Monday, October 22, 2018

Lessons from my 10-day social media fast

A few weeks ago I sat on a pew at our local stake center watching the general women's session of the general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with about 150 women and a handful of men. Being the stake technology specialist, I get to attend every meeting that involves broadcasts at any of our stake's church buildings.

In years past our stake's women's organizations would host a meal prior to the general women's session, but the decision was made to forego this social aspect this time around. Attendance at the meeting when dinner was served tended to run about triple the attendance at this recent meeting. Many, including my own wife and daughter, chose to watch the meeting at home. I don't really have a problem with that.

Although Elder David A. Bednar spoke earlier in the day against turning the gospel into "checklists of individual topics to study and tasks to accomplish," I couldn't avoid noticing that Church President Russell M. Nelson extended "four invitations" to the sisters that look a lot like a checklist:
  1. "Participate in a 10-day fast from social media and from any other media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind."
  2. "Read the Book of Mormon between now and the end of the year. ...mark each verse that speaks of or refers to the Savior."
  3. "Establish a pattern of regular temple attendance."
  4. "Participate fully in Relief Society."
I figured that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. What better way to support my wife and daughter in these invitations than to join them? Even if I couldn't do #4, I could readily do the other three. And I could sort of do #4 by supporting my female family members in their Relief Society participation.

The first and simplest thing to do was to participate in a 10-day fast from social media and negative media. I started the next day. This adjustment wasn't nearly as difficult as I anticipated it might be. This is likely because I made the shift away from negative media and social media years ago when I found myself not liking how I felt about myself when I was more involved in media content.

At the conclusion of my 10-day fast I wanted to document my observations, as recommended by President Nelson, when he said, "What do you notice after taking a break from perspectives of the world that have been wounding your spirit? Is there a change in where you now want to spend your time and energy? Have any of your priorities shifted—even just a little? I urge you to record and follow through with each impression."

What do I notice or did I notice during my 10-day fast. First off, it wasn't incredibly different than normal. As noted, I had already changed my media habits years earlier. As far as social media goes, I rarely post and I find most posts on my feed fairly inane. I also find occasional useful and uplifting posts. But I will note three factors:
  • Instead of going to media sources for a break from the daily grind, I found myself going to family history apps. Some of this was due to timing, given that I was notified of several DNA matches and new links to several ancestor records during this time frame.
  • I was mildly annoyed at the inability to get updates about events and family matters through the normal means.
  • Highly partisan posts and food porn posts were not missed.
Really, I am tired of food videos that amount to fantasies of how recipes work in real life. They follow the same patterns as sex porn and hit similar pleasure centers in the brain, so I call them food porn. I block those sites whenever possible and I have unfollowed some connections due to their penchant for such posts. These posts still pop up with annoying frequency.

I have a variety of social media connections who put out highly partisan or deeply slanted ideological posts. I long ago tired of people painting complex issues in simplistic monochrome ways and freaking out about tactics by ideological opponents while excusing the same tactics by ideological allies. Many of these people seem to have a stunning lack of self awareness.

Why don't I just unfollow them? Sometimes I do. But I actually care about many of these people, although, I may think them to be somewhat misguided. I'm also not so secure in my own political ideology as to think that I have nothing to learn from others who think differently. If we screen out all thought differences we end up in an echo chamber where we think we have all the answers. Too many of us do this already. Besides, these folks occasionally post about things I actually do care about. I guess I am willing to wade through some of their garbage to pick up the occasional gem.

Occasionally I have unfollowed someone for posting raunchy material. I find no redeeming value in exposing myself to that stuff. But the main reason I have unfollowed people has been overload on the volume of posts. Where in the world do people find the time to share 30 posts on a given day? Too many posts in one day violates the basic tenets of social media etiquette.

Is there a change in where I now want to spend my time and energy? Have any of my priorities shifted—even just a little? Yes. I want to spend more time doing family history work. I have gone through many waxing and waning family history periods during my lifetime. I found that I had waned on that front more than I really wanted to. So I want to do more of that.

And I may actually unfollow some people whose posts, on balance, tend to bring more negative thoughts than introspective or uplifting thoughts.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Our autistic son graduates high school

The school system was awful for our autistic son. Some of the people in the system were fantastic. Some were extremely caring. But the system itself poorly matched our son's needs and was terrible at providing workable adaptations.

We were very happy to welcome son #4 to our family. His blond hair, blue eyes, cherubic face, and gravely voice were part of his endearing package. Other than the fact that he was louder than all of his brothers, he seemed pretty typical. He had a bit of a rhotacism, for which he received speech therapy at ages three and four. But otherwise he was pretty normal.

The first signs of mental health issues became noticeable when our son was in fourth grade, although, it didn't seem serious. When our son expressed suicidal thoughts in fifth grade, however, we sought professional help. Despite interventions, things went downhill toward the end of his fifth grade year, and sixth grade was a continual struggle.

Our son now tells us that he hated school by this time because he couldn't keep up. Oh, he's very bright, but we later learned that he was running up against biological limitations. Those constraints had always been there, but they had rarely been an issue before hitting the abstract and critical thinking developmental stages.

After months of falling further and further behind, our son simply gave up hope that he could ever succeed. He reasoned that he would fail regardless of whether he did the work or not and that avoiding the work was far less stressful, so that's the approach he took. All-or-nothing thinking is common for autistic people. Since our son couldn't do it all, the logical choice in his mind was to do nothing.

We hoped that the jump to the junior high school would help our son as it had helped his older brother, but it didn't work out that way. He ended up spending three months in an intensive outpatient behavioral healthcare program that mixed schooling with mental health treatment. Managing this was quite challenging for our family, but it was also the most helpful thing for our son's condition that we had encountered.

During this period our son was evaluated by the staff at Dr. Sam Goldstein's office, which is among the best programs of its type in our region. After an extensive review, our son was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), which people have often referred to as high functioning Autism. Some professionals today refer to this condition simply as an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), although, others find ASD to be an overly broad term.

Every case of autism is different. People think they know what to expect of someone with AS because they know somebody else with AS. But every case is unique. Our son has biological limits with processing and executive function, while his memory is very keen. One psychologist told us that it's like having the world's best solid state drive on a Windows 98 machine. You can put a lot of data on the drive and access it, but it takes a long time to process the data onto the drive and the processor can easily get overwhelmed.

"If it were only the autism we were dealing with," one professional told us, "we'd have no problem treating it. But every case of autism comes with at least one, and usually several collateral mental health issues that make each case unique and that present interesting (as in baffling) challenges to successful treatment." In our son's case that means, among other things, clinical depression and extreme anxiety, especially social anxiety.

Upon completing the behavioral healthcare program we felt that our son had the tools necessary for success ... until we came up against the intransigence of the public education system. While some people in the system are miracle workers, we also had many opportunities to work with those who were quite the opposite.

The representatives from the school district's special education department and many of the representatives from the junior high school's administration and faculty stonewalled serious efforts to get adaptations that could have actually helped our son. They especially prevented him from getting an Individualized Education Program (IEP). It eventually became clear that they didn't want the inconvenience an IEP would cause them.

It's not lost on me that these people are in a challenging situation. They have limited resources and every IEP further strains those resources. They were grappling with the realities of what they were demanded to do by law in the face of what they had capacity to do. But the result was particularly cruel and inhumane for our son.

I now realize that we should have retained professional legal help for this matter. A few years later one psychologist was beside herself that our son had still been denied an IEP. "The child is autistic!" she cried out in exasperation, "That qualifies for an IEP on its face." We finally succeeded in getting an IEP four years after our son was diagnosed. But with roughly a year and a half left in our son's public school career, the help it provided was extremely limited.

