International Finance: Debut

To most people, international finance is an arcane topic, something most of us don’t think about. When asked about it, we might say it’s something that occurs on Wall Street by elite investment banks such as Goldman Sachs or what you read about in the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. We might also venture that it’s something taught at the Harvard Business School and at some law schools. But most of us, if prodded by the question, would throw up our hands and say international finance is a topic that occurs somewhere in the financial stratosphere, the province of international banks and other financial institutions, not people. But that’s just not true. Like any narrative, international finance is created and inhabited by people.

For that reason, as a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, I made it my mission to explain international finance in plain English so that lay persons could understand it and how it might affect them. In the late 1990’s, I created the E-Book on International Finance & Development, a groundbreaking work that used the internet, which at the time had just developed the World Wide Web, to explain to a global audience the Asian financial crisis and other topics in the field. At about the same time, I established the University of Iowa Center for International Finance & Development, where I worked with fantastic students to expand upon my mission.

All of my work culminated in 2015, when I published a textbook titled, Fundamentals of International Finance: What You Need to Know. It was unique in that I used my skills as a playwright to explain the subject matter. I’ve been writing plays for some time, almost all in the genre of the short play, fifteen to twenty minutes in length. In 2002, my play, Soccer Moms, was selected for the Annual Festival of One-Act Plays at Theatre Three in New York. While I was at the College of Law, I produced a number of plays based on cases in my Contracts class. So in the textbook, I wove in vignettes to explain things in each chapter.

Now I want to reach non-students who might be interested in the narrative of international finance as presented in the textbook by using my blog to post just the vignettes along with some very limited explanatory prose. The narrative will begin with a profound event at the close of World War II. But to give you a taste of what’s to come, I’m going to jump ahead to give you a vignette relating to the financial crisis that shook the world beginning in 2008. It’s based on a story I read in the paper about how the crisis, which began in the United States, affected a community in Wingecarribee Shire, Australia. I used the vignette to explain the role of credit rating agencies in the crisis. It’s a story about how the CRA’s failed to fulfill their role as the “gatekeepers,” that is, conveying to the investing public the risks of holding highly complex securities. When I use quotation marks in the vignettes it signifies actual statements taken from the original sources.

I hope you enjoy it. If you don’t…well…there’s always Netflix,

“The Gatekeeper’s Reckoning”

Setting: 1:00 a.m., law office, New York, present day


David: lawyer

William: janitor

(lights up)

William: May I empty your trash, sir?

David: Sure. Thanks. Let me get out of the way.

(David stands up and William empties the trash can, noticing many empty cans of energy drinks; David catches William looking at the cans)

David: I know. Ridiculous. They fill the whole trash can.

William: To each his own, sir.

David: I live here. Catch a cat nap now and then.

William: A twenty-four hour operation, isn’t it, sir.

David: We’re global. Time zones keep us busy.

William: It would seem we’re all connected, sir.

David: You bet. And you can drop the “sir.” Call me David.

(William returns the trash can to its spot and faces David; David sits, William doesn’t move)

William: Okay. David.

David: There we go.

(William turns to leave)

David: Wait. How about you?

William: Me?

David: Your name, sir!

William: Smith.

David: No, I mean your first name.

William: William.

David: Can I call you Bill?

William: I prefer William, if you don’t mind.

David: Not at all. William it is.


David: You’re new here, aren’t you?

William: My first week, sir.

David: David.

William: Yes, David.

(David pulls a bottle of 18-year-old scotch and two tumblers from his desk drawer)

William: Quite nice.

David: Have some with me, to celebrate your first week.

William: Thank you, but no.

David: C’mon, William. You’re almost done, right? I can use a break before I call Singapore. Sit down and have a bit, just a bit. We can talk. It’s important for me to know the staff.

William: Why is that?

David: It’s in my best interest, William. I have the cleanest carpet of all the offices on the floor.


David: That was a joke, William.

William: You’re quite the comedian.

David: David.

William: David.

(David pours some scotch)

David: Let’s press restart. William, how nice of you to stop by. Please have a seat. You have a moment, don’t you?

William: But your work—

David: Will always be there. Sit, please. You look thirsty. How about a bottle of primo spring water? Got some in the little fridge here.

