The Punch

Tags

,

black eyeI stood there stunned. No crying, no scream of agony, no reaction whatsoever. My stare clearly scared him, the bully who had plagued me for years. Why didn’t I fall? Why didn’t I hit him back. It wasn’t that I was incapable of reacting; the punch wasn’t particularly debilitating. I was simply amazed he actually hit me.

It was a sucker punch. I was sitting, he was standing behind me, I started to rise and he struck me as hard as he could along the side of my eye socket as I was still only halfway up and turned toward him. It was a cowardly punch, but in retrospect something I would have expected of him. After all, he was the brawny (if not brainy) quarterback and I was the somewhat diminutive and scholarly introvert. Not a particularly fair fight even if he hadn’t been so gutless as to strike me from behind.

The first incident of his bullying me was in seventh grade. He would follow me around and knock the books out of my hand. One day he did it while I was crossing between buildings, the books flying into the newly cut grass. Making a mocking show of helping me pick them up, it was only when I opened my book in my next class that I found he had surreptitiously tossed in a few handfuls of grass clippings. During this time my brown bag lunch would mysteriously disappear from my hallway locker on a routine basis. Early in eighth grade my pre-algebra book was stolen. I could never prove it was him, but the school refused to replace it and I barely passed the course. Consequently, I was forced to retake the class during my freshman year, thus leaving me a year behind my fellow 10 percenters in math throughout high school. I did make advanced placement English, Biology, and History; those books hadn’t been stolen.

One day in high school I was pinballed down the hallway by a half dozen of his friends out to terrorize. As I walked down the middle of the aisle, one of them stepped out from his position along the wall and shoved me into the opposing wall, where his buddy shoved me back to the other side, only to be shoved back by a third bully. Repeat until after five or six of these careens I finally lost my footing and slammed headfirst into the concrete wall as I hit the floor. All this happened within a few seconds and I never knew if any of them got into trouble, although my concussed mind seems to remember a teacher rushing into the fray. I don’t recall if my obsessed bully was one of the group, but I do remember that at least the first one was his friend.

Then came the day of the sucker punch my sophomore year. We were in chemistry class together. As usual for this less than top student, he was goofing around with the Bunsen burners, setting various stray items afire to show off. As the teacher approached to monitor him, my bully rushed over to the desk I was sitting at along the side of the room in an effort to hide his complicity. Given our history, I was obviously not interested in covering for him, and when he pushed me and threatened me by placing his fist over my papers I told him to get away. I started to rise from my seat – one of those combined chair/desks that constrict movement (I think of Senator Charles Sumner trapped by his desk as a crazed Congressman beat him to near death with a cane in 1856). Before I got halfway up and turned he had punched me with all the force behind the extra 50 pounds he had on me in weight.

To this day I recall the fear in his eyes. Whether it was because he feared retribution from the school or from me I don’t know. After staring at him in disbelief for what seemed hours but was probably 10 seconds, I picked up my stuff and walked out of the room without saying a word. The loudspeaker blared my name and his – “Please come to the principal’s office immediately!” – as I crossed the soccer field in front of the school, not caring about the rest of the day’s classes. I kept walking. By the time I got home there was a phone call from the principal telling me to meet the next morning.

My bully was there too. My eye by this time, indeed the whole side of my face, had turned a ghastly palette of yellow and green before settling into the traditional black and blue for the next week. I said nothing but was made aware he had been dressed down the afternoon before. I don’t recall if my bully got suspended, but it was clear that I was off limits to this person forever. He didn’t become a model student – in fact, he apparently continued to be a less than stellar citizen throughout high school and into life – but he never came near me again.

As I look back on the incident I still marvel that he actually hit me. Others had tried to pick on me before – bullies like to go after the little guy because the big guys might beat them in a fight – but no one ever was able to strike me before or since. I learned early on about using a person’s balance and momentum against them. I was quick and flexible enough to avoid attempts to trap me or hit me. And no one ever succeeded. So when my bully connected so demonstrably his fist to my face, even considering I was half standing, half turned, and fully defenseless at the time, I was pained not so much by the actual punch but by the fact he had actually punched me.

No one ever did again.

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!

Advertisements

Otter in the Pond

Tags

,

North American River OtterThere is a small pond that I circle on my more or less daily walks near my home. Designed as a drainage pond for the townhouse communities that dominate the area, it has shown a remarkable resilience as habitat for a variety of wildlife. My more recent discovery is an otter.

