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ON ERECTION AVENUE, WATCH YOUR...BREATH?

When I was not yet twelve, as a member of my first soccer team, I became friends with Lee Jackson. Lee, who is now an attorney in Los Angeles, used to crack me up. The kid was hilarious. Lee was white, tall and somewhat heavy-set, with sad eyes and an expressionless face. His ball-handling skills were unexceptional at best. He had an older brother from whom he probably borrowed most of his one-liners, since they were all new to me. The funniest thing about Lee was his voice. He used to talk like a kid from South Central. This was before Eminem and other white rappers made Ebonics a mark of distinction. I had never seen anything like it. The whitest kid on field opened his mouth and out came a crip! I think he got his curious twang from the music he listened to. Like Eddy Grant, whose "Electric Avenue" Lee renamed "Erection Avenue" and sung it all the way down the field, stumbling over his own two feet every step of the way. Homie got me every time.



How's that for an introduction. Yes, this is about boners. Hard-ons, or stiffies if you prefer. The anatomy of an erection is quite marvelous. Two cylinder-shaped chambers called the corpora cavernosa run the length of the penis, each with a maze of blood vessels that move blood in and out. An erection starts in your brain, usually via a visual or mental picture. I'm an ass man myself, with a vivid imagination and a penchant for fabricating very realistic scenarios involving teachers, librarians, nurses, maids, basically any woman wearing a uniform. The fantasies these stimuli engender cause your nerves to send chemical messages to the blood vessels in your penis. The arteries relax and and allow blood to flow in, while the veins close up. Blood pools in the corpora cavernosa, causing the penis to expand and become erect. Then, you ejaculate, or the desire subsides, and your penis shrinks back to normal size. The party in your pants is over.

I was reading an article in my mother's AARP magazine (target audience: senior citizens) about nocturnal penile tumescence, or a.m. erections. Older men can expect to experience a slight decrease in frequency and quality of morning erections due to a normal drop in testosterone levels, since involuntary erections, which contribute to penile health, are abetted by testosterone, and levels of this hormone diminish as men grow older. The article recommends getting testosterone levels checked and losing belly flab to naturally increase production of testosterone. But one urologist notes that as long as you feel healthy and can get an erection when you want one, a few mornings without one are probably no cause for alarm. This may however be a sign of erectile dysfunction. 

Wait a minute. If not waking up to a hard-on each morning is a problem for men in their sixties, I who am only 2/3 as old haven't woken up with a boner since I was like 18! Seriously, morning wood disappeared practically the moment I was old enough to vote. The two things are unrelated, as I've never filled in a ballot. I don't have diabetes or high blood pressure, nor is my testosterone level a concern. And I don't have a problem getting it up when I want to. Well, that's not true.

Really all erections are involuntary. Every guy knows that the moment you try to get hard you fall flaccid as a soggy french fry. It's called having stage fright. Erections are governed by the autonomic nervous system, as in not under conscious control. It is the parasympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system that sends messages to the blood vessels surrounding the penis to engorge with blood, while the sympathetic arm controls ejaculation. Or Point and Shoot, the mnemonic used in medical school. 

With a lot of concentration you can perhaps maintain an erection to prolong the sexual experience, and possibly even delay orgasm until your lady has had hers; but for the most part, these facets of life are largely out of one's control. Unlike breathing. Bet you didn't see that coming.

Breathing is also an autonomic function. You don't have to think about inspiring air. You can even do it when you're unconscious, as while sleeping. And yet you can engage the somatic nervous system, which is under voluntary control, to modulate your respiratory rate and depth. The lungs are one of the few organs which function largely on automatic pilot but over which you can "take the wheel" if you so choose. The others that I can think of with dual innervation being parts of the digestive system, particularly the esophagus and the anus. That's thankfully where the relation ends, otherwise you'd be eating shit. OK that wasn't funny.

But when it comes to breathing, you should get behind the wheel now and then. A Science study found that the nerves that govern breathing in the brains of mice are also connected to the brain's arousal center. This means that deep breathing may make people feel calmer because it slows brain activity. Now I understand why the first step in meditation is to focus on the breath.

I also wonder if the converse is true: whether by hyperventilating you can grow more aroused. I'll try this tonight and see if tomorrow morning I can raise my pup tent once again.

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