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The Curmudgeon
J. Conrad's blog
Thursday, 19 March 2009
American Idol: All that is Wrong with America
Topic: The Curmudgeon

Webster’s defines idol as an image regarded as an object of worship; a false god; a person or thing blindly or excessively adored; something visible but lacking substance.

They might add to those definitions: See also American Idol, Fox TV.

I can in good conscience say I’ve never seen this popular show, but I’ve seen enough trailers (who can miss them?) to know how important attaining the status of American idol is to these idol wannabes. The panel of judges, who think nothing of ridiculing the markedly less talented, in turn heap words of praise along with looks of unabashed adulation upon the talented hopefuls while the live audience voices their approval. Those talents who make the cut to the next level often scream and weep out of sheer ecstasy. They are driven to be worshipped, adored by the masses, even though that image lacks the substance of reality.

A Google search of American Idol brought up the following items, from the last 24 hours:


  • Ratings: ‘American Idol’ leads Wednesday as ABC dramas suffer (Entertainment Weekly)
  • ‘American Idol’ Loses Alexis Grace and Pesky Rumors of a Fix (FOX News)
  • He struck gold with American Idol, and Simon Cowell gets richer every year (Times Online)
  • ‘American Idol’ Trading Cards! Collect all 138! (ZAP 2 it)
  • Do we need an a cappella American Idol on NBC? (TV Squad)


I appreciate a good entertainer – an actor or a singer – as much as anyone, and as much as I value a good movie, good music, a novel or a work of art. I’ve been moved to laughter, to tears, to grief, to joy by all of the above, but to affix the word “idol” to the winner of this talent show, no matter how much talent they may possess, I find not only offensive but downright vulgar, nearly pornographic.

American Idol plays off everything that is wrong with America: our fascination with and addiction to fame. Are our lives so devoid of the things that matter – family, spirituality, career, community, world events – that we must escape our reality because of our perception of the aforementioned as ordinary? The global economy is in ruins, unemployment in this country continues to rise as people lose their homes, unable to afford health care; global warming is at the tipping point, threatening the polar bear with extinction; our youth are being abducted off our streets, in affluent neighborhoods, and forced into prostitution and pornography. And we continue to turn our nescient heads in preference of our weekly fix of American Idol.

Another idol, Christian Bale, recently went on a tirade while shooting a scene for the new Terminator movie because a member of the crew moved while in his line of sight, distracting him. Bale later apologized for this invective, after an audio file showed up on the Internet, asking his fan base to imagine their worst day and to forgive him for his outburst, the result of his own bad day. Bale makes what, $20M for play-acting, and his bad day, resulting in having to reshoot a scene, is worse than someone’s who has lost their job and can’t pay their mortgage?

Our troubled youth today aspire to follow in the footsteps of former pop star Britney Spears and Hilton heiress Paris Hilton, both whom we created. The former’s fame has brought her only ruin, while the latter’s resulted in jail time, even as each of their falls from fame brought ridicule to them, while in Spears’ case, it fueled her demise. Fame does not bring happiness to the despondent; it merely makes their despondency, for a time, a little easier to bear or hide from.

It’s been said that giving to charity eases our conscience, and while I won’t deny the necessary role entertainment holds in our society, ours has taken it past the level of diversion or distraction from the reality of the homeless, the starving, the infirm, to the point of outright denial. The aim of any society should be to acknowledge these sufferings of real substance and to do something about them, not turn from them, pretending they don’t exist by losing itself in false images.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:18 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 19 March 2009 10:28 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
Topic: Writing

I recently had an exchange on a writer’s forum regarding the semicolon as a viable tool in a writer’s toolbox. The other writer called them god-awful ugly and interchangeable with the comma in separating items in a list and preferred, rather than using a semicolon, breaking independent clauses into separate sentences. Compound sentences were unheard of in his ears – too hard to write, apparently, and too easy for a reader to get lost. But really, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the same can be said about ugliness. Many people find the common bulldog cute as a product of its very homeliness.

The exchange led me to the conclusion that writers misunderstand use of the comma. Consider that when someone commits suicide they put a period at the end of their life. A New York cab driver might look at a comma as he would an amber light: accelerate. I look at a semicolon as old age – it gives me pause to reflect.

Replacing a semicolon with a comma alters, if only slightly, the rhythm of a sentence (the semicolon alerts the reader to take a slightly longer pause before moving on). A writer can choose to make two sentences, but sometimes I don’t wish to make that great a distinction in my thought process, forcing my reader to stop completely when it is unnecessary for me to ask them to do so. Sometimes there is no “need” to connect two thoughts, but I merely feel a desire to do so. And what good is a desire if one does not give in to it on occasion?

I rarely use semicolons in business writing, but in creative writing a writer should have in his or her toolbox all of the tools necessary for good writing, and what good is having a tool if you don’t pull it out to use once in a while?

A writer should know how to craft a variety of sentences of varying length and complexity. Short sentences composed of no more than one or two commas are good for building tension or drama; but an entire text composed of these types of sentences will tire a reader with all of its stops and starts akin to rush hour traffic in L.A.

Today’s publishing industry prefers a text to be written at a ninth-grade level, which means dumbing it down. Perhaps many readers don’t understand fully what a semicolon implies, but I find a well-crafted sentence that uses commas, semicolons, an em dash, to be visually sensual. It whets my appetite for a literary experience I will remember long after I’ve closed the cover for the last time.

