Psychosomatic

I don’t know what got into me yesterday in terms of switching gears and writing about technology instead of emotionally vomiting all over the Internet. Oh, I know. I was being selfish, because I needed a place to go back and copy and paste my commands. The one thing I didn’t do was show you a picture of what Cinnamon looks like when I’m finished with it. Cinnamon is my next favorite desktop after MATE. They look a lot alike, but Cinnamon has better graphics. I also have the wallpaper set to change every five minutes, so I always have more cool quotes. I find that I take them away, think about them, and sometimes use them as writing prompts.

Workspace 1_002
“Thus, in a real sense, I am constantly writing autobiography, but I have to turn it into fiction in order to give it credibility.” -Katherine Paterson

This one isn’t so good, because when I write fiction, I feel like an imposter. Character studies are generally okay, but I have no knack for world-building or plot. In a very real sense, I see that as a flaw in my own character. So, I stay in my lane. For the most part. What’s interesting is that I could lay so many more cards on the table in fiction, but I don’t feel it would turn out better. Maybe someday I’ll write a novel with someone else who really knows what they’re doing and can edit/add to my complete and utter crap work.

Autobiography seems to be my jam, but I also think I would be good at non-fiction if I put some elbow grease into it. I have a ton of interests (in none of which I am truly well versed…. jack of all trades, master of none). Perhaps illiteracy, real crime, espionage, cooking…. I don’t know. They’re all things I’d have to study intensely, but it might be fun. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to study in the Library of Congress at a moment’s notice. CIA also has an advisory board for writers, film makers, etc. to help people get their facts right (and in some cases, “if this is what you’re saying, here’s how we would say it”). In DC, though, there are already more people writing those things than the market will allow. Food for thought, in any case.

I’ve always thought that I’d like to collaborate with a spy on a novel that’s a hybrid fiction and non-fiction book. It would alternate chapters. One would be the story, then the next would be the real life inspiration for what just happened. It’s a good thing that now I know one, but not well enough to get down on one knee and ask her to write a book with me. Not only that, she’s already collaborated on all the books about espionage that I really want to read. Plus, she makes me laugh. In one video, she says that when she was at CIA, she was a real hard-ass. It’s funny because I am a hundred and crazy percent sure she was being accurate. Introspection is key.

And while that is true, I would also bet dollars to donuts that her attrition rate was low, because her people would take a bullet for her. It seems to me that acid funny and inside jokes go a long way as a boss.

It’s funny how your relationship changes with espionage once you actually meet a CIA case officer, albeit one who’s retired. You begin to think a lot more about the families behind said spy, and that they are completely normal people with an extraordinary calling.

For instance, Tony Mendez was an artist. He was always, first and foremost, an artist. Being a spy was almost a side gig. He didn’t even write Argo until George Tenet asked him to do it. Tony said, “that’s classified.” “No it’s not,” Tenet replied, smile on his lips. Tenet waved his magic wand, allowing Argo to be born.

I am not immune to the reputation of The Company. What I have learned is that there are good officers and bad, good agents and bad (case officers work for the CIA, agents are informants- generally overseas. The movies always get it wrong, and for someone who has read so much non-fiction regarding the history of spycraft, it’s quite a bit irritating.). I’ve even watched interviews on YouTube where the host calls the case officer an agent, and you can see their pained expressions (actually, that’s pretty funny).

Where my emotions come in is that I feel case officers do extraordinary work, and I have always wanted to be extraordinary at something. On my best day, I am fair to middlin’ at most things. I am a good writer, not a great one. I am an above average cook. It would be a much longer list regarding things I don’t know about computers/networks/the Internet.

If there is one area I feel extraordinary, it’s love. Romantic or platonic, local or global, I love hard. I am so empathetic I can share mirror neurons with strangers. It’s the one good thing my ADHD does for me. It heightens my sensory perception and most of the time I feel like I have emotional X-ray vision. I am excellent at cutting through bullshit and seeing what’s really going on with people.

And perhaps that feeds my fascination with spies, as well, because they are the embodiment of what I feel all the time…. the way they have to cut through bullshit to see others’ weak spots, sussing out what to say in order to obtain an asset. Gathering information in conversation without letting on to what they’re doing.

