All posts by Dr. Mike

DEALING WITH COVID FATIGUE

How many months has it been?  It started for me sometimes in March.  Or was it earlier?  I remember talking about it in February because we thought about traveling to New Mexico, but I still wasn’t focused on it.  I believe it really hit home when I returned from New Mexico on March 11th and saw that the airport was nearly empty.  On that flight home, I discovered that my daughter and son’s universities were transitioning to online classes. Then, a few weeks later, Governor Pritzker shut down Illinois by issuing a shelter-in-place proclamation.

That order added a level of fear, but also a strange sense of odd excitement in me.  The isolation order brought back memories of the 1967 Chicago blizzard.  A time when everything was closed and a time when everyday life was on hold.  I didn’t yet comprehend the difference between a 5-day snowy shutdown vs. months of lockdown.  

When I came back from New Mexico, I was surprised to see empty shelves at Walmart… and there was no toilet paper!  I couldn’t even buy a pack online, so I resorted to buying a case of industrial, commercial stuff- the TP that no one wants to use.  Twenty-four hours later, Amazon sent me a notice stating that I had canceled that order (which I did not).  I went on another online search and bought a case of TP from a hotel supply company.  Several weeks later, that case plus the one that Amazon said was canceled BOTH arrived.  Two cases of sandpaper quality TP. Bonus or bogus?

The kids were back at home, and Julie and I had gone from empty nesters to a family of 5 in a matter of a week.  Spaces had to be re-allocated to accommodate them and their particular needs.

Everyday grocery items like pasta and white flour were nowhere to be found.  Hand sanitizer and Lysol products had gone missing but could be bought if one was willing to spend ten times their average price (I chose not to).  People were walking more; they would wave and say hello to me as they crossed the street to avoid me.  The kids and I found some construction paper in the house that we cut into hearts, and on which we wrote inspirational sayings.  “Breathe,” “Joy,” “Be Strong,” and dotted the front windows of our house with them.

The stock market, which is my primary source of retirement income, took a tumble, and I panicked.  However, I tried to remind myself that I was still more fortunate than many. 

I relied on my medical and scientific knowledge as the COVID threat intensified. Wrong information and spurious conspiracy theories were flying, and so I sorted through the facts vs. fiction. I did my best to educate others.

Initially, there was a temporary feeling about the crisis. It would end soon…but it didn’t. Days blended into weeks.  Weeks turned into months.  Holidays muted.  Get-togethers canceled.  The initial “crisis novelty” wore off.  

As a retiree, my position was different than many.  I didn’t need to renegotiate my work life. So I focused some of my technical energy on Julie by setting up a secure video conferencing platform for her to see some of her patients remotely.  

It slowly started in me, a strange feeling.  It wasn’t depression, but I didn’t feel happy.  It wasn’t laziness, but I really didn’t want to do anything.  It wasn’t anger, but I was irritable. It felt like I was separating from the world around me.  I wasn’t disconnecting; it was more of a sense of not connecting. It didn’t feel terrific.

It was time to put on my psychiatrist hat and to make changes in my attitude. I would like to tell you some of the ways that I have been coping and share some general concepts that may help you emotionally deal with the pandemic and its resulting isolation.

Private spaces,

Our home went from 2 individuals (one who was still working) to 5 individuals at home 24/7.  We each found spots where we could have some private space.  For example, I used my study and built a “nest” in a leather chair next to a window.  My daughter claimed as her own a section of public space, our family room.  She “built-out” a chair and end table with those things that were important to her-her phone, computer, and water bottle. 

For those of you living alone, it is also essential to have zones to do different things.  This can be accomplished in any sized space, including a studio apartment.  Where you sleep should be different from where you eat and work.  

Keep it clean!

When you have nowhere to go, it is easy to let yourself go.  After all, who cares!  The reality is that you should. I feel fortunate that I can step into a steaming hot shower whenever I please. I feel better about myself when my body is clean, and my teeth are brushed.

