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.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

December 29, 2005 - sleep, perchance to dream

The last couple weeks of the year are precious to me.

The library's budget has been adopted for the next year. The meetings tend to be put off till January, because lots of people have taken time off.

The frenzy of shopping is done. The parties are over. Now comes one of the true gifts of the year: time to think.

So much of our lives is conducted as if we were in some kind of speed trial. Or as I read in "The World is Flat," by Thomas Friedman,

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning a lion wakes up.
It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up, better start running.

Friedman was writing about globalization. The above is an African proverb, translated into Mandarin, and posted by an American entrepreneur on the front door of a factory he opened in China, which is itself a little bewildering.

And a little sad. On the one hand, it is better to make widgets than to make war.

On the other, it is possible to be so caught up in the outer world that the inner is neglected. After all, even lions spend an average of 13.5 hours a day sleeping. (Just so you know, the extremes are brown bats at almost 20 hours of sleep per day, and giraffes at a paltry 1.9. In yet more information suggesting kinship among us apes, baboons sleep 10.3, chimpanzees 9.7. While human infants sleep a whopping 16 hours a day, adults grab just 8. )

The National Center on Sleep Disorders says it is a myth that people need less sleep as they get older (aside from infants, that is). They just GET less sleep.

Here's another myth: "sleep is time for the body in general and the brain specifically to shut down for rest." It turns out that the brain is even busier when it's asleep. Sleep is a dynamic process.

It is also necessary. Rats deprived of sleep will die in 2 to 3 weeks -- just about as long as it takes to die of starvation.

But my point is not that we need more sleep, although most of us do.

My point is that downtime isn't necessarily unproductive. We need cycles in our lives, a variance of rhythm. Our alertness, our health, our success, depends upon troughs of busy-ness, time to allow for the active exploration of things we haven't yet had time to consider.

So, if you can, stop running. Seize the slow times. Stroll through the library, trolling for the odd item that will dredge up an issue you were unconsciously hoping to explore.

Or sit by one of our fireplaces and dream. We need dreams -- and we need time to dream them.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

December 22, 2004 - A Gift Suitable for All Ages

For the past several years, I've been reprinting what I've come to think of as "my Christmas column" -- a tradition. I hope you enjoy it.


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.

Of course, the real winner of a gift like this is not an adult. It's 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 of four books. Wrap the card and the books and 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.

Many people -- librarians, teachers, Secretaries of Education, even sport celebrities and actors -- have urged every child to obtain and use a library card. It's good advice.

Besides, at prices like these, who can argue? 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.


Note: All Douglas County libraries will be closed from 3 p.m., Saturday, December 24, to 9 a.m., Monday, December 26.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

December 15, 2005 - cultivate an inner life

There are many things parents would agree they want for their children. Health. Love. Family and friends. Success, defined as "a respectable job that pays well enough to provide all of the essentials, and some of the luxuries, of life."

But you know what I most want for each of my kids? I want them to have a rich inner life.

You can lose your health, your lover, even your family and friends. You can lose your job and your home. In disasters, you can lose your ability to put food on the table.

But all of that is your OUTER life. If you have a rich inner life, you can get by. (At least, long enough to start rebuilding.)

I've been reading a luminous little library book lately called "Seeds from a Birch Tree," by Clark Strand. It's supposed topic is writing haiku (high-KOO)-- a Japanese verse form with rules so simple a child could follow them.

Haiku has 17 syllables: 5 on the first line, 7 on the second, and 5 on the third. The poem includes a seasonal reference. That's just about it.

And in fact children DO write haiku, often very good ones.

But what the book is really about is cultivating a consciousness, a plain and simple awareness that, first, marks something in the world. A raindrop. A tree branch. A window blind.

Second, the act of seeing, and capturing an image in haiku, also takes you out of yourself. Or maybe a better way to say this is that it completely removes the barrier between your deepest self and that moment of perception.

There are lots of things I'm grateful for in my life. But one of my favorites is a poem I wrote over 30 years ago.

I was hitchhiking through Safford, Arizona. I walked far from the road to get closer to a spectacular meadow, a sea of orange and yellow flowers.

When I got to the edge, I dropped to my knees to examine the petals.

And then I heard, low and pervasive, miles of ... buzzing.

Here's the poem (and I just want to point out that I shaved a few syllables off every single line, making it a kind of haiku espresso):

desert poppies:
I kneel to a field
of bees

That moment is ineradicable in my life. It is grounded in a single instant. Yet it is also timeless.

But my point isn't poetry. It's about storing up treasures that endure.

Children who grow up reading, or being read to, develop a set of internal experiences, based on symbols and dreams and language. Those stories and characters and situations work deeper and deeper into their consciousness.

Over time, this deepening understanding of life, coupled with fresh insights and new, unexpected encounters with the real world, makes up an always richer field of possibility, of insight, of connection, of beauty, of joy.

It's just one of the reasons that I no longer turn on a radio when I'm alone. It's why I don't watch TV shows anymore, at all.

It's why I can be utterly content, even very, very busy, even when I'm just walking around the block.

It's because reading, watching, listening, thinking, has now set up such a never-ending flood of images, and ideas, and webs of relationships among all that, that I now have an inner life, impervious or at least resistant to the pressures of the mob. Every child should have one.

On the outside, it's like a field of desert poppies. On the inside, like bees.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

December 8, 2005 - torture: from the dark ages to today

Sometimes you stumble across a book you didn't know you were looking for. For me, it was finding the library's copy of "The History of Torture and Execution," by Jean Kellaway.

Every time I come across the story of somebody stretched on the rack -- or wedged into the Spanish boot, or broken by thumbscrews, or victimized by any of a variety of infernal devices -- I feel an immediate sense both of horror and of recognition.

