Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Part 13, The Satisfaction Spectrum

I suppose this is the point in the story where some of you are saying, "I know how you can find out how much sensation you've lost to circumcision. Ask a guy who was circumcised after reaching sexual maturity."

Sounds logical, doesn't it?

Well, turns out it's not that simple.

I have a friend. I'll call him WeiWei. WeiWei spent much of his early childhood in a refugee camp, where his family had limited access to clean water, and from the time he was a baby, WeiWei suffered from periodic bladder infections.

"The pain you wouldn't believe," WeiWei told me. "I was pissing blood."

So at age 16, WeiWei, now a U.S. citizen living in a mid-sized American city, talked to the family doctor about his problem, and the doctor told him, "We can circumcise you. Maybe that will help."

WeiWei decided that sounded like a good idea, and after the doctor circumcised him, sure enough, WeiWei stopped getting bladder infections.

"So what about sex?" I said to WeiWei. (We have that kind of relationship.)

"I never had sex until later," he said, "when I was in college."

"Well, what about masturbation?" I said "Did it feel better or worse? Did you feel like something was missing?"

"It didn't feel better or worse," he said. "It just felt different."

I would say that puts WeiWei right in the middle of the spectrum.

The Satisfaction Spectrum, I mean. The Satisfaction Spectrum, which I will assume I invented until I hear otherwise, represents patient satisfaction with circumcision outcome. At one end of the Satisfaction Spectrum, you have the guy who says "I'm so glad I decided to get myself circumcised. Sex with my wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/partner is more pleasurable because of the increased friction between my penis and my wife's/husband's/girlfriend's/boyfriend's/partner's orifice-of-choice, and sex is more spontaneous now, because I no longer have to worry about tidying up my penis before getting things underway. Color me satisfied."

Closer to the other end of the Satisfaction Spectrum, you have "Dan from London" quoted in this BBC article three years after being circumcised:

He says no one told him just how much of an impact it [circumcision] could have on his sex life.

"Imagine having your tongue but not being able to taste," he says.

"You'd still be able to use your tongue, but if you weren't able to taste certain foods, or taste anything at all, you know, I liken it to that."

So you see that's the problem with trying to answer the question of "How much physical sensation have I lost?" by asking men circumcised as teenagers or adults. You won't find any consensus. You'll find answers that fall all up and down the Satisfaction Spectrum.

Also, you have to think about how to weigh the answers you get from guys like WeiWei. Did WeiWei's history of infections cause a loss of sensation in his foreskin or in his penis overall? Is that why masturbation felt the same before and after circumcision? Who knows? Is there even any kind of equipment out there that would allow you to test that hypothesis? Not that I've heard of. Maybe the Kinsey Institute will invent something.

But I think knowing that a Satisfaction Spectrum exists for men circumcised as adults (I'll call it Satisfaction Spectrum A.) tells me that there must be a similar Satisfaction Spectrum for men like me, those circumcised as infants or children. Let's call them Group B, and let's call their spectrum Satisfaction Spectrum B.

I've found that if you ask Group B about what sex and masturbation feel like, you'll get a range of answers similar to what you find in Satisfaction Spectrum A, everything from "I can't imagine sex feeling any better." to "I feel nothing. Sex is impossible."

I have come to believe that where a guy lands on Satisfaction Spectrum B corresponds closely to how much damage his circumciser did to his penis, how much tissue was lost, how many nerve endings were severed, and how much secondary damage happened as his body healed from the trauma. I suppose that list of factors should also include damage from follow-up surgeries, which are more commonplace than you might think.

So what happens if I lay my data from Satisfaction Spectrum B on top of my data from Satisfaction Spectrum A? And suppose I take into consideration any observable damage to my own penis? Could that tell me something about the degree of physical sensation I've lost to circumcision? Can I work it out algebraically?

Well, I was a humanities major, but I'll see what I can do.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Part 12, The Symphony

"Then your penis feels like it's going to throw up."

I was twelve, and my friend John, the guy with the Slip N' Slide, was explaining to me how to masturbate. Seemed like he met every puberty milestone before I did. He'd experienced his first ejaculation some weeks before, and he was like one of your friends with a new outdoor grill. You know the guy who has a twenty minute conversation with you about how the grill works? How you light it, check the temperature, warm it up, cool it down. How to add the mesquite flavor. Where to put your beer while you're doing it. That was John talking about masturbation.

"Your penis feels like it's going to throw up?" I thought. "And this is supposed to be an enjoyable experience?"

"What happens then?" I said.

"Sticky stuff squirts out, and then you feel like falling asleep."

When I found out from Myra Breckinridge about all the pleasure receptors I'd lost to circumcision, I thought back to that conversation that I'd had with John all those years before, and I thought about how surprised I'd felt the first time I ever masturbated, because that experience had been so different from what John had described to me.

I thought "Was that why masturbation felt different for me? Was it because John had all those pleasure receptors in his foreskin? The ones that I'd lost?"

John had described masturbation as an experience he'd had with his penis, but to me masturbation had always been something that happened to my whole body. It brought me a heightened sense of touch throughout my body and a hyperawareness of my body's natural rhythms: breathing, heartbeat, blood flow, everything. And it brought an overall feeling of euphoria.

And it felt great. It felt wonderful. And later having those experiences with a partner felt even more wonderful. It felt like a symphony playing out all over our bodies, with crescendos and diminuendos, a minuet here, an adagio there, all building to a moving finale.

Now, at age 19, for the first time in my life, I thought "Is there part of the symphony I'm not hearing? Am I missing part of the symphony?"

And if I was missing part of the symphony, how much was I missing? Which parts? A couple piccolos? Half the percussion? The whole violin section?

I've spent thirty years trying to answer that question, and I haven't yet. I don't know if I ever will.

I think I might have to accept that the answer to that question is part of what I'm missing.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Part 11, Myra Breckinridge

I had a lot to learn about foreskins. I didn't know that the pink region just below my circumcision scar was what was left of the mucosal tissue whose job it was to shield the most sensitive area of my penis, the glans, the little fireman's helmet at the tip, the part that I kept trying to protect with ever-tightening undergarments (and more severe measures that we'll get to later).

I wouldn't learn about the protective function of the foreskin until I was 29-years-old, and I read a book by a guy a lot like me, a guy born in the '60s who'd been circumcised as a small child and gone through a lot of the same same physical and psychological torment that I had.

Long before I ever read that book, I read another book that touched upon another function of the foreskin, the sexual function. That book was Myra Breckinridge.

"Myra Breckinridge?" you say. "Wasn't that the trashy movie with Raquel Welch?"

Yes, that's the one. It was one of those adult-themed movies that all the grown ups would talk about in hushed tones when they were picking us up at the day care center. We had a few of those in the 1960s.

But before it was trashy movie, it was a book, by Gore Vidal, and I decided to read it during Winter Break of my sophomore year in college. I was 19.

What I didn't know when I checked the book out of the Houston Public Library was that Myra, a male-to-female transsexual (We didn't use the word "transgender" in those days.) who does most the narration, had some strong opinions about circumcision. She was opposed. Vehemently opposed. As vehemently opposed as any broadly drawn Gore Vidal anti-hero was ever vehemently opposed to anything.

"Wait," you say, "but Myra was a male-to-female transsexual? Doesn’t that mean…?"

Look, I didn't write the book, OK? I'm just telling you what I read.

And what I read reinforced the anger, shame and grief that I felt around the issue of my circumcision. What Myra told me, in a mocking, pitiless tone, was that circumcision had robbed me of tens of thousands of specialized nerve endings, had in fact taken away the most pleasure-receptive part of my penis. To hear it from Myra, all the sexual experiences I'd had in my life up to that point, either alone or with a partner, were nothing but a shabby imitation, a sad counterfeit of what a whole man experienced.

A whole man, something I would never be.

And now at age 19, I found out that not only did I not have the appearance of a whole man, not only did I not live in the body of a whole man, but I would never have the sexual experiences of a whole man.

It was a lot like the time I first learned that part of my penis was gone, the first time I felt that horrible, bewildering sense of loss. But now I felt a new kind of loss, a loss of something that little boy in Mr. Hoezel's room could never have conceived of.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Part 10, Vlad

