Archive for April, 2010

Writing Tough

on April 27, 2010 in Misc 16 Comments »

I’ve decided that, like me, Layla should get injured.


Yes, that sounds very cold of me.   It also sounds like I might be projecting my frustration and pain onto an innocent character who never did me any harm.   A character who is, in many ways, my alter ego, or at the very least the woman I want to be if only I were younger, cooler, better looking, better educated, had a super cool job and a lot more money.

It’s also a little extreme because it means more writing.   After all, Layla’s story/my novel The Compass Master is finished and just about ready for publication.   So if Layla is to suffer an injury, I’ll have to go back into the final quarter of the manuscript and change several scenes.   It means that after she’s in a fight with one of the bad guys and gets away, she must sustain an injury that hobbles her actions and even threatens her life.

But you know what?   This change could be a very good thing.

Ninja Assassin

So many thriller novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen – no matter how gritty on the surface – are flat out fantasies when it comes to the consequence of a hero’s injuries.   The guy can get hammered and thrown around and lose consciousness for a couple hours, but he still gets up and fights on.   She can be blasted by a bomb or hurled against a wall, and she’ll moan and groan but still rally onward.   You never, at the end of all the body bashing, see him or her lying barely lucid in a hospital bed, drooling and mumbling and begging for more pain killer, PLEASE.

Not that this describes my recent personal experience in a hospital.

But back to Layla.  What kind of injuries will I give her?

A partially collapsed lung and fractured ribs, of course.

It makes perfect sense.  Write about what you know, we writers are always being told.   Well, I sure as hell know about lungs and ribs.   I can tell you all about the sudden and frightening inability to run or even walk fast for fear of passing out because I’m so short of breath.   I can describe in detail the pain that spiders across one side of the chest and makes any kind of lifting and carrying nearly impossible and ultimately dangerous.   But Layla will still have to lift stuff and run as best she can, and in the process try not to pass out.

Mila running

I gotta say I’m getting excited about making these changes in my manuscript.   They’ll add depth to the character, even more tension to the story, and will feel like a slap of hard reality in scenes that currently might be a little too typical for the genre.  

Who knew I would ultimately benefit, in only a literary way, from being banged up by an idiot?

POSTSCRIPT:  Here’s a personal note to Robert.  I’m still thinking about your crazy and semi-fantasy suggestion about an internet school for action heroes.  And maybe soon I can write a semi-fantasy school curriculum that I’ll post here.   Might be really fun.

As you know I’m physically out of action for a few weeks and trying not to turn into a sedentary slug.  Still, all this bodily down time may explain why I’ve developed an odd habit:

I’ve been searching for action hero-type schools on the Internet.


A few of them really do exist.  No, they’re not glamorous and I highly doubt that any of them have produced a James Bond.  Still, it’s fun for me to investigate their classes and check off the ones I’d take if I ever had enough money (dream on!) or could be on leave from my day job long enough (can’t happen).  Maybe it’s precisely because I am so inactive that I find myself living vicariously through the pumped-up promos these schools offer.

At the top of the local list is Executive Security International right here in Colorado.  It’s just outside Durango (not on anyone’s list of exotic places) and boasts that it gives “Intelligence Based Protection Training.”  Apparently this means “Approved Certification Programs for Protection and Security Specialist in Special Operations, Executive Protection, Protective Intelligence and Investigation.”

In less fancy schmancy words, the school educates agents on how to protect corporate executive clients while traveling through the world’s most dangerous hotspots.  Of course this begs the question, why would I want to protect your typical corporate executive?  In all honesty I’d much rather see the heads of, say, Goldman Sachs, AIG, Citibank, and so many others fall into the clutches of a rampaging mob.  But that’s just me.

Soldiers steps

Anyway, what I’m talking about here is action fantasy come to life, because there really would be something cool about learning to be an agent “willing and able to work in high risk protection details.”  This tough stuff includes anti-kidnapping skills, protective shooting, protective driving, bomb threat planning, technical surveillance and countermeasures, and other thriller novel-type goodies. 

Then there’s the enticement of hobnobbing with square-jawed, scar-faced, muscle-bound instructors who “have extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan where they were the targets of insurgent tactics and strategy in the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and Kabul.”

Can’t you just smell the testosterone?

