Is Your Medicare Advantage Plan Really A Disadvantage?

Years ago, we gave up cable TV and never looked back.  We have existed quite nicely with DVDs from the library, streaming services, and antenna TV.  

On Thanksgiving Friday, the family and I were re-experiencing our all-time favorite holiday movie, “A Christmas Story.”  Ralphie was cleverly placing an ad for a Red Ryder rifle (the one with the thing in the stock that tells time) in his mother’s “Look” magazine when something horrible happened.  The picture froze, and we sat in disbelief, staring at a buffering circle that went around and around our TV screen.  

We said a few choice words, but that didn’t help.  We unplugged and replugged the modem and the router, but that didn’t help.  We even checked the outage map, but it said that all service areas were green.  Things weren’t good in Kunaland.  We were suffering from the withdrawal of Christmas cheer.  Sucked away by a spinning circle that denied us knowledge of Ralphie’s fate.  OK, we knew that he was getting the rifle because we have watched this movie every year for decades, but it was devastating nonetheless.  

As I write this missive, our Internet is still out, and a Comcast technician is trying to beat the setting sun as he uncoils a giant spool of coaxial cable to reconnect us to the cyber world.  

We are not big TV watchers here in Kunaland, but deprivation is a powerful motivator.  I have found myself frantically searching terrestrial television stations for reruns of “New Gen” and “The Dick Van Dike Show.”  Thankfully, I have been successful in my endeavors, but at a high cost.  We are in open enrollment for Medicare, and at least 50% of the commercials have focused on getting me to dial various 1-800 numbers because “I could be missing out.”  Aging sports figures and ancient movie stars beckon me.  Slick commercials of happy seniors urge me to pick up the phone and dial NOW!

The following post has been researched but still represents my opinion.  If you are about to start Medicare or are on Medicare, you may find these writings helpful. Naturally, do your own research and come up with your own conclusions.

Medicare was established in 1965 by the then president, Lyndon Johnson, as part of his Great Society Program.  Before Medicare, only 50% of those 65 and over had health insurance, and very few had surgery or outpatient coverage.  The current US life expectancy is 77 years.  That is a long time to be without health insurance. Medicare is life-giving, but it isn’t comprehensive.  

The original Medicare consisted of Part A and Part B.  Part A is for hospitalization and has a deductible. The way that the deductible works can be confusing.  It involves a set deduction for every 60 days of hospitalization and a convoluted charge for skilled nursing care, which can add up.  Part B involves outpatient treatment, from doctor’s visits to diagnostics.  The recipient is responsible for 20% of all outpatient charges, with no limit.  That is not a big deal if you see your doctor once a year, but it could be catastrophic if you have to have regular expensive tests, for instance, MRI scans.  Treatments like chemotherapy and dialysis are also covered under this 20% rule.

In 2006, Medicare Part D was added as an option for Medicare recipients.  Part D covers prescription medications, and its payout is also very convoluted, having 4 phases: a deductible phase, a co-pay phase, a donut hole phase, and a catastrophic phase.  Most people are concerned with the donut hole phase, where their cash outlay for medications can increase dramatically.  

You will enter the donut hole when the total cost of all prescribed medications exceeds $5040 (including what insurance pays).  When your total out-of-pocket medication bills (NOT counting what your insurance paid) reach $7,400, you leave the donut hole and enter catastrophic coverage.  It is important to note that the $7,400 is the amount you paid, not your insurance, which can greatly burden financially strapped seniors.  However, Part D is better than what was available before 2006, which was nothing.   

Most seniors who stay with traditional Medicare will get private supplemental insurance for Part A and B (often called Medigap insurance).  This comes in various “flavors,” but many choose Plans G or N.  This will be an additional monthly cost beyond the normal Medicare B premium but will cover most of the charges that Part A and B miss.  The government sets Medigap coverage, so a Plan G from Company A will be identical to Company B.  However, companies set their monthly premium.  You may find an unknown company with a low premium for Medigap insurance.  They may do this to attract you but raise their rates more significantly than other carriers.  It is best to do a little research or use a broker to sort out a company’s history so you can determine its pricing behavior.

Part D requires its own supplemental policy.  In 2024, some Part D plans will have a zero monthly premium.  Part D plans can change yearly, so reviewing the documentation from your Part D insurer is important.  With Part D insurance, you are still subject to the donut hole and other limitations. 

What are the advantages of traditional Medicare?

-You can go to any doctor who accepts Medicare (most do).

-You can go to any hospital that accepts Medicare (most do).

-If your doctor thinks a test, treatment, or hospitalization is necessary, and if it meets Medicare guidelines, it will be covered, no questions asked.

-You can see any specialist without your primary’s approval or referral. 

-Precertification for procedures is not necessary.

What are the disadvantages of traditional Medicare?

If you are healthy, Medigap policies can be more expensive than Medicare Part C, also called Medicare Advantage. 

In 1997, Medicare developed Medicare Part C, originally called Medicare Choice and now called Medicare Advantage. Medicare Advantage is NOT Medicare. If you choose Part C, you leave Medicare and join a private insurance group. Your care will be managed like an HMO (or sometimes like a PPO).

Advantages of Medicare Advantage.

-You may have a low or no monthly Advantage premium (in addition, you still need to pay the standard Medicare Part B monthly premium).

-You will automatically get Medicare Part D, usually at no additional cost.

-You may get many perks, such as:

Possible free gym membership.

Possible free dental checkups with selected dentists.

Possible additional dental coverage.

Possible free eye exams with selected eye clinics.

Possible allowance to pay for a portion of your eyeglasses.

Possible help with hearing aid costs.

Possible monies for over-the-counter medical items.

Disadvantages of Medicare Advantage programs

-You are limited to doctors who are members of your Advantage plan

-Those doctors may withdraw from your plan at any time.

-Your coverage is region-specific.  If you are traveling outside your hometown, you may not be covered.

-Your hospitals are limited to those that accept your Advantage plan.

-Seeing a specialist requires a referral.

-In practical terms, your care can be determined by a third party who may be less qualified than your doctor.  In some cases, your care is determined by a computer algorithm (AI).

-You may be denied care, even if your doctor feels it is medically necessary. 

-Many denials are reversed, but the process can be so arduous that you may not have the energy to constantly fight for what you need.

-There are reports of patients being denied necessary but expensive care.

-There are reports of patients having to wait long periods for life-saving treatments, for instance, expensive cancer treatments.

-Premier hospital systems, like Mayo Clinic, do not accept Medicare Advantage plans (but do accept traditional Medicare). 

-There are reports of patients being denied appropriate skilled nursing care for the needed time.

-Advantage programs can change their doctors, hospitals, and coverage annually.  You are responsible for determining if your treatment team and facility are still part of your plan yearly.

Why do brokers sometimes push patients toward Medicare Part C (Medicare Advantage)?

I can’t look into brokers’ minds, but I can list some documented facts.

-The broker receives a significant commission every time a patient is placed into an Advantage program. This commission is much larger than what they would make by referring someone to traditional Medicare.  

-There are undocumented reports that some Medicare Advantage companies offer brokers all sorts of additional perks that range from special trips, free training programs, and cash to market their businesses.

Why do private insurance companies like Medicare Advantage?

Again, I must speculate.

-It is a huge profit center for them.  They potentially gain millions of clients for whom the federal government pays a monthly premium.  In addition, some Advantage programs have a separate premium that the client pays.

Why does the government like Medicare Advantage?

-Technically, Medicare is neutral on the topic.  However, if you look at the Medicare website, it is easy to believe that Advantage programs are part of Medicare (they are not).  

-By pairing the word “Medicare” with “Advantage,” there is a clear suggestion that these programs are part of Medicare, yet better than traditional Medicare.  Why would the government allow this when it is not true? If I were making Rolex watches, would I allow a knockoff company to market an inferior watch and name it Rolex Deluxe?  

-Medicare Advantage was supposed to save the government money by using state-of-the-art models for delivering care.  It was supposed to provide care at the same or higher level than traditional Medicare.  It does neither, as it costs the government more than traditional Medicare, and many reports say it delivers poorer care.

Why would your pension plan want to change you to an Advantage plan from traditional Medicare?

-Government organizations, municipalities, and other groups offering pension plans may push Medicare Advantage as it eliminates their obligation to pay for Medigap insurance policies for their retirees (which can be stipulated in pension contracts). 

How can insurance companies profit when they give patients perks and pay brokers big commissions?  

Simple economics: take in more money than you pay out.  The more you do this, the more money you make.  Free dental exams are inexpensive, but a long stay in a skilled nursing facility is very expensive.  Limit the latter (even if deemed medically necessary), and you increase your bottom line.  There are documented cases of this. Insurance companies can squeeze profit from the other end by offering ridiculously low reimbursements to providers and care facilities.  There are cases of rural hospitals closing their doors because they couldn’t stay afloat due to the poor reimbursement they receive from Medicare Advantage companies. There are also cases of hospital chains dropping Advantage clients as they lost too much money providing care for them. 

As a physician, I have had some experiences with managed care.  Many HMOs offered such poor reimbursement that my group refused to join them.  Still, I could cite numerous examples where endless hours were spent trying to get care for a patient. Our office had a dedicated staff person whose job was to fight for medication coverage that insurance companies denied for often ridiculous reasons. These cases could return to the provider, forcing us to battle with an insurance reviewer. How many doctors can spend the time to do this?   Advantage must understand this quandary.

I remember a case where I had treated a patient with severe depression with several antidepressants, with no success.  I switched him to venlafaxine, and he had a significant positive response.  Unfortunately, his insurance plan’s formulary did not cover that medication.  Our office spent an enormous amount of time trying to get it approved, and it finally ended in a doctor-to-doctor peer review.  After being placed on hold for a long time, I was connected to the reviewer. The smug MD on the other end of my phone call asked endless questions about the patient.  I explained his past treatment failures, his amazing response to venlafaxine, his need for long-term treatment, the fact that he had a job to keep and a family to support… and more.  I spent 45 minutes talking to the reviewer.  This was during a day when I had a full schedule of patients.  This patient needed to be on meds for at least six months (standard practice), likely longer.  Ultimately, the doctor said I was right, and that the patient should be on venlafaxine.  He approved TWO WEEKS OF MEDICATION!  He told me that I could appeal again if I wanted to extend his treatment. Yes, he was an asshole, but you can see how such systems prevent patients from getting the care that they deserve. On the books, appropriate checks and balances were in place; in reality, the barriers were made impossibly high.

My Personal Story.

Despite being a physician, I found it difficult and confusing to compare Medicare plans comprehensively.  Many “balls in the air” occupied my time when I was approaching retirement. Additionally, I was going into retirement as a high-income earner.  Everyone must pay monthly for their Medicare Part B (traditional Medicare and Advantage recipients alike).  However, if you are a high-income earner before retirement, you must pay additional IRMAA surcharges. This meant that my monthly Medicare Part B payment was pretty hefty. Additionally, I decided to wait until I was 70 before I started to collect Social Security payments, as this would maximize my monthly payout.  This meant no Social Security checks for years. I did this for my wife, who is ten years younger than me.  She comes from healthy stock, and she likely would outlive me.  I wanted to ensure a more comfortable lifestyle for her. Lastly, she owns her own business and has to pay a significant premium for her private health insurance.

I was on a fixed retirement income and was faced with significant outlays for health care so I had to explore cost effective options. I’m pretty healthy, and Advantage programs in my area offered many perks with zero additional premiums (again, you still have to pay the Part B premium on Advantage plans).  I use a large medical group (hundreds of doctors), and they as well as my local hospital accepted Advantage insurance. Using a broker, I signed up for a Humana Advantage plan.

