Curious About Everything Newsletter #6

Pho, small miracles, our collective languishing, & more in this instalment of the CAE newsletter.

Curious About Everything, a newsletter by Jodi Ettenberg

This month was an eventful one, in a variety of ways.

1/ First, there was the unsolicited pic that some dude sent me of his junk on Instagram, which led to a perfect use of an Effin’ Birds image if I’ve ever seen one:

(Yes, I did actually screenshot and forward to his mother. He sent me his picture via DM on social media, and also made the mistake of tagging his mother in an earlier photo. No, she has not responded, but my message has been viewed.)

2/ Then, there was an absolutely bonkers story that I wrote about on Legal Nomads. Briefly, at the same time that I was in the ER getting that botched spinal tap that would leave me disabled, the apartment I was house-sitting for in Brooklyn was being burgled. Of course, I didn’t know that until I came home from the hospital in the middle of the night. The thief used my bag, among other things, to steal our valuables. 3.5 years later, the bag turned up again—in a very unexpected place. It’s a short post, but a crazy story. Messed me up for a few weeks, let me tell you.

3/ Spring is here! I’ve been able to do some walks in the woods. Progress is relative with my constellation of conditions, but as against the prior season I have made improvements in my mobility and physical strength that I am grateful for.

4/ The Patreon is moving along—we are up to 216 patrons now. It’s so fun to work on.

5/ Also, I’ve opened comments to these newsletters, because I completely forgot that was an option. Whoops. Comment awaaaay!

Now, to those links.

The Best Pieces I Read This Month:

1/ Pho: The Humble Soup That Caused an Outrage | BBC Travel, April 22, 2021. By Lili Tu.

While I enjoy birds, my heart will always belong to soup. I’m starting this month off with an in-depth piece about the origins of something I love: pho. I only spent a few years in Vietnam, most of it in the South. My life there revolved around street food. The beauty of Vietnam’s food is why I chose to stay there for so long. And as a celiac, Vietnamese food was an endless feast that, with some discernment, didn’t get me sick.

Tu opened the piece with a recent controversy, and moved on to the history of pho itself and why labels matter.

Pho, a fragrant, nourishing and gently spiced beef and rice noodle soup, is relatively new in the Vietnamese culinary canon – only appearing in written records in the early 20th Century – but the history of this humble soup is both as subtle and complex as its flavour.

And, like many foods around the world:

Whatever pho's origins, it is both beloved across the country as its national dish and a matter of fierce local pride and contention, where each region has its own preferred take on the ingredients.

It’s a good read, brought back memories, and is full of great quotes from Vietnamese chefs and authors like, "I personally would call it a dish that unites and tears us apart. […] If you want to make Vietnamese fight each other, ask them which pho is the best.” With so much sad, heavy news this month I wanted to start off with something lighter and more delicious.

2/ We Are Witnessing a Crime Against Humanity | The Guardian, April 28, 2021. By Arundhati Roy

Earlier on in the pandemic, India defied concerns and fared fairly well even as other countries’ health systems collapsed in the face of COVID-19. Studies showed that 1 in 5 people had antibodies for the virus, so it seems to have spread there—but without overwhelming the healthcare system. As we’ve read and seen with growing horror, those days are gone. Today, the country is awash in positive cases, with shortages for oxygen and beds leading people to plea on social media for medical care. Crematoriums are so full that pyres have been set up in the streets to cremate the many dead. Many statisticians and journalists have treated the death count—reported in the thousands per day—to be a vast undercount. The Financial Times’ data analyst John Burn-Murdoch estimates closer to tens of thousands, based on cremation data and excess death statistics.

There are many horrifying posts about this, but I wanted to share one that answers the question many of us are asking: what happened? Per Roy, much of it is politics, with Modi turning his back on the needs of the country:

The system hasn’t collapsed. The government has failed. Perhaps “failed” is an inaccurate word, because what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity. Virologists predict that the number of cases in India will grow exponentially to more than 500,000 a day. They predict the death of many hundreds of thousands in the coming months, perhaps more. My friends and I have agreed to call each other every day just to mark ourselves present, like roll call in our school classrooms. We speak to those we love in tears, and with trepidation, not knowing if we will ever see each other again. We write, we work, not knowing if we will live to finish what we started. Not knowing what horror and humiliation awaits us. The indignity of it all. That is what breaks us.

In addition to the piece above: see

  • More on the excess deaths from NYT

  • On how Modi could have prevented this wave, but didn’t.

  • 15 ways to help India during their second wave, here.

3/ Hummingbirds and the Ecstatic Moment | Orion Magazine, April 8, 2021. By Jeff VanderMeer

Back to birds. Jeff VanderMeer, who the New Yorker deemed “the weird Thoreau”, is a writer long known to focus on the environment in his books and pieces. In his writing, though, there is always a hummingbird. And this deeply personal essay explains why.

When he was eight, and sick with asthma in the high altitude of Cuzco, Peru, he watched hummingbirds outside the window.

As I watched them, I started to cry, because I was so weary and tired of being tired that it was, in my condition, too much, too intense, too much beauty. How I felt, too, in a way that seems sentimental now, like this was the most amazing thing I would ever see, and nothing else would compare. And I couldn’t figure out how to process this miracle, this wonderment, and already the bittersweet of it alongside the fear that I’d die of asthma. Even now, more than four decades later, it is hard not to tear up thinking about that moment.