Long live the semicolon.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 4:24 PM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 3 February 2010 7:22 AM EST
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Sunday, 15 March 2009
The Cobb Legacy
Topic: Novel excerpts



I was a Cobb, and stuck behind a mule that broke wind when the breeze was the wrong way. I resented it deeply.


Ty Cobb



Cagney felt the forceps grasping his right pinky finger tighten and so he ceased to struggle. He glanced up at the nurse who gripped the forceps—a pretty woman in her late thirties with dark hair and eyes to match: Bethany. She smiled at Cagney demurely, through ruby red lips, trying to assure him that all would proceed well so long as he didn’t struggle. The armrest of the chair in which he sat shielded from his sight her legs—dancer’s legs—those assets of hers that had driven him to his indiscretion.

The face of a doctor now loomed above him, his head mirror reflected for a moment the light that shone from a nearby table lamp, leaving Cagney temporarily blind. When Cagney opened his eyes the doctor’s visage filled his vision: a round, fat face with multiple chins; mustache waxed into the shape of handlebars; thin, oily hair combed over from just above the left ear in a failed attempt to cover a bald pate, sun damaged and covered with age spots; steely blue eyes rimmed in red from their addiction to laudanum. Heavy perspiration covered the doctor’s face, beaded on his mustache as he smiled, revealing a good-sized gap between his two front teeth—teeth blackened by tar—a feeble effort to assure Cagney that he was in good hands.

The doctor raised his hands—sausage-like fingers, gnarled, more akin to those of a hard laborer than a doctor—to show a scalpel in one and forceps in the other. Cagney struggled and felt Bethany squeeze the forceps that gripped his pinky; Cagney was mute to give voice to his pain.

“It will be more painful for you if you struggle,” the doctor advised in an accent with which Cagney was unfamiliar. “Now come, open wide.”

Cagney was here for a tonsillectomy but wondered why he hadn’t been given anesthetic. He struggled again to find his voice, failed. Cagney felt the onslaught of panic, yet his breathing remained even, if labored. He wondered that the doctor seemed oblivious to the terror he was certain must be reflected in his eyes.

“Come now,” the doctor said impatiently. “The sooner you open, the sooner we can be done.”

Bethany gave her forceps a squeeze and Cagney complied. The doctor leaned in, exhaled, and Cagney was accosted by the virulent scent of laudanum, its herbal base mingling with that of burnt rubber. Cagney wanted to retch but found himself paralyzed; indeed, when the doctor reached into his mouth with his forceps and, a moment later, scalpel, he found his gag reflex immobile.

Conscious of the pressure on his right pinky, Cagney thought that surely he must be dreaming. Yet his efforts to rouse himself from slumber proved futile.

The doctor sighed loudly and whispered something in a foreign language that Cagney took as a curse; Bethany tittered. A moment later he felt a searing pain at the back of his throat and the doctor removed the forceps from his mouth to reveal in their grip a bloodied baseball…

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:49 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:51 PM EDT
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Saturday, 7 February 2009
Detroit Tigers Scouting Report: 2009
Topic: Sports

The Super Bowl is past and on February 2, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so I’m assured of at least ten more weeks of hockey.

It’s forty degrees outside my window, the snow is melting (although to either side of my driveway it’s still knee deep), but Detroit Tigers’ pitchers reported to Lakeland, Florida last week, and position players report this week, and so my thoughts turned to baseball. In Michigan we can expect much snow before the start of the baseball campaign, maybe more arctic temperatures; but they’ll be playing baseball in Florida later this month, and that, my friends, does my heart good.


Click here to read the rest of this article.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:16 PM EST
Updated: Saturday, 7 February 2009 12:27 PM EST
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Thursday, 8 January 2009
Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story
Topic: Cigars

You don’t have to be a fiction writer to enjoy this short smoke. The Hemingway line has been around since 1983, and the Short Story is the top seller (maybe they should change its name to Best Seller – wait, they have a Best Seller!). All Hemingway cigars are made from Dominican filler and binder and wrapped in a sweet West African Cameroon wrapper. I’m not a big fan of Cameroon wrappers, but on a Hemingway it works, which speaks volumes about the blend.

Of course what makes the Short Story unique is its perfecto shape. Measuring four-and-a-half inches from the nipple’s tip to the crown of its head, the ring gauge runs between .46 at the head and .49 near the foot. Because of the workmanship involved in the construction and the fact that the cigars are aged a minimum of six months, it’s understandable that a limited number of these little dandies are produced annually.

Care must be taken to light the nippled foot without scorching the wrapper, so I’d recommend a cedar match or lighting a piece of cedar from which to ignite the Short Story. From the first draw the Short Story’s taste is sophisticated, with hints of cedar and spice, a touch of leather – smooth throughout, its slow burn never hot or bitter.

Like a well-written piece of short fiction one enjoys for its language, never wanting to turn the last page, the Hemingway Short Story, too, should be enjoyed leisurely; at smoke’s end you’ll be remiss to set the Short Story down in your ashtray for the last time, the experience lingering, as a great short story should, long after it has gone out. It goes well with a morning cup of coffee or a single malt in the evening.


