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Your Blood Pressure Machine Readings are Garbage. Here is How To Fix Them.

Always follow your doctor’s advice. Recommendations and observations are my considered, but personal opinion.

Key: HBPM = Home Blood Pressure Monitor

My story

I recently went for my age 65 “Welcome to Medicare” physical. I was only three years late! No excuse-I’m a physician and should know better. My primary care doctor took my blood pressure, and it was marginally high. It was unclear if I needed to go on blood pressure meds or not, and he suggested that I self-monitor my blood pressure at home. I had a barely used Omron blood pressure monitor that I bought about five years ago, so I thought I was all set. However, my monitor would give me a reading only about 50% of the time. Otherwise, it gave me an error message. This started my search for a good quality home blood pressure monitor (HBPM). I was surprised at what I discovered, and I think you will be too.  

This post is all about blood pressure, blood pressure monitors their benefits and limitations, and how to present the most precise data to your doctor so you can get the best treatment possible. If you are one of the 68 million American adults with high blood pressure, this is a must-read. If you know someone who has high blood pressure, send them this link.

Note: This is a long post with a lot of useful information. However, if you want to cut to the chase, read the conclusion and model recommendations at the post’s bottom.

Why is it important to manage your blood pressure?

High blood pressure is called the silent killer because high blood pressure can go unnoticed until it is too late. High blood pressure is associated with many health problems, including heart disease, stroke, dementia, blindness, and kidney failure. Many blood pressure medications are inexpensive, so there is little excuse to not treat your blood pressure.

From the American Heart Association.

Is your doctor’s blood pressure reading accurate?

A doctor’s machine is likely to be more accurate than a home machine. However, blood pressure readings are often taken incorrectly in a doctor’s office with a patient balancing precariously on an examination table, feet dangling. No one asks the patient if they just had a coffee or if they need to go to the bathroom. Providers can’t spend five precious minutes to run and average three separate blood pressure readings. This is why doctors now advise home monitoring as it gives a much more accurate view of a person’s blood pressure in the real world. 

Wrist vs. arm cuff machines.

The most common types of HBPMs take their readings from the wrist or the upper arm. In general, wrist machines are not as accurate, especially if you are over 60 (your arteries are less elastic). Also, wrist machines are less tolerant of improper blood pressure taking procedures. Because of this, most doctors advise that you use an upper arm cuff machine. Naturally, you need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to get the best results with arm cuffs as well. 

There are some isolated instances where a wrist cuff may be preferred over an arm cuff. There are medical situations where you should not use an arm cuff. In addition, some may have arms that are too large for a standard arm cuff. Lastly, individuals may find the discomfort of an arm cuff intolerable. In these specific examples, a wrist cuff may be preferred.

Your doctor can tell you which type of device is best for your clinical needs.

The reality of home blood pressure machines. 

Since my old machine was giving me error messages, I purchased a new one for $29 on Amazon. I bought the monitor based on nineteen thousand reviews, with the majority of them being 5 stars. Also, the machine was an Amazon Choice. 

I was surprised by the inconsistent readings that the machine gave me. Since most HBPMs are relatively inexpensive, I began to buy and test different units. I added some more premium/validated machines into the mix to see if they were any better. I then started to do head to head tests comparing various devices. I felt that the information that I was uncovering would be of benefit to others, and so I further expanded my research to be inclusive of a variety of price points and brands. 

The bottom line is that all of the HBPMs that I tested gave variable test to test readings. However, there are simple ways to get the best measurements possible, and over time your readings will still provide your doctor with valuable information about your blood pressure.

Blood pressure is dynamic.

Your blood pressure changes throughout the day. It is lowest when you sleep and it starts to increase during the early hours of the morning. In most people, it will peak in mid-afternoon and then start to fall towards nightfall.

Many things impact your blood pressure: eating, drinking caffeine, smoking, physical activity, taking a shower, crossing your legs, having a full bladder, experiencing strong emotional feelings, and more. Therefore, your results will be more meaningful if you standardize your pressure-taking procedure.


Here are three steps to standardize your blood pressure reading.

1-Technique.

Take your blood pressure at roughly the same time every day. 

In a perfect world you would take a reading one hour after you wake up, and a second reading in the late afternoon/early evening.

Before taking your blood pressure, empty your bladder.

Wait 30 min after eating, exercising, drinking coffee, smoking, or bathing before taking your blood pressure.

Sit and be still for at least 5 minutes before you take your first reading.

Sit in a supportive chair. Your cuffed arm should rest on a table (a kitchen table works well).

Your feet should be flat on the ground.

Your blood pressure cuff should be placed at heart level.

From the American Heart Association.

2-The power of being average.

One of the secrets to making data more accurate is to take multiple samples and then average those numbers. Take your blood pressure three times, waiting around a minute between each test. Then average the three numbers (many machines will do this for you automatically). Use the average as your blood pressure reading.


If your HBPM does not automatically average its last three readings, it is simple to do it yourself.  

Here are three similar blood pressure readings that were taken approximately one minute apart: 

135/78, 142/75, 131/80

Add up the top numbers: 135 + 142 + 131 = 408, then divide by the number of readings,  in this case 3. 408/3 = 136

Then do the same for the bottom number 78 + 75 + 80 = 233 and divide by the number of readings (3). 233/3 = 77

Your average blood pressure for the three readings is 136/77.

If your machine does not have an averaging function it is easy to use a simple calculator to crunch the numbers.

3-Use the right cuff size!

Many machines have a universal cuff that will fit most arms (8.5-16.5 inches in diameter). Some machines will come with a smaller cuff. Cuff size will be listed in the device’s product description. 

It is essential to use the right cuff size to get accurate results. You can measure your upper arm using a tailor’s tape measure. Name-brand companies like Omron, A&D, Beurer, and Welch Allyn sell optional cuffs to fit very small or large arms. Some off-brand companies have specific models with cuffs made for larger arms (check the product’s description). Make sure you follow the instructions in your machine’s user manual as to how to place the cuff on your arm.


How does your home blood pressure monitor work?

Place your ear on someone’s chest and listen for their heartbeat. You have just used the auscultatory (listen) method to monitor their heart. Now take your fingers and feel for their pulse on their wrist. Now you registered their heart beats using the oscillatory (vibration) method. 

Non-digital blood pressure machines required the examiner to listen (auscultate) for heart sounds using a stethoscope. Digital blood pressure machines use the oscillatory method to feel for the pulse. That is why it is essential to be still when using one of these machines.

A HBPM measures the cuff pressures where it can feel a pulse. It then compares this data to an internal lookup table to determine a person’s blood pressure. This information is shown on the machine’s display.

Blood pressure machine validation.

Many countries and national groups have protocols to verify the accuracy of blood pressure monitors. This process is called validation. Only around 10% of HBPMs in the US are validated. Why so few? Because it is expensive to have a third party test a machine. In the US, this process is done under the American Medical Association’s guidance, and validated machines can be found here: https://www.validatebp.org/. 

Testing involves measuring the blood pressure of a group of subjects with a medically standardized blood pressure device. Then the subjects have their blood pressure taken three times with a home blood pressure machine, and these values are averaged. The average is compared to the reference machine, and if the numbers are close enough to the reference, the machine is validated. How close is close enough? Machines can be off +/- 10 points (or more) and still get a passing grade. That is a 20 point spread! 

An actual validation scatter plot from a Beurer BM85 machine. If the machine was 100% accurate all of the dots would form a single line at zero. This plot reveals that on average this machine reports results that are 10 mm higher than the reference device. In addition, there are a number of times when it was more than 10 mm off. This machine was validated. From: Wetterholm M, Bonn SE, Alexandrou C, Löf M, Trolle Lagerros Y Validation of Two Automatic Blood Pressure Monitors With the Ability to Transfer Data via Bluetooth J Med Internet Res 2019;21(4):e12772

If you want to dig deeper, here is a paper that proposes a universal standard for validation.

https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.117.10237

It states, A device is considered acceptable if its estimated probability of a tolerable error (≤10 mm Hg) is at least 85%. This means that a machine can be off less than or equal to 10 points 85% of the time, and off more than 10 points 15% of the time and still be validated!

Validated vs. non-validated machines.

Less than 10% of HBPMs in the US have been validated. Some other machines will claim that they passed some sort of other accuracy test and may state, Clinically Proven to be Accurate, whatever that means. The vast majority of HBPMs do not list that they have undergone any official testing or validation. 

In general, I did not find validated HBPMs to be more consistent than those that were not validated. However, validation indicates at least some sort of commitment to quality by the manufacturer. Is that enough of a reason to buy a validated HBPM over one that has not been validated? More to come on that topic.  

What does FDA Approved/FDA Cleared mean?

Some HBPMs proudly print the FDA logo on their packaging. So what does that mean? Unfortunately, not much.  The FDA must approve all medical devices for sale in the US.  To be approved a device has to show that the benefits of using it outweigh the risks. The FDA does no testing, and relies on information supplied by the manufacturer.  Some HBPMs will proclaim that they are FDA approved, but they are more likely FDA cleared. To be cleared all a company has to show is that their device is similar to already approved devices. Since most blood pressure monitors are designed very similarly this isn’t a very high bar, and says nothing about how well the device works. Home blood pressure monitors are considered Class II FDA products.  What other medical products are also in this category?  Condoms and bandages, to name two.

Device Longevity/Construction Quality.

