Assessing risk when we least expect to
August 31, 2007
The sun blazes down through the model of a partly cloudy summer sky over mountains. Cool dampness rises from dew, the afternoon’s thunderstorms waking gradually for work. The sensation of warm air descending and cool air rising, to meld perfectly in the space occupied by me, is proof enough that the day isn’t ordinary. It’s perfect.
My perception, no doubt, has something to do with the fact that I slept soundly on the ground near timberline last night. That isn’t supposed to happen on a backpacking trip. I don’t spend the time to think much about it. It’s better used to take for granted another great day in a string of them that goes back to a time I no longer remember; probably an icy morning commute last spring after I had already taken the snow tires off or the day income taxes were due.
Such a fortuitous streak of fair weather builds confidence in a man. I shoulder my pack, fasten and tighten all the appropriate straps, and head down the trail toward the next pleasant stop in my future.
With my family, I crest a pass. Passes always bring change; change in view, change in direction, even change in the muscles to continue forward progress. The path pitches downward, exposing a picturesque lake. It simply can’t get any better than this. And it doesn’t.
My right foot lands on a patch of small, loose rock, perfectly suited for rolling under the weight of my stride. It shoots down the hill. The toe of my left boot drops anchor behind, to slow the progress. The left hand has its doubts about the effectiveness of this tactic and flairs to brace for a fall. Pebbles grind and dust swirls. Both feet give up the fight. The prepared hand lands in a pile of boulders. There is flash behind my eyes, shooting pain. I know the thumb has gone in a direction never traveled, and not recommended. I’ll find out later that my string of good luck is taking a detour through surgery, six weeks in a cast and three months of physical rehab.
But, stories about injury are dramatically interesting only to oneself and there is nothing so painful as having to endure the boring details about someone else’s, so I’ll turn the story here before you tune out.
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While I was waiting for the fiberglass to set in my temporary splint, the current national credit crisis came into terms I can understand: we no longer comprehend risk.
We live in the age of extreme. It’s not a generational thing, as the makers of Mountain Dew lead us to believe. It is an affliction of the period and we are all infected.
I don’t know if it started in business or sport. I’m not even sure if there is a difference between the two anymore. It’s all about living large. We are doers. Athletes do drugs to perform at levels previously unknown. Executives do accounting data to make millions more than they will ever need. Stars do unseemly things and reap rewards. Rarely does anyone do time. It is all symptomatic of an age where there is no downside, so every action makes sense.
We watch kids turn triple flips on skis. We read about corporations taking each other over for billions of dollars a turn. In each we tally the participants’ takes and shrug at how mild an undertaking it is to expand our mortgages each time it is reported on the evening news that home prices have risen again.
“Go big, or go home” is the motto, so even we with the least stomach for gambling find solace in going home to a big home. The math is as simple as the strategy for getting rich: at 12 percent annual appreciation, the more we spend, the more we earn. I’ll pay a year’s salary more for this house than the seller bought it for last year because someone will certainly offer me that much more again for it next year, whether I want to sell it or not. There is no reason. There doesn’t have to be. There will always be someone else willing to pay an ever increasing premium for such a great investment. There is no risk and plenty of reward, no reason to wait for that either.
The appraisal goes up, and an annual draw on a line of credit is waiting to be tapped for the formality of presenting paperwork to any bank. How funny is it that they still call this extra money in my pocket a loan? It’s terminology left over from the old economy. It has a new meaning now: cash on demand.
Then one otherwise fine day there is a change. The demand for money becomes too great. Interest rates rise. Mortgage payments, tied to a previously meaningless index, go up. Some can’t pay. Even if I can afford my house, those who wanted to buy it no longer can, because the people who wanted to buy theirs can’t, either. Nobody is moving up, so the values of the roofs over our heads go down. There is no more excess equity to spend at Wal-Mart, Target, the Home Depot and all the other places we recreate nowadays, so the stock markets drop and people get laid off from work ” a slip, a fall, a ligament snaps. We don’t know how bad it is yet.
I should have seen it coming. The loose rocks on the steep trail were as obvious as I was impervious. I have been backpacking for years and have never before been injured by it, wouldn’t have thought it possible. Who gets hurt on a stroll through the woods? As the post-Mechanical Age proverb goes: It is not the bus you see that runs you over.
There is risk in treading untamed soil. Our world is built on untamed soil.
Yes, I will venture out into the woods again. The call of the wild may get to me again even before my cast is cut off. But there is healing that needs to be done in the meantime. There will be pain. It will take time. I will be more cautious. I have felt the downside of risk.
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