Well, it’s Columbus Day weekend, which means we have Monday off school for some reason. Furthermore, in a twist I have never heard of before, my new school does this thing where when there’s a Monday holiday, we make it up on Tuesday–so on Tuesday the entire campus pretends it’s Monday. Then that Tuesday just disappears and is never made up. No one understands it or can explain it, and it causes massive confusion several times each semester, year after year. Me, I’m not complaining, because I have Mondays OFF, which means I now have these weird Tuesdays ALSO OFF, which means Columbus Day weekend for me turned into a goddamn five day weekend, which might as well be spring break it’s so damn long.
This has given me an opportunity to do the many shit-tons of hours of grading I somehow brought upon myself this week. It has also given me an opportunity to revise my book proposal, mildly revise some of my book itself, and talk on the phone with Katy and my mom. I am getting back into the phone. Today or tomorrow I will call other people on my phone to-do list: Joey, Jerry, Adam. Just lie down on the couch and talk on the phone, it’s no big deal!
Last night we drank wine and sat across the table from one another, reading separate cook books. The old man has decided to make the slow cooker his particular culinary contribution to our family, while I am deeply involved in my fancy bread book. I am almost ready to try again. My starter is popping off; I got a dutch oven for $25; all I need now is a dough scraper and a kitchen scale, which are currently being shipped to me. Up next: restaurant-quality sourdough bread made by my own hot little hands! Alas, would that it were so easy.
Great news, too, which is that my zombie nightmares are back in FULL effect, more detailed and long-winded than ever before. They used to just involve me running and screaming, but now they have become vividly colored by my darkest emotional anxieties, such that they are now including my old man and my snoopy in various terrible ways. House fills with zombies and I have to flee but snoopy is locked in a closet and I can hear him screaming but I can never go back to get him out so he will starve in there. Old man falling off back of truck being driven away by scrappy band of survivalists we have fallen in with; me just barely too late to grab his flailing hand. In last night’s we were trying to hide quietly but I had forgotten to turn off this glaring strobe light and as he clambered up trying frantically to fix it the window burst inward and all was lost. I wake up VERY slowly from these, spending many many minutes in a sort of sweaty, paralyzed half-sleep before I slowly realize it was just a dream. OR WAS IT
I conquered these dreams once before, in my early 20s, and I believe I can do it again, by willing myself to psychoanalyze my own dream while it is occurring, thus breaking its power over me. I read about this in a New Yorker article about chronic nightmares. The last time, I broke the cycle by just yelling “stop, stop, I can’t handle it, it’s too scary” in the middle of one of the dreams and then all the zombies stood around laughing companionably with me and then I woke up and never had another one. Until now.
In other great news, we are watching 19 Hitchcock movies in chronological order, because of a class the old man is teaching. You’ve probably never seen the old British Hitchcocks from the early 30s, but here’s a tip: they are pretty delightful, and surprisingly zany.
So I am in my spare time (lol) reading one of those Ben McIntyre books about British spying in WWII. I have never read such bizarre nonsense in all my days; I can not believe that this kind of shit was once a major factor in global warfare. Just Germany and Britain sending hundreds of LITERALLY JUST RANDOM CIVILIANS (many with fairly serious mental illness and/or things like gambling addictions) secretly across the border to act as basically untrained spies; half of them broke their legs while parachuting in and were immediately arrested/shot. The other half just seem to have sort of bumbled around until some of them accidentally assured the Allied victory at D-Day or whatever. Literally just being a secret British spy rambling around Berlin and accidentally meeting some Nazi official at a bar and chatting him up and then he’s like “hey do you want to spy for us?” and the spy is like “jiminy christmas, my big chance!” There’s a Spanish guy named Pujol who wrote the British hundreds of letters begging to become a spy, and they never wrote him back, so then he just became one on his own. He got like a CB radio and just started communicating with the Nazis until he had them wrapped around his little finger–they were sending him thousands of dollars and glowing letters commending his work, and all he was sending them was weird unhelpful made-up nonsense. He developed a cast of hundreds of fictional spies and counter-spies, whose character traits and styles of speaking and financial needs he kept track of in meticulous files. Finally the British caught wind of this and were like, who the hell is sending the Germans all this weird info? And they found him, and made it official, and his work saved millions of lives, for example at one point when the Germans are telegraphing him about how they’re going to do a horrible gas attack on London, Pujol writes back as one of his alter egos telling them that the British have amassed the most amazing anti-gas-attack technology ever seen on the planet, and also that they are ready to retaliate with even worse gas if they are ever gas-attacked, none of which was true in the slightest, but the Germans believed it and thus were many Londoners saved from being gassed by the Jerries.