A few devices listed their projected lifespan, sometimes reporting five years for the device and two years for the cuff. In addition, the Cleveland Clinic says that the typical lifespan of a HBPM is around 3 years. This is a reasonable lifespan, as these consumer level machines operate under high pressure. You may get more than three years from your device, but once you get past three years, most experts suggest that you check your HBPM against your physician’s machine yearly.

Generally, inexpensive off-brand machines were constructed more cheaply than known-name devices. However, there were some off-brand HBPM that seemed to rival brand-name devices in build quality. Within a brand, HBPMs seem to be built similarly across their line. Name-brands differentiate their models on features rather than construction quality or accuracy. All models in a line appear to be equally accurate (or inaccurate depending on your viewpoint).

Testing your machine at the doctor’s office.

The proper protocol for checking your device against your doctor’s professional machine involves five steps, and I estimate that this procedure would take around 10 minutes. Since many doctor appointments are less than 15 minutes long, it is unlikely that your physician would have the time to do such a test. However, you could take your blood pressure with your machine after he/she takes it with their professional one. This will give you a rough idea of your machine’s accuracy, but it is hardly a gold standard test.

Here is a link to the American Medical Association’s recommended protocol to test your blood pressure machine against your doctor’s machine:  https://www.bluecrossnc.com/sites/default/files/document/attachment/providers/public/pdfs/ama_how_to_check_bp_monitor_for_accuracy.pdf 

I was able to compare some of the HBPMs against a reference Mercurial Sphygmomanometer. The results showed that the machines that I tested gave results similar to my reference standard. In other words, their results were in the same ballpark. Thanks to my wife, Dr. Julie who lent her arm for many of my tests.

If you don’t record it, you didn’t do it.

The most important thing you should do after taking your blood pressure is to record your averaged blood pressure and the time and date that you took it. The simplest way to do this is to track your results with pen and paper. You can do this in a little notebook or write your numbers on a calendar or in a log. In addition, list any medication changes on your timeline.

You can download this blood pressure log for free from the American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/find-high-blood-pressure-tools–resources
Using the American Heart Association’s log is easy and the results are clear.
Writing your results on a simple calendar is a great way to track your BP values.
You can download free calendar templates to use with your spreadsheet program. This one is for Google Sheets. The resulting calendar is neat, easy to read, and professional looking. This template can be found here: https://www.vertex42.com/Files/download2/gdrive.php?file=2021-calendar-light

There are many smartphone apps that will record your blood pressure and turn those numbers into useful graphs that provide a visual picture of your blood pressure over time. Apple’s iPhone includes a free app called Health, and for Android users, there is the Google Fit app. Both of these allow you to enter your BP numbers manually. Also, they can wirelessly accept data from certain Bluetooth-compatible HBPMs. 


Here is a screenshot of a monthly blood pressure plot using Apple Health. The graphing makes it easy to interpret a large amount of data in seconds. Apple Health exports its data as an XML file, which can be cumbersome. You may find it easier to simply show your doctor the app, or send them a screenshot of your data.

Blood pressure machine manufacturers have created their own phone apps to be used with their Bluetooth-enabled HBPMs.  However, many of these apps will allow you to manually enter data, so you can also use them with your non-Bluetooth devices.  The apps vary in functionality and sophistication, but they all record the basics.  In addition, they let you export your data and send it via email.  Some will also let you output your data to Facebook or Twitter, although I have no idea why you would want to do that. Omron’s Connect app exports its data as graphs and charts (it is pretty visual), or as a CSV file.  Other apps may send their data as a CSV file, XML file, or JPEG image.  A CSV file is useful in itself, but when opened in a spreadsheet program you can sort the numbers in any way that you need to.  For instance, you can turn the numbers into a graph. 

You can print the output from a health app and present the hard copy to your doctor. If you don’t want to mess with exporting data you can just have your doctor view the app on your phone when you go for a visit, or send him/her a screenshot.  Apps present their data in a very clear easy to digest linear fashion. 


Many health apps output their data as a universal CSV file. A CSV data table in itself is useful, but with a little spreadsheet work it is possible to explore you data in many other ways.

Lastly, you can bring your machine into your doctor’s office, and he/she can scroll through the gadget’s memory. As a doctor, I would advise against this. Viewing readings one screen at a time isn’t very compelling. Most doctors will scroll through the first few numbers and call it a day. Using a physical list (like a calendar or log) or a health app on your phone makes it easy for your doctor to absorb and interpret your data.

Your privacy and smartphone apps.

I’m a big fan of smartphone apps as they do such a nice job at curating blood pressure data.  In addition, some apps will monitor other numbers like a consumer’s weight, oxygen levels, or blood sugars.  However, all of this sensitive information goes back to the app’s company, and some users may be concerned that their private health data could be shared inappropriately.  

Apple notes that one of its missions is to protect your privacy.  If you have privacy concerns, but you still want to use an app, I would suggest using the Apple Health  app and manually entering your blood pressure values into it.  

How consistent are HBPMs?

I tested dozens of blood pressure machines and took hundreds of measurements using a controlled protocol. An accurate device should always give similar readings when each reading is done one minute apart. However, that was not the case for any machine that I tested. 

Sometimes a machine would give fairly consistent repeat readings. At other times the same machine would give a random high or low reading. More expensive machines were no better than cheaper machines in this regard. Likewise, validated devices fared no better than machines that were not validated. 

Hardware/ Software (Algorithms).

The physical components of all machines are essentially the same. A little DC motor powers an air pump, a simple computer board houses a CPU and a pressure sensor, a release valve slowly lowers the cuff’s pressure after it is inflated, a solenoid valve rapidly drops the cuff’s pressure when the test is complete, and a LCD panel displays the results.  

The difference in machines is in their software. It would make sense that more expensive machines would have software that gave more accurate results, but I did not see that in my testing. Within a brand, the lowest priced machine tended to be just as accurate (or inaccurate) as the most expensive one.  

Different brands implemented their blood pressure routines differently. For instance, the Welch Allyn and the Walgreens machines that I tested tended to inflate their cuffs very gently, where a Topffy machine squeezed my arm until I screamed, Uncle! The Welch Allyn determines its readings while it inflates, making the total test time a bit shorter. The Omron brand claims that it reads more data points. However, this didn’t seem to make that much of a practical difference in my tests results.  

A machine’s software can add features like memory, data averaging, multiple user profiles, and other things. Many of these options add little cost to the device’s manufacturing. This is why you may see a $20 no-name machine that has more features than a more costly name-brand’s base model. So why don’t the name-brands incorporate more features into their base models? Likely, to differentiate their line. Features can be reserved for their more expensive models to encourage you to up-buy to those devices. (my personal opinion)

Features.

Here are some features that your machine may or may not have.

-Carry Case or Bag. This is a nice feature as HBPMs are bulky. However, it isn’t a must, and you probably have a little bag around your home that you can use for storage purposes.

-AC Socket/AC Wall Adapter. All HBPMs use AAA or AA batteries, but some also have a power jack so you can also plug into mains power. Some units will also include the wall wart, but it is a separate purchase for other devices. For most consumers, the ability to use AC power isn’t a must. Monitors that use AAA batteries will typically test between 250-300 times before you need to replace them. Monitors that use AA batteries can go from 400-1500 cycles (depending on the model) before the batteries need to be changed out. HBPMs with Bluetooth tend to use up batteries a bit quicker than those that don’t have this feature.

-Guest Mode.  This is a feature that some Omron HBPMs have which allows you to take a single blood pressure measurement and not have that value enter into your unit’s memory.  This function may be handy if you have an Aunt Tilly who always wants you to take her blood pressure when she comes over for Sunday dinner. You can take her BP without corrupting your own data. Check out your instruction manual to see if you have this feature.

-Memories. All of the monitors that I tested will remember past test values. This number can be a low 14 for the Omron Series 3 to over 100 memories in some other models. It is best to record your blood pressure values on paper or with a smartphone app, so having many memories isn’t as necessary as you think.  

-Multiple Users. Some machines have two different memory banks, which allow two users to record their blood pressure readings independently. The Beurer BM76 ($50 at Costco) can record values for four separate users. Separate memory banks can be a nice feature if all parties remember to switch over to their assigned memory bank. I suspect that it is common for people to forget to do this, resulting in the corruption of the other person’s data. This is one reason why it is a better option to record your blood pressure readings elsewhere.  

-Averaging. This is the feature that I use the most. Your machine takes your last three readings and averages them (so you don’t have to do the math). Many machines have this feature. Other machines may do other types of averaging, for instance averaging a user’s total memory bank or their AM and PM readings. Make sure that you read your machine’s instruction manual to understand what type of averaging, if any, your device does.

-Triple Check Averaging. the Omron Series 10/Platinum, the Rite-Aid Deluxe, the Equate 8000, and the Walgreens Premium blood pressure monitors that I tested can be programmed to automatically take three blood pressure readings in a row, and then average the results. This is a convenient feature.  If the machine has Bluetooth it will upload the results directly into your smartphone’s health app. 

-Pulse/Irregular Heartbeat Monitor. All machines that I tested have this feature. For some users recording their pulse rate is essential. These machines also look for irregular heartbeats. However, that is a pretty rudimentary function on these gadgets. If you have a history of arrhythmias, talk to your doctor about ways to monitor that issue.

-High Blood Pressure Warning/WHO Classification Indicator. Many machines will give the user some indication that their blood pressure is OK or too high. However, blood pressure is a straightforward measurement. It is easy to determine if your pressure is too high (or too low) by looking at the numbers.

