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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.

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.

Our Easter During A Shelter-In-Place COVID-19 Pandemic.

I have celebrated Easter Sunday in the same way for decades. The morning starts with a candy hunt by the kids, followed by a light brunch. We then attend a late morning church service. I rush home from church to make my “signature” cheesy chivy potatoes, which is my contribution to our family’s Easter party. We then pile into our car and drive off to my sister’s house in a nearby suburb. Along the way, I pick up flowers for my two godchildren.

For Easter, my sister and brother-in-law supply their house and a lot of the food. However, most of us are assigned a dish-to-pass. We typically are given the same dish to make year after year, which is how cheesy chivy potatoes became my signature dish. You may think that the recipe sounds disgusting, but many family members have told me that they look forward to it every Easter. Chessy Chivy Potatoes are not haute cuisine. 


Mike’s Recipe for Cheesy Chivy Potatoes

  1. Make a whole bunch of mashed potatoes.
  2. Stir in a lot of cheese. This can be any combination of meltable cheeses. Over the years, I have used sharp cheddar, American slices, and even Velveta. 
  3. Add chives to taste. I’ll sometimes saute fresh chives, but I have also used the dried bottled stuff. They both taste the same.

I bring a large pan of the potatoes, and I’ll often leave the party with an empty scrapped casserole dish. Our Easter meal is Midwestern… ham, potatoes, jello molds, rolls/butter, sweet potatoes, Easter lamb pound cake… you get the picture. We do have a few vegetarians in our group, so there are also some vegetarian-friendly foods added to the menu.

My sister’s Easter party is always a highlight for me. Everyone is eager to mingle and chat, the weather is typically beautiful enough for a walk, and the food is comforting. By 8 PM, I’m ready to head home. Easter Sunday concludes quietly, often by watching one of those classic Easter movies. However, all that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, as many weeks ago, my sister canceled the event due to the virus.

As a family, we decided to do something for Easter, but we weren’t sure what that “something” would be. Our plans slowly formed as the day approached.

Julie made a brunch style egg dish, the kind where you mix bread, eggs, ham, and cheese and let the combination sit overnight in the fridge. It puffs up into a delicious souffle style casserole when you bake it the next day. Also, she proved some Rhodes cinnamon rolls. These start as frozen pucks that you place in a 9 x 13 pan overnight. By morning they are doubled in size and ready for the oven. There is nothing like the smell of baking cinnamony bread to wake you up in the morning. Add some strong hot coffee for a perfect start to the holiday.

Hot Cinnamon Rolls and Overnight Egg Dish

We didn’t buy any Easter candy; I didn’t think that this was a big deal as our kids are adults. I was wrong. This was rectified by Grace and Kathryn, who took a quick trip to Walgreen’s candy aisle the day before.  

Enough Easter candy to make anyone sick.

Later Sunday morning, we went to church…online. Our church had started a streaming ministry to lock-ins, and so they were ready to broadcast when Illinois’ shelter-in-place order came through. I cued up the stream on a Macbook and “Cast” it to our family room TV. The overall production quality was excellent, and they wove in video clips and remote music into the sermon. At communion time, we ate Ritz crackers and had a small sip of box wine. Watching church on a TV is not as engaging as participating in person, but the overall impact made it a worthwhile experience.

An online sermon cast to our family room TV.
Multiple musical collaborators turned our family room into a church concert.

Our early afternoon was carved out for connecting with others. At 2 PM, we all huddled around a computer and logged into a Zoom call to Julie’s family. The group represented members from 4 states and one foreign country. Her family follows rules well; everyone waited to talk, and the conversation rolled along smoothly.  

Huddling around a computer on a Zoom call to the Nelsons.

At 3 PM, I connected to my side’s Zoom call. Kunas are very exuberant, and most have little experience with conference calls. The resulting connection consisted of conversational chaos. It was fantastic to see everyone, but after about 10 minutes I decided that it was time to leave the meeting. Lastly, I was able to connect with my oldest daughter, Anne, via FaceTime. By 4 PM, I had touched base with more people then I would have if I had followed my usual Easter routine. This surprised me.

Reaching out with Zoom to the Kuna side of the family.
A good ol’ FaceTime call to daughter, Anne.

For dinner, Julie made some chicken legs that I bought during a pandemic grocery trip along with some stuffed shells and fresh asparagus. This was not our traditional Easter dinner, but delicious and celebratory none-the-less.

A non-traditional but delicious dinner.

After dinner, I discover new neighborhoods on a walk with my daughter Grace. Our evening ended with a family viewing of episode 8 of “The Tiger King.” We, too, have succumbed to this national phenomenon. I have to say that episode 8 seemed more like click-bait than a real episode, but it still managed to occupy 60 minutes of our evening.

I discovered this cool mid-century home when we decided to go in a different direction on a walk.

There you have it, our Easter during the pandemic. We didn’t go to church or have traditional Easter baskets. I didn’t make cheesy chivy potatoes or go to my sister’s house for a party. However, we managed to incorporate all of the essential elements of our typical Easter into last Sunday. We ate special food, and the kids had their fill of hollow chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs. We attentively attended an online church service. We caught up with loved ones, and we did family-centered activities. We didn’t give up Easter; we just modified it. It was a good day.

We may need to change other behaviors during (and after) this crisis time, but that doesn’t mean that we need to give up on life or traditions.  

I’m sure that there are activities or connections that you are missing since you have had to socially isolate. I would ask you to distill the essence of what you are losing into its characteristic elements. Be creative and see how you can reproduce those elements differently so you can transform your situation from one of loss to one of discovery.

Peace

Who Is Stopping Me?-Me!

What is stopping me?  Me!

Despite all of my efforts, I can still be a victim of my own imposed limitations. My personal flaws bother me.

I have been reasonably busy during my retirement year, and have grown in a variety of ways. I have been fortunate to use my photography skills to do work for others, and I wholly enjoy the challenges that those opportunities have presented.  Every time I create something for someone else, my photography grows a little more. However, I am bounded by the expectations of the client. The constraints of the job limit my creative vision. There is another area of photography that I am drawn to.  It is an area that has little commercial value. 

I walk early in the morning, and sometimes I’ll spy lights on in houses that I pass.  I always wonder, “Who is up in that house? What are they doing? What are they having for breakfast? Are they getting ready for work or school?  What kind of work do they do?” The questions continue in my mind. I ask myself similar questions when I drive through small towns and villages. In each, lives are moving forward, some successful, others less so. 

In the Midwest, many small and medium-sized communities are failing. Factories are abandoned; residents have moved to larger cities. Stores in the downtown areas are frequently closed or occupied by resale shops and bars. Houses are often in need of repair. These realities are especially evident in places ignored by interstate highways.  Once vibrant communities slowly die, a process fueled by decreased populations and reduced city revenues. Each house, storefront, and building tells a story, and every one of them is fascinating to me.

There are other discoveries to be made on rural roads.  Great barns, some shiny, others in ruin. Majestic parks, historical markers, and hidden vistas dot the landscape. All you need to do is to pause and look.  Sadly, few do.

There is a little boy inside of me who is full of wonderment. I have been fortunate to have a few people in my life who share similar excitement when discovering those things that most others would pass on.  These individuals have an inner child in them, and I am so very grateful that we have found each other.

However, I know of no one who has both the “wonderment quotient” as well as a love of photography. No one would find it interesting to go on a photo-taking adventure with me. Years ago, I joined a photography MeetUp group.  However, the group expanded so rapidly that it ignited my shyness, and I stopped going. I much prefer more intimate experiences. 

Who is stopping me?  Me!

I want to visit small towns.  I want to explore the countryside.  I want to photograph images as I see them.  Why have I been ignoring this need?

I am aware of how fear impacts my ability to do new things.  I tend to overthink, and this can lead to “what if” scenarios, which can be immobilizing. However, I refuse to let fear stand in my way of doing anything rational.  I will push past it. 

Guilt also plays a factor.  I have to admit that I feel guilty that I have so much free time.  I feel guilty that I can do an activity on days when my wife works. Going on a day trip requires a level of self-indulgence. 

Who is stopping me?  Me!

I scanned a road map and determined that there were several towns on Route 64 that looked interesting. I could drive to them and back in a single day.  I mentioned my plan to Julie, and she was OK with it.

I traveled last week, and I wholly enjoyed my explorations.  Here are some of the photos that I took:

A few of the many doorways that I photographed.  They all could tell a story.

A huge grain elevator in the middle of nowhere.

Old houses in need of some TLC.

An abandoned college campus.

A magnificent county courthouse.

Mississippi Palisades State Park.

I faced my fear and guilt and accomplished my goal. However, the experience wasn’t perfect.  I was once again aware of the loneliness that I felt. A feeling that I wanted to share my experience with someone.  “Look at that cool building!” “What do you think of that view?” “Would you shoot that barn from this angle or that angle?”  A travel companion would have been icing on my exploration cake.

I am planning more photo day trips, and I’m also considering pushing my comfort zone further.  I’m thinking about reaching out to strangers to see if there is someone who would like to go with me on a photoshoot day trip. I can’t be the only retired guy with both an interest and a camera. An additional bonus would be the sharing of travel expenses. However, the exact same barriers are preventing me from moving on to this new idea.

What if I’m not compatible with a new travel buddy?  What if they don’t like me? What if they are an ax murderer? -OK, that latter point may be a stretch. I understand that if I experience a terrible match, it is only one day of my life. Indeed, a reasonable risk. 

The second barrier is more significant for me.  I am an intense person who forms emotional relationships. If you can deal with me, you will be rewarded with a true friend who will stand by you no matter what. I value a few strong relationships over dozens of weaker ones. I like relationships where I can be myself and not fear that I’m “too intense” for the other person to handle. These kinds of connections require a lot of work, effort, and time from both sides.  If I developed a strong relationship with a new photo buddy, I would feel guilty that I was taking time away from my established connections. This may seem illogical to you, but it is an honest concern for me. Two good friends are not the equivalent of one best friend. 

It is interesting that common themes stand as barriers from me to being completely true to my needs.  Fear does play into my decisions, but I’m used to pushing past that feeling. However, guilt plays a more important function.  Guilt that I’m having fun when someone else is not. Guilt that I’m being disloyal to those who I care for. Guilt that I don’t deserve to have as much success as I’m having. I can surmise why I have these feelings, but that doesn’t eliminate them.  However, I believe that I can work through them on a case-by-case basis. It will be an interesting growth journey.

I can’t say if I’m going to try the photo buddy route, but I can say that I will absolutely go on another photoshoot day trip.  There is so much to see, and with each discovery, I feel that I grow. I have never wanted to be determined by someone other than me.  With that said, I don’t want to be determined by my self-imposed limitations. I want to base my life on what I can do, not what I can’t do.

How do you limit yourself? 

Peace

Mike

What The Apollo Missions Meant To Me

“Do you want to go to Houston in January?”  Julie said. “I guess, but why Houston?” I replied. Apparently,  Spirit Airlines had a cheap fare to Houston, and Julie felt that it would be warmer than Chicago.  

I had forgotten about the trip, and then it was suddenly upon me.  We needed to leave the house by 3:30 AM on a Thursday and at 9 PM the night before I was frantically packing. Over the years, I have learned to pack both lighter and more efficiently.  I keep a Dopp Kit ready to go, so all I had to do was to transfer the liquid items into a quart ziplock bag for TSA. Also, I packed a hoodie, some shirts, an extra pair of pants, my sleep ware, and of course, socks and underwear. 

I have a camera case in the style of a backpack, which is my under-the-seat carry-on. Since I use the bag when I’m not flying, I made sure to dump out all of the pouches and pockets.  Thankfully, there were no banned items. Into my backpack went a fully charged iPad, a minimal first-aid kit, sunglasses, lip balm, a battery bank with adapter cords, and a few packaged snacks for the flight. The front pouch of the backpack is padded for cameras.  In it, I placed my small Olympus OMD EM10 camera with its kit lens, an extra camera battery, a 20 mm F 1.8 lens, and a few other camera accessories. I’m an avid photographer, but I don’t want to haul a lot of extra camera gear.  

I usually wake up early, but that is not the case for Julie.  Yet, she was a good sport, and we were soon on our way to OHare International Airport.  Our gate seemed to be in a different state, but that is what you expect when you are flying on a budget airline. Soon we were boarded and waiting to take off.  Surprisingly, the budget carrier’s customer service was pretty good. However, my legroom was terrible, and within about 30 minutes, I started to have leg cramps. I  focused on the fact that the flight was only 2 hours; it was a long two hours.

One place that we wanted to visit was the Johnson Space Center/Space Center of Houston, and after a light brunch, we drove through the gates, paid our admission fees, and started our tour. We were approached by a tall black man wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the center’s logo.  “Can I help you?” He asked. And with that, he gave us a detailed overview of what to see not only at the museum but also at the adjacent Johnson Space Center. He strongly suggested that we board the two shuttle tours as both of them would take us around the Johnson Space Center’s campus.  One of the tours would allow us entry into the actual command center where the Apollo space missions were directed.  

I was flooded with childhood memories.  I grew up during the 1960s, and the space race dominated my thoughts during those years. That decade was a time of great American pride.  There was a feeling that we could accomplish anything, figure out anything, do anything. I watched every single space launch and always held my breath when the giant rockets rose slowly and somewhat crookedly as they traveled up and beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

The 60s were a time when Americans feared that the USSR was going to invade our country and make us slaves to communism.  Russia not only had launched Sputnik, the first satellite, it had also placed the first person in space. There was an honest concern that the US would be left behind.

However, on May 5, 1961, Alan Sheppard was strapped into a tiny Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket. He was sent on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight.  The Russians had already placed Yuri Gagarin into a real earth orbit one month earlier, but there was a sense that we were still in the game. However, it wasn’t until February of 1962 that we successfully sent John Glenn into Earth orbit on top of an Atlas rocket.

As a kid, it seemed that each new flight offered a spectacular new accomplishment, and in 1965 NASA launched the first human-crewed Gemini capsule, which held two astronauts. Where the Mercury capsules were controlled on the ground, the Gemini capsules were piloted by the crew.  The Gemini flights captivated me, and during these missions, astronauts walked in space, docked with other spacecraft, and did many other firsts (for the US) in preparation for an eventual lunar landing. 

In 1967 tragedy struck the US when three astronauts were killed aboard Apollo 1. Its pure oxygen-containing cabin suffered a flash fire. Suddenly, my hubris shattered. 

In future missions, NASA changed the atmosphere from pure oxygen to a less combustible atmosphere mix, and the number of flammable materials in the cabin were reduced.  In October of 1968, Apollo 7 launched with a crew of three, and the country was once again moving towards its goal of landing a human on the moon. Which, of course, happened in July of 1969 with the flight of Apollo 11.

When the first crewed Mercury mission launched, I was eight, and when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I was 16. Only eight years and so much had happened.  In1969 I had a summer job that started early. However, I made sure that I stayed up to see the fuzzy black and white TV image of Mr. Armstrong as his foot touched the moon’s powdery surface. How fortunate I was to witness one of the most momentous events in history!

The impact of the space program went well beyond a lunar landing.  It was an inspirational program during an inspirational time. I had already been fascinated by the sci-fi B-movies. I had found a “mentor” in Don Herbert, the host of “Mr. Wizard,” which was a TV show that encouraged kids to do scientific experiments. However, the space program took me from fantasy and the ordinary to the extraordinary. Everything about it was real, yet it seemed unreal.  NASA had the coolest on-board computer, the most fantastic space food, and a mission control center that seemed right out of the future. It inspired me to think beyond myself and to believe that I, too, could do anything. I was an American, living during the most fantastic time in history. I thought that the only thing that could stop me was me.  

We boarded the shuttle and made the short trip from the Space Center of Houston to the adjacent Johnson Space Center.  The tour guide telegraphed some facts along the way. The land was used for grazing cattle before it became one of the most famous places on earth.  The buildings were designed to look like a college campus. The displayed Saturn rocket was the most massive rocket ever built, and so on. As we approached the Christopher C. Kraft Jr Mission Control Center, we were cautioned that the building was still in operation, and we were to remain absolutely silent during our time there.

We entered Mission Control and climbed over 80 stairs to the Apollo command center. NASA had spent millions renovating the room, which echoed a 60s vibe.  The space was filled with built-in CRT consoles and huge viewing screens. We stepped into the observation room and took our seats. This was the same room that dignitaries and the press used when the actual flights took place.  Even the burnt orange theater-style chairs were the original ones. Our guide started up a video that explained the significance of the room. Then it happened, the entire control room lit up. The computer monitors turned on and started to stream data.  The giant screens illuminated showing flight paths and the grainy image of Neil Armstrong as he took his first steps on another world. It felt like I had been transported in time. My heart started to race as I felt my excitement build. The same excitement that I felt on that July night in 1969 when I saw the first video transmission of a human being walking on another world.

As the space program continued, people lost interest.  They grumbled that the cost was too high for too little.  However, the price isn’t only measured in the gain of scientific knowledge, the discovery of new materials, or political bragging rights. An entire generation of children became interested in science because of these programs.  They became computer designers, engineers, medical doctors, researchers, and pilots. I think it is impossible to determine the overall gain that our country made because of NASA and the space program.

The Johnson Space Center continues as a facility that now manages satellites as well as missions to the International Space Station. A new initiative, the Orion program, will return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars over the next few decades. 

On the shuttle to the Johnson Space Center, I saw young children.  I wondered if one of these boys or girls lives will change due to their visit?  A future scientist, engineer, researcher, or astronaut? NASA isn’t a waste of taxpayer’s money, it is a substantial investment in our future. Just like President Kennedy, we need to summon our imaginations to comprehend this fact.

Mike

Here is the audio reading of this post: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/what-the-apollo-missions-meant

The tiny Mercury space capsule.

The Apollo spacecraft housed three astronauts.
The Apollo spacecraft housed three astronauts.
A real Saturn rocket, the largest rocket ever built.
A real Saturn rocket, the largest rocket ever built.
Mock up of astronauts on the moon.
Mockup of astronauts on the moon.
Massive engines from on the stages of the Saturn rocket.
Rocks brought back from the moon.
The real Apollo mission control.
A more modern control center used for the International Space Station. Note the ashtray loaded with cigarettes!
A more modern control center used for the International Space Station. Note the ashtray loaded with cigarettes!

Traditions

We arrived home with our arms full of packages and were met by a blinking light on the answering machine. I pressed the play button and heard Julie’s mother’s voice. “We won’t be able to drive to Chicago for Thanksgiving; your father is lost in Siberia.” The answering machine clicked off. That was the total message. We stared at each other in disbelief. What did we hear? 

We decided to host Julie’s entire Minnesota family for Thanksgiving, and they would be staying at my house for several days. Although I kept a neat house, it was still the home of a bachelor, and I didn’t have many of the amenities that a traditional house would have. In the weeks approaching Thanksgiving I had been on a buying spree. I purchased new bath and dish towels, juice glasses, pot holders, a creamer, other kitchenware, bottles of shower gel and shampoo, new rugs for the bathrooms, and even a new rug for the kitchen. 

I spent an absolute fortune on food and bought everything from fresh Ho-Ka turkeys to a giant shrimp platter. Since they would be staying for several days, I made sure that I had enough food for multiple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. 

I polished my house from stem to stern. My linen closet was full, and my refrigerator was beyond its capacity. But it was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and the entire get-together had just been canceled by a one-sentence phone call. I was flooded with feelings. There was a relief knowing that I wouldn’t have to entertain a  large group for three days. There was concern over what I would do with all of the food that I bought. And, there was significant worry about Julie’s father, who was lost somewhere in Russia. He said that he was going to Siberia to sell leather coats, or was it computer hard drives this time? Bob always seemed to be going to very exotic places to sell things. He had worked in Army intelligence and then the CIA in his younger years, and we used to joke that he still was a covert spy. 

I was not yet aware of the understated way that Swedes communicate, and so I was utterly bewildered by Julies’ mom’s phone call, which appeared as casual as someone calling to say that they would be 15 minutes late. 

How could we know if Bob was safe? Could we trace his credit card activity? Should we call the State Department?  It was a national holiday, and it seemed like everything had shut down. We did what we could and prayed. Late Friday night, I received a fax from Julie’s dad saying that he was fine and had Thanksgiving dinner with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. I imagine that all of this sounds slightly fantastic. Still, it is entirely accurate, and it was the start of over 25 years of hosting Julie’s family for Thanksgiving.

Her family would arrive on Wednesday night and leave on Saturday morning. Julie and I would share the overall workload. Still, I was in charge of the Thanksgiving meal, including the preparation of the turkey. Thanksgiving has always been a lot of work, but with repetition, it has become routine. Our menus are always the same. 

Thanksgiving Day 

Breakfast: 

Freshly baked cinnamon rolls, various other sweets, coffee, mandarin oranges, OJ, cereal. 

Dinner (2 PM): 

Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, freshly baked rolls, corn casserole, jello salad, green bean casserole, cranberries, gravy, various add-ons, and pie. Julie’s mom usually brings a pecan pie, which we supplement with pumpkin pies and at least one other dessert. (Yes, it is a gut buster meal).

Supper: 

Sandwiches, salads, sweets.

Friday

Breakfast

Ham and Egg Strata (sort of a bready souffle), OJ, coffee, hot rolls, sweetbreads/coffee cake, oranges.

Lunch

Homemade cream of turkey soup (one of my specialties)

Sandwich fixings and dessert 

Dinner

Stuffed pasta shells, tossed salad, garlic bread, dessert.

Saturday

French toast, OJ, coffee, various cereals, various sweetbreads/coffee cakes.

Julie’s sister Amy kindly brings some of the desserts and we make the remaining ones.

Our Thanksgiving weekend is filled with lively conversation, football games on TV, card and board games, long walks, and lots of eating. Every year I look forward to her family’s arrival, and I immediately take a nap as soon as they leave. Hosting Thanksgiving has become a family tradition, but this is changing.

This year my two nieces celebrated Thanksgiving with their spouse’s families. My nephew stayed in London, and his dad (my brother-in-law) traveled there to be with his son. My daughter celebrated with her Peace Corp peers in Africa, and Karl’s brother Kurt spent the day with other relatives. This reduction in force eliminated some of our activities, like the giant Bunko game, but many of our usual pastimes continued. 

Amy, my sister-in-law, told Julie that next year, she would have her own Thanksgiving in Minnesota as she wants to maximize the holiday time with her far-flung children. It is likely that Julie’s 90-year-old parents will celebrate with Amy, as will the rest of the family. However, we will stay in Illinois as it allows us to spend the most time with our kids who are in college and beyond. Next year our 25-year tradition will end.

I do have sadness over this, but I also wonder what our new smaller gathering will bring. I imagine that we will still have a giant, gut-busting dinner. My kids all look forward to their favorite dishes. However, we will undoubtedly pare back on the other meals. We may fill the weekend with new activities. Perhaps a family trip to the movies, or a ride to downtown Chicago. 

Few things in life remain constant. Some traditions last longer than others but most eventually evolve or end. It is essential to respect tradition, but it is unhealthy to be a slave to it. A change can offer new experiences and new growth. We will always have the memories from past events.

In life, it is important to be flexible. We will try to use some of our old Thanksgiving traditions as a foundation for our new holiday weekend. Next Thanksgiving will be a new adventure.

