Am I a Misfit?

Thoughts on Nomadic life as it buffers against societal norms.

As you may know, I am fascinated with Nomadic life. So in 2018, with the help of my friend Tom, I built out a Ram Promaster van and transformed it into Violet the campervan. With Violet, I have gone on many adventures. However, there was one that I delayed for years. That trip was to camp on desert BLM land and to attend the RTR or Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. This is a massive meetup for Nomads. I accomplished that goal this year, and I would like to tell you about some aspects of it.

The RTR attracts a certain subgroup of Nomads. I’ll call these folks RTR Nomads. However, there are other types of Nomadic travelers; I’ll list some of them below.

There are the RVers.  These are often retired couples or individuals and homeschoolers who usually have financial resources. They travel in fancy 5th wheels and modern RVs.  

There are adventure Nomads who may live in just about anything. These folks view their home on wheels as necessary housing as they pursue an outdoor passion such as skiing or rock climbing.  

The Instagram crowd live in decked-out Sprinter vans and restored fancy Volkswagon microbuses. This group attracts young, good-looking couples who travel for fun and fund their touring through social media channels. If you see a thumbnail of an attractive woman taking a shower wearing a scanty bikini, you have found an Instagram Nomad.

The RTR group is different, more gritty, and more natural. Bob Wells didn’t start this movement, but his active participation in it has made him its defacto voice. It is helpful to understand Bob better to get a better feeling for RTR Nomads.

Bob was a typical guy living in Alaska with his wife and kids. He worked at a grocery store and made enough money to support his family. In 1995 he divorced and did not have the resources to keep two residences afloat. He moved into an empty box van. Bob admits that this was a move of desperation and that he was feeling pretty sorry for himself. He was depressed and thought that he was a failure. Alaska can be brutally cold, and Bob had to adapt quickly to his new life. Using previous knowledge and trial and error, he was able to transform his dismal housing into a workable habitat. Bob has lived in many different vehicles since 1995 and has a tremendous knowledge of what works and doesn’t work in van life.

Slowly, he realized that his new lifestyle was a gift that gave him a newfound freedom, made him more centered, and provided him with inner peace. In 2005 he started a website called “Cheap RV Living” to share his ideas. Later, he started a YouTube Channel where he offered practical tips and interviews with Nomads that included tours of their rigs. Some rigs were works of art; others consisted of a mat on the floor of a minivan. However, just like sticks and bricks homeowners, Nomads have pride in their domiciles. Bob always sincerely compliments rig owners, and they universally show their appreciation to him. Other YouTube channels share tips and tricks as part of their feed, but this has been a consistent objective for Cheap RV Living. Bob has helped countless travelers, including myself, with his practical and practiced knowledge.

He started the RTR gathering some years ago, and before the pandemic, over 10,000 people attended. During COVID, the RTR went digital, offering classes and community online. However, there is no substitute for meeting in person. The RTR has practical seminars on everything from traveling to Mexico as a Nomad to dealing with chronic illness on the road. The RTR is free and was solely funded by Bob. Several years ago, Bob and his friend Sue Ann created HOWA (Home On Wheels Alliance), which is a 501C with the sole purpose of helping Nomads. HOWA now organizes and funds the RTR and manages an army of Nomad Volunteers. The RTR is run by people who live in their vehicles and who are often separated from each other by a thousand miles. By the nature of their lives, they have few financial resources. The RTR’s logistics were as good as any expensive conference I attended. If I am being honest, it was run better.  

RTR Volunteers monitored RTR message boards, directed parking, adjusted sound/video equipment, led panel discussions, provided security, and supervised the give-and-take tables where Nomads could leave things for others to take for free. Nomads have little but are willing to share so that others can have more.

Who are the RTR-type Nomads? I talked to many, but not all, so I can only give you my limited impression. It may dispel some preconceived views that you could have of them. Like Bob, many vehicle dwellers started their journey due to circumstances. They had few options. They live in every type of vehicle imaginable. High-top vans, old conversion vans, cargo vans, retrofitted ambulances, old school buses, SUVs, and small sedans. 

The bulk of the individuals that I met were in their 50s and 60s. However, I did talk to some in their 30s and others in their 70s. The vast majority would blend in with any crowd. Think about the people you would see at a big box store, Walmart or Home Depot. Most would be wearing functional but not stylish clothing. That is how the vast majority of Nomads dress.  

Many Nomad men sport bushy beards or have a few days of stubble. Many Nomad women don’t wear makeup. Both of these positions are likely due to the practical nature of van dwelling. Everyone I met looked clean, and no one smelled bad. I mention these facts as some may be wondering. And yes, folks brushed their teeth.

Speaking of teeth, that was heartbreaking. It wasn’t uncommon to run into older Nomads who had prominent missing teeth or no teeth. I have worked with low-resource individuals for much of my life, and I can assure you that poor dentition is almost always because of a lack of funds. I recently had a simple filling replace-it cost me $300. Later this month, I’ll have my teeth cleaned- which will cost at least $150, likely more if anything extra is added. When you are living on a limited income, you can’t afford dental care, and the older you get, the more significant the impact this lack of regular maintenance has on your teeth. The ability to chew is paramount to good health. However, only some insurance policies cover this type of healthcare. I think that is criminal. 

Naturally, there were some outliers in the group. I saw several people living in vans that were wheelchair-bound. What incredible courage to live an independent Nomadic life without the use of your legs. These folks were traveling in regular vans; no chair lifts or other accommodations. One, by the name of Kat, was volunteering at an information table.  

Some individuals were tremendously overweight. A few others were on the eccentric side. Some wore mismatched clothing, others sported unusual hats, and one donned a homemade fez and a bathrobe made of that felt-like material that people made blankets out of a few years back. The eccentric were in the minority and likely represented a percentage no different than the general population. 

I talked to one man who was able to live in an apartment by sharing costs with his wife. She became ill and died and he became homeless. A tiny older woman (under 5 feet) had been an overland truck driver. She lives on less than $700/month of social security. She has been boondocking in Quartzite since November, and despite her financial woes, she volunteers at a local church’s free meal program providing food for those who can’t afford it. Other individuals suffered from debilitating chronic illnesses (physical and mental). They found that leaving the rat race gave them the peace they needed to start the healing process. Still, others rejected the expectations of society that demanded that they work a meaningless job until they died. Some individuals worked seasonal jobs or made a living with small online businesses. One man, living in a Prius, bought local gemstones to resell. 

Every single person that I talked to was kind. Most seemed intelligent and chatty. All seemed willing to help. I liked my interactions with them. Were these misfits of society? That question leads me to Bob Well’s talk on his philosophy of being a Nomad.

Bob’s talk covered many different areas, and I will only focus on a few. Mainly the needs of the individual vs. the needs of society.  

Bob believes that early humans lived the way wolves and elephants live today. They liked to socialize and work together, but they retained their individuality. They accepted nature and adapted to survive in it. They only used those resources necessary to live. They lived within the confines of what nature offered them. They did not try to alter nature for their own will. They were generous with each other, and in doing so, they built connections that would help all. He believes that this is the way that we were meant to live.

Society has different expectations of the individual. Society wants us to live more like ants or bees. In essence, there are no individuals. Instead, we are all cogs in a bigger machine. Society wants us to produce for the betterment of society. Most of us are expendable. The more we produce, the more we are expected to produce. Jobs can be meaningless to the individual as long as it benefits the greater progress of the group. The focus is on productivity rather than relationships and personal growth. Most individuals are stuck in the class that they were born into. If you are a worker, you will most likely remain a worker. As productivity is king, the individual’s well-being is unimportant. Endless unfulfilling work leads to stress-related illness and addiction. Purchasing things is necessary to fuel the economy and becomes an artificial and unsatisfying reward for the worker. Social relationships are difficult to maintain due to the intrinsic stress of long work hours spent in unsatisfying jobs. Power and money need to be kept by those in control and are not shared with others. Generosity is discouraged. Consumption and wealth are glorified. If you have something, you want more of it. 

Society does not promote harmony with nature; it demands the opposite. An example is modern farming. To successfully farm a field, the intrinsic life in the area must be killed. Insects, animals, plants. These things become pests and weeds. Society does not live within the confines of nature; it tries to rule nature-often with terrible consequences. 

For many, modern life promotes mental and physical illness secondary to endless and meaningless work stress, the breakdown of social connections, and the disregard for the greater ecology (nature). People who question society are labeled negatively as misfits-they don’t fit in. The need for compliance is so great that misfits must be shunned and their lifestyle ridiculed.  

Many of you who are reading this may object to this observation. You may believe that society is necessary, and you may now list all of the great things that society has created. It is also true that Nomads depend on society to survive. Nomads are not hunters and gatherers. They drive vehicles that need gas. They shop at grocery stores. They wear clothing woven in factories.

