Castles in the Sky 32
Weight Loss, Civilization, and Good Reading
Welcome friends, deep thinkers, and daydreamers to the 32nd issue of Castles in the Sky!
Half of you are receiving this newsletter for the first time after reading A Pilgrimage for Book People or Do the weirdest thing that feels right.
I like to think you found your way here because of an awareness, whether subtle or acute, that something in life was missing. I felt it too, and it’s why I started writing.
After my daughter was born in 2022, the first time my wife and I left the house without her, we had a coffee date on the patio at a Starbucks next to Interstate-10. My wife asked me if I thought anything was missing from our otherwise lovely life. I talked about how grateful I was for our life, a healthy baby, and our parents nearby, but that something was missing.
I grew up in a secondhand bookstore, surrounded by thinkers and storytellers. That day over coffee I realized how highly I valued the intergenerational conversation and knowledge exchange happening in the books that made up my childhood. And despite so many things to be grateful for, I felt unfulfilled because I was thirty-four years old and had yet to start participating in that exchange.
Usually, I begin these newsletters by saying that here, I “share personal updates alongside a bit of truth, beauty, and humor to combat intellectual loneliness and existential boredom.” In A Pilgrimage for Book People, I said that “civilization lives in books.” The way I think of these statements, they reinforce one another.
This newsletter primarily serves as a workshop for my ideas - those that are either too short or not quite ready for a full essay. My end goal is to write books that tell stories and engage with big ideas. My essays, short fiction, and the bite-sized, sometimes disjointed stuff I share in the newsletters is how I broach these stories and ideas, and build a community around them.
Having two essays go somewhat viral was very distracting. The dopamine rush was honestly overwhelming, and I had to change the way I got Substack notifications. As a result, this is a jam-packed issue with three weeks’ worth of stuff even though I left a lot on the editing floor. In this issue:
I discuss weight loss and self-improvement in I have been contemplating where my environment starts and my character ends.
I share an early draft of an essay about an idea I’m working on in There are three impulses to civilization.
I highlight two good articles and a great book in Here’s some good stuff I read recently.
I have been contemplating where my environment starts and my character ends.
I have been chubby or fat for pretty much my whole life, save for five or six years from my late twenties and early thirties. In an otherwise full life, a little bit of my focus has always been pulled toward losing weight and exercising more.
When my daughter was born in 2022, some things changed. I avoided crash diets and took a more long-term, incremental approach to health and fitness. In the sixteen months since then, I’ve lost about forty pounds just making minor adjustments and walking more, which is great. Over the last year, I’ve learned two things that really changed how I look at this lifelong drama, and it’s got me questioning a lot of long-standing assumptions I had.
The first thing I learned was from reading a series from the Slime Mold Time Mold blog called A Chemical Hunger. It was absolutely fascinating. This is the main thesis:
Only one theory can account for all of the available evidence: the obesity epidemic is caused by one or more environmental contaminants, compounds in our water, food, air, at our jobs and in our homes, that change how our bodies regulate weight.
These contaminants are the only cause of the obesity epidemic, and the worldwide increase in obesity rates since 1980 is entirely attributable to their effects. For any two people in a group, the difference between their weights is largely genetic, because everyone is exposed to similar levels of contamination. But the difference between the average weight in 1980 and the average weight today is the result of environmental contaminants.
As someone who’s been overweight most of his life despite eating better (and less) than both his father and grandfather, the idea that my weight was environmentally derived was very appealing. As a curious person, it was also just plain interesting that this globally pervasive phenomenon had an unexpected origin.
The second thing I learned was from a friend I was talking to last week. Somehow we got on the topic of a third friend who had lost a bunch of weight. He told me that the friend had been getting shots from a doctor. He then paraphrased a podcaster he likes named Adam Ragusea, and said, “I think that in a few years, the obesity epidemic will be over because everybody will be taking some kind of cheap, easy, unobtrusive appetite suppressant. Soon we will think about them the same way we think about glasses or allergy pills.”
Both of these things suggest the conclusion that I should expand my ideas of what causes weight gain and how I might lose weight. But for some reason, this feels wrong, like I’m cheating in some way by taking a shortcut. I cannot shake the feeling that it is improper or immoral to attribute weight to anything other than a personal moral failing even though I don’t intellectually believe that. Some programming I can’t quite debug tells me that being unable to lose weight is strictly a matter of character.
And so that’s why I’ve been contemplating where my character ends and my environment starts. It might be that I’ve always been chubby because of some kind of environmental contaminant. And it might be that soon everyone else is taking harmless but effective appetite suppressants. Yet still I feel like this is something I should be able to work out for myself.
There are three impulses to civilization.
[I am going to try something new and include an early draft I’m working through. This is an idea I am workshopping which I want to clarify and expand on with more examples. I would love any feedback you have in the comment section.]
In mainstream dialogue about what’s important–whether it be art, politics, culture, or media–there seem to be two impulses that I find equally unappealing.
The first is to yearn for some time in the past that is either simpler or more sophisticated, depending on who is doing the yearning. At its best, this yearning is a celebration of things that someone loves and will benefit others, an impulse we should cultivate and reward. At its worst, this worldview is sclerotic and limiting, used to exclude people, complain, and avoid taking responsibility for improving the world we live in.
The second is to disregard tradition and discard things as strongly and often as possible. The idea is that new is always better and innovation is the root of all progress. At its best, the people who think this are great to have alongside others, moving people in the direction of progress through the strength of their conviction. At its worst, this is cover for people who want to accumulate power and resources, and use the destabilizing force of innovation as a smokescreen to do this.
