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On Middle Age, Posterity and Self-Importance — 20 July 2010

About a year ago I got a call from someone who found a document I wrote about 25 years ago and wanted to send it to me. He said he had enjoyed reading it. I remembered writing it in the back of a theater in upstate New York where I was working as a stage manager. I wrote it as a sort of memoir hoping that someday somebody would find it and get to know some other stage manager who had worked there in the past. But now that I actually got it back, I hardly had time to read it and, come to think of it, what I wrote looked pretty ridiculous reading it today.

I wrote a lot of things as a teenager. I took myself quite seriously and thought a lot back then about my posterity. As student council president, I prepared agendas and minutes of meetings that would make a municipality proud, and even created a student union constitution. I kept all my notes from school, daily journals of appointments and expenses, college extra-curricular projects, oped articles I wrote during my graduate years and business ideas I had afterward. Filled up a few cartons worth with all this stuff, figuring that someday after I’d become president of the world and died, my loyal followers would have plenty of source material and papers for my memorial museum. Lenin’s museum in Moscow would be the tip of the iceberg compared to mine. Only now, when I actually think about bringing down those cartons to look at the stuff, I hardly have the time or the interest at reviewing what is sure to look pretty stupid. And remember that constitution? Not that anyone ever looked at it after I graduated.

I did peek for a few minutes at one folder containing oped articles I wrote about 20 years ago during law school. The writing wasn’t bad but it was depressing to read it because the ideas were the same ideas I might have today. I was torn between the feeling that I wasn’t being nearly as creative nowadays that I have a more complicated life as when I had all the time in the world and the feeling that 25 years later there was nothing new to add. There was an oped piece in the New York Times recently co-written by a ninth grader at a prep school in Manhattan and his father. The quality of the ideas from the 9th grader were pretty equivalent to his father (assuming he really wrote it). It’s not necessarily so that 45 year olds are that much more insightful or worldly than teenagers. It’s just that they have had more opportunity to become cynical and to know if their ideas have any chance at becoming reality so therefore we tend to pay more attention to them hoping they are mature and might know something we don’t.

I’ve had over a quarter century to observe the Middle East peace process and to know that the future promises more process than peace. At least Thomas Friedman has enough gumption to admit as much even as he makes his living writing columns about it. America has the best democracy money can buy and that’s about it. Real problems at home and abroad are not being solved and won’t be. I write a column once a month on GlobalThoughts.com but often can’t think of much that is new to write and yet try not to be boring. But it’s hard to be when you know that the answers are pretty obvious and yet people seem to keep ignoring them.

I can write about stuff I know about, so forgive me if the following seems a bit parochial.

Last fall I attended a seminar on the future of Judaism. Some of the top philanthropists, thinkers and celebrities were there with their entourages. On paper the agenda looked substantial. The seminar was well advertised for weeks in the Jewish newspapers. The speakers basically stood in front of a student rent-a-crowd who came mainly because the president of a university spoke there as a co-sponsor and he bussed them in. The sessions were filled with panelists flattering each other and the bullshit was really over the top. Absolutely nothing would come out of this conference. What a show, what a waste. There were maybe 10 people like me there — actual professionals who came to sit in and see what was going on. I asked the head of the conference, a man who I know for over 30 years, to introduce me to a person there whom I wanted to meet and he refused. I am still trying to figure out if I should have expected that from him. From the podium, the conference chair was effusively praising this man as the most accessible human being you could ever want to know, only I knew quite differently, which is why I asked for the introduction. The conference head himself is a self-absorbed showboat and you could tell that a good number of the panelists didn’t know if they should laugh or cry with this guy as the chair. Experiences like this don’t leave you any reason to be something other than a cynic. Only we all know for centuries that blowhards and showmen get headlines while the real substance gets shafted.

This past week there was an insert to the Jewish Week newspaper called 36 Under 36, highlighting 36 promising future leaders in the Jewish world under age 36. One of them had something that looked particularly interesting called lendforpeace.org. It is a website calling for micro-lending to entrepreneurs in the West Bank. I was interested in perhaps lending so I checked it out. It took all of 3 minutes to figure this out. There were 5 projects on the site, all of which were posted in early 2009 and required about $2,000 each. The terms of the loans were to be 18 months. If you think about it, that means that these projects should have terminated by now but they haven’t even started. With about $10,000, I could have funded all the projects on that site and meanwhile 18 months have passed and you’d have to wonder what actually happened to the entrepreneurs who posted their projects on the site so long ago. I sent a note to the website asking for information and got nothing back. The person who wrote the insert for the newspaper obviously didn’t do their homework and was really shallow. But this is the stuff that passes for the top of the heap.

Meanwhile, I spent 2 years putting together a prospectus to start a doable program to train Jewish leaders and couldn’t get the time of day from people in the Jewish community that count. And it was a much more detailed and complete prospectus than any of the other similar projects I’ve seen that were shopped around during the past decade. It was posted here on GlobalThoughts a few months ago and you can look at it yourself and see if it passes muster with you.

