Bermuda Memories – The North Rock Song

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North RockNorth Rock juts out of the Bermuda platform about an eight mile boat ride from the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (now the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences). Seemingly remote, the ancient rock and its modern navigational beacon mark a coral reef stretching out a kilometer in diameter. Besides the great diving, North Rock was the inspiration for a song.

Not a new song, mind you. Officially the song is an old sea chanty dating back to at least the mid 1700s. While the title is technically “The Mermaid,” to the 15 of us budding marine biologists on our semester in Bermuda it was the “North Rock Song.”

North Rock is a great location for scuba diving and snorkeling on the coral reefs. The number of fish and coral species there is tremendous. There are also many shipwrecks, too numerous to count. Ironically, many were drawn to North Rock’s beacon, only to be dashed upon the shallow reef. Other captains mistook the beacon for the more distant St. David’s lighthouse, realizing too late that the deep water they thought they were in was actually a reef. Most died with their mistake.

Taking advantage of the long, slow cruise back to shore after a day of diving, several of the women members of our group slathered on the baby oil (this was pre-skin cancer scare days) to heighten their tans on the foredeck. Eric, one of our group and from a wealthy family of sailboaters, decided to teach us the song that would become our Bermuda anthem.

‘Twas Friday morn when we set sail,
And we had not got far from land,
When the Captain, he spied a lovely mermaid,
With a comb and a glass in her hand.
Oh the ocean waves may roll,
And the stormy winds may blow,
While we poor sailors go skipping aloft
And the land lubbers lay down below, below, below
And the land lubbers lay down below.

The refrain was quite catchy, and we sang it full-throated much of the way back to shore. [Note that “sang” is a relative term. I don’t recall any of our group going on to a career in music.] As each stanza unfolds, we hear from the Captain, the Cook, and the Cabin-Boy “of our gallant ship” as they race toward danger, repeating the refrain with each mournful verse. The last stanza has the gallant ship sinking to the bottom of the sea, suggesting that we were focused more on the refrain than the idea of imminent danger during our long run on open waters. 

Oh the ocean waves may roll,
And the stormy winds may blow,
While we poor sailors go skipping aloft
And the land lubbers lay down below, below, below
And the land lubbers lay down below.

As I think about this semester all these years later, a reunion of sorts at BIOS sounds like a great idea. Most of my fellow students went on to more lucrative careers (marine biologists do not fall into the Forbes “Top Twenty” career choices for accruing wealth). I worked in marine biology until an arsonist burned down my laboratory, then moved to aquatic toxicology and on to environmental consulting. Now I flip back and forth between science and Abraham Lincoln history.

But my mind often leaps back in time to the North Rock song. Today it was because I have a sailing cruise scheduled in the not-so-far-away future, so the refrain started rattling around in my head begging to come out. That said, maybe I should skip the last stanza and focus on my upcoming sailing ship remaining fully upright on the high seas.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

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Is Lincoln All You Do?

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st-gaudens-outside-NHSA week or so ago I was attending an Abraham Lincoln lecture at a private club in Washington, DC. Several people I knew were there, including a fellow Lincoln book author I’ve known for years but hadn’t seen for several months. She asked what I’ve been up to, then shocked me with the question: Is Lincoln all you do?

To be honest, I was a bit taken aback. After all, my official author website is nicknamed “Science Traveler.” My background is science and my entire working career was in science until I quit my job about six years ago to pursue writing full time. I’ve traveled a lot in the last few years and my first two books were biographies of two famous scientists, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Recent travel took me to Cuba (where I admit to seeing two Lincoln statues), Costa Rica (no Lincoln), and New England (my father’s funeral).

In other words, I do a lot that doesn’t involve Abraham Lincoln.

