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J. Conrad's blog
Saturday, 8 August 2009
Eight Seconds Less
Topic: Flash fiction

“You speak English?”

The German stood there, hands behind his head, rifle at his feet. Lying next to the Kraut was Reynolds, his throat an oozing red gash. I’d just stepped out of the brush, where I’d taken a dump, to find him rummaging through Reynolds’s backpack.

“No?” I asked, my rifle trained on his chest. “I suppose it doesn’t matter you don’t understand a word I’m saying because I don’t understand this fucking war any more than you do.” I looked over at Reynolds again and thought, There but for the grace of a bowel movement go I.

“You know, before Nature’s call, my friend Reynolds and I were having quite a heated debate over who was the better ballplayer, Ruth or Cobb. Didn’t matter which of us was right because it could never be proven.” The German kept looking from me to the barrel of my rifle. “And now neither of us will ever be able to convince the other.”

I glanced yet again at Reynolds, his blood soaking the French soil under his head, his eyes wide. Dead though he was, I wondered if his brain might still register the sound of my voice before it, too, died. I’d heard the sense of hearing was the last to go. I looked back at the Kraut, his own eyes wide; but where Reynolds’s held surprise, the Kraut’s betrayed fear.

“I hear that in the Pacific the Japs are trained to say, ‘fuck Babe Ruth,’ hoping the Marines will give away their position.” I chuckled and the German forced a smile onto his thin lips, as if suddenly we were buds and I’d just told him a joke he didn’t get but he didn’t want to be left out of the joke because that would mean we weren’t really buds. I ignored his gap-toothed grin.

“Back home, me and guys like Reynolds over there who you just cut, we’re heralded as heroes, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Where you come from, in the Fatherland, I imagine they’re just as proud of you.

“But they don’t have a clue, do they, Herr Mac? War: It brings out the worst in us even as it sometimes brings out the best. Just last week, Wiggins, a guy I went through boot camp with, threw himself on a grenade, saving Reynolds and me. Earned himself a Medal of Honor. Not that it’s of any value to Wiggins. His life bought Reynolds another week. And me? Who knows whether I’ll make it home alive. I’m not even sure I want to. Sometimes I think the ones who go home in a box are the lucky ones. After what I saw at Normandy, I understand what they mean when they say you can never go home.

“But Normandy at least was war—at its horrific worst. Men with guns shooting at men with guns shooting back. Kill or be killed.” Reynolds continued to lay, inert, never to move again, not even to brush away the flies his rotting flesh would soon draw. I imagined his brain starving for oxygen, the sound of my voice perhaps growing fainter as the last remnants of his life faded to ... what? I didn’t have a clue. Since I’d landed at Normandy I seriously doubted the existence of a God.

“But what you did to Reynolds was murder. You never gave him a chance, did you? Snuck up behind him to cut his throat.” I looked at the contents of his backpack, spilled out on the ground: some K-rations, a couple of chocolate bars, a deck of playing cards—Reynolds loved to play Euchre—a letter to his girl, her picture. “To the victor go the spoils of war, eh?

 “Well, Herr Mac, I’m going to be sporting about this,” I said, raising my rifle. “I’m going to count to 10 ... one—”

The German dropped to his knees, thrust out his hands and shouted, “Nein!”

“Ten,” I said and pulled the trigger. The German fell onto his back, a perfect hole smoking in the center of his chest. “You dumb shit,” I muttered. “You just robbed yourself of eight seconds of the rest of your life.”


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:17 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 22 November 2009 11:39 AM EST
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Sunday, 26 July 2009
One Hot January
Topic: Novel excerpts

The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

 

—Joseph Conrad

 

Respect the past in the full measure of its desserts, but do not make the mistake of confusing it with the present nor seek in it the ideals of the future.

 

—Jose Incenerios

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

My name is January. Joe January. I was a private investigator from the South Bronx, circa 1940. Was once described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. Who am I to argue? The difference between Bogie and me is that I was the real McCoy. Where he took the scripts that Hollywood wrote for him, I took on the tough cases nobody else would. Unlike Bogie’s, my bumps and bruises were the real deal, not makeup. Although in retrospect I can see that this could be construed as a Hollywood type script that Bogie might have been interested in bringing to the screen were he alive today.

