One Size Does Not Fit All

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Choosing the right storage unit has made me feel a bit like Goldilocks. My preferred facility recommends a 10 x 20 for the contents of a three-bedroom house. Yet my three-bedroom home doesn’t contain all the stuff a typical one might have. I’m getting rid of some furniture (though I do have lots of books in the garage). I suspect I can get away with a storage unit perfect for the contents inside a two-bedroom apartment. That said, several storage sizes appear to work for this purpose. It all depends on how many business records I have—how much sports equipment, electronics, extra boxes, appliances, and gardening supplies.

I was happy to discover several online videos meant to help people visualize how various storage unit sizes would work for different piles of things. Still, doubt keeps pricking me when I least expect it. I go over the range of spaces in my mind. I think about all of my stuff. I just can’t figure out which dimensions will work the best. I’m afraid my storage unit will be too small and end up frustrating my movers. Or it will be too big, thus becoming a money drain.

I’ve thought about getting rid of excess stuff. Minimalism is all the rage right now, and I’ve been finding the concept more appealing. If I’m not mistaken, minimalism used to be called Simple Living – before that, “The Good Life,” free of the fetters of consumerism. I always feel warm and fuzzy when I hear people espousing the benefits of this sort of lifestyle. But since I decided to start a new chapter on the fly, I feel the need to hedge my bets. I’m not quite ready to get rid of things that might lighten my load. I might need them down the road (writing projects come to mind, camping trips, a budding resolve over a crucial exercise regimen).

Besides, I’ll probably come back and grab a bunch of this stuff in six months. If my storage unit ends up containing enough room for me to throw down a mattress, I can always move everything into a smaller one. Surely a few volunteers would be willing to help me haul my stuff from one unit to another. If not, I can always hire an extra set of hands (I think there is a company in town that goes by this very name).

There are other moving issues that keep me up at night. Will I get my new address to everyone who needs it? Do I still have all of my “second keys” (PO Box, etc.)? Will I remember to cart my Mini Box back to Cox? Have I kept the necessary moving records for my accountant? Am I storing something I’m really going to need later? I’m packing for my new life. Yet I’m also packing for a vacation in Italy. This is my gift to myself for surviving cancer treatment and making it to retirement. Last April—before I started chemotherapy—I made a point of renewing my passport with the hope that I would be using it as soon as I became cancer-free. This intention has held firm—I am now scheduled to spend time overseas. I packed my bags for Italy first, because I didn’t want to store something that should be in my suitcase.

For the record, I’ve already blown this last one. My REI travel towel now rests somewhere in a pile of boxes stored in one closet. As most of my things are already in boxes, I’m not going to go through them now. I’ll have to buy another towel before I hit the road (another thing to remember as I prepare the house for its next occupants).

I suspect my obsession over storage is really about something else. Have I chosen a life that will end up just right? Or did I just discard one that should have been left intact? As the days barrel toward my departure from San Diego, burgeoning conviction over the rightness of my plans reassures me. My gut is not waffling. And if this new life really isn’t just right, one major change can always lead to another. Goldilocks did try out three sets of furniture after all.

Catalina Island – Southern California Getaway

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I’ve been trying to get to some of my favorite places before I leave the San Diego area in a few months. When I first arrived, I remember struggling with what I viewed as the lack getaways—my definition of them, anyway. I was used to taking a scenic drive to some small town where it was more relaxed and probably quaint.

During my childhood in Davis, my family sought out Northern California destinations, such as Mendocino, Napa, Point Reyes Station, Willits, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Truckee, and Downieville. Some years later, I ended up in Ashland, Oregon, where I ultimately graduated from high school. Ashland is one of those weekend destinations. Still, we made our way to other Oregon towns, including Jacksonville, Butte Falls, Brookings, and Gold Beach. Mount Shasta City in California was also an alluring retreat in the region.

I moved to Eugene to become a Duck and stayed a while. There, the Oregon Coast was my favorite weekend jaunt—Florence, Yachats, Newport, and Lincoln City. Bend was always worth the trip, as was Sisters. After I landed my first professional library position in Seattle, I fell in love with Bainbridge Island, Snoqualmie, Langley, Port Townsend, Anacortes, Friday Harbor, Deer Harbor, Lopez Island, Ellensburg, La Conner, and Leavenworth. Of course, Victoria, BC, was always a treat.

San Diego proved to be another situation altogether. I immediately found the Southern California sprawl overwhelming—not to mention the freeways. Hopping in the car and getting on the road felt daunting, and it wasn’t long before I began to feel hemmed in. The trip to Julian for pie and some mining town ambience was the one exception. I did come to love the various drives passing through Julian, drives that often swerved into Borrego Springs. Yet it took a while before I discovered other places. Idyllwild and Joshua Tree finally grabbed my heart, as did the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. I stayed in Mount Baldy once. Somewhere along the line, I added Catalina Island to my list.

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It takes some work to get there from San Diego—several fast freeways and a ferry ride. My maiden voyage departed from Long Beach on the Catalina Express, which also leaves from Dana Point and San Pedro. More recently, I’ve been departing from Newport Beach on the Catalina Flyer, which is particularly convenient for visitors from San Diego (though this ferry only runs once a day and does not have year-round service). The first time I called the Flyer for reservations, one of their attendants urged me not to miss the Bloody Marys sold on board. I didn’t imbibe that time, but I recently broke down to kick off this farewell journey in style. I was a little queasy by the end of the boat ride, but I would probably do it again.

What I like about Catalina Island can be summed up with the word, whimsical. Avalon is a fitting name for the main town. You get on a boat and cross the ocean, often spotting dolphins and whales along the way (dolphins love to frolic in the wake of the ferry). Then you arrive in another dimension, another time and space that truly calls for doing nothing. Of course, there are plenty of playful activities to sample. Take a ride on the Yellow Submarine to get a good look at the fish in the harbor. There’s a glass bottom boat for this same purpose. And a number of crazier rides tempt daring types—parasailing outfits and zip line runs. A person can also take a boat to get in some snorkeling or check out a different side of the island.

The inland bus tours are guided by drivers who have delightful stories to tell—they know the island and its history inside and out. If you go, you’ll most likely end up on an antique bus, circa 1950s. You may even see a bison or two, and then your guide will tell you why. I won’t spoil the fun. I’ll leave it to the visitor to discover this tale, not to mention the numerous other yarns (that’s the beauty of this place, the ongoing storytelling about what has gone down around here). I can offer one hint, though – Zane Grey. I did hear the bison herd has gotten too big at times, so they’ve sent some back to South Dakota to live with the Lakota Indians.

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Zane Grey, aside, the island’s history is fodder for writers looking for a great backdrop. I’ve certainly been known to contemplate the possibility of a longer writing retreat in a cute vacation cottage. All of these cheerful vintage homes beg the imagination to consider who may have lived here and why. The people get around on golf carts, though smart cars are becoming increasingly popular. On one bus tour, I learned “autoettes” are the only vehicles residents are allowed to own, unless they happen to be on the waiting list for the limited number of full-size cars permitted on these streets. The list hasn’t moved in twenty years. As an FYI, visitors can rent golf carts for their own excursions.

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Of course, Hollywood hasn’t ignored the place, old Hollywood, anyway. Today’s representatives of tinsel town seem to have moved on to other domains. Yet the former heyday of movie stars long dead, their interaction with the island, is evident. Those looking for an overview of area history – including Hollywood vignettes – should not miss the updated Catalina Island Museum, recently relocated from the historic Casino to a fine new building.

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During my visit to the museum, I was excited to stumble upon a marvelous exhibit by a figure who moved in the background of my Seattle Days, the famous glassblower artist, Dale Chihuly. I quickly learned it is the museum’s first exhibit featuring an artist of his stature. The pieces on display are perfect for a locale bordering a marine preserve. I was most drawn to the “Seaforms” room, housing individual pieces that evoke sea plants and creatures. I probably could have viewed these creations in the Puget Sound region years ago, as Chihuly created the display in 1983, five years before I arrived there. His much newer Mille Fiori (2016) demands a long look, as well. Also on display are “Coastal Blue and Cloud White Baskets,” “Blue Ridge Chandelier,” “Aureolin Yellow Spire Chandelier,” “Red Reeds,” and “Sea Blue and Green Tower.” (This show closes on December 11, 2017.)

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One of the museum’s permanent exhibits propels visitors through the island’s various eras, starting with its indigenous beginnings, and not all of these accounts are whimsical. I was appalled to discover the story of a weird so-called archeologist who once lived and worked on the island, Dr. Ralph Glidden. To say he didn’t know how to respect old bones is an understatement. He dug up several hundred Indian skeletons in the Channel Islands, and then displayed them in a manner that could only be branded undignified. While his Catalina Museum of Island Indians has been defunct since 1950, his handling of human remains continues to make even the least conscientious people uncomfortable. The Catalina Island Museum is now making a lesson out of this chapter of the island’s history, raising awareness around the lackadaisical treatment traditionally afforded ancient burial grounds in America.

