I am not too comfortable talking about myself, as opposed to what I believe, but a number of readers have written to me asking who I am. I am a forty-one year old software executive and attorney living in Brooklyn, New York. I attended public schools and am old enough to remember the end of school prayer, the beginning of busing, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I am a member of the first and last generation to undergo nuclear attack drills in which we were instructed to hide under our desks. I remember, during the Cuban Missile crisis, a radio broadcaster advising listeners to roll under a parked car if they happened to be on the street at the moment of the flash.
Around 1966, I asked my father if I would be drafted and be killed in Vietnam. He said the war would long be over and anyway, it is always the other guy who dies in a war. I wondered what the other guy's father told him? In 1972, when I turned 18, I drew a low draft number, but they had just stopped calling anyone.
I am Jewish. The common denominator of the Jews, as someone said a long time ago, is that the world won't let you not be. This is a negative bond; positive ones are a particular sense of humor and cultural outlook. I am secular because I cannot get a grip on the idea of God, but have a deep respect for people who not only believe but also display compassion, tolerance and respect for other human beings. However, they are surprisingly rare. In addition to synagogue, I have attended Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church services including weddings, baptisms, and midnight Mass at St. Martin in the Fields in London, and appreciate the beauty of ritual, especially any service where the congregation shakes hands. I have experienced little anti-Semitism in my life but what I have encountered has been bitter.
On May 5, 1970, my life changed when I read in the morning paper about the four kids at Kent State shot to death the day before by the National Guard. I went over to Brooklyn College, across the street from my high school, and talked to organizers of a student strike, one of whom gave me a bullhorn. I stood outside Midwood High, telling people through the bullhorn that Nixon had gone to far, that they were killing kids now for opposing the war. Within a couple of hours, hundreds of people were outside with me, and almost no-one was in class.
The defining moment of my life to date came the next day. For much of the day, a counter-demonstration had been forming across the street, consisting of frightening people I had never seen in our neighborhood before, wearing black leather, chains wrapped around their fists. The rumor was rampant that they would attack us, while the police stood by. In the early afternoon, they finally charged. Someone, not me, yelled out "Link arms!" and I joined a human wall to protect the people behind us. Our attackers got halfway across the street when the cops ran in and stopped them. In a sense, I have been half asleep in the quarter century that has elapsed since that day. I am waking up, however, and hope again to be of some use.
After the strike was over, the principal called my father up to school and threatened to expel me. My dad and I rarely saw eye to eye on anything in those years, but he told Mr. Hilsen that if the school threw me out for my antiwar speech, he would "sue all the way up to the Supreme Court." I am intensely proud of my dad. He was not a physically strong man, but he had moral integrity and courage. I was not expelled from Midwood.
The following year, I went to Washington for the demonstrations on the anniversary of Kent State, and slept, with a few hundred thousand others, by the reflecting pool, in the shadow of the Washington monument. Rousted from the Mall by the police, I ended up in a cafeteria at George Washington University, where Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman--both dead today and both legends--were sitting at a corner table, planning their next move.
In 1972, I decided to be really straight and serious--a decision that would carry me into law school before I knew what I was doing. I started Brooklyn College (where I went on the open admissions program, having graduated high school with something like a 69 average). During the Watergate hearings, I watched every minute that I could on TV, and carried a transistor radio around to listen when I had to go out. I believed (as I do now) that Richard Nixon had the morality of a gangster, and was relieved when he resigned. I made straight A's for two years and transferred to Columbia, where I worked in the Morris Udall presidential campaign. Though Udall was about as honest as they come, I didn't like politics and I didn't like what I became when I tried to manipulate the Columbia Democratic Caucus into endorsing my candidate. It was 1976, and a dark horse candidate named Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere and took it. Although I had applied to law school thinking I would run for office one day, by the time I received my admission to Harvard I was no longer interested.
Law school is where you go when you are bright but cannot play the violin and are not particularly good at math. At Harvard, I discovered that there are people in the world much smarter than I am. Harvard Law School is a much milder place than it is portrayed in the movies, but the truest thing ever said about it or any other law school is: You enter talking about right and wrong, and you leave talking about what's the law and what's not the law.
In 1977-1978, I took a year off from school and went to work for an American law firm in Paris, where I fell in love with the city and the language. In July, 1978, I had another formative experience: I was sending a telegram to my parents in the Post Office on the Rue Lourmel when four men wearing ski masks and carrying machine guns entered. I squatted in a corner for five minutes looking into the barrel of one of those guns while the three other men robbed the post office of old age pension money. George Orwell wrote that when you are destitute life becomes very simple. When you are at gunpoint, it is simpler still. In fact, it clears the mind marvelously. In a moment, I knew that the man who was covering us would either pull the trigger or he would not. There was nothing else. He didn't fire.
Despite this experience, I wanted desperately to go back to Paris after law school, but it didn't work out. I took a job in New York with an international firm, hoping to get back to Paris; I believed I was just lighting temporarily in the city to use it as a springboard to get away again. Here I am fifteen years later, and it still feels temporary. The law firm was an excruciating place; years later, when I heard that the partner who made it a living hell had been disbarred and imprisoned for tax evasion, I could not feel sorry for him. I left after eighteen months to found my own law practice, taking a 75% cut in income my first year. I spent the rest of the '80's laboring in the vineyards, building a law practice centered around the computer industry. In August 1982, I billed and collected $75 the entire month. Though I cannot say I have ever been poor, in the first couple of years I experienced something like it, as I waited for clients to pay me and checks to clear. There were weeks when I couldn't afford to eat enough to still my hunger--but on the other hand it was an intellectual exercise, because my parents would have helped, and I didn't want to ask them.
In 1982, not very busy, I volunteered to defend Haitian immigrants in political asylum proceedings. Haitian boat people were being warehoused in a camp so far from any Florida city that only one volunteer lawyer managed to get there. There were two immigration courtrooms set up in the camp, and while the lawyer was in one asking for time to prepare, the judge in the other was ordering a half-dozen refugees deported. This had nothing to do with the America I believed in. My grandparents all came over in steerage from the Ukraine and Poland between 1899 and 1918. Immigration court is a sewer and the system was politically stacked against my clients, who were black, poor and from an island where the vicious dictator was an ally of the U.S. Asylum was never granted (though it was routinely given to Cubans and Russians who had suffered much less) but I kept my clients in the country long enough for them to benefit from the amnesty that was issued two years later.
In 1989, my father, who had suffered three heart attacks, died of cancer. Kubler-Ross talks of denial, anger, bargaining. My father, a physician, went directly to the last stage, acceptance. At the end, after eight months of chemotherapy, fevers, trips to the emergency room, he came home and declined antibiotics for the final fever. "You know what this means?" I asked him. "Is that what you want?" He laughed and said, "I want to live twenty more years, but I don't have the choice." He died very quietly in his bed, five days later. I hope I will make as good an end as he did.
In 1990 I knew, at last, that I had built a successful enterprise-- I had 300 clients and a growing national reputation among programmers and computer consultants, had written three books and was being asked to lecture on a regular basis. But I hated practicing law. I never had wanted to be a litigator, but discovered that I had to litigate to make a living. I found I was good at it, but the screaming and lying of my adversaries in the New York court system, and the suspicion of corruption when things went wrong sometimes, was unbearable. I decided to swim upstream, and joined my largest client as Vice President of Operations--I wanted a position where I could build systems to avoid messes, rather than cleaning them up after they occurred. I have been with the company for six years, and am lucky to have partners who are caring, respectful, and very tolerant. The company is run with the employees in mind, has always been profitable and never had a layoff. Neither as a lawyer nor as a businessman have I ever made a decision I could not stand by. I believe that a business can be run very profitably with the interests of the shareholders, the employees, the customers and the public simultaneously in mind.
I have always been very interested in ethics, law and politics, and for some years I had daydreamed about publishing The Ethical Spectacle as a print newsletter. As an attorney, I had sent a monthly newsletter out to a few hundred people, and knew it would be far too expensive for me to reach the audience I wished. When I turned forty, I made a few resolutions for the rest of my life; one of them was to do The Spectacle at last, in the new and affordable medium of the World Wide Web. As I write this, I am putting the finishing touches on the fourteenth issue.
Last month, thirty thousand people in more than sixty countries read the Spectacle. Hundreds of them have written to me, most supportive, some critical, very few flaming me for my views. I feel more awake than I have at any time since 1971. This year, I also had the opportunity to write a book on free speech on the Internet, which will be published by Henry Holt in April under the title Sex, Laws and Cyberspace. I am also talking to the ACLU, hoping to be a plaintiff in the litigation that will be brought to void the Internet indecency law as a violation of the First Amendment.
In closing, here are the two most exciting ideas I know:
"We must be the change we wish to see in the world." (Gandhi)
"Only that day dawns to which we are awake. The sun is but a morning star; there is more day to dawn." (Thoreau)
I'll see you in the morning.
Its 5 a.m. on a Monday, and I am completely at loose ends, so here goes.
I spent ten years with the company I joined in 1990. It was a wonderful environment, run by a tolerant and supportive owner who became my good friend. In 1995, I asked for, and he gave me, the opportunity to create and run a web-based software development unit, and for the next five years I was the CEO of a business which grew to 90 employees and $12 million in revenue.
This was a fulfilling, but very hard experience. I am an idea person--we started our web unit a full year before the company which became the largest and most successful of our competitors. But, as I did not know then, I am not a natural CEO--too geeky and strange and I don't have a chin like a brick. I also was not predatory or violent enough to deal properly with the people who come sniffing around when you are running something successful.
In 1999, we got over-extended, having launched too many businesses in too short a time, and we needed to close or sell some of them. I fought very hard to sell rather than close mine, and when I found a buyer for it, decided to remain with the new owners rather than stay with the boss who had been so good to me for ten years. This understandably antagonized him, though in recent years we have begun to talk a little again. Since loyalty and community are very important to me, I have some regrets about my decision to leave, but at the time, I was more attached to, even obsessed by, the new community I had started, and that overcame my loyalty to the old one when it became necessary for them to separate from each other.
The new owners were bottom feeders who figured they could get my company cheap, and did. They made a lot of promises about keeping me with the company, then fired me thirteen months later and put one of their own in as CEO without giving me a reason. It seems clear in retrospect that they bought the company in order to give this man something to run. Of course, the impact on me, emotionally and financially, was awful, but I had nothing in writing. It is really a very everyday story, and employees of mine even predicted to me that my termination would be the outcome of the sale, but I responded that I liked the new owners, they were nice to me, and I had no sense of danger with them. So in reality I did not have the tools to hang on in that world.
The new owners, who had all the viciousness and violence I lacked, offered a fraction of its value for my stock, denied me financial statements and tried to freeze me out entirely. I surprised them by litigating--they thought I would just fade away--and after years of litigation, we reached an accomodation and they bought me out. By now they had mismanaged the company until it had a fraction of the revenue it had when I ran it,and the Internet bubble had collapsed, so what I received was very modest compared to the hopes and expectations I had just prior to the 1999 sale.
However, I had made some money from the other companies we founded and ran in the '90's, and a somewhat accidental shrewd investment in real estate, so I made out acceptably from my ten year dip into the business world. However, the continued process of learning my own limitations never stopped being distressing. I suspect most people have a much more concrete sense of their own identity and capabilities than I ever have; I learn the hard way. As the ex-CEO of a small dotcom, I discovered that recruiters were not calling me; investment bankers I had met and become friendly with were not telephoning either to put me in touch with new start-ups. I did not have the presentation, though I had run a successful, profitable venture. I got a couple of consulting gigs, and worked as a temporary lawyer (a hellacious experience which felt like back-sliding into a life I had left ten years before). Then it was September 11, 2001.
I won't reiterate what I have described in detail elsewhere. I was trying to get into the PATH station under the trade center just as the second plane hit. I ran to Brooklyn. in the days and weeks that followed, I got laid off from my temporary law job because no-one was doing business and they didn't need my services. I investigated every manner of first responder, military, police, etc. and discovered I was at 48 too old for any service except EMS. So I began taking the emergency medical course.
I also volunteered for the Red Cross during this time, driving vans full of food to the Respite Centers in Ground Zero where I passed the burning wreckage. I never breathed that noxious air for as much as half an hour without developing a cough. As a volunteer for Safe horizons, I counseled families who had lost loved ones about available benefits. the most heart-breaking thing I did was present urns full of Ground Zero earth to bereaved spouses and family.
In June 2002, I got my EMT card and went to work on ambulances, a job I did for the next five years. After a year doing transport (mostly taking old people to nursing homes or from there to the hospital) I transferred to my company's 911 service, where I worked mainly in the Bronx and Manhattan. It was the worst paid but the best job I ever did, full of interest and adventure. Here I discovered that I could confront any kind of human misfortune, injury and damage without becoming overwhelmed. I bandaged people who had been shot and stabbed, helped deliver one baby (I asked my more experienced partner to allow me to cut the umbilical), and did CPR on about seventy newly dead people, three of whom came back to life under my hands. (However, none survived more than a few days as far as I know; I don't have one of those stories about the 38 year old businessman who can hug his child today because of me.) I chose to work the overnight tour, and there were many times when, sitting awake in the ambulance at three in the morning next to a sleeping twenty-something partner I liked and trusted, I would be surprised by a transcendent happiness.
I was not a great EMT. I was very good at CPR, talking to psychotic people, and calming children. I was terrible at splinting, not great at diagnosis, older and slower than most people I worked with. In 2007, I decided to leave the ambulance behind, and the following year I let my EMT card expire.
In September 2006, my mother died after a one year struggle with leukemia. She was as calm and philosophical about it as my father had been, or even more so, as he felt some self-pity and she felt none whatever. I wanted to be, and was, in the hospital room with her as she took her last breaths. I hope my presence was some comfort to her; a few days before, she said, "I am glad you're here"--the best thing she ever said to me.
Sometimes there is not much you can do for people except to show up and see things through, but I was glad to be able to do that for her.
A day or two before her death, I went out to get a sandwich, and found a large, beautiful praying mantis clinging to the bricks by the hospital door. I picked it up and carried it safely across the avenue to a lawn in front of the projects on the other side, and felt unreal, as if for a moment I was living the metaphor of my relationship with my mother.
In 2005, I started writing and producing plays, and have seen five of mine "on their feet" and had the remarkable experience of watching an audience watch them. People have laughed and gasped when I hoped they would, and each play has gotten at least one wonderful review, though I have received many mixed reviews and a couple of pans as well. I think I write difficult scripts, which are not for everybody.
Along with the Spectacle, writing plays is the work of my life, the activity I was homing in on while I practiced law and ran a business. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I'd had the courage to go directly into the arts when I graduated college--my whole life seems like a detour--but I always end up concluding I wouldn't change anything. I had so much less experience, less to write about, at 22 and I think I am a better writer now. I also think I would likely have had the traditional arc--tried writing and given it up by thirty. It feels much better to be a playwright who used to be a lawyer than to be a lawyer who was once a playwright. When you start as late as I have, you can never be a has-been. I also have had to identify why I am in it--not for ambition, not with hope of fame or riches (which I don't much need anyway)--but simply to close a loop with myself and an audience, and read the occasional gratifying words written by someone who completely understood.
We gave up the Brooklyn apartment in 2007 and now live in Amagansett NY, within earshot of the surf and the lonely nocturnal whistle of the railroad. I still worry--about the economy, about whether we will be broke, about war and terrorism and global warming and the human future. And I still don't sleep very well; I never did. But at least for now, for awhile, I have the life I wanted, one in which I get to write and daydream all day, can be as strange and antisocial as I want, don't have to put on a tie or a pretense for anyone, can participate in the communities I choose as an equal, and can't be pushed out of anything I care about.
--August 17, 2008