Excelsior!

Excelsior!

My Stan Lee Eulogy

That motto means more to this generation of youth than it ever did. But, it’s not just the whimsical tone that Stan Lee’s gravelly voice exclaims it that makes it so important. It has everything to do with the legacy of a man who did more for generations of people than any one person can appreciate. So, what does it mean? Other than Stan enlightening the world to that word’s existence as his own personal catchphrase, why is it the perfect word to be forever tied to his legacy?

Stan Lee CameosLike any good eulogy and in being true to Stan’s nature as a narratively-driven force in the world, I’ll make my point with a story. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I’m an anxious man. I don’t use that adjective lightly either. Anxiety has plagued my older years as real-world troubles become ever-present in day-to-day living. I’ve had to be anchored by the people closest to me in order to stay grounded or be pulled back from the depths of inner turmoil. Consequently, I’ve learned from my insightful wife what triggers my fears and causes me to spiral.

In October of 2007 at the age of 22, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It’s a moment that accented the timeline of my life. Many who’ve experienced a diagnosis like this, or even worse, can certainly relate. Unintentionally, the dichotomy of time presents itself to me as pre-cancer diagnosis and post-cancer diagnosis. One might say that the aggression of my anxiety was fueled by this moment. Naturally, I would agree. But, lately – even as my anxiety has reared its ugly head again in just the last few days – I’ve been pondering the ailment’s origin.

As a child of central Illinois, I grew up in the small town of Mt. Zion just outside of Decatur. I had a great childhood. My group of friends, ever-changing with the exception of a select few over the years, would always find ways to have fun and get joy out of the simplest things. My parents instilled in me my sense of morality, gave me a life that any parent should give their children, and even set me on a path to being a successful adult. And, as for my sisters? Well, they loved me, watched out for me, and even fought with me over the most trivial things. With that combination, in essence, they were the perfect siblings – or at least the standard that family-friendly sitcoms pitch to their audiences.

At a young age, I started waking up early, before my parents even. I’d use this time to play video games, watch Saturday morning cartoons, or pig out on two bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch since my parents weren’t watching. I loved anything in the dairy food group. I’d drink milk and eat cheese like there’s no tomorrow. And eggnog? Eggnog during the holidays (non-alcoholic, of course) was my jam. I’d partake in the food group over and over again despite it making my stomach feel bloated and giving me a lot of gas that I could torture my sisters with. My favorite color was red, and I’d eventually get to cruise around in it when I took over my dad’s old truck when I obtained my license. I’d go to movies with my friends or my family. My dad, uncle, cousins and I would go dirt biking as frequently as we could get together. I was in Boy Scouts, and enjoyed the outdoors. When I was 12-years-old, my tight-knit troop, my father, and I trekked across the Appalachian Trail. I witnessed some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. While this is a small sampling of the childhood I enjoyed, I say this simply to acknowledge that I’ve had a great life so far. No amount of anxiety or depression will ever change that.

But, as I’ve gotten older age I’ve gained wisdom. I can hear my wife laughing at me now, but what I am referring to is not the caliber of my brain and the expanse of knowledge it may or may not hold. It’s just a mind full of my personal experiences and the lessons that come from each of them. For instance, I came to the realization in my late 20’s that I was lactose intolerant. Remember how I said dairy always made my stomach feel funky as a kid? Well, I just never put two and two together. The symptoms have only gotten more aggressive than that with age so it’s become drastically apparent now.

Like dairy, my recent ordeals with anxiety made me reflect and realize that my anxiety was even with me as a child to a lesser degree – pre-cancer diagnosis. I’ll never forget one wintry morning in 1996. I was in fifth grade, and practicing my drum rolls for band on the rubber pad before school. Sitting in the quiet of my room, drumsticks in hand, my mind raced. Within minutes, I lost it and just didn’t want to face the day. I had a hard time even grasping what was wrong, but I felt this overwhelming sensation of fear and sadness. I talked to my mother and in our conversation, she uncovered that I was afraid of change. For some crazy reason, I was afraid of my upcoming sixth-grade year. I was afraid of junior high, and high school. I was afraid of college, and whatever adulthood experiences came next. I was afraid of not having my family and friends around me all the time as I did at that very moment. At just 10 years old, I feared all of those things even though many of them were years away. Anxiety is terrible, but many times it draws out irrational fears.

Now don’t be fooled by the way I wrote this. These feelings didn’t just come out of the blue. They sat in the back of my mind and festered for quite some time before my eventual meltdown. They even still manifested themselves after that moment. But after my chat with my mom, I went downstairs and turned on the TV and watched my favorite show at 7 AM before I headed to the bus stop – Spider-man. 90’s kids will remember the show well and probably even have the strange electronica-style intro song playing in your heads as I speak.

Like Batman: The Animated Series, I loved this show, and it was one of the many televised programs that I grew up on. It was a show about Peter Parker, a regular guy with problems far worse than my own. Granted, he was already a college student at the start of this series. But, in between class, awkward social interactions, and coping with young adult stresses, he still put on the suit and chased down the bad guys. And even better yet, he always carried a chipper demeanor about him despite everything that was wrong in his life. Instantly, he was far more relatable in that very moment than Batman – a rich kid who grew up to use his family’s wealth to fight crime. Now don’t get me wrong, to this day, Batman is my all-time favorite hero. But at that moment, when I was a young boy who feared change and feared the worst in my future, there Peter Parker was making it happen and always keeping his chin up along the way.

