Free Fallin’

I had the incredible opportunity to go skydiving again yesterday, and it was, once again, awesome. After my first experience, I received the very generous and much appreciated gift of a second Groupon, and so I wanted to go again as soon as possible.

I had two goals the second time around: I wanted, now that I knew the logistics of how it worked, to go again while all of that was still fresh in my mind to be able to focus more on the actual experience, and I wanted pictures under the parachute.

I had a photographer the first time during the dive, but since he was jumping with us he only got pictures of the free fall portion and the landing; none of the parachute portion of the descent. This time, my dad was kind enough to come with me and get pictures from the ground, and, as you’ll see, did an incredible job.

The picture at the top isn’t me, by the way, I went on Saturday and took some pictures of my friends the Thomsons and some other people just so that I could talk my dad through the best places to stand, etc., for my jump yesterday. The picture above is my favorite of the ones I took that day.

The ones below are what my dad took, starting with one right after we came out of the plane with the drogue chute deployed, and going through landing.

It was a somewhat different experience this time; at least as awesome but in a different way. I jumped with the same trainer, so I knew how he did things, but he also changed things up a bit since it was my second jump.

One goal we both had in common this time was that he also wanted me to relax more and focus on the experience. On the “downside,” it meant that my second jump didn’t have quite the same adrenaline rush that the first one did. I remember shaking a little while standing right after landing the first time; that wasn’t the case this time.

After we jumped this time Jamie turned us over so that we watched the airplane for a little bit before turning face-down again. At times I would close my eyes and just focus on feeling it, looking for an awareness of g-forces, but really the wind is all you’re aware of. Not as peaceful as other free-fall experiences I’ve had, but awesome in its own right.

Another diver stayed near us for a while, but then fell another half-mile after we opened our chute before deploying his. It was freaky watching from above as he plummeted to the ground; it gave me a perspective of the speeds involved that I didn’t have before.

The instructor did a bit more while we were under canopy this time, including some corkscrew turns, which were a lot of fun.

I’m hugely blessed that I got to go again and grateful for the opportunity, thankful to my dad for the pictures, the Thomsons for sharing their passion with me, Skydive Alabama for an incredibly professional operation and Jamie for being an awesome instructor

In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, it’s an incredible experience, and I highly recommend it.

Regular Richie Feature

what's in my pockets...

Image by Ѕolo via Flickr

Once again, search strings that have brought people to “Stories In My Pocket” over the course of the last month.

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Review — “The Grace of God” by Andy Stanley

“The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” For some, this can be a difficult truth to understand. At times, God is spoken of almost as if He’s two different beings — a harsh and angry God in the Old Testament, a merciful and loving God in the New. Pastor Andy Stanley explores the Bible as one continuous narrative, telling the story of just one God: a god of Grace.

Stanley tackles a very large subject in this book, and handles it in a way that focuses on making it accessible. “The Grace of God” selects a handful of Biblical high-points from both the Old and New Testaments, and delves into them in a way that shows how, even when it’s not obvious, these stories are ultimately stories of God’s grace, and how they are all part of one ongoing story.

If the book has a shortcoming, it’s that, in making “The Grace of God” easily accessible and understood, it avoids some of the more challenging events of the Old Testament. This doesn’t mean that the book is superficial, however, only selective — even for mature Christians, the book will challenge readers to view what they think they know from a new perspective. (Note: I received a review copy of this book through Booksneeze.)

“The Grace of God” on Booksneeze

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Steve Jobs

This is one of those times when, for all my skills as a writer, my own words are woefully inadequate, and the best I can do is borrow from those better than I.

“DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say Steve Jobs is dead.
“Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is Steve Jobs gone?

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see online. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Steve Jobs. He exists as certainly as intuition and genius and innovation exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Steve Jobs. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, not even in sense and sight. The eternal light with which creativity fills the world would be extinguished.

