Peaches

peaches

When I put the first spoonful into my mouth, I started to cry. The sugar melted on my tongue and the sweet tartness of the juices made the roof of my mouth tingle. A teardrop reached the corner of my mouth; it was the sudden saltiness that first made me realize what I was doing.

One wet droplet fell into my bowl. I sat back, not wanting to dilute my treat. Turning to look in the mirror, I was pale, contrasting with the pastel reds, oranges, and yellows that sat fermenting in front of me.

Why was I crying?

The peaches offered no answer to my query, but as I stared at them, a flood of memories rushed back to me. Six years old, I sat in a cluttered kitchen, California sunlight streaming through the windows and warming my back. My grandmother dumped another spoonful of sugar into the bowl of peaches. She had risen to the challenge after my mother pronounced my complete unwillingness to eat fruit. Her hand on my back, just as warm as the sun, tickled my skin as I have my first taste of peaches.

She died a few months later; a heart attack at fifty-four. It hadn’t known what death was before that. I hadn’t known what peaches were before her. I hadn’t had peaches since; until now.

I put another spoonful into my mouth and cry harder.

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“Taking a Drink from a Fire Hydrant”: How Do We Find Information? (Part 2 of 4)

Brenda Dervin-018

It is helpful first to view the information that was present in every part of my experience as existing in the three typologies that are posited by Brenda Dervin in her “sense making” school of thought. While other typologies do exist, I believe the Dervin definitions fit my particular experience best because the categories are not defined by the type of physical information being utilized, but rather relies on broader definitions which allow for “formal information systems (e.g., books)” and “informal sources (e.g., friends, relatives, or coworkers)” to be seen as equally valid avenues for information gathering (Case 43).

Dervin lists three types of information. The first is “Objective, external information, [which] is that which describes reality (but never completely so)” (Case 43). Into this category can be placed all the information I sought about the types of programs available, their deadlines and admission information, and also the information I sought about the UW ISchool requirements prior to my rejection. This information must be taken for reality by the mind in order to be useful, but the searcher should be aware that it can never encapsulate the true “wholeness” of the topic it describes. I learned this very well when, despite utilizing all the information I gained about the ISchool, I was still unsuccessful.

INFORMATION [ Tokyo International Forum ]

I attempted to close the gap between the pieces of objective, external information I received with the second type of information, “Subjective, internal information, [which] represents our picture or cognitive map of reality, the structures we impute onto reality” (Case 43). This category represents the information I gained from myself, the answers to questions about my own goals and intentions, which I also supplemented with subjective internal information from others about their experiences and perceptions.

The third category of information is the most fluid, containing information from both of the previous categories. “Sense-making information reflects the procedures and behaviors that allow us to ‘move’ between external and internal information to understand the world, and usually to act on that understanding as well” (Case 43). While both the information I gained from various program websites and information I gained from my mother about online programs could go into this category of sense making, the information contained within the ALA website is probably the best example of this type. Through it, I was given the tools necessary to reconcile my internal data about having the skills necessary to complete an MLIS and the external information about programs and requirements that allowed me to ultimately succeed in fulfilling my information need.

Puzzle pieces

Dervin’s theory of “sense making” carries far beyond a general definition of information. She uses it to define information needs and information seeking and behavior. There are opposing views, however, that also helped me understand how and why I searched for information in the way that I did. Atkin’s theorizes that an information need can be understood as the moment when “humans sense differences between what they know and what they want to know as regards a salient ‘thing’ in their mental universe. Thus, they constantly compare current levels of knowledge against goal states that they wish to reach…” (Case 73). While on the face of it, Atkin’s operational definition of information needs seems similar to Dervin’s, it lacks the deeper emotional motivation that I feel was key to most of my information searches. While it is true that I compared my level of knowledge about MLIS programs against my goal of getting into one and found myself grossly lacking in the required material, for me the realization was not so scientifically dispassionate. Rather for me, as for Dervin, “Many…searches for information are prompted by a vague feeling of unease, a sense of having a gap in knowledge, or simply by anxiety about a current situation” (Case 77).

