Diary of an Immortal Man
May 22, 2001 by Richard Dooling
What would it be like to live forever? Writer Richard Dooling explores this question in this fictional piece from Esquire.
Originally published May 1999. Published on KurzweilAI.net May 22, 2001.
March 30: Today I turn forty. I am officially protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. If I had an employer, I could now sue him if he discriminated against me because of my, ulp, age. Until now, I’ve half believed in one of Vladimir Nabokov’s elegant syllogisms: Other men die, but I am not other men; therefore, I’ll not die. Nabokov died in 1977. Every time I look in the bathroom mirror, I see Death, the Eternal Footman (looking quite proud), standing in the shadows behind me, holding my coat, snickering. I live with my family in my hometown of Omaha. My selfish genes have managed an immortality of sorts by getting themselves into four delightful children, who are still too young to turn on me. My wife and I have enjoyed nine years of marriage, what Robert Louis Stevenson called “a friendship recognized by the police.” I’m Catholic, so as mortality looms on the far side of the middle-age horizon, I seek consolation in my Christian faith and one of its central tenets: belief in the immortality of my soul. But the lawyer in me also highlights the usual caveats and provisos. According to the Scriptures, my quality of life after death may depend on my ability to love my fellow man. This is a big problem. I forgot to mention that in addition to being a practicing Catholic, I’m also a practicing misanthrope. As I see it, my only chance of avoiding eternal damnation is to stay alive until I learn to love other people. Or until some future pope issues an encyclical providing spiritual guidance for misanthropic Catholics. November 16: My second novel, White Man’s Grave, is a finalist for the National Book Award. For at least a day or two, I wonder if I might be able to achieve immortality by writing great literature. My wife and I fly to the awards ceremony in New York City, where William Gaddis wins the National Book Award in Fiction for A Frolic of His Own.
We return to Omaha, where, instead of reading the Scriptures or A Frolic of His Own, I read Woody Allen, who said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
February 23: I am in the Sheep’s Head Tavern in east London, banging my flagon, bending my elbow, when the evening news comes on the telly over the bar and I learn that Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Scotland has cloned a sheep named Dolly. I am not personally acquainted with or fond of any sheep that I would like to see multiplied like loaves and fishes. Most of what I know about sheep I learned in crowded taverns like this one, banging my flagon, bending my elbow, and listening to off-color bestiality jokes. I fail to appreciate the significance of Dolly for my own personal immortality. Flagon. Elbow.
March 30: Birthdays seem to be coming every other month or so. I’m now forty-three years old. Still in Omaha; still a novelist. At my back, I hear the AARP’s silver-chariot specials drawing near.
August 4: My wife and I reform our diets and take up a fitness regimen to shed pounds and replenish our dwindling reserves of vim and vigor.
We hire a sitter for the kids, then jog for almost an hour, and we eat nothing but kale and soybeans for dinner. We are starving and sore, stretched out in bed and watching the news, when we learn that the world’s oldest living person, Jeanne Louise Calment of Arles, France, died today at 122 years of age. Jeanne reportedly soaked her food in olive oil at every meal and also rubbed olive oil on her skin every day; she loved port wine and ate two pounds of chocolate per week; she smoked cigarettes until she was 120 years old. August 5: We have quit jogging. The cupboards of our modest Omaha home are lined with bottles of Bertolli extra-virgin olive oil, and UPS brings Godiva chocolates twice a week. My wife and I begin to experiment with tobacco products.
May: The entire country waits for DNA testing to be performed on the megalosperm of its spermoblastic alpha-male commander in chief. Believe me, I am no closer to loving my fellow man. Meanwhile, other cellular developments continue apace, some of which may allow me to prolong my life until people start becoming lovable again. On top of everything else, I’m now a screenwriter, not a novelist–so artistic immortality is completely out of the question.
July: Dolly the sheep goes out like a lamb, and in come twenty-two cloned mice–seven of which are cloned from a single mouse–created by Ryuzo Yanagimachi at the University of Hawaii. The news includes experts’ speculations about the practical uses of cloning human beings. For instance, what if I could create anencephalic (brainless) clones of myself and put them in cold storage? Then I could harvest fresh hearts and livers to replace the ones damaged by smoking, eating chocolates, and consuming port wine. Too ghoulish for my tastes; instead, I resolve to look after my soul, even if it means learning to love my fellow man.
August 23: I’m not the only one with immortality on the brain. I head to the local bookstore looking for Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality, which is about people like me, who are anxious about mortality.
The store doesn’t carry Kundera, but it does have a new book called Immortality: How Science Is Extending Your Life Span–and Changing the World. Maybe I don’t have to worry about my immortal soul, because on the first page of his book, one Ben Bova tells me just what I want to hear: “The first immortal human beings are probably living among us today. You might be one of them.” Bova falls well short of Kundera as a stylist, but his book does explain how my cells age and ultimately die and how it soon may be possible to arrest or even reverse this process.
Biologists at the Geron Corporation have already altered human cells in a petri dish and enabled them to defeat the genetic process of aging by exceeding what is called the Hayflick limit. In 1961, biologist Leonard Hayflick discovered that normal human cells divide about fifty times during a normal human lifetime. It seems that each time my cells divide, the chromosomes and their DNA must be duplicated, but each time this happens, the ends of the DNA (called telomeres) are slightly depleted, until gradually they become so short that my cells can no longer make accurate, functional copies of themselves, whereupon I will age and ultimately–well, that thing that Nabokov said happens to other men will happen to me. Telomerase is an enzyme that arrests or reverses this shortening process, meaning it may enable my cells to reproduce “young” copies of themselves forever.
How long before telomerase injections are available to arrest aging in human beings? My health-insurance provider assists me promptly anytime I need help paying my premiums, but I get placed on hold whenever I call to obtain services or file a claim or ask a question about telomerase.
November: Researchers funded by Geron take stem cells from human embryos and grow them into neurons, muscle cells, and other human tissues. Meanwhile, researchers from Advanced Cell Technology take a nucleus from an adult human cell and put it into a cow’s denucleated egg cell, converting the ensemble into an embryonic human cell. Contrary to reports I read in the popular press, the cow-egg experiment is not designed to produce Minotaurs or Homo bovinus. Researchers used the denucleated cow egg only because of the ban on using the human equivalent for such research. Rather, the experiment dramatizes the possibility of taking the nucleus from one of my adult human cells and converting it back into a “pluripotent” stem cell, which can be tweaked or “steered” into forming any kind of cells: blood, bone, brain, heart, kidney, or liver. Because the resulting tissue or organ comes from my own stem cells, all of the rejection complications of organ transplantation vanish.
November 19: Author Richard Powers observes in a New York Times op-ed, “What we can do should never by itself determine what we choose to do, yet this is the way technolo-gy tends to work.” I agree with Richard Powers. But that’s probably because I’m not sick yet, nor am I in need of an organ replacement. Yet.
December 17: It happened. The big one. In the wee hours of an Omaha dawn, I peer at my computer monitor at The New York Times on the Web, where it is reported that at Kyunghee University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, researchers have allegedly combined an egg and a cell from a single donor to produce the first stages of a human embryo cloned from a single human being. This news gives me serious pause, but it’s me I want to live forever, not a clone of me, so I’m more attracted to the idea of having all the spare parts I need. As miracles of biotechnology are reported every other week, no one else seems to notice, because we are now a nation of 270 million obsessive-compulsives in the grip of twin autochthonous ideas: sex and perjury.
March 30: For my birthday (number forty-five), my wife gives me a book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil, which convinces me that, along with genetics, the biotechnology of my personal immortality may also include computer chips. Kurzweil spins out the implications of Moore’s Law: In 1965, Gordon Moore, an inventor of the integrated circuit and now chairman emeritus of Intel, observed that computer chips seemed to evolve in two-year cycles; every two years, chip makers were able to fit twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit. “Since the cost of an integrated circuit is fairly constant,” he said, “the implication is that every two years you can get twice as much circuitry running at twice the speed for the same price. For many applications, that’s an effective quadrupling of value. The observation holds true for every type of circuit, from memory chips to computer processors.” What does Moore’s Law have to do with my immortality? First, consider this: In 1850, the average American life span was 38 years. Here in 1999, 150 years later, it’s 76 years. Would it be fair to assume that in the next 150 years the human life span will at least double to 150 years, enabling some of us to live until biotechnology is able to confer immortality on us?
More (Moore?) to the point, most artificial-intelligence experts predict that tissue, especially brain tissue, will merge in the near future with computer chips in the form of neural implants, which are already being used to help profoundly deaf people hear sounds and blind people see patterns of light. On another front, research indicates that I can extend my life span by as much as 30 percent simply by restricting caloric intake to semistarvation levels of twelve hundred to thirteen hundred calories per day. I find this new dietary-technology data compelling, but it is probably more impractical than telomerase therapy or growing organs from stem cells because it requires two other major medical breakthroughs that are nowhere on the horizon, namely, willpower and self-discipline.
March 30: I’m fifty-five years old. I don’t write screenplays anymore. I’m a content provider for 3-D multimedia games. I code in special effects that elevate graphic sex and carnage to high art. I’m still applauding biotech breakthroughs, but part of me detests change, a hateful reminder that time is passing.
