Mario Villalobos


The London of Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the Paris Review stacked atop each other on a desk


  • Journal

For the past few years, I’ve been working hard to reduce my overall screen time, and one of the things I have recently begun to do is to read paper magazines again. You know, sometimes I have an idea for something and I have no idea how it’ll turn out until I do it, and I had an inkling how this might turn out but I can never be sure how it will turn out, but now that I have all my magazines together for the first time, I am ecstatic at how this idea turned out. Turning off my phone, tossing it aside, and reading a nice article in the New Yorker or an interesting interview in the Paris Review has been so much fun. I received the London Review of Books just today so I haven’t been able to dig into yet, but I will, and I’m eager to try it out.

Moral of the story: turn off your screens and hold paper and ink again.

A custom cardboard wooden box with 15 completed Leuchtturm1917 notebooks organized inside, a white label across each spine with the start and end dates of each notebook


  • Journal

Two years ago, I made a deal with myself: write. Show up every day and write. Two years ago, I began to fill my first A5 Leuchtturm1917 notebook, and on Sunday night, I finished my fifteenth notebook. In May, I designed and ordered my perfect notebook box, and my design was for each box to hold fifteen notebooks. On Sunday night, I finished my first notebook box, as well.

These last two years have flown by, and I’ve documented all of it in these fifteen notebooks. Every up, every down, every great day and every mediocre day: it’s all in these notebooks. And I love that. My output here has definitely decreased over the last two years, but I haven’t stopped writing. In fact, I’m writing more than ever, and I couldn’t be any happier.

It really feels like I’m just getting started, too. So let’s keep going.

A dark fog on a dark morning taken inside a dark car


  • Journal

A fog has descended over the valley, and it’s driving all of us insane. I’ve felt like a daredevil driving to work in the mornings, pointing my car forward and hoping I don’t hit another car, tumble down a ditch, or miss my turn. It’s kept me young.

I had to remind myself how to do this. How to publish something online again. I had been thinking about this space, about what I wanted from it, but I’ve been focused on living, on trying to enjoy each day as it comes, to focus on now, on this breath, because in the end, ‌I will only have one last breath before I leave this world breathless. I want to exhaust my life force completely and leave Death nothing but a bag of bones.

How’s that going? It’s going. There are times, small moments throughout my day, where I catch myself and become aware of the mask I’m wearing, the mask that transforms me into a robot, a machine following a prewritten set of instructions, without thought, without awareness, and I think, what am I doing? I’m playing a part, playacting for some audience I will never see. Why? What for? I don’t know. But I catch myself and I feel this deep and hollow and foreboding hole in my chest, and it scares me, so to feel better, I put on my mask and I let myself forget. I distract myself with all the distractions we’ve created for ourselves, and I tell myself I’ll try again tomorrow.

One day, there will be no more tomorrows, and on that day, I think I will finally feel peace. But until then, I have a life I want to live, feelings I want to feel, people I want to be with, places I want to see, art I want to create. As much as I’ve been writing in my notebooks, the essays I write on this site just feel different. There’s something about them that I can’t quite reproduce in my notebooks, and so I’m here, on this first post of 2024, and I don’t know I want to keep coming back here, writing my words, living my life without my mask. And I think that’s what I’ve been missing, to an extent. A chance where I can just be me, honest and true and fucked up like everyone else.

Or maybe this fog has driven me insane, and I don’t know who I am anymore.

A cardboard shoebox with 15 Leuchtturm1917 A5 hardcover notebooks, 13 of them finished and labeled and two brand new still in their wrapping. In the background is a Field Notes notebook and beside that is a pen case with an assortment of writing tools.

The Perfect Notebook Box

  • Journal

Recently, I finished my thirteenth notebook since the start of last year. Each notebook is the plain A5 hardcover notebook by Leuchtturm1917, and I didn’t really search long or far to find this notebook because frankly, I’m not too picky about them. I bought this one, liked it, so I kept buying them. These notebooks have about 250 pages, so in about 22 months, I’ve written 3,250 pages, or almost 150 pages a month. What I am picky about, though, is storage, as in, how I’m going to store my notebooks once I’m done with them.

When I first started keeping notebooks on a daily basis back around 2004, I chose the pocket Moleskine. Like many, I liked the size, the hardcover, the elastic band, the entire aesthetic of it. Sometime around the early 2010s, I noticed the quality of each new Moleskine I bought degrade compared to my earlier notebooks, so I began to look for alternatives. I really liked the Field Notes brand notebooks, and for a few years, I subscribed to their annual plan. Because these had fewer pages than the Moleskine, I quickly filled these notebooks, and I wanted a way to store them neatly. Fortunately, Field Notes sells an amazing archival wooden box that holds 60 notebooks. I bought two. And because the Field Notes pocket notebooks were the same dimension as my older Moleskine ones, I could store my Moleskine notebooks in here, too.

So when I switched over to the Leuchtturm1917 A5 notebooks, I wanted to find something similar. When I couldn’t, I drew up some plans myself and asked a few friends with woodworking tools if I could commission them to build me boxes for my notebooks. Unfortunately, my sketches required more precise tools than my friends owned, so I was back to square one. However, back in March, Warren Ellis noted a link to this Notebook Stories article on, as Warren put it, “deep nerding on the perfect notebook box.” I read through the article then and learned about Fantastapack, a site that makes custom boxes at whatever dimensions you’d like. So I took my sketches with my custom dimensions, inputed them into Fantastapack’s order page, and before I knew it, I had ordered 11 of them.

I designed each box to hold 15 notebooks, and because I ordered 11 boxes, that meant I could theoretically fit 165 of these Leuchtturm1917 A5 hardcover notebooks, or about 41,250 pages worth of notebooks. And because I had already filled 3,250 pages, I had about 38,000 more pages to write in before I ran out of boxes. At my pace of about 150 pages a month, that means I won’t reach this end for another 21 years or so. I’d be in my late 50s by then, and you know what? That doesn’t seem too old, so what I’m hoping is that I either know how to build my own wooden boxes by then, in which I can just build my own, or that Fantastapack is still around so I could order another 11 boxes from them.

I feel good knowing I have homes for my next 150 notebooks, which means all I have to worry about is writing. That’s it. I’ve tried many morning routine’s over the last few decades, and the one I’ve enjoyed the most is the one I’m doing now: wake up, make my coffee, make my bed, grab my pen, grab my notebook, drink my coffee, and write in my notebook. I’ve done this for over 680 days straight, and I don’t feel like taking a break because there’s nothing to take a break from. This is my life, and I love it. As simple as that.

Now to buy 15 more notebooks just so I can prepare my 2nd box…

A rainbow beginning at a ranch house and rising toward a dying raincloud, the mountains peeking through behind them, the signs of early fall in the foreground

The Urgencies of Life

  • Journal

Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh, as Al Swearengen once said. I had every intention to update my blog more often, but life took over and had other plans. Life, for lack of a better word, has been busy. From work to relationships to my own personal projects, I simply haven’t had the time to sit down and write posts for my digital notebook. However, I’m forcing myself to sit down every night and at least look at my text editor and see if anything happens. A finished essay doesn’t just happen—I have to make it happen, and I’ve forgotten that.

Recently, I re-read Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s not my favorite book (in fact, I would say, now that I’ve read it for a second time, that it’s a book I actively dislike), but I had noticed myself falling back to bad habits, and I wanted something that would snap me out of my bad routine. I was spending most of my free time on leisure activities and not enough time on the things that matter the most to me, from writing to reading to working out and photography. I wasn’t doing any of it, and I needed a change.

As I read the book, I came across a passage that has stuck with me since reading it a few weeks ago:

Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.

Disregarding this dichotomy (one I disagree with completely), I want to highlight that last phrase: the urgencies of life. I love that phrase because of how accurate it fits the last few months for me. The urgencies of life had overwhelmed me to a point where all I sought was leisure, and I used that leisure to distract me from simply living my life, the life I wanted to live, the life I know I’m capable of living. I think to assume that anyone is capable of not being swept up by the urgencies of life is either delusional or has never lived. They happen, we all get swept up by it, and I believe, at some point or another and in some way or another, we all deal with it our own way. Aren’t we all amateurs? Does anyone really know what they’re doing? Anyhow…

Not too long ago, as I looked at how I was living my days and thought of ways to improve it, I came to this rather simple realization, one that I don’t know if it’s naive or brilliant: if I fill my days with the things I want and love to do, from writing and reading to working out and photography, then I really don’t have time for much else. If I’m reading, I don’t really have time to check social media. If I’m writing, I really don’t have time to watch TV. If I’m working out, I really don’t have time to overeat or play video games. This seems so simple that I’m honestly embarrassed to even write and admit this. It’s like, d’uh, Mario! Of course that’s how it works. If you make time for the things you love, then you don’t have time for the things you don’t. Maybe it’s more complicated than that (self-control and discipline do seem to be needed, I think), or it could really be that simple. I’m not sure, but that’s where I’m at right now.

