Mario Villalobos

My beautiful Saturday.

I had a lovely lunch with my friend today, and we had these amazing turtles for company the entire time. What a beautiful day.

Roadkill

On my way home, I drove past another deer carcass lying lifeless on the side of the road. I’ve driven past I don’t know how many over the years, and I haven’t developed the indifference or joy I feel most people I know have toward these animals. Many people feed their families with deer meat, making jerky or storing countless pounds in their freezers for months and months. Tribal members can hunt these animals without a permit, something my white friends often feel disdain toward, and these members can also load these deer carcasses on their vehicles and take them home to eat. Years ago, on my drive home after returning from a firefighting tour, I saw another deer carcass on the side of the road, but on this occasion, there was another deer, a living one, circling the carcass, bounding around it. I don’t know what this deer felt or who it was to the dead one, but I could imagine. I imagined that she was in mourning, that the dead deer was a relative or a friend, that she wanted it to jump back on its feet and rejoin her so they can continue on their journey to who knows where. But she didn’t. I drove around them and continued on my journey back home.

A few years ago I hit my first deer. It was pitch black, and I was coming home from a school board meeting. I wasn’t driving faster than the speed limit, and even with my brights on, I saw the deer sauntering onto the road too late. I thought about braking as hard as I could but the distance was too short for that to do much of anything but get me hurt. So I pointed my Jeep toward the deer and hit it directly. I saw the deer flip in the air and disappear in the darkness. I quickly stopped my car in the middle of the road and got out. I looked around for the deer but I couldn’t see it. I checked my car and noticed only that my license plate was bent in a few places and part of my front left headlight was dislodged from its housing. Otherwise, my car survived pretty much intact. I got back into my car and drove home, the adrenaline keeping me up for a few hours. The next day, I told this story to my friends and they were all surprised my car wasn’t damaged more. No one asked or cared about the deer because hitting deer is a sort of rite of passage for people in Montana. At the time, I understood how annoying deer can be, and I understood why I saw so many lying dead on the side of the road.

A week or so ago, a friend and I were talking about how awful the traffic had been lately, especially down in Missoula. She told me a story about how different it used to be. A decade or so ago, her and her friends would regularly drive the 50-60 minutes down to Missoula after work, buy groceries, go out to eat, and drive back and make it home at a very reasonable time. She laments how she can no longer do that because of the traffic. It takes her longer to do even the simplest things, and she now dreads driving to Missoula to do any of the things she used to enjoy doing. Montana surpassed a million people in the last census, enough to grant us another seat in the House of Representatives. This increase in population can be blamed for it for sure, but my friend has a few theories. Missoula and all the cities and towns around it weren’t designed for this many people. The main highway from here to Missoula is Highway 93, and for long stretches of it, it’s a simple two lane highway, one going north, the other south. For a long time, this was enough. But now?

“It’s because of the turtles,” she said.

“Turtles?”

Yes, turtles. The western painted turtle, to be exact. I’m not an expert on this, so I’m going to be as general as I can. During hatching season, many many turtles start migrating toward wet areas, and where I live, that includes the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. Their path cuts right across the highway. Obviously, the shorter their trek across the road, the higher their chances for survival, and this is where my friend—and I’m sure many more people—have their problems. Adding more lanes to the highway will help with traffic but that won’t help the turtles. I’ve seen dead turtles with broken shells on the roadside, and that, to me, is more heartbreaking than seeing deer carcasses, than seeing the carcasses of skunks, birds, and even cats and dogs. I still feel awful at the memory of driving over my first (and only) turtle years ago. I didn’t see it in time to swerve around it, and I can still… I don’t want to think about it. It’s an awful memory.

There’s a very beautiful animal bridge down by Evaro. You have to drive through it if you’re headed south to Missoula or north up to Kalispell from Missoula. When I first visited Missoula a few years before I moved here, this bridge is the first memory I had of the place. It’s beautiful, and from all indications, it seems to work. Bears have been seen using it, as well as deer and other animals. So as I listened to my friend complain about the traffic, about the turtles, about the tribe (so many complains about the tribe), I started to research safe paths for turtles. Japan has a very cool solution using tunnels, but unfortunately, I don’t think that will be built here where I live. But so what?

Yesterday I wrote about gas prices and how I can help by not driving as much. Driving less will alleviate demand on gas and maybe help animals survive to see even more days, for sure, but I know this won’t happen all at once, including by me. I can’t. Montana is the fourth largest state by total area but only the 45th most populous state. That means things are spread out very far from other things. In Los Angeles or other cities, I can live in a spot where everything I would ever need is within walking distance. I would need to pack a tent and sleeping bag if I were to walk everywhere I would need to go here in Montana. A car is a necessity, for better and for worse.

So what’s the point of all this? I don’t know. I don’t think there is one. I was simply driving home from picking up my groceries earlier today and saw that lifeless deer lying on the side of the road, and I felt sad about it. I felt sad about it and I don’t know what to do about it except to write about it. I’m not going to stop driving and neither are other people. People are going to continue killing animals, both with their cars and their guns, and I can continue trying my best to drive less and to continue not eating animals. My best is all I got, and that’s what I have to focus on, so let’s keep at it.

