Lessons from Betty Lou

October 5, 2015

During the spring of 2013 my mom, Violet Bessey, spent a few weeks at Maple Crest Care Center before and after undergoing surgery to remove a benign brain tumor that was causing frequent falls. When Mom was a resident of Maple Crest, I visited her several times a day. Early in her stay, we became acquainted with her neighbor across the hall—an unforgettable lady named Betty Lou Schaefer.

When my mom arrived at Maple Crest, she was lonely and scared. Betty Lou started talking with her within a day or two of Mom’s arrival. She began by asking my mother if she’d had any trouble sleeping the night before because of the disruption caused by John, a resident who bellowed, “I need help!” at the top of his lungs instead of using his call button. Mom mentioned how reassured she felt to be able to have a conversation with someone who still had all her marbles.

Betty Lou noticed my frequent visits to my mom’s room, and it wasn’t long before she shouted, “Come on over here!” and I obeyed. I noticed the leopard-skin cover on her bed and was drawn to her outgoing personality, and I knew she was somebody I wanted to spend time with.

I soon learned that Betty Lou was born in 1927, the same year as my mom, but her health problems were far more incapacitating. She was bedridden and received nourishment through a tube. But her mind was much stronger than her body, and she continued to be fully engaged in life.

It quickly became apparent that Betty Lou was aware of everything that went on at Maple Crest. One day she told me, “The door to my room has been open since I came here five years ago, and that’s not going to change.” Soon I was stopping in Betty Lou’s room daily to say hello. If I had my mom’s dog Buddy with me, Betty Lou made it clear that he was welcome, too.

On May 22, 2013, Mom was finished with her post-surgery rehab and ready to return home. Before we left Maple Crest, I walked across the hall to say goodbye to Betty Lou. She looked me in the eye and asked, “Will you come back and visit me?” Without hesitation I replied, “Yes, I will.” From that point on, I visited Betty Lou every Sunday afternoon unless I was sick or out of town.

During my weekly visits our main activity was talking. We were able to do a lot of talking in two and a half years. I learned about Betty Lou’s parents, family life on their farm near Bennington, and Betty Lou’s older sisters, Mae and Janette. Betty talked about her nephew Michael, his wife Kathy, and their family, including their daughter Angie and her son Carter, a little guy who was born shortly before Angie’s husband Cole died of cancer. We talked about work and travel and cooking and gardening. We looked at photo albums, including the wedding album from Betty Lou’s marriage to Wilmer Schaefer in 1973 when both the bride and groom were 46 years old. Sometimes Betty talked about staff members at Maple Crest to whom she had become particularly close, and I was fortunate to meet many of them. If things had not gone well for Betty during the previous week, she told me what had happened.

Friendship grows over time, and Betty Lou became a dear friend because of our weekly visits. She taught me some valuable lessons in the most effective way possible—by example. Here are just a few of the many lessons I learned from my friend Betty Lou:

  • Let people know that you appreciate them. Each Sunday when l walked into Betty Lou’s room, she smiled and said, “There’s my girl!” or “I knew you would come!”
  • Stay engaged in life. Betty Lou cared deeply about her family. She had a big network of friends, and she became acquainted with many of the people who worked at Maple Crest. She also watched quite a bit of TV, and she often heard about local and national news events before I found out about them.
  • Find joy in small things. Betty Lou delighted in her battery-operated candles, plants, jewelry, TV shows, music, pictures, holiday T-shirts, Avon products, Hallmark movies, and the caps that I knitted for her.
  • If you want something, ask for it. Betty Lou opened the door to our ongoing friendship by asking me to come back to Maple Crest and visit her.
  • Don’t indulge in self-pity. Betty Lou didn’t complain about the things she could no longer do. Instead, she focused on the things she could She talked with everyone who came into her room, watched TV, listened to music, ordered things that were advertised on the Home Shopping Network, and made phone calls to friends and relatives.
  • Speak up! Even though Betty Lou was bedridden for seven years, she didn’t take poor treatment lying down. Because she was so articulate, she was able to speak up when problems arose. She was personally responsible for the firing of more than one employee who had treated her callously or with disrespect.

During the last couple of months of Betty Lou’s life, she was in and out of the hospital several times. I continued to visit her, sometimes more often than once a week. When she became too weak to talk, I sat beside her bed and held her hand. I feel blessed to have known my dear friend Betty Lou, and I will never forget the lessons she taught me.



“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”

Maybe and maybe not. Sometimes sticking with that familiar devil is worse than taking a leap into uncharted territory–the devil you don’t know.