Like all Hemingway cigars, the price may be prohibitive to some, but I try to keep one or two in my humidor for special occasions – birthdays, holidays, an acceptance letter, maybe even the occasional rejection letter that lends encouragement.


Highly recommended.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 9:08 AM EST
Updated: Thursday, 28 October 2010 2:04 PM EDT
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Publishing in the 21st century
Topic: Writing

I received a rejection letter this week for the new novel I’m shopping — a form letter that apologized for its own informality before it told me, “Thanks but no thanks.” I waited approximately six weeks to receive that response. It’s frustrating to consider I have six other queries, several dating back nearly 10 weeks, on which I’m awaiting response.

I can appreciate having to wait several weeks, maybe several months, to receive a reply on a full manuscript submission, but a single-page query letter? And I’m supposed to refrain from making simultaneous submissions? I’m 52 years old — I want to be published before the end of the century!

I understand the competition is great — notice I didn’t say stiff. A great many wannabe authors who have done little to learn their craft make it difficult for agents and publishers to find that diamond in the rough. Finding a good agent is problematic: the good ones — those with a successful track record — have set client lists and rarely take on new ones. Those looking to make a name for themselves may be hungry, but lack experience, and may not be long in the business.

The publishing industry is changing faster than I can keep up. I hear stories about traditional houses demanding that their authors pay back the difference on their advance if they don’t sell out their print runs. Vanity presses? Mark Twain, Zane Grey, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, and Tom Clancy all self-published. Vanity presses have evolved into print on demand publishers who make their profit upfront, off the author, and continue to do so with expensive marketing packages designed to part the author from more of his money. And now the new publishing models: partnerships in publishing that still require the author to invest money up front ($1,000 or more), and e-publishing, which requires no investment on the part of the author, but leaves me to wonder over the viability of listing a title on a Web site that sells e-books when I myself have never purchased one. I don’t own a wireless reading device either, leaving me to question how many potential buyers own one.

I’m all for cutting edge technology and would love — as Brisco County, Jr. once told his sidekick, Lord Bowler — to get in on the coming thing, but when Bowler asks Brisco what the coming thing is, I, too, have to say, “I don’t know — if I did, it would be here.”

There are many options in the publishing world — and multiple options are both good and bad. Yet I suppose the risk is there, as it always has been. But I wonder, too, if the publishing industry itself is in part responsible for creating their own risk by relying on a handful of authors to drive their profits, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves, blaming us for their unwillingness to invest in creating the next literary giant.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 9:03 AM EST
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Sunday, 28 December 2008
Lions Achieve Immortality Through Perfection
Topic: Sports

No NFL team has ever gone through an entire season without scoring a win. Until 2008.

Last season the New England Patriots finished their season a perfect 16-0 only to cap it off with a disappointing loss in the Super Bowl. Disappointing. The Lions record in futility is abysmal. Embarrassing. Sixteen games without a win. After going a perfect 4-0 in the preseason. Does a team have to work at that sort of ineffectiveness?


To read the remainder of this article, click Bleacher Report.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 5:46 PM EST
Updated: Saturday, 7 February 2009 12:26 PM EST
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Wednesday, 24 December 2008
Graves Duty
Topic: Published articles

This originally appeared in the fall 2005 issue of River Walk Journal.


“I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they’re gone from your life.” — Maya Angelou



I visit my dad twice a year. On this particular early May morning the sky is cloudless, the air crisp; the grass is bejeweled with dew. Leaning against the side of my truck, I clip the end of an Onyx Vintage ‘97 and light it, taking a long, satisfying drag. I let the smoke warm the back of my palate, and a moment later I exhaust it with a long sigh. I discovered the pleasure of cigar smoking two years too late. I’ve convinced myself that this custom is something my dad and I could’ve enjoyed together.

I don’t need to come here, to Fort Custer National Cemetery, to visit Dad. Most people forgo visiting their loved ones in the cemetery two years after relegating them to their final resting place. My dad has been gone from me for a little more than seven years, but coming here a couple times a year somehow just feels right. I also suspect we have unfinished business between us.

I envision us sharing a smoke on a Saturday afternoon over a couple of glasses of bourbon or scotch as we listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game. We had our differences, Dad and I, but whatever they were we could always put them aside for a couple of hours for the enjoyment of a baseball game.

One of my fondest memories is sitting alongside my dad, behind first base at Tiger Stadium. The year is 1968, it’s September and the Bengals are destined to go on to win the World Series the following month. Denny McLain would win 31 games that season, but it would be Mickey Lolich who would win the Series MVP award.

Earlier that summer, Dad had come home one evening after work and slipped into my hand a brown piece of paper haphazardly torn from a grocery bag. I turned it over and saw some markings. Puzzled, I looked closer. I turned the scrap 90 degrees, then 90 more: the first set of markings soon turned into a word, a moment later the word became a name. When I recognized the first name I didn’t have to puzzle over the second — “Bill Freehan!” I exclaimed, overjoyed. It was that famous Freehan trot I always emulated after drawing a walk and making my way down to first base during our neighborhood baseball games. “I ran into him in a grocery store this afternoon,” Dad told me, matter of fact. I was thrilled, not only by the treasure, but because Dad chose to give it to me instead of keeping it for himself — I was touched by his selflessness. Today I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t recall what became of that scrap of, to me, priceless grocery bag.

The Yankees were in town for a weekend series, it was late in the game with the Tigers comfortably ahead and McLain was on the mound. Mantle stepped up to the plate. Beyond the twilight of his career, he was in that crepuscular place reserved for athletes who have overstayed their welcome in a game in which, at some point, experience no longer counts.  He’d lost his timing, along with much of his grace, and he routinely swung wildly and missed pitches that, a few years earlier, he would have sent into orbit. McLain looked in to Freehan for the sign; he shook off the first, as well as the second. Then he leaned back, stepped off the rubber, and held up the ball for Mantle to see, asking Mickey where he’d like the pitch. The crowd, which had grown complacent with the home team’s lead, sensed something was up. Mantle gamely swung his bat — arcing gracefully through his wheelhouse — to indicate where McLain should leave the ball for him. McLain nodded, went into his windup… and blooped the ball right where Mickey wanted it… Mickey returned the favor by launching the pitch into the right field bleachers. The crowd erupted. Mantle had certainly hit longer and more important homeruns, but the crowd perhaps had seen the writing on the wall, although they may not yet have read the text: this was Mantle’s final appearance at Tiger Stadium, and the homerun counted as the next to last round-tripper in his if not long but illustrious career. Mantle retired from baseball the following spring.

Beside me, Dad snorted his disgust. To him McLain committed the ultimate sin in baseball, or in any sport: allowing the opposition to score. Perhaps he recalled all too well the Black Sox scandal, thirty-nine years before I was born, in which eight Chicago White Sox players, Shoeless Joe Jackson among them, were found guilty of conspiring to throw the 1917 World Series. Although he was only a year old at the time it happened, the story reverberated throughout the baseball fraternity for decades. Years later, after Mantle died the result of a bad liver, I realized Dad knew more about Mantle’s off the field behavior and drinking habits than I did when I was 11, and that that perhaps played a part in his reaction that long ago afternoon.

I push myself away from the side of my truck and slowly make my way up the small knoll toward my dad’s marker. I’m thinking about that day at Tiger Stadium, the images undimmed by the passage of 35 years, and I regret not having relived the experience with Dad that final year of his life. In retrospect I think I feared that, had I asked him if he recalled what was for me such a memorable experience, he might say “No.”

I feel emptiness and a pain in my chest. I suspect the pain comes from not having more such fond memories, and wishing I had fewer memories of a childhood in which Dad often seemed a ghost, except as a disciplinarian.

I was six or seven years old when I took a spill from a bike that didn’t belong to me. It was too big for me and I was riding too fast and lost control. I landed hard, the bike on top of me, and promptly burst into tears. Dad, who’d watched the entire proceeding from a lounge chair on our porch, crossed the street in no great hurry. Perhaps he already knew what hadn’t yet occurred to me: that I was crying more from having given myself a good scare than from being hurt, although I’d banged my ankle pretty hard. He carried me back across the street and, once he’d determined I suffered no real damage, scolded me for being on a bike that I hadn’t yet grown into and for being so reckless. The lesson I came away with was to avoid risk.

I kneel at the slab of marble that marks my dad’s existence and brush away a few dried grass clippings:


James C Guest

SSgt US Marine Corps

World War II

Oct 29, 1918 — Feb 10, 1998


Dad served in the Pacific arena and saw action on Okinawa, where some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place. Dad had been retired from the Marines several years before he met and married my mother — “I was smitten,” Dad related to me once shortly after Mom passed away. “She was the first woman I’d ever met who not only knew but had read…” I curse myself for not being able to recall the name of the author he mentioned: another element of his life has passed from existence forever.

Growing up I knew little of his wartime experiences. In youth we believe that little of what happened before we got here is of much importance. Still I learned, the hard way, that Dad was not an ex-Marine or a former Marine. He was a retired Marine. I learned that the Marines were a far more elite group of this country’s armed forces than was the Army.

Dad kept in touch with a select few of his comrades, most of whom to me were merely names he mentioned from time to time, save one — Sgt. Major Bean. Bean I met several times before he passed away the result of having acquired the HIV virus from tainted blood he’d been given during heart bypass surgery. I was 18 the last time I saw Bean. I had already reached my adult height but still skinny; Bean looked at me approvingly before looking over to my dad and exclaiming, “God, Jim, he’s a good-looking kid. We’ll make a Marine out of him, eh?” He promptly looked back at me and asked, “Do you like to kill?” I managed to stammer that the only things I’d ever killed were mosquitoes and that while I couldn’t say with any degree of certitude I enjoyed it, I enjoyed a certain gratification in succeeding with my first strike initiatives.

Dad never talked to me about joining the service. He never explained to me what I might be missing by forgoing a tour of duty during peacetime — the camaraderie, the male bonding. Years later, when I asked him why he never advised me, he merely said he thought I should live my own life and make my own decisions. I realized much later that I couldn’t have made an informed decision without the information he had withheld from me. I was angry but kept my disappointment to myself.

I recall standing next to Dad at the foot of the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington D.C. during one of the many Marine Corps reunions he attended.  It was the summer of 1966. Earlier in the day, on a bus ride to the Marine Corps base in Quantico to attend an artillery demonstration, Dad introduced me to General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in history. I heard the reverence in Dad’s voice as he introduced me to this small and wiry man who, to me, seemed ancient. The best part of his life was obviously behind him, but he seemed an important personage to my dad, so I tried to hold him in some higher esteem.

That evening, at the foot of the memorial, as I looked at the names of battles during which Marines lost their lives etched into the pedestal, many which I couldn’t pronounce, I heard my dad hiccough. I looked up at him and saw tears coursing down his cheeks. It was the first time I’d ever seen my dad cry. It would be many years before I understood the why behind the tears.

I asked my dad twice — once when I was a kid and again during the last year of his life, when I was 43 — to share with me some of his overseas experiences. The second time I’d hoped to come away with a greater understanding of why he was the way he was, and that perhaps, in sharing, he might experience a sort of healing. Each time I asked him, he refused. Whatever he did on Okinawa, whatever he saw, whatever he endured, he took with him when he died.

I learned more about the Marine that was my dad, after his death, from an older cousin who recalls Grandma reading a letter that her Uncle Jim had written on the back of a dead Marine, and that for years he couldn’t stand the sight of ketchup on the kitchen table. My cousin relates her favorite uncle’s homecoming: “He was tall and looked so handsome in his uniform. He dropped his duffel bag on the landing and I squealed, ‘Uncle Jim, tell me some stories about the war!’ He looked at me and his smile disappeared and he told me very sternly that I was never to ask him about the war.”

Dad related to me, a few months before his death, a different, very abridged account of his homecoming: “I always felt cheated,” he said holding back his emotion, “because the family had moved while I was overseas and I never felt the satisfaction of coming home.”

Dad’s footlocker now serves as a coffee table in my house. Inside it are many treasures he left me, some which I’d never seen while he was alive. A black and white photograph depicting Dad as a young, handsome Marine in his dress blues sits next to the flag I was presented after his death. I display in my living room the saber he took from a Japanese soldier he left no longer in need of it, along with some photographs of John Wayne and Robert Ryan on location during filming of Flying Leathernecks. Dad sheepishly tells the story of his celebrity encounter: “They were rehearsing for a scene and the question came up whether the correct term was ‘graves duty’ or ‘grave duty.’” Graves duty meant retrieving the remains of dead Marines after a fire fight.  “Wayne looks at me and says, ‘What about it, Sergeant, is it grave or graves?’ I told him, ‘graves.’” Of course when I tell the story I embellish it and impersonate my dad impersonating the Duke, and I end the tale by saying “And that’s how my dad became an unofficial advisor to John Wayne on the set of Flying Leathernecks.”

On March 14, 1997, I stopped by the house to pick up Dad. Four months previously he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, had since had a colostomy and begun chemo and radiation therapy. But that morning I was driving him to a memorial service for my mother, his wife of 43 years. Mom had died three weeks previously.

Dad’s eyes were red and he confessed to me how much he missed her, and how much he’d be willing to bargain for the chance to help her down the hall and to the bathroom just one more time. And then he burst into tears. Somewhere I found the wisdom to put my arms around him, noticing how narrow his shoulders had become, and held him until his grief was spent. He suddenly cursed himself for his weakness. I surprised myself further with additional wisdom, assuring him that his tears were in no way a sign of weakness, that they were a normal and healthy response to grief. He looked at me, and somehow we each understood that the student had, for that moment at least, become the teacher. The hug was something I gave often over the next 11 months, knowing how difficult it was for him to initiate it, and getting as much in return as I’m certain Dad received.

Seven months later, just a few weeks before Dad checked into hospice, I stopped by the house to take him to dinner. Dad was lonely without Mom and detested eating alone, and so this was a custom we repeated several times a week: I picked him up after work and took him to his favorite greasy spoon diner where everyone knew his name and where he seemed to take great pride in introducing everyone to “my son.” He of course insisted on picking up the tab for “intruding” on my time. On this particular evening I turned to lock the door while Dad took a cautious first step down from the porch and toward the car. He suddenly lost his balance and took a spill onto the concrete, hitting his knee hard. I bounded down the steps, knelt beside him and, after making certain he hadn’t seriously hurt himself, helped him to his feet. He attempted to hide the fear in his eyes by muttering something about his knee buckling. I drew a breath, prepared to scold him for not waiting for me, for taking an unnecessary risk, but some distant memory — the memory of a father scolding his young son for taking an unnecessary risk by riding a bike that was too big for him — stayed my mild rebuke.

Once Dad checked into hospice, I watched him slip the rest of the way away from me. One afternoon, while I was sitting at his bedside, his eyes suddenly flashed open, he cast a furtive look at me and exclaimed, his voice laden with paranoia, “ Who are you?” I winced inwardly, but placed my hand on his to reassure him. “It’s okay, Dad, it’s me, Joe. Your son.” The tension immediately left his face, and while I saw no recognition in his eyes, the smile that spread across his mouth assured me in return that he trusted my words. The smile lingered but a moment, before he drifted off again, but I was convinced that in that moment I also glimpsed no small measure of pride.

Two weeks later, at Dad’s memorial service, I spoke a few words; afterward family and friends told me that they were good words, spoken with eloquence. I thanked them because that was the polite thing to do, but I thought, then and even now, that they weren’t nearly enough. That a man’s life can be summed up in but a few hundred words seems, somehow, amoral.

