Travel – The Elixir of Life

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Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…

DSC04169-1024x768Mark Twain wrote the above in The Innocents Abroad, a travel book published in 1869 detailing his excursion by boat to Europe and the Holy Land.

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder a part of experience.

That one is by Francis Bacon.

My traveling started late. Too poor, too introverted, and too anxious to do the traditional year of “backpacking around Europe” between high school and college (which, to be honest, is really only done by rich white kids anyway), I found my traveling legs only after securing meaningful employment. Which, of course, restricts the number of days off for traveling. Eventually I did get to travel, with my first excursion like Mark Twain’s, albeit in the opposite direction – I went to Asia. The culture shock was good for me, opening my eyes to the vast differences, and equally vast similarities, between my monochromatic upbringing and my new world view.

Another quote attributed to Mark Twain is:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

I concur. I’ve had some opportunities I’ve passed up, including watching the annual 4th of July fireworks from the World Trade Center towers many years ago; that opportunity is gone forever. I’ve visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and felt too rushed to wait in line to climb the tower itself; chances are I’ll never be back. I regret not doing those things. But I can’t recall too many things I did that I regret. They didn’t always work out well, but the experience is a memory for life.

Such is the elixir of life. Travel. Climb the tower. Drive the gravel roads, and the curvy roads, and the non-roads. See the world, and live the life.

When not traveling, 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. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is due out late July 2017.

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The Minimalist

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birds on a wireThe time seemed right. The divorce, the move, the unemployment. All convinced me to start a new, more minimalist, life. Or maybe I was just rationalizing. Either way, it was time to reduce the stuff.

We all have stuff. Perhaps in compliance with the laws of entropy, items entering the home tend to stay there. The antique chair passed to me as my parents’ down-sized their own home. Their books. Their knicknacks, their tchotchkes, their gewgaws. Their dust. No wonder I have so much stuff.

I’ve donated hundreds, even thousands, of books to the local libraries, sold some on eBay and Amazon, given the technical ones to colleagues. Still, thousands remain. The statuettes and art pieces I collected on travels – until I realized how cluttered my home had become – stopped coming in, but somehow never leave either.

Wall hangings remain hung on the floor waiting for a wall to pull them into place. Papers fill boxes in the garage, in stacks on floors, in cabinets filed to the brim. The couches (how many does one house need?) collect dust (and books) more than are impressed with lazing bodies. Two televisions dominate rooms, though neither is hooked to broadcast service.

I am the minimalist. Or at least I aspire to be.

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. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is due out late July 2017.

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Immersed in Thought – On Writing

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thinkerTotal immersion.

Losing oneself in thought is a difficult task for writers. Yes, we get into “the flow” and type away for hours, accumulating pages like a Nor’easter accumulates snow. But this isn’t thought, it is stream-of-consciousness.

Total immersion in thought takes time. Time away from the keyboard, the pen and paper, and most certainly the ubiquitous internet connection. Writing lists and tapping out bullet points and outlining the great American novel can be good uses of time, but they are brainstorming, not thought.

The prolific author Stephen King writes 2000 words a day, every day, before doing anything else. He also advocates reading. A lot of reading, every day. But he also talks about our need to think, and to think especially like a child – not in straight lines or with perfect logic, but more like a dream state. Let your mind run uninhibited.

That can’t happen in front of a keyboard or a smart phone or a television.

To immerse yourself in thought, go for a walk in the woods. Find a room without distraction. Sit on an empty beach and watch the waves roll in. The location is up to you, but the goal should be to remove all of life’s distractions for a long enough period to allow you to sink into thought.

What you think about is also up to you. Imagine a fantasy world with talking trees and flying anteaters. Ruminate over your childhood memories. Dive deep into personal introspection – what makes you happy, sad, regret, admire, etc. Pick a topic a day. Monday might be your childhood relationship with your parents; Tuesday how humans (or humanoids or flying anteaters) might live on a planet with no gravity; Wednesday placing yourself into your favorite novel (would you have reacted as did Pip in Great Expectations, or would you have handled the situation differently?).

