Monday, August 22, 2011

Post 27, Loyal listener

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

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

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

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

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

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

I actually learned to like the Glass Houses album.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Part 26, Steve Dahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I'm getting there.

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

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

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

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Part 25, Disco Demolition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You were what?!"

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

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