A photo of the big dipper I took with my iPhone. My iPhone. This was my first attempt at astrophotography, and I’m really happy with how it came out. It was freezing out, though, so I didn’t take more. It made the whole world sparkle like diamonds this morning, though.
Woke up early to run some errands and was awarded with a beautiful sunrise. I used Apple ProRAW and my god, what an incredible tool to have when I’m out and about with just my iPhone. I was able to bring out the pinks and the shadows in a way I couldn’t before.
I filled seven notebooks in 2020. This week, I scanned and processed them on my computer.
I filled the first four in the first four months. It took me eight months to fill the last three. This was the effect of Covid-19 on my life last year. It couldn’t be more clear.
I bought my first capo and tried it out for the first time yesterday. Intellectually I knew what a capo was for, but it wasn’t until I clamped it down and played a few chords that I truly understood what it did. It’s incredible! I’m eager to learn new songs with it now.
The Year That Was
As horrible as 2020 was for all of us, I will remember it as the year I realized my life is short. Like many, I spent the early days of the pandemic indoors, with my eyes doomscrolling through grim statistics and depressing headlines. I diligently washed my hands for 20 seconds whenever I could, I bought and wore masks whenever I went outside, and I made sure to social distance when around others. I listened to the scientists and got angry at those who questioned them. I was afraid, anxious, and unsure about the future, and I didn’t know what to do.
I was fortunate enough to keep my job and to not have lost anyone I cared about, but I know many of us weren’t as lucky. Many of us lost our jobs, lost friends and family members, and lost a piece of our lives we will never get back. All I lost was my sense of time. Before the pandemic shut the world down, I felt like the Red Queen, always running but never going anywhere. As the pandemic raged throughout the world, I felt like time didn’t matter anymore. Each day was worse than the one before, with more and more people dying and more and more people not taking the virus seriously.
I had stopped running and stopped caring.
It didn’t have to be this way. The weekend before Montana closed down its schools and forced many of us inside, I drove down to Missoula with my camera and tried street photography for the first time. I had purchased The Art of Street Photography course from Magnum a few days before, and I wanted to both expand my walls and improve my photography. Unfortunately, there weren’t many people walking the streets that day, but I figured I’d go on another weekend and try again. So far, that weekend hasn’t arrived.
In April, I bought my Gibson G-45 acoustic guitar. Along with photography, one of my goals for the year had been to learn to play the guitar. It had been one of my goals for a very long time and lockdown proved to be the perfect time to learn. Fender extended the free trial on their Fender Play course to three months, and I thought this the perfect opportunity to learn from home. I eagerly went through the first few levels and spent the next few days and weeks practicing and building up my calluses. I had a lot of fun during this time, but like most things, it didn’t last very long.
By May, I was back at work full-time, and where once I had all day to play the guitar, now I barely had any time for it at all. I’m trying to remember all that happened during this time, but the memories won’t come. I woke, I went to work, I slept. I barely played the guitar. I barely took any photos. I barely wrote.
I barely did anything.
Once school ended and summer break began, I started to work on myself some more. I had stopped feeling like myself during those first few months after lockdown, and I hated how I felt. After the governor ordered all schools shutdown and forced everyone to work from home, I reopened my Facebook account. I had deactivated it years before, back when Donald Trump was elected president, but I figured I needed to keep in touch with my friends and family during this time and Facebook felt like the answer.
I admit, I missed it. I missed checking in with my friends and family, learning about their lives and what they were doing to keep themselves safe and sane. I friended a couple dozen people I’d met over the previous years the first few days after I returned to Facebook, and that provided enough novelty to keep me coming back. As much as I knew Facebook was bad for me, I didn’t care. It gave me a release from the world, a world that kept getting darker and darker.
But this honeymoon period on Facebook didn’t last. Almost as soon as I returned to it, I felt that same growing unease building in the back of my mind that I felt when I last deactivated my account. Friends and co-workers started to post memes and updates stating that the virus was a hoax, that masks were bad for you, that Bill Gates created the virus so he could get rich selling the vaccine for it. I ignored them but they didn’t disappear. I tried filtering my news feed to only show content I liked, but that only created a filter bubble that made Facebook even more vapid.
Once I realized Facebook stopped making me feel good, I knew I needed a change. I needed something that would not only keep me connected with my friends and family, but also keep me sane. I had been an on-again, off-again blogger dating back to my high school years, but for whatever reason, I could never make it stick. From 2014–15, I started a blog where I wrote an entry every day for 365 days. It was a great success, but since I had hosted it on Squarespace and their $99/year price was too high for me at the time, I cancelled my subscription and ended my blog.
I felt like this was the perfect time to create a website again.
