Building a Better Boat

This year I started on a journey that I never thought I would take. Two of them actually. The first journey is divorce. My wife of 35 years and I are separated and in the process of making an end of our shared story (this part at least). The second is a journey of emotional well-being. I would have thought, even as recently as a year ago, that I knew myself a lot better than I really do. I’ve spent most of my life learning about technical things, the world, history, and business. But until just a couple of months or so ago I spent zero time learning deeply about what makes me tick, why I am who I am and what it takes to make a genuinely good life. To be brutally honest, despite life-threatening illnesses and pretty much every warning sign, I neglected my own well-being, out of ignorance and to some degree pride.

To quote Joe Walsh, ‘Life’s been good to me so far.’ In every externally visible sense I’ve enjoyed life and been blessed beyond what I ever expected from a career perspective. I’ve been blessed with three amazing children and three amazing grand-children. Anyone who saw my life from the outside would have believed that I ‘Had it all going for me’. And in many respects I have to say that’s how it has been. But inside, I’ve been living with a broken spirit and a broken heart. And in 2022, everything I could do to hold it together failed at once. Everything I should have taken joy in was empty and colorless. I realized I was genuinely depressed and disconnected from own soul.

I’ve been in therapy now for a couple of months. I’ve been exploring and reading books on trauma and depression. I’ve got a renewed focus on my faith (this may be the understatement of 2023, but I’m not sure how else to put it). I know it’s a long and winding road. I know it’s the journey of a lifetime. I realize now that ‘soul care’ is more than just a buzz word. I realize now why people burn out. I’ve been striving to live up to what I thought everyone wanted me to be. And I’ve also cried until I felt like an empty shell. I’ve been angry, unreasonably angry, for reasons I didn’t understand until my therapist pointed them out. Finally all the things I read in the books started to gel. The lightbulb went on. I understand why my health is what it is. ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ (the title of a book I recently read), and my body has been keeping it ruthlessly. I’m obese, diabetic, I’ve had cardiac issues, I’m weak and constantly tired. Continuing this way leads to an early grave and I’m not ready to go, not like this.

It only goes to follow that if I’ve been this bad at caring for my own soul and spirit, that I was equally bad at caring for the souls of those around me. Being blind to my own emotional problems was bad enough, but I can only begin to understand how much it affected the people I love. I tried to do what I thought was best in every respect, but I now understand I saw everything through faulty lenses.

So I’m on a journey to (as Kenny Chesney puts it in the song) build a better boat. I don’t know what all 2023 holds. This post and potentially others that follow are part of my therapy. Part of externalizing and excavating decades of neglect of my own heart and spirit. I want to know my true self a lot better and be a better friend, a better brother, a better father and a better Christ-Follower. What I do know is that I’m learning the way. And day by day, I’m doing at least one little thing. And when a wave is too big to stand against, I ride it. I breathe in. I breathe out.

If anyone reading this is in a difficult place with depression, PTSD or other emotional challenges, I urge you to seek help. The days on the road, on the water, and in the woods with my friends or just sitting and talking over coffee have been invaluable to me. I treasure each of my close friends more than I can say. The adventures, the hours and days in beautiful places and doing relaxing things are the coping mechanisms that got me this far. But the truth is that none of my friends are therapists and none of them understand how to excavate and process the most difficult things that life can bring to us. I needed help from people trained in and experienced with sorting all the stuff we accumulate in the attic. And finally I’m seeking that help and learning as fast as I can.

Meet the New Jeep er…. Bronco

I’ve recently consolidated my fleet of automobiles down from five (!) at the height of the pandemic, down to two. Of course one of them is my wife’s beloved Toyota 4Runner, a staple of our garage, our travels and our shared life for the last six years. The other is a new (to me) Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. My last consolidation was to sell my BMW 328i outright and then trade-in my 2013 Jeep Wrangler JK on the new one. The egregious state of disrepair of Michigan roads, plus the state of my knees, has convinced me that a sporty sedan is no longer a viable choice of transportation or entertainment.