I have a very special friend, someone I can talk to about anything. He's decided for purposes of this narrative he would like to be called "Vlad." Personally, I think that's kind of a silly choice, but I would ask that you honor his wishes and visualize him as whatever sort of person the name Vlad conjures in your mind.
Here's something I've heard Vlad say in one way or another many times over the years:
I don't get not having a foreskin. How do you not have a foreskin? If I didn't have a foreskin, I don't think I could ride a bike. I don't think I could run or play sports. It would be like not having an eyelid.
And I always tell him, yes, that's exactly what it's like. That's exactly what it is. Being circumcised means not having a protective membrane on a part of your anatomy that evolved with a protective membrane.
But if the only life you've ever known is a life without the protective membrane, you learn to make all kinds of accommodations for your unprotected, easily irritated body part. That's just how life works for you. You don't think to yourself, "Boy, all these activities I enjoy sure would be easier if I didn’t have to keep thinking up new ways to compensate for my missing membrane."
No, you make adjustments without ever thinking about it. I put a lot of energy into making adjustments when I was growing up. I didn't know that's what I was doing, but that's what I was doing, making adjustments.
"Now wait a minute," I hear you say. "What do you mean you didn't know that's what you were doing? I thought you said you knew all about foreskins. What about your friends who had foreskins? What about the Everything You Ever Wanted to Know book for teenagers? What about the animated NASA penis?"
Well, those experiences didn't teach me anything about a foreskin's function. When I was a teenager, the only thing I knew about foreskins was, if you were circumcised, you didn't have one.
So when my penis felt irritated from all the friction resultant from all the normal boy activities I used to do—running, hiking, playing baseball, riding a bike—it never occurred to me that the irritation was a result of being circumcised. I thought I just hadn't found the right kind of underwear yet. I'd say to myself, "My underwear's not working out for me. I need to try something different. Tighter this time. I need to go tighter."
By the time I was 16, I was wearing the tightest underwear you ever saw in your life. I would always buy the smallest size jockey shorts I could fit into without cutting off the circulation to my legs. The idea was to keep my penis locked in place, completely immobile, because if my penis didn't move, there wouldn't be any friction, and if there wasn't any friction, my penis wouldn't chafe against my underwear.
But after ten or twelve trips through the washer machine, my jockey shorts would start loosening up, and I'd end up wearing loose underwear again. Then as I walked, ran, rode my bike or played baseball, my penis would move around in all the ways made predictable by the laws of Newtonian physics. My penis would chafe, and sometimes the glans, the part of my penis that would have been covered by a foreskin if I hadn't been circumcised, would bleed.
A few times my penis bled that way, and I didn't know about it until I took off my underwear, at which point I felt the coagulated blood tear away from my penis, taking who knows how many layers of skin cells with it.
What did that feel like? There are so many different kinds of pain in the world, and it's hard to convey how a particular kind of pain feels, isn't it? But let me try. When you were a kid did you ever fall off your bike and plant your face or your hands on asphalt or gravel? Imagine if instead of your face or your hands it was your genitals. It felt like that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Part 9, Twilight Zone

We have cable now. I hate it. 300 channels of crap.

You know a TV show I liked? The "Twilight Zone." The black and white one. I still love that show. I would look for it, but it's too much work. How is a person supposed to navigate through all those channels?

Besides, we have this gigantic wall mounted TV with three different remote controls. I honestly don't know how to turn the thing on.

Things were a lot more straightforward when I was a teenager. Two buttons, two dials, six TV stations. One or the other of them used to show "Twilight Zone" around 11 o'clock Friday night.

Everybody has a favorite "Twilight Zone" episode, right? You know my favorite episode? It's the one that starts out in a hospital, and the hospital is real quiet like the graveyard shift is on, and you see an occasional person walk by, but you don't see anybody's face.

If you're a fan of the show, I'm sure you know the episode I'm talking about, so you maybe want to skip the next two paragraphs.

Then somebody faces the camera. I forget who it is. Nurse, doctor, orderly. Doesn't matter. You see this face, and it's this scary, disfigured face. Nose off to one side, big pointy chin, eyes set deep in the skull and fixed in a permanent scowl. Then you see another face, and another and another. And they all have those same grotesque features. And the people with the scary faces have a patient they're trying to operate on, but the patient resists, and they have to drag the patient to the operating room.

Then the patient's face turns to the camera, and that's when you see the patient's face for the first time. The patient is a beautiful woman. And it dawns on you that the people with the scary faces plan on disfiguring her.

The first time I ever saw that episode I must have been 15 or 16. I remember thinking to myself, "This is about circumcision."

I guess that gives you an idea of how I felt about circumcision when I was a teenager. I wasn't panicked or confused about it anymore. I had moved on from that. I knew that in all likelihood, I'd been circumcised within hours or days of my birth, and I knew that was something that happened to most American boys. But knowing those things didn't make me feel happy about being circumcised. Knowing those things made me feel like I was living in a 'Twilight Zone' episode, an episode where I, and most of my friends, had been disfigured without our consent for the sake of what? Hygiene? Aesthetic considerations? Social convention? Nobody ever told us.

One thing I loved about the "Twilight Zone" was very often the episode would end in what felt like the middle of the story, and you'd have to make up the end of the story yourself, in your own mind.

