Monday, December 29, 2008

My Fair Godmother, by Janette Rallison - A Review

As I read Janette Rallison’s My Fair Godmother, I was reminded of the one time I tried drawing a pattern with a Spirograph. As the wheels turned and the cog that had my pen in it spiraled away from the beginning of the design, I thought there was no way it would ever connect up, and I was going to be left with a picture that looked like a plate of spaghetti sliding off the page. Of course, the lines connected, and when I finished, I had a beautiful, symmetrical, intricate design.

That’s the way Janette’s plot is: it’s devious, serpentine, quirky, and way out there, but it always plays fair with the reader, and it all ties up neatly as you go along.

There’s a complete fairy tale framework that exists in our common body of knowledge, and Janette makes good use of that when the main character, Savannah, is sent to that alternate universe by her Fairy Godmother-Intern. The real fun begins when Savannah returns to fairy-tale land to rescue a nerdy boy from her high school who was sent there by the ditzy fairy godmother-in-training.

But, I get ahead of myself. My Fair Godmother is about Savannah, a sixteen-year old girl who is popular, style conscious, and an indifferent student. When her good-looking, athletic, studious boyfriend dumps her for her brainy older sister, Savannah falls into despair. You see, she’s already bought her dress for the prom, and now she doesn’t have a date. That’s where the Fairy Godmother comes in.

The fact that Chrissy, the Fairy Godmother, is Savannah’s almost-twin isn’t lost on either the reader or on Savannah. Chrissy is more interested in her wardrobe than in learning to be a competent godmother, and she’s very self-centered. Nothing that goes wrong is ever her fault. She also doesn’t appear to be the brightest twinkle in the magic dust pouch.

Savannah also sees herself as not terribly smart. As she says, when she finds herself with the seven dwarfs and they treat her like a simpleton: “…I still didn’t like being treated as though I was an idiot. Because I was smart. Even if I had nothing to show for it, like knowledge.”

One of the joys of this book, and there are many, is the reader’s realization, along with Savannah, that she IS smart. She may not have an incisive, scientific-type mind like her straight-A sister, but she has a lot of common sense and survival skills that come in mighty handy in middle-age fairy-tale land.

I am a complete Janette Rallison fan, and this book is one of her best. I dare you to read it without smiling. Can’t be done.

Click here to watch a short clip of Janette talking about two of her new books: Just One Wish and My Fair Godmother.

A Good Samaritan with a Front-End Loader

I live in the Pacific Northwest, about ten miles from the sea, nestled against the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades get tons of snow each year, and Mt. Baker, right next door to us, is snow capped year round. But down here at sea level, we get maybe one or two inches twice a year, and it stays on the ground only a day or so before it warms up and the rain starts again.

Ever so often, though, we get a perfect storm where cold Arctic air pushes down from Canada and meets the moisture laden air from the Pacific and we have a snowfall of a foot or more that hangs around for weeks. When that happens, schools and church are cancelled and people mostly stay home.

Recent move-ins, especially those from northern climes where it snows lots, make fun of us and tell us how snow doesn’t faze them. That’s usually before their first trip out when they discover that the roads haven’t been plowed. Usually their comment is, “This is insane!”

It’s a matter of economics. Snow removal equipment is expensive, and we get so little snow that it’s hard to justify in the budget. The state has plows for the main highways, and the county has a few plows they put on the front of sanding trucks. They do the best they can, but you can count on it, if you venture out, you’re going to be driving on compact snow and ice.

We haven’t had any appreciable snow in the four years since we sold the farm and moved to town, but two weeks ago one of those perfect storm things dumped about a foot and a half of snow on us. We live on Red Headed Step-child Street—we live in town, but people across the street from us live outside the town limits. They’re in the county, so ours is always the last street to see a plow. We didn’t see one at all during this storm.

Last Saturday evening, the rain started pouring down, and by Sunday it had turned the snow to a slush that was challenging even to four-wheel drive. Our driveway and the street just in front of our house were pretty bad, though a block away, the main roads had all been plowed.
I stood at the window, eyeing the driveway, thinking about snow shovels and arthritis, and weighing the odds of making it to the open road the next day to get to work, when here came my neighbor on his little tractor with the front-end loader.

He got busy on our driveway, and another fellow from a farm down at the end came with his larger tractor and started on the street. In a couple of hours, even my little rear-wheel-drive car could make it out to the good roads.

What a great service our neighbor rendered to us! We have only a talk-in-the-front-yard acquaintance, but he was mindful of this older couple and reached out to us in a most significant way, adding his mite to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?"

Friday, December 26, 2008

Following in the New Year

A couple months ago I blogged about raising the Virtuous, Lovely, of Good Report & Praisworthy (VLGRP) profile of the internet. In that posting, I encouraged readers to either blog or to encourage bloggers who are working to raise the afore-mentioned profile by commenting.

Today’s post is another effort to get blog readers to encourage bloggers, if not by commenting, at least by becoming a follower. My service to you today is to 1) Make you aware that this is something that is available to you and 2) Show you how to become a follower.

My stat counter tells me that I have quite a few people who are repeat visitors to this blog, but I only have three followers. (One of those doesn’t count, because it was me on my son’s account, going through the process so I could write about how to do it. I haven’t figured out how to disengage him, yet.)

Always the optimist, I figure that some of my repeat readers would become followers if they knew they could. I didn’t know about the option until I was posting my blog one day and I saw a little icon on my dashboard and became curious about what it was. What a charge to find out I have a following! And it’s plural! More than one!

Following are instructions about how to become a follower on a Blogger blog. A Wordpress blog friend said there was not an equivalent function on Wordpress. If someone has different information than that, email me at and let me know how to become a follower on Wordpress and I’ll amend this blog to include that information.

The easiest way to become a follower on a blog is if the blogger has a Follower Gadget on the sidebar. There’s now one on my blog on the left, just under the announcement of how to order my new book. Just click on FOLLOW THIS BLOG and it will take you through the process. You have to have a Google account to do so, but you can sign up right there. It’s free, and will enable you to follow all your favorite blogs in one place. It will also let you set up your own free blog later, if you should decide to do so.

You can either follow the blog publicly, in which case your picture will appear on the sidebar, or you can follow anonymously.

If you have other blogs you’d like to follow and they don’t have the gadget on the sidebar, here’s the process (after you’ve got your Google account):

1. Go to and sign in with your Google user name and password. This will take you to your Dashboard.

2. In the Reading List section, at the bottom of the Blogs I’m Following tab, there’s an ADD button. Click on it.

3. A pop-up window will come up and ask you for the URL of the blog you want to follow. Type it in (Example: the URL of this blog is --it's in the addressline at the top of your screen).

4. Click on NEXT

5. Now you have two choices: You can follow anonymously, or you can follow publicly. Click on your choice.

6. Click on FOLLOW. You are now a follower of that particular blog.

The little time you spend setting up as a follower will save you time later, because you can follow all your favorite blogs from your Blogger dashboard at , which you access by using your Google username and password.

So, what do you think? It’s a new process, but it’s a new year, too. Go ahead, give it a try.

Return to Neighborhood

Monday, December 22, 2008

An Old American Christmas Tradition

I’m writing today about a Christmas tradition that is exactly 108 years old. It’s not shrouded in mystery, like dragging a live tree into the house and putting lights on it—whose idea was that? We know exactly how the tradition I’m writing about got started.
The year was 1900, and it was the custom among sportsmen of the time to engage in what was called a ‘side hunt’. They would choose up sides and go out into the fields and whoever brought in the biggest pile of dead birds and critters won the friendly competition.

