The Spy in the Room

The archetype most people have of a spy, if we’re talking real vs. reel (seriously, James Bond is a spy and everyone in all his movies knows what he looks like, what he drives, and what he drinks?), can usually be summed up in two words. They are “aloof” and “inconspicuous.” I say “aloof,” because the more distant you are with people, the less they can get to know you…. also, many less lies to handle under cover in terms of what you told whom. Additionally, others won’t be able to identify you later, because they don’t have details to jog their memories. “Inconspicuous” has to do with being the person you’d never notice so that case officers can move more freely.

For instance, I would make a terrible spy in terms of having the right skills for the job, but perfect in my appearance. I am a white woman over 40, who, dressed correctly and wearing a baseball cap, can also pass for a teenage male; I could even embody a tween if I dyed my hair.

For the woman over forty cover, all I would need is a sweatshirt with appliquéd school buses, pencils, notebook paper, and perhaps a chalk board for good measure. The micro SD full of intel would, of course, be hidden in a tote bag full of kid-level math books and flash cards.

“As a kid,” all I would need to get through airport security with a micro SD card is a Kindle Fire for kids and a Minecraft backpack…. maybe a t-shirt that is obviously a DC souvenir and the ubiquitous tween cargo shorts (which, for better or for worse, I already own).

The International Spy Museum speaks to this with a t-shirt slogan- a lot of them say “I Was Never Here” (the link to this particular t-shirt is cool as hell, fyi).

As Chief of Disguise (ten years apart) it was Tony and Jonna Mendez’s job to create these personas (link is to my source material), including the tiniest details. For instance, a rock in your shoe or an ace bandage around one knee completely changes your walk. An artificial palate can change the way you talk- perhaps adding a lisp. During Jonna’s lecture last night, she talked about Tony’s first quick change to show his superiors it could be done. 45 seconds and he changed from a man in a business suit carrying an attaché case to an old woman pushing a small shopping cart (the briefcase expanded).

After hearing her speak, the characterization of aloof and inconspicuous was demystified. I still believe that case officers have to be that way under cover, but in person, as herself, she couldn’t have been more warm and gracious. Her talk was a little under an hour, but it could have been three hours and I wouldn’t have moved. Not only was she personable, she was quite funny.

She told a great story about Tony… that he was originally hired by the CIA as an artist, and thought, “what would the CIA want with an artist?” The answer was painstakingly recreating passports, both foreign and domestic. He was also a genius at copying, and did a demonstration at the Spy Museum years ago in which he taught an entire room of people how to forge Vladimir Putin’s signature.

There were many, many laugh lines over the evening… there were also a few stories that were quite scary.

American case officers are not known for those Bond moments where everyone in the room is shot. Their mission is to get in, get what they need, and leave… often more quickly than you would think an intelligence operation would take. In Moscow, this is not the case. If you are caught spying against Russia, you are tortured and executed…. because to simply execute someone would be too kind.

Aleksandr Ogorodnik (code name Trigon) was recruited by the CIA as an asset, and because he knew what would happen if he was caught, requested what is called an L pill (a cyanide capsule). He said that he would not work for them without it. This was debated by the directors for a long time (due to the psychological damage done to the carrier, and its predilection for premature use) before they ultimately agreed, and hid it in a pen.

Trigon was caught in  1977, and offered to write a full confession. He then bit down on his pen, and was dead before he even hit the floor.

Trigon’s death was a tragedy, and not just because he was a human who knew he was better off killing himself. He was known as the best asset the CIA had, providing an exponentially larger volume of intel than others. The reason he was so critically important is that Moscow got so dangerous for American case officers that they had to recruit Russian assets, because the risk was too high that they’d get caught, even in disguise.

The only person that managed it was a woman named Marti Peterson. Jonna explained that since the KGB never, ever used females as operatives, they assumed that the Americans wouldn’t, either. She was never under surveillance, and was able to get away with being Trigon’s contact for over a year before she was caught. The only reason she’s still alive is that the Russians declared her a Persona Non Grata with diplomatic immunity and sent her packing back to the US.

The story is a miracle because as she was being interrogated, she was sitting at a large table where all her spy gear that the KGB confiscated was laid out in front of her one by one. Though I don’t know why she was considered a PNG instead of a case officer is beyond me, but my first guess is misogyny… which is alive and well today, but even more prevalent in the late 1970s.

It was about that time that Jonna ended her talk and started a Q&A session. I was second in line, and my question was about Argo. “First of all, let me say that I am sorry for your loss [she thanks me]. When did you and Tony meet John Chambers (the Hollywood makeup guy), and have you worked on any other movies? The one that occurred to me today that you might have been involved in was Atomic Blonde.”

First, she told me that Tony had a lot of friends in both Hollywood and magic, but didn’t know how he was introduced (I forgot he didn’t meet Jonna until years later). Then, her personality seemed to flip. She became a total product of her training. She gave me The Look,™ a combination of a smile, a winky face, and “I can’t say.” She redirected to “perhaps we should hire you.” I thanked her for answering the question, and said “that bit about ‘perhaps we should hire you’ will live in my memory for the rest of my life.” The entire room broke up with laughter.

There were lots of people with questions, and my favorite was from a young woman who said, “it seems as if The Cold War is still going on, but yet our current administration seems to be pretty friendly with Russia. Could you speak to how one feeds the other?” Jonna said that if they were out and both had a drink in their hands, they could talk about it, but she didn’t want to get into politics. So, note to self. Invite her to have a drink.

I don’t know why it panned out this way, but I was a little annoyed that I was the only person in the room that said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Maybe other people were just afraid to acknowledge the spy in the room.

Before the lecture, I bought The Moscow Rules, and I also brought my copy of Argo, because she’s an uncredited author on it and I thought that was unfair.

I set “TMR” on the table and held Argo in my hands. I leaned in and said, “do you mind if I tell you a really quick story about this book?” She said, “about Argo? Sure.” I said, “at The Spy Museum’s old digs, they used to sell autographed copies. I didn’t have a job at the time, and I thought it was too much money to spend on a book. When Tony died, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake, and I wrote about it on my blog. My dad read it, and searched through every rare bookstore he could find. Two days later, it arrived at my house. I called him, crying hysterically, and he said, “don’t worry… that’s just what daddies do.” And that is the precise moment where my heart dropped into my stomach like a rock.

My story had made her start crying. I knew I’d pierced her public persona armor. Because my mother died in 2016, I knew it was the only thing holding her together. A string of profanities unleashed in my head, because I wish I had remembered other people had cried after that story and they didn’t even know Tony Mendez. She took the book from my hands and opened it lovingly, fingering Tony’s signature. She said, “I can really tell this was signed after the Parkinson’s had set in.” Under it, she added “+Jonna Mendez.” To redirect, she got serious and said, “so, are you looking for a job for real?” A shitstorm of pictures ran through my head as I pictured background checks that would put my family through the ringer and disclosing my Bipolar II diagnosis, getting rejected before I even got to talk to anyone that would take the time to know me. I said, “well, I am a professional cook.” She laughed and said, “well then, maybe I should hire you.” I don’t remember how it came up, but I also told her that I’d never gotten to see Tony before he announced he would no longer be doing public appearances. She said, “that’s such a shame. He would have really liked you.”

Then, she opened “TMR” and wrote, “For Leslie- Maybe we should hire you.” I shook her hand rather than asking if I could give her a hug, because I was feeling overly emotional and I knew she was, too. A hug would have undone us both. I told her it was such a pleasure to meet her, and the last thing she said to me as I walked away was, “I will remember you.” I walked very quickly to the women’s restroom, dropped my backpack, and cried my eyes out.

Feeling refreshed, I opened my Uber app and walked outside, desperately hoping that in some time, some place, we will meet again.

Master(s) of Disguise

I am already dressed for the speaking engagement I am attending tonight. Jonna Mendez is going to present her newest (and Tony Mendez’ last) book, 51bYPeOnLvLThe Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War. The reason I am already dressed and ready to leave is that I am inexplicably anxious.

Well, maybe not inexplicably. First of all, Jonna is credited as an author on this book, but she also assisted Tony & Matt (Baglio) on Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.

For those who are scratching their heads at why Jonna and Tony have the same last name, it’s because they were married for 28 years. Tony’s death this past January hit me extremely hard. Part of my anxiety is knowing in advance that I could be emotional, and because I’m going to be in front of his wife, I feel that they’re not really my emotions to have. I mean, I never met him (I wanted to, and I know for sure that if he was still alive and his Parkinson’s was under control, tonight would have been the night- he and Jonna were/are on the board at The International Spy Museum).

Even though he was not a personal friend and I can’t say I knew him, there are these authors that get under your skin to the point where you feel like you do. Tony is that author for me, and I am so glad that his stories did not die with him- that there are still more of his words for me to discover. After I finish The Moscow Rules, I’m going to read Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War, which, according to Jonna’s web site, is often used as curriculum for new CIA recruits, and was the first book that the couple wrote together.

Attendees are encouraged to show up early, as Tony’s notes for this book will be on display. I will get to see his handwriting, his process, and hopefully some of his humor… which was always on display in real life. For instance, when Ben Affleck was cast as him in the movie adaptation of Argo, Tony said that he himself was much better looking.

It is in this portion of the evening, wandering around the glass cases, that I hope my emotions bubble up, because it will be more private. I’m not overly fond of emoting in front of a bunch of people, anyway. That being said, you cannot control feelings, and the more you try, the more they fight you to get out.

I am sure that I have mentioned this before, but one of the reasons that Tony’s books have become so precious is that my great uncle, Foster Fort, was in the military and later worked for both the C and DIA in different capacities.

He was killed in a helicopter crash when I was very, very young. I wasn’t old enough to have a real conversation with him after he retired, because he never got old enough to do so, and he couldn’t have told me anything while he was still working. In a way, he’s become a legend in our family, because when you work for either clandestine service, your family only gets to guess what you’re doing, and are often very, very wrong.

I mean, maybe he was just a helicopter pilot. I think that if you get tapped by the C and DIA, though, there’s probably more to it than that. When I think of Foster, I imagine him “putting on the last suit he’ll ever wear,” and I laugh to myself. I laugh even harder when I picture Agent O doing his funeral. But on a more serious note, it is comforting to feel as if our family has a connection to one of the stars on the wall at Langley.

I have no idea what kind of stories I would have heard, but I do know that I will hear some amazing ones tonight. You don’t get to be Chief of Disguise at CIA without living through a few. There are a TON of YouTube videos (this one’s my favorite– the Homeland gag KILLS me) of her talks and they’re all so interesting you wish they’d go on for three more hours. At the end of one video, the comment that literally sent tears and snot running down my face as I shook violently with laughter was, “who else was waiting for her to take off her disguise and find out it’s really a black dude?”

