A Walk Through the Complex

I took a walk around my apartment complex tonight.

I left my phone behind on the book stand. My headphones resting on the desk. No input, besides what was offered to me outside.

Though we’ve had a couple false starts to spring this year in Montana, with a fair few inches of snow in April, a smell in the air convinced me spring is here in full bloom. The warm envelope of direct sunlight brought me directly into a deep present awareness of my body. I felt keenly aware of every cooling breeze over my arms and neck. I tuned into the loud silence of the empty streets, accompanied only by the soft buzzing of my new bee friends and the song of a bird perched on the neon bar sign across the street. I could smell the burning off irrigation ditches as local farmers prepared into the new planting season.

Something about my presence to the moment and the quiet intimacy of what was happening around me made me feel like an intruding guest. Like I was boisterously walking into the room where Nature herself was napping on the couch. This walk demanded as silent a contemplation as I could offer. It was politely asking to be a sacred moment of silence. Of reverence, of grief, of ineffable joy. Maybe all three?

There’s something in the air, as if the earth itself is sighing with sadness, aching upon her own hospital bed, in recovery. In a podcast I recorded entitled, It’s All Part of It, I did my best to walk through the history of the Jewish people in ancient Israel and when they were exiled to Babylon when they didn’t respect the Sabbath for the necessary, yet inconvenient time to allow the earth “to lie fallow”. I get the sense that the coronavirus is serving the earth today, in that humanity is forced to slow down, socially distance, and take stock and thought in their locality. I can’t help but see photos of the Chinese or Los Angeles air qualities and think there will be other unintended goods coming from what seems to be only bad for us, our economy, and our livelihoods. It’s like the earth is finally getting it’s time to rest up, heal up, grow up while we are deep in our own exile. She’s feeling the joy of a deep, uninterrupted nap, yet the grief of her human children suffering. Where joy and grief meet, holy reverence must dance the space between, and that was what I was invited into on this plain, holy, spring evening. Here, simplicity and complexity get to coexist.

Again, I was taking a walk through my apartment complex. This physical location has been my sanctuary at my best and my fallout bunker at my worst, during this pandemic experience. Besides the seldom errand to the grocery store, I haven’t strayed from my few hundred square feet of rented space. This space can feel like a penitentiary at times or a monetary. And walking about these neatly manicured streets, past open windows and the doors of my neighbors, I found that some were like prisoners, others like parishioners. Like me, some find their cell to be a place of stifling house arrest. Others, like me, find their cell to be a place of serene contemplation.

I made room on the sidewalk for a small child riding his bike with his father, showing off his jumps off the curb. I smiled and waved to a mother walking her German Shepherd with one hand and pushing a stroller with the other. I passed open doors and windows of families audibly enjoying board games together, making music together, grilling divinely inspired red meats together. I listened to a young couple train their labradoodle puppy on a blanket laid out on the soft grass. These were the light, airy spaces of a monkish cell.

But I also heard a child’s cry after he crashed his bike on a loose patch of gravel. I heard parents struggling to soothe a sobbing baby. I saw a father on a balcony, video chatting with his son, beginning to cry when the boy said “I wish I could give you a hug, daddy.” I overheard an uncomfortable fight about who’s turn it was to take the dog out for a bathroom break. These were the tight, stifled spaces of a jail cell.

As the grief and joy of our present moment arrive, there’s that tension between simplicity and complexity. This is the same apartment it was yesterday, last week, last month, last year. But yesterday it was a prison, today it’s a monetary, tomorrow a prison again. The complex nature of what we’re going through is not a problem to be solved, but a beautiful tension to be managed. I’d even say we could learn to transform it from tugging ropes in two different directions to dancing in all directions.

Maybe you’re enjoying your quarantine in certain ways?

Maybe you’re gripped with terror, anxiety, and worry in other ways?

And maybe, it’s possible to be both?

