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J. Conrad's blog
Saturday, 4 July 2009
Let There Be Darkness
Topic: Flash fiction

December 21, 2012 

 

I think it’s time I did something about this creation of mine called Man.

He’s evil plain and simple, and I’m deluding myself by insisting that sometimes good beings just do bad things. The truth is, he has always been fascinated by the allure of the fruit—indulge the desire, ignore the cost. He has come to worship the seven: lusxuria, gula, avaritia, acedia, ira, invidia and superbia.

I’ve always despised haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, a deceitful witness that utters lies, and, most of all, he who sows discord among his brethren. Like the child who chooses to ignore his parents’ warning against disobedience, man has embraced the seven; indeed, he has taken them to levels even I could not imagine.

And still I forgave him. To love someone is to forgive them.

Adam was the crowning achievement of my creation. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Adam, nothing I wouldn’t give him, and so when I saw that he was lonely, that he hungered for a companion, I created for him a woman. When Eve bid him to taste of the fruit, I knew I had lost him forever.

From that moment I knew nothing I offered could compare to earthly delights, not even the promise of eternity.

I once sent a great flood to wash away the evil, to start anew, but man again chose pursuit of that which he could see, taste, touch. For that I have no one to blame but myself. Being human must be very lonely.

As a deity, I flit among the stars, am able to travel light years in less than an instant, and can commune with the lowliest creatures.

I trapped the spirit of man in flesh. As a fetus he is one with his mother; but at birth he knows solitude, and for the remainder of his life he seeks the comfort of earthly pleasures—food, wine, the touch of others. Man mistakes communion of the flesh as love (a lie to himself as well as his mate), while woman is untrue to her mate in the intimacy of darkness.

The comfort I can provide he eschews because I am something he cannot see, touch.

And his desire, his need for creature comforts only grows with each generation.

Like the child who outgrows the need for parents, man has cast me aside. His hunger for knowledge has turned to a thirst for power and materialism, which, in the end, he must leave behind. Sadly, his wisdom has not kept pace with his knowledge.

I am at fault for setting rules to which he could not adhere. I set him up for failure, giving him the freedom to choose, fully aware that he might choose against me. I knew this, yet I hoped it would be otherwise. Such is hindsight, even for God.

There were, are, good men, and women, but always I know their hearts.

Mother Theresa, who endeavored so diligently to do my work, knew doubt. In her doubt, she chose not to feel my presence within herself.

Rodin created beautiful works of art, but always he lusted for that which he sought to immortalize in clay. I cannot condone beautiful creations born of vulgar, evil thoughts.

Mozart sought, in his musical creations, to be godlike. Does God suffer superbia in wishing acknowledgement of the gifts he bestows upon his creation?

Man has become a blight on my creation. Like a germ that devours its benevolent environment, he takes and gives nothing in return, not to his environment nor his brethren. He knowingly wreaks havoc and absolves himself of any wrongdoing. He is ego, avaritia his birthright. The world around him, his brothers and sisters, exist only for his benefit. No other creature save man savors, revels, in its cruelty toward others.

And so I find myself at this precipice—a perfect being having created in man imperfection incarnate. I wonder if, long ago, evil once existed in me and, in seeking to rid myself of the bile, I poured forth the evil into my creation. For surely, before this instant to which man refers as the universe, evil had not existed.

With no one to blame but myself, I speak the words:

“Let there be darkness.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:36 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 14 November 2009 9:30 PM EST
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Saturday, 16 May 2009
Driver Training
Topic: Memoir

“All right, give it some gas,” my dad tells me, “and start easing the clutch out — not too much,” he warns when the engine revs too high.

I lift my foot off the gas; a blink of an eye later the clutch engages, the car lurches forward, and the engine stalls. I killed it, I think to myself morosely, waiting for my dad’s reprimand. It comes in the form of a long sigh modulated in such a way that I can’t help but notice his displeasure with me.

“Start it up,” he tells me. I turn the key and the car lurches forward again. “Foot on the clutch,” he barks, and I’m certain that this surely is how his recruits must’ve felt on Parris Island. My dad: the consummate Marine DI. I expect that, once we get home, he’ll have me run a mile in full gear.

I start the car and tease the clutch with my left foot while feathering the throttle with my right foot to get the car rolling. I’m accelerating now, still in first gear, toward the far end of the parking lot. Topps, a local retailer, went out of business a year or so ago, so the parking lot is empty, making it a good place for Dad to teach me how to drive the manual transmission in our 1965 VW Beetle.

