Review: The Book of Calamities

Human suffering through the ages

Here we have a book that takes us into the depths of all that comprises human suffering. Five questions, each with its own painful and diligent explanation/answer, read almost like the various circles of Dante’s hell. Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me? About God? And finally, What do I owe those who suffer? The author cites several characters throughout history who we’ve come to associate with suffering: Boethius, Gilgamesh & Enkidu, Joan Didion, Victor Frankl, Simone Weil, Thich Nhat Han, and several others who declaim from their own perspective.

Trachtenberg circles around one particular cause of all human suffering, religiosity and its singular mission to, as the author says, ‘…raise human beings to heaven on a tower of corpses.’ He examines this further, concluding that our attraction to religion derives from the fact that humans are ‘order seeking animals’ and that religion is ‘man’s revolt against mortality.’

This book may be singular insofar as, for this reader at least, its author seems more interesting than his topic. Trachtenberg appears to have written this work largely from his own deep dive into the very depths of misery described here. His conclusion seems to be that, to answer any of the five questions, human beings must experience misery, perversion, violence, and depravity first hand. Those of us living modern, sanitized lives quite possibly cannot understand this most basic of human queries: As Gilgamesh asks, ‘Must I, too, lie down like him (Enkidu) and never rise again?’ Caution, readers, you may want a dictionary close by. Example: To scry = to foretell; Oubliette = a secret dungeon. There are others.

EOL: The Chat We’re Not Having

No need to be alarmed, friends, and no need to pay keener attention if you happen to be a beneficiary to my laughingly meager estate. I’m as healthy and sound as any near 73-year-old might be, and probably sounder than most, if perhaps a bit grumpy and too quick to snarl at certain things, hopelessly confusing digital products and republicans, for example. I’m fine. Really. Relax.

But yes, there is a common theme to the books pictured above: We’re beginning an endeavor, first at the local level, later on, we hope, with a broader reach, to encourage people to tend to their end of life wishes, desires, specifics, and loose ends. It’s a long story.

Suffice to say that both Mariah and I, having worked in the vineyard of emergency medicine for several years, have seen far too much flagrant inattention to the details of our collective demise, too much ignorance (Ignore-Ance) of the way that we in our hyper-medicalized society always seem shocked and unprepared for life’s ultimate inevitability. Did you know that you’re going to die? Astonishing, isn’t it? I know, I was amazed to hear it myself. Who knew?

About the book picture: One thing you’ll see posted here on a regular basis is book reviews, not just about EOL issues, but about the literary works I’ve been drawn to recently, and a few not so recently. It is indeed one of retired life’s deepest pleasures to have (almost) sufficient time to read what one wishes, without the aggravating interruptions of modern life, kid concerns, career distractions, loud noises, and the incessant social obligations that once defined our younger years. I’ve become resigned, even thrilled by the lack of interest of late in discussions of my bladder issues, or my real feelings about the new hearing aids, or remembrances of favorite TV shows of yore, Lassie, and Laugh-In, and the ever popular, madcap antics of Andy & Barney & Aint Bea & Opie. I’ve discovered that the fastest way to clear the room may be asking who shot JR? Life is good at 73.


The picture above is Mariah and me, and mom Rosie. We 3 Masketeers live together in relative harmony here in the middle of the country, in the middle of an Iowa winter, in the middle of the apparently waning pandemic. We navigate the standard discomforts of shuffling around each other, making the adjustments called for in any family setting. All that, plus Rosie’s advanced age, the winter of her life, have given us added motivation to focus on EOL stuff.

So here’s your homework, dear readers. In my diminished sentience & inattention to such things, I no longer know to whom I’m writing. If you’d be so kind, take a moment to advise me #1, if you did indeed receive this post, and #2, if you’d like to continue receiving them.

And I suppose number three might be this: If you’d like more info on EOL, end of life issues, and/or you have an interesting and valuable story pertaining to that topic, we’d love to hear about it. Speaking of EOL stories, in my next post, and with deference to HIPAA guidelines, I’ll mention a fellow named Daniel, one of my helicopter patient/passengers some foggy years hence. Daniel’s story will chill your arms, I guarantee it. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. Please let me hear from you. Many thanks.

The Senate Must Convict

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

The U.S. Senate has the unenviable task of trying an impeached (former) president, deciding whether or not to convict him, thereby erasing any future plan he may have to hold public office. This is one man’s opinion of why the senate must convict Donald Trump, and make his banishment real, and permanent.

First of all, Trump’s incitation of those who committed insurrection against our symbols and structures of government is clear to any reasonable person. The lit match was not struck on January 6th 2021, but much, much earlier, as far back as Charlottesville in August 2017. The fuse may have been 4 years long, but it led from Trump to those terrorists and their nihilistic assault nonetheless.

Secondly, the most sacred edifice in our democratic republic was assaulted by an unruly mob intent on subverting our democracy. This was the biggest crime against ‘We the People’ ever to have been perpetrated by residents of this country. Why are we even discussing its criminality, or the degree of it? That was not an out of control frat party. It was a crime. Against all of us.

Thirdly, those men who took to the streets at Trump’s behest had clearly abandoned fealty to the U.S. in favor of loyalty to him. The last time enemies of our state breached such a symbol of our national existence those ‘thugs’ were wearing red coats, and serving under the aegis of King George the 3rd. Would we be debating the level of their crimes? Might we be contemplating how egregious their breach was? Those men invading our Capitol in January were American citizens, you say? Were they? Were they really? Their actions do not fit my definition of citizenship.

Thirdly, any hesitation by GOP members of the senate to convict Donald Trump would be an act of desperation and venality, an effort more to secure standing and electability than patriotism to the country they claim to serve. Let this be a litmus test, simple documentation of just how seriously members of that august body take their oath to preserve and defend the U.S. Constitution.

If those GOP members need fig leaves, the polite adornments of many cowardly and self-serving politicians over the years, here are readily available articles of drapery: Mr. Trump cost the GOP two seats in Georgia, the state itself, Arizona, a GOP bastion, numerous members of their party who are defecting, and recently the support and monetary indulgence of numerous previous big dollar donors. In addition, the man those self-styled commandos marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for once again remained embunkered, due to inflamed bone spurs no doubt. His rabid and ragtag army have now given themselves over to be prosecuted for their misguided loyalty. I feel certain that GOP members who hesitate to convict Trump can use this laundry list, spun in whichever way they choose, to thereby retain their seats.

I hesitate to add this factor, but I must: If those criminals Trump incited had been black men and women, there would have been a bloodbath in our Capitol’s hallowed halls. If we’re serious in this nation about addressing the scourge of white supremacy, can there be a better, more propitious moment and circumstance to prove the gravity of our intent? Convicting the phosphorescently white Donald Trump of inciting his mob of caucasian lackeys will send a clear, unmistakeable signal that the words of equality under law in our sacred document are real, and true, and enforceable on all, without exceptions based on pigmentation.

Lastly, the senate must convict Donald Trump to send a clear and immutable message down the ages: Those who choose to undermine our sacred institutions, or to attack the governing mechanisms we hold dear, will be punished to the law’s full extent. If this signal is not sent, we will in some future place and time see another charismatic leader, one much smarter and craftier than the stupid and unimaginative Donald Trump, succeed where he did not. The senate needs to act in unambiguous fashion, with its full authority, and with haste. The U.S. Senate must convict Donald Trump, and remove him from ever serving in elected office again.

Thanks for reading. Please contact your legislative leaders.

Blood & Stitches: An Allegory

Photo by Misho Gugulashvili on

When I was a strapping 11 year old bumpkin, I was riding my Huffy 3 speed bike one lazy afternoon alongside a row of parked cars, enjoying life as only a foolish young boy can, in other words wholly thoughtless and oblivious to reality. At one point, for reasons still unknown to me lo these many decades hence, I decided to try a little trick riding, just to see what might happen. Pedaling along, I switched hands, right hand over left on the handlebars, to test whether or not I could maintain control of the bicycle in such backward, criss-crossed fashion.

Dear reader, I could not. The very next thing I remember I was crawling from under a parked ’57 Chevy, my somewhat disheveled Huffy 3 speed wedged beneath the car, and with a stinging road rash tormenting my right knee. Plus, and this took a bit of time to discover, I was dripping blood. A throb in my cheek grew in intensity, becoming more urgent by the second. I probed my cheek, tracing the source of the blood—there was a substantial amount of it—soon landing with an attending yelp on a deep gash just under my left eye.

I stood, knees wobbling, slightly disoriented, more than a little confused as to why I was in fact bleeding profusely, my cheek now on fire with pain, with my bicycle oddly ensconced under a ’57 Chevy. What in the name of all that is sane and sober, or least explicable, had happened to me?

Then I saw the shards of plastic. Scattered about my feet were several pieces of red plastic, the reason for their placement there a mystery to me, until the fog in my addled brain cleared a bit, and I looked at the back of that vehicle. The Chevy’s left rear turn signal housing had been shattered, its red plastic pieces and parts now in a random pile where I stood. I began piecing together (not the plastic parts, that was an impossibility,) but the previous minute or so of my trick-riding life, and the event that had resulted in all that busted plastic. Evidently, in my adolescent insouciance, when I’d criss-crossed my mitts on the handlebars I’d immediately lost control, and vaulted off the bicycle, smashing face first into the car’s rear light display, breaking the turn signal housing, with said plastic pieces in turn carving up my face.

Knee and cheek throbbing, blood blinding me, I managed to free the bike from its entrapment, rejiggered the somewhat wonkerjawed handlebars, checked to see if my attempted heroics had been witnessed, (they had not been, as far as I could see), and rode home straightaway. My mother took one look, ordered me into the car, and grabbed the keys. One hour, and ten stitches later I was resting at home, not much the worse for wear.

My collision with that plastic taillight assembly happened six decades ago. The stitch mark is long healed, its once obvious scar no longer in evidence. But I still cannot explain the why and wherefore of my chuckleheaded attempt that day to drive my Huffy by using opposing hands on its guiding mechanism. What ever was I thinking? Such youthful misadventures explain, I suppose, why 11 year olds heal faster than their elders, and perhaps also why women live longer than men, though that reasoning would have escaped me at age 11.

