- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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The conjunction of medical advances and the aging of my outsized, gifted, and demanding generation has brought new vigor to considerations of physical immortality and made its pursuit a more complex endeavor than it used to be. Where once a daily bowl of prunes, a walk around the park, and a hobby of model railroading or square dancing were held to be the bulwarks at the abyss, today’s serious life extensionist pops acetylcysteine to vanquish free radicals, always carries two aspirin tablets, injects himself with human growth hormone, and takes and records self readings with sufficient frequency and diligence so as to calculate his “actuarial escape velocity” (the rate at which he needs to slow aging in order to someday meet up with forthcoming technological solutions to death).
A leader in the eternal life movement, the brilliant inventor Ray Kurzweil (b. 1948) not only claims to daily ingest 250 dietary supplements washed down with 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea, but also finds time away from the men’s room to regularly track scores of personal “fitness indicators” and more than 50 blood measurements. On the basis of this survey of self, Kurzweil recently allowed that he had aged two years in the previous 17, thus achieving an actuarial escape velocity (he invented the term) that he believes will allow him to live long enough to enter a “post-human” future in which nanobots roam human bodies searching for repair projects—much, I imagine, like the guys who would pull up alongside my battered Opel on New York City’s streets in 1970, roll down their windows, and call out something like, “Hey man, I can fix that fender in an hour. Thirty bucks. What do you say, man? Just pull over and I’ll check your plugs for nothing, man.”
When i first took up the question of how best to dodge being forgotten by history, I was a boy in provincial Brooklyn, and used to imagine that the means to project myself into future time would be to do something that led to placement in a paperback volume of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, like the man from Urdu Pradesh who took 46 wives, or the woman from Ontario who survived accidentally being washed over Niagara Falls twice, or the Swedish lumberjack who worked barefoot through the winter, and of course the farmer’s wife in Iowa who built a true-to-life sculpture of President Eisenhower entirely of corn cobs from her own garden. Later, I thought of becoming Dr. Salk or Willis Reed. Finally, I settled on scrawling on paper as fast as I could and hoping for the best.
Decades before I made this decision, Francis Sweeney, a boy in darkest Milford, Massachusetts, had reached a similar assessment, had taken up Robert Frost’s “utmost ambition . . . to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of, like pebbles.” By the time I met Francis, in 1978, his work as a poet was pretty much done and was less appreciated than his decades-long vocation as Boston College’s most prominent (and pretty much only) arts impresario. In my first encounters with him, I was the PR man, assigned to get him publicity for such as the Yale Russian Chorus, a task I undertook with little zest and less success, though he seemed not to mind. Cordial, warm, he soon began to call me, “My brother, Ben,” and kept that up for more than 20 years, and I eventually called him, somewhat self-consciously, “My brother, Francis.”
I took his tours of St. Mary’s Hall, listened to his stories about Mr. Eliot, Mr. Frost, and Mr. Guinness, and read his writing with generosity, as he read mine. And all the years I knew him, I saw him as the man who held the car door for someone else, who stood in the second row of the photograph (if he appeared in it at all), who poured the scotch and backed away. Once, after he had personally negotiated Boston College’s acquisition of Hilaire Belloc’s papers, and I was assigned to write the story for the faculty-staff newspaper, he instructed me: “Whatever you do, don’t mention my name. All I’ve done, I did for Boston College, not for myself.” (That he later complained to me that I had left him out of the account surprises no one who really knew Francis.) And meanwhile, he was secretly plotting, collecting, arranging, annotating, measuring, framing, and constructing the posthumous life he intended for himself; was building, with the aid of a slave army of graduate students, a massive pyramid of paper to represent his work and his spirit, to extend his life deep into the future. Ray Kurzweil could take a lesson.
Brian Doyle’s story on his ramblings through the Sweeney archive begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum