30 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 10)

(cont'd from previous post)

Maybe that last statement was a little extreme. If I ever managed to conquer my fear of jumping out of an airplane—which b/t/w I have absolutely no inclination to do—, I would no longer be ashamed of myself. I would have something to be proud of. Fine: eliminate the emotional stimulus (i.e., the terror) by conquering it and, thus, eliminate the shame and self-loathing. But that is not what happened. Denial gets me nowhere, though it does throw up a certain challenge. And, as indicated by the David Foster Wallacean subtitle to this series of posts, I intend never to not jump again.

Still, it lingers.

By not going through the door of that perfectly functional airplane at a height of 14,000ft., I got to know some of my limitations (thanks again Jeff and Harry), one of which is this basic flaw in my make-up: a paralyzing terror of precarious heights. I felt ashamed of this fault in my nature. I was angry at myself and I hated this feeling of humiliation.

So that was my situation, and such is my condition.

There are, I suppose, any number of possible models for dealing with such stark negative emotions that are inescapable in the human condition:
  • I can internalize the self-loathing and become depressed and despair at this human-all-too-human infliction (Kierkegaard's profound analysis of modernity in The Sickness Unto Death);
  • I can somehow get rid of myself, or at least the particular aspect of myself that caused all these bad feelings  (i.e., somewhere on a scale from suicide (a time-honored response to shame and loss of face) to fundamental change a la conversion (the Christian response) or analysis (the Freudian));
  • I can become recklessly adventurous and engage in self-destructive behaviors (a subset of the previous option) (again, time honored);
  • I can get up the gumption to try to skydive again, determined to actually succeed this time—maybe this time using Xanax or some other pharmaceutical/technological therapeutic fix to get me through it (ditto);
  • I can try to forget about it or deny its significance (until, if Freud is to be believed, this repressed reasserts itself in another, inconvenient context);
  • I can try to hide the fact of my own weakness and ridicule or attack others in whom I recognize a similar fallibility or whom I perceive to be even weaker, becoming misanthropic;
  • I can accept my limitations for what they are (the stoic, Jeffian/Callahan view) and try to draw life lessons from them (i.e., be philosophic) and perhaps even make art out them (the fiction writer's response);
  • I can just go on (Beckett's solution).
  • I can forgive myself (similar to, but distinct from, the two options above and, IMHO, much more difficult);
  • Or some combination of any or all of the above.
The bottom line: the negative emotions terror, shame, hate, and anger together produce a complex, potentially toxic stew that must be handled with care and, perhaps, some degree of wisdom.

(to be continued)

23 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 9)

(cont'd from previous post)

Let me elaborate on that last statement a bit. I ended the last post by saying: "And as bad a feeling as terror is, shame is even worse." Why is that?

Fear, generally, is an emotional response to something external—often something in nature. When proportional to the stimulus, or cautionary, it is understandable. It is situational. Concrete. It can be explained evolutionarily, instinctually. It is part of our animal nature as human beings.

My own experience was more profound, even neurotic. What I experienced was more powerful than my conscious, rational mind. It overcame, overwhelmed me. It paralyzed me. I had no control over it. I couldn't conquer it. It was such a bad feeling I knew I never wanted to experience it again. Yet, paradoxically, this did not provide me sufficient motivation to overcome it and simply push through the door.

There's nothing controversial there. Warriors know this and seek to induce terror in their enemies: if you cause your adversary to panic and flee the field of battle, you prevail.

But, again, however exaggerated, my own feeling of terror was a fear of something: I was terrified of falling from a great height—parachute and parachute-buddy or no.

The subsequent embarrassment I felt is a different story altogether. Where fear is outward directed, shame is self-directed. Shame is a more general emotion. Its dynamic includes such feelings as self-loathing, image-consciousness, disgust at one's vulnerabilities, perhaps even grief over one's limitations.

In my case, though set off situationally—namely by my own cowardice—it was much more existential. It was a negative emotional response to the negative emotional reaction of fear. (And in this case, two negatives don't make a positive; they double down.) I was ashamed of being afraid; and since it was I who had experienced terror, it was I of whom I was ashamed.

The situational fear would soon be allayed: the stimulus would be removed: the airplane door would be closed, and I would be once again on solid ground. I, however, the person who had experienced this profound sense of terror and could not conquer it, could not so easily be removed; I had to live with myself. And my shame.

[Without getting too analytic here, it bears remarking that perhaps I couldn't overcome my own panic simply because I didn't want to; I liked the let's call it 'ecstatic' feeling of being out of control; I failed to conquer my fear because I like the feeling of failure; I succumbed to the terror because I wanted to wallow in my own shame. Any or all of the above may or may not be the case, but that's a discussion between me and my analyst—or at least something to work out dramatically through the characters in my fiction—which, by the way, is pretty much the psychoanalytic crux of the protagonist's situation in my still-unagented and, thus, still-unpublished novel, EULOGY. Sorry for the "shameless" plug. That being said, as the subtitle to this series of posts indicates, I'll never not parachute again: I will either go up and jump no matter what, or I'll not go up.]

So, what is the learning here? What the wisdom? The take away, as they say? With regard to fear, once you remove the stimulus, you extinguish the emotion. Not so much with respect to shame; it is deeper-rooted, self-referential: to extinguish it, you must first somehow remove yourself.

And that is what I meant. Shame is a worse—more lingering, more dreadful—emotion even than terror.

(to be continued)

21 September 2009

Thyraphobia, Or Purity of Heart Is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 8)

(cont'd from previous post)

Without getting all meta on you, you can see from the dates that it took me a full week to draft the last couple of posts in this series. There are many reasons for that and not a few excuses. Bottom line: these were hard posts to draft. The facts themselves were memorable and easily recalled, but it was the embarrassment, the memory of being unable to conquer my own fear, admit it to myself, and attempt to understand it that held me back from committing it to writing and publishing it on the internet.

But no, bottom line: I did not jump. I was scared. And I couldn't get past it.

There it is. I've admitted my cowardice in writing. To my shame, I've confronted my own lack of courage publicly.

Why was it so hard?

Fear is a bad feeling—not the evolutionarily healthy sort of 'be wary of danger' fear that causes us humans to be alert to our circumstances and cautions us to take care what we're doing or where we're stepping in response to real stimuli. Fact is, I should've felt a certain amount of fear there at that door. The pros told me they did, every time. That's the good type of fear, a positive feeling—the intrusion of consciousness. The fear I'm talking about is the wild, neurotic panic I felt as I stared out that open door looking straight down two miles to the ground, even with a parachutist strapped to my back. It was a paralyzing terror that welled up from some place deep in my unconscious and took over my rational self. That's what made it so scary: I had no control over my own feelings. It was too intense for my body. And I did not want to experience that feeling again.

No one likes to confront bad feelings, much less dwell on them by writing about them.

But, believe it or not, there was more: an even worse feeling, if you can imagine.

After the other brave souls had jumped, I sat next to Andy on the floor behind the pilot's seat. The only thing I could say, at first, was "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I repeated it over and over, my forehead resting on my my hand. I don't know whom I was apologizing to—maybe myself. Was I sorry he didn't get the chance to jump? Was I sorry for taking up space on the plane and blocking the door? Was I sorry I couldn't get a grip on my own terror? Probably some of all three.

He told me to hold on and be prepared to equalize the pressure in my sinuses just as the plane banked and dove back toward the airport. I felt the pressure building up and felt nauseated. I pinched my nose and blew out (a scuba diving skill, by the way) and the feeling immediately subsided.

Andy and I talked on the way down about his wife, who is a commercial pilot and a writer, and his day job as a lawyer.

When we landed, I think the people who were camped in the mouth of the hangar were surprised to see someone get off the plane—or maybe that's why they came in the first place: that same sort of prurience that brings people to NASCAR racing. One man, the guy who first mentioned the fear of the door, came over and told me that he 'chickened out' his first time, too, and that now skydiving is his favorite thing to do. "You just have to force yourself through that door."

"You think you'll want to try it again?" he said.

"I doubt it."

Then I saw Jeff, the blond Jeff who, in our conversation, managed to repeat his Dirty Harry bromide: "Man's got to know his limitations."

"Then I guess I've learned one of mine," I said.

All this—the kind gestures, the sympathizing words (prurient or not)—was meant, I assume, to make me feel better about myself. The folks I spoke to were genuinely nice, including the instructors. But it didn't work. I specifically did not feel better about myself. I felt shame. I had let myself down. I paraded my humiliation through the crowd of onlookers who I know must've been talking about how I'd just come out of the plane.

And as bad a feeling as terror is, shame is even worse.

(to be continued)

14 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 7)

(cont'd from previous post)

Besides the pilot, there were thirteen of us squatting on the bare floor of the twin-engine's fuselage—five tandems and two solo jumpers and the jackass videographer who sat on a bench at the back of the plane (like the guy with the red helmet in the picture accompanying the first post). The stupid thing, though I didn't quite realize it at the time, was my getting in last. That meant I was sitting right next to the door. The Door. He Thyra. (I was sitting on the floor right where the guy the back of whose head you can see in the same photo is.)

I was reasonably calm as the engine revved, the plane taxied, and took off. I've flown hundreds of times in all sorts of aircraft. I watched out the side door as we left the ground and climbed sharply. So far, so good. I was going to make it, despite the rattling of the plane as it took off. I was going to do this.

The thing about these smaller jump planes is they attain altitude very quickly; the jump company advertises 14,000 feet in seven minutes. Out the Plexiglas door I could see the airport receding quickly into the distance. Then we banked—to the door side. I found myself leaning against the hull of the plane as we spiraled upward. Then, then, the video guy, for whatever reason, decided to roll the door up. All of a sudden there was nothing between me and ground. I felt like I was going to be sucked right out of the plane. It was an irrational feeling but very real. I was looking straight down—about a mile at this point—at the tiny airstrip.

My body tensed up. I braced my foot against the thin door frame and pushed back. I reached for something to grab onto but could find nothing. I reached up and put my hand against the bare wall. It was small comfort.

"You okay?" Andy said.


"You're hooked in," he whispered.

I looked down at the floor but couldn't see a seat belt or where any part of my harness was connected to the floor of the plane. Nary a clip or carabiner in sight. I pushed away from the door. Given the angle of our climb and the steepness of our bank, the only thing I could think of was being sucked out of that open door. And yet I knew I wasn't going to be: that was the frustrating part.

After some apparently covert motions behind me by Andy, the videographer slid the door closed.

"Hey, why'd you do that?" someone shouted sounding suspiciously like Wisdommy. "It's hot in here."

The video guy just shook his head in what looked like disgust.

I ignored him and closed my eyes, took several deep slow breaths, tried to slow my racing heart rate, and relax. After a moment I had regained what I felt was control and I opened my eyes. I convinced myself I had conquered this thing now and was going to do this thing.

"Okay, I'm hooking my harness to you," Andy said. "One, two, three, four. Four places. This is going to be fun."

I heard the clips click into place. I could see how comforting that sound is and how important it was for the instructor to verbalize what he was doing. "Great," I said, but I did not mean it entirely.

We reached our jump altitude: 14,000 feet. The plane, obviously, was not pressurized. Fourteen thousand feet is the highest you're allowed to fly in an unpressurized cabin without oxygen. Now, I've been at 11,000 feet before, on the lip of Nyiragongo Volcano in what is now the Congo, without oxygen, and I had a touch of altitude sickness: weakness in the gut and legs, difficulty breathing, difficulty walking, lightheadedness, that sort of thing. It was possible I was feeling a bit of that in the plane I told myself. And still had every intention of exiting the plane through the door at altitude.

"It's time! Everybody ready?" the videographer said as he rolled the door up again. Laughing heartily, he swung out the opening so he could perch just outside the door and film everyone leaving the doorway.

And again, despite my best efforts, the panic struck. I was paralyzed. My body stiffened up again; every muscle seized up tight. It was almost like I had been working out and overdone it; I ached all over. Terror had taken me over and would not let me go.

"I can't do this," I said to Andy.

"Sure you can. I've done this over a thousand times and have never had an incident. It'll be great. Look, let's just get up and go to the door, and then you can make up your mind." He knew what he was doing. We would get there, I would be shamed into not backing out, the muscle memory of the mechanics we had practiced in the hangar would kick in, he would add just a few foot-pounds of energy, there would be some awkward leaning, some pain in my hamstrings, and out we would plunge.

"No," I said. "I can't."

"Are you sure? It's perfectly safe."

"Yeah, I know. But I just can't do it. Send everybody else around us."

"You can't get your money back," he said as he motioned for the others to go on. "You paid for the trip up. How you get down is your choice."

I knew that. I didn't care.

There was some grumbling because the others had to crabwalk around us hooked in tandem, and we were quickly leaving the drop zone. As soon as Andy unhitched me, I went to the back of the plane and sat on the videographer's bench to get out of everyone else's way.

