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In Defense of the Comfort Zone

Let others roam: It's boundaries or bust for this queen of the mild frontier.

Illustration: Jim Dryden

By Kathy Zonana

I’m getting a suitcase for my birthday, and right now, I’m trying to decide between the standard U.S. carry-on and the smaller international one. I’m leaning toward the domestic size. After all, I haven’t left the country since 1998. 

I seem to have been born without wanderlust. I have little interest in traveling to any region where neither I nor my companions speak the language; where I might contract a Level 3 or Level 4 virus; where it might be dry, dusty and hot—or, conversely, bleak, windy and cold. I have taken the same vacation to Kauai eight or nine times, staying in the identical condo each time. (In my defense, the condo was free.) 

I come by it honestly. My dad walks the same route around the neighborhood every day. (Watching him exit the front door one night, my husband invoked the 1980s Bandini fertilizer commercial: “Man dares to walk where man has walked before.” My father collapsed in laughter, then proceeded to take the Exact. Same. Walk.) When my sister and I were 14 and 20, respectively, my dad took us to the open-air observatory on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. Or, more accurately, we asked him to. We trotted over to the edge—which is secured by tall fencing—to look down on Manhattan. Then we heard a strange sound. Dad was plastered to the central core of the building, whimpering, “Kathy! Carrie! Come back! Kathy! Carrie! Come back!”

Apparently, the man has a fear of heights. 

So do I, if you must know. I will not be bungee jumping or rock climbing in this lifetime. I do not enjoy skiing, or hanging out in bars, or being proximate to any species of reptile. I don’t even like watching thrillers—I don’t go to the movies to be scared.

I am at my happiest in my own dining room, sitting in a sunbeam with the Sunday New York Times and a fresh bagel. I prefer the weather between 68 and 72 degrees. I own 10 of the same T-shirt.

In my pleasant little corner of the world, exercise comes in five forms: hiking, cycling, dancing, Pilates and yoga. Anything else is either boring or excruciating. New cars are to be blue, although the most recent one is silver because the available blue was hideous. Chocolate is dark, but it used to be milk. (Who says people like me can’t grow and change?)

Let other people thrive on chaos or boast of being adrenaline junkies. Ritual is underappreciated. If I eat steel-cut oats with dried apricots every weekday morning, I have less decision fatigue when I sit down to brainstorm innovative ideas for magazine articles. If you’re thinking it sounds like I actually embrace novelty at work, you’ve figured me out. Intellectual and professional risks? Sign me up. Financial and physical ones? Not so much.

At 47, I’m grateful that I can identify which new experiences I’d likely enjoy and which ones I would prefer to avoid. I’m also fortunate because some of the things that terrify others—public speaking, meeting people, adopting new technologies—are perfectly palatable to me. 

I know, I know. Novel experiences—especially uncomfortable ones—supply our greatest potential for growth and change. But life has moved me out of my comfort zone plenty; I have no need to seek out bonus adventure or discomfort. My parents’ acrimonious divorce? Check. Magnitude 6.9 earthquake three weeks into my freshman year? Check. Raising a child with cerebral palsy? Check. 

Indeed, having a child with a physical disability once intersected with my snake phobia to create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, let’s call it, for personal growth. My son was going on 4, and his friend was having a reptile party. For the uninitiated, this is a festive occasion wherein the birthday boy and his friends gather in a circle, a herpetology enthusiast pulls up in a van, and said enthusiast removes lizards and snakes, one by one, from the cages in the back of said van and circulates them among the children for petting. The coups de grâce involve draping an enormous python around the neck of the birthday boy’s game-faced mom and then setting an even larger and more disgusting python across the laps of the smiling children. 

Other parents could maintain a safe distance from the special guests if they so chose. But my son did not yet have the abdominal strength to sit on his own. So I put him on a bench and sat on the ground diagonally behind him, my hand supporting his back but my body safely out of range of reptilian contact. I then commenced about a half-hour of deep breathing, doing my best to approximate a trancelike state. My reward for this epic display of bravery: a handsome slice of snake-shaped cake.

If I can have the growth experience of my life in Redwood City, I see no need to run 155 miles across the Gobi Desert or jump out of a perfectly serviceable airplane in rural Northern California or risk death-by-leopard in Namibia. Those experiences are for other, more adventurous alumni. I am better suited to help bring you their stories from the snug confines of my editor’s chair.

Which reminds me: I got an international-size suitcase. But only because I’ll be more comfortable lifting it into the overhead bin.

Kathy Zonana,’93, JD ’96, is the deputy editor of  STANFORD.

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