Life is a dangerous activity

PHOTO: Jon Schladen, Flickr CC-BY

They say that cars might one day drive themselves, but could they eat a sandwich at the same time? I don’t think so.

We drive using mental patterns so engrained that some can do it half asleep or thinking about something else entirely. These memory grooves run so deep that, years later, wracked with dementia, something in our brain sends us down the road toward a destination from another time.

That’s the kind of danger built into everything we do.

We spend a lot of time worried about danger. Undercooked meat. War. Crime. Climate change. Will there be razor blades in the Halloween candy? There’s so much danger than you really need a cigarette or bag of Cheetos to cope with it all. Mmm. That’s better.

Danger is relative.

A couple months ago my son and I were driving out to the Black Hills. We saw several crop duster planes spraying the cornfields of western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. It’s amazing how these small aircraft fly mere inches above the corn and power lines. I couldn’t watch them without thinking of that iconic scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

Who could forget the farmer’s ominous line?

“That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”

Minutes later, Cary Grant evades a murderous biplane by running through the corn.

Well, having seen one now, I can say that flying a crop duster looks plenty dangerous, even without trying to tousle Grant’s famous coif with the propeller. But then again, it’s a matter of perspective.

After all, I’m from the Mesabi Iron Range. People here handle explosives that can vaporize entire geological formations. Miners drive haul trucks bigger than houses, each one capable of flattening an F-150 like Play-Doh. Kids jump off the sides of 200-foot tall mine pits into water so deep that the divers who would search for the bodies risk getting the bends. Usually, however, no one gets hurt or, for that matter, the bends.

Meantime, I teach public speaking, an act some fear more than death itself. Some kid who drives a snowmobile at 100 mph suddenly becomes a quivering mess when delivering a five-minute speech about how to maintain a lawnmower. But me? My public speaking heart rate isn’t terribly different from a casual stroll to the refrigerator. What is danger?

I was getting my haircut a while back. In other words, I paid a stranger to remove my prescription eyeglasses and then waive sharp blades near my eyes and throat. Anyway, the lady was telling me about her dad, who used to be a woodland firefighter.

She said people often think that fire is the most dangerous part of fighting wildfires. But actually, it’s the rough terrain where they have to work.

“My dad fell off a mountain at night,” she said, matter-of-factly. He’s fine now, though. Mostly.

My teenage children crave danger. One son wants to work alone in the woods. Another wants to operate heavy equipment. The third wants to work at a computer screen his whole career, at great risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. There is no worse peril than the dangers your children face.

The other day my wife made cookies. She always lets me lick the bowl if I do the dishes. People say you shouldn’t eat raw cookie dough because of the uncooked eggs, but I’ve consumed a grocery store’s worth of eggs in just this manner. As I savored the gritty, sugary concoction I prepared a statement for my funeral. If this is, in fact, what kills me, let the people know that I died doing exactly what I wanted and departed under terms I deemed acceptable.

Life is dangerous. There’s no way around that. But don’t rest too easy. Life is also weighted toward the survivors. You and me? We’re survivors. So far.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. There are no old, bold pilots.” Stay safe out there!

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