Believe Steve Jobs is dead! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch at Infinite Loop for Steve Jobs, but even if they did not see Steve Jobs coming in, what would that prove? You may not see Steve Jobs yourself, but that is no sign that there is no Steve Jobs. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the iPhone and see what processor it has inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that reality distortion field and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Steve Jobs dead?! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of the crazy ones.

The Living Room Frontier

Sputnik iPhone case by Zazzle. Click image for more info.

Let’s get this out of the way to begin with — I love the iPhone. Like, a lot. OK?

But …

It’s also what’s wrong with the world. As Paul Simon wrote, “You are the burden of my generation. I sure do love you, but let’s get that straight.”

Yesterday was October 4.

For a lot of people, myself included, it was the day Apple made the iPhone 4S announcement.

For some other people, myself included, it was the anniversary of the beginning of the Space Age, the date on which, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

Fifty-four years apart, two technological high-water marks.

Two technological high-water marks showing just how much the world has changed.

Back then, the frontier was the future. The goal was to go — to make the world a smaller place by bringing it closer together. Innovation was rockets to reach for the stars, and cars that looked like rockets to travel the country and airplanes to do it faster. The greatest manifestation of man’s ability was a space program that would reach into the unknown. As Kennedy would say five years later, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

We live today in an age in which we instead organize and measure the best of our energies and skills around the iPhone and its like.

The goal today is still to make our worlds smaller, not by connecting it, but by disconnecting it. We want better telephones and better televisions and better networks so that I can experience the world without leaving the comfort of my home.

Today, our frontier is no longer the unknown, but the living room.

I love my iPhone.

But I regret not living in a world in which our goal is not to increase our comfort, but to say, as Kennedy did, “And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Where is your frontier?

Falling And Flying

Coincidentally, Groupon started running the same offer I bought this morning. Between now and Thursday night, you can buy a deal to go skydiving for less than half price! I strongly recommend it!

“Funny how falling feels like flying, for a little while.” — Bad Blake, “Crazy Heart”

“Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation …
Or is it the wind?
There really is a lot of that now isn’t it?
And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like … ow … ound … round … ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!
I wonder if it will be friends with me?” — Douglas Adams, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’d been working for NASA a little over half a year when I took my first business trip with the agency. I’d only flown three times in my entire life at that point, the first when I was too young to remember it. So I was a little nervous. Not scared, just nervous.

As a result, I prayed wholeheartedly as we were preparing to take off, and then again as we were preparing to land. Praying for safely, commending my soul, praying for those who loved me, and so forth.

Over the years, I’ve become a little more confident, and, while I still pray both prayers any time I fly, they’ve evolved to three words each — “Lord, safe flight” and “Lord, safe landing.”

It was very weird Saturday being in an airplane, saying “Lord, safe flight” and realizing that I wouldn’t be in the plane still for landing. OK, that’s different.

This, then, is my skydiving story.

I’ve been thinking about going for quite a while, almost two years now. I tried on and off last year to get someone to go with me. Then, earlier this year, Groupon ran a half-price deal that needed to be used by the end of the year.

My friends Henry and Cydney Thomson said they were going this past weekend, so I decided I’d waited for the perfect time long enough, and it wasn’t getting any more perfect than that.

We met at Skydive Alabama early that morning, and I went through the brief training. I was going to be doing a tandem dive, strapped to an experienced skydiver, so there was very little you need to know. I was constantly surprised during the course of the day at how easy it was.

That’s our airplane. I’ve heard people say of skydiving, why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Well, if you’ll notice, that’s not a perfectly good airplane. It has a giant hole in the side!

(And, yes, it did have a transparent door that rolled down during flight when we weren’t jumping.)

Next, we suited up in our flight suits and put on our harnesses. For the Thomsons, who are experienced solo divers, that included their parachutes. My harness, on the other hand, only had the connections where I would be hooked to the trainer. I joked with them as they were putting on their ‘chutes, “Hey, should I have one of those?” So we decided we needed a picture of us from the rear, with their parachutes and my empty harness.