I Did That!

As much as I’m annoyed at the high gas prices right now, I don’t blame Biden. I blame myself. Among other factors, supply is low and demand is high, and the easiest thing I could do is to reduce my driving and reduce some of the demand. But the person who placed this sticker probably didn’t think beyond the “Biden is bad!” rhetoric infecting right wing American politics right now, and unfortunately, I live in a very conservative area, so I’m around stupid a lot. I like the sticker, though.

Polish People Are Role Playing as Americans Celebrating the 4th of July

I needed this laugh today:

A group in Poland called 4th of July LARP (LARP is short for live-action role-playing) dresses as Americans and acts out various scenarios that they imagine happening in the U.S. during the summer holiday.

[…]

“LARP 4th of July is a drama about the wasted American dream,” the group writes on Facebook. “It is a story about hope, about a small homeland, about finding one’s place in the community.”

So many more great photos on their Facebook page.

No Fee and No Interference

When Ralph Waldo Emerson was in his mid-thirties, he started a series of biography lectures where he began to examine the lives of others with increased interest and scrutiny. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, the author Robert D. Richardson writes that in Michelangelo Emerson

saw “the perfect image of the artist,” one who was born to see and express the beauty of the world… He loved the disinterestedness and spirit of the deal Michelangelo offered the Pope for his work rebuilding St. Peter’s in Rome: “no fee and no interference.” Emerson emphasized the sculptor’s interest in ideal beauty, how “he sought through the eye to reach the soul,” but he knew that the test of the artist and writer alike is not in intent but in execution.

For the longest time, this is how I’ve tried to work on my craft, by trying to express and execute “what the mind has conceived” and without outside interference. “Happy is he,” writes Emerson,

who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale—who always writes to the unknown friend.

I was reminded of these quotes—these passages that I very happily transcribed in my notebook—when this morning I read this very sobering article in Ted Gioia’s newsletter:

How creative can you really be if you need to please an enormous mass-market audience? When you go down that path, you need to stick close to all the familiar formulas—and that’s exactly what you see in much of our culture nowadays.

Earlier in the article he wrote that “only 19% [of survey respondents] made more than $50,000. In other words, their arts degree was more likely to put them below the poverty line than in the middle class.”

What really struck me was that “only 10% devoted 40 hours per week or more to their art.” I’m surprised at both how high I think 10% is and how much 40 hours a week spent on working on one’s art is, too. Both of my reactions tell me how unbelievably sad and disappointed I am at how the modern world works.

Just yesterday I started to wake up at 4am in order to fit an extra hour of writing time into my day. And even then, I’m maybe working 15-20 hours a week on my art. I would do whatever it takes to double this workload if at all possible, but I need to go to work in order to to pay my bills and buy food to eat. And Ted Gioia understands this, too:

So my advice to students interested in the arts is based on my own practice: namely, that they should pursue their craft but also develop at least one money-earning skill before they reach the age of 30. It doesn’t need to be an elite career, merely something that will pay the bills in a pinch.

I wish I could be like Michelangelo and tell the Pope not to pay me as long he doesn’t interfere with my art, but I can’t. I wish I could look upon my “work to know if it will succeed,” to be one “who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale,” but I can’t. This is the 21st century, and the best I can do is to wake up hours before the sun rises so I can fit a bit more time in my day to work on my art, and to go to bed when the sun is still shining brightly in the sky so I can wake up early and with enough energy to be able to work on my craft to the best of my ability.

I wish things were different, but I have to admit, I love what I’m doing, and that’s the point of art, isn’t it? To feel the joy of simply being alive to experience this? This world, this universe, this moment?

10 Years

Ten years ago today I moved to Montana, and the only thing I have been able to think about is how soon I can leave it. Ten years is a long time to live in a place, but I’m ready to move on. All I’ve been dreaming about for the past few years, and most strongly the past few months, is leaving this state and embarking on another adventure somewhere else. But I feel stuck, like if Montana is a giant sinkhole that traps everyone that sets foot in it. When I first boarded that plane ten years ago, I didn’t imagine I would have lived in Montana for an entire decade. It’s ten years later and I still can’t believe I’ve lived here for that long. Montana is a beautiful state. I’ve met some incredible people here, and I’ve made some wonderful memories, but I can’t call Montana home. Those words simply can’t form in my mind no matter how hard I try. I wish they could—they would make my life so much easier. Instead, I’m writing this with so much anxiety in my chest because I don’t know what comes next.

Why can’t I call Montana home? I think it began when COVID-19 shut the world down two years ago. Back when Trump and his supporters infected everyone’s psyche with their idiocy and illogical thinking. Back when a virus that didn’t care about ideology killed everyone it could, from the rich and the poor, to the old and the young. But if I’m being honest with myself, I think it began before that.

