestions, I’ve decided to set myself a New Month’s Resolution: read one non-school book a month for the rest of the year.

I think this is a reasonable goal, if I can manage to tear myself away from my phone more often … this is where self-discipline comes in. However, I’m going to allow myself some grace if I fall behind — after all, life happens, and instructor-assigned reading comes first. I’m excited to get started! Step one: Look over that email from Goodreads.

The Best Beverage: In Praise of Coffee

By Erika Nelson

On any particular day, my morning routine always begins with coffee. It’s a stereotype: the college student who runs on coffee. But in my case, it’s true.  I. Love. Coffee. My morning coffee is the simple indulgence that kicks off my day; a form of self-bribery to hoist my tired body out of bed instead of pressing the snooze button. 

One of the little ways I show affection for my partner is by making coffee. We have an Aeropress, which is like a French Press but FASTER, meaning less time to wait for that caffeine jolt! I add a splash of cream to mine, and we sit and watch the news together before getting on with our respective days. If I’m at my place, I either brew a pot of drip coffee or trot down to Starbucks for the frothy goodness of a Grande Nitro cold brew. On days when I’m having trouble working up the motivation to study, I head to one of my favorite places on campus, Park Avenue Café. A mocha and an almond biscotti while I study? Heaven. 

Enjoying a caffeinated beverage (or two or three) in a place where I can have alone time, yet experience a fair amount of background stimulation while I work, is where I’m most productive. The concept of “productivity” is a double-edged sword that seems to go hand-in-hand with coffee culture: social media is saturated with pictures of espresso next to laptops, attached to hashtags like #onmygrind and #butfirstcoffee. Being busy (and the tasty brown beverage that gets you through the busy-ness) is glorified in our society, and some people criticize “busy culture,” pointing out that it can lead to burnout and feelings of inadequacy. 

I’m no stranger to burnouts and feelings of inadequacy. I’ve had depression and anxiety since I was a kid, and was recently diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 27. My ADHD diagnosis has led to a new perspective on my own habits and productivity. Like others with the same concurrent conditions, I’m in a weird spot: common wisdom for the depressed and anxious is to avoid caffeine to prevent exacerbating symptoms. However, coffee’s mainstay stimulant helps many people with and without executive function disorders sharpen their focus. Many people with ADHD use coffee instead of (or in addition to) prescription ADHD medications for this very purpose. 

I sometimes wonder: is it the caffeine, the taste, or the ritual that makes me love coffee so much? Maybe it’s a combination of all three: caffeine helps me concentrate, coffee is yummy, and a morning cup of Joe signals my brain that it’s time to sit down and get things done. Whatever the reason for my coffee obsession, I don’t see myself switching to decaf anytime soon. 

I could probably stand cutting back to one cup a day, though.

Dorm Pie

By Erika Nelson

As I’ve written before, I live in student housing. Dorms— a word that connotes many things related to “the college experience”— ridiculously tall beds, hallways decorated to reflect the RA’s floor theme, washing machines that only work half the time … and above all, socialization. From bonding over bowls of instant ramen to flashcard quizzes in the common area, you can’t picture dorm life without thinking of social interaction. 

I came to PSU in the fall of 2019 — ignorant of COVID and the pandemic on the horizon, I had one blissful term to experience the social aspect of college and dorm life. Sure, most of the other residents seem to fall into the 18-21 cohort, and at 27 I’m an old lady by comparison, but mixing colors at Paint Nite and making dorm decor at RHA-sponsored events was a great way to chill out and meet fellow Vikings. While waiting on my laundry one night last year, I ran into a couple girls reading Tarot cards. Naturally, I threw my accounting homework to the side so I could get a reading. The cards uncannily reflected a recent breakup and reminded me of my ex (although, to be fair, pretty much everything reminded me of my ex at the time.) I bawled like a baby and the three of us swapped stories about Men Who Did Us Dirty. I don’t remember those girls’ names, and I never ran into them again, but I’ll always appreciate that experience.  

The halls look very different now … no Tarot cards or half-finished puzzles to be seen. Occasionally I’ll bump into another student on the way to their room, or the elevator will stop on another floor and a resident and I will awkwardly stare at each other until the doors close and the elevator continues its trip up or down (one of the new Housing rules: only one person/household in the elevator at a time, to cut down on germ transmission. The elevators didn’t get the memo, so they continue to stop at floors where the button is pressed.) Once in a blue moon, there are freebies left by kind strangers — individually-wrapped hand sanitizing wipes; packets of tea; paper napkins with a note saying “emergency toilet paper :).” I don’t usually partake in these freebies (sanitizing wipes are an exception) because of, ya know, the virus … but it always warms my heart a little when I see them. 

Around Thanksgiving, I found a Dorm Pie. A solitary pumpkin confection left on a communal table, the pie was exposed to the elements without a cover, and there was no note explaining its presence. It was like an unaccompanied child at the airport, and I simultaneously felt mild amusement, pity for the lonely dessert (lockdown has caused me to anthropomorphize everything), and gratitude that someone thought, “I have an extra pie. Someone will want this.” We’re a building of college students, after all — we love free food even when COVID hasn’t made employment scarce — and it’s the season of giving. And I love pumpkin pie … sure, it may be uncovered and rife with viral particles, I thought, but it’s probably fine! I don’t want it to go to waste, or dry out before someone can find it …

I ended up leaving the pie. Whether someone ate it or threw it away, I’ll never know, but the Dorm Pie will forever live in my memory as a symbol of goodwill during hard times. 

