General Interest

A Day for Leaps and Bounds

This article appeared in the February 2004 issue of the East Bay Monthly in the “Up Front: People, Arts, Issues” column.

Uncelebrated and sometimes forgotten, February 29 doesn’t get much respect. But for Leap Day babies, the flip side may be aging 75 percent slower.

By Eve Kushner

High school student Courtney Hodge of Cupertino will be 64 years old by the time she qualifies for a driver’s license. At least that’s what the parents of this Leap Day baby teasingly tell her. She threatens them back with refusing to move out of the house until she’s really 18, which means she’d be 72.

Leap Day babies (also known as leapers, leapies, leaplings, leapsters, or 29ers) are rare entities indeed. With a mere .068 percent chance of being born on February 29 (compared to a .27 percent chance of being born on any other day), they number only about 200,000 in this country. They celebrate legitimate birthdays only in years with Summer Olympics and presidential elections. And their unusual date of birth carries lifelong ramifications.

A frog

Doctors’ receptionists and DMV clerks often smugly assert that there is no February 29. Even if they acknowledge its existence, their software might not. Conversely, the government may issue documents expiring on nonexistent days, such as February 29, 2003. Even a correctly issued driver’s license can get leapers into trouble. One leaper posted an anecdote to a leapers’ Web site telling how she got out of a traffic ticket due to her birth date. “In March of 1986 (not a Leap Year), I was issued a ticket for driving with an expired driver’s license. When I went to court, I pleaded NOT GUILTY. The judge asked what I based this on, since clearly my driver’s license had expired. I held up my driver’s license, and pointed to the box that displayed BIRTHDATE: 02 29 56. Then I pointed to the box that displayed EXPIRES ON BIRTHDATE: 1986. I then stated to the judge, ‘Your Honor, there was no February 29th in 1986.’ Well, the judge was not amused, however, once she got it, she said, ‘Not guilty; now get the hell out of my courtroom.’”

A significant chunk of the public has only a dim understanding of the day tagged onto the shortest month. “I would put it somewhere just below daylight savings,” says San Franciscan Alex Wong, who turns 32 or 82 this month (depending on how you look at it). “People sort of know it happens. But most people don’t really think about it.” He believes that the most oblivious culprits are the same people who “don’t know New Mexico is a state.”

Nor does the majority know why we have Leap Day, notes Wong. After all, to understand the calendar’s convolutions, one needs to dust off long-division skills and think about remainders.

Earth circles the Sun in 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds. If you rounded that figure off to 365 days and hoped for the best, the months would cease to align regularly with the seasons. That’s how it was a few millennia ago. If you lived a long time, your birthday would eventually fall in three different seasons.

In that era, by the way, the calendar was unrecognizably different. The 304-day Roman calendar had ten months, from March to December (which makes sense if you recognize that the roots “sept,” “oct,” “nov,” and “dec” correspond to the Latin words for 7, 8, 9, and 10). The summer months “Quintilis” and “Sextilis” fit this pattern, too, but have since been renamed July and August after two emperors.

The 7th century BC brought the addition of January and February, tacked onto the end of the year. At that time February had 30 days.

Then in 45 BC, Emperor Julius Caesar tried to correct for seasonal slippage. Tinkering with the last day of the year, he deemed February 30 Leap Day and determined that it would occur just once every four years. That lasted till 4 AD, when Emperor Caesar Augustus stole a day from February to make August (his lucky month) have 31. Leap Day slid back to February 29.

Finally, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided that the year would start in January, not March, because he wanted Easter to occur in the spring. Remaining in February as it did, Leap Day came to seem strangely placed, sprouting up between the cracks of the months like a weed in the sidewalk. Because the calendar was still running ten days ahead of the solar year, the pope dropped ten days from 1582 and then prevented future misalignment by creating an exception to the Leap Day rule. Turn-of-the-century years (such as 1900 or 2000) would have to be divisible by 400 to contain Leap Days. Hence, there was a Leap Day in 2000 but not in 1900.

This hide-and-seek day pops up in our culture in assorted ways, from the 16th-century English poem, “30 Days Hath September” (a favorite among leapers), to The Pirates of Penzance (an 1879 Gilbert and Sullivan musical whose plot hinges on a Leap Day birthday). Superman was allegedly born on February 29 (which could explain why he ages so slowly in comic books).

Leap Day babies (also known as leapers, leapies, leaplings, leapsters, or 29ers) are rare entities. They celebrate legitimate birthdays only in years with Summer Olympics and presidential elections.

Nonetheless, society at large remains all too unaware of Leap Day, or so say the founders of the Honor Society of Leap Day Babies. Feeling that the day should at least be on a par with Groundhog Day, they seek to raise awareness and, as they indicate on their Web site (www.leapzine.com/hr), they aim to have February 29 officially labeled “Leap Year Day” on calendars. (For that to happen, senators would need to proclaim the day a holiday.) Leap Day activists want the day to get more respect. Short of seeking an Act of Congress, Web site co-founder Raenell Dawn has gone straight to calendar manufacturers, who have largely complied with her demands to put the day on their calendars.

Leapers and their loved ones face other, more personal issues, including when to celebrate birthdays in off-years (if at all). Obvious choices include February 28 and March 1. “Strict Februarians” opt for the former, arguing that because February is their birth month with its own birthstone, it makes sense to stick to one month, rather than vacillating between two. March 1 advocates note that Leap Day falls on the 60th day of the year, which February 28 will never be.

Some people become terribly scientific in their analyses. On his Web site (www.mystro.com/leap.htm), Leap Day enthusiast John Strohsacker of Baltimore includes facts and figures by a math whiz who calls himself “the Mensanator.” Asserting that a year is never 365 or 366 days but always 365-1/4, he has compiled dizzying spreadsheets showing that the February 28 versus March 1 issue depends on how many quarter-years have accumulated (his advanced mathematics essentially rounds the quarter years up or down to determine the celebration date in off-years).

Alex Wong fetes on the closest weekend but recalls that in college years, people tried to find him at midnight between February 28 and March 1. Is that the crevice into which Leap Day disappears on off-years? Wong, a one-time software architect, likes to think so. In that regard, he mentions “leap seconds.” Although leap seconds have nothing to do with Leap Day—they come from the International Earth Rotation Service in Paris, which adds or subtracts seconds in January and July depending on fluctuations in Earth’s rotation—Wong says, “conceptually it’s fun to think about them” as tucked in there at midnight as February becomes March.

In other families, off-year celebrations last several days—even a week. In another variation, the Couch family of Hawthorne (near Los Angeles) observes birthdays and half-birthdays (August 29 for leapers) to equalize the siblings’ celebrations.

Ellen O’Connell from Santa Rosa celebrates the off-year birthdays of her twin girls by borrowing etiquette Lewis Carroll unwittingly provided in Alice in Wonderland. On February 28, she sings “Happy Unbirthday” and writes “Happy Unbirthday” on their cakes.

When Leap Day actually rolls around, celebrations tend to be extravagant. “Every four years you make ten times more of a deal than you would have on a yearly basis,” says Heather Schmidt of Antioch. She has planned a huge bash for her leaper’s first real birthday this month—though she’ll be four years old—providing ponies, a jumpy jump, and cotton candy, as well as flying in grandparents from Atlanta. Because frogs (as in leapfrog) are the mascot of choice in leapers’ lives, guests might play “Pin the Wart on the Frog.”

Alex Wong’s party guests similarly played “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” when he turned 28, because of course he was also turning seven, and his fiancée planned a party fit for a seven-year-old. And when Victoria Couch turned 12/3, she and her friends dressed as three-year-old girls would: in Mary Janes, overalls, frilled socks, and pigtails. Then they partied it up at Chuck E. Cheese.

Leapers have one party option that the rest of us lack: a four-day communal celebration in Anthony, a small town straddling the New Mexico–Texas border. In 1988, at the urging of Anthony resident Mary Ann Brown, born on Leap Day 1932, the Anthony Chamber of Commerce cooked up the Worldwide Leap Year Festival as a promotional gimmick for the community and as a way to bring recognition to the day. Featuring hot air balloon liftoffs, hay rides, and fireworks, as well as a parade, a Leap Year birthday group picture, and a birthday dinner, the event has attracted thousands of leapers internationally, including rocker Graham Nash (husband of a leaper), who performed at the 2000 festival.

Leapers can gloat about their relative youth. San Jose resident Pat Carr has a friend born just three days before Carr. The friend tells people they’ll both be 60 next year, but “I make sure everyone knows I’ll only be 15,” says Carr.