I used to be very frustrated by both of these camps. Every time I saw someone advocating one side on social media, I was like a dog unable to stop myself from barking at the window. I realized that this would keep happening until I defined what I actually thought and cared about, so I had a productive place to direct this energy instead of just reacting. But it felt like such a big question, to define every single issue I care about and have a comprehensive opinion on whether preservation or innovation was needed in each case.
Then when I wrote A Pilgrimage for Book People I asserted that “civilization lives in books.” A lot of people asked what I meant by civilization and I realized that if I could get a working definition of civilization, I wouldn’t necessarily need to catalog my views on every issue imaginable. So I read up on historical, legal, economic, and philosophical definitions of civilization and jotted down my own thoughts, and I came up with what I call the three impulses of civilization.
The three impulses of civilization are to build, to revere, and to care for.
To build something is the marriage of passion and forethought. It is to say, “I value this thing that is new or does not exist, and so I want to make something new in a way that preserves this sense of value for the future.”
To revere something is to combine respect and tradition. It is to say, “I want to preserve this thing someone else built–this is an area where I do not want to innovate in case we lose what is valuable.”
“To care for” is the most nuanced impulse. It means that building and revering are important in the context of other people. It also means that, in addition to building and revering things, one of the hallmarks of civilization is to care for one another.
In a way, to build is to provide for the future. To revere is to honor the past. To care for is to look after other people in the present. Civilization needs people who build things, people who revere things, and people who care for others.
One of my goals with my writing is to do a little bit of each of these things. It gives me an opportunity to build by telling stories and crafting new ideas. I can revere what I value and preserve it to share with others. Finally, I can care for others by building a community around these things.
What this definition has given me more than anything, is the ability to escape the constant whining about what other people are saying or doing. Whenever I find someone’s stance on an issue objectionable, I ask myself, “are they building, revering or caring for others? Are they doing it well? What would I do instead?” And instead of simply complaining, it has given me a deeper, more generative understanding of the things I care about.
Here’s some good stuff I read recently.
Bigolas Dickolas wins the time war.
Last week, an anime fan account named Bigolas Dickolas with tens of thousands of followers shared an impassioned plea for their followers to read a novel called This is how you lose the time war (which I also recommend).
Read the tweet here. It went viral and the two authors of the novel found out, one of whom wrote this great summary in her newsletter.
I found my new favorite memoir.
I’m currently reading All the Wrong Moves byand it is excellent. Here are a few random lines I loved, like when he talked about being in love:
Perhaps the surest sign that you’re in love is that you can’t stop talking. You find yourself announcing the name of your beloved at the slightest provocation. Given any opportunity, you engage in a vain attempt to explain your infatuation. Everything else seems unworthy of a single moment’s attention or discussion. No matter how shy or stoic you are, real affection demands expression.
Or about being a precocious, obnoxious adolescent:
Back then, although I still didn’t like myself, I was sure I had one redeeming feature: being smarter than everyone else on earth.
But I think what I loved the most is when he talked about writing. I myself am working on a few fiction projects I hope to start releasing. When I began blogging, I wanted to write deep dives and hot takes. But as I’ve been writing more, my style has changed to something closer to memoirist. By volume, memoirs outnumber my fiction and other essays by quite a bit.
Chapin’s memoir is the first one that really nails the intersection of narrative, education, and commentary that I aspire to. But beyond being a great example of a memoir, he also really nailed something that’s been on my mind about this style of writing lately:
Being the kind of writer I am—a memoirist, I guess—has always struck me as a little sad, because it means that I’m constantly wondering whether any definable portion of my experience is marketable. I’m forever observing myself from a mercantile perspective, noting whether any of my minor melancholies or brief discomposures might be salable. Essentially, I’m a parasite on my own life. Any compelling character I meet excites me not only because they’re exciting but also because I might describe them profitably. If I met you, I’d probably wonder how I’d condense your characteristics if I needed to put you in an essay.
This article about the spiritual basis of paradigm shifts fascinated me.
Thank you to David Perell who talked about this in his Write of Passage course. The main thesis of the article is that paradigm shifts are discontinuities in innovation, and there is a strong history of these coming from mysticism, rather than science or incremental improvements:
Physicist and scientific leader J Robert Oppenheimer was obsessed with eastern religions. He studied them his whole life. He quoted the Bhagavad Gita when the atom bomb was first detonated. Erwin Schrodinger discusses his inspiration from the ancient Vedas in his essay What is Life?. Groundbreaking mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan was quite the mystic. He was very direct in saying that his inspiration came from spirits, but nobody would listen. Albert Einstein extensively studied occult researcher Helena Blavatsky. He died with Isis Unveiled at his bedside. He talked about wanting to know "God's thoughts". Richard Feynman, in The Meaning of it All, wrote how man's advancement comes from both scientific adventure and the advancement of religious ethics. Though he was not religious, he experimented extensively with out of body experiences in float tanks. In fact, the float tank was invented by his friend fringe researcher and neuroscientist John Lilly, who claimed he could under certain conditions (often involving psychedelics) he could communicate with dolphins. I think he could.
Crowd work will get its own post next week.
In standup comedy, crowd work is where the comic speaks directly to the audience and riffs off of things that they’ve said. Usually, this is where I highlight some of my favorite comments and shout-outs of the last week.
This time, I will be doing separate follow-up essays where I share my favorite feedback on A Pilgrimage for Book People and Do the weirdest thing that feels right.
Charlie, you are developing excellent writing styles but the one style you are using, the memoirist if you would, is so suited for you. Reading your writings is like being present for the birth of a mind. Please continue on your journey as we will follow. We all have incidental thoughts that valuable and important for awhile till we forget them. You are a scholar of how to write but much more importantly we are reading the story of Charlie Becker. Thank you so very much.