Then I started to think more deeply about this question. It’s true that I haven’t spent as much time on scientific work or writing in recent times. I’ve let my scientific blog go dormant for the last year due to lack of time and the inconvenience of logging in (although I’ve been contemplating resurrecting it under a new name). I even write less about my travels, in part because I’ve been traveling so much that going through the photos upon my return is overwhelming. My Lincoln studies have paralleled my scientific career, unpaid but no less enthusiastically pursued in my spare time. Since I left my science job I’ve put more focus on my Lincoln interests. I even wrote a book on him, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America. Lately it does seem my energies are mostly on Lincoln. Maybe Lincoln has taken over my life.

Admittedly, my role as Vice President of the Lincoln Group of DC has taken up a lot of my time, from organizing and/or attending activities to writing for the Lincolnian newsletter to writing all the website copy to actively participating in our book study group to helping my colleagues schedule dinner lecturers and other events. I’m also on the Board of the Abraham Lincoln Institute and active in the Lincoln Forum. My calendar is filled with Lincoln events.

Even the travel has had a Lincoln flavor. I drove to Charleston, South Carolina in the spring to see where the Civil War started and check out the Confederate submarine, the Hunley. A 2,500 mile road trip this summer took me to Illinois for Chasing Abraham Lincoln, Part 3. I’ll be heading to Gettysburg for the Lincoln Forum meeting in November and plan to squeeze in trips to two Civil War museums in the near future. I might even check out Lincoln in California (and yes, there is a such a thing, although he never visited there himself).

Much of this focus on Lincoln has to do with my work in progress, a book on a specific interest of Lincoln. I’ve also tentatively started a new Lincoln book idea and still plan to be editor-in-chief of a Lincoln compendium book written with my fellow Lincoln Group of DC colleagues, if I can ever find the time to pursue it.

But there is hope for more diversity. I am working on non-Lincoln books and other writing for magazines, something I hadn’t put much emphasis on until recently. I have a travel memoir about half finished, along with some ideas for travel-related articles. And there is the aforementioned scientific blog, which I anticipate turning into a science communication outlet.

And of course, there will be more travel. A lot more travel. Already planned are trips to Chicago (okay, in part for Lincoln sites) and the lower Caribbean, including upper South and lower Central America. Tentative plans for next year include a road trip in the middle United States and a tour in the Middle East.

So no, Lincoln is not all I do. But he is much of what I do. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

An Open Letter to James Daunt, Barnes and Noble’s New CEO

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Barnes and NobleDear Mr. James Daunt,

Congratulations. I understand you have taken over as CEO of Barnes and Noble booksellers following its recent move to go private. I know you’re busy rethinking the store and plan significant changes to make it more profitable. I wish you all the best.

As a writer and a frequent visitor to my local store, I do want to offer one thought about a practice in need of reconsideration – the practice of prompting customers to join Barnes and Noble’s membership program.

I do get it. These frequent buyer programs save money for frequent buyers as well as being good for the company. They encourage people to buy more, and if they don’t, you still get the membership fee the same way gyms make money on memberships to people who never quite find the time to visit the gym. I understand there are corporate directives that require sales staff (or associates or whatever euphemism B&N uses) to prompt customers to become members, just as the in-store Starbuck’s cafes are instructed to always ask the customer if they want to upsize from Grande to Venti “for only 50 cents more!”.

Alas, the actual logistics are often problematic. The salespeople/associates/booksellers at my local store seem not to remember they have made this same query to me on every one of my frequent visits over the last 6 months. I understand that B&N has a lot of customers and perhaps I’m not that memorable, but by now someone in the store should have some vague feeling they’ve seen me before. Especially since I’ve signed copies of my books there. This suggests you’ve employed automatons rather than book or coffee sellers. But even this lack of recognition isn’t the main problem.

Today I was accosted – and while I do mean that figuratively and not literally, accosted seems to be right level of insistence – by a sales associate I’ve spoken with at least half a dozen times in the last several months. I’m familiar with her enough to know she’ll enthusiastically offer the “become a member” spiel. Today she was particularly annoying, to the detriment of Barnes and Noble.