But enough macho chest-beating.  If you’re instead drawn to a more subtle, rather devious kind of personal power, I’ve got a school that’s at the other end of the spectrum.

And I mean WAY at the other end.

As in the Arthur Findlay College.

Inside Findlay

It’s in England and compares itself to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  Of course that’s just clever marketing, because Hogwarts teaches kiddies how to develop and control their inborn magical powers, whereas the Findlay College merely trains muggles how to act like wizards even though no wand or broomstick will ever to tricks for them.  Findlay, you see, teaches psychic courses that include mystical arts like healing, shamanism, “progressive practical mediumship,” hypnosis, experimental trance, and other challenges. 

Now you may be asking what on earth does such airy-fairy, Victorian-type pastimes have to do with modern-day action heroes.  But think about it.  In some action movies and novels the hero has a handy-dandy supernatural-type ability gleaned from years spent in a Himalayan monastery or up the Amazon with a wise old native.  Either that or the hero, somewhere in the story, consults or encounters a shaman/ monk/ gypsy/ witch (think Pirates of the Caribbean) or whatever who conveniently adds a twist to the plot and a dash of suspense and foreshadowing.  And if that’s what you’re after in a story or in your life, then Arthur Findlay College is the place for you.

And here’s a little surprise.

Gwrych trees

Even a unique-seeming school like Findlay has competition.  Seems that an English businessman called Horkin (a name J.K. Rowling would love) with way too much time and money on his hands will be opening his own “Psychic School in a Castle” which needless to say he’s modeling after Harry Potter’s digs.  To this end he’s bought the derelict Gwrych Castle (note the cool witchy name) in North Wales.  It cost him over a million bucks and he’ll be spending several million more renovating the 19th century castle where psychics will “connect with the spiritual world.”  Oh, and for “ordinary people” (muggles) there will be convenient hotel accommodations on site.  Conveniently too, Horkin is already claiming that a ghostly image has popped up on photographs he took at Gwrych Castle.

castle ghost

So if you wannabe an action hero along the lines of Harry Potter, you know where to go.  But if your inclinations are more muscular and fuel-injected, then head to Durango.

Me, I’m staying in Denver for the time being.

Most of my Layla workout plan has pretty much come to a screeching halt.

It’s driving me crazy.   Since my injury three weeks ago I have not been able to exercise from the waist up, and I still can’t work out my entire upper body for the next month or so.   Of course fencing is completely out of the question.

weight lifting

And this at a time when I was FINALLY starting to develop enough upper body strength to do actual chin-ups.   I’d assumed that in May I’d move on to indoor rock climbing and next into climbing buildings and rappelling down them, just like Layla can.

But nope, nothin’ doin’ for now.   Instead I’m semi-laid up and out of action.  That’s what having fractured ribs and torn cartilage has done to me.   Not only can I not lift any weights or do push-ups or handstands, I’m not even supposed to be lifting heavy grocery bags, for cryin’ out loud.   I tried to do a few different ab exercises and quickly had to nix those too.   Talk about everything in the body being connected – just working my abs hurt my chest.   As for upper body or waist stretches – they’re a distant memory.

And the funny thing is, I’m not at heart very athletic or diligent about exercise.   It’s my Layla plan that really was making me develop some great physical habits.   Still, for all of my adult life I have always STRETCHED. Every day, sometimes a couple times a day, I stretch the way a cat does – to loosen up and feel good.   If my back gets stiff, I reflexively stretch.   But now?   Nothing doing, not if I want to heal.   Oh, I still try to stretch as much as possible, but as soon as I feel a sharp PING I stop.

You may have noticed by now that exercise deprivation has made me cranky and whiny.

Thank God for my good old ballet/dance training.   It gives me a whole repertoire of exercises I can do while standing and for moving only from the waist down.   I can also do some floor exercises and stretch my legs and hips.   These really have been a life saver.   When my body feels better, my mood brightens and I’m a nicer person to be around. 

Irish dancers

Of course I look like one of those weird Celtic folk dancers with feet and legs jittering away while my upper body remains stiff as a board.   Happily no one is around to see me do this.

This week will be my first full-time back to work week since my injury.   I figure one way to get through it will be to go downstairs during my lunch hour to my office building’s exercise room and do whatever exercises are possible.   It’ll be my first time down there since my injury.