I thought about this incident in my childhood just this evening, as I stood under a hot shower contemplating the events of the last two days in the U.S. It seemed a fair allegory, lending itself to America’s reckless and disheartening, albeit bumpy and chaotic ride during our recent past. It will take us a fair amount of time to fully understand and process exactly what happened to us as a people over the course of the past four years: Why our national norms and traditions seem just now to be littering the street like so much shattered plastic; why nearly half a million of our fellows lie lifeless as if unsaddled by a viral pandemic; why our collective conveyance of unity and civil dialogue lie twisted and wonkerjawed: and why we need, in the midst of all of the crisscrossed messaging and innuendo to stitch together our national confidence and idealism.

As I watched our new president recite his inaugural, I sensed a new and better mood creeping in, a refreshing wave of honest if harsh reality entering our national consciousness. Once blinded and wobbly by what has happened to us—even now we’re not entirely certain what it was—I sense that despite the busted pieces and parts, despite the bloody evidence and aching throb of disappointment, despite the confusion and bewilderment just now we can see our way home. And something else: We know there are stitches in our future, perhaps a lot of them.

We’ve picked ourselves up. We’ve traced the source of our injury, we’ve yelped a bit if we’re honest, and though the pulsing pain may grow worse for a time, we know it will soon abate. We understand now, if we understand nothing else, that criss-crossing our once confident hands atop the rudders of guidance, our traditional tillers of honesty, decency, truth, and reverence for science and reality, those steering methods are thwarted at our peril.

We know something else as well. That unlike that addled, feckless youth who relied on untested and radical maneuvers, that the staid and solid system we’ve built works just fine, even after attempts to foil it. It steers us straight, and safe, and sure. It leaves us unharmed, and unbroken. It honors the dignity and property of others. Unlike that callow youth’s experience that day, we know that our collective criss-crossing was observed by many millions of others, that the resulting, one might even say inevitable collision was indeed witnessed by many astonished and disheartened allies, but also by emboldened and encouraged adversaries as well.

As I rested quietly that embarrassing afternoon of blood and stitches, my mother’s ice pack soothing the pain in my cheek, watching escapist kid fare on black and white TV, I tried to piece together the event that had put me there. Was it embarrassing? Yes, it was. Was it confusing? Indeed. Was I certain to never ever do such a thing ever again? Boy howdy. I was grateful I’d escaped it with as little injury as I had.

As oblivious as I was at 11 I understood how it had affected people around me. My mother had no need of a trip to an ER that afternoon, and as well no need or desire to pay for my medical attentions. My siblings, already tending toward jealousy, had little need or inclination to see me pampered, if only for an evening. My father was forced, by mother’s attentions to me, to prepare his own dinner, poor man. And the fellow whose Chevy I’d disfigured with my recklessness had no time or desire to replace his broken taillight. (Yes, I did dutifully inform him in the coming days that it was I who had done the damage.)

Back to the allegory: I believe we must now stand again, wobbly though we may be, broken and bleeding as we are, and stitch ourselves together once more. We must report our misdeeds and carelessness with openness and courage. We must fess up to the imposition we’ve caused, and make necessary amends. And we must, in the poetical cadence of a truly precious young woman named Amanda Gorman ‘…lay down our arms…so we can reach out our arms…to one another.* No more criss-crossing; no more trick-riding with our sacred values; no more tempting fate with the fragile and vital experiment we’ve been launched upon and entrusted with for 245 years.

I believe, dear friends, that this is the only position of any value for arms attempting to guide us.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

* The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman

The Boll Weevil

Boll Weevil Monument

In the town square of Enterprise Alabama there’s a monument, a tribute that’s one of a kind—The world’s only statue erected to honor an agricultural pest. The story is straightforward: Local farmers’ cotton crops were being devastated by a little bug the size of a pencil eraser. The Boll Weevil, (Anthonomus grandis), was chewing up the delicate bolls, threatening to erase the sole source of income, the very livelihood and survival of those farmers, and of a vast portion of the U.S. economy.

Watching their way of life vanishing, destroyed by an insect that was barely visible, those farmers did something more enlightened than one might think. They saw the boll weevil for the wake-up call it was, the messenger bringing a long overdo but critical warning: Those farmers were chained to one crop, and when that crop was destroyed, they would be too. Did they despair? Did they wring their hands, or plant more cotton? Did they pray to the god of tilling and turning to intervene and banish the nasty pest sent to ravage their fields? What did they do?

(Anthonomus grandis)

They planted peanuts! Before long the message had spread across the American South: King Cotton, the one crop that had brought so much prosperity—and so much misery and division, depending on how similar the color of ones skin was to the color of that cotton—that dependence was about to destroy them!

Within a generation cotton had serious competition from peanuts, and corn, and flax, and numerous other crops. The Boll Weevil had been a herald of change, and people recognized it with a statue.


You know where this is going. I’m not fully prepared at this moment to suggest a statue in the town commons to the new coronavirus. Nonetheless, the potential that invisible bug has to reorder our lives is already apparent. Like the boll weevil, the virus is quite literally destroying whatever social framework and common order we once referred to as ‘normal.’

