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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Part 23, Saying it

Life as I know it now: groggy at 7:45pm.
I consider it my great good fortune to have started college right around the time American retailers began experimenting with generic products.  Remember generic products?  The A&P near my college campus in Chicago had a whole generic aisle.  You'd walk down the aisle and everything was white cartons or white cans or just clear plastic wrap with big black letters on it, all caps:









Oh boy, generic products were a cash-strapped college student's best friend.  You could save a fortune buying that stuff.  You don't realize how much of your grocery bill goes to pay for all that fancy packaging and commercials on the TV with the animated bumblebees and young people eating graham crackers on a spotless beach.  You're paying for all that psychological manipulation you know.

So anyway, one day around the beginning of my sophomore year, I'm in the beer section with my buddy B., and he says "I don't believe it.  Is that what I think it is?  Right on!"

And he pulls out a six pack of white aluminum cans, and on each can is printed in big black letters "BEER."

All that year, me and B. drank generic beer from the A&P.  We didn't call it generic beer.  We called it "BEER," just like the label said.  "BEER," not "beer."  You had to say it in a way that indicated that it was all caps.  "We need 37 more cents, so we can buy BEER.  Did you check under the sofa cushions?"

I can't tell you how many times we threw together a Saturday dinner of hot dogs and Rice-A-Roni and BEER.  I'd probably die if I treated my body like that now, but at 19, I was pretty indestructible.  I could eat hot dogs and Rice-A-Roni every weekend, and sit up until 3am drinking BEER and shooting the breeze with B.

One such weekend, probably pretty close to 3am, B. and I were sitting on the couch talking about what we thought our lives would look like in the distant future, after we grew up and graduated, when college and Chicago would be nothing but a lot of hazy, BEER-scented memories.  What kind of jobs would we have?  Where would we live?  What about marriage?  What about children?

I remember thinking to myself, "Should I say it?  Do I really want to say it?  Will I sound like a lunatic?  Or will B. understand?  Oh hell, now your heart rate's going up.  Hurry up and get it out before you hyperventilate.  Say it.  Say it!"

I took a deep breath and I said, "You know something, if I ever had a son, I would never have him circumcised."

B. got this look on his face that I don't know how to describe it, but I'm sure you've seen this look before.  Or you've made it before.  You know the look you make when your friend tells you "I'm getting a divorce."  And you make that look that says "Please stand by.  My cognitive functioning will return shortly."  That's the look I'm talking about.  I'm pretty sure it's a hard-wired human behavior.

So B. made that look, and then he smiled, clunked his BEER can against my BEER can and, with an exclamation that included both the noun and present participle forms of the English language's most socially unacceptable word, indicated his unqualified concurrence with my opinion.

Then B. said to me "You know the reason we're all circumcised, right?"

"Reason?" I thought.  "There's a reason?!"

Now that I think of it, I probably gave him that funny look too.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Part 22, Shame

kurt_t with muscle car, 1977
Did I mention that the nerd table was all male?  I should have.

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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Part 21, Nerds

kurt_t, not always this cool.
I graduated from Spring Branch Senior High School in 1978, and the school closed in 1983.  As far as I know, our alumni association still sponsors football games. 

Let me tell you something about that.  If you go to a football game where one team consists of guys who graduated high school no later than 1983, that game is going to move kind of slow.  You're going to have plenty of opportunity to move around and mingle and catch up with your friends.

It was a muggy Texas evening in August 2003.  Down on the field at Tully Stadium, the Spring Branch Alumni Bears faced our much sprier arch rival, the Memorial Alumni Mustangs.  I was heading to the snack bar during what felt like the eighteenth timeout of the first quarter, when a blonde in a drill team outfit waved at me so hard her cowboy hat fell off.

"Kurt!" she said.  "Is that you?  Is that really you?!  Git over here!  I got somebody I want you to meet!"

It was my old pal Cindy.  I hadn't seen her since graduation, 25 years before.  The somebody she wanted to meet was her teenager daughter.