The idea here is balance and the idea that one type of lifestyle does not fit all. In many ways, Nomads are less misfitted than those who comply with societal rules, as they live in better harmony with themselves and the world around them. They consume less, pollute less, and spend less. They live more in nature and accept what nature offers. They are more generous with each other. They help each other. Roles and positions of prestige are dramatically reduced. At the RTR, everyone was treated equally. No one was judged based on possessions, physical appearance, age, or health. People were accepted for who they were, and everyone was allowed to be heard.

All of this made me reflect on my life and whether I was a misfit or fit. There are many ways that I am a misfit. I’m dyslexic, I have other processing problems, I’m blind in one eye, I have terrible coordination, I have a fear of heights, I’m a shy introvert, I think differently than most people, and I’m an obsessive problem solver. Although I am different, I have always wanted to fit in, so I have adopted behaviors to make that happen. I know how to talk, interact, and dress to blend in. Many times, I hold back my opinions as I don’t want to appear “too smart.” Intelligent people are often viewed with suspicion. Overall, I have been successful in this charade.  

One area where I have been less successful has been in my weight. I have always been overweight and have spent (literally) tens of thousands of dollars to control my weight. As a result, I have lost hundreds of pounds through the years, only to regain them. Our society hates fat people. This is odd to me as most individuals in the US are now considered overweight. I have always been self-conscious of my weight and work hard to have people see me as a person, not a fat person. However, it has not been easy.

Among the Nomads, I had no such concerns. If I would accept them, they would accept me. Acceptance is one of the most important gifts we can give another person. However, many are better at passing out judgment.  

Yes, I’m a “misfit” who has successfully faked being a “fit.” But that experience has made me acutely aware of others who are in marginalized groups. Our society places the highest value on healthy white Christian males. Other groups are now included, but they still hold lesser positions. Women come to mind, and there is some marginal inclusion of racial groups such as blacks and Hispanics. However, that inclusion is very conditional. If you act like a white Christian male, you may be given a seat at the table.

The less power a group has, the more it is rejected. Asians have contributed immensely to our country but were easily villainized during the COVID pandemic. Religious groups, like Muslims and Jews, may be openly mocked. It is acceptable for individuals with any imperfection or disability to be ridiculed or even attacked without provocation.

However, the most minor and most vulnerable groups are always targeted for the most hate. There are many examples, but one of the most obvious is the heterogeneous compilation that we identify as LGBTQ+. Overall, this is a small group in society. Most LGBTQ+ individuals are just trying to live their lives, and only a few are bad actors. However, the amount of propaganda against this faction of the population is astounding. It is even more shocking when legislators are allowed to subject a group of citizens to laws denying them the freedoms everyone else accepts as the norm.

Highlighted here is the act of marriage. Why is same-sex marriage such a big deal? Marriage is a legal (and sometimes religious) covenant between two people. It affords certain rights and benefits, and it signifies a willingness of both parties to commit to each other. There have always been laws that prevented people from marrying someone based on someone else’s bias. Laws outlawing marriage between blacks and whites come to mind.

We hold the act of marriage in high regard. However, traditional marriage can be far from that. Individuals break their vows to each other—individuals divorce. Physical violence, addiction, psychological torture, obsessive control, and many other abominations occur in traditional marriage, yet we accept these unions as somehow driven by God. We use our personal religious beliefs to restrict the rights of others who may not hold those same beliefs. We interpret (with emphasis on interpreting) our holy writings to fit our needs-even if those interpretations are against the basic concepts of Christianity. Christianity is about love, acceptance, forgiveness, and inclusion. Why are so many Christians focused on hate, rejection, exclusion, and damnation? Why do we have to be so “special” that only we can have rights that we deny others?

I saw the opposite among the Nomads. Everyone was accepted on their merits. Women traveling together as couples, toothless men, morbidly overweight Nomads, it didn’t matter. People were not prejudged based on some synthetic construct. Instead, they were accepted or rejected for who they were.

I think I’m not the only misfit out there who is good at pretending to be a “fit.”  Wouldn’t it be great if we could be who were are and be accepted for that? The world might be much more creative and balanced. Diversity always leads to new ideas and growth. A lesson understood by a random pack of Nomads but still rejected by a society that should know better.

Driving to Arizona, I was awestruck by the twilight sky.
I parked in the desert, not knowing what to expect.
The desert landscape was peaceful and calming.
Many Nomads had dogs and cats as co-travelers. However, one person was traveling with a friendly pig named Mimi.
Bob Wells talking about his philosophy of being a Nomad
The meeting was well attended.
It is OK to be different. This man set up his chair well before the meeting started and was far from anyone. He wanted his own space.
Here you can see just some of the types of vehicles that people lived in. A sedan, an old Suburban, a high-top van, an old conversion van, and an ambulance, to name a few.
The parking crew did a great job maximizing parking.
Message boards were set up. You could ask for services or offer services.
People make a living in many ways. This person offered portraits of your favorite 4 legged travel companion.
I saw a number of Nomads who were wheelchair-bound.
Tables were set up so you could donate items others could take for free.

On Losing Time

On losing time

In my working years, I was constantly aware of the clock. I measured my life in 15 minute, 30 minute, and 60 minute intervals. This metering not only happened in my work life, but also in my home life. My time was so limited that it became an impossible resource that had to be tamed in any way.

One of the great benefits of being retired, is a relaxation of my temporal rules. However, I am still governed by the clock. There are activities that I do at certain times. There are people that I call and visit at certain times. There are tasks, like making dinner, that require a specific time. These rules aren’t bad; they provides the structure necessary to move forward in a societal life governed by such things.

However, when I am in nature, things change. Of course, I do pay a slight amount of attention to the clock. This is mostly so that I can interact with people that are not in nature. For instance, I may contact Julie or reach out to my children to see how they’re doing. I am not going to do this at two in the morning or at 11 o’clock at night. With that said, many other time constraints fade away for something that is much more natural. What’s more natural than time? Nature.

I tend to wake before dawn, that is my normal pattern. In nature, I tend to settle when the sun goes down. I feel less of a need to accomplish specific goals. Of course, I need to take care of housekeeping issues in the van. but there are many things that don’t require immediate attention. It is very freeing to have a life that cycles with nature rather than some artificial societal construct. It is wonderful to feel that you are in sync with nature. Being in nature also affects my conservation. Let me explain.

We live in a society that provides us with necessary services. We turn on a water tap or flip a light switch and we expect an endless supply of whatever we’re using. When we need to go to the bathroom, we don’t worry about where our bodily waste ends up. if it’s hot outside or too cold, it’s very simple to turn a knob or press a button to achieve perfect climate control. That is modern society, but it’s not necessarily good for us.

When I am more in touch with nature, I am also more respectful of the resources that nature gives me. I am acutely aware of how much water I use. I am acutely aware of how much power I draw from my solar batteries. I am acutely aware of the weather conditions. Instead of trying to control my environment, I try to modulate it enough so that it is acceptable as opposed to perfect. Fans take the place of air conditioning. Blankets and coats take the place of central heating. I do have a heater, but I use it very judiciously because it cost both battery power and gasoline to operate. I am very aware of how much garbage I produce and I deliberately use the least amount of consumables possible. Not only for the sake of the environment, but also for the sake of myself. I don’t want bags of garbage cluttering up my van.

I think that what I am saying is that it is possible that the way that we have achieved our gains in society may have been at the cost of both the individual, and the environment. When we have been given more, we have tended to use it recklessly. These habits may have benefited us in the short run, but they certainly harm us in the long run. Just something to think about. Have a good day. – Mike.

Car Buying Tips During A time of Shortages

We bought a new car!

Some car buying tips from a psychiatrist.

One of my kids just hit an adult milestone yesterday, she bought a car. This was both a wonderful and stressful experience. Due to the chip shortage, there are no deals to be had. I thought I would share some of the psychology that car salespeople use to manipulate you. Did we get a good deal? No. Did we get an acceptable deal? I think so, our final price was significantly less than what the salesman tried to propose.We went for a new compact car as used cars that were several years old and with many miles were only a few thousand dollars less due to used car shortages.

The first rule is to remember that even in scarce times there are always multiple options. As my friend, Tom says. “A car is just a box on wheels.” A car isn’t a sex or status symbol, it is a mode of transportation. Leave your emotions at the door and you will do better.

Second rule. Check around, call around, research around. We knew going into the purchase that most dealers were charging a surcharge that could be between 10-20%, sometimes much more for “hot” vehicles. The average surcharge for an economy car was around 10%. I knew from personal experience that many car dealers will add BS add-ons to boost the sales price. You need to be on the lookout for these as they can significantly add to the cost of the vehicle. Ask about them before you buy.

