Curious About Everything Newsletter #8

How to cultivate gratitude even in tragedy, plus reads about dengue fever, bright blue animals, agoraphobia, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Many people have asked me about my writing process over the years. It’s deeply un-scientific. When I feel like writing, and it is a feeling, I write. This does not include the more service-y posts on my site, like sleeping tips or celiac guides. But when it comes to narrative, I either have the tingly “have-to-drop-everything-and-write” feeling—or I don’t.

While I haven’t written on Legal Nomads lately, I have shared a few longer Instagram posts. I’m opening this month’s newsletter with them. They are both quite personal, and I shared both of them after the last CAE went out. Based on the comments to each, they seem to be helpful to readers.

Click on the photos to read the captions in full. If you can’t access them, please reply to this message and I’ll share them to you via email.

The first relates to the challenge of finding joy even when life is not going well, or as you planned. Though it is less appealing than simply waking up one day in gratitude, finding beauty within the ugliness of tragedy is a skill, and one I have had to work hard to cultivate. I share more about what that looks like, here:

A post shared by @legalnomads

And yesterday, a second post about weathering the storms of life, and how we cannot know what will come, but we can try every day—and keep trying even when we fail at trying—to sit with the chaos as it unfolds. In doing so, we can still dedicate ourselves to finding that sliver of joy:

A post shared by @legalnomads

That “need to write” feeling I shared above crops up with my Instagram captions as well. With an ongoing CSF leak, it’s easier to write with my thumbs in short form than it is on my site. I don’t plan these ahead of time; for each of these two pictures above, I woke up and had the word-tingles*, so I shared more about what I was feeling.

I’m grateful and humbled that those thoughts seem to have resonated with so many readers and friends.

*Yes, word-tingles is the official description for this feeling, at least in Jodiland.

If you enjoyed this free newsletter & want to support me further, please consider joining my Patreon community. Your small monthly fee will provide me with ongoing income at a time where my CSF leak prevents me from working as I used to:

Check out my Patreon!

5 Interesting Things I Read This Month:

1/ My Father Vanished When I Was 7. The Mystery Made Me Who I Am. | New York Times Magazine, June 15, 2021. By Nicholas Casey.

* link for those without a NYT subscription, here.

Beautifully-written piece that came out around North America’s Father’s Day celebrations, about Casey’s search for his missing father and the profound meditation on all that it evokes in him.

I spent much of my life imagining who I was — and then becoming that person — through vague clues about who my father was. These impressions led me to high school Spanish classes and to that class trip to Cuba; they had sent me traveling to Latin America and making a life and career there. For a while after learning the truth about who my father was — a Black man from Oklahoma — I wondered whether that changed something essential about me.

Part of me wants to think that it shouldn’t. It’s the part of me that secretly liked being an only child because I thought it made me unique in the world. And even though I have five siblings now, that part of me still likes to believe we each determine who we are by the decisions we make and the lives we choose to live.

The portraits that accompany the piece are a perfect vehicle for its message too. The piece could have just told the story in a matter-of-fact way, but by sharing the maelstrom of emotions that come with a lost parent suddenly found, Casey prompts us all to think about questions of identity and purpose.

2/ How Animals Color Themselves With Nanoscale Structures. | Quanta Magazine, June 16, 2021. By Viviane Callier.

Nature is full of bright colours and species, from fish to lizards to birds and much more. We know how many of these animals use their colour, often as camouflage, but how do their coats of fur or their feathers end up so bright? For many colours, it’s from pigments that animals can eat.

But for blue colours, what gives? There are few blues to eat in nature but we have bright blue birds and frogs and other animals to ooh and ahh over. Scientists have figured out that these bright blues are not produced by the animals, nor are they consumed in food. In actuality, they’re present via the “precise self-assembly of miniscule features in and on the feathers, scales, hair and skin” — essentially evolving optical illusions at nanoscale.

“It’s about having multiple tiny structures that scatter light, and then having those scattered waves interact — that interaction will reinforce some colors and eliminate the others,” explained Richard Prum, an expert on bird-feather coloration at Yale University.

So basically, minuscule crystals in and on feathers, scales, hair and skin.

Nature is amazing.

From the piece: the incredible iridescence of the blue morpho butterfly (top) comes from the way that structures in its wing scales (bottom) diffract and reflect blue light while absorbing other parts of the spectrum.

Per Quanta, this discovery may have some real-world advantages too:

The discovery suggests that crystals like this can self-assemble, which is encouraging for engineers looking for better ways to make materials for photonic applications. To transmit blue light more efficiently, for example, a fiber-optic cable could be lined with the kind of blue-reflecting material found in the leafbird so that no blue photons can escape.

“All the optical fibers that are now laboriously made with precision engineering — birds do it by self-assembly,” Prum said. Learning how to grow self-assembled photonic devices “would be a real cost savings.”

Fascinating read!

3/ I Learned How to Cope with Agoraphobia. The Pandemic Eroded It All. | VICE, July 1, 2021. By Talia Lavin

What happens in a post-pandemic world for those with conditions that make “the reopening” a fearful experience, not a celebratory one? My active spinal CSF leak means that my life won’t change too much this summer even as society in North America opens up. For Talia Lavin, however, the issue is not physical but one of paralyzing agoraphobia.

[E]verything was colored by anxiety, as if it were an impermissive chaperone: I can do this, I can’t do that; that’s too much and that isn’t. It was a constantly shifting set of parameters to live my life through, but one that permitted me some measure of mediated freedom. Until the pandemic. For a year and a half, my anxiety’s natural instincts—to stay at home, surrounded by trusted people—became the way of things. I no longer had to force myself to run a daily gauntlet of low-level fear. Unchallenged, the fears became stronger, and multiplied. I have seen an erosion, and then a disappearance, of my abilities, gradually and then faster and faster, into the big black maw of a fear that’s swallowed my life and left me little.

Her moving, devastating piece takes us on the roller coaster of who she was prior to her disease, and how as her adventures caved inward, her grief ballooned.

I’ve stood on stages with that same mic in my hand, felt the hot burst of laughter from a thousand throats at once evoked by my own words, and I know the sheer power and the high of it. Then the disease came on and the adventures got smaller and smaller until there were none. I grieve that self, and wonder at her, that hot-blooded heedless person who didn’t know what she was going to lose.

As the pandemic ebbs in her home of New York City, she faces the challenge of trying to claw herself back from the edges of despair.

Brave piece, well worth a read. And it’s also worth remembering that not everyone can celebrate a world re-opened, both because many places are still being ravaged by COVID-19, and because for for some people their internal battles rage.

4/ A Pivotal Mosquito Experiment Could Not Have Gone Better. | The Atlantic, June 10, 2021. By Ed Yong.

Dengue is very relevant to my interests, so this long piece about defanging the disease by one of my favourite science writers was a guaranteed inclusion into this month’s newsletter.

Dengue is a very tough virus, since has four different “types” (called serotypes) and getting infected by one serotype doesn’t mean you won’t be infected by another. Once you do get infected by another serotype, your likelihood of developing severe and potentially lethal symptoms goes up. Attempts to develop vaccines have not panned out due to the complications of these different types.

The dengue problem is one that scientists are continually trying to solve, since the virus infects an estimated 390 million people a year, killing around 25,000. As climate change continues, Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads dengue fever, thrives.

Enter a very different kind of solution to the dengue problem: a bacterium called Wolbachia. Scientists have “loaded the mosquitoes” with it, and it actually prevents the mosquitoes from being infected by dengue viruses altogether. Plus, since Wolbachia spreads very quickly, it only takes a small number of carrier mosquitoes to be set free into an area for it to infect almost all of the local insects. As Yong notes in the piece, “[i]t’s as if Utarini’s team vaccinated a few individuals against a disease, and soon after the whole population had herd immunity.”

So what did the world’s first Wolbachia experiment teach us?

The team found that just 2.3 percent of feverish people who lived in the Wolbachia release zones had dengue, compared with 9.4 percent in the control areas. Wolbachia also seemed to work against all four dengue serotypes, and reduced the number of dengue hospitalizations by 86 percent.

Promising news, that no doubt will be trialled elsewhere. And, to make things even more hopeful, Wolbachia seems to work against the other diseases that Aedes aegypti carries, like.

5/ How to Reject Bad Stories About Who You Are | Ask Polly, June 28, 2021. By Heather Havrilesky.

I’ve followed Heather Havrilesky’s advice column “Ask Polly” around the web, from The Awl to New York Mag and now to Substack. Her advice is always no-nonsense but lyrical, patient but firm. This one is about fearful storytelling, and the trap of perfection so often broadcast on social media.

But it is just that, a trap.

Whenever you feel like you’re fucking up, it’s probably time to audit your laziest and most fearful stories about your life and pick apart your easy morals about where you’ve been and who you are. Soon you might discover that you don’t even want the stuff you feel you’re supposed to want. Or you want things that you’ve told yourself you shouldn’t want.

As I say in the long Instagram captions I linked to to kick off this month’s CAE: it takes a lot of work to dig for the truth about what you truly want day to day. And when life goes topsy turvy, you probably need to do it all over again. “Most of us need regular reminders of what we love the most,” says Havrilesky. To connect to our lives, we have to disconnect from the projected “shoulds” and actually, intentionally create a narrative based on what we actually do want.

Videos of the Month

1/ My favourite book as a kid was Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, first published in 1947. So I was excited to stumble upon a filmstrip of Goodnight Moon from 1984 that was preserved by Uncommon Ephemera. The visuals in the fimstrip are the originals from the book itself, bursting with additional colour.

I reached out to include it in this newsletter, and UE wanted me to let you know that the “beeeep” between segments was to indicate to the projectionist that the film needed to be advanced. UE kept them in as they were also in the original.

Filmstrips were used in classes in lieu of 16mm film projectors, which were expensive and finicky. Uncommon Ephemera has been saving these filmstrips from the forgotten dust of history and archiving them digitally to preserve them. You can find UE on Patreon, here.

2/ This drone footage of sheep, sped up into fluid motion, by aerial photographer Lior Patel was absolutely mesmerizing. It reminded me of the soothing shapes of starlings in flight. His “murmurations of sheep” were filmed in Yokneam, Israel, over the course of the last seven months.

Grab Bag!

Sundry things that caught my attention.

  • No, you can’t recycle bowling balls. But people sure keep trying.

  • En eerie, creepy piece from Slate about a woman who met (and almost dated) a serial killer, seemingly before he started killing. It’s a story of lucky evasion and sad consequences—and denial.

  • 2021 Big Picture photo winners, all so beautiful. Two of my favourites below: (1) a beautiful picture of two ravens preening each other from Mount Seymour Provincial Park in Canada, and by Shane Kayln, and (2) barracuda in Koror, Palau by Yung-Sen Wu.

    See the rest of the pictures here.

I hope my Canadian and American friends had a good holiday weekend. Celebrations of Canada Day were rightfully subdued this year, at least where I am, due to the latest discovery of the mass graves of children from the residential schools in Saskatchewan. Please see my last newsletter for more background about the gruesome horror of residential schools in Canada.

That’s it for this month. Until August,