The magic of a mask

Baby Yoda wearing a mask
Baby Yoda wearing a mask

People not keeping their distance? They aren’t doing it as much as they should, from what I’ve seen. I dunno if it’s just all new to people, or if they just really don’t get the importance of social distancing, but for whatever reason, some people just suck at keeping 6 feet between themselves and others. And they’re not covering their coughs. They’re not being smart, or safe.

That’s much more stressful for me, than the existence of the virus, itself. ‘Cause on its own, the virus is just a virus. It needs people to spread. And they’re happy to oblige.

I’m over it. So, rather than relying others to use the sense that God gave ’em (tho’ it’s debatable in some cases if that even happened), I’m doing my “Magic Mask” trick. All I have to do, is pull on a procedural mask and venture out.

And people keep their distance. Woo hoo.

I figured this out about 8 years ago, when I worked for a company headquartered in Paris. Every new year, I’d have to make a number of trips over to France to meet my new boss(es). The company liked to re-org on an annual basis, which meant that in January I’d have someone new to meet – and they wanted to meet in person. Of course they did. 😐

Sometimes I’d make trips in January, February, and March. I think one year, I had two trips in March. It was a lot less fun than it sounds like, just for the record. I generally had to leave 3 weeks between each trip, so they were all crammed in there in the winter. And if you live in a climate where those months are full of bad weather, snow, sleet, ice, etc., you probably know what a pain it was to travel during that time.

Not only was the weather awful here, but it was terrible in France, too. So, I had the added stress of needing to keep my house shoveled and de-snowed and de-iced as much as possible… and I had all the French winter weather and germs to deal with.

Big deal, right? Um… yeah, it was a big deal, because you generally don’t develop resistance to germs in other countries, and when you’re traveling long hours on jet lag and less sleep… with longer work days because you have to answer all your danged European and USA emails… and you’re constantly interacting with people who love to make contact, whether it’s kissing on each cheek at the beginning and end of each day, or it’s shaking hands… that’s a whole extra world of hurt you can buy.

And pretty much every trip, I would get sick when I returned. Which is a problem, when the other person in the household get sick as a result, and that person literally can’t afford to be sick. At all. Because then they can’t work. And if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. So, you see the problem.

I had to self-quarantine at least once. Checked myself into a hotel for a few days after returning, so I could get home without bringing stuff straight off the plane.

Now, back in 2012, people just didn’t get why it was a problem to travel like that. What was the big deal? How sick could I get? They hadn’t had the opportunity to deal with this coronavirus business, and they seemed to kind of take for granted that getting sick was no big deal. It was just part of life. (I wonder how they’re feeling now.)

But like I said, for me it was a big deal.

So, I started wearing a mask. I picked up a box of 50 from CVS and took them with me. I wore one on the plane, flying over… and it was magical. Not only did people not crowd me, but the flight attendants were also super deferential. They kept their distance. They didn’t give me crap about whatever they’re trained to give you crap about. I got no attitude. Just a lot of space. And it was glorious.

I did it on the way home, too. Same thing happened. Everybody kept their distance. And I had a very relaxing trip back.

The best thing about it was… I didn’t get sick. I don’t know if I just had more immunity built up, or if I’d done a better job about washing my hands at every opportunity, or if I’d gotten better sleep and eaten better food… or if it was the mask. But bottom line, for once, I did not get sick.

Nowadays, the whole mask thing is a different story. At least, that’s how I understand it. Now, the point of wearing a mask is to protect others from your cough. I don’t have a cough (touch wood), and I have no symptoms of COVID-19. But a mask is still coming in handy. Because I never know what’s out there. And even if I don’t have “corona”, I could still pick something else up… and bring it home to where it can do some serious damage. And – most importantly – because it’s one sure way to keep people at a distance. Seriously, they back away from me and give me plenty of room. Which is truly delightful.

I get some wary looks, of course. And the cashiers at the store were mighty nervous around me. But making other people uncomfortable is a small price to pay for getting some space… some distance… some beloved distance.

Well *that* didn’t take long…

Practice thy social distancing: If thou canst smite them, thou art too close.
Picture of two medieval warrior fighting with swords, protecting themselves with shields.

Almost five months ago, I posted here about how separations really drive our economy. And I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s fine I can post about this, but are people ever going to really get it about how important distance is to our daily lives, not to mention our survival?”

