Today, many friends and loved ones of Erik "Possum Man" Stewart gathered at Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery to remember him and his life. I gave a eulogy. Many of Possum's friends asked me for the text of it, and I promised them that I'd post it here. He was remarkable, and the event was bittersweet, full of beloved old friends and sad contemplation.
Erik "Possum Man" Stewart was one of my oldest friends. His death was a freak occurrence, one of those awful outflows of the statistics of small probabilities and large numbers. Take any infinitesimal outcome, multiply it by a large enough population and it becomes a near certainty.
It was the sort of statistical oddity that Possum loved to chew over. Though he was technically a vegan or a vegetarian through all the years we knew each other -- we met when I was 16 -- what Possum mostly liked to chew on was oddities.
Possum was an odd guy. I think he'd be offended if I failed to note that from the start. Possum was a glorious weirdo, a one-of-a-kind limited edition angel-headed weapons-grade oddfellow of the first water and of the very highest standing. He had a ponytail, and he had gotten pretty serious about yoga every now and again, he subsisted largely on elements of the vegetable kingdom and he liked living in group houses, so you might be tempted to call him something trite like a "seeker" or a "hippie" but how wrong you would be.
What Possum was was *fearless*. Oh, maybe he was afraid of heights or getting punched in the nose by random drunks or getting hit by a car on his bike, but that's just rational calculus. It's math. Possum was very, very good at math. If he feared those things, he did so in precise keeping with their statistical likelihood and took whatever steps were available to mitigate them and then he didn't sweat them. He never sweated the unimportant stuff. He used to lose his movie tickets between buying them and giving them to the ticket taker. All the time. It got so that I would carry the tickets for both of us. He didn't mind.
What Possum was fearless of was social disapprobation. He wasn't afraid of looking stupid. He wasn't afraid of looking odd. He wasn't afraid of being laughed at. These are the fears that skewer us poor normals through our hearts, freeze the blood in our veins. They're the reason that the Emperor takes his tailors at their word when they assure him that his new invisible clothes are impeccable. They're the fears that cause the townspeople to profess admiration for those clothes. They're the fears that cost the Emperor all authority and power when a small, fearless child points out his nudity.
These are the fears behind every act of greed and depravity, every moment of selfish grasping. They are the root of cowardice and shame. The fear of looking stupid, of saying the wrong thing -- these are the fears that make good people do bad things. And these are the fears that Possum lacked utterly.
We call him Possum because when he was in elementary school, at the Waldorf, he invented a superhero alter-ego for himself called Possum Man, and he drew this character, complete with a cape. Erik actually owned a cape at one point. When you asked him what Possum-Man's super powers were, he would laugh and say that Possum-Man was super-powered-ly nearsighted, and had the ability to super-sleep while hanging upside-down from his super-tail. But he never enumerated Possum-Man's most important super-power, the one that let him fight crime and foil evil: he had the power of absolute moral courage.
Because that's what moral courage is: the refusal to give into fear of being ridiculed or despised. Possum was the bravest man I knew.
How glorious that sort of bravery is. Everything was up for grabs with Possum. He had a sweater he wore inside out for many years. Why inside out? Because the information-rich tails and cross-weaves and seams revealed on the sweater's inside were more interesting than the uniform weave of the exterior. When he pointed this out to me, I thought about it and realised, objectively, that he was absolutely correct. I think I was 17 and he was 19 when we had that conversation, so, about 24 years ago. In those intervening 24 years, I can't tell you how many times I've caught sight of an inside-out sweater and thought, you know, Possum was *right*, this *is* better than the outside. I should totally wear this sweater inside-out. But I never do it, because I'm not nearly so brave as our Possum was.
Possum and I used to joke that one day he would wear his underwear on his head. He'd get up one morning, open his drawer and contemplate his underwear and think something like, "Well, it's got that great elasticated waistband that would form a good seal around my forehead, but it'd leave my ears free so I could hear the cars when I was out riding." And out the door he'd go, underwear on his head. I don't know if he ever tried wearing his underwear on his head, but I rather think he did, and I'll tell you why: it's because he *didn't* wear his underwear on his head routinely, and that means that he almost certainly tried out wearing an underwear hat under various field conditions and concluded that it wasn't as good in practice as it had seemed in theory. He never took anything at face value.
Possum was a glorious and frustrating conversationalist. Not being afraid of seeming stupid, he would cheerfully question anything you brought up that he didn't understand. He didn't mind detours. In fact, the more the better. He wasn't talking with you to get somewhere: he was talking to find out where he would get to. So if you said, "It was cold out there day and I couldn't find my hat and --" He might interrupt and say, "Did you think of wearing your underwear on your head?" And off you'd go. 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.
He was Possum at N-Space Dot Org. Why N-Space? Because he could visualise up to seven spatial dimensions using only three physical dimensions. He thought it would be great if the rest of us could do so, too. This lifelong, off-and-on project began with an attempt to write a four-dimensional Pong for the 386 in assembler. Then it morphed into an attempt to make four-dimensional Tetris for the Newton. There were attempts in Java and I wouldn't be surprised if he was contemplating WebGL and cracking his knuckles and thinking, "here, at last, is the way that I will show the world to see as I do."
I never quite managed to see the world Possum did, though sometimes I got flashes of it, and I count myself lucky for having caught those momentary glimpses. Possum-Space is curved in a way that makes everything far more interesting. For instance, Possum went through a stage of fascination with stereoscopy, and made stereoscopes from paper-towel rolls.