Since Dad died I’ve returned to Washington D.C. to stand at the base of the Memorial I first saw in 1966, and I’ve read With the Old Breed, considered by many historians to be the finest account of World War II combat in the trenches ever written by an enlisted man. The author, Eugene B. Sledge, or Sledgehammer as his buddies called him, in his account of the fighting on Pelilieu and Okinawa told me all I needed to know about my dad’s service to this country, including what “graves duty” often really entailed — picking up corpses that have been sitting in the sweltering South Pacific sun for several days only to have the weight of the body cause it to separate from the arms — and I now understand a little better why he was the way he was.

So now these twice yearly sojourns to visit Dad at his gravesite, the closest I can come to his realm without stepping over to the other side. I wonder if he is aware of my presence, if he can hear my silent musings, my audible ruminations, or if he even cares that I visit. I often wonder if the reason I visit is because I’ve taken it upon myself to care enough for both of us.

I take a long drag on my Onyx Vintage wondering how it could’ve burned down so quickly. I want to forgive my father for so much, but in order to forgive him I must elevate myself into a position of judge, and that’s something I find I just can’t do. So instead I decide that I must accept that I am who I am, in part, as a result of this man about whom I know so little.  I need to consign him to a less prominent place in my life, perhaps in some favorite corner to which I can come from time to time if only to dust off the cobwebs. I resolve to stop staring at my past looking for answers, or to assign blame, and to start living my life today. Wanting to believe that I have within me the power to change and the courage to risk, to become the man I want to become, I resolve to reach out for my dreams, even if they should exceed my grasp, for, as Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

My cigar has gone out, and something in my eyes blurs my vision; I blink away the moisture and lay my hand on the cold marble into which my dad’s partial obituary is chiseled. In time that will be all that remains of him: a name, a rank, a war and two dates, not so unlike those around him in this honored place.

A moment later, I stand and make my way back down the knoll, the white markers across the way bearing witness to my departure, the silence a stark contrast to a battlefield I can only imagine.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 6:16 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 25 December 2008 1:33 PM EST
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Saturday Morning At South Street Cigar
Topic: Published articles

This item appeared in the January 2004 issue of Encore magazine, Kalamazoo, Michigan.


Walking into South Street Cigar & Spirits for the first time I was taken aback by its two aisles of fine wines and exotic liquor, its selection of distinctly different imported beer, its humidor chockfull of aromatic cigars, and its display of cigar lighters and cutters, and the young boy that still resides inside me recalled the special pleasure associated with walking into a candy store, mouth watering as my eyes, big as saucers, hungrily roamed over the sweet morsels in the display case. My palate has grown much more sophisticated over the years since then, but the feeling was the same. And South Street, unlike the candy store in my youth, as I was about to learn, offers more than just product.

On this particular Saturday morning, damp and drizzling, Dan Woltersom, otherwise known to the Kalamazoo community as Chicken Dan and the owner of South Street Cigar & Spirits where his patrons affectionately refer to him as the unofficial Mayor of Kalamazoo, has agreed to meet with me to discuss his business, cigars, and his philosophy on life. I’m greeted at the door by the scent of fresh coffee and cigar smoke. A big, burly, bespectacled man with salt and pepper hair and matching beard, and whose ritual job is to bring donuts, offers me his hand and, through the cigar clenched between his teeth, introduces himself to me: “Hi, I’m Angel.”


“You got a problem with that?” he barks with mock menace. Obviously I’d placed too much emphasis on the first syllable of his moniker.

“Not at all,” I reply, feeling right at home. “I imagine it’s a well-deserved name.” Doug Angel is a recovering alcoholic who long ago worked as a bouncer at various questionable joints around town, owns a Harley Davidson and attended Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump Snake River Canyon, was shot three times in Viet Nam, and now runs a desktop publishing business two doors down the street from South Street Cigar.

Already seated at the tiny coffee table behind the front window, adorned with neon lights buzzing comfortingly, are two other gentlemen enjoying coffee and smokes — Kim Mihalik, a security guard at Bronson Methodist Hospital, and Michael Small, a technician at Palisades Nuclear Plant. Kim has found cigars to his liking reasonably priced, and a friendly atmosphere at South Street. “I’ve found a real brotherhood of cigar smokers here,” Kim says. “The conversation is good, but sometimes we just relax and watch people try to parallel park. It’s amazing how bad people are at parallel parking.”

Michael has known Dan for about 10 years and finds South Street reminiscent of the small town barbershops of yesteryear. Says Michael, “I can picture my grandfather in a place like this, sitting around talking and smoking with friends.”

Dan arrives with my coffee and joins the chat as the five of us watch South Street come to life.

Dan was born in 1957 to Al and Anne Woltersom, and recalls growing up in Kalamazoo, playing high school football and wrestling. “I was fourth in the city my senior year at Christian High and was a member of the Pin Club.”

Dan’s dad worked for Upjohn, “in Research and Development raising bugs in Petri dishes,” he says; but unlike Dad, Dan always wanted to own his own business. “Professional traveler would’ve been good, too,” he adds with a grin, “but now I travel down to South Street.”

At age 14, Dan was working at Chicken Coop, owned and operated by Jim Van Der Horst, and where he and Angel first met. “I ended up buying into the business in 1976,” he says, “and I managed the Center Street store for a time.”