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History buffs should also consider a tour of the Casino Ballroom, as the guide will conjure the big band era, how people dressed to the nines before getting on a steamer ship departing from the mainland for an evening of elegant dancing. (You can view a number of photos of these ships, not to mention their passengers, in the Catalina Island Museum.) There’s a stunning movie theater beneath this ballroom—the Avalon Theatre—with a domed ceiling showing off art deco style murals by John Gabriel Beckman. Get there early enough on a Friday or Saturday evening, and you will be treated to live pipe organ music before your talkie starts. The stately Page pipe organ once accompanied the silent films that were screened there.

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The island may sound high falutin, but it is actually down-to-earth, meeting my requirements for the quaint getaway. While all of these touristy perks are fun, I like to walk around, or sit somewhere. Then I walk around again, until it is time to eat somewhere. And then all I can do is sit somewhere else, because there are so many charming views to lull the mind. As I compose this from a white wicker chair on my hotel porch, the morning air feels silky. In a few hours, I plan to head to the Descanso Beach Club Restaurant for lunch, where I’ll sit at a table and watch people play in the water. Maybe I’ll rent a kayak for a few hours.

A Chapbook and a New Life

I am pleased to announce my longer poem, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts, is scheduled to be published in chapbook format by Finishing Line Press. This project has become the perfect segue into my next phase of life, which will certainly include writing. Yet what’s in store sits calmly down the road holding an armful of question marks.

A year ago, I was recovering from a lumpectomy still waiting to learn if I would also need chemotherapy. I already knew radiation was in the cards. Around that time, I attended a Zen meditation retreat so I could “be” with the drama of breast cancer. I felt a lot of fear during those long hours, but ultimately relished some momentary peace. This was as well as I would feel for another seven months. I had my first chemo infusion on April 4, and my treatment plan continued on from there.

I didn’t often feel the pull to write during that time, but I did chip away at a longer poem, one I would ultimately break into five sections: Diagnosis, Surgery, Chemo, Radiation, and Follow-up. As I documented these experiences, I was occasionally startled out of the general stupor that had dropped over me. In such moments, I could feel what was riding beneath the surface. Unexpected emotion would arise, and I’d put words to what I hadn’t fully let myself define.

It wasn’t long before I got in the habit of heading to my computer right after a treatment, so I could record impressions before they left me. I never worked at it very long, just got stuff on the page. However, during periods of tedium (when I felt well enough to be bored), I tinkered.

Once the three pillars of breast cancer treatment were finally behind me, I needed to set the whole thing down. I let myself polish the poem for a few more weeks. Then I sent it out into the world, as if to say, “I’m done with this!” I was more than happy to move back into normal living—and everything around me seemed heightened. I wondered how long this poetic sensibility would last.

I do continue to encounter sparks of feeling that let me know I’m still processing things. Certainly, this occurred when I received my latest diagnosis, “no evidence of cancer.” Though I’m hopeful my doctors have nailed it, I’m probably not completely out of the woods. My medical oncologist will follow me closely for at least five years, during which time I’ll continue taking Arimidex to ward off new cancer growth. Now I’m trying to figure out what I can do to cheer this drug on. As I design my new life, I should probably ask myself, “What is good medicine?”

How does one maintain well-being? I know there are lots of opinions on the subject—books, videos, and audio recordings. And what is well-being, anyway? Fitness? Financial success? Doing good for others? Creativity? Love? A going with the flow sort of attitude? No doubt it depends on the person. Perhaps the courage to try things is the solution, finding a way to pound one’s fists through emotional ruts. Then there’s working on diet and exercise habits without becoming fanatical.

Developing an eye for opportunity also seems to be a good idea. I recently set up travel plans for a library conference in San Francisco, only to stumble onto a way to live (somewhat) cheaply live in North Beach for a month in an extended-stay situation. As I looked the possibility over, I briefly thought about writing in this buzzing environment and letting the adventures find me. Surely, this is something to contemplate after I take on my new role as retiree. In any event, stripping my life down to what I still want to do seems paramount right now. I don’t want to waste another moment of good health.

 

Some Thoughts for Library Lovers’ Month

As I move into my last few months at work—I’ll soon be retiring from my community college librarian job—I want to leave behind a few of my recent musings on librarianship. I firmly believe information literacy has fallen through the cracks. While educators pay lip service to information literacy programs, there is a tenacious, underlying sense amongst most people that the open web has superseded traditional library resources, even those available in research databases.

As an aside, I’m defining the open web as the pages we search for every day through Yahoo! or Google. In contrast, many libraries subscribe to password-protected research databases containing articles and books. These databases offer library users access to electronic materials under copyright restriction. In a sense library users “check out” electronic copies of books or articles when they track down items in a research database (after using a library card to log in). Though web-based research databases, such as InfoTrac (Gale), have been around since the late 90s, I suspect your average person has no idea what one is, not to mention how to search one effectively—or why they would even want to bother.

