An addendum to the previous post

It only just hit me that this thing I’m about to describe actually happened, and it feels a trifle tonally inappropriate to add it to the post about Sarah, but nonetheless I need to tell you, so two posts: I went to the comic shop today, as I do every Wednesday. Since I’ve changed schools I no longer pick my son up after school and take him with me; my wife picks him up instead. Sometimes I buy him some random thing from the comic store just for the hell of it, and today I bought him a blind box toy called a Cryptkin. If you aren’t familiar with blind boxes, they are toys that you are effectively buying at random– the box is closed and you can’t see what’s inside, so you might get something new or you might accidentally get something you already have.

(They are a terrible idea, and I can’t believe I encourage their existence by occasionally buying them for my son. But that’s another post.)

When I got home, he opened it, as one might expect.

And … well:

RIP, Sarah Bird, the Griffon Lady

It’s been kind of a rough week.

Yesterday was … day nine, I think, of this school year? And there were three fights, two of which involved at least one of my students and both of which I was involved in breaking up. They are the first fights of the year that I’m aware of; in general, this building seems substantially less violent than others I have worked in, but breaking up two hallway fights in the space of two class periods is not a situation I care to repeat anytime soon, and you can likely imagine the condition the kids were in by the end of the day. It was bloody miserable.

Today, the power went out for the back half of the day, throwing basically every aspect of the building into … well, not chaos, as honestly I feel like everyone involved dealt with the problem as well as could be hoped for, but we lost just about everything– wifi, phones, half of the toilets, a number of the sinks, all of the drinking fountains, and oh hey it turns out that every calculator in the world being solar powered isn’t a great thing if you deliberately picked the room with one window and all the light you have is from that one window and the one light wired to the emergency generator. So, no, not chaos, but a whole lot of scrambling was going on.

And then, during my team plan at the end of the day, while attempting to find an article about ILEARN testing that two of us thought was on the Tribune website somewhere, I discovered Sarah Bird passed away this weekend, and I found myself unexpectedly somewhat overcome with emotion and having to take a moment.

It’s funny, how the passing of relative strangers can hit us hard sometimes. I have been shopping at the Griffon for something in the neighborhood of thirty years– I don’t remember the two original stores, as I started playing D&D in fifth grade, which would have been somewhere around 1988. Virtually every RPG rulebook I own was purchased there, and a bunch of our board games, as after a while I developed a rule that anything that could be bought at the Griffon would be bought at the Griffon, and I probably grace their doors somewhere in the neighborhood of once or twice a year. I am not a regular customer, per se, but I am certainly a long-time customer, and the fact that the same two people had run the store for the entire time is sort of hard to miss.

I’ve had several pleasant conversations with both Ken and Sarah over the years– the Griffon is the kind of store where you don’t really just buy something and wander out– but I’m sure neither of them would recognize me, and to be completely honest I’m not sure I could have remembered their first names yesterday had you asked me, as they’ve been “the Griffon guy” and “the Griffon lady” since I was a little kid. I certainly didn’t know her last name, but I recognized their picture and the interior of the store before my brain had processed the headline on the website. I’ve never actually played anything there– my gaming group always had places to go– but it’s weird to have to explain to people how difficult it could be to be a geek thirty years ago when we damn near run the world nowadays. There was no Amazon, remember. If you were a young geek and you wanted dice or miniatures or wargaming models or whatever, it was just where you went, because nobody else bothered to carry that stuff. The Griffon was always a safe space where people like me were welcome, and the place still just sort of feels like home even though I don’t necessarily shop there terribly often.

Sarah is one of those people who had an effect on my life without me ever really thinking about it before now– if she and her husband had never opened that store, and I’d never gotten into roleplaying in fifth grade, my life could have been substantially different from what it is now. They don’t even know me, and it’s still true. All through high school and into college a lot of my friendships were people in my gaming group– not all of them, certainly, but my closest friends were all people I played D&D with. And the Griffon was a common thing for all of us, our little secret downtown that most of the other kids our age didn’t know about. It was (it is; as near as I can tell there are no plans to close the store) a genuinely special place, and that’s all due to Sarah and Ken.

She will be missed.

Seven years ago

I’ve been thinking about Trayvon a lot lately, actually, although I admit I wouldn’t have known today was the anniversary of his murder without the Internet’s help. One of my 8th graders transferred to another school today– there was some sort of a kerfluffle involving DCS that I’m not privy to the details of, and Mom pulled him in retaliation for being reported. And the thing is, every time I’ve ever talked about or to this kid, I’ve thought about two other young black men: Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.

I like the kid, a lot. He’s a Goddamn mess in a lot of ways, but he wasn’t ever mean, and that gets you a hell of a long way with me.  In a building that has more fights in a typical week than anywhere else I’ve ever worked would see in a month, I never once knew him to be violent towards anyone. Which is good, because at 14 he’s 6’3″ and probably around 200-220 pounds. The last time I talked to him, he was complaining about the fact that he still couldn’t dunk a basketball. He was close, he said. It was coming, he was sure. But he wasn’t there yet.

Here’s the thing about him– I gotta call him something; let’s go with Ben, which was Trayvon’s middle name. Ben didn’t always realize quite how big he really was, in a way that you can really only apply to fourteen-year-old boys who have tripled in size in the last year of their lives. He was a physical, touchy sort of dude– he was one of those kids who needs to be in physical contact with anyone they’re talking to, which meant he was constantly putting a hand on my shoulder whenever he talked to me. Hell, he hugged me a few times. I’ve been teaching for sixteen years and I can count the number of male students who have hugged me without a damn good reason on one hand.

And, again, he’s huge. 6’3″. And heavy at that height. And while, again, I never knew him to be violent toward anyone, he had a lot of trouble keeping his mouth shut and — as I said, in a way specific to fourteen-year-old boys — absolutely could not keep his body under control, in a way that I know good and goddamn well intimidated several of our staff members. Did he mean to do it? No, I really don’t think he did. But the same type of behavior from Ben that would be laughed off from a smaller kid got him sent to the office. Because he was huge, and black, and this is America.

And over the course of the, I dunno, maybe six months I’ve known him, I’ve genuinely lost track of the number of times I clamped my mouth shut and didn’t say you can’t be like this because eventually someone is going to shoot you to him. Because a cop took two seconds before killing Tamir Rice in what I will go to my grave describing as a drive-by shooting. Tamir was big for his age too. Because Michael Brown was described in frankly impossible, inhuman terms by the racist cop who murdered him, and Michael was big for his age. And because Trayvon Martin got shot walking home from the corner store because he was a young black man wearing a hoodie at the wrong time.

And because murdering black people is legal in Florida if you’re willing to claim you wuz skurred, but that’s another conversation.

I emailed a couple of friends I have on the staff in his new building. I didn’t really get into the details, but I told them he was a kid I liked and asked them to keep an eye on him for me if they could. I just wish I had someone I could email and ask to protect the kid. Keep him from becoming a hashtag until he’s old enough to have some sense. Keep him from becoming a hashtag after that, too, because black men get gunned down in this country every single goddamn day and having sense isn’t gonna protect you from the likes of George Zimmerman or Darren fucking Wilson.

Just … keep him safe, somebody. Anybody. And fix this broken goddamned country so that we don’t have to worry about this shit any longer.

Fuck cancer

(A note, before I begin: there is going to be a nonzero number of you who know me in Real Life and also knew Becky. Her parents, who I know, and sister, who I really don’t, are on Facebook and have been monitoring her page. She followed Luther, but was not friends with his account. If her family sees this, they see it, but I would appreciate it if no one goes out of their way to bring it to their attention. I am, as will probably become clear pretty quickly, writing it for me, not for them, if that makes any sense. Thank you.)

Becky Arney died yesterday. She used to pull my hair in fifth grade, and now she’s gone.

She was two months younger than me, and had been fighting cancer for nine Goddamned years. She spent most of the last month of her life in the hospital until her family finally decided she’d had enough and brought her home.

Nine damn years. The cancer started off as a small-cell cervical cancer that, as far as I ever understood, had a five-year life expectancy just north of “you’re kidding, right?” and she managed nine years. I think it was actually liver failure that got her in the end; the cancer was in remission for a while but then popped up in a bunch of other organs and that was the essential body part that gave out first.

The biggest problem I’ve ever had in my life is being able to see my feet past my ample fucking gut and this badass bitch got handed a life where she had to beat the shit out of cancer on a daily basis for nine fucking years in her thirties and forties. And frankly she did not lead the sort of life prior to getting cancer that was going to lead to gold-plated health insurance, either. She worked in the arts. She worked in prop design. I can only imagine the extent of the medical bills.

She was my first real crush, in fifth grade. If you look at my fourth grade yearbook there’s one particular girl whose picture I drew a green box around, but I don’t remember anything about falling for her. My unrequited thing for Becky lasted two or three years, at least. It was a Thing for a While. She knew; I’m sure she did. There was one particular field trip in sixth grade to a museum in Chicago where she spent the whole day letting me take her picture next to dinosaur bones and then sat behind me and intermittently pulled my hair the whole way home. She knew. By high school we were friends; we drifted apart when I left for college and then reconnected via Facebook just after I moved home and got married.

The last time I saw her, I was with my wife and son at Bob Evans, of all the goddamn places, and she just happened to be there with her grandmother. It was the only time she ever met my son; my wife was a couple of years behind us in high school so they already knew each other. When I killed my personal Facebook account, she didn’t send Luther a friend request, but she continued to follow the page, and I got updates from my wife.

She lived with her grandmother after she got sick. Imagine that. Imagine being old enough to be a grandmother to someone in their forties and you eventually have to bury them. I can’t do it.

There is not going to be a funeral, which is good, because I am generally not good at funerals at the best of times and I think there’s a good chance that “absolutely everyone from high school is there!” will not qualify as The Best of Times. She was that person who had every single person from our graduating class she could find and a sizable number of the kids from within a couple of years of us on her friends list. The eventual “celebration of life” that her obituary alludes to will be a de facto high school reunion. I have already skipped three high school reunions. I don’t know that I can make myself go to this one. We’ll see.

I’m not old enough to have to be writing this shit yet. She wasn’t old enough that I should have been writing this about her. She should have been raising the kids she never got to have, or doing whatever else the hell she wanted to do if she didn’t want to have kids. I can only assume that a cancer diagnosis at 33 can tend to alter your plans.

I used to tell people that I wasn’t really scared of anything, other than blindness, which was my greatest fear for most of my life. But for the last few days, which have been spent mostly restraining the urge to ask my wife to check Facebook again to see if her family has posted any updates, I’ve gotten this cold sort of existential horror in my gut every time I’ve looked at my son. Because apparently I’ve reached the age where people my age start dying of fucking cancer and so that’s a thing I need to start worrying about. About leaving him behind, before either of us is ready. About, hell, something happening to him. Because she was young, but it ain’t like cancer is especially discriminating, now, is it? And it’s not like this has been unique to the last few days– she had had cancer for two years before my son was even born, and one thing every parent becomes familiar with very quickly after their first child is born is the notion of their own mortality.

(This is what I meant when I said I was writing this for me, by the way.)

I don’t know. I don’t have a cute or clever way to end this, so I’m just going to stop writing.

Fuck cancer.

Stan Lee, 1922-2018

Stan Lee.jpg

I never met Stan Lee.  I almost certainly could have at some point, if I’d wanted to; half the nerds I know have a picture of themselves with him at some con or another.  He passed away two full days ago and I’m still struggling with tears trying to write this.  That seems an odd thing to say about a man I never met.  Odd, but true.

Also true: I can think of two people, only one still with us, since JRR Tolkien passed away three years before I was born, whose work has had even close to as much of an influence on my life as Stan Lee’s did.  I have been buying comic books for 3/4 of my life, and I probably have 80% of all the Iron Man comics ever printed.  Today is Wednesday.  It’s new comic book day.  I went to the comic shop.

I go to the comic shop every Wednesday.  And I have gone to the comic shop every Wednesday for goddamn near my entire adult life, excepting only a short period of time where I lived in Chicago and didn’t have a comic shop in Chicago yet so I was still getting my comics from my local store in South Bend.  My two favorite superheroes are Iron Man and the Hulk.  Spider-Man is right behind Superman.  Number five probably slides around a bit more than the others, but Captain America is as good a choice as any.

Stan Lee created three of those five characters, and had an enormous influence on the history of the fifth.  Did he come up with everything about them completely on his own?  No, of course not.  Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Jack Kirby; the contributions of these men can’t be denied, and they were towering figures in their own right.  And we just lost Steve Ditko earlier this year, so it’s been a really bad year to be a Spider-Man fan.

(Steve Ditko designed the classic red-and-gold Iron Man armor.  I just found that out.  I don’t think I knew that before.)

This is one hundred percent true:  I have no idea what my life would look like if Stan Lee had not been a part of it.  I have no idea who I would be if I had never encountered Stan’s creations.  You don’t get to spend most of your life marinating your brain in stories about superheroes every single week and not be changed by them.  To say that Stan Lee was one of my heroes feels like it’s minimizing him.

It’s not enough.  He was too big for this.  I don’t have the words.  I’m reading this over and the whole thing just feels stupid, like I’m not trying hard enough.

Stan was Jewish.  Jews typically, or at least traditionally, don’t say “rest in peace.”  A more appropriately Jewish phrase to honor the recently dead is May his memory be a blessing.  And it’s also more appropriate to describe my relationship with Stan, a man who I never met and whose life’s nevertheless influenced me so deeply and thoroughly that I am unable to untangle what my life would be like had he never lived.  His memory– and his creations– will live on, if not forever, but certainly well beyond whatever years may be left to me.  Every day.  But especially, and undeniably, every Wednesday.

Stan Lee’s life was a blessing.  May his memory continue to be.