Tag Archives: learning

On Learning How to Scuba Dive

It’s been a busy summer, friends. In the space of just a few short months, I set foot in thirteen states. We jumped out of a plane. And for good measure, I learned how to scuba dive. Why not? You only live once.

Before skydiving, I was nervous. Jumping out of a plane just didn’t feel natural. In fact, I hardly saw the point. Why strap a parachute to yourself and hurtle to the ground at 9.8 meters per second squared? It just didn’t make sense, not until I actually jumped out of the plane and felt the utter exhilaration. The view was amazing, but the adrenaline rush was something that I’ll chase for a long, long time. Now I get it.

Scuba diving, on the other hand, made sense to me. It was something that I’d always wanted to try. I love water – being in it, around it, on top of it – and I love marine life. Diving is the best way to experience all of that, with the additional benefit of feeling weightless and floating underwater.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – you’re not just allowed to don a scuba mask, strap on a tank, and jump into the ocean to swim with the fishes. Before the fun stuff, you have to get through scuba school. For me, scuba school was one long weekend divided between the classroom and pool time. Like a good neurotic student, I read the textbook in advance, endured the teacher’s ramblings and rape jokes, then rocked the test with a 96. The pool sessions were much more enjoyable. After getting hands-on experience in assembling scuba equipment, we learned “skills” like what to do when your mask floods with water and how to control your buoyancy.

After scuba school, you must complete four “checkout dives” in an open-water environment. For me, these dives took place at Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. We went through The Scuba Shop and I’d recommend those guys to anyone. The staff is incredibly awesome. They went above and beyond in getting my paperwork from the original scuba school, even when that owner (see ‘rape jokester’ above) proved to be less than helpful. And when we finally got out to dive with them, both Xavier and I had a blast.

Getting suited up for scuba diving is no joke. The first thing to be concerned about is your temperature. Your body loses heat up to 25 times faster in water than in air, so you want to be sure you’re wearing a thick wet suit to ensure comfort. Since we’d be doing a lot of floating around in cool water, the instructor gave me a 7mm neoprene suit for my checkout dives. Putting that thing on was the most challenging part of the whole weekend, requiring maneuvering and contouring like the sassiest music video you’ve ever seen. After the suit is finally in place, you’ve got a BCD: a vest that fills up with air and allows you to float. This vest has a little hose with a button that adds air and another that deflates it. You depress the deflate button to descend underwater for a dive. The descent is aided by the weights that you wear, strapped to your waist by a thick webbed belt. And of course, you’re carrying your tank, your fins, and the regulator hose that winds around your shoulder and allows you to breathe underwater. It’s definitely awkward, adjusting to wearing so much bulky equipment.

I was incredibly excited for my first open-water dive. When my class and I clustered around the buoy and obeyed our teacher’s instruction to sink, mine was the first index finger to deflate its BCD. I waited to sink with bated breath. Nothing happened. I released the breath and its buoyant properties. Still nothing.

Three minutes later, my first scuba experience took place after my instructor hauled me down the rope by my ankle, imploring me with a raised palm to stop flailing. Apparently, my little kicks had no effect in helping me swim down to the bottom – I was supposed to wait patiently and allow the fifteen pounds of weight strapped to my hips to sink me. But finally, I made it. I was greeted by a cloud of lake silt, 20 feet below the surface.

Lake Jocassee is gorgeous from above. But underneath, everything looks golden-brown and muddy. For a first dive, it was awesome. The lack of scenery gave me a chance to focus on the task at hand: performing my skills so I could earn my certification.

In clouds of silt, we demonstrated “skills:” removing our scuba masks, replacing them, and clearing them of water. We swam to the surface without air, simulating an emergency ascent and exhaling lots of little bubbles the whole way up. We breathed from our buddy’s alternate air source, pretending we had run out of air. And after we’d demonstrated that we could handle emergencies, our instructor led us through fun swims in the underwater world.

Breathing underwater with scuba gear is really one of the coolest things you can ever do. I think it’s the closest most of us will ever be to the weightless environment of space. Imagine what it feels like to effortlessly hover above the ground. If you want to rise a little higher, simply take a deep breath and feel yourself float and glide. It’s simply amazing. I can hardly imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to do dive.

(On that note, the biggest concern I’ve heard is that people are afraid of underwater life. To that, I say: that is the other amazing part of diving! Do you love going to the aquarium and watching the fish interact? Imagine being a part of that. As long as you don’t act like a jerk and intimidate the big guys, it shouldn’t be a concern. [Provided you’re not diving somewhere like Australia, where a thumbnail-sized jellyfish can kill you in three seconds with its venom]).

Anyway, despite Lake Jocassee being cloudy and less than ideal for seeing amazing fish, it was still a great experience. I saw a sunken boat (with ‘Dive Naked’ written on the window) and practiced swimming through a little field goal. Also, the lack of external stimuli allowed me to focus on adapting to the whole experience. The lake wasn’t completely lacking in life. I did see the occasional sunfish, and remembered myself as a kid, fishing them out of the lake at camp.

How funny to be on the other side of the fishhook.

Earning my open water certification was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It literally opened up an entire new world for me. The next weekend, we would explore that world for the first time. Stay tuned!

(All photos are mine – if you want to use them, just ask!).

On Learning How to Drive a Five-Speed

My first car… the Toyota on the street, that is.

I’m so jealous of anyone who can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. If you are one of the lucky few, congratulations: you deserve a high-five and a cookie. For the last few months, I’ve been making my best attempts to join the exclusive club of stick-shifters. The learning experience has been traumatic all the way through.

We started in an empty church parking lot on the west side of Atlanta, conveniently situated on an hill. Since it was Saturday, the lot was empty save for stragglers collecting stray cans from the ground. I knew the basics: start in first, don’t ride the clutch, skillfully maneuver your feet. I also knew the approximate locations of the gears in relation to the shifter, thanks to a high school boyfriend who sometimes let me shift while he worked the clutch. I say ‘sometimes’ because those fun times ended when I accidentally put the car into reverse instead of fifth on the highway. Despite the utter lack of success, from my past experience, I thought learning would be a piece of cake.

The lesson began: turn on the car and get it to move.

“What do you mean I have to remove the clutch slowly?” I screamed by the fifth time the tires screeched, the car rocked, and the engine went dead. “I thought you took your foot off the clutch when you hit the gas!”

Eventually, after stalling almost a dozen times, I got the hang of the footwork. We sputtered and shook as the car shivered into first gear, but it happened. We headed straight across the asphalt. There was just enough time to hit second gear before we reached the edge of the lot.

“Stop! Stop!” begged my instructor. I slammed on the brake. With another mighty shake, the engine stalled. Of course I’d forgotten to hit the clutch.

After an hour of variations on this theme, I could successfully get the car in motion on a flat surface. I could put it into second gear and then come to a stop: my favorite part of the ordeal.

It was time to learn how to start on a hill.

We cruised over to the parking lot’s incline, only stalling once or twice on the way. I stopped, moved my right foot to the accelerator and left to the clutch… and stalled. We slipped backwards down the hill, narrowly missing one of the scavengers. My instructor grabbed the emergency brake and halted us for dear life. I opened the windows and turned off the ignition. We leaned back in our seats, breathing hard with fear (instructor) and frustration (me).

“Hey, wanna buy some walnuts?” asked an unshaven and likely homeless face in the now-open window.

“No, we’re good,” I demurred.

By that time I was completely fed up with driving stick, and decided it would be best to save the rest of the instruction for a new day. The next few lessons were held at night, on the open road. When midnight hit and Atlanta’s Midtown streets were quiet, we stuttered around in a little Honda, brakes squealing and engine rocking. It wasn’t bad. I understood the footwork – sort of – and shifted when told to do so. We even attempted the reverse gear, and despite getting stuck in a parking lot, things weren’t so bad.

Next came a few daylight drives. Supervised, I dutifully drove to work and out to a restaurant. Things were looking up. My instructor managed the emergency brake when we were on a hill and with his help, I avoided murdering anyone. With success came confidence, and with confidence came a longer evening drive to really test my skills. From my Midtown home, I drove onto the highway and up through Buckhead. Shifting like a champion, I offered to show my instructor some really cool houses in the Vinings area. (We both appreciate fine architecture, so it felt like a good idea). As I came to a stop at a traffic light, I noticed that we were on a hill. Going up. And behind me idled a BMW SUV, right at my back bumper and ready to go.

The light changed to green. I rolled backwards. Stalled. Laughed nervously.

After turning on the ignition again, I did the usual: slow lift-off from the clutch, quick slam on the gas. I was nervous and feeling the pressure from traffic idling behind me. We stalled again, the car shaking with indignation and clutch abuse.

Lather, rinse, repeat – five times. Horns honked. The light turned red. The BMW started to drive around me, windows down to extend a hearty curse in my direction. And I had a complete panic attack, so the only logical next step was to vault over the gear shift into the front seat and make my instructor drive me home.

It took a few days before I was ready to try again, but when I did, my instructor was really racking his brain for something that would make me understand what I was doing. Although I could technically operate the vehicle, it wasn’t by feel or intuition, but simply following orders. And then he told me a little trick: when you’re starting, pull your foot just a little bit off the clutch while accelerating, then when you feel the car starting to move forward, ease off the clutch slowly.

For some reason, this was the secret that I needed. But the experience was still so stressful that my instructor took to videotaping my aghast facial expressions as I practiced manipulating the clutch on inclines. So now I’m somewhat capable of driving the thing but it’s still stressful, and the car still shakes sometimes for reasons I can only guess at.

But I’m getting a new car in July when my lease runs out, and you better believe I’ll be trying to find a six-speed!

