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to information literacy programs, there is a tenacious, underlying sense amongst most people that the open web has superseded traditional library resources, even those available in research databases.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.

Sneaker Wave

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I’ve been spending most of my winter break on the Oregon Coast, mentally preparing for my retirement. On New Year’s Day, I sharpened this resolve by submitting a Service Retirement Application to CalSTRS. I feel too young to be heading through such a passage, though when I was in my 30s, I watched several coworkers (in their 50s) come to this same decision. At that time, early retirement did not seem unreasonable—my coworkers did not seem too young. Now it feels like I’m getting away with something.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin driving south to face my final semester and tie up loose ends in the San Diego region, before beginning my next chapter, which will probably play out on the Oregon Coast. I woke up to several inches of snow, snow that even fell on the beach. This pristine surface made the world more beautiful and unsafe at the same time. Hazardous conditions already seem to be easing, though I have dropped my earlier plan to drive over the Siskiyou Summit—where chains are no doubt required—in favor of a trip along the Coastal Highway.

I do need to learn how to become more spontaneous, to view change as an adventure. Snow brought joy to my morning. I ended up meandering to breakfast through the white stuff, enjoying gorgeous winter tableaus along the way. In the restaurant, I found myself the only diner, with the exception of a couple of retirees who were discussing upcoming trips to Hawaii and Cabo San Lucas. I’m not upset I’m taking scenic route back to San Diego, though it will eat up more time. I’m already becoming less ambitious about driving for hours on end to get somewhere.

Though I’ll be a young retiree, I have been in the workforce since I was eighteen. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, I took a work study job, shelving books at the Eugene Public Library. Three months later, my grant ran out, and the library put me on the city payroll. I ended up staying with the Eugene Public Library for almost eight years. This early work experience eventually prompted me to begin a fulfilling career in library science, one that has taken me into two large metropolitan areas and one small town. Needless to say, the role of working woman is pretty much intertwined with my identity, if not my self-esteem.

I doubt I’m done working. Tentatively, I’m scheduled to do some part-time work at my college in two and a half years. CalSTRS even allows one to come out of retirement, should another appealing job offer surface. But my recent health scare has prompted me to move in some new directions for a while. I’d like to break down psychological patterns that may have had a hand in tripping up my physical health. I’m keeping an eye on my aging mother. Perhaps not knowing exactly where I’m going will be edifying.

Not knowing isn’t easy for me. I like to plan everything. I read about people who fly by the seat of their pants, people who revel in it, and I wonder why I’m not like that unless I’m knocked upside the head. When something hits one like a sneaker wave, one is forced to do what is often suggested by sages, “Go with the flow.” During my chemo treatments, I spent a lot of time trying to remember what it was like to feel healthy—to live normally. A sense of well-being can be wiped out in a flash. Now that I have it back, I want to cherish everything. I hope this feeling lasts.

In a few weeks, I’ll be pitching a novel to three agents at the San Diego State University Writers’ Conference. It is the second novel I have finished, though it’s the first one I started. Both books are set in Oregon. I’m not planning to spend more time in Oregon because of these novels, though it will probably good for me to be up here, should either be accepted. Maybe I’ll eventually become a rainbird. That way I can head down to the desert after too many inches have fallen. Alas, I’m already starting to make new plans.

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.

Falling Back in the Land of Perpetual Sunshine

When it comes to the question of daylight savings—whether or not we should keep it—I’m in agreement with those who’d prefer to leave things alone. In San Diego, daylight savings allows for the possibility of a last minute beach walk. Once we fall back into early morning sunlight, such strolls are off until spring. I don’t begrudge this shift of light. I’ve been finding it strange of late to stumble out of bed for a bathroom stop—with the reassuring thought there are a few more hours for sawing z’s—only to discover it is already 6 am. I guess seasonal changes such as this one prevent our lives from becoming too bland.

