PTSD in Mesopotamia

Duri_80485461_95088979ng My research for Under the Same Blue Sky on shell shock (PTSD) in World War I uncovered constant references to generals and politicians being themselves shocked, shocked by the number of afflicted soldiers. Really? You send men into battle, enduring horrific conditions, and expect all roses and tra-la? A recent article by James Gallagher in the BBC Health News points to instances of PTSD recorded 3000 years ago. Here’s the article.

Post-traumatic shock “evident 1300 years ago

The team at Anglia Ruskin University analysed translations from ancient Iraq or Mesopotamia. Accounts of soldiers being visited by “ghosts they faced in battle” fitted with a modern diagnosis of PTSD. The condition was likely to be as old as human civilisation, the researchers concluded.

Prof Jamie Hacker Hughes, a former consultant clinical psychologist for the Ministry of Defence, said the first description of PTSD was often accredited to the Greek historian Herodotus. Referring to the warrior Epizelus during the battle of Marathon in 490BC he wrote: “He suddenly lost sight of both eyes, though nothing had touched him.” But Prof Hughes’ report – titled Nothing New Under the Sun – argues there are references in the Assyrian Dynasty in Mesopotamia between 1300BC and 609BC.

In that era men spent a year being toughened up by building roads, bridges and other projects, before spending a year at war and then returning to their families for a year before starting the cycle again.

Prof Hughes told the BBC News website: “The sorts of symptoms after battle were very clearly what we would call now post-traumatic stress symptoms. “They described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle – and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.”

A diagnosis and understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder emerged after the Vietnam War. It was dismissed as shell shock in World War One. Prof Hughes said: “As long as there has been civilisation and as long as there has been warfare, there has been post-traumatic symptoms. It’s not a 21st Century thing.”

Posted in Under the Same Blue Sky

Lessons in Soba Making

imagesRecently I was in a vast underground labyrinth of a Singapore shopping mall, waiting to meet a friend at a coffee shop and came upon this lesson in soba (noodle) making. There is a Japanese chain restaurant in which the all the restaurant’s soba noodles are either made behind glass in view of passers by or at least some of them are made in public view. A young soba maker was being instructed by the master, or anyway, someone a bit older and wiser to soba. You can see the student’s progress in the little videos. He’s a fast learner, I take it. although the difference in his actions is a bit subtle (It’s Japanese, after all).

Here’s the set up since you can’t see everything from where I could shoot. Step 1: You roll out dough made of buckwheat flour and fold it into a neat square (I’m sure in a ritual way) with a light flour dusting between the layers. The square is set on floured stone slab and on top of that is a square piece of wood, exactly the size of your soba-square. You press down on the wood in a carefully prescribed way, as you see, slightly moving the square but not the soba dough it to your left as you cut precisely even, parallel slices through the dough. Apparently there’s a lot to do with hips, shoulders, wrists. Then the soba noodles are trimmed and lightly tossed to separate them. I guess the finished noodles go in the box with the parchment (?) paper in the foreground but I had to leave to meet my friend.

So in the first pass, the Beginner, the student is not happy, although he looked pretty skilled to me. You don’t see the master’s face here but trust me, not happy. Then the Master commenced moving the student’s body around, explaining what he was doing wrong (apparently everything). It went on for awhile and I only got a bit of it. Finally, Finding the Way, voila’ (or however that is in Japanese), everybody was happy.

Posted in Food

Pigeon saves 194 men

220px-Cher_Ami_croppedOnce I dove into World War I history, I found  too many stories for one novel. Here’s an amazing one: Cher Ami, a homing pigeon who saved 194 desperate  American soldiers in the Battle of Argonne, in October, 1918. The story is this.

Five hundred US Army Signal Corpsmen were trapped in a valley without food, ammunition, radio or other communication with headquarters. By the second day, 300 had died and they were receiving “friendly fire” from American forces who didn’t know their location. Major Charles Whittlesey had three homing pigeons donated by British pigeon trainers. He sent the first two with desperate pleas for help and cessation of friendly fire. Both were shot down. Only Cher Ami was left.

The message was put in his capsule and he was released, the last hope of the 200 men. Enemy troops saw him mount from the brush and opened fire, filling the air with bullets. He was hit and fell, but then, amazingly gathered strength, took off again, and flew through the bullets, reaching the division headquarters 25 miles away in 25 minutes. Message delivered, he collapsed, blood-soaked, blind in one eye, with a bullet in his breast and one leg hanging by a tendon. But he’d made it. The friendly fire was stopped and the now 194 survivors were rescued.

Army medics couldn’t save the leg, but tended his other wounds and he survived. When Cher Ami was able to travel, General Pershing saw him off in a new cage for the trip back home, where he earned a Croix de Guerre medal and Oak Leaf Cluster for heroism. I’m not sure how he wore them. He died a year later but has been stuffed and is on display at the Smithsonian.