My experience with Humana was good.  I’m on a couple of cheap generic meds, and they covered them.  Additionally, I needed to see a few specialists and also had a short course of physical therapy during the last few years.  Humana covered this, too, with co-pays from me.  Lastly, I had a simple outpatient surgery, which Humana also covered.  I never used the “perks” for a variety of reasons, including laziness on my part. 

This year, I decided to change to traditional Medicare despite having a good experience with Humana Advantage.  You are probably scratching your head and asking, “Why?”  There were three reasons:

  1. I love to travel around the country in Violet the campervan.  In January 2023, I attended a large rally of van dwellers in Quartzite, Arizona, called the RTR.  This rally had many seminars, including one that discussed health insurance for seniors.  They noted that Nomades on Advantage plans are often not covered when traveling outside their plan’s catchment area.  There are exceptions to this rule; for instance, a large plan may have related plans in other regions.  However, it can be difficult in an urgent situation to find an affiliated doctor or hospital that may or may not be present at your locale. Using an out-of-network provider or hospital could be extremely expensive for the Nomad.  Agents may tell you that emergencies are easily covered when traveling, but that was not the message from the talk’s presenters.  This concerned me.
  2. As the rally was ending, I got a call from my wife.  She was having medical issues, and it was eventually discovered that she had a large malignant mass in her pelvic region, which was pressing on a major nerve root.  She had standard BCBS insurance, which was a godsend.  She saw many specialists from our large group, but they couldn’t help.  She then saw a neurosurgeon outside our group, but he felt that her case was too complicated.  We then went to a major university hospital and saw another neurosurgeon, who referred us to a third neurosurgeon.  Her treatment eventually involved a 7-hour operation at a major university hospital with six specialist surgeons in attendance, including two department chairs (yes, it was that complicated).  She spent four days in the ICU, many more days on a general med/surg floor, and then she was transferred to a state-of-the-art rehab hospital.  She was hospitalized for around a month in total.  Post-hospitalization, she was scheduled for eight weeks of radiation using a very specialized (expensive) machine that used a CT scanner to position every treatment.  Additionally, she needed to have a custom leg brace made and she attended many weeks of physical therapy. She got an incredibly high level of care at a top facility with world-class doctors. She was able to go where she needed to go instead of being restricted by her health insurance. If we had to pay out-of-pocket, it would have bankrupted us as the costs were astronomical.  
  3. My brother-in-law needed cardiac surgery, and it was a tricky operation.  He could have had it done locally, but he researched and found that the best place in the country for his surgery was at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.  Their success rates were the highest nationwide.  He had regular Medicare, so he was able to go where he wanted to for his complicated surgery. 

Examining these three points, I realized I wanted to switch from an Advantage plan to traditional Medicare.  It is possible to do this, but there is a glitch.  When you initially sign up for Medicare, Medigap plans must accept you. However, after a grace period, if you want to switch from an Advantage plan back to traditional Medicare (and get a Medigap plan), you need to go through an underwriting process.  If you are deemed too high of a risk, Medigap insurers can reject you. You are asked many questions, including if you were hospitalized in the last three years or if you had been treated for cancer in the last five years.  It is possible that any “yes” answer will prevent you from getting Medigap insurance. There is also a central database that insurers can use that contains detailed patient information.  I have heard (not verified) that some Medigap companies will reject you for common problems, like being on more than two blood pressure meds simultaneously. 

Changing from an Advantage plan back to traditional Medicare on my own seemed impossible.  Letters needed to be sent, plans needed to be canceled, new plans needed to be applied for, and timeframes had to be honored in the complicated way that the government likes to do things. Luckily, I have a good insurance broker who made the transition easy, took all the steps to disenroll me from my Advantage plan, and set me up with a Part D insurance plan and Medigap for Parts A and B.  

If I stay healthy, I will pay more while losing the perks offered by my Advantage plan. However, I never used the perks anyway.  My dentist of 30 years wasn’t a Humana provider, so I continued to pay her out-of-pocket.  I thought about joining a health club but never did.  I didn’t even know about some perks, like having an allowance for over-the-counter meds. 

If needed, I will have better treatment options with traditional Medicare.  Additionally, most Advantage plans have added co-pays and deductions when you utilize more expensive treatments, like hospitalizations or ER visits.  If I ever had to seek expensive care, it is likely that regular Medicare would be less expensive overall. 

I suggest you use an honest insurance broker who specializes in working with seniors. If your broker pushes you towards an Advantage plan without discussing traditional Medicare, I would find a new one.  However, a good broker can make your life much easier as they are well-versed in this very complex topic.  

Do I think there are instances where an Advantage plan is better than traditional Medicare?  Yes, when the individual can’t afford the costs of paying for a Medigap and Part D premium. That may be a sizable percentage of the retired population. However, I don’t think the extra perks that Advantage programs offer should impact one’s choice. That is like choosing a mechanic because he gives out free car air fresheners. 

There is a group of retirees where an Advantage program may offer benefits that could genuinely improve the quality of their lives. There are the folks who have had to work at low wage job all of their lives. They have lived from paycheck to paycheck and have been unable to save any sort of nest egg. Additionally, they may have been burdened by “easy credit” that they now have to pay off. In other words, every single penny has to be used wisely. These folks are unlikely to travel, so an Advantage plan won’t inhibit them in that regard, and paying even a small amount for a Medigap policy is out of the question. These individuals may be able to take advantage of the Advantage model and use it to their benefit. Advantage plans use low cost perks to entice people to enroll, but those extras could be of significant benefit for someone who is on a beans and rice diet. Some plans may cover part of the Part B payment, or they may have a food allowance and a over-the-counter medication allowance. I have even heard of plans that will give enrollees a gas card. These perks would never be a reason (in my opinion) to go with an Advantage plan if you can afford other options, but if you have extremely limited resources they may be compelling. If you can’t go with a Medigap plan, then research and Advantage plan that first, has the hospitals and doctors that you use. Second, has a good rating from organizations and participants. Third, that gives you the perks that you need or are most likely to use.

Although the above is my opinion, I hope it will get you thinking about the best option for you.

Cheers

Mike

My wife learning how to walk again. She had fantastic care at a state-of-the-art rehab hospital.

Everything A Van Dweller Needs To Know About Power Stations/Solar Generators

One of the advantages of owning Violet the campervan since 2018 is that I have learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to house battery systems. Naturally, that assumption is based on my particular needs. However, I’m pretty generic, so my needs are likely similar to many others. 

Who am I to inform you? Am I an electrical engineer or an expert in solar energy? Not at all. I understand electronics (I hold an advanced amateur radio license), am comfortable with technology, and have worked with various power systems in my van since 2018. In addition, I have tested quite a few solar generators and solar panels, as I’m an official reviewer for a large online internet marketplace (side gig). Based on this, I would call myself an informed consumer.

Individuals choose a part-time or full-time life in a vehicle for many reasons. Some enjoy the adventure; others do it for economics. Vehicles exist in various sizes, impacting what you can and can not do. Are you living full-time in a Prius or vacationing in a converted school bus? These are two very different environments. Lastly, different people have different desires. Some want a minimalist lifestyle, while others desire all of the comforts of home. A financially secure individual in a class C motor home who camps at RV resorts has completely different needs than someone boondocking full-time in their Astrovan.  

It is impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all scenario because of this. In today’s post, my goal will be to help the reader to start thinking about their power needs as I offer some potential solutions. 

Fit yourself loosely into one of these three categories: 

-Minimalist: Your power needs are minimal. Your electronics consist of your smartphone. You don’t use a refrigerator and instead rely on daily shopping or only eating shelf-stable foods. You may have a few USB chargeable items, like a headlamp or light pucks. 

-Average user: You use a 12-volt fridge and may use other items like a vent fan. You like to travel with your tablet or energy-efficient laptop, but you don’t regularly do computer-intensive activities like video editing. 

-Power-user: You need a reliable and constant energy source to power your fridge and other electrical devices like a blender, induction cooktop, and microwave. You may have advanced electronics like a Starlink internet connection. You use a powerful laptop regularly. You consider your vehicle your home on wheels and want to live a life of modern conveniences.

It is essential to determine your van life situation. A weekend warrior can charge a large battery at home before and after a trip. A weekend warrior’s power needs will differ from someone who has to rely on their power system in a permanent boondocking scenario.

Where are you going to camp? Will you spend your winters in sunny Arizona or live in the often overcast Pacific Northwest? I have 400 watts of solar on my roof, and in an ideal sunny situation, those panels have an output of around 360 watts. However, their output can be as little as 10 to 25 watts on an overcast day. If you plan on spending a lot of time in cloudy environments, you will need more than solar panels to keep your battery system healthy. 

My friend helping me install 400 watts of solar on my roof.

Appliances can use different amounts of power at different times. Let’s look at a fridge for an example. A fridge running in a 70F environment will use less power than one that keeps your food cold in a 90F environment. A full fridge will be more efficient than one that is empty. Likewise, a fridge will use less power than a fridge/freezer. 

Some devices use constant power, while others use power intermittently. A roof fan uses continuous power. If it is rated at 35 watts, it will use 35 watts in one hour. A small electric pressure cooker may be rated at 700 watts. It uses full power to bring the unit up to pressure, but then it may power on only 20% of the time to maintain pressure. This can make it difficult to determine your power needs. The easiest solution is to use a wattage meter (“Kill-A-Watt”) to get a general idea of the wattage used based on the quantity and type of food you cook. 

A small electric pressure cooker can be very efficient as it only uses full power to get up to pressure and then cycles on and off to maintain pressure.

This is all that you need to know:

If you are an average or above user, get the largest power system that you can:

  1. Afford.
  2. Fit into your vehicle without compromising your living space.
  3. Keep charged by whatever means available to you.

Build or buy?

Building a battery system will be less expensive than buying an all-in-one solar generator, but only if you build the system yourself. Hiring a technician to create a custom system can be costly. The technical knowledge to develop your system can be acquired by reading articles and watching YouTube videos. It is essential to match your components and to do things correctly. You need to use the correct gauge wire and many other considerations. Although I have the skill to build a system, I have always used solar generators for my van’s house power needs. The remainder of this post will focus on solar generators as they are the easiest and best solution for many. Your mileage may vary. 

Solar Generators.

The price of solar generators has dropped considerably over the last few years. I love their “plug-and-play” ability and portability. All of the parts of a solar generator are matched, so everything works well together. Typically, their footprint will be smaller than a comparable custom system. Their downside is that if one component fails, it can take down the whole system. However, I have never had that happen in my years of van life.

Battery types.

Lead acid/AGM batteries.  

The original battery type used in solar generators These batteries are heavy and have many disadvantages over newer battery chemistries. However, they can operate and charge at a wider range of temperatures than newer battery types. For many, this technology is obsolete for a vehicle’s house battery needs.

My first solar generator was a Goal Zero Yeti 1250. It was super heavy due to its AGM battery and I could only use about 50% of its power at any given time.

Lithium.

This is the battery chemistry of choice for most. There are several chemistries for this battery class, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll split them into two types: Lithium-ion and Lithium Iron Phosphate (LifePO4).

Lithium-ion batteries are often used in electronics (like phones) and EVs (electric vehicles) because they are more energy-dense than LifePO4 batteries. This means the batteries are both smaller and lighter than a LifePO4 system. There are cases where these batteries can enter an uncontrollable self-heating state and catch fire. This will more likely happen with poorly manufactured batteries with cheap BMS (battery management system) circuitry. 

I then moved on to this Bluetti lithium ion battery. it worked well, but it had a few quirks that bugged me. I now use a Pecron E3000 battery that I like.

LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries are not likely to enter into an uncontrollable thermal cascade. Additionally, they can be charged and discharged many more times than a lithium-ion cell. However, they are significantly bulkier and heavier than a similarly capable lithium-ion battery.

Both battery chemistries are reasonable to use in a solar generator. If you need the lightest/smallest package, go with lithium-ion. If you want the safest option that will also last longer, go with LiFePO4. The overall trend in solar generators is to use LiFePO4 batteries.

Lithium batteries can be discharged to around 10% of their total charge compared to lead acid/AGM batteries, which should only be discharged to about 50% of their capacity. Solar Generator companies will list how many times a battery can be discharged and recharged before it degrades. They usually list the number of charge cycles before a battery is reduced to 80% capacity. However, other companies fudge these numbers and will give you the number of cycles to 70% capacity, so be aware of what you are reading. If you are a part-time van dweller, most solar generators will last you many years. If you live in your van 365 days a year, use a battery system that can be discharged many times before its performance degrades. 

How big of a battery system should you get?

As stated above, as much as you can. However, here are some basic guidelines.

First, a caution. Solar generator manufacturers sometimes list the power of their unit’s AC inverter front and center. They may say something like “1000-watt solar generator,” but the actual battery bank may only be 600 watt/hour, while the AC inverter is 1000 watts.  

Look for “watt/hours” to determine the capacity of a solar generator. However, knowing an inverter’s power is also essential, as a larger inverter can allow the end user to use more powerful appliances, like a small microwave. Watt/Hours tells you how much power storage you have; inverter size tells you what you can run on AC.

You lose some of your battery power in “translation,” additionally, the unit’s BMS will never allow for a full battery discharge. Therefore, the actual run time will be less than the calculated run time. For example, you have a 500-watt/hour unit. The overall runtime of an appliance that uses 500 watts will be less than an hour (500/500 = 1.0 hour, minus overhead energy use), and the overall runtime of an appliance that uses 250 watts will be less than 2 hours (500/250 = 2.0 hours, minus overhead energy use). 

The 300-watt/hour range systems are great for charging cell phones and running simple devices like USB fans. They are small, so they recharge quickly. Their size makes it possible to take them into public places (like a coffee shop, workplace, or library) and discretely charge them. Naturally, do this only with appropriate permission.

Small battery banks are simple to use and can easily charged at a coffee shop or library. Get one that has fast charging capabilities.

Systems in the 700-1500 watt/hour range are helpful for the average van dweller. They are reasonably priced and have enough capacity to run your fridge even if you have a cloudy day or two and your system can’t get enough solar. Higher capacity units may be enough to power some electric appliances.

Systems in the 2000 watt/hour and beyond range open up the possibility for power use. These units typically have large inverters to energize power-hungry devices like a small microwave or an induction burner. 

Features to look for in a Solar Generator.

-The ability to accept higher-powered solar panel systems. More input will mean faster charging.

-The right size pure sine wave inverter (as opposed to modified sine wave inverter) that converts DC power to the AC power home appliances need. 

-A regulated 12-volt power output. Batteries will drop their voltage as they discharge. Some appliances (like 12-volt fridges) and medical devices (like CPAP machines) need a constant voltage to operate. A regulated output accomplishes this. However, this circuitry will use more battery in the regulation process.  

-Fast charging from an AC source. Some newer solar generators can recharge very fast when plugged into shore power. Older design units may take many hours to accomplish what a more recent device can do in a single hour. I have an older Jackery that charges at 65 watts/hour, while my new (and very high capacity) Pecron can charge at almost 1000 watts/hour. 

-Pass-through charging allows you to use your devices simultaneously while charging.

-The right port complement will make your life easier. For instance, if your computer can charge via USB C, having this available on your solar generator will be more efficient than using the power inverter to convert DC to AC for your computer’s power adapter and then having the adapter convert it back to DC for your computer’s charging circuitry.  

-The right-sized inverter. An inverter converts the DC current from your battery to the AC house current that many appliances use. If you plan on using power-hungry appliances (like a small microwave), you will need an inverter sized to accomplish this. For instance, a typical 700-watt (output) dorm microwave requires an input power of around 1,100 watts. A solar generator with an inverter with a capacity of 1500 watts would be the minimum requirement in this situation. 

Note that AC Inverters use energy to convert battery DC power to AC power. Larger inverters use more conversion power than smaller units. Therefore, you want to pick a solar generator with an inverter that is “big enough” but not so large that you are wasting power by just keeping the AC on. 

Pro Tip:  If you are changing from one solar generator to another, pay attention to the new unit’s solar panel requirements.  Low Watt/Hour units often require low voltage solar panels in the 12-24 volt range, while larger units typically require solar panels that may be in the 36+ volt range.  If you have multiple solar panels it is simple to increase your panel’s voltage by connecting them in series instead of parallel.  Two 18 volt panels connected in series will yield 36 volts (18 + 18 = 36 volts). 

Pro Tip: I only turn on the AC when I need to run something that needs it, and I immediately turn it off when I am done. Continuously leaving an inverter on can drain a large battery bank in a day, even if it isn’t powering any appliances. Beyond my AC-powered cooking appliances, most of the things that I use are run on DC power (fridge, fan, heater). 

All appliances list their maximum power draw on a label located on the back or the bottom of the unit. My current solar generator has a 2000-watt inverter built in, which is enough for my “all-electric” van’s needs. I can carefully use an induction burner, microwave, coffee pot, and even a three-quart Instant Pot, but only one at a time.

My current Pecron battery has 3,000 watts of power and a 2,000 watt inverter. I use it minus its trolley.

-There may be other solar generator features that could be important to you, like the ability to control the unit with an app or a wireless charging pad for your phone. I like newer units that have their AC recharging circuitry built into the unit (instead of an external power brick). However, I don’t consider that to be a mandatory requirement.

You can go small if you are creative.

People do operate 12-volt fridges with small solar generators. However, they do this with compromise. Some use two small 300-watt/hour units. They use one to run the fridge while they charge the other one with a folding solar panel. Others use small solar generators and load their fridge with purchased ice (turning it into a temporary ice chest) when they have a run of cloudy days. The less you rely on electricity, the smaller the system that you need.

Ways to recharge your solar generator.

Rooftop solar panels

I have 400 watts of solar power on my van’s roof, and this has served me well.

Advantages: Set and forget. My panels are always charging my batteries when the sun is present.

Disadvantages: It can be expensive (if you use a professional installer) or mildly complicated (if you do it yourself) to mount. Being flat on the roof, the panels have a sub-optimal angle for solar charging. They don’t generate power if I’m parked in the shade.

Folding solar panels.

Advantage: No installation, simple to use. You can place them at the proper angle to capture the most solar energy. You can place them in the sun while keeping the van in the shade.

Disadvantages: May not have a high enough voltage needed for larger solar generators. Clunky. They can only be used when you are stationary. They can be stolen. 

Here I’m testing some folding solar panels. They come in a variety of designs and wattage levels.

Secondary Inverter.

I have an inverter connected to my car’s battery, and my solar generator’s charging brick is connected to the inverter.  

Advantage: I can run the AC appliances independently off this unit if I idle my van. When I drive, I can charge my solar generator at a high rate. Caution, as some brand-X inverters are not what they say they are. I had a 1500-watt unit that could only produce around 900 watts of power. I now have a Xantrex unit that was at least twice as expensive, but it does the job. 

Disadvantage: An additional expense. It may stress smaller vehicle’s electrical systems. 

I can use this power inverter to charge my solar generator or independently power my appliances if needed.

Car accessory (cigarette lighter) socket.  

Advantage: Using this is as simple as plugging in a patch cord into your cigarette lighter and then into your solar generator.

Disadvantage: At most, you can only charge at 10 Amps ( 10 Amps x 12 Volts = 120 Watts). In many cases, your system will only allow you to charge at 65 watts. This may work for small solar generators or folks who are constantly driving, but more is needed for most. 

Inverter Generator.

These are relatively small gas generators that have a pure sine wave AC power output.  

Advantage: You can keep your battery charged regardless of sky or shade conditions. They are very efficient, so a little gas goes a long way. Such a generator could charge up a solar generator for a relatively small cost. Honda is the class leader but is expensive. There are a number of Chinese brands that offer a similar capability for a fraction of the price of a Honda unit. However, they may not have the longevity of a Honda. I have a cheap Chinese unit, but I have never needed to use it. 

Disadvantage: These generators take up space, and you also have to carry gasoline.  

A typical inverter generator.

AC Mains Power.

Advantage: If you have access to regular AC power, use it to keep your solar generator topped off. I take advantage of AC power whenever I am able. I just plug the solar generator’s charging brick into the AC to keep the solar generator’s batteries fully charged. 

Disadvantage: You have to have an outlet handy. This won’t be the case in many National Parks or in any boondocking situations.

Be sensible.

When you have to rely on a potentially unreliable power source, it is important to have some sort of backup. Although I do the majority of cooking with electricity, I also have a small butane stove. Additionally, I have battery operator lights and even a battery-operated fan. On a recent trip with my son, my 12-volt fridge mechanically failed. Luckily, we had enough emergency shelf-stable foods to “carry on.” There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. 

If you have a run of cloudy days you can always use an a different method to cook with. Be prepared.

Brands.

We all know the big brands, which are often excellent products. I have used Goal Zero, Jackery, and Bluetti systems, and they are good. Off brands are mixed, but most are OK (I have tested many). Some less-known brands stand out. I have been especially pleased with my current Pecron system, and I have also heard good things about the Oupes brand.  

I have changed my power system several times, initially out of need, now more out of tweaking interest. However, most users can be “one and done” with a little thought.

I hope that this post has helped new van-dwelling get an understanding of the ins and outs of van-life power.  

With my friend’s help I recently rebuilt my kitchen to accommodate my “all electric” life style. I cook with electricity around 90% of the time (even when boondocking).
My induction cook top pulls out of the kitchen for ease of use.

On Thanksgiving

A frozen turkey thaws in our basement refrigerator. A cardboard box filled with bags of Pepperidge Farm dressing, cans of cranberry sauce, and a tub of French fried onions is clumsily placed on the dining room table.  Kathryn retrieved the Thanksgiving decoration box from the basement and William and I placed the holiday decorations around the house, most of which were made by the kids when they were in preschool.  Thanksgiving is coming, my favorite holiday.

In the past, Thanksgiving would be a chaotic, but fun time,as we would have to get the house ready for Julie’s family to descend upon us.  Wednesday night would find me changing out burnt light bulbs and taking 10 PM trips to Walmart to buy extra towels.  Her entire family would arrive Wednesday night and leave on Saturday or Sunday.  In the beginning, all of her family would stay at our house, but eventually, the family grew too large and some had to hotel.  Football on TV, group movies, games, walks downtown to see the decorations… and meals, many meals. It was exhausting but wonderful.

This changed with COVID, and then it became too difficult for Julie’s aging parents to travel the many hours from Minnesota to Illinois.  The size of our dinners scaled down, but the kids wanted all of the same dishes.  After all, it was tradition.  Of course, we complied.

This year it will be our family and Will’s girlfriend, Lauren.  She is delightful, and we are happy to share our feast with her.  Number one daughter, Anne will celebrate Thanksgiving with her partner’s family but will come to Naperville from central Illinois on Friday.  We miss her and her family terribly, but we have been so preoccupied with Julie’s illness that we haven’t traveled to see her. We are all excited to reconnect.