-Time/Date Stamp. All machines that I tested, except the Omron Series 3, the Hylogy, and the A&D 651, had this feature. It allows you to look back at your memory entries to determine when a past reading was taken. 

-All-In-One Machines.  Some manufacturers have machines where the control assembly is mounted on the cuff. I did not review any monitors in this category, which is a subcategory of the upper arm machines.  Why didn’t I review any? Because these devices are expensive and have mixed reviews.  Some websites like them, but Consumers Reports felt that they weren’t terribly accurate.  However, some people may enjoy this All-In-One concept and may be willing to pay for it.

-Cuff Material. Cuffs are made of various materials, but the ones that used standard cloth are a bit easier to position properly than those made out of nylon (as it can be stiff and/or slippery). With that said,  most of the nylon cuffs were still easy to position, and they get easier to properly place over time, as they become more supple. 

-Bluetooth/Smartphone apps. If you are a techy person you may want this feature. If you are not techy, you probably won’t use it. Bluetooth allows you to directly connect your HBPM to an app on your smartphone. The app can automatically accept your blood pressure readings and do other useful things, like graphing your blood pressure values over time. This is a great way for both you and your physician to longitudinally track your blood pressures. You will need to download the appropriate app to your phone for this feature to work. Many brands also state that you can automatically transfer data to the phone’s native health app (Health for iPhone and Google Fit for Android). 

Note that if you don’t have a Bluetooth enabled HBPM you can manually enter your values easily into all of the smartphone apps that I tested and reap their number crunching abilities.


The Omron Connect app is very good at presenting a lot of data at a glance. The app allows you to export a nice summary sheet or a CSV file.

The Welch Allyn Home app graphs its data in a format that would be very familiar and easy to interpret by most health care providers. It exports its data as a CSV file.

The Greater Goods Balance Health app is useful, but the graphing function is not quite as sophisticated as some of the other apps.

The A&D Heart Track app has many positive features, but it won’t let you delete erroneous BP values. This could be a problem if you entered a number by mistake.

The Beurer app is useful, but slightly less flexible than some of the other apps.

Walmart and Walgreens rebrand this HoMedics app for use with their machines. It does a nice job, but its graphing isn’t as sophisticated as some other apps. Also, it won’t allow you to delete an erroneous BP value.

How I chose my test devices.

I used a variety of factors to acquire my HBPMs. Some were gifted by friends who had upgraded to newer monitors. Also, I bought some very inexpensive off-brand devices to see how they stacked up against more expensive name-brand machines. In addition, I purchased some HBPMs that I frequently saw as Recommended products. Beyond this, I bought housebrand devices from Walmart, Rite Aid, CVS, and Walgreens, as I felt that those brands would be commonly purchased by others. Lastly, I consulted recommendations from the sources listed below. 

-Amazon reviews: I tried to buy devices that had high ratings and many reviews. Unfortunately, the same machine could have both rave reviews and terrible reviews. When a purchaser says, Very Accurate, what does that mean? It was common to see one person say that their machine was Spot on with their doctor’s device, and then have another review say that the same model was Way off their physician’s machine. There are rumors of manufacturers giving gift cards for good reviews-which can cause an explosion of synthetic positive reviews. 

There is one off-brand unit that has over 27,000 (mostly) rave reviews.  It costs $47 and is an Amazon Best Seller. There is nothing wrong with the unit, but you can get a clone of it under a different name on Amazon for $28.  Also, at that $50 price point you could buy name-brand HBPMs that are validated and have sophisticated features like Bluetooth.  So why is that unit so expensive? Reviews drive sales, which can make a product an Amazon Best Seller, which can then drive up the item’s price (my personal opinion).

This graph shows that the Lazle HBPM was selling for around $35, but has now jumped to around $48. That is a quite the increase!
The $48 Lazle is on the left, and the $28 DrKea+ is on the right. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.

Top 10 or Best websites/videos: These websites don’t always list their rating criteria, and some seemed like outright shill sites designed to sell a particular device. I would advise caution.

-Reputable sites: Sites like CNET and Consumer Reports put more thought into their reviews and may provide a better source of information. However, they only review a small number of well known HBPMs, and often don’t cite their judging criteria. Consumer Reports did say that their testing criteria was based on several established protocols (like the one used by the British Hypertensive Society). Still, they didn’t give any more details than that. A number of their monitors were listed as 5/5 for accuracy based on their criteria, but remember that a machine with a +/- 10 point accuracy error could still get a “A” rating.

It doesn’t take much accuracy to get an “A” grade validation, and even less to get a respectable “B” grade.

How good are super cheap off-brand home blood pressure monitors?

Both Amazon and eBay are replete with no-brand or brand-X HBPMs. I was curious to see how well they performed, and so I bought three very inexpensive HBPMs that had good customer reviews. I purchased  a Belifu HBPM for $20, a BSX513/Sweet Alice HBPM for $20, and a Topffy HBPM for $23 all from Amazon.

The Belifu, Sweet Alice, and Topffry HBPMs. These very inexpensive machines all worked surprisingly well.

Although their features varied, they all allowed two users, had large memory banks, some type of averaging function, and a BP classification indicator. Two of the units had backlit displays. One featured audio prompts, and one came with a very nice nylon carry case.

These units had many more features than entry-level brand-name HBPMs at a fraction of their price. But how good were they? Construction quality was adequate but a cut below the brand-name offerings. Their plastic cases were lighter in weight, and their buttons felt a bit cheaper. Also, their cuffs were slippery nylon. However, the machines’ actual performance was very similar to brand-name monitors. 

Should you buy one of these machines? That is a difficult question as I only sampled one unit per brand, and I have no idea what their long-term reliability will be.

In general, I would go with one of the recommended HBPMs listed below. However, I understand that there may be some of you who read this post who have very limited incomes.  Perhaps you are surviving on Social Security, and you have to count every penny. The good news is that it certainly seems that you can get a HBPM for $20 that will do the job.

eBay Anyone?

You can buy recognized brands at significantly lower prices, and many no-name HBPMs at rock bottom prices on eBay.  I tried to purchase a no-name machine from a seller with 45 “reviews,” all very positive.  The machine never arrived and it turned out that the reviews were fake.  Right after I bought the machine bad reviews flooded in and the seller shut down.  I did get a refund from eBay, but this is apparently a common scam so some caution is advised. 

I would only buy from a seller who has both an excellent rating and many previous sales.  In addition, I would only buy a new machine; you don’t want a HBPM that fell off grandpa’s kitchen table a dozen times. Remember that it may not be possible to exchange (or even return) an eBay procured device, but you can easily do either when you buy from a local store. What is more important to you, price or convenience?  The choice is yours.

I’m waiting to receive this YMT-Life HBPM from eBay. It only costs $9.99 and I’m very curious to see how well it will work. Sometimes you get bargains or eBay, other times you get trash. Addendum: I have done some initial testing on this machine and it works surprisingly well. How someone manufactures and sells a working HBPM for less than $10 is beyond me.

Conclusion.

Home blood pressure machines (HBPMs) have different characteristics based on their feature sets, algorithms, and construction quality. I strictly followed the American Heart Association blood pressure taking protocol and averaged my results. By doing this, I discovered that the machines that I reviewed may vary by features, but they were similar in their blood pressure reading ability.

At times I saw significantly different consecutive readings with all the HBPMs that I tested; occasionally, I would get a large difference between readings taken only minutes apart. However, at other times the same machine would deliver three readings that were reasonably similar to each other.

There could also be differences between different machines. On one run Machine A could give me a higher average than Machine B, but that could reverse when I ran the two machines in a second competition.

When it came to actual numbers the machines fell into three general categories. The Beurer, Walgreens, and Beliful monitors tended to give slightly higher than average readings. Many of the Chinese no-name brands gave slightly lower than average readings. The Omrons, A&D, Welch Allyn, Walmart, and some no-name brands (for instance the LotFancy, Hylogy, and Greater Goods) monitors gave readings in between. This middle group most closely matched the numbers that I got using reference machines (a mercury sphygmomanometer and a professional Omron HPB 1300). Note that all of the machines worked well enough. However, you may need to slightly adjust your numbers up or down depending on the particular algorithm that your monitor uses.

Despite terms like Validated and Clinically Proven Accurate, it is known in the medical literature that HBPMs are not very accurate. You may think that this makes them useless, but that is not the case. Doctors understand that the blood pressure taken in their office is often suspect as it is a single reading compounded by many variables (did the patient just have a coffee? Did they run up the stairs? Are they anxious?). If you were sitting on the edge of an exam table when you had your blood pressure taken the reading was not done using the standard American Heart Association protocol. 

Regularly taking your blood pressure at home will give your doctor a much more realistic picture of your blood pressure over time, and this data will allow him/her to more precisely adjust your medications. Home blood pressure monitor readings give generalized blood pressure results and show trends. Both factors are important enough to justify their use. 

When taking your blood pressure, use a cuff that fits your arm. Always use the blood pressure-taking technique advised by the American Heart Association (see standardizing section). Take three readings (done about a minute apart) and then average those numbers. List the average as your recorded blood pressure along with its time and date. Lastly, note any medication changes on your timeline.

As a minimum take your blood pressure daily for two weeks after any medication change.  In addition take your blood pressure daily for the week prior to a doctor’s visit. In some situations your doctor may want you to take both an AM and a PM reading.  Naturally, always follow your doctor’s advice, which may be different than my suggestions.