Hint: If your child has special needs, do everything in your power to get an IEP as early as possible. Being nice and cooperative in the face of bureaucratic barriers is a luxury your child can't afford. You might have to go into mama bear snarl mode in your child's best interest.

In the interim between being diagnosed with autism and receiving an IEP, our son encountered a few educators who were extremely helpful, many who were not, and yet others who were quite detrimental.

I still have a bad taste in my mouth about one of our son's junior high math teachers who is a darling of the administration, as well as many students (the ones who think math the way she does) and their parents. Although these people love this teacher, she regularly uses demeaning bullying tactics in class to deal with students who don't comprehend her narrow approach to math as quickly as she wants. Remember kids: bullying is bad unless the teacher does it.

While one math study hall teacher at the junior high was amazingly caring, her counterpart at the high school informed us in a snippy tone that she had 35 students for an 80-minute period. "That means that I have only about two minutes per period for each student!" she exclaimed. Translation: "I am nothing more than a glorified monitor who is trying to keep the kids from getting too noisy. Don't expect any real help from me. After all, I have fewer than five years left until retirement."

On the other hand, there was the high school drama teacher who went far beyond the call of duty to provide accommodations so that our son could play a role in the school play. There was the blunt spoken special education teacher who was tender on the inside but who wouldn't let our son get away with stuff he could reasonably handle.

There were also many teachers who let our son fail or nearly fail because they just didn't know what to do with him. He was always very respectful and well spoken, and he never caused problems in class, so they put no extra effort into his case.

It's astonishing how many teachers at parent conferences equated classroom behavior with academic capability. This fundamental misconception meant that the only reason many teachers could see for our son's under-performance was laziness. This isn't really the fault of the teachers, since few educators receive much in the way of mental health training (see Atlantic article). It is yet another deficiency of the system that caused particular problems for our son.

Many well meaning teachers and administrators treated our son's biological limitations primarily as a motivation problem. We sometimes did too. No one would ever do that to someone with an obvious physical impairment. Consider the comic panels to the left showing what it would be like if we treated physical health issues the way we tend to treat mental health issues.

Unfortunately, by the time our son got an IEP, his pattern of failure was bumping up against his off-the-chart level of social anxiety. He was actually not that far from completing all of his requirements for graduation. But by the middle of his senior year of high school he shut down. He just couldn't deal with the social aspects of school anymore. He had successfully completed work packets at home to satisfy some course requirements, but he could no longer bring himself to do the packets either.

During all of these years, our son has been working with qualified psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists. We believe that drug therapy has been helpful. Frankly, it's hard to say. It makes a noticeable difference when he forgets to take his meds but part of that could be withdrawal symptoms, I suppose. None of the experts really know. They readily admit that they're just guessing, based on how patients tend to respond.

Many of the therapists our son has worked with have been great people, but I can't really say that any one of them has been particularly helpful. We believe, however, that our son's comprehensive treatment package has been helpful overall, despite his ongoing challenges.

After our son's high school class graduated without him, we discovered that this event allowed him to take advantage of a program offered by the school district to close the gap for people in our son's situation; high school seniors with certain conditions who didn't graduate with their class but who are close to completing their graduation requirements. We learned about the existence of this program purely by fluke.

Our son ended up with a handful of packets to complete. The nature of the packets made it obvious that the effort amounted to checking off a few boxes to satisfy some bureaucrats. The packets were not academically challenging for our son but quite literally amounted to psychological torture for him.

Thankfully, the packet effort has recently finished, thanks in no small part to my wife, who provided immense support. The office in charge of this kind of thing at the school district has now certified our son's accomplishment and has granted him a full fledged high school diploma that isn't some kind of equivalency certificate.

Some might look at this diploma as a consolation prize, but I am immensely proud of our son. Few high school graduates have endured the level of challenges our son has endured to earn their diploma. He spent years struggling under a system that continually beat him down and sent nonstop messages through countless subvert and overt channels, telling him that he is stupid, deficient, and unworthy.

I have deep gratitude in my heart to all who have truly helped our son along the way. Thanks to a few good people and a few obscure programs, our son finally found a path to high school graduation, despite the system's best efforts at rendering this impossible. I am especially grateful for peers who have stuck by our son, even when that kind of friendship has been very hard to maintain. I believe that heaven reserves rare blessings for such individuals.

For now our son is moving forward with a program to learn web development. We have no idea where that path will lead. I imagine that our son's journey in life will continue to be more like hiking through a trackless wilderness area than like hiking an established trail. But at least he can now move on from the inhospitable compulsory public education scrambles to the more varied climes of young adulthood.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why I stepped back onto the theater stage after three decades: my daughter

"What? She gets turned into a tree?!" the young man exclaimed one evening at rehearsal. We were about three weeks into preparing for a community theatrical production and this youth was among the cast members who were just discovering the plot of the play.

A few weeks earlier I was sitting beside my daughter awaiting my turn to audition, telling myself that I wasn't nervous. Although my number was well prepared and I knew the judges personally, it had been more than three decades since I had tried out for a play. If I didn't at least land a position in the ensemble, I could live with not sharing a theatrical experience with my daughter. But somehow there were still a few butterflies in my stomach.

My fears were unfounded. The audition went well, but pretty much everyone who tried out got some kind of position in the cast. Some later quit for various reasons. We ended up with about 70 regular cast members and an equal number of children's chorus members. Most of the regular cast members were in their mid-teens to mid-20s. A handful of us were more seasoned. Despite the cast being comprised of anyone who wanted to be in the play, the level of talent among cast members was astounding, especially for community theater.

Being the oldest person in the cast (in the entire production, actually), I began to suspect that acting in live theater is a young person's avocation. Especially after some 3½-hour rehearsals where we practiced high energy islander dance moves over and over. I am literally old enough to be my daughter's grandfather. I have contemporaries who have grandchildren that are older than my daughter. Despite my personal rigorous daily exercise routine, I experienced my share of sore muscles and aching joints.

The funny thing about this is that I have been telling my wife ever since we met decades ago that I can't dance. She grew up dancing and cajoled me into taking ballroom dance lessons after we got married. I can sort of lead, if she will tell me what to do next. But dancing doesn't come naturally to me. It's frankly kind of nerve wracking.

Dancing in our theatrical production was different because I was told exactly what to do. We had a very talented choreographer/dance director, and he had a very talented assistant. Amazing people. Quite honestly, I had no idea how I could do some of the moves the first time they were introduced. But weeks of doing them over and over produced a sort of muscle memory that eventually allowed me to whip out relatively complex dance moves without even thinking about it.

Singing came much more naturally to me. I have been singing for a long time. And while I may not have a great solo voice, I can get by. I had previously worked with our phenomenal music director. She has the rare ability to consistently get people of all ages to perform at levels they didn't think possible.

We would usually work through our vocal parts in one rehearsal and then introduce the related dance routines in another rehearsal. Yet later we would put the singing and dancing together. That turned out to be quite challenging for me. But after weeks of repetition it seemed odd to sing a number without doing the related dance moves. Adding acting to the mix provided another layer of challenge, but even that became routine after awhile.

Many community theater productions are approached with a certain laxness. That is not the case with our director, whom I have known ever since he was one of my Order of the Arrow Scouts years ago. I think he is the hardest working person I have ever known in theater. He harbors a somewhat unique blend of talent, expertise, vision, leadership, and dedication. His productions are fun but very demanding.

Months earlier the community had decided to produce the play Once On This Island. This is a great play for community theater because, like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, it is mostly music with very little dialogue and you can put a lot of people on stage. Our script was closer to the original 1990-91 Broadway version rather than the revival version that is currently playing on Broadway to rave reviews.

