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.

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