“Shift it into second,” he tells me as the engine revs escalate. I release the gas pedal and step on the clutch with my left foot, then shift the gearshift into second gear, engaging the clutch a moment after stepping on the gas; Dad admonishes me: “Slipping the clutch like that will burn it out prematurely.” At the far end of the parking lot Dad tells me to come to a stop and has me repeat the process of engaging the clutch and shifting into second gear. We do this several times, the last two I manage to reach third gear; I’m noticing improvement in my technique.

“All right,” Dad tells me. “Let’s take her out onto Michigan Avenue.” I think I hear a note of excitement in his voice and wonder whether he’s getting into this as much as I am.

Michigan Avenue, I tell myself. It’s only a four-lane divided highway that once was the main connector between Detroit and Chicago, but eighteen or twenty miles east of here is Tiger Stadium, where the Tigers play and where the Lions played when last they won a championship. I hear Ernie Harwell, the radio voice of the Tigers, say in his southern drawl, “Welcome to another afternoon of Tigers baseball here at the corner of Michigan and Trumball.” Another eighteen or twenty miles west of here is Willow Run Airport — Charles Lindbergh was Henry Ford’s advisor on the aeronautical aspects of Willow Run when it was built back in 1941. That was 30 years ago — fifteen years before I was born. Dad works for Zantop Airways. Two years from now, after graduating from high school, I’ll get my first job at Willow Run Services, pumping 100 octane into World War II vintage aircraft — C-46s, DC-3s, and DC-6s, among others. But at that moment all Michigan Avenue means to me is another step toward achieving manhood: I’m learning to drive a stick-shift.

I pull out into traffic and accelerate from first to second to third gear, up to 35 mph. Each time I take my right hand off the steering wheel to shift, the Beetle veers left. I wonder if the wind is really that strong — in a rear engine car, the front end is light. Dad tells me: “If you didn’t have such a death’s grip on the steering wheel the car wouldn’t swerve like that every time you shift.”

We hit a couple traffic lights; I’m getting more practice starting from a stop, once on an incline, and now, cognizant of keeping a loose grip on the steering wheel, the car no longer veers left when I shift.

We’re approaching the city of Wayne. Once we get through downtown the speed limit jumps to 50. I hope Dad won’t make me turn around before I can achieve fourth gear. He doesn’t, and by the time I pull into our driveway at home I feel as if I’m ready to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

 

I eventually bought that ’65 Beetle and made it my own: eight-track quad stereo, ten-inch diameter chrome steering wheel, Hurst short-throw shifter (replacing the knob with a Coors beer can), black shag carpeting on the dash, and replacing the VW emblem on the hood with a chrome swan taking flight. Of course by then the running boards had rusted off along with the back bumper, and on cold winter mornings Dad had to push me, backwards, with his car to jump start it. But it was all mine; it gave me my first taste of independence. It got me to work for two years, I took my first real girlfriend to a drive-in movie where I stole my first kiss, and while I never qualified it for the “500,” it got me down to Indianapolis as a spectator and provided me with some near-miss adventures.

When I finally sold it to buy a new car, I felt as if I’d let an old friend down; worse, that I’d dumped my girlfriend for another girl, one that was prettier and wore more baubles, but had little personality.

 

More than thirty years have elapsed since that driving lesson, and Dad is now gone, but I have this memory, and many more, some more pleasant than others; I treasure them all because that’s all that I have left. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say no one ever really dies, so long as you keep their memory alive.

 

—JCG/January 2007


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:07 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 25 August 2009 12:49 PM EDT
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Sunday, 3 May 2009
Just Another Day at the Ballpark
Topic: Sports

May 2, 2009–Comerica Park, Detroit, MI. The Detroit Tigers are taking on the Cleveland Indians in the middle game of a three-game set, having dropped the opener last night and hoping to get back to .500 with a win today. It’s Saturday, partly cloudy and sixty-three degrees at game time, a perfect day for a ballgame. If you’re watching on the tube, that’s me, in the straw hat, fifteen rows up behind the home team’s dugout. I can look over the shoulders of right-handed hitters and follow the foul line all the way into the right field corner, 330 feet away from home plate.

Shortly before the first pitch, a young man seats himself to my left; to his left sits his girl. I quickly learn from him that they’ve come down from a small town just north of Lansing to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday. Tickets to this afternoon’s ballgame (“The best seats I’ve ever had,” the kid tells me) and to Sunday’s hockey playoff game (Wings against the Ducks) are courtesy of his girlfriend. He also volunteers that they’re staying overnight in a hotel in Novi. I nod politely and tell the kid that it seems as if his girl is a keeper. He tells me, “Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps telling me,” and I deduce that, sadly, she is more into him than he is her. He then launches into a brief exposition of what a great game baseball is, filled with subtle nuances, the situation constantly changing. I nod, not just because it is the polite thing to do. A real chatterbox, this kid; I hope that once the game starts he’ll be less chatty.

Zach Miner goes into his windup and sends his first pitch: I hear the sound of the ball hit Gerald Laird’s mitt and the umpire’s declaration–“Striiike!” The kid next to me leaps to his feet, fist pounding the air, to declare, “Yeah!” I wonder if by game’s end he will have a voice left.

The first three and a half innings unfold as a pitchers’ duel, scoreless, the type of game that suits my purist love for this grand old game. Miner’s sinker is flawless, inducing a number of ground ball outs. The kid beside me is growing restless. He wants to see some action. This isn’t just the result of youthful exuberance; he’s just finished his third six-dollar beer. Thankfully, for his girl, this isn’t part of the birthday celebration package. The drinks for this day are on his coin, so I’d learned during the second inning when he flagged down the beer vendor, asking him, “What kind of beer have you got?” “The kind with hops,” I suggested. The vendor, as well as the two guys in the row behind ours–also from out of town on this, their first visit to the Copa (I’d asked them, between innings, whether they’d also purchased the empty seat between them to keep their distance)–laugh. “How many hops?” the kid asked, not wanting to feel left out. “Bud Lite,” the vendor told him. Bud Lite gives me a headache, so I’d opted for a glass of twelve-year-old Glenlivet, along with a cigar in the Camacho Cigar Lounge prior to the game. I briefly considered the eighteen-year-old, but at a dollar a year, the price was too steep for my budget. I watched the second period of the Penguins and Capitals playoff game behind the bar and befriended a couple with season tickets who live in the city. The husband was nearly as curmudgeonly as I, but I had ten years on him. We shared a couple baseball stories and he informed me, disgustingly, that a season ticket at the new Yankee Stadium comparable to his at Comerica Park would cost him four times what he pays for his. “Yeah,” I told him. “Someone’s got to pay for George’s billion-and-a-half park.”

Back to the second inning, the bucks-for-brew transaction was completed, but not before the vendor checked the kid’s ID. The vendor handed back the ID and asked the kid if he was aware that it will expire in two days. “Yeah,” he said. After the vendor departed, the kid explained to me that he’d thought he was getting a new license along with the plate tab he’d renewed last month. He realized his error when the tab arrived sans the license. “They told me it could take three weeks to get my new license, so I’ll have to be careful next week. But I’m not worried. I haven’t had a ticket in two years,” he declared proudly. “Be careful,” I told him, adding, “Murphy’s Law.” “Who?” he asked, blinking. “Things happen when you least expect them.” “Oh. Yeah,” he said.

The Tigers erupt for five runs in the bottom of the fourth frame, four on a grand slam by, of all people, Adam Everett, our diminutive shortstop, acquired from the Twins just before the start of the season. It’s his first round-tripper of the year, and I’m guessing the first slam of his career. It is a Gary Sheffield type of homerun: a low liner that doesn’t clear the fence in left by much, but it gets out in a hurry. The kid to my left is ready to celebrate a Tigers win and promptly orders another Bud Lite from a passing vendor. The kid’s speech is becoming slightly slurred and his comments are peppered with obscenities. I lean over to whisper that he watch his language, in deference to the young children in the row in front of us and in the seats to my right. “What?” he grunts. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.” His girl, who I haven’t heard utter a word thus far, doesn’t seem as into him as I’d initially thought, and instead seems somewhat embarrassed; indeed, the only evidence they are a couple are those occasions when he rests his hand on her knee.

The Indians counter with five of their own runs in the top of the fifth, all resulting from a ball Ryan Raburn misplays in left field, although no error is scored on the play. The kid to my left is beside himself, berating Jim Leyland for not starting Josh Anderson in left field, and is among those who boo Raburn when he comes to the plate in the sixth inning. That Raburn’s batting average is a series of three bagels doesn’t help matters much. But Raburn manages to bunt his way on while moving a runner into scoring position and the Tigers eventually go ahead again by a run.

In the top of the sixth, Leyland had sent Brandon Lyon to the mound to replace Miner, sending my seat mate into a tirade. “I hate Lyon,” he exclaimed. “He should send Bobby Seay to the mound–he’s been the best pitcher out of the pen all year.” “Lyon has been shaky at times,” I said. “But he’s looked good at times, too.” “I promise you he’ll give up a homerun,” the kid said. Lyon pitches a scoreless sixth inning. The kid looked across me to the seats to my right, which had been empty the last inning or two. “What happened to your family?” he asked me. I had no idea whether he thought the woman was my wife, the kids mine, or that they were my daughter and grandkids, but I told him that they were of no relation to me and it was my guess that Mom took the kids for a ride on the carousel. I hoped she hadn’t departed early the result of the kid’s language. Fortunately, they returned for the final two frames.

After the Tigers retake the lead in the bottom of the sixth, the kid departs for the third time for the loo, and I’m reminded of the wisdom of one Archie Bunker: “You can’t buy beer, you can only rent it.” When the kid returns, the Tribe is rallying for two runs and the kid launches a verbal attack of Lyon. “That’s not Lyon out there,” I tell him when he finishes. “It’s your boy, Bobby Seay.” “Oh,” is all the kid manages to slur. Zumaya comes in to mop up the seventh and pitches a scoreless eighth.

The Tigers retake the lead with three runs in their half of the eighth, two on a majestic Curtis Granderson homerun to right, another on a bases loaded walk to Raburn. “Why would any pitcher throw inside to Granderson?” the kid asks me. “Because he can hit with power to left field, too,” I tell him. “Well he doesn’t hit many that way,” he says. I refrain from telling him that’s because most pitchers continue to bust him inside.

Fernando Rodney comes in to pitch the ninth, taking a page from the Todd Jones book on closing: putting runners at the corners before striking out Peralta, securing the win for Zumaya.

All in all, it was an entertaining outing for me, and not just for what happened on the field.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:25 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 4 July 2009 10:43 AM EDT
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Tuesday, 21 April 2009
A Writer's Work Never Done
Topic: Writing

Since January’s Paradigm was published, I’ve written two subsequent novels based on the Joe January character — One Hot January and January’s Thaw, the latter completed nearly three years ago. About 18 months ago a publisher expressed some interest, but only if I agreed to combine both books into one shorter piece. To me, that seemed like censorship, and so I let the opportunity pass. I had other projects I’d commenced and so the January books were put on the back burner.

I recently opened the files on my hard drive and commenced skimming One Hot January and began to reconsider that publisher’s suggestion. It had been 18 months since I’d looked at this text and I began to see ways in which it could be improved, tightened up, polished. But knock off 28,000 words to get it to come in at 150,000? That was going to be a challenge. But I also considered that it would be a good exercise, too. So I got out my scalpel and commenced my nip/tuck.

I combined both files into one, renamed January’s Penitence, and have managed, in my first draft, to eliminate 20,000 words. I’m still about 8,000 words above my goal, but the exercise was a good one — it taught me to be ruthless in cutting text.

I’ve just submitted this old work under a new title to a publisher and hope to hear back from them in three to five weeks. In the meantime, I intend to take another pass with the scalpel. I figure if I can slice off an average 180 words per chapter, I’ll be right where I want to be.

I guess this whole process just goes to show that a writer’s work is never done, that a text can always be improved, and perhaps most importantly, sometimes less is more.

Stay tuned…

 


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 8:05 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 21 April 2009 8:06 AM EDT
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Thursday, 9 April 2009
Never Judge a Book by Its Cover, but Instead by the Author's Photo
Topic: Writing

I heard on NPR today that an author’s photograph is “essential in marking a book.” The segment went so far as to state that review copies of books have been turned down on the premise the author’s photo on the jacket lacked attractiveness.

Excuse me? Women have been judged by their beauty and their body parts for centuries, and today that practice is considered politically incorrect – even as record companies award contracts based more on appearance than talent. Danica Patrick appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue a year ago to further her career as a racecar driver? Having won only one race, she’s typically passed by other drivers more than she passes them on race day. She wanted to be taken seriously as a racecar driver. So seriously she was willing to take off her clothes.

Sports figures from every major sport generate huge incomes for using their looks to sell products. American Idol (note the definition of idol: one that is adored, often blindly or excessively; something visible but without substance) endeavors to create empty vassals for the masses to adore. Corporate America dresses for success.

And now author photos, not the content of their texts, must generate sales.

