Jul 07 2014

Stake Conference on the Fly

Published by Kathy under General

We had our stake conference recently. For you who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stake conference is a twice-yearly meeting where a bunch of local congregations (“wards”) in the same area get together for a meeting.

An average stake has about ten congregations. Ours has twelve, so you could say we’re overdue for realignment — something no Mormon wants to see. Oh, we all want to see our ranks growing, but that’s only theoretically. When it happens to our stake or, far worse, our ward, it’s a crisis of epic proportions. It means saying goodbye to old friends, and several months of changes as all of the dominoes fall.

But that’s not today’s topic. Thank goodness. I hope I don’t have to even think about a ward or stake reorganization for — well, forever. I’m too old for that sort of trauma.

Stake conferences take place in a “stake center,” which is one of the larger buildings in the stake. But it only makes sense that twelve Mormon congregations cannot fit in such a small space. When our friend Dick presided over the stake, the way he solved the problem was to hold two identical meetings, with half the members attending one session and half the members attending the other.

Even with two meetings, the number of people attending would fill the chapel and all of the overflow areas.

It made for a long day for people like Fluffy, who was the stake clerk. As Fluffy’s wife, I took it upon myself to help feed all the people who talked at the identical meetings, so I was there for both meetings as well. We were always glad when stake conferences were over.

But there have been two stake presidents since our friend Dick was released, and things are done differently these days. Thanks to modern technology, the meeting is broadcast simultaneously to all four buildings in our stake. That way there is only one meeting. That means no food, but the speakers only have to speak once.

One would think this would be a happy solution to everything. After all, modern technology allows the speakers to reach all the stake members by only giving their talks one time. This is where you would be wrong.

The reason you would be wrong is that our church uses the tithing dollars of its members to pay for all the niceties in our buildings, and every penny that is spent is accountable to an auditor. With thousands of buildings scattered across the globe, it makes sense that those in charge are always looking for a good deal.

If you can shave just a dollar off the cost of an item, this will result in a savings of thousands of dollars across the entire Church. Unfortunately, this also means that the items provided are not always of the absolutely highest quality.

I am old enough to remember the hands-free toilets that were installed in the bathrooms at the Washington D.C. Temple. They weren’t toilets at all. They were surprise bidets! They shot cold water into the nether regions of hapless patrons for three weeks until they were unceremoniously removed. The temple workers wondered for years how much that little experiment cost the Church.

Then there were the ceiling tile bombs that were installed in our very own stake center. After our stake center had been in operation for less than two years, ceiling tiles started dive-bombing the people who dared to sit underneath them. Apparently they were voice-activated.

The Church leaders in Utah couldn’t understand it. The glue worked fine there in Utah, which has no humidity whatsoever. It must be Virginia’s fault that the glue wasn’t working here. People should not be talking underneath those ceiling tiles!

All we could do was shake our heads.

Getting back to our recent stake conference, our wards do have an audio-video connection to our stake center, but the equipment was paid for by tithing dollars. I suspect that smoke signals would probably be more reliable. We have been burned before. Would we be burned again?

Sure enough, the first forty-five minutes or so of our stake conference went fine. We had a great experience listening to people we didn’t know, who nevertheless gave excellent talks. Then the person in charge announced the rest hymn (a real snoozer), followed by the rest of the agenda. We were going to hear from some old friends, and it was promising to be a good program.

Cue the technology failure! Suddenly the screen went blank, and that was the end of stake conference for everyone who was not fortunate enough to be sitting in the stake center.

This is where being a Mormon really comes into play. I don’t know what happens when you’re a member of another religion and your priest or preacher suddenly stops preaching mid-sermon. I guess everyone just leaves the church and drives home. But that would never happen in a Mormon congregation. Oh no.

In a Mormon congregation, it’s business as usual. In fact, depending on who was on the program originally, and who is in the building where you happen to be sitting, what you end up experiencing may be better than what was scheduled in the first place. You never know.

In our case, the bishops of the two congregations that meet in our building bounced up like Jacks-in-the-box (no, not the hamburger franchise) to grab an organist and chorister. They conducted the same slow and whiny rest hymn that had originally been on the program.

Then, when the audio-visual still hadn’t been established, they called a guy out of our ward to talk about genealogy. Completely off the cuff, he talked about using the genealogy software to find a Jewish branch of his family that he did not know existed. He met this family, and has established a nice relationship with them, just by doing a little genealogy research.

The next extemporaneous speaker was from the other ward. He gave a powerful talk about going with the youth of our stake two weeks ago as they went on a “Pioneer trek,” simulating the Mormon trek westward more than 150 years ago. It was a spiritual experience for him as well as for the youth, and he gave some great examples of how both he and the teenagers were affected by the experience.

The final speaker was a 22-year-old young lady from our ward, who told her conversion story. It was an interesting one, because she used to be a Muslim. She only joined the Church a few months ago, but she spoke like a lifer. It was such a great talk that I was glad we were able to hear her testimony.

Although I really wanted to hear from our friends on Sunday’s schedule, and although I was annoyed once again at the failures of modern technology, the thing that I took away from our stake conference is how resourceful our church members are when they need to be.

Oh, we can be just as lazy as the next person most of the time. But when an emergency strikes, be it a major disaster or just a little technology glitch, you can count on a Mormon any day of the week.

You see, if the three people who spoke in our chapel on Sunday hadn’t been there, the two bishops could have called upon just about any three people sitting in the room and would have gotten results that were just about as good.

That’s the way Mormons are. We’re ready for just about anything. When you don’t have a paid minister and are used to being responsible for your own entertainment, you just step up and do what needs to be done. And it doesn’t even cost a cent.

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Jun 30 2014

What the (Beep) was THAT?

Published by Kathy under General

Life is full of moments that are frustrating, funny, and instructive, and sometimes all three emotions can be rolled together into one big messy ball. We had one of those moments that culminated a few weeks ago, and we have been laughing and thinking about it ever since.

This was something that started out as being humorous, but then it became more and more frustrating until it was driving us crazy. The conclusion turned the situation humorous again, and then it was also instructive. Confused? Well, then I guess I’d better explain.

In January, we found that a friend of ours was in need of some housing assistance. For this purpose of this discussion, let’s call him Jim. Jim found himself without a place to live, and it looked like it would be a while before any housing opened up that was in his price range. Some mutual friends asked us if there was any way we could help Jim for “probably just a month — two at the most.”

At first we didn’t think it was possible, but then we started thinking about our basement. You can get to the basement through the house, but there is also a walk-out door that can be reached from the back yard.

Fluffy calculated that with just a few lock changes, we could set up a little apartment that would allow Jim to come and go as he pleased, and have his own entrance and his own key.

That’s not to say there would not be some inconvenience. Fluffy spent several days cleaning up the area, and we purchased a microwave so that Jim would have the ability to cook some food. Jim’s presence was going to make it more complicated to access our downstairs refrigerator and freezer, plus Fluffy’s tool room is also located in the basement. But it was only going to be for a month or so. Or so we were told.

In any case, Jim was grateful to have a place to stay, and by the end of January we had a temporary boarder living in the basement. And that’s how we started thinking of him — Temporary Boarder. That was the way we referred to him, at least at first.

By all accounts, Temporary Boarder was a pretty good tenant. He didn’t bother us too often, and he was quiet. He did drive us crazy because he never, ever left home. We had thought before he moved in that we could go downstairs and get things when he was gone. But no, he was perfectly satisfied to stay there all the time. We learned to live without our downstairs refrigerator, freezer, and food storage.

Living without our food storage and Fluffy’s tools was a hardship, but there was one habit that we thought was a little odd. Just after Temporary Boarder moved in, we started hearing an unfamiliar noise each morning at exactly 8:36 a.m. This was a high-pitched “beep-beep” that would sound exactly 60 times every morning.

It was not loud enough to really disturb us, but we would hear it if we were working around the house at that time. The sound seemed to be loudest in the part of the house that was just above Temporary Boarder’s bedroom. It was obviously an alarm clock.

