Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Between writing, my day jobs, and having two small kids, I go out to the movies once in approximately never, but when I do, I always seem to have a lot to say about them. I think the last movie I had seen was Solo and I immediately went here to defend it against the hordes of fans who hate on any post-Disney Star Wars content. By some weird coincidence that only solidifies the suspicion that I’m a studio shill, the most recent movie I watched was Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck It Ralph 2; may the person who thought of this unwieldy monstrosity of a title get a hangnail, or something.
Any time I watch a Disney film, it’s an event. The previous two that have come out, Moana and Coco, are not only currently sitting as my top 2 favourite animated films of all time, they are both easily in the top 10 favourite movies in general. I think you get the picture. I’ve already previously mentioned that we’re a Disney family but you will eventually learn just how deep this rabbit hole goes.
Anyway, back to Ralph Breaks the Internet, or let’s just go with WIR2 for short. Although it was a very special experience in that it was the first movie my youngest has seen in the theatre, and that my four year old kept his Pikachu stuffy in the cupholder of his seat the entire time except for the scary scenes where he would put down his popcorn and clutch that electric mouse like his life depended on it, I would not call the experience magical, at least not in the same way that I could call other recent Disney experiences.
As far as the Disney Studios animated films, we’d have to dig back as far as Bolt to find one I enjoyed less than this. Now don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a good film and would recommend watching it. When stacked against some other studios that produce animated films this would be a great movie by their standards. But I started to get used to was that films like Moana, Zootopia and Tangled or Pixar ones like Inside Out and Coco, is that the movie itself had left an imprint. I would walk out of those feeling like the movie was a transformative experience because I knew right away that it would influence my writing, or my outlook on life, or simply contain emotional experiences that I would want to revisit over and over again. But WIR2 contained none of that for me.
I could feel something was wrong about twenty minutes in, this discomfort at not being sucked in entirely into the story. In fact, that seemed to be the problem, I was acutely aware that I was being told a story instead of being absorbed by it and taken along for the ride. Granted, I have long feared this movie coming out, not exactly being enticed by trailers or the prospect of a sequel. So maybe some of this initial suspicion was on me, but the feeling never left. Throughout the whole film I felt as though I was being deliberately walked through the elements of the story. Here is their friendship, here is the strain in their friendship, here is the inciting incident, here is a sprinkling of character development. These are of course all legitimate parts to a story but I should not be so aware of them.
I shouldn’t have to listen through dialogue such as “your guys’ friendship is like this” or “you’re my friend, so you shouldn’t do this.” It was all so on the nose that towards the climax of the film a character was basically talking to themselves out loud listing all the things about friendship that they learned throughout the movie. So much of this sounded more like placeholder titles for scenes than actual fleshed-out storyboarding by Disney’s usually brilliant writers.
I think in part due to this lack of naturalness and authenticity, the movie failed to connect with me on that emotional level. Sure, there were emotional scenes but they never quite got to that next level. I think one of the low moments was supposed to have been Ralph reading a bunch of mean comments about himself on social media, but this is a kids’ movie folks, and you and I have probably had waaaaaay worse said about ourselves at some point in our lives. Compare it to the scene in the first one where Ralph, with his bare hands, destroys Vanellope’s car in order to protect her, but being unable to explain himself while she’s screaming in mental anguish about the betrayal and her lost opportunity. That’s emotional. Reading “ralph stinks” is not.
And I feel as though Disney failed to provide their stars with a proper supporting cast. Granted, they avoided a common sequel pitfall in that they didn’t just milk the side characters for the same jokes without any character development, and left Fix-It Felix Jr. and Calhoun on the sidelines for almost the entire movie. But if you’re going to do that, you need someone memorable to replace them with, and sadly, that was lacking. Yesss and Shank were cool characters, but that was pretty much where their merits stopped – neat concept with a slick execution.
And no offence to Gal Gadot, I absolutely loved her in Wonder Woman, but I’m not entirely sure that voice acting was the right choice. For folks like John C. Reilly (Ralph), Jack McBrayer (Fix-It Felix) and Jane Lynch (Calhoun), their voices are very distinct, but when they’re playing their characters, I still hear the characters and not the actors behind them. Yet with Gal Gadot, the whole time I was like, oh, there’s Gal Gadot doing a Gal Gadot character. Maybe it’s because the character she was given to bring to life was as two dimensional as the old Fix-It Felix Jr. arcade game, but that’s just how I felt.
Again, I feel obligated to pause here and say that I still enjoyed the movie. This post is more just the ramblings of an overly-invested fan. The movie was much better than I thought it might be. Okay, fine, that doesn’t sound like a glowing recommendation, but seriously, I had a lot of fun. The internet jokes are at risk of becoming dated, but in this day and age they weren’t groan or cringe worthy. What a time to be alive when “screaming goat videos are back” is a reference that moviegoers actually get.
They heavily-promoted Disney princess reunion had just the right amount of meta and self-aware jokes to be funny, and given the premise of the movie it didn’t feel forced. After all, Vanellope is a princess in a Disney movie and is yet shut out of the club when Merida gets to hang out like one of the crew.
The movie took some great characters and moved them forward and actually added to both the world and the story, unlike a lot of sequels. But here I am wanting something more and I’ve convinced myself that I didn’t get it.
So this probably puts me on Mickey’s naughty list, but hopefully I get to keep my fan card. I’ve gotten quite vested in their movies after not having grown up on them, and Moana, which also intersects with another obsession of mine, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is probably one of the most influential pieces of storytelling in my life. So hopefully I’m just making a tempest in a tea cup here, but with the next scheduled movie being Frozen 2, colour me a little apprehensive.
I’m in an introspective mood, which spells trouble for both brevity and comprehension, but in any case, I will try to keep this focused. I’ve recently returned from a conference in Toronto, my first visit to the city since my wife and I moved away seven years ago. In Canada, Vancouver has always been home, but we did spend an amazing three years in our largest city while I attended law school at the University of Toronto.
So T-Dot, the Big Smoke, Hogtown, or whatever outlandish nickname you want to give it (Centre-of-the-universe, as those outside Toronto are apt to call it), is a second home. I’m no stranger to having second or third homes. I was born in Budapest and spent many summers there, and I grew up in Moscow, so I’m used to leaving behind places that have been dear to me. But this is the first time I’ve come back to a place after such a long time.
