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Losing It

Losing It: In which an Aging Professor laments his shrinking Brain...

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Losing It
    Book Description:

    InLosing It,William Ian Miller brings his inimitable wit and learning to the subject of growing old:too old to matter, of either rightly losing your confidence or wrongly maintaining it, culpably refusing to face the fact that you are losing it.The "it" in Miller's "losing it" refers mainly to mental faculties-memory, processing speed, sensory acuity, the capacity to focus. But it includes other evidence as well-sags and flaccidities, aches and pains, failing joints and organs. What are we to make of these tell-tale signs? Does growing old gracefully mean more than simply refusing unseemly cosmetic surgeries? How do we face decline and the final drawing of the blinds? Will we know if and when we have lingered too long?

    Drawing on a lifetime of deep study and anxious observation, Miller enlists the wisdom of the ancients to confront these vexed questions head on. Debunking the glossy new image of old age that has accompanied the graying of the Baby Boomers, he conjures a lost world of aging rituals-complaints, taking to bed, resentments of one's heirs, schemes for taking it with you or settling up accounts and scores-to remind us of the ongoing dilemmas of old age. Darkly intelligent and sublimely written, this exhilarating and eccentric book will raise the spirits of readers, young and old.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17837-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Psychology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. INTRODUCTION: Striking Out
    (pp. 1-10)

    The phrasestriking outcan suit an enterprise launched in grand hope no less than one that ends in humiliating failure. It may also invite an editor to strike out the first sentence and tell me to start over, or just to give it up. If the general themes of this book may strike some as glum and grim, others will find solacing compensation in the joie de vivre of its gallows humor, some of which is intended. But such joie, like all joy, will soon be followed by a letdown. The figurative trapdoor opens and you drop, and are...


    • CHAPTER 1. The You behind Your Eyes Is Out of Date
      (pp. 13-21)

      Digression, cast adrift on the buoyant Dead Sea of your own narrations, is a sign of old age, remarked by ancient moralists and proven by modern neurology and brain science to be a symptom of the natural decay of the aging brain. Says John of Trevisa, old age is characterized by a “faillynge of wyttes,”¹ and the failing occurred, as far as we can tell, roughly at the same chronological age back in the old days as it does now. More of our ancient and medieval ancestors died before their brains had a chance to rot, but if they lived...

    • CHAPTER 2. Can You Recall What You Had for Dinner, Cronus?
      (pp. 22-30)

      A competently socialized person knows that a welcome has a half-life; he senses when to leave, graciously saving the host from having to hint that it is time to do so. The adept actor anticipates a hint before it needs to be given. But we make mistakes sometimes and misread the situation. It is one thing to misread by ten minutes when we should have left a dinner party, and quite another to misread by ten years when we should have left the job, or by thirty years when we should have left off breathing. Since age takes its toll...

    • CHAPTER 3. Shrink Wrap
      (pp. 31-37)

      One not very rare and mildly mystifying trick of the mind is that it can block out or miss knowing something, a word or fact, so common and obvious that one would have to be a flatworm not to have internalized it. When the word or fact finally forces itself into your word-hoard or knowledge bank, you inevitably hear it used or referred to several times within the next week. The coincidence, you feel, is uncanny, the world strangely enchanted. The only enchantment, however, is the one that put some part of your brain to sleep for so many years....

    • CHAPTER 4. Old Views of Old Age
      (pp. 38-46)

      My views reproduce one very well-established view of old age: the negative one. Western cultures have been of two minds about old age since the classical and biblical periods, and the traditions have been well detailed in recent studies, so I will paint with a broad brush. Both views are still very much with us.¹

      In the positive view, which comes in several versions, pagan, Christian, gerontocratic, old age tends to be associated with wisdom, with prudence. Advantages, moral and intellectual, are to be had from finally being freed from the chief passion of youth—sex—and from the dominant...