In my mind, the scary face hospital episode ended this way: The people in the hospital overpowered the beautiful woman, anesthetized her and gave her the standard grotesque face. She'd spend the rest of her life with that face. From time to time, she'd meet someone whose face wasn't disfigured, maybe a person from another country where routine face alteration was unheard of. Or maybe she'd see a picture in a magazine of a woman with a beautiful natural face. Or one of her friends would say "Oh yes, my niece has her natural face. She never had the surgery. She's unconventional that way." Or a thoughtless stranger might say "I love having a normal face. You disfigured people don't know what you're missing."

What kind of feelings would that woman experience then? Humiliation? Rage? Grief? Shame? Those are the things I always imagined her feeling, because those were the feelings I always had whenever I had to think about what my circumcision had taken away from me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Part 8, Nurse Hawkins

The year: 1974. The location: the nurse's office at Spring Branch Junior High School, Houston, Texas.

I sat in a wing-back chair, my eyes fixed on a plastic statuette that said "World's Greatest Nurse."

The school secretary knocked twice on the door and opened it. "She's on line 2, Sheila."

"Thanks, Fran," said Nurse Hawkins. She put her paperwork aside, picked up the receiver and pushed a button at the base of the phone that made a chunky plastic sound. "Hello, is this Mrs. T? This is Nurse Hawkins from Spring Branch Junior High. How are you today?" A pause.

"Yes, yes, I'm afraid I have some difficult news. Are you sitting down? Good."

She opened a folder on her desk and reached for a pencil. "Our gym instructor got a look at Kurt this morning after P.E.. Coach Lankowski has concluded, and I agree with his findings, that your son has V.D.."

A note to younger readers: V.D., or Venereal Disease, an archaic term meaning "Sexually Transmitted Infection," remained in wide use by school nurses and health educators up through my senior year of high school.

"How did he get it?" Nurse Hawkins' gaze shifted towards the wall opposite her. "That's difficult to say, but from the looks of things, I would say he's been inappropriately pleasuring himself." Another pause. Longer this time. I heard my heartbeat.

"Yes, yes. That's the kind of pleasuring I'm talking about."

Over the internal tumult of my body's escalating panic response, I heard what sounded like my mother's voice converted into a frantic electronic squawk.

Nurse Hawkins interrupted. "Now this is no time for losing your head. There's a treatment center we can put him in. I've already made some calls, and there's space available. I'll need you to sign a waiver."

I wiped a sweaty palm on my pants leg.

"What's that? No, no, I'm afraid there's no time to pack a suitcase. The van will be picking him up in ten minutes. Be brave, dear."

That's just the way I remember it.

My needless anxiety about masturbation, I mean. Wait. You didn't think that really happened, did you?

No, I revisit that scene from my private Theater of Teen Horrors to make the point that once puberty came, it brought a wide range of troubling apprehensions in its wake, and I didn't have a lot of information at my disposal to help me separate out the reasonable concerns from the paranoid delusions.

This was 1974, OK? We didn't have the Internet. We didn't even have Oprah.

But we had books, thank goodness. One night during my freshman year in high school, I was at a sleepover at my friend James' house, and he recommended a book to me that was sort of a version of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex*, but written specifically for teenage boys. His mom, a single parent, like my own mother, had given him this book, because she figured reading a book was an easier thing for a teenage boy to do than having a series of awkward conversations with his mom about masturbation and how to put on a condom.

Boy was she right!

I took the book home and read it in one sitting. It was the only form of sex education that I'd received since that time more than two years before, watching Rusty and LuAnn and the animated penis on the big screen in Mr. Hoezel's room.

That's right. I flew into puberty blind. I was so uninformed, I worried that I could catch some kind of disease from masturbating. Any time I leaked a little seminal fluid after I urinated, I'd think "Oh crap. I broke something. That must be from all that masturbating."

Or I would have thought that, but I didn't know what "masturbate" meant until I read this book. That's how I learned that word.

That and one other word: "circumcision."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Part 7, Me and the transgenders

It occurs to me that maybe I'm not remembering the instructions right. Maybe they were more complex than I remember. I think maybe the rule was you could ask about conventional sex, and you weren't allowed to ask about kinky sex, but if you had a question about a practice so aberrant that if you asked your mom about it, she'd clutch her chest and slump over the steering wheel as she's driving your Little League team to the pizza parlor, then those questions you should bring to the Principal or Mr. Hoezel.

Maybe it was a public safety measure. I don't know.

Anyway, it doesn't matter, because every question the sixth grade boys pitched to the Principal and Mr. Hoezel fell well within passed-out-mom territory.

I remember when Mike H. raised the issue of gender-reassignment surgery, the Principal made a point of saying that he felt he had the authority to discuss that topic with us because it touched upon the "bizarre" and he could assume that we wouldn't feel comfortable talking to our parents about it.

