Tag Archives: CIA

Blogging Isn’t Writing

Especially because of the pandemic we’re experiencing, I thought it would be fun to watch movies that deal with them. The first one I watched made me laugh so hard I almost choked and died (no lie). Jude Law plays a blogger/journalist [Alan Krumwiede] who wants to break the story, and LaurenceMV5BMTY3MDk5MDc3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzAyNTg0Ng@@._V1_ Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever provided me with this gem: blogging is not writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation. One of the best movie quotes about blogging of all time and space. #fightme

I tend to think of it as emotionally vomiting all over the Internet, but what do I know? 😉

The movie has an amazing cast, and held my attention. When I watch movies, they generally run in the background as I do a hundred other things, but I actually sat down for this one. I am a huge fan of both Jude Law and Matt Damon, and love it when they work together. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a masterpiece. I also love Laurence Fishburne’s voice, and I could listen to him read the phone book and be extraordinarily happy with it. The movie itself is great, but what really pushes it over the top is the actors chosen.

I am sure I will keep watching disaster movies, because they are timely and generally have great soundtracks. I am a sucker for a well-composed score….. and isn’t it interesting how life imitates art?

Speaking of which, no show in recent memory does this better than Homeland. For instance, two or three weeks ago it was about negotiating a cease fire with the Taliban. Truly, with the exception of a Bipolar I case officer, this show is the most realistic I’ve ever seen.

Why would a Bipolar I case officer be ridiculous? The CIA would never let it happen. I think it’s probably a little unfair to discriminate against mentally ill workers that don’t leave Langley- with the exception that they have to be in treatment at all times- but field work would end in disaster, and not for the reasons you think.

If a Bipolar spy was captured in a third world country, they may not even have access to your medication. If they do, how likely would it be that they would actually give it to you? It didn’t even occur to me until Carrie herself got made, and descended into madness from lack of medication after getting captured by the GRU.604px-Apple_logo_Think_Different_vectorized.svg

That being said, a Bipolar analyst might be a good thing. Mental illness isn’t fun, but you gain a tremendous amount of ability at being able to see things others don’t, because you’re always thinking outside the box. Carrie’s murder boards are absolutely insane in terms of always being spot on. She can make connections that no one else can or does. That part is amazing in terms of mental illness visibility, because she highlights all the bad and the good. The problem comes in when analysts are required to be forward-deployed. I have no idea how that would work, but it’s a balance of pros vs. cons. I don’t have an answer, I just think it’s something that might come in handy, especially when Think different. becomes a thing….. because trust me when I say no one is better at it.

There have been a lot of people saying that Homeland has gotten predicable and boring, because Carrie is brilliant and then has a breakdown every season. The producers’ response was amazingly kind (at least to those who have it). Carrie doesn’t get a break from it. Why should you?

In terms of my own mental health, Carrie and I are very different. Bipolar II does not cause such extreme variance between depression and mania. The depression is full strength, but the mania is basically the Bipolar I Diet Cokeâ„¢ counterpart. There’s only one time in my life that it’s gotten out of hand, and it was so memorable that if it ever happens again, I’m locking myself in my room and air gapping my computer. I will leave you to your own devices as to what happened, but it cost me more than I’ve ever spent… in fact, it reached into my five dollar life and made change… the scary part was that I was on my medication when it happened, and I thought I was going to have to start a whole new protocol.

The reason that’s always scary is that changing your medication is often trial and error, so I could have been through the wringer several times before getting right again. But as it turned out, my doctor added Neurontinâ„¢ & Klonopinâ„¢ for anxiety and left the rest alone. It thankfully, blessedly worked miracles. That was four years ago, and I haven’t had a recurrence, mostly because I’m so afraid of it that I will go to the doctor at the drop of a hat.

Nothing has really changed in terms of always feeling better, but nothing has felt worse, either. I think my ups and downs are just life, not my brain causing them. For instance, my disorder didn’t get worse when my mother died. I just experienced grief like a normal person (or as normal as I get, anyway). I walked around dazed and confused for months, not getting out of bed unless I had to. I’m guessing that particular reaction is common for people who have lost a parent or a spouse, and not an indication of something worse. Although I knew that the grief would be bad, I truly didn’t expect a fog to settle over my brain that would make me constantly feel as if I was on a heavy sedative, forgetting what and who was around me…. such as putting ice cream in the refrigerator. I leaned heavily (and still do) on the friends who have also lost parents, because they can tell with one look how I’m doing that day.

The thing is, though, now that it’s been three years I am still grieving, but over different things… like losing the sound of my mother’s voice in my head, or forgetting things I should probably remember, like childhood memories. As I get older, my first decade fades. Grief is an interesting balance between being grateful for the years you got and being cheated out of the ones you were supposed to have. It is a totally different thing when your parents don’t die in their eighties.

And, to be frank, you get irrationally angry at people who say the wrong thing, because they don’t mean any harm. They’re trying to be supportive, they just don’t know what to say. The people that do know what to do become precious- the ones that just say “I’m sorry,” because they know there are no words in the English language that will make things better. Bonus points for hugs or an arm around your shoulder. I don’t think I got enough affection at that time, because I just didn’t have as big a support system then.

The one exception was Prianka, because it was so amazing to have my best buddy pick me up at the airport when I landed at DCA from that particular trip. It was nice to relax on the way home rather than having to struggle with my bags on the Metro as I got lost trying to find my way home because I couldn’t think properly. If I had been driving, I would have realized I was going the wrong way at about Richmond.

All that being said, it was really nice to know that I was having an objective experience rather than subjective, because my feelings were so universal. Deep grief is not a club you want to join, but there is an amazing community to receive you……..

Especially other people who also graffiti the Internet.

Redacted

The bassoon solo from The Bourne Identity main theme is ringing in my ears. People ask me all the time why I’m so interested in intel. Well, if you’ve been reading for a long time, you already know. For those just joining us, I had a great uncle in the DIA who died when I was very small. The mystery of how has stayed with me since I first heard the story. The public one is a helicopter crash, but I don’t know if the public and private match……… It is possible that his identity died, but he didn’t. The only reason I think that is that his personal effects weren’t sent until over a decade later. I’ve also always loved Bond (well, all intel) movies, and a huge part of it is the music.

So to me, it’s no wonder that I ended up being fascinated by spies, but I don’t have any interest in being one myself……… which is good, because I don’t think I’d make a great one. I’d be excellent at interrogation, especially if I had language skills equal to English in Russian and Arabic…….. crap at nearly everything else. I would probably make it a life goal to drive my IT guys crazy, but I’d have everyone’s back. Well, except for the part where I’m 5’2 and 125 and the added bonus of when in a war zone, a terrible shot. I mean, truly exceptional at being bad. I have even less desire to be a desk jockey at Langley. Oh, and even though I take medication for it so it’s not generally an issue, I’m Bipolar II and I don’t think The Agency would take kindly to it.

So here we are.

I go to The International Spy Museum and collect signed books like baseball cards….. and as I told my friend Jaime,IMG_0025 “since it’s clandestine, you never get their rookie year.” The last lecture/book signing I went to was The Unexpected Spy, by Tracy Walder. I was particularly interested for two reasons:

  • The book is about to become a TV show, called The Sorority Girl Who Saved Your Life produced by Ellen Pompeo of Grey’s Anatomy. Why they couldn’t call it “The Unexpected Spy” is beyond me, because the name is ridiculous. But still.
  • We were both born with “floppy baby syndrome,” which was the precursor to my CP diagnosis. It is fundamental to who we both are. She said in her talk that she takes spills all the time. It made me feel much better about myself, because I’ve never seen a movie spy that moved like me in any way. But a real spy does.

The reason it’s redacted on the autograph page is that I asked her to do it. The Publications Review Board at The Agency blacked out a lot of her manuscript, and the style choice to leave it all in was pretty badass.

She took it seriously and wrote the comment, then scratched out one word. Then, she decided it wasn’t black enough and went over it with a Sharpie. I was laughing so hard I was crying when she handed it to me and said, “there. Now no one knows WHAT I told you to do to the world.” And then she laughed, and at that moment, she was the most beautiful, kind person in the world to me. Literally awesome.

Which only made me more angry at her treatment by the FBI, but I won’t get into it because it’s a large part of the book.

If there are any people who hire spies reading this web site, she also said in the Q&A that she might be approachable after January (who could possibly tell why?). For now, she is doing the work of angels- teaching high school. For the record, it wasn’t me who asked the question.

She had said during the lecture that she wished she had spoken up more at the FBI, possibly taken them to court. I told her that I had a comment and a question. She nodded and I said, “I’m a writer, too, and I know that while you may regret what happened at Hoover, you are more powerful than you can possibly imagine. You’ve taken ‘I’m telling’ to an international level.'” I then asked her about hypotonia- what limitations she had, how she overcame them, etc. She said that I would be surprised, that being in the CIA wasn’t as physical as she thought. That didn’t come in until the FBI, and even then, it was at Quantico where it really mattered.

And then we shared a look between us that was so intimate I will never forget it. Just the complete understanding of someone who knows what it’s like to be the other one.

Because there are no pictures and I don’t think anyone in the room noticed (and maybe I’m projecting and wrong [I don’t think I am]), in years to come I will smile to myself and say, “that’s redacted.”

 

The Tree Hugger

One of the most significant things that has happened to me since my mother’s death was visiting “her” in the cemetery when I was home for Christmas. I got an idea, one that will stick with me every time my sister and I visit. fredOne of the reasons we chose the particular area for her plot was that there was a tree in front of it. I named the tree “Fred,” and at first, my sister wasn’t fond of it. But the name has grown on her, and we can’t change it now. After we’d talked for a while, both to my mother and each other, I reached out and put my arms around Fred, because “he’s” still so little that I can hold him. I looked at my sister and said, “I know this seems weird, but it’s the closest I’ll ever get to hugging mom again.” I leaned in, my arms as tight as an old sea salt’s rope, and closed my eyes. I visualized “Fred” disappearing and my mother standing in “his” place. Peace and comfort washed over me, the “peace that passeth all understanding (Philippians 4:7 KJV). It is with me still as I write this, listening to the Argo soundtrack for the thousandth time.

It isn’t the most relaxing music in the world, full of intrigue and danger (especially if you know what piece goes where), but it is what gets emotions out of me. It brings back the muscle memory of writing, to which I’ve paid little attention, preferring to keep my emotions bottled up for some unknown reason. I don’t have writer’s block. There are a thousand memories I could publish. It’s my disorder. Anxiety and depression make me lose all excitement for everything, and being Bipolar II, I just have to wait until I cycle back up (at least a little).

Today is not a day I thought I would write, because Tony Mendez died on January 19th of last year. When I heard the news on the 20th, I cried like I had taken a spill on the sidewalk and there was no one to give me a Band-Aid…. which is an apt analogy because my grief over my mother and my grief over Tony became inextricably interrelated.

I don’t break down easily anymore. I became so afraid of being vulnerable in public that I developed a suit of armor, and so if I had to guess, hearing that my favorite author died broke the dam. It was everything, from not getting to meet him in person to having the stark realization that death is so permanent….. again. tonyI picked up my autographed copy of Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, stared at his signature, and started the first chapter.

I couldn’t focus and put it back in my top dresser drawer. I ended up lying on my bed, staring up at the ceiling fan, hypnotized by the blades. I remember, down to the body memory, the way I felt. It was akin to needing a good cry, but you can’t get it out, so you purposefully put on sad music or a movie. I absolutely started crying at the Washington Post article, but that’s not where I finished. Sounds came out of me that I have only heard when I’ve had a true wound to the soul. It was animalistic, coming from deep within.

It is interesting to me that I thought I didn’t have a tree to hug in honor of Tony, and then it came to me.

What are books made of?

The Year of Acceptance

I went to the pub earlier and stuffed myself with brunch. I got everyone sitting at the bar addicted to Crosswords With Friendsâ„¢ as I gobbled up banana custard French toast, eggs, Irish bacon, coffee, and orange juice. I was pleased with myself because I just showed up and sat down, and by the end I was specifically invited back every weekend by “the brunch club.”

The way I got into the conversation is that they were having an argument over something and I asked the woman next to me what it was all about. They were arguing over the capital of Canada…. whether it was Montreal or Toronto (pregnant sigh). I said, “it’s Ottawa.” The woman next to me said, “I like how you said that without missing a beat.” I told her that I was 100% certain I was right unless they’d moved it in the last few years.

I had my Slumdog Millionaire moment of hearing the question and video of Meagan and me  in the beer store buying a two four of Alexander Keith’s popping up because who can paint a living room without beer?

I was not invited to Ottawa just to paint Meagan’s living room. I was invited for Thanksgiving, and like the wingnut I am, didn’t look up the date for Canadian Thanksgiving because I thought I knew it.

I didn’t.

CDN Thanksgiving revolves. Who knew?

It ended up being a better trip that way, though, because I got Meag, her then-wife Deah, and her daughter to myself instead of having to share them with all their other friends and relatives.

When Meag and I were actually together, I thought seriously for a few months about immigrating to Canada, but I didn’t really get the concept of what an enormous change it would be until over a decade after we broke up, because believe it or not, I never made it there while we were dating…. and not because we only knew each other online. We were high school sweethearts and when Meagan graduated from high school, she went back to her home country while her parents stayed in Texas.

Seeing Canada for real was learning how European it is compared to the United States, and while I picked up the English dialect quickly having heard Meagan use Canadian slang “my whole life,” there was still a feeling of dissonance.

After a few days, though, I could totally see myself living there. Ottawa felt strikingly similar to DC and Portland, Oregon…. or rather, if the two cities got together and had a baby.

When I was looking for a change of scenery in 2015, Ottawa would have been a good choice for me if it hadn’t meant immigration and losing my US Citizenship (I would have wanted to be able to vote). Ultimately, I made the right choice. I’ve been in love with DC since I was eight. I feel the magic of Washington like most people feel the romance of Paris- it vibrates inside me.

Things happen here that would never happen anywhere else. For instance, I got to hear Jonna Mendez, former Chief of Disguise at CIA, talk about her latest (and her husband Tony‘s last) book. That was on 31 May, and this weekend I finally found a way to send her the blog entry I wrote after I came home that night. She told me it was wonderful and Tony would have loved it as well. It was a huge moment in my life, as it is for all authors when their favorite authors pay them a compliment.

Ok, I am being tame. It was hug from Jesus level awesome and my skin is still buzzing. I feel so good about it that my energy could jump start a car battery.

If I could, I would bottle that feeling and use it as hair product.

Being so high on a compliment is tempered by my anger at unfixable situations.

On September 10, I will be 42 years old. I will always remember 41 as The Year of Acceptanceâ„¢ (pregnant sigh).

Because of medical malpractice in the delivery room, I have cerebral palsy. It’s a mild case, and my parents never agreed on how much to tell me about what happened. My mother didn’t want me to know anything at all, to pretend that my mental and physical health were just like everyone else’s. My dad was always on the side of truth, but as soon as he would start talking about it, my mother would either A) disagree loudly II) change the subject.

My mother always said that my dad’s memory was wrong or that he was just making a big deal out of nothing.

My sister found the report in which I was diagnosed, and for the first time, I saw my pediatric neurologist’s impressions of me. I was a little over a year old, and presented like I was only six months. I didn’t have the physical reactions of someone my age, and my muscles couldn’t support me. I have never caught up to my peers.

So basically I’ve just been living life thinking that I was perfectly able-bodied, to not so great results. I’ve done a lot of research, and CP doesn’t get worse as you age. It is what it is. However, its implications are bigger. For instance, I don’t fall more than I did when I was younger, but I do fall harder. And with monocular vision, it doesn’t matter how careful I think I’m being. There’s always something I’m not going to see and either I run into it or it runs into me. I spend a lot of time accidentally apologizing to inanimate objects.

Some of my muscles are way more developed than others, so while doing one physical thing I may look completely normal, and then during a different activity, you can immediately tell I’m struggling.

This year was about accepting why as fact. I stopped beating myself up that I wasn’t faster in the kitchen. I was never built for it in the first place.

You don’t come to acceptance of something as big as CP in one moment or even in one day. It’s too big, too complicated. It took me a long time to stop beating myself up that there was no such thing as being born with floppy muscles and being miraculously cured of it while still being more of a klutz than all of my friends put together.

It’s also confusing because my symptoms are so mild, because it’s taken a long time to figure out where I excel and where I, in a word, don’t. It’s a long haul from thinking that you can do anything you want to taking your physical limitations seriously…. that they aren’t a series of unfortunate events but consecutive verses to the same song.

I’m just trying to figure out where I excel so that I stop beating myself up. It’s not that I got a bad hand, I’ve just been playing blackjack while the rest of the world plays poker.

At the very least, I know the capital of Canada.

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,â„¢ 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 ËœIn 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.