When I looked at all of the various machines’ readings as general indicators rather than absolute values their results became more usable, as they all gave me a reasonable idea of the general status of my blood pressure. In my case, all of the machines indicated that my blood pressure was in a borderline hypertensive zone. I didn’t need to start antihypertensive meds, but it wouldn’t hurt either. So in the end, they all did what they needed to do. 

When it comes to presenting your blood pressure data to your care provider, it is imperative to do so in a way that they can quickly and accurately digest. If you hand your doctor your BP machine, they will likely scan through a few readings in memory and skip the rest. Slowly clicking through a series of screens makes it difficult to visualize the big picture. Instead, give them a hard copy, like those that I listed above, or provide them with BP data from a smartphone’s health app. These methods are more likely to provide your doctor with the longitudinal information needed for them to make an informed decision.  

Popular brands usually have several different models that sell at various price points. Generally speaking, a brand’s cheapest model will be as accurate (or inaccurate) as their most expensive one. More expensive models have more features, such as a larger memory bank, fancier displays, and the ability to connect to smartphone apps via Bluetooth. 

Even if your machine doesn’t have Bluetooth you can easily enter your blood pressure readings manually into a phone’s health app, and reap all the app’s number crunching abilities.

If you decide to go with a no-name HBPM, choose one with many reviews and an overall excellent rating. However, in many cases, I would suggest buying a known-name device as their overall quality control is likely to be better. I would also consider a validated model, as this indicates that the company is invested in making a quality product. Expect to pay a bit more for a model that is validated as this process adds an additional cost for the manufacturer.  In theory, a name-brand product may have a longer useful life as you may be able to buy a replacement cuff if your’s fails. 

With that said, I didn’t see significant differences between validated machines and well-rated non-validated ones as far as accuracy or reproducibility were concerned. If you are happy with the device that you already own, there is no reason for you to run out and buy a new one.

No-name brands do have their own advantages. Most are inexpensive, and they often have features that name-brand HBPMs reserve for their premium offerings. Options like multiple users, expansive memories, data averaging, and backlit displays can be found at bargain prices. Some no-name brands include extra-large cuffs. Others have audio prompts making them more desirable for the visually impaired. 

House brands from big box stores and pharmacy chains appear to have good construction, and the ones that I tested worked fairly well. No house brand that I tested was validated, but they often stated that they had undergone some sort of clinical accuracy test.

Model recommendations

Despite the location of a company’s headquarters, many manufacture their machines in China.

Models are listed from lowest to highest price. All are upper arm machines.

Equate 4000 upper arm blood pressure monitor.

At $28 from Walmart, this single-user machine is a good value. It includes many useful features like 60 memory readings, A WHO classification indicator, a time/date stamp, and averaging of the last 3 BP readings. Construction is good and it comes with batteries and a storage bag. It has over 600 ratings on Walmart’s website, with most owners loving it. 

You can manually enter your blood pressure numbers into the Equate Heart Health app, which is not quite as sophisticated as those from other manufacturers. Naturally, you can always use other health apps like Apple Health or just write down your values on a calendar or in a log.

The Equate 4000 is Walmart’s basic unit, but it has enough bells and whistles to make it a good value. Construction quality is also good.

Greater Goods Blood Pressure Monitor.

I paid $29 on Amazon, but this machine’s price seems to change every time I search for it. I have seen it selling for $39, $32 (with coupon), and $29. I think it is a good bargain if you can get it for $32 or less. If you are interested in this unit, I would recheck it if the price is too high. This machine has a slightly lower build quality and somewhat shorter tubing than some other models. However, it is compact and cheerful. It has a delightful backlit display and supports two users with 60 memory slots for data. It has a time date stamp, does last three averaging, comes with batteries, and has a lovely case. It runs on 4 AAA batteries and includes an AC port and adapter. It has over 19 thousand reviews, with over 90% of them giving it 4 or 5 stars. 

You can manually add your data into the Greater Goods’ Balance Health app, which  was slightly less sophisticated than some of the other apps. You can always add your data into Apple Health or write your numbers on a calendar or in a log.

The Greater Goods HBPM is a good value at $32, but there are other choices if you have to pay more.

If you can’t find the Greater Goods HBPM for a good price, consider the LotFancy upper arm blood pressure monitor which sells for $25 on Amazon.  It is very well constructed, supports two users (180 total memories), averages its last three readings, has very large digits, and comes with an AC port and adapter (batteries were not included).  Its nylon cuff is a bit stiffer than others, making it slightly more difficult to properly position.  However, the cuff softens quickly over time. The LotFancy’s only drawback is that its initial set-up is slightly more obtuse than other machines.  However, setup is still easy if you follow the included instructions. LotFancy does not have a smartphone app, but you can always manually enter your values in a third party app or your phone’s native health app (for instance, Apple Health). Naturally, pen and paper work too.

The LotFancy unit is well constructed. Set-up was slightly different from other machines, so keep your manual.

A&D UA-651 blood pressure monitor.

This blood pressure machine is $30 on Amazon. Like Omron, A&D is a well respected Japanese company. The UA-651 is one of their basic devices, and it is validated. It is similar to the Omron Series 3 but has 30 memories, a jack to connect AC power (adapter not included), and a WHO classification indicator. It does have an averaging feature, but it appears to average its entire 30 memories rather than the last three readings. If you want to go through the mild hassle of clearing your machine’s memory before your daily readings then you can still use the averaging function for your daily average (as those will be the only numbers in memory). There is no time/date stamp.
You can download the A&D Heart Track app, and manually enter your blood pressure and pulse into this program. The app will give you a daily, seven day, and 30 day BP average. Naturally, you can also write your numbers on a calendar or in a log.

The A&D 651 is a basic validated unit that offers more features than the Omron Series 3 at a somewhat lower price.

Omron Series 5 Wireless blood pressure monitor.
The Omron Series 5 Wireless can be purchased for $50 at Walmart. It has 60 memories and a host of features, including a time/date stamp, last three averaging, an AC jack (adapter not included), and a high blood pressure warning indicator. It links to the Omron Connect app via Bluetooth. It functions as a single user machine. Its features description says it is possible for multiple people to use it via the Omron Connect app. However, this functionality isn’t explained in the user manual. The Omron website says that you have to delete all of your entries on the machine to have a second party use it. That would be a mild hassel. This is a validated machine.

The Omron Series 5 wireless is loaded with features. It is best for a single user.

Omron Series 10/Omron Platinum blood pressure monitor. 
At $70 and $80 respectively on Amazon, these are Omron’s premium HBPM products. The Platinum version is an Amazon exclusive and offers a few extra features and a nylon case. You can program this validated machine to automatically take three consecutive blood pressure readings and then send the average to the Omron Connect app via Bluetooth. The device has memory banks for two users, a dual display, and an AC jack with an adapter. The Omron Connect app is pretty slick and will graph your readings in an easy-to-read format that would be useful for your doctor. Downsides are a higher cost, and the units are bulkier than others.

The Omron Series 10 is a full feature HBPM with a dual display.

Welch Allyn 1700 blood pressure monitor. 
$99 from Amazon. This was the most expensive HBPM that I tested. I did not find this validated machine significantly more consistent than other devices. However, its construction is top drawer. The display is gorgeous, its very compact case is high quality, and the tubing connector and tubing are similar to those used on professional machines. The nylon cuff is easy to adjust, and the velcro is just “sticky” enough. It is very gentle when it inflates, and it is faster than other machines when taking a reading. The device has only one button, and more advanced functions rely on the Welch Allyn Home smartphone app. This Bluetooth app worked well and does an excellent job at curating data for easy review. This is a single-user machine. It can also be powered with an AC adapter, but that is a $20 upcharge.

The Welch Allyn 1700 is well constructed and has a useful app. However, it was also the most expensive device that I tested.

Honorable Mentions

Omron Series 3 blood pressure monitor.

At $33 on Amazon, the Omron Series 3 is a well constructed and validated HBPM. However, it is extremely bare bones. It has a tiny memory bank that holds 14 readings, and it doesn’t include averaging or a time/date stamp. However, it does what it needs to do, and you can get the brand that Doctors Recommend Most at a low price. 

You can download the Omron Connect app to your smartphone and manually enter your readings. This will give you the data integration (like daily averages) of a more expensive HBPM at a fraction of the price.

The Omron Series 3 is bare bones, but it is validated and works well.

Beurer BM76 blood pressure monitor.

The Beurer BM76 is from a well known European company that makes quality products. Their blood pressure machines are not validated in the US, but they are validated using similar European validation protocols. The BM76 supports four users (each user gets 30 memories). Its design is sleek and has a gorgeous display. The unit’s case is a lighter weight plastic that I found a bit slippery. It does data averaging, but not the typical last three readings that many other machines do. The Beurer comes with a nylon case and costs $50 at Costco. There is no AC port. 

Many consumers won’t need four different memory banks, and some may prefer two larger ones instead. The BM76’s memory/averaging functions are useful but different from other machines. You can average all of your 30 entries or do seven day averages of your AM or PM readings. This monitor will only recall your last reading (you can’t scroll through all 30 memories on the machine-although you can review them on the Beurer Health Coach app). 

The Buerer Health Coach app was a bit tricky for me to set up on my phone. I was not alone as there are scores of complaints about this app on both the Apple and Google app stores. The app itself is not quite as user friendly as the ones from Welch Allyn or Omron, but it does the job. The app’s designers made odd choices, like listing data using grey on a lighter grey background. That may look modern, but it was hard for me to read.

Lastly, in head-to-head competitions with other machines the Beurer BM76 has a tendency to give readings that are slightly higher. 

The Beurer BM 76 had a lot of features for $50, and can handle 4 separate users.

Equate 8000 Premium Blood Pressure Monitor. 

At $58 at Walmart, this is a pricey housebrand machine, but it has excellent construction, and it is loaded with features.  The backlit display has colored bars and icons, and the numbers are large and clear.  It has voice prompts (that you can turn off), which could be helpful for the visually impaired.  It has a WHO classification indicator that lights up in color, and memories for two users (60 memories each).  The Equate 8000 will average a user’s last three BP values.  It will also automatically take three blood pressures readings at the touch of a button, if set up to do so. Its cuff inflation is so gentle that when I first tried it I thought the machine was broken. The device has an AC jack and comes with an adapter.  It has Bluetooth and can transfer data directly to the Equate Heart Health App. It ships with batteries and a nice case.

The Equate 8000 had all of the characteristics needed to have won the mid-price listing on my Recommended List.  In fact, it has more features than the Omron Series 5 wireless that did get that spot.  Why didn’t it win?  The Omron is a brand-name.  I feel that a housebrand should offer a significantly better price than a brand-name machine.  In addition, the Omron is a validated machine and the Equate is not.  Lastly, the Omron Connect app is more flexible than the Equate Heart Health App.  However, that is not to say that the Equate app is bad.

As an aside, I bought the Equate 8000 as a NIB item on eBay for $35.  At that price, it is an outstanding value.

The Equate 8000 is a nice HBPM with many features. If you can get it at a good price it is a good value.

Can’t find the Equate 8000 on eBay? The Walgreen’s Premium Cuff Blood Pressure Monitor sells for about $70 in stores, but I picked one up for $18 plus shipping on eBay.  It is similar to the Equate 8000 in features and could be an alternative pick if you decide to go the eBay route. I did find that the Walgreen machines (I tested all three current models) tended to give slightly higher readings than others.

The Walgreens Premium Arm Blood Pressure Monitor is a full feature device.

Peace

Dr. Mike Kuna

Images by MAK or from Amazon, Walmart, Costco, Walgreens, eBay, and manufacturers unless otherwise stated.

Retirement, Third Year Anniversary

The end of February brought another anniversary.  I have now been retired from Genesis for three years and from Rosecrance for two.  

On my 68th birthday, Julie noted that I had retired well, and I agree with her assessment.  COVID has undoubtedly impacted me during this last year, but it hasn’t all been negative.  As I have said many times, events are neither bad nor good; they just are.

So, where is my life, and how is it different from what I imagined?

When COVID reared its ugly head Julie and I had just become empty nesters.  We had gone on a few trips, and we were coming to terms with our changing roles.  Julie was now the worker, and I was the stay-at-home partner.

A real Saturn rocket, the largest rocket ever built.
Touring the Johnson Space Center in Houston with Julie.
Traveling with Julie to Las Vegas.

Friends and family had voiced concerns that it would be difficult for me to transition from a high-stress professional career to a suburban homemaker’s role.  However, that change was not at all difficult for me.  I had never had a problem doing domestic tasks—my life before I remarried required that I have a comfort level with cooking and cleaning.

I have no problem doing domestic tasks, like. grocery shopping.

Just as I was fully embracing our new couple’s life, COVID hit, and our three youngest children returned home.  I was delighted to have them back in the safety of Naperville. Still, I now had to adjust to having a family of 5 adults living under one roof.  

I was strictly compliant with the stay-at-home mandate for its first few weeks. Surprisingly those restrictions harmed my mental health.  I say surprisingly, as our house was full of people, plus I’m an introvert.  However, it was clear that I needed to gently and safely broaden my social circle, and that was precisely what I did.

This year I continued to hang out with my friend, Tom. Here we are transporting white oak logs to a sawmill in Michigan where they will be turned into flooring for a project that he is working on. I always love learning new things.

I also started to challenge myself with my endless lists of shoulds  I “should” be more productive.  I “should” continue hobbies that no longer interest me.  I “should” tackle odious home projects. I reached a point during this last year where I decided that my life could be about more than always working towards goals.  Especially when those goals had little real meaning.

I did focus on things that had new meaning-like learning how to fix my dishwasher.

During this last year, I continued to accept that I’m an obsessive person who comes from a long line of driven people. I like hyper-focusing on a particular topic.  I love becoming an expert on trivial things.  Such actions excite me. In the past, I viewed my behaviors with a certain amount of shame. Shame that my obsessiveness was odd or different. However, I now celebrate that difference.  My actions harm no one and enrich me.  

A recent visit to my primary care physician resulted in his suggestion that I monitor my blood pressure.  This launched an obsessive interest in home blood pressure technology that has occupied me for the last few weeks.  Others may think that such actions are crazy, but why should that concern me? I am in the process of compiling my findings in a post that may be helpful to others, and that is enough of a reason for my continued attention.  I know that this short-term interest won’t last, but there is always something new on the horizon to catch my eye. 

I was able to do some limited testing of HBPMs, comparing them against a reference Mercurial Sphygmomanometer. The results suggest that HBPMs give a reasonable “ballpark” blood pressure reading.

Some of my obsessions last much longer, but COVID has forced me to temper them.  My passion for photography continues, but many of my photographing opportunities have not.  COVID has robbed me of my small town visits, family get-togethers, and professional gigs.  However, I continue to take photos for my friend Tom’s blog, and I genuinely enjoy helping him.

I love traveling to small towns to take photographs.
I continue to take a lot of construction photos for my friend, Tom.
An architectural shot that I did for one of Tom’s finished projects.

My passion for camping and minimalism has also been altered because of COVID.  Before I go any further, I understand that those who know me are probably snickering that I connected myself with the term “minimalism.” I freely admit that I am an owner of things.  I am a collector who is fascinated by the difference between similar objects.  I am a person who has a house that is full of junk.  Dear reader, I am a complex human, not a one-dimensional caricature.  There is a part of me that likes stuff and a part of me that wants simplicity.  When I am camping, I travel with very little, and I love the freedom that this brings me.

Making pancakes while camping in the Medicinebow National Forest.
A deer stops by Violet the cameprvan to say, “Hello.”

I did go on a few trips, but less than what I had hoped to do.  I also spent a week of urban camping in Violet the campervan. Julie had a COVID quarantine, and I was concerned about my health.  Despite what you may hear on YouTube hipster channels, urban camping sucks. I am grateful to have experienced it so I could sensibly develop that conclusion. 

Camping out in my church’s parking lot.
Stealth camping in a neighborhood.

I mentioned that my three youngest kids returned home as soon as I had become comfortable with our empty nest. I am happy to report that I did adjust to my kids’ return.  They came back to us as adults, but all of the shelter-in-place restrictions brought back a bygone time when our family was less diluted by other social obligations.  We played games again, binge-watched TV shows, and (my favorite) cooked meals together.  It was such a delight to go on long “adventure” walks with my kids. Something that I used to do with them when they were in elementary school. These times were wonderful gifts from COVID.

Playing games with the family.
Cooking with my kids is one of my greatest joys.
We made Christmas dinner together-our first immediate family only Christmas dinner ever!
Going on adventure walks with my kids has been a wonderful replay from the past.

My Kathyrn left home when she was a sophomore in high school to attend IMSA.  She then matriculated to the University of Arizona. When she graduated college, she joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa.  When COVID hit, she was evacuated back home. I have always had a good relationship with Kathryn, but it was still a bit distant.  She connected well with Julie, and for that, I was grateful. 

Over this year, my two youngest returned to college, and with Julie working, it was often just Kathryn and me.  Over time we have become a team and a good one at that.  Kathryn helps me clean the house, we grocery shop together, and we make and eat many meals together. I am a good teacher but a terrible driving instructor, but Kathryn needed to get her driver’s license, so we worked that out.  Along with doing the tasks of life comes conversation, and along with talking comes connection.  I don’t think that I have ever felt closer to her—another COVID blessing.  

The year continued to educate me about my need to be connected with others.  I am definitely not a person who needs to be the most popular kid on the block.  I don’t need to have a million friends.  I don’t need to be the center of attention.  However, I do need connections. This last year I have strengthened many of my existing relationships.  Naturally, that includes Julie and the kids. It also includes my relations with my extended family.

During much of my marriage, I was solely concentrated on my immediate family and my professional life.  Over the last years, I have realized the importance of having male friendships in my life. This last year, I have strengthened my connection with the handful of men I call real friends, and I have been rewarded by their wisdom and caring.  It has been a tremendous growth experience.

Asking my friend, Tom for help when I screwed up a faucet repair.
Hanging out with my friend, Ralph on his farm.

Has this year of COVID retirement impacted me?  In ways opposite of what I could have expected.  Many people have suffered because COVID has isolated them and diluted the connections they had with others.  For me, it has had the opposite effect.  I find that fact both interesting and remarkable.

This last year has allowed me to slow down and to stay in the moment.  It has shown me how significant relationships are in my life.  It has allowed me to rely on others and to ask for help.  Something that I would have found impossible to do even a decade ago.  Miracles can happen.  

Pausing to see the beauty in simple, everyday things.

This has not been a “lost year,’ as some feel.  It has been a different year.  Remember, different doesn’t mean bad.

I move into my next year with anticipation and excitement.  I wish the same to you.