"Artificial breasts are inserted into the man's chest," the Principal said, and he cupped his hands over his chest the way men always do when they're talking about women's breasts. "The vocal cords are adjusted. The genitals are cut away." At this point the Principal made a slashing motion with his open palm in front of his crotch. Remember he was sitting on a shelving unit, so he was elevated, and his legs were slightly spread. Looking back I'm sure the way he was sitting was a calculated gesture. "Don’t think of me as your Principal," his pose seemed to say. "Think of me as your pal, the grizzled but good-natured puberty veteran."

And you have to give him and Mr. Hoezel credit. That air of informality seemed to work. The boys opened up. They asked a lot of questions. I mean they were questions that would have made your mom careen into oncoming traffic, but they were questions. But when he made that slashing movement, he kind of lost the room a little bit. There was nervous laughter. There were some exclamations. I'm sure the girls in Mrs. Vay-ZAH-deez's room wondered in the hell was going on next door.

I might have been responsible for some of the noise myself. Not that I was a noisy kid, but I remember feeling shocked at the idea of transgender people. Shocked but fascinated. I remember making a mental note to myself: "Must find out more about guys who turn into women." (I wouldn't learn for a few more years that transgenderism could work the other way, female-to-male).

Many years after sixth grade, the Renée Richards story started appearing in the news. She sued the U.S. Open Tennis Association for the right to compete in the U.S. Open as a woman. I think she was the first transgender person I ever heard of by name and the first one I ever saw a picture of. I also remember as a teenager reading about Christine Jorgensen in People Magazine. She was the first person ever to have gender reassignment surgery. And I read some books from the library and tried to catch as many transgender-themed shows on "Donahue" as I could. (That often involved skipping school, because we didn't have VCRs or TiVo back then.)

It seemed like the story of a transgender person's life would always start out the same way: "For as long as I can remember, I felt trapped in the wrong body. I'd look in the mirror, and what I saw there didn't match my understanding of who I was. Every day I would think about how much I wanted to get out of that wrong body and start living my life in the right body."

I'd always have the same thought when I'd read or hear about that part of a transgendered person's life. I'd think "That's what being circumcised feels like."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Part 6, Question and answer

Now I don't want you to get the idea that the question-and-answer session was a total bust, and we just all sat around in Mr. Hoezel's room in awkward silence after the lights came on. No, we actually had quite a lively discussion period after the movie. Or were there two movies? Looking back, LuAnn's wardrobe and hairstyle and the NASAesque penis animation seem to have come from two different eras.

In any event, the lights came up, and as Mr. Hoezel rewound the movie (in those days a somewhat technically demanding procedure), the Principal, now perched on a built-in storage unit in the rear of the classroom, reiterated the ground rules for asking questions. I don't remember the exact words, but the gist of it was "If you have a question about the kind of ordinary garden variety sex that normal people have, then wait until you get home and ask your parents, but if you have a question about some bizarre aspect of sex that you would feel uncomfortable talking about at home, then ask away. Just bring it on. Mr. Hoezel and I are at your service."

I know. Seems like it should be the other way around, right? Were our parents cool with the idea of us learning about kinky sex from the Principal? I wouldn't think so. I would think that could lead to some heated PTA meetings. "What are you teaching the children?! We took little Timmy to Sears, and he asked the salesman where they keep the nipple clamps!"

By the same token, did any of us sixth grade boys have a clear idea of what constituted a question about normal sex? "What do Mr. and Mrs. Brady do for foreplay? Do they take off their pajamas first?" Would that have been a normal sex question? Even today I'm not so sure.

As things turned out, the point was moot. Nobody had a normal sex question. Of course not. We were 11 and 12 year old boys. We didn't want to learn about normal anything. We had an instinctive attraction to the macabre, the outlandish and grotesque. We shared a rich tradition of urban myths that began with the words "This guy caught a twenty-foot shark, and he starts cutting it open…"

I wish I could remember more of the questions, but I only remember one, and I guess it wasn't so much a question as a sort of a color commentary, like Howard Cosell used to throw out in the middle of Monday Night Football. "A lot of people don't know this about Roosevelt Grier, but he knits his own socks."

Anyway, the question. Mike H. (a troublemaker, whom I'd once taken a swing at for trying to steal my apple during lunch period) raised his hand and said "I heard about this guy who had an operation and they turned him into a woman."

All eyes turned to the Principal, and I can only assume every boy in the room was thinking the same thing I was: "There's no way he's going to tell us to go home and ask our parents about that one."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Part 5, How did that make you feel?

And not just any part of my body, right? Part of my penis.