The protagonist in OOTI is a young peasant woman named Ti Moune. When my wonderfully supportive wife understood the plot, she drolly said, "So let me get this straight. You are doing a play about a group of villagers comforting a scared little girl by telling her a story about a stalker girl who commits suicide after her dreams for love are dashed, and who then gets turned into a tree." I replied, "Yeah, pretty much."

But this isn't the message of the play. Witchcraft and wizardry in Harry Potter present many fun and interesting elements, but they're not the message of the series. They simply supply a framework for the real messages that revolve around choosing the right, loyalty to good people and causes, and coming to terms with our own mortality.

In a similar fashion, the story, music, dancing, and costumes in OOTI provide a framework for commentary on love, race and class. As permitted by the script, our community implementation dropped the racial focus to center on class. While racial issues are important, our community's population is 0.6% black (see North Ogden stats). We couldn't field a cast that would work with the script's racial requirements. Our community's racial mix is a salient issue itself, but that's not going to be resolved by a theatrical production.

That's not to say that our production has been free of controversy. The conundrum hasn't been about race, but about the city's new amphitheater, which has essentially been christened by our production. For years the city had a tiny concrete slab for a stage in an outdoor amphitheater set in a beautiful park near my home. Over the years there have been a few shows there. The annual July 4 fireworks celebration, however, has put a lot of pressure on the surrounding residents, as well as the residential infrastructure that was never designed to handle large events.

The park came about when a local farmer couple (friends of ours) sold the property to the city at a cut rate two decades ago with several stipulations about its future use, hoping to maintain green space. Three years ago the city formed a committee to develop a vision for the park. The mixed group of citizens and officials eventually came up with a master plan for the park. One of the features the committee proposed was a much grander amphitheater.

Plans for the amphitheater moved apace partially because funding became available earlier than expected. Although more than 20 public meetings were held about the matter, nearby residents were caught off guard when construction suddenly began in November last year. As the project progressed, some residents became alarmed at the scope of the project and suddenly became very active in opposing it, based on the original agreements about usage of the park.

The trouble was that things were too far along to make major changes at that point. Although I have several concerns with the project, I declined to sign the petition asking that the project be stopped and reworked. Despite my respect for the opponents (many of whom are friends I know and love) and my empathy for many of their concerns, their request to stop the project seemed infeasible.

Following unsatisfactory meetings with city officials, my friends filed a lawsuit based on their belief that the amphitheater violated the stipulations in the park's deed. The legal process took long enough that the project was very far along by the time a judge ruled against a temporary injunction seeking to halt the project. My personal concerns revolve more around taxation, insufficient infrastructure and parking, and the possibility (based on care of the city's current recreational facilities) that maintenance of the facility might be less than adequate.

But I live a block and a half away, not right across the street from the venue. Many of the concerns of those that live adjacent to the new facility are valid. City officials are now trying to resolve many issues that should have been addressed well before architects began to design the new amphitheater, and which would have changed the nature and scope of the project. It's an unfortunate situation that is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

In the meantime, my daughter and I had been cast in roles in the play that was scheduled to be the first theatrical production on the new stage. We had been rehearsing at the city's senior center and at the local high school. The amphitheater project was behind schedule, as is often the case with projects of this nature. When we first began rehearsals on site we were rehearsing in an active construction zone. Although the workers put in overtime to finally get the stage ready in the nick of time, work continues on the beautiful facility even after the run of the play.
Future phases of the project are slated to include fixed seating, quality lighting and sound, and completed dressing rooms and shops. The building is pretty much an empty shell at present. These phases will be done as funding becomes available.

It took me quite a while to warm up to the idea of auditioning for the play in the first place, since I had some clue about how much time and effort would be involved. But my daughter wanted to be in the play. And after contemplating my wife's observation that I had done a lot more with our four sons during their early and mid-teen years than I had done with our daughter (see my 5/16/18 post), I kept feeling a whisper in the back of my mind telling me that I needed to share this experience with our daughter.

There were a dozen other parents involved in the play along with with one or more of their children. So I was not alone. More than two months of rigorous rehearsals led to the first of our five performances. Four of the shows sold out and they even ended up adding a special encore performance due to demand. While our director initially worried about breaking even, he reported to the city council last night that the show cleared a decent profit that will go into the city's arts budget.

Some of my neighbors were surprised to see me act in the play. But I have long harbored an enjoyment of being involved in live theater. It had just been a long time since that enjoyment had taken me onto the stage itself.

My daughter and I now have another shared experience under our belts; a demanding experience that lasted three months. It was amazing to work with so many talented people, some of whom have divers world views and most of whom were decades younger than me. It made me feel a lot younger, especially when I had to keep up with them. Despite the size of our cast, I learned the name of each member of our cast and crew, each of whom I have grown to respect and love.
Many of the people who saw our play loved it. But more than a few had the same response as did my young fellow cast member about the protagonist being turned into a tree. This plot device would have been easily recognized as a symbol of the tree of life by people in the culture being portrayed. Many cultures have tales about a female, who is capable of literally spawning human life, transforming into the tree of life to bring about renewal and healing. So it is with OOTI.

Toward the end of the show we sang a number called Why We Tell the Story. One of the final messages in the song includes the following lines:

So I hope that you will tell this tale tomorrow.
It will help your heart remember and relive.
It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow
And FORGIVE.
For out of what we live and we believe,
Our lives become the stories that we weave.

A friend who played Asaka in our play (see Broadway version) said that she thought she was years past being able to do live theater before her kids talked her into auditioning. She wrote, "I overcame all my fears of getting up in front of people. I worked at getting my voice back. I even lost [weight]. It gave me back.....something....I don't even know what that something even is, but I know there is something in me that is better."

That's how I feel too. I am a different person than I was three months ago. Something in me is better. And this is why we tell the story.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

I changed my mind and attended my high school reunion, and it was ...

A few months ago I wrote that I probably wouldn't attend my high school reunion. But something kept niggling in the back of my mind telling me that I ought to go to the reunion anyway. That thought persisted until I finally started giving it serious consideration.

After pondering the matter, I realized that I was mostly concerned about trying to fit into the same social structures that existed decades ago when we were all kids. I was worried about what others might think about me. In other words, I was making the reunion all about me.

The rational part of me long ago realized that making myself the center of matters is a sure fire way to achieve unhappiness. We are happiest when we reduce selfishness and increase care and concern for others. This doesn't mean that we don't engage in proper self care. After all, your ability to serve others is directly proportionate to your capacity to do so. I'm talking about a healthy balance between regard for self and for others.

My focus changed as I thought about the reunion being a platform for serving others, allowing me to commit to attend. My wife was happy to attend with me. She enjoys that kind of sociality more than I do.

There were 499 in my graduating class. After all these years, about a quarter of those came to the reunion, many with a spouse or a friend in tow. The event was held at the high school where we attended. We still live in the same community. Our four sons have attended that school, as will our daughter. I am currently involved in a community event that has included many meetings at the high school. It's a very familiar place to me, so I wasn't uncomfortable at all.

It was remarkable how many people were easily recognizable even before seeing their name tags. There were still quite a few who I would not have recognized had I not seen their name tags. It didn't take me long to discover that none of the people I used to hang out with showed up. No matter. I found plenty of people with whom to touch base.

Interestingly, there didn't seem to be much concern about social status. I suspect you see a lot more of that kind of thing 10 and 20 years after graduation. Four decades out people didn't seem to care much about it. They just wanted to connect with others who had some kind of common background.

We ended up sitting at a table with three classmates I knew but had never hung out with during high school. We had run in different social circles and hadn't interacted with each other much back in those days. My wife and I still had a great time them and their spouses.

A display had been arranged showing obituaries of class members who had passed away. I had known of about half of those deaths. While it was sad, the death rate was very close to average for our age demographic. So it was about what could be expected. I suppose that means that there will be a lot more of those in 10 years at the next reunion.

Our senior class president had prepared a number of memories. He also invited anyone who wished to share memories. Some were funny and some were tender. But all in all, quite enjoyable. He noted the couples who had been married nearly as long as we have been graduated. Two of my classmates each had 10 children. One classmate had 28 grandchildren. Wow. It looks like my wife and I are still years away from having grandchildren. A surprising number of classmates came from out of state.

At the end of the evening we gathered on the front steps of the school for a photo op. Many lingered to chat more afterward, as if they didn't want to leave. The Lord willing, I will see many of them again in 10 years. Best of luck to each in the interim.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A week of archaeology in southwest Colorado with junior high students

"You've done a lot of Scouting, church, and school activities with your boys over the years," my wife said one day months ago. "Now it's time for you to do some activities with your daughter." She was right, of course.

Having been a dad involved in Scouting and church young men groups, it has been pretty natural to attend Scouting and church youth events with my sons over the years. It hasn't been as natural for me to attend youth events with our daughter. But I could see my wife's point. Thus, I committed to be a chaperone on my daughter's week-long junior high trip.

Actually, the trip was only for 9th graders who will be moving to high school next season. The school did this trip for the first time last spring and it was so popular that faculty and staff decided to repeat the event this year.

Given the number of students, teachers, and chaperones attending the event, it was decided to rent 15-passenger vans rather than chartering a bus. The teacher leading the tour and school administrative personnel worked for months with service providers to prepare for our week.

Extensive and well organized information about preparing for the trip was provided to attendees (and their parents), preparation meetings were held well in advance, and a final meeting was held just a few days before the event to review the students' packing jobs. This allowed us on the morning of departure to move from gathering to leaving within a short period of time.

We spent much of that day driving to the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez, Colorado. Three other schools spent the week at Crow Canyon with us. One was from South Carolina. Some of these school groups were comprised of 6th graders. Younger students participated in activities that were appropriate to them while older students participated in somewhat more advanced activities.

One TripAdvisor reviewer wrote, "Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is a world-class archaeological education center and campus hidden away near Cortez, Colorado. ... Crow Canyon (CCAC) holds summer field school activities for children and adolescents. It has living quarters on the premises as well as a group dining facility for class participants and staff. ... Classes are also offered for adults as well as a summer lecture series, and an international travel adventure series. Housed on campus are various archaeology research professionals (archeo-botanists, field archaeologists, etc.) as well as a talented education staff. There is a small museum store and guest area on campus and an authentic replica Anasazi pit house. CCAC is a working educational institution managing archaeological digs in the area as well as classes. Well worth a visit! Fascinating place!"

I agree. Having attended many Scout and youth camp facilities, I was surprised by the quality of our group's housing. Our "cabin" was a modern facility with three rooms that each hosted four bunk beds (8 beds in each room) and two rooms that could fit 3-4 people, roomy bathrooms, and a nice porch area where we held group gatherings. Meals were served in the lodge. The (nice) Gates Building includes offices, classrooms, and lab facilities.

The faculty and staff at Crow Canyon were superb. Each group was assigned an educator who worked closely with the group throughout the week. We loved our educator, Cara so much that the school has requested that she be assigned to our school's group next spring. (Yes, the school has already signed up for next year. Crow Canyon is that good.) Our group also worked with other educators in various workshops. Each educator was professional and knowledgeable, and interfaced well with the students. Very impressive.

Workshops were, well, work. They were quite rigorous. Each student received a workbook that they used throughout the week, building on knowledge gained step by step. But the workshops were also intriguing and engaging.

After spending one afternoon on a simulated excavation in one of the lab rooms, our group spent an entire day excavating at the Haynie site under the close supervision of professional archaeologists. This was tedious work but most of our youth worked quite diligently. Nearly everyone unearthed ancient artifacts that were marked and set aside for cleaning, cataloging, and analysis.

We toured Mesa Verde National Park at the end of the week with our assigned educator. I have been to Mesa Verde on other occasions, but this time was so much more meaningful because we had a much greater awareness of what we were experiencing, having spent the week learning about the ancient inhabitants of the area through many hands-on experiences. We also had a personal guide in our educator.

While at Mesa Verde we took a tour of the Balcony House cliff dwelling. The park ranger who led the tour was a remarkably spry and sharp 70-year-old Native American fellow. Not only was he very knowledgeable, he had a marvelous sense of humor that kept us all engaged. At the end of the tour he expertly played a beautiful song on a Native flute to honor the ancestors whose home we were visiting.

In the middle of the week our group took a break from Crow Canyon to go river rafting. As luck would have it, the day we had arranged months in advance turned out to be the nastiest weather of the trip, featuring cold temperatures, thunder, rain, snow, and hail.

While on our way to Durango, the rafting company called and said that it wasn't safe to do our run that was scheduled for the Piedra River. Upon arriving at the Mountain Waters Rafting Company we consulted with the staff. They felt comfortable offering us two or three runs down portions of the Animas River that runs through the town of Durango.

In hindsight I see that the rafting experience we ended up with was much better suited to the nature of our group than the more adventurous Piedra River trip would have been. As it was, we donned wetsuits and made two runs down segments of the Animas River in rafts and inflatable kayaks. It was cold, but we had a blast. They offered us a third run, but everyone was done by the end of the second run.

I can't say enough good things about the Mountain Waters Rafting staff. Not only were they highly trained and extremely competent professionals, they were very fun to be around. They pulled together our tour on the fly and made it work for us. They also served us hot chocolate and lunch. I heartily recommend Mountain Waters Rafting. Don't just take my word for it. Check the TripAdvisor and Yelp! reviews.

On the way home from our week at Crow Canyon we stopped at a tourist trap south of Moab, Utah called Hole N" the Rock, where we took the 12-minute tour. The home built inside sandstone caverns is remarkable. But to me this this place seems pretty strange and quirky, like any number of other odd roadside attractions that dot the American landscape.
The stuffed horses and mule in the living room of the house creeped out one of our teachers. After hearing the story about how the critters were obtained, she quipped about the guy coming home and saying, "Look what I found frozen to death in the hills. We're going to put them in our living room!" As we were driving away she said, "There's a place I don't ever have to visit again." The kids, on the other hand, were quite entertained.

During our week away from home our community of travelers grew much closer to each other. Pretty much everyone reported greatly enjoying the trip. But after a week away, even with good accommodations, everyone was ready to go home. My daughter feels like this was a valuable experience. It didn't make her want to become an archaeologist but she now has a much greater appreciation for that science and for the cultures we studied.

This was not an inexpensive experience. Many students worked to earn money for the trip. In addition to the amount paid by students (and chaperones), the school covered another portion that was undisclosed, although, it was hinted that it may have been about half the cost.

I also wish to add that Crow Canyon isn't just for school or youth groups. Anyone who is interested in the cultures of early peoples of that area or who has yen for archaeology is welcome to inquire about visiting. It was a very enriching experience for our group and for me personally. I am grateful that I was able to share this experience with my daughter.

This isn't the last adventure I will have with my daughter. Due to her interest in theater, I auditioned with her and we both landed roles in a community theater production that will play this summer. It's already turning out to be a lot of work. But that is a topic for another post.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A longtime LDS Scouter's thoughts on the LDS Church discontinuing Scouting sponsorship

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...

Last May I wrote, "Scouting will continue. The LDS Church will continue. Both organizations will continue their partnership for now, although, it seems clear that the partnership must ultimately cease at some point." In October I wrote, "I suspect that the fact that [the Church] will ultimately leave Scouting can't help but diminish its influence with the [the BSA]. Each of these two organizations must pursue the paths that make the most sense to them."

We now know that the formal relationship between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts of America will cease at the end of 2019 (see joint statement by the LDS Church and the BSA announcing their upcoming divorce). I'm not prescient. It has just seemed quite apparent to me that the LDS Church and the BSA had been on diverging paths for a long time so that they would eventually part ways.

BSA membership has been declining for a number of years and the organization has been struggling to find relevancy in a changing culture. The BSA's own studies show that most parents of Scouting age youth see Scouting as old fashioned and not relevant to the needs of their kids and their families. The BSA must change that or the organization will die.

Some of the decisions made by the BSA as it has tried to reorient to modern social patterns have seemed calculated to alienate the Church. A serious rift developed between the two organizations during the summer of 2015 and people held their breath while the Church re-evaluated its relationship with the BSA (see my 7/17/2015, 7/27/2015, 7/30/2015, and 8/26/2015 posts). On August 26, 2015 the Church all but said that the days of that relationship were numbered.

The Church began sponsoring BSA units 105 years ago when the Church was largely a North American concern, mostly centered around the Wasatch Front and nearby areas, with a small number of members scattered around other parts of the world. During the post-WWII era both organizations aligned well with the mainstream American ideals of stoicism, patriotism, and conformity to societal norms.

I became a Cub Scout half a century ago as the tumultuous cultural revolution of that era started to get into swing. After decades of cultural shift, mainstream American culture now identifies more strongly with the ideals of authenticity, social responsibility, diversity, and inclusion. Scouting has gone through some tough times as it has struggled to keep up with these changes.

During my lifetime the LDS Church has become a multinational concern in a big way. More than half of its members now live outside of North America. While Scouting is also a worldwide movement, its offerings differ dramatically from country to country. For at least 15 years the Church has been up front about wanting to develop streamlined youth programs that meet the needs of its youth membership around the globe. Church leaders have bluntly stated that due to the diverse nature of Scouting programs in various countries, Scouting couldn't be part of that solution in the long term.

Many surmised last May when the Church announced that it was discontinuing its sponsorship of Varsity Scout and Venturing units that the move was a precursor to the Church discontinuing all Scouting sponsorship. It turns out that they were right.

Some surmised that LDS Scouting would die as soon as Church President Thomas S. Monson did; that his strong support of Scouting was the only reason the Church continued its relationship with the BSA. Despite this week's announcement coming four months after President Monson's passing, I still feel that this view is quite cynical and hardly in keeping with the doctrine of how the Lord runs his church.

My point is that no one should be much surprised by the dissolution of formal ties between the LDS Church and the BSA. Still, it seems jarring to many of my associates who have been strong Scouters, even as Scouting's critics are cheering the move.

More than 50 years ago as I attended Cub Scout pack meetings when my older brothers were in the program. I wanted to be a Cub Scout so badly that my teeth hurt. It was similar when I was nearly old enough to move up to the Scout troop. And again when I had the opportunity to become a member of the Order of the Arrow, Scouting's national honor society.

Throughout my adult life I have striven to keep the oath I took when I became an Eagle Scout "to give back more to Scouting than it has given to me" by serving in volunteer Scouting positions at the unit, district, and council levels. Over the past 50 years Scouting has given me irreplaceable experiences and has brought me into contact with wonderful people that I never would have otherwise known. I have seen many young men become high quality adults through Scouting. I deeply cherish the meaning Scouting involvement has brought into my life.

This has all been possible only because my church, the LDS Church, has sponsored Scouting. I seriously doubt I would have been involved in Scouting at all had it not been for the fact that my local congregation sponsored Scouting units when I was younger.

I'm not naive enough to be unaware of those whose LDS Scouting experiences have been quite different than my own. The program isn't equally administered and doesn't equally appeal to people. As noted above, it has also been obvious to me that the Church and Scouting have decreasingly fit well together over time. I cherish what has been. But I understand that it's time to move to a different paradigm.

The next phase for the 10 Scout councils that presently have significant numbers of LDS sponsored units is going to be painful. They now have a year and a half to become what the vast majority of Scout councils have spent decades becoming. Instead of focusing mainly on relationships with the Church, these councils are going to have to work to build community sponsored units where there is little precedent for such.

This means building nearly from scratch a framework that aligns potential sponsors (schools, civic groups, businesses, etc.) with willing participants. Where will the funds come from to fund the activities of these units? Where will they meet? How will recruitment occur? These are just some of the challenges ahead for Scouting in these councils.

While there are many Latter-day Saints that support Scouting, my gut feel is that only a small percentage of Church members currently involved Scouting will move to community units. I told my wife that I expect the number to be about the same as the number of LDS families involved in competition league athletics. Most will see Scouting as overlapping with the Church's new youth programs and will see little need for the duplication.

I strongly suspect that some Scout councils currently dominated by LDS sponsored units will end up collapsing and being combined with other councils. I empathize with those whose jobs will be affected. Many of them are friends of mine.

This D-News article does a good job of discussing what might become of the properties owned and operated by some of these councils. Some of the officials quoted seem to expect the facilities to largely continue to operate with Church groups as customers. It is noted that the Church has few large camping facilities in these areas. Many people who have minimal understanding of the property issues involved think that the Church will simply buy many of these facilities from the Scouts.

It's probably going to work out quite differently than either of these parties seem to think. There are a number of complex issues involved. Some properties, such as my beloved Camp Loll are only leased from the Forest Service. A few others have ownership arrangements that could cause the properties to revert to the original donors.

Scout camps that serve mostly LDS populations tend to keep costs down by enlisting staffers who work essentially for free or close to it. This is strongly facilitated by the LDS-Scouting pipeline which has provided the necessary volume of willing participants. Without that pipeline it's going to be very difficult to recruit sufficient staff without paying them an acceptable wage. But paying staffers even minimum wage would increase camp fees beyond what most LDS groups would be willing to pay. Many LDS families think Scout camp fees are too expensive as is, despite prices being far lower than most other Scout camps around the country.

My Scout council has eight major camps: 5 for Scouts, 2 for Cub Scouts, and 1 for high adventure. Some of the Scout camps also offer high adventure programs. Filling these camps has become increasingly difficult. Camps have switched some weeks from Scouting activities to Young Women camps, youth conferences, and family camps. Yet some of our camps have still been struggling to remain viable.

Some camp properties sit on land that is now prime recreation real estate. Their current values are so high that I can't imagine that Scout councils won't quickly sell them when these councils are hurting for funds and are operating the camps at a deficit anyway.

Another question is how much camping LDS youth groups are going to do. We haven't seen the Church's new youth programs yet, so we don't know. But the Church recently revised its Young Women camp program (see Church article) to allow for flexibility with camping out. Girls can participate in the Young Women camp program without actually going to camp. Camping has always been a strong feature of Scouting, but it hardly seems essential to the mission of the LDS Church. Why would anyone think that the Church's new youth programs are going to strongly promote camping?

As a Scouter I have seen a huge drop in camping interest among LDS families in my area over the past three decades. It used to be very easy to find 13-year-old LDS Scouts who had completed at least 15 nights of Scout camping during the previous two years, which is one of the qualifications for joining the Order of the Arrow. Although the actual number of LDS Scouts in my area has increased during that time, only a tiny fraction of 13-year-old LDS Scouts in my area today have done that much camping.

