Fabrice Samyn, "The Mask of Your Image"
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Accounting For Loss

My insurance agent called a few weeks ago. Thankfully we seldom need to talk. The only reason he usually calls is to remind me that a payment is due on one of the policies I’ve taken out with his company. A useful man in an emergency but not one whose company I seek. He’s one of those persons, like my physiotherapist and accountant and ENT doctor, whose names would have been absent from the address book I had a decade ago, their places taken up by guys like Mark (skinmusc) and Andrzej—Hoist!, whose company I very much did seek, if only for a brief period of time.

He told me he wanted to meet to talk about revising the coverage I have for the contents of the house. “You know, it’s been seven years since you took out the policy, and by now you’re probably underinsured.”

Underinsured. He said it with the gravity of a doctor who pronounces you anemic or hypertensive, and the certainty of a school-teacher reciting a corollary of physics: the quantity and value of one’s possessions increases in direct proportion to age.

I suppose as a pithy summary of a general trend it has some truth. I certainly have a lot more stuff than I had as a college student or when Matthew and I were first living together. But in the last seven years, how much could have changed? I invited him over the house anyway.

“Hasn’t the value of most of this stuff actually gone down in the last seven years?” I asked, after we finished the obligatory small talk about our summer vacations. We were sitting at my kitchen table, the same one we had sat at seven years ago. In fact, the flat looked pretty much as it did seven years ago. The refrigerator and dishwasher were new and I’d gotten a sofa bed to replace the couch Matthew had taken (fair enough, he took so little when he left), but otherwise, it looked the same to me.

“Well, your policy is for replacement value so depreciation isn’t a concern here. And it’s gotten more expensive to replace some of the bigger ticket items.” He leaned forward, retracted his smile and knitted his brows ever so slightly. “But the real concern here,” he said, in a way that implied that if it weren’t my concern, it certainly should become one, “is that you’ve acquired a lot more things in the meantime and you don’t even realize it. Most people don’t, you know.” It sounded ominous, this silent, unnoticed accretion of stuff in my flat, almost as bad as the mercury I’m bioaccumulating from the tuna I eat.

I tend to think of my flat as one of the major constants in my life. Things arrive and things depart Plants wither and die, new ones are bought at a garden fair. Old clothes are rounded up for a charity drive, new shirts and sweaters arrive at Christmas and sales. Objects break down. Stuff leaves in the occasional spring cleaning. But there seems to be some unseen adjustment mechanism that regulates my domestic milieu intérieur and keeps it in a state of homeostasis. The idea that my possessions were inexorably growing in number, like some indescribable, nothing-can-stop-it blob or the ineluctable mid-riff bulge, was certainly disturbing.

“It’s like bed mites,” he said, relaxing back in the chair. “Did you know that in ten years’ time the weight of your mattress doubles because of dust mites and dead skin?” Insurance agents are like that. Full of stories of the worst things that can happen to people.

I’m too persnickety to take the mite story at face value (in fact, it turns out not to be true) but I thought it was an apt metaphor for my music and books and DVDs. Because they accumulate in the way sloughed-off skin and dead mites do—ever so gradually, bit by bit, book by book, disc by disc—I never quite realized how many more of them I have now than before. It was only when I cleared off the jars of lentils, quinoa, wheat berries and pasta in the pantry to make room for books that I thought, ok, this has gotta stop.

“Ok, I’ve got more books and music. And the dishwasher is now high-end. But I’ve also gotten rid of stuff,” I said. I would’ve told him about my theory of domestic homeostasis but the guy was obviously more comfortable talking about things.

“Not much, I bet. Why don’t you just take a look at the inventory we have on file,” he said and pulled out a photocopied sheet of the things I’d included when the policy was drafted. “And just make changes where necessary.”

I looked at the list later on that evening. Some of the appliances had been replaced, but no new ones added. The value of clothing inched higher a wee bit, mostly because of cycling gear, and kitchenware likewise, thanks to the acquisition of a professional chef’s knife and some new pots. An iPod had been lost and an iPad added. Books and CDs were adjusted upwards.

In the end, not much had to be revised. The bottom line changed less than it would have if I had just used the annual rate of inflation for the last seven years. It was still a shock, though, to see the final figure. My boss has a little painting in the guests’ WC in his house that’s worth more than the entire insured contents of my flat, but it still seemed a lot of money to me.

I can remember the stuff that arrived more easily than the stuff that left, especially the things whose loss is simply accepted as a consequence of everyday life—glassware breaks and socks seem to get lost in the wash—or the even more peculiar things whose loss, like the enigmatic if extremely small (0.000056g) diminution of weight that has been detected in the official kilogram stored at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, goes unnoticed or unexplained. Occasionally I’ll remember an object, like the silly liqueur glasses we once had with a thick, flared yellow-plastic stem, and wonder, whatever happened to that?

This evening I rifle through my drawers of socks and gather up all the single ones. There are nine. I look around for sets of glassware decimated in years of use and collect these as well: a single brandy snifter, a pair of flutes, a couple of crystal sherry glasses. I move to the cutlery drawers and find unpaired cob holders and chopsticks and various other orphaned or disabled objects. I move from drawer to drawer and room to room, collecting the evidence of loss–the disc-less jacket of a recording of the Allegri Miserere, the wide-angle lens for a camera I no longer own. They are curiosities arrested on the brink of disappearance, appendages left behind in an imperfect act of de-materialization. I pack them in an old suitcase I was thinking of getting rid of.

Like the vanished substance of the prototype kilogram, they are all of trivial worth. Nothing needs to be adjusted in my insurance inventory. Not yet, anyway. Not until that point at which I’ll withdraw from the world my own 60 or so  kilos and 21 grams in an act of disappearance as curious and inevitable as the loss of socks and the widowing of spoons.

-/-

This is largely taken from a text originally published as part of the Left of Nathan project under the same title, but it’s one of my favorites and I thought it was worth re-posting.

Image: Fabrice Samyn, “The Mask of Your Image”

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