Stan Lee Lego

Peter Parker, like many of Stan’s other characters, was a human living in a human world with human highs and lows. The only thing that segregated Peter from everyone else was the extraordinary abilities he obtained. Much like mine is now, Peter’s life also was split in two – before Uncle Ben’s death and after. If you thought I was going to say pre-Spider bite/post-Spider bite, you missed the mark. See, it was Uncle Ben who lifted him up, dusted him off, and taught him to keep his chin up. Uncle Ben also taught Peter to be better, to use all the power that he has as a force for good. Again, I’m not referring to the spider bite or the abilities. Peter, like all of us, has power. The famous line – with great power comes great responsibility – is one Peter would come to reflect on over the years. While we always think of that line in conjunction with Spider-man’s duty to use his powers for good, Uncle Ben actually uttered those words to Peter without ever seeing Spider-man in action. Uncle Ben was speaking to Peter, not Spider-man. Ordinary humans can become extraordinary. Stan took pride in teaching that lesson to his readers by simply making his characters so relatable. While it might be hard to write stories about an invincible alien from Krypton in a relatable matter, Stan took the bold approach of centering stories around the people. The powers and superhero abilities came second.


That morning, I needed that show more than I gave it credit for in the moment. But the message was received loud and clear and was delivered through early morning cartoons – the best way for any kid to receive it. Simply put, it was that “I can do this.” Not only can I do it, but I can also make the best out of every situation just as Peter would do humorously making a quip during a late-night battle with Doc Ock while simultaneously having a book report due in the morning. I didn’t know who Stan Lee was at that age, it would be my teenage years before I ever even knew the name of the man who created the characters of some of my favorite 90’s cartoons Spider-man and X-Men. Eventually, I would go on to actually read and collect comic books. Like many fans, I was ecstatic when Spider-man and X-Men first received big screen adaptations near the turn of the century. And like many, I’m a passionate nerd who is thrilled to live in a world dominated by popular culture – a culture Stan Lee helped create.

I eventually had the chance to meet Stan Lee. In 2012, I paid the coin it took to get a picture with Stan Lee at Chicago Comic-con. No, I don’t have some great revelatory story about the man where he uttered some profound words that stuck with me. I stepped up with my friend, Wes to take the shot. I greeted Stan and he greeted us. We took the picture and we waved goodbye and moved on. The line was a fast-moving line. What I did take away from that experience, however, was seeing a weary man with a smile. The day was drawing to a close, and as we know, Stan was no spring chicken. His body language showed just how long of a day it was for him. But man, was his face beaming. Stan Lee has money. He didn’t need our money for a picture at a convention. He could have ended the round of photos at any time. But he didn’t, he stuck it out until the very last person in line got the picture they came there to get. He loved his fans. He adored his fans. And we, as fans, adored Stan. He created characters that have inspired countless scores of people. My four-year-old son has no idea who Stan Lee is. One day he will. But right now, he carries Spider-man with him everywhere whether it’s a figure, a plush, a shirt, a hoodie, or a jacket. Spider-man and the rest of Stan’s characters have impacted the youngest among us, as well as the oldest causing us all to aspire for something higher.

My friend, Wes, and myself with Stan Lee at the 2012 Chicago comic-con.

I refute recent comments and ideas put into the media by political commentator, Bill Maher. Despite stating otherwise, a slight was made against Stan Lee when Maher falsely claimed that all Stan ever did was inspire people to see a movie. Stan Lee’s characters did profoundly meditate on the inner workings of the human condition. Peter Parker spoke to me. X-Men spoke to generations of youth and adults who have been marginalized or discounted because of their differences in race, beliefs, gender, or appearance. We’re talking about a group of mutants who were even disparaged and discriminated against by the federal government. “With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s a line that echoes through every facet of life as we know it. I just covered that. How is it, that this literature can’t be acknowledged for the impactful medium that it is? The pen is mightier than the sword, and boy did Stan wield it well.

Maher’s regrettable words, however, will not taint the legacy of a man who stood for what’s right. Stan believed that you should be true to yourself, something his own wife helped him do. Many don’t know that if it weren’t for his adoring wife encouraging Stan to be true to himself, Stan Lee wouldn’t have pursued the career path that gave us the characters we have today. And with that platform, he’d go on to rail against racism and bigotry – and all forms of hate and offer advice for living a fulfilling life in the soapbox column of his work. Stan simply wanted people to be good to each other, just like the characters in his books.

I will always hold Stan Lee near and dear to my heart. He helped a struggling fifth grader aim higher and push forward. Like Peter, the second part of my life, separated from the first part by my cancer diagnosis, is one I want to fully dedicate to being the best person I can be towards others and using my personal power for good. While I still struggle with my anxieties and depression to this day, I will never discount the role Stan Lee played in helping me through them. Surrounding myself with the things that bring positivity into my life helps me constantly remember the joy of living. Stan Lee is a major part of that for me. As people, we can each be better to each other. We can also shoot for the stars. That is what I intend to do. That is the meaning behind Stan Lee’s famous motto, one that cemented his legacy in history.

Excelsior!

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