As I was perusing a book in the history section she approached and asked: “Is there anything I can help you find today?” Always delighted to have someone offer help, and often being so queried by staff at B&N, I pleasantly responded “No, not today, I’m just browsing. Thank you.” So far so good. I expected the usual and appropriate response, something like “Okay, let me know if you need anything,” followed by the associate leaving to help other customers.

But without missing a beat this associate asked me if I was a member. “No, I’m not interested. Thank you,” I replied, then lowered my head to continue scanning the title page of a book I had open before her arrival. It looked interesting and I was considering the purchase.

But wait, she was still talking.

“No, thank you,” I said, looking up briefly to interject into her monologue, then returned to continue reviewing the book I had in my hand.

And yet she continued talking. Not conversational talking, but a rehearsed speech that I had heard dozens of times before. She went on for another 10 or 15 seconds after I had made clear I wasn’t interested. Fed up that she was still trying to sell me something I’ve told her I didn’t want, and not feeling the necessity of telling her for a third time, I kept looking at the book I had been engrossed in before she accosted me. Eventually, after droning on for way longer than any sentient being should have droned, she left and I continued my browsing, although now highly annoyed and unlikely to be buying anything today from this particular establishment.

It struck me that her initial offer to help me find something was entirely contrived – after all, I was flipping through a book in hand when she approached. Clearly she was simply looking for an excuse to engage so she could go into her sales spiel. I assume that associates get some sort of commission or bonus from membership sales they initiate, but in this case she did more to lose the book sale I was already considering than gain any benefit for her or the store. To me, this is the worst kind of associate, someone who seemingly cares little or nothing for the customers and everything for her own sales commissions or bonuses or however associates are rewarded for selling memberships or Venti Frappuccinos.

While I understand the requirement for associates to promote memberships and would expect it by the café and bookstore cashiers upon checkout (when “you would save an extra 10% on this purchase” means something), it is completely inappropriate and counterproductive for associates to go into hard sales spiels within the stacks and tables. Especially when associates fabricate the pretense of offering help – clearly unneeded at the time – in order to corner potential customers for the pitch.

So, Mr. Daunt, my one suggestion in your in-box full of ideas of how to make B&N better is to dump the automatons and hire booksellers who love both books and book buyers. The sole advantage independent booksellers have is that the sales associates get to know the customers and the local authors. When asked whether they need help finding something, the customer knows the query is sincere, not a pretense to barrage them with sales pitches. If Barnes and Noble can combine honest customer service with the greater selection larger stores offer, I have to believe it would increase B&N’s competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Oh, and also have more book signings and lectures by local authors.

Thanks for reading this (at least in my imagination). While I understand B&N has a daunting task ahead (no pun intended), I’m pulling for you. As I said, I’m a frequent visitor to my local B&N (the oatmeal raison cookies and Grande [not Venti] Frappuccinos are delicious, thank you) and would love to continue to do so.

Best regards,

P.S. Apropos of nothing, during my several years living in Brussels I was a fan of Waterstones.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

Dual Entities

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EmceeThe school was breaking precedent. Usually a professor was emcee (aka, was Master of Ceremonies) at the annual Biology Department banquet. This year they chose me to run the show. The idea wasn’t that outlandish on the surface; I had been the Biology Society President and was generally considered a respectable, capable leader. True, I didn’t exactly have a lot of public speaking experience [translation: none], but maybe they just felt sorry for me [long story for another time]. Or maybe all the professors refused to do it and desperation set in. Either way, I was emcee.

I have to admit I didn’t really prepare ahead of time, not having a clue what an emcee did at such a banquet, and not receiving any guidance. “Just introduce the speakers and the awards” was the only advice I received. The department had printed a colorful program that I was to follow, on which I immediately found a typographical error (perhaps I was destined to be a writer, or at least an editor). Not having prepared any opening remarks, which I discovered was a requirement when I arrived that night and noticed the program stated the emcee would offer “opening remarks,” I did the only thing I could do – I winged it.

