Archive for August, 2009

Failing to Hang the Cat

on August 22, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on Failing to Hang the Cat


Today in parkour I jumped over and over again off a six foot platform onto a six inch mat.  That may not sound like any big whup, even when I jumped backwards. But bear in mind that when I first got up on the big wooden box that served as the platform and looked down my brain said “No, don’t think so.”  Still I kept jumping off, and to me that’s progress.

Funny how I used to fly trapeze but when it comes to jumping over things or off anything high (and not onto a net below) a part of me cringes.  I used to jump around all the time as a kid, but with the passing years it seems that a kind of subconscious carapace has formed around me and now weighs me down.  From what I can tell it’s composed of caution and the restricted movements grown-ups adopt as they move through the world, along with a self-conscious fear of making a fool of myself.  Well, it’s time I shed the burdensome thing.  If I want to have Layla’s physical prowess, I have to combine an adult’s strength and coordination with a child’s gleeful daring.

Anyway, I did pretty well in the jump-offs, and I only wish I could say the same about the cat jump and cat hang.   They’re basic moves in parkour and an efficient technique for scaling walls and climbing down from them.  Certainly they’re just the sort of moves Layla would sometimes use when getting into some off-limit places.


With the cat jump, I was supposed to jump forward at the plywood platform wall with my feet up in a crouching position, and they should hit the wall before my hands grasp the edge of the platform above me, or at least my hands and feet should get there simultaneously.  But time and again my hands got there first and my feet landed a second later, making both my grip and position insecure.

For the cat hang, I needed to slip the lower part of my body over the platform’s edge, dig the toes and balls of my feet into the wall, then slide my upper body over the edge while maintaining a firm grip on that edge.  (For the first part just go as far as your nipples, Jake said, clearly accustomed to an all-male class.  I decided that my entire breasts should be above the edge.)  That should have left me with my feet planted against the wall in a crouching position while my butt hung parallel with them and my arms were stretched out above me.  But my feet never got a grip and kept slipping and making me drop off the platform.

“You should work on that,” Jake said after my multiple failures.

No kidding.

We ended class with the kind of workout that makes me wonder yet again if I’m nuts for studying parkour.  Although we’d already had an hour and forty minutes of intense exercises, we now had to do three rounds of five chin-ups, three rounds of ten push-ups on the box vaults, fifteen sprints, fifteen jump ups into squats then dropping into a push-up, and finally fifteen broad jumps interspersed with fifteen more push-ups.

Damn, I’m tired!

I’m so tired that I’m finally acknowledging the ugly little fact that I dread going to parkour class every Saturday.  I dread the exhaustion and dripping sweat and heart-pounding exertion and the constant need to summon what frayed threads of strength I have left to do a stunt one more time.

I’m so tired I’ve been counting the classes I have left to finish this ten-class course (either three or four, since I’m not sure if the National Parkour Jam counted as a class).

And now on top of being so very tired I’m also very, very frustrated.  That’s because — damn it! — I’ve come to realize how absurdly optimistic my assumption was that the ten-week course would be enough for me to fulfill this particular portion of my Becoming Layla plan.


That’s right.  I foolishly thought that ten two-hour classes would be enough to teach me how to climb up and down buildings, both exteriors and interiors, along with giving me the techniques to evade a pursuer across a treacherous landscape or urbanscape.  Strictly speaking, I certainly could mentally attain all this knowledge in much less time because my brain works fast.  It’s my body that’s the slow learner.

Say you challenged me to get into some old archives in a converted mansion in a European town and retrieve a medieval manuscript that’s locked away.  Layla could do it.  I, in turn, am now able to tell you HOW I would do it, but that’s light years away from actually, physically being able to perform the job  And to be like Layla means just that — I must be prepared for such assignments (however fictional they may be) not only by having a solid knowledge base but by being in top physical shape.   My body’s instincts and abilities must be every bit as up to snuff as my mind’s.

You know what that means, don’t you?  It means I have to continue training in parkour for months to come.

Damn it.

That said, I still doubt that I’ll take the ten-class intermediate course right off the bat; instead I should have some individual workouts in the gym on the equipment and probably repeat a few of the fundamental classes.  Then when I can finally do the vault box jumps and the hanging cat and a few chin-ups and other stuff, I’ll feel right about moving on to the intermediate classes.

And won’t they be just loads of fun.

