826 Chicago and the Boring Store

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Creative writing is and always will be my first love; over the past three years I’ve surprised myself by finding out I also love working with children. Therefore, the mission of 826 National is very dear to my heart. Founded by novelist Dave Eggers, 826 National encourages students ages six to eighteen to express themselves through creative writing.

There are eight centers across the United States–in New York, DC, Boston, Ann Arbor, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Seattle–which offer after-school tutoring, workshops, and field trips. They also frequently publish compilations of their students’ work, including the very popular Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama (in which kids offered advice such as “When you move into the White House, turn on the heater so it won’t be cold. You could also take hot baths in your new antique bathtubs,” and “You should not smoke when you are president! There are simple reasons. Because you will die by smoking, and then you will not be president! But I want you to be”).

In addition to the writing centers, each 826 branch includes one-of-a-kind retail stores. Pirates in San Fran flock to their local 826 store for supplies such as eyepatches and mermaid bait or repellant (depending on one’s mood, I suppose). Gotham city superheroes can stock up on capes and antimatter at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. while the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. offers ray guns and intergalactic peace treaties to all astro-adventurers.

Oh, really?

My favorite, of course, is 826Chicago’s store, the innocently titled Boring Store. This store–“not by any means a store for spies”–sells disguises, surveillance gear, and carrier pigeon supplies: exactly the kind of stuff I would have loved in my early days of dreaming of becoming a spy. I can only imagine how thrilled I would have been as a child to take writing lessons at a place that doubled as a spy-supply store. Perhaps I’d be just as thrilled to work as an adult at a creative writing center for kids that sells spy supplies. Hmm…topic for next week?

Mata Hari and the history of the honey trap

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Mata Hari, femme fatale

Mata Hari is infamous for being both the first exotic dancer of her kind and a German spy in WWI. She was paid handsomely for the first talent, but paid with her life for the second. Unfortunately, three decades after the French executed her for treason, officials confessed they had no evidence against her and never had any real reason to suspect her. Mata Hari, it turns out, was not a spy at all.

During her trial, though, a case was built to support her alleged infidelity to the French. She was an admittedly promiscuous woman, a feature which many cultures and eras are quick to punish. In addition, she went by an assumed name. Her real name was Margaretha Geertruida “Grietje” Zelle MacLeod; she took on Mata Hari, the word for sunrise in the Dutch East Indies, when she began her dance routine in Paris. And she was being paid by gentlemen from all over Europe, a fact that led prosecutors to speculate these men were handlers for her espionage. Suspicious she was; guilty she was not.

Mata Hari was assumed to be a “honey trap,” the term for those women and men that use their sexuality to elicit foreign intelligence. History is full of honey traps, both real and imagined ones. After WWII, an East German spymaster named Markus Wolf set up an entire bureau of what he called “Romeo spies.” He tasked these men to infiltrate West German intelligence by romancing the single women who had risen to high offices in the absence of those German men who had died in the war. These spies were extremely successful, and at one point had a direct connection to NATO to find out the West’s plans to deploy nuclear weapons. A few women were tried for treason due to this intelligence operation, but their punishments were much more lenient than that of Mata Hari.

In the case of Mata Hari, as a Foreign Policy article concludes, resembling a honey trap can be as dangerous as actually being one.

Spy v Spy

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Who do you think would win in a match-up of spies with the initials J.B.? James Bond:

Jason Bourne:

or Jack Bauer:

How to be a spy


What you’ll need: passports from several countries, dashing good looks

Songlist: Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers, James Bond Theme

Further reading: The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy by Peter Earnest

Last week, the big news was of a common girl marrying her Prince Charming; this week it is the death of an evil villain. Look for news of a dragon slaying next week.

The seal of the Navy SEALs

Yes, Osama bin Laden has been killed and President Obama made it clear last night in his address that the successful operation hinged on intelligence–tips supplied by Pakistanis combined with the careful and highly secretive planning of American special forces.

For the “small team of Americans”–Navy SEALs–who carried it out, this operation was undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences of their lives: precisely the type of operation that one becomes a Navy SEAL to take on. When I was younger I knew I would never be badass enough to train for something like the Navy SEALs, but I was always interested in the intelligence aspect of these missions. For a long time I was quite serious in wanting to become a spy.

MAD magazine on how not to be a spy

One of my favorite books as a child was an illustrated guide on how to be a good spy. The book included information about how to pick a secure drop site and leave secret messages for fellow spies. I made my own matchbox spy kit complete with chalk and lemon juice and burnt matches to leave messages and string just in case (I wasn’t sure what case would necessitate string, but as a spy you have to be ready for anything).

I made my mom leave messages for me around the house and created a drop site in the tree in our front yard. I had plans to widen the berth of my intelligence operations all the way to a nearby park, but one problem always remained: I had nothing to spy about and no one to spy on. But no matter, spying seemed like a slightly more advanced game of hide-and-seek.

My espionage interest lingered long enough for me to put “international affairs” as my intended major when, as a precocious high school freshman, I filled out college information requests. I had looked at the CIA’s website by then and was intrigued by the sound of “Clandestine Service Positions.” All I needed was to study some Language of National Interest like Farsi or Pashto or Arabic and my road to the CIA would be assured.

Robert Hanssen who lived an anything-but-glamorous spy's life

My desire to become a spy ceased immediately and permanently on February 20, 2001. That was the day that the FBI announced the arrest of Robert Hanssen, American citizen and Soviet spy. I read a profile of Hanssen and his more than two decades of spying for the Soviets–later the Russians–and was shocked by the cripplingly lonely conditions of his life. He could tell no one in his “regular” life about his work, but he never had any face-to-face contact with Soviet or Russian handlers either. He existed in a private world unto himself, yet the information he passed along was potent: it directly led to the deaths of several Russian double agents.

I hate being lonely, and I don’t keep secrets well. All I had imagined when envisioning myself as a spy was excitement, travel, out-maneuvering the enemy (either in high speed car chases, or perhaps in tense intellectual stand-offs). The world of James Bond and Jason Bourne is fabulous and exciting and completely at odds with Robert Hanssen’s world. Knowing that Hanssen’s world was the reality of a spy’s life, I lost all interest. Later, in college, a friend confirmed this harsh reality: she had made it to an advanced stage in CIA interviews but had been turned off when she realized she would never again be able to tell her family where she was or what she was doing. (The CIA makes it clear on their job application that you are not to tell anyone that you are applying or interviewing, lest you damage your future potential with the agency).

Robert Hanssen escaped the death penalty for treason, but is imprisoned without possibility of parole at a Colorado Supermax federal penitentiary. He spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, a fitting punishment for the solitary life he lived. Somewhere in my childhood bedroom my old spy kit sits, like Hanssen, collecting dust.