Friday, January 23, 2009

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (book review)

The "rules" for Annie's What's in a name-2 challenge specify that one book have a "medical condition" in its title. I'd say that "dead" qualifies. The book's author, David Shields, is sandwiched between a 14-year-old daughter and a 97-year-old father. In The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, Shields considers human life in terms of our physical condition, with medical facts discussed and interspersed with stories of his daughter and, mainly, his father. The book is written in four sections: Infancy and Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Middle Age, and Old Age and Death. Several chapters appear in more than one section, including those on "Decline and Fall," "Boys vs. Girls," "Sex and Death," and "Hoop Dreams." (That's "hoop" as in basketball not needlework.)

I found the book very easy to read, though at times it was downright disheartening. As a 52-year-old trying to increase her explosive speed in a martial art, I really hated to read things such as "When you're 60, you're 20 percent less strong than you were in middle age; at 70, you're 40 percent less strong. You lose more strength in the muscles of your legs than in your hands and arms. You also tend to lost your fast-twitch abilities--a sprinter's contractions--much more rapidly than your slow-twitch abilities--a walker's contractions."

At other times, though, it was downright funny. I think my hands down favorite passage in this regard was a somewhat Freudian take on the movie Spider-Man, specifically, "Peter's change from dweeb to spider is explicitly analogous to his transformation from boy to man." And the current winner in the "Damn! I wish I'd thought of that phrase!" contest is the bold part of this paragraph (and I hope this isn't too risque for some readers, since it could be interpreted as for mature audiences only):

"The first time Spider-Man rescues M.J., she says to her boyfriend, Harry, that it was 'incredible.' 'What do you mean "incredible"?' he keeps asking her. The second time Spider-Man rescues M.J., she asks him, 'Do I get to say thank you this time?' and, pulling up his mask past his lips, passionately kisses him, sending both of them into rain-drenched ecstasy. The script makes painfully clear that Peter's newfound prowess is procreation or, more precisely, onanism: 'He wiggles his wrist, tries to get the goop to spray out, but it doesn't come.' All three times Spider-Man rescues M.J., they're wrapped in a pose that looks very much like missionary sex: Spider-Man on a mission. As Peter Parker, his peter is parked; as Spider-Man, he gets to have the mythic carnival ride of sex-flight without any of the messy emotional cleanup afterward."

Some of the medical information was so wonderful I can't wait to work it into conversation someday: "Your taste buds regenerate; cells within the taste buds die every ten days and are completely replaced. Even if a nerve that forms taste buds is destroyed, other buds will form around the new nerve that replaces it. However, it takes more molecules of a certain substance on your tongue for you to recognize the flavor later in adulthood. As you get older, you enjoy food less."

Woven into the story of how we age physically is the story of a family, principally one son's relationship with a father who just happens to be bipolar (though Shields uses the term "manic-depressive"). Although Shields tells many a tale in which his father doesn't necessarily appear in the best light, he does the same with himself. Shields says of his father in the prologue that "I seem to have an Oedipal urge to bury him in a shower of death data. Why do I want to cover my dad in an early shroud? He's strong and he's weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow."

Is this a book you will find entertaining but also thought-provoking? Yes. Is this a book that you will be less for not reading? No. I would give few books that high praise. If you want to learn a bit more about how your body (and, to an extent your mind) changes and adapts, for better or for worse, as you age, this book is certainly one way to accomplish that.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Christmas Catchup and Other Random Oddities

Yes, the Christmas Bitch in me gave way to the Celebratory Babe, and we did have a Christmas here as evidenced by the decorated tree standing guard o'er all the presents. If you think you're just hallucinating the monkey at the top of the tree, you're not. He's the Christmas Ape, and he sits atop the tree every year, wearing the Christmas star as a hat. We did all the usual family things: church on Christmas Eve, driving home the back way on a dusty country road; cinnamon rolls for Christmas breakfast; turkey and tofurky for Christmas dinner. I passed on the Christmas bubble bath but did manage to curl up with a good book for a while. I undecorated on New Year's Day, only forgetting a couple of items that now sit by the door awaiting transfer to a Christmas box in the garage. I've also cut out gift tags for next year from the fronts of some of the Christmas cards we got this year, though I still need to update the address book I keep on Mr. Mac to include some updated snail mail and e-mail addresses I learned about in the cards.

I participated this year in the Book Blogger Christmas Swap. I sent a parcel up to Maryland, and took great delight in reading about the recipient's glee in opening her goodies. I had my own glee opening the box I was sent. In my "registration" paragraph, I noted a desire to get back to reading science fiction after many years away (I read so much sci fi while I was in grad school that I basically overdosed on it). My Secret Santa (who turned out to be Carl) put together a fun package with something old (Glory Lane by Alan Dean Foster) and something new (The Little Book by Selden Edwards). The Catwoman card was a nice touch as was, in true Book Blogger fashion, the return address on the package written on a card catalog card (for the subject heading GRAMMAR, COMPARATIVE AND GENERAL--SYNTAX). I haven't started either book yet; I may save the small paperback to take on the upcoming adventure halfway around the world.

Yes, I did make some New Year's resolutions and so far am keeping them. In the food for thought for a new year category, I loved Neil Gaiman's New Year's wish on his blog: "...I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind." Definitely some words to try to live by there. In the same vein, my Zen Page-A-Day calendar had the following entry for January 1:

"Eliminate something superfluous from your life.
Break a habit.
Do something that makes you feel insecure.
Carry out an action with complete attention and intensity, as if it were your last."
~Piero Ferrucci

I'm trying to do some of these, too, as the year revs up. In particular, I'm feeling pretty darned insecure about...

...having started taking karate classes in addition to my kendo ones. Though some of the stances are the same as in kendo, there are some major differences; hence, the feelings of insecurity. At the same time, it's as challenging or more to be learning totally new material as opposed to the fine-tuning of already-learned kendo material that I'm doing as I work toward a black belt there. It also means that if I make every class, I'm now doing martial arts six days a week (every weeknight and Sunday mornings). Hey! It keeps me off the streets and may actually make me safer when I'm on them.

Finally in the surreal world in which I live, I looked up yesterday to see the sight below through the door out to the deck. That's the younger son who, having crafted a climbing harness out of rope, was attempting to lower himself from the balcony off the master bedroom to the ground two storeys below. I don't know why this surprised me enough to grab the camera and snap a quick photo. Both sons often descend from their rooms upstairs, having gained entry by climbing up to the balcony. Or they appear at the kitchen door, having climbed down from their rooms. This was just the first aided descent, or at least the first one I've seen. Since older son was playing around with the harness last night, it probably won't be the last. They do keep my life interesting; I will say that.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A New Meme for a New Year

I had planned on trying to post something today so as to keep with my New Year's resolution to post more, so the first will be in response to a tag from Annie for this meme.

The book that’s been on your shelves the longest:
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I don’t remember exactly when I got this book, but I think I was about five or six. Since I’m 52 now, I’ve had it for quite a while. I can still recite some of the poems in it, since I read them so many times as a child. I still pull this one off the shelf every now and then just for a comforting blast from the past.

A book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time, etc.):
This would have to be Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. My older son asked me to read this when he was in middle school. I did, and it helped me understand him a lot better. Card says in the foreword that he has been told this is the book most often stolen from (or not returned to) middle school libraries, and I can see why. I keep hearing that this book is being made into a movie; if that's true, it may be one I can't bring myself to see since I just know it would disappoint me.

A book you acquired in some interesting way (gift, serendipity in a used bookstore, prize, etc.):
I’ll pick the one I bought before it was available in stores. I went to the National Book Festival in September 2008, and was able to purchase Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book three days before it appeared on bookstore shelves. I then read a good bit of it while waiting in line for four hours to ask Mr. Gaiman to sign a copy of Coraline for Annie.

The most recent addition to your shelves:
Several mysteries by Karin Fossum, set in Norway. I may take these along on an upcoming trip halfway around the world, on which my return will be from Norway. It might be interesting to read them right before visiting the country.

A book that’s been with you to the most places:
Whatever notebook I’m using as a journal at the time. If I have to name a published book, it would be the Child's Garden of Verses mentioned above. I don't take it on trips, but it's been with me in every residence I've had for the last 46 or 47 years.

A bonus book that you want to talk about but doesn’t fit into the other questions:
One of my favorite poetry books is Hailstones and Halibut Bones (Adventures in Color) by Mary O’Neill (author) and John Wallner (Illustrator). The poems really do convey colors in words; in fact, O’Neill says that she has had people blind from birth tell her that the poems helped them understand the concept of “color.”

As for tagging people, I figure that the only reason Annie didn't tag her mom, Debi, is that Debi has either already done this or already been tagged to do it. Otherwise, anyone who wants to can join in the fun and consider themselves to be the next "It."