Shields sees life as something to conquer and death as something to
stave off; he eats right, gets lots of exercise and enjoys good
jokes. Milt is 97 years old and the quasi-subject of son
David’s new genre-jumping book about nothing less than life
and death. In THE THING ABOUT LIFE IS THAT ONE DAY YOU'LL BE DEAD,
the author explores his relationship with his elderly and somewhat
eccentric father by examining the biology and physiology of
Shields describes the processes of the aging human body with
clinical detail (“At 65, you've lost one ounce of your
three-pound brain and one-tenth of your brain cells.”). He
starts with the newborn and takes readers on an honest journey
through the life of the body. But this book is also a memoir in
addition to a catalog of metabolic functions and medical curiosity.
Besides his father, his teenage daughter Natalie is an important
character; her youth and athleticism, her optimism and potential a
direct contrast to Milt's age, fear and impotence. Shields, in his
early 50s, is the counterbalance between the two. His back aches
and he has gone bald, but he still finds joy in life and the
occasional pickup game of basketball.
These days, it seems, Shields is often frustrated by his father's
obsession with death. But then again, the man is 97 years old, and
despite his best efforts, Shields realizes that he will die soon.
In this heartbreaking and sometimes unexpectedly funny work of
nonfiction, both father and son grapple with mortality, and their
approaches and philosophies are quite different. Milt hopes
physical activity and a spartan diet will prolong his life (and
barring that, that science will soon find the key to indefinite
longevity). Shields, however, is choosing to find the beauty and
irony in being born only to die. “Life, in my view,”
the author writes, “is simple, tragic, and eerily
The medical details of THE THING ABOUT LIFE are recorded with
professional detachment. Shields's style is journalistic and matter
of fact. Yet, when he shares stories of his father's antics as a
baseball umpire, ladies man and octogenarian golfer, and of his
daughter from her birth to her transformation into a girl
rollerskating with friends, his tone is tender and sensitive.
While nicely written and quite interesting (“beginning in
your early 20s, your ability to detect salty or bitter things
decreases, as does your ability to identify odors.”), it is
hard to define this book. It is peppered liberally with quotes
about life and death from such varied figures as Lauren Bacall,
Cotton Mather, Greek philosopher Anaxarchus and Virginia Woolf.
Sometimes this mix of fact and quote added to the personal
ruminations results in a compelling and unique read, but
occasionally it is a bit too dry and cumbersome.
What could've been a depressing look at the futility of life in the
face of the inevitability of death and one man's often-strained
relationship with his father is actually sort of uplifting without
being sappy or insincere. THE THING ABOUT LIFE is quirky and quick,
graphic and thought provoking, and its generally upbeat tone belies
the dead seriousness of its subject.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011