CONTEXT: On February 5, 2011, David Shields and I spoofed jocks in The Nervous Breakdown. Less than two months later I wrote an article at TNB about a dubious competition run by a Seattle sports radio station, KJR. Then I sent a link of the article to KJR, and they responded. This is the next chapter: 

According to Forbes Magazine, Seattle is the most miserable sports town in the United States. As a Northwest native and long suffering fan of the Mariners, Seahawks, and the now departed Sonics, I cannot disagree.  Our bad teams are complemented by Seattle sportscasters with Moobs (Manboobs) and Seattle whiner-fans griping about East Coast Bias. Yet I never have minded being the underdog. Unfortunately, the Seattle sports scene has deeper problems. As a father of three daughters, and a lifelong sports junkie, I’m having a mid-life crisis.

THE JOSH LUEKE “RAPE”: In May of 2008 two baseball players on a Texas Rangers farm team met a woman at a bar and took her home. The woman, unidentified, promptly threw up and passed out in their apartment.  She woke partially clothed and physically violated, and went to the authorities. The results: DNA from her jeans, tank top, hair, and semen on an anal swab matched one of the athletes, Josh Lueke. He was arrested, charged with rape, but eventually pleaded guilty of a lesser felony, the obscure False imprisonment with violence. He emerged relatively unscathed, his career intact.

Last summer the Seattle Mariners traded for Lueke, and he is now on the big league club. His presence makes the transgressions of other Mariners tame (one has battled domestic violence accusations and another shoved last year’s manager). I’ve had it. This year I will not listen or watch Mariners games, and if the team does not get rid of the scum, I will not watch next year or ever. Our family will now enjoy baseball games played by the Everett AquaSox.

THE MORAL PLACEBO: Okay, I’m boycotting the Mariners. So friggin’ what? Sex crimes happen across the spectrum of society. Every city has their scandal. Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisber has similar trouble, but this just gives me one more reason to hate the Steelers. It’s true there are two sides. Gold diggers like Karen Sypher, who was sentenced to 7+ years for extortion after an affair with Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, are an element, but her egregious actions in no ways justify a defense of the creeps.

So what’s a moral placebo? A “moral placebo” is when an individual makes a pledge or action on ethical grounds, yet the main beneficiary is the individual: he or she feels better about him or herself. Examples: Swearing not to drive an SUV; praying really, really hard for the well-being of starving children in underdeveloped countries; or boasting about how your eight million-dollar mansion “saves” energy because it has solar panels, even though you consume twenty times more energy than the average citizen. Yes. Words and action have a relationship (perhaps the person praying will actually send money or volunteer), but without action these stands are useless. Call me cynical, but brandishing a candle against the proverbial darkness often comes off as bullshit.

Nevertheless, I brandish, I spout, and thus I’d like to add a few words about my other “moral placebo,” a boycott of KJR Sports 950 and their sponsors. My previous TNB post took on KJR’s Mitch “Dork in the Morning” Levy and The Bigger Dance. I sent a post of this article to KJR, and soon after a few members of the KJR Society for the Legalization of Date-Rape responded. One KJR DJ took the time to engage me and defend his right to objectify women.

EXCHANGE BETWEEN KJR DJ & MYSELF:

Caleb Powell: KJR supporters have revealed themselves in the “Comments” section.

KJR DJ: Wow. Nice to see such an intellect using the proper narrow brush.

(He pasted from my interview with David Shields)

Powell: Angelina Jolie or Katherine Zeta-Jones?

Shields: Uhhhh…Angelina Jolie or hmmm…I would say Katherine Zeta-Jones.

Powell: Beyoncé or Britney?

Shields: Uh…I must admit…Britney.

I think it’s the consistency in your point of view that I find so refreshing. By the way it’s “Catherine” with a C.

CP: It’s a Spoof on Barkley. Thanks for the ‘C’ tip. Didn’t you notice the intro: “Using questions often directed at jocks, specifically Charles Barkley, we did a quick Q&A…”

KJR DJ: Ohhhhhh. I see. When YOU do it it’s a spoof. Got it.

CP: Didn’t know the Dance was a spoof.

KJR DJ: So you think we take it seriously? Honestly…it seems wildly hypocritical of you to ask David Shields what you asked him and then trash us and our listeners for what is in fact a harmless little contest. Then you play your deal off as a spoof but still want to take ours seriously.

If you don’t like the contest then there’s an easy way to deal with it. Don’t pay attention to it. But don’t demand that every other person has to see things your way…or that one or two people who respond to your post are suddenly representative of the entire listening audience of KJR.

CP: Representative? Even one KJR fan thinking like that should make you worry. “Wildly hypocritical?” That’s hyperbole. My piece with Shields ridiculed the “dumb jock.” “Harmless little contest?” Bullshit. You and KJR take it seriously. The contest is not a spoof, it’s a cash cow for KJR; sure, to you it’s fun and for the most part harmless, but it objectifies women. That’s a problem. Men that objectify women are more likely to be violent. There is a direct correlation, the evidence is there, and yes, I’m giving you a conclusion, but the studies behind it are complex and cogent.

And even though, for the most part it’s harmless and most guys that get off on the Dance are okay, enough of them are “date-rapes waiting to happen.” Those comments here at The Nervous Breakdown are frightening, aren’t they? You want those guys dating someone you care about? Hey, I don’t know if you have a daughter or a sister, but would you want any woman to have to deal with men that think objectifying women is “harmless?” It’s not.

KJR DJ: And it’s pretty damned convienient that YOU do this and claim you were just ridiculing the dumb jock. But we’re doing it and we’re equated to rapers (sic) and murderers. THAT my friend is bullshit. Tell yourself anything you want.

CP: You’re not rapists, but rapists feed off your schtick.

KJR DJ: But no rapist read your interview with David, right?

CP: What? Another non-sequitor?

That’s it. KJR DJ at least thought about the issues, yet his argument was hampered by a rudimentary use of rhetorical modifiers and his inability to understand irony. He chose to remain anonymous. I don’t listen to KJR, and though I’m boycotting their sponsors, like Mike’s Hard Lemonade, big deal, I never drank it, anyway.

Yet maybe I’m wrong. Maybe beliefs and stands matter. My wife backs me, our oldest daughter plays T-ball, and I’ve discovered other parents agree. Seattle Mariner attendance is down, and a young struggling team is not the only reason. The lit candle might not be a mere platitude. Our views influence how we raise our children and treat our peers. They’re not just token moral placebos.

I drove much of the way home to Minneapolis that evening. Holding the wheel helped me keep from getting sick. As Dan slept, I began passing billboards in a series along the highway back to the Twin Cities. Each billboard featured a bouncing baby, several months old, bright and expressive.

What! I could smile before I was born, one stated, rather inscrutably.

Hello world! said another. My heart was beating 18 days from conception.

The signs were like slaps in the face—invasions of the quiet peace I had managed to cultivate over the weekend. Did the organization sponsoring the billboards, Pro Life Across America, really believe that women needed to be reminded that the choice to end a pregnancy is a choice against a life of some kind? I knew I might one day choose against seeing my son’s smiles. Against pressing my ear to his chest and hearing his heart thumping like a tight little drum.

Abortions were legal in Minnesota up to twenty-two weeks’ gestation, when a fetus would have fingerprints and hair, suck his thumb, and hear sounds from his mother, but would not be able to survive outside the womb—and certainly wouldn’t wear size-three diapers or grin with billboard-perfect dimples. Against my better judgment, I had been dipping into mainstream books to read about the progress of my pregnancy. Like the billboards, each book eagerly addressed embryonic and fetal development, giving me, week by week, little human characteristics to mourn if we chose to say goodbye to our pregnancy. An abortion following DNA testing would most likely take place at about fourteen weeks, when our four-inch, translucent-skinned fetus might begin to coordinate the movements of his arms and legs.

As the colossal spokesbabies flashed by, I realized that I wanted a book to reassure me of the things my six-week-old embryo couldn’t yet do. I wanted to read a single paragraph that took pains to remind me how far from consciousness, from human behavior, my gestating fetus was: Your baby is one-and-a-half years from being able to interpret simple spoken sentences, and at least two years from speaking phrases on his own. Your baby is at least two years from recognizing himself as a conscious being, and three years from understanding that other people are separate individuals. In five years, he may have the capacity to read written language. He is at least eighteen years from distinguishing information from propaganda.

But instead, the authors of some popular pregnancy guides actually identified which circumstances might justify an abortion. “If testing suggests a defect that will be fatal or extremely disabling,” one said, “many parents opt to terminate the pregnancy.”

These passages always caused me to call into question my reasoning. HED wasn’t directly life threatening. Our affected son would be unlikely to die as a child. And I didn’t know what “extremely disabling” meant, but I suspected that the authors of the book would not characterize HED that way. Neither would I.

Dan slept in the passenger seat with his head tipped back and his jaw gently open. My frustration grew as the city lights drew closer. I felt angry that my society had made a taboo subject of one of the most important journeys of my life. An abortion—a story that would belong to me, shape me, become a part of me—would henceforth divide people into those who could handle a relationship with me and those who couldn’t. It seemed I would have two choices: I could live as if I had a terrible secret, or I could live marked.

The next morning, I phoned my friend Eula, who described a woman’s rights in words I hadn’t considered: “A pregnancy falls within the mother’s domain, and no one else’s,” she said. “Not the public domain, not the church’s, and not the state’s.”

Now that I was carrying a baby, I viscerally felt what Eula meant by “a mother’s domain.” I had a moment of physical sickness just thinking about the idea that anyone else might try to claim authority over my pregnancy. Imagining such a thing was one of the most confining, frightening feelings I had known as a woman who had grown up carefree and safe in a nation of so many freedoms. It was the feeling of persecution. Someone might as well steal my hands and face, I thought, and call them their own.

“But I still feel so guilt ridden,” I told her, “to consider ending a little life just because it is imperfect. This baby would live, and he could quite possibly have a good life. I just can’t know.” But “I’m doing this for the baby,” I reminded myself out loud, “not for Dan and me.”

Eula let my words hang in the air. Then she said, “Why don’t you feel you deserve to have the child you want?”

I was struck. Her words touched into the thinking that seemed most dangerous to me, most immoral. Could it possibly be all right, in my America or in some other life in some other place, for parents to want healthy children for their own peace of mind? I thought of my ancestors who, like millions of modern people around the globe, needed plenty of healthy children with strong backs to ensure the family’s survival—and with any luck, prosperity. Dan and I had no plans to rely on our children for a livelihood; we wanted children just for the joy of it, just for the journey. Even though we knew a baby without HED would save us tens of thousands of dollars in medical and dental bills, our choice to become pregnant, and our desire for a healthy child, could not be rationalized as economic necessity. It was closer to emotional luxury.

But thanks to Eula’s question, I saw folded deep in my heart a tiny possibility. Maybe, I thought, I should want a healthy baby for myself, and for Dan, and for our marriage and future. It might be noble to shoulder a burden, but it is also good to forestall harm and strive for plenty.

I kept the thought to myself, holding close its kind whisper of acknowledgement that this was, after all, about me, too. I felt a glimmer of self-love—something I had not allowed before. It marked the beginning of a turning for me, but my transformation was slow. I still read pregnancy books like an addict. I couldn’t pull my mind away from the details about how much bigger and more vital our baby was becoming.

“I’m due at the end of May,” I told my sister over the phone. “It’s the strangest thing to look into my future just seven months and see such different possibilities.”

“You know,” my sister said slowly, “you’ve started the journey toward having a baby, and it’s really not going to be over until someone is born. The way I see it, you’re going to be pregnant until that child arrives, whether that’s eight months from now, or twelve, or twenty-four. This might not be the baby we hold. But you’re on your way.”

She was right. I felt as if I had jumped into a lake and started swimming, not knowing when I would reach the opposite shore, or even how far it was. I had been thinking of my pregnancy as three months long at minimum, about ten at the max. But my sister helped me stretch my idea of pregnancy to include another sense of the word: meaningfulness in waiting.

