Archive for Personal issues

It’s all About Communication

spinach caught in teeth

Shelley Berman did a comedy routine back in the sixties in which he described being on a date and every time you go to kiss the girl she turns her head.  Then when you get home you look in the mirror and find a big piece of spinach RIGHT  HERE.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such a scenario were impossible.  In my perfect world it would be, because people would talk to each other.  Like this: “You know, I’d really like to kiss you but you have a big chunk of spinach in your teeth and it’s grossing me out.  How about we get rid of that and try again?”

Is that really so hard?  Why don’t I live in that world, instead of a world in which people identify with and laugh at Shelley Berman’s story?

And given that my perfect world doesn’t exist, can we do anything about this?


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Too Much Information

I’ve always hated that phrase, too much information.  It’s usually said by somebody who is squeamish about body functions or your personal and disgusting habits.  But we all have body functions and personal disgusting habits.  I have no problem with people telling me about theirs.

But I’ve found that too much information is really hurting me now.   I thought I knew all about the effects of infant male circumcision.  I didn’t.  I recently found this video, and it explained why my ejaculation is, as she describes it, an “on off switch” rather than a smooth ride to orgasm.

Interesting.  Upsetting. The more I learn about the results of circumcision, the more I personally feel a deep and painful sense of loss.  I wish I could simply ignore her description of the sexual act for an intact man as opposed to a circumcised me, but her description of what sex feels like to me is too spot on.  That’s what it feels like to me.  No smooth ride to climax, but hard humping waiting for something to happen and then, okay, here I come.  An on off switch.

Masturbation has now become at times painful.  I feel like I have to beat the little prick to death to get him to spit it out.  Again, it’s an on off switch, not a smooth ride to the top of the roller coaster.

I’ve never before wanted to be ignorant about anything, but sometimes I wish I had remained ignorant on this subject.  I’ve always loved sex.  It’s been good enough. No, not just good enough, it’s been great. But now as I get older, I find problems that obviously come from having been circumcised and if I were ignorant they wouldn’t have the same sting.  If I were ignorant, as I assume are most circumcised men, I’d just accept it as the way it is with being human.  I wouldn’t feel so cheated and fucked over.

If you are a circumcised man, and I’m now making you feel cheated and fucked over, sorry about that.  But join the campaign.  This kind of thing has to stop.  It was done to us, but it doesn’t need to be done to any more helpless babies.

Fucking doctors with their anti-sexual Abrahamic religion backgrounds, their smug assumption that they can fix things with surgery when no fixing is needed.  Fucking parents with the smug attitude that they can do whatever they want with their baby, even cut off part of his genitals just to make him look more like daddy, though apparently that wasn’t the situation with my father.  My father never allowed me to see his penis.  He had a huge lump of body shame and I never even saw him in a bathing suit.  I found out recently that he wasn’t circumcised.  I’d love to know who sold him on the idea and how a smart man like him could accept it.

Ah, baggage.  Let it go, Darwin.  Let it go.

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I Guess I’m Just a Crank

A crank is a person who is angry and offended by something that everybody else accepts or even desires.

It seems nobody agrees with me on some issues.  That makes me a crank.  There’s no getting away from it.

It has recently been brought to my attention, or more correctly my awareness, through conversations within my family, that I am the only one who is offended by the concept of laws against public nudity.  This isn’t because I wish to, as my sister would put it, prance around in the nude.  It’s simply because being told that I will go to jail if I try it says that there is something wrong with my body, something unacceptable, probably located in the genital area.

“Indecent exposure” is itself an indecent concept.

Stephen Gough, the naked rambler.  Turn him loose.But okay, I’m not completely alone here, though I lack the commitment of Stephen Gough, the naked rambler.

Mr. Gough walked naked from Land’s End to John o’ Groats in 2003-2004 and again in 2005-2006.



Stephen Gough arrested for offending the public. I am not offended by him.  I am offended by the public.

He’s been repeatedly arrested, and is currently serving 6 years in jail for appearing in public naked.  That is so very fucked up.

I wish I had the guts to walk across my country to show solidarity with Stephen Gough.


