This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, December 26, 1990

December 26, 1990 - Poetry in Prison

Plato banned poets from his ideal society (described in "The Republic"). Why? Because poets stir people up, fill their heads with dangerous dreams.

In Russia, many poets have been locked up for life. Again, we ask, Why? Because whenever they give readings, they draw enough people to fill football stadiums; later, the audiences get restless.

Here in the United States of America, it's hard to imagine anybody thinking of a poet as dangerous. The only poets most of us have ever heard about are dead -- almost the definition of an American poet.

How many people in America would risk their liberty for verse?

On the other hand, it wasn't long ago that 2 Live Crew, the putatively pornographic rap group, ALMOST got jailed. And according to some folks, rap music is the closest thing to poetry that our age can claim. (That's not particularly encouraging news either for poetry or for our age, but then, not all rap groups are as nasty as 2 Live Crew.)

For many years now, Americans have pegged poets as wimps, forever swooning in the moonlight, utterly incapable of changing a tire. By contrast, people in other countries see poets as catalysts and dissidents, potent moral and political forces.

Maybe those other countries are right. And maybe we're about to see the birth of a strange new cultural phenomenon in America: the macho poet.

I've been thinking about all this because last week, at the request of a colleague in the Colorado Library Association, I gave a reading of my poetry to the inmates of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City.

At times, the experience bordered on the surreal. After parking my car, I stood in the darkness before a large, heavily fortified gate. Eventually, a gruff voice challenged me from the watchtower.


"The name's LaRue!" I shouted.


"I'm here to read poetry!"

Long pause. "WHAT??!!"

I felt like an idiot, with maybe a dash of Don Quixote. But after an excruciatingly long silence, the looming metal gate clanged open, I walked in, and the gate clanged shut.

After a nervous wait in the reception area, I was escorted through several other gates and fences to the prison library. There I joined two other poets -- one from the Naropa Institute in Boulder, one, amazingly, a prison guard. Soon, twelve men filed in, all in prison garb, all with (it seemed to me) strangely burning eyes.

Then the poets read to the prisoners.

I have to say ... the inmates were among the best, most attentive, most appreciative audiences I've ever encountered. Afterward, they made keen observations about our writings. They all thanked us very politely.

One of the prisoners gave me a copy of a journal produced right there in Canon City, sponsored by the prison librarian. It was called, "Writing on the Walls." I've read it several times since then. Much of the writing stays with me.

For instance, here's an excerpt from a piece by James Dresden: "Hearts cause such pain / they should all be ripped from our chests."

Here's a haiku by Hoang Nguyen: "The wall is too high. / The human mind is higher. / The sky is highest."

When I commented on the quality of some of the work, one of the prisoners reminded me that, "Here, if you've got the inclination, you've got the time."

It makes you wonder: how much of the poetry written in America these days is written behind bars?

Or to look at it yet another way, which came first -- the criminal or the poet?

Wednesday, December 19, 1990

December 19, 1990 - The Best Christmas Gift

Six days till Christmas.

Does this strike terror into your heart? You can't help but mentally insert that crucial word -- SHOPPING.

It's to deal with this kind of situation that I formulated my basic life philosophy, which I recommend to you heartily: "Hysteria is always an appropriate response." Or as someone else put it, "When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."

What we really need is an all-purpose gift that will satisfy everybody. It should be suitable for all ages. It should require no assembly. It shouldn't need batteries. You shouldn't have to feed it. It should last forever. It should be constantly entertaining. The more the recipient uses it, the more he or she should like it.

And of course, it should be free.

No such animal, right? Wrong. I'm talking about a library card.

I'll never understand it. Most adults these days carry cards of every description; most of them DON'T have library cards. So for the woman or man who has everything, why not offer everything else -- access to the total accumulated knowledge of the human race, not to mention the most wonderful stories ever told?

But the real winner of a gift like this is not an adult, but a child.

Here's all you have to do to make your holidays a success. First, come down to the library and fill out a library card application for your child. Then, check out three or four books. Wrap the card and the books then set them under the tree. Save this very special package for last.

When the child rips it open, say that this unassuming little card will let him or her get presents all year long. Then read your child to sleep that night with one of the books. After your children have gotten bored with all their expensive toys, read them (or have them read) the other books, then trot them down to the library in that slow week after the main event. Teach your children about exchanging one present for another.

At the library, every day is Christmas. Behind every book cover there are riches. After introducing your kids to a treasure trove beyond Aladdin's wildest dreams, why not mosey over to the adult section, and browse through the latest offerings yourself? You know you deserve it.

A couple of years ago, then U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett urged every child to obtain and use a library card. It was good advice then; it's good advice now.

Besides, at prices like these, who can argue? I'll even make you this once-in-a-lifetime, absolutely unconditional offer. If you are not fully satisfied after a lifetime of learning and pleasure -- I'll cheerfully refund your money.

