November 17, 2012

the danger of tmi.

For those of you who aren't up to date with the slang, "tmi" (short for too much information) is a phrase used when a person is describing a certain situation or thing in overly articulate and graphic detail. For example, when your friend decides to fill you in on the intricacies of her cat's digestion issues, you could appropriately interrupt her with an urgent "TMI! Please stop talking, oh please stop."

Anyway. I'm not here to talk about the weird habits of felines, but on the far more important issues of scientific advancement, baby genomes, and Down Syndrome... and how having too much information forecasts dangerous change in our culture's moral and ethical standards.

As a prelude: Wayne and I like having little tea/coffee breaks on weekend afternoons or weeknight evenings after work and school is done for the day, and we'll often listen to the charming strains of Al Mohler's voice over the internet waves as we sit and sip. Albert Mohler serves as the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and produces a five minute podcast called The Briefing which provides "a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview" (We highly recommend having a listen!).

On a recent podcast Al talked about baby genomes -- more specifically the considerable headway that genome researchers have made over the last few years. For those that don't know, a genome is the complete set of genetic material of an organism and contains all the biological information within DNA needed for that particular organism to live and develop and grow (that's my non-scientific definition so it's probably not exact... sorry guys). Knowing the contents of a baby's genome can tell us all kinds of things, from the baby's gender to different health issues. Ultrasounds and blood tests offer a great deal of information and these tests are often used to screen in utero babies for things like heart problems and Trisomy 21 (a.k.a. Down Syndrome).

In tests where results return as positive for something like Down Syndrome, parents have the option of continuing with more invasive testing and can proceed to amniocentesis, a test in which amniotic fluid is withdrawn from the uterus in order to examine the baby's chromosomes. Studies show us that only 2-3% of women proceed past the initial basic screening test, and out of those women, 70ish% of them choose to terminate their pregnancies after receiving a definitively positive diagnosis for Down Syndrome (got my info here). Yes, I know. Stats are stats, stats can be misleading, and stats don't always show what's really going on... but I think we can safely say that there are indeed a great deal of babies being aborted based on the results of diagnostic testing.

Now imagine if you could know everything about that wee little baby safe in the womb -- everything from future hair and eye colour, disease and cancer development, athletic and intelligence aptitude -- everything. An article in MIT's Technology Review tells us that this is very much a possibility in the very near future. New studies show that simple blood tests can be used to completely decode a baby's entire genetic makeup. Though there are obviously good and positive and wonderful ways to use this information (like identifying and treating diseases before they can progress), the weight of power we could wield is almost unimaginable. Our culture's moral and ethical responsibilities would be put to a serious test. In this world's eyes, having a baby with Down Syndrome is not ideal -- so given the exact genetic information, what would stop parents from trying to engineer their ideals in even finer detail? "Hey Bobby, yeah, you had three older siblings, but we terminated the pregnancies because the oldest had Down Syndrome, the second was predicted to be diagnosed with leukemia by the age of 16, and the third was just... well, let's just say he was going to be two bricks short of a load. Then you came! Genetic perfection. But, no pressure bud."

Yes, I know, that's a tad overdramatic. But let's be real here -- when this diagnostic testing comes into play, what is there in place to stop parents from aborting their genetically imperfect babies?

Absolutely nothing.

"Come on Suzanne," you say. "No one would abort their baby based on potential academic performance." My response? I seriously hope not. But I would also say that women have aborted their babies for far lesser reasons than that. It's a woman's right to choose, correct? And having a kid who couldn't figure out their multiplication table would just be so inconvenient, but more importantly, too hard on the poor kid. The loving mother is just saving him from academic humiliation, that's all. We wouldn't want to have our kids develop character through hardship or anything like that. That would be silly.

In a time where "being yourself" is so embraced, where diversity is worshipped like a god, where individuality is shoved down our throats, where the word "tolerance" is shot around like a paintball -- the irony of this situation makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. You can't have it both ways, world. You just can't.

The thought of what we could lose (and already have lost) is horrifying. I realize I'm projecting a state of mind onto our culture that hasn't yet come to fully exist, but I'm just going by what I've seen, and to me, it's just the natural unfolding of moral and ethical deterioration.

If we lived in a time and culture where imperfection wasn't so taboo and where convenience didn't outweigh the life of a child, I would be completely overjoyed by the furthering of MIT's research. Yes, I'm extremely glad for the lives it will save and the people it will help, but the potential for much worse is there too. I suppose the danger isn't really in having too much information -- but more so what we do with it.

And what would our Uncle Bill say about all this?

"I was born that way." 

And we wouldn't change him for anything in the world. 

November 02, 2012

the real friday night lights.

A confession -- I still don't understand how football works. I know the basics: the scoring system, the end zone, touchdowns, tackles. But in terms of critiquing good plays, smart strategies and dumb moves... I'm lost.

I blame this on my Canadian upbringing. Football was that American sport where large men piled on top of each other and the ball didn't move much. My boredom with the sport may also have had something to do with growing up in a hockey family -- hockey is fast-paced, the puck moves around a lot more than the pigskin, and there are less lines to deal with -- only five! Plus they're colour-coded. Nice.

Also, the whole high school football thing doesn't really exist in Canada. Sure, Canadian high schools have football teams... probably... somewhere. Maybe. But the jocks that all the girls want to date in Canadian high schools are the right wing forwards or the libero on the volleyball team. QB? What's a QB? A... quesedilla burrito? Sounds okay. I prefer fajitas.

We've been in Michigan for over a year now and have almost reached the end of another high school football season. When we moved here we were stunned at the size of high school football stadiums -- stadiums that dwarfed my alma mater's stadium, stadiums with enormous lights blazing onto astroturf, stadiums right next to glimmering lakes that reflect the waving of the giant American flag standing guard. Our interest piqued, we decided to go to a Friday night football game.

The strange phenomenon of the high school football culture has completely blown our minds.

If you've ever wondered why Hollywood is flooded with so many high school football-themed movies (Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans and The Blind Side, to name a few), I can assuredly say that the reason for this lies in the complete hothouse of drama and chaos that takes place during a Friday night football game.

First of all, the football players themselves. These guys are just pulsing with adrenaline and so focussed on the game that they don't notice the late October temperatures or the cute water girls who poke into their huddles to pass around gatorade and winks. Okay, maybe not winks. But that's somewhere in the back of their minds, I'm sure. Then there are the coaches who just about lose their minds screaming at either their players or the refs. They march out on the field, faces red, shoulders hunched, only to have a yellow penalty flag thrown at their feet (resulting in more anger).

Then, the fans: I had never realized this before, but there's a Students Only section of the stands. This area houses hundreds of raucous high school students who scream and pound the bleachers and coat their faces with layers of warpaint. Beside them is where the Marching Band sits when they're not dancing around the field. These kids, dressed in their super goofy (yet somehow impressive) marching band outfits, spend the game sporadically bursting into pump-up music then put on a real show during halftime... usually an attempt at a current Lady GaGa hit. Yikes.

The rest of the crowd consists of parents and siblings and next door neighbours. All of these people are wearing The North Face coats. I kid you not. Not sure if they're the official sponsor of high school football or something, but Wayne and I enjoyed counting how many of these jackets walked past us. Around us parents are discussing how to housetrain a golden retriever, how the swim team will do this season, and how they think the vote will go this year. More recent high school grads, back for homecoming, reminisce about games that happened back in the day. Snarky middle school girls parade back and forth along the stands, anticipating the day when they can sit in the hallowed student-only section. One of the girls calls to another in the stands, "Wow, I can't believe it, you actually came to a game..." The girl sitting in the bleachers stiffens and calls back "What do you mean? I'm always at the games!" The first girl laughs carelessly and walks on, a posse of diet Pepsi-toting friends following behind her.

So incredibly glad not to be that age anymore.

Another group of girls walks by -- high school girls coming back from the concession stand with hot chocolate in their hands, undoubtedly to help them warm up since their outfits consists of thin leggings and trendy cardigans in the 45 degree F weather. We're hit with a cloud of teenage perfume, a smell that brings me right back to the hallways of my own high school.

Amidst all this teenage drama is pure chaotic fun being had by an innumerable amount of little kids -- kids who have been set completely free (within the bounds of the stadium) to run and run and run and run and spend sweaty little handfuls of dimes on sweaty little handfuls of candy. By the beginning of the second quarter these tots have hit an all-time sugar high and with perma-wide eyes are providing a constant flow of commentary to their parents about the happenings around the field.

The halftime show courtesy of the marching band brings enthusiastic cheering from parents, and Wayne and I laugh into our mittens when the homecoming king and queen parade down a red carpet into the centre of the field to be crowned while sitting in plastic chairs-turned-to-thrones. We think it's completely absurd, but I'm sure that everyone around us would disagree. "I love this part of homecoming," says one middle-aged man. "It's just so fun for the kids." You're entitled to your own opinion, sir.

By the fourth quarter, the sugar-hyped kids have completely and fully crashed. They lean into their parents' shoulders, whining about how cold they are and how annoying their brother is and "When are we going to go hoooooommmmmmme?" The underdressed high school girls have surrendered fashion to warmth and have somehow produced North Face jackets to fight the cold. The football players know they've got the game under control, and we've decided that they don't need us there to help them finish up. We sneak out early to avoid the post-game traffic jams and are quite alright with missing the end of the game if it means warming up. Those metal bleachers are cold.

It's a whole different world, that stadium. We enjoy going to the games, but we're perfectly okay with the fact that we missed out on our own high school football experience. It's a rather chilly hobby, and I don't know that I could afford a North Face jacket.