At first this was rather amusing. But then as we continued to hear the beep every day of our lives, we found ourselves making more and more negative comments. “I cannot believe someone would let his alarm clock beep every single morning and never shut it off,” one of us would say. Then the other one would give a similarly snide response.

The chorus of beeps certainly did not ruin our lives, but it did generate a lot of uncharitable thoughts and words about our temporary tenant. We took to referring to him as the Laziest Man in America. (The capital letters are because the appellation became his name.) How lazy do you have to be to let your alarm clock run down instead of rolling over in bed to turn it off?

Our “one to two months” association with Jim soon turned into three months, and then into four. Finally about a month ago a housing unit became available, and Jim made preparations to pack up his possessions and move. We watched the calendar and counted down the number of days until our home would be beep-free once again.

Jim moved out on a Saturday. Because the next day was Sunday, we stayed in bed late and were just enjoying having our house back to ourselves. But then, at 8:36 a.m., we heard a familiar sound. “Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep…”

At first we thought we were hallucinating. Were we in the middle of a bad dream? Had Jim left his alarm clock hidden somewhere in the basement just to torment us? Was God playing a cosmic joke on us for thinking such nasty thoughts about another one of his children?

This was followed by several days of detective work. At 8:36 each morning, Fluffy would station himself somewhere in the house to try and track down the elusive beep. No, it wasn’t in the basement. No, it wasn’t on our second floor. No, it wasn’t in either of our offices.

Finally after about a week we isolated the noise to a backpack that had been left on the floor, next to the couch in our family room. We have a friend from church who is a professional “brain trainer,” and for a while she came over every day to run me through some mental exercises to try and get my post-coma brain back into fighting shape again.

In her backpack she had all kinds of toys, including a little electronic metronome that would count off a minute using a series of beeps. I’m not sure why the device would activate itself each morning at 8:36, but I guess that is just one of its tricks.

Our brain training started just about the time Jim moved in, but we have not done it for the past couple of months because our brain-trainer’s daughter got engaged, and she has been all involved in the upcoming wedding. She left her backpack on the floor next to the couch, and we had totally forgotten about it.

As I noted earlier, the postscript to this little incident has been a combination of both laughter and guilt. We spent nearly five months blaming someone for something that was totally unrelated to any of his behavior. The offending backpack has been moved to a more isolated area of the house — something that could have been done last January if only we had known it was the source of the offending beeps.

Little incidents like this remind me of why we are commanded not to judge others. Only God knows all of our individual thoughts and circumstances, and He is the only one who can see the whole picture and truly understand the purity of our motives.

Because our modern world is filled with devices that regularly beep at us, things in our house remind me on a regular basis that the Laziest Man in America isn’t as lazy as I thought he was.

For all I know, the reason he never left our basement was that he spent four and a half months building nuclear reactors out of toothpicks. One of these days, I’m probably going to learn that he single-handedly solved the energy crisis with the work he did in our basement.

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Jun 23 2014

Being One of the Good Guys

Published by Kathy under General

From the time when we are young children, we have a need to be thought of as being one of the good guys. It must be a genetic thing, like loving ice cream or the almost magnetic attraction that children have to dirt.

When I was a child, the majority of my summer evenings were spent outside playing with other kids in the neighborhood. Our most popular diversion was playing cowboys and Indians. (You can tell this was in the days before political correctness had reared its ugly head.)

In our lily-white subdivision, the cowboys were always the good guys. I imagine that on reservations in North Dakota or Arizona, the good guys may have been wearing the feathers. But there was always a group of good guys and always a group of bad guys, no matter whom the bad guys might be.

And one thing was almost always true. Everyone wanted to be the good guy. We had to take turns, making somebody be the bad guy who eventually had to be shot down with our cap pistols or put in jail or somehow punished for his badness. Even in our childish play, we wanted to be the ones who triumphed over evil.

Television made it easy for us. The good guys almost always wore the white hats. There were only two exceptions I ever saw to this — Adam Cartwright and Paladin. They wore black hats just as the bad guys did, but this only showed us they had a bad boy image. Underneath that image, both of them had hearts of gold, or at least of a silver alloy.

If you were to fast forward even a decade, the bad Indians were replaced by bad aliens from other planets. It was easy to tell who they were, too. For one thing, the bad guys from outer space didn’t look like people. And the bad guys on “Star Trek,” no matter how much more advanced they were than earthlings, never seem to have invented the 100-watt light bulb. All their spaceships were dark and dingy.

Flying around in a dark and dingy space ship was just another way of proclaiming to the television-viewing universe that you were on the wrong side of the law. After all, the good guys were perfectly willing to let the light shine on everything they did.

Although the bad guys on our playgrounds and television screens were legitimate foes to hate, things got a whole lot uglier when our church leaders told us who the bad guys were. I was a Protestant who grew up in New Orleans, and the grown-ups made it hard for us kids to play together because everyone was always being told that everybody else was going straight to hell.

Half the people in my world were Protestants of one flavor or another. The other half were Catholics. (I knew about Jews, but I did not know any Jews personally. Mormons and Muslims were not even part of my worldview, at least until I got older.)

No, in my little world there were the Protestants and the Catholics. The good guys were — well, the good guys were you and the people who went to church with you. The bad guys were the ones who were batting for the other team.

Our pastor told us in no uncertain terms, and often, that the Catholics were doomed to eternal punishment. The nuns and the priests were telling the Catholic kids that we Protestants were going to roast in the same place.

We could wear the same color hats on the playground, but we all knew that when this life was over, there was going to be a line in the afterlife and the other group was going to be on the other side of it. After all, God did not love (fill in the name of the other group here). They were not chosen, as we were.

Oh, how young we were!

We used to talk about it sometimes, without any rancor. It wasn’t something to get upset about, any more than some of us liked one baseball team and others preferred another.

Somebody would say, “Too bad y’all are going to hell,” and the other group would raise their eyebrows knowingly and say, “We’ll see who goes where.” And then one of us would find a particularly interesting worm or doodlebug or spider, and the conversation would drift off to something more interesting.

As we played cowboys and Indians together, the irony was not lost on me that after this life God was going to have to pick through my friends and me and keep some of us and throw others away.

Even when I was a little girl, this did not make sense to me. Maybe I was more virtuous than Larry. After all, he was a boy and a Catholic. But was I really that much more virtuous than Vicky, whose only sin other than being Catholic was that she owned and loved boxer dogs? I didn’t think that was enough to send someone to the Bad Place.

As you can see, weighty things boggled my mind even before I started first grade. I knew God was going to sort through His children the way you might sort through a bowl of mixed nuts, high-grading them to choose the good ones and leaving the rejects behind. I only hoped He’d think of me as a pistachio or even a pecan rather than as a lowly peanut or a sunflower seed.

As I got older, I realized that some churches specialized in preaching doctrines of hate. I learned that being Protestant wasn’t just a one-size-fits-all arrangement. My pastor gave out cheat sheets that we could pull out whenever we met someone of a different denomination, telling us how their beliefs were different and wrong, and how they, too, were going to hell — right alongside the Catholics.

(I took this list when I attended Brigham Young University as a Protestant, so I could tell the Mormons what they believed. During my five years at BYU, I never heard any of those so-called beliefs discussed among my friends or preached from the pulpit. Apparently these beliefs are so secret that the members do not know they believe them.)

And then, of course, I started hearing about the Jews, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Hindus and the Zoroastrians — and everyone else who did not believe exactly the way we were told to believe in our own little church. What sinners they all were! All this time, I had thought we only had the Catholics and the atheists to worry about. Apparently I had been a little naïve.

Suddenly, heaven was becoming a lot more exclusive. I was so glad to be on the right side of the fence. But even then, something didn’t pass the fish test. Was the afterlife really like a gigantic country club? Did God really play favorites to such an extent that He was willing to wash His hands of all of His children who were not fortunate enough to have learned the truth just as it was taught in our one tiny church?

It didn’t feel fair. I knew that this life is not supposed to be fair, but I hadn’t realized that the next life was going to be just as unfair as this one, and that didn’t seem — well, fair to me.

Little did I know that I was going to go to college far, far away from New Orleans, and that I was going to end up as neither a Catholic nor a Protestant. Now a whole lot of groups of people think I am going to hell, and some of them are not shy about telling me what they think.

Some years ago, after I became a card-carrying member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Post that mentioned I was a Mormon. Afterwards, I received a series of letters from a well-meaning Evangelical man who tracked down my address (before the days of the Internet) and wasted a lot of stamps trying to talk me out of going to hell.

Later there was a popular series of novels — the Left Behind series — whose entire premise was what happened after the Rapture. The series began on an airplane flight, where all the passengers who were Evangelical, born-again Christians suddenly disappeared.

God, by way of an invisible celestial vacuum cleaner, caused all the Evangelical Christians to immediately be translated into heaven, leaving the less-fortunate people (including all the members of all the fringe religions such as Catholics and Mormons and Jews and everyone else who was not an Evangelical born-againer) “left behind” to sort things out.

It was the literary equivalent of the schoolyard practice of choosing teams to play baseball, when all the good players were chosen by God, and all the less-desirables were, well “left behind.” When you think about it, nobody, but nobody, wants to be in the group who have not been picked to be on the celestial baseball team.

Oddly enough, when I went to college I learned that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were just as interested in the question of good guys versus bad guys as my childhood friends back in the schoolyards of New Orleans. But Mormons have their own name for the bad guys — “the great and abominable church” as found in 1 Nephi 14.

Mormons love to speculate about the identity of the great and abominable church. At one time, many believed it was the Catholic Church. Then they realized that of all the churches, we probably have most in common with the Catholics because they, like the Latter-day Saints, stand fast against the changing mores of the world. It had to be somebody else.

All Christians read the same Bible. Well, that’s not completely true, but it’s close enough. We all worship Christ, at least to the extent that we were taught how to do so. We all try to do good deeds, and to love our neighbors, and to leave the world a little bit better than we found it. And how about those people with no allegiance to any church who still try to love others?

If all that is true, who are the good and bad guys? Who gets to wear the white hats, and who has to wear the black ones? Who are the sheep, spiritually speaking, and who are the goats? Who gets caught up into heaven to wear the gold stars on their foreheads, and who is spiritually “left behind”?

I recently found a landmark talk by Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks. It was given to the students of BYU-Idaho, which means that it is elementary enough that even I can understand it. The title of it is “Witnesses of God,” but it could just as easily be called, “Who are the Bad Guys?” because in essence that is what it’s about.

He said that the people who are serving Christ to the best of their knowledge and ability are on Christ’s side, whatever church happens to claim them. That alone is a bombshell, spiritually speaking, so I’m going to say it again. The people who are serving Christ to the best of their knowledge and ability are on Christ’s side, whatever church happens to claim them.

I thought about that for weeks after I read it. If only the priests and ministers of the world read that statement and believed it, there would be infinitely less hatred on the planet. There would have been no Inquisition, for one thing. Joseph Smith would not have been martyred. For good or for evil, things would have been a whole lot different.

But Elder Oaks didn’t stop there. He also said that the people who are serving God to the extent that they know how to serve Him are also on Christ’s side, even if they are not Christians. These include Jews. They also include Muslims and people of other non-Christian religions.

Whoa! That’s something new, and it came out of Idaho.

But it has a scriptural precedent. In 1 Nephi 17:35, it says, “Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God.” It doesn’t say “he that is a righteous Mormon” or “he that is a righteous Catholic” or even “he that is a righteous Christian is favored of God.” No, 1 Nephi 17:35 opens a whole lot of doors.

I’m not going to split hairs over the definition of “righteous.” There are a lot of religious crazies out there who think they are being righteous, even as they strap bombs to the bodies of ten-year-old children. I’m going to let God determine who is really being righteous, and leave it at that.

But if all these people are wearing white hats, there has to be a black-hat contingent. And Elder Oaks pulled no punches in defining that contingent. In fact, he said there were four groups of people in the world today who constitute the bad guys:

  1. Anti-Christs. He defined anti-Christs as atheists, or as anyone who does not allow the free expression of religion by those of us who do believe in Christ. He said that one way anti-Christs most effectively take people away from religion is by the use of ridicule. If they can make us embarrassed to be Christians, they have done their work.
  2. Moral Relativists. These are people who say that because there is no God, there can be no sin. Therefore, whatever a man does is right. Moral relativists would have us believe that if you call out someone for their bad behavior, then you are committing the bigger sin of being judgmental. And that, they say, is worse than any other “sin” you could commit.
  3. Secular Humanists. These are people who believe that mankind will be saved by mankind itself. Political correctness is the brainchild of the secular humanists, who are so determined to make life fair for small minorities of people that they make life unfair for everyone else. Oh, do I despise those people! I just want to kick every one of them.
  4. The Great and Abominable Church and Other “Churches.” Speaking to his Mormon audience, Elder Oaks made reference to 1 Nephi 14 and reminded us that in the latter days there will only be two churches — the church of God and the church of the devil. In other words, either you’re for God or you’re against Him. It can’t get much plainer than that.

Elder Oaks said we should fight against the people who are fighting against the Savior in three ways. Here they are:

  1. In our prayers and greetings. We have been so careful in recent years not to offend others that “holiday” has replaced “Christmas” and “Easter” even in our greeting cards and our salutations to others. We need to stop being ashamed of speaking of Christ and God — not just among the believers, but also among the unbelievers.
  2. We need to publicly recognize the blessings of God. The United States was founded as a Christian nation, and although we claim citizens of many religions today we should not shy away from thanking God for blessing us. We need to thank Him publicly at every opportunity, and we should not forget that the Founding Fathers credited Him for preserving and protecting America.
  3. We must contend for the free exercise of religion. Elder Oaks said this is more than freedom of worship. This includes freedom to “come out of our private settings, including churches, synagogues and mosques, to act upon our beliefs, subject only to the legitimate government powers necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare. Free exercise surely protects religious citizens in acting upon their beliefs in public policy debates and in votes cast as citizens or as law-makers.”

I usually have a humorous ending to my columns. Today I don’t. Today I want to say that I acknowledge God as the source of my blessings — and, indeed, for my life itself — and I thank Him for those blessings.

I hope to stand with all of you other white-hatted people in public support of Him, no matter what church you happen to attend. Let’s put aside our minor differences and labels, and come together to fight the true evil that exists in today’s black-hatted world.

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Jun 16 2014

Lessons from a Cobra

Published by Kathy under General

One of my “nap shows” (shows I allegedly watch on television when I am napping) is “Dual Survival,” a show that features two survivalists of vastly different temperaments, who try to survive in extreme environments while they are trying not to kill one another.

This season was so traumatic for the survivalists that the one I like, barefooted hippie Cody Lundin, only made it through three episodes before being booted off the series due to reasons we viewers will probably never know. But one of the three shows that did make it to air showed him and his co-survivalist cringing as a hooded cobra reared up at them and threatened to strike.

This brought up fond memories of my younger days as zoo reporter for the Salt Lake City Deseret News.

I once wrote an article about the process of devenomizing snakes. If you’re not familiar with this little piece of surgery, devenomization is the same thing as a vasectomy, except that the snake’s “business end” is up in his head, where the venom is. The surgeon ties off the tubes in two places, cuts the tubes between the ties, and ostensibly the snake is no longer able to inject venom into potential victims.

I do not know whether this surgery is even performed in these enlightened days when animals are considered to be more important than humans. It was, however, performed when I was a zoo reporter, and this was the subject of my article.

When I met the man I was interviewing, he took me into a windowless room the size of my current office. This room was filled from floor to ceiling on all four walls with tiny cages of poisonous snakes. If you can name a poisonous snake, there was at least one in this room. Bushmaster. Black mamba. Fer-de-lance. Death adder. Blue krait. Taipan. Eastern brown snake. Tiger snake.