Those southern farmers once went about their lives. They ordered their seeds prior to each planting season, prepared the soil, cleared vast new acreage, drilled those seeds into the loamy dirt of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina. They turned their enslaved human beings into those fields to tend and nurture the crop. Then the boll weevil feasted; the cotton failed; those farmers looked beyond the wreckage, and changed their methods. So can we.

If we reap the opportunities the virus presents, we’ll be able to discern its origins, and repair the breach that allowed it access; to use the knowledge we’ve gained in crafting a vaccine, and turn that new weapon of understanding to other illnesses such as HIV, SARS, TB, or looming pathogens we’re told await us. We can use the current infestation to improve our health infrastructure, and to address the inequities it has revealed. We can see the way our current methodologies of agriculture and nutrition leave us exposed to viruses yet to be identified and named. We can understand that our current practices in those fields are harmful to the earth, and that many of them are simply unsustainable.

The statue to the Boll Weevil in Enterprise Alabama has been vandalized numerous times. Often enough that authorities have moved the original monument into a nearby train station/museum, where security cameras focus on it 24/7. There will be vandals. History is replete with them, and it’s been stained by the damage they’ve done, the burden those rapacious rogues have delivered on all of us. That’s the subject of a whole new post, especially in light of recent events in the U.S. Capitol, speaking of vandals.

So I close with a suggestion: Let’s be ready to thank the microscopic but mighty coronavirus for breaking open a door of ignorance. While it’s critical that we defeat this virus, it may be more important to learn from it. Thanks for reading.

20/20 Vision

It’s over. We made it. Well, most of us made it. Here’s to those who didn’t: Hail and farewell fine friends, it was good to know you. Sorry you’re no longer with us. The year that just passed into history was replete with loss. Future archivists will note the surge of headstones chiseled with the now ominous numeration.

But 20/20 was full of unprecedented opportunity as well. It would be a disservice to those to whom we bid adieu not to discern whatever lessons 20/20 offered. Like turning from 9/11 in disinterest, or ignoring the dead at Pearl Harbor. This discernment is a must.

The analogy is too easy to make, but I’ll make it anyway. Year 20/20 sharpened our sights, our foresight, our hindsight, and our insight, if we allowed it to. If 20/20 didn’t demand your focus and discernment and attention and introspection, then you were either oblivious to the world as it truly, awfully, gloriously is, or you were happily ensconced on Planet Clueless. If 20/20 delivered you to the eye chart of our collective existence, and sat you down, and forced responses from you, then here’s what I believe you may have seen as the sequential image enhancing lenses flickered past.

I’ll not mention the plagues that bedeviled us overtly in 2020. There’s no use in pricking that achy scab. It will heal; we know that. Indeed, that understanding, that lens, is perhaps the central vision we’ll take from the eye chart we’re presently viewing: We do endure; crises come…and crises go. We go on. Always. This lens is important.

Another lens clicks over, and it shows clearly that, however much we speak of ‘normal,’ and however much we wish to return there, we now see that normal wasn’t working. And it will not, ever again. With that lens in focus, let’s be unafraid to look more closely at what a new normal could—must—look like:

Bravo to those scientists and epidemiologists and vaccinologists who’ve given us at least the promise of emerging from this miasma. And to those on the front lines in health care, bravissimo! This new normal, in deference to, and in payment to them, would be our collective transition to their old normal, the vision they’ve seen for a very long time. We may take dubious comfort in ‘the virus came out of nowhere,’ or ‘no one saw it coming.’ But that’s a fallacy. It’s a convenient lie among ourselves. Those people noted above saw it coming. They sang, and danced, and posted, and wrote, and paraded about exactly what it would be, and do, and look like…and we ignored them. So here must be our new normal: We must focus on what experts and scientists put in front of us, whether their view is comforting or harsh; whether soothing or disturbing. It cannot matter. We must see their view, and assimilate it. Because here’s the thing. They’re still warning us. They’re telling us it will happen again. It will. We’ve not seen the last of it.

Thus another lens clicks into place. How much time, and energy, and resources, and money, and attention did the world exhaust in 20/20? It defies calculation. Yet for all the distancing, and masking, and hand sanitizing, and new protocols to defeat the scourge, with all the resources spent on its eradication, where is the intense, laser-focused time and energy toward preventing the next virus? Are we preoccupied with it? No. Are we prepared for it? No. Do most of us even acknowledge that SARS-Cov-3 could well be waiting in the wings as this is written? No. It could arrive tomorrow, a mutation, or an entirely new virus and we’d be exposed yet again. Thus the new normal I propose: No need to identify the source of the current virus; we already know whence it came: It came through our frantic and reckless intrusion into a world where we don’t belong, our transgression of a natural boundary between territories. The virus is simply proof that such crowding is not without consequence. In a sense, comforting or not, the system worked.