Now, separation is a part of our daily lives. Like it or not, we’re all involved in a master class of how to live life without the usual contacts we have with family, friends, co-workers, and all the people who used to annoy us, whom we suddenly miss (or not).

And any case I wanted to make about how we actually need distance in our lives, has been made for me. An invisible (yet deadly) little organism is making its way through our world, thanks to close contact. And one of the few ways we actually know we can address this is to keep our distance.

These days, we’re all (hopefully) social distancing. Or at the very least, we’re being urged to practice social distancing, in hopes of limiting the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Memes abound (see above), some of them more entertaining than others. Some are hilarious. Others… well, they’re memes, after all. And as all of this unfolds, with few of us feeling truly safe, needless to say, we’re all looking for the meaning in this.

Some folks look to their faith. Some look to science. Some look to their leaders. Some look to data, patterns, trends. Others watch t.v. or go online (and stay there). But wherever we look, the impulse is the same — to find the meaning in all of this… To understand. To not feel like our lives are being completely wasted over nothing, and that we and the ones we care about, truly do count for something in this impersonal world that frankly doesn’t seem to give a damn about whether we live or die, these days.

To be honest, I’m not sure whose “camp” I’m in. Maybe all of them – an eclectic mix of faith and science and data and pattern-finding and television murder mysteries and social media. I can see the value in all of them. Tho’, to be honest, I don’t look much to leaders these days, other than to figure out if their policies are likely to get me killed or not. Everybody’s free to look wherever they like for direction and comfort. I’ll never begrudge anyone their own inclination. But I’ve been thinking about distance and separation for years, now — which goes back to long before the several years I spent researching and writing Beloved Distance.

And in the midst of this all, I find some unlikely comfort that the patterns I recognized about humanity’s dance with distance are playing out just as I’d expect. It’s not that the circumstances are great – they’re not. But at least I recognize the general awfulness that’s making the rounds, these days.

Right now, I’ll take whatever comfort I can find.

The separations that drive our economy

dual growth trend
Dissent and separation have been good for the economy

According to Bloomberg and other news outlets, the U.S. is in an economic expansion, and despite warnings of recession, some are saying it’s going to continue. No matter the mumurations of the “sayers of doom and nay”, there’s a chance we’ll continue in the current trend… and things may stay as they are, politically speaking.

I won’t get into taking sides, right here. What fascinates me about it is that, no matter who gets into office, all the divisions between Right and Left, Rich and Poor, One Side and The Other… well, it’s all been very good for business. And I believe it’s driven a ton of economic expansion over the past several years — maybe longer.

Yes, definitely longer. Ever since we got invested in proving how different we are from others, whether politically or economically or culturally or gender-wise (the heightened gender stuff has been ever more intensely marketed to us, ever since mass media showed up – more on that later).

Anyway, I’m going to take a contrarian attitude to whether this is a good or bad thing. It depends who you talk to, of course, but I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, all across the board.

Certainly, it’s common, these days, to stress over the separations we encounter on a daily basis. Political, cultural, economic… Strife in the land. Families torn apart. Communities at each others’ throats. Members of one party pitted against each other on Twitter, Facebook, and whatever medium you care to consider.

I’ve heard great wailing and gnashing of teeth, over the past years, as people have voiced concerns over the USA being a divided nation. And a city divided against itself can’t stand… or something like that.

And yet, all the divisions spawn a whole lot of activity. Defining identities. Giving people a sense of belonging. Boosting manufacture and sales of partisan swag. Boosting sales of partisan viewpoints. Driving the ascendancy of social outlets like  Facebook and Twitter (especially Twitter). And that’s been a huge boon for a lot of groups — pretty much everybody, if you think about it.

Looking back over the past 50 years (which seems to be the timeframe before which, according to some, everything in this country was so much better than it is now), there’s been a steady erosion of identity, a steady erosion of communities. We’re more mobile, now, which means we don’t put down roots in just one place. We spend an awful lot of time online, which has no location and displaces us from our present situation. Roles have changed. Economics have changed. Jobs have changed. Everything’s changed — especially the things that used to give us a sense of purpose and belonging.

How to restore that sense we’ve since lost? It’s not hard. Identify an Enemy (ideas or people or policies or whatever) and gather your like-minded tribe members in defiance of it. That’s how we’ve been doing it since time immemorial.

In giving individuals a new sense of belonging, the economy has taken off. I would even hazard to say that it’s taken off in certain sectors precisely because of the huge surge in adversarial tribalism.

