Mario Villalobos

The Door

The background static felt especially loud today. I dreamt last night of my inevitable failure. I dreamt that I grabbed my phone, logged onto Micro.blog, and checked to see if yesterday’s post garnered any reaction. I woke up feeling awful. I felt awful because I didn’t dream about the content of the reactions, but the quantity. This is what happens when I use social media, and it’s what I’m trying to eliminate from my life, this incessant need to grab my phone, to grab any device near me, and check for hearts and thumbs up and @-mentions. I know this background static will be dominating my life for a few weeks, and I know it’ll eventually fade away, but I have to wonder what it says about me that this is what I dream about.

I wrote yesterday that I wanted to focus on the things that make me happy. A year ago, I wrote that:

I wish I wasn’t so anxious all the time. I wish it was easier for me to get out of my own way and just live. But it’s not. I have built up these walls around me to make me feel safe and secure from the world, and I’m only now realizing how much better I’d be without them.

I remember that day so clearly. I remember the drive to the river, and I remember the fire pit with the used diaper in it, and I remember taking out my microphone and recording the sounds around me. I remember driving on the back roads and seeing everyone’s ranches full of cows and horses and hay bales. I remember I drove to my friend Ginger’s house, how I pulled up to her driveway unannounced, how she invited me inside and showed me around, and how her two kids were so excited to show me their things, their rooms, their photos. I remember going outside and marveling at the absolute quiet of the place. No cars driving on the street, no one playing their music too loud, no ambulances or police cars blaring their horns. I remember driving back home and wishing my life were different, that I lived in that part of Montana instead of the one I lived in.

And I’m sitting here now thinking, Why hasn’t more changed since then? Why haven’t I done more? At the start of the year, I wrote a post where I asked myself, Will I be able to try street photography again this year? I have to laugh at that because I haven’t gone anywhere this year. I haven’t gone to the river or the lake or the city or anywhere beyond the walls I’ve been living behind my whole life. And it’s because I’m afraid.

I’m afraid of opening that door and walking through it. I’m afraid of seeing what’s out there, of trying new things, of exploring the unexplored. And what I beat myself up so much about is that for six years, I was a wildland firefighter. I ran toward the flames instead of away from them. And for four of those years, I was an EMT firefighter. I roamed the mountains as a single resource firefighter, taking charge as a squad boss when needed and as a medical professional the other times. I wasn’t and am not afraid to face the open flames or the open wounds, but I’m afraid of opening this damn door I’ve constructed, and I don’t know what to do about it.

This is the part of my life I want to change, the part I want to improve, the part I want to devote all of my energies toward. Because I feel like I need to. I feel like every force in the world is weighing on me as I reach my hand out toward the door, fighting for every step, and never quite able to carry it all past the threshold. So I’ve grown use to not even trying anymore. Of feeling content staying still, of sitting on my couch in my air conditioned room, of living behind these walls forever. But that’s not living, and dammit, I want to live.

My Mom Is a Badass

I love my mom.

She emigrated to America from Mexico when she was just a teenager. She didn’t go to high school. She married my father at 18. She had me at 21. She raised four kids practically by herself in a country that didn’t want her. She taught herself English. She managed to somehow feed us and clothe us and give us a place to live. She raised a son that went to the best damn film school in the world. A daughter who worked in the video game industry. A son who served his country in the Navy. My mom is a badass.

I love that we talk on the phone once a week or so. I love that the things we talk about are about movies or TV shows we recently watched and liked. I love that we gossip about things happening in our extended families. I love that I can tell her things that I don’t usually tell anyone else. I love that she talks to me in Spanish and I talk to her in English, and we both know what each other is saying. I love that she finally got her US citizenship last year, in the middle of a damn pandemic. I love my mom, and I think she’s a badass.

I know times between us haven’t always been good. I know we’ve both said things to each other that we wish we could take back. But I love that we’ve moved past it, that we still love each other so much, that we can still joke and make each other laugh. I love my mom, I think she’s a badass, and goddammit, she’s the best mom ever.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Something Familiar

It’s May, and nature is coming alive. Last week, I went on an early morning walk to the park with my camera and found everything green and wet and full of life. It was my first walk in a long time, and I missed it. I miss the feel of my camera in my hand, the weight of it, the heaviness of the lens, the feel of my backpack on my back and my hoodie over my head. I miss how my senses are heightened as I scan my surroundings, looking for my subject, of the thrill of the hunt. I miss the sound of the shutter, of pressing it after composing my shot, of getting down close and in the face of nature, of getting my sneakers wet, of blowing into my hands to keep them warm. This is life, and I miss it.