Tidiness goes beyond personal hygiene.  A disordered house makes you feel disordered.  Keeping surfaces clean and dusted, and putting things away can add a sense of serenity. It is especially important to keep things orderly when you live with others.  Messes can accumulate quickly, and with them comes resentment.  Disorder can prevent you from doing things that you need to do.  You are less likely to make yourself a healthy dinner if you have to first wash pots, clean dishes, and clear off a messy countertop left from the morning’s breakfast. 

All individuals in a home have to work together to maintain such an environment. This is not only necessary, but it also adds a sense of teamwork.  Kids feel better about themselves when they accomplish tasks.

Teamwork.

You may be a team of one, or you may be living with many.  If the latter is the case, it is imperative that basic ground rules be established. Naturally, everyone should share in everyday tasks, or at least accept responsibility to accomplish joint goals.  For instance, one family may decide that they are going to cook their meals together.  Another family may determine that one person will cook meals, and someone else will clean the bathroom.  

Perhaps one parent did all of the house cleaning in the past.  Is it still fair for that individual to do all of the work now that others create greater mess and have more free time?  These are the kinds of questions that have to be addressed during any significant life-change.

Two of my kids have returned to university, so there are now three adults (including me) remaining at home.  I still do most of the house cleaning, but we share more meal-making tasks, and everyone is expected to clean up after themselves.  Your needs and rules may differ.

Get Out!

When possible, it is essential to vary your environment.  In the beginning, I walked a lot, but that wasn’t enough.  I started to spend time with my friend, Tom and incorporated him into my COVID circle.  Just seeing a different human improved my morale.  As time has grown, I have gently increased my circle further.  On occasion, I will visit my siblings.  These visits have been in COVID safe settings. I also call people regularly (some daily), and I email my in-laws once a week.  Doing these things has helped normalize the last few months.

A touch of the old life.

I live in an urban area that is rich with carry-out and curbside options.  A cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts’ drive-through or a delivery pizza on a Friday night can add a little normalcy to my day.

Projects and tasks.

At the beginning of the year, I was heavily involved in doing some odious tasks-like cleaning out my crawl space.  Once shelter-in-place started, I lost all interest in these extracurricular activities.  However, I have been slowly trying to return to “extra” jobs.  I have made a few modifications to my campervan and have slowly started to rid myself of needless junk.  It isn’t much, but accomplishing even a small task makes me feel like I’m moving forward instead of backward.  I would suggest that you come up with some things you want to do and then do them.  Spending a few minutes a day on a task that you need to do (but don’t want to do) can give you a sense of control.

View the whole picture. 

Is it possible that there is some sort of an upside to this crisis?  As strange as it may sound, the answer is yes. My wife has a friend who says she formed a deep new friendship with someone she met right before COVID.  They have been communicating through emails and phone calls and have really gotten to know each other. 

I’m cooking a lot of meals with one of my daughters, and we are not only having a lot of fun, but I feel like I’m getting to know her on a totally new level.  Every coin has two sides.

Politics and pandemics. 

Our greater community can help all of us adjust to change.  I love watching videos about the homefront efforts that brought our country together during WWII. When we feel like we are part of the greater good, it is easier to accept imposed limitations.  Local, state, and federal governments need to focus not only on physical practices (like mask-wearing) but also on the patriotic side of doing the right thing.

Yoopers unite!

Over the years, I have known folks who lived in isolated parts of the country.  They had to travel great distances to go to the grocery or hardware store,  and their nearest neighbor was miles away.  Yet, they were happy and content. They didn’t feel deprived; instead, they felt blessed with what they had. We create our expectations, and we determine what is satisfying and rewarding.  

Don’t be an ass.

COVID, COVID isolation, COVID shortages… the list goes on.  Yes, life with COVID can make people irritable.  Several folks have told me of customer service interactions where the person on the other end of the phone was rude, inflexible, and downright mean.  During times of stress, it is MORE important to make an effort to be kind.  Kindness is not a weakness; it is a strength.  When you are kind towards someone, they will often respond similarly to you.  Even better, they may pass on their goodwill to someone else.  Being angry may temporarily make you feel powerful, but the overall destructive energy it generates is poisoning to all parties, including the perpetrator.  Consider doing random acts of kindness.

It is not all or nothing!

