Mario Villalobos


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…

My favorites of the year

Year in Reading: 2022

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I read 10 books this year, the fewest number of books I’ve read in a year since I began to log them back in 2010. Why did I read so few books this year? Because I tried something new: I began to use my notebooks as a commonplace book.

Whenever I underlined a valuable passage in a book, I would spend the time to copy it down into my notebook and then add my comments to it. I loved this exercise a lot, but this exercise took up huge chunks of my time, time not spent reading. Additionally, I found myself not reading sometimes because I either had a backlog of passages to copy down or I didn’t feel like giving myself more work to do by reading and underlining more. Over time, though, as this habit became more ingrained, I found that the way I read changed. Since I knew I was going to comment on these passages in my notebook, what I underlined started to change. These passages weaved themselves into the larger narrative of my life, a narrative I’ve been writing in my journals within the same notebook.

My favorite book of the year was Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson Jr. I’ve admired Emerson for years, mostly from afar, and primarily through a small handful of his essays. Reading this biography clarified who he was to me, and who he was was an amazing person. A big reason why I read so few books this year was because of this book—I swear, I underlined half the book, and it took me months to both read the book and to transcribe all the notes I underlined into my notebooks.

My other favorites were The Places That Scare You by Pema Chödrön and Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. Both helped me see the structure of my life in a new way. I tried to live a better life this year, and even though I feel like I failed in many ways, I am starting to see the light seeping through the clouds with the promise of a new day just ahead of me, and I have these books (and my notes on them) to help me.

The Plague by Albert Camus was my favorite novel of the year. The others I read were fun but they didn’t compare to The Plague. I hope to read more Albert Camus books in the future.

I don’t know how many books I will read in 2023, but what this year taught me is that if I focus on the quality of my reading, the quantity doesn’t matter.

  • The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • The Places That Scare You by Pema Chödrön
  • Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey
  • The Plague by Albert Camus
  • Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
  • Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson Jr.
  • A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
  • The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
  • Slow Horses by Mick Herron
  • Thrive: The Plant-Based Whole Foods Way to Staying Healthy for Life by Brendan Brazier

Cold and Dreary

  • Journal

It’s been dreadfully cold in my parts of Montana the last few days, so much so that I can feel my beard freezing. I took this photo on my iPhone while running errands yesterday morning, and I considered deleting it because it wasn’t the picture I wanted to take, but it shows that thick layer of fog I found beautiful and wanted to capture. For the past week, I hadn’t been able to see the mountains, and when I saw them clearly this morning, I didn’t realize how oppressive things had felt without them visible. All told, I had a good and productive day today, one where my mood was good and unlike that of the past few days.

I had a Zoom meeting in the morning where the lady I was chatting with was loopy as hell, and she kept bragging to me how she’s never like this with any of her other clients, so I should feel lucky I was getting this side of her. “Manic Mondays,” she said. I found it charming, and I enjoyed our Zoom meeting. Later in the day, I had to make a call to a customer service rep, and during our conversation, she asked me what the weather in Montana was like, and I told her it was dreadful. I checked the weather app and said, “It’s 29°. That’s actually on the warmer side, but it’s still miserable.”

“I would rather it be 29° than in the 70s,” she said. “I love the cold.”

“That makes one of us.”

This morning, as I was wrapped in my blankets and had my heater on full blast, I thought about how I only had ten more of these entries to write before November ends. Ten more of these and ten more Pimsleur Japanese lessons before I complete level 5. There are only five levels, with each level consisting of 30 lessons. As of this morning, I had ten of each to do, and now, I have nine. I believe that’s how math works. I was so excited, I blasted Haru To Shura by Haru Nemuri on my way to work. I can sing along to many of her songs, but I maybe understand 10% of what she’s saying. I recently learned that () by Sigur Rós is sung in “Hopelandic,” a made-up language consisting of gibberish words.

I find that beautiful, just as much as I find a thick fog in freezing temperatures to be beautiful.

Homecoming, 2022

Something Adorable

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Something unexpected happened today.

I was on my way out of the elementary school after having just helped a teacher with a technology problem, and a fourth grader saw me as he descended the stairs. “Hey Mario,” he says. “Our iPad’s aren’t working.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

“Me and Ashley can’t login. It says our passwords are wrong.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let me get to my computer and I’ll fix it.”

Resetting passwords is a normal part of my job, so I go to my computer, reset their passwords, and walk back toward the elementary school. I walk into the fourth grade classroom and let the teacher and kids know that I reset the passwords and all should be good. I also came into this classroom so I could ask the teacher to return a USB DVD drive I had let her borrow a few weeks before. I needed it to help solve the other teacher’s technology problem.

“Sure thing,” the teacher said, and she went toward her desk to retrieve it.

While she did this, one of the fourth graders was excitedly asking her teacher to ask me the questions they were talking about earlier. The teacher smiled and told them that if they had questions for me, now was the time to ask them.

I looked at the teacher quizzically, then back at the kids and said, “What questions? What’s going on?”

Some of the kids smiled and hid their faces, while others looked at me with their big, goofy grins. I had no idea what was going on, but I was very curious.

“C’mon,” the teacher said. “Now’s the time to ask Mario your questions.”

“What questions?” I asked again.

The teacher came back and gave me the DVD drive, and one of the kids asked me, “Is it true that you used to be a firefighter?”

Now I was the one smiling.

“Yeah, it’s true,” I said.

Then half the hands in the room went up in the air, all ready to ask me their questions.

“Is this okay?” I asked the teacher. She nodded her approval.

Some backstory: about a month ago, I had mentioned to this teacher that I used to be a wildland firefighter, something she didn’t know about me. My assumption is that she told her class this one day, and they all had questions they had wanted to ask me about it.

I picked on the shy girl that brought all this up in the first place.

“Were you ever scared?” she asked me.

I thought about it, and I said, “Yes, once. It was my third fire, and we were out on the mountain fighting this very tough fire, and we were still fighting it at around 8 or 9pm. Then, all of a sudden, the fire jumped the line we spent hours building, and the fire spread and burned over our only escape route. We then spent the next few hours lining the fire again, but by the time we finished, it was past midnight and everything was pitch black. We had no idea how to get back to our rigs, and all we had were our headlamps for light. Unfortunately, about half our crews (most of us were rookies) didn’t bring their headlamps or they weren’t working. It took us hours before we found our way back. That was the most scared I’ve ever been on a fire.”

I picked on someone else.

“What was the biggest fire you’ve ever been on?”

“The biggest fire I’ve ever been on was probably the Liberty Fire over by Arlee. It was tens of thousands of acres big, and it had hundreds of personnel on it.”

“How many fires have you ever fought?” another kid asked.

“Oh man, I don’t know. At least fifty, but probably more. At some point, they all become a blur.”

“Did you ever save any animals who were by the fire?”

I smiled and said, “No, I’ve never saved any animals out there. Animals are very smart, and they’re not going to stick around when their homes are on fire.”

And on it went for a good twenty minutes or so. It was the most unexpected and the most adorable thing I have ever been a part of.

At the end, as I walked out of the classroom, I must’ve had the silliest smile on my face because I ran into another teacher, and she asked me what my smile was about. So I told her. “You probably inspired a lot of future firefighters by answering their questions.”

“I didn’t think of that,” I said. And that made me feel proud.

The picture above is of this class during homecoming week earlier this year. Many of these kids have been the subject of some of my earlier kids these days posts. These kids are growing up so. damn. fast!

I’m so privileged to watch them grow up. Sometimes I really love my job.

September 2022

Clean Air

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Earlier this year, I learned that I had allergies.

In fact, I have had allergies for years, but I just didn’t know it. All those times where I felt like peeling my face off? Allergies. All those times where my nose would not stop running? Allergies. All those times where my throat closed tight and I had trouble breathing? Allergies. I didn’t know they were allergies because they felt like a regular sickness, just slightly… different.

And the way I found out I had allergies was silly. I was at work, and I started to feel “sick.” I told my friend about it, letting her know that I was probably going to go home early, and she nonchalantly asked me, “Maybe you have allergies?” I told her my symptoms, and she nodded and said, “Yep, sounds like you have allergies. I have allergies, too. Claritin helps.” Claritin, huh? Fortunately, she had some, so she gave me a tablet of it—those kinds that dissolve quickly in your mouth—and within a few minutes, I started to feel so much better.

