Archive for June, 2010


Paranoia

on June 28, 2010 in Misc 6 Comments »

There’s a quiet scene in The Bourne Identity that tells volumes about the hero Jason Bourne – and how much I’m his opposite.

 Bourne

The time is late at night.  The setting is a roadside café somewhere between Switzerland and Paris.  Bourne is at a table with the woman who’s giving him a ride.  Because of his amnesia he doesn’t know who he is, only that he’s different from everyone around him and has had extreme training.  That’s why he has – with freaky speed and instinct – already assessed his surroundings and memorized anything relevant to his safety.  He knows the license plates of every car parked outside, which man at the counter would most likely have a gun, how much of a threat a stranger might be. 

Obviously, I’m no escaping super spy with amnesia.  Stick Bourne out in public, and he’s hyperaware of everything.  Stick me out there, and I can turn into a space cadet.  Sometimes I just seem to live in my head.  It’s so warm and cozy in here.

In a recent post I wrote about my plan to develop the Layla skill of tailing strangers – preferably without latching onto a paranoid psycho, as reader Robert warned.  What I’ve done so far is mild; mostly I’ve discretely followed someone through stores or down streets and into buildings. Yet I’m surprised at what I can learn about strangers within seconds, and that I’m not the only person who zones out in public.

First of all, the easiest people I tailed were the ones talking on cell phones.  They really are oblivious to just about everything.  They shop so slo-w-w-w-wly you’ll be stuck with them in the same department or aisle for ages.  They seem to develop temporary lack of peripheral vision.  And if the mark is a woman on a cell with one or two small children in tow, you can walk behind her for miles and she’ll never notice you.  You can also find out, via their phone conversations, who they’re talking with, where they’re going next, and why they’re upset with their boss/client/spouse/teenager/neighbor. 

paranoid

Obviously what’s more challenging is tailing someone who’s not plugged into anything electronic, and walking quickly.  Still, I found myself keeping up with such marks.  I also realized I can memorize details about their faces, clothes, body language, what they’re carrying, and anything else that stands out, all within seconds.  It was fun.

Granted, as a middle-aged woman I might have an edge at tailing.  There just doesn’t appear to be much anything threatening about me.  Personally, I always wanted to be an exotic femme fatale with a hint of danger about her alluring curves.  But I don’t even come close to my ideal – damn it. 

I’ve also learned to spot more readily potential paranoid psychos – or maybe that’s too strong a term.  Let’s just say Dangerous Guys.  What makes them stand out?  They are very aware of YOU.  And they don’t turn their back on you.  And they watch you and everyone else.

Paranoia_critter

Take the guy who got on the mall shuttle (the free shuttle buses go up and down Denver’s sixteenth street mall).  Most people find a place to stand or sit and chat and look around.  He didn’t.  He stepped onto the shuttle and just stood there, with the now closed shuttle doors to his back, his hands free, and his eyes rolling over every face around him.  He was young, very muscular, and itching with suspicion.  No one around me paid him any mind, but I got a bad gut feeling.  Sure enough, at another stop someone he knew got on and they exchanged a few words.  Turns out the young guy had just gotten out of prison. 

No wonder he was acting like he was still locked up and could get jumped at any moment.  If I hadn’t been in a hurry maybe I would have tried tailing him – very, very carefully.

Anyway, my next step will be to pick much more difficult marks and make up some complicated games.  I need to develop many more skills, after all.  I also need the thrill of a challenge.

flowers

A few days ago my friend Rich buried his mother.

Katherine Graczyk was 88 years old. After years spent in the confines of a wheelchair, and after months of enduring pain which no medication could completely alleviate, she wanted to pass on. She died peacefully in her sleep.

Most of Katherine’s life had been good. She had a wonderful husband who died too young and a loving son Rich who with his wife Ann took her into their own home when Katherine’s exhausted body began to give out and she could no longer walk.

In this blog I’ve written about fictional heroes and all the fantastic skills they have to fight their way through their glamorous life. Yet every last one of these characters – from my own Layla Daltry to James Bond and Indiana Jones and others – are mere creations of writers’ fevered brains and suppressed longings.

The simple fact is, thin, quiet Katherine could have taught any one of them how to be truly strong, how to be courageous, and how to survive.

For five years, Katherine survived slavery under the Nazis.

POLAND-WWII-HISTORY-ANNIVERSARY-MILITARY

She was seventeen when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Her mother was a desperately poor widow who supported her four children with seamstress work. All of the children also worked hard and earned what money they could to put food on the table. No one in their village had much of anything. Still the Nazis took everything from everyone. They arrested the best educated people and made them disappear.

Then the day came when two SS men shoved guns into the backs of Katherine and her brother and a friend as they were walking down a road, and forced them into a nearby schoolhouse. The German soldiers there separated the Catholic girls and boys – about “fifty kids,” as Katherine described them – into two different classrooms and forced them to take off every last stitch of clothing.

Next the kids were herded single files into the hallway, where both girls and boys stood naked for hours. One by one, their hair was cut off and their heads were shaved. Katherine’s hair had been down to her waist. Now her skull was as exposed as the rest of her. Like all the other young prisoners, she was put on a table and examined by laughing doctors to make sure she was physically acceptable for work.

Badge

That night, Katherine and her brother and their friend and other kids slept on bug-infested hay. In the morning they were issued identification patches: a yellow square with the purple letter “P” in the center, which meant Polish forced labor. They were ordered to sew the patches onto their sleeves. Then the kids were crowded into a military truck.  It was pulling away when Katherine saw her mother running down the road after it. She was crying and in her outstretched hands were two wrapped bundles that she threw into the truck for her daughter and son. Katherine’s contained a sweater, a pair of shoes, and bread. “I touched her fingertips,” Katherine said. “That was the last time I saw my mother.”

The truck took the kids to the train station. Katherine was crammed with eighty other young women into a cattle car. Four days later, starving and dehydrated, they arrived in Berlin. There the German soldiers force-marched them to a marketplace, where they stood on display as slaves. “I want that one,” a man said as he pointed at Katherine.

cattle car

The man took her to work on his farm near the German city of Magdeburg. She would be a slave from the early months of 1940 until liberated by American soldiers in the spring of 1945. During that time she was constantly hungry and several times nearly starved to death. She was usually fed nothing more than a few potatoes in exchange for twelve to fourteen hours of daily labor. Every day the farmer’s wife berated her for eating too much and not leaving enough scraps for the dogs. But every morning Katherine was able to steal a cup of milk as she milked the cows.

She was forced to say Heil Hitler on command. She saw a girl who refused to do so beaten to death in punishment. She learned that doctors were going around to farms and sterilizing the female slaves. In the rarest stroke of luck for which she had prayed, the day the doctors came to her farm the farmer had taken her into town, and she was spared.

Brickworks

Slaves who tried to escape were sent to prison or a concentration camp or shot. But one day Katherine took the risk. She got 100 miles away by train, found another farm family, and talked her way into working for them. Though poor they treated her well, and on Christmas Eve allowed her to sit at their table and eat with them, even though it was against the law for Germans to eat with Polish slave workers. A few days later, storm troopers found Katherine, beat her and dragged her out of the house, and sent her to a woman’s prison in Berlin.

That same week, Allied bombers destroyed most of the prison. So the Nazis took Katherine and other prisoners and crammed them into a truck that took them to a prisoners’ compound. There she was locked into a cell designed for one person but held eighteen women. There were no beds and four blankets. Days later, when Katherine became delirious with scarlet fever, she was taken and placed on a quarantine area floor. She survived that quarantine, and she survived the Nazi doctors who did nothing to help her.

After three months in prison, when she was so emaciated she couldn’t even recognize herself, Katherine was sent back to the farm where she had been beaten and starved. But this time she didn’t run away because it was now the summer of 1944, and she knew that the Allies were beating the Germans. She was also, once again, near Frank Graczyk, the Polish military prisoner working as a slave on a neighboring farm. They could rarely see each other, but it meant the world to her when she could see him and talk with him.

jeep

At last, one day in the spring of 1945, American soldiers drove onto the farm. By then the old farmer had died and his son had vanished on the Russian front. But the farmer’s brutal wife and daughter were still, like evil itself, alive. One American soldier put a gun in the wife’s face and ordered her to treat the Polish people on her farm very well until they could be taken away to their freedom.

Freedom, too, proved to be very hard. Although the war was over the communists now controlled Poland, and neither Katherine nor Frank could go back home. Katherine remained in a refugee camp, where she married Frank. She gave birth to her son Kazimierz while still in that camp a year later, and when at thirteen months the boy came down with diphtheria, he was taken to the nearest German hospital, where he died. “No Polish child ever came out of that hospital alive,” she said.

One day a notice was posted in the refugee camp. Anyone who wanted to get onto the last transport ship for refugees from that camp to the United States had to sign up for it. Neither Katherine nor Frank spoke a word of English, and neither of them had any idea what was waiting for them in America. Still, Katherine wrote down their names.

Weeks later they left for America, where they started their lives all over again. Their new lives were very hard, but still so much better than the ones they had left behind.

And that’ my story of Katherine Graczyk. While too long for this blog it is nevertheless incomplete and inadequate. It also doesn’t fit within the usual theme of this blog. But none of this is relevant. What matters is that sometimes we meet people who should be remembered and whose stories must be told, and today I have tried to tell Katherine’s.

Rest in peace.

Done the Dive

on June 20, 2010 in Misc 2 Comments »

skydiving-sydney

I went skydiving today.  FINALLY.

You know how you’ve always wanted to try something, but you never have the extra money and there are always necessities to pay for, so you keep putting off the things you want to do?  Year after year, you put them off.

That’s how it was with me and skydiving (among other things).  It’s seems I’ve never had the $200 for a beginner’ tandem jump.  You have to admit, that’s an awful lot of money to pay for a five minute thrill.

But since I’ve got this Layla plan going I am REQUIRED to do some thrilling stuff within a set amount of time.  That means I simply must spend money on a few sport luxuries when I really should be squirreling it away or buying something I need.

Besides, as you know from this blog a group of my friends wanted to jump.  That’s why one of them who lives out of state scheduled a big group jump hug for the week when she would be back in Colorado and we could all do it together.

Thus the timing of friends is the second reason why I found myself this morning, at long last, suited up and riding on a flatbed truck from a hangar out to a waiting plane.  My tandem jumper was a tall, strong man (that made me happy) who has done – get this – 10,000 jumps!  He started years ago in college and never stopped.  Lucky guy.

We went up to 12,000 feet.   We were jumping in the countryside outside Longmont, which isn’t far from Boulder and is close to the mountains, so the view was spectacular.  Over green fields with the snow-covered Rockies as a backdrop – that’s just the kind of scenery you want to jump into.

freefall_clouds

But strictly speaking, I didn’t jump.  It was a small plane and when the door is opened you’re supposed to kneel right on the open edge, otherwise you’ll hit your head on the ledge above you.  So what I did, thanks to the movements of my enthusiastic tandem partner who was strapped to my body, was merely to tip gently out of the plane into…

FREEZING COLD!

Oh my God it was so COLD!  Sure, the temperature on the ground was in the eighties and folks were walking around in shorts and t-shirts.  But at 12,000 feet we were well above the clouds and when my exposed face and hands hit that open air at – oh, I dunno, let’s say 100 miles an hour and accelerating – I almost screamed in shock.  And let me tell you, those flights suits are mighty flimsy when it comes to warmth, hence in about 10 seconds I was feeling like an idiot for not wearing long woolen underwear.

The freefall was supposed to last about 50 seconds, but it seemed over in a fraction of the time.  That’s why I was surprised when my wonderfully experienced Manly Man partner pulled the cord.  Instead of the jolt I had been expecting when the chute opened, I instead only found myself suddenly and peacefully floating well above the clouds.  And closer and closer to those clouds that we were NOT supposed to go through according to some skydiving law or policy or whatever.  But when those suckers are moving fast and the hole in them is closing, you may not have a whole lotta choice.

flying man

By this time Manly Man had given me the chute controls and was telling me how to go fast, slow down, turn right and left.  What’s wild is that when you go right or left it’s in three dimensions instead of the earthly two, hence you bank at a gloriously tilted angle with your lower body lifting sideway out from under you.

Anyway, with lots of masculine help I was banking right and left.  But the clouds kept moving and we ended up going through the edge of one anyway.  It was freaky – white FREEZING mist that makes you blind to everything but whiteness until you come out underneath it.  But I loved the experience.  I had just floated through a cloud.  If I hadn’t been a frozen icicle by then I would have considered the moment to be very romantic.

Once we were in the clear again, Manly Man told me we were heading for a circle on the ground.  It wasn’t that large — maybe thirty feet in diameter and covered in gravel.  But the great thing about chutes is, you can float along while steering them toward targets even smaller than that.

We landed really pretty softly within that circle, legs lifted so that our scooting feet and butts landed first.  Since my butt is the one part of my body that can take just about anything, I landed completely unharmed and was already defrosting.

So that’s it.  I done the deed and enjoyed myself.  And assuming there is a next time (money is the only barrier) I’ll do a solo jump and really have a blast.

And I’ll be wearing my warmest winter clothes.

It was hard to be Layla even for a few hours this weekend.

You know how it is:  real life keeps interfering with your best-laid plans.  I spent a lot of time working on my taxes (I got an extension) and catching up on errands and daily life maintenance stuff.  Not exactly glamorous ways to spend my time.  It also didn’t help that the weekend was a cold, sopping wet mess.

stretch

There’s one bright note:  To my surprise I’m making some progression in one physical area, which is encouraging after suffering so much forced regression.  To whit, I’m finally, belatedly, starting to make progress on the front splits.  (You know:  face front while your legs are out to the sides.)  This after my usual well-intentioned and diligent stretching hadn’t been producing very good results.  Then I tried some tougher positions and started pushing my hips deeper into them until I definitely felt the pain. And with pain came gain.

We ain’t talking miracles here, folks.  I’m not even close to the 150 degree angle yet, let alone the impossible (for me) 180. But the fact that my legs are opening more loosely for the first time in my life EVER mean something.  To speed up the process I’m ordering a DVD on “power stretching” that I’ll experiment with.  I’ll let you know if it helps.

dragon_tattoo

On the language front:  Been so busy I haven’t had time to study French (damn it!).  But at least I’ve memorized all the vocabulary in one Arabic beginner book plus about another hundred words.  With some more effort I’ll finish getting the basic grammar and sentences in it down too and can move on to more of the same in another book.  I really want to try the Rosetta Stone approach, but between my tight budget and my old computer acting up, I have to put that off for now.

I did take time out this weekend to catch a movie (on my lonesome, because all my friends were either crazy busy or dealing with some sad and tough situations).  This meant I finally got to see Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Wow!  Talk about a feral heroine.  She makes Layla seem almost tame.  Yet given the popularity of the Tattoo series, I feel like a heroine this extreme and memorable gives me the liberty to toughen up Layla even more.  Then again, Layla hasn’t been through the same scarring childhood abuse and so isn’t damaged in body and psyche.  Lucky for her.

Back on Track

on June 11, 2010 in Misc 6 Comments »

June is shaping up to be a busy Layla month.  That’s good, since I feel like I’ve been in a rut ever since my non-self-inflicted injury. 

Currently on the schedule is skydiving with friends and paragliding – FINALLY paragliding. 

skydive

Remember how I paid for a session last autumn, but then the weather turned too cool and windy?  Well, between the bad weather (WAY too much wind around here, even on warm days) and my fractured ribs, there was no way I could get into a harness.  But now we are go for launch, Houston.  Or at least we are after this weekend, which is supposed to be soggy and cold.

I’m also back in fencing.  My two months away from it is showing in my game, and besides that my cardio went to hell in a hand basket, so I’ve got to build that back up.

Then there’s my (regressed) upper body strength.  I had thought that by now I’d be climbing buildings and rappelling off walls.  Now I figure that I won’t be ready for this until late July or August.

