Saturday, June 23, 2012

how do you work this thing?

my inadvertent birds-and-bees talk
I didn't find out about sex from "the talk" with a parent. Or from the other kids at school.

Nope, I learned about it from The People's Almanac.

I actually got The People's Almanac 2 first, as a gift in 1978. Sadly, it was a paperback, and paperback editions of anything with that enormous of a page size (1,500+ pages) don't wear well. But I repeatedly put the book's wobbly spine to the test and incessantly devoured all those fascinating bite-size nuggets of information and entertainment that Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky, and their team of anonymous fact-finders had compiled. In the pre-Internet era, these books (and the related Book of Lists series) were crack for knowledge addicts.

Sometime in 1979, my mother gave me the original The People's Almanac, and in a hardcover, no less. It was every bit as fascinating to me as the second volume. Between the two, I learned about "People Who Had Become Words," like the Rev. Spooner (that section will put me in stitches to this very day). I learned about Charlie Starkweather, well before I'd see Badlands or Springsteen would write the title track of Nebraska. I learned that Timbuktu was the hottest city on Earth. I learned about Burma-Shave signs. One of the Almanacs had a perpetual calendar that listed every possible configuration of calendars; I made use of that for years, before it became even easier to look up any given year's calendar on the Internet.

And, at twelve years old, I learned how sex actually worked.

Both People's Almanacs (I know there was a third one, but I can't remember if I had it, much less what was in it) had a section called "The Best in Books," which excerpted some of the editors' favorite then-contemporary books. In the original 1975 volume, alongside Our Bodies Ourselves, a Karl Marx bio, a "health food" recipe book, and many more, was this entry:
"Where Did I Come From?": The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations. By Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins. Secaucus, N.J.: Paul Walter Lyle Stuart Inc., 1973.
While my mother was always very protective of me and would have felt very uncomfortable talking to me about sex, to her credit, she never kept it a secret from me that babies grew inside their mothers - no "stork" or "cabbage leaf" nonsense. And this idea made sense to me, since I loved my mother very much and it felt safe and natural being around her; it made perfect sense that I had come from inside her. I also knew that a "daddy" had to be involved, and, I supposed, some physical affection. But precisely what happened to make the baby was beyond my knowledge.

And until this juncture in 1979, I probably hadn't been curious about the details, but puberty was starting to take its course, and girls had begun to transition for me from silly things wearing their stupid baby-blue Leif Garrett t-shirts to mysterious beings of intrigue. But I knew that asking my mother or grandparents about these feelings would only lead to rebuke and disastrous inquiries ("Why do you want to know about those kinds of dirty things? Has someone been talking to you at school? You better not have a girlfriend until you're 21!"). So I kept these thoughts and whatever questions were arising in my mind to myself.

But there, on page 68 of The People's Almanac, was the answer to one of the biggest of those possibly rebuke-inducing questions. For this was the fateful excerpt Wallace and Wallechinsky or a committee of underlings had chosen from "Where Did I Come From?":
MAKING LOVE -- This is a very nice feeling for both the man and the woman. He likes being inside her, and she likes him being inside her. It's called making love because it all starts with the man and the woman loving each other. It's a difficult feeling to describe, but if you can imagine a gentle tingly sort of tickle that starts in your stomach and spreads all over, that will give you some idea of what it's like. And, as you know, when you're feeling tickly you wriggle about a bit. It's just the same here, except it's a special kind of wriggling. It's easier to understand when you realize that the parts that tickle most are the man's penis and the woman's vagina. So most of the wriggling happens down there. The man pushes his penis up and down inside the woman's vagina, so that both the tickly parts are being rubbed against each other. It's like scratching an itch, but a lot nicer. This usually starts slowly, and gets quicker and quicker as the tingly feeling gets stronger and stronger.
Why does the tickling stop? Now you may be thinking: If it's so nice, why don't people do it all the time? There are 2 reasons. First, it's very tiring. More than playing football, or running, or skipping, or climbing trees or almost anything. Good as it is, you can't just do it all day long. And the 2nd reason is that something really wonderful happens which puts an end to the tickly feeling, and at the same time starts the making of the baby. When the man and the woman have been wriggling so hard you think they're both going to pop, they nearly do just that. All the rubbing up and down that's been going on ends in a tremendous big lovely shiver for both of them. (Again, it's not easy to tell you what this feels like. But you know how it is when you have a tickle in your nose for a long time, and then you have a really big sneeze. It's a little like that.) At the same time, a spurt of quite thick, sticky stuff comes from the end of the man's penis, and this goes into the woman's vagina.

For me, this was the "so, that's how this actually works! That's what those parts are for!" moment. Made complete sense. And from there on out, I knew.

I really don't think my mother knew that this was in the book, and I lived in terror that she'd leaf through The People's Almanac someday, stumble upon this passage, and take the book away, but that never happened. And both of my People's Almanacs had "Love and Sexuality" sections - which introduced me to Kinsey, homosexuality beyond "whatever that thing is Anita Bryant is against," definitions of various acts and parts, and a lot more - so she may have thought it was OK for me to start getting this info.

In fact, my mother never took any book away from me, and as it turned out, despite the annual conference between her and my grandmother on whether I should be allowed to have the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition (she allowed me to subscribe to SI, so it showed up in the mailbox every February like dynamite with a lit fuse), I always ended up being allowed to have that staple of of semi-prurient Americana. And I'm grateful beyond words to her for allowing me the freedom to read as I wished and explore most any intellectual interest.

However, I do think that she wasn't completely sure that I had this particular info, because a few years later - I think I was 14 or 15 - she gave me a book about sex and sexual health geared for teenagers. So even if she couldn't bring herself to have "the talk" with me, she wanted to make sure that I had the knowledge I needed. And even if I'd learned it already from a book that I'm fairly sure she had no idea contained it, I'm still thankful for that gift - and for all the others that she's given me throughout my whole life.

But anyway, perhaps appropriately, I learned "the facts of life" from the premiere factbook of the 1970s. Far out, man.


Sue T. said...

Miles, once again, we have a lot in common! I also had the People's Almanacs and Book of Lists, though I was given an actual copy of "Where Did I Come From?" by my parents (presumably so they wouldn't have to, y'know, actually TALK about sex with me). I also received a copy of "The Ann Landers Encyclopedia" for my 13th birthday. I'm pretty sure that's where I first learned about homosexuality, pedophilia, oral sex and other "adult" topics. If I had been born 20 years later I probably would just have learned it all on the Internet.

Miles Goosens said...

Sue -

I was not graced with the Ann Landers Encyclopedia, so our libraries differed in at least that respect! I also remember that explicit sex scenes started to show up in some of my reading during my early teens, particularly in the SF/Fantasy world - the original Thomas Covenant trilogy and Norman Spinrad's novels come to mind quickly. But thanks to "Where Did I Come From?", I had some context!

I do wonder if young folks are just Googling everything now. Probably. There's no proper way in the course of my former (and perhaps future) college teaching duties for me to ask The Kids Today where they learned about sex. Last Fall, I did ask one of my sections if they thought the 1980s were a very long time ago, and they all said "yes." It's mind-boggling to think that the '80s are as far away from them as the '40s were for us when we were children.