Roughly 2.3 acres in size, you can easily see the entire margin of this narrow elongated pond (officially, a “lake”) from one end. And yet it seems to abound with life. Turtles are common (mostly eastern painted turtles). Geese swarm the place and, depending on the time of year, often have a passel of goslings trying to keep up as they wander from spot to spot. Ducks are less numerous but usually make an appearance, although I’ve never seen ducklings, just adults. Great blue herons fish around the edges occasionally, as does a pair of green herons. Song birds of various sorts, including a stray bluebird, join the cardinals and robins. We even had a beaver for a couple of years before the local game warden removed it to save the trees it was decimating.

But a few days ago I was shocked to see an animal I had never seen, and would never have hoped to see, in our little pond. After doing a bit of research (okay, I googled it), it turns out river otters (Lontra canadensis) are relatively common in my general area. Still, there isn’t anything that could remotely be labeled a river near me, and this pond isn’t so substantial that it could support otters. They eat mostly fish, which is what he likely was looking for as he repeatedly rolled into a dive, staying underwater for 20 seconds or so before popping up for a breath, then diving again. There are fish in the pond, the occasional presence of herons testifies to that, mostly sunfish, crappie, carp, and, at least in theory, catfish. Other than some small sunfish in the drainage creeks that feed the pond have I actually seen fish. In several years I’ve only seen one person fishing.

So whether the otter found his dinner I don’t know. I hope so. I would like to think he’ll be a regular visitor, but my guess he is a transient that I’ll never see him again. I did recently see several otters up close in a lake within Gardens of the Bay in Singapore, so that will have to do unless this local one comes back.

Either way, it was a thrill to see an otter in my little pond. Now I’m ready for spring and the return of the herons.

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!

[Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Zoo]

 

Clean Out Your Bookcase Day Massacre

Tags

,

Great Wall of BooksI reacted with horror when I saw the headline: February 20th is “Clean Out Your Bookcase Day.” I envisioned some Marie Kondo-inspired book burning exercise designed to reach her (grossly wrong) ideal of keeping less than 30 books in the house.

Luckily, that’s not the idea at all. [Phew!]

Clean Out Your Bookcase Day” turns out to be when “avid readers and bibliophiles focus on getting their bookcases clean and in order.” Sure, you can remove books that you no longer want, but mostly the day is a reminder that you need feed and care for your books as if they were valued family members (which, of course, they are). This is the time to dust the books, especially the top shelf ones, and wipe down your precious bookcases. You can also reorganize – or organize for the first time – your collection. Does Agatha Christie really belong next to Stephen Hawking? Who put that romance novel in my science section?

My collection is mostly books about Abraham Lincoln, roughly 1200 in all. There are at least another 500 non-Lincoln books strewn about the house. I probably treat this second group like second-class citizens, but the first step toward change is to admit the need to change, right? In any case, Lincoln dominates my office library, my upstairs library, and my overflow library (not to mention a few tables and stairways). I’ve thought about rearranging into categories – assassination books on one shelf, books about his law career on another, perhaps early life vs later life – but the logistics of doing that with so many books are too scary to even get the project started. For now I’ll stick with my current system, which is filling shelves with new arrivals and keeping a spreadsheet telling me where to find any given title. That is, assuming that particular book isn’t in a pile somewhere or being used as reference for my WIP.

I admit that I don’t dust my bookshelves often enough. The upstairs library gets less daily use so tends to accumulate the most residue between cleanings. The writing table books tend to move on and off so stay relatively clean. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m too overwhelmed to break out the dust cloth.

I’ll never engage in the kind of “joyful destruction” ordered by Marie Kondo (<30 books? Seriously?), but I like the idea of a “Clean Out Your Bookcase Day.” I’m sure some cleaning guru will (rightly) chastise the concept of dusting your books only once a year, but this is a day also to appreciate your collection. While you’re there, pull one of the unread books off the shelf and read it.

Or if it doesn’t give you joy, donate it. Yeah, you can do that too.

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!

[Photo: By me, but I swear this is not my usual storage system. Well, at least not on the floor. Note Lincoln in the background keeping watch.]

Paralysis by Analysis

Tags

,

SwooshI have too many projects in the works and I can’t decide which to do first. So none of them is getting done. I’ve succumbed to paralysis by analysis.

Do I spend the next hour on the main Work in Progress, or the other WIP, or the other WIP (or the other WIP)? Do I type up notes I’ve taken from the myriad of Lincoln books I’ve recently read? Do I read one of the half-finished books on my nightstand? How about planning the next road trip? Following up on the appointments I need to make? What about writing for the much neglected Dake Page? Another Science Traveler or HWS article? Pitch an article for Civil War Times or some other magazine? Write book reviews for the next Lincolnian? Catch up on the reading for the Lincoln book study group, for which I’ve managed so get far behind? Attend this event or that event?

The fact is I need to do all of the above, and yet seem to do none of the above. So I’m writing this Hot White Snow post instead.

Which is something else I’ve been behind on. I normally shoot for a post a week here on HWS but have managed only three in over six weeks so far this year (today’s will be four in seven weeks – I’m catching up!). Some of this paralysis is writer’s block, some due to traveling, and some because I’m trying to juggle too many balls in the air only to stare at them all at my feet as I contemplate which to pick up first. [This last analogy is both figurative and literal as one of my (more or less) daily activities is to juggle for exercise and hand-eye coordination.]

As a scientist I tend to analyze things to death. As a historian I tend to research things to death. As a writer with more than a touch of ADD I tend to get easily distracted to death. Okay, I procrastinate to death. There, I said it. I procrastinate because I can’t focus on one thing long enough to get it done. Or at least that’s the analysis of the day.

Which makes me marvel at the fact that I have written three traditionally published books, plus two specialty e-books. How on earth did I manage that, and in record time for each, when I can’t seem to focus more than a minute at a time? Having a deadline helps. In fact, it seems to be the only thing that keeps me on track. This was true with term papers in high school and college (I always waited until the last moment, wrote like the devil, turned in the first draft, and usually got an “A,” thus reinforcing the bad habit). It was also true with reports and papers during my scientific career, as well as for my first three published books. For the latter I had contracts stipulating a specific date to submit; if I missed it I wouldn’t get paid or published. Worked like a charm.

Which is why the various WIP are still WIP and not on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and Amazon (luckily, my three earlier books are still in both). I need publishing contracts, which means finishing the proposals, which means open-ended deadlines, which means still WIP. I need that deadline. And no, setting my own deadlines doesn’t help. Since there is no legal or financial penalty for not meeting them, I pass them by and reset them. My calendar is filled with deadlines crossed out and moved to future dates.

So how do I get these things done? Clearly my current strategy (which isn’t really a strategy; it’s more of a default inertia) isn’t working. Should I set times of day to write and stick to them? A time to plan trips? A time to read? A time to plant? A time to reap? A time to laugh? A time to weep? Wait, the Byrds? Seriously, I have the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn” stuck in my head.

Enough. Enough with the analysis. Enough with the paralysis. It’s time to go full Nike.

Just do it.

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!

[Photo Credit: Nike swoosh logo]

Jury-less Duty

Tags

,

jury dutyI recently finished jury duty. At least, I think I did.

Six or eight months ago I received my notice and dutifully sent it in with the requested information. Then I traveled. And I traveled again. And yet again. I’m not sure how many times as it was a busy year for that sort of thing. In any case I returned from a long overseas trip and found another notice requiring me to fill out an online form documenting that I was ready and able to be called for mandatory jury duty. I was between trips so, dutifully again, put myself on call, which would last for a two week period in January.

And the call came. Well, actually it was another letter. But this one told me to call them on Friday night after 6 pm. So I called and got a recording saying they don’t need me on Monday but I must call back Monday after 6 pm for further instructions. Did that, got another recording, this one telling me to call back Friday after 6 pm. Called again. You guessed it, call back Monday after 6 pm.

At this point I’m starting to hope that I don’t get called in for a trial because anything longer than a week or so would interfere with another trip I had scheduled. Monday comes up again and I like how the message starts…

“You are not needed at this time.”

But then, “Please call back on that specific Monday after 6 pm.”

Okay, this IS that specific Monday after 6 pm. They haven’t updated the recording. Maybe they were closed due to the big snow weekend? I try again. And again, now four times. Same obsolete message. Great. Now what.

Luckily I have a bit of OCD when it comes to things like this so on the fourth or fifth try, now after 10:30 pm, I finally get a different message:

“Your service is not needed at this time. Your jury service is complete. Thank you for your service.”

I’m still not sure whether my service wasn’t needed because 1) the federal district was remarkably free from crime lately, 2) there was an incredibly large population in the jury pool for this district, or 3) they aren’t trying cases because part of the federal government is still closed down. I suppose I’ll never know.

This isn’t the first time I haven’t served on a jury. As I type I realize this may be the longest I’ve ever lived in one house. At the very least it’s a tie about to be broken. So maybe I’ve just kept moving so much that the powers that be haven’t caught up to me. Then again, I actually have been called for jury service in the past, a few times in fact. Once or twice I had the joy of sitting in a large barren and cold waiting room with a hundred or three others, only to be told at the end of an excruciatingly boring day that my service is complete. Once I made it up to an oppressively hot courtroom and sat in the rock-hard, pew-like benches while other potential jurors were grilled by the prosecutor and defense attorney, a process known as voir dire (roughly translated, “to speak the truth”). Long before they got to me they sat a full jury and told the rest of us to skedaddle on back home; our service was complete.

Many decades ago my father sat on a jury in a rape case. He was the jury foreman. After they gave their verdict – guilty – the judge told them that this particular man had been tried for five previous rapes, each trial ending in a hung jury and not retried by the prosecutors office. To this day my Dad is proud of the public service he performed back then. I don’t recall my mother ever saying she sat on a jury. That may be because of gender discrimination back in the day, or because she had a passel of kids to raise on top of working outside the home. I’ll have to ask her about that.

Some time ago I was told by someone I don’t remember that prosecutors and defense attorneys didn’t like to seat jurors having too much education or who had professional jobs (other lawyers, in particular, were verboten). They wanted to be able to sell their case to people who were willing to listen. Apparently the idea was that the greater the professional expertise, the less likely you could be counted on to fall in line. As a scientist and historian, my careers require me to question information, assess reliability, make logical judgments, and determine the best course of action or result. Those would seem ideal characteristics for a juror, especially in this age of forensic evidence. But perhaps attorneys were concerned that such people might overwhelm the other jurors, take control of the jury box, and by sheer power of authority convince the rest of the members of the case one way or another, thus taking some of the power of persuasion away from the attorneys.

Or maybe none of that is true. I haven’t gotten far enough into the jury selection process to have an attorney use his peremptory challenges to get rid of me. I may still get a chance. When I filled out the initial official form it said something about being available for two years. I’m not sure getting a pass this month means the end or if I could be called again anytime with the remaining 1-1/2 years left. At the very least, I’ll know a year and half from now, if not before. Either way, I suppose there will be another cycle or two.

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!

 

Snow Daze

Tags

,

winter-solsticeWinter is coming. Don’t bother, it’s here.

A week ahead of time I postponed my breakfast meeting scheduled for yesterday. Snow is coming, the weather report said. Expect 1-3 inches. Okay, just slippery enough to avoid going out needlessly in the middle of it. The breakfast would be rescheduled for the following weekend (which, sadly, now also has snow in the forecast).

The snow started almost exactly on the schedule provided by the national weather service. A few flakes, then a few more, then a nice steady snow. It was beautiful, in its own way. I figured to wait it out and start shoveling later.

Over the 24 hours leading up to the beginning, I noticed that the weather reports were slowly updating the expected totals. The 1-3 inches was changed to 3-5, then 4-7, then 5-10, then, what the heck? The snow started late afternoon Saturday and was going strong early Sunday morning. Then it seemed to stop.

“Forecast says it should snow until midnight tonight,” I told my querying neighbor, “maybe we’re in a lull.”

I was out shoveling mid-morning because the snow had stopped. Not even a few stray flakes. About 8 inches on the ground and it seemed done, but the forecast was saying more snow was on the way. I reminded myself that shoveling 8 inches of snow off my driveway now was better than waiting until that amount increased, if it indeed did increase.

Unfortunately, weather forecasting has become more accurate in recent decades. Usually this area falls somewhere near the line between snowmageddon and “snow, what snow?” This storm hit us dead on, no question we would get snow. That said, it seems to have been more than predicted.

In the end we totaled 10-12 inches. Not a lot of wind, so luckily no blizzard conditions or 20 foot snow drifts next to bare ground. Nope, this was an even layer all around. Yes, even beautiful.

This morning I again went shoveled off the driveway, the excruciating back pain from yesterday’s efforts rekindled at a slightly lower volume. I noticed my neighbor had bought an electric snow-blower, an extravagance that seems overkill for the small number of shovel-able snowstorms in this area. Then again, he isn’t walking around looking for the industry-strength bottle of Tylenol. I probably should become better friends with him, especially since the forecast currently predicts snow for this coming Thursday, the weekend, and even the weekend after, all of which I had plans that might be endangered by closed roads.

Oh well. Winter is here. It is beautiful.

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!

[Photo courtesy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac]