Risk: An Accounting

There's a cost to every decision, but how can we measure it?

Like a flower at first, all daisy face and fairy blossom. Or a star, if you prefer, supernova of cellular splits. Aster. Suggestion of beauty, hint of growth. The risk comes next: little aphid on the pistil, little dust mote in the cosmos, little nucleus caught in the act of dividing. It’s the ending that signals Results not typical, Side effects may include. . .Warning! Little caveat. Little button at the collar. Little jacket snap and tie clip.

Put them both together to form the section break: tiny raft adrift on a wide, unpunctuated sea. Asterisk. Little barnacle on a rock. Little hole in the wall, peering out, peering in. Little pip on a die. Little jewel in a shell. It’s impossible to tell what the risk will yield. Little coin toss. Is it a loss . . . or a win? Little eye, unblinking. Little mole on the skin. Could be malignant, could be benign. Little navel. Little nostril. Little knot in the wood of longing.

The entry is always easier than we think, not knowing what we’re getting ourselves into. It’s the exit that requires a risk. Little Tell me everything. Little Not in a million years. Little I held the door open, but she didn’t walk through. Little story hour at the library. Little champagne clink on the ship. That which reminds us nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower. We admire the aster in the English garden, and so we pluck. The risk is what follows: s/he loves me, s/he loves me not.


Brimhall, Traci

“And we want the stricken pleasure of intimacy,
so we risk it.”



Risky Business premiered in 1983. In the film, a youthful Tom Cruise, in one of his first big roles, plays a teenager on his own for the weekend. At first, it’s all fun and games—don’t we all remember that iconic scene: Tom Cruise in his underpants and socks, lip-synching and air-guitaring his way through the house?—but then, of course, mischievous hijinks ensue, the stakes growing larger by the minute.

I can’t remember if I saw the movie in a theater at the time, since in 1983, I had embarked on some risky business of my own out in the countryside of Northern California at a hot springs community. I lived with a man fifteen years my senior and was involved with another couple in a polyamorous fling. Soon, the wife became pregnant with the couple’s first child, and we lay together with my hand on her belly, breathing into each other’s mouths. I wanted to believe the baby was my baby, too, somehow controverting all laws of biology. What was I thinking? Not much, not much—only following the bright, dangerous trail of the body’s desires.



For thirteen days in 1962, John F. Kennedy played roulette with the Russians and ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba in response to the United States’ discovery of Soviet nuclear missile sites on that island nation. These missiles were capable of striking targets from Canada to Peru. JFK appeared on national television, his face grave, and promised full retaliation for any perceived aggression. We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the course of worldwide nuclear war, he told us, in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths, but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced. Americans crowded their televisions and radios, waiting to see if this presidential action would, indeed, spark the end of the world.

I was only three years old at the time, but I have vague memories of my parents watching the president, holding their breaths, tapping their cigarettes but forgetting to smoke them. Years later, in high school, I would write a report on what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, imagining the president in his ExComm meetings, calculating the risks and rewards of such determined actions. He couldn’t know the outcome—only that the consequences could be deadlier than those of the great wars the country had already known. I imagined him listening to his advisors, but with his face turned away, gazing out the window of the Oval Office to the wide expanse of green well-tended lawn—thinking of the country, yes, mapping in his mind the waters around Cuba, but also of his young children, his wife. It could all disappear in a flash.


Eliot, T. S.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”



Before any surgery, or before taking a new medication, the doctors tell us the risk factors. Or they don’t tell us but hand us the informed consent sheet, or the pharmacist slips in the folded paper that has all the adverse side effects listed in 6-point font. When we watch a commercial for the latest arthritis drug or treatment for depression, the risk factors go by in a blur, the announcer’s voice sped up to get them all in before the minute is done: Do not take if. . . .  So many things can go wrong.

Toward the end of my father’s life, as he lay in the cardiovascular unit of the hospital, he asked his cardiologist for a heart transplant. He was eighty-five years old, his heart pumping at 15 percent capacity, diabetic, with essential tremor. Dr. Daniels sat down, unbuttoning his white coat; he did not laugh, did not even crack a smile. He explained the hospital’s policy—that anyone over the age of seventy was not a candidate for a transplant—and said that even if the prohibition didn’t exist, my father’s body wouldn’t be able to take the long surgery and recovery. Too risky, the doctor said. He listed other procedures that might be able to help, but each one came with a long list of possible unfavorable outcomes, including death. My father nodded and closed his eyes. The heart display would soon be disconnected, and he’d need to go back out into the world unmonitored. No one listed the risk factors for that particular condition.