But back to my original point – Stephen Gough is a crank and so am I.  This is apparent because there’s been no widespread campaign to have him released, no embarrassment in the culture for treating him so shamelessly.  The vast majority of people seem to think that public nudity, which really harms nobody, is quite rightfully illegal.  People who offend us with their naked bodies deserve to be in jail.

Stephen Gough does have his fans and his defenders.  The Hebden Bridge Eccentrics turned out naked, or mostly naked, in solidarity.

Art least some people have a sense of shame.But it’s far from a general outcry.  I am truly offended.  I am furious.   Stephen Gough decided to fight one of the stupidest of our taboos.  He’s harmed nobody, but society feels justified in putting him in jail for what could be life.  By what right?  This is abuse of the law, using it to enforce the preferences of the majority.

New York recently declared that women have the right to appear topless in public.  I want the right to appear bottomless in public.  There is nothing obscene about my body, or yours.

This is a freedom of expression issue that should be important to everybody.  But only cranks like me and Stephen Gough care.

Maybe someday I’ll write up a sign to carry, strip off my clothes, and show my true colours.  It’s tempting, but I really don’t want the attention right now.

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Do Yourself and Do It Yourself

What Nicolaus Hartsoeker imagined he could see in a sperm cell back in 1694, in the days when women only provided the vessel.My partner and I are both too old to have another child, a decision we reached when we found out the odds of having a downs syndrome baby once a woman is over forty.  So we’ve been using the notoriously ineffective coitus interruptus method for birth control.   A condom simply doesn’t work for me.  Put latex on my dick and it might as well be made of wood for all the sensation that makes it through the rubber, one more gift of circumcision.  It takes me long enough to achieve a climax as it is.

I never seem to dribble before I shoot, so coitus interruptus works well for us.  But it has the obvious disadvantage that I have to closely monitor my ejaculation, which pulls me out of the moment.  We both look forward to those times of the month when her period has reduced from a gusher to a trickle, and I can just stay where I want to be and explode into her without fear of contributing genetic material to a rug rat.  That means the really great sex happens once a month, provided I manage to slip through that window of opportunity.

Before we decided that pregnancy was too dangerous, we were trying to have a child.  I still would like one.  She’s never had one.  But two years or so of unprotected sex did not result in a pregnancy.  A while back she wondered out loud whether she is even fertile.  It’s a question.

There’s also a question about my fertility.  For all I knew, I could be shooting blanks.  I’m getting old.  Sex is still great, when it happens, but I do notice a marked reduction in my sex drive.  I’m just not the three times a night stud that I used to be.  Now it’s more like three times a month, if I can get it up.  And that can be a problem too.

Pretty much what my son's microscope looks like, only older.I happen to be visiting my son these days.  He’s a sciency type of guy and owns a microscope.  You can see where this is going, right?  Yesterday I took a…ahem…. sperm sample.  This is not as easy as it once was, but still possible with patience and vigorous stimulation.  I put a drop of my ejaculate on a slide and positioned it on the stage of the microscope.  Focus.  Focus.  My son’s microscope is a bit of an antique, though I’m sure it would have given Charles Darwin a pulge if he could have got his hands on one like it.  I couldn’t get the highest level of magnification to show me anything, and don’t know why.  But the middle objective lens gave me an image. Lo and behold there were dots in my cum.   Very active dots with tails.  Millions of active dots with thrashing tails.

I spent quite a while staring at those wiggling dots with tails.  It’s rather awesome to think that each one of those dots with a tail contains half my genetic material, and that the son I am visiting started out as a similar dot that managed to luck out and find a fertile egg in appropriate place in my first wife.  It was a feeling akin to looking at a newborn baby, except not as cute of course.  Missing those adorable fingers with tiny fingernails.  So strange to see something that came out of my body, yet remains so obviously alive, one might almost say purposeful.  That didn’t last.  After twenty minutes there was nothing to see, as if the cells had dissolved into the background goo.

I’ve read that one ejaculation from a healthy human contains enough sperm to impregnate every woman on the planet.  I don’t know if this is true, but there sure were a fuck of a lot of sperm in that drop of cum, and that drop was just a tiny fraction of my total ejaculation.

This is a bit bigger magnification than I had, but I could tell that those dots were active.That answers the questions about whether I still need to withdraw before I inject sperm into my wife’s vagina.  Now I realize that I could have done a more complete and definitive sperm count if I’d just spent the time for a bit of research.  I should have read this first.

Oh well.  It’s another couple of weeks before my wife joins me at my current location, deep in the back woods of a former British colony.  I have time, and possibly something else, on my hands.  Perhaps I’ll feel motivated to refine my technique and get more definitive.

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We Reveal Ourselves in our Humour

A relative sent me this “joke” today, and it brought out some thoughts.

The Haircut

A teenage boy had just passed his driving test and inquired of his father as to when they could discuss his use of the car.

His father said he’d make a deal with his son: ‘You bring your grades up from a C to a B average, study your Bible (Say what? DH), and get your hair cut. Then we’ll talk about the car.’ (Notice, no commitment from the father here. He’ll just be open to more begging and pleading. DH)

The boy thought about that for a moment, decided he’d settle for the offer, and they agreed on it.

After about six weeks his father said, ‘Son, you’ve brought your grades up and I’ve observed that you have been studying your Bible, but I’m disappointed you haven’t had your hair cut.

The boy said, ‘You know, Dad, I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve noticed in my studies of the Bible that Samson had long hair, John the Baptist had long hair, Moses had long hair ~ and there’s even strong evidence that Jesus had long hair.

You’re going to love the Dad’s reply: (Don’t count on it. DH)

scroll down


(Sure, make me scoll down to get your predictable punch line. D.H.)


Did you also notice that they all walked everywhere?” (Because cars hadn’t been invented yet, shithead. DH)

generation gapGrrr.  I left home at seventeen because my dad got all bent out of shape about my hair.  That makes me sad.  Such a stupid reason to leave home, but at the time I felt I was forced into it. I wasn’t going to have anybody telling me that his values trumped my own, and allowing him to use money and power to enforce his neurotic authority just made me feel like a prostitute.

If I tried to think of a stupid reason to cause tension and conflict in a family, I’d have to think for a long time before I could come up with something stupider than trying to get your kid to fit your idea of what he or she should wear as a hair style. If that effort could be effective, we’d all be wearing high starched collars and women would still not be allowed to wear trousers.

We’ve come a long way since the fifties.

My father fired a sales rep back then because he wore a neatly trimmed goatee.  “Don’t send any bearded weirdo around to sell me life insurance.”

I have personally been refused service in a restaurant because my hair and beard didn’t fit the owners idea of proper style. Thank the FSM we seem to have left those repressive days behind us.

Peeling the onion down another layer, I can’t think of a better way to turn a kid into an atheist than to force him to read the bible, so full of genocide, rape, incest, adultery, and slavery, most of it either ordered by the Christian god or done in his name.   Should we approve of this father because he makes his son read the bible?  Why couldn’t he get his kid to read something of actual value, like Scientific American or Nature or maybe Mad Magazine?

We have “battle of the sexes” humour, reactionary versus counter culture humour, generation gap humour.  This is a great example of how we reveal ourselves in what we find funny.  What this reveals to me is a culture that has severely misplaced priorities, valuing appearance over substance, style over values.

I guess this “joke” comes from a culture that I rejected many years ago, and a mind set that I don’t have a lot of use for.  I’m sure I sound bitter and angry in this response to it.  I’m not, really.  I am bemused.  I feel like an anthropologist looking at a strange primitive tribe, and trying to understand how their thinking could be so fucked up.

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Goodbye to the CFI

If you’re not up to speed on this, here’s the back story:   Ron Lindsay, CEO of the CFI (Center For Inquiry),  inserted himself into the opening of the Women in Secularism Conference (which the CFI was sponsoring) where he used his position to lecture long time feminists on the error of our ways, in particular our supposed efforts to use “privilege” as a tool to silence poor abused white guys like me.  People howled in outrage.  Lindsay doubled down by attacking and comparing one of the speakers at the conference to North Korea.  Being a long time feminist, as well as a cranky old white guy myself, I wrote Tom Flynn and the board of directors a letter of protest.  Others commented extensively, and  the misogynist haters, stalkers and harassers cheered Lindsay on.  Then we all sat back and waited for something from the board of directors.  Some sign that they got our message.  But apparently not.

