Saturday, December 07, 2013

the most awesome thing I did tonight

In 1992, a year after I'd graduated from college, a very cool movie named "Sneakers," starring Robert Redford, David Strathairn, Sydney Poitier, and Ben Kingsley, made its appearance. "Sneakers" is a heist-and-caper film; the premise is that Robert Redford is the leader of a team of white-hat hackers—ex-criminals whose job is to work with authorities by breaking into banks and other hardened facilities to test their security. Early in the movie, Redford's character, Martin, has a falling-out with Ben Kingsley's character, Cosmo. Years later, Martin's team learns of the existence of a universal decoder that ends up in Cosmo's possession. Such a decoder, or "black box," could wreak financial havoc on the world's markets; as Cosmo says at one point, the person with the power is the one "who controls the information." Martin and his team pit themselves against Cosmo, who is a rich, powerful info-tech genius. The black box is inside Cosmo's fortress-like home; breaking in requires all of Martin's team's skills.

At one point, Martin's task is to infiltrate a particular room that the team knows is guarded by both infrared sensors, to detect an intruder's body heat, and motion sensors that can detect any movement faster than a couple inches per second. The team hacks into the fortress's temperature controls and heats the room up to disguise Martin's infrared signature, and Martin slips into the room, very slowly, and walks carefully across it to his goal, sweating the entire time.

Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I did the same thing.

Working late in a Korean university's office means that, if it's after 11PM, the room's motion alarm is likely to activate. If you move once the alarm is set, the klaxon goes off, and then you have to grab your ID card and hold it to the alarm's sensor to switch it off. Sometimes this summons a guard; most of the time, turning the alarm on and off brings no security at all. The type of motion alarm that our school uses is ubiquitous across the world, and like the security system in "Sneakers," it's set to detect motion that's faster than about two inches per second.

It was at 10:58PM that the alarm switched itself on in my office. I was hunched at my cubicle, working on final exams, when the computer voice came on and announced that the alarm was now activated ("Gyeongbi-ga shijak dwaeyeosseumnida!"). I instinctively froze. My duffel bag—with my ID card inside it—was behind me, about three feet away. From there, it was a ten-foot walk to the alarm, and for whatever reason, I decided that, tonight, I was going to be Robert Redford in "Sneakers," and I would try to get my ID and switch off the security system without triggering the klaxon. I felt a thrill at the challenge I had set for myself.

When you have to move extremely slowly, it helps to have training in both theater and meditation. Luckily, I have both. Theater is all about embodiment: your entire body is basically a tool for expression, so you need to know how to manipulate that tool. This requires an understanding of balance points as well as strong proprioception (the ability to sense where your own body parts are without actually looking at them). That latter sense isn't as developed in me as it is in many athletes and dancers, but I've got more than a little of it. Meditation also helps insofar as it allows you to move mindfully, to break your motions down into their component parts and then concentrate on transitioning from position to position as smoothly and serenely as possible.

So I mapped out the motions and performed them. I knew I'd have to rotate slowly to the left, lever myself into a standing position, rotate further toward the shelf holding my duffel, take a step over, and reach slowly into the duffel while also turning my head so I could look into the bag's side pocket to see exactly where the ID card was. After finding the card, I'd have to remove my arm, bring it delicately down to my side, then walk about ten feet to the alarm's sensor plate, raise my left arm with the ID card in my left hand, and deactivate the alarm.

I wish there had been witnesses. I wish I'd had some way to film what I had done. My headspace was totally "Sneakers": for those few suspenseful minutes, I was Robert Redford's character, Martin Bishop. There were a few moments during which I almost lost my balance, and there were even more moments when I was tempted to whip my head repeatedly toward the sensor. Fighting such temptation proved harder than I'd thought it would be, but I kept myself focused in the manner of the tortoise in Aesop's fable: slow and steady. Bit by bit, I palmed my ID card and made my way toward the alarm like a man trying not to disturb a pit full of quiescent snakes. A thought kept popping up, almost mantra-like in the way it flashed in my mind: still no alarm, still no alarm, still no alarm.

When I was about six feet away from my goal, my cell phone suddenly burped in my chest pocket. I had been concentrating so hard that the phone's interruption severely startled me, and I reflexively jerked. At the same time, I managed to quell the worst of the motion. I glared up at the sensor; its red warning light had come on, a precursor to the klaxon. I held still and watched as it blinked noiselessly; after about ten or fifteen seconds, the red light winked out, and the sensor was calm again.

Five feet. Three feet. Two feet. One foot. I risked a glance upward; the sensor's red eye was still quiet, unblinking. I raised my left arm, card in hand, and managed, finally, to place my ID gently over the sensor plate. The computer voice blared: "Gyeongbi-ga haejae dwaeyeosseumnida!" Deactivated!

I gave a shout of triumph and punched the air victoriously. I also gave myself full credit for having found a unique way to entertain myself while alone in the office at night. Like John Henry, I had beaten the machine. Like Robert Redford, I had walked across the high-security room and stolen the black box. It was an awesome feeling. Even now, almost three hours later, I'm still riding high. You might call me lame for being so easily entertained, but my feeling is that life is spicier when you set little challenges for yourself, just to see what you're capable of.

This is not, by the way, the first time I've had to play the thief. Years ago, I was asked by some friends of the family, fellow church members, to house- and dog-sit for them. It was wintertime, and the family was to be away for several days. The mother, a dietitian, had left me food in the fridge and directions on how to care for the large dog, a very well-behaved black Lab who needed daily walks in the evening. The first night, I took the dog for a walk in the crunching snow, but forgot to bring along the house keys. To my further chagrin, I discovered, upon my return, that I had locked myself out.

So there I stood in the family's screened-in patio, wondering what the hell I should do. The kitchen window was right there; I could see the keys sitting on the kitchen table, only a few feet away. That's when the spirit of MacGyver entered into me and, inspired, I fashioned a sort of fishing rod out of materials—toys, mostly—that I found in the patio. The dog watched patiently while I raced against time to prevent us both from freezing.

The neighborhood was very dark that winter night, but I knew that, since the kitchen light was on and the kitchen window gave onto the patio, I'd be silhouetted against that window for any passerby to see. I had to factor in the possibility that some neighbor might think me a real burglar, which meant that I'd have to listen carefully for the crunching sound of people's footfalls. Luckily, the dog was perfectly quiet whenever someone did walk by. At those moments, I stopped what I was doing and remained silent and still. No one noticed a thing. Eventually, I was able to pry open the kitchen window, insinuate the jury-rigged fishing rod, and persuade the keys onto the hook. With great relief, I unlocked the house's side door and let myself and the dog into the house's warm interior.

All of this makes me wonder why I never entered a life of crime. I apparently have quite the aptitude for it; I'm a 275-pound version of Bilbo Baggins, burglar for hire. The Blobbit.



John said...

If I ever require a cat burglar I'll know who to call!

Bratfink said...

I loved this!


Well done!


Charles said...

Nicely done, Bilbo.

The Maximum Leader said...

Lucky there wasn't a heat or sweat sensor in the office!