A man by the name of Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, proposed an alternate activity to the side hunts: a competition among teams to count birds rather than shoot them. Because of his promotional activity, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held in 1900.

That first year, the counting region was limited to northeastern North America, but in the intervening years, it has spread across the United States, Canada, and 19 countries in the Western Hemisphere.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a program of the National Audubon Society. It is held in specific 15-mile-diameter circles. Each circle has a particular day in which the count will be held and is led by a Count Compiler. The CBC is staffed by volunteers who go out and tramp along a specified route through the circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. Neophytes and wannabes who trip over sticks and couldn’t tell a crow from a jaybird are paired with more experienced birdwatchers, and the Count Compilers ensure that proper methodology is followed.
If you happen to live in one of the counting circles and have a bird feeder, you can register and participate by counting the birds that visit your feeder. But, you have to register beforehand, live in the circle, and count on the proper counting day.

To find out more about the Christmas Bird Count, click here. If you think it’s something you’d like to do, click on Get Involved on the left hand side bar. At the bottom of the Get Involved page, you will see a button that says Count Date Search. Click on that button, and pick your state, and it will show you the circles in your state. Some will already have been counted, but others have yet to be done, because the counting dates continue until January 5.

If you click on a circle that has yet to be counted, it will give you the name of the Count Compiler and a way of contacting that person. You can find out from him/her about whether there's room for you to join them and what you have to do to register.
There is a $5 charge to be able to participate. This covers the cost of census materials and also helps pay for the web site.

Here’s a chance to be of service to your nation, to science, and to Mother Earth. Never mind that it involves long periods of time standing in the woods in December. You’ll be warmed by the thought that you’re keeping up a grand tradition and that you’re making a contribution.

You’ll notice I said ‘you’. My bird feeder isn’t in an official circle, so I won’t be counting from the comfort of my armchair. But I’d love to hear from any hardy soul who decides to join in the CBC.
I'll cheer you on and send warm thoughts your way.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Service Remembered, Finally

My books came yesterday. The boxes of Counting the Cost sat on my snowy doorstep, fairly steaming, they were so hot off the press. Holding one of the books in my hand was like holding a baby after an eighteen- year gestation period. I could hardly believe it was really here.

It’s been such a long time since I wrote the story that I forgot to mention one of my first readers in the acknowledgements. I’d like to rectify that right here.

First off, let me say that for someone to read a writer’s draft is a true service. NOBODY is interested in reading the manuscript of an unpublished writer. Well, maybe another unpublished writer will, but forget about spouse, children, or best friends .

It’s not that family doesn’t believe in you. My husband was very supportive. In fact, one long-ago Christmas he bought me a correction typewriter. This was years before the first PC, and I was writing on my old portable electric typewriter with the crooked e. I never will forget opening that package and discovering this machine that would correct a whole line. You can’t get much more supportive than that.

But the fact is, I write fiction, while my husband’s idea of a real good read is something like Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. If I ask him, he will read and critique, but it isn’t his thing.

However, to become a good writer, you have to have feedback from readers to see if you are telling a compelling tale. Do they understand the story line? Did they pick up on the crucial cues? Do they like the main character? If not, why not?

Nowadays, I have lots of people willing, since I belong to a very supportive writing group, ANWA . But years ago, when I first began writing Counting the Cost, I had no network and no credibility as an author. Combine that with a seven pound manuscript, and people’s eyes would get very big when I would give them a plastic bag full of paper and ask them if they’d be willing to read the book I was writing. Bless their hearts, every one of them came through, and they’re listed on page 4 in Acknowledgements.
All except Victor. He came through. He just isn’t listed with the others.

How could I have forgotten to list my good friend and then-neighbor, Victor Manwaring? At the time, he had just had knee surgery, and the recovery was taking longer than expected. Thinking that I had him in a vulnerable position, I headed up the hill with my plastic bag full of manuscript. I thunked it down on the table beside him and began my persuasive patter. “You’ve got a horse,” I said. “This is a story about a cowboy.” He finally said he would-- I can’t remember if that was before or after I said I’d make him a pie. Or maybe it was when I mentioned my cousin Guido who would come and break his good kneecap. It doesn’t matter. He read it. And liked it. And told me so.

Victor probably remembers it differently, but that’s fine. What I remember (unfortunately too late to get it in print), is that, long before I was published, he treated me like a writer.

Thanks, Victor. Your copy is in the mail.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Vacuum Cleaner Testimony

I have always said that my true testimony of the Church is reflected in the fact that I’m there at my meetings every Sunday. I hate meetings. Not just Sunday meetings-- I hate meetings of any kind. I think it has to do with having to be at a particular place and a particular time with lots of other people, because I actually love singing and praying with my fellow saints and partaking of the sacrament and listening to one another teach, and I’m ALWAYS glad I came. It’s just getting there in the first place that is a true test of my commitment.

A couple weeks ago I found a truer test than attending meetings. It’s vacuuming.

Intellectually, I’m thankful for the vacuum cleaner. My grandmother didn’t have a vacuum cleaner. Actually, she didn’t have any carpets, so you might say she didn’t have need for one, but I remember cleaning her house with a broom and a dust mop. I would wrap a towel around the broom to get the spider webs out of the corners up next to the ceiling. I’m looking back through about fifty years of memory to the last time I helped clean her house, and I can still see the dust stirred up by the broom. Yes, a vacuum would have made cleaning grandma’s house lots easier.

As I said, intellectually, I understand how great vacuums are and how they help keep our modern world clean. I just hate using one. The only crisis I had when I was facing an empty nest was that I was losing my free vacuumer.

So, a couple weeks ago, when it was our turn to clean the ward building, I found myself with a vacuum cleaner in my hand. I hope I showed the Lord that I loved him by having a glad heart about the whole thing.

I did a lot of pondering about service as I was going back and forth over about a half acre of carpet. Not only did I gain a fuller appreciation for ‘enduring to the end’, but I also posed a few other questions:

· What if I loved to vacuum? Would it still count as service?
· Why do I not mind vacuuming the church nearly as much as I do vacuuming my living room?
· Is there vacuuming beyond the veil? Or, is it like repentance: if you take care of it here, you won’t have to take care of it there?

Not profound stuff, but I was very much struck by the fact that I would do for the Lord what I begrudged doing for myself. I haven’t yet decided if that’s okay or not.

As I was putting the vacuum away, I smiled at the thought that, come January first, the other ward is in charge of cleaning the building, and I wouldn’t have to vacuum that half acre for another whole year. That happy thought was short lived, though, as they announced last Sunday that the other ward has outgrown this smaller building and will be meeting in the stake center from now on. We’re on our own, and my turn to vacuum will be rolling around again shortly.

Return to the Neighborhood

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Forever Gift to Our Children

Years ago, I spent several years teaching elementary school. It was a busy, but rewarding, time in my life, and I made some good friends among the faculty. One of these friends was going through a difficult time in her life, as her husband had left her for another woman. She had gone back to work and was trying to earn a living while gathering together the shards of her self- esteem.

I remember sitting in the staff room one day, eating lunch with this lady as she was speaking of how hard it was to deal with being the rejected ex-wife of a man who had joint custody of their two grade-school girls. “If my parents hadn’t given me a good religious foundation,” she said, “I would never have been able to get through this.”

I was much struck by that thought, and I asked her, “Are you giving your children the same foundation?” She paused a moment, then dropped her gaze and shook her head.

