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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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