My parents used to go to Las Vegas at least once a year, for their anniversary. My mother saved her “coupon money” all year for the trip. It was an easy drive from the San Fernando Valley—where we led what appeared to be risk-free lives—and then, later, from their retirement home in Sun Lakes, Arizona—another community that did its best to appear placid and serene, with its artificial lakes and immaculately tended golf courses. They always bought tickets for a big show and whiled away the afternoons at the buffets and casinos. My mother played the slots, jiggling her cup of quarters, pulling down the arm of the one-armed bandit with deliberate care. His game was blackjack, and he sat at the low-stakes table. I imagine him whistling through his teeth as he tapped the cards in his hand. He’d researched the game and the odds, made a cheat sheet he studied in private to determine the best time to stay or when to take a hit.

He never lost much, but he didn’t win much either. They often broke even, that in itself a victory. My mother wore a dress, stockings, and low heels. They ordered Asti Spumante with dinner and toasted to their good fortune. I like to think of the two of them in the Circus Circus—the timeless light, the chatter of the dealers a comforting hum, the omnipresent cloud of cigarette smoke, the rolling thunk of all the slots falling into place.

Game of Strategic Conquest

We try to play Risk once—the board game “for ages 10+”—but I know I’ll forfeit just from studying the box. Who are these men in plumed helmets anyway, scowling atop their steeds? In a single scene, I note two swords raised, a rifle cocked, a cannon loaded with wick aflame—so many ways to inflict pain, so many weapons of rage.

“It’s just a game,” my father says, patting my hand, before he turns back to the game materials and reads aloud: “The goal is simple: players aim to conquer their enemies’ territories by building an army, moving their troops in, and engaging in battle.” I am shaking my head already, tipping back in my chair, an acrid taste filling my mouth as if I have swallowed a penny. “C’mon, Smidge, lighten up. This exciting game is filled with betrayal, alliances, and surprise attacks.”

But why is betrayal exciting? I can’t fathom the audible thrill in his voice or the series of tender inspections that follows—first the artillery, then the cavalry, then the infantrymen with their sharp, austere faces.


From the kitchen sink, where she stands scrubbing dishes, my mother declares, “You should have seen your father in his Air Force uniform. So handsome!” By now, we’ve unpacked the dice and the rest of the cards: “Remember . . .  when it comes to taking over the world, it’s all about who is willing to take the biggest Risk.”

I tell them I need a bathroom break. My mother asks, “Already?”
I tell them I’m not feeling so well. My father says, “You’ll snap out of it after a round or two. Here, have some ginger ale.” 
By now I am scowling, but my parents don’t see. Take over the world? I just want to find my place in it.


Mansfield, Katherine
“Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others. . . . Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”

Nin, Anaïs
“And then the day came,

when the risk

to remain tight

in a bud

was more painful

than the risk

it took

to Blossom.”


Not worth the
There is no easy way to say I’ve never wanted children. It’s not the same as saying I’ve never wanted to ride a motorcycle or Zip-lining just isn’t for me. The simple disclosure of chosen non-maternity seems to threaten a sacred status quo, to imply I’m passing judgment on all the parents and prospective parents I know. For years, I’ve side-stepped this question, saying in my upbeat way, “Sure! Eventually. . . ,” or, “When the time is right, you’ll be the first to know!” Why risk offending anyone?

As a teenager, I tried to tell my mother I wasn’t interested in motherhood. She dropped everything and drove to the video store to rent Baby Boom with Diane Keaton. “She thinks she doesn’t want a baby,” my mother railed. “She thinks she’s happy with her high-rise apartment and her big-city job and the man she lives with but isn’t even married to!” I couldn’t risk a comment, but it all sounded pretty sweet to me.

Then, our protagonist inherits a baby from a distant relative (credible premise?) and ends up isolated in a ramshackle farmhouse in Vermont—single; struggling; the baby, adorable of course, but consuming all her time, money, and energy. I didn’t want to make applesauce. I didn’t want to warm bottles on the stovetop or worry about sharp corners, outlets exposed.

Now that I’m over thirty-five, people volunteer comments like Clock’s a ticking! or What are you waiting for? A colleague’s wife whispered once in a hallway, “I wasn’t sure if you had a fertility issue.” A guest at a party informed me with a cheery wave of her hand, “Lesbians can have children, too. It’s not so taboo anymore.”

Years later, my mother writes, “I risked everything to have you, and now you’re going to throw it all away.” As if my life means nothing on its own terms. As if my high-rise apartment and my big-city job and my married life with a woman I love are just the preface to some more real story. I have yet to reply.

of Smoking
The first Surgeon General’s report on the risks of smoking came out in 1964. In a subsequent report, dated 1990, an Advisory Committee concluded that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men and a probable cause of lung cancer in women. (The discrepancy between certain and probable causes most likely arose because women have never been as closely studied, in this way, as men.) It was in 1966 that the warning labels began to appear. At first, these warnings remained fairly abstract—Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health—and only over time became more specific—Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy. (In other countries, the warnings can be more blunt: Smoking kills; Smoking causes fatal lung cancer; Smoking seriously harms you and others around you.)
My family must’ve believed the reward (pleasure?) was greater than the risk. My mother smoked Benson & Hedges 100’s, the long cylinder supposedly more feminine, while my father stuck to Marlboros in the familiar red flip-top box. (Another warning, in Albanian: Protect Children: do not let them breathe your smoke.) I stole cigarettes, one by one, so the theft wouldn’t be noticed, not knowing then how carefully a smoker keeps track of the cigarettes left in a pack.
Smoke surrounded us: at dinner, after dinner, at breakfast. My parents must have seen the warnings hundreds, thousands, of times, but the message didn’t hit home until their heart attacks—several of them. That’s when any warning takes full effect, right? After the damage has been done.

It didn’t seem risky to smoke that first cigarette, despite the Surgeon General’s warning. I tapped three times like Dorothy’s ruby shoes, made a wordless wish, and struck a match.

It didn’t seem risky to let a stranger buy me that drink, thinking nothing of what he’d want in return. Barely legal in a foreign land, I wasn’t concerned about the bottomless glass on ladies’ night.

It didn’t seem risky because he loved me, and I was on the pill. I didn’t worry because everyone in grad school bought weed from someone with a tuxedo on his T-shirt. I ate that gas station gumbo because I was hungry. I slept at that rest stop because I was tired. And what about all those degrees in the humanities, the student loans creeping close to a hundred grand? I was following my heart, of course, and it’s plain to see I have no head for business.

The doctor said if the gash had been a quarter-inch deeper on either side. . . . The X-ray technician called it a clean break. . . . The nurse suggested no more greasy spoons. . . . I never got cold feet when I said, “I do,” though close to half of marriages end in divorce. I hold the steering wheel steady when I drive on I-95, one of the deadliest freeways in America. Sometimes I think I’m the luckiest person alive. And sometimes I wonder if I’m balanced on a plank, more precarious than I’ve ever realized. If my only skill is not looking down.

Over the last few decades, the field of risk management has grown exponentially. In our fast paced world, the risks we have to manage evolve quickly, says the Institute of Risk Management (IRM), a society that provides resources to thousands of “risk professionals” around the world. Through the IRM, you can find jobs in the insurance industry, healthcare, cybersecurity, or law. You can take classes and webinars on such topics as “Developing Risk Appetite Statements” and “Root Cause Analysis.”
I’d like to think I’ve become a pro at personal risk management, carefully calibrating my life so that nothing unexpected can occur; the variables of risk have gradually decreased over the years. I live alone, so have complete control of my routines. My dog and I exercise regularly. I have insurance of all sorts. I recently had workmen in my home, bolting the house to the foundation in case of earthquake; other workmen are, at this very moment, scraping and banging on top of my house, ensuring that the roof over my head will last at least another thirty years.
But even so, I’d love a Risk Professional to appear at my door, superhero cape fluttering (on the IRM website, they show a photo of three risk professionals dressed, bizarrely, in helmets and rocket packs). I’d like my Risk Professional to close my laptop and turn off my phone, on which news of fresh risks seems to appear every hour. Don’t worry, she’d say, I’ve got it handled, and I could go to bed, sleep like a baby.

Which sounds like risk-A, a risk of the first order, but risk a what? A daring act? Elicit a kiss? Upset an oxcart? Return a library book eight years overdue? (Done, done, done.) Even the word has a quality of risk about it: an accent tossed skyward like a scarlet beret. As if risk, which is always red as a fresh wound, has coupled with gold lamé to make this portmanteau—risqué—flirty, torchy, a bit too much.

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking! At twelve years old, I auditioned to sing this song while a group of girls about my age tap-danced in sailor suits cut short and brightly spangled. The teacher said, You’re either a dancing sort or a singing sort, so this was my chance to see if singing suited me, as dancing never had. I wore my white cap askew. I held the microphone like a lollipop, just as she told me to, my other hand akimbo on my hip. Now Heaven knows—. But when the curtain rose, I didn’t know how to occupy the spotlight, how to turn wily and coy as I belted out the tune. Instead, I backed slowly offstage into the shadows. A canned recording soon piped through—Anything goes! (Gone, gone, gone.) I left sequins like breadcrumbs all over the floor.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. . . . So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Second Chance
In 2007, This American Life aired an episode called “Reality Check.” Viewers were introduced to Ralph and Sandra Fisher and their pet Brahman bull, Chance. Ira Glass recounts how the couple lovingly described Chance sleeping under a tree in their front yard, the peace they felt peering at him from the kitchen window. As Chance grew old, the couple couldn’t bear the thought of life without their gentle giant, so they approached researchers at Texas A&M about the possibility of cloning him. The result was “Second Chance,” the spitting image of his predecessor and the first bull ever successfully cloned by scientists.

I’m watching this episode with my partner, listening to the Fishers describe their joy at seeing the new bull kneel down under the same tree in their front yard. My eyes are wet, and I can’t wipe the tears away fast enough. Angie says, “This is going to go all Pet Sematary on them, isn’t it?” I fear she’s right. And then it happens: Second Chance, so easily mistaken for the first one, regal and ghostly white, gores his owner—not once, but twice. From the hospital bed, Ralph insists he’ll give Second Chance another chance. He’ll risk it—the way love doesn’t just engender a risk but ultimately demands one.

You know what happens next—what has to happen—if mortality is to remain our eternal impediment; if all loves are to remain, in their way, irreplaceable. “Art and life turn out to be equally strange,” Angie and I decide, as Ralph and Sandra grieve the second bull and then again the first, the earlier sorrow nested inside the second. Our cats, still so young then, lounge on our laps. We have already crossed a threshold over which we can no longer imagine our lives without them.

Years later, when Oliver dies in our arms, we keen for him, wet-faced and inconsolable.
In that moment, we would do anything to have him back, even the mere semblance of him, his perfect black shadow. We know better, but we don’t care. In our impossible grief, we would bury his body in the pet cemetery, carry his DNA in a delicate vial to the lab, if we could.

You’ve been there, too, or you will be soon—desperate for any chance to touch your beloved again. We are all the Fishers.

There’s a word I love, from the Greek: ilinx, meaning “whirlpool.” When I hear it, I think risk. I think thrill. I think dizziness: teacups spinning too fast at Disneyland or the giddy tilt of a plane toward the sky. (Take-off, the thrill; landing, the risk.) Sociologist Roger Caillois wrote that ilinx involves “the pursuit of vertigo,” the way children will run in circles for hours, tug and twirl each other, until they collapse on the grass.

My favorite phrase in Caillois’s text is this one: we perform acts of ilinx to “inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind.” What makes panic “voluptuous”? Should I ask skydivers and mountain-climbers, tightrope-walkers and lion-tamers—or anyone who rides the Zipper at a fair? I have a feeling they’d tell me something glib though—just for the thrill of it—nothing about the risk at all. How much pleasanter to recount the rosie and not the all fall down.

I courted ilinx in private ways: hours on the trampoline in the basement, on the pogo stick in the yard. But every year at summer camp, I couldn’t scale the rock wall, despite the harness and the helmet and the string of strong-legged girls who found their footing before me. Our counselors insisted I needed to be more adventurous. The other campers peered down from the summit, flush-faced and pleased with themselves. “It’s fun,” they said as one voice. “It’s easy.” Thirty feet below, unconvinced, I dangled from an orange rope, the tips of my sneakers scraping the ground. I hadn’t yet met a voluptuous panic, which is another way of saying I was still a long way from falling in love.

A few weeks ago, a gunman sprayed a country music concert with automatic weapons from his perch in a four-star hotel. Can you picture it? (It’s too easy to picture it these days.). Imagine the music, American as all get out—twang of Southern vocals, trill of electric guitar. The crowd swaying, or two-stepping, or swinging a partner in the cramped space they carved on the floor, a sea of baseball caps, cowboy hats, kerchiefs, jeans. The music kept playing during those first few shots, a soundtrack to the carnage.

They didn’t think it’d be dangerous, but these days, you know, it’s all a risk: movie theater or McDonald’s; school or library; nightclub or church. Years ago, snipers picked off people at random on the streets in and around DC—while they filled up cars at a gas station or sat on a bench, anywhere they might be sitting ducks. Maybe we’re all sitting ducks now. It turned out the killers lived in my hometown for a while, at the Lighthouse Mission, walking among us like any other pedestrians. It’s been said: Where two or more of you are gathered, there am I, but you have to wonder: who is the I now?

About the Author

Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also coauthored Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, and The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.

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