This place was a regular Hotel o’ Serpents. I was super impressed, and I was even more impressed when the man I was interviewing (I would mention his name if I could remember it), pulled a five-foot cobra from its cage, dropped it on the floor, looked up at me, and smiled.

[This is where I would insert a picture of the incident, except this is exactly when the photographer who accompanied me turned on his heels, fled the room, and escaped for the duration of the interview.]

Without the photographer, it was the herpetologist, the snake, and I against the world. It was not lost on me that the cobra had its own built-in cheering section. Every last one of the several dozen poisonous serpents in that room was rooting for the cobra, and I knew it. It was quite possible that the herpetologist was on the cobra’s side too.

The herpetologist talked to me as the cobra reared up, spread its hood, and hissed. I could see the little eyeglasses on the snake’s hood from the front, alerting me that he was a king cobra.

King cobra. You can see a pattern that I think of as a pair of eyeglasses that are on the back, but that come through to the front of the hood. © iStock 2014. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Like a good little reporter (I must have been all of 22 years old at the time), I took frantic notes so I wouldn’t miss a word.

“Cobra fangs are as sharp as needles and are extremely breakable. The fangs will grow back, but if both fangs are broken the cobra may starve before they do. The cobra does not want to bite you, because you are too big to eat and it does not want to risk its fangs on you. The first thing the cobra does in defense when it sees you is to spread its hood. This scares many potential predators away.”

That’s exactly the effect the cobra on television had achieved on the “Dual Survival dudes,” with the operative word being “scared.”

The herpetologist didn’t miss a beat. He continued, “You notice that when the cobra struck at you, it missed.”

Yes. I had noticed that. When a cobra strikes at you, you tend to notice it. (I can vouch for this from first-hand experience.) It had missed my leg by about six inches on the side. I was glad to notice that the herpetologist was at least watching what the cobra was doing. It made me feel tons and tons more secure.

“This is the second thing the cobra does in his defense. If the hood and the hissing don’t scare you, the cobra will strike at you and purposely miss.”

“He missed me on purpose?” I said.

“Oh yes,” said the herpetologist. “If the snake had wanted to bite you, he would not have missed.”

This was a big relief, because by now the cobra had struck at me three times. Once it had missed my left leg, once it had missed my right leg, and once it had gone right between them.

I kept right on taking notes.

“There are two more things the cobra can do,” said the herpetologist. “He really does not want to use those fangs unless he has to, and even if he uses those fangs he does not want to give up that venom. The next thing he does is he’ll knock his mouth against your body, but without opening his mouth.

Up until now, the cobra had cooperatively demonstrated the things that the herpetologist had talked about. I am pleased to report that the snake lost interest in the demonstration at this point. It did not give me the mock bite without opening its mouth.

“The last thing the cobra can do,” said the herpetologist, “is that he can actually bite you, but without inserting any venom. It’s a nasty bite, but it won’t kill you.

“Only after the snake has exhausted all these things will the cobra bite you. If this cobra bites you, well, you’re dead.”

I stopped writing for a minute. “I assume this cobra has been devenomed,” I said.

“Oh no,” the herpetologist said cheerfully. “This snake is intact. If it bites you, you’re gonna die.”

He picked up the snake with a metal hook and put it back in its cage. I concluded the interview without batting an eye and went off in search of my photographer.

It was a whale of a story, if I do say so myself. But without any artwork whatsoever to illustrate it, it was not published for at least eighteen months. I was so embarrassed that I did not show my face at the zoo ever again, which was one of the nails in the coffin of my Deseret News writing career. You see, I never explained to any of my editors why I never returned to the zoo. Bad mistake.

Nevertheless, I think of the cobra incident occasionally. I enjoyed the whole thing — except for the aftermath, of course. I really enjoyed being the zoo reporter, and I only wish I’d had the courage to explain to the zookeeper why I was no longer visiting the zoo and writing zoo-related stories for him. He probably would have thought I was an absolute idiot — which, of course, I was.

I learned several lessons from watching the behavior of this particular cobra. The first thing a cobra does when it is confronted by a potential predator is to rise up, make itself look big and threatening, and hiss. What I learned from that is that we need to face the world with an air of confidence. This is always important, but it is especially important when we are feeling insecure.

Criminals who prey on women have been interviewed in prisons, and they freely admit that they look for victims who look afraid. They look for women who are cowering, who are clutching their purses tightly, and who telegraph by their body language that they are in fear of attack.

These are the very women, criminals say, that are the best victims. Yes, they are the ones who expect to be victimized, but their expectations do not protect them. On the contrary, their expectations tell predators that these women are weak and afraid. Women who appear to be strong and confident are less likely to be victimized because they will put up more of a fight.

The next thing a cobra does when it feels threatened is to strike out. This tells us not to sit around and do nothing. Human beings need to strike out and make our move in the world. We will never accomplish anything if we sit around and do nothing.

1 Chronicles 22:16 says, “Arise therefore, and be doing, and the LORD be with thee.” I have always liked that verse. If we’re doing — and I always believe the “doing” is assumed to be doing righteous things — we will have the company of the Lord.

The cobra’s next tactic is to knock against the predator with a closed mouth. This tells us to knock on every door of opportunity. This has always been a hard one for me.

I have been given numerous brilliant ideas throughout my life, but I do not have the gift of persistence. I tap on the door, but when the door doesn’t immediately open, I shrug my shoulders and walk away. Time and time again I have been given ideas or opportunities that have required only a little bit of persistence, but I have failed to follow through. I have never learned that lesson.

One idea came to me in 1973, when my car overheated in Death Valley. I longed for a can or a bottle of cool, clear water. I fantasized about cans or bottles of water that could be purchased just like soft drinks. Who needs a soft drink when water is the ultimate thirst quencher?

At the time there was a free source of water in my home town of Mandeville, Louisiana. There was an artesian well that came out of the ground at the beach and was there for anyone to drink. It was the best water I’d ever tasted. That was the name of the water I wanted to bottle — Artesia.

I had a bishop who was wealthy and who was an entrepreneur. I went to him with the idea. He laughed. He said to me, “Who would ever pay you for a bottle of water?”

Evian did not reach the U.S. market for another five years. And even then, it was carbonated. It was a different product altogether. If only I had persisted, I might have had a completely different financial history instead of being a starving writer for all my life. That might have been a good thing, or it might have been my undoing. I’ll never know.

As a last resort, cobras bite without venom. This teaches me that when you have to correct someone, do it without venom. You don’t have to scar people for life, and in fact people learn their lessons far more effectively if the lessons are taught kindly.

One of my earliest memories occurred when I was sitting in the neighbors’ yard, trying to keep their pet cat on my lap while I was pulling its tail. As you can imagine, the cat was not happy about this arrangement.

The mother of the house saw what I was doing and quickly came outside. Instead of paddling me as most of the mothers in the neighborhood would have done, she gently showed me that petting the cat would have far happier results for both the cat and for me than pulling its tail.

Sure enough, once I petted the cat instead of pulling its tail, the cat was happy to stay in my lap. I never forgot the lesson or the gentle way it was taught.

When the cobra has no other possible action, it bites. From that I have learned to defend yourself when you must.

There’s a big difference between making excuses and defending yourself. If I had gone to the zoo director and just given him a copy of the story I had written, he would have seen I was not a slacker. I could have continued writing zoo articles without embarrassment. A few years later, I possibly would not have lost my job with the Deseret News. My lack of performance as a zoo reporter was a big factor there.

Defending myself is one lesson I know intellectually but have never really internalized. If I live another twenty years, I am still going to have trouble defending myself if defending myself is needed. We all have lessons that are just about impossible for us to learn. That is one of my stumbling blocks. It always has been. But that doesn’t mean I can’t stop trying.

