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, May 26, 2011

May 26, 2011 - the allure of Sally

Recently I visited a friend. Her name is Sally Maguire. She’s dying.

We all are, I suppose. But Sally, age 85 83, has a rare and fast-moving cancer. It started in her sinus cavities, and quickly spread to the rest of her body.

Francis, her husband, died 14 years ago. “It would be nice,” Sally said, “if I believed that I’d see him again when I died.” She looked me straight in the eyes. “But I don’t.”

Sally doesn’t believe in an afterlife. Neither did Francis. There are no cards for secular humanists (I think); but if there were, she could carry one.

Yet, she told me, she wasn’t afraid to die. She’d had a good, long run, and wasn’t interested in extraordinary measures, extraordinary stress and nausea, that would buy her just a few more months.

Instead, she believed that her prognosis – more and more sleep, less and less appetite – didn’t sound like a bad way to leave the world.

Sally and Francis were two of the first people I met in Douglas County. They had a lot to do with why I decided to come here. Any place with people like them, I figured, had to be good.

It took me a while to realize that Sally and Francis would have been rare anywhere.

Sally hailed from the east coast. She attended a fine women’s college there – it eventually merged with Rutgers. Later, she worked in the world of New York PR. She retained, all her life, a passion for clear and grammatical prose.

Sally was also a much-decorated volunteer for the library. She gave many hours to the now long gone Perry Park Library. She was there at the very beginning of our Douglas County History Research Center, and in fact contributed to local history in "The Perry Park Story" (available at the Douglas County Libraries).

Sally was also one of the brains behind the 1990 campaign that formed our library district, and the 1996 campaign that secured our current mill levy.

And she was there at the old Philip S. Miller Library on Plum Creek Boulevard my very first week. She provided me a steady stream of newspaper clippings about all my predecessors.

Most of those folks didn’t last very long. Sometimes, the reasons were … exotic. No Douglas County library director has ever been run out of town on a rail. But a time or two, it’s been close.

It was a good orientation for a new director.

My wife Suzanne and I were frequent guests at the Maguires. They were unfailingly witty, urbane, and engaging hosts.

When last I visited their beautiful home, Sally showed me a photo from her 1955 honeymoon. She and Francis were sitting in Galatoire’s Restaurant (209 Bourbon Street).

Francis looked like he always did – sharp, animated, and a little quirky. Sally looked both gamin and radiant. The photograph captured a fetching gaze.

If I’d been around back then (as a contemporary, I mean), I would given Francis a run for his money.

I would have lost, of course. Francis was a Harvard man, just back from India. I went to a state college. I was outgunned. But a boy can dream.

Finally, none of us gets out alive. But Sally remains for me – always – the model of graciousness, an allure that is both sophisticated and real.

[Note: Sally Lovelace Ward Maguire was born July 6, 1927, in Danbury, CT to Helen and Conrad Ward. She died at her home in Perry Park, Larkspur, CO on July 25, 2011.]

Last week’s column by David Farnan seems to have stirred up a lot of curiosity.

He asked,” In which book was the significance of a literary work not what was written but what it was written with?"

The answer? First, let me say, as David said to me, that you really should read the book.

But he read it, and still didn’t know. The Battle of the Books kids did, though. The answer is “Shakespeare’s Secret,” by Elise Broach. See page 172. The literary work (a poem) was "written with a diamond on her window at Woodstock."

Additional reading lists can be found on our web page:



LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May 19, 2011 - no losers in battle of the books

[This week's column is by David Farnan, Associate Director of Community Service for the Douglas County Libraries.]

In which book …

…was the significance of a literary work not what was written but what it was written with?

It’s okay if you don’t know the answer. It is highly likely that you don’t know. I’ve read the book, and I still didn’t know. And yet, 5 nine year olds knew last Friday night in the final round of Battle of the Books.

What is Battle of the Books?