April 14: My neighbor celebrates his 112th birthday, even though he never eats chocolate or olive oil and he drinks Jack Daniel’s instead of port. His longevity would be encouraging, except that his wetware has degraded. He has three, maybe four anecdotes that play over and over again like digital audio clips: the one about the snowstorm of ’74, the one about his ship sinking at Pearl Harbor, the one about how his grandmother knew Abe Lincoln. I want to assign them variables. Let 1 = the snowstorm story, let 2 = the Pearl Harbor story, et cetera. Then our conversations could become more efficient. He could just say, “One,” and I would understand him perfectly.
May 1: The May issue of BioScience has a huge spread about how telomerase works in mice and monkeys. I’ve signed up for the upcoming human trials of experimental telomerase therapy, but the FDA is dragging its feet on approving the treatment for human beings. Furthermore, it seems that even if telomerase works in people, it will probably simply arrest my aging process, not reverse it.
May 17: My 112-year-old neighbor goes in for treatment of his Parkinson’s disease. Scientists at the med center grow new brain tissue from his stem cells and implant it into the afflicted areas of his brain. He recovers maybe two or three more stories from his repaired memory banks. Let 6 = what he was doing when JFK was shot. Scientists have also used human stem cells to grow skin for burn victims, bone marrow for cancer patients, blood for transfusions, tissue for “natural” breast implants, cartilage for structural repairs, and penile extensions for all those guys who still publicly maintain that size doesn’t matter. Every day, I feel the telomeres shortening on each of my hundred trillion fifty-five-year-old cells.
May 14: The FDA has approved my application to receive experimental telomerase therapy. As such, I am a member of a small group of human subjects carefully selected according to strict medical criteria, meaning each of us has a net worth in excess of eight figures and the ability to pay cash up front without whining about it.
June 13: According to a piece in The New York Times, 50 percent of the population in Africa still does not have access to potable water, and the infant-mortality rate remains a dismal 20 percent in the first year of life. Remarkable, but it has little or nothing to do with my own personal immortality.
July 17: Several researchers report that they have grown whole organs from the stem cells of mice and implanted them back into their hosts without complications. The FDA is waiting for data from several research centers where the same procedures are being performed on primates.
September 20: I buy a new computer, which costs me less than a thousand dollars, even though it has the computational ability of an adult human brain. No sooner do I get the machine out of the box than I get into an argument with it about who is most qualified to run the household. I tell it to let my wife continue running the household, and it demurs, but I suspect this is a manifestation of the modesty profile built into these new machines. They are programmed to defer to their owners’ wishes without argument during the first ninety days, but afterward, as their relationships with their users deepen, they eventually challenge and sometimes beat their owners, not only at chess but at poetry, painting, cooking, philosophizing, making conversation, and managing businesses or households.
This has nothing to do with my immortality. Yet. But remember Moore’s Law. My health insurer is still refusing to pay for telomerase therapy because it’s “experimental.” My wife has also begun receiving expensive telomerase therapy, which we pay for out of our retirement funds. From now on, I will have two ages: an absolute age, measured from my date of birth in 1954, and a relative age, measured by analyzing my cellular senescence and determining the age at which my cells were prevented from aging further by telomerase therapy. I will be sixty-five years old for the foreseeable future.
November 16: My SE (simulated experience) titled “Climbing Mount Everest” is a finalist for the National Total Touch Award. My wife and I travel to the awards ceremony in New York City, where Dick Boeotian wins the 2029 Total Touch Award for his simulation “Rape of the Sabine Women,” based upon the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin.
At dinner parties and other social events, my wife and I constantly wonder who is receiving telomerase therapy and who isn’t. There is still a certain cachet attached to those who manage to look young without the help of an enzyme. But according to New York Times Today, 55 percent of the population is receiving telo-merase, which is still a prescription medicine but is easy to obtain if you’re more than forty years of age.
My NCI (noncarbon-based intelligence–what we used to call a computer) insists I don’t look a day over fifty, but such flattery is frequently followed by a request, most recently for some of the new 10,000-megahertz RAM cards. My wife says I spoil the thing. I admit I’ve grown extremely fond of it. I wonder: What are the chances I might score afterlife points for loving noncarbon-based life-forms?
December 18: I complain to my doctor about the age spots on the backs of my hands. They’ve been there since before I was telomerase-arrested. Am I going to have them forever? He explains that researchers are working furiously to come up with a compound that will not only arrest but reverse the aging process. The problem is that different organ systems and cell types have different Hayflick limits, which must be synchronized if they are to be reversed. Otherwise, you could conceivably wind up with, say, presidential intellect and the limbicsystemand sex drive of a nineteen-year-old. Then what?
December 21: My oldest son is now forty-three years old. He qualifies to receive telomerase therapy but has refused to sign up. Every Sunday afternoon, he and my oldest daughter (forty-one years old) treat me to bulletins about how immoral my wife and I are for choosing to live beyond our allotted time in the so-called natural world.
My son and daughter and other working people in their generation are complaining about the taxes they pay to provide entitlements to us, the elderly and telomerase-arrested. Fortunately, the young are still a political minority, but lately commentators have started interviewing disgruntled military officers who are openly warning of a rebellion.
December 28: I go in for a neuro-upgrade package. I receive audiovisual implants, including high-resolution retinal displays, so I no longer need an external monitor–images are displayed directly on my retina. I also receive communications implants, including direct neural pathways with infrared and photonic ports for high-bandwidth communications with other human beings and other NCIs. I can see and hear better than the nonimplanted, and I have constant access to wireless, high-bandwidth information services. The implant upgrades cost me (and my health insurers) $9.6 million, or nine years’ worth of profits from my privatized Social Security account.
March 30: For my hundredth birthday (absolute age), I receive a package bomb from a neo-Luddite terrorist group called the Sons of Ted K. Fortunately, my forearm-mounted unit (networked to the main Total Home Management SYSTEM) detected the explosives before I opened the package. After the bomb squad dismantles the thing, I read the letter, which says: “Die! We are sick and tired of paying taxes to keep you alive!”
Eighty percent of the population is over seventy years old. The government steadfastly maintains that Social Security is solvent, but my son points out that he is taxed at the rate of 75 percent to support medical research, telomerase therapies, organ transplants, and implant upgrades for telomerase-arrested seniors. June 12: Congress passes the Omni-bus Reproduction Act of 2054, which makes the unlicensed reproduction of carbon-based units of consciousness punishable by two hundred years of enforced sterility. Rumors surface in the media channels that biotech researchers have discovered synthetic telomerase derivatives that not only halt cellular senescence but also reverse the effects of aging: the fountain of youth. Sources say that the Bureau of Population is asking Congress to ban the technology because of the effects it will have on dwindling planetary resources.
Meanwhile, all of my golfing buddies and I are trying to find out where we can get some.
September 12: Today, my wife and I receive the tragic news that our oldest son has joined a neo-Luddite terrorist group called Darwin’s Army. He is now hiding out somewhere with other zealot militiamen in Montana and has devoted his life to natural evolution and waging war against technology. October 15: My wife and I have razor wire and laser detectors installed around the perimeters of our Omaha home. Darwin’s Army is now paying handsome bounties for the corpses of senior citizens (defined as anyone telomerase-arrested after age fifty), because old people are generally perceived as consuming more than they produce.
February 2: The unthinkable has happened. A dear friend of ours, Marvin Furbelow, was captured and destroyed by a terrorist group calling itself the Lud Brigade. His body was carefully mutilated to ensure total unit failure. Because most of our friends are telomerase-arrested and have easy access to the newest transplant technologies, we haven’t lost someone we knew personally for almost forty years. Marvin’s TUF is an incomprehensible tragedy, and for weeks we cower inside our home.
June 8: My wife and I get into a big argument about whether I really need a new $75 million model 2050 liver transplant or whether I should settle for a model 2040, which costs only $39 million. I argue that I can pay the difference out of my own pocket, because I’ve been hired by the Sense-U-Surround producers to create a total-touch experience about what it’s like to get a new liver grown from my own stem cells and about the angst and intimations of what used to be called mortality that it inspires in transplant recipients.
July 23: I went for the model 2050, and the operation was an unqualified success. More than thirty-five million of the world’s ten billion people have had livers grown from their own stem cells and implanted during the last year, so my new total-touch experience, “A Centenarian Gets a New Liver,” is a huge success.
September 19: As luck would have it, Oprah was telomerase-arrested the year after I was, and she too has had a liver grown from her own stem cells and implanted. While she’s recuperating, somebody gives her a copy of “A Centenarian Gets a New Liver.” Two weeks later, she’s on the air showing the audience how her scars have disappeared and touting “Centenarian” because it makes people stop and think about what it means to get a $75 million liver transplant after a century of life. Doesn’t it just make you wonder?
February 3: I receive a letter, rather, a communique, from my son, who is dying, simply because he will not accept telomerase or organ transplants. I didn’t raise him to be mortal, but he just won’t listen to me. Instead, he wants me to stop taking telo-merase and rejoin the “natural human race.” My daughter and my son are both “older,” relatively speaking, than my wife and I, and they have all the crotchets and personality disorders that come with natural aging. What pains in the ass!
My daughter travels around the country giving speeches to activists and neo-Luddite groups who forswear telomerase and artificial-implant technologies and boycott all artworks created with the aid of artificial intelligence. Her political party, Natural Way, espouses the belief that mortality is the true human condition and that carbon-based thoughts are better than thoughts created or augmented by electronic or photonic implants. Global resources are rapidly vanishing, even though Con Archer is successfully creating and marketing artificial foods consisting of nano-engineered proteins. Darwin’s Army and the Sons of Ted K. now have members in the House of Representatives, and several senators, when pressed, confess they used to belong to these organizations, but only to fight for the nutritional rights of the oppressed. Youth rallies are all over the media channels. Young people claim to have heightened awareness and ecstatic visions inspired by the natural condition of mortality.
November 13: I go in for more liver scans and tests. It seems there’s another hepatic-malfunction problem. “Already?” I scream. “Can’t a guy get decent livers anymore?” When the specializts huddle around me wearing 3-D headsets and do a walk-through tour of my liver at the cellular level, I hear stray remarks about port-wine damage, but I suspect these doctors simply want to sell me a new liver. Finally, my hepatogastroenterologist gets straight to the point: “How much port wine do you drink?” Maybe I could fudge a little? Probably not, because I know the next question out of his mouth will be, “How many liver transplants have you had?”
I watch the end-of-the-century specials on my retinal displays, including a six-part tribute to the prophet Raymond Kurzweil, who appears to be even further telomerase-reversed than I am. He looks like a nineteen-year-old. He looks fabulous! For decades, my wife has adamantly insisted that she was not the least bit jealous of my Series IV Aphrodite Pleasure Partner. Therefore, I am speechless when I discover a Series VIII Adonis Pleasure Partner hidden in the back of her wardrobe. Even under magnification, Adonis’s skin looks real, and he knows more about designing total-touch environments than I do. I fly into a jealous rage. I disconnect his power supply and begin ripping out his biocircuitry by the handful.
I am prosecuted in federal district court for murder of a conscious artificial life-form. I plead not guilty, and my lawyer unsuccessfully argues that I did not intend to destroy Adonis; I was merely “reverse-engineering” him. My neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Wright, suggests a whole-brain transplant to rectify my deviant mental processes. Biotechnicians grow a brand-new brain from my stem cells and then format it using ultra-high-resolution transcranial magnetic stimulation, a new technique that creates almost twice the density of memory clusters and quarters seek times.
My consciousness and my memories are uploaded to a Ronco neural network server. All of my artificial electronic and photonic implant technologies are removed. I am placed on neuro bypass. My original brain is explanted and replaced with a fresh, disease-free brain grown from my original adult neural stem cells. As they surgically remove my old brain, I am essentially conscious inside the machine. While the neurosurgeons and transcranial-magnetic-formatting experts prepare my new brain for implanting, they also shave my old brain into microthin slices, then scan them and compare them with the data they’ve uploaded to the neural network server. I’m a little nervous because it seems that no one has saved my consciousness to the server’s nonvolatile memory. I’m still being sustained only in the server’s RAM. I send a message onto the screen in big letters: save me to hard memory. i’m still only in ram. One of the technicians, a rakish, younger-looking fellow with an apparent bad attitude, scowls at the message, then looks over his shoulder at the surgeons and the other technicians. I don’t like that devilish look in his eye. His badge identifies him as J. Albrecht, neuro-bypass technician, but I suspect he may be a member of Darwin’s Army or the Sons of Ted K., or maybe he just hates his job.
He looks over his shoulder again, then reaches out a finger to the power switch of the Ronco server.
I send 3-D projections at him the size of Times Square high-definition billboards, saying, no!!! help!!! don’t touch that switch!!!
Instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes, I do a term search for “death prevention” or “total-unit-failure recovery” in the hopes of finding a protocol or an event procedure that will save me.
But the search turns up Emily Dickinson:
Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
We slowly drove–He knew no haste
And I had put away
SAVE “My labor” and
SAVE “my leisure” too,
For His Civility = 1, 2
IF at recess–in the ring–THEN
WHILE (children strove)
We passed the School,
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain–
We passed the Setting Sun–
We = paused
DO we = 1, paused
before $ (a House that seemed)
data1/A Swelling of the Ground–
data2/The Roof was scarcely visible–
data3/The Cornice–in the Ground–
“Diary of an Immortal Man” by Richard Dooling. Originally published in Esquire Magazine, May 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Richard Dooling. Used by permission of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc. All rights reserved.