Maybe it's because so many of the people I read about as a child were scientists, and were often subjected to punishment for "heresy" -- the crime of not agreeing with powerful people.

It didn't make any difference, of course, that the scientists were doing no more than recording actual observations and making obvious inferences about the real world. It didn't make any difference that what they were saying was true.

What mattered was that somebody in a position of authority was given the right to force confessions, coerce the "recanting" of some belief, or brutally extract the names of others to be tortured.

Inevitably, such permission turned into the gruesome and ghastly abuse of power. History is littered with the maddened, mangled, or murdered remains of innocent people.

The irony is that things secured through torture are unreliable. People will say anything to get the pain to stop. They confess to things they never did. They promise to change their minds or hearts, but (assuming they manage to get away) don't.

And they carry a lifelong hatred of the people who bound and injured them.

So if torture is not a reliable instrument of securing either information or long term behavioral change, why does it persist?

Because it's not about any of those things. It's about power. It's about control. It's about corruption.

I have read stories about torture in modern day dictatorships, or oppressive regimes. But like most people, I associate torture with the ignorance and depravity of the Dark Ages.

So I was deeply alarmed, back in 2002, when the CIA floated a "trial balloon," carried by many national newspapers, to find out how the nation felt about torture, post 9/11. The reassuringly swift flurry of public astonishment led to a lot of government back-pedaling.

Except, we now find, there was an August 2002 memo from the Justice Department suggesting that President Bush had the authority to override international torture laws.

More recently, Senator John McCain introduced a bill to Congress explicitly banning torture. It carried by a vote of 90-9. McCain is both a former prisoner of war, and a torture victim.

Incredibly, according to the Denver Post, "Vice President Dick Cheney has tried to persuade Congress to exempt the CIA from the proposed ban, and Bush has threatened a veto if the ban is included in the bill."

I was shocked that the Vice-President of the United States wants the option to use torture, and would say so right out in public. President Bush, who said, "the U.S. does not torture," nonetheless wants the right to.

It makes you wonder. Are they seeking permission -- or forgiveness?

Of course, nine Army reservists were convicted of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Other "suspects" have died during "questioning" by American soldiers, as has been widely reported. There are now rumors of secret prisons in Eastern Europe, run by the CIA.

Let me put that another way: the U.S. does torture. We still don't know the full extent.

There are apologists for our Empire, who first recite the atrocities of criminals, then suggest that torture is too good for them.

But this is the fact that is always obscured: there is no way to ensure that torture will be used only against the guilty.

Shall we now we resurrect the foot press, the tongue tearer, the Spanish Spider, the revolving drum, and the Iron Maiden?

And on whom shall we use them next?

Thursday, December 1, 2005

December 1, 2005 - Wal-Mart suffers blistering criticism

After college, I sold shoes for awhile. I was good at it, too. I broke some regional sales records, and got offered a manager position.

But I was young and restless, and really didn't want a career in a shopping mall. So I hit the road with a pair of shoes I sold myself.

And those shoes gave me blisters so bad that by the time I got to my uncle's in the Arkansas Ozarks, I could barely walk.

So my aunt took me to a big new store that had just opened up in Fayetteville. I'd never heard of it, but my aunt said the prices were great.

It was called Wal-Mart.

I did indeed find a pair of good, cheap sneakers there. I wore them, very comfortably, the whole time I worked as "mud man" (cement mixer) for my uncle, a stone mason.

For most of my kinfolk, Wal-Mart was a godsend. It offered a lot of things that weren't to be found within an hour's drive. And it was affordable.

Since then, that formula (big selection, convenient and cheap) ensured that Wal-Mart spread swiftly, first throughout the rural south, and then ... everywhere.

The results have been mixed. Wal-Mart is admired by some as the leanest, meanest example around of good, old-fashioned American entrepreneurship, mixed with a savvy grasp of international economics.

And it is detested by others as the destroyer of small town infrastructure, the death knell of locally-owned and economically diversified downtowns, and worse.

Which view is correct? That's an excellent question.

A few weeks ago, a group holding the latter view booked one of our meeting rooms. They showed a movie ("Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price") and talked about it.

Shortly afterward, a local resident, holding an opposite view, complained to the town government about the event -- a complaint forwarded to me.

What I wrote him was (roughly) this:

* on the one hand, the library isn't responsible, or culpable, for the views expressed by people who book public spaces.

* on the other hand, I am delighted to have the library host discussions about controversial issues.

Good questions deserve good debate. Why not at the library?

I jumped into our catalog to see what we've got on the topic. Here are just two representative titles:

* "The Wal-Mart decade: how a generation of leaders turned Sam Walton's legacy into the world's number one company," by Robert Slater, and

* "In Sam we trust: the untold story of Sam Walton and how Wal-Mart is devouring America," by Bob Ortega.

Thinking about this reminded me of several things. First, I recently nominated Reggie Rivers for a library award for his writings against censorship. When receiving this award he commented that we need the First Amendment to protect /offensive/ speech. Why?

Because inoffensive speech doesn't need protection. You can stand on the corner and proclaim your tender affection for butterflies, and nobody cares.

Second, I can't help but notice that our media bristles with critiques of public education, and endless varieties of "bureaucratic government." We take that as a given, as a right, and even as a commonplace. Who complains about it?

But it seems criticism is not constrained only to the public sector. There are problems, and issues, in the private sector, too.

My own view is that public sector or private, any human institution will exhibit some behavior that is wholly admirable, and some that is not. It's a good topic for a library program, whether we are direct sponsors, or not.

And maybe it's not a bad thing for the private sector to take a walk in the public sector's shoes every now and then. If only for the blisters.