Everything changes. Whether people or places, change is woven into the fabric of existence. To expect something to preserve itself exactly as you remember it is to deny that someone or someplace a core part of their nature.
Even our Vancouver neighbourhood that we moved into after Toronto has undergone a lot of changes since that time. Stores that had been opened for decades had closed, some being replaced by cannabis dispensaries. A grocery store had a condo tower built on top of it. This all happens so gradually that like the proverbial boiling frog, even though you’re kind of aware of the temperature becoming uncomfortable, the change is just too gradual to truly appreciate.
Then you get dropped into Toronto after a seven-year absence, a city that is known for having two seasons – winter and construction, and pick a random intersection in Downtown and scan your surroundings. The skyline is dotted with cranes erecting ever-higher towers, constantly increasing residence stock without ever alleviating the cost of housing. This never ends, once a building is finished, another one pops up somewhere. So it’s a neat feeling coming across a beautiful light-blue skyscraper, and scratching your head trying to figure out what was there before. But if you can’t remember, it no longer matters, it’s left your life, leaving no impact whatsoever except this vague uneasy feeling that change tends to elicit.
Then there’s the stuff you do remember being there. Our local neighborhood No Frills store (probably one of the most “no frills”, as the name implies, grocery stores in Canada) was replaced by a much shinier looking FreshCo. And the old menacing 1960s apartment block that rose above it is now another glass condo tower reaching above its neighbours. This little visual gentrification of St. James Town was a bit of a shock in a city that, as I already mentioned, suffers from an ongoing housing crisis.
In the eternal struggle between old and new, I also came across a stark example of a Toronto building strategy – incorporating an old façade into a new building. Heck, there’s a building not too far from the Hockey Hall of Fame that is entirely within what is essentially an indoor mall. So here it is, a clock tower of some unknown historical significance that was chosen to withstand the unstoppable march of progress.
Our own apartment building was still there. That was welcome news. The window of our first floor corner apartment, where we spent three years sharing 350 square feet was covered by a clothesline of old towels and sheets. Beyond that impenetrable façade, because how creepy would it be to ask for a tour of the old place, was the first real home we made. Now it’s only accessible through photos and memories, but it’s still there, with the familiar cracks and imperfections we made our own. Which is more than I can say for my second home in Toronto – the law school.
Despite getting a whole new building clamped onto its side, from a certain angle, the two law school buildings don’t look any different. The iconic façade we put on all our hoodies and T-shirts is still there – the view at the end of my morning walks. And when you first walk inside, it still hits you with that smell – the history that has seeped into the walls of so many repurposed Toronto buildings.
But then when you exist the foyer, you’re in a whole different world. Sure, Bora Laskin’s bust still sits on its pedestal next to the library’s entrance, but the entrance has moved. The copy stations where I’d print out freshly warm essays to hand in is nowhere to be found. The study nooks on the second floor where I’d eat baby carrots and watch episodes of One Piece are no longer there.
I tried to track down any of my old classrooms, but had no luck. Either the new layout has completely messed with my sense of direction or it’s all gone. Photos of graduating classes where you’d be able to pick out half the notable judges and federal Liberal politicians of the last half-century have all been hidden away. My law school, the entity that has awarded me my degree, is still there, but the law school that I truly knew is gone.
I would never be able to tell my kids that here is where their mom leaned against that stone pillar while she waited for me and got bronchitis in our first week there. Such a tiny little thing, a silly insignificant story that no longer has the aid of having a live location. Like with the apartment, the memory is there, but the physical space is gone. It shouldn’t really be a big deal but it is. In my early thirties it’s finally creeping up on me. The country I spent the first years of my life is gone. The political ideology that raised my parents is almost extinct. Yet this, a remodeling of a law school is what gets to me.
It brings to the forefront the power of memories. People, places, and things all go, but they all live a second life in our memories. We are faced with a flood of photographic evidence. Something our grandparents and even our parents didn’t have. It’s so easy to whip out the phone and observe, but it’s a very different feeling from experience. Now, I’m now trying to turn this into a “technology is bad” kind of luddite rant, but I can’t stress enough the need to appreciate the moment. To truly sink into the people and the places we hold dear to us.
I know I’m getting philosophical over some pretty basic stuff, but there’s one thing to know something, and there’s another to truly feel it; deep down in your bones kind of feel it. And this, I feel, is something that is one of the goals of my writing: to turn that inward feeling outward. At the end of the day, I want to leave readers with a memory of the story.
There’s a bit of disagreement with me and some of my fellow writers. Then again, try to go find an issue all writers agree upon, and we’ll see how long it takes for that task to kill you. So I’m not trying to pass myself off as a unicorn, but I do find that advice that promotes avoiding writing for the market primarily often is distilled into the simply rule of just writing for yourself and forget what anyone else thinks. But this distorted view of “writing for yourself” ignores a fundamental attribute of the storytelling craft – on the one hand you have the story, and on the other you have the telling, that is, the story must be heard in order to be told. I’m not advocating constantly catering to an imaginary audience. A story that pleases everyone is the golden fleece that a writer could sink their ship trying to find. But at the same time, an author that creates a story for the love of the art alone risks ripping the soul right of the work and leaving it a dead and useless thing.
Not without some reservation I admit that I find little merit in works that are purposefully created to be difficult to access. I recognize the genius that it takes to put some of these works together and won’t pretend that somehow pop literature is the superior medium. Rather, I find them to be an art unto themselves, a separate category of literature that has moved so far away from the intent of storytelling that it should find itself in its own realm. It’s one of the reasons that you will never find me criticizing Dan Brown or E.L. James as someone who “should not be read”. Most anything can and should be read because it gets people reading, feeling, learning. The reader is at the heart of writing and when an author writers to exclude as large of a readership as possible, the work loses the heart.
I can’t write without an audience in mind, and I admit the dangers are there. Occasionally I have to ignore the siren’s call of pleasing an imaginary reader at the expense of the story’s integrity, and sometimes I find myself sailing through the narrow straits between Scylla and Charybdis, wondering if I’m straying from the path the work needs to take in order to please someone who’s not there. It’s an approach not without flaws but it’s one that helps me sustain my writing.
