ProChristianation

I have so much to do today that is banal, therefore I am sitting at my desk hoping to come up with something brilliant instead. Maybe if I have a creative flash, it will make taking care of the small stuff easier. I try to go from least desirable to most, because if I start with the thing I want to do most, the rest of my to-do list goes into “I can do it tomorrow” status, which generally runs ad infinitum amen.

I need to do some stuff around the house, and I also need to go to the pharmacy and grocery store. I should have thought ahead on this one and used the pharmacy at the grocery store from the beginning, but luckily, CVS and Giant are practically next door to each other. It takes about two minutes to walk between them if I’m feeling lazy, 45 seconds if I’m booking it…. usually dependent on how much I have to carry from one store to the other. I feel like taking this break to write is justified, because I don’t like to go anywhere without my phone, watch, and headphones completely charged. It helps me to be in crowds if everyone feels further away, so I’m usually listening to music or a podcast.

I never leave my watch at home because I have cerebral palsy and monocular vision. If my monocular vision is guilty, I have missed a step down (sometimes a step up) or a crack in the sidewalk. If it’s the CP, I have taken a spill a propos of nothing. My watch has fall detection, and if I don’t move in a certain amount of time, alerts 911. I’ve never needed it, but I am genuinely afraid of hitting my head, because in 90% of cases, the falls happen so fast I don’t have time to react. I’ve only had three falls in the last five years that have resulted in bruising or bleeding, but that’s enough, especially since I ripped my favorite pants at the knee…. khakis that would have looked horrible with patching even if I could have gotten all the blood out. No, wait. I have ripped two pairs of pants at $50 a pop. In one case, I thought I broke my hip. Luckily, I did not. The bone ached for days as I recovered, though.

While I was in more pain than worrying about my pants, I am reminded of an old Ryan Darlington story. He wrecked his bike and walked it back home because he was scraped up, road rash, bleeding, all the things. His dad took one look at him and, completely deadpan, said “geez…. is the bike okay? There’s nothing like the love of a parent for a child.

It helps to have a friend to help me watch out for that stuff, but mostly I just tumble ass over teakettle because I won’t say anything up front. I need to get to a place where it just is, and doesn’t make me feel embarrassed. It’s difficult, though, especially with new people in my life. If I fall once in front of them, it’s just an accident. Three or four times? Not so much.

What helped me the most was meeting Tracy Walder (link is to my question at her Q&A after her book talk- The Unexpected Spywe had a conversation when she signed my book), and learning that even with all she’s accomplished professionally, she still has her own body issues and doesn’t talk about it, either. Her hypotonia didn’t develop into CP, so our cases are different, but our internal monologues are the same.

I didn’t mean to put her on the spot, but I’d read a few pages of the book while I was waiting for her, and she mentions it, so I thought it was fair game.

I kicked myself later that I didn’t take her aside privately, because I think talking about it to an audience might have made her uncomfortable. I hope I was able to diffuse it by saying I had it, too, so she wouldn’t feel alone…. or maybe it was that I didn’t want to feel alone. Either way, it worked out.

I’d never met anyone with hypotonia before, so one of the best moments of my life was learning that there’s another person in the world that has the same feelings I do. I am sure there are plenty more, but neither of us know them. In fact, she says that she doesn’t think she’s ever met anyone outside her family that has it.

She gave me such a gift by opening up, because it raised my self-esteem when I realized that it was okay to feel how I feel, and just to let them come and go. Perhaps in the future I will feel more comfortable getting out of the house because of it. I tend to hole up (quarantine or not), because the layout of the house is familiar and safe. I purposely put off going to the grocery store and pharmacy until social interaction is needed to maintain isolation, because I don’t have to guess whether I’ll trip. I don’t have to guess that I’ll run into something. I don’t have to guess whether or not my shoulder will bang on a door frame unless it’s doubly wide. I just know.

It makes meeting people doubly hard, but during the quarantine, I did have one woman reach out to me that I managed to piss off in one day flat. That’s a record. However, I wasn’t upset about it because it was a conversation I knew was going to be way more trouble than it was worth. She grew up non-denominational/Pentecostal and still trying to live out her faith in that vein, which made me cringe because that framework is designed to keep people inside the fear of going to hell when they die………. and she can try until Jesus comes to fit in as a queer fundamentalist, but people will still talk behind her back if not directly to her face.

She spoke fluent “Christianese,” which is a language that I hear so much that I can understand it, but I won’t engage. People who take the Bible literally and those of us who take the Bible seriously are so different that there’s really no mesh. You will never catch me using the phrases “looking for a Godly marriage” or “raising kids in His word.” What pissed her off was me saying “I hear those words a lot, but I have no idea what they actually mean.”

Having spent a lot of time in the Bible Belt, I know to keep my views to myself (she was originally from Beaumont, TX). For that crowd, the resurrection is more important than anything Jesus ever did while he was alive…. and I do not enjoy the “sticky, sticky blood” interpretation.

Also, nothing in the Bible to literalists is a story from an ancient civilization trying to understand the world around them, but absolute truth- as if God sat down and wrote it all in pen. Don’t even mention to them that stories of Jesus were oral traditions not written down until 90 years after his death. No one had an eyewitness account, but literalists skip over that, as well, and will fight you in a way that you’ll always lose, because they go pretty quickly into righteousness- they follow Jesus and they have no idea what the hell you’re doing. They’re Christians, and you’re faking it…. as if no time has passed and thousands of years of exegesis and criticism are fake as well. My alarm bell went off when she said she went to Bible College. Here’s what I mean by alarm bell, taken from Wikipedia:

Many were established as a reaction against established theological colleges and seminaries, which conservatives believed were becoming increasingly liberal and undermining traditional Christian teachings, such as Biblical inerrancy [emphasis mine].

There’s a big difference between Bible College and say, getting into the divinity schools at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Emory, etc…. this is because the error is that seminaries were getting too liberal. It’s that the more they pieced history together, they could no longer support the idea that every single sentence in the Bible is a hundred percent factually accurate and needs no translation from then to now.

I am sure that my treatise on “inerrancy” could have been an entry all on its own, but everything ties together in terms of getting over myself and meeting new people, and knowing within a conversation or two whether it’s a relationship I’d like to continue. I know I’ll keep tripping and falling, but I’d like to know whether I’m going to land in the right hands.

For me, that person could be a different (non-literalist) denomination, a different religion altogether, or agnostic/atheist as long as they respect that I’m not going to change.

My beliefs about the Bible can be summed up in one sentence. I believe that all 66 books are stories that are all true, and some of them actually happened.

True HD

I have a netbook that is far less powerful than my desktop, but it has one thing my desktop doesn’t… a video card that supports HDMI. When I started using Zoom, I switched to the little computer. Why? So that my friends are always in true HD. I also use my most powerful headphones, so that their voices are as clear as they would be if I was in the room with them. It feels more intimate that way, and additionally presents a conundrum.

If I wanted, I could turn on my own web cam… but I haven’t, and can’t decide whether I want to or not. I know that my friends would probably want to see me- it’s been years- but here’s the thing. I’m not getting together with friends for happy hour. I’m going to church… and every single week (so far), the moment the music has started, tears have rolled down my face.

The first time I went, it wasn’t just one or two. I went into the ugly cry because so many things hadn’t changed, and the deep connection I’d felt all those years ago knocked me down with force. The next two weeks, I was mostly okay…. and then there was today- Palm Sunday- and if I’d thought for even a second before the service began, I would have known it was going to be tough. But I didn’t. Think, that is.

If I had, I would have known that the service would start with my favorite people in the world singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from “Godspell.” I would have known because I’d been in the choir the entire time I attended while I actually lived in Oregon. I’d have remembered who started that tradition. I would have known whose voice would begin. I would have been more prepared for the way of the Lord than I actually was.

Again, I went into the ugly cry.

Then it got worse.

I was doubled over, tears and snot running down my face. I couldn’t get air into my chest, the physical pain of heartache almost unbearable. It was the closest I’ve come to hyperventilating in recent memory, probably because I haven’t had many moments in the last three years where I’ve felt this deeply about anything. Grief has a numbing effect for a lot of people- it’s extremely effective at keeping you from emoting so much more than is acceptable in polite company. Some people are very good at expressing their emotions. I used to be one of those people.

Now, I’m not.