I felt better with the idea that my swim could be all one long, blind backstroke to a distant shore, instead of several dogpaddles from the sand to the dock and back. I liked water, but swimming to actually get somewhere had always been exhausting and difficult for me. Holding my pregnancy—the figurative one and the physical one—felt no different. Yet in my dreams, I had been swimming almost every night. I swam through floods, under ice, through choppy shipping canals, and across the bows of ocean liners. I was never afraid. I always knew I would make it. Sometimes I rescued other people who believed they would drown.

I was bursting to talk to my mother, who lived 2,000 miles away in Seattle. She was an avid dreamer who would relish helping me explore my nighttime swims. But it wasn’t just for the pregnancy news or the dreams that I wanted to call her, go to her. I just wanted to be close to her. I took my daily walk, shoulders slumped, wishing that she would appear around the next bend, waiting with a hug for me, a rub for my hair. A phone call to Seattle wasn’t going to give me the connection that I wanted. And I was tired of words. I knew if I told my mom about the pregnancy and our plan, it would rend her heart. It would pry open years of her own questioning, leaving her with a daunting emotional project. After all, she was a carrier, too, having received the gene for HED from her father, who lived a too-short, too-difficult life. And she passed the gene not only to me, but also to my brother, who now lived with the disorder. If I told my mother about my tentative pregnancy, with modern medical choices she never had and perhaps never would have wanted, I would be forcing her to reexamine her own secret sadness. At that moment, I didn’t have room in my head or heart for the guilt I would feel if my pregnancy became anyone else’s burden. Someday I would be ready to share, but not now. Not halfway through week seven, when my lungs burned from swimming and my baby’s heart had just bloomed into four perfect chambers.

The line at airport security snakes back and forth like a mountain switchback. I figure the wait will consume at least fifteen minutes. I haven’t flown in a while and I don’t realize these days you have to strip naked and stand spread-eagled in front of the Star Trek transporter. To fight the boredom I look around at my fellow travelers, a varied lot that has conspired to be in this place at this time, bound together by our common desire to fly out of Tulsa on a Thursday morning in July.

Ballsy choice, picking that particular excerpt from Carrier to run online at TNB.

Ballsy how?

 

You’re the one who’s always trying to be so careful in interviews and talks, making sure people see your memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA for what it really is. I’ve seen you bending over backwards trying to keep folks from getting hung up on the fact that you talk about abortion in the book.

I just feel that the real story in Carrier is the struggle: how my husband and I made our way to parenthood despite the obstacles we faced.

 

Doesn’t everyone face challenges when starting a family?

Yes.

 

What were yours?

I happen to carry a genetic disorder, which has run in my family for generations. Dan and I had to decide how seriously to treat the risk. We had to choose whether, and eventually how, to avoid passing the disorder to our children.

 

What is this genetic disorder?

The main symptoms of hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia (HED) are sparse hair, few teeth, no sweat glands, and a slightly unusual facial appearance. There are secondary problems, including chronic respiratory sickness and other kinds of infection. HED is X-linked, which means that female carriers (like me) have no symptoms, but with each pregnancy there’s a 25 percent chance of conceiving a son who is fully affected. Compared to many disorders (since that’s what we’re doing here, right?) HED may not sound so bad—and for some affected individuals, it may not be. That was part of what confused me initially, motivating me to learn more about people who had suffered from HED—especially my grandfather, Earl. Researching his life story, I discovered how the disorder turned a brilliant man into a tragic figure. It became clear to me that even if HED isn’t directly life-threatening, it can be profoundly life-altering. Dan and I had to decide how far we’d be willing to go in order to keep our children’s lives free from that risk.

 

What choice did you have?

We considered everything: worrying about it, not worrying about it, a childless life, adopting. But eventually we came to see that despite the risk, we both wanted to try for a healthy biological child. Our options then boiled down to two: In-vitro fertilization (IVF) with preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)—an expensive process with a lot of hassles. Another choice was to become pregnant the usual way, and then to test fetal cells between 10 and 12 weeks of pregnancy with chorionic villus sampling (CVS), or in the 15th week via amniocentesis. Results would come 2-3 weeks later, along with the possibility of an excruciating choice.

 

Sounds like the same guarded rhetoric you’ve been using all along. So I just have to ask: How did you feel about that NPR interview?

So you heard that.

 

Some people think Liane Hansen missed the point of your book—the journey, as you say. She only wanted to talk about one little part.

I couldn’t sleep the night after the interview or the night after that. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad thing. It was what it was, and I rocked that interview.

 

What “was” it, then?

Up to that point, I had been trying really hard not to alienate potential readers who would ignore my book if they knew I considered ending a pregnancy. (Like the gal who wrote this “review” on Carrier’s Amazon page: “Just listened to the story on NPR. What a selfish person! That’s all I have to say! I would never buy this book!”) But after my interview hit the airwaves, I started hearing from women who shared facets of my experience. I realized that in being vague, I was keeping at arm’s length another audience: those who might come to my story for the things we had in common.

 

Some of those listener comments on your NPR interview were tough.

For the most part, they weren’t anything I hadn’t dealt with before. But I thought Kansas Kid said something interesting: “It was a failure of journalistic honesty to call an abortion a ‘procedure.’”

 

Right—Liane never used the word “abortion” in the interview, and you didn’t either. She said “procedure,” and “terminated.”

And the content of the interview was perfectly clear. The following week, Liane read a letter on-air from a listener who criticized her for avoiding the word. I think Liane was simply trying to be sensitive to me as a person by not using loaded terminology. She seemed to recognize that I’m a human being, not a debate topic. If there was anything political about her word choice, it seemed like an attempt to keep from politicizing my story.

 

What’s sensitive about not saying abortion? What’s political about saying it? And by the way, can you say abortion?

Abortion.

 

You did it!

Yes, but I’ll admit, that word feels like “conservative agenda” in my mouth. It’s got so much propaganda plastered all over it that I feel like it needs a good pressure-washing. It’s so damn loud no one can hear anything else in the room. Why didn’t Kansas Kid eat it up when I called my 12-week fetus a “baby?” He wants the word “abortion” because that is the word connected to all the negative imagery. If you say “end a pregnancy” or even “decide to terminate,” the highway billboards don’t necessarily pop to mind. The screaming politicians don’t leap into your ears. Shouting protesters don’t wave their signs in your peripheral vision, and the pope doesn’t start breathing down your neck.

 

Tell me how you really feel.

Okay, I currently live in Holland, where abortion is not a political issue, and therefore the word is neither loaded nor taboo in conversation. Abortion is seen as a personal medical decision like all others. (Incidentally, Holland has the lowest abortion rate in the world due to frank sex ed and high contraceptive use.) Living here has shown me that “The Abortion Debate,” which used to seem cosmic, is actually just localized in America.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Dutch that women are incapable of handling their own decisions. But in the U.S., the message is clear: American women can’t be trusted to understand the significance of their actions. Therefore they must be cornered into watching ultrasound images, forced to hear tiny heartbeats, goaded to pronounce a word that feels in the mouth not like flesh and blood and life and death but woefully less: politics and religion, money and power. I can say “abortion.” But I can share so much more with someone who will listen.

 

I’m listening.

That makes one of us.

 

Maybe that’s what you get for writing about abortion.

Carrier isn’t about abortion.

 

Then what’s it about?

It’s about people.

 

 

This morning, when I climbed into my car and tried to start the engine, nothing happened. Why? Because I didn’t have the keyfob in my pocket.

With this car it’s possible to make odd mistakes with the keyfob because there is no key attached to it…the little egg-shaped fob uses RF signals to talk to the car, and if the keyfob isn’t physically inside the car, the ignition won’t work. Conceivably one could start the car, go back into the house and change pants, and come back outside to the already-running car and drive away. But guess what? After you turn off the ignition, it won’t start again, because you left the keyfob in the other pair of pants.

The keyfob is also smart enough to know when it’s inside the trunk…and if you accidentally leave the thing in your golf bag, the car is smart enough to pop the trunk lid open to notify you of your absent-minded mistake.

The reason I mention this is because I was thinking on the way to work how it would be nice if I could implant the keyfob technology into my body. I could implant a tiny RF transmitter/receiver in my hand, say, and then I would never need the keyfob at all. And as soon as this occurred to me, I imagined the resistance that people might have to the idea.

Because people are quite romantically attached to their bodies and the idea of being human.

We love using the Internet and DVD players and playing XBox, we love all sorts of technology, but not many of us like the idea of being a cyborg. Darth Vader was the ultimate bad guy during my youth, and only when he was unmasked and uttered the line “Let me look on you with my own eyes,” was he finally forgiven for his evil ways. At the end of Terminator 2, Schwarzenegger’s character says “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.” Only by melting himself, and the chip that is his brain, can humanity be saved (at least for the time being).

It seems we get nervous about the ramifications of blending man with machine. “Will I still be myself?” “Will someone be able to track my every move?” “Will I still have my soul?”

What gets lost in questions of this kind is that nature itself is, at its most basic level, a machine. Everything you see, everything you eat and touch, everything you think you destroy or create, it’s all just component materials organized a certain way. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are the three elements that comprise glucose, fat, and ethanol. Three very different substances, same component materials. The only difference is the way the original elements are put together.

In fact, when you get down to the basic building blocks of matter and energy, at the quantum level, there are only a few types of components. And yet, combining these simple particles with a few patterns creates all the phenomena in the universe…including us.

“Wait,” you say. “I may someday return to dust, but at the moment these cells are all mine! Right?” Actually, no. The cells that comprise your body turn themselves over at different rates, but over the course of several years your body becomes completely new cells. (The exception here are neurons in the brain, though even those are altered when atoms within the neurons are recycled.)

How can YOU be YOU if all the material in your body was, a few years ago, contained in plants and animals and air scattered across the Earth?

The answer is: information. Instructions in your DNA tell your body what to do with the fuel you take in. Think about it: You eat a steak (or peanut butter, or some kind of protein) and a little later it becomes muscle fibers in your bicep. Or, you eat a steak, and another steak, and you never exercise, and instead the calories turn into fat. Your body is simply an organic machine, albeit a very, very complex one

So…if someone devised a chip that you could implant in your brain, and it would increase your mind’s processing speed and memory accuracy, would you want one?

What if, using nanotechnology, we could repair cellular damage and clean out arteries, would you want that?

Nanobots are very small machines…which sounds scary until you realize that they are not much different than regular molecules. They just have a few instructions that tell them what to do. Whereas a typical molecule is sort of “dumb,” a nanobot would be a molecule with a purpose. We already genetically engineer bacteria to do things for us (like help us make cheese).

I know it doesn’t seem very romantic to use technology to enhance or alter our bodies. But think about all the ways you intentionally alter your chemical makeup. How many of us use wine to enhance a romantic evening? How many people smoke to calm their nerves? How many of us use pharmaceutical drugs to get over an illness? Or even “natural” medicine? All those things alter your body’s chemistry.

Why would a chip be any different?

Finally, there is the issue of immortality. Would you guess that, in a way, all of us are immortal? Sure, your body eventually dies, but the DNA instructions used to create your body…those will live on if you have children. Bodies age and die primarily because replication errors cause DNA information to be lost. There may be ways in the near future to slow or halt the process that results in these errors.

If you could, would you want to live for two or three hundred years?

Of course, the longer you live the more likely it is that you will be involved in a fatal accident. What if you could use a chip to periodically upload the information in your brain to a computer? A sort of backup process?

When you think about it, the core of who we are is the information stored in our brain. All of our hopes and fears and loves and successes and failures are basically just information encoded in neurons. If you could back that up somewhere for download later, would you do it?

Would you want to “live” in a computer that was connected to the Internet?

How different would your MySpace (or Facebook, etc.) relationships be? All the friends you have online that you never see in person…would that be different? Hopefully no one prefers MySpace to real life, but would a computer existence be preferable to death?

I used to be frightened of death. The idea of “me” ceasing to exist, that the world would go on without me, that I would miss out on great discoveries (such as life on other planets), really bothered me. But in the past few years I’ve wondered if maybe eternal life would be boring.

Obviously we’re romantically attached to our bodies and the idea of being human because that’s how our DNA has programmed us to feel. We reject too much progress because it seems artificial…but what does “artificial” really mean? How do you define such a concept?

There will come a time in the not-so-distant future when we will be able to outsmart DNA. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Do you welcome that idea? Or do you find it revolting?