    • CHAPTER 5. Older, Yes, but Wiser?
      (pp. 49-62)

      Oh, but there are compensations. You are wiser now, you have better judgment; besides, research on the aging brain offers evidence that we form alternate compensatory structures in different lobes or hemispheres to keep up appearances. At a price. The new areas, covering for the plaqued-up places that were meant to do the job, are now not available for what they were supposed to be doing, and the newly recruited areas are not what they used to be either. Even bleaker is that the increasing cross-hemisphere sharing of frontal lobe functions may be nothing to celebrate. This new bilaterality may...

    • CHAPTER 6. The Dark Side of Wisdom
      (pp. 63-76)

      Wisdom suggests gravitas, aged weightiness. The dom of its second syllable is a form of the worddoom, meaning judgment, as in Doomsday, with the vowel shortened by virtue of its unstressed position. Subtract the weight of the suffixeddoomand we are left with the adjectivewise. The “dom” adds something of a jurisdictional sense, a sense of domain and terrain, as it does with kingdom, Christendom, freedom, even boredom. This chapter counts too as something of a modest polemic against the silliness of psychological treatments of wisdom and its association with old age. We saw in the previous...


    • CHAPTER 7. Homo Querelus (Man the Complainer)
      (pp. 79-94)

      In the early fifteenth century St. Bernardino of Siena voices what was already an old adage on old age: “You strove to reach it, you desired to achieve it, you were afraid you’d not reach it, and now, arriving, you complain. Everyone wishes to reach old age, but nobody wishes to be old.”¹

      We demand complaint as the first sign of life. No cry from the baby is not good news; we even rank newborns by how vociferously they complain in those very first moments outside the cramped comfort of the womb. Two of the criteria in the Apgar score...

    • CHAPTER 8. Old Saints, Old Killers, and More Complaints
      (pp. 95-106)

      Christian moralists of the Middle Ages did not have much good to say about old age. If there was any virtue to be found in the decline that came with aging, it was, as we noted, that it put one in the mind to turn to spiritual matters, to prepare for a good Christian death. It was a time for penance. Instead of complaining about aches and pains, about declining powers physical and mental, you could take advantage of your misery to contemplate the evanescence of pleasure and the mutability and instability of embodied life.

      Old age’s miseries could thus...

    • CHAPTER 9. Complaining against the Most High
      (pp. 107-124)

      This chapter deals with more formalized complaints made in an attempt to get back what you are owed, to claim your due, lest you lose it, the “it” being something withheld from you that is owed you. Specifically, the problem is how to compel a person to repay a debt or to deliver on a promise he has made. It is more like filing a formal legal complaint or going to what used to be the complaint window in the department store.

      What if you are not even remotely the equal of the person you have a complaint against? What...


    • CHAPTER 10. Giving Up Smoting for Good
      (pp. 127-140)

      At the end of the one of the better revenge movies,The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya, who has after years and years finally succeeded in killing the killer of his father, muses: “You know, it’s very strange; I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”¹

      I have been in the revenge business too, a virtual revenge business, for revenge has been the chiefest of my scholarly interests. How could it not be, when I make a living reading the Icelandic sagas, the smartest...

    • CHAPTER 11. Paralysis of the Spirit
      (pp. 141-154)

      As we saw with Kveld-Ulf when he took to bed because of grief and old age, such retirement is only partly a throwing in of the towel, for it seems to carry with it a conditional clause: I will quit the field, I will retire, as you see me retired here in this bed, unless you help me. But there are much gloomier takings to bed, born of despair and frustration, where there is no help in sight, nor any contemplated. Just emptiness, a longing—though the capacity to long is itself compromised—for escape from this miserable world, not...

    • CHAPTER 12. Yes, You Can Take It with You
      (pp. 155-174)

      Die you must; and they say you cannot take it with you. What exactly does that mean? Does it counsel you to live it up in wasteful riot in your last years? If you wait until then, more likely you will waste it in a demented haze in a nursing home, having it consumed not in riot at all, but in keeping you minimally comfortable while Death is stuck in traffic six nursing homes away. Or is it to be construed as moral advice against penny-pinching avarice, advising you rather to annuitize your assets so as to have your wealth...


    • CHAPTER 13. Owing the Dead
      (pp. 177-186)

      To what extent must the living respect the commitments and the wishes of the dead, or repay the debts we owe them, when they did right by us, when they sacrificed and gave and we inherited and received (and consumed) the benefits? We can, in fact, easily avoid paying these debts, as our moral sense, which demands memory and faithfulness, shrinks along with our brains; the dead have no means to compel us to pay them back. There are no Hrapps among them. My generation will pass on obligations to our descendants too, but they will be obligations of a...

    • CHAPTER 14. Going Soft
      (pp. 187-199)

      With old age, you see, one of the amends one can make is not to be ashamed of having patriotic sentiments. Where but in the United States could I have had such a good life to complain about?

      A good portion of the last chapter expressed gratefulness, somewhat against the pose of much of my exposition up until then. But I cannot stop with Lincoln and the Gettysburg dead. Losing it, in its early stages, makes for reflection. Not surprisingly, many of these reflections involve remembering, and thus recognizing and admitting debts incurred. As I already mentioned, “to remember” in...

    • CHAPTER 15. Little Things; or, What If?
      (pp. 200-209)

      Losing it, except when it is the result of an accident or a stroke, is a long, drawn-out slide. The losing it that is my main theme takes place in an analogue world. But the stories we like to tell are of those digital moments within the larger analogue domain, instances where the littlest thing had enormous consequences. We speak of near misses and close calls, both of which implicate an emotion I shall call the “sense of whatifness.” Regret and relief are very much part of this terrain: regret for missing opportunities or for taking up ones that turned...

    • CHAPTER 16. Defying Augury
      (pp. 210-221)

      Though I must have thought about it before, my first memory of facing up to mortality is of sleeping over at a friend’s when I was six or so. He said a prayer before going to bed—“Now I lay me down to sleep”—ending with the couplet “If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.” What was a little Jew to make of this? And since Jesus did not appear in it, I could not dismiss it out of hand; it concerned me too. Nowadays, overprotective parents would condemn the prayer...

    • CHAPTER 17. Frankly, I Do Give a Damn
      (pp. 222-228)

      We understand “I don’t give a damn,” “I don’t give a shit,” or “I don’t give a flying fuck” to be roughly synonymous except for the greater emphasis wrought by increasing vulgarity. A damn invokes matters of high value, your own soul, perhaps, and tossing it not to the winds but to hell, as if it were of no value. Shit, in contrast, invokes something of no value from the get-go, and is manifestly of this world. And a flying fuck has much less to do with fornication than with alliterative emphasis. It is flying that does the work, not...


    • CHAPTER 18. Going through All These Things Twice
      (pp. 231-248)

      I have not yet been put out to pasture or farmed out, but the time is drawing near when I will be. The motorcycle my family mocks me for riding might launch me into a real pasture, making it the pasture of my passing, not one for metaphorical grazing. I should apologize for mentioning the motorcycle. It is 1,800 cc too. A colleague ridiculed me for “the infinite regress of excuse making” to justify bringing it up, “about as cool as having a penile implant and announcing it to the world.” But I cannot help being proud of the bike—...

    • CHAPTER 19. Do Not Go Gentle: A Valediction
      (pp. 249-262)

      Losing it in the sense of a general decline of abilities is about seepage and slippage, slow, inexorable decay, that steady shrinkage of the brain already under way in your early thirties. But when I lose it in rage, when I lose my patience with the vapidity of the positivity effect and socioemotional whatever it was, or when I lapse into jeremiads fulminating against our inability as a people to defer any gratification, against our blithe betrayal of the generations who built the nation, thus also betraying the generations who will come after us, sinking two centuries of achievement into...

  10. ADDENDUM: ♫ ♫ “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”
    (pp. 263-266)
    (pp. 267-268)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 269-300)
    (pp. 301-316)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 317-328)