Coincidence…Or Super Powers?

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Qianmen_14_april_2010We were walking the street near Tiananmen Square towards Qianmen, the colloquial name given both to the front gate and the famous pedestrian shopping street that runs behind the Archery Tower.  In the midst of our discussion I said “we should go there” and gestured in a large sweeping motion with my arms and hands – a grand flourish of movement that was impossible to miss. At that moment a couple who had been walking towards us split up, parting to walk around us, only to reform once sufficiently beyond our backs.

Coincidence? I think not.

It struck me that my arm motion was like Moses gesturing to part the Red Sea. At the very motion, the pair parted around us.

The incident led to a long, mirth-filled discussion between the two of us after the other couple had passed out of earshot. Was it mere coincidence that the pair parted when they did, or was it some super power of telekinesis that forced them to veer to the either side? Was it a reflection of Chinese society, where the populace is so used to being told what to do they reacted accordingly to my apparent non-verbal edict to divide on cue? This last seemed unlikely, I argued, as my observation of traffic rules suggested that rules for crossing streets in traffic are taken as suggestions, not orders. I had seen this to the extreme in Xi’an where there were hardly any traffic lights even on intersections that virtually screamed for them. Cars would wind their way through a maze of slowly moving masses of steel and humanity.

Our conversation veered off into divergent directions, perhaps itself a form of telekinesis (or is it psychokinesis). After many minutes of merriment we found ourselves almost at our destination. Whether coincidence or super power, the jocularity of the incident distracted us from miles of walking.

And clearly that is a super power.

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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Photo credit: Archery Tower By Vyacheslav Argenberg

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Tentative Writing Group

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Standing at doorI approached the group tentatively. “But introversion is common among writers,” I tell myself for the hundredth time. Everyone else there must feel the same way.

Somehow that didn’t help.

My procrastination was in itself a result of procrastination. A million excuses flooded my mind whenever I opened my laptop.

“Let me just check my email quickly.”

“Let me see if there is anything important I need to respond to on Facebook. It’ll take only a second, I promise.”

“Wait, where did I put that book I might need for a presentation three months from now?”

“Darn, my ‘To Do’ list is longer than my arm.” [Mostly because I haven’t yet done yesterday’s tasks, or the day before’s, or last weeks….]

What was I talking about?

Oh, right. Procrastination. No, tentativeness. That’s it. I’m standing at the door to the class room on a college campus I haven’t attended in a decade. There is a ‘Meet Up’ Writer’s Group I’m supposed to be checking out tonight.

“What if they don’t want me to join?” I thought. “What if they hate my work? What if they are all writer-wannabes who spend the entire meeting complaining about how they can’t get their writing published, but have no substantive writing completed? Or have written “the great American novel!!” but never submitted it to a publisher, or even an editor?”

“Or what if they are all accomplished writers and editors and think my stuff is crap?”

Darn. How long have I been standing here? I’ve missed half the meeting already.

“Okay, make a decision. Either open up the door or go home and STFU.”

Wow. Sometimes my inner voices can be brutal.

“Okay,” deep breath, “let’s do this!”

Sorry that I”m late. Bad case of tentativitis.

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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A Penchant for Finery

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dapper gentlemanNikola Tesla worked hard, but he also played hard. He discovered that Paris was a magnet for high fashion and the arts. He developed a passion for fine clothes, often buying the most fashionable tailored suits, complete with soft kid leather gloves, high-end leather shoes with spats, and the finest handmade shirts. This penchant for finery and luxury was not, unfortunately, matched by his junior engineer salary, which meant “the income was spent as soon as received.” When asked by his friend Puskas how he was getting along in the new city, Tesla described his situation and quipped humorously about his finances,

“the last twenty-nine days of the month are the toughest!”

[Extract from Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity]

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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Finite Shelf Life

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thinkerOne of those life-changing incidents that signal a time to move on occurred in my colleague’s office. Like me, my co-worker was a scientist. We were discussing a technical aspect of some mutual project; he sitting at his desk and me leaning against the credenza along the wall. In the midst of this discussion we are joined by another colleague, the key lawyer that makes up our three-person team. The lawyer closes the door as he enters and takes up a position near the window at the back of the room, thereby placing me literally and figuratively in the middle. I don’t recall the topic of the disagreement, only that it, as singer Harry Chapin once noted in a song, the volume “grew in intensity and excitement.” The impromptu meeting swung between vehement shouting and awkward periods of silence.

Not really being a party to whatever disagreement there was between the two, I remained quiet until both colleagues turned to me and asked: “David, what do you think about this?” Instantly I knew that my time with the firm had a finite shelf life. Within a year, the lawyer had resigned. I would hang on for a few more years and a change of office before quitting; my scientist colleague resigned shortly after.

This wasn’t the first time an incident catalyzed a change in workplace. In a previous company I ran a small office a continent away from the main headquarters. Our annual 5-day “Leaders Retreat” was held at the gorgeous mountain home of the firm’s president, a long flight to the opposite coast. The experiences at the previous two retreats portended anything but an enjoyable third. As it turns out, here too there was quite a bit of clashing and shouting.