New York Trapeze

on August 21, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on New York Trapeze

A quickie explanation for this post:  I only just realized that I refer in an earlier post to trapeze, and in fact I wrote something about the subject back in July.  Trouble is, I wrote it in Word, left it on my hard drive in my computer, and forgot to switch it to this blog the next day.  Oops.

Here’s what I wrote.

July 19

The New York Times is running an article with photos of a trapeze school in Manhattan that’s open to the paying public.  The piece is well written and I empathize with the novices and especially the little kids who get scared up there on the platform.  I also admire the athletes who work the rig.  But after viewing the online photos part of my reaction was…


Let me explain.

Back in the late eighties/early nineties I flew trapeze for a few years.  (That’s something Layla has never done in my imagination, so as with fencing I’m one up on her.)  There was a rig in the YMCA here in Denver and a motley gang of us flew on it Wednesday and Friday nights; one or two members had even flown trapeze professionally.  And we referred to it as flying and called ourselves flyers.  Never, ever did we say that we trapezed or that our sport was trapezing, as the NY Times reports it.

The article also has a reference to Carrie Bradshaw on the trapeze in Sex and the City.  Well, I saw that episode and it bugged the hell out of me.  In an early scene Carrie is too afraid to jump off the platform.  Very understandable.  My first time up on a big rig in Indiana (as opposed to the smaller Denver one) I definitely got the heebie-jeebies.  But in the final scene Carrie goes back to the trapeze and jumps off and swings while in a voiceover she babbles about letting go and friends being safety nets and taking the leap or some such inspirational drivel.  My reaction?


For Christ’s sakes, she was wearing a harness!  She couldn’t have fallen if she wanted to!  Don’t preach to me about letting go and courage when you’ve got a fucking fail-safe back-up system right there around your waist!

And that’s what the photos in the NY Times also showed: amateur flyers wearing a harness, or, as the article explained, a thick leather belt with a safety line secured to it.  Now with little kids I can understand the precaution; if that were my child up there I’d be sticking him or her in a harness myself.  But the adults?  Please.  Except for visiting kids, on the very rare occasions any of us Denver Flyers used the harness was when we were attempting a dicey new trick, one that would bash us up if we screwed it up.  Otherwise we did REAL flying and all our tricks without any harness.  Whether we successfully executed a trick or missed connecting with the catcher, we still had a net to land in. So do the people on the New York rig. 

Trapeze isn’t rock climbing after all; in that sport and some others a harness can be essential.  Yes there are free climbers who work sans harness, sans ropes, and even sans any equipment, and while I highly respect their skills and freakish strength, I also think they’re batshit crazy.

Anyway, the moral of my story is:  When you’ve removed all the risks from a sport then you’re not really performing that sport.  You’re just faking it.

Layla would not approve.

Lock Picking Part Deux

on August 17, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on Lock Picking Part Deux

It’s a good thing Layla never needs to pick a car’s lock.

“Car locks are really hard to pick,” Chris confessed.  Rather than pick a car lock, a thief would be better off just breaking the window.  On the other hand, to break into a Bentley you just have to take off a headlight and throw a screwdriver into the opening behind it.  That’ll short out the electrical system and the doors will open.  “But at that point you might as well break the window,” Chris said logically.

Obviously, Chris and I were now getting down to the nitty-gritty of Layla’s needs.

“Where does your character work?” he asked.  When I told him she was mostly in Europe (and forgot to add the Middle East), he stated she would need flatter tools.  It seems that locks in Europe are more finely tuned than American ones, therefore the tools must also be finer.  When he asked me what kind of places she’d be getting into, I told him mostly older buildings like archives, libraries and churches.

“Then she should carry WD40 and graphite powder with her,” he instructed.

That’s because older locks can have rust in them, which makes their pins and other parts stiff.  Layla could pour a little WD40 oil into a lock, but after picking her way past the pins the lock would need to be replaced because oil can ruin it.  Graphite powder would be better:  after blowing some into the lock, the parts wouldn’t be damaged and the powder would still facilitate picking.

Precisely because Layla wouldn’t leave damaged locks behind, both to protect herself and out of personal ethics, Chris and I decided that Layla wouldn’t bump locks.  Yes, bumping is easy and it works, but bump a lock repeatedly and it has to be replaced.  Picking is kinder and gentler.


Happily I don’t have Layla breaking into state-of-the-art safes.  Even Chris believes the best of them are nearly impossible to get into.  That means the scene in The Italian Job when Charlize Theron is practicing breaking into a safe by listening to its tumbler isn’t realistic, he thinks.  Opening your standard basic combination lock by listening to it is one thing.  Listening to a very expensive safe with an advanced system would take a lot more than Charlize’s skills and tools.

Layla would also occasionally encounter the really old-fashioned lock — the kind with the classic keyhole accessed with big old keys.  When I was a kid a few doors on our family’s 1920’s house had such locks, and a standard skeleton key bought at the hardware store could open all of them.  “You can open those locks with a hairpin!” Chris said with a laugh.

I’m glad he said this, because in The Compass Master Layla picks a desk lock with a hairpin.  The scene is one of several concerning her teenage years in an Irish boarding school; it’s her first time at lock picking and getting into something that’s forbidden to her, and she finds the thrill addictive.  When writing the scene I figured this was plausible because as a kid I often misplaced the key to an old trunk I’d been given and so had to teach myself how to use a twisted-up hairpin to pick the lock.

Other everyday objects can also be altered into handy-dandy picking tools, Chris said.  To prove his point he pulled out a file and a long thin wire he’d been working on.  The wire was a bristle from a street-cleaner, the kind that can be found on streets or in gutters just about anywhere.  Then there’s the metal edge to a ruler, the wire inside a windshield wiper, even — and I am not making this up — the stiff edge of a banana’s top.  “You can turn just about anything into a pick!” Chris declared.  Apparently resourcefulness and ingenuity are points of pride among Crazy Young Guy lock pickers.

Home-made picks can also be convenient because buying real lock picking tools might get tricky.  Chris wouldn’t guarantee that I’d be able to get my hands on a set like his, never mind that they seem to be sold on plenty of internet sites.  In most states only professional locksmiths and law enforcement agencies can legally purchase lock picking kits.

Well, I still need a lock picking set with at least the four tools Chris recommended, and like him I need to buy a deadbolt lock and a couple padlocks and practice on them.  In the coming weeks I’ll find out just how tough or easy it’ll be to buy those tools.

My First Lock Picking Teacher

on August 15, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on My First Lock Picking Teacher

Great news!  After parkour class today I met a top-of-the-line lock picker, someone who knows the art as well as Layla.

But first let me summarize the class:

We really, really worked on jumping the vault boxes.  And I really, really still suck at jumping the vault boxes.

Anyway, after class I mentioned to one of the instructors that I’d overheard him saying something about lock pickers.  Of course he knew a few, it turned out.  (The rule seems to be that in any large group of Crazy Young Guys, one can find at least a couple excellent lock pickers.)  In fact, one of the best was hanging out in the gym’s lounge.

Chris was lying on the floor of the lounge with ice packs bracketing the calves of one leg while his right arm was taped up and nearly immobile.   Apparently during the National Parkour Jam a week earlier he’d dislocated his elbow and banged up his leg.  But he was still bright-eyed, very friendly, and happy to give me the basics.

He started by pulling out his own lock picking kit.  It was a small leather case with only a few tools in it, and the ones he recommended to me the most were the rake, the half diamond, the hook, and the torque.  He also pulled out a laptop and brought up two websites he highly recommended:    lockpicking101 and the MIT Guide to Lock Picking.  “Like, the MIT Guide is great,” he said; everything I need to know should be in there.

For half an hour, Chris showed me how he used the tools on padlocks and described the pins that were in the locks and in deadbolts; he talked about how to line up the pins and what I had to feel.  You have to develop serious sensitivity in your fingers, he advised.  Some people can do this in only days, but it took him a year to get really good at feeling those pins move.  In fact he was now so good he used to teach lock picking, and for the last six months he hadn’t bothered to carry a house key.  In one recent incident when he was locked out of a place, he picked his way past three deadbolt locks in ten minutes.

“And like these new hospital locks that are supposed to be unpickable?” He almost laughed.  “Totally pickable!”

Maybe I should now emphasize that Chris strictly avoids doing anything illegal.  As with many of his Crazy Young Guy colleagues, he only picks locks at home for the fun and challenge of it or when he’s locked out of his place.  It sounds funny, but there seems to be a code of ethics among guys like Chris that goes:  Dude! Like, picking a lock illegally is totally uncool.

Another word about Chris:  he’s a college student who in a couple days will be flying overseas for a year of studying abroad where he plans to become fluent in the local language.  He’s definitely no slacker.

But enough about lock picking for now.  In my next blog I’ll list more of Chris’s handy-dandy pointers and his advice regarding Layla’s own personal kit.

Fearless Chicks

on August 8, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on Fearless Chicks

There was no parkour class today but instead a National Parkour Jam in downtown Denver park.  I hadn’t thought it was such a big deal until I got there and saw more than a hundred participants — of course all of them young and nearly all male.  Per usual, I was the oldest person around by at least a couple decades.

But — a miracle! — this time a few ladies were in attendance!

The experienced guys were tackling walls and rails — jumping, rebounding, flipping and balancing like speed-crazed circus performers.  As for me, I joined some beginners and hopped back and forth over railings while two instructors called out tips and encouragement.  Within five minutes I painfully banged my shin and wanted to join an injured kid who was sitting off to the side and loudly wailing his misery.  But no, I clung to my tattered pride and bravely squeaked to the instructor, “I’m fine.”  Then I went at those wretched rails again and again.

Next I learned to walk backwards on all fours up a set of stairs, among other bizarre movements (I have no idea why the like might come in handy for Layla).  Then I sweated out a calisthenics clinic held by Matt on the grass.

At one o’clock we females (nine of us) met back at the gym where we held a women’s clinic.  That meant bounding over vault boxes and bouncing off the wall — literally.  A few of these very young women were spectacularly good:  they flew over the boxes and flipped off high bars with joyful fearlessness.

You see? I told myself.  This is what you can do if you just learn to go for it.  None of my one leg up at a time onto the vault box then hop over to the other side.  Go for it and soar.  You too can be a Fearless Chick.

But in reality, I felt physically weighed down by what I’m beginning to understand is a very deeply rooted lack of confidence.  The jump-off-the-wall-and-turn trick I could do easily, but not the vault boxes.  I used to fly trapeze with scant problems.  So why do vault boxes freak me out?

I Suck at Parkour

on August 1, 2009 in Misc Comments Off on I Suck at Parkour

I’m starting to suck at parkour.

First of all, my endurance has gotten only slightly better, which is bad since endurance is a key factor in the sport.  Then there are the new techniques thrown at us in each class.  Some of them I’m mildly good at, while others make me look like a spastic twit.

We start every two-hour class by exhausting ourselves.  That means running laps in the gym followed by more laps backwards, grapevines, kicking-the-butt runs, high leg kicks, quadrapeds, murphys (broad jump, drop and do a push-up, repeat), lunges, squats, and other punishments that in themselves are easy to do.  It’s the back-to-back, over-and-over performance of them that’s a killer.  Worse still, when we’re done with this alleged “warm up” there’s another half hour or so of mixing-it-up jumps/ rolls/ spins/ handstands/ cartwheels, you name it.

By now I’m dripping with sweat and chugging Gatorade like a drunk on a beer bender.  And that ain’t good because only now do we start to learn new techniques.

This week wasn’t too bad — mostly we had to balance on pipes, a trick that makes a gymnast’s balance beam seem the sport of cowards.  After all, the beam is four luxurious inches wide and blessedly flat, while pipes are obviously round, and instead of being barefoot we’re wearing runners.  This means we have mere fractions of an inch to walk along, run along, do leg kicks on, etc.


If we had ended class with the balancing acts, I would have felt okay about my above average performance.  But of course Matt had a sadistic final exercise in mind for us.  He took us outside and across the street to the parking lot, where we had to do a broad jump, sprint a short distance, jog back, and repeat — TWENTY FUCKING TIMES!

I lasted four turns.

Worse still, it was Matt who stopped me.

I was walking (not jogging) back to the start line when he said, “Your face is flushed.  You’re done.”

Part of me wanted to hug him.  The other part wilted in embarrassment.

“Give me a minute and I can run a couple more times,” I offered.

“No, you’re done.”

I must have looked like hell.

It was small consolation when he also stopped the youngest member of the class — a twelve-year-old.

Matt kindly insisted that I was doing just fine.  I pointed out how the other guys in the class were still going at it.  At their ages they’re at their physical peak, he countered, as if to make me feel better.

I feel so old.

So right now my Becoming Layla plan ain’t going so hot.  It’s also a real ego crusher to learn every week that I’m not as good at this kind of stuff as I’d assumed.  But I know I’ll get better if only because embarrassment is a powerful motivator.