Friday, April 14, 2017

A trip to Disneyland with 300 high school students

The performing arts department of our local high school has sponsored a spring break trip to Disneyland for students in the program every couple of years for a number of years now. I first became aware of the program a few years back when our then high school senior wanted to go on the trip. He returned with a glowing report. He still counts the trip as one of the most cherished experiences of his high school years.

When my wife brought up the possibility of our son who has special needs going on the trip this year, I knew that his condition was such that we could not trust him to an adult chaperone that might or might not have adequate training to manage his needs. We ultimately offered to have me go on the trip as a chaperone for a group of boys, including our son.

This Disney trip would be impossible without the dedication of the school's drama director. I have watched this man grow from one of my young Boy Scouts into a highly competent drama and education professional. Although he doesn't earn one dime more than a teacher that puts in eight hours a day and then goes home, he has for years devoted vast chunks of personal time and effort to high quality productions and programs.

Not only would the Disney trip not happen without my friend's selfless work, his logistical management ensured efficient schedules, good accommodations, and minimal problems, all on a very low budget. This allowed a high number of drama, choir, band, orchestra, and journalism students to go. Even the Disney folks that work daily with school groups were impressed with my friend's attention to detail.

A few days before the trip we attended a concert at the school where each group performed the show they would be performing in California. Due to extensive preparations, each tour member received a duffel bag embroidered with the theme and their own name. In the bag were three T-shirts of different colors and designs. The proper T-shirt was to be worn on each of the three days we would be in the parks so that we could more easily identify tour members.

After the concert, chaperones gathered for a final meeting to put a cap on all the information that had been regularly emailed to us in the weeks preceding the event. We had enough chaperones that most groups consisted of 6-10 students. The drama director had a detailed binder that included all of the information about the trip to a high degree of detail. Each chaperone received a copy of the binder in booklet form. The students had received their booklets at school. In addition, everyone received a laminated copy of the full itinerary to keep with them at all times on the trip.

We gathered at the school late on a Sunday night to board rented tour buses. Most gear was stowed below. We kept anything we would need for the night and most of Monday with us. Travelers found their preassigned seats. And then we were off, pretty much on schedule.

I wasn't sure how well I would sleep on a bus. It sure wasn't as restful as being in my own bed, but it wasn't that bad. We occasionally paused at large truck stops along the way so that folks could stretch their legs and take care of necessities. (Each bus also had a restroom, but that's not really adequate for all of the people on the bus on a long trip.)

Mid morning on Monday we pulled into the parking lot of a beach not far from Anaheim. After a continental breakfast, we spent the next part of the day hanging out on the beach, swimming in the surf, and visiting nearby shops. Many people bought lunch.

After leaving the beach we went to a grocery store. The chaperones handed out the first per diem amount to their group members to buy food for breakfasts for the next three days. Students pooled their money with those that would be in the same hotel room. We then checked into the hotel and got everyone situated before heading off to dinner at Medieval Times. We ate dinner while watching a spectacular reenactment of a medieval knight tournament. Then it was back to the hotel and bed.

Although there was plenty of time for entertaining ourselves, the main purpose of the trip was for students to engage in top notch workshops with Disney professionals and to perform publicly at a Disney park.

The weather turned out to be spectacular during the next three days. Each day we would get the students to the Disney parks early. Different groups performed at different times. Each group also attended a top notch workshop in their discipline with Disney professionals. Once again, our drama director managed getting all of the performance gear and apparel where it needed to be, when it needed to be there. Chaperones managed getting students to their performances and workshops, although, most students were pretty responsible about this on their own.

Since my son is in one of the choirs, I was privileged to attend the choir workshop. This was led by a high energy middle age woman who could sing many diverse styles with stunning excellence. She also played the piano and was great at directing the choir. They listed a number of shows and video games that featured her vocal talents. Our choir director was very impressed. This woman taught about the business as well as technique. It was amazing to see and hear what she pulled out of our students. Our choir director was given recordings, which can be played at the school but cannot be legally distributed in any fashion.

Each day chaperones would hand out a per diem to group members to help defray the cost of eating lunch and dinner. It was made clear beforehand that students needed to supplement with their own money, since the per diem was definitely insufficient to buy real meals in the parks. Most of us regularly hiked to nearby fast food places to save money.

Spring break time is among the busiest times at Disney parks, along with Christmastime, and most of the summer. The parks weren't bad first thing in the morning. But I found that something I had heard years ago was true. The crowds that arrive at pretty much any Disney park at opening time tend to go to the right or else straight forward after walking through the entry area. If you turn instead to the left you will have no problem hitting attractions in those areas for the first hour. Crowds start to saturate after that.

During the days we were were at the parks, the sheer press of people was most pronounced between 4 pm and about 9:30 pm. Stepping onto a walkway was like jumping into a rushing river and getting carried along by the current. You have to plan and time your exit as if you are swimming in a current.

Another thing that amazed me was the number of people that would start sitting down along parade routes even more than three hours in advance, in order to have a prime seat for a 15-minute parade. Yes, they are high quality parades. But, come on! I kept thinking, "You paid an astronomical price for a ticket to get in here, and now you're going to blow a huge part of the time in the park sitting on dirty concrete?" Whatever.

Free Fastpasses are a great idea for the most popular attractions. These allowed us to quickly get on rides that others waited hours to ride. But you have to get Fastpasses early in the day because only a limited number are offered each day.

I wore good athletic shoes with Drymax lite hiking socks. But we walked a lot. My phone tells me that I walked more than 100,000 steps during the three days we spent at the Disney parks. If each of those had been a full step it would have amounted to 50 miles. As it was, I covered about 30 miles. Even with good footwear, my feet were sore and I developed two blisters. When I kept seeing people wearing thin, flimsy flipflops, I couldn't help but wonder how badly their feet hurt.

As chaperones we were tasked with ensuring that students stayed at the parks or nearby restaurants, and that they did not return to the hotel until after the nightly fireworks show. This policy was apparently developed years earlier to prevent certain problems that inevitably occur when you have several hundred teenagers staying a hotel.

On Thursday morning we had everyone pack their gear into the buses and check out of the hotel. They didn't receive their per diem until everything was ready to go. We walked to the parks as we had the previous two days, attended workshops and performances, rode attractions, and stuck around until midnight. There was no hotel to go back to. We had to wait until we met at a nearby restaurant, where the buses were ready to take us home. I noticed that lines for rides became much more manageable after 10 pm.

Tour members were pretty weary as we gathered. We had been going strong for three days straight. Some boarded as soon as the drivers opened the bus doors, although, the buses wouldn't leave for half an hour. All of the boys from my chaperone group were loaded and half of them were asleep by 12:10.

I had started coming down with a cold on Thursday morning. Chaperones couldn't go to bed until all of their students were in their rooms with no guests. We also had to be up early each morning to get ready in time to roll the students out of bed. That made for significant sleep deprivation. I found that I could maintain alertness via caffeinated soft drinks, but that the caffeine did nothing to provide the recovery that comes through restful sleep. I'm not a kid anymore, so this kind of thing takes its toll on me.

Fortunately we had no problems getting all of our tour members into their assigned seats on time. Folks had been in pretty high spirits when we left on Sunday night. That was all gone by 12:30 am on Friday. I was pretty much settled in by the time the bus turned onto the freeway entrance. I think I was asleep by the time the bus got onto the freeway seconds later. That's pretty much how it was for all of the passengers.

We again paused at a couple of big truck stops along the way. As we had on the way down, we switched bus drivers at one of those stops. I was still pretty tired when the bus pulled into a buffet restaurant in St. George, where we had breakfast. Nearly everyone went back to sleep between St. George and the truck stop in Fillmore. After leaving Fillmore we watched a Disney animated movie and part of a musical.

