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So, Dad, Do You Remember World War II? Did It Remember You?

This essay of mine originally appeared in the December, 2013 edition of San Diego Magazine.


When my dad enlisted in the Army at age 19 to join those who wanted to stop Hitler’s march across Europe, he didn’t get to see the big picture of his role in it. While some were sent to islands in the Pacific, or deserts in North Africa, or cities in Europe, he, a boy from Chicago, was sent to the Arctic Circle as part of a five-man station, where he and the others radioed weather reports every three hours,DSCN0051 24 hours a day, for a year. That information gave the military a three-day lead time to know what the conditions would be like in Europe as they devised bombing raids.

Part of the time in the Arctic the temperature was 65 below zero (F), and it was dark 23 hours per day. Only three times did they get mail from home—it was dropped by parachute—and they couldn’t send any out. Their family and friends had no idea where they were or whether they were safe. One of the men couldn’t take it and he emotionally snapped. The soldiers sent him by dog sled 100 miles to the closest port where he could be picked up and shipped home. They traded cigarettes for ivory with the Eskimos, saw plenty of polar bears, seals, and walrus, and hoped the Army wouldn’t forget them when the war was over.

Occasionally the aurora borealis, or northern lights, would knock out their ability to transmit signals. In what seems like a scene from the movies Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey, they would hear a disembodied voice asking, “Has anyone heard from WXAW [the Arctic station call letters]? WXAW, come in,” and not be able to respond. For a week.

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Billy Collins, Brian Doyle Murray and I Did Play Golf Together. They Played Well. I Played…Well…

This story originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of Golf Getaways magazine.

I’ll admit it. I was nervous.

It’s not that I had something to prove in my upcoming golf game with former poet laureate Billy Collins and comedy writer/actor

© Daniel Vasconcellos -

© Daniel Vasconcellos –

Brian Doyle Murray. It’s just that I didn’t want the next volume of Collins’ work to include a poem about this guy who said he golfed and turned out to be a hacker and spent the entire time looking for his ball in the poison ivy.

Likewise, I didn’t want to see a character in the next Caddyshack movie based on my inability to keep my temper under control.

There was one other thing. After we played, that very evening, I was going to conduct an interview with Collins in front of a sold-
out audience that was expecting a great time. And it was going to be televised. I didn’t want to do the interview while pretending that we were all chummy, when in reality he was composing a limerick in his head, There once was man from Point Loma, who golfed like a guy in a coma … or something like that.

I remembered the last time I golfed with someone famous. It was a pro-am tournament that was an alleged fundraiser for horses after they were no longer useful as a means for betting and carrying short people quickly around in a circle and wearing crazy hats. Instead of sending them off to the dog food factory, this organization wanted to let them wander and eat grass for the rest of their lives like some equestrian nursing home. Feeling noble, I signed up. Actually, I signed up because some famous athletes were also going to be playing in the tournament.

And, of course, the horses. Didn’t want them turning up as hamburgers in Europe.

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Hey Cellphone User! Oh, Never Mind

This essay of mine also appeared recently on Donald Miller’s Storylineblog. com site.

Does this bother you as much as it bothers me:  A person is pushing a stroller, with the child facing the adult, and the adult is doing something on his or her phone, oblivious to the child? If the child is a baby, he or she is invariably locked onto the face of the caregiver, looking for those cues like facial expression, sweet sounds, songs, maybe even a little monologue about what they are seeing and hearing together. That’s how babies learn stuff. We all know that.

I saw it again this morning.

I was walking back to my house after a run, and I saw the tell-tale signs from a couple of blocks away. A young lady was pushing a stroller slowly. The baby was facing her. The lady was going slowly because she had her phone out and was writing with her thumbs, pushing the stroller with the heels of her hands. My already overheated body began to boil. Welcome to Zombieville, I thought. Our phones, our status, our updates, our “Daily Me” posts have taken over. The next generation doesn’t have a chance. We will all be taken up into the sky, not because of the rapture, but because of our own weightlessness.  I so badly wanted to say something. I so badly wanted to blame her for the demise of civil society. I so badly wanted to hurl her phone into traffic, take the stroller, and say, ”I’ll watch your kid for you until you get done telling the world how awesome it is that you’re taking her for a walk in the neighborhood.” Read more

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“When You Focus on the Things That Can Make You Crash, You’ll Crash”

                To put it simply, I guess I lost my focus.

I was already a little anxious when the day began. A few of us were in British Columbia at a friend’s house, doing IMG_0378stuff that I figured should be in Outside Magazine, or maybe a deodorant or adult beverage commercial. One day we were in rubberized suits, with fins on our feet, fly fishing in a mountain lake, pulling out trout by the dozen. An otter swam next to me with its own catch of the day. Then we were boating and hiking through areas that looked like they were backdrops for a National Geographic special. Another day we were on mountain bicycles. In the rain.

