By Leo Apilash
The guy two tables down from me was reading a contemporary fiction bestseller. A sister’s marriage was the topic of conversation in front of me. I tried to ignore these distractions and squeeze out every last second going through my flashcards and reciting mnemonics like catechism—little anagrams to help remember, say, the 16 different flavors of annuities, or the Black-Scholes-Merton differential equation set to the “I wish I was an Oscar Meyer weiner” jingle, all to be dredged up at a moment’s notice should the right question be asked.
When I arrived two hours earlier, the parking lot was completely empty except for a beige AMC Pacer in the farthest corner spot just in front of a large green dumpster. Thick cobwebs spanned the space between the chrome-plated radio antenna and the windshield, and a large yellow boot adorned the back passenger-side wheel. Telltale signs of abandonment.
The mirror on the driver’s side had been violently torn from its mooring and was hanging flaccid by a single rusty cable. I was immediately transported back to my days as a college student at UGA, where my trusty steed—a 1986 white and tan Chevy Cavalier Z24 V-6, 2-door coupe—was used to carry me to and from classes up on Ag Hill. She also had a dangling sideview mirror along with a disemboweled steering column thanks to a bungling thief, an ignition and sundry wires hanging loosely over the PRNDL, a speedometer and odometer rendered useless by time and abuse, and windshield wipers that would not stop working unless I jammed a dime between the contact points that also hung from the steering column. Yet it started every time I turned the key; and purred like a Cheshire cat no matter the season, no matter the temperature, whether it was under a foot of snow or cooked to a crisp in the sweltering Georgia sun. I can’t explain it. It’s not like I worked on it day and night to keep it in peak condition or fed it some special high-octane fuel. Hell, I practically went out of my way to be the world’s most inattentive car owner, yet she never once let me down. You never forget your first love.
Arriving ridiculously early for exams was a habit of mine. Spending a substantial portion of the past four months of my life studying monk-like only to be thwarted by a traffic jam or flat tire or flood or whatever—that was not going to happen. I could forgive myself forgetting the formula for curtate life expectancy, or even for outright failure, but not giving myself a chance to make these mistakes was inconceivable. I’ve known some crazies over the years who would try and time their entrance just moments before exam kickoff. They reminded me of Bodhi plummeting headlong to earth alongside Neo—ahhh I mean Bill, no-no Agent Utah—and playing chicken with the ripcord.
Most actuaries will tell you a purge takes place shortly after exam day—the bulk of information taking up RAM capacity in your skull is quickly replaced by the more mundane aspects of life that were put on hold when exam-hibernation kicked in. This defenestration is not immediate; the first two or three days following the exam are usually spent agonizing over the answers that wouldn’t come or the questions that could have been answered five different ways. Did you pick the right one? Did you regurgitate the correct list?
If you actually do miss the exam, which is known to happen on occasion, then the purge—euphoric almost to the point of orgasmic—has to be put on hold. In another few months when the cycle starts all over, you have to pull out the same textbooks, the same study guides, the same flashcards you dreamt of burning in effigy, and reboot. And while it’s true that failure will result in the same disappointing reboot, the mere chance that you may have passed is enough to jumpstart the purge.
My mind tends to wander in times of stress. I used to think it was a congenital lack of concentration; I noticed the same habit with my father when he had a big showroom presentation coming up.
He followed his dad into the New York garment industry and was a senior sales account rep for some of the larger department stores along the East Coast. Twice a year his company would invite the purchasing managers into their Manhattan showroom for a week of schmoozing and boozing. The whole family knew weeks in advance when these events were happening. The rising tide of stress he exhibited would visibly ratchet up over the preceding month and we were all attuned to the high-water marks established over the years.
I’d watch him pacing in our basement boiler room, a makeshift home office, muttering to himself about inventory and price points, or the latest fashion trends in women’s handbags. Eventually he would catch sight of me and eagerly invite me in to talk about how school was going, or what my friends were up to. We would talk for hours and I used to feel guilty about distracting him, but, as I discovered later in life, this was a part of his process. Self-imposed distraction was a defense mechanism engineered by his lizard brain to keep the stress hormones at bay. Dad sought out external stimuli to distract himself—I would turn inward.
Sorry, where was I…
Five minutes now before start time and still no proctor, and no damn exams.
Tap. Tick. Breathe.
This was not just any exam sitting—this was to be my last. If I passed this exam, I would never have to take another actuarial exam again. Six years in the making, I was ready to be done. I spent the past 12 months fantasizing about all the things I would do with my free time once this day came and went. Take up mountain climbing, run a marathon, read nothing but Harlan Ellison for a full year, teach my girlfriend all 1,250 verses of the Kama Sutra. Anything other than studying.
To understand the stress I was going through, it’s important to understand how the Society of Actuaries exam committee works. Every few years, committee members decide to revamp the structure and lineup of exams for a variety of reasons: The glidepath to becoming a fellow is too long or too short, the syllabus is not industry-focused enough or too industry-focused, there are too many exams that need to be consolidated or too few exams that need to be decomposed into smaller ones. The transition that takes place when one of these changes occurs can be quite painful, and usually not to benefit of the students. Exams for which you already received credit might be rolled up into a larger exam that you are required to take. In effect, you lose credit for part of the exam you already passed.
This time around they were consolidating exams, reducing the number by half but actually increasing the syllabus content—which meant much longer exams. If I did not pass this three-hour exam, I would fall into one of these gray areas and end up having to take a six-hour exam before I could call myself a fellow.
But in order to take an exam, the exam and I need to be in the same place at the same time—which was not currently the case.
When 9:00 a.m. finally came and went, someone in the room was smart enough to give the SOA a call and find out what the hell was going on. Turns out the proctor for this exam, a secretary at one of the big insurers in the area, had put them under her desk when she received them a few days earlier and then promptly forgot about them. Not just the exam booklets but the exam itself. She never showed, and so the exams never showed.
The fiction reader leaned over toward me sometime around 9:15: “Isn’t another exam scheduled after this one? In this room? What happens if our exams get here too late and bleed into the next exam time?”
“Good question,” I said, smiling, but I was secretly hoping the sister’s wedding was also going pear-shaped.
After another 10 minutes of agonizing uncertainty, a voice in the back row triumphantly yelled out that the woman had been located by the SOA and was on her way.
In physics there is this concept of randomness? It is not random in the same way that you randomly choose vanilla vs. pistachio ice cream. This is very specific: It means an event without a cause, a happening without a why, an action without context. Think of anything, anything at all, and the mind will immediately start to process the events that preceded it in an attempt to build a framework, a reason, a cause for that anything. Can’t be done for a truly random event.
Scientists say such things happen at the subatomic level—a quantum fluctuation. A quantum fluctuation is random. If you retrace cause and effect backward in time you will eventually come to a point, an axiom that defines the start. In cosmology this is known as the big bang, a starting point where all space and time are crunched down to a quantum point. Once down at the quantum level, random becomes commonplace and you can now rationally talk about the start of our universe, of our existence. “But what caused the bang” no longer applies, this is where the buck stops, there is no “before” that is tied to the “now.”
Let’s freeze a moment in time so all that’s left is space and the matter that fills it. The fundamental component of all that space and matter is the same, quantum stuff, and quantum stuff is always in a state of random fluctuation; thus, can we say with some confidence that the events going on in this frozen slice of time are actually random? Extending that logic, isn’t every moment in time just an aggregation of random quantum events? Taken to its logical conclusion, all space and time is, has been, and always will be random with absolutely no connection between events?
We’re able to tell a story, though; we’re able to paint a picture of seemingly connected events—why is this? Is human consciousness some sort of magical filter that can distill order from constant chaos and randomness? Maybe what we see all around us is in fact random but because we live in it with no ability to step outside the system, and are wired to explain our world at all cost, we assume we are seeing cause and effect. Randomness implies a distribution; maybe we are only able to perceive the averages of that distribution. The uncertainty principle on full display. When a tail event occurs, we struggle to find the cause when there may be none, simply a low-probability random event seeping past our averaging filter.
Needing to explain is incompatible with a world built on chaos. Camus called it the absurd, this conflict between our need to explain the world around us and a world that is beyond our comprehension, a world that is unexplainable, that is … random. My trying to explain it therefore seems absurd, but here goes nothing—what Sisyphus figured out is that there is nothing to figure out, we swim in a vertiginous cloud of grays and blacks and no amount of contemplation will bring it into focus. He did not reason his way out of the problem, what he did was turn off his averaging-filter. He became enlightened.
Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, roll a stone for all eternity.
The exam proctor finally arrives ostentatiously flustered, more for effect than anything else: “See-how-seriously-I-am-taking-my-lateness.” She races to the front of the room and immediately starts barking orders to her assistants. Proceedings quickly get underway but certain protocols are unavoidable: reading of the exam instructions—“this is the blah-blah exam,” “you will have exactly blah-blah hours to complete the exam,” “when I say ‘pencils down’ you must blah-blah-blah”—handing out the exams, pointing out where the bathrooms are located, a reminder not to look at your neighbors’ paper or you will be immediately disqualified. The anxiety of potentially missing the exam is now replaced by the anxiety of actually having to take the exam.
“When I say ‘begin,’ you can begin,” and then the proctor takes the clock in hand, usually one brought in for the express purpose of the exam, a big white one with two black hands, a thin red minute hand, and large numbers for all to see. She resets the time and waits. She is waiting for the second hand to come to the 12:00 position because, and I say this with not a hint of sarcasm, every second counts.
Tick, tick, tick, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.
If the universe is infinitely big then everything in it is infinitely small. If it is infinitely big then it must have been around forever. If forever is really forever, then every span of time is infinitely small. If time and space are infinitely small on every scale then everything is meaningless. But my life has meaning, at least to me, even if fabricated. I am a product of this meaningless universe, subject to the same forces and rules as everything else in it, so if I am able to find meaning then the universe and time must be finite. Unless I’m wrong. Only time will tell.
I turn to the first page and before I start reading I take three deep breaths to slow down my heart rate. Back when I lived in Athens I spent a couple of semesters taking a Tai Chi class, a key tenet of which was the practice of Qigong breathing, a way of controlling your breath to calm nerves and cultivate internal energy. I have employed these breathing techniques throughout my life to clear my head and get me through some tense times: before public speaking engagements, at the altar as I watched my wife walk down the aisle (the Kama Sutra thing worked, apparently) and before I start an actuarial exam.
The next thing I do is skim every question, usually anywhere from 10 to 15 questions for the FSA-level exams, and figure out which I should attack first. Back in the day you were not given a 15-minute head start to preview the questions, it was just tear the seal and start working. This takes some discipline, as most exam takers want to start writing immediately to feel busy and will begin with the first question—big mistake. Half the battle with these exams is avoiding panic, which can create a scatterbrain effect, which in turn will have you secondguessing yourself and wasting precious time.
The best way to avoid panic is to start off strong by tackling the “home run” question first, the one you just know you’ll kill. This has the added benefit of preventing you from running out of time and possibly failing to answer a question that you were sure to score well on. Early in my exam taking career I was guilty of committing this sin more than once—spending too much time cobbling together a tortured answer to a question I knew little about, only to discover in the waning minutes that question 15 was “the one” (yes, another Keanu reference).
Of slightly less importance but still up there is this: Never run the actual calculations. Graders need to know that you understand the problem and how to go about solving it. Calculating an actual answer—say, 42—will not demonstrate this at all and will only serve to waste more precious time. You’d be better served leaving your calculator at home. It therefore pleases me no end to look up and see fiction-reader banging away at his calculator, drenched in sweat.
Students have different ways of preparing for these longer, FSA-level exams. Some like to spread out their time in even increments over a few months, carving out a couple of hours every day, usually the same couple of hours, nibbling away at the syllabus. Others prefer to take out big bites in long marathon sessions. They will spend all weekend hidden in a conference room at work, surrounded by brainfood I affectionately refer to as “my five toes”: Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos, Tostitos, Munchos (taking some liberties with this last one). Then there are those who like to start slow and build momentum, finally taking off from work in the last week or two before exam day to focus on nothing else. I fell into this last camp.
After months of plowing through the syllabus, I would take two full weeks off and carve out a space in my apartment where I was not to be disturbed. The first week was spent outlining the entire syllabus on 22-by-28-inch white posterboards taped to the walls surrounding my desk. I would divide each poster into eighths—two rows of four rectangles of equal size—and try and condense each chapter of the syllabus, no matter how long, to fit into one of these rectangles. This forced me to drastically summarize each chapter, but the payoff was that when I reached the end, I had the entire syllabus within my field of vision. It would cover a substantial portion of the room, but it was all laid out in front of me. This was important because it allowed me to assign visual coordinates to the material. During the exam, after reading a question I would close my eyes and visualize where on the wall I needed to find the answer—east wall, third poster from the left, second row, third square over.
The second week was the most crucial. I would spend the first couple of days developing a list of 15-20 questions that were broad enough to cover most of the syllabus, but not so broad that the answer would end up diluted. The rest of week two would be spent answering these questions as completely as possible, and then going over them again and again and again. Writing them and rewriting them over and over until I was certain that, should this exact question be asked, I could throw-up on the page the perfect answer in a matter of minutes. More likely, the actual exam question would be similar to my contrived questions but not exact. In these situations, I would try and shape my predetermined answers sufficiently so as to squeeze out most of the points. If they happened to ask a question I did not think of, the coordinate system was my fallback.
As luck would have it, question 15 was in fact almost a word-for-word copy from my list, in exactly the format I had hoped for. I smiled as the endorphin rush hits me—this was a good start. Questions 2, 6, 7, 9, and 12 fell into the “similar to my contrived questions” bucket, and as I skimmed the remaining questions, the coordinates quickly lit up my synapsis.
As we reached the hour-and-a-half mark the proctor yelled out, “Half the time for this exam has now expired.”
“Oh crap,” I think as my sphincter tightens. I was so enamored with my answer to question 15 that I let hubris get the better of me and spent waaaay too much time giving the perfect answer. The exam was now half over and I had answered only four questions.
“Please god, do whatever you have to but slow down time. Please.”
Full disclosure, I am an atheist—or more like a rationalist or maybe indifferentist. The problem with anything ending in “ist” is that it implies a certain degree of deep thought and contemplation as well as a certain measure of devotion and faith.
At one point in my life, I thought a lot about religion and the heavy questions that adorn that tree and decided it was all just a marketing ploy, but I hadn’t thought about it much since then. I’m not against religion so much as I am indifferent to it, but not in an “ist” way; I just find other things more interesting to think about. It’s a minefield of logical dead ends and circularities that gets you nowhere, which, from my point of view seems like a convenient “out” for anyone arguing the pro-God side; i.e. if I can’t disprove his existence then he must exist. I’m aware that reasoning can only take you so far and that what’s needed, so I’m told, is a leap of faith. So what it ultimately boils down to is this: In what set of axioms are you willing to place that faith?
“Facts” are facts only if they logically lead you back to the original set of axioms, that’s true of science, religion, love, etc. In the end, though, you still need to reason your way toward making that choice—to simply label it “faith” feels too reductive; there must have been some logical pathway followed that convinced you, me, us to choose to leap across one particular chasm over another. David Foster Wallace put it more succinctly when he asked, “How can somebody have faith before he’s presented with sufficient reason for having faith?”
Our knowledge of the world continually changes, and with it our fact pattern, which often leads us back to a restatement of our original set of axioms or the adoption of a whole new set. That feels about right to me. The problem I have with the institution of religion and its set of axioms is that it is too definitive, too certain. My sense, though, is that too much time, energy, and capital has been expended in that direction to turn back now.
How does a priest who has spent his entire life along Avenue A allow any other set of facts to creep in that might suggest switching to Avenue B? He won’t. He will build whatever fanciful framework is necessary to justify Avenue A and be just as vociferous at denying the existence of Avenue B. I can’t say I blame him, either. I, on the other hand, have chosen to live on Avenue C—which, as any pro-God defender will point out, means I too have made a choice, a leap of my own, which is no different than the leap the priest has made … circularity, dead end, QED.
“Time’s up. Place your pencils down and close your booklets.”
The exam, possibly my last, was now over. I managed to eke out an answer to all 15 questions, some good, some not so good. As I make my way out of the exam center, I run into a buddy of mine. “So whaddya think?” he asks.
“Tough to say, I started off strong but struggled a bit toward the end.” I am bone-tired and not particularly interested in reliving the past three hours. I try to walk away but he persists.
“What the hell was up with that tax question—was that even on the syllabus?”
I purse my lips and shake my head in feigned empathy, but am really thinking “center wall, last poster all the way to the right, first row, second square over.”
“Gotta run, see you in the office on Monday.” I drive straight home and crash for a solid 20 hours.
After two agonizing months, the results finally came in.