|kurt_t with muscle car, 1977|
Girls would visit the nerd table from time to time, but the core group was all guys. It was like "The View" but in reverse.
So naturally, the nerd table was a place where we all felt comfortable discussing matters of sexuality, such as they were for socially awkward teenagers who collected stamps and took Latin.
If there was anyplace I could have had a conversation about circumcision, it would have been the nerd table, especially after that episode in "Roots" with the circumcision ceremony and the Mandinka elder saying "You no doubt have noticed the porthos of a man does not resemble the porthos of a boy," as his sidekick held up something that looked like pruning shears stuck in the open position.
It was the sort of image that was made for in-depth review at nerd table. That was one of our favorite pastimes, deliberating over dramatic moments from our favorite movies and TV shows, particularly scenes involving violent death or disfigurement.
"See, that's why Robert Mitchum used a grenade launcher instead of the M-16. Did you see when he lit his cigar on the smoldering Panzer? That seemed kind of fake. Could you really do that without setting your hair on fire?"
So that was the way I tried to open up a discussion about circumcision. I did it by talking about that scene in "Roots." I forget what exactly I said, but I remember that I approached the subject very indirectly. I never used the words "foreskin" or "circumcision" or even "penis" or "genitals." I think the conversation went like this:
"Did you see the scene with the big knife? And the big Mandinka guy? And LeVar Burton and his buddies are all lined up? That looked painful. Do you suppose that's really what they did in those days?"
One or two nerds looked up from their cafeteria trays and shrugged, and that was it. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Somebody changed the subject right away, started talking about Dr. Demento or something.
Looking back on that time in my life, I wonder why I didn't try harder to talk to one of my peers about my feelings about being circumcised. I can understand why I didn't talk to an adult about it. Like all teenagers, I understood instinctively the futility of confronting adults with questions about cultural norms.
"Why can't women be topless at the beach?"
"Why are drugs that kill you legal and drugs that don't kill you are illegal?"
"Why can't we have pizza for Thanksgiving?"
"Why do people drink milk? Isn't that stuff for baby cows?"
You couldn't expect an adult to give you an honest answer to those kinds of questions. Adults expected you to accept your culture as a package deal. They didn't want you picking at the absurd parts like they were cocktail onions in a chicken pot pie.
But your peers, that was a whole different story. Everything was open for discussion. The legal drinking age, the speed limit, the composition of NATO and the American League West, whether algebra had any basis in reality or was simply an elaborate educational hoax.
So why not circumcision? Why didn't I make more of an effort to talk to my friends about that? It wasn't like I only had the nerds to talk to. Every summer, I'd go back to California to stay with my dad's side of the family, and I'd always spend a lot of time with John and Michael. They were the guys who first noticed something different about my penis that afternoon when we were changing into our swimsuits. Now we were older, and we knew why we looked different, and we still had no inhibitions about being naked around one another. John and I used to skinny dip in the backyard when the grown ups weren't around, and once we even streaked the neighborhood.
It was the '70s. Everybody was doing it.
So why did I feel like I couldn't talk to anybody about this issue, not even my partner in streaking?
I don't think there's any one answer to that question. Or if there's one answer, it's an answer that has many parts. Part of the answer is shame. My youthful experimentation with streaking notwithstanding, I felt ashamed of what my penis looked like. I was ashamed of what had happened to my body.
Now, I suppose that's not a logical reason to feel ashamed, is it? I wasn’t the one responsible for what my penis looked like, right?
But how much of your shame when you're a teenager is based on logic? How much that shame is based on things you have no control over? Isn't that part of what you're ashamed of? Not being in control?
Isn't that part of what you're ashamed of if you're a teenager with an alcoholic parent? Or an abusive parent? Isn't that part of what you're ashamed of if you've been sexually assaulted? Not having control. Not having any power to stop the problem from happening. Not having any power to fix the problem.
And if you can't fix the problem, and you feel ashamed for having the problem in the first place, about all you can do is stay quiet and pretend the problem doesn't exist.