I got a wonderful email recently from Jonathan Nee, who asked a very interesting question about marriage/relationship insights from me and Elena, as well as the photographer/model relationship between husband and wife. I wrote a detailed reply that I thought might be useful to others, so I asked his permission to post his email and my reply in my blog.
This was the email from Jonathan:
Hello, and Happy New Year!
For the longest time I’ve had a bit of a crazy thought, and I wanted to share it with you for whatever it’s worth…. Have you and Elena ever thought of writing/publishing something about life and love? Perhaps it’d be something more about your own experiences, trials, and successes…or it might even be more prescriptive in nature, essentially you two giving your advice on how to (for example) engage, nurture, and maintain such a happy relationship. It’d be interesting because I could totally see each of you providing your individual perspectives on the matter, and if so, I’m sure all of your fans would want two copies of the text–one of him/herself and one for the significant other. Btw, I use the word publish, because I have no doubt that many would gladly pay for it. I would!
It should be no surprise to you that so many people look to you as a role model… You being able to work so successfully in the field(s) of your desire, all the while being in a loving relationship with such a supportive spouse. (Case in point, most of us photographer husbands have enough trouble just getting our wives in front of the camera…..as you’ve proven yet again, you have no trouble consistently drawing out the perfect poses and expressions from Elