There’s a term in Yiddish, “mensch.” If you’re familiar with German, you might know that this is related to the German word “Mensch,” which means, simply, “man” or “person” depending on how contemporary you want to be with your connotations. The difference between the Yiddish and the German, though, is that when you hear someone referred to as “mensch,” it’s in the context of that person doing good deeds – “tzedakah.” Another related term is “macher,” which is less common in daily conversation, but means the same thing, but may even be more explicit in its praise of a person.
I write all this not to give you a Yiddish lesson, but to tell you about a mensch, a macher. His name was Stephen Fischer, and he was a good friend of mine. I say “good friend” to try and get across two points: One, I considered him someone who I could talk to about anything and expect that, no matter how long it had been since we spoke, the conversation would flow easily and would flow in directions as varied as theology, Star Wars canon, or rambling about how rogues are OP in D&D’s 5E. Two, he was, without fear of hyperbole, one of the best humans I’ve ever met. A real macher.
In the interests of showing and not telling, I’d like to tell you a story. Well, why not? Two. Both of these take place back in the fogs of the past. Somewhere around ten years ago, closer to eleven. He, myself, and another friend were in Ireland for a week. This was during a study abroad trip, when we’d all met for the first time at the University of Kent at Canterbury. On one evening during the week in Dublin, we were wandering aimlessly and – I think – Stephen and Jon, the other friend, were talking about comics. I’d spaced out because they were way out of my league with this stuff. This was, you see, before the Marvel movies came out and everyone was forced to make a choice between superhero fluency and standing awkwardly at the periphery of conversations.
Suddenly, their conversation stopped. Stephen had sensed trouble. Not trouble in the sense that someone was going to come at us with a butterfly knife, but trouble in the sense that someone was in trouble. There, to our right, in the middle of traffic, was a middle-aged man next his car, which had stalled. The conversation about The Wasp and how Ant-Man was a terrible person bolted across two lanes of Dublin traffic to help this person out. He ran over there, introduced himself, and offered to start pushing the car. Well, Jon and I were thoroughly shamed by this and, not to be outdone, ran over there and helped, as well. We pushed the car off to the side of the road to at least get the guy out of harm’s way and he told us that, in exchange, if we met him at The Brazen Head, just down the road, the drinks were on him and he’d tell us a bit of Irish history.
We went there. I, honestly, didn’t expect the guy to show up. (I am what they call a pessimist.) Stephen, though, had faith. And, lo and behold, the guy showed up. He was true to his word, our good deed was rewarded, and we had a good story to tell each other in subsequent years, reminding ourselves of some pure fun when life got us down. But aside from that, I think this story illustrates something about Stephen: He was a believe in acts of kindness. We came from different backgrounds – way different – but we had many shared core beliefs. One of them was that actions change (and, I would argue, save) the world.
For Stephen, performing good deeds and acts of loving kindness was a core expression of his Christianity. We had a lot of conversations about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism – and, to an extent, Islam – to compare, contrast, and get highlights of philosophies and share them with each other. It’s very much to his credit that Stephen was one of the few Baptists in my life who heard my ideas, considered them, and replied back not with an admonishment of faith vs action, but with a considered opinion and questions on what I thought about his opinion. That was something that always set him apart for me: That consideration not just of ideas, but the very reality that – maybe – when I was obviously on a tear about something as a result of encounters with very inconsiderate Christians, maybe that wasn’t the time to take the usual tack, and that he should listen. Through his example, Stephen taught me something a very valuable lesson about religion that I consider to this day. In fact, when I hear folks decry Christianity as a rapacious tool of, say, imperialism, I think of Stephen, and remind them that, like just about every religion, Christianity’s core can be summarized with a simple rule: “Don’t be a dick.”
(The more acceptable, Jewish version of this is something I told Stephen about Judaism once. A jerk went up to the Rabbi Hillel and accused him of not being as good as he was reputed to be. The jerk said, “If you were so good, you could teach me the Torah while I stood here on one foot.” So, Hillel told him that he could. The jerk stood on one foot and balanced himself. Hillel said, “Love thy neighbor. The rest is commentary.”)
Stephen was, further, possessing of the type of mind that I find most enjoyable: One that expresses wonder of the world through a bizarre, slightly dark, sense of humor. It is my opinion that this sort of sense of humor is a coping mechanism – or, at least, it is for me. When you look into the darkness of the daily news cycle – something that weighed heavily on Stephen, especially when architectural metaphors like the Notre Dame cathedral were setting on fire – it’s all you can do to make a joke. Otherwise, you lose it.
That sense of humor was, beyond the deep discussions we had about just about anything, the glue that kept us in sync. It was what kept the in-jokes around. It was the beginning and end of conversations, even when he’d call me at 2 in the morning his time, and I’d admonish him in the voice of the Jewish mother he never had, “Look at you, bubbeleh, it’s 2 in the morning and you’re awake – es ist eyn shande!” In fact, this became an in-joke. I kept a GMT clock on my home desktop, and he would call and laugh, saying, “I’m really just calling you at this time because I know it’ll annoy you that I’m awake.”
Stephen was a good, good friend. While we never get enough time with the people that make up the core group of people who we lean on, I find myself, when I think about missed opportunities for a phone call or a visit, reminding myself that all we have is a few opportunities for contact. That’s the way life is. Sometimes the stars align; sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, and we find ourselves unable to ever see that person again, we must be glad for the times we did share. And now, as I sit in my living room, listening to GWAR’s “Phantom Limb” and reminiscing about good times with a good friend, I have to remind myself of that. The time that we did get, those times when we were able to meet up when I was in the UK after a work trip, were good times – even when they were really challenging. That’s the important thing: That the times existed in the first place.
Oh, and that second story: One time – also when we were abroad that first time – we were young and stupid and in Paris. We looked across a massive traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe and, without really looking for an alternative, ran across the fuckin thing. Many years later, Stephen and I were on the phone one Saturday and he said, “That time we bolted across the roundabout? Not only could we have died, but that was extraordinarily illegal!” Nevermind the death, the sentence seems to indicate, we broke a law when we were abroad!