Monday, May 4, 2009

Blind Trust Revisited (2002)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, May 4 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 53.


For reasons of research that would be somewhat awkward to explain, this last April I paid a visit to the offices of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Alcor is the foremost cryonics organization in the United States, and their sole mission is the freezing of the newly deceased for eventual thawing. I’d done a lot of research on this organization in the early 90’s, and had long since come to feel personally connected to them, their procedures and their endearingly slapdash literature. Since I’d started my research the company had moved from Riverside, CA to suburban Phoenix. At a certain point somebody in charge realized that the organization could find a better home for their precious cargo than a corner of the country notorious for earthquakes, mudslides, brush fires and race riots. Also, there was a question of security. Lab cats had been frozen by Alcor scientists to perfect the freezing process, and the early 90’s were a heady time for animals rights activists.

Which was bad news for me, my painstakingly arranged and verified meeting having evaporated from their computers. “We have no record of your appointment,” a receptionist firmly told me, blocking the entrance with her body. I caught my own reflection in the sharp angle of their front door; wearing a black button down shirt, badly rumpled from a long drive through the desert to see a Thrones show in Phoenix the night before - the stoic attire of an animal rights terrorist. Told to wait for the mysterious “Dr. Lemler”, I was forced to cool my heels at a nearby Wal Mart, chewing over what this anticipated failure would mean for my flagging self-confidence.

I made some more harried calls, returned and talked my way into the office of the marketing director, a chipper woman named Karla. Karla politely grilled me as she put the finishing touches on a website update which featured their new logo (Alcor’s old emblem involved a phoenix not unlike the symbol on every street sign in their new city). The new logo is a sculptural, abstract pyramid, corporate and cold. If one is in the market to have one’s earthly remains frozen until further notice, corporate and cold could be a strong selling point. But the revamping represents more than just cosmetics - the company’s increasingly mainstream presentation mirrors the advancements of the 1990’s; breakthroughs in cloning and gene research. Gone was the trekkie glee of their early literature that had so charmed me in 1990. In ten years, Alcor will be as mainstream as any fertility clinic in America.

“Are you doing a paper for your school?” Karla asked absently, over her shoulder. “Actually,” I fibbed, hemorrhaging confidence, “I’m writing an article for a small music magazine.” She looked up from the computer. “Which one?” I paused, unsure. “Punk Planet”. Ah, the title of this publication. I’ve aired my beef over these two words to Dan Sinker in the past, and I now add one further count to the indictment; this magazine’s name is no Open Sesame to the scientific community. In her underwhelmed silence, I understood that things would have gone radically smoother with Karla and the gang if I had just scrapped the half truths and posed as a potential customer.

But fate granted me one more shot at those magic words. A passing technician was hailed by Karla and asked if he could give me a tour. Clearly unimpressed by my lack of credentials and rumpled eco-terrorist shirt, the older man carefully blocked the doorway to the inner sanctum. “Tell me about the article you’re writing,” he asked. I know enough on this one subject to hold my own in a conversation with a cryonics technician, and as I delivered a rambling improv monologue on several marginally related science geek issues, I understood, in some preloading foyer of conscious thought, that there actually was an Open Sesame for this man, that the two needed words were nothing more than the name of a popular science writer. In the middle of my soliloquy, I carefully pictured the cover of a science fiction novel by the mystery author, scanning the visual memory for a name, a set of words. “But of course,” I concluded nonchalantly, “much of this has been covered in the book ‘Deep Time’ by writer… Gregory Benford.”

The technician smiled - Gregory Benford! - and bid me enter. We passed through several more administrative offices and emerged into the perfusion room, the sanctum where the newly deceased, already packed in ice, are prepped for long term storage. No bodies were being worked on this day. Alcor can sometimes go years between clients. Past this was the cool-down room, a loading dock holding a large tank that can slowly chill a fresh corpse’s core temperature to -325 degrees. Everything was tidy and clean. Aido, the Alcor cat, came out from under a stairwell, hungry for visitors. Finally, my guide unlocked the door to the room with the bodies. Is there a special name for this chamber? In my awe, I forgot to ask.

A room full of frozen humans looks far more austere than one would expect. The bodies themselves are stored in 10-foot tanks of liquid nitrogen. I’ve since read several accounts comparing the space to a microbrewery. Contrary to the occasional political cartoon, there are no extension chords for the hapless janitor to trip over, no portals showing onto glazed faces. It was a strange sensation, knowing that I was sharing a room with 48 carefully preserved humans beings (a dozen or so patients are just heads – “neurosuspension” costs only $50,000, versus the $120,000 needed for a whole body job. A future that can resurrect diseased and/or ice damaged tissue, the thinking goes, can easily whip up a new body from cloned earlobe scrapings). The science behind human cryonics is “speculative” in as much as it relies on technology that doesn’t yet exist. But their procedures are very rational. There is every reason to believe that these 48 people will be walking the Earth long after you and I have decomposed.

I still felt a sadness in this interim space. When have adult humans ever been this vulnerable? These unrelated strangers were – are still – dependent not just on the quality of present staff, but on all staff to come. Twenty, forty, perhaps two hundred years from now somebody is still going to need to keep the utility bills and property taxes and liquid nitrogen supplier paid up. These people are infants in the womb of a mother they will never know. And if - as a hobo’s leaflet once informed me - human beings are nothing more than “badly recorded meatburgers”, where do these poor souls fit in the cosmic scheme? The major religions are still quiet on cryonics, this awkward infant cousin of the heart-lung machine (although the Islamic injunction against use of cadavers probably bodes badly for neurosuspension). The theology gets a bit creepier when you’re in close quarters with these folks.

Only three months later, the body of the late Red Sox MVP Ted Williams would be brought to this same room, tank 6, even as postmortem custody was being hashed out in the courts. By mid-July, Alcor had been hoisted out of obscurity and inserted into a two week Jay Leno joke. Williams had trusted his kids to discretely follow his last wishes, the same way (to date this column with October’s headlines) TV actor Bob Crane probably trusted his own relatives not to sell his sordid life story to Sony Pictures and Kurt Cobain probably trusted his wife, under the larger assumptive heading of Human Decency, to not sell his diaries for four million dollars. Williams’ fight brought estate battles into the 21st century, where one’s assets includes not just a body but all the dizzying potential of a life yet to come.

How could I fail to think of these pitiable persons, earlier this month, arriving at the first Thrones show I’d seen since that April in Arizona? The venue in Claremont wasn’t charging admission, so I valiantly volunteered to be the doorman, donning a shoddy cardboard head I’d built just for the occasion. My handwriting on the front of the head instructed passers by to feed cash donations into the slotted plastic of the mouth. I’d meant my efforts as some sort of good faith financial transaction, a what-would-Ben-and-Jerry-do type of gesture. Instead, it became bad performance art, like so many other rites of adulthood I find constantly snaring me. It was confusing, monotonous and in some fundamental violation of principles I’d once promised myself I‘d always live by. “Are you going to lick my hand??” one young lady asked, raising her own issues of trust. I shook my head side to side, but the mask remained still on my shoulders. I remembered the frozen people - the bodies and heads stacked in strange configurations, sometimes four to a container - feeling a sad kinship that even now is hard to define. By night’s end, my own trust was betrayed as well; the plastic baggie taped to the mask’s innards held less than $60, including random pocket change I’d fed myself, like bonbons, all night long.