Monday, March 28, 2011

Creating Community in the Hospital Waiting Room

My mother was in the hospital for almost four months - till late March. It has been, mildly put, a trying time. For a week, after her third brain surgery, she did not come to or respond. All boundaries were transcended in that time. Emotions, time, body, work, self, other, all were a blurr. All that counted was that she came to. In that time most of all, but other times too, close friendships and giving surfaced so easily between the families waiting in the hospital,for good news. There were four families in particular that were tough cases, three tumors and one stroke. Ours was a tumor. And it was ours, we carried it with our mother, grandmother, wife, sister. The family came together, unsure and awkward at first, but poised in moments of action.

So who was there, a Vietnamese man of 78, a Jewish Swiss fellow of 55, and a Phillipino woman in her early 70's. Both the Vietnamese man and the Phillipino woman wore papery thin skin, gaunt, their faces pushing forward pronounced cheek bones and eyes smiling filled with tenderness and worry all at the same time. The Vietnamese man, gentle and watery with his frailty, exhibited too a profound spirituality and empathic experience. The Jewish Swiss fellow, round and jovial with red hair and a balding head, wore a yamukah (skull cap) in black, and spoke with his heart. His wife had previously been operated for the same condition, brain tumor and he was a veteran. He lit up when he learned I had worked in Geneva at the UN. And then painstakingly, he confirmed for me the positive signs of my mother's responses to the operation when there was no way to know. And even after his wife had been discharged, he came back to check on me and to see how my mother was doing. By then she was responding verbally, Thank God. The Phillipino woman, gripped by the most difficult situation, her husband's ambivalent responses to treatment for his stroke, left her at times defeated, but her nursing background gave her the experience to persevere. She had been through this before, when one of her sons similarly suffered from a stroke due to an aneurism early in his life, and she had to care for him ever since.

Amazed at the resilience of the human spirit as I looked around me, I could not fathom how these people had been through what they had, supporting their loved ones, family members and others, day after day in a life that met with so many challenges. Was there so much love in this world? If there was, how did it elude the others? Those who took the wrong path, a path of treachery, betrayal, abuse, and criminality. It was hard to put both together on the same planet - these people of ultimate maturity, and those others who like children steal from others, or trample on their hearts and souls without care or regard.

Like them, I too would be tested. In those days and weeks when my mother's fate rested in the hands of the intensive care medical team, there were days when only tears would stream down my face, and I could not eat or sleep. But these great souls looked after me at night and during the day. Brought me food and drink, told me to sleep, and more importantly told me to smile, so that things could get better. Staying in the hospital day and night... I grew close to them and let their silence and talk nourish my spirit to a height I did not think possible. I let them lead me to a place of belief, shelter, and light where anything was possible, including the miracle of healing and strength that it was incumbent on me to transmit to my mother. In addition, hundreds of clients and colleagues wrote their prayers of strength too... an amazing testament to the kind of community that can develop not only around crisis, but around the empathic resonance of human bonds and ties that we all understand - that of mother and child.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Commodification of Disaster

A tsunami in Indonesia, earthquake in the Himalayas, a sheet of rock splitting open the middle of Haiti, the BP oil spill, and yet another quake creating Tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan... the foundation to the risk that in legal doctrine is known as Force Majeure. It is either my imagination or force majeure is starting to hold a more coveted place in our risk management strategies when it comes to legal and asset management. Deal agreements of all kinds will and are being affected and should undergo some overhaul as we confront transactional disputes and cooperation alike moving forward. I am told the earth's axis is shifting, the planet rotates a bit faster, the day is growing, however infinitesimally, shorter. The plates on the earth's surface are growing somewhat closer together, adjusting to the changes set in motion, so to speak. Other plates are growing closer too... note the middle east uprisings. Political and social plates are sliding us to new terrain slipping tensions into new crevices and connection.

We humans are creators, mimicking the earth. Fictions unimaginable, sprout from our psyches onto a page, a structure, an institution, a piece of paper or metal printed upon, known to the world to represent a measure of worth that we all believe in, or at least, we are all suppose to believe in until that fateful moment we are overwhelmed by disaster. That fiction is money - currency - even gold, used to value a segmented series of actions, products, processes, services, commodities, resources. What happens to the value of oil when it is spilled? What happens to the value of micro-chips when the plant in which they are manufactured disappears? What happens to an entire industry, like the nuclear industry, when signs of its holocaust
are visible on the horizon? We have created markets which trace exactly what happens, which symbol -stock or other- representing that commodity rises and which one falls?

Humans need security and hence, covet stability and hate risk. Risk is not
rewarded unless of course you are able to predict it and can show such prediction by shorting the particular commodity or representation of the same. If the timeline of disasters continues, more and greater reward will bestowed on those who can predict. A new industry of seers will erupt as in the days of old. "Mad Money" is only the beginning. Religion - even newer kinds - may hold a stronger grasp on our hearts and minds. And what would become of the value of disaster itself within our current fictions? Think a little about Project Redd to undo decades of deforestation in the Amazon, or the staggered carbon pollution created by industrial revolution and its parade of development, and the new markets created in response. If India and China thought about it long enough, yet another carbon or development market specifically geared to their situation would sprout. We are valuing at least man-made disasters (even as we are making them) over a longer timeline quite highly... highly enough to form new markets of healing, kind of like the charitable markets of aids, cancer, malaria etc... in the pharmaceutical world that are double edged. The edges are helping a larger segment of humankind with the cure, and the nearer form of financial
commodification necessary to bring in the money close to the dichotomy between brand and generics. Disease is after all a form of disaster.

War is another form. Uprisings like those blanketing across the middle east present a case in point. These commodify the sale of consultancy in political arrangements, the support and identification of opposing parties, the formation of parliamentary and other democracies, the establishment of democratic constitutions. Political and violent upheaval, like the kind involved in the drug trade, assist us in commodifying arms and the black market of illegal substances, in some ways assuring the outlawed nature of both. South American and Mexican governments bandy about with American and Chinese supports, formal and informal of their politics, their illegal industries, and their corruption and illicit assets. The people in these countries cry out for stability in their currencies, government programs that might support their multitude of poor citizens. The instability created in these countries is in some cases temporary with a permanent structure that promises more freedom to the peoples being governed if not more prosperity. The prosperity for middle east people may in fact take longer as assets and resources are fought over on a higher political terrain between the strongest powers - the most useful and prized of these assets being oil not democracy. In other cases, the instability is more permanent as it sustains corruption in local governments while the stronger powers reign over the resources, distracting the locals with short term self- interest often at the expense of their own people.

In fact the commodification of disaster on the one hand belies an old tale, an old story in which disaster (in the guise of political upheaval) acts as just another distraction to enable the monopolizing of far away resources; and on the other infiltrates our risk adjustment analysis and increased need for in/reass/urance from sub-prime crisis to Japanese tsunami.