At some point, you look around and you say, hey, my life is statistically half over. I could spend the rest of my life writing about the same things or thinking up new things and know that after another 25-50 years nothing will change. After I’m dead, nothing will change either. I see what happened to my grandfather and father’s ideas about things in the world, basically next to nothing. Nobody will miss me or my ideas — would you really notice if, after a few months, you didn’t get a note from GlobalThoughts.com with a new article to read? I can at least claim to have known enough not to get caught up in the social networking internet craze; I have no Facebook account and turned in a blackberry after having one for a week. At least my delusions of posterity never got so trivial to think that legions wanted to read online what I ate for breakfast. On the other hand, I have also come to realize after a few decades that nobody is publishing anything I send them, so perhaps it pays to stop sending in letters and articles that they might not even be reading. At least GlobalThoughts.com publishes what I write…As A.J. Liebling once said, and this is all you have to know about journalism: Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.

I know, for example, that there is no point in me sending a draft of this article to a newspaper or a magazine. They won’t print it. And it’s funny, because I know that several thousand people a month read what is on GlobalThoughts and they obviously think it is worth their while to read what I write even if very few of them feel motivated to write me back and discuss things. Those who do contact me say that what they read on GlobalThoughts is more insightful than a lot of the other stuff they read. I’m sure there are others who feel otherwise, but they read it anyway.

I used to send stuff to newspapers but I’m learning that it is a waste of time. And besides, even if they do print out — I read plenty of good stuff out there. Read around enough and pretty much every idea is out there. And a day later we forget it anyway.

I do have a few fans though who think everything I say and do is valuable treasure. My wife (to some extent) and my two kids. Right now, my kids think I am the greatest. No doubt that in another decade they won’t and in a few decades I’ll be lucky if they even want to see me. But even there, you don’t have to look past this month’s Wall Street Journal to read an article that says that how you educate and raise kids has little to do with how they will turn out. The article says that parents waste too much energy worrying about the outcomes of their parenting and should just live and let live. I have a hard time believing though that almost all our efforts as parents are rather meaningless as I see the results in our kids so far that I am quite sure we had something to do with. At least I feel good about it, even if I am wrong.

So I suppose that it is a better investment of my time (and better for my ego) to spend less time worrying about the posterity of my ideas and trying to influence the world than it is in just being a good husband and dad. More time taking vacations and less about whether the kids eat their vegetables. You might not miss GlobalThoughts but they would certainly miss me if I weren’t around. They get upset enough if I am not there with a hug and kiss for them several times a day. The world has enough opinions; there are established reasons why those opinions don’t matter and why things can’t change. Even a US president has limited scope to effect change and we know that no less than Barack Obama’s chief of staff is frustrated at the lack of change and wants out. At least I realized at an early age not to repeat my high school experience in politics and to leave the political arena to the losers who want power and bribes but have no independent idea of what they want to do or the billionaires who can afford to do whatever they want and hopefully want to do good. I’m quite happy to let Bloomberg run the country. Go on, Mike, run.

There is a religious objection to my conclusion. Judaism’s imperative is that we have to repair the world. We are not allowed to be satisfied with the way it is nor be so cynical that we give up the hope for positive change. Jews who commit suicide are not buried in Jewish cemeteries and it is considered an abomination; is not cynicism suicide of the soul?

Everyone wants to write a book to see their words on a page. We’ve all seen people in their 80’s writing books about their lives for posterity (ie: I started out as a shoeshine boy and now I own $25 million dollars worth of real estate). My brother writes screenplays and books, knowing that it is likely they will never be read. It says in the Bible that everyone should write their own Bible. It is supposed to be the 5 Books of Moses, but few are scribes so figuratively I suppose it means their expressions of being.

So I hedge my bets. After 15 years, I still write once a month on GlobalThoughts.com to reach out to my friends and family, and I post hotel reviews on TripAdvisor because I rely on reviews there when I travel and know they are read. But I am not trying to be famous doing it and it’s an important reason Global Thoughts keeps looking the way it does as opposed to going more commercial. I’ve long been out of the seeking fame and fortune business. It’s there for anyone who already knows me or who discovers it and wants to read it. It’s a journal of what I think I know, an archive for me to find past notes and for me to know what I was thinking at a given time. It’s a way of keeping one foot in the bathtub of ideas and concern for the welfare of the world. I’ve long stopped trying to build an empire of my company; we hire and motivate great employees and they are doing that in spite of me and my business partner. So really, the posterity for me is in enjoying the moments I have with my family and friends, finding stimulation in the world around me for myself and sharing thoughts with my friends around the world face to face once in awhile (as opposed to these fictional online friendships), and knowing that while I believe in saving for the future, I can’t count on the future, not even tomorrow. And that yes, it is quite a relief knowing that the world really can do quite well without me and my boxes of papers and online postings for posterity.

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