Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Skydive!

It finally happened last weekend – I jumped out of a perfectly functioning plane at 13,000 feet... and it was amazing!

So, the day of March 5th started at 5am. I woke up feeling a little bit nervous, but not very. As I waited at London Paddington Station, a little peckish, I knew it was probably more sensible to resist a MacDonald’s breakfast. I didn’t resist, and gave in to temptation. On the way to the airfield, I wondered whether the sausage and egg McMuffin would make its way back up and if so, when.

Everyone – skydivers, instructors, friends – milled around the manifest area at Hinton airfield, waiting for the first jump of the day. There were about 50 people diving that day, 30 of whom for the Charity. Someone advised that because the weather was favourable, we could go up to 13,000 feet, 3,000 higher than initially advised. ‘What??’ I screamed, then wondered why I reacted so dramatically. As if an extra 3,000 feet would make ANY difference once you’re up there anyway.

When it was finally time for our turn, we went through a final briefing – when to cross arms, when to stretch them, how to land etc. I think I tried so hard to remember the instructions that I forgot to get nervous. Going up the light aircraft, I remember looking out the window and thinking, ‘Gee, what a great view. Jumping from here would be great. Except when I looked round to my instructor, I was told we were only 2000 feet high. Another 11,000 to go!

Once we reached the right altitude, everything happened really quickly that it became hard to process any feelings. We were given the green light, then the roller door at the side of the aircraft was opened and the girl ahead of me was practically pushed off. That was good, because going next, I really didn’t want any time to think too much... about anything. She disappeared off the edge, literally DISAPPEARED, like a black hole swallowed her up. Half a second later, there was no sight of her and the instructor. Wow, so that’s how fast gravity works. And within 30 seconds, I was in the place where she was with my instructor dangling me off the edge of the aircraft, legs hanging over the edge, and... to be honest, I can’t remember much from that moment. I can’t remember if I was given a countdown or any warning that we were going over. I just felt a falling sensation, which lasted no more than one or two seconds literally and then something else took over. I stopped feeling like I was falling. It was like, once my body stabilised and I was facing the earth below, I was left with the sensation of floating. Sure there’s a strong wind blowing into my face and I could hardly move my arms due to the pressure, but it certainly didn’t feel like a falling sensation. 13,000 feet is well above the clouds and you literally have no point of reference to indicate that you are going from point A to point B. So for the entire freefall part, I could only see clear blue skies surrounding me and a fluffy blanket of white cloud below. It never felt like I was getting any closer to this soft white blanket.

I then felt a tap on my shoulders, from my instructor pointing at something to my left. Oh, that’s right, I paid for a cameraman and now I have to wave at him. I waved. Then what? He was still there. So I waved some more and then I gave him the thumbs up. And he was still there. At this point I was at a loss as to what else I should do. I tried to talk. That didn’t work. Opening and closing my mouth was too hard. I tried to move my arms about but only managed to look like an idiot.

It surprised me how clearly I could think while freefalling. I had wondered how I would react, and secretly feared I might black out mid air, or worse, wet myself. Thankfully, I did neither. The fact that I could be freefalling and still be lucid was what surprised me most. So anyway, within 45 seconds, I got the knowing tap from the instructor, which meant that he was about to pull the cord for the parachute. I pulled my arms back to my chest and before my palms even hit my shoulders, I felt a tug and a pop in my ears to indicate that the freefall had come to an end. At this point, we were still above the clouds. My instructor checked in to make sure I was still ok before pointing to a small rainbow off to the side, a full multi-coloured circle resting above the clouds.

Interestingly, someone asked me later how long the freefall lasted. About 45 seconds. And how much distance did we cover in those 45 seconds? About 5000ft, I responded. So, had you continued to freefall for just an extra minute you would’ve hit the ground? Awkward silence, while I pondered that one.

Thankfully, that was the last thing on my mind while we floated back down to earth. As we landed, I was so surprised at how close we got to the manifest area where everyone at the Charity was standing and cheering. Who would’ve thought you could control a little parachute with such precision? I had quietly feared my landing would somewhat resemble Bridget Jones’s unfortunate landing in a pig sty.

The adrenalin I experienced that day was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. In terms of fear, I’ve been far more anxious about dental appointments in the past. I’m not saying this to suggest I’m brave – I’m really not! – but to highlight that something indeed takes over you when you prepare for a skydive. Of the 50-some people jumping that day, NO ONE was a quivering wreck – even the girl who was afraid of heights!

My closing remark is this – DO IT! Don’t over think it, just do it. Honestly, think about all the people you’ve met or known who have done a skydive – how many have said it was unpleasant or average? EVERYONE raves about their dive. So, DO IT! And even better, do it for a charity that you believe in – much harder to back out that way.

And lastly, to all my generous sponsors, thank you so so so much from the bottom of my heart for your generosity and your support. It was an honour to have done this for The Prostate Cancer Charity and together, we raised a whooping £446.37 which goes towards support, research and campaigning for men and their families who live with prostate cancer.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

If you do one new thing this year, join a book club!

I’ve often found strong and convincing arguments against joining a book club, despite harbouring deep down a secret desire to be part of one. I’m too busy, I suck at commitment, I can’t finish a book a month. But if I were to be really honest, the overarching reason why I’ve avoided book clubs is the fear that I would sound stupid.

Well, I bit the bullet this year and joined the book club run by my workplace. I made the leap for two reasons: I was reassured there’s actually be very little discussion of the book; and people at work already know how slow I can be.

The best thing about being part of a book club is that you get to read books that you wouldn’t normally pick up off the shelf. My reading selection is often quite conservative – I find something good and stick to it. After I read Monkey Grip for the first time, I proceeded to read another 6 of Helen Garner’s books... in a row. The second best thing about being in this particular book club is that we force ourselves to leave work at a semi decent time and we go to the local pub.

So the book that was chosen by one of the book club members this month was Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing. Definitely not something I would’ve picked up at the book shop if I was on my own. But hey, we’re all about trying new things here and I’m so glad I gave this a go. The story is set in Rhodesia during the war and surrounds Mary and Dick Turner, a white British couple living in a remote farm among black indigenous communities. In the opening pages of the book, we learn that Mary is found dead in their home, and their black cook, a young male, has been arrested for the crime of her murder. Over the course of the novel, we discover who Mary was and how she came to her eventual death. I won’t give much more away except that this is a good choice of book for group discussion, for the reason that the characters, the writing and the ending can polarise people.

I didn’t feel stupid tonight, in fact, I so enjoyed having people to discuss the book with, to vent my frustrations and share what I learnt, to hear different interpretations and opposing views. And yes, as promised, the conversation did eventually stray from the book, which was also nice.