Curious About Everything Newsletter #5

Learn about: the dangers of meditation, the experience of going viral (online, not the pandemic sort), why animals don't get lost, and more.

Curious About Everything, a newsletter by Jodi Ettenberg

April 1st marked 13 years of Legal Nomads, and 13 years since I left my job as a corporate lawyer to travel the world.

In terms of geography, my life now is very small compared to the bulk of those 13 years. In terms of mobility and self-sufficiency, too. These limitations were there for me pre-pandemic, and will be there post-pandemic, whenever and however it ends.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, the thirst for learning that led me to travel is there, and has taken me on all sorts of unexpected journeys through the brain and the spine and meditation and birds and resilience. The fact that this community has come along with me has been supportive and wonderful. (Even the ones who don’t like birds! I had one person write in to say he had a phobia of flying animals, especially birds, but he still joined my Patreon because he’s a long time LN reader ❤️)

When I quit my law job in 2008, I never anticipated that it could be a long-term change. Those first years of travel with no smartphone, little social media, occasional updates via a shared laptop, were a concentrated time of carefree exploration. I hadn’t quit to run away from something I didn’t like; I’d left to run toward something I knew I loved.

I mentioned on Instagram that I used to get angry parents writing me to accuse me of influencing their kids to make ‘irresponsible’ decisions. These days, with so many resources and digital nomad bootcamps and long guides (hey, even I wrote one) it seems strange that it would be met with that much backlash. But in 2008 - not that long ago! - there was no big location independent / remote work movement and many of the wonderful friends I met were (like me) not aware that there was a name for what we are doing.

Looking back on what I was able to experience, I’m glad I made the choices I did. This includes not only travel, but also going to law school at 19, working in BigLaw and then taking a leap into the unknown. My legal background and training comes in handy in synthesizing the overload of information that comes with having a constellation of rare health conditions.

And the leap, well, I can’t imagine how I’d feel knowing what I know now about my genes/health had I stayed at my desk until later. Later, at least in terms of the travel and adventure I’d always dreamed of, may never have arrived.

Thank you for coming along on this ride, as bumpy as it’s been.

The 5 Most Interesting Things I Read This Month

1/ Why Animals Don't Get Lost | The New Yorker, March 29, 2021. By Kathryn Schulz

Every animal on earth knows how to navigate, and scientists have been long confused about exactly they how they are able to pull off true navigation, the ability to reach a distant destination without the aid of landmarks. One of my favourite writers tackles why animals are so good at staying the course and not getting lost in the process, and examines what we as humans can learn from them.

Each of [their] strategies requires one or more biological mechanisms, which is where the science of animal navigation gets interesting—because, to have a sense of direction, a given species might also need to have, among other faculties, something like a compass, something like a map, a decent memory, the ability to keep track of time, and an information-rich awareness of its environment.

Yes, some animals have a “map sense” but that doesn’t explain the wonder of what happens in the animal world. Birds become better navigators during their first long flight, and older birds can be taken 6,000 miles off course and still find their way to where they needed to go. Schulz’s piece goes into the various theories explaining an animal’s internal compass, but also how our urban living has both disrupted our own navigational skillset, and is disrupting those of animals.

But it is not just our own navigational capacities that we humans are endangering. Everything that has caused those to deteriorate—our increasing urbanization, our overreliance on automobiles, our ever more distant relationship to the natural world—is also wreaking havoc on the ability of other animals to get where they are going.

Interesting read.

2/ Inside a Viral Website| Substack, March 31, 2021. By Tom Neill.

Different kind of viral than the one we’re talking about most of the time these days. You may remember the single-topic site Is This Ship Still Stuck, back from when the Ever Given was still wedged into the Suez Canal sideways. I know that in Pandemic Time it may feel like this happened ten years ago, but I assure you it was last month. Tom Neill, who built the site, gives us a delightful post-mortem on what it was like to run something that went absolutely bonkers on the internet for a short, intense period:

Running the site was incredibly fun, at times pretty damn stressful, and ultimately insanely addictive. It sort of felt like the nerdiest possible weekend-long rager. Writing this post is basically my post-night-out debrief.

Yes, there was a bonus Rickroll in there, too.

3/ Lost in Thought | Harpers Magazine, April 2021. By David Kortava.

Despite the almost universal lauding of meditation as a balm for anxiety and mental anguish, there are documented cases of people where a prolonged meditation course causes a form of sensory deprivation for the brain that can lead to mania, psychosis, and more. This piece by David Kortava dives into the psychological risks of meditation, the history of mindfulness, and notes that the adverse effects that are studied are nonetheless largely ignored by the media.

The brain is accustomed to a certain amount of activity. When you’re sitting motionless with your eyes closed for ten or more hours a day, he said, neurons can start firing on their own, unprompted by external stimulation, “and this might lead to unusual phenomena, which we call psychosis.”

I sat for a 10-day Vipassana course myself, and made sure to add David’s account to my post about my experience.

4/ Mourning and melancholia: the psychological shadow-pandemic? | New Statesman, March 10, 2021. By Sophie McBain.

Good piece synthesizing an aspect of the pandemic that isn’t discussed as readily as I would like. Lots of articles about grief and mental health generally, but not as readily the correlative “shadow-pandemic” of collective grief and the psychological impacts of COVID-19.

When people face a cataclysmic event for the first time, many of them struggle to identify the tangled mass feelings they experience as a form of grief. Why?

One reason may be that death is everywhere and it is nowhere. When, in August 2020, more than 200 people were killed in an explosion in Beirut, the miles of wreckage – flattened buildings, shattered glass, twisted metal – were visible from space, but when 1,820 deaths were registered in the UK on 20 January, the deadliest day of the pandemic so far, what most people saw was an uptick on a graph. Unless one of the hundreds of daily deaths is a person you know, you might scan a newspaper headline between checking your emails and brushing your teeth, and then get on with your day, determined to ignore the sense of dread looming at the edge of your consciousness.

There’s a future dissonance, then, between what many of us are experiencing en masse and the future ‘ok’ that will eventually result.

If months from now the sun is shining and the pubs are open and you still feel sad, that is because we’ve all lost people we love or things that are irreplaceable; it is because as individuals and as a nation we may still be searching for a way to find meaning and purpose amid all this pain.

5/ A Boy, His Brain, and a Decades-Long Medical Controversy | WIRED Magazine, March 25, 2021. By Seema Yasmin

When doctors disagree on the cause of an illness, where does that leave the patient? Many in the chronic illness world have seen their list of ailments get dismissed by some medical professionals. I was denied a blood patch both in New York and Montreal because “it’s not possible to be leaking this long from a lumbar puncture”.

Spoiler: it is. Thankfully, a specialist was willing to see me and patch. But the delay cost me in terms of recovery and prognosis.

This piece, about how one mother’s search for an explanation for her son’s sharp descent into illness led her to the controversial pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). Once treated for it, he improved significantly.

“Right in front of my eyes, all those mental illness symptoms melted away,” she says. The same thing happened with a 10-year-old boy who had an inflammatory disease of the spine. Overnight, he had developed OCD and tics. Frankovich called his pediatrician and mentioned Swedo’s research. The pair treated the boy with steroids. His symptoms melted away. To Frankovich, this suggested a sobering possibility: Thousands of sick kids around the country were being treated with psychiatric medications while the underlying cause of their illness—inflammation—went unnoticed. 


Many PANS patients and their families feel stuck on the wrong side of the threshold. “The system is not there for them in the same way it is for other illnesses,” Frankovich says. She points out that a child undergoing treatment for a brain tumor gets access to a specialized ward and a team of medical professionals and social workers. “But when a kid comes in with a mental health deterioration and their brain MRI is normal,” she says, the support network “walks away from them.”

Grab Bag!

Sundry things that caught my attention.

  • Valerie Hammond’s wax drawings mixing botany with biology (above)Just beautiful. She writes, “[f]or me, they became emblematic not only of the people whose hands I had traced but of my own evolving artistic process—testimony to the passing of time and the quiet dissolution of memory.

  • Does the world need a new pasta shape? Dan Pashman, host of TheSporkful podcast, thought so & embarked on a quest to build one. The result is cascatelli, Italian for "little waterfalls", a shape that has been 3 years in the making. You can follow his journey under the Mission Impastable tag on his site.

  • Pickup lines generated by AI: “I love you. I don't care if you're a doggo in a trenchcoat” and “You look like a stealth assassin from the clouds” and so much more.

  • The process of making fish sauce is straightforward: salt + fish + fermentation over time and in the sun. But what happens when you can’t or don’t eat seafood? Mama Dút fish sauce to the rescue! A profile piece about a vegan fish sauce that has people raving about its taste.

  • I’m Canadian, and of an age where I necessarily grew up obsessed with The Tragically Hip. I loved this sweet piece by an immigrant to Canada about why Canadians loved the band so much. "The people wearing "In Gord we Trust" T-shirts weren't just fans; they were identifying themselves as members of a club that had used this music as a soundtrack to their lives."

  • Why Can’t I Stop Staring At My Own Face on Zoom? Apparently, “you are trying to retain an identity that has been gradually eroded throughout the recent disruptions to public life.” Oh, ok then.

That’s it for this month! Thank you for reading, and a happy Passover or Easter (or Peaster!) to those who are celebrating them.