That’s one thing about life. There are lessons everywhere if you look for them. Everything you do can inspire you to be a better person, if that is what you’re trying to do. Of course, if you’re a lazy sort, there’s always something interesting on cable TV.

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Jun 09 2014

Taking the Back Roads of Life

Published by Kathy under General

We went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, a few weeks ago. We had never been there before, and we got a great deal on a hotel, so off we went. Armed with a full tank of gas and our Google Maps, we were on our way.

It is not as though we needed the maps. Pretty much every major city on the Eastern Seaboard is within spitting distance of I-95. All you have to do is get on the freeway and go north or south until you reach your destination. But Fluffy is an organized soul, and he thoughtfully placed the map above my visor so it would be handy as we drove.

But a curious thing happened. After we went through Maryland, waved at Philadelphia, and said hi to Delaware, we saw a sign that told us to turn right for Atlantic City. This was not what Google Maps told us to do. Google Maps wanted us to continue on the toll road all the way through New Jersey.

We had already paid four dollars and then eight dollars in tolls, all within a ten-minute time frame. Google Maps wanted us to continue to pay tolls until we had reached our destination. As the toll-payer in the family, I was not exactly thrilled with this proposition. So when we saw the arrow telling us to turn off onto State Road 40 in New Jersey, I asked Fluffy what he thought of the idea. He thought it was a good one.

We immediately knew we had made the right decision when we saw a gorgeous stand of fruits and vegetables, right inside the New Jersey state line. I wanted to stop and buy the produce. Fluffy wanted to stop and take pictures of the produce. We vowed to stop there on our way back.

Then we hit upon a puzzling sight. For about ten miles, everything we saw was “wild west” this and “cowboy” that. There is a certain part of New Jersey that has a serious identity crisis, even to having places where you can buy your cowboy boots and other clothing essentials, and locations where you can attend your weekly rodeos. Who knew that New Jersey had a secret cowboy fixation? Yee-haw.

When we got to Elmer, New Jersey, there was a whole building whose façade was made of stained glass. It must have been especially interesting at night, because it was topped by a wreath and Christmas lights.

Next we saw an old Texaco station, right in the middle of nowhere. It was just as you would have seen a Texaco station back in the 1930s, I guess (and I’m guessing because no, I was not around in the 1930s). There was not a person on the premises. Nobody was taking tickets. It was just there for people to look at who might possibly be interested in a relic of days gone past.

The Texaco station came complete with its own vintage outhouse.

Somewhere along the road we saw a building that used to be something interesting, but that was on its last legs. Fluffy could spend all day taking pictures of a building that is about to fall down. It took great self-restraint for him to spend five minutes at this ramshackle structure before we continued our journey.

We passed a home where the owner had dedicated his life to whirligigs. There were hundreds of them — maybe thousands. Unlike the person who recreated the Texaco station, the whirligig man was open for business. He was no doubt disappointed that Fluffy only wanted to take pictures of a few of his hand-created masterpieces.

Only a few of thousands of whirligigs we did not purchase.

Being card-carrying Mormons, we had never heard of Saint Padre Pio, a 20th Century Italian Catholic saint. But there is a shrine to him on Route 40, and there is actually one of his gloves as a relic at the shrine. There are benches where worshippers can pray at the shrine, and we saw several people worshipping at the altar when we were on our return trip.

You don’t see things like this on the Interstate.

Not only did we see signs advertising lambs and sheep and pigs and goats for sale, but we also saw a sign that advertised alpacas that were available for purchase. Fluffy said we were driving down a full-service livestock alley.

We kept noticing that people were lined up to pass us, even though we were going ten miles over the speed limit. Occasionally Fluffy would find a place to pull over, and impatient motorists, all of them younger than we are, would pass us in disgust. Undoubtedly all of them gave us dirty looks when they passed.

We realized that we have become exactly the kind of old people we used to pass on the road with those same looks of disgust. When did this happen? When did we stop being those young, impatient people who were always in a hurry to get places and start being the old people who are more interested in the journey than the destination?

Frankly, I like the stage of life we are in now, better.

As we neared Atlantic City, we saw a rental storage facility unlike any rental storage facility we had ever seen. This one was decked out to represent a small town, complete with people and a car dealership. There was even a truck with a piano roped onto the bed of the truck. It was amazingly creative.

This fascinating scene disguises a pedestrian storage facility.

A real Model T was parked outside the facility near here.

If you tried driving into this muddy parking area, you’d hit a brick wall.

Even the sharp keys on this piano are flat.

When we first saw the storage facility, there was a mint green Model T in perfect condition, sitting out front just as it would have been if it had been part of the tableau. When we drove back to take pictures of the scene, it was out for a spin so we missed it. It was a thing of beauty.

Our road merged into the road where Google Maps would have taken us shortly after we passed the storage facility. We only saw one other curiosity, but it was a doozy. It was a drive-in divorce facility. You plunk down your money, and four to eight weeks later you are rid of a pesky husband or wife.

I have had warts that have taken longer than that to get rid of.

For only $399 you can get rid of a slothful husband or a nagging wife. Such a bargain!

Eventually we reached our destination. When we saw Ventnor Avenue, we realized we were in the city that inspired the Monopoly board. We had not passed GO. We had not paid $200 in tolls on the toll road. We had done it all without Google Maps, and we were happier for having done so.

Although we eventually reached Ventnor Avenue, we did not pass GO, and we did not pay $200 in tolls on the toll road.

It’s always good to have a map when you start on a journey. Many people get hopelessly lost when they go on a trip without having a map to guide them to their final destination. It’s good to be organized when we go through our lives as well.

But sometimes we enjoy that journey even more when we take a detour and get off the beaten path — when we travel just for the sake of appreciating the wonderful world that God and the delightful people He has made have created for the enjoyment of others.

It amazes me how often we think we have our lives planned, and God sends us off on a different direction entirely. When God takes the Google Maps of our lives and throws them out the window, sit back and enjoy the ride. He always knows exactly what He is doing.

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Jun 02 2014

The Three Stages of Marriage

Published by Kathy under General

The other day, I came across a casual statement that hit me like a cannonball. On her Facebook page, Catherine Keddington Arveseth mentioned that there are three stages of marriage:

  1. Loving without knowing,
  2. Knowing and not loving, and
  3. Knowing but choosing to love.

Boy howdy, do I wish I had heard this one thirty years ago! Fluffy and I thought we were the only ones who had endured the long, arid years of Stage #2. We thought that all by ourselves, we had done something horribly wrong. We had no earthly idea that this was just a normal stage, and everyone else went through the same stage that we had done.

I learned this piece of earth-shattering news just as Fluffy was loading the car for a two-day trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey. I couldn’t wait till we got on the open road so I could share this bombshell with him. He was every bit as gobsmacked as I had been.

I said to Fluffy, “Just think of it. All that time we couldn’t stand each other, it was normal.”

He said, “It’s a little too strong to say that we couldn’t stand each other. It was more like a Cold War. Our marriage has been tempered in the fires of adversity. But no fisticuffs were involved. We never had to go to the emergency room.”

No matter what Stage #2 is called, we had no idea that other people were in our situation. We thought we were suffering alone. We couldn’t talk with anyone about our marital problems, because we were certain we were the only people in the world who were messing up.

We had our honeymoon period, of course. Fluffy always was a cute little fellow. It helped that he traveled about a week a month, and he took me with him. We were always in one big city or another, staying in an expensive hotel and eating in fancy restaurants on his expense account. We had a pretty nice life.

Then we moved to Virginia and had to grow a whole new support system. I’m not going to sugar-coat it; it took a long time. For the first few years, the only friends who presented themselves to us were not people we both liked. They drove a wedge between Fluffy and me. The Cold War had started.

We found ourselves treading water, spiritually speaking and socially speaking. It was dark. Eventually, however, Fluffy was called as one of the executive secretaries of our stake, and we found ourselves with a better class of friends. We also became temple workers in 1995. Things didn’t start getting better immediately, but we started being able to feel the sand underneath the ocean.

