A long time ago, maybe twenty years or more, I was walking around Northwest Portland when I spotted the cartoonist John Callahan. I was hugely thrilled to see him — I’d been a longtime fan of his comics, and I instantly recognized him from the author photos I’d seen in his books — but I was too shy to say anything. All I could do was stare. It was mute, slightly star-struck admiration on my part, but I’m sure it looked like something else to him. He was in a wheelchair, after all, and there I was gawking at him like he’d probably been gawked at a thousand times before. He caught my eye as he rolled past, with a mild expression of acknowledgment. Like, yeah, I see you looking at me. I berated myself afterwards for not saying anything, but it was too late.
I was thinking about that encounter a couple weeks ago because I was re-reading his memoir, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. It is, among other things, the story of how he came to be a quadriplegic, a recovering alcoholic, and the sort of wonderfully twisted politically incorrect bastard who produced comics like these:
It occurred to me that he probably had a fairly strong online presence these days, and that I should look him up and send him a message. Just … you know, go ahead and say what I should have said all those years ago, but from behind the social comfort of a computer screen this time. Tell him I’ve always admired his humor, his honesty, his tenacity. Fanmail!
I Googled his name and the second link was his Wikipedia entry. John Michael Callahan (cartoonist). February 5, 1951, Portland, Oregon – July 24, 2010.
Wait, I thought. What’s that second — oh. Oh, goddamnit.
I don’t have a point to this story, really, except to say I wish more than ever that I’d have stopped and said hello back on that crowded Portland street. Maybe he wouldn’t have appreciated it, hell, maybe he hated being approached by fans, but I bet he’d have liked hearing some random gushing praise more than being silently stared at.
But also it makes me think how little it takes to tell someone that you appreciate them, and how meaningful it can be. I remember when I left my last job how I got a flurry of sincere, complimentary emails from people who had never given me feedback before, despite the fact that I’d worked with some of them for eight years. It wasn’t until I quit that I actually received the praise I’d been aching for all along. (But did I ever tell them I thought they were doing a good job? I’m not sure I did.)
I tend to be self-conscious and withdrawn and I have a difficult time opening up to people and saying things like, “I like what you do.” Or “I think you’re amazing.” I need to work on this. I want more of it in my own life and I want to give it to others.
RIP, John Callahan. I really like what you did.