An information need is not necessarily fully formed at the start, but is often a vague, but urgent desire for a solution to a perceived problem or threat. It does not necessarily entail knowing how to get there. People who feel an information need are often not just in search of ‘information’, a fairly abstract concept, but “They are engaged in a search for meaning”, in search of a complete solution (Case 75); just as I felt a vague urge to go to library school, but was relatively ‘out at sea’ about what exactly to look for. I knew that my desire to get an MLIS was on one side of a chasm and the actual information I was looking for was on another, but it was my attempt to bridge that gap lead me into information seeking.

Rope Bridge

The term information seeking is not very well-defined in many information research texts. “The few authors who state an explicit definition of information seeking typically describe a process of either discovering patterns or filling in gaps in patterns previously recognized” (Case 80). This fits in neatly with continuing Brenda Dervin’s idea of sense making driven searching. “[Her] definition of sense-making in terms of confronting problematic situations [has] for some investigators [made] information seeking…synonymous with sense-making” (Case 80).

In the Dervin approach of information seeking, “a search for information starts with questions directed at making sense of the situation” (Case 75). This relates well to my experience of searching. I began my search with questions that were my attempt to make sense of my rejection from my desired school. These questions varied greatly from more psychological considerations (e.g. ‘Did I just want to go to that school or did I really want to become a librarian?’) to more practical questions (e.g. ‘What kind of jobs or internships are available that might make me look more attractive to MLIS programs?’). However the information seeking process does not always go in a straight line from query to information to solution. It operates, in a kind of self-regulated feedback loop. A person’s questions can only be as good as their perception of the problem they have and the answer they think they need. Dervin’s idea of information seeking takes this into account, allowing that the “strategies employed are shaped by the searcher’s conceptualization of both the gap and the bridge, and by the answers, ideas, and resources obtained along the way” (Case 75). For example, I went to the ALA website because I knew it was a general information source about librarians and libraries. But it wasn’t until my conceptualization of the bridge changed from needing an internship to needing information on other MLIS programs that my search methods towards this source changed.

I think it’s also important to note that my information behavior was driven by one main factor widely discussed in information research literature: uncertainty. Uncertainty, and more specifically the need to alleviate uncertainty, was what compelled me to search for information in the first place. I needed to understand what my choices were and how these remaining choices would shape events in my future. Many researchers have acknowledged that “Uncertainty is a beginning stage is any search, and this is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety – which is a powerful motivator to either get on with the work, or to give up entirely’ (Case 74). This was, of course, the initial decision my uncertainty faced me with – was I going to look for information to achieve my goal of starting graduate school in the fall or was I going to give up and accept the rejection from the ISchool and simply wait till next year? In choosing to ‘get on with the work’ my uncertainty increased, as did my need for information. This held true the statement that “Actively acquiring information implies recognition of uncertainty or anomalies at some level” (Case 54).

Schrödinger's cat carrier

Works Cited

Case, Donald Owen. “The Concept of Information.” Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs, and Behavior. London, U.K.: Academic, 2007. 39-67. Print.

Case, Donald Owen. “Information Needs and Information Seeking.” Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs, and Behavior. London, U.K.: Academic, 2007. 68-83. Print.

Case, Donald Owen. “Models of Information Behavior.” Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs, and Behavior. London, U.K.: Academic, 2007. 119-140. Print.

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Wake Up

Sleeping

“Do you ever wake up and get annoyed that the world still exists?”

David thought about the question, pressing the soggy flakes of his cereal under the milk with the tip of his spoon. At the other end of the table, Rebecca sipped her morning coffee, staring into the sink across the room, as if she had been addressing it instead of her husband.

“Not really,” he said at last. He lifted a heaping spoonful up to his mouth. “After all, if the world didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be around to wake up in it, would you?”

Still staring into the sink, Rebecca’s frown deepened, the set of her shoulders growing tauter, like someone stepping onto a tightrope. “That’s not what I mean.”

