Every summer I set a challenge for myself.

Last year, I made it a point to use less water. I even tore out the parking strip and xeriscaped it, although I wasn't ready (and maybe never will be) to take out from the rest of the yard the thirsty perennial flowers that bring me such pleasure spring through fall.

I love leisurely baths with a good book but instead took short showers. I captured the water that used to run down the drain while I adjusted the temperature and threw it on the veggie beds. And I enlisted my little girls, who are always delighted by anything that smacks of competition. Some of the ridiculous ways we managed to salvage water brought some pretty good giggles.

The summer challenges are a direct attempt to be part of the cure for something I see as a genuine problem. And they tend to linger when summer's over, because they last long enough to become habits.

That's kind of the point. It's positive change dressed up in a playsuit so it's fun.

I started reducing my gasoline consumption that way a couple of years back and have never returned to my run-an-errand-whenever ways. Not idling the car in lines has become second nature.

I've become a dedicated recycler — and not just of things you can put in the blue can and wheel to the curb. I've found some sound ways to reuse and get the most out of a lot of different materials.

This year's challenge, though, is probably going to be harder.

I'm going to be nice.

It sounds kind of silly, but I think the lack of basic civility is as grave a problem as any this country faces. And the creep to becoming a creep has been a fairly subtle, not-well-recognized decline, forged one snotty comment, eye roll or rude hand gesture at a time.

It was driven home to me this week as I read the comments readers added to a story that ran Sunday about a little girl who is dying of a genetic disease that has robbed her of many abilities and of her future.

There was a single outrageously rude remark among the dozens that people posted with the article. It was the more jarring because it was so vicious and because it did stand, thankfully, alone. A reader took a story about a family's challenge and heartbreak and used it to attack a religion.

It was mean and inappropriate and offered nothing to anyone. Someone was simply taking an opportunity to be hateful. We seem to do a lot of that lately. Including me.

I'll say this for the message. It stopped me cold as I wondered why someone would do that. And that led me to wonder why I do and say some pretty mean things, too.

It's not a problem I can solve, but I can quit contributing to it. So, for the summer at least, I'm going to quit muttering about things. I'll either say them out loud, to your face, in a respectful manner, or not at all. That may be the hardest thing for me, because I'm a world-class mutterer.

I'll try to give people the benefit of the doubt. When you cut me off in traffic, I'll hope to picture the emergency you're heading for and wish you well.

Instead of snapping at my youngest daughter, who operates on a distinctly different time clock, to hurry up, I'm going to let her know how much I appreciate her (agonizing) attention to detail and the care she takes doing things.

I will own my rudeness, should it occur. And I'll try not to make excuses. I can solve declining civility no more than I can solve the gas crunch, but I can limit my contribution to both.

The power of simple kindness hit home the other day when I told someone how grateful I was for her extra help solving an e-mail problem. Her face lit up and I was left wondering if feeling appreciated has really become such a rarity.

If so, it's a shame. But a changeable one.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]