Trust me, this could be the best Christmas card you'll ever send.

Wednesday, December 12, 1990

December 12, 1990 - Food for Fines

You've probably seen the cartoon: a librarian has tied a young boy to a chair. She says into the telephone, "All right, Mrs. Jones. You've got our books. We've got your son."

This strikes people funny because it plays on our stereotype of the bespectacled bookworm, her mouth perpetually pursed in a "Sh!" -- her iron-gray hair tightened into a bun. She has nothing to do, really, but fret about books that should have been returned yesterday, much as an elderly hen might cluck over a pack of wayward chicks.

Truth is, I haven't worn my hair in a bun since the 60's, which back then was considered pretty cool. And most of the librarians I know are too busy rustling up good books to want to intimidate children, or worry overmuch about the small percentage of library materials that walks away from us forever.

We understand that sometimes people don't remember things as well as they'd like to. We realize too that people can get really attached to our books and not want to give them up. It's just that we don't want to either.

Every library has a core group of miscreants. I don't mean the average guy, who brings in two or three books a few days late every couple of months. I don't mean the young mother who checks out 30 children's picture books then has trouble tracking them all down. Her kids are reading, and we're proud of her. I mean those people who consistently check out our spanking new and most popular books or stroll out with some oft-requested classics -- then ignore all of our notices, letters and phone calls.

Under Colorado law, failure to return library materials is a Class 3 Misdemeanor. Among librarians, opinions differ about an appropriate punishment for repeat offenders. Some feel that capital punishment is the only sure deterrent. Others wonder -- can't we do something a little more drastic?

Of course, sometimes these Criminals are basically good-hearted people too embarrassed to bring back the books. Or they're afraid the fine will be astronomical. Okay, they should be a little embarrassed, but if they bring back the books, at least they'll have their self-respect. And let's get real, here. The maximum fine for most books is only $3.000 -- and it takes almost a month to get that high. By contrast, the average replacement cost for an adult fiction hardback is between $15-20.

But let's not dwell too much on the numbers. This IS a holiday season, and because here at the Douglas Public Library District we're anything but stereotypical, we're going to try something a little different this year.

We're calling it our Food For Fines program. From December 10 through the end of the 1990, we will accept canned goods at each of our library branches in lieu of overdue fines. That's right. As long as you bring back the book, the most you'll have to pay for any one person's total fines is a single can of food.

At the end of the program, we'll donate the food to one of Douglas County's two Food Banks.

I should mention that you don't have to owe the library any fines in order to donate some canned goods. After all, the real meaning of libraries isn't about money, it's about people helping people.

It's food for thought.

Wednesday, December 5, 1990

December 5, 1990 - Tired

I'm tired.

There comes a time in everyone's life when he or she just doesn't want to do a darn thing, or at least nothing useful. This is my time.

Renee Chastant, a friend of mine, came up with a wonderful phrase to describe the only thing I feel like doing lately: "power lounging." Power lounging, or the executive sprawl, is the ideal recreation for the harried professional.

To the casual observer, power lounging looks a lot like malingering, or what your mother might have called "lying around."

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Power lounging enables the sincere practitioner to idle the emotional engine, give the brain a break, and soothe the bothered and bewildered body.

Racehorses need rest. CEOs need sleep. Even computers take five now and then.

But let's face it. Even the utterly exhausted businessperson won't be satisfied for very long with doing absolutely nothing.

Some people watch old TV sitcoms. Some rent movies. What I do is to read something I've already read.

I see a lot of new books at work. But at home I hunker down with my old favorites. When you really want to get away from it all, you don't want to have to gear up for something brand new. A book that you've read not just twice but many times, is as warm and comforting as a down quilt: no surprises, a sure and familiar result, a story you can relax into with confidence and gratitude.

I keep coming back to the books that really influenced me, that I discovered in my most formative years. I drowse over Strunk and White's "Elements of Style." I re-read the books of J.D. Salinger, particularly the ones about the spiritually engrossing Glass family. About once a year or so, I plow through Ayn Rand's one thousand-plus page opus, "Atlas Shrugged." The late great science fiction author, Robert Heinlein, wrote an unsurpassed series of books for juveniles. I re-read about one a month. I savor chapters from the Tao te Ching, the power lounger's bible. On wet and windy nights, I ponder Edgar Allen Poe's somber poem, "The Raven." Or I accompany Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into the fog, or eavesdrop on Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey as he woos the ever-feisty but endearing Harriet Vane.

And, it goes without saying, I read anything and everything by Dr. Seuss, preferably aloud. (That's what's great about kid's books. You can read them to kids, and they think you're doing it for them.)

You can tell a lot about people by what they read. But you can tell even more by what they read over and over.

So as we slip, slide, and cough our way into the winter, I urge you to rediscover your past: snuggle back into the good books that made you who you are. Come down to the library and tell us about them. Take them home with you. Stay up late reading a few nights.

And sleep in.