I watched first as Wisdommy then Wisdaughter and lastly Wisdoc got to the door and leapt, shrieking out attached, of course, to their tandem buddies. I had no worries for their safety. I knew in my mind every reasonable precaution had been taken. Lots of people did this every single day. I firmly believed they would enjoy their two minutes of freefall and their eight or ten minutes of floating and would land softly at the airstrip. Elated. A new experience under their belts to brag about to their friends (and put up on Facebook). But I also knew I couldn't do it.

And I didn't.

(to be continued)

07 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 6)

(cont'd from previous posts)

"A Bit of Occidental Foolishness"

We heard the plane's engine chug to life. Then came the announcement that it was our turn to board. Our instructors/tandem buddies found us on the sofas and escorted us out toward the plane. I squirmed uncomfortably in my jumpsuit and too-snug harness. One older guy who was sitting with the crowd of observers must've seen me struggling with my "junk". He stopped me as we walked by and told me not to worry, it would feel better once I got out of the plane.

"Great," I said tugging at my crotch. "Thanks."

"And besides," he said, "the pinching'll help take your mind off the door."

I had no idea what he was talking about, and it probably showed in my face.

"Oh, some of the guys have a name for it: they call it fear of the door," he said. "It happens to some people. They see the door and just can't go through it. It's a real thing."

"Puh," I snorted, impatient and annoyed at the same time, the suggestion having been firmly planted. Was this guy reading my mind?

"Don't worry," Andy (my tandem partner) said, cutting the man (who'd apparently had a couple of bloody Mary's already that morning) off and taking my elbow and pushing me on toward the waiting plane, "in all the time I've been here, we've only had one or two people who couldn't jump."

Couldn't. Good to know.

Just then I saw Jeff (of the long, Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque, blond hair) and his group returning from the drop zone. They were clearly jazzed. Jeff had loved it and swore he was going to do it again. Of course, he said, it was a little scary at first. His wife (whose dyed blond hair was nowhere near as beautiful as his), beaming, echoed his sentiment. "I was really scared, but it was so much fun," she said. She didn't regret it in the least. "Good luck," Jeff said. "Just do it." Guy had a thing for cliches.

It being her birthday, we'd engaged a videographer to record Wisdaughter's jump. [And yes it's up on Facebook with some awful Southern rock music in the background, but no I'm not going to tell you where you can find it, thank you very much.] He was a big, enthusiastic old boy, cracking wise as he filmed us climbing the three steps up into the plane's fuselage. Thumbs up and all that. After all the interruptions on the way to the plane, Andy and I were the last tandem to get into the plane. As I entered, last but for the camera guy, I pretended to bang my head on the low top of the door. The Door. "Ouch," I winced, rubbing my forehead and mugging for the camera. Giggles and moans and grins all around. "Stop clowning around, Dad. Let's go." My kids're so onto me.

I told myself that bit of slapstick would take their minds off what was about to happen. Who was I kidding? I was working hard to suppress what I knew was coming—the fears of a clown.

(to be continued)

04 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 5)

(cont'd from previous post)

We suited up and stepped into our harnesses. The harnesses loop tightly around your upper thighs then fasten around your waist and shoulders to keep you from falling forward and out of them.

I spoke with Wisdaughter's dive-buddy, let's call him 'Joey' (he might be a grad student at GIT), and asked about jumping accidents they'd had at the facility. He told me the very harnesses we were just then strapping on were of recent design and had been implemented when the aforementioned paraplegic had somehow passed out on a tandem dive and flipped down and, due to a lack of lower body muscle control, out of his harness. The new design, which loops tightly around your thighs, purportedly keeps you from doing just that. I credited Joey for his forthrightness, explaining that I had researched the very topic of accidents at the dive facility and was wondering just how someone, -plegic or not, could conceivably have fallen out of a tandem harness. He then went through an elaborate pantomime of the incident, taking care to demonstrate how it simply couldn't happen again. Safety and all that.

My dive-buddy, let's call him 'Andy', is a lawyer in Atlanta. He gets his jollies, and supplements his income, by jumping on the weekends. He was very reassuring. He'd done over 1500 jumps without anything anywhere near an incident, he told me. I told him I didn't want to swing around or go up and over the canopy once we'd deployed our chute. I wanted to hang straight underneath it for the spiral down. He looked a bit disappointed (or that's how I interpreted his look) but agreed. That's the best I could do, I felt the need to explain.

