Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Part 30, the Polish Zone

When I was in the fourth grade, we all had to do reports on the states.   The United States.  You know, pick a state, and write a report about it.  Any state you wanted.

Sounds like a great project, right?   There had to be a catch, right?  Yeah, you got that right.

Catch Number One: no writing about California.  Makes sense, right?  That was our home state.  California would have been too easy.  Besides we were forever doing California-related assignments.   This was the same period of my life when the Five Geographic Regions of California were impressed permanently into my consciousness like the wheel ruts of a hundred thousand prairie schooners plodding inexorably westward: "High mountains, low mountains, Central Valley, coast, dry lands."

Catch Number Two: each kid had to have his or her own state.  To make sure that we all had unique, non-redundant states, Mrs. Lewis instructed us to take out a sheet of paper and write down three states in order of preference.  I took a sheet of paper out of my three ring binder and wrote down
  • Texas
  • Hawaii
  • Alaska

Well, sure.  What other states are there when you’re in the fourth grade?  Did John Wayne ever make a movie about New Jersey?  Did people throw Ohio-themed parties?  No.  You ask a fourth-grader to write about a state, he’s going to pick one of those bigger-than-life glamour states. 

So that’s what I did.  I went for the glamour.  I looked down at the three states I’d chosen.  What a glorious page turner of a report I envisioned.  The Alamo.  Whale hunting.  Hula dancers back lit against a smoldering volcano.

Mrs. Lewis stood in front of the class holding a clipboard and a ball point pen and told us she would call each name on the class roster, and then we would tell her the first state on our list, and if another kid had chosen that state, we’d go on to our second choice state and so on.

Well, that’s when my dreams of glory crashed to the ground like a hastily improvised defilade succumbing to the fiery fury of Santa Ana’s cannons

You see, my last name is Polish.  All right, well, technically not Polish, but it's in the Polish Zone.  You know how Polish last names tend to be overrepresented at the tail end of the alphabet?  Well, I can only hope that things have changed in these more enlightened times, but in my school days, all us kids in the Polish Zone got the last pick of everything.  That’s because anytime you had to choose any choosable entity of any kind, whether it was a topic for a project or a sport to play at recess, or a part in the Christmas pageant, or a percussion instrument to bang on during the "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain" sing-a-long, you were always one of the last three-to-five names called.  You see, the class roster determined the order in which such things were chosen, and the class roster was organized alphabetically.

As Mrs. Lewis called out "Kimberly Abrams," Larry Woyczk, Timmy Waselewski and I rested our faces on our palms and exchanged sideways glances with one another.  Tina Zybinski put her head on her desk and let out a long sigh.

Now keep in mind, I was born at the height of this country's postwar baby boom.  There were about 35 kids in that class.  By the time Mrs. Lewis got to me, Alaska, Hawaii and Texas were long gone, as were Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, and any state in which an armed constabulary had ever shot it out with Bonnie and Clyde, including Missouri and Iowa.

I don't remember how it happened, but I ended up with Maine.  I think Mrs. Lewis must have assigned it to me from the seventeen or so states that were still left when she got to the Polish Zone.  Lord knows what Tina Zybinski ended up with, probably South Carolina or Delaware or someplace.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think South Carolina and Delaware are great places.  So is Maine.  Maine has Moose and fall colors and maple syrup and beaches and the Appalachian Trail and Acadia National Park, but I didn't know that when I was in the fourth grade.  To my mind, Maine was just so much unclaimed merchandise dropped at the curbside, just another cast off for the Polish Zone kids. 

Kind of like my "Comin' Round the Mountain" block.  In Kindergarten.  That was my instrument, a block. I'm talking about an actual piece of wood.  I used to beat on it with a spoon or something.  That was life in the Polish Zone.  Stacie Alvarez got the triangle.  Jimmy Bailey got the tambourine.  I got a piece of wood and a spoon.

Things didn't improve in high school.  They had this system where you would request your electives at the beginning of the year, and if they had room in the elective you asked for, they'd put you in that, and if they didn’t have room, they'd assign you to some other, less sought after elective.

And how did they decide who got first pick of the electives?  Right.  They went through the school roster.


That's how I ended up taking two years of Latin.

