David Shields’ The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead

 

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.

© 2016 davidshields.com, all rights reserved

I was first introduced to David Shields by my Creative Writing professor Laurie Uttich. He recently attended the Master Artists-in-Residence, a program provided by the Atlantic Center for the Arts. I did not have the pleasure of going, but had Mr. Shields as a guest-speaker during one Spring semester lecture and I have to say, he is relaxed when it comes to speaking. He tackles topics of controversy, such as social stigmas in Jeff, One Lonely Guy and untold traumas in That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, treating them with direct language while offering simple resolutions. Shields’ works are comprised of what he calls a literary collage, a collection of personal selections in the form of emails, exchanges between people and friends and the like, coupled with background knowledge on the subjects he discovers more about.

He enjoys working with the taboo, taking the unspoken and private matters and making them public and establishing a point of interest. During the lecture he shared a quote from Immanuel Kant, borrowed by Isaiah Berlin (I forget whom he attributed it to), and it was, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” David Shields’ goal as a writer is to find trauma’s answer; what is the root of it all and how do we treat it? Most of his books are their own answers dealing with their own traumas, but what better realization to have than the one that affects us all: mortality.

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With every life comes the inevitability of death, and in accepting as much, no one harbors on death, but instead embarks on life. David Shields charts life with his experimental autobiography and biography by giving his account of his enduring ninety-seven-year-old father’s life along with that of his own. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead explores what it means to be mortal and where it leads. Through his remarkable fact-checking, Shields is able to connect both his and his father’s lives to meticulous accuracy and accordance to scientific research on aging. The moments of memoir in his book should also be noted for their journalistic approach. Considering his father is not always forthcoming with his feelings or personal history, he manages to ease his father’s stories out of him with his father’s rich but short-lived dialogue. Most of the dialogue is enough to serve as supplement for immersion into his father’s life and the quotations, in great numbers, he picks and pulls from history is much appreciated insight.

Shields’ book is divided into four sections of life: Infancy and Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Middle Age, and Old Age and Death. To start, Infancy and Childhood offers early development statistics, proving a rapid beginning of life. For example, “Babies are born with brains 25 percent of adult size… by age Ⅰ, the brain is 75 percent of adult size.” His father’s knowledge is then matched by the scientific fact from his teachings in the Midrash where a baby enters the world with clenched fists to show inheritance and where on the day the baby leaves this world his or her hands are open showing nothing has been received (6-7). Shields recounts his father’s near-death collision with the Long Island Rail Road. Being saved that day brought life to Shields and in turn made it possible for him to experience the birth of his own child.

Facts establish Shields’ expository on the subject of aging and dying between his experience and his father’s, showing an uncanny resemblance to each other through these short pieces of memoir. Dialogue in the large format of famous quotations are also rendered applicable to the direct dialogue of Shields’ friends and family. A quote from a friend’s daughter about being a frog becomes a call to observe that in each person is this “animal,” this body to claim. Shields is careful to provide his own understanding as well: “We are all thrillingly different animals… The body—in its movement from swaddling to casket—can tell us everything we can possibly know about everything” (23-26). From Adolescence, there is the newfound attention and curiosity of one’s self one wants to explore and, with great surprise, discover. Shields’ definition of self is through the body which “has no meanings. We bring meanings to it” (74). The human condition is blatantly described as the body, out-in-front and unashamedly aware of its mortality, and in turn, its immortal inclinations.

Further in Adulthood and Middle Age, the watershed moment of aging, one does not have to like the first sign of becoming an elder. One can however embrace a better feeling of it by being rapt with the body one’s given rather than reprimand the limitations setting in. Instead of settling at the age of 56, Shields’ father with the love of baseball pitches to his son and his friends with an unnerving strength (97). On the other hand, sometimes limitations are made. The alcoholism F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered for example, may have been further provoked by his low white blood cell count: “Beginning at 40, your white blood cells, which fight cancer and infectious diseases, have a lowered capacity… F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died at 44, wrote in his notebook, ‘Drunk at 20, wrecked at 30, dead at 40’[1] (96). Midlife crises do not have to be tragedies, they can be triumphs. According to Shields, the body is a temporary vessel in that the “survival instinct and the reproductive instinct are opposed” (125). Survival is due in large part to reproduction and without it, survival is at half-mast (127-128). Shields’ father in his 80s challenges this reproduction-equals-survival mentality with his own attempt at love: “‘Lady, it’s high time to get on with the rest of your life, whether it’s with me or anybody else’… I told her that I needed and wanted the love and warmth of a good and fulfilled relationship…” (133-134). His father believes life does not stop for reproduction or after it; life keeps moving forward. What keeps Shields’ inner animal or sense of body going is one of his many “hoop dreams” where he finds his “animal joy” or love of life most from playing basketball (135).

Lastly in Old Age and Death, much of what was gained gradually in youth has now reached its same peak, only this time at the decrepit level. For instance, the “brain of a 90-year-old is the same size as that of a 3-year-old” and sadly, Shields’ father is not able to combat this faculty (143). All is not lost in old age for the reason that most accomplishments vicarious and small are worth the effort of living. His father’s love of sports gave him direction in his life (216). Aging was not so much the concern as was the business of living (186). The repetitious pattern of fact-checking, dialogue and memoir compliments the order of life Shields presents in his novel. In this way, he exhibits life as it is lived and how close it can resemble the life of others. All that is left to do is live life.

You can watch David Shields talk about his book here. He also has a Tumblr and Twitter.


[1] A low white blood cell count may suggest the development of cirrhosis, a possible affliction for Fitzgerald: http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/cirrhosis

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