Regardless of all the pain and anger I felt, the summer of 2020 was one of my most creative and fun seasons I’ve ever had in my life. Starting in mid-June and ending in late August, I wrote an entry and took a photo every day on my brand new blog. I wrote about my father and realized what he taught me, about my desire to expand the boundaries of my world, and about my identity and who I wanted to be. I discovered my love for macro photography and for the simple act of walking. I also drank. A lot.
But then I broke my Fujifilm X-T20 camera and things slowed down. I bought the Fujifilm X-T4 in early September to replace it, but the pace I kept during the summer stopped. I was back at work, and I had some thoughts about that. My mom came to visit from San Diego, and I got to spend some time with my nieces. But mostly I spent the fall quietly.
In October, I hurt my back and spent most of it in pain. I felt lucky for having a job and that my community escaped the worst of the coronavirus, but I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I had stopped writing, reading, working out, taking photos, playing the guitar, and anything else that made me happy. But that changed in November when I decided to participate in Microblogvember, Micro.blog’s annual blogging challenge. This was exactly what I needed to regain control of my life, and I’m glad I did, because it worked.
I wrote every day in November, and I loved every minute of it. I met some great people during the challenge, and I fell in love with my website again. I spent an inordinate amount of time customizing it, but I’m really proud of the result (as of today).
In December, I started to work out again, and that made each day better. Health is the foundation for everything I do, and I’m glad I spent the month rebuilding this habit because it made everything else easier. I began to rebuild each of my other habits, starting with writing. Writing is all I ever wanted to do, and even though I stopped writing fiction in 2020, I didn’t stop writing.
Toward the end of December, I wrote what is perhaps my favorite thing I’ve ever written in my life. In over 1,500 words, I described a recent visit to my local clinic. It was fun and weird and a little bit gross, but I loved writing it, and I loved that I had a place of my own to share it. I messaged it to a few friends and received an eclectic mix of reactions, but I came to the realization that this is the social network I want, and I’m glad I have it.
If anything, 2020 felt like a big reset, not just for me but for the whole world. I’m proud of how I finished 2020, and I’m eager to see what 2021 brings.
The Year That Can Be
If 2020 was a big reset, 2021 will be the year I lay the foundation for the rest of my life. Because of this, I feel that 2021 will be a transitional year. It’ll be a year where a new administration is set to be sworn in soon and a year where millions of people will be vaccinated against the coronavirus. I don’t expect life to be back to “normal” anytime soon, but I feel it’s safe to expect something close to it by year’s end.
So what do I want to do in 2021? Like with most things in my life since I graduated college, it starts with my debt.
Pay Off My Debt
As of January 3rd, 2021, I have 9 more car payments and 11 more student loan payments. That’s it. That’s all I have. In total, I have a bit over $10,000 in debt, and I’m on track to pay it off by the end of the year. I’ve never laid this all out so clearly in my life before, and it feels amazing. I haven’t been debt free in 13 years. 13 years. That’s 13 unlucky years of being burdened with a debt I promised to pay off, and in 2021, I will finally do it.
I can’t even imagine what life will be like without this weight on my shoulders. It’ll mean an extra $1,000 a month in my bank account. It’ll mean I am free to do whatever I want. This is something I’ve never experienced in my adult life before, and I can’t wait to get there.
Because I don’t want to lose sight of this one overarching goal, I plan to live as simply I can this year. Even though I have some pretty expensive tastes, I’m very minimalist by nature. I didn’t grow up with much, and I’ve never been happy owning things I don’t use. One of my favorite books I read last year was Spark Joy by Marie Kondo. I love donating things I don’t need anymore, and I love owning only those things that spark joy in my life.
Over the last few weeks of December, I went through all of my online accounts and deleted those I either didn’t use anymore or didn’t want anymore. Some of those included services like Dropbox and VSCO, while others were sites I signed up for on a whim but never used again. I deactivated Facebook and Instagram with the goal of actually deleting them sometime this year. I intend to use only those services I actually value and enjoy, and I hope this culling will help me simplify and make my life feel leaner.
I plan to wean myself from Amazon this year, too. I don’t think it’s possible to outright delete my account and never shop from there again, but I think I can get close. If I’m being honest with myself, I really don’t need anything new this year. I have everything I could ever want and need in my home right now, and I plan to make the most of them this year.
To do that, I hope to fill my days with things I enjoy doing. In 2021, I hope to write more, to take more photographs, to keep playing my guitar, and to keep learning. During the heart of the summer, I loved writing and taking photos every day, and all that cost me nothing. Nothing but my time and my energy. When I’m in the middle of a project and I hit that flow state, it feels like time both stops and goes by too fast. I hit those moments a few times last year, and I want to fill this year with as many of those moments as I can.
I don’t know if I want to start a new book this year, but I know I want to continue writing. Writing is my one true love, and without it, life ceases to have meaning. I do have a few book ideas, as well as a few unfinished books, so perhaps I can work on one of them this year.
I want to keep taking photos, but I want to improve my craft more this year. I tried street photography last year, but my experiment was cut short due to the pandemic. Maybe I’ll have a chance to start it up again this year. It’s okay if I can’t, though, because I plan to improve my macro photography, too. I want to go on more hikes and explore new areas this year, and I hope to experiment with landscape photography. The world is literally out there asking to be explored, and I hope to capture as much of it as I can.
Over the last week, I’ve been re-developing the callouses on my fingers playing my guitar again, and all I have to say is: why did I ever stop? I love playing the guitar, and I love learning new chords and songs and musical concepts. Since a life without music is not a life worth living, I plan to play the guitar as much as I can this year.
Lastly, I hope to keep learning languages. I first started learning Japanese in January of 2019, and my progress slowed considerably in 2020, so I hope to pick up the pace in 2021. I not only plan to finish Genki I, but I also plan to start learning French again. I took three years of it in high school, so I hope getting back into it won’t be too difficult.
Those are my plans for 2021. I wonder what the universe will say about that, but if 2020 taught me anything, it’s that I know I have it in me to adapt and focus on what matters.
I have no idea what the future holds, but I’m very eager to find out. Let’s go!
Had some fun playing in the snow tonight.
The doctor came into the room with her supplies and set them on the counter. She turned to me and told me to lie face down on the bed. “I’ll be right back with the nurse,” she said. “If you need to hold her hand during the procedure, let me know, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
After she left the room, I stepped onto the bed and lied down. I had to adjust my mask because my breath fogged up my glasses, and while I did so, the doctor came back with the nurse. I heard the nurse grab the supplies and set them on the metal tray beside the bed. The doctor stepped toward my right and pulled my shirt collar down.
I grabbed onto the corners of the bed.
“You have very nice hair,” she said as she brushed it away from my neck.
I chuckled and said, “Thanks.”
“I’m going to spray the anesthetic now, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. The spray felt cool.
The doctor grabbed the #11 scalpel blade. The nurse placed one hand behind my back and held my shirt collar down with the other.
“Yeah, hold it there,” the doctor told the nurse. To me, she said, “I’m about to make the first cut, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
I squeezed the bed and held my breath.
I sat in the waiting room and took some photos of the landscape painting hanging on the wall. The ceiling light hit the glass cover and caused a glare that made taking a clean photo difficult. As I tried to get a better angle, I heard the nurse call my name. I put my phone away and followed her inside.
She walked me toward the scale and told me to step on it. I took my boots off and saw the digital reading go up to a number I didn’t like. She wrote the number down and led me into another room. She walked toward the end of the room and told me to sit down on the chair.
She grabbed the sphygmomanometer and told me to take off my jacket. I did so and then gave her my arm. As she checked my vitals, she asked me a few questions about my reasons for coming in to see a doctor. I told her and after she wrote my words down in her laptop, she asked to see my neck.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “that’s a big one.” Her eyes softened when she asked, “And how long has it been like this?"
“About a week.”
She nodded and said, “Okay. Please wait here. The doctor will see you in a bit.”
“Okay,” I said.
When she left the room, I took my phone out and opened the camera app.
Two weeks ago I went to see a doctor I’ve never met before. For over a week I had been battling this pain in my neck from what I now know was an infected sebaceous cyst. It wasn’t pretty and it didn’t feel good, but I thought it would go away on its own. It didn’t. Instead, it gave me headaches and made sleeping difficult.
This was the second time in a few months I setup an appointment to see a doctor. The first one was because of some back pain. I’ve had back pain before but never as bad as it was then. Getting out of bed was a struggle, and when I did, I had to use the back of my chair to be able to stand upright. I couldn’t bend down to put on my socks and when I tried, the pain would shoot up my back and make life miserable. This went on for a few weeks, but by the end, I was able to tolerate the pain enough to at least dress myself. Like with my cyst, I thought the pain would go away on its own, but when it didn’t, I called the clinic and setup the doctor’s appointment.
My doctor’s solution to my back pain was to buy a heating pad and sit on it for a few hours. I was skeptical, but after a few days with it, I felt the pain soften quicker and quicker with each passing day. I’m now a firm believer in heating pads and would recommend them to anyone with back pain.
But I’m grateful I experienced the few weeks of pain on my own. Because it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life, I grew a tolerance to it I didn’t know I’d need so soon thereafter.
A few minutes after the nurse left, I heard someone knock on the door and come in. It was the doctor.
“Hi, Mario? I’m Dr. Henderson. How are you today?”
“I’m doing good. You?”
“Good. So I hear your neck’s been bothering you. What’s going on?”
After I repeated everything I told the nurse, the doctor asked to see my neck. “How long have you had it?” she asked. She sounded startled.