(Williams sits upright in an office chair facing David, David unscrews the bottle cap and hands William the water)

William: Thank you . . . David.

David: No problem.

(William holds the bottle on his lap, doesn’t drink; David puts his stocking feet on his desk, takes a drink of scotch)

David: Are you Australian, William?

William: Yes, I am. My accent—

David: I know it well.

William: How so?

David: Scuba diving. Heron Bommie.

William: The Great Barrier Reef.

David: Spectacular. Spent a week there just last June.

William: First time?

David: Been there about a dozen times. How about you?

William: A bit beyond my budget. Quite a ways from my town in any event.

David: Where’s that?

William: Burrawang. In Wingecarribee Shire.

(David takes a long pull, all the while looking at William, long pause)

David: Wingecarribee Shire. I’ve heard of it. About two hours from Sydney, yeah?

William: Indeed.

David: Beautiful place . . . I’ve been told.

William: Quite. Eucalyptus trees, roos, koalas, wallabies . . .

David: Why did you leave such an idyllic place for the craziness of New York?

William: I lost my church.

David: Your church?

William: Yes, my church. Not very big, but good congregants. I was the pastor. I lost it in 2008. My church.

(David takes another long pull and pours more scotch)

David: Sorry.

William: For what?

David: Your loss. Your church.

(William stares at David)

David: Drink, William. It’s good water, don’t you think?

(William doesn’t drink)

William: What do you do, if you don’t mind my asking?

David: Not at all, William. I’m a corporate lawyer.

William: What do corporate lawyers do?

David: Lots of stuff. I do finance. Everything from project finance to Eurobonds.

William: Bonds?

David: Yes. Sort of international bonds.

William: Sounds complex. You must have considerable expertise.

David: I would like to think so, William.

William: How have you come about it?

David: Degrees in business and law. Then lots of hard work.

William: Here? I mean, you’ve become an expert in finance here?

(David takes a pull)

David: I was at a credit agency before I came here.

William: Credit agency. What is that?

David: They’re private companies that rate the creditworthiness of companies or countries that issue debt securities, like bonds.

William: Creditworthiness?

David: Their ability or willingness to pay a debt.

William: This is quite interesting. May I ask you about these agencies? Could you spare a few moments?

David: Of course. I told you I needed a break.

(David takes a drink)

David: You haven’t touched your water, William.

(William takes a sip of water)

David: What you want to know?

William: How many of these agencies are there?

David: There’re two U.S. firms that dominate the market, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. Fitch Ratings, a British firm, has a slice of the market but not as big. Then you got a bunch of little fish.

William: So if I understand correctly, these firms issue ratings so people know how profitable these . . . securities, debt securities will be.

David: Not quite. Credit agencies aren’t like investment analysts that make recommendations on whether to buy, sell or hold a security. Their ratings are useful because they’re a standard way to figure out whether it’s worth lending to a company or government and at what price—you know, the interest rate on a bond.

William: I see. They’re sort of gatekeepers, aren’t they?

David: Precisely, William.

William: They tell the world if a security is gold or trash?

(David takes his feet off the desk)

David: That’s a colorful way of putting it.

William: What’s the gold rating? The best gold?

David: Triple A.

William: And the trash?

David: If you use Moody’s ratings, anything below BBB loses its “investment grade” status and become speculative. Sometimes it’s called junk.

William: Trash.

David: Sure. Trash.

William: Such a range. How do they do it?

David: They look at a bunch of data ranging from the issuer’s financial position to the quality of management.

William: Data. It seems that it’s at the heart of the ratings. How do they collect it?

(David starts putting his shoes on)

David (looking at his shoes): Good questions, William. Typically there’s a team of raters with a lead analyst.

William: Were you a lead analyst, David?

(David stops tying his shoes and looks at William)

David: Yes.

William: Hmmm . . . What did you do?

David: I coordinated the gathering and analysis of the data. Then presented it to the rating committee. It decides what rating the debtor or the financial instrument will receive.

William: Who pays for all of this?

(David finishes tying his shoes and stands up)

David: The issuer, William.

William: Are you saying that the very firm that has asked you to rate its securities is paying you?

David: Yes. The issuer pays the credit rating agency.

(William, still sitting upright, takes a sip of water)

William: You said you were a lead analyst. When? Perhaps 2008?

David: William, this has been a great conversation, but I have to start preparing for my call to Singapore.

William: May I finish my water, David?

David: Sure.

(William takes a sip of water)

David: Why don’t you chug it.

William: You didn’t answer my question.

David: What question was that?

William: Were you an analyst in 2008?

David: Yes, I was.

William: So you were turning trash into gold, weren’t you? Taking subprime mortgages and turning them into mortgage-backed securities with triple A slices. The same with collateralized debt obligations.

David: You seem to know a lot about finance for a janitor.

William: I’ve had a number of years to read books. After all, David. I lost my church.

David: I said I was sorry, pastor. Build a new one. I’ll make a sizeable donation.

(William takes a sip)

William: Have a seat, David.

David: Thank you, but no.

William: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.” Does that sound familiar? Was it in an email you sent to an analyst on your team?

(David walks to the office door and tries to open it and can’t)

William: Please, have a seat, David.

David: Open this door!

William: You and the others rated thousands of these securities worth trillions of dollars on paper without really knowing what you were doing. You conspired with your clients to maximize profits by making sure you could create securities with big slices of gold. Gold that was actually trash. But why would you care, David? You and your clients were making money hand over fist. You sold your soul to the devil. All for revenue.

(David reaches in his pocket for his cell phone)

William: Are you looking for this?

(William stands up and raises his hand holding David’s cell phone)

William: Don’t even bother with your office phone.

David: Look, Mr. Pastor-turned-wacked-out janitor, everybody had a hand in it—borrowers, mortgage brokers, investment banks, just to name of few. And let’s not forget about the investors, they blindly bought the stuff. They looked at the ratings as if we were making investment recommendations. We weren’t. And they should’ve known that. Everybody was having a party, including the investors, including Wingecarribee Shire. And what about the ultimate gatekeepers, the regulators? Why don’t you creep them out?

William: There wouldn’t have been a party without the gold, and you helped create it, David. The party came to an end in 2007, didn’t it? The housing market collapsed. Then all of you downgraded billions of dollars of these securities. The gold was downgraded to junk. Within a year, nearly $2 trillion securities were downgraded.

David: What do you want from me?

William: You haven’t asked me, David. Aren’t you curious?

David: Asked you what?

(William approaches David, standing close to him)

William: Why I lost my church. My lovely church in Burrawang.

(David rushes to the wall and starts pounding)

William: There’s no one here, David. Unusual, isn’t it.

David: Let me out of here, please!

William: My church along with others in the township of Wingecarribee Shire invested in the securities. The gold slices. I was hoping to build a children’s wing for my church. Many families in my church. Then the gold turned into trash. Into trash, David! We lost everything! Everything, David!


William: My families left. I preached to a nearly empty church.


William: I lost my church, David. It was torn down . . . God abandoned me. Abandoned Wingecarribee Shire.

(long pause)

David: If I could take it all back—

William: You all were the gatekeepers . . .

(William goes to his cart and pulls out a hammer and slowly approaches David)

David: What are you doing?

William: Those securities weren’t trash, really. No, that’s not the right word, David.

David: Please put that down.

William: They were a deadly virus.

David: I left the agency. I couldn’t stay there.

William: You could’ve contained the virus. But you did the opposite. And the virus went global, all the way to Wingecarribee Shire.

(long pause)

David: I’m truly sorry, William. Please don’t hurt me.

William: Do you pray, David?

(David starts trembling)

David: I used to.

William: I as well. I want to pray again.


David: You can build another church . . . in Burrawang.

William: Why do you think I’m here?

David: I’m sorry? What?

(William raises the hammer)

William: Are you good with a hammer, David?

(fade to black)

Wheelchair + Tennis = Life #19 On Making Sense of the World

To say you’re going to lose your way of life is to say you’re going to lose what helps you make sense of the world. Think about it. “My way.” The “my” is the individual who uses his or her agency to construct a method, an algorithm of sorts, to make it from morning to night and achieve something. If I do this, this, and that, I’ll achieve what I want. If I (1) get up, (2) take a shower and get dressed, (3) eat breakfast to give me energy for the day, (4) take the bus to school, and (5) go to classes and pay attention, I’ll achieve the goal of learning something.

There’s also the “way” of “my way.” That’s everything else that helps the individual execute the algorithm. You need a home in which to sleep well, someone to produce the food for you and get it to your plate, a public or private mode of transportation, a school and teachers.

So when you say you’re going to lose your way of life, at least looking at it positively (a way of life can be destructive), you stand to lose everything that helps you become a  human being, that helps you conceptualize a life  worth living, that helps you see beauty in life. It’s crazy scary, the kind of scary that sucks the air out of your lungs in an instant, that makes your heart skip a beat or two. You fear. You freeze. Your sense of agency disappears. What are you going to do, especially if you’re a kid?

Especially if you’re a kid like Nick with his severe physical limitations? To really get how scary it is, you have to get “granular,” you have to break down in much more detail each part of the algorithm. I’m a quad like Nick but I don’t come close to having his limitations. Earlier in the book, I described a component of my algorithm, getting dressed. I free fall into a chair. Then comes the underwear (sorry, yeah, TMI). Then the pants. Then my socks, which alone takes up to five minutes. Then strapping on each leg brace. Then putting my footwear over the brace. Then putting my shirt on and using what’s called a “buttoner” to button my shirt. Then standing to pull everything up and finishing that part of the algorithm. This could take up to twenty-five minutes or maybe more. And if I stand up and realize I put on my underwear backwards? Start over. I feel really stupid when that happens.

Now can you imagine how much harder it is for Nick, a guy who can’t touch his feet with his hands? How incredibly granular each part of his algorithm is? In Nick’s case, it was his dad that took every opportunity to push his son towards as much independence as possible, to help Nick construct his “way of life.” One of Nick’s vivid memories, one that he has shared with many people, was when as a kid, about four or five years old, he woke up one summer morning excited that he would get to swim later in the day. He called his dad into the bedroom.

“Are you ready for a swim, Nicholas?”

“Heck, yeah, dad!”

“Alright, then.” His dad tossed Nick’s swim suit at him, walked out of the room, and closed the door.

“What? Dad! . . .Dad!” No answer.

Nick laid there, not knowing what to do. He cried. He screamed. The door remained closed. Nick eventually realized that if he wanted to go swimming, he would have to put on the swim suit himself.  He wrestled and wiggled for what seemed an eternity. He eventually got it on.

“Dad! I got it on!” Nick shouted triumphantly. His dad walked in, extremely proud of his son but intent on not making the situation a big deal.

“Okay, then, let’s go.”





On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #7 “We’re not chump change!”

This next excerpt from Kristymarie’s article looks at the concept of meritocracy as it applies to students of color. What she writes about is familiar to me based on my experience in academia.

When persons of color began to make a concerted effort to diversify law school faculties in the late 1980s, we got pretty severe blowback. Back then faculties were virtually all comprised of white males. They invoked meritocracy and argued that we weren’t qualified to become teachers and scholars. Relying on affirmative action to diversify would lead to mediocrity.

This was a crazy stupid argument put together to protect the positions of mediocre white guys who felt threatened by people of color. We had awesome credentials. But that wasn’t good enough. No, we had to be supermen and superwomen. Actually, women of color had to be super-duper. We had to wear capes to our interviews. Mine was fire engine red with cute little rhinestones and…yeah.

We persisted, though. Professor Michael Olivas, for example, created the “dirty dozen list,” which called out elite law schools for not having any persons of color on their faculty. Little by little, we made our way onto faculties around the country. Once there, we still had to prove that we were super teachers and scholars. Never mind that much of the white guys’ teaching was uninspired and their scholarship about as profound as a TV Guide.

Still, we persisted. And little by little, academia came to know that teachers and scholars of color rock. We bring stuff to the classrooms that, because of our backgrounds, transforms dry presentations of doctrine into fascinating explorations of subtext underlying black letter law. Our scholarship brings critical perspectives and commentary that were unimaginable before we made our inroads into faculties.

Put simply, we’re kickass. And we don’t wear capes anymore. At least not in public.

Let’s see what Kristymarie says about all of this in the context of law students of color. You’ll see that she says, “we are not chump change.” Yeah, you all are mucho dope. Reminder: I’ve stripped out the footnotes to make the excerpt more readable.