For Wake the Drowned, my first novel that I’m currently working on, I feel that the driving force has two parts to it. On the one hand, I’m writing it for myself – I need Charlie’s story to be told. But on the other hand, I also need Charlie’s story to be heard. The book is written as much for me as it is for the people who could either relate to Charlie, or learn something from Charlie’s experience. It is because of this belief that every story must be heard that I haven’t been able to write in silence and sought out others to read my work. Sometimes these people are referred to as “beta readers”, though I’ve often found the term to be much too informal. To me, these are the friends and family who helped keep my writing; my indispensable ones.
In an earlier entry I’ve dragged readers through the broken glass field that was my early juvenile writing. Since my elementary school stories involved my friends and I kicking ass and taking names, their interest wasn’t that hard to grab. It was all a bit of good fun, until my one friend decided to make fun of the fact that in the story I married myself off to one of our classmates, so I sent him flying down from the tall mound of snow that our groundskeeper built on the side of the parking lot. I believe I mentioned before something about not exactly being a perfect child. Sorry Matthew.
Early in high school, when my friend Bajer and I took turns narrating a Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy rip-off that was also populated by us and our friends, writing like that was no longer considered cool, and was mostly hidden by us in our lockers and read in the privacy of our own homes.
My plans to create and star in a blockbuster television series based on our work fell through when I moved schools the following year. This was, however, where I find the support I needed to take my writing into the realm of a serious hobby. Sam, Sarah and Catherine had kindly let me into their circle of friends when I came to the new school, and then eventually goaded me into sharing with them my handwritten scribbles about teenage drama that would have probably become the longest and least necessary work of literature in the English language. The three girls really didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Their general lack of good judgement is plainly demonstrated by the fact that one of them ended up marrying me a decade after we first met.
To maintain their sanity while correcting my atrocious grammar, they took to making what they called “snide comments” on the margins of the page. These took the form of jokes, commentary on plot, silly observations, and for Catherine sometimes just plain screaming at me that my thinly-veiled emo allegory was not fooling anyone and I should just stop embarrassing myself.
Thanks to their efforts and the laughs we’ve had around their remarks, I found a new reason to writer. Living vicariously through my writing, which was almost entirely focused inward, I was now writing to see what reaction I could illicit. The inward turned outward and I was writing for an audience. I wanted them to laugh, to think and to feel and to tell me what they thought of my work. I waited impatiently for them to go through my work not because I wanted to get the editing process out of the way but because I genuinely enjoyed seeing what they had to say. As a testament to my appreciation of all their efforts, I still have the stacks of marked-up stories stashed somewhere in the house, most likely only funny to us four.
As is often the case when high school ends, friendships began to drift apart. Being the prudent individual that I am, in order to maintain some kind of readership for my writing, I conspired to marry one of my beta readers. Kidding, though that was one of the perqs of marrying Sam, especially when she decided to become an English major and could see things in my work that I didn’t even realize were there. Made me very much feel like a “real writer”. She’s my main beta reader now, the only one I really need. When I gave her the first draft of Wake the Drowned, before I had even given it a good edit, she suffered through the whole thing and told me she didn’t know quite what to say. She described the experience as being given some raw pancake dough to eat. It was her polite way of telling me to finish my damn work.
So I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in my life who was willing to listen, like those I have already mentioned, Ms. Densford, my high school English teacher, Allan, my friend who edited my first published work, my mom, who was my kindred lit nerd in the family, and a special thanks goes to my dad, who’s never been much a book guy while I knew him.
The last book I remember him reading was a biography of Pavel Bure, and that was before we hit this century. Even though it was always my mom who cultivated my arty side, he was always watching from the outside. Any time I came to him to read my stuff, he put his all into taking a look. He was a very technical editor, and we disagreed once or twice on the finer workings of the English language. But in the few pages that he committed on, he taught me the values of consistency, plausibility and doing your research. He pointed out that my writing should not thrash about unconstrained, propelled only by convenience and what’s cool, but that the world has rules, and a writer should respect them. Of course, every rule has its legitimate exceptions, but for a fourteen year-old boy those were words I needed to hear.
I lost my dad to cancer last year. In the weeks before he passed, it spread to his brain so he was left increasingly disoriented. But one of the last things we did together, is one evening I brought the current draft of Wake the Drowned, and I read it to him and my mom while he seemed to drift in and out focus, but looking like he was trying to listen intently. It was one of those images that has been burned into my mind from that last month – the dimly lit living room that always felt too large for comfort, me sitting next to my reclining dad, my mom hovering a bit away from us wrestling with every emotion ever described, our little family spending one of our last activities together.
I can’t really say why I did it. Dad has always been a supporter of my writing with the caveat that I get a “real job” first. Able to reflect on this now in my thirties I think it was a solid piece of advice. I guess I was facing the uncomfortable realization that he would never see my novel, the first real fruit of a hobby that he gently tried to keep a hobby without extinguishing my passion for it. And in response to that, I wanted to give him an introduction to it. The story told me that it needed to be read to him.
I can keep piling up explanations each more poetic-sounding than the last, but the bottom line is that it was his story as well. There will always be a part of him in the finished work, just like there will be a part of anyone who had ever read any of my writing, or helped with my writing, or just helped me be the person I am today. And for that, I will never stop sharing.
There is something to be said about the family road trip, and I’m here to say it. Without hesitation, I would call the experience incomparable. Even for those times when I was in the backseat, when my parents would drive us around British Columbia and down the west coast of the United States, and we would have our share of hiccups, to put it mildly, because some of us didn’t handle the stresses of travelling all too well, I look back on those experiences fondly. We weren’t the kind of family where sullen teenagers would sink into the backseat listening to their own music wishing they were anywhere else but in the family car. The family road trip was an adventure, the chance to experience something new together. It was one of the things I looked forward to the most when I would have my own kids. And this past week, I got to experience it.
Last weekend was my first time behind the wheel of a family road trip, with my wife beside me, my two little boys in the backseat, and sandwiched between their two carseats, the hero of the whole endeavor, my mother-in-law, who insisted on helping us out by going with us instead of flying, and probably ended up saving my sanity. It had all the makings of a romanticized trip that I’ve always dreamed of. A 6 am wake-up call, packing the car in the brisk August morning, rolling the still-warm children out of bed and throwing them in the backseat. There was something that felt very right about it all, heading to the border through the bluish hues of morning with nothing but two thousand kilometers of road ahead of us.
Sometimes you hype yourself up for your entire life only to disappoint yourself. Sometimes nostalgia transforms something in your head to the point that it is no longer recognizable in real life (plenty of my old Super Nintendo suffered this fate. “Hey wait a minute, this game is both terrible and not a little racist.”) But the magic of the road trip could not be understated.
It was everything I was waiting for. Snacks being passed around to the point where kids had little appetite for lunch because they consisted 40% of Doritos. Toilet breaks were demanded in the nick-of-time before the “Next Area – 54 miles” signs. Taylor Swift and Hamilton filled in the gaps between local radio stations. Everything that I have listed so far I met with warmth and fondness.
The family road trip has a bad wrap in media. Or at least that’s what my confirmation bias is telling me as I write this piece. Just look at National Lampoon’s Vacation, or its soft-reboot, Vacation, or even something more dramatic and high-brow like Little Miss Sunshine. Family trips are not whimsical adventures, they’re unmitigated disasters. And that’s unfair. It’s time to romanticize the road trip. And not the Jack Kerouac nightclub-fueled couch surfing bender through an existential crisis. But just one semi-functional family that enjoys the company of each other and a beautiful country.
Two solid days of driving and when I looked at the world map hanging in the kids’ room after I got back, it was humbling seeing what a small blip of it we actually covered. Our world us unfathomably vast, with a myriad people living in it. How can one fail to surrender to such awe as hour after hour get piled on and the landscape changes. Temperate rainforests eventually yield to scrub, to the endless golden expanse of the San Joaquin Valley that is both gorgeous and dangerous with its hypnotizing powers.
I spent four days on the road in total, through backaches and a nagging wrist injury that just refuses to quit. Yet somehow I feel energized and refreshed. My mind is more open to tackling work and my writing. I feel closer to my kids. I feel closer to my wife if that’s even possible after fifteen years together. I have a new appreciation for my mother-in-law whom I had already been appreciating.
All that said about this trip and I hadn’t even mentioned the destination, even though that was the whole point of this adventure. Something can be said about Disneyland as well, but that is a whole different story. We are a shameless Disney family so I can spew corporate propaganda until the cows come home. But this is about something else, about the overlooked journey to the destination.
Now, I won’t double down on the cliché – that it’s about the journey and not the destination. That’s best left as a metaphor, especially when your destination is frickin’ Disneyland. But the journey itself should hold a separate place. Not as a trial, or as a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed before the reward, but as the reward itself. And I count myself lucky as someone who has people close to me to make the journey such a blast.
I have this vague recollection that in a previous blog entry I vowed to update more frequently. Upon recent reflection, it would appear that I’m a shameless liar. Aaaaaaaaaanyway:
In an earlier blog entry I shared with you my mild obsession with my bullet journal – something I use to log, track or otherwise organize various aspects of my life. Some of these trackers, like my words-per-day chart, are geared directly towards my writing. Others; however, have more general everyday application, like my exercise log. It’s because I’ve reached a very significant milestone in my tracking since I first started the practice at the end of 2016 that I wanted to share with you another one of my bullet journal entries. Hold onto your hats, folks, this one’s colourful:
I would like to say the chart is self-explanatory but I’ve made that mistake in the past and I’m not about to do it again. Apparently not everybody can readily understand what’s in the mind of a madman. Each “block” of varying size appears underneath the label for its respective month. As you can see from the very depressing months of November and December 2017, it starts as a blank outlined square. Once I do an activity that constitutes exercise, I fill in one square.
There’s a legend at the bottom of the page that indicates the kinds of activities that make it in here. Some are fairly straight-forward, like running, swimming, and yoga. Others have some caveats. The biking one for instance, refers to actual hard-pedaling for distance (although I suppose calling my pedaling “hard” is being a bit generous). The 30+ minute walk usually refers either to a straight walk longer than 30 minutes, or a couple of intense walks at around 15-20 minutes each. Even if I ended up walking for hours that day, I still give myself only one light green square for that day, otherwise the light green would be too dominant here.
The most flexible category here is “gym”. This has included everything from an actual trip to the gym, to a particularly intensive chore day, to a half-hour session of Beat Jedi on the VR. And if you laughed at that last one, how about you try swinging your arms for 30 minutes to the tune of “Gangnam Style” and then tell me it wasn’t a workout.
So long story short, any time I exercise, I fill in one square on the chart, completing them in a sort of spiral pattern. To better see how the spiral works, look at the following months in succession: May 2017, March 2018, April 2018, December 2016, and so on.
So in the end you end up with a log that not only allows you to see the types of activity you’ve been doing, but also the relative volume of said activity month over month. I like this particular chart also because of how much time is captured in a single 2-page spread. Here we see 21 months worth of exercise, and as you can see, much can change over that time.
Early on in the process, there was a lot of running and swimming, and generally I was pretty active. Then it all kind of fell away for over a year (and there’s reason for that, if you feel like reading up on it). Running was replaced by biking due to another in a string of running injuries, and swimming never went back on the table because I switched jobs and no longer had a YMCA within walking distance of my office. I guess the other couple of things to note is the brief appearance of Yoga, which had to be put on hold due to lingering wrist sprain, and the last ice hockey game I’ve played so far, owing mostly to a busy life with two kids and the rink being a half-hour drive away. But hey, I scored two goals in that game, and was apparently dubbed the “Winter Soldier” by the team captain. And if there’s one thing I love collecting, it’s badass nicknames (it’s a very small collection).
Then after hitting rock bottom late last year, and then slowly getting out and walking in the spring, I finally turned things around, and had my most active months yet. This culminated in the most recent month where I set another record for having times I’ve exercised that month.
Some of you may not see this as a particularly big deal, but between my work and my hobbies, I’ve never been the most active person. A lot of this takes effort for me. Exercise has to be squeezed in before work so most of the time I’m up at 6 am to get this done. Walks are fit in at lunchtime, and thank goodness for Pokemon Go to help me get out of the office for a bit of fresh air.