And you know something, Latin was like Maine for me.  Sure I resented it at first, but as the years went by, I realized what a useful thing Latin was and what a remarkable opportunity I'd chanced upon by virtue of my bottom-of-the-roster pseudo-Slavic surname.

You know the wonderful thing about studying Latin?  Latin teaches you to be precise.  When you've studied Latin, you know how to pull apart big words, and even some not-so-big words, and break them up into little Latin components.  You can speak and understand English very precisely because you know what each little Latin component means.

And I think it's important to be precise when you're part of the anti-circumcision movement, because that movement tends to be very particular about words.  For example, the word uncircumcised.  The anti-circumcision movement, for the most part, shuns and disdains uncircumcised.  Why?  Because it's a negative.  When you say "uncircumcised," you imply that circumcision is the normal or default state of being, kind of the way that "insane" implies that sanity is the default mental state of being.

So in our movement, we don't say "uncircumcised."  We say "intact."

The problem is, as we Latin scholars know, intact is also a negative.  It's formed from the Latin word tactus, meaning "touch" and the Latin negative prefix in.  Intact means "untouched."  Etymologically speaking, it's every bit as much a negative as uncircumcised.

Uh oh.  Now what word do we use?  Intact seemed like such a convenient word, and we've been using it for decades.  We even call ourselves "Intactivists."  Are we going to have to reprint all the brochures?

Well, no.  I don't think so.  One thing I've learned from living all these years in the Polish Zone is, you work with what you got.  If all you got is a wooden block and a spoon, work with that.  You'll make just as much noise as the kid with the tambourine.  So just keep pounding, and don't let yourself get discouraged.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Part 29, Ignorance

My friend OtherKurt, one of a handful of other Kurt's I've known in my life, at the age of 27, didn't know that he was circumcised.

Here's how he found out that he was:

OtherKurt and a guy named Tim and I were sitting around the office one day having a discussion.  Now OtherKurt and his wife were planning on starting a family soon, and at some point in the discussion OtherKurt said "If we have a boy, we'll have him circumcised."

Now at this point in my life—I was 27, same age as OtherKurt—I think I had only ever discussed my negative feelings about my own circumcision with one other person, that person being B., my old BEER-drinking buddy from college.  I remember feeling really conflicted.  I felt like I had a moral obligation to say something to discourage OtherKurt from cutting up his unborn child's genitals, but I couldn't bring myself to say what I really felt about circumcision, that it was a sexual assault that had left me disfigured and obliterated part of my sexual experience.

So I kept it pretty impersonal.  I said, "You know, circumcision is medically unnecessary."

Then OtherKurt said, "Yeah, I know it's unnecessary.  I just want to have it done."

To this day, I couldn't tell you why he wanted to have it done, but he and his wife were kind of compulsive shoppers, so maybe that was it.  They'd watch this home shopping channel on the TV together for hours at a time.  Sometimes he'd call me up after work and tell me about something they were selling on the TV that he thought I might be interested in, and he'd offer to order it for me.  I like to cook, so I bought a few things for the kitchen.  And once in a weak moment, a briefcase. 

I know.  I'm the last person in the world you would think would need a briefcase, but I guess I got caught up in the moment.

So maybe OtherKurt thought of circumcision as another consumer item.  "Call now.  Lock in this special introductory price while supplies last."  Maybe it was like that.

Anyway, I didn't know how to respond to this consumerist approach to the whole issue.  I'd never thought about it in those terms before, but it didn't matter because my coworker Tim, seldom at a loss for words, buried my stunned silence under a flurry of questions.  "Circumcised?  Why would you want your kid circumcised?  Is it because you're circumcised?  Is it because you want to match or somethin'?"

OtherKurt said, "No, I'm not circumcised."

Tim said, "No way, dude, everybody our age is circumcised."  (We were all born in the early 1960s.)  "Where were you born?"

"Philadelphia," OtherKurt said.

Tim said "Dude, you're circumcised.  You're totally circumcised.  Hold on.  Let me get a sheeta paper."

Tim leaned over OtherKurt's desk, grabbed a ball point pen out of a plastic cup and scribbled.

Tim tapped his finger on the page.  "This is circumcised," he said.  "This is uncircumcised.  Which one do you look like?"

"This one here," OtherKurt said.

Tim said, "I thought so.  Dude, you're circumcised."  He pointed again at his doodle.  "That's circumcised.  That's uncircumcised."