We no longer had to tread water. We started being able to walk toward dry land. The best part was, we were walking together.

I don’t know when it started, but people started telling us they envied our relationship. They could tell we loved each other. The first few times people said that, I thought, Boy, do we have them fooled. But then I thought about it and realized, I really do love that little fellow and he seems to feel the same way about me. When did that happen?

The answer was that it sneaked right up on us without our ever knowing it. For years his little habits drove me crazy. I got annoyed over the smallest things. But eventually I started to tolerate them and finally I started thinking they were cute. I guess he felt the same way about me.

We had reached Stage #3. We knew each other, but we chose to love one another despite our flaws. The superficial love at the beginning of our relationship had been replaced with a deeper kind of love that could look beyond flaws and see the person we would eventually become.

Fluffy explains it to friends this way: “Eventually I learned she was never going to change. I couldn’t fix her. I just had to accept her the way she was.”

We found ways to do this. He meticulously squeezes the toothpaste tube from the bottom, and I squeeze the toothpaste tube wherever I pick it up. After about twenty-five years of being annoyed with each other, we just bought two toothpaste tubes. Problem solved.

He puts the toilet paper roll on the roller so the paper comes off from the bottom. Everybody knows this is the wrong way to do it, but eventually I decided that if he changes the roll, he decides how it’s going to be put on. Problem solved, but again it took us about twenty-five years to figure this out.

I have never mastered the science of balancing a checkbook, and on the rare occasions when I attempted it, I would usually end up in tears. We solved this problem by having separate checking accounts, and Fluffy cheerfully balances both of them.

We also determined that the person who loads the dishwasher decides how the dishes are going to be loaded; the person who makes the bed decides how the bed is going to look, and the person who cooks the dinner decides what we are going to eat. The person who sits on the couch and waits for these things to be done does not get a vote. In fact, she is extremely grateful that all these things are done at all.

We have friends who at this very moment are mired in their own Cold War, only their Cold War is a noisy one. Until we learned about the three stages of marriage, we have had no idea how to help them.

Each of our friends has been everlastingly upset because the other spouse has not been fulfilling his needs. What they do not understand is that we are not supposed to go into a marriage to be served or to have our own needs filled. We are supposed to go into a marriage to serve our spouse and the family we have created.

Instead of going into our marriages with the expectation that we’ll do fifty percent of the work and our spouse will do the other fifty percent, the way we should go into the marriage is to expect to serve as the Savior would serve. If each of us fully expects to do a hundred percent of the work around the home, joyfully, both of us will always be happily surprised if the other party does anything at all.

In addition, we grow to love the ones we serve. If we are each trying mightily to do the lion’s share of the serving, we’ll each be doing the lion’s share of learning to love. That alone could shorten the time we spend in our own personal Cold War.

Too many couples do not understand this. Like Fluffy and me, they had never heard of the three stages of marriage. They mastered Stage #1 just fine. They went into their marriage loving one another without knowing each other. Then, when they got to know each other, they recoiled in horror. Now they were mired in Stage #2, wondering if it would ever get better.

Husbands chewed with their mouths open. They scratched in embarrassing places. They did not leave the room when they had to pass gas. They left the toilet seat up, and they did not even apologize when their innocent brides fell into the toilet in the middle of the night. They only took out the garbage sporadically. And oh, how they snored!

The wives did not look like the women in the fashion magazines when they woke up in the morning. Their breath stank. They passed gas just like the guys did. They cried sometimes for no reason. They couldn’t do a simple home repair or squash a tiny spider. They needed constant reassurance that they were loved. They expected their husbands to work all day and then help around the home at night.

This was not what they bargained for when they looked at each other, dewy-eyed, at the altar. But since nobody had told the husbands or the wives about Stage #2, a lot of husbands and wives felt stuck. And a whole lot of husbands and wives have bailed out of their marriages, not knowing that things were going to get better. They did not know there was a Stage #3 to look forward to.

They blamed the person they were married to, not the process. They reasoned that their unhappiness couldn’t have anything to do with themselves. It had to lie in their defective spousal units. So they did the logical thing — they abandoned ship.

They headed for greener pastures. They found husbands who, they knew, would not chew with their mouths open. They found wives who, they knew, would look good at 5 o’clock in the morning. They were happy — at least, until they left Stage #1 of their new relationships and found themselves mired in Stage #2 once again.

The thing I can’t help but wonder is if people are warned ahead of time that Stage #2 exists, whether they can avoid that stage altogether. You should be able to sidestep it just as easily as a person can sidestep a pool of quicksand if only it is posted with a warning sign.

Perhaps hundreds and thousands and millions of couples were forewarned and were spared the misery that Fluffy and I endured, I thought. This simply had to be the case.

Then again, maybe it isn’t the case at all.  Maybe the three stages are like floors in a building.  You may not want to climb that whole staircase, but all three flights of stairs are going to be there if you want to make your way all the way to the top.

When we got home from Atlantic City, I looked up “three stages of marriage” on the internet. Maybe, I thought, there was a better explanation than the little bit that I had seen.  To my dismay, I could not find these three stages. Maybe it’s only Catherine Keddington Arveseth who knows about them. I am infinitely glad she mentioned them when she did. She has come across something I believe to be true.

Perhaps nobody but Catherine knows about the elusive Three Stages, but there are actual classes being taught within the Church for husbands and wives who are just like us.

These are great classes for getting you started. In fact, Fluffy and I took one long after we did not need help anymore, because friends of ours needed moral support or they wouldn’t go by themselves. If you’re in your own Cold War, seek them out and go to them.

If you do not have access to a marriage class, persevere. Serve your spouse as the Savior would do it. Once you make it to Stage #3, you will be glad you hung on for the ride.

I know from personal experience that Stage #3 is worth fighting for. I’m living it now, and it’s so terrific I’m just glad we had the patience and endurance to get here.

Those of you who are struggling in Stage #2, persevere. After all, the scriptures said it best: “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

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May 26 2014

Listening to Your Personal Symphony

Published by Kathy under General

I have friends who are mesmerized by music. If they are awake, music is running through their heads. Music plays over their computer speakers. It plays in their cars. They have little gizmos that play music in their showers. They have tiny ear buds that play music when they exercise.

Some of them specialize. They like ‘60s rock, or classical music, or country-western. Others listen to anything at all. I have a friend my age that I am absolutely certain can identify any song released in the past fifty years once he has heard the first bar or two. He is that attuned to music.

I cannot understand this attraction to music. I like to hear music in the temple. It is recorded music that comes from the chapel, which is far away from where I sit. The music comes in the form of wordless hymns. This music does not distract me.

Ever since Easter, Fluffy has been playing Handel’s Messiah in his office. (The first public performance of the oratorio was at Easter.) This, too, is far away from me. It is comforting music. It does not distract me either. How could Handel’s Messiah ever be a distraction?

Other music takes me away from the business of thinking. If I am playing computer games, I don’t need to think — but then I don’t remember to turn on music. Sometimes I find myself humming a favorite tune, but it doesn’t happen often. I guess you could say I do not have music in my soul.

I have other friends who are inspired by poetry. Some of them can keep it to themselves, but some of them are so excited by poetry that they are certain that I, too, would be inspired by poetry if only I read the poetry they liked or, worse, the poetry they wrote.

I assure you, I will not.

Poetry is worse than music. Music is fine, if it’s in another room, far enough away that I can hear it without it commanding me to pay attention to it. Poetry has to take up my full attention, and reading it keeps me from doing the things I would otherwise be doing. I do not ever read poetry of my own volition. Poetry does not sing to my soul.

Yet I fully trust the people who tell me poetry sings to them. God speaks to many people through poetry. Poetry is how they hear His voice. I would never deny anyone else of poetry. I just don’t appreciate it when they want to share their poetry with me.

The scriptures are a different story. I can listen to the scriptures over and over again. I have gotten to the point that I can quote passages of scripture before the narrator gets to them, although I am just as likely to be able to recite, “And thus they did encamp for the night,” as I am to be able to recite something that is actually going to help me in a moment of crisis.

God speaks to all of us through the scriptures, but there’s a catch here. We have to be acquainted with the scriptures in order for Him to speak to us through them.

God speaks to me in many ways, but one of them is an unusual one. He speaks to me through color. Color is my symphony. I am as much of an evangelist for color as others are of poetry or music. At least, I used to be an evangelist for color until I realized that people looked at me askance when I rhapsodized about one color or another.

When I am shopping online, the color of an item is probably more important than its other features. I would probably order an inferior product in a beautiful color than a much better product that was only available in a gray or beige.

Now I keep my passions to myself, for the most part. But seeing just the right color combination can almost bring me to tears of joy. Colors speak to me just as oratorios do to people who love music or great stanzas do to people who love poetry.

Isn’t life amazing? We are all the same and yet all unique. Even identical twins are not identical. We are all children of God, and yet we are all different in millions of remarkable ways.

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May 19 2014

Explosion in the Vienna Sausage Factory

Published by Kathy under General

When people hear about my new, post-coma life, they marvel over my being in a coma, or being in a hospital for three whole months, or being paralyzed and in a wheelchair, or any of those other seemingly horrible things that happened to me some fifteen months ago. What they do not know is that these things are piddling and inconsequential. Anyone can deal with these.

The big thing is far more important. The big thing is that my feet are oozing, festering ocean liners. I cannot buy shoes. And any self-respecting woman knows that the inability to purchase shoes is a national tragedy.

I have tried to purchase shoes. Oh yes. I have made more than a valiant effort. I have spent as much as a half hour at a time on the internet, staring at shoes. (I was never a woman who salivated over shoes, pre-coma, so a half hour staring at shoes now represents an Herculean effort.) And I have come up with shoes that filled my shriveled, jaded little heart with hope.

I have ordered those shoes. I have waited for days and days until they arrived from Amazon or Zappos or Shoebuy. I have opened the boxes with excitement in my heart. And then my little hopes have been dashed and broken in tiny little pieces, as I have seen that the shoes I ordered have had no more chance of fitting my feet than the Glass Slipper had of fitting the warty feet of Cinderella’s Ugly Stepsisters.

Nay, the shoes didn’t just miss fitting my feet by centimeters. Fluffy and I could glance at those shoes without even holding them up to my feet and see that they wouldn’t fit my feet by inches and inches. It was as though I had ordered doll shoes. There was not even a question of trying them on.

Pre-coma, my feet were respectable size nines. I was never embarrassed about my feet. Today — well, today it is a different story altogether. Today I have sized out of women’s shoes altogether. I don’t know what size I would wear if I could wear women’s shoes at all. Eleventy-six, perhaps. Maybe galumphy-four.

The most recent experience occurred after receiving a pair of shoes I had ordered with joy in my heart. Fluffy and I opened them in my office. We both pretended they were going to fit. “Let’s try them on in the morning,” we said, “when feet are smaller.”

I would have needed a shrinking ray to get my feet in those shoes, but I had hope. The next morning, Fluffy gently tried to squeeze my foot into one of the shoes. It was a hopeless endeavor. I almost cried.

We had a mystery diner assignment that day in Leesburg, Virginia, which is the home of a factory outlet mall. I looked at the store directory, and to my excitement there was an outlet store of the same brand as my never-to-be-worn shoes. My heart sang. I decided that if the women’s shoes did not fit me, I could surely find a pair of men’s shoes of the same brand that I could wear in exchange.

Now you see how desperate I am. I have gone completely beyond the sequined purple shoes I would like to wear, or even the sturdy walking shoes I should wear. I am looking for any shoes I can wear that are not Crocs — any shoes that will provide traction to the soles of my feet and arch support to my arches so that I can learn to walk again without tripping over the inch-thick Crocs shoe soles I have worn for a year.

After we left the mystery dining establishment, Fluffy rolled me into the shoe store. We got a terrific saleslady. If anyone could fit me in shoes, she was the one. And oh, she tried. She put the ladies’ shoe sizer on my right foot and the men’s shoe sizer on my left foot, in the erroneous assumption that one of them would come up with a size to fit my particular feet.

“Hah!” my feet said.

Undaunted, the saleslady decided that men’s size 10.5 would fit my feet just fine. Off she went to get me a pair. “I guess they don’t come in purple,” I said.

“No,” she said. “In men’s sizes, you get brown, or you get gray.”

I sighed. Other than orange, brown and gray are the two colors I hate the most. But what could I do? “I’ll take gray, I guess,” I said. I felt brave. No, I felt like a child trying to pretend to feel brave. I am completely color-driven. Colors are the music of my soul. But I had to get the Crocs off my feet. I would even wear gray shoes to get the Crocs off my feet.

The lady brought the shoes over to me and took the Croc off my right foot. She stared down at my foot in horror. Thousands of toes, each the size of a Vienna sausage, exploded out of my stocking and lunged in her direction. I didn’t think there was any way she was going to get that men’s 10.5 shoe on my foot.

She looked at my foot. Then she looked dubiously at the tiny shoe. “The shoe is made of stretchy material,” she said.

“That may be true,” Fluffy said, “but the material will not stretch if we can’t get the foot into the shoe.”

The lady started stuffing Vienna sausages into the shoe. She made a valiant effort. Some of the Vienna sausages got within two inches of the end of the shoe before they got hopelessly stuck. My foot was way too wide for the shoe.

“I can’t understand it,” the lady said. “My son wears a double-E shoe, and these shoes are too wide for him.”

If I hadn’t been depressed before, that was the cherry on the sundae. What’s bigger than a double-E, footwise? Is anything bigger than a double-E?

I’m beginning to think that the hundred pounds I lost in my coma weren’t lost at all. They just moved down to my feet and have taken up residence there.

All was not lost. Fluffy had found a fine pair of men’s sandals in the store as we were on our way in. It was gray, but it was so lightweight and so attractive that I was willing to overlook that flaw. Surely the sandal would fit on my foot.

Not so fast, Kathy. The saleslady made an heroic effort to get the sandal on my foot, but my toes were having none of it. They firmly resisted any shoes in the store, no matter how desperately I wanted to wear them.

Finally the saleslady admitted defeat. “You’re going to have to see your doctor and have your shoes specially made,” she said. “They are terribly expensive, but if you can’t afford it you can probably get your insurance to cover it.”

I have two things to say about that.

  1. I am a professional writer and am, therefore, professionally impoverished.
  2. I am insured through Obamacare.

I do not even get a strike three. I have already struck out, dramatically and with great finality. I have no more chance of getting specially made shoes than a snowball has a chance of vacationing in Arizona.

I might as well send off for the latest Crocs catalog. I have a feeling I’m going to be wearing them for the rest of my natural life.

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May 12 2014

Recognizing Who We Are

Published by Kathy under General

I was staggering across the church gym — excuse me, “cultural hall” — on a recent Sunday, trying mightily to get to our pew in the chapel, when I was interrupted by strangers who wanted to say hello.

I need to be honest here. I am not exactly thrilled when people interrupt me when I am trying to walk from one place to another. Walking takes every bit of my concentration and my strength.

Picking up my right foot takes so much effort that I can barely get it a quarter inch off the carpet even with every ounce of focus. When people distract me, my focus shifts and I am just as likely to do a face-plant on the ground.

So when I looked away from the carpet and at unfamiliar faces, I was confused. I placed the faces in front of me as strangers. It took me moments and then long seconds before I realized I was staring at my former bishop and his wife from way back in the early 1990s. They had come all the way to our meetinghouse from their hotel in Leesburg, twelve miles away, just to say hi to Fluffy and me.

Not only had Lance Moss been our bishop, but Fluffy and I had home taught the Moss family for the entire time they had lived in our ward. We had even sat behind them in church, so we had enjoyed a deep and abiding relationship with them. They had not been casual acquaintances, to say the least.