And I think having this tracker helps as well. Not only does it add that one extra piece of motivation – being able to go home and fill out another square, but it also allows me to see how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve overcome. No matter what life throws at me, whether family tragedies, or injuries, or change in jobs, no matter how much I falter, I end up picking it all up and not abandoning my overall fitness goals.
And I think this one of the important things to accept about life, sometimes goals don’t arrive in the way you expect them to come. Sometimes there will be a drought. And this relates to writing as well. Whether a string of rejections or a prolonged case of writer’s block, life is a marathon and not a sprint. There will be ups and there will be downs and when you’re in a down it’s important to recognize it for what it is – temporary.
I had a chance to do some reflection this Father’s Day, which was actually pretty easy when you’ve got two great kids and a wonderful wife and spend a few hours at the botanical gardens enjoying the sights and slicing up your hands on some volcanic rocks. Anyway, I digress and I’ve barely gotten through the first sentence.
This was my second Father’s Day where I find myself lonely at the top. My dad passed away last year just about a month before the occasion, so that one I spent mostly missing him, and this year I had a bit more room to look within myself. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, you understand what an impact his death had, and I think Father’s Day has forever acquired some small shade of melancholy for me, but it’s important to stay focused on my owns kids.
So this Sunday the time I spent with my family, and the thoughtful gift they got me (a framed photo of me reading to the kids before I head off to work) really got me thinking about what a huge part of my life my kids have become. Prior to my eldest being born more than four years, I couldn’t imagine throwing this much of myself into something.
It’s no secret that I have to carve out time for my writing. I have to wrestle with each day to get in my allotted amount of words. I need to steal moments to edit my novel which has been in its editing phase for about three years now. The only time I have left to do reading is on the bus heading home. Writing may be my passion but it’s not my day job. My day job allows me to do some writing. It certainly doesn’t let my mind go to waste and for that I’m thankful. Almost a year ago I’ve also landed the dream job of working at an academic institution, and being steeped in the culture here has provided no shortage of inspiration. So there’s no daylight left to complain, but neither is there time to fully absorb myself in my writing.
But what about at home? Why is it when I look back at my words-per-day tracker, the weekends end up being the least productive days? Well that has an even better answer. No matter what I do, no matter how many hobbies I’ve had and dropped over the years, nothing compares to the two little guys that call me “Bapa”, and occasionally “Daddy” just to annoy me.
It didn’t come easy. I say this honestly because I don’t want to take too much credit and also to emphasize that even something like love and devotion to your kids is a project you should never cease working on. My own wife can attest to the fact that I’m not always the best person at showing the people I love how much I care. I’ve had to learn this with my kids. Together we’ve built the foundation that is now our family and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I get a FaceTime call on the bus as I’m going to work and see my kid crying because he slept through me getting ready for work, that is what my life is all about.
So if you’re following along with my writing, it may seem like it comes in drips. My novel is taking forever and I don’t exactly produce a steady flow of short stories. Yet with all that, I haven’t given up. I’m thirty one and even though my confirmation bias can pinpoint dozens of examples of writers who’ve already hit it big, I know it doesn’t work that way. Writing is a way of life, it’s a marathon. My writing shines brightly and bursts to get out, and alongside it there’s an even more intense fire in my life.
You can be passionate about more than thing, so don’t dare turn your back on what makes you happy.
From someone in my generation ,it’s not exactly exceptional that I like Star Wars. Tempted as I am, it’s not necessary to delve into my life story setting out exactly what part of my childhood, and now adulthood, Star Wars has formed. Suffice it to say I can tell my Bossk from my Dengar.
I’m also one of those fans that doesn’t take the most critical eye to the franchise. Sure, I will laugh at every cringe-worthy moment in the prequels, but The Phantom Menace was the first movie I saw in a movie theater, and just because I think Attack of the Clones is the worst Star Wars movie doesn’t mean I won’t watch it when it’s on without shame (that’s a lie, shame is involved). So I suppose I’m an exception to the adage “No one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans”. It’s no surprise then that I’ve generally enjoyed the Disney-era Star Wars movies. Some more than others, but you won’t catch me standing on a street corner yelling about how The Last Jedi did unspeakable things to my childhood.
So if you’re looking for a review of Han Solo that fits a certain narrative, you won’t find one here. But if you want to accuse someone of being a cultist or a studio shill, I’m your man. Although I gotta say, I wish someone would pay me to shill, I have hobbies I need to sponsor.
I went into the movie keeping a lid on my expectations. This was an origin story I didn’t really think we needed, and the well-known issues with the directors, as well as the rumours about the acting didn’t give me any particularly high hopes. So honestly, when I saw initial reviews clocking in the low 70s on Rotten Tomatoes, I was pretty pleased. I knew that for someone like me, it would be a decent ride.
And a decent ride it was. Now, I’ve heard that the first hour has pacing issues and it feels disjointed. Unfortunately, I’ve got a hard time wrapping my head around those terms. That’s like hearing from someone that the chocolate ice cream I just ate tasted bad. No, I tasted the bloody thing, and I liked it. So honestly, I have no idea what they’re talking about.
I liked hopping from planet to planet – it made the galaxy feel big, which is what I find some of the recent movies have been lacking. And then the movie picks up steam and off we go, with me sitting literally on the edge of my seat for most of it. Not so much because the “Oh my God what’s going to happen next?” feel of it, but the “Oh my God this is the Star Wars I love” feel of it. A mix of familiar ships and cool new designs, new characters mixing with old favourites who are given new life.
Kudos to Alden Ehrenreich no matter what anyone says. He didn’t set out to do a Harrison Ford impression and I don’t know why anyone expected as much. He played a young Han Solo, not a young Ford, and I think he did it well. Just a bit more naïve and happy-go-lucky than the experienced smuggler we first meet in A New Hope. And I don’t even know where to begin with Donald Glover as young Lando, stealing every scene he was in. Now any time I’ll watch Billy Dee Williams as the iconic character I will see him in his youth. The two have completely merged together in my mind.
