If My Cold Were an Old Man

I wrote this recently while in the throes of a cold. In retrospect, I find it funny that I chose to place myself back in Florida to describe my misery. I guess the unrelenting heat helped the fever imagery. But it also speaks to my state of mind when I lived there. Anyway, rest assured, I’m feeling much better now.

I was sitting on my front porch, baking in the heat, desperately clutching a glass of lemonade as if it were a life raft. The sweat from the glass did nothing to assuage the perspiration on my forehead. My light cotton shirt was determined to cling to the small of my back. I felt lifeless and hopeless.

I closed my eyes, trying to resist the urge to start screaming in frustration, knowing that if I did it would be a feeble effort that would come out as a weak moan. And afterwards I’d still feel unheard. I felt like ten kinds of crap, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The occasional gust of wind provided no comfort either. It merely kicked up the dust from the dirt road out front. I felt coated with a layer of grime. I felt heavier, somehow, as if I could easily be buried alive if I didn’t move.

If I could only muster the strength to turn on the garden hose and rinse the clay off my bare feet, I’d feel so much better. Such a nice idea. Just out of reach.

When I opened my eyes, I realized he was there. An old man, standing on the crumbling sidewalk, looking at me, smiling. It made me jump. I felt a little chill. But only for a second. Then the bone-frying heat set in again, seeming to pour out of my eye sockets.

We’d met before. He was a tall man, and so thin you could see his tendons. Weathered is how I would describe him, as if he had been left lying in a ditch like a cast-off doll, in the wind and rain, for his entire life. He looked like he might just blow away like a tumbleweed. This man was made of cracked clay.

He wore a white t-shirt, and dark grey pants held up by suspenders. His leather shoes looked like they were on the verge of disintegration. And he had a fedora. Who wears fedoras anymore? Somehow that fedora irritated me.

He asked if he could come out of the sun for a time. I indicated the rocking chair. I didn’t really feel like I had to say much of anything. He was there. Where else would he have gone?

He settled in and I offered him a glass of lemonade, as you do. He nodded his thanks, and poured it himself. He rocked for a time, as the heat shimmered on the kudzu on the other side of the road. Even the rattlesnakes had taken cover, but the cicadas seemed to be buzzing inside my head. I felt dizzy.

He, on the other hand, seemed just fine. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him slowly rock. It was almost as if he were intent on some goal. The chair creaked, making my nerves jangle. That’s why I had chosen to sit on the steps. Creak. Creak. I wished he would just go away and leave me alone.

I began to realize that he wasn’t as fragile as I first thought. He wouldn’t blow away. No. He was more like tanned leather, or beef jerky. He would endure, quietly, yet stubbornly, for all eternity. He could easily be a thousand years old. He wasn’t going anywhere.

I began to feel desiccated, like a lizard that had been trapped in place until death came to shrivel it up. No amount of lemonade could quench my thirst. My tongue felt as if it were swelling and cracking, and I wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come.

The buzzing inside my head got louder as the pressure began to build. I felt a dull ache, and a suffocating sensation. I felt like I was drowning in hot, bubbling mud, and would soon sink below the surface, with no one there to rescue me, as the old man quietly watched.

He tried to hand me a dirty handkerchief, a grudging gesture at best, but I couldn’t have raised a hand to take it if I had wanted to. He thanked me for the lemonade, and said it was time for him to move on. But he’d see me again sometime.

I slumped on the porch, feeling like Appomattox the day after the battle, long before all the bloody, bloated corpses had been removed. I wondered what would be visited upon me next, as the cicadas continued to buzz and the unrelenting sun shimmered all around me, depriving me of focus and making recovery seem all but impossible.

Cracked clay

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Microinsurance Could Transform the Face of Disaster Recovery

I absolutely love being in awe of friends. Recently, my friend Areiel Wolanow did a presentation before British Parliament, so you can imagine how proud I am to know this man. Actually, no you probably can’t, because my pride is off the charts.