On Mastering a Second Language

When I was a baby, my parents spoke to me only in English, so naturally I grew into a child who could only speak English. And as it went, that never really changed.

After seven years of Hebrew school, I could read the Hebrew language and understand a few key words. But immediately after cashing in my Bat Mitzvah, the comprehension disappeared to the point that it’s like I never learned anything at all.

Spanish was a little different. Thanks to some great teachers over five years of high school and college classes, I found myself enjoying the learning process and actually picking up some of the language. My conversational skills held up when my family traveled to Costa Rica senior year of high school; while far from fluent, I could converse haltingly with just about anyone. And with the help of a small flask of coffee liquor in La Selva, my first real one-on-one Spanish conversation took place with an overnight security guard named Antonio. The more I drank, the more Spanish I spoke. We poured our hearts out on that jungle night and I understood everything he told me. It was nothing short of miraculous. I’ll never forget Antonio and I hope that he was able to overcome his intimacy issues.

Aside from brief interludes of travel, until recently, my life had been mostly conducted in English. It’s hard to maintain a language when you never speak it. After my last Spanish class in 2005, my limited knowledge started to fade away.

My boyfriend’s first language is Spanish, but we met in English, which he speaks perfectly. Shortly afterwards, when I told him I could speak a little Spanish, he was delighted. He came at me with a barrage of words so fast and intense that I could only respond with… “┬┐Que?” And from then on, we stuck mostly to English. Unless, of course, we were drinking. Or texting – the iPhone’s international keyboard has a remarkable capacity to help with pesky accent marks or misspellings.

The more I texted, the more I realized that I really do know a lot of Spanish words. But my ability to follow them spoken aloud was limited. What good is a language if you can only write it? It looked like my future in Spanish-speaking places would consist of walking around with a notebook and pen, writing notes to anyone I wanted to talk to. After I met some of Xavier’s family for the first time, it was hard to imagine anything else. They spoke mostly in Spanish, and although everyone in the group spoke slowly so that I could follow, I still found myself hopelessly lost. If I tried to contribute something to the conversation, all I received were strange looks – I’d completely missed the point. Lesson learned: real-life conversations don’t work well when you’re filling in the blanks a la Mad Libs. The only way I could converse was one-on-one at a snail’s pace, or when fortified with alcohol.

Clearly, more practice was necessary.

The next year, we arrived in Ecuador. Despite the fact that I’d spent a year listening to Spanish music, watching every Spanish movie that hit Redbox, and constantly attempting Spanish conversation with my native-speaker roommate, things were confusing. As anyone who has learned another language knows, the line to understanding is best crossed with deep attention. If you pour all of your focus and concentration into following a conversation, you will be amazed at your prowess and understanding. “I do know this!” you will marvel to yourself as the lively conversation blossoms around you.

After about six minutes, you’re mentally exhausted. Your gaze bounces around the group, following the speakers, smiling when they do, frowning when things get serious, just trying to stay engaged – and then you realize you’re just going through the motions and your only thoughts are in English and they’re something like “oh, no. I don’t get any of this!” because all of the words have become strange sounds. You mentally slap yourself awake, re-engage, lock onto the conversation. Wait, what’s that word? You ask someone quietly, hoping it will make you look good: you’re comprehending enough to have caught a word you don’t know in the midst of everything. “Laverde? Oh, no, la verde – the green one.” Yeah, you knew that. Facepalm. It’s over. Maybe tomorrow you’ll try again.

The other problem is that lots of people want to practice your language. You’ll try your best to converse en Espanol and they reply without a second’s thought in English. While this is incredibly helpful and comforting during those times of mental exhaustion – and those times are numerous – sometimes you just want an immersion. You want to be forced to speak the language, because only speaking it constantly will make you fluent.

When I was actually able to speak Spanish , I realized just how many random words I have picked up from living with a native speaker – and not all of it’s good. The first incident happened when we were in the car with a group of family members. Driving into Quito, a motorcyclist cut us off and Xavier had to jam on the brakes. Everyone was jostled a little bit. Always happy to comment on a traffic situation, I muttered something that we say frequently around the house, thinking it meant “dumb motorcyclist!” There were gasps. The word was actually an incredibly crude way to refer to a part of the male anatomy. Fortunately, this was the second day that we were spending with Xavier’s mom – so it wasn’t like that was her first impression of me, or anything.

Another day, we were pulling out of a parking garage and I opened our car window to give the attendant a tip. “Here, juebon,” I called to get his attention – I’d heard this word often when Xavier talks to his friends. In context, it sounds like “dude” or “buddy.” Well, when everyone gasped and then cracked up laughing, I learned it actually is referring to a bodily orifice.

Lesson learned: learning words in context is great, but be sure to clarify their meaning before using them yourself.

One of my goals for 2012 was to improve my Spanish. How am I doing?

After our trip, I’d say much better. But there’s a long way to go.