Follow by Email

Monday, February 8, 2016

Open Focus

I read a book a few years ago about something called Open Focus ("The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body," by Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins). The idea is this: some people who meditated achieved an "alpha" state: measurable brain activity indicated deep, centered contemplation. Others struggled.

But something surprising happened when those laggard meditators were asked to do what would seem to be simple: imagine space. That is, while meditating consider the distances around and between things. Think about the area enveloping your tongue, the distance between left shoulder blade and right collar bone. All of these suggestions were about visualizing dimensions within the body.

Let me add the notion of pondering the rippling horizon over waves (Chicago), the sheer volume of distance from foot to mountain top (Denver). Feel free to add in your own moment of connection with the larger, natural world. This captures, I feel, the Taoist ideal signified in so many paintings: small people, big world.

When meditators did that, they ALIGNED. They got it. Big time apha waves.

My takeaway: the combination of meditative practice and the visualization of volume has unusual power to expand our spiritual insights and peace.

I think, I apprehend, I process, in poetry. First, let me express this insight as philosophic haiku:

an aspect of space
is spirituality:
volume is holy

That's true, I think. But although it follows the form, it doesn't follow the spirit. It ain't poetry.

But this, I hope, is:

in the Irish pub
she lifts her river green eyes
to skyscraper top

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Leadership: definition and challenge

I spoke over brunch last Saturday with Peggy Sullivan (American library luminary and a fascinating, insightful conversationalist) about the definition of leadership.

Based on comments one of Peggy's bosses once made (and I'm paraphrasing), here it is:
  • figure out where you want to go
  • do stuff that gets you there

Any questions?

The more I think about it, the more powerful it gets.

In so many libraries - in so many organizations of any kind, public or private - we have "leaders" who don't lead. "Where do you want to go?" is usually some variant of "where do we want to go?" That is, direction is not just the independent judgement of the putative boss. Ideally, it's the best thinking of an informed and thoughtful staff, facilitated by (and contributed to, certainly, by) the leader. If that staff and leader have any smarts at all, direction is grounded in user (customer/member) needs or aspirations. To reverse that flow: who do we serve, what have we learned about how best to serve them, and what are the key directions that matter?

The point: leaders should be able to say, succinctly, based on thoughtful analysis, "here's where we're going."

"Does this take us there?" is equally important. Every institution has legacy programs and activities. We get invested in them, both financially and emotionally. But do those programs and activities move us in the direction we need to go? And if not, will we have the honesty and courage to let them go? Will we have the creativity to spin out new ones? And will we hold ourselves accountable to the vision of powerful and effective service?

If leaders can't answer those questions, and with answers that assert our agency (here defined as the ability and will to act on our own behalf), they're not leading.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


You've seen them. Indeed, you can't avoid them. You step into an online discussion that interests you, and ... there he is. (It might be a she, but not usually.)

I'm talking about trolls.

So what do I mean? A troll is not:

  • Someone who expresses a contrary view or argument. That's interesting and an occasion for learning.
  • Someone who is socially dim or clueless. Let's face it: at some point, that's all of us. We offend people. Usually, it's unintentional, and when it's pointed out, we realize we've overstepped. If we're mindful, then we try to mend bridges. Sometimes, our offensive comments are totally intended (we are snarky, sarcastic, and/or condemnatory), and we shouldn't be surprised by the response. But, call me old-fashioned, I think we should try to be polite.

A troll is:

  • Someone who obsesses about a viewpoint. And here I mean not just sounding a recurrent theme, but demonstrating an unwillingness to let go of a particular event. Trolls expand that circumstance to a general indictment, and ignore any contrary evidence or context.
  • Someone who demands that anyone holding a contrary view weigh in, every single time, to any statement the troll declares is important. And the failure to respond proves the conspiracy of suppression.
  • Someone who must be noticed, who calls persistently for acknowledgement even when such an acknowledgement would be decidedly odd and irrelevant.

Ultimately, trolling is a kind of mental illness, a desperate and narcissistic attempt to seize collective attention and refocus it on the troll.

The problem, of course, is that it isn't always clear or obvious when someone moves from being just irritating to mentally disturbed.

But I will say that trolls are corrosive to public debate. I once thought that the Internet and the ability of the public to respond instantly to the news could usher in a new round of civic engagement and enlightened discourse. Instead, the race to the bottom - turning every single posting into (pick one) an anti-Obama, anti-immigrant, anti-business, anti-whatever rant - makes people turn away from comments altogether. It's free speech, and that's swell. But all too often it's not free speech worth listening to. Instead, it's a loop of nasty self-references. In the end, it's boring.

As an inveterate letter-to-the-editor-writer, I used to chafe at the rejection of my missives. But, in retrospect, a system that moderates, edits, and confirms the identity of contributors seems smart. The sad truth is that even I need to be moderated sometimes.

Here's the core issue: what do you do about a troll, especially one that stalks you? On the one hand, you want to be polite. On the other, you don't want to grant this person the right to dictate how you spend your time. You have your own life. Yet trolls keep tossing their thoughts into the public forum, responding to your every action.

So sometimes, you just ... ignore them. It's not that you think they're subhuman. It's just that you've learned interacting with them winds up being a "striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14). You get what they mean, you don't agree, and continued engagement with them is just pointless.

So we wind up with the Internet meme: don't feed the trolls. Don't give them air, don't give them time, don't give them a blank check on the bank account of your attention.

Have you ever dealt with a troll? What worked for you?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

New website

Last weekend, I simplified my website. As a consultant and speaker, I was focused on marketing those services. Now that I'm an ALA department head, I've decided to use the website as more of a placeholder for my resume and broad professional activities.

 I may still tweak it a little: my largest body of work is my newspaper column site: LaRue's Views. These days, I do my blogging here, so it might make sense to give those destinations and perhaps a link to my book, a little more prominence in the menu.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Suzanne and the Castle Rock Rotarians

Suzanne tricked me! She told me she was getting an award this evening at the Castle Rock Town Council meeting for her work on community reference. I thought, "Well- deserved, and about time!" So I even put on a sport coat (under my winter coat), and we braved the snowy roads.

But when we got there, the two local Rotary Club presidents in fact presented me with an award - the 2015 Castle Rock Rotary Clubs Person of the Year award, "in recognition of his service to the people of Douglas County by building an Outstanding Public library System."

I was totally surprised. I have not been the director of the Douglas County Libraries for two years, and in fact have spent most of my attention far outside Douglas County. But I remain very touched: ultimately, this is about the recognition and appreciation of the library as a community asset. Several Rotarians came up afterward to tell me that their whole idea of what a library could be had changed; they now saw it not just as a topnotch, professionally competent place to gain access to the world's knowledge, both print and digital, but as a vital community hub. The reputation of the library was strong; they knew it to be a responsive, engaged, trustworthy, and thoughtful institution.

Some of those Rotarians - Al Wonstolen, Les Lily, Richard Bangs - had a lot to do with my civic education. At some point, I realized that it was not all about the library. The library was just one more tool to help make a great community.

Thank you, Castle Rock Rotarians, for this honor. I share it with many, many others: the board that hired me, the boards that worked with me, the staff responsible for so many great ideas and execution of them, and the community itself. And now DCL leadership has passed to a new group of people, and I have every confidence that they will take it even higher.

Meanwhile, Suzanne should have gotten at least an acting award.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Next chapter: the Office of Intellectual Freedom

The official announcement has now gone out: on January 4, 2016, I will assume the directorship of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, and the Freedom to Read Foundation.

I will be following the very able Barbara Jones, who has headed the OIF for the past 7 years. Before her was Judith Krug, who founded it. So I will be only the third person to hold the position - a great honor.

What does the job consist of? According to that press release:

As Director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), James LaRue will work with ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) and Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), as well as the Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT). OIF provides information to individuals and organizations facing intellectual freedom challenges; plans and promotes initiatives that promote intellectual freedom, privacy and free access to information (including Banned Books Week); and, works closely with others, including the ALA Washington Office, on core information policy issues. The OIF Director also serves as the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, an allied 501(c)(3) organization, and as secretariat for the LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund.
Meanwhile, I'm moving to Chicago (New Year's road trip!), where I already snagged a little apartment just a couple of blocks from the Lake, and within walking distance of my new job). I will look for ways to get back to Colorado on long weekends and such. Suzanne, who is still working, will stay here.

In many ways, I feel that I have been training for this position all my life; it is in fact one of my life's passions. I've met my boss (Mary Ghikas), and my five-person staff, and I can tell they'll be great to work with.

So I find that I'm already "listening" to the world in different ways. If you have concerns about intellectual freedom - access to the content of our culture - I'd like to hear about them.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Revolt in 2100

Recently, I downloaded the ebook, "Revolt in 2100 (note the blurb: "the second American Revolution has begun") by Robert Heinlein. Mostly, it includes the "If This Goes On" novella, in which America is taken over by Nehemiah Scudder, the First Prophet, who establishes a tyrannical theocracy. But I was reading the last piece in the book, "Concerning Stories Never Written: Postscript."

Heinlein writes,

"...the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian. 
"It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up,or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is communism or holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue. 
"Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country -- Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva's Zion, Smith's Nauvoo, a few others. ... 
"Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not -- but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday's efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on Earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of "anti-Furriners" in general and anti-intellectual here at home and the results might be something quite frightening... The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed."
He wrote this while living in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1953.

I'd read this before but somehow missed the reference to Voliva and Zion. He means Zion, IL, which was right next door to Waukegan, where I grew up. I knew, vaguely, that Zion had been a sort of religious colony, and one day there was a big fire in which the Tabernacle (where an annual Passion Play had been held) burned down. I knew they had a law, maybe still do, that forbad spitting on the street. But I'd never read up on it, and Voliva is quite the character. He believed in, and advocated for, the idea that the world was flat (in 1914!). He wrote:
"The idea of a sun millions of miles in diameter and 91,000,000 miles away is silly. The sun is only 32 miles across and not more than 3,000 miles from the earth. It stands to reason it must be so. God made the sun to light the earth, and therefore must have placed it close to the task it was designed to do. What would you think of a man who built a house in Zion and the put the lamp to light it in Kenosha, Wisconsin?"
Heinlein was writing in the days before Focus on the Family, Donald Trump, climate change denial, and the "all lives matter" rhetoric. Heinlein said he was just writing to entertain, in order to buy groceries. But it's hard not to take it all as prescient parable. And warning.