A few weeks ago, a massive rainstorm hit my area, lowering temperatures and drenching everything. Roads were slick, the sky was dark, and there didn’t seem to be any time to enjoy the beautiful fall weather. On my way home from work one day, the rain had stopped, the sky began to clear, and I saw this rainbow appear off toward the horizon. All I had was my iPhone, so I pulled it out and took this photo. I feel like the rainclouds are clearing from my life, and I can maybe make out a rainbow off in the distance, toward a horizon I’m beginning to see with greater clarity and focus. I really don’t know where I’m going or what I even want from my journey, but I like the road I’m walking, especially if it includes more rainbows.

Cowboy on his horse whipping a lasso in the air as he chases a bull


  • Journal

Last weekend, I went to my first rodeo with my friend, and I had a blast. I had no idea what to expect, and I admit, I felt out of place, but my friend made me feel welcome. She walked me through the rules and strategies for each event, and the more I understood, the more I began to appreciate the rodeo and the entire culture and enthusiasm surrounding it. Rodeo’s are a big part of people’s lives where I live, amongst all my friends, and I, in hindsight, feel disappointed that it took me so long to enter this world.

A few things struck me the most. The first was how violent some of these events could be. The second was how young many of the participants were. There was one moment when a boy no older than twelve fell off his horse and hit his head on the ground, knocking him out for a solid ten minutes. There was a hush in the crowd as we watched the EMTs huddle around him and do what they needed to do to help. They strapped him to a gurney and carried him away, but one of the cowboys told the crowd that he heard the boy say he was okay and that brought a relieved crowd to cheer and clap. And the show went on.

One of my favorite events was the barrel race. These were fast and fun and I loved seeing these skilled people ride their horses with such command and grace. I’m hooked.

Two cowboys hogtie a bull
A cowboy falls off his horse
A cowboy on the ground as his horse runs away
A cowboy about to fall off his horse. He has lost his hat.
A cowboy falling off his horse and landing on his left arm first
A cowboy looking to the right
A young cowboy barrel racing his horse around a barrel
A young cowgirl barrel racing her horse around a barrel
A momma cowgirl and her young cowgirl daughter barrel racing together
A young cowgirl barrel racing her horse around a barrel
A cowgirl on her horse sprinting to the finish line during a barrel race
A group of kids looking at the arena
A cowboy in a red, white, and blue outfit standing in the arena by a red, white, and blue barrel

An early morning sunrise, a small structure on a green hill, the purple mountains off to the right, the sky a spectrum of pinks, reds, yellows, and purples

Mostly Happy

  • Journal

Earlier this month, I woke up at around 2am and when I couldn’t fall back to sleep, I grabbed my camera and drove around. I pulled off at a place I had driven by a million times before but never stopped to explore. The sun was beginning to rise as I walked the dirt path and listened to the birds and the insects and the quiet, and I snapped a few shots of the sunrise, then I drove to the reservoir and snapped photos of the geese and ducks swimming on the water, and I stood there a moment and watched the sky change colors and the birds fly away from me and I thought, Wow. I loved every moment of this brief excursion, and I was happy.

Earlier this week, I went on a hike early in the morning, and I had my camera in hand as I snapped photos of the trees and the talus and the mountain peaks, and I broke a sweat as the slope steepened and the extra water in my pack began to feel heavy, and I talked to myself as I ascended the mountain and swore there was a squirrel or a sparrow stalking me in the trees as I hiked the trail, and I imagined getting mauled by a bear because I saw bear scat on the trail on my way down from the hike that I swear I didn’t see on my way up and I, of course, didn’t have bear spray on me so I made my peace with the Universe and savored every moment of whatever life I had left, and when I saw my Jeep I felt a tinge of disappointment that I didn’t get to see a bear. I took my boots off and changed into my sneakers, and I sat in the front seat with the AC at full blast and I felt my sweat dry on my face, on my glasses, and my back was throbbing, and yet, I still thought, Wow, I loved every minute of this hike, and I was happy.