Today (Wednesday), we will do a little more house organizing. The robot vacuums do a decent job, but I may pull out the real vacuum so the place looks extra nice.  I have already made multiple trips to the grocer, but Julie will go today to buy some freshly cut flowers, and whatever else peaks her fancy.  

When we were first married Julie felt intimidated by the task of making Thanksgiving dinner.  I took over and have organized it ever since.  Tonight all of us will spend a little time putting together side dishes.  We do a very traditional dinner so the kids will be assigned various tasks. Kathryn will make the cranberry Jello (a Midwestern tradition), William will make the green bean casserole, Grace will likely be assigned the sweet potatoes, and Julie will make the corn casserole.  We will also bake some pies, and make some yeast dinner rolls. A starch-laden meal, but that’s how we roll. Tomorrow, I’ll make the turkey, dressing, gravy, and potatoes (although I’ll enlist some potato peelers).  Then the cleanup, and a family walk.  Traditionally, we end the evening with a viewing of “A Christmas Story,”  my all-time favorite movie. In the blink of an eye, the weekend will be over, but the memories will last.

During Thanksgiving dinner, we go around the table to say what we are thankful for.  This year, I am thankful for so many things.  I am fortunate beyond belief.

I am thankful that Julie’s surgery and radiation are behind her.  She is suffering but faces life with courage and grace.  I will do whatever is necessary to help her along her path.

I am thankful for my wonderful children.  I can’t describe their outstanding qualities, as they would fill pages.  They are kind and considerate individuals, all four of them.  Their energy is focused on making the world a better place for all. My pride in them bursts from me.

I am thankful for my grandkids.  I wish I had seen them more this last year.  Cancer got in the way.

I am thankful for my friends. Saying this brings tears to my eyes.  I have never needed tons of friends, but I do need some, and they have been so loyal and concerned for me and my family.  They have no obligation to do so, but they have stood by me in the way true friends do.

I am thankful for my extended family on both sides.  I am so lucky to have such good people in my life.  For many, the holidays are times of nightmares.  For me, they are times of reconnecting and joy.  

I am thankful for my aging kitty, Mercury, who loves to wake me up very early in the morning so I can feed her. Her sweet and gentle nature adds comfort to our home.

I am thankful for my general good health, for obvious reasons.

I am thankful that I am retired, but have the resources to weather inflation in a beautiful community filled with wonderful people.

I am thankful that I am happy and continue to find joy in learning new things. 

I’m thankful for Violet the campervan.  A machine that I have personified as she gives me so much pleasure.

Lastly, I am thankful that you read this little missive.  Thank you for being you!

Happy Thanksgiving.

Mike

One of our many homemade Thanksgiving decorations. This one was made by William when he was in preschool. Yes, I know the turkey is missing a leg, it was lost years ago, we don’t care.

Tribes

Let me share a little bit of who I am. I believe that people have the right to believe in what they choose to. A nation should support all of its citizens and should not only be a vehicle to make the rich richer. I think healthcare is a right, not a privilege. I understand that gender and sexual orientation are two different things. Neither is a marker for one’s value or morality. Everyone has the right to their religious or non-religious beliefs. I accept that I am no better or worse than any other person on this planet. I am driven by facts more than ideology. I see no value difference between different races. I know that both men and women are equally capable.

This is a small snapshot of my identity, but why am I sharing it with you? I’m doing this to elicit a reaction in you. Are you nodding your head in agreement, or are you becoming angry? Do you like me more, or do you feel that I’m misguided? Are you in my tribe, or are you in an opposing tribe?

Tribes have always been a way for individuals to band together—to increase their strength and, in turn, their survival. In prehistoric times, this could mean the acquisition of food and shelter or the ability to reproduce. We say we are social beings, but that is another way of saying that many of us are more comfortable belonging to a tribe. A desire so intrinsic to our being that it permeates every aspect of us.  

What is your religious tribe? What is your political tribe? What is your socioeconomic tribe? What is your racial tribe? What is your sexual orientation tribe? What is your gender tribe? What is your sports team tribe? And so it goes.  

The tribe that you belong to quickly identifies you to others as a friend or foe. The need to be in a tribe is so strong that it can make illogical claims turn into facts, cause families to split apart, and even make wars erupt.  

Even in recent times, tribes have a survival benefit. The citizens of the United States tribe fought fascism during WW2. The tribe of immunologists developed vaccines that have saved millions of lives. The union tribes fought for workers’ rights and improved their lives. Tribes allow people to use their combined resources to solve problems and elicit change.

Tribe structure typically follows rules. There is a leader, an ideology, and a set of norms that members must follow. Leaders sometimes use their power for their personal benefits, and tribes can sometimes establish rules of absolute belief for their members. You can see this in religious and political tribes, but it is apparent in many other tribes as well. If a member questions a leader or belief, they can be banished from the tribe. That rejection can be anything from social removal to eternal damnation. Both options can be crushing for the individual.

This hazard has always existed but can be tempered by tolerance.

Growing up, I can remember negative stereotypes of other tribes. Racial tribes, ethnic tribes, and even gender tribes. Daming views of others could be telegraphed in many ways. The tool of fear was common, but other tactics, like “dark humor,” could also be employed. If you grew up in the 1960s, you may recall dumb blond jokes or Polack jokes. How can you make a blond go up on a roof? Tell her the drinks are on the house. How many Polacks does it take to change a light bulb? Three, one to hold the lightbulb and two to turn the ladder. Innocent jokes? Hardly.  

Almost everyone in my neighborhood was Catholic, and I was so brainwashed that I would pray for the Protestant family across the street as I was terrified that they would go to hell. The first Jew that I met was when I was in high school. The first blacks that I met were on the battlefield of that same high school that was going through a racial change. The first gay person that I knew of was so reviled that he was known only as “Ralph, the queer.”  

What kept me in my bubble? What kept me under control? Mostly fear. Fear that those other groups would somehow try to corrupt me, control me, destroy me. Irrational fears were promoted by the group that I belonged to. Rules that said anyone outside of my tribe was dangerous.

Tribe leaders can find natural or imaginary examples of how these “other” tribes were evil. How they were hellbent on taking away MY rights, destroying MY world, and corrupting MY values. The world as I knew it could explode into chaos if I allowed other tribes to have a voice. I had to protect MY way of life because the other tribes wanted to destroy it.

Such lunacy can be easily accomplished as long as tribe members are isolated in one fashion or another from alternate experiences or ways of thinking. This can be done by establishing a “trust no one else” rule or by citing examples that somehow verify a belief. The examples don’t have to be balanced or accurate. Shoplifting can be higher in some predominantly black neighborhoods, so blacks are morally corrupt! Let’s not talk about poverty, lack of options, and other factors that have nothing to do with race. If you can’t find an example, then make something up. I was once told by a educated protestant man (a fellow medical student) that Catholics had secret stores of weapons in their basements and were going to rise up and take over the government. Or how about the “gay agenda,” where gays are secretly plotting to convert innocent children to a gay lifestyle? These crazy thoughts were believed and fueled by fear, and although they caused hate towards the opposing tribe, their real purpose was to bind the individual to their tribe. To make it impossible to leave, to listen, or to learn.

It should be evident from my opening paragraph that I’m not the same person I was when I was 10. I have abandoned that tribe. So how did that happen? Some of the process was intellectual. Categorizing others based on limited arbitrary criteria makes no sense to a thinking person. However, a lot of my change happened by experience.  

I trained in Evanston and lived in Skokie, a high Jewish enclave. I have worked with many Muslims. I have known many people with varied sexual and gender orientations; I know many individuals of different ethnic and racial types. Time again, I have reached the same conclusion. There are assholes everywhere, but most people are intrinsically good and want to live their lives to the best of their ability and without the prejudice of others.  Why can’t we let that happen?

How ridiculous it is to think that I’m better than someone else because I have less pigment in my skin. How pompous of me to believe that my religion is the one true religion and those who believe in other religions are heretics? How shameful of me to think that I have the right to control the private consensual sexual lives of others. We live in a society where it is OK to hate others, but it is not OK to love who you choose. Think about that.

I understand that tribes are necessary, but it concerns me that they have become rigid and intolerant as of late. Our country was based on liberty for all, but that “all” didn’t include enslaved people, Jews, gays, and a host of others. The cultural revolution of the 1970s emphasized humanity and acceptance, and rejected established rules of discrimination. This helped spawn a period of tolerance of other tribes. However, the last decade has reversed many of those gains. Tribal leaders can deny the truth, and their lies are accepted by their “faithful.” The need to belong is so great that it is OK to vilify others and even inflict violence on them.  

I understand that this hate movement is temporary, like all movements are. However, I have to ponder if there is any way to break this cycle or if it will repeat at infinitum.   

At the start of this post, I disclosed a little about myself. Did you judge me? Did you accept or reject me based on those statements? I hope not, as I’m more complex than a few identifiers. Judge me for who I am, not who you think I am, based on labels. I will do the same for you.

No One Will Help Me…

In my professional life I witnessed an interesting phenomena, individuals stuck on a past identity.  They lived their lives in past triumphs and seem to be locked into days gone by as they repeatedly recount their time spent on the high school football team or their years in the military.  I believe it is fine to proudly remember such events, but I don’t think that it is productive to stagnate in days of yore and not move forward.

My personality is similar to what it was when I was a teen, but over the years I have grown in other ways.  That process continues in my retirement years.  You may ask, how do I know where I need to make a change?  The answer is simple, I do nothing and the need presents itself. This is a process that happens to everyone, but you have to be cognizant of the offer and willing to act on it.

I mentioned that I have the same personality as I did as a teen, but I am a different person.  I’m more self assured, more assertive, and generally a happier person.  I have taken opportunities over the years to grow and to challenge false beliefs that seemed so true that they were law, but they were not.

One significant false belief that I held for many years is that no one would ever want to help me so I needed to figure out everything on my own.  As a corollary, I also had to know how to do everything, even when no one taught me how to do something.  Somehow, this knowledge was supposed to be embedded in me, and if I couldn’t retrieve it something was wrong with me.

I believed that these sets of beliefs developed when I was a young child,  as asking my dad for help almost universally resulted in a “no” followed by a shaming statement.  He often gave me tasks to do with no instructions, and would blame me if I did the job incorrectly.  These experiences would certainly lead a person to believe that it was their responsibility to solve any problem.

Before you feel sorry for me, I would say that the above was actually a blessing in disguise as I became an excellent problem solver, independent, confident, and competent.  If you have lemons, best to make lemonade.  

I am a caregiver type, and it is easy to find folks who want to be cared for.  That works when you are a physician giving care, but it doesn’t lead to balanced healthy personal relationships.  

Many decades ago I decided to challenge the false belief that I’m not worthy of asking others for help, but I did so in a limited way.  I have no problem asking Julie or my kids for help when I need it. I always knew that there were others in my life, like my sisters, who would offer assistance if I asked for it. However, I tended to reserve those requests for times of great need.

I have known my friend, Tom for 11 years and we became fast friends over 9 years ago. Early on I had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to protect Tom.  This made no sense as Tom is younger, and stronger than I am.  In addition, he had lived a successful life well before he ever met me.  Tom is a Polish immigrant.  I am reluctant to state generalizations, but Eastern European men tend to emphasize their strengths and don’t present as weak or needy.  Tom fits this category.  So why did I have an overwhelming feeling that I needed to protect him?

