Mario Villalobos

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Polish People Are Role Playing as Americans Celebrating the 4th of July

I needed this laugh today:

A group in Poland called 4th of July LARP (LARP is short for live-action role-playing) dresses as Americans and acts out various scenarios that they imagine happening in the U.S. during the summer holiday.

[…]

“LARP 4th of July is a drama about the wasted American dream,” the group writes on Facebook. “It is a story about hope, about a small homeland, about finding one’s place in the community.”

So many more great photos on their Facebook page.

No Fee and No Interference

When Ralph Waldo Emerson was in his mid-thirties, he started a series of biography lectures where he began to examine the lives of others with increased interest and scrutiny. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, the author Robert D. Richardson writes that in Michelangelo Emerson

saw “the perfect image of the artist,” one who was born to see and express the beauty of the world… He loved the disinterestedness and spirit of the deal Michelangelo offered the Pope for his work rebuilding St. Peter’s in Rome: “no fee and no interference.” Emerson emphasized the sculptor’s interest in ideal beauty, how “he sought through the eye to reach the soul,” but he knew that the test of the artist and writer alike is not in intent but in execution.

For the longest time, this is how I’ve tried to work on my craft, by trying to express and execute “what the mind has conceived” and without outside interference. “Happy is he,” writes Emerson,

who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale—who always writes to the unknown friend.

I was reminded of these quotes—these passages that I very happily transcribed in my notebook—when this morning I read this very sobering article in Ted Gioia’s newsletter:

How creative can you really be if you need to please an enormous mass-market audience? When you go down that path, you need to stick close to all the familiar formulas—and that’s exactly what you see in much of our culture nowadays.

Earlier in the article he wrote that “only 19% [of survey respondents] made more than $50,000. In other words, their arts degree was more likely to put them below the poverty line than in the middle class.”

What really struck me was that “only 10% devoted 40 hours per week or more to their art.” I’m surprised at both how high I think 10% is and how much 40 hours a week spent on working on one’s art is, too. Both of my reactions tell me how unbelievably sad and disappointed I am at how the modern world works.

Just yesterday I started to wake up at 4am in order to fit an extra hour of writing time into my day. And even then, I’m maybe working 15-20 hours a week on my art. I would do whatever it takes to double this workload if at all possible, but I need to go to work in order to to pay my bills and buy food to eat. And Ted Gioia understands this, too:

So my advice to students interested in the arts is based on my own practice: namely, that they should pursue their craft but also develop at least one money-earning skill before they reach the age of 30. It doesn’t need to be an elite career, merely something that will pay the bills in a pinch.

I wish I could be like Michelangelo and tell the Pope not to pay me as long he doesn’t interfere with my art, but I can’t. I wish I could look upon my “work to know if it will succeed,” to be one “who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale,” but I can’t. This is the 21st century, and the best I can do is to wake up hours before the sun rises so I can fit a bit more time in my day to work on my art, and to go to bed when the sun is still shining brightly in the sky so I can wake up early and with enough energy to be able to work on my craft to the best of my ability.

I wish things were different, but I have to admit, I love what I’m doing, and that’s the point of art, isn’t it? To feel the joy of simply being alive to experience this? This world, this universe, this moment?

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.

Bandcamp Is Joining Epic Games

Ethan Diamond:

I’m excited to announce that Bandcamp is joining Epic Games, who you may know as the makers of Fortnite and Unreal Engine, and champions for a fair and open Internet.

Epic:

Fair and open platforms are critical to the future of the creator economy. Epic and Bandcamp share a mission of building the most artist friendly platform that enables creators to keep the majority of their hard-earned money. Bandcamp will play an important role in Epic’s vision to build out a creator marketplace ecosystem for content, technology, games, art, music and more.

I love Bandcamp, and I’m usually not that opposed to bigger companies taking over smaller companies I love, but the fact that it’s Epic irks me. I hope Bandcamp stays the same for years to come, and I’ll reserve all judgment to see what actually happens, but I’m not looking forward to this future. Just look at what happened to Comixology recently. Ugh.

Being Frightened

I’ve been spending the past week watching Alec Soth’s channel on YouTube, and yesterday I watched his video titled COLORS #52. In it, he looks through the book COLORS: A Book About a Magazine About the Rest of the World and quotes Oliviero Toscani, one of the co-founders of the magazine. Oliviero is being interviewed, and when asked if there are any photographers or artists capable of carrying on a project as pioneering as COLORS was in the early 90s, he answers:

Certainly, only that no one teaches them not to be frightened of being frightened. If you do something without being frightened, it’ll never be interesting or good. Everyone wants to be sure of what they’re doing. Any really interesting idea simply can’t be safe.

When I went to film school, I remember early on how courageous I was in expressing my ideas and concepts with the stories I wrote (even though I failed a lot), but at one point, I lost that. I became afraid of the writer’s room, of seeing the expressions on my classmates faces after reading the 10 page scene I wrote an hour before class started. I remember how often I would watch movies when feeling stuck, and how my pages reeked of what I last watched. I remember how painful it became to show up to class with my subpar pages, and how ashamed I felt when I felt excited that I had something to write about after I found out my uncle had died in a car crash. I remember I decided to start writing novels instead of movies because of this fear. I had wanted to run away from it, but after writing two books that will never see the light of day, I realize now that I’m still frightened.

I’m frightened of being judged and ridiculed, of failing. I’m frightened of exploring my weird ideas because they might not be “marketable” or “popular.” I picked up photography because it was something so different from writing, and at first, I really enjoyed it. But again, at one point, I became paralyzed by fear. My artistic impulse has been to keep pushing my art forward, but when I’m afraid of so many things, I don’t end up creating anything at all.

In my post Bravery from July 2020, I quoted Rebecca Toh. I had asked her how she had the confidence to carry a camera with her everywhere and photograph people. “The important thing,” she said:

is not to let your shyness get in your way. The thing about photography is that it throws you into direct contact with life, and that can be scary at times, but if you want to do the photography you want to do, there is simply no way about it except to go out bravely and shoot.

I’ve been trying to find the courage ever since, but maybe I’ve been approaching it wrong. Maybe it’s not courage I need but the confidence to be frightened. To admit to myself that these ideas might not be “marketable,” that these photos might not be “popular,” but so what? Like Oliviero says, “Any really interesting idea simply can’t be safe.”

Like Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You, “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”

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?”

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?

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