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Jack Silence, Chapter 1

I’m writing a kind of throwback “men’s adventure” novel, meant to be book 1 in a series of however many I’ve got in me. It’s sort of THE DESTROYER/Remo-and-Chiun meets Dr. Strange, meets the old 1970s SHAZAM! show, based on the now-public-domain weird fiction of Algernon Blackwell’s “John Silence” stories.

This is the first chapter. Hope you like.


His name was Jack Silence and he was in his underwear, standing ankle deep in snow and yelling at a dead man. 

This  would be strange by itself, but stranger still was the fact that the dead man was yelling back at him. 

“I’m ON VACATION!” Jack shouted. 

“YOU ARE BEING CALLED!!” the dead man insisted. 



Strange, however, was a relative term for the Silence family, which had trafficked in matters strange and occult for generations. Jack was the current generation. The ghost he was screaming at was three generations back. 

“Look. I’m here to clear out this lake, then I have the week off. That was agreed.”

“Plans have changed! Circumstances arisen!” 

“No! Just…No! Tell them to send someone else. Please take this in the kindest way possible, Grandfather, and understand that I say it with love: fuck off and leave me alone. I’m here for the voy-da-doy..”


“Whatever. I’m here to kill this  thing, then I’m on vacation. I deserve a vacation. I’m up and down the Eastern seaboard tracking down every gremlin and bugaboo for the last three months. I’m tired.  Tell that silvery faced tyrant to go suck his own–”

“I cannot and I shall not! Further, your use of  gutter-diction is troublesome. I should think I taught you better. It pains my heart, I regretfully inform you.”  

“What heart? You don’t even breathe. You’re a goddamned specter.”

Jack Silence turned to face the shimmering form of his great grandfather, which hung in the air before him. Through the translucent folds of his tweedy  ethereal jacket, Jack could see the cold, beautiful freshwater of Eagle Lake that stretched as far out as the eye could see. 

The crisp Maine air was clean and smelled of pine. Behind Jack was  a large RV, some thirty feet long. It was tan with brown accents, and looked to be a vintage 1979 Chieftain Winnegbago. A battered, faded license plate read SKD-BLDNR.  

What would seem odd for anyone watching,  was that there was no access road  to this area,  and no apparent tire tracks behind the vehicle. 

“I am an apparition, yes. And your forebear and namesake, which would behoove you to treat me with the requisite respect one should expect from such a station, young Jack. I am Doctor John Silence, formerly physician extraordinary, and now ghostly keeper of the sacred Accord! To which you, as the living Silence, are sworn. Also, there is little need to blaspheme. Further, you know how I feel about your incessant profanity.” 

“Yes. It is my understanding that you dislike such verbal fuckery.” 

 “Really, Jack? Now.  You have a task to perform. Which involves, I should add, your ability to “not breathe.” As I recall, that was your first lesson. You have been well trained in it.”

Jack Silence arched an eyebrow. 

“As you recall. I recall it, you can bet your ghost-dick on that.  I was just a kid, for crying out loud. You let her hold me underwater.” 

“You survived.” 

“Well, it was a shitty way to learn.”

“Comparisons to matters fecal aside, learn you did. And here you are.”

Jack considered this. In answer, he raised a silent middle finger to the spectral form of his ancestor. 

 The ghost of Dr. John Silence wore a sour expression, as if he had just eaten an ectoplasmic lemon. 

“Ahem. Perform your task. And then! Then we must be off to the port of New Haven. This is… a pressing matter.  A young woman’s life hangs in the balance.” The ghost folded his arms, which made them slightly more opaque where they piled up in layers. 

“I’ll take care of this vadoodie,” Jack said. 


“Yeah, that. But then, I’m off the clock. I’m not going to Connecticut.” 

“We shall have words when you return. Now, attend to the matter at hand,” said the spirit of Dr. John Silence. 

Jack Silence looked to be in his mid to late twenties, stood  five-foot-ten inches high and was of  slim build, but muscular. He had long, straight dark hair that went a bit past his shoulder. If you had to make the call, it would be more accurate to say he was more pretty than handsome, with a clean shaven face, high cheekbones. He was  neither expressly short nor tall.  Not movie-star good looking, but better than most. Average to slightly-above in most every way, at first glance. 

The only thing that might make him stand out in a crowd were his  odd blue eyes. They were a bright ice blue near the black of the pupil, but the outer ring was a darker navy color that acted in a way to draw attention to the sky-blue at the center. 

 In general, he didn’t appear  imposing or a looming physical threat.  But especially now– standing in a pair of boxer shorts, barefoot and pale in the snow, in front of a big camper vehicle by a lake. Appearances, however, would be deceiving. If there was anyone around to stand next to him besides a ghost, they’d be suffering hypothermia in minutes. Jack wasn’t shivering at all. He didn’t even have goose-flesh.  

Jack Silence was capable of things very few other humans could ever come close to doing. Things they might not even dream of being able to do. Since childhood, he had been rigorously taught secrets kept long hidden from most of humanity.  Secrets that unlocked a world of physical and mental potential, but also opened up worlds of mystic danger.  

“Now attend to the matter at hand,” Jack said in a mimicking, high pitched, sing-song voice, which irritated the ghost to no end. 

But there was nothing to be done for it, for in the next moment, Jack launched himself in a clean and elegant dive into the icy water. It barely left a ripple on the surface. Above, the ghostly form of his great-grandfather smiled in begrudging approval. 

“Good form, boy,” the ghost said to no one at all and nodded in approval. A proud smile crossed his face. “Good form.”

Upon being submerged, Jack closed his eyes and willed his internal body temperature to continue to fall. He had already dropped it several degrees and slowed his heart rate and breathing, in preparation. He was hopeful to be able to last an hour on the single breath he had taken as he leapt. That should be more than enough. 

This wasn’t magic, although Jack could do some of that, if need be.  The ability to adjust to environments and move freely was an art and skill that humanity had largely abandoned and lost along the way to civilization. It was a skill that predated language.  Jack had learned it–along with many other lessons– in a special place called the Challenge Parlor. A hateful place.  

 As he pointed his arms downward and undulated his hips and legs, he propelled himself faster into the depths, keeping his motions as conserved as they needed to be. No wasted effort, no wasted oxygen. 

Jack allowed himself to relax, expanding his senses in all directions. He opened his eyes and relaxed the muscles behind them, concentrating on shifting his visual perception to account for the lensing effect of the water which blurred his vision. 

As he did, the lake floor snapped from a watercolor, impressionist blur into sharp focus, with each rock and pebble in high contrast, as surely as it would have had he donned goggles. He had more than enough air, from the one single gulp he had taken, to last for a long, long while. 

This was, he knew, an adaptation that most mammals possessed, but humans simply panicked and thrashed about  when thrust into an alien environment. 

Jack Silence enjoyed this moment, even though his mind was alight with the heightened awareness that fear brings. He was now in a scenario  where a mistake meant death. And he was hunting a thing that lived to kill.  

Ah! Your fear. I smell it! Fear is good. Fear is healthy. Fear is life’s fuel, child. If you fear, it means you’re alive. Panic, though, boy? Panic is the enemy. If you panic it means you will soon be dead. 

The long ago words of the tutor his great grandfather had brought to the Challenge Parlor echoed in his mind, from when he was taught the lost art of long distance diving. The heavy Russian accent. The rough, old, strong calloused hands holding his head down. They smelled of onions.  He was eight, then. It had almost killed him, but he came out the Parlor stronger and more capable. And angry.  

Seals have lungs, boy. Otters have lungs.  Whales have lungs. You have lungs. Be like them.  It’s not something you learn. It’s something you’ve forgotten. Toss a newborn baby into the water. His windpipe will close up. His spleen will push blood, rich with air, into the body.  He spent nine months diving, he still knows how. I’m here to teach you to remember.  And if you don’t, I’ll collect your bones for my soup. 

Jack Silence remembered. He had panicked, there in the Challenge Parlor, with the cruel and wise old witch, those years ago, and almost paid for it with his life. But he learned there never to panic again. 