Even though puberty hadn't started for me yet, and I didn't have a clear idea of what sex was, I knew what being a boy was. I knew that my penis was the defining characteristic that made me a boy. I'm not sure when I learned that, but certainly long before the Sixth Grade. Maybe even before I started school.

I don't think that, at age 11, I had the vocabulary or the cognitive capacity to express how I felt about finding out that part of my penis was gone. But if I did, and if you could have somehow convinced me you were the one person in the world I could talk to about it, I think I would have told you something along these lines:

Finding out that part of my penis is gone feels like finding out that part of my identity as a boy is gone. And that scares me, because my gender identity is important to me. It's part of what makes me feel good about being me. A big part. A couple years ago, when I got hit in the head with the rock, and Dr. McLinden stitched me up without anesthetic, he told me 'Hold still and be a man.' And I did. I did hold still. And when he finished stitching up my head, Dr. McLinden told me I was 'a brave little fella.'

It felt good to be a brave little fella. It felt good to be a man, even if only a temporary man for purposes of getting stitches. It feels good when I'm playing baseball, and my friends say 'Hey, there goes Willie Mays!' or 'There goes Vida Blue!' It feels good when somebody says to my dad 'Your boy looks like a football player. Look at those shoulders!'

I don't feel the same way about being a boy now. Now I feel like I'm something less than a boy and that I'm going to grow up to be something less than a man.

Now did I feel all of that right at that moment, right there in Mr. Hoezel's classroom looking at the animated penis with the detachable foreskin in the Sex Ed' movie? I'm not sure. I think I felt some of it then, and some of it I would feel later in the days and months and years to come, after I'd made it past the initial shock.

Certainly I felt enough of it at that particular moment that there was no question of participating in the question-and-answer session that the Principal had announced would follow the film. There was no way I was going to raise my hand and say. "What's this about part of my penis is gone? Does that have anything to do with that funny-looking brown stripe down there?"

That would have been suicide. Because those same boys who called you 'Willie Mays' if you batted in a run or caught a fly ball would snap into attack mode at the first sign of weakness or vulnerability. They were like a pack of carnivores out on the savanna, docile and fun-loving for the most part, but always on the lookout for a limping zebra.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Part 4, Animated feature

So I tried to pay attention to the Sex Ed’ movie, but it just seemed like a lot of useless information to me. Probably because puberty hadn’t kicked in for me yet, and I couldn’t relate to the material. I didn’t have pubic hair. I didn’t shave. I’d never had a wet dream. And if my voice was getting deeper, it was probably because, in 1972, parents didn’t know that daily exposure to second hand cigarette smoke would make your children sound like Marlene Dietrich.

So as the projector rolled along, my mind kept wandering, and I'd start daydreaming. Me and Johnny Cash, out on the Santa Fe Trail, cooking beans on an open fire as the sun set behind a weathered rock formation and the buzzards circled overhead. "We'd be eating steaks and sleeping on satin sheets," Johnny said as he stared into the endless desert, "if it wasn't for that connivin' LuAnn."

All of a sudden, this big graphic of a penis came on the screen. It looked kind of like an architectural drawing. Naturally, that got my attention. How often do you see a drawing of a penis in school? As part of the curriculum, I mean. The narrator said something like this: "Here we see a penis. This dotted line represents the urethra, the tube through which semen and urine travel." And the dotted line lit up like a scrolling marquee outside a nightclub.

The narrator continued. "The foreskin, or prepuce, is removed, exposing the glans." And the foreskin part of the drawing separated from this rest of the drawing and floated off the screen. It was like one of those documentaries about the Apollo program where they show you how the lunar module detaches, and the rest of the spaceship stays in orbit.

"Removed?" I thought. "What does that mean 'removed'? Removed from my body removed? Or was that just some kind of crazy special effect, like that thing that looks like a nightclub marquee?"

I flashed back to conversations I'd had with my two friends, John and Michael. "What happened to your penis?" "What happened to the cover?" "Can't you make the cover stay down?"

I thought about what their penises looked like. I thought about what my penis looked like.

Holy Crap! My friends were right. Something did happen to my penis. But what exactly? How did part of my penis disappear? Who removed it?



Is this something that happens to everybody? Obviously not, since it never happened to John, and it never happened to Michael. Why did it happen to me? Was there something wrong with my penis? Is that why somebody took part of it away? Is there something wrong with me?

Why was part of my body gone?

The movie didn't say. And I wasn't about to ask Mr. Hoezel or the Principal. Not in a room full of sixth-grade boys anyway. I wasn't sure if that was even one of the questions you were allowed to ask in the classroom, or was that one of the questions you had to go home and ask your parents?

Maybe if it was just me and Johnny Cash out there by the campfire, I could work up the nerve to ask him. He always seemed like the kind of guy you could talk to about anything.

But no. Probably not. Even if it was just me and Johnny Cash, I think I would have felt the same way I felt there in that classroom, the same way I would feel for many years. Too frightened and too embarrassed and too ashamed to ask anybody why part of my body had been taken away from me.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Part 3, Rusty and LuAnn

"Rusty has noticed some changes going on in his life. Now instead of looking for amphibians and oddly-shaped rocks on his way to school, it's LuAnn who catches his eye."

The year is 1972. I’m watching my first ever Sex Ed’ film in Mr. Hoezel’s classroom with my fellow sixth-grade boys.

We see Rusty getting off the school bus. He turns to stage left and breaks into a big smile like he just found out they're handing out free root beer floats in the cafeteria. The camera cuts to a group of girls, their natural feminine forms so obscured by stiff wool and hairspray, it's difficult to discern what exactly has Rusty so excited.

I don't remember that Rusty and LuAnn interacted at all. I don't think they did. Maybe that would have been too controversial. Remember this is back in the days when Mr. and Mrs. Brady had only recently broken down television's sleeping-in-the-same-bed-together barrier. And they were married and wearing pajamas. Plus they didn't sleep so much as read and talk things over.

Anyway, back to Rusty and LuAnn. LuAnn wanders off clutching her books to her chest, and that's the last you see of her. After school, Rusty meets up with an older boy, and the two of them go visit a middle-aged man who might have been a medical doctor. I don't remember. I'm not sure that he had any professional credentials at all, but he wore a tie and smoked a pipe, and he had a very confident way of speaking, kind of like Barry Goldwater, or the Professor on "Gilligan's Island."

Now the first point this Barry Goldwater Professor guy wants to impress upon Rusty is that his voice has started changing, and it's going to keep on changing in the months and years to come. He tells Rusty to say "aaaaah." The way you say "aaaaah" at the doctor's office. Then he tells the older boy to say "aaaaah." Then Professor Goldwater says "aaaaah."

"Testosterone causes your voice to change," explains Professor Goldwater, "and it will bring about other changes in your body as well."

I think that's where I started losing interest. Maybe if the Professor had had a deeper voice, I would have found him more compelling. I remember thinking "That guy's voice isn't so deep. He sounds like a wimp. You know who has a deep voice? Johnny Cash."

In my mind's ear, I heard Johnny Cash's weathered baritone reflecting on life’s bitter realities: "I was a young fella. Not much bigger'n you. I walked into a watering hole outside Dodge City. Met a girl named LuAnn. She broke a bottle over my head and stole my horse."

Wet dreams, pubic hair, deodorant. Your penis gets bigger. Girls develop breasts. Boys start shaving. Some of the information got through to me, but most of it seemed pointless. It was like a lot of subjects in school. It was like De Soto discovering the Mississippi. Why did I need to know how De Soto discovered the Mississippi? He discovered it. It's there. Why all the details? Can we just move on now?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Part 2, Mr. Hoezel

To recap: I was born in an American metropolis in 1960, the year infant circumcision rates reached their peak in the United States. Circumcision was especially favored at the time by American-born urban whites, so statistically speaking, I had virtually no chance of leaving the maternity ward in one piece.

And in fact I did not. As far as I know, my foreskin had become medical waste by the time I was a few hours old.

At the age of nine or ten, I had a conversation, actually a series of conversations, with my two best friends, John and Michael, about why my penis didn't look like theirs. Part 1 gives an idea of the form those conversations took. I think it's obvious that it's a fictionalized account, but it's an account very much based on real people and real events in my life.

I think this next part of the story won't require the same level of artistic license because it covers a shorter time period, and my memory of the incident is clearer. You will forgive me, however, if I invent a little 1960s-era health film narration.

This happened towards the end of the school year when I was in the sixth grade, so this would have been springtime 1972. I was 11 years old. Now in those days sixth grade was still elementary school. You stayed in the same room all day with the same teacher. My teacher was Mr. Hoezel. He was prematurely grey, and he wore stretch slacks and a cardigan sweater every day. He was one of those people whom you couldn't possibly picture naked.

There was another sixth grade class next door, and the teacher in that room was Mrs. Vay-ZAH-deez.

OK, that's not really how you spelled her name, but that's how you pronounced it. I have no idea how you spelled her name or whether it was in fact renderable in the Roman alphabet.

Now on this particular day in question, all us sixth graders came back from our lunch period, and the blinds had been drawn in Mr. Hoezel's room, so we knew that we were going to see a movie. Had the nature of the movie been announced to us beforehand? I don't remember. Sometimes we knew we were going to see a movie and sometimes not. Mr. Hoezel had a way of springing anti-drug propaganda on us without warning.

