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 3 MASKETEERS

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.