In truth, I’m no Joseph Conrad, but I wrote every word on these pages. This is my story, but make no mistake, it’s anything but make believe. Not being a scientist, I can’t tell you the “how” behind what happened, only that it did happen. It reads like science fiction, spanning two centuries and dealing with time travel and alternate realities, and the denouement is less than satisfactory. I’ve been accused of arrogance in my self-depiction, creating a sort of comic book superhero of myself. But in truth, in youth we often view ourselves as invincible. It isn’t until later that we realize how fragile life is; furthermore, that we see the repercussions of our actions. Yet given the chance to live life over again, avoiding the mistakes made during the first go-around, would you turn your back?

As a youth someone told me that man spends far too much time thinking and worrying about the future, and that he also spends too much time in the past, dwelling on mistakes and regretting missed opportunities. But in order to move into the future a man must spend a certain amount of time, in the present, looking into his past. I wish I’d done that more often. Now, at my age, with so little future to look forward to and to plan for, I have little else but the past and all my regrets to think about—the missed opportunities and how, through my foolishness, I lost the one woman who meant the most to me, not once but twice.

 

 

December 6, 1941

 

The man jerked and twitched—an epileptic in seizure. The right foot stomped in rhythmic time; shoulders bunched as fingers flew in a frenzied attack on the black and white ivory keys. Sweat poured from beneath the stocking that was a cap and ran in torrents down his face. A brief respite from his self-perpetuated paroxysm, and he mopped from his face what moisture he could with the stained handkerchief that lay beside him, before giving way to another fit of spasms.

Whether the demented cacophony that spewed from the piano he assailed with a vengeance was a result of the convulsions he initiated, or the notes themselves responsible for the musician’s spastic throes, I only wondered. For all the split notes, all the demented chromatic chord changes, for all the irregular intervals and rhythms that made his music unique, Thelonious Sphere Monk, the expectant father of modern jazz, would be scorned by critics, his music laughed at, misunderstood and unappreciated by the uninitiated for years. Until his death in 1982, when with the advent of the compact disk much of his music would be reissued and embraced by a new generation, proving again that all great artists enjoy their greatest success posthumously.

I sat and watched, amused, as Monk now stood and danced in a tiny circle, lost in a world of eccentricity as profound as his music, his arms swinging in time as tenor saxman Don Byas blew notes that rivaled Monk’s own in their dissonance¼

 

“I just love Monk, don’t you?” the young woman across the table from me asked.

I’d agreed to meet the woman here at Minton’s Playhouse to discuss locating her missing father. I don’t normally take on missing persons, but if the voice on the other end of the phone looked as good as it sounded and she was willing to meet my price, I was willing to make an exception. I’d been right about the voice. Its owner was Melissa MacIntyre, who didn’t look at all Scotch, but to me looked sweet enough to taste. Her auburn hair, cut in a neat pageboy, framed features more childlike in their innocence than glamorous. Thin lips painted a deep shade of red parted to reveal straight white teeth as she waited for my approval of her musical taste.

“That’s not music,” her brother said.

I had taken an immediate dislike of Melissa’s older sibling. Like his nose his arrogance preceded him. He was overbearing, opinionated, self-righteous and, where his sister was concerned, authoritative. All of this I had deduced through observation; his snide comment merely lent weight to my summation.

“It has no style,” he continued, although neither Melissa nor I had prompted him for edification. “There’s no cadence and it lacks intellect.”

I think it’s angular,” Melissa said, defending Monk against her brother’s unwarranted attack.

I smiled. The purity of her rejoinder, the result of youthful exuberance, sounded as if she were repeating something she had read in conjunction with Monk. Whether critical acclaim or disparaging condemnation didn’t matter. Apparently her brother had gotten far too used to having his own way. She would use whatever weapons at her disposal to counter his offensive.

“Why must you always be so rigid and traditional, Benjamin Junior?”

En garde,” Benjamin said. Then, with a conspiratorial wink at me, he added, “The avant-garde in defense of the accused.”

Monk was now back at the piano, pounding at the keys with a savage wrath in an effort to prove to all those present in the tiny club that the instrument he played was indeed a percussive one.

In truth, I didn’t care for Monk or his music, and for all the same reasons Benjamin Junior had just smartly ticked off. But I didn’t like Benjamin Junior either.

“Oh, I don’t know, Ben,” I said. “Maybe Melissa is right. Maybe you should loosen up.”

Melissa was smiling triumphantly. Her newly formed alliance outnumbered the opposition two to one, while Benjamin’s eyes threw daggers at me from across the table.