But don’t get me wrong, I’ve got my own complaints, too, places where the movie doesn’t quite feel as necessarily Star Wars as I would have liked. Although it makes sheepish attempts to get out of it, it still seems to lack the gratuitous presence of most of the alien species established in the first six films. It’s hard to make it feel like the same galaxy when the supposedly ubiquitous Twi’leks (which apparently I can spell correctly from memory - what is wrong with me?) are nowhere to be found. I should have to geek out when there’s a momentary sighting of a Rodian.
And I still haven’t felt that we really got to know a place like we did with Tatooine, Bespin, Naboo or Coruscant. The new locales still appear as snippets to be filed away, instead of actual worlds. But that just might be my own nostalgia talking. We’ll see what happens when my kids grow up, if they end up being Star Wars fans. Maybe to them Corellia would be just as real as Dagobah is to me.
In any case, no matter the movie’s flaws, I had fun, and I wish more people had fun, too. I know the feeling some of them decry. It isn’t *my* Star Wars, either. But I’m not a kid anymore. If I keep chasing that feeling, I don’t know if I’ll ever find it. If I do, I’ll know it, and it’ll be magical. And if I don’t, then that’s alright, because I’m willing to sit back and enjoy the ride in the meantime.
For those of you who haven’t watched the movie yet, look away now because I’m about to dive into some spoilers.
The thing about a Han Solo prequel, is that you either don’t touch anything that was previously established, or you better be telling us how he met Chewbacca, got his blaster, and did the Kessel Run. Okay, so all three happened in the span of what, 48 hours, but that’s alright.
The mutual rescue between him and Chewbacca and the seeming elimination of the life debt from the Expanded Universe may not please die-hards, but I actually welcomed the change. Gives much more meaning to the reason that a two hundred year-old former leader of the Kashyyyk defence, friend to Jedi, is hanging out with a loser like Han. It gives their friendship more agency instead of it being a social contract Chewie couldn’t get out of even if he wanted to.
There was one piece of lore that was particularly silly. When Han was asked his last name by the Imperial recruitment officer and he didn’t have a response, I stiffened up a bit. Then Han said he was all alone, and I was just giddy with anticipation. And then I watched the origin of “Solo” materialize right before my eyes with a stupid smile on my face, ‘stupid’ probably being the operative word here.
Oh, and of course, how can I not comment on the reveal in the last few minutes of the film? The moment that hologram came online I knew this was going to be good. Then I saw the robotic legs of the speaker and had to restrain myself from shouting out my guess in the theater. And then there he was, the most underrated and then redeemed by further material villain of the movies, making a triumphant comeback. And then he just had to ignite his lightsaber for no discernible reason other than “lethal glow sticks are fun”. Ah well.
Permit me to be a downer, but this what’s been consuming my mood as of late, and I feel like writing about it to hopefully feel a little better. I’ve mentioned in a previous entry that I lost my dad last year. Currently I’m in the short stretch of days between what should have been his fifty fourth birthday and what will be the one-year anniversary of his passing.
I can’t say it’s been easy. In fact, I won’t say it, because that would be an outright lie, even though it’s a lie I tell myself quite regularly. I would say that it feels like a cloud has been hanging over my head for a whole month, but that would both be cliché and not entirely true. It’s not a cloud that sits above you, but a feeling that sits in you, gnaws at you, makes you hollow on the inside. What it does bring about apparently is a flair for the melodramatic, so guilty as charged, I suppose.
It doesn’t help that through mostly a coincidence, I have recently been writing out a character’s conversation with his deceased father. Now, my character’s relationship with his dad is a bit more complicated than mine, but it doesn’t change the fact that even after a year I still can’t make heads or tails of what I’m supposed to be feeling. My moods are as forceful and unpredictable as the seas, but there’s one constant thread that runs through it all that I can agree on and that is that I miss him. I miss both the presence that was and the two decades that were stolen from us. One of my kids will likely have no memories of his dyeda, while the other might retain some distant images. He was stolen from them, too.
I guess this is where the coherent train of thought starts to get away from me, as the anger rolls in. I just sit here trying not to get crushed by the weight of the things left unsaid, by everything that was left on the table like yesterday’s coffee, where the drink can now only be dumped, the mug washed and put away in a tidy cupboard somewhere. Eventually he’ll become more memory than man, such a gaping chasm these lost years will leave.
I wish I could make this blog entry into something poignant and inspirational, but I think that would be disingenuous. It’s my personal belief that in our society we have real trouble facing grief, and death, and sickness. My own writing incorporates those themes, particularly their relationship to mental disorder. I think it’s unfair to the very real feelings we experience to claim that this process is a triumph over adversity. It’s incredibly unfair to the person that is gone, pretending that the hole could ever be properly mended. It will always crack, even a little bit, and you just patch it up as best as you could.
So I guess my takeaway, or at least the first stages of a takeaway that will probably take the whole of my life to build, is to not hide from it. Process it. Take in the cruelty of it. It’s okay to thrash around. It’s okay to not find comfort in your own skin. It’s okay to feel and it’s okay to talk about those feelings. Most of us have gone or will have to go through this. This isn’t some dark thing that should be swept under the carpet. This is life. That ugly side of it without which the light won’t shine quite so brightly. This is the other side of the coin that is love. The pain that goes with belonging. Don’t be afraid to hold your loved ones close. We are human, it’s what we need to survive.
Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 (or possibly 1757, such is the fickle mistress that is history where even the first line of a life ends in an asterisk) on Nevis in the British West Indies, to a father that abandoned him and a mother that died with Alexander in her arms. Alexander Serebriakov was born two centuries later in 1964 in Moscow, the Soviet Union, to a mother whose father abandoned her and a father whose own father went missing in action in the Second World War. These wisps of similarities are woven through all of us allowing us to find brotherhood across the centuries and continents. The two Alexanders combined for just over a century of life, forging in their own allotted halves of this time two very different legacies. In 2017, one Michael Serebriakov, born in 1986 in Budapest, Hungary, to two bright university students who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, had his life profoundly shaped by the two men.
My father had a typical Soviet childhood. Both his parents were in the workforce so he was mostly raised by his grandmothers. But normality was tossed out the window for the rest of his life when my grandfather earned a foreign business post for three years in a port city on the west coast of North America. For a Soviet child, three years in Vancouver had turned his life upside down.
