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.

She’s Just Not That Into You

This is not a story about dating. This is a story about a blank page, and how she stares at me like a wanton goddess some days, and a “bitch, please” expression on others. It generally has to do with my depression cycle, because on the downside I lose the motivation to do most things, even when it’s something to which I’m dedicated.

Tony Mendez, co-author of Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, died recently after a years-long battle with Parkinson’s. As soon as I heard the news, I crumpled into myself.

Of course it wrecked me because I dreamed of meeting him from the moment I read the book and saw the movie. Washington is, for the most part, a small town.image It might have been possible had I gotten here when he was still doing public appearances. Just another instance in which I felt late. But the longer I cried, the more I realized that it wasn’t just about him. It was losing yet another person in my life permanently. We’d never met, I’d never shaken his hand, and yet in some small way I felt I knew him. I wish I’d gotten to tell him how much his words have meant to me over the years, how I cried big alligator tears when I didn’t get to the Spy Museum gift shop in time to get an autographed copy, and how my dad threw a hail Mary pass to get me one somewhere else.

As an aside, above left is his official portrait, which hangs in the CIA Art Gallery. The artist was the first female (and first Agency officer) displayed there.

I spent that first night mourning him by reading “Argo” again, taking time to stare at his autograph… making up the part where I’d gotten it at a signing in person. I don’t know whether he has a star on the wall at Langley or not- you’d think after all the CIA TV shows I’ve binge-watched since Alias, I would know whether you get one no matter how you die, or if you only get one if you are KIA. I hope it is the former, but I’ll probably never know for sure. Once, just for laughs, I looked up directions to Langley on Google Maps. Every road within at least five miles is marked “restricted access.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I am not their target demographic.

I wish I had gotten to tell him how much my step sister, Susan, adored him as well…. perhaps even more than me. Susan is also dead now, but when she was alive we had great conversations about how he was an inspiration to the Hispanic community (Susan was half Mexican and the chair of Mexican Studies at University of Texas, San Antonio)… and her rant and a half about how they cast BEN AFFLECK to play him, when in reality he looked way more like Cheech Marin. It would have been way better to have shared the grief, but she’s been gone a long time now…. just about the time Tony made the public announcement that he had Parkinson’s, actually.

And, of course, I have a different reaction to any kind of grief now that I’ve lost my mother. It seems to have affected me on a cellular level. My neurons fire differently now, and it has changed me in ways that I didn’t know were coming- some good, some bad. For instance, she retired from teaching in May and she was dead by October. 65 is by all accounts just too young, and at 41, I’ve become one of those people who grieve the loss of someone’s shortened life by truly taking it in and trying to make more count, because I know how quickly it could be taken away.

I signed up with a modeling agency, not because I think I’m graceful and gorgeous, but because they cast extras and Homeland is filmed here. It’s my goal to stand in the background somewhere, and it’s the last season, so I have to do it now. There are also a ton of TV shows and films about Washington, so it might not be a one-time gig. We’ll see.

I signed up to audition for Washington National Opera, and even though I got sick and had to cancel, I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and if I was going to do it, I have to do it now. Next January can’t come fast enough, and I’ll be taking vitamins and avoiding public places for all of December.

I said yes to traveling to Paris, even though it was out of my comfort zone. I had a wonderful time, but in general I do not like crowds, and the Yellow Vests made me equally uncomfortable because some of the protests had gotten violent, even while we were there. We were asked to stay inside the Musee d’Orsay until the commotion ended. If I was going to get locked in somewhere, it wasn’t a bad place to be, but still……..

20190105_100801Overall, I had a wonderful time, and it never would have happened without me being able to say, “when will I ever get this opportunity again?”

My souvenir was a warm woolen scarf, and when I put it on, it still smells like France. My mind immediately wanders to my favorite part of the trip, wandering around an old cemetery filled with famous writers, artists, musicians, composers, and rich people, because I learned that now to get a plot there, it’s over 10,000 euros. If I had it, I think I might pay it. It’s different than any cemetery I’ve visited. The grave sites are organized into what feels like “neighborhoods,” literally a city of the dead that must be glorious in the early fall. The weather in January was practically mood music. Walking the cobblestone streets was comforting, almost ethereal.

It often lessens my grief to walk around in cemeteries, because in those moments, I am not the only person who has lost someone and there is evidence of it all around me. I am not alone, even when I feel like it.

I am not the first person to lose a hero, a friend, a mother…. and I constantly remind myself because it’s so easy to forget.

Especially when I don’t write it down, on the blank page that always stares back.

So Much Trying

It’s already 30 December at 1045, and I have so much to do before I leave for Paris on 3 January. I think the first step is finding clothes that I would never wear so that I can wash all the ones I would. It’s a bigger deal than it seems with so many housemates. I can’t just get everything together and put it in the wash. I have to find a slot. Surely there’s at least one between now and then. The trouble is that I doubt I can fit all my clothes into one cycle. I would rather drop my shirts at the dry cleaner, but with the holidays, I can’t be sure they would actually get done in time. So, the obvious answer is ironing with heavy starch and hoping that my suitcase doesn’t ruin the effect. Most American hotels have irons in the room. Not sure about Europe. Here’s hoping.

With the infinite care the baggage handlers take with our suitcases (insert eyeroll here- I have worked at PDX), I believe I will just take a couple of outfits in one carry-on. The rest of my laundry can go in my closet, provided I can reach it.

The problem with my stunning combination of mental health issues leads me to two conclusions. The first is that my severely less than neurotypical brain gets bursts of brilliance but does not handle the mundane or the minutiae very well. The second is that ADHD people work in piles (I am not hyperactive, but the DSM does not differentiate anymore). I can find anything within a few minutes, but no one else can… unless I put down my wallet, glasses, or phone. I think it is the difference between short-term memory and long. I can find things a lot easier that have been there for a month rather than a few seconds, made horribly worse by monocular vision. If you are not familiar, monocular vision means that my eyes don’t track together, so I have two distinct fields of vision. I can put something down on my dresser or desk, and if my field of vision changes, what I just put down disappears. I have literally lost my glasses when they were right in front of me. However, I have never lost my phone while I was using it…. so I got that goin’ for me.

Because of this, I put my passport with all my other important papers, and have not moved it since. I know for sure that if I did, I would be racing around on the morning of the 3rd, panicked to the point of tears and snot rolling down my face. I have at least learned that much, which is kind of a big deal.

What is also a big deal is knowing that I have readers in France, and though I will not meet them, I will see one of the places from which they read. My stats don’t get as granular as city, but I have had hits from almost every country in the world. I think there are 208, and I have stats from 205.

Once, and only once, my friends said “prove it.”

I got out my phone, opened the WordPress app, and they started quizzing me:

“Micronesia.”
“Check.”
“Lichtenstein.”
“Check.”
“UAE.”
“Check.”
“Nepal.”
“Check.”
“Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Russia.”
“Check, check, check, and check.”

Then they got bored.

Checkmate.

The majority of my readers are in the United States, but I tend to use as much international English as I can, because the next two countries catching up are the UK and Australia. I spell like an American, but tend to use international time and date formats.

I try not to think about spam bots, because certainly there are some from Russia and China. But I have too many hits from those countries by now to think that all of them are. In fact, some of those international hits may come from friends who don’t use a VPN. I have one, but the only thing I would use it for in France is Netflix. You can only stream in the country with your credit card.

This is relatively new. I used to VPN into the UK and Australian versions of Netflix until they caught up with the game. This is because different TV shows and movies are licensed in different areas of the world.

What has changed is that Netflix has realized how much Americans enjoy UK and Australian television, and a lot more shows are available in the United States than were previously. For those not in the know, Doctor Who has moved to Amazon Prime.

Speaking of Amazon Prime, I just got a watch that syncs with my Android phone for $20.00 (it will also connect to an iPhone, but not all the features work). I also had some AMZ credit that brought the price down a little. It has slots for both a micro SD card and a SIM, which means that I can store music and photos, as well as make calls without attaching it to my phone via Bluetooth. I find that bit unnecessary, though, because my phone will stream media through Bluetooth as well. I just need to get some Bluetooth headphones, because otherwise, the media and calls play through a tiny little speaker on my wrist, which is fine when I’m sitting in my bedroom. Not so great when I’m on the go.

I do want a micro SD card, though, because the tiny little camera makes me feel like a spy… and I promise, that is the closest to espionage I will ever get. It’s not like I’m going to run across foreign state secrets, but at least I look the part.

Speaking of which, a few years ago my dad and I went to see Jason Bourne, and a day later we were in a tourist trap gift shop near the White House. I found the coolest CIA baseball cap that has the big logo on the front and the tiny symbol on the back, which means it looks awesome no matter which way I wear it.

I have nearly fallen on the floor laughing several times when people look at me wide-eyed and ask if I work there. I always say that if I did, I certainly wouldn’t be ADVERTISING IT ALL OVER TOWN (huge eyeroll). Sometimes the stupid, it burns.

A couple of times, people waiting for the Metro have gone out of their way to avoid me, which I find equally hilarious. As an introvert, I don’t want to talk to strangers anyway. It’s as efficient as wearing a T-shirt that says “Jesus Loves You” and carrying a Bible.

I suppose that my baseball cap means more to me now than it ever has, because I feel like it says “I support the men and women of intel over our dumpster fire of a president.” Gina Haspel practically has to make a coloring book for him, and he still doesn’t get it.

Same goes for State, although I can’t find a cool baseball cap for that…. not for lack of trying.

And on that note, now I need to try doing my laundry. Wish me luck or send help. Either is fine with me.

St. Elmo’s Wired

Dan and I are sharing a small table at St. Elmo’s, a coffee shop that serves Stumptown. I told the barista that I’d lived in Portland for a number of years and she stared at me like I was from outer space. You’d think if you were serving Portland coffee, you’d know it (Stumptown is Portland’s “official” nickname). But that’s neither here nor there. Less expensive than Starbucks and twice as good. They didn’t have a dark roast, so I just got a large and added some espresso shots to it. Depending on where you live, this is either a “red eye,” a “shot in the dark,” or a “wizard jump.” Personally, I picture it as stumbling into a coffee shop with my eyes half open and saying, “just fuck me up.” Although doing that rarely gets me the required results. Lindsay does. My sister is a magical being with coffee. For some reason, everything she orders is perfectly calculated to not quite stop your heart. When I’m with her, I don’t even bother ordering. I just stand next to her and say, “I’ll have what she’s having.” I don’t care what it is. Dragon skin, unicorn blood, nine shots double meth, whatever.

Caffeine is really my only vice, my favorite drug. I will occasionally drink alcohol, but I tend to go weeks without it because I get enough calories from all the crap I eat. I just don’t feel the need to add to them, especially since I go mental when the alcohol kicks in and I am not in complete and total control. Most people don’t feel this until they’ve had a few. I feel it immediately because of my size and lack of tolerance. I’ve also noticed that the sugar rush from even one beer will keep me up for hours, so a “shift beer” literally means “let’s not fall asleep until 0700.” I’m sure for some people, this sounds really fun. For me, not so much. I tend to keep resetting Stitcher, because I think it will take 30 minutes to fall asleep, then it’s “End of Episode,” then it’s 60 minutes, then the sun is up and sleeping through the day is a special kind of hell, especially on the weekends, when there are generally contractors working on the house when I’m trying to sleep. Nothing like trying to fall asleep to the uneven rhythm of a hammer.

Because I get sometimes very little and mostly uneven sleep, I have so much to do that I am overwhelmed, from laundry to organization to just getting a haircut (I like the one I have now, just need to get it shaped again). On the way home might be my best bet, because I also have to get a few things at the store… and by that I mean pads, because my period tracker application finally has enough data to warn me beforehand. When I got the e-mail, I was all like, “SO THAT’S WHY I ATE HALF A LARGE PAN PIZZA LAST NIGHT!!!” In case you’re wondering, cheese, cheese, more cheese, jalapeños. I’m lucky I still have some left. Really.

All of my rules about eating vegan at home go out the window when I am basically a premenstrual Cookie Monster, except that it’s not just cookies, it is anything and everything within my reach. Today it was a Carolina pulled pork sandwich and a Cheerwine™ If you have never had a Cheerwine, I do not know what you are doing with your life. If you live in a place where they don’t sell them, order off the Internet. They’re that good.

Also a big fan of Maine Root lemon lime soda, because it also has ginger in it. Great for a cold shift drink with no caffeine, because I’ve generally overdone it beforehand. I am extremely proficient in this area. Reminds me of a funny meme I saw on Facebook:

Me: These edibles are shit.

two hours later

Joins search party for myself.

Wait, you mean coffee takes a few minutes to kick in? #mindblown

It’s been about 20 since I finished my red eye, and I am still dragging ass. But, because it’s 1500, I am reticent to order any more, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t help, anyway. I have taken my clonazepam, Zyrtec, Sudafed PE, etc. In order to combat all that, I’d have to have an energy drink as well, where I would end up tired AF and staring at the ceiling most of the night. Right now I just feel like I am up, dressed, and still asleep at the same time. In fact, when I was at the Metro station this morning, I fell asleep while standing up against one of the columns. It was delicious. It was only six minutes, but it was a really good six minutes. I figured I’d wake up when the train came roaring into the station, and I was right, thankfully. I got a good enough cat nap not to trip my way to a seat.

I brought my Kindle on the train, and bailed out of “Trump,” by Bob Woodward, to give my brain a rest from the utter insanity of a world without time travel.

I switched to, unsurprisingly, a time travel novel instead. It’s part of a series. Though it’s not the first book, I got “The Chronothon” by Nathan Van Coops for free from BookBub, and as the months have gone on, some of the others have appeared as well. I just got the latest one from Amazon. I don’t want to tell you much about the series- too many twists and turns to give away that are awesome, but I will say that “The Chronothon” is a set of Olympic type games in which you also have to find your way through time to get to them. It’s the perfect “I’m going to Alexandria” read, because it’s light and fun so that I don’t get so engrossed I miss my stop… although that’s kind of hard, because if I am even remotely paying attention, I know that when we pull into the airport station, it’s time to pack everything up. I am rarely even remotely paying attention. 😛

I tried to get a good picture coming across the Potomac, but it took me a second to get my camera open, and then the lens was facing me. By the time I got all that straightened out, I’d missed my shot completely. Just imagine it was awesome. All DC pictures are. I don’t have to work very hard. Just quickly if I’m on the train. Blink and I miss it.

My next shooting expedition is going to be the new Spy Museum. So happy they’re getting expanded digs, sad that the James Bond exhibit is on its way out. With the Spy Museum, I have this funny image in my head of the museum in “Futurama” where all the heads are in glass jars so you can talk to them and find out how they died, etc. Everything from “trying to save the world” to “tripped on a sidewalk in Kabul.” The latter being me as a spy, of course. I can totally picture talking to the CI, getting the intel I need, and dying on the way back from something totally and completely lame. Like, my nickname would be “George W. died” for all eternity, because W. was almost taken out by a pretzel. At the very least, he never got stuck in a bathtub, though I’m not sure which is more embarrassing. Thoughts?

I would probably put it in my will not to put a star on the wall at Langley for me if the cause of my death was akin to tripping over my own feet.

“She gave her life in service to this country.”
“How?”
“She didn’t see a tree stump that was literally right in front of her and it was the one thing for a hundred miles with a big rock right in front of it.
“Brave. Like, that is seriously Seal Team Six valor right there.”
::uncontrollable laugher::

Which is totally how time travel would come in handy for me, being able to back up ten seconds at will…. except you can’t cross your own timeline.

“Are you sure you can’t let me walk around the tree stump?”
“Fixed point in time. I’m so sorry.”

I just have to hope that on the days I’m most likely to trip, my sister is there to help make me quicker than usual.

Personal and Global

My gut is telling me I should write something. My mind is saying, “I got nothin.’ This is because so much has happened that the pictures from each event are swirling so fast that I can’t grab one long enough to describe it. As one Tumblr user said, “do you know how much braining it takes to make the words go?” I’m not sure I’ve ever identified more with any statement. Ever. I am much better one-on-one, so I’ve been writing a lot of letters… believe it or not, there are actually some things I won’t vomit all over the Internet. I know it’s hard to imagine. I mean, I’m so shy and retiring when it comes to talking about myself. But right now, so many things are internal that I literally can’t force them from the river that runs underneath my skin into my fingers.

What I can say is that my birthday was full of joy at having my family here to celebrate. It’s been years since I had a birthday party with my dad and sister. What’s even better than that is my sister is the good kind of lobbyist, so I see her almost as frequently as I saw her when we both lived in the same city. Now that Congress is winding down, I won’t see her again until possibly October and definitely in November, but it was great that this month’s work trip coincided with the transition from 40 to 41.

Movies and television about the CIA are so fascinating to me that I love that my age is the same as George H.W. Bush’s presidential number. No comment on how I’ll feel about 43. In this vein, I would like to skip directly from age 44 to 46.

Interesting sidenote about CIA television. Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime Video begins in Lebanon, so I’ve been able to look at amazing pictures from the real country (it wasn’t actually filmed there) thanks to Hayat’s upbringing. For those of us just joining us, I rent a room from a Lebanese family, complete with photos in country throughout most of the house. Because of them, Lebanon is on my bucket list- too beautiful to ignore.

I will just have to find a big, strong man to accompany me, because I’m a feminist and I’m also not stupid enough to ignore the rules in a Muslim country. Lebanon is not as strict as some of the others, but I’m not taking any chances. Because I’m such an introvert, I’d probably be the most comfortable in a burqa, and I’m not kidding. I’m a writer and observer. Not so much with the talking to strangers, and although I am generally delightful in conversation, for the most part it is me overcoming my natural shyness and jumping into The Leslie Lanagan Show.™ You don’t generally get the real me until we’re at a secluded table, cups of coffee between us… and even then, we have to have known each other a while. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with people until I’m assured that they know the real me, and for better or for worse, love me anyway. But no one I’ve ever come across dislikes The Leslie Lanagan Show.™ It comes from years and years of practice. Fake it til you make it and all that comes with it.

It is probably for this very reason that I spend so much time alone, because I want to spend my time as an authentic person, able to walk around in my own gargantuan inner landscape. I think mostly about where I want to go from here, not career-wise, necessarily, but who I want to be as a person. As my anxiety goes down, my capacity for love goes up. It’s easy to love people who love you back. Hard to love the irritable, the angry, and the unknown.

My authentic self wants the capability to love the world where it is, how it is… and at the same time, so angry about the things that divide us as a country and as citizens of the world.

For instance, it is inconceivable that people are having trouble believing that Bob Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House is just a basic hatchet job, when this is the same reporter that broke the Watergate story and has also covered seven other presidents in addition to Trump and Nixon. For instance, my favorite Woodward book is Obama’s Wars, where he doesn’t even blink in his critique of the president, and presents some information that tempers unfettered adulation, such as his own Syrian blink of 2012-13. No president is above reproach, and while I admire Barack Obama greatly, and would do basically anything he asked, that does not transfer into thinking he is a perfect person. No one ever is. We are all angels & demons, depending on the choices we make and when.

Trump… opens with staffers stealing things off the president’s desk, knowing that if the papers aren’t there, he’ll just forget about the issue… and one of them involves instigating conflict with North Korea. I am not kidding when I say that almost literally, the bombs start dropping in chapter one.

So, to discredit a reporter and non-fiction writer who has an amazing reputation is infuriating to an enormous degree. If anyone is capable of telling this story, it is Bob Woodward.

Write it down.

So, to put it mildly, my thoughts have moved past the personal into the global, which is probably what is driving my interest in intelligence-gathering. One of the points that Woodward makes, which is very relevent at this time, is that the FBI and CIA have different standards for espionage. This is because CIA evidence is rarely used in court cases, and “the Feebs'” evidence often is. Therefore, vetting in the CIA doesn’t have to be quite as high, because it does not have to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of evidence” requirement- the former in criminal cases, the latter in civil litigation.

This, of course, bit CIA in the ass during the WMD years, which has, in turn, made them even more cautious now… in the words of Martha Stewart, “a very good thing.” Now I’m just pleased with myself. I made a complete sentence using CIA and Martha Stewart. #touchme

But, of course, it’s not just thinking about the world that has me interested in intel. I am just one of those people who likes Knowing Stuff.™ To be in a room full of journalists or government workers is being invited to sit at the cool kids’ table for me… the reason I know DC is where I belong.

One of the great joys of my life is when Dan and I meet for lunch, and I get to walk her back to her office in Foggy Bottom. I’ll let you guess what that means. More fun to figure it out on your own. However, I will say she’s not a spook. But she’s sure as hell smart enough to be. Also, because she’s so small, it tickles me to think of her back in her Army days, running around in full battle rattle. I have no doubt that one of her main strengths was running right at the enemy and knocking them off-balance. 😛 (Oh, am I ever going to catch hell for that one…)

Now I’m back to thinking about the personal, all the light my friends bring into my life. I am one lucky, lucky 41-year-old. I’m not sure how the next trip around the sun can top this one, but I’m sure going to try. It seems easier when I feel like I’m literally lifted off the ground, the warmth of friendship holding me aloft.