Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


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








Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






A high school teacher of mine began each class, “Well, here we are, boys, another day closer to the grave.” He would have liked reading David Shields’ new book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Far from maudlin, The Thing About Life presents facts about the body and the aging process, alongside personal anecdotes and reflections, especially about his 90 year-old father. I find myself moving from a curiosity (where is he going with this) to a genuine captivation with the topic and with the way in which Shields explored it. Here’s an excerpt, from the chapter titled, “Decline and Fall (ii), pp. 87-90:


If you could live forever in good health at a particular age, what age would you be? As people get older, their ideal age gets higher. For 18- to 24-year-olds, it's age 27; for 25- to 29-year­olds, it's 31; for 30- to 3 9-year-olds, it's 37; for 40- to 49-year­olds, it's 40; for 50- to 64-year-olds, it's 44; and for people over 64, it's 59.

Your IQ is highest between ages 18 and 25. Once your brain peaks in size—at age 25—it starts shrinking, losing weight, and filling with fluid. In a letter to his father, Carlyle wrote that his brother, Jack, "decides, as a worthy fellow of twenty always will decide, that mere external rank and convenience are nothing; the dignity of mind is all in all. I argue, as every reasonable man of twenty-eight, that this is poetry in part, which a few years will mix pretty largely with prose." Goethe said, "Who­ever is not famous at twenty-eight must give up any dreams of glory."

When I was 31, I was informed that someone had written, in a stall in the women's bathroom in a bookstore, "David Shields is a great writer and a babe to boot." This is pretty much the high point of my life, when my acne was long gone and I still had hair and was thin without dieting and could still wear contacts and thought I was going to become famous. (Just recently, looking for compliments, I asked my father what he thought of what I've become, and he said, "You were such a great athlete as a kid. I thought sure you were going to be a pro basketball player or baseball player.") Sir William Osier said, "The effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty." Which is in fact true: creativity peaks in the 30s, then declines rapidly; most creative achievements occur when people are in their 30s. Degas said, "Everyone has talent at twenty-five; the difficulty is to have it at fifty." The consolation of the library: when you're 45, your vocabulary is three times as large as it is at 20. When you're 6o, your brain possesses four times the information that it does at 20.

Your strength and coordination peak at 19. Your body is the most flexible until age 20; after that, joint function steadily declines. World-class sprinters are almost always in their late teens or early 20s. Your stamina peaks in your late 20s or early 30s; marathon records are invariably held by 25- to 35-year­olds.

When you're young, your lungs have a huge reserve capac­ity; even world-class athletes rarely push their lungs to the limit. But as you age, your lungs get less elastic: you can't fill them as full or empty them as completely of stale air. Aerobic capacity decreases z percent per year between ages 20 and 6o.

"It isn't sex that causes trouble for young ballplayers," Casey Stengel said. "It's staying up all night looking for it."

"During the summers of 1938 and '39," my father wrote in a piece for his class, "I worked as a keeper of the tennis courts and occasionally as tennis instructor at Chester's Zunbarg‑Sun Hill—a small, 120-capacity resort in the Catskills Moun­tains 80 miles northeast of New York City. The first day of that first summer, Anne Chester briefed me on the job I was about to step into at her hotel: ‘The salary is small—just $zoo for the summer—and I apologize for it, but the fringe benefits more than make up for it.’

"What fringe benefits?" I asked in my youthful ignorance.

"It won't take long for you to find out what they are," she said, with a sly wink.

Twenty-four hours later, a sultry brunette walked up to me on the courts and asked if I gave tennis lessons.

I said I did and asked her what day and time would be convenient for her lesson.

"And do you give any other lessons besides tennis?" trilled this siren-cum-tennis pupil.

"Just tennis, lady," I managed to squeeze out, extending my hand. "The name's Milt and I'll see you here tomorrow at 10."

"Yes, I know," she replied, still holding my hand. "I'll be there." I thought she'd never let go. I needed that right hand for serving up the ball. "The name's Eva, Eva Gordon."

The next morning, at a few minutes before 10, I was on the courts with a bushel of used tennis balls and a galloping curiosity as to what kind of tennis player this hand-holding Jezebel would turn out to be. 10:15 and no Eva. Was it all a none-too-subtle ploy to meet and size up the new tennis pro? Conventional wisdom has it that tennis teachers are glamorous and sexy guys, though you wouldn't recognize me from that description.

Just when I was ready to give up on her, Eva strolled leisurely onto the court, saying, "Here I am, Coach." She was dressed to the nines in flaming red shorts and a low-cut halter that showed her heart was in the right place.

"Let's get started," I snapped, very businesslike. I had another guest coming for a lesson at 11.

Eva was a revelation on the courts. She had the smoothest forehand this side of Helen Wills and a backhand that tore the cover off the ball.

"Do you play for some school?" I asked, signaling a brief time out.

"Yes, Hunter College in the city," she replied.

Eva stayed for two weeks at Chester's that first time and took a lesson every day. We also played quite a few sets—ahem—off the courts. She was just as good and explosive at that extracurricular activity as she was on the court.

She returned twice more during the summer for week-long stays and—er—lessons. By Labor Day, we were damned serious, but I had to get back to the city and try to find a job in the heart of the Depression and Eva had to complete her education at Hunter. What's more, we both knew (we weren't moonstruck kids) that we'd had a summer fling, one to be treasured, but—for a lot of reasons—not followed up. It was great while it lasted, we both agreed over a tall drink at the hotel bar.

Whether you’ve been thinking about death lately or not, consider reading The Thing About Life.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



Buy The Thing About Life

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2008 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2008 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Thing About Life.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com