"How did you know my mom?" the girl asked me.  "Did you play football?"

Logical assumption.  I'm a big guy, and Cindy knew all the football players because she was on the drill team.  That's why she was there in the stands with the rest of the Bruin Brigade, wearing a blue and white miniskirt and tasseled boots.

"No," I said.  "I didn't play football.  I was a nerd."

Honestly, it was like telling somebody you'd been to Woodstock. 

When did the young people develop this fascination with nerds?  Was the Internet responsible for that?  Or Emo music?  Or Jerry Seinfeld's show?  What turned the corner for nerds?  I never figured it out.

Anyway, when I was in school there was no nerd mystique.  There was no glory in it.  Being a nerd just meant that every day at lunch time you sat at the nerd table in the cafeteria with your nerd peers, who spent a lot of time reading science fiction and discussing political theory.

We were an intellectually curious group.  I suppose that's what set us apart more than anything, our enthusiasm for the free exchange of ideas, all sorts of ideas.  No idea was too outlandish or far fetched for frank and thoughtful consideration.  The nerd clique welcomed Ayn Rand libertarians and crypto-monarchists.  It embraced advocates for space colonization and believers in ancient astronauts and pyramid power.  I think by senior year, the nerd table had given rise to at least five mutually conflicting theories about the ultimate disposition of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

You would think that in such an atmosphere I might have felt comfortable talking to one or more of my nerd friends about my frustration and bewilderment over America's weird cultural attachment to circumcision.  I often wondered if anybody else felt the same way I did.  Why not just ask around?

Well, I kind of did.  Once.  Almost.

Remember Alex Haley wrote a book called Roots that traced his ancestry back to a West African slave named Kunta Kinte?  And remember they turned the book into a miniseries on TV?  That miniseries came out in 1977, during my senior year in high school.

Well, "Roots" was probably the most popular thing that had ever been on TV since Ed Sullivan booked the Beatles.  I mean "Roots" was huge.  Everybody watched it.  White, people, black people.  Everybody watched "Roots."  And that included everybody at Spring Branch High.  Didn't matter if you were a cheerleader or a football player or a nerd.  Didn't matter if you were in the mime troupe or the science club or the Future Farmers of America, you watched "Roots."  It was definitely a cross-clique phenomenon.

It must have been episode one or two where a teenage Kunta Kinte and his friends went through a circumcision ceremony in Africa.  Nothing graphic.  You just see a big dude holding a cutting implement with two blades sticking out of it, and then LeVar Burton grimaces, and half a minute later he's saying something to his buddy like "Didn't hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would."

Well, that scene flooded my mind with new information.  For one thing, I had no idea that any culture practiced circumcision aside from Jews and Americans.  For that matter, it had never occurred to me that non-white people had foreskins.

I know.  Pretty naive, wasn't I?  But remember the first explanation my friends had offered for my missing foreskin?  I wasn't German.  Or I wasn't German enough at any rate.

I think without really thinking about it very deeply, I made a vague connection in my mind between foreskins and European people, just as I made a connection between circumcision and Jewish people and circumcision and white American people.

Who was going to teach me that those connections were oversimplified and imprecise?  My Health teacher?  No.  Health class was mandatory in those days, unless your parents objected on moral or religious grounds, but nobody ever said a thing in Health class about foreskins.  Even when we learned about condoms, nobody told us "If you have a foreskin, be sure to retract it before you put this thing on."

No, I guess if you had a foreskin, you were expected to figure that out on your own.  Health class proceeded as if foreskins didn't exist, as did Biology class, as did History class, as did the entire culture I lived in.

But then right there on national TV in front of millions, "Roots" broke America's conspiracy of silence about foreskins and circumcision.

Well, I decided if Roots could break the conspiracy of silence, I could break the conspiracy of silence.

And what better place to break it than at that most enlightened and cosmopolitan of forums, the nerd table?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Part 20, A Scientific breakthrough

kurt_t, teen cancer researcher
The important thing is my extra credit research paper strategy worked.  Mr. Hodges bumped my grade in Biology up to a B with a wink and a nod and the unspoken understanding that I would not pursue a career in health care or veterinary medicine.

