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.

Friday, September 29, 2006

September 7, 2006 - immigration not just US issue

My wife, son and I have just returned from a trip to Europe. It was part family vacation, and part a sobering task: dropping off our daughter at university in Germany.

Our first stop was London, where we'd rented a room at a bed and breakfast. We did some touristy things: a trip to the enormous Ferris Wheel of the London Eye, the Globe Theatre, the British Museum, an Aquarium by the Thames. But mostly, we did a lot of walking.

I guess I thought I was going to hear English accents. There was certainly enough opportunity: it's been a long time since I've been in a city that crowded. Everywhere we went, at almost any time of day, the streets teemed with people.

Since we often took the Tube, or the Underground, we had lots of opportunity to eavesdrop. Mostly, we heard young people, in their 20s and 30s.

But few of them spoke with an English accent. Instead I heard Hindi, Pakistani, Turkish, Kurdish, Polish, Bulgarian, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and many others I couldn't even identify. The occasional Cockney or BBC accent almost jumped out at you.

Later, we spent a few days with relatives who live not far from Oxford (which is quite aways outside London, into the English countryside). And that's as close as I got to thinking about libraries -- we toured Oxford's Bodleian Library. In addition to being the university's key research tool, we learned, the Bod was also the location of three scenes in Harry Potter movies (the infirmary, a classroom, and of course, the library).

Later, one of our relatives told us that it was anticipated that in just the last year, Great Britain might see something like 40,000 immigrants from Poland. They got 400,000.

But not just from Poland. In France, there are so many social protections for workers that some companies are reluctant to hire young people; they can't get rid of them if they don't work out. So the entrepreneurs were leaving France, and coming to England to set up shop.

We also saw countless groups of Muslim women, traveling, usually, in dense packs, fully garbed in black. But often, as the women would step up a curb, I'd get a surprising glimpse: under the nun-like habit, I saw more than one pair of sequined high heels.

I couldn't help but notice that England and the United Kingdom were dealing with far greater issues of immigration than anything in the United States. In our case, "immigration" mainly means the influx of Mexican workers, who speak just Spanish. But in the UK, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people, every year, from all around the world, with a rich stew of languages and cultural traditions.

As I discovered later in Germany, not everybody speaks English, either. It's a humbling experience to try to negotiate a train schedule, or even order a sandwich, when my confident, "Bitte, sprechen Sie Englisch?" was met with a "Nee."

Educated people should speak at least three languages. I've got some work to do.

I also heard some interesting things about the United States from others. In particular, I was fascinated by the perspective of our Kurdish taxi driver (who escaped from Saddam Hussein's regime 16 years ago), and a former German police inspector, who now is my daughter's "foster dad" in Bremen. But that's another story.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

September 27, 2006 - Keeping a Journal

I started keeping my first journal in 5th or 6th grade. My mother got it for me one Christmas.

It had a soft, burgundy-colored leather cover, and paper that was slightly yellow. There was only one page per day. At the top of the page, I was encouraged to record the weather, and my general health. Then I got a blank page.

So I kept a daily log of my life -- and my thoughts about it -- for about two years. I kept one again my senior year of high school, my last couple of years of college, and on and off ever since.

I know why I always start up again: personal therapy. I've got things I need to work through: situations, big decisions, or just ideas that got a hold of me. There's a kind of imbalance in my life that I feel a need to focus on. Writing is thinking, and sometimes, thinking is the only way out.

Then there's perspective: the discovery I make when I reread the journal later. What was so baffling back then is utterly obvious now. A journal lets me know that I've learned something.

Often, what I learn is that the journal should be destroyed before anybody else sees what a fool I've been. Still, it's progress.

I'm not always sure why I quit. The imbalance is resolved, I suppose. I've worked through the situation, made my decision, or just no longer feel the need to focus too intently on my feelings, my thoughts, or my actions. Too much self-examination can also be a barrier to growth.

The form of my journal has changed. Through the years I've used the dedicated journal; record books I picked up at a surplus sale; and school notebooks.

Eventually, I moved to the computer. There I've used a variety of programs, everything from simple text editors to full blown word processors, to customized databases, to "personal information managers."

I prefer outliners with a built in search tool; but I saw a wonderful and free product for the Mac called Journler (yes, that's the way it's spelled) that I foisted off on my daughter. It not only records your thoughts by day, but lets you fold in all kinds of multimedia things -- digital photographs, for instance.

Journals, or "diaries" (the main subject heading in our catalog, which is worth a look), is also a time-honored literary form. Whether in a novel or a travel log, the journal is often the key narrative structure.

For historians, journals can provide useful raw data for things that too easily get lost: the actual pattern of people's lives as revealed in the small details. The black and white TV on the revolving table. The price of gasoline. The outbreak of an epidemic in a rural school district.

Another use of the journal, combining self and literature, is the reading log. It's a great way to take control of your own education. A journal then becomes both a record, and a reckoning, with the world of books.

The root word of both "journal" and "diary" is "day." Seize the day; keep a journal.

[Disclaimer: LaRue's Views, unless otherwise stated, are his alone.]

Thursday, September 21, 2006

September 21, 2006 - Two Books Worth Reading

[Disclaimer: please note that these are "LaRue's Views;" I am, it would not surprise me to learn, speaking for no one else.]

At the end of my last column, I talked about hearing, in London, from our Kurdish taxi driver about Saddam Hussein's devastatingly anti-Kurd regime. Our driver was frankly grateful for the United States' invasion of Iraq. However, he had no intention of returning, other than as a visitor, to his birthplace. He described it as backward and dangerous -- no place to rear your children.

My daughter's "host father" -- a former police inspector who volunteered to look out for my daughter in Germany, and give her some glimpses into German family life -- was more diplomatic, but less supportive of our international policies. He believes that President George W. Bush has "not been good for the United States."

Vice-President Cheney made a comment recently that Americans who protest the war in Iraq were like Neville Chamberlain's attempt to "appease" the Germans after Hitler seized Poland. But, from the German perspective, the situation is more like their own silence after the same event.

Hitler, the former police inspector pointed out, attacked a country that hadn't attacked Germany. He fabricated a story about Poland's threat to Germany. And it was the beginning of a round of fervent nationalist sentiment and unbridled executive power.

And that grew into World War II -- not just because the international community was ineffective in stopping the invasion, but because German citizens granted it implicit approval.

It is difficult for any nation to challenge the United States militarily; our defense budget exceeds that of the next 15 countries. Ultimately, a nation's actions are best directed and restrained by its own people.

My daughter recently sent me a thoughtful email from her school in Bremen. She wrote, "It's been fascinating, and in a strange way heartbreaking, to see how much Nazism haunts modern Germany. In our series of workshops on intercultural understanding, the German students stated outright how wary they are of displays of national pride. One girl said that thanks to the ferociously patriotic Nazis, no German today says, 'I am proud to be a German!' She referred to German history classes, and how critically students are taught to look at that period, 'to understand what a terrible mistake we made.' The only Israeli student in the room said quietly after that, 'I think then that is a very good reason to be proud to be a German.'"

I'm thinking about that, and thinking about a recent piece I read from Tom Tancredo about the "clash of civilizations" (after a book by Samuel P. Huntington of the same name). Tancredo's argument is based on two premises.

First, Islam is fundamentally opposed to modernity and democratic society. I think Tancredo is right about that. For a far more radical exploration of the same idea, see Sam Harris's utterly provocative "The End of the Faith: Religion, Terrorism, and the Future of Reason."

Tancredo's second premise is that we are in a war with Islam, and that we must confront and overcome those who embrace Islamic ideals.

I don't think it's that simple.

Harris argues that while Islam may indeed be a threat to modernity, and to our survival, it is not the only threat. According to Harris, there's another one, closer to home: Christianity. The Christian state, embracing the urgent imminence and necessity of the "End Times" could precipitate our extinction, too. All it takes is faith ... and nuclear weapons.

I was astonished to read, for instance, that under President Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell was invited to give a national security briefing on the End Times. While few modern and moderate Christians may endorse an ultimate war for Jesus, there aren't as many moderate Christians in and around our national government as there used to be.

A second threat might be the same kind of jingoistic nationalism that empowered Hitler.

A third grows from the others: out of control executive power.

What do I think? I think we need a better way. The battle shouldn't be framed as between one religion versus another. We are indeed in a war -- but it's a war of ideas. The war is not between faiths, but between reason, and the unquestioning faith (whether political or religious) that sanctions the murder of innocents.