Where do you go on Friday night to see Iron Horse Elementary Principle Steve Getchell and Pioneer Elementary Principle Tim Krabacher duke it out with oversize boxing gloves with the theme song from Rocky blaring in the background as the warm-up act to charge up their team?
Battle has cheering crowds, nervous jitters, wringing hands, tears, and most of all heads coming together in vigorous whispered debate. All that “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” stuff happens in the library.

Schools invent exotic names for their teams; “The Book Brawlers,” “The Killer Bookworms,” “Little Freddie Muffin Muffins.” Clear Sky Elementary even tie-died their shirts. Kids sign each other’s t-shirts, ask for autographs, invent ways of high-fiving to celebrate a correct answer.

It should be televised. It would be perfect for the Wide World of Sports or ESPN. The library should sell tickets. The kids are THAT good.

And guess what?

It’s all about reading.

The library has been hosting Battle of the Books for 3 years. This year over 30 elementary schools and more than 450 kids participated. Battle is a 5 month apprenticeship in the art of competitive deep reading. It’s the kind of examination of the written word that in centuries past was reserved for monks and ministers and rabbis engaged in Biblical exegesis and Talmudic hermeneutics. It is a full-on literary-smackdown the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Council of Nicea, the Diet of Worms, and the Baraita – all accompanied by cheering crowds.

Where else can you find this kind of entertainment?

I spoke to Principle Alan McQueen of Heritage Elementary. Heritage had teams reach the finals for the 3-4 and 5-6 grade. He attended each match. “Battle has totally changed the culture of our school. All the kids are talking about it. This year we had 55 kids try out just to make the two five-person teams that would compete. We talk about it in assembly. Kids convene during lunch to talk about the books. Reading is cool.”

In the Parker 5th and 6th grade finals there were around 100 parents and grandparents, teachers and administrators, there to root on the kids. When the 20 questions were over, the teams were tied. It went to a tie breaker, and then a second tie breaker. The teams huddled together in heated debate whispering and gesticulating, teetering toward consensus.

When the answers were turned in, and the final correct answer was announced, the crowd roared to their feet. Wild applause. High fives. Kids jumping up and down. Crying. Hugging. It seemed more like the Rockies won the series, than a reading competition.

Winning and losing is never easy. But it mimics life, and its lessons learned. Several kids on winning and on losing teams burst into tears: a release after 5 months of studying minute intricacies of 10 books.

One mother on a losing team came up to me afterwards. Her son’s eyes were dry and clear, flickering with excitement. You could never tell his team lost. She said, “Before Battle he had only read Calvin and Hobbes. Since Battle began last fall he has read all the books on the list, plus all the other books by the authors on the list and he’s still going strong.” Elizabeth, the librarian, asked him, “Did you know there was a sequel to Dog’s Life?” “No,” he said. “Do Bone and Squirrel meet again?” “I’m not telling,” Elizabeth shot back. “You are going to have to read it yourself. Then we’ll talk about it.” He immediately bounded away off into the library.

In reading, if you play, you win.

May 12, 2011 - harness the power of play

Imagine an underground train station. Coming out of the station, commuters can take the stairs, or take the escalator. Most people take the escalator.

Now suppose that you wanted to get more people to take the stairs.

If you were to pose that problem to most adults, they would offer all the usual strategies.

* A campaign of shame. Put up posters of really fat people. Then show the young, attractive ones taking the stairs. Make people feel bad for being lazy.

* An educational campaign. Write a series of newspaper articles, do a few grim video shoots, deploring the epidemic of escalator dependency, and pointing out the alarming, no, the enormous consequences of waddling commuters, including health care, not to mention the rising costs (get it?) of escalator repairs. Make people feel righteous for taking the stairs.

* A campaign of incentives. Pay people to take the stairs, or give them a discount on their train ticket. Figure out how to enforce this later. Different turnstiles, maybe.

* A campaign of punishment. Levy fines on fit people who take the escalator when they should be taking the stairs. Of course, you'd have to have exemptions for various medical conditions. So you'd need escalator permits, probably.

Or Google up "underground stair piano" to see a delightful alternative (it should be the first hit -- a Youtube video from Stockholm). They simply replaced the stairs with enormous piano keys. When you take the stairs, the steps (black and white) play musical notes.