Most leapers don’t take their Leap Day ages seriously, but for a few the matter isn’t so clear-cut. John Edson, an actor and writer in Santa Monica, genuinely believes he’s aging more slowly than others born in 1944. He has no grey hairs (only a few in his whiskers) and can still hit a fastball in a pitching cage. For many years, Edson thought, “I’m not going to age at the same rate that other people do.” He comments, “Now that it’s happened, it’s strange.”

Edson also says he has always needed more time than others to accomplish tasks. He’s just completed a semi-autobiographical novel exploring “altered concepts of time,” a project which took him 40 years to complete. He declares himself “completely incapable of doing” paperwork and mechanical or technical things. As a child, he was also slow to understand the reason for Leap Day. His mom repeatedly explained it, “And then three days later I’d come back and go, ‘But, but, but…’ ” Except for his physical reflexes, “everything took too long, way too long.”

The idea that leapers might inhabit a different space-time continuum seems like the stuff of Kurt Vonnegut (whose Slaughterhouse-Five protagonist becomes “unstuck in time”), but the concept is familiar to Peter Brouwer, who co-founded the Honor Society of Leap Day Babies. Turning 48/12 this month, Brouwer, a business writer from San Francisco, was carded till age 40/10. He says many leapers feel younger and believe they’re aging more slowly.

Brouwer, like Edson, also feels his birth date has disadvantages. “I have great difficulty making decisions, seeing obvious paths,” Brouwer says. But he attributes it less to any wrinkles in time and more to astrology. Citing a book about personality types for each birthday, he says those born on Leap Day are “flying in the clouds,” unable to see which way they’re going. He notes that there’s little astrological significance to a Leap Day birthday, but says all leapers are Pisces, born in the year of the rat, the dragon, or the monkey, giving them universal characteristics.

Brouwer misses having traditional birthday perks in off-years, like free birthday desserts at restaurants, but for Edson, the Leap Day birthday has caused considerably more unhappiness. Early in life he couldn’t understand why he was singled out to have his birthday “shagged off the calendar” by a phony day that is used to pad the calendar to “make up for some mistake in calculation.”

His family moved frequently when he was a child, and his loneliness became bound up with his oddball birthday, which few even knew about. Even now, his unusual birthday strikes him as “an added stick of weirdness on the pile.”

Raenell Dawn of Keizer, Oregon, who will soon turn 44/11, has felt so victimized by her birthday that on the Web site she co-founded with Brouwer, she emphasizes the wrongs perpetrated against leapers. She solicits leapers’ anecdotes of woe and responds with sympathetic and supportive notes.

According to Brouwer, Dawn spends much of her time surfing eBay for Leap Day paraphernalia and has amassed a small warehouse full of the stuff. Eventually, she hopes to create a museum (LeapZeum) with her collection once it becomes valuable. She’s “totally hardcore,” says Brouwer.

Like Edson, lots of leapers believe the birthday makes them different and unique—but in mainly positive ways. “It’s fun. It’s cocktail-party fodder,” says Alex Wong. But for others, the day permanently divides leapers from non-leapers and carries more gravity. Peter Brouwer laments, “I’ll never know if my birthday feels the same way yours does.” And John Edson says that because he is stuck with a quadrennial birthday resulting from a math error made centuries ago, he is more attuned to the possibility of mistakes everywhere. “You tend to have a suspicion about things.”

Then again, you could see Leap Day not as a deficit of forethought but as an excess. “Somebody was thinking way too hard when they put it all together,” says Michael Farbstein, a San Mateo lawyer whose daughter Corrie will turn 12/3 this month.

When an attorney complains about the level of detail, you know something has gone to extremes. And indeed, when you consider the spreadsheets, the warehouse full of paraphernalia, the grievances, the identity issues, the festival, the time-space questions, the frogs, the congressional involvement, the deep divide between Strict Februarians and March 1 advocates, and the contemplation of astrological implications, you realize that Leap Day cogitation takes people down a rabbit hole (a frog hole?) from which some never return.

Eve Kushner is a birthday nut who still remembers most of the birthdays of her elementary school classmates. She believes that a birthday is deserving of cannon fire, trumpet salutes, and calls from the queen.