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, November 27, 1991

November 27, 1991 - Final Exit

For many years, my mother was the head nurse of a geriatrics ward of a Veteran's Administration Hospital. During college, I worked for some time as a nursing home orderly.

One night, my mother and I talked about our experiences. Most of mom's patients were over 80. Many of them hadn't spoken or stirred in over a decade. And at least once a week, one of those patients started to die.

Now there are two things a nurse can do in that situation. One of them is to follow procedure: hit the Code Blue button. Instantly, a team of specialists would descend on the body to revive it, using whatever steps might be necessary.

After watching this team "restore" several people who hadn't shown any signs of life for years, my mother became more and more opposed to this practice. One day she decided that if a patient said he was ready to die, or if the patient had been comatose for a long period, then according to her own, long-seasoned judgment, she would chose the second and unsanctioned option: she would let him die. In every case, she would also sit holding that person's hand until he was long past the point of recovery. Only then would she hit the button. I don't know exactly how many people my mother allowed to die -- several dozen, I think.

All of this came back to me one day when suddenly I was the one making that decision. It was in the anxious days just after my mother's stroke. I had a dream that my mother died. I woke up, then sat shaking till dawn. Exhausted and stricken, I didn't go to the hospital to see my mother the following afternoon. So I was the only person home when the call came.

It was her doctor. He said that the only way my mother could continue to live was if he hooked her up to a life-support system. Immediately. All of my family had just left the hospital, and wouldn't be home for an hour. He was just calling to inform someone that he was about to do this.

I took a deep breath, then forbad the doctor from taking any extraordinary measures. He said, "I don't think you don't have the authority to decide this." I said, "My mother and I have discussed this issue at length. I am the executor of her will. I know her feelings. If you attach her to a life-support system, I'll sue you."
I had never made such a threat in all my life. And I don't like lawsuits. But I did know that I was honoring my mother's wishes.

After a pause, the doctor said, "All right."

Then, of course, I tried to make the drive to the hospital before she died. I was too late. But sitting in that room with her corpse, despite my sorrow, I had no regrets.

I mention all this because I recently directed the purchase of a book that is bound to upset some people. The book is called "Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying," by Derek Humphrey, which at this writing occupies the number one spot on the bestseller list (and has been requested by several of our patrons). Sponsored by the Hemlock Society, "Final Exit" tells people how to assume responsibility for their own deaths. Let's take that one step further: this book tells people how to kill themselves (although as a review in the November "Wilson Library Bulletin" points out, "the Society is careful to make it clear that it does not encourage suicide for emotional, traumatic, or financial reasons").

The publisher of the book, Stephen Schragis, has his own story. In the August 30, 1991 issue of "Publisher's Weekly," he wrote, "In 1989 my wife and I faced a nightmare I will never forget: the American medical system, which insisted on keeping our newborn child `alive' despite a near total lack of brain function or ability to think, reason, or even move. A decision that ought to have been ours alone was being made by others."

So he published a book that instructs people -- adults, in some very strictly defined circumstances -- how to end their own lives, mostly through prescription drugs.

You may not agree with the idea behind this book. Some of you surely do not. But it is the mission of a library to provide information, to set before the body politic those choices -- and opposing viewpoints -- that matter.

Naturally, the library does have materials representing more traditional viewpoints. But "the right to die" is an issue now under discussion all across the country, and "Final Exit" is a catalyst for that discussion.

Sooner or later, it's a subject that all of us will need to face.

Wednesday, November 20, 1991

November 20, 1991 - A Tale of Three Computers

In 1983, I bought my very first computer. It was called a Kaypro II, and it cost $1,795. At the time, that was a heck of a deal. Most computers cost at least $2,500 back then, and often twice that. The Kaypro even included a full complement of software: a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database program, and a couple of programming languages.

I put a lot of time into that computer. So much time, in fact, that my wife and I began calling it "Baby Kay," because I was always giving it midnight feedings.