Funny thing is, urban climbing/rappelling looks so exotic and forbidden in the movies, and of course Layla gets a thrill doing it in secret.   But at work this last Monday I looked out the seventh-floor windows during a company meeting and what do I see?  A guy in a harness calmly washing those windows.  He had to keep maneuvering himself on and off ledges by manipulating ropes, and he did this masterfully.  Also fearlessly.  Yet we don’t look on skyscraper window washers as exotic people, more like just low-paid grunts doing a thankless job. 

windowwashing

Personally, I now really admire these guys.  

Also on my June schedule:  trying out stuff I’ll learn from reading Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, which I just bought.  Some of the stuff in it like how to do surveillance (both in person and electronic), “bypassing and spoofing caller ID,” and “anticipating your subject’s next move” are more relevant to the bad guys in The Compass Master since they’re following Layla.  But to make sure I’ve written them with realistic details I’ve got to learn their skills too.  Besides, Layla knows how to watch her back and at times she realizes she’s under surveillance and ditches her stalkers.

Of course you know what this means:  In the coming days I’ll practice “surveillance” by stalking perfect strangers, and maybe I can convince a friend to let me try following him/her without him/her ever spotting me.  And that’s just for starters.  I can also figure out my way around “proprietary data suppliers” and public records and tracking down people. 

Odds are, the biggest risk I’ll run is making a complete ass of myself.  But I’m used to that.

Santa Fe

It’s late Sunday night and I know I’m supposed to be writing something to post Monday morning.  But for the last few days I really didn’t do any Layla stuff because I spent them in Santa Fe for my niece’s high school graduation.  Yes, I memorized some Arabic vocabulary during the long drive down and back, but that doesn’t count for much.

Of course this means I’ll have to spend the coming week making up for lost time.  It was good to have a mini-break, but the weather was so hot in Santa Fe that I only did a couple of stretching routines.  Getting back now to my (only recently renewed) thorough workout will feel great, and settling down for some language learning sure beats those long hours of driving while zoning out along the highway.

Anyway, while in Santa Fe I sat in on a tech rehearsal for a play my sister is directing and met a few of the actors who’ll be in it.  As a species, actors are pretty much Layla’s opposite:  they’re flamboyant, outgoing, fizzing with fun (and sometimes neuroses), and in love with the limelight.  They could never be part of Layla’s shadowy world or skulk about doing very discreet work. 

dos equis

But the actor who really got me thinking about how Layla is different from them was R. Eric Gustafson.

You know that silly commercial for Dos Equis beer — the one with the fictional “most interesting man in the world”?  Make the man elderly and gay, and you’ve got Eric.  Swear to God, Eric himself isn’t famous, yet he has known everyone and gone everywhere.  He had drinks with Harry Truman, met Pope John XXIII in the Vatican, can tell you which famous actress always sat around buck naked in her dressing room, was pals with Andy Warhol, danced with Rita Hayworth, and on and on.  When he developed a drinking problem, it was Elizabeth Taylor who sent him to the Betty Ford clinic, where of course he hugged Mrs. Ford herself.

Get the picture?

Tallulah

Layla is so not like him.  And obviously I’m nothing like him.  But this got me thinking…

Maybe instead of isolating Layla as much as I do, I should expand her social life and introduce her to a boatload of famous or remarkable friends.  After all, she has a well-known reputation among museums and wealthy individuals for finding and delivering rare ancient manuscripts and writings.  In The Compass Master I already show a couple of her shadier but intriguing underground friends.  Maybe I should also have her hang out with more respectable, well-heeled, colorful individuals.  This makes sense, because I don’t want them to treat her as hired help; instead, they themselves are fascinated with her, and Layla has enough sense to professionally network.  She should also know her way around a variety of social settings.

Trouble is, if I expand Layla’s circle of friends then I’ve got to do the same for myself, and that ain’t so easy.  I live in Denver, not in New York City or any other place suitable for hobnobbing.  And I’m an editor/production manager at a consulting firm, not a hunter of rare manuscripts.  But at the very least I can put out some social feelers and see what I come up with.  Maybe I’ll even have some fun.

