Monday, June 2, 2008

Who Gilley Was

This is a rerun of my original Orcinus obituary for original News Blog founder Steve Gilliard, written one year ago this morning. It got considerable play -- especially after the New York Times quoted it at some length in its own obit.

Remembering Gilley a year later, there's not a whole lot more that I would add.

-- Sara

It's not news to anyone that the Internet is an emotionally complicated place. It binds us tightly to people we may never see in person. It makes us care about things that are farther away than we might ever imagine. It gives us communities in which we can celebrate and grieve things that those we share our meatworld homes with may not understand.

I'm coming up hard against all those walls today. My birthday -- the last one of my forties -- dawned with the news that one of my favorite online friends-I've-never-met, Steve Gilliard, died this morning in a Manhattan hospital.

It was not unexpected. Steve was already on kidney dialysis, and had survived a previous heart surgery. So those of us who were part of his blog's lively online community were deeply concerned when took ill in late February with a heart valve infection. A valve replacement surgery followed; and when he came to, it became clear that he'd had a stroke during the operation. From there, things went downhill, with moments of hope cycling with despair.

In terms of grandeur and prestige within Blogtopia, The News Blog was similar in many respects to Orcinus -- a down-home two-person blog with a strong perspective, loyal following, and Technorati rankings right in the same range. It was my second online home after this place -- a home I shared with a group of regulars who were as eclectic and lively as the subjects Steve covered, and whom I came to regard as some of my best online friends.

Gilley's main contribution to the progressive conversation was his incredible depth as a military historian. That was the blood and bone of his blog -- careful explanations of strategy and tactics, illustrated with annoted satellite pictures of Baghdad neighborhoods showing what our troops were facing, and interlaced with stories from other wars throughout history in which troops had found themselves in similar situations. It was the kind of interpretive, explanatory war reporting Americans used to get before Vietnam: here's where we're going, what we're doing, what we hope to achieve. And, too often, Gilley's analysis -- simply by showing us the players, the field, and the scoreboard -- also showed us with perfect clarity why we were going to lose.

His blogging voice was brash and authoritative -- just what you'd expect from a lifelong New Yorker. We gave him no end of shit for the bold pronouncements and predictions he'd occasionally issue, which would often enough turn out to be dead wrong. But when he wrote about New York politics (he was merciless on Giuliani, and it's one subject on which we will be poorer without him), he had a way of making even an expat on the opposite coast care about the local political oddities of the Big Apple. Reading Gilley on NYC was like reading Molly Ivins on Texas. You could only sit back, mute, at the gobstopping wonder of it all.

Earlier in his career, Gilley worked for several years in Silicon Valley; and he and his blogging partner, the lovely and talented Jen, made scathing critiques of the tech industry's overhyped anything-goes corporate culture. As an African-American man, Gilley knew the same lesson that I'd learned as a woman there: Any time an employer starts making the office "more like home," it's because they never intend to let you go home. The day they put in the gym and hire a chef for the employee cafeteria, your life, as you once knew it, is over.

Beyond that: any time a company starts making noises about how the "old rules don't apply" to them, it means they have no intention of respecting the values those old rules represented. Those of us who depend on scrupulous attention to those traditional employment rules to protect us from abuse, exploitation, and discrimination should not welcome this announcement as happy news. It means they're going to screw you. Gilley knew -- and was gutsy enough to say right out loud -- that rich white West Coast boys with Stanford engineering degrees can be every bit as racist and sexist in their business practices as any southern cracker.

We had several rather heated arguments about this before he convinced me he was right. I don't think I ever conceded the point outright, but he got me to re-think those years of my life, and frame them in a way that helped me get some peace. I'll always owe him for that, and I regret that I didn't thank him for it.

What happened to The News Blog after Gilley took ill was one of the more remarkable experiences I've had in my online life. Within hours, TNB's commenter community seamlessly stepped up and found a way to keep the thing going -- and then kept it up, day in and day out, for nearly four months. Part of it was that we didn't want to lose each other's good company; but most of it was that we knew the blog was Steve's life and livelihood, and we wanted him to have it to come home to when he got well.

Steve, of course, didn't make it easy. He took all the access and account information with him into his initial coma. But a system emerged as Jen found workarounds, and a volunteer webmaster stepped in, and all of us took turns submitting stuff that we thought was in keeping with Steve's vision of the blog. Two of us emerged as the blog's strongest voices, launching what should by rights become stellar blogging careers (Lower Manhattanite and Hubris Sonic, let me know where you land); but we all chipped in with the usual mix of tech and humor and Steve's signature food blogging to keep several posts going up per day.

A lot of blogs have meatspace metaphors for the kind of "place" they are -- whiskey bars and whaling shacks and public streets and cozy salons. TNB had been, perhaps, a sort of busy midtown coffeehouse with a raucous group of regulars. But when Steve went into the hospital, it transformed into a 24-hour vigil of close friends hanging out in the waiting room of a Manhattan hospital, keeping each other fed and entertained while worrying, praying, and waiting together for the news.

And today, we got the news we dreaded most. Gilley is gone. The News Blog is now dark. Jen told us from the first week that it would be closed down if Gilley died, and I expect she'll stick to that.

And the rest of us are left counting our losses. There are too few African-American voices in the progressive blogosphere anyway, but Steve's was simply irreplaceable. I've lost an online community I valued deeply. We'll mourn together for a while, and then scatter. It's the way of things in the online world: the feelings we have for people are very real; but sometimes, we're forced to reckon with the reality of just how ephemeral the connections that bind us are. The contradiction is not one that is sitting comfortably today.

It is the most beautiful of June evenings here in Vancouver. My family's getting ready to take me out. We'll take a walk through the rhododendrons and heron rookery in Stanley Park, then find a seaside restaurant for dinner, and maybe go see a movie or take in the scene down on Robson Street. For a few hours, we'll celebrate what's been achieved in 49 years -- a loving and sturdy marriage, handsome children, a comfortable home, work that suffices, money enough, more good things to come.

And I'll resolve more firmly to drop some weight, watch my blood sugar, get those heart checkups...and keep blogging. If we're going to fill the silence left by the loss of Steve Gillard's great big voice, we're all going to have to keep ourselves strong, stay healthy, and learn to speak up a whole lot louder for what's right.

Updated with corrected information on Gilley's health. He had a lot of health issues; but he wasn't diabetic, as was previously reported.

Update II: Commenter Republic of Palau makes an excellent point that's worth everybody's attention. If you want to do one constructive thing in memory of Gilley -- sign your damned donor card.

Steve's family will no doubt have other suggestions in the days ahead, and we'll respond to those, too. But this one's easy. Just go do it.