David looked closer at the woman across the table. Hair piled on top of her head, still damp from the liberal application of hair spray, she looked more like a statue than a person, pale skin wrapped in a soft grey dress suit, the one she had bought several years ago when she first started at the firm. Black pumps dangled off the ends of her small feet, like ripe fruit hanging heavy off a sickly branch. He breathed in and caught the smell of her lavender perfume, so familiar now it barely registered in his mind.

“It’s like…” Her lips rolled under her teeth and back out again. She turned to him suddenly, dull green eyes half hidden behind squinting lids. “…people always tell you, when things are going wrong, that you should go to sleep; that things will be better in the morning. But when you wake up, the world is all still there, just like it was the night before. It’s not like you falling asleep is going to affect things.”

“I suppose not. But I think it’s supposed to make you feel different. Less…whatever it was you were before.”

“Why?”

David leaned back from the table, running his hands down the front of his wrinkled sweat pants. “We work things out in our sleep. In our subconscious and through dreams and things. And maybe you were just tired before, but now you’re well rested and things look different. Like looking out a window at different times of the day.”

Rebecca grimaced again. She turned her attention back to the sink. “But it’s all still the same.”

She looked older when she frowned. The lines of her face deepened, and her skin pulled tighter over her cheek bones, as if there were less of it to cover her than before. She had been looking much older lately, ever since David had quit his job.

A soft piano concerto began to play on the radio; something melodic, perhaps Chopin. David watched her finish her coffee and place the stained white mug onto the table, fitting the bottom into the already present ring of condensation with perfect accuracy.

“Are you alright?”

“Tired, I guess,” she said. Rebecca’s eyes lifted from the sink to the clock on the windowsill above it. She stood, smoothing out her skirt with one hand as the other swept up her purse. “I’m late for work.”

David did not want her to leave. He usually liked having the house to himself all day, but this morning the empty rooms sucked at him, like he was water spiraling towards an open drain. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Rebecca didn’t even pause as she moved through the door. “Make sure this world doesn’t exist tomorrow morning.”

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“Taking a Drink from a Fire Hydrant”: How Do We Find Information? (Part 1 of 4)

Me, several years ago, the year I started at the University of Washington

Me, several years ago, the year I started at the University of Washington

I cannot imagine a time in my life when I will want to stop learning. It’s unfathomable to me that anyone could ever reach such a point. In the so-called “age of information” in which I grew up, it seems more and more unlikely that such a thing could ever happen. We are bombarded constantly with information from all kinds of sources for all sorts of purposes. We absorb perhaps more information by incidental and accidental exposure than we do from focused investigation. To more and more children, school must seem to be just one more source adding to the sea of information flowing in and out of their lives, rather than the primary one that it was in the past.

Information overload

Whether or not this inescapable barrage of information is good or bad, it has certainly complicated questions of information science, most notably the question of what is information and, building upon that outwardly simplistic query, how and why people seek information. What makes someone go to a library reference desk when a browser blinks temptingly with an empty Google search bar? When do we notice we need information? Why do we not ignore these needs? How can information retrieval systems be designed to most efficiently assist people with their needs, complimenting their information seeking behavior?

It was the plethora of these kinds of questions which first interested me in attaining a Masters in Library and Information Science. My mother had been a school librarian for most of my life, and while she had two Masters Degrees, neither were an MLIS. I considered following her into school librarianship, but as I was completing my Bachelors in English, I found myself drawn to the academic questions of information science that concerned my generation. I decided fairly early on in my college career that I was going to work towards an MLIS and I also decided that I was going to attend the ISchool at the University of Washington.

Arcimboldo Librarian Stokholm.jpg
Arcimboldo Librarian Stokholm” by Giuseppe Arcimboldohttp://www.wga.hu/art/a/arcimbol/4composi/5librari.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the time for the application came, I went above and beyond to make myself an attractive candidate. I finished the application a full two months before the deadline, getting five letters of recommendations from teachers and employers. I wrote and rewrote my essays and went frequently to the ISchool advisors to try to find exactly what they wanted so I could include it in my application. I did not apply to any other programs at that time – I honestly didn’t see the point. The UW ISchool was going to be my graduate home, just as the UW English Department had been. I felt instinctually that everything was going to work out fine.

