Sunday, October 21, 2012

Not really about Argo, starring Ben Affleck.

Author’s note: this is a complex piece, memoir format. It is based on memories from me as an eight year old, a seventeen year old, a 27 year old, and now, as a forty year old. It is me, trying to piece together my life and memories. My relationships with my parents are very different today (as one would expect) from when I was seventeen, and they are two of my favorite people.

I went to see Argo because Ben Affleck was sporting a Barry Gibbs beard, I liked the trailer, and I have an interest in Tehran. My mother taught in Tehran at the Community School (a Presbyterian mission school) from 1966 to1969, before my parents were married. My mother met the Shah's wife, there's even a newspaper picture of my mother with the Shah's wife. It was through some Girl Scout event. My mother was a Girl Scout leader.

My mother is a very private person, so I'm always trying to learn more about things that connect to her life.

Little did I know that Argo would bring up all sorts of things about my father. Things that were in a black box so tight that it took me until Wednesday morning to admit them to myself, out loud. I admitted them to myself in a crazy depressed vibe Monday night and Tuesday morning, but Wednesday, while pouring raisins into my cereal bowl, covering the raisins with Grape Nuts and Kashi Heart to Heart, I admitted to myself that the reason I was so upset about Argo was that my father wouldn't let me live in Poland when I was in college. I had to go to college, I was not allowed to take a semester off.

I was seventeen, depressed, homesick, and my parents were halfway across the world. All of my abandonment issues are rooted right there in a few conversations with my dad, me pleading to come home and him refusing.

In retrospect, I am glad, for I wouldn't love Pittsburgh as much as I do now. I had to make it on my own. I did make it on my own. I made decisions. I found people to help me, and through those people I found other people and it blossomed. I found my place. I grew up fast, but I did, indeed, grow.

But more than twenty years later, Argo, a movie about a lost piece of American history, brought up that forgotten seed of bitterness and perceived abandonment and bloomed itself into a tree. A rotten tree whose fruits were disappointment and loneliness.

In 1979 and 1980, which is the time frame for the movie Argo and the actual events it depicts, I lived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Due to my age and location, I was in what could be called a black hole for news. The Internet did not exist, and as an eight year old I didn't read the newspaper except for the comics or watch television except for cartoons and Little House on the Prairie. I never saw television news coverage about hostages in Iran. I sort of knew the hostage crisis was happening, I probably heard my parents or other adults talking about it. But it was not a part of my memory in any sense of the actual television coverage that shows up all over the place in Argo.

So on Monday, I walked into a movie because Ben Affleck looked cute in the trailer and it had to do with Tehran, a city I’m always interested in because of my mother. I had no idea how graphic the movie would be, and I had no idea that two of the characters were a couple I met during the time my parents lived in Warsaw, Poland, in the early 1990s.  

I heard the names, Mark and Cora L****, and I knew that I knew them. I knew they were friends of my parents, good friends. And something deep in me might have known they were from the Poland years. This was confirmed later.

When I graduated from high school in 1989, I moved to Pittsburgh, to go to college. My parents moved to Poland. Polish language training had taken up an entire year of my father's life. My father was prepared to speak Polish. He was not prepared for what happened: the communists were voted out of office a month after my parents’ arrival to Poland. Poland was on its way to democracy and privatization, and my father was in for the ride of his life, as the U.S. Embassy’s head economic advisor.

Back in Pittsburgh, I sat in the phone booth at the end of the hall in my dorm. Poland wasn't a third world country, but it wasn't first world, either. My phone calls had to be connected first through AT&T operators in Austria, or Germany, and then to Poland. I would dial a number in Austria only to hear the recording, “All circuits are busy, please try again later.” I tried again right away until I got through, dialing up to seventeen times, praying, please God, let me get through. There was a six hour time difference, so depending on the time of day, I talked to my dad in his office, or I talked to my parents at home. I don't think I ever talked to my siblings on the phone during the Poland years. The phones could be tapped, vestiges of Polish Communism, you couldn't be sure. And phone time cost a dollar a minute, so you didn't talk very long. 

In those phone booth conversations, it was either a business call, this is how I'm doing, with a list of talking points, or me pleading with my father. Please. Can't I take a semester off? And him, answering my pleas every time, with the same answer, no.

I know more now: it was probably the hardest point of my father's career. Communism had just fallen in Poland. My father was the head of the Economic Department. Privatization was an unknown to most of the people he was trying to help. The currency was going into hyper-inflation. Congressmen wanted to visit every other week to see democracy and free trade in the making. All these things meant my dad worked every day, all day, even Sunday. Everyone did. The officers (mostly husbands) showed up for church in the back of the Marine Bar in the Embassy, ate lunch with their families at the Eagle Club and then back to work. It was probably the hardest time for my parent's marriage. I remember coming home at Christmas and my parents were bickering. Growing up, my parents never fought, and if they did, it was in a room far away. Were they on the brink of divorce? This was not a place for me to come home to, this was not the time for me to take a semester off and be in Poland. I see that now.