I was very happy when we pulled into the parking lot of the school. We had had no major problems on the trip. Things had gone pretty much as planned (according to the detailed itinerary developed by the drama director). We gathered our gear and headed home.

If your school is thinking about taking a trip like this, I'd suggest that the tour leader get in contact with our high school's drama director. His experience and organizational prowess would allow him to provide very useful tips.

People have asked me if I had fun on the trip. I tell them that I didn't go on the trip to have fun. Spending of week of precious vacation to hang out with 300 teenagers really isn't the funnest thing in the world. I went to make sure that my son could be safe while having fun. I was able to handle several situations to that end. It's not that I had no fun; I did. But that wasn't my goal.

I do this kind of stuff (including Scouting) so that I can help provide youth with worthwhile experiences. One reason for this is that others did this for me during my formative years. Also, seeing the faces of the youth light up and seeing them grow through their experiences is far more enjoyable than simply filling my personal fun bucket.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Help suicidal people with love, not condemnation

Recently I have seen a social media post going around that uses the hashtag #SuicideAwareness. It starts out with, "Wanna kill yourself? Imagine this." It then goes on to paint a horrible caricature of the impact an individual's suicide would have on the lives of others. Family members, friends, enemies, teachers, community members, etc. would end up with painfully shattered lives. The blame for this is laid squarely on the shoulders of the person considering suicide.

While the long post ends with encouragement such as, "Don’t end your life, you have so much to live for," and "I’m here for absolutely anyone that needs to talk, no matter who you are," the main gist of the post is that you are a bad person for contemplating suicide. It seems telling to me that I have mostly seen this post re-posted by people that have never personally grappled with suicidal thoughts in a serious way.

The post seems to have been written with good intentions. But I feel that it fails to comprehend the real reasons people become suicidal. It may actually encourage rather than discourage suicide. I am no expert on the subject but I have learned a thing or two from working with professionals that have helped loved ones who were suicidal.

Very few people that are suicidal really want to die. They find themselves in intense pain that seems inescapable. They feel that they are out of options. Nothing else they've tried has worked. Now they are down to their last option. Most already find that option horrifically distasteful. But they will take that route if there's no other way.

Of course this is an irrational approach. Of course there are other options. But a suicidal person's state of mind prevents them from comprehending those paths as viable alternatives.

Our son has confided to us that he has pulled back from the brink of suicide a number of times because he didn't want to cause his loved ones pain. This shows that the power of love is pretty strong. The referenced post plays on this innate human love, but it does so by using a shaming approach that seems detrimental to the intended message.

Most people contemplating suicide already know it's bad. Most already feel that they are bad for having suicidal thoughts. They don't want those thoughts but they can't get rid of them. It seems to me that making a suicidal person feel even worse for experiencing those pervasive thoughts is more likely to add to their pain, which already seems unbearable to them.

Years ago a young man in my young adult ward took his own life. I felt angry (a common stage of grief). In retrospect I can see that I was selfishly concerned about how this man's death impacted me. I have noticed that the referenced post usually pops up in the aftermath of a suicide. Maybe re-posting those hard words is a response to the anger stage of grief. So I guess it's understandable.

But I really wish people would learn more about suicide. People with suicidal thoughts don't need our anger or our judgment. They need help. The vast majority of people contemplating suicide can be saved with a little effort.

According to Mental Health America "Eight out of ten people considering suicide give some sign of their intentions." says that 80-90% of those that seek treatment are successfully treated. This means that there is hope.

If you become aware of someone exhibiting suicidal warning signs, stay with them and get treatment for them. Call the suicide hotline in your area, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), call 911, or accompany the person to a hospital emergency room. Do this even if it's socially awkward and even if you don't know the person well. You can save a life.

The National Institute of Mental Health says that warning signs include:
  • Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves
  • Talking about feeling empty, hopeless, or having no reason to live
  • Making a plan or looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online, stockpiling pills, or buying a gun
  • Talking about great guilt or shame
  • Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions
  • Feeling unbearable pain (emotional pain or physical pain)
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Using alcohol or drugs more often
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Taking great risks that could lead to death, such as driving extremely fast
  • Talking or thinking about death often
  • Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from very sad to very calm or happy
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family
  • Putting affairs in order, making a will
Ask questions if you see any of these signs. Do not expect suicidal people to respond to a blanket invitation to chat. Be pro-active in asking questions.

Our family has learned that it's not just OK to ask blunt questions; it's necessary. People are sometimes afraid that asking direct questions about suicide might encourage suicidal thoughts, but research has found quite the opposite. Don't freak out and don't act judgmental. Act with care and concern. Some of the questions you can ask are:
  • Are you contemplating suicide?
  • Do you have a plan for harming yourself or taking your own life?
  • Do you have access to weapons, sharps, alcohol/drugs/chemicals, or other things that you might use to harm yourself?
  • Are you safe with yourself?
Let's face it; suicide is a scary topic. It hits lots of emotional and moral buttons all at once. We never like to have our lives touched by suicide. But the reality is that some people around us struggle with suicidal thoughts. We can't expect them to think rationally about the matter, so it's our duty to step up and help them. We are more likely to be successful when we approach this with loving concern.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Let the sun go down upon your wrath

I was livid. Not only had I been blamed for something that wasn't my fault, the accusation had been leveled in a public forum where I had little chance to defend myself. The heat of my ire was further stoked by the fact that I had clearly (in my mind) been the injured party. How dare anyone impugn my honor in such a manner?!

My first instinct was to jump into the fray with a fiery retort. That's what the natural man in me ached to do (see Mosiah 3:19). It's a good thing that I didn't have immediate access to the forum, because I would probably have followed that impulse. Doing so might have assuaged my carnal instinct to defend my reputation, but it would have led to nothing good.

Even as I fantasized about going the natural man route, I couldn't ignore the caution coming into my mind like a flashing warning light on a car dashboard accompanied by a dinging alarm. The words of Matthew 5:44 kept running through my mind, where The Savior says:
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
My inner natural man retorted, "But I'm right! Being charitable doesn't mean failing to correct falsehoods. Charity and truth must coexist in the same realm." Which sounds very high minded. But in reality I was feeling very little in the way of charity at the moment. I was all about being right and having the appearance of being right to my neighbors. I knew that extending forgiveness when offended is the bridge a Christian must cross to obtain mercy. But I was so sure I was right that I didn't see a need to even approach that bridge.

I went on about my day, but the issue continued to fester like an unscratched itch. Thinking of how the Lord had instructed Oliver Cowdery to correct Hiram Page in private (D&C 28:11-12), I thought it would probably be best for me just to visit the claimant and bury the hatchet. Unfortunately my schedule was too full for that. Besides, I was too chicken to do it.

Recalling The Savior's admonition to quickly agree with our adversaries (Matthew 5:25) and Paul's counsel to the Ephesians not to let the sun go down upon our wrath (Ephesians 4:26), I felt I should do something about the matter right away.

Finally I decided to jot down some thoughts. I have found that writing helps me organize and analyze my own thinking. It doesn't reveal all my blind spots or grant complete objectivity, but it tends to nudge me in that direction; maybe because I start to think about what the words would look like to an outside party.

A letter formed as I wrote. The letter was cordial, but sharp and clear about what had actually happened. I'm not using sharp in that sentence as a synonym for clarity. I mean that the tone of the letter had a sharp edge to it.

I put the letter in an envelope. When I had a brief break in duties I made my way to the location of the person that had complained, intending to drop off the letter. But I just couldn't do it. Something didn't feel right about it.