Hamilton had a similarly transformative experience by sailing west. At the age of 17 (or 15, as previously mentioned) he arrived in New York to a country on the brink of revolution. It inspired a young mind to work for the prosperity of his nation, and his service during the American War of Independence and then in the cabinet of George Washington as the Secretary of the Treasury earned him the title of an American Founding Father and his face on the ten-dollar bill.
My dad earned no such accolades, but he was no less of a dreamer that would beat a path to any goal he set for himself. After three years, when his father’s posting expired, he was told to let go of any fantasies that he may have indulged in. It was the mid-seventies, and a capitalist country was simply out of reach. If the three years felt like a dream, that’s because they were, and like with any dream, it was time to wake up.
Stubbornness was a trait that came early to my dad, and he held onto to his boyhood fantasies. Vancouver was home. Canada was the place where he would forge his future. He held onto this for the 15 years it took for the Soviet Union to fall. And then another five years before he got a chance to vacation in Vancouver, revisiting all of his old favourite places with childlike glee. And then he took that determination into an immigration process that lasted three years. A quarter century after he was told to forget it, Alexander had moved his wife and two children to the country of his dreams, to the place he knew all along that their lives would flourish. He would be given less than twenty years to enjoy the fruits of his success.
My dad passed away in May of 2017, just days after his fifty-third party after a battle with cancer. And battle it he did until the very end, always trying to put his concerns for his family ahead of himself. One of the last coherent things he said was apologizing to my grandmother for leaving her daughter, his wife, all alone. That’s the kind of man he was. Full of caring for his loved ones, even if it that caring had the ability to overwhelm the object of his affection.
Any way you spin my feelings, his death had left a massive crater in my life. Father’s Day came and went, so did the start of a new hockey season, and then the premier of the next Star Wars movie. Each jolt a painful reminder that he was gone.
I spent months in confusing oscillation between grief and anger, with brief spurts of calm that would be quickly trampled by another gloomy stretch. Everything I had strived to improve in myself over the last few years fell completely off the map. I stopped writing, stopped exercising, stopped learning Spanish. I filled my time with junk like aimlessly scrolling reddit just to keep my brain from getting too stimulated. I had dug into my rut, and was quite comfortable in it, thanks very much.
That had all changed because in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a New York-born composer, lyricist, playwright, and actor of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage had premiered his newest musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. My awareness of Hamilton the musical trickled into my life slower than I would like to admit. Through some online discussions and articles I’ve heard whisperings of a musical that had cast a black person to play Aaron Burr. Knowing what I know now I think it’s a great disservice that that’s what was talked about, and not the entirety of the colour-conscious casting choices that were a big part of why the musical has become so inspirational.
In early 2016, I missed the Hamilton question in the online Jeopardy audition test, not knowing which musical the song “The Election of 1800” appeared. Funny, two years later and I’m singing along to the words with my four year-old son. And then I saw it in the news again when the Broadway cast called out American Vice-President elect Mike Pence and his administration for the atrocious ideas that they represent. There’s really no excuse for me not to have gone off and learned everything I could about the musical at that point, but that’s neither here nor there, and it at least put it firmly on my radar at that point.
Fast forward to September 2017, when a series of events lined up in such a way that I had a lot of time during my morning commute, so instead of wasting it on whatever frivolities I was into at the time, I listened to the whole Broadway cast recording on Spotify. I never expected a piece of musical theater to blow me away but there I was, putting the soundtrack on at home for the whole family to listen to.
My wife had already started doing so ages ago, because she’s generally ahead of me in these things, but now Hamilton was a real presence and even my son started saying no to the usual Disney playlist and insisting that we play Hamilton on repeat, even in the car.
This all reached its crescendo in early November. It was about a week after my birthday, and the holidays were fast approaching while I sat under my own personal storm cloud feeling anything but jolly. I was working from home and in the other room I heard my son playing and singing, though in a voice that bordered on yelling: “Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton! ALEXANDER HAMILTON!”
I thought had struck me. Internet searches were performed. Discussions were had. Questionable financial decisions were made. And suddenly my wife and I found ourselves in possession of two Hamilton tickets in Seattle in March. The Hamilton exposure at home went up. That entire weekend was spent listening to nothing but the soundtrack during any available moment.
And then something happened. Something I didn’t notice until almost a month later. I brushed the dust off my unfinished short stories. I started playing catch-up in my Duolingo and Memrise apps. I read more diligently. I was able to focus more at work. Whatever inspiration was contained in the musical, and trust me, if you’ve listened or watched Hamilton you know inspiration is contained in every other line, it had awakened something in me. It began to clear the fog out of my mind. It set me back on my path and made me remember myself.
The key to all of this isn’t even one of Hamilton’s lines, it’s one sung by Aaron Burr, delivered so powerfully by the talented Leslie Odom Jr.
“I am the one thing in life I can control.”
And so I did. The musical reminded me that for all of life’s unexpected setbacks, for all of its twists and turns and tragedies that lead men like Hamilton and my father to build legacies in lands so far from where they were born, one must never cede control. Alexander Hamilton fought against his political enemies, the most dangerous of which was probably himself. Alexander Serebriakov resisted the currents of history and kept his dream alive for his children. Both affected the world in their own unique ways.
To my father, thank you for inspiring me to put family first. If there’s any piece of your complicated self I will carry forward with me it’s that. And to Alexander Hamilton, thanks for inspiring Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose efforts to present your life with a contemporary lens have given me the strength to carry myself into the years ahead.
Inaugural entries seem disingenuous. It feels like saying hello to someone who’s not there. But at the same time I think they’re necessary, otherwise I’m blasting away without as much as an introduction and that’s just rude.
I grew up in Moscow, my first years spent in the dying light of the Soviet Union, so naturally Russian was my native tongue. But my flirtation with the English language began before I started school, mostly learning the name of colours and vehicles from a Richard Scarry book. One of the earliest home videos of me is sitting at the dinner table at my grandparents’ Budapest apartment repeating “I want an ice cream” ad nauseam, which tested even my grandfather’s grandparental patience.