So if pigeons annoy you in a city, think of Cher Ami.

Posted in Under the Same Blue Sky

Fancy dining in 1915

During World War I, the time frame of Under the Same Blue Sky, here’s what you’d find at San Francisco’s Hotel St. Francis. Notice: quite a lot of shellfish, not much meat, chicken cost less than lobster, and one dessert. Prices are good, though.



Posted in WWWS

Cartooning World War I

Cartooning the horrors and political complexities of World War 1 produced some lovely illustrations.

1986 23 1mimages







Posted in Under the Same Blue Sky

Last Christmas Present

images-2In August of 1992, my mother was diagnosed with a virulent lung cancer. By early December, it was clear that there wasn’t much time left. I was living in Naples, Italy. My parents were in Austin, Texas. I’d arranged to come home in early January but wanted to send a Christmas present. In this circumstance, what?

I decided to give memories, to write everything I remembered about the house where we lived, happily I recall, from the time I was four until I was nine. Not to put too fine a point on it, this was not yesterday. Memories flooded in so thickly that I decided to do just the living room, beginning to the right of the corner that held our Christmas tree and working around the room until I came to the tree.

Astounding what is in the mind. The rusty brown rug (fortunately a color rarely used now) and all the games we played on it, the castles built, the human pyramids made, the books read, propped on pillows. The bookcases and their holdings, the Encyclopedia Britannica I used for homework, done on the attached table of the Danish modern (my mother’s favorite style) couch which she so often re-upholstered. The hours I spent on that couch (I was sick a lot). Holding my baby brother and sister for the first time on that couch. Having winter gloves and boots put on. The door to the kitchen, the stairs to the bedrooms, the games there. The fireplace and mantle, the objects it held. The Chinese prints of four seasons on the wall and how I dreamed of entering each one. Chairs and ottomans. Who sat there. On and on. In the end, I wrote ten pages, single spaced, with a page for the Christmas tree alone, the pleasures of decorating it and the gifts it sheltered, including a puppy for me when I was nine. The process was slow. I stopped often, overcome by the intensity of memory, sometimes by tears, often by joy and gratitude.

My mother was too weak to read the pages when they came, so my father read them to her. Bonding and strong emotions were difficult for her in later life, a little foreign. “I almost cried,” was all she said. As a daughter and—I admit as a writer—I wish she had overcome the “almost.” Still the process, the meditation, was a gift, certainly to me, to my father, and to her, I hope. She died two days before my flight home. But she had read my memories. She knew how much she’d given me in those precious years of childhood.

Posted in Just life

When a yak is not enough


I always had a romantic fondness for yaks, dating from my child’s anthology of literature which included the poem below by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated with a pen and ink drawing of a friendly yak carrying a little girl who looked (I thought) just like me. A yak would be just the thing for taking me to school, which was a long walk (through snow, dragging my lunch pail and so forth). Here’s the poem and doesn’t it make you want a yak?

The Yak

As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.

The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
(A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet.
And surely the Tartar should know!

Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature – or else he will not.
(I cannot be positive which.)

Inspired by these immortal lines I asked my father for a yak. I knew for sure that he wasn’t “awfully rich” or even close, but I thought it worth a shot. No, he would not buy me a yak. Imagine. Winters can be cold in New Jersey, but he was immovable, actually didn’t even seriously entertain a conversation about yak-pet pros and cons.

My mother, however, did say that if I opted against a fancy wedding, they’d give me a yak for a wedding present. Sounded reasonable to a 7  year old.  Some years later when I was 20, I did get married, did have a very inexpensive wedding in my parents’ living room and did NOT get a yak. Or rather not a real one. On top of the wedding cake (German Chocolate, my favorite) was a paper mache’ yak  made by an artist friend. What a blow.

As it happened, the marriage was a huge mistake, ended not soon enough, and the yak was lost in the shuffle. But I still like yaks, or rather the idea of them. However now I live in Tennessee which is probably too hot for them.

What animal did you always want?

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Posted in Just life

Under the Same Blue Sky, publication! May 5, 2015. Launch at Laurel Theater, Knoxville on May 7 @ 7 pm.

Saturday, February 28, 2015. Dialogue workshop at East Tennessee Historical Society, More at:

Monday, April 6, 2015. Making it Real: Research Techniques for the Smart Writer. Blount County Public Library, Maryville, TN

April 9-11, 2015. Tennessee Mountain Writers Conference. Workshop on historical fiction and panel. DoubleTree Hotel, Oak Ridge, TN

Swimming in the Moon to be published in German.

Recent Review
"A testament to the love and enduring bond between mothers and daughters, childhood friendships and adopted family, Swimming in the Moon is a must read for anyone who enjoys beautiful, richly drawn characters and a historical setting so realistic one would believe they had been transported into another time. A glorious, unforgettable novel. A+" Pittsburgh Examiner

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