Thursday, February 19, 2015

Seek The Fear. Then Pocket It.

I’ve always looked a little kooky at snowboarders as a group.
“Yeah, that’s cute… you in your baggy snowpants and flannel shirt scraping down the mountain and flattening out the bumps that us skiers worked so hard to carve out”. 
Snowboarding has always seemed like a little brother sport to skiing in my eyes. That being said, many of my close friends were/are knuckle draggers as well as my wife of almost 12 years.

But the thought of me, with 35 years of skiing under my belt, strapping into a board and sliding sideways down a mountain was as conceivable as me driving a pink Prius around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Not happening.

Then, last weekend, my 9 year old asked to take snowboarding lessons while in Steamboat. Then that same 9 year old asked me if I was scared to learn how to snowboard.
Dude called me out.
Cool your jets, punk. It’s on.

And before I knew it I was strapped into a board and sliding sideways down the bunny hill right beside him. 24 hours later I was “carving” down a steep slope next to my wife with a big fat grin on my face… all the while trying to contain the fear that was trying to bubble over with each toe-side turn.

Turns out, going toe-side and heel-side (carving from front to back) are pretty sketchy maneuvers when you’re not accustomed to doing so. I suppose it comes from the inert fear of slamming your fragile little noggin down on the hardpacked snow at a high rate of speed.  At first, each turn leaves you feeling exposed. But as with all things… it progressively gets easier. Every time you succeed at a turn you get more and more comfortable with it.

That is, until you catch an edge… and before you can even let out a pathetic, high pitched “Oh, shit”, your ass and back of your head slam into the snow simultaneously causing a resounding shock through your entire body.

Then the fear sets in so that you don’t go and do the same thing again.
Don’t go and do the same thing that just catapulted you into the snow again.
What… are you an idiot?

And thus I was reacquainted with my old friend fear or, as my amigos down south say, “El miedo”.

Fear is an evolutionary response to a threat.
Fear is designed to keep you alive. Epinephrine is injected into your body in large volumes when you’re stressed or fearful. Too much of it is unhealthy. Extended exposure to epi or cortisol is bad for your kidneys, your skin, your hair, and your emotional happy factor.

However, small doses are good. That noteworthy metal-like taste in your mouth just as you commit to a scary action… it reminds you that you are in fact very much alive.

Scary shit has been happening to us as a species for thousands of years. Historically it revolved around being chased and eaten by a saber tooth tiger or perhaps a few thousand generations later, it was running from a pillaging Norseman that was chasing you down with a bludgeoning hammer.

Nowadays… it’s less consequential.

Maybe it’s the threat of your boss firing you from your unsatisfying but necessary job. Or perhaps it’s receiving a $200 speeding ticket for going 55 in a 54 (thanks Jay Z).

Our moments of fear are cordoned off these days. We have to go seek out fear in our sterile society. We pursue activities like BASE jumping, mountain climbing, dirt biking and skydiving to get those archaic moments of true fear. To get flooded with epinephrine and cortisol. Then go home and relax on the couch with a beer in hand.

In my 20s and half of my 30s I sought out every opportunity I could find to get scared on rock faces and mountains all over the world. Fear was my friend. It was a drug and I was addicted. I used to love those idiots from the early 2000s with their “NO FEAR” stickers on the back of their jacked up F-150s. I would always think, “I’ll show you fear, dumbass.”

Then a wife comes along and it changes a slight shade.
Then a kid comes along and whoa Nelly… shit gets put on lock down. For no other reason than “I don’t want my kid to grow up without his daddy.”

As we get older the safety cocoon gets softer and pillowier. It’s easier to accept comfort and complacency. Why mess with comfort? Why risk my life? Why risk a broken bone? Takes 5 times as long to heal as it did when I was in my 20s. Even when it does, the arthritis will be a bitch. Not to mention… my achin back.

It’s easy to feel fear and back down. Our ancestors relied on that reaction to sustain our species. But now we live in a time when fear is designed and once we find it, we have to suppress it. Ironic for sure.

I made a conscious decision when I turned 40 to fight complacency tooth and nail. Even though I knew I would never climb the same scary shit I did 15 years ago, it was up to me if I wanted to keep my instincts sharp and stay emotionally engaged with my environment. I would have to redefine the pursuits that would keep me challenged and excited. Part of that equation was to feel scared when doing an activity.

For me it came down to picking up a new sport every few years.

Five years ago it was kitesurfing.
Talk about fear.
After a half dozen hours of lessons I decided to save money and just figure it out on my own in the dark depths of the Sea of Cortez. I remember physically trembling those first few times out solo.
At first I was holding on tight. Scared of getting hucked around by the kite. Scared of getting dragged under water. Scared of getting chomped on by a sea critter.

Then I let go. I quit holding on so tightly. I embraced the movement and pocketed the fear.

Once the fear was released the joy filled its place.

Five years later… kitesurfing is my absolute favorite activity on the planet.

This year, it’s snowboarding.
I noticed clearly this past weekend that when I held back due to fear, I would promptly be thrown forward or backward. Quickly. Painfully.

I realized after my first bumpy run (read ‘crash filled’), that in order to make these turns, I had to let it rip. I found myself sitting at the top of the run saying out loud, “Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid. Go hard in to the turn. Commit to the heel-side turn.” Once I embraced that, I was off. Carving. Cruising. Fast.

Not to say I didn’t fall and bust my ass a few more times. But I felt the motion and I was hooked.

Clearly there are unhealthy versions of fear. The hours you lay awake in bed worrying about this thing or that. The things that you can’t control. Those issues that seem monumental at 3:00am but are more manageable when you are up on your feet with a cup of coffee in your hand. Fear based culture is disseminated 24hrs a day by mainstream media. Sociopolitical behavior is controlled by the fear mongers  on CNN and Fox News. This is unhealthy fear.

Healthy fear is based on courage. And courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing that thing that scares you the most. Having courage to risk failure. Being courageous enough to fall down. Hard. And then get back up. Stretching yourself whenever you get the chance. Not necessarily with X Games sporting pursuits. It doesn’t have to be kitesurfing and snowboarding. It’s whatever you want it to be. But it has to scare you. Expose you. It has to contain doubt and a sense of the unknown. This is healthy fear.

Fear needs to be healthy. It’s primal. It’s one of the missing pieces of our primitive make-up.
See if you can remember the last time you were feeling absolute fear. That your life or limb was in ‘perceived’ danger. For most of us, it’s been awhile.

Go find that fear. Learn a new sport. Take a chance. Go toe-side. Get spooked a bit. Then pocket the fear.