Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Moveby Katherine Lanpher
Katherine Lanpher, whose essays have appeared in the New York Times and More magazine, officially moved to Manhattan on a leap day, transferring from a rooted life in the Midwest to a new job, a new city, and a new sense of who she was. But re-invention is a tricky business and starting over in the middle of life isn't for the feint of heart.
Katherine Lanpher's short essay on her first six months in New York--"A Manhattan Admonition" was published last August in the New York Times op-ed page and remained on their list of most e-mailed stories for weeks. Now she has written a book chronicling how her past life and loves have prepared her for unexpected discoveries in her new home. Lanpher looks back on her marriage, her early days in newspapers, and her childhood in the Midwest. And, with startling insight, she examines her new world--how beauty is defined in New York, how the landscape differs from the Midwest, and how good food and books have been constants in her life.
The tone of her essays mixes the emotional depth of Anna Quindlen with the quirky wit of David Sedaris.
The New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
By Katherine Lanpher
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
I am standing on a platform two stories above the terra firma of
Manhattan. In my right hand, I hold the bar of a trapeze swing. The
swing pulls me forward, and the only thing keeping me on the
platform is the sure hold my trapeze instructor has on the loop of
my safety harness. This is not the time to think about my trust
issues. My left hand is frozen in its grip to a metal stand on the
I'm supposed to let go.
But I can't.
If I look straight ahead, I can see the towers of Battery Park City,
close to Ground Zero. If I look right, I can see the blue-gray
waters of the Hudson. I don't look left because I'm too busy looking
down. That's where the safety net is.
Manny, the instructor, starts to talk to me gently, the way you
would talk to someone perched on a building ledge. Only in this case
you want the person to jump.
"I've got you," he says. "I've held on to men who weigh more than
three times what you do. I've got you, so you can take your left
hand and put it on the bar."
My toes are curled over the edge of the platform, just as Manny told
me. I am trying to jut my hips out, just the way Manny told me. But
when I lift my left hand from its perch of seeming safety, I don't
feel Manny's hold on me; I feel the trapeze barpulling me down,
down, down, to trapeze fatality and, even worse - embarrassment. I
return to my death clutch on the iron railing.
You might ask how I got here.
I could tell you it's because for more than a year now I have cycled
past the nets and swings of this trapeze school set up by the river,
and I have always stopped, caught by the spectacle of someone
volunteering for flight.
Or I could tell you that it feels as though I've already made bigger
Manny is pushing me a little now, to show me he really is back there
to make sure I won't fall. It's not often you get a safety harness
in life, and I decide to trust this one. My left hand goes to the
trapeze bar, and to my surprise, I'm right where I should be. I'm
wobbling a little, but I'm still there, balanced on the edge of the
"OK," Manny says. "When I say, 'Hup!' you'll jump." The cry rings
through the air: "One-two-three-HUP!"
I spring up on my feet and jump - right back onto the platform. I
have gone exactly nowhere.
"No, Katherine." I hear the bemused voice of Manny behind me. "You
have to jump forward.
The same thing happens. Several times. It turns out that I am great
at jumping in place. And then- I don't know if Manny pushes me or if
I spring forward of my own will- I am whooshing through the air,
hanging from the trapeze, my body arcing as I swing forward and then
back and forward and then back.
On Leap Day 2004 I took an actual leap, leaving behind the
Midwestern city where I came of age, married, divorced, worked,
lived, loved, and prospered for more than two decades, to move to
New York. I cried so hard at the airport curb that the strangers
milling around me must have thought I was on my way to a funeral. If
they had offered me condolences, I would have accepted them. I felt,
in fact, that a loved one was dying, that a life so known and dear
to me was ending: my old, soon-to-be-former, settled life, in which
I knew the tracks of the coming days the way I knew without looking
where the spoons were in my silverware drawer. Someone was pushing
that woman off the platform, and it was me. There was no safety net.
Before that day, I had been an earthbound creature: think root
vegetable. Now I was on my way to a new job, a new life, and a new
city where I could count the number of friends I had on one hand. I
was a few months shy of my forty-fifth birthday, a confirmed
daughter of the prairie who had grown up in Moline, Illinois, gone
to college and graduate school in Chicago, and then moved to St.
Paul, Minnesota. I was as Midwestern as weak coffee at supper and
ham sandwiches at a funeral lunch. I never did understand why
Chicago was called the Second City when it was always the First City
to me. The water and the valleys of the Hudson were unknown to me; I
was bound for life to the muddy currents of the Mississippi.