Well, no, I guess that's not the important thing.  The important thing is my "research" into cancer taught me something new about circumcision, something that made me think that having an unnatural-looking, scarred penis might have its advantages after all.

Women with circumcised husbands, I learned, had lower rates of cervical cancer.

Now, at what point in my research I unearthed this critical finding I don't remember.  Maybe it was in that pamphlet I found in the booth at the Dairy Queen, or maybe I read it in Women's Day or Dear Abby's column.

Doesn't matter.  What mattered was now I had a reason for being circumcised, and a reason was something you could bargain with.  "Yes, part of my penis is missing," went the bargaining logic in my teenage head, "but the part that's still there won't give you cancer."

Looking back, I think bargaining became my preferred grief mode pretty early on in life.  When my parents split up, my mom and I moved out of a house in the neighborhood where all my friends lived to a walk-up apartment across the street from my elementary school.  "I won't have to walk as far to school," I told myself.  "Maybe I can sleep in."

Now, I knew that, in all likelihood, the suspected carcinogenic properties of the human foreskin had nothing to do with why I'd been circumcised.  By the time I was a junior in high school, I'd already figured out that infant circumcision was just one of those inexplicable absurdities of mid-century American culture, like green eye shadow, or putting a can of cream of mushroom soup in the lasagna.

But that wasn't important.  Knowing that my circumcision had resulted from a mass cultural delusion didn't figure into the bargain.  Or maybe it figured into the bargain, but I could balance out that side of the bargain with this new information, this welcome assurance that my penis was healthful and wholesome like honey-sweetened herbal tea, not poisonous and deadly like an artificially colored diet cola.

It didn't matter that my Biology class crush on a boy with sandy blond hair and dimples and an accent like Conway Twitty made it clear to me that I was about as likely to give somebody cervical cancer as I was to win an NIH grant to study the anti-oxidant properties of Dairy Queen fruit toppings. 

No.  The only thing that mattered was, after all these years, I finally had something to bargain with, something that made me feel like maybe spending my life in a disfigured body wasn't quite the tragedy I'd made it out to be.

That's how I felt for a while anyway.

Until I got some more information.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Part 19, Research

My dog Ladybug, tick magnet.
I hesitate to bring up this regrettable episode from Biology class, but I'm afraid that its significance to subsequent events demands its inclusion.

I was a confused, desperate teenager.  Please don't judge me.

Now this must have happened in my junior year.  I've never understood why I floundered as I did in Biology.  Seems like I always had a head for science, as long as there wasn't too much math involved.  Astronomy, forget it, but Biology, that seemed a lot less demanding in that regard.  Learn the parts of a cell.  Remember what a pituitary gland does.  You didn't need a calculator for any of that stuff.

Maybe it was too hands on for me.  I remember having to dissect a frog, and once I had to prick a classmate's thumb with a little aluminum device that looked like the World's Worst Crackerjack Prize.

I'm not a real hands on guy when it comes to biology. I had to take a tick out of my dog once.  The vet had to walk me through it on the speaker phone.

Anyway, I was straddling a C-plus and a B-minus in Biology, and I knew I had to act fast.  Extra credit.  That was my only hope.

The Biology teacher was Mr. Hodges, a Vietnam vet who always reminded me of Colonel Blake in "M*A*S*H."  I mean the movie, not the TV show.  The movie Colonel Blake always seemed to have a more fatalistic outlook.

Mr. Hodges had a standing offer with regard to extra credit.  Any time you wanted to turn in a research paper for extra credit, you just had to give it to Mr. Hodges, and he'd give you a grade for it.

So I needed to write a research paper, but on what topic?  Well, obviously something that required an absolute minimum of research.

Remember this is in the days before Google.  Research was a dreary, time-consuming process that involved something called the Reader's Guide, a tedious little periodical that listed newspaper and magazine articles by subject.  I dreaded the Reader's Guide the way you dread filing your taxes, the way you dread traffic school or buying clothes for your 12-year-old.   I avoided it at all costs.