“A little over a week,” I said.
“And you haven’t felt any fevers or chills?”
“No,” I said. “Other than the occasional pain, I’ve been feeling pretty good.”
“Okay,” she said and looked at my neck again. “This looks like an infected abscess. What might’ve happened is that, as you went along your day, you cut your neck on something and over time, bacteria formed in the wound and hardened. You said you had this bump on your neck for a few years now, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It never hurt before last week, so I didn’t really think much of it. It was just this bump I thought came with getting older.”
“It’s called a cyst, and sometimes they can be serious. Sometimes the bacteria in these infections can seep into your bloodstream and cause sickness.”
My eyes widened.
“But you’re talking to me just fine, so I don’t think anything like that has happened yet.” She looked at my abscess again and said, “Well, we’re going to have to cut it out, okay? I have to make a few incisions across the abscess and then we’re going to push the infected tissue out. Unfortunately, you won’t be under any anesthetic, but I do have a numbing spray I’ll spray over it. It’ll help a bit with the pain.”
“Okay,” I said.
I sat at the edge of the table and felt my arms shaking.
The nurse came back into the room and asked me if I was okay.
“Yeah,” I said. I lifted my shaking arms and said, “My adrenalin is making my arms shake.”
“I bet,” she said. “You did really good. Most other patients would have been yelling.” She made exaggerated groaning noises that made me smile.
I shrugged. “The pain was fine,” I said.
“Have you ever watched Dr. Pimple Popper on YouTube?”
“No,” I said.
“When you do, it looked just like that.”
The first cut didn’t hurt. The second cut didn’t hurt either.
“There it is,” the doctor said.
“Oh yeah,” the nurse followed.
I felt the blood trickle down my skin.
“I’m going to push now, okay?” the doctor told me.
“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath.
While the nurse pulled my shirt collar down with one hand and had the other placed on my back, the doctor pushed against my abscess with all her strength.
She stopped and I breathed again.
“This is a big one,” the doctor said. She pressed down again.
“There it goes,” the nurse said.
“There’s another one,” the doctor said.
“Twins,” I said and laughed. The doctor and the nurse laughed, too.
She pushed down hard on my neck again.
“The first one’s out,” the doctor said.
“How are you feeling?” the nurse asked me.
“Fine,” I said. “I didn’t know I was having babies today.”
The nurse laughed and said, “Yeah, those were some big ones in there.”
“Okay,” the doctor said. “Let’s get the other one out now. Mario, are you ready?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
During the week after the appointment, I took antibiotics and changed my dressing daily. The wound closed a few days after and has been healed for about a week now.
Like I wrote about that day, that doctor’s appointment was one of the funniest and best experiences I’ve had with a doctor in my life. We laughed and made jokes and otherwise made a potentially scary situation into a very warm and human one.
While I lied on that table and felt the doctor push and push against my back, all I felt was gratefulness. I was grateful I lived in a world with doctors and nurses, with people who chose to help people, who spent time and energy learning about the human body and how to heal people. I felt grateful I had insurance and access to these people and these facilities. The procedure hurt, but my feelings of gratefulness overshadowed everything else. It also didn’t hurt that not too long before, I experienced some of the worst pain of my life.
2020 was a strange year, but we made it out alive. How can you feel nothing but gratefulness after that?
I read 17 books this year. For me that’s low, but 2020, by all measures, wasn’t a normal year. I struggled with attention and focus, and there were months when I didn’t read a single page. But I’m proud I read anything at all.
My favorite fiction book of the year was Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Last year I read 1Q84 and fell in love with Murakami’s style immediately. The same went for Kafka on the Shore. I love how he tells stories, and I want to read the rest of his bibliography in the coming years.
My favorite non-fiction book of the year was Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. I just finished reading it a few minutes ago, but I knew from the beginning that I would love it. I haven’t read many biographies, but I loved this one. I’m an American and I love the story and the promise of America, and Alexander Hamilton embodied all of it.
Other books I loved this year were The Expanse series of books by James S.A. Corey and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo. Both influenced my year in different ways and made living through this hectic year better.
- Death’s End by Cixin Liu
- Lost Connections by Johann Hari
- The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
- Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing by Marie Kondo
- Killing Floor by Lee Child
- The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker
- The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
- Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
- Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
- The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
- Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
- Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey
- Severance by Ling Ma
- I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
- The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a firefighter, but when I moved to Montana, I was penniless and in debt. I moved to Montana to start over, to reinvent myself, and to grow up. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without that experience. I’m grateful for all of it.
I think the thing I’m most grateful for during my time as a firefighter are all the places and things I got to see.
From beautiful sunsets in very remote parts of Montana.
To helicopters dropping buckets of water mere feet from me and onto blazing fires.
And bison roaming the land.