Missing Starbucks

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Starbucks logoMy biggest problem with this coronavirus home-stay is missing Starbucks. So far I’ve avoided getting sick (fingers crossed), but the self-seclusion has drawbacks. Sure, like most writers I’m comfortable with time alone; we even prefer it. Life before the coronavirus was rather isolated already. But this is different.

Writing is a solitary life. We dig deep into physical and virtual resources for background information and facts. I’m primarily a nonfiction writer, which means spending hours researching a topic that might be one sentence in the final book. Writing sessions have to be done in chunks long enough to get into a rhythm and flow. Distractions must be minimized, which is hard enough to do in this connected world and exacerbated by the pull of coronavirus updates.

In short, writers spend a lot of time alone. Mostly we like it, but even the most introverted writer needs to be around people occasionally.

Which is why Starbucks is so important.

Before I go on, let me clarify that when I say Starbucks I am including the Barnes and Noble coffeeshop, Panera, the mall, and a variety of other venues that are within walking distance from my home. I generally vary the destination when I go out because, well, going to one place every day can get as boring as staying within the four walls of my house. But despite this variety, Starbucks is special.

Oh, I should mention that I don’t drink coffee.

Yeah, I know. Starbucks. Coffee Company. Their entire raison d’être is convincing customers to pay more than $5 for a revved-up cup of coffee when they could get a basic coffee for free in their home or office. But I don’t drink coffee. I never acquired a taste for the bitterness or the heat. Give me a cup of coffee or tea and I spend my time calculating the narrow three-minute window of drinkability when it is neither too hot nor too cold. Not my cup of tea, so to speak.*

What I usually order is a mocha Frappuccino. Starbucks mochas taste more like chocolate than they do coffee. When I get a Frappuccino (or its New England cousin, the frappe) from a non-Starbucks coffee house I’m disappointed because they taste like coffee, with at best a hint of cocoa. The Frappuccino is also mostly crushed ice, again unlike versions at other places that put ice cubes in the too-coffee mochas. Like the hot vs cold, the crushed vs block ice is a very Goldilocks “just right” at Starbucks.

In any case, I’m not there for the coffee, or even the mocha. I’m there for the people. It’s not that I talk to the other people in the store. It’s more about the activity. People are coming in, ordering, waiting for their coffee (or Frappuccino or latte or whatever), or taking up four spaces at a table with their laptop open. The regular baristas offer both stability and variety. There is a human busyness that contrasts with the solitude of the writer’s desk. And there are stories. Some are real – the person with the extra-high heels struggling to stay upright; others are imagined – an entire life history created out of how someone looks or acts while waiting for their drink. It’s a people-watchers dream. And writers are all people watchers. The key is that I’m there for the humanity and not for the coffee.

COVID-19 has put a stop to that. My local Starbucks is closed for the duration of the outbreak. There are two with drive-thru windows that remain open for desperate coffee-drinkers, but windows are useless since I don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee. I did visit the local Barnes and Noble once since this started. They too have a Starbucks coffee shop inside, but they too have eliminated in-store seating and are only accessible to buy and go. [The bookstore itself only allows 10 customers at a time, which hardly seems worth it.] This misses the entire point of the trip. It isn’t the coffee, it’s the ability to sit and be among people.

I admit that I’m a bit discombobulated without these periodic visits to Starbucks et al. This forced seclusion isn’t that much different (minus the Starbucks) than my usual lifestyle, so it should be a great time to focus on writing. Alas, I’ve been stuck on a chapter for some time now. But I’m determined to push through the pain much like a marathoner must push through that cramping calf at mile 22, even though my progress often seems more like around mile 2.2 of this book marathon. Still, I must.

Focus. Write. Repeat.

*Ironically, I loved coffee ice cream growing up and gobbled down a ton of chocolate covered coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Costa Rica. Go figure.

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!

Life in a Time of Coronavirus

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2019-coronavirusLife certainly is a challenge in this time of coronavirus. First, travel was limited, then even going out was discouraged, and lately the stock market has been plunging. My retirement fund has evaporated every cent gained since the last election, losing a bigger percent than in 2008 (not coincidentally, the last time the Republicans held the White House). I’m getting to the point where “time for it to recover” is running out.

As a writer, the challenge is even more acute. The writers’ boards initially reveled at the chance to stay at home and write. After all, most of us are introverts and enjoy the solo time that writing requires. One creatively unsocial writer exclaimed: “We got this. We’ve been training for it our entire lives!”