I must confess that I’m guilty, too, of judging men and women alike based on dress, hygiene, looks. But it’s wrong – simply wrong, ethically wrong – to judge anyone on their appearance alone. Yet we do it every day as a matter of habit, unaware that we do it: attractive people are let off with a warning rather than receiving a ticket for a traffic violation, while less attractive people must pay the fine. Attractive people in courtrooms receive preferential treatment; innocent people are often found guilty because of their looks, while guilty parties go free because they are attractive. Vendors are awarded contracts not so much based on the presentation but instead on the attractiveness of the presenter, be they male or female. Even babies respond more favorably to attractive features – but they don’t know any better!

It’s enough that I must endure rejection of my manuscript submissions because an agent or publisher doesn’t think it is right for them; now I must consider that maybe it’s because someone doesn’t think I’m young and good-looking enough? Maybe I should consider using a thirty-year-old photograph of myself when I had dark hair and six-pack abs.

This country is far too obsessed with youth and beauty – plastic surgery (a practice in which both genders now indulge), liposuction, breast enhancement – all designed to enhance the superficial and distract from what really matters – in the case of books, what lies between its covers. Which publishing house will be the first to include in their submission guidelines: “Must be willing to agree to plastic surgery to enhance marketability of their work?”

Acceptance of this practice of forcing people into a cookie cutter mold based on someone else’s opinion of what will sell to an eagerly awaiting public doesn’t make it right. What’s wrong with judging someone for what they bring to the table, for their talent, whether as a sports figure, an executive, an actor, a singer or a novelist? I would never, never, consent to buying a book based on its cover let alone the author photo – and I don’t know anyone in my circle of friends who would – but for sake of argument, if I ever did and I found the author lacking as a writer, I never again would buy one of their titles. The publisher who wishes to sell books based on an author photo is interested only in the short-term, and this practice to me reeks of everything that brought down Wall Street: make a quick killing today and to hell with tomorrow.

I’m a better writer today than when I started, nearly twenty years ago. How depressing to consider I must give up my craft when I’m so close to achieving the best work I’ve put to paper simply because I’m too old and too wrinkled to have my work considered for publication.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 11:16 PM EDT
Updated: Friday, 10 April 2009 10:27 AM EDT
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Waxing Nostalgic
Topic: Sports

For all the talk of fan comfort, Detroit’s Comerica Park provides plenty: no obstructed seats (all angled toward the infield), lots of concessions, restaurants, microbreweries, a cigar lounge (which benefits ownership), plenty of restrooms, and a grand view of the city skyline.

Yet for all these comforts (at age fifty-two, I can do away with the carousel), what’s missing for me is the closeness to the field that existed at Tiger Stadium. Fans at Fenway and Wrigley will understand me. A game at Tiger Stadium included the sounds of the game. At Comerica, most fans seated outside the diamond area can’t hear the crack of the ball off the bat, the umpire calling “Steee-rike! An architect would argue that this is because Tiger Stadium was an acoustic structure, closed in. In Comerica, little structure exists to hold the sound in; but that doesn’t account for the fact that fans along the upper bowl and in the outfield can’t pick up the ball off the bat, especially during day games.

For all Comerica offers in terms of comfort and modernity, for an old purist like me, I wish the Tigers were still playing at the corner of Michigan and Trumball, adjacent to Kaline Drive. The stadium couldn’t be blamed for the deterioration of the neighborhood in which it was situated. Like Fenway and Wrigley, Tiger Stadium was a true Hall of Fame ballpark for fans – where Norm Cash cleared the roof in right field several times, and where the ornery ghost of Ty Cobb still roamed center field. I was there with my dad in 1968 the day Denny McLain blooped a pitch to Mickey Mantle to hit over the fence in right field in his last ever plate appearance in Detroit. The Tigers won it all that year – ah, nostalgia.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:58 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 May 2009 11:00 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 8 April 2009
Change is Inevitable, or Is It?
Topic: The Curmudgeon

I was in a Barnes and Noble recently where I picked up the 50th anniversary Legacy Edition of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, expanded and enhanced, a CD I’d recommend to anyone as the definitive jazz album, indeed an album that music experts hail as “crossing genres, speaking to generations, and a cornerstone to any music collection.” I’d owned a vinyl version of this gem and had purchased the CD when it was released many moons ago. But this version was expanded to two discs and included a jazz-cool tee-shirt – Miles on the front facing front, Miles on the back facing away. Its color? Kind of blue. What can I say? I’m a sucker for slick marketing ploys, especially where cigars and CDs are concerned.