The rare LDS Scout troops around that actually have monthly camping programs often find that boys won't show up for the camp outs. Parents offer excuses such as wanting to take the family to the movies.

I'm not trying to downplay the importance of family together time. I'm merely trying to illustrate that the enthusiasm for camping isn't what it once was. I'm trying to show why I think that it's going to be impossible for the affected Scout councils to retain all or even most of their camp properties.

It's not really possible for me to put into words the emotions I feel about my years of LDS Scouting. It has literally been a lifetime of experiences. But I'm not crying about the end of this era. I have seen it coming for a long time now. 2020 will bring a whole new set of challenges and opportunities for the Church and for the Scouts. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

My role in that process isn't at all clear to me at this point. But my wife, who is Cubmaster in a Cub Scout pack sponsored by the Church, has more than mildly suggested that come 2020 it will be time for us to shift our service efforts to a different focus. We'll see.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Can the Order of the Arrow be rescued from impending obsolescence?

I recently sat among a roomful of Order of the Arrow advisers enduring yet another episode of hand wringing and calls to action. It was rather depressing to look around the room at a dozen and a half aging folks droning on and on essentially about how to recapture the glory days of the Boy Scouts and the OA. This kind of thing has become increasingly common in my area in recent years.

My love of and appreciation for the Scouting program and the Order of the Arrow run deep. These organizations took me as an insecure, dumpy kid and gave me a place to belong, a framework for development, and a way to become a confident leader. I have seen these programs benefit many boys over the years, including my own four sons.

Values on the move
But American culture has shifted significantly during my half-century of involvement with the BSA. The civic ideals of stoicism, patriotism, and conformity to societal norms that were strong during the post-WWII era have given way to the values of authenticity, social responsibility, diversity, and inclusion. It's not that the former ideals no longer exist or that the latter ideals weren't found five decades ago, or that one set is superior to the other; there has just been an undeniable shift in focus over time.

Organizations that were designed to mesh well with the mid-20th Century value focus have either changed or have become increasingly irrelevant. The decline of civic and service oriented organizations over my lifetime is well documented. Looking back at my recent OA adviser meeting, I realize that it's no coincidence that everyone in the room represented the old focus as opposed to the new.

Increased valuation of diversity and inclusion fosters stronger cultural awareness. This is welcome but it presents a particular problem for the Order of the Arrow. A decreasing percentage of Americans think it's cool for non-Natives to dress as Natives and to use Native elements to add an air of mystique to their club. While this feature of the OA might have been more attractive at one time, it likely repels more people than it attracts nowadays.

When it comes to inclusion, it's hard to get past the fact that the OA is by definition an exclusive society. Is it possible to be both exclusive and inclusive at the same time? It may be possible to develop an organization that requires high standards while including people from diverse walks of life, but it's not easy. Challenges can be seen in factors as simple as camping, which I will explore later.

More to do than ever
Over my lifetime there has been an explosion of options vying for kids' time and attention. There were essentially three little league sports back in my day: baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. I recall one kid in junior high who was enrolled in martial arts. That seemed incredibly exotic back then.

Families today have option overload when it comes to athletic programs for kids. Many of those programs run year round. Martial arts programs are ubiquitous. Many kids that enroll in sports today are pressured to achieve excellence, focusing so intently on a single niche that some facets of normal childhood get crowded out. This same pattern shows itself in other offerings as well, including academics, arts, gaming, leisure, etc.

Many adults think that today's typical kid is a video game addict. Some are. But researchers tend to agree that today's kids have far less unstructured time than their parents did. In an attempt to be responsible, parents often overload their kids with good activities. Reduced unstructured time lends to higher levels of anxiety and other mental health issues among youth and weakens the development of creativity and self-sufficiency.

It isn't just the kids who are busy. Both parents in most two-parent families work outside the home and there are more single parents raising families than ever before, so families have less unstructured time and less together time than used to be the case. Thus, families tend to prize their time more than the benefits that might be offered by the dizzying array of options vying for their time, no matter how good these might seem.

The technology connection
The ways people connect and socially advance have changed since I was a kid. Mimicking the reality of the day, characters from the 1960s cartoon The Flintstones went to the Water Buffalo Lodge and the bowling alley to network and connect. Technology has radically altered this paradigm. People still long to connect with others, but the need to be in close physical proximity to others for this purpose has greatly diminished. Many get by just fine rarely talking with others on the phone. Texting and instant messaging is preferred. Direct connection is still needed, but not nearly as much as once was the case.

Happy camping
Since its beginning the Order of the Arrow has been an association of honor campers. Qualification for OA nomination includes having spent 15 nights doing outdoor Scout camping over the previous 24 months. Camping is quite popular among Americans. Well, among white, relatively affluent Americans. Of the 37 million American families that went camping last year, 4 of every 5 of them were white, despite the general trend toward racial diversity. Some researchers suggest that this issue could be more based in economics and finances than in race. It turns out that camping isn't cheap.

A quick perusal of Order of the Arrow related Google images, while hardly scientific, shows only an occasional non-white person. Kind of odd for a society based on Native Americans. When I attended the 2015 National Order of the Arrow conference, all but a small number of the 15,000 attendees and staff were white like me. Given shifting American racial demographics, organizations today need to appeal to more diverse audiences to remain vibrant. How do you do that when one of your core features, camping in this case, tends to lack appeal among many minority groups?

Choose your change
These are just a few of the social changes that have occurred since my youth. As this cultural shift continues, organizations must change to remain relevant. While not completely analogous to nonprofits, much can be learned from the way companies have handled the cultural shift. Some of their various approaches have included:
  • Decrease breadth to focus on a particular niche. While membership may decline, a focused approach can breed vibrancy and should enhance loyalty among remaining constituents. But this means lots of downsizing and alienation of many current stakeholders. Motorola is among a number of companies that have strengthened returns in recent years by spinning off and selling various pieces to focus on core strengths.
  • Shift values to match current broader social values. This is an attempt to retain breadth by shifting constituencies. It entails purposefully alienating some constituencies to appeal to new ones. The BSA took this approach when it accepted openly gay youth and adults into its ranks, angering some of its more conservative membership. Old Spice followed this path when it changed its focus to younger men a few years ago. Lego successfully shed its old fashioned image to go from near-bankruptcy to being "the Apple of toys" over the last decade.
  • Become something else entirely. Hasbro used to deal mainly in textiles and school supplies before successfully shifting entirely to toys.
  • Maintain the status quo and slowly fade away. Anyone remember OldsmobileAOL, Blockbuster Video, or Fotomat? Each of these was once ubiquitous. They are among a huge number of concerns that have followed the road to obsolescence.
You might notice that all of these options involve change. The only difference is that uncomfortable change is deliberately chosen under the first three options, while the last approach provides the illusion of stability for a while. Maintaining the status quo is by far the easiest way to go but the results are predictably terrible.

Since both the BSA and the OA are national organizations, the adults who sat in that room with me the other day have little capacity to determine which kinds of change those national organizations will embrace. This frustrates local leaders, but demanding that members achieve the results of yore by doing more of what was successful in yesteryear's culture isn't going to make it happen.

Focusing on what we can do, not what we can't do
This doesn't mean that today's Scouters are powerless to effect positive change. Instead of expecting the impossible to happen, they could undertake a SWOT analysis to explore strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This would entail acceptance of the ongoing cultural shift. It would involve asking what we are going to do now instead of ignoring the shift or pretending that a handful of old Scouters can stop cultural change in its tracks.

We can't stop the flow of history or meaningfully change the direction of the national organizations. We can't expect to increase success by doing more of what is no longer successful, regardless of how well it once worked. We can consider which approaches are likely to bring the best bang for our buck and then focus our efforts in that direction.