I’m at a crossroads, I think, and I don’t know which path to take. I’m looking back at the road I’ve travelled and wondering if I took a wrong turn somewhere. Should I go back or should I keep moving forward? Should I see this through or should I reconsider? I’m full of doubt but also of excitement. I can do anything I want, and that sense of freedom is scary and invigorating. Who do I want to be? What do I want to accomplish? I don’t know, but I want to find out.

I’ve been here before. It seems like I end up here every time I start questioning myself. Questioning myself is good, I think. It means I’m always looking to improve. It means I’m paying attention to my life and what’s happening around me. It means I’m at the peak of one mountain and I’m looking up at the next one. But sometimes I just want to rest and have someone else take the reigns for once. Unfortunately, I’m on this road alone, so I have to pick myself up and keep going.

May is my birthday month. I’m a year older, a year wiser, a year closer to death. Sometimes my mortality scares me, but other times, it doesn’t. It forces me to look in the mirror and decide who I want to see. Who do I want to see this year? Does it matter? As long as I keep moving forward, it doesn’t matter.

And that’s my answer.

Mortality

I woke up the other night thinking about my mortality again. I thought briefly of my father and of him lying on his deathbed, of how he’s been gone for almost 13 years, of all the life he has missed since then, of my life he has missed, or my lack of life, in all fairness. I thought about my life and of its ending, of how short it all feels, of how much of it I’ve wasted, of the purpose of it all. I wrote about it in my notebook this morning and had a good dialog with myself about it. I’m trying to get back on the road, but I lost my way a long time ago. It’s going to take some time to find my way again, and that’s okay.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to tell myself. I haven’t felt this aimless and purposeless in a long time. I wanted to move away around this time next year, on the 10th year anniversary of my living in Montana, but I’m afraid because I don’t know what I would do for money or where I would go. I’d be out of debt by then, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d bury myself in debt again if I do leave. I like my job but I don’t want to do it forever. I’m in my mid-30s now, and the thought of working here for longer than a few years horrifies me.

Is this what I wanted to be doing in my 30s? My 40s? When will it end?

In Why People Photograph, Robert Adams writes:

There is the joy to be found in a landscape experienced with family and friends…To hear one’s name, and the invitation, spoken with the assurance you will together see the same gift—“Look.”

I can’t wait to travel again, to go there, and say look! at everything I see, but I don’t have anyone to share those experiences with, to share those moments of majesty and wonder. I haven’t had anyone in a long time. In my notebook, I wrote all the names of all the people that have come and gone in my life, and I’ve never seen them all written together before. It terrified me. It terrifies me. It makes me dwell on the everlasting forward march of time and how I can’t stop it. One day this will all end, and the question I ask myself is whether it was worth it.

There’s a verse in Breaking Up Slowly, a song on Lana del Rey’s wonderful Chemtrails over the Country Club, that goes: Are these my good years or do I have none? / Are there really good years for everyone? / I don’t wanna live with a life of regret. It’s sung beautifully by Nikki Lane, and these lines have haunted me all day. I don’t wanna live with a life of regret but regret seems to be the only emotion I know how to feel.

Learning

I’m listening to Lana del Rey’s newest album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, an artist and album I really enjoy. I purchased the album on Friday, but I didn’t get around to listening to it until today. I’m a fan. White Dress in particular is great.

Last week, I read Cal Newport’s newest book, A World Without Email, and to me, I wasn’t the right audience for it. I was for his previous two books, Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, books that have heavily inspired me these last few years. But in A World Without Email, I felt like he tried a bit too hard to justify his thesis instead of doubling down on it. Seriously, just get rid of email, don’t replace it with Trello or Asana or something else—just get rid of it. I only get emails from my financial institutions, invoices and tracking numbers from orders I purchase, and temporary login links for websites I visit. I’m sure I get more, but those are the ones I remember getting this past week. Because of this, I’ve turned off my email notifications, quieting my life that much more. This week I also read through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sequel to The Sympathizer, The Committed, a sharply funny and sometimes brutal book that I deeply enjoyed.

