Last week I went skydiving. It was actually my fourth time going, but since I hadn't been in a couple years, they made me take the training again.
After skydiving, my friends and I went to an arcade. I don't really like arcade games (besides H2Overdrive), so I wandered around until I found one called "Commercial Airline Simulator". You may be surprised to know that no line had formed in front of that particular machine. I played through the entire training mode of it, and was pleasantly surprised at how similar it was to when I flew a plane a few years prior when I took a couple pilot lessons.
The following weekend I took motorcycle classes and got my license. Around that time I started thinking about how awesome first lessons are-particularly those that were swimming around in my mind.
Skydiving is amazing. As I was trying to persuade my friend Phil last week, everyone ought to try skydiving because it's so impossible to imagine without doing that it's hard to fathom how awesome it is without trying it. When I first wanted to go, I couldn't get any of my friends to come with me. One friend, Jessica, finally agreed. This was fifteen years ago, but if I remember correctly, she wasn't particularly excited about it. That all changed when she landed. She jumped up and down, buzzing about how we had to jump again as soon as possible.
I've gone four times now: two tandem jumps (where you're strapped to the chest of a fat expert skydiver) and two solo jumps. If you leave this description of skydiving with anything, let it be this: do solo jumps, not tandem.
With solo jumps you take a five hour course and learn about skydiving. A lot of it is boring repetition, but once you jump you finally appreciate the fact that all of the maneuvers you have to do have been fully ingrained. Some parts of the class are actually interesting and enjoyable.
Once the class is done and the weather is persuaded to cooperate, you get loaded into a Cessna and fly up to about 13,000 feet. They open the door, you step out onto the wing alone, flying at around one hundred miles an hour, and push off with a rehearsed cadence. The instructor sitting at the edge of the doorway jumps at the exact right moment and holds on to a strap on your parachute backpack so that he can fall next to you. His job is to run you through a drill while you fall towards the earth at 120mph.
When you get to five thousand feet, you wave your arms so that he knows you're about to pull your chute. You reach back, pull it, and he lets go. From there on you get to glide down and land all by yourself.
The experience is unlike anything else. It doesn't feel like falling; you're so high up that perspective changes imperceptibly. It feels like you're floating, or maybe just flying. It's thrilling, but not scary.
My favorite part is reminding myself over and over of how real of an activity it is. I'm actually jumping out of a real plane with just a backpack on. That's hard to really wrap my mind around.
Another great thing about solo jumps (also called Advanced Freefall, or AFF) is that it counts for something. Each one you do makes the subsequent ones cheaper, and each jump teaches you new skills. After seven the instructor stops hanging on to you, and after twenty five, you can become certified.
While we're up in the air, let's talk about flying. I have this idea that I should be able to operate just about any vehicle. More to fuel my fantasies of being presented with a hero-opportunity than anything, but it's not hard to imagine scenarios where it might be useful or fun to fly a plane.
Even if you don't want to actually become a pilot, the first lesson you take offers an incredible bang for your buck. For your first one hour flight, you will actually get to take off the plane. I was blown away by this. Push in the throttle, stay straight with the rudder, and pull on the yoke once you hit the right speed.
Once you're in the air you get to do all or most of the steering, and you actually get to stall the plane. You pull back so far that the plane can't grab the air anymore, and you actually cause the plane to momentarily fall backwards amidst a warning buzzer.
That's a lot of cool experience and skills that you get to learn in just an hour. On top of that, you can let your friends sit in back for free and fly around, too.
I haven't done this yet, but if you actually want to get your license, it makes sense to buy your own plane. A reasonable one costs less than a mid range car and holds its resale value quite well. Unlike a car, it's perfectly practical to split it four ways, too. When taking plane lessons, half of the cost is the plane rental. Why spend that money towards rent when you could buy the thing? Even yearly maintenance and fuel are likely cheaper than you'd guess.
My first encounter with a pair of wheels was a scooter I rented in Key West. From there I bought my own moped, which I modified until it was breathing on the heels of the least powerful motorcycles. Confident in my ability to ride that, I took a stab at my brother's 350cc motorcycle. I definitely didn't figure everything out during my five minute ride, but I was impressed with how smooth and powerful it was. I almost wished I hadn't experienced it, because I'm not ignorant of the dangers of riding.
In California you're supposed to have a watered down version of a motorcycle license to ride a moped or scooter. If I was going to do that, I thought, I may as well get a real motorcycle license.
That's how I ended up spending New Year's Eve (and day) learning how to ride a motorcycle. I'm sure the courses vary by state and school, but mine was five hours of class and ten hours of riding. I went in with just enough experience to get a motorcycle into first gear without stalling, and no more.
It's amazing how much skill can be gained in such a short period of time. I'm not going to try to convince you that I'm a good rider, but I can tell you that I went in with no confidence on a motorcycle whatsoever, and no competence for anything other than riding in a parking lot, and left feeling like I understood the fundamentals of motorcycle riding. Driving away from the course on the last day, I couldn't help but mentally plan a motorcycle trip through India.
My only advice for Motorcycle Lessons are a) take them and b) don't be afraid of speed or leaning. Speed means stability, and leaning is the proper execution for turning. The people who had the most trouble with the class tried to drive their motorcycle like a car, rather than leaving preconceptions at the door and absorbing the information provided.
Why Take First Lessons?
Why take first lessons in things you aren't going to master? Because returns diminish with each lesson. For the first lesson, you get to go from nothing to very rudimentary basic competence. That's huge. The last lesson in someone's studies teaches them perhaps one fine distinction.
That doesn't mean that every lesson isn't valuable, but it does mean that even an introduction to something can open up a whole new world and grant you basic functional skills.
Tonight is my first night sleeping with a Zeo! I'll let you know how it is.
Some major breakthroughs are going down with my new programming project. I can't wait to be able to share more about it.
I'm spending the week in Tahoe. Nothing like skiing and working all day, and then playing poker at night. Perfect.
Sorry there's no picture. I reformatted and haven't set up my photos yet.
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