“Don’t call me that!” he snapped. “My name is Benjamin.”

“Oh, Benjamin, why must you always be so pretentious?”

“I didn’t say I agreed with her taste,” I said. Melissa looked crestfallen—her champion was about to betray her. “I just think she has a right to like what she likes.” Melissa brightened. In the span of a heartbeat I had gone from traitor to hero again. I thought that perhaps this was the first time in her life anyone had supported her right to her own opinion. That it had come in outright defiance of her brother only made it that much more gratifying.

“She doesn’t know—”

“Not with you force-feeding her your opinions she doesn’t.”

Benjamin was red with repressed anger.

“You must not want this job.” Benjamin said.

“I have yet to decide that,” I said. “Nor do I need it,” I added, countering the inference regarding the scruples of private investigators.

“I’m not sure I want to hire you.”

“And I’m emphatic about not wanting to work for you.”

“Mr. January¼

Melissa’s expression was a compromise between amusement—that I would have the audacity to face down her insolent brother—and dismay. Obviously taken in by my willingness to speak out on her behalf, I surmised she would’ve hired me then and there but for her brother. I guessed that Melissa was just learning to flex her independence, but had not yet gotten to the point where she could stand in outright insubordination of his authority.

I saw her conflict and immediately recognized my danger. I’m a sucker for a woman in distress.

“Come along, Melissa,” her brother said. “I’ll not tolerate someone working for me who exhibits a lack of respect for me.”

“You don’t hire respect,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means first and foremost that I work for myself. If I choose to help you find your father and you agree to pay my fee, plus expenses, then we have a business arrangement. But we do it my way. After all, that’s what you’re paying for, my expertise. I don’t want any interference from you. I’m taking all the risks; that’s also part of what you’re paying for. But I don’t need someone increasing those risks unnecessarily at my expense.” Sensing Benjamin’s unspoken skepticism, I added, “And if you don’t think you’re getting your money’s worth you can sever our agreement.”

“That’s not good enough.”

“Benjamin!”

“I’m sorry but that’s the way it’s done in this business. However, if you believe you might find a better deal elsewhere, I suggest you shop around.”

A poor response, I knew, for I also knew what game Benjamin Junior was playing. By stating my terms I had let slip my desire to take the job, and Benjamin Junior had picked up on that. He would now use that knowledge to try to take back control of the center of the negotiation table—revenge for having been shown up in front of his sister. In his dementia might and right were confluent. Such convoluted rationale justified any plot against both his sister and me.

The world is full of assholes, I thought. I’ve always loved that word, asshole, for the amusing visual that accompanies it. But I wasn’t amused now, not this time. Not with Benjamin sitting there, his lips parting like a pink sphincter to reveal the putrid knowledge that he knew he had me off balance and on the ropes. I hate being off balance.

Suddenly I no longer wanted the job. I had more than enough cases to keep me busy. I’d been a fool to allow myself to be taken in by the sound of a pretty voice on the phone. No, I certainly didn’t need this job—not at this cost. I drew in another breath, prepared to withdraw my proposal, but was stopped short by Melissa’s trepidation.

My own credo had always been that right is might, as penned by August and Julius Hare over a century before—the original translucence of their transcript lost through transposition—ever was and ever would be wrong. Hence my preoccupied obsession with the oppressed. My experience often shows the righteous underdog to be a casualty of the corruption might frequently engenders.

As I looked across the table at the waning hope on Melissa’s face, fearful that the might I attempted to wield on behalf of the right would one day come up short, I felt my own hope for the future waver. The world was a gloomy place because of people like Benjamin Junior. Dismal as it was, it was no match for my own dark mood, which was threatening to grow darker by the moment.

“Ben,” I began, and then quickly amended it to Benjamin. “You and I have gotten off to a shaky start here.” God, how I hated having to suck hind teat. “To tell you the truth, since it was Melissa I spoke with on the phone, and since she didn’t mention a brother, I’m a little taken aback by your appearance here. I assumed I would be meeting with her alone.”

“So that’s what this is about.”

I only stared as Benjamin’s eyes glowered with malice.

“Benjamin—”

“You think that because you get a call from a woman who arranges to meet you in this¼ this dive¼ you think that gives you the right¼ the free reign to¼ to¼

“Benjamin, it’s not like that, not like that at all. You know I wouldn’t—”

“Shut-up, Melissa, this doesn’t concern you!”

“I think it does,” I said amiably.

“This is my sister here, not some cheap slut you can pick up and take home to use and degrade for the price of a few drinks.” Benjamin’s face was turning a dangerous shade of purple.

“I had no intention of using and degrading her.”

“But you intended to take her home?”

“Benjamin, how could you think such a thing?”

None of it mattered any longer—not the job, not the girl; pretty as she was, and as taken as I was by her youthfulness, she was too skinny for my taste. “The thought crossed my mind,” I said, betraying a half-truth. My vulgarity was intended to brutalize. It did.

Bastard!” Benjamin roared, drawing the notice of a few more of our fellow jazz aficionados. His rage had caused him to stand. His tipped chair was resting against the railing behind him. Such was his tirade he was completely unaware, or perhaps he simply chose to ignore the fact that he was upstaging the featured artist at Minton’s. “She’s my sister! he shouted, leaning forward, hands flat on the table. He towered menacingly over me, but I betrayed no sense of being menaced whatsoever. “My¼ my¼

Benjamin suddenly became aware of the startled glances of those around us. Quickly, awkwardly regaining a caricature of composure, he finished quietly, “Come along, Melissa, we have nothing to discuss with the likes of him.”

Trotting after her brother, Melissa mouthed the words I’ll be in touch, and then she, too, was gone. Leaving me to ponder the peculiarity of what I’d just witnessed.

 

A woman of her word, Melissa did indeed get in touch with me. But her contact wouldn’t come for five and a half years.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:33 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 October 2010 12:51 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 21 July 2009
e-Book Publishing Industry Designed to Put Less Money in the Pockets of the Author
Topic: Writing

As both a reader and a writer, I have more than a passing curiosity in the Kindle 2 reading device. As a consumer who cares about the environment as well as my entertainment budget, I like the idea of spending $9.95 for a new release for a Kindle 2 as opposed to $27.99 for a hardback.

However, as an author I’m more than dismayed that Kindle pays no one for audio rights for its text-to-speech function. Furthermore, with fewer slices of the pie to share—no printer or distributor—one would think the author might be entitled to a larger piece of the pie. Alas, that is not the case.

In a recent New York Times article, Author’s Guild president, Roy Blount, says the breakdown is as follows:

 

·         Publisher: 33%

·         Amazon: 59%

·         Author: 8%

 

In short, Amazon swallows, whole, the slices that once went to the printer and distributor, or an additional 20%, while the author gets shafted.

I self-published a novel a few years ago and get a 35% royalty on print copies that retail for $14.95. With Kindle, a new release sells for $9.95 (a smaller pie with which to begin), and I, after having spent hundreds of hours writing a novel, can now expect an even smaller slice from that smaller pie, while Amazon, who risks nothing and has no investment in terms of imagination, creativity, blood, sweat or tears, gets 59%.

On top of that, my publisher, BookSurge (owned by Amazon) recently pitched me that my title (January’s Paradigm) should be made available for Kindle. If I recall correctly, they wanted me to pay them $250 to send to Amazon a file, a file BookSurge already has; I can’t imagine it would take more than a few mouse clicks to reformat (if necessary) and save as a Kindle compatible file. Heck, if it’s a PDF, I can do that.

This is how it plays out: Amazon has a site on which they already list my book. Now they, or my publisher (but they’re one and the same aren’t they?), want me to pay $250 for a file they already have, and Amazon will show on the existing listing that it is available for Kindle. For this Amazon profits 59% on the sale of my work. My work! While I must sell 313 Kindle 2 version copies to recoup my $250 investment. Not a lot, I suppose, until you consider the hundreds I’ve already invested with BookSurge, for setup, a listing, copies of my book (purchased at my author’s discount!) to take to author events. And consider, too, the average number of sales for a self-published author is, at last count, 165 copies. Is it any wonder that writing a novel is profitable for all parties save the author?

Does any of this sound fair, or even moral? Isn’t this the sort of practice for which unions were created?

 

I suppose it could be argued that more pies will be sold at this lower price, but the truth is I’m still going to have to sell an awful lot of pies to make up the difference.

A ballplayer who fails seven out of 10 times he steps up to the plate is paid millions; but in the arts, particularly in the publishing industry, we get 8% of less than $10, or 80 cents. Maybe I should’ve listened to my father when he asked me, 15 years ago when I was nearing completion of my first novel, “What are you doing wasting your time on something like that?”

