free fall

Go timeI went skydiving with coworkers yesterday. This is the third year that Eric has arranged such an outing (though a last-minute injury kept him from going this year), and the first time that I’ve joined the proceedings. It was fun! The staff at Skydive Orange were friendly and professional, and the whole process went very smoothly. And, though I sort of joked about it, the atmosphere really did remind me of Drop Zone, the great(?) Wesley Snipes Point Break knockoff.

(OT: having your male lead punch his love interest = really charming screenwriting, guys!)

I say this not because I saw Gary Busey kill anyone by forcing their parachute into high-voltage power lines (though obviously I didn’t watch every jump), but because of the atmosphere. It was a big event weekend at Skydive Orange, apparently, with an extra plane and team competitions and beer-filled campfires in the evenings. Everyone seemed implausibly attractive, friendly, bohemian, and really, really happy. Skydiver parties must be pretty fun.

But of course as newbies (and ones who weren’t camping out), that scene wasn’t really available to us. Perhaps later jumps become about freedom and self-expression. For first-timers like myself, the experience is about introspection.

A few weeks back I found myself boozily explaining why I wanted to jump out of a plane. It was a statement about human progress, I said: a testament to our mastery over materials, physics and our own instincts. How many other species would ever pursue a recreational activity like this? How many subsequent generations, for that matter, will be able to waste the energies necessary to haul themselves up and down the atmosphere for a thrill? I was lucky to be born during an age when this strange, beautiful ritual was possible, and that struck me as a privilege I should embrace.

I still believe all of that, but the actual experience didn’t tell me much about the fate of our species; it told me about myself. Specifically, about the kinds of fear that work on me. And I don’t mean to flatter myself with the following: I don’t think I’m a particularly brave person (quite the opposite, in fact). But this experience didn’t trouble me. There was a sense of unreality about it. Nerves, sure. Necessary compartmentalization, certainly. And at the lip of the door there was that cliched moment of vertiginous terror as I looked down at the ground below and the miles of air between us.

But then I looked back up — a field of view that was more “window seat” than “imminent death” — and worried about arching my back, and whether I was causing any inconvenience to my instructor (an enormous Italian guy, now strapped to my back, who had complained at length about his car’s failing catalytic converter as the plane ascended). And then I was tumbling; straightening; figuring out how to breathe; trying not to glance at my altimeter too much; and noticing the sluggishness of my arm as Mario guided it to the ripcord. Violence, satisfaction that the instant of greatest stress on the equipment had passed safely, and then a few still moments as Mario pointed out our shadow and gave a brief lecture on steering a parafoil. We slid to earth more smoothly than some slip-n-slide trips I’ve taken, and then it was over. Supposedly this took about six minutes; it felt like 90 seconds at most.

I had been told what to do, and I’d done it robotically, and it was fine. As I said, this wasn’t physical bravery. I think such a thing exists, and is necessary for someone to become a great athlete or dancer or even just to photograph well. This was more about embracing blankness, ignoring anxiety by focusing on the task at hand. It reminded me of my LASIK surgery more than anything else.

What was interesting was the fear that persisted outside the blankness: the worry over disappointing my instructor, or insulting him through second-guessing, or committing a dangerous faux pas by standing in the wrong place as people packed their chutes in the hangar. I think I understand better how a soldier can leap over the lip of a trench and into machinegun fire: it’s because back in the trench there’s a sergeant yelling at him, who would be extremely disappointed to see any hesitation. It would just be very awkward.

I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but I think I know a little more about myself for having jumped. I’d recommend it to anyone, and encourage those who feel nervous to push through their fears. It’s really not that bad. Leaning out of an airplane is infinitely easier than leaning in for a first kiss.

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