Mark Irons

I met Mark Lawrence Irons in the spring of 1985, when both of us were attending the State University of New York at Albany (now known even more elaborately as The University at Albany, State University of New York). I was with our mutual friend, Lisa. Mark was coming out of University Cinemas, and he had that intense look of his on his face.

Mark's characteristic intense look. Summer 1990.

He was saying to Lisa, over and over, "You gotta see Eraserhead. You gotta see Eraserhead." It was some years later before Eric and I got around to taking the first piece of advice Mark ever gave me. Trust us, though, you don't gotta see Eraserhead. I think it was the worst movie I have ever seen. This was one of the few times I have ever known Mark to be wrong about anything.

Mark is one of the smartest, funniest people I know. Eric once said that Mark could tell you that your cat died and make you laugh about it. Mark thinks this is something of an exaggeration, but he is still a really funny person.

Mark was born in Oklahoma on September 20, 1966, but grew up in Goshen, NY. Ellen is also from Goshen, and the two of them used to joke that they had the letter G tattooed on their butts. Neither of them, however, has ever shown me such a tattoo.

When Mark was six months old, he was diagnosed with a genetic disease, cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis causes the body to produce overly thick mucus that makes breathing difficult. It also causes problems with digesting fats, making it hard for patients to gain weight. CF patients are also usually sterile and have insufficient immunity. It's a rare disease, since you need two carrier parents to pass it on. Mark's parents were told that, with aggressive treatment, Mark might live into his teens. We are happy to say that we sent him a bunch of graphic novels in celebration of his 46th birthday.

Mark's knowledge of his inability to live out a normal human lifespan has been with him throughout his life. He has spent his entire existence expecting to be dead in five years or fewer. He has never been able to make long-term plans for a career or retirement. I can't be sorry for this, however, because it is part of what makes him who he is. He is the unique and wonderful person that he is not entirely, but in large part, because of his awareness of his shortened life span. He wouldn't be the same if it weren't for his CF.

As long as I've known him, Mark has always been completely matter-of-fact about his impending death. He has been surprised to live as long as he has. Around his 40th birthday, we were talking about just how much he had exceeded expectations. He told me that, since he had managed to survive CF for so long, it had become his ambition to get hit by a bus. This humor in the face of death is one of the things that makes Mark so dear to me.

I can't remember the conversation where Mark first told me about his health condition, but it was soon after we met. What I do remember is that, because of his condition, the University allowed him to have a single dorm room. He did share a bathroom and living room with several suitemates, and I remember him telling me about a night when Lisa was upset about something, and he was comforting her. Lisa was too upset to go back to her own dorm and spent the night in his room (platonically). He told me that he loved the looks on his suitemates' faces in the morning, as they tried to figure out how their pale, thin, bookish suitemate had managed to seduce this statuesque blonde.

For the first few years after I met him, Mark was not a particularly special friend, just another person in our larger group of friends. I do remember spending one afternoon with him in the University's Ratskellar, where he recited most of the dialogue from Monty Python's Life of Brian for me. I just laughed and laughed. I later saw the actual movie, and I have to say that it was funnier when Mark said, "Blessed are the cheesemakers.".

Mark helping out with a concert given by Peter Capasso: "Gentlemen, start your hats." Spring 1989.

Over time, however, as Mark and I got to know each other better, we grew closer. I graduated in 1987, and in 1988, I got an apartment a couple of blocks away from Brian's house, where Mark was then living. I remember going over there one Saturday afternoon, and Mark entertaining me for an entire afternoon with nothing but a lava lamp and a map of Goshen. I learned all about the very few traffic lights in Goshen. We observed all of the stages of the lava lamp, from when strands of the hot wax suddenly burst up to the top of the liquid, to the nifty stage where many pieces of lava circulate, to the end stage where the wax turns into one giant blob that bobs up and down as a unit, and Mark explained the science that makes a lava lamp work. Eventually, we were hungry for dinner, and went to nearby Jeff's Pizza, a favorite haunt. There, we ran into Mark's former roommate, Kelly, and her boyfriend, Steve. We went back to his house to watch a movie (probably Woody Allen, as Mark and I together enjoyed many of those 70's classics with Diane Keaton). A little while later, the phone rang. Mark talked for a couple of minutes, and then said to me, "We just got a checkup call. That was Kelly and Steve, wondering what the two of us were doing alone together on a Saturday night." We thought this was hilarious.