There’s one thing I’ve already resolved:   As soon as I’m able I’m going to work out my upper body like crazy.   I’ll double and triple everything I had been doing for more strength.   I will be able to pull my self up a building like freakin’ Spiderman.   I’ll do stuff even Layla can’t do.

And that will make me so happy.


on April 15, 2010 in Misc 4 Comments »

In my last post I said that I’d tell you all about my unplanned hospital stay.   But you know what?   Nobody wants any pukey details.   So instead here’s a non-gory summary.

Went to the emergency room.   The nurses hooked me up to a couple sharp shiny things.   Later the thoracic surgeon arrived and we chatted and he stuck another sharp shiny thing into me and right between a couple ribs, which caused me to express a few good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon words. 

bicycle pump

And then he stuck a tube between those ribs, and let me tell you, getting a tube stuck in between your ribs and then having that tube of air start to inflate a collapsed lung HURTS LIKE HELL!  But the good news:   the pain soon diminished and my lung would now safely take all night to completely fill out again, thank you very much.   

Next I was shipped upstairs to ICU.   There the nurses asked me to step on a scale because apparently, no matter what your condition, it’s of paramount importance that your body weight be recorded.   Well, when I stepped on the scale and saw that my weight was down a couple pounds, I felt immediately better.  Isn’t that pathetic?   We women REALLY have to get over our big thing with body weight.

Later a couple other people (Nurses?  Technicians?   I was in no condition to ask) took me to a CT scan, which didn’t hurt at all (now there’s a novelty!) and which revealed that I have four to eight fractures in my left ribs.   Oh goody.   Can’t do nothin’ about them, just hafta let them heal.

Blue cat scan

After that:   was put back in my ICU room and kinda slept off and on.   Had lots of drugs pumped into me.   Felt SO much better when a nurse finally removed that wretched tube around dawn.   For the first time in two weeks could breathe deep, full breaths and could lean on my back without pain.   I’m almost back to feeling normal!   And then friends came and picked me up and took me home.

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to my ever wonderful friends Annie and Rich who are always there for me.   And thank you Sue for having a premonition that something was wrong and kept trying to get in touch with me.   And thanks to all the nice hospital people who joked with me and didn’t seem to mind when my hospital gown kept slipping down and I found myself accidentally and repeatedly flashing them.

I like to think that, even in my condition, I still looked pretty good.  But then that’s what too much medication can do to your brain.

Lung Power

on April 12, 2010 in Misc 3 Comments »

So alright already, I know it’s been a week since my last entry. But I have a good reason for being absent here the last few days. 

I spent Friday night in the hospital – in the emergency room and then the ICU, to be exact – and I wasn’t released until Saturday afternoon.

help sign

Why was I in the intensive care unit, you may ask? Well, you may recall how a couple weeks ago a black belt who shall remain nameless (especially since I don’t know his name) chose to teach me a harsh lesson for my mistake by slamming me to the floor during a beginner class in Aikido. The initial diagnosis of my injuries entailed a separated shoulder (which my chiropractor fixed) and torn cartilage in my left ribcage. However, I still hadn’t had an x-ray taken of my chest and shoulders; I was also concerned about my shortness of breath, which wasn’t getting any better, and how I still couldn’t bend over or lean on my back without feeling pain and pressure in my chest. Hence early last week I called a top sports medical clinic. After some pleading on my part, the nice lady who made appointments squeezed me into a slot at the end of day on Friday.

I left work early on Friday, went to this clinic, told someone my injury story, let someone else take lots of x-rays of me, and a short while later the doctor came into the room where I waited to review those films with me. He was also looking at me as if I were an alien from the planet Zortak. That made me start to worry, I can tell you.

“I’ve got some good news and bad news,” the doctor said as he clipped an x-ray film to a screen and lit up the image. “The good news is, your shoulder looks fine. The bad new is… Do you see this part of your left lung?”

collapsed lung

Hell yes, I could see it. And to be trite, the difference between my right and left lung was there in black and white. While my right lung was a lovely ghostly white shot threw with healthy blood vessels pumping away, half of my left lung looked like a black hole.