Perhaps sensing my trepidation—the terror in my eyes? the quaver in my voice?—he asked me to practice the specific mechanics of the door—The Door!—exit there on the carpet in the dressing room several times. This, I suspect (principally because none of the others in my group was requested to go through the same motions), was his attempt to have me achieve, behaviorally and physically, what, unbeknownst to him, Wisdoc had managed to achieve, inwardly and psychically, in her own door dream—namely, to give me an outward mechanism, i.e., a set of specific set of uncomfortable tasks, to focus on that would distract me and make me forget about whatever inner turmoil it was he intuited I might have been experiencing.

Fortunately or un-, as the case may be, I do have an inner life, and quite an exquisite one from all indications. That is to say, one not so easily lulled or gulled.

As we were rehearsing our exits, tatooed, spiky-haired instructor Jeff came over and announced that there was some sort of glitch with the plane, and they had to shut off its engines. That meant we would have to wait half-an-hour before they would be able to restart it. So we plopped on one of the shabby sofas in front of a big-screen television and watched jump DVDs of members of the groups that had already completed their jumps. There was lots of screaming and joking around and bad, loud rock music in the background. The participants enjoyed watching themselves on the television. One of them, a woman "of a certain age" with bottle-blond hair, bee-stung lips, Botoxed cheeks, too much expensive jewelry, and long, shiny nails, told us how this was going up on her Facebook page so her step-daughter who lived in Colorado could see it and be proud of her. She told us how this was her first time and how scared she'd been at the door, but how she'd been with her husband whose hobby skydiving is and just gone ahead and jumped anyway and Voila! there she was doing it on the big screen.

I had trouble hearing what she was saying; the music on the video was blaring through huge speakers, my jumpsuit was hot, and my harness was pinching my balls. Yet there was no escaping the inevitable inference: if she could do it, anybody could.

And thus down was the psychic gauntlet flung.

(to be continued)

02 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 4)

(cont'd from previous posts)

I'll be the first to admit I've always had a bit of acrophobia—but only at certain kinds of heights. Walking across a swinging suspension bridge, for example, or being stuck atop a stopped, rickety ferris wheel, or riding up that clanking climb on the first hill of a roller coaster: those sorts of things make me a bit panicky. Not flying in a jet plane, though, nor being inside a tall building, nor going up in the Arch in St. Louis.

[Sidebar: Oddly, I used to get a little queasy standing on the observation deck atop the old World Trade Center when we would entertain out-of-town guests in NYC—which was the only time we ever did those sorts of touristy things—but never up on the Empire State Building. The WTC felt like it was swaying with the wind, which, of course, it was as was the Citicorp Center where I used to work on like the 60th floor which itself would visibly sway in a strong wind. Sometimes at night the swaying would cause doors in empty offices to slam shut because of the counterweighted movement—and yeah, it was kind of spooky say at about 3 a.m. late on a Sunday night when I had a Monday a.m. deadline and nobody was even in the whole building much less on my floor and I was just a little delirious in the first place from a weekend's sleep deprivation. On a further side note, I also used to wonder what would happen if one of the Twin Towers toppled over whenever I would walk under them which was every day for several years while I was in law school (but that's a post for another day. They just seemed so precarious. Naturally, I just chalked it up to projecting my own acrophobia onto those inanimate duoliths [Note to self: Good research topic for causes/motivations of 9/11 masterminds having chosen the WTC's as target? Did they experience the same sort of emotional reaction at some point in the past and have a destructive rather than a phobic projective urge? Gives one pause.]).]
Anyway. The point is I'm exquisitely aware of my acrophobic tendencies, and I take active steps to allay my fear. (1) Whenever possible, I avoid. I would never, for instance, attempt to walk a tightrope or take a job walking iron. I don't rockclimb—though I'll hitch up and go to one of those fake climbing walls and shinny right on up to the top and ring the bell (though I have to admit the first time I tried I got halfway up and froze and had to come down just to test how well I was belayed). And (2) I cope. I close my eyes and use yoga breathing and relaxation techniques I learned in drama class and during college. Sometimes I even try to visualize, you know, a happy place sort of thing, too. And usually it works.

Fact is prior to my attempt at skydiving, as I said, I'd been fairly successful at overcoming my acrophobia (that is conquering my panics), primarily because my panicked responses had been proportional to the stimuli—and the stimuli had been relatively mild. I don't freak out on roller coasters or ferris wheels or well-built suspension bridges. I grab on to something—a rope, a rail—, I suck it up, and go on, often even enjoying the experience.