People want to tell me things, whether I want to hear it or not. I am so polite that I will always listen, but when strangers go deep, I am fascinated and exhausted all at once. This is because I don’t have very good clinical separation, and I will take their scars and write them on my own skin. I am truly capable of manipulation, not for malice, but for getting people to spill things they’ve never told anyone else. And then I hold on to those secrets until they make me sick with worry… to a lesser extent with people I’ll never see again, but still.

All that pent-up emotion presents physically. Just because it’s psychosomatic doesn’t mean it’s not real. It’s hard to tell whether headaches and stomach aches will be cured by taking medication or thinking about something else.

Slaying the dragon of emotional abuse freed up my mind, but since I hadn’t lived my life since I was 12 without the constant puzzle of other people’s emotions, it left a big hole to take on everyone else’s…. from people I’d known for years to strangers on a train. I live for black comedy because for people that have experienced much, it takes a lot to reach them with laughter.

That was what drew me to Argo in the first place. I saw the movie before I read the book (very shortly before), and it spoke to me on a spiritual level… mostly because every note of humor was my kind of humor. I quote it incessantly, especially when I’m in the kitchen and my eyebrows are about to go over my forehead (“There are suicide missions with better odds than this.”). There’s basically an Argo quote for every occasion. Meeting with the boss? “Brace yourself, it’s like talking to those two old fucks from The Muppets.” On the daily? “This is the best bad idea we have, sir.”

I also named my friend Argo because just like the movie, she was named after the Greek myth. At that time in my life, I was trying to tie myself to the mast to avoid disaster, breaking my life apart at my own hand. It did not work. Though thankfully, those days are long past, they are not forgotten. It has engineered the way to move forward (“I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically.”). Past missteps have truly made their imprint upon me, a reminder to keep reaching upward. Self care is the most important thing in my life, because if I can’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else. Eventually, I’d like a girlfriend. Eventually, I’d like my life to be bigger than it is. Eventually, I’d like to be a person of interest in the very best sense of the phrase. Alas, baby steps (pregnant sigh).

Having a girlfriend isn’t completely up to me, but what is my doing is making room for her. I haven’t made room for even the idea in my mind, heart, or house. I suppose it’s a self defense mechanism. Once you’ve been hurt badly, you’re caught between the ideas of loving like you’ve never been hurt and taking time to lick your wounds, especially owning the ones for which you feel responsible. By now, everything I’ve wanted to accomplish in that arena is done. All that is left is reticence…. the fear is real and it’s deep.

The first step was realizing I was capable of disaster and fixing it to the best of my ability. The second step is not constantly beating myself up, because when I am really paying attention, I realize that I am not the only one. Not realizing this has led me to be incredibly hard on myself.

I get headaches and stomach aches. Just because it’s psychosomatic doesn’t mean it’s not real.

 

My Favorite Finnish Export

If you have ever mentioned to me that you have any interest in technology, you probably know that I am a Linux nerd. My Finnish fever started in 1997, when my friends Luke and Joe asked if I wanted them to host my web site on a Linux server they’d set up (somewhat sneakily, I might add) where Joe worked. I was given shell access, and it was love… mostly because I found that typing at the command line was so much quicker than using a mouse.

When I first started using computers, I was a fan of IRC (Internet Relay Chat), but I couldn’t type very well. By the time I finished responding to someone, other people had added over a page of dialogue. I made it my mission in life to learn to type as fast as I speak. Now, I can type as fast as I think. Therefore, using a mouse to scroll through menus instead of just typing one word into the terminal seems terribly inefficient.

Depending on my mood, sometimes I’ll dual boot my computer, sometimes I won’t. It depends on two things. The first is whether I want to play Fallout 3 on my desktop. The second is whether I feel like rebooting a lot. Having a dual boot computer is like having a two story house. Everything you need, you left on the other floor.

Because Windows and OS X are so prevalent, and because I change my mind all the time about how I want to set up my computer, I thought I’d write a blog entry on the tools I use. I will include terminal commands in case you want to install them as well. Otherwise, I look forward to your comments on how what you use is better.