I make an exception for this blog. This is because it’s so much easier to hide behind my keyboard, spilling emotions and letting readers have their own reactions without hearing them myself. I made the executive decision long ago that what people thought of me was none of my business. Even in my personal life, some of the deepest relationships I’ve had consisted of letters, because again, I could look at emotions from a distance. I wasn’t capable of exploding every mine that dots my inner landscape, and letters put neither me as the writer nor them as the reader on the spot (which changed when mail became electronic- mistakes were made).

In person, I will only tell you real things about me if I feel comfortable, and it is taking me longer and longer to feel comfortable as I age. As I act and react, more emotions get stuffed into boxes and locked. There are so few times when they leak, and when they do, I don’t want to be seen, heard, or touched. I make exceptions for my family, but if you are not in that tight circle, I would rather isolate than let anyone in. I am lucky that my family is not just biological, because if it was, I would have cut myself off from any support system at all (I live in Maryland, very close to The District, and my bio family lives in Houston).

I am becoming aware that this is a problem, that the pendulum has swung too far towards being alone. The thing is, though, silence becomes addictive. I know that I don’t want to be single the rest of my life, but I am terrified of putting myself out there. Open up to a stranger in hopes that we eventually have a deep enough connection to love each other? Please. One of my friends said it best when I told her as much and she said, “well, the dating scene is scary as all holy hell.” I’m not sure I’ve ever related to anything more.

My answer to this is not to date at all, but to cultivate good friendships and to put myself out there professionally, because I think networking will probably take a lot longer, but I’ve tried a couple of dating apps and the experience was mind-numbing, mostly because the person I wrote to for a few days was never the same person I met in person. I’m also not attracted by looks, in general, so it never mattered if their bodies matched up to their pictures. But it really mattered when their personalities seemed to flip. Not once did I ever meet someone who was so genuine in their chats/e-mails that I “recognized them.” Or, at least, I never met someone in a romantic way.

There was this one woman I ran across that said she was already married and just looking for friends, so I e-mailed her and said “let’s get together for dinner. Bring your wife if you want, because I’m not contacting you for romance. I just read your profile and it seems like you’re a really cool person. I’m new to the area and need to meet cool people.” After a few days of flipping each other quotes from “The Big Lebowski,” dinner was on with both women. It has truly been a blessing that it created a lasting relationship that’s only gotten better with time.

Mostly because it’s lasted long enough for me to get comfortable. I’m not sure I’ve ever been vulnerable enough to cry in front of either one of them, but I’ve at least come far enough that talking about myself isn’t a thing anymore. I don’t “run the game” with them, the game I always play with people I don’t know well.

It’s simple, really. 99% of people have a favorite topic, and that’s them. The game is “how long can I keep you talking about yourself so that you don’t ask me anything about my life?” There’s only one person in the world that’s better at that game than me, and can read me like a manual. There was no percentage in playing, because the competition was too fierce and I knew I was losing. I talked about myself because I couldn’t not. Grasshopper will never reach satori in that relationship, and for better or for worse, I’m okay with it. I definitely wasn’t at first, but after what seems like a hundred years, I’m coming around. By now, she’s family, and I make an exception for family.

Which brings me back around to whether I should turn on my web cam for church, because I can’t put my finger on why being vulnerable in front of that congregation is a thing. They raised me. I mean, I was technically an adult when I got there, not so much with the literally. Why do I care if they see me cry? It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

Like with everything else, I’m going to overthink about it. Explode some land mines. Feel the heartache and know that it’s breaking me open to let light in. Reconciling who I used to be with who I am now. Wrestling with whether those two people are on their way to integration. I am sure it is why I wanted my friends in true HD in the first place. My question to myself is whether I get to be in true HD, too.

 

ADHDDB

For years there was a running gag between Argo and me, called “The Argo Daily Briefing,” or “The ADB.” I thought it was funny, and if it’s funny once, it’s funny a thousand times. The bullet points ranged from agony to ecstasy- an entire spectrum of emotion. They jumped around so much that I finally started calling them “The ADHDADB.” The reason I thought it was hilarious is because the subject line was so #dclife. Now, you’re getting the same update, it’s just that the second A is missing (don’t you hate it when your A is missing?), and don’t think I’m not sad about it. At this point, it’s neither here nor there.

Let’s move on.

A few weeks ago, I had a “coming to Jesus” meeting with myself. I’ve been ADHD all my life, but the fight within me every day, the fight where my spirit and I wrestle without keeping score, is how to get it handled. 514r9aJ33SLIt affects everything, from my relationships to taking care of myself…………………………………… poorly.

I searched Amazon for a Kindle book that might help, and I bought “Queen of Distraction” (it was free with all my digital credits). There is a seminal work on ADHD that’s recommended by most therapists called “Driven to Distraction,” by Edward M. Hallowell & John J. Ratey. If you’re ADHD or related to someone who has it, it’s the first book you ought to buy, but it’s not the last… particularly if you are or the person you know is female.

ADHD presents differently between genders. Girls and women often go undiagnosed for years on end, simply because they’re not as prone to hyperactivity. Therefore, no one notices how differently their brain works except them. The difference is that when they notice, the internal fight is not “my brain is different and I have to develop coping mechanisms.” It’s “why am I so shit at everything? Why can’t I get it together?” This is because no one has noticed that they’re ADHD and it didn’t occur to them on their own.

I realized I needed to read some more books because I refuse to live a life on Adderall,™ even though I severely need it at times (severely). If Strattera™ worked for me, I’d be golden, but it doesn’t. I need more skills and tools, because the longer you’re on stimulants, the more disastrous the side effects become. For instance, my teeth aren’t much better than someone who’s been doing crystal for five-10 years. Actually, all of my medications cause side effects, and I have to choose between tolerating them or remaining sane. I will always choose mentally well over physically sick, but it’s annoying at best.

In fact, a lot of my therapy has been about frustration over this very thing. Until they started making several different brands of generic Lamictal,™ there was only one pill and I called it “The Blue Diamond of Death.” I think Dana might have come up with it originally, but too much time has passed for joke attribution. No matter who named it, I was still so nauseous that I felt like I’d been pregnant for over a decade.

I have done a trial run with going off meds at least twice, and it has always ended in disaster. I’ve just rendered myself useless, so down I couldn’t function. I will never be able to get off of depression medication, but ADHD is this whole other thing that requires management. I have tried to go off meds for it before, and I was unwilling to admit how bad it got, even to myself. I can’t “adult” properly when I can’t find anything. I can’t work in piles as effectively as I try to convince myself I can.

I am desperately hoping that it is because I haven’t done intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, and that I can develop habits that will help. As of right this moment, I have no habits to speak of (with the exception of habitually turning my room into total chaos), and it no longer serves me. If this doesn’t work, I will resign myself to medication. I think I’ve mentioned this before, that I like to do short courses so the side effects don’t catch up with me. But after years upon years of this, I had to admit that it doesn’t work. I am truly having a last-ditch-college-try moment.

Why hasn’t it worked in the past? Well, part of the problem is that with ADHD, you really have to develop enough drive to want to get better, because your willingness to actually sit down and read the book falters. As with all things, the first chapter gets read along with promises to read the rest later…… and later never seems to happen. We’ve started another fifty projects.

In fact, one great way to tell whether you have ADHD or not is your start to completion ratio. If your TO DO list looks anything like mine, it is chock full of things that are half or mostly done.

And one of them is getting my ADHD under control. The difference is that now I know this is a top priority so that the rest of my life can sail more smoothly. Up until now, I don’t think I had a stark clarity about how much it affects me. Trying to get by pretending to be as neurotypical as possible while also suffering alone doesn’t cut it anymore. Trying to manage myself with caffeine is far less effective than I used to think it was (it was a good start, though, and doesn’t give me appetite suppression). However, any medication I would take is much cheaper than a Starbucks habit. I tend to sip on coffee all day long rather than having a huge dose of caffeine all at once. I don’t need to get wired, I just need to keep the bus from going under 50.

I’m hoping I can eventually get my house in order- both literally and figuratively- without having to change my blood type to Folgers.

A Major Key

Sandra Cisneros just floored me while listening to “On Being with Krista Tippett.” She said that the Sufis say life keeps breaking your heart over and over until it *stays* open. Words to live by, because heartbreak is inevitable in a multitude of ways, and to me, this saying gives it a purpose. It is a deep, lifelong learning.