OtherKurt made a sound like you make when you get poop on your shoes, and then he said "You mean like a dog?!"

Many times in my life I've wondered what exactly were those people thinking when they were circumcising all us little baby boys back in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s?  All those parents and obstetricians and experts like Dr. Spock, what kind of world did they think we were going to live in?  Did they think we were going to live in a world where circumcision was such a pervasive cultural norm that we wouldn't ever know that our genitals had been surgically altered?  It would just never occur to us that a penis could look like anything but Tim's circumcised penis doodle?  Was that the expectation?

That must have been the expectation, right?  Because did you ever hear of a dad sitting down and saying to his son, "Listen, I know you must be wondering about that scar tissue on your penis.  Let me explain what that's all about."

And then sometimes I think that maybe it wasn't so unreasonable to expect that kind of ignorance from us, because so many of us, like my friend OtherKurt, seemed to make it to adulthood with such a limited understanding of penile anatomy.

In the about the second or third chapter of Wallerstein's book, Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy, he debunks the studies that found a link between foreskin and cervical cancer, and one way he debunks the studies is he says that the studies relied on self-reporting of circumcision status, and subsequent studies had shown that women could not reliably report their husbands' circumcision status.

Not only that, says Wallerstein, one study showed that 34 percent of men reported their own circumcision status inaccurately.  Let me repeat that so you know it's not a typo.  34 percent.

Now I'm no statistician, but if I ask you your circumcision status, don't you have a 50 percent chance of guessing right?  So doesn't that mean that a 34 percent error rate would indicate that OtherKurt's ignorance with regard his own circumcision wasn't such an anomaly?

I don't think it was.  I think that ignorance has always been an essential part of America's circumcision culture.  I think that's what circumcision's apologists mean when they say "He'll never know what he's missing."  They mean "He'll live in a world where nobody knows what a natural penis looks like.  He'll live in a world where nobody knows that a foreskin is part of a man's body."

The problem with that logic, though, is that nobody really lives in that world.  You might live in that world until you're 10 or 15 or 27 or 32, but then all of a sudden one day you're having a conversation with your friends, or you're watching a hygiene film or, who knows, running around on a nude beach on the Balkan Peninsula, and you find out what you're missing, and that world ceases to exist.

It's only a question of when and how.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Part 28, Mexican boys

I've been camping.  Miss me?
I'm looking at a picture of my second grade class.  There are 19 kids in the picture, and about seven or eight of us appear to be Mexican-and-something-else.  I suppose the Mexican-and-something-else kids would have comprised the second largest ethnic group at Walter G. Brown Elementary in 1968 when the picture was taken, had we considered Mexican-and-something-else a separate ethnic identity.  However, we did not.

No, in the 1960s, America was just beginning to get comfortable with the concept of a multi-ethnic society, and actual multi-ethnic people went beyond our comfort level.  For example, if you look at any wholesome family TV Show from that time-- "Courtship of Eddie's Father," "Julia," "Family Affair" -- and there's a scene where the kid is talking to his friends at the playground, you will see in that group of kids (often arranged on a jungle gym or swing set) one white kid, one black kid, one Chinese-or-Japanese-looking kid, one Mexican-looking kid, and possibly one Native American kid.  But you will never see what we call these days a "bi-racial" kid.

No no no.  That is something you would never have seen during television's "Brady Bunch" era.  I know it's probably hard for younger people to imagine, but back then, the idea of people from two distinct ethnic groups getting married and having a child was too controversial to be depicted on network television. And that meant no multi-ethnic kids on TV.  Not even on a cereal commercial or milling around in the background as Buffy and Jody and Mr. French walk past the penguin enclosure at the Central Park Zoo.

Now, that doesn't mean we didn't have multi-ethnic people.  We did.  Plenty of them.  But if you were a multi-ethnic person, you were expected to pick an ethnic identity and stick with it.  Carol Channing was white, not white and black.  Della Reese was black, not black and American Indian.  Ethnicities were something people were expected to sort into, like a bucket of coins in a change machine, and, as you can discern from much of the popular music of the day, each ethnicity had a color code.  You cold be white, black, brown, yellow or red.  Nobody was gray.  Nobody was beige.

There are those who will say Cher was an exception to this rule, but to that I say isn’t Cher the exception to every rule?  Isn't that the whole point of Cher?