Last night, I had dinner with a friend I had known for many years but had never asked out before. We were actually supposed to meet last week but since she couldn’t find a babysitter, she had to postpone by a week, and that was okay. We sat at the bar and I ordered a Cold Smoke and some street tacos while she ordered some multi-ingredient science experiment that I think had pineapple juice and Sprite and a plate of clams that reminded me of the ocean, and we talked about work and baseball and ourselves, and I asked questions and she asked questions and there wasn’t a lull in the conversation, and we smiled and laughed and when our meal was over, we walked outside and marveled at the beautiful Montana sunset and I lamented that I’ve spent all this money on my photography gear and I didn’t have any of it on me at that moment. She laughed, we hugged, and as I drove back home, I thought, Wow. When I got home, I saw that she sent me a message, and I read it and smiled, and after a few back and forth messages, we settled on hanging out again next week. There’s a rodeo, she said. Let’s do it, I said. Thinking of that makes me happy.

This has been a good summer.

Coffee cup with Happy Birthday and a smiley face handwritten on it

Birthday Week

  • Journal

It was my birthday earlier this week. I’m closer to 40 now than I am to 30, and I don’t know how to feel about that yet. I usually don’t like celebrating my birthday, mostly because it wasn’t something I celebrated much growing up, but this birthday was different. I felt very loved and very lucky. I have good friends and a great mom. My friends bought me a cup of coffee—a black Americano, naturally—and a delicious and very filling vegan chili pie. My mom bought me a Bookshop gift card.

Books, coffee, and vegan food: that sums me up pretty well.

On Thursday, I donated two units of blood to the Red Cross. It was a Power Red Donation, and it was pretty slick. The guy who did the procedure on me had recently gone to San Diego with his wife for their honeymoon, so we talked about my hometown, the Padres, the Dodgers, and good Mexican food. The older I get the more amazed I am at how small the world feels sometimes.

I wished my mom and a few of my friends a Happy Mother’s Day today. I’m just now realizing that most of my good friends are mom’s, including my own. It makes sense: mom’s are the best.


  • Journal

The longer I’ve gone without writing a new entry, the more I question the value of this place. I’ve been spending more and more of my time in my notebooks, and in many ways, they have replaced what this website used to be, as a place to explore myself, my life, and my role in this world. I enjoy myself more when I sit down to write in my notebook more than I ever have since I started writing and sharing my entries online. My notebooks are safe. They are full of mistakes and crossed out words and wrong turns. They are messy like my life is messy, like the world is messy. Each time I return to them, I seem to find myself back at home, back to a world of comfort and security and again, safety.

But that’s not why I created my website. I created it so I wouldn’t live in my own little world. I created it to share my writing, my thoughts, my life to an indifferent world with the hope that maybe I can affect the world in some way. Receiving notes from other people has been a blessing, and I’m grateful for the connections, however small, I’ve made over the years. It’s been great. I am just unsure of what I want.

Life has been messy lately, and each day, I tell myself that I will find my way back home, but each day, the universe and my own inertia has other things to say about that. Each day I tell myself that today I will write an essay or start writing that new book or go out on an excursion with my camera and take some photos or that today will be the day I pick up my guitar and learn a new song or grab my pencil and draw a sketch in my notebook. Most of the time, I don’t do any of that. Instead, I’m fighting fires or indulging myself in things that are fun but unproductive.

I’m really starting to hate that word, productive. Productivity. It makes me nauseous. Can doing what I want to do really be considered productive? Productive for whom? Definitely not for society, right? Does society care if I write some essays or take some photos or draw some sketches? Does society actually care about any of that? The only way I can ever see society care is if I produce some great work of art, something I used to believe I was capable of but not so much lately. The only one that cares if I ever do any of this is me. I care if I write essays or write books or take photos or draw some sketches. I care about that, but in hindsight, I don’t think that’s enough. I’m not enough. If I don’t care to live my life this way then no one cares. And if nobody cares?

But I care. I care about doing all these things. That’s why I do them! Okay, so back in the day, whenever I knew I needed to write, I would sit in front of my computer, put some music on, and I would just sit there. I would let myself feel the music and I would let it enchant my mind and I would feel something as my mind opened and I felt the words in my heart and I would start writing to figure out those words. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t shut out the world like that anymore. I have so many more distractions around me now. But those were good times, and I miss them. I can always return there if I choose to. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still right there on my map. I just have to grab my compass, find north, and take that first step.

And here’s that step. Now to keep going.

Year of the Sketchbook

  • Journal

I finished six notebooks last year, and I have every intention to finish more this year. Writing in my notebooks has become one of my most valuable activities, and the thought of living without them frightens me. I’ve been journaling for a long time, but my decision to do them in these Leuchtturm1917 notebooks last year was a good one. The size, the paper quality, the numbered pages—I love all of it.

In my Year in Reading post, I mentioned that I began to use my notebooks as a commonplace book. That decision changed many things for me: it improved my reading, it clarified my thinking, and it ingrained my notebooks deeper into my life.

That last one is something I’ve been working toward since I first learned about Leonardo da Vinci in the 5th grade. Leonardo da Vinci was a magnificent son of a bitch, someone who opened my tiny little child mind to a wider world of possibility. At that age, my entire identity revolved around my skills as an artist. I could draw really well, and when I saw photos of da Vinci’s notebooks, I realized that I needed to keep notebooks, too, because I wanted to be just like him. If da Vinci sketched in a notebook, I wanted to sketch in a notebook, too.

Leondardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I grew older, and as the darkness of the world began to overwhelm me, I stopped drawing and I started writing. Writing helped me combat these demons, and when I became quite good at that, my entire identity changed and revolved around writing. I wrote a lot during high school, and that helped me get into a good university where I would continue to write. At this state of my life, I considered myself a writer, an affixation that has stuck with me ever since.

During college and throughout most of my twenties, I used the classic pocket notebooks from Moleskine. Each pocket notebook took me a few years to finish but finish them I did. During the second half of my twenties, I became a minimalist, and so many of my thoughts during that time were focused on simplicity. I wanted to simplify everything, and that included my notebooks. I learned about these popular memo books from Field Notes, and those felt perfect for me, so I used those to write in up until my mid-thirties. I loved my Field Notes notebooks. They were small, they fit in my back pocket, and they didn’t take very long to finish.

But they weren’t quite right. That idea of emulating da Vinci had never left me, and I feel like it’s time I do something about it. If 2022 was the year of the commonplace book, I want 2023 to be the year of the sketchbook.

Sure, but what does that mean?

I’m glad you asked! Because I have collected some images of notebooks I like. When I was playing through The Last of Us Part II back in 2020, I wrote that Ellie’s notebook pages were beautiful, a sentiment I still hold. Look at them:

Source: The Last of Us Wiki

The sketches, the notes, the beautyoh, be still my heart. One of my behaviors I want to change is this idea of being “perfect.” I made progress on this front last year, but I’m not quite where I want to be because I still feel hesitation when I even think about picking up my pencil to sketch in my notebook. But look at Ellie’s pages again. Look at her draw guidelines to draw her faces, her multiple attempts to draw eyes, her attempts to understand how a horse looks in various angles—this is what I do when I journal. I explore, I analyze, I cross out and try again.

In short, I sketch, but in words… so why not sketch in pictures, too? (lol)

Or look at Nathan Drake’s journal from another Naughty Dog game, Uncharted:

Source: Uncharted Wiki

Look how messy they are: plants are taped to the pages and dying, a photo is stapled to the page, pages from books are cut out, taped, and written over. They’re so messy… and yet, I find these spreads so beautiful. There’s a soul to them I feel my notebooks are missing. My notebooks are filled with pages and pages of my bad handwriting, bad handwriting that has helped me in so many ways, sure, but… I want more.

I want to sketch; I want to figure out how to draw the same face from multiple angles; I want to sketch buildings and landscapes and animals and whatever else; I want to mess up and cross things out and be okay with that; I want to tape scraps of whatever onto the page and be okay with that, too.

In short, I want to do more than just write in my notebooks. I want to be more like Leonardo or Ellie or Nathan or that little shit in 5th grade who first learned about Leonardo da Vinci and wanted to be just like him. I want to be messy and curious and happy to simply be alive, and I want to express all of that in my notebooks, these little books of joy.

That’s what I want to do this year. That’s what I want to attempt to do this year, this year I’m calling the “Year of the Sketchbook.”

I hope I can make that little shit proud…

Page 1 of 13