On Doug Winger, and Death

Furry is still young, but we’re all getting older, year by year.

Doug Winger’s death from emphysema last week was notable not only for his cherished and unique contributions to furry, but also for the fact he died from an age-related illness. In this he is, as he always seemed to be, ahead of the curve.

Furry and furries are ageing. In the coming years and decades, age-related illnesses and deaths will cease being rare or notable. If furry became a unique phenomenon somewhere around the late 1970s, then the young adults who founded the fledgling community are well on their way to becoming senior citizens.

Doug Winger, at 62 years old, died young. He was a couple of decades younger than the average life expectancy for an American male. He isn’t the first high-profile furry to die of an age-related illness, but he’s one of only a handful.

If we look at some of the (living) high-profile founding members of furry, we can get an idea of the upper end of the furry age spectrum:

Your humble correspondent, for the record, is 40.

Forty is about the age where the likely cause of death changes from misadventure or suicide, to heart disease or cancer. It is also, traditionally, the point at which someone might have a mid-life crisis.

A mid-life crisis is essentially a mortality crisis, and you can enjoy one at whatever age suits you. It can occur once you are emotionally mature enough to understand that life is short and death is inevitable. It might be helped along by a reminder of death: perhaps the slow failing of your own body, perhaps the news of the death of a member of your community.

A mortality crisis, at mid-life or elsewhere, is not necessarily a bad thing. I’d argue that it is usually a good thing, although of course this depends on the person. An older person might try to reclaim their youth, perhaps by buying a sportscar and running off with the secretary (the bad version), or maybe by finding a new enjoyment in life on the basis that it’s fleeting (the good version). The good versions are much more common than the bad versions, but of course you tend not to hear about them.

I’ll give you an example of a good mortality crisis: a furry friend of mine, upon reaching midlife, realised that good physical health isn’t permanent. He had always liked the idea of gaining serious amounts of muscle, and figured that it was now or never. Fast-forward a few years and he’s deadlifting some 400 lbs, is feeling much happier with himself (and has undoubtedly picked up a few admirers along the way).

Life is, essentially, a struggle. It’s not realistic to expect to be able to snap your fingers and change, and it’s very easy to float along without really asserting yourself on the world around you. A mortality crisis, for many people, is a helpful force.

We furries are lucky, because our community is diverse enough to include both young and old. It used to be that way for all humans, until the industrial revolution came along and we started to congregate in big cities. Now, most people create communities of peers, meaning that as they age they hang around an extended group of friends from their school or university days. This means that their peer groups tend to be monocultural: same socio-economic background, same beliefs, same age.

There is a lot of research showing the extent to which we are influenced by our friends. Famously, we are much more likely to be overweight if our friends are overweight. In a monocultural peer group, it’s easy enough to imagine how this might happen, and this is confirmed by the research: we copy our friends’ habits and lifestyle. It’s difficult to be the outlier, and so we tend to regress towards our peer group’s mean.

I’d argue that a monocultural peer group inhibits personal growth, because such a group innately lacks heroes and role models. If everyone is at around the same level, there is limited peer-group influence to improve. And a lack of exposure to different age groups is also limiting: those without young friends may fail to understand the struggles that young people can face, and those without old friends may never learn to approach death in a positive way.

In a group where everyone is the same age, everyone starts to suffer from age-related illnesses at around the same time. If members of the group haven’t been exposed to ageing and death to any significant extent, then they may lack the resources to manage their new exposure to mortality. This can lead to the bad, running-away sort of mid-life crisis, as well as creating a whole bunch of other personal challenges.

We furries are, collectively, exposed to age-related illnesses through the older members of our community. Doug Winger’s death is in no way a good thing, but the inevitability of some furry community death is a good thing, at least because we are exposed to death’s realities and inevitability.

Doug’s art, for better or for worse, couldn’t fail but touch anyone who saw it. For most of us, this is the only relationship we had with him: completely impersonal and one-sided. For us, his death serves a useful function, in that it reminds us of the value of our community, that we all get to spend exactly one year at every age, that we are the oldest we have ever been right now, and that we will never again be younger than we are right now.

For those who knew Doug personally, I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that I’m sorry for your loss. We understand that your life has irrevocably changed, and changed for the worse. And we understand that we, too, will eventually also lose our loved ones. We promise to make the most of the short time we have.

Vale Doug Winger.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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3 thoughts on “On Doug Winger, and Death

  1. I addressed this on twitter, but I think it’s worth stating here too. In this mortality crisis you define, there has to be one lesson learned. Looking at Doug’s health decline doesn’t start when he was admitted to the hospital, it goes back decades. While by no means does anyone deserve to die this way, I do remember stories of Doug chain smoking at conventions, coming in just long enough to do some art or talk on a panel, and then immediately going outside with other heavy smokers in the fandom.

    Now, the decision to smoke is a personal one, largely, but it also has slight effects each time. While nobody could go back in time and say “This. This is the cigarette that kills Doug Winger 30 years from now”, the effect of those choices add up and roll forward.

    By no means am I blaming Mr. Winger for his death. It’s unfortunate and sad and he will be missed. But calling his death an age-related illness when it was preventable seems a bit.. sad. It seems to neglect the reality that he didn’t have to die this way. That nobody has to die this way.

    You mention a monoculture being a harder peer pressured group to break habits of this nature, and I certainly agree. But as we look around the fandom, and get an overall glimpse of its average age (from the wonderful surveys and data-driven work Makyo and AS have done), we can’t ignore that there’s going to be a lot more of these sad events coming unless we start breaking some bad habits.

    I’ve lost too many friends and family to smoking and smoking related illnesses to let it go easily anymore.

  2. To say that his death was related directly to his age is a bit disingenuous. Unless you could argue that he was old enough where he wasn’t warned about the dangers of chain smoking like a wild fire because back when he was a young lad there were no surgeon general warnings.

    But to have been a furry in that age, I think, it may have been much easier to turn to unhealthier vices that were seen as socially normative at the moment. We still do in many ways, drinking being the vice of choice these days.

    Of course it’s not just furries who succumb to these vices and become entrapped by them. It’s easy to say “you should stop this because it’s not good for you.” it’s much harder make life be so wondrous that no one would ever have to run to unhealthy escapes in the first place.

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