I taught one more year at that school and then we moved. Shortly thereafter, our stake president sent out letters to each of the households in the stake and asked the parents to come to a very important meeting. This was during the Arab oil embargo, and we who lived in the city had to go early on our allotted day and sit in a line that stretched clear around the block in order to get gasoline. Because the times were so unsettled, and picturing a momentous announcement from the stake president—possibly they were going to hand out trowels and assignments for building the temple in Jackson County?--I made arrangements for a sitter, determined to attend. When I got there, the program was about the importance of family home evening. Family home evening? I’m going prepared to be given the task of building Zion, I thought, and they’re talking about family home evening?

I chewed on that a while, and suddenly it hit me: the meeting WAS about building Zion, one child at a time. Whenever I was tempted to let FHE slip, I remembered my teacher friend, and I knew that family home evening was my opportunity to give my children the foundation to get through the tough times.

So, we tried to persevere. Our family home evenings were certainly nothing spectacular, and they often turned out completely different from what we had planned.

One time, when we just had only the last two children at home, probably ages six and eight, we had a lesson on King Benjamin. We were going to act out his great speech, and Dad was going to be the king. We made him a crown out of aluminum foil and stacked two milk boxes one atop another to make a tower for him to stand on. Ruth, Clay and I ‘camped’ round about, with the doors of our tents facing the tower. Ruth’s tent and mine were made with two chairs and a blanket, but Clay’s was a little tepee affair made out of a mike stand and a sheet. He sat in it cross legged, with his lower lip stuck out, and when I asked him why, he said he wanted a tent like Ruth’s, made with chairs and a blanket.

I quickly switched with him, and then we finished FHE, sitting at the doors of our tents and listening to King Benjamin speak from his milk-box tower.

Years later, when Clay was on his mission, we were working with a less-active family, and I planned a FHE using the same format as that long-ago lesson. In writing to Clay, I asked him if he remembered the lesson, and he said yes, he did. He said when he saw me sitting under that cheesy little tent, he was so sorry that he had made me trade, and he made the decision right then to be less selfish. It was an interesting little insight to me about how the Spirit can teach if we just grant the opportunity.

So, in this season of giving, in this season of new years and new beginnings, let’s consider the gift of family home evening for our families. It’s a forever kind of gift.

Return to The Neighborhood

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Awesome Service from a Telephone Operator

There was an article in our small-town daily newspaper today about a group of former telephone operators who still ‘stay connected’. Fifty years ago, they worked in the telephone exchange, a small brick building downtown.

Anyone who has seen an old movie has seen the setup: they sat in front of a board with a lot of holes in it with their legs under a desk affair with plug-in jacks attached to cables. Each cable was a phone line. When a call came in on Line 1, the operator would answer it, and she would then plug the Line 1 jack into the receptacle of the party the caller requested and a light would come on to signal a connection had been made. When the caller hung up, the light would go out, and the operator would unplug the cable. If it was a busy switchboard you had to be careful because your lines crossed one another, and it sometimes was hard to determine exactly which incoming line was plugged into which receiver.

When I was seventeen, I worked for a while as a PBX operator at a small hospital. There were probably only about fifteen incoming lines and maybe fifty phones in the hospital, but I’ll admit I disconnected a doctor or two. I realized then that being a telephone operator was probably not a career path I should follow.

However, as a telephone user, it was great to be able to dial “O” and know that there would be someone on the other end to answer a question or help with a solution. Long after telephone exchanges had become automated, companies still had operators answering phones, and I appreciated having a warm body that I could put my query to instead of hearing, “If you know the extension of the person you are calling….”

About fifteen years ago I got unexpected help from an operator at the Church office building. I was in the middle of writing Counting the Cost, which is, on one level, the story of how my family came to join the LDS church. It was my Uncle Curtis, a cowboy, who first met and listened to the missionaries, and I wanted to know how that had come about. I had found and talked to one of the missionaries who taught Curtis, but he had transferred in and picked up where the other missionaries left off. He couldn’t tell me how the missionaries had first met Curtis, but he kept a journal and told me the name of the elder he replaced and the small Idaho town he was from.

I did some sleuthing and found that elder, now a doctor in California, but he wasn’t the one who first met my Uncle Curtis. He did give me the name of a previous missionary and where he was from, but it was a large city, and I knew I couldn’t just start calling people with that same surname as I had before.

I decided to try calling the missionary department of the LDS church, thinking they would have records that would help me find this missionary. He would be seventy-one or –two by this time, but I was sure that he would remember how he happened to come to teach my uncle.

I dialed the number for the Church office building, and an operator answered. “Could you direct me to the missionary department,” I said. “I want to find out about a missionary who served in New Mexico in 1940.”

“What is his name?” she asked.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t think he’s in the missionary department. I want to talk to someone who can help me find him.”

“What’s his name?” she asked again.

I told her his name.

“He’s dead,” she said.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said again. My voice may have been getting an edge to it. “I’d like to talk to someone in the missionary department who can help me find this former missionary.”

“He’s dead,” she repeated. Then she explained that she had served in that same mission at the same time, and that missionary had married her former companion, so they had kept in touch over the years. He had died just a few years before.

I was disappointed that I would never, in this life, know how the gospel had found its way to our family. But I was really in awe of the way I got to that dead end. What are the odds that I would get an operator who could answer that question about a missionary who served fifty years before in an obscure corner of New Mexico?

To read a blog I wrote about one of the missionaries I did find, click here.

Return to The Neighborhood

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Greatest Charity Box of All

Last time I blogged about being the recipient of a charity box during the Christmas season. Today I’d like to blog about being on the other side of that equation.

Several years before the ‘cannons and charity boxes’ affair, our family knew of a family that was struggling financially, so we and another family decided to buy presents for all and augment their simple Christmas dinner. We spent a lot of time and dipped into our own Christmas budget, but we felt this would be a better Christmas experience for the children than finding a whiz-bang toy under the tree.

We all rode together to deliver it, and we sat in the car with the lights out on the dark, rural road, as the oldest child deposited the box on the doorstep, rang the doorbell and ran. As soon as he was in the car, we sped off, laughing and joyful as we pictured the family’s Christmas day.

Several weeks later, quite by accident, I learned that the simple Christmas dinner I imagined for this family was actually a feast with an exceptionally expensive cut of meat as the main course. It was an ethnic tradition that I’m sure they sacrificed to maintain, but at the time all I could think of was the time and money I spent on a family that ate a whole lot better on Christmas day than we did, and the sweet feelings I had about the experience turned sour.

That was a lot of years ago, and I hadn’t even thought about it until last week when a friend told about a similar experience. I realized as I remembered it, that time, my charity box experience, and King Benjamin have all worked together to restore the sweetness to the memory.

For I know now, first of all, that this offering really wasn’t to the needy family. Rather, this offering was to the Savior. It was our Christmas gift to him. I should have realized that, then.

Secondly, a gift, by definition, is no longer yours once it’s given away. And certainly, if it’s a free-will offering and hasn’t been asked for, it’s out of order for the giver to set conditions after the fact.

This family hadn’t asked for help. They probably felt they had Christmas in hand, and maybe they reacted to our charity box just as I had a few years later when I found one on my doorstep.
But, even if they had asked for help, King Benjamin has some great advice:

…ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain…
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent…

That’s from the Book of Mormon. Mosiah 4:14-24. King Benjamin goes on to ask if we are not all beggars and dependent upon the goodness of God.

Indeed we are, and we celebrate each December 25th the greatest charity box of all. Whether we are deserving or not, whether we are thankful or not, it sits at our doorstep, ready to be opened.

Return to the Neighborhood

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cannons and Charity Boxes

Today is December first, and there’s a big article in our small local daily about the newspaper’s annual Christmas fund needing volunteers and donations. Last year they helped about 1500 families. This year, they expect about a 13% increase, and they’re gearing up for it by calling for 200 volunteers. They hope to raise $60,000 in donations. Since the average donation is about $50, that would mean that there are lots of people in this rural county helping out.

