Saturday, November 26, 2022

The End of an Era: Delose Conner Passes


There has never been anyone quite like Delose Conner and there will never be another quite like him.

Delose lived life passionately. He held strongly to deeply rooted principles and he constantly strove to effusively enact those principles in his life and to instill the best of those principles in others.

Many know "Mr. Conner" through his long career teaching demanding high school history courses and advising school clubs or activities. But my association with Delose came through his lifelong love of Scouting.

I have had the privilege of meeting and working with many people who have been dedicated to the Scouting program throughout my life. But Delose's devotion to the program was unusual even among this elevated group because he was deeply committed to the program's noble principles and aims. The more time I spent with Delose, the more it became clear that those principles undergirded everything he did in the program. He was serious about them

My memories of Delose after four and a half decades of association are many and varied. It's difficult to know what to share. Here are some things I learned from Delose.

The first thing I learned from Delose is that he saw me as a leader and respected me, despite me being a 16-year-old kid who lacked confidence. I had just returned from a summer of planting pineapples in Hawaii. (Which sounds far more glamorous than it really was.) I had been active in a fraternal Scouting organization called the Order of the Arrow. But my term as chapter chief would end in a few weeks and I was thinking that would be the end of my Scouting pursuits.

Delose was a recent college graduate and a newly minted district Scouting professional who had spent many summers working at Scout camp. He called me to arrange a meeting with me and my chapter adviser. We had no functional chapter adviser at the time, so I met with Delose on my own. He clearly expected me to step up and fill the leadership role to which I had been elected and expressed complete confidence in my ability to do so.

The next two and a half years led me through a growth experience that included two summers working as a commissioner at Camp Loll, many OA events and activities, and a trip to the Explorer President's Congress in Washington DC. I met people, engaged in activities, and learned new things that fundamentally changed the way I thought about and approached life. I still relish many of those relationships. Delose was with me and helping me each step of the way as I became the OA lodge chief and then section chief. He even spoke at my missionary farewell.

I learned from Delose how to do hard things and to even have fun while doing them. Working on Camp Loll Staff was physically and mentally demanding. Delose taught me to regularly step out of my comfort zone and find the glory in doing so. Where else can you spend a summer living in a tent, being chewed on by bugs, working 16-hour days while being on call 24x7, covering miles of trail by foot daily, and doing crazy skits and songs, all while getting paid next to nothing, and then hunger to do it again the following summer?

Some of the things I learned during those years were to take care of and spend time with my troops, work together with other people in the program, make it fun, develop meaningful relationships, be proud to wear the Scout uniform in public, do what needs to be done.

I also learned about priorities. Delose and I had been nominated to keep the Vigil early one June at Camp Bartlett. There were no cell phones back then, nor was there a telephone at the camp. A car arrived in camp and its driver told Delose that his wife Janice was in labor with their first child. Delose dropped the tools he was holding, ran to his car, and drove out of camp with impressive haste. He arrived at the hospital minutes after his oldest son was born. Family trumped Scouting, although time would cause the two to intertwine quite often.

By the way, Delose told me that as he admired his newborn son, his dad told him not to give the child a strange name. He said that he turned to his father and told him that he had no room to talk about giving a child an odd name. Yet, Delose seemed to quite like his unusual name.

Did I mention that Delose taught me that fun was important? Once as our camp cook made a batch of chocolate cake donuts, she put the donut holes in a large bowl. They were oblong rather than round and they looked exactly like moose droppings, of which there were many piles around camp back in those days. Delose walked up to Jed Stringham, who was a hard-working no-nonsense Scouting professional with a handful of the donut holes, asking Jed to look at the moose scat he had just found. Jed was a great naturalist. As he leaned over to take a look, Delose popped a donut hole into his mouth and gobbled it up. Jed just shook his head and walked away. But to those of us who saw it happen, it was pretty hilarious.

As the years passed, I moved from being a teenager to being a young adult OA adviser, and then to being an adult Scouter. I took my own troops to camp and accompanied my sons as they went to camp with their troops. I ran large Scout camping events, teaching younger Scouters the skills I had learned under Delose's tutelage. I brought my own sons to camp to work on camp staff. I returned many times to camp to do volunteer work.

I deeply cherish the times when I got to sit and chat with Delose, usually in his office at camp, but sometimes out in the camp. During one of these sessions, Delose told me about the months he and his family cared for his dying father in their home. Some of the duties and experiences didn't sound very pleasant to me, but Delose assured me that taking care of an elderly parent's end of life experience would be one of the most beautiful and rewarding things I would ever do.