It began the moment I landed in Missoula. It began the moment I grabbed my two bags and loaded them into my sister’s car. This trip was supposed to be temporary. A year, two at most. That’s what I told people; that’s what I told myself. But then I started to make friends. I started to go on dates. I started to get some weird attention. I moved into my first (and so far only) apartment without any roommates or family to live with. I became a firefighter. A licensed EMT. An IT Director. I made more friends. Made more memories. Started taking photography seriously. Started to learn the guitar. Became vegan. I paid off my debts, and before I knew it, an entire decade had passed. I went to bed yesterday in my mid-20s; I woke up this morning in my mid-30s. I woke up to a greying beard and an aching back. Where did all that time go!?

It went into building up these experiences, into preparing myself for whatever comes next. By paying off my debt, I fulfilled one of the original goals for coming to Montana, and with that goal accomplished, what does Montana mean to me now? More than anything, a lost opportunity, I think. I’m not where I thought I’d be personally or professionally. I wish I was married. I wish I had kids. I wish I had written at least one good story, something I know I’m capable of but haven’t quite achieved. It’s so easy to focus on the things I don’t have instead of the things I do. What about my health? My good friends? All my experiences from living in Montana for a decade? The friends I made and lost, all the fires I fought, the knowledge I’ve accumulated? Did I ever think I’d be a firefighter or a licensed EMT? Did I ever think I would actually learn German? So why do I want to leave Montana?

Because, even after all that, Montana still doesn’t feel like home. It still feels like I’m passing through. Like I’m a tourist. Like I’m at a crossroads. Returning to California feels like I’m regressing, like I’m going back to my past when all I want to do is move forward. So, to the east? To Chicago? Or New York? Or Boston? What I miss most about California is the diversity. What I didn’t realize until I moved out of California is how rare it is for people here in Montana to be fluent in more than one language and how much I would miss listening to Spanish every day. I’ve thought about going to Europe just to be around all types of cultures and languages, and I’m still dreaming about one day going there. So, Europe? Spain? France? Germany? I don’t know.

At work, I have this map pinned to the bulletin board inside the main office. I randomly tacked five pins to the map and created a route of places to visit for a road trip I wish to take soon. My wanderlust is real and it hurts. But if there’s one thing I know I’ve gained from living in Montana these past ten years, it is courage. And for that, I am truly grateful. Montana may not be my home for much longer, but I did grow into the man I am today by living here, and for that, I am forever grateful. What will the next ten years bring? I don’t know, but I’m hopeful it begins with a road trip and ends with one last great adventure.

Productivity Is a Trap

A few months ago, I wrote a reminder to myself about taking things one at a time. Since then, I learned about the book Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, a book about “embracing finitude.” I started this book today, and in the introduction, he writes that:

Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.

I point this section out because I’ve battled with that feeling, too, that feeling of trying to “get through” my tasks like they’re some obstacle to overcome before I can get my prize. What’s that prize? In the end, I guess, the prize is death.

But before then, I want to enjoy my life, the two thousand weeks or so I have left (I hope). Earlier in the introduction, Oliver writes that:

The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

I’m a firm believer that sometimes there’s a universal force showing me the things I need to see at the time I need them, and I feel like this is one of them.

Bitte?

It’s been about three months since my last post on my German studies, so how’s it been going? Great, I think. I haven’t taken a day off this year, and quite frankly, it’s one of the things I most look forward to each morning. I love loving German, and I’m having a blast learning it.

It helps that I have a native German speaker nearby. Not too long ago, she made me aware of a meme that I’ve thought a lot about since. It has to do with the word bitte. Just look (and laugh):

A Pound of Pictures by Alec Soth

Earlier this week I received Alec Soth’s newest book, A Pound of Pictures. This book represents a few things for me. The first is that it’s both my first Alec Soth book and my first photo book, and because of that, I had to get it signed.

This is a massive book, one of the biggest books I own. I’ve only seen the first few pictures because I want to clear an entire day to slowly go through the entire book. Going through his YouTube channel last month taught me so much about photography, especially about building and reading narrative projects, so I want to give the book the respect it deserves, or at least, as much as I can give it.

This book also represents my intention to climb up a new mountain. I look at myself in the mirror every morning and seem to find new grey hairs and wrinkles. I look at the calendar and think, Damn, it’s already March? I look back at my days and think, Am I really living? So I want to do something new and challenging, something that scares me, something that I can look back on and be proud of. So—what is it?

I have no idea.

Okay, sure, I have a few ideas, but I don’t want to reveal them publicly. I don’t want to set some sort of imaginary expectation in people’s heads. I don’t want to set an intention to the universe and not follow through on it, because I’ve done that enough in my life, and it doesn’t feel good.

I’ve been quietly working away in my notebooks this year, and my thoughts feel clear for the first time in a long time. I can see a path opening up in front of me, and I hope I have the courage to walk down it. These ideas are crazy. They’re insane. They scare the shit out of me, but oh my god am I eager to see them through. I have to do the work, and none of this, this life, this existence, matters if I don’t do the work.

I’m getting way too old to leave so many projects unfinished. Every day I wake up thinking if this is the end, and every day I live my life in mediocrity. I’m sick and tired of living this way. I need more. I need to do more.

So I bought a book. And now my life will be better.

Right?

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