Families who receive help from this Christmas fund make application for it, and on December 20, they gather at a Christmas Party where grocery gift certificates and presents for kids are given out to families.

There are two ways to look at the structure this non-profit organization has set up for giving to needy families. On one hand, it’s too bad a family has to register to receive anything. I imagine it’s hard for some families to admit they need help, and thus some may have a pretty scanty and sad Christmas because of that. On the other hand, extending charity to someone who doesn’t want it can be a sticky wicket, too.

We were in that situation a long time ago—actually it was in the midst of a pretty nasty economic downturn. We had the farm, so we were eating well, but our construction equipment sales business had dried up and fallen off the vine. There just wasn’t any money for Christmas presents. I told the seven kids that Christmas from Mom and Dad would be out of my fabric cupboard, so they were prepared. We put up a tree and decorated every window ledge and countertop with evergreen boughs and everyone worked industriously on gifts for each other. It was a wonderful Christmas season, full of anticipation and joy.

Then the charity boxes started coming.

The first one felt like someone had doused me with a bucket of cold water. I managed to keep my composure until the skinny Santa who delivered it left my front porch, but then I burst into tears. We weren’t poor, I kept saying. We might be broke, but Christmas was well in hand.

The second box came two days later. It was left on the doorstep. I set it in the corner and ignored it.

When the third one came, it began to be funny. That’s when we started making jokes about setting up a cannon in the front yard and taking pot shots at bearers of charity boxes. I think the kids were relieved that Mom wasn’t in danger of slashing her wrists any more.

There were actually some pretty cool presents in the boxes, and it made for a jolly Christmas morning. But, I’ll tell you, when my kids talk about that long-ago Christmas, not a one mentions what came in the charity boxes. They all remember a simple or a home-made gift they got from someone in the family.

I still remember that my oldest boy gave me a sack of clothespins. Our dryer had died about six months before, and I was nursing my hoard of clothespins, trying to make them cover all four lines; but with two small children, it was hard. This teenage boy had seen my need, and from his slender means, he came up with the perfect gift. I don’t think I’ve ever been more delighted on Christmas morning.

Yes, Christmas was well in hand.

Return to The Neighborhood

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Please No Zits!, by Anne Bradshaw - a Review

It may be providential that I lent my copy of Please, No Zits! to a young friend two months ago and couldn’t review it until now, because if you’re looking for a Christmas present for an LDS teen, you might consider this book. You're in luck, too, because it's on sale right now.
I gave one to each of my seminary students last year, which turned out to be a stroke of genius. I didn’t know it at the time, but the book has a couple of Christmas stories in it.

The nice thing about this book is, it’s non-threatening, since it’s a series of short stories, much as you would find in the New Era. A teen doesn’t have to worry about beginning a book they might not have discretionary time to finish.

Anne Bradshaw, author of Please, No Zits! has been published in the New Era many times, so her style will be familiar to young readers.

Parents of a family of teens will find this book good Family Home Evening material, for the stories present problems that loom large in a teen’s life, from not having a date for the New Year’s dance ("Darkness at Noonday") to the temptation to bend the rules in school ("Okay to Cheat?"). The stories are short and would be a good jumping off place for a family discussion.

My favorite story has a returned missionary facing an interesting challenge. It’s not the obvious pitfall of dishonesty or substance abuse; it’s the more common but hard-to-recognize trap of pride. I’d love to lead a discussion of older teens using that story as a beginning.

You can find out more about Anne Bradshaw and how to purchase this book by visiting Anne Bradshaw’s web site.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanks to the Cooks

I’m writing this the day after Thanksgiving, and I’ve been reflecting all day on the hours of service performed by all those who prepared the Thanksgiving feast for their particular partakers, whether it was family or community or institution.

As we drove the four miles to my daughter’s house yesterday carrying our offering of fruit salad, green salad, mustard sauce and three kinds of cream pies, we passed by several homes where people were carrying pots and boxes from the car to the house. I don’t know why, but I misted up when I saw it. There’s something so very basic about bringing food to share. The menu may be different, as historians are quick to tell us, but that was basically what happened on the first Thanksgiving, wasn’t it?

The small town I live in has a community Thanksgiving dinner at the local middle school. It’s not about serving the needy or homeless, it’s about celebrating the day as a community. It’s been a tradition for twenty-five years. The person in charge this year doesn’t even live here anymore, but he came back just to direct the volunteer force of a hundred who cooked twenty-eight turkeys, hundreds of pounds of potatoes and almost five hundred rolls. In addition to those who came to the cafeteria to eat, meals were taken to homebound community members. Those who could, made a donation to cover the cost of the food, but it wasn’t necessary to pay. One of the pastors of a local church lamented, however, that the needy and impoverished families didn’t come.

A neighboring town has several places where homeless and needy can eat a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, and food banks put boxes together with all the ingredients to make a Thanksgiving feast for their clientele. For years, the youth of my ward made pies for the dinner done by the Lighthouse Mission, and they also did pies for the local food bank’s boxes. Click here to see the blog with instructions on how to set up a pie-making service project.

Since we moved from the farm and downsized, I don’t do the meat course any more, and I kind of miss the early morning quality time, just me and the turkey, as I wrestle it from refrigerator to sink and from sink to the roaster. We always had at least a twenty pound turkey and a houseful of people.

Whatever the food group: vegetable or grain or meat, it doesn’t prepare itself magically. Planning and preparation are necessary for a celebratory feast. Here’s thanks to those who invested the hours to wash, pare, roll, stir, chop, crimp, season, baste, bake, carve, garnish and serve our Thanksgiving feasts.

Return to the Neighborhood

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cover for Counting the Cost

Here it is! The cover for my latest book. Publication date is March 7, but we'll have some copies available before that...maybe even in time for Christmas.

Though this is fiction, the novel has its roots in my family history, and I've used pictures of the people who inspired the story on the front. Set in Depression-era New Mexico, it's about a cowboy and a lady who came from back east.

Here's what some early readers had to say about it:

Counting the Cost is a poignant look at a grand passion between opposites, a sensory delight filled with lush descriptions, spot-on dialoge, and a well-told story of choice and accountability. Liz Adair is a masterful storyteller. Don't miss reading this book! --Marsha Ward, author of The Man from Shenandoah and Ride to Raton

Liz Adair's Counting the Cost is a sprawling epic filled with tenderness, heartache, contemplation and a heroine reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara. --Gayle Trent, author of Murder Takes the Cake

Counting the Cost is a novel that will break your heart and elevate your spirits. It presents a closely-etched picture of life in a hard country in hard times, filled with memorable people and a love story as poignant as it is beautiful. --Ronald Shook, PhD, Associate Professor of English, Utah State University

Counting the Cost uses words to paint a historically correct picture to transport you back in time to experience the life and loves of a hardworking cowboy. The partnership between man, horse, and nature, and the consequences of descisions create a story that rings true with human emotion and challenges. Liz Adair has done a great job of creating an informative and thought-provoking novel. --Julee Brady, founding member, Cowgirls Historical Foundation

Counting the Cost is the humanizing of Liz Adair's ancestors who struggled with some of the greatest trials man faces: honor, loyalty, integrity, strength, forgiveness, courage and love. An engaging, and a times difficult, story, Counting the Cost keeps the reader turning the pages until the end. --Candace E. Salima, author of Forged in the Refiner's Fire

This book sweeps you away to another place that will stay with you long after the last page is turned. It's the kind you stay up late to finish then call your best friend to tell her about the next morning. --Ann Acton, writer and business owner

Counting the Cost with its seas of sagebrush, sweeping vistas, and dusty arroyos is reminiscent of Dances with Wolves. The scenery wraps itself around you and pulls you into this epic story of passion, morals and love. --Monique Luetkemeyer, writer and blogger

Counting the Cost is certainly a spellbinding book. Very, very good. --Dale Baker, reader.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Celeste's Report from Kenya

Last time I blogged, I mentioned that Celeste Mergens has a plan broader than simply providing feminine hygiene equipment to the girls at the Academy of Hidden Talents orphanage. That plan includes a program she calls “Days for Girls”.