Reality hasn’t been so simple.

While social distancing seems a natural for writers, it really isn’t. We still need to get out into public. My daily walks to the local Starbucks or Barnes and Noble or the mall satisfied my need for interaction when I wasn’t out traveling the world.

But in this digital age, even working from home allows me to interact with the world. My normal day finds me parked in my home office with a computer screen constantly vying for my attention. “Let me fact-check that one item,” I tell myself, before that two-minute Google search turns into an hour checking my emails, Facebook, news updates, and the other forty-seven hundred items on my to-do list. Today, the constant coronavirus news stream keeps dragging me back online for updates on new cases and restrictions to mobility.

I’ve also spent a great deal of time cancelling and rescheduling upcoming events, both those that I planned to attend and those where I was the featured speaker. It doesn’t stop there. We are potentially looking at social distancing for several months, which means the organizations I’m involved with are seeking ways to bring our events, or some facsimile of them, online. The increased email traffic also includes checking in on people who might not handle forced solitude as well as others. Relatives far and near need more frequent check-ins. Amid all this some life events won’t wait, so workarounds are necessary. All of this takes time.

Those with children are now faced with working from home while trying to keep their kids alternatively homeschooled and entertained (and out of trouble). Spouses also home-working are often more demanding than helpful in such times.

At best, all of this can be distracting from the normal writing routines that we already struggle to maintain. At worst, it can be overwhelming. The added stress can lower our natural immune system efficiency, which increases our susceptibility to the novel coronavirus disrupting the world. Which makes us more stressed. Which makes us more susceptible. Ad nauseam.

So what are we to do?

For me, I need to get offline more. Reading takes me away from the constant checking of the newswires, but it also takes me away from the writing. Some writers successfully use software that blocks certain websites. This hasn’t worked for me but I find closing my browser tabs while I write reduces distraction.

I also have set periods of the day in which I am scheduled to write. I even have them designated for which type of writing, for example, “writing Chapter X of my WIP” or “prepare presentation for Y.” Some days work better than others, but the system does help.

The good news, although admittedly I’m rationalizing here, is that all the cancellations should give me more time to focus on the writing I need to be doing. Traveling has been on lockdown for several months, first for an unconnected reason and now for the coronavirus. I’m way ahead on my reading for the year.

Which means I have no excuses for not focusing on the works in progress.

Off to write.

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!

Indistractable

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DistractedSometimes irony slaps you in the face. I realized this after returning from the library, where I picked up a new book called Indistractable, by Nir Eyal. The underlining is in the original title to highlight the book’s focus (yes, I’ve used that word on purpose), which is how to “control your attention and choose your life.” I’m hoping the book will help me focus better because, well, I get distracted.

So what’s the irony?

This now becomes the 13th book on my Goodreads “Currently Reading” list. Thirteen, as in Friday the…. (you get the idea)

Even if you write off five of my own books listed, I’ve convinced myself that I’m reading at least eight books at one time. Nine if you count the fact my old paperback copy of Brave New World broke into two pieces last night. But wait, that isn’t counting three more books I have out from the library that aren’t even on my currently reading list (my queue is even longer if you count my “want to read” lists in Goodreads and Amazon, not to mention the books on my shelf that I’m desperately looking for time to read).

But I digress.

Indistractable supposedly will teach me how to not be distracted. We’ll see if it works. Given that I’ve read several (okay, dozens) of other books designed to prevent distraction, obviously without success, it seems the reading of such books is in itself a distraction.

The same goes with writing. Reading books on writing takes time away from writing. But writing also takes away time for writing. Time writing Hot White Snow is time not writing the book I’m supposed to be writing. Did I say book? I meant books. According to my 2020 Goals I am actively working on three books, have two more I’m chipping away at, and another I’ve pretty much convinced myself isn’t worth pursuing but can’t seem to completely give up on. I also have a “Book Ideas” list totaling 31 books (at last count), most of which I would really like to write some time in my life. Even if I cut it back to something more realistic, the list would give me a book a year for the next two decades.

To make matters worse I’m in the process of redefining my official author website (http://www.davidjkent-writer.com/) and will shortly be introducing two focused blogs to cover my two major interest areas. I may or may not also resurrect my Dake Page science blog (https://thedakepage.blogspot.com/), perhaps under a new name and structure. Writing more for magazines and other paying outlets is also on my Goals list for this year, as is entering more writing contests.

