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I got my amateur radio license!

I have a memory of sitting at our family computer happily chatting away with some friends on IRC, when my father came in and started to talk about ham radio and how you could talk to people from all over the world!

“Dad, I’m chatting with someone in Sweden RIGHT NOW.”

As a teenager, it was my job to think everything my parents did was, at best, out-dated and irrelevant. I largely ignored the dirty old radio equipment that was piled in our garage, and I never actually saw my father operate. My mother doesn’t believe he ever had a license, and I never managed to find him in the dozens of historical call sign directories I looked at, but it easily could have been one of those hobbies from his 20s that he did with some buddies.

A few years later I was living in Philadelphia and had started using Linux. The overlap in Linux and amateur radio at the time was extensive, and I quickly learned that a lot of my techie friends were in to both. Part of it comes from the hacker, tinker culture that lead my friends to get into electrical engineering, but Linux actually enables you to use amateur radio is novel ways, so it’s all linked. Ultimately, getting my license ended up on my bucket list, as a way to connect with my deceased father, and because it looked interesting and fun. A few years later, I married MJ, who has had his amateur radio license since he was a teenager.

But many things in life are interesting and fun! So while I’d visit Philadelphia every year and attend FOSSCON, where my friends would ask “gonna take the test this year?” I’d just laugh and say, “maybe next year!” I did still want it, but it never became a priority, until 2020.

2020. That Year. First, we were living through the fourth year of the worst presidency of my life. I still feel like I was living in some weird reality that made a cartoonish rich guy from the 1980s into the 45th president of the United States. As a wealthy white woman, I was pretty immune to his policies, but my family is Jewish, and his policies directly hurt my loved ones. I watched people move out of the country due to legitimate fear for their lives and livelihood. I had colleagues in the industry who were separated from their families due to random changes in Visa policies. Hate crimes rose, and misinformation online flourished. Then the pandemic hit and federal response was reckless. Then we had the worst fire season in California history. When we woke up to orange skies here in the bay area on September 9, 2020, many of us were at a low point.

What does this have to do with amateur radio? Civilization is fragile. As we lived through rolling blackouts and bare shelves at grocery stores, it struck me how quickly our intricate web of things we use every day can collapse and leave us helpless. For some people this meant stocking up on toilet paper and buying more guns. For me this meant learning how electricity works and how to communicate simply over radio waves.

Practical things aside, getting my license was a clearly-defined accomplishment that I knew I’d enjoy, and it was something that is very me. Over the past three years, so much of what I’ve learned outside of work has been in the care of my home and children. It’s easy to lose yourself when you have kids, and I’ve definitely been struggling with that. Plus, for brief moments around discussing sleep schedules, discipline strategies, and meals for the kids, MJ could help me study or answer basic questions about electricity and operating procedures. It’s been nice to spend a little time being just our nerdy selves again.

Finally, with the pandemic, many clubs have started doing tests virtually. You join a video call, share your ID to prove you are who you say you are, show off your room to prove you’re not hiding the answers anywhere, and then share your screen as they watch you take the test. This was major for me. No need for me to go to an event or anything, I could take my test, and moments later scoop up my toddler and be back to mom mode! Parents, this is a great opportunity.

As for studying, I had a bit of fun with that too. In addition to MJ helping me out, I did a lot of studying on my own. First, I bought a paper copy of the No Nonsense Technician Class License Study Guide by Dan Romanchik. He gives the PDF away for free but having a disconnected way to start my studying was very helpful for me. Then, I got the Mometrix Ham Radio Technician License Exam Flashcard Study System. I set the giant pile of cards just outside the laundry room, and every time I walked by (A LOT!) I would pick up a few cards and run through them. Genuine mom hack right there. Finally, I used HamStudy.org extensively, especially in the final month before my test. Between desktop version and a few minutes here and there on my phone, the app was how I finally got good at passing the practice exams.

And since I don’t like being on the phone all the time with the kids, I would also sometimes use the cards when I was playing with them, with varying results. Sometimes I’d return to a bit of a mess!

In learning about schematics, I also got to spend a little time on “toddler art” that had us using some stencils, so I got to make batteries and resistors, and my toddler made some circles and squares. This beauty now hangs on the door to my home office.

I also took a bit of a side trip down phonetic alphabet lane. I never learned the proper civilian phonetic alphabet, and while you’re not tested on it, the use is encouraged in amateur radio. So I was shopping for a poster for Adam to learn the alphabet, and I realized I could learn too! I ended up buying a design that had large, clear letters for Adam, with small print phonetic alphabet, and Morse Code dots and dashes for good measure. I got it printed and laminated at a local print shop, and voila! We could now learn together! It’s actually working, just by having that poster around and glancing at it every day, I have most of the alphabet down.

The last thing I did to conclude this adventure to get my license was to sign up for my exam. With two little kids at home, it was incredibly easy to keep putting off studying and learning everything. Every day I’m too tired, too busy, just need a little more rest, 20 more minutes of TV. A date on the calendar really made me focus and prepare. It worked! On August 26th, I logged onto a video call with my pals from the Philly club and had the test administered. I passed with 34/35 correct!

The next day I got an email from the FCC with my call sign. I’m KN6QGG!

And MJ got me a cake!

Many thanks to my Philly crew who never gave up on me and nagged me year after year to get my license, especially Jim Fisher (AJ3DI) who has been with me on the whole journey. He gave me tips and nudges as I needed them.

I am happy with how this all went. If I were to do it again and had more time, I would have broken out my Discover Electronics Kit because I think some more hands on electronics fiddling would have been more fun and helped me understand the basic concepts more quickly. But hey, I still have the kit, so I can tackle that at another time!

Next is actually operating. I haven’t thought a whole lot about what I want to do, mostly because I am still in this early parenthood haze where I have very little time, but the first step will be getting a radio. I’ve already had a local acquaintance offer to give me a spare he has, we just need to figure out a time when we’re both free and I can pick it up! I’m sure I’ll find something delightful and clever to do with it.

And some day, while my sons are exploring some super cool virtual reality world with their pals on the Mars colony, I’ll tell them about amateur radio so they can roll their eyes at me.

Hopefully they’ll eventually come around.