Reporting on the trip she just concluded, Celeste says they arrived at the orphanage with four huge duffle bags containing more than 500 "Days for Girls" sanitary kits, educational booklets and displays. They also brought the lyrics to "Walk Tall, You’re a Daughter of God", a five-gallon container of bleach, and some detergent. They planned on setting up before the program, but when they arrived, the first group of girls was in their chairs, waiting.

The focus of the program for the girls is threefold: 1) To expand their goals through education and assurance that they are daughters of God, 2) To save their lives by teaching hygiene and safety, and 3) to give them days of their lives back with the feminine kits.

Celeste began the program by showing the girls photos of Kenyan Women of Influence and describing the contribution of each. Some were mothers, some were educators, some worked in government. She ended the segment by telling the girls, "There is another woman I would like to introduce you to who will make all the difference in the world." She held up a mirror that was just the size of the photos and asked, "Do you see her?" As she held it up to the girls, scanning the room, they cheered.
Then Sue Fleming of Goddard College, pictured at left, spoke of education and its importance.
Julie Matua co/In-country director for PEI, pictured at left, spoke of safety and not letting men trade them "trinkets for sexual favors."
"It was all very honest and genuine.” Celeste says. “The girls could not have been more attentive.”
Celeste spoke of predators and their behaviors and told the girls that they only way to be safe is to never be silent, and never allow others to be hurt.

Then it came time to show them how to use the kits. Celeste says, “They were mesmerized. They were thrilled. They LOVED their scarves, they loved their panties. They LOVED the pads. They loved their washcloths and soap. They loved the idea. Their eyes sparkled and even the teachers were so glad to have them. They said that they were not sure such an idea would work until they saw them. They clamored for them despite our efforts for calm distribution.”

After dismissing the meeting with prayer, Celeste and her team hugged each and every girl as they left. She says that was when we knew that the idea was as sound as any of us had hoped. Maybe more so, because girls began to speak up about exploitation they had suffered. Celeste and the strong team that had come to work with the girls were able to stand as advocates, working with Kenyan authorities to fill in the gaps in personal safety for the girls.

“We came to give back days of their lives,” Celeste says, “only to find we had a solution in hand that gave them a voice.”
If you want to know more about Project Thrive, click here to visit the web site.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Report on our Kenyan Orphanage Service Project

In my blog of September 26, 2008, I introduced you to Celeste Mergans, who works with Project Thrive, a part of the Clay Foundation dedicated to finding sustainable solutions for children at risk in third world countries. I also introduced you to her need at the time: 500 feminine hygiene kits for the adolescent girls at the Academy of Hidden Talents orphanage in Dagoretti, Kenya.
Celeste’s determination to come up with a cleanable/reusable kit rather than the American style disposable product was prompted by three considerations: First, with AIDs being a significant blood-borne threat, and with no solid-waste facilities available, disposal of used, western-style products would be a problem. Second, with the reusable kit, you only have to transport and deliver one package. Third, the washable kit fits the Clay Foundation model of sustainable programs. It’s easier on the planet and involves the user in the solution.
If you remember, Celeste had only a scant month to gather the 500 home-made kits she needed to take with her to Kenya.

My daughter Terry and I, swept up in the need, volunteered to spearhead 200 kits and I blogged about the need, hoping someone might see and want to help.

SWAN, a 501 (c) (3) organization, provided materials for the 200 kits Terry and I volunteered.

The ladies and kids of Sedro Woolley and Burlington (Washington) Wards pitched in to construct them.

My son’s family home evening group at BYU got together to make the bags.

Celeste reports that she got kits from people as far away as Arizona who had seen my blog on Liz Sez and joined the effort.

To all who helped, she says: “Thank you for ALL you did to make this all possible. It was, and is, miraculous.

Celeste also says that this is an ongoing need. You can go to the Project Thrive web site and find out how you can help.

I'll write more about the broader, more far-reaching aspects of Celeste's feminine hygiene kit project in my next blog.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A One-minute Service that Saved My Day

Last week, after my camera malfunctioned and ruined the blog I was set to write, I tried to jump-start another by asking myself, “What is a service that was rendered to you that you really, really appreciated?”

I didn’t have an answer until after I had posted my blog for the day, and then the memories came flooding in.

I’m going to share one with you today. It’s about a casual, one-minute service that saved the day for me and increased my testimony of temple work.

Here’s what happened:

Years ago, during the time I had a bakery, I did lots of my shopping at Costco. However, we didn’t have a Costco near us, so once a month, I’d drive our full-size Mercury station wagon eighty miles south to the Costco in Lynwood and load it up with supplies.

I was also Young Women’s President at the time, and since we had a temple trip scheduled, I decided to be efficient and make that trip count for both purposes. I made arrangements with my counselors to meet them at the temple, and I left early enough to allow me time to shop and then negotiate the rush-hour traffic to the temple.

As I pulled in to a parking space at Costco, I noticed that my tape deck was eating my new Lyle Lovett tape. I turned off the key, pulled out the tape, and spent five minutes repairing the damage as best I could. Then, frowning still, I grabbed my purse, clicked the electric locks, got out of the car, and swung the door closed. Just as the door latched, my mind processed the high-pitched ‘ping-ping-ping’ I’d been hearing. It was a reminder that I had left the keys in the ignition.

When I asked at the Costco service desk if someone had a coat hanger and knew how to use one, they told me to call 911, that the local police had a dedicated man for this type of situation. Looking at my watch and trying to ignore the knot in my stomach, I decided to get my supplies and then call 911.

So, I did, and within 20 minutes I was at the pay phone, sending out my SOS. Dispatch told me it would be a while. I should wait out front.

I sat on the curb and tried to prepare for entering the temple. Though I couldn’t help glancing at my watch frequently, I used my time to compose a poem about how blessed I was. Hardest poem I’ve ever attempted, not because I didn’t feel blessed, but because it seemed every rhyme I came up with was something about locked doors and time constraints.

It took an hour for the policeman to arrive. He was young and sweet and eager, but all thumbs when it came to using a Slim Jim. He worked for fifteen minutes—I know, because I was looking at my watch and calculating how long it was going to take me to get to the temple—before he finally gave up. He said electric locks were hard anyway, but these were impossible. My only recourse was to call someone at home and have them bring down the extra set of keys.

I couldn't believe I was going to miss out on this temple experience and let my young women and counselors down. I was perilously close to tears, and perhaps that was what caused a fellow walking by to approach. “Some Ford keys are interchangeable,” he said. “Why don’t you let me try my key?”

The policeman stood aside, the stranger put his key in the lock and turned it, and the doors unlocked.

I stood there with my mouth open for only a second before I flew into action. The men helped me load my goods, accepted my profuse thanks, and watched me bottom out as I pulled out of the parking lot onto the street.

After that, it was smooth sailing. I’ve never seen traffic that flowed so well at that time of day. I made it in good time, and as I sat in the temple watching those lovely young women, my stewardship, I examined the odds that that key would work and gave thanks for a stranger who heeded a prompting and made all the difference for me.

