The Fundamental Lessons of Skydiving pt 3

If you ever stop being nervous, quit.

As I approach my seminal 100th jump, the jump widely considered to separate the casual jumper, the dabbler or the mid-life crisis thrillboy from serious skydivers, I am still consistently having butterflies on the ride to altitude. I know and have experienced how safe the equipment is. I am familiar with all the procedures and I am proficient in all the aspects of safe jumping but I can't shake that feeling in my gizzard each time the plane lifts off.

Recently, I approached the most experienced jumper I know and asked if this was normal.

"I always get butterflies on the ride up," he told me. "If you ever stop getting nervous, quit."

This man, who I consider something of a mentor, has fifty skydives for every one of mine. He has a master rigging certificate and an AFF Evaluator rating, two of the most difficult certifications in the sport. He's been jumping for longer than I have been alive, starting out with military surplus gear and borrowed football helmets in the mid-seventies. He still gets nervous on the climb to altitude.

His point was two-fold, first, that we do something that would be, if not for our equipment, our training and our wits, outright suicidal. When you stop worrying about the consequences of failure, you've begun to believe that those three things are infallible; they are not. Forgetting this can be fatal.

More broadly, though, anything worth doing should challenge you, thrill you and, yes, scare you. Trepidation, whether fear for life or fear of failure, should accompany any worthwhile endeavor. If it does not, you've ceased to grow and should move on to something else before your actions become rote, before you get bored, sloppy and stupid.

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The Fundamental Lessons of Skydiving pt 2

The second installment in my ongoing series about skydiving's effect on jumpers' psyches is about one of the least discussed lessons of the sport. Though we don't talk on it much, it is one of the starkest realities, one of the harshest truths one can learn in both freefall and in life at large.

You are on your own.

When I took my A License oral exam, there was a particular question that, by the SIM,* I got completely wrong but that the instructor gave me credit for anyway. "Who is responsible if a jumper exits into a cloud?" was the question. Per the FAA, the pilot is responsible for picking a jump run that is free of clouds. My response, though, was "I am responsible, because I choose whether or not to exit the aircraft."

He meditated for a second and said, "That's not actually correct, but I like your answer better."

And that's the truth of it. Ultimately, you and only you are responsible for your own safety and those moments in the air when you are most likely to find yourself in life-threatening danger are precisely the same moments when no one will be able to help you.

All movie antics aside, once you wave off and reach for that deployment handle, you are too far away from other jumpers and too short on time to receive assistance. Any malfunction of the canopy, any wrestling of the winds, any complication on landing, you and you alone have to handle.

What can be really scary is that, even while you're utterly alone,someone else's mistake can harm you. They could be a low-puller that didn't see your wave off and that falls directly into you. They could ignore lower canopy's right-of-way or forget the direction of the landing pattern and cause a mid-air collision. In any of these situations, you're in trouble, and there's still virtually nothing that the other person can do to help if you're not prepared for the situation.

As with virtually everything else, you have friends and comrades but ultimately you have to know to count on yourself. Confidence in your own skills, training and discretion is the only way to ensure a safe and successful trip across the sky.

*SIM stands for Skydiver's Information Manual, one of several publications by the United States Parachute Association that details regulations, recommendations and procedures for all aspects of jumping. It is the closest thing to a bible that the sport has. It is available online if you'd like to take a look at it.

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The Fundamental Lessons of Skydiving pt 1

I don't know a single skydiver that can't say skydiving has fundamentally changed their life. Whether introducing them to a new community, challenging them beyond their assumed limits or just giving something to brag about, everyone comes back down from their first solo jump with a different worldview than the person who went up. So universal is this that there is a monthly column in Parachutist magazine called "How Skydiving Changed my Life."

What's interesting is that the life changing aspects of jumping seem to be different for every skydiver. For some it instills confidence and allows them to overcome adversity. For others it provides them with a second family. For others it is a profound escape, a feeling of freedom that trumps all other forms of distraction.

Still, there are certain lessons, certain aspects of the skydiving experience that become ingrained in all jumpers' characters. First among them:

Ambivalence Kills.

You must either do, or do not, never something in between.

This is best exemplified when landing a parachute. Once you begin to flare the canopy (engage the brakes) for landing, you can't let them up. If you flare too early, or too aggressively, you can stall the canopy, in which case you will fall straight down and will probably have to do a bracing, rolling landing*, and even then you still might still hurt yourself.

On the other hand, if you release a partial flare, the canopy will surge forward, gain speed rapidly and send you face first into the ground, which will send you to the hospital if it doesn't kill you outright. Once those toggles start to come down for landing, they can't go back up.

This is, by virtue of happening on landing, the most often observed such example. There are others.

Cutting away a malfunctioning parachute is an all-or-nothing proposition. When you reach your Decision Altitude,** you have to know, not suspect, not hope, but know that your canopy is land-able. If it's not, you have to know to chop it or you're in deep trouble.

Moreover, if you've made a mistake, and stayed under a malfunctioning canopy for too long and are now below the safe deployment altitude for your reserve, you have to commit to that mistake and ride the malfunction down. A partially inflated canopy can slow you enough to only injure you but a fall with no canopy at all is certainly fatal.

Reaching out an arm for a partner in freefall rather than flying your whole body towards them will cause you to backslide and put you further away from that person than when you first reached for them.

Failing to commit both hands when reaching for your deployment handle makes your wind resistance asymmetrical and can put you into a spin that will twist up your suspension lines as the canopy comes out of the bag.