Addendum: Julie read this post and wanted me to correct it noting that the changes for next year’s Thanksgiving are not written in stone and that our tradition could be continuing. I add this addendum at her wish and for completeness.

Making sure that the turkey is 165 F.
One of two tables set for Thanksgiving.
Joining hands to give thanks.
I’m in charge of making the Thanksgiving dinner.
Food served buffet style.

Halloween, And First Snow

I heard the weather report on Tuesday. It would snow on Wednesday and Thursday. Not just a little dusting of snow, but 4-6 inches. I felt my heart sink. Thursday was Halloween, and it would be cold and snowing.

I always thought of Halloween as a fun holiday. A day to dress up, be creative, and a bit silly. 

My involvement with the day has changed over the years. When I was single, I often worked late, so I was one of those houses where a doorbell ring yielded little for an expectant trick-or-treater. When Julie entered my life, either one or both of us were at home to pass out candy. Early on, we established the tradition of eating Chinese carry-out on Halloween. A habit that started out of chance, but is now has become an expected event.

The introduction of children to our family brought new traditions. I would carve pumpkins to the specific instructions from my kids, and Julie and I would help them realize their costume visions. One year Julie blew up dozens of purple balloons to turn Grace into a bunch of grapes, and I remember spending many evenings perfecting a costume for William that transformed him into a living Lego block. 

Julie would pull a kitchen chair into the front hall so she could be close to the door to pass out candy. She especially liked seeing the little kids dressed up, so excited and fresh. I would walk with our kids, protecting them from imaginary danger. My reward was their company. 

Our Halloween decorating was simple, a few candlelit pumpkins on the front stoop, and a giant blow-up pumpkin on the front lawn that I had purchased from the Dollar Tree. That monstrosity graced our home for at least a decade, although its internal lights ceased operation after the first 5 years of service.

As my kids aged their trick-or-treating became more independent, then stopped altogether. However, I could vicariously remember those pleasant days by passing out candy to the next generation of young candy seekers.

However, this year, Halloween was predicted to be very snowy and very cold. Even if the kids did come out, they would be sealed in coats and hats hiding their costumes and blunting their wonderment. With all of our kids out of the house, this functional cancelation of Halloween felt especially harsh. It was another life-change to deal with.

I discovered that it snowed more Wednesday night when I got up for my morning walk at 4 AM on Thursday. I have a morning routine set on my Google Nest smart speaker, which includes the weather. Bitter cold and more snow were the agenda. I cleaned up, got dressed, drank coffee, and prepared myself to face the snow and cold. 

I stepped out of the front door, and I was met with a winter wonderland. The air was still and calm, and a thick carpet of snow lay on the ground. The trees had not yet shed their fall leaves, and these appendages served as landing pads for snowflakes that transformed them into glistening ornaments. 

The snow had served as sound insulation, adding to the stillness of the morning and making my walk even more meditative. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of calm as I traversed the distance between my house and the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue.

Julie had decided to lighten her workday, so she would be home for the bulk of the trick-or-treaters. At 4 PM, I was ready for our transient guests with bucketfuls of candy that were placed in a massive orange bowl. Eventually, Julie came home, and we ordered Chinese food from Grub Hub; Pot Stickers, Brocolli Chicken, Spicy Tofu… enough food for the night and lunch the next day. 

We decided to start another tradition and streamed a horror movie. Our first watch was “Aliens,” a movie new to Julie, but one that terrified me so much the first time that I saw it in 1986 that I checked the back seat of my Nissan Sentra when I left the theater. This time around, it was less frightening; muted by time and the much smaller screen of our family room TV.

Halloween concluded with only three groups of trick-or-treaters (less than 20 kids) gracing our doors. Yet, the day was a success.

Dear readers, as you know by now, I look at every event and experience as a potential tool for learning. I had an expectation of what Halloween was supposed to be, but the weather dashed that dream. However, Mother Nature didn’t take away, it gave. My morning walk was quiet, beautiful, and serene. Yes, there was a lack of trick-or-treaters, but that allowed us to start the new tradition of watching a scary movie. The day was different but no less pleasant or special.

I wanted to pass out candy as a way to revisit the time when my children were young, naive, and full of expectation. That didn’t happen, but instead, I was given new experiences combined with some of our old traditions. My Halloween symbolized my current life, build on the foundation of the past, but changing in an unknown way. My current life direction is not that different from the expectations of my children in the past. I, too, await with excitement to see what tricks or treats will be placed in the bag that I call my life. 

Snow on the autumn leaves made them look like glistening ornaments.
The carpet of snow dampened the sound and made my walk quiet and meditative.
Downtown Naperville as I walk towards Starbucks.
Even my back yard looked like a winter wonderland.

A Frying Pan Teaches Dr. Mike A Lesson

I looked in the sink, and it caught my eye. I had observed it many times before, but I had ignored it. Now, I felt different. I wanted to do something.

There, among the suds and water, was our ten-inch frying pan. The pan that I bought over ten years ago when we switched to induction cooking. The pot that we purchased because our old cookware wouldn’t work on a stovetop that used an oscillating magnetic field instead of one that heated by a gas flame or an electric coil. 

The pan had been shiny stainless steel the first time that I used it. It performed its job flawlessly, and I gave it little thought. It is easy to take for granted something that does its job well and without complaint. I suppose that is what I did with this pan.

Its interior was spotless, almost new looking. However, the pan’s exterior was an unsightly mess. After thousands of uses, its outer surface was covered in little spatters of burnt oil that had built up on its shiny surface, causing it to gain a streaky bronze-like appearance. Beyond this bronzing, there were significant blackish marks on the base of the pan that appeared like someone had drawn them with a fat black permanent marker.  

The pan’s thousands of cooking cycles each took their toll. Each cycle adding another droplet or two of burnt oil to its surface. Each cycle further bonding the older stains into the metal. A soapy sponge or scrubby did not eradicate these blemishes. Our dishwasher’s efforts were folly. The pan was wholly functional beyond its ugly exterior. The only options were to live with its unsightliness or to replace it.  

I was moved to clean it. I adjusted the water to a scalding hot, and I squirted more dish soap into the sink. I pressed the scrubbing side of a sponge against the tarnished metal, and with all of my might, I moved the sponge in concentric circles over the base of the pan. Over and over, I continued my efforts pressing so hard that my biceps ached. I agitated the surface of the pan to the point that thick creamy soap suds obfuscated it. I felt that surely I had made an impact. I rinsed the pan, and to my astonishment, it looked exactly as it did when I started. I double my efforts, and then tripled them, but to no avail. It seemed like the stains were there to stay. 

I paused and thought. It appeared that I was approaching this problem like I had approached many issues in my life, with brute force. During my pre-retirement life, I had little time to ponder, and I had to solve problems in as an expedient way as possible. I aggressively gave 100% of my time to get a job done. I thought that I had to do things this way as there were always ten other tasks waiting. When you work like this, you can never celebrate what you have done; the work that you are doing on one task serves only as a delay from starting the next job.

Perhaps it was time to approach this problem differently. I reached under the kitchen counter and grabbed an old can of Bar Keepers Friend and a pillow of steel wool. I then sprinkled the Bar Keepers Friend on the stained surface and made a paste by adding a few drops of water. I walked away. After a bit, I returned with the steel wool and scrubbed the pan’s surface. When I found myself pressing with a painful force, I backed off with a deliberate effort and used a light circular motion instead. My arms didn’t hurt, and the movement felt meditative. I found myself humming in rhythm as I continued my slow and deliberate actions. A quick rinse showed some progress. I repeated my steps of letting the paste sit and then lightly scrubbing the surface, and with each repeating cycle, more of the decade-old grime disappeared. 

Instead of continuing a pattern of actions that gave me a negative outcome, I approached the problem with thought and consideration. A gentler approach achieved my goal and left me energized instead of tired and frustrated. Understanding trumped aggression. 

And with that, dear readers, I end this week’s post.

Ten years of grime gone.