Hello Silence, My Old Friend

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dsc04380I don’t recall how long I stood there watching her slowly disappear into the distance. For a moment I was back in college and the bittersweet memories of love lost. I almost started to run after her before catching myself.

“She’s married, remember?” I must have said it out loud because an elderly woman looked at me sadly, slowly nodding as she seemed to be scanning back in time to her own lost passions.

Silently, I groped my way toward the uptown “2” train. Maybe I would lose myself in the crowded loneliness of the midnight ball watchers in Times Square. After all, it was New Year’s Eve.

*

The buzzing in my head woke me up. Wow, I thought, how much did I drink? I don’t think I’ve ever had a hangover that made my head…wait, what day is this?

Bzzzzz

“Damn, it’s the phone.”

It was Mare.

“What? You’re still here?” She was crying.

“He what? Hold on, catch your breath. He’s in jail? What the hell happened?”

“Okay, okay. Where are you? The Conrad? Wow, nice digs. Um, I mean, I’ll be there in an hour.”

*

I couldn’t help but think how gorgeous she looked even though her face was red and puffy. Despite the obvious signs of trouble, she had taken the time to put on makeup and dressed to the nines. She nearly leaped into my arms when she saw me, then quickly jumped back at the doorman’s discretely disapproving glance.

“Let’s walk,” I said.

It didn’t take long before we settled in Teardrop Park, which seemed appropriate as our silence was interrupted only by her occasional whimper. Finally she opened up, both in words and tears. Something about some sort of SEC investigation and money laundering or…Honestly, most of it went over my head, but clearly her husband was in big trouble and had been detained. She had called his corporate office and they were arranging for their New York attorney to take care of it. Seems she had no idea what his job entailed; he usually just told her to enjoy the advantages of high finance, which usually meant a new pearl necklace or diamond studs and a knowing smile whenever she started asking questions. It seemed sketchy to me but I listened without saying much. I sensed that was what she needed most, someone to listen.

“I’m tired of it,” she told me after going silent again for a long while. “He goes off on long trips and I never know what’s going on. Maybe he has a string of girlfriends in all those cities. Not that it matters; sometimes I feel like I’m just another of his possessions. I really want him to love me, show me passion, show he can’t live without me. You know, all that schmaltzy stuff. Do I sound silly?”

“No, of course not, Mare.”

She went on for an hour before suddenly stopping.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Dave. I’m so embarrassed. Laying out my troubles to you.”

“Now you’re sounding silly, Mare. I could listen to you forever.”

Forever. Somehow that word triggered all those memories of times gone by.

“Um, we, um, we better go. Are you sure there’s nothing more you can do to help your husband?”

She tells me it’s being handled, so we drifted off, leaving reality behind in its silence.

Only later did we realize this was just the beginning…

[Written in response to one-word prompt, Silence]

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

The Radical and the Republican

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lincoln-douglassOne of the many books on my shelves is The Radical and the Republican, by James Oakes. It discusses the roles played by abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. The book got me thinking about the most effective ways to initiate change.

As a former slave, Douglass felt an urgency to end slavery, and now. He actively and emphatically pressed his case to anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t. As Lincoln was emerging as a viable voice against slavery, Douglass thought the man too timid, unwilling to take a stand for black rights. Ever the moderate, Lincoln focused solely on blocking the extension of slavery into the territories, feeling the U.S. Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, mainly the South. Lincoln did advocate for gradual, compensated, voluntary emancipation, but also that ex-slaves would be better off if they colonized their own countries in Africa and the Caribbean.

Two men with inherently different perspectives and beliefs, yet eventually, the two would work separately and together to accomplish the same goal – emancipation. They became mutually respecting friends.

Today we have many issues that seem too difficult to resolve. And yet, for example, marriage equality, which seemed an impossible goal just a few years ago, is now the law of the land. Climate change is not only an American issue but a global one, and while it seems an insurmountable challenge, we’ve seen tremendous steps being taken on unilateral, bilateral, multilateral, and global levels.

How did these sweeping changes occur? In many ways, there are radicals and there are the politicians (which, in this age, are now mostly Democrats). LGBT rights activists, as had Frederick Douglass, maintained high visibility for the issue. They used media, grass roots demonstrations, and aggressive lobbying to raise awareness of discrimination. Like slavery, this went on for many decades with little apparent change effected. More moderate forces working within our legislative structures slowly sought incremental steps. Over time, public sentiment evolved enough for key political leaders like President Obama to have enough breathing room to publicly offer support. And then change happened, seemingly overnight.

Critically, there is the often agonizingly slow drift of public sentiment. Lincoln once noted:

In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.

So it seems there are important roles for both radicals and political players in reading, and molding, public opinion. One keeps the high-pitch of awareness in the public eye; the other works the levers of legislative debate to find incremental compromise. Over time, the interplay between the two impacts public perception. When the public begins to accept the concept of change, in the sense that they no longer feel a threat to their own self interest, then change is allowed to happen. Often this happens quickly, as if a threshold is reached. The Sisyphean labor moves the boulder up the hill until, despite repeated setbacks, the crest is reached and it rolls into the future rather than the past.

Change is hard. Inertia keeps a body at rest in that inactive state until sufficient energy is applied to cause movement. But inertia also describes the state where motion remains in motion until something causes it to stop. There are always those who cause friction, that resist change; there remain today people who believe slavery was a merely “states rights” issue and not morally wrong. This means that once change occurs there will be continual struggle to maintain the benefit of that change. Just ask the LGBT and climate change action communities who must fight against reversals by bigoted and political forces.

To once again quote Abraham Lincoln: “I am a slow walker, but I never walk backward.”

Forward!

[Written in response to one-word prompt, Radical]

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

The Day

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recliner sleepThere was an audible “Plop!” as he dropped into the leather recliner. Reaching for the remote without looking, he leaned backwards just enough to instruct the chair to do the same. By its own version of muscle memory the chair finds exactly the perfect angle of recline for watching the telly or dozing into gentle sleep.

The television comes to life, such as it is; slowly opening its Cycloptic eye not to see, but to be seen. Controlled by a remote that seemingly controls itself, the eye blinks through dozens of the usual channels, desperately seeking “The One.” Blink. Or maybe this is “The One.” Blink. The search continues.

By the time the eye finds a viable program – an old game show, a current baseball game, a Disneyesque nature documentary – he is half asleep. Mostly the television these days is for the brief glimpses of light and sound between naps. Nothing new to excite, nothing old that informs. Time for a snooze.

“Wake up and go to sleep,” she says, and he transports himself to the bedroom to rest from the day’s exertions.

Plop! The sound is audible as he drops into the leather recliner, his hand grabbing the remote as if on command. The eye opens. The day begins.

 

[Written in response to one-word prompt, Plop]

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Carry On Keeping Calm

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It has already become its own cliche: Keep Calm and Carry On. But its meaning is much deeper than the ubiquitous Facebook memes it has inspired.

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scan

Now metastasized into a slew of “Keep Calm and [Fill In Inane Meme Blather Here],” the idea originated as a World War II British public safety poster. One of three, the poster was designed to help the British populace cope with potential massive bombing and poison gas drops on major cities. Those events thankfully never happened; the poster was put into storage and long since thought gone. Only after a stack of them showed up on Antiques Roadshow in 2012 did it suddenly become meme fodder.

Commercialization of the phrase has been such that you can get everything from t-shirts to coffee cups to bottles of beer with the original phrase or one of the millions of alternative memes (“Keep Calm and Drink Tea,” “Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake,” and the Sponge Bob Square Pants-inspired “Keep Calm and Gary On”). Each new iteration makes it harder to follow its own directive to keep calm.

Despite devolving into self-parody, the original idea actually a decent sentiment. Life can be trying at times, even always for some people, but maintaining your personal calm and thinking through options offers much greater chance to successfully navigate the crisis than, for example, emulating Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Quieter too.