To be clear: Poland was not a dangerous place, nothing like Tehran in 1979. But it was no place for a 17-year-old who wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. Better for me to stay in school and work towards my bachelor's degree in the requisite four years. 

I came home every Christmas and summer vacation. Summers, I worked in the American Embassy as an intern. My first summer, I worked in the Consular office, where they gave out tourist visas, work visas, fiancée visas. For the first month that I worked in the Consular office, I was responsible for reading and retrieving cables three times a day. I was responsible for shredding cables on a regular prescribed schedule. When Albanians protested in July, 1990, I was responsible for writing a document in Albanian (transcribed from a cable) in case Albanians came to the Embassy seeking asylum. Copies were given to the Marines at Marine Post 1 and 2.

I was a normal college student with a normal summer job. Except that my normal summer job was involved in international affairs in a country that was undergoing political and economic transformations every week.

I worked with people who had chosen their lives to be far away from home, defending the American way of life to the world. Warsaw was a "hardship post," and I imagine Tehran was, too, at that time depicted in Argo. You got "hardship pay" for being in a situation that was more dangerous, or more squalid. Poland was not dangerous in 1989. But in 1979, Tehran was volatile.

In Argo, when the angry mob breaks through, gets into the Embassy yard and then into the Embassy, it was like the worst horror movie, it was REAL for me. When the Marines were being told to throw tear gas as a last resort, they were my Marines, and I remembered my crush on a marine named Roland. When the Consular officers decide to leave, escape, because they had access to the only direct street exit, first destroying the metal plates that were used to imprint passports with tourist visas, I saw the Consular office in Warsaw. It was as if I was watching two movies, one on the screen, and one tightly guarded in my memory but now playing loudly and with garish music. Only one of the movies was true.

During the whole movie, I ached to call my father and say, who are these people? How do they fit into my story? Why didn't I know this part of the story, this story that belongs to me as an American child of the seventies and the story that belongs to me because I knew two of the people depicted on the huge Hollywood screen.

And when I did call, as the credits rolled, my parents didn't answer. My mother picked up as I was in the middle of leaving a message about the movie. Which told me one thing. They were having dinner and they had screened the call. My parents don't have caller ID. So, right now, as Independents, they are of course getting all sorts of annoying phone calls from both parties. And my father, about 8 years ago, decided that he wasn't going to have dinner interrupted, it was interrupted his whole life as a child because his father was a pastor. The phone rang during dinner and I think maybe it not only meant that dinner was interrupted but maybe that his father left the table and maybe the house.

I should ask my father sometime. Because my issue with the fact that he screens my calls? Goes back to a different time, a time when I had to leave voice mails, which was not Poland, but another time, when I was falling into the twisted abyss of bipolar disorder as a 27-year-old. The voice mail person would say "x person" is not available. And those words, that my father was not available to me? That cracked me in a place where I was already cracked.

So while I was telling my mom about the movie, my dad was telling my brother about how the Canadian diplomats visited the L**** while they were in Poland. And as I'm talking to my mom, Jimmy Carter's voice comes over the credits and my mom says where are you and I say I'm at the movies, it's the credits and she says, I'll let you go, and we hang up. I'm so upset that I drive straight home instead of getting dinner at Panera (but I'd had movie nachos anyways, so I wasn't that hungry.) I ate some chocolate ice cream, took my dinner meds, and tried home. And no one answered. Well, weren't they done with dinner? The child in me wanted to talk to her dad. Where was he, and why wasn't he answering the telephone? And so I had to leave a cheerful message, because my mother brought me up right, but I felt horrible.

And so I searched the Internet for any scrap of information about the “Houseguests” and Argo. I read the Wired article from 2007, I read Tony Mendez's story in the CIA history archives online. I learned that Hollywood did, of course, compress the timelines, dramatize dialogue and events. But the emotional drama? That is something you can't show on camera, not really, so I forgive Hollywood for the police cars chasing the plane, because if you are escaping a country, in your mind, until you are safely in the air, you feel as if police cars could be chasing you down.

Tuesday morning was so bad that I called the house but didn't leave a message when I heard my mom's voice on the answering machine announcement. I spent the morning huddled on my bed watching any YouTube video about Ben Affleck and Argo. I tried to piece things together. I cried. And as I write this now, on Sunday morning, I can't tell you anything else, because the black box has closed again. But I will tell you this. I had to be at work at 1 p.m. I was 15 minutes late and that is without even taking a shower. That's how bad it was. I was glued to my bed, glued to finding any scrap of information that might make me feel okay.

It's a bad coping strategy, I know. But research seems to be my "go to" for "I don't understand what's going on in my mind." My other coping strategy is writing, and rewriting, which is why this post, which I started on Wednesday morning, is being edited on Sunday. It's now afternoon, the seminary bells just rang out three minutes ago.

I recommend Argo. I'm going to see it again tomorrow, partly because there's nothing else worth watching at my Monday $5 movie theater, but partly to open up the black box again and see if it's as scary the second time around. Boo!