Tuesday, March 16, 2010



It took me a while to name this blog. I wanted to make it memorable. At the same time, I wanted it to reflect my life philosophy. I didn't want to sound pretentious; rather, I wanted to alert the reader to the big questions that animate me. And I also wanted to hint that I am at heart a "satirical rogue." That's why I added "free beer" at the end.

I chose "Reason," "Commerce" and "Justice" because those subjects focus my critical energy. Everything I write in some way relates to those three concepts. No matter what style I choose, those concepts unite my work.

Reason interests me because it encapsulates the human capacity for thought. Reason allegedly separates human beings from other animals. I write about reason's limitations, as well as its less-than-reasonable corollaries: Emotions, reflections, memories, impressions. My fixation on language also involves "reasoned" analysis. No matter the specific subject, however, I cast a critical eye on reason. I do not praise it as an inexorable pathway to truth. Indeed, I maintain a healthy skepticism for reason. I am a qualified empiricist: Reason is just one tool to help me understand existence. But I certainly don't put all my money on it. Too much unreasonable stuff happens in life. In that light, putting full trust in reason is not only unadvisable; it's also really disappointing.

Commerce offers me plentiful material for both satire and commentary. I define myself against commerce. Its values repel me. I do not like promoting myself. I do not like circulating resumes or kissing ass in interviews. I don't like wearing little costumes and going to work for private employers. I also don't like unfairness, inequality and hypocrisy. Commerce is rife with all three. Commerce also interests me because it is all about instrumentalism; and that clashes with my steadfast respect for the individual. In commerce, people play roles to make money: Master, servant, employer, employee, officer, director, customer, client…the list goes on. In the process, they lose their humanity. They also tend to exploit one another for crass personal gain. Commerce is the stage upon which to showcase my ruthless cynicism. It allows me to ironically brandish my own colors while criticizing things I fundamentally don't like.

Moreover, commerce is the perfect context in which to explore the tension between flexibility and principle. I often write about principles and honor. Commerce weighs against both. And sadly, my satires take doubled strength from the unfortunate truth that most people live for commerce rather than honor. Just listen to the radio or watch television. You will see and hear a lot more commercial messages than honorable ones.

Finally, justice draws me because it represents something larger than commerce. Justice has obsessed philosophers for millennia. I am just continuing down the road. In my work, justice stands as something hopeful, something better than ourselves, something transcendent, something to achieve. Justice is that great, intuitive feeling that something is right, not wrong. I do not identify a source for it. It just "is." I am no theologian. But in my heart I know when a situation is just. And I know when a situation is unjust. Injustice reeks. It seems to revolt against nature.

Justice is about ideals. It is about striving for something more than mere convenience or comfort. In that light, I use justice to champion my zeal for principle, honor, equality and "better" things. I use it to underline the key distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, because justice is largely subjective and cannot be objectively measured.

I also use justice as a backdrop to criticize the law. My fascination with ethics relates to my suspicion toward law. Justice and ethics go hand in hand. Ethics clashes with law. Therefore, law and justice clash, too. If you've spent any time studying my writing, you will know that I have very little respect for the law. If anything, I relegate law to the "commercial" category. And that it is ultimate insult, because law claims to advance justice. I make a few exceptions in my criticism for law, especially in cases where the law protects individual rights and enforces principles that restrain commerce. But I castigate everything else. In fact, law in most cases does not serve justice at all. To the contrary, in most cases it serves commerce--my perpetual theoretical foe.

In essence, then, my writing boils down to a battle between justice and commerce. I even thought about renaming my blog "Commerce Versus Justice," because that dichotomy really dominates my arguments. Something is either "just" or "just commercial." No matter what subject I address, chances are good that it involves hopeful ideals and crass realities. I lament the crass realities and wish for the hopeful ideals. The hopeful ideals are "justice." The crass realities are "commerce." In the "real world," commerce usually wins. In my eyes, it is usually an "unjust victory." And that "injustice" provides me fuel for criticism, commentary and satire.

But I decided against renaming my blog. Although I consistently allude to the struggle between commerce and justice, I refuse to abandon my commitment to "reason." There is a significant self-exploratory element to my writing. I write about people, their motivations, thoughts, dreams, hopes, happiness, unhappiness and machinations. While these things often involve commerce, they also implicate reason. I need to retain my focus on "reason" in order to continue writing about human beings--myself included. That is why I am going to keep my original three-part title. Well, four-part when you drink the free beer.

I sketch my thoughts about my blog's title in order to provide background for an important story. After all, one of the reasons I opened this blog was to therapeutically resolve difficulties that began to arise in my mind around 2006. In 2006, three critical events occurred in my life: (1) I finished my legal education; (2) My father died; and (3) I rejected law practice on principle. In essence, my life expectations completely changed. For one, I began thinking about death more than I ever had before. Second, after spending three years submerged in legal study, I recognized that I had no place in legal practice. That forced me to reevaluate my life in a very basic way. Beginning in 2006, I started to understand the distinction between commerce and justice. And when my father died, I used my reason to reflect on life. My philosophical fixation on reason, commerce and justice had begun.

I was not a child anymore. I was suddenly an adult. And life was full of trouble. Wrenching, inscrutable trouble.

In 2007, my focus on reason, commerce and justice sharpened even more. As I have written in several other contexts over the years, 2007 was the year in which my life partner, Steve, suffered a life-altering accident. I have not gone into great detail about the event. Neither has Steve. Yet I am painfully aware of it because I lived through its aftermath. And in truth, Steve's story perfectly illustrates the tension between commerce and justice. In this sense, Steve's story cemented my theoretical focus with a real life example.

Late on August 1, 2007, Steve went to work out at an all-night gym in Chicago. Back in those days, we used to go our own ways. We stayed out late alone sometimes and it never mattered. I went to bed about midnight. At about 2:15 AM, I got a phone call from the Illinois Masonic Hospital. "Are you Steve's partner?" someone asked. Half-asleep, I replied: "Yes. What is it?" "Steve has been badly burned. He wants you to visit him." I could not really understand what that meant, but I was stunned. "I'll be right over," I think I said. Then I hung up. I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute or two thinking. Then I got up and pulled on my jeans. I had no idea what was in store.

I got to the emergency room about 3:00 AM. Steve was laying on a cot, incoherent, drenched in sweat. They had wrapped a huge bulky bandage on his right arm. I could see dark-red bloodstains on the upper part. It looked like his skin had peeled right off midshoulder. Steve managed to tell me that he had been burned in the gym's steam room. He said he had just walked in when suddenly a jet of steam burst from the wall and scorched his arm.

I did not really know what to make of his story at the time. He was delirious. He must have been in shock. He talked about our dog and his clothes. I stayed with him in the emergency room for about two hours while the hospital arranged a transfer to a burn center outside town. I dozed for a while on a folding chair. I remember when the emergency room staff wheeled him away and put him in the back of the ambulance. He was smiling. He said he would be fine. He told me to go home and get some sleep. He told me to meet him at the hospital the next day. Then they closed the ambulance doors. The ambulance rolled off into the brightening summer dawn.

I had a meeting with my law school dean later that morning. I think I wanted to talk to him about getting a job with a federal judge. I somehow managed to attend the meeting with a straight face. At the time, I thought Steve would be all right, so I don't think the meeting went badly. The dean told me he would "put a word in" for me with several judges. I was out within an hour. I immediately hopped in the car and went to visit Steve.

Steve was fine when I arrived. They had his arm suspended above him in a sling. The doctors said they were going to perform skin graft surgery on him at 9 AM the next day, August 3. I spent about 8 hours in Steve's hospital room, assuring him that everything would be all right. Steve was cheery that day. He was happy that I was at his side. I went home about 8 PM. At 9:30 PM, he called me and thanked me for being at the hospital during the day. I told him I wouldn't abandon him for the world. I also told him I would be there as soon as he came out of the recovery room after his surgery. He cried when I said that.

I went to bed that night confident that Steve would be fine. I thought they would just do the surgery, then he would be home in a week or so. I was tired, sure, but I did not think life would be much different after that day.

I got up on August 3 waiting for a phone call to let me know I could visit Steve after his surgery. At about 11:00 AM, I got a call from a nurse who told me the surgeon needed to speak with me. I figured the surgeon was just going to tell me that the surgery had gone well and I could visit. So I called the surgeon back. I didn't reach him. After two more tries, I did reach him. He told me to come to the hospital right away. That was all he said.

I was a little nervous at this point. I had never really spent much time around hospitals. I did not know the procedure for getting news about surgeries. I thought maybe the surgeon could only tell me details about the surgery in person, not on the phone. So I headed back over to the hospital. It was about a 40-minute drive. I remember George Benson's "Affirmation" was on the radio during the trip.

I made it to the hospital and parked my car. First I went to the gift shop. I bought Steve a "Get Well Soon" balloon and a teddy bear. Then, holding the balloon in one hand, I went to the main desk. I said I was here I visit Steve. The guard tapped the keyboard and said: "Burn ICU. Seventh floor."

Now I was getting more nervous: Why is he in the ICU? Why isn't he in the recovery room?

I followed the signs to the Burn ICU. I went through a few automatic double doors into a large room with a nurse's station in the middle. Patient rooms lined the walls in a big circle around the station. I asked one nurse: "I'm here to see Steve."

She pointed to a room on my left. It was full of doctors, nurses, interns, even executives in suits. I pushed my way in. Steve was unconscious on a bed, angled up. He was on a respirator. A thick silver tube stretched from the respirator into a hole punched through his throat. There were two tubes lined into his nostrils. More tubes funneled out from his arms. Wires were tacked on to his chest and legs. There must have been about twenty wires and tubes attached to his body. His mouth was wide open and his eyes were as if glued shut. His tongue was protruding from his mouth slightly and it looked completely parched. There was blood caked on the edges of his lips. Bleeping, whirring machines and monitors ringed his bed.

I let go of the balloon and covered my mouth with my hands. I left the room for minute to reflect on what I was seeing. At that moment, the anesthesiologist approached me and explained nervously that something went horribly wrong during the surgery. Apparently, Steve had a strong reaction to a particular anesthesia and it stopped his heart. He told me that he had jumped on top of Steve to perform CPR and that he finally got his pulse back after 53 seconds. After reviving him, they stabilized his blood pressure and rushed him to the ICU. He told me he was in an induced coma. They wanted to keep him motionless until they could place a stent in his heart. Apparently, his body had convulsed uncontrollably after his heart stopped.

I could not believe what I was hearing and seeing. Here was the man I had loved for seven years, reduced before me to a motionless vegetable. Here was the man who just two days before was strong, enterprising and courageous; and now he was on the verge of death. I felt utterly broken. I immediately thought about my father. Was I going to lose Steve, too, just a year later? What was this life? What was the point? Was I doomed to lose everyone I loved?

At that moment, I thought that Steve would die. At the very least, I thought he would never recover his brain function. The doctors were all very grave. They said: "We have no idea what will happen with him. But he did go without oxygen to the brain for over a minute." I just paced around the ICU all day. I made phone calls. Our best friend was flying in from New York that day. I took a break and picked him up at the airport. That was a good distraction; I needed support that day, and he gave it to me. We spent the rest of the day staring hopelessly at Steve on the respirator. We worried every time a machine made a noise. Finally, we left at about 8 PM.

Over the next two days, Steve was in critical condition. He could not open his eyes. I just sat at his side for hours at a time listening to the respirator and the other beeping machines that kept him alive.

On the third day, however, Steve suddenly opened his eyes. The paralytic had worn off. He looked around as if in a panic. Then he turned and saw me. His face glowed for an instant, then it crumpled into tears. He grabbed for my hand as the nurses struggled to keep all the tubes attached to his body. Tears streamed down my face. I clenched his hand and told him everything would be all right. I tried to explain what had happened, but it was obvious he could not comprehend what was wrong. He could not speak. He could mouth words, but the tracheal tube blocked his throat. Still, as pitiful as he appeared that day, I knew he would survive. It was a huge relief.

Ultimately, Steve stayed 33 more days in the hospital. I was there every day from morning to night. He got the stent he needed in his heart. He underwent three more skin graft surgeries to repair the arm. They had to shear skin off his thighs to replant it on his arm. At one point, the graft did not take; so they had to put cadaver skin on his arm as a "bedding." Toward the end of his stay, they took out the tracheal tube and he could speak again. His voice had changed and he lisped, but he could speak. There had been no brain damage. He was handicapped and slower, but he had survived. He went home September 5, 2007. The hospital bill came to something around $2,000,000.

In the months that followed, Steve pursued a legal case against the gym that caused his injuries. We hired a law firm to investigate and prosecute the claim. As a former trial lawyer, the case seemed a winner to me. There was nothing wrong with his arm before he went into the steam room on August 2. When he came out, he was permanently injured. His "special damages" amounted to at least $2,000,000, not to mention the "loss of a normal life," "disfigurement," "pain and suffering" and "mental anguish." There was no quarrel that the gym's facilities caused these injuries and Steve had no control over those facilities. Based on my experience, I estimated Steve's case at around $7,000,000.

Despite these compelling facts, the case went poorly. For its part, the gym denied it had done anything wrong. It actually came forward with some questionable "incident reports" that said that Steve "laid down in front of the steam vent" and "caused his own injury." The gym manager--who was not there on August 2--claimed that Steve must have "passed out in the steam room," then fallen in front of the vent for a long time. Yet the medical records all corroborated Steve's story. And the emergency responders who took him from the gym said nothing about "fainting" or "falling." They did not treat him as they would have treated someone who had just fainted. Steve's surgeon even said there was no evidence of a fall.

Still, our lawyers found the gym's self-serving reports troublesome. For some reason, they thought that if the gym's story were true, then Steve could not win the case. Yet Steve always told the same story about how he was injured: He walked into the steam room and a jet of steam suddenly burst from the wall. The gym did not provide warnings anywhere about steam vents. It was a very big steam room with several blind corners and crannies. I had been in it myself and often found it difficult to determine where steam was coming from. That is why it did not surprise me when Steve said the steam took him by surprise.

And no matter what story people believed, the logic of the case seemed obvious to me: You shouldn't allow access to something on your property that can cause an injury as bad as Steve's. It's almost like letting a wild animal loose in your house during a dinner party.

But our lawyers did not see it that way. They said they could never sell Steve's story to a jury. They said they could not convince people that steam could emanate from the wall when the pictures showed the vents were only at ankle level. They did not acknowledge the fact, however, that they took the pictures almost a year after the event. Who knows what "improvements" the gym had made in the intervening time.

Yet all these rationalizations took a back seat to an even more compelling problem for our lawyers: They discovered that the gym did not have any liability insurance. Liability insurance means that an insurance company pays if someone gets injured on your land. If you don't have liability insurance, an injured person can go directly after your assets. But if you have no assets--or if the assets are insufficient to cover the injury--it makes little sense for an injured person to pursue you. After all, it takes years to win a judgment, let alone collect on one. Insurance companies shorten the time needed to get money from an accident. Without insurance, most injury lawyers don't waste their time on cases, even if they are meritorious. After all, they don't get paid until they win. If they spend 5 years working a case, then discover no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they will have wasted 5 years for nothing. That is a terrifying prospect for a lawyer trying to pay his rent.

So our lawyers fired us. They never said that the gym's insurance situation was the reason they turned us away. But it was obvious to me. The gym got away scot-free because it strategically decided not to buy liability insurance. The gym knew that no personal injury lawyer would waste his time pursuing an entity without insurance, so it just did not buy insurance. In essence, it insured itself against lawsuits by refusing to insure. It understood that civil litigation is a time-consuming, expensive business. So it correctly guessed that most lawyers would avoid a case that does not promise a quick insurance payout.

In short, the gym acted in a commercially prudent manner. It minimized its liabilities. It saved money.

But Steve suffered injustice for it. Steve's life changed because of the gym's conduct. It offered its facilities to the public for a fee. Those facilities nearly killed Steve and gutted his entire existence, not to mention mine. And due to the gym's strategic failure to buy liability insurance, Steve will not even receive the psychic satisfaction that the law avenged the hurt he endured. Put simply, Steve did not get justice. The law failed him.

Or did it? Steve's case confirms me that the law does not serve justice. If it did, lawyers would have flocked to represent him. Yet none did. From an intuitive perspective, Steve suffered a gross injustice due to another's negligence. No one should ever have to endure such clear wrongs in life.

But the lawyers did not flock to his aid because justice does not motivate them. Avenging injustice, after all, does not necessarily pay the bills. Paying the bills is a quintessentially commercial function. And lawyers did not take Steve's case because they could not assure themselves that it would be "worth the investment." It did not matter that he suffered injustice. Rather, his case was not "commercially viable" because the gym did not have insurance.

In Steve's case, commerce won out over justice. That's a lesson in law for you.

I have no more illusions about the law. It is a business like any other. If a case doesn’t promise a quick profit, no lawyer will take it, even if a person has suffered obvious injustice.

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