The process of paring down the fleet got me thinking though. I adore the Jeep Wrangler (I had my last one 8 years, the longest I’ve owned any vehicle). But what about this new Ford Bronco? I mean as of this writing the Ford Bronco has been out in the wild (pun intended) for some time, but now I’m really starting to notice them. And the vehicle, along with it’s owners, feel like kindred spirits to this long time Jeep owner. I’ve seen plenty of Jeeps with top and doors removed, but last weekend I saw a Bronco similarly stripped down for a journey and I had to nod with approval (and almost gave the driver the ‘Jeep’ wave).

I know this is going to come across as blasphemy to the hard-core Jeep faithful, but Ford has genuinely opened a door by rejuvenating the Bronco. Sadly Chevrolet has missed the opportunity to join the party by making the new Blazer simply another cross-over. GM fans have much to lament as the only real 4×4 SUVs left in the GM stable are the Tahoe/Yukon family with price tags approaching 100 grand. Toyota soldiers on with the 4Runner, nicely loaded in the mid $40s. The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited in Rubicon trim meanwhile is well over $50K and they can’t make them fast enough. With all the lamentation about the demise of gasoline powered vehicles, it seems the last gasp of internal combustion is going to be a real treat.

I know there are some who look at the Jeep/Bronco/4Runner as unnecessary lifestyle vehicles, but even taking that ‘accusation’ at face value it’s no more egregious than a high powered luxury car as a status symbol on wheels. My new JLU has enough dust in the interior and a faint patina of mud from my first couple of weeks of ownership to give it a shadow of credibility as a vehicle run off-the-beaten path. But even if your biggest adventure amounts to a trip to the mall, I won’t look at you funny. To each their own. I grew up running trucks hard in places they might not have been intended to be and dirt bikes in places they were intended to be. I’ve got nothing to prove, and I’m fine admitting my old Jeep Wrangler rarely saw the trail but often saw the winding backcountry dirt roads.

In conclusion, I’ll simply say that I’m glad, even at this late hour in the days of internal combustion, that you can still buy a vehicle made to go places and do things, and have fun doing them. Long live the SUV and welcome back to the club Ford Bronco.

Travel Log – Little Rock

A Delta 757 getting some last minute pre-flight service. – Photo by author

The start to this trip was inauspicious. I was at the airport, through security and at the gate with plenty of time, but this was the scene that awaited me when I looked out at the plane that was to take me on my first leg. The engine cowling is open and there are two mechanics examining the the engine. Despite my initial consternation, we managed to board on time, and as I got to the end of the jet bridge I noted a technician logging something and a part that looked like a valve sitting on the console next to him. I was hopeful the issue was repaired.

And it turned out to be. The door was closed, we backed out, and were on our way in short order. This was only my second post-pandemic fly-away conference and my third trip by air, and things seemed to be working. We were still all masked, but the planes all seem to be full and (with one notable exception) seemed to be running on-time. The second hop, from Atlanta to Little Rock was equally uneventful. Everyone was courteous and things seemed to work the way I remembered from years of business travel.

I took an Uber from the airport to the hotel. The driver was friendly, but his car was falling apart. There seemed to be very few people on the street downtown for a Monday afternoon, and the hotel was equally empty. People had obviously been traveling, but it didn’t seem like a lot of them were coming here. The hotel restaurant had only a few tables occupied and there were literally less than five people in the hotel lobby. I couldn’t help but feel I was in a post-apocalyptic movie. My last business trip to St. Louis saw a lot more people downtown. That’s a bigger event and attendance was a fraction of normal, but that was November.

The reception and conference event I was to attend in Little Rock normally sees 200 people. There were 20 at the reception, and most of those were vendors and the event staff. Maybe 10 were attendees. At the event itself there were approximately 35 people not counting presenters and staff. I guess things aren’t quite back to normal. I couldn’t get a sense for the reason why there were so few. Is everyone still concerned about Covid? Are there budget issues where customers weren’t authorizing travel? This event was confined mostly to people in Arkansas, not requiring air travel, and yet they had 10-15% of the usual turnout. I’ll be interested to see if this improves. Everyone I talked to was glad to get back to an in-person event, as I was, but no one could put a finger on why so few had come.

The trip home was a bit more challenging. Pre-pandemic I would leave a hotel in a major city about two hours prior to my flight. I did so again, knowing the airport was only about 15-20 minutes away. The Uber app showed no available drivers. There were no cabs outside the hotel, and no one to summon one. I went straight to the front desk to ask them to call a cab for me. The phone at their usual cab company rang unanswered. I did not think to arrange for transport the night before and the hotel shuttle would not start running for almost another hour. If I didn’t leave for the airport on time, I would miss my flight and there were not a lot of flights out of Little Rock.

I walked back outside to make sure I had decent mobile signal, to try again to get an Uber and that’s when I saw Pete. I didn’t know him at the time, but he appeared to be getting ready to go to the airport too. I approached him, prepared to offer to split cab fare or Uber cost.

Me: “Are you headed to the airport?”

Pete: “Yeah.”

Me: “How are you getting there? I haven’t been able to get a cab or Uber and I don’t want to miss my flight.”

Pete: “I’ve got a rental car, ride with me.”

We introduced ourselves as I got in the car. Pete is a genuinely nice guy. He works for a packaging company and we quickly determined we were on the same flight out of Little Rock that morning. I thanked him repeatedly and his reply was always “I was going to the airport anyways.” So thanks to Pete, I made my flight, had pleasant conversation along the way, and got to learn my lesson about early morning transport in the days of the pandemic. Delta got me home on schedule and none the worse for wear. It seems the machinery of travel is ‘mostly’ working, but things are not back to what we once considered normal. At least not yet.

Learning the Yaesu FT5D

Just about a month ago, I pulled the trigger on the Yaesu FT5D. As a satisfied user of the VX-6 (my first ham radio of any kind), the FT2D and the FT3D, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. I ordered it from Ham Radio Outlet, who had it in stock at a slight discount off of MSRP. I’ve had really good experiences buying from HRO and this was no exception. The radio, the spare battery I ordered and a couple of other items all shipped the next day and were on my doorstep three days later. I wasn’t a ham in the days before the Internet, but I’m guessing that buying new gear was a bit more involved back in the day! 

The FT5D next to the FT3D. Photo by author.

So, what are the differences between the FT5 and FT3?

  1. The case and screen are physically larger, which I like. Not as big as the FT2D (the size of which I really liked), but noticeably bigger. 
  2. The menu buttons have changed and are illuminated differently. The DISP button has been removed and the Menu button introduced. I’m not sure this was a necessary change, but I learned my way around fairly easily and more importantly I can switch between the two without much confusion.
  3. There are two LEDs to indicate activity, rather just the one on the FT3 (and FT2). 
  4. There is a plastic ‘fence’ around the base of the antenna on the FT5 which I can only imagine is meant to protect the connection where the antenna screws onto the SMA connector. 
  5. The FT5D is designed to be used with an included plastic belt holster, unlike the battery-mounted belt clip that was standard with the FT2 and FT3. 
  6. The biggest difference, and probably the reason so many have upgraded is that the audio output on the FT5 is considerably louder. If you need to use it in a noisy location or just can’t get enough volume from your FT3 or other HT, this one will howl for you.
Close up of ‘fence’ around the base of the antenna. 

Yaesu wisely (I think) made it so the accessories, batteries and chargers from the FT2 and FT3 work with the FT5. I’m thrilled by this. This is a big win for me. My lovely YL is now the designated user for the FT2. It sits on a a charging base in the kitchen where it’s convenient for her to grab on her way out the door. Any of the batteries, AC adapters and car chargers work between these three radios. 

I won’t attempt to compare these radios to offerings from Kenwood or Icom. All the makers are pressing on with their designs, and frankly, I would accept that you would do as well with the flagship HT from either of those makers as you would with the FT5. For me, I’ve learned the menus and operating modes of Yaesu HTs, so I continue down that road. I’ve had great luck with the quality and performance. The FT5 is roughly similar in range, reception and battery life compared to it’s predecessor. I’ve run the GPS and APRS on it, which of course consume battery faster. 

In conclusion, I’ll observe that if you have an FT3D and like it, the FT5D won’t offer anything revolutionary (except the audio!). I like to have more than one of anything I use regularly (life is better with a spare), so I figured getting an FT5D would make my FT3D the spare-or-share radio so I have the best of all worlds. If you already have a high-end HT that does everything you want, there’s not a lot this one will add. But if you want a flagship product with all the features, and you like Yaesu Fusion and other digital features like APRS, this one is a winner.

Quick Review, Anytone D878UVII Plus

Our friends at Anytone have made long model name even longer by adding ‘Plus’ or ‘+’ to the Anytone D878UVII. The ‘Plus’ adds additional on-board memory for DMR radio IDs, which are loaded from RadioID.Net. The current DMR database is approximately 218,000 entries as of this writing. If that seems like a lot, it is. But the Plus has room for up to 500,000. The point of having them all loaded in the radio is that when you’re having a QSO on DMR the radio displays the contact’s name, city and state as well as their DMR radio ID and call sign. While I have a strong affection for Motorola radios, the folks at Anytone and BridgeCom have worked pretty hard to make DMR consumable to the average ham. As for the rest of the particulars, this radio is UHF/VHF, analog and DMR, with built-in GPS and APRS features. You can also program it to receive Air/Marine band and NOAA weather stations.

The CPS (programming) software for the radio, like all Anytone radios, is free to download and use. No license, no hoops to jump through (Motorola!). I blanched at the shipping containers of Baofeng and Wouxon radios that have been flooding the US market but Anytone (Quixiang Electron & Technology Co) and Bridgecom seem to be on to something. They have lots of resources including pre-built code-plugs and lots of videos to explain how everything is supposed to work. 

I use the term ‘supposed to’ because sometimes things don’t quite work as expected. Despite being on the latest software, I can’t seem to get APRS auto-beaconing to work. There have also been a few display glitches, where characters are overlaid on each other in some screens. Like most software driven products these radios are a bit of a work in progress. But the value for money cannot be ignored. The latest and greatest Anytone (this model) HT is $299 plus shipping and taxes at Bridgecom. They include a key for license and support on a piece of paper in the box. The radio itself is fairly solid/robust and not overly bulky. The display is clear and readable (save for the occasional glitch) and the keys have a quality feel to them. I would not hesitate to use this radio outdoors, in weather like my tried-and-true Yaseus. 

What do you get? In the box you’ll find the radio, it’s stock rubber duck antenna, a lanyard strap, battery, charging cradle, AC adapter and programming cable as well as the belt clip and screws to attach to the radio. It’s well-packed and tidy. I unboxed mine, assembled the clip to the back and let it sit for a couple of hours to warm up to the indoor temperature, as it had been riding around in the back of the UPS truck all day and was quite cold. I charged the radio in it’s cradle overnight and waited until the next day to program it. This isn’t my first Anytone, nor my only DMR radio, so figuring out the new version of CPS and flashing the radio with the latest software was a trivial exercise. I exported my contact list and channel configuration from the old CPS (for the previous radio), imported them into the new version and loaded it out to the radio. I also downloaded the latest version of the database and loaded that in the radio too. This process takes about ten minutes for the 218,000 entries. 