Sometimes our chats would turn to philosophy. I will never forget the time he compared artists Norman Rockwell and Pablo Picasso. In Delose's mind, one of these men was the greatest artist of the 20th Century and a truly great soul, while the other was a selfish opportunist. Ask me about it sometime if you want more details. We didn't always agree but we could always be respectful of each other.

Delose loved to sing songs that were appropriate for Scout camp. To be honest, Delose was not a great musician. His formation of a tune could vary significantly from the original. But whatever musical deficits he might have had were more than compensated for by passion and enthusiasm. Those who have worked on Delose's camp staffs know that singing is more than fun; it's essential.

Photographs were very important to Delose. He took lots of photos of Scouting escapades throughout the years and filled volumes of photo albums. No one was to be forgotten. They were all important. Delose was a devoted naturalist and a lifelong artist. He deliberately worked throughout his life to hone his art skills and he even wrote a book about essential art basics.

Several months ago, my son Ben and I went to visit Delose and Janice. I had heard that Delose was grappling with prostate cancer. He didn't look well at all, but his spirits were strong. Despite his great difficulty traversing the basement stairs, Delose insisted on taking Ben and me down there to see the room that has been converted into a type of Scout shrine or museum. It was wonderful.

I felt bad about being unable to make it to Delose's art exhibit three weeks ago. I had church responsibilities that coincided with the event, and I simply could not make it work. The news of Delose's passing was not surprising to me. I find myself experiencing an odd mixture of melancholy, gratitude, and joy. He lived a beautiful life. He positively influenced thousands and deeply influenced hundreds. Perhaps in his passing, Delose has taught me a final lesson about dying well.

Godspeed, my friend. Until we meet again.

Addendum 11/30/2022

My son Ben wrote the following tribute for Delose:

I've always loved fantasy books, enough that I've written a few. Delose somehow turned a patch of wilderness into one of the only places on earth that ever felt like I was living in one. 

Amidst the temples of dust and pine, he the oracle of lake and fire. Beneath the vault of heaven's glittering treasures, he the warden of our futures. Howl not now at the moon, for he was its friend too. Softly now, softly now; day is done.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Fostering an adult child's independence - part 2

 Last April I wrote about our family's journey with moving our youngest son toward independence. As I stated then, "Our youngest son has autism spectrum disorder, has grappled with major depression and anxiety, and has been seriously suicidal multiple times."

Over time our son's world seemed to shrink until he found himself unable to do much at all. Both he and we wondered whether he could ever live any kind of independent life. It was a disheartening place to be for all involved.

For the past eight months, our son has been participating in an immersive program hundreds of miles from where we live that helps "young adult men work through levels where they develop and demonstrate the skills necessary for independence."

At the same time, my wife and I have undertaken a soul stretching journey of our own designed to help us become the kind of parents who can support our adult son's independence, despite his challenges. We have gone through a lot of hard work to redefine how we think about ourselves and how we view each of our children.

We have had to seriously confront our unhealthy codependent attitudes and behaviors. Confronting your own deep-seated deficiencies with the prospect of working to change them is challenging enough that many people choose an unhealthy status quo instead. Our growth hasn't always been much fun, but it has been highly valuable.

Even now, much of our development is fresh and tender. It is soooooo easy to slip back into old established scripts and roles. Sticking with our growth will require work, therapy, diligence, and vigilance. It takes discipline and work to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, but we are discovering that this is what makes it possible to bring wholeheartedness to our relationships.

In April I wrote, "We have learned that we must give up trying to manage our son's outcomes." We have had to give up on thinking that our son must choose to adopt our values or religious beliefs, must seek the kind of education we have, and must achieve the kind of careers and family life that we have found so fulfilling. It has been a relief to realize that we are not responsible for his happiness or even his survival. But this also means giving up on our ideas of what his life should look like.

Our son recently posted this before/after photo. He was in worse shape eight months ago than he appears in the January 2021 "before" shot. The difference between then and now is astonishing even to us. The program he is in includes a fitness component. But I assure you that not all of the young men in the program achieve our son's current level of fitness. This has been something he has chosen to do for himself.

A month ago, we joined about half of the program participants and four staff members as our son and his companions competed in a grueling 10K Spartan Race that included a climb of about 2,000 feet and twenty-five significant obstacles. Our son was tired as he approached the final obstacle stations, but he was in pretty darn fine shape. Instead of collapsing after the race like some participants, he seemed energized and ready to do other things.

Similar changes are reflected in many aspects of our son's lifestyle choices, including employment, emotional management, interpersonal skills, money management, etc. He has learned that he can use failures as learning and development tools. He seems confident that, regardless of what life throws at him, he can figure out a way to get up and move forward. It is difficult to explain how different this is from where he was at the outset of the program.

At this stage of the program, our son is making plans for independent living after graduation. That includes figuring out housing, employment, transportation, food, etc. We are prohibited from getting much involved. And for good reason. Our son needs to own this. He needs to own his successes and failures.

I am deeply impressed by our son's mental and emotional development. And yet, what I said in April still holds true. We don't know where this is headed or what his life over the next couple of years will look like. We must avoid trying to control his outcomes.

We are more at peace with what we can and should do, which is to be the kind of parents we should be. We too can learn from our failures and can use that learning as steppingstones to our own growth and development. We too will be graduating from the program. But like other graduations in life, this won't represent retirement from challenge, but the beginning of continuous challenge without the structure offered by the program.

Why would we want that? Why wouldn't we? We are older than we were eight months ago. But we are more alive than we were back then. Forward!

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Fostering an adult child's independence

I haven't written for half a year because life has been ... interesting. New job. New adventure with our son that has involved a lot of growth. Dealing with our daughter's unusual medical problems. Etc. Today I am writing about our son's journey. And our journey with respect to our son.

Shrinking world, shrinking hope

Our youngest son has autism spectrum disorder, has grappled with major depression and anxiety, and has been seriously suicidal multiple times. This has led to a variety of challenges over the years. We have tried very hard to make sure that our son has had access to good mental health treatment. And yet, it has been a real struggle for him, us, and the whole family.

Oddly, our son's social and employment capacities seemed to shrink from the time he got his first part-time job in high school until he spent much of last year holed up in his bedroom sleeping. Even his time gaming and doing stuff on the computer diminished.

As his world shrank, our son increasingly tried to control his home environment. We kowtowed to that for fear of him turning to self-harm. But months of walking on eggshells in our own home took a toll on other family members.

The problem with this was not lost on our son. He felt increasingly hopeless about ever becoming independent or living a decent life. He and my wife searched out various programs focused on helping with these kinds of issues, but they were all very expensive. We even initiated the enrollment process for a program designed to address failure to launch syndrome, but the cost prevented us from pursuing it further.

Coming to terms with the cost

After nearly a year of living through this situation, we visited our financial planner for our annual review. He suggested that we consider cashing out some of our carefully earned investments to cover the cost of a program for our son. We were surprised by this advice, but our planner contrasted this approach with what it might cost us to care for a nonfunctional adult son for the rest of our lives.

Our son was fully on board with this plan since he had researched the target program himself. The enrollment process required him to undertake significant steps, so it took a few weeks. The staff reviewed the application and accepted our son. (Some applicants are not accepted because they don't fit the program profile.)

The program

About five months ago, we drove our son many hours to the main office of the program, left him there, and drove back home.

This program differs from some others in that it includes a significant amount of unstructured time with a high degree of accountability. Many of the young adult men in our son's program have autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, OCD, depression, anxiety, executive function disorder, and/or other challenges.

In this program, young adult men work through levels where they develop and demonstrate the skills necessary for independence. Over time they engage in a variety of program activities, participate in personal and group therapy sessions, find and work jobs, gain transportation independence, save money in a launch fund for independent living after graduation, and develop a viable plan for living independently.

The young men live in townhouses that each host five participants. A professionally trained life coach is assigned to each house. Each participant works with a licensed therapist. As the typical kinds of problems with living in this kind of arrangement arise, participants learn how to deal with the issues and learn healthy accountability.

Most who enroll in the program reach graduation in 6-9 months. It might take some longer because the pace of preparation for independence differs by individual. Some leave the program without graduating. They are adults and can legally make their own choices on the matter. Some participants move to other programs that are more suited to their specific needs (including substance abuse issues).

Family involvement

Parents of participants also work with a therapist to advance through levels designed to help them learn healthy ways to support their adult children. They also engage in family therapy sessions and weekly parent group sessions.

Program staff make it clear that they cannot "fix" your child. They can provide tools to help participants and their families develop healthier personal and family dynamics. How the participants and families use those tools is up to them. The support system is designed to help participants and families wean themselves from the program, which can seem confusing or disorienting from time to time.

The growth experience over these past months for our son and for ourselves has been painful, soul stretching, and healthy. As parents, we have:

  • Read a pile of books (see list after this post).
  • Learned about our enabling and codependent tendencies.
  • Written letters of accountability and hope.
  • Worked on implementing healthier patterns.
  • Developed a whole new way of being toward our son and toward each of our children.

Telling stories

Humans function on the stories we tell ourselves. One of the main goals for parents involved in this program is for them to be able to tell their son's story in a way that is meaningful to their son, and to be able to tell their own story in a way that is meaningful to themselves. Participants have a similar goal.

That may sound easy, but it requires a whole lot of listening and giving up on scripts and roles that have defined relationships for years. It can feel like ripping away parts of your own identity, so it can be painful. The truths found under those layers feel raw at first but exposing them allows for a level of authenticity that has been hidden even from ourselves.

