Kevin Nelson

Great Stories Found Here

How to Survive a Trip to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome

The plastic water bottle skidded off the granite and disappeared. It wasn’t the sound the bottle made that disturbed me. It was the silence that followed its rapid disappearance. Along with twenty to twenty-five other people I was perched on the east face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, the world-famous granite slab that […]

Kevin Nelson’s post How to Survive a Trip to the Top of Yosemite’s Half Dome appeared July 31 on Dave’s Travel Corner.

By Kevin Nelson, Recent Articles

June 1. Playing the Points Game: A Beginner’s Thoughts. Dave’s Travel Corner

My Adventures with Pixar Studios

It was one of those phone calls you always love to receive as an author. Pixar Studios was on the line, and they wanted to take a meeting with me.

“Sure,” I said. “Love to.”

            The meeting occurred ten days later at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, a small city across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco and about forty-five minutes by car from my home. The studios are behind a gated entrance. I parked and walked into a lovely amphitheater and open space where Pixar employees take lunch and hold company events and meetings. In a courtyard was the famous lamp, which is the company symbol and always makes an appearance in the credits at the start of every Pixar movie.

            The main building on the site has an airy, spacious lobby that was said to be designed by Steve Jobs, the brilliant, sadly deceased cofounder of Apple and the creative genius behind this animation studio (now owned by Disney) that has made such gems as Toy Story, The Incredibles, Up!, Ratatouille, and Finding Dory.

Naturally, there were a number of hipster-ish techie types in casual garb roaming the lobby. I personally liked hanging with two very pleasant Italian fellows, Luigi and Guido.

Continue reading

Ziplining through the redwoods

There is a wealth of things to do in California’s wine country. Here is an activity you may not have thought of: Ziplining through Sonoma’s coastal redwoods.

A boy in flight.

My son and I took a “flight” through the forests of Occidental in Sonoma County, about two hours north of San Francisco. I’d heartily recommend it for families or anyone who is looking for something a little different than the usual Sonoma and Napa Valley pleasures of wine tasting and dining. Continue reading

How I Sold Operation Bullpen to the Movies

It’s Sunday afternoon in the banquet room of a hotel in West Hollywood. I’m sitting across the table from a Hollywood producer pitching her on why my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, will make a great movie.

“It’s all true,” I tell her. “I’m not making a word of this up. It all happened.”

“Great,” she tells me. “I love true stories.”

“It’s about a group of people who basically start with nothing and create a $100 million forgery ring, the biggest in America.”

Suddenly the producer looks puzzled, like she ate something bad. “How? What are they forging?”

“Fake autographs. You know, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, superstars like that. And they’re forging these autographs on baseballs, jerseys, photos, posters—you name it. They produce hundreds of thousands of fakes and sell them on the home shopping channels, eBay, stores, all over the place. And they make millions in cash.”

“Okay,” she says, finally getting it. “What’s the story?” Continue reading

Visit Luther Burbank’s Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa

Luther Burbank was to plants what Steve Jobs was to computers. A creative genius who could take a thing and combine it with another thing, and in so doing make the original thing better and even sometimes new.

Luther Burbank, left, and Henry Ford.

At the time of his death, in 1926, Burbank was one of the most famous men in America, certainly the most famous horticulturalist. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Jack London, John Muir, and other luminaries of the time visited him at his home and gardens in Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco, to see him and a few of the wonders he had created such as the spineless cactus.

The spineless cactus was so smooth that Burbank could rub his face against it and not be scraped or stabbed. (Although this is not recommended.) A giant, sprawling example of this plant stands in the backyard of his modest home, a federally designated national landmark. The house where he lived and worked for most of his adult life is in the downtown section of the city. Parking is on the street in the neighborhood where it’s located.

Other notable Burbank creations on view at the site include the famous Burbank rose, Burbank potato, the plumcot or pluot tree—a hybrid of plums and apricots—an apple tree with multiple grafts, and the Shasta daisy.

Shasta daisies in the shade of a plumcot tree.