The longer someone has to do something, the less likely that their actions will be perfect.  It is also expected that their efforts will need to be modified over time.  You may have enough food in your cupboard for a few days, but eventually, you will need to go to the grocery store and break your perfect isolation.  

It is easy to let go of the safeguards that you had in place.  A safe gathering can grow to one that is unsafe.  You may decide that you really don’t need to wear a mask or thoroughly wash your hands.  An internal desire to return to normal may turn reasonable changes into foolish actions that put both you and your loved ones at risk.  Assess how you can expand your world with an eye on what is safe and what is not.  I just visited my brother-in-law and my sister.  The three of us met on their semi-enclosed, well ventilated back porch. This was safe. However, it would be unsafe to have a big family party in their kitchen.  

Be radical with your acceptance.

I talk to people who regularly say to me, “When will this be over!”  They are waiting for everything to go back to normal.  They are putting their lives on hold.  The fact is that things may go back to normal, or they may not.  However, the best approach is to radically accept our current life situation; otherwise, a “why is this happening” attitude can turn into sadness and anger.  Radical acceptance is not “giving up.”  It is an acceptance that there are things that we cannot change in our lives.  Radical acceptance allows us to move forward and prevents us from being stuck in an endless cycle of self-pity. 

Gratitude is the attitude.

Turn your cup from half-empty to half-full.  Start your day by writing down 4 or 5 positive things about your life or situation.  Then read your list and ponder on it.  


Consider some of these thoughts, and make your day a little bit brighter.

Peace

Mike

BTW  Comments have been turned off as I was getting hundreds of SPAM messages from a Spanish bot.  If you want to email me, you can take my web address prefix and add @gmail.com. 

Hanging out with my friend, Tom has helped me to feel more connected.
Cooking with my daughter has allowed both of us to know each other a bit better. Yes, that is a broasted chicken from the market.
I continue to go on walks and I continue to find new things!
We have a “historic village” in our town, but it is shuttered due to COVID.
This pretty scene makes it look like life is “normal.”

An empty playground.
Signs by our city hall. Please vote!!

“Just Say No” to attack ads

On a recent rainy day, I sat in the big leather chair in my study. With my MacBook on my lap, I watched a series of YouTube videos. Most had at least one ad that played before, and many videos had ads that played during their short program. It was pretty unbearable.

On that particular day, I was struck by the number of ads that supported the adoption of a graduated state income tax for Illinois. Dubbed the “Fair Tax” in the commercials, the ads showed happy citizens who were ecstatic that they were paying lower state taxes. Lower taxes seem like a good idea, but why would a state that is chronically short of cash lower its taxes? Something about the ads smelled like fish that was left out on the counter for too long.  

It is well known that Illinoisians pay higher total state-imposed taxes than the vast majority of other states. Would the adoption of this new amendment really help our citizens? I decided to investigate. Currently, Illinoisians pay a flat state income tax of 4.95%. With the recently proposed amendment, lower-income individuals would pay less, but by how much? The rate for those making $10,000 to $99,999 would drop from 4.95 % to 4.90%. To put that into perspective, someone making $10,000 would only benefit by $5. However, families earning $250,000 would jump to a tax rate of 7.75%, an almost 3% increase.  

Source on proposed tax rates can be found here: https://news.wttw.com/2020/09/15/what-voters-need-know-about-fair-tax-amendment

Technically, families making less than 100K a year would benefit from the new tax structure, but the actual benefit would be relatively small. The devil is in the details. This amendment also allows for future increases in taxes. This would mean even higher taxes on the rich, which could increase the already alarming exodus of these folks to more tax-friendly states. The law says it is OK to raise taxes, as long as it is done for all income groups. In other words, everyone would get a tax increase.  

The amendment that allows for a small tax benefit today could translate into a tax increase in the future. I don’t think those people in the ads would be smiling if they had the complete picture. Illinois is famous for mismanaging its budget, and with the passing of this amendment, any shortfalls could be resolved by merely increasing everyone’s state income tax rate. 

Presenting half-truths to manipulate the public seems to be the nature of political advertising. 