One of the best things she explains is “the quick change,” which is layering disguises so that you can take off clothing, glasses, etc. in 37 seconds, changing your appearance even while walking in the middle of a crowd. They have to be so precise that they are rehearsed beforehand, because as she says, you don’t want anyone to know you’ve escaped. You want them to think that they’ve lost you and it’s all their fault.

If Jonna doesn’t talk about it, I want to ask her if she was a consultant on Atomic Blonde, because for me, it personifies the Moscow rules. Even if she wasn’t, I still want to know if she’s seen it.

One of the Moscow rules that I learned from watching other videos (I’d give you a link, but I don’t remember which one) is that there was/is a shoelace code in the CIA. It’s to be able to pass messages to other agents without being noticeable. After I saw the video, I retied my Adidas Gazelles. I have no idea what they say, though. I hope I’m not telling other case officers that they’re being followed. Hey, in DC, you never know who’s next to you in a crowd.

Case in point: I once rode the Metro for four extra stops just because I got into a conversation with a female intelligence officer stationed in Germany during The Cold War. I don’t even remember how I got her to tell me that…. I just remember thinking in my head that she must be military or C/DIA because there aren’t that many black people in Germany.

My feet didn’t touch the ground for hours afterward, because even though I have no interest whatsoever in being a spy myself, I managed to engineer a conversation in which intimate details were spilled without her feeling as if a game was being played…. and there was. It was “how much can I get her to tell me in four extra stops?” It wasn’t like I was looking for secrets- she was retired and all her ops were UNCLASS. It felt like accidentally walking into Bletchley Circle.

Every time I think I would be a good case officer, I remember that I only speak English, I am often a little slow on the uptake, and more than likely I would trip, fall and die before I ever reached my contact…. which leads me to two scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

Elsa: It’s perfectly obvious where the pages are. He’s given them to Marcus Brody.

Professor Henry Jones: Marcus? You didn’t drag poor Marcus along did you? He’s not up to the challenge.

Walter Donovan: He sticks out like a sore thumb. We’ll find him.

Indiana Jones: The hell you will. He’s got a two day head start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the grail already.

[Cut to middle of fair in the Middle East, Marcus Brody wearing bright suit and white hat, sticking out like sore thumb]

Marcus Brody: Uhhh, does anyone here speak English?

Then, later…………………

[Indiana and Henry are tied up]

Indiana Jones: Come on, dad. Help me get us out of here. We have to get to Marcus before the Nazis do.

Professor Henry Jones: But you said he had a two day head start. That he would blend in, disappear.

Indiana Jones: Are you kidding? I made all that up. You know Marcus. He once got lost in his own museum.

If this isn’t an accurate depiction of me as a spy, I don’t know what would be…. and I promise, it’s not that I’m short-selling myself. I just know myself too well. One of the overhead pieces of audio at The International Spy Museum talks about people “living by their wits,” and I thought to myself that if it were my wits, we were all gonna die….. accidentally, of course, but it’s not the sort of situation where you can say, “oops. My bad. Should I leave a note?” Being a good case officer is learning to think 50 moves ahead- knowing how to checkmate the king before you’ve even opened…. like Jonna and Tony.

I am honored to be an audience member for Jonna’s current book tour, and am looking forward to more. There are a few other cities in which she’s speaking, so if you’re close to any of them, I highly suggest you go.

I am so honored, in fact, that I have changed outfits four times…. just not in 37 seconds.

Two Words

It’s amazing how two words can make your whole day.

It’s amazing how two words can destroy it.

The two words that lit me up like a Christmas tree were “someday perhaps?”

The two words that cratered me were “Mother’s Day.”

The words that made me smile were in reference to a future hangout with the aforementioned pen pal that I’d never actually met in real life, but had been writing to for years and years. When he/she (not giving anything away) comes to DC, it will be fun to laugh together, hug, and show them my version of my city.

My mother died in October of 2016, and as you can imagine, I’m not over it. Mother’s Day happens every single year, and I am sort of used to the onslaught of ads that pointedly ask if you’ve remembered to buy presents. The thing is, though, I’d forgotten Mother’s Day was coming up, and being reminded when I wasn’t thinking about it and wasn’t prepared was, in a word, awful.

So, like you do, I immediately bought a ticket to the opening of the new International Spy Museum that day. What I mean by this is that the museum itself is not new, the-new-spy-museum-atthey’ve just moved and expanded from F Street to L’Enfant Plaza. The only thing I will miss about their old digs is the Shake Shack around the corner. Because, of course, the thing you need after looking at espionage gadgets is a black and white malt. But get it to go. Every time I’ve been to a Shake Shack, seating was a nightmare.

I’m also saving some money for the gift shop. Last time I went, I got a t-shirt on clearance that says, “Argo @$#% Yourself” with the spy museum logo on the sleeve. It is brilliant, but I don’t wear it unless I’m hanging out with friends I feel comfortable with- not always a huge fan of meeting new people in a t-shirt that says “fuck,” even bleeped for child safety. Since I am such a huge fan of “Argo,” I found an old promotional t-shirt on Amazon for $10 that says, “the movie was fake. The op was real,” and has “Argo” in large letters with the skyline of Tehran cut into the bottom, plus the release date of the film. That one I wear all the time.

As I was telling a friend, I think I found the last piece of memorabilia available except the script, which I don’t need because I have the movie memorized, anyway. To say that I’ve seen it 25 times is an understatement by a large margin…. mostly because it is jaw-droppingly scary in some places and so damned funny I start laughing and can’t stop in others… especially every time Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and/or Bryan Cranston are on screen. To wit:

The setup is that O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) is driving Mendez to an airport to get on the plane to Tehran.

O’Donnell: I’m required to remind you that if you’re detained, The Agency will
not claim you.
Mendez: Barely claim me as it is.
O’Donnell: Your ˜In Case Of’s’ good?
Mendez: Just Christine (his son’s mother, they’re separated). Guess I should have brought some books to read in prison.
O’Donnell: Nah. They’ll kill you long before prison.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Argo,” Ben Affleck both directed it and played Tony Mendez (emphatic fist shake at not casting a Hispanic actor), who rescued six diplomats who managed to escape from the embassy in Tehran and hide out in the Canadian ambassador’s house (the ambassador is brilliantly played by Victor Garber- also one of my favorite fictional spies as Jack Bristow in “Alias”).

I love how the movie is heartbreaking and hilarious in one breath. And no, I didn’t have to look up the lines, just can’t remember whether they’re at National or Dulles. And even though I’ve seen it more times than all my other favorites combined, I still cry at the end (not a spoiler, just the orchestral score).

My best wish for the new digs is that they have a huge Tony Mendez exhibit, because he died not too long ago and therefore, I would guess that even more of his ops are declassified. I am not totally clear on the rules, but I believe when you die you lose your covers, and the ops you’ve done can be made public… just not the ones that involve other people still alive and/or are still in progress. It’s possible some are still current, because I believe that after Tony left the CIA full time, he was still an occasional consultant. No one would want to lose all that experience permanently unless the person was really, really gone. I can’t imagine the grief inside The Agency, because he was a straight-up legend.

In a way, I think that subconsciously I picked going to the spy museum because Tony died to remind myself that I am not the only person in the world in grief.

I feel the same way about walking through cemeteries. To me, it is not morbid. It is an uplifting reminder that I am not alone in my sadness, situational depression, wondering what we’d be gabbing about if she were still here, etc. What I find is that as time goes on, the well of emotional injury gets more shallow, but there are triggers that pull me right back to her open casket, and how I felt completely disoriented, as if the world had started spinning the other direction and I could feel it.

One of those triggers was Tony’s death. I started crying and couldn’t stop, eventually realizing that it wasn’t all about him. Yes, it was devastating to lose a national treasure, but it was also a direct hit on how “gone” death truly means. And not to demean losing friends or extended family, but your reality doesn’t actually crack until you lose a parent. The entire universe seems different, and for a while, it loses all its color. You just wander around sort of half alive in grayscale.

I knew that I was getting better when I could make an effort to see friends, but at first, it was only other people who had also lost a parent. They were my people, the ones who I could confide in and share my rage at the dumb things people say when you lose a loved one, knowing innately that they mean no malice, so you can’t get mad at them directly. You can only get mad at the situation. Bad theology got on my nerves, didn’t measure up to one lady who compared the death of her cat to the death of my mother at church. It made my rage go to 11 and I had to excuse myself as not to emotionally rip her to shreds, because if I had waited even another three seconds, I would have taken her head off.

There’s only one other situation that makes me truly uncomfortable, and that’s the people who, upon hearing about your parent’s death, start crying because they can’t imagine what’s going to happen when their parents die, and that also happened to me in public (again, at church). The reason it’s tone deaf is because my natural reaction was “well, it’s a good thing I’m going through it and not you.” It’s just so egocentric that I cannot deal. It’s just another situation in which I just have to walk away, because I have not come up with an appropriate response, just a sarcastic one.

And that’s the thing. Because you know the people around you aren’t trying to hurt you, there’s just nothing that anyone can say that will make it better, you have no idea what to say in response to the awkward and often just stupid.

If you don’t know what to do, let me tell you. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint, and everyone processes differently, but this generally works across the board. Say “I’m sorry for your loss,” and offer to be present. And that’s it. The ones I loved the most during that time were people who showed up, but didn’t say much of anything. They just sat next to me as I stared off into space and were willing to listen if I could manage to talk. But they offered no advice on what to do, they just let me process verbally. It’s never a case of needing advice on what to do, especially if you haven’t lost a parent yourself. It’s giving the person room to breathe and never, ever comparing grief, even if you’ve been in the same situation. Because we’re not in the same boat, just the same ocean and trying to keep our heads above water. Suffering is universal, but we all have different ways of coping.

For instance, when I was actually in town for the funeral and with my sister and my dad, I hardly emoted at all because I was speaking at the funeral and I wanted to feel put together for it. I wanted to be able to be funny, because the eulogies I enjoy the most are the ones that offer real insight into the person. My mother was a church musician almost her entire life, starting at 12 or 13. So my opening line was, “this is the only funeral Carolyn Baker’s ever been to where she wasn’t working.” It had the desired effect. The entire congregation just broke up.

