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Early Surprise Triggers Primal Response

September 18th, 2022 by dk

I had a strange and literal awakening last week. I woke to the sound of a woman in my back yard, just after sunrise, carrying bag out to the street. She had rifled through our spare refrigerator outside and helped herself to a rotisserie chicken, a frozen pizza, and assorted beers.

(I called the police and filed a report, but that’s not an important part of the story.) I followed her in slippers and pajamas to a bus stop. I approached her carefully. I told her how much I liked that pizza. (It was shipped to me overnight from Chicago in dry ice.) I took her photo with the pizza beside her, and then asked her to return my groceries. She agreed, and I walked home with my stuff.

I updated the police after I reviewed my security alerts. She had been in my back yard all night, leaving twice for short whiles. Nothing was touched except the fridge, as far as I could tell. No doors or windows were opened.

I never felt unsafe — mostly just confused. I didn’t feel threatened, but my assumptions sure did. That in itself is an uneasy feeling.

My first urge — it was amazingly fierce, a compulsion, really — was to tell somebody about what had just happened. Then, after sitting for a minute, another urge came more quietly. I didn’t want to evoke fear in others.

Then came a third quandary, and then a fourth. (The mind races!) Why was that first urge so strongly felt? Does this isolated incident point to a larger (and more worrisome) trend that we may not see?

I’ve told this story to only one other person — a friend who is a therapist by trade. “The urge was strong because it all made no sense. We puzzle things out by talking with others. They might notice a detail we overlooked. Even your attempt to arrange the details into a coherent narrative is making it all less chaotic.”

Could the urge be epigenetic — a hard-wired instinct? (It felt that deep.) Describing a hazard to others would keep the species safer, earning genetic favor. It certainly has all the elements of a good story — fight-or-flight angst, tight chronology, surprising twists. It’s bound to garner rapt attention — an immediate reward for me, not my species.

But what if I don’t want others to feel unnecessarily afraid? I’ve lived here for 25 years and nothing remotely similar has ever happened. That context won’t matter because listeners have the same primal urges. For as long as we’ve had campfires, we gather around, telling spooky stories. NextDoor and other apps prey on these instincts.

Can we talk ourselves out of that fear-mongering urge? And if we can, should we? In the days since the intrusion, I’ve wondered whether the woman was herself afraid, hiding in my yard from some danger. Is she getting enough to eat? Should I have called White Bird instead of the police? Could the dispatcher have routed the call to a social service agency? I didn’t have that clarity in real time, but first responders could.

Human desperation may be inching toward us. As it happens, I’m selling an old laptop and one buyer offered to trade his electric bike for it, except he didn’t have the charger. I declined. The next day the same guy offered me instead an $800 mountain bike. I ignored the offer, but I could have suggested we meet at the police station to make the exchange.

Why does he need a laptop so badly? To keep a spreadsheet of his stolen bicycles? Maybe someone will trade him a Chicago-style pizza for it.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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