The Fear Muscle

The Fear Muscle

I have certain themes I like to work in. They reflect how I see the world, my sense of my culture, my knowledge of biology and neuroscience, my sense of spirituality and often times the unyielding laws that govern physics, economics or even human nature. Among those is my ongoing joke about things that short-circuit me. It is partly a nod to my having ADD as well as my acknowledgement of the way my reptile brain can take over. There are the obvious triggers, like, um, reproductive urges, but also smells, and I’m not just talking perfumes, but organic fragrances like lavender and star jasmine. Great music can do it as well.

I joke about being short-circuited by these inputs because I like to think I’m reasonably self-aware, but that awareness includes understanding my prefrontal cortex doesn’t always run the show. He’s something like the green lieutenant fresh out of school and dropped into leading a platoon in battle. Every now and then a knowledgeable sergeant will elbow the guy out of the way because survival.

It is with this little prelude that I have to concede sometimes the short-circuiting of my brain is initiated by my amygdala, which we might as well call the fear muscle.

It hijacked the show back in 2013 after my son Matthew, aka the Deuce, was born. For the six weeks he was in the NICU I could do little other than write about that experience as a means to process it. I did a helluva a job; when I go back and try to read those posts, my anxiety level does its best impression of an erupting volcano. Honestly, nothing else I’ve written in my life, save my writing about my experience with Ketamine has proven to resonate as deeply with people. Considering I managed to cross the beams of family, birth and death it’s little wonder. Nothing else is as universal. In 2017 when the Tubbs and Nuns fires burned their ways into Santa Rosa, I experienced a similar mental derailment. I walked around in a fog, so much so that I once ordered a burrito in a coffee shop that doesn’t serve Mexican food.

I find myself back at this point once again with the Covid-19 pandemic. The difference between this occasion and my past experiences with having my writer’s focus involuntarily redirected, or scattered, is this time I’m not relating an individual experience. This is a collective crisis, one that is giving each and every one of us a story we hope to be around to tell our grandchildren.

Last week on the Paceline I observed that going for rides in which we don’t completely deplete ourselves is a good idea in order to avoid running down our immune system. The very next day I found myself on a climb and suddenly possessed of an elemental need to dig deep and let that lizard brain burn all the wood in the pile. It felt good to strain at the pedals, to attack the steeps to the point that I grunted with each stroke. Somewhere deep inside me I knew it was the sort of ride I needed and I got home feeling much calmer, even happier.

My gut also tells me that we are probably not very different from any of the Titanic’s passengers who had the misfortune to see the looming iceberg and to sense that the crew was working like mad to steer away from it. Things don’t look good and we know just enough to accept that things will deteriorate before they improve. I’m in the second week of having my boys home from school and know already that they will be home for all of April and May. June is a huge question mark. Day camp? I’m not betting on it. I can’t even imagine what this summer will be other than to acknowledge that when I canceled our spring break trip to Memphis and rescheduled it for June, I didn’t yet know what the hell we are dealing with. Call it a failure of imagination.

Speaking of imagination, I’ve had a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction going back as far as Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man” (from which the above image is taken), in which he portrays the last healthy man on earth. Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” was a great reworking of that story with an emotional depth that Heston’s original film lacked. I was enthralled by the pandemic scenario of “Contagion” with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburn, Jude Law and plenty of other notable talents, but I don’t think I could watch it again before Christmas, and maybe not even then. What I find so remarkable as I venture out in Santa Rosa is that while there is very little traffic on the roads, our population hasn’t taken a nose-dive the way it did in “Contagion.” Santa Rosa’s population hasn’t collapsed, thank Buddha. And that makes me wonder: What sort of blind spot do we have as a species never to have imagined an apocalyptic pandemic in which most of our population survives, but our economy craters? My experience of humanity is that if you can imagine a behavior, someone out there has acted it out. Novelists, playwrights and screen writers have imagined a great many things up to and including walking trees, faster than light travel and teenage boys who make a bombshell of a woman willing to date them. Srsly, no shortage of ideas, but in a million novels, I can’t find a single one that predicts a scenario in which losing a small fraction of our population manages to upend society.

And that society? The one we so frequently refer to ask broken due to mistrust of the government of mistrust of the media, and sometimes both? The arc of history is long, and as has been observed by smarter brains than mine, a virus spreading across our planet cannot be dismissed as so much fake news. I’m curious to see how the impact of this disease affects our willingness to embrace the power of government and to trust mainstream news sources. Time will tell.

Well before we reach that point we will need to figure out how to follow the advice of experts who tell us to practice social distancing. The Bay Area stands as a study in contrasts. California Governor Newsom’s shelter-in-place order has had an already verifiable effect on the growth curve of Covid-19 cases. A piece published on Swell Life using publicly available data compared the increase in cases in the Bay Area with those in California and New York. The short version is that the Bay Area isn’t seeing the same exponential growth in cases and deaths that New York is. Shelter in place works. But as I mentioned, the Bay Area is a study in contrasts. Last weekend, with all the shopping malls, movie theaters and sports events on hiatus, people took to the great outdoors, social distancing be damned. There were so many people visiting Sonoma County beaches that people had to park two miles or more away and walk in. Bodies covered the sand as one would expect on the Fourth of July. My ride in Annadel shocked me; the park was the busiest I’ve ever seen. I had to dive into the social trails to respect the social distancing guidelines. There were consequences. There had to be consequences.

Now all parks in Sonoma County are closed. We aren’t the only county with such an order, but this is the only county I live in.

Keeping our heads on straight during this time won’t be easy. Returning to my opening theme, short-circuiting, I must admit there is yet another way that can be initiated. My boys fight like Hatfields and McCoys, with a beef that is so elemental—attention from mommy—neither of them is aware of its source or what they hope to gain by fighting. My responses have included deep breaths while covering my face with my hands, a suspension of electronics and, unfortunately, yelling (and possibly one f-bomb). My irritability worries me now that I know it to be a hallmark of depression. Instead of recovery, I’m looking at a fresh set of coping mechanisms. Were I to equate this to a race, I’ve got a noisy chain. I can’t replace a chain mid-race; I can only hope to lube it, and lubing a chain is the correct course of action, rather than waiting until heroic measures like replacing both the chain and cassette are necessary, and I’d have to say that treatment with Ketamine is an heroic measure.

Despite all the gloom and my fear muscle’s reflexive response, we cyclists have a powerful tool at our disposal. Yep, the bike. Solo rides might not provide the camaraderie we’re missing, but anyone who has found their way here knows their value. A ride may not make the world any safer, but in exercising our leg muscles, we have a chance to let that fear response atrophy a bit.

Thanks for reading; you’re with me as I ride. I wish you all continuing good health.


Image: Omega Man still courtesy Warner Brothers

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  1. Kenny McCarthy

    I relate to this in many ways.

    The amygdala IS the fear muscle. Well put.

    Great piece of writing. Thanks Patrick.

  2. Adnan Kadir

    ” can’t find a single one that predicts a scenario in which losing a small fraction of our population manages to upend society.”

    The film “Children of Men” addressed this very subject. It’s certainly worth a watch.

    1. Author

      That was different. People stopped giving birth, and while I don’t want to pick the nits, but that registers differently in my mind. Not all of society was upended. There seemed to be a very large population of haves and an even larger population of have-nots. Still, for anyone looking for a unique post-apocalyptic film, that’s a good one.

  3. Jack Guilfoyle

    I’m not usually the commenting type, but this piece resonates with me. Below is from my journal, re this past Sunday’s ride. I hope it’s not too long:

    The last dozen miles of the ride were the best. Jose and I had pulled ahead and left the others mostly behind, and as we talked it was clear that the same things were on our minds. A beautiful early spring morning, the sun warm, the breeze fresh and cool. Our legs were strong, our bikes fast and quiet. Cherry trees and forsythia blooming, lawns greening everywhere. And yet each of us has a daughter at school out of state, and now out of reach. I also have two sons to think about. We’re concerned for the security of our jobs, the health of our families and colleagues. We have seen the way that the pandemic has ravaged Italy, is ravaging Spain, and we are anxious about what lies ahead for us. Even as we are immersed in the sweetness of life, we cannot ignore its fragility.

    I also perceived in our conversation what has become a common theme these days: an assessment of personal vulnerability, of our health karma. Jose considered that he is at risk because he was once a smoker. I think about my history of sinus infections and bronchitis, about the asthma that others in my family battle. We exercise now because we love the exertion, the way it feels to reach for strength in our legs and to find it there. But we also hope our fitness fortifies us, and more, that it somehow shields the ones we love. We hope that when we get this virus—and we each believe we will get it somehow, protocols or not—we will be fit enough to fight it off.

    If I am honest, I have to admit that I am bargaining with the coronavirus. At a not-quite-conscious level I attribute to it an intelligence. I want to believe that it will look at the herd, single out the weak, the slow, those who lacked faith and the fortitude to keep themselves and their families healthy. I will practice safe hygiene, I will maintain distances. I’ll eat well and get enough sleep. I will keep myself fit, even fitter than others, will run farther, bike faster. And all I ask in return is that the virus will be discouraged, will give up on me and on the ones I love, that it will instead focus on easier prey. My anxious, irrational, unspoken hope: that when the virus comes, I’ll be out front and away, pedaling strong.

    1. Poppenjay

      Yes Jack, “Even as we are immersed in the sweetness of life, we cannot ignore its fragility”. Truth written beautifully. Thank you.

  4. MikeG

    The phrase “no one can make this [email protected]#$ up” comes to mind! The paradox of the current situation is really quite ironic (Isn’t it ironic, dont you think? A little too ironic…). I worked from home full time doing Info Security, so my life goes on like it has for the last 5 years. Everything around me has turned upside down. Our daughter has rather serious mental & emotional challenges. We are generally in survival mode about 75% of the time in a normal week. Add in the pandemic and my wife and I wake up at O-dark-thirty most mornings in a cold sweat wondering if we can keep the lid on things one more day – the sense of unspecific dread can get overwhelming. It’s not really the fear of getting sick, its more the fear of not coping or your child regressing back to a point of needing hospitalization, again. Luckily, we are not totally locked down and we can still get her to horse therapy/riding to help her maintain her composure. Our neighbors have a daughter the same age that’s in performing arts school and used to dancing 6-8 hours a day. They said she’s climbing the walls and making them all crazy. Similar challenges, just a different root cause I guess. It’s going to be an interesting ride for sure. Hoping we can maintain long enough to ride the storm out without too much backsliding! My rides will be shorter due to not wanting to stray too far or long, but I’m sure they will be sweeter/more refreshing on some level too. Stay safe and sane out there!

  5. Matt Poole

    Superb! Thanks!! I work in public health and find your writing and similar writing by others helpful and fascinating. Bravo! BTW – I had the good fortune to visit Lucca, Italy, last summer and begin and end one of my rides of a lifetime from there. Your short piece from that time of innocence is also outstanding: Keep’em coming~

  6. Ray M

    Amazing writing as usual! Please never stop connecting, it’s what heals us all. I do have one nit to pick however. You mention “I observed that going for rides in which we don’t completely deplete ourselves is a good idea in order to avoid running down our immune system.” I’m happy to report that Dylan Johnson has done the research and science not only has found that digging deep does not compromise our immune system in fact it is the opposite. The deeper we dig the more fit we get and the stronger our immune systems become. Check out the details in Dylan’s video…

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words, Ray. I’m not going to argue the point with Dylan’s work and plan to check out the link. For me, anecdotally, I have had enough incidents where I went deep and wound up on the couch I plan to continue to conserve. If others want to continue to dig because that’s what they need, I say go for it.

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