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In Losing 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 ...
In Losing 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.
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," 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 into their sixties and beyond, their old brains fared no worse than our old ones do. And though a higher percentage of us will make it to old age, we have been unable to budge the upper limit of the human life span ever since the Israelites entered Canaan after their forty years in the desert and mythical life spans gave way to reality. Eli the priest could still make it to ninety-eight, but Psalm 90 provides us with the famous and eminently reasonable three score and ten, with another ten years of a misery bonus if you are in good shape: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." Predictably, in a triumph of genocidal irresponsibility, we are trying to extend our lives well beyond not just eighty but beyond ninety and a hundred. Thus the spate of articles in the mainstream press about how near-starvation diets keep mice, and by extension humans, living ever longer. The grim joke being that the best recipe for living a long life is barely to live a life. Recipes generating gustatory satisfaction kill you. Longer life turns out to be just as the misanthropes suspected: a prolongation of misery, though some argue staying drunk on red wine will achieve the same result with greater joy. I can barely restrain my own misanthropy: those who wish to live forever on this earth, without having the good grace to remove themselves elsewhere, either to heaven or to hell, are—dare I say it?—morally defective, miserable Swiftian Struldbrugs.
I got sidetracked a few pages ago in the Introduction by the history of naming age cohorts by the plurals of multiples of ten when I had meant to offer you this vignette instead: you are in your sixties, even fifties, and you are walking by a shop window, or in some area in which a security monitor shows a scan of the line you are in. You sneak a look. You see someone in the space where you should be but you do not recognize the interloper. Then, after an unseemly lag of a second or two you are forced to remake your own acquaintance; it seems you no longer know yourself at first sight. The you behind your eyes believes you look like you did twenty years ago, and it assumes that dated image is the real you, even if recent photos tell a horror story. But photos seldom confirmed your self-image, even when you were young, so you can dismiss the latest batch. In high school you accepted only one or two out of fifty on the contact sheet as satisfactory, though none of your friends or family, when asked, could distinguish the person in the photos you thought reasonably flattering from the many in which you looked like a total doofus. To them they were all indistinguishably you. They were not even putting you on, as you vainly believed, when they thought the best picture was one you felt the most loathsome.
Now, at age sixty-five, you supply yourself with the appearance St. Augustine says you will be accorded at Judgment Day, when you will rise with your thirty-year-old body and looks, which approximates Paul's making your resurrected body match Christ's: "Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Eph. 4.13). The resurrection of the dead heels to our vanity.
The belief in the resurrection of the thirty-year-old body is sustained by our inability to think of our real selves as the wretched old people we are destined to die as, if we are lucky enough to live so long, just as we are unable to imagine ourselves as the babies we once were. We are alienated, in different ways to be sure, both from the present real image of ourselves as old and from distant images of ourselves before age four. Both are in some sense not us. The old us is made strange by the self-deception I am in the midst of discussing, while we are alienated from the infant us by our inability to imagine, let alone remember, what it was like to be that baby or toddler pictured in the family album.
What bodies are the staggering numbers of babies and toddlers who fell victim to the mortality tables to be provided with at the Last Judgment? Does the baby arise as a baby? Or with the body it would have had had it not been nipped in the bud? Opinions differed,3 but the anonymous poet desperate with longing who, sometime in the second half of the fourteenth century, wrote the moving Middle English poem known as Pearl to mourn the death of his two-year-old daughter, sees her in a vision as a queen in heaven, a beautiful maiden, not as a toddler. Yet he is still able to recognize her as the precious pearl he has lost. She rather firmly reprimands her father that his grief is out of order, since she is now a bride of the Lamb. The poet wants to be consoled by the vision, but in the end it only augments his sorrow and grief. The consolation that his faith offers him fails to console him. Some believers, evidently, were unable to shrug off, or become inured to, the grim demographic realities of their world.
If we construct a fantasy of childhood as a time of an unalienated unity of being, then that sense of unity, the actual feeling of it, cannot be recovered by memory but must be accepted on faith, or by supposing it for our own children when they are happily (we think) lost in fantasy and play. But as soon as memories begin, so do memories of fear, anxiety, and shame, of not fitting in, of a vivid image of being mocked at age four in nursery school by a girl a year older because I dribbled chocolate milk down my shirt.
I must say I do not know what older adults those psychologists have been testing, those who, these researchers insist, remember only pleasant feelings, no particulars, mind you, just pleasant feelings from times long past. Have they regressed to that supposed unity of being we impute to children? Once our selves start to multiply in order to handle the various roles we are called on to play as moderately well-socialized actors, good-bye, unity of being and good-bye, lack of self-consciousness. I never felt I properly learned to play the role of a mature adult. I have tried to discuss interest rates as if knowledgeable about them; I tried to act upset over one of my kid's lousy grades. But I never felt one with the part. If I had a hard time adjusting to the roles demanded in the prime of life, then what am I to do with old age, where I am not even sure I know what I look like? Maybe playing the old man properly requires thinking you are twenty years younger than you are and acting the fool who thinks such. If that is the case, then my very failure to recognize myself in the shop window proves me perfectly immersed in the role of the old man I thought I wasn't.
But with recognition comes deflation and shame, because you fear that others can see your pathetic vanity, that they caught you in the act of such egregiously self-flattering complacency, that they caught an old guy checking himself out in the shop window. Any minimally astute observer, such as one of your students, can see the pretense in the way you talk, or try to hold yourself, which you believe is ramrod straight, but the sag at the knees and the crick in your back betray you. Yet that shame is also its own sort of vanity. It assumes people, younger people, to be exact, are looking at you, or looking at you as anything other than a sixty-something, cancelled soul. As one female student told a female colleague of mine, which my colleague, reveling in Schadenfreude, hastened to relay to me: "Oh, Professor Miller, he's such a cute old man." That was rather more painful than the specter in the shop window, though I still vividly remember when I was twenty how someone forty might as well have been a member of a different species, or a shade in Charon's boat crossing over. The idea that such moribund souls could be objects of desire or have any themselves was beyond my imaginative powers. And still is. The student and my colleague were instruments of cosmic comic revenge, punishing me for having somewhat too good self-esteem, which like so much self-esteem had become quite unhinged from reality.
Comic for a while. Eventually the genre switches to horror. When you were a little kid, very little, four or five, the old were not cute, especially the very old. Grandparents were excepted, but it was an easy exception to make because they were only in their late forties. The very old, however, were images of death and blight and scared the bejesus out of you. One of my earliest memories is of meeting an old withered soul from our small synagogue in Green Bay in the grocery store and tearfully asking my mother when we escaped if that would happen to me too. The wrinkles, the blotched skin, the gnarled hands that reached to pat my head, the wart with a hair like a dog's whisker sticking out of it—little kids see the world as Gulliver saw it in Brobdingnag—the thick glasses that monstrously magnified the eyes, the goiter on the neck.
I am not quite there yet. Even the shop window did not disconfirm that. The genre I live in is still broad comedy. I get angry when my wife or kids tell me that they responded to my question and that I just did not hear the answer. Am I getting hard of hearing too? More likely they are disdaining to answer and falsely claiming that I did not hear. But that is what my truly hard-of-hearing mother thinks too. Lately, though, when speaking with students I do find myself leaning too close, violating their personal space, using up my one permissible "What?" then hastily jerking back while taking a stab at a sensible response, only to burden them with what turns out to be a non sequitur.
Yet within hours of the encounter with my reflection, even as few as five minutes, I reconstitute the false me so recently exposed as a delusion. I guess I succumb to positive thinking. You would need the uncompromising eye of Rembrandt to keep seeing yourself as others see you. As long as that false you knows its place and does not make any embarrassing demands on others to confirm overtly its truth, you are welcome to your vanity. You might, for an instant, feel a fool for having your self-conception so divorced from reality, yet you can always find a support group ready to congratulate you for not giving in to ageism, to "socially constructed" categorizations unfavorable to your deluded upbeat view of yourself. And worries on this score cease altogether once you bottom out in true dementia, as in the case of some Alzheimer's patients who neither recognize their written name nor know what they presently look like and are thus unable to find their way back to their rooms when meandering the nursing-home corridor unless there is a picture of themselves outside the room, for they do not recall the room number either. Not just any picture will work, though. The person captured in a recent photo would be a stranger, unrecognizable, but put up a picture taken in their thirties, the prime of life, and they know the room is theirs. Eventually, it seems, you lose the capacity to be embarrassed by the self-serving image that the you behind your eyes thinks is you.