I do look forward to fall activities in San Diego County, heading to Julian for apple pie, for example, or packing the car for a desert camping trip. It is strange I should feel this way, as the loss of a true fall was one of the first things I mourned when I first moved down here. I eventually learned to anticipate a subtler shift in the air, which I can now detect as adeptly as I once noted the scent of wood-burning stoves and rotting blackberries. The fall season beckons us into a deeper sense of coziness, even in the midst of perpetual sunshine.

Once Labor Day Weekend ends, the beaches in San Diego County empty almost overnight, becoming the domain of locals once more as lifeguards move to a reduced schedule. People still make their way onto the sand, but it’s less frenetic—easier to take ownership of the whole show. Meanwhile, desert communities begin to watch the tourist season ramp-up. Temperatures start to drop, and it’s not long before the outside air becomes perfect for a long hike in the backcountry. If hunger strikes adventurers on their way home, odds are there is a good restaurant to be found. Businesses begin to open for tourists and snowbirds in search of placid weather—or they move to longer hours.

Speaking of restaurants, skies may still be blue, temperatures may still be warm, and most trees may still be green in these parts—yet fall specials abound. Walk into your favorite haunt, and you are likely to find heartier meals, darker ales—ubiquitous pumpkin treats. Foods like these give us the illusion of being in a grand autumn display. They evoke an explosion colored by the sort of palette available in other realms (though “real fall” can be found in the nearby mountains). I recently consumed a pumpkin scone, only to transported back to the Pacific Northwest, where the changing leaves are worth checking out—if the rain doesn’t take them down too early. That pumpkimy taste makes me want to grab more blankets, light a fire, and make a thick soup. I suspect we humans need to turn inward once a year as much as bears need to hibernate. Falling back to standard time is sure to compound this nesting impulse born of darker nights.

Meanwhile, the harvest may be ending for many farmers, but the educational world has just begun to sow new seeds. We educators are piloting projects—or we’re egging our students to get going on theirs. It is this paradox of beginning and ending at the same time that prompts me to embrace the fall. So let the light slide back one hour. Once sundown shifts from 6 to 5 pm, our students are more likely to get their homework done before bed.

 

 

New Normal

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Eight months ago, I received a phone call from a scheduler at UCSD’s Breast Imaging Center. My routine mammogram, which had been done the day before, was deemed abnormal. They wanted me back for more screening—ASAP. That day marked the first chapter of my breast cancer story. This afternoon I completed my last radiation treatment. While I have yet to meet with my medical oncologist to receive a prescription for Arimidex, there is not much more for me to do but wait, recover, and hope for the best. I was actually surprised to learn my doctors don’t have a surefire test to determine whether they got it all. Instead, they intend to follow me for a few years to make sure I remain cancer-free.

It goes without saying cancer treatment precipitated a dramatic shift in my routine. Now I’m finding it strange to think about returning to my regular schedule. I can never completely be the person I was before I was diagnosed, though I suspect I worked through a positive transformation, even as the healing process harmed me physically. At the risk of sounding trite, life does feel more precious. I hope I never again take for granted the time I have left. I do suspect the heightened emotions I continue to experience over this challenge will become muted as they fade into a bad memory. Still, I’d like to refrain from dropping the ball on the rest of my life.

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Radiation Therapists at Moores Cancer Center celebrating my “graduation.”

Breast cancer did help me take stock. As I’ve faced the possibility of dying too soon, writing has become the one calling asking for more attention and commitment. It is an area where I still feel unfulfilled, though I’ve had some minor successes that have kept me in the game. In the end, I’m not sure what sort of milestone I need to feel like I didn’t blow it. I’ve just decided to ratchet up my intention and stay on target with some new goals. During the last eight months, I was often too paralyzed to do much at all. Yet eight months is a long time. When I did have the wherewithal, I organized my writing business by developing a list of tasks that might help me get my work more fully off the ground. I’ve already begun to attack some of these projects.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun to wonder if my body will fully return to where it was eight months ago. I did pretty well with the chemo and radiation treatments, but I am noticeably weaker. Case in point: during the summer of 2015, I was climbing Cowles Mountain (1594 feet) every few days wearing a full backpack in order to train for a trip on the John Muir Trail. I could do this without stopping, though I usually took a water break. I doubt I could climb this modest peak pack-free right now. I can get a good walk in on the beach, but hills are quick to remind me of how much stamina I have lost. I certainly plan to continue participating in activities that will improve my strength and endurance, though I suspect patience will be paramount as I work through radiation fatigue and the residual effects of chemo. Besides, I no longer know what my true limitations are. I do know I’m not yet ready to accept a new normal where my fitness is concerned. At some point, I’ll have to put my recovery measures to a test by hitting the Cowles Mountain Trail and seeing how high I can climb.

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How Breast Cancer May Derail the Voice Break Epilogue

In the spirit of lifelong learning—in the spirit of chasing a 10K as an aging adult—I began to work on my singing at the age of 46. I studied it fairly consistently until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am now 54. My reasons for getting started are chronicled in a long poem, Voice Break, which is mainly about the foibles of an adult new musician (and a little bit about learning to write poetry).

Voice Break covers the first two years of my voice lessons. By the end of the poem, the singer—moi—has just completed a semester of singing with the Cuyamaca College Choir (in El Cajon, California). I continued to sing with them for another semester and then moved to their sister college to work with the Grossmont Master Chorale. I now have more than 8 semesters of college choir behind me. During those years, I also studied singing with a voice teacher, Esther Jordan.

I am not writing this piece to make any claims about my voice—though my singing has improved. I’m revisiting this thread of my life because cancer treatment may drastically change the quality of my sound. As I move from the chemotherapy unit to radiation oncology, I find myself wondering if I should continue singing when and if my life returns to normal.

Singing did help me feel better during the first two months of this ordeal. I practiced when I could, though not every day. I knew it was time to stop when I began chemotherapy. This was mainly because my medical oncologist put me on steroids in an attempt to ward off an allergic reaction to the infusions. I was pretty certain the steroids would wreak havoc on my vocal cords, and I did get some validation on this hunch. Around the time I was taking the steroids, I was told my speaking voice sounded different.

In addition, my medical oncologist warned me the Taxotere/Cytoxan infusions I ultimately faced would probably force me into menopause. She turned out to be spot on. The chemicals quickly shut off my reproductive system, as if to close that valve with one big yank. Though this was a side effect of the chemo, it was an outcome my doctors wanted. Overexposure to estrogen is the likely reason for my breast cancer. If my reproductive cycle starts up again, my oncologist plans to shut down my ovaries with a monthly shot. Granted, I would have dealt with menopause if I hadn’t gotten breast cancer. I’ve just been thrust into the change rather abruptly. I don’t know how this shift in hormone levels will affect my singing.

So now I beginning six weeks of radiation. Fortunately, I won’t be taking any more drugs for a while. However, they are radiating the lymph nodes above and around my clavicle, along with the incision sites. I did wonder if this would harm my voice box as my lungs are at risk for minor damage. My radiation oncologist has reassured me my vocal cords should not be harmed by the radiation treatments.

There’s more. Once I am completely finished with the three big cancer treatments – surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation – it is likely I will need to take Arimidex for five years to ward off breast cancer recurrence. This may be the most important leg of my treatment, according to my medical oncologist. The cancer came on pretty fast. I did ask her if Arimidex affected the singing voice in any way, and she said she’d never heard anyone complain about this.

I recently added some light singing practice sessions to my routine. As a cancer patient, I’ve learned to engage in anything that makes my daily existence seem normal—it’s easy to feel as if one has dropped out of life during the treatment process. Singing practice does evoke memories of a healthier being. It is also a joyful act, which can only bring on unseen benefits. So far, my voice doesn’t seem overly different, though I haven’t yet tried to record it to find out if my sound has changed.