Wednesday, February 24, 2021

On Post Traumatic Stress, marriages, and two truly awesome books

I was sitting in the living room with my Calmer Half*, enjoying a cup of coffee and the mutual exhausted silence, when he opened his eyes, looked around, and focused on Jen Satterly's book lying blamelessly on the coffee table. It's Arsenal of Hope: Tactics for Taking on PTSD, Together, and it's the... well, last year her husband, retired Delta CSM Tom Satterly wrote All Secure: A Special Operations Soldier's Fight to Survive on the Battlefield and the Homefront, in which he details the effect that training and operational tempo, combat and losing friends and the resulting PTSD had not only on him, but on his marriages, on his kid, and on his ability to adapt to civilian life. And how he's fought his way back from the blackest depths to healthy and happy, and is trying to show others the trail he's blazed, and that it's possible and there's hope.

Jen's book is the other half, on what living with someone with PTSD is like, and the toll it takes from the dependent's view. It's also exactly what is says - an arsenal of many different treatments, therapies, approaches, and the cheerful, rueful note that none of them are a silver bullet. Some don't work at any given time but work well later, some work and then lose their effectiveness, some will never work for any particular case. It's an honest, raw look at all the ways that things get messed up between spouses, and that there's been a lot of pain, and depression on her end, as living with rampant PTSD is depressing! About how to treat yourself, and the importance of putting your own oxygen mask on first, and helping yourself so you can be a help to your partner.

If I had to distill them down to quips, Tom's book is "This shit hits even the toughest of us. You're not weak, you're injured, and there's hope to heal." And Jen's? "Here's how, for both of you."

Calmer Half has shown less than zero interest in reading the books. On the other hand, he's willing to talk to me when I want to chew over things they've brought up aloud. Sometimes his responses were practically cryptic, like when I mentioned Tom's description of Mogadishu (which Calmer Half said with a dryness that could mummify at ten paces "Yes, that is a very understated description of urban combat all over Africa." He was quiet for a moment, then added, "You never forget that smell.") 

... yeah, not asking him to clarify that.

Sometimes the responses were quite eloquent. And sometimes they were a revelation to both of us, because he thought I already understood.

Let me explain here that Calmer Half is not an American combat vet. He's British South African, so his military was different, his wars were ones our media didn't talk about, and even more importantly, his country did not have a military dependent culture, not like the USA does. When he got back from his first combat against the Angolans, Cubans, East Germans, and Soviets, his dad finally started to tell him some of what he'd seen in WWII. He finished it with "don't say anything to your mum or your sisters. They wouldn't understand, and it would only upset the ladies."

And he kept that stiff upper lip for years, through round after round of combat, on through the struggle to end apartheid, through the fights with communist tsostis and jihadis fresh back from fighting Russians in Afghanistan and each trying to take over the townships and destabilize the country so they could be in control... all the way through 18 years of undeclared civil war. Any tentative attempt to explain to the ladies there was met with incomprehension to outright hostility, so he just bottled it up.

I, meanwhile, grew up with a dad in the military, in a family that is full of expats, engineers, and career military. My family's been army so long we use the working saber with the nicks from vertebrae still in the edge to cut our wedding cakes, because we lost the dress saber generations ago. My brother went career military. Me, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I folded my arms and spat defiantly at the teacher, "a civilian!" (Apparently I was the only one who didn't see marriage to a combat vet coming from years off. Dad was highly amused, and their first phone call promptly veered into words like "Vela Incident" and "mustang" and "The second lieutenant had A Bright Idea" and "sweating cordite." They get along great, even if their acronyms and uniforms don't match.)

This also means I've grown up with a great many coping mechanisms for 'battle fatigue' built in, and an understanding that "Oh, that's just my soldier. You don't have to understand why or what set that off, you just have to know it will and love 'em anyway." Some of which I didn't even understand were coping mechanisms, because they're just the way you do things. Military and their dependents are a culture, and like any culture, it adapts to the stresses and needs of its particular people.

We didn't call it PTSD when I was growing up. That was a foreign term, that it seemed civilian shrinks who proudly dodged the draft and a press that hated the military tried to slap on any and all soldiers in order to mark them as unfit, dangerous, and untrustworthy scum. Nobody I knew would ever apply it to themselves. I certainly never, not in all the things that ever happened to me, thought once to apply that term to myself.

