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.

Catching Up

Dear Mom,

You would love the snow that’s falling right now. I can just hear your voice on the phone telling me to make ice cream out of it…. but I don’t think it would taste that good because I’m out of dairy milk and vanilla. I’ve never had soy snow ice cream. I will possibly give it a whirl and see how it goes. Maybe Hayat has some vanilla I could borrow.

You’ve never had soy milk? Really? It’s delicious in coffee and on cereal…. brings out the nutty flavors in each. My favorite is chocolate soy milk and Cinnamon Life.™ No, Mom. Really. It’s good. I’d make you try it the next time I come to your house if you weren’t  so corporeally challenged.

Just like you, I am perpetually cold. I am wearing special long underwear from Uniqlo called HeatTech. The company is Japanese, but for some reason there’s a big banner on the front page that says, “From Finland with Love.” If I thought there was going to be more cold weather, I would buy that shit mañana (I can’t tell if it’s hilarious or terrible that you’re not going to tell me to watch my language). I am also wearing the American Giant™ rugby jacket that Dad got me for my birthday…. only it’s not called a “rugby jacket.” It’s called a Moto. Picture a double-weight hoodie without the hood and you’ve got it. Despite both of these things, I’m still shivering, but it’s not the clothes’ fault. I am my mother’s daughter.

It would help if I could get moving. I love the cold when I’m dressed for it, and I’ve linked up the stuff I’m wearing for my readers because even though this is Old Man Winter’s last ditch effort, the next freeze will be here soon enough…. and I am definitely warm enough outside. It’s not really the cold. It’s that I’m not moving…. just sitting here typing, like the lovable geek I’ve always been.

Going for a long walk to help me sweat would improve my situation dramatically. However, it is actively snowing and I hate it when the precip gathers on my glasses and renders me more blind than usual. The timing of everything is off. Did I get glasses before or after you died? I think it was before, but time is just so malleable that I’ve forgotten. Wait. No, it was before. So you did get to see my cute little frames. I just wish I could remember what you said about them, because new glasses would not have passed without comment.

Now, I have a collection of them. Glasses are the new earrings. I even have some that make me look like a writer, so even when it feels like I’m just faking it, I still look the part. All I need now is a tweed blazer with elbow patches…. you know, for the jacket picture on the novel I’ve been working on for years and sometimes think will never be finished. At least the grey in my hair is coming in. It seems as if all authors have the same picture- jacket, glasses, grey at the temples.

I have discovered that I am, in fact, terrible at fiction. There are plot holes all over the place that you’d see coming a mile away because I don’t know anyone who’s read more books than you. It makes me hope for you that heaven is a big library, even though God knows you’ve already read at least half of them.

I’m starting that process, the one where I read just damn everything I can get my hands on, regardless of storyline. It doesn’t matter. Romance, science fiction, biography, autobiography. Not only am I enjoying myself, I’m working my way up from volunteer to paid reviewer at a book club web site. I keep thinking about how much you would have loved the recommendations on what to read next…. some of them have been quite good. In every case, the novels have been solid stories, but what would have driven both of us up the wall is poor editing. It’s always a shame when the content is so good and you can’t really concentrate on it because your mind is running a thousand miles a minute thinking “no comma there,” “comma needed here,” and “what the hell does that sentence even say?” With those reviews, I am not generous with stars, but I make sure to tell my audience that the content is good. I sometimes feel like a teacher reading a child’s work, because in my reviews, I have to report the number of errors I find…. but only up to 10. With some of the books, I could go on for pages.

It was a good move on your part to become a music teacher. If you’d chosen English, I don’t think you would have had any hair left by retirement.

Speaking of which, how is it that you were a music teacher your entire career and I still can’t read bass clef?

I forgive you.

Love,

Leslie

 

 

 

The Snowman Cometh (with Apologies to Eugene O’Neill)

I know it’s hard to tell with a still picture, but it’s really coming down out there… and forecasted to continue. We may actually get some accumulation. I am excited about this, because there is nothing I love more than newfallen snow (when I’m dressed for it). Walking around in the pristine white brings me so much joy. I only hate snow after it’s been on the ground for a few days and ranges from grey to black with tire tracks and dripping oil. Although, if I had to choose, I believe the dogs love it more than me… which reminds me of an old Sam story………….20171209_110711

My roommate, Samantha, has parents where one is Methodist and one is Druze, but does not claim any religion for herself. So, a couple of years ago when the snow was very deep, Sam shouted at her dog, “come on, Daisy. Time to part it like Jesus.” I started laughing so hard that tears came to my eyes and said, “ummm, that was Moses.” She just laughed and said, “whatever.” Of course, this is the same person that when, years ago, I got a “Share a Coke with Mark” bottle and joked that all I needed now were Matthew, Luke, and John, has been calling me Mark ever since. In fact, I think that since then she’s forgotten my actual name. I dig it. Fits in with the theme….. Auna calls me “Hipster Jesus.” Being nicknamed after a Gospel writer doesn’t seem like much of a demotion. After all, he was a writer. 😛

I am caught between two ideas right now. One is that I am still in my jammies- cute ones, so that I at least look marginally dressed- and I have two shows to catch up on. The first is Doc Martin, and the second is The Crown. I was going to start with The Crown, but Doc Martin is just so damn funny, and I could use some funny in my life.

The other idea is that there’s just so much to do and see in the snow, and I have the clothes to be very, very, very warm while I’m out. I could go to downtown Silver Spring and ice skate, or I could go to Zoo Lights, or I could just walk around my neighborhood and see who’s already on the ball with the Christmas decorations. The one drawback to this is that it is actively snowing, and when snow gets on my glasses, I can’t see anything, anyway. You would think that an umbrella would help. Not so much. Snow generally blows sideways. Before I make my decision, I will check and see if Zoo Lights is a recurring thing, or if it is only today. The best time to do all this stuff is after the snow has stopped, there’s a satisfying crunch under your feet, and the weather is cold & clear…. perhaps not clear, because it’s usually overcast even when it’s not snowing, but you get my drift (see what I did there?). I am waiting with baited breath to see what happens this winter, because sometimes we get a few inches a couple of times, and sometimes the heavens open up and dump everything they’ve got. Winter before last, it was over a foot and a half deep. Everyone had a different name for it:

  • Snowpocalypse Now
  • Snowtorious B.I.G.
  • Thanks, Snowbama
  • Enforced Captivity
  • Working Without Pants -or- Working Under the Covers (IT doesn’t DO snow days.)

If we do get The Big One,™ I will work out more than I have all year, because it’s more strenuous to lift your knees that high while walking…. because you can either walk on the unplowed sidewalks, or take your chances on the street. I choose knee/ass deep snow rather than getting hit by a driver who thinks they have this snow driving thing down (they don’t). Everyone thinks they’re a friggin’ expert until they spin out, because thinking you’re an expert generally leads to driving way too fast for the condition at hand…. and I have yet to see anyone chain up on a back road. My general rule is “go around me, moron.” I’ll either see them further down the road fishtailed into a snowdrift or being told by the police that maybe they should control their speed. Of course you can get a speeding ticket while going the speed limit when snow is blowing sideways…. or worse, the snow has melted and it’s still cold AF, so there’s black ice everywhere.

The safest way to get around in all this mess is public transportation, because generally, if you’re going to be in an accident, the city bus is going to “win….” and a good bit of the Metro is inside, which is even safer. Plus, with everyone wanting to run their own heaters in their own cars on their way at every possible opportunity, parking is even harder than normal.

Speaking of driving, though, I had a funny Uber moment yesterday. The Uber driver always checks to make sure he/she has the right destination, and I told him I was going to the mall. He said, “in DC? With all the monuments?” I laughed and said, “no… I’m not going to The Mall, I’m going to a mall.” I was in an Uber pool, and the teens in the back laughed and said, “No! In Silver Spring!” I bought all my clothes, got my bag of coffee (finally) and managed to get out of Whole Foods for less than $50. Beat that with a stick.

I even remembered to get more eggnog….. because I’m in my jammies.

Cute ones.