I have already posted my concerns about cable news editorial shows and how their twisting of facts has helped create an ever more partisan and divided nation. However, political ads take bias to a new level. Many ads are now “attack ads.” They talk less about a candidate’s policies and more about their opponent’s flaws. 

Lyndon Johnson used one of the first successful attack ads in his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. The iconic “Daisy” ad showed a little girl picking the petals off a daisy while the announcer counts down. When he reaches zero, the ad cuts to a nuclear bomb’s mushroom cloud. The implication being that Barry Goldwater was a warmonger who would lead us to utter destruction. It was an extremely controversial ad when it was released. However, it would be considered mild in today’s political climate.

Using selectively edited sound bites, modifying or adding additional sounds, and using unflattering or distorted photos of an opponent have become commonplace. Emphasizing an opponent’s errors without balancing them with their accomplishments is a given. All of these factors yield a distorted impression of the opponent to the voter. Most voters won’t investigate further.

The 1950s was the dawn of the computer age, and Ed Greenfield felt that he could exploit this new tool to modify human behavior. He called his idea “Project Macroscope,” and he enlisted academics from prestigious institutions from around the country. Greenfield and his team collected data from surveys and publicly available sources to create a database that could be statistically analyzed using a computer. His company, called Simulmatics, pitched the idea to the Kennedy presidential campaign and was contracted by them. Simulmatics guided the future president on addressing specific issues to voters, like his Catholicism (at the time, it was felt that this was a negative attribute). The impact of Simulmatics’s advice on the 1961 election remains unclear. However, Simulmatics claimed that they won Kennedy’s election, thus ensuring ever more complicated data collection and analysis in future elections.

More recently, the British firm Cambridge Analytica has been in the spotlight for their role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Cambridge Analytica used social media sites (including Facebook) to gather information on how vulnerable a particular person was to persuasion. They used a personality test developed by the University of Michigan that resided in the public domain. It was designed to give an OCEAN score, the acronym standing for, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. This score gave Cambridge Analytica knowledge on how persuadable someone was. That innocent-looking “what’s your personality” quiz that you may have taken in 2015 was a weaponized tool used to manipulate you. How so? Combining information from the personality test with other data could determine who could be persuaded to vote for a particular candidate. Once selected, that person could be bombarded with psychologically designed ads, articles, and other media that could move the voter away from one candidate and towards another. Do you recall seeing a lot of ads against Hillary Clinton calling her “Crooked Hillary?” If so, you may have been targeted by Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge likely impacted the outcomes of elections in many other countries before the U.S. presidential election. Also, Cambridge has been implicated in swaying the Brits to adopt Brexit.  

Beyond being manipulated by political campaigns, political pacts, and influential individuals, foreign entities have used social media and advertising to influence voters with misinformation. It has been shown that Russia applied psychological techniques on various social media platforms to discredit Clinton in an effort to have her lose the 2016 election.

It is unclear how coordinated these efforts were, but it is clear that a multi-pronged attack against any candidate has a synergistic impact that supports offshoot organizations and ideas. QAnon comes to mind, a fringe right-wing conspiracy “group.” Some of their ideas include the belief that the Democrats (and others) are Satan-worshiping pedophilic sex traffickers and that Donald Trump is secretly working to defeat them. Other crackpot themes that they ascribe to include their belief that Michele Obama is a man in drag, and that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. is the epicenter for the above-mentioned sex trafficking ring. As crazy as this all sounds, the number of QAnon true believers has grown and even includes politicians. 

Running a single successful attack ad can cost a presidential candidate a million dollars, but many feel that it is money well spent. However, misinformation spread by memes, “articles,” manipulated video clips, and “testimonials” are relatively inexpensive. They can be customized and targeted through the power of media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  

Politicians seem less interested in presenting the truth and more interested in manipulating the voter. Third parties can stir the flames further as they can exceed the almost non-existent ethical limits that a politician campaign will employ. A campaign may present facts falsely and misleadingly, but a third party can call the opponent a blood-drinking, pedophilic cannibal without expecting any reprisal.

