Vandwellers (and everyone else), this one cheap device could save your life.

A few weeks back, I enjoyed camping at the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming.  It was a beautiful and peaceful spot.  The campsite had a lot going for it, but it lacked modern conveniences, including a usable cell phone signal. I did have enough of a connection to send out slow text messages, but that was about it.

However, I needed to have information. I was traveling and hiking, and I needed local weather reports. I was camping during a national pandemic, and I had to know the news on that topic.  I would be returning home via South Dakota just as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was commencing. I wanted up-to-date information on that event as it would directly impact what National Parks and Monuments I would visit.

Over the years, I have become dependent on the Internet.  I stream music, videos, and radio stations. I read the news, and check the weather. The Internet has become a vital link that keeps me connected and safe.  However, it is an extremely vulnerable utility.  I have a cable Internet connection at home, which is then broadcast via a wireless router to my devices.  On the road, I use cell towers to grab the Internet on my phone. These options are both complex and resource-heavy.  If a cable is broken or a cell tower is down, I have no internet.  If I can’t recharge my power-hungry devices, I’m also out of luck.

Climate change has escalated natural events in the world.  While I was camping, forest fires were ravaging the Pacific Coast, and large parts of Louisiana were dealing with Hurricane Laura’s aftermath. Massive areas were without power, and no power means no internet.  As climate change escalates, we can only expect more forest fires, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.  With these natural disasters, we will have more utility outages.  Beyond nature, hardwired systems are vulnerable to cyber attacks, as well as equipment failures. The Internet is a fantastic resource, but it is very fragile and vulnerable.

Back at my Wyoming campsite, I was without the Internet, but I did have an ace-in-the-hole. I had brought with me an old portable radio.  It was a Sony device that I had had for many years.  This straightforward gadget gave me all of the information I needed, as I could pick up multiple FM and AM radio stations.  I checked the weather, kept abreast of local and national news, and listened to music and entertainment. Some of you may be asking, “Why not use your car radio?” That certainly could be an option, but I make an effort to not use car accessories when the vehicle isn’t running.  I don’t want a dead battery miles away from civilization. 

This old Sony radio was all that I needed to keep myself informed. You may see that the radio has TV audio. In the US analog TV was discontinued in 2009, so that feature no longer works on this device.

I have traveled the country, and I have never been to a place where I couldn’t receive radio.  Typically, I can hear multiple stations at any given location, which is not surprising.  In the US, there are more than 10,000 FM radio stations and almost 5,000 AM radio stations.  Radio waves cover the US.  Receiving radio signals only requires a simple, efficient, and inexpensive device.  On average, a portable radio powered by AA batteries can run around 50 hours at moderate volume, and a radio that uses larger D batteries can run 150-200 hours.  With careful use, a radio could provide the user with several months of vital information.  Compare that to my iPhone, which barely makes it through a day without needing a recharge.

Twenty years ago, most households had at least one portable radio, but that is not the case today.  I asked around my limited COVID circle, and most homes didn’t have a working battery-operated radio.    People invest in all sorts of expensive things to protect themselves.  A workable radio can be had for less than the cost of a pizza.  Remember, disasters are on the rise, and radio is a much more reliable resource than home Internet, cable TV, over-the-air TV, smart speakers, and cell phone service.  

Where is the hurricane going to make landfall?  When is the emergency freshwater truck going to arrive?  Where are the medical services being offered?  Is the forest fire advancing?  What roads are open, and what highways are closed? Will we have freezing temperatures tonight? These are just a small sampling of the type of questions you need answered in a dangerous situation. Radio has these answers.

If you have read this far, let me give you the bottom line.  Go on Amazon or go to your local store and buy a portable FM/AM radio plus batteries.  If you plan on using the radio for day-to-day entertainment, have a spare set of batteries available.  If you will keep the radio for only emergencies, don’t leave the batteries in the radio, but keep a fresh set of batteries nearby.  Good batteries can last for up to a decade when appropriately stored (a cool, dry place). 

Let’s have some fun for those of you who are still on board and get into the nitty-gritty.

Portable radios come in several types.  A typical pocket radio sells for $10-$20 and uses AA batteries.  They do the job, but their small speakers and controls can make using them a chore.  Larger portable radios typically sell in the $20-$100 range.  They offer bigger controls and better-sounding speakers. Overall, I prefer a larger radio over a pocket radio.  Also, it is best to have a radio that is simple to operate.  In many instances, this means buying a radio that has a traditional layout, rather than a thousand buttons and switches. However, the end-user should determine what is best for their needs.

Portable radios come in several styles.  Some are analog looking-they have an actual dial with a pointer. Some are digital looking and use buttons and digital displays.  However, under the hood, most current portable radios are digital (DSP radios).  They perform all of their functions on a single IC chip. These devices are actually dedicated computers designed to receive radio waves and to convert those waves into audio signals.  

I am a radio lover and collector, but I haven’t bought a new radio for over a decade.  To research this post, I watched hours of radio reviews on YouTube.  In the end, I felt that I needed to buy some modern radios to gain a proper understanding of what worked and what didn’t work.  Consumer-level radios are inexpensive, so I thought I would go this extra step for you, dear reader.

I found some interesting differences between these new radios versus those I had purchased in the past. New radios use “step tuning.” When you tune this radio type, it clicks in 10 kHz steps (on AM).  On better radios, this feels like tuning an older analog device.  It is easy to blow past stations on more inferior designed radios unless you move across the dial very slowly.  Some of these newer radios seem to have a problem with their AGC (automatic gain control), which can cause weak AM stations to pulse in and out.  Some radios crackled when receiving powerful stations, suggesting that their front ends were overloading.  Despite these negatives, most radios had very good FM reception and good enough AM reception.  Every radio that I tested would serve their owner in an emergency.  However, some radios were easier to use and worked better than others.

I was surprised that most popular consumer electronic manufacturers no longer sell portable radios in the US market. This market is now saturated by brands that I had never heard of.  Based on this, I thought I would list my ranking of available radio brands.  The list is from best to worst.  

CC Radio/C Crane Radio

C Crane has been making high-quality radios for decades.  They design their radios to be excellent performers, and because of this, they charge a premium price.  If you are a radio lover, buy one of their long-distance CCRadios radios (prices ranging from $90-$200).  However, lesser radios will also serve you in an emergency. C Crain does make a pretty good emergency style radio, the “Solar Observer,” which sells for a more reasonable $59.99.


Most common popular consumer brands no longer sell portable radios in the US market.  However, Sangean, Sony, and Panasonic still do.  You may not have heard of Sangean, but they have been selling high-quality radios in the US for decades-usually under different brands like Radio Shack, Proton, and C Crane.  Sony sells a handful of radio models, and Panasonic sells two portable radio models in the US.  Most of these brand name radios offer an excellent performance to cost ratio.  They are well-built products that are refined.  Tuning one of these radios feels more like turning a real analog radio (a good thing). They don’t overload or pulse on AM stations, and they have good selectivity and sensitivity on both FM and AM.

This Panasonic radio (RF 214D) can be had for about $30, and it is a good performer. Be careful if you buy it on Amazon as some sellers are charging as much as $55. Walmart has a good price.
This Sangean PR D4W has excellent FM performance and the best (by far) AM performance. It also has NOAA weather alert. However, all of its buttons may be confusing to use for some.
I watched a review of this Sangean SR 36 pocket radio, and I was surprised that it was a poor performer. This is the exception rather than the rule for this well-regarded company.  


Kaito is a Chinese radio company.  Some of their radios are as good as those made by Sony, Sangean, or Panasonic.  Some of their radios are not as good.  The Kaito KA500 is a good emergency radio that sells for around $49.00.

This Kaito KA390 was inexpensive and had good FM performance and decent sound. Unfortunately, the AM performance was the worst of all of the radios that I tested.

Off Brands

Many radios sold in the US have brand names that suggest that their primary market is elsewhere.  Prunus, PowerBear, Vondior, Running Snail, Dream Sky, and Retekess are just a few brand names. I have tested some of these radios, and my general impression is that they are of lower quality than those listed above. However, all of the radios that I tested were still acceptable; most had very good FM reception and adequate AM reception.  Some of these radios had overloading problems, while others had issues with AGC pulsing of weak AM signals. Also, some had other issues that ranged from crappy volume controls to finicky tuning.  With that said, all of the radios that I tested worked well enough.  However, if you choose one of these radios, I would buy it from a place where you can return it…just in case.

This QFX radio is almost an exact clone the Panasonic RF240D, but the resemblance is only skin deep. The radio did have decent AM and FM reception, but tuning it was very fiddly, and the volume control started at loud and immediately went to louder.
This Prunus J-05 radio also performed reasonably well. However, AM reception was mixed when receiving weak stations.
This 1A2BVV brand (yes, that is the brand) JP-1 radio is well built and has above average sound. FM is good and AM is OK. Oddly, the volume on AM is about half of the volume on FM. However, it is still adequate.
I picked up this Byron Statics radio for $17.99 and wasn’t expecting much. Construction was fairly cheap, but it sounded good and FM and AM performance were OK. It also came with an AC adapter for plug-in use.

What features are essential, and what features are fluff?

FM band

FM is a must feature.  FM stations are everywhere. There are over twice as many FM stations in the US than there are AM stations.  People love FM because it has good sound fidelity, and it is less likely to suffer from thunderstorm static crashes and the buzzes and clicks that electronics, like computers,  generate.  FM (frequency modulation) stands for how the signal is broadcast, but the actual band used is part of the VHF (very high frequency) spectrum. These waves travel in a line-of-sight fashion, and the most powerful stations have a range of around 40 miles.  Naturally, smaller stations have a shorter range.  It is possible that all services could be interrupted in a wide area, and this could remove local FM stations from the airwaves. This is why having a radio that has AM reception is important.

AM band

AM is another must feature.  Just like FM, AM (amplitude modulation) refers to how the signal is broadcast, but the actual frequency spectrum in use is called the medium wave band.  This band has a unique characteristic as radio waves at these frequencies can travel by ground and follow the curvature of the earth.  The strongest AM stations can be heard for up to 100 miles during the daytime.  At night these stations can bounce off of the ionosphere and travel even further. I can easily listen to AM stations from New York, New Orleans, Denver, and Atlanta (to name a few) from my Chicagoland home during the night. 

Also, many communities have TIS (Travelers Information Service) stations.  You may be familiar with these low powered AM stations as they often broadcast information at places like National Parks and airports.  However, they also can be used for emergency information.  Their low power and simple operation make it likely that they will remain on the air during power failures and internet outages.  Many communities have TIS transmitters that can provide localized information if commercial stations fail. My town has one of these stations at 1610 kHz, and the city next to me has a station at 1620 kHz. 

Weather Band

In the early 1960s, the federal government established weather radio.  This service is now governed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).  NOAA weather radio occupies a band located in the VHF spectrum above commercial FM radio.  There are over 1000 NOAA stations in the US, which cover 95% of the population.  Listening to NOAA can be trying as the transmissions are broadcast using a monotone computer voice.  Schools, commercial radio stations, cell phone carriers, factories, and many more use NOAA’s alert function for severe weather warnings.  In addition to time and weather, NOAA radio is authorized to provide any critical information in an actual emergency.  NOAA information is relayed to commercial stations,  so it is likely that you won’t be missing much if you don’t have this band. 

Shortwave Band

This band is located between the commercial AM and FM bands.  Shortwaves have unique properties as they can travel for many thousands of miles.  When I was a kid, I would regularly listen to English language broadcasts from all over the world.  However, many of these international stations have abandoned shortwave and now stream on the Internet.  Most inexpensive radios that have the shortwave band are not very sophisticated in their reception of these frequencies.  With that said, I recently listened to one of these radios (the Kaito KA500) on shortwave and found a few English stations (religious programmers) and a bunch of Spanish speaking stations. Other parts of the world, such as South America, Africa, and parts of Asia,  still rely on shortwave radio stations. It is not necessary to have the shortwave band on a basic emergency radio in the US. Sophisticated shortwave radios can receive other types of communications, like single-sideband (SSB). Some may find this kind of reception useful.  However, simple shortwave radios can’t decode SSB.

The dedicated emergency radio

Many manufacturers have created dedicated emergency radios.  These radios have FM and AM reception, and some will have a weather band and/or shortwave band.  The mid-priced versions of these devices are reasonable radio performers.  However, you are paying extra for features that you may not use or need. 

Many of these radios have a flashlight/reading light, but they are often weak.  They will also have a rechargeable battery that you can charge in a variety of ways.  You can charge the battery just like you would charge your cell phone, which may be desirable for those who don’t like tossing out batteries.  However, these radios emphasize that they have solar panels and a cranking dynamo to charge the battery.  In my opinion, those features are mostly gimmicks as the solar cells are very tiny, and you would have to crank the dynamo for a very long time to play the radio for more than a few minutes.  Also, prolonged cranking would eventually destroy the radio’s dynamo, as it is just a cheap component. 

As an experiment, I used the dynamo on the Kaito KA500 to charge my cell phone.  I cranked vigorously for 1 minute. The phone went from a 30% charge to a 31% charge in that time… and my hand hurt. There is nothing wrong with owning an emergency radio, but a simple (and less expensive) standard radio is all that is needed in many cases.  If you decide on an emergency radio, get one that can use both its rechargeable batteries and regular disposable ones.  That will give you the greatest flexibility in an emergency. 

If you want a dedicated emergency radio, the C Crane Solar Observer ($60) and the Kaito KA500 ($50) are nice radios.

The CC Solar Observer is a solidly built radio with very good overall reception.
The Kaito KA500 is a well-designed radio. It was one of the few radios in this review that could actually receive stations on its shortwave band. It also has a weather alert function. The overall performance was good.

My recommendations

Any battery-operated radio is better than no radio.  However, I think a desktop-style radio is a better choice than a pocket radio.  Unless you are a radio lover, pick one that is simple to operate.  You don’t need to be figuring out keystrokes during an emergency.  

I believe that the best value radios are those from Sony, Panasonic, and Sangean.  They are reasonably priced, perform well, and their construction is good.  I would not leave batteries in a radio unless you are regularly using a radio on battery power.  Batteries leak and can render a radio useless. However, I would keep batteries close to the radio so you can load them at a moment’s notice.  Remember that band name Alkaline batteries can remain viable for many years if kept in a cool and dry environment.    Most radios that use AA batteries will play at moderate volume for about 50 hours, and those that use D batteries will play for about 150-200 hours.  That is a lot of play time.

My number one recommendation is the Sony ICF-19.  This radio performs well, sounds good, and costs less than $30.  It runs on 3 D cell batteries and can play for 400 hours on FM and 450 hours on AM, an incredible energy-conserving feat.  You can’t plug it into AC; it is battery only.  I love its simple operation; anyone can figure out how to use it in seconds. It wasn’t the most feature-rich radio, or the cheapest, or the best performer.  However, it does everything well, and its super-long battery life makes it my #1 choice.

The Sony ICF-19 is my top choice.

If you don’t have $30 to spare, buy a pocket radio for $10-20 or a no-brand tabletop battery radio for $15-$25.  They will also do the job, just not as elegantly.  

I continuously see prepper channels on YouTube, where people have several years’ worth of food and other supplies.  However, the most essential thing that you can have in an emergency is information. The most bulletproof and reliable mass communication method is a simple FM/AM battery-operated radio.  Please don’t delay; get one today.  It could save your life tomorrow.