And then there are my responsibilities as Vice President of the Lincoln Group of DC and Board of Directors for the Abraham Lincoln Institute. And preparing my upcoming presentations for the Rock Creek Civil War Roundtable and Cosmos Club Civil War group. And writing an article I promised to write. And writing two book reviews for the next (and each successive) Lincolnian. And reviewing a book the publisher sent for my review. And…

Oh, and travel. Well, maybe not so much this year, at least not yet.

So clearly there is a need to become Indistractable. The big question is whether this book will be different from all the other books I’ve read that were supposed to keep me from being distracted.

Ooh, a bird.

Gotta go.

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!

 

 

Mourning Christa McAuliffe & Space Shuttle Challenger

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The long morning training finally allowed us out of the conference room for lunch. All of the scientific staff had been sequestered for hours to learn whatever it was that we were supposed to have been learning. As we surfaced, we knew something was wrong. The non-technical staff were all blanched. “Space Shuttle Challenger blew up,” one woman said. Christa McAuliffe is dead.

Shuttle Challenger crew 1-28-86

The date was January 28, 1986. A small television was turned on and the entire lab crowded around it to see the vapor trails rise, then split, then zigzag into destruction…repeated over and over again on a continuous loop. Silence. Other than gasps and groans, not a word was spoken. We were in shock.

All these years later I still remember that day. I was working at the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory at Sandy Hook, a tongue of land spitting out from New Jersey into New York bight. Normally I would be in the Behavior Department building maintaining our 32,000 gallon tank, but that had burned down four months previously (described in My Life in a Brick). A year later John Hersey (author of Hiroshima), would publish a book called Blues based on our laboratory’s work on bluefish behavior. Since the fire my days were spent analyzing data or out on the Delaware II , the lab’s research vessel, studying the fisheries in the bight and environs. But not on this day.

The topic of the training is long gone from memory, probably some bureaucratic mandate. But that day will always stay with me, in part because of Christa McAuliffe. Christa was a teacher. She was the first teacher in space. She was also the first teacher to die in space. She had a slender connection to me. My mother-in-law at the time was also a teacher and had met and conversed with Christa a month or so before the mission. Everyone was excited for this momentous occasion. Never before had a non-astronaut gone on a space mission. I had felt deprived that I would miss the launch because of the training.

But others watched. On that morning virtually every student in the nation had eyes glued to televisions rolled into classrooms and assembly halls to watch the liftoff. A teacher in space! How cool is that? And they watched. They watched all the boring preliminaries. They watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted flawlessly from the launch pad. They watched as a sudden burst of steam just didn’t seem right. And they watched as – 73 seconds into the flight – Challenger broke up and twisted its way into destruction. They watched the faces of the families at Kennedy Space Center slowly realize they had just seen their loved ones die.

Not much was accomplished the rest of the day. Some of us returned to the conference room periodically to watch the replays, much as we would do fifteen years later when the towers fell, the Pentagon not far from my office exploded, and Flight 93 hit the ground nose-first in that Pennsylvania field. As I see photos surface on this anniversary, the shock of that day returns full force.

Smiling faces in the official NASA photograph belie the pain we still feel. We remember the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, and the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, each of whom gave their life for science:

Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Teacher

Between the trauma of the laboratory fire (an arson tragic in so many ways) and the shock of the Challenger, it became clear that my time at Sandy Hook lab would come to an end. A few months later I accepted a job at an aquatic toxicology laboratory. Instead of studying the behavior of live fish I would be sacrificing them to ensure waste streams could be disposed of safely in the nation’s coastal waters and rivers. This tangent would take me into a new phase of my life with its own trials and tribulations, but my time at Sandy Hook – and Christa McAuliffe – would never be forgotten.

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!

 

The Self-Impeachment of the Republican Party

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colorized_lincoln_photo_cropOn January 21, 2020, the Republican Party begins the process of impeaching itself. Sure, the guy in the White House is the official subject of the impeachment trial, but it is the Republican Party itself that is under indictment.

Not surprisingly, Mitch McConnell, the most corrupt, most Anti-American Senate Majority Leader in history, is doing his best to cover up what has been shown as blatant abuse of power, obstruction of justice, treason, and self-dealing corruption. McConnell is actively working to destroy any semblance of a trial, never mind a fair one. He’s blocked witnesses, blocked time to present the case, and blocked media access so that Fox News and other Goebbels-style propaganda outlets can lie to Republican constitutes.

This isn’t a revelation given McConnell’s long history of self-dealing. He has violated his oath of office so many times in the last 10 years that it comes as no surprise that he openly and gleefully violates the oath he just took to be “an impartial juror” in the impeachment. The oath and responsibility that the Constitution dictates he follow. His mockery of the Constitution and honest play is infamous and well documented. The shear audacity of McConnell’s dishonesty and subterfuge would have resulted in him being thrown out of office by his own party in days when the Republican Party at least made the attempt to be honest. Sadly, the Republican Party has become the Know-Nothing party, built on racism and relying on blatant lying on every issue and action. Every. Single. One. Documented.

So while the traitorous acts of the White House are under indictment, so too is the Republican Party. And it is demonstrating its guilt every day.

But there is still a chance. Right? People who identify as Republicans could stand up to the abyssal corruption of the party’s leaders. Right? That’s what my Republican friends tell me.

I haven’t seen it. I see otherwise honest people instead look the other way. They rationalize that their ideological benefits somehow outweigh the destruction of the Constitution and the institutions formerly known as the three co-equal branches of government. Actions they saw as traitorous in Obama (even if they made up most of them) they now see as “a unique style” in their own leaders. Worse, they have immersed themselves in such a fantasyland of the surreal for so many years that they actually have begun to believe their falsehoods are somehow true. They aren’t.

Ah, but you can see that Republicans do know that they are protecting corruption. Their social media feeds go radio-silent whenever the evidence shows “their guy” (in reality, their entire Party structure) is guilty as charged, and more. They don’t try to defend what they know is indefensible, the kind of things they would have been screaming pitchforks in the street if Obama had done it. Instead they hide and deflect. Suddenly their feeds are all about “what movie character are you?” or some other completely unrelated topic. They know they are hiding from the truth, and it reflects who they are more than any other one thing.

My Republican friends tell me they are conservative. But they aren’t. Their every action proves that they aren’t really conservative at all. If they were, they would speak up against the profligate corruption of their own party. They would speak up against Mitch McConnell blocking the workings of Congress. They would speak up when McConnell blocks bipartisan legislation designed to protect the attack on our nation’s electoral system by foreign parties. But they don’t. Republicans should be speaking up against their own leaders’ destruction of American institutions…their own leaders’ attacks on American workers, on American business, on American principles. But they don’t.

My Republican friends tell me they are conservative. But their actions prove that isn’t true. When several foreign powers bribed their leaders, they made excuses for it. When other foreign powers bribed us to the brink of war, they made excuses for it. When their leaders started a trade war solely because of ego, and then “fixed” it by bribing farmers and then getting absolutely nothing in return after giving up, they made excuses for it. When their leaders’ threw out conservative principles for political expediency, they made excuses for it. You can’t call yourself a conservative when the only “conservative” values you fight for are redistribution of wealth to the smallest number of people, racism, bigotry, misogyny, and corruption, all at the expense of 95%+ of the American people. All of this is documented. Look at what McConnell and Company have done with their time, including when they owned both Houses and the White House. Everything they did benefited the very few while destroying protections and the future for the rest of America.

Making excuses for corruption, incompetence, treason, and an average of 22 blatant lies per day every day of this administration isn’t being conservative (and that is only one person; it doesn’t even count the lies of McConnell and the mafia pack that has blasphemed the word conservative on the Republican side of the House). Defending blatant dishonesty isn’t being conservative. It’s being Anti-American. And I know all my Republican friends would admit it if you looked at it with an honest eye, an open mind, and strong faith.

My Republican friends tell me they aren’t like that. They aren’t dishonest. They aren’t Anti-American. All I ask is that you prove it. Act like it. Don’t be the party that cozies up to Nazis. Don’t be the party that makes a comfortable home for white supremacists and the KKK. Don’t be the party that lies in every breath about everything – big and small. And they do. Documented. Don’t be the party of dishonesty. It’s time to do some soul searching and be honest with yourselves and your families.*

Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, back when Republicans were the progressive party and Democrats were the party where racists felt comfortable (i.e., the opposite of today), noted that “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.” He also said, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.” He was right on both counts.

We cannot escape history. Republicans cannot escape history. The choices you make now will define you forever. Your children, your grandchildren, your family, your friends–everyone–will remember the choice you made today. The Republican Party is impeaching itself today. You don’t have to. Stand up for the nation you tell me you cherish.

*And yes, I’ve done that soul searching. And no, I am not a Democrat. I consider myself an honest American who has faith in the Constitution and the strength of this nation’s institutions, a faith that has been sorely tested this last decade. As a scientist and historian I’ve spent my lifetime evaluating information, parsing bits of data for its veracity and contextual meaning. I don’t claim to be anything but human, with human faults and human perceptions. But this isn’t hard. The data are unequivocal. We see it every day. We just have to listen to it instead of dismissing it because it doesn’t jive with our ideology or expediency. I’ve made my choice to speak up because I don’t want to be like the person who said “I didn’t know” as Hitler was openly and actively gassing millions of people. Being American means taking responsibility for how our country works. Which means doing what is right. It’s time to “stand with anybody who stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right, and PART with him when he goes wrong.

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!

Starbucks Sad and Strange

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IMG_2913The view from the comfy chair at Starbucks is occasionally sad, sometimes strange, but always interesting. Upon entering this day we nod in silent recognition to the woman in the long down coat. Purple, or perhaps more fashionably lavender or even periwinkle, she wore the same coat no matter the weather. An older woman, we could count on seeing her every time we walked to our local Starbucks for lunch. A sort of sadness envelopes her, yet her expression isn’t gloomy. Nor does she smile, or talk, or engage with any customers.

I can’t help but recall an old song by Dan Fogelberg. Windows and Walls tells the story of an older woman, her husband long since dead and her married children living far away. Nobody every comes by any more and mostly she sits and stares at the windows and walls. But sometimes she takes herself outside:

Maybe she’ll go to the corner today
And pick up the new McCall’s
If just to escape for an hour
From her windows and walls

I picture this woman’s routine a version of the song. Walking whatever distance to camp for a while in the corner at Starbucks just to see people. Of course, her story may be vastly different from what I imagine, but to me her life seems sad.

On this particular day there was also the strange. At first I paid no attention to the table next to us. Two women seemingly in their 20s or 30s sat there chatting; perhaps friends meeting for a latte or mocha Frappuccino? But then the tarot cards came out. As one flipped over individual cards, the other became increasingly enrapt in their meaning. Or at least the meaning that the first woman – should I call her a medium? – was inventing with each turn of a card. Oddly enough, on this very day I had been researching a “spiritualist” who preyed on Mary Lincoln after the death of her son Willie in the Civil War White House. Charles Colchester was a noted spiritualist at the time, who not surprisingly was later run out of town for scamming his gullible clients.

So yes, I had to chuckle at the goings on next to me. I wanted to stand behind the tarot card reader with a big sign for the other woman to see: “It’s a Scam! Run!” Alas, I didn’t. Who am I to impart my views (and facts) on those who choose to believe.

Ah, then there was the interesting. A tall, classically pretty, blonde woman came in. But that wasn’t what caught my eye; instead I was immediately drawn to her feet and the fluorescent green flipflops. The footwear seemed as cheaply made as they were brilliantly bright. Only after several minutes did I realize they were the temporary fold-out ones given out by massage parlors for use on the premises. Such a massage facility was next door to Starbucks, so my bewilderment seemed to have an easy remedy, although it was still odd to see someone wearing them out in public. Perhaps she was headed back for Round 2?

But that wasn’t the oddest part. While these flipflops were thin and flat (as flipflops are wont to be), the woman was walking on her toes. Only the balls of her feet were touching the surface. My guess (or perhaps I should say my hypothesis, after all, I am a scientist) is she so routinely wears high heels that she feels uncomfortable walking on flat feet. I’ve seen other women who walk this way in flat shoes, recently even while she was wearing more substantial sneakers. And then today I saw a waiter doing the same, which really made me start to wonder if there was a new fashion trend I had somehow missed (like all the others).

But our allotted time in Starbucks this day was running out and it was time to start our hike back home. The round trip is roughly 2.5 miles so we mostly go to Starbucks for the exercise and change of scenery, but I have to admit that people watching has become a reason in itself to go.

Anyone have their own interesting experiences at Starbucks to relate?

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!