I almost forgot the single most important decision a jumper makes. You have to either exit the aircraft or land with it because once you're out, you're not getting back in. Well, unless you're this guy.

This lesson, like all good lessons, speaks to everything we undertake in mundane life. Do something or do not do it. Commit to every action. Commit to every inaction. Mistakes are forgivable, failures of will are not. If you are going to fuck up, fuck up like you meant it.

Here endeth the lesson. Pull Low, Hook Low.

*This is called a P.L.F. - a Parachute Landing Fall. It's a standard maneuver that we all learn.

** Decision Altitude is the height above the ground at which you must cut away from a malfunctioning parachute in order to have time for the reserve to safely deploy. It varies depending on the experience level of the jumper and the kind of canopy they fly but it's usually in the 2000-2500 foot range.

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"I Have Killed my Captain - and my Friend"

If one were to ask a thousand Americans to make a list of the most well known quotes in the history of science fiction, a few statements would predominate. "May the Force be with you," would probably be on every single list. "There can be only one," "E.T. phone home," "A robot may not harm a human being, nor through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm," and for anyone who groups fantasy and SciFi together, "One ring to rule them all and, in the darkness, bind them," would come up again and again.

There's one other quote, perhaps the only one that approaches the near-universal recognition of the Star Wars saga's most famous utterance, that would be on nearly every list. This would be Star Trek's most famous statement, Mr. Spock's trademark line, "Live long and prosper."

What few non-Trekkers know is that these iconic words do not exist on their own. They are, in fact, the customary response to another well-wishing. It is the "you're welcome" to a "thank you." It is the "alaikum assalam" to a "assalaam alaikum."

The complete exchange is, "Peace and long life." Replied with "Live long and prosper."

I can think of no other pair of mantras, no other statement made between equals that is more beautiful or more elegant. It's true, similar statements, nearly identical utterances have been enshrined in the world's vernaculars for eons, from the Arabic statement quoted above to the "Peace be with you" that opens so many Catholic services.

Star Trek, though, introduced this idea and popularized this expression not as a statement related to religious liturgy nor even as declaration of brotherhood of nation but as the perfect articulation of good will made under the auspices of perfect logic. Here is this idea that, by virtue of originating with a purely logical, mathematically trained and atheistic character, is stripped of it's superstitious baggage and it's tribalist undertones. Within it's fictional context, it is the ultimate statement of benevolence and amity because it is intoned by characters who are bound by neither blood nor creed, who share no common distinction beyond sentience. It is a mutual approbation by characters who are of different species.

Well versed fans will counter that the Vulcan Salute, the "V" shaped hand gesture that traditionally accompanies these words,* is lifted from rituals of Kabbalah. This is true. It is also a point of Hebrew mysticism so arcane that even most observant Jews were unaware of it before the publication of Leonard Nimoy's autobiography. I don't think this fact diminishes the fundamental beauty of the statement.

This is one of those moments in popular culture. This is a catch-phrase from a television show that speaks to the best parts of us. It underscores our understanding of universal brotherhood. It highlights the fact that we can only enrich ourselves by wishing well to others. We should all wish each other so well.

Peace and long life.

*Legend has it that William Shatner cannot execute this gesture without putting his fingers into position with the opposite hand.

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The Wisdom of Pop Culture - An Introduction

Popular culture is artistically bankrupt, so the common wisdom goes. When it is not preoccupied with the irrelevant, the inane and the sensational, it is bound up in the trite, the banal and the self-satisfied. At the same time, self acclaimed stewards of artistic legitimacy seem obsessed with all things bleak and dispiriting. The heart of the artist, we're told, is the one that knows pain, despondence and lack. Cultural critics insist that we must choose between the vapid schmaltz of prime time television and the intellectual agony of the gallery or salon.

But, this is a false choice. Wisdom, revelation, growth of spirit, antagonism of intellect are all abundantly present in the best works of popular culture. Granted, the majority of what we see on television, read in magazines and consume over the internet is garbage, but so is most of the stuff hung on the walls of art galleries, read aloud in coffee shops and performed under the lights of black boxes. Occasionally, though, for-profit television, top forty radio and pulp paperbacks offers us a glimmer of something both positive and profound, something that can lift the spirit, something that can teach us about ourselves.

I need to disclaim that I'm not really talking about Pop Art, those works that are afforded intellectual esteem and that garnered a place in popular culture at large because of this esteem. The works of Warhol, Dali and even Hundertwasser are obvious examples. They are a different animal altogether. I'm also not talking about those bits of historical Americana that have been retroactively elevated to the level of art, the recent addition of the "@" symbol to the MOMA and a recent touring exhibit of toy robots, for instance. I'm talking about mere entertainment, about distraction and fluff.*

I've been meditating on this often lately, on these rough-found diamonds amid the vast wasteland and on how they are so often ignored, dismissed or their wisdom unrevealed. I'm starting a new series of posts on exactly this. The idea is simple, find those ideas, those memes, those manifest moments in popular culture that say something truly beautiful. I'm not looking for hidden gems. No, I'm looking for works of popular culture with which any American-raised adult would be familiar. These are creations that teach us something positive about ourselves and that are generally not considered "high art" by the people who claim to understand such distinctions. John Lennon's "Imagine" springs immediately to mind but I feel that's a little too obvious.

I'm going to be working on this for the next bit. If you have any particular ideas, let me know.

*Now, if you want to make the argument that there really is no discernible or definable border separating High Art, Pop Art and Mass Media, you're probably right. This doesn't change the fact that the distinction is implicitly made in the minds of a plurality, if not a majority of people that lack a degree in cultural studies.

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