Mario Villalobos

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Productivity Is a Trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pound of Pictures by Alec Soth

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

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

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

I have no idea.

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

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

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

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

Right?

Cormac McCarthy Is Publishing Two New Novels This Fall

They’re called The Passenger and Stella Maris:

Cormac McCarthy is publishing two linked novels this fall: The Passenger on October 25 and Stella Maris on November 22. (Or you can wait until December 6 to get your boxed set.)

I’ve read every McCarthy novel, and I’ve been waiting years for something new to read from him. He’s the type of writer I wish I was, and I always look to him for inspiration and guidance. I. Am. Excited.

Also, apparently, he submitted drafts for these two novels eight years ago. Unbelievable.

To Live Directly

Sometimes I feel like there’s a universal force showing me the things I need to see at the time I need them.

I started to read The Places That Scare You by Pema Chödrön today, and right there in chapter 1, she writes:

No one is protecting us and keeping us warm. And yet we keep hoping mother bird will arrive.

We could do ourselves the ultimate favor and finally get out of that nest. That this takes courage is obvious. That we could use some helpful hints is also clear. We may doubt that we’re up to being a warrior-in-training. But we can ask ourselves this question: “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”

This book gave me the fuel I needed to not only shop less from Amazon but also change my shopping habits completely

2021 Books

I read 26 books this year, nine more than last year. I read more fiction books than non-fiction, but that’s mostly because I wanted to read some sci-fi, The Expanse and The Interdependency being the two series I spent the most time with this year. I also read through all three of Sally Rooney’s novels, which I really loved.

Against Everything was a really good book of essays I read at the start of the year, but the one book that really blew my mind open was Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. I’m still thinking about this book almost a year after I’ve read it. How to Resist Amazon and Why gave me the fuel I needed to not only shop less from Amazon but also change my shopping habits completely, and Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song helped me think about creativity in a new and more mentally-healthy way than before.

2021 was a different type of year for me, one that a reading log can’t quite capture completely, but each of these books shaped my life in some way, and I’m grateful for all of it.


The Harder the Conflict, the More Glorious the Triumph

I came across a tweet earlier this morning that took me down an interesting path.

On December 19, 1776, Thomas Paine first published The American Crisis, and it starts like this:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

I wanted to learn more, so I went to the Wikipedia page for The American Crisis in search of the full text and found the Standard Ebooks version of the book. I had never heard of Standard Ebooks, but I’m grateful I know about them now.

Their mission statement is incredible. I’ve downloaded and read many books from Project Gutenberg, but it always felt like I was reading a simple plain text file and not a modern book. But Standard Ebooks takes pride in its presentation, from internal code style to semantic enhancement and typography rules. I’m impressed!

I went ahead and download about half a dozen books from their site and loaded them on my phone, and I’m very eager to get started on them. But not yet because I feel awful today. This booster shot has messed me up today.

No pain, no gain, right?

When Problems Are Really Solutions

Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score:

[Dr. Vincent] Felitti points out that obesity, which is considered a major public health problem, may in fact be a personal solution for many. Consider the implications: If you mistake someone’s solution for a problem to be eliminated, not only are they likely to fail treatment, as often happens in addiction programs, but other problems may emerge.

One female rape victim told Felitti, “Overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be.”

[…]

“The idea of the problem being a solution, while understandably disturbing to many, is certainly in keeping with the fact that opposing forces routinely coexist in biological systems… What one sees, the presenting problem, is often only the marker for the real problem, which lies buried in time, concealed by patient shame, secrecy and sometimes amnesia—and frequently clinician discomfort.”

When I read this yesterday, I felt deep, deep shame. Up until the end of 2011, I always battled with my weight and my self-image. I ate all the time, even when I wasn’t hungry. I ate when I was bored, when I watched TV, when I was with friends. I ate when I hated myself, when I wanted to die, when I wanted to numb the pain. I’m 5’8”, and at my heaviest, I weighed over 230lbs. I had failed so many times in trying to keep my weight in check, and each time I failed, I ate and ate and ate.

But then that all changed. I wish I could remember the mindset I was in when it did, but I can’t. Not really. One day it just clicked: I want to lose weight, and I want to live healthily, and if that means a pound a week, a few pounds a month, so be it. This isn’t something I wanted to do in 10 days and then just stop; this was something I knew would be a lifelong endeavor, and at time time, that made complete sense to me. So I just started.

Slowly at first. I only worked out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I did simple resistance band training. I did what I could, knowing that I was in it for the long haul, and I decided to only weigh myself once a week. What I wanted to see was a steady decline in my weight, regardless of the number. My arbitrary goal at the time was to lose a pound a week. It didn’t happen the first month. I think I only lost two pounds that first month, but I had a month’s experience under my belt, and that made the next month a bit easier. I started to feel stronger, healthier, and more excited to start my next workout. That next month I lost the four pounds I wanted to lose, and then it snowballed from there.