It didn’t. I was rejected from the ISchool. It was the first time I had been rejected for anything academic in my entire life and I was crushed. The rejection made me rethink all my plans for the future. Did I even want to go for a library degree if I couldn’t go to the UW ISchool? What was I going to do for a whole year until application time came around again? Should I give up? What was I going to do? It was a time of deep uncertainty and distress for me, and my rejection from the UW ISchool launched one of the longest and, to me, most important searches for information I had ever attempted in my life.

Dibrary: main floor

My first step was to decide if I still wanted to be a librarian. I had long conversations with my mother and my college advisors about the profession and even solicited people for their personal opinions of my personality and abilities: did they think I could make a good librarian? Did I have the drive to do grad school? Could they think of any other careers that might suit me better? In the end, I decided that just because the ISchool didn’t seem to think I’d make a good librarian, it was still what I wanted to be more than anything and I wasn’t ready to give that up.

I then began to search for information about my remaining options. Thinking that I had missed all the other deadlines for MLIS programs, I started to look for information about jobs or internships that I could do in the interim time before I could reapply. In the midst of the search, I went onto the ALA website to see if they had any resources I might find useful. In poking around the site, I stumbled upon their list of all the ALA approved programs in the country. I was saddened to find that there were no other programs in Washington State that were ALA approved; I was hoping to apply to multiple Washington State schools next time to improve my chances of getting accepted somewhere. While I was on this site, my mother told me about an article she had read talking about the proliferation of online MLIS programs that many schools were offering. In clicking through the schools listed on the ALA website I was amazed to find that many of the east coast schools had not yet closed their admission applications for their MLIS programs! In fact many of them had not even begun accepting applications!

Loan Applications

I went to every single school’s website that was listed on the ALA Approved Programs site. I weeded them down by first seeing whether or not applications were still being accepted. I then focused on schools with online program offerings. I had decided that I did not have the funds to make the move across country to any of the schools still accepting applications, so online programs became my focus. I continued to weed the prospective schools by which programs offered complete online programs (rather than just certain classes) and then began doing a more subjective information search of each of the programs offered. I sent emails to the schools still on my list, requesting information on their programs and admissions process. The kinds of responses I got helped me hone my search even further and a wider web search on each school for information such as reputation and student experience did the rest.

I decided to apply to three different programs: the ISchool at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, the University of South Florida MLIS Program, and the University of Kentucky MLIS program. The final step in my information search was to compile a list of the deadlines for each school and their individual admission requirements based on the information I gained from the contacts listed on the websites and the websites themselves.

ALA - The American Library Association, of which I am now a member.

ALA – The American Library Association, of which I am now a member.

This information saga represents the first time in my life I found myself in the midst of an information problem that had consequences that far outreached completing a project for a class or fulfilling personal curiosity. I felt the importance of these various information needs very deeply and my questions and uncertainties weighed heavily on me until I could figure out how to alleviate them with information. Examining this chain of information needs and information solutions in retrospect, it becomes clear that my information seeking behavior did not just influence the methods I used and the resolutions I ultimately came to, but that my behavior demonstrates many of the abstract notions of information seeking that are being discussed by the librarian community to date.

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Before the Dawn

"It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn"

The days were getting longer, the early morning sky streaked with dull sunlight when he rose now, the clouds like a pane of frosted glass through which the light struggled to shine. Henry folded the last of Stephanie’s clothes into a black trash bag, depositing the pink summer dress into the recesses of the dark plastic with some tenderness.

He had heard once that the whole point of living was to gain practice at letting go, since, after all, life moved inevitably towards death, the ultimate release of control. If that was true, and he wasn’t certain it was, Henry now considered himself quite well-practiced.

Stephanie’s side of the closet was finally empty, save for the white hangers dangling like tree branches picked clean of fruit. She hadn’t left much behind, but what had remained in the wake of her departure had taken Henry the better part of six months to dispose of. He rose in the small hours of the morning to unhook and fold shirts, dresses, trousers, and skirts. It was the only time he could bear to do it; when the sun had barely risen, or not bothered rising at all, and the room they had once shared lay enfolded in shadows.

Letting go felt easier in the dark, when he couldn’t make out his hands moving over worn fabric, stretched into the shape of her hips or her breasts or her shoulders. When the day did begin, Henry would peer into the closet and pretend the clothes had never been there – that it had all been a dream, in the small hours of the morning, a dream of a soft, smiling woman, with small hands and a shivery smile, who had chosen her freedom over his love, and it didn’t have to hurt because it hadn’t really happened. He could let go.

The trash bag of clothes bumped against the back of his leg as he carried it down to the apartment complex’s donation dumpster. The day’s first feeble rays of sunlight refracted in the fog. A crow called as it passed overhead. The dumpster’s door creaked open and clanged shut, sounding like the opening bell of a market place. Time to let go.

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A Moral-less “Down and Out”

Author George Orwell in the 1940s.

Author George Orwell in the 1940s.

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London takes us out of the 18th and 19th century and catapults us into the ‘modern’ age of the 20th. Just as in Moll Flanders, the story laid out in Down and Out in Paris and London is narrated in the first person, from the point of view of the character whose life and experiences with which the reader is being regaled. However, unlike Moll Flanders, the narrator in Orwell’s novel offers no moral judgments on anything that he himself has done or on any of the tales of debauchery and ‘lowness’ he tells of the others he encounters. Orwell simply presents the experiences as they are and leaves it to the reader to decide whether or not they were ‘right’, ‘wrong’, or somewhere in between.

Take, for example, the story that the quarter’s ‘runaway’, Charlie, tells of the girl he raped. This is in only the second chapter and is told in incredible detail and with characterization, as if the reader is actually hearing Charlie tell it, word for word. I believe that it is expected for the reader to find this story completely repugnant and horrifying. It leaves one unsure how to feel about the character of Charlie, who has been described in the most poetic terms, as well as how to feel about the narrator himself. Yet the narrator offers no judgment on the tale. Indeed, he doesn’t even write down his own visceral reactions to it, ending it simply with: “He was a curious specimen, Charlie. I describe him, just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d’Or quarter” (Orwell, 15).

Photo via Flickr

Photo via Flickr

Why does Orwell take this stance? Why does he and his narrator seemingly refuse to moralize any of the experiences related in the novel? I believe it is because Orwell’s authorial goals in writing Down and Out were not to show ‘lowlife’ behavior and culture as an effect of any kind of moral degradation, but rather an economic and systematic failure. One of the few times the narrator discusses his experiences philosophically is, when he has left Paris for London, as he explores the plight of the plongeur’. He examines this station in life not from a moral, but a social standpoint, pointing to the “fear of the mob” that the upper-classes have that keep them from advocating for change (Orwell, 119). In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell is focused on sociological insights, not moral ones.

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Movement

Moving truck

Moving is hard for writers. I think it’s hard for everyone, of course, but being a writer and moving presents a unique set of problems that I’m not sure everyone else experiences, or at least experiences to the same extent.

For example, for one who is keenly aware of the pattern of stories, it’s hard to view the impending move as anything but the rising action of plot. A writer examines the move for potential character building conflict, for the introduction of new characters, looking behind them and analyzing where the ‘beginning’ of the story might have been, and peering ahead over an imaginary hump of a climax, trying to sense the unknown crisis moment they simultaneously look forward to and dread.

Garage sales become strange, limbo lands, endless spools of memory, like a storage closet stuffed with old film which may or may not ignite at any moment. Logic tells us, ‘You haven’t worn this jacket since the 11th grade. Something’s been living in one of the pockets. Out it goes.’, but our minds, twisted round stories, vividly recalls the feel of the satin sleeves as we walked through the halls of high school, sweating slightly under the arms as you approached the boy you thought you’d die for who turned out to be worth significantly less than warped Tupperware. How can you let go of the jacket without letting go of part of you?

In the end, moving is a leap of faith – a writer’s worst nightmare. To feel the story working its magic around you, carrying you forward, and being unable to control the ending? Unable to look ahead and give the events about to beset you an editorial review, a stamp of approval? It’s against our very nature. But even then, we understand; we’re at the mercy of the story. And the story says ‘move’; one way or another, the story will move you.

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The Novel Form

jwild

One of the things that stand out the most while reading Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, is how differently it is formatted from other works from the same period. Granted, The Beggar’s Opera is a play and thus formatted accordingly. But Moll Flanders, while obviously a novel, based on its length, narrative style, etc., was not at all formatted like the ‘modern’ novels read by the public today. Likewise, Pamela and other works from the 18th century, are also formatted like Moll Flanders. These works are broken up at most by different “books”, but are, more often than not, completely non-delineated.

Within the narrative itself, especially in the case of Moll Flanders, the reader receives clues as to when an episode has ended and a new one begun. In Moll Flanders this is usually executed by some turn of phrase similar to “I faced the world anew” or a tally of her current stock of goods and money. Jonathan Wild uses two different formatting techniques to split up the text on the page. Fielding first splits up the narratives into four “books” and then each book is split up into fourteen chapters, excepting the last book which contains sixteen.

Chapter 61

Why did Fielding choose to do this? How does it affect the narrative? It seems that Fielding uses these breaks in narrative flow to redirect the reader’s attention to specifically what he wants them to take away from every scene. Fielding’s narrator is incredibly controlling of the narrative emphasis and every section is steeped in heavy-handed irony and social commentary. Given that these two things are true, one can guess at how the chapter breaks were to be employed, both as a further means of controlling the reader’s interpretation of the text and as a way to highlight what critique in particular is to be the focus of each individual scene. Both of these intentions can be seen in the chapter headings for each section. For example, Chapter I of Book II is titled “Characters of silly People, with the proper Uses for which such are designed” (Fielding 46). This is the chapter in which Wild reunites with his schoolmate Thomas Heartfree. From the title alone, the reader is already told that the person to be introduced is to be read as ‘silly’, albeit ironically in this case, and that the thing to pay attention to is the ‘proper uses’ for these people which the narrative will lay out.

In this way, the formatting of the narrative into the more modernly familiar books and chapters, allows the author a greater control over narrative flow and reader interpretation, allowing them another opportunity to pointedly redirect attention and interpretation. It is worthwhile to consider this effect of ‘chapterization’ in modern novels, becoming aware of the fact that without them, a different reading of the text may become apparent.

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The Wild

Red wolf watching deer at Cades Cove - Great Smoky Mountains

I worry, at times, that Rapunzel exchanged one ivory tower for another; one with bigger windows and more staircases, but a tower nonetheless. I wonder, sometimes, how unhappy she really was, cast out into the wilderness, sheared and alone for the first time in her life. The blinded prince who had left her with child follows the sound of her singing, discovering her hideaway, and I have to ask myself: how happy was she to see him?

She probably loved him, I tell myself; and raising twins on one’s own is anything but easy, wilderness or no. But I doubt very much if the Rapunzel he saw when her tears restored his sight was the same Rapunzel the prince charmed in the tower.

Perhaps she liked being a wild thing. Perhaps the sound of the wolf at her door in the dead of night made her heart race with fear and something else with it. Perhaps bearing life out there in the woods made her realize her own power. Perhaps her hair grew back and she cut it again, with a flint she’d sharpened herself, cutting her dirty, pale hands under the shady trees. After all, she was named after a plant, a growing thing, and plants grow best where their roots can dig deep, away from others who would steal their sunlight.

Perhaps Rapunzel didn’t need any more rescuing. Perhaps she didn’t have a choice.

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2014 & a Blog to Remember

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 3,800 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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