I purchased both of these books from Amazon earlier this month, and I have two conflicting emotions about this. For one, I feel regret for choosing Amazon over a company like Bookshop. I started my search on Bookshop, but when I saw that they didn’t offer free shipping, I caved in and purchased them from Amazon instead. I have thoughts about this, but the second emotion I feel is pleasure because I love reading and holding and smelling physical books. I love the feel of the paper, its texture and character, the way each book has its own typeset and weight and, again, character. I love all of it. I’ve been reading more and more eBooks in apps like Libby, and my next two books will be read on it, but there really is something unique about physical books that bring me so much joy.

On Monday, I received my newest Trade Coffee coffee beans, and when I unpacked them and put them in my cupboards, I thought about money, where I choose to spend it, and why. Like I said, I felt regret in choosing Amazon over Bookshop, but to be fair to myself, I knew quitting Amazon would be tough. My Prime membership doesn’t expire until November, after all. But earlier in the day, I read through this article in the New Yorker about independent bookstores, and I felt motivated to truly get loose from Amazon’s grip and spend money at companies I admire.

Companies like Peak Design and American Giant, two companies I do adore. Earlier this week, I bought the 30L version of the Everyday Backpack to somewhat replace my 20L one, and I bought a comfortable and absolutely gorgeous black hoodie from American Giant. Both companies have absolutely honorable mission statements, and I feel like I’m helping them accomplish their goals. I budgeted some of the rest of my relief money toward other areas in my life that needed it, and I spent the rest toward paying down both my car and student loans.

I’m learning. Life will be boring if I ever stop learning. I’m learning to both treat myself and pay down my debt so I can live a more free life. I had this thought earlier today, one where I felt like the last 10 years or so have been lived within a prison, and my sentence is up in 6-9 months, as soon as I pay off the last of my debt. Will I feel free once my true net worth is positive? I’m not sure, but I feel like I’ve let my debt define me, and I’ve said no to life more because of it.

I know it’s strange that I started this entry talking about the things I’ve spent money on and now I’m talking about my debt and how it feels like it has shackled me for a decade. Humans are complicated, humans are contradictory, and humans aren’t bothered by cognitive dissonance. It is what it is, and really, would anyone want it any other way?

In the New Yorker article I linked earlier—the one that convinced me to renew my subscription after taking a few years off—Danny Caine, the subject of the article and owner of the Raven bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, wrote a book called How to Resist Amazon and Why. I purchased it directly from their website. It should arrive on Thursday, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it and learn something new.

There are at least three birds in this photo

Creative Frustration

The days are getting warmer and longer. On Friday, I went to my usual spot because the blue skies were calling my name, but I couldn’t get into a rhythm. I shot the mountains again, and I saw a pair of geese hanging out, but nothing was quite clicking for me. I felt like I had overworked the area, and I was getting tired of this subject matter. I went home and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to edit my photos, but again, nothing seemed to click for me. I accepted the fact that sometimes I get in a creative funk, and I was about ready to simply delete all the photos I took that day and try again some other time.

This feeling felt familiar. Before photography, I spent a lot of time trying to get better at illustration. I bought and studied a lot of books that taught me about perspective, character design, color theory, and anything else I thought would make me better. I bought sketchbooks and pencils and erasers and other tools I thought I needed in order to get better as an illustrator. But just like my feelings on Friday, I eventually grew frustrated with my progress and I simply stopped sketching.

I plateaued, and I feel like I’ve plateaued again with my photography.

How do I get better? How can I improve? Where can I take my art?

I’m not sure, but I know I won’t find out if I stop. I started sketching in my sketchbook earlier this week, and it felt like something was filled in within me. I got into photography because of drawing. When I studied my perspective books, I learned about different focal lengths and how they treated perspective. I didn’t quite understand what this meant until I bought my camera and lenses and saw for myself how different lenses gave each photo a different look and feel.

When I edit, it feels like I’m painting, and I have a lot of fun doing so. So I think I have to go back and spend more time sketching and studying the world again, not only to get more practice in (and thus improve my skills), but also to give my photographic eye a break and maybe return to it with renewed vigor. Otherwise, I think I’m going to keep feeling frustrated, and who wants to live like that?

I’m glad that I date everything

People Sketching and Some Thoughts on How to Be Happy

About four and a half years ago, in an effort to simply improve my artistic ability, I spent a week or two drawing portraits in an old notebook I had. The goal was to draw a face a day, and I really enjoyed the whole process. I do love drawing, but with anything that isn’t writing, I have a tough time knowing what to create.

This mini-project ended abruptly when I was called out to a fire, something that happened often during the summers. I didn’t get back into a normal routine that year until September, and because I had only spent a few weeks on this project, I hadn’t build up the routine in my system. So I never picked it up again.

Looking back at these sketches, I feel not only the pull to create again, but also the dreadful fact that time keeps marching forward, whether I like it or not. I remember doing these sketches like I did them yesterday, but these were done almost five years ago. What the hell!? Where did all that time go!?

But another thing I’ve learned by revisiting these sketches is how much of my life I’ve devoted and am still devoting toward creating stuff.

In college, after I intentionally hurt myself, I was required to see a therapist. I won’t go into too many details about this period in my life, but one of the things my therapist taught me was the skill of focusing my energies toward things that made me happy. At the time, I went to film school, so some of the things I did was to spend even more time writing and studying movies and volunteering in more of my friend’s film projects. I had a blast doing this, and once I graduated, I felt like I knew how to take care of myself for the first time in my life. My college paid for my therapy sessions, so once I graduated, my time with my therapist ended, too. It has been almost 13 years since I’ve seen her, and I owe so much to her that I feel like I literally would not be alive if it wasn’t for her.

In a way, she showed me who I was and who I could be. I focused on the person I wanted to be, so I worked until that version of me was the real me. I don’t know if it’s humanly possible to be the me in my head, but I feel like I’m infinitely closer to that version of me now than when I tried to hurt myself then.

And I think some of what has helped me is what I call my three pillars. They’re super simple:

As long as I follow these pillars, I feel not only happy but also like I’m giving myself the weapons to fight off my demons, to fight off those forces that told me it was okay to hurt myself and to hurt others. Each pillar feeds into the next and is fed by the others, so it’s this ouroboros of happiness, at least for me.

So what does all this mean?

It means that for me to stay happy, I have to create things, and that means I write, I take photos, and I draw. I have to learn new things, and I do that by reading books, by learning new languages, and by playing the guitar. Eventually, I would like to make my own music, but for now, I’m still learning, and this is a very fun and very frustrating phase to be in. I have to keep pushing. Finally, I have to take care of my health, and I do that by eating well—I’m vegan—and by working out regularly. For me, health is the foundation for everything I do, and without it, the other two pillars won’t be enough to keep me happy. I have to workout. I have to sweat and feel the endorphins rush throughout my body because if I don’t, then I’ll be sad. It’s really that simple for me.

These pillars have led me well for a while, and I hope I have the strength to keep them standing for the rest of my life because the alternative is scary.

Playing Around on a Sunday

Before I purchased my Fujifilm X-T4, I had owned the X-T20 for a few years. It was my first “real” camera, and I loved it. I used it every day. I taught myself how to shoot in manual, and I practiced by shooting photos every day. I used the camera like a journal, shooting photos of my days without an intention to share any of them. I just wanted a record of my life while also learning the camera and about photography in general. Those few years were a lot of fun.

But then I broke my camera.

A few days later, I purchased the X-T4, and I really liked it. It was definitely a Fujifilm camera, and it was easy for me to learn it. Unlike my X-T20, though, I didn’t use it every day. I didn’t use it like a journal, so I never really internalized all its little quirks and the flavor of its photos. I just knew it was a “better” camera than the X-T20, with a better sensor, a new battery, more powerful video features, and other specs. But there’s one thing knowing something exists, and it’s quite the other using the thing at all.

Today I just wanted to play around. I feel like I’ve been in a creative rut lately, somewhat because I went through a seasonal phase of sorts shooting beautiful sunrises or shots of leaves, and I kinda expected that’s what people wanted out of me. But I kinda just wanted to break free from that and try new things.