I am convinced that the Boy Scouts and the Order of the Arrow can be vibrant, successful organizations even as the culture changes. But I also believe that success may look quite different than it did back in the day.

That might be a hard pill to swallow for an organization that prides itself on deep traditions. It might even require some longtime leaders to step aside so that the organization they love can be saved. So what is it going to be: pretend that we can recapture the past or give up some cherished traditions to boldly walk the uncharted path into the future?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

When Anxiety Attacks You

My eyes popped open to see the darkness of my bedroom. Something seemed wrong but I couldn't tell what it was. Glancing at the clock I saw that I had been asleep for a couple of hours. I tried to shrug off the odd sense of uneasiness and return to sleep. I can usually get back to sleep pretty rapidly.

Not this time. After a few minutes I suddenly started to feel very hot. Soon I bolted into an upright position with sweat pouring off me. My heart was racing. I felt an overpowering sense of distress and borderline nausea.

Was I having a heart attack? Some of these things could definitely be heart attack symptoms. But my chest didn't feel any different than usual. No pains in my arms, neck, or jaw. No problem breathing. I could even breathe deeply just fine. Even with all of this going on, I was able to access a deep spiritual center that whispered that this wasn't a heart attack.

Was it some kind of intestinal issue? I hadn't eaten anything unusual. I hadn't overeaten. My tummy wasn't roiling. Although I was sort of queasy, I didn't feel any urge to vomit. Or to purge from the other end.

All I knew for certain was that I desperately wanted to get away from whatever was assaulting me. But realizing that the problem was completely internal, I knew there was nowhere to go for escape. It suddenly dawned on me why some people with mental health issues turn to substance abuse. I would have done just about anything to escape this episode.

My loving wife fetched a cold washcloth. After using that for awhile, the heat and sweat retreated and I found myself suddenly shivering and shaking. I wanted to get warm, but at the same time I didn't want to get warm or have anything covering me. The varied and conflicting sensations that washed over and coursed through me left me confused as to what I was actually feeling both physically and psychologically. Was this what insanity is like?

After holding my wife's hand for 15 minutes or so the immediate desperation receded. Still, I experienced several additional but less intense waves over the next hour or so. Sometimes it would come on just as I was drifting off to sleep and I would suddenly be awake and distressed again.

I'm not sure when it all ended, but when Mr. Bladder awakened me a couple of hours later, I was just fine. There was no sign that anything had been wrong.

What the heck had happened? Two of our children are professionally treated for clinical levels of anxiety, so we are somewhat familiar with anxiety disorders. But this was different. There was an immediacy of some kind of threat. But what? I couldn't consciously put my finger on anything. Why would I suddenly start having anxiety attacks when I am well into my sixth decade?

I recall having a panic attack that felt something like this when a snow cave collapsed on me years ago. But that's normal. You're supposed to have a panic attack when you are suddenly in mortal danger. It causes your whole system to kick into survival mode, enabling you to address the immediate threat in powerful ways. It's very short-lived. The adrenaline begins to dissipate as soon as the threat is past and your system begins to return to normal.

It is not normal to have high doses of adrenaline rip through you, activating your fight-or-flight response when no obvious threats are presenting themselves. How does your system know when the threat has passed when you have no idea what the threat is? There's no mechanism to tell your high defense system that it's time to stand down.

Since my first panic attack a few months ago I have had a few more attacks. Several other times I have been on the verge of having an attack. Experiencing anxiety about having anxiety is a vicious and distressing no-win cycle.

While researching anxiety and panic attacks, I came across several articles that discuss a link between Multiple Sclerosis and anxiety. This piqued my interest, since I have been grappling with MS for nearly three decades. Since MS can affect any region of the brain, the disease sometimes causes anxiety unrelated to the traditional causes of anxiety, but there's no simple test for this. It is more common for people with MS to experience anxiety as the result of all the burdens and uncertainties that accompany the disease.

My wife surmises that I simply have so many demands on me at present that some recently added demand was the straw that broke the camel's back, bringing a nearly unmanageable load to an unmanageable level. The difference between water looking still at 211° but boiling at 212°. It's not the demand itself, but the sheer fact that there are too many demands. The attacks occur when the water hits boiling point.

Maybe. I think it probably has more to do with being excessively concerned with physical health, which apparently is a common factor in many anxiety cases.

I grew up a bit pudgy. Looking at old photos, it wasn't that bad. (Especially by today's standards.) Still, I felt constantly harangued by peers and family members about being fat. I began fighting the battle of the bulge at age 16. I lost quite a bit of weight during my summer planting pineapples in Hawaii.

That battle was fought off and on over the next few years until I got married and ballooned to 70 lbs. in excess of my current weight. It took a year of fanatical health focus to achieve the desired weight loss. But I soon discovered that keeping that weight off required (for me, at least) nearly the same level of fanatical nutrition and exercise. Although I have changed up my regimen a number of times over the past three decades, the one constant has been daily discipline.

I now realize that I have developed an internal and public image of myself as a relatively healthy guy. This is at least partially a backlash against all of the teasing and bullying I experienced for being regarded as a fat kid. That's probably not the most psychologically healthy thing. On the other hand, I'm sure that my health focus has been at least part of the reason that my MS symptoms have been quite mild since the initial attacks years ago.

But these aren't the only factors in health. Age happens. MS could still hammer me. As my high school class prepares for its 40th reunion, I have become more aware of some of my classmates' conditions. One lady with MS lives in a care facility and is pretty much incapacitated. Another guy who used to do triathlons and now has MS is experiencing increasing physical and cognitive issues. Another classmate who is quite active had a heart valve blow out on Thanksgiving. Our class president, who seems to be in spectacular shape for our age, recently spent four days in the hospital after getting blood clots in his lungs and being unable to breathe.

Another thing that has been deeply implanted in my psyche is that both of my paternal grandparents, as well as my father, suffered debilitating strokes that robbed them of critical faculties and eventually took their lives. So heart disease runs in the family. Moreover, we found out after his stroke that Dad had experienced a series of heart attacks for which he had refused to get care. He rode out each of those episodes, but without care, significant portions of his heart died. His weakened heart was very susceptible to stroke-causing blood clots.

Consequently, I think it's safe to say that I have become hyper aware of potential health (especially coronary) issues. This is likely the greatest contributing factor to my recent anxiety episodes. I'm not afraid of experiencing death. Between the time when my snow cave collapsed and the time I was rescued, I had an experience that let me know that my soul will continue and will be fine after death. I worry about leaving my family in the lurch, but death does not otherwise trouble me.

Apparently, I have an irrational fear of experiencing some kind of major health issue because it would damage the image I have created for myself. So anytime I have the slightest inkling that something like that might be happening, or even that I might be in danger of something like that, I am susceptible to having my hyper awareness kick in and the perceived threat seeming very immediate. Then the brain then wants to shoot me full of adrenaline to get me to address the threat.

Years ago a 42-year-old co-worker of mine died of a heart attack because he thought he was just experiencing extreme heartburn. I don't want to be like that guy. Nor do I want to be like my dad, who survived a number of heart attacks, only to later be killed by the effects of failure to treat them. But I also don't want to be so freaked out about the potential of a heart attack (or any other acute illness) that every little thing that might look like a possible symptom becomes an extreme threat.

Balance. That's what I want. Proper balance. Apparently that's what I need to achieve to have a chance of preventing future anxiety attacks. Part of this needs to involve achieving a healthier relationship with my self image. I deliberately developed an image of myself as healthy because it motivates the discipline required to maintain that level of health. But when I feel threatened by the possible demise of my Mr. Health and Responsibility image, it tells me that my relationship with this image needs reworking.

Mental health issues are as real as physical health issues, and just like physical health problems, they require proper care. Time to get going on that.

Updated 9/21/2018:
As a follow up, I have been pretty much free of anxiety attacks for several months now. How? I watched the following Barry McDonagh video, where his doctor provides a very simple approach to stopping anxiety attacks. Most other approaches I have seen involve various types of self distraction which leave the anxiety pattern intact. This doctor's approach, on the other hand, strikes at the anxiety pattern itself. Check it out. It worked for me and still continues to work for me.

Monday, January 22, 2018

I (probably) won't attend my high school reunion

My high school class is having a reunion this summer. I probably won't attend, although, the event is less than three miles from my home.

I was going to write that my K-12 experience was painful in many ways. But really, who doesn't that apply to? I suspect that this is largely true even for those who were on the top of the social heap in the bizarre microcosm that school life is. No doubt school life is more miserable for some than for others, but from my decades of observation it seems that everyone who attends school endures plenty of social suffering.

In reality, my K-12 experience was unremarkable. I was nowhere near the top of the social pile, but I wasn't near the bottom either. Somewhere in the middle, I guess. I never got much involved in school related activities that earn students recognition, one way or the other.

Part of this was due to the fact that I always had an after school job starting at age 11. But I suspect that the main reason for my low involvement in things like sports, student government, arts, clubs, etc. was that I simply didn't think I was good enough to do any of that stuff. I looked at the people who were involved in those things and figured that I didn't fit in with them. Once that concept formulated, everything I experienced seemed to confirm it.

Consequently, school life wasn't any larger part of my social experience than was absolutely necessary. I don't recall that I felt particularly sorry about my aloofness from school social activities. It was what it was and I was pretty much fine with it. I was muddling through, finding my own social path (pun) in life. School social life was so unimportant to me that I didn't provide a photo for my senior yearbook and I didn't bother to stick around for yearbook signing at the end of the school year.

Fortunately, some of the guys my age from my neighborhood formed a loose group during my junior high years, that over time picked up several other members. Group membership ebbed and flowed, but by the time I was a senior in high school there were about seven of us who did a lot of hanging out together. Our activities weren't always the best; we were typical teenagers. But for the most part I feel that these guys lifted and strengthened me, and provided positive peer pressure.

Our associations continued more or less through our young adult years until each of us married. There was no online social media back in those days, so we kind of lost track of each other as we went about life. I hardly see any of those guys nowadays, although, some live nearby and we are now connected on social media. (I have no idea where two of them are.)

Decades after high school graduation I can look back and see that life has had its ups and downs. My children bring me tremendous joy and pride, but also a fair amount of sorrow. It seems that these things are inseparably connected. I have had ups and downs in my career. Experiencing the inevitable aging and demise of parents has brought challenges. Everyone has their troubles in life.

But for the most part I can say that my life has been idyllic. For a former fat guy and former college drop out my age who has Multiple Sclerosis and hypothyroidism, I have to say that my life has been tremendously blessed. I have a wife—a truly choice soul—who I love far more deeply than when we married decades ago. Better yet, she not only tolerates me; she loves me, despite my manifold foibles. We live in a decent neighborhood with decent neighbors. I have enjoyable relations with family members. Life is pretty darn good.

Quite frankly, I have no interest in stepping back into the social structure of school life for even one evening. Why pollute the present goodness of life with memories of where I stood in the painful and weird pecking order that school life was?

I have been told by some that when you get this far out from your high school days that the old social arrangements of those youthful years no longer matter. The two-thirds of life as mature adults that has passed since those callow times has made us all much more alike than different. It's not a competition about who has the most markers of worldly success, but an opportunity to connect with others who have walked a similar path.

Maybe. But the last time I attended a high school reunion many years ago, I ended up seated among people with whom I had never had a single class and with whom I had literally never spoken during our school days. I'm not enough of a social creature that I enjoy hanging out with strangers like that, despite the fact that we attended the same school.

I'm also wondering who I would really like to see at an event like this. I can only think of a few and there's no guarantee that any of them will attend. When I turn the question around and realize that others are also formulating lists of those they would like to see at a reunion, I can't imagine my name showing up on anyone else's list. Thus, I don't foresee myself attending this year's reunion. There simply doesn't seem to be enough incentive for me to be there.

To each of my classmates who will be attending the reunion, please know that I wish you well and hope you have a great time. I hope your life has been wonderful so far and wish you much happiness going forward. I will be sending these good vibes remotely.

Unless I change my mind and decide to attend. It could happen, I suppose.

Friday, December 15, 2017

My Family's Imperfect Mormon Stats

If you have lived in areas that are thick with Mormon culture, you may have heard the term Mormon stats. No, this doesn't refer to statistics about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although, there are lots of those generated by the Church and other sources.

Rather, Mormon stats references the list of things many Mormons like to use to judge themselves and each other, such as:
  • Scouting rank / Young Womanhood award.
  • Missionary service.
  • Temple marriage.
  • Educational attainment.
  • Church leadership callings.
  • Career position.
  • Number of children.
  • Other markers of active participation in the Church and social success.
  • Children/grandchildren meeting or excelling in any of the above.
This isn't an exhaustive list. Other items may include the amount of family history work done, volume of food storage on hand, service projects completed, full-time mom at home, etc. Yet other factors may be regional or specific to certain subgroups.

I grew up in a family that had pretty great Mormon stats. My parents served in Church leadership positions, had successful careers, served missions, and had five Eagle Scout sons who all served full-time missions, married in the temple, raised (and are raising) great kids, have served faithfully in various Church callings, and have achieved well in education and career fields.

When my wife and I married I was pretty sure our family would follow a path similar to my parents. It hasn't been exactly like that. We love and cherish each of our five children, but as promised in my patriarchal blessing, they have brought us a variety of challenges. Each of our children is a unique and beautiful, yet flawed soul.

Among our kids we have Eagle Scouts, returned missionaries, college graduates, intelligence, talent, ingenuity, compassion, humor, and a host of other positive attributes. Our kids also have among them a variety of physical and mental health issues that make for some interesting (as in, perplexing) twists. Also, personal choices have occasionally led to spiritual and temporal challenges, some of them seemingly long-term.

Let's just say that I have accepted the fact that our family isn't going to have perfect Mormon stats. But maybe that's OK. After all, there are some pretty awesome parents whose families don't look quite like the cultural Mormon ideal. Among them are those we refer to as our Heavenly Parents. A third of Their children are in a permanent state of rebellion and many others cause plenty of sorrow.

Our kids really are wonderful people, even if they skew our Mormon stats a bit. Each is on their own journey that is intertwined with my journey, but my child's journey is not my journey. I think parents sometimes get messed up on this to the point that they want to force their children to do the "right" thing. Or maybe they just want their kids to make them look good socially.

None of the Mormon stat markers are bad. In fact, most of them very desirable. But the extent to which they are about social status in our minds is the same extent to which our thinking needs to be re-engineered to focus on those things that are truly important. I'm talking to myself here. I seem to like checklists and I feel like I have accomplished something when I check off an item on a list. But too close of a focus on a checklist can cause one to lose sight of core matters.

Our family is splendid. In its current state it has some distortions and cracks. But I don't expect it to forever remain in that state. I have full faith in Jesus Christ, the master craftsman who has the desire and the ability to make our family a perfect whole in His own way and time. Along the way we will do our best to do the right thing and to let the Savior do His work.

Regardless of where my family is with respect to Mormon stats, each of my children knows that I will always love them and that I will always be proud to be their dad. Even after this life passes.