There are lots of reasons why we writers can mentally lose it. Why we despair. Why we throw our keyboards/ laptops/ typewriters against the wall and storm off to drink ourselves into an unholy stupor. Why we give up editing and polishing our manuscripts until they shine and say to hell with slaving over query letters and prostrating ourselves before agents and publishers.

Dante larger

Today, I have my own special reason to to chuck my literary ambition and let myself go mentally bottoms-up. The urge started the moment I finished reading articles in the New York Times about yet another writer who got yet another multi-million dollar book advance for a novel that, at 397 unpolished, unedited manuscript pages, was only half finished but was still hot enough to start a bare knuckle bidding war among salivating publishers AND get $1.75 million for movie rights.

What is said precious manuscript about?

You guessed it.

VAMPIRES.

Of course the book is about vampires. What were you expecting — something like To Kill a Mockingbird?

Michelangelo use

And you want to know what’s even funnier? What makes me want to laugh myself to puking death? The agent of the author, who has a “literary pedigreee from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop” and a PEN/Hemingway Award for a short-story collection, submitted his vampire book to Hollywood under a pseudonym. Why, may you ask? Because this agent didn’t want Hollywood to typecast the author as the type who didn’t have “vast commercial potential.”

That’s right, folks. Apparently a PEN/Hemingway award is the kiss of death for writers in Hollywood. Hell, such awards and a serious literary curriculum vitae didn’t seem to amount to a hill of beans even among the New York publishers, who went bonkers for the author’s new take on vampires and to hell with his elegant syntax.

In all honesty, I give kudos to the author Justin Cronin, whose book The Passage is being hailed as the upcoming bestseller of the year. Really truly, good for him. Sounds like he deserves all the money and success coming his way.

But you know that I speak for the rest of us peon writers when I say, WHY CAN’T THAT HAPPEN TO ME JUST ONCE IN MY LIFE?

And that’s my rant for today. Thanks for reading it.

You hear that, fancy-schmancy New York publishers? SOMEONE is reading my stuff.

Catching Up

on June 1, 2010 in Misc 2 Comments »

Mila J medium

I’m finally getting back into shape.

It’s been nine weeks since that black belt idiot slammed me to the floor in beginner’s Aikido. While I still can’t sleep on my left side, my ribcage seems to have healed enough for me to finally, FINALLY start doing some full body workouts.

That means gentle (I’ll get more vigorous later) back and side stretches and ab work.   I’m even starting to lift weights again, although we’re talking wuss 5- and 10-pounders.   Definitely don’t want to strain myself, and whenever I feel a sharp twinge in my chest I stop whatever I’m doing.   It’d be super stupid to aggravate an injury.   I’m also taking Hart’s advice (check out her Confessions of a Watery Tart) and concentrating on getting my full range of motion back before worrying about strength.

Still, I gotta tell ya that it feels so damn good to be moving my whole body again!  No more of my strange truncated exercises with restricted below-the-waist-only movements.   Today, for the first time in nine weeks, I even did a handstand.   Okay, so it was against a wall and lasted all of two seconds and even then I had a brief rib twinge.   That handstand just felt so GOOD.

The French have a saying: se sentir bien dans sa peau.   To feel good in your skin, meaning not just physical sensations but deep emotions.   To be comfortable with yourself.

old fashioned jump

And ya know, I’ve learned the hard way not to underestimate how important this is to me.   Having the physical freedom to do what I want with my poor old body is glorious.  It frees up my mind and my soul and makes me feel young, which at my age isn’t so easy.  (And I ain’t talking lust in this context, although healthy lustiness is splendid and the French, being so Frenchy, probably have several thousand sayings about the subject.)  

Simply being able to get up from a desk now and stretch the stiffness and aches out of my shoulders and back is fantastic.  Makes my body happy.  And when my body is happy it feels more POWERFUL.

And power is good.

There is, unfortunately, one downside:   On my lazy days I no longer have an excuse not to work out.   And I can have so many lazy days.

Gotta go do some weights now.