Home > Essays > Risk Assessment
Published: Sun Jul 1 2007
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Risk Assessment

By [showing] close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera…film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. —Walter Benjamin

He pushes the coaster, a circle of corkboard within a circle of clear plastic, across his desk. I lift my mug of tea and place it on the coaster. We exchange no words on this point. I understand, however, I have entered an office where objects demand respect. The material world matters here particularly. A freshly polished desk shall remain freshly polished. Investments are being protected.


[T]he detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so. . . . —Roland Barthes

Second meeting: he grasps my hand and pumps. He mistakenly calls me Lori. Allison, I correct him. His hand is warm and dry; it makes a papery sound as he withdraws it from mine, admitting embarrassment. I once knew a Lori Schuette back in college. Must have written you down in my appointment book wrong. I forgive him, confessing that in the middle of class I often forget a student’s name; it slips from my mind and rests on the tip of my tongue, a word in limbo or perhaps purgatory, waiting for consciousness to redeem it.


A framed chart hangs on the wall behind where he seats me. Textbook material. Econ 101. The y-axis measures growth and loss; the x-axis, time. It begins with the birth of the stock market and runs up to the present. The green and blue lines climb from left to right, not smoothly. 1929 marked a bad turn, a precipice, the sheer face of a concrete skyscraper from which men threw themselves out of windows. There are other busts and booms, but none so dramatic. The green and blue lines are lightening, striking from east to west. He assures me that power lies in the future. If you can weather the storm, time has shown investments will grow. Except, he adds, in the case of a complete economic catastrophe. In which case, nothing matters anyway.

Insurance is not the same thing as assurance.

Investments are never risk free.


How much do you want to live off of when you retire? He has asked me to think about it. He has asked me to consider adding a whole life insurance policy to the term policies I have through the university where I teach. He has mentioned Roth IRAs. These are investment strategies. Risk, he implies, is not something simply to insure myself against; it is also an opportunity for growth.

My head swims. I do not know the answer to his question. I never expected these choices when, three weeks earlier, I’d come home to find the red light flashing on my answering machine. Hi, sweetie. It’s Dad. Your mom and I . . . well, when you were little, we took out life insurance policies on all you kids, and we’ve decided it’s time for you to take over the payments or decide what you want to do with it. I put everything in the mail. Call me when it arrives.

These last fifteen years, I have stood on the outskirts of the middle class American dream, not making enough money to pay taxes, keeping my hands clean. Now, with a salaried job, I stand in the heartland, and the soil under my nails smells strangely familiar.


[I]t is of a detail that I asked for the revelatory ecstasy. . . . I searched for the freshness of a reading in [my] relationship to the detail. . . . —Jacques Derrida

I’m taking pleasure in the thought of numbers growing, money birthing more money, parthenogenesis, the magic of mathematics where rules wind up in paradoxes and eventually in universes where 2 + 2 = 5.

We’ve invented numbers—symbols to quantify, to equate, to resolve a complicated world into patterns. Numbers compress; they render the large small, perhaps (if we’re lucky) manageable. They look simple, orderly—1 2 3 4 5—innocent even, morally neutral. What harm, a number?


Here the patient broke off, got up from the sofa, and begged me to spare him the recital of the details. —Sigmund Freud

•  2002: 15.2% of the US population had no health insurance coverage
•  2003: 13.5 million households were “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire” enough food
•  2004: 37 million Americans lived in poverty

Today he wears a navy tie with red polka dots. Each time he leans back in his chair, he smoothes the tie out. He lifts and runs it through his fingers so that it lies satisfactorily over his belly. Then, he launches into a story. How he himself decided to quit smoking the day the university president, his boss at the time, walked into his office the very same moment he took a huge drag from his cigarette. He had no choice but to exhale right as he shook the president’s hand. Strange indeed to see oneself through another’s eyes. So often the insight arrives through shame.


If the great things in life are easy to understand, simple to describe, its petty incidents require endless details. —Honoré de Balzac

•  10% of my salary goes to retirement annuity
•  $1 per pay period goes to basic term life insurance
•  $3.01 per pay period goes to voluntary term life insurance
•  $47.30 per pay period goes to health insurance (a PPO)

Third visit: I’ve brought my partner for the first time. He knows even less than I do about insurance and investment. When he first started teaching at the university, five years before me, he neglected to take any benefits besides health care because he didn’t want to figure out the paper work. But I can’t do this on my own. We’re in it together.

We sit beneath the framed chart with its blue and green lines, waiting for him. When he enters, we rise and shake hands, make small talk. My partner and I take our seats. He strides to the other side of the conference table and stands behind his executive leather chair. His hands land on its back with a cushioned thud as he looks down upon us. No school loans? No credit card debt? That’s positively un-American! He chuckles to himself and shakes his head side to side.

We have puzzled him since day one: not legally married and yet I have changed my name, living without a durable power of attorney or living will and yet fiscally responsible in this old-fashioned way. He probably wonders if we keep our money under the mattress rather than at the bank.


His colleague enters, a younger man and recent hire, the techie. His people skills are wooden, like a student who hasn’t practiced his presentation and must read it word for word from the podium. He fumbles at the laptop, the cluster of cords refusing to submit to his will. Finally, he sits down and rolls up his sleeves. He turns the back of the laptop towards him, untangles the cords and plugs them into their ports one by one. Now he can do his job.


[O]nce the detail has been connected with the whole which it represents, it becomes the royal way to the unconscious. —Naomi Schor

My partner and I are about to see a projection of our future based on our current financial “health.” We have estimated our monthly spending, assessed our savings, guessed the age of our retirement and how much money we’d want in order to retire well. The process has raised specters of my past, especially the guilty question of the middle class liberal: how can I be happy / comfortable / prosperous while others suffer?

I tried living at the poverty level in order to evade this question. But working part-time at minimum wage jobs didn’t guarantee anyone social justice. And choosing to live with less was not the same as having no choice. I still had privileges of my middle class upbringing: a private university education, a certain manner of speech, a partner to pay off my school loans so we could start our life of simplicity clean. And now I have lived with the question long enough to recognize its arrogance. A paternalistic attitude—I have what it takes to save you—ignores the agency of those who suffer; it re-victimizes those it wishes to serve. And yet the material conditions of suffering are real. Many have less than they need to live well. I simply do not understand the role of the individual in all this. For whom am I personally responsible? Raised Christian, I was taught that I am responsible for all. How is sitting down and planning out how to retire on $50,000 or $60,000 or $100,000 a year responsible to anyone but me and, okay, my partner?

But this is a Christian company. Or, at least, it affiliates itself with the Lutheran church. And he explained to me on my first visit the company’s non-profit status, how all of the money they make funds various charitable organizations. I may not be changing the system then, but I’m at least living in it responsibly. And yet…and yet…and yet . . .

Jesus said Solomon in all his splendor was not as well robed as the flowers of the field. He said the sparrows worry not where their next meal will come from. He said think not of the morrow.

Then again Jesus wasn’t Lutheran; he wasn’t raised with a Protestant work ethic.


I assured him that I myself had no taste whatever for cruelty. . .but that naturally I could not grant him something which was beyond my power. He might as well ask me to give him the moon. The overcoming of resistances [through confronting the details] was a law of the treatment, and on no consideration could it be dispensed with. —Freud’s response to his patient

Fourth visit: I want today to be the last day. I want to decide on the life insurance policies and the investment plans. I want to sign all the forms and move on. I want to stop thinking about these issues. The details and their attendant questions have worn me out.

We sit once more beneath the chart. His colleague punches keys on the laptop, trying to determine how much my partner’s tobacco habit will raise our premium. Meanwhile, he stands at the window, holding the blinds apart with two fingers, gazing at the barren expanse of the construction zone around their brand new building. He says that I have a test to take and turns to look at me. To prove that you quit smoking. As an aside, he adds, to insure that you don’t have HIV. I do this right at the table, the conference room suddenly a medical clinic, the client suddenly patient, power roles shifting subtly. He administers the test by opening a sterilized package and handing me a plastic stick. At the top, there is a small paddle with what he calls an absorbent patch. He tells me to place it between my gum and cheek. The patch, salty, sets off my salivary glands. A minute passes. He keeps track by the second hand on his watch. He reaches for the specimen bag and holds it open before me. I insert the stick, he snaps it in half, and seals the absorbent patch in the bag. Signatures are written—patient, administrator, witness—garbage disposed of, copies distributed, asses legally covered. Christian or not, a company is still a company. Trust only goes so far in a litigious society.


The laptop clicks as his colleague closes it. His fingers rest lightly on the computer’s edge. His nails are neat and trim. All done. He looks at my partner and me, smiles. We smile back and stand.

At the door to the hallway, we shake the colleague’s hand and say goodbye. The colleague walks away, laptop carefully tucked under his arm. We turn to him who stands at our backs still holding open the door. He explains that a medical technician will come out to our house to administer my partner’s health exam. As a client from the moment my parents bought a policy in my name, I can’t be required to take a full exam, but my partner can. The company has a right to assess how much risk he poses.

Once the results of the exam arrive, we’ll have one last visit, just to go over the final policies and sign our names. The end is in sight. He places one hand on my shoulder and reaches for my right hand with his other. But there really is no end. There is only this decision and then living with what that decision implies, with whatever consequences may arise. I don’t offer this thought out loud, but we shake on it anyway.


You know, Doctor, I shouldn’t be surprised if your application of my methods proves in the long run far more important than the mechanical uses I make of them. But always remember the physical details. No matter how far into the mind you may travel, they are of supreme importance. —Sherlock Holmes to Sigmund Freud, Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

I stand at the cutting board and slice through the heart of the onion. Should anything happen to my partner or me, this kitchen, yes, even the entire house, will be paid for. The life insurance policy covers it. Today we pay for a future we anticipate but cannot know. What would Jesus think? “Marketplace” comes on Chicago Public Radio.

Papery skins of garlic litter my workspace. Oil from pressing the cloves with the side of my knife has left a stain on the cutting board. I’ve brushed breadcrumbs from previous meals to the side, several times in fact. They form a gladiator’s ring for the battle I’m about to do with the onion.

I lop off both ends of one half and peel away the skin. This gets tossed on top of the curls of garlic paper. I place the onion on its flat side before me and chop vertically, perpendicular to the moon-shaped semi-circle. I am careful to hold the onion slices in place as I cut all the way through. Then I give the whole thing a quarter turn and chop in line with the half-moon side. The onion falls away from the knife in neatly diced bits. My eyes tear up.

The onion is browning in the skillet with the garlic when I hear Kai Ryssdal’s voice. Let’s do the numbers. Listening to Ryssdal recite the NASDAQ and the Dow is like listening to Abby Ryan deliver the Chicago traffic report. I know the city’s outline well enough to get the gist of things, but not well enough to really understand where the traffic jams lie. I certainly couldn’t make intelligent use of the information if I happened to be approaching the city at rush hour. Someday, if I wanted to, I could learn both Chicago’s and Wall Street’s traffic patterns, but for now, it is enough to know what it means that “Stormy Weather” is playing in the background: a bad day on Wall Street.

I return to the cutting board and roll a lemon against its surface preparing to juice it. Because citrus supposedly lifts one’s mood, I raise the heel of my palm to my nose and inhale. I cut the fruit in half and imagine a giant lemon hovering at the tip of Manhattan. Commuters raise their chins, breathe in deeply, then rush once more for their trains. A vender notices and pauses too. She sniffs the air, shrugs, and gives it another fifteen minutes before she packs up her wares. The bag lady stretched out on the sidewalk up against the fence doesn’t budge. She snores, warmed by a ray of sun that has muscled its way between the tall buildings. Later, she’ll wipe her nose on her coat sleeve and wonder why she’s suddenly thinking of lemons.

Some risks we can’t insure ourselves against or profit from. Some we must simply accept.

And that’s Marketplace for today.

I pick up a lemon half and twist it hard against the juicer.

Allison Schuette is associate professor of English at Valparaiso University. Her writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, AGNI Online, Gulf Coast Review, Mid-American Review, Cimarron Review, PMS poemmemoirstory, and elsewhere. (updated 12/2007)

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