I’ve been an editor for most of my life, and I cut my editorial teeth on college textbooks when I worked for Scott, Foresman from 1984 to 1992. Educational publishing is familiar to me, and I’m very good at it. But textbook copyeditors don’t make much money, and the textbook publishing industry has become more unstable over the last couple of decades. At the end of December one of my biggest clients, McGraw-Hill, laid off most of the editorial production crew in their San Francisco office. I was in mid-project, and my contact person no longer works for the company. Her supervisor is still in the office, but she hasn’t answered my emails. And it appears that the three co-authors of this first-edition textbook have not been notified of the layoffs.

I’ve been diversifying my client base for several years now, and the mass layoffs at McGraw-Hill have motivated me to redouble my efforts to find new clients for B2B (business-to-business) editing and rewriting. In December I began editing proposals for a local architectural company. I like the work, it pays better than textbook editing, and the checks arrive more quickly. The “devil I don’t know”–ditching textbook publishing entirely–has become overwhelmingly more attractive than the alternative.

Are you looking forward to making changes in 2012? Ready to ditch the devil you know? If so, I’d love to hear from you!


A couple of weeks ago I was at the YMCA waiting for my son’s swimming lesson to end. To pass the time, I started reading the notes on the bulletin board and on the wall. One of the items was a detailed list of instructions for treating the water with chemicals to keep the bacteria levels down. Apparently it is necessary to use a “vile” to measure the chemicals. The word “vile” was used repeatedly, making it clear that the writer had no idea that the actual name for a test tube or beaker is spelled V-I-A-L. Vial. Yes, vial. NOT VILE! Errgggh. I would love to sneak into the YMCA after hours with my black Sharpie and cross out the offending word every time it appears, replacing it with the correct spelling.

Last month I remodeled my bathroom with a little help from some experts. A local plumbing company replaced the bathtub fixtures, which were probably at least 50 years old and couldn’t be repaired. As a result of the plumbing repair, we had to have three ceramic tiles replaced. The plumbing company recommended a construction company for the tilework. I was happy with the quality of the work but upset to discover that I was being expected to pay for “drive time” to and from my house. Here’s the letter I sent to the plumbing company today, with a copy to the construction company.

The Faucet Shop
6016 Maple Street
Omaha, NE 68104

Re: T. Hurt Construction

The tub fixtures in our bathroom were replaced by The Faucet Shop on April 1. You recommended a company called T. Hurt Construction for the tile repair work necessitated by the plumbing repair, so I called the company to set an appointment. A salesperson, Darin Anderson, came out a few days later to look at the hole in the wall. Darin told me the tile repair work would cost $55 per hour. He suggested that I purchase the ceramic tiles to save money, and he said the charge for materials would probably be “no more than $10.” Darin gave me the impression that he would be performing the repair work, and he told me that he had done about 30 jobs just like this one.

Darin wasn’t the person who actually performed the work, but I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with the amount I was charged for labor and materials: a total of $305.50. As described below, I believe the bill from T. Hurt was inflated. Since you are referring people to this company, I thought you should know about my reaction.

Ray Hurt came to my house on April 13 between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m., and he finished the tile repair work around 11:45. When I received the invoice a couple of days later, I was surprised to see that it included five hours of labor. I sent an email to Terry Hurt asking about the labor charge, and he told me that the bill included “drive time.” The distance between T. Hurt Construction (8529 Wirt Street) and my house (2038 N. 64th St.) is about two and a half miles. The trip should have taken no more than 10 minutes each way, not an hour and a half or more.

The charge for materials was $30, which was three times the amount Darin had told me to expect. I was charged for a full piece of cement board, 8 feet of 2×4, an entire tube of adhesive, a pound of grout, and a pound of screws. A tiny fraction of each of these items was used for the job, and the repairman took all of the leftovers with him. There’s no way the job required $30 worth of materials.

The tile work was done well, but my experience with T. Hurt Construction has left a bad taste in my mouth.


Janet Tilden


Less than 24 hours after making this post, I received a somewhat incoherent phone call from Terry Hurt, the guy whose company charges for “drive time.” Here’s the gist of the one-sided conversation:
1. His salesman is going to drop off the materials that I paid for but never received, because he wants “to keep the customer happy.”
2. He believes that nothing he could do would make me happy. I suggested that this was a bit of an overreaction, since I was satisfied with the workmanship but not happy at being asked to pay for “drive time.” 
3. The drive time charge was reasonable, according to him, because the service person had to “match the grout color.” I pointed out that the grout in my bathroom is white.
4. No one has ever complained about his company to the Better Business Bureau. (Maybe he’s afraid that I will?)
5. His company loses money on small jobs like mine, and they just do it as a service to customers. Since this job “went bad” (presumably because I spoke up), from now on he’s going to establish a minimum job cost of $500.
6. By speaking up about the “drive time” thing, I’m doing a disservice to fellow homeowners by preventing them from getting tile work done by T. Hurt Construction for less than $500.
I was calm and reasonable, and he was very defensive. At the end of the “conversation,” I said, “Oh, so what you’re saying is that you don’t care about the little guys like me, right?” I think he was so flustered that he agreed. That’s when I said, “Goodbye, and have a nice day.” Then I hung up.
Not only was I overcharged for the tile repair, but the guy from T. Hurt Construction replaced the faucet the wrong way after fixing the tile. My brand-new faucet was dripping, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I finally called the guy who had installed the faucet in the first place, and he told me the knob was backwards.He took it off and put it on the RIGHT way, and he installed a new cartridge. I should have called him a few days after I noticed the drip instead of waiting almost a year!

Who needs an editor?

June 28, 2009

My best clients are people who understand and appreciate what I can do for them. One client told me, “You took my letter from good to great!” Ironically, people who are truly bad writers often think they’re pretty darned good. They don’t have a clue about how to communicate effectively in print or on the web, and they don’t think they need any help from an editor.

Why do so many people think the possessive word “its” requires an apostrophe? Today I saw it on the blog of a professional copywriter who should have known better. The word “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.” The possessive “its” does not have an apostrophe. Neither do the plural forms of most nouns, but that subject is worthy of a separate rant!

Email is quick, easy, and cheap–but it has some drawbacks. After you click “send,” how can you be sure that your message will reach the intended recipient? You can ask for confirmation, but it’s up to the recipient to comply.

Here are a few pitfalls of email correspondence:

1. Your email could be delayed and turn up days, weeks, or months after you have sent it… or never arrive at all.

2. Your email could be sent to an inactive address or an account that the owner no longer bothers to check because it has been engulfed by spam.

3. Your email could be screened out by the recipient’s spam filter.

If an email absolutely, positively must reach the intended recipient, be sure to ask the recipient to hit “reply” and confirm receipt. Then follow up if you don’t receive a reply within a day or two. If you don’t have time to follow up, then print out your letter, put in an envelope, and send it out the old-fashioned way!

Have you noticed (as I have) that many people don’t seem to know the difference between “reign” and “rein”? I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the words “reign in” in print and online–for example,  “She tried to reign in her spending because of the recession.”

In a literal sense, rein refers to controlling horses and reign refers to the authority exercised by royalty. A person can “rein in” spending, eating, emotional expression, and so on. In this context, rein is used in a figurative sense to liken practicing self-control to restraining a team of horses.

By contrast, a king or queen reigns over or reigns within a country. Reign, like rein, can be a verb or a noun. We talk about the reign of Henry VIII, for example. The word regency has the same root, rex, the Latin word for king. The word rein comes from retinere, “to restrain.”

The next time I see the word “reign” used the wrong way, I will try to rein in my disgust. It won’t be easy!

Almost There, but Not Quite

February 6, 2009

My web guy left a voice mail about the problem downloading files from my site. When I was entering the information for each file, I forgot to include the “.rtf” extension after the file name. I spent an hour adding “.rtf” to 109 file names, and now the downloading problem is solved.

The next hurdle is to eliminate the problems with multiple log-ins and mysterious dumping of items from the shopping cart. When these two problems have been solved, the shopping cart will be operational. After we reach that point, I’m going to ask a few people to test the system and offer feedback.

Shopping Cart Hell

February 5, 2009

Last weekend I was bemoaning the lack of sales from my newly redesigned website, and my 21-year-old son had some advice for me. “Instead of selling the business letter templates only in packages, why not offer them individually?”

I protested, “Nobody will drag out their credit card information for a 99-cent purchase,” and his response was “Mom, I do it all the time when I download MP3 files and purchase items on the gaming sites.”

Inspired, I talked with my web guy and spent 7 hours last Sunday creating separate entries for 109 business letter templates. I eagerly awaited a flood of little orders on Monday, but nothing happened. I decided to submit a test order yesterday, and I found out that the shopping cart wasn’t working correctly. When I tried to purchase one of the letter templates, it took my credit card information but refused to let me download the file. I notified my web designer, and I’m hoping he can fix the shopping cart this weekend. It was working okay before we added the 99-cent items.

Today I decided to try another test. I created a new user account with my husband’s information and tried to purchase another 99-cent letter. Same problems–multiple logins required, items mysteriously disappearing from shopping cart and needing to be re-entered, and website refusing to allow me to download the eproduct I had purchased.

To make matters worse, I discovered two typos on the registration page where clients enter their information and create a username and password. Under billing address, it says “Please enter as it appears on you billing statement.” In the address section, it says “country abbreveation.” Not cool for someone in my business!

Murphy’s Law strikes again! If anything can go wrong, it will! Oh, and to make matters worse, my web designer is recovering from a virus. He holds down a full-time corporate job in addition to running his web design business on the side, and he’s been out of the office sick for a few days.

If people try to order eproducts from my website, I hope they won’t give up in frustration. Every time someone makes a purchase, my bank sends a receipt by email. I can send them the eproducts as email attachments until the shopping cart is fixed.