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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.



It happened the first time the night of the tornado warning. Huddled on the floor of the pantry, Clare looked at the linoleum floor and breathed carefully—this was not social-distancing distance. A few minutes earlier, Clare had started to panic thinking about the tornado and how the cans would fall off the shelves onto them.  So Jeff went to the garage and found a big piece of cardboard, and together, Clare and Jeff held it as a little roof over the family, making the small space even smaller, even more stuffy. She was the only one worried about the cans; she could sense the impatience of all three of them, and she could see it in Sadie and Trent’s faces. But there were too many cans, so many cans, because now she was shopping for two weeks at a time instead of a few days or a week at most, and stocking up when she could. Pooky-cat was mellow, curled up in Sadie’s lap under the cardboard roof, but the other one, Bartholomew, was losing his mind, yowling and scratching at the door to get out. Trent smelled like baseball practice and teenage boy sweat, even though all he had done was to practice alone in the back yard before the storm blew in.

Clare had grown up in Kansas and spent her anxious childhood terrified of tornadoes, among other things. Clare sat, too close to Trent’s armpits (everywhere was too close), and remembered the fears that had never come to pass: her house had never burned down, a dog had never bitten through her cheek, her house had never been ripped apart by a tornado, her parents had never gotten divorced. An eight-year-old who understood the difference between a tornado watch and a warning, she would go to the basement before anyone else in her family was worried, before the sirens, up and down the stairs several times so she could save everything she needed to before the wailing of the sirens began. Then firefighters came to her fifth-grade classroom and scared her about fires. At least with tornadoes you had warning—and there was a season for tornadoes. So then every night it became necessary to lay out a curated set of Important Things by her bed: her diary, her charm bracelet, a stuffed animal that used to sleep in bed with her but had to stop for fear of being unfindable in the event of a midnight fire. The collection changed over the years of the ritual, but it had to happen every night. Thinking all the time about tornadoes and fires and how a balcony could collapse onto your head if you happened to be sitting underneath it at the wrong moment didn’t feel weird at the time. She didn’t know the word anxiety.

The anxiety mostly went away for a while and then reemerged, transformed, when she became a mother. It was now the Worst-Case Scenario Generator™ (WCSG), a mental simulation application that allowed her to see a straight line of events connecting whatever her children were doing in the present to disaster in the future. She collected worries, here and there, from books and newspapers and friends of friends. She had read A Prayer for Owen Meany and had John Irving to thank for the awareness that it is within the realm of possibility for a baseball to go astray and kill someone instantly. Of course her son had to love baseball—whom did she have to thank for that? Trent and Jeff believed that the WCSG wasn’t real, but poor Sadie had inherited her own that managed to generate new and unique fears—powerful magic. Clare knew that other people had them, too.

And then a strange thing happened—after a lifetime of telling herself that the WCSG was overactive, was false, was really just her anxiety; after a lifetime of houses not burning down, not blowing away, never a balcony crushing her in a mountain of rubble at the theater, never raped and murdered in a dark alley or anywhere else or her face ripped to shreds by an angry dog—suddenly everything went to shit, and here she was in April 2020 breathing in the carbon dioxide and aerosolized spit particles of these people that she was already sharing too much space with.

“This sucks,” Trent announced, scooting out from under the cardboard to sit slouched against the pantry shelves. Clare darted a look at him and took a breath to speak, but he cut her off. “No! I’m not going to hunch under there for the next hour because you think the cans are going to fall off the shelves. That’s stupid and I’m not going to do it. If the storm gets worse or if the house starts to blow away, I’ll get back under there and we’ll die together with the cardboard over our heads!”

Not going to fight not going to fight not going to fight. Clare put her forehead against her knees and wrapped her arms around her ankles. Jeff and Sadie said nothing, and then Sadie tried to lighten the mood by talking to Pooky-cat. “Tell your brother to calm down, Pooky-cat. Tell him to stop scratching!”