It came up in my Facebook memories this morning that Dana and I broke up five years ago today, and so the quote was especially apt in that light…. I feel that heartbreak was so great, it is the one that keeps me open to the world. No one ever expects to start a marriage preparing for its end, but I felt especially blindsided by all the things I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) see. There were many things I took seriously, and things I didn’t take seriously enough. In retrospect, knowing which was which is still a mystery. I just know they exist and don’t feel the need to talk it out with her, like some sort of post-mortem closure. I don’t care to know how she feels. It is not a matter of feeling heartless, just done.

And in fact, I care even less about how our marriage came apart than I do about our friendship, which preceded marriage by almost four years. Though it’s not like we talked daily when I first moved to DC, we did talk a few times and laughed a lot. But there must have been too much pain roiling underneath to keep it up, and that is the beginning and the end of it to me. I don’t have need to cause her more pain just because of something I wanted. Her feelings do matter in that respect. But it was extraordinarily difficult to go from talking from the moment we woke to the moment we went to sleep to absolutely no communication, ever. I didn’t insist on it, but I respected her wishes. It was a large factor in my moving to DC, because I am not the best at emotional boundaries. I figured that with half a country in between us, it would be so much easier to find new people to fill the void, and I was right.

I met a swath of people who had no connection to me as a married person, didn’t think of me as “DanaandLeslie,” and for that I can be grateful. Friends who had no connection to my history at all allowed me the freedom to discover who I was on my own again. I was alone, but was not then and never have been lonely. I decided to move into a house with landlords on site and three other roommates so that I would not come home to an empty apartment every night. I figured that with my mental illnesses, living alone with no one to drag me out of my shell would be a very bad thing. The last time I lived in a one bedroom, even then I sort of had a “roommate,” this loud, brash best friend who never really wanted to go home because her own house was empty….. and I grew to love her company more and more every day.

Eventually, there were three of us, all single and looking for family. I don’t know why my apartment became the hang, but it did, and I was grateful. I knew ahead of time that in DC, I didn’t have the built-in connection of friends of friends and church and all that, which is why I opted for a group house. It would take at least a few months to reconnect with the friends I’d made here before, and to find a new church because with public transportation, my old church was too far away to really get involved on any kind of deep level (I was actually involved with two of them back then- Westminster Presbyterian in SE DC and Fairlington UMC in Alexandria, VA).

I realized I could make it on Sunday mornings easily, but not choir, and choir is far and above the biggest reason I love going to church. I feel that I am a much better soprano when I can feel the other moving parts under me, and even though I’ve done solo work (even well), it’s not my favorite (my favorite is actually singing in a quartet so I can hear myself think……..).

It was also important to me that I be free of any connections to Kathleen, my first wife, as well. I bear no ill will toward her, either- we never should have gotten married in the first place, but I was filled with so much hope as an early 20-something that it didn’t register that even though she was bisexual, her preference wasn’t women….. or at the very least, it wasn’t me…. and we’d attended both of those churches together. stone_labyrinthOne of my favorite memories of that time in my life was helping to put in the stone floor labyrinth, because, of course, you can still see my handiwork…. but you better get there fast because they’re about to build a new building. 😛

I also went to Foundry United Methodist for one Sunday just to check it out, but Fairlington was so much closer to my house and just as liberal (one of the first Open & Affirming congregations in Virginia).

Now, I don’t go to church at all (but will someday…. just be patient and stay tuned…), but do go to Foundry on Thursdays for a mental illness support group when I can feel confident about getting out of the house when I don’t specifically have to do so……

It also took me a while to get out from under the burden of people thinking I moved here specifically to be closer to Argo, because that was never the case…… just a persistent rumor that affected me greatly because it was never true. What was true is that I could have moved in next door to her and she still never would have seen me, because I tend to hole up, anyway. As I have often said, I mostly sit at my computer or tablet with my headphones blaring, so a bear ripping out the side of my house wouldn’t even have registered unless I was facing that direction.

Even though I thought of DC and Alexandria as my “home towns,” I still didn’t want to take the chance of feeding that rumor even more than it already had been, so I chose Maryland. It turned out to be the best decision, anyway, because my cousin Nathan (who is a psychiatrist in Alexandria) told me about all the mental health services available in Maryland that Virginia couldn’t even touch….. and even if I was perfectly healthy when I moved here, going through a divorce still would have required talk therapy, especially after a friendship of over a decade and a marriage of seven years and change. So I got hooked up with talk therapy and a psychiatric nurse practitioner that really worked with me instead of at me, which I require because I know enough about medicine that I abhor being patronized. Additionally, I have suffered enough that not only do I know the drugs that do work, I’ve been through the list of everything that doesn’t.

There are two instances where my nurse practitioner really shone. The first is that he wanted to change my SSRI to Prozac, and I shuddered. He asked me what was wrong, and I said that it made me so nauseous that I couldn’t function or eat. The second is that we were talking about ADHD, and he asked if I’d tried Stratera. I told him that it was interesting, that opioid agonists work on me, like Tramodol, but methamphetamine agonists didn’t. That was how our relationship matured quickly, because he raised his eyebrows at the fact that I knew the word “agonist,” and his tone quickly changed to “ok, we’re equals now.”

He really listened to me as I told him that I liked to do short courses of Ritalin or Adderall in order to get my coping mechanisms under control, then stop them until I felt I needed a refresher course, and I liked the lowest dose possible to get the maximum dopamine effects without the awful side effects.

At the time, I didn’t have any weight to lose. I was so sad that I wasn’t eating, anyway. I survived on drinks, because I had a block on eating. Things like Carnation Instant Breakfast, Slim Fast, Ensure, etc. were the basics of my diet until I felt better. I am now up to a healthy weight, but back then I looked like a heroin addict (which, for the record, I was not). I also stopped drinking alcohol almost in its entirety, because I noticed that I felt and slept better when I didn’t, and I really needed sleep to let my body recover from trauma. Divorcing from Dana was traumatic on so many levels, like the fistfight that ended our relationship permanently because I didn’t want to leave the house at all until the bruise under my eye was gone and the phantom pain wasn’t all day, every day.

And it turned out that the phantom pain lasted for months, because I was devastated and that’s how it manifested. It’s gone now- forgiven but not forgotten. But I was so weak in the moment that even a punch to the face didn’t stop me from wanting to get back our relationship at first. It was moving away and really reflecting on what happened that convinced me that while I could accept friendship, I could never accept getting back together, because I couldn’t live in fear that something like it would happen again.

I was not innocent in that fight in terms of emotional escalation, but when Dana broke the physical barrier, I went off like a rat dog with a Napoleon complex…. an apt description because Dana was over a hundred pounds heavier with a fist three times bigger.

And perhaps that is yet another reason I’m so much more willing to talk about Argo now than I am about Dana, because Argo has never hurt me…. I mean, she has, but less than I’ve hurt her and never in a physically threatening way.

I actually just put that together, that I can’t extricate myself from thinking about Dana without going back to that moment in time where my eye was bruised and my heart was broken….. and that with Argo, all I think of is love and laughter. It’s just so much easier to go back to those moments, because even when I try my absolute best to only remember the love and laughter with Dana, I still hang my head in shame.

Although I do hang my head in shame at the relationship with Argo crumbling at my own hand, because even though it was never true that I moved here to be closer to her, it would have been a dream and a half to get to know the real her instead of just the black and white version….. to include her in my family of friends rather than always being on the outside…. my Raggedy Man.

My body memory is so strong for both of those days, my love for both women an intrinsic part of me, just in vastly different capacities. I saw a funny memory on Facebook the other day about having to stop calling Argo my “wine and yoga pants-type girlfriend” because I kept getting ads for wine and yoga pants on my feed. 😛

It was an unfortunate side effect that at the beginning, my wires got crossed and I had a mountain of shit to work through regarding the toxic version of friendship that was presented to me at a very early age, the part where all close friendships initially made my teenage heart go haywire. But to my credit, I worked my way out of that hole, just not as quickly as I would have liked, because first I had to get rid of the toxicity that made me think those things in the first place….. and I did, very successfully. Now I am in great shape when it comes to friendship, being close and vulnerable with people I respect and admire without the emotional baggage of my own teenage “stuff.”

I feel it is apt that “Clearing Iranian Airspace” from the Argo soundtrack just started playing, because I am ending this entry on a major key.

Amen.

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?

[_])

Jazz Tales

I got into The High School for Performing and Visual Arts in 1992 as a trumpet player. I sort of made a mistake in choosing four academic classes and three performing groups.HSPVA Old Logo I was in the wind ensemble, the symphony, and Jazz II, the preparatory band for the one that won all the awards. I got my chance to audition for Jazz I, and I blew it. In hindsight, I could have won had I not been exhausted, because my embouchure was never right. I could only play for about an hour before my face started sliding down into my neck…. and because I was in three performing groups, I never had the time to back off and correct it. Plus, the audition was after school, where I’d already played for three hours.

When I was good, though, I was on fire. I wouldn’t have gotten into a performing arts magnet if I wasn’t. An audition is one slice in time, and it determines the big picture- the entire school year, possibly the entire time at said school altogether.

I am comforted by the fact that professional musicians don’t have it any easier. It’s just as common to blow a huge audition as it is a small one. The thing that made me the most angry is not that I didn’t win. It’s who did… a girl who straight up bullied me from the first day to the last. For some reason, she didn’t have a horn at one point, and my dad thought he could make it better by lending her his. It did not work. For some inane reason, a group of kids in my English class called themselves a family, and said bully said I was the dog. She barked at me every day, and this is just one example out of many.

I have a really, really long fuse… but after a year and a half of this, I backed this girl up to the balcony on the second floor and grabbed her. I wasn’t strong enough to throw her over, but she didn’t know that. I said, “this is going to stop. Right now. My family has been kind to you and every day, you still treat me like shit. That IS OVER.” Unsurprisingly, it didn’t stop the bullying altogether, but it helped. At least when she wasn’t bullying me, she had the good sense to give me the silent treatment. In retrospect, I can think of several good reasons why she was my high school bully, but that isn’t my story to tell. I will only say she was fighting a battle I couldn’t see and didn’t feel the need. Her sob story would have provided context, but not an excuse for the way she behaved. I wasn’t interested.

I was also outed to the entire school and my parents simultaneously, thanks to my counselor “being concerned” and calling them. The entire school came first- someone posted a flyer with a picture of me saying I was a “dangerous lesbian” or some crap like that….. which led to one of the percussionists holding up Playboy centerfolds where only the trumpet section could see them. I don’t exactly remember how long this went on, but I learned early to stick to my guns. If you weren’t bothered, they got bored. It all came to a head when I was sitting out on the lawn, eating my lunch, and the evangelical Christians came outside (link is to a PDF), carrying their Bibles, and read me all the clobber passages they could find. (As an aside, “clobber passages” is code for all the verses that Biblical literalists take at face value and think that the Bible is condemning homosexuality, when in reality, they’ve missed the point entirely.) I ran to my counselor and told her what happened, and she said, “well, what did you do to provoke them?” With that group, all you had to do was exist.

During that time, though, I got to hear some of the greatest jazz minds in Houston, and have now graduated to the international stage. Times like these are what made it all worth it… stars such as Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, and Jason Moran. I am very lucky that I have gotten to see all of them in concert, two here in DC (Glasper & Moran). Robert Glasper played The Reach, and Jason Moran played a small theater inside the “KenCen.”

The Glasper concert was crazy in a good way. So many hip-hop fans, with lights,IMG_0026 sound, and special guest Yasiin Bey. I managed to get an okay picture of them, because I was in the balcony and had to use optical zoom to get their faces. In case you are not familiar with either of them, Robert is at the piano and Yasiin is standing on the left.

After the concert, I wanted to joke with Yasiin that he was my favorite alien (because I for damn sure wasn’t going to tell the Ford Prefect he was my second favorite). By the time I made it to the crowds of people surrounding Robert, he was already gone. I did get to tell Robert that he’d sat behind me in history at HSPVA, and that was enough. It was literally the most fun I’d had in ages. Because I was a high school friend, I got more hugs than everyone else. 🙂

Jason’s concert in a small venue was something I couldn’t say was fun as in raves. It was fun like the way spelunkers explore a cave. There were just levels upon levels of mind-blowing musical figures, something he’s been able to do since high school and has just upped his game more and more over time. I got to talk to Jason afterwards, but more on that later.

The concert shook me to my core. It was music I wouldn’t, couldn’t forget. It was centered around the 20th anniversary of “Black Stars,” with The Bandwagon and Sam Rivers. The intro was a documentary about the making of the album, and then they played it live. Sam Rivers is now dead, so they brought in another player that was so reminiscent of his sound that when I closed my eyes, he was right there.Black Stars

I left the concert shell-shocked. The frenetic music was playing in my mind, and instead of going home, I walked down the steps from the Kennedy Center and out onto the path on Rock Creek Parkway. I meandered to the Lincoln Memorial, then just kept on going. It must have taken me three or four miles before I even considered finding a Metro station. The entire time, I was trying to think of a way to turn Jason’s music into words, and I still don’t have them. I suppose the best I can come up with is “you just had to be there.” I’m listening to the album right now, and nothing will ever be as transcendent as the live show (of course). The piano gave me a brain race that I don’t experience unless I am listening to jazz that’s hard to understand on the first pass. And by that, I do not mean that the music is inaccessible to non-jazz fans… only that I was analyzing it from top to bottom, trying to put together the theory behind it. Music theory has never been my strong point, but I made a barely-educated effort.

As for talking to Jason, as soon as I said my name, recognition hit him. He said, “how long has it been?” I told him that with the exception of Facebook, probably 20 years, maybe longer. I asked him about his family, and told him about writing to “Ten” for over a year. He honored me by turning around and telling his bandmates, “hey! She wrote to “Ten” for a year!” I asked him about his commute, because he lives in Manhattan and is also The Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz. He said it wasn’t bad, and I was so glad to hear it, because it meant more Moran concerts in my future. He told me that in the spring he was going to do a Duke Ellington series. I said, “you are a brave, brave man.” We both got tickled, and it was so much fun to share something that really made him laugh.

For the uninitiated, Duke Ellington grew up here. His first job was selling peanuts for the Washington Senators.senators

To announce an Ellington series for his home town crowd could only take someone of Jason’s caliber. The crowd would trust him to play Ellington well, and if I know Jason at all, I know there will be some of his own ideas- paying tribute to Ellington in the most sincere way possible, but jazz is meant to evolve over time. All jazz players influence each other, and the music moves forward…. but it’s not just jazz. Jason listens to and remembers all kinds of artists. I remember from an article a distinct Björk phase……….

My only wish is that I could have seen the big picture with my little freshman mind. I got to be “raised” by the best- master classes with Clark Terry and Wynton Marsalis, and literally the best jazz director most musicians will ever experience. Dr. Robert Morgan is internationally known for being the teacher of some of the greats.

And also me.

50 Things You’ve (Probably) Never Been Asked

Hat tip to Martina for the writing prompt. 🙂


1. What is the color of your toothbrush?

It’s black & red, but I need a replacement soon. Stay tuned.

2. Name one person who made you smile today:

Bryn, who said she was sending me birthday presents in the mail (my birthday was 10 September). I love mail.

3. What were you doing at 8 a.m.?

Talking to my sister on the phone. Sometimes we talk during her commute.

4. What were you doing 45 minutes ago?

Drinking coffee with cinnamon & soy milk and talking to my new housemate. I’d tell you all about the conversation, but it wasn’t that interesting. If it had been, this entire entry would be about it instead.

5. What is your favorite candy bar?

I’m not really a candy bar person, although I do like Zero. Right now I am all about licorice allsorts. I ordered the original from Geo. Bassett & Co., Ltd. for my birthday and I just sat there and ate them until I felt fat…. and then I ate some more.

6. Have you ever been to a strip club?

Several, but it’s not a turn-on. I have to love the person to be attracted to them. There was a strip club across the street from my apartment in Portland that I used to go to for a drink occasionally, because it was within walking distance of my house. But I didn’t sit where you could see the women. There was a closed off bar section that was really fancy and the bottles were back-lit with neon. I didn’t even know something that cool existed in my neighborhood, and to this day I’m not sure why I went in the first place. I’m sure it was originally someone else’s idea and I just went with it, but I went back because it was a cool place to hang and no driving afterwards.

There is also a famous vegan strip club in Portland that I went to for another lesbian’s birthday party. I ended up sitting outside for most of it, but honest to God I loved the food, particularly the sloppy joes and mac & cheese. The part of the show that I saw, I liked, though. It wasn’t just women looking bored and dancing to music, it was acrobatics that defied the laws of physics, like Cirque Du Soleil but naked. Not only that, there were no French existentialist clowns. For that reason alone, 10/10. Highly recommend.

7. What is the last thing you said aloud?

I can’t remember exactly, but I was trying to get out of the conversation with my roommate so I could go back upstairs and enjoy my coffee quietly.

8. What is your favorite ice cream?

Every flavor I try is my new favorite, but I have a special spot in my heart for the banana/vanilla swirl soft-serve at Florian Fortescue’s in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. My dad, sister, and I got different flavors to try, and I think that was the winner out of all of them. Now that I’ve been eating a lot of plant-based frozen stuff, I like “ice cream” made out of almond milk that has almonds in it….. really ties the dessert together.

9. What was the last thing you had to drink?

Coffee…. are you even paying attention?

10. Do you like your wallet?

I love it, and I haven’t seen one like it, so if I find one, I need to buy it because this one will wear out. It has a clear pocket on the front that I’m sure was originally for an ID, but I put my Metro card in it so I don’t have to take it out to swipe. The only thing I don’t like about my wallet, and this is a small gripe, is that it has a money clip on the outside that makes it uncomfortable to put in my back pocket.

11. What was the last thing you ate?

Extra, extra Hot Tamales.

12. Have you bought any new clothing items this week?

Does a new clear protector for my Apple watch count?

13. The last sporting event you watched?

Franklin, one of my housemates, is a rabid soccer fan, so I watched a game for a few minutes with him, but I can’t remember who was playing.

14. What is your favorite flavor of popcorn?

If I’m buying it while I’m out, it’s hard to find but I love cinnamon-glazed. I also love caramel-glazed and cheese corn mixed together, which is much more widely available. If I’m making it at home, I pop low calorie butter-flavored and then spray Pam on it to get turmeric and All-Purpose seasoning to stick (the more garlic, the better).

15. Who is the last person you sent a text message to?

Well, I use FB Messenger a hell of a lot more than texting because I can respond on any of my devices. It was to Dan, confirming our birthday plans for Tuesday.

16. Ever go camping?

Once. For me, the line about only wearing long underwear in your sleeping bag was the worst piece of advice ever. I finally got up around 4:30 and put on every piece of clothing in my suitcase. I would probably enjoy it more at a lower elevation where it’s not so cold. I was on Mt. St. Helen’s, which to me was freezing even in the summer.

17. Do you take vitamins daily?

Not always, but I do take an iron pill daily because I donate platelets and your iron level has to be above 12.5. Multivitamins give me terrible gastrointestinal distress, so I limit my intake…. but sometimes I need them because I am not the best eater on the planet.

18. Do you have a tan?

As Jim Gaffigan said, “I am what you would call ‘indoorsy.'” I tan vicariously through my friends who do that sort of thing. I think I’ve only tanned a few times in my life, and that was from living in Houston/Galveston. The most serious tan I ever had was spending weeks outdoors. I went to Mexico on a mission trip, then spent a week at choir camp, then three weeks at marching band practice before school started. Marching band practice in Houston is akin to signing up for a three bedroom, two bathroom condo in hell, except hotter. Who was it that said given the choice, they’d live in hell and rent out Texas? Same.

19. Do you prefer Chinese food over pizza?

I can’t. I eat pizza every Friday night in memory of my mother, who started the tradition when Lindsay and I were young. Besides, Argo, Aaron, & Dana would be so metaphysically disappointed (I’ll link to the entries, but if you got those jokes without clicking on the link, you are an OG “Fanagan”).

20. Do you drink soda with a straw?

There aren’t many “always” and “never” questions in this life, but here’s one of them. I never use a straw if I’m sitting down at a table, but I will always use one on the go. I am down with both the reusable and plant-based plastic straws, and I am so proud that my McDonald’s (don’t know if it’s a national thing) has switched to the latter.

21. What did your last text message say?

“Leslie, your Rx order is ready. Get it delivered!” I get wigged because they don’t offer delivery in my area and it irritates me that I get the possibility of delivery with every message and the disappointment of reality at least three times a month.

22. What are you doing tomorrow?

Finally, I have something exciting to say on the topic!

  1. Drink coffee and be awesome.
  2. Find something cool to do until 8:00 PM. I’m thinking of going to the National Gallery of Art, because I just learned today that they have a Van Gogh room, and I didn’t get nearly enough “time with him” at the Musée D’Orsay. I’ve always said that if I ever go back to Paris, I would like to spend an entire day there, staring at Van Gogh paintings while writing so that my crazy mixes with his crazy and we’ll see what “comes out of us.” I would be lying if I said Doctor Who had nothing to do with this (truly memorable trying to not freak out with joy at seeing The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise for real). By the way, none of the sunflower paintings say “Amy.” I checked. Twice. Also, as far as I know, Bill Nighy does not actually work there. I could be wrong.
  3. Meet up with Dan for outrageous desserts at Tryst. You might have heard of it during the Gary Condit/Chandra Levy scandal. Not why we’re going there, but when Dan suggested it, I realized I’d walked past it but had never been in, so it’s not NOT why we’re going there……….
  4. Curl up with a good book. Right now I am in the middle of Three Women, Blink, and War and Peace. That last one may sound ambitious, but after reading The Moscow Rules, I decided it was appropriate (and only 99 cents for the Kindle version with amazing commentary). I wanted to go back and read Tolstoy’s take on Russian history having started it in high school and never finishing. This time around, I have learned that the Russians thought Napoleon was every bit the fool and tyrant that over half the country thinks our current president is now (for reference years in the future, I’m talking about Donald Trump).
  5. Eventually fall asleep, but there’s no telling when because it depends on how engrossed I am in reading.

23. Look to your left, what do you see?

An empty McDonald’s cup that I need to refill with green tea, all of my medications, and my iPhone.

24. What color is your watch?

It changes at least four times a week, because I have an Apple Watch that makes it way too easy to slip the bands out. Today it is hot pink with a black & white Minnie Mouse face. I have a red leather strap that I wear the most often, with the classic color Mickey Mouse face. Today, Minnie is in grayscale because she is also classic colors and I needed her to coordinate with my choice of band. The face also has lots of colors, as you can put on “complications.” I have no idea why they’re called that. They’re basically “desktop icons.”

bindi-irwin-o-bindilrwin-some-days-you-just-need-to-3323284725. What do you think of when you hear the word “Australia?”

Not a thought so much as pictures of my friend Allison and a meme of Bindi Irwin (if the text is too small for you to read, click on the image for hi-res).

26. Do you go in a fast food place or just hit the drive thru?

I don’t drive, I am rarely pressed for time, and generally there’s free wi-fi. So, inside it is.

27. What is your favorite number?

So easy I don’t even have to think about it. Eleven. Matt Smith, the baby giraffe in a bow tie (and sometimes a fez), is my Doctor. I’m in love with him a little bit because when he got the role, the Internet rebelled against him and said he was never going to be any good, but I haven’t felt more emotion in the show than watching his interactions with Amy, Rory, River Song, Vincent, and himself in a memorable soliloquy in “Nightmare in Silver.”

Also, Stranger Things. Eleven completes me.

28. Who’s the last person you talked to on the phone?

We have covered this.

29. Any plans today?

Well, my prescription is ready and they don’t deliver in my area.

30. How many states have you lived in?

Lots of geographic areas, four states:

  1. Texas
  2. Virginia
  3. Oregon
  4. Maryland

Maryland is where I have really put down roots, but I would move back to Texas to be with my family in a heartbeat if they needed me. It is the only reason I would ever move again. I’m done.

31. What most annoys you?

A little thing? When people use up all the toilet paper and don’t replace the roll.

A big thing? Injustice, anything and anywhere. I am never more angry than when I feel something is unfair, locally or globally.

33. Can you say the alphabet backwards?

I would really, really have to think about it. Not something I’ve ever really had to know…. although a funny thing about me and the alphabet is that when I was first learning my ABCs, the setup is that my mother’s name was Carolyn. I thought the song went “ABCDEFG, HIKJ Carolyn NOP.” “KJ” is not a typo.

34. Do you have a maid service clean your house?

No, but I would think I had died and gone to heaven if I did. So jealous of Disney Princesses, Mary Poppins, and Molly Weasley.