Bonus Tip One

If you want the most economical option, you need to go with a pocket-sized radio.  I tested many of them, and they all worked well enough to get you vital information in an emergency.  Unless listed below, they all have reasonable FM performance, and they can receive local AM stations.  Some of these radios use real analog circuits, others use a DSP (digital) chip but have an analog dial. Their sound quality and volume are what you would expect from a tiny speaker and a small plastic cabinet. Their build quality reflects their low price.  These radios typically run on 2 AA type batteries.

I’m listing the price that I paid for these radios, but it seems that the price varies from moment to moment on these items.

This Power Bear brand pocket radio is listed as an “Amazon Choice” product. Its construction seemed cheaper than other similarly priced pocket radios. Its speaker sounded tinnier than others in this category. Its FM reception was not as good as similar products. The radio was able to pick up more distant AM stations than some, but very poor AGC made those stations painful to listen to. Price $12.99
This Benss pocket radio was only $8.99. The performance was reasonable at this price point and its speaker sounded richer than some others in this group.
This Dream Sky radio was $11.99. The FM performance was better than others in this group, and the AM performance was fine for local stations. The sound was better than others in this group.
The Retekess TR 605 was $16 (using a coupon). Sound quality was slightly better than others in this group. FM performance was good, and the AM performance was OK. This radio also has a built-in flashlight that was actually useable. This radio uses a rechargeable battery which may be desirable for someone who uses it on a regular basis. However, I prefer the option of using disposable batteries for an emergency radio as I think they are more flexible.
This Kaito KA200 was $12.99. It is about half the size of the other pocket radios and has a useable, but tiny speaker. Radio performance was surprisingly good for such a small radio. This radio uses AAA batteries, which will not last as long as AA batteries. However, it is easy to have extra batteries on hand. I think this radio would be great for someone who wants a radio, but travels light. A backpacker comes to mind.

Bonus Tip Two

I believe that the solar panels and dynamos on emergency style radios are mostly gimmicks.  If you want unlimited power, you can buy an inexpensive 10-40-watt solar panel with a USB outlet. Use the panel to charge a battery bank, and then use that bank to charge a rechargeable radio, cell phone, or other 5-volt gadgets. 

This TP solar 30 watt panel sells for around $70 and has everything that you need to charge a small battery bank. You can also DIY a 10 or 20 watt panel for even less.

There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. A little planning may someday save your life and can reduce anxiety too!

Urban Stealth Camping, Conservation And Realities

When I build-out Violet the campervan, I wanted her to be as self-contained as possible. I also wanted her to be functional. However, a van has minimal space, and options, such as a real toilet, were out of the question. I envisioned my camping adventures beyond KOAs. To achieve this, I had to carefully think about what I needed and what I could live without.

This summer has offered new camping challenges for me due to the COVID 19 pandemic. I was able to “dry camp” in the Medicine Bow National Forest, and I also camped a few National Park campgrounds. As I write this post, I’m urban camping. A family member in my home had a potentially significant COVID exposure, so I’m spending the next 10 days vandwelling in the western suburbs. Being a senior citizen and male places me in a high-risk category. Getting sick with COVID is something that I want to avoid at all costs.

I’m fortunate that I have had several offers to park on other people’s properties. Some of them have included amenities such as the ability to plug into their mains power. I am incredibly appreciative of all of the kindness that I have received. Still, I want to be a good guest and not overstay my welcome or overuse other’s generosity. Because of this, I have tried to rely on living in my van as much as possible, which means that I have had to deal with limited resources. The process has highlighted how much I waste during my everyday life, and how I should be a better steward of my environment.

Violet, the campervan, was designed to be self-sufficient. On her roof are solar panels, and her electrical storage capacity is approximately 3.5 kilowatts. She can recharge my phone. She can also run a 12 volt Dometic fridge, house lights, an exhaust fan, a microwave oven, and even an induction hot plate burner.

I usually carry bottled water for drinking, but I also haul around 10 gallons of tap water. I have equipped her with a cell phone booster and a ham radio when I am camping in the boonies. I even can purify stream water, if needed.

Violet does not have have a traditional bathroom, although she does employ an emergency “bucket” system. However, bathrooms are usually plentiful, and I also have a small gardener’s spade for those times when I’m in the wilderness.

Violet has many abilities, but her resources are finite, and conservation is an absolute must. I face similar challenges when I’m camping in the wilderness and the city, but there are also significant differences. I thought I would share some of the ways I have been coping in my van while urban stealth camping.

The toilet issue

Let’s be honest, everyone wants to know how you go to the bathroom when you are living in a van. Naturally, it depends on where you are. Due to COVID safety, I can’t use the bathrooms of some friends and family members. There are indeed public bathrooms in the suburbs. Still, it can be very inconvenient to drive to a gas station or Walmart when nature calls. At this juncture, I am relying on two resources. One of my landing spots is also one of my friend, Tom’s construction sites, and this place has a Porta-Potty. One of my favorite daytime spots is a local forest preserve, which also has a Porta-Potty. I’m covered between these two places, but let’s face it, a Porta Potty is a Porta-Potty.

Keeping clean

Violet is too small for a shower, and I’m a guy that likes to stay clean. I have been able to “score” a couple of real showers, but my daily hygiene routine has had to rely on more primitive methods. Everyone knows about baby wipes, and they do work in an emergency. However, I always feel like I’m smearing around as much dirt as I’m removing when I use them. A much better method is the “bucket bath,” which involves using a bucket (duh). I’ll leave a carboy of tap water out in the sun in an ideal situation until it is nice and warm. At other times I’ll heat a small amount of “mixing” water to accomplish the same task. It is surprising how little water you need to clean yourself, and I have found that I can do a complete “bath” in 1-2 liters of the stuff. My method is simple, put about a liter of water in a bucket and add a tiny amount of Dr. Bonner’s liquid soap. I then use a sponge to thoroughly wash, focusing on cleaner areas first. I then exchange my soapy water for some clean water and rinse using the same method. The bucket method requires a little gymnastic ability, but I feel as clean as when I shower. Showers have only been around for a short time, and humans have been cleaning themselves for thousands of years.


We live in a world powered by electricity. My phone and the iPad that I’m now typing on require 5 volts DC, my camper fridge and vent fan use 12 volts DC, and my microwave and induction burner use 120 volts AC. I use a Goal Zero Yeti 1250 with two additional AGM batteries for these needs. The Yeti recharges when I run my car or passively by solar panels. It is nice to have free electricity.

I currently have three hundred watts of solar panels on Violet’s roof, and I’ll be adding an additional 100 watts this fall. This may sound like a lot of power, but it still has to be carefully managed.

I’m stretching my limits by using solar-generated electricity for cooking. I do have a small butane stove. However, I think that it cool to use free electricity. My microwave and induction burner each use around 1 KW of power/hour, but I’m only using these devices for 5-15 minute in any given day.

When I’m living at home, I don’t think that much about electricity. I just assume that it will be available when I plug something in. I have become immune to my electric bills, which can run in the hundreds of dollars, but living in a van has given me a new perspective. The other day I was able to plug into a friend’s house electrical system. During that time, I made a grilled cheese sandwich on the induction burner, heated up some tomato soup in the microwave, and boiled some water for a “bucket bath.” I calculated the electricity cost that I used based on 10.7 cents per kilowatt/hour (the cost of power in their town). I used less than five cents of electricity. This gave me a new perspective on how much energy I am wasting every month at home.

Meal Preparation

You may have watched YouTube vandwellers make elaborate meals which they wash down with Vita-mix smoothies. They always seem to start their day with a cup of fresh cappuccino made with their $1000 espresso machine. That’s not me.

I think that my cooking style would be more comprehensive if I was always living on the road. However, I’m a temporary vandwellers. I am a guy who knows how to cook, and I don’t mind whipping up a meal for my family. However, when I’m in the van, I mostly don’t feel like cooking. Part of this is due to the van’s confined space, and part of it is that I’m just less interested in food. Granted, there are times when I’ll crave bacon and eggs or some good pancakes, and I’ll make an effort to cook these items. However, I’m usually more interested in quick and easy options. -Alright, I know you are thinking, “Mike, bacon, and eggs are quick and easy.” I agree with you when I’m at home, but not so much when I’m vandwelling.

The van has limited storage, and so each food purchase has to be carefully selected. I am always refining my grocery list, and it seems like I’m ever simplifying what I eat. I’m fond of scrambled eggs, microwaveable soup, grilled sandwiches, canned hash, and Belvita breakfast bars on this adventure. Since I’m “camping” in an urban setting, I’ll sometimes grab lunch from a restaurant.

I’m also in a “use it up” mode. When food shortages appeared during the pandemic, I made an effort to finish leftovers instead of eating what I had a taste for. This tendency has continued during my van experience. If I have leftovers, I eat them, and if I have groceries, I use them up before I buy more.

Washing dishes

If you cook, you will have dishes to wash. The “art” of washing dishes in a van balances convenience with conservation. Conservation is a given, as the more dishes that I make, the more things that I have to wash. When you carry less than 10 gallons of water, it is not practical to wash dishes in the traditional soapy way. I have adopted a method that has been espoused by more experienced vandwellers, the vinegar method.

I scrape away anything that I can remove from a pan or dish and wipe it out with a paper towel. I then spay ordinary white vinegar on the object (as a grease cutter) and wipe that out with another paper towel. This method works surprisingly well and doesn’t use any water. I would use something other than paper towels in a perfect world, but this is not an ideal world. However, I am very conscious of the fact that I have limited towels on hand. So I’m pretty conservative in their use. For those who are wondering, The vinegar evaporates and doesn’t leave any aftertaste.


Creating garbage is a fact of life. In some ways, I’m probably creating a little more waste as I’m using more paper towels and some paper products. However, I’m very aware of the garbage that I am creating, and I genuinely try to limit it. It is imperative to toss your trash daily in a small space, which I do at my local forest preserve-in a dumpster, of course.


Urban vanlife severely limits my activities. I don’t have a house full of things to amuse me. COVID limits options even more. I have a radio, my phone, an iPad, a Kindle, and a Bluetooth speaker. That is enough electronics.

I typically spend some time with my friend, Tom, in the mornings, and then I drive to a place where I can “hang out” for the day. This is usually a local forest preserve where I write, walk, cook, and live. In some ways, vanlife is a healthy life as you want to get out of the van to do physical things.

The downside to urban camping

There is a certain unsettledness when you don’t have a permanent address. I have three sleeping spots that I had prearranged before this week of urban camping. I don’t want to draw attention to myself or overstay my welcome, so I tend to rotate from place to place. Each presents with its own challenges. One site is about 25 minutes away. Another shares its driveway with several other townhomes, and the third is an open church parking lot. I feel like I need to quietly move in and set myself up without drawing too much attention. Also, I must be stealthy during the night. Although I’m not doing anything wrong, there is a sense that I am, so my bedtimes have been a bit on the hyper-vigilant side.

Although I have found ways to cope, there is simply more stress in a situation where you are using chemical toilets, sleeping outdoors, and bathing using a bucket. Urban camping is definitely more stressful than regular camping. I imagine that I would eventually adjust to this lifestyle, but I’m not there yet.

The bottom line

Dear readers, if you have read some of my prior posts, you know that I’m all about learning from experiences. Like most experiences, I have learned from this one. One of the significant lessons that I have learned is that conservation is most effective when you have some skin in the game. I try to be respectful of my environment when I’m at home, but I still let my shower run too long, and I have a tendency to leave lights on. I have no problem running the AC, and I waste too much food.

The consequences of such behaviors are much more significant when you are living in a van. If I use too much power, I lose my refrigeration. If I waste food, I don’t have anything to eat. Cleaning myself involves energy and effort; I can’t heat gallons of water because I don’t have the electrical power to do so. Water itself is a scarce resource when living in a van. I have to make sure that I have it and think twice when I use it. I never waste water.

This urban camping experience has illustrated to me that one of the most effective ways to encourage people to live more green is to make it worth their while. My vanlife situation forces me to conserve not only because it is the right thing to do but because not doing so has a direct negative impact on my day to day existence.

I have watched countless videos about the joys of vanlife. Videos where people are perpetually happy and always experiencing a new adventure. These portrayals seem synthetic to me. I feel grateful that I have a roof over my head and food in my camper fridge. But urban vanlife is stressful. However, life is not about running away; it is about making the most of where you are.

The above realizations are not to say that I’m unhappy with Violet, the campervan. I remain ecstatic about her, and I’m entirely grateful that I have experienced our country while carrying my home.

I continue to think that life is about focusing on the positives. I believe that my cup is half-full, not half-empty.

Dear readers, let’s celebrate today and focus on the positives in our lives.

Outrage Porn Addiction


I always hated my basement. It was dark, damp, and dank, but I saw something in it that I wanted. There, on a dusty shelf was my prize. It was larger than a breadbox, but roughly the same shape. Made of wood, it had seen better days and its vernier finish was checked from past encounters with the sun. A large square speaker grill resided on its left side, the cloth cover stained. On the right was a rectangle dial, with two bands marked “Broadcast,” and “Shortwave.” Below the dial was a series of push buttons, and below the butters were four brown Bakelite knobs labeled volume, tone, band, and tuning. I was young, and it was heavy. I used my body as a brace as I pulled it off the shelf and onto the floor. It’s power cord wasn’t plastic, it was a braided cloth, and it looked broken and worn. I struggled with the radio’s bulk as I slowly dragged it to one of the few electric outlets that our basement possessed. My heart was racing as I plugged it in and turned on the power switch. In moments I was met with a buzzing sound, and the smell of hot dust and hot metal. I didn’t see smoke, so I pressed on. I turned up the volume control, which crackled with the sound a corroded potentiometer. I turned the dial knob, but its pointer didn’t move. The radio was broken. Yet, I was filled with the confidence of a grade schooler who did ‘t know better. I convinced myself that I could fix it. I could bring it back to life.

I carried it to my father’s workbench and placed it on the bench’s thick birch surface. My dad rarely used the space, and I was certain that I could work on my masterpiece without interruption. The back of the radio was protected by a thick piece of pressed cardboard, which was secured by several screws. I removed them and carefully pried the back off. The radio’s chassis was filled with giant components. Vacuum tubes were common in the early 1960s, but these radio tubes were huge. I turned the radio back on and observed each of its tubes’ filaments. They all were glowing. Fantastic! I thought.

After a lot of maneuvering I was able is dislodge the chassis from its cabinet. It had an odd, mildewy smell. The radio was from the 1930s, it could have been sitting the the basement waiting for me for the last 20 years. I made a quick assessment of the damage. The string that moved the tuning dial had disintegrated, and some sort of a pressure piece used to disengaged the buttons had rotted. The power cord looked like it was ready to short, and there was so much dust in the cabinet that the air gap tuning capacitor was malfunctioning. The cabinet’s finish was in terrible shape, and the cloth speakers grill was stained and rotting. I thought to myself, “I’ll find a way.” But, I had very little money, and no skill set. I made a list of what was broken and searched the house for makeshift repair pieces.

I found some dental floss that could replace the tuning cord mechanism, but I wasn’t sure how the prior cord had be wound. A rubber cork could be cut and shaped to approximate the disintegrated pressure piece, an extension cord could be used to replace the power cord, an old woven placemat could serve as a new speaker grill. I also found some sort of solvent that I thought could clean the tuning capacitor and the volume potentiometer, and some old stain that might help refinish the cabinet. That weekend I went to Rex’s Hardware store on 55th street with my allowance money and scored a small can of paint and varnish remover. I was ready to do battle.