Finally, I know deep in my bones the meaning of Dicken’s legendary opening to his masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities,

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

While I took a walk around my apartment complex tonight, I took a walk through the complex.

Normal

When most everything feels so abnormal and foreign to us right now, it’s okay to feel it and at least to normalize the feelings. We’ve never been here before, collectively. The adrenaline of new information and new risk is wearing off as we settle into our shelter-in-place lifestyles. The novelty of using Zoom, Discord, FaceTime, and any video calling service is wearing off. And our bodies are finally starting to catch up with our racing minds.

For two or three weeks now, all we hear about, all we think about, maybe all we talk about is the coronavirus and what impact it will have on us. And our bodies didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for it. Personally, I’m experiencing greater levels of fatigue and sleepiness throughout my days than I ever have before in my former, office-working life. My body is teaching me what it’s like to mitigate risk by running marathons, not sprints.

So if you’re starting to feel the adrenaline buzz wear off, the novelty is just not so novel anymore, and you’re missing the old life, it’s normal to feel that. We all lost something, albeit temporarily, so abruptly that we went into fight-flight-freeze mode to get through the immediate danger, and now we’re realizing that the enemy moves much slower, but can run much longer too. We are feeling the adjustment as we shift into road trip mode instead of drag strip mode. Allow yourself all the grace you need and know that it’s normal.

We’ve never been here before. It’s totally normal to feel anxious and worried.

Some of us have never been homeschool parents. It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed and stretched thin.

Some of us have never worked from home. It’s totally normal to struggle with focus and feel like your work and home are too close.

Some of us have never been without work. It’s totally normal to feel angry and afraid of how you will provide for yourself and family.

Some of us have never stayed in one place for so long. It’s totally normal to feel restless and confined.

Some of us have never been alone for so long. It’s totally normal to feel a need for human touch and affection.

It’s totally normal to feel exactly what you are feeling.

Yes, beloved, it’s totally normal and I hope you can rest in that. Thank your body for taking care of you so well.

Anakephalaiossathai. Grace and peace, my friends.

Social

While we all physically distance into our homes for a few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what tools and systems are available to us to maintain our connected common life together.  Now, more than ever, is the time to increase our connectivity and positivity, given what we know about the effects of isolation.

Maybe this is when we figure out how to transcend the digital marketing media and political sideshow that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become and actually learn to use these meeting places for enriching social purposes?  What would it look like for social media to actually be social?  Now is the time to get creative.

I for one will be using Discord to play DnD with my friends.  FaceTime to call loved ones in Washington state.  Facebook to launch conversations and start a podcast group.  Instagram Live for some experimental bonus K(no)w Normal People episodes.  Twitter will be a place for positivity and laughs.  Pinterest to find recipes that I want to try with Dixie.

 These apps and sites don’t have to be just another placating balm to distract us from the “real life” out there in the scare world of viruses and hospitals. We don’t need to fall asleep to the world with pacifiers like Netflix and Hulu; we need to foster connection with in the most creative ways we have available and invent even new methods to use this technology available to us.

I wonder, too, what effect this COVID-19, social distancing experience will have our on shared life together after there are developed ways of handling the virus? Remember when we used to sit at the same table at the restaurant, and all be swiping the moment by with our thumbs on the screen and our minds in other worlds? Now, we swap phones or stack them in the middle of the table, relishing our plate of nachos and enjoying a rich conversation with the people we invited out to dinner. Remember when we used to glance around on the bus or the train and notice that we’re one of the only people who don’t have their necks bent and headphones crammed in their ears? Now we smile and greet each other as we hop on the bus, maybe chat with your new neighbor, or just stare out the window and remember what it was like to self-quarantine for weeks on end.

It is perfectly normal to feel the anxiety. It is perfectly normal to be afraid. So when you’re ready, I invite you to consider how this could teach you about the meaningful connections you have. I invite you to consider what you were taking advantage of until the moment it was taken away from you. We have the tools to stay truly connected, so use them. We have the connections to keep us grounded, so foster them. How can you be more social, even in social distancing?

Anakephalaiossathai. Grace and peace, my friends.

Miss

It’s good advice for habit building,

Never miss twice.

Sleep in, lose a morning workout. Eat that guilty snack during a fast. Skip a day journaling. View pornography. Forget to follow through on a work assignment. Fall off the wagon. Let a diet slip for a donut. Fail to post a blog essay.

I have nothing profound to share. It’s just haunting me that I lost my streak of posting every Thursday morning. I’m an Enneagram One, I beat myself up for silly things like this. I shouldn’t, but I do.

But you know what?

I will not miss twice.

Computing

The act of observation in quantum physics and computing complicates matters significantly. The wave-particle duality of light is a property also known to physicists as superposition. Until an object like an electron or Schrodinger’s cat is observed to be in a particular state, then it is actually in all possible states. The electron exists at all points along a wave until it is observed to be in one discrete position. Our unfortunate feline friend is both alive and dead inside the box the instant before it is observed to be either alive or dead. Observation simplifies matters for our simple, dualistic minds; however, observation complicates what seems to be the more natural state of the universe by forcing things at even subatomic scales to pick a position and stick to it. The same issue arises in computing.

I received an email yesterday from my brother, and with his permission, I am sharing it here. David holds a degree in Computer Programming and is a voracious enthusiast of coding in his free time. While he attended school, he lived with Dixie and me and would bring conversation topics like this, often over an evening cigar or a beer.

Please do not let the coding itself daunt you. I would encourage you to take your time to understand the basic arguments he spells out, because the parallel that will be drawn between computing and the brain is a powerful one. Enjoy!


I’ve been contemplating the nature of computing; and how our brains relate to computers. I found a parallel I’d like to share.

Let’s take the following code (C#):

david1

This code will initialize a place in memory to 0, and increment it to 10000. Essentially counting from 0 to 10000 and doing nothing with the value.

This code takes 418 ticks (0.0000418 seconds) to run on my computer.

Now, let’s observe the value of i every time it increments:

david2

This code will print the value of i to the console every time it increments. So it will display 1 2 3 4 5 6 …  to a console window, until it reaches 10000.

This code takes 76,107,513 ticks (7.611 seconds) to run on my computer.

Developers know that observing memory in a human readable format is the most costly operation to take. According to the above, it takes 182,075 times more time to observe what is going on inside my computer.

A computer is optimized to think internally, in language that it understands. When I ask to see output, it has to do considerable work. It is in my best interest to only inquire on these values when it is absolutely necessary.

If I count from 1 to 10,000 in my head. It will take considerably longer than 7 and a half seconds. But certainly my mind can count much faster. There is a space in my brain that is holding my current value as I count. I would like to believe that my brain can increment that memory to 10000 in 418 ticks. But if I try to observe that happening, I am inherently slowing the operation down. I can’t even think the word “one” in 418 ticks.

However, I don’t have a way to consciously instruct my brain to execute the first set of code. I don’t know how to tell it to do something if I am not observing it. This leads to the conclusion that our brains are only reporting a minuscule amount of their internal processing.

Let’s look at the side of a die:

david3

Let’s pretend that your brain hasn’t memorized that image and knows it to be six (called memoization in computing).

If I ask my brain to tell me how many dots are in this image, the only logical method it can take is to scan the image, and increment a counter every time it encounters a dot. And finally, tell me the final value of the counter.

To pretend I can write brain code, I imagine it would look like this:

david4

Now consider how a toddler would determine the amount of dots. The would likely say out loud “one, two…”. They are observing their brains. They are interrupting what is extremely fast, and asking for a process that is extremely slow.

To conclude, this all leads me to wonder; what is my brain up to when I’m not watching? Has my brain made decisions that I have yet to observe? Is meditation beneficial because we stop observing our brains, and in doing so allow it to work at maximum speed? Can I learn to stop observing my brain so much and only retrieve output when it is necessary?