“All our wounds are entanglements and we don’t always understand the physicality of that,” VanderMeer writes. The contrast between the lightness and the heaviness, the confusion of it all, it wears you down. But, as I have asked myself in my own life and challenges, “why are we not always and forever, in every moment, overwhelmed by the miracle of the world?”

4/ There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling: It's Called Languishing | The New Yorker, April 19, 2021. By Adam Grant

I suspect this piece will be relatable to many, especially those who have the privilege of not being on the front lines right now:

"Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you're muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021. As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-haul Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic. It hit some of us unprepared as the intense fear and grief of last year faded."


 "Part of the danger is that when you're languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don't catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you're indifferent to your indifference. When you can't see your own suffering, you don't seek help or even do much to help yourself." (I disagree with this diagnosis, but I really don't have the energy to explain why...)

Friends have referred to this as “Covid brain”, a general listlessness for everything and anything as the uncertainty of the future continues to unfurl. As some countries start to get their lives back on track pandemic-wise, others like India are coming apart at many seams. The constant onslaught of depressing information, and extreme rise in disinformation, makes it all languishing-ier. (And apparently, many people are handling this by buying cute things that look like COVID-19, drawn to cute versions of things that terrify.)

5/ If Nothing Lasts, What is Happiness? | Yung Pueblo Notes, April 20, 2021. By Yung Pueblo.

When you embody an anxious space, the times that are calm can create more anxiety in their unfamiliarity. Things feel like they’re going well, so when will the other shoe drop? Part of doing The Work is, as Pueblo writes, to “find balance in the understanding of impermanence, the knowing that nothing can last forever.”

But that leaves us all with a pretty important lesson: if nothing lasts forever, then how do we find happiness? Isn’t it just human nature to want a life full of good things? “Happiness is not possession or pleasure, these two are too fleeting to be dependable,” Pueblo says. And,

Happiness is the letting go of craving and no longer being dominated by the endless pursuit of control. When you let go of wanting what you like to be permanent and wishing what you dislike to never have happened, you allow the fluidity of wisdom to enter your mind. Getting stuck in the loop of always craving for more is one of the fastest ways to fill your mind with struggle. The extremes of control and resistance, or better stated, craving and aversion, keep the mind locked in tension, never really allowing it to fully embrace reality for what it is.

This adjustment allows you to exist in the possible, without attaching to the (good or bad) inevitable. And as with anything in life, adjustments mean you’re learning and evolving, which is to your benefit—even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes.

6/ The Emerging Jews of Colombia: Why are so many Christians in this South American country converting to Orthodox Judaism? | Washington Post Magazine, April 14, 2021. By Heidi Paster Harf

Fascinating, unexpected read about “emergentes”, evangelical Christians who have shed their previous religious doctrines to convert to Orthodox Judaism in Colombia.

“It was a calling of the soul,” Devorah Guilah Koren, who converted from Catholicism with her husband and two children, told me. “More than a religion, [Orthodox Judaism] was a way of thinking and conduct that satisfied all of our needs.”

The emerging Jews are not associated with any traditional organization in Colombia, or in the US, but rather serve as a parallel community with many of the emerging rabbis trained in Israel. The emergentes have formed their own independent organization, following similar laws to other Orthodox Jewish communities around the world.

I hadn’t heard of this community prior, and found the piece interesting especially the questions about identity and what it ultimately is. Many marginalized groups will say that being accepted as you are is far more important than others may realize. I’m a big believer in family of choice; sometimes the family you were given will not see you for you who actually are. Thankfully, I do not have this problem myself, but I support the friends who do and am honoured to be considered as family for some of them.

Is identity something we are born into, or something we create?

Grab Bag!

Sundry things that caught my attention.

  • I forgot to share this breathtaking piece from last month, about conservation efforts by a group of women to rescue a giant bird (the Greater Adjutant Stork) that lives among garbage heaps in India. The group aims to “bring the birds into the hearts, minds and cultures of the people”. I can get behind that.

  • Speaking of birds, a new paper in i-Perception Journal collected 20,000 pictures of birds on Instagram and the corresponding data about likes to determine the “most liked bird” there. I guess I’m just a statistic because the winner was one of my favourite birds, the Frogmouth. The scientists do not feel the same way, however, because the paper notes, “the ranking demonstrates that the score is not necessarily tied to the beauty of the depicted bird”. Burn. How can you not find this sheepish muppet of a bird beautiful?! (Am I the only one?)

  • Is a lack of small talk breaking our brains? Maybe! “An inability to chit-chat means an inability to connect—the detriments of no small talk are really the detriments of isolation.”

  • Engaging, interactive data-viz of Reddit, including searches for subreddits and their links to others in the ecosystem.

  • Rock climbers find new jobs keeping wind turbines working safely as Wind turbine technicians. “It’s like building a surfboard while riding it, especially on those high-wind stormy days.”

  • By Owen Phillips, every colour of cardigan Mister Rogers wore in the Neighbourhood from 1969-2001, presented in chronological order:

Until next month!