 

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

[Daily Post]

The Joke

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My Dad was a jokester. Actually, at 89 he remains a jokester.

Along with the usual trials of growing up was the fact that you always had to stop for a heartbeat to decide whether what my Dad said was serious or just another clever play on words. I suppose in the long run this got us to think critically, “Hmm, does this mean I should – or should not – take this or that action?” Sometimes it took two heartbeats.

Some jokes were long, drawn out, sometimes epic, stories. Only at the end would be the unexpected punch line that would leave us either rolling on the floor laughing (or in today’s parlance, ROTFL) or emitting eye-rolling groans. Other jokes were shorter stories that raced to the punchline, though even those may take a second to “get it.”

Other jokes were physical.

He would swipe his hand (gently) over your nose, then hold up his fist and say “Got your nose!”

Got your nose gesture

Okay, sure. Today it seems silly, but as a young child is was traumatic. At least temporarily.

Perhaps one of the cruelest to us kids was the donut* hole joke. We weren’t particularly wealthy growing up. Okay, we were poor, but not so poor that we ever missed a meal or lacked a roof over our heads. Still, big gooey donuts were an occasional treat and we always looked forward to the immense pleasure they brought to our lives.

SONY DSC

Dad, being all knowing, took advantage of this. He would grab the biggest, most delicious looking donut and start eating. “I’ll save the hole for you if you want it.” We, of course, said yes. Okay, we drooled.

In retrospect, these were just the plain ordinary donuts with the hole, not the scrumptious jelly donuts or today’s fancy treats. But to us they were heaven. Dad would take his time, slowly munching around the outside of the donut working in towards the hole, like eating an apple around the core. All through this ordeal, which could take several minutes or longer depending on how desperate we looked, he would ask us over and over, “Do you want the hole?” And we would watch “the hole” getting smaller and smaller as he nibbled away the edges. Eventually he would look finished, make a motion to hand us the remnants of the donut surrounding the hole, then, unbelievably to our eyes, toss the rest in his mouth and hold out his hand as such:

Okay gesture

“Here’s the hole!”

To which we would politely scream, “Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrggggghhhhhhhh!” at the top of our lungs.

Apparently we fell for this several times before we caught on. It’s a wonder we survived to adulthood.

* Yes, I’m aware the official spelling is doughnut, but where I grew up Dunkin Donuts was the dominant brand (no Krispy Kreme, which if you want to get picky totally makes doughnut purists hypocrites). So doughnut is donut, but you’ll never find it spelled doughnut by a townie.

[Written in response to the one-word prompt – Joke]

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

 

Profound Child

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dalmation-firetruck-02My Dad used to tell me the story of why firemen had dogs, specifically those beautiful white-with-black-spotted dalmatians, on their fire trucks. “Used to tell me” is a bit of a misnomer as the story continues to pop up on a regular basis even now in his 89th year.

Recently the story took on new significance because I just returned from Croatia, the Dalmatia region from which the dogs get their names.

Historically, dalmatians became associated with firemen because they would run alongside horse-drawn fire wagons on the way to the fire. The dogs would fend off other dogs, warn ahead to keep the path clear, and provide comfort to the horses at the fire scene (not surprisingly, horses aren’t particularly fond of fires). Their presence became so routine that fire houses started keeping dalmatians around for company even after “horseless carriages” came into existence.

But that’s not the story my Dad would tell. Settling into his Mona Lisa smile and leaning down as if to tell you a secret, he would inform us that a teacher asked her young students, “Why are dalmatians always on fire engines?” The students would think a bit and then take turns responding:

“To keep the firemen company,” one child would say.

“To help smell the smoke and find the fire,” another would suggest.

And the third child, as my Dad’s smile grew in anticipation of the punch line, would say:

“To find the fire hydrant!”

Now if that isn’t the most profound answer ever heard.

[Written in response to the one-word prompt – Profound]

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.