Some of our story

Our first serious encounter with our son's challenges occurred when he expressed suicidal thoughts at age 10. His first therapist told us that we had to back off our expectations. We took this (probably far too) seriously. We grew to where we unwittingly tried to protect our son from any and all challenges.

The message we derived from much of the suicide prevention material was that we would be at fault if our child completed or even attempted suicide. The guilt this promotes is harsh. As our lives became a constant suicide watch, we spent years parenting from a place of fear masquerading as love.

Our parenting styles strongly sent "you are not OK" and "you can't do this without us" messages to our son. It nourished "we must fix our son" and "we must fix situations for our son" attitudes in ourselves. Frankly, that can offer a heady feeling of importance and even identity for a parent. It also allows a parent to seek validation by whining about their son, his challenges, and how this affects them.

This was a toxic mix that wasn't good for our child or for us. It also fed unhealthy relationships with our other children, and between our son and his siblings. We did not realize that we were seeing our son as an extension of ourselves rather than as a separate individual with unique capacities, hopes, dreams, and accountability.

Changing for the better

Stepping away from these kinds of codependent patterns has been difficult. For years we have been telling ourselves stories suggesting that these patterns demonstrate that we are good parents and individuals. These stories have been deeply imprinted, so it is easy to get sucked back into the old patterns.

At the same time, our son has gone through his own soul stretching. He has been learning to see himself as a separate individual who is part of our family group rather than as simply an extension of our family. This is a fundamental identity shift, so it has been painful.

One of the more challenging aspects for us has been establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries. We have frankly been poor at that. After our son entered the program, we had to put up a solid boundary saying that he would not be permitted to move back home for any reason.

While that is a liberating stance in one way, it led to one of the most challenging experiences of my life. About a month into the program, our son was seriously struggling. He couldn't see himself succeeding in the program. His fundamental identity was being challenged. The fact that he had been sick with a cold and was short on funds didn't help his mental condition.

The program ensures that participants have enough to eat even when they are out of cash. The food provided in these cases is utilitarian but adequate, so our son wasn't going to starve. But he was determined to leave the program. He said he was leaving even if he had to choose homelessness.

We reiterated our boundary that we would pay for our son to move to a different program, or we would send him camping gear if he desired it, but he could not move back to our home. He stomped out of his therapist's office and walked away. The staff kept tabs on him until he eventually wandered back to his townhouse several miles away. He was crushed that we would not let him come home.

Holding that line was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. And frankly, I wasn't sure at the time whether it was the right thing to do. It is difficult to describe the level of guilt I felt for weeks. Some of that pain remains even now.

But we have discovered that guilt is neither a good source of motivation nor a good framework for determining what is right. Healthy parenting may require a parent to learn to sit with parental guilt for some time. Doing what is right doesn't always feel good.

A glimmer of hope

The first few months in the program were rocky for our son. Almost every interaction with him involved him appealing to us for rescue on some level. After all, we had been rescuing him for years. But little by little, he has begun to find his way.

Recently we had a very good adult-to-adult conversation with our son with no hint of a rescue request whatsoever. He is feeling competent. He is owning his own path. Although he was originally opposed to working in food service, he is a line cook at a restaurant for now. He envisions better things in the future. He is putting money into his launch fund and has an initial (realistic) plan of how he will live independently after graduation.

That plan will have to become more concrete and fully funded over the next few months. Our son is much fitter than he was during his basement-dwelling couch potato life. He recently hit his highest squat press weight, which is amazing for a guy who used to only wishfully think about exercise.

Our path and our son's path

But to be honest, we don't know where this is headed. We have learned that we must give up trying to manage our son's outcomes. We are working to accomplish the parent requirements in the program. We can do the work that brings our own inner peace. We can model healthy parenting.

We can do many things better than we used to. But we can't dictate where our son is headed. That's his journey and his life. We must allow him to go where he chooses and allow him the consequences of those choices. We can connect with him, learn his story, and honor his pain. But we must not rescue him from it.

This is the way to parental peace, even if it sounds painful. Truth be told, you can experience pain and peace at the same time. You can empathetically hurt for your child while incorporating that pain in healthy ways. Easy? No. Right? Yes.

One parent with a struggling child asked why they should go to all the work of good parenting if it can't guarantee healthy outcomes in their child. Their therapist responded that good parenting is its own reward. You choose healthy parenting practices because it is the right thing to do, regardless of what your child chooses. Doing the right thing brings internal peace, even when external things work out less than optimally.

This is the journey we are on. For now, it consumes a lot of resources and takes a lot of our energy. But we have greater inner peace. And it is the right thing for us to do.

Some of the books we have read on our journey: