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, July 25, 2001

July 25, 2001 - My Fascination with the Mother Tongue

It all started in 7th grade. I got caught in a study hall with nothing to read and no homework to do. I rooted around in my desk and found a dictionary. I started reading it ... and got hooked.

That particular dictionary also gave word roots. So I not only got to soak up different meanings, but I began to get a sense of where the word had come from, and how meanings shifted through each linguistic turn.

Thus began a lifelong fascination with the English language. My home library now includes several dictionaries (including a miniaturized version of the Oxford English Dictionary that requires a magnifying glass), and a smattering of books about the development of the English tongue.

This interest, I have learned, is shared by many. An example is the popular "Word A Day" email newsletter. It happens that I got this as a surprise gift from our Library Board President. But you can sign up yourself at wordsmith.org/awad/subscribe.html. The subscription is absolutely free.

What do you get? Well, here's one of the daily messages I saved:

paramnesia (par-am-NEE-zhuh) noun

1. A distortion of memory in which fact and fantasy are confused.
2. The inability to recall the correct meaning of a word.

[New Latin, par-, amnesia.]

"God's attention, then loss of attention, his control, then loss of control over the actions of the squirming and chanting boot jacks, is consistent with Ellis's discussion of paramnesia."

Dennis Ryan, `A Divine Gesture': Hemingway's complex parody of the modern, Hemingway Review, Fall 1996.

In other words, you get the pronunciation, definitions, and a use of the word in a sentence. The words are usually grouped in a week by some theme. The above was part of the theme of "Words for ailments and afflictions."

And this comes every day. Some, like the one above, can be most apt. Here's another favorite:

"pococurante (po-ko-koo-RAN-tee, ) adjective. Indifferent, apathetic, nonchalant. Noun - A careless or indifferent person." When you need a word like that, you need it NOW.

The same folks also send an occasional summary of subscriber comments, or "A Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages." The most recent I've received is Issue 39, dated July 22, 2001. It's a mixed bag. It can have an intercontinental tilt: as in a recommendation of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs," to an explanation of the French use of the suffix "-ard" to add insult. A subscriber writes, "For instance, while chauffeur in French means driver-- not just the limo kind: Chauffeur de taxi means, simply taxi driver-- 'chauffard' is slang for someone who drives badly." Also included in the issue is a fond remembrance of the old cartoon "Underdog," and this classic comment from someone currently stationed on an aircraft carrier (USS Constellation) deployed to the Persian Gulf: "Now when we enter another foreign port, we can sound a little more educated as we make our way to the local bars and tattoo parlors."

For more reading about our wonderful language, I recommend,"The Story of English," by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran, which is an outstanding companion to the BBC series of the same name. Another favorite is Bill Bryson's, "the Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way."

"The difference between the right word, and the almost right word, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." - Mark Twain.

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

July 18, 2001 - A Metaphysical Farce

Profane. Vulgar. Violent. Full of sexual innuendo. That's not unusual for a movie, I guess. But this one, I got from a minister.

The movie's name is "Dogma." I have no idea how it was described at the time of release, but I know how I'd label it: a metaphysical farce. I'm sure it's at least an "R." The language is pretty coarse.

The basic plot line is convoluted. In brief, two long-exiled angels have found a sort of doctrinal loophole that will get them back into heaven. If they succeed, there will be, well, hell to pay.

Various other characters include a a forgotten Apostle, a couple of Prophets, yet another angel, a Muse or two, and the intriguing Scion.

I failed to mention another key character: God.

George Carlin puts in a wonderful performance as a highly placed Catholic official who rolls out a new image to replace the crucifix: a statue of Jesus, one thumb up, all smiles.

I have to say that I do believe, both personally and professionally, that swearing is the last refuge of the inarticulate. But despite all the above, "Dogma" manages to be both funny -- sometimes hilarious -- and thought-provoking.

The main protagonist of the piece is a woman who is suffering a crisis of faith. She's a Catholic, or at least, she goes to a Catholic church once a week. She also works at an abortion clinic, and is divorced.

While sleeping one night, she is visited by an angel, who appears in ablaze of flames. She douses him with a fire extinguisher.

I won't reveal any more about the plot than that. The movie is populated mostly by young people, all with that strangely jaunty air of the Gen-Xer.

It happens that I like that generation. I always have. They have a clear-eyed assessment of both what sucks in the world, and what matters. And they have the willingness, as does the protagonist, to do what's necessary, even if there's not much of a percentage in it. I like that about them, too.

I mention all this because the minister, Cal Kemper of "Song of Joy" (a United Church of Christ affiliate) wants to show the film and have a discussion about it. He asked me to sit in as co-facilitator.

I'm not a member of that church, but I like the idea of a free and open discussion about religion. That does seem to me to be at least one of the points of the First Amendment.

So, on July 28, 6:30 p.m., the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock will be sponsoring a showing of the film, followed by a freewheeling discussion. On the one hand, we'll have Cal and Rebecca Kemper, the ministers. I presume that their interest is religious.

On the other hand, we'll have me. My interest is more cultural. What does this film say about religion in America? What does it say about faith as a motivating force in the life of a generation? What does it say about religion and the movies?

You may expect to find some books on display, too.

Again, please be advised that this film really isn't for children.