Dan learned a lot from Van Der Horst but decided to strike out on his own in 1980, building his first restaurant, Chicken Port, with help from Scott Keyser. Incidentally, 1980 was the year Dan got married.

“Debra’s mother and sister worked for me when I was managing Chicken Coop, and she thought I was the most obnoxious person in the world.”

“And she still does,” pipes in Angel.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“It might’ve had something to do with my calling her on a Wednesday to go to a wedding with me on Saturday,” Dan explains with a guffaw. “‘How long have you known about this?’ she yelled at me through the phone. “I just said, ‘You want to go out or not?’”

Despite such an inauspicious start, Dan and Debra have been married 23 years and are the parents of Jared.

“Jared just turned 15 on October 21,” Dan says.

“Really? That’s my birthday,” I say. “And Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia from Star Wars, although I think I’ve aged far better than she has, and Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz trumpeter, were also born on the 21st.”

“Oh, I liked him,” says Angel, referring to Dizzy. “I’ve never seen anybody that looked like him when he was blowing — like somebody stuffed walnuts into his cheeks. You know how his trumpet got bent?”

I shake my head. “I always thought he just had it designed that way.”

“No,” says Angel. “Somebody fell on it at a party and bent it. He found the 45 degree angle of the bell made playing the trumpet while sight reading easier.”

I was beginning to learn that Angel, now busy reigniting the cigar he was negligent to keep lit, was a walking encyclopedia, a plethora of knowledge and trivia.

“So what’s it like for young Jared growing up the son of Chicken Dan?”

Dan chuckles. “His name is Jared, not Chicken Jared, not Chicken’s Leg, not Drumstick, but overall, he likes it. The last three girls he’s gone out with, it’s like, ‘Your dad’s Chicken Dan?’ so he can’t get away with anything.”

By 1992 Dan had four restaurants — Chicken Docks — one on Riverview, another in Fort Custer, one on Sprinkle Road, and the fourth on Portage Road, but decided it was time for a kinder, simpler life.

“Life was too hectic,” he explains. “I was living to work and not working to live. So Tom Berry, who used to own the Munchie Marts here in town, he and I went skiing out west and we came across a place called Antler’s in Fresno where they sold liquor and cigars, and we thought we’d like to open up something like that here in Kalamazoo. So we opened Portage City Wine and Cigars over on Westnedge. About five years ago, when things started happening downtown, I decided I wanted to open up a business and be a part of the resurgence. I wanted to open the kind of place like the old style barbershops, where you could come if you were having a bad day, have a smoke, and leave feeling better about your day.”

“Morning! Couple cigars for the weekend.” Almost as if on cue — a customer.

Dan departs to help this elderly customer with the smile of a kid in a candy store, while Angel takes up the conversation.

“You might say Dan and I were estranged for about 10 years. I worked for Gibson, and when they left Kalamazoo I moved from near West Main and didn’t stop at his chicken place anymore.”

Angel worked for Gibson Guitar from 1972 to 1979, bending rims and working what he called the steam box. After Gibson left Kalamazoo, Angel found himself unemployed, and so he returned to college. “I got a certificate for board drafting and became a rental pencil. I spent eight years working in Grand Rapids and always liked electronics. I had a Commodore computer, so when the company I was working for decided to upgrade to a computer and found out I was keyboard literate, they taught me AutoCAD.”

Angel became so proficient he bought himself an IBM system for his home and did some freelancing, recreating on Zip disks drawings that long ago had been done by hand. As a member of a Commodore user’s group, he did a monthly newsletter and so, “I was doing desktop publishing long before it became fashionable.”

Dan returns with more coffee. “Speaking of guitars,” he says. “When I worked at my first chicken place, I used to spend a lot of my spare time at Pete Moreno’s Guitar Clinic in Oshtemo, which is still there. I’d get through lunch, clean up the restaurant, and walk over to Pete’s to help work on guitars and do anything he wanted me to do just to be around guitars.” Since then Dan has amassed a collection of maybe 15 Gibsons, one or two that Angel likes to think he made.

Although Dan plays guitar, he had no desire to make a career in music. “I had a couple buddies who did that, but the thought of playing in bars until 2 o’clock in the morning just never appealed to me.”

“Especially the ones with the chicken wire in front of the stage,” Angel adds.

“But I’ve played in church, and the Gospel Mission downtown. At least there they have to listen to you if they want to eat.”

Angel and Dan were reintroduced six or seven years ago. “I had no idea Dan owned a cigar shop,” Angel explains, “but a mutual acquaintance of ours mentioned to me Chicken Dan, and it didn’t really click at the time, and then I showed up here one day and I looked at Dan and said, ‘I know you,’ and he said, ‘I know you, too, but we were smaller then,’ and I said, ‘Yes, we were.’ So ever since I’ve been coming down here twice, sometimes three times a week.”

Part of Angel’s ritual is to bring chocolate glazed donut holes on Wednesday mornings. “And now the cops all show up,” he says. The ritual started two years ago when Angel was laid off. “I’d come by with donut holes, smoke a cigar and visit with Dan.”

“Why chocolate?” I ask.

“Actually,” Dan says, “it started out powdered sugar, but I got mad at him for leaving a mess on my carpet every Wednesday so he switched to chocolate.”

