What tangled webs of risk acceptance we weave

Dalton Delan
4 min readMay 26


On his 80th birthday, singer Leonard Cohen celebrated with a cigarette. “It’s the right age to recommence,” he said. When he died two years later, I have no doubt those last, painful years were made a bit pleasanter by a nicotine fix and the reassuring rituals of smoking.

He wasn’t alone. For five long years, I succumbed to my better angels and went vegetarian. Then I realized that on my deathbed I would rue every missed burger and country-fried chicken leg. They are Proustian madeleines of my childhood and my family who are not with me any longer. But thank heavens they left the chicken! There is hope still in the tastebuds of life.

The risk-reward equation moved front and center during the pandemic. It separated families and friends as if it were the Civil War. Those who masked all the time saw the unmasked as an ignorant horde of Typhoid Marys. Those who vociferously avoided masking scorned the woke crowd and viewed it as sacrificing living for the latest pronouncement of flip-flopper Fauci. Restaurants, theaters, planes and many other businesses were laid waste on the altar of supposed safety first. No one can really say if lives were saved or just livelihoods lost.

Everything in life has a specific gravity weighed on the danger scale. I grew up skiing and loved it until the risk of torqueing my knee and interfering with tennis caused me to stop. I still bike, but less so because I won’t risk sharing the road with murderous metal machines with over-caffeinated or 100-proof humans behind the wheel. We fret the failures of self-driving vehicles. Compared to what? Cars don’t kill people: drivers kill people. I like to fly on big jets with redundant engines and highly experienced pilots; regional commuter planes in which the young and the restless pilot them at starter salaries, not so much.

Take a minute to make your own list. What have you given up as you’ve aged, or never taken up to begin with, because of a perception of danger? Notoriously germophobic, Donald Trump made an exception without protection in the arms of Stormy Daniels, in her telling. In his risk-reward analysis, he failed to factor in hush money and a criminal indictment. For bold-faced names such as Michael Jackson, Prince and Tom Petty, it was a fatal mistake to bet on their bodies’ tolerance for dangerous drugs.

In various ways, we all choose a hill to make our stand.

Life itself is a walk along a high ledge. We take bets every day on our acquaintance with Lady Luck. Cross the street against the light? Speed through the yellow? Eat fish on the bone? Invest in the stock market? Go under the surgeon’s knife? We enter an existential casino at birth, stroll through it with no more sight than Steve Wynn, and leave not at a moment of our own choosing — at least in 39 of the lower 48 states — but when God or nature calls us home. We can’t remove risk from our lives, yet we still divide roughly by those who skydive and those who don’t, those with tattoos and those sporting umbrellas, those who undergo basic training and those who claim disqualifying ailments like the former commander in chief.

At night, in the fugue state of dreams, I visit again with my dearly departed. These friendly ghosts haunt me through the day, as I contemplate my mortality, how I have lived my days and plan to conduct them still. Is it time to return to a world from which the virus drove me away? When is the right moment to resume life as it was, accepting a new normal with a higher reading on the mercurial thermometer of danger? Like Leonard Cohen, do I simply reach an age in which higher risk meets lower expectations? Passports are the new cigarettes.

For many of us, these years of living dangerously have exacerbated anxieties that previously snorkeled under the surface. After recovering from COVID — which is most people — studies have shown increased anxiety in up to half of us. We are, as my dad liked to say, “nervous in the service.” Anxiety is the new normal of the 21st century, just as Freud predicted neurosis as a 20th-century norm. While this bodes ill for the happiness index of individuals, it signals unprecedented success for Big Pharma and pet breeders.

I find the purported calm of later years to be an elusive butterfly, the flapping of whose wings still brings waves of existential dread. We each confront our lives with as much tolerance for danger and pursuit of joy as genetics and lifestyle allow. Michel de Montaigne subscribed to a philosophy of all things in moderation. Some climb mountains; I am content to play king of the hill.



Dalton Delan

Winner of three Emmy Awards, Dalton Delan pens biweekly The Unspin Room, which began August 7, 2016 in The Berkshire Eagle; it has appeared in 50+ newspapers.