Return to the Neighborhood

Friday, November 14, 2008

Great Plans Gone Awry

The day has not gone as planned.

I thought it was going to be a breeze: My blog is due, but I knew what I was going to write, and I figured I could get it done early and have plenty of time to get the turkey I had volunteered to cook for our Ward’s annual Harvest Dinner in the oven. I would also get the green salad for 300 done early so I wasn’t chopping romaine at the last minute.

The first thing that happened to derail things was the message on my answering machine about my doctor’s appointment on Monday that I needed to get blood work done for. Luckily, I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I dashed into the next town where the lab was. That was an hour I hadn’t figured on spending, but that was okay, because the blog would be a breeze, and there was plenty of time for turkey and salad.

When I got ready to download the pictures I needed for my blog, they weren’t there. I don’t know how I managed to erase them from my camera, but none of the ones I took to report on a service project were there. Yikes! What to blog on now?

Well, first I figured I’d better get the turkey in the oven and—oh, I forgot, I’m watching grandkids, too, while their Mom is over at the church taking charge of getting the Harvest Dinner put together. Grandkids arrived and promptly announced they were hungry.
I fed them scrambled eggs, and I fed Grandpa at the same time, and I managed to fling the turkey in the oven just in time so it could be done by the time it had to be delivered to the church.

What to blog on? My most disastrous service project? A service that was done for me that was just right and just in time?

I contemplated what to write as I ran cucumbers, onions, peppers and celery through the food processor. Nothing seemed right. Plowing through six sacks of romaine, I tried to remember some of the brilliant blogs I had sketched in my mind as I drove to work each morning. Talk about an empty head; there was nothing rattling around there.

I had to stop in mid-chop and run pick up Lucy from school—another unplanned trip. Back in the kitchen, I hastily finished the salad and looked at my watch. Eek! Time to post my blog. But first, the turkey had to be chauffeured to the church. I stashed the hastily finished salad in two fridges and grabbed a cardboard box for the turkey pan to rest in as it rode in the passenger seat (strapped in, natch), to the church kitchen.

So, here I am. No words of wisdom about service. No great descriptions of ways to involve youth. No jazzy pictures of people involved in helping people. And, excuse me, I just heard something crash in the kitchen. I’ve got to go check on the grandkids.

See you on Friday

Return to the Neighborhood

Monday, November 10, 2008

Helping the Whitneys Raise the Literary Bar

I’m such a hermit. I grew up far from the center of the LDS church, attending branches in New Mexico, Wyoming and Alaska where we were lucky to have fifty people out to a sacrament meeting.

When I began writing, I practiced my craft alone, not realizing until I had published my second novel that there were wonderful writers’ groups available to help me hone my abilities as a writer and offer me the camaraderie of like souls at the same time.

American Night Writers Association (ANWA) is one such group. I blogged about ANWA and what a dynamic group it is quite a while ago. Click here to read that blog.

I belong to another group, too, called LDStorymakers. To be a member of Storymakers, you have to be LDS and a published writer. One might say that we are in competition with each other for the small pool of LDS readers, but all I’ve seen in our association is cooperation. We’re there to teach each other, to cheerlead, to advise, to commiserate, and to give a leg up, if we can.

Another goal of LDStorymakers is to raise the standard of writing among LDS writers. We take seriously Orson F. Whitney’s pronouncement:

We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.
God's ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits
are held in reserve for the latter times. In God's name
and by his help we will build up a literature whose top
shall touch heaven….

To that end, last year, LDStorymakers instituted the Whitney Awards. The object is to honor excellence in fiction by LDS writers in both general and LDS markets.

Awards are given in these categories:

  • Romance/Women’s Fiction
  • Suspense/Mystery
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Youth Fiction
  • Historical
  • General Fiction
  • Best Novel of the Year
  • Best Novel by a New Author

LDStorymakers is now preparing for the 2009 Whitney Awards and is sponsoring an on-line auction as a fundraiser. I hope you’ll visit the WhitneyAuction Web Site and make a purchase for a very good cause.

This Auction will run for the month of November. You are invited to check the web site often, as new items are added every day. Think Christmas as you peruse the offerings. All items, including shipping, have been donated.

Also, be thinking about the books you have read that were published in 2008 that you would like to see honored by a Whitney, because anyone can nominate a book for consideration. Check out the process on the Whitney Award Web Site.

Return to Neighborhood

Friday, November 7, 2008

Solving the Spinning Bird Mystery

Quite a few years ago my husband and I worked on a job doing a wastewater treatment plant for a small town in eastern Washington. He managed the job and I did the documentation. The new, state-of-the-art plant was to replace a perfectly good lagoon system. Apparently, some federal department, anticipating that the time would come when the old system would fail, ruled that the town had to replace it themselves, or the government would replace it and charge the municipal government for it. The town leaders weren’t dummies and decided it would save money, time and heartache if they did it themselves. But, that’s another story.

We moved to the town for the year and a half that the project took, and during the building of the new plant, I lived during the day in an office trailer that sat about fifty feet from one of the old lagoons.

As I said, the old system was perfectly good, and not only was there no odor from the process, but the place was teeming with wildlife. Many kinds of birds nested nearby or dropped in to feed, and large turtles thrived there and could be seen sunning themselves on rocks all around the edge.

We arrived there in the summer and got to know all the local critters who hung around, but with the coming of fall we started having avian visitors. Some were familiar: mallards and Canadian geese and even a few swans, but others were exotic, birds of a kind I had never seen.

One day we had a flock of little birds come in and settle on the water, and as they floated they would spin around in a circle with their beaks in the water. Spin, spin, spin, all day long. I grew dizzy just watching them and wondered what kind of birds they were.

A few weeks later they left, and the next fall I was gone. I never saw these birds again, but one day I was listening to Bird Note, a program offered on KPLU, our local NPR station, and I heard about these spinning birds. They are called phalaropes, and they’re a type of sandpiper that breeds in the Arctic tundra in the summer and migrates to the open ocean for the winter. I don’t know what they were doing in Eastern Washington. Maybe their inner compass said: go to the wastewater lagoon and turn right, then over the mountains and you’ll hit the sea.

On Bird Note I learned that this bird spins around once per second. This spinning forces water away from itself, which causes an upward current bringing deeper, nourishment-laden water to the surface. As it spins, the bird opens its bill, creating another surge of water that carries food into its throat.

If you’d like to see a phalarope and hear its call, you can go to the Bird Note site. There you can find out lots of interesting things about birds. Did you know that the Great Gray Owl has eyes larger than most humans’? Did you know that an owl can rotate his head 270 degrees? Did you know that the number of ‘dees’ in a chickadee’s call signals danger?

Bird Note only lasts a couple minutes each day, but I usually try to manage my commute to work so I can hear it. If I miss it, I can always visit the web site and either read the script or listen to the podcast. You can, too. Just click here.

What a great service! Thanks, Birdnote.

Return to Neighborhood

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thank you, Luis von Ahn

Several years ago, I began transcribing the letters my mother wrote me when she was in Afghanistan . Because many of them were typewritten, I thought I might be able to speed up the process by scanning those pages and using a computer program to convert the scanned pages to text. So, I invested the money in the scanner and software, and I invested lots of time in learning how.

In the end, I found that it was actually faster to type the letter into a blank Word document rather than use the scanner. The reason was, Mom’s old typewriter had a couple letters that were a little crooked and an a and an e that came through with the hole filled in. So, the scanner process missed a lot of words, and I had to go through and figure out what was supposed to be there instead of the garbled word the scanner put in.

Where was Luis von Ahn when I needed him?

Luis von Ahn is a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg. You use an invention of his each time you comment on my blog (you do comment on my blog, don’t you?), because I have a setting where you have to read a wavy word and reproduce it in the box provided. It’s an extra little step, but it’s worth it because it eliminates spam. He called this process CAPTCHA.

As Dr. von Ahn contemplated this process, he came up with two conclusions. The first was that each time someone typed in one of these wavy words, the brain was performing an amazing task, one that no computer could do. The second was that the combined time and keystrokes all the people on the internet wasted performing this little security measure was mind boggling. He figured it came to about half a million hours every day.

So, he set out to find a way to harness all that human brain power, time and keystrokes.

He thought of all the libraries’ efforts to digitize their collections so they can make them universally available. The process they use is very like the one I tried with my mother’s letters. And, like me, they end up with words that the computer can’t decipher. A human being has to look at those words and decode them.
Dr. von Ahn came up with the idea of using something very like CAPTCHA, but instead of having one word to decipher, you would have two. One would be a regular test word used by CAPTCHA; the other would be one of the words that a computer hadn’t been able to read that needed a human to decipher it. That word would be given to several people. If they all agree what word it is, then that is the word that will go into the digitized copy of the book or newspaper that it came from.

Dr. von Ahn says that the number of words already transcribed by this process is something over a billion.

Dr. von Ahn calls this technique reCAPTCHA. It’s used by Facebook and Twitter, among others. Just think, every time you use it, you’re helping to digitize the entire library of the New York Times!

I heard about reCAPTCHA on All Things Considered on NPR last August. Check out the program transcript. It’s such a great service to America, the digitizing of whole libraries, that I thought I’d find article after article about it on the internet, but I didn’t.

So I’m writing about it. In a few years, when we have access to books and newspapers from the last century or two with a few keystrokes, we’ll have Dr. von Ahn to thank for expediting the process.

Return to the Neighborhood

Friday, October 31, 2008

Commenting as Service, Reviewing as Heroic Service

To understand my current crusade, you have to understand about me and baritone horns. It’s a bit of a story, but stay with me.

A few years ago, after a hiatus of forty years, my husband picked up the trombone and began playing again. Quite well, I might add. I thought it might be fun to play with him, and having spurned the alto horn when I was in eighth grade, I thought I’d atone for that error, and bought one on ebay. I was over sixty, had never played a brass instrument, and I really struggled with that alto horn.

In the meantime, my son-in-law, who played baritone in high school, got excited about playing again and showed up with a well-used baritone horn. It looked like it had tangled with a truck, but actually sounded pretty good. So, we’d play hymns in three parts, but I never got to play melody because my range was only about five notes.

One day, I picked up my son-in-law’s beater baritone and played melody on one of the hymns. “I think I’m in love,” I told him. What a wonderful instrument! Sure, it didn’t look like much, but it was so easy to play. I was on Ebay that afternoon, and the alto horn was history.

I loved the baritone, therefore, everyone must also love the baritone. Another son-in-law, a pretty good alto sax player, found himself the proud owner of an Ebay Special. My daughter, the viola player, got a baritone for her birthday, as did my son and daughter-in-law who had held themselves aloof from the family band. I was convinced they could not stay away if they once tried the baritone. Actually, they moved shortly after that, though I don’t think that’s the reason. Come to think of it, they left the baritones behind.

Well, anyway, we now have a low brass ensemble consisting of five baritone horns, a trombone and a French horn, and we practice all year to be ready to play at the Life Care Center at Christmas. (That's me with my back to the camera.)

So what does that have to do with my current crusade? Only that, if I’ve developed a passion about something, then EVERYONE has to be passionate about it, too. And what is my current passion? It’s raising the ‘ virtuous, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy’ (VLGRP) profile on the internet.

In my crusade, I’m exhorting people to begin blogging. Setting one up is dead easy, and it’s free. Just go to and follow the directions.
Don’t want to blog? Then encourage the people who are blogging: comment. Comments are such a shot in the arm to a blogger. A comment always makes my day. Comments are huge.

If comments are huge, reviews are gargantuan. For someone to take the time to write a review of a book or a CD or a movie and post it on Amazon or on their own blog is really, really important. It doesn’t have to be something written or produced by a Latter-day Saint. Remember, we’re looking at the VLGRP profile. If it fits in that category, then let people know. Don't worry that you're not a 'critic'. You have an opinion. You know what you like. Think of all the good things that go unmentioned because the 'critics' are touting edgy, push-the-envelope, or just-plain-sleazy fare. If something uplifts you, makes you think, makes you want to be a better person, then let us know. Your word will carry weight.

I had the same reservations. I didn't feel I was a good critic. But, remember, I'm on a crusade. I'm not asking you to do something I'm not willing to do myself. If you'd like to check out some of my reviews, they're on my blog, Mom Said.

If you’re uncomfortable making your voice heard in cyberspace, let me ask you to do one small act of service. Will you please comment on a blog—not necessarily this one—but some blog that you enjoy reading? You may have to register with Google to be able to post, but that’s a non-threatening thing and will allow you to comment on anyone who blogs through Blogger.

If you’re not a regular blog reader, just google something you’re interested in: taking photos of your kids, fly fishing, growing tomatoes, quilting—you name it, there’s probably a blog on it. (If not, maybe you’ve found your calling.) But, read the blog and then comment. I guarantee it’ll make you feel good to know you made the day of someone you don’t even know.

Return to the Neighborhood

Monday, October 27, 2008

Listening as Service

I’ve just finished writing about two very involved service projects on this blog--The Apple Pie Project and the Kenyan Orphan Project. Today I’m going to talk about a very small-scale service project, one that takes little planning and can be done almost anywhere and for anyone.

It’s called Listening.

I just did a bit of quick research on-line about listening, and found some really good pointers, but I also take exception to a statement in a couple of the articles I read: Listening is easy. I don’t think it’s easy at all. I think, for anyone still trying to master the Natural Man within, it’s hard, because the Natural Man would rather talk than listen.

That’s why listening is so important. With all of us talking, who will listen? If we realize that this is an act of service, maybe you and I will.

The articles I read were all about listening to children, but everything they said can be extrapolated to adults, too. We never outgrow the need to be heard.

It all boils down to two simple rules:

Listening Rule Number One is Stop what you’re doing. It sends the unspoken message, “You are more important than folding clothes, reading my email, watching this TV program, exercising, or (fill in the blank).”

Listening Rule Number Two is Be patient. Not everyone is a great narrator.

This is where it gets hard for me. I can stop what I’m doing for a short while, but I’m a very production-oriented person. If you compound my idle hands with a bungled tale, well, it really is a struggle for me to stay attentive and concerned.

But this isn’t about me, right? I’m being of service to my fellow man, here. Eye contact, Liz. Nod. Follow the thread. Modulate your voice when you ask questions so it doesn’t sound impatient. Send positive signals by way of ‘Uh-huh’, ‘I see’ and ‘Hmmm’. DON’T finish any sentences to move the story along.

As a young mother, I heard over and over that the most important thing you can do for your child is to listen to him. As child #4 was embarking on the Riddle Stage—you know, the place where he wants to tell riddles but hasn’t grasped the concept, so he comes up with some very lame questions and totally irrelevant answers and thinks they’re riddles—I used to think, The person who wrote that has never gone through the Riddle Stage. Or the Knock-knock stage. Or the, “What if?” stage. That’s when listening gets really, really tough. But hang in there. You'll learn some great jokes, and when there's something really important to be told, your child will know you're approachable.