Free from panic, he allowed reflex to take over and do its job: his organs pulled the blood greedily inward from his extremities where it was not needed, his veins constricted and his heart slowed even further, reducing the burn rate of oxygen. He was one with the water and the water was one with him. It felt like flying. It felt free. 

Back down the chain, if you go far enough, you all came out of the water. It’s why your eyes are made of jelly and need to be wet to see. You’re a distant cousin to a fish, child.  

Jack Silence did not swim like a fish. He swam like a seal or a dolphin; he used his whole body, not just his arms and legs. 

And now he was far into the middle of Eagle Lake, the largest body of fresh water in the Acadia wilderness of Maine. High above him, sitting on top of four hundred acres of water, was a crust of ice that threw the sunlight  in hazy waves below. He passed  the silvery body of an unblinking landlocked salmon, zipping by it so fast the fish barely had time to twitch and dart away before he was already gone. If Jack had intended for it to be his prey, it would have already been dead. But Jack was hunting something else in the frigid waters of this lake. Something that had been collecting prey of its own.

He followed the contours of the lake bed down deeper, feeling for shifts in temperature where the water ran colder. His eyes were very nearly all pupil now, and his frame waved in ripples that pushed him effortlessly along. The pressure of the incredible weight of water above and around him pushed in.  Within his body, his systems squeezed back, pressurizing themselves in perfect harmony. He did not think of doing it, he simply let it happen.  

Relaxed. Flow. Movement. 

Only as much is needed, and not a bit more.  His mind was afraid, because this was deadly business, but he would not allow fear to give way to panic. Again, in memory, the rough old lady’s voice echoed:

 Use the fear. Don’t let it use you. Stop thinking in words, boy. Feel!  

Jack let his thoughts go wordless and simply felt. Felt the temperature around him  not as  a sensation called “cold”  but as the differences that separated that coldness; here more than there, and he followed. His sense of body awareness was now total and complete; every square inch of his skin its own antenna, taking in information and telling him what he needed to know. 

It had been a full six minutes now, but he was not counting time by a clock. His whole being was aware of how much energy, how much life-giving oxygen he had smuggled in from the airy world above he had to supply it. 

It was another nine minutes of searching before he saw them. 


Three of them. There was what had once been the living body of a fit, middle aged woman, who still wore the tattered remnants of a jogging vest. Next there was  what might have been an older man with an outdoorsman’s coat floating up at its unzipped sides.  And then the last one, that nearly made Jack gulp in a lungful of water. It was a child. 

A boy. One eye had been mostly pecked clean by fish. Tattered bits remained, suspended  by small lines of tissue. The other eye stared lifelessly in one direction, never to move again. 

All three were set up, posed as sitting around the crude approximation of a table made from a sizable flat boulder. Their rotting, bloated flesh was gray-blue and mottled and the boy’s short hair floated gently in a corona about his head, along with the invisible currents of moving water. Each of their stomachs had been slashed open and panels of skin swayed softly in bloodless flaps.  A collection of large stones were jammed inside the open cavities, to keep them  all in place.  

A loose coil of intestine hung lazily from the older man’s abdomen, waving silently. Jack took in the scene:  it  appeared to be a  macabre tea-party, far under the surface of the lake. Grandfather had told him to expect such a thing. And what to look for. And there it was. 

On the rock table there rested a shiny porcelain teapot in front of each of the bodies. 

Jack Silence glided through the water and reached out for the pot in front of the older man. He removed the lid and a single, iridescent bubble emerged, tentatively at first but then rapidly shot upwards before popping and disappearing.  Next was the pot in front of the woman. Her lifeless torso rocked gently back and forth with the water in a mockery of the animation of life. He took the top of the pot and discarded it; it slowly sank to rest on the rock table with a muted clink. Another bubble, this one tinged with ribbons of glowing blue, rushed out and up, becoming nothing at all soon in its ascent. Then the final pot. The boy. 

A large bubble, glowing brightly, flew from the pot. It stopped, however, in front of Jack’s face for a moment. It pulsed, growing larger then returning to its original size and Jack stared into the light. It was achingly beautiful. 

Jack waved at the bubble, pointing upwards. The bubble hovered near the partly eaten face of the dead child and its color shifted to a mournful yellow. Then it rose slowly, seemingly not wanting to leave. And then it was gone.

Their souls. Their souls were trapped there, and now freed, Jack Silence thought.  

It was then he heard the thundering yowl. Sound travels farther and faster through water than in air. This was a sound of anger and fury. He felt a great pressure and a sense of displacement in the water. Something far away was barrelling toward him. Something furious. Something deadly. 

Jack pushed back his anger and his fear, focusing on his heart. He willed it to pump, then go silent. He waited.   

Then he saw it.Even in the murky depths there was no mistaking the fact: it was a horror. 

It was the last thing that these three poor souls had seen, from when they were still enmeshed in their bodies, Jack realized.  Its head was like a frog and a man all at once, with a thick, green beard of what seemed like both kelp and hair. It’s face was full of ancient hate.  Its body was an abomination of angles and forms that suggested the shape of a person, but rudely. And it was murderously angry. 

Large, lamplike yellow eyes, glowing eyes, with pinprick pupils focused in on Jack and the thing’s mouth opened wide, revealing rows of sharp triangle teeth. The sides of its neck flared with blue green gills. The scream and cry sounded again,  filling the whole of the lake. This thing’s treasures had been taken. It was nothing but fury. Jack Silence extended his hands and turned them. He flipped the Voydyanoy a double bird; two upraised middle fingers. Then he turned, quick as a fish, and swam for his life. 

Behind him, the creature gave chase. 

Jack’s mind was without words. There was no need for them. Words merely got in the way. There was just intention, just action. The separate muscles of his body moved with a unified purpose. He shot through the water like a missile. But the thing, the awful thing, the Vodyanoy, moved even faster. He had disturbed its collection of souls and it wanted revenge. It was gaining on him.

 Jack was burning oxygen now at a rapid rate. If he thought in words at the moment, the words would describe how his heart and liver pulled the lactic acid from his blood, working overtime to convert it to a chemical called pyruvate, to fuel his legs and core and arms with power to continue. But there were no words, there was just the process, just the doing, and in the doing, Jack Silence gained speed. 

It was not fast enough. 

The ghost of Dr. John Silence, physician extraordinary, hovered uncertainly by the water’s edge. He reached into a pocket and withdrew the semi-transparent disc  of an otherworldly ornate pocket watch, made from the same ghostly material he was comprised of. 

He glanced at it. Twenty minutes had passed now. He knew Jack was up to the task, but still. Twenty minutes. Jack, for all the skills he was taught, was still only flesh and blood and bone. It was a long time. 

Then he both heard and felt the scream. It sounded through the ether and ripped out at frequencies that humans might never hear. Birds seemed aware of it, though. A collection of crows lifted off from bare branches and disappeared into the  gray sky.

Under the lake’s placid surface, Jack fled. Behind him, the creature born of water and malice and foul spirit, given flesh in the world and called a Voydyanoy, rushed at him, cutting through the lake’s waters like a deadly knife. Now ten feet. Now five. Now within grabbing distance. Jack would not make it to the shore in time before the thing was on him.  

And then–

Jack was at the surface,  ten feet from the shore, still accelerating. He breached the water with a splash-spray and vaulted  like a dolphin, turning in the air. 

Behind him, the thing erupted from the water, with its hands curled into claws and its terrible mouth open impossibly wide.  Jack corkscrewed his body at the height of the jump, the weightless instant where the force of gravity just began to win out over the velocity of his ascent. 

He  brought his arm around, swinging it in an arc with his first and second fingers out straight and rigid, and plunged them into one of the large yellow eyes of the creature as it snatched him with long, oddly angled arms in a vise grip.  

“Well, that’s one way to do it, I suppose,” muttered the semi-transparent form of the ghostly Dr. John Silence, hovering by the lake’s edge. 

Jack and the vodyanoi fell together into the water. The thing was shrieking in pain and thrashing as they landed together with a smack and a splash like a bellyflopping diver, then sunk beneath the surface.