“While the legal community thinks of its diversity as a priority, it continues to create a hostile environment for diverse individuals. The hostility is not brazen—it is subtle. Micro. And one of its most effective weapons is the myth of meritocracy.

The myth of meritocracy is the illusion that democratic choice and the freedom of confident action are available to all. This myth rests on two inaccurate assumptions: that the opportunities are equally available, and that any differences in achievement are due to the racialized and gendered candidate’s unique choices. Peggy McIntosh exposes the myth of meritocracy as perpetuating white privilege, which often gives whites “license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.” That ignorance allows stakeholders in law school career-development to believe that different outcomes are caused by differences in talent and work ethic, and ignore the role of—and their role in—the oppressive environment…

[A] racialized candidate is simultaneously highly visible and highly invisible. It creates a need for the racialized candidate to make himself or herself known for markers other than his or her race. Raising awareness about this consistent struggle—whether to move towards or away from identity expression—is crucial for the non-racialized candidate, the law school faculty and staff, and the law firm recruiter.

Furthermore, these stakeholders should be aware of how trying to fight these generalized preconceived notions affects the racialized candidates. Specifically, the non-racialized candidates should care because, one day, they will be the cross-interviewers or the law school faculty. For their part, law faculty and staff can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring the subtleties of the racialized candidate’s experience because their ignorance perpetuates the oppressive environment. When the legal recruiter speaks of equal opportunity in the job market and meritocracy, he perpetuates white privilege and must be aware of this. Your license to be ignorant has been revoked.

Using buzzwords like “white privilege” and “ignorance” may cause some to tune out the message. But consider this: out of a class of 152, only nine were Latinos/Latinas. One of them was a corporate lawyer in another country before starting law school here. Another has won campus-wide awards, was Editor-in-Chief of a journal, and went on to clerk for a state court of appeals. A third one won a writing competition, and was on a journal board and a moot court team. Another was also on a journal board, won a public defender fellowship in a coveted district, and is now an associate at Chapman & Cutler. Another is an associate at Dorsey & Whitney, part of a tax bracket he has never been acquainted with. These are just some examples from these nine individuals being some of the most invested and successful law candidates available. These racialized candidates struggle between visibility and invisibility, which usually leads to anxiety, teeters between validation and covering. The mere presence of that anxiety validates the idea of the meritocracy, and creates a burden on the racialized candidate to prove himself or herself worthy.

As I just did there.

Because it has become second nature to highlight that we are worthy.

That we are not chump change.

But what is the real kicker is that the meritocracy argument disregards that each and every one of those students had to be above average and Latino/Latina to get into Iowa Law. When a stakeholder speaks of meritocracy, he seems to disregard the fifty percent of the law school class that is below average and, more often than not, white. When he speaks of equal opportunity in terms of the colorblind evaluation of résumés, he ignores that a racialized candidate has had to overcome a variety of obstacles a non-racialized candidate would not even consider just to achieve the same résumé content. This is how equal opportunity and meritocracy perpetuate white privilege. This is why awareness of the consistent slights the racialized and gendered candidates face matters.

An important step in creating a more productive environment for racialized and gendered candidates is to recognize the implicit bias that may affect interactions with racialized and gendered candidates, as well as the stereotype threat, which may hinder the racialized and gendered candidates’ performance. Implicit bias encompasses the unconscious ways in which one allows attitudes or stereotypes to affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. Stereotype threat is the situational predicament in which the racialized candidate debates whether to cover or reverse cover, fearing the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. Educators and interviewers may overcome these implicit biases and pattern preferences by establishing a rapport with the candidate before assessing their competence. Building rapport first may help curb the influence of cultural biases.

Similarly, cultural, gender, and/or racial sensitivity training may build upon the awareness stepping stone. Many educators or hiring professionals fail to understand the communication nuances that isolate racialized and/or gendered candidates. When a racialized candidate is referred to as “articulate” or when a gendered candidate is referred to as “ambitious,” the implication is that the candidate breaks through the stereotype of racialized candidates having poor dominion of the language and women being conformists. Dismissive statements about a married person’s unmarried name, comments about the candidate’s hair or appearance, or expectations about their involvement and the causes that are important to them equally reflect these racialized or gendered expectations. The educator or the interviewer may not think twice about his or her vocabulary, or his or her commentary. At the same time, the educator or interviewer may be isolating the candidate. Cultural, gender, and/or racial sensitivity training may provide an opportunity to replace the problematic behavior, and provide these individuals skills aimed at lessening that isolation.

Another more lofty potential solution is to provide more role models, which would require an overhaul of the education pipeline. Part of the isolation that results from stereotype threat is the idea that one is left by one’s self to be the representative of one’s race. Your identity and individuality are stripped, only to be replaced by the burden of being the definition of the group you represent. These are the instances where reaching critical mass lessens the burden on the few, allowing representation to become a duty once again: a task we undertake proudly, rather than something we have no choice but to shoulder.”

Having said all this, I’m sure Kristymarie would agree with me that our law school, the University of Iowa College of Law, is a special place where faculty and staff try hard in many cases to make the law school a supportive community. And many of the faculty members are awesome teachers and scholars. The school is legendary for its highly skilled teachers. And I wouldn’t have become the scholar that I am today without colleagues who went out of their way to constructively critique my work. And help me keep my cape clean for the homecoming parade.


Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #18 On Losing Your Way Of Life


My final match of the camp’s tournament was against Nick Taylor, the legendary quadriplegic who plays in a motorized chair. I first heard of Nick when I started playing wheelchair tennis in Cedar Rapids, Iowa two years earlier. During one of our practices, Kevin Nebergall, our coach, asked us if we knew of Nick Taylor. Who? Nick Taylor, one of the most highly-ranked quads in the world who serves the ball with his foot. What? That’s right, Kevin assured us, his foot! And he whacks the ball over the net with a wicked underhand serve. I tried to imagine that…

Adaptation. One of the definitions of that word is the process we go through when we deal with changed circumstances. It’s a dynamic term that suggest forward movement despite a calamitous, life changing event that brings everything to a stop. One day I was jogging along a winding gravel road in Bloomington, Indiana, and a week later, thanks to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, I was completely paralyzed and dying in an intensive care unit.

If and when we’re transferred to a rehab unit, we begin the process of adapting to our changed bodies. If we’re quads, we have to learn how to do basic things with our mostly paralyzed hands. Using a fork to stab a brussel sprout.  Grasping a toothbrush and squeezing toothpaste on it.  Then getting the brush to our teeth rather than up a nostril. Using a “buttoner” to deal with shirt buttons.

After we’ve mastered the “activities of daily living,” we’re discharged and sent back into the world of trees, of clouds and birds above us, of concrete sidewalks teaming with people on their way to work or a baseball game. We go on with life. We adapt. Our reckoning with devastating change retreats to some space in our psyches that protects us, allowing us to move forward. But we never forget what we once had and lost. When we least expect it, maybe when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a department store window, our psyches takes us back to those moments in time when we happily jogged along a gravel road, when we used a fork, brushed our teeth, and buttoned our shirts effortlessly. We exhale, blink. The moments recede. We push forward. Again. And again.

Is the narrative any different if you’re born with a physical disability? Let’s find out. Let’s get to know Nick.

Finding His Way to Tennis

Nick was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that results in limbs being permanently fixed in a way that restricts movement. In Nick’s case, the restrictions are pretty severe. “I’ve never touched my foot with my hand in my life.” He can close his hands but he can’t open them. His arms barely move. His grip strength is very weak. He has no biceps. Yes, he has some triceps, but they’re not strong enough to lift himself out of his chair. Nick’s dad helps him with just about all of his activities of daily living, such as getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, and taking a shower. It came as no surprise to his parents that Nick needed a motorized wheelchair early on in life, when he was two years old.

Nick’s mom worked for Cessna, and his dad owned a property management company in Wichita. They also trained horses to compete in shows. When he was a kid, Nick was always at the horse barn. His parents joked that as they realized how much care Nick would need—he’s had more than thirty-five surgeries—he became the horse they had to train. Nick “the horse” Taylor. It has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

Surprisingly, or not, Nick wasn’t into tennis that much when he was a kid. Soccer was his sport, in large part because he was an avid fan of the Wichita Wings, a professional indoor soccer team in town. Although soccer triggered his life-long love of sports, for a number of years he used his wheelchair as a deterrent from playing a sport. People like him don’t play sports, can’t play sports, he thought. It was in elementary school that he finally came to embrace the fact that he would have to use his wheelchair if he wanted to play sports. And it wasn’t long before he realized that he was good with his feet.

Nick’s path to the top echelons of wheelchair tennis began when he was in middle school. The trigger that propelled him forward was the trauma of loss, but not, as in my case, the loss of able-bodied functioning.  Like everyone I’ve talked about in this book, Nick had his day of reckoning, the day when the reality of the physical condition he was born into, a condition that arbitrarily befell him, hit him with such brutal violence that he couldn’t see straight. It was when he lost him mom and sense of family. His mother left Nick and his dad when he was twelve, which left Nick bitter and angry. If that wasn’t bad enough, soon thereafter his father was diagnosed with brain lesions. He would die in six months, the doctors said. What would Nick do without his father? “I was going to lose my way of life.”

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #17 On Blame and Punishment



My second match was against Grady Landrum, who along with Nick Taylor organized the camp/tournament.  He welcomed me with a warm smile and a twinkle in his eyes that matched his mischievous wit. The match was in the morning on a shaded court. This wasn’t coincidental. Unlike me, Grady’s body can’t produce something that’s vital on hot days, especially when you’re exerting yourself. Because of his spinal cord break, he can’t sweat. Heat without sweat is deadly. That’s why Grady and many other quads spray themselves a lot with water during a match.

But why is Grady a quad? Before I tell you why, let’s talk about the concept of “blame.” When something bad happens, we want to point the finger of blame at someone or something. When we do that we may or may not go moral. When I became disabled because of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, I could point the finger of blame at GBS. It was to blame for making me a quadriplegic. It’s just a statement about causation. I did nothing morally “wrong.” I didn’t break any social norms. So saying something about my plight that might include the words “you shouldn’t have . . .” would seem, well, inappropriate. And stupid. I like stupid, so scratch inappropriate.

But what if I had been drinking heavily for some time, which lowered my immune system, which, in turn, made me vulnerable to GBS. Then we might start getting moral. Unlike saying GBS is to blame, we might point the finger at me. I’m sort of to blame for my disability. As a moral agent, I can deliberate and make choices. I chose to drink heavily. So when I drank heavily, I did something wrong. I chose to violate a social norm that looks down on heavy drinking. Then you might you might say, probably just to yourself, “That’s terrible what happened to you, but you shouldn’t have been drinking heavily.” What was that? You would never say that, even to yourself? You’re never judgmental? Are you some sort of monk or something? C’mon!

Let’s get back to Grady. Flash back to December 11, 1971 in Atlanta, Georgia. Grady was a 17-year-old senior in high school.  He went out with his buddies that night and had a few beers. Maybe more than a few. It was late when he drove his two-door 1970 Dotson station wagon home with his friend, Jake.  Speed: 100 miles an hour. Do you see it coming? Right. He lost control of the car. Grady’s door flew off and he went flying with it. “Snap” went his neck. Jake walked away from the accident. Grady was rushed to a nearby hospital.

He was unconscious for an entire week in the hospital’s intensive care unit before he came to with tubes stuck in him to drain the internal bleeding. He couldn’t talk. He thought he was tied down to the bed when in fact he was paralyzed.  The first doctor, who probably was a resident on a rotation, told Grady that he had broken his neck, but that he had a 60% chance of walking again. Really?

The next day, another doctor walked in and delivered the bad news, the news that would become the reality in Grady’s life: There was a 99.9% chance that he would never walk again. “Why am I not dead?” Grady asked. In his mind, people who break their necks die in ten minutes or less. But the doctor said that lots of people survive spinal cord injuries. The thing is that nobody can say how much function will return. Hmmm . . . Sounds familiar.

While Grady was in the ICU, a kid was admitted with a broken neck resulting from an intimate encounter between his car and a telephone pole. He told Grady his life was over. No goals or ambitions. Grady said to himself, “Let’s see now. Do something with my life or spend the rest of my life at home doing nothing. Hmmm . . . I think I’ll do something with my life.” And he did.

But, like many of us, he had to hit bottom first, he had to face and deal with the moment we subconsciously suppress until it explodes into our consciousness. The reckoning. It can happen any time. I know this. It took Grady about ten years after the accident, when he was 28-years-old, to reach that moment. It was a couple of days before Christmas in Lincoln, Nebraska—he moved there in 1981. His family wasn’t around. He was driving around town when it hit. He swerved over to the shoulder and slammed on the hand brakes. He screamed, “You know Grady, you’re so stupid! You really screwed up your life! Your life could’ve been totally different if you hadn’t gone out drinking that night! If you hadn’t been so foolish!”

Grady was in a totally moral space when he pulled over. He knew he did something wrong, he broke a social (and legal) norm when he chose to down the beers, when he chose to speed like a maniac.  When Grady met up with his reckoning it said to him, “You have no one else to blame but yourself. Point the finger at yourself.”

But here’s the thing. There was something else lying beneath what he said, a brutal subtext about punishment. When you break a norm, there are consequences. The more morally infused word would be “punishment.” The norm could be the social type. Let’s say you’re a new lawyer at some fancy law firm. You get stupid drunk at a dinner party hosted by one of the firm’s partners. You projectile vomit on the table before passing out and smashing your face into your slice of the gluten-free orange and almond cake with mascarpone. Chances are you won’t be invited again to that partner’s home. Maybe nobody at the firm will do anything social with you. Your job might even be in jeopardy. That’s your punishment.

There are legal norms, too. If you commit a crime and you’re found guilty, you may go to prison. That’s your punishment. If you break a civil law, say you commit a “tort” by failing to stop at a stop sign and cause an accident and you’re found liable, you’ll pay damages to the party that sued you. That’s your punishment.

In all of these situations, there’s the idea that the punishment should be proportional to the norm you’ve broken. Most of us would think it reasonable if the new lawyer became a social pariah at the firm. But taking away her license to practice law would be way out of line. Most people would be outraged if a person got a life sentence for shoplifting. And jaws would drop if you had to pay a million dollars for a simple fender-bender.

But there’s no such thing as proportionality regarding the loss of body function resulting from breaking a norm. The punishment is completely arbitrary. Grady could’ve walked away from the accident along with Jake. He could’ve suffered a couple of broken ribs. Throw in an arm or two. He could’ve lost body function below his waist—a paraplegic. But, no, he was sentenced to life as a quadriplegic. A huge chunk of his body was taken away from him.

Maybe that’s what really hit Grady like a ton of bricks when he broke down on highway shoulder. It was his brutal subtext. Sure, he was screaming that he had only himself to blame. But beneath that he was gripped by a violent rage at the inhumane punishment he received for having a few too many beers. For having a heavy foot on the gas peddle. For being young and foolish.

Maybe you remember Brian McMillan’s narrative, the guy who became a paraplegic after his motorcycle accident. He called it “the roulette wheel of hideous misfortune. The ball lands on your number and you can’t believe it.”  “There’s no second chance,” Brian told me. “You can drop out of school and go back again. You can get divorced and marry again.” There was no second chance for Brian, and no second chance for Grady, either. No way to appeal what was a completely arbitrary and staggeringly harsh sentence.

Grady’s reckoning lasted about ten minutes. Then it was done. The anger went away. He put the car in drive, checked the rearview mirror, and accelerated into the right hand lane. He kept driving . . . Eventually Grady obtained an undergraduate degree in Communications from Eastern New Mexico University plus a graduate degree from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and got married to boot. He’s now the Director of Disability Services at Wichita State University. In the meantime, he fell in love with wheelchair tennis and became a highly ranked quad player. Right on, Grady!

I’m pretty sure it took longer than ten minutes for Grady to cope with the hammer blow of his reckoning. It takes years, if not decades, to come to terms with both the blame and the punishment that results in the massive loss of body function. I think that’s why Grady and all of us at the camp have a passion for the sport. Every time we roll onto the court for a match, every time we toss the ball in the air to serve, every time we push hard to the ball, and every time we hit the ball over the net, we’re telling ourselves that at least in those moments we can tell arbitrariness to fuck off.