Thursday, September 22, 2011

Part 29, Ignorance

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

Here's how he found out that he was:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Philadelphia," OtherKurt said.

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

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

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

"This one here," OtherKurt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's only a question of when and how.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Part 28, Mexican boys

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

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

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

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

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

So Cher doesn't count.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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