To whit: Human trespassing in animal habitats, and the ingestion of the flesh of those animals by humans has shown itself to be the awful, devastating, world-changing risk we’ve been repeatedly warned about. Once again, ‘the virus came out of nowhere,’ or ‘no one saw it coming’ do not work. Despite our collective, powerful, food industry-driven wish to continue ingesting animal protein, it is beyond harmful, into irrational. Until humans make the conscious decision to shift to a plant based diet, viruses will haunt us, and punish us, and kill us, and disrupt our lives. Again. We can look away, complain that this particular lens is faulty, or clouded, or angled poorly. But here’s the fundamental truth: Those scientists and epidemiologists noted above are well aware of the source of these viruses, but confronted with our voracious carnal appetites, and the monumental lobbying power of special food interests, they’re powerless to prevent their spread.

So another lens clicks into place: Unless and until we look without flinching at the source of our information, and the powerful and monied manipulators of it, our view will be purposely clouded, craftily skewed by the vast riches associated with and empowered by that manipulation. We’ve seen the recent deselection of one virus, and its human manifestation. He will be gone January 20th. But the hidden viruses in our political system, those duly elected people beholden to corporate interests instead of constituents must be identified and removed as well. The year past has allowed a rare kind of clear vision of that plague to emerge. It’s been too easy to see the open scandal, the venal self-enrichment, and the shameful nepotism that has perhaps existed forever. Has there ever been a better, more propitious time in our history to expose the rot and rubble in our system of governance and refresh that system so it serves us all? I don’t believe so. We have a vaccine for that despicable plague. The Vote. Let’s inject it, and begin to heal.

It would be easy to view 20/20 through a judgmental, a sour, a harshly disparaging lens. It robbed us of much wealth—financial and otherwise. It took away those we loved, and that which we can never replace. It pushed us toward mistrust, and fear, and an unstable dizzying existence we don’t like very much.

But 20/20 opened our eyes as well. Here’s hoping 2021 does not deliver normal. Here’s hoping a new vision can emerge, and that the lens it provides fills our new glasses with hope and joy and a better world.

Happy New Year to all. And stop eating animals.

A Conversation for the Ages

The first two words of Mary Oliver’s poem are ‘tell me.’ Everyone has a story, and everyone harbors a secret desire for others to ask us to tell it. At present we have the honor of listening to Mariah’s mom Rosie, as she tells us her stories of life at age 90. We’re recording her voice, asking her about every aspect of her one wild and precious life, its ups and downs, its ins and outs. This conversation for the ages is exactly the kind of project I wish I’d had with my own parents. It’s gratifying, interesting, amusing, happy and sad by turns. And it feels so good to see Rosie light up as the narrative flows, and recollections come to her. As shy as she is, she’s happy we asked.

Rosie is a bit reluctant to tell us her tales; she’s not one to volunteer much. But once we get her started, she rambles on and on about life on the farm, her eight siblings, mom and dad, school, holiday events, and every aspect of her life in rural Iowa. Some of her anecdotes are insightful and funny.

Here’s a sample: When she first learned to drive, she was motoring along with her dad, doing the best she could as a rookie driver. Her father said “you’re weaving around, driving like Joe Digney!” It turns out Joe was the town drunk. Rosie smiled at the memory, then she embellished it a bit, to put it in the best light, as she always does: “Everybody liked Joe Digney.”

I wish I’d asked my parents to tell me their story. They’re both gone now. It’s too late. I have fond memories of them, scattered bits and pieces of things they touched, photographs of them, and their DNA of course, which I assume is where I got my sensitive nature, my impulse to go straight at life heart-first, the admixture that prods me to such regrets as this. It came from them. But what treasure trove of knowledge did I miss?

My Parents in 1946

The two love crazed kids above had quite a story to tell. Shortly after this black & white picture was taken their wild and precious lives took off in technicolor, as they did their part in making the baby boomer generation anomalous, helping to fill maternity wards to the rafters. I never once asked them to ‘tell me’ about it.

My mother was Irish in every sense of the word. Mary Martha Barrett had a heart as big as the Donegal sky, and she wore it in plain sight. Mom took in strays. She always placed an extra dinner plate, just in case. She cried at card tricks. My father, the outwardly stoic Englishman tried to hide his warm and fuzzy side, but his compassion and caring poked through anyway, allowing his warm and gentle soul to show, and to override his stiff-upper-lipped British side. I never asked about their lives, darn it, and I wish I had.

This much I do know: They produced ten kids in the span of 19 years. I’m number two of that brood. Irish-Catholic family tradition assigned me, number two son, the role of family priest. I became the family writer and archivist instead. But it didn’t occur to me to write the story directly in front of me, the tale my parents had to tell: Their mid-war meeting; their courtship in the summer of ’42; their marriage and settling in time, as unsettled as it must have been surrounding themselves with diapers and bottles and baby-bills. I simply never asked. It wasn’t until my dad was dying in 2006 that it occurred to me to archive his story. By then he was much too feeble, too fragile, and quite deaf, so our conversation for the ages never happened.

Thus, our conversation with Rosie

This is what drives us to record and archive Rosie’s story. Every night over dinner we listen to Rosie tell her life tale of 90 + years. We choose questions from a list we’ve put together, itemizing such things as early farm life, her eight siblings, chores, holiday events, good times and bad times, the Depression, the War, her courtship with Mariah’s dad and their marriage, her own six kids, and the loss of the last one. We’re asking Rosie to tell us about her one wild and precious life. ‘Tell me’, we say. And she does.

So, coming soon, we’re going to compile many of Rosie’s stories in book form, and offer them around to family and anyone else interested, with her approval, of course. If there’s an elder, a father, or mother, or grandparent or just an older friend you’d like to memorialize, rest assured they’re likely more than happy to share their saga with you. Try it. Just say ‘Tell me…’

Thanks for reading.

The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

The Black Angel

The legend of Iowa City Oakland Cemetery’s Black Angel is complicated. Like many stories passed down through the ages about her, especially through oral history, the Black Angel’s tale has twists and turns and all the rabbit trail features of our current incredulous modern messaging. When I first arrived in Iowa City back in 1983, it wasn’t long before I heard of the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery, and the many often conflicting narratives that surrounded this peculiar and riveting monument.

The Black Angel site has brought so many hoary and shiver-producing tales it’s hard to sort them out. The statue is eerily beautiful in its own way, its patina blackened by time and the elements. Of course its position in a cemetery lends automatic cachet to its value as a chill maker. The fact that there isn’t a lot to actually do in Iowa City Iowa adds to the generation of these tales as well. Here are a few of the myths, tall tales, beliefs, superstitions, and prohibitions surrounding the Black Angel.

  • Don’t touch or kiss the angel, or you’ll die instantly. Unless you happen to be a virgin. (More on this below.)
  • Pregnant women must avoid the angel, and never stand in the shadow of her wings, or you will lose your child.
  • The Black Angel is haunted.
  • She is cursed.
  • She weeps on the date that Mrs. Feldevert’s son Eddie Dolezal died.
  • Teresa Feldevert’s many sins caused the angel to turn black.
  • On the night of Teresa’s funeral the angel was struck by lightning, turning her black.
  • A preacher’s son is secretly buried beneath the angel.

The story of The Black Angel is indeed murky. Most of the myths surrounding her were hastily conjured and are easily dismissed. Her black patina, for example, is easily explained. The statue was cast in bronze by Chicago sculptor Mario Korbel, and even before she went up in Oakland Cemetery in 1931, the bronze had oxidized, and turned dark, due to the elements and oxidation.

The Black Angel’s presence caused an immediate controversy, and a lawsuit. Mrs. Feldevert, who had commissioned the monument, didn’t like it, especially its dark and ominous coloration, and she refused to pay the sculptor. She saw the oxidation of the bronze, and wanted the metal to stay the color it was, as a shining tribute to her dead son. The sculptor, Mario Korbel, knew the metal would discolor with time, and he tried to convince his client that a shiny colored tombstone wouldn’t make sense. The sculptor sued Mrs. Feldevert to get his payment. Korbel won his lawsuit, Mrs. Feldevert paid him for his work, and the angel was posted in Oakland Cemetery in 1913.

The Black Angel presides over the tomb of a family named Feldevert. Teresa, the matriarch, was born in the Czech Republic in 1836. She was a practicing physician & midwife who immigrated to Iowa City in the late nineteenth century. Her son Eduard ‘Eddie’ Dolezal died of meningitis at 18 years old in 1891, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery. Below is a picture of Eddie’s gravestone, the sculpture of a tree limb lopped off five feet above the ground, symbolizing a life cut short.

Eddie Dolezal: 1873-1891

Today the Black Angel serves as a kind of gathering spot, reference point to the rest of the cemetery, and initiation place for U of Iowa college students and other groups looking for ways to memorialize one event or another, either a fraternity hazing, a wedding, a divorce, or a funeral. Here are a few more local legends associated with Iowa City’s Black Angel:

  • No U of I female is considered a real coed until she’s been kissed near the Black Angel.
  • If she’s kissed in the light of a full moon, she’ll die within six months.
  • Further, if the girl is a virgin when she’s kissed, the statue will revert to its original bronze color within six months. (Note: She’s still dark)
  • Touching the angel at midnight on Hallowe’en means death within six years.
  • Teresa Feldevert lacked the money to have her own death date inscribed in the angel’s base. (This legend is true. The base reads as follows: Nicholas Feldevert 1825-1911, Teresa Feldevert 1836- ) She died in 1924.

The site of the Black Angel has been used for the occasional seance, several wedding receptions, Hallowe’en parties, and numerous New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Base of Eddie Dolezal’s grave

The hatchet buried in rock, with its broken shaft, symbolizes Eddie Dolezal’s curtailed life. The rounded pail lower right is said to contain the ashes of his father, though, like many stories emanating from the Black Angel site, that has never been proven—or laid to rest, so to speak.

Tokens & Artifacts

Above, at the angel’s feet the day we took these photos were several coins and other artifacts. These things are left there often, tokens asking for the Black Angel’s intercession for whatever need or desire the depositor feels.

The Family Feldevertova

The Black Angel statue is eight and a half feet tall, nine feet across, and weighs nearly two tons with the base. The tree stump tombstone next to it is Eddie Dolezal’s final resting place. His grave was once several feet away, but was moved in 1913 at the request his mother, to put Eddie closer to the family tomb.

