Death of a Year (Part 1 of 2)

Catchy title, eh? 😉

But in all seriousness, I’ve had to deal with a death in the family this week. One of my wife’s aunts passed a few days back and today is her funeral. Death and I aren’t strangers, by any means. And given my background, past, and natural degree of curiosity about such things, I’ve been exposed to it on a regular basis for quite some time. My first up-close encounter with it came when I was just a boy and delivering papers along my route one morning. As I came down the street, I found the body of one of my customers laying on a lawn with a knife literally jutting out of his chest. According to the police, he must have surprised a burglar and they’d simply killed him and dumped his body across the street from his house. It was a jarring, abrupt wake-up call for a young boy who up until that point had only seen death as played out in the pages of comic books or in TV or films. It had a lasting impression on my life.

I was fortunate that early morning that my older sister was with me. Three years my senior, Cheryl and I nevertheless stood there, unsure of what we should do next. It was extremely early and no one else seemed to be awake. Then we heard the sound of metal on metal from somewhere down the street. I could just make out another of my customers outside working on his truck. Cheryl and I ran down yelling for him to come and help us. Breathless, we explained the situation and while he seemed incredulous, he finally relented and followed us back to the dead body. When we arrived, he stood there for a moment, staring at the corpse.

Then, without saying a single word, he simply turned around and walked back to his house as if he had seen nothing.

Death wasn’t the only thing I got exposed to that day.

Cowardice was the other.

Within the space of perhaps thirty minutes, I realized several things. The first was that death is never far. It can come at any time, from any direction, from any source – even when the morning sun spills peacefully across a fresh dewy dawn and all the world seems alive. The second was that most people live in fear and they allow that fear to rule their lives utterly and completely – even when they claim to do exactly the opposite. They live in fear of not doing what society suggests they ought to do; they live in fear of offending others (even when others routinely walk all over them); they live in fear of being seen as an upstart or someone who doesn’t go with the flow; they live in fear of failing if they try something new. They live in fear of death and as a result, they live in fear of life.

Ten years ago, my wife’s aunt suffered a mild heart attack. It was about as mild as you can get with a myocardial infarction. But instead of using that event to propel her on to make changes in her life, or live with more zeal, my wife’s aunt used it as an excuse to give up utterly and completely. Since that time, she chose to lay in bed at her home, insisting she need 24-hour care. She lay in that bed for ten years doing absolutely nothing except collecting bed sores and bed pans. She simply started rotting away. She had ten years of life and she wasted them. How many terminally ill people would hope they had such time? How much living could someone who appreciated life pack into that decade?

Death is with us every day and in every manifestation. How many people do you know who have let their dreams die because they reached a certain age and thought, “well, I’m supposed to have a regular job, a house, two kids, and an ulcer by now”? How many people do you know who let their love of life die because they have become cheap, miserly souls who can only talk about how much money they save or how many coupons they cut or how little they spend on Christmas presents? How many people do you know whose souls die a little more each day because they lack the courage to try to attain something more than “good enough?” Mediocrity, excuses, cowardice, a lack of accountability, negativity, and an inability to be honest are all aspects of death that we see every day and in many of the very people we surround ourselves with.

So the question is: which person are you? Are you already dying inside? Have you given up? Have you settled? Have you forgotten how to live? Have you forgotten that money is just that, and that clinging to it like a life preserver only deprives you of enjoying life or seeing the joy on someone else’s face when you deliver a great gift unto them? Have you forgotten the family you once swore unyielding loyalty to? Have you forgotten those who have always had your back, helped you, or supported you when things were tough? Have you forgotten yourself – your true self – because now you have a mate and their identity has overcome your own? Have you shed dreams? Have you wrapped yourself in a cloak of negativity and cynicism, forever cutting down new ideas and innovation? Have you cast aspersions on those who continue to live? Do you derive humor and pleasure from spotlighting the misery of others?

We’ll talk some more tomorrow…and don’t worry, things get more pleasant from here! 🙂

Side note: The Madagascar Matter, a new serialized Lawson Vampire adventure, debuts in the first week of the new year and delivers a chapter each week over the course of 2010. It’s by subscription only, however, which means you’ll have to sign up in order to travel back in time with Lawson and his former mentor Zero to the early 1980s in Africa. You can do so by clicking the order form below:

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Christmas Round-Up

I hope you all had a truly wonderful holiday – mine was very nice indeed. It was an official “white” Christmas around here with several inches of the flaky stuff sitting on the ground to add to the festive mood. With the lights on at night, things looked quite nice. Christmas Eve was spent in Lowell at my sister’s house for the traditional Italian feast. This year it was gnocchi and homemade meatballs with the family’s secret sauce recipe. Great stuff. The smell of homemade pasta and sauce is one I never get tired of, since growing up it was omnipresent at my grandmother’s house whenever we would visit. Christmas Day, the family and I flew to Zurich and then drove to our chalet in the Swiss Alps where we overindulged in goose and lots of other goodies. You can see the pictures over on my Facebook Page.

Actually we weren’t in Switzerland; we were in Marshfield, but my sister-in-law’s house looks like a chalet and the backdrop really added to the vibe, lol…

We did have a very nice time, however, and I got to spent more time with my god-daughter Kiley, who is pretty much the most preciously adorable bundle of joy on the planet.

2009 is winding down now, and in its wake the remnants of an up-and-down year disappear slowly under the waves. I don’t ever spend much time looking back and wishing that certain things were different. To me, that’s a bit of a waste of time. I prefer to focus ahead at the prow cutting through the waves, figure out what it is that I want to accomplish in the new year and then steer the ship so that I meet the challenges head-on. I don’t usually indulge in any “best of” lists or spend time thinking of the “top ten things I wish my genitalia had done in 2009” because I’m too busy looking toward the future I want to create and figuring out how to implement steps necessary NOW to make it happen. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t digress and waste your time with yet another list. 🙂

So what IS on the horizon for 2010? Lots, baby. Lots.

January kicks off with a bang. The Madagascar Matter, a new serialized Lawson Vampire adventure, debuts in the first week of the new year and delivers a chapter each week over the course of 2010. It’s by subscription only, however, which means you’ll have to sign up in order to travel back in time with Lawson and his former mentor Zero to the early 1980s in Africa. You can do so by clicking the order form below:

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Otherwise, there will be much more Lawson Vampire news. THE FIXER is coming, of course, and with it, a lot of other Lawson goodness. HELLstalkers is also finally getting ready to launch, so Joe Nassise and I will have mucho news on that front as well. As usual, I’m extremely optimistic about the coming twelve months. Life is exciting, unpredictable, and glorious. I hope you all take the time to revel in the fact that we’re all hurtling through the universe together and that each of us has the power to make our own lives an example of goodness, generosity, compassion, and bold action. The world has too many lazy, cheap, selfish, negative “people” only out for themselves, forsaking family and stranger alike as they trundle through life never truly experiencing joy, only the illusion of supposed personal gain acquired at the expense of those who used to love them.

Don’t be like that.

Take this time to reflect and imagine how you can turn 2010 into a year of adventure, action, and unbridled enthusiasm for everything that life has to offer. Banish complacency and laziness from your world.

Who Dares Wins.

THE MADAGASCAR MATTER – Sneak Preview of Chapter One

Special Holiday Note: If you want to give this as a Holiday gift, please let me know on the order form below and we’ll work together to customize a nice notification for the recipient! A year’s worth of Lawson excitement for under ten bucks!


I flew into Antananarivo at 9pm on Tuesday night after having bounced my way across half the world from where I’d been previously in Edmonton, Alberta.  When I left, the cold weather of the Canadian winter saw me off in temperatures of twenty below.  Landing, the pilot informed us that the current temperature in the capital city of Madagascar was a balmy eighty-five and humid.

I traveled light.  It was a habit drilled into us back in the Academy.  Less baggage means you can move quicker, skirt customs lines, and get out of the airport as fast as possible.  My instructors always harped on the fact that airports were too confining.  If shit went down, the last thing you wanted was a gun battle between you and your target amid a hundred security types all looking for an excuse to finally fire their issue sidearm.

My passport was French and the official who glanced at it and broke into a toothy grin.  “Bon soir, M’sieur.”

I smiled back.  “Bon soir.”

He glanced through the passport, but I didn’t worry.  The Council wouldn’t dream of supplying their active Fixers with anything but a legitimate passport.  Mine came right from the central passport office in Paris, crafted with care by a French vampire who then forwarded it on to the Council, knowing very little of who would be using it and why, only that for all intents and purposes of this assignment, my home residence was in St. Germain-des-Pres, which worked out well since the place was filled with jazz clubs and I was on a major Dexter Gordon kick anyway.

The customs official stamped my passport and handed it back to me.  I smiled.  “Merci.

De rien.”

I walked out of the airport and into the thick soup of humid night air.  I took a breath and glanced around.  Zero had mentioned there would be a contact by the taxi stand.  I made my way over and watched a line of beat up Datsuns undulate like an inchworm as each segment scooped up a passenger and then disengaged from the rest of the line.

“You’re late.”

I knew the voice and couldn’t help the smile that broke out over my face.  “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Didn’t I tell you there’d be a contact?”

I nodded.  Zero looked relaxed, his bald head gleamed in the glow of the yellow light bulbs overhead.  “Yeah, but I thought you were in London.”

“I was.  Now I’m here.”  He led me away from the taxi line by my arm and we walked toward the parking lot.  “We’ve got plenty to discuss.”

“Like why there are two of us on this op.”

Zero nodded.  “This one goes back, my friend.  Back a lot longer than anything in recent memory.”

“How far?”

Zero pointed up ahead at a Range Rover.  Whenever you had to drive in a third world country, there was nothing better.  “We can talk inside.  Too many ears in these parts.”

I glanced around but couldn’t make out anything despite my excellent night vision.  But I trusted Zero with my life and if he said there were listeners out there, that meant we stayed mum until it was safe to do otherwise.

Zero approached the Range Rover and reached up into the wheel well.  His hand came out a moment later with the magnetic case.  He took the key out, unlocked the door and slid inside, reaching over to unlock my door.  The interior of the car was humid and hot.  “How’d you wrangle this?”

He shrugged.  “Council set it up.  Had someone swing by earlier and park it here.”

“I’m already impressed with the level of involvement here.  What the hell’s going on?”

Zero started the engine and turned on the radio.  A nightly news program in Malagassy, one of the official languages in Madagascar, poured out of the speakers.  “We ride into town tonight and first thing in the morning, we have our first meeting.”

“With who?”

Zero placed his hands on the steering wheel.  “Guy who knows how to find the man we’re looking for.”

The way Zero’s forehead creased concerned me.  I’d been on my own now for almost ten years.  Zero’s sudden reappearance on a mission had me wondering what was going on.

He glanced over and grinned.  “You haven’t screwed up, if that’s what you’re thinking, Lawson.”

“I’m not sure what to think.”

“Been a while since we last worked together, hasn’t it?”

“I thought I was through with the apprentice thing.”

He nodded.  “You are.  This has nothing to do with your proficiency at completing assignments.  It has everything to do with the rather unorthodox nature of this assignment.”

The adventure starts in January 2010 – one chapter each week throughout the year – one amazing event. Exclusively from Jon F. Merz, delivered direct to your email, Kindle, or smart phone.

Secure your copy now by ordering below – the adventure begins in a few short weeks!

Special Holiday Note: If you want to give this as a Holiday gift, please let me know on the order form and we’ll work together to customize a nice notification for the recipient! A year’s worth of Lawson excitement for under ten bucks!

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THE MADAGASCAR MATTER – A New Serialized Lawson Adventure!

In 2006, I was the first professional author to partner with and write a serialized fiction piece for them over the course of one month. THE COURIER found thousands of readers and new fans for Lawson. Now, I’m extending the excitement from one month to one year! I’ve spoken about this exciting tale for some time now, and here at last is your chance to get THE MADAGASCAR MATTER, a brand new serialized Lawson Vampire adventure!

A nefarious plan for genocide.

An enemy every bit his equal.

An outcome he could never imagine.

In the dense jungles and high savannahs of the island nation of Madagascar, Lawson and his former mentor Zero must track down a rogue Fixer intent on unleashing a plot that will forever upset the Balance itself between humans and vampires. Amid the sweltering heat and humidity, Lawson and Zero must contend with lethal predators, betrayal, and a sinister evil thought dead for over three decades.

Journey back to the early 1980s with Lawson, on a mission that helped establish his reputation as the ultimate Fixer operative.

The adventure starts in January 2010 – one chapter each week throughout the year – one amazing event. Exclusively from Jon F. Merz, delivered direct to your email, Kindle, or smart phone.

Secure your copy now by ordering below – the adventure begins in a few short weeks!

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Too Many Jonin in the Kitchen (Warning: Rant)

In the Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu martial lineage I study, there were traditionally three levels of actual “ninja”: field operatives (the agents on the ground who actually carried out missions) were known as genin, middle-level cut-outs (the handlers who conveyed orders from the top-level to the field agents) were called chunin, and the master strategists who saw the big picture were known as jonin.  This three-tiered system was used for several reasons.  From a security standpoint, it was essential that there be cut-outs between field operatives (usually the most at-risk personnel for capture) and the leaders in charge of overseeing large-scale operations (terrorist cells routinely use this method as well).  But from another perspective, this three-tiered system was used for a very simple reason: not everyone is cut-out to be a leader – especially a leader who might well be sending operatives out to potentially die in the name of the mission or the security of the grander family.

Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.  A lot of folks want to believe that they have what it takes to lead; that they have the determination and know-how combined with the ability to see things on a grander scale that would make them leadership material.  But leadership isn’t necessarily something to crave.  And more often than not, the very best leaders are those who have found the mantle thrust upon them, rather than aspiring to assume it.  Cincinnatus, the famed Roman leader was a former aristocrat forced to live as a farmer who answered the call when his nation needed him most.  Once his duty was done, he returned to farming – completely abdicating absolute power and authority for a much humbler existence.  Desiring to be a leader and all that it entails is a very serious decision, not to be undertaken lightly by anyone.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily have active ninjutsu intelligence networks, but the concept remains very similar with regards to progression through ranks.

When I started my training about twenty years back, certain things were expected of an enthusiast – especially one aspiring to be accepted by what was a very close-knit group of hardcore practitioners.  You were expected to show up and train – hard – as much as possible.  Three times a week for several hours of training per session was the norm (we would have all trained more if we’d had a dedicated training space, but we took what we could get).  Ranks were doled out sparingly.  You had to prove that you not only knew the material for each rank, but that you knew how to use it, while simultaneously understanding that the rank was merely a waypoint, merely one means of gauging aptitude.  And true mastery was an elusive goal far off decades in the future, possibly not even attainable in this lifetime.  In other words, the journey itself was the reward – not the embroidered black belt hovering on the fringes of one’s dreams.  We all knew that a belt or a rank didn’t mean squat if we couldn’t use the techniques when it mattered on the street or elsewhere in our lives.

I don’t point to the past and say, “I wish it was like that still.”  Far from it.  It is the nature of life that things evolve.  And it’s foolish to desire for things to be the way they once were – especially for a ninjutsu practitioner who is supposed to understand, perhaps more than most, the role of nature’s unfolding dynamic within the universe.  Ninjutsu practitioners are supposed to evolve as their environment changes.  We adapt.  And we prosper no matter the circumstance, no matter the obstacles or challenges.  Our training prepares us to anticipate surprise, expect the unseen, and persevere in order to succeed.

That said, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately.  The same sense of ridiculous entitlement that pervades a great deal of modern society, now seems to be infecting the ranks of an art I hold dear.  It’s become commonplace for a practitioner to gain a black belt and immediately think they are now worthy of becoming a jonin of their training group, or even a full dojo.  Gone is the humility that should accompany any worthy leader, replaced by this sense that they know better than those who have gone before them.  Gone is the heavy burden of responsibility that any true teacher shoulders, understanding as they do that their actions, speech, and even thoughts can adversely affect the lives of those who look up to them.

Instead, many of those who gain rank now immediately set out to prove their worth and value by setting up shop and proclaiming themselves master.  Their sole estimation of personal worth is measured by how many students they can mislead – whether through malicious intent or blind ignorance of their inability and an ego that masks a tremendous sense of insecurity.  They know longer view themselves as warriors on a path toward personal betterment.  They are “masters” who know it all.

In reality, they are deluded.  At best.  At worst, they are dangerous.  Any type of leadership role carries with it the potential to do untold harm toward those who look up at you.  In this case, a supposed teacher who has not taken the time to continue his own training and clean out his own reservoir of insecurity, becomes a destructive force to the fragile student blindly seeking knowledge from what they believe is a qualified source.

In New England, my teacher Mark Davis at The Boston Martial Arts Center is the most qualified teacher and source for Ninjutsu.  Mark has been studying for three decades both here in the US and abroad in Japan, has never stopped studying, and is the epitome of what a teacher should be.  He works to perfect himself while making sure his students have what they need to become potentially even better practitioners than he is.  When I met Mark, I’d come from a tradition where we addressed the teacher as “sensei.”  Mark insists we call him Mark.  It’s not some silly thing to be casually dismissed, but a reminder that Mark is still on the path with us, not lording over us from some exalted position on high.  He may be further along and have had countless experiences we have not yet had, but he is still learning, still working, still training, and he sees the big picture.  In short, he’s a true jonin.  (Mark will no doubt deny this and I will simply say that denial only reinforces my point, lol)

Aside from Mark, there is Ken Savage at The Winchendon Martial Arts Center who is Mark’s seniormost student, a fantastic teacher and jonin in his own right, and a person I’m proud to call one of my most-trusted friends.  Ken reflects all of the good things I mentioned above.  His own dojo has been a long time coming; Ken took his time setting things up because he wanted to do it properly.  There’s a lot I’m deliberately leaving unsaid in that comment because I hope some of the folks who will read this actually re-read that simple statement and reflect on whether they’ve done things properly..

I have two other friends and fellow practitioners I would send people to train with.  In Paul Etherington’s case, he doesn’t yet have his own dojo.  But Paul embodies that same virtues that Mark and Ken do.  He’s a phenomenal practitioner and he was the first person I trained with in this art.  Paul teaches at Mark’s school in Boston and his classes are incredible.  Dennis Mahoney is another friend who runs Shinobi Martial Arts in Plaistow, New Hampshire.  Dennis has been around for years and still makes the commute into Boston most Friday nights for advanced training – he’s not complacent and understands that his role of teacher demands that he continue to improve his technique.

That’s it.

(For the astute, you’ll get what I’m saying here.  You can stop reading now.)

For those in need of the blunt:  If you’re training with someone else in New England, you are not getting what you need as a practitioner.  And the fact is, there shouldn’t even be another school or training group operating at this point.  Why?  Because there’s no one else qualified to teach.  Doesn’t matter if they’re a first degree black belt or a fifth.  The four people mentioned above are it.  And anyone operating a group or dojo should haul their butts back to Boston and make sure their own stuff is sorted before they go traipsing about proclaiming themselves “teacher” or “jonin” or whatever other label they want to throw around.  Right now, there are supposed teachers telling people they should be black belts when they are not remotely qualified to make that sort of proclamation.  The people they’re telling these things to then get upset and wonder why they haven’t been promoted.  This is an example of someone who shouldn’t be teaching (but thinks they are qualified) virtually destroying a practitioner’s life.  And rather than accept responsibility for it, they back away and hide.  It’s a horrible development and it only underscores the simple fact that there are too many people wanting to be jonin when they’re barely able to function as genin.  So get your shit straight, drop the plans to launch your DVD series, and get your ass back into the dojo in Boston so you can learn from the source: Mark Davis.