We initially looked at a Kia Rio from a dealership in Naperville. The salesman told us that there would be a non-negotiable 10% surcharge. I also asked about and discovered that there was a roughly $1000 dollar add-on package that couldn’t be removed. Dealers have been using this tactic as long as I have been buying cars. Remember being forced to buy undercoating? After asking he told me that he could probably get me this package for $700. Still a rip-off, but better. Always ask.

I was traveling abroad and then got COVID so we stopped our car shopping for several weeks. My daughter decided on the Kia, and we returned for her to test drive and possibly purchase one.

Our same salesman did a computer search and felt he could get a car in about 3 weeks, so we decided to put down a downpayment. At that point, I reminded him that their surcharge was 10% for this particular model, and that he had promised $300 off the required add-on package. He filled out the forms accordingly and then had my daughter sign the form. Psychologically, this is a way to get the customer to commit to the purchase. Signing something is usually a big deal. No big deal for us, however, as she was committed to buying the car.

He then disappeared for quite some time with that sheet and then returned saying he had talked to “his manager.” Now the surcharge was 20% and the discount for the add-ons was $250 instead of $300. When he saw the discomfort in me he immediately tried to friend me by saying that he “thought” that the manager would allow only a 15% surcharge-which was still 5% more than what he originally promised me. This technique is called anchor biasing. Most people go for the middle and his actions were designed to make me feel like I was getting a deal, despite his breach of agreement and the fact that he was really screwing me. I reminded him of what he committed.

Note that when car salespeople go to “talk to the manager” they are really having a smoke or a cup of coffee. Our salesman had worked at this dealership for 8 years and he knew what was allowable and what was not allowable. The talking to the manager BS was to add authority to the decision and to take the blame off the salesman. Sort of like the “I can’t do that because my parents won’t let me” line that I used as a kid to avoid peer pressure demands.

At that point, I had to make a decision, to walk or negotiate. If cars were plentiful I would have walked. Because they are not, I decided to negotiate. However, I already had his number as I knew that he was using common and deceptive practices. He was not my friend.

When negotiating it is important for both parties to feel that they have gained something. I counter-offered to pay a few dollars above the $700 that we originally negotiated for the add-ons and said I wouldn’t pay 15%, but I would be willing to pay 11% instead of a 10% surcharge. Then there was another long absence for a “manager talk” and a return offer accepting the add-on price and offering 12%. I asked him to renegotiate. Then another long wait and another “manager talk.” He came back with a “better deal.” Note that none of the percentages were listed on the datasheet he was showing us, just a bunch of numbers. You have to calculate them yourself, which is a tactic to confuse the consumer. We also only got one sheet at a time, so there was no way to compare older offers. In this case, I asked him, “So what is the new percentage?” He smiled warmly (like he was giving me a Thanksgiving turkey) and said 11.8%! I reminded him that was 12%.

I always treated the salesperson with respect, and warmly smiled right back at him as he made small talk and told us about his family and kid. Naturally, his conversation was designed to normalize our relationship and convince me that he was a regular and trustworthy guy. Knowing this, I went along with his actions. However, I had no illusion that we were going to become BFFs.

Now was the time for me to use my knowledge. I knew that a car sale is more likely to take place the longer a customer stays in the showroom. Hence all of the long waits as he was talking to “the manager.” I also knew that having my daughter sign was another way to legitimatize the deal. However, I had a trick up my sleeve too. I understood that he knew that if we left the showroom his chances of closing the sale would be dramatically reduced. I also knew that (at the least) he could have charged us only a 10% surcharge instead of the 11% that we going to pay, as that is what he told us on our first meeting. He had spent many hours with us, which would be wasted if he didn’t make the sale.

I deliberately put on a sad/frowny face and pushed away from his desk. I knew that he would understand that symbolically I was starting to reject the sale. He persisted with the “talk to the manager” line and this time I took gentle control of the situation. I reminded him that he had worked for the dealership for 8 years. I also noted that he was a top salesman (plaques on his desk) and complimented him about this. However, I added his experience should certainly give him some power in this manner. I was subtly giving him back his authority from the fake manager. I was indirectly taking away his ability to constantly use the “manager” as a tactic.

He continued to push, but I had had enough. Both my daughter and I were both exhausted and hungry. Wearing down a customer is another technique used by car salespeople, as many customers will just “give in” at this point. They want the stress to be over. However, this negotiation wasn’t a one-way street. It was time to play my card. I smiled at him with a somewhat disingenuous smile and started to stand up saying, “Thank you so much for all of the time that you spent with us today. I think we need to reevaluate our purchase. However, we will make a decision one way or another and if we decide to go with the Rio we will most likely call you.” I knew that this would signal to him the likelihood of a lost sale that he had invested many hours to seal. He looked at me and said, “OK, you can have it for an 11% surcharge.” No “manager talk” was needed, and we signed the deal.

Now am I a master negotiator? Of course not, but I knew my limits and I used my skills to move the process forward. We knew that we had to overpay at the start and we did wind up paying a bit more than we expected. However, it was acceptable given the current car shortage situation. Thankfully, my daughter picked up on my method and went along with my wanting to leave. This was difficult for her as she is a new buyer and was definitely caught up in the emotion of not only having her own car but her own new car.

I post this if you are contemplating buying a car, especially if you are a new buyer. Know common dealer tactics and use that knowledge to your advantage. Let the salesperson feel like they are getting what they want without sacrificing too much. Ask to see comparison numbers in a fashion that you can understand, take notes, ask questions beforehand, and write things down. Be willing to walk away. It isn’t a kidney, it is just a car.

There was a small chance that our salesman would have let us walk, but that was a very small chance. You have to be willing to move on if you can’t get a realistic, acceptable deal.

The other way to screw the customer is by showing them monthly payments instead of the total cost. “Oh, that is only $100 more a month. You can afford that, right?” Or, “We can lower your monthly payment to only xxx.” While at the same time extending your time to pay to 7 or 8 years. Cars could need significant repairs by that time. Additional money on top of your car payment. Consider a reasonable length of time to repay, and the amount that you can pay per month. Base your purchase on those factors, not on glitz and glamor. As a person who has owned many cars, they are all just transportation after owning them for a month or two.

I hope this post is helpful to potential car buyers.

So Long For Now

Dear readers, I just received a notice that once again something is wrong with my website and the hosting company wants me to call them ASAP. The last time I did this it cost me several thousands of dollars and weeks of grief and frustration. Now, less than a year later it looks like I’m facing the same issues again.

This blog’s main purpose was to leave a legacy for my kids and grandkids. I wanted to let them remember me in a deeper way than a few scattered memories. I wanted to leave them with some photos, some thoughts, some memories, and some of my life philosophy. I think I have done that in almost 2000 pages of material that I have written here over the last few years.

I have downloaded my blog to a PDF file and I’ll burn that file to a disc. I believe that I have said what I wanted to say, and my desire to avoid spending additional thousands of dollars and untold grief has forced the decision for me to halt this blog. At this time I don’t have plans to reinstate it, but who knows?

Thank you for reading along with me. Peace and love to you.

Dr. Mike

Finding Happiness, The Blackwell Example

What makes you happy? Some may say going on a nice vacation; others may cite a wanted job promotion; still, others may note buying a possession, like a new car. My point is that identifying things that people believe makes them happy is quite variable. I would also assert that the above things probably don’t make most people happy, at least not in the long term. However, suppose you distill the essence of the positive feelings from the above. In that case, you will discover that what you are dealing with is more generalized and global and represents new experiences, a sense of self-worth, and a feeling of pride.

The above essential feeling can be distilled further as things that make some individuals happy; happiness is one of the most basic emotions that most people seek. But what is happiness, or more definitively, what makes most people happy?

This is a nuanced question that can be answered in many different ways depending on one’s philosophy, religious convictions, or psychological knowledge. No one set of answers is complete; however, having some construct can point us in a helpful direction. I will adopt the Hindu concept of what makes people happy for today’s post. My efforts are to get the reader to think in more abstract terms rather than focusing on specific definitions. Additionally, remember that both advertisers and society use the promise of happiness as a way to get you to buy and do things. That is the psychology of manipulation, not the road to sustainable happiness.

Let’s look at what the Hindus say using a three-point explanation.