So why was I getting on a plane to New York? Well, as I like to tell
people, on Leap Day 2004 I moved to midlife and had a Manhattan
I had never meant to live in New York. Then again, I had never meant
to become a middle-aged woman with bifocals either. It's funny how
that happens. One day, your thirties seem to stretch in front of you
for what feels like a luxurious length of time, and the next you
don't quite recognize that woman in the mirror. I have friends who
say soothingly, "Oh, you're not middle-aged," and all I can think is
that just because I'm older doesn't mean I have lost my ability to
do arithmetic. The odds that I will live to be a hundred are slim.
You do the math; I'm middle-aged.
I don't think I moved to Manhattan because I was having a midlife
crisis, but I know it looks that way. Some women get their hair
dyed; this woman gave up a life and community she'd invested twenty
years in to start over in a metropolis that is a fulcrum of youth
and power. Midway through the journey of his life, Dante found
himself in a dark wood; midway through my life, I found myself in
New York and my own version of a divine comedy. I came of age in the
Midwest; I came of middle age in Manhattan.
So I'm flying through the air next to the Hudson River. Pedestrians
who stopped to witness my fear on the platform now stop to applaud
my flight. Django, one of the other instructors, is manipulating the
rigging to my safety harness as I fly.
"Hey, Katherine!" he yells up to me. "You can say something, you
I can hear him laughing. Well, at least I'm amusing him. Earlier,
all of the instructors had shown the sort of diffidence you expect
from the wranglers at a dude ranch when they're forced to haul out
Brownie, the thirteen-year-old pony, for the tourist who can't ride.
I manage one word and it's this: "Down." On his count, I let go of
the bar and flop into the safety net. I bounce my way to the
dismount area, and it's here that I encounter my real fear. To get
back on the ground, I am supposed to somersault onto a padded mat
some six feet below me.
Now this, I think, is crazy. I would rather leap off a pedestal into
thin air - I would rather do it twice - than be forced to somersault
into a six-foot drop.
"I can't do it," I hear myself say. Django grins. He's amiable -
tall, lean, and rangy, probably in his early twenties, with a head
of auburn dreadlocks. "C'mon," he says. "You were just on the
trapeze. You can do this."
No, I tell him, I can't.
Here's what I don't tell him: When I signed up for this class, I had
anticipated my fear of heights. I had anticipated my fear of flying.
I had anticipated my control issues. What I hadn't counted on was my
childhood nemesis: tumbling. I have floundered at it since grade
school, and all the weekends at the Turners Club with little
gymnasts in pink leotards never helped me. I feared it then and I
still hate it now. In junior high, I once took a D rather than try
to do a backward somersault in gym class. I still remember Miss Baum
pleading with me, "You'll lose your place on the honor roll!"
Normally, this was an argument that would have convinced me to
perform any number of untold stunts, but in this case, I didn't
care. I hated it that much.
I begin to panic; I can't move. I really, really can't do this.
Tears spring into my eyes. Django looks annoyed. The next student
can't fly until my can has left the safety net, and my can
apparently isn't moving. "Just put your hands here," he says,
indicating two loops woven into the side of the net, "and then flip
over and I'll catch you."
"I think I have trust issues," I spit out. Now I feel like I'm going
to hyperventilate. "Can't I just sort of roll over or jump?"
Django shakes his head. Nope. I could really hurt myself that way.
"Can't I just ...?"
Django loses patience. "If you want," he snaps, "you can crawl over
to the ladder and climb down."
I look and then realize that getting onto the ladder will require me
to swing my body several feet through the air so that my hands can
reach and grab on to the rungs- and this is without a safety
harness. It's death either way, that's for sure, and I choose the
path where at least someone is going to spot me. I clutch the cloth
loops, shimmy half my body over the net, tuck my head, and roll.
Django flips me over and I stand upright, a slightly shaken,
slightly overweight woman who hates to tumble but loves to fly.
I want to go back up.
You might ask what midlife has to do with Manhattan. The answer is
change. Walk the same block in this city for even a few months and
you witness transformation- the tiny flower shop morphs into a
designer perfumery, the video store suddenly pops up as an espresso
joint. Scaffolding and plywood can appear overnight on any given
corner, and you can track the daily evolutions on your way to the
subway. Change is such a constant here that people have to become
accustomed to it, if not inured. Novelist Colson Whitehead was
thinking of the transitory nature of the storefronts and corners
when he wrote that you become a New Yorker "when what was there
before is more solid and real than what is here now." That fine
newspaperman of the old school, Pete Hamill, calls New York the
Capital of Nostalgia. In his book Downtown: My Manhattan, he tells
us that the New York version of nostalgia isn't just about buildings
and the people who live in them: "It involves an almost fatalistic
acceptance of the permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay
the same. Tuesday turns into Wednesday and something valuable is
behind you forever. An 'is' has become a 'was.'"
I read those words the first summer I was here, registering an
empathetic pang. I had left a job as the host of a regional public
radio show to come to New York for a shot at a national audience, as
cohost for Al Franken as he jumpstarted the liberal Air America
Radio network. It was a calculated risk. Before that point, I had
lived a life that followed a careful path; I was vested with a
pension when I was twentyseven. Now I was working as a sidekick for
a start-up operation so high profile that I could read in the Wall
Street Journal about why we didn't make payroll. The week I
discovered the payments on our health-care policies had lapsed, I
panicked and called my former boss in St. Paul and asked if my old
job was still open. He called me back to announce in sorrowful tones
that the operative sentiment was that if I wanted to go away so bad,
I could stay away. I felt like an "is" who had become a "was." And
while my loss wasn't quite the same, I was feeling an overwhelming
longing for my old life, its sweetness and its security. I started
to joke with friends that I had become an urban version of a hobbit:
all I really wanted to do was go back to the Shire. In New York, my
life appeared to me in stark outline. I was divorced, childless, and
alone in a new city. There were days I walked the streets and
thought, How did I get here?
To accept that you are middle-aged means to accept a permanent
presence of loss, that Tuesdays are overtaken by Wednesdays, that
your thirties have been trumped by your forties - and that they'll
soon be trumped by your fifties and sixties and so on. I had already
felt loss in my life, and it felt like a harsh bargain that now I
had to accept it as a constant presence. I missed those days when I
was younger, when thinking about the future gave me the rich feeling
of infinite chances, that my future was hemmed in only by the
choices I made. It's hard to let that feeling go, to square your
shoulders and look at finite reality, to accept that maybe there are
going to be only one or two more chances at transformation left.
And that's why, when the offer came to move to New York, I took it.
I wasn't sure how many more chances would come my way.
Of the crew assembled this afternoon for our trapeze lesson, a woman
named Paulette is closest to me in age and spirit. Her brother had
bought her a gift certificate to the aerialist school for her
fiftieth birthday. Our other classmates include a tattooed graphic
artist who is on his fourth week of lessons, a slender woman with a
slight British accent, and a boyfriend/ girlfriend duo from Brooklyn
in their early twenties.
Manny gives us his opening spiel about how we'll learn to hang from
our knees on the trapeze, and how we'll learn to do a backflip off
the swing. When I ask, "Um, is it OK if we just swing? Because that
was the height of my ambitions," it is Paulette who laughs and nods
When Paulette gets to the top of the platform, she balks. "I just
can't do this," I hear her say. "I'm sorry. I can't." On the ground,
Django mutters, "Hope she does it. Hope she doesn't come down."
Paulette starts to climb off the platform. "C'mon, do it," Django
says under his breath. He turns to me and adds, "Ninety percent of
the people who climb down the first time, they don't go back up."
When Paulette gets her feet back on the ground, I want to put my arm
"It's that left bar, isn't it?" I say. "I know exactly how you
"It's scarier than I thought," she says. "A lot scarier." When it's
Paulette's turn again, she hesitates, but we all urge her to go back
up. When she ascends the ladder the second time, I am fairly sure
she'll succeed. But she pauses on the platform for what seems like
many minutes, and I realize that inside my head I am repeating a
trapeze mantra for her: You can do it, you can do it, you can do it.
Finally, she gives a hesitant jump and swings through the air. Our
whole class cheers.
I'm reminded of how, as a child, I was terrified by the deep end of
the pool. I would wade from the shallows to the dip in the pool
floor that indicated deeper water, but once I had to tread water to
stay afloat, once my feet hit that watery nothingness instead of the
tile at the bottom of the pool, my fear would always draw me back.
When I finally started going into the deep end, I would crouch by
the edge of the pool and then fall into the water like a dropped
piece of fruit, scuttling back to the side as soon as I surfaced. It
took a long time before I could just dive in with aplomb.
And that's the thing about trapeze. You can't sidle into it. And for
most of my life, I've been a really good sidler. Django says to me
later, "You came here by yourself, didn't you? Looks like you made
"Well, sure," I tell him. "Bomb threats, subway fires, trapeze
lessons- they're all bonding experiences."
"Those are good analogies for trapeze," he says, smirking. Not
really, I want to say. Trapeze is a good analogy for life. The
reason I climb back up the ladder to the platform isn't because of
the sense of flight. What I like is the moment before I reach for
the swing, the moment of anticipation before my left hand grabs on
to the bar and I am trembling on the edge and it is up to me and the
count of one-two-three-HUP! It turns out I like to leap.
Excerpted from Leap Days
by Katherine Lanpher
Copyright © 2006 by Katherine Lanpher.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Katherine Lanpher was most recently the co-host on "The Al Franken Show." Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and More magazine, as well as several regional newspapers. She hosts "Liberal Arts," a performance and interview show for Air America that features a diverse roster of artists and writers. Before her midlife move she was the host of Minnesota Public Radio's Midday Show.
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