I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Resting on my laurels

Me in Colorado, 1992
Have you ever wondered about the meaning of the phrase," to rest on one's laurels"? It occurred to me yesterday after having attended the 2012 Safety Day at Skydive Snohomish. I wrote about the day's experience on my other blog here. I wasn't sure I wanted to attend, to drive 75 miles south in the rain to spend the day being reminded about all the safety issues involved in jumping out of airplanes. After all, I have more than 4,100 skydives to my credit.

But I haven't made a skydive since the end of last October, and one cannot rest on one's laurels (i.e., be satisfied with one's past success and consider further effort unnecessary). I was amazed at how much I had forgotten and was particularly reminded of two things: everyone needs to practice safety in many facets of life, and nobody else can do it for you.

As I listened during the segment on skydiving equipment, the instructor asked how many of us are comfortable inspecting our own gear and hooking up the three-ring release system. Most hands raised, but a few young women said they were not at all comfortable and were actually unaware of how it works, relying on others to inspect it for them. They reminded me of myself when I was young in skydiving experience. It was because I became an instructor and had to teach others how to do it that I learned how myself. I was amazed at how simple and elegant the system actually is. It allows the jumper to pull a handle to release the cable behind the loop at the top of the three rings (one on each shoulder) and just like that, the main parachute is released, giving the skydiver clean air to deploy the reserve parachute. Even though it releases quickly, when it is hooked up properly it will stay intact through many times the forces involved. I now feel very comfortable hooking it up and teaching it to others. But I wasn't always that way. I felt intimidated and was more than willing to let others decide for me whether I was safe or not. Becoming an instructor forced me to think about safety, not only my own, but the safety of others as well.

Early during the day, I chatted with Elaine, wife of Tyson and co-owner of the Drop Zone at Snohomish. They emphasize safety above all else and have an impressive record. I have been at Drop Zones, even worked at some, that don't do that. This may seem impossible for you to believe, but corners are cut in order to maximize profit in jump operations. It's up to every single skydiver to decide whether the place they frequent is a good one or not, but many will go to the place that offers the cheapest jump ticket.

Elaine mentioned in our conversation that I had accomplished so very much in the skydiving world, and she seemed sincere in her complimentary remarks. But I wish now that I had asked her what she meant, what she thinks I have done, since none of it seems remarkable to me. I started skydiving at the advanced age of 47 and never stopped. I got my instructor rating at 51 and taught for twelve years. I made as many as 400 jumps in one year, while holding down a full-time job. But was that really all that amazing? I was addicted to skydiving, I simply had no choice, it seemed to me. It's also true that I spent four years on the USPA's Board of Directors, but all that taught me is that politics is not for me, and being on any board seems to be fraught with back-room dealmaking. Not my cup of tea. I was glad to let that go.

As much as I enjoyed teaching, it came time to stop. There is no cutoff date for an instructor to stop teaching skydiving, but there should be, I think. There are no hoops to jump through every year to indicate you are still a good instructor, and that is also a problem. I saw many people who became so indifferent and unconcerned about their students that they were dangerous, but there was no way to remove them from their coveted positions. That is, until something happened, and by that time a hapless student had usually made a grievous error because of poor instruction. Then there would be action.

When I retired from my job and moved to a new part of the country, it seemed like a good time to change my approach to skydiving. I did sit through a First Jump Course at Snohomish, but the system of teaching was so unlike what I had taught that I didn't want to have to learn a new system, so I let all of my ratings go and decided to simply enjoy the experience of playing in the air, with only myself to be responsible for. And it's been good: for the past four years I have jumped seasonally, no longer traveling to faraway places just to skydive, as I did for two decades. Now I am truly back to the simple enjoyment of making easy formations with like-minded friends, no competition, nobody to take care of.

But you cannot rest on your laurels when it comes to safety. That's what I learned yesterday, and it was a lesson I will not soon forget. As much as I love the sport, there will be a day when I will have made my last skydive, and hopefully it will not be forced upon me but will be my own choice. If I pay attention to my intuition, to my body, and practice my emergency procedures faithfully, I'll keep on going up in the air. And I hope the sport of skydiving will someday fall away with only good memories left behind.


Rita said...

I'm afraid of heights so I wouldn't trust anybody or anything, be checking equipment a hundred times, and still be unable to jump out of the plane--LOL! Yes, that's one place you don't want to get lazy about safety!!

You are inspirational. I can see why she said that. I wish you nothing but those good memories after each dive. I think you will just know when it is time to stop. Trust your intuition. Enjoy!! :):)

Teresa Evangeline said...

What a beautiful image of you. I have to admit to a few goosebumps as I read this. I've always thought skydiving is the one thing of this nature I could do, but I'm kidding myself. When it would be time to jump out of the plane, I'd probably be in a fetal position as far away from the door as I could get. That you can do this again and again is a testament to your strength and willingness to meet life with open arms.

A Very nice, well-written post.

Meryl Baer said...

What fabulous experiences - a great sport. I am too chicken to attempt it. Here's to many more great jumps!

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of a tragic accident involving a young woman and her sky diving instructor, who was diving tandem behind her. For some reason, they both fell on top of the reef off Oahu and drowned. That made front page news. Horrible way to die.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I really like your Colorado photo..you look really happy! I think that is the bottom line..do things that make you happy while you can! :)

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

As I read this, it occurred to me that in some pursuits it's very helpful to remain humble. Some people get too proud to attend refresher courses or take advice, or even review a checklist. At the same time, you have every right to be proud of your contributions to the sport. Being a fabulous role model is just one of them. I wish you splendid jumps and wonderful memories.

Linda Reeder said...

I was reminded in reading your post of tow life lessons: You learn when you teach, and retirement is a time to let responsibilities go and concentrate on your own well being. I have found that to be the case for me as well.
At the same time, resting on one's laurels means no longer learning, and that's not living well either. Like you I think there is always more to learn.

Sally Wessely said...

I think this lesson on resting on one's laurels could be applied to so many aspects of life. In many ways, you are telling of that self responsibility cannot be stressed to much as we travel through life. Could it be said there is no free falling. One has to be prepared even for that, and yet so many people think they can just free fall through life. Your wisdom shines through as always.

Kathryn said...

I am SO glad you're not resting on your laurels. Just looking at those three rings sent me on a bit of a freak out! So many things, that if not properly packed, wrapped, strapped, or snapped, could lead to problems.
Thank goodness there are brave people like you who live life to the fullest and keep the rest of us in nervous thrall. Pulling the ripcord on my housecoat and jumping out of my recliner, Kathryn : )

Red said...

Listen to a lot of things and they will tell you when it's time to quit.
Confidence is one You seem like you have all the confidence in the world. That's something skydiving can give you. Skydiving keeps you sharp.

Arkansas Patti said...

Since there is no do over from a failed jump, I would think safety would be paramount. That is one sport where the lowest bidder should not be considered.
I agree with Far side of 50, you look sooo very happy.

Bragger said...

My last jump was a HORRIBLE experience. I wish I had ended it on a more positive note, and with a less hateful jump master. On the other hand, I lived to tell about it...

Linda Myers said...

I remember the day I met you in Snohomish and watched you prepare for each of your jumps. Your focus was impressive.

I remember you saying you didn't know yet when you'd stop jumping. I suspect you'll know it when the time comes.

CrazyCris said...

As someone who still thinks people who jump out of perfectly good airplanes with only a thin layer of silk separating the line between life and death are more than a little bit crazy (and yet I would love to try it someday!), well I think 4100 skydives is amazing! Even more so when considering how late in life you started, the fact that you actually became an instructor and was highly involved in your field... and are STILL jumping out of planes now...

You never cease to amaze me DJan, in a postive way! :o)

I get the safety issue and not resting on your laurels... it's a big deal in scuba diving too!

Dee Ready said...

Dear DJan,
As Rita and others have said, you are an inspiration to us all. Passionate about skydiving and hiking and yet with so much awareness of your own body and your needs. True wisdom.


Trish said...

You're amazing. Nothing stops you!

Emily said...

This post really struck me. I've never been skydiving, but I don't think I'd want to be in charge of checking my own equipment. I think I'd be more comfortable letting someone else be responsible for my safety and...isn't that awful?

This gives me a lot to think about!

Friko said...

... will some day fall away .....?

Not literally, I hope.
When a sport gives someone as much as it has given you it's sad to have to give it up. But you sound like the sort of person who will always do the sensible thing and not endanger herself or anyone else.

May you continue to derive much pleasure from your sport for a long time yet!

Ruby said...

This post was thrilling to read. I am afraid to try sky diving but I guess when I do try, I will make sure of safety myself. Like you say, sometimes it is just better to enjoy things just the way it is than for competition or records :)