But anyway, a movie was always good news. Especially an anti-drug movie. What kid wouldn't happily put the books aside for twenty minutes and watch a hippy chick running away from a screaming hot dog? That stuff was better than the "Twighlight Zone" sometimes.

In any event, it soon became clear that today's program would not feature the usual hallucinogenic horror short or heart-stirring documentary on the Oregon Trail. No, we were about to view something of such a delicate and personal nature it required a measure heretofore unprecedented in my entire educational career. To view this movie, we would need to be segregated by gender.

The announcement was made, and all the girls in my classroom stood up and filed into to Mrs. Vay-ZAH-deez's room. Likewise all the boys from Mrs. Vay-ZAH-deez's room filed into Mr. Hoezel's classroom.

Then no less a personage than the Principal himself arrived on the scene and told us that we were going to watch a movie about … what? Sexuality? Reproduction? Getting busy? I don't remember what words he used. Whatever they were, they meant nothing to me. I had no idea what sexuality was. I had only recently heard vague rumors from my peers about the sex act, and frankly I was skeptical. It was inconceivable to me that such a behavior could be so widely practiced that there could be an educational film about it.

So I couldn't make heads or tails of what the Principal was talking about up there. Instead of "sexuality," he might as well have used the word "zomplemanetry." Would have meant as much to me.

Then he got to the part where he told us what to do if we had questions. If we had questions, he said, after we've watched the movie, if it was a question about something normal, we should wait until we get home and ask our parents.

Got that? If it's some routine, pedestrian question about zomplemanetry, go home and ask Mom and Dad. However, if you have a question about some "bizarre" aspect of zomplemanetry…

At this point I would like to make what I consider a worthwhile digression. I have a specific recollection that he used the word "bizarre." That's because I wasn't exactly clear on the difference between "bizarre," the adjective, and "bazaar," the Persian-derived noun, which evoked in my 11-year-old mind a set of images that, while colorful and delightful, shed no light whatsoever on the topic at hand.

If you have a question about something "bizarre," instructed the Principal, you may bring your question to Mr. Hoezel or me.

"What?" thought 11-year-old Kurt. "I should direct questions about snake charmers and veiled dancing girls to my teacher? Because my Mom will freak out? Who knew?"

So as I sat there in my slouch-resistant one-piece school desk without so much as the tiniest glimmer of a notion in my mind of what to expect, the lights dimmed, and the projector whirred to life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Part 1, What happened?

My first hint that something was missing came about age nine or ten. Some grown up or another had given my friend John a new Slip 'N Slide for his birthday. He and I and our friend Michael were changing into our swimsuits in John's bedroom preparatory to slipping and sliding on this most coveted Wham-O product when one or the other of them (I forget which one.) said to me "What happened to your penis?"

OK, he probably didn't say "penis," but you get the idea.

Now, I'd known John and Michael since my family moved to the suburbs when I was three or four, and we'd all seen each other naked before, but I guess we'd never paid much attention to one another's genitals up to this point. A penis was just something you peed with, and as for your scrotum, who knew what that was even for? Just seemed like an inconvenience, especially when you were riding a bike or fighting. (Or Slip 'n Sliding as we would come to discover.)

I bent forward and looked down. "What do you mean what happened to my penis? It looks just like it always does."

"What happened to the cover?" John-or-Michael said.

"The what?" I said. I straightened up and looked at John. Then I looked at Michael. And I don't mean in the eye.

Well, whaddya know? My penis looked like a little mushroom with a little brown stripe around it. And their penises looked like...

Well, I didn't know it then, but their penises looked like penises. Normal, healthy penises with all the original parts.

"You know what it is?" said John-or-Michael. "It's because Kurt's American, and we're German."

Now this was a delicate subject in our circle. "I'm as German as anybody," I said. I seem to remember giving Michael an accusatory glance. "Besides, you were born in America," I said.

"Yeah, but my mom and dad are from Berlin," Michael said. "Isn't your Dad Mexican?"

"What does that have to do with my penis?" I said.

They both shrugged.

"Look," I said, "I can make my penis look just like yours. It stretches. It's like Gumby."

I pulled down the loose skin on my shaft so that it covered the tip of my penis and formed a kind of a loose pucker.

"See?" I said. "Can we go Slip 'n Slide now?"

"Put on your trunks," said John-or-Michael. "Hey, your cover's rolling back. Can't you make it stay down?"

I shrugged. "Why would I want it to stay down?"

It would take me a few years to figure out the answer to that question.