The project started with many attempts to restring the tuning dial with dental floss. By some great luck, I figured it out. The pressure “thing” was next, then the power cord, and so on. I saved the cabinet refinishing for the last. I painted on varnish remover and scrapped it off with an old putty knife. I lightly sanded the big box and then carefully applied the stain. I’m guessing that the stain was old as it had an orange cast to it. However, I still felt that the radio looked significantly better than before. Lastly, I cut down the placemat and stapled it in place of the old speaker grill. After a quick reassembly, I was ready to test my project.

I plugged in the old radio and clicked the on switch. After a few seconds it started to hum. I set the band selector to “Broadcast,” and slowly turned the dial. WIND boomed in, and I was shocked how good the radio’s 6 inch speaker sounded. I tuned past WIND and found WMAQ, then WGN, then WBBM. The radio worked!

Later that night I thought I would try the band labeled “Shortwave” as it had a lot of exotic cities listed above the frequency indicator. Once again I started on the extreme left of the band and slowly tuned to the right. I can’t remember for sure what the first station that I heard was, but I believe that it was “Radio RSA, The Voice of South Africa.” Holy cow, it was in English! On that first night I heard many other stations broadcasting in English. The BBC, Radio Moscow, Radio Havana Cuba, The Voice of America, and HCJB from Quito Ecuador. I was listening to radio stations from thousands of miles away. I was connected to the world unfiltered. I felt like I just tapped into the most unbelievable resource.

Over time my hobby expanded and I started to build my own radios. I think the discovery of that radio changed my life, as I was able to get the perspective of dozens of other viewpoints from dozens of other nations.

This was the Cold War era, and I lived in constant fear that the Russians were going to attack the US and destroy our cities with nuclear bombs. One night I was listening to Joe Adamov on Radio Moscow. He said, “Americans are always saying that the Russians are going to nuke them, but the only country to every use a nuclear weapon on another country was the US.” I jolted myself back in my seat with the realization that he was right. There was more than one way to look at a situation. This eye opener impacted me then, and it still impacts me today. Radio educated me to think in broader terms, to question and not to assume. Yes, radio changed my life.


I was driving back from Wyoming with plans to visit some of the National Parks in South Dakota. My cell connection was too poor to stream anything, and I was getting bored listening to music on the FM band. I switch over to AM and did a quick station scan; 10 stations total. I restarted at the beginning of the dial and tuned into each, sampling their content. There was the usual fare, sports, some music, and talk. Six out the the 10 stations were playing the same syndicated show, a popular conservative radio host. I had not listened to this host in decades and decided to explore his content. He talked in a fast, urgent, somewhat high pitched tone. A tone that immediately agitated me. He didn’t have much content, but he kept warning that if the Democrats won the next election they would destroy the country. He used a lot of slurs when talking about them giving each Democrat a derogatory nickname. He was especially concerned about Joe Biden who he condemned at one moment as being weak and senile and at another moment maniacal, and power hungry. I listened for about 30 minutes before I had to turn the radio off. I was feeling as if I was going to have a panic attack. When I returned home I tuned into some of the conservative programs on Chicago radio stations. Although the hosts were different, the presentations were the same. I heard many themes that sounded ridiculous when the president voiced them, and here they were being repeated. The hosts didn’t talk about COVID, they talked about the China virus. They stated emphatically that Biden wanted to defund the police, and destroy the suburbs. Two statements that are outright lies. They suggested that we were in danger of losing our freedom and that the Democrats wanted us all to become socialists. They seemed to draw the conclusion that socialism was the the same thing as Communism. Each time that I listened I found myself become agitated.

I’m neither a Democrats nor a Republican. I think both parties are corrupt. However, I am a person that believes in science, and that all races were created equal. I don’t feel that I have the right to determine what other consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms, and I feel that as an advanced society we should have universal healthcare.

I’m a Christian who believes that the message of the New Testament is one of love, acceptance, forgiveness, kindness, and inclusion. I don’t base my faith on the crude analysis of a single verse.

I’m more comfortable with the commentators of CNN and MSNBC rather than Fox News. However, I think that all of these channels are all equally destructive. Trump gives progressive stations an endless stream of discussion points, so you hear less outright lies. However, you do hear a biased opinion, and one that is intended (in my opinion) to manipulate the audience. The commentators of all of these channels present as newscasters instead of entertainers, but they are not balanced in their presentations and so the term entertainer seems more appropriate. There is an endless stream of “breaking news” stories that don’t seem particularly “breaking.” There are endless rehashes that can have up to 6 “experts” all agreeing with the host. The same sound bite is often repeated over and over again. The next commentator in the lineup does the same thing, but with their slightly different twist. If you are listening to a conservative channel you are told that the Democrats are going to destroy the country, and if you are listening on a progressive channel the Republicans will do the same. There is no balance, just a urgency that keeps you watching as the same stories are repeated over and over. When I view any of these channels I find myself becoming more agitated and upset. I don’t feel more informed, as most of the real information could be easily told in a 5 minute newscast. I feel mad and outraged, and it is hard to disengage.

In 1949 the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) introduced the Fairness Doctrine which required broadcasters to present controversial issues to the public in an honest, equitable, and balanced way. This required media outlets to present both sides of an issue. In 1985 FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, who was an attorney who served on Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff, released a report that stated that the Fairness Doctrine violated free speech, and in 1987 the FCC abolished the doctrine by a 4 to 0 vote. The removal of the Fairness Doctrine allowed stations to present their own viewpoints without having to present balanced news. The establishment of cable channels solely devoted to news also encouraged biased news reporting, as well as the endless parade of editorial comments masquerading as news. These networks were profit centers, and made their money with ad revenue. The longer someone watched a station the bigger their profits. Such a scenario is a recipe for drama, and an overdriven, “If it bleeds it leads” focus.

The secret to gaining a larger audience is getting them to emotionally invest in both the host and story. To do this most stories have to be padded with dramatic “opinions” from the commentator and “experts” who build on the anxiety of the viewer. The viewer is placed in a position where they are afraid to turn to a different channel, as they may miss some “breaking news.” As they become ever more agitated they become evermore outraged. The viewer “shares the tragedy” with the host which leads to trust in the host. This level of engagement can lead to a habitual pattern of watching; perfect for the network. The viewer is both disempowered and empowered at the same time. Their anger can be intoxicating in its own right. The exploitation of the news in such a way constitutes outrage porn, and the traumatic repetition of biased stores can lead to a pattern of behavior where the viewer is anxious, angry, and afraid much of the time. These same tactics can be seen in other media areas, such as YouTube channels. Since YouTube selects content based on previous views it is easy to exclusively see opinions that echo and amplify a particular biased belief.

I can think of no real benefit from watching a steady stream of cable news channels or biased YouTube channels. At the best, such viewing is upsetting to the individual. However, I believe that it also has an impact on the overall partisanship of our country. If all you see are conservative (or conversely, progressive) commentators your view of anyone who has an opposing opinion will suffer. Many of the commentators are “passionate” in their feelings which further impacts how people react to differing opinions. We no longer disagree, we attack, just like the attacks that we see on the “news.” The end result is a fractured population that can be easily manipulated by others, including politicians. When this happens democracy itself is at risk.

Are you watching/listening to news/talk channels for hours every day? Do you find yourself becoming overly emotionally invested in news events? Do you become angry if someone has a different political opinion than yours? Does your news outlet always favor one political party over the other? Do you find that you are afraid, angry, or upset after watching the news? If you answer “yes” to several of these questions you may be suffering of Outrage Porn Addiction (my term). So, how do you free yourself from this addiction?

Since we no longer have checks and balances due to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine you need to protect yourself by adding your own checks and balances. I would limit cable news consumption to no more than one hour a day, preferably split into two segments. Personally, I go one step further and use my smart speaker to keep me abreast of what is happening. I program it to play NPR news (progressive), USA Today news, and Fox News (conservative) in the morning when I get up. These actual newscasts are only a few minutes long and tend to be more balanced. I also read selected news stories from various outlets while I’m having my breakfast. That constitutes my daily dose of news. The best way to avoid Outrage Porn Addiction is to remove the offending agent. If the above doesn’t work you can try neutral news sources like the BBC or Radio Canada. Both are available by internet streams. They always have some US news included.

Outrage Porn Addiction is like any other addiction. It initially feels good, and then it makes you progressively sicker. Don’t let yourself be manipulated by others. Get a balanced perspective, and get on with your life.

Radio stations used to present a more balanced picture of controversial events.

Is Dr. Mike A Simple Or Complex Guy?

For whatever reason, people like to label me. They take one of my characteristics, and they build an entire opinion of who I am and what motivates me. Perhaps this is because we live in a world of sound bites, where everything can be explained in two sentences or less.

Just like everyone, I am a complex individual and not a one-dimensional cartoon caricature. Two of my traits that seem to confuse many are my desire for both complexity and simplicity. On the surface, such characteristics are diametrically opposed, but they are entirely compatible and ego-syntonic to me. 

I have many things in common with my siblings. Still, one characteristic above all others is that we are obsessive people. Our obsessiveness exhibits itself differently, and I’m not about to take my siblings’ personal inventories. However, my obsessive personality has its roots in my genetic makeup.

I am an obsessive problem solver. I think of various scenarios, plan solutions, and then test out those solutions for potential flaws. Believe it or not, that is an enjoyable activity. My family may make fun of me for having several first aid kits or a box of spare batteries. Still, they come to me when they cut their fingers or when their battery-operated watches stop. 

This problem-solving style leads to another trait, I am a comparer. I get pleasure in understanding how similar tasks are accomplished in different ways. When I was active in psychiatry, I was fascinated by how very different psychotherapies could help patients. However, this comparing habit existed long before I had the initials M.D. behind my name.

When I was 5 years old, I collected old pencils and compared them based on their characteristics. Which one had the smoothest lead? Did the color of the eraser impact its utility? Did more costly pencils work better? (BTW, the answers to these questions are: Dixon Ticonderoga, No, and Yes). I had a pencil collection for years, and as it expanded, so did my knowledge of this obscure topic. 

In grade school, I started to collect radios, which led to listening to short-wave radios, branched off to building radios, and eventually prompted me to get an Advanced Amateur Radio license.

I have made in-depth comparisons on items ranging from bread makers to guitars. My current collection is cameras. I am fascinated by how various manufacturers approach the same fundamental issues in very different ways. I love the creative process of taking a good picture. Still, I equally enjoy learning more about camera controls, flashes, and lenses. You may read all of the above and think, “That Dr. Mike is a pretty weird guy.” I would say that you are probably right…and so what!

Being a comparer means that I have a lot of stuff, and I like having many things… but I also crave simplicity. It is a joy for me to travel in Violet, my little campervan, and live well with only those things that fit in her tiny space. But, I’m a problem solver. “What if I don’t have the right electrical adapter?” “What if my car battery goes dead in the middle of nowhere?” “How can I boost my cell phone reception?” Solutions often mean more stuff, and more stuff makes van life difficult due to space constraints. Yet, on every trip, it does seem like I use an unlikely item or two that I had previously packed away, “just in case.”  

Before most trips, I will go through Violet’s boxes and bins and remove things that appear to have little use. On my last trip, I took out 4 microwavable cereal bowls, an extra towel, and a little-used cooking pot. I left other potential candidates, like a potato peeler and an extra flashlight. Still, they could go on the chopping block on my next purge.

Before the same trip, I added some items that I thought could be useful. Why? Why not! Oh, and there is often a trip’s bonus item. A bonus item is something that I carry, although it is doubtful that I will need it. However, it turns out that I do need it, and I’m glad that I brought it. On my trip to Glacier last summer, the bonus item was a little tool kit that I kept in the camper. I dropped something behind Violet’s kitchen and had to unbolt the unit to retrieve it. This year my bonus item was my Garmin GPS.

Like many of you, I use Google and Apple Maps for direction advice. I used to be good at reading paper maps, but my smartphone has sucked that ability. I love these programs because they are updated continuously. However, they have one fatal flaw, they require an internet connection to do their thing. Both programs will retain necessary turn-by-turn information once you set your route. Still, they can’t create a new route or modify a route if you are away from a cell tower. Unfortunately, I often camp in places where I don’t have a connection to the outside world. When I was initially stocking Violet, I purchased a Garmin GPS, “just in case,” and this was the first year that I needed it to route the legs of my trip. It worked great, and I was glad to have it.  

So, what new items I brought on this trip?


When I camp, I only bring two pairs of shoes, hikers and shower shoes. The later are those very cheap ones that have a painful peg that goes between your toes. My mother put the fear of God in me when she told me about the dangers of getting athlete’s foot in public showers. Despite knowing that the actual risk is low, I feel obligated to bring a pair along. However, this year I also brought along a pair of Crocks, and they were a fantastic addition. It was a pleasure to drive long distances wearing them, and if I had to leave the camper in the middle of the night, I didn’t have to lace-up my hikers. I will definitely bring them on my next camping trip.

My old Sony AM/FM portable radio

During the first two years of owning Violet, I packed a sizable multi-band radio. It was big and bulky and had a habit of flying off its perch when I made an aggressive turn. I have been pelted more than once by D batteries as they flew out of the radio’s innards to become instant missiles. Eventually, I got sick being beaten up by batteries, and I purged the Grundig from my camper. This trip, I packed an old analog AM/FM portable radio. Its manual mechanics are very energy efficient, and it runs forever on a few batteries. It stays in place when I drive. 

The radio turned out to be a great addition, as I didn’t have a reliable cellular connection during most of my trip. Through it, I was able to get the weather and news, plus entertainment. You may be asking, “Why not just use the van’s radio?” This could be done in a pinch, but I don’t like doing things that can potentially drain the vehicle’s battery. Besides, I could take the Sony out of the van and listen in my folding camp chair’s comfort. The radio is a keeper.

Solar Generator/folding solar panels 

I have an elaborate onboard solar set-up in Violet, making it unnecessary to bring along any additional battery banks. However, I wanted to play around with a little one that I had at home. The unit has 300 watts of power and various connections, allowing it to power 12 volt, USB, and AC devices. I also brought along a folding solar panel to see if it would be feasible to charge the little guy in the field.

I did enjoy having the battery pack, and I used it every day to charge my phone and watch. I also used it to power my Wilson (WeBoost) cell phone booster to send out text messages to my family. Best of all, I was able to quickly recharge it using the folding solar panel. This set up could be a reasonably priced solution for at-home preparedness. With it, you could recharge your phones, computers, and even power a TV. I had a lot of fun playing around with it on my camping adventure; it is not a must-pack for me.

iPad and Kindle

I brought both. I used the Kindle but never got around to using the iPad. However, I’ll likely bring them on my next trip as they take up little space. I have a keyboard for my iPad, allowing me to write if I am so moved. iPads are more energy-efficient than laptops making them good travel companions.

Induction cooktop

I’m in the process of having Violet reclassified as an RV. This will mean lower insurance and tag costs. Illinois has many requirements to change a commercial vehicle to an RV. One of them is that the vehicle has to have an onboard cooking system.  

My friend, Emma Cabusao (Dr. Emma) gave me an induction burner as a present several years ago. My other friend, Tom, used his building skills to mount it to Violet’s kitchen counter, and I connected it to my solar power system.