My parents provided me with my first big break in life by putting me into a private English Immersion elementary school which at first operated out of a couple of rooms in Bauman Moscow State Technical University. On my first day of school, the most English I could scrape together was “Can I go to the toilet?” When I was repeatedly asked “Do you speak English?” and couldn’t respond (though in hindsight, you’d think my initial silence would be answer enough), I asked to call my parents, who, gently but firmly, told me to suck it up. By Grade 2, I was the main distraction in the classroom because I refused to shut up. There are plenty of things about me as a kid and teenager that I’m not proud of, and I’m sure I’ll get to more of that later.
My inclination towards fiction started early. In second grade we had a workbook where every week we had to write a tiny short story on a topic of our choosing. One week, we were asked to write about an event that actually happened to us, which I found boring and so I wrote this totally true account of a man getting hit on the head by a falling firework casing and our whole family visiting this complete stranger in the hospital for some reason. Thank you Mrs. Searle for never calling me out on it.
Fast forward a couple of year and our Grade 4 class gets an assignment to write a short story that we get to read in front of the whole class. Suddenly this was my time to shine. While others put together two pages about a lost birthday cake, I burned through two notebooks chronicling the ice hockey career of a child of an alien who crash-landed in Siberia while hitching a ride on the Tunguska meteorite. Seconds after he won the Stanley Cup he was beamed up to come home to his mother’s native planet of Pluto. Unfortunately for my class, they never go to hear the epic ending to a story that took great liberties with the rules of hockey and the universe, because my tale was taking up too much class time. Whatever, I knew I had found a sort of addiction.
The following year, inspired by a dream that made no sense, I started work on a new project that also made no sense. In this tale, which I called “Black Ants”, all the characters were my classmates, and I was friends with a kooky inventor scientist, which Back to the Future led me to believe was an ordinary occurrence for your typical teenager. The plot of the story was pretty standard fare. I mean, what ten year-old doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends being the only ones capable of saving the world from a secret organization that possessed the formula to invisibility but needed to steal classroom sharpeners in order to maintain their supply of doomsday metal? No, I did not take any drugs as a child.
By Grade 6, Black Ants had gone to the purgatory of unfinished novels, so I will never know how we managed to stop the villains from raining radioactive metal rods on the unsuspecting populace. At this point, I wanted to write about our encounter with “Insectoids”. I mean, what grade school kid doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends being the only ones capable of saving the world from an invasion of parallel dimension-dwelling but also alien insect creatures which suspiciously resembled the Shadows from Babylon 5? I will continue to insist that this was homage, not plagiarism.
In 1999, when I had only recently turned thirteen, our family moved to Canada, and my life changed in more ways than I could understand. As a commercial lingua franca, English had not exactly been exotic at that point, but it was combined to its spheres: music, satellite TV, school, and the background noise to the terrible Russian dubs of Hollywood movies. Now I had become steeped in English. It surrounded me. It swallowed me whole. For so long it had only been a visitor in my head, summoned only when I needed it. Suddenly there was no getting away from it. The Russian inside my head struggled for survival as English replaced vocabulary and grammatical structures, thoughts, ideas. The Russian survived in the end, though a little worse for wear. Conversations plod along with great effort, my brain desperately searching for vocab words that are just below the surface of memory, like ice fishing without a hole.
English was my native tongue now, and Russian had its spheres: my parents’ home, books, the New Year’s specials. It was a process that was both terrifying and exhilarating. I felt comfortable with English. It fueled the creativity that lay dormant for more than a year as I was pulled out of school in an anticipation of our move to Canada. The first victim of this outburst of creative energy was my first friend in Canada, Bajer, whom I somehow conned into taking turns writing a sci-fi epic with me. I mean, what teenager doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends being the only ones capable of defending from monsters their spaceship city which had been pulled into an unexplored corner of the galaxy by a mysterious alien. Fans of Star Trek: Voyager and especially Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy would rightfully point out that I was still iffy on that whole homage/plagiarism dichotomy.
Bajer put up with my micromanaging like a champ, although when I decided to loudly talk to him within earshot of the entire class about why this will make us famous, he politely asked me never to speak of it in public again. Given my own rock-bottom popularity in Grade 8, I now understand Bajer completely and don’t blame him for it one bit.
For the next couple of years I jumped through new schools, which turned out pretty great for me since this is how I met the girl who would eventually become my wife, and also met a few friends to torture with my new writing project. I mean, what high schooler doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends winning an all-expensive paid trip to Turkey? Okay, granted it’s not exactly the vacation destination every teenager lusts over, but hey, the trip was free, so what are their hypothetical selves complaining about? By the time this bloated disaster had died on the drawing board after almost reaching 50,000 words, I had covered only the first three days of what was supposed to be a three-week trip. Just to illustrate how this could have possible happened – three quarters of a page were dedicated to a detailed play-by-play of a rock, paper, scissors match.
Despite digging desperately through the bottom of the teenager writing barrel, around this time is when some of my more serious writing started to crop up. Novels still appeared and then died ten pages later, but I started seeing more and more short stories to completion. Some of these were terrible, some decent for my age. I tried to get some published, but naturally it was to no avail – I was nowhere near ready. But childhood fantasies gave way to attempts to explore more complex topics like genetic engineering and grief-driven revenge. These short stories, and my friends’ interest in reading them as a favour to me, sustained this continued effort to improve my craft.
It was sometime in high school when the idea that would eventually shape my first novel first came into existence. It churned and was refined in my head for years until it was finally put to paper, and it’s made several long trips to the realm of unfinished works since then. But in the end it persevered, and two years ago made it to the first full draft. I’m currently working on the third draft, still far from the finish line but I now have a clear idea of where it’s going to end up.
It’s been over a decade since I lived vicariously through my writing, and yet I don’t feel that writing has become any less fun. Sure, editing is a pain sometimes and writers block will occasionally find me and either prevent me from finding that perfect word or will derail a search for plot altogether. These are the challenges that define the art, and the art itself is what gives me joy. The ability to create worlds, characters and stories is what fuels my passion. Storytelling is one of the most ancient of humanity’s pastimes, and I want to make my modest contribution to this proud tradition. I hope you can join me for the journey.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.