Last March Angel moved his home business into a suite two doors down from South Street Cigar. “I was collecting my ‘unenjoyment’ money when my wife suggested I find a place in town. I’d been working out of my house near Paw Paw but most of my clients were in Kalamazoo. So one day I ran into a guy here at South Street Cigar — an American Express financial advisor who worked two doors down in the Park Building — and he told me they had a suite open, so that’s when I started working down the street. I make about enough money to keep them from turning off my lights.”

“Now whenever I’m running late or have an appointment,” says Dan, “I just call Angel to open up shop for me.”

“I leave a sign on my door,” Angel adds, “that says, ‘I’m at South Street Cigar two doors down.’”

“Good morning.”

It’s Officer Hancock, one of the men in blue to whom Angel alluded earlier, here to enjoy a cup of java. I offer him a donut. “No thanks,” he says. “I’ve already had breakfast.”

I ask Dan if he intends to put South Street Cigar & Spirits on the Internet.

“Dan on the Internet?” Angel snorts. “For years his e-mail address was Idon’”

“Maybe if I had a million dollars, like Chris here,” says Dan, referring to Officer Hancock.

“Ee-yeah,” says Chris. “That’s why I’m working overtime.”

After the laughter subsides, Dan explains. “No, not with my clientele. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t sell liquor out of state, and with J&R and Thompson Cigar, I’m not about to compete with the likes of them. I’m content with the guy who buys two or three cigars a week.”

“Hi, guys.” It’s Cassandra. She works across the street at Kalamazoo Advantage Academy.

“What are you up to today?” Angel asks.

“Not much,” she says. “I’ve got to baby sit later on.”

“For who, your husband and his brothers?”

“No,” she answers, “although that’d be a lot easier... I’d just take them over to the bar and turn them loose.”

And so it goes, another Saturday morning at South Street Cigar & Spirits. For Dan, business and pleasure; for Angel, Kim, Michael, Cassandra, Officer Hancock, and the many other patrons whom I’ve yet to meet, camaraderie. Dan will leave shortly to catch the tail end of a tailgate party prior to a Broncos game — Dan loves the Broncos. Angel invited me to come back and share a smoke with them again anytime, and I know I will because I know Angel isn’t the kind of guy to offer up that type of hospitality if he didn’t really mean it.

Oh, and Dan’s philosophy on life? “The more people you meet, the better life is.” You know what? After sharing a coffee, a cigar and conversation with Dan and everyone else I met on a damp and dreary Saturday morning, I think he’s right.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 6:03 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 24 December 2008 6:06 PM EST
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Remembering Dad
Topic: Memoir


Written for my dad’s memorial service in early 1998. I wish I’d had more time to spend with my dad. I missed so much while I was growing up, and he did, too, but I’m grateful for the year I had — so many people don’t even get that. Photo is of baby Joey with Dad, late 1956, early 1957.



Death — the last voyage, the longest, the best. — Thomas Wolfe


Sometimes in preparing for death we learn something of life.

I learned much of you and from you, Dad, during these last long months. You would find the most ordinary day a marvel to behold, and so I learned to awake each morning from my own temporary respite from life with renewed fervor. I watched you savor the sweet succulence of a piece of fruit as if for the first time, and I learned a greater appreciation of the smaller things in life. And as you stood in the pouring rain, letting the water soak your clothes and stream in torrents from your face, I was reminded of a child jumping from puddle to puddle in the aftermath of a rainstorm, and made acquaintance anew with the boy within myself.

You shared much of yourself with me this last year, Dad. You shared the story of how you acquired the Marine Corps ring you wore for over fifty years — a story no one knows, not even your wife. You wept openly upon the death of my mother, and I glimpsed a side of you — a softness, a tenderness — I previously could only guess existed. You told me that I needn’t tell you that I love you, that you already knew, through my actions. Still, I wanted to tell you, Dad. Perhaps I needed to, for my own sake as well as yours. Besides, I knew a crusty old Marine like you could bear hearing them — after all, the worst harm that ever became of them was a choked sob from you and a hastily brushed aside tear.

I held you often during this last year, wanting to (yes, perhaps even needing to), knowing how hard it was for you to take the initiative, but knowing also, from something you had shared with me long ago, what a comfort it was for you. Well, I have news for you, Dad. Those hugs were a comfort for me, too.

Some treasured memories of the past year: mowing the lawn on Saturday afternoon and my dad fetching me a beer as we listened to the ballgame. Washing the car together for the last time before turning it back in to the dealer. A trip to the cider mill last fall also comes to mind. I couldn’t believe that in nearly 79 years you had never tasted hot-spiced cider. Our Friday evening dinners at that greasy spoon where everyone knows your name. All the football games you slept through, and me having to stifle my enthusiasm when the home team scored so I wouldn’t wake you. And finally, Christmas morning, the childlike look in your eyes when you opened my gift to find the car I always dreamed of buying for you — a replica of the 1930s racing Bugatti. I was so pleased, Dad, that you decided to take it with you when you moved to Hospice. I promise to keep it washed and to change the oil often. I guess dads really can be the stuff that dreams are made of.

I love you, Dad, and I miss you. Yet I have one regret. You know what that is. And when the time comes, my joy will be markedly less than it could have been. Still, I’ll take solace in that you made a dream come true…


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 5:42 PM EST
Updated: Saturday, 27 December 2008 2:04 PM EST
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