Mark (second from right) with Phyllis (third from right), dressed as artists for Hallowe'en. Fall 1989.

In February of 1989, one of Mark's roommates moved out, and I moved into the house with Mark, Brian and Ellen. Mark told me later that he had been a little bit apprehensive about my living there, but that I had been "the biggest surprise of the spring." Mark and I were great roommates. We had very close desires as to how clean things should be kept. The four of us each had a cleaning job. One week, Mark decided to go on a strike because our other roommates had not done their jobs that week. He was supposed to clean the bathroom, and he hadn't. I went to Mark and pointed out that I had done my cleaning job, so it wasn't fair to make me live with a dirty bathroom. This logic appealed to Mark, and he cleaned the bathroom.

I moved in between my early February birthday and Valentine's Day. Around this time, Kelly and Steve had announced their engagement. Mardi had formerly gone out with Steve, and, particularly with Valentine's Day approaching, Mark thought she could use some cheering up. So, he set up a lonely hearts' Anti-Valentine's Day party. Mark, Mardi, Spencer and I all took ourselves out for an Anti-Valentine's Day dinner. But things got better after dinner. We went back to our house to, as Mark said, "Cut black hearts out of construction paper." He supplied not only black construction paper, but contrasting white finger paint. He also brought out some peppermint schnapps. Spencer didn't really get into the artwork and left early, but Mardi and I were overjoyed. We hadn't played with finger paints since we were children, and loved getting our fingers into the paint. I cynically painted a heart with an arrow missing it. Mark painted, for some reason, a row of teeth. We just laughed and laughed. Eventually, Mark and I ran out of our own liquor. Mark pointedly asked, "Should we stop drinking, or should we raid Brian's liquor cabinet?" Mardi considered the question for a moment and then said, "Let's raid Brian's liquor cabinet!" So, our fabulous Anti-Valentine's Day festivities continued. For the three of us, the evening was not just therapeutic, but talismanic. Within a couple of months, each of us was involved in a new relationship. The Anti-Valentine's Day party was so powerful that many years passed before I dared to celebrate Valentine's Day in a positive fashion.

A month or so later, Mark and I took a road trip with Spencer to see the Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury, VT. I remember that they were making Cherry Garcia that day, not one of my favorite flavors, but it was still fun to go on a road trip through the countryside and then see Ben & Jerry's machinery. We took a side trip over the border into New Hampshire long enough to go to the tax-free state liquor store, and I bought Brian a bottle of rum. When I presented it to him, he said, "Wow. A housemate that replaces my booze."

Mark juggling in our back yard. Summer 1990.

That spring, Mark and I were both going through big life changes. I started going out with Eric, and Mark started going out with a man in Worcester and came out of the closet as gay. Mark told me he was gay first thing in the morning, while I was still brushing my teeth. It would have been better if he had waited until I'd had a cup of tea in my hands. I just said, "OK." Later, I asked him how long he had known, and he said he had known for many years. It must have been difficult keeping it inside.

Brian and Ellen worked during the day, while Mark and I were students. I was in graduate school and working as a teaching assistant, but this did not require me to do very much work unless papers were due. Mark and I were often alone together most of the day. We would stay for a while in our respective rooms, reading (or playing Tetris). I was studying Freud, and Mark was studying the history of mathematics. Eventually, one or the other of us would read something interesting, and wander into the other's room to share it. I would start babbling about Freud's ideas about women, or Mark would tell me about set theory. We spent many afternoons just talking to each other. He shared his skeptical philosophy with me. This was the time when we became very close, and we have remained so since.

Mark, Brian and Ellen were all extremely understanding when Eric ran into roommate problems and started spending more and more time at our place. I will be eternally grateful to them for this. While I remember at the time feeling a lot of stress about Eric's roommate problem, I also remember this as a happy and comfortable time of my life. With Keren living on the same block, all of my closest friends were right near me all the time.

More backyard juggling. Summer 1990.

Eric and I both loved living with Mark. He has a great memory, and he would remember things for us so. If we got the idea of renting a movie for the evening, we would ask Mark what movies we had been intending to rent. He would frown and grumble, but he would have the answer. I remember one time when we couldn't figure out where to go for dinner, so we asked Mark where to go. Of course, he made intimations that we were pathetic, but he suggested Grandma's, which was a perfect idea. We relied on him frequently. I also have relied on him for technical advice in the years since. He wrote the HTML code I am still using to line my pictures up with my text.