Peace

Mike

Pause

I wrote a post today, but I’m not publishing it. It wasn’t that it was terrible; it just wasn’t me.

During the pandemic, my daily experiences have been reduced to a pattern of routine activities. I’m not complaining, and I know that my life is fuller than many. I have things to do, people to connect with, and new knowledge to learn. These make me happy, but they have not provided me with new stories to tell you, dear reader.

When I started this blog, I had great ambition. I thought it would be a way to hone my writing into an honest and direct style. In a grandiose way, I thought of it as a platform for my next career. That was not to be.

I realized that my talents are best utilized on the small screen of individuals rather than the big screen of being an influencer. My blog mission changed as I sought to convey my ideas to this smaller group.

I hope that some of my writings helped others. Also, I know that I have former patients who read this blog, and writing it was a way to stay connected with them. I have worked with some patients for years, and I continue to think about them. I am no longer their doctor, but I want them to know that I still care about them. I want them to have successful lives.

The most important group that I write this blog for is my children. I want them to have a record of who I am and what I stand for.

At this time, I will pause the blog with the hope that time will allow me to gain inspiration of where it should go next. I plan to stop publishing the blog for the next six weeks-although I may write if I’m struck by something.

I’m thinking about ways to freshen my content. One idea that my daughter, Grace, suggested was to have theme weeks. One week might be a story with a message; another may be a trusted recipe, a third may be a useful review or tip. Others have suggested that I write only when inspired to do so. I don’t that will work as it would be too easy for me to procrastinate.

I want your ideas of where I should go with this blog. You can reach me at mike_kunaSPAM@hotmail.com. (remove the word SPAM from the address-it is there to confuse email gathering robots). List “Blog ideas” in the title. I promise to read every suggestion.

Goodbye for now. I’ll be back during the week of March 7th.

Peace
Dr. Mike

Dr. Fixit At Your Service

The little boy in me has always liked building and fixing things. I have done limited repair jobs in the past, but I have been hampered by a lack of knowledge, tools, and time.  

On occasion, my interest level would overcome these restrictions, and over the years, I have tackled a few projects. I crafted a desk, hand-built many computers, attempted basic home decorating, and completed some other small projects. 

When I moved into my house 30 years ago, I subscribed to a home repair “book of the month” club. Every 30 days, I would receive a glossy covered book highlighting a particular topic, like heating and air conditioning repair. When a fix-it task came up, I would dig into that collection, but I often found that I didn’t have the right tools or that the instructions were too generic to help a novice.

Let’s face it, when you are working 60-70 hours a week, it becomes easier to call someone to do your repair work. Also, I have been fortunate to know my friend, Tom. Tom has both the tools and the talent. He has always been happy to help me, and I rely on him for those jobs that are well beyond my pay grade. However, I don’t want to take advantage of Tom’s goodwill. He is busy enough without my demands.

When you have lived in a house for 30 years, appliances break. In fact, they seem to bust more frequently as their technology advances. I still have the basic 1984 electric stove and fridge that came with my home; they now live in my basement. However, the same cannot be said of their much more expensive replacements. Currently, I’m on my third new range, fridge, and dishwasher. These devices promised miracle features, but they were less forthcoming when it came to reliability.  

Replacement stove #2 was a technological marvel with a convection oven, bread proofing drawer, induction stovetop, and enough colored LEDs that it could have been mistaken for a Christmas tree. Over the 10 years I had it, the device was repaired at least 3 times. Each service call was more expensive than the last. The Fourth and final repair attempt happened a few years back. The oven had gone nuclear; I would set it for 350F and come back to a meal that had been reduced to charcoal briquettes. The repair guy’s consultation was $150. “I can stay and monitor your temperature rise, but that is going to cost you a lot more,” He said. The man kindly told me how to reprogram the oven’s micro-computer but informed me that if my efforts failed, it would make more sense to buy a new stove, as it was unlikely that they still made the logic boards for my model. I re-calibrated the oven’s thermostat, and I was able to get a few more months of life from the stove, but soon it was back to its old tricks and failed right before Thanksgiving 2018.

Thanksgiving is a big holiday as we have guests arriving from multiple states. Many stay for several days, and they eat all of their meals at our house. The logistics of making Thanksgiving dinner for 20 plus numerous breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are always daunting but felt impossible without a working oven. That year we pulled it off with a microwave, toaster oven, and our old basement range. Basement cooking is not a sustainable option, and we bought another stove the following Monday. Kitchen appliances may be more energy efficient than they were in the past, but that doesn’t offset their additional repair and replacement costs. I can’t say that my life has changed for the better now that I can tap in 350F on a stove’s keypad instead of turning a simple dial.


Julie shouted from the kitchen, “Mike, I don’t think that the dishwasher is working.” “Oh,” I replied. “What makes you think that,” I said. “The dishes don’t look washed,” was her rational reply. “I think you need to fix it.”

Editor’s note: In today’s world of equality, why is it assumed that males are magically endowed with appliance repair knowledge?

I came into the kitchen for a visual inspection. “Yep, they still look dirty,” was my sage response. At this point, I would normally say that we needed to call a repair service. However, the dishwasher is around 10 years old, and I knew that a repair person would charge $150 just to come out. Any repair would likely be several hundred dollars more. In this COVID era, did I really want a stranger in my house, and did I want to spend $300 to have an old machine fixed? It was time to put on a metaphorical hard hat, assume my manly responsibilities, and attempt to fix the appliance myself.

I went to the fount of all knowledge, and I typed into YouTube’s search engine. “Whirlpool dishwasher not cleaning dishes.”. Up popped several videos with titles containing words like “Easy fix” and “Simple repair.” A chill went up my spine. I have gone down “Easy” and “Simple” paths in the past, and I have learned that these words are really code for “Difficult” and “Demoralizing.”

One Christmas, when my girls were small, we purchased an entire play kitchen whose box loudly proclaimed, “Easy assembly, only requires a common screwdriver.” The kitchen had a pretend oven, stove, microwave, and sink. There was a little counter and several cabinets for pretend food and plastic pots. I knew my kids would be thrilled on Christmas morning. 

It was Christmas Eve, and both Julie and I were involved with various tasks designed to ease Santa’s burden. By the time I got to the kitchen toy, it was well past 10 PM. I was tired and irritable. 

The panels that made up the “kitchen” were made of a molded plastic. The hollow kind that has a waxy candle smell. I scanned the incomprehensible instructions and started to snap Tab A into Slot B. The process was not smooth. Some problems were due to my fatigue and unwillingness to interpret Chinese English into English. I would accomplish one portion of the assembly to discover that I needed to do something else first. Also, the kitchen had at least 100 stickers that had to be precisely placed. Despite all effort, I found that I was putting some stickers in the wrong spots and placing them askew in others. However, this was the least of my problems. The various panels that made up the kitchen’s structure simply would not snap together. In fact, two were almost ¼ inch off. I pushed, swore, and pushed some more. I tried banging the large panels with a hardcover dictionary and even incorporated Julie’s muscle help. It was now well past midnight, and I was in a panic. This was their major gift, and it lay in ruin on our family room floor. I felt wholly inadequate as a father. I couldn’t put together a simple toy that proclaimed that it was easy to assemble. I was a failure.

I was physically agitated, my heart was pounding, and I was sweating. I needed to calm myself. I leaned back in my Lazyboy and popped up its footrest. I closed my eyes and meditated to calm my mind. My breathing started to slow, and my palpitations quieted. “Breath in through the nose, count to 5, exhale slowly from the mouth,” I repeated to myself. I took myself to a quiet place and opened my mind up to new possibilities. Immediately, an answer came to me, but it had to be the wrong answer. “Go into the garage and get your sledgehammer.” “What!” I thought. “Am I supposed to wack this piece of… with a sledgehammer? I’m not that angry!” 

I couldn’t run to the store and buy a new present, it was the middle of the night. “What good is all of this meditation if all I can come up with is a ridiculous solution. Universe, give me another answer!” “Get the sledgehammer” was my reply. “You win, but I’m blaming you when my kids are crying tomorrow morning!” I informed the little thought in my head.

I had Julie hold the two offending panels, and I made sure that she was as far as possible from my intended point of impact. I tried a few light taps, nothing happened. I focused again on the target zone. I drew out my arm, and with both energy and intent, I swung the hammer. I momentarily closed my eyes… I didn’t want to see the toy shattered and destroyed. CRACK! And click, the two errant panels mated. The hammer worked! I completed the rest of the job feeling a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration.  

My kids played with that “kitchen” for many years, and they have served me countless plastic donuts and pretend cups of coffee that were heated to perfection on decal burners. The kitchen was one of their favorite toys of all time. However, the build experience left an indelible stain on the words “Easy” and “Simple.” 

You can now understand why I shuttered when I saw those mocking words on the YouTube videos. But what choice did I have? I had to submit myself; like Princess Leia’s plea was to Obi-Wan, YouTube was my only hope.

The first video told me what to do but didn’t show me how to do it. “Remove the plastic retaining clips,” it commanded. I wondered, “But how?” The second video was more explicit but just made me more confused. “Use your number 20 star driver to release the filter assembly.” To me, screwdrivers only come in two forms, flathead and Phillips. I went digging through my little toolbox and came up with some bits that I thought would fit. Amazingly, I had bought a generic set that had the required star driver. “Victory is mine!” I erroneously thought.