The key is to immerse yourself into whatever thought you choose for that day. Let the world around you move on without you for 10 minutes or an hour or a morning. And while I’ve said stick to a topic a day, don’t take that too literally. Allow your thoughts to wander as Stephen King’s archetypal dreaming child. Don’t stop to write anything down. Just think.

Later, after you’ve come up for air, feel free to write down any thoughts that stuck with you. You might not remember it all, or even anything, but that is okay. The goal is to expand your mind beyond the moment, beyond the distractions, and beyond the present. Doing so will open your mind to greater creativity when you do once again, as you will surely do, sit down with keyboard or pen in hand.

[For more writing ideas, check out my On Writing series (click and scroll)]

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. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is due out late July 2017.

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I’ve Been Thinking – International Women’s Day

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International-Womens-Day-2017I’m not prone to overthinking things. Okay, I am prone to overthinking things. Or am I? Yes, I am. I think. In any case, lately I’ve been ruminating over the role of women in society.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Women’s March on Washington. It turned out there were so many women in Washington that they filled the entire march route without actually having to march. Hundreds of other events were staged in unison at cities around the world. These women, and men, were protesting the inauguration of a vulgar misogynist con man. At the time I asked whether the pink hats could save us.

Tomorrow (March 8, 2017) is another day of protest billed as “A Day Without A Woman.” Women all over America (and perhaps the world) will choose not to work so they can join various walkouts, rallies, and marches. At least a few school systems have already announced the cancellation of school given the number of female teachers who have requested leave that day.

As I ruminate over the effectiveness of such activity, I recognize that there is a sort of privilege to those who have the option to not work that day. Many women – probably most women – don’t have that option, fearing loss of employment, harassment, and dysfunction. Mothers are likely to find it difficult “not to work” when their children need to get to and from school/sports/doctors/libraries/etc. As much as men may (or may not) try to fill in the gaps, the idea of surviving a day without the contributions of women seems impossible.

Which, I suppose, is the point. How many of us men (and children, and even other women) take the women in our lives for granted. Consider what would happen in the workplace without women. Most secretaries (professional assistants) remain women, as do support staff like accounting, human resources, and other traditionally female jobs. But many men might have missed the fact that women now also constitute a large, and growing, proportion of what had once been traditional male jobs – lawyers, scientists, CEOs, etc. During my career in the consulting sciences I recall clearly in the early days where the occasional woman among the men in regulatory meetings was a novelty. Now it is commonly the opposite.

To be honest, if all women chose not to work tomorrow, the world would come to a standstill. Perhaps again, that is the point. Perhaps we need this slap in the face to help us notice what should be obvious. Perhaps it’s also a good reminder to women of their power to affect change.

“A Day Without A Woman” coincides, intentionally, with International Women’s Day. In much of the world for over a century, International Women’s Day is “a collective day of global celebration and a call for gender parity.” This year’s theme is #BeBoldforChange.

Methinks this is a good idea.

Since I’m not a woman I understand that all I can do is acknowledge and support those women around me. I can ruminate, if you will, on my own place in society. I can be more cognizant of my own actions, my own biases, my own (unintended) sexism. I can be a better man. And that includes appreciating all the better women who surround me.

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. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is due out late July 2017.

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Quicken Slow

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father son fishing boat“Hurry up, Daddy!”

I was impatient. The promise of going to Dairy Queen was all that had registered in my 6-year-old mind. The fact that the soft vanilla ice cream in a waffle cone was to be the end of the day’s adventure was somehow lost on my comprehension of time.

So Dad and I piled into the old station wagon that so many times had been our vacation cruiser on road trips to New Hampshire and Maine. Just the two of us on this trip, my older brother already starting to discover his own way of doing things; my younger brother not coordinated enough to handle a fishing rod, no matter how tiny and plastic one might be. No, this trip was to be a Dad/Son trip.

Off to the local reservoir with a pail of bait – earthworms dutifully dug up the evening before to entice whatever might be lurking in the shallow waters. “Drowning worms,” I remember hearing, probably from the old Bert and I records my Dad loved so much. We knew Bert, or at least my parents did, because Mom cleaned his house in town. I almost expected to hear the sputtering of the old Blue Bell, Bert and I’s famous boat. But not today.

Today was to be a quieter experience. I trudged behind my father, seemingly aged at the time but really in his mid 30s, as we walked along the gravel path to the rock walls where we could cast our lines. I nearly lost the rod on my first try, Dad’s quick hands snagging it out of the air as it flew from my hands. A little practice and it was like I had been doing it all of my young life.

We caught some rainbow trout, stocked in the reservoir to keep company with the usual crappies, bluegills, and yellow perch company. Occasionally we saw bullheads, but not this day. I was excited to reel in my own rainbow, only to see Dad reel in an even bigger one. Later, he would tell Mom that the big one was my catch.

As the hours passed I forgot my earlier urgency to quicken the pace. Eventually, we did get that ice cream cone, but while thoroughly enjoyed, it was no longer the highlight of the day. Instead it simply capped my appreciation of the better things in life. We ate trout for dinner that night.

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. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is due out late July 2017.

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A Writer’s Hideout

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writing-spaceBeing a kid had its advantages. We didn’t have to worry about where the food on our table came from, just how to hide the peas under the mashed potatoes. We didn’t have to worry about where the money for the clothes went, just how to hide the fact that we ripped out the seam playing street hockey. And we didn’t have to worry about how our parents kept the roof from leaking, never mind how they managed to buy the house in the first place with us kids constantly draining the bank account. Plus we had that cool hideout in the backyard, the local woods, or in our case, the graveyard across the street.

Alas, those carefree days are gone. Now we are writers, and unlike the fantasies we told ourselves about the carefree life of writing, we are constantly on the prowl for that nice writing project. Preferably one that pays for the peas, the ripped clothes, and the leaky roof. To do that we need a place to write…our very own writer’s hideout.

That hideout could be anywhere, and often is while traveling. But we all have our “main place” to write. That place is unique to each of us, though likely fits into one of several general categories.

  • The Writing Nook: Cramped for space (and who isn’t)? Your hideout may be a corner of your bedroom, guest room, storage room, laundry room, or garage. All you need is a spot horizontal enough for a laptop. It could even be a fold-away TV dinner table set up in front of the recliner (but keep the TV off).
  • The Kitchen Table: Dinner is done, dishes are done, kids homework – done enough. Instant conversion to a writing hideout. Not so hidden, admittedly, but it is space to write. Works best for fiction writers who don’t need a lot of reference materials.
  • The Home Office: Have a little extra space? Friends who rarely spend the night? No friends? Build yourself a home office/writing den in that extra room. It can double as a library. Fill the walls with inspiration, with books, or with a million Post-It notes full of story ideas.
  • The Separate Writing Hideout: Some of you have an actual writing hideout, to which I say only that I am beyond envious. Perhaps a small shed out back to call your own, or a cabin in the woods, or a loft, or a converted attic, or a, well, you get the idea. Any space that is separated from interruption for any length of time is as close to a hideout as you can get. Now go use it.
  • Starbucks: Or, just maybe, all you need is a change of location for an hour or two. At my local breakfast/lunch coffeehouse the corner table is the home of our ubiquitous “writer guy” diligently tapping away on his iPad. Every day. Every. Single. Day. [Okay, at least every single day that I go in there] If what you need for a hideout is not so much a place to hide from people as a place to free your mind from the usual home issues, then the coffee place can be your hideout. Just be sure to buy something to “rent” the space.

These hideouts are all for daily writing. But how about a writer’s retreat? Whether once a year, several times a year, or for a month-long crash-writing session to finish that novel, having a place to go for a writer’s retreat is gold. Write best in total isolation? Find a cabin in the woods. Inspired by lapping waves? Find a beachside or clifftop view of the ocean. Like the energy of crowds babbling in unknown languages? Book that flight to Rome.

The key to hideouts, of course, is not the hideout but the writing. The actual hideout will be personalized to you, whether because of financial or space constraints, personality preferences, or the weight of reality around you. So find your hideout. And write.

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. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is due out late July 2017.

[Daily Post]