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800 Words

My Generation

October 29, 2006|Dan Neil

As you are about to see in this week's column, I'm not easily embarrassed. This is probably because I lived through the most mortifying, mouth-breathing, fro-haired adolescence on record. I was Napoleon Dynamite. I think

the phrase "I caught you a delicious bass" constitutes the most profound words ever uttered.

In any event, shame is not much a part of my emotional repertoire. So I'm comfortable reporting that right now, in my hallway, is a container about the size of a kitchen trash can, filled with liquid nitrogen, into which at some point this week I must place a sample of my manly essence--the Elixir Dan, if you will--and send it back to North Dakota, where a DNA testing lab will analyze it and tell me how fertile I am. Why North Dakota? I'm not really sure, but apparently it has something to do with the livestock industry.

My wife and I--and two dozen highly trained and generously compensated reproductive doctors, nurses and technicians--are trying to have a baby. I still remember the old days, when conceiving was as simple as getting drunk and going to bed with your roommate's girlfriend. However, things have grown increasingly complicated as I have aged. I always assumed that I would be massively fertile, like a biblical patriarch or African tribal king or Tony Randall, but I guess not. My wife, who is 34, is not exactly Mississippi bottomland, either. Between the two of us, we are--to borrow the immortal phrase from "Sex and the City"--the Special Olympics of reproduction.

If there's any part of this that makes me wince with embarrassment, it's how bourgeois and trendy it all is. I am, after all, one of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of middle-aged American men working on their second families with their second or third wives of childbearing years. I already have a 21-year-old son from a previous marriage. I'm almost 47, and if we were to get pregnant tomorrow, our son or daughter would graduate from college when I'm 69. If said son or daughter were to go to medical school he or she would likely get an M.D. just in time to sign my death certificate.

To engage in assisted reproduction is to appreciate just how far off the rails of evolutionary biology postmodern America has gone. Humans are ridiculously fertile as teenagers because, obviously, early hominids wouldn't have survived long if mated pairs had delayed pregnancy until they got their careers going. People in their 30s and 40s can and do get pregnant--my mom was 39 and my dad 49 when I, swimming past various barrier methods of birth control, arrived to completely ruin their retirement. Generally, though, the older you get the harder it is to run off a Xerox. And yet, I don't feel alone or unfairly singled out. Even younger couples are struggling to conceive, as fertility rates in Western industrialized societies plummet for reasons that are not well understood.

There's gold in them thar wombs. For a harrowing look at the $3-billion infertility-industrial complex, I suggest Harvard business professor Debora L. Spar's recent "The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception." This is emotionally and ethically fraught territory--for instance, how defensible is it for couples to spend $100,000 to conceive unnaturally when so many children await adoption? And yet it's hard to tell well-established and affluent older couples--who can now reasonably expect to live until their 80s and who would likely make amazing parents--that they are biological lame ducks, that they have missed destiny's train and are simply waiting around the depot to die.

As in all things reproductive, women have the worse end of it. The hormones, the shots, the pelvic ultrasounds. For a woman to have a child this way, she's got to want it, bad.

My part has consisted mostly of having quality time with myself in a number of clinic restrooms and emerging sometime later, chagrined but triumphant. In my first such experience, a very sweet and sympathetic lab technician referred me to some "exciting" reading material in the magazine rack, which consisted of Elle, Maxim and--I kid you not--Modern Bride, which would constitute a very peculiar fetish if one were so inclined. As delicately as I could, I suggested she obtain magazines with a little harder edge, Penthouse at least.

On my next visit, I found she had stocked the room with some of the filthiest German pornography imaginable. I felt as though Interpol was going to bust in at any moment. When she saw me, Veejai--an adorable woman from Pakistan--asked, with her eyes wide: "Did you like our new selections?" Oh, absolutely; in fact, I already subscribe to Die Nippleclampen Zeitung.

Well, obviously, there's much more to tell, but right now there is a cryogenic canister headed for North Dakota with my name on it.

Keep checking this space for babies . . . .

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