Archive for September, 2009

The Day I Was a Spy

on September 30, 2009 in Misc 9 Comments »

Several years ago the police chief in a small town in Bosnia accused me of being a spy.

I’m telling you this story because a couple nights ago a friend pointed out that I don’t have to become completely like Layla since in many ways (more than I myself can see) she believes I modeled Layla after me.  She’s probably right.  Certainly I’ve given Layla a couple of my personal adventures along with what was in me that got me through them.

The spy incident happened in the town of Olovo where I spent two hours in a dingy room on the second floor of the police station fighting to convince the police chief I was innocent.  A local teacher served as our translator.  His grim expression told me he was on the police chief’s side.  Beyond a window loomed a neighboring building, its walls pockmarked with shell and bullet holes.  The war in Bosnia had been over for some time, but the scars it had seared into its people and their country lived on.

The police chief couldn’t understand why I had flown into Belgrade in the neighboring enemy nation of Serbia instead of into the Bosnian city of Sarajevo.  He didn’t believe me when I said I was a writer and driving through both countries because I wished to see both of them.  No innocent traveler, he insisted, would rent a car in Belgrade.  How did I get into Bosnia?  Why didn’t my passport show my entry into his country?  Where was my visa?  He scoffed when I said no one in Belgrade would give me one.

Finally, after two painful hours during which I argued, pleaded, demanded and protested, I remembered a small scrap of paper in my wallet.  I pulled it out and handed it to him.


The police chief stared at it.  He sneered.  He shrugged and grumbled.  And a few minutes later, after I agreed to hand over the film in my camera, he let me go.

That scrap of paper saved me because it proved not only that I had crossed the Serbian/Bosnian border where I said I had, I had also bribed the Serb soldiers guarding it.  No visa! one of the soldiers had yelled at me after examining my passport.  I pulled out my wallet and said I’m so sorry — how much do they cost?  That’s when the soldiers turned friendly and happily charged me about four times a visa’s usual price.  Then in a shadow play that they were acting officially, one of them stamped a scrap of paper and gave it to me as a receipt.  If I had been a spy for the Serbs, those soldiers would have let me pass for free. The police chief knew this.

In my original manuscript of The Compass Master I gave my experience at the border and in the police station to Layla Daltry.  For the purpose of story development I had also added a rare medieval book that was hidden in the trunk of Layla’s car; she had been hired by its owner to retrieve it from an occupied town and return it to him.  I loved this scene, I really did.  But my agent correctly declared that it didn’t completely fit in with the rest of The Compass Master.  And so — and this hurt me — I cut it out and rewrote chapter four which was also set in Bosnia and moved it up to replace chapter two.

Anyway, I’ve kept a copy of the original scene and plan to use it in a future book about Layla.  Having lived through the story, I know it’s good enough to keep around.

I Love My Plan

on September 7, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on I Love My Plan

Another good thing about the painfully tough parkour workout on Saturday – it made me forget about the really crappy day I had at work on Friday.  You know what I mean.  The kind of day when everything seems to be going okay and then the shit hits the fan just as you pause in front of it and you leave the office feeling miserable.

The next day when I left parkour I felt so different.  Though physically wiped out I was really quite happy.  I was smiling and humming as I drove home with my blistered hands barely able to grasp the steering wheel.  Then I remembered my crappy work day and the thought of it brought me thudding back down to earth.  That’s when I forced myself to concentrate on my Layla plan.  Within minutes my spirits were high again, and I realized that becoming like Layla is something I’ve desperately needed for a very long time.

The thing about my plan is this: I’m really, truly in charge of it.  Unlike some other aspects of my life, in my plan I call all the shots.  I created it therefore I can do what I damn well please with it.  Because of my plan, I am no longer putting off the kinds of things I’ve long wanted to do because right now I don’t have the money/ time/ whatever.  I want to take that skydiving lesson this month? I’ll do it, never mind the expense!  I want to be in the one-night billiards class with a national champion who calls herself The Viper (that is so cool!)  It’s on my calendar.  I want to sit out on the roof terrace and read my French and Arabic books to my heart’s content, and to hell with housework and errands?  Go for it. To quote Billie Holiday,  “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do”.

Within the structure of my plan, I am happy and free and in control.  Within my plan, I can be what I want and do what I want.  It is liberating.

Suffering for Art

on September 5, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on Suffering for Art


Here’s my pain tally from today’s parkour class:

Five blood red torn blisters on the palms of my hands.   Banged-up left and right shins.  Deep bruise on left buttock where I slammed my weight down on a bar right where that annoying sharp bone protrudes in said buttock.   Arms I still can’t lift over my head lest I yelp in agony.   Bruised elbow.   Throbbing biceps.   Shoulders that ache even while I sit here and type.   Extreme exhaustion of entire body.

All for the sake of my novel.