“The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.

CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.”

I was profoundly disappointed.  Really this is a non-response, a refusal to comment, a cowardly evasion that did nothing to address the situation.  There was no suggestion of censure, or reproach, or even disagreement with Ron Lindsay.  There was nothing that inspires me with any confidence that the CFI is an organization I can support.

Being “unhappy with the controversy” is not the same as being unhappy with the actions or statements made by your CEO.  It’s more like being unhappy that some people disagree with him and found his remarks objectionable.  Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could just agree that Ron Lindsay didn’t do anything offensive?  Then we wouldn’t have this nasty controversy that makes us unhappy.

From the statement:  “The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences.”  I read this as: We stand by our CEO and can’t really see why there’s been any problem with anything he said or did.

I want the board of directors to recognize in some real way, whether by censure or call for apology or dismissal of Ron Lindsay, that there IS a problem and that Ron Lindsay is the source of that problem.  I want something more than corporate spin and bafflegab.

Much as I enjoyed my recent participation in the course given by Richard Carrier under CFI sponsorship, until I read a meaningful response from the CFI board of directors I shall have nothing to do with any CFI activity, including participation in any future CFI course.

I’m hoping to go to Skepticon this year.  For sure I’m going to send them a few sheckles.  Many groups are willing to protest, but not even Barack Obama turned down money from the bad guys.  If you can spare the folks at Skepticon a bit of cash, here’s the link.  I’m told every little bit helps.


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Oh fuck, Not My Dick Part 2 the Ultrasound

Many thoughts have been boiling through my brain since my last post, wherein I revealed my newly discovered Peyronie’s Disease which is making my dick look like I’m wearing an invisible cock ring when I get an erection, which hasn’t been all that frequent an event lately.  There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that Viagra actually works, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t just the placebo effect.  Of course the flip side of that good news is that it seems I must pay Pfizer and assorted middlemen sixteen bucks every time I want a stiffy.  Maybe I can find the stuff cheaper someplace other than the first drug store I walked into.  But I have to say that the chemical solution to this problem does not make me deliriously happy, no matter what the cost.  I’d much rather solve it with diet and exercise, but maybe that isn’t enough.

Viagra, with the active ingredient actually called sildenafil citrate,  also comes in another form, marketed as Revatio, for the relief of pulmonary hypertension.  Revatil is sold as 20mg. round white tablets.  Purchasing Viagra in this form gets away from asking for the recognizable drug, which could embarrass some people, and avoids the distinctive blue diamond colour and shape.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of ageing.  For one thing, there will be a last time for most of the things I enjoy.  I may already have had my last time exploring tropical reefs in scuba gear.  The last time I did that I found it so exhausting that I only had two of the three dives I had paid for.  I know a lot can be done to slow the decline, chiefly the aforementioned diet and exercise, and I used to laugh at the Viagra ad in which the chubby guy who didn’t look a day over forty came skipping out the door singing “It’s a Wonderful World”.  Of course you can’t get it up, idiot.  You’ve let your body fall apart.  I would never do that.  And for the most part, I haven’t.  I’m packing a few extra pounds right now, but most mornings I do get on the elliptical trainer for half an hour.  I have good energy.  I watch my diet.  I’m in good shape.

Warning: NSFW below the fold on this post.

Jack Lalanne claimed to be having a hot sex life into his nineties, but of course he owned and lived in a gymnasium.

“Sex at my age is like trying to play pool with a rope.” – George Burns at age 98.  Attaboy, George.  Yuk it up.  That’s what you were good at.

Nelson Mandela, one of the great statesmen of our age, just died (Oops. News of his death was exaggerated.) Surely he would have the best of medical care.  If it can happen to him, it’s most likely going to happen to me.   Charlton Heston died recently (this one has been confirmed), presumably with his gun clutched in his cold dead hand, another rich dude who seemed to keep himself in good shape and must have been able to afford the best of medical care.  All those upbeat TED talks telling me that if I can just live for another twenty years I’ll probably see four hundred… Nope.  Not bloody likely.

Mark Twain said that growing old is a privilege denied to many.  Indeed it is.  I’ve always promised myself that I will grow old gracefully, with a minimum of whining.  And then it hits me in the dick.