Amazon should be encouraging writers to submit quality texts by sharing a larger slice of pie; instead they’re merely squeezing the novelist for every cent they can wring out of us. It’s not enough that many titles available on Kindle 2 are reprints of out of print texts with little to nothing paid in terms of royalties.

With more titles in print today than there are readers, the self-publishing industry—composed largely of unscrupulous names such as AuthorHouse—will publish anyone with a valid credit card. All of which makes it more difficult for any writer with more than 16 ounces of talent—those who have spent years honing their craft—to make a name for themselves let alone a dollar.

Now Amazon is offering smaller pies for less money, cutting out the middlemen, and offering to share less with the baker. But Amazon doesn’t care if I sell copies of January’s Paradigm, not when the likes of James Patterson and Danielle Steel, both available on Kindle, are driving their profits. Somehow I can’t imagine these heavyweights are getting a paltry 8% of Kindle 2 sales. The rich get richer while the rest of us get thrown a bone.

Apparently what Amazon doesn’t understand is that without authors they would have no product to peddle to readers.

No, silly me. It’s me who doesn’t understand: there will always be writers, hacks, who, thrilled to see their name in print, will be happy to give away their work for next to nothing. I can do little except, as a consumer, take my online purchases of books, CDs and other products to someone other than Amazon.

Or maybe I can do something more. I can give away PDF versions of all my novels. After all, that’s what writers, do, right? Write? It’s more important that our voice be heard, that we share our talent with the world, so we should do it for free, right? Better that than to let second and third parties steal 92% of my profits.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 3:32 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 15 November 2009 9:02 AM EST
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Sunday, 12 July 2009
Pining for Yesteryear
Topic: The Curmudgeon

After my morning writing session I thought about baseball—the business it’s become and the way the game was once played.

My research for Cobb’s Conscience has revealed a lot about the legendary Georgia Peach as well as the way the game was played at the beginning of the last century.

Cobb was a showman, often announcing to opposing pitchers his intention to steal a base.

Herman Schaefer, a team mate of Cobb’s and second baseman, once stole second base and promptly stole his way back to first just to see if it could be done.

Tigers’ manager Hughie Jennings, with his “Eeee—yahhhh!” cry, routinely tore up the grass around the coach’s box, performed an Indian war dance, and blew a policeman’s whistle. American League president Ban Johnson once suspended Jennings for ten days for “objectionable noisemaking.”

Even as recently as the 1960s the game was more entertainment. Tigers’ first baseman Norm Cash once approached the batter’s box with a table leg, claiming the stuff Nolan Ryan was tossing that day en route to his second career no-hitter was unhittable with a regulation piece of lumber.

Baseball has always been a business, even in Cobb’s day, from the owner’s perspective. But players today, in large part due to their huge contracts, approach the game as a business. Gone is the fun in playing a kid’s game.

All of which leaves me longing for the past, a much simpler time.

A colleague of mine eschews old movies, citing bad acting and poorly written screenplays.

Yes, today’s actors are superior to yesteryears. In Hollywood’s early days actors employed stage acting, emoting, or playing the emotion. In time, method acting took over, giving more realism. Today we have more accomplished actors with more range, but we have fewer movie stars. Russell Crowe is one of our most capable actors, but Clark Gable was a bigger movie star even if he earned less money per picture.

I enjoy some of today’s movies and admire the craftsmanship of actors and directors alike, but I also miss that invisible barrier that exists in old movies, that separated the viewer from the screen. I don’t mind knowing I’m watching a movie. Sometimes I don’t want to be immersed so totally in a screenplay that I forget I’m but a viewer.

On television, shows like Criminal Minds, with their penchant for real life drama, leave me decidedly uncomfortable.

In a society becoming more and more desensitized to sex and violence, I sometimes long for the days when Rob and Laura Petrie couldn’t be shown together in the same bed. In the 1960s I had no idea what a man and a woman did together in bed. Today, twelve-year-olds indulge in sexual activities.

We can’t go back to the way it was anymore than Adam and Eve could regain their innocence after partaking of the forbidden fruit. But it doesn’t stop me from regretting my own lost innocence and fearing for the future of this country.

Every generation perhaps looks back into their past to see the good old days. I wonder what the Millennium Generation will look back upon with fondness.


Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 11:48 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 12 July 2009 11:50 AM EDT
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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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