Holding up the night’s program to the gathered guests – professors, students, a dean or two – I duly pointed out there was a small typo. While updating the names on the previous year’s program, the fact that the previous year had two emcees went unnoticed. Hence, I noted to the crowd, my name was listed under the heading “Masters of Ceremonies,” plural.

“Alas,” I exclaimed, “my astrological sign is indeed Gemini – the Twins – but I’ve never actually felt like a dual entity before.”

That got a loud laugh from the room [Trust me, it was funnier in person, especially in that more astrologically-aware time period]. The rest of the night was a piece of cake (except for that awkward moment when introducing the Biology Major Award, only to find out seconds later I was the recipient).

In thinking about this many years later I realized my life could be characterized in duality as well. Growing up on the shore led me early to a life as a marine biologist. Well, a few years as a working marine biologist before shifting to related scientific fields with more financial potential. For three decades I was a paid scientist working for a series of consulting firms, and lastly, as a scientist in a law firm. The work was both fulfilling, and while layoffs and impending layoffs were a constant fact my entire career, it paid the bills until I left to focus on my writing. So scientist is one entity.

The other entity is historian, in particular the study of Abraham Lincoln, his life and times. This didn’t pay. I did it on the side, after work, on the weekends, and whenever I could afford to scavenge the used book store circuit. My fascination with Lincoln kept me interested in history and how it relates to today. Once I quit “the day job” I was able to focus even more on Lincoln, including my active involvement with several Lincoln organizations. I also wrote a book on Lincoln that has been very successful.

This “dual entity” theme has given my life variety and fulfillment. More recently it has expanded to include what could be considered a third entity – traveler. Not surprisingly, much of my traveling builds on the original base duality.

Maybe being a Gemini was fate after all.

The “Biology President as Emcee” idea was carried over the following year, but rumor has it that my successor’s performance caused the department to revert to its previous reliance on professor-only emcees. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

Regrouping After Dad

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Dad in DC 2014Three weeks ago today I wrote “Father Died Today.” I haven’t posted on this site since then as it didn’t seem right without first writing a follow up, sort of a closure, post. But then how does one reach closure? I’m still open.

I haven’t attended many funerals. As my parents’ large contingent of siblings slowly passed away (and yet probably 8 or more remain) I was too far away to make it there for the services. Sometimes I was in other countries, although I did fly back from Brussels to attend my grandmother’s funeral. At 102, she had been the sole matriarch for many decades and I had to be there. Needless to say, I made the trip for my father.

Unlike my mother, my father wasn’t a particularly religious man so it seemed a bit incongruent to have a minister reading psalms during the service. And yet, it helped. After my older brother eulogized our father with words showing the depth of our family’s ardor, I was asked to speak a few words of my own. I told the story of us fishing together (mentioned in my previous post), and another I haven’t written about on these pages yet. We all considered him a great man. The attendees agreed.

After writing my previous post I hadn’t followed my usual routine of posting the piece to my social media platforms. Instead I simply posted a photo of my Dad from a few years ago onto my personal Facebook page. I said nothing other than to put his birth and death dates in the caption. This was to be my personal tribute. I was surprised, however, to receive over a hundred comments from friends and family. Most had never met my father but sensed his importance to me. Those who had met him said nice things. Those who knew him best expressed their love and affection. This pattern continued at the funeral service as friends and family repeatedly said he was a special man. It was nice to know that he was well loved by all.

My older brother lived a bit closer than me and was able to be there for Dad’s final labored hours. His presence helped my mother through the initial flood of excruciating grief, and he was there for her to lean on through the necessary funeral arrangements. After a long drive, I arrived the day after he passed away and spent the next 10 days with my family. After the funeral my brother had to return home; he had taken a sudden week off as President/CEO of a non-profit organization, and duty called. I stayed on to help my mother with the long list of other paperwork to be handled, and simply offer the further support of my presence. The following week was Independence Day and the traditional gathering at my grandmother’s former house (now my Aunt’s) for the parade and luncheon. It was helpful to have Mom there with dozens of friends and family.

At one point that day an uncle, Mom’s youngest brother, told me to remind my mother she could call him anytime. As he moved to walk away he suddenly stopped, turned, and said: “You can call me anytime too, you know.”

It was then I realized I hadn’t allowed my own emotions to surface during all this time. Sure, I broke down into an embarrassing blubber when I first heard the news, alone in my house hundreds of miles away, but my focus during those 10 days was on Mom. Only at that moment, when my uncle offered his emotional support for me, did it hit me that not only had my mother lost her husband of 66 years, I had lost my father of a lifetime. I managed to avoid of repeat of my earlier blubbering, but my eyes did well up and my breathing labored. [As they did just now typing this]

The next day I made the long drive back home. Since then I’ve periodically felt the loss slap me in the face. Reading a novel in which the main character visits his father with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home slapped me. Random thoughts slap me. Writing this piece has slapped me several times. Ru, who lost her own father to cancer at a much younger age, has helped me keep perspective.

To be honest, I feel a little silly expressing this, especially when many around me had lost their fathers or mothers or both long before I was faced with the situation. In a way, their experience with loss has helped me learn that while the memories and pain never quite go away, all of us gets through it and lives the lives our lost loved ones would have wanted us to continue living. Meanwhile, my mother again is my primary focus. My older brother and I, who both always called routinely anyway, have taken to calling more frequently. While I was still in my home town I helped my mother sign up for a day-long bus tour with the local Council of Aging. She will continue living. Several of her siblings are still around and all live locally. Add in both old and new friends and there is plenty of support to help get her through these initial stages without my father.

So is this closure? Probably not. But I need to refocus, regroup, renew, just as I’ve been encouraging my mother to do. It’s been difficult getting back into writing mode after all the recent travel and Dad’s passing, but I must. Today I took the first step in getting a routine going again. Tonight I’m writing this divulgence. Tomorrow I’ll set a timetable. I miss him, but I also know he would want me to continue.

Pater mortuus est, vivat filius.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

Father Died Today

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Dad in DC 2014Alas, I wish this was some faulty translation of Albert Camus’ famous opening line, but my father did indeed die today. Right now the loss feels overwhelming, but somehow I felt the need to offer tribute to him in my writing.

In fact, I’ve written about Dad quite a few times before on this venue. There were his favorite stories (and his other favorite stories). There was the time the two of us went fishing together. One can’t forget how he told of the time my Uncle complained that Dad “had more shrimp than me” , or when I got to join him and three of his dozen siblings at the Rowley Diner (which isn’t actually named the Rowley Diner).

And then there are the jokes. He was always joking; the kind of corny jokes that were punnier than heck (and always clean). Whether it be saving us the donut hole or the old Dalmatian on the fire truck joke, we could always count on Dad to keep us in good humor.

One of my favorite posts about Dad was called “Leader of the Band” after the Dan Fogelberg song. The refrain of the song takes me on a metaphorical journey:

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old

But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul

My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man

I’m just the living legacy
To the leader of the band

I know in many ways I’ve failed to live up to his example, but I hope I at least succeeded in living a life of honesty and integrity, the way Dad always lived his life. As I read through my tears the comments from friends and family about his passing, I see that he had a lasting affect on so many people’s lives. He was well loved by everyone who met him. He will be missed.

My thoughts now turn to my Mom, who has been lovingly caring for my father through his physical trials these last few years. His passing is two weeks short of his 92nd birthday, which coincides with my parents’ 66th wedding anniversary. [Dad always joked that he got married on his birthday so he would never forget his anniversary.] My mother is surrounded by our large family and network of friends during this difficult time. At 87 herself, she is still self-sufficient and energetic, but feels the loss of the love of her life more deeply than any of us can imagine. As Lincoln might have said, it is for us the living to ensure that we honor Dad’s legacy by honoring and supporting our mother’s continuing life.

I’ve written this both as a tribute to my father and as a sort of therapy; I’m still not sure if I should post it. It seems both too personal and not personal enough. If you’re reading it, obviously the decision was made in the positive.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!