I’m pleased with the butane stove that I have used for several years. So I didn’t think that I would need the induction burner for cooking; I just needed to show the state’s inspector that I had an onboard cooking system. However, on my recent camping adventure, I tried it out and loved it. An induction burner uses a magnetic field to cook, and the device stays cool to the touch. Also, there is no open flame to worry about. My Goal Zero solar generator efficiently handled the hot plate’s energy requirements. Since I generate all of the van’s electricity from solar, using the burner meant that I was cooking for free! I won’t get rid of my butane stove, as I like to cook greasy, splattery stuff outside of the van. However, for everything else, I’m all in on this gadget. 

Some stuff goes out of the van, some stuff goes in. There are things that I will probably never use (like the potato peeler) and things that I wind up using even when I think I won’t (like the Garmin GPS).  

In today’s story, I’m trying to make a couple of different points. The first one is to not judge or categorize someone else based on a single observation or characteristic. We are all complex creatures. I would urge you to be tolerant of people who may not think exactly as you do. You could find that you have more in common with them than on first blush. As for me, my planning and preparing style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t hurt anyone, so don’t pass judgment.

The second point is that in many cases, the only way to determine if something is right for you is to try it out. Now, I’m not saying that you should go around doing dangerous or illegal stuff. However, most people regret what they didn’t do in their life more than what they did do.

Lastly, Violet, the campervan, shows me how little I need to be happy. When I’m at home, there always seems to be some item that catches my eye. Sometimes it is a “super deal” on WOOT or a “recommendation” from Amazon. I also get the urge to buy something after watching influencers on YouTube. I do enjoy these things, but in the majority of cases, I don’t need them. My tiny campervan has everything that I need to thrive. I can cook meals, listen to the news, read a book, take a bath, go to bed, and do all of those things that I would do in daily life. But I’m not doing them in a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom house… I’m doing it in a tiny cargo van. Less can sometimes be more. Life is complicated (or is it simple?).

Update: After many months of modifying Violet to comply with Illinois’ rules to reclassify her as an RV (as opposed to being a commercial van), I had her inspected by the Illinois Secretary of State police. A friendly officer came out and asked questions, toured the van, and took a ton of photos. I’m thrilled to report that Violet passed her test and will be reclassified as an RV once I get her new paperwork. Whew!

Using an induction burner turned out to be a great idea!
My old Sony portable radio kept me in touch with the world.
I had a lot of fun using this little 300-watt solar generator. I always enjoy playing around with a new gadget.
My Garmin GPS really helped me when I couldn’t use Google Maps.

Life Without The Internet

I owned my first personal computer in 1983. In those days, the Internet was unknown to ordinary folks like me, but I did use online services.  I remember belonging to Compuserve, and then AOL (America-On-Line).  These portals were terrific, although they were primitive and slow compared to today’s Internet.  I connected to them using a dial-up 56K modem, which tied up both my landline and my patience.  Despite their limitations, they had useful features like email, local weather forecasts, news, and forums.  Forums were “bulletin boards” on topics that ranged from theoretical physics to teaspoon collecting. The only audio was bleeps and beeps, except for the iconic (and pre-recorded) “You’ve got mail!” when I logged into AOL email.

Most services were text-based, as even a good dial-up connection was glacially slow. To put their data rate into perspective, I did a speed test on my current home internet connection, which resulted in a 170 Mbps download speed.  My existing internet connection is approximately 3000 faster than my former dial-up modem. 

In the early 1990s, my future wife, Julie, started her Ph. D. program in Clinical Psychology. By that time, I was a self-proclaimed expert in MS-DOS (the precursor to Windows), and so she asked for my help to configure and buy her first computer.  I was excited to score her one with a “massive” 40 MB hard drive. My current home computer system has  14 TB of storage capacity, 350,000 times more storage than Julie’s first computer!

I loaded a DOS version of WordPerfect onto her computer. She used that text-based word processor to write all of her papers, including her Master’s thesis and her Ph. D. dissertation. Using a DOS-based word processor could lead to potential problems. Late one night Julie called me in a panic as she accidentally alphabetized every word in a 20-page school paper.  That was the evening that I taught her the power of the “undo” key.

Julie had to log into the university’s mainframe computer for some of her assignments. She did this using an amazing inter-university network called the Internet.  The Web had not yet been developed, and a text-based protocol called Gopher was used instead.  I recall sitting next to her as we explored this fantastic resource.  By typing text commands, we could leave the U of I system and “travel” to other universities.  We felt like 007 when we “broke into” Harvard’s weekly dining hall menu.  That simple exploration seemed beyond tremendous at that time.

During those years, I was enamored with computing. I started to build powerful computers for specific purposes, like photo editing. There were no computer building manuals, and I had to rely on logic to see me through my construction projects. For me, computers were creativity tools that I could use to edit photos and videos, record music, and do desktop publishing.

By the mid-1990s, the U of I developed a program called Mosaic, which eventually became the web browser Netscape. With Netscape, the Internet, as we know it, was born. Web browsers were graphical and allowed people to use their computers visually. The web browser introduced the hyperlink to the Internet, a feature used every time someone logs onto the Web  Web browsers made the Internet accessible to everyone. However, the Internet of those days was very different from what we use today.  YouTube and Facebook didn’t exist, and Amazon was just a third-rate online bookseller.

I have had a cell-phone since the mid-1980s and got my first smartphone in the early 2000s, a Handspring Treo.  Other phones followed, including a Windows CE phone that was so terrible that I called it my “dumb phone.” These primitive phones were slow, clunky, and very limited in their abilities.  However, I thought that they were magical as they were so much more powerful than the flip phones that I had been using.

Time went on, and I eventually took a bite of the Apple and bought a Mac and iPhone gaining their additional capabilities.  By then, I saw these electronics as things.  They had transitioned from the miracle category to the tool category, where they kept company with other former stars, like my CD player and microwave oven.

My usage of them also changed, and more and more of my time was spent on the Internet. When I needed an answer, I Googled. When I wanted to watch a movie, I clicked on Netflix, and when I needed to reminisce, I streamed songs from the 70s on Spotify. My banking was done online, as were most of my correspondences. YouTube became my personal DIY tutor, Amazon, my shopping mall, and the NPR radio stream functioned as my window to the world.

These changes didn’t carry the excitement of those early days when I peeked into a dining hall menu plan; they just happened.  Every day I would interact with the Internet dozens of times, and I was not even thinking about it. 

On trips, I would travel with my iPhone and iPad.  Sometimes I would bring a hotspot to a different cellular network just in case my Tmobile connection failed. I could research destinations, reserve hotels and campsites, and check out local restaurants.  Wherever I was, I was always connected… that is until I wasn’t.

Curt Gowdy State Park was full as were two campsites in the Medicine Bow National Forest.  We finally found a dirt forest service road and with it a dispersed primitive campsite. That would be our home.  It was a beautiful spot that lacked all amenities, including an internet connection. 

After some initial traveling friction, all was good between Tom and me, and we were having a great time.  However, there was still an issue that had to be addressed.  Tom wanted to camp at the Echo Canyon campground at the Dinosaur National Monument, and I didn’t. The campsite was 13 miles down a dirt canyon road that the park service advised could be treacherous. “In rainy conditions, we advise a high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle.” Violet, the campervan was neither 4 wheel drive nor high clearance.  Tom felt that she could handle it, but he is an adventurer, and I am a planner.

I told Tom that I would be splitting off the journey, and we parted under the best terms.  I decided to spend another night at our campsite, and my mind was already planning on what projects I would do as Tom and his son pulled away.  Instead, I was immediately struck with an immense sense of aloneness. It covered me like a leaded blanket and slowed both my actions and thoughts… I fell into a deep sleep that lasted for hours.

I woke up to a loud buzzing sound.  I had made friends with a hummingbird who liked to fly in and out of the campervan’s sliding door.  We named the bird “Frank” for some unknown reason, and I started to address him as such. His actions changed as he would fly in, turn towards me, chirp, and fly out.  His behavior made me laugh, and I felt less alone.  As Frank was flying in and out of the van I heard a thump and looked down to see that the world’s largest chipmunk had jumped into the van.  I startled and shouted, “Get out of here!” He jumped out, only to repeat this behavior many times in a fashion akin to a game. “Did I just wake up in a Disney cartoon?” I thought to myself.

I checked my phone and saw one signal bar until it quickly faded away.  I set up my Verizon hotspot, linked it to my Tmobile phone, and powered up my Wilson cell phone amplifier.  All of that effort allowed me to very slowly send a text message and not much else.  I had no internet.

I didn’t have a sense of panic or loss, but I did feel a bit bewildered as this was the first time in a long time that I was disconnected. I decided to undertake a little project, and I organized some of Violet’s drawers and swept her floor. I started to think of other ways to entertain myself, which didn’t involve a high-speed connection.  

I’m a planner, and on this trip, I brought an old-style AM/FM radio.  I pulled it down from its storage compartment, extended its telescopic antenna, and slowly turned across its slide rule style dial. At 88.3 MHz, I found KVXO, an NPR outlet from Fort Collins, Colorado, and with a little antenna twisting, I was able to get a strong signal.  I settled into a broadcast of “Fresh Air.” I have become used to on-demand programming, but it felt more comfortable being just a listener than a programmer.  I had no choice in what I would hear next, and that was perfectly alright with me.

After some time, I tired of talk radio, and I powered up my Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker.  I have a lot of music on my phone (from my pre-streaming days), and I selected a playlist of light classical music mixed with some straight-ahead jazz.  

The music played in the background as I decided on my dinner plans.  I remembered that I had a can of corned beef hash in my pantry, which seemed like a perfect gourmet camping meal.  I plopped the contents onto a paper plate and carefully sliced it into 4 “hash burger.” I set up my Gas One mini butane stove outside the camper’s door, put the burgers into a frying pan, and cranked up the heat. They sizzled, popped, and spattered as they went from typical processed food to a delectable treat.  I put half of the burgers in my Dometic 12 volt fridge and placed the other two on some Pepperidge Farm white bread.  They would be my dinner.

The evening idly wore on, and I settled into the night by reading from my Kindle.  Dear readers, I am not much of a novel reader, but I have had several books on my Kindle for many years.  I pressed a few tabs and soon was engrossed in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.  My eyelids became heavy, and I drifted off to sleep.

Much of the rest of my trip lacked an Internet connection, but I didn’t seem to mind.  I felt informed and entertained with those devices that I had. I had less compulsion to blindly waste hours of my time in the pursuit of needless knowledge.  I found peace in hikes, walks, and in conversations with random strangers.  When I needed information, I found ways to find it, including asking others for help.  I lost the urge to see what was happening on Facebook, and I had no desire to obsess about the day’s news story. There were no impulsive purchases from Amazon. I was at peace.

I didn’t feel less connected, I felt more connected.  I was present in my environment and aware of my surroundings.  I felt the joy of simplicity,  It was good.

Making hash burgers on my Gas One butane stove.
An old portable radio provided all of the information that I needed.
These devices kept me company. From left to right: My Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker, A very old AM/FM radio, My Kindle Paperwhite.

Traveling, Friendship, and Friction.

Some ask for permission, and some beg for forgiveness. I’m in the former category.

Some prefer the excitement of the unknown, and there are those who find comfort in planning.  I am in the latter category.

We don’t live in a perfect world, and there is no such thing as an ideal person.  With that said, most of us are happy in relationships driven by cooperation rather than conflict.

I have this “thing” when I travel, I like to have a reasonable amount of gas in my car.  This is especially true when I’m traveling out west, where gas stations are few and far between. My worry kicks in at a quarter of a tank of fuel and builds until I find a gas station.  At around an eighth of a tank, I can feel my heart race, and as the indicator needle drops further, I start to panic.  

In July, my friend Tom told me that he planned on traveling out west with his son for a vacation. Tom was working on several big projects, but the summer was drawing to a close, and he wanted to give his boy an adventure. “The hiking paths at Glacier are closed, and so I was thinking about camping in Wyoming and western Colorado.  Do you want to come along?” He asked. “Yes, absolutely,” I replied.  Violet, my campervan, had been sitting idle all summer due to the pandemic. I was more than happy to get back into her driver’s seat. 

I tried to pin Tom down for some details, but he shrugged me off.  Remember my “planner” comment from above?  Tom tends to be in the “more spontaneous” camp.  Eventually, he let me know that he was planning on going the first week of August.

As the departure date approached, I pressed for more information, but it seemed to aggravate him.  I knew that Tom was stressed, but I still needed the necessary data. “When are we leaving?” I asked. “I think around 4 AM. We can meet on the road.” He replied.

We live minutes from each other, so the “meet on the road” comment was confusing. I started to get Violet ready for the journey. I made a trip to Walmart to buy camp food.  I packed a duffle bag full of clothes. The day before we were scheduled to leave, I texted him and asked him where we were going to meet. “On the road,” he replied. “Are you serious?” I responded. “What’s the big deal?” was his comeback.

I was about to drive 1000 miles with no other information than a destination.  My mind started to move into high gear.  Had I somehow coerced Tom into inviting me to go on this trip?  No, I didn’t.  Was he upset with me for some reason?  I see Tom most days, and we get along well.  It was clear that he didn’t want to drive in tandem with me, but it was unclear why. 

My behavior in such a situation is very predictable and dates back to my childhood.  My reaction is a multi-step process, most of which happens very quickly.  First, I feel very hurt.  Then I wonder if I did something wrong.  If I did do something wrong, I try to correct it.  If I didn’t do anything wrong, I move on to the next stage, anger. I’m not a very angry person, so this stage rapidly transitions to the final stage… I call that stage, “Kuna pride.”

When I was a young child, I would try to engage my dad. For instance, when I was in fourth grade, I found an old radio in the alley.  I brought it to my dad and asked him if he would help me remove the radio’s speaker, so I could use it in another project. I recall him sitting in an upholstered rocker that we had in our living room. “Dad, could you help me get this speaker.  I want to use it for something else, but I don’t know how to remove it from the chassis.” He seemed to hover 10 feet above me.  He moved the edge of the “Sun-Times” that he was reading and looked down at me. “It’s impossible to remove those speakers,” he said and went back to reading the paper.  I knew that it was possible to remove the speaker because I had already figured out how to do it.  I was asking him for help because I wanted to spend time with him. I wanted him to value me, and I wanted him to be proud of me.

I felt hurt, then I blamed myself for not being a good enough son, then I got angry, and then I moved into Kuna pride. I took the old radio down into the basement and pulled the speaker.  I brought it back upstairs and showed him that I had solved the problem without his help.  I knew at that point that he would be more annoyed with me than proud.  I wanted him to see that I didn’t need him.  That I didn’t need anyone.  I wanted him to know that if he didn’t believe in me, then I would believe in myself.  I would not let him or anyone determine if I was good enough. I would figure out life on my own. I would find my own path. That, dear reader, is Kuna pride.

I know that it is considered wrong to be proud, but I felt that I had little choice.  If my own father didn’t want to spend 15 minutes with me, who would?  I could become the reject that I assumed that he thought I was, or I could adopt the idea that I wasn’t a reject, I was just different. Different is neither good nor bad. Being different would allow me to form my own thoughts. I didn’t need to sacrifice who I was on the fickle altar of popularity.

I could cite other examples of Kuna pride in my life, but you get the idea.  In some ways, Kuna pride has made me a stronger and more independent person.  I can think on my feet, and I don’t need a lot of external validation to do those things that I feel are correct.  Naturally, there is also a downside to such a trait; I’ll let you ponder that.

When it was clear that Tom didn’t want to travel with me, I moved through my “stages.”  “I don’t need anyone to travel.  I can do it on my own. I’m not going to let anyone determine who I am. If he doesn’t want to spend time with me, so be it. I will make this trip my own adventure” Kuna pride was now in command.