“Two out of three people who skydive would do it again!”

Finally, it’s time to board the plane. And, let me say, the skydiving flightsuits (“Jumpsuits”?) were about as flattering an outfit as I’ve worn.

I don’t think I have any pictures from the inside of the plane, but we were rather tightly packed in. Of course, you’re *very* closely connected to your trainer, strapped together at the hips and chest.

I had known that one of my former coworkers in the education department at Marshall was a skydiving trainer, but hadn’t really given it much thought until I heard that morning that he was going to be there. By the time I found out, I’d already been assigned to someone else. And, frankly, I was OK with that. I like Eddie and all, but feel like if I were going to be that intimately connected with another guy, I’d just as soon it be a stranger.

And then, we were in the air, and, soon the door was open.

And at that point, I became nervous. Not scared, but nervous. And here’s why:

Two years ago, I went camping, rock-climbing and hiking with my friends the Sneeds. And during the hiking at Little River Canyon, we came across a pool where there was a rope swing.

See the guy in the red shorts? That’s me. I thought it would be fun to jump into the water from the rope swing, and so I climbed over to it, found it, grabbed it tightly, and prepared to jump.

And couldn’t.

For the life of me, I just couldn’t do it. My excuse is that I thought I would mess it up, that I would let go to soon and fall on the rocks, or that I would let go too late and swing back into the cliff Wile E. Coyote style. But, for whatever reason, I couldn’t do it.

That moment was in my head when I started talking about skydiving. It was in my head when I bought the Groupon. It was in my head all morning Saturday, and it was very much in my head when they opened the door. OK, this is it — I have to go from being inside an airplane to outside the airplane, over two miles up. Can I actually do it?

And the answer is, I didn’t have to, thankfully.

When it was our turn to go, we made our way to the door. I sat in the door with my legs hanging out of the plane, and my trainer was behind me. Basically, he sort of lifted up so that, since I was strapped to him, I was still on the plane, but no longer touching it, and he was in control.

One second we were on the plane…

… and the next we weren’t.

The first thought I remember was just relief at that; I was successfully off the plane, and didn’t freeze up. It was done.

Next was the awareness of the feeling, the acceleration, the adrenaline, the wind.

Third was the conscious decision to look down and sort of process the fact that I was falling toward the ground through thin air from two miles up. That’s different, you know?

You can see our cameraman in that picture, taken from the plane right after we jumped. He took this next one just slightly later:

Pretty quickly, we deployed the small drogue chute seen in this next picture. Basically, it slowed us down so that we were falling at the same rate as the cameraman, since otherwise we would have the same drag but twice the weight. Once that was out, we were all falling at terminal velocity for a free-falling person through air — about 120 miles per hours.

I really wish I could do justice to that almost-minute of free-fall. It went by so quickly, and I was so focused on logistics, and then the cameraman, that I never really acclimated. Next time I do it, my goal is to really focus on what that experience is like, beyond being incredibly exciting.

I’ve talked to people who say they couldn’t do it because they’re scared of heights, but, for me, at that altitude, it really doesn’t register as heights. I find there’s a point where there’s a disconnect. I can get nervous driving over a really tall river bridge, but be perfectly fine flying in a plane over the same bridge. Jumping out of the plane, we were so high that it didn’t feel like we were that high, and by the time we got low enough that it registered as a height, I’d been on the chute so long I felt safe.

The camera man came right up to us to get some close-up shots of us, and got close enough that we were actually able to do a high-five as we were falling, permanently giving that term a whole new meaning for me. In fact, it’s probably safer from here on out to just never talk about high-fives to me, lest I make some snarky remark about how we need to be another couple miles up.

I love this shot, it and one taken at almost the same time are my favorites. That said, it bothered me at first how much you can see in these pictures, like the high-five one, that the skin on my face is being blown around, particularly considering that the other guy seems completely unaffected. Do I really have that much more fat or loose skin on my face? I don’t notice it normally. Thankfully, as I was getting self-conscious watching the video later with the Thomson, they pointed out that he’s in my wake, and I’m blocking the wind from his face. Whew.