On this day, though, we were headed up some abandoned logging paths on trail bikes, which are motorcycles designed to tackle steep inclines and rugged terrain. My friend Doug had a hoist that could swing the bikes from the dock to his boat. We motored through some spectacular lakes for about an hour and came to a dock that looked like it had not been visited in decades. We swung the bikes onto that dock. I looked up at the mountain in front of me.

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Evicting Rats, Digging Up Memories

red wagon


This was also posted on Donald Miller’s Storyline blog today.

My wife and I had been putting off this task for some time. It was gross. That’s what we kept telling ourselves as we would reach a new Saturday, contemplate the job before us, and then have something conveniently come up to keep us from the work. We didn’t feel like battling the cobwebs, and we REALLY didn’t feel like shoveling out the loads of mice (could they be rat?) droppings.

A few times we actually opened the door to the shed in our back yard, took one look, and maybe a whiff, of what had taken up residence there, and quickly closed the door, trying to wish it all away. Maybe a selective tornado could barrel through and take JUST the shed?

But I suspect that the grossness of it wasn’t the real reason we avoided cleaning out the shed. More likely it was because it had some of our kids’ bigger toys in it. Our kids are adults now, and have moved into their own independent lives. We checked with them and yes, we could get rid of those things, they said. But we kept putting it off.

So last Saturday we held our noses and our hearts and ventured into that storage space of memories and vermin. The droppings were probably a gift in that they distracted us from being too sentimental about what we were hosing off so we could give them away. And it wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be.

Except for one thing.

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A Tale of Two Golf Courses, But It’s Not Really About Golf

I visited two world-famous golf courses recently. One was Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California, and the other was in Port Au Prince, Haiti. One caters to the wealthy, and one was taken over by the poor.refugee golf course

Donald Miller posted my obsesrvations on the two courses on his Storyline Blog today. I’ll write more about the actual golfing later. Meanwhile, this is what I observed and what they made me think about.

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The Crumbs From Their Table

Just a few molecules. A few strands of greatness left behind. That’s all I really want when I go into a place like Musso & Frank.

It’s a fine restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard; it opened in 1919 and is one of Los Angeles’ oldest eateries. The food is great, theDSCN4194 steaks legendary. But I wasn’t there for the food. I was there for the greatness. It’s a restaurant/ bar where people like F. Scott Fitzgerald proofread his novels, where Raymond Chandler wrote chapters of The Big Sleep, where Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Heller, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley all ate and drank. Surely they left something behind for people like me?

I was there last week with some friends from high school. We found each other a year ago, 40 years after graduating from Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota. One is a novelist who teaches writing, one is a successful screenwriter who now works in software, one is in the advertising business after working in newspapers. We had lots to talk about last week. Our high school has produced some pretty good writers who walked the same halls we did – Robert Pirsig who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Al Franken who wrote comedy and now legislation. At Musso and Frank we caught up on each others’ lives, but the conversation kept turning back to great writers. It had to, in a place like that.

It reminded me of going to Oxford a couple of years ago and having lunch in the Eagle and Child, a pub where C.S. 00000176Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien read their manuscripts and offered critiques of each others’ work. I sat where the waiter told me they sat, and I inhaled a lot, hoping to ingest some molecules. Later I wandered through Lewis’ house, looked out the window of his study, looked in the room where he slept. I wandered through the cemetery where Tolkien is buried.


Maybe the molecule thing isn’t true at all. Maybe I know that this is not how greatness works.

Each year I interview writers as part of The Writer’s Symposium By The Sea in front of a lively audience. Some of those writers, like Ray Bradbury and George Plimpton, are gone now. The New York Times, in its obituary on Bradbury, linked to my interview with him. You can see a lot of the interviews here. Sometimes, in the middle of the interview, my mind wanders and I get a little distracted by how lucky I am to be talking to someone who has helped us see that the world is much more interesting than we’d thought.

That’s how I felt at Musso & Frank. The writers who hung out there made us pay attention to stories that were worth telling. The world is more interesting, sometimes more disturbing, but usually more understandable because they honed their craft and told great stories.

Waiter! Check please? I have some stories to tell.

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Driving, Daughter and Dublin, Part III: The Diary

PART III — last in a series


We didn’t want to go to France. We wanted to spend a couple of hours in an Irish town called Cobh. Apparently there was more than one ferry in this place!

Once we explained that we wanted to remain in Ireland and were looking for a small river ferry, the attendant got out of her kiosk, lifted a gate and walked us to an exit lane. She told us where we wanted to be, and we were on our way again.

