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.

Klosterman Conundrums

There are 23 interview questions in Chuck Klosterman’s “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.” I decided to answer a few, and will possibly answer more later. These are the ones that jumped out at me.



Let us assume a fully grown, completely healthy Clydesdale horse has his hooves shackled to the ground while he head is held in place with thick rope. He is conscious and standing upright, but he is completely immobile. And let us assume that for some reason every political prisoner on earth (as cited by Amnesty International) will be released from captivity if you can kick this horse to death in less than twenty minutes. You are allowed to wear steel-toed boots. Would you attempt to do this?


This is not a hard one for me. I would never put an animal’s value over a human’s, no matter how much I hated people at the time. Plus, the horse is already being tortured, so who’s to say death wouldn’t be welcome? As Dr. Hunt so eloquently said in “Grey’s Anatomy,” victory is the option where the least people get killed. And of course I would feel bad that I killed an animal, but not that bad. Plus, you’d really have to see my physical stature to know how little danger the horse would be in at my hand. I’m 124 on a good day. Even with steel toed boots, I couldn’t kill that horse for love or money.

At long last, somebody invents the dream VCR. This machine allows you to tape an entire evenings worth of your own dreams, which you can then watch at your leisure. However, the inventor of the dream VCR will only allow you to use this device if you agree to a strange caveat: When you watch your dreams, you must do so with your family and your closest friends in the same room. They get to watch your dreams along with you. And if you don’t agree to this, you cant use the dream VCR. Would you still do this?

My dreams actually get quite frightening, and I care enough about my family and friends to know that the movies that run through my mind would haunt them. I’d like to see the tape, but I remember enough already to be satisfied. Dealing with the blast radius after so many emotional bombs drop would be devastating. I am sure that my answer was supposed to be funny, but I just can’t with this one. Plus, with the way I roll on the Internet, I have very little private information left. It would be worth it not to have the VCR just to have something of my own, regardless of what my friends and family think. I know if there are people’s tapes I desperately want to see, somebody would want to see mine. But I can’t live on their opinions.

You meet the perfect person. Romantically, this person is ideal; You find them physically attractive, intellectually stimulating, consistently funny, and deeply compassionate. However, they are one quirk: This individual is obsessed with Jim Henson’s Gothic puppet fantasy, “The Dark Crystal.” Beyond watching it on DVD at least once a month, he/she peppers casual conversation with “Dark Crystal” references, uses “Dark Crystal” analogies to explain everyday events, and occasionally likes to talk intensely about the films deeper philosophy. Would this be enough to stop you from marrying this individual?

My initial answer was yes. So many people have quoted that movie to me that I have lost all interest in watching it, and I think I’ve seen a scene or two walking by the television, and even the visuals were frightening. I changed my mind when I realized that this person would have to put up with every fandom I follow, too. I can put up with “The Dark Crystal” if they can put up with “Doctor Who,” “Outlander,” “Homeland,” “Whiskey Cavalier,” and every intel movie that’s come out in the last 20 years…. with a large dose of “Monty Python” thrown in for good measure. I am a fountain of media quotes that come out at both appropriate and inappropriate times.

A novel titled “Interior Mirror” is released to mammoth commercial success (despite middling reviews). However, a curious social trend emerges: Though no one can prove a direct scientific link, it appears that almost 30 percent of the people who read this book immediately become homosexual. Many of the newfound homosexuals credit the book for helping them reach this conclusion about their orientation, despite the fact that “Interior Mirror” is ostensibly a crime novel with no homoerotic content (and was written by a straight man). Would this phenomenon increase (or decrease) the likelihood of you reading this book?

Since I’m already a lesbian, I don’t think it would bother me much. But if it worked in reverse, that there was a 30 percent chance it would make me straight, I’d at least have to give it some thought. I once dated a man for about six months as an adult, and the only reason I had for hating it was heterosexual privilege, which you don’t realize is there until you have it when you didn’t before, and will most likely lose it if you’re not a three on the Kinsey scale. You notice micro and macro aggression, like people who tell awful, derogatory jokes about gay people without realizing exactly who they’re talking to……………. and that’s the least offensive example.