While most current traditionally published materials—books and journal articles—are not freely available on the open web, people seem to shrug at the thought. They’ve become experts at using Google. They always find enough anyway, so what’s the point? Indeed, surfing the open web makes us feel smart and in command. We know what we’re doing! Critical thinking is something instructors talk about. That’s Greek to me. I cringe at the vast body of work that may end up being discarded in the name of ease. This work is currently available in libraries and research databases.

If we as a society don’t make more of an effort to think about how information is created, why it was created, where it is housed, not to mention how credible it is—we are all going to just talk at each other and stop going into any sort of in-depth analysis or deep learning. We’ve gotten in the habit of grabbing chunks of texts off the open web—chunks of text that fit in with the way we see it. Then we throw them at each other. We don’t often bother to evaluate the stuff we find, though most people do understand what goes into the open web. Most people know a good percentage of this information is junk and nattering.

I shouldn’t have to say it: many editors and publishers try to bring out work that is carefully vetted. Of course, traditionally published sources can be erroneous or biased, but odds are the overall quality of the sources available in a research database, such as Academic Search Premier (EBSCO), is going to be much higher than the results of your average Google search. Special note to Google: I’m not picking on you. I love you as much as everyone else. I just think people need to know when you are the best way to go and when you are not. That last line is my concession—a roundabout way of saying we need to learn how to effectively mine the open web, too.

But I digress. I want people to set the open web aside for a moment and consider what research databases have to offer. I suspect one reason the word database is not bantered about in mainstream consciousness is that K-12 teachers are behind on information literacy. Yes, they are using the open web with their students. They might even be teaching their students how to evaluate the sources they find there. But they are probably not teaching them when they might want to choose a research database over a Google search.

Research databases are expensive. Not a lot of K-12 schools subscribe to them. Besides, many schools no longer have librarians to fight for what is currently possible with online research (and there are a lot of exciting changes, folks). Case in point: when I begin a workshop with my community college students, I often poll the class to learn how many of them have ever used a research database. Unless I’m working with a more advanced group, I rarely see many hands.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Our students should be taking to research databases with ease and using them to thrive. While kids love to feel like they are great at using Google, they could no doubt find a similar self-esteem boost over searching a research database. It just takes more effort to show them how to use research databases well.

So how can our K-12 teachers demonstrate database searching when they are strapped for resources? Public libraries could step up to the plate by offering a robust set of databases for their user districts. That way there could be one set of databases for an entire city and all of its K-12 schools.

Another solution could involve alliances between community college libraries and K-12 schools. This may seem outside of your average community college library mission. Yet if our students were exposed to research databases in middle school or high school—or even upper elementary school, college instructors would have it easier. College students could then put more effort into improving their reading and writing—instead of scrambling to learn how to track down sources worthy of academic research.

It goes without saying, you can’t just put databases up on a library website and expect students to “get” them. In-depth training requires a commitment of time and resources. In the end, people must become convinced the general population needs to learn how to utilize web-based research databases. I challenge educators and librarians to turn database into a household word.

Back to Life

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Yesterday, I composed a December post in my head as I hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. The piece felt poetic—and it came out whole. And now I can’t remember the flow of it. Still, I find myself reaching for what I intended to say—something about being glad I could enjoy a weekend in the desert. It was another cancer post. I hiked six miles on the first day, and more than three on the second, frequently patting myself on the back over previous workouts. They were paying off. As I hiked, I was able to chat with a friend and remain energetic. I felt strong enough, almost normal. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Though the stiffness promised by anastrozole was apparent. Or maybe I would have been stiff without this drug that is supposed to make my body less welcoming to invasive lobular breast cancer.

The first hike was in Plum Canyon. Desert plants were trying to bloom—some were actually blooming. I crushed a pinch of purple lavender between my thumb and index finger. It was fully pungent. We agreed this route, called the California Riding and Hiking Trail, would be worth revisiting during the wildflower season a few months from now.

In our campsite, I read Mary Oliver—Upstream—as I sat by the fire before dusk. It was a right-book-at-the-right-time encounter. I found myself relating to the way Oliver embraces sanity in nature, even when human consciousness seems to be failing our world. I’m not trusting my own kind right now. Mary Oliver writes about foxes. “They have neither mercy nor pity. They have one responsibility—to stay alive, if they can, and be foxes.” Her words felt “deep,” though I knew I was feeling more vulnerable than usual, less armored, less sure of anything. I would read a few sentences, and then idly think about how lucky I was to be able to take comfort in this place. As these thoughts spun in my head, the sky went Van Gogh, displaying swirls of pink and deepening blue. Meanwhile, the sun kept its rays firmly on the mountain range to my right.

No, I can’t bring back what I meant to say as cancer memories moved toward the horizon, and I started to plan my next backpacking trip (maybe in Point Reyes National Seashore). I can only churn out choppy sentiments that no longer fit together. I did see some fast creatures – jackrabbit and roadrunner. I watched for snakes, especially during the longish trek across desert ground, from my tent to the bathroom. This was in the middle of the night. It wasn’t very cold, maybe 50 degrees. I was having hot flashes. At first I tried out the foot vent in my fancy new sleeping bag, but wriggling my bare feet in the night air did not cool me down enough, so all the layers went to the wayside. I found myself on top of the bag in nothing but a pair of underwear. The moon was bright. It was hard to drift off.

Coyotes did howl.

The host at the Borrego Palm Canyon trailhead told us no one had reported any big horn sheep sightings, but we ended up having a fine view of three ewes. They were probably headed to the waterfall near the grove of indigenous palms everyone was hiking the trail to see. The night wind had left the sky perfectly blue against jagged ridges on either side of us. Other hikers were chatty. They marveled at such an oasis.

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On the way home, we stopped for pie in Santa Ysabel. I had Dutch apple with a caramel topping. This was a tough decision. I could have paired it with ice cream or cheddar cheese. In the car, my friend asked, “Your hair is darker, isn’t it?

“Darker, grayer, thicker, and curlier,” I said.

Post Election Blues

 

A cataclysmic shift in my personal life seems to be running parallel to the end of an era. As Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were battling on, breast cancer knocked me out of my routine. I eventually returned to work, only to wonder if I should seriously think about retiring. Age 54 is early for such musings—though not necessarily for a cancer victim who does not yet know if the cancer is completely gone.

Case in point, I watched my father eagerly move into his retirement when he was in his early sixties. Not long after that, he lost his life to leukemia and pretty much missed out on this passage. If I want a retirement at all, it may need to be now. I’ve got books to write, places to see, and people to spend time with. I’ve also been feeling the need to revamp habits that might be shortening my life—to become disciplined in ways that have often eluded me (yoga, meditation, singing, diet, and exercise). While I’m already feeling pretty good, memories of the weakness I endured during cancer treatment tend to surface and remind me these days are precious. I am now acutely aware of how physical well-being is dear. I may not have a lot of quality time left. Then again, I may defy the odds and live to be a healthy octogenarian.

Breast cancer did prompt me to follow the election more closely. My couch became a second bed, a place to crash when I wasn’t feeling well. Based on what I saw on television, I did not envision the outcome that actually occurred. I’ve been happy with the focus on equal rights and opportunity for all—kindness toward all. I want the country to keep working on that. I want America to become more compassionate and less catty. In my opinion, our country is too self-indulgent over unkind speech. It’s entertaining in a way, but it’s not loving. I do believe we are on this planet to transform our hearts. As a serious Zen student, I try not to participate in left-right, back and forth quipping. I’m not beyond it—I’ve done my share. This election season, however, I decided to make it a practice to refrain from picking on those I don’t agree with. Hand in hand with that aspiration came another centered on trying to note moments of judgement and anger over what others were saying. A judgmental attitude also pulls me away from developing a loving heart.

I have joined a conversation that occurs – not every moment – but here and there. Cancer survivors sometimes need to talk. The increase in breast cancer occurrence – the occurrence of all cancers – has become sobering. I recently finished my first breast cancer walk. I found the ritual whimsical and fun. I reveled in the opportunity to wear a Survivor T-shirt, and to see this word reflected on the backs of others. I enjoyed the spark in the air, the celebration, the happiness I felt around me. Diseases like breast cancer bring people together to express their better selves.

It’s hard not to add up the recent negatives and whine, “Why is this happening to me?” America’s political story is not going the way I’d like it to. Neither is the story of my life. Yet breast cancer has brought on surprising moments of inspiration, insight, and love. It has helped me strip away anything that has begun to seem insubstantial in the face of tougher challenges and limited time. I don’t always have to pack as much into my day. I try to give attention to things that matter. I’ve also been giving myself permission to breathe and take in the scene around me. Sometimes just listening to what is going on is enough. This sense of moving in slow motion may still be a side effect of cancer treatment that will go away as I return to 100% (should I be so lucky). Perhaps I’ll eventually stop finding such meaning in simpler moments and dive back into to crazy-busy mode. Or maybe it really is time to move toward the retiree mentality. Either way, remaining fully alive is my latest goal.