35. Favorite pair of shoes you wear all the time?

It’s a three-way tie between brown Converse All-Stars, black Converse All-Stars (black laces, rubber, AND canvas), and Keene sandals. I told this to a friend and she said, “ok, you just lost cool points for wearing Keenes.” I had an unprintable response.

36. Are you jealous of anyone?

Disney Princesses, Mary Poppins, and Molly Weasley. I would even settle for Shary Bobbins.

37. Is anyone jealous of you?

I didn’t think so until I was telling a friend that I was absolutely done moving (unless my family needed me in Texas) because I had already moved so much in my life that I was ready to settle down permanently. She told me that she was jealous of me, because she wasn’t ready to make that decision yet. Actually, I’ve had that conversation twice with the same results. One lives here in town, the other lives overseas.

38. Do you love anyone?

Not romantically, but agape and philia are the rivers that run inside me. I couldn’t do without my friends. They are my lifeline, the brothers and sisters I chose for family because my bio family is so far away.

39. Do any of your friends have children?

Yes, some of them even on purpose.

40. What do you usually do during the day?

A little of everything except laundry. It’s an issue.

41. Do you hate anyone that you know right now?

Hate is such a strong word, and changes me a lot more than it changes them…. but everyone I dislike at the moment, I’ve never actually met in person.

42. Do you use the word “hello” daily?

No. I generally say “hey” even though “hey is for horses.” There’s your “Texas-ism” for the day. The reason I don’t use “hello” daily is that I generally only answer the phone that way, and people rarely call me (not that I don’t like it).

43. What color is your natural hair?

Dark brown, but liking it better and better now that I have a few gray strands that look like highlights. I might dye it anyway, though, but only because the color isn’t quite deep enough for me. It looks a bit mousy. Probably won’t go back to auburn, though. Stay tuned.

44. Are you thinking about someone right now?

Deeply.

45. Have you ever been to Six Flags?

I have. I’ve been to three Six Flags-owned parks. Six Flags Over Texas in the Dallas suburbs, AstroWorld and WaterWorld in Houston. For those that aren’t familiar, the company is named after the governing bodies throughout Texas history:

  1. Spain
  2. France
  3. Mexico
  4. The Republic of Texas
  5. The United States
  6. The Confederate States

It seems apropos right now to also give you this fact: Texas and Hawaii are the only states in the union that can fly their flags at equal height to the US flag, because we were both once our own countries.

46. How did you get your scar?

Christ, which one? I fall and hurt myself all the time. Although here are the ones tied for first place. When I was 16, I was cutting a lime with a serrated knife and sliced into my thumb. Those nerve endings never came back, so I have a dead spot I play with all the time. When I was in my early 20s, I had choir practice on Thursday nights and my first wife was way too obsessed with ER. I forgot my house key one night and even though she wasn’t a mean person, she did a mean thing. She wouldn’t let me in until a commercial. So I’m fumbling around in the yard because it’s after 9:00 PM in the fall and I trip over a tree stump, scraping and cutting my shins so badly that the scars are still so deep it feels weird to shave those parts of my legs. Let me remind you that it’s been 20 years, and the scars are no more shallow than when they happened. Geez, and I actually spent time wondering why that relationship didn’t work out……………..

47. Do you have tattoos?

Yes, an ichthus that says “Yahweh” in Hebrew, a tribal dragonfly, a Celtic knot, a quill dripping blood, and $1.83. The last is the smallest, but it’s the most important. Here’s the story behind all of them.

48. Have you ever been out of the country?

I’m not especially well-traveled, but I’ve been to Mexico, Canada, England, France, and The Bahamas. I do have a bucket list, though, and I may never make it to some of them because in the Middle East, I am terribly afraid that everything I want to see is going to be reduced to rubble, and even if it isn’t, I don’t currently have a male chaperone. I’m a feminist and all that, but I’m not stupid.

49. Looks, brains, or personality?

I am going to go with personality, because if they have a great one, their intelligence will naturally show itself. I don’t know many dumb people I could stand for more than a few minutes. For me, personality and brains are inextricably interrelated, because brains inform humor, and if I don’t think you’re hilarious, I’m out.

50. Biggest regret?

Let’s end on something real. I used to be on the “think it, say it” plan no matter what emotions I was feeling. My biggest regret is all the misdirected rage in my life at Argo. It was over-the-top and egregiously wrong, because by then I wasn’t fighting with her. I was fighting the real enemy and Argo was a not-so-casual bystander, the receiver of all the shit rolling downhill. It was not a short amount of time until I realized that I was fighting with two people who weren’t even in the room, and only one of them deserved it.

I am so glad that part of my life is over and done, but if I could pray for a do-over and it materialized, I would go back and love her the way she loved me…. with sweetness, bright, white light, honesty (both painful and real), walking around in each other’s inner landscapes……………… truly receiving all the other had to offer- no more, no less.

The Spy in the Room

The archetype most people have of a spy, if we’re talking real vs. reel (seriously, James Bond is a spy and everyone in all his movies knows what he looks like, what he drives, and what he drinks?), can usually be summed up in two words. They are “aloof” and “inconspicuous.” I say “aloof,” because the more distant you are with people, the less they can get to know you…. also, many less lies to handle under cover in terms of what you told whom. Additionally, others won’t be able to identify you later, because they don’t have details to jog their memories. “Inconspicuous” has to do with being the person you’d never notice so that case officers can move more freely.

For instance, I would make a terrible spy in terms of having the right skills for the job, but perfect in my appearance. I am a white woman over 40, who, dressed correctly and wearing a baseball cap, can also pass for a teenage male; I could even embody a tween if I dyed my hair.

For the woman over forty cover, all I would need is a sweatshirt with appliquéd school buses, pencils, notebook paper, and perhaps a chalk board for good measure. The micro SD full of intel would, of course, be hidden in a tote bag full of kid-level math books and flash cards.

“As a kid,” all I would need to get through airport security with a micro SD card is a Kindle Fire for kids and a Minecraft backpack…. maybe a t-shirt that is obviously a DC souvenir and the ubiquitous tween cargo shorts (which, for better or for worse, I already own).

The International Spy Museum speaks to this with a t-shirt slogan- a lot of them say “I Was Never Here” (the link to this particular t-shirt is cool as hell, fyi).

As Chief of Disguise (ten years apart) it was Tony and Jonna Mendez’s job to create these personas (link is to my source material), including the tiniest details. For instance, a rock in your shoe or an ace bandage around one knee completely changes your walk. An artificial palate can change the way you talk- perhaps adding a lisp. During Jonna’s lecture last night, she talked about Tony’s first quick change to show his superiors it could be done. 45 seconds and he changed from a man in a business suit carrying an attaché case to an old woman pushing a small shopping cart (the briefcase expanded).

After hearing her speak, the characterization of aloof and inconspicuous was demystified. I still believe that case officers have to be that way under cover, but in person, as herself, she couldn’t have been more warm and gracious. Her talk was a little under an hour, but it could have been three hours and I wouldn’t have moved. Not only was she personable, she was quite funny.

She told a great story about Tony… that he was originally hired by the CIA as an artist, and thought, “what would the CIA want with an artist?” The answer was painstakingly recreating passports, both foreign and domestic. He was also a genius at copying, and did a demonstration at the Spy Museum years ago in which he taught an entire room of people how to forge Vladimir Putin’s signature.

There were many, many laugh lines over the evening… there were also a few stories that were quite scary.

American case officers are not known for those Bond moments where everyone in the room is shot. Their mission is to get in, get what they need, and leave… often more quickly than you would think an intelligence operation would take. In Moscow, this is not the case. If you are caught spying against Russia, you are tortured and executed…. because to simply execute someone would be too kind.

Aleksandr Ogorodnik (code name Trigon) was recruited by the CIA as an asset, and because he knew what would happen if he was caught, requested what is called an L pill (a cyanide capsule). He said that he would not work for them without it. This was debated by the directors for a long time (due to the psychological damage done to the carrier, and its predilection for premature use) before they ultimately agreed, and hid it in a pen.

Trigon was caught in  1977, and offered to write a full confession. He then bit down on his pen, and was dead before he even hit the floor.

Trigon’s death was a tragedy, and not just because he was a human who knew he was better off killing himself. He was known as the best asset the CIA had, providing an exponentially larger volume of intel than others. The reason he was so critically important is that Moscow got so dangerous for American case officers that they had to recruit Russian assets, because the risk was too high that they’d get caught, even in disguise.