That being said, if I met a woman I adored at first sight who happened to be straight and loved books, I might be tempted to recommend it. I would tell her about the phenomenon up front so it didn’t come across like a shady ace up my sleeve. Worth a shot, right? I’m not going to bank on those odds, though. But, of course, the likelihood is that hearing about the phenomenon would create a subconscious affect that dissipated quickly. It’d be a great relationship for about two weeks, which is probably more than an introverted writer can handle, anyway.

You have won a prize. The prize has two options, and you can choose either (but not both). The first option is a year in Europe with a monthly stipend of $2,000. The second option is ten minutes on the moon. Which option do you select?

Again, introverted writer. Shortest trip possible. I don’t even like to go to the store. Very few people can live in Europe on $2,000/month, anyway. Wait, that’s not true. I’m sure I could find a poor village somewhere. But moving wouldn’t interest me. I’ll never leave DC if I can help it.

Your best friend is taking a nap on the floor of your living room. Suddenly, you are faced with a bizarre existential problem: This friend is going to die unless you kick them (as hard as you can) in the rib cage. If you dont kick them while they slumber, they will never wake up. However, you can never explain this to your friend; if you later inform them that you did this to save their life, they will also die from that. So you have to kick a sleeping friend in the ribs, and you cant tell them why. Since you cannot tell your friend the truth, what excuse will you fabricate to explain this (seemingly inexplicable) attack?

The answer would lie in which friend was on the floor, because I don’t have one person I consider my best friend, and the person I view as closest to me isn’t likely to want to nap on my floor as it would require quite a flight. I’m relatively quick on my feet, though, and the trick is not to give too many details because you won’t remember them. See every intel movie ever made in the last 20 years. 😉

For whatever the reason, two unauthorized movies are made about your life. The first is an independently released documentary, primarily comprised of interviews with people who know you and bootleg footage from your actual life. Critics are describing the documentary as brutally honest and relentlessly fair. Meanwhile, Columbia Tri-Star has produced a big-budget biopic about your life, casting major Hollywood stars as you and all your acquaintances; though the movie is based on actual events, screenwriters have taken some liberties with the facts. Critics are split on the artistic merits of this fictionalized account, but audiences love it. Which film would you be most interested in seeing?

I would much prefer the big budget movie because I would enjoy answering the questions re: real vs. reel. Let me tell you, either way it’s a juicy screenplay if I lay all my cards on the table. It would mostly be character study, because even though I have moved places a lot, I tend to do the same things in my daily life…… and I am definitely a character. I would also like to make a cameo as a wacky neighbor.

 

Chosen Family

I am so lucky. Today I made a new friend whom I hope will one day be my old friend…. and connected with an old friend who continues to surprise me all the time with notes of support that say exactly the right thing I need to hear, immediately when I need to hear it. I can’t say publicly what I’m going through due to other people’s confidentiality, but everyone needs that friend who is angrier on your behalf than you could ever be yourself. Technically, if you have that friend, you really don’t need many others…. which is good. I don’t get out much.

Even when I think I should. Really must remedy that. Although for two reasons, I find it difficult. The first is that I am getting older, and therefore enjoy spending time with me more than I did when I was younger. The second is that few outings can hold a candle to a good book, TV show, or movie…. because I also consider other media excellent writing.

For instance, I just found a show on Netflix that needs promoting called “Sick Note.” Rupert Grint stars as Daniel Glass, a loser in a dead-end health insurance scam job when he finds out that he has cancer. He tells everyone and all of the sudden, people don’t think of him as a loser anymore. He gets special treatment all over the place- most importantly, not getting fired from his job, or getting kicked to the curb by his girlfriend, without whom he would be homeless.

After a few days, Dr. Iain Glennis (played by Nick Frost) calls Daniel and tells him he’s made a mistake- he does not have cancer- but he’s going to get fired if he makes one more mistake, and could he not tell anyone? It’s the best farcical comedy I’ve seen in a long time, because things go from bad to worse very quickly while keeping such a large secret.

Another comedy on Netflix that I think has superior writing is “The Kominsky Method,” a buddy comedy with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin. I originally clicked on it because my favorite movie is “Argo,” so I will watch ANYTHING with Alan Arkin. It turned out to be the best thing I’ve watched in months. I finished it in one day, if that’s any indication (my days off are packed, clearly).

Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) is a respected acting teacher, and Norman (Arkin) is his agent. Norman’s wife is critically ill, which adds gravitas to the uproarious humor, mostly consisting of two old guys busting each other’s balls. The comedy and drama both turn on a dime, which is why I think the writing is so significant.

The book I’m reading right now is called “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer. I started reading it because the main character is a novelist. I was sold just based on that one fact.

However, I did not know until I started it that it was about an aging gay author, and his need to escape watching someone else get married, so he arranges his own book tour. It’s all done with quite a bit of humor, because he’s not exactly well known…. most of the response when he shows up is, “who the hell is Arthur Less?” You would think that the comedy comes from a writer’s God complex, expecting that he would be recognized. It doesn’t. It comes from Less knowing exactly who he is in the world and the way he deals with it….

There is so much of me that wants to write “same” on EVERY SINGLE PAGE. Even if you don’t normally read queer fiction, if you’re a writer, you’ll identify just as much as I did. Pick it up anyway. Apparently, the Pulitzer committee thought it was pretty good, too. It won.

It tapped into a lot of my own emotions, because my recognition has come in both good and bad ways. Good is people telling me they read my blog and love it. Bad is conflict in which my old words are spit at me. I have occasionally had the feeling that this is unfair, because they are speaking about the me of then instead of to the me of now. But, to be fair, no one can beat me up with my own words better than I can. I am extraordinary at it.

Alternatively, I will go back and read some entries and realize how much I’ve grown and changed over the years. That part is stellar. I’m still me, just new iterations every day, which I don’t notice that often, but do when I go back even one year. God forbid I go back three or four…. sometimes it’s scary and necessary to realize how out of touch with reality I really became, and the drastic measures it took to right my worldview.

Like Arthur Less, when I realized everything I didn’t want to see, I changed my physical surroundings and, in effect, started my whole life over as the person I wanted to become, as opposed to the person I had been. At first I thought I had destination addiction, because I have moved a lot due to things I wouldn’t be able to un-see. But then I remembered that because of my mental health, I am much better with physical boundaries enforcing emotional ones. I am much better at growth and change when I am not constantly surrounded by the past. Because of everything that has happened there, I am not sure I ever realized how much I regress age-wise when I go to Houston. Visiting friends and family is great, as well as my mother’s grave site, which I find extremely peaceful whether the weather cooperates or not. Living there reduces me to the age I was when I got there, and negative triggers are all around me. If you’ve ever experienced any kind of abuse, from emotional to physical, you know what I mean. The smell of the air on any day that is the same as that one. Passing buildings that are familiar in a frightening way.

DC doesn’t offer me any of that. I have barely any history here, and the only trigger would be pulling up in front of my old house in Alexandria, which I’ve thought about doing for closure’s sake, and then decided I didn’t need it.

I did, however, walk around Dana’s old high school, and said a blessing of peace to let her go while I was on the grounds. I have never and will never go back, because I saw everything I needed to see from a diarist’s perspective. It worked- I left the place fully ready to move on with my life, and not let the past hold me back, whether it was that feeling of “we really were perfect for each other and God, I really screwed that up,” or “I have awful patterns in relationships and I never deserve another one.” I decided to devote my life to my friends, rather than trying to find “the one.” It makes sense to me.

If I can achieve healthy relationships with close friends, I will learn the basis of healthy romance. Walking with them on their journeys, whether single or partnered, has fed me in all the right ways…. mostly because I feel like I am supported by many people, instead of only looking to that one person that’s supposed to fulfill every need.

Spoiler Alert: They can’t.

So, if I’m ever going to be in a relationship again, I don’t want to be one of those people who cocoons and doesn’t call you unless we break up. I want to live in a world where when my partner isn’t there, it doesn’t feel like a part of me is missing. One of the mistakes I made with Dana is that over time, we just became danaandleslie. Especially socially, one didn’t exist without the other…. mostly because of my complete dependence on her to be the social director because over those seven years, I became a more serious writer and introvert.

Learning to be single successfully has come with being my own social director. I have found that my need to be with other people has diminished greatly, but when I feel lonely, deep emotion surfaces. The difference is that now, I’m not afraid to reach out. That feeling arrived with the true acceptance that my friends loved me, and I was not being a bother to them…. that sometimes, a text or a lunch was just what they needed, too.

It’s amazing how I feel loved and included just by text and e-mail, which is mostly how people my age communicate. We don’t always have an hour in the day for coffee or lunch. But this is where Dan comes in. She’s the friend that most often says, “let’s do lunch,” and it’s always exciting. When we’re not together in the same room, I miss being able to hug her- the only drawback of text messaging. The worst part of being single is that you just don’t get touched enough in the most simple of ways- a hug, an arm around your shoulder, grabbing someone’s hand when they’re talking about something emotional…. believe me, I could go on.

So, lunch with Dan is always a huge, huge thing….. simply because it comes with hugs.

Which reminds me of my new friend- he gives great big bear hugs and I really needed one today.

It made everything look brighter… as bright as my laptop screen with all the lights off, searching for the next great thing to watch.

Saute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last night, though, I WON. #touchme

Staying Awake

I thought seriously about boycotting Starbucks until I realized that I still had money on my gift cards. I reasoned that my coffee had already been purchased, and if the boycott persisted beyond that, I wouldn’t spend my own money there.philadelphia_sbux Thanks to social media wisdom, though, I realized something important. There are thousands of black baristas, and this one shop in Philly was the problem, not Starbucks as a whole. If that sounds callous and racist, I am very sorry. But the truth is that I live in a neighborhood with lots of black people. Some are African-American. Others are immigrants, mostly from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Eritrea. Boycotting my local store might lead to cutting down on employees as they get less busy, and I am not about to contribute to it.

The plain truth is that this is not a Starbucks problem. It is the top-down system of oppression that has been in power for hundreds of years. For instance, why didn’t the police officers just laugh in the barista’s face? Why, after explaining the situation, were the men still cuffed?

There is blame to be had all the way around, and when the police were called, they had absolutely no reason to follow through. What about the barista’s story made any damn sense except the police being as racist as the barista? I don’t even have a jacket as nice as the one the man on the left is wearing, and I guarantee you I’ve looked worse in a hoodie and jeans stumbling into a coffee shop than the man on the right. This is not to say that every black person who walks into a Starbucks must be dressed a certain way. I am only making the observation that if the barista and the police were looking for people making trouble, these men weren’t it.

Memorize their faces. Memorize the man on the left looking down with his hands in his pockets. Memorize the man on the right making a pained face as if this is not the first time this bullshit has happened to him. I can’t think of any situation that makes me feel more helpless and angry…. but I have to think it through. I have to think about all the ways I, as a white woman, can use the platform I’ve been given, both here and out in the world. I am generally not assertive when things happen to me personally (like truly repulsive comments regarding watching lesbians by men, for instance), but it’s a whole other thing when my mother lion gets engaged.

I am one of those hopeful people who’s been crushed by the amount of racism in my area, because DC is overwhelmingly black (a little under 50% of the population). I mistakenly thought things like that couldn’t happen here, or at least, more rarely than they actually do. I’ve cut way down on the optimism lately, anxiety rising like bile in the back of my throat.