When I first set up my Linux box, I make the desktop pretty and useful. No matter what Linux distribution I’m using, I install MATE as my desktop (pronounced Mah-tay, like the green tea). It is the least graphics-intensive and therefore all of my processing power can go to things that matter. It’s kind of retro, actually. It will remind you of Windows 95, uncluttered and easy to navigate.

My favorite theme and icon set is Numix. I particularly like the Numix Square icons.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:numix/ppa
sudo apt update
sudo apt install numix-gtk-theme numix-icon-theme numix-icon-theme-square

For desktop wallpaper, I use a program called Variety. The images are top notch, grabbed from all over the interwebs, and there is an option to add random quotes as well. The other extremely useful feature is that you can tell it whether you prefer dark or light images. I much prefer a dark background so that my icons show up more clearly.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:peterlevi/ppa
sudo apt update
sudo apt install variety

Because I use my computer so much, I am fanatical about fonts. It’s amazing how choosing the right family can reduce eye strain. My favorite is Droid, which for some ungodly reason has been taken out of Ubuntu’s main software repositories. I just download it and install it myself. Since I’m the only user on my computer, I find the easiest way to do this is creating a folder called .fonts in my user directory and copying them over. My entire desktop is Droid Sans, except for the font on the quotes in Variety, which is Droid Serif. In the terminal and in coding HTML, I use Droid Mono.

In terms of making my desktop useful, I watch my system resources in real time with a program called “conky.” However, it is not particularly user-friendly, so I also install Conky Manager to configure it. While Conky Manager has been taken out of the Ubuntu repositories, it’s still available. There’s all sorts of cool stuff you can do with it, but I use it to watch how much CPU and memory my top processes are using and my upload/download speed.

wget --no-check-certificate https://github.com/teejee2008/conky-manager/releases/download/v2.4/conky-manager-v2.4-amd64.run
chmod +x conky-manager-v2.4-amd64.run
sudo ./conky-manager-v2.4-amd64.run

I like using Facebook Messenger without having to stay logged into Facebook. I have an application that sits in my system tray that is only for messaging, and doesn’t do desktop notifications unless someone is writing specifically to me. It’s handy that my desktop isn’t blowing up all day (like my phone) and I don’t have to type on a touch screen or open a browser to respond. It’s called Caprine, and it has basically replaced text messaging for me because unlike SMS, I can use Facebook Messenger on any of my devices (I use encrypted e-mail for anything that should stay private). For instance, I don’t like it when people use SMS to send me web links, because then I have to retype the URL in my browser if I want to look at it on anything bigger than my phone’s screen.

For screenshots, there’s an amazing tool called Shutter. It will take a picture of anything, from an area you select to the entire desktop. It also has a built-in editor for quick jobs like cropping when you don’t get the aspect ratio right.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:linuxuprising/shutter
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt install shutter

For big photo editing jobs, I use the Gnu Image Manipulation Program, known by its unfortunate acronym. It can do everything that Adobe PhotoShop can and it’s free. For things like logos, I also install all the fonts in the Ubuntu software repository by Ray Larabie of Typodermic Fonts. Note that if you are using Linux Mint, GIMP comes standard, but not the latest version. The last version is also available in the Ubuntu repository, but I prefer the next iteration.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:otto-kesselgulasch/gimp
sudo apt update
sudo apt install gimp larabie*

Because most of my work is on the web, I generally don’t need word processors, spreadsheets, etc…. and I am not sure I’ve ever made a presentation. People do send me documents and such, though, so I enjoy LibreOffice. Again, it comes standard on most Ubuntu versions and derivatives, but you’ll need the Launchpad repository to get the most up-to-date version.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:libreoffice/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt install libreoffice

Occasionally, people will send me complicated Microsoft Word documents in terms of formatting, and for that, I use Wine to be able to install Windows applications. Wine doesn’t work with every Windows program available, but it does work very well for the three I use the most, which are Office 2010, Picasa, and Notepad++. If you’re not sure whether an application you need will run in Wine, check the Application Compatibility Database.

sudo dpkg --add-architecture i386
wget -nc https://dl.winehq.org/wine-builds/winehq.key
sudo apt-key add winehq.key
sudo apt-add-repository 'deb https://dl.winehq.org/wine-builds/ubuntu/ bionic main'
sudo apt update
sudo apt install --install-recommends winehq-stable

If you’re not using Bionic, you can change out the name in the above command. All releases are supported.