But then the Mosses had moved to Leesburg in the mid-1990s and we had seen them only sporadically since then. And they had moved out of the state, back to Utah, years and years ago. We had not expected to ever see them again. We had been Facebook friends for several years, so we did have contact on some level.

So when Jean Moss headed toward me with outstretched arms, I was so focused on walking that it took longer than a moment for me to redirect my attention long enough to realize that I was looking at people I knew, to say nothing that they were people I dearly loved.

We were able to visit with the Mosses for a few minutes before church started, and they came over to our home the following evening for dinner. Fluffy took a picture of them before they left, and he posted it the next day on Facebook so our Facebook friends who also remembered the Mosses could see it.

A disquieting thing happened when Fluffy posted the picture on Facebook. As he added the picture, Facebook automatically labeled the picture for him: “with Jean Moss and Lance Moss.”

We have not seen Lance and Jean for at least seven years, and probably closer to a decade. They do not regularly appear on our Facebook page. We do not correspond with them. I did not even recognize them immediately when I saw them in church.

How in tarnation did Facebook immediately recognize their picture and correctly label it when Fluffy uploaded it to Facebook?

Facebook inserted the names of friends who lived across the country, who were not regular correspondents, and whom we hadn’t seen in more than seven years, without Fluffy having to type them in. Creepy.

All I can say is that’s more than a little creepy. At least, that’s what I thought. Fluffy thought it was cool. He was excited about the technology. He doesn’t care about Big Brother having eyes on him, as long as Big Brother is taking advantage of the Cool Factor. Boys are like that. They never grow out of it.

We have all laughed at those television programs where they take a fuzzy security camera picture, sharpen it, and then match it to a known bad guy after scanning the photos of 10,000,000 bad guys in under ten seconds. So we know the technology is there. But in Facebook? And on our computers?

Fluffy did a little digging into the Facebook help screens, and confirmed what we were seeing:

Because photos are such an important part of Facebook, we want to be sure you know exactly how tag suggestions work: When you or a friend upload new photos, we use face recognition software — similar to that found in many photo editing tools — to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in. We group similar photos together and, whenever possible, suggest the name of the friend in the photos.

I still don’t know whether I like this or not, but I have to admit the technology is amazing.

But all of this got me thinking about God, and how well he knows all of His children. He knows our face, our voice, our concerns, our strengths and weaknesses, and everything that there is to know about us. He listens to every sincere prayer, and always answers them (although we don’t always like the answers).

He is aware of us every minute of every hour of every day. His office is never “closed,” and he never takes a vacation (I find that last point rather depressing, for His sake).

Even more impressive is the fact that He maintains this relationship with all of His children, which currently number about seven billion people. And how about the billions of people that have already lived and died? I’m sure they are not forgotten either.

We do live in a wonderful age, but I’m sure it is primitive compared to the wonders of God, and the many marvelous things that we have yet to learn about Him and His creations.

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May 05 2014

Retouching Our Lives

Published by Kathy under General

When my husband Fluffy was in college, he took quite an interest in photography. In fact, he took enough photo classes that he ended up with a minor in photography when he graduated. For most of his college years he also worked part-time at the college photo lab, which provided a little extra money and also brought him even closer to the hobby that he loved.

One of the things he learned during that time was the art of photo retouching. You don’t hear that term very often these days, it having been replaced with more descriptive terms such as photo manipulation.

Retouching was the art of making tiny modifications to the surface of the photograph itself to enhance the subject or to remove imperfections. This was long before digital photography, so the printmaking process was more complex and involved things such as negatives, darkrooms, and chemicals.

It seemed that no matter how well you cleaned the negative, there were always dust particles and scratches on it that would appear on the print. So the final step of professional photo production usually involved retouching to remove these small imperfections.

After the print was produced, retouching was done with tiny brushes and paints of various colors. Because most prints were in black and white, those were the only colors that were needed, although brown was also included in the retouching kits for handling sepia-colored photos (this is where a brown tint is applied to a black and white photo).

Scratches and dust spots would usually appear as light spots on the print, so the retouching was simply a matter of mixing a matching paint color and then covering the light spot with tiny dots of paint. Because a photo is composed of millions of tiny dots anyway, the paint dots added during retouching would not be detected.

The basics of retouching could be expanded to improve photos in other ways beyond just imperfections in the negative. Skin wrinkles under the eyes could be removed (always popular with the ladies), as well as reflections in eyeglasses.

Radical retouching could be used to remove distracting backgrounds (the ever-popular telephone pole growing from the head), or even entire people (removing the black sheep from the family photo) after a scandalous divorce or crime or other disappointment that was too heinous to be forgiven.

Restoration of damaged photos could also be done via copying and retouching. Damage from folds and stains could be removed, and even missing portions of the photo could be reconstructed.

As we fast forward to the digital age, we find that retouching or photo modification is more popular than ever. The tiny brushes and paint patches have been replaced with a computer and photo manipulation software.

Fluffy has restored this ancient picture of me. It was actually torn in half, but he put it back together with the magic of PhotoShop.

Although this can still be a tedious process, the power of photo manipulation software is amazing. These days, the camera and the captured image is just the first step of the process, with much of the magic taking place after the photos have been transferred to the computer.

After we have loaded new photos onto the computer, we examine each one and use editing software to improve them. This may involve straightening the horizon, cropping out unwanted objects, correcting red eye (those zombie-like eyes that people have when you use flash in a dark room), correcting the brightness, contrast, and even the color. In extreme cases, it may even involve removing objects.

A few years ago we visited Stonehenge in England. Although Stonehenge looks remote in the pictures, it is actually next to a freeway, and there is a pedestrian path that runs right next to the stone structures.

On a busy day, it is almost impossible to get pictures of the rocks without having a bunch of tourists nearby. But not to worry. Fluffy was obscenely patient in waiting for breaks in the crowd. Then the few people he could not avoid were removed with the editing software. Our photos of Stonehenge would make you think it had been undisturbed for centuries.

Here is Stonehenge, minus the pesky tourists.

For a number of years I ran a lucrative business providing custom photo portraits of people’s dead pets. People would send me pictures of their dead animals, and I would use PhotoShop to provide “watercolor” images of the pets as a remembrance.

In theory, this was an easy proposition. But people would send me pictures of their pet tiger behind a chain link fence and expect me to get rid of the chain link fence. They’d send a picture of the dead hamster after he was dead and expect me to breathe some life into it. They’d send me a picture of half a dog and expect me to draw the back half of the dog onto the front half. All this for $14.95 a pop.

This took a whole lot of work on my end, but PhotoShop and I usually managed to satisfy the customer. I only wish I still had the Before and After pictures of the two whippets behind the fat guy who was lying on a lawn chair in his bathing suit with a beer can perched on his gut.

However, I do have a picture I took last month of the Jefferson Memorial. I took it from a moving car so it was blurry. People used to throw their blurry pictures away. Not anymore! Now we can get out the digital software and use the “watercolor” feature to pretend they were supposed to look that way. Voila! Art!

Thanks to PhotoShop, I can pretend this picture of the Jefferson Memorial is art and not a picture that should have been thrown away.

As I was working on a picture the other day, I was thinking about how Christ is the Master Retoucher of our lives. Just as we use editing software to perfect our photos, He has given us His atonement to perfect our lives.

Although we try mightily to be good people, the portraits of our lives are filled with imperfections. Yet He can correct our perspectives, remove distractions, restore the brightness to our eyes, make sure our balance is perfect, and even remove the ugly stains of sin.

He can take our rather ordinary lives and turn them into stunning masterpieces. Then we can share that wonderful light with others as we help them enhance the portraits of their own souls.

Rarely do you find a photograph that doesn’t benefit from some retouching. And not one of us has lived a life that is free from imperfection. Yet with the help of the Master Retoucher, we can produce a portrait of the human family that is perfect, magnificent, and acceptable to God.

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