Areiel is the Managing Director of Finserv Experts, a consulting firm that applies its expertise in technology to help transform businesses. One such area of expertise is in blockchain services. This is where things start getting completely over my head.

It seems that blockchain can take out the intermediators between producers and consumers, thus saving both of them time, effort, and money. (This makes me think of travel agents. Who uses them anymore? Now we can search for our plane tickets over the phone. I’ll let Areiel explain if I’m getting the gist of it below.)

But Areiel has put an even more humanitarian spin on the blockchain idea, by working toward using it to make insurance available to those who couldn’t otherwise access or afford it. Imagine, having your whole life wiped out by a tsunami, for example, and because you got some microinsurance from a phone app, you can now use another phone to get a payout that will help support you for a year while you get back on your feet. I don’t know about you, but I think the world could use fewer FEMA trailers! This could make that happen.

But I’ll let Areiel explain it in more detail.

The View from a Drawbridge: Please explain in layman’s terms, what microinsurance is.

Areiel Wolonow: In the most simple terms, microinsurance is simply insurance for small amounts.  But beneath this simple idea are some very powerful effects.  For instance, less than 9% of people in the world have health insurance, and unplanned health spending is one of the leading causes of people going into poverty.

Historically, it has not been possible to provide insurance to people in most parts of the world.  There are two main reasons for this:

  • The cost of administering an insurance policy isn’t that much different regardless of whether the policy covers two hundred dollars or two million dollars. As a result, insurance companies cannot afford to provide policies for smaller amounts without charging premiums that would be exorbitantly high.

  • When it comes time to pay a claim, the costs of paying the claim can often exceed the claim itself. For instance, when a tsunami Indonesia or flooding in Bangladesh occurs, the only way insurance companies could pay claims was to literally send someone out in a helicopter with a briefcase full of cash.  This is a very slow, unsafe, and expensive way of doing business, and adds even more cost to the premium.  Even the most socially responsible insurers could not avoid a pricing policy that was deeply regressive, charging the highest percentage premium to the people who could afford it the least.

What’s happening now, however, is that technology has ways of addressing both of these problems.  A combination of blockchain and mobile technology makes it possible to originate and service insurance with a minimum of human intervention.  Machine learning and integration to weather satellites makes it possible to pay claims immediately when a tsunami, flooding, or other natural disaster happens without the time and expense of having humans investigate the claim.  In the insurance industry, this is called parametric insurance, and it’s a game changer because everyone wins – the company saves huge amounts of cost investigating claims and the customer gets paid right away rather than going through the long and sometimes confusing claims adjustment process.

Technology also helps when it comes to paying the claims.  Most parts of the world now have reliable mobile wallets  (in fact the penetration of mobile payments in Indonesia and Bangladesh, even amongst the poor, far outpaces the US; this is one of many areas in technology where we are falling further behind).  This makes it possible to pay claims directly into people’s mobile wallets.  No more helicopters and suitcases of cash.

Can you tell me more about how your company, Finserv Experts, is working with blockchain to provide microinsurance solutions for natural disasters in Indonesia?

Finserv Experts is a small consultancy that I founded about 2.5 years ago, after being with IBM for nearly 12 years.  We provide both advisory and solution delivery services for transformational financial services.  For almost that entire time we have been supporting one of our clients, a regional insurer,  on a project to provide microinsurance in Indonesia.  The pilot for this program has been successfully running for two years now, and as a result our client and we have been asked to consider building a platform for scaling our solution nationally.

How will this transform the way that communities recover from natural disasters?

It is actually quite difficult to comprehend the enormity of impact that availability of insurance can have on a community.  The first impact is the effect of the insurance itself.  In our pilot program, the insurance policy is bundled with small business loans.  If a natural disaster occurs, the policy pays off the loan as well as providing the policy holder an equivalent of one year’s income to help them get back on their feet.  This is a meaningful change all by itself, but the follow-on impacts are even greater

  • The existence of the policy makes these small businesses much more creditworthy. Tsunamis, flooding, and the like are common enough that investors will often demand huge price premiums in exchange for providing loan capital; in many cases they won’t be willing at all.  The existence of this policy makes others more willing to lend money, and at more reasonable rates

  • In the same way, the existence of these policies makes it much easier for people to start new businesses. A study in Tanzania showed that of all one-person businesses in the country, only 2% would ever grow to the point that they had ten employees, but that 2% was the source of over 25% of all new jobs created.  Imagine what a difference we could make if, by making it possible for more people to start businesses, we could move that to 3%.   A small change in the success rate would have a huge impact

  • The biggest change of all, however, is land reform. A surprising fact is that even in some of the poorer regions of the world, there are many people who could afford to buy a home, but are unable to obtain a mortgage because banks will not provide one without insurance.  Access to locally insured mortgages could quite literally be a path out of serfdom for millions of people.

As the threat of global warming increases, the world will experience even more natural disasters. Are you planning to branch out to other countries?

Absolutely.  We are already working on plans to scale our solution beyond Indonesia, but we still have to focus on making Indonesia successful first.  Also, our plan calls for working with local partners in each country.  Enabling local success is the right way to go for both social and commercial reasons.  The whole reason I got into financial inclusion in the first place was the realization was that all the monetary aid in the world, however well intentioned, wasn’t even making a dent in world poverty – there is too much corruption, and aid isn’t sustainable – even the most charitable people in the world can’t keep giving and giving and giving.  Sustainable eradication of poverty only comes through local success.

Have you considered making it possible for people to microinvest in providing microinsurance to people in third world countries? Perhaps something along the lines of the microloans people like me can provide to participants in Kiva.org, only with some sort of minimal return on the investment? I know a lot of people who would like to be investors but don’t have the huge sums of money that investing usually requires. Do you think blockchain could also be used in that way?

I think about this a lot actually, but have been leery of doing anything because of how hard it is to provide a level of transparency that I would find satisfactory if I were an investor myself.  A good number of the world’s microfinance are simply scams, while others charge their lenders rates that are regressive if not outright extortionate.  Blockchain may indeed be very useful in providing the necessary transparency, as well as enabling a business model that allowed for much lower rates, both for loans and insurance premiums.  The initial results look very promising, but I want to see them proven a bit more before making any grandiose claims about what might be possible.

Is there anyplace where people can read and/or hear your presentation to Parliament?

These sessions are filmed, but it normally takes 6-8 weeks before they are published.  I will let you know as soon as the video is up on the site.

Thank you, Areiel! I’ll post the link here when it comes available. And I have to say, I’m even more in awe of you after this interview than I was before it. Keep up the good work!

1200px-US_Navy_050102-N-9593M-040_A_village_near_the_coast_of_Sumatra_lays_in_ruin_after_the_Tsunami_that_struck_South_East_Asia
A village near the coast of Sumatra lays in ruin after the Tsunami that struck South East Asia

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The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

I5_ShipCanal_Web

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Marry Your Husband? Hold on a Sec…

I just read an article that brought tears to my eyes. Entitled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, it is about the author’s imminent death. That’s heartbreaking enough, but then it goes on in poignant detail about how wonderfully amazing her husband is. The amount of love she has for this man is evident, and clearly she wants the best for him, and can no longer give him that bright future herself.

But what chokes me up is that I know exactly what this man is about to go through, having lost the love of my life myself. And the last thing he’s going to need, for at least a few years, is to be bothered by a lot of women looking for love. His wife is not like a car. She can’t simply be replaced because she’s been totaled.

The fact is, his entire life is about to be totaled. He’s about to experience devastation of nuclear bomb proportions. For a good year, his ears will still be ringing from the sound of the explosion. He isn’t going to be able to emotionally hear anyone else.

After that, he’s going to have to figure out how to rebuild from the ground up. That isn’t for sissies. He is not going to be the same person. There will be scar tissue. There will be completely different perspectives.

For example, his wife talked about how he loves live music, and how they’d go to listen to it all the time. Well, now doing that may be too painful for him. He may never want to go to a concert again. Or maybe he will. That’s something he’s going to have to figure out for himself. I’m just saying that expecting him to be the same exact person he was pre-apocalypse is asking a bit much.

In time, he may discover that there will be changes he’ll be happy to make. None of his relationship compromises will be required anymore. One day, he’ll realize he can put the toilet paper on the roll any direction he darned well pleases. Another day, he’ll think, “Why am I still eating lima beans? I hate lima beans.” Or maybe it’s time to start growing the beard he always wanted, or shave off the one she always preferred. And yeah, buddy, convert that room into a man cave!

He’s also going to have to map out a whole new future. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, most of us take comfort in the thought that we have a pretty good idea what the road ahead is going to look like. The author even describes that in her article. Well, now the road, for her grieving husband, is completely obscure. Trust me when I say that’s scary as hell. He’ll have to redraw all his charts.

This emotional and physical makeover can take years. It can’t be rushed. There are no shortcuts, as much as his late wife would like to give him one. And there are no deadlines. Everyone is on his or her own schedule when it comes to grief.

I do strongly urge people who are going through this to seek out grief support groups, however. The Healing Center here in Seattle has been a godsend for me. At a time in your life when you are the most alone you have ever been, it’s important to know that, well… you’re not alone.

So ladies, please do not pounce on poor Mr. Rosenthal just yet. Yes, from what I’ve read, he’s infinitely lovable. I’d go for him myself if given the opportunity. But give him time. Give him space. Give him a chance to recover and figure out who he is post-explosion. He’ll thank you for it. Eventually.

broken-heart

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The World’s Best Bedside Manner

A little over a week ago I had surgery on my wrist. I was scared silly. Mostly because I’d be all alone during my recovery, but also because it’s downright unnatural to voluntarily subject oneself to getting sliced open. I mean, seriously, who in their right mind says, “Here. Cut me, please.” You have to be in a heck of a lot of pain in order to seek out pain as a remedy for that pain. After many months of procrastinating, I had reached that point.

I had every confidence in my surgeon. Her name is Dr. Elizabeth Joneschild, and she’s part of the Seattle Hand Surgery Group. I’d seen her several times prior to this last, surgical resort, so I had developed a great professional relationship with her. Not only does she clearly know what she’s doing, but she’s very patient when you ask her questions, has an excellent reputation, and, let’s face it, she wouldn’t have an office with such a spectacular view if she weren’t doing something right. So if you have problems with your hand or wrist, I highly recommend her.

The anesthesiologist, on the other hand, I only got to meet on the morning of the surgery. That’s, of course, pretty standard, but it doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. Here’s someone who can knock you out in a variety of ways, who you don’t meet until he’s about to knock you out.

In this case, I was to remain conscious. They were only numbing the arm and putting a drape across so I couldn’t see what was happening (for which I was extremely grateful). But I was still scared and I’ve no doubt that it showed.

But I was lucky enough to have Dr. Stephen Markowitz as my anesthesiologist. I’ve known a lot of great people in the medical field in my lifetime, but this guy really went the extra mile. Obviously Dr. J had to concentrate on what she was doing, so Dr. M started asking me about my job. What’s it like to be a bridgetender? What bridge do you work on? How high is it above the water? Any question he could think of.

Not only did this conversation distract me, but (and I have no idea if he was conscious that he was doing this or not) it also allowed my mind to leave a realm where I was feeling pretty helpless and scared, and enter a realm where I was an expert and actually had something to teach and contribute. The surgery was over in about 15 minutes, and I didn’t feel a thing, not even panic. What a gift.

I’ve got to say that my hand was definitely in good hands. I’ll be forever grateful for that. When you only have two of something, you tend to want to hold on to them at all costs.

HomeHands