I had to drive north to buy groceries, and with all these thoughts and desires on my mind, I decided to pack my X-T4 and my XF55-200mm lens, a newish lens I hadn’t really used much. I zoomed the lens all the way out to 200mm, put the lens hood on, started my car and just went for it. I drove 65mph down the highway with one hand on the wheel and the other holding onto the camera. I shot through my dirty car windows and just winged it.

I took a bit under 100 photos to and from the grocery store, and these are the five photos I liked. I don’t think they’re the best photos of all time or anything, but that also wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to play. I even messed around with how I edited these photos in Lightroom. The X-T4 came with a new film preset called Eterna Bleach Bypass, this super high contrast look that I never thought I’d use, but here I am, using it. I also cranked up some of the sliders just because, stuff like Clarity and Grain, sliders I’ve used very very conservatively before and now went all out with.

I like these photos and I liked today and I like my X-T4 and I just like photography more in general now. I think this was a very freeing and fun experiment, and I’m going to keep doing it. You know, just for fun!

I Got My First COVID-19 Vaccine Shot Today

And I feel fine. It was the Pfizer one, so in three weeks, I have to come back and get the second shot. The entire process was quick and easy, and I couldn’t be more proud with Tribal Health and the entire health staff that helped get all this setup. I live on tribal land, so of course the vaccine clinic was setup at one of our local casinos. Funnily enough, this was the first time in my entire time I’ve lived in Montana that I’ve entered this casino, but getting the chance to get a vaccine was one bet I was happy to make.

After I checked in and filled out all my paperwork, one of the nurses led me to the nurse who would be giving me my shot, and to my surprise (and relief), it was my old friend Hope. I hadn’t seen her in years. We used to fight fires together, and she was actually my first squad boss on my first fire. When I knew her, she was an EMT, but now, she’s a few months away from becoming a nurse. It was really good catching up with her, and I was very glad she was the one to give me the shot.

She told me about some of the side effects I most likely will feel tomorrow, but I’m not worried about it because I’m pretty good with pain. Once I got the shot, I was directed toward another nurse, and she gave me a timer with 15 minutes on it. I sat on a chair and waited the 15 minutes, and since I felt fine, once the timer went off, I went home. At the moment, I still feel fine. In fact, I feel ecstatic. I’m so glad I’m getting vaccinated from this godforsaken virus, less than a year since Montana first went on lockdown. Modern science is incredible.

Some Photos of the Mountains

Montana has a way of soothing a turbulent soul with its majesty and beauty, and the detour I took today proved it. I drove down Ninepipe Road—my favorite spot at the moment—and snapped some shots, then I drove home. On the way, I talked to myself about how brief my detour took, and I wondered aloud how I could improve it.

Earlier in the day, as the sun rose behind the mountains, I looked at them and wondered what settings on my camera I would use to best capture the shot I wanted. I don’t normally think like this, about ƒ stops and shutter speeds, but my mind had quieted a bit from the noise of the irrelevant and thought creatively instead.

I’m conducting an experiment, one where I turn off my phone at the start of my workday and only turn it on at the end. I had purchased the cellular version of the newest Apple Watch last fall in preparation for an experiment like this, but I hadn’t got around to it until this week. My watch only notifies me when I get new text messages, phone calls, and email, leaving me alone the rest of the time. So far, I’m loving this.

I’m spending more of my time writing in my notebook and in the novel I’m reading. I’m reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, and it’s a wildly funny yet somewhat challenging book to read, but without the distractions of my phone—from checking the news or my Micro.blog timeline—I’ve found myself more focused and invested in Saul Bellow’s words. They’re amazing, and I’m enjoying the book more because of it.

I’m always moving quickly, from one task to the next to the next, and I forget how much more fulfilling life can be when I slow down, when I stop and simply look at the mountains. I told myself in the car that I should’ve taken my time taking my photos, that I should’ve explored the reservoir more and simply breathed in its beauty. I say this a lot, but life is short. Why try to live it quickly, flitting here, flitting there, when, again, life can be more fulfilling when we simply take a detour and breathe in the majesty of the mountains.

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