As I was checking out other CDs, my eyes alit on the photo that adorns the famous Abbey Road album by the Beatles – for the uninitiated, it shows the Fab Four, in single file, crossing the famed Abbey Road, Paul sans shoes (yes, Paul McCartney played in a band before Wings). What attracted me to the display was that this was a vinyl pressing. So I thought, When did B&N consent to selling used merchandise? Then I saw the Diana Krall album, Quiet Nights, next to Abbey Road, which had been released just last month. Amazon had alerted me to its release because I’d once purchased from them an Ella Fitzgerald compilation. Then I noted the price on both albums was listed as new. The sales clerk stocking a nearby DVD bin, noting the look of confusion on my face, said, “Cool, huh?” He was obviously a Baby Boomer like me. I said, “They’ve taken to rereleasing original presses on vinyl? Whatever for?”

He laughed and said, “There’s a whole new market for albums in their original format. Two-hundred-thousand titles are already available and the company in New York producing them is backed up with more titles.”

“A new market?” I asked, incredulous. “Who?”

“Gen-X.”

“You’re kidding? I thought they were into iPods, or as John Laraquette called them on an old House episode after waking up from a ten-year coma, ip-ods.”

“They love the artwork in the larger format,” the clerk told me. “And it’s a tie to their parents generation.”

“But is anyone even making turntables anymore?” Again for the uninitiated, turntable is the term for what my parents called a record player.

“They are,” the clerk confirmed.

For the first time in a long time – I mean, a very long time – I was utterly amazed. Just when I thought nothing could surprise me.

For the clerk’s benefit I told the story a friend of mine recounted for me maybe twenty years ago. He and his, at the time, seven-year-old son were crossing the parking lot of a Target when his son stopped dead in his tracks, his attention fixed on an old 45 rpm record someone had discarded. “Dad, what’s that?” he asked. His dad patiently explained what it was and that that was how music had been recorded back in the day. “Wow,” was his son’s one-syllable response, eyes big as, well, big as CDs. “They must’ve been able to get a lot of music on them.” My friend laughed and informed his son that, “No, they were able to get only about seven minutes of music on each side.”

The clerk and I both laughed at the story and I paid for my Miles Davis Legacy Edition CD grateful that I had never sold my original vinyl pressing, or my Abbey Road. But I winced at the recollection of my buddy’s sister-in-law – she’d sold, at a garage sale for $1, his original, limited edition numbered Beatles White Album, pressed in white vinyl.

I left Barnes and Noble scratching my head and thinking my dad was right: The more things change the more they stay the same.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 5:14 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 9 April 2009 10:42 AM EDT
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Monday, 6 April 2009
Opening Day
Topic: Sports

I wrote this a year ago and it originally appeared on Bleacher Report. While the Tigers opened the 2009 season on the road, in Toronto, I thought I'd repost this piece here as a tribute to the new baseball season.

 

 

For, lo, the winter is past,

The rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth;

The time of the singing of birds is come,

And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

 

– Song of Solomon 2:11-12

 

 

Last night, as I listened to the sound of rain on my roof, sleep came to me but slowly. It was a Sunday night, just like any other, but different. Spring has been in the air these past few days, but only just – Mother Nature threw a curveball last week, calling for snow instead of sunshine; but I forgave her. The snow is today nearly melted.

I awake early, before the clock radio sounds its revelry; it’s pre-dawn, the rain has stopped but I hear the sound of water slow-dripping from the eaves outside my bedroom window. I head for the shower, forgoing my customary morning shave (I’ve got the day off from work and feel like a lad playing hooky from school).

From the bathroom to the kitchen, where I grind some beans, pour water and inhale the bitter fragrance of bourbon flavored coffee slowly brewing. I scratch morning stubble on my neck, open the window blinds: no flowers yet abloom in the neighbor’s yard, but there is beauty in this day nevertheless – the beauty of anticipation.

It’s been said birds sing not because they are happy, but instead are happy because they are singing. There is a song in my heart this damp Monday morning; I reach for the cream in the refrigerator door, admire the brauts on the top shelf in front of the chilled beer before I close the door.

Last night’s talking head on the TV told me that drizzle is in the forecast for the early afternoon (I’m fine with that even if she doesn’t assure me that it will taper off by mid-afternoon) and the temperature is expected to reach near 60 by 4:00.

Eggs are scrambling in my skillet, with onions and cheddar, while an English muffin toasts in my toaster oven. Man that coffee sure does taste good, and it tastes good every morning. But this morning is different.