As our friendship strengthened it turned out that I did have some skills that I believe helped my friend and protected him from a very real, if covert, threat.  However, that was only part of the story.  Remember, I believe that if a person is open to growth, opportunities will present themselves that will allow this process to happen.

My connection with Tom wasn’t only about me helping him, it was also about him helping me change.  

It takes a significant amount of energy and time to learn things that often have very limited utility.  I love learning anything, even trivial things, but it is energy draining.  Time spent in such pursuits could be used more efficiently, or the job could have been completed more professionally if I had asked for help.  Additionally, there is no better way to learn something than to have a competent teacher instruct you on that process.

My friend, Tom has not only been willing to help me, at times he has been insistent.  This process started with small things.  Things that I wouldn’t feel too guilty about asking for his help.  However, he has gone above and beyond on so many occasions that he has helped me to feel comfortable asking for help from someone who doesn’t have a “blood obligation” to me. Most recently, he spent weekends putting together a new kitchen set-up for Violet the camper van.  I wanted a simple modification, but he gave me an entirely new kitchen. When asked why, he responded that he wanted to do it for me.

Beyond the joy of having someone help me, these interactions have taught me a valuable lesson.  I always knew that I felt good when I helped someone, but now I know that people feel good when they help me.  This may sound elementary to you readers.  However, it was a revolutionary concept for me, a person who thought that they didn’t deserve to be helped.  Naturally, that last statement comes from emotional Mike, not rational Mike.

My belief that I needed to protect Tom was the “hook” into the relationship, but he showed me that I also needed him to grow further.

I never want to become stagnant.  I always want to move forward.  I understand that as I age I may need to give up some aspects of my identity, but I have been shown time and time again that when a door closes a window opens.  Overall, as I accept who I am, not only my strengths but also my limitations, I can challenge those limitations and sometimes conquer them.  How does all of this make me feel?  Happy.

My friend, Tom spent weekends custom building a new kitchen for my camper van, Violet.
The competed kitchen. Perfect for my “off-grid” all electric lifestyle.

Alone Again, Life As A Solo Man

I knew it was coming.  It was not only certain, it was imminent.  Sometimes, you have to let go and accept the facts.  Despite my desire to do so, I can’t control everything in my life.  The question was, what was I going to do now?

Things between Julie and I had been going well. She was making a strong effort, and so was I.  As they say, sh…t happens; for us, it happened at 3 AM on a Sunday morning.  And it happened with a crash and crying.  

Despite Julie’s bad leg, we had successfully managed to go camping, not once but twice.  She was trying to be as independent as possible, and I was letting her, but with a watchful eye.  We were working together as a camping team and were being successful.

Like many, it isn’t uncommon for Julie to visit the potty in the middle of the night.  Naturally, this presents its own challenge, as her right leg doesn’t work well. Add that we are sleeping in tight quarters, in a camper, and in the middle of nowhere.  

Clearly, we had devised a scheme to accommodate this anticipated need, but every plan has an error limit.  Nothing is perfect, and there is only so much you can do when two people live in a space smaller than most bathrooms.

Poor Julie couldn’t find a grip and fell off the toilet and directly on her bad foot, breaking it.  Any further camping for her this season was out of the question.  We had one scheduled weekend left, as Mike and Nancy generously gave us their reservation at our local campground.  What to do?

There is a natural part of me that tends to put others first.  Some who know me may disagree with this statement, but it is absolutely true and especially in the case of people whom I care about.  My initial thought was to abandon the last campout so I could stay home and ensure that Julie’s needs were met.  However, rationality hit as she had no scheduled events that needed a driver, and there were three able-bodied adults at home who all possessed a driver’s license in case of a change in plans. I asked Julie if she was OK with me camping solo, and she gave me the nod.

On Friday, I drove her to her 6 PM radiation appointment and then raced home to throw some clothes into a backpack and grab a few groceries from the fridge and cupboard.  I knew our county campground closed early, and I had little time.

I put some stuff in Violet’s fridge and tossed my backpack into a cubby; I was off for the 15-minute trip to the forest preserve.  When I arrived, it was very dark, and when combined with the cold biting air, it felt a bit spooky. 

Driving into the campground it was dark and spooky.

I usually camp with one of three people, and each experience differs.  Camping with my son, William, is all about new experiences.  Also, Will appreciates my cooking, so I make elaborate camping meals for him.  

Camping with my friend, Tom, is all about adventure.  Tom loves to do spontaneous things, a contrast to my overthinking.  He travels in a separate vehicle and usually likes to drive to attractions, which is another plus for me.  With Tom, it often feels like we are two 12-year-olds rediscovering the world.  It is always fun.

Julie is a planner like me who finds locations and attractions well.  I appreciate that in her.  In the past, I would try to give her a complete vacation and do everything from driving to meal prep to… everything else.  More recently, I have been turning over jobs to her, which has turned out well despite her reduced mobility. 

All three campers are fun to travel with.  However, I also like to travel solo for reasons ranging from my introvertedness to challenging myself to do uncomfortable things, like striking up a conversation with strangers.

This solo camping trip would be short, but I would make it productive and enjoyable.  One thing I was going to do was to keep the camper perfectly organized, as order gives me pleasure.  Well, that lasted for about 5 minutes.

I carefully organized my kitchen area. Well, that lasted for about five minutes.

I would also organize my storage bins in Violet’s garage (the storage area underneath her bed).  However, I didn’t even open up a single Rubbermaid container.  

I didn’t want to do anything that involved work, and it slowly dawned on me that the last months have been nothing but work, with almost every moment of my life scheduled.  You know something is wrong when you consider grocery shopping a personal activity instead of a family obligation.  

Instead of jobbing, I did only what was absolutely necessary.  The temperature was in the 40s, so I knew I needed to run my Webasto heater.  You are supposed to run it at least once a month, but with all that was going on, I hadn’t run it for over six months.  It initially faulted but then roared into action; soon, it was almost too hot in the van.  That first night was a template for how I spent the entire weekend.  I streamed videos, read my Kindle, listened to podcasts, and looked out of Violet’s windows.

I did some walking, and on Saturday morning, I was treated to a huge GMC pickup that almost ran me over.  It was my friend, Tom, making a surprise and welcome visit.  We chatted for a bit, and then he was on his way. 

A surprise and welcome visit from my friend, Tom and his gigantic pick-up truck.

I observed my neighbor next door, who seemed to have the equivalent of a clown car camping trailer. Early morning, a man in his 50s exited the very small domicile.  He was then joined by a man likely in his 40s. Then another man in his 20s.  Then a woman, and another woman. Then a teenage girl, and then another girl.  The trailer looked like it would be suitable for two adults, but somehow, it housed seven people!  When they would come out of it, they seemed perfectly content, so I fantasized that it was like the Harry Potter tent.  Small on the outside but magically gigantic on the inside. 

I always have some emergency foods in the camper, but it doesn’t interest me.  I had brought house food with me, but in my hurry, I neglected essential items, like butter.  I had to make do with what I had and be a little creative in the process.

I decided to make a BLT. The only problem was that I didn’t have a toaster, so I dry-fried the bread in a pan. I also didn’t have any tomatoes or lettuce.
The resulting bacon sandwich was still delicious.

Since it was cold outside, I spent most of the weekend in Violet.  My passenger seat can turn into the cabin, so I sat there, on Violet’s boot box, and (of course) on the bed.  Reading, watching, listening, thinking.  That is how I spend my entire weekend.  Very unproductive, but just what I needed to do.

Violet is tiny, but she has everything needed. She has a fridge, a power station with AC current, a cooktop, a coffee maker, running water, and more. You can also see my comfy bed and the boot box where I often sit. I’m taking the photo from the passenger chair that I can reverse into Violet’s cabin.

I’m writing this from my little study.  Violet is just outside my window, waiting for her next adventure.  Perhaps there is one more this season, a weekend trip with William.  That is uncertain but exciting to contemplate.

I have a lot of possessions, but I don’t have a strong attachment to most of them.  However, there are a few exceptions, Violet the campervan being one of them. She was right there when I needed her.  Thank you, Violet!

Being in nature always settles me.

Should You Switch To An Induction Cooktop?

Induction stoves are not new; a patent for an induction stove was issued at the turn of the 20th century. Frigidaire did a splashy demonstration of induction cooking at the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair. They also manufactured concept units in the 1950s for their traveling appliance show.

Westinghouse introduced the first consumer induction cooktop in the late 1960s, featuring a white Corning ceramic smooth-top. Named the Cool Top 2, the stove was unsuccessful as it was under-powered and could be temperamental. In addition, it cost over $10,000 in 2023 dollars. The US stopped manufacturing induction cooktops in the late 1990s as their slow sales didn’t justify further investment.

The Westinghouse Cool Top 2 was the first consumer 4-burner cooktop introduced in the late 1960s. It cost over $10,000 in 2023 dollars.

Europe has embraced induction cooking due to its energy-saving and cool operation, and about 35% of European homes and restaurants use induction cookers. Advances in solid-state circuitry dramatically decreased the cost of induction cooking and introduced inexpensive portable cooktops. Portable induction burners have become popular in Asia. Additionally, the Middle East and Africa are warming to induction cooking.

I became interested in induction cooking over 15 years ago and purchased an inexpensive tabletop burner to check it out. I was so impressed that I ditched my gas stove and bought an induction range. That stove lasted ten years before an irreplaceable motherboard crashed. I’m now cooking on my second induction range. Additionally, I use a portable cooktop in my camper van.

Due to personal interest and affiliate programs, I have tested many other induction cookers. If you are interested in induction cooking, I suggest you read this post, which summarizes and clarifies much of the information on this topic.

I’ll start by exploring more traditional cooking methods and then move into a detailed look at induction cooking and its many benefits.

Gas Ranges

My friend’s impressive gas range. It would make a statement in any kitchen.

The US fossil fuel industry successfully promoted gas ranges and has coined several catchphrases, like “Now you’re cooking with gas.” Gas stoves have been criticized lately as they produce some potentially dangerous byproducts, including a group of gasses called NOx gasses, which contribute to asthma. This is especially concerning in newer homes, which tend to be sealed/insulated for energy-saving purposes. Despite what you may be hearing from political opportunists, the federal government is not banning gas stoves. However, you should be aware that they do pose some health risks. Around 40% of US households use gas stoves.

Pros:

Gas stoves provide instant heat and can be adjusted almost instantly. They have a flame that can be seen easily. Some cooking techniques, like charring peppers, require an open flame (although there are techniques to approximate this on other stoves). In some states, gas stoves may be less expensive to operate compared to electric cookers.

Cons:

Gas stoves produce toxic gases. They have an open flame and pose a fire hazard. They can leak gas, which is explosive. Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change. Gas stoves are very inefficient. They are 40% efficient, meaning 60% of the energy is wasted and heats up your kitchen. Boiling water is slowest on gas stoves compared to other types of stoves. Cleaning spills can be a major chore.

Standard Electric Ranges

The electric range was patented in the late 1800s and started to compete with gas stoves in the 1920s. Heavy advertising made them common in the 1930s. Today, electric ranges account for around 60% of the stoves used in the US.

Pros:

Electric ranges are much more efficient than gas stoves, with 60-70% (or more) of their energy being transferred to the cooking vessel. However, using a flat pot and entirely covering the heating element is important to achieve such efficiencies. Electric ranges boil water faster than a gas appliance.

Cons:

Electric elements are slow to react. They take longer to adjust, especially evident when reducing the heat on a burner. You must adapt your cooking style if you move from gas to electric. The heating area is very hot and can be a fire hazard. It is possible to get a bad burn if you touch a recently used burner. They can add heat to a room, but less than a gas stove. Electric stoves need 240 volts. If your house is not equipped with 240 volts, you may need to call an electrician to install the correct power supply and outlet. Operating cost vs. gas stoves varies from state to state; in some states, using an electric stove is less expensive, and gas stoves offer a better value in others. However, the difference is marginal in both instances.

Coil-type electric stoves have been around for many decades. They are durable and effective heaters. However, spills can be a pain to clean up. In 2018, the US government mandated that new coil stoves have a temperature sensor to limit how hot they can get. This was to reduce grease fires, a major cause of house fires. However, some users dislike this change, which alters how hot an electric burner can operate. Coil ranges have lost favor to smooth-top electric ranges. One exception is apartments, as some landlords feel they are more durable. Coil rangers are less expensive than smooth-tops.
Smooth-top electric ranges were introduced in the US in the 1960s. They use a heating coil to produce heat hidden under ceramic glass. Smooth-top ranges are slightly more energy efficient than coil-top burners. Using flat-bottomed cookware when using this type of stove is very important. Smooth-tops provide extra counter space when not in use. They are easier to clean. The glass top is very durable but can be scratched or smashed if handled improperly. Their price has dropped over the years, and some are now only a small upcharge more than coil burners.

Countertop Induction Burners

Most people want to try induction cooking before buying a large, expensive induction stove. Although I will reference induction stoves, I’ll mostly discuss tabletop burners. The main difference is that a stove needs 240 volts (typical house current in the US is 120 volts), and some cooking elements are larger and provide more energy output on a stove. The output of most tabletop units is roughly the equivalent of the smaller burner on an induction stove. Buying a 240-volt tabletop unit with double the heating power is possible, but those units are mostly used by restaurants equipped for commercial appliances.

A note about radiation, which is a confusing topic for some. Ionizing radiation is the stuff that happens when an atomic bomb explodes. This type of radiation can be dangerous to living cells as it can damage genetic material in the cell.

However, other types of radiation are low energy and do not damage cells. The light bulb next to me radiates light, a radio station transmitter radiates radio signals, and virtually every electrical appliance in a house radiates some RF energy. Induction cookers radiate electromagnetic energy, which is not ionizing and does not damage cells.

Induction burners produce strong magnetic fields that, in theory, could interfere with medical devices like a pacemaker. However, there has never been a reported case of someone wearing a pacemaker who had an adverse event due to an induction cooker. As with all medical concerns, ask your doctor if you are unsure about using an induction cooker.

How Does An Induction Cooker Heat Food?

The cooker’s electronic circuitry pulses electric current through a special copper coil at a high alternating frequency. This creates a strong magnetic field that passes through the cooker’s glass ceramic plate and interacts with the cooking vessel. The majority of burners require that you use pots that have magnetic properties. For instance, pots made from cast iron, steel, and magnetized stainless steel. The alternating magnetic field creates eddy currents in the pot, which agitates its metal molecules. By the process of friction, heat is generated. More energy equals more agitation, which equals more heat. Since the magnetic field directly interacts with the pot, Induction cookers are the most energy-efficient cooking method. Depending on the methodology, these cookers can effectively use 85-93% of consumed power. The small percentage of lost power is mostly due to the heat generated by the unit’s electronics.

With the advent of advanced semiconductors, the cost of manufacturing an induction burner has dropped dramatically. I have reviewed over a dozen unit’s internals; all use the same standard design approach. However, they are not clones of each other.

A simple control board shows the operator information, like the power level of the cooker. It also sends the user’s command to the main board’s microprocessor. The main board contains the microprocessor (brains of the unit), the power supply, and the circuitry that energizes the magnetic coil. A solid-state rectifier converts AC house power to the DC power used by the cooker, and a switching transistor powers the magnetic circuitry and does this thousands a times a second. The rectifier and the switching (IGBT) transistor generate a lot of heat as a byproduct, so they are cooled under a heat sink to prevent them from burning up. A small computer-like fan is used to cool the unit further.

Here, I’m using a pressure cooker with my original induction range. That unit had ten power levels, and I could do any cooking with that amount of control.

If a magnet sticks to the bottom of a pot, it will work with an induction cooker. You probably already have induction-ready pots. Cast iron, enamelware, enameled cast iron (like Le Creuset), and many newer stainless steel pots are induction-ready. In addition, aluminum pots fitted with a magnetic disk on the bottom are also induction-compatible. You can buy induction-ready pots everywhere, including big box stores. Induction-ready cookware sets can be had for as little as $60, but like any cooking system, better pots usually perform better.

The most expensive part of a cooker is the induction coil, which uses a special copper wire called litz wire. Consumer portable cookers have a magnetic coil around 5 or 6 inches in diameter. Many commercial cookers have a coil that is between 7-9 inches. Maximum power is produced in a donut shape at the midway point of the coil. A six-inch coil will produce a three-inch ring of heat, and an eight-inch coil will produce a four-inch ring. Critics have noted that this leads to uneven heat in a pan. However, this effect happens when you run the unit at full power, which you only do when boiling water. When boiling water, the water itself equalizes the temperature. If you heat a pan on medium heat, the bottom will have time to equalize, and your pan will heat evenly. This is no different to what you need to do with other types of stoves. Never heat a dry pan on high heat, as the difference between the hot and cold parts of the pan could cause it to warp. This is not an issue if you have anything in the pan. If you must heat a dry pan (for instance, to sear a steak), start on medium and switch to high to allow the pan to warm up.

This unit is operating at full power; the water itself serves as the heat equalizer.
My camper van’s induction cooker has eight power and eight temperature levels. However, I cook almost everything using the three shortcut buttons: low, medium, and high.
Using an induction burner in a campervan removes the open flame and emission dangers of using a butane or propane stove in the same space.

Power, Power Levels, and Temperature Levels

The maximum power that a home 120-volt AC outlet can deliver is 1800 watts. Any 120-volt tabletop induction unit that claims to deliver a power higher than 1800 watts uses hyperbole.

I am a typical home cook. I make food from scratch, but I’m a basic cook. I grill sandwiches, do stir-fries, boil water, make bacon and eggs, fry pancakes, and cook soups and stews. The simplest induction cooker I have used was an Aroma brand that I bought for $19 on a closeout. It was rated at 1,500 watts and only had six power levels. There were no temperature controls. I was able to cook anything that I wanted with that unit. I have also used a pro-level Vollrath burner with 1800 watts, 100 temperature settings, and 100 power levels. I could cook anything on that burner, too. In some ways, I preferred the Aroma as it was simpler to operate. However, the Vollrath unit would have shined if I was into cooking delicate foods where temperatures needed to be controlled exactly.

Overall, using power levels is exactly the same as cooking on a conventional stove. If the pan is too cold, you turn up the power; if it is too hot, you turn it down. Easy.

Temperature levels allow you to set a pan temperature, which is also useful. However, the temperature sensor on most of these units is below the ceramic glass. This means that the sensor is reading the temperature of the glass that is heated by the pot. That doesn’t exactly reflect the temperature of what is cooking in the pot. However, with a little experimentation, it is still useful. A simmer is between 180-205F. However, you may have to use a temperature setting higher or lower than that to obtain a controlled simmer on your induction burner. A few induction burners have separate temperature probes, but they are rare.

The firmware of some induction burners is basic. If you select 200F at the start of cooking, the cooker may heat at full power until it reaches 200F. That could cause scorching. A workaround is to use power levels (instead of temperature levels), and when you get close to a your desired temperature, switch over to temperature control to maintain that temperature. Some burners approach this problem more logically, and it may be possible to use temperature levels from the start in these cookers.

Then there is the question of power. In an induction burner, the pot becomes a part of the electrical circuit. High-quality pots that cover the entire magnetic coil will yield a higher wattage output than a small cheap pot at the same power level. Additionally, a unit may say it delivers 1800 watts at maximum power, but it may have only yielded 1200 watts when I tested it with a watt meter. The highest power I recorded with an induction burner was 1650 watts from an 1800-watt burner.

Lower power output is less of an issue than you may think. You never cook food at full power, so burners that produce fewer watts and those with higher power cook similarly. The only time that I use full power is to boil water. You will hardly notice a difference if you boil pasta for two or a few cups of water for a French press. If you are boiling gallons of water, you will be hard-pressed to use any of these units as they are not powerful enough. You would need a 240-volt professional burner. Remember that the simple act of covering your pot will dramatically decrease your boil time.

The bottom line is that for most cooking jobs, don’t worry about the stated wattage of the unit, as it is probably inaccurate anyway.

Using the right pan, I can get 1650 watts out of this pro-level induction cooker. However, when I use a small cheap saucepan, the maximum wattage is only 864 watts.

Early cheap tabletop units produced lower power levels by cycling full power on and off. The bottom of the pan would go from scorching hot to cold repeatedly. This was not conducive to good cooking. Newer induction cookers use a combination of cycling on and off with lower power levels to achieve lower temperatures. This process works much better.

This 1,800-watt unit lowers its watts to lower heat output. However, it also uses lower wattage plus power cycling to achieve some intermediate power levels. Here, it is cycling between 576 watts of cooking power and idling off power. The 4.3 watts, represents the power needed to keep the display and fan on.

You may ask if brands matter. Probably less than you think. All of the consumer units that I was able to check had very similar internal parts. They were all capable of performing well. Any differences were in cosmetics or in the unit’s programming. However, based on these differences, you may find one unit more to your liking than another.

Burner “A” may have eight power levels, whereas burner “B” may have fifteen. Burner “A” may have a slanted control panel, whereas burner “B’s” control panel is flat with the cooktop. Burner “A” may use standard red LED indicators, whereas burner “B” may have fancy blue icons, and so on.

The above factors are not very important to me but may be important to you. Let’s say you love making complicated sauces. In that case, fine-tuning your temperature would be more important than my basic cooking needs.

Pros of Induction Burners

Induction cooktops are cool to the touch; the only heat on their surface is the heat reflected back from the pan. Even when hot, they cool down quickly. They are the most energy-efficient cooktops, with 85-93% of their energy directed into the pan. They heat up and change temperatures faster than any other stove type. They are lightweight and store easily. They boil water faster than any other stove type. Most units can be adjusted either by power level or temperature level. They are very inexpensive. They are very easy to clean. They have built-in safety features that prevent operation unless an appropriate pan is on the unit.

Only the pot area gets hot, and the rest of the surface remains cool to the touch.

Cons of Induction Burners

A fan runs when operating. The fan sound is similar to a microwave oven fan. You must use pans that have a magnetic base. Some pans may buzz on high power. These cookers only work if a proper pan is placed on them (see pros). If you like to lift a pan to toss its contents, this may be a problem, as some cookers could go into standby mode. However, some models delay standby for 60 seconds, allowing you to toss a pan’s contents. Theoretically, a cooker’s magnetic field could affect medical devices like pacemakers. However, there is no evidence that this is the case.

Consumer Level Induction Burners

This Hamilton Beach unit is a well-respected but inexpensive and simple induction burner.
This Sunfuny unit makes a style statement. It is a little quirky, but it does the job.
This novel Abangdun burner is tiny and has a maximum output of only 500 watts, making it possible to run it off a medium-sized solar generator/battery bank. I could boil two cups of water and fry an egg with this cooker, but its cooking was much slower than a more traditional induction burner. It is an option for van dwellers with small power systems. Others should go with a more typical unit.
This Duxtop unit is popular because it has a slanted control panel, many power levels, and programmed features like a boil button.

Consumer-level induction burners can be purchased for under $40 to just over $100. The exception is the outrageously expensive but interesting Breville Control Freak, which sells for $1,500.

Consumer-level cases are made of heat-resistant plastic. This makes them very lightweight. In addition, They are fairly thin, so they can easily be stored in a cabinet or often a drawer. Since plastic is molded, consumer units can be formed in a variety of shapes as well as in different colors. However, using a pot that overhangs the unit may melt or deform the plastic base.

Differences in a unit’s control surface or operating software may make you prefer one burner. However, all of the units are more similar than different.

Consumer units typically have magnetic discs that are 5″ to 6″ in diameter and produce a 3″ “donut” of concentrated power. However, this hotspot is less of an issue if you heat a pan more slowly and use pans with thick bottoms. The maximum usable pot diameter is around 10 inches.

I found several references of people using the same burner for five years, suggesting surprising reliability for such an inexpensive small appliance.

Popular brands include Duxtop, Max Burton, and Nuwave. Reviewers often give Duxtop units top marks.

You can also buy dual burner tabletop induction burners. They are governed by the 1800-watt maximum power that standard AC outlets provide. Different designs handle this limitation differently. Some have power-sharing circuits, and others lower wattage on their burners so that their total does not exceed 1800 watts. Over the years, I have discovered that most home cooking can be done with two burners. One of these units could provide an effective kitchen set-up for a basement or studio apartment.

Dual burner units provide two cooking surfaces, but the total wattage can’t exceed 1,800 watts.

Commercial/Professional Induction Burners

Some single burner professional units can sell for around the same price as a top-of-the-line consumer unit, but others can cost several thousand dollars. Unfortunately, there is not much information on how these units differ. Premium professional units likely use high-tolerance components, allowing them to be run continuously in a potentially abusive kitchen environment. In addition, they may have more sophisticated software yielding more power levels and complex algorithms that control heating and temperature levels.

But what makes a lower-end professional unit different from its consumer-level sibling? The most obvious differential is the case, usually larger and made of stainless steel. This allows the unit to accept heavier pots and potentially makes the device more durable. However, it also makes these units much bulkier and more difficult to store in a home environment.

I tried several lower-end professional units; some used controls and firmware borrowed from their consumer counterparts. I couldn’t tear down these units to examine their components, so I had to rely on experimentation. My observations are based on only a few units. Beyond the stainless-steel case, I found two main differences between these low-cost pro units and their consumer counterparts.

Using flour burn tests, these units appear to have larger magnetic coils in the 7″-9″ range, with my best estimate of 8″ to 8.5 inches. This would make them more compatible with 12″ pans, whereas consumer units top out using 10″ pans.

Most consumer units have noisy, high-pitched fans similar to cheap computer fans. Some commercial units that I tested have two fans, and others have fans that sound quieter and appear to be higher-quality components. Fans can be a failure point, so having a better fan would be crucial in a unit that is run many hours a day.

A pro unit could be considered if you plan to leave your induction burner on the counter or if you often use large-diameter pans.

Although oddly named, this ChangBERT unit is solidly built and simple to operate. There are many different low-cost professional-style burners available on marketplaces like Amazon. Some seem unique products, and others are re-bagged with a different name.

Conclusion

If you are your house’s cook or like gadgets, I urge you to consider trying a tabletop induction burner. There are many good consumer units in the $40-100 price range. It is likely that you already have some induction-ready pots. Induction cooking is safer, saves money and time, and benefits the environment.

You can make full meals with a single burner if you are creative. I make spaghetti with my van’s single burner. I boil, drain the pasta, and transfer it to a covered bowl. I then heat up the sauce in the same pot and return the pasta a la casserole-style for a nice spaghetti dinner.

Double burners are reasonably priced and could be your only basement or studio apartment cooking surface. They are limited by 1,800 watts, which must be shared between the burners. With that said, I have used induction burners that only generated 1,000 watts with perfectly good results.

Professional burners can be very expensive, but some are only slightly more costly than an upper-level consumer model. Pro-level cookers offer a larger, more solid stainless steel case that can hold heavier pots. However, these units are better left out on the counter, whereas many consumer units can easily be tucked away in a cabinet.

My indirect testing suggests that the lower-end professional models I tested may have larger magnetic coils that support 12″ diameter pots (as opposed to 10″ pots on consumer burners). In addition, pro models may have multiple or better-quality cooling fans.

Join the induction revolution. A small investment may convert you into an induction fanboy like me!

Photos used in this post are my own, from Amazon and Aliexpress product pages, from .gov sites, and from the Wikipedia article on induction cooking by Bill Moreland & Terry Malarkey,

The Emergence Of The Man-Boy, 7 Million and Growing Fast

Over the last decades, I have noticed an interesting and upsetting phenomenon—adult men who live their lives as boys. They never become self-sufficient men.  

Everyone has the right to choose their own path.  Not everyone has to be ambitious and driven. However, traditionally, men have felt a responsibility to be self-sufficient and productive. To be clear, I’m not lambasting alternative lifestyles.  For instance, the househusband or the man who gives up a traditional job to care for an elderly parent.  These folks are productive members of society. I’m talking about boys who never grow up.  Individuals who choose to live a dependent and responsibility-free life where they contribute little to others or society.  These people have always existed, but their numbers are growing.  Nicholas Eberstadt,  the chair of Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, notes the following:

Over 7 million men, ages 25-54 (prime working years), are unemployed and are not looking for work. To put that number into perspective, that is more people than the combined populations of Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis, San Franciso, and Orlando.

Individuals with only a high school diploma are overrepresented in this group, and those without a high school certificate represent an even higher number.

Forty percent of this group has some college, and one-sixth has a college degree.

If you are foreign-born, you are less likely to be in this group.

This lack of employment is not strictly due to outsourcing jobs, lack of low-requirement jobs, economic downturns, or the automation of jobs. 

This lack of employment is not due to lack of education as there are 11 million job openings, and many have minimal requirements, such as showing up sober and being on time.

African Americans are overrepresented, while Latinos and Asians are under-represented.  Therefore, if you compare whites to non-whites, the numbers are pretty much a wash.

You are less likely to be in this group if you are married or in a situation where you are responsible for children. A married African-American male would be underrepresented in this group.

This non-working, non-job-seeking group is four times larger than those unemployed and looking for work.  However, this group is not measured in governmental statistics on unemployment. 

The 7 million number does not include institutionalized individuals, such as prisoners. 

You may ask what these individuals do with their time.  The answer is not much.  They don’t seem involved in their communities and are not helping around the house. Most list their main activity as screen time, but this statistic is not defined further. The average time spent in front of a screen is around 2000 hours/year, equivalent to a full-time job. 

These folks survive on the charity of others: family members, wives, and girlfriends.  About half are on some sort of government assistance. However, this is difficult to quantify further as there are many different types of assistance and disability programs in the US, and no comprehensive clearinghouse collates these numbers. 

Although their financial resources could be considered penurious, their basic needs are being met.  In fact, they would be considered well-to-do if you compared their economic status to unemployed individuals in the 1800s. They have enough to get by.

In summary, there are over seven million men who, during their prime working years, choose not to work.  This number continues to grow at an alarming rate and is independent of factors such as the loss of jobs due to automation or outsourcing. Some individuals may have valid reasons for their lack of employment, but it is a choice for many others. These individuals don’t contribute money or labor to their homes or communities and drain resources that could be used for others. 

This work refusal trend started around 1965 and has increased monthly by about 0.1%/month.  If you plot the numbers, it is a linear increasing line independent of economic changes. In other words, since 1965, there has been a steady linear increase in the number of men who are no longer in the workforce and are not looking for a job. 

During my years as a psychotherapist, I sometimes treated these individuals.  Additionally, I treated teens who seemed destined to adopt this non-productive lifestyle.  Here are four examples.  Identifiers have been changed to protect these individuals.

Billy was a 15-year-old high school sophomore.  He did the absolute minimum in school and barely passed despite receiving many resources. He didn’t like to socialize and had no friends.  He spent most of his time on his computer.  Billy denied being depressed or having anxiety issues.  When asked what he liked to do, he responded, “Nothing.”  When I tried to engage him on any topic, for instance, what kind of music he liked, he denied any preferences.  He appeared quietly angry and very passive. He was an empty individual.  His parents said he didn’t cause any problems at home; he refused to participate in any family activity and preferred to isolate himself.  There was no suspicion of drug or alcohol use. 

John was a 19-year-old college freshman. He was in advanced math in high school and declared he was a math major in college. I saw him after his disastrous freshman year, as he had failed his classes, including math.  He said that all his teachers were “terrible and incompetent.”  He didn’t feel motivated to return to school but didn’t want to get a job either. He admitted that he had gone from occasionally smoking marijuana in high school to using it multiple times a day in college, now that he was away from home.  He was convinced that the marijuana enhanced his thinking ability and helped him be more creative. When I told him that it was likely that the marijuana was doing the opposite, he became angry and left treatment.

Joe was a pleasant 29-year-old man living with his parents. Joe went away to college but flunked out.  His parents then sent him to their local community college.  He said he was attending class, but it was later discovered that he would leave the house and roam the streets instead of going to school.  Joe’s parents then found him various jobs through their contacts, but he would get fired due to lack of work or attendance. He did some socializing with his high school friends but spent most of his time online. His parents wanted to sell their house and move to another state. They did not want to take Joe with them.  Joe said he wanted to be responsible and find a job but never attempted.  He talked about making big money by starting his own YouTube channel but never did. He wanted to live independently but never made any effort to make that happen.  Joe said all the right things but never acted on any of them. His parents eventually moved, and Joe went with them.

Jimmy was a 59-year-old single male who was superficially friendly and chatty.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of rock bands from the 70s and 80s and tended to use up much of his sessions talking about them in an avoidant strategy.  He reminded me of a 12-15 year old boy.  Jimmy had substance use problems but had no access to street drugs or alcohol as he lived in his 85-year-old mother’s basement. She took care of him. Despite my stern warnings about their dangers, he was committed to getting high and frequently snorted organic solvents.  Although he presented as a friendly guy, he had a dark side.  His mother was hospitalized for a week, and Jimmy quickly moved from the basement to the first floor, destroying much of the house over the seven days she was away.  In addition, he ran up his mom’s credit cards to their limits.  When his siblings found out, they kicked him out of his mom’s house.  How did Jimmy react?  He thought that he was treated unfairly and that his siblings were mean. At the same time, he asked his siblings to fund an apartment for him. They declined his request.

In these examples, none exhibited a psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, bipolar illness, psychosis, or significant anxiety, that warranted medication treatment. Two had substance abuse issues that added to their symptoms. Although most were happy to engage in sessions, their efforts represented more appeasement than actual work.  Generally, they were not confrontational and (at least initially) presented themselves as passive victims. Although some said they wanted more out of life, they were unwilling to do anything to make that happen. I often felt that they told me what they thought I wanted to hear to shut me up.  They said the right things, but their actions suggested otherwise.  None were treatment successes. 

Psychotherapy requires work on the part of the patient, and sometimes that work can be difficult.  These folks wanted more but did not want to work to change.  What was interesting was that, in some cases, it would have been just as easy to do the right thing, but they chose a path that led them in the opposite direction. For instance, it probably took more work for Joe to hide out instead of attending class, and Jimmy couldn’t explain why he destroyed his 85-year-old mother’s house—the woman who was providing him with food and shelter.

Why does this lifestyle exist, and why are the numbers increasing?  I can only speculate, but it is likely due to multiple reasons exacerbating common issues.

It is reasonable to believe that qualities like ambition and drive exist along a spectrum.  There are highly ambitious folks and those that are less so.  The same can be said of intelligence, whether we are talking about academic intelligence or social intelligence.  Likewise, we can say the same about dependency needs, social skills, self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, and other factors.  

It also must be accepted that many expectations placed on men are neither fulfilling nor rewarding. Many men work in jobs that can be mind-numbing or even degrading. They must deal with repetitive or dangerous tasks as they navigate ridiculous work policies and cruel supervisors.  

If you take several conditions from the preceding two paragraphs, you could imagine a scenario where it becomes easier to retreat from societal expectations.

Those situations have existed since the dawn of society, so why are we seeing a steady increase in these man-boys? This could be due to changes in society in general.

The recent blockbuster movie “Barbie” continually hammered home the idea of the patriarchy, the foundation of our society. The movie emphasized that this system promotes the domination and oppression of women.  I firmly believe that women should have the same rights as men, but I also believe that such a simplistic explanation is insufficient to define a society. Women have always held positions of power, and men often defer to women.  However, the 1960s brought a more rapid equalization that continues today. Two factors contributed to this change: equal rights and the birth control pill. More women had a chance to earn a living outside the home and were less bound by the social constraints of the past.  This allowed some men to become more dependent.  This was a good thing in some situations as some men could assume productive roles they were formally banned from.  However, it also allowed others to check out and allow their significant other to support them.

Recent times have brought an ever greater need for workers to be skilled and intelligent.  The media promotes glamorous jobs and fabulous lifestyles. High-paying, lower-skill jobs, such as unionized factory work, are disappearing.  The above can result in a “why bother” attitude.  This is especially the case since many of these individuals have found alternative ways to support their basic needs. 

There are some easy ways to experience an alternative reality that seem a better option than real life.  Drugs, video games, porn, and other outlets are widely available and can counterbalance the pressures of dealing with the real world.

Male-focused clubs and fraternal organizations are on the decline.  In the past, almost everyone belonged to a church or temple.  These groups had expectations for their members to be responsible citizens.  Men were taught to be the breadwinners and protectors. The power and influence of these large organizations is diminishing. 

The institution of marriage is on the decline. It was not that long ago that it was considered odd not to be married.  Fewer people are getting married for a variety of reasons.  Marriage provided social pressure for men to be productive. Men who are married are less likely to drop out of society.

Statistics demonstrate that men responsible for children are more likely to be productive.  We know that more individuals are choosing not to have children or are delaying having children. This presents a different problem for society but also contributes to dropouts.

More men are choosing an isolative lifestyle that doesn’t include women. Since 2008, the number of men under the age of 30 who are living celibate lives has tripled to almost 30 percent. These individuals do not have relational pressures to be responsible. 

Higher education costs have become astronomically high, creating an impossible barrier for some to overcome. Although ⅙th of men who drop out have a college degree, 5/6ths do not. 

The bottom line is that it has become easier to live a passive, unproductive life, and it has become harder to live a self-sufficient, contributing life. Depending on your personality, it is reasonable to drop out of society as many can figure out ways to fulfill their basic needs.  At the same time, they can find alternative reality options that numb any remnant desires to grow up. Drugs and alcohol have been long-term solutions.  However, many time-wasting activities are now available in the ever-expanding digital age.

Once a person drops out of society, re-entering becomes more difficult or impossible. It is well established that men who stop looking for work are much less likely ever to re-enter the workforce than unemployed men who are actively searching for a job. 

Our continued social and technological changes have allowed some men to remove themself from productive lives, and that number is escalating at a linear rate over time. Traditional techniques, like psychotherapy, seem less effective as many individuals are not invested in making change.  Additionally, no consistent governmental programs are designed to address this serious problem.  This is likely since these men live under the radar.  They are sitting on their couch connected to a video screen, not causing havoc in society. In some cases, tough love works; in others, it doesn’t.  Supporting family members are often angry and frustrated with these dropouts.  However, in many cases, they feel responsible for their well-being.  A feeling promoted by these individuals who often present themselves as the victim or at least helpless. 

Seven million men and growing.  A disaster that is happening right now and right before our eyes. A disaster that no one seems to be paying attention to.

Handicapped Camping

When Julie had her surgery three months ago, we knew that the operation would severely impact the nerves in her right leg.  Although the neurosurgeon did a good job, those nerves were impacted, and it was unclear how well she would be able to walk. Weeks in a rehab hospital, plus ongoing outpatient physical therapy, have helped her.  However, I believe her determination has played an equal part in her recovery.  With that said, most of the time, she requires a stiff leg brace and a rollator/walker to get around.

Six weeks ago, my sister and her husband offered us their Labor Day weekend camping slot.  At that time, we weren’t sure if Julie could get into Violet the campervan as Violet’s chassis and seats were high.  Before we accepted their offer, we attempted to get Julie into the passenger seat.  She got in using a step stool, plus her pulling power and my pushing power. We accepted the camping slot and hoped for continued improvement.

DuPage County has beautiful forest preserves, walking paths, and parks.  Fifteen minutes from our front door is the county campground where we were going.  There, you feel like you are deep in the country even though DuPage County has nearly a million inhabitants. 

I love to camp in Violet the campervan.  Julie has camped with me, but she was always mobile.  This would be our first attempt camping with her wearing a brace and ambulating with a rollator.  As you can imagine, even the simple task of going to the bathroom could present impossible problems.

In addition, I had removed everything from my camper’s kitchen as my friend, Tom is building me a new one.  That will likely be another post once it is completed.  However, I also had to reload some kitchenware to make the trip workable. 

I often camp alone and can do all the necessary tasks on a camping trip. When I travel with someone, I customize plans and buy special foods to make their trip enjoyable. For instance, when I camp with my son Will, I make elaborate dinners as I know he enjoys them.  Likewise, when I camped with Julie, I ensured I had what she liked to eat. Planning, shopping, and preparing takes quite a bit of time.  

I didn’t have it in me to do all of that this time, as I didn’t know the trip’s outcome. It could be possible that we would get to the campsite only to have to turn around. I had no idea how she would walk on grass and gravel roads. 

Instead of going out and buying food, I went with Julie at the start of the trip to buy simple microwave meals.  Violet has a little freezer compartment and a small microwave. If we had to turn back, I was sure the kids would happily eat our purchases.

We arrived at the campground and drove to site 40, a beautiful spot in the woods. Our first mission was to get Julie out of Violet and into a camp chair.  Her rollator is designed for hard, smooth surfaces, and it was an effort for her to get from Violet to there. However, she succeeded.  I brought her a cool beverage, and she opened a novel.  However, I was still concerned about the rest of the weekend.

We successfully got Julie over to a camp chair.
Right behind our campsite were woods.

As I noted earlier, I’m comfortable doing most things when Julie camps with me, but that was not a good idea this time. My goal was to help when I knew that help was needed and be on alert at other times. Julie needed to see what she could do for herself.

Our first challenge was a trip to the bathroom, which was about a block and a half down a gravel road.  Normally, it is a simple task. However, the rollator’s small wheels were not designed for this type of terrain, and it was a slow process. Despite our lack of proper equipment, we made it there and back without a fall.  A triumphant success. 

Julie has camped with me enough times that she knows how to do many tasks, from turning the passenger seat into Violet’s cabin to powering up the AC inverter for the microwave. I let her do whatever she could, and she found ways to accomplish her goals. She was an asset on the trip and not another responsibility. 

Julie did what she could, sometimes modifying her behavior. Note how high the passenger seat is on Violet.

Our first night was quiet, with food, books, and nature-watching. We discussed attempting a walk the next morning. I thought we would try walking a few blocks on the even-surfaced paved forest preserve road, but Julie had other ideas.  She wanted to hit a hiking trail. There are many hiking trails in the forest preserve where we were at.  Most are nicely maintained, but they do have some ups and downs.  I was familiar with one trail, the McKee Marsh trail, that is flat.  It is roughly 3 miles from the parking lot, around the marsh, and back to the car.  I knew that would be too far for Julie, so I started the mileage tracker on my Apple Watch.  Could we walk a mile?  We planned to walk half a mile in and then back, yielding a mile trip.  We knew the rollator wouldn’t work, so I pulled out my trekking poles, adjusted them to Julie’s shorter stature, and gave her a quick lesson in their use.  We started off.

Trekking poles were a great aid for Julie.

It was a beautiful morning, and we were in a beautiful location.  People would pass us with a hello.  I think folks were especially friendly as Julie’s brace was visible.  Some offered words of encouragement.  I kept warning Julie that we had gone past a half of a mile, then one mile, then a mile and a half.  She wanted to continue. By then, the only option was to complete the loop. We soldered on, and the trekking poles were a great success.  I couldn’t believe that we hiked 3 miles!  Julie could barely walk a few months ago. We rewarded ourselves with ice-cold Coke Zeros from Violet’s fridge.  A fantastic success.

McKee Marsh is a beautiful spot and very flat.

If you have ever camped, you know that keeping your campsite neat and tidy is imperative.  Keeping things organized isn’t difficult, but it is a constant quest. Naturally, I did my thing, but I let Julie do hers, and she continued to help.

Our evening ended with a surprise visit from a friend, followed by a campfire.  I admit I’m not very good at starting campfires with damp wood.  I know I should split the wood to get at the dry insides, but I’m clumsy with an axe.  I got a fire going, but it was not the blaze I had hoped for.  Does anyone want to teach me axe skills?… Warning: Keep your feet far away from me when I’m swinging. 

We had a little fire.

Our Monday started leisurely with me making some coffee.  I asked Julie if she wanted to try another hike, and she said she did. This time, we chose a path with more ups and downs- a big challenge when you have walking issues. We broke camp, drove to the parking lot outside the archery path, and started our journey.  It was clearly more difficult and pretty exhausting for Julie. We planned to walk a mile out and a mile back.  On the way back, Julie’s leg tired, and she had a few near falls.  However, the trekking poles saved the day, and she was able to turn potential crashes into simple missteps. In the end, our total distance was 2.25 miles. Julie had walked over 5 miles during our camping trip, which was amazing.

I made us some coffee to start the day.
Hiking along the Archery path, which has more inclines and declines.
A beautiful wooded area along the path.
We “discovered” this little stream.

This trip taught us several things.  First, Julie could do many camp maintenance activities by modifying them.  She also improved at climbing into and out of Violet’s campervan. At times needing no assistance. However, the most impressive win was that we could hike on paths.  I don’t think it will be possible for her to hike on a traditional hiking trail; however, beautiful walking trails are everywhere, including National Parks.  This trip showed us that she could go on a more extensive camping trip and even do a little hiking.  Nothing would stop me from hiking more difficult trails independently, as I have been doing that for years.

The only significant problem I faced had more to do with my 6’3” bulky frame.  Violet’s bed is a tight fit for two.  I always take the edge of the bed, allowing me to hang my legs outside the bed when necessary.  This time, I felt I should give Julie that spot due to her mobility issue.  That meant I was stuck between her and the van’s back door. I could not stretch out completely; I could not hang my leg outside of the bed. This led to leg cramps and, even worse, a feeling of akathisia, or restless legs. I didn’t sleep well, and I’m not sure what to do in the future. I’m hoping that Julie will improve enough so that the next time, she will be able to take that inside position.  At 5’6”, she is more suited for it.  Otherwise, I’ll need to come up with a Plan B.

Our trip was a resounding success, well beyond my wildest expectations.  Kudos to Julie for all her hard work and amazing trail-blazing abilities.  

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.