Turned out, I had allergies all along, and some over the counter medicine cured me right up.

Fast forward to the summer. It was the middle of fire season, and the smoke was terrible. The photo above isn’t of the lunar eclipse that happened earlier this week. No, I took this photo back in September, and the moon looked red because of all the fire smoke in the air. The fire smoke helped me take a cool picture of the moon—one of my favorite subjects—but it didn’t help with my breathing.

Neither did Claritin or any other allergy medicine.

The air was so bad that I could taste it, and all it did was bring unneeded stress to my already stressed life. So, like I usually do, I started talking to a friend about it. I mentioned to her that I was thinking of buying an air purifier, and I wanted to know her opinion. She is a nurse, and she said that yes, an air purifier would definitely help. No more needed to be said.

I bought the Coway Airmega AP-1512HH Air Purifier with an extra filter, and I’ve had it running non-stop in my home since September. Fire season has long been over, but the utility of this device has more than paid for itself. My home simply feels fresh every time I come home from work, and I can literally breathe easy as I go through my day. I feel safe with this device always filtering the air and pumping out clean air. I know that’s silly, but I do.

If I could marry it, I would definitely marry—okay, now it’s getting silly. But having something I like that brings actual value to my life makes me feel like the only proper response to it is to be silly.

And I feel silly. Enough to dance like nobody’s watching.

Going Corn Chopping

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Late last month, my friend Melissa asked me if I would like to join her as she worked on her farm. It was corn chopping season, she said, and there was lots to do before the weather cooled down. Sure, I said.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but I brought my camera and went along for the ride. Melissa and I talked a lot about her farm, her upbringing in Texas, her very regular yearly agenda. I asked questions, took pictures, and learned a lot. I sat, amazed, as she backed her truck beside the corn chopper with ease then drive it back toward her husband, who drove his own machine that stamped down on the corn she had dumped in this cement enclosure.

After about an hour hanging out with Melissa, I left her and joined Joel. He drove the corn chopper, and again, I sat beside him, amazed, as I listened to him talk all about agriculture. The enthusiasm he had about it was obvious. Every question I asked was answered with more detail and knowledge than I had about any subject I loved. Again, I learned a lot and came away with a newfound appreciation for what farmers do to make sure they provide enough food to feed a nation.

After about another hour hanging out with him, I said my goodbyes and went home. I looked through my photos and smiled. This is what I want to be doing more of, hanging out with people, learning new things, going on new adventures, and living.

Endless Summer Dreams

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The end of summer is soon, and while I’m looking forward to fall, I’m going to miss this summer. Five months ago to the day, I wrote an essay that laid the foundation for what became one of my best summers, a summer that changed my life. Even though it began with one of the darkest periods of my life, it ended with such beautiful memories and a reminder of who I am. Not who I wish I was, but who I am. I didn’t get everything I wanted—who does?—but I did get what I needed, and what I needed was to be reminded of how big and beautiful the world is, and that my role in it has yet to be written completely.

In that aforementioned post, I wrote that Montana, my home for the past ten years, didn’t feel like home. “It still feels like I’m passing through,” I wrote. What I wanted, what I had been dreaming about for the past few years, was to leave Montana and embark on a new adventure, to go somewhere else. Whether that was another 10 year adventure or something else, I didn’t say. I didn’t say because I didn’t know. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go, or how I wanted to go—I just knew I wanted to go. So I wrote my thoughts down, and after I published them on my website, I shared the link on Facebook. I wanted my friends to know what I was thinking and feeling, and on the whole, those that read my thoughts gave me encouraging words of support. And it even resonated beyond my friend group. I received more email feedback on that post than anything else I had ever written. Complete strangers emailed me to offer their own stories similar to mine, and this connection with others made me feel like I was on the right path.

Turned out, I wasn’t.

One of my great realizations this summer came in my notebook. Since the first of January, I have been writing journal entries in my notebook every morning, day in and day out, all year, and I’ve yet to miss a day. I made a deal with myself earlier this year, but instead of writing more posts for my website, I devoted all my energy writing in my notebooks. I’ve filled hundreds and hundreds of pages in my notebooks, and I see no signs of slowing down. Clearly, I’ve spent lots of time with my thoughts, exploring them, analyzing them, understanding them, and one of the thoughts that changed everything for me came after one of the darkest periods of my life.

In early June, I didn’t want to live anymore. At least, that’s how I felt. I felt like I was wasting space, like I wasted so much of my life doing nothing, being nothing. There were many days where I didn’t want to get out of bed. What was the point? I felt like I was going to waste the day anyway. I didn’t trust myself to live, and at that point, why bother waking up anymore? But I kept waking up anyway, I kept making my coffee, I kept sitting by my desk with my notebook and pen, and I kept writing. All I had was my writing, and quite literally, my writing saved my life. I had to convince myself to live, to keep waking up, to keep taking that first step, to keep breathing, and I did convince myself, and my writing was the motivating force behind it all. It’s hard to explain exactly what was going on in my life at that time, why I was feeling that then, but I did feel these things, and I remember how exhausted I felt by the end of each day, exhausted of living, of fighting through it all and making it to another bedtime.

“I didn’t want to get out of bed because I didn’t know what to do,” I wrote in my notebook back then. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to live. I’m tired of coming up with excuses. I’m just tired. I’m tired of not trusting myself to do the right thing, to do what’s right for me.” On another page, I wrote, “What do I want out of life? To not wake up sad every morning. To spend more time with the people I care about. To meet new people. To take risks. To not be afraid to live.” On another page, I asked myself, “Why don’t I know how to live?”

It was in the asking of these questions that I found my answer. What I learned is that no one knows how to live. Not really. We’re all just making it up as we go along, aren’t we? Human nature is the same for everyone but our experiences and lives are our own. They are unique to us, and that’s what makes life worth living, isn’t it? To live however we were built to live? And I wanted to live. I did, and I do. Each day is my chance to live well, and why would I want to give that up? Around mid-June, I decided that I was tired of coming up with excuses, and I decided to simply live, to spend more time with the people I care about; to meet new people; to take risks; to not be afraid to live anymore.

And it was here where I realized something, but I only realized it after I lived a little.

The first thing I did was to rediscover my courage. Somewhere over the past decade I grew used to living behind my walls, and because of that, I grew anxious whenever I left my home. I didn’t want to be seen, and because of that, I didn’t live the way I wanted to live. Fuck that, I remember thinking. I’m done. And I was. Again, I can’t really explain what exactly happened here, but it was like a light switch had been flicked on, and I could see clearly again. My mindset shift was a bit confrontational. See me, I remember thinking whenever I left my home. See me walk down the street. See me buy groceries. See me live.

Through this, everything else just… happened. I hung out with friends (and turtles), and I had a great time. I went exploring, and I had a great time. I went hiking, and I had a great time. I again hung out with friends (and cows), and I had a great time. I went on more hikes, and I had a great time. I even had lunch with a new friend, and I had a great time. I did what I wanted to do, and I had a great time. I put myself out there again, and I forgot what it felt like to be seen again. Whether it was just in my head or for real, this feeling of being seen again felt so good. Feels so good.

By simply living, I realized that where I lived didn’t matter. What mattered was me. What mattered was living. And I lived this summer. I lived like I hadn’t lived in a long, long time. And now, again, I don’t know what to do. What path should I be treading? Should I leave? Should I stay? Does it matter? It doesn’t because home is wherever I decide to be, and if I choose to be here, then I’m on the right path; if I choose to live there, then I’m on the right path. The right path is what I make it, and this was my great realization.

I don’t know what the future holds, and quite frankly, I don’t care. What I care about is right now, this moment, this breath. As long as I have moments to experience and breaths to breathe, I’m happy. As long as I have friends to hang out with, friends to worry about and who worry about me, I’m happy. As long as I’m being seen again and not scurrying behind my walls, I’m happy. And this summer was like a dream come true, a dream of beauty and hope and happiness, a dream I wish will never end.

So… don’t let it end, this endless summer dream…

A Nice End to My Summer

  • Journal

I went on a solo hike yesterday, a hike I’m going to remember for a long time. It was a beautiful (yet very hot) day, and the entire experience was worth it. Unfortunately, I did not have my mountain legs under me, so I’m going to be feeling this one for a few days. For me, this hike caps off a really great summer, one of the better ones I’ve had in Montana. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

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