Thought Bananas is now Castles in the Sky
Castles in the Sky 25
Note from Charlie: I am renaming this Substack Castles in the Sky! If you want to see the rationale behind the new name, read it here. I will leave the old issues as is and keep up the numbered weekly issues. If you want to see the other big changes, go to Writing Updates below, and make sure to scroll all the way down and read a great email I got from a reader last week.
Behold the Mighty Anhinga!
A few weeks ago, I was planning a work trip to Tallahassee, Florida and thinking about death. I read a book recently (review coming soon) that I picked up because it was allegedly about time management. Instead, the book said that time management is a farce; we are all going to die and should embrace the finitude of life.
Despite its subject matter, the book was a remarkably fun and playful book, and it got my mind moving in the direction of its thesis, thinking of my choices as finite, irrevocable ways to allocate my time—the only real resource I have in my life. But instead of doing what the book recommends and discarding the activities that don’t suit me, I could feel this urgency developing around the periphery of my awareness.
By anybody’s standards, I have a lot going on in my life. I have a new baby, a job, a side business, writing, family, friends, and the Sisyphean of getting in shape. After reading the book, I could feel a tug between the feeling that “I’m not doing enough,” and “I’m not doing things right.” I couldn’t decide which was more important, and so developed this fear: like every choice I made was a performance on some cosmic stage, waiting to be judged. And so I retreated within myself and started to be much more risk averse, afraid that I would waste the precious time I have by doing something wrong, or starting a new wrong thing.
When I found out I would be going to Tallahassee, I reflected for a moment: I didn’t know anyone in Tallahassee, work would never send me again, and it’s not a major travel hub or tourist spot. I was certain almost instantly this would be the only time in my life I ever visited. At first, this was very comforting. There is almost nothing in my life with that level of certainty. But slowly, the need to “do it right,” crept in, and planning the trip transformed from business-as-usual to a once-in-a-lifetime ordeal.
I obsessed over creating a “Tallahassee Bucket List” of things I would do when not at the conference. I was way too busy though, and only had time to do one thing on the bucket list on the very last day: the boat tour at the Wakulla Springs State Park. (Wakulla Springs State Park is a popular tourist destination featuring crystal-clear spring-fed water, diverse wildlife, and recreational activities like swimming, kayaking, hiking, picnicking, and the boat tour.)
Inside the lodge at Wakulla, a teenager sporting a faint but deliberately cultivated mustache and a polo buttoned all the way up sold me a ticket for the boat tour. It didn’t leave for another hour so I waited alone, sitting in a decrepit bench by the water. My phone didn’t have service so I quit checking it and was forced to just watch the river. Across the water, birds flew in immense circles spiraling up and down, moving to and fro, sometimes diving away from one another and sometimes forming a helix together. There was a distinct assuredness and beauty to it, even though nothing was arranged, and they were mostly just reacting.
The boat went a mile upstream and then came back. About a quarter of the way out, we saw a bird perched on some exposed roots, spreading its wings as if to make itself as large as it could. The guide crackled some facts over the intercom. The bird was an Anhinga, but it goes by many other names depending on where you are, like Snake Bird, Water Turkey, or Grecian Lady. It has a long thin neck and sharp beak because it lives most of its life under the water where it hunts. It has no oil gland, so when it comes out of the water, it has to perch the way we saw it to dry its wings out in the sun so it can fly.
Half an hour later on the way back, we passed the exact same bird. It was still spreading its wings in the same pose, waiting for the sun to dry it out. Maybe it was because I had gone a solid two hours without looking at my phone, and maybe it was because of how the river that seemed so cold and lonely on the way out was teeming with life, but I couldn’t help but start to admire this bird.
We had seen a dozen alligators, and yet here it was, the mighty Anhinga, just barely out of the water, chest up, wings spread, facing the sun. It was so vulnerable, surely they must be eaten by gators while sunning all the time. But the bird didn’t have a choice: without standing there and presenting itself to the Sun, it wouldn’t be able to fly. There was something inspiring about the way it resigned itself to the task of drying off and did so in the most regal, majestic pose it could muster. And I didn’t see it, but I’m sure later it took off from that perch and flew away.
We pulled up to the dock and I walked to my car alone through the forest. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Anhinga. How sometimes in life we need to do something different and hard, and the instinct is to hide ourselves as much as possible, but there is power in accepting your vulnerability, and opening your chest up to spread your wings as wide as possible, in spite of the danger. But this is what allows us to fly.
I also thought about how there are Anhingas from Brazil to Florida, all over the East coast of the Americas, and they have so many different names. The same bird doing the same things is an Anhinga, a Snake Bird, a Water Turkey, or a Grecian Lady. It made me think about how sometimes, some people just don’t get you. And that’s OK. I chuckled to myself about imagining a whole marketing campaign based on the park ranger’s joke called, “go where you’re a Grecian Lady.”
Since I got back from Tallahassee, I’ve had many reasons to recall the birds of Wakulla. I remember how the birds across the river were so graceful, and seemed to have such purpose, even though there was no way to predict which way they would go next. And then I think of the mighty Anhinga, suited for the water but destined for the sky, resigned to expose itself to danger, but doing so with the utmost beauty, grace, and bravery.