I am also quite socially anxious, and only three people I knew besides my family came to the funeral, so I had to put on a mask and a suit of armor to deal with being in a HUGE crowd where I knew practically no one. The mask and the armor are extroversion to an Oprah-like level, while inside I am shaking and counting the seconds until I can get home. In short, I didn’t look like someone in grief until I flew back to DC, where I only got out of bed sporadically for about three months. I allowed myself to completely fall apart, just not in front of anyone. I did once, and it was terrifying, so I never did it again. I gave lip service to letting people in, and then I completely isolated, only emoting through e-mail or crying into my pillows when no one was home. I couldn’t even bear crying that was loud enough for my housemates to come running, and they’re people I’d trust with my life.

In public, I became stoic and divorced from my emotions, because feeling even small emotions led to a flooding out I couldn’t stop. It was better not to start, because it would stop me from engaging in conversation. Even when I was with friends, there was a risk I wouldn’t take- being there, but not present….. people talking at my body while my soul was out there somewhere, unable to respond appropriately with laughter or empathy or whatever the situation needed…. as well as just nodding and smiling because I could hear people talking, but I couldn’t understand what was being said. It became background noise.

In essence, compartmentalization was necessary to have a fighting chance at moving on.

I thought I knew grief from bad breakups, and it was a wake-up call to realize how differently devastating this grief continues to be.

That’s because even though you gain and lose people to circumstances throughout your life, there’s still a small chance they’ll reappear. You apologize for being shitty people to each other and as long as the apology comes with changed behavior, it will generally stick…. or as I call it from a stolen line, “resurrection happening in the middle of the mess.”

As an aside, Easter is a very important holiday for me, because I don’t generally celebrate Jesus’ resurrection literally, but the way we resurrect ourselves, both individually and in community.

When a person dies, as opposed to a relationship, you lose hope. You lose the future. And if the person dies relatively young, you get angry at having the years stolen away in which you feel entitled. My mother was 65. She died just months after her retirement from teaching- she never even got to enjoy it. What I miss the most is that I thought we could go to church together more often, because she wasn’t working. Even when she took time off to come and visit me, she’d never take time off from church as well. When she died, she was completely free, because her church had so few members that they decided to close, and she hadn’t found a new church yet. I’d already started looking through solos because I thought I had my favorite accompanist back, and I’d already talked to my choir director about it.

My choir director and my mother were cut from the same cloth, and every time Sam played solo piano, if I closed my eyes I couldn’t tell the difference. When my mother died, it made me come unglued. I went to church for about six weeks after I came back from the funeral, and it was just long enough to realize that it was the biggest trigger of them all and I still can’t go back. I know I will; eventually I will get that trigger stamped back down to manageable, but today is not that day.

I do appreciate that Mike, the husband in the family I live with, keeps inviting me to his church, even though it’s relatively conservative United Methodist. I’d still take him up on it because I know the hymnal from front to back, as well as soprano descants for nearly everything. Singing would be the most important part of church for me no matter what the congregation believes.

In true introvert form, I want to be invited even if I don’t take you up on it.

Another two words that make my day?

Please come.

Prep

Yesterday was both easy and difficult at the same time. I am not used to starting my day in the morning anymore. I go to work between 1500-1700, so I tend to wake up between 1100 and 1300, depending on how jazzed I am from the night before and what I have to do the next day. Flipping my schedule around for one day threw me into the “I got up on the wrong side of the bed and I’m very grumpy” set of feelings. I got two Rock Stars from 7-Eleven and I am not ashamed to say that I drank both of them. I did not sleep well the night before, and with prep, I have to be alert, because to not is to hurt oneself… badly. For instance, my first job was par cooking French Fries, so that the people on the line only have to drop them in the fryer for a minute or two before they’re ready. Therefore, I was standing in front of a 350 degree fryer for almost two and a half hours. Had I been sleepy, that could have ended with blisters, or waiting for them to bubble. Even when I’m at the top of my game, accidents happen. I think I burned off one of my fingerprints on Wednesday. I got some ice on it immediately, so no blister bubbled, but for the moment, at least, I have no feeling on the pad of my left index finger and part of my thumb.

I was proud of myself, because since I was able to get ice and extraordinarily cold water on the burns immediately, it allowed me to keep working steadily. It’s a long story, but we’ve changed lead line cooks again, and it was magical. The same give-and-take that was there with the last one is still there with him. I got the compliment of my life- “I’m going to put you on all my shifts, because you can keep up with me, and I’m fast.” Also, I was absolutely kidding, but I told my kitchen manager, “of all the line cooks in all the world, you had to pick a Yankees fan?” Turns out, he’s actually a Mets fan, but from Brooklyn, so as he said, “whaddya gonna do?” I’m not even that much of a baseball fan, though I will watch it more easily than anything else, save soccer, especially if the Giants or the Dodgers are playing…. especially against the Astros. I’ve spent too many years of my life rooting for the Dodgers and the Giants to give up now.

Here, I root for the Baltimore Orioles, for a nerdy reason specific only to me. I can’t get behind the “Walgreens W.” Come to find out, the W belonged to the Senators first, which makes me feel sort of bad about it. Still. Just. Can’t.

Fonts matter. Also love that they call the Os park “Birdland.”

I do like Bryce Harper and his ever changing hair, though. Believe it or don’t, the rumor is that the Nats are thinking of trading him to the Astros.

I am sure that I will eventually get on board with the Nationals, only because it’s so much easier to take the Metro to the park than it is to get on the Marc to Baltimore. When I was thinking about moving from Houston to the Mid-Atlantic, I actually thought about Baltimore in addition to DC, because as I said then, “I’m really more of a John Waters than a John Boehner.” But again, what changed my mind was the public transportation infrastructure, because I know how to drive, but don’t. The traffic and parking around here suck. DC barely has room for the cars that the people own who live there. Bringing them in from Maryland and Virginia is just a “goat-ropin’ clusterfuck,” my favorite Texas swear.

Plus, because of supply and demand, the cost of parking for even a couple of hours is outrageous. As long as I have the time, taking the train is is easy. If I have to get somewhere fast, the cost of an Uber is infinitely less expensive than even buying a cheap cash car and trying to maintain it, plus insurance, plus parking if I go anywhere near “the city….” I have proven over time that I need a lot of it. Such a stereotypical woman driver who gives my gender a bad name. I would much rather zone out in the back seat with a good book or podcast.

For instance, I got a Facebook direct message from Dan, who told me she wanted to watch Argo with me, because it seemed like it was my favorite movie. I told her it didn’t seem like that, it was that. So even though I just watched it last Saturday, we watched it again last night. It was perfect over a glass of wine and some Wheat Thins, of which I am very proud I did not eat the whole box.

For that reason alone, it was nice to be done with work by 1600. It was also nice that I still felt caffeinated, because otherwise, I would have fallen asleep five minutes into the movie, especially after a glass of wine.

Meeting Dan has been one of the great blessings of my life, because not only did she fold me into her own life, but introduced me to a great friend circle as well. She is the connector- every friend I’ve hung out with over the past two years has invariably come from a chance meeting at one of her parties. Jaime lives the closest to me, in Columbia Heights, a quick trip down 16th street or a short train ride away. But even going out to Alexandria is faster on the train than I could drive it, because the traffic between Silver Spring and anywhere in Virginia is atrocious.

Every time, I am thanked for making the trek out there, but it is really no sweat. The yellow line connects two stops from my house (at Ft. Totten), and I can take it all the way to Braddock, which is one stop past National (the day I call it Reagan will never come unless I’m senile- which, incidentally, objects in mirror are closer than they appear).

Slowly getting ready for my interview at University of Maryland on Tuesday, mostly surrounding what I should wear. Business casual has changed so much over the years. I have no idea what I’ll see when I show up. For some universities, a collared shirt will do. For others, everyone will be in jeans and t-shirts. Generally for an interview, I wear a suit, and I will probably do the same now. Although funny story- when I interviewed at Marylhurst, one of the things they said to me after I started was, “when you walked in wearing that suit, we thought, ‘she is going to eat us alive.'”

I, in fact, did not.

I am the Type B poster child, so by the time I actually started, I was in jeans and t-shirts and/or Polos just like everyone else…. and like in all offices, a coat or a hoodie for my constant battle against the air conditioner. I am always thirsty and cold, the temperature made worse by drinking cold water. As I joke with my friends, “I drink a lot.”

At Alert Logic, everyone could hear me coming because I put ice water and an energy drink packet in my Nalgene, so it sounded every day like I was shaking a martini on the way to my desk. I’m surprised no one asked to taste it just to make sure. 🙂

We also had a free Starbucks coffee machine, so there were many days in which I overdid it, because hey, free latte. It was amazing because it didn’t taste like hospital coffee. I spend most days wired for sound.

In fact, I’m prepping for it today.

 

Saute

Last night, I got a promotion of sorts. I was moved from pantry station to sauté. That means instead of salads, chips & salsa, brussels sprouts, hummus, etc. I was doing sandwiches, mac & cheese, and flipping burgers. I was low-key worried it would be a disaster, because changing stations on Friday night seemed like a bad idea… too fast and furious for me to think, “I got this.”

At the end of the night, I was so euphoric I could have lit up a car battery. It was insane how fast I moved, how many pans I had going at once, how many burgers turned out gorgeous. It was amazing, because what I have with our lead line cook is special… it’s clear communication, calls and “heards” and “all-days” without missing a beat.

In terms of burgers, we’ve switched from the grill to the flat-top, which I think is so much more gorgeous. The burgers are allowed to confít, a French cooking term for “cooks in its own fat.” My own rule for burgers, which I can’t seem to get across to other cooks no matter where I’ve worked, is “respect first contact, and only flip once.” Continually flipping them interrupts the beautiful crust that develops on the outside, keeping the meat juicy on the inside. I got the phrase “respect first contact” from Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame. I can’t remember which interview I read with him where it says that, but I think it was in Vanity Fair…. or not. I’ve slept since then.

Anyway, flipping the burger before the crust has had time to develop rips it off and tears the burger to shreds if you’re not careful. If the crust is intact, it will lift on its own. This is especially true of an open flame. The contacts are much deeper and further between, so the crust sticks to the contacts and if you flip it early, you’ve got rare (if not raw) ground beef flying at you…. and it’s hot AF. Additionally, on an open flame, the extra fat drips off, which just doesn’t taste as good unless the seal of crust is tight on both sides and the juice is locked in…. the thing that is missing from most, if not all fast-food. A really great burger takes time. I would rather wait an extra couple of minutes for something fantastic. It is also my joy to provide that fantastic to others.

I would have made all my past chefs very, very proud. I wish they could have been there to see it. The key is just not to get flustered and keep cooking, no matter how many orders come at you at once. Nothing helps more than a little Klonopin and a lot of caffeine with B vitamins. It leads you into this easy-yet-fast existence, because you don’t have the ability to get physically worked up, like heart and brain race. Of course there’s a storm around you, but you don’t take it in. It must work for me really well, because I got a lot of attaboys and “good jobs” last night from our lead line cook.

When I got home, I didn’t deflate like a balloon as I normally do. I was jazzed beyond belief. Perhaps that Mexican cola at the end of the night was a bad idea. 😛

It was just so life-affirming that I was baptized by fire and ended up walking through it unharmed.

In other news, my interview with University of Maryland is confirmed for July 31st, and I think it will go well because I have nothing to lose. An interview with Conan O’Brien taught me that. When he got the job as host of Late Night, he already had a great job writing for The Simpsons. He was happy- this was just another step in a different direction, and if he didn’t get it, he was content with the job he already had. It feels good to be in the same boat.

The new job is stepping out on a limb, because it’s sort of out of my comfort zone… but great things don’t happen if you’re not ready to approach the edge, unafraid to fall because you’re pretty sure you can fly. The reason that I say “sort of” is because I’ve been in IT a long time. There’s little difference between being trained at one support job and trained for them all. The “outside my comfort zone” part is that I am ridiculously in love with having my days free so that I identify as a writer first, cook second. Stepping toward the ledge is losing time and just rolling with it.

Tonight I’m off, though, because my kitchen manager is great about not making me work late on Saturdays, because I come in very early as the dishwasher on Sunday. I get everything ready before service, cleaning bathrooms and wiping down tables, etc. On the weekends, we serve lunch, which is why my shift starts between 0900-1000.

Tonight I am meeting up with a friend for dinner and a movie- Argo. I’ve hyped it up so much I hope she loves it. I’ve thought it was one of the best movies ever made since the moment it came out. She argues that the best movie ever made is But I’m a Cheerleader. As far as queer movies go, I’m not convinced, but she’s entitled to her opinion.Goodman-Argo

The teenager that played Graham is also in Argo, so perhaps that will carry some weight. I just can’t get over John Goodman. He absolutely steals the show, as he does in most media…. and I bet you can guess which t-shirt I’m going to wear. I think it has street cred with the International Spy Museum logo on the sleeve. You can still get a t-shirt with that most famous line, but not from them. They’re out. I got one of the last ones on clearance.

To me, it’s going to be interesting to see which movie quotes stick between us as inside jokes, because with everyone I’ve talked to after seeing it, they’ve been different. The one I use the most often actually comes from Bryan Cranston, who says, “brace yourself. It’s like talking to those two old fucks from The Muppets.” But that’s just one out of a hundred that I’ll pick on any given day…. usually “this is the very best bad idea we’ve got” or “…we did suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this.” There are few conversations that cannot be made better with a funny quote from this movie… but don’t let them distract you from the drama.

It’s intense, which is why the comic relief is so important…. as important as comic relief in the kitchen when drinking from a fire hose also has better odds of success.

Last night, though, I WON. #touchme

U Street

I never want to forget this day.

My dad read my last blog post, about how I’d wanted a signed copy of Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History from the International Spy Museum, and how disappointed I was that they were sold out, and how I’d searched the Internet for a copy and couldn’t find one, etc. Maybe everything IS bigger in Texas, because when he searched for a copy, he found one. It is on its way to my house right now. Because of the cover, I think it’s an early edition, and comes with a Certificate of Authenticity. For the record, though, it was not $20, and does not come with a coffee mug. I do not need the Argo coffee mug. I know this because I saw it at the Spy Museum and it only holds eight ounces of coffee. So, while cool, utterly useless to me. The screenshot of the signed copy of the book and the words “deliver date” made me cry so hard that my dad couldn’t even understand me on the phone. Just unintelligible sobs of “it’s not even my birthday.” I was going to meet Lindsay for dinner, so I was crying as I got into my Uber and retold the story to the whole carpool, and then they were crying, too. The driver, a big teddy bear of a guy, wiped off a tear and said, “that’s just what daddies do.”

Then, we switched subjects. He said, “so, you’re going to the Metro station?” I nodded and he said, “then you’re going to my day job. I sell them the rail cars.” I got really excited telling him how much I loved the new ones with the better signage and the electronic voices that are loud and clear, rather than muffled and/or give no fucks. Then he puts his Metro access pass on the dash and drives me RIGHT UP to the entrance. I think he was showing off, and it worked. I was very impressed.

Lindsay and I grabbed some ceviche for dinner and frozen yogurt for desert. Then, we went back to her hotel and watched Shark Tank. I left around 9:30 and started walking toward the Dupont Circle Metro, realized I was going  the wrong way pretty quickly, and proceeded not to care. I just walked. It was a tiny bit rainy- Portland spitting- and perfectly comfortable outside. The street lights shone and music spilled into the streets. I stopped for a drink at a bar with an AMAZING jazz band that I wanted to hear- the trumpet player being the main draw, of course, but the entire house was packed. I couldn’t find a seat anywhere, so I just left without buying anything…. although would have taken the trumpet and run if I could’ve- it was a Monette, unlacquered, with a sound as viscous as motor oil. Even on fast licks, one note oozed into the other, a brass Southern drawl. I don’t know the name of the band, or even where the club is. I was just out walking, and happened to pass it. It’s a true testament to a local band when there are no tickets being sold, it’s just a regular Wednesday, and the house is packed. I would have waited for a table if I thought there was a chance in hell that anyone was leaving.

Eventually, I made it to the U Street/African American War Memorial/Cardozo Metro on the Yellow Line, and made my way to Ft. Totten, where I transferred to Red. The train was delayed for quite a while pulling into the station, so I sat somewhere between Takoma Park and Silver Spring playing Solitaire on my phone. By the time we actually arrived, my bus had stopped for the evening, so I Ubered back home.

I walked upstairs to the sound of a movie in Arabic, obviously coming from Abdel’s room because he’s the only one on my side of the house that speaks it (the layout is that the homeowners have one side of the house and the renters have the other, with separate kitchens, bathrooms, etc.). Though Hayat speaks Arabic as well, I don’t know if Lebanon and Morocco have the same dialect. My friend Anthony says that if I’m going to learn Arabic, learn the Lebanese dialect first, not because it’s the easiest, but the most beautiful.

I believe him. Listening to Hayat on the phone is one of my favorite pastimes. She knows I’m not eavesdropping, I’m listening to the lilt of her voice. I felt the same way about Nasim, whose Persian phone calls reminded me of Tehran. Literally every time she started speaking, Cleared Iranian Airspace would start playing in my head. It was apt, as her own escape from Tehran is much worse than being rescued by Tony Mendez.

We’ve lost touch, but that is the book I was going to write before Nasim moved to New York, and unfortunately hasn’t been back since.

Tony’s book will have to do.

Presents

Now that I’ve given Lindsay her present, I can tell you what it is. I sent my mom some earrings that are flowers pressed in acrylic in a teardrop shape for either her last birthday or Mother’s Day (my memory is failing), so I reordered them for her and told her it was the last present I ever sent Mom. I think I scored a direct hit, which made me feel like a million dollars. We also went to Afterwords Café, my default Tuesday spot that made me happy to introduce to her. They had live jazz playing in the bar that you could hear from the restaurant, another plus that made everything over-the-top cool. It was a good day yesterday.

This morning has not been so cool. For a long time, the International Spy Museum sold, for $20, a signed copy of Argo with a coffee mug. I got paid last Friday, and it was the present I wanted for myself in honor of working so hard.51FM7IsJI2L._SY445_ So, I went to the web site to see if it was still available, and they’d sold out. Tony Mendez has Parkinson’s now, and is no longer making public appearances. Therefore, there was no way to buy a plain copy and get it signed later. I pored through web sites with collectible books, and no dice. My inner grumpy old man came out in spades. I “Argo Fucked Myself” by not buying it earlier. Apparently, they also used to carry signed copies of the script, which also made me say said phrase, because in addition to that line, there are just so many I adore that I can’t just pick one. The reason I love the movie so much is that in addition to the drama, it is so damn funny. To wit:

Jack O’Donnell: Carter said you were a great American.
Tony Mendez: A great American what?
Jack O’Donnell: He didn’t say.

In terms of the funny, though, John Goodman steals the show from his first line, which is “hey, Tony.” You’ll just have to watch the movie to realize why.

I may have to watch it again today just to mitigate sadness at being late. But if I had a nickel for every time I was late to the party, I could retire right now.

However, if that is my biggest problem right now, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t even matter. Too much is going on in the world that is making my weird shitometer go off, and the hairs on my arm are standing up. Supposedly, President Trump is going to sign a document ending separating families at the border, but no word yet that he’s actually done it.

My personal triumph for the week has been getting my laundry done, folded, and put away all in one day. For someone like me, this is a big damn deal. Every little victory must be celebrated.

If you are a fan of intel movies, John Goodman also steals the show in Atomic Blonde, but the movie is more serious than Argo, even though James McAvoy does provide some comic relief.

It would be a pleasure to get back in bed and watch a movie, because I am also not physically feeling the greatest. In addition to fever and pain from having the painters in, by dose is sduffed up. I bought some real Sudafed™ at CVS yesterday, but it’s not helping as much as I thought it would. Luckily, I don’t have to go back to work until tomorrow evening, so resting and doing nothing is not a problem. I don’t think it’s allergies this time. I think that because I’ve been isolated so much, my immune system is rebelling from being in such a public space all the time…. or, at least, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

If there was a vaccine for the common cold, I wouldn’t even care how much it cost. Just shut up and take my money.

I did get relief from my monthly malady because it’s the only time I crave chocolate. I basically had “Death by Chocolate” for dinner last night. It was delicious, even though I normally go for lemon or lime desserts. Theobromine is a beautiful thing.

What’s provided me the most laughter this week is people complaining about the heat and humidity. It’s only 80 degrees with 56 percent humidity, and as a Houstonian, I just think that’s adorable. I mean, yes. It’s still warm, but unlike Houston, it’s not hot enough to melt a doorknob, so I’m comfortable. I just carry a hoodie in my backpack at all times for the constant overcompensation with air conditioning. I will also never make the mistake again of wearing shorts to the movies.

Deadpool 2 introduced interesting timeline changes in the Marvel Comic Universe, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it. The biggest surprise in the second film is Dopinder’s character development…. although I will have to see the movie again at some point, because I was so tired when the movie started that I almost nodded off in a couple of places. Believe me, it’s not that the movie was boring. I’m just a cook, so I’m always tired no matter what time it is.

Speaking of tired, it’s time for a movie which I will fall asleep to in about 10 minutes. Maybe I’ll switch to watching Baby Driver, because the first six minutes are the best.