I turned on the Violet’s 12-volt Dometic fridge and stocked it with perishables.  I loaded her pantry with dry goods.  I filled a snack bag with some fruit and salty treats and placed it on the console next to the driver’s seat. I shoved my duffle bag in a storage compartment under the bed. I filled my thermos with coffee, my Hydro Flask with ice water, and placed both in the center console cupholders.  I punched in Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming on my iPhone’s GPS, started Violet’s engine, and backed out of the driveway.  

With Kuna pride, there is always some residual hurt and anger. Still, I quickly buried those feelings as I was not about to allow anyone to take anything more away from me.  I was going to make the most of the drive. 

I filled the driving hours thinking about random things, listening to podcasts and music, and making phone calls.  As I approached Omaha, I realized that my phone wasn’t charging.  I had just replaced the charging cord, and jiggling the connection confirmed the fear that my iPhones lightning port was defective.  I moved into problem-solving mode and started to search for a T-mobile or Best Buy store in Omaha.  Just then, I got a text message from Tom. “Where are you?” I replied that I was approaching Omaha, and I had to make a stop there. “We are about 25 minutes ahead of you and are stopping in Omaha, too,” came his text.  I replied, “OK.” I was not about to ask him if he wanted to meet up in Omaha.  One of the aspects of Kuna pride is that once I’m hurt, I establish a 20-foot high emotional barrier to prevent being hurt again.  I spied a Love’s Travel Stop and pulled in.  I filled up on gas and found an overpriced wireless charger for my phone and continued my journey.

More text messages from Tom started to come in, and he was acting normal.  I told you that I’m not a person who stays angry, and this is especially true when it comes to people that I care about.  My barrier wall was intact, but it was crumbling a bit.

I continued to drive with an eye on the fuel gauge and made sure that I found a gas station when the tank was at the quarter level.  On past trips with Tom, my need to fill up has been a stress point between us.  He likes to drive as far as possible on a single tank of gas; I have had to bring him a jerry can when he has run out of fuel in the past. Now I could stop for gas as frequently as needed.  There was a relief in this.  

The further west that I traveled, the worse my T-mobile signal fared. I dug around and found my prepaid Verizon hotspot. I had added a month of service to it just before my departure as a safety net.  As I said before, I am a planner.

With the hotspot connected to the Verizon network and my T-mobile iPhone connected to the hotspot, I was able to regain some connection. However, I was still getting a lot of dropouts.  The communications with Tom continued via Facetime and voice calls.  Tom asked me why I had ignored his calls before the text that I responded to near Omaha.  Apparently, my iPhone was malfunctioning on many levels. I made a note to myself to buy an iPhone 12 in the fall.   

As we got closer to the exit for Curt Gowdy, Tom told me not to follow the directions from my GPS. “There is a better exit, I don’t remember what number it is, but I’ll recognize it when I see it. I’ll let you know what it is once I find it.” I told him, “OK.” He eventually relayed the exit information to me, and I started to scan the Interstate for the sign.  To make the situation more confusing, I had to drive through what seemed like a million road construction cones.  Suddenly, my Verizon hotspot disconnected from my phone.  I reached down to power it up, and at that exact time, I drove past the exit.  A wave of panic rushed over me.  I was in the middle of nowhere, and I had no idea if the next exit was 1 mile or 100 miles away. I had been driving 14 hours, I was exhausted, and now I was sick to my stomach.  

Luckily, Laramie’s exit was only about 10 miles west, and I pulled off the Interstate.  By then, Tom informed me that all of the campsites at Curt Gowdy were filled, and he was leaving the park. “Stay at the visitor’s center,” I texted. “I’ll find you there.” I pulled into a small church parking lot and tried to figure out where I was. Tom called and told me to meet him at the intersection of Happy Jack road and the Interstate.  He might have told me to meet him on the second moon of Jupiter, as I would have had an equally good chance of figuring out how to get there. “Wait, wait, wait! Let’s meet at the visitor’s center. I can put that into the GPS,” I said.  Tom continued to push for the Happy Jack destination, and then it came out of my mouth.  You can imagine the types of words that emanated from my piehole; however, it would be impossible to convey the level of anger and rage that accompanied them. I had had it.

I was driving again and directly in front of me was the entrance to the Interstate.  How the heck did I find it?  I pulled onto the expressway and drove east.  Suddenly, the GPS announced, “Next exit Happy Jack road.” I didn’t remember programming the GPS, but that was the exit that Tom wanted me to meet him.  We connected and started looking for a place to camp.  We drove into the Medicine Bow National Forest and found a campground, but it was full.  We drove to another, and it was also full.  We found a forest service road and drove in.  We came upon a family and asked if they knew if camping was allowed along the service road.  The husband said that there was dispersed camping, but we would have to drive down a bit.  We pressed forward and found a clearing about a mile and a half up the dirt road.

I parked Violet and tried to settle down.  I was absolutely exhausted, stressed, and shaking.  At the same time, I was relieved that we had found a place to camp, and I was happy to see Tom and his son.  They came over, and we started to chat.  The first thing that Tom commented on was how surprised he was at my expletives. I acknowledge his statement noting that I was exhausted and frustrated.  At that point, Tom’s son asked me in earnest if I really did have all of my breakfast meals planned out in advance. It was clear that they had had a discussion in the car concerning my behaviors.  I don’t believe that the discussion was complementary in nature. I decided to take the high road. “People are different.  Some are planners, some are more spontaneous.  Neither position is right or wrong…” At that point, Tom butted in laughing, “It was such a relief not having you follow us.  What a pain in the ass.” My kindness button switched off.  I was furious again.  However, I knew that it would be foolish to respond to him in my depleted state. I was in no position to accurately judge anything.

The evening ended, and I went to bed, but I didn’t sleep despite my exhaustion.  Why was I here?  Why did I go on this vacation? The questions tumbled through my mind.  I decided that I would talk to Tom the next morning and tell him about my feelings. I would also say to him that I would be returning home the following day.  It made no sense to drive 1000 miles and then return home without doing anything, and I wanted to hike the park, but I couldn’t see spending the next week with Tom.

The next morning Tom had noticed that I was acting more sullen and tried to use humor to lighten me up.  I told him that I needed to talk to him without his son present.  Having a serious conversation with Tom is possible. Still, it is not conducted in a typical fashion, as he has a tendency to interrupt.  

I told him about my frustration and my plan to leave the following day.  It was clear that Tom didn’t want this, and that his comment from the night before was meant to be humorous.  However, there was a grain of truth in his barb. He told me that he was feeling a lot of stress and wanted to drive away his tension. He noted that it had been difficult for him to have me follow on past trips due to our different driving styles. He implied that he didn’t want that additional stress on this trip.  I admitted to him that it was also stressful for me to follow him.  Driving tandem was stressful for both of us, but for opposite reasons.  He noted that he was only 30-40 miles ahead of me during the entire trip and that he would have come back to get me if anything had gone wrong.  He said many other things, but the gist of the conversation was that no ill will was intended by him. He had asked me on the trip because he wanted me to come and not out of a sense of obligation. 

On my part, I was aware that I was reading his behavior through the veil of my past experiences. With the acknowledgment of our mutual stress, my anger faded, and we were just Mike and Tom on another one of our adventures.  I could feel the relief from both of us as we acknowledged how external stresses and differences in our personalities were the root causes of the friction between us.

That later fact deserves further comment.  I tend to be a planner who wants all of the boxes checked before I engage in something new.  Tom finds excitement in the unknown; he enjoys flying by the seat of his pants.  In ordinary life, we complement each other.  I have made Tom more organized, and he has made me more spontaneous.  However, driving 1000 miles in a single day is not part of normal life.  Tom said he was sorry if he upset me.  We were both happy to move forward. There is a reason that we are best friends. We are imperfect, but neither of us is cruel.  We not only like each other, but we also look out for each other.

The trip continued under the best of terms.  Will I travel again with Tom?  The answer is, yes.  How will we travel to our next destination?  Well, that is yet to be determined.

I wrote this post for several reasons, but mostly to stimulate you, dear readers, to think about points of conflict that you have had in your relational life.  Our past impacts our present. It is easy to misinterpret a person’s actions and motivations.  We are all different, and one person’s goal in a situation may differ from another person’s.  Textbook communication and conflict resolution protocols are great when you can do them. Still, when you can’t, it is OK to imperfectly resolve a problem.  The most important characteristics when moving forward are sincerity, empathy, and honesty. With these traits, a solution is possible.  If you are in a relationship that is phony instead of sincere, or one where the parties can only relate to their own needs,  or one that is dishonest instead of honest, then no actual resolution can ever be achieved. If these negative characteristics are present, then it may be best to move on or accept that you will be stressed continuously in a repeating pattern of disharmony.

There is more to this vacation story, but I’ll save that for another day.  



our campsite at Medicine Bow National Forest.
Getting ready to hike at Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming.
Touring the Wyoming State Capitol.
Sharing some hot morning tea.

Soap, Chemistry, And Believing Lies

During the pandemic, I established a personal goal to talk to some of my close relatives daily.  It feels good to stay in touch with them as we share our lives and support each other.  Each of us has different knowledge that we bring to our conversations, mine being a strong background in medicine and science.

One of my relatives was upset that she couldn’t buy Dial antibacterial liquid soap.  When she had tried to purchase it early in the pandemic, she was shocked that a gallon refill was selling on Amazon for $70.  When she revisited that product a few weeks later, it was sold out.

I reminded my relative that consumer-level antibacterial soaps were no more effective than ordinary soap and that all soap-like handwashing products were equally effective in destroying the coronavirus. 

As the pandemic lumbered on, it became impossible to buy any liquid hand soap. My weekly trips to the grocer showcased bare shelves that pump bottles and refills of liquid hand soaps once called home. This elimination of usually plentiful products got me pondering.

My siblings and I are obsessive.  We get pleasure from overthinking solutions and learning about topics that most would consider trivial.  Anyone who knows me understands my obsessive passion for photography. However, beyond photography, I enjoy learning about many other topics that capture my interest. 

My relative’s concerns about the lack of Dial liquid soap incited me to learn more about soap, so here is my “deep dive” on the topic. It is more complicated than you may think.

Soap can be a very inexpensive commodity, yet some people spend $25 or even $100 on a bar with similar cleaning qualities to brands that sell for 40 cents.  Some of this additional cost can be accounted for by extras like packaging and exclusive fragrances, but those manufacturing expenses are relatively minor. What sells a product is how it is perceived, and how a product is perceived is often determined by advertising. Advertising and reality and not always bedfellows.

Why do we need soap?

Our skin has glands that secrete oil to protect our bodies from excessive water loss.  We also have glands that produce sweat that helps us regulate our body temperature. These secretions are essential, but they also make us “sticky” to dirt, allergens, and microorganisms. 

The microorganisms that typically reside on our skin are harmless, although they do contribute to odor.  However, our skin can sometimes become contaminated with organisms that cause disease.  Keeping our skin clean not only helps us smell nice, but it also protects us from illness.

Before the invention of soap, people relied on other ways to clean themselves.  Most commonly, they just used water or water plus an abrasive (like pumice).  Oil and water don’t mix, and this method of cleaning isn’t very useful.  Like the Romans, some cultures used scented oils that they spread on their skin and scraped off using a unique gadget called a strigil.  

History of soap

Archaeologists have discovered recipes for soap dating back to 2800 BC. Soap was likely being used before that time.  These soaps were not the colorful scented bars that we use today, but they functioned as soap.

Animal fats and plant oils are made up of triglycerides.  The molecular structure of a triglyceride looks like an “E.” The three horizontal arms consist of fatty acids bound together by a glycerol (glycerin) molecule (the vertical line of the E).  When a triglyceride is reacted with a very strong base like sodium hydroxide (Lye), the bonds between the glycerol and the fatty acids are broken. This results in fatty acid “salts” and glycerol. We call these fatty acid salts “soap.” 

These salts have a unique property.  One end is “lipophilic,” meaning fat-loving.  This end easily mingles with fats and oils.  The other end is “hydrophilic” or water-loving.  This end mixes well with water.  Fatty acid salts (soap) can bridge the gap between oil and water, allowing us to quickly wash away the gunk and funk. Also, the mixture’s glycerol is an excellent humectant; it attracts water to our skin, keeping it moist. 

Soap is one of humankind’s most significant discoveries. The practice of cleaning our bodies has had untold benefits to our health. How would you feel if your surgeon didn’t wash their hands before operating on you?

Soap has been manufactured for hundreds of years. Still, mass production of soap and the resulting reduction in cost happened in the late 1700s.  By the 1800s, consumer brands like Ivory soap started to appear on store shelves. 

During WWI, Germany needed to use soap making ingredients in their war effort.  Their scientists created other compounds that performed similarly to soap but didn’t use animal fat or plant oil. We now know these agents as detergents, and there are now more than 1000 types in use today.  Detergents offered qualities that made them superior to traditional soap.  They could be made more concentrated for industrial applications, or significantly gentler than soap for personal care products. Detergents were more neutral in their pH (a measurement of how acidic or basic something is) than soap, making them less irritating on skin.  It was also easier to add things to detergent products.  Moisturizers and conditioners could be added to personal care products, while powerful cleaning chemicals could be mixed into industrial products. Importantly, traditional soap reacts with calcium and magnesium in water to create soap scum; detergents don’t do this, making them perfect for a variety of products ranging from laundry detergent to shampoo. 

Some detergents had branched hydrocarbon chains making them less biodegradable. However, many common detergents have linear chains similar to fatty acid salts (i.e., soap) and are readily biodegradable.  Although some detergents are made from petrochemicals (oil), many are now made from renewable plant oils.

Both soaps and detergent products alter their ingredients to create mixes that serve different needs.  For instance, the addition of fatty acid salts made from coconut oil in soaps and the addition of the detergent sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) in detergent-based products makes these respective products more “sudsy.”  

Personal care products will add chemicals that attract water to the skin, serve as an occlusive barrier that prevents water from leaving the skin, or act as an emollient to soften the skin. Some products will add abrasive agents for more robust cleaning  (Lava soap); others will dilute a cleanser making it milder (Dove with ¼ moisturizing cream). Other additives include water softening agents like EDTA, colorants to make the product look pretty, and fragrances to make the product smell nice.  

Most consumer soaps are created for “mass appeal” they work great for healthy skin or skin that is slightly dry or a bit too oily.  Some ingredients in soaps are there to differentiate them and offer little unique benefits. Growing up, I recall a product that touted “mink oil” and a shampoo that contained “placenta extract.”

Not all bars of soap are soap!

To label a product soap its cleaning agent has to be made of the salts of fatty acids created by a chemical process called saponification:

Triglycerides + water + a strong base = fatty acid salts (soap) + glycerol (glycerin)

Real soap mostly exists in “bars.” However, if a soap chemist uses potassium hydroxide instead of sodium hydroxide, the resulting soap will be a liquid instead of solid.  That is how Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap is made. However, liquid soap represents a minimal market share of the soap industry.

Almost all liquid hand “soaps,” body washes, shower gels, and shampoos are made from detergents.  Detergents have more desirable properties than soaps, including the fact that they don’t cause soap scum. Anyone who has tried to wash their hair with a traditional bar of soap will attest to the fact that detergent-based shampoos are vastly superior.

If a bar doesn’t use soap as the cleansing ingredient, it can’t use the name soap on its label.  Instead, it will be called a “cleansing bar” or a “beauty bar.” The most popular bar, “soap” in the US, is Dove.  Dove is a syndet (synthetic detergent) bar and does not contain soap.

“Lies” that soap makers tell us

If you search Google using the keyword “soap,” you will come across many websites from cottage soapmakers, beauty gurus, and “natural” experts.  They often repeat the same incorrect and misleading information concerning soaps vs. detergents. I’m guessing that some of this is due to a desire to promote their products, and some are due to poor understanding of the scientific literature on the topic.  

Many of these sites seem to use the same wording, suggesting that they are cutting and pasting information.  They sometimes use “scary psychology” to frighten consumers from buying cheaper, mainstream products. I like handmade soaps.  However, I think consumers should buy them because they like them, not because they are afraid to use cheaper but equally effective commercial items.

I’m only going to touch on some examples, as there are too many to list in this already long post. 

-Soaps are natural; detergents are not.

Both soaps and detergents are made from naturally occurring substrates.  Both undergo chemical reactions to make the final product.  Fats don’t turn into soap “spontaneously.” By the way, many think that natural always means better.  That is a bias, not a fact.

-Soaps are biodegradable; detergents are not.

Some detergents were created using branched-chain hydrocarbons.  These take longer to biodegrade.  However, the structure of many detergent hydrocarbon chains look very similar to soap and are readily biodegradable.  With that said, no soap or detergent should be used directly in a clean water source (such as a clear stream or lake).  If you are hiking, dispose of your wash water at least 200 feet away from such a source.

-Detergents remove your skin oils.

That is precisely what both soaps and detergents are supposed to do. The key is to remove as little as possible while still cleaning you. The gentlest skin cleansers are made from detergents, not soaps. 

-” Our soaps are gentler to the skin than commercial products.”

It is possible to make a gentle hand-crafted soap, but overall soap is harsher than syndet bars like Dove or Cetaphil.  Soap has a higher pH (9-10), while syndet bars have a pH closer to skin pH. High pH can be irritating to sensitive skin.

-Manufacturers use detergents to cut costs.

Detergents cost more, which is why Dove costs more than Ivory. 

-Detergents are made from petroleum, but soaps come from living things.

Petroleum is natural as it comes from algae and plankton.  Many detergents are now made from plant oils instead of petroleum. 

-Sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, etc.

Some detergents contain sulfur. One of the common detergents in personal care products is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).  This agent is used because it is good at removing grime, and it also foams well.  Consumers like products that foam (suds) because foaming gives the impression of cleaning.  However, foaming has little to do with removing grease and dirt. 

Products will advertise that they are “Sulfate-free” as an advertising ploy.  There is no credible evidence that sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, or other problems.  I have also seen “experts” claim on webpages that sulfates are harmful because they can burn if you get them in your eyes and that they can dry out your skin.  Well, duh… so does real soap!

-” Our products are phosphate-free!”

Another gimmick.  Phosphates were effective water softeners and had been used in products like laundry detergent in the past. As far as I’m aware, they were never used in personal care products. Phosphates can serve as a nutrient for plants, like algae, causing overgrowth, which can be damaging to other aquatic species.  Because of this, phosphates have been banned in consumer products, like dishwasher detergent for decades.  Many states in the US have total bans on the use of phosphates.

-” We only use essential oils to scent our products.”

Essential oils smell great, but they are also significant allergens for many.  These plant products contain dozens of compounds that can increase your chance of getting inflammation of the skin (dermatitis). I love essential oils, but I don’t think that they are risk-free.

-” We are paraben-free.”

Parabens are preservatives used in some cosmetics, and some of them can mimic the hormone estrogen.  However, the strongest estrogenic paraben is only about 1/10,000 as potent as real estrogen.  Besides, some parabens do not act like estrogens at all.

-” We are 100% natural”.

The term natural is a marketing term and doesn’t mean anything. However, I have to admit that it sounds nice.

-” We use pure (fill in the blank) essence in our products.”

Essence is another term that has no real meaning.

It’s great to support small soap-making operations, and you may love their products. Buy because you like their stuff, not out of fear or guilt. 

As I said above, almost all shower gels, shampoos,  and body wash are made from detergents. This is because detergents don’t leave a soap scum film.   It is possible to create washes and gels with a more neutral pH and build in extra moisturizers (good things). However, some products have a lot of colorants and fragrance added. Consumers like colorful products that have a strong smell. However, these two characteristics are the leading causes of skin irritation in cleansing products.  If you have sensitive skin, use a mildly scented product or one that says it is “unscented” or “fragrance-free.” However, both terms have no legal definition. Products listing themselves as “unscented” or “fragrance-free may still include masking fragrances that block unpleasant smells or have an added fragrance to make them smell more beautiful. Confusing, I know. With that said, lightly scented products are less likely to cause an allergic skin reaction than strongly scented ones.  You can use your on-board chemical analyzer to determine if a product is strongly scented.  Press your nose to the item and give it a good sniff.

Overall shower gels are more colorful and fragrant, and body washes are more “moisturizing.” People like using thick body washes and gels.  However, their thickness is caused by a thickening agent and has little to do with the concentration of other ingredients.  

In general, consumers tend to overuse liquid cleaners, and a lot of these products wind up going straight down the drain.  Although a bottle of wash should last (roughly) the same as a bar of soap, they typically have to be replaced more often.  I scanned the internet for comparisons, and it seems like a bar of soap lasts many consumers about twice as long as a bottle of shower gel or body wash.  When it comes to teenage use, the difference is even more significant.

More soap facts

The gentlest bar soaps aren’t soap at all; they are syndet (synthetic detergent) bars.

Dove is #1 selling “soap” by far in the US, and it is a syndet bar.

Other gentle bars like CeraVe and Cetaphil are also syndet bars.

Syndet bars can be very gentle cleansers.

Both soaps and syndet bars clean effectively.  Certain brands add ingredients to differentiate them from other products, color, and fragrance being the most obvious.

Different fatty acid salts and detergents have different properties.  For instance, soaps that are manufactured with added coconut oil and detergents with SLS foam more.  People like sudsy cleansers.

You can add extra fat to make a bar of soap “more moisturizing” and less effective as a cleanser (less drying).

You can add humectants like glycerine and honey to help keep moisture close to the skin.

You can add barriers like oil and waxes that reduce moisture evaporation from the skin.

Some ingredients, like oatmeal, are calming and reduce itching (Alveeno). Others are abrasives and help clean oily/dirty hands (Lava soap).

These ingredients change some of the properties of “soap,” and you may find that one brand may suit your skin type or use needs more than another.  However, the base product is the same.

Liquid soap has been promoted as being more sanitary than bar soap. Some of these claims may be due to soap manufacturers’ desire to sell these more expensive products. However, bar soap is sanitary.  Researchers deliberately inoculated bar soap with bacteria and then had people wash their hands with the soap.  Afterwards, they didn’t find the bacteria on the subjects’ hands.  Why?  When you wash your hands, you are also cleaning the soap.  The bacteria doesn’t go on your hands, it goes down the drain. However, liquid soaps are neater when used in common areas like kitchens and public bathrooms.

Soap is soap

You can spend $2800 for a bar of Qatar soap, which is infused with gold and diamond dust.  It is easy to find very expensive soap that sells in the $40-$100/bar range.  Is this cost justified?  These soaps will be made of high-quality materials. They may be milled many times to provide better blending and a harder bar; they may be a few ounces more in weight than a traditional bar. They may have more beautiful scents and come in a nicer box.  These upgrades do justify a higher price, but certainly not $40-$100.  Why are some willing to pay that much?  Perception and image.  Cause?  Advertising at its best.

You can buy many brand name soaps for around a dollar a bar, and most are formulated to be gentle and effective.  For people with healthy skin, a forty-cent bar of IVORY or a dollar bar of Dove will meet their hygiene needs.

More fun facts

Consumer antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps in controlling germs.  However, they may pollute the environment more. Many brands that had antimicrobial agents have quietly removed them and now use confusing terms like “Washes Away Bacteria,” All soaps do this.   

Although people have been using soaps for thousands of years, the commercialization of soap is more recent. Soap factories were known to exist in the 12th century. It wasn’t until 1811 that Eugene-Michel Chevreul determined the exact amount of fat needed to make soap.  Before this, soap making was a guessing game.  This finding plus other discoveries revolutionized the commercial production of soap.

During WWI, Germany needed oils and fats for their war effort. German chemists developed detergents made from petrochemicals during that time.  Detergents are still made from petrochemicals, but many are also made from renewable resources, like vegetable oils.

In the 1930s, Procter and Gamble introduced a continuous process for the manufacturing of soap, which increased production and decreased manufacturing time to less than a day.  Before this, many soaps had to “cure” before they could be packaged and sold. Large scale soap manufacturers still use this method.

Soaps, cleansing bars, shower gels, shampoos, and body wash may contain additional ingredients that may make their products more desirable.  Color and fragrance are two apparent additions.  Others may include conditioners, anti-static agents, sudsing agents, thickening agents, humectants, moisturizers, water softening agents, exfoliants, gritty additions, and preservatives.  

A Historical Timeline

Ivory soap was introduced in 1879 to produce an inexpensive but good quality product.  To reduce costs, Proctor and Gamble extracted the naturally occurring glycerol (glycerin) from the soap and sold it separately.  They also whipped air into the product making a less dense soap in another cost-cutting method.  This aeration allowed Ivory to float in water, a happy coincidence that was used to create the tag line, “So pure it floats.” The lack of glycerin made Ivory more drying than other soaps (despite its claim that it was gentle). It was eventually added back into the soap’s manufacturing process several decades ago.  You may think that Ivory smells like soap.  However, what you are detecting is a mild citrus fragrance that is added during the soap making process.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-In-One soap was introduced in 1946 and emphasized simple, quality ingredients.  It is a soap product and comes in two forms, liquid and bar form.  With quirky advertising and emphasis on simple ingredients, it has gained a following among people who think less is more. The real Dr. Bronner wanted humanity to unite as one, and you can find some of his thoughts on Dr. B’s soap bottles and bar soap wrappers.  He also claimed that his soap had 18 uses, including as a toothpaste.  As a person who once tried to brush his teeth with this stuff, I can tell you that it is a no go.  However, it is a lovely soap.

Dial soap was the first antibacterial soap, and it was introduced in 1948.  The original antibacterial agent was hexachlorophene, which the company called “AT-7.” Hexachlorophene was removed from the soap in the 1970s as it was determined to be dangerous.  It was replaced by triclocarban, which was removed from the soap in 2016 due to FDA concerns.  Dial soap bars now contain benzalkonium chloride as its antibacterial agent.  At this point, it can be assumed that their antibacterial additions are more marketing than science. Dial was the most popular bar soap in the US from 1953 to the early 1990s.  It is now the second most popular soap.  Beyond antimicrobial additions, the soap is relatively mild and has a pleasant nostalgic scent that people associate with clean.

Zest was introduced in 1955 and emphasized that it didn’t produce soap scum in its commercials. “You’re not fully clean if you’re not Zestfully clean!” Zest was a combination bar of both soap and detergents.  The detergent portion of the bar prevented soap scum.  Zest was reformulated in 2007 and removed the detergents, likely to reduce production costs.  They countered this change by adding more color and fragrance to the bar.  

The Dove Beauty Bar was introduced in 1957. It was the first commercial bar to rely totally on detergents instead of soap as its main ingredients.  Advertised as being gentle because it contained 1/4 cold cream, its real strength was in using detergents, which were gentler and more pH balanced than soaps.  Dove bars are now (by far) the most sold bar soap in the US. 

Irish Spring was introduced in Europe in 1970 and came to the US in 1972.  It is a soap-based bar with a strong citrus/woody/clean smell.  I was 19 when this soap came to the US and loved the scent.  However, within a shower or two, I started to itch. I’m guessing I was sensitive to the overpowering fragrance.  

Coast bars are also soap products, and the original scent was introduced in 1976.  This is another bar that smelled fantastic and clean.  I thought I would be a Coast user, but after a few showers, I scratched my skin off. Again, I believe my itching was due to the pleasant but powerful fragrance.

Liquid soap has been around since the 1800s. Its use in a home environment became popular in 1979 when Softsoap was introduced (a detergent, not a soap).  Softsoap solved the age-old problem of the wet communal soap bar and became an instant hit.   

The 1980s saw the emergence of liquid body washes followed by shower gels.  These are almost exclusively detergent products. These products have decimated the bar soap industry, with about 80% of consumers using them in preference to bar soap.  Manufacturers are happy with these numbers as body washes and gels are more expensive to buy than equivalent bars.  It should be noted that their ingredients are very similar to shampoo, which is why many claim to be “body and hair cleaners.”

In 1999 the Deb company introduced the first foaming hand soap.  Foaming soap is a diluted soap pumped through a special aeration pump that turns the liquid into a soft foam.  Foamers use less soap, and you need less water to wash the foam off. I like foaming liquid soaps because there is less drippage on counters and sinks. I’ll give you a recipe to easily make DIY foaming soap later in this post.

My history (and Hack 1)

I have moderately dry skin, and dry winters used to be brutal.  I would scratch my skin to the point of bleeding (usually not realizing that I was doing it). When I was a kid, I used whatever soap we had at home, the typical national brands.  Once my father brought home an entire case of an unmarked and unwrapped green soap that was harsh, I referred to it as “rash in a bar.” Eventually, the whole family refused to use it even though my dad said it was, “Just fine.” By the way, he also stopped using it after we did!

As soon as I had a little spending money, I started my long journey to find a soap that would solve my dry skin problems.  Some soaps, like Irish Spring and Coast, made my pruritus worse as I was sensitive to their strong fragrances.  Other soaps like Dove and Camay felt like they left a coating on my skin, which was still dry and itchy.  When body washes and shower gels came out, I was the first in line to try them.  I enjoyed their pleasant smells, but I was still scratching.  It didn’t seem to matter if I was using inexpensive Dial or high end shower gel, I kept scratching. 

Decades ago, I decided to switch to more basic hygiene products.  This process started with shaving. In the past, I would buy a razor and blade set at the drugstore. Although the cost of a razor was inexpensive, its replacement blade cartridges were not.  Every few years, another blade would be added to a cartridge product, and the prices kept on going up.  I didn’t see any benefit to the new razor designs; they seemed like gimmicks that forced me to stay within a particular brand.  I decided it was time for a radical change and went back to using a simple double edge safety razor.  I liked that the replacement blades were less than a dime apiece and that the system was more eco friendly.  At that time, I also switched from aerosol shaving cream to shaving soap.  I was no longer dumping plastic blade cartridges and aerosol cans into landfills.

My success with the “new” shaving system got me thinking about other products that I was using, and I decided to leave shower gels and go back to bar soap.  I genuinely like using a good old bar of soap in the shower.  I love the smell of bar soap, and the way a bar feels in my hand.  Another win was the cost, as a bar of soap that can be up to 10 times less expensive than an equivalent body wash. For me, the combination of preferring bar soap plus some small savings has kept me in the bar soap camp for the last few decades.  I like to switch brands, going from typical consumer products to imported bars and back again.  I get tired of one scent and enjoy switching to another. Although I could tolerate just about any mild bar soap, my skin was still dry and itchy during the winter months.