  1. Positive emotion. This defines a feeling of happiness or ecstasy, and it is often what others use to manipulate us to do things. The examples that I listed above are quick ways to feel positive emotions. When I turned 50, I wanted to do something special to commemorate all the hard work I had done to reach a level of success. What did I do? I bought a Mercedes Benz, which I felt was a successful doctor’s car. I recall driving out of the dealership full of pride. I imagined everyone looking at me as I sped down the highway. I was happy, but that initial euphoria lasted only about a week, and then the Mercedes was just a box on wheels. After owning it for several years, it became a burden mechanically; it wasn’t sound. Any repair was double to triple the cost of the same work done on a less status-oriented automobile. We are conditioned to believe that stuff will make us happy, but stuff often does the opposite. The adage that possessions possess is true. Possessions demand our attention, stress us financially, and require our maintenance. The minimalist movement has become the counterforce to social manipulation, but it may not be for all. I like possessions, but I know they are not a means to an end. My Mercedes did nothing to promote long-term happiness, but having a reliable vehicle does impact my happiness quotient. Things can add to my overall sense of happiness, but it is essential for me to determine my true need and avoid artificial happiness solutions of others.

There are several ways to promote a sense of positive emotion. A straightforward method is to write down a daily gratitude list. Take a few moments daily to recall five things you are grateful for. Don’t just state them but contemplate them and imagine yourself being happy because of them. Another positive emotion technique is to avoid negative energy. Stop watching cable news stations that constantly promote disharmony and encourage stress. Hang with positive people and avoid the Eeyores, drama queens, and put-down artists. Remember, if you are around poo, you will start to smell like poo. Surround yourself with people who promote you, not those who demote you. Be with people who inspire you instead of those who conspire to reduce you to their level. Avoid the gossipers and embrace the non-judgemental.

2.  Engagement. This is about being in the flow. How many people go through the motions of living and resent the things they need to do? There is happiness in many, if not most, things if you look for it. When Julie returned to the paid workforce she no longer had the time or energy to prepare daily dinners, and the jobs of shopping and meal preparation fell on me. I know that she will be reading this, and I would like to emphasize that she continues to do grocery shopping and meal preparation, but statistically, I now do more of these tasks. Faced with these new responsibilities, I was given a choice. I could be resentful, or I could find another way. I choose the latter by employing a few simple modifications. I could cook foods I enjoyed since I was now in charge of the menu. I could also involve my kids, which served a multitude of benefits. Initially, involving them would mean more work for me, but I would get to spend time with them. I could teach them how to cook, and teaching others gives me pleasure. Both successes and failures would be grist for the mill. To accomplish these goals, I needed to be present in my endeavors.  By staying engaged meal prep has become a cherished activity in our family, and my kids will often say it is one of their favorite parts of the day. Naturally, I feel similarly.

3. Meaning. Meaning is abstract, but it is probably the most essential happiness characteristic. Meaning has less to do with what others think about you and more about what you think about others and the world around you. As a medical doctor, I led a privileged life. I was Dr. Kuna, and that title gave me status and recognition. I am not knocking this perk, but it didn’t lead to me being happy. However, making a positive change in the lives of others did. When a patient would tell me that a suggestion I made changed their life, I was catapulted into happiness high. When someone came to me after having a disappointing experience with another doctor, and I was able to develop a medication treatment that improved their symptoms, I was filled with happiness. However, you don’t have to be a doctor to have meaning. Meaning comes in many forms, and none is more important than another. If I am present for my family and friends, my life has meaning. If I have a spiritual connection to something greater than myself, my life has meaning. If I use any knowledge to help another person, my life has meaning, and if I demonstrate consideration and respect to others, my life has meaning. Relationships give my life meaning. Every life has meaning, and all we need to do is actively do those things that emphasize the positive aspects of who we are, what we do, and how we act.

The Blackwell example

If you have read my previous blogs, you know that there are some specific things that give me joy. When I retired, and with the help of a friend, I built out a cargo van to become Violet the campervan. I love my little house on wheels as it represents so many things that give me happiness. I am happiest in nature, and Violet can transport me there. I love the minimalist simplicity of living out of a camper. I enjoy problem-solving and adapting with limited tools and options. I like to experiment with new gear. Camping with those whom I love brings me closer to them. Being in nature brings me closer to my Higher Power. Building out Violet stretched my thinking and creative side as I needed to learn how to do new things like building out a solar-powered electrical system. Those efforts continue as I improve on Violet’s design, now that we are four years into our “relationship.”  

I love traveling out West and embracing nature. However, I have had to face the reality of the pandemic and then the trauma of inflation and escalating gas prices. Driving several thousand miles in a vehicle that gets 13-16 MPG has become impractical. This reality would make it easy to sulk and feel sorry for me. However, I like to be happy, and I believe that the elements of happiness are more important than concrete manifestations. I may not be able to drive to the Southwest, but I can incorporate my interests in other ways. This summer, I have gone on many camping adventures, but they have been more local and centered on gas-friendly Midwest destinations. In addition, I have combined these trips with other activities to increase my “bang for the buck.” For instance, I have used them to spend more time with those close to me, often on a one-to-one basis. 

I am fortunate to have many beautiful parks and forest preserves within short drives from my house. Blackwell Forest Preserve is around 11 minutes away and features beautiful landscapes, a tranquil lake, and a campground. This summer, I booked a number of weekend adventures at Blackwell; the first one was completed a week ago. I went out on a Friday and spent time with my sister and brother-in-law, who camped next to my site. On Saturday, Julie arrived, and we relaxed and hiked some of the many paths that the forest preserve offers. We had a community dinner on Saturday, and I contributed a cornbread that I made in the camper directly on my camp stove, a fun learning experiment. I also problem-solved and tweaked some things, including figuring out how to attach an awning on Violet. In addition, I found time to pray, meditate, and be still. Yes, I was less than 5 miles from my home, but my mental attitude placed me in a different universe, a place that promoted a sense of satisfaction, gratitude, and happiness.

Dear reader, it is not my place to tell anyone how to live, and it is my hope that you take any of my suggestions with the intent that they are given. During difficult times it is very easy to focus on what we have lost, but I’m challenging you to reframe those thoughts to what you have. It is not as difficult as you think to modify expectations and to do some creative problem solving so you can turn perceived negatives into real positives. Change does require work, but in this case, the rewards far exceed any effort.

Peace

Mike 

Cooking meals with my kids has been a joy. Here we made a 1960’s classic, salmon patties.
Camping locally has allowed me to connect with family members.
Baking cornbread using only a camp stove was a challenge and a fun experiment.
Hiking with Julie and discovering new hiking paths.
Silver lake is beautiful and tranquil.

Solar Generators 101

All the basic knowledge in one place that you need to choose the unit that is right for you and your campervan.

When I built Violet the Campervan in 2018 I knew that I needed an external source for power. At that time the choices were between building your own system or buying an expensive all-in-one solar generator. I chose the latter option, but I have been upgrading and modifying my system ever since. I have used a variety of brands and capacities, and so I thought I would share my knowledge with those who may be considering their first home-on-wheels.

My first power station was a Yeti 1250 plus two additional 100 amp/hr batteries. The setup was enormously heavy and only gave me 150 amp/hrs of useable capacity.

Why do you need a power source that is separate from your car’s battery system?

If you plan on spending any time living in a vehicle you won’t want to tax your car’s system for your charging and powering needs as this could result in a dead starter battery.  

A cell phone is now a necessity, and there are a multitude of other van items that consume power ranging from vent fans to 12-volt refrigerators. How much power you require will depend on your personal needs. If all that you are doing is charging your cell phone and headlamp, you don’t need much charging capacity. However, van dwelling additions like a 12-volt fridge and a roof vent fan will require a more robust system. Lastly, if you make your living while on the road you may need to charge laptops, drones, and camera batteries. Your house battery system should take into account what you need to run, what you need to charge, and how you plan to replenish your house battery when it is depleted..  

If your goal is to keep a cell phone charged for a week or less you can likely get by with a simple battery bank. These small bricks come in a variety of capacities and are reasonable in price. However, if you have greater needs you are probably going to need a power station, also known as a solar generator. These units combine the ability to recharge from the car’s 12-volt system, AC power, or solar panels. In addition, they provide a variety of 12-volt and 5-volt (USB) outlets as well as at least one AC outlet. The rest of this post will be about these devices.

Capacity

Solar generators come in a variety of battery capacities. The greater the capacity the larger, heavier, and more costly the unit. Early solar generators used lead acid AGM storage batteries that had limited capacity and were very heavy. Their one advantage was that they could charge under very cold conditions.  

Newer solar generators use lithium batteries which are more efficient and lighter. Lithium batteries are constructed using a variety of chemistries. Usually, if the manufacturer says that a battery is a Li-ion variety, then it is the type of battery that is used in products ranging from cell phones to electric cars. In rare cases, these batteries can catch on fire (especially if they are poorly designed). However, in most cases, this is not an issue. Another lithium battery chemistry is called LiPO4. These batteries are theoretically safer and can be recharged more times than traditional Li-ion batteries. However, they are bigger and heavier than Li-ion batteries, which can make a high-capacity unit big, heavy, and bulky. 