Okay, enough whining.  There’s more good news. I went in for the ultrasound today, which was plenty interesting.  According to the doctors there’s really very little wrong with my cock, and not enough to get all sobbing and bent out of shape over, if you’ll pardon the pun..  It’s not cancer.  It’s not, according to the doctors, even a big deal.

Ultrasound, the ultimate sex toy.  Not.

What the technology sees.

Of course that’s easy for them to say.  It’s not their dick.

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Oh Fuck! Not my Dick.

Every once in a while reality really bites.

Despite the fact that there’s some of it missing, due to an unfortunate event shortly after my birth, I have always enjoyed my dick. It’s been my best, if mostly hidden, feature. One former lover, some time after we had ceased to be lovers and while she was looking for a new lover, described my erect cock as “beautiful”. I kid you not.

So it was with some alarm that I noticed… what the fuck… notches in the base of my erection. Spots where the erection didn’t seem to be happening. This about the time that I noticed I was having more and more difficulty even getting an erection. My sex life has been withering on the vine, so to speak.

My erection has been chewed by beavers.I went to see a doctor. He put on disposable plastic gloves and palpated my member, noting a lumpy spot. He mentioned something called “penile induration” or possibly “Peyronie’s disease” . I’d never heard of either. So, naturally, it’s to the Internet. The results of my research are not encouraging, except for the news that this disease is very seldom fatal, and all fatalities result from suicide. The problem seems to be fibroid scar tissue that interfere with erection, so that the notches are like a band of tape around a balloon. Nobody is quite sure why the scar tissue develops, possibly because of an injury, too much of a bend in the wrong direction, maybe wanking with too much enthusiasm really has done some damage.

It’s almost enough to make me believe in God, the megalomaniac bastard of the Old Testament, the god who will really fuck you up. I have loved sex ever since discovering that it isn’t a bad thing. If there’s a god who is as anti-sex as the religious seem to think, a god who would want to punish me, hitting me in the penis is probably the best place to aim. No, second best. The brain is certainly a better target for a truly malevolent deity. But the penis runs a close second.

Of course I’m not going to ascribe any deeper cosmological meaning to a personal misfortune. Shit happens. Apparently this particular shit happens to as many as 10% of men over the age of 40. So my number just came up.  I should be thankful that my erections, flabby though they may be,  are not painful, which is something that is quite normal with this condition.

I keep telling myself that it could be worse, but then I always have to ask… How? The obvious answer is penile cancer. Something that requires a life saving dickotomy. That would be worse. But allow me a few minutes of “why me” and self pity. This is upsetting enough.

I’m trying to think of it as a built in cock ring, but that isn’t helping either.

As we get older, more and more things are taken away from us. Our youthful strength. Our sexual vigour. Our driver’s license. All of these things seemed so far off in the future. I’m only sixty-five he wailed. Does it have to start now.

I’m scheduled for an ultrasound next week. That should be interesting. I’m trying not to let my imagination run away with me, and I’m sure it won’t be painful. But the thought of that gel on my dick and the ultrasound generator… I wonder if it will give me a pulge.

Worth noting:
Peyronie’s Disease can be a physically and psychologically devastating disease. While most men will continue to be able to have sexual relations, they are likely to experience some degree of deformity and erectile dysfunction in the wake of the disease process. It is not uncommon for men afflicted with Peyronie’s Disease to exhibit depression or withdrawal from their sexual partners.  – Wikipedia entry on Peyronie’s Disease

Tell me about it.  The authors of this Wikipedia post seemed to think a citation was needed for this paragraph.  Really? If so, you can cite this post.  Devastating might be a strong word in my case, and I’ll try to avoid depression or withdrawal from my partner,  but it sure as hell is not good news.  No, maybe “devastating” is a good word.

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May is Masturbation Month?

May is Masturbation Month, and I almost missed it.  But that’s okay.  I celebrate masturbation every month.

I’ve been saying for years that masturbation should be taught in schools.

Masturbation has been with us for a long time.  Isn't it about time we celebrated it.And not just in sex education classes.  Masturbation should be celebrated.  Masturbation should be encouraged.  Especially for teenagers.  It’s our one and only truly safe sex.  As Woody Allen put it, it’s “sex with someone I love.”  Or it should be.

Mutual masturbation is a good, safe, alternative to full on PIV sex.  No risk of pregnancy.  No risk of disease.  Shared intimacy. A nice way for a couple to get to know each other.

There is simply no downside to solitary masturbation.  Not even the risk of emotional entanglement.  You don’t need to ask for consent from anybody.  You don’t need anything more than a few minutes of reliable privacy and possibly some Kleenex for the ejaculate.  In my case, no Kleenex is needed and I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to why.

In my early teens I felt terribly guilty about masturbating.  I worried that it could do me some harm.  After about fifty-five years of turning masturbation into my own personal art form, I’ve come to realize that there is no harm in the practice.  None.

And now, thanks to Mano Singham, I learn that there’s a whole month dedicated to the joys of the wank -  the Merry Masturbatory Month of May.  I shall never feel the same about this month again.

Mano also provides a link to an article by Hugo Schwyzer.   If you don’t have time to follow the link, here’s a taste of what you’re missing.

The view of masturbation as benign and beneficial is a new one. The Judeo-Christian tradition has long been hostile towards self-pleasure, at least for men. The Talmud compares spilling seed to spilling blood; the Zohar (the central work of Kabbalah) calls it the most evil act a man can commit. The traditional Christian view was no more tolerant; Catholic and Protestant authorities framed masturbation as a deeply sinful (though forgivable) waste of precious semen. Women were left out of these prohibitions for the obvious reason that most male religious authorities didn’t consider the possibility that women were capable of or interested in giving themselves orgasms.

The article gives a fascinating look at the history and rationale behind attempts to curb masturbation.  I have a particular bone to pick, so to speak, with the forces of sexual repression, those who tried to prevent what a pocket dictionary I once owned defined simply as “bodily self pollution”.

The campaign against masturbation became medicalized in the middle of the 19th century. Health reformers like Sylvester Graham (of the cracker) and John Harvey Kellogg (of the cereal) warned against the feminizing and enervating effects of male masturbation, describing it not as a sin but as a habit that could rob boys of their vital life force. At the same time, doctors began to warn of something theologians either hadn’t considered or dared to mention: the dangers of female self-pleasure. Beginning in 1858, Dr. Isaac Baker-Brown—the president of the Medical Society of London—began to encourage surgical clitoridectomies to prevent hysteria, epilepsy, mania and even death that would surely follow as a consequence of the stimulation of the clitoris.

The medical hysteria over the totally speculative and imaginary harm done by masturbation is one of the main reasons I’m missing a part of my body, my foreskin.  Circumcision was promoted as a “cure” for the practice.  I don’t think this worked for anybody.  As a cure it was a total failure in my case, and for any circumcised man I’ve ever met.  Certainly, circumcision reduces the pleasure of a wank.  But it’s only a reduction, and once lubrication is discovered, it’s hardly a “cure”, hardly an impediment at all.  And wanking off is one revenge against the assholes who called for a generation of mutilated dicks.’

Now, of course, comes the big question.  What is the most appropriate way to celebrate Masturbation Month, more than I usually celebrate I mean?  Hmmmm…. Let me think about it.  Maybe my wife would like to get involved. A mutual hand job could be a nice variation, and she tells me that she gets off better with manual stimulation than with straight PIV.

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Dennett Nails It.

Daniel Dennett at his desk with a brain.“Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery. A mystery is a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about – yet. There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of the design to be found in nature, the mysteries of time, space, and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance, but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have all the answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them …. With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist — and hope — that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.”
Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained

I am trying to understand why this is so confusing.  I am conscious now.  At least I am conscious of many things.  I could sit here and meditate on all the things of which I am conscious, like the hum of my computer tower, the feeling of the slippers on my feet, the texture of the air, the sound of the clock, the light from the monitor and the words appearing as if by magic on my screen because I don’t have to think about which key to push to make a letter happen.  I am conscious of many things.  And all that means is that my brain’s computer is turned on and monitoring the environment, while at the same time monitoring it’s own self generated thoughts. What is so mysterious about this?

The fact that my thoughts are being generated in parts of my brain to which I can have no access?  Is this what makes it mysterious?

If I think of  my “conscious self” as the CEO running a board meeting.  It’s as if there is an indeterminate number of board members setting at the table.  Some of them I am aware of, but most of them are invisible.  When a thought is required, one of them pops up with it and kicks it down the table, usually in verbal or visual form, as words or as a picture or sometimes as a tightening in my chest and a physical sensation caused by certain muscles tensing on my face, forming a smile or a frown.  I then become aware of the thought, and can choose to express it or let it slide by unacknowledged.  I can talk directly to these board members, and they can talk directly to me, but in my case it’s like talking from the stage into an audience that is mostly hidden in darkness.  I don’t really know whether they hear me when I talk to them, and sometimes I don’t hear them when they talk to me, unless they do something dramatic to get my attention, such as cause tears to fall from my eyes.

Take my current source of sadness: My young lover who never was my lover because at the time we met she was too young and I was too old.  Recently she came to visit, and we discovered that she could now be my lover, but I am even older and now unavailable.  She has gone away again.  Parts of my brain are generating fantasies.  Other parts of my brain are telling those parts of my brain to shut the fuck up, or picking holes in the memories and saying “that’s not what really happened” or dissecting the fantasies and saying “that’s not what is likely to happen if you take any action”.  And a part of my brain is telling me that I’m not seeing the real person there.  I’m just reacting to a reflection of my emotional needs.  Yet the heart aches.  (What?  Where did that phrase come from.  My heart is not aching.  I feel these emotions in my neck and face.) My conscious mind is riding on this swirling shit storm of emotions, feelings, needs, desires, and drama.  I think there’s something in me that is enjoying it all, while another part of me is asking why I am generating these thoughts and feelings when they are not making me happy.

Then there is the part of my brain that keeps reminding me that I love my wife, and that my life is complete with my wife and my friends.  I have no real need to complicate my life with romantic drama, fantasies, and regrets about what might have been if different decisions had been made. (Our child, the one that we will never have together, would now be seven or eight years old.  Yeah, and you regret that?  Really? Are you nuts? Been there done that.)

And then there is the part of my brain that is asking me why I’m putting all of this up in a public forum when I’m supposed to be considering the question of consciousness and surely this is just a distraction from that question.

So what is consciousness?  Isn’t it merely the awareness of all of this going on at the same time: The physical sensations being brought in by the senses, the language being directed out through my fingers, and the various parts of my limbic system and amygdula and neocortex competing for my attention by creating fantasies and physical sensations.

Let’s look at consciousness as if it were a computer running subroutines.  We are now at a point where we can almost list all the subroutines being run.  We have desires and drives, impulses, damping of impulses, fantasies, memories, all the things I listed in the earlier post about what consciousness should be able to do.  At any one point one could ask the computer “How do you feel.”  Supposedly one would get an answer that would come from the “ghost in the machine”. At the moment I feel sad and conflicted.

And here’s where Dennett nails it.

“Some years ago, there was a lovely philosopher of science and journalist in Italy named Giulio Giorello, and he did an interview with me. And I don’t know if he wrote it or not, but the headline in Corriere della Sera when it was published was “Sì, abbiamo un’anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot – “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.” And I thought, exactly. That’s the view. Yes, we have a soul, but in what sense? In the sense that our brains, unlike the brains even of dogs and cats and chimpanzees and dolphins, our brains have functional structures that give our brains powers that no other brains have – powers of look-ahead, primarily. We can understand our position in the world, we can see the future, we can understand where we came from. We know that we’re here. No buffalo knows it’s a buffalo, but we jolly well know that we’re members of Homo sapiens, and it’s the knowledge that we have and the can-do, our capacity to think ahead and to reflect and to evaluate and to evaluate our evaluations, and evaluate the grounds for our evaluations.

It’s this expandable capacity to represent reasons that we have that gives us a soul. But what’s it made of? It’s made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.”
Daniel C. Dennett

And one more.  This one is off topic, but delightful.  And apparently quite famous.

“The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore, so it eats it! It’s rather like getting tenure.”
Daniel C. Dennett

Bravo Doctor D.  Bravo.

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