Fin

– David Henning

B27

I had to spend the night at Gate B27.

Ever have one of those weeks that just feels like the whole thing is conspiring against you? What can go wrong will go wrong. You might as well stretch some bedding out on the couch, move some pillows, and dig up a spare blanket, because your old college buddy, Murphy, is going to stay a while. Dixie and I just had one of those weeks.

I don’t want to really bait and switch you here. I’m not asking for a bunch of comments and messages asking if we’re okay. We are. But the situations that have arisen recently aren’t far enough in the past for me to really reflect on teachable moments or deep insights. Our temporal proximity to ground zero is very close, and the dust hasn’t quite settled. We’re healthy, we’re safe. We’re just emotionally rattled.

However, recently, I do have a recurring memory, reminding me of the time that I spent a whole night trying to get some sleep on the grey, office carpet of Gate B27 in the Denver International Airport. I was on my first business trip out of the state, flying to Wisconsin for work at a couple gas terminals. This was not my first trip of this nature for the summer project, but it was the first and only that required detailed travel plans like flights and rental cars.

The itinerary was as follows: Fly from Montana to Denver for a short dinnertime layover. Fly from Denver to Minneapolis. Pick up rental car and go for a 3 hour nighttime drive to the hotel. Get 7 hours of sleep before reporting fresh to work.

It was an excellent plan if I do say so myself. Maximum efficiency. But context clues have probably shown you the major flaw: delays. My first flight was late by about an hour in arriving to Montana, causing my short dinnertime layover to shrink to about 20 minutes. Okay, doable, but cutting it close. Then! Then, our aircraft is directed into a holding pattern above Denver due to a large amount of traffic. My 20 minute window becomes 15, then 10, then 2. I believe I watched my Minnesota bound plane takeoff without me from the supreme comfort of my upright, tray-table forbidden seat, thousands of feet in the air.

Okay, connection missed. Do I want to stay mad about it? First, I confirm on my airline app that my bag is set aside, to discover that I’ve been automatically booked for the next, soonest available flight that takes off at 0700 the next morning. It is 2145 now. At least my flight is booked, bag secured. Check. Win for systems and customer service. I call the car rental company to let them know I will be about 14 hours late. Check. Win for tech and communication. Now for some dinner. I wander the B concourse for so long trying to make a dinner choice, that they all close except for McDonald’s. I approach the McDonald’s counter as the sharp-suited business man ahead of me finishes his order and just as the employee puts up the “closed” sign. That employee walks off, and the look of dumb bewilderment that involuntarily twisted my face must have made her feel some degree of sympathy and pity, because an angel of McDonald’s moves the sign, and takes my hurried and thankful order with a smile. She was willing to take the ire and anger of her coworkers having to create one more order, of which she took much, visually and audibly. I tipped her personally and privately for stepping in like that. Win for humanity.

So the details are worked out, a mostly satisfying meal has begun the digestive process, and then it dawns on me, “I think I have to sleep here tonight.” I was taking each detail in stride and as they arose in importance, I lost sight of the big picture. DIA might just be my overlarge, overpriced bedroom for the night. I called my wife up home to give her the news. I search for a customer service desk for my airline to look into vouchers and hotels. All the desks have now been vacated. They’ve gone home. I’ve missed that window too. I find my next flight on the monitor and meander my way down to Gate B27.

The story basically ends there. I eventually take off in the morning, get the car, make the drive, and start work right away. I slept for about 13 hours after leaving work. Back at the airport and in the timeline, I stuffed my laundry bag with clean clothes for a pillow, wrapped my bag straps around my legs, scooted under a row of chairs, headphones in, phone charging and gripped tightly, and tried to sleep. If you’ve ever tried this, you know how futile my attempt to sleep really was. I’m on carpeted concrete, no padding, no insulation, no darkness, no comfort. And it turns out, an airport really never sleeps! Lights stay on, cleaning crews sweep the area in trained formation, red eye customers walking and talking, gate and departure announcements over the intercom, planes and trucks still constantly moving outside in the tarmac.