You know, most writers are smart enough not to emulate the lead characters in their books.   Writers of thrillers are especially adverse to risking the kind of bodily harm they so willingly inflict on their heroes.  That’s because good writers grasp the difference between reality and fiction.  Fiction can be deadly.   Fiction can mean the searing pain of irreversible injuries and personal financial ruin from too much costly adventuring.   Reality, on the other hand, means that the writer can be a dumpy, frumpy, out-of-shape wuss who’s afraid of the dark and wouldn’t know how to escape from a dangerous situation if his/her publisher’s advance depended on it.

Me?  I like to think of myself as smart.  People even tell me that the stuff I write is very intelligent.  So why am I trying to slowly kill myself for the sake of my novel?

Granted, I laid out the reasons for my one-year plan in the earliest entries of this blog.  But that was before the suffering.  That was before I had to endure my ninth and final parkour class, the one in which I learned how to hang from a high bar and move along it sideways and forward with only my hands, then with my hands and legs, and then jump through two bars while catching the higher bar and arching my body between them WITHOUT hitting my butt on the lower bar (I didn’t always succeed; see pain tally), and then run an obstacle course of bars to get over /under/ through without slamming my face into any of the metal.  At least my face survived intact.  And all of this, of course, was preceded by the usual burning workout.  (Good news!  I can do a handstand/ roll out with the instructor barely spotting me and telling me I’ve now got it.)  Then after the lessons with the bar work came a final killer workout involving jumps and weight lifting.  Matt (one of our two instructors that day) also took me and another student into the bathroom and helpfully showed us how to rip off the torn tags of skin over our blisters, warned us not to get those blisters in water because they will sting like hell (TOO LATE!), and gave us instructions on how to administer first aid to the now open sores before we go to bed at night.

Anyway, this ninth class in the fundamentals is the last one for me because I’m going to a wedding next Saturday and will miss the final and tenth one.  The instructor was disappointed I wouldn’t be there.  “It’s the class where we put together everything you’ve learned.”  That would mean the high jumps, jump offs, rolls, quadripedal runs, bar work, balancing, tic-tocs (bouncing high off the wall) and more.  You know, I really am disappointed too.  I want to see what I can do.  When I asked about the intermediate course, he emphasized that it would be really intermediate — i.e., above my present level of ability, therefore I shouldn’t take it.  Ouch.  But what I can do is come back for some open gym time.  That’ll be good.  That’ll mean practicing on the equipment and walls until I’ve really mastered the fundamentals of the sport.  And I can do this at my own pace and without pushing myself until I nearly collapse.

Two of the side benefits of these extreme parkour workouts:  First, I’m starting to feel more confident in my physical abilities.  Second, not only am I already in much better shape, and not only is my upper body much stronger, but my thighs are firmer and visibly thinner — this despite the fact that I was already slim and not trying to lose weight.  In fact, I can even wear a pair of cotton capris I almost threw out last year after accidentally putting them in the dryer with other clothes where of course they shrunk.  I pulled them out a couple weeks ago, tried them on, and not only do they fit, they hang loose on me.

Now for you guys out there, this doesn’t sound like much.  But you ladies will understand why this makes me very happy.

Layla’s Retirement

on September 1, 2009 in Misc 1 Comment »

When Layla grows old she’ll retire with her lover/husband to a boat on the Nile.


I made this decision because that’s what I want to do when I’m an old fart and finally have enough money to quit working.  At the rate my retirement funds are growing that’ll happen when I’m ninety-two.

The source of this inspiration came from a story in the New York Times I read a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to get out of my head.  It profiled two archeologists, now in their sixties, who for six months of the year live on a dahabiya or houseboat on the Nile while excavating the tombs of the sons of Ramses II in the Valley of the Kings; the other six months of the year they spend in Cairo, London, and Connecticut.

Damn, that sounds so good!

Of course Layla is a hell of a lot closer to achieving this dream than I’ll ever be.  After all, she has a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in early Christian literature with an emphasis on archeology.  I figure that when she’s in her fifties she’ll pursue a degree in Egyptology at her alma mater, the University of Chicago, which just happens to be the leading North American institution in that field.  (I really had no idea when I created Layla’s background that the U of C would remain relevant for her future plans.)  Then of course there are her connections to the antiquity departments of various institutions.  Finally, she has a powerful connection to a remarkable discovery in Egypt, as detailed in The Compass Master.  So Layla’s retirement is set.

As for me…

Some years ago I spent about ten days in Egypt, half of that time in Cairo and the other half by floating up the Nile with other tourists.  I’m also struggling to get down the basics of the Arabic language.  Logically, none of this amounts to a hill of beans when it comes to my dream retirement.

But maybe there’s hope for me.

Right now I’m reading The Road to Ubar by Nicholas Clapp.  He’s a documentary filmmaker who researched the legendary and vanished city of Ubar on the Arabic Penninsula, then organized a successful expedition to find it.  That makes him a member of the crowded ranks of amateur archeologists who’ve made great discoveries.  Hence for me The Road is one of those books that drive home the fact that amateur archeologists can also go into wild place and have a rip-roaring time locating lost antiquities.

I just might have a grand old age after all.