And, of course, despite the fact that I’m free-falling for a mile toward the ground at 120 miles per hour, I can’t resist hamming it up for the camera. Raise your hand if your surprised.

Finally, at 5,500 feet, the trainer pops the main parachute, and we immediately slow down. At that point, I feel completely safe. I mean, I felt safe before, having faith that it was going to work, but that was the point where I felt like, “OK, it worked.” The funny thing was, he had told me ahead of time that when that happened, he was going to loosen me up a little bit from him. Until then, we needed to be very closely and tightly attached, but at that point, we could be a little more comfortable. That said, even though he told me ahead of time, and I intellectually knew it, it still took me a bit by surprise when the chute deploys, we slow, and he starts unhooking me. First thought, “OK, we’re safe.” Second thought, “Uh, well, he’s safe.”

The descent from there was pretty nondescript. I had wondered ahead of time whether skydiving was parachuting down from a minute of free-fall, or free-falling for a minute so that you can parachute down. And I would imagine that for most people, it’s parachuting down from a minute of free-fall, that the first part is really the focus. Certainly that was the case for me.

One of my regrets is that I don’t have any really good pictures of me under the parachute, the pictures pretty much skip from when we’re deploying the chute to when we’re landing. I’m wanting to do it again — possibly this weekend — and hope to be have somebody go with me that could take some pictures from the ground. If you’re interested, let me know.

I was impressed by the precision of the landing. That was kind of the focus during the parachute descent, was getting closer to the landing spot. I had figured it would be much more of a “somewhere in this area” thing than it was.

As we were coming down, I looked up, but because of the way we were attached, I couldn’t turn my head to look straight up. So I asked my trainer, “OK, since I’ve been looking for a job, a friend of mine gave me a book I need to read on finding a new career, and I’ve gotta know — What color is my parachute?

Answer: Green and gray.

I took that last picture, by the way, with my first-generation iPhone, which I carried inside my flightsuit during the jump. I wanted one with me in case I wanted to take pictures before or after the jump (I don’t think I could do it during), and I took my first one instead of the current one for two reasons — it would be less of a big deal if something happened to it, but also because I had carried that one on my Zero-G flight four years ago, making this the second time it had been in free-fall. (I’ve been asked how the two experiences compare, and my initial reaction is, they don’t. Despite the fact that they’re basically the same thing — free-fall in the sky, the only difference being which side of the airplane wall you’re on — they feel completely different, presumably largely because of the air resistance.)

After we were done, the Thomsons invited me over to their house to watch each other’s videos, and while I was there, I also got to swing on the trapeze they have in a barn behind their house. I mention this solely because I got to fall out of an airplane and fly on a trapeze on the same day, and that’s kind of cool, and gave this blog post its “Crazy Heart”-inspired title.

It was kind of amusing, though, that I was relieved that they said they didn’t let other people use the trampoline from the raised platform that Henry swung from; relieved because I didn’t want to have to be chicken if they offered. It was very odd, though, being too nervous to want to climb to and leap from the platform — wearing a safety harness, no less — after having just fallen from an airplane two miles up. But, there’s that height thing I was talking about. Fifteen feet, scary. Two miles, no problem.

Last night, I watched videos with my friends the Sneeds; Jill having gone skydiving for her 21st birthday a while back.

Her video ended with this quote, which I loved:

If riding in a plane is
Then riding in a boat is
To experience the element
Get out of the vehicle.

I made my jump using Skydive Alabama in Cullman, and I heartily recommend both the experience and them. I was amazed at how easy and safe-feeling they made the whole thing.

Carnival Time Again

I participated once again in the Rocket City Bloggers monthly blog carnival.

This time, the topic was family, and the carnival was hosted at Rocket City Mom.

Go check out the other great posts from local bloggers!