Because we seem to be immersed in death narratives these days, with the novel coronavirus lurking behind every doorway, and every un-masked face, it’s a good time to reflect on a few realities: None of us gets out of this alive; everyone will have a legacy, good or bad; no one can control the when—where—why—how of their demise; and finally, there are likely to be rumors and superstitions about us and the way we lived our lives, stories that will persist long after we’re gone. So…

Those tales will twist and turn and lapse into myth, provided someone keeps giving them ink or oxygen. So perhaps the Black Angel’s durable lesson to us is simply to live the most transparent, consistently positive lives we can, so that narrative gets passed along to our precedents.

Coming up soon: Rosie: A Life Well Lived. This is a legacy project we’ve undertaken with Mariah’s mother Rosie. It’s a conversation for the ages, our effort to write Rosie’s life story, a narrative covering her 90 years on the planet. Every evening at dinner we have this conversation with her following a proscribed checklist of questions and topics. We record what she says, and then transcribe the story for future inclusion in a book. The project allows Rosie to share her (amazing) story with us and future generations, and it reveals a part of her we knew existed, but never had the honor to hear about. Next blog will contain excerpts from this conversation for the ages. Thanks for reading, comments welcome.

A Moon-Shot Moment

My friends, we’ve been through a tough time. We’ve lost loved ones and treasured icons. We’ve watched the numbers of COVID fatalities climb with no end in sight, seen millions lose jobs, health care, homes, and businesses or experienced those things ourselves. More than 200,000 of our fellows are dead just in this country from a virus that could have been contained but wasn’t. Americans have witnessed the most shocking scandals among public servants in our 245-year history, including countless illegalities perpetrated by a president who shows utter contempt for the rule of law and our sacred institutions. Most of us will be happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror.

But there is good news: This is a potential moon-shot moment. One week from tomorrow, 11/3/2020, we have an opportunity to begin rebuilding our country in a way that will make our kids and grandkids proud, changes that will create an America that works for all, and that benefits everyone. The steps I’m about to propose truly are achievable, if we work toward them together, and if we vote for candidates that share our progressive values. We Americans did put men on the moon once, after all.

First an apology: Anyone who’s read my blog is aware of my disdain for a certain individual who I hope will be defeated at the ballot box very soon. I’ve made no secret of my belief that he’s a danger to us all. After 30 years in uniform defending America I feel I had a right to speak harshly and with vigor against someone I see as one of those ‘enemies foreign and domestic’ I swore a solemn oath to fight against. Nevertheless, I apologize for my often acidic commentary about him. It was not about you my friends, family, or acquaintances; it was about him, our modern ‘Master of the House’ from Les Miserables:

‘Master of the house, doling out the charm
Ready with a handshake and an open palm…’

No, my contempt for this carnival barker comes from my emotional and heartfelt despair at witnessing the depths of negativity and prejudice the last four years has revealed, depravity elicited by the man I mention, but refuse to name. His tan is fake, and his tie is longer than his attention span, if that helps.

But I’m grateful to him as well. Why? For all his faults and shortcomings, and they are manifold, he mirrors what needs to be fixed in our society: The corrosive greed that lies just under the surface; our impulse to disparage one another, made simpler by social media; the ease with which we massage the truth, or simply lie to one another; our national tendency to bully other countries that disagree with us; our worship of profit over humanity, ignorance over scholarship, monetary gain over the sacred earth; our misguided view that compassion equals weakness, that military might equals greatness and right; that science and fact are not to be trusted; that those aspiring to inform us are instead the enemy. Our deeply embedded and socially corrosive assumption that caucasian equals correct.            

Perhaps our biggest debt of gratitude to this fake tanned man is for his revelations that our electoral and governing institutions are much weaker and more malleable than we once thought, that those sacred governing posts are indeed vulnerable to the whims and wiles of a would be dictator. These revelations are cause for alarm, but also gratitude, I believe. These times must be seized for the chance they offer to mend those systemic weaknesses, and to make our system stronger and better. And ironclad.

Thus my vision of an America we can once again be proud of. In no particular order, here’s an incomplete list of items to get us to the moon, and possibly back again.

  • A new economic model that demands sustainability over depletion, preservation over extraction; that values loyalty to employees over slavish devotion to shareholders; that provides a dignified living wage to all; that rewards innovation and wealth creation over hoarding and wealth accumulation; that sees current ratios of executive compensation Vs worker pay as obscene.
  • A society in which corporations pay for the externalities of their products, instead of passing those costs along to consumers, and damaging the environment in the process.
  • A society that uses renewable energy, leaves fossil fuels in the ground, and realizes many more jobs and a healthier, cleaner earth because of it.
  • A society that strives toward equitable financial treatment for all; that sees current wealth disparity as a recipe for national crisis; that dismantles longstanding zero sum practices in favor of those that recognize and valorize abundance.
  • A true health care system instead of a disease-care, medicine for profit model; the collective understanding that health care is a right for all, not a privilege for those who can afford it; that focuses on disease prevention instead of acute, immediate, expensive care and treatment; a system that abandons the reductionist model of medical care to embrace the holistic, humanitarian model.
  • A society in which homelessness, especially among children and veterans, is abhorrent; a society that sees hunger among its citizens as shameful; that shares its abundance, and knows the value of ‘enough’; a community that cares for the most vulnerable, and takes civic pride in doing so. A society in which the wealthy embrace the responsibility that accompanies their elevated position.
  • A society where men show their sons what compassion and affection mean by kissing them, hugging them, telling them they love them, and advocating for them fiercely, especially when those sons practice affections and courtesies themselves. A society in which boys learn that girls are equally precious human beings, and deserve every respect. A society where men teach their sons these things by their open, caring, gentle, considerate treatment of women. A society free of bullies.
  • A society that rewards its teachers lavishly, understanding that education is a crucial undertaking; that provides venues, materials, resources, time and training so everyone may achieve their aspired level in life.
  • A society in which women are heard and heeded, and in which they’re free to exercise full agency in their lives and with their bodies; in which all mechanisms used to silence women are forever discredited. A society that finally passes the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • A society in which citizens are free to live, and worship, and shop, and teach, and learn, and play without fear of gun violence.
  • A society that provides whatever measures are needed for mental health care and suicide prevention.
  • A society where ‘pro-life’ means what it says: that we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the lonely & imprisoned, avoid wars, stop killing animals for food; that finally understands there is no ‘planet B’, that unless we focus on climate change, and reverse greenhouse gas emissions, there’ll be no more life to be pro about. A society that realizes it’s not the earth in danger; it is human life and future generations that are in peril.
  • A society in which differences are celebrated, not punished; where ‘gay marriage’ is simply ‘marriage;’ where trans and other non-binary citizens live openly and safely.
  • A society that supports our troops fully and without question by sending them into harm’s way only as a last resort, and only when a direct threat to our country exists. A society that all of us support by serving, either in the military or in another role, and in which no one is exempt because of background, bone spurs, or bank account. A society in which taxes benefit schools, social programs, infrastructure, and soft power more than the military industrial complex and its endless fetish for new and more destructive weaponry.
  • A community that ends the need for abortion by providing birth control, sex education, accurate reproductive information, and access to health care and family planning for all; that underscores this commitment by recognizing every woman’s agency over her own body.
  • A society that refuses to accept one fatality from gun violence, much less 30,000 per year; that relegates assault weapons only to the military and peace officers where they rightly belong; that agrees on sensible, sane, enforceable gun legislation, registration, background checks, and adequate training for gun purchasers. A society that demands as much oversight for gun acquisition as for a driver’s permit.
  • A society in which candidates for office are elected by the number of citizen votes they receive, not on an electoral system that’s a relic of the 18th century, an obsolete system that’s hobbled our national elections ever since. A society that demands full disclosure of financial and tax records of every candidate as a condition of selection.
  • A society that doesn’t tolerate the influence of money in our legislative process; where corporate campaign contributions are limited and transparent; with publicly funded elections, and time-limited campaigning; where voting is mandatory, easy, transparent, fair, and efficient. A society that considers voter suppression criminal, with harsh legal penalties.
  • A society in which black families can send their children away each morning, fully expecting them to return safely each night; in which the police act as servants to all, not oppressors to any; in which Black Lives Matter becomes an unneeded, sad, and tragic marker of a distant past; in which taking a knee becomes, once again, a sign of reverence and devotion, instead of a cry for recognition that some of us cannot breathe.
  • A society in which the police are revered for the difficult job they do, in which these forces police their own ranks to weed out bigotry, corruption, and malfeasance.
  • A society in which public protest is understood as the right and the obligation it is, not portrayed as an inconvenience to those comfortably ensconced.
  • A society that worships at the altar of truth.
  • A society that adheres to the principles and tenets we claim*.

The best way to facilitate the above is, of course, through our votes. Here’s hoping the upcoming election sees a historic, monumental turnout at the polls, enough votes that the outcome cannot be doubted, or dismissed. I believe there are no non-voters; that we vote at the polls, or we vote by staying home. In either case, we make a choice. Thank you for reading, and please vote. The stakes are very high.

*The asterisk above refers to my personal belief that those ‘tenets’ we claim, the collective agreement that drives American society, namely our rugged and often damaging individualism, while an important descriptor of our national character, is at the same time part of the problem that’s brought us to this painful nexus in our history. Put simply, we consider ourselves a bunch of rugged, individualistic cowboys/cowgirls. The harsh limitations this national creed produces are manifest now in our response to the coronavirus, arguably the biggest crisis we’ve faced in our history.

An example: Recently I read a quote in response to requests for aid for the virus: “It’s not a job for government,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said. Whaaa? Yes, he really did say that. My question is, who’s job is it? The you’re on your own mentality explains a lot about why the U.S. has 230,000 (and counting) of citizens dead, many of whom should not be. In my next post I’ll scribble a bit about why I disagree so strongly with Governor Burgum, why I believe an alteration to our cowboy perspective is necessary, and another bullet list of solutions. Thank you again. Now VOTE!