We look at ourselves in the mirror every morning without it producing much anxiety. Our face is much easier to deal with than confronting the disgusting transformations below the neck (actually, the neck has its problems too). The mirror was much more dangerous when you were fourteen and a humongous zit had erupted on your forehead hours before the Friday dance. So why the shock of the shop window? Because we are ready for the mirror in the morning (most of the time, anyway); it is a ritual we perform on autopilot. The task at hand occupies us: shaving or combing hair, should there be any. We make sure to see only the part addressed. The stakes are very low, though not so low that I have not taken to shaving in the shower sans mirror. If we must confront the whole countenance, we put on a game face. We have taught ourselves to see not our face but our mirror face, a creature with its own independent existence, like the picture in our high school yearbook, which is no less strangely unreal and out of date.
The horror of the morning mirror is not so much what you see but what you have managed to miss until it is too late. How could that single hair sprouting from your ear have reached a half inch in length before you noticed it? You hasten to shave it off, cutting the ear in the process, unable to stop the bleeding because of the anticoagulant effect of the 81 mg daily dose of aspirin you take so that you can—the joke of it—live longer.
Others serve as truer mirrors that force upon us these abrupt realizations of our own decline. Can it be that my high school friend looks so terribly old? Wasn't he a year behind me? The theme is treated in exquisite detail by Proust in the last volume of his magnum opus, and much earlier and more briefly by Seneca who, when seeing an old slave at the entrance to one of his estates he had not visited in years, asks the bailiff the identity of the "broken-down dotard." The slave answers: "Don't you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave." Seneca has no defense against the truth that that pet slave represents.
The shame of such self-flattering blindness. Shame seems to crop up in everything I write (shame is by and large a good thing; it helps keep us moral, honorable, and socialized): humiliation, fears of exposure, the anxieties that attend the simplest interactions—muffing a routine handshake—or the torment of replaying those interactions afterward. Honor is always at stake and always being lost or threatened in the commonest of interactions. And with honor and its discontents come revenge, or fantasies of it, at least when it is someone else who has made a fool out of you, rather than you making one of yourself all on your own. But what revenges can there be at my age? What honor? Honors, should there be any, should not be confused with honor. Honors come in the form of plaques and awards and retirement dinners; honor comes in the form of others envying you.
FISHING FOR COMPLIMENTS
At the end of one's career one is asked to give talks on topics one wrote about fifteen or twenty years earlier. To prepare, I reread my past writing on the theme, hoping to reawaken, or to ram back in, the knowledge I had back then. Rereading one's own work is a fraught experience. I lose either way: if I feel a surge of pride—"Wow, Miller, the muse was really singing when you wrote this"—no more than two seconds into indulging a fantasy of posthumous glory or even of belated present acclaim, my daydream crashes into the sea before the oxygen masks can drop down. Thus chastened, should I reexamine the work and conclude yet again that it is verifiably inspired and ever so unjustly ignored, then I despair that I could write anything approaching it today. I cannot remember that I ever knew the things I was talking about in that book. Wherever did I come up with that example to make my point? I would not even know where to look to find it now, even with the Google crutch, available now but not then.
More frequently, however, my reaction is this: no pride at all, just a chastening recognition of superficiality. I hope no one has read it, a hope that has pretty much been fulfilled, unlike most hopes. Presumably the dean hadn't; all he cared about was that it got published. This second reaction rings truer than the one celebrating my own genius. Negative self-judgments, because they must overcome our tendency to self-flatter, are likely to be more reliable than positive ones. Or as La Rochefoucauld put it: "Our enemies get closer to the truth in their judgment of us than we get ourselves."
Excerpted from LOSING IT by WILLIAM IAN MILLER Copyright © 2011 by William Ian Miller. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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