The only person that managed it was a woman named Marti Peterson. Jonna explained that since the KGB never, ever used females as operatives, they assumed that the Americans wouldn’t, either. She was never under surveillance, and was able to get away with being Trigon’s contact for over a year before she was caught. The only reason she’s still alive is that the Russians declared her a Persona Non Grata with diplomatic immunity and sent her packing back to the US.

The story is a miracle because as she was being interrogated, she was sitting at a large table where all her spy gear that the KGB confiscated was laid out in front of her one by one. Though I don’t know why she was considered a PNG instead of a case officer is beyond me, but my first guess is misogyny… which is alive and well today, but even more prevalent in the late 1970s.

It was about that time that Jonna ended her talk and started a Q&A session. I was second in line, and my question was about Argo. “First of all, let me say that I am sorry for your loss [she thanks me]. When did you and Tony meet John Chambers (the Hollywood makeup guy), and have you worked on any other movies? The one that occurred to me today that you might have been involved in was Atomic Blonde.”

First, she told me that Tony had a lot of friends in both Hollywood and magic, but didn’t know how he was introduced (I forgot he didn’t meet Jonna until years later). Then, her personality seemed to flip. She became a total product of her training. She gave me The Look,™ a combination of a smile, a winky face, and “I can’t say.” She redirected to “perhaps we should hire you.” I thanked her for answering the question, and said “that bit about ‘perhaps we should hire you’ will live in my memory for the rest of my life.” The entire room broke up with laughter.

There were lots of people with questions, and my favorite was from a young woman who said, “it seems as if The Cold War is still going on, but yet our current administration seems to be pretty friendly with Russia. Could you speak to how one feeds the other?” Jonna said that if they were out and both had a drink in their hands, they could talk about it, but she didn’t want to get into politics. So, note to self. Invite her to have a drink.

I don’t know why it panned out this way, but I was a little annoyed that I was the only person in the room that said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Maybe other people were just afraid to acknowledge the spy in the room.

Before the lecture, I bought The Moscow Rules, and I also brought my copy of Argo, because she’s an uncredited author on it and I thought that was unfair.

I set “TMR” on the table and held Argo in my hands. I leaned in and said, “do you mind if I tell you a really quick story about this book?” She said, “about Argo? Sure.” I said, “at The Spy Museum’s old digs, they used to sell autographed copies. I didn’t have a job at the time, and I thought it was too much money to spend on a book. When Tony died, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake, and I wrote about it on my blog. My dad read it, and searched through every rare bookstore he could find. Two days later, it arrived at my house. I called him, crying hysterically, and he said, “don’t worry… that’s just what daddies do.” And that is the precise moment where my heart dropped into my stomach like a rock.

My story had made her start crying. I knew I’d pierced her public persona armor. Because my mother died in 2016, I knew it was the only thing holding her together. A string of profanities unleashed in my head, because I wish I had remembered other people had cried after that story and they didn’t even know Tony Mendez. She took the book from my hands and opened it lovingly, fingering Tony’s signature. She said, “I can really tell this was signed after the Parkinson’s had set in.” Under it, she added “+Jonna Mendez.” To redirect, she got serious and said, “so, are you looking for a job for real?” A shitstorm of pictures ran through my head as I pictured background checks that would put my family through the ringer and disclosing my Bipolar II diagnosis, getting rejected before I even got to talk to anyone that would take the time to know me. I said, “well, I am a professional cook.” She laughed and said, “well then, maybe I should hire you.” I don’t remember how it came up, but I also told her that I’d never gotten to see Tony before he announced he would no longer be doing public appearances. She said, “that’s such a shame. He would have really liked you.”

Then, she opened “TMR” and wrote, “For Leslie- Maybe we should hire you.” I shook her hand rather than asking if I could give her a hug, because I was feeling overly emotional and I knew she was, too. A hug would have undone us both. I told her it was such a pleasure to meet her, and the last thing she said to me as I walked away was, “I will remember you.” I walked very quickly to the women’s restroom, dropped my backpack, and cried my eyes out.

Feeling refreshed, I opened my Uber app and walked outside, desperately hoping that in some time, some place, we will meet again.

Master(s) of Disguise

I am already dressed for the speaking engagement I am attending tonight. Jonna Mendez is going to present her newest (and Tony Mendez’ last) book, 51bYPeOnLvLThe Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War. The reason I am already dressed and ready to leave is that I am inexplicably anxious.

Well, maybe not inexplicably. First of all, Jonna is credited as an author on this book, but she also assisted Tony & Matt (Baglio) on Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.

For those who are scratching their heads at why Jonna and Tony have the same last name, it’s because they were married for 28 years. Tony’s death this past January hit me extremely hard. Part of my anxiety is knowing in advance that I could be emotional, and because I’m going to be in front of his wife, I feel that they’re not really my emotions to have. I mean, I never met him (I wanted to, and I know for sure that if he was still alive and his Parkinson’s was under control, tonight would have been the night- he and Jonna were/are on the board at The International Spy Museum).

Even though he was not a personal friend and I can’t say I knew him, there are these authors that get under your skin to the point where you feel like you do. Tony is that author for me, and I am so glad that his stories did not die with him- that there are still more of his words for me to discover. After I finish The Moscow Rules, I’m going to read Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War, which, according to Jonna’s web site, is often used as curriculum for new CIA recruits, and was the first book that the couple wrote together.

Attendees are encouraged to show up early, as Tony’s notes for this book will be on display. I will get to see his handwriting, his process, and hopefully some of his humor… which was always on display in real life. For instance, when Ben Affleck was cast as him in the movie adaptation of Argo, Tony said that he himself was much better looking.

It is in this portion of the evening, wandering around the glass cases, that I hope my emotions bubble up, because it will be more private. I’m not overly fond of emoting in front of a bunch of people, anyway. That being said, you cannot control feelings, and the more you try, the more they fight you to get out.

I am sure that I have mentioned this before, but one of the reasons that Tony’s books have become so precious is that my great uncle, Foster Fort, was in the military and later worked for both the C and DIA in different capacities.

He was killed in a helicopter crash when I was very, very young. I wasn’t old enough to have a real conversation with him after he retired, because he never got old enough to do so, and he couldn’t have told me anything while he was still working. In a way, he’s become a legend in our family, because when you work for either clandestine service, your family only gets to guess what you’re doing, and are often very, very wrong.

I mean, maybe he was just a helicopter pilot. I think that if you get tapped by the C and DIA, though, there’s probably more to it than that. When I think of Foster, I imagine him “putting on the last suit he’ll ever wear,” and I laugh to myself. I laugh even harder when I picture Agent O doing his funeral. But on a more serious note, it is comforting to feel as if our family has a connection to one of the stars on the wall at Langley.

I have no idea what kind of stories I would have heard, but I do know that I will hear some amazing ones tonight. You don’t get to be Chief of Disguise at CIA without living through a few. There are a TON of YouTube videos (this one’s my favorite– the Homeland gag KILLS me) of her talks and they’re all so interesting you wish they’d go on for three more hours. At the end of one video, the comment that literally sent tears and snot running down my face as I shook violently with laughter was, “who else was waiting for her to take off her disguise and find out it’s really a black dude?”

One of the best things she explains is “the quick change,” which is layering disguises so that you can take off clothing, glasses, etc. in 37 seconds, changing your appearance even while walking in the middle of a crowd. They have to be so precise that they are rehearsed beforehand, because as she says, you don’t want anyone to know you’ve escaped. You want them to think that they’ve lost you and it’s all their fault.

If Jonna doesn’t talk about it, I want to ask her if she was a consultant on Atomic Blonde, because for me, it personifies the Moscow rules. Even if she wasn’t, I still want to know if she’s seen it.

One of the Moscow rules that I learned from watching other videos (I’d give you a link, but I don’t remember which one) is that there was/is a shoelace code in the CIA. It’s to be able to pass messages to other agents without being noticeable. After I saw the video, I retied my Adidas Gazelles. I have no idea what they say, though. I hope I’m not telling other case officers that they’re being followed. Hey, in DC, you never know who’s next to you in a crowd.

Case in point: I once rode the Metro for four extra stops just because I got into a conversation with a female intelligence officer stationed in Germany during The Cold War. I don’t even remember how I got her to tell me that…. I just remember thinking in my head that she must be military or C/DIA because there aren’t that many black people in Germany.

