Review Feature

Skydiving: A life-affirming adventure

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We are who we choose to be.

If we consider ourselves the type of folks who just don't jump out of airplanes at 13,500 feet, for example, then that's who we choose to be.

But we're not necessarily cemented to that definition of ourselves. We can actually choose to be someone else. We can become someone who does jump out of airplanes, for example.

And if we can make that change, why, we can change anything we want about the way we view ourselves ... and yes, the way we view the world.

In a nutshell, that's what I learned from falling to earth at approximately 120 miles per hour in Taupo, New Zealand.

Last month, I went to the land of kiwi birds, kiwifruit and kiwifolks to vacation. Under normal circumstances, I prefer the kind of vacation where the most stressful and strenuous activity is to order another round of drinks from the poolside cocktail waitress. But for this trip, I decided to test myself.

Over the years, I have been invited to skydive with friends, and never hesitated to turn them down flat. "Nah, I'd have a heart attack and die before exiting the plane," I remember saying. And I meant it. From the center of my yellow-bellied, lily-livered soul.

I've been around long enough to know of the tenuous grasp all of us have on this physical plane. To me, purposefully subjecting yourself to sufficient anxiety to induce cardiac arrest or bouncing across the landscape with a malfunctioning parachute tied to your back had always seemed to fall under the heading of "Seriously Pushing Your Luck."

My change of heart on this topic no doubt had something to do with the fact that I was in New Zealand, my favorite place on the planet. In this land down under, tucked beneath the southwest corner of Australia, incredible things happen all the time. I've gone swimming with dolphins, cavorted with seals, made instant, lifelong friendships, and experienced more pure magic than anything ever conjured up by Siegfried and Roy.

New Zealand reminds me of how I viewed the world as a child. You feel safe and at home and at peace wherever you are. On top of that, legend has it that there are no animals, insects or underwater creatures that are dangerous to human beings in all of New Zealand. I believe that legend.

In other words, there is no safer place in the world to redefine yourself as someone who would, indeed, jump out of an airplane at 13,500 feet.

Leap of faith

OK, so maybe I didn't actually jump. Maybe I was pushed. And maybe I wasn't alone; maybe I was strapped butt-to-shoulder to a kiwi "tandem master," whose job is to do everything required of an actual skydiver in order to survive ... like pulling the ripcord before you hit the ground, knowing where the ripcord is, knowing the location of the backup ripcord, not floating into the maw of one of New Zealand's many active volcanoes, and other teensy little details like that.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Having accompanied some friends on their skydiving excursions in the Valley, I know that in the U.S., reputable skydiving outfits force the uninitiated to take two-hour classes three-fourths of which are dedicated to the crucial art of landing before allowing you to don your jumping gear.

Well, here's how the educational end of skydiving is handled in New Zealand: they hand you a jumpsuit, lead you to the plane, take you up 13,500 feet and, when it's your turn to hurl yourself into the air, the tandem master tells you to start scooting your rear end toward the plane's open door.

During this scoot, he hooks his jumpsuit and parachute hooks onto your jumpsuit and parachute hooks. When you're half out of the plane and seconds away from bodily flight, he says and this is all he says "Put your head back on my right shoulder."

End of instruction.

Falling into grace

It's odd. Within a fraction of a second after you've jumped or have been pushed from an airplane, all anxiety vanishes. It's as if your body, mind and spirit suddenly decide to go along with this outlandish commitment you've just made since there's nothing they can do about it.

Or perhaps your brains are so stunned by the incredible stupidity of what you've just done that it simply shuts down.

In either case, what happens is the exact opposite of what you expected to happen. While hurtling at the highest speed your vehicle-less body has ever

attained, toward rocks and trees and a myriad of other really hard things ... you are overwhelmed by peacefulness.

I've heard bout "living in the moment," but I did not fully understand the concept until I found myself in the midst of a 45-second free fall. Neither the past nor the future existed in this moment, nor did all their attendant regrets and worries and pains and other assorted luggage. There was nothing but THIS MOMENT, this serenity, this beauty, this joy ... all of which was so unexpected that I spent my whole life depriving myself of it.

We are who we choose to be, when we decide to take the jump.

How do I learn to skydive?

Jump? Out of an airplane? It really is a lot of fun. Here's how to go about making your first jump from a perfectly good airplane.

1. Do some background research. Learn a little about the sport (that's right, "look before you leap").

2. Decide on the training method. There is more than one way to make your first jump. You can make a tandem, static line, or accelerated freefall jump. Each method has its own costs and particulars. Some involve a First Jump Course which is about 6 hours long; others involve only a 30 to 60 minute briefing. Some involve freefall on the first jump, others do not. And some involve a solo canopy descent where you alone fly the parachute to the ground with ground-to-air radio assistance.

3. Locate a reputable skydiving center, or drop zone fondly referred to among skydivers as a "DZ." In the United States, you want a DZ that has a group membership with the United States Parachute Association. Other countries have their skydiving organizations.

4. Find some friends to go with you. It'll be more fun to go with a group. If you're a college student, see if your university has a skydiving club.

5. Set a date. You know how it goes ... If you set a date in advance you'll be more likely to follow through and make your first jump. Plan ahead. And let the DZ know you're coming.

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