I really can’t tell why this memory is popping up this week, amidst today’s struggles and questions. As if the present didn’t need my full attention. But I can remember an odd peace, not resignation, but acceptance throughout my fitful night in the airport. I remember sitting at B27 and thinking, “This air travel system is incredibly complex. There are bound to be some glitches. This just is.”

Maybe that’s what my past is trying to remind my present? This just is. Do you want to stay mad about these circumstances largely out of your control? Does it benefit anyone for you to yell at the closing McDonalds employee? Can you celebrate and be inspired by the systems that put you and your bag on the next flight? Can you be grateful and generous with the woman willing to serve you dinner after closing time? Can you enjoy the extra time to read and listen to podcasts? This just is.

Between every stimulus and response, there is a choice. That’s what I’m teaching me this week. Anakephalaiosasthai. So let me revise my opening line:

I had got to spend the night at Gate B27.

Cat

I recently allowed a cat under my roof. And I’ve made an agreement with this little ball of feline fur, that as long as she knows I’m the pride male and get to set boundaries based on where the photons emitted by our star’s nuclear fusion reaction make impact with our apartment’s interior*, then she and I can be friends in a mutually beneficial relationship. In other words, she’s an indoor cat. And being an indoor cat, we’ve been learning to share living space together.

As with any new addition to a household or family, once the initial “aw cute!” phase wears off, there is a trove full of lessons to be learned as we begin to adjust to each other. I believe that life is so much more interesting if I assume that everyone and everything can be my teacher, so I ought to be open to wisdom in whatever form it is packaged as a humble student. So in no particular order, I’ve been collecting some observations that Dinah, the cat, has helped me recognize and put into words.

  • Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary. When my wife and I first began the process of adopting Dinah, we thought we would like to rename her Pudding. There was no particular reason why, beyond we liked how cute the name Pudding is. But on her first day in our apartment while she was doing her initial exploration, we learned that she actually recognized the name Dinah and responded by looking up at us and coming toward our outstretched hand. So she was never Pudding to us, she will always be Dinah. — I identify as some sort of Christian outside of American evangelicalism, call is more progressive or liberal Christianity maybe. And I’ve noticed within this particular movement, there is an interesting aversion to holding onto the traditionally used and accepted metaphors for God, such as God the Father. I’ve read and heard many critiques of “father” being overly patriarchal and misogynist, thereby we must wholesale reject that metaphor for God the Mother, All-Spirit, or Creator. All are metaphors that add and enrich my own conception of God, but I’m not so sure we need to throw out the Father because it makes some uncomfortable. Especially when literal millennia of the Church has operated under the baptism of our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary.
  • Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love. If you have a pet, you know that your pet is named something, and then there are the bastardizations of that name ad infinitum. Unfortunately, many of them for me quickly devolved into blatant insults toward the cat. So even disguised as a joke, calling my cat ugly names became my habit whenever I was feeling annoyed with her or chastising her for breaking our terms of agreement. This habit painfully revealed itself to me when I was attending to my two year old niece recently at dinner, my human niece (to be 100% clear, not my cat), who was trying to stand up in her high chair, and I accidentally slipped one of the many ugly names I’ve called my cat as I was trying to get my niece to cooperate with fun Uncle Stephen. At that moment, I knew I had to change that habit immediately. Even as a joke, I never want my niece or my own future children to be torn down by an ugly habit like name calling, especially from their uncle or father. And neither will my cat hear such things again, because habits do not discriminate, positive or negative. Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love.
  • Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce when they are breached. My one primary rule for Dinah is that she does not get to walk where human food is stored, prepared, and served. Cabinets, countertops, sink and table are strictly off limits. We quickly established this upon her arrival, by her being abruptly launched in an upward, airborne trajectory when she first explored the space. I did not intend to harm in the slightest, but we established that boundary early and forcefully. And we agree on it now. Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce.
  • Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity? Along with dealing with spacial boundaries, we’re finding that it’s a training and adaptation to get her to sharpen her claws on the designated spots instead of the back corner of my favorite chair. I understand that cats engage this ritual to simultaneously trim and sharpen their ever growing claws, and that perhaps, this offers me a chance to check in with my own sharpening practices? Do I exercise enough? Do I read and write enough to challenge my own preconceived notions? Do I have stimulating conversations on those ideas that I read and write? Do I allow pushback and critique from trusted mentors, partners and friends? Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity?
  • A little mess is all part of it. A house that’s ready at a moment’s notice for that perfect Instagram shot is just not a realistic expectation. Perfect order is a neurotic utopia, which is hard for someone like me to hear and know. A little foreign smell, a little free floating cat hair is just part of my life now, teaching me to know that a little mess is all part of it.
  • With the proper degree of openness, I can learn from anyone and anything. Life is most interesting to me when my default stance is that everyone is my teacher. And I’ve quickly realized that this cat will spend her entire life running me through doctorate level studies in patience. My cat enjoys two things, food and attention. Both of which she is not shy about asking for, loudly… at 0430 in the morning. Pet owners can relate to that moment when your pet makes it crystal clear that you haven’t fed them in, let’s say, the last 20 minutes. They either lightly paw at the food box and meow to win your pity and affection, or they glare at you from behind a dark corner with that look in their eye that can only come from behind the yellow eyes of an ancient, instinctual, only slightly domesticated predator. And this can really get on my nerves, which is slowly revealing to me that my patience wears thinnest where any unplanned inconvenience threatens my own agenda. I can learn from anyone and anything with the proper degree of openness.
  • Curiosity is natural to the cat, while I am actively retraining myself in it. Curiosity could certainly eventually kill the cat, I totally get the cliche now. She is often looking into closets when we have them open, crawling under the couch, exploring window sills and desks, she is even learning how to pry open the bottom kitchen cabinets to get a peak. At first, this frustrated me. “There is nothing interesting here for you.” – Said the human, uninterested in the contents of a cabinet, to the creature that can find endless enjoyment inside a cardboard box. For her, every corner, door, and surface is potentially her new favorite place to hide, nap, or groom. That natural curiosity is expected and should never be discouraged, in fact, I am actively retraining myself in curiosity because of her.
  • Adapting to a cat in the house is teaching me to use a slower pace and practice greater body awareness. When she’s looking for attention, she likes to nuzzle against our calves and ankles, which is usually never an issue if we are sitting down to read or watch a movie, but if we’re strolling into the kitchen at night for a drink of water, this fun habit of hers becomes dangerous to us both. Me, at risk of tripping, her at risk of flattening. She’s inadvertently teaching me to practice mindfulness in all my limbs, simply noticing the feel of the floor and the light brush of fur on my ankles. In addition, I’ve realized that I just need to be slowing down more often to give her a kind petting, scratch between the ears, or a playful belly rub.
  • Cats are worth petting just by the fact that they are cute, soft, and enjoy it, probably more than you enjoy petting them. I’ll just leave this quick quote from Jordan Peterson’s rule 12 of his monstrously popular 12 Rules for Life book: “Cats are their own creatures. They aren’t social or hierarchical (except in passing). They are only semi-domesticated. They don’t do tricks. They are friendly on their own terms. Dogs have been tamed, but cats have made a decision. They appear willing to interact with people, for some strange reasons of their own. To me, cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form. Furthermore, they are a form of Being that looks at human beings and approves… Maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. [So] pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”

*(“Everything the light touches, is our kingdom”… Lion King quote for those playing along at home)