“When was the last time you deliberately challenged yourself for fun?” Greta Scheibel asked me. “You know, some kind of dynamic experience that made your heart race?”
Greta, a former student who after a stint in the Peace Corps continued to live in Africa and work for local organizations, brought this up over coffee at a breakfast joint near UConn. She’s moved back to The States and came to visit.
Young, athletic, fit and cheerful, Greta had recently been sky-diving but was explaining her disappointment at the fact that she wasn’t up there in the air plunging toward the earth on her own. Her joy was diminished because a professional — there to ensure that her parachute opened and thus preventing her from hitting the ground headfirst like a dart — was strapped to her person. She’d have preferred to jump solo, fully engulfed by the sensation of freedom and flight.
Because Greta was in my class 10 years ago, she knows me well enough to understand I don’t go into the air surrounded by anything smaller than a Boeing 757.
But she wanted to know whether I’d ever tried some vaguely scary activity just to get my blood racing.
Her question did what very little else in life ever does: It shut me up.
I can speak about almost any topic without pausing for a breath, but I sat there staring silently for long enough that a friendly server came over to ask me if everything was all right.
Like many other young people, including my stepsons and their wives, my nieces and nephews and whole teams of former students, Greta is drawn to extreme sports and risky adventures. These folks surf, parasail, perform in Ironman competitions and run marathons. They do these as regularly and with as little concern as I have running to the grocery store.
Of course, they literally run marathons, while I most certainly do not literally run to the grocery store. I don’t run anywhere. I try not to move quickly under any circumstances. The mighty sloth is my spirit animal.
The last time my heart rate spiked, however, was at the grocery store. Progresso soup rang up as three for $5 instead of two for $4. It was a thrill. I’m not even kidding.
Instead of ice climbing, windsurfing, mountain biking, bungee jumping and hang gliding, I am discount shopping, car washing, paper grading, column writing, dinner making and Netflix watching. None of my daily activities include the word “stunt.”
I would not, for example, be a good catch for a group called the International Downhill Federation. This is a real organization. Shockingly enough, it has nothing to do with politics, economics or romance, which are the only words I’ve ever associated with the word “downhill.” Instead, to compete in International Downhill Federation luge competitions on ice-covered tracks, members “are required to ride in the supine (lying back) position with their feet forward” and “no mechanical breaking devices are allowed.”
I don’t need to lie down to make my heart pound any more. My heart pounds when I need to update my computer’s operating system; my vital signs spike when my GPS stops working. I could be a contender if there were international competitions for angst, epistemological externalism or chronic foot pain, but I doubt these groups exist (although the T-shirts would be great).
My secret attraction is to interior wildernesses.
A literary critic once argued that men’s adventure books turned into women’s gothic novels because female characters were only permitted to explore intimate worlds, given their circumstances and domestic lives. It wasn’t mountain ranges they needed to conquer, but the family secrets hidden in attics and basements. Careening through the labyrinthine complexities of arranged marriages, hidden pasts, multiple childbirths, and straits and narrows of family life provided all the tension a body could stand.
Much like the heroines in such novels, I can sit for hours, immobile yet bungee jumping emotionally. It isn’t necessarily healthy but it is exhausting.
Yet it’s the daring feats of those with more physical courage and endurance that delight me — even if they don’t inspire me to imitation.
Risks can lead to joy. I cheer for Greta, and I happily keep both feet on the ground.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.