The larger the capacity the bigger the unit. The Jackery provides 500 watt/hrs and the Bluetti yields 1700 watt/hrs.

A quality solar generator will have a good BMS (battery management system) that monitors and controls the health of the battery. For instance, a good BMS will prevent charging during freezing temperatures as doing so can permanently damage a lithium-type battery.

Recharge cycles

All batteries degrade a bit every time they are discharged and then recharged. Most manufacturers list how many discharge and charge cycles a battery can have before its overall capacity is reduced to 80%. Some units will be in the low 300-500 cycle range, while others can be recharged several thousand times before their capacity is reduced to 80%. If you are on a limited or fixed budget it makes sense to go with the battery system that allows for the most recharges. However, batteries are getting cheaper while growing in both capacity and technology. A battery with 1000 or more cycles will probably last the average user 4-5 or more years at which time they will likely want to upgrade to newer technology. In addition, if you are a weekend warrior a battery with a more limited 300-500 cycles will still last you many years.  

If you partially discharge your batteries before recharging them they will last longer. Remember, a battery will still have 80% capacity even after it reaches its cycle limit. Think of your cell phone which uses a lithium battery. As time goes on it holds its charge is less and less but, it is likely that you still use it. Eventually, its capacity becomes so low that you are forced to replace either the phone or its battery. It is the same with a solar generator. 

Regulated 12-volt power 

This feature means that the unit has special circuitry that keeps the 12-volt output constant, which can be important for some devices that won’t operate if the voltage drops too low. Old AGM batteries showed significant voltage drops over the normal course of their discharge cycle. Newer lithium batteries also drop, but that drop can be less precipitous.  

It is great to have a constant voltage from your 12-volt outlet, but that consistency comes at a price. The electronic circuitry that maintains the voltage does so at the expense of some additional power use. In other words, the solar generator consumes some power to regulate power. Many larger units use circuitry to regulate their 12-volt outlets. 

As an aside, when your car is running its 12-volt outlet is putting out over 13 volts so most regulated 12-volt outlets on solar generators regulate their 12-volt outlets between 13.2 and 13.6 volts, not 12-volts. 

12-volt outlet types

Almost all solar generators will have a cigarette lighter style 12-volt outlet. Many will have additional 12-volt outlets in a variety of types that range from barrel plugs to aviator-type connectors. I like units that have these outlet options as I find that a traditional 12-volt cigarette-type plug can jiggle loose when traveling on bumpy roads. This can be a problem if you are powering devices like a 12-volt fridge. The more secure the outlet the better.

Converters

The batteries in a power bank may be 12-volts, 24-volts, or possibly some other voltage. Most units have 12-volt DC as well as USB outlets on them. A USB outlet’s output is 5 volts. Solar generators use converter circuitry to change from one DC voltage to another. Converters use a small amount of power to make this adjustment.

Inverters

All solar generators have circuitry (an inverter) to convert DC power into the AC (Alternating Current) power that many household appliances use. In most cases, the inverters are of the pure sine wave variety. These inverters closely replicate the type of power that comes from a home AC outlet, and this pure power may be necessary for sensitive electronic devices like a CPAP machine. I have only seen one off-brand solar generator that used a modified sine wave inverter. Modified sine wave inverters produce an approximation of regular AC power and should be avoided if possible. Most inverters provide the standard 120 volts of power, but some may cheat the system a bit by only generating 110 volts. This lower voltage often works well enough for most things. Inverters use 10-20% (depending on their efficiency) more power than what is being used during the conversion from DC to AC. If the power used by an appliance is 100 watts the total draw on the battery will be between 110 and 120 watts depending on the inverter’s design.

Inverters are rated by their operating and surge outputs. Some units can be as low as 125 watts AC output, while others may have outputs that exceed 2000 watts. When some devices (especially those with motors) start-up they momentarily require a surge of power. Because of this inverters will also list the amount of surge that they can momentarily handle. For instance, an inverter may say that it has a 500-watt continuous output with a 1000-watt surge capacity. Capacity is not the same thing as use. For instance, a 100-watt appliance will only draw a bit over 100 watts (considering operating overhead) whether the inverter’s capacity is 200 watts or 2000 watts. However, large inverters may be a bit less efficient due to their larger components and complexity. 

All appliances list the maximum input of power that they use. This will be on a label that is typically on the bottom or back of the appliance. It is a good idea to exceed the requirements of an appliance. For instance, if an appliance uses 800 watts try to get an inverter that can sustain 1000 watts.   

USB outlets

In the recent past, all you needed was a standard USB type A outlet, as all USB devices using them. Now there are power ports that deliver enough power to charge a laptop and quick charge ports that allow faster charging of small items like cell phones. Some solar generators will just have USB type A sockets while others will have both A and C styles. Lastly, some units will provide a wireless charging station on the top of their case.  

There are ways to compensate for a lack of a specific port on a given unit. For instance, you can always use your laptop’s power brick and the AC outlet on the solar generator if you don’t have a 60 or 100-watt USB outlet on your unit. However, you will lose some battery efficiency in the process. In addition, you can buy little adapters that will convert a type A USB outlet to a type C USB outlet and vice versa. However, it is always best to power or recharge something in the simplest way possible.   

Displays

All units have displays to give you information about the status of your solar generator. All will indicate (in some way) how much charge you have left on the battery, and most will give you information on how much power is coming into the unit and how much is going out. Additional information like hours to discharge may also be listed.

Additional features

Some units will offer an Eco-mode that will power down the unit if it is left on but its not being used. Turn this feature off if you are using your unit to run a fridge as its power use is intermittent which could result in the solar generator turning off power to it.  

Some units have a feature called power boost that allows you to run higher wattage devices than the AC inverter’s limit by lowering the AC voltage. Using this feature can be tricky as this brown-out power may damage electronic circuits and motors due to overheating. However, it could be useful when powering simple appliances like an old fashion hotplate. 

Some units will work in tangent with an App allowing you to monitor and control your device from your phone. This can be a nice, but non-critical addition.

Lastly, some costly units are modular allowing you to add additional battery capacity. At this time if you have very great power needs for your camper it is cheaper to build a traditional electrical system rather than buy a modular unit.  This will likely change in the future.

Pass through charging

When most units are plugged into an AC outlet they will preferentially take their power from AC and not the unit’s battery. At the same time, they will charge the battery.

Charging

Ways to charge

Most, if not all, units will allow you to charge your batteries three ways (car’s 12-volt cigarette outlet, solar panels, AC/Mains power). Many units will allow you to simultaneously charge your unit using several sources at once, for instance, solar and your car’s 12-volt outlet. 

More on charging

It is critical to be able to quickly recharge your unit. If you are depending on your solar generator to keep your 12-volt refrigerator running you don’t want to wait 12 hours to recharge the unit. Older and cheaper solar generators can take a very long time to recharge from any source. This is OK if you charge at home and then use a unit on a trip without a need to recharge the unit. It is also OK if your power needs are fairly low. Otherwise, it is worth it to get a fast charging unit. Let’s look at some common ways to recharge. 

12-volt cigarette outlet charging

The 12-volt outlet on your car’s maximum output is about 120 watts of power, but most solar generators will accept less than that to make sure that they don’t overtax the car’s electrical system. Depending solely on the cigarette outlet is feasible only in situations when you need to replace a small amount of power. Naturally, using your car’s system to recharge your solar generator should be done with the engine running.  

In many cases, it makes more sense to recharge specific devices rather than a solar generator using the car’s 12-volt system. I tend to charge small gadgets like my cell phone, earbuds, or headlamp via the car’s system when driving. Remember, you can buy a 12-volt cigarette to a 5-volt USB converter if your car doesn’t have a built-in USB outlet. 

Solar charging

Many small units quickly charge with a 12-volt, 80-100 watt solar panel. Larger units can accept higher wattage solar panels which will allow for quicker charging. Some large units need solar panels that produce a higher voltage (beyond 12 volts) to charge. 

It is important to check the maximum wattage that a solar generator will accept from solar, as well as the voltage required. Some units will accept more watts than specified, but will still limit the charging rate. Older Jackery units could be over-paneled (you could connect several hundred watts of solar power) but they would limit the actual charging rate to around 65 watts via solar. 

There is a welcomed trend in better units to accept more watts from solar. However, some of these larger units require higher voltages to recharge properly. You can accomplish this by running several 12-volt panels in series. For example, two 12-volt panels in parallel will output at 12-volts, but when connected in series they will output 24 volts.  

If you are a van dweller or traveler you will have limitations on how many solar panels you can carry. I use 4, 12 -volt 100-watt solar panels connected in series giving me an output of 400 watts at 48 volts. Note that this is a theoretical output as no solar panel is 100 percent efficient. I have my panels flat on my van’s roof. My panels would be more efficient if I could aim them at the sun at all times. However, I like the convenience of having my system passive and always charging, even if it is suboptimal.

Mounting solar panels on the roof. I have 4 in total at 100 watts each.

I’m limited by my roof’s area, as I can only mount so many panels on it. However, portable panels also are limited. Your solar generator may accept 1000 watts of solar, but you are not going to want to carry and set up 1000 watts of solar panels.  

Portable solar panels are a flexible option that requires no installation. However, you have to set them up each time you use them and that can be a drag.

The bottom line is that getting a solar generator that generously allows for solar charging is best. However, you may not be able to fully utilize this feature based on your particular solar panel array.

AC/Mains charging

All units will come with either a charging brick or an internal charger. Some newer units have much more powerful chargers than older units (always check specifications) and this can dramatically decrease charging time, which is useful if you need to recharge on the go. As a gross approximation, a 200-watt (output) adapter will recharge a 1000-watt battery from zero in about 5 hours (1000/200 = 5 hours), whereas a 400-watt unit will do the same job in 2.5 hours (1000/400  = 2.5 hours). This is an oversimplification as units charge slower as they reach full capacity. However, the more powerful the AC charger the better. Some units will allow you to buy a second charger that you can connect to the unit to double your charging speed when connected to AC. If you are charging at home for a weekend trip it doesn’t make much difference how quickly you can charge. However, it can be a big deal on the road. A small unit that can quickly charge is a plus if you are recharging at coffee shops or libraries. Additionally, a big unit that you can quickly charge is plus if you have high power needs. 

Also, I use a separate free-standing AC inverter directly connected to my car battery. When I’m driving I recharge my solar generator via the solar panels on my roof as well as by the unit’s AC adapter connected to that inverter. The inverter set-up also assists when there is a string of cloudy days. I can drive or run my engine for a bit to top off my solar generator’s battery.  

MPPT vs. PWM controllers

When you connect a solar panel to a battery you need a solar controller. This device properly controls the charge from your panels so that you don’t damage your system. There are two types of controllers that are built into solar generators, MPPT and PWM. PWM controllers are simpler (and cheaper) and are used in less expensive units. MPPT controllers are more complicated (and more expensive) than PWM controllers. However, they are more efficient in adverse conditions. An MPPT controller will do a more efficient charging job on cloudy days or if your panels are partially shaded.

Built-in flashlight

Many units will have some sort of light built into the unit. This sounds like a silly feature, but it can be surprisingly useful, especially on smaller units that you may move around.

How much power do you need?

Generally, more is better, but more is also more expensive. Determine your use needs. You can add up the watts or amps needed. Watts and amps are related and interdependent based on the following formula: 

amps x volts = watts. 

A milliamp is 1/1000 of an amp.

Let’s say that all you need to charge is your cell phone which has a 5000 milliamp battery. If you had a simple 10,000 milliamp power bank you should be able to recharge it (approximately) 2 times. 

Many devices will list watts used instead of amps or milliamps. If your LED cabin lights use 10 watts and your solar generator is rated at 500 watts you can expect that you can run the lights for around 50 hours.

Please note that the above are approximations. No system is 100% efficient and all battery systems reserve some of their power to preserve the longevity of the battery.

Let’s look at some battery options and what they are suitable for.

Battery bank

These small and inexpensive units typically have USB outlets and come in a variety of capacities. They are recharged via a power brick that the owner provides. They may be all that you need if you are only recharging small devices like your phone. You can also buy small, inexpensive small solar panels in the 10-25 watt range specifically designed to charge USB devices like battery banks. Additionally, you can extend the battery time of your phone by turning off options like WiFi and Bluetooth if they are not needed.

Battery banks come in many sizes and are relatively inexpensive. However, they are limited in their functionality.
Small solar panels are inexpensive and can easily charge small battery banks if they include USB charging abilities.
Tiny solar panels on battery banks are more gimmick than anything else. They are just too small to be practical.

100-400 watt solar generators

These are very versatile units that are also relatively inexpensive. Cheaper units likely will not feature an MPPT solar controller or a regulated 12-volt power supply. Depending on their size they can provide many recharges of electronic devices, and also operate other things, like cabin lights, and USB fans. They are generally small and lightweight and are easy to carry from home to van, or van to a picnic table. I often use one of these to recharge my small electronics and to power gadgets, like a 12-volt TV that I sometimes carry. Because they are small they can easily be charged by a portable solar panel. Portable solar panels are great because you can angle and position them towards the sun. However, you have to remember to set them up, and you probably should not leave them unattended as they carry enough value to make them targets for theft. 

I use this small Bluetti to charge my small electrics and to run devices outside of the van, like my 12-volt TV.

500-1000 watt solar generators

These units can do all of the above, but they can do much more. In some cases, they may be enough to run a 12-volt fridge, and they have enough power to maintain bigger items like a laptop. If you are using many items on the road you may want a unit in this range. Many of these units feature the more efficient MPPT solar controller, have a regulated 12-volt power supply, and can accept a greater charge for faster recharging. Their AC inverters are usually in the 500-1000 watt range. However, always check a unit’s specifications.  

This Jackery 1000 is a popular unit that has a 1000 watt/hr battery and a 1000 watt pure sine-wave inverter (however, the output is 110v, not 120v).

Solar generators greater than 1000 watts

There are now some units that have 1500 watt-2000 watt (and beyond) capacities. These units can be heavy and expensive, but also very useful. Many of these units have very fast AC chargers and can accept high wattage from solar. Their AC inverters range from 1000-2000 watts (sometimes more), which opens up the ability to use many household appliances.  

I use a large power station (solar generator) to run a Webasto heater and a Dometic 12-volt fridge. I routinely use small electrics like an induction burner, coffee pot, microwave, and even a 3-quart electric pressure cooker. Be aware that I purchased these small electrics with an eye to how much wattage they use. For instance, my microwave’s output is only 650 watts and uses 950 watts of input power. My system can handle that load, but I only use the microwave for short amounts of time, in the 5-10 minute/day range (80-160 watts used). My coffee pot uses 600 watts of power and it takes less than 5 minutes to brew one K-cup of coffee (only 30 watts of power used). Using a small electric with a house battery is only feasible in short bursts and when I am in a situation where I can replenish my battery easily (access to shore power or on driving days or sunny days).

Under proper conditions, I can use small electrics like a coffee maker and an induction burner utilizing free energy.

When using my 1700 watt/hr solar generator and 400 watts of solar on my roof I have never run out of power. However, I’m very careful to monitor my battery. If I’m facing cloudy days I go into conservation mode when I reach around 60% battery capacity. At that time I’ll switch to my butane stove for my cooking and coffee needs, and do other things to conserve power so my battery is available for my fridge.  

Two years ago I replaced my Goal Zero setup with this Bluetti AC200 unit.

What brand to buy?

Well-known brands include Goal Zero, Jackery, Ecoflow, and Bluetti. I guess that many off-brands are made in the same Chinese factories. Generally, check the unit’s specification for all basic parameters including the amount of solar accepted, power of the AC inverter and charger, and life cycle for the batteries.. 

I hope that this has answered some of your solar generator questions. Happy camping and happy van life!

Mike

Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive

Last Thursday was a long day. I was helping my sister with a project that I foolishly thought would end by 2 PM. However, I arrived home after 5:30 PM, and the day’s main event was yet to come.


Grace graduated from university in May, and she is taking a gap year to build clinical hours and apply to graduate school. The application process for her degree is rigorous and involves hoops that she has had to jump through, including admission interviews. Many schools have virtual interviews, but some require in-person attendance, including one school located in Cincinnati.  

My goal in raising my children is to support healthy growth and independence. I want to give them every chance to be successful in life. I define success as having a meaningful job while incorporating balance. I understand that fulfillment involves more than money or a particular career. However, having enough cash and a satisfying career goes a long way. Of course, other happiness factors include healthy relationships, a spiritual life, self-growth, and the incorporation of life experiences. 

When it comes to their happiness, I can only point them in a direction. Each of my kids is unique and what they value varies. Importantly, I understand that my goals and dreams for them may not be theirs. My challenge has always been understanding what I want for them vs. what they want. My age, maturity, and life experience give me an advantage over their youth and inexperience, which I want to share with them. However, it doesn’t give me a right to control their futures; that destiny is up to them.


Six PM on Thursday, and Grace and I were about to start our drive to her Friday interview. We would be staying across the Ohio River in Kentucky as a two-night stay at a Cincinnati Holiday Inn Express was clocking in at $550 before taxes, which included the school’s discount.  Kentucky was cheaper.

