"I'm thinking, 'Why is my seatbelt unbuckled, and why is the airplane door open, and why I am not strapped to the guy with the parachute yet?'"
He gave me the double thumbs up, obviously not listening.
A couple minutes later I was perched over the edge of the doorway, wind ringing in my ears, buckled to a stranger and wondering if it would have been better to have been turned around and facing my tandem instructor, in the first ever face-to-face parachute jump. At least then I could look into his soft, blue eyes that would maybe tell me everything was going to be okay, instead of staring into the cold gaze of the ground below, which only told me, "This is your death. See your death."
The freefall is hard to explain, except that I went full lizard brain, thinking only in emotions and sure I was going to die. The acceleration was too intense for me, though I can appreciate how some people would like it, in the way that some people like the feeling that they're going to fly all the way out of a wooden roller coaster as it cusps the gradual dip downhill.
You know those cameras that take pictures of you when riding roller coasters? I always cringe when I see the photo, because all you see is terror: the kind of wide-eyed fear that belies the fact that I was, literally and unironically, making deals with God. If He would only get me out of this alive, I would stop slacking off at work and under-tipping baristas but, please, sweet Jesus, do not let me die on this children's ride like some jagoff.
So I naturally wanted to have the parachute jump videotaped, especially since our good friends paid for it. Thanks to our good skydiving-enthusiast friends who were visiting from out of town and wanted to treat us to the DVD, I can relive my embarrassment whenever I want. While Mrs. Done by Forty has an ear to ear grin the whole time, I am five years old again, on the verge of tears, running for his life out of his first haunted house.
After the parachute opened and we were gliding under canopy, I feigned bravery. When the instructor asked if I wanted to go fast, I lied and screamed yes.
"Do you get motion sickness?"
"No!" Another lie.
We swirled around in a corkscrew dive and, instead of taking in the views of the mountain peaks around us, I just kept looking at the ground and longing for its embrace, because then it would all be over.
The whole experience has me thinking about risk, and how bad I am at gauging it. That first minute out of the airplane was, without a doubt, the most terrifying minute of my life. But, ironically, I was safer on a per mile or per minute basis falling through the sky than I was driving in a car.
If I was going to fear for my life that day, I should have been more scared of the drive to the drop zone and then back home again...not the whole falling-through-the-sky thing.
Though I fancy myself to be a sharp guy, I can admit that I suck at calculating risk. I'm a middling poker player for this very reason: I usually assume my opponent has the nuts, even though that's unlikely on just about every hand.
I'm no better when it comes to insurance, often overbuying the wrong kind (life insurance) and underbuying the stuff that's more likely to hit someone at my age (disability).
Our miscalculations of risk appear all over our financial lives. Our asset allocation is too conservative for our age, but we keep at it because it helps us sleep better at night. We like to think we are conservative people, but then we ride around town on scooters with nothing but a three quarter helmet between us and an oncoming car.
I tell myself that I am naturally risk averse. But the truth is that I don't avoid risk...I just suck at identifying what is truly risky.
I'm not alone, of course. We all kind of stink at this. Our brains learned over thousands of years to avoid predators and food we didn't recognize, and then evolution went and changed the rules on us. Now the risks are all different, and we're stuck with the same tools.
So what's a boy to do? This is the part of the post where I'm supposed to come up with a clever answer or paradigm-shifting insight. But instead I give you nothing and, what's worse, I used the word paradigm. I apologize.
I suppose we have some heuristics we can use. Insurance actuaries are much better at calculating risks than I am. If a type of insurance is very affordable (say, life insurance for a thirty something) I can guess that the thing it's insuring isn't very likely to happen.
On the other hand, if I'm sixty five and find that long term care insurance costs a small fortune (and it does), maybe a retirement home is in my future.
As with anything else, part of the solution is just admitting that we've got a problem. I know I stink at knowing where the risks are in my life. I've got blind spots. As it relates to our financial life, I can assume there are plenty of blind spots there, too.
But what do you do, when you don't know what you don't know?
*Image is from celineon at Flickr Creative Commons.