I once asked dad what PTSD was, because of all the people tossing around that loaded term, I trusted him. He paused for a long moment, and finally said, "It's the right set of responses to the wrong environment."

That was a perfectly workable definition for going on with, and it meant in my world, it was perfectly normal and fine when the prof broke out his ultra-new techie toy, and waved his "laser pointer" at the overhead projector, and the ceiling, and the lecture hall... and my study buddy on the GI Bill was suddenly underneath the tiny, cramped desk, while papers were still fluttering down to the ground. When he came out from under the desk fighting mad, and walked out with fists curled into white knuckles, I just kept taking notes.

After class, I tracked him down where he and a couple other vets from class were standing at their favorite smoking redoubt, chain smoking one cigarette after another, and dumped their assorted backpacks and stacks of books and notes on the nearby bench. "Right responses, wrong environment. But next time, can you come back for your backpacks? These are heavy, guys!" (Look, I was 98 pounds at the time. They added up to a significant fraction of my body weight.)

The response was a long, silent crushing hug, followed by a quick sorting of everyone's stuff, checks that certain items were still stowed in their backpacks (and few snugged back into their belts), and "C'mon kid. Let's go get lunch. No, I'm paying." And off we went, so they could copy my notes, and horse around, blowing off steam. Of course, I knew exactly which seat I'd get: it'd be the one with the back to the door - because that's just how soldiers are, right? They never sit where they can't see the exits, and there's no need to think about it, because it's as natural as breathing...

Right responses, wrong environment was great definition... right up until I married a combat vet. Right up until I found that there were things we had to work through, and work around, that seemed utterly inexplicable. And Peter was keeping a stiff upper lip, completely silent as to why he would get so upset about something, and we both had to learn an entire set of routines and responses just to avoid having yet another pointless fight.

Weirdly enough, what really helped? The movie Act of Valor. I wanted to go see it, because I'd heard it was seals playing actors playing seals, which seemed so hilariously meta and awful that I figured it would be as campy as Rocky Horror. And since I didn't want to go alone, I talked my Calmer Half into going with me. This violated one of my mother's primary rules on movies, by the way. "Never watch a war movie with soldiers, and never watch a flying movie with pilots!" I figured it would make him wince and groan and shout at the screen about everything they were getting technically wrong, and be hilarious.

I was utterly wrong. Oh, the seals were awkward, especially in that way of: "We are now showing the cameramen a conversation written by scriptwriters like we say this normally, when you and I both know we said this ten years ago and now have it down to a lift of an eyebrow and a faint nod." The effects were disturbing where they didn't mean to be, because they did too many things too right, or too close to real instead of to the stylized Hollywood tropes. And at the end, when one seal throws himself on a grenade to save the others, and you see the blood pooling and the dust drifting down in front of his open, lifeless eyes... the credits rolled on that image, and I looked over at the big guy who'd been squeezing the blood out of my hand, even when I wasn't wincing or jumping. And in the flickering light, I saw him staring at the dead man staring back from the movie screen, tears rolling down his face.

Look, I don't think men can't cry. I just think women cry at the drop of a hat, and men don't cry unless it's extremely important. Calmer Half comes from an even more reserved culture than me, so how it hit him... I just hugged him and sat there as the theater emptied, until he was ready to move. When he finally shuddered, and came back to the here and now, and started half-clumsily reaching for his handkerchief and trying to apologize with extreme embarrassment, I just hugged him harder. "It's okay to cry. It really is. Soldiers do that, sometimes, at war movies. It's normal."

He looked at me like I'd grown a second head, but wiped his face, blew his nose, and we headed out into the drizzling rain to walk back to the car. Having taken so long to get out of the movie, the parking lot was fairly well deserted, and we went at a gentle amble, holding hands. He finally said, a little brokenly, "I hope that maybe... that seeing that, you might start to understand... That some of that was what it was like, downrange."

I squeezed his hand, and said, "Honey, I'm a military brat. I was raised to understand that I don't have to understand what you saw and what you did out there, I just have to love you. You're perfectly normal, for a soldier."