So, how does it work? Pretty well. I’ve tested it on the local DMR repeater, the .88 machine in Jackson, and the W8DIEL repeater in Chelsea, and currently am using it for DMR on my hotspot. The APRS leaves a bit to be desired. I had to check a lot of boxes in CPS to get it running, but when I did, started receiving perfectly. I have banged my head a bit though that it won’t auto-beacon. A problem for another day, if not a new version of code. It’s doing 90% of what my Yaesu FT-series HTs do (DMR instead of Fusion, obviously) for about $150 less an an FT5. Is it as well made as an FT5? From a hardware perspective, probably. From an ease of use and software quality perspective? Maybe not. But it’s definitely got me on the air and enjoying radio. 

Pros: Value for Money, Build Quality, Audio Quality

Con: The software in the radios is… not quite finished. (apparent APRS bug) 

(Update – After tinkering a bit, I was able to get APRS auto-beaconing to work! But it wasn’t clear or easy)

No Fate But What We Make

I think the Terminator franchise got a little cheesy after the first movie, but this line, lifted from Terminator 2, really frames my perspective these days. This post could have been titled “2022, it can’t be that bad.” In the days of Covid (my term for everything that’s come since the pandemic started) it feels like everyone is holding their breath, waiting for the next report, the next thing that will cause us to lament. And sometimes it seems like we (the collective we) are waiting for someone to fix it. I’ve got some news, Sunshine, no one is going to fix it. This is going to have to run it’s course. And I realize it’s been hard. It may get worse before it gets better. So what do we do about it?

For my part? I’m over it. I’ve never expected our leaders, or even science and medicine to fix this. The vaccines are great. Not all that we hoped, but then again, we’re all behind the curve. Even with all that said, if I’m candid, 2021 wasn’t that bad a year. Yes, the pandemic is still impacting everyone’s life. But it’s not controlling mine. I changed jobs in 2021, like untold millions of other people. The pandemic is a watershed and over more than twenty years of doing the same thing, I’m changing gears. It’s not a dramatic shift. I still work for the same company, just in a different role.

I sat on the task of writing my first post of the year, because I didn’t know what to write. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. But now I know. I’m looking forward to this year with a confident expectation of good. Why? Because no matter what has happened in the last two years, everyone I know is still who they were. They’re great people, who love their families, do their jobs and keep on keeping on. Despite these hard times we all seem to be far more resilient and optimistic than the news would have us believe. The economy is red hot. People are living their lives. The lockdowns and mandates are all but a thing of the past. Life goes on for those of us who are still here. We mourn all those we lost, but we must also celebrate those that are still here, and the fact that we have everything before us. There’s never been a better time to find a job. Never more opportunity to have an impact.

If you’re still sitting everything out, you’re missing it.

I have two relatives who embody the sense of how I feel today. They are well along in years. They’ve both faced loss, including losing people they love to Covid and other illnesses. But their perspective, informed by decades more living, is something to behold. They embrace each day. They know that we’re not promised another and that all we can do is get on with the business of living. “Get busy living or get busy dying.” says Andy Dufresne in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. I’m busy living.

The Good Way

I was having a little quiet time this morning, some reflection, prayer, and bible study.  This bit of scripture was part of the lesson:  

‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’ Jeremiah 6:16 NIV

I think most of us want to walk in the Good Way.  But how will I recognize it?  As Christians we often default to ‘Follow Jesus’.  But how do we apply that today?  I’d like to think that my prayer time, my bible study, and classes, help me with this.  But I have to ask, is the  Good Way the same for everyone? 

I have to think that we each have a path, and it’s not the exact same one for everyone.  But there must be some common denominators.  Are we not all supposed to at least be headed in the same direction?  Surely we all want to live a good life.  But what does that mean?  

Sometimes it just seems like this. Photo by author.

The longer I live, the more I’ve come to understand that our best life isn’t simply living well.  Best often means living rightly, doing what we should, not just what we want. And we won’t always enjoy what comes our way.  Living well, more frequently these days, seems to be the about overcoming adversity, enduring suffering, and understanding how to operate in difficult times.  