We found the river ferry, which could accommodate six cars (no passports required), and made it to Cobh. It’s another beautiful waterfront city full of life and spectacular scenery. We walked through the Titanic museum (the Lusitaniaalso departed from

Cobh, from St. Coleman’s Cathedral

there – hmm. I think I’d find a new departure city if I were traveling by boat), climbed the hill to wander through St. Coleman’s Cathedral, ate ice cream, drank coffee, and wondered why we had never heard of this city before.

Then it was back in the car for a drive to the area where all of my traveling friends said we must visit – the Dingle Peninsula. And of course they were right. Every turn on that narrow road produced another gasp from both of us – the rocks, the waves, the different shades of blue – light, dark, purple, navy, royal, powder  — were both in the sky and the water as it crashed toward the jagged rocks.

At one point we climbed a hill and walked into a pasture full of very calm sheep. At another point we explored one of the “bee hive” dwelling places of an ancient civilization.

This is the advantage of having a car instead of being bound to a bus schedule. When we wanted to climb a hill and look down on the waves crashing the coastline, we could. When we wanted to stop into a pub for some soup to warm us from the cold wind, we could. Wherever we stopped the people were friendly and helpful. They gave good advice on what to see, where to eat, what to avoid.

We spent a day taking in the sights of Dingle, then headed to another place our friends recommended. We wanted to hear some authentic Irish music, and we wanted to see the Aran Islands, so Doolin was next. For all that we had heard about Doolin, we were surprised at how tiny it was. A few streets had shops and restaurants, but that was it. There were a lot of new housing tracts, but the houses appeared to be empty. It was as if the village planners heard that a great expansion was coming, and got ready for it, but it never came.

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Driving, Daughter and Dublin, Part II: “Where Do You Think You’re Going?”


Last month I introduced my driving adventure in Ireland with my daughter while she was studying there for the summer. I had requested a car with an automatic transmission, and the good people at the car rental office gave me the biggest car — a Mercedes — I had seen in that country.  The reason my heart sank was that everything I read about driving in Ireland involved narrow roads, near-death experiences when encountering tour buses or trucks, tiny parking spaces, and neighborhoods with streets made for pedestrians and horses, not for hummers.

Plus, I used to own a car like this – a much older version. It was a Mercedes 500 SEL, which my mechanic dubbed The Exxon Valdez, because of both its size and the amount of oil it left wherever it sat. It was a car made for the autobahn, not for avoiding sheep, goats and bicycles on narrow country roads.

I could tell that the rental car man was confused by my lack of enthusiasm, but he was still convinced that this was my dream come true.

Kinsale, Ireland

We pulled out of the lot, I remembered what side of the road to drive on, and we headed for Kinsale. With my adult daughter on the left, in the passenger side, it felt as if we were doing reverse driver’s training.

“Dad – you’re too close to this bike on the left.”

But if I moved right, even a little, I risked running off the road.

“Dad – you’re almost off the shoulder over here. Dad – you turned into the wrong lane.”

But my favorite was:

“Dad! STOP!”

She said that when the road narrowed so much that it was impossible for two-way traffic to proceed. Someone had to give. Might as well be Sinatra and his daughter in the limo. She also said it one time when we thought we were on a road but turned out to be a pedestrian-only walkway. The pedestrians had to move out of our way twice – once when we nearly ran them over, and again when I had to traverse the same path in reverse.

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Driving, Daughter and Dublin, Part I: My Lucky Day?

Earlier this year I wrote about traveling cross-country with my son, with the false hope that our old Volvo would make it across the desert, over the mountains, and then live out the rest of its Swedish immigrant life being driven by my son and daughter in law in the flatlands of Kansas. You can read about how none of that happened in my “Volvo in Vegas” series, parts 1-3.

My daughter and I had a different kind of cross-country driving experience last year. She was going to be studying in Ireland for the summer, and wanted to know if my wife and I wanted to join her for the week before her program was to begin.  None of us had been to Ireland. My mom is Irish — she and my dad and brother went there several years ago to see where her tribe had begun, but I couldn’t go.

This time, things looked more possible. At least for me. My wife wanted to travel with us, but her job (she’s a big shot accountant in an international company — they work year round!) was not as accommodating as mine (college professor, summer break = duh!) My daughter was already in Europe with some friends, living as cheaply as possible. Couch surfing and baguettes can stretch even a U.S. dollar in the Eurozone.

So I agreed to meet her in Dublin. The plan was to travel through as much of the country as possible for a week, get her settled into her summer apartment, and feel more confident about her being there on her own, studying peace and conflict, specifically as it applied to “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. I vowed to not think of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Read more

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