I am incredibly ADHD, and I find that it helps me work to block out all outside noises. Though I could use a browser plugin, I prefer a native application called ANoise. With community extensions installed, there are TONS of choices, from ponds to a raging fire to a dump truck idle to an oscillating fan. Right now I’m listening to what sounds like TV snow, but in the application is called “Pink.” Only one piece of advice from me to you…. if you have to pee at all, don’t listen to the thunderstorms or rivers. Kidding aside, this thing boosts my productivity to an insane degree.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:costales/anoise
sudo apt update
sudo apt install anoise

Lastly, I am a rabid Kodi fan. It’s a media center (originally an XBOX hack) and has plugins for DVD cover art, surfing YouTube, recording live television, organizing and playing your music library, telling you the weather, etc. It’s just incredible. It’s available for all devices except iPhone and iPad (well, you can install it with Tweakbox, but I don’t recommend it– TB is basically a soft jailbreak), including Raspberry Pi. This is useful information if you’re looking for a cheap computer that stays attached to your TV at all times. If you want to use it to record TV shows/movies, you’ll have to buy the TV card to do it, but those are relatively cheap at places like Amazon, Best Buy, Fry’s, etc.

sudo apt install software-properties-common
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:team-xbmc/ppa
sudo apt update
sudo apt install kodi

Keep in mind that these are the tools I use in Linux that aren’t standard knowledge (with the possible exception of Kodi). Most things are operating system agnostic, like Google Chrome, Firefox, etc. I’m pretty sure I could find a way to do everything between those two browsers, but like all geeks, I have my creature comforts. Let me know in the comments if you need help because a command doesn’t work or you’re stuck. I mean, I can’t help you, but I still want to know (kidding).

If you’ve never worked with Linux before, all it takes is some sisu- the Finnish idea of grit and perseverance while climbing a mountain or talking to a stranger. The hardest part is taking the first plunge, because it seems intimidating right up until you use it. Then you’ll see what all desktop support people see…. every OS sucks.

The Year of Acceptance

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

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

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

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

I didn’t.

CDN Thanksgiving revolves. Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waking Life

I am drinking a mediocre cup of coffee; it’s my second one if I’m being honest. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but the mug is 16 oz. I normally drink iced green tea in the morning because DC summer has set in, so I’ve got a bit of a buzz going. Though it’s basic, I put four Splenda in it, so at least it feels like dessert going down. I normally add a plant milk- coffee tastes better with fat- but I’m out. I need to go to the grocery store, just one of the things I need to add to my growing To Do list because I’m ready to get out into the world again.

It startled me when I realized I hadn’t written anything since the end of May on this web site. I get so busy with e-mail and Facebook that I forget to be a writer in public. Facebook is easier because I can write in short snippets and it’s not a large, blank page staring back at me.

I have a different “voice” over e-mail, and I like who I am when I write them. I tend to make them weighted because I can let myself go with one person or a group of friends. It’s not so easy with my hundreds of subscribers and thousands of casual readers. It becomes intimidating when I think of it that way, so I need to go back to framing it as writing only for myself, an e-mail from me to me.

Since I’ve come back from Texas, my depression and anxiety has flared up to an enormous degree. It’s another piece of the puzzle when I think about why I haven’t been eager to write (or engage, really). It’s frustrating because with mental illness, I can’t point to where it hurts and I can’t vocalize what will make me feel better. I legitimately have no idea. I have tricks to fool myself into a brighter mood, like putting on gangsta rap with a great hook and lots of bass, or at the other end of the spectrum, ABBA or Aqua.

Today, it’s the Argo soundtrack, because I’ve been writing to it for years. It helps to go back to music that encourages body memory, the feel of typing into the night even though it’s 11:00 AM. Night is when I’m the most vulnerable, which I feel is universal. Conversations that happen when the sun go down are different than the ones had when it comes up.