A hidden camera tells the story. Without seeing any advertising or exhortations at all, by the end of the first day, 66% more people took the stairs. They not only walked up the stairs, they bounced up and down them, and even teamed up to do coordinated melodies. Many people, particularly children, literally danced up the stairs.

How often have you heard that "nobody likes change?" Nonsense. When it's more fun to change than to stay the same, change is embraced.

For instance, I learned more about physics ("the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of refraction") in pool halls than in physics classes. In pool halls, I paid attention.

This is called the Theory of Fun. When we want to change people's behavior, we get quicker results when we appeal to their sense of play than when we appeal to their sense of duty.

Now apply this to management. Let's face it: even the most enlightened managers tend to fall back on top-down and even punitive approaches. We tell people how things are going to be, by God. Then, if they don't move fast enough, we write them up. If they still don't do what we want, there are consequences.

Another approach is "appreciative inquiry." We try to appeal to people's pride, their accomplishments, their desire for a better future.

But none of that seems to be as immediately effective as just giving folks the opportunity to fool around.

Recently I attended a workshop about organizational culture. There are three levels for any organization. First, there's what you see: the physical attributes of a place, and what that says about what matters. Second, there's what the leaders of an organization tell you about what matters. Third, there's how things really are. It's rare when all those things match up.

I wonder what American public service and corporate culture would look like if we all tried a little harder not to try so hard. Wouldn't that be fun?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5, 2011 - will we face facts, or collapse?

Jared Diamond is the man who wrote "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Published in 1997, it was the story of how, where, and why civilization developed. I just finished reading "Collapse," his book about how and why civilizations end. It came out in 2007.

Diamond's curiosity, erudition, and exposition are impressive. There's no one explanation for why a society falters -- or thrives. In fact, he identifies five concerns: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues.

Using fascinating scientific evidence from the Mesa Verde area (dendrochronology, or the study of tree rings, and the information extracted from packrat middens, which are the remains of rat nests), he makes a persuasive case that the disappearance of the Anasazi basically came down to drought. The cycle of such droughts is long - too long for a pre-literate people to remember as they expanded their population.

Other environmental problems are more directly manmade. For example, there was the complete deforestation of Easter Island. Today, it is farming and lumbering practices that lead to "mining" the soil (extracting nutrients for short term crops) instead of sustainably farming it, as in Australia.

An example of "hostile neighbors" is the abandonment of their little North American colony by the Vikings, whose idea of announcing their presence was to kill every Indian they met. There were rather more Indians than Vikings. The Vikings got into trouble again in Greenland when their connection to Europe was disrupted by increasingly icy seas.

In addition to his exploration of the distant and not-so-distant past Diamond analyzes more current challenges, such as those faced by Haiti, Montana, and the author's home town of Los Angeles.

He also takes a hard look at big business and the environment. Some of his conclusions may surprise you. For instance, guess who runs what has become "by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea?" Answer: Chevron, which is fact operating an oil field.

Then there's mining. An all-too-common story is Galactic Resources' Summitville Mine right here in Colorado. The owners, eight years after getting an operating permit for a gold mine and apparently doing quite well, abruptly declared bankruptcy, failed to pay their sizable tax bill, laid off all its employees with a week's notice, abandoned the site, and left taxpayers to clean up a cyanide spill into the local water supply. Cost: $147,500,000.

Diamond doesn't blame the companies. Or at least, he doesn't just shake his finger at their "rape and run" morality. He states flatly that if we want mining, we have to figure in the full costs of good stewardship and clean-up. Those are the costs of doing business, and we need regulation to ensure that we identify them and hold the company accountable. We also have to track the supply chain, and let the consumer know the full cost of a sustainable economy. Most Americans will indeed pay a little more for the green product -- if they have the option.

Some civilizations fall. Others face facts, address both the cultural and scientific factors of their situation, and solve their problems. Will we be one of them?

LaRue's Views are his own.