My initial feeling about the trip was negative, but that emotion was based on my driving for over 5 hours in the middle of the night. We would arrive at 12:30 AM Central Time or 1:30 AM Eastern Time. I fortified myself with a McDonald’s coffee and faced the challenge. I also consciously and deliberately started to reframe the experience.

Yes, driving a long distance in the middle of the night would be a drag, but there were many positives. I could choose to focus on the negative or redirect myself. Grace is an excellent traveling companion. She is intelligent, thoughtful, and informed. She is an independent kid who has some of my obsessive responsible characteristics; I don’t have to worry about her or her actions.  

The long drive gave us the chance to catch up and allowed me to learn just a little more about her. We filled our time talking and listening to podcasts. The long drive also allowed me to call my sisters and check in with them. In addition, it gave me a chance to test a new cell phone carrier called Visible. Visible resides on the Verizon network yet it is very cost-effective, but it has a few restrictions. My family currently uses T-Mobile, but its rural coverage is poor. I do a lot of boondocking, and Visible could be a viable secondary option to maintain communication with the outside world. I’m currently on a two-week free trial and have already tested the plan in rural Wisconsin with success. The trip to Cincinnati would allow me to check coverage in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.   

I hope you see the active path that I’m taking. I’m reframing a negative feeling and pushing it into the positive zone.  

What about other aspects of this adventure? Grace’s interview started at noon and was scheduled until 5 PM; what was I supposed to do during that time? Our hotel was too far from campus for me to return to it, and I was uncertain about the neighborhood where the school was located. I assessed some possibilities. I could explore Cincinnati, but I had already done this on several other trips. Anyway, it is more enjoyable for me to do those types of activities when accompanied by others. I could tackle some hiking trails, and I have done that in the past, but I didn’t want to leave Grace hanging if her interviews ended early. I wanted to be there to support her and help her process her feelings about the school.  

As a physician, I have to complete many hours of CME (Continuing Medical Education) credits every licensing period. In the past, it was necessary to travel to conferences and meetings, but with the advent of the World Wide Web, CMEs are as close as my laptop. I would go to the school’s library and work on some CMEs when Grace was in her interviews. I would choose to be productive rather than bored. 

The university’s campus was small but charming. Founded by the Sisters of Charity in the 1920s, most of the campus now had a decidedly 1970s look with light brick architecture and a mid-century post-modern style. There was a Catholic feel that I found comforting. I have attended secular schools for most of my education, and the sight of some religious imagery gave me a sense of peace. It appeared to be a  school that taught values in addition to facts. 

A helpful groundskeeper directed me to the library, and with my messenger bag in hand, I entered. The room was expansive, with large tables and enormous windows that streamed in soft diffused light. I found a study carrel in a hidden corner, connected to wifi, and went to work. After about 4 hours of intense learning, my old brain had had it. I was ready for a break, and luckily Violet, the campervan, was prepared to accommodate me. I strolled to her, grabbed a cold Diet Coke from her fridge, and lounged on her bed. Soon, I received a text message from Grace that her long interview was over. It was time to pick her up.

That evening we dined at an iconic Cincinnati classic, Skyline Chili. Then off to our room to talk, watch TV, and rest for our morning drive back to Chicago. Our return trip was a repeat of our earlier drive and just as delightful. We were back in Naperville by mid-afternoon Saturday, exhausted but happy.

I write this to remind myself and to encourage you. Just about everything has both a positive and negative side. Some people are proficient at focusing on the negative, no matter the event. These folks can turn anything into a burden by finding potential disasters or inconveniences at every turn. I choose to be different and consciously work on seeing the positives in life. Driving to Cincinnati in the middle of the night was a drag, but the benefits far outweighed the negatives. Grace has received positive responses to her graduate school applications, and she is confident that she will be going to grad school after her gap year. That is wonderful. Spending time with her is always positive, and it feels terrific to be supportive of her. In addition, I personally benefited by knocking out hours of CMEs when I was captive on campus.   Lastly, I got to test out some technology and travel in Violet. I love the idea of taking my little house on wheels with me wherever I go.

I would encourage you to focus on the positives of your life. You have control over how you feel and how you react to situations. You can choose to live a life filled with negativity and drama or one of productive expectation. At the end of the day, I always try to take that fork in the road.

Peace

Mike

The mid-century campus had a decidedly Catholic feel.
The library had large windows that streamed in soft diffuse light.

Just a fun reminder!

A Different Viewpoint

I’m a creature of habit. I find an efficient way to do something and I repeat that behavior until it no longer works. I clean the house the same way every week, I take a shower the same way, and I structure my early morning activities similarly every day.

At times I’ll change a behavior when it is no longer offering what it did in the past. I used to grocery shop at Walmart as it had everything I needed and the prices were reasonable. However, inflation and product shortages have resulted in higher prices and poorer selection. In addition, Walmart now forces customers to self-checkout. This is a minor pain when I purchase a few items but a major one when I have a week’s worth of groceries. Because of these changes I now shop at a different store.

There are situations where I will deliberately change a behavior for the sake of change. I feel that doing so increases my flexibility and creativity.

I love photography and I enjoy architectural photography. Exterior shots and interior shots have different challenges, but both require some effort to make a potentially boring image visually interesting. That additional spark can be added in many ways. You can change the characteristics of the image by adjusting or reducing its color saturation, by changing the angle that you view the object, or by controlling the distance from the object.

I enjoy going to other towns and documenting them in pictures. I especially like small to mid-sized older cities as they offer many interesting structures. Recently, I went on a photo walk accompanied by my wife and one of my daughters. They came along to help me celebrate Father’s Day.

On such adventures, I would normally bring a camera with a wide-angle zoom lens as this would offer me the greatest flexibility when trying to capture large structures. However, this time I deliberately opted to take my old Fuji X100S. That camera has a fixed (non-zoom) lens equivalent to 35 mm. If you are a photographer you know that this is a good lens for street photography, but not necessarily great for architectural photography as its angle of view isn’t quite wide enough.

So why would I do such a thing when I have other cameras that would be better suited to this situation? Such a move forces me to look at the entire project differently. It makes me break away from old patterns and it encourages me to adopt new techniques. I have to learn new skills. In other words, I have to think outside of my usual comfortable box and grow just a bit in order to successfully face this new challenge.

In life, it is important to balance efficiency vs. growth. If I always do the same thing over and over again I become more efficient at doing it. This is a good thing. However, if I change things up a bit I have to force myself to think differently and view things differently and that is also good.

Such an exercise can be expanded beyond creative tasks. What if I allowed myself to listen to someone with a different political viewpoint? It is likely that I will become more tolerant of their opinion. How about making an effort to learn more about someone else’s culture? it is likely that I will not only understand them better, but I’ll also enrich myself with this new knowledge.

This growth method can be used in all sorts of different ways. Even the act of driving home via a different route can broader my horizons. Recently, I started to take a different route from 75th street to my home. In the process, I discovered several beautifully wooded blocks that I was unaware of despite living in Naperville for over 30 years. Driving down those blocks calms me instead of agitating me in the way that my former traffic-laden path did.

Today, I am suggesting to you to deliberately change some of your routine actions or behaviors. Naturally, I want you to think of the consequences of any adjustment that you may do, and I would ask you to be reasonable and rational in your decision. Such a change can be a one-and-done option, or it may be a permanent or semi-permanent change. The purpose of such an exercise is to have you expand your boundaries and to break the constraints that your old habits enforced. Why would I ask you to do such a thing? To live purposefully is to grow.

Below are some of the architectural photos that I deliberately took using the wrong camera. I hope you like them.

Peace

Mike

The Small But Mighty Bluetti EB3A

Once upon a time, most power stations/solar generators were relatively small in their battery storage capacity, but over the years, major players like Bluetti and Jackery have concentrated on bigger and more expensive units.

Bluetti was the first company to offer a large device loaded with the most desirable features, like very rapid charging, an MPPT solar controller, a high wattage AC inverter, and a regulated 12 V power supply in their AC200 unit. I’m a part-time vandweller/traveler, and I use an AC200 to power my house-on-wheels. That unit energizes my house lights, Dometic 12V fridge, Webasto heater, and even an induction cooktop. However, it is big and bulky.

I have always carried a smaller Rockpals 300 WH unit with me for other needs. It sits next to my bed to charge my iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods. I also use it to power my WeBoost cellular booster when my car isn’t on and to run my small portable TV/Projector. However, the unit is aging and has limited capabilities. Its display isn’t very useful, and recharging by any method is a slow process.

