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hey say the minute you're born, you begin to die, which isn't actually true. You begin to die at age seven — until then, your life expectancy is still rising. After that, your risk of dying doubles every eight years, until it happens. In between those two points, you do the thing that has become the primary obsession of our narcissistic culture: you age.
This process of aging is the central conceit of David Shields' peculiar and extraordinary new book, The Thing About Life is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Part memoir, part academic text, Shields traces the arc of the human body and mind in three main aspects: biological (fun facts galore), philosophical (musings on aging from Tolstoy to Tarantino), and personal (his dad is ninety-five and more virile that he is). Two things that surprise: aging is not just for the aged, and it's not so bad — people's "ideal age" rises as they get older. And Shields' aggressively secular take on reproduction, intelligence, suicide, lust, acne, fear, penis size and body odor (the last of which disappears after eighty — that proverbial "grandma smell" is Chanel) shows life as no less charmed than if it were created by intelligent design. Still, people who don't go to church die earlier than those who do. Want to close the gap? Have a good sense of humor — it adds seven years. Shields spoke to Nerve about these and life's other inexplicables. — Will Doig
We always associate the theme of aging with older people, as if younger people aren't aging too. Because of that, I wasn't sure if this book would speak to me, but it really did.
Yeah, that's been one of the surprises.
I thought the book would be for old codgers, fifty-nine year olds who are contemplating late-middle age or menopause or something, but a lot of young people are responding to it. People in their twenties. That's gratifying and fascinating. When I was, say, twenty-four, I don't think I was particularly obsessed with aging. Why do you think you and your peers are?
Maybe it has something to do with the culture that we live in today moving at such a high velocity. I'm twenty-nine and I constantly think about the fact that my life seems to be flying by. In his latest novel, Douglas Coupland wrote, "Time speeds up in a terrifying manner in your mid-thirties."
Coupland is really good on stuff like that. I think it's true, in your mid-thirties you're really going to encounter that. And I think a big part of it is the degree to which you're religious or not. I'm sort of adamantly atheist, which I think the book is pretty clear on, and when there's no consoling religion in your life, you realize that you're sort of flying without a safety net.
Literally. Some of the most fascinating facts in the book are about how people who attend church live longer than those who don't. I actually found it disturbing, because I've never really gone to church and now I'm thinking I'd better, just in case.
My wife was reading the book, and she's even more vehemently atheistic than I am, and she was mad that I included that because she thought it undermined my argument. But there's even data to suggest that, say, if there's a stranger who had a serious heart attack in the next room, if you and I are in the other room praying for him, he's more likely to get better. But to me, there are so many external reasons as to why people who go to church live longer. The sheer fact that you're going to church means you're probably not in jail that day. It means you're not hitchhiking from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta. It means your life is organized to a degree. I bet if you did a study of people who go to a bridge-club meeting every Sunday it probably has the same effect.
People embrace religion in part because life seems so short, and religion offers an afterlife. If we really believe life to be that brief, why do we spend so much time doing things we either don't like or don't care about?
Sometimes I'll walk by someone who's really fat, like three hundred pounds, who's eating a bag of doughnuts, and I'll think, You know, they get it.
Why aren't we running around in a virtual panic trying to absorb every minute?
I think some people do do that, and they're romanticized as "seizing the day." They travel a lot, they eat and drink and are merry. But I think at the heart of the decisions everyone makes in life is the fact of death. Whether it's having children, amassing a lot of money, traveling, drinking a lot, it's all about dealing with the fact that one day we'll be nothing. Sometimes I'll walk by someone who's really fat, like three hundred pounds, who's eating a bag of doughnuts, and I'll think, You know, they get it. They're digging it. They're thinking, I'll be dead at fifty-four of a massive heart attack, but Christ, these doughnuts taste good.
You mention in the book that nearly everyone in the longevity movement is male. Why do you think that is?
Maybe it sounds sexist or a little too easy, but because they don't create life, because life doesn't come out of their bodies, I think men feel compelled on the one hand to invade Russia if you're Napoleon, or on the other hand, create the Mona Lisa if you're Da Vinci. I've been working on this book for the past few years, and I talk about it with my wife Lori, and she's interested in it, but she doesn't get this obsession with mortality.
The book talks about how our bodies begin a fairly swift decline after our peak ability to reproduce. In humans, this peak arrives around age twenty-five — after that, we only need to stay just healthy enough to raise our offspring. We're coasting on fumes. But in modern society, there are so many other concerns that go beyond simply perpetuating the species. Are we not built to endure all the things we now do, post-reproduction?
I think part of it is that American culture is really different from, say, a more indigenous culture, in which there's less conscious calculation about the contours of your life. This is so much of what creates these neuroses among us all. On the one hand, we tell ourselves we're controlling our lives, that you carry around your body as this instrument you can use to do what you want: "I'm thirty-seven and not ready to have children, but when I do decide to have children, I want 1.7 children," and all that. But underneath all your mental gymnastics, your body is doing things you have no conscious knowledge of — a woman in a so-called primitive culture would be giving birth at age thirteen or fourteen, and the father would be eighteen or younger. We're so disconnected from our bodies that we just go around doing things the way we want to do them. We tell ourselves that we're running the show when the body is actually running the show.
Right, you note that through almost all of human history, people mated as teenagers and conceived by age twenty, and that in societies isolated from the modern world, this is still the case. How does this disconnect manifest itself in our society?
One thing I'm very aware of is the trope that seems present in so many books written by older male writers: J.M. Coetzee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth — and you see it in Woody Allen films — old men and relatively young women. You know on some level it's just a stupid fantasy, or celebrity buying access to beauty, nothing more complicated than that. But on some other level it's sort of beautiful or moving or profound, like a death's head holding a flower. It's like, as this body is stepping toward death it wants to touch life again one last time. On some level it's just men colonizing women's bodies and one doesn't want to romanticize it because sometimes it's really fucked up. But as human need and human drive, I find it really powerful.
I normally think of who we're attracted to as a product mainly of our upbringing — we fall in love with women who remind us of our mothers, that whole theory. But so much of it is a product of human evolution that occurred thousands of years ago. For instance, both men and women are almost always drawn to husky voices.
If you glance at some of my other books, I'm really pretty Freudian, and I think [psychology] is definitely part of it, but that's not the argument this book makes. This book is about just how amazingly simple we are as physical beings. Like that one thing you just cited: we're drawn to husky voices. Why? Why do people think of Kathleen Turner as having a sexy voice? What does that explain? Well, apparently that means she has a higher level of testosterone, hence she'd be a good repository for genetic regeneration. That's such a powerful idea for me, that we're just these really dumb, primitive beings.
©2008 Nerve.com and Will Doig