With my MacBook propped up on the kitchen table, I approached the dishwasher and faced another realization. All of the videos that I watched had a freestanding dishwasher, and some even had the door removed. My dishwasher was stuck in the crook of our L shaped counter, which allowed access only from the right side. Just placing my screwdriver required the flexibility of a 14-year-old Olympic-level gymnast. I conjured up ideas of me wearing a Speedo as I attacked the dishwasher’s screws. I quickly and permanently put those thoughts out of my mind. I stretched, made a lot of manly grunting sounds, and stretched some more. I was able to reach the two screws that attach the dishwasher’s pump to the upper sprayer with effort.

Rats, they were not “star tips”; they appeared to be rectangular. I dug into my bit collection and found another bit, and with more grunting (and a little colored language), I removed them. I twisted the column ¼ turn and pulled it out of the dishwasher. This revealed the 4 star screws that held the filter assembly in place. I removed those screws and pried the unit from the dishwasher. With a little more banging and swearing, I was able to dislodge the actual filter from the unit for a close inspection. There was a little grease on the filter, but it didn’t look too bad. I washed it off with dishwashing detergent and started the reassembly process. This time I employed the help of my son William to re-screw the upper sprayer water supply tube. His youth gave him a flexibility advantage.  

I found some dirty dishes-an an easy task in our house and loaded them into my newly fixed machine. I dropped in a little packet of detergent, pressed “Normal Cycle,” and hit start. The dishwasher sprang into action, and I could hear the sound of water churning in its chamber. I checked the results an hour later with hopeful anticipation and discovered… That the cups were as dirty as they were when I placed them inside. “Crap and double crap!” I muttered to myself. After a little investigation, I discovered that water was not getting up the mid and top-level sprayers. It was time to revisit YouTube.

Several videos later, I determined that the likely problem was a defective “food chopper,” a part of the dishwasher that chops larger bits of food into ones that can be flushed down the drain. This repair would require going to a level deeper than my “filter clean.”. By now, I was committed and convinced myself that I could tackle this new level of complexity. I logged into Amazon and ordered the chopper assembly for a reasonable $11. I also purchased a real set of screwdrivers for another $35. “The right tool for the right job,” I said to myself. Secretly, I was hoping that the shipment would be delayed.

Two days later, the part and the new screwdrivers arrived. My Kathryn informed me that Julie told her to tell me that the dishwasher needed to be fixed. In a world of email, texting, and FaceTime, we can still practice indirect communication at our home. “Well, then you are going to help me,” I informed Kathryn. “Sure,” was her reply.

The food chopper repair starts with the removal of the same parts as in the filter cleaning job. I approached this portion of the project with the hubris that came from my earlier disassembly successes. The next stage was more challenging but still within my skill level. I removed the plastic housing around the food chopper and pulled out the part. Holy cow, this had to be the problem. The chopper blade was frozen, and there was at least a quarter-inch of super disgusting greasy slime plugging the blade’s mesh plate. No water could get past that mess.

I made the repair, this time utilizing Kathryn to screw in the upper rack feed tube. In went dirty dishes; I programmed in a wash cycle and pressed the start button. After about 30 seconds, I heard the machine fill with water-a hopeful sound. Then it happened… the sound. A sound similar to that of a 747 taking off from 10 feet away. I looked at Kathryn, and Kathryn looked at me. We both raised our eyebrows. “Maybe the chopper needs to work its way in,” I said hopefully. But the sound didn’t go away; in fact, it seemed to get louder. At one point, I thought that the dishwasher was going to take off. “Crap!” I thought. I hit the cancel button to drain the machine.

I pushed down the door, removed the dirty dishes and the racks, disassembled the washers innards, and examined my installation. Honestly, it looked just like it should-at least it looked like the YouTube example. I pondered my options and called on my past experience. I reached up to the counter and located my little tool kit. I felt around until I found it. Yes, this is what I needed… a hammer. I took aim and gave the chopper assembly a good wack. I heard a “click.” Having disassembled and reassembled the unit 6 times, the reassembly job went quickly. I put my dirty dishes back in the machine, pressed buttons, and hoped for the best.

I heard the water enter, then a relay clicked. I held my breath in anticipation. Joy of joys, the 747 had left the runway, and I was greeted with the sweet, sweet sound of my dishwasher humming. I patted myself on the back for my mechanical expertise and felt very manly indeed. It was fixed!

They say that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. How true, and in this case, I “nailed” the repair with a hammer. From plastic play kitchens to large kitchen appliances, never doubt the power of a blunt object.

Peace to you, and Merry Christmas!

Mike

This is a real screenshot from one of the videos that I watched. What kind of sick person says this and then tortures me!
I could only approach the dishwasher from its right side.
The base of the dishwasher with many of its innards removed.
Excited about my new deluxe screwdriver set. It’s magnetic, a choice made after I dropped several screws into the washer’s guts.
Watching YouTube videos for guidance. You can see the new food chopper assembly on the right.
Here is the old chopper assembly. It was frozen and thick with disgusting gunk.

A Walk Down My Memory Lane

Christmas is approaching, but many of my family’s traditional get-togethers have been canceled. One of them is our cousin’s Christmas party called Droby Fest. For those who are uninformed, a Droby is a Slovak sausage made from various ground meats, rice, and potatoes. It is usually baked wrapped with bacon, and it was one of the classic dishes that my grandmother served on Christmas Eve.

As far as I know, Droby sausage can’t be bought; you make it. I have some less-than-fond childhood memories of turning a hand-cranked meat grinder for hours. Besides my past grinding torture, I love Droby and look forward to eating it every Christmas.

My cousin, Ken, took over the manufacturing of Droby for the Cousin Christmas party, which is a pot luck affair of salads, main dishes, and desserts. Droby Fest is one of several other cousin-wide get-togethers that were canceled in 2020. Others included the Kousin Kampout and the KFR (Kuna Family Reunion).

My cousin Kathy suggested that in place of Droby Fest we do a recipe exchange and ZOOM call. Somehow that morphed into my niece, Jeannine compiling all of the recipes into an on-line cookbook, which then became a family history/cookbook/photo album. As far as I know, Jeannine and my cousins Kathy and Kris have formed a committee to accomplish this monumental task.

I contributed a couple of recipes, but Jeannine also needed old photos. Unfortunately, most of my old pictures were on old computers… and we all know what happens to old computers. However, I remembered another option. Around 20 years ago I wanted to digitize old family photos, burn them on a CD, and give copies of that CD to my siblings. At that time, I also labeled names on the photos as I knew that pictures without identification would be useless to future generations.

All that I needed to do was to select the photos and email them to my niece. However, there were two problems.The first was finding the CD ROM that I burned 20 years ago. The second was finding a way to play a CD ROM since none of my current computers have a CD drive.

After some searching, I found the photo CD, and luckily Julie has a plug-and-play CD drive that she uses to watch old TV shows. I connected the drive to my MacBook, inserted the CD ROM, and held my breath. It loaded! However, there were no thumbnail images, so I had to manually click on every single file to view it. Since the process was a bit of a pain, I thought I would get some extra mileage for my efforts and post some of the photos here. Grab a cup of tea and come down my memory lane. These are common photos of a typical family, wholly unremarkable… and because of this, I find them charming. (but I may be biased)