I watch the neighbor’s car pull down the driveway; he’s off to work, but I’m just off. I’ve nothing to occupy my time for the next several hours: work the morning crossword; catch up on some reading – there’s that article in Cigar Magazine about where cigar boxes go when they die, and the morning Free Press sports section.

Enjoy the day off, the moment, this final day of March. The Super Bowl is two months past, hockey playoffs start in just over a week, but the boys of summer are due to take the field at Comerica Park in little more than four hours.

The game has changed since the boy I once was developed a love affair, nearly fifty years ago, with the game of baseball. The pitcher’s mound has been lowered to accommodate the hitters (and still no one can top Ted Williams’s 1941 average of .406 for a full season), the playoff format has been altered to accommodate three divisions in each league, and the athletes are better conditioned, stronger, faster, perhaps even more skilled. The salaries are higher, the egos bigger, and many more names seem to hail from South America, but those who don the English D of the Detroit Tigers play for my team, even if they don’t make their winter home in Michigan, or anywhere in the northern hemisphere. In a few hours I’ll get the brauts to grilling, pour a cold one, light a cigar and down a shot of bourbon – the good stuff – as the Tigers kick off their 2008 campaign in the American League Central.

There is no way to tell if the Tigers will be in the hunt for the gonfalon come September, but for today, they’re tied for the division lead heading into the month of April, and our expectations in the Motor City run high. We’ve talent and perhaps the best manager in the game: Jim Leyland understands players as well as how the game is played. Most of the buttons he pushes throughout the long season are the right buttons.

Win or lose, I expect a lot of exciting ballgames to be played by the home team over the next six months. There will be many highs and some lows – walk-off wins, heartbreaking losses, and unforeseen injuries. But such is life.

I’ve watched a lot of baseball in my life, including three World Series appearances by the Tigers (two championships) and have had the pleasure of seeing some of the greatest players ever to play the game – Hall of Famer Al Kaline (perhaps the greatest right fielder to ever play), Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker, the most enduring keystone combination ever to play their positions, and Jack Morris, who deserves a place in the Hall of Fame even if his mercenary ways took him away from Detroit. At age ten, I thrilled to watch 31-game winner Denny McLain serve up a pitch to an aged Mickey Mantle to hit over the fence in right field at Tiger Stadium. Robert Fick hit a rooftop shot to right field in the last game ever played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbell, and Reggie Jackson, the Yankee I loved to hate, hit the light tower in right field, estimated at 520 feet, in the 1971 All Star Game.

I have many fond memories of Tiger Stadium, where my dad introduced me to this grand old game, but I’m creating new ones at Comerica Park, already having hosted an All Star Game and a World Series during its seven-year infancy. Somehow this kid’s game I love so much makes the stress of everyday life seem trivial. Sometimes it’s great being a kid, especially at age 51. Even if it’s only for a day.

Tomorrow when I head in to work, I’ll have on my game face, but terms like “contract amount,” “quota” and “win the business” will pale in comparison to the home plate umpire’s call to “Play ball!”

 

– JCG/March 31, 2008


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 10:05 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 6 April 2009 10:10 PM EDT
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Thursday, 26 March 2009
Heroes: They Don't Make Them Like They Used To
Topic: Sports

I was saddened yesterday by the news that Hall of Fame baseball star George Kell passed away at the age of 86. I never had the pleasure of seeing Kell play, but I know he played for my hometown Detroit Tigers between 1946 and 1952, beating out Ted Williams for the batting title in 1949.

The sad news recalled for me my youth, growing up listening to Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell call Tiger’s games on the radio. My boyhood idol, growing up in the 1960’s, was Al Kaline, also a Hall of Famer. Somehow, listening to a game on the radio made the players larger than life, invincible heroes. Kaline prowled right field like a, well, like a tiger. In my mind’s eye I watched him glide to catch balls in the gap that other players would run toward, elbows flailing, caps falling off, only to play on a hop or misplay altogether. He had a cannon for an arm, made for right field, once throwing out two base-runners at home in the same inning. He could hit, too, for average and occasional power, and he stretched more singles into doubles with smart base-running. But he became a true hero to me when he turned down $100,000 a year contract, embarrassed to be paid such a sum for playing a kid’s game, even while drawing criticism from his team mates because he was an obstacle to them being awarded such a contract. In 1999, Kaline ranked number 76 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 greatest baseball players, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Looking back it’s easy to see why I idolized Kaline. He really was that good.

