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.


  1. I've always wondered about that... the idea that people think you're "higher class" if you're circumcised... I've read somewhere on Facebook a woman who boasted proudly that her sons were circumcised, and she didn't regret it one bit because she knew her sons would be "princes among paupers." I mean, nevermind the fact princes William and Harry are intact. (There have been recent paparazzi pics of William's willie; it's been confirmed.)

    As time has passed, though, the notion that being circumcised made you "higher class" has become more and more ridiculous to me. I live in America, land of the mutilated penis, where, it seems, circumcision is the ultimate marker that you're "American." 2nd generation Mexican families make sure to mutilate their kids so that they won't be confused with the "wetbacks," and trailer park folk bemoan the fact that they have to save up to have their sons circumcised because the state won't cover it anymore. There are videos on the internet of so-called "Black Hebrew Israelites" bemoaning this very fact (NM hospital circumcisions aren't kosher), even calling upon their "brothers" to either start saving up money before their children are born, or, get this, "learn to do it themselves on YouTube." (Are these people NUTS???)

    Becoming aware of these circumstances, I've come to view circumcision as, not so much as a sign of "status" as much as a mark of the status -seeker-. If you're relying on the fact that you're circumcised, or that you allowed your children to be circumcised for "status," you must be trying to compensate for not having much of anything else...

  2. There's a whole lot of bizarre magical thinking around circumcision, isn't there? I tend to agree with my buddy "Vlad" that there's a cult in this country that's built up around circumcision, and I think that's why when you listen to people trying to defend it, it can feel like you're talking to cultists. You feel that "Are these people NUTS????" reaction rising up inside of you. It's as if any attempt at reasoned discourse just bounces off an impenetrable wall of nuttiness.

  3. To read my mirror image narrative, register with the experience project:

    Then go to here:

    I was not aware that one could grow up in the USA and yet feel very bothered about circ from the word go.

  4. "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."

    Kurt, I agree with you. During the first half of the 20th century, a lot of people were still born at home with midwives, especially on farms and in small towns. The sons were never circumcised. A fair fraction of the births in hospitals were charity cases. They weren't circumcised either, because they couldn't pay for it. Circumcision had no appeal to the typical working class hyphenated Americans, the sorts where the men made steel and cars. A pointed dick meant that you were born on the wrong side of the tracks, or were an immigrant.

    At that time, circumcision was like a cattle brand on a man's body, signifying that he was born in an urban hospital, to educated parents who some money to spare. The bald penis quietly said "this man was born to an educated middle class family that understands sexual propriety." Circumcision meant that your mother valued clean and non-smelly private parts. She knew about oral sex and further understood that oral sex was impossible if a guy kept his hood. Circumcision is a Jewish characteristic, and in the USA, Jews are cool because well-off and accomplished. A lot of the movers and shakers in the entertainment industry are Jewish to boot.

    That the tip of the penis became the location of an important class market could help explain why American families find it very difficult to let circumcision go. The British were in a similar situation around 1950, but were able to let circumcision go because the NHS wouldn't pay for it, and because the UK at that time had the most egalitarian left wing government it has ever had. Circumcision is part of my argument that the American class system, while less self-aware and less articulated than the British one, is also a more tenacious one. Millions of American families cannot give up routine circumcision because they fear that women will assume that their son is a hillbilly or immigrant.

  5. I think here is yet another area where American cultural blinders are evident.

    Think of other practices that we find grotesque, but that, just the same, served as "class markers."

    Where it is practiced, female circumcision is considered the mark of a well-bred lady. Without it, she is considered "unclean," an outcast and unfit to wed.

    Subincision is seen as the mark of manhood for Aborigines in Australia. Like circumcision in Africa, it determines your social standing among males.

    Foot binding. Scarification. Etc., etc...

    But those are all "barbaric." What -we- practice is much, much more "sophisticated" than that. ;-)

  6. Wow, RD, you really are the mirror image of my story. Your story tends to bear out a point I've made many times, which is that genital mutilation doesn't just harm the person mutilated. It poisons the whole culture and forces us all to live in this crazy brutalizing Twilight Zone culture, where mutilated is normal and normal is shameful. And I think for the culture to change, we all need to tell our stories, the circumcised, the intact, men, women, gay people and heterosexuals, parents and non-parents, everybody. We've all been harmed.