“I don’t need you to tell me to calm down, Sadie,” Trent snarled.

Sadie started to cry. “I’m talking about the cats. I’m not talking about you!” she wailed.

A can of tomato paste fell off a shelf, glanced off the side of Trent’s head, and bounced in the direction of Bartholomew. The cat startled dramatically—six inches straight up into the air and then down again—and then bolted for the back corner of the pantry, digging his rear claws into Clare’s thigh as he scrambled past. Trent gave his mother a dark look and then moved back under the cardboard. After a few minutes, the cat scratch began to sting. This would be a terrible time to get a blood infection, Clare fretted silently. The house didn’t blow away that night, but the WCSG had never seemed so powerful.


By the next morning, the skin around the scratch was puffy and red, even though Clare had washed the scratch thoroughly before bed. She thought about the bacteria that had had a chance to get a foothold there in her skin while she had waited and waited in the pantry.

Her trip to the grocery store was an unexpected success—she found yeast! And everything else on the list, too. But as the trip progressed, as the cart became fuller, Clare grew anxious about how much the total would be. She knew they were spending less money overall—nothing to do, nowhere to go—but spending more than she was used to on any given purchase always made her nervous. By the end of each grocery trip, after an hour or more wearing the mask that made breathing difficult and fogged up her glasses, the astonishing total at the checkout stand compounded with the anxiety of leaving the house at all, a double-whammy of fear of viral shedding and queasiness at the thought of all that money leaving their bank account. It didn’t matter that they could afford it. Could they? Either one of them could lose their jobs, get furloughed. She thought about it all the way home, whether it would help to refinance the house, whether other accounting firms whose clients were less affected by the pandemic might be hiring.

The trip was exhausting, and by the time she got home, Clare was running a low fever, and the cat scratch looked worse: oozing stuff already. If she went to the hospital to be treated for a septic wound, she would catch the virus. She washed it again, dabbed some antibiotic ointment on it, and covered it with two bandaids. She was an hour later getting to her desk than she had planned to be, and just as she was booting up the computer to start working, she got a text from her coworker Moira that read simply, “Fuck.”

She replied, “???”

“Check your email.” Clare’s heart started pounding.

A five-minute video from the company’s owner was embedded in an email. She was sorry she couldn’t tell them face to face, she said, so a video seemed better than a written message. Business was down, way down, as they all knew from having less work to do for the past month since they had started working remotely. She kept her voice upbeat, her mouth in a smile as she ran through the plans for the new normal. When the owner was done, she pressed a button to stop recording, but there was a delay: her face sagged into nothingness, and she closed her eyes. Then the video ended.


Some time later, on a break, Jeff walked past the room Clare was working in. The sight of her stopped him. She looked up from her desk and met his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. Carefully. Neutrally.

She stared at him, eyes wide open. “I can’t think. I can’t think.”

“What’s wrong?” he repeated.

“Furloughed. Half time. Half pay. Starting Monday.” She started to cry, a low, keening moan Jeff hadn’t heard before.

“It’s OK. You don’t have to think now. We can take a walk or have lunch and you can think about it later.”

“NO!” she yelled, glaring at him, before catching herself and regaining her composure. “Don’t you see it?” she implored. “I’m making it happen. It’s me. I have to stop thinking.” She slid out of her work chair and onto the floor.

Jeff watched his wife slowly rocking back and forth, forehead pressed to her knees, whispering, “I can’t think I can’t think I can’t think.” Slowly, somewhere deep inside him, his own WCSG, which had lain dormant since he was a teenager, hummed to life again.

Rachel Hile

On Staying Put

In the copy of the Dao De Jing I was reading in the early 1990s, next to the lines “He who goes to a distant land / in search of the Truth / Will only distance himself from the Truth” was written, in my then-boyfriend’s cramped handwriting, “Or Disneyland.” I remember this every time I reread those lines and mentally edit the passage:

He who goes to a distant land—or Disneyland—

in search of the Truth

Will only distance himself from the Truth.

A few days ago, a friend of mine wrote a good piece about the class injustice in coronavirus testing, given that the current testing criteria in the United States privilege those who have traveled and ignore those who have encountered the virus through community spread.

So I’ve been thinking about travel. Last month, an age ago, I saw performances of both parts of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, and as the pandemic has become an increasingly urgent concern in the United States, I have remembered the voice of the Angel, transmitting to Prior the angels’ plea that we should “Forsake the Open Road / . . . . / HOBBLE YOURSELVES! / . . . . / STASIS!” In a time of plague, the sensible nurse-practitioner’s advice to Prior, who has AIDS, is the same as the Angel’s mad request: “Keep breathing. Stop moving. STAY PUT.”

But while we are staying home, we should reckon with the role that travel has acquired in the age of social media. Twenty years ago, if you went on a cool vacation and wanted people to see your amazing photos, it took some doing. You would have to meet face to face, and your person would have to sit still and listen to you narrate the story of each photo. Maybe, if you were lucky, you had a screen and a projector and a lot of family and friends who loved you very much and had extremely long attention spans. There were limits on the extent to which travel could be CONSPICUOUS consumption, and it was easier to show off with consumer goods.

Now, not only is travel as easy to show off as consumer goods, it’s more socially acceptable. It might seem crass to post a photo of your new $80,000 car, but travel, even for anti-capitalist leftists, is seen as morally neutral or positive. In the early years of social media, I spent hours upon hours creating photo albums of two big trips, one to Italy in 2011 and one to India and the UK in 2013. I eventually started to feel queasy about social media personae, mine and others. I felt very alone, and very lonely, in the early years of social media, but the persona I projected was “alone but not lonely.” The individual words and photos that I posted were not false, but they were curated, and so the overall persona was false.

But trying to step away from documenting my travel online has been hard sometimes, because travel has risen so much as a marker of status and prestige—if you have to travel for your job, your job must be important. You must be important. If you take amazing vacations, you must be an interesting person. There aren’t many voices exhorting people to travel less . . . or at least there weren’t before two months ago. Last fall, Henry Wismayer wrote a wistful piece on his moral misgivings about being a travel writer in a time of climate emergency. His opening anecdote recounts a visit to Lake Abbe, a soda lake that is vanishing:

I’d gone to the Horn of Africa in search of timeless landscapes, but there was no respite from humanity’s penchant for remaking geography. It was hard to avoid a sense of complicity. After all, I was there to write a travel story, exhorting other English-speakers to visit the region as if all was well with the world. On that excursion, I would clock up 8,000 miles in flights, exceeding the annual carbon footprint per person recommended by the Swiss nonprofit by a factor of four in the space of one long-haul round trip. As I stood where Lake Abbe was surrendering to the Grand Barra desert, the newly exposed ground appeared as a premonition of an uninhabitable Earth. A hot breeze blew eddies of dust around my ankles, scolding me. You shouldn’t have come.

If we remake our relationship to travel in the face of a pandemic, will we then return as quickly as possible to how things used to be as soon as this threat passes? Yascha Mounk summarizes Peter Singer’s famous thought experiment on empathy and proximity with reference to COVID19 as one possible explanation for why so many people are doing such a lousy job of social distancing: until someone near me is sick, I can’t empathize, and I won’t do anything.

But Singer, best known for his philosophical work on animal rights, always wants us to broaden the circle of our compassion and empathy. What is now causing massive cuts to our carbon footprint—as has already happened in China and will increase as people follow Kushner’s nurse’s directive to “STAY PUT”—is concern for human beings, not concern for the planet. When this is all over, whenever that may be—after we will have learned how many people really can do their jobs from home, after the meat-eaters who bought up all the canned beans will have learned how good a vegetarian meal can be, after people will have had some experience with broadening their circle of compassion to people they don’t know—can we on the left try to keep some focus on unnecessary travel as a problem?