Ray Oyler, the shortstop for the 1968 Tigers (pulled for the World Series because of his anemic numbers at the plate), was the first from that team to die, of a heart attack, having barely achieved forty years of age. First baseman Norm Cash, whom the Tigers acquired in a trade with Cleveland for Rocky Colavito (my, were the fans outraged!) was next to die, in 1986, falling off a pier in upper Michigan while drunk, to drown. Stormin’ Norman quickly won over Tigers fans after the trade by winning the batting title in 1961 while clubbing forty-one homeruns. Cash launched more than one ball over the roof in right field during his years with Detroit. Cash once approached the plate for an at-bat with a table leg late in a game, later saying that the stuff Nolan Ryan was tossing that day, on his way to his second career no-hitter, was unhittable with a piece of regulation lumber. The umpire declared the bat illegal, but the fans loved the stunt.

Denny McClain, the last pitcher to win thirty games over a season and who nicknamed Cash Tyrannosaurus Rex because his arms were disproportionately short for his body, ended his career early with a shoulder injury and a gambling problem, spending time in prison. Catcher Bill Freehan went on to coach the Michigan Wolverines but left in disgrace, the result of recruiting violations.

As a lad I knew little of these facts, and today I realize these idols of my youth are mere mortals, as ballplayers as well as men. Some were great players and good men, even while others fell short, giving in to the temptations that so often accompany fame. It won’t be long before I hear of the death of Willie Horton who, with a flick of his bat, heroically united a city torn apart by riots in 1968; Mickey Lolich, the 1968 series MVP who now owns a donut shop north of Detroit and can occasionally be seen at Comerica Park; eventually, Kaline — known as Mr. Tiger in Detroit — who was a day younger than Cobb when he won his batting title and who still looks good in a Tigers uniform.

Yes they are mortal, and perhaps not as heroic as I once thought. Cash, who often showed up for games hung over, after his playing days were over admitted to corking his bat during the 1961 season.

Yet I can’t help but feel that, as they pass on, a part of my own youth, the part that believed in heroes, will pass with them. Heroes, you see, aren’t just for the very young.

Maybe I look at the past through rose-colored glasses, but the players of today are more openly not as heroic as those from my youth. Today’s game is tainted by big salaries, bigger egos, behavior unbefitting a major league ballplayer, and substances far more illegal than alcohol. Today it’s not uncommon for a ballplayer to ignore an autograph seeker who has waited patiently for two hours for his hero to exit the clubhouse after a game.

Before his death in 1961, Ty Cobb accused the modern player of being in the game only for the money. Cobb conveniently forgot that he sat out a contract dispute more than once in his career. But unlike today’s players, he went out and earned his money. Today’s ballplayer rarely earns his paycheck until the final year of their contract.

In the 21st century we have an entire generation of ballplayers whose morals will forever be questioned. From, “No, I never used,” to “I used only from this year to that year” when the evidence becomes undeniable. And Roger Clemens, who continues to deny he ever used despite proof to the contrary. No one, it seems, can be taken at their word. It’s fitting that anyone proven to have used steroids be banned from the Hall of Fame, but what happens to the player inducted into the Hall who, after the fact, is proven to have used?

In a world in dire need of heroes, I feel for our youth who idolize the likes of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriquez only to learn that they cheat. I’ve heard players say, “To hell with the fans — I just want to play baseball.” Translation: “I just want to collect my paycheck.” Maybe it’s the stubborn little boy that still lives in me, wanting to believe that he could’ve played major league baseball, but isn’t fandom part of the game? When today’s major-leaguers were kids, did they dream of playing before a cheering crowd, or was it only of multi-million dollar multi-year contracts of which they dreamed? With fame comes responsibility. For a ballplayer, while he’s in uniform his responsibility is the team, but he also has a responsibility to the fans — that is, if he wants to be a true hero. And who wouldn’t want to be a hero?

I love the game baseball, maybe more today than in my youth — in my youth it was the players I idolized. Today I understand players come and go. Like the seasons, the names and numbers change, each player having but a few years as their moment in the sun. But the principal of the game has gone unchanged since Cobb’s day: hit squarely a round ball with a round bat.

I miss the good old days as much as my dad missed the good old days of his youth even if, in baseball at least, they haven’t changed all that much. I guess it’s me who has changed – having become more cynical with age. A chip off the old block. Dad would be proud.

Still, I want to hold onto the ideal of heroes, because without them we have only…


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:59 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 26 March 2009 8:00 AM EDT
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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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