Whole television networks continue to cash in, ushering in a new golden age of bias-laden monetization. It’s as true of the Left, as it is of the Right. And there are plenty of other Progressive or Ultra-Conservative media outlets that have benefited as well. Media in general has made out like bandits, as they’ve targeted specific segments of the population with their particular “narrative”. From one channel to the next, you’d never guess we were living in the same country. It’s like the media channels have spun up parallel universes, where they’ve cornered the market on that particular version of How Things Are, and everybody can go off and do their thing, as long as they don’t encroach on their narrative.

And we’ve eaten it up.

Absolutely, positively. The human system thrives on separation. Our tribes gather new life and purpose, when we know who we aren’t, we intensify the threat from outsiders, and we pit ourselves collectively against that common enemy.

Our own personal understanding of how and where we fit in the world benefit, as well. After all, we now have a tribe that supports and reinforces our perspectives in self-fulfilling promises of, “You’re okay, but they’re not, and that makes you better than them”.

This is not to diminish the importance of that point of view. We absolutely, positively crave a sense of who we are, and that sense is driven to a considerable extent by who we aren’t. It’s just how we’re built, and passing judgment on it doesn’t help us understand how it works. Still, I’d bet $50 you’re arguing with me in your head, right now, because a part of you needs to believe I’m wrong – and you’re right.

Bottom line, we need our separations, and that’s exactly what we’ve got, these days. In abundance. And all the while, the news and media outlets that serve our own individual version of reality and reinforce our rightness… well, they’re going quite well for themselves. Numbers are up. They’ve cracked the code to staying afloat in a world of disruptive technologies and information sources. And as they continue to do well, our own separate versions of reality give us a continued sense of stability and safety. Because they’re telling us we’re right. And others are wrong. And we can rest assured that we’re not the only ones who think what we think.

As problematic as all the schisms and conflict in our current American society may be, they’re part and parcel of who we are and where we are at this point in time. Fighting them and judging them as “bad for humanity” won’t offer us any insight into their true nature. And that certainly won’t let us work constructively with them.

Yeah, it would be nice to be able to just talk to each other as human beings. But there’s a whole lot more to be gained personally and socially (and there’s a lot more money to be made) from keeping us separate and at each others’ throats.

Meanwhile, Facebook is trying to become more human

You may have heard that Facebook is changing its algorithm to show less public content in your feed. The goal is to get people to engage more with their feed, using the personal connections you have with real-live people, versus paying advertisers.

About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced:

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.

Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

And while I’m not actually on Facebook enough to notice a huge shift in my own life, a number of friends have commented on it. One more instance of Facebook just doing its own thing and messing around with the platform — love it or hate it — that a lot of people have come to depend on for keeping connected to their personal networks.

What I find particularly interesting about this move, is that it’s making the digital experience of Facebook more analog. And it’s making it behave more like our own neural networks, which rely on the analog synapses to transmit not only sense information, but also let us do something with/about it.

So, what does that mean? Digital? Analog? What’s that about, and who cares?

Ahem… here’s the high-level view:

Digital signals are binary on/off — they’re either there, or they’re not. And as data about the sensation of stepping on a tack travels — OW! OW! OW! — along your nerves, until it reaches your synaptic cleft, where it suddenly becomes “analog”, or varied. It’s just just about whether pain is there or not. It’s pain the context of the many, many neurotransmitters and synaptic processes which interact with the pain signals traveling along.

Very roughly, it’s like this:

progression of pain signals down nerves

Oh, look… a tack — OW! OW! OW! — and then when the pain signal hits the synaptic cleft, you have a slightly different experience, where more of your body is interacting with that data and doing something with it. Glial cells interact with the neurotransmitters. The little packets of dopamine or serotonin or histamine trigger interactions with other “stuff” in our system, and our experience gets “built out” by all that interaction. We feel things other than “just” the pain. It’s not just about whether our tissues are being damaged by a pointy object; it’s about everything that goes along with that. And after the pain gets to the other side of the cleft, the signal continues on as something that “just is”, rather than being something varied or subject to interpretation.

Until it hits the next synapse, where it goes analog again.

So, very, very roughly, that’s the difference between digital and analog.

And in a very real way, Facebook is trying to become more analog:

digital analog transformation

Shifting people from a digital Pissed Off / Not Pissed Off state, to being more thoughtful, more engaged, having more variation in the “signal” that’s transmitting through the vast network of interconnected Facebook users.

It’s a worthy goal, to get people out of the mindless On/Off state of intense arousal.

The only problem is… opioids. And how social media gets us addicted to them. It’s not just dopamine that Facebook triggers. Also, the opioids our own bodies produce (called “endogenous opioids”).

But more on that later. I’ll just leave this here, for now:

Facebook’s change may not make sense to a lot of people. It may seem cynical, or it might seem like too little, too little. But in fact, with this shift they’re actually more closely emulating the human neurological system, ostensibly in hopes of mitigating the damage from a predominantly digital experience.

We’ll see how that works out.

It’s always nice when this happens


You know those days, when you’ve been going full-speed ahead for a week, and then you realize that you’ve got all of the absolutely, positively, critical, non-optional tasks out of the way?

That’s where I am, today. After nearly a week of traveling, then chasing deadlines on Friday, running errands yesterday morning, followed by an effervescent all-afternoon/evening event, and a long drive home after dark, it’s finally sinking in that today requires very little of me.

And that’s perfectly fine.

It gives me time to think. About things that I haven’t been able to think about as deeply as I’d like. You know… work and all. Seriously, researching and writing books that have very little to do (directly) with your day job is a singular experience. Unique. And solitary. Because when you leave it all on the field after every day at work, you’ve gotta find a way to dig deep and come up with the motivation (and the moxy) to create something very different from what dominates your daily life.

Maybe your daytime colleagues are interested in the kinds of ideas that light your fire in off-hours. Maybe they’re not. Maybe people who get paid to work in the field(s) you venture into out of love and all-consuming passion notice you’re there. Maybe they don’t. In any case, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things — it really can’t — because what matters in the end is The Work. And the ways that the Work builds out and shapes your life in ways that no day-job, no official title, and no amount of professional acclaim ever could.

That being said, here I am at the nexus of my passionate interests, lingering road-weariness, and a full day to do with as I please. Sweet.

In a way, the weariness is useful. It keeps me focused. It keeps me from allowing my attention to wander too far afield. I don’t have a lot of bandwidth today, and my free hours are sufficiently precious to me to compel me to make the most of them. Monday is just around the corner. What can I do with myself and my ideas before then?

… hmmm …

Oh, I know! Let’s talk about who’s gonna care about this book, Beloved Distance. I was at a friend’s birthday part, yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned the book to a handful of people there. I never really know if other people are nearly as fascinated as I am about the intersection of science and the-rest-of-life, but it turns out, I was in good company. I had some great conversations with people who are concerned about the ever-widening schism between science and spirituality, and who don’t think there should be one.

Now, when we talk about spirituality, that can cover territory from devout Catholicism to Sufism to cross-quarter ritualizing Paganism. It can even extend to agnostics or atheists who feel a connection to something bigger than themselves that they don’t want to personalize. “Spirituality” has become a very useful catch-all for people to connect with one another on a metaphysical level, without getting dragged into dogma.

Of course, the “spirituality” moniker has its drawbacks — it can become a little too fuzzy, and it can be used to justify some actually harmful practices. Co-opting indigenous ceremonies and marketing them to high-priced clients craving a spiritual experience isn’t just questionable from a “spiritual ethics” point of view. It can also be downright dangerous. In only one example why it’s important to “keep it local”, certain Amazonian hallucinogenic ceremonies have a very practical reason for requiring strict diets before drinking the magic elixir that makes you vomit into that plastic trash can: some ceremonies can actually deplete necessary neurotransmitters, and dietary restrictions help offset the potential harm.

But I digress… of course I digress! I have the afternoon to myself, and I’m gonna write what I danged well please 😉

Let me return to the line of reasoning I started with — namely, who’s interested in Beloved Distance. And why.

The folks at the birthday party hailed from all walks of life. A construction contractor had a great conversation with an acupuncturist. And a freelance photographer and artist who supports herself caring for children spent a while talking to a technologist. A nationally syndicated radio show host chatted with a woman studying to become a wildlife rescuer. And an office manager for multiple programs at a nearby university caught up with a workshop facilitator who’s house-sitting for friends for the month of February. Each one of them had a perspective very different from my own — big distance there. And yet, each shared a desire — a need — a longing — for connection. All of us were keenly aware of our differences, and yet those differences drew us that much closer to one another, as we looked for points of contact, avenues that let us merge in meaningful ways.

See, here’s the thing — our human differences are often dramatic. Our politics, our money situations, our personal lives often stand in pronounced contrast to so many others around us, even our closest friends. We know we’re separate. And yet, that doesn’t stop us from actually finding ways that we can bridge the distance between each other and blend into the middle, creating a separate sort of dynamic that’s greater than the sum of each party.

And knowing that our time to connect was short yesterday, we all made the most of it. We didn’t mince words. We cut to the chase. We asked the questions you don’t normally ask in “polite” company. We answered the questions just as candidly as they were asked. We brought up subjects that we often couldn’t outside our intimate sphere. We settled the occasional argument with a mix of patience and exasperation, but always some element of letting each other just… be.

And in the end, each of us left that evening well-fed in many ways. Yes, we shared food. Yes, we had tea and cider and kombucha and coffee. Yes, we ate birthday cake (well, most of us, anyway) and enjoyed the candy that had flown out of the smashed piñata. And we also got fed in ways that went far beyond the physical. As we split up and went our separate ways into the evening, that sense of fullness traveled with us. Across the miles, hours later, it still lingers.

On the screenshot of my Windows Task Manger above, you can see the spikes where the CPU had plenty to do… then as I closed applications, it calmed down and settled into this even keel:

And so am I, now, as I settle into the rest of my afternoon.

I have time to think, which is the most precious (and limited) commodity of my current life.

May you have such a wonderful Sunday, if you’re reading this on such a day. Or, if it’s some other day, may you also find ways you can reduce the digital/electrical spikes and settle into knowing your own mind as only you can know it.

Peace…

Oh, but we love our distance…

hands reaching out to each otherOkay, I know we’re all supposed to strive for unity. We need to reach out to each other, cross the divides between us. Connect, cooperate, unite.

Especially at this time of year, when the holidays bring us together with friends and family in our annual rituals of connection.

Separation leads to suffering, we’re told. This is our season to overcome it.

We’ve all experienced the pain of separation at some time or another. There’s no denying that it can be excruciating.

At the same time, though… we still love our distance. The separation between us actually draws us closer together. It makes us more keenly aware of how much we need to connect.

Try this:

Like in the image above, hold your hands just an inch or so apart from each other. See how long you can do that, until they’re drawn together. They may seem to have a life of their own, as your palms meet or your fingers intertwine.

Now try this:

Hold your hands, palms facing, an inch apart. Leave them there for a count of 10. Now, slowly draw them apart… feel that? Feel how each hand pulls on the other, almost like there’s an ever-strengthening magnet between them?

That’s the connection we experience from separation. And that connectedness across separation actually animates our entire bodies. The gaps between our neurons — the synaptic clefts — are the sources of neurotransmitters which pass information throughout our systems. And the total distance actually adds up to thousands of miles, when you tally it all up, end-to-end.

That’s a lot of distance.

And we love it.

We have other types of distance in our lives, as well. Whether we’re starting a book that begins with an intriguing premise (and promises an ultimate resolution at the end)… or we’re watching a football game between two teams that are so evenly matched that nobody knows who’s going to win… we’re incorporating distance into our lives. It’s the journey across that distance which intrigues us, pulls us in, and holds us rapt until we reach the “other side” of that gap between what-is and what-will-be.

We love our distance. We’d better… we’re chock full of it.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re involved in a merger…

railroad tracks mergingTwo companies come together, with the intention of becoming one entity.

One got bought, the other paid the tab (or will pay off the investors that made the deal possible).

One is now “owned” by the other, and it’s reasonable to expect they’d — sooner or later — both join together in an undifferentiated whole.

But is that necessarily what should happen?

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that each company has its own distinct culture. Sure, they’ve very similar, but they have been operating separately for years. And no matter how similar they may be, there are some undeniable, subtle differences.

For the sake of unity, what do you do? For the sake of the future of the company, what do you expect to happen? That the two will merge in harmonious accord? That all differences between the two will be ironed out, subsumed in the inevitable blending of corporate cultures, as badge numbers are swapped out and brand logos are altered? That everyone who differs from the new direction will float away in the grand scheme of things, gravitating towards situations that suit them better?

Perhaps. Certainly, all of these things will happen, to some extent.

And yet, there’s more to the story. Because people are involved. And no matter what we may plan, design, or engineer, people will always do what people do — remain separate to some extent… join to some extent… and continue with some modicum of creative tension between the two states of mind and being.

Separation… distance… closeness… alienation… the eternal dance goes on and on.

Such is life.