I needed to think outside of the box.  Our skin is soft and supple when it is well hydrated.  Soaps and detergents remove a lot of the protective oils and dehydrate our skin.  Formulations with milder surfactants (soaps and detergents) leave more oil behind, but they didn’t make me feel particularly clean.  Products that contained substances like glycerin and shea butter were a bit more moisturizing, but I was still scratching. 

Hack 1

My wife had told me to use a body lotion for years, but I hated rubbing all of that gunk on me.  It seemed to take forever, and my skin would be white with the greasy stuff.  Many years ago, I had an idea. What if I put on lotion as soon as I got out of the shower while I was still wet?  That was a game-changer.  First, because a little lotion or cream goes a long way and glides on your skin.  Second, because it traps water on the surface of your skin, precisely what you want. When you apply lotion this way, you need to use very little, so you have no white greasy skin. It also works much better than toweling off and then applying a lotion. 

I like two products, and use whatever one is that is on sale.  My favorite is CeraVE moisturizing cream, and my second choice is Cetaphil moisturizing cream.  Both come in tubs, and a little goes a long way.  When you spread these creams on yourself, you also flatten out the water droplets on you, sort of like you are squeegeeing yourself.  By the time that you are done, you are dry-no towel needed.

Hack 2

Foaming hand soap is convenient, it doesn’t drip onto your counter, and it requires less water to wash off your hands.  It is diluted hand soap, so why does it cost as much as hand soap?  It is easy to create your own foaming soap for about one-fourth of the price of the purchased stuff.  Simply fill your foaming soap dispenser one-quarter full of regular liquid hand soap and then add water.  Distilled water is the best, but I have used regular tap water too. Add the top, give it a shake, and you have just made foaming hand soap.  Typical “Softsoap” detergent type refills, as well as liquid Castile soaps like Dr. Bronner’s work well.  You can vary the amount of soap to water ratio a bit to meet your particular tastes.

Hack 3

During the pandemic, it became hard to buy any liquid soap refills. However, body wash was in plentiful supply, some selling for as little as $15/gallon. Body wash is hand soap with added skin conditioners.  It also foams more, which can be a pleasant experience.  You can use body wash just like hand soap in a traditional pump dispenser, or dilute it (as in Hack 2) to use as a foaming hand soap.

Hack 4

Body wash and shampoo are also very similar.  A lot of body washes say “hair and body.” A cheap shampoo can be an excellent hand cleaner, and if you are out of shampoo, you can use many body washes.  However, don’t try to wash your hair with regular soap as the soap scum will leave your hair a dull and tangled mess.  If you have to do it, you will need to use an acid wash (like diluted lemon juice) to get rid of the gunk. 

Hack 5

You can wash your hands using liquid dish soap, and you can also dilute it to use in a foamer. Liquid dish soap is relatively mild but more robust than traditional hand soaps (After all, it is designed to degrease pots and pans).  Using dish soap would be my least preferred choice as it is more likely to dry your hands.  If this is your only option, follow up your handwashing with a hand little lotion.

Hack 6

You can easily make liquid soap.  I have never done this, but there are many YouTube videos on the subject, just type in DIY liquid hand soap, and you will be flooded with videos.  The process is simple, shred a bar of regular soap and dissolve it into some hot water.  Then add more water (often a gallon total).  Let the mixture cool and gel, then beat it into a smooth consistency with a hand mixer.  Sometimes recipes call for a couple of tablespoons of glycerine.  Distilled water is best to use in this case.  

There is a lot more to most things when you scratch the surface.   

Soap is something that we use every day, but most of us rarely think about it. However, our lives would be very different if we didn’t have soap and detergent products.  From body wash to toothpaste, soaps and detergents touch every aspect of our lives.  The use of surfactants made surgeries safer and our populations healthier. We can all be thankful for soaps when we are forced to sit directly next to strangers on a commuter train or airplane.

Soap is not magical; it does its work using understandable principles of chemistry.  Did you think that the chemistry class that you took in high school was useless?  Here is an example of how chemistry is real, and how we encounter it every single day of our lives.

Soap like products are big business and individuals have made fortunes manufacturing the slippery stuff.  Soap makers, both big and small, have used manipulations and untruths to differentiate their products from the rest.  Small companies claim that the ingredients that big manufacturers use are dangerous to health, incorrectly citing research literature.  Big companies promote their more expensive products while ignoring their equally good but cheaper offerings.  Go to any store, and you will find more expensive body washes and gels at eye level while less expensive bar soaps languish on the bottom shelf. We have also been led to believe that bar soap is unsanitary, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and not to mention the fact that it has been used safely for hundreds of years.  You have to admire the advertising genius that convinces someone to spend $100 on a product that is very similar to one costing under $1.  

I touched on many aspects of these products. Still, in the end, I was most interested in the psychology of soap, and how we believe things when we are told them enough times, even if they are false.  

There appear to be two common links that are necessary to convert fiction to “facts.” The first is an air of expertise or authority, and the second is a sense of trust.  You see these characteristics when you read the FAQs of soap maker’s websites. They are also present when you scan a “filler” article in a magazine.  It seems like many of these authors never read primary sources; they just copy other’s interpretations. Individuals with no actual expertise in an area claim it, and we believe it.  Someone who has “Twenty years in the beauty industry” is unlikely able to fully understand a scientific research paper.  Yet we believe them.  When we hear something enough times, our minds accept that information as fact. Once we accept a fact, we rarely question it.  The sky is blue; water is wet… we don’t need to think further on these topics. 

Another way to influence us is by associating something with something else that we believe is true. Bar soap must be unsanitary because people who are dirty touch it. Something that was associated with being clean is now associated with being dirty. This “guilt by association” way of influencing others is classic. It can be seen used in many aspects of daily life.  Unfortunately, it has also been used to denigrate entire groups of marginalized individuals.

Lastly, another way to manipulate someone is to create a problem and then offer a solution.  Antibacterial soaps did this by making us believe that we didn’t need just to clean our bodies, we had to sanitize them so we wouldn’t offend.  A non-related example of this problem/solution model can be seen in Portland, Oregon.  Relatively peaceful protestors were labeled as terrorists, and so the solution was to arrest them “secret police” style.  This later use of this technique is far more frightening to me than if I needed antibacterial soap to avoid having BO.

We are a naive and trusting culture, and our ideas are often formed by others who do so for their gain. Cult leaders and politicians gain huge followings by lying to our faces. They tell us that they have the answers while convincing us that any information contrary to their monolog is suspect and dangerous.

The next time you pick up a bar of soap, push a shower gel pump, or squeeze a tube of body wash, think about the complexity of this simple pleasure. Soap helped civilization prosper and likely had a stronger impact on infectious disease than antibiotics. Soap making is one of the first practical uses of organic chemistry.  The selling of soap demonstrates how an essentially similar product can be differentiated and promoted by manipulation and trickery.  More importantly, it demonstrates how easily we humans can be controlled.  Is it possible for us to still be led to believe falsehoods in this age of facts and information?  The sad news is that it is easier than ever before.  We want to believe that we understand the world around us, and we look to influencers and leaders to guide us in this pursuit.  Unfortunately, this desire leaves us vulnerable.  We accept lies as the truth and then feel forced to defend our erroneous position. If you understand the history of soap you also understand the strengths and weaknesses of humans. Think about that the next time you plunk down a few bucks to buy a block of bars at Walmart.

I know that this is a very long post so thank you for reading it. I’ll be away from an internet connection for the next couple of weeks and I won’t be posting because of this. Have a great day! Mike

Simple bar “soaps” come in many “flavors.” From left to right: a totally synthetic bar, a soap bar with minimal fragrance, and an imported bar with an exotic scent.
It is easy to “make” your own foaming soap. The example on the left used liquid Castile soap and the one on the right used regular hand “soap” (detergent). Use a 1:4 ratio of soap to water and save some money. I add a drop of food coloring for appearance’s sake.
A razor from Germany, shaving soap and badger brush from England, and blades from Israel. My shaving has become an international affair.
One of my favorite moisturizing creams. A little goes a long way.

Dr. Mike Goes To Walmart

I arrived back in Chicago from a trip to New Mexico in early March. I was met by escalating panic around COVID-19. I had heard stories of shortages, and so I checked our pantry and freezer. I found a reasonable amount of food, but many items were things that we didn’t eat. Yes, we had stuff, just not the right stuff. I decided to go to the store and stock up.

Over the last few years, I had been doing more grocery shopping, and I had narrowed down my purchase locations. If I needed to pick up something quick, I would go to the Fresh Thyme Market, a small grocer around the corner from my house. However, if I needed to buy a significant haul, I would head over to my local Walmart Supercenter.  

I can’t say that I enjoy shopping at Walmart. It is big, crowded, and it always seems to need a little tidying up. However, despite my complaints, Walmart has some positive attributes. The grocery store is part of a Walmart, making it easy to buy anything from camping supplies to printer paper. Walmart’s house brand, “Great Value,” is decent, and I know the store’s layout well enough to make my trips efficient.

However, that early March stock-up trip was different. The store was significantly more crowded, and its shelves were bare. No toilet paper, no paper towels, no rice, no flour, no pasta, no tomato sauce, no oatmeal. The list went on.

That week I also “hit” a few other stores, including Aldi and Jewel. I wanted to have food in case the world was about to shut down. Different stores had different stock items, so I was able to buy enough essential foods to secure my family’s immediate future. Although I felt good about “providing,” I experienced a less than enthusiastic reception from Julie. She saw my stockpiling in a more negative light.

Based on this, I turned the job of grocery shopper over to her and settled into other tasks. Shortly afterward, Governor Pritzker ordered that Illinois shut down; I spent the next few weeks isolating in my house, only venturing to leave for a daily walk.

Julie did assume shopping duties, but her own busy life hampered her ability to take on these tasks fully. At the same time, our adult kids were complaining that we lacked food items again. It became clear that I had to shoulder some of the shopping burden, a task that I was not looking forward to.

I felt that shopping at Walmart held a higher than acceptable risk, as it was huge and always crowded. The sheer numbers of individuals made me concerned that the place was a cesspool of viral particles. I could order groceries online, but most of those services have an upcharge, and feeding five adults is already an expensive proposition. I thought about returning to Aldi, which is the least costly grocery in our area. However, Aldi isn’t a full-service store, which would mandate that I would have to shop at least two different stores every week, and I didn’t want to do that. The most reasonable plan would be to buy at a regular grocer, like Jewel. Jewel is a full-service grocery store that also houses a drug store. Also, it appeared that their sanitizing standards were high, and their shopper density was low.  

Once a week, I would drive to Jewel, shopping list in hand. I organized my list into food zones and shopped as quickly as possible. I didn’t hunt for the best prices, and I bought what was available. If they only had designer tomato sauce, that is what I purchased. The idea was to balance viral exposure with economy and convenience.

Overall, the strategy worked. I was able to get in and out relatively quickly. Naturally, I took all the necessary precautions along the way. However, this was not a total “win” strategy as my grocery bills were extraordinarily high. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend over $400 in a given week, without buying a lot of meat. However, it still was the most reasonable option at that time.

One month dragged on to two, two months dragged to three, and three dragged to four. Along the way, I found myself assessing and reassessing what I could do. I expanded my “social circle” to include my friend, Tom. I visited my sisters “from a distance.” I traveled to “safe spots” to take photographs. I started to live again but in a more cautious way.  

My grocery bill was out of control, and I needed to evaluate if there were more cost-effective options. I was aware that Walmart was making efforts to keep its stores as safe as possible, including requiring face masks. It also seemed reasonable to assume that the first hoards of COVID panicked shoppers had subsided, and that food stocks had been replenished. It was time to return to Walmart.

One of the tricks that I do to make a tedious task more palatable is to include family members. Before the pandemic, I would often take one of my kids on my grocery shopping trips. This addition turned a chore into an adventure. We would joke, laugh, and explore as we shopped. Also, my co-participant received special status. If they wanted to buy a frivolous or special item, I almost always capitulated. I know that CDC experts suggest solo shopping, but I’m more efficient in having a helper. Both Grace and Kathryn agreed to assist me on my return Walmart trip.

With masks on our faces and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket, we arrived at Walmart. I was happy to see that they were limiting entrance to a single monitored door. As we entered the store’s vestibule, we were handed a shopping cart by an employee who had just wiped it down with a sanitizing solution. It did seem like they were making efforts to keep things as safe as possible.

We approached our job with purpose as we divided and conquered each grocery section. The store was stocked, but there were still areas that were showing shortages. Toilet paper was available, but only one brand and in limited quantity. Flour was present, but only a few bags were on the shelves. Cleaning products were there, but any brand that claimed that it was antibacterial was missing.

Although I bought quite a few groceries, my card was not overflowing. I purchased very few “high ticket” items like steak, and I stocked up mostly with the “Great Value” house brand. All in all, my grocery bill was just over $260. I would have spent more with a comparable Jewel haul, but it was clear that Walmart’s prices had increased significantly since my last trip there. With that said, I’ll likely return as I estimate that I saved anywhere from $50-$75 over a similar Jewel shopping trip. 

So, where am I going with all of this? During a short crisis, it is easy to make a radical change because you know that things will soon be back to normal. However, as a crisis continues, it transforms into a way of life. In past posts, I wrote about how I moved from trying to replicate my previous experience to living in my current one. Part of that process involved returning to Walmart. Before the pandemic, such a trip would be routine. Still, I had to think carefully if the risks of going into a crowded big-box store were reasonable. I had to think about how I would make such a task as safe as possible.

I believe that this is a reasonable way to approach life in our brave new world. I have no intention of going to a crowded restaurant or a packed church service. However, I know that I have to continue to expand my horizons as this pandemic continues. Naturally, I will uphold whatever laws dictate. I understand that I am not only doing this for my health but also the greater good. 

I feel that this is a balanced approach that avoids politics and ideologies. How are you making life decisions during this crisis time? How will your actions change if this way of living becomes the new normal?

After we got home from Walmart we washed our hands. The kids and I put away our food. I divided and sealed up the hamburger that I bought, but reserved some for meatloaf that I made last night. Since I have been sharing recipes, I thought I would share this one too. It is a classic that originated from the Quaker Oats company. It is super easy to make and pretty tasty.

Walmart was less crowded than I expected.
I like to portion out large quantities into meal-sized packages.

Basic Meatloaf


  • 1-1/2 Pound(s) lean ground beef or turkey
  • 3/4 Cup(s) oatmeal
  • 3/4 Cup(s) finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 Cup(s) catsup
  • 1 Egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 Tablespoon(s) Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
  • 2 Clove(s) Garlic, minced
  • 1/2 Teaspoon(s) Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon(s) Black pepper

Cooking Instructions

Heat oven to 350°F. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl; mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape meatloaf mixture into 10×6-inch loaf on the rack of broiler pan. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until the meatloaf is to medium doneness (160°F for beef, 170°F for turkey), until not pink in center and juices show no pink color. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing. Cover and refrigerate leftovers promptly and use within two days, or wrap airtight and freeze up to 3 months.

(a little substitution never hurt anyone)

I only had 1 pound of ground beef in the spirit of substitution, so I added a little more oatmeal. I also upped the garlic a bit, chopped a medium onion that I didn’t measure, and reduced the catsup a little. I baked it in a loaf pan instead of on a rack. It turned out just great, and the kids ate it up.

Basic meatloaf with mixed vegetables, country-style potatoes, and a roll.

Meal Preparation During The COVID Pandemic

Adjusting to life in a pandemic has had its challenging moments. My well-established habits and routines have been tossed aside to accommodate a new way of living. Mask wearing and 20-second handwashes have become standard operating procedures for me, as have been daily checks of COVID morbidity and mortality numbers.