One role-playing game facilitated by a guest “team-building” consultant was particularly enlightening. We were split into groups of four, and by chance I was placed in a group with the president along with a quiet guy who reported to me and a not-so-quiet guy who somehow always seemed to be a catalyst for conflict. We were given a scenario in which we had crashed a small plane in a remote area and had to decide which of three options to pursue; Stay with the plane to await an unlikely but possible rescue; Walk to point A [the original destination, about 20 miles distant]; or Walk to point B [where it was believed (but not known for sure) there would be a village with water and food, about 10 miles distant in the opposite direction of the original destination]). After choosing an option, we were to list in order of priority the 25 items scoured from the plane’s wreckage we could take with us. Items available ranged from raincoats, a bottle of water, a bottle of alcohol, a comb, a small mirror, and a variety of other items with sometimes obvious, but mostly not so obvious, value. Each of us four would create a list and then the group would negotiate a combined final list. The results were astounding in how well they so clearly epitomized why I felt it was time for me to leave the firm.

The president immediately told us that “this is the list,” to which we were expected to concur. No discussion of why the priorities were given or the importance of each item. Indeed, no discussion or communication of which of the three options we were to pursue since, to me at least, the priority of each item might vary depending on the choice of destination or even whether to stay or go. The other two members of the group essentially deferred to the president, probably fearing disagreement, but I said I would like to have a discussion about the choices, beginning with which travel option had been the basis of the listing. The president, who was used to the idea of arbitrary direction rather than evaluating input from her underlings, said that she knew the right answer because she had been trained as a small plane pilot and part of that training was to learn the lesson the role-playing game was supposed to teach. Of course, the role-play game wasn’t actually trying to teach us what items to prioritize, but to give us insights into how each of us interacts with others (i.e., our management/learning/acting styles). The game told me that the conflict I had always had with the president was a clash of work styles – she the dictator, I the facilitator (using the definitions provided to us by the consultant) – and that it was highly unlikely the president was going to adapt. Which meant I had to adapt myself (which contradicted why I was hired) or leave.

And this was even before all the yelling started.

The end of the retreat could not come soon enough for me and I enthusiastically boarded the plane back to my own coast. Within a couple of months I had hired myself into a bigger firm, the one that sent me to the second life-changing scenario on which I opened this piece.

Lessons learned. My career can best be epitomized by a series of finite work experiences, each one a step ahead. More importantly, each step gave me more insight and more confidence to take chances on the future. In doing so, the finite becomes infinite.

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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Memorizing Abraham Lincoln

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GettysburgOn a chilly November 19, Abraham Lincoln addressed the crowd after the oration by keynote speaker Edward Everett. Lincoln sat on the speaker’s platform and listened to an opening prayer, music from the Marine Band, and Everett’s two-hour discourse on “The Battles of Gettysburg.” Following another short hymn sung by the Baltimore Glee Club, Lincoln rose to speak. He finished a mere two minutes later, so fleeting that many in the crowd largely missed his dedicatory remarks.

While Everett’s much longer keynote, resplendent with neo-classical references and nineteenth-century rhetorical style, was well received, generations of elementary school students have memorized Lincoln’s brief address. The irony of Lincoln observing “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here” is not lost on history.

Lincoln’s remarks were designed both to dedicate the cemetery and redefine the objectives of the ongoing Civil War. The “four score and seven years ago” sets the beginning of the United States not at the Constitution, but the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, where “all men are created equal.” Those ideals were under attack, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” After honoring the men who “struggled here,” Lincoln reminds everyone still living what our role must be:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

As he gave his address, Lincoln was already feeling the symptoms of variola, a mild form of smallpox, which kept him bedridden for weeks after his return to Washington. He eventually wrote out several copies of his address, including one sent to Everett to be joined with his own handwritten speech and sold at New York’s Sanitary Commission Fair as a fundraiser for wounded soldiers.

[Adapted from Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America.]

David J. Kent is 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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Visceral Evita

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Eva_Perón_Retrato_OficialThe nation had a visceral reaction to Eva Perón’s untimely death at only 33 years old. While she lived, the woman best known as Evita was loved by Argentinians so much that she was her husband’s running mate for a second presidential term in 1951. Unfortunately, her health started to decline so she withdrew her candidacy, but Juan was still elected overwhelmingly. Diagnosed with cervical cancer, she underwent a hysterectomy performed by a revolutionary American oncologist named George Pack. Early indications were that the surgery was successful, but it quickly became evident that the cancer had metastasized and spread. She then underwent chemotherapy, the first Argentinian to receive this radical new treatment, pioneered in part by Dr. Pack. She failed to respond to treatment, continued to decline rapidly, and in July 1952 passed away.

The outpouring of grief was so pervasive that Evita was given a state funeral, usually reserved for heads of state, and the nation went into national mourning. The reaction from the public was indeed much more than expected. Tens of thousands of people crowded in to see her body being moved from the Ministry of Labor; so much so that several people were crushed to death and thousands required medical treatment in local hospitals. While lines stretched down city streets waiting for a chance to view her body in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian Olympic team, then in Helsinki for the summer Olympic games, got their own memorial service to honor Evita.

Even today she is revered by the nation that remembers her both for her actual accomplishments and the mythology that has grown around her since the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical named after her brought this “minor radio matinee star” to the world stage. While beloved in her own country, probably most non-Argentinians confuse her with Madonna.

[Above is a work in progress]

David J. Kent is an avid traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017. 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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