At any rate, if you have an interest in a decidedly offbeat evening talking about things that mostly don't get talked about, stop by the library. The show (and that includes participant discussion) is free.

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

July 11, 2001 - Public Library a Remarkable Return on Investment

Last Saturday, I attended two weddings. The first was of Kevin Watkins, the library's crackerjack Network Administrator. Kevin was most dignified; I was proud of him. It was a lovely service, and the Best Woman (Kevin's sister) did a particularly fine job. The bride, in the grand tradition of brides, was radiant.

The second service was for a couple who have lived together for the past 25 years. It took place by a tree, along a river. Participants read poems from the Bible, from the Sufi poet Rumi, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from various other sources.

The Episcopalian priest did something I hadn't seen before. After the couple made their vows to each other, the priest asked those gathered to make their own vow: to counsel and encourage the couple, to support them, to help them to preserve this union. We said, "We will!"

Then the couple said they had a list of people they wanted to thank. They thanked their parents, now deceased, for bringing them into the world, and for tending to their upbringing. They thanked their family and friends. Then they did something quite extraordinary. They thanked their former spouses, their "ex's" -- who were also in attendance.

This, I thought, is how a civilized society ought to work. A marriage is not just an exchange of promises between two people, it is a covenant with the community.

It is a sad fact, of course, that many marriages do end in divorce. It is an even sadder fact that many of those people remain embittered, and work hard to keep anger and mutual destructiveness alive. (Just try to think of the last time someone spoke of their "ex" with kindness and charity.)

But our very happy newlyweds showed another path: one of reconciliation and gratitude for life's lessons. They showed that it is possible to grow and to gather in all the good people whose lives had touched theirs, even if there had been mistakes and false starts.

The ceremony also sounded that note of shared responsibility. If married couples have a responsibility to each other and to the community, the community also has a responsibility to them.

The older I get, the more appealing I find the old idea of the "social contract." Unlike business contracts, our social system doesn't provide a list of all the terms up front, with a clear delineation of requirements and costs. But the contract is there: in exchange for your contributions of time, of effort, of attitude and deed, you qualify for the support of the people around you.

It isn't always a fair exchange. Sometimes you pay more than you get. Sometimes, you get more than you pay for.

I think of the public library as one of those "benefits." There are people -- about 23% of Douglas County households -- that don't seem to use the library. For them, it's an expense without a benefit.

But for the other 77% (most of which include young children), the library provides an altogether remarkable return on the investment. For the cost of one family dinner per year, they get literally hundreds of books, videos, books on tape, magazines, programs, and authoritative reference information.

The public library is a living, tangible symbol of the social contract, a covenant predicated on the notion that a representative, well-organized collection of cultural capital, is the birthright of every citizen.

Let no man put it asunder.

Wednesday, July 4, 2001

July 4, 2001 - Independence Day

Back in college, I had an American History course that took an odd twist. Our teacher wanted our final project to be a sort of historical skit. The students got to choose among various roles, but those roles were pretty vague. I, for instance, volunteered for the character of a gentleman farmer. The play was set in New England, around 1774.

The teacher gave us various scenes, but no script. For instance, he said, “Suppose you just finished dinner with your father. In walks a guy who favors Revolution. What do you say?”

In between the assignment and the performance, we didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse. But we did have the chance to do some research, spend some time at the library. We looked at the writings of Thomas Paine. We spent some time on the Federalist papers. And I read other books around the topic.

Well, when we got to the performance, I found myself thoroughly prepped. My basic take on my character was this: “Are you all crazy? What language do we speak? English! Where does our literature, our learning, our history, come from? England! From whence comes our faith, our commerce, our institutions, our very politics? England! How are we to resolve our disputes, if every time we disagree with our parents, our brothers, each declares independence from the other? How can such divisiveness possibly lead to a new, unified nation?”

I was passionate and serious. I tried most earnestly to argue them out of their utter folly and ingratitude. I rolled off the number of English ships versus the totally inadequate number of “American” vessels. I pointed out that almost all the manufactured goods we needed came from England. Would England continue to trade with us during a war? We came to the new world to better ourselves. War would leave us with nothing!

Besides, I wondered aloud, I’d been a good neighbor, hadn’t I? If I now refused to go along with this clear treason against our nation, our homeland, what would happen to me? My family? Imprisonment? Execution?

The longer I went on, the more I realized just how dramatic the real situation was, back there in Revolutionary days. History writes the story that wins. The story of America is not the story of a foolish and ill-prepared insurrection by a group of ungrateful colonists. It could have been. Instead, the tale is about the founding of a nation, a nation, today, that is the last remaining superpower, the sun having set at last on the British Empire.

My character spoke from a viewpoint that could only be described as conservative: the attempt to preserve traditional values and social patterns.

The fact is, the founding of America was in every sense an extreme and drastic act. Americans abandoned the very concept of a king. They severed what had been, until then, the unbroken European history of the unification of church and state (“no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”). They granted as “rights” things that were barely privileges in other lands (freedom of speech, the press, and religion; the right to bear arms; to peaceably assemble; to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures; and much more, as detailed on our remarkable "Bill of Rights").

Not all of those things have worked out quite the way the Founders might have hoped.

But even so, it’s hard to see it any other way. Our nation was founded by some of the most radical folks ever to thumb their noses at authority. And get away with it.

Happy Independence Day.