Now, before I go on, I have to explain how Possum became ambidextrous. Because, of course, he was ambidextrous! It started one day in his teens when he woke up and discovered that his dominant arm -- I want to say he was left-handed then, but I could be wrong -- was paralysed. A freak thing. But he switched to his other hand, and when his dominant arm came back, he taught himself to juggle in order to rebuild his strength and coordination. Man, could that guy juggle. At our housewarming party, he juggled machetes in the living room and flaming torches on the porch.
Anyway, the incident left Possum ambidextrous. He was always doing different things with his hands, not really multitasking per se, but figuring out how to use this coordination to his advantage. And then he got into the stereoscopes. And one day he said to me, "I think I want to learn to focus my eyes independently, like a lizard." I nodded. "All right, why?" "Oh," he said. "Because that way I could walk and read a book at the same time. I might even work my way up to cycling and reading, eventually."
So he taped two identical pictures to the ends of paper-towel rolls, and hold them up to his eyes, and focused his eyes on them, and then, slowly, he pulled the rolls apart, trying to keep the pictures in focus. He kept this up until his next optometrist's appointment. He told the optometrist about his training regime and the guy apparently nearly keeled over. "You're doing WHAT? Dammit, you're going to blind yourself! Cut it out!"
"OK," he said, and moved on to the next thing. Probably something to do with juggling, and/or n-space.
Possum did comics. He'd read comics all his life, and my first really exciting comics discoveries came from of his collection. But one day he came home with a copy of Scott Macleod's magnificent UNDERSTANDING COMICS, and he was full of holy fire. Now he understood how comics *worked*, and he was eager to try his hand at them.
There was only one problem. Possum couldn't draw very well. He was not one of nature's born draughtsmen. I say this without condemnation, as a man whose four-year-old daughter can already draw better than he can. But Possum didn't *care* if he couldn't draw well, because he could draw *recognizably* and *expressively*, and because what he lacked in draughtsmanship he made up for with composition and story ideas and sincerity.
Possum would draw you comics. If you had a good discussion with him that reached some natural limit, he'd sometimes try to continue his point by means of comic. He once drew me a comic explaining how a fourth spatial dimension would function. He was a great one for giving comics to his ex-girlfriends. I remember the first one of these he drew. When my relationships failed, I'd end up a roiling ball of pointless bitterness and recrimination. When Possum's heart was broken, he drew sweet, forgiving funnybooks that continued his point by means of comic. He didn't care that he wasn't the greatest drawer -- he just patiently worked through every graphic storytelling style he could imagine until he arrived at one that didn't demand virtuosity in drawing. That's what fearless people can do: turn lemons into lemonade all day long.
But please don't get the impression that Possum was a pushover. Possum's gift of bravery was coupled with profoundly held principles. I rarely saw him get angry, but I *never* saw him yield on a point of substantial principle. As easygoing as he was, I literally can't imagine him saying, "Aw, just this once, no one will ever know."
Possum was a brilliant, terrible student. He absorbed knowledge like a sponge, and that meandering, boundless curiosity made him a natural synthesist, finding the unsuspected connections between different disciplines and ideas. He spent many years at SEED School -- and inspired me to hang around high school for seven years! -- and when it was done, he refused every credit and told them that he would not accept a formal diploma for the work he'd done. Assigning numerical grades to learning cheapened knowledge and undermined education. Take your A plusses and your C minuses and give 'em to someone who cares about them. I learned for me, not for you, and it is an insult to both reason and math to say that someone is 80 percent competent in history or 68.5 percent competent in English literature. Even worse is the absurd idea that someone has attained 100 percent in Calculus. What a boring world it would be if you could really attain 100 percent in anything that matters worth a sweet damn.
Education was Possum's overweening passion. When we worked together at OpenCola -- he was the first person we hired -- and I asked him what he'd do if his stock was worth something someday, he said, without blinking, that he'd establish a free school where anyone could learn in the way that suited her best. Years later, he helped found the remarkable AnarchistU project, because in the final analysis, you don't need a dotcom fortune to do education right. A wiki will suffice, if you have passion.
I want to finish these words with a memory of Possum that I've turned over in my mind so many times that it's gone all soft at the edges. It was a February night around 1990, and I was going through a very rough time in my life. I was walking home from something or other, and I had a tape on in my walkman, and song came on and it was one of those moments when music punctures your gloom and sends you a single shaft of hopeful light. I got home and Possum was still up, and I said, "Hey, come listen to this song, it's really put me in a good mood."
I cued it up and Possum listened and smiled and tapped his feet and somehow, we started to dance. You know that proverb, "Dance as though no one were watching?" I've never really mastered that. Even when I'm truly alone, I can't quite escape the critical gaze of my own mind's eye. But that night, Possum taught me to dance as though no one was watching. That night, being with Possum, I had a moment of true fearlessness, a moment where he taught me to silence the nagging doubts and the stupid meta-cognition and the artifice and affect. For that shining moment, I got to be as brave as Possum. It was truly one of the greatest moments of my life.
Like all of you, Possum touched my world and made it a better place. He opened the transdimensional gateway to a realm of boundless curiosity and patient, good-natured charm. He lived his life as though he had all the time in the world, and would neither hurry you nor would he be rushed. He didn't have all the time in the world. He was taken at a cruelly early age. But it would be a mistake to take his death as a sign to live our lives as though we were running out of time. Remember Possum by wearing an inside-out sweater. Remember him by wearing your underwear on your head. A fitting tribute to Erik would be to take inspiration from him to live life as though you had all the time in the world: time to be curious, time to be thoughtful, time to be kind, and above all, time to be fearless.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.