Tag Archives: Movies

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 Coke™ 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 Neurontin™ & Klonopin™ 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.

What’s Making Me Happy

I did not come up with this title on my own. One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” Pop Culture Happy Hourand they end with the panelists saying what piece of media is speaking to them. Their recommendations are always solid, and I hope that mine can be as well. I’ve gotten several that have stuck with me, such as “Steven Universe.” It has become more important to me over time, because it takes place on a Delmarva beach (code for the coast of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), and I have a college friend that reminds me so much of Steven that it’s hard not to believe that I am actually watching him. In the same vein, they also introduced me to “Adventure Time,” which I have found to be a complicated, winding mythology that is supposedly for children.

These panelists have encouraged me to make my own list, important especially because I often need to look back and find things that will make me feel better when I’m grieving (grief is too small a word to encompass all the emotions one experiences). Sometimes I exhibit behaviors that I don’t even realize are connected to grief, but if I dig down deep, I find they usually are. The media I have to recommend is sometimes hilarious, and sometimes heart-wrenching because I need the catharsis. One of them comes from last night.

This is Us” is not an easy show to watch, and I would never recommend a binge, even though they are on their third season. It is listed here because of the episode “A Hell of a Week: Part Two.”

***Spoiler Alert**

Kevin’s most significant love, Sophie, calls him to tell him her mother died. He decides to go to the funeral, and when she starts to break down during her eulogy, she looks out into the crowd and sees Kevin’s face, allowing her to continue. Flashbacks of Kevin’s relationship with Sophie’s mom populate the episode, but the thing that touched me the most was the reflection of my own feelings. She says her husband has been great through all of this, but she can’t believe she’s going to be married for the rest of her life to someone that never knew her mother. She also looks pained that her husband’s parents are still alive, which if my experience is any indication, it’s the reason she called Kevin in the first place.

Particularly in the beginning, I only wanted to talk to people who could understand my plight implicitly without me having to explain it in words that always failed to get the point across, anyway. People have told me I have a gift for words, but I could not find any that would explain in the moment how my world had turned completely upside down. I didn’t know the path to the new normal. I didn’t even know how to take the first step. I was in complete and total shock. Part of it was that my mother had died, and that was enough, but the insult to injury is that it happened in an instant. I wasn’t there. I heard the news over the phone… and so did Sophie. The difference between us is that her mother had multiple sclerosis, and had suffered for a long time. Her mother’s death didn’t come out of nowhere. If you are just joining the fray, my mother was perfectly healthy save a broken foot, which caused an embolism that loosened and traveled straight to her brain. She did make it to the hospital in an ambulance, but lasted less than a half hour there. My only comfort is that a couple of days before, I got to have a phone conversation with my mother that lasted two and a half hours. Though we did not talk about life and death issues, it still felt like we got to talk long enough that there was nothing left unsaid, no unfinished business. In fact, a good bit of the conversation was that she wasn’t working at all. She’d recently retired from teaching (elementary music), and the church at which she was playing the piano/organ had closed. She didn’t know what to do with herself. So, my absolutely black humor that makes me laugh to this day is, “Mom, if you’re bored with retirement, maybe signing up for yoga would have been a better choice.” I didn’t cry through the episode, I was excited to see my emotions reflected back to me. Enough time has passed that it just felt comforting in all the right ways.

I am also finding solace in books, some fiction, some nonfiction. The last novel I read that cut right through me was “Where the Crawdads Sing,” part murder mystery, part love letter to the North Carolina coast. I don’t want to give anything away about this book. I will just say that the prose is transcendent, and the ending a true “AHA! moment.” Telling you more than this is just robbing you of picking up a book you might not have read on your own and finding a rare treasure. It is one of the few that I might listen to as an audiobook later, because there are some sentences that I just want read to me, with the ability to rewind.

In terms of non-fiction, I am reading two books on very disparate subjects.

The first is “Spydust,” by the incomparable Jonna and Tony Mendez. Though it is technically about espionage, I wouldn’t classify it completely in that category. It is also a love story between two spies who have each other’s back at work…………….. and slowly realize they want to support each other in all areas of their lives. While learning about spycraft is infinitely interesting, I am really enjoying the parts of the book that explore spies’ lives beyond their operations. For instance, Jonna is on an op in which she writes a letter to her sister, “Jennifer.” It is not clear whether Jonna’s sister knows she is writing in code by saying that she’s “traveling,” and that’s why she missed her birthday, or whether her sister only knows that traveling is part of her job. My only clue that “Jennifer” actually does know is that from the letter, it seems as if the sister does know where she is, but the letter only references “this part of the world.” I would think that letters (and now e-mails) to family and friends are so hard, constantly wording them in such a way that they are not outright lies, but highly necessary sins of omission.

It is possible that is why so many spies date each other, but even that is problematic if you don’t have the same levels of clearance. You can get into just as much trouble for reading your spouse in on something that is above their pay grade as you can for talking about your work with family and friends…. which I learned from a TV show called “Covert Affairs,” which makes me ridiculously happy because it is not a dramatic procedural in which everything has to be spot on. In fact, it’s kind of ridiculous, but highly entertaining….. exciting without taking all the myelin off your nerves.

The second is by one of “my kids,” the term of endearment I use for all the computer users I tutored in the lab for the Graduate School of Social Work at University of Houston. Her name is Brené Brown, and even though I know there’s not a chance in hell she would remember me, I enjoy knowing that I had a tiny role in getting her papers in on time with the correct formatting. The book is called “The Gifts of Imperfection,” a book that “explores how to cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection to embrace your imperfections and to recognize that you are enough.” It’s probably one of the books I’ve needed to read since the moment it came out, but I’m glad I found it recently. Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame is slowly bringing me back out into the world, because vulnerability is not one of my strong points unless I am writing. In conversation, I have trouble letting people in. I do have two friends with whom I am completely authentic because I’ve known them for a relatively long time and they were there for me when my mother died, which carries a lot of weight. With people I do not know well, they are unlikely to hear anything from me that’s deeper than a glass of orange juice.

The last thing that’s making me happy is the movie “Jojo Rabbit.” Set in WWII, it’s about a little boy who wants to be a Nazi soldier and fight for his country…. to the point that he daydreams that Adolf Hitler is his imaginary friend (brilliantly played by Taika Waititi of “What We Do in the Shadows” fame). It is a farce, with many, many laugh lines… but also packs an emotional punch as Jojo begins to realize that being a Nazi isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Oh, wait. There’s one more thing. Coffee. Coffee is making me happy. You want a cup? I’ll make it for you myself. Do you prefer Cafe Bustelo or Kenya single origin?

[_])

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