The pandemic has converted our empty nest household into a residence of 5 adults, only one who is working. The reality of our increased population has forced many changes, including the return of a nightly family dinner. Eating dinner with my wife and three of my children has been a joy. However, it has also included the additional stress of making dinner for five regularly.

When our kids were younger, my wife was a stay at home mom and our principal cook. She returned part-time to the paid workforce when the kids were in middle school, and I started to cook some of our family dinners when she was working late. Being a multi-tasker, I decided to teach my kids how to cook and began “Cooking With Dad Thursdays.” Every Thursday, the kids and I planned, purchased, cooked, and ate dinner. Naturally, we also cleaned up our mess. My goal was to make my kids competent in this vital life skill. Little did I know that I would call upon their services in 2020.

Cooking with my kids makes meal prep a lot more fun.

As I noted above, all of us try to eat dinner together. My wife continues to make several meals a week, and we usually order carry-out on Fridays. That leaves 3-4 dinner preparations that I commit to making. When the kids and I did “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” the sky was the limit. Steak with all of the trimmings? No problem. I was working 60 hours a week, and I didn’t flinch with expensive grocery bills. However, things have changed. I am no longer a wage earner, my kids are adults, and grocery prices have escalated. Meal planning and preparation could be an expensive and time-consuming chore. Luckily, I have wonderful and adaptive kids who almost always help me cook. Cooking with them is fun, but meals need to be simple and reasonably priced. I have a secret weapon to accomplish these goals. I grew up in the 60s, and my mom cooked for seven people. She was a great cook, and I have fond memories of the meals that she made. Many of her meals were designed to feed a crowd efficiently and economically.  


Sixties cooking does not comply with the eating standards of 2020. If your family only eats salads, stop reading now.

The secrets of 60s cooking

Using basic ingredients

In the 1960s, most cooks had a larder filled with basic ingredients. Flour, sugar, eggs, and the like. Basic ingredients allow for maximum flexibility when cooking. Cooking from scratch can be nearly as efficient as making prepared foods once you have gained some experience.

Using prepared foods

In the 1960s, packaged foods were also popular. Cake mixes, tubes of crescent rolls, canned condensed soups, and many other items were (and are) relatively inexpensive. Thoughtful use of these foods can ease your cooking burden.  

Don’t want to make a white sauce? Try a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Need to make a quick dessert? A brownie mix is cheap; you don’t have to remember if you have baking chocolate on hand. Want to boost a boring main dish? Crack open a tube of crescent rolls. The options are endless.

Using frozen foods

Some frozen foods, like vegetables, are cheap and good. Take advantage of them. The more “prepared” they are, the more expensive they are. Buying frozen broccoli is dirt cheap, but it is more expensive if it has a “butter sauce.” Forgo the latter and add your own pat of butter to save some money. 

Substitute when needed

In the 60s, it was common to modify a recipe based on what you had on hand. If you didn’t have one ingredient, it was perfectly OK to substitute a similar item. No green onions? Try some finely chopped regular onions. You don’t have a particular spice? Try another one that compliments the meat that you are using. No fresh garlic? Try some of the stuff in a jar or use garlic powder. Don’t have tomato sauce? Try using a can of tomato soup. Your results will vary with the number and types of items that you switch out, but with reasonable care, you will end up with a good dinner. 

Keep it simple

In the 1960s, it was common to eat one-pot meals. Casseroles, soups, stews, and the like were easily augmented with a simple side dish. Combination foods are also cheaper to make as they use less meat.  

Clean as you go

I mentioned that my mom was a great cook. However, she was a messy cook who seemed to use every pot, pan, and bowl to prepare a meal. If you want to ease your cooking stress, clean up as you go.  

By the time that we are ready to sit down for dinner, all of our preparation dishes are washed and put away. When we are done eating, everyone clears the table, one person washes the table, and someone else loads the dishwasher. A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen.

I thought that I would share some of my classic recipes with you. Although I have modified many of them, most were created by other cooks. Thank you to those individuals!

Meal options

Breakfast for dinner

Making breakfast food for dinner is quick, cheap, and delicious. Ham and eggs, pancakes with sausage, or waffles, and bacon are some breakfast foods that we sometimes have for dinner.  

Waffles and Bacon

We usually make our bacon on a jelly roll pan lined with aluminum foil. Place the bacon in single slices on the sheet and bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes, or until done.  

You can use Bisquick or a pancake mix for waffles, but I think these scratch ones are easy to make and taste better. If you don’t have a waffle iron, you can probably pick up one cheap from a resale shop (like Goodwill). Ours is over 25 years old, but it still does the trick. Here is my waffle recipe.

Two eggs

2 cups flour

½ cup melted butter

One ¾ cups milk

1 T sugar

4 t baking powder

¼ t salt

Heat the waffle iron and spray with cooking spray. Mix the ingredients into a batter and add enough mixture to the hot waffle iron to fill the cavity (but not so much that you are dripping everywhere). Waffles are done when less steam comes off of the iron. You can keep them hot in a warming oven until serving, or pass them out as they are made. 

Homemade waffles taste so much better than frozen ones.

Simple Spaghetti

I debated about posting this recipe, as it is so simple. However, there may be people out there who have never cooked, and this recipe is easy, filling, and delicious.

Boil spaghetti following the package directions. When done, drain and return to the pot. Add a tablespoon or two of butter to the drained spaghetti to keep the strands separated. 

While you are making the spaghetti, brown about a pound of hamburger (or other ground meat) in a separate pot, drain off the fat while carefully retaining the browned meat in the pot. Add a jar of spaghetti sauce to the ground meat and heat. We tend to go with inexpensive brands like Ragu and Prego. You can be as creative or straightforward with your sauce as you like. Add some parmesan cheese, a little red wine, a bit more oregano, a small can of mushrooms, whatever suits your fancy.  

We dump the sauce into the cooked spaghetti pot and mix it up like a casserole.  

Along with the spaghetti, we will serve a tossed salad and some garlic bread. Commercial garlic bread is good, but it is easy to make some from scratch. Just melt some butter and mix in some chopped garlic (or even garlic powder). Brush the mixture on some decent bread and “toast” the bread butter side up on a cookie sheet in the oven (350F-400F), removing the bread when it is nicely toasted.

Beef Tips in the Instantpot (or any pressure cooker)

Beef tips usually use sirloin, but we go cheap and use stew meat. You can also use cut-up round steak or pot roast.

In a large Ziplock bag add:

3 T flour

2 t steak seasoning (optional)

2 t garlic powder

1 t onion powder

½ t salt

½ t pepper

Add 1-2 pounds of cubed steak and shake to coat the steak in the mixture.

Place the Instantpot in saute mode, add some oil, then brown the steak in batches. Remove the meat.

Add to the hot Instantpot:

1-2 T oil

One chopped onion

Lightly brown the onion

Then add:

Three cloves chopped garlic (or some garlic powder)

⅓ cup red wine (or water)

12 oz beef broth (you can also use low sodium bouillon and water)

1 T Worcestershire sauce

½ t ground thyme (No thyme? Try oregano). 

Return the meat to the pot and cook under high pressure for 35 minutes. Let the pressure come down for 10 minutes after 35 minutes of cooking time. Carefully release the pressure and open the lid. Place the pot back into saute mode and wait until the mixture is bubbling. Take a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch and mix with a couple of tablespoons of water. Stream this mixture into the Instant pot whisking as you go. Cook for a few minutes and then adjust seasonings. I usually have to add more salt, garlic powder, and pepper. A squirt or two of hot sauce doesn’t hurt either.

I often serve this dish with bread/rolls, a vegetable, and a starch. If I’m using rice as my starch, I’ll make a lot more to use it for the next recipe. 

Beef tips made in the InstantPot.

Mike’s “Sort Of” Chinese Fried Rice.

The secret to good fried rice is to use cooked rice that is a few days old. Freshly made rice will result in a sticky mess. I tend to keep leftover rice uncovered in the fridge and use it about 2-3 days later. 

Fried rice is a recipe that you can modify to your heart’s content.

Heat a wok or large frying pan and add some oil. Saute 3-4 sliced green onions and then add chopped ginger root (1t to 1 T), and chopped garlic (3-4 cloves).  

Add some meat (½ to 1 lb), cut into small pieces. I like using chicken. Cook in small batches while you continuously stir and flip the meat using a wide utensil. Make sure you don’t overcook the meat. Remove the meat from the pan.

Add more oil if needed, and then add your cooked rice. How much? Around 4-6 cups are about right. Keep the rice in motion until it is heated.

Push the rice to the pan’s sides and add a couple of scrambled uncooked eggs in the center of the pan. Cook the eggs until they are almost done and then mix them with the rice mixture.

Take a bag of frozen vegetables (peas/carrots, stir-fry mix, etc.), and heat in the microwave for about ½ of their cooking time. Add the vegetables to the rice mixture and stir to distribute. Return the chicken and heat a bit more. Mix in some soy sauce until the rice is the color that you like.

Add salt and possibly pepper to taste. Personally, I also like to add a shot or two of hot sauce.

Fried Rice.

Super Easy Quiche

One large pie crust

Six large eggs

3/4 cup milk 

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup cooked ham cut into small cubes

1 1/2 cups shredded cheese divided (any meltable cheese, but not mozzarella) 

Four tablespoons chopped green onions

Mix liquids and seasoning together. Put green onions, ham, and 1 C of the cheese into the pie crust. Pour the liquid mixture into the pie crust and top with remaining ½ C of cheese. Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let rest at least 10 minutes before cutting. I like to serve this quiche with homemade bran muffins and a green vegetable.

Super easy quiche.

Bran Muffins

1/2 cup oil

1 cup of sugar

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk (or 2 T vinegar into a scant 2 C milk-let it sit for a few minutes before adding to the dry ingredients)

4 cups Raisin Bran cereal

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

Mix ingredients and let the mixture stand for at least 45 minutes. Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake at 400 F for 12-15 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the muffin’s center). Cool for at least 10 minutes before removing muffins from the tin. 

Easy to make and delicious bran muffins.

I hope that these ideas reduce some of your cooking stress and turn the drudgery of cooking into a fun activity.



Re-engaging In Life.

In the 1960s, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the “five stages of grief” based on her work with dying patients.  In case you have forgotten, they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although some aspects of this work are now in question, she did bring to the forefront the idea that we work through significant changes of life in stages.  Those stages may be different from event to event, and from person to person.  

In many ways, I have gone through various stages of loss during the COVID crisis.  I feel I was in a stage of denial at the start of the crisis. Before the Illinois stay-at-home order, I traveled to New Mexico convincing myself that the trip was safe since (at that time) there were no reported COVID cases in that state.  

During the early phase of stay-at-home, I entered a fear stage fueled mostly by the panic I witnessed around me.  It was impossible to buy toilet paper, then paper towels, then facial tissues. Everyday pharmacy items such as rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and ibuprofen became purchases that were only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. Essential foods like flour, pasta, oatmeal, and rice were impossible to buy. 

I had five adults living at home, and I’m a person who takes caretaking seriously.  I did my best to adapt to other foods.  Tom helped out by finding a big bag of flour for me, and I even bought a sack of pinto beans, “just in case.” My preparedness can be a point of ridicule in my family, but I had to be true to myself.  I am hardly perfect, but I have become successful in life by moving past what other people think that I should do or what I should be. 

I had a depressed phase around that time. Although I’m an introvert, I still need contact with others in my life.  Luckily, I was able to safely expand my social connections and experiences to lift my down mood.

I moved into an “approximate” stage where I tried to “simulate” what my life was like before the pandemic. COVID Easter, COVID birthdays, COVID Mother’s Day.  I pretended that I could have the same pre-COVID experience by recreating those special days sans outside adventures and people.  In many ways, this strategy worked, but in some ways, it did not.  I discovered the latter fact when I did the self-exploration that I chronicled in last week’s post.

Life seems to be moving into a new normal, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear path back to the way it was.  It has been exhausting for me to rationalize that by (fill in the blank) date, I would once again be able to do those things that I used to do.  As the numbers of infections and deaths have escalated, I have moved into a new stage of acceptance. I am no longer trying to approximate my former life.  Instead, I am trying to live life.

I had an unstructured day.  My friend, Tom, was busy, and Julie and the kids were doing their things.  I spent the morning writing and making phone calls, but by the early afternoon, I was feeling unsettled. What I wanted to do was to take some street photography, but in this new era, that wasn’t a very practical solution.  Instead, I went to our local Herrick Lake forest preserve. I have photographed Herrick Lake many times; there are only so many different shots that you can take.  I thought that I had taken all of them, but did I?  I decided that I would up the creative game by shooting only in black and white. Because of this restriction, I had to view the landscape in a very different way.  My creativity was sparked.

The forest preserve is close to my sister, Carol’s house.  I have been calling her daily, but I missed seeing her in person.  Was I only going to have phone contact with her from now on?  Carol is older than I am, and she is rightfully concerned about continuing her excellent health.  I phoned her and asked her if she would be comfortable seeing me in person.  She said she would be as long as I could maintain a social distance from her. We had a delightful time as we sat on her patio, masks on, and 8 feet apart.  

On my return home I got a call from my friend, Tom.  He was at a project close to my home, and he wondered if I could stop by. Tom is in my “bubble” of contacts, so there was no problem stopping by and giving him a hand with his job. 

At dinner, I reflected on my day, noting how full it was and how much I enjoyed it.  I didn’t feel like I was trying to pretend that it was a pre-COVID day; it was an enjoyable day.

My daughter Gracie sent out a group text to our immediate family, asking us if we wanted to have a 4th of July party.  Julie and I had already planned to have a barbeque, but Gracie wanted to expand on that idea.  She wanted to make some treats, play yard games, and have a bonfire.  I thought it was a great idea.

Grace made some desserts, Will offered his frisbee and “Spikeball” game, Julie and I took over various dinner making tasks, Kathryn did some cleanup, and Will and I built a fire. I didn’t feel like I was substituting; I felt like I was experiencing a good day. 

It is possible that this pandemic will have the same culture-changing power as the 911 event had on our country.  Things may never be the same.  I was willing to put my life on hold for months, but I’m not ready to place myself in suspended animation.  Yet, I am acutely aware that to go back to pre-COVID behaviors would be both dangerous and foolhardy. 

Life requires continual adjustment.  There are things that I could do at age 30 that I’m unable to do at 67.  With that said, there are things that I can do at 67 that I could not do at age 30.  My goal has always been to live the best life that I can in any situation. I need to apply that same logic to my current life.

I have always loved nature, and I have always loved being in the country.  I have taken trips where I am living in a space that is smaller than my walk-in closet.  Places where the nearest Walmart is 4 hours away. Areas where there is no cell phone coverage. I have traveled to these places deliberately and savored the simplicity of my life. I didn’t feel deprived during those times; I felt liberated.  I focused on what I had and what I could do instead of what I didn’t have or what I couldn’t do.  I was happy living my life in the here and now.  It was great.

I know that we will eventually develop a vaccine, and I’ll be the first person to get it.  However, I don’t know if life will be the same as prior to the pandemic.  I am determined to move forward and to live life.  What can you do to enjoy your new “today?’ 

Some black and white shots of Herrick Lake.

Grilling on the 4th of July.
Yard games.
Our 4th of July “feast.”
Frisbee toss!
Grace (with the help of others) made some “cake balls”
Will and I made a fire.
We even had a sing-along.

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.