“You have a partially collapsed lung,” he said. And this was why he seemed to think I was a Zortak alien. He couldn’t believe that in my condition I had not only driven to that clinic, but that I’d been going to work for the last two weeks. He made it very clear that I had to go immediately to the nearest emergency room. Like, RIGHT NOW!

Within minutes he and his staff figured out that the nearest such place was Porter Hospital about a mile away. Of course I worried about whether or not Porter was in my insurance network. The doctor, God bless him, didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass. He would okay it. Just GO. “Are you sure you can drive?” he and his staff repeatedly asked with alarm in their faces. They would call ahead to notify the hospital I was coming. Just get there NOW.

And so I left and drove to the hospital. And the people there also treated me very well. Of course, I still had one hell of a long, painful night at the place, and I’ll tell you about it in my next entry.


on April 5, 2010 in Misc 6 Comments »

Read the paragraph below and you might think I’m describing a Twilight Zone character who only exists in another dimension.

Hale spoke between 50 and 56 languages.   He learned all the European languages (Dutch gave him the most trouble – it took him a week to master), some Asian languages, and about 20 languages spoken only by remote native peoples.   One time he encountered a Pacific island native who spoke an almost impossibly obscure language.  Simply by listening to him,   Hale could understand him within fifteen minutes.   Within half an hour both men were chatting away.

Ken Hale was a real man, taught linguistics at MIT, and passed away in 2002.   And he wasn’t weird or an autistic savant.   He was a normal, nice, even modest man.


And you know perfectly well that if I so much as tried to slip a character like him into my novel The Compass Master, I’d be laughed out of the writing business.

That’s the problem with fiction, you know.    Even in thrillers with ambitious plots and action/scholar heroes like Layla Daltry, I’ve got to take reality down a few notches or no one’s gonna believe the story.    Layla speaks a few languages (Latin, ancient Greek, French, and some German and Italian), not fifty.    And I can tell you she had to work her butt off in high school and college to learn them.

Sir Richard Burton (the great Victorian explorer, not the actor) had it easier – his parents had him learning Latin at age three and Greek at four, so it appears he grew up with his brain shaped to naturally acquire new languages.    He would eventually learn around 29 languages and dialects, translate A Thousand and One Arabian Nights from Arabic, the Kama Sutra from Hindustani, write a bunch of his own books – oh, and be a soldier, secret agent, a ferocious master fencer (love that!), orientalist, ethnologist, discover the source of the Nile… and on an on.


The two biographies of Burton that I’ve read say he claimed to learn a new language as a child does:  as a work of pure memory, but combined with grammar books and vocabulary lists.    Of course when he was older he said that the best way to learn a language was in bed with a native, local woman (how very James Bond of him).   Either way, constantly hearing the language aloud was one of his most important learning devices.

By the way, Burton learned Hindustani while stationed with the army in India.   He was tested in it by Major General Vans-Kennedy, who himself knew Hindustani, Persian, Gujarti, Sanskrit, and Arabic.   No wonder the British Empire would eventually cover a quarter of the globe.    And no wonder Burton – one of the greatest real action heroes of all time – would be able to go undercover and penetrate sacred, forbidden cities like Mecca and Harar.

Fast forward to me in modern times.    I am SO not a linguistic genius.    In fact I’m a linguistic bad joke.   But I now have a few extra hours a week to study French and Arabic because, as you know,  I’m not working out for several weeks because the cartilage in my ribcage got ripped up.

One thing I’ve discovered is that it helps me to study a language in a brief lesson lasting around ten or fifteen minutes.   Then I try to repeat the same lesson two or three time a day.   This seems to set the vocabulary and sentences deeper into my memory.   As Burton himself once wrote, “I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness.”


As for repeating the lesson hours apart – I’m doing this because I came across an old article (I am a hoarder of old articles) that said the brain needs time to store new skills.  It reports that scientists found it can take five to six hours for the memory of a new skill to move from a temporary storage site in the front of the brain (the prefrontal cerebral cortex) to a permanent storage site in the back  (the posterior parietal and cerebella areas).  Repetition of that new skill during those hours can help retain it.

The point is, us non-linguistic geniuses need all the help we can get.  And for me, brief lessons hours apart, and done in a relaxed, highly focused state of mind, seem to be working.  At best I’ll only learn tourist-level Arabic and conversational French.   But hey, even this much will make me feel like I’ve   smarted up.