 A roiling froth of bubbles and a terrible area of what appeared to be black ink floated up to the surface.  Moments passed. 

Then there was Jack’s head, gasping for air. Then the rest of him inch by inch, rising above the water as he made his way to the shore with deliberate steps. He was dragging the twitching, sickly green-blue body of the nude, man-like thing behind him.  

“Is this where I would hold up a card with my judges’ score?” the ghost called to him. “I shan’t think it would be a high number, I’m afraid.” 

“Har har. You’re a real cut-up.” 

“It still lives, you know.” 

“Yeah, not for much longer, though,” Jack grunted, yanking the vodyanoi up out of the water and tumbling its form into the snow. One of its gills was ripped clean off, exposing striated flesh which oozed and dripped black ichor. The other hung in a tattered flap, like a ripped sheet. Neither were functioning. It opened and closed its mouth, full of vomerine teeth, impotently, like a puckering fish out water. 

“Hey. Fucknuts,” Jack said to it. “You see how this feels?”

Black fluid, like pen ink,  rushed from the creature’s mouth. 

“Yeah. Not nice, right?  This is what those poor bastards felt when you dragged them under the lake and trapped their spirits for your lunatic little tea-party.” 

“Glup,” the thing managed to vocalize through a mouth of whatever passed for blood, putting up an outstretched arm to Jack, showing long fingers, joined with a web of mucus-like flesh between them. 

“You’re not even supposed to be here, you know that?” 

“gl…Glup,” the frog-man belched pathetically, gasping through jet-black fluid. Its glowing eyes were growing dim. 

“Yeah, yeah. Glup. Glub-glubity-glup. Choke on it, cockskin. You killed a kid, you froggy shitstick, snot-covered ballsack,” Jack yelled, standing over the vodyanoi. He delivered a kick to its wounded side.  

The voydyanoi, with its gills ripped from its neck, was hitching for breath. It exploded a spray of mucus and thin black water from its mouth, covering Jack’s nearly naked body in a fine mist. He wiped away at his eyes. 

“Oh, you absolute bag of dickmeat. Now I’m just going to watch you die on your own, howzabout that?” 

“Jack, ours is not to punish, but just to enforce the Accord,” Dr. John Silence’s ghost offered, floating now close behind him. 

“Yeah, I know.” 

“So enforce it. End it now,” the ghost said gently. 

“There was…there was  a boy, grandfather. A child,” Jack said, turning to him. His voice broke and wavered  as he said it.  He was now shivering. 

At his feet, the creature pathetically clawed at the air, its ruined gill-lungs oozing the ink-like, watery blood from its  wounds and eye socket into the snow. 

“I know, son,” the doctor said softly. “I know.”

 He placed a ghostly hand on the shoulder of his great grandson. It hovered by his skin, but could not be felt. 

Jack Silence leaned down.

“Glup?” the monster burbled. 

“Yeah. Tough titty, said the kitty. Them’s the breaks.” 

He killed it quickly and without ceremony.   

“I gotta towel this goo off of me. Ew. It smells like fish and dogshit.”  

 Inside the camper, now dressed and with a cup of coffee, Jack Silence was adamant. 

“I am not driving this thing to Connecticut, grandfather!  I just unfolded it, fer chrissakes. You promised me that I was off duty for a week, and I just got here. Connecticut is like, seven hours away. We’re not the only marshals, you know. Surter’s got an avatar there. And that creepy old witch, she’s got people. This doesn’t need me. You can  piss up a ghost rope. Go yell “boo” at someone, rattle some chains, or whatever it is you do when you disappear. Leave me alone.”

The spirit  was not budging. 

“It is of singular importance that you do so! The Arcadian has made his will known to me. I have been granted a Vision. You have been Called. It is your duty as a Silence to heed. Never in all my years have I dealt with such obstreperous impertinence from one so callow. There is a matter of absorbing concern. A young woman’s fate hangs in the balance. Would you sacrifice the life of an innocent to better enjoy your time on holiday? Is that the sort of blackguard you would purport to be? Certainly the string of obscenities that leave your mouth would attest to such a low character.”  

At that, Jack took a deep breath in. Fuck. 

His great grandfather was right, of course. It was irksome. He had been right about the vodyanoi; Jack was not meant to fight it under the water, where it was strongest. The plan was to free the trapped souls and lure it onto the land, where it would be weaker and easier to kill. 

He had wasted a precious moment in taunting the thing, giving it his twin middle fingers before leading it on the chase. That was enough to allow it to catch him, just before reaching shore.  The job was still done, and it had felt satisfying to take its eye and strip its gills to the bone, but… He had gotten the slime of it all over his body when it grabbed him, and there was that death-sneeze that got in his eyes and on his chest and now he felt sort of queasy and a little bit off. There was a buzzing in his head. 

Grandfather Silence had warned him of the thing being coated in a kind of under-the-lillypad style gelatin with odd properties.

 Vodynoi, or Vodnicks, as they were sometimes called, used a crude kind of psychic prowess to peer into the minds of their victims and freeze them in place, close to the shores of where they hunted. Then they dragged them below to act as company for them and their lonely existence. In the ways of the Old Magic, the kind that had been banished from the world long ago, they collected souls in teapots, and kept them until the bodies became too rotted to pretend it was a party anymore.  Then they refreshed their party with new guests. The lakes and waters of Russia used to be lousy with them, only a few hundred years back, before the Accord. The Accord that the Silence family, among others, was sworn to uphold. Now only a few such creatures cropped up, here and there. Stragglers who had evaded the Great Leaving. 

Some of that residue that he had touched, or perhaps its final spray seemed to be giving him a contact high of sorts, imparting a bit of the Vodnick’s psychic ability to him. It was unpleasant. Like noise in the background. He felt the frantic thoughts of a squirrel outside the van crowd into his mind, all twitchy and vigilant. He blinked and it was gone.  

It would no doubt pass, but still. Sloppier than it needed to be. He’d never tell Grandfather that, though. Just another maddening “I told you so” for the pile, if he did. 

And now this. Enjoying time off wasn’t ever going to happen now. Or  any real vacation. Not with the spirit of his long-dead forefather constantly sending him chasing after mystic disturbances. They didn’t happen on a set schedule.  He found the spot in his forehead, about two inches in, and pushed with his mind, as his great grandfather had taught him to do so long ago. His body temperature began to rise. He knew he would have to go, but he wasn’t going to give the old man the satisfaction of agreeing without at least a little more argument.  

“Never in all your years?” 

“Yes. All of them.” 

Jack Silence pushed a hand through his wet, long black hair, smoothing it back against his head.

“All your years ended a long time ago, you ghostly dick. I swear, it’s never a moment’s rest for the living.” he muttered. “Fine. We’re going to stupid Connecticut. Tell me more about what you know with this girl in trouble.” 

“That’s my lad.”

“Whoop de-doo.”

Nickolai and the Ifrit

I’ve got a bunch of illustrated children’s books that I’ve written. The problem is, they’re not illustrated; they’re unillustrated illustrated books. Sounds like a shitty zen koan, right? A partially realized dream, a half of a whole, but ultimately, a whole lotta nothing. A cloud of unrealized potential.

Last year, I tried to go all in on making one of them real. In what seemed like a magical circumstance of right-time-right-place-ism, at an odd event I got roped into attending, I was seated next a talented artist who was going through some rough emotional patch and we bonded over a mutual love of various artists and genre works. I told him about a story I had written, about a kind hearted boy who finds a powerful but damaged wish-granting spirit, an Ifrit, and how the two manage to break the terrible cycle of power and ruin that wish-asking-and-granting always seems to lead to. I figured, “Maybe we can grant one another’s wishes. Let’s shock the world.”

I took out more money than I had and I told him I’d pay him an initial retainer and a LARGE hourly rate and that we’d be 50/50 partners, should this ever find publication success, since there’s no such thing as an illustrated book without an illustrator; it’s only fair for the artist to get at least half.

Part of his tale of woe was how he had lost all of his Wizards of the Coast Magic The Gathering Cards in his divorce; his ex had left him and taken them all and sold them. I had a cache of my father’s old Magic cards; we had collected them when they first came out. First edition, all I knew I could sell them for probably around $3000 to someone who would turn around and sell them for more, but these were my dad’s… Just getting some lump sum seemed profane. Since the story was about a simple boy of modest means who didn’t need riches or power because he had been raised by a strong & loving father, it made more sense to give the cards to this artist, as a show of faith in his ability, and to “grant his wish,” in and of a sort. This was not a down payment, it was a gift, freely given. Magic.

Well. Be careful when trying to live your life like a story, is what I can tell you. I still try to, pretty much all the time, because this is the foolish way my heart seems to be constructed, but it doesn’t always work out.

The artist took the cards then went radio silent. After a few days, he sent me a long, long, loooong text about how doing art right now was not where his soul was, and that he would not be doing this, or any other art for the time being and that he wished me luck on the project.

I told him I am not the type to give a gift then ask for it back, but under the circumstances, it’d probably be proper. He informed me, tearfully, that he had sold them in order to pay his rent and some bills and he understood how terrible that was, but he hoped I’d understand.


So here we are. It’s 2023, and I’m 50 years old. (I look young, though!) But I’m facing the very real idea of never seeing any of these things I dream up in my head ever finding their way to the shelves and minds of strangers.

I’m not very good with money and don’t care too much about it. I know we need it, but it’s just a bunch of coupons to exchange for stuff. Stuff is good and some stuff is necessary. I can’t seem to summon up the drive to care about the coupons, though.

I care about stories and it’d be wonderful to live in a world where telling them to people could bring me money, to allow me to tell more, but we don’t live in a world where Ifrits get trapped in bottles and wishes get granted. That’s why we must write about such things. I think.

It’s the TELLING that’s important. I have this dusty old blog that I haven’t touched in quite some time. I’m using to to grant my own wish. The wish was always, “I hope people will read the story and hear it and it will make them feel like I felt, when I told it to myself.”

I’ll tell the story here, for you. Whoever you are, where ever you are, if you’re amenable to reading it.

There is magic all around us and sometimes wishes get granted in odd ways. I’m sitting in my living room, clickity-clacking my fingers onto a row of keys and with a few button presses and some formatting, there you are, where ever that is, and those words are in your hand or on your screen and in your mind.

Here’s Nickolai and the Ifrit. It’s a story I’m very proud of and I hope you’ll read it and I hope you’ll like it. The text of the story is in bold; the rest are suggestions of the scene, for an artist to use as a jumping off point. Read either or both; it’s up to you. I’ve put the couple-of-few rough concept sketches that the artist managed to do, and maybe they’ll help you see the ideas of the pictures the words might have conjured up. Here’s me, reading the story, if that’s easier. Either way. Or both!

(A reading of the story, if you are so inclined)

Nickolai and the Ifrit

For Nickolai, who invited Jacinda to his birthday party, and who seemed like a sweet boy. 

Page 1: 

[Illustration suggestions: Maybe a bucolic, inviting background of greens and lazy vine-plants, and NICKOLAI, a small boy of 6 or 7. He has large eyes and is thin. He wears a representational cream colored vest and pants and boots of earth-tone colors, such that the time period is not certain or pinned down. Or maybe, depending on the overall design of the illustration style, just the boy on a field of white page, with a circle around him with the green background.] 

Once there was a boy named Nickolai, and he was happy, because he was loved. 

Pages 2 and 3:

[Illustration suggestions: Page 2, a homey cottage is nestled in an inviting woodland setting. A man, NICKOLAI’S FATHER, can be seen gathering wood and smiling, looking to the boy, who is sitting cross legged in front of the house at once paying attention to his father while whittling a stick with a small pocket knife. A pleasant and attractive woman, NICKOLAI’S MOTHER can be seen in one of the cottage’s small open windows. Page 3 shows a humble but cheery cottage bedroom, where NICKOLAI’S MOTHER sits at bedside, while NICKOLAI is bundled and warm, trying to get to sleep.} 

He lived in a cottage in the woods, and while his family was not wealthy, he did not want for much. He was never without breakfast or supper. His father was strong and good and told him funny stories and showed him how to carve animals out of wood.  His mother sang songs to him at night and held him close when he was scared.  

Pages 4 and 5: 

[Illustration suggestions: Page 4, a montage of NICKOLAI at play in various areas, up a tree, peering into his cupped hands as he gingerly holds a live tree frog, assiduously placing a rock onto a small  makeshift rock wall, with maybe little toy soldiers about it, another might show his head and hands coming out from a bush that is lit upon at many branches by colorful butterflies. Page 5 might be the family at dinner, with the hearth in the background, and a hearty crock of stew before them, being served by the Father. Or maybe just NICKOLAI, seen from behind, approaching the open cottage door at near-nightfall, with bright lights from the window, and lively smoke coming from the chimney?} 

Nickolai spent many afternoons wandering alone in the forest near his cottage, where he would play by himself. He would climb trees or catch toads in his hands, or make little rock walls or draw pictures in the dirt with a stick, or count how many different butterflies he could see. He would play all day and come home by sunset, where his supper would be hot and waiting for him. 

Page 6: 

[Illustration suggestions: Close up of NICKOLAI, beside a babbling brook, holding a makeshift net over his shoulder, in which a wet ball resides. In his other hand he holds a bronze tube-flask; it looks like maybe a scroll-case or a section of pipe. At the top end, ARABIC SCRIPT rings the metal and a cork is firmly stuck.} 

Once, when he was throwing a ball at the brook and catching it with a net when it would go past him,  he found an old metal bottle with a stopper. There were funny words carved around the top, but Nickolai could not read them. The bottle seemed hollow and empty when he shook it, but Nickolai pulled the cork out just to be sure.

Page 7: 

[Illustration suggestions: The cork is in mid-air and a shocked NICKOLAI holds the tube out from himself as an IFRIT has erupted from it with magic fire at the bottom that becomes a huge, bald, squat-faced, almost goblinoid-featured man, with long moustaches and rings in his perhaps pointed ears. He is powerfully built, and a pair of magnificent (and magnificently awful) wings adorn his back} 

A great flame jumped from the container, and the flame became a man. He grew tall and stretched his wings, and Nickolai was amazed, because he had never seen flame that turned into a man, or a man with wings before. 

Page 8: 

[Illustration suggestions: NICKOLAI can be seen from behind, gesturing in a kind of unsure, but almost courtly greeting. If his face is seen at ¾ angle, he should look not so much scared or terrified, but rather nervous– not nervous because of danger, but because he is unused to company, and wants to make a good impression and showing of himself, despite being surprised. The IFIRIT, for his part, towers over NICKOLAI, and leans down with a cat’s menace at a mouse, or perhaps a man who has noticed an industrious ant carrying a cut leaf and is deciding whether to admire its pluck, or squash it. Bemused, but kinda dangerous.  } 

“Excuse me, but if it please you, I am Nickolai,” said Nickolai, for his father and mother taught him to always be polite. “And may I ask: who are you?” 

The man leaned down to see Nickolai. His eyes still looked like fire and his smile was sharp and toothsome. 

Page 9: 

[Illustration suggestions: The  IFRIT in full braggadocio; resplendent and arch, gestures in a way that would do John Romita proud, were he to a correct “DO DRAW THIS!” pose for Dr. Doom laying out a villainous plan. Nickolai is maybe in the foreground, in wonder. My inspiration here is the composition of the 7 OF CUPS card in the standard Rider-Waite Tarot Deck;  a magical wonder on ethereal clouds that shocks and awes. A suggestion of fire and power behind the IFRIT as he boasts.}

“Know this, boy. I am an Ifrit; I am Flame and Power beyond Time and Out of Mind. My skin is proof against any sword forged by man, and I command strength and magic and dreadful knowledge more than all the words your wisest scholars have ever known to speak or write. When the tallest and mightiest tree in the forest was but a nut on its mother’s branch, even then was I old and full of wrath!”  

Page 10: 

[Illustration suggestions: NICKOLAI, with a shrug and a pie-struck look; the way one might look if one were to blow out a shallow breath to extinguish a candle, but find that one is short of breath. Or maybe the way a kid might look if he pushed an errant brick out of a wall and then saw the entire wall collapse in a pile of rubble. A cross between “Holy shit” and “I did not expect that” but also “whoa.” }

“Oh,” said Nickolai. 

Page 11: 

[Illustration suggestions: The IFRIT stands, arms open before NICKOLAI; he is at once conspiring and threatening. He is very close to the boy, leaning forward into NICKOLAI’S personal space and arching with wings. It is a proposition and an accusal. NICKOLAI is standing with his hands down, and perhaps his head and neck leaning back, to give room and recoil, but not stepping back to be rude.}

“By Names and spells I was made a slave and imprisoned in the flask, by a long ago king who was wise in the ways of magic. He grew rich and powerful from my labors. Now, I am free to return to the terrible City of Brass which is made of metal and its streets of fire. You have freed me.  You have broken my bonds when you opened my flask, so by the laws I must follow, I must grant you one boon, one WISH, before I quit this place and fly home.” 

The Ifrit leaned in close to Nickolai and it was like standing next to the iron stove in Winter when his father had many logs burning hot inside it. 

“Name for me your heart’s desire, boy, and by my powers, I shall give it to you,” said the Ifrit. 

Page 12: 

[Illustration suggestions: NICKOLAI is not scared or intimidated by the IFRIT, but is rather put on the spot by the circumstance and the prompt to make a request. This emotion should be held in mind when deciding on how to draw him. The IFRIT is now in professorial mode; still regal and commanding, but now no longer a threat. Think Yul Brenner in THE KING AND I. }

“Um,” said Nickolai, and he shrugged his shoulders, because he did not know what to ask for. 

“Be quick, Little Nickolai. Here, I will help you. Walk with me, and I will show you wonders. Do you wish for…

Page 13: 

[Illustration suggestions: As the IFRIT spins his suggestions, they can take form, perhaps, as misty images seen through a cloud he gestures at? Or integrated around and behind him? The idea is that as he speaks, NICKOLAI “sees” the possibility, but we are well aware that they are still in the forest, They may be walking now, in discussion, to change up the backgrounds, which maybe gradate from Forest to images summoned by the IFRIT’s words? Somewhere in that, by whatever visual scheme, a mine that shows overseers with whips and shackled workers, broken and supplicating, holding out raw jewels for approval is present. }

A deed that will make you the owner  to a far off mine of diamonds?  Each day, jewels are taken from the bones of the Earth by chained prisoners, all yours to command!  I can give this to you. Say the word, and I shall fetch it.  You will be wealthy for the rest of your days, and Lord and Master over them all.” 

Nickolai shook his head for “no,” because that sounded dreadful. 

Page 14: 

[Illustration suggestions: This suggestion shows YOUNG NICKOLAI the idea and image of GROWN NICKOLAI, at 19, in wicked armor and confident, but also ruthless. He holds an oversized rune-sword of obvious great power. Even though GROWN NICKOLAI in the vision is thin (but cool looking) he wields the blade easily and with a kind of scary arrogance, Castles and dragons and images suggesting battle and woe, glorious but dolorous as well– the great dragon pictured may be wounded or slain; fields of vanquished foes lying motionless on a battle-field, or other such things, giving the tone-feeling of the aftermath of conquest.}

“Power!  If you wish it, I know the secret place of the terrible sword named Gram!  It is  so sharp that it can cut anvils in two. Long did it sit, wounding the Tree of the Worlds, waiting to be drawn out by a doomed hero. Forged by old gods long dead, whoever holds the sword will be able to strike down his enemies by the tens and twenties. With it, you can slay dragons who have known life for a thousand years. Think of the glory, Nickolai. You will be their end, and all will know your name and all will fear you. Speak it, and it shall be yours!” 

Page 15: 

[Illustration suggestions: Back to NICKOLAI in the forest; if the IFRIT is seen at all, maybe it is over his shoulder. This illustration should be back to reality, so that the idea that the previous ones were spun-dream images is reinforced. NICKOLAI should look guileless and honest.}

“No, thank you, though,” said Nickolai, for he was a polite boy. Nickolai did not wish to cut down men by the tens or twenties, or kill dragons who had never bothered him. 

Page 16: 

[Illustration suggestions: The IFRIT is now insistent, spinning another image and suggestion. He smiles like a fox, for he is sure he has come up with the suggestion that will be taken, one for which no one can resist. The images summoned are of swooning girls; think the screaming crowds that met the Beatles. Maybe a shadow image of OLDER NICKOLAI from behind, so that we can see the back of the HELMET, but not his face– light rays, as like a drawing of the sun, could be emanating out, so we see the frantic and love-mad faces of the crowds of admirers?}

“Listen. For there is a magic helmet I know of.  Whoever wears it will seem to be the most handsome and beautiful of all. All will fall helplessly in love with you.  They will abandon all else to do what pleases you. Mothers would leave their children to serve you!  Brides on their wedding night would leave their true loves, all to love only you!  And you need not love them back, but that it pleases you. And when you are done with them, you may throw them away and have more! Tell me, Nickolai, will you wear this helmet?  For I can fetch it and have it on your head before you can blink.” 

Page 17: 

[Illustration suggestions: Back to NICKOLAI and THE IFRIT, this time a two-shot, from more of a distance. NICKOLAI is looking down, having just kicked a pebble into the brook. The IFRIT is is shrugging in maybe Shatner-esque shrug, like, “What do you WANT?”  with open palms? Or some kind of “this does not compute” gesture. He should not look menacing or scary here, even if he objectively IS by his design. The posture should disarm him at this point.}

Nickolai kicked a pebble into the brook. “No, I do not think that would be nice to do,” he explained. 

The Ifrit was confused. “You do not want any of these magnificent, terrible gifts? Oh, I am sad, Nickolai, for I am bound to grant you what you wish for, before I can go. You have freed me from my prison in the flask.  But my duty to the Great Laws keeps me here, waiting to know what you wish. Speak, boy. Tell me what you wish from me.” 

Page 18: 

[Illustration suggestions: NICKOLAI, extending the BALL that has resided in  homemade net up to now, to the IFRIT. Mabye a POV shot, emphasizing NICKOLAI’s smallness, and the act of reaching out, unsure but hopeful?}

Nickolai looked around and noticed it was getting to dusk, the sun was soon to set, and his supper would be hot and waiting for him.

“I, too, have to be home soon. But before I go… do you want to play catch with me?”

“Is it your wish that I play catch with you?”

“Well,” said Nickolai. “Only if you want to.”   

Page 19: 

[Illustration suggestions: No words. The IFRIT, caught in a look of wonder, bemusement, but maybe a viewer could confuse it with outrage or anger– at least menace; he should look scary but with a glint of dawning understanding in his eyes. A child looking at the illustration should have a moment of uncertainty as to whether the Ifrit will laugh, or eat Nickolai in the next moment. That’s the expression that needs to be caught.]

Pages 20 and 21: 

[Illustration suggestions: No words. a single splash page illustration across the open book of a silhouetted hillside, near sundown, with a BOY on one side, and a WINGED MONSTER on the other, capturing a gesture of play, as the circle of the ball is drawn in motion between them, with NICKOLAI throwing. This is the whole thing– this illustration IS THE BOOK, it has to be perfect– it has to evoke wonder and magic and boyhood and fun, but be bittersweet as well; an impossible moment that is magically made real, but cannot last– ET flying Elliot across the moon kind of thing– the colors of the sunset should be beautiful, but also suggest that it is soon to be changed to a different phase; this is a rosebud to be gathered while one may and all that.]

Page 22: 

[Illustration suggestions: NICKOLAI,  walking on a path. In the distance of the sky, the small shape of a winged creature can be seen heading toward the side of the page, and away. THE COTTAGE can be seen in the distance, at the end of the path, with cooking smoke rising from the chimney.]

The Ifrit was never seen by mortal men again. Nickolai walked home alone. 

He found his supper hot and waiting for him. 

Page 23: 

[Illustration suggestions: NICKOLAI’s darkened BEDROOM. He is safe and warm in bed, under the covers, and his FATHER stands at the partially open door, light spilling from the area into the room. The FATHER should be wise and good looking; adult but not old, and NICKOLAI’s room should have small details to suggest a happy place. Toys in a casual state of being abandoned mid-play, soon to be resumed- army figures stationed behind a small pile of books as a fort, a teddy bear on the ground, knocked over at an angle, an easel with a half complete drawing of a tiger, maybe? Again, nothing to firmly set a time of modernity– no video games or TVs, but nothing that says this room HAS to be in the fairy-tale past, either. .]

That night, his father asked him, “Nickolai, do you want me to tell you a story for bedtime?” 

But Nickolai, who had already had a story that day, said, “No thank you,” for he was a polite little boy. “I am tired from playing.” 

“Very well,” his father said, and as he shut the door he told him, “I love you so very much. I wish you sweet dreams, Nickolai.” 

And later that night, his father’s wish was granted, too. 

Page 24: 

[Illustration suggestions:The peaceful cottage at night. The moon hangs happily in the sky, which is a comforting dark-blue blanket spotted with a multitude of stars. Maybe an owl  in a nearby tree, and in another spot, far away, a tentative mouse, can be seen ]

Once there was a boy named Nickolai, and he was happy because he was loved. 

He lived in a cottage in the woods, and while his family was not wealthy, he did not want for much.

Page 25: 

[Illustration suggestions:No illustration. A blank white page with a single sentence.]

But a game of catch with a friend every now and again would be nice. 

The End

HOLIDAY Flashback, 2018

Hey, all! I’m re-starting my blog as a repository for general writing, thoughts, stories and things that get generally dispersed across different social media platforms, all to be lost, tears in the rain BLADE RUNNER style at some point.   To that end, a “Facebook Memory” surfaced from 2018, which read more as a blog post than anything else.  So I figure I’d rescue it from that stream and fix it here into the constellation of curated observations under my own banner.  

(Also, as a side note: December 2018 was the darkest month of my life and one that I very nearly did not emerge from. I’m sort of heartened, in reading this, to know that even when I was pretty much ready to leave the world, or at least pondering the exit, Hamlet quietus-and-bodkin style, my thoughts were still about seeing how things can and should be better for other people.)



So the other day, I was at the post office, picking up a roll of stamps. As this is the holiday season, the post office is pretty packed; a sizable line in front and behind me. Directly in front of me was an older lady. She was at that casual intersection of overweight and elderly that becomes a kind of de facto disability, and she had a series of packages. I offered to help her bring them to the desk, and she was appreciative and sweet in her thanks about it.

“Of course,” I said.  

The woman was in a worried and profusely apologetic state; she was unsure about how much it would be and what some zip codes were, and she kept on apologizing for being a bother and a pest and the girl that processed her packages was kind and helpful to her, smiling and reassuring all the while.

When her packages were all set, she thanked the postal worker girl, who was young and enthusiastic. The older lady was white and the postal worker was biracial, with a beautiful head of amazing hair, all natural and free.

The older lady said, “Dear, I just want to thank you. When I came in here, I was in such a panic, and I thought I’d be a nuisance, with all my questions, and you’d be annoyed with me and well, you just *couldn’t* have been more helpful!”  

The postal worker smiled warmly and said, “Oh, no worries at all, ma’am. Happy holidays!”  

The older lady, caught up in this moment of warm conviviality, having been happily assisted, without solicitation, by the young man behind her (that’s me!) and the pleasant young woman behind the counter, responded reflexively, with a genuine smile of her own, and said, “And happy holidays to you, too, dear!”  


I saw a look hit her face, as she heard her own words. It was like the face you might make if you bite into an apple and find it has gone mealy. Or the kind of involuntary twist of your facial muscles that happens if you put a fresh 9 volt battery to your tongue.   She then looked nervous, and knitted her brow into an arch and seemingly dared herself to push forth with a confrontational, “Merry CHRISTMAS!”

The way she said it, and spat it out, with a kind of “hmmff!!” nod at the end, and turned and then rushed (well, as much as she could, being old and wide and wobbly) out of the door, it was clear what inner monologue was occurring to her.  

It was a fair bet, upon first seeing this older lady to make assumptions about her TV viewing habits. This person was the prime market for the product FOX NEWS sells: a mix of feel-good virtue-signaling of flags-and-patriotism and victimhood and fear, where everywhere, good people are ASSAILED by the “War on Christmas” and immigrants and out-of-control liberals, hell-bent on turning everything gay and godless on her taxpayer dime.   But what struck me was how she was clearly also *naturally* not a bad or bitter, ugly or awful person. Just a little timid and afraid, but warm and gracious by reflex when met with kindness.  

The Bill O’Reillys and Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world are not doing this woman any favors. They’re making millions of dollars, selling her a vision of a hostile world of furious liberals, waiting to burn her bible and support terrorists, and to **RUIN** Christmas by making it ILLEGAL, or whatever madness they peddle.  

Here was this person, helped at every direction, having a pleasant series of interactions with everyone around her, who, upon a parting kindness, felt suddenly that she was **honor-bound** to her “friends” Sean Hannity and Rush and Lou Dobbs and whoever else to stand firm and strike a blow for Freedom and Liberty(TM). She was conditioned, and I stress— against her impulses– to see enemies everywhere. For the profit of fear-mongers. And for what gain?  

What’s more the pity is that she was specifically on the receiving end of the peace-on-earth and goodwill-towards-men that the season she has been taught to feel is under assault represents. Hers was the literal ONLY attack.

  They’ve weaponized and poisoned the phrase “Merry Christmas” into a contrarian and defiant poke in the eye. Sticking it to the libs.   But here’s a secret: no one has EVER, EVER been offended at being told “Merry Christmas.”  

Her recreational victimhood, the kind FOX sells to people like her, who may only really see the folks on the news more than they do real live people during the day, turned her ACTUAL warm and friendly acceptance from strangers into a hostile encounter, in her mind. She left that post office feeling like she had been FOOLED by the smiling girl, who had shown her “true colors” at the end, and her takeaway was negative.  

Merry Christmas, indeed.  

Epilogue: When I left (I was only buying a roll of stamps, remember, and I can walk faster than the lady) she was lowering herself into her car. Parked, without tags, in the handicapped spot.

And the back of her bumper were no less than 3 TRUMP/PENCE bumper stickers.   She has no idea she’d being used as a commodity, and getting the shitty end of the stick in the bargain. Now, whether she’s to be more pitied or despised is largely a question of your own nature.

Personally? If I saw that same car wrapped around a light pole a mile down the road, and an ambulance pulling out an unmoving body, I’d shrug and say, “That’s one more handicapped spot available for a person who comes by it more honestly.”

Better people than I would feel sorry for this woman, and the prison-planet she’s put herself into by buying into a worldview of fear and anger.  

Anyway, that’s my little tale for you today.  

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.



Here’s a long and sometimes rambling note to myself. TL; DR would be “What benefits a man if he gains the world but loses his soul? But also, don’t let assholes win.”

It is also an obituary of sorts, for my involvement with a family I realize I’m actually not a part of in any meaningful way. One of my last exchanges with an older cousin of mine was at my dad’s funeral/memorial party. He was never a deep or thoughtful person, but always determined. Sort of a Fortinbras, in the Hamlet sense: move forward, gain ground, don’t waste time with too much “what if?” It’s a good strategy, in a lot of ways. But not all ways.

I loved my cousin. When I was a kid, he and his brother treated me as a mascot, in the 3 or 4 times a year I’d see them. I was a precocious, tough kid, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of boxers when I was 6 or 7, so that was enough of a gimmick for them. I was a Hagler fan, he was for Duran.

Anyway, all the funny and loving, interesting and heartfelt testimonials to my dad put him in an unusually contemplative mood, such as it was for him. Here we were, now at the end of a life story which had a beginning and middle, and in the summarizing of the arc of it all, it moved even him to deeper waters of considering life and “what it all means.” He was largely a stranger to such contemplative moods. This served him well in his career and life– He decided upon goals and then met them. He had and has a very lucrative and admirable career in a very respected field. But when he attempted deep or meaningful thoughts, it was always awkward and embarrassing, but in a very specific way. His confidence was always such that he assumed his attempts at depth, rare though they were, were that much more precious and valuable for it, and that when he deigned to wax philosophical, it yielded wisdom and gravitas. But what emerged was always somewhere between farce and tragedy. Think Little Carmine Lupertazzi from THE SOPRANOS.

So, there at this gathering, with emotions running deep, I had just projected a video montage of my dad’s life. The video ended on a portrait of him as a young and beautiful man, after the music swelled, and the image moved from larger than life in the foreground, resolving itself into a composition of the portrait being a centered rectangle on a field of white, I had faded in the words: Joel Dobbin​: April 16, 1939- April 17, 2009. And then, under that, the words “Live like him.”

(An aside, before returning to my point: that bit, the “live like him,” I included as both a summation of my dad’s story and an echo and reference to a curious historical figure named Joshua Norton, who my dad had told me about when I was a boy. Norton was a businessman in San Francisco in the mid to late 1800s. He lost his life’s fortune when a ship he had invested in sunk, after following the conventional rules of chasing success. He was now a pauper. Norton decided that the sane, conventional path to “success” was a ridiculous illusion and altogether mad; that accepted the fiction of “reality” was only arrived at by a consensus of deluded people too afraid to admit they were all just making it up as they went along , so the only logical course of action was to create a reality that suited himself, and let the world get out of his way. He crowned himself Emperor of the United States, printed up his own currency, and issued proclamations as if it were all true. A magic thing happened, there in San Francisco: People loved him. He ate for free at the finest restaurants (giving out his own currency, which became collectible treasures that the owners would frame and display), his “proclamations” (many of them forward thinking and visionary, among the ridiculous) were published in all the newspapers. His funeral was attended by thirty thousand mourners. Mark Twain was one of his admirers. He was a real life Don Quixote whose non-fictional adventures and absurd stand for romantic meaning managed to beggar the imagination of fiction writers. The phrase “Live Like Him” was the title of poem/essay written about Norton, by a friend of my dad’s from his beatnik days, in an underground classic book/zine called “Principa Discordia.” It speaks to the triumphant nature of following one’s own noble, absurd, ridiculous, romantic and transcendent values, even when the world mocks them.)

So my cousin finds me, and we have a private moment. He is wistful. He says, “Josh, I’ve been thinking, I need to buy a boat. But I don’t know.”

I said, “Oh, I never knew you were a boat guy.”

“No, I’m not, but I’m at that stage now, where I *should* have a boat. It’s expected. I’ve got the second house, and all my colleagues are getting boats, it’s time for me, I think, too. But I don’t know. It’s strange. I don’t want one, but I feel like I need to get it. Maybe I shouldn’t?” He seemed sad about it. It was a dissatisfied feeling that was coming across.

I was in an odd headspace. I was burying my father, and this cipher of materialism, this android of monetary success was attempting to derive meaning out of all of it by wondering aloud as to the relative emotional value of purchasing a status-affirming symbol of having MADE IT. I looked at him with something approaching wonder and, in a cosmic sense, pity. But still. He seemed very small and silly to me, and I felt outside of myself, watching and listening to the conversation, as well as being involved in it.

“Well, these are good problems to have, I guess? I cannot exactly empathize; but, you know– do what makes you happy, is what I think I can tell you.”

It was then that the conversation, if possible, took a turn for the very strange. StrangER, in any case. With a half-kidding smile, he says, “You know, Josh. I’ve led a very disciplined life. I’ve done what I was supposed to do. I’ve met everyone’s expectations, I think. And I’m proud of that. I am. I’ve always done what was expected of me, what I expected of myself. I know I had some advantages, but I have always put my head down, and worked toward all my goals. And I’ve got a beautiful family, a successful career, the respect of my professional peers, an impressive home—”

“Potentially a needless boat,” I added, nodding in agreement in his assessment and tallying.

He nodded sagely, and concluded: “I think I deserve a mistress. I feel I’ve earned that.”

I laughed, thinking that he was hitting me with a dry punchline. I don’t even like jokes like that, though, both from a philosophical standpoint, and based on a kind of comedy-snobbery position: the “take my wife, please” bit is hack stuff, and it bores me to even hear others go through those motions to make jokes in that direction. “Men and women, they shop differently, amirite, fellas?” It’s tired and stale.

I clapped him on the shoulder, said his name, and, in warm way, said, “C’mon, don’t even joke like that. Your wife is amazing, your whole story together is nothing but sweet, that’s not even funny, we all know this.”

But I said it, too, to sort of lead him to a conclusion of the conversation, and to signal I wasn’t the audience for this joke, especially now. It’s funny (not funny ha-ha, but, you know, funny), but when you’re mourning, you often must accommodate and comfort those people who seek to comfort you, by assuring them that their accommodation and attempts at comfort and bonding, “moment-having,” are successful.

Because that’s really what they want out of the exchange, more often than not; not to reassure, but to be reassured that they are reassuring, if that makes sense. It isn’t that people don’t mean every “So sorry for your loss,” they do. Or they, mean it as much as they can, and they want to know that you heard them. It is a strange dance. It is comforting, in a way that becomes very meta: you must comfort those seeking to comfort you that you are comforted by their comfort, which in reality offers very actual comfort. And in assuming that caretaker role for the caretakers, you DO feel a little better, in that you must temporarily put your grief  on a shelf to manage the politics of the situation with handshakes, eye contact and nods. It is not a fake, but the participation in the simulation of genuineness is, itself, genuine. It is as Joseph Campbell put it : one “joyfully participates in the sorrows of the world.”

And, as a mourner, I found I did not begrudge people that. Not at all. In fact, I know I had been on the other end of that exchange, many times. My grief was profound enough that I had empathy for everyone’s attempts at the impossible; there’s a noble futility to it all. A Don Quixote tilting at a windmill, or even an Emperor Norton quality to the endeavor.  This is what we do in the face of death. It’s all a part of the ritual, and if you live long enough, you play all the parts. One day, you’ll play the part of the dead. There’s a zen awareness of that, in those moments.

But here I was, in this Jesus-Buddha-Krishna mindset, feeling both apart from this interaction, and a part of it, and watching it all from a third person camera floating a little above in addition to seeing it all through my eyes. I was thankful that my cousin came. I was mindful of the ocean of time navigated by all parties, to get to this moment; the Thanksgiving dinners, the Seder tables, the years gone by. But still in all, they had led me here, to listen to his existential musings on whether a boat or an affair would be his next project. He continued, jokingly, but also, and I stress this: not jokingly. There was a smile, there was a laugh, but there was also the acknowledgement that these were thoughts in his head.

“No, I’m very serious.”

Me, shaking my head in an “oh, you rascal” fashion, politically and politely protesting, “stop!” with a simulated laugh, for his benefit.

“Listen. These are the facts. I’ve been very measured and never indulged in my own desires. I’ve provided a good life for my family, I love them. I love my wife, but I think I deserve this; I’ve kept in shape, I’m pushing fifty. I think I should probably have a brief affair with a young, attractive person. That’s only fair, right? It befits a man of my station. I should have a nice mistress. I’ve never had one! That’s already an accomplishment. I think I’ve finally earned one.”

Again, there was a sly smile, which could indicate plausible deniability, but a part of me really understood, on a soul-deep level: This was as soul-deep as he ever got. And the smile was not extending all the way to his eyes. Was he ever going to have the affair? Probably not. I think he’d run a cost/benefit analysis on the idea, and come to the conclusion that it was probably more risk than he’d be willing to entertain.  I tried to pity him, there in the moment. It mostly succeeded.

I ended the exchange by referencing the character of Dr. Gonzo from Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, more for the benefit of the ongoing TV show I conduct in my head, following my own adventures through life like a sit-com and said, “As your attorney, I advise you to go with the boat.” drgonzo

I thought long and hard about that exchange for a while. There was always a fiction to my extended family. My dad was the odd man out; he was brilliant and passionate, firey and well-read. He had adventures. He rebelled against his parents’ fearful status-based world-view. He fought in Korea at 19. He hung out with the Beats in San Francisco and Baltimore. He handled reptiles for a living at the Bronx Zoo. He had a TV show in the 70s and was a minor local celebrity; he worked a 300 head of cattle dairy farm. He drove a cab. He ended his career of having careers as a Master Sargent in the Air Force, of all places. And throughout all of it, he had the sweetest, most enduring, 40 year love story with my mother, who he prized and loved beyond all else that ever was. She allowed him to be this poet-warrior-improbable-heroic figure to the rest of the world, because he always had her, and she always had him.

It seemed a violation, to me, of the sacrosanct nature of that dynamic, which my cousin really did not (and could not) understand, that this conversation took place, there at my father’s memorial party. But I felt like it, too, was a part of a larger narrative.

And in that moment, I honestly held that I was protective of my cousin, older and far more successful though he was. When he departed that night, I hugged him and I thought, “Oh, you poor thing.” It will come as no surprise, then, that we would drift apart, as islands of a once more connected family. After our grandmother and great uncle died, the overlapping Venn Diagrams of filial obligation to meet for keystone holidays stopped overlapping, and life goes on, oblah de oblah da, and all that. Still in all, for me, those Seders, those Thanksgiving, those shared moments and mutual ties meant something. I loved them. I honestly did.

I do used the past tense advisedly. Because love looks like is should be a noun, but in reality, it is a verb. It is a dynamic, and it is dialectical. Love is an interplay, and a participation. All love, every love; family love, romantic love, love of country, whatever. I loved the idea of them, when they were a real idea. Inasmuch as it served them, in their moment, they may have loved me, loved my mother, loved my dad. But we have different givens, I come to realize.

Since that moment, there in the corner of a shared space where we told Joel Dobbin stories and laughed and cried,  I have witnessed that part of the family largely abandon my mother, paying initial lip service to her as a member, but eventually, by inches, and with no watershed moment, arrive at a place miles distant and transform her into a vestigial organ that becomes wholly removed from consideration.  Out of sight and out of mind. They stopped with even the pretense of keeping up contact, with no fight or argument. Perhaps a perceived slight existed, and was used as a rationalization to eventually remove her from the literal and metaphorical mailing list of life. I don’t know. My mother used to call, once a week, every week to her sister-in-law. Eventually, the calls stopped being returned. No real reason. Or at least, none given.

I also realize I no longer care if there even was a stated reason, there amongst themselves.

I found out by accident the other day that my uncle, this cousin’s father, died. In 2014. Two years ago. They never felt it necessary to send word. There’s a line one does not uncross. It has the finality of death as its signet ring, pressing into the hot wax, on the agreement to never truly be family. It makes me wonder on the nature of family. Is it all a temporary fiction? Were they EVER truly “family?” What does that word mean, in that context? Are they family now? By any meaningful definition, it would appear not. What does it all mean?

I’m not sure. But it has made me think and consider things. If it can be truthfully said that this cousin, in the end total, when his life and days are finally numbered and ended, suffered from a lack of too much thought,  to his detriment, I can cop to the opposite.  I find that I think too much and do too little.

So here, at long last, is where I’ve arrived, in putting these thoughts down in something resembling cohesion, in order to examine them, and see what I can make from it all: For all my high-minded thoughts and ponderings, there is value in sitting down and doing THE WORK. When I consider the figure of this person in my life, who I once loved and looked up to, it’s not all “a pox on your house!” I still admire much of the determined nature of his approach to things. It gets things done. But without thought about what those things getting done mean, they are, by definition, I think, meaningless.

I suffer a malady of too much meaning, and not enough action. Today, in examining all this and seeing where it leads me, I announce to myself : I end it. I have written a novel that, by rights, in a just and fair world, should be a Newbery Award winning classic.  But this is not a just and fair world, and the only people who achieve in it are those who put their heads down and move forward, and make their “success” happen. Today I vow to push everywhere I may to make this book a real book in the hands and shelves of real people. Not to go out like the CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES dude. Or Melville.

Today I vow to complete the other novels I’ve begun and abandoned, and the others still within me. Hamlet may be the protagonist of the play, but that sorry sum’bitch lies dead on the stage along with everyone else, all for his indecision and over-thinking. (Sorry, spoilers for HAMLET.)  You know who isn’t dead at the end of HAMLET? Is that conquering asshole, Fortinbras, who never even bothered to show up on stage!



Today I vow to throw myself into every project I need to complete, and once completed, to do my best to make them “successes,” in the crass, material way that that word gets thrown around. Money can’t buy you love, the Beatles were correct on that score. But you do need it to keep the lights on. When that time comes around for me, I’d like to be ABLE to buy that boat, but to have no regrets in never wanting it, and to be very happy and content with the actual family I love.

Now I leave this keyboard to go get some things done. Wish me luck.

There is No Spoon or Dress. How to React to THE DRESS.


You are presented with a choice. A series of choices, honestly, with the recent distraction of the color-changing dress that has taken the Internet by storm like a Grumpy-Cat-Star-Wars-Kid-Bill-Cosby-Meme-Uma-Thurman-Did-Something-To-Her-Face blitzkrieg of complete and total but absolutely momentary domination.

You can do the following things.


Are you team WHITE AND GOLD or team BLUE AND BLACK? Joyfully hurl invective at any and all who claim to be on the opposite team. Enjoy smug, self-satisfaction at being right.


“I don’t know what you fools are talking about. The dress is blue and gold.” You know better than both camps. Enjoy smug, self-satisfaction of being right.


This is the predictable “serious man” reaction. You will see it A LOT today. Stand apart from it all and decry the sad and sorry state of humanity and its propensity for distraction from pressing and urgent issues, and  declare the end of civilization, with you as the only voice of reason. Let it be know that you possess the cold scalpel of logic and reason that cuts away frivolity and understands, with grim sadness, how hopeless everyone (but you!) is.

Enjoy smug, self-satisfaction of being right.

There is a fourth choice.


I know. WTF? Who has time foe that? This choice is hard and requires thought. But not to worry, someone has already done the heavy lifting for you. Here’s Robert Anton Wilson, miraculously talking about the phenomenon of this dress and our reaction to it, and our reaction to everything else, even though he’s been dead for many years. Maybe, just maybe, see a phenomenon and try to know why it is captivating in a way that assumes the best about your fellow man. Here’s Wilson, on the dress, from beyond the grave:

“Long before quantum mechanics, the German philosopher, Husserl, said that “All perception is gamble.”

Every type of bigotry, every type of racism, sexism, prejudice, every dogmatic ideology that allows people to kill other people with a clear conscience, every stupid cult, every superstition, written religion, every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles.

We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think that this is reality. In philosophy that is called naïve realism. “What I perceive is reality.” And philosophers have refuted naïve realism every century for the last twenty-five hundred years starting with Buddha & Plato, and yet most people still act on the basis of naive realism.

Now the argument is maybe my perceptions are inaccurate but somewhere there is accuracy. The scientists have it with their instruments. That’s how we can find out what’s really real. But relativity and quantum mechanics have demonstrated clearly that what you find out with instruments is true relative only to the instrument you are using and where that instrument is located in space-time.

So there is no vantage point from which real reality can be seen, we are all looking from the point of our own reality tunnels. And when we begin to realize that we are all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels, we find it is much easier to understand where other people are coming from. Or, the ones who don’t have the same reality tunnels as us do not seem ignorant or deliberately perverse or lying or hypnotized by some mad ideology. They just have a different reality tunnel, and every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world, if we are willing to listen.”


You’d think I’d be all, “Choice 4!” right? Nah. Number 3 for me. That thing is blue and gold, I don’t know what you lunatics are going on about.