What I needed to do, I decided, was to find a research topic that had generated a sufficient level of popular discourse that it wouldn't require a lot of tiresome rooting around in the Reader's Guide.  I needed a topic that would allow me to pull data straight out of the current issue of Time or Good Housekeeping.

If you were around in the '70s, you can probably guess the topic I chose.  Total no-brainer, right?  Right.

If you were a lazy kid in the '70s with a research project to write, cancer was your best friend.  Cancer was everywhere in the news.  Seems like every week, they were finding something new that gave you cancer.

And no wonder.  We lived our lives awash in a chemical stew.  We wore clothes that looked like they came out of an injection mold at the DuPont factory.  People shampooed their shag carpeting with a noxious foam that came out of a spray can.  The stuff we put on our hair left a hole in the ozone layer that's still up there.

I doubt I spent more than 35 minutes gathering up source material for my extra credit research paper on cancer.  I found magazine articles on saccharin and Red Dye Number 2.  I liberally plagiarized a pamphlet called something like "The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer."  It was a little 8 by 11 sheet folded into thirds, like the Jews for Jesus give you.  I don't remember where I found it.  Could have been the school library or the nurse's office, or somebody could have left it in a booth at the Dairy Queen.

In any event, I typed up my research findings, using both sides of a piece of lined binder paper.  I remember the final draft being single-spaced, but that could be a psychological defense mechanism on my part.

I went to class and handed in my research paper to Mr. Hodges.  He held it in his hand for a moment and looked at it as if he were contemplating every foolhardy decision that had brought him to this point in his life.

Then he waved the paper at the class and said "You people know this sort of thing isn't going to fly when you get to college, right?"

Monday, July 11, 2011

Part 18, A Belief system

My mom was the kind of mom other teenagers dreamed about.  She wore loud pants suits, played poker and listened to the Ohio Players.  She had gentlemen friends with foreign accents.  She attended stock car races and demolition derbies with much enthusiasm.  She fixed herself a Martini every day when she got home from work, and she'd watch "Hawaii 5-0" in high heels and an evening dress because she wanted to look good for Jack Lord.

Once on Christmas morning, she scared off a small group of evangelists by answering the doorbell in a chiffon nightie with a Bloody Mary in her spare hand.

All my friends said the same thing about my mom: "I feel like I can talk to her about anything."

And I'd think to myself, "You know something, I wish you wouldn't."

Because she was my mom, right?  Maybe to you she's a hardboiled blonde smoking a Fantasia with her feet on the coffee table, but to me, she's my mom.  Please observe all appropriate social boundaries.  Thank you.

Well, that was a lost cause.  Especially when it came to Buster.  Buster loved my mom.  She fascinated him.  I think until he met my mom, he had no idea such moms existed.

And he would talk to her about anything.  I mean anything.  All sorts of topics that no teenager would broach with any adult, except maybe in the context of a late night radio call-in show, he would sit there in the living room talking about it with my mom.

"My cousin says if you get gonorrhea, it burns when you pee.  Is that true?"

"Why do people use ribbed condoms?"

"How do lesbians have sex?"

"What is a multiple orgasm?"

"What would you do if Kurt was gay?  What if he had a boyfriend?  Would it make you uncomfortable?  Would you picture them having sex?"

He talked to her too about all those socially marginal people in his extended family and his anxieties about facing a bleak, genetically predetermined future.  One time he started telling the story I'd heard so many times before about the crazy uncle, the one who shot at male dogs' genitals.

"He's going to leave out the part about his uncle's foreskin," I thought to myself.  "He's not going to talk to my mom about foreskin.  Even Buster has his limits."

I was wrong.

"And you know what?" Buster said.  "He was never circumcised."

My mom didn't even pause to take a breath or blink.  She just said "No, but I bet you are, aren't you?"  She said it in that reassuring tone that moms use, like Myrna Loy talking to a parakeet.

Then the unthinkable happened.  Buster turned red and made a sound like a vacuum cleaner that you just sucked up a wet sponge into.  That's what he used to when he was embarrassed.  Apparently his own penis was something beyond the boundaries of what he felt comfortable discussing with my mom.  As far as I know, it's the only thing that was.

I don't remember what happened after that.  Probably Buster and I went to the Dairy Queen.  We were always going to the Dairy Queen.  There wasn't much else to do in our neighborhood, and we weren't old enough to drive yet.  And I had to take him somewhere.  I couldn't leave him there in my mother's living room sounding like a stopped up vacuum cleaner.

That was the first time either of my parents, or any adult for that matter, ever said a word to me about circumcision, and I guess it wasn't really to me, was it?  It was to Buster.  And what my mother said to Buster was the first hint I had that I lived in a culture that had built a belief system around circumcision.  And part of that belief system, I discerned, was that only poor, uncouth bumpkins like Buster's uncle had foreskins.  Enlightened, modern, educated men were circumcised.  Circumcision was a mark of status and sophistication.

If I hadn't grown up around German immigrants, I suppose that belief system might have made sense to me.  At least when I was a teenager.  Or maybe until I met my first foreign exchange student.  Or took a moment to think about how ludicrous it was to believe that losing part of my penis made me a classier person.

As things turned out, the belief system didn't make sense to me at all, not from the first moment I knew it existed.  And the more I learned about it, the less sense it made.  But I played along with it, the way young people do.

Did your family ever have a ludicrous belief system you played along with?  I think most families do.  It's easy to play along with it, isn't it?  All you have to do is keep your mouth shut.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Part 17, The Cult

A few weeks ago, I was walking back to the office with Vlad after lunch, and he said to me, "Circumcision is kind of a cult, huh?"

"A cult?" I said. "How is it a cult?"

He said
The way nobody talks about it.  It's very cultish.  It's like Fight Club.  "The First Rule of Circumcision is 'Nobody talks about circumcision.'"

I had to agree with him.  I think I spent most of my life in that cult.

We moved to Texas right before my 13th birthday, my mom and I.  She had custody of me during the school year, and her job transferred her to Houston, so right in the middle of the school year, in the 8th grade, I had to change schools.

It wasn't a difficult transition for me.  I've always had an easy time making friends, and one of the first friends I ever made in Houston was a guy in the 7th grade named Buster.

That's not an alias.  Or if it is an alias, it's not an alias that I made up.  That's really what his family called him.  Buster.  Like Buster Keaton.

Now, Buster, though he was a year behind me academically, was a year older than I was.  Exactly a year older.  We had the same birthday.  An unlikely set of coincidences had brought about this anomalous situation.  Way back in 1965, I had insisted on starting kindergarten a year ahead of schedule, because I wanted to go to school with my best friend John, who was a few months older than I was.  Buster started kindergarten on schedule at age five, but somewhere along the way he had to repeat a grade.

Buster had difficulties academically.  He was self-conscious about that.  He was self-conscious about a lot of things.

Buster lived with his maternal grandmother in the same sprawling apartment complex where my mom and I lived.  He rarely had any contact with his mother, and he'd never met his father.  I don't think he knew who his father was.

He'd met a lot of his mother's relatives, though, who were scattered all over East Texas.  A fair number of these people were what I would refer to now as "the socially marginal," people who didn't have steady jobs or who lived on welfare or disability, people with addiction problems.

After I got to know Buster a little better, he confided in me that he feared that the laws of genetics would eventually pull him into the same world of poverty, addiction and mental illness that he saw so many of his relatives living in.  He would talk about this fear with me over and over again.  "It's embrained in my head," he would say.

And every time he talked about this fear of his, he would mention an uncle, who lived near Austin and who had a long history of animal cruelty.  This uncle would shoot stray dogs, only male dogs, aiming for their genitals.

I think the reason his uncle stood out as the worst of a bad bunch was that Buster loved animals.  I mean I know everybody loves animals, but Buster really loved animals.  He had a dog and a gerbil and a Guinea pig and a turtle.  Twice I can remember he found little baby birds on the ground.  I mean little tiny birds with no feathers or anything.  And he fed the little birds with an eye dropper and kept them warm somehow.  One of the birds grew up and flew away.  One died, and we gave it a little burial service in a field next to the Scheppe's Dairy yard on Silber Road.

I wish I could remember more about the story of the dog shooting uncle.  Lord knows I heard it enough times.  Whatever the rest of the story was, it left me with the impression that this uncle was clearly mentally ill and dangerous.  I didn't know what a sociopath was then, but in retrospect I think that's probably what Buster's uncle was, a sociopath.

Anyway, all I remember of the story is the part about shooting male dogs' genitals, and the part that Buster no doubt considered the thrilling surprise ending.  "And you know what?" Buster would say.  "He was never circumcised."

The first time Buster told me that story was the first time I ever heard someone say "circumcised."  I'd only ever read that word before, never heard it spoken.

When I heard Buster say that word, I felt every emotion that I'd ever felt about my circumcision.  Every one of them, all at once.  I felt my heart rate go up.  I felt myself breathing harder.  I felt the adrenaline tingle in my shoulders.

There was so much I wanted to say to Buster about his anxieties and my own.  I wanted to say, "Buster, plenty of men have foreskins.  Foreskins have nothing to do with why your uncle went crazy.  Going crazy is a completely separate phenomenon.  You know what makes me crazy?  Not having a foreskin.  Being circumcised makes me feel like I'm gong crazy with rage and sorrow and shame."

I couldn't bring myself to say any of that, though.  I couldn't get the words past that storm of emotion going on inside of me.  So I didn't say anything.  Not the first time he told the story, not the second time or the tenth time or however many times he told it.  I'd just sit there and wait for Buster to change the subject.

I belonged to the cult.  I didn't know I belonged to the cult, but I belonged to the cult.  And I followed the rules.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Part 16, Conspiracy of silence

I remember years ago reading in the newspaper about how failing to speak frankly with the people around you could put you at risk for all kinds of health problems, heart disease, stroke, migraines, all sorts of things.

I said to myself, "This would explain why my dad's always been so healthy."

It's true. My dad holds back nothing. Nothing. My dad could teach classes at your local wellness center about How to Hold Nothing Back.

My parents split up when I was about six or seven, and my dad remarried many years later. That's how I ended up with a younger sister. Much younger. "Freakishly younger," as she likes to say. She was born when I was 23.

The first time I ever met my little sister was December, 1984. She was eight months old. I feel foolish admitting this now, but I was nervous about being around a baby. I'd never spent much time around babies. I'd never fed a baby. I'd never changed a diaper.

"You better study up before you meet that baby," I said to myself. I went to my local bookstore and picked up a copy of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care. Yes, that Dr. Spock. The one all the parents read when I was a baby.

I read the whole book, cover to cover. Whatever that baby threw at me, I was going to be ready for it.

Even though it obviously wasn't relevant to my little sister, I was curious what Dr. Spock had to say about circumcision. Not much, as I recall. Here's what I remember as the gist of the circumcision passage: "In the first umpteen editions of this book, I recommended circumcision for boys. Now I don't believe there's any medical need for circumcision, so circumcise or don't. Up to you."

I wanted to slap Dr. Spock. I mean not literally slap him, the guy was about 92 years old at the time, but I was appalled at Dr. Spock's approach to circumcision. He made it sound like the decision to alter your child's genitals required about as much thought as picking out wallpaper for your kitchen.

In any event, I found the book informative overall, and I flew out to California, confident in my new found baby knowledge.

I have a large, extended family on my dad's side, lots of aunts and uncles and second cousins and that sort of thing. These people hadn't seen me for a while, so naturally, my dad and his new wife scheduled a family get together to coincide with my visit.

I had a great time with all the relatives. We made a gingerbread house. We put some Christmas music on the turntable. I sat under the Christmas tree making little castles with colored blocks. Then my little sister would knock them over. Then I'd make another castle.

I've found, as a rule, in any social gathering where a baby is present, the conversation will inevitably turn to child rearing, and this social gathering was no exception to that rule. At one point my dad started reflecting on the dramatic shifts in professional opinion that had occurred in the field of pediatrics since I'd been born.

"We used to put powder on the baby. Now they tell you don't put powder on the baby. We used to put lotion on the baby. Now they tell you don't put lotion on the baby. They used to tell you don't ever sleep in the bed with your baby. Let the baby take a nap all alone in the crib. Now they tell you lie down in the bed with the baby. It helps with the bonding. All these baby experts, they can't make up their minds about anything. They changed the rules for everything. Every rule you can think of, they changed it."

Then he held out his arm at me like Ed Sullivan introducing a troupe of Chinese plate spinners, and in a tone you would use if you were announcing a race horse he said "Circumcision!"

Nat King Cole glided into the second verse of "Little Town of Bethlehem" as I gazed out at a wide circle of speechless faces.

Of course, I was used to my dad, and I knew if I just sat quietly, somebody would ask for a recipe or offer to freshen Grandma's highball, and then a lively chatter would rise up to fill the awkward void.

That was the only time in my life my dad ever mentioned circumcision in my presence. Looking back, I'd say once was enough.

No, I mean that seriously. It was enough. He got his point across. He always does. He might trample over a few cherished social boundaries in the process, but my dad will always get his point across.

And I would bet that my dad's one-word indictment of circumcision was more than most dads of his era ever uttered on the subject. I think most parents of the Dr. Spock Age understood that belonging to American circumcision culture meant participating in a vast conspiracy of silence. It meant living in a Twilight Zone, where disfigurement seemed so normal nobody felt any need to talk about it. The less said the better. No need to cause any undue anxiety.

Well, if my dad taught me nothing else, he taught me that that kind of silence isn't good for your health.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Part 15, Marvin Gardens

Do you remember a move called "All That Jazz"?  Roy Scheider plays this chain-smoking, sexually compulsive choreographer?  The movie keeps cutting to a stand up comedian doing a routine about the Five Stages of Grief.  Then it cuts to Roy Scheider slowly dying of heart disease.  Then a dance number.  Then more Roy Scheider.  Then more Five Stages of Grief comedy routine.

It all seemed very avante garde at the time.

I think that was the first time I ever heard of the Five Stages of Grief.  I couldn't figure out if the movie was trying to make the point that the Five Stages of Grief were a complete crock.  I know a lot of people think that.

I suppose the Five Stages of Grief are a crock if you think of them as something you experience the way Roy Scheider's character did in the movie, one tidy little stage at a time.  Stage 1, dance number, joke.  Progress to Stage 2.

In my experience, that's not how grief works.  In my experience grief is more like a game of Monopoly.  It's like a big game board, and you keep going around and around the board, and each time you pass Go, you never know what part of grief you're going to land on.  You might land on Anger.  You might land on Denial.  You might keep landing on Depression over and over again.

And you never know how long the game is going to last.

Me, I'm a bargainer.  I think Bargaining is my Marvin Gardens.  (I read in Sidney Harris' column years ago that Marvin Gardens is statistically speaking the likeliest Monopoly square to land on.  If you are a statistician, I would ask that you refrain from questioning this pillar of my personal belief system.)

When my cat died last year, I talked to every person I ever knew who ever had a cat who died.  I wanted to know all about their dead cats.  How old was the cat?  How sick was the cat?  Was the cat in pain before he died?  Did he go peacefully?  How peacefully?

I wasn't aware of what I was doing at the time, but, now looking back a year later, I see that I was bargaining.  "Let's see, Darlene's cat died at the animal hospital at age 11.  My cat died at home at age 16.  If I add the extra five years, plus the dying-at-home bonus…   Oh yes, that gives me a much clearer idea of how much loss I've experienced. I'm getting a real handle on how bad I should feel."

Now that all sounds really irrational, doesn't it?  Of course it does.  But that's what grief is.  It's irrationality used as a painkiller.  Bargaining kills some of your pain by giving you the illusion of control.  Maybe the only thing you're in control of is knowing how miserable you should feel, but that feels better than not being in control of anything.  That feels better than facing your own powerlessness over death.

Death.  That's what my circumcision always felt like to me, a kind of death, especially when I found out that circumcision changed the way I experienced sex.  My circumcision was a death of part of my body and a loss of part of my life, a loss that I had no power over because it happened at a time in my life when I had no power over anything.  It happened when I was a helpless six-pound person who couldn’t say "Hey, what are you doing with that scalpel?  Let's talk this over."

I spent years, decades really, going around the Monopoly board, grieving that loss, landing on Bargaining over and over again.   I landed on the other squares too sometimes, Anger, Denial, Depression. 

What about Acceptance?  Did I ever get to Acceptance?  Did the game ever end?

If Acceptance means being at peace with being circumcised, then no, I guess the game never ended.  I still look at my body in the mirror every day of my life and feel the loss.  I think about the part of me that died.

I don't think that's what Acceptance means, though.  I think Acceptance means getting back to the realm of reality and rationality.  I think Acceptance means you win or you lose, and then you pick up the pieces and you put the game back in the box.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Part 14, Bargaining

I don't want you to get the idea that I took Myra Breckinridge's scornful assessment of the circumcised penis at face value. No, almost immediately I went looking for a second opinion. And a third opinion, and a fourth opinion, and who knows how many opinions. There were lots of opinions out there.

The year I read Myra Breckinridge was 1980, the same year Edward Wallerstein's book about circumcision came out, Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy. (The book is out of print, but you can read an excerpt on This was also a time when medical associations were starting to question routine infant circumcision, so occasionally I'd see stories about circumcision in the news, and very often I'd read about this idea that circumcision removed all kinds of nerve endings that contributed to sexual pleasure.

1980 was also the time in my life when I was starting to have sex, and one frustration that I had with sex was that my penis didn't seem to have any response to light touch. I'll try not to get too graphic here, but there were times when I would think to myself, "All my friends say this part is supposed to feel so great, and I don't feel a thing. What in the heck?!"

Yes, I know there are things you can do to try to improve your response to light touch. I tried them. They didn't work for me.

But I worked things out. I had a sex life. I continue to have a sex life. It's just a sex life with a penis that doesn't respond well to light touch.

Had circumcision compromised my ability to respond to light touch? I tried to find out. I read about the experiences of men circumcised as children. I read about the experiences of men circumcised as adults. I read about men who had it a lot worse than I did, whose penises were no more sensitive to touch than your big toe. I read about men who had no motility.

Do you know what motility is? It's like the difference between the skin on a Basset Hound's neck and the skin on a dolphin's tail. If you're a man with no motility, that means the skin on your erect penis is like the skin on a dolphin's tail. "Things could be worse," I often thought to myself when I read about men with no motility. "At least I'm a Basset Hound and not a dolphin."

This went on for years. It became kind of a hobby of mine, measuring my own sexual function and satisfaction against those of other circumcised men. I was especially interested in the stories of men circumcised as adults, because they could speak with an authority that the rest of us couldn't. Of course, when the Internet came along, that made things that much easier. There are all kinds of forums you can read out there. Men circumcised as adults, men circumcised as infants, men who like being circumcised, men who hate it.

I started thinking all these experiences of circumcised men fit into a broad spectrum. I started calling it the Satisfaction Spectrum, because I needed to call it something, and I thought if I could plot out the Satisfaction Spectrum on a graph, then I could figure out exactly where I fit on the graph. Then that would answer The Big Question for me, right? To what extent and in what ways has my sex life suffered because of circumcision?

It all sounds very scientific doesn't it?

Well, no I guess it doesn't.

My Satisfaction Spectrum wasn't science at all, was it? You know what I think it was? I think it was bargaining, the kind of bargaining you engage in when you lose something from your life permanently, irrevocably. It was the kind of bargaining that you experience as a natural part of grief.