The rest of the day and evening were completely scheduled. That helped push my anger to the back burner. But it didn't help me agree with my adversary quickly. Indeed, the sun went down upon my wrath. But now I'll tell you why that was a good thing.

I seldom have insomnia. But I awoke in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep. So I prayed and listened. A quiet whisper told me that I needed to shred the letter I had written. In my mind's eye I was able to catch an inkling of how the situation in question must have appeared to the other person. My anger evaporated when I realized that I could easily have responded similarly had I been in their shoes. As I pondered I came to understand that it would be OK for me to write a letter, but that every single phrase needed to be composed with the thought, "What would Jesus say?"

My biting letter met the shredder early the next day. After the busy hours of the day, I sat down to compose a new letter. I still felt hurt about being accused in public, even if it was all a misunderstanding. Still, I focused on writing words Jesus would write. The end result was still probably far from that goal, but the conciliatory letter was devoid of counter accusations. I asked for the other person's help to improve. By the time I finished with best wishes for this person and their family, I truly meant it with complete sincerity.

On my way to deliver the note I had a spiritual prompting telling me not to deliver it without attaching a treat. In fact, a pretty clear picture of a specific treat formed in my head. (Still not sure why that specific treat was needed.) I knew that this didn't come from my personal genius, because it's not something I would naturally do. Delivering treat laden notes seems more like something women are prone to do.

I needed to make a run to the store anyway, so obtaining the treat was included in that errand. The Spirit even prodded me to do something to make the package a little more beautiful. After dropping off the package I was filled with charity toward the individual. I felt good, warm, and light. Although I had no idea how the matter would turn out, I knew I had done the right thing.

A couple of days later I was approached by the recipient of my note. We had a very nice chat. In fact, I would say that it was a beautiful experience. I learned some things about this person that I had not known and I felt a strong desire to find a way to serve them. There is a deep goodness in this person.

Sometimes we read only the last part of Ephesians 4:26, where Paul essentially tells us to get over our anger quickly. In KJV the first part of this scripture says, "Be angry, but sin not." The JST, however, renders this portion of the verse, "Can ye be angry, and not sin?" This seems more consistent with Paul's directive to overcome our anger quickly.

Brigham Young said, "There is a wicked anger, and there is a righteous anger. The Lord does not suffer wicked anger to be in his heart...." Most of the time when I'm angry, it's not the kind of anger that is approved by the Holy Ghost. Quite the opposite. Unrighteous anger is sin. Brigham Young likened these kinds of strong emotions to wild horses that must be properly controlled. He said:
Some think and say that it makes them feel better when they are mad, as they call it, to give vent to their madness.... This, however, is a mistake. Instead of its making you feel better, it is making bad worse.
Anger is often likened to fire because it feels like that inside. And burn it does. Like a wildfire, it burns up precious moments and relationships, leaving behind scorched patches of soul that may take years to regenerate.

While I very much appreciate Paul's words about quelling this fire quickly, in my case it seems like letting the sun go down upon my wrath was the right thing to do this time around. Taking time to respond in a more appropriate manner allowed the sun of wrath to set and the cool of the night to put out the fire.

What I'm really describing here is repentance. Although I felt I was right when my anger initially flared, I knew inside that my passionate indignation was not virtuous. It took me a while to admit it. By praying I enabled Christ to extinguish my sin of anger. By following the Spirit's promptings, The Savior was able to change my heart. The ill will I felt completely gave way to sacred charity.

Changing hearts to become more like His is one of the greatest miracles Jesus Christ can perform, thanks to His atonement. How grateful I am that this miracle is accessible to each of us as often as we need it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Must We Use Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine In Sacred Settings?

Our ward choir was recently practicing a version of the hymn Lead, Kindly Light. A brother who is a few years my senior leaned over and asked, "What is a garish day?"

The entry says that garish can mean crudely or tastelessly colorful, lurid, etc. Not being able to think of that at the moment, I said, "It's like a day at Lagoon," referring to a well known local amusement park. I added, "Or most Super Bowl halftime shows." Seeing that my brief explanation lacked clarity, I said, "It's a day of worldliness. The author suggests that he used to like that kind of thing but that he now finds contentment in humbly following God."

While the choir women were working on their part, I had a moment to review the lyrics of this well known hymn. Although another friend of mine says that this is one of his favorite hymns, it has never been a favorite of mine. I realized that at least part of the reason for this is demonstrated by the question posed by my choir brother.

This man is an intelligent person. He is well versed in art and has a deep love for many master works that depict faith, especially paintings. Yet he found it difficult to understand some of the archaic language in this hymn.

All cultures and subcultures have unique language forms; even fictional cultures. Anyone that has read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or better yet, The Silmarillion, has had to grapple with unfamiliar terms and linguistic constructs. Star Wars is rife with unique vocabulary. In the real world, many sources, including the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, recognize peculiar Mormon language usage.

So maybe it's OK that Mormons have some antiquated hymn lyrics and scriptures in Early Modern English, and are encouraged to use EME forms in prayer (see Dallin H. Oaks, April 1993 general conference talk).

On the other hand, I admit that I am at least somewhat sympathetic to complaints that retaining outmoded language forms in prayers and congregational hymns renders these forms of worship inaccessible to an increasing number of English speaking worshipers and potential worshipers.

While I don't foresee modernization of the language used in English editions of LDS canonized scripture anytime soon, let's be honest about the fact that this language will always remain a secondary language to nearly all faithful English speaking Latter-day Saints. Moreover, it will become increasingly foreign to English speakers as Modern English continues to evolve.

I will try to explain why I think this is significant. The most common EME forms people (try to) use in prayer are the pronouns thee, thou, thy, and thine. These were originally the informal versions of the formal you, your, and yours. That is, a person would use thee, thou, thy, and thine when addressing close family members and associates. (This usage has been obsolete for about four centuries now.)

My father was a visionary man. As the result of a number of spiritual experiences, he was able to explain to me that in the premortal life we had a very intimate relationship with Heavenly Father. He said that endearing terms such as Daddy or Papa would be the closest words in our language to describe how each of us related to our Eternal Father in that realm.

Prayer is intended to access that intimate link between child and Eternal Parent. So it would seem best when praying to use language that is most respectfully accessible to us, avoiding language that interferes with that close relationship. Joseph B. Wirthlin advised worrying "about speaking from your heart" in prayer, rather than worrying about the wording of the prayer.

While using currently familiar language might be appropriate for personal prayers, what about prayers said in public? Shouldn't we strive to use the EME forms then? We should probably strive for something like that, since that's what you see modeled in general conference and other meetings where general authorities and officers pray. But it's an acquired skill.

Hardly a Sunday goes by that I don't hear an otherwise erudite adult utter some kind of cringe worthy awkward phrasing in an attempt to use EME forms in public prayer. Hardly a public prayer is said (at least where I attend church) where EME forms are employed correctly. How many generally intelligent people really know how to say, "Wilt Thou please...," "...that Thou wouldst...," and the like?

While it is incumbent upon us as Christians to tolerate the inadvertent foibles of others, this kind of stilted phrasing seems more inclined to alienate us from Deity rather than drawing us closer into our relationship with God. Moreover, it causes people to avoid praying in public for fear of stumbling over unfamiliar phrases that they believe are required. Can't we just focus more on genuinely loving God when we pray publicly rather than trying to use wording that seems weird to us?

I would say that hymns with obsolete language will soon fall out of usage. Except Latter-day Saints seem to have a great love for the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, despite the hymn being omitted from the most recent edition of the Church's hymnbook. The lyrics include a fair amount of outdated language. How many people know what "Here I raise my Ebenezer" means? Yet modern people seem to love the hymn because it speaks to their wandering souls.

I suppose what I am saying is that I'm not a purist on this issue. That's because I feel that it's generally not the language forms that are essential; it's the relationships with God and fellow souls that are imperative. That's where our focus should be: doing what draws us closer and more lovingly into these relationships.

So, the next time you hear someone in church pray using modern familiar language, just chill and feel what the Holy Spirit has to say on the subject. I'm certain that God loves it when faithful people humbly pray to Him, whatever language forms they use.

Monday, January 23, 2017

At a loss as to how to help others deal with a loss

I have been looking out the window at the dismal weather and thinking of how it matches part of what I have been feeling. The clouds have been low enough to obscure the mountains; the skies have been grey all day.

Right now I am watching the second snowstorm of the day as voluminous flakes get pushed around by windy bluster on their way to the ground. I will have to do more snow clearing. I'm all for being happy about having enough water stored in the mountains for the dry months. But this month has been brutal as far as snow removal goes. It's like the Energizer bunny that keeps going and going.

That's the least of issues right now. The pall that has continually pushed its way into my consciousness throughout the day involves the death of my neighbor and friend. Young guy in his early 30s. Good guy. Five kids under 12. He was away on business when he didn't show up for work. They found him dead in his hotel bed. No indications of cause of death. The family will have to wait until an autopsy is done before the body can be shipped back home.

I wasn't sure what to think yesterday afternoon when two police vehicles parked next to our home. The two officers went into my neighbor's home. Some time later they returned to their vehicles and drove away. Before long other cars started parking near our home. A while later, the Relief Society president of our LDS ward stopped by and gave us the harsh news. My wife and daughter took some food over while I went to help my elderly mom.

On a positive note, my neighbor's mother was at the house when the news came. She had come from out of state, prepared to watch the kids for a few days while her son and daughter-in-law went on an anniversary trip after he returned from his business trip. Sadly, that anniversary trip will never happen. This lady has lost a son, but at least she's there in her daughter-in-law's time of need. Her husband, also a friend of mine, is on his way here from out of state to grapple with the loss of his son.

All day long I have watched a constant stream of visitors ply my neighbor's home. I haven't been over there. I am willing to mourn with those that mourn (Mosiah 18:9), but what can I do? How do I even begin to relate to this young widow? I can imagine that almost anything I might say would seem trite. So I've been mourning with those that mourn, but separately.

I firmly believe that the scriptural injunctions to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27) and to visit the fatherless and the widows in their afflictions (James 1:27) are more than just doctrinal fluff. They are incumbent on anyone that assays to be a disciple of Christ.

So, what to do? I could clear snow from my neighbor's driveway. But somebody already beat me to it. The women in the community are handling food. I'm not aware of any handyman needs at my neighbor's house. Which is good, because I'm not a very handy guy in that respect. I can write you a computer program or build you a database, though.

I'm kind of at a loss. I want to do something. I want to let this family know that I feel their pain in some minor way without coming across as crass. Maybe my chance will come in the days and years that follow the funeral, after family members return home and life returns to normal for the rest of us. I am absolutely certain that the new normal for my widowed neighbor and her children will require a lot of outside help.

But if I'm too timid to do something right now, what makes me think that I won't find an excuse to shy away from it then? Maybe I just need to let them know that I care. If I'm sincere in my soul, I guess I shouldn't care if it sounds trite.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Suicide Comes Knocking

A long time has gone by since I last wrote. It's not that life has been so uneventful that there's been nothing to write about. So much has happened that writing on this blog has been pushed far to the back burner.

After posting at Thanksgiving time about my children that are "broken vessels," we embarked on a bit of adventure with our teen son that has Asperger Syndrome.

Technically they don't call it Asperger Syndrome anymore. Rather, it is one of many Autism spectrum disorders. One psychologist told us the technical term, but it was about 17 words long, so I don't remember what it was. I often call it, "The Autism spectrum disorder formerly known as Asperger Syndrome" to lampoon the current semantic silliness. Whatever.

It had been no secret that things were progressing poorly for our son, especially in the school department. Simple tasks he used to be able to do eluded him. He used to enjoy spending hours reading rather deep fantasy novels that were far beyond the comprehension level of most of his peers. But it had been months since he had done any serious reading. We were working with professionals. We had tried many interventions but nothing seemed to work well.

Then one night my wife discovered our son curled up on the basement floor in his underwear shaking. He wasn't having a seizure. But it was clear he was extremely distraught. I think past generations might have called this kind of experience having a mental or a nervous breakdown.

After the application of a great deal of motherly love, our son finally calmed to the point that he could say that he simply couldn't go on. He had determined that he basically had no other option than to end his life. He had researched and developed a viable plan for accomplishing his design. Fortunately the needed supplies eluded him in the state he was in, so he was unable to carry out his plan.

We called the suicide crisis hotline.

Our son was actually pleased when we took him to a mental health facility for in-patient treatment. He had been without hope but the prospect of intensive treatment gave him a glimmer of hope to hold onto.

We knew all along that it wasn't necessarily his Autism condition that was the issue. It was the major depression and general anxiety conditions that are entwined with his Autism that were at play here.

The professionals at the care facility were great. Our son was soon involved in a fairly regimented program that limited outside contact to specified individuals and time periods. Patients worked through a progression plan. The program helped a lot. We visited as frequently as we were able. We also participated in family therapy sessions that were very helpful.

Experts told us that treatments that had been working for our son began to fail because he began hitting teen milestones. With mid-teen years come opportunities like driving, dating, jobs, more responsibility, thinking about adult life in the near future, etc. While most neurotypical kids handle these excitements and stresses with some degree of success, all of this simply overwhelmed our neurodiverse son. It wasn't that we pressured him to do all of these things; he simply felt social pressure washing over him like the waves of the sea wash over a weary swimmer.

Eventually our son was released from the in-patient program. He has been working with a therapist multiple times weekly since then. Some things still aren't great. But his self destructive tendencies have been substantially reduced. We are still working through issues and will likely continue to do so for some time to come.

Although we have decent medical insurance, we still must bear a sizable chunk of the bills associated with our son's care. This kind of thing brings its own stresses to the family. But it's not unlike what people that grapple with serious medical issues deal with every day. When we consider what might have happened, our financial burden seems like a small trade. What's a life worth? Besides, we can manage this over time. We are blessed enough that it's not like families whose entire living gets gobbled up by medical bills.

If you ever have a concern that someone you know might be at risk for imminent suicide, call your local suicide hotline. Don't know the number? Just Google for it. You could very well save a life.

Our son has so much potential and so much to live for. I'm deeply grateful that he has been spared at this time. I know that he will still require a lot of intervention over time to help him maintain balance. But I am grateful to be involved in this work rather than in grieving for his loss.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Grateful for My Broken Vessels

Until a few years ago I was relatively unfamiliar with mental illness issues. I knew of people, including extended family members that had mental health problems. But none of these touched me closely. Like most people, I developed opinions that were based in faulty information and media tidbits.

Little did I know that some of my children grappled with mental illness. As their issues became more clear I was forced to become more educated about the mental illnesses that impact our family.

I grew up in an era when mental illness carried a strong stigma. It seemed to mainly be seen as a moral failing and was regarded in a similar light as an alcoholic that got liver disease or a smoker that got lung cancer. The level of compassion required was less than was customary for someone that developed an apparently undeserved health problem. Mental illness was seen as a lack of sufficient fortitude.

Besides, mental illness is scary because it is poorly understood. Many harbor fears of the mentally ill because they don't know how to act around them. The rare and highly publicized cases where a mentally ill person acts out in violent ways reinforce the idea of crazy people as depraved monsters.

Fortunately, I think that society is making some progress in understanding mental illness. In October 2013 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave a landmark speech titled Like a Broken Vessel, a term taken from Psalm 31:12. He urged compassion, understanding, and professional treatment, in addition to spiritual approaches.

A few months ago the Church released a video about mental illness that includes portions of an interview with Elder Holland. The video is nearly 12 minutes long, but it's worth watching.

The Church has also released the website that includes resources to aid in understanding and dealing with mental health issues. The site includes videos of people that have mental illness telling their own stories. These people expose their own vulnerabilities in very personal and poignant ways in the hope that they can help someone else.

One of our adult sons has had depression his entire life, although, we didn't grasp that fact until a few years ago. He has also had episodes of major anxiety. After working regularly with psychologists for several years, his therapist judged that it was time to augment with psychiatric treatment. Getting our son into a local psychiatrist that takes his insurance has been nightmarishly difficult. Meanwhile, depression takes its toll, much like an inadequately treated cancer.

It took years for us to understand that another son (now a teen) has Asperger Syndrome, an Autism spectrum disorder. This is coupled with major depression and general anxiety, which literally measures off the charts in some aspects. While he's very smart, his ability to handle academic tasks (always a challenge) has significantly declined over the past year, resulting in a constant state of scholastic crisis.

Each of these sons regularly experiences clinical levels of hopelessness, helplessness, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear of the future, and everything else that goes with their respective conditions. Telling them to cheer up or to have more hope is like telling someone with Type I Diabetes to stop having Diabetes. Their conditions are complex so solutions aren't simple.

Yet another son developed chronic pain syndrome about nine years ago following a bout with walking pneumonia. Severe pain is his constant companion. It has seriously impacted his life. Strong prescription painkillers don't help much, so he only uses them about twice per week just to take the edge off when he needs to concentrate. (He's finishing a degree in nuclear physics.)

Doctors haven't helped much either. A while ago our son re-posted something that another chronic pain sufferer wrote:
going to the doctor when you’re chronically ill is weird. 
It’s like imagine everything in your house is on fire, and you’re standing there and the fire department come in like, describe the fire to me and maybe we can find what caused it and put it out. 
and you can’t just say everything so you’re like… well the fire in the curtain is the biggest but the fire in the photo albums might be doing the most damage
also the fire in the couch is really inconvenient 
occasionally the fire guy is like, well your tv is on fire so it might be electronic-fireitus but that would cause other things like fire in the dvd player 
and you’re like, oh yes. that’s been on fire for years. I forgot to mention it because it’s always been a relatively small fire. It’s right next to the bookshelf which has much more fire. 
and then the fire guy is like, oh. I wouldn’t worry about that. book shelf fire just happens sometimes.
From what we've garnered from medical professionals and myriad resources (of variable quality) on the internet, our son's chronic pain is really a mental health problem. (i.e. "It's all in your head, boy.") He has some indicators that could cause minor pain at the sites where he experiences pain, but nothing that would cause major pain. Somehow his brain picks up the signals and amplifies them. The pain is very real; it's not imaginary. Finding anything that really helps has been elusive.

Our children's various mental health issues impose on the family in a variety of ways. Their challenges are inconvenient and expensive. They require time, focus, and energy that could be put to other uses. All of us would rather not have to deal with these problems.

It's easy to think like that. But one recent evening my wife and I thought back to our first few married years. We were childless and weren't sure we could have children. For reasons I won't go into here, adoption was not a realistic possibility for us. After years of fasting, praying, and seeking medical help, I had a spiritual experience that let me know that we would have four sons and a daughter. My wife eventually felt the same way.

Although we moved forward in faith, our children didn't come easily. Each child came only after much fasting, prayer, medical help, and following proven patterns for achieving pregnancy. We immediately loved each unique child born to us. And although each has brought us a fair share of challenges, we still deeply love each child and willingly accept the package that comes with each.

Some of our children may be "like a broken vessel" at times, but we still see each child as a cherished gift from God; a gift for which we are now and will forever be eternally grateful.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Flush Failure

I recently started exploring the idea that my kids might be budding water conservationists. The basis for this concept is the frequency with which they fail to flush the toilet following its use. I mean, you feel the urge, walk into an unoccupied bathroom, lift the lid of the porcelain throne, and BAM! Log jam right in front of your face!

It didn’t take long for me to reject my initial hypothesis that my kids were mainly trying to save water when they didn’t flush. This became apparent from the long showers that they regularly take. We even installed a digital clock and a separate timer in the downstairs shower. But this hasn’t seemed to reduce shower length.

If my kids really were interested in saving water they’d do what water saving extremists do. These people turn on the water long enough to get wet. Then they stand there shivering wet and naked while they lather up. Then they turn on the water long enough to rinse off, and they’re done. No luxuriating in the pleasantly warm water splashing down from above for these masochists. It’s hard for me to see the value in this practice, since only 4% of all water use in Utah occurs inside homes. If we all did what these self-torturers do the statistical reduction in water usage would be practically zero.

Since my kids aren’t trying to save water, I had to come up with a different hypothesis. Flush toilets have only been common for a few generations now. For millennia prior to that humans had nothing to flush. Every spring Ma would walk into the house after visiting the shanty out back and say, “Pa, it’s time to dig a new hole and move the outhouse. I’m afraid the pile is about to touch my behind.”

It seems like every time I read something about human behavior, there’s some muckety-muck blathering on about how we do thus-and-such because we were initially grunting hunters and gatherers, and that evolution hasn’t caught up to modernity. Thus, we’re not well evolved to sit at desks, drink milk, eat grain (as in the form of donuts), recognize reality, sit on toilets, etc.

Quite frankly, I think that most of these people are full of crap. They’re just making up stuff that can’t be tested in any real way, just to make themselves look all smarty pants. I think the evidence shows that humans are far more adaptable than these self-important gurus of guessed-at-and-mostly-made-up prehistory and human development suggest.

But if they are right, maybe the development of the flush toilet occurred such a short time ago on the evolutionary scale that my children simply haven’t evolved enough to press down that little lever on the side of the toilet tank with the kind of regularity that I think it ought to happen. But if that’s the case, how in the world are they able to operate their smart phones? Those devices seem somewhat more complex than a toilet handle.

Of course, there could be other mechanisms at play that I haven’t yet explored. Take for example the fact that, despite how seldom the other people living in my house flush the toilet after using it, the frequency with which they find it absolutely necessary to do so spikes dramatically when I am in the shower. When that happens I try to remind myself as I react to the rapidly changing water temperature (by screaming like a little girl) that I should be grateful that someone has actually flushed a toilet.

One economist says that toilets are the greatest life saving invention of all time. Professor Toilet says that “the advent of the toilet has saved more lives … than seat belts, vaccinations or any medical device….” So the next time you feel compelled to grovel at the feet of some great doctor for preserving life, maybe you should praise a plumber instead.

As I have pondered a possible solution to the lack of appropriate toilet flushing in our home, I have considered several solutions. On a recent trip to the commode aisle of a hardware store, I noted that it was possible to buy a see-through toilet seat. This would allow people to see whether the bowl had been flushed even after closing the lid. But somehow I doubt this would help someone who seems to have a cognitive disconnect between, “Hey, I just finished using the toilet” and “Maybe I should push that little lever on the tank.”

We are all familiar nowadays with self flushing toilets that use a sensor to determine when it’s time to flush. But those are mostly made for commercial grade systems that are far more expensive than most of us are willing to spend on our home toilets. Besides, have you ever been seated on one of those things when it suddenly decides to automatically flush? Let’s just say that I hope they don’t model self-driving cars on that technology.

My wife and I are at the point where we can envision a future of being empty nesters down the road a few years. I often hear people say that after your kids are gone you’ll miss the dumb things they used to do. I’m sure that’s true. But somehow I doubt that flush failure will be among those endearing charms.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Chrome was crashing every time I signed in — Here's how I fixed it

I have used Google Chrome as my main browser for a number of years. I usually have one or two other browsers on that machines I use. One of my favorites is Waterfox, which is a pure 64-bit version of Firefox.

One of the things that I like most about Chrome is probably the main reason many privacy and security advocates avoid it. When you sign in with your Google account, you get the same Chrome experience no matter what machine you are using. While you can choose which features to synchronize via advanced settings (including synchronizing nothing), the default is to synchronize everything. Your browsing history, saved data, bookmarks, etc. are all available, regardless of which machine you are using.

After using Chrome relatively trouble free for years, I ran into a problem a couple of months ago where Chrome threw an error each time I tried to access a secure site. I spent a lot of time researching the SSL error. Many potential solutions are available, each with people reporting that the method had fixed the problem for them. Alas, none of them worked for me, except for the suggestion to install Chrome Canary, the perpetually experimental version of Chrome, instead.

After installing Chrome Canary, I once again had a placid coexistence with the browser until a few days ago. Suddenly Chrome began crashing shortly after starting up. I again spent a great deal of time researching the problem and trying a variety of solutions, none of which worked for me.

It seems like the main culprit for this kind of problem is a corrupt extension that has been added to Chrome. The general suggestion is to disable your extensions one by one until Chrome works. But how do you disable an extension in Chrome when you can't keep Chrome open for more than a few seconds?

I finally determined to take the nuclear approach, which was to uninstall Chrome, deleting all of the browsing data. In Windows 10 you do that by going to Settings->System->Apps & Features->Google Chrome and clicking the Uninstall button. Answer Yes when asked if you want to make the changes. Then an uninstall dialog box will appear. Check the "Also delete your browsing data" option and click Uninstall.

But reinstalling Chrome at this point produced the same problem for me. No amount of uninstalling, rebooting, and reinstalling helped. (I tried it about 10 times.) I finally found an obscure thread where a guy said that uninstalling and deleting all browsing data does not completely remove Chrome data. The extensions are still on your machine. They have to be removed from User Data.

It turns out that this presented a challenge. I opened Windows Explorer, typed in %LocalAppData%\Google, as directed. But when I tired to delete the Chrome directory, many subfolders and files remained. When I tried deleting any of them I was told I didn't have permissions to perform that action. What was more frustrating was that it said that I needed permission from ... me, the user that was currently logged in. By going to properties on any of these folders I could see that I owned them and that I had full rights. So why couldn't I delete the files? It didn't make sense.

It took a while to figure this out. After trying to fix permissions on all subdirectories simultaneously didn't work, I ended up going to the remaining folders one by one and performing the following actions:
  • Right click to bring up the context menu.
  • Properties->Security tab->Advanced button.
  • In the Advanced Security Settings window I could see three different listings for me (my user) in the Permission entries list. Two of them showed Allow in the Type column, but one showed Deny in that column.
  • Double-click on the Deny record to open the Permission Entry window for the folder/file.
  • Click on the Type drop down and select Deny. The funny thing was that this record had full Allow permission but also had every box checked under the Deny type.
  • Click on Show Advanced Permissions to expand permissions list.
  • Uncheck all Deny permissions.
  • OK to close Permission Entry window.
  • OK to close Advanced Security Settings window.
  • OK to close Properties.
  • Delete folder.
  • Answer yes to prompt.
Once all folders under Chrome had been successfully deleted I then emptied the recycle bin. On this site I found a reference saying, "Open the Registry Editor by pressing the Windows Key + R type regedit and click OK. Locate; HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Google and delete it by right clicking it and selecting delete."

To be safe, I opened Chrome on a different computer, signed into my account, went to Settings and then Extensions, and disabled all extensions by unchecking the check boxes (see Manage Extensions). I read on one feed that the Trusteer Rapport extension had caused some problems. I followed the instructions and uninstalled the Trusteer Rapport software from my machine, knowing that it would otherwise automatically install and enable the related extension upon reinstalling Chrome.

After rebooting, I again installed Chrome. I signed in and held my breath. I waited one minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. Nothing happened. Chrome just sat there without shutting down. I went to Settings and then Extensions and checked the various checkboxes to re-enable my extensions. I shut down and reopened Chrome and waited. Nothing.

Then I started using Chrome as usual. Everything worked fine. And Chrome has worked well since then.

If your Chrome browser is crashing seconds after you open it, you might consider following the steps I followed to fix this frustrating problem. I can't guarantee that it will work for you as it did for me. But it's worth a try.

Friday, October 07, 2016

LDS Scouting: Maybe it's not really mediocre; just different

I felt like a fly on the wall as I sat on the back row of a room where members of LDS stake presidencies and leaders of a BSA district were seated around a large table. It seemed almost comical to me that without assigned seating, the Scouting leaders ended up in one contiguous group with the church leaders in another. From the start it felt somewhat like an us-vs-them situation.

For the most part, the group worked collaboratively and effectively on a variety of issues. But I sensed a somewhat adversarial undertone that didn't start with that meeting. I have seen it often in interactions between representatives of the LDS Church and the BSA that I have witnessed throughout my adult life.

While working on a particular issue, members of both parties voiced frustrations. These sentiments weren't especially aimed at members of the other group, but it was plain to see that the two groups had fundamental differences in how they viewed the issues.

While many different things were said, I think they can all be effectively boiled down to the following exchange:
Churchmen: The BSA program is impossible to fully implement in our Church units.
Scouters: It would be far easier if people holding Scouting callings would just follow the program that has been prepared instead of trying to do their own thing.
Churchmen: The program is so complex that it requires professional level training. That's not realistic for most laymen. Many parts of the program aren't relevant to our youth today.
Scouters: That's because you aren't doing it right.
This is a gross simplification. But it's fairly representative of the same attitudes that I have seen on display for decades.

I want to stress that both groups of people were earnest and were deeply interested in helping young men. Many of the Scouters present had held leadership positions in the Church. Many of the church leaders present had been Philmont and Wood Badge trained in Scouting and felt like they were doing their level best to implement the Scouting program. But both groups felt frustrated that they were falling short of what they should be accomplishing.

The meeting was overseen by a stake president who had only recently been assigned to lead the group. He came across as a sage, demonstrating equanimity and deep interest throughout the meeting. He did an excellent job of summarizing the sentiments expressed and said that he needed to ponder and pray about some of the issues.

Several times during the meeting, this stake president reminded the group that the LDS Church's main purpose in sponsoring Scouting is to bring young men to Christ and to fulfill the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. Since this aim differs to one degree or another from the aims of other Scouting sponsors, it should not be surprising that implementation of Scouting in LDS units differs from the way other groups implement the program.

Other thoughts expressed by the stake president included:
  • Local church leaders obviously feel that the Scouting program is too complex. Referring to a remark by another stake leader, who had said that his stake simply opted out of Varsity Scouting and Venturing, the stake president said that the choice should never be between perfection and not doing the program at all. Nor is it right to feel perpetual guilt about falling short of the ideal (which seemed to be the approach taken by most church leaders present). Rather, simplification is the answer.
  • The Church sponsors the BSA, not the other way around. The Church has ensured that the BSA offers broad flexibility in program implementation to meet the needs of the sponsor. Although the stake president didn't say it out loud, I sensed a gentle suggestion that died-in-the-wool Scouters should back off from their accusations of "not doing it right" when local leaders customize their program approaches.
  • While we will always speak about and desire the ideal, it is imperative to deal with realities. The reality is that all the haranguing in the world isn't going to get local Church members that are called to Scouting positions to become fully trained or to implement the program in an ideal fashion. A few will. But experience shows that most will not. After all, they have lives to live. (See my 10/2007 and 6/2009 posts on mediocre LDS Scouting.)
  • With Church aims in mind, and given the reality of limited resources, it is imperative to evaluate what Scouting has to offer and to implement those features that are most likely to achieve Church goals. Scouting has developed a strong culture with many traditions. Traditions that strongly support Church aims should be employed; others should receive diminished emphasis or should be dropped.
I was in attendance at the meeting as an Order of the Arrow adviser. It became clear during the meeting that few of those present had any understanding of what the OA was useful for. They all seemed to have a general understanding that it is a service organization. But so what? Church youth do service projects all the time. And after all, isn't that whole Native American re-enactment thing kind of, you know, not cool nowadays? And how does anybody get into that organization anyway? Mind you, some of the men saying these things had been members of the OA as youth.

In other words, it quickly became clear to me that the OA is likely one of those Scouting traditions that doesn't make the cut in the minds of local LDS Church leaders. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with my position anyway. I'd have more free time and less stress if I didn't have to do it. But I do it because of the good the OA did for me when I was a youth, in the hope that it might help another young man trying to find his way in life.

As the meeting concluded, I got the distinct feeling that pretty much everyone in the room was glad it was over. Since I have spent years hanging out with strong Scouters, I know that the "the Church is doing Scouting wrong" sentiment is alive and well among that group. I implore my fellow Scouters to follow President Uchtdorf's advice when it comes to judging others: "Stop it!" It's not helpful, it doesn't improve the Scouting program, and most significantly, it doesn't improve boys. The divine attribute of mercy is much more likely to further these goals.

Most of the church leaders present are doing their best. But Scouting isn't their only focus. Each has many other responsibilities. Most really are trying. And most have also been doing so under the constant weight of guilt that Scouting in their stakes isn't up to snuff. I would admonish these brethren to follow the counsel of the stake president provided at that meeting. Simplify. Do what you can and do it joyfully without guilt. Also realize that you need strong Scouters to support the program. Although they may bug you at times and you might not think you need them, you actually can't run much of a Scouting program without them.

For better or for worse (depending on your viewpoint), the LDS Church and the BSA are partnering for the foreseeable future. Young Men General President Stephen W. Owen recently told a group that the Church is "all in" when it comes to Scouting. Local Church leaders and Scouters need to work collaboratively to help LDS young men come to Christ, achieve the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood, and achieve the character building aims of Scouting. Balkanizing into different camps won't do that. Loving collaboration will. Let's get to it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

That one time I fixed my computer instead of throwing it away

Back in the day I was quite adept at modifying our various home computer configurations. Technology was advancing rapidly. And while hardware prices were declining, a new computer was still a major purchase. So it made sense to upgrade components to keep the hardware functional for as long as possible.

Before 1993 our family had a couple of hand-me-down computers. We bought our first whole new system in 1993 for about $3,300. Per this inflation calculator, that amounts to about $5,460 in 2015 dollars. That's kind of mind boggling. Hardly anyone would consider paying even $1,500 nowadays ($906 in 1993 dollars) for a general use home computer. Earlier this year we paid $430 for a refurbished tower (we already had monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc.) that is a great machine.

As we slid from large clunky 1993 home computers to today's sleek models, at some point we hit a break point where chunking money into upgrades quit making much sense for most models. Our family obtained more computers and I found myself opening up the hardware less and less.

This same process has occurred with most major appliances. People complain that we are a throwaway society nowadays. Previous generations fixed stuff. But nowadays we throw it away and get something new. You can't even find people to repair most of this stuff. Why? Because technology is advancing so rapidly and the cost of new items is such that it often makes little economic sense to repair old models.

According to H&R Block, you can expect your washing machine and dryer to last for about 10-13 years.  My parents had the same washer and dryer for well over 20 years. But Dad was forever fixing those things. I'm not a handy guy. When our last dryer died I did some quick research on the cost of repairing the bad parts. The parts were expensive and would take time to acquire. Instead, we had a new dryer in our laundry room that same evening for not much more than the repair would have cost.

About four years ago I was in the market for a new computer. I wanted a decent machine because I sometimes worked from home and I also did some video editing for fun. Windows 8 was about to be released and it already had fairly unfavorable reviews. Many computer manufacturers were offering reduced prices on computer models that had Windows 7 installed.

The setup of my office desk doesn't lend itself well to tower systems. Nor do I like having a bunch of exposed cords. I had previously had a large laptop and an all-in-one machine in that spot. I liked many things about the all-in-one, despite the fact that the Dell model I had owned had many problems from day one. Dell even replaced it twice. Although it was less than two years old, I celebrated the day it died for real.

While searching for a new computer I found a Lenovo IdeaCentre B540P all-in-one. The specs on the i7 model with Windows 7 were great and the price was fantastic. Although I would have preferred a machine that could do higher resolution, this machine seemed like the best value at the time. I didn't (and still don't) care about the touch screen. It seems kind of silly for a desktop computer.

I loved my new Lenovo all-in-one. Unlike my Dell all-in-one, the Lenovo actually worked. It was quiet and it did everything I wanted it to do without a fuss. It continued to work just fine until one day about a year ago when the normally very quiet fan suddenly wasn't so quiet. A slight whining sound appeared and it gradually got worse over time.

I used compressed air to blow dust out of the fan, but I was reluctant to actually dig into the computer. Opening up an all-in-one is more like getting into the guts of a laptop than opening up a roomy tower case. So I let it go. In fact, the sound got better for a few weeks. Right before it got worse.

One day my wife told me to go listen to my computer, which had sounded reasonable an hour earlier. The fan was making a horrible racket. I shut the computer down. Unable to put it off any longer, I opened the thing up and dug into it. Fortunately, Lenovo has excellent online maintenance manuals that guided my activity.

I knew that the back cover came off with no tools. The next cover required removing only five screws, but the slide-then-hinge motion took a bit of work. Then the next cover had 16 screws. Finally, the dual fan had four screws and two electrical connectors.

I quickly figured out which half of the dual fan was faulty. There was no way to fix it. No problem, I figured I'd just buy a new one. But it cost $122 from Lenovo. Too much. After searching the internet, I discovered that there were various sub-models of the same fan.

It turns out that the particular sub-model I needed was scarce. I could get a used one from England on eBay. Nah, I already had a used one. I found a few on sketchy sites that listed the fan for around $50, but it was impossible to tell whether they had any in stock. I finally found a new one in China for $25 from But shipping was expensive, ranging from $20 for up to 40 days to $36 for 3-7 days.

Seeing as my computer was nonfunctional without a good fan, I opted for the rapid shipping. I soon had an email back from PCHub with a tracking number for EMS Shipping. I was pleased that the product had shipped within 24 hours of purchase. Eventually the package was scanned at what I figured was an air terminal. And then ... nothing.

After a few days I got an email from PCHub asking me to complete a survey on my product. But I had no product. For all I knew it was lost in transit. I sent their customer service department an email. A response came back a day or so later with a link to a US Postal Service tracking site, where I was directed to enter the original EMS tracking number. Suddenly I could see the progress of my package in the US.

Over the next few days I kept watching my package via USPS tracking. It looked to me like nobody ever told the USPS folks that this was expedited shipping, because the package kept experiencing long layovers at various locations. How was it possible to get my package from China to California in two days, only to have it take two weeks to get from California to my house in Utah? I guess that's the nature of our quasi-government owned postal service.

When the package finally arrived, I worked to install the new fan in my computer to get it up and running again. (Actually, the old fan had started sort of working, so I had felt comfortable running the machine for short periods while I was waiting.) But something wasn't right after I got everything put back together. It seemed to work OK at first, but then I got a case fan error, followed by the computer abruptly shutting down in an ominous fashion.

After once again tearing into the computer (Thank you, Lenovo for well written and illustrated online maintenance manuals), I discovered that both of the dual fan's electrical connectors were four-pin plugs, but that one of the receptacles on the motherboard had five pins.

Fortunately, I had not discarded the old fan. I'm somewhat of a hoarder of old computer parts. Upon inspection I discovered that one of the plugs on the old fan had a five-pin configuration, but only four pins were used. Using my limited ingenuity, I figured out how to delicately remove the five-pin plug from the old fan and exchange it with the four-pin plug on the new fan. I put everything back together and the computer worked as good as new.

Well, better than new in many ways, because I upgraded to Windows 10 a year ago. Some folks gripe about Windows 10, but (after turning off all of the privacy violating settings I could find) it has worked great for me, with a couple of exceptions.

One of those exceptions is that after upgrading to Windows 10, my computer screen would sometimes stay black when I tried to reactivate the screen. I had the screen set to turn off after 10 minutes of inactivity. It had never been a problem before. So for many months I set my screen to never turn off and to use the blank screen saver. The blank screen saver still bleeds a fair amount of light. I am told that this is due to some compromises made on older touch screen computers. This problem went away for a while. But after a recent Windows update the problem returned. Oh well, it's not that bad.

Oddly, about the time I replaced my computer fan, Google Chrome stopped working for me on any https site. Most of the proposed solutions focused on the network, which wasn't a problem because these same sites worked on any other computer in the house. Some focused on the computer, but that wasn't a problem, since all of these sites also worked from my computer using any other browser. Some focused on one's Chrome account, but that wasn't a problem because Chrome worked fine for me on every other computer I tried.

After much frustration and attempting many solutions, I finally came across a suggestion to download and install Chrome Canary. As I understand it, Chrome Canary is the version that beta tests the latest Chrome developments. It installed quickly and pulled in my old Chrome settings. All I can tell you is that Chrome Canary works superbly on my machine, while Chrome does not. Or at least it didn't before I uninstalled it.

Where was I going with all of this? The bad fan episode made me realize that I'm no longer much for getting into the guts of a computer. I can do it but it'd rather not. I'd probably have gone out and bought a new machine, except that some medical expenses have left us a little tight on funds right now. That's not the only reason I didn't buy a new computer. I really like my Lenovo IdeaCentre B540P. I would prefer to keep using it over shopping for and then setting up a new machine. Although it's four years old, it still works great for the way I use it.

For now. Four years is a long time in computer years. Who knows when the next thing will go bad? Hopefully well after we have recovered from our current budgetary tightness. I also learned that it can be expensive and difficult to get parts for older computers, just as it is difficult to get part for older cars and appliances.

It would be great if I didn't have to replace any more parts on my Lenovo all-in-one. I'd like it if the machine continued to perform well for at least a couple more years. But sometimes real life works differently than one would like. I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Teen Aspergers Report

Aspergers (an autism spectrum disorder), the psychologist informed us, is unique in each case because it always comes with one or more mental health conditions that are distinct for each individual. "We know how to deal with Aspergers," he said, "It's the associated conditions that make each case challenging."

In our son's case, those fellow travelers include major depression, general anxiety, maybe bipolar, and perhaps some obsessive compulsive tendencies. And, yeah, they're problematic. A daily cocktail of professionally monitored medications helps. We think.

Frankly, our son sometimes tires of the daily medication regimen. I see why people with mental illnesses go off their medications. (Well, that, and the meds tend to be quite expensive.) Every medication carries a host of side effects and each one has to be balanced against all the others. Some of our son's meds are prescribed to counteract some of the effects of other meds he takes that are seen as essential. That's why his medications are closely monitored by a pediatric psychiatrist.

One view is that mental health meds are like insulin for a diabetic. Maybe it works that way for some people. But it's really not that straightforward. One expert explained to us that they really don't understand the mechanisms in many drugs used for treating mental health conditions. They know that some drugs are effective for some people for some conditions, but they don't understand how they work. They don't know why those same drugs don't work for other people with the same condition. Nor do they know why some drugs sometimes stop working for people.

Once this expert explained drug therapy for mental illness quite thoroughly, it sounded very much like the practice of medicine during the dark ages. The fellow admitted that it can seem that way. His expertise came only with many years of experience with many patients. Often, he said, which drug to prescribe comes down to gut instinct.

We have seriously considered a medication free trial period for our son. But you can't stop some of these meds cold turkey without disastrous potential. The patient has to be weaned off some of these drugs and slowly ramped up on replacements.

When I mentioned to an acquaintance the possibility of our son going drug free for a time, he said, "Why not? It can't kill him. It's not like a diabetic quitting insulin." Actually, it can be. Besides, only someone that has little understanding of self harm and suicidal tendencies would suggest that going off mental health meds couldn't be fatal.

One of the drivers of our son's medication regimen fatigue is that every time he takes meds he is poignantly reminded that he is abnormal; that he is defective. Society has become somewhat more accepting of mental illness in recent years, but our culture still deals very badly with mental health disorders. They're scary because they're poorly understood. Mental illness is often seen as a moral failing.

Our son doesn't like to tell people he doesn't know well about his Aspergers, depression, anxiety, etc., because it freaks people out. They don't know what to do or say. They have an underlying fear of him. Once he has gotten to know and has hung out with male peers, they don't have much problem when he reveals his conditions to them. He seems normal enough.

Girls, on the other hand, tend to react very poorly. "They look at me like I'm not human," he tells me. It's common for people with Aspergers to have difficulty reading and demonstrating normal facial expressions and body language. But he says that he knows the look girls regularly give him when they find out about his conditions. It's a mixture of seeing him as pathetic, being scared of him, and crossing his name off the list of potential dating partners with big red Xs. "I pity you but I'm horrified of you," they seem to say.

It's hard for anyone to be a teenager. One therapist, noting that teens have to deal with physical and social developments while having brains that aren't fully developed, says that any adult with this set of circumstances would be classified as mentally ill. It's hard to be a normal teen. Add clinical mental illnesses to the mix and it's extremely challenging.

It's hard for the parents too. One evening last week it became apparent that our son was experiencing a depressive episode. I sat down with him and worked through a worksheet provided by his therapist. That helped some. Then I went to bed.

A little later my wife went looking for our son and couldn't find him. The more she looked, the more panicked she became. He has had suicidal thoughts and he's old enough now to know how to bring those thoughts to effective action. After imagining the worst, my wife finally found our son just lying on the floor to the side of the dining table. She had to enact some help techniques she has learned to eventually get him to bed and to sleep.

After a few episodes like that, a parent starts to feel fatigued with the situation. You do the kinds of things you're supposed to do to relieve stress. But you know that you can't ever get away from it. Not even when your child becomes an adult. It will always be there. Maybe dealing with it eventually becomes routine, as has dealing with my Multiple Sclerosis condition. Maybe not.

Our son's therapist says that he is impressed with our level of knowledge and the interventions we are undertaking. Most people he deals with are far more clueless. But we still feel like we don't know what we're doing most of the time. We're fumbling our way through the situation. Sometimes—well, maybe lots of times—we see in hindsight that we have messed up.

But we keep forging ahead. What else can we do? We want the best for our son that has Aspergers, just as we want the best for each of his siblings. We love him, even when it's challenging to do so. And maybe that's the key. Just keep on doing our best to love our son and deal with whatever comes.