William Miller is not a cynic. He just happens to believe optimists are not as smart as pessimists and says, “America has gone giggling into the sea.” This satirical wit is how he chooses to present himself as he mocks everything from the aches of old age to the naïveté of college kids.
A University law professor and historian specializing in Icelandic sagas and blood feuds, Miller has written numerous sociological texts dealing with his personal take on anxiety, emotions and even the theme of disgust. But his new book “Losing It” tackles a different subject matter — the myth that with age comes some sort of dignity. He said he’s positive this is not the case. For Miller, one’s twilight years bring little more than absolute panic at the thought of losing one’s mind.
Underneath the sarcasm and the jokes, Miller calls himself a “pure romantic” — someone who wants only to speak the truth about the humor and pain of losing his mental faculties in what he terms an age of “Yahoo! and beer commercials.”
An idealist cloaked in a prickly exterior, Miller discusses the horrors of outliving one’s mental abilities in his latest book, fully titled “Losing It: In which an aging professor laments his shrinking brain, which he flatters himself formerly did him Noble Service. A plaint, tragi-comical, historical, vengeful, sometimes satirical and thankful in six parts, if his Memory does yet serve.”
“The fear behind the whole book is that in our culture now a big hunk of us outlive ourselves, so we get demented,” Miller said. “Our bodies don’t die on time. So our brains go but our bodies, because of medicine, keep going — so half of the population over 85 is seriously demented.”
The book is divided into three general sections: autobiography, history and a final section devoted to the art of complaining. Miller began the project when he realized his brain no longer worked like it once did. This caused him serious distress and inconvenience — he said he doesn’t like the idea of forgetting the name of the president or, more importantly, his own wife. But an upside to this forgetfulness is that it prompted Miller to write the first section, which he cheerfully referred to as “brain rot.”
He is not alone. Starting at the age of 30, the brain starts to shrink, becoming smaller and spongier, Miller said. As a member of the baby-boom generation, he wants the rest of his cohort to recognize the agony that comes with getting old, and then he wants them to laugh alongside him.
“There’s all this stupid research that comes from psychology departments that caters to this baby-boom bubble that tells us old people are happier than they ever were,” he said. “Yeah — that’s because their brains don’t work. They’re just sitting there with stupid grins on their faces.”
Though he routinely wakes up with bruises on new parts of his body and bemoans his ever-shortening temper, Miller says he would rather be losing his memory and ability to focus than suffering in any other part of his life. He jokingly asserted that life is one giant progression of misery. And the worst period for him was his 20s.
“The excuses you have for being a fuck-off are rapidly diminishing and you realize you’re actually gonna have to do something,” Miller said. “You don’t (have) any idea what you’re gonna do. And then you get through that and you end up … a boring professor. Which is pretty good.”
While college-aged readers don’t necessarily think about their legacy, undergrads will find plenty of humor in “Losing It.” But since Miller supplements his comedy with a darker underbelly, the book also serves as a premonition, Miller said.
“(The book) is real grim gallows humor,” he said. “It’s what’s in store for you.”
Miller found much of his inspiration from the Icelandic sagas he teaches students on a regular basis. By studying stories of people dealing with similar issues of old age, Miller placed his own thoughts in context.
One Icelandic tale depicts an old man contemplating taking revenge on his enemy. But instead of violent action, he goes to bed, quitting his life. These fateful decisions about revenge and honor are found in many elderly protagonists of ancient tales. Miller also finds them in the everyday occurrences of the 21st century.
In the introduction to “Losing It,” Miller calls the book a “prologue” to the dead. When the end is near, people should ready themselves for a bumpy road of decline, he said.
Miller assumes many roles, effortlessly shifting between stern academic and sarcastic teenager. For now he seems content with his malleable exterior.
“I’d say I’m about 50-percent serious when I say all of this,” he said. “It’s all a joke. It’s a serious joke. But it ain’t a tragedy, I’ll tell you that.”