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To Help You Fucking Matter

Sure, it's a crib from Srini, but it fits. My friend Leslie Harpold, who introduced herself to me in a charming sort of stumbling way one day in August 1997, via email, died over the weekend, and the Web, and the world, are poorer for her passing in more ways than you will know. She helped me fucking matter, when I needed it most, and showed me in a few simple words on a cold street in San Francisco one night, what ought to matter, if I could just open my eyes and let it.

Leslie, unique among a crowd of ambitious, talented, and multidisciplinary few who helped define the personal Web, was the sort of person who worked hard - she often slept less than four hours a day - to help you find whatever it was that would make what you were doing somehow more important, make you feel like you were capable of and able to and culpable for everything you wanted to do.

She talked to cabbies. She egged you on. She smirked and laughed and was an unforgiving critic who would offer you a Rolling Rock the next time you met to make up for any possibility of slight. She took you to museums, and argued postmodernism and saw through the smarmy cult of twelve-stepper sanctimoniousness and the easy trap of religion; she liked the Tao and Husker Du and "reformed rednecks" and muscle cars and filthy rock music. She left New York, her home of ten years, when it was time to let some new kid come to try to make it there.

We celebrated New Year's 1998 on her roof in Hell's Kitchen, listening to the drunks scream their joy into the chill dark air. She always made you take her bed, while she slept on the floor, in her one-room apartment with the shower in the kitchen, making some excuse or other. She gave you music. She wrote you stories. She gave and gave and gave, and she borrowed from somewhere deep in herself to find more when it threatened to run out. She made art, paintings and Web sites and stories. She loved, and was hurt, and loved again, and suffered loss, and loved again. She infuriated me with her stubborn refusal to learn more about perl and Apache and unix and ftp, then amazed me with a word and a picture, or sometimes just the one or the other. And she suffered most unimaginable pains and indignities, too.

She was, in the words of Salinger's Seymour, most unimaginably brave.

And now she's gone and it's been three years and change since we spoke, because of that awful way in which some peoples' dreams and hopes and aspirations don't match up, and I sit here, thinking about the last few awful days, reading others' stories and remembrances and cries of pain, and I see a watershed of sorts in progress, a mile marker, a dim light fading.

At one time, there all of us were, or all that seemed to matter, together, writing and posing and creating and critiquing and hamming it up; making the Web from ourselves, "advancing the medium", all in one "place" of sorts. We could go there when the day was hard, or when the job was boring, or when the mood struck, or just when Eudora pulled down the next post. We would spend hours each day in days already long with work and play, regaling each other and the group. And no, you can't link to it.

We were together, though far apart (although so many of them moved to SF and then on again), and it was a family. And we pissed it away, like fools do, and split, and fragmented, and rent it in twain and scores more shards as we came and went, mostly going, for all the usual reasons that curse us all: vanity, ego, selfishness, pride, anger, fear, and hatred and love and longing.

And we justify it all with the uneasy comfort to be found in claiming that pioneers are always messy, destructive, and somehow shortsighted and visionary at once. The truth is, most of us left a legacy of skipping town when things got boring, leaving behind virtual children and once beloved pets; moved from one thing to the next as easily as some people change hair color. There are more ghost sites and abandoned directories and broken links and 404s and redirects and [an error occurred while processing this directive] than we like to think of. But not all of us left that legacy, not all.

When Leslie died, I heard about it two days later via instant message. I told one of her oldest friends via the fucking comments system at vox.com because her whois was out of date and I didn't have a phone number and she wasn't checking the email address she'd had for ten years because of all the spam. But she was told nonetheless.

Her friends spent two days going round checking the old Web sites, then the typepad blogs, then the vox experiments, fresh and unmaintained alike, finding old friends, to see if they had heard and if so, if they'd posted. We paid tribute to her in our IM client status lines and in our blogs and filters and mailing lists and via the phone, and tomorrow her brief obituary will pass into the archives of metafilter. I'm sure there are some of us who still don't know yet.


We build and move on, and sometimes we forget that maintaining is as important as building, even if it's not in our temperament; someone must take care of our creations or they wither and die. I wonder if that's not the core lesson here - from the heady days of the dotcom millionaires to the low-key excitement of fucking Web Two Dot Oh - we triumph by building, but to truly honor all that is good and holy in this life, we must be caretakers as well, and guide the young and accompany the aging, here stripped of most of our cyclical mythical sensibilities and bedazzled by the diamond age.

As Maggy put it, "she shouldn't have been alone". And we see now that she kept so many others company, nurtured and groomed and pruned and fed. And without her, we're the poorer, not just because we won't see another advent calendar next year from her hand, but because she stands as a reminder of and standard against which we must all ask ourselves, "what are we caring for today?"

Tonight, I'm caring for the past as Leslie slips into it and away. Tomorrow, I need to start caring for the future, too.

UPDATE: it occurs to me to mention that I suspect Leslie might have enjoyed the fact that at least one of her eulogists used "fucking" in the title. Panegyric, my ass. But still.


This is a wonderful post Steve.

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