From December 2011 to April 2012, I lost over 60lbs. Each new milestone propelled me to the next one, and I’ve been living healthily ever since. I’m at my ideal weight range, which is in the mid-170s, and I have no intention of ever stopping. I have over 10 years of experience built into my system now and stopping means sadness, means depression, means death. During the past decade, I have noticed myself stopping when in front of a mirror because 1) I like how I look, but also 2) I sometimes don’t recognize myself.

I felt shame when I read that passage above because I have sometimes thought to myself, whenever I’ve seen an overweight person, why they don’t do what I did and just lose the weight. I know this is awful, and my hands are trembling a bit as I’m writing this, unsure whether I should just delete this section or not, but it’s true. I only remember the results, the consistency, the routine of it now, but I don’t always remember all the pain and hardship I had to endure before I decided to make the change and how everyone is different. How everyone is battling their own demons, their own personal hells.

And then I read the next section:

But when the ACE study data started to appear on his computer screen, he realized that they had stumbled upon the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States: child abuse. He had calculated that its overall costs exceeded those of cancer or heart disease and that eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters. It would also have a dramatic effect on workplace performance and vastly decrease the need for incarceration.

In early 2020, before I ever heard of the coronavirus, I befriended a little girl named Zoe. She is the sweetest person I’ve ever met in my life, but what I didn’t know when I met her was her past. When she was much younger, she witnessed something truly horrific, something that no one should ever ever see. She and her brother were both taken from their parents and adopted by a lovely family, but the memories of whatever she saw infected her in ways that make her a “troublesome” student. She lashes out in class sometimes, and other times she just shuts down without any discernible reason.

So I bought The Body Keeps the Score because I wanted to learn more about trauma, specifically childhood trauma, but then the coronavirus shut the world down, and I didn’t see any of the kids, particularly Zoe, for months and months. So I kinda forgot about the book. Last spring, I did attend a Zoom meeting that dealt specifically with childhood trauma, and I earned a certificate and everything, but without putting it into practice, I kinda forgot what I learned. Like others, I focused on other things, and when school started again in the fall, we were all more concerned about wearing masks and social distancing than paying attention to the mental states of our students.

Throughout the year, I’d been checking in with Zoe more and more, and to me, she seemed okay. She even gives me hugs whenever she sees me. It’s funny because there was one time last week when she saw me, she said, “Just give me a hug,” and she wrapped her arms around me and hugged me. It was so funny and so sweet that it was then that I remembered this book. I wanted to know if there was something in what I was doing that was helping her in some way. I’m about halfway through the book now, and I may be getting hints here and there about how to help children with childhood trauma, but I’m not quite there yet, so I’m not sure if what I’m doing is helping. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. All I know is that I’m committed to this topic and to Zoe and other children like her.

This is a lifelong endeavor, and I’m in it for the long haul.

Robert Adams in his foreword to Why We Photograph:

Though these essays were written for a variety of occasions, they have a recurring subject—the effort we all make, photographers and nonphotographers, to affirm life without lying about it. And then to behave in accord with our vision.

Emphasis mine. I don’t think I’ve found a more succinct mission statement for my life and my life’s purpose than that. To affirm life without lying about it. Beautiful.

The Expanse

The huge moments in life seemed like they should have more ceremony and effects. The important words—the life-changing ones—should echo a little. But they didn’t. They sounded like everything else.

— From Tiamat’s Wrath

I started The Expanse series of books almost a year ago, when I started Leviathan Wakes on April 27th. A month before, I went down to Missoula and applied for a library card at the public library, and one of the perks was its association with Libby, an app I could use to check out ebooks for free. My library had access to all the The Expanse books, and because I was a fan of the TV show and because I wanted to be distracted from the pain and sadness at the time, I thought, why not? Let’s dive in.

Today I finished the 8th book in the series, and my adrenaline was coursing through my body as I read through the final chapters. I haven’t read too many sci-fi series in my life—the biggest one I’ve read is the Dune series—but I absolutely loved this one. The space opera nature of it was not something I’ve experienced before, and boy, I feel like I’ve been missing out on so much fun. The 9th and final book doesn’t come out until November, and that date cannot come soon enough. I have a long list of books I would like to read before then, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m itching to do some research on what other great sci-fi series are out there. I own some John Scalzi books—maybe The Interdependency series?

Either way, my life is richer for having read through this series. It was just a lot of fun with compelling and likable characters, an amazing premise, a down-to-earth take on science and interstellar politics, and a whole lot of space battles. What else would one want?

I loved The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

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