Words by Michael Phillips, from "Let You In"
Photography & design by Nikki Moen
In 2009, Mike spent a week guest-blogging for my then-and-still favorite writer, Jeff VanderMeer. Mike’s posts intrigued me from the jump. He was dark, self-deprecating, funny, and sharp as hell; all of which I loved, but there was something more to him, to his writing. Something tangible and gripping. One might first assume that his writing prowess was a byproduct of losing his ability to speak, but in reading his work, it becomes apparent rather quickly that he was reaching for something beyond the essentials of communication. Michael had more to say. So much more.
In my case, I’ve always wanted to write very personally, even in my fiction. I don’t want to die feeling like nobody really knew me. I also love the craft and want to use it well. For a long time, however, I tried to write personally about myself without actually writing anything personal. It wasn’t satisfying for me, it wasn’t particularly compelling to readers. Then I died, and woke up. Now I write exactly what I want to write, I don’t write anything I don’t feel. -Michael Phillips on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog, Feb. 21st, 2009
He only had seventeen tattoos at the time. His final blog post archived tattoo number 86 of 95, but he may have snuck a couple more sessions in without fanfare. Most of his tattoos were of song lyrics, another testament to both his dedication to the written word, and to the artists who meant so much to him. Here are most of Mike’s tattoo songs:
After his guest-blogging stint, I followed Mike back to his home base at lithiumcreations.com, his self-described “live memoir.” I became a regular reader and occasional commenter. And then one day, he emailed me. Or rather, us. I’d been entering the Bedlam Publishing page as my link when commenting on his posts, and I guess something there was compelling enough for him to reach out. His first email was short and to the point, inquiring about submissions. Though I don’t recall my exact reaction, I’m fairly certain it was a mix of disbelief and pants-shitting. We published him in our second print journal and he even came on briefly as an editor, but most importantly, I got to know him better.
Some of my most cherished memories with Mike were after he introduced me to his favorite David Letterman game, “Is This Anything?” The original wasn’t far removed from the more famous “Stupid Human Tricks,” except the final judgment here was simply: “something” or “nothing.” In Mike’s version, we'd send a story concept, a few lines, or even an early draft prefaced with, “Is This Anything?” Everything he sent me was decidedly “something.” Though I always entered the game with the same mindset I would when workshopping with anyone, the force of his passion, effort, and vision always made things feel heavier and more vital than the average flurry of a writer’s ideas. It’s not easy to find people you feel comfortable consistently sharing your raw creative ideas with, and it’s even harder to find people who click with your motivations and intentions, and can provide honest, constructive feedback every time.
Oh, and he had a great Letterman story from several years prior.
Even his absurd ventures had weight to them. A few years back, amidst proclamations that an “alt-left” existed and was wreaking as much havoc as the very real and actively harmful alt-right, Mike declared himself President of the Alt-Left and appointed me his VP. It was a great honor, and he even invited Aimee Mann and Ted Leo to play his inauguration (Ted accepted!). I put together a simple logo - he requested purple, of course - and started writing a piece for a newsletter that never materialized. That was our last “project” together.
|The Leaving||Arrival and a Tattoo||Aimee Mann at the Manship Theatre||Backstage at the Manship Theatre|
When we lose someone important, we often talk about how much they loved helping people, occasionally to the point that it feels forced or clichéd. Fortunately, as with all things in Michael's world, we don't have to exaggerate what an effortlessly generous person he was. I couldn't if I tried.
Sometimes it feels silly to cry over the loss of someone you've never met. We might even have felt the need to justify why we feel such profound loss over someone who was never physically in our lives in the past, but in more recent times, thankfully, that need for justification is vanishing. When I saw that Michael Phillips had passed away, I openly wept, even though we had never met in person and had only spoken online a handful of times. I wept because it was easy to see his great heart and passion for life in all his interactions. Because he fought loudly for healthcare rights when they were being threatened, speaking eloquently for so many. I felt crushed because Michael Phillips saved my life.
While most of America was completely unaware of the accessibility issues that disabled folks faced every day, Mike was working with tech companies (including Apple and Control Bionics) to develop breakthrough assistive technologies that continue to grant people agency over their own lives in a world not designed with them in mind.
While many of us were debating the costs and effects of a health care overhaul in this country, Michael Phillips was fucking living them. Each legislative cut sliced away a piece of his freedom. The services essential to upholding his quality of life were reduced again and again. Slowed but never deterred, he was out there at the protests, at the rallies, at the polls, on television, fighting not only for himself, but for everyone in America trying to gain a foothold against a corrupt medical system for a chance at a normal life.
Mike deserved to see the improvements he fought so hard for. While he certainly had a hand in saving Medicare protections for a lot of people, particularly in his home state of Florida, he was nowhere near the end of the fight. This country still has a long way to go to defend our most vulnerable from predatory industries and political forces that view living, breathing human beings as nothing more than liabilities, and we need to step it up even more if we’re going to make any progress without Michael Phillips.
Good night, disco goddess. We miss you, Michael.
Love, Josh, Nikki, Megan, and Wes.