For instance, during the day I am unlikely to admit what I’m really pondering. It is the barbed wire fence around my emotions, and how much I’m willing to take it down depends on the day. I get the most defensive when it comes to my lack of a love life, because I  think I have good reasons for not wanting someone to walk around in my inner landscape, but as more and more time passes since my disastrous break up with Dana, those reasons don’t seem good enough for other people. I grow weary of people asking why, as if it’s their right to know and try to the be judge and jury of my answers. I want to live life at my own pace, which is infinitely my choice. I just want to tell people, in the words of an old Texas gun safety video, “leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Call an adult.”

My reasons fall in many percentages, but the largest piece of the pie is that when two adults are in a relationship, it is codependent unless both people are strong in themselves. One of my favorite quotes from Khalil Gibran in The Prophet, paraphrased, is that couples should be like trees, not entwined at the trunks, but the branches. I am not that person yet, and I currently have no indicators as to when it will change. Because I am incredibly sapiosexual, I will be sparked eventually by the way someone thinks and interacts. It has happened three times over the last five years, but something hasn’t been right in every case, mostly timing. For instance, my admittance of feelings led to the conversation of “I’d totally be down for dating if I hadn’t just started dating someone else.”

Just to be clear, I thought I was admitting feelings to someone who was single. It wasn’t as if I knew she was with someone else and didn’t care because my ego was big enough to think she would jump at the chance to date me no matter her status. I also didn’t think of her “that way” until Samantha saw us together and said we looked cute…. and then, of course, I had to overthink about it before I said anything, and by then it was too late. This was about a year and a half ago, and since then I have been battling the up and down of depression medications, and if you’re taking them as well, you probably know what I mean. For the uninitiated, the downs mean lack of lust for life, much less anything else. However, I do enjoy being chilled out and relaxed, and that more than makes up for lack of a partner.

I also know that when someone does tilt my vision their way, it probably won’t come through searching profiles on web sites. Every date I’ve been on by doing so felt like a job interview, stiff and uncomfortable to the point of nausea. I just feel done when it comes to internet dating. I’m over it.

I am the happiest when going out alone or with close friends, those that have become as close as siblings while I wait out disinterest. When I’m alone, I am very good at chatting up strangers, so it feels like I’m meeting up with friends I haven’t met yet, as opposed to being insular. I am very much in love with my own thoughts, and I want to wait until I feel that way about someone else’s. I also feel that waiting is appropriate until I don’t feel like my crazy spatter is going to stick to their clothes. That seems like cruel & unusual punishment.

The smallest piece is not feeling ready to compromise or share. I enjoy not having to check in with anyone about where I’m going or when I’m going to be home. I don’t want a relationship to feel like an obligation instead of a joy. The woman I picture is drop dead gorgeous, smarter than I am, and has respect for the fact that we will not share everything. There is a box inside me that I will never unlock for anyone, for any reason. Lack of privacy or jealousy on her part would ruin everything.

In short, I would give my heart to the right person, but I’m not going to settle for the wrong one, even if she is a basket of hotness. More than one person has been worried I’ll be an old lady with seven cats.

Well, what in the hell is wrong with that? I wouldn’t necessarily choose it for myself, but I’d choose it every time over being irritated with someone else. As I have said before, relationships are a lot of work, but they shouldn’t feel like trying to nail a square peg into a round hole every damn day…. and those relationships are worth the wait.

As is, I hope, waiting for a new entry.

 

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.

Life’s a Beach

I just put rice on for supper. This time it was spraying the pan with grapeseed oil, and adding brown rice, salt, all-purpose seasoning, and dried cranberries. When it’s done, I’m going to add black beans and a vegetable protein. Not sure whether it will be “chicken” or “fish.” I enjoy the taste of the “fish” better, but “chicken” would probably coordinate better. As I have said before, I occasionally eat meat, eggs, and drink milk. But what I have discovered over time is that a plant-based diet is better for my mental and physical health.

Most of the reason I still become an omnivore is that I don’t believe in making other people bend to accommodate me. When I go to other people’s houses and they offer to cook for me, what we’re having is what we’re having. It’s just how hospitality works for me. And on one occasion, I got a craving for bacon and asked for it on a veggie burger. It was at a restaurant, and Dan went to the bar and ordered for us. When she came back, she said, “the next time you’re going to do that, you have to order it.” Something about the bartender looking at her like she had three heads. However, I will tell you that bacon tastes even better with veggie protein than it does with beef, especially spicy black bean patties.

Last night I made myself a “double cheeseburger” with spicy black bean patties and vegan cheddar. It was so good I considered making myself a second one. I didn’t bother with “bacon,” because I have tried every single brand of veggie bacon available, and to me, they all taste like bacon-flavored plastic. Well, except tempeh. It’s not terrible, but that’s the best endorsement I offer.

I do love the hell out of veggie sausage, however…. especially the breakfast ones. Morningstar Farms makes maple-flavored patties, and Field Roast makes Smoked Apple Sage links. If you’ve tried veggie sausage before and didn’t like it, might I suggest cutting it longways and frying it on medium heat? Respect first contact, and don’t touch it until it’s time to flip. Let the bottom caramelize in the oil. The crispy outside is my favorite part. It makes my hot dogs look weird and kind of hard to eat, but I’ll never go back to meat dogs if I can help it. The ingredients in them scare me- always have.

And yes, I do enjoy both Beyond and Impossible burgers, but not as much as patties made out of black beans or chickpeas.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Speaking of TED talks, I am reminded of Brené Brown. I really love her, but not just because what she says makes sense. When I watched her TED talk, I thought she looked familiar. I decided that I just knew someone who looked like her, and then I remembered that she went to University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. My aha! moment was when I realized that I was the supervisor of their computer lab in 1999, and she was probably one of “my kids.” I fact checked it with her team, and it’s true. So I met her before she was a household name. I wish I could say that I remembered more about her at that time, but being able to say that we’ve actually been in the same room is enough. Most people who’ve watched her would give a limb to be in the same room now. But it’s not like she’d remember me and we’d go shopping together or anything.

Moving on, the title of this entry also comes from hospitality. My family and I are all getting together at a beach house in Galveston starting the first week of June. I’m all set except for needing to get a bathing suit or some board shorts and a top. I love swimming in the ocean, and wish we’d lived in Galveston longer when I was a child.

As an adult, my favorite memory involves my mother. I called her up and said that I was going to the beach for the day, and did she want to come? To my surprise, she said “yes. Come get me.” When we got there, she actually got in the ocean with me, and I don’t have any memories of her doing so when I was five. She hate hate hated cold water, so getting into pools and oceans was not her vibe. My mother was also constantly obsessed with calories, and therefore every time I ordered dessert she would just sit there, looking longingly and never taking a bite.

I always ordered something sour, like key lime pie, because to eat chocolate cake in front of her seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. When I ordered dessert at our post beach dinner, I offered her half and she ate it. That day was just full of unexpected pleasures, and exactly what made it so special. She got out of her comfort zone in a way that made me incredibly happy, and the memory ranks in my Top Ten list.

The end of the trip marks my mother’s birthday, so I am sure that my sister and I will go out to the cemetery in some sort of matching outfits to honor something that she always liked. It feels better to grieve with her than alone, but during Mother’s Day, that’s how it’s going down. I have purposely made myself busy that day, because otherwise I would hide under my blankets and sleep it off. I am going on the 2:00 tour of The International Spy Museum, and then I think I’m going to the Smithsonian National Zoo, weather permitting. This is because one of my favorite things to do in DC is to sit on the bench in front of the giraffe enclosure and write. I use a Bluetooth keyboard and either my phone or my tablet. I also really, really enjoy taking photos, and over time, I’ve gotten better at it. The reason I know this is that now I rely on my natural eye rather than The GIMP to get the angle I want.

I’m also going to take pictures at the spy museum, but I’m not going to post them publicly. It’s an experience that deserves to be a surprise when you go. No spoilers, especially since I’m going on opening day.

And on that note, I think my rice is ready.