Archive for December, 2009


Cool Gifts

on December 31, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on Cool Gifts

I received some nifty and very Layla-relevant gifts under the tree this year. 

My sister gave me, among other lovely stuff, The Action Heroine’s Handbook, which as you can see fits right into my Layla plan.  It has handy tips on things like going undercover as a beauty queen, how to choke a man with your bare thighs, how to outrun a fireball, how to pop a nose wheelie on a motorcycle and – my own favorite – how to fend off the undead.  I really think I’ll be testing some of the book’s advice, and per usual I’ll report back in this blog on my subsequent success and/or injuries and arrest.

Heroines_handbook2

The stuff my brother gave me was of course way cool.  There was a LED headlamp that’s definitely better and brighter than the girlie blue one I have now.  It’s also in black and silver, the better to accessorize my new black field vest with pockets.  “You need your hands free if you’re going climb buildings!” he advised as I tried on the vest and headlamp, and he should know since he’s an experienced mountain climber.  (Layla of course wears a headlamp in a couple scenes in The Compass Master; I now see why she should also wear a vest with handy pockets.)

My brother also gave me a miniature and ridiculously powerful LED flashlight, and since I tested it on him I can confirm that it would be very good at temporarily blinding anyone who’s coming at me in the dark.  And, finally, in a perfect complement to my expanding Layla wardrobe, he gave me a black wool cap/hood, the kind you see on bad or good guys in the movies or TV shows when they’re breaking into a place or on real-life criminals when they show up on security cameras.  My brother even showed me how I can wear it as an innocent-seeming black hat, but then when I’m secretly getting into a building I just have to pull it down over my face so that only my mouth and eyes are visible.

Sometimes I wonder how my brother spends his spare time.

In summation, I had a pretty good Christmas this year.  I’d like to thank Southwest for finding my luggage and getting it to me a couple days after I’d arrived at my Mom’s house.  By then I was feeling pretty gamey so it was nice to have a change of clothing.  I’d also like to thank my Mom for ignoring me when I was in a pissy mood because Southwest lost my bag.  And I thank her because she gave me too many gifts.  These included a large tin of cookies (or as I call it, Ass Fat), which she thinks I should eat all by myself because – bless her heart! – she has always believed that I’m too thin and can eat anything I want without gaining an ounce. 

Hell, the last time that was true I was eleven years old.  If I ever find a photo of me at that age showing off my toothpick legs, pointy dorky glasses, and goofy grin, I’ll post it here.  It’s good for a laugh.

Happy New Year, y’all.

The Brain Change

on December 22, 2009 in Misc 1 Comment »

My brain has been changing since I started my Layla plan.

Literally, physically, my brain truly is reshaping itself.  I can feel it, sense it.

This isn’t surprising.  Scientists know that the human brain is dynamic.  Within the first two hours of my first parkour class, the complex circuitry in my head sparked to life and forged new neuronal pathways.  Neurologists would tell me that the same dynamic growth is occurring when I practice Arabic, or learn how to play billiards, or pull out and read old French textbooks I haven’t looked at in years.  My brain is altering itself every bit as much as I am altering my body and my knowledge.

Brain_Change

But what I really love is the beautiful scientific fact that my thoughts and feelings alone are changing my brain.  My mind and metaphorical heart – those ephemeral, insubstantial, spirit-like things — have the power to reshape the tissue and nerves and chemical balance and other biological realities that fill my skull.  What extraordinary power!  I’d never really appreciated it before now.

No, I couldn’t possibly have complete control over my brain.  If I did, I wouldn’t be crazy.  The point is, I’m finding out first hand and in palpable, very real ways that there’s a vast difference between writing about Layla Daltry in the pages of a manuscript and living like her in the real world.  My mind and feelings are changing far more than I’d anticipated, and they in turn are changing me and my life.

When I started my Layla plan I had thought that if I lined up classes and workouts and study hours and so on then my efforts to become like my own literary creation (Layla Daltry!  That exciting woman!) would progress logically.  I would have goalposts to measure my development.  I would work from the outside in.

But that’s not really happening.  Instead, the most noticeable changes I’ve seen in myself are not physical.  Granted, I do have a more buff body with fewer flabby parts.  But the striking fact is, since beginning my Layla plan what’s really changing is how I think and feel and look at my life and at the world.

But more about that later.  Once again, it’s very late, I have to get up early, and I should know better than to work on this blog when feeling sleep deprived.

A Confession

on December 18, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on A Confession

A_Confession

And now for some soul-baring.

My darlin’ blog commenter Robert asked me if I’m in the process of writing The Compass Master or waiting until the end of my Layla plan to finish it.

Oh, I’ve certainly finished The Compass Master.  I’ve written it, rewritten it, polished it, and after months of trying found a good agent who agreed to take it on.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is:  since about the time I started my Layla plan, I’ve been in a state of denial.

Around August I started telling myself there was still hope that a publisher would pick up The Compass Master.  My agent was really good and trying very hard.   I’ve been published before, which should help.  And not yet a full year had passed since she’d started to send my manuscript around to editors.

Hell, it took two years for Charlaine Harris’s novel Dead Until Dark to find a publisher; then it became a bestseller which begot a bestselling series which gave birth to a hit show on HBO.  Twenty-seven rejections descended on Flags of Our Fathers – half a year on the New York Times bestseller list, a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.  And there’s Ironweed – won the Pulitzer.  Confederacy of Dunces – another Pulitzer.  Harry Potter, for crissakes!  And the biggest bestseller of all time?  Gone with the Wind. Twenty-five rejections.

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Book_Rejections

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You know, it’s really sad the way we writers can recite so many rejection stories by heart.  We rattle them off the way Red Sox fans babble about batting averages.  They give us comfort.  They infuse our bruised hearts with healing hope.  They hold at bay our fears that what we have written cannot be truly good because the gatekeepers of the printing presses may never cast an approving eye our way.  We tell these stories to our friends and families when yet another too-brief, impersonal rejection has slapped our manuscript back into our weary hands.

How pathetic.  And how very passive.

And that’s the ugly truth – that there really is a terrible passivity to the traditional publishing process for writers.  You take action and develop discipline and a sheer force of will and write a book.  Then you give it to a stranger to decide what to do with it?  Oh please.

I mean, God bless book editors and editors-in-chief, copy editors and all the rest.  Like writers they’re human.  They can make brilliant decisions and whopping mistakes.  They’re also shamefully undervalued by the bean-counting corporations that now own their once independent companies.  And with the bad economy and declining book sales they’re really hurting.  They’re also facing changing technologies and the power of the internet which in turn may radically transform their industry in much the same way the music industry is being forced to change.

All of which means I’ve finally faced the facts and made a plain, clear-minded decision.

I must stop being passive, bypass all the middlemen, and publish The Compass Master myself.

I myself must make decisions about the cover, choose the artist, write the blurb on the back, hire a printer, engage the necessary services, find a distributor, plot a promotional campaign, and all on a shoestring budget.  And that’s just for starters.

Do all these tasks seem overwhelming to me?  Oh, hell yes!  Yet the very prospect is also giving me a growing sense of strength and purpose.  If I want to see my book published then I should stop waiting for others to help me and simply do it myself.  No big deal.  Now get on with it.  And don’t expect great sales or any reviews because they likely will never happen and don’t matter anyway.  It’s my life that matters.

And that’s where Layla comes in.  More than I ever expected, she is helping me to save myself and my life.

But that’s a big honkin’ subject I’ll write about next time.  Right now it’s very late and I’m going to bed.  ‘Night, all.

The Stretching Angle

on December 14, 2009 in Misc 1 Comment »

Woman stretching

Here’s a quickie test.

Think about the fighting style of most male action heroes from James Bond to Bruce Willis to Matt Damon and so on.

Now think about the fighting style of all their modern female counterparts.  Add in the villainesses who physically fight both women and men.  Besides drop-dead gorgeous bodies, what do they have in common?

The women can all stretch like rubber bands.

Think about it.  Do you ever see James Bond kicking his leg over his head to hammer the bad guy in the kisser?  Does Will Smith whip off back handsprings to smash an attacker?  Indiana Jones certainly never fell into a splits while taking down a truck full of Nazis.

But that’s how the women fight.  They can splay their legs like their bodies are splitting in half.  Bend their backs like their spines are buttery goo.  Whirl like windmills, dive like swans, spin kick attackers into a demolition dream.

Women Fighters

Obviously there are men like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and their Western versions who  share this loose-limbed fighting style.  What they have in common with the ladies is martial arts.  They’re lethal because they’re  limber, use an opponent’s attacks and momentum against him or her, and move with devastating speed.  And all these reasons explain why women can rely on martial arts to even the playing field for them.  Years ago when I took intensive Tae Kwan Do for about six months, I learned how easy it was to break boards with my kicks and deflect an attacker’s moves.  I didn’t have bulky muscles and didn’t need them.

But back to the rubber band phenomenon.  In this category, how does my body measure up?

It depends on what direction you’re talking about.  The splits I can do – right or left leg.  Thus I can kick over my head.  I used to do a decent back bend, but years ago I got out of the habit of regularly doing a few a week and now my shoulders and back have stiffened up and I can no longer get into a decent one.  So a couple months ago I added back and shoulder stretches to my workout routines and the effort is making a difference.  I’m still only practicing halfway-down backbends against walls or the high back of an old armchair, but I’m making progress.

My chronic problem area is the side splits.  You know what I mean – when you’re facing forward and your legs are out at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions.  When I try to stretch into one, I can only start at a 90 degree angle and work out to maybe a 110 degree one.  And this isn’t a recent development.  For years I’ve stretched away, and while the rest of my body loosened up I’ve still – to my enormous frustration — always remained tight down in that part of the pelvis and upper thighs.  What I’ve long wanted to be like is Leslie Caron in An American in Paris when in one dance routine she effortlessly moves from splits to side splits to splits in the other direction as if she’s simply shifting her perspective.

This one area of tightness  may sound like no big deal, but I’ve found that it really has impeded some of my movements.  In parkour when I had to clamber around in quadrapedal movements, my side-stepping was limited and I sometimes felt uncomfortable twinges in the wrong places.  In Tae Kwan Do the tightness constricted my side kicks.  And I know that when I start climbing walls or whatever my inability to spread my legs loosely (and I mean that in the cleanest possible way) is again going to hamper me.

You’d think that the years of ballet I’d had when young with its emphasis on “turnout” would have unraveled the rock-hard knots that tie me up down there.  But nope.  Not a bit of it.  I can do pliés in second position till the cows come home but I still can’t do no 180 degrees – hell, I’d be ecstatic with 160 – side splits.

Per usual I must ask if Layla can do the side splits.  I didn’t really think about it when I was creating her, but the answer obviously has to be that she comes damn close to it.  If she can climb around buildings and get into forbidden places, she must have a body that can do what she commands of it.  From scaling walls to parkour-style escapes, she’s got the chops.

And that means I gotta go for the side splits.

So for the next few weeks I’m going to swallow my frustration and experiment like crazy with stretches.  I found a couple old articles and a book on the subject and they should help.  I’ll switch back and forth from static to dynamic stretching.  I’ll try stretching two or three times a day, and I’ll avoid injuries by going at it gently.  Then, if at the end of it all I’ve finally, genuinely loosened myself up by 20 or 30 degrees, I’ll consider my efforts a success.

Here ’s hoping for the best.

Whither Arabic?

on December 10, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on Whither Arabic?

arabic

How much Arabic can I expect to learn in one year?  Or at this point eight months and counting down?

Robert, my sweetie reader, THANK YOU for asking a question I should have had the sense to ask myself when I launched my crackpot scheme a few months ago.  After I whined in my latest blog entry about not having enough time or money or energy to fulfill all the elements of my Layla transformation efficiently, you asked a perceptive question, to whit:  Could Layla learn a language in a year?

The simple answer is…

If it’s Arabic, hell no.

After all, we ain’t talking Spanish here.  Arabic is no relatively easy Romance language that even I could become fluent in after two or three months of immersion.  (And yes, I met someone who did just that by attending a dirt-cheap language school in the mountains of Guatemala.)  We’re talking about a Semitic tongue.  We’re talking about a different alphabet, a vocabulary that bears no resemblance to English, plurals of nouns that seem so random they truly double the vocabulary, and worst of all, there’s the great evil called DECLENSION.

Those crazies out there who’ve studied Latin know what I’m talking about.  (Robert my poor dear!  Once studying and failing at Latin is something else we have in common!)  In English there’s only a little bit of declension, in Latin there’s way too much of it, and in Arabic there’s just enough to make it a hairy beast of a challenge.  Anyway, if you want to know about this evil grammatical phenomenon look it up in Wikipedia.  Also, review that painfully funny scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with John Cleese as the Roman Centurion bullying the lowly Hebrew Graham Chapman by making him work on his Latin declension.

But I digress.

The fact is, I won’t be able to enter any kind of language immersion program during my one-year plan.  I also have to tackle a whole list of Layla challenges that are already keeping me freaky busy.  Then there’s my full-time job, without which none of this would be possible.  So here’s my decision about Arabic….

I’m going to learn a few hundred words.  I’ll tackle only some very basic grammar, at least enough to put together simple sentences.  (Can I ride the camel?  There’s a scorpion in my boot.)  And I’ll memorize the polite phrases that will make me less of a cloddish ferengi.  My personal hope is that I can eventually use what Arabic I’ve learned while scuba diving in the Red Sea and traveling/living with Bedouin in the Sinai Desert.  A few weeks ago I found on the Internet a travel service that arranges for just such a holiday.  Luxuries are minimal and toughing it out is a necessity.  But I really, really want to do it.

So that’s my Arabic goal.  It’s about the same that Layla would shoot for.  And right about now I would sign off this entry with a few apt Arabic words like goodbye and goodnight and it is God’s will, but I can’t figure out how to do Arabic script on my keyboard so to heck with it.

Reality Sucks

on December 9, 2009 in Misc 1 Comment »

Damned Cars!

I totally resent reality.  It’s screwing up my plan.

Just a couple weeks ago I decided that I wasn’t going at my one year transformation-into-Layla aggressively enough.  I resolved to set aside a lot more time for French and Arabic.  I should practice much more at lock picking, too.  Going to the parkour gym on some Saturday afternoons was certainly called for, since I very much need to work on jumps, pull-ups, tic-tocs, you name it.  And of course I should head to REI to learn how to scale their indoor climbing wall.  And what would really be cool would be to plot out some kind of made-up mission where I could combine several of my new skills.  Both physically and mentally, I long for the challenge.  I need to know that I’m making measurable progress.

So what happens?

I’ll tell you what happens.  My car dies.  I gotta get a new used one I can barely afford and have no time to hunt for one.  The weather has turned frigid.  And some days my job can be so tiring I go home and slap-dunk myself flat out on the sofa.

Take the last twenty-four hours.  Yesterday we had a deadline at work, which meant I was busy from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with nary a break.  (I went to the restroom twice.  That’s it.)  That doesn’t sound too bad, but the last couple hours were an adrenaline rush of top-speed production followed by a race to the local Fedex office.  I went home feeling like a zombie and did diddly-squat all evening.  This morning I woke up with a headache and eyes stinging from staring too much at a computer screen the day before.  The temperature was about 10 below zero, which made waiting at the bus stop loads of fun.  The good news is my toes and butt eventually warmed up.  (WHY my not-exactly-miniscule behind can get so cold, I’ve no idea.  I thought fat makes for natural insulation.)  Between the brutal cold and another (but easier) deadline, I’m not getting to my credit union today either to find out about getting a car loan.

Lara Croft never has these problems.  She’s a fabulously wealthy aristocrat who lives in a castle.  She has servants.  She bungee jumps before bed.

Yes, Layla is much more of a real-world woman.  Still, she could buy a new car cash down.  She goes home to a penthouse filled with expensive furniture and antiques, not stuff from Cost Plus marked down to half price.  And she doesn’t work in an office and she’s her own boss.

Oh, and I’ve decided that Layla has a cleaning woman come in once a week.  Because that’s I want.

Sadly, my track record for getting what I want ain’t so hot.

Real Life Women Spies

on December 7, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on Real Life Women Spies

Portrait of a middle eastern woman wearing a black hijab

I just started a book I’m already in love with:  Sisterhood of Spies – The Women of the OSS, by Elizabeth McIntosh.  The OSS was, of course, the predecessor to the CIA.

Anyway, the second chapter is about the exploits of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, code name Cynthia – and boy, was she one smart wild wolf woman.  Years ago I read a biography of her but have since forgotten many of the details.  This is a good refresher.

Women in World War II

During WWII Cynthia helped to obtain German and Italian codes and was pivotal in obtaining the code books of Vichy France, a feat that saved many lives when the Allies invaded North Africa.  She was highly educated, spoke French like a native, and of course was beautiful, elegant, stylish, and cool as chilled martini under pressure.  In comparison Layla is warmer, more ethical and definitely not as sexually voracious.  Still I admire Cynthia (except for the way she would later be an uncaring parent to her two children.)  As a writer it’s reassuring to know that such dramatic women with adventurous, thriller-type lives really do exist.

Some great stuff that’s relevant to my own thriller novel:

One of the men Cynthia worked with on the assignment was a second story man and expert safecracker.  He was known to her only as the Georgia Cracker and had been in prison when he was recruited by the OSS.  The OSS desperately needed to get a hold of the code books kept in a safe in a locked and guarded room in the Vichy French Embassy in Washington, D.C.  They had to be taken out, photographed by OSS photographers nearby, and then returned to the safe, all within hours.

For sake of this mission, Cynthia boldly initiated an affair with an anti-Nazi married official in the embassy who agreed to help her.  They carried on their affair after hours at the embassy in order to make the night guard assume they were merely paramours.

The plot thickens.  Cynthia picked locks.  Slipped a sleeping drug to the guard and his dog.  Got the Georgia Cracker into the building.  The Cracker spent THREE HOURS (not minutes, like in the movies) figuring out the safe’s combination.  He and Cynthia had to try on a second and third night to get the code books out of the building.  At one point she was secreted away to a paneled truck on a deserted beach, within which the Cracker showed a similar safe to her and “instructed her in the ‘feel’ of a safe mechanism:  hesitate between each turn of the dial; listen as the tumblers drop into place before going on to the next sequence.”  During one tense moment Cynthia stripped naked except for her pearls and acted as if she had been caught by a suspicious guard in flagrante with her lover.

The end result of all this cloak and dagger?  Cynthia succeeded.  Mission accomplished.

Oh, and after the war Cynthia married her French Embassy lover.

You know, when I read real-life exploits like this, I know that my own novel The Compass Master hews much closer to reality than readers might suspect.  That’s a good feeling.

Swords and Cars

on December 1, 2009 in Misc 3 Comments »

Epee fencing is not for wusses.

Fencing

Last week in fencing I got a painful bruise on my left butt exactly where that sharp bone sticks out (WHY do I keep hitting that sucker?), a sore left hand, a jacked left knee and a re-injured muscle at the base of my neck.  All because I was retreating too quickly from my oncoming opponent, which made me stumble and fall backwards onto said left buttock, which made me fling my left hand out to break my fall, which jammed my neck and knee.

But the good news is…

While falling backwards I hit my opponent right in his chest and got a point.  Yes, he still went on to win the match.  But I was determined to get him even though I was careening toward the floor and that impressed him.  It certainly impressed me.

Anyway, by the end of the evening I was looking forward to the next week’s matches when I would strive yet again to fence better and cleaner.  But that’s not gonna happen for a while.  The reason?

My car has died.

Yes, my poor old Toyota Tercel (a.k.a., the Nerdmobile) has developed a terminal illness in the form of a cracked engine head and a fuel injector problem, and if the mechanic had kept looking no doubt he would have found more doozies.  The result is I am now car-less – no big deal for the time being, given that I take the bus to work and live in the city where pretty much everything is within walking distance.

Except for fencing.

Hence it appears that — damn it all! — I’ll likely drop out of fencing until sometime in January because I don’t see myself lining up a good inexpensive used car before then.

You know, my first two cars were used while three and four were new.  So yes, this is regression, but given the economy and my Layla plan which is using up all my discretionary funds (I have become very indiscreet), I gotta go cheap on my next car.

Action heroes don’t have this problem.  In thriller books and movies they drive outrageously expensive supercool sportscars.  They whiz through adventures in vehicles of roaring, gleaming, wind racing speed that make grown men moan with desire and teenage boys have wet dreams. Layla, being more down to earth, has a Jeep Wrangler that has traveled many an exotic mile across Europe and North Africa as she pursues rare antiquities hidden in treacherous places, and that’s way cool too.

Me?  I gotta get a used compact or subcompact.

I swear that sometime soon I’m going to make my life and its accessories so beautifully exotic I’ll be an object of envy.

Dream_Car

Yes I know — this is a shallow, immature, unworthy goal for me.

Like I care.