I remember a time when Eric was too busy working and doing his own schoolwork to proofread a paper I had written, so I gave it to Mark instead. The paper was a defense of democracy against the ideas Plato outlined in the Republic. I was expecting Mark to look at it mostly for typographical and grammatical errors, but he came back to me about an hour later and said, "Beth, I don't think you've refuted Plato at all." I was deeply resentful about his making me rewrite large portions of my approximately 20-page work, but I had to concur that he was right, and in the end, I wrote a much better paper. I did receive an A on the project.

Mark is extremely philosophical, even more than a philosophy major such as myself. While other people might despair at having CF, or turn to religion for comfort, Mark sticks firmly to a science-based philosophy. It's an inspiration to see how well this can work for someone. Mark has always believed in very frugal living. When we lived together, he was trying to keep his grocery bill down to $10/week. He works not to shore up material possessions. I remember one time when he decided to give away most of his books, and I ended up with a fair number of them. He is always skeptical about anything that seems implausible. He had a teacher in Goshen who, when someone purported to assert some unlikely fact, would say, "Spec ref," short for "specific reference." In other words, "Where exactly did you come by this information, and how reliable is your source?" If we ever try to make some improbable assertion, Mark always says, "Spec ref!"

Different juggling objects. Summer 1990.

During this time, Mark also taught me about the importance of acceptance of gay people. I had always been a civil libertarian, and was certainly not against gay rights, but this had not particularly been my cause. The gay man I had known in high school had seemed rather, well, weird, and the lesbians I met in college were annoyingly angry. Mark humanized queerness for me, and helped me to understand the importance of full legal rights.

Five adults sharing one bathroom was a difficult situation, so, when Eric's lease was up at the end of May, 1990, he and I got our own apartment together. Now, we had to write our movie list on a piece of paper! Mark continued to live with Brian and Ellen for a while, but as their wedding approached, he got his own place. We were all still living in the same neighborhood, a few blocks from each other in the tree-lined Pine Hills neighborhood, and seeing each other all the time. Mark, Eric and I all worked in downtown Albany, and we frequently had lunch. After Mark's car was hit (while unoccupied) in the spring of 1991, Eric and I started taking him with us to get groceries. Even though we no longer lived together with Mark, we were still with him very often.

In September, 1990, Eric and I adopted a kitten and named her Zackie. Mark entertaining Zackie with his juggling. Winter, 1991.

Sometimes, we would drive Mark to work, but other times he would walk. He would leave earlier than we would, walk past our house, and write amusing notes in the snow piled on top of our car. He was always making us laugh. One time, I remember that Eric asked him for a recipe, and he left it under one of our windshield wipers. Eric thought we had gotten a ticket, so he called it, "Parking Ticket Stew."

Brian and Ellen married in June of 1991, in a rather elaborate fashion. Mark G. wanted them to have a fun wedding, so he and Hope staged one for them in their backyard on the 4th of July weekend. It was very, very silly.

Mark dressed way too warmly. We kept trying to tell him to take off the jacket, but he refused. When I much later showed him this picture again, he said, "Oh, that was the day I ended up with heatstroke!" July, 1991.

We have to admit, he did look really cool. July, 1991.

Mark walking down the "aisle," blowing bubbles in an appropriately irreverent fashion. In the background, you can see the reluctant groom being dragged to the altar by his friends. July, 1991.

Later that month, Mark was an attendant in a real wedding, ours. He had become by then one of my closest friends and confidants. When I asked him to stand up for me, he figured out where the conversation was going, and said, "You want me to be a bridesmaid?" "Bridal attendant," I corrected. Throughout the wedding planning, he kept joking about when he was going to get his dress.

Mark with me as a bride. July, 1991.

Mark in the receiving line. Eric and I had an elaborate ceremony in which we exchanged several gifts, and my attendants had to pass several things to me. Somehow, Mark ended up walking out of the church with my bouquet. The video of the receiving line is rather hilarious, with this long-haired, bearded guy smiling, nodding, and shaking hands, all while holding a bridal bouquet trailing a bunch of pink ribbons. July, 1991.

Mark at our wedding reception, dressed as Jesus Christ in Godspell. July, 1991.

Juggling completely random objects, at one of Spencer's parties (featuring Spencer's infamous rum balls). December, 1992.

A whole bunch of us at one of Spencer's parties. Mark is second from the right in the middle row. Later that evening, after too many rum balls, he ended up lying on the floor singing, "Please Release Me" to Mardi. December, 1992.

Mark (right) with Brian and Ellen on Brian's birthday. December, 1992.

Mark (right) at our apartment with Johnny B. February, 1993.

Mark at our apartment in SCA garb, probably made by Mardi. February, 1993.

Mark (left) with Ryland on a road trip to Woodstock. March, 1993.

Eric experimented on Mark with our portrait lens. March, 1993.

Mark (right) with Eric and Ryland on the back of our car on their Woodstock trip. March, 1993. This roll featured some amusing pictures of Mark and Ryland posing but Eric not quite making it into place before the self-timer fired the shutter, before they got to this picture.

Mark (left) clearly up to no good with Ryland and a bottle. April, 1993.

In May, 1993, Eric and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Our first year on the west coast was very difficult, and missing Mark was a large part of it. He had been such a frequent and significant presence in our lives, and now our communications were all remote. Long distance rates were high back in those days, so most of our communications had to take place online.

Mark (left) with Ellen, Brian and Ryland as we were packing up our car to leave Albany. This picture sits in our dining room to this day. May, 1993.

In 1994, Mark also left Albany and went to Woodbury, TN. This meant that we wouldn't even see him on return trips to Albany. We continued to speak sometimes, but to keep in touch mostly online. We wrote a regular newsletter to all of our friends, and Mark wrote a regular newsletter that he called Life in Tennessee, archived here.

We were very excited when Mark came to visit San Francisco in 1995. I think this was the trip where Mark and I walked from the Mission to the Haight in one day. Eric had had to work instead of joining us, and he was disappointed when he was off the next day and we didn't feel like walking much anymore.

Mark staring me down at the Potrero overlook in San Francisco. No doubt, I have just said something he found ridiculous. May, 1995.

Mark at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. May, 1995.

Me and Mark posing in the museum's elaborate architecture. May, 1995.

Mark on Mt. Tamalpais, with San Francisco in the background. May, 1995.

More of Mark on Mt. Tamalpais. May, 1995.

Mark (center) with Eric and myself on Mt. Tamalpais. May, 1995.

We were delighted when, at the end of 1995, Mark moved to the west coast. As he was in Corvallis, OR, he was not particularly near us, but he was within a reasonable distance for a 3-day driving trip. We didn't figure this out the first year he was there, but in 1997, we began a tradition of going up to see him every Presidents' Day weekend. We missed the year 2000, because I was in Egypt with my mother and brother, but otherwise, we've gone up every February since 1997, 15 trips. We immediately loved both the cute college town of Corvallis and the entire friendly State of Oregon. By bringing us to Oregon every year, Mark has taught us to love the amazing beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Mark in front of his favorite (now closed) bagel place in Corvallis. February, 1997.

Mark flying a kite on the Oregon coast. February, 1997.

Mark with his new kite. February, 1997.

Mark (left) and Eric with another kite. February, 1997.

Mark flying a kite with his teeth. That leather jacket was much more appropriate out there on the beach in the wind. February, 1997.

Mark as a wizard. February, 1997.

Mark with me on my first trip to Portland's Powell's City of Books. When we lived near each other in Albany, Mark and I would go to bookstores together and read Dr. Seuss out loud to each other. February, 1998.

On our many trips, we have gotten to know many of Mark's Oregon friends, and become friends with them ourselves.

Mark (right) with Paul and Lars demonstrating "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." February, 1998.

Miranda and Charlie, in particular, host a gaming gathering for us every year.

Mark with one of Miranda and Charlie's corgis. February, 1999.

Mark with his bike in appropriate Pacific Northwest outerwear. February, 1999.

Mark staring intently at a lava lamp. February, 1999.

Eventually, long distance costs came down, and we were able to talk to Mark more often. As someone who loves to talk on the phone, I in particular kept in touch with Mark this way. Generally, through most of the 2000's, we've probably been talking about once a month, and e-mailing much more often than that. We regularly discuss, in particular, the science fiction books we are both reading. Mark reads Locus and keeps me informed as to upcoming titles.

I would often call Mark when I was upset about something, particular if Eric either were unavailable or were the object of my frustration. Mark consoled me many, many times, and could always turn my tears into giggles. He has been a great source of comfort to me over the years.

Mark (right) with a bunch of friends going to see one of his favorite bands, the Residents, in San Francisco. Mark had had these "What would the Residents do?" t-shirts printed for the occasion. October, 1999.

All of us with the t-shirts again. October, 1999.

Mark with a Residents poster from the historic Fillmore Auditorium. October, 1999.

Mark at our apartment, displaying a t-shirt of one of his favorite comics, Larry Marder's Beanworld. Mark created the Beanweb, a site for Marder's fans. Fall, 1999.

Mark at Pt. Reyes, north of San Francisco, on the steps down to the lighthouse. November, 1999.

Mark (left) staring at Eric holding our cat, Anais. November, 1999.

On our many visits to Oregon to see Mark, we have generally fallen into a pattern of gaming with Miranda, Charlie, Torsten and Tony (and sometimes Portland-area friends of ours) on Saturday, going into Portland (and Powell's!) on Sunday, and having breakfast and then driving home on Monday. So many similar trips blur together in my mind, so I don't have as specific memories of the last several years as I do of our time together in Albany. I can tell you that it was during this period, both in person and over the phone, that Mark instilled his love of geology in me, introducing me to Stephen Harris' wonderful book on the Cascades, Fire Mountains of the West. I have become utterly fascinated with rocks, volcanoes and the like. It has greatly increased my enjoyment of the outdoors.

Mark also loves fungi. He hasn't quite managed to instill the same love in us, although we did see some very fascinating fungi on the Olympic Peninsula in 2010. But when we go hiking and see fungi, we take pictures of them for Mark. Sometimes, we even remember to share them with him, as we did when we saw him on the way back from the Olympic Peninsula. We got two extra visits in that year, one on the way up and one on the way back.

Eric's hand, pulling Mark's hat down over his face, at Nearly Normal's restaurant in Corvallis. February, 2001.

More hat silliness. February, 2001.

Mark, again with the intense look, after the hat incident. February, 2001.

I remember, on one trip to Oregon, as we pulled up in front of Mark's apartment, he met us outside, making, "Shh..." motions. We quietly got out of the car, and he brought us over to a spot in the yard, whispering, "Something wonderful is happening." He pointed down at some yellow spots on the ground. We looked at the spots, and we looked back at Mark. "It's a slime mold," he happily declared. He went on to tell us how fantastic and fascinating slime molds were. They have some characteristics of plants, some of animals, and some of fungi. They actually are pretty neat.

Mark with me in San Francisco. Spring, 2001.

Mark with Sebastian, Miranda and Charlie's cat. February, 2002.

Mark (second from left) with Charlie, Miranda and me. February, 2002.

Mark (center) holding up an object found in a geocache, with Eric and Wolf. February, 2003.

Mark with me on the riverfront in Portland. June, 2004.

Mark is part of an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign with some of his Corvallis-area friends. He tells Eric and me about his adventures in the world of Eberron. He tells us about the interpersonal dynamics involved in his gaming. He loves dwarves, and plays the part of a dwarf in the game. While I am partial to Sam, Mark's favorite fellow of the Ring is Gimley.

Mark indicating his apartment building. February, 2007.

On one trip to Portland, we brought Mark to meet Lee Moyer, who illustrates Dungeons & Dragons manuals. Lee showed us some of his works in progress. We ended up keeping Mark up way too late, but he said it was totally worth it.

Mark in Grant Park in Portland, where we were surrounded by statues from Beverly Cleary stories. February, 2008.

Mark (left) with Lars and me, again at Nearly Normal's. February, 2008.

In the last year or so, as Mark's health has declined, our relationship has changed. He's been less of a source of support to me, and instead I have tried to take on more of the caretaker role. Obviously, I haven't been providing the same level of care as his Corvallis-area friends, but I've been calling to check in on Mark more often. I hope I've been giving back to him some of what he's given me over all these years.

As Mark is such a Girl Genius fan that he once said that, when he died, he wanted to be reincarnated as a Jaegermonster, I made him this puppet of Gorb the Jaegermonster. February, 2012.

Thank you, Mark, for more than a quarter century of great memories.

Added 9 October, 2012

Mark died peacefully in Hospice in Portland, OR, on 5 October, 2012, the 15th day after his 46th birthday. We were able to see him a few days before that, and had some real quality time with him. Even in dying, he was as amusing as ever, telling his caretakers, "Who ever would have thought the hardest part of dying would be managing my social calendar?" Mark, we'll always love and remember you.

Us with Mark in the hospital.

Dated: 26 Sept, 2012 by Eric and Beth Zuckerman