I am no expert on race relations in DC, but it seems as if racially mixed neighborhoods have existed forever, even before gentrification…. keeping in mind that this is not every neighborhood’s case, but more often than in, say, the rest of the South. Technically, DC and Maryland are still the South because they’re under the Mason-Dixon line, but God help you if you mention it. No one around here wants to be compared with Alabama. We’d like to think we’re more progressive than that. Racial makeup of the neighborhood ceases to matter when you’re just trying to find a place you can afford.

In some ways, we are that progressive. In others, we’re not any better; we’d like to think of ourselves as liberal and inclusive, sweeping the incidents where we’re not way, way, way under the rug. If it doesn’t fit with the image we have of ourselves, it didn’t happen, definitely not a two-way street. White people just can’t be afraid of black people in the same way. I will never be afraid that a black person is going to call the police on me for anything…. ever.

Moreover, people of color absolutely cannot be racist, because racism, again, is a top-down entrenched system of oppression. They can, however, be prejudiced, stereotyping white people because they have to. They don’t know ahead of time if a friend or foe is approaching. Prejudice exists for a reason, and for people of color, it is self-preservation…. a fear that, as white people, we are absolutely responsible for creating.

For the most part, though, when we’re all on the Metro together, the racism and prejudice is left at the station. For instance, once I was waiting for the Orange Line back to Metro Center from Landover, and one of the WMATA employees came up to me and asked me if he could give me a hug, because I had a Black Lives Matter button pinned to my jacket. We just stood there and held each other, healing energy running between both of us.

While I have trouble believing that racism will be solved in my lifetime, I definitely hope.  Interestingly enough, I think Marvel has taken it upon itself to help. Movies like Black Panther and Captain America: Civil War, and television shows like Luke Cage are challenging the status quo, because they portray black people in a way that few pieces of media do. Marvel can’t be responsible for solving every racial issue, but movies and TV shows that are popular can’t hurt. For instance, nothing did more to help the queer community be seen as regular people than Will & Grace, with Six Feet Under a close second. Progress is still slow, but it’s faster than it used to be with the help of visibility.

The difference is that I only have to be afraid for my life when I’m walking hand in hand with another woman. Alone, people can only guess that I’m a minority. There is no covering up every inch of your skin. However, I do empathize because I, too, look over my shoulder for unenlightened white people. We are definitely not in the same boat, but I often believe we’re in the same part of the ocean.

As I sip my coffee, I wonder if this entire essay is going to make me look like a basic bitch. I want my thoughts to go toward some good…. perhaps make some people think. I know it reaches me. I could spend an entire afternoon brainstorming about all the ways society needs to change and what I might be able to do in bringing it forward. The most concrete way I know for myself is challenging all the microaggressions I think I don’t have. Being white is just a series of privileges that run so far under your skin you don’t even realize you’re broadcasting it.

The one good thing I can say for myself right this moment is that I can say I have black friends without lip service. I have people to teach me when I’m being a jackass without any awareness. I am lucky that my friends are willing to attribute my flaws to idiocy and not malice, because I guarantee that in terms of staying woke, I need to pay more attention when I become “sleepy.” I am lucky to have friends that have no problem calling me out on the carpet about it, even when it’s hard…. because sometimes you want to fix the whole world, and are at a complete loss as to what would help.

Although I know that at least my infinitely small part of the world will change, as long as I’m paying attention.

Coffee helps in keeping my mind busy and my eyes open. However, I cannot stay awake forever. That’s where you come in, batting relief.

[_])

Refill?

There’s a Crazy World of E-mails in This Crazy World

I have loved e-mail since I first used it in the mid-’90s. Typing was so much easier than handwriting, and to me it had the same heft. It allowed me to “think in longhand” because e-mails felt like actual letters as opposed to text messages. I was not particularly fond of my handwriting (still not, really), and because I was also on IRC, I had to learn to type very, very fast to keep up with the conversation. Hunt and peck was so slow that by the time I hit Enter, what I was responding to was already five minutes gone. DeletedI started touch typing by watching my friend Luke. It was basically osmosis. Now I’m so fast that I can literally type an entire paragraph with my eyes closed, as long as there aren’t too many numbers. My fastest typing test was 100wpm with six errors.

Now, I hover around 74 perfectly. It’s the entire reason I carry a Bluetooth keyboard around with me everywhere. I can’t text for shit. As I was telling my Facebook friends the other day, if I don’t have a keyboard with me, you’ll be watching those three little bubbles for a half hour (and you better not be surprised if you only get back “k,” because most likely I’ve typed a paragraph and then hit something with my hand and accidentally erased it, too enraged to do it again). So, of all ways to communicate, I love the blank screen in front of me. I use Gmail exclusively, with occasional ventures into Hotmail to retrieve ancient messages. 21st century archaeology at its finest….. Hotmail is old school, but I still feel infinitely superior to those who use AOL. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. There isn’t much in this world that makes me feel superior. Let me have this one. I do, however, like the Hotmail interface, because it reminds me of old-school Outlook (before the ribbon).

I switched to the Gmail suite when I learned that ads were few and function was overwhelmingly good, even with a basic web interface. Most of the time, though, I set it up in Evolution or Thunderbird with Lightning and Provider for Google Calendar so that it catches all of my appointments, as well. However, Thunderbird does not have pop-up notifications unless it’s running, so I don’t use it for anything, but I also plug my e-mail account into Mail for Windows 10 so that Gmail is integrated into system notifications. When they go off, I then open my client of choice.

This tiny dissertation on e-mail is brought to you by the movie Love, Simon. Basically, I spent most of it saying to myself, see! E-mail does create real emotion! It was fascinating to watch feelings evolve the longer the e-mails went back and forth.

It was horrifying to see that homophobia still exists… but it’s become nicer, I suppose. For instance, coming out is still a big damn deal. Straight people don’t have to come out. Straight just is. In an ideal world, gay would be the same. But parents cry. I have no doubt that some parents wonder where they went wrong, as if it’s somehow their fault for not being harder on their sons to gravitate toward boy things and their girls to gravitate toward girl things.

It doesn’t work that way. I have plenty of lesbian friends who played with dolls, still wear a face full of makeup, and spend an hour on their hair. I have plenty of gay friends who played football and joined the military.

As a sidenote, I also know straight girls that have turned out every bit as military jackass brotard and straight men who love Broadway and tote bags. In the end, we’re all just people, and the spectrum is large.

I think, though, that gay men have it harder than lesbians, and that’s because in this society, it’s not cool to be feminine, because you’re seen as a man submitting yourself to another man. We really have to examine that prejudice, as if seeming feminine is the worst thing in the world. I think that some people are homophobic because they’re misogynistic. I could be wrong, but it’s probably a fair assumption.

I also think that since more and more people are coming out every day, straight people have this idea that you can catch homosexuality like a cold. It’s not the number of gay people that’s changed. It’s the number of people that are willing to tell you they’re gay, because they’re not afraid of you turning them in to the police anymore.

It is also my opinion that gay and straight are subsets of bisexuality, and bisexuals are mostly invisible, even though they’re the majority. People tend to base their identity on what kind of couple they’re in, but wouldn’t seem gay or straight if you looked at their behavior over multiple years. Even I, someone who looks like a 15-year-old boy, would never be uncomfortable identifying as bisexual, because I never want to make it seem as if only the women in my life matter. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I am still mother-lion fiercely protective of my first boyfriend, and that feeling will never go away. We were the cutest couple in the history of the world, and that is a stone cold fact.

I identify as lesbian because I want a woman to be my life partner, because I can’t imagine spending my life with a man. I gave up on heterosexuality when I realized how I could utterly destroy a man’s heart with my inability to look into the future and assure myself I could still feel an attraction. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about them as a person. I just didn’t want us both to be stuck in an unhappy relationship, which I can see much more easily.

All of this is to say that there’s really no difference between being gay and straight, because we all go through the same stages in life. All couples talk about the same issues behind closed doors, with the exception of procreation. That is a separate and expensive process. But then everything returns to being the same after the children arrive, because all parents speak the language of Cheerios and bath time.

Love, Simon bothered me…. that coming out still rattles people’s cages. Simon doesn’t want to at first and still views it as a secret. Once Simon does come out, his parents take it well, but still cry and feel like it’s A CONVERSATION. He’s still bullied at school. The movie is tempered with a lot of love and support for him as well, but the problems I experienced from 1992-1996 are all still there…. although I didn’t have a girlfriend willing to come out, so in a lot of ways, my experience was similar and different. I was this blabbermouth activist with a girlfriend who treated me….. Ummm, badly is not quite the right word, but I did feel hidden like a cheap mistress. I put up with it because it wasn’t like anyone else was out and proud. I was it.

That slowly changed once we graduated, but by then the relationship was mostly over, anyway…. like most high school relationships…. earth to straight people.

Just like Simon, though, I was outed to my entire school at once when someone taped a flyer to my locker talking about “scary lesbians” my freshman year. I was mortified because it was the only time my ex-boyfriend and I went to the same school, and I wish I’d been given the opportunity to talk about it privately with him before the rest of the world knew. I think we maybe had one conversation in which I told him I thought I could be in love with one woman, but it wasn’t THE TALK that said this is who I am now. I don’t have one isolated crush. I was embarrassed to talk to him because we’d just broken up about six months earlier, and he was embarrassed to talk to me for completely unrelated reasons. So this boy that I loved more than life was suddenly not my friend anymore. It took a few years, but now it’s on like Donkey Kong, and he only lives about three and a half hours away.

The opportunity to come out to my parents was also taken away by my high school counselor, and I didn’t learn this until I sat down to have THE CONVERSATION with them and they told me they already knew. I can’t decide whether it was a relief or not, and it’s over 20 years later…. Additionally, this same counselor did nothing to punish the kids who bullied me or prevent it from happening again by saying, well, what did you do to provoke them? Ummm, I just exist?

I was bullied way more at HSPVA than I was at Clements, which was also a shock to my system because HSPVA is located in the most liberal part of Houston and Clements one of the most conservative. Maybe there was a lot more going on behind my back in which I just wasn’t aware, but for the most part, I was just seen as eccentric, which is definitely not an untrue statement regardless of orientation. My favorite conversation of the whole year was, do you wear that rainbow necklace because you’re gay or because you’re an idiot? Being outed at HSPVA and the homophobic kids being merciless in their hatred of me was much, much worse. I wrote about my experiences at HSPVA in Creative Writing at Clements (see last link), and my teacher said that it was too private to share with the class…. which also made me feel different, even though I wasn’t.

E-mail was a way for me to connect in the air with people who weren’t out on the ground. In recent years, it’s been a safe place to be who I am with people I truly adore, even though e-mail is the only chord that runs between us… because now, being who I am does not include sexual orientation as this wholly other thing. Straight or gay, we all just love writing letters, and that’s the thing. It’s a stranger on a train, often easier than talking to people in real life. Letters to people who don’t know the people in my life mean much because they’re not trying to be friends with my friends, so they’re solidly on my side. It creates real emotion because of that very fact. They see everything through my lens, because they’re only getting my side of the story. Therefore, they’re rooting for me even when I’m clearly wrong.

The best part is having a long-term pen pal. I’ve been writing to some of them since my college years.

I would have liked to see Simon and his pen pal remain anonymous, or maybe a different movie altogether that is only about writing to people you don’t know. There’s a ton out there on catfishing, but few pieces of media that focus on real relationships created “in the air.” I am certain that movies and books on catfishing are more popular because they’re dark. News and art tend to run that way…. whereas lots of relationships created on the Internet are deep and lasting. They’re cherished friendships precisely because they’re not on the ground and not in spite of it.

For instance, it’s great to be able to talk to someone who doesn’t know your high school bullies, but has a lot of ideas on how to get back at them.

Love,
Leslie