But in retrospect, Baby Kay was pretty crude. She (it only took two days for "it" to become "her") had two disk drives, which TOGETHER provided more or less permanent storage of just 180,000 "bytes" of information. (That's 180K, as we say in computerese, where one byte equals one letter or mark of punctuation. To look at it another way, Baby Kay could work with a maximum of about 90 pages of double-spaced text at a time.) She was a "portable computer," as in portable sewing machine, weighing in at about 18 pounds.

I bought my second computer in 1987, which I put on my desk at work. This machine, also made by Kaypro, was an IBM-XT compatible, which meant that it had one 360K disk drive, and a "hard drive" that stored 20 megabytes of data -- that's 20 million, 360 bytes -- an 112-fold increase. This computer I christened "Butch" -- on account of he was a lean, mean, computing machine. Cost: $1,795. Again, I got a terrific bunch of software bundled in with him.

Well, these days, the most popular computer is something called a 386SX -- a computer whose "brain" runs rings around Butch, and usually comes with a 40 to 60 megabyte hard drive. Cost: about $1,795 (including a top notch color monitor, a snazzy new operating system called Windows, some extra "memory," and a good printer). It happens that the library will be buying a couple of these newer machines before the end of the year.

In less than a decade, the personal computer has gone from a barely legitimate and scarcely tolerated business intrusion to an absolute business necessity. In libraries, not only does our central computer system provide our circulation and cataloging system, our desktop computers are in constant use for everything from budgeting, to comprehensive and detailed policy manuals, to connecting to other library databases through phone lines.

Meanwhile, at home, I did break down and buy myself yet another computer. This one is a Toshiba "laptop."

It's not quite as "pumped up" as Butch. But it only weighs about six pounds, and folds to the size of a regular three ring notebook. It does have a 1.44 megabyte disk drive, a wonderfully legible little screen, a keyboard that is a sheer delight to use, and can run on batteries for about two hours. Cost: about $500. Now I can carry my computer into the living room, or take notes when I'm at meetings or doing research somewhere. I'm writing this column on it, right on the dining room table.

The new computer, incidentally, is called Basho -- a tribute to the Japanese poet who defined the verse form called haiku, and to the Japanese technicians who have built such a light, elegant, and compact computer.

In short, the computers of today are now smaller, faster, do more, store more, and cost less than ever before. The automation industry is at last approaching maturity: the product has not only become more affordable, it's become less intrusive, more ordinary, and as indispensable as the typewriter was just 10 years ago.

And I have decided that I have all the computers I need -- at least for now.

Wednesday, November 13, 1991

November 13, 1991 - On reading slowly

Most people don't read very fast. They "subvocalize" -- that is, they say each written word in their minds, just as if they were reading aloud. Often, their tongues actually form the sounds. (Check yourself as you read this column. Odds are, your tongue and your lips are making barely perceptible motions.) Most people read about as quickly as they speak.

I'm not really sure where the idea came from, but in fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to learn how to read faster. So I went to the Waukegan Public Library and checked out a couple of books on the subject.

According to those books, the object was to break the pattern of subvocalization. There were lots of tricks: place a ruler under a line of text, then start pulling it down the page, struggling to go faster and faster. Set your finger at the top left edge of the page, run it right along the first line of text, then left along the second line, then right along the third, alternating directions with each line. Watch your finger, not the words. Then set your finger at the exact middle of the page, and run it straight down. See how much you pick up. Always, the point was to go faster and faster.

I remember the first book I tried all this stuff on. It was a social science textbook. It was a good choice, because like many textbooks, it had two columns of text per page. Each column had fewer words on a line than the lines on an ordinary typeset page. Short lines -- like those you find in newspapers, incidentally -- are conducive to scanning.

Nonetheless, it was hard going. I got caught up in the exercises, but then would find that I'd gotten to the end of a page with scarcely a clue as to what I'd seen. It was frustrating -- sometimes I would have to go back and re-read everything at the usual speed. But that had begun to bother me, because I had glimpsed, barely, how fast I MIGHT be reading. So I'd try again.

After a couple of months of this, I began to discover how surprisingly flexible and quick the brain is, and what an incredible amount of information we can take in from our peripheral vision alone. Gradually, over time, I did break the pattern of subvocalization, splitting what I saw from how long it took me to say it.

There are lots of advantages to reading quickly. I soon learned that I could read whole textbooks in a week or so, then just skim the chapters again on the way to school. (Sometime I ought to do a column about how to read while walking through busy intersections, something else I got fairly good at.) But this kind of thing -- whether it be reading quickly, or reading and walking at the same time -- doesn't really take a whole lot of brain power. It's a skill, easily learned. It just takes practice.

I practiced a lot. So by the time I was a high school senior, I was churning through an average of 14 books a week, mostly science fiction, but with a fair sprinkling of classics, philosophy, and non-fiction, too.

More recently, I've found that reading fast is a good way to get up to speed in a new job. Or to immerse yourself in a subject: About 15 years ago, I read the Bible in three weeks, mostly on Tucson buses. And when I first dabbled with computers and modems, it was nice to discover that I could easily keep up with a 1200-characters-per-second connection.

But there's a downside to all this.

To really savor something, to really retain the flavor of a book, you don't WANT to read fast. In the past couple of years, I have found myself struggling -- particularly when I'm reading fiction -- to gear down, to go back to sounding each syllable in my mind. Strangely, the more tired I am, the faster I read.

The most satisfying reading, I've discovered, is reading aloud. Try this sometime. Check out, for instance, a book called "Sarah, Plain and Tall," by Patricia MacLachlan. Read it aloud to your spouse as he or she prepares dinner or fixes the car. The experience is utterly compelling. If you don't believe me, stop part way through, and observe your spouse's reaction.

Again, there is a lot to be said for learning to read quickly. But in this age of the sound bite, the video, even the book-on-tape, it just might be that the best entertainment to be found is listening to someone you love read from a book you're just about to love.

Wednesday, November 6, 1991

November 6, 1991 - How to Open a Book

This week's topic is deceptively simple: How to Open A Book, particularly a new book.

First, wash your hands. When you do it right, opening a book is both a blatantly sensual and profoundly intellectual experience. It demands the utmost cleanliness and attention.

Second, hold the book in both hands and examine the front cover. Some books have paper jackets, some do not. But look at the cover. Think about it. The cover is a book's face.

Third, tilt the spine (the binding, or "backbone" of the book) upward. Hold the covers of the book in one hand, one thumb on one side, the remaining fingers on the other. Now read what appears on the spine. Think about that, too. The spine is the book's soul. (The spine is also a book's profile: On a library shelf, the spine defines the book.)

Fourth, run the palm of your other hand along the length of the spine, top to bottom, firmly but gently. You might let your thumb and forefinger linger in the gutters on either side of the spine. A well-bound book should feel smooth, even, and tight.

Fifth, set the spine of the book on a smooth, flat surface, holding both covers up, your palms pressed together as if in prayer.

Sixth, gently open the covers of the book, and run your hand along the inside edges of the binding, lightly pressing down against the underlying surface. What you're doing here is breaking in the book slowly, getting it accustomed to the feel of its first reader. Too often these days, books have brittle spines. A little care now can prevent a lot of damage later.

Seventh, reach in from each side toward the middle, using your thumbs to grab a few pages at a time. Ease these sections down along the covers, then again draw your forefingers along the inside edge or gutters, slowly and thoughtfully. Now you're getting the book used to staying open, evenly and easily.

Eight, repeat this process, thumbing a little bit more of the book with each pass, working to the middle of the book. Once you reach the center, again with a firm but gentle pressure, smooth the pages down, first along the inside edge, then from the middle outward.

Ninth, close the book, setting it down on its back cover. Press down on the surface with both hands, just to let the book know for the first time what it feels like to be closed again, to take a breath, to wait.

Tenth, immediately heft the book, so that the spine nestles comfortably against your palm. Consider its weight.

Eleventh, open the book again, this time to the very first page. And page by page, with reverence, attend its words, savor its typography, contemplate its structure. Open yourself to its deep meaning.

That's how to open a book.