Archive for August, 2010

I wish I could say that I’m writing about me in this entry, that I’ve finally turned into a dangerous and thus more interesting woman.  But nope, it’s Layla who has gone over to the dark side.

beck use

As you know I’m editing The Compass Master.  Mostly the task calls for weighing every word and sentence, checking for consistency in my (ridiculously) complicated thriller plot, and other good stuff.  As you also know, I decided a few months ago to share my nasty injury with Layla.  She too will know what it’s like to have a collapsed lung and fractured ribs:  once in her past and again after a fight scene.

It’s the first injury that happened to her right after college that makes her turn to the (semi-) dark side.  While the physical injuries heal, it’s the circumstances of how she was hurt and the subsequent legal wrangling that strips away any innocence she still had and makes her cynical and vengeful.  By the time we catch up with her in the present day, she is definitely a woman who knows how to take care of herself.

b&w knife

This may sound disturbing, but I loved writing Layla’s new dialogue in which she casually admits to stabbing thugs who have attacked her while she’s on a job.  She doesn’t kill them but instead only cuts them enough so that she can get safely away.  No big deal to her.  What if she ever has to kill someone in self-defense or for another extreme reason?  She has a premonition that this will come true someday, and it doesn’t bother her.

Because I toughened up Layla I could get rid of some original passages that were making me cringe.  Why did I write such formula descriptions in the first place?  Maybe I wrongly assumed that a couple of my female friends/readers would only relate to a softer, gentler female lead.  Well, I underestimated my friends’ tastes and my own abilities.  Layla has gone from bad to dangerous and I like her much more that way.


Here’s a quickie update on my lock picking efforts.

1)  It’s embarrassing that in my last entry I mentioned that I would attempt to pick the lock on my bathroom door.  What a joke.  Turns out all I had to do was put in the torque in preparation of picking it and the lock popped right out.  I could’ve opened that baby in two seconds with a bobby pin.

locked door

2)  I had trouble picking the lock on the doorknob of my front door and also the one on my outside kitchen door.  You’d think that those simple push-in-the-little-round-button locks would be a cinch.  Well, maybe they are but I haven’t yet learned the trick.  On the other hand…

3)  I picked open the deadbolt (that’s right folks, the DEADBOLT) lock on my kitchen door in 30 seconds flat.  Which means…

I’M FINALLY DOING SOME REAL LOCK PICKING!  And don’t that make me feel real hot.  On the other hand…


Granted, it’s only a single deadbolt and not a double, but suddenly I don’t feel very secure in my own home.  It’s my own fault.

Picky Picky

on August 27, 2010 in Misc 2 Comments »

Like I said in my last entry, I haven’t been practicing my lock picking skills.  (I should’ve said they’ve gotten rusty – har har.)  I didn’t even realize how slack I’ve been until Robert pointed out in his comment that he didn’t know about my lock picking because I haven’t written about it.  (THANK YOU for being such a loyal reader for so long, Robert!)

USE Door

Well, the truth is I did write about it, but that was way back last summer, when I was in the earliest stages of my Layla plan.

Yes I know, this whole Layla plan was supposed to last only one year before I kick it up to a higher level in the second year.  But ever since I had that bad injury at the end of March (cracked ribs, collapsed lung, torn ligaments), I’ve kinda let the exact timeline slide an extra month or two to compensate for the serious physical downtime.  Well, during that downtime I should’ve turned into a lock picking whiz.

That’s what Layla is.  From rusted ancient church door locks to top-of-the-line deadbolts and any kind of padlock, she can open them within minutes or even seconds, usually in the dark and under rushed conditions.


Me, I usually sit at a table or in my big comfy leather chair and play with the basic lock picking kit and locksmith’s practice bolt I bought last summer.  It came with the handy instruction booklet Easy Pickings, but a more thorough and respected text that I like is MIT Guide to Lock Picking, by Ted the Tool.  You can download it off the internet.

With the practice bolt, the frame around the lock has been removed so that there’s a visible pin tumbler lock cylinder.  This in turn has cut-away windows so that you can see the pins.  I bought a (cheaper) cylinder with only three pins, but you can buy them with up to six and many real locks have five.  What’s great about it is that I can see the pins moving up and down and know if my picking is working.  I’m also using pretty much only the tension wrench and the hook pick and haven’t experimented with the other nifty picks in my basic kit such as the rake, the double ball rake, or the diamond.


In other words, I’ve been a slacker.  I have not been tackling real locks where I can’t see squat and instead have to depend on a highly refined sense of touch in my fingertips.

