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Risky Business

A decorative, plastic human skeleton sits in a camp chair at a campsite with tents while wearing a bike helmet and other recreational safety gear.

I think it’s time to push my son off the roof. 

That sounds bad. Let me explain. 

I’m not a natural-born risk taker. Never have been. I was a careful kid who watched his two older brothers take chances and break bones. I usually opted for keeping my feet planted on the ground and wearing any available safety gear. There’s a picture of me napping while wearing a football helmet. In high school, asking out a girl was a multi-month process involving research and targeted, but subtle, flirting that only ended when I was 99 percent sure the intended girl would say yes. It took me 12 years to propose to my wife, not because I was reluctant to settle down, but because I couldn’t handle possible rejection.  

My risk aversion hasn’t gotten better with age. There’s a certain amount of risk in my job, but I’ve gravitated towards the endurance side of adventure sports because the injuries are usually of the “nagging” variety, as opposed to the “shattering.” At some point when my two kids were toddlers, I told myself I’d stop doing risky things in the outdoors altogether. I’d just had a bad experience during a relatively routine bushwhack through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It should’ve been a mundane adventure—hike for a few hours in a little-known section of the park and check out the scenery. I had a 7pm dinner reservation back in town. But shit went south—we got turned around, misjudged the time it would take to traverse the terrain, and made a series of bad decisions, until at one point I found myself hanging from the root of a rhododendron off the side of a cliff and thinking, “I’m not gonna make that dinner reservation.” It ended up well enough; I downclimbed some rocks to get off that cliff and we eventually made it back to a trail around 1am, hungry but alive. 

Since then, I’ve tried not to do anything with a high probability of death. Sometimes, it’s hard to avoid because I’m not particularly adept at climbing or paddling or skiing or biking, and risk lies at that intersection where terrain meets a lack of skill. I seem to hang out at that intersection a lot, not because I’m seeking out risk, but because I’m bad at my chosen vocation. 

If anything, I wish I took more risks. I’m jealous of the athletes who seem so at ease with danger. Honestly, it’s not so much death that scares me. It’s getting hurt. The prospect of knocking my teeth out or breaking a collar bone, or even just a pinkie finger, scares me and holds me back in many ways. 

Take dirt jumps. My son and I have spent the last year practicing a variety of dirt jumps at the local jump park. I’ve gotten better. I can catch decent air on tabletops. But I’ve plateaued because I can’t make myself take the next step and hit gap jumps. There’s more risk involved with gaps because you have to send it. If you fall short on a gap jump, you’re going to eat shit. I can’t convince myself to take that risk. Maybe that’s fine because I’m a middle-aged man who really has no business hitting gap jumps anyway, but my son refuses to take that next step too. 

I’ve been modeling overly cautious behavior and he’s adopted it for himself. As an isolated issue, this isn’t much of a problem. Not being able to hit gap jumps isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but not taking healthy risks in life is a big deal. Trying a new sport, asking a girl to the dance, choosing a college that’s far from home…youth is full of risks. Adulthood too.  

It’s possible there’s some genetic disposition that determines if a person is more likely to display risky behavior. Just like me, my son has always been overly cautious. When he was really little, he’d make his twin sister try everything first. He’d only hit the slide after she made it down and survived. So maybe we come from a long line of fraidy cats. But I also think risk-taking is a skill set that can be developed. There’s even a Master Class on it called, “How to Take Risks.” 

Which brings me back to the roof of my house and pushing my son off it. Not literally, but metaphorically. When I was 9 or 10, my older brothers convinced me to jump off our roof. I watched them do it a couple of times, landing and rolling in the grass just like our favorite TV hero Magnum, and after several minutes of taunts from my brothers below, I worked up the nerve to make the jump myself. It was one of the defining moments of my childhood, right up there with getting beat up by Jody Parker and seeing boobies for the first time between the scrambled lines on Cinemax. I can still remember the sense of exhilaration I felt when my feet left the shingles. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to flying. Looking back, my only regret is I didn’t jump off the roof more often. If I had kept at it, maybe I’d be a braver man today. Maybe I would’ve popped the question to my wife in just five years instead of 12.  

It’s probably too late for me to start jumping off the roof. I’m brittle. But there’s still hope for my son. He’s only 13. That’s prime roof-jumping age. If I can convince him to take the leap, and keep taking that leap, maybe he’ll be more prepared for the inevitable risks ahead of him. Then again, if something goes wrong, and he gets hurt, his mother will kill me. I don’t care how many times I jumped off the roof as a kid, or how many Master Classes I take on risk, nothing will convince me that upsetting my wife is a good idea. The reward is never worth the risk in that scenario.  

There I go again, avoiding risk. It’s possible that I have this all backwards. Instead of trying to teach my son to be brave, which I obviously know nothing about, perhaps I should focus on conveying the one skill that I’ve truly mastered: self-preservation. 

Cover photo: Courtesy of the author

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