I’m learning it’s as much about service, mission, and ministry.  In the Christian vernacular ‘ministry’ even has multiple contexts.  So much yet to learn, even as my hair grays and I start to need glasses to read the finer print.  In many ways I feel like I am just now learning how much I don’t know.  Yet the journey ahead is exciting, if a little daunting.  I feel like the best is yet to come.  

I hope you find the Good Way today.  Or at least go in search of it.  If you’re ahead of me, on that path, I pray that you’ll show me, and if you’re behind, I’ll do my best to show you.  And with God’s grace we’ll get there in our own time.  

Go West…

This summer my wife and I took our oldest granddaughter camping.  But not the usual weekend at one of the state parks.  We made an 1800-mile journey from our home in southern Michigan, up through our state’s upper peninsula to Cody Wyoming and then further west to Yellowstone National Park.  It’s something I’ve wanted do for many years.  Bringing our little travel trailer wasn’t always part of the plan but it seemed like it would be an adventure, and it was, to say the least. 

We would have done the trip sooner, but like so many things, the COVID pandemic made a lot of things uncertain.  So, we waited until 2021 to do it.  We loaded our gear in the camper and the crew cab of a 2019 Chevrolet Colorado pickup and headed west.  We stopped overnight twice on the way and saw a lot of the American west that I hadn’t seen in many years.  The plains states are beautiful with many historic sites and scenes, but the most exciting thing about that drive was seeing mountains rising in the distance.  While the anticipation was high for the grown-ups, by the time we got in to Cody it had been almost three days in the truck, which was a lot to ask of our young passenger.  She was a good sport though and was looking forward to playing at the campground.  

Our camper and truck rig at the rest stop. Photo by author.

After driving for two days on flat land, the climb up into foothills of the Rocky Mountains was a welcome change of scenery. However, being flat-land dwellers most of the time meant we had a pretty steep learning curve on the winding mountain roads. I drove the whole final leg of the trip to Cody through the Bighorn mountains. The little pickup did an admirable job for a v6 and we rolled into the KOA near Cody in the early evening. It was great to get settled, and enjoy the barbecue put on by the folks that run the campground.

During our first day in the park, I was amazed by how developed it is.  While there are many miles of nearly empty and secluded wilderness, there are park amenities that I never expected.  There are gas stations, an entire village with a post office, multiple souvenir malls and even a service station where you can get your oil changed!  I must admit the development was a bit of a disappointment, but in exchange it was also a convenience.  We could get fuel, snacks, and goodies pretty much whenever we wanted.  What we could not get was a table in a restaurant.  All the indoor dining was still closed due to COVID.  Finding a table outside was a challenge sometimes, but we didn’t let the pandemic precautions get us down.  At the Cody and West Yellowstone KOA campgrounds we stayed at, we were able to dine in at their outdoor grills.  

Elk grazing and relaxing in the village. Photo by author.

We explored the park, the surrounding towns, and the campgrounds for seven days.  We also took a raft trip on the Yellowstone River.  We took a lot of pictures.  We saw bison, elk, and eagles, but no wolves or bears.  The bison are so accustomed to people that they would wander up and lay down, right next to the walkways and even on some of the trails.  We tried to be prudent and give them a wide berth.  Still, when they decided to go walking down the middle of the road, there was little to be done to avoid them and we would sometimes sit in mile-long backups waiting for them to clear the lane! That was Ok, though, we were visitors in their space, and I was happy to give them a wide berth.

Oh give me a home… Photo by author.

We also marveled at the deep canyons and waterfalls, and the variety of geography.  Even though the whole park is on a high mountain plateau, there were plenty of river beds and even a large lake to go with the steep, forested mountainsides and canyons.  Everywhere we went there was a beautiful landscape and despite there being thousands of cars and likely tens of thousands of visitors it wasn’t hard to find a quiet, out-of-the-way place to enjoy a view in relative peace and solitude.

One of my lunch stops while exploring the park – Fire Hole Canyon. Photo by author.

Of course one of the highlights of the visit was Old Faithful. The village around the geyser has it’s own exit (which was under construction!) from the main road through the park. While we were waiting for the first eruption of our visit, our granddaughter made fast friends with children from another family visiting from Michigan and they worked their way to the front of the crowd on the walkway in front of the geyser and waited to see if they would get showered with water.  They were only a little disappointed that the wind was blowing solidly the other way and they never felt a drop! 

Old Faithful Inn exterior; Jim Peaco; July 2003

After our days of exploring and traveling the mountains and plains, I understand why people fall in love with the west.  But I’m captive to the woods, waters and fields of my home state.  Michigan has hundreds of inland lakes and rivers, and endless acres of public recreation land, but it pales in comparison to the scale of Yellowstone.  There is no doubt we will go back.  I’m not sure I will be eager to pull a camper through the winding mountain roads again, but as we learned the park is full of beautiful lodges and cabins so I suspect we will avail ourselves of one of them.  We enjoyed a brief visit to Tetons National Park, but it wasn’t nearly enough, so we will also hope to find time to visit there and stay longer for some exploring.  For now, it’s fair to say that I have many fond memories of our adventure and plans to return.  

You can check out my Flickr Album with more pictures here.

Mt. Haynes and the Madison River. Photo by author.

About Yellowstone National Park – Yellowstone National Park is the oldest national park in the US National Park system.  It was created in 1872, via a law signed by Ulysses S. Grant.  The park is approximately 2.2 million acres of lakes, rivers, and canyons on a high mountain plateau in the caldera of a dormant volcano.  The park is dotted with active many geothermal artifacts including geysers.  The most famous is Old Faithful.  During our morning visit to the grounds around Old Faithful we saw it erupt three times.  The magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is believed to be over 37 miles long and up to 7 miles deep!  

In Praise of the Blob

“It’s just transportation.” I hear this every now and then when I’m engaged in conversations about cars. I enjoy these conversations and when someone interjects with this statement it just feels like pouring cold water on a pleasant camp fire. But I get it. Some people don’t care about what is or isn’t under the hood and they just want to get ‘from point A to point B.’

This is a little different than the American car culture we hear so much about on television and in magazines. While the automobile may have been invented elsewhere, it’s well understood that Mr. Ford turned it into a consumer item. Once our country got on wheels, people really got moving. I would argue that our incredibly dynamic economy simply would not exist as it does today without the automobile. More than this, cars are, in many cases, an expression of one’s personality and lifestyle.

I wasn’t a car kid growing up. My Dad was kind of a car guy, and my brother even more so, but what interested them was old cars, with carburetors and large displacement V8 engines. These classic muscle cars are amazing, but what I eventually found fascinating isn’t straight line acceleration and speed, but cars that handle, carving up scenic country roads and eating up the miles on the highway when you want to get somewhere. I eventually learned that I have an affection for all things mechanical and electronic and while my career eventually led me into technology work, I still have a place in my heart cars and motorcycles.

This brings me to an article I read a few years back in one of the auto magazines (sorry auto writers, I don’t remember which one!) where the author was lamenting how automakers were turning all of their offerings into homogenous ‘blobs’. It took me a bit to figure out what he was on about, but I realized he was right, at least on some level. Every US manufacturer and an increasing number of others is packing their product lines with ‘Crossover’ vehicles. Basically vehicles that range from swollen versions of compact hatchbacks (Honda HRV, Chevy Trax etc…) to larger mini-van come SUV-ish types (Ford Edge, Chevy Traverse etc…)

The lamentation in question centers around the decline of the sedan and the rise of the lowest-common-denominator of unibody chassis and transverse mounted engines and body styling borrowed from eggs. Now in fairness, automakers have long followed one another as markets have evolved. Every era of the auto industry has done this, and it’s been tough to divine vehicles from different manufacturers without nameplates and product lines from any given marque from one another, at least until you actually drive them.

Honda Blob (HRV). Photo from Honda web site.
Chevrolet Blob (Trax) Photo from Chevrolet web site.

I briefly followed along, empathizing with the author, and realizing that I started driving around the time when cars started to become more like transportation appliances and less expressions of personality and vehicles to take on adventure (I took drivers education in a Toyota Corolla). In a post-modern era where more interaction is virtual and a large cross-section of a generation of (not just) Americans are foregoing driving altogether, finding cars and trucks with personality is getting harder to do. The idea that there’s a market for unique vehicles is still evident in the demand for things like Jeep Wranglers, but the number of vehicle models that break the mold is shrinking quickly. Even one of my favorite marques, BMW, is succumbing to this, with a growing line of ‘X’ vehicles, which are their entries into the blob-UV market. Thankfully many of their models remain solidly in the longitudinally mounted engine, performance oriented chassis category, but I can’t deny they’re caving to market forces.

BMW Blob (X1) Photo from BMW North America Web Site

But after all that I’ll take up the other side of this. There are a lot of ‘Point A to B’ types who simply need to get there, wherever there is. Not everyone needs a vehicle that reflects their lifestyle. Not everyone has a lifestyle that involves going places. Modern engines and electric motors make the getting there more efficient. Modern safety tech means that even if you have accident on the way there, you’ll probably survive it, and maybe even walk away unscathed. And in the not-too-distant future you probably won’t have to drive at all. Your autonomous transportation pod will take you there and you can spend the whole time on the way on your mobile phone (as many drivers do today!). Or as the pandemic has proved, you might not have to go at all.

As for me, getting there is half the fun. I still like engines. I still like the process. I like to see and engage the road on the journey. My vehicles are more to me than transportation appliances. I like to talk to like-minded people who grew up wanting a car (or a few of them) and dreamed of going places. I know the days of things like this are numbered. But then so are mine. The future belongs to the blob. Long live the blob!

People Still Do That?

This was a statement a friend of mine made after I told him I was the president of my amateur radio club. I wasn’t surprised by his question. He then admitted that his favorite pastime seemed to be declining too (flying model aircraft). It seems our interests are turning much more to the virtual and much less to the real 3-d world of non-simulated physics. But I digress.

Amateur radio seemed to enjoy a bit of a renaissance during the pandemic. People stuck at home decided to learn about radio and eventually even take their FCC exams online. I was excited by this. Radio isn’t my first love, but I do enjoy it, enough to eventually volunteer to help lead my radio club when a lot of the long-time club members decided they didn’t want to do it any more or had passed away. I’ve even managed to encourage my wife to get her license and join me as a club officer!

So, in the days of mobile phones and the Internet, why are people interested in radio? Well, for those of us who are technologically inclined, it’s seems a natural extension of technology and communication. The idea of being able to keep in touch even if the infrastructure takes a hit, appeals to many (myself included). I’ve lived long enough to see, first hand, a widespread power blackout that lasted long enough to make telephone service of all kinds, questionable. Self-sufficiency still has it’s adherents.

Further, in this post-modern world, operators have combined radio and the Internet to create opportunities for people to use all sorts of different technologies to communicate in all sorts of modes. Amateur radio is not longer just reclusive nerds tapping morse code to one-another around the world, contesting to see who can fill in all the boxes to get a certificate. And in some less developed countries, volunteer amateur operators still help facilitate communication when grids are down and the normal lines of communication simply aren’t available.

Ham radio lends itself heavily to do-it-yourself types, with many operators building radios from kits, building their own antennas, and of course, installing and using their equipment in their own homes and vehicles. I didn’t get interested in amateur radio until I was almost forty, but it bit me pretty hard after that. I now have several radios and participate in a various volunteer activities.

If you’re interested in amateur radio and all that it entails, reach out to your local ham radio club. If you can’t find your local club through Google, reach out to the Amateur Radio Relay League (the advocacy group for amateur radio in the United States), or click on this link: