RIP, Erik "Possum Man" Stewart

Erik "Possum Man" Stewart was one of my oldest, dearest friends. He died last week, of a sudden and freak cerebral hemorrhage. It happened while he slept, and his housemates found him the next day, appearing peaceful and not distressed. The coroner believes that his death was instant.

Possum was the epitome of happy mutanthood. We were roommates off and on for more than a decade, and in that time, I was privileged to get a front-row seat for many of his delightful and odd experiments and outlooks. For one thing, he was obsessed with multidimensional space. From a very early age, he worked out a system for visualizing up to seven spatial dimensions. The system was very intuitive for him, less so for everyone else. He decided that the way to convey it would be through simple games that ramped up from 3D to 4D and onward. Back in the 1980s, he spent hours grinding away at his 386, writing an assembler and C program to run a 4D Pong. For a while, he worked at porting this to the Newton (I forget what it was about Newtons that made them seem appropriate for this project, but he had a reason -- he always had a reason). The project popped up, off and on, for many years.

Possum juggled. He made stereoscopes. After reading Understanding Comics, he became an avid creator of comics. He tried at one point to train his eyes to focus independently (because he wanted to be able to walk and read a book at the same time while paying attention to both), but gave it up when the optometrist ordered him to. He was accomplished at yoga, relished communal living, and was consumed with the idea of democratic, unstructured learning.

I met Possum at SEED alternative school in Toronto, where he was studying a wide variety of subjects, many of which he excelled at (he was often engaged in courses that he had no natural aptitude for, because pursuing that sort of thing made for a great challenge). He refused all grades and credits for his work, and eventually finished there and "graduated" while refusing a diploma as well. Quantifying learning cheapened it. The idea that one can become a 100 percent master of anything nontrivial is absurd on its face.

Possum went on to co-found the AnarchistU project, a radical peer-education system wherein prospective teachers propose a course by posting readings and lectures to a wiki, and prospective students edit the wiki with the teacher until it gets to something they all want to participate in, then they find a room and start meeting. Everyone I've met in the AnarchistU orbit loves it, and Possum doted on it.

More than anything else, Possum was absolutely fearless. He was totally unafraid of seeming foolish or ridiculous, and was able to laugh along with other people when one of his experiments went comically awry. It wasn't that Possum didn't care about what other people thought -- he was one of the most compassionate people I've ever known -- but his own sense of self-worth wasn't based on what other people thought of him.

Possum was a glorious and frustrating conversationalist. Not being afraid of seeming stupid, he would cheerfully question anything you said that he didn't understand. He didn't seem to mind detours. He wasn't talking with you to get somewhere: he was talking to find out where he would get to. Any conversation with Possum Man was conducted on a narrow ledge over a deep chasm of meta, and at any given moment, he might happily plunge off the ledge, wearing wings he'd fashioned from wax and feathers, and take you with him for a swoop.

All of Possum's friends are in a state of shock, as is his family. He is being cremated, and the family has planned a celebration of his life in Toronto for June 27. We will gather to remember him at 2PM at the Mount Pleasant Visitation Centre, on the east side of Mount Pleasant cemetery. I've bought my plane ticket. A good many of Possum's friends are Boing Boing readers. If you know some of the people whose lives were touched by Possum, please pass this on to them.

Don Hutton, another of Possum's friends, set up this site as a place where photos and remembrances of Possum can be posted.

Goodbye Possum. Thank you for a lifetime of friendship, challenge, and inspiration. You juggled flaming torches at our housewarming party and we learned to scuba dive together. I never saw you angry, and I never saw you compromise on a matter of principle. There was never another like you.


  1. There was an impromptu wake for him on the weekend.  About 70 people showed up from about a dozen disparate subcultures.  Not one person could think of a single instance when he had been less than a gentleman: in the literal sense of the word.  No matter what your age, no matter how complicated your gender-identity, no matter what your politics, regardless of your technical skills or lack thereof – he treated you as a peer and an equal.

    Literally not a day has gone by since his death when his friends have not found more of his friends and colleagues in communities and fields which we had no idea he was  a guru in.

      1. It was held in Trinity Bellwoods; during the rainy bit people were under the overhang of a building, and then the sun came out for the rest of the gathering.  I’m sorry you missed it :(

  2. didn’t know him, but he sounds like he was a credit to human beings. my condolences to all who knew him. one question, though: what’s the story behind his nickname?

    1.  He invented a superhero in elementary school — Possum Man, with the nearsightedness of a possum and the power to hang upside-down from his tail and sleep.  It became his avatar. Erik even had a cape and a shirt with a big P on it.

      1. thanks, cory. i was expecting it to be some eyesight-based thing — never expected it to take a fun superhero angle. : )

        1. I’m partial to the one with the acorn squash, Possum weighing it in his hand, lost in quiet contemplation. He looks so terribly dignified for a man holding a squash.

  3. He sounds like someone I would have enjoyed talking with. Condolences to all who knew him.

  4. Lovely tribute, Cory. Wish I’d known Possum Man but thanks for introducing us to him.

  5. Like others have said, he sounds like he would have been a wonderful person to sit and chat with over coffee.

  6. I knew him more by his reputation than I did personally.  Either way this is sad news, the world needs more people like Possum Man.  I really appreciated reading your words about him.  Please pass our love on to his family and friends.

    – Pierce

  7. A glorious and frustrating conversationalist, yes! I used to live with the guy and he would engage on absolutely any little matter, pursuing it as far as it would possibly go. I think I appreciate it more realizing how apathetic most of the rest of the world is.

  8. I only remember him from SEED but I always wondered what had happened to him-turns out he was right here all along! Many prayers and thoughts to those who were close to him.

  9. I only ever got to have maybe half a dozen in-depth conversations with him, but I’m still really broken up about this, because he’s changed the course of my life in many other ways, some of which I’m still discovering even now.  For example, I knew he was involved in the Anarchist U, but I had no idea he helped start it.  And the Mud House, which he co-founded, has been a social hub for me and in many ways the inspiration for my own experiment in communal living – two of our founding members were living there when I met them.

    1. “..but I had no idea he also…” is turning up hourly in conversations about his life.  Considering his accomplishments the guy was as humble as dust: I know a lot of people with a small percentage of his effects on the world who’ll tell you all about themselves in the first five minutes after you meet them. People who’d known him for decades had no clue about any of this stuff. Possum was too interested in you, and utterly unconcerned with your opinion of him (at least as far as his self-worth went), to go over *his* old stuff: he was too interested in going on to his new stuff or finding out about your old stuff that he might not have known about yet.

      I begin to suspect that I have had a brush with one of the 36 Tzaddikim: the 36 living saints on whose (in many senses of the word) selflessness the world depends on for its existence. 

  10. I miss him too. I have a book of his that I’ll never get to return to him in person. The comic he drew for me, which I treasured before, I’ll treasure even more now. I’m just so sad about this. What a shitkicker this life is sometimes.

  11. Cory, I’m so sorry for your loss. Just last week Erik popped into my mind and I vowed to reconnect with him.  I’m devastated that I was too late.  What you wrote is so beautiful.  It brings comfort to know so many other people’s lives were touched by him as mine was.  What a glorious soul. Thank you.  Love, Geneviève

    1.  Thank you, Genevieve.  It is good to hear from you again, even if under such sad circumstances.

  12. I only met Possum a few times, and he has inevitably left me with many thoughts and ideas that will be with me for a long time. He will be missed. 

  13. In the past few years, Possum and I had been slowly working our way through the collected works of Joss Wheedon together. We would watch an episode of a show, then talk about it, picking it apart and analyzing it for hidden meaning before moving on to the next one. Sometimes it would take longer to discuss an episode than it had to watch it. We got through all of Buffy this way, and had just finished season 3 episode 1 of Angel. Of all the things that I miss about him, that’s the one that keeps sticking in my mind. I lost my Weedon-watching buddy. I miss him.

  14. I didn’t know Possum but was touched by your remembrance of him and was struck by how familiar he looked to me.  Just found out this morning he’s the nephew of Andrew Stewart, my sister’s boyfriend.  The world is a small place indeed.  My condolences for such a profound loss.

  15. Erik was my cousin and my friend and he was the best. My family gatherings won’t be the same and I am going to miss him so much. Thank you for writing this, it is perfect :) He was such great person and always surrounded himself with awesome people and friends.

    RIP Erik

  16. Possum was a great man, he was blunt, logical, direct, honest and critical, I found him to be a refreshing person to converse with and he had a great sense of humor too, we shared some meaningful conversations over the years and I wish I had the opportunity to just sit and talk with him again. I have to say that I quite admired Possum and that we lost a good soul that day,  it breaks my heart that he’s left this world and it makes me realize how important people like Possum are, honest people are hard to come by, you need to remember to keep those people in your life. Thank you Cory for posting this, it’s such a beautiful way to cherish Possum’s memory. Rest in peace old friend.

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