The daisy derives from Burbank’s boyhood in Pennsylvania. His father scorned the daisy as a mere weed, to be ripped from the ground and gotten rid of. But, like the founder of Apple, the young Burbank thought, well, just because a thing is a certain way, that doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. When he migrated to California, at age 26, in the 1870s, riding across the country on the transcontinental railroad, he set about transforming that scorned weed into a beautiful flower. So he did, and the Shasta daisy was born.

Burbank achieved such transformations by careful pollination of seeds, grafting, and three qualities that every gardener comes to know well: Patience, patience, patience.

Before visiting the Burbank home I read a wonderful 1962 children’s biography, Luther Burbank, Boy Wizard, written beautifully by Olive W. Burt. The book, preserved from my wife’s book collection when she was a girl, added to my understanding of Luther’s story, as did our excellent tour guide Marti.

The tour lasted about 45 minutes. We walked through the gardens, past where Luther is buried, into his farmhouse and kitchen, and the brick and glass greenhouse that survived the 1906 Earthquake. We learned things we would never have learned if we had not taken the tour.

Small in stature, modest and quiet, this extraordinary man spent days and days and years and years—his entire lifetime, really—out of doors, in his gardens, in nature. This, for him, was the best education, especially for young people. In 1907, in a book of his called The Training of the Human Plant, he wrote,

            “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs and mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets, and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.”

The gardens are open every day, free of charge, from 8 a.m. to dusk. Tours are available for children, groups, and on a drop-in basis. There is a small gift shop. See the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens website for coming events and more.


How to Get Your Children Away from Electronics and Reading Books Again

“Wow! A book. What a neat present!”

When Hank was a boy, he read voraciously, gobbling up Alex Rider, Harry Potter and other books like peanuts at a ballgame.

Then we got him an iPhone and his appetite for books dried up seemingly overnight. I asked him about this change and he said, “I hate to read. Books are boring.”

A similar change occurred with Gabe. When the iPhone—and iPad and gaming systems—entered the picture, his youthful interest in books evaporated.

I know from talking with other parents that our experience is hardly unusual. Boys and girls read fewer books once they fall prey to the siren song of phones and social media. But the prognosis for the written word is hardly dim. In many ways it’s very bright. Continue reading

How to be a Better Writer

Hemingway’s advice for writing well was simple: Run it through the typewriter one more time. We no longer have typewriters but the advice is still sound.

Ernest Hemingway, as a young man.

Almost without fail a second draft is better than a first. It is shorter, tighter, and less of a strain on your reader’s attention. For this blog post I went through three drafts. 1) I jotted my thoughts down on a legal pad. 2) I typed it up on my iMac. 3) I left it for a moment, came back, made a few last edits, and I was done. The whole process took twenty minutes.

This simple advice will help you write better books as well as better blogs, articles, and school papers. Just send it through the word processor one more time.

FYI. If you’re a young person looking for a good book, try Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. My personal favorites of his, though more for adults, are his novel A Farewell to Arms and A Moveable Feast, his memoir of living in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s.

What the heck is he thinking about?

People have been asking this question ever since Auguste Rodin’s monumental sculpture, “The Thinker,” debuted in Paris in 1904.

Is he contemplating the great questions of God, existence, mortality? Did he get jilted by a girl and is wondering how to get her back? Is he trying to remember what he needs to pick up for tonight’s dinner?

Although a formidable six feet six inches tall (not counting the pedestal), The Thinker is a kind of Everyman. Like all great art, what we see in it is a reflection of ourselves. Our own lives, our own thoughts. Continue reading

What Dogs Can Teach Us About Overcoming Disappointment and Defeat

“Squirrel? Duck? What you got?” Ruby is ready to chase something at this pond.

On a walk this morning, Ruby lit out after a squirrel she saw at the foot of an oak tree. She went all out, from the drop, to get that squirrel.

She didn’t get it.

She did not in fact even come close. Squirrels appear to like to torture her and dogs in general. This one hesitated a second, as if to lure her in with the tantalizing possibility that she might catch it, only to scurry easily up the tree out of reach.

“Hah hah,” it squeaked. “Can’t catch me.”

Undismayed, Ruby trotted back to me after her fruitless chase, thinking nothing of it. It occurred to me that humans can learn a lot from dogs on how to handle disappointment and defeat. Continue reading

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