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Playing with Fear

Some people have gotten into baking. Puzzles. Gardening. Feeding stray cats (hi, Mom and Dad!). My pandemic obsession for the past month has been trail biking. I spent June upset and anxious about injustice, Black Lives Matter protests, and police brutality and prosecutorial overreach in the city I live in. And then . . . I started doing something mostly pointless that scared me, and it began to seem that I was doing it simply because it scared me.

I got teargassed on Friday, May 29, and the next day at noon I took a Xanax to calm myself enough to go back downtown to the courthouse. Saturday afternoon protests at the courthouse have historically been safe, and although I don’t think any (left-leaning) protest at any time on any day is currently safe in my city, back on May 30, I believed in my mind that it was safe, even though I was scared. After the afternoon protest, I went home to eat something, then went back downtown to meet some friends. We marched across the Martin Luther King, Jr., bridge, crossing the river to downtown, and I saw however many police officers it was, lined up like dystopia, matching uniforms, matching shields, shoulder to shoulder with danger looks. I was terrified. I checked my watch and it was 8 o’clock, pumpkin time for this Cinderella, because the Xanax had worn off. I went home and left my friends to get teargassed without me. I went back the next night, but with attentive care to the timing of my drug. I asked myself and still do: how scared is too scared?

I discovered these mountain-biking trails and began experimenting with fear, trying to do something with fear. The first time I went, I planned to stay on the green trails, but I got lost or confused. I climbed and climbed, and then the path cut down into a gully and up the other side. I’m not doing that! I thought. No way. I turned away and pedaled around to try to leave but ended up going in a circle. Fine, I thought. I’ll do it, so then I can leave. It wasn’t true—I went down and up the gulch but then ended up going in a circle again. I went through the gulch two or three more times, not because I thought it would lead me out, but because I wanted it to become less scary, and it did, a little.

I wished I could go there every day, because I wanted to go back again and again to try to make things less scary: the bridge that was too narrow, with no railings and a three-foot drop off of each side; the roller coasters straight down into gulches or fast downward flows around curves; the small but sharp drops that made me fear flipping the bike. Sometimes I spent the whole time I was there afraid. I wondered if taking a Xanax before going would help, and I remembered the teargas and wondered how scared is too scared.


I kept thinking if I kept going to the same scary spots over and over again, that would help. Or if I got stronger, that would help. But I kept coming to the same places and stopping as suddenly and as surely as a horse that knows it will not jump over that hurdle—just as it was when I was in seventh-grade gym class and I could do a front flip over the vault day after day after day, easy, and then one day I balked with fear and couldn’t, and I never did again.

Last night I went back again, with the plan of doing a trail full of roller coaster dips and climbs that had thoroughly terrified me the day before, when I did it for the first time, but instead I had the good fortune to fall in with an experienced rider who was teaching a beginner. He’s been riding out there since the late 1980s, on those trails since they were built in the early 1990s, and he is a good teacher, so he told me some techniques and showed and talked me and the other newbie through some of the things that I found scary. We watched the deer nibbling leaves, and he told us how the Christmas and Easter trails got their names and about how the volunteers come out to clean off the trails on Saturdays. Lore and stories and community and tips and tricks—and it all helped so much. After those two left, I kept going for another half hour, practicing what I had learned about how to make things safer.

It’s only recently that I have begun to think much about the wisdom of the body. Things didn’t become less scary as I kept doing the same scary things over and over and over again because my body sensed that my center of gravity wasn’t optimal. I needed to do something different, because without thought or knowledge, my body knew the dangers, but only with thought and knowledge could I mitigate them somewhat, because I’m not intuitively athletic enough to figure this stuff out on my own. He taught me how to do things with my center of gravity, with my body and bike, that would make me be safer . . . and those things helped me to feel safer.

There is a connection, obviously, to the fears I felt in June about matters of life and death and justice and cruelty, but I don’t want to force a pat conclusion. Fear has been a dominant emotion in my life, and in the lives of many, recently. I have never been one to seek out fear—I have always hated haunted houses and horror movies—so it was weird to find myself doing something frightening on purpose.

As we lurch every day closer to dystopia, as I watch protesters in Portland being beaten and gassed and arrested by shadow figures without identification, as I think back to the awe I felt in 1989 at the bravery of the thin man standing straight and determined in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square, questions of fear and courage feel urgent. I know from Aristotle that courage is not fearlessness—I can only hope that this strange time of playing with fear will help me somehow, someday when it actually counts.


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