Getting Caught
By Whitney Casey
Special to Page 2

I've been dubbed a "screamer." Strapped into my harness, my legs spread shoulder-width apart, arms reaching out, I surrender, sliding into the unknown. In the midst of exhilaration and ecstasy, I release a sigh of pleasure. It was my first time ... on the trapeze.

Trapeze School New York
A city of 8 million can look pretty small when you're flying by it.
The trapeze? I know. You're thinking Big Top: clowns and bearded ladies, right? Well, it is downtown Manhattan. But no, the circus isn't in town. Along the Hudson River, near the site of the former World Trade Center, the Trapeze School New York has built an impressive contraption for the flying trapeze.

The rig is some 30 feet high with dozens of wires, nets, ropes, and seemingly limitless possibilities ... including therapeutic ones. This city is home to more than eight million people, and half of them see shrinks. Is it possible that all those psychiatrists can be trumped by a trapeze artist? One flight, and therapists all over this city may be looking for work. The School's pitch is that fears, limitations, foibles and weaknesses can be exposed and -- according to some -- overcome with work on the trapeze.

I didn't buy it. I didn't expect to be found out. You see, after living in New York City for so long, I thought I was a pro at hiding my weaknesses, my insecurities, my shortcomings. All this talk about exposing them with stunts at higher altitudes seemed to be a little too Oprah for me.

O' was I wrong. ( Click here to see Whitney fly.)

Over the past two years, the Trapeze School New York has attracted hundreds of flyers-in-training: investment bankers, movie producers, teachers, and tourists. In fact, people are flying all over America. An Internet search shows trapeze schools popping up in Chicago, Florida, Arizona, and California. Flying has even gone from the Big Top to the small screen. In a recent episode of "Sex and the City," Sarah Jessica Parker's character Carrie tries the trapeze.

However, it wasn't for me. Not until I saw Al Roker (yes ... the avuncular "Today Show" weatherman) flying dozens of feet into the Manhattan skyline. Then I thought ... if Al can, why can't I?! (Great bumper sticker, huh?)

As I write this column two days later, I am flanked by a tub-o-Advil and the permanent stench of icy-hot. Did you know your armpits could cramp up? I'm thinking ... what was I thinking? My day of flying has certainly brought me both physically and emotionally ... back down to earth.

My Therapy Begins with Yoda.
It was a glorious Manhattan morning as I sauntered into 'school.' Cheery and way too with-it for before-breakfast banter, Trapeze School New York owner and founder Jonathon Conant greeted me with a don't-worry-about-the-fear-only-the-addiction hello. Conant is the Yoda of the Trapeze. He has a platitude for every attitude that walks into his class. He says, "The trapeze helps people redefine their sense of limitations ... and if you can't redefine them, your body can."

Whitney Casey
Whitney puts on a brave face as she prepares to take flight.
According to trapeze folklore, you subconsciously realize you can break your neck and die whenever your body is more than five feet off the ground. So the fear factor is a knee-jerk kind of thing. I suppose the "assumption of risk" release I signed - "I acknowledge that my participation could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, or death" -- wasn't enough psyche-tampering!

But after a cursory explanation, a ground demonstration, and a gut check, I'm skyward.

Thirty feet up, on a 3-by-5 plywood platform, the "safety" net beneath me looks a league away. Because only wires hold the apparatus upright, it seems as though there are no boundaries. With obnoxious alacrity, I move to the center of the platform. This is where 23-year-old Olivia Lehrman, the spotter (and a woman half my size), plans to hold my waist harness while I lean out over the abyss. My credulity alarm begins to ring!

Securing my insecurities, Olivia calls out from behind me: "Lista," meaning "Ready." (Just like therapists, trapeze artists have their own elaborate insider jargon.)With both hands strangling the trapeze bar and my body rigidly positioned to jump, she says, "Hep," which is trapeze-speak for "Go."

I push off. I am flying. This is the point at which I remember the wise words of the Trapeze Yoda: "Faced with the unknown and a perceived danger, most people become overwhelmed with fear and emotion. They can't maintain focus and stay present during such strong emotion." May the force be with you.

Pulling out my life saber, I am determined to stay focused. Milliseconds later, at the top of the swing, I am supposed to hook my knees over the bar. In Trapeze speak, it will be my first "trick." I'm successful.

Now, I've got to refocus quickly ... a new trick. In the back of the swing, I am supposed to let my arms down and hang by my knees. Again, I am successful.

Finally, three swings and one somersault later (I can't remember how), I am hugged by the safety net and my first flight on the trapeze is over. Whheeeewwww.

Olivia Lehrman
Whitney, left, is putting her life in the hands of Olivia. If only she were a little taller ...
Yoda says, "When you get up on the trapeze, any fears or weaknesses you have in your everyday life seem to manifest and become very obvious in flight." I wondered: Is this guy full of it? Meanwhile, I decided to rest a bit and test out his theory on a class of newbies.

Enter Emily, a diminutive, mid-30's New York City workaholic. It is her first trapeze flight. After gingerly climbing to the top of the platform, 20 minutes of turn-back-now deliberation, constant coaxing from three instructors, and a super-sized portion of embarrassment, Emily finally melts off the platform into the sky. No tricks, no frills, no knee hooks ... just unadulterated FEAR.

"It was the first time I felt pure fear and physical disbelief," Emily says in explanation of why she took so long to decide to jump. When I ask her what the biggest weakness is in her life, she says, " ... indecisiveness." Hmmm.

For John, 33, and his wife Stephanie, 31, from North Carolina, there are different fears.

John has trouble believing that the spotter behind him (whom he couldn't see) is really holding him until he jumps off. He says it was hard to trust because he couldn't see. He needed more assurance.

His wife says he always needs more assurance. Stephanie says she knew she could jump off, but didn't believe she could do the "tricks" (knee-hook and arm-release). She admits to her main weakness in life: "If I don't get things right the first time around, I usually just give up."

I watched Stephanie's first flight. Her second and third time looked exactly the same.

Stephanie, John
If you're married and want to bond, how about a nice dinner instead?
Okay, maybe this wacky trapeze sage is on to something. Four trips back up the ladder and many successful "tricks" later, I was ready for my final trick -- the catch. Swinging from another bar on the opposite side of my trapeze was my "catcher," Brian McVicker (also half my size). At 6-feet tall, I was beginning to feel like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians ... but I digress.

On Brian's timing and one "hep" later, I was to jump off the platform and swing into the openness, let go, and be caught by a man the size of my right leg, whom I'd met a mere half-an-hour ago? Was I out of my mind? Standing on the platform, I said to Olivia, the spotter, "You've been watching me ... what is my biggest weakness so far?"

Olivia's succinct reply: "COMMITMENT. You aren't committed enough to each trick."

That little PUNK! Guilty as charged.

So with an ear-to-ear smile, I took the cat and the canary and jumped! However, as a resolutely-single-commitment-phobe, I allowed myself to be caught. But only by the trapeze artist, and only because it was a quick glimpse at life. With a safety net.

Grounded by this realization: I'd rather be juggling.




WHITTICISMS

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