And the consuming craving for certainty in my life dissipates; just because something is unpredictable does not mean it is without beauty and purpose, and just because I am suited for one thing doesn’t mean I can’t step out, get vulnerable, and take to the skies.
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Check out Castles in the Sky
If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend reading Castles in the Sky which I sent out last week. It lays out my philosophy for changing the name of the Substack and Newsletter.
Castle in the Sky is a metaphor for a new idea so powerful that it changes the way we see the world. It is both visceral and immediate, but also dreamy and grandiose.
Thoughts and Threads
Clearer Writing Direction
I started writing because I love reading and writing, plus I had a lot to say. Part of me wanted to join the ranks of the elite commentariat, publishing cool essays on artificial intelligence, and maybe even commenting on politics every once in a while.
As I “rebrand” my writing, I discovered that my most popular stuff (measured by likes on Substack and anecdotally by people emailing me about it or bringing it up later), is far and away my most idiosyncratic stuff. So I’m going to postpone my someday career as a commentator and instead lean into the weird, idiosyncratic a lot more. This means really going hard on the fiction, personal essays, and thought-provoking stuff—I’m also going to start a few new creative experiments.
I am also going to start including other creative experiments. One of the biggest compliments someone gave me was when they found my Substack and said (to paraphrase), “the ideas were so out there and interesting, and there was this whole series of hypertext links and intertextual references back to your own essays, it really felt like discovering a private world.
I am going to lean into that with projects like this:
The Glossary of Sticky Ideas
The Glossary of Sticky Ideas where I can house and define some of the most idiosyncratic things that show up repeatedly in my writing.
Original Castles in the Sky Art
This is the home for all the original art in Castles in the Sky that is an AI generation, original commission, or some collage of the two.
For this issue, I have two new original pieces of art. These are postcards or magnets from an alternative universe Wakulla where everyone finds the Anhinga as inspiring as I do.
I’m going to start sharing my favorite reader responses here every week:
I really appreciated the comment responses to The Thousand Griefs of a Left-Behind Place, particularly—sharing her background:
shouting out one of my favorite concepts, Sonder:
Love this idea of an individual's terroir. I had my roots in Nairobi for a while, which made me tougher, and in Brooklyn, which certainly added some flavor. It's an interesting way for me to think about how difficult places have shaped me. If I were a wine, I would be "complex" ... and those layers would add value :)
Such a beautiful piece. It’s been a while since I’ve felt such a mega dose of sonder. So I’m fully anticipating falling down the rabbit holes of imagined terroirs for the next several dozen people I pass by. It’ll surely make for a great compassion muscle exercise, so thanks for the workout inspo!
And Eric Ho at, threading several parts of the essay:
Having lived in China for six years in the days when the terroir of Chinese wine was developing, terroir takes on another layer of meaning for me.
But far and away my favorite response came via email. My Mom (a loyal reader) emailed her friend Ray the issue 24, and he was kind enough to respond to me via email. I thought it was so beautiful I asked for his permission to publish it here:
"I am a part of all that I have met, yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades forever and ever as I move. How sad it is to pause, to make an end, to rust, unburnished...not to shine in use!"-Alfred Lord Tennyson from Idylls of the King (as I recall the lines)...
As I personally get older, I enjoy driving around the city where I have lived for 79+ years and remembering for example the buildings that occupied a certain site before the current one, and what they did in those buildings, and who once worked there, now long dead. Sometimes I can remember three generations of buildings on one site, and three generations of occupants going back. Sometimes I pass a building in which I held a lady close, or an empty lot that used to have that building. "My" city has a depth that younger peoples' Houston does not have-yet.
And as to loss of terroir: one of the reasons I eSubscribe to The Houston Chronicle is to read ... you guessed it: the obits. Sometimes I learn an old acquaintance or even an old friend has died. Died and taken away part of the terroir that nourished me, the terroir which has provided me with 'all that I have met'. Sometimes and old friend gone reminds me of a turn of phrase that he or she used, one that I took as my own and which I plugged into my own speech patterns. They are gone but not the memories of them-yet. They live on in me, like a candle which lights another candle.
These deaths are dismantling my terroir one by one. Will I be the last man standing with no past contributors to "the me" left? Who knows. We go from one eternity to another, with just a faint flicker of life and building of terroir in between. Eternity is a long time-people worry about the second one out of ego and narcissism but never give a thought to the first one. Odd, isn't it?
But one candle loses nothing by lighting another candle, so I try to stay busy lighting other candles when some younger person gives me the opening to, so that these young new assemblages of atoms will have a brief chance to further develop their own personal terroir during their infinitesimally short experience between the two eternities.
“I could feel a tug between the feeling that “I’m not doing enough,” and “I’m not doing things right.”” - this sums up perfectly how I feel EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
Loved the topic this week and the new name is killer.
Love your experiences shared here, especially related to Anhingas! I recently spent a few months in Florida living in a 55+ community on a golf course and lots of these beautiful Anhingas who sat by the edges of the ponds to dry their wings all day long in the sun. Such a peaceful sight while I was working from home. I used to watch and think ‘it must be nice to have time just to sit there and prepare for your next flight.’ Thanks for helping me see a new perspective in our encounters with nature.
I’ll be sticking around for more castles in the sky!