They say you love whom you serve, and I think that applies here. As you’re a visiting teacher and you listen to one of your sisters ramble about her family, you grow to know about her—who she is and what she’s lived through. You may never meet the people she talks about, but you’re serving her by listening, and soon you care about her and the family you've never met.

And what about listening to a clunker of a talk in Sacrament Meeting? Maybe the speaker wasn’t a silver-tongued orator. Maybe, in fact, he had never given a talk in his life before this halting try. By listening to him attentively, you are serving him. How else can he progress, if not by practice? How else can he have heart to try, if his brothers and sisters don’t listen and respond?

King Benjamin tells us that when we serve our fellow man, we are serving God. Listening is a simple act of service we can practice every day of our lives.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Crossing Paths with a Legend

Hunter Lewis was an Episcopal priest, sent as a missionary to New Mexico territory in the decade before the turn of the twentieth century. Born just after the end of the Civil War to a family in Virginia, at around age eleven, he suffered an illness that kept him bedridden for a year. During that time, he read the Bible, and he learned to crochet, two things that would help define his life forever.

Hunter Lewis determined early on to go into the ministry, but because his family lost everything in the war, education was beyond their means, and he had to work to put himself through. Thus, by the time he graduated from divinity school, he was quite a bit older than his fellow scholars. He accepted the call to go to New Mexico and minister to the settlers there, making his headquarters in Las Cruces.

He didn’t want to be called Father Lewis, so folks called him Preacher. Episcopal priests can marry, and he had a good wife who taught school to help support the family. He didn’t drive, so in order to care for his flock in the hamlets and ranches of a huge area, he’d walk along the road until someone would pick him up and give him a ride toward where he needed to go. As he walked, he would crochet baptismal caps for the children of his diocese.

When he got to his target village, he’d call people to a meeting place—usually the school house—and hold a service, no matter what day of the week. Any baptisms or other rites that needed to be taken care of were done, and then they pushed the chairs back against the wall, and Preacher would play for the people to dance.
If there was a tavern in the town, he’d go there, too, to collect money for the poor. People were willing to give, because they knew that none of the money they gave traveled from the leather ‘poor’ pouch to Preacher’s purse. It didn’t matter if someone was a Baptist or Catholic or one of his own flock, to Preacher Lewis, they were all God’s children, and he’d reach into that old leather pouch for anyone in need.

My path crossed Preacher Lewis’s in Las Palomas, New Mexico in 1942, when he baptized me. I still have the baptismal cap he gave me on that day. He would have been close to eighty at the time. My mother was baptized by him twenty-five years earlier and was taught Christianity by this very Christian man. After reading his biography, I felt very strongly that I was blessed to have him teach my mom and prepare her spiritually so that when the Mormon missionaries taught her, she was ready to listen.

The Reverend Hunter Lewis was a legend in southern New Mexico for a long time. I wrote him into my book Counting the Cost (coming out in March 09) which is set in New Mexico in the 1930s and is based on my family history.

I thought when I googled his name, I’d easily find lots of information about Preacher Lewis, but the only thing I found, besides a blog I wrote about him last year, was an article in Piecework Magazine where someone reproduced one of the crochet patterns he used for baptismal caps.

Last year, I found an out-of-print biography of Preacher Lewis entitled Journeys of Faith at COAS Books in Las Cruces, NM. It’s by Lee Priestley and the Lewis Family. If you’re interested in reading about a saintly, humble, servant of the Lord, then call the store (575-524-8471) and see if they have a copy. They had several when I checked this morning. When you read it, you’ll understand why I treasure this little crocheted cap.

Monday, October 20, 2008

P is for Putting it All Together

This is the last in the Apple Pie Service Project Series. This one is about the big night when the pies get put together.

This project can be orchestrated in any number of ways. Since it consists of several discrete processes, you can have several small-group activities or put them all together in one (hopefully VERY well organized) evening.

As I have suggested in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4, the activities are:

Picking apples
Peeling and slicing of apples (they can be frozen)
Making of flour/shortening mix
Rolling of bottom crusts
Rolling of top crusts
Assembling pies (Also dispersing for freezing or baking)

My preference was always to take care of crusts ahead of time. However, if you’re working with refrigerated or frozen crusts, you have to set them out far enough ahead of time so they are room temperature when you’re working with them, because a cold crust will crumble.

A compromise is to do the bottom crusts ahead of time and roll out the top crusts on the spot.

If you have lots of kids and are willing to trust them with knives, then peeling and slicing apples will keep lots of them busy during the assembly evening. Remember the axiom that everyone needs an assignment and a tool to successfully complete that assignment. Also, remember that you need good supervisors.

The picture above shows how we set up an assembly night for one of the times this service project was used. Bottom crusts were already done, and top crusts were rolled on the spot. Scouts and Beehives were in charge of peeling and slicing.

When the pies were completely assembled, we put a slip with baking instructions on the top and wrapped the pies in plastic wrap. They were then delivered to the freezers that had been scoped out earlier.

An easy way of transporting is to collect soda pop flats from grocery stores. These can be put together, top and bottom to make a sturdy box for the pie, so that pies can be stacked to transport and in the freezer.

Pies can be baked the day before or the morning of delivery day. A frozen pie will need to be baked about an hour at 400 degrees. If you’ve got an oven full, it may take longer. If it’s a single pie, it may not take that long.

If you’re using the boxes, you can transport quite a few pies at a time, so you will need fewer people delivering.

I already had someone report that they used this blog to make an apple pie for their family and it turned out wonderfully.

I hope if anyone tries it as a service project that you’ll report back how it turned out and any suggestions you have for better success.

Good luck!

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

T is for Top Crust

This is Part 4 of 5 in the Apple Pie Service Project Series. If you haven’t read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3, you might want to read those before you begin this part.

You should have your bottom crusts all done and standing by. If you’re freezing for a later day, you can stack these crusts on a tray with wax paper between them and then cover with a plastic bag before freezing. I’ll talk about the thawing process in Part 5. You won’t cut the vent holes until you’re ready to put them on as a top crust.

Before your roll your top crusts, you need to fix your apples for the filling. For each 9” pie, you’ll need about 5 medium sized apples, peeled, cored and sliced in a large bowl. You can do several pies’ worth at one time, but don’t do more than two or three, as you want the sugar/cornstarch to stick to the apples. If they sit too long, the sugar will draw the juice out of the apples, and it will wash the coating away.

For each pie you’re doing, take
1 cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tsp. cinnamon

Mix together thoroughly until there are no lumps of cornstarch or cinnamon.

Dump over apples and mix until all the dry ingredients are coating the apples.

Next, take one of your bottom crusts that you’ve already prepared and fill it, heaping, with apples.

Now, you’re ready to roll out that top crust. Remember the drill?
Mix the dough just as you did for bottom crusts.
Gather the dough into a hardball-sized ball, just as in bottom crusts.
Roll out on a floured pastry cloth to about the same size.

Cut vent holes in the pie crust.

I fold in half and cut along the fold line, but you can leave it flat and cut a design. Get creative. Here’s your chance to express yourself.

Moisten the bottom crust all around the edge.

Put the top crust on the pie.

I roll it loosely on my rolling pin, as I did the bottom crust

This next step is very important and will save you cleaning your oven later on.

Press down all the way around to seal those edges


Cut the top crust ½ inch from the edge of the pie tin.

Turn under both the bottom and top crusts.

This will help seal the edge so you won’t have juice boiling out as you bake the pie.

Crimp the edges all the way around

Sprinkle the top with sugar.

Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until nicely browned and the filling is bubbling inside.

For quality control, eat the first one to make sure it’s all right.

Next time, I’ll talk about getting kids organized for the project, assembling when you’re working with frozen crusts, baking masses of pies, and delivery.

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