NY Waste - Winter 2005
Life From Above
It is disturbing to acknowledge certain immutable facts of the human condition, like for example that we come apart just like anything else. Take a tomato and throw it against a wall and it splatters to a pulpy mess, a stain on impact, bits scattered every which way. Magnify the force per square inch proportionately with our own stature and the result is the same. Your good intentions, your faith in god, all the qualities that elevate you above the lower life-forms are powerless to save you. We are hardly ever faced with our own fragility in our daily lives, so our sense of security is understandable, false as it may be. Such morose speculation can’t help but bring one a new found respect for people who are apprehensive about heights (or crossing the street for that matter), but it does lend credence to the axiom that ignorance can be bliss. Just think of all the impractical and dangerous activities man indulges in the name of diversion. Does the skateboarder preparing to slide down the rail of a 30 step landing say to himself, “alright it only takes so-many lbs of pressure to crack the human skull” or that the couple in their sports car buckling up for a little speeding are conscious that at 110 miles per hour a fiery crash would fuse their bodies to their seats? And do you imagine that I was thinking about my tomato analogy when I jumped out of a moving plane at 13,500 feet? Well, I was, and it really didn’t help any.
What I imagined being hit by a Mac truck must feel like was only the earth rushing to meet me and the air crudely sandwiched between us. With the sudden jolt, I was surprised we weren’t pushed back into the plane from the jump. I suspected that the brunt of this experience would be abdominal discomfort, maybe some jitters. I was wrong. Have you ever stuck your head out of the window of a speeding car and tried to breathe? Now magnify this sensation considerably. Oh, and you just happen to have a head-cold on top of everything. It was kind of hard to enjoy the scenery of upstate, rural New York when you’re suffocating to death. I considered how long I could hold my breath and how long the whole dive would last. The brochure advertised this sky ranch as exceptional because due to their not being near an airport, they weren’t restricted to a specific altitude they were able to go that much higher; ergo, the dives offered more air time. It pans out like this: an entire minute of straight free-falling. This means no parachute, nothing impeding your descent; it is just you and gravity. Then five minutes of sweet sailing once the parachute opens.
Fighting, as I was, for every breath, I longed for those final minutes. It was at some point in the eternity of the first sixty seconds that I decided to inform the Brazilian guy whose crotch I was strapped into that I was having a little difficulty breathing. When you are cutting through the atmosphere at top speed you can’t hear anything below a scream and you move in spasms. Eventually, through my exaggerated flailing, I conveyed to him that I couldn’t breathe. It dawned on me, however, that there really was nothing he could do about it, but I felt obliged to inform him that he would be landing with a corpse…strapped to his crotch.
I clenched my teeth and bared it. (One thing I must clarify is that it isn’t simply a test of holding ones breath. Upon arriving home afterward and taking hold of a stopwatch, I proved to myself that I could clear a solid minute sans air. But it is an entirely different experience when you have it shooting through your nostrils and mouth.)
When I pulled the ripcord, I immediately felt a sense of relief; I also felt like a rag doll being flung into the air because the parachute caught the updraft. Here was the part where I was supposed to marvel at the glory of god’s creation, to see the heavens and earth as only birds do. But my eyes were bleary from the piercing pain produced by the combination of head-cold and altitude. The discomfort reminded me of when I was eight years old, sick with a cold, and on an airplane. It had felt like something was trying to bore its way out of my head, all the while stewardesses (they weren’t called flight attendants yet) were handing me pieces of gum. They explained that it was just the pressure in my head, and the chewing motion would help pop my ears. I chewed and chewed, choking back tears, until I couldn’t fit another piece in my mouth. By the time the pain subsided, the wad of gum was more salty from my tears than sweet from the artificial pork-fat bubbliciousness.
The pain lessened during my current descent as it had when I was eight. What I was left with were fleeting palpitations and four minutes to survey the landscape. I had to admit, it was a beautiful sight. Everything below seemed so pristine and well demarcated. Fields, lakes, streets, homes It couldn’t have been more precisely rendered on the blueprints of the city planner. A feeling of weightlessness also contributed to the euphoria that was coming over me. When you are falling from such a distance, at such a speed, you hardly feel like you’re moving at all. It is hard to believe that you’d be hurt should you land without the parachute to decelerate. But this momentary incredulity is quickly dealt with. An eerie epiphanic realization had begun to rear its ugly head: Pleasure derived from extreme vantage points have the potential to be followed by extreme dread. The unnaturalness of my own place in the sky came to the foreground.
“How the hell could I land this,” I thought. The method of landing had been explained to me; at the moment before impact you “flare,” which is the thrusting downward of your steering guides. It causes the chute to tilt enabling you to slide onto your backside in one piece. Even though these instructions were, by this point, seared into my brain, it was the actual, mechanical execution of it that bothered me.
I explained my concern to the instructor. He responded with a sage bit of advice: “listen, you can’t think negatively of these things. If you go in with negative thoughts everything will go wrong. You know what you have to do when we get close to the ground. Just enjoy the glide.” It was good advice.
When we got within fifty feet of the ground there were no longer any optical illusions. We were coming down fast. Mentally, I went through the motions of pulling down the guiding lines. They were fairly simple instructions. It didn’t involve any fancy footwork or twisting of the body. I knew this, but shortly after “flaring,” when we should have just let our bodies naturally recline, I instinctively put my foot out as if to feel for earth. I caught the ground heel first but was able to pull my entire body back enough to slide safely. I could still feel the shock that shot through my leg from the initial contact, but it wasn’t anything serious. What was more uncomfortable was the earnest talking to the instructor gave me as we bundled up the chute. He repeated, “You can’t go into this expecting the worst. You have to be confident that what you know will get you through things. It is the only way you can enjoy life.”
Walking toward my adrenal-amped friends who had preceded me in jumping, I grasped what part of the instructor’s speech bothered me so much. It was his accusatory tone. I wasn’t “expecting the worst,” I wasn’t trying to be “negative;” I saw myself in a situation, saw the obstacle, and showed doubt as to how to surmount it. I hadn’t acquiesced to death before we hit the ground or forfeited my wits and self- determination, prematurely regressing to some bestial state. My foot shot out impulsively, anxiously. Was this involuntary action a lack of confidence in my ability to execute the landing procedure; fear, temporarily short-circuiting and bypassing conscious motor control; or an understandable reaction to a very real dilemma, impending earth? I chose the latter, hoping it would satisfy me because, as I assured myself, I am only concerned with what is real, not abstractions. The ground rushing to meet me was very real. Yet the old cliché that every pessimist claims to be a realist kept gnawing at me, as I embraced my aerial cohorts with a labored smile.
“Wasn’t that Great!” they asked, barely able to contain themselves. “I can’t believe we did it!”
Had my friends been scared about jumping out of the plane? Certainly. Theirs were the loudest cries, most in need of assurance and goading. Did they at anytime find the experience to be a surreal projection of a metaphysical dilemma? Was it considered a challenge that if unfulfilled, or crudely so, would weigh on their consciences? The cleverest catechism aside would fail to reveal the simplest truth: it was an experience to be had, not expounded on, not climactic denouement. It wasn’t revelatory, like a realist accepting that he is only ever defined by his distance from the optimist. But it was proof that the mindset that accompanies any experience does, for better or worse, affects it. Quibbling over what name best describes one’s outlook is meaningless because settling on a name accomplishes nothing. And if your outlook in no way contributes to your enjoyment of an experience, can it really be worth much? I have decided to incorporate this into my New Year’s resolution, so that the next time I partake in a little life-threatening diversion, live or die, at least I will have enjoyed the ride.