Ben McIntyre must be the luckiest man alive. These documents have only recently been declassified, and he has really made his mark by sifting through them and writing lively narratives for mass-market consumption. It is mind-blowing. Because these docs have been kept so secret, nobody has ever known how huge of a role spies played in WWII. For example, this current book is about how the Allied network of spies is somehow somewhat singlehandedly credited with victory at Normandy. They pulled this elaborate double-triple cross thing where they knew that Hitler knew that they knew that some other place was the best place to mount the amphibious attack, and that he knew that they knew that he knew they knew that, but they got him to think that because they knew that he knew that they knew that, they WOULD actually land there, in spite of it being the most obvious place. So Hitler sent all his troops there, but then actually they landed at Normandy, and won the war. What the fuck!?
I truly don’t get it. And every spy that Germany sent to Britain ended up getting caught, and then either executed or turned into a double agent. This book claims that LITERALLY EVERY GERMAN SPY working in Britain was actually working for Britain. How can that be. The book does not get into what the hell is going on over in Germany with all BRITAIN’S spies.
It’s epic. Every spy has a “handler” who “runs” them, and feeds them information, and helps them figure out what to do. So this means that every double-agent has two handlers–their German one, who they are betraying, and their British one, who hopefully they aren’t although one never knows. This means that both the German handler and the British handler KNOW ABOUT ONE ANOTHER, they know each other’s name and interests and style of communicating, and who their wife is and what they like to eat, and what their feelings are about the war, because the double agent is telling each of them about the other. And so each handler is just crossing their fingers that THEY are the “real” handler and not the patsy being double (or, in the case of the British, triple) crossed. They come to appreciate and understand one another, these enemy handlers across the sea from each other. It’s bizarre.
It’s a style of warfare that I just can’t believe is still in existence. First of all, I feel like surveillance technology is so next-level now that you could no longer get away with writing a note to an enemy commander just basically making up a bunch of stuff about troop movements. But even more importantly, WAR IS NO LONGER CONDUCTED THIS WAY. The war described in this book is a MATCHED BATTLE, where two nation states agree that they are at war, and act accordingly. There are hierarchies and officials and governments involved in a very clear way that everyone understands. Now, war is just this blobby thing where there’s no frontline and no boss and not even any real objectives–like, Hitler and Napoleon and whoever else, they had clear objectives. They were gonna take over Poland, then Russia, then everywhere else. They were gonna invade here and here and here. And then whoever they were invading acted accordingly. Now, we just blow shit up with robots from thousands of miles away, on the one hand, or we strap explosives on ourselves and blow ourselves up somewhat randomly, seemingly just to sow chaos and confusion. There’s no objectives; there’s no battlefields; there’s no accepted hierarchy of who is in charge of whom and why. Can there possibly still be spies, in this context? What would they even do? I highly doubt some British dude parachuting into Baghdad is going to be successful at convincing Al Qaeda (who is that? where are they?) of something. And what would he even by trying to convince them of, anyway? Oh, Barack Obama is gonna blow up this random village tomorrow. Big deal. It seems like there is no more ARTISTRY, I guess I’m saying. There’s not really strategy in this grand old sense. Maybe I’m wrong. It just seems like the only strategy now is to blow as much shit up as you can. There’s no, like, trying to imagine what Hitler is thinking and what he thinks you’re thinking, all this chess-y, cat-and-mouse psychological stuff.
I know there are still spies (Valerie Plame, e.g.) but I just don’t get what they are doing anymore.
It is weird to feel nostalgic for WWII
There’s a part where the Germans capture a Norwegian and “turn” him–force him to spy for them–and then they parachute him into England, where he is immediately arrested, but then he manages to overpower the soldier guarding him in the safe house by trying to strangle him, failing, apologizing, and then tying him to a chair instead. He then steals a tin of sardines, a pineapple, a “large canvas canoe,” and a motorcycle. He rides toward the coast very very slowly on the motorcycle, with the canoe balanced on his head. At one point he falls over and a farmer helps him throw the canoe over a hedge. Growing suspicious of this foreigner with a canoe on his head in the dead of night, the farmer calls the police, and they arrest him again. He immediately agrees to spy for them, thus becoming a double agent. He ended up being one of their more successful spies. Poor dude!
There’s also this really weird side-plot involving pigeons. Apparently Germany and Britain used homing pigeons to communicate across enemy lines, and the British became obsessed with the idea that every pigeon you saw might be a German spy-pigeon. After a storm, an exhausted pigeon dropped out of the sky and was found to have secret messages in invisible ink wrapped around a leg, e.g., stuff like that. So everyone gets pigeon paranoia, like, ANY pigeon could be a German spy, what do we do? This one British pigeon enthusiast developed all these kooky anti-pigeon schemes, with the blessing and funding of the government. Like, he trained falcons to kill pigeons, and he would take them to beaches all up and down the British coast where German pigeons would have to cross into British airspace. But then all the pigeons that falcons killed turned out to have been British pigeons! So then he got a bunch of pigeon owners to set up coops all up and down the coast, and release huge flocks of pigeons at timed intervals all day long, because a tired pigeon who has just crossed the sea is likely to just fall in with a flock if he sees one, and then he’ll fly with them back to their coop and then you can see what message he’s carrying. But they never caught a single enemy pigeon this way.
I don’t understand how any of us are still living.