Enter the Bluetti EB3A with its small size and approximately 270 WH capacity. Bluetti has loaded the EB3A with features found in more expensive units. This makes it not only much more versatile but also more practical. For brevity’s sake, let me expand on some of those features using bullet points:

-The EB3A features a regulated power supply which means that its voltage will never drop as the battery discharges as can be the case in unregulated power supplies. This feature is important as some devices will  shut off when a battery’s voltage drops as they think they are protecting a car’s starter battery from going dead.  

-The EB3A has a 100-watt USB C port that can allow direct charging of higher need devices like a laptop. It also has two standard USB A ports, but for some reason, it does not have quick charge USB A ports.

-The EB3A has a wireless charging pad on top of the unit.

-The EB3A has a 600-watt pure sine wave AC inverter. Most similarly sized battery banks have a pure sine wave inverter, but many will shut off if a load exceeds 300 watts. Six hundred watts open up the possibility of using appliances and devices that have higher power needs. Naturally, running something at 600 watts will quickly deplete the EB3A’s small battery, but this feature could be useful in certain situations. For instance, running a small single-cup coffee maker which may require 500-600 watts but only runs for about 5 minutes to make a cup of coffee.  

-The EB3A also has a feature called “power-lifting,” which employs an electrical trick of dropping voltage and increasing amperage to operate AC devices beyond 600 watts. However, this feature needs to be used with caution as it could damage electronics that utilize sensitive computer chips. However, some may find it useful for powering “dumb devices.” For instance, it could allow you to use a simple soldering iron when fixing something on the road or occasionally run a basic small hot water kettle. 

-The EB3A can connect to the Bluetti App, allowing you to monitor and control the device remotely. 

-The EB3A features an MPPT solar controller and can handle up to 200 watts of solar charging. Similar units may use a less efficient PWM solar controller or will limit their solar charging to a slower rate. For instance, the Jackery 500 will maximally charge at only 65 watts via solar, even if it is connected to a larger solar panel. 

-The EB3A can be recharged for 2500 cycles before its battery capacity drops to 80%.

-The EB3A can very rapidly charge via AC/Mains power. This, by far, is its coolest and most outstanding feature. You can bring the EB3A from zero to full charge in a bit over an hour and even faster if you combine AC plus solar. Many other units take many hours to do the same. If you are a traveler or vandweller this feature alone makes the EB3A a worthwhile purchase. You can take a nearly depleted unit and quickly fully charge it while doing a little work at a coffee shop or the library. If you have an adequate inverter in your car, plus some solar panels, you can very rapidly recharge your battery during a drive or commute.

Obviously, this unit has a small overall capacity compared to 1-3 KW units from Bluetti and other brands. Those units start at $1000 and quickly move upward as they are designed for high-demand operations. However, this smaller unit may be all that you need if you’re more of a minimalist traveler. It should easily recharge your small electronics (like your phone and tablet) and provide power for other needs, like your cabin lights or a USB fan. In a pinch, it could power higher need items like a fridge or vent fan, but only for a limited time due to its smaller watt/hour (WH) capacity. 

The sub-500 WH power station market is now dominated by unproven brands that offer limited capabilities. The brand-name Bluetti EB3A combines a small package with a full set of high-end features, and because of this, I recommend it.

Accessorizing Violet

I love Violet the campervan. She is perfect, yet I’m always modifying her. I guess that is the way many relationships are… both constant and changing at the same time.

Although her main “bones” were forged at Wayfarer Van Conversions in Colorado Springs in 2018, I have been adding and subtracting to her build since that time. Some of the changes that I made that I thought would be great actually turned out to be ho-hum, while other changes that I thought would be so-so turned out to be great additions.

I understand that what works for me may not be someone else’s cup of tea. However, I offer the following as an idea springboard for potential new van builders. You may disagree with me; you do you.

Violet is constantly changing so it is likely that she will be further modified as time goes on. Her most recent addition is a Moodshade, but it isn’t mentioned in today’s post. Why? Because I haven’t set it up yet so I don’t feel that I can share my honest opinion.

You will also note that I’m not including any links. I’m not interested in making a few pennies by being an “affiliate.” I’m just trying to spread the gospel of the wonders of life in a van.

Let’s look at some of the good and the less good changes that have been made to Violet the campervan.

I have 400 watts of solar on Violet’s roof. That is the maximum that I’m able to fit, but if I could have more I would add more. On a clear sunny day, I have an abundance of free power. However, on a cloudy day, the panels may only generate 25-50 watts of electricity. I like having panels on the roof, although they are more difficult to orient than free-standing ones. Yet, they are always working and I never have to set them up. I also have a folding panel that I can use…but frankly I haven’t done so in 4 years. The roof panels have been enough and when the skies are cloudy I just conserve a little more.
I installed a side window on Violet’s sliding door and I’m grateful that I have it every time I drive her. Not only does the window add light to her cabin it also gives visibility when I”m backing Violet out of a driveway or parking space.
I also added these rear windows, but I almost always keep them covered. If I had to do it again I would have forgone the expense of adding them.
The yellow arrow points to Violet’s rain guards. I think that this simple addition is a must. I can crack the windows open around an inch for ventilation. No rain gets in and the windows look completely closed from an outside observer’s point of view.
Anyone who owns a campervan will tell you that having a fan is needed. Small USB-type fans can work in a pinch, but a roof exhaust fan is a game-changer. This is a Fantastic Fan vent fan, which was the popular brand when I added it. Now, many vandwellers put in a similar Maxxair fan. These fans don’t use a lot of power, but their use is constant. They can drain your house battery if you leave them on continuously. You can save some power by running them at a lower speed. However, I find that running them at full tilt makes the biggest cooling difference. I usually run mine for several bedtime hours which is enough to cool things off.
This little door stop was easy to install and allows me to open my sliding door 1/3rd of the way. In the past, if I wasn’t on perfectly level ground I only had two choices, fully open or fully closed. I really like this addition. I found the stop on Amazon.
Here we have the tale of two modifications. I thought I would really like to have a sink, but I never use it. It is more practical for me to carry water in jugs and I wash my dishes using the “vinegar method.” I added the induction burner so I could reclassify Violet as an RV; I had planned on removing it once I passed the inspection. However, I have found that the little burner works great and I use it all of the time.
When boondocking I like to listen to the radio, however, I don’t want to run down my car’s starter battery by using the in-dash system. Additionally, I can’t get good reception using a portable radio inside Violet’s metal shell. This year I mounted an antenna on her roof and installed an inexpensive second car radio which uses Violet’s house battery for power. It has been a very welcome addition.
I also put in an aftermarket cruise control. It was surprisingly easy to install and it has been a fantastic addition on long highway trips.
This BlueParrott trucker-style Bluetooth headset wasn’t cheap, but it was definitely worth the money. It does a great job at canceling road noise for the person on the other end and is far superior to anything else that I have tried including AirPod Pros. If you like to make calls while you are driving I would advise getting one of these.
There are a couple of things to note in this photo. The bed platform was built by Wayfarer. It works well, but I wish that the mattress was just a bit thicker. My friend and I build the organization box below the bed and that has worked out great. I’m one of those “everything in its place” kind of guys and I love having separate areas for my pantry (the wicker baskets), storage (the Rubbermaid containers on the left), and the fridge. My Dometic fridge is on a slideout and that gadget has worked well. However, its price has gone up since I bought it and so I would consider a Chinese clone in the future. We also converted the Wayfarer “boot box” into the van’s power center and it houses a Bluetti AC200 1.7 kilowatt Solar Generator. I’m pretty happy. with the Bluetti and I wrote a complete review on it a few weeks ago. Yet, I’m always looking for more power.
I didn’t like the stock radio so I changed it out for this Kenwood unit which has built-in GPS. Why have a dedicated GPS unit when I could just use my phone? Because I’m often in places where I don’t have a good enough cell signal for the map app to work. This radio also gave me Car Play and many other features that I like. Its addition was definitely a plus.
I had the dealer install this trailer hitch when I bought the van. It has many uses, but I have never used it.
The yellow circle highlights my WeBoost cell booster antenna. I think this was a marginal purchase as it was expensive yet only slightly useful. It can take me from being able to sporadically send a text message to being able to do so more consistently. However, other important tasks like loading web pages can still be impossible.
Another feature that I added “right away” was an external power port. It turns out that it is easier to run an extension through the sliding door. Additionally, I mostly boondock so I don’t have access to AC power much of the time. The port above the power connector is a water inlet that I had to add to have Violet classified as an RV. I used the port once to demonstrate that it worked and I have not used it since.
My wife loves having the front seat swivel. It is a relatively simple DIY project to re-mount the seat.

These are just a few of the modifications that I have made to Violet the campervan. It is my hope that it will help new van owners decide on some of the additions that they may want to make.

Peace

Mike

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.