Even though we dorm-dwellers can’t socialize in person, there’s still a sense of community — seeing free stuff someone’s left for their neighbors is a reminder that even in these socially-distant times of Zoom trivia nights and solo elevator rides, residents are still looking out for each other. 

Or maybe they just want to unload excess stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.  But if you’re reading this, kind Pie Donor — you should probably leave the cover on next time. 

Nailing Stress

By Erika Nelson

“I actually used to be a nail tech … not that you can tell.” I force a laugh and brandish my bitten stubs. I admit it — I’m a nail biter. Gross and unattractive in the best of times, it’s a literal life-and-death habit in Corona times — a danger to not only myself by introducing new microbes to my system, but to other people as well. Each bite transfers germs from my mouth to what I touch. I don’t bite in public, sanitize regularly and thoroughly scrub my fingers with soap and water before leaving and after returning to my apartment. But when I’m at home, in front of my laptop … I find my fingers floating to my lips.  

I’ve mostly been able to kick this habit. I say “mostly,” because no matter what methods I use to quit, I always come back to the form of tension-relief that borders on self-cannibalistic. If there’s a pervading collective emotion in the world today — it’s stress. Stress from isolation. Stress from economic turmoil and job insecurity. Stress from systemic injustice. Stress from having to “keep calm and carry on” with our regular lives, as if all of this is normal, when things are as abnormal as they’ve ever been. When I spoke with a PSU employee earlier this week, he summed up what I, and a lot of other people, are feeling: “a kind of stress I’ve never known.” We’re all bobbing along with the bumps and dips of the new-case graphs; paddling however we know how while the water continues to rise. 

Stress. So much stress. Meditation apps abound. #selfcare tips feature prominently across social media. The CDC even has a page on ways to deal with stress during the pandemic. I’ve tried pretty much everything I can to translate an unsanitary, destructive coping mechanism to something constructive that involves minimal microbe transfer … but gratitude journals and deep breathing never seem to be as instantly satisfying as shredding the tips of my fingernails with my teeth. 

The only thing that seems to work to curb the compulsive nibbling is engaging in what I used to do for a living — doing nails — but on myself. The process of meticulously applying polish is soothing, and forces me to slow down and exercise hand-eye coordination. Carefully placing polka dots and painting tiny flowers on my nails is just what I need to distract my thoughts — even for a few minutes — from everything else. When I’m done, I can’t bear to chip my painstaking work by biting!

Decorating (and maintaining) my nails has been helpful at chipping (haha) away at stress. Stress always comes back … but in the moments that I’m picking a color, filing, putting brush to nail … stress is on vacation. There are myriad reasons why I decided to ditch being a nail technician to go back to school — that’s a post for another day — but I still adore everything to do with it. There are many ways to de-escalate stress: for some people it’s yoga, video games or screaming into pillows. Some people are taking this time in quarantine to experiment with new hobbies or re-discover old ones. Thank goodness for my stockpile of polishes to get me through another day without mangling my own fingers.

Growing Pains: Turning Discomfort into Change

By Erika Nelson

This summer, I’m taking my senior Capstone, Grantwriting for Shelter Pets. Our community partner is Furry Friends, a no-kill cat shelter in Vancouver. Our mission this term is to draft the proposals that will compel donors to fund important shelter projects, such as medical care and a new kitty condo.

Before I signed up, I thought this would be a lighthearted, fun experience. I love animals, have a passion for animal rescue and love writing. It seemed like a no-brainer. I assumed that upsetting images and facts would be present in the coursework — after all, animal welfare is an emotionally fraught topic. What I didn’t anticipate was the extent of the information. To help us understand the real-life implications of the work we’re doing, a book and corresponding documentary about the history of animal shelters and the no-kill movement were assigned. These materials were difficult to get through — images of shaking, pacing animals in cages; upsetting statistics (millions of shelter pets are euthanized every year); graphic descriptions of euthanasia that turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes.  

My discomfort in the first weeks of the Capstone made me question my involvement, and I thought maybe I should have signed up for a different Capstone altogether. However, I began to wonder: why is discomfort bad? Why do we avoid it, and seek out situations that avoid discomfort instead of facing it head-on? After all, change stems from discomfort in the first place. Just as we must face the discomfort of noticing and calling out oppressive institutions, we must push through to change things for the better — to harness that emotion and translate it into concrete actions. 

For example: no one becomes a veterinarian because they don’t have compassion and empathy for animals. Yet veterinarians regularly see sick, injured, neglected, or abused animals, and continue to do their jobs. Discomfort is a regular part of the profession, yet people find their calling in veterinary medicine. While vets no doubt are affected emotionally, the opportunities to improve animals’ health outweighs the discomfort from seeing suffering animals. 

It’s tempting to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the important issues in the world. Sure, you could purposely only sign up for innocuous courses with benign subject matter and tune out everything upsetting. Yet college is an opportunity to grow, and growth comes with growing pains. Knowledge and awareness of the injustices and difficulties of the world is a springboard to change. Ignorance is NOT bliss — ignorance only perpetuates the status quo, whatever it may be. 

The hard truth is that many aspects of life are inherently uncomfortable. This is inescapable. Instead of avoiding the negative emotions that come up in this Capstone, I’m choosing to embrace them. I’m challenging myself to persevere through discomfort to help these shelter cats, and I’m looking forward to documenting what I learn and how I grow along the way.