But it's more than a feeling we're talking about here or a mild fright; a panic attack is an overpowering physical sensation. Hell, George Orwell devised an entire system of societal control based solely on the inducement of it: Room 101. And David Chase created six award-winning seasons of premium American pay-TV based on one character's inability to deal with his own unmotivated experience of it. It's disorienting. Discombobulating.

Just so we know what we're talking about here, the DSM IV lists the diagnostic criteria for a panic attack as follows:
A discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which four (or more) of the following symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes:
  1. palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. sweating
  3. trembling or shaking
  4. sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. feeling of choking
  6. chest pain or discomfort
  7. nausea or abdominal distress
  8. feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  9. derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  10. fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. fear of dying
  12. paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
  13. chills or hot flushes
And, knowing all this, I decided I was man enough to challenge my own phobia and the debilitating panic it induced in me, amp up the stimuli to the extreme, and attempt to skydive.

(to be continued)

01 September 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 3)

(cont'd from previous post)

I didn't. I did not march my two beloved children out the door and forbid them from jumping out of a perfectly functional airplane. I was, I suppose, afraid I'd incur their noisy resentment (and louder resistance) and look like an idiot—especially since I'd already agreed to it and PREPAID (sneaky thing that!). At some primitive level I was torn between the urge to protect my cubs—which, by the way, is a very powerful instinct, right up there with self-preservation—and my normal rational self. I knew that thousands of people skydive safely every day, and we were going to jump in tandem with experienced professionals. That thought—and the promise I'd made to my kids—carried the day.

One other thing: that morning, Wisdoc had awoken and said she'd been dreaming about jumping, and, after declaring she had no desire to do it, had changed her mind, and that she, too, wanted to jump. She said she simply saw herself in her dream going through the door over and over and eventually falling safely to the ground. So she was on board to jump now as well. Talk about the power of the unconscious.

We filled out our forms and went through a brief orientation session with "Jeff". Jeff had wild, spiky hair and piercings and tatoos up and down his legs and arms and something like 5,000 jumps under his belt. He was not an adrenaline junky, he swore. He was clean and sober too, he said through bleary eyes—all the instructors there were, even though it was Sunday morning. He said it was perfectly normal to be afraid of jumping. In fact, it would be abnormal not to be a little apprehensive. Everybody, even the instructors who did multiple jumps every day, was. "Fear makes you careful," he said. "Believe me," he said, "none of us are (sic) suicidal."

On the carpet there in the waiting room, we practiced the motions we would need to do to exit the door of the plane and the jutting belly and arched back posture we would need to maintain during freefall. And we met the people who would be clipped to our backs for the ride down and pull the chutes at the appropriate time. So far, so good.

After orientation we had about an hour to mingle with other jumpers. I struck up a conversation with guy in a scuba diving tee shirt. He looked to be about sixty, but he had the truest, smoothest blond hair I've ever seen—even his mustache and goatee and eyebrows. His hair cascaded in gentle locks down below his shoulders. His skin was smooth and hairless and as tanned red as the laces on a baseball. He looked like he could've been a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. He said he walked iron, which I interpreted to mean he worked construction on skyscrapers—not a job I could ever do, though I did work construction on a twelve-story hospital the year I dropped out of college. I think his name was Jeff, too.

This Jeff and I talked about our favorite places to scuba dive and then about our fears of skydiving. He told me he'd never done it before, but his wife and daughter (who were there with him) had given him a certificate to do so for his birthday. Eventually I asked the question that had been preying on me: "What do you do if you get to the door and decide you just can't jump?" He thought about it a moment and pulled his hair back into a temporary pony tail with both hands and said something so ridiculously cliched I nearly sputtered. He said, quoting "Dirty Harry" and, I suppose, the wisdom of his colleagues who walked the iron-framed skyscraper shells: "Man's got to know his limitations."

But I didn't laugh. I looked him in his crystal-clear blue eyes and saw how sincere he was. I nodded to his experience. It sounded like a statement he'd earned somehow—though I didn't ask. "I guess that's what it is," I said turning my head to look out the mouth of the hangar at the latest group of returning jumpers. Just at that moment a voice on the loudspeaker called his group to suit up. They were the jumpers immediately ahead of us. "See you when you get down," I said. "Good luck."

Clearly the fear had its grips on me.

(to be continued)