The bottom line is that ads, memes, opinion pieces, and false articles do little to inform prospective voters. Their misinformation is in direct contradiction to a democratic process, as it denies the voter the accurate information that they need to make an informed decision. The only way to inoculate oneself from such misinformation is to avoid it. In the recent past, I advised you to stop watching cable news editorial shows. I am now strongly urging you to consider all ads, memes, and other political media you encounter in emails, social media, and YouTube as potentially false and misleading. If you are interested in voting for the next president, explore their actual record and vote based on that record and their platform. No candidate is perfect, but you need to weigh their accomplishments and their failures to understand who they are and what motivates them. Attack ads will cease to exist when they are shown to be ineffective. However, in 2020 that is not the case, so you need to neutralize them by not engaging in them.  

Peace

Mike

I don’t need to hide behind ads, this is what I believe.

Road Trip…I mean Road Trips

Text messages…

3:51 AM… (beep) “Are you up?”

3:52 AM… (beep) “Yes.”

3:55 AM… (beep) “Just checking.”

4:18 AM… (beep) “I’m here.” (parked in front of my house)

4:19 AM… (beep) “One sec.”

And so started another day, and another trip to Michigan. My friend, Tom has an ambitious plan to turn fallen oak trees into flooring for the townhouse that he is renovating. He has a source for the trees locally, but he has to transport them to a sawmill in Michigan for the first stage in their reappropriation. Tom has a trailer, and he can take up to 3 logs at a time, but he will need at least 11 or 12 logs to get enough lumber for the job.

It will take multiple trips to get the logs from Chicago to the Michigan sawmill where they will be cut into boards. Once cut they will be transported to Indiana where the greenwood will be dried into finished boards. It is quite the process.

Tom asked me if I wanted to go along with him on these trips, and I said, “Yes.” Why you may ask? For a few reasons:

-I travel well with Tom, and I enjoy going on adventures with him.

-We are both individuals who are filled with wonderment over simple things. We like to explore.

-I felt that it would be safer if he had a co-pilot to keep him company.

I got into Tom’s dually and we started our journey to the Michigan sawmill. And so our adventures began.

I know that a lot of people are going a bit stir crazy with pandemic isolation, so I thought that I would share parts of our adventure with you via photos that I took along the way. The photos are from our first 4 trips.

These logs are huge.
At 4:30 AM it is dark, but the highways are busy with truck traffic.
Welcoming dawn.
The leaves are turning earlier in Michigan than in Illinois. The colors have been spectacular.
I thought that these dried stalks of corn looked like soldiers guarding their master’s field.
The country roads were peaceful and serene.
Mini side trips revealed hidden treasures, like this lake.
We found random antique cars sitting in a field.
The country roads were littered with fruit and vegetable stands. I scored some tomatoes, cucumbers, acorn squash, and apples.
All road trips include “pit stops”… at least when I’m traveling. Here we stopped in Indiana on our way back from one of the trips.
Migrant workers help harvest the region’s produce. Small stores offer limited and expensive grocery shopping.
Deisel fuel was much cheaper at this rural gas station.
Here I am with just one of our loads. Including the trailer, Tom truck was pulling around 14,000 pounds!
Some of the logs that we transported. Sawmill buildings in the background.
Moving into position to dump the logs at the sawmill.
The rear doors of the trailer secured. Ready to dump!
Dumping logs at the sawmill.
The trailer empty, time to go back to Chicago.
The sawyer planing a board from one of Tom’s logs.
The heater and kilns at the sawmill. Tom will not be using these as the process would take at least 4 months to dry his lumber. Instead, we will drive the cut boards to Indiana where they can be dried via a faster vacuum method.
I noticed that one of the trailer’s tires looked like it was losing air. It turns out that it took on a roofing nail. We were very lucky that the tire didn’t blow while the trailer was carrying three huge logs.
Tom was prepared for emergencies, and he even had a tire repair kit.
What good is a tire repair kit if you don’t have a compressor to refill the tire, and what good is a compressor if you don’t have a portable generator to power it? Yep, we had both.

I hope you found our little adventures enjoyable!

Peace

Mike

Me, We, Us

When I was younger, I thought about my goals and dreams in terms of “me.” What did I want to do? What did I want to accomplish? What did I want to experience? 

When I married, I thought about goals and dreams in terms of “we.” I had to consider another person’s aspirations.  My desires were still important, but so were my wife’s.  

With children, our mission statement changed to “us.” We all had needs, and all of those needs had to be considered. At times, one person’s wants would take precedent, and at other times someone else’s would.  Often, we would find a middle ground.  Living in harmony meant compromise. I couldn’t have my way all of the time, but it was acceptable to have it some of the time. By being flexible, I was able to appreciate other’s viewpoints. In many ways, the consideration of their needs improved the quality of my life. I shifted from a self-serving “me” to a more balanced “us.”

Along with that change came an awareness that happiness and satisfaction were not found in the latest “toy” or trip.  Contentment was found in relationships, a spiritual life, and a connection with the greater world around me. Service was more satisfying than selfishness.  

That is not to say that I became a co-dependent vessel of a person.  I believe that my needs are just as important as anyone else’s in my family. Also, the move to “us” didn’t require that we all became clones of one another. I didn’t have to lose myself and blindly agree with those around me.  However, I needed to respect their opinions and acknowledge that their thoughts were just as valid to them as mine were to me.

When our founders came to America, they accepted the harsh realities of a primitive existence because they wanted to gain something they felt was more important.  For some, that something was the freedom to worship as they wished. Their individual beliefs were different than the mainstream beliefs in their native England. 

The emphasis of individual rights has been a hallmark of our history, and we venerate individuals who, by their supposedly singular actions, have gained great wealth, status, and power. The past gave us icons like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison. More recently, we admire Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. We are taught that their individualism and focus made them wealthy, powerful, and successful. We somehow equate these characteristics with happiness. Of course, that is not the case.  It is also not the case that these individuals were islands unto themself.  For instance, Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb; he refined a device that had been worked on by almost two dozen other inventors.  His real genius was his ability to market this idea.  Bill Gates didn’t create MS-DOS (the precursor of Windows); he bought the code’s rights and then tweaked it. Some may argue that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t come up with the idea of Facebook; he likely appropriated the concept from fellow Harvard students, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Beyond these truths, all of these individuals’ real success was wholly dependent on the legions of others who offered their hard work, expertise, and opinion. We celebrate the individual, but we should be celebrating the team.  Without the group, none of these superstars would have had the level of success that they did.

As Americans, we continue to be obsessed with influential individuals who, by their drive, live a life that most of us could only imagine having. Many of us want to be like these people, and we want to have what they have.  When we can’t realize their status, we settle to connect with them by association. We join their ideological club, and we worship at their altar. 

This focus on individualism without compassion has created a country of citizens who believe that the world is supposed to meet THEIR needs, celebrate THEIR ideas, and validate THEIR beliefs.  They view life in terms of absolutes-winner vs. loser, black vs. white, good vs. evil.  Life becomes a reality TV show where victory is achieved when the other person is destroyed and humiliated.  

In such a scenario, morals and values become cliches, stage devices to justify real objectives.  In such a world, global decisions are based on singular desires.  We support actions that offer us a job now but destroy the environment for all in the future.  We deny healthcare to our fellow citizens, so a relatively few insurance company stockholders can become more affluent. We denigrate individuals who we perceive as different from us to maintain a false sense of power and superiority.  In the process of achieving these goals, we lose sight of the fact that we live in a society, and that societies function best when all members have a seat at the table. 

I’m writing this the day after the first presidential debate of 2020.  A discussion that celebrated tactics over substance, insults over content, and rage over rational.  A debate of rude interruptions.  A debate that was incoherent and useless to the viewer.  A debate where lies were presented as fact.  A debate where “winning” and embarrassing the opponent was more important than offering a vision for a future.  It was a shameful event: a global embarrassment and a mockery of a process intended to educate and inform.  

We will all vote as we see fit this November.  However, I would ask you to consider what is best for our country, instead of what seems to be best for you. I pray for this.

Peace. 

We are a society, not a bunch of individuals.

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.

Sangean/Sony/Panasonic

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

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.

Power

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.

Garbage

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.

Entertainment

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

1963

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.


2020

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?

Crocks

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.  

Peace

Mike

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.