So Cher doesn't count.

Where were we?  Mexican boys.  In the picture of my second grade class, I see two Mexican boys, José and Juan.  Now you're probably thinking "Wait a minute.  What makes José and Juan Mexican and not Mexican-and-something-else?  Is it their names?"

No.  At least I don't think so.  I can think of friends with the last names Lopez, Villa and Camacho, and they were all Mexican-and-something-else, just like me.  Also, you could look really Mexican, like my friend Veronica—that dark-eyed girl in the second row, center-- and still be Mexican-and-something-else.

No, I think according to the cultural conventions of Walter G. Brown Elementary School in 1968, the definitive characteristic that made you Mexican was you spoke Spanish at home.  That's what set you apart.  That's what identified you as belonging to a culture distinct from the one that the rest of us lived in.

Naturally there were all kinds of mysteries and apprehensions that we attached to that culture, which is silly I know, but that's what kids do when they discover something out of the ordinary, right?  They build a mythology around it.  Like the farm next door to the school.  We had a vast tradition of folk tales about that farm.  Probably the best known was the one about a boy who snuck into the barn during recess and came out mute and absolutely chalk white from head to toe.  Though he eventually regained the power of speech, he remained an albino for the rest of his life.

All the stories followed that fundamental plotline.  You wandered into the farm, and some dark force would overtake you.  You'd be mauled by bats or zombie dogs, or a ghost would appear in the hay loft and chase you with a pitchfork or something along those lines.

And our tall tales about Mexicans reached about the same level of elevation as the ones about the farm.  They all seemed to involve some gruesome fate that befell a boy who wandered into the neighborhood where the Mexicans lived.  (The location of this neighborhood was never clear to me.  José's family lived in an apartment building around the corner from us.)

Here's a story one boy told me about the neighborhood where the Mexicans lived:  If you were a boy and the Mexican boys found you in their neighborhood after dark, they would surround you, pull down your pants and cut off your penis.

The day after I heard this story, the same boy who told it to me came to me with a revision.  Revisions were more the rule than the exception with these kinds of stories.  The one about the barn-raiding albino went through years of refinement before we settled on the canonical version that appears in the paragraph above.

The revision was this: if the Mexican boys found you in their neighborhood after dark, they would indeed surround you and pull down your pants, but instead of cutting off your penis, they would make an incision all the way around your penis.

Many years after elementary school—I suppose I was in my early 20s—it occurred to me that this story had come in to being, by whatever method such stories came into being, to explain one of the mysteries of our life, that mystery being this: How had so many of us lost that part of our anatomy that all the Mexican boys seemed to have?
Mr. Fisher and kurt_t, with haunted farm in the background.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Post 27, Loyal listener

Spokesdog Ladybug debunks the hygiene argument.
Good news.  I tracked down a copy of Ed Wallerstein's book, Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy.  It's not easy to find.  It's been out of print for years.  In my next post, I'll get into how that book started changing American attitudes about circumcision when it first came out in 1980.

I guess it's just as well I didn't find it right away.  I got a lot of positive feedback about my digression into the events surrounding Disco Demolition Night.  And Steve Dahl figures into the What I'm Missing story in a pretty significant way, so it's only right that I should make some effort to explain his cultural significance.

Like I said Steve is the first public figure I can ever remember questioning routine infant circumcision.  It happened back around 1982 or so.  I don't remember what radio station Steve was working for at the time.

Steve moved around a few times while I was living in Chicago.  I remember not long after Disco Demolition Night, the station he was working for fired him for violating "community standards."

Steve had a way of pushing the boundaries of good taste.

So Steve moved around, but I always listened to his show.  If Steve switched stations, I switched stations.  If Steve switched to the afternoon slot, I listened to the afternoon slot.  Even if Steve was working for a station where I didn't care for the playlist, I'd listen to his show.  If I had to sit through a Billy Joel song, it was a small price to pay.

I actually learned to like the Glass Houses album.

Now Steve used to take a lot of calls from listeners.  He never did a full on call-in format like Rush Limbaugh or anything like that, but he'd start talking on the air about something, could be anything—local politics, dieting, nudist colonies, professional sports, Ann Landers' column—and listeners would call in, and he'd put them on the air.  

Now, normally call-in segments on the radio drive me insane the same way that listening to someone talk on a cell phone on the bus will drive you insane.  It just sounds like a lot of pointless chatter that doesn’t seem to progress anywhere, but Steve had a way of keeping the conversation lively and entertaining.  Kind of like Merv Griffin, I guess.  He just had a gift for that sort of thing.

So one day I turned on the radio, and Steve was in the middle of a phone call with a listener who'd recently given birth to a baby boy.  Steve and the lady were both talking about how they felt that infant circumcision was a pointless, outdated custom.  If I remember correctly, the woman said that her obstetrician hadn't circumcised the baby, and her pediatrician was opposed to circumcision on ethical grounds.

Steve said something to her like "Well, that settles it, right?  No circumcision for your kid then?"

And the woman said "No, my husband wanted to have it done, so he took him to a surgeon."

Then Steve did something you're never supposed to do on the radio.  He let the air go dead. Silent, in other words.  And that silence gave me a moment to reflect on how sad that was, how absurd that was, that American parents-- people my age—still felt a cultural pressure to have their boys' genitals altered at birth.

We knew it was pointless.  We knew it didn't prevent disease or facilitate hygiene, but we still did it.  We just did it because we did it.

And maybe because nobody wanted to admit that it was a mistake.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Part 26, Steve Dahl

Yes, I said livestock pavilion.
The high school I went to in Houston was pretty big.  There were about 600 or so of us in the graduating class, and the campus was spread out over maybe five buildings, not counting the football stadium and the livestock pavilion.

Yes, the livestock pavilion.  There are those among my fellow Spring Branch High alumni who will claim that the livestock pavilion was a multi-purpose building, but that's a lot of revisionist history if you ask me.  I think some people just aren't comfortable with the idea of graduating from a high school that had its own livestock pavilion.

Well, Spring Branch High School had a livestock pavilion, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  Every year the Future Farmers of America would host a... I'm not sure what you would call it, sort of an open house in the livestock pavilion, and there would be sheep and cows and chickens and what not right there on campus in this big building with high ceilings and no permanent interior walls, the sort of place where you would go to see a boat show.

Anyway, the point is high school was big, but college was huge.  Physically, I mean.  It was gigantic.  I spent my first few months in college feeling lost and bewildered a little lonely and homesick living there on the third floor of a big concrete dorm on the edge of campus.

I had a roommate, but he was never around.  He was a sophomore or a junior, I forget, and he had a girlfriend he would shack up with for weeks at a time.  I think he kept up a pretense of living in our dorm room for his parents' benefit.  They must have been Catholic or something.

So I was kind of a lonely guy my first few months in college, and I used to turn on the radio in the morning just to hear another human voice, actually a whole lot of human voices.  I used to listen to this radio show in the morning called "The Steve Dahl Rude Awakening" on WDAI.  It was Steve talking to all these outlandish characters.  I remember a grandma character and grandpa character who performed a duet called "Whenever I Cough up Phlegm," sung to the tune of the Kenny Loggins hit "Whenever I Call You Friend."

There was a flamboyant gay character called Rex Reational, and there was a dumb guy character whose name was Bruno or Bluto something like that.  I remember one time Steve came out of a commercial or a song or something and Bluto was saying "Gee, Steve I don't know about this."

Then Steve tells him "It's OK, Bluto.  It's for comedy."

And then you hear a toilet flushing five or six times and Steve starts blubbering and gasping for air, and you realize that Bluto (or Bruno) is giving Steve what we used to call in college a "swirlie."

I don't know what happened after that because I was laughing too hard.  All that day I kept replaying that gag in my mind, and I'd start laughing. I still laugh when I think about it.  I was laughing when I typed that sentence.

Anyway, when I came back from winter break in January, 1979, Steve Dahl was gone, and all the characters were gone too.  I don't think I realized it until after Steve lost his job, but all those characters were Steve.  I'd always pictured a whole studio of people doing voice characterizations, but it was all just Steve.  The man was a comic genius.

But WDAI didn't need a genius.  In December 1978, they switched to an all-Disco format and pink slipped Steve.

A few months later, Steve moved to another radio station in Chicago, WLUP, where he railed against the whole Disco phenomenon and smashed Disco records on the air.  His anti-Disco efforts gained such a wide following in Chicago that the White Sox asked him to host Disco Demolition Night, the event where my friends Joe and Mohammed narrowly averted a pot bust.

I guess you could say Disco Demolition Night got a little out of control.  I turned on the local news the next morning, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Smoke billowing into the stands, smashed up records all over the outfield, police dragging half naked teenagers by the hair and tossing them into paddy wagons.  Steve Dahl's destruction (by means of dynamite) of thousands of Disco records in center field after the first game of a double header had inspired an anti-Disco riot of such intensity the White Sox had had to forfeit the evening's second game to the visiting Detroit Tigers.

Now I know you're probably thinking what in the heck does all that have to do with Ed Wallerstein's book Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy?

Well, I'm getting there.

Before Ed Wallerstein's book came out in 1980, America had never really had much of a dialog about circumcision.  Circumcision rates went into a gradual decline beginning in the 1960s, and I think that decline happened for all sorts of reasons: immigration, the sexual revolution, the hippies.  (I mean actual hippies who lived on communes and ate granola and got back to nature, not these young people you see these days who buy their tie-dye at the Old Navy.)

But even when the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with those wishy-washy policy statements in 1971 and 1975 about circumcision (Essentially, they adopted a policy of "There's no medical need for routine infant circumcision, but, hey, who needs a medical reason?"), even then there was no real public dialog about circumcision in the media, not that I remember.

As I remember, the dialog began with after Wallerstein's book came out in 1980, and the first public figure who I ever heard questioning America's tradition of circumcision in a really frank, open way was Steve Dahl.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Part 25, Disco Demolition

I've always been more of a glam rocker.
This was going to be an in-depth analysis of Ed Wallerstein's book Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy, but it appears that the only copy of it at my library has been misshelved.  Therefore this will be a post about the death of Disco.

But it relates to Wallerstein's book, I promise.  It might take me until Post 26, but I assure you it will relate.

I started college at the absolute zenith of American Disco mania.  All the college dances they used to play Disco, and nothing but Disco.  "Boogie Fever," "Disco Inferno," the 20-minute Donna Summer disco cover of "MacArthur Park."  You could not escape Disco.  There were Disco movies, Disco TV Shows, Disco clothing and accessories.  Roller rinks started converting into roller discos.  Seemed like every celebrity whose career ever hit a slow patch would take a shot at Disco-- Cher, Kiss, ABBA, Frankie Valli, Rod Stewart, Leif Garret, Kristy and Jimmy McNichol, Ethel Merman.  The list goes on and on.

I remember I was in the car with my Mom during Winter break my freshman year in college.  She said to me, "Mark my words, one day you'll wake up, and it'll be like this Disco stuff never happened.  That stuff will just die.  You'll get up in the morning and turn on the radio and go to work, and that stuff will be gone.  People will forget all about it.  They'll pretend like they never went in for all that crazy Disco stuff."

(I cleaned up that quotation for family audiences.  My mother rarely used the word "stuff.")

Now fast forward to the evening of July 12, 1979.  It was the summer before my sophomore year in college.  B. and I were sitting up in his dorm room chatting and drinking BEER.  He was working on the campus clean up crew that summer.  That's how he happened to be living in the dorms during the summer break.

Well, we hear a knock on the door, and we go open the door, and there's our buddies Joe and Mohammed, who'd also been working on the clean up crew, so they were living in the same dorm there with B.

Joe and Mohammed come in and help themselves to a couple of BEERs and tell us this crazy story about how they'd just left a riot in Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox.

"It was awesome!"  Joe said.  "Steve Dahl blew up like a million Disco records in center field, and everybody went crazy!  Then the cops just started busting people for no reason at all.  We didn't want to get caught with weed, so we cut out."

"The cops bust people for weed at Comiskey?" I said.  "Since when?  People smoke weed in the stands at Comiskey all the time."

"Well, we weren't in the stands," Joe said, "we were down on the field."

"You were what?!"

"Well, the records blew up, and there was fire and stuff, and we stormed the field.  Everybody did.  It was awesome!"

I guess I can see how it might have seemed like good idea at the time.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Part 24, The Jews

A fortuitous library book sale find.
I guess you could say it was a night of firsts.  It was the first time I ever told anybody that I had a problem with being circumcised, and it was the first time I found out that I wasn't the only guy in the world who felt that way, and it was the first time anybody had ever offered me an explanation for why circumcision had become a cultural norm in the United States.

Until that night, sitting there drinking BEER on the couch in B.'s dorm, the closest thing to an explanation I'd heard for the 90 percent circumcision rate among my American-born peers was a vague insinuation that my mother had made years before that foreskins were something found far from urban centers among the lowly and uneducated.  She seemed to think that circumcision was a mark of sophistication, kind of like table manners or knowing how to say "chaise longue."

"You know why we're all circumcised, right?"

I let B.'s question hang in the BEER-fragranced air for a moment.

How do you answer a question like that?  Of course I didn’t know why we were all circumcised.  You grew up in America too, B.  You know how it works.  Nobody tells you why you're circumcised and you don't ask.  You're supposed to pretend like you don’t notice.  At least that was the cultural expectation that I had internalized by age 19.

Looking back though, it made sense that B. would have formulated a theory about America's curious history of male genital alteration.  For one thing, B. was a hypochondriac.  I mean a big time hypochondriac.  He was one of these people who would go to a party and bring up one anecdote after another about visits to specialists and painful treatments for conditions that defied any kind of straightforward diagnosis.  A delicate surgery in which bone harvested from his hip had been grafted onto his left wrist had appeared in a medical journal.  He seemed to take a special pride in that.

No, B. was not the kind of person to bear any aberrant bodily condition quietly, and for B., as for me, having a dark scar on your penis where your foreskin was supposed to be was an aberrant condition.  I never really thought about it at the time, but I think one of the reasons B. and I shared that perspective was that we'd both grown up in the midst of immigrant cultures that didn't practice circumcision.  B. had spent almost his whole life before college in Miami.  Many of his boyhood friends and classmates came from Cuba, their families having emigrated after Castro's revolution.

I waited until B. answered his own question.  "It was the Jewish doctors," he said.

"The Jewish doctors?" I said.  "How do you figure?"

"In Europe, if they wanted to know if you were a Jew, they'd pull your pants down.  If you were circumcised, you were a Jew.  When the Jews got to America, the Jewish doctors started circumcising everybody.  That way, nobody could tell who the Jews were."

I thought of a book I'd read in my senior year of high school, Mila 18, by Leon Uris.  It was about the Warsaw ghetto.  I learned from that book that during the German occupation, the Jews in Warsaw used women as couriers, never men or boys.  It was too dangerous for Jewish males to step outside the ghetto walls, because you never knew when a German soldier might tell you to pull down your pants.

The Jews, I thought.  Maybe B.'s on to something.  They are the people who invented circumcision, aren't they?

Then I thought of some of the other crazy ideas B. had.  He thought that you could contract a fatal illness if you rinsed off chicken parts and then baked them without patting them dry first.  I mean pat them all the way dry, leaving not so much as a droplet glistening on the bony end of a drumstick.

In fact, he seemed to regard eating in general as a life-or-death struggle against malevolent natural forces, kind of the way you might think about backpacking in the Amazon rain forest.  He believed so strongly in the potential lethality of seafood, undercooked meat, mayonnaise and most fruits and vegetables that he lived almost entirely on prepackaged food.  If it came in a box, he trusted it.  I guess that's why we ate so much Rice A Roni.

You would think I would have treated B.'s Jew theory of circumcision a little more critically, but I didn't.  I think part of me wanted to believe it.  Not out of any feelings of anti-Semitism on my part.  No.  Just the opposite.  I had a deep sentimental attachment to Jewish culture, particularly American Jewish culture.  I'd seen every Marx Brothers movie, every Woody Allen movie, every Mel Brooks movie and "Fiddler on the Roof."  I'd read Portnoy's Complaint, Goodbye Columbus and Oscar Levant's memoirs.  I used to play Sophie Tucker 78s on my grandmother's record player.

I loved Sophie Tucker.  She was like an older, more family-friendly version of my mom.

And then there was Mad Magazine.  Mad was full of Jewish humor.  I think that's where I learned most my Yiddish.

No, I think this crazy idea that circumcision had begun in America as some kind of vast Jewish conspiracy brightened my outlook a little bit.  It was another one of those ideas that I could bargain with.  My disfigurement had a purpose.  A heroic purpose.  It was camouflage for the Jews. It made America pogrom-and-Holocaust proof.

It was a comforting misconception, and one I might have held on to a little longer had a secular American Jew named Ed Wallerstein not published a book called Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy.