Lecture: “Actuarial Science analyzes statistics with mathematical models to determine probabilities. Probabilities only function meaningfully on a scale large enough to successfully absorb individual anomalies. What is an anomaly? An means one. An anomaly is the one thing that actually happens. It is what actually happens to you or me and nobody knows what that will be. It is entirely unpredictable. Entirely. If you want to know what will happen to you, you should consult a fortune teller (pause for predicted displays of servile student amusement). If you want to know why it will happen you are in the wrong classroom, although I do not know what the right one for you would be (pause). Actuarial Science is not about what will happen to you or when it will happen or why it will happen. It is about rigging the game so the house wins more often than it loses.”

John Smith Esq. died on the courthouse steps on his way to file papers in an inheritance dispute. He was late for his appointment and was checking his papers as he climbed the steps. A man coming down the steps was trying to read a text message on his cell phone. The man bumped into John Smith, causing a (very important, original, signed, witnessed) document to start slipping from his attaché case. John Smith lurched to his left, stumbled and fell forward into Ellen Sings at Night. Ellen Sings at Night was coming down the steps with an attaché case in her left hand. In her right hand was a ceremonial pipe that had belonged to her great-great-grandfather. As she fell backward, she swung her attaché case behind her to break her fall and held the pipe out in front of her to protect it from damage. The pipe was wrapped in deerskin and the stem end stuck out slightly. Instead of putting out his hand to break his fall, John Smith clutched his papers to his chest to secure them. When he fell on top of Ellen Sings at Night the pipe stem penetrated through his left eye into his brain, killing him instantly. Ellen Sings at Night was bruised painfully by the granite steps. The (original, signed, witnessed) document blew away and was picked up several hours later by a bicycle messenger who used it to scrape dog crap off his shoe.

What were the chances of that happening, that one thing and not something else? The chances—at least by retrospective logic—were 100%. John Smith became dead by a complex sequence of seemingly random and unconnected events. Nobody could have predicted it but nevertheless, he was absolutely dead. And his own final act was an acquired reaction meant to protect what he had come to value and thereby to protect himself. And what could you say about that reaction except… it had apparently worked just fine until it didn’t.

Lecture: “Do not suppose it is ever about anything but profit, which we measure in dollars. Do not look for morality or justice or the egoic illusion that you are somehow bettering human society. Do not suppose Actuarial Science is about the cold, hard facts. The cold, hard facts only exist after something has happened and it is too late to do anything about it. Actuarial Science is not about making guesses, although you will make guesses every day. You will make guesses by analyzing the flawed guesses, incomplete data, misleading statistics, superstitious beliefs and outright lies compiled by other people.  Your job, as a practitioner of Actuarial Science, is not to predict what will happen. You are not a fortune teller. Your job is to rig the game so the house wins more than it loses.”

There were many witnesses to John Smith’s death. One claimed John Smith had assaulted Ellen Sings at Night and she had merely defended herself. Another claimed Ellen Sings at Night had attacked John Smith deliberately and–even though her hair was braided in American Indian style, she looked like an Arab–had they searched her for explosives and automatic weapons? The man with the cell phone had managed to read his text message while John Smith was dying, and tried to walk away from the incident. He was detained by a policewoman who was standing at the bottom of the courthouse steps and had observed the event. The majority of witnesses stated that it looked like an unfortunate accident, just one of those things.

Ellen Sings at Night answered many questions, declined medical treatment and inquired about the pipe. She was told the pipe would be released to her in due course, once the investigative protocols demanded by this unusual event had been completed. John Smith was hauled away with the pipe still stuck in his head.

Lecture: “Profit is measured in dollars, that is, a dollar sign with a number after it. The word trade implies one thing is exchanged for another thing of similar value. There is no profit in that. Actuarial Science is not about trade or commerce or free markets or supply and demand or gross national product or any other such elusive concepts that economists entertain themselves with (pause). The most efficient way to acquire profit is to deal with the dollars as directly as possible. I give you five dollars, you give me four dollars back, you make a profit. This is why the vast majority of career opportunities in Actuarial Science are in the insurance and financial sectors. These businesses strive to minimize their involvement with the inefficiencies of producing goods and services. Currency traders [sic] are the most efficient of all. They produce no goods or services whatsoever, only profit (pause) or loss (pause). In modern society these kinds of businesses constitute the house. They will hire you to help rig the game in their favor. You are here to learn how to do that.”

James Smith was notified of his father’s accident and requested to identify the remains. Ellen Sings at Night was notified she could retrieve her pipe. As it happened (the coroner wanted to get these things done and go home), they arrived at the coroner’s office at the same time.

Ellen: “I’m here about the pipe.”

Coroner: “You are Ellen… Sings at Night?”

James: “You’re the one who…?”

Ellen: “Well, you could say it was my great-great-grandfather.”

Coroner: “And you are…?”

James: “The… James Smith. His son.”

Coroner: “May I see some identification?”

Coroner: “I’m sorry. Both of you please.”

James: (showing his ID) “Why could you say that?”

Ellen: (showing her ID) “It’s his pipe. He died in 1889.”

James: “What did he die of?”

Ellen: “He was lynched by a white rancher for stealing his own horse back.”

James: “So this is his revenge or something?”

Ellen: “I don’t know. They say he was pretty mad about it.”

James: “You sound pretty mad about it too.”

Ellen: “Look. He fell on top of me. I wasn’t stalking him with my primitive native artifact. I’ve already been accused of being a militant Indian and an Arab terrorist and the jilted concubine of a paleface lawyer. The pipe is over a hundred years old and it means a lot to me and I never saw your dad before in my life.”

Coroner: “Follow me please, Mr. Smith.”

The coroner leads James Smith into a room where his father lies on a stainless steel table with wheels. The coroner reveals John Smith’s face and gaping, ruined eye socket. Even covered by the sheet, the rest of his body looks nakedly old, scrawny and discarded. James Smith nods to the coroner. Ellen Sings at Night watches through the window in the swinging door.

James: “That’s him. That’s my dad. John Smith, Esquire.”

Coroner: (replacing sheet) “Thank you. I’m sorry.”

Coroner: “The body can be released from here to the funeral home as soon as those arrangements are made.”

Coroner: “I’ll just need your signature on the identification form. Please follow me.”

The coroner, followed by James and Ellen, returns to the counter joining the office with the hallway. James signs the form.

Ellen: “Why do they call them homes?”

Coroner: “They used to call them parlors.” (like ice cream parlors)

James: “They just want something that sounds like… not like what they are.”

Ellen: “Is it hard to work in a place like this?”

Coroner: “The deceased are not hard to get along with.”

James: “If you didn’t know them.”

Ellen: “I’m sorry about your dad.”

James: “Not your fault, but thanks.”

Coroner: (placing a plastic bag containing the pipe on the counter) “The pipe has been cleaned and sterilized in an autoclave. We had to do that because the uh… material on it is legally considered a biohazard. I don’t think it was damaged in any way but we are not guaranteeing that. Please initial here and here and sign and date here.”

James: “Dad’s brains… biohazard.”

James: “Sorry.”

Ellen: (signing the form) “Was he…?”

James: “A decent man? A good father? I suppose. I don’t know. He was a lawyer.”

Ellen: “Meaning…?”

James: “He didn’t engage real life much. He had a good brain.”

James: (snort) (cackle) (shudder)

Coroner: (sigh) (here it comes) (not a bad place to work until the living showed up)

Coroner: “Thank you both very much for your patience. I’ll show you out. Please follow me.”

James: “You’re limping, did you get hurt?”

Ellen: “I hit the steps pretty hard. (I’ll live) I’m all right.”

James: “Why were you there?”

Ellen: “I’m a lawyer. For the tribe.”

Ellen: “What do you do?”

James: (I insert foot in mouth)

James: “I’m an Actuarial Scientist. That is, I have my degree. I’m looking for a job.”

Ellen: “What kind of job would that be?”

James: “Making sure the house always wins.”

Ellen: “Isn’t it like that already?”

James: “Well yes, but you want it to be your house.”

James: “What do you do for the tribe?”

Ellen: “File papers so we can open a gambling casino on the reservation.”

Coroner: “This is not the way you came in. Here is 16th Street. Fremont and the main entrance are that way. Thank you for coming.”

Coroner closes the metal door. James and Ellen stand silently. Traffic passes.

Ellen: “Would you like to get a drink?”

James: “Absolutely.”

They walk a block down 16th Street to a neon sign that says “MCs”. They enter, sit at the bar, order beer. On the mirrored wall behind the bar is a smaller neon sign that says “Mitigating Circumstances”.  Ellen lays pipe on bar.

James: “So (gesturing vaguely)… you’re ok with this?”

Ellen: “Yeah. Hi, my name is Ellen and I’m not a redskin alcoholic.”

James: “Don’t be so touchy. I’m supposed to be grieving.”

Bartender sets two beers on bar, takes money.

James: “I take it back. Here’s to being real.”

Ellen: “To the real red way.”

They drink some beer.

James: “You’re not too keen on that casino thing are you.”

Ellen: “The tribe doesn’t have the capital to do it on its own so it will be bankrolled by an investment group who’ll take the biggest share of the profits. Gambling, alcohol and dehumanizing jobs will be more readily available on the rez. What’s not to like? We’ll make some money to improve social services but what will it really cost us in, you know, further destruction of culture and assimilation into the great American way of life?”

James: “You’re a lawyer and it doesn’t seem to have destroyed you.”

Ellen: “Ok… point taken. You’re an actuarian, how’s that going?”

James: “The word is actuary, but I like yours better. I should put it on my cards. Analyze statistics, identify trends and patterns, assess risks and predict profits and losses. My professor used to insist we did not predict the future but of course that is exactly what we try to do. Or maybe we’re creating it. Maybe that’s what bothered him. Except it’s the future of nobody in particular so it has nothing to do with actual life–but it has everything to do with making money, which apparently does have something to do with actual life.”

James: “I like the math and setting up computer analysis and I’m not good at anything else and it’s what my dad would agree to pay for but it all seems very unreal sometimes.”

James: (sipping beer)

James: “Hi, my name is James and I’m an actuarian. It’s been three months since I calculated anyone’s death.”

James: (crying briefly)

Ellen: “You miss him.”

James: “I’ve been missing him for years. It just reminds me of that.”

Ellen: (sipping beer)

Ellen: “You’re not too bad at talking to a complete stranger.”

James: (looking at pipe) “Why did you have this with you?”

Ellen: “I thought it might help.”

James: “How do you mean?”

Ellen: “I never knew my great-great-grandfather of course. My father left me the pipe. He used to put the pipe in my hands and hold me in his lap and tell me this is all we have… each other. He didn’t mean just him and me. He meant the tribe, the people. I just… thought it might help… make things better… somehow. I don’t know what I expected, maybe nothing. Not this.”

James: “Your father is… gone too?”

Ellen: “He worked high steel. He flew off a skyscraper.”

Ellen: (the other way she remembered him–flying through the air, arms spread like wings, hair whipping in the wind, hard hat tumbling far behind him, bound for earth, smiling, thinking about her)

Ellen: “It paid for law school.”

James: (this we call cold, hard facts?) “I suppose I’ll inherit something now.”

Ellen: (don’t think) “I don’t think the tribe has any actuarians.”

Ellen: “We probably need one.”

James: (touching the plastic bag)

Ellen: (just fly) “Why don’t you hold on to that for a little while.”

Ellen: “You can give it back to me at the funeral.”

James: “I…” (predicting the future)

James: “…suppose I could work cheap if I inherited something.”

Ellen: (nodding) “Not much profit in working for the tribe.”

James: (putting hand on pipe)

Ellen: (putting business card on bar)

Ellen: (go now) “Call me.”


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