Here are my grandparents on their wedding day. Both of them spoke only Slovak to me, and so my memories of them are limited. When my sister Carol introduced her Irish husband to them they were able to speak perfect English to him. I think their refusal to speak English to us kids was a pride thing… they were very proud of their culture.
Here is a photo of my mother’s mother. I never met her as she was long deceased before I was born. Sadly, there are no photos of my maternal grandfather in existence.
The Kuna’s first car! Quite a big deal. It looks like they are at the cemetery on Memorial Day. We would all go to the cemetery on that holiday and have a picnic. My mom would usually bring a big basket of friend chicken as well as a huge Tupperware of homemade potato salad. Naturally, she also brought desserts-usually cookies and cake squares. When I was a kid I thought it was perfectly normal to picnic at the cemetery. I actually looked forward to it!
Grandma and Grandpa Kuna. This photo looks so ethnic, don’t you think?
My dad. Apparently, he was so good looking that women would fake faint in church because they wanted him to carry them out (he was an usher). I know that this story sounds fantastic, but I have had it confirmed from multiple sources.
My mom as a young girl. My mother was a product of the 1920s. She saw her role only as a wife and mother. With that said she was brilliant and extremely talented. She was very creative, a good artist, and an excellent writer. Her brothers (who were dismissive of girls) were shocked when she received the award for the most gifted student when she graduated.
My mom in a snow ball fight. She is far right.
I’m not sure what this photo is from, but my parents were styling. You have to love the 1920s fashion hat and dress. Many of my mom’s early photos show a gap in her front teeth. She apparently got the gap fixed because I have no memory of it.
My parent’s wedding day. My mother said she hated the photographer but felt forced to use him due to parental pressure.
Hamming it up on their wedding day.
Another shot of my mom. It looks like she is wearing church clothes. Church was very important to both of my parents, they said the rosary on their knees most nights.
My dad, second from the left. Here he is a fireman for CPS. He eventually became the chief operating engineer for one of the largest high schools in Chicago. I have always had a fascination with mechanical stuff. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t have a lot of interest in teaching me. This is probably one of the reasons that I went into science. No one in my family had a science background, so no one could criticize me.
Another shot of my father, as a fireman.
A later photo of my dad as a fireman. He is older in this picture (in his late 30s?). My father had a limited initial education but worked his way up the ladder to become successful in his career. He spent years in night school and eventually took classes at Amour College (which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology).
My siblings. My parents felt that they had a complete family in the 1940s, then 7 years later I came along in 1953. Surprise! Four is company, five is a crowd?
My mother, and two of my siblings. You have to love the 1940s style. I bet this was some sort of church activity.
Me in our old run-down bathroom. The toilet would spit at you when you flushed it. I’m glad that the photographer respected my modesty by skillfully shooting me above my waistline. By the way, it looks like we were using Ivory soap-it floats! Am I asking for the towel?
Me as a baby. Is that a crown on my head? I imagine that my mom is singing to me. I like this photo.
Me on top of our old Nash. The car originally belonged to my uncle Nick. I think he sold it to my dad for a “good price.” We acquired several cars that way. We only had one new car growing up-a 1965 Ford Custom (A stripped-down Galaxy).
Me with a baseball glove. This had to be a staged shot. I’m poorly coordinated and have no depth perception- I will never be a team’s MVP. I have never liked sports, I’m not good and I don’t like not being good at things. Go figure- Well actually, anyone who knows me well will agree with the above. I like doing things well.
I’m guessing that I’m around 3 years old here. I always have been interested in how things work, even then.
My sister Carol, likely her high school graduation photo. Every lady had a string of pearls in those days.
I love this photo. Apparently, no one can stop eating for a 30-second photo! Typical Kunas. The photo includes my family as well as my Godmother and her daughter Suzanne. Suzanne is now a retired biology professor. Also in the photo is my aunt Lill, I’m guessing that the little girl is my cousin, Mary Lynn. I’m not sure who my aunt Mary is holding. Her son, Rudy? Her nephew Stevie?
Santa and me. I would visit Santa at the Talman Saving and Loan on 55th street. Santa’s assistant took this Polaroid. I remember being absolutely fascinated with the fact that the photo developed “instantly.”
For Christmas that year I asked Santa for, “A device that can convert battery power into AC power.” I guess was asking for an inverter, but I didn’t even know that they existed. Instead, I got a battery-operated train. Skunked again. I’m holding the train’s battery box in this photo. When I asked my mom why Santa didn’t give me what I wanted she told me that sometimes Santa gets confused by my requests.
My parents with my sister, Nancy. It looks like she is going to some sort of formal dance. She is so young and pretty in this photo. I’m the kid who is still wearing his school uniform-I didn’t have a lot of clothes. The man behind me is my bachelor Uncle Nick. When I was in grade school I desperately wanted the electronics kit “101 electronic projects.” I begged, but my father said, “No way.” Uncle Nick heard me talking about the kit and gave my father the $29.95 to buy it. Nick didn’t want the credit, but when I profusely thanked my father he made sure to let me know that the kit wasn’t from him, but from my uncle. It was an incredibly kind thing for my uncle to do.
Bowser and me. My sister found Bowser as a puppy. She was running across the street and was almost killed. I absolutely loved Bowser. She would listen to my troubles and patiently comfort me when I was down. She was an awesome dog. She had to be put down when I was in college and I felt like I lost a true friend rather than a pet. It took me some time to get over the loss. Note the fishbowl. One sister (I won’t identify further) used it as an ashtray, killing my pet goldfish. She did say she was sorry.
I’m not sure how old I was in this school photo. Third grade?
Here I am sandwiched between my Godparents-Mary and Laddie (Ladislav)
Why do I look so awkward in this photo? Cousin Kris seems more in tune with the photo shoot. When we had parties my mother made everything from scratch. On rare occasions she would buy a decorated bakery cake. She did so for my first communion. I remember that it had a big chalice on it with a host sticking out of it. I was very impressed-and thought it was the best cake ever. In reality, my mom was a top-notch baker and could bake rings around any store bought cake.
Just one of those “booth photos.” I’m guessing I was in 7th or 8th grade at this time.
8th grade graduation photo-there is not that much more to say.
My sister Nancy was a very popular teen. She had the looks and the personality. She must have taken more than her share because sadly I didn’t have either.
Sometime in the 1960s. My parents with my brothers Tom and Dave. Tom passed away at 32 from cancer, and Dave passed away in his70s from a neurological condition. They look so young in this photo-so ready to tackle the world. I didn’t have a strong connection with my brothers, they were older than me and into their own things. However, I am more than fortunate to have great connections with my two sisters.
Family shot at my sister’s wedding. I’m third from the right with my head cut off. I was in high school at the time.
My brother Tom’s college graduation. I’m on the far left. Before the ceremony, a freak storm came and lightning hit the tree that I was standing under. It actually split the tree into two! I remember feeling the static-tingling feelings right before the tree cracked-thankfully I was OK.
This is the way that I remember my parents. I think my dad was 43 and my mom was 41 when I was born. My parents were often the oldest parents in my peer group. It always felt strange to have parents who seemed to be as old as some of my friend’s grandparents. So what did I do? Well, I was 48 when William was born!
High School Senior Photo. Everyone who sees this says I look angry… I was just trying to look serious! With that said, I didn’t like high school for a variety of reasons.
A photo of some of my college friends. I really loved college, both the hanging out part and the learning stuff part. In high school, I never wanted to act “too smart” as it could mean being targeted (I went to a really tough high school). In college, I decided that it was time to be true to myself. I took on my classes with zeal. Surprisingly, people still liked me even when I busted the curves! Yay!
I have know John for over 60 years, and his now wife Barb for 45. I last talked to John yesterday.
My mother died suddenly at 65. Shortly there after my father started to date my future step-mother, Lill.
I think this was in Dad/Lill’s basement. In the photo you can see my two sisters, and two of Carol’s kids. This is probably a party to celebrate something-I’m just not sure what.
I married my first wife, and we had my daughter Anne. The marriage eventually ended. Prior to being married I never wanted to have children. I think this was because my father constantly told me what a burden kids were. When Anne came along it was love at first sight. I changed my attitude about being a parent and saw it as a great gift. By the way, you may see Anne referred to as Anna-she went by a couple of different names over the years.
If you were cool in the day you had to have a kick-ass stereo system. It is uncertain how cool I was, but I did manage to put together a killer set of components. Around this time I became a lover of straight-ahead jazz… I still love jazz.
Here is my daughter, Anne (holding a My Little Pony) with my two Godchildren, Jeannine and Jenny. In between is little Wendy. She is now a senior VP for a major bank.
Northwestern University/Evanston Psychiatric Residency program. Somehow I managed to become chief resident of the residents. I’m standing in the back row, once again with part of my head cut off. This was a really nice group of people, very smart too!
Dad, Davie, Kathy, and Carol. At this point, I was divorced and living in this “garden” (ie basement) apartment in Skokie. I couldn’t afford to live in Evanston even though I was being paid extra to be chief resident. How much more? One hundred bucks a month-and a whole boatload of extra work. The apartment wasn’t too bad, but you had to learn to ignore the occasional rat screaming after it was caught in a snap trap.
Single Mike. I remember that I had to iron that shirt. I don’t think I had an ironing board and so I would lay towels on the kitchen table.
Single Mike a few years later. Wow, a Christmas theme outfit.
I had been divorced for quite a few years. Early on I had dated a lot of very nice women, but I just couldn’t see myself getting married again. Finally, I gave up dating altogether (it was too much work, and I hated upsetting people). I decided that I should just become a single person. I didn’t date for almost two years and I thought that I was happy during that time. Then I met Julie.
This is what happened next. You can also see Best Man, John, and Maid of Honor, Amy. In the front is Junior Bridesmaid-daughter Anne. This is the same “John” as the young guy 12 photos above.
Julie and daughter, Anne. They both had to adjust to one another, but it all worked out in the end.
Me and Kathryn. OMG, they grow up so fast.
Dr. Gracie with Grandma Avis.

Christmas 2000- Do you remember Y2K? The world was supposed to end when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000. Several prominent engineers and a few Fermi Lab scientists warned me about Y2K. I listened and bought cases of dehydrated food. Ten years later I tossed the cases out-and yes, I never heard the end of it.
I did other stuff to prepare for Y2K. I have been an avid radio DXer since childhood. However, I decided I needed to have the ability to transmit (communicate) if the phone lines were down. In 1999 I took the amateur licensing exam for the technician class, then I took the test for the general classification. By the end of the year, I passed the amateur extra licensing exam (the highest level) which allowed me to transmit on all amateur bands and modes. I over prepared-again.
One thing led to another. Here sisters Kathryn and Grace welcome brother William.
My in-laws, Bob and Avis were visiting in Naperville when William arrived. How great it was to have them around for that special event. We really needed them too, as I was spending time in the hospital with Julie while our two little girls were at home.
Anne in a glamor shot. These head shots were a big deal a few decades ago.
William. Note the sign in the lower left. The family was about to celebrate Father’s Day. I bet they made me mandarine orange cake, which is my favorite. You can never go wrong by adding Cool Whip to anything!
Teaching Will and Grace how to cook has been one of my great joys. I cook a lot of the meals at home, and more often than not Will, Grace, or Kathryn will help me. Actually, sometimes all three will be in the kitchen at the same time. I really love spending time with my kids.
Grace, Will, and Kathryn taken just this year. My babies are now adults. This makes me both very happy and very sad. However, I’m going with happy.
Grandson Seb.
Granddaughter Diana.
Family! I’m have gone a long way from never wanting kids. To me, my family is the most important and most significant part of my life. Never base your opinion on someone else’s opinion. My dad felt that kids were a burden, but I now know that they are really a joy. They are my most important accomplishment.

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