My feet didn’t touch the ground for hours afterward, because even though I have no interest whatsoever in being a spy myself, I managed to engineer a conversation in which intimate details were spilled without her feeling as if a game was being played…. and there was. It was “how much can I get her to tell me in four extra stops?” It wasn’t like I was looking for secrets- she was retired and all her ops were UNCLASS. It felt like accidentally walking into Bletchley Circle.

Every time I think I would be a good case officer, I remember that I only speak English, I am often a little slow on the uptake, and more than likely I would trip, fall and die before I ever reached my contact…. which leads me to two scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

Elsa: It’s perfectly obvious where the pages are. He’s given them to Marcus Brody.

Professor Henry Jones: Marcus? You didn’t drag poor Marcus along did you? He’s not up to the challenge.

Walter Donovan: He sticks out like a sore thumb. We’ll find him.

Indiana Jones: The hell you will. He’s got a two day head start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the grail already.

[Cut to middle of fair in the Middle East, Marcus Brody wearing bright suit and white hat, sticking out like sore thumb]

Marcus Brody: Uhhh, does anyone here speak English?

Then, later…………………

[Indiana and Henry are tied up]

Indiana Jones: Come on, dad. Help me get us out of here. We have to get to Marcus before the Nazis do.

Professor Henry Jones: But you said he had a two day head start. That he would blend in, disappear.

Indiana Jones: Are you kidding? I made all that up. You know Marcus. He once got lost in his own museum.

If this isn’t an accurate depiction of me as a spy, I don’t know what would be…. and I promise, it’s not that I’m short-selling myself. I just know myself too well. One of the overhead pieces of audio at The International Spy Museum talks about people “living by their wits,” and I thought to myself that if it were my wits, we were all gonna die….. accidentally, of course, but it’s not the sort of situation where you can say, “oops. My bad. Should I leave a note?” Being a good case officer is learning to think 50 moves ahead- knowing how to checkmate the king before you’ve even opened…. like Jonna and Tony.

I am honored to be an audience member for Jonna’s current book tour, and am looking forward to more. There are a few other cities in which she’s speaking, so if you’re close to any of them, I highly suggest you go.

I am so honored, in fact, that I have changed outfits four times…. just not in 37 seconds.

Disappointment in Three Acts

Act I

I just had to make a really difficult call. I left a message with the Washington National Opera chorus to ask them if they still wanted to hear me even though I have the worst cold on record and am losing my voice at a rapid rate. I mean, I can sing, but I’d be auditioning as a baritone. I know they want photos and measurements as well, but my hope is that they do these auditions more than once a year, or if they just want to hear the quality of my voice and it doesn’t matter what range.

Act II

I talked to DC Opera, and they do only hold auditions once a year. So I’m drinking a hot toddy and will see if I can warm up again later tonight and in the morning. I know I’ve got my arias wired. It’s frustrating that I’ve worked so hard and my body is betraying me. I’m also angry at the world because I didn’t practice wrong so that I’m just fatigued. This is a virus that I picked up from somewhere, or an allergy in my home. It didn’t start in my throat- it’s deep in my chest and working upward.

Act III

I woke up this morning hoping that the laryngitis would go away as the day wore on- it’s always worse when I first wake up. Unfortunately, I am still so far under the weather that I don’t even want to move, much less sing. It would have been much more convenient to wait until tomorrow to see what happens overnight, but I couldn’t afford it without being truly selfish. Demand is high for these auditions, and I did not want my first impression at WNO to be that I just didn’t show, not allowing someone else to fill my spot. I also didn’t want my first impression with them to be a fraction of what I am truly capable. I’ve come such a long way since I truly dedicated myself to singing that turning in a high-school level performance while stopping to cough in the middle was just unacceptable to me. It’s hard to have to wait until next January for a second chance, but since I put on my reason for canceling that I was sick, there’s no telling what will happen between now and then. Singers get scheduling conflicts all the time. Fingers crossed that I can audition again later as an understudy without having to wait a year. I don’t feel good about woodshedding two arias over this month only to get sick at the last minute. Before I made this decision, I talked to someone who’d been my voice coach in college, and he stressed to me how important first impressions are. My gut says this would not be a good one, and to let it go, as angry as I am.

I have sung with laryngitis before, and the recording turned out better than I could have hoped…. but it was church good, not professional career good. The mistakes I made from not having as much control over my voice as I needed in the moment were noticeable to me, but probably not the congregation at large. They would have been spotted by a judge in a nanosecond.

I took this audition seriously. I bought two copies of 24 Italian Songs and Arias so that I would have a book for me and one for my accompanist because it was cheaper than buying a new printer. I spent hours with a metronome getting timing perfect. I did breathing exercises twice a day, sometimes three. This involved taking a heavy book or two and setting them over my diaphragm, making sure I could lift them as air filled me up from all the way down. I marked every day, and practiced full voice when I was sure no one was home.

It was an arduous process, only interrupted by my trip to Paris, where I didn’t sing at all. It was a short enough break to give me some rest, and then I was back at it. I truly thought I had an outstanding audition put together last week, and then my dream of singing for RBG this year flushed itself down the toilet.

And for that, I am angry. All that work. All that emotion and brain-bending math as I figured out subdivisions for art songs I didn’t know (I’m terrible at sight reading, and they said it might be required). But What I Know for Sure from this experience is that I am capable of getting in. I know it. When I was healthy, I sounded great. I could reach the cheap seats in the KenCen (of all the issues I’ve had to overcome with singing, volume has never been one of them).

It’s not over. They will see me again. It’s just a Langston Hughes dream deferred, not a raisin in the sun. I’ll only be 42 when the next audition comes around, which means that my voice will still be full enough to sing opera and I won’t be old enough for that vibrato you can drive a MAC truck through. My trusted friends will tell me when I get it and to please sit down.

I also have the added plus of being able to spend more time on different arias, and choose from a wide variety instead of using the one book full of art songs and arias I was familiar enough with to pull off in one month’s time. I have time to learn Russian, Czech, even French diction (Francais c’nest pas comfortable pour moi). I will truly have time to dig through the annals of soprano arias and find something that isn’t often heard in auditions, because the book I’m familiar with? Well, so is everyone else. It’s hard to be memorable when you’re singing two arias that have already been sung to death.

To borrow a phrase from my trumpet days, I know I’ve already got the chops. I have joined many community choirs in which I’ve become a soloist, and the one time I’ve been offered a college opera role (I didn’t attend the college, I was in the community chorus as an employee), I turned it down because I’d never done opera before and I thought it was unwise not to start in the chorus and see if I liked it. This was ten years ago, so I remember it was some sort of Gilbert & Sullivan… either HMS Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance, but I’ve slept since then. Ten years ago, I was not confident enough to be in an opera because I was thinking about filling big shoes and not concentrating on the fact that my own are pretty bad ass.

I try not to feel stupid about it. The opera ended up traveling and I could have gotten my name out there. But again, it was lack of confidence. I didn’t find it until I moved to Houston about seven years ago, and walked into a church in my neighborhood and saw a familiar face. Joseph Painter helped me with the parts of my voice that needed to change, but it was more than that. He gave me more soprano attitude than I’ve ever had in my life… not diva status or anything like it. Just the ability to look at a piece of music and never, ever be intimidated. He heard the top of my range and said, “with some work, I think you could add a few notes on top of that.” Then, I was already at a C sharp, and I thought I was tapped out.

Unfortunately, I didn’t stay with him long enough to find out if he was right, but in some ways, I should have. Time doesn’t move backwards, ever, but if I’m really lucky, I’ll find the right teacher here. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t want to go back to Epiphany, and not because I don’t like it anymore. It’s just not my place, and neither is Houston, for that matter… even though Houston Grand Opera is in the top five opera programs in the nation, and probably in the top 10 of the world.

Washington National Opera Company (@dcopera on Twitter) has been improving by leaps and bounds, though, because they realized what it took to be world class and are implementing those changes. They even hired someone who used to be at HGO.

The bottom line is that I’m positive that when I am feeling well and healthy, I can crush any audition I want. I have too much training and I’ve been singing too long not to feel this way. And if there’s a bottom line below that, it is having no confidence in my abilities assures me I won’t progress at all. Not wanting to put myself out there already caused me to run away once. I will never make that mistake again.

As long as my body cooperates.