And so last night I finally sat myself down and seriously practiced for an hour.  By the time I was done I was opening the lock so quickly I’m afraid I may have permanently jimmied it.  Then I briefly attempted to pick open my back kitchen door.  I say briefly because I didn’t get anywhere with it. 

My plan for this weekend is to pick away at real locks and finally begin to develop that very necessary fingertip sensitivity.  Once I can open basic locks (like my bathroom door), I’ll start working on Master Lock type products, including the dreaded deadbolt.

Layla expects no less.

Having a Bad Day

on August 23, 2010 in Misc 6 Comments »

I feel so guilty.

Last week I wrote only one measly entrance for this blog.  And today I’ve got…

Not a whole lot to tell you.


Oh, I’ve been doing some Layla stuff.  I’ve gotten rustier than I’d like to admit on my basic lock picking, so I practiced when I had time and I’m really going to devote myself to it this week.  I should also be working on French and Arabic, which I haven’t been.  But above all I should be pursuing big, dramatic, fun stuff just like Layla.

Truth to tell, last week I had a couple bad days emotionally and it ended with a super crappy, depressing day at work.  You know what I mean — when you go home afterwards feeling like a shark just bit your ass off and you don’t feel up to doing much of anything.  Except, maybe, getting the hell out of wherever you are.

On the bright side, it’s now Monday at lunchtime and I’m getting over myself.  More important, I know that you yourselves have been through your own rotten stinkers but now all is right with you and your world (I hope!).  Same here.  Very soon now I’ll once again be as bouncy and cheerful and obnoxiously active as a golden retriever with a yard full of Frisbees.  That’s when I promise to do something INTERESTING (finally!) for my next posting.

Have fun, y’all.

moon trees

Last night, just before midnight, I put on dark clothes and my black bike gloves and went out to my condo’s garage.  After making sure no one was watching me, I climbed up onto its roof and for a few minutes just hung out.

No big whup, I know.  After all, I had gotten up on the garage a week or so ago from the other, easier end.  This time I merely ascended where there are trees and scratchy brush and dead sharp twigs.  It was kind of like a scene in The Compass Master when, in the dead of night, Layla climbs a tree and wall of an Italian villa. 

For me, it was fun and embarrassingly easy.

Not only that, I realized that I enjoyed doing such things in the dark of night.  I was going outside my daily norm, outside the box I’d grown comfortable within.  While Layla is a natural “borderline bad girl,” I grew up being the good girl – damn it.  Sure, I’ve done some wild stuff when I’ve traveled.  I have definitely taken some dicey risks.  But back here in the U.S. I’ve settled down too much and for too long into my neat, predictable, everyday life.  I’ve settled so much my harmless nocturnal forays seem daring.

This is why it feels good to harmlessly break a few minor rules.  After all, no one in my art deco 1939 condo building occupied by a bunch of professional people is supposed get up on the garage’s roof late at night, let alone climb a crabapple tree and use a drainpipe for footing and mess with the vines on the wall.  If it weren’t for Layla, I myself wouldn’t even think of doing such stuff.

Breaking the rules is also why, a few hours earlier, I had climbed up on the railing of my three-story building’s rooftop terrace.  I had gone up to watch the sunset when, for the first time, I felt compelled to climb over the railing and wander along the open area of the roof.  Then I climbed onto the railing itself next to the hut-like structure that houses the stairwell down into the building.  I felt like I was up with the birds in the treetops.  Had I not been wearing flip-flops and shorts, I would have pulled myself up onto that hut too. 


(Getting up would’ve been easy; getting down in shorts would’ve meant scratching up my legs, and my elbows and thigh still smart from falling off the wall of my neighbor’s garage.)

Granted, all these actions are so small, so humble, like mere rule-breaking baby steps.  But my plan is to keep practicing those steps until I feel confident enough to finally run free.

Falling Down

on August 13, 2010 in Misc 6 Comments »

A word to the wise…

If you’re doing something kind of unusual like, say, in the alley and climbing up onto your neighbor’s garage late at night, then you definitely don’t want to do something dumb.

alley b&w

Dumb can include….Well, leaving the keys to your place in one hand because in the back of your mind you’re thinking that it’s really so very easy to just step up on this box, then up onto this vertical narrow pipe (and why that pipe is jutting up out of the pavement I have no idea), then as your legs straighten into a one-foot standing position on that pipe you can grab the rain gutter above you and then…

I never got past this critical climbing point.

That’s because I fell.

falling cat

Suddenly and crazily I fell backwards and slammed down hard onto the alley pavement behind me.  Luckily my elbows and right thigh took the brunt of my fall.  Luckily too my biggest injury was a very painful blow to my ego.  How could I do something so incredibly STUPID?     WHY on earth did I think for one second that I could attempt even a simple dry-run on Bob’s high old garage wall with KEYS IN ONE HAND?

When I was in my bathroom washing my skinned elbows, I realized that I had in fact been distracted during my climb.  I don’t live in the suburbs, which are dead quiet at 11:15 on a weekday night.  I live in the city, and at all hours there are people out and about in my neighborhood.  Even late at night a few folks can be running, walking the dog, heading to the always-open grocery store a few blocks away.  There are also all kinds of windows that face that garage, and even though most were dark I still had the small fear that someone could be looking out one of them.  Hence I very foolishly let myself be distracted by the possibility of being seen by someone.

Layla would never make that mistake.

Like Layla, I should have stopped, taken some deep calming breaths, then focused with laser sharpness upon the job.  This means, first of all, EMPTYING MY HANDS!  In climbing every grip my hands make, every foothold my feet find, is of paramount importance.  I can never, ever, blow off even the simplest climb.  Being a rookie climber — and I’m really a rookie — is no excuse.

And so, next time I climb something (building, garage, tree, you name it), I will first stop and think, What would Layla do?

Unlike me, Layla would not screw up.

Up on the Roof

on August 9, 2010 in Misc 2 Comments »

cat on roof

Guess what I learned last night.

I learned that secretly climbing onto the roof of my 1939 condo building’s long, old detached garage and moving silently but swiftly down the length of it was pretty easy.  Of course, not getting stabbed by the tree branches at the far end as I swung myself down over the edge was a little tricky.  Also, the kinda sharp edge of the open drainpipe didn’t make my fingers feel very good.  But I did okay.

What was going to be more of a challenge was getting up on the higher roof of my neighbor’s garage.  I was about to tackle it next, but changed my mind when I realized that 1) to climb the wall I’d have to step up on a metal pipe and then grab the metal edge of the roof, which might not be a good idea because 2) one hell of an electrical storm was brewing overhead.

So my neighbor’s roof will have to wait for another night.

My neighbor’s name is Bob.  He’s a very mellow nice guy with long hair, a rebel’s spirit, and a passion for rebuilding vintage cars.  He lives in one of the old Victorian houses that have their backs to the same alley which runs alongside my building.  His garage that contains all his car and motorcycle parts is a free-standing ramshackle thing, and on its fairly high roof are a few old shoes and a brick that I assumed Bob threw up there.  For some reason, I’ve never asked him about the boots-on-roof décor.  For some other odd reason I now find myself wanting to get up on that roof, at night, unseen, and do something with those dang boots.

jewel thief

I figure it’d be a good Layla exercise.  Moving stealthily around in the dark can be an art in itself.  For these garage roofs I didn’t need my night vision monocular since there’s more than enough ambient light, but no doubt I’ll be using it for upcoming tougher challenges.

In this same vein, I went down to a fancy shopping area in Denver yesterday afternoon and checked out a couple little buildings.  One is an art gallery and next to it is a smaller building that now has a restaurant/bar as a tenant but used to be occupied by an expensive Native American jewelry store.  The jewelry store closed a couple years ago after burglars broke into it via the roof and made off with a hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandise.

It was easy to check out the roofs of both the stores because both are one-story buildings and across the street from them is a four-story shopping and parking structure.  I walked up the structure’s outside ramp, and as soon as I got up there and looked down I knew that this was exactly how the jewel thieves cased their target.  I mean, I could see everything.

On the art gallery’s roof is an enclosed deck, which helps make the building more secure. The former jewelry store, in contrast, has the usual flat industrial roof with a few vents and metal do-dads (very handy to wrap ropes around for climbing), but more importantly a very large vent that even a full-sized man could fit through.

No wonder jewel and art thieves often choose roofs as their entry way.  And Layla certainly knows the value of getting into a building via the upper windows (so often left unlocked).  And since Layla is good at getting up there, I have to keep developing my own second story skills.

On a side note:  This last Friday I took the free compass and map reading class at REI.  Though I’ve always been pretty good with topographical map reading, only now do I know how to use a compass on a map to get pretty precise bearings.  I also finally understand declination and how to adjust for it.  Nice to make some progress at something.

I think I freaked out a few of my neighbors.

At the very least they must have thought I was some weirdo snooping around in the dark or – worse yet – filming their homes in the dead of night for nefarious purposes.

dog night vision

Granted, I can have my weird moments.  But the fact is all I was doing was testing my brand new night vision monocular.

As the technology goes, my low-end Bushnell monocular borders on being a cheapie (think cell phone prices).  I can’t afford much, after all. But bear in mind that those super-cool, Borg-creepy head-strapped night vision binoculars that you see in thriller movies and shows and on soldiers in real life can cost a bomb.  A bomb being around $3,000 to $10,000 or more for the very best.

But hey, I’m still happy with my humble, AA battery-powered baby.  It does a decent job of illuminating with eerie greenish light whatever is in shadows.  Still, because there’s enough ambient light in my neighborhood from streetlamps and porch lights, I really couldn’t get the full effect until I went inside.  That’s when I turned off all my lamps and switched on the monocular’s infrared feature.  Instantly everything in my darkened living room became fuzzily visible in a yellowish color.

It was so cool.

to catch a thief roof

Layla, of course, possesses far superior night-vision binoculars, yet even hers aren’t up to tough military standards (her needs aren’t that extreme or expensive).  In The Compass Master she wears them while secretly hiking across open, rough terrain.  Well, since I’m going to be like Layla – at least within my budget – then over a few coming nights you’ll be able to find me after hours at a nearby park, or checking out the darkened boundaries of a country club, monocular held to my eye as I try not to stumble over bushes.

Of course I’d love to combine my new night-vision abilities with climbing a building in the dark.  And this leads me to the topic of…

My climbing the wall experience.

I tried it out with a friend last weekend, as I told you I would.  What surprised the heck out of me was that I really did pretty well.  Learning how to tie the ropes, adjust the harness, belay and so on wasn’t difficult at all.  But the really great part was that I had no trouble climbing a couple different walls several times.  Didn’t need that much upper body strength, and did just fine.  At about $10 a visit plus a little more for equipment rental, I shouldn’t have too much trouble getting the basics of the sport down solid. 

Needless to say, transferring those skills to real-life scenarios and buildings is another story.  But now, for the first time, I’m beginning to have some confidence in my abilities.

So cool.

“The writer cannot afford to wait for experience to come to him; he must go out in search of it.”

W. Somerset Maugham said that.  While I never knew much about his personal life, for me it was obvious in his novels and short stories that this was a man who had traveled widely to exotic places and met countless fascinating people.

When it comes to my own life, I’m a slacker compared to Maugham.  I’ve experienced only a fraction of the adventures I’ve craved, not only as a writer but as a human being.


One of my darker experiences was my trip to Serbia and Bosnia several years ago.  A small portion of what I saw and heard there shows up in a scene in The Compass Master.  I also named a minor character after someone I met in the Bosnian town of Tuzla.  In Compass I simply call him Hasan, and as a character he’s different from the real-life inspiration.  My fictional Hasan lives in Sarajevo and has a happier ending to his war experience because Layla saved him and his brother.

I mention the real-life Hasan because a couple days ago his name and story came back into my life like a bolt of thunder.  I was reading the Washington Post online when I found an editorial from July 11.  “15 years after the Srebrenica massacre, a survivor buries his family.”  By Hasan Nuhanovic.

Even before I read the name I knew this was “my” Hasan.  I knew it the moment I saw that this was someone who had survived the massacre that slaughtered his family, and that he had been working as a translator for the useless and cowardly Dutch peacekeeping soldiers who had been charged with protecting the civilians of the town of Srebrenica.  I knew it because the Hasan I met years ago was obsessed with discovering what had happened to his father and mother and brother, who disappeared during the massacre.  He told me about them and about the nightmare they all went through in the months leading up to it.  He told every foreigner like me that he ever met, every reporter, every government official, everyone and anyone who would listen.  Hasan was the kind of person who had survived an experience so horrific his own life was on hold and his future didn’t exist because he was still trapped in the pain of the past.

I’d really appreciate it if, for Hasan’s sake, you read the brief account of his story.

b&w ruins

As strange as it may sound, I found myself relieved to read Hasan’s editorial.  For years I’ve wondered if his family had ever been found.  Now at last the few bones of his father, mother and brother have been identified.  For Hasan’s sake I’m glad.  I’m also glad that he mentioned having a daughter, because this means he might have married the girlfriend he had when I met him; she had been serious about him even while he insisted he couldn’t contemplate marriage until he found his family.  If he now has a child then Hasan was able to pull himself out of the past long enough to create a future

You know that this blog has been about my plan to acquire Layla’s cat burglar/ adventurer/ scholar skills and at least some of her experiences.  Most of the time this means I have light-hearted forays into fun stuff like skydiving, parkour, lock picking, climbing, and so on.  In all honesty, there’ve been a couple times when I felt a little full of myself, like “ain’t I so cool?” because of what I’m doing.  But whenever you get like that life is sure to straighten you out.  Life has done it to me yet again by sending me Hasan.  What you’re doing is just fiction, life is reminding me.  Hasan is the reality.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll keep doing my Layla self-education.  But from now on I’m going to stay humble about it.