The look this time was less like I was spouting something totally alien... no, this time, it was something so profoundly grateful and amazed, like a starving man who wished for a crust of bread and was handed a banquet, that I was the one starting to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed now.  And then he opened his mouth, and years of pain started to pour out.

It didn't immediately make everything fine, but at least now, when something upsets him, we can talk about it, and work it out. And that's made all the difference in the world, as we rub along together over the years. Sometimes bits of shrapnel come out of his skin, sometimes painful memories come out of the whatever depths of his mind they were shoved into.

(Sometimes these are completely random. You know, when you're married to a guy for 10 years, and then in the course of mentioning I'd just learned from a podcast that when a guy took an IED to the face and was blinded, he actually was "seeing" vividly intense interpretations by his brain, as though he was still in the 'stans. He'd hear a nurse talk, and look over and "see" a village elder talking, standing there among the mud brick huts, even as he could smell and hear that he was in the hospital. This continued until they gave him a drug that made everything go black.

I had never heard of that before, so I mentioned it to Calmer Half. I did not expect him to get very quiet, and then start feeling up in his hair, and say "Yeah. This dent, here. Can you feel that? God, I wish they'd had that drug back then."

Ah, yes, combat vets. Sometimes a surprising amount of WTFery is in store, when you marry one, and never from the direction you expect!)

This is where we come back to his responses to Jen Satterly's book.

So, coming up on 11 years of marriage, and he's cooking dinner, the roomba is running along underfoot, and I'm putting dishes away and talking about Jen's book, and I say, "...So she says it's not just right responses, wrong environment, it's also that the limbic system which is primed for combat gets switched on in the middle of everyday, and so you're viewing everything as threatening chaos that needs to be controlled or eliminated on the fight or flight level, whether you want to or not."

Calmer Half put the spatula down with a precision that said he's distinctly annoyed, and turned and gave me a look that left no doubt. "Well, of course!" He snapped, and then stopped, and visibly calmed himself down, and added, "Didn't you know that?"

"No?" I stopped what I was doing, turned to him, and held out my hands.

He took a deep breath, let it out, and said, "I'm trying to focus on a task. You're walking behind me repeatedly. That," and he glared at the roomba which was now bumping his right foot like it wanted to mate with him, "is underfoot and annoying, and there are too many things moving I can't see and control while focused on this."

"Oh!" I picked up the roomba and turned it off. "Okay, then I can put the rest of the dishes away later, and this can cease annoying both of us right now."

He blinked. "You really didn't know that?"

"Well, I do now, and we can work on that."

Yeah, I wish I'd had both books years ago. Tom's book is great for giving you the view from inside your soldier, and Jen's book is great for the view from inside the spouse, and together... together, they are more than the sum of their parts, because you get to see the same incidents described from two different viewpoints, and it completes the picture of their relationship, and how they've struggled with and worked together to achieve the health and happiness and great marriage they have.

But if you're only going to read one, Jen's has more strategies for making life better, and even with all Peter and I have achieved, it's still had a new piece or two that's been helpful.

And this brings us back to this morning, when we were sitting there enjoying the silence together, my Calmer Half opened his eyes, looked at Jen's book, and said, "You should write a blog article reviewing that book. Both books on PTSD. Together."

"Um.." I looked at him. Because I really started my blog only so he could see what I was doing when I was 4,000 miles away, and so people who worried could keep track when I was flying my plane down. It's fairly defunct, and mostly a way to store recipes. "What?"

He locked eyes with me, and said in that utterly calm, and utterly sincere way, "You should write about it."

"But..." I had already lost, I knew. I don't write reviews (well, the occasional review on Amazon, but rarely books even then), but I was going to write this. And now I have.




*for those of you who wonder, the term Calmer Half is something of an old joke between us, going back to the day that two old vets, friends, fellow pilots, and mentors of mine looked at me over their coffee and informed me that they approved of Peter, and he was good enough to marry "Our Dot." As one put it, "We always knew you'd marry a combat vet! You're too high strung!" The fact that he tends to respond to my having domestic disasters with "Calm down, love! It's a good day! No one's shooting at you!"**... or, when looking at his dead truck with a shrug, "Well, at least you didn't hit a landmine"... yeah, he got grumpily tagged Calmer Half instead of Better Half.

**No, it doesn't work. Never in the history of ever has telling a highly upset woman with a fresh adrenal dump in her bloodstream to calm down worked. He keeps trying anyway, the eternal optimist.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

But I don't want to work harder!

 I'm still working on the same book I was working on back in October - and slowly, slowly, it comes together. This one has been more research heavy, including but not limited to Rhodesian Fire Force tactics and how ships bunker (refuel at sea.) But I'm closing in: the recon team in is overwatch on the terrorist camp, and the exploration team is almost, almost to the coastline of the country they need to infiltrate and explore. 

(It's very strange to compile everything and realize that all this research is still going to be a rather slim novel, almost a novella by the time I'm done. I feel like it ought to be a goat gagger for all the work, but the length of the final product is not indicative of the work put in. No doubt it'll expand after the beta read, when feedback from the distaff side tells me I need to slow down and put more explanation in.)

Anyway, last night I was sitting by my husband's feet as he sat by the fireplace, and talking about what I had planned upcoming in the book, to get them from the smuggler's ship they'd bought passage on into the actual country. (I'd just built the fire. I could claim I was monitoring it, but all y'all over a certain age or mileage know I was really just waiting until the pain from getting up was less than the pain from sitting on the floor.)

And my dearest Calmer Half said, "No, it wouldn't work like that. You could do this, or you could do that. In fact, it'd be best if you went back and had them procure these things, and arrange for them to be loaded on the ship before leaving harbor, and then you have this third option, with these operational concerns. And you need to keep this in mind..."

I did not want to go back and change three chapters, one of them so badly I'd have to rewrite from scratch. I did not want to have to do the more complicated way he was saying. I am already slow enough on the writing; I don't want to lose the momentum I have to rewriting. So I grumbled, "I don' wanna rewrite. And I really don't want to change my blocking for the next chapter!"

My darling Calmer Half, whom I love very, very much, gave me this look. You know the one. And replied mildly, "Well, you can write it how you want. It's your book." Softer, mulishly, he added, "But when I had occasion to do similar things, we used the scenarios I outlined."

Fooey. Darnit. Botheration!

I don't want to rewrite. But I'm going to, because he's right. You know, it'd be so much easier to be cheerfully wrong (until my betas caught it) if I didn't live with a subject matter expert!

After going off to my office and doing some grumbling, then fixing a nice hot cup of coffee loaded with Godiva's dark hot chocolate powder, and possibly a more than a little Bailey's as well, I sat down in front of the fire, and sighed. "You are right and I am wrong. All right. Now that I've got my temper tantrum out of the way, what am I doing?"

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Clam Chowder slightly more Southwest

This recipe started life as "Cheater's Chowder", because it was a way to make a keto variant of clam chowder in about 15 minutes. But even when not trying to diet, I like this enough to keep making it, because it's quick, it's filling, and it's tasty. (Also, chunky not smooth, because Calmer Half prefers that.)

Then I moved to Texas, and the spices started to change. As well as the "what do I have in my fridge?" All measurements are rough guesses.

Quick Clam Chowder Slightly More Southwest

1-2 onions, diced
1-2 poblano peppers, diced
1 cup celery, sliced thin
1 cans clams (do not drain)
4 cups chicken stock (or water + better than bullion)
1/2-1 cup bacon crumbles (real, not fake bacon. Saute and dice if you don't have crumbles)
1-2 Tbsp bacon grease (or olive oil, if you're out of bacon grease and have crumbles)
1 Tbsp thyme
1/2 tsp mesquite-smoked salt, or to taste (depending on the saltiness of your stock and bacon)
1-2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp chipolte powder
1Tbsp minced garlic
2 cups half & half
1 steamer bag riced cauliflower, or 1 small-medium head of cauliflower, chopped fine (yay food processor)

First, chop your cauliflower, if needed. Put in a bowl, add a splash of water, cover with plastic wrap, poke a few holes in the top. Pop in microwave for 8 minutes. Or, you know, put steamer bag in there and follow directions.

Put heavy stockpot on the stove - I prefer an enameled cast iron dutch oven, but whatever makes you happy. Beware: this recipe can grow. Throw lump of bacon grease in, set to med-high heat. If you don't have bacon crumbles, chop frozen bacon into diced bits and toss in to fry. If you have thawed bacon only, fry, then pull out to crumble when cooled. Cook twice as much bacon as you need, so you can snack while working. Cook's privilege!

Dice poblanos, toss in to saute. Chop celery, toss in, stir. Chop onion, toss in, stir. When fairly sauteed, toss bacon in, stir. Add the salt, spices, and garlic, stir. When the garlic is nicely mellowed, add bay leaves, stock, and the can of clams, and stir to get all the browned bits off the bottom. When it comes up to a simmer, add the half & half. 

Pull the cooked cauliflower out of the microwave, carefully open bag / pull cover off, dump in soup. When it comes back up to a simmer again, taste and adjust spices/ salt if needed. Serve!


Turmeric Rice in the rice cooker

Calmer Half: "Why are you putting whole spices in the rice?"
Me: "Because that's what the recipe calls for, and I have them? This is my first time with this recipe, so I'm following the directions."
Calmer Half. "Ah."
An hour later, after a meal of tandoori chicken with date chutney on a bed of peas and turmeric rice, Calmer Half rendered his verdict. "Do you have everything you need to make this again? Do I need to pick up anything when grocery shopping?"

All right, I'll call that successful. And will use whole spices in turmeric rice again (or in the case of the cardamom pods, smashed-open.)

Rice Cooker Turmeric Rice:
3/4 tsp turmeric
2-inch stick of cinnamon
4 cardamom pods, smashed open
3 cloves
2 cups rice, rinsed until running clear
2 cups chicken stock + water to bring it up to the line
pinch salt

Put in rice cooker, start. Next time, I may add a pat of butter, because it seemed like it could have used it.

One variant of the recipe had throwing frozen peas in the rice cooker, but I was dubious, so I made them in the microwave and spooned them on top afterward. It worked!

The tandoori chicken recipe is very simple: grab the tandoori paste jar, follow the directions to make marinade with yogurt and chicken. Marinade a few hours. Pull out after starting the rice cooker, preheat and bake in oven at 350 for 25 minutes for boneless skinless chicken thighs. No recipe recorded here, because... really. It's on the jar. I can look that up, if I have the jar. 
 
Not all of my cooking is high-falutin' recipe stuff!

 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Wish for a crust of bread, be handed a banquet

I'm writing a thing, and it took a turn I didn't expect. (Several, actually.) First, it wanted to be a short story. Then, it kept going, and picked up two additional viewpoint characters. I thought I finally had a sequel on my hands, but it turned out I had written the first three chapters of a novel, and at least one needs rewriting to a different point of view. 

F*ck It, Drive On, as they say. I kept writing. Well, the problem with a military POV is that the guy in question is going to go off and do military things, independently of the rest of the cast (though they will matter to the plot later.) And those military things will include assaulting a terrorist compound. 

I'm not military. I will never claim to have been such. What's a girl to do in a situation like this?

If you belong to the North Texas Writers, Pilots, and Shooters Association, you spend a while grumbling on a mapping program, then print out a topo chart on a piece of the earth whose terrain matches kinds sorta what was in your head, and take it to dinner.

And then the guys decry your choice of both compound site and nearby town location, and move them, and then proceed to wargame the heck out of it. 

I am very grateful I have Calmer Half to provide love, support, direction, and I'm sure that was a snicker when I stomped to the tea kettle grumbling "The Appalachians are all folded the wrong way!"

I am also grateful for LawDog, "Your insertion site needs to be back here, and then hike at military crest... you are aware that's not ridgeline... to observation points here, here, and here..."

And Old NFO "You are not moving the LZ. Wheat fields were made for landing!" 

And Aepilot Jim "You're gonna have the mortar guy carry his equipment four klicks? What kind of second lieutenant plan is this?"

And Jon Laforce for the "Yeah, no, pack weight is now that much for regular soldiers." And 155m howitzers' guy viewpoint.

And John Van Stry for encouragement and chocolate cake, and Monalisa Foster for sympathy at the "where did that come from?" characters and POV recommendations...

And last but not least, Alma Boykin for geology help, and commiserating via text afterward on being assigned homework prior to next week's meeting. And laughing at me. 

Truly, I am blessed in subject matter experts, who also make great food. Now I just have to write the thing, to standards high enough to pass beta reading...

Old NFO's take here: https://oldnfo.org/2021/01/17/heh-7/

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Bad timing

 Some days, I have all my ducks in a row. Some days, I don't even know where my ducks are, and they might have been shot and are already being plucked by a happy hunter by the time I notice they're missing. 

Like yesterday. I headed out to the kitchen at 4pm to start cooking, only to find the leg of lamb I'd pulled out of the deep freezer to finally cook had not thawed, and I'd underestimated just how many pounds it was.

"Hey, hon?" I looked at Calmer Half through a haze of exhaustion due to piling doctor's appointment on top of being ambitious at the gym that morning. "Can you check my math?"

"Yes?" He looked up from his computer, with a patient "I was in the middle of something but you need help" look. 

"Thirty minutes per pound, for six pounds, is three hours, right?"

"Yes."

"And if we add half an hour of resting afterward, and thirty minutes for prep, that's four. And the directions say the roast should be at room temperature when it goes in the oven, but it's still semi-frozen despite being pulled out at noon, so that's at least two more..."

"You're up to six hours." He was still smiling, with the 'and this is why we have backup plans' sort of laughter in his eye.

"So it'd be ten o'clock before dinner's ready... how do you feel about going out to Mexican?"

He didn't miss a beat. "I'll drive. Let me know when you're ready to go."

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Background information

One of the difficult - but often entertaining - things about eating and conversing in public places is that I find it hard to mentally filter out the conversations that are taking place near me. (This is also why I don't like a tv on in the background.) 

This means I get to hear a lot of conversations whether I want to or not. And while it's certainly helped flesh out minor characters in stories, it also provides a very interesting glimpse into the tenor of places and times. Life has a rhythm to it, and there's a certain set of pitches and tones that come with places, an expected range of conversational topics that define normal. 

This weekend, Calmer Half and I went on a road trip. About noon, we found ourselves in a county seat, on the courthouse square. Not an especially big county or population for Texas, but not by any means one of the smallest, either. As I was desperately under-coffeed, we stopped in a nice coffee bar that we'd been in before. Lovely place, even if it'd be hard to get more hipster outside of Austin or Portland. 

The kind of place where conversations often are about designer this and coding that, about somebody's book club or what the article in the New York Times said. Or how terrible it is to be in such a small town compared to the action elsewhere, but cant be helped. Solar this, wind that, the unfortunate reality of oil revenues, always absinthe never whiskey...

There was something wrong to the atmosphere, and it wasn't the baristas being in monogrammed masks. No, that wasn't unexpected, nor were the overly-artisan sweets (that were delicious. They do great food and coffee.) It was the subtle change in body language among the people sitting at the tables. It was in the lowered pitch in the conversational hum, the startling absence of the hipster nasal whine in the background noise. 

It was the backpack slung on the seat near me when I sat down was pure military. In fact, the young man sitting next to his backpack was well muscled, ramrod straight spine, haircut clipped so closely I could see the scalp underneath below the ridiculous bowler hat that must have fit back before he gained 75 pounds of muscle. 

Across the table sat two weedy late teenagers... they might have been very early twenties. And conversation was clearly that one of the gang had Gotten Out Of This Place via the military, and was catching up with his hometown buddies. The kind of kids you expect to see working gas stations and pizza delivery and trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. Indeed, one was contemplating joining the military like his buddy. 

I sat, trying to be lost in my coffee, but pulled away from my conversation with Calmer Half by phrases that kept catching my attention.
"Man, the price of .223 is insane! I used to be able to find it for..."
"We're stockpiling supplies in case..."
"Yeah, she broke up with him, and you know how much it costs to get rid of the tattoo?"
"...against the principles of the constitution!"

If the hair on the back of my neck weren't already on end from the things leaking past the heavily censored and carefully curated national pravda, it would be now. Never, in my adult life, has the hipster nasal whine disappeared from a full coffee shop. And never has a low angry hum replaced it...

The last time I heard a crowd hit this low tone, they were on the verge of going from a mob to a riot, and I don't mean anything near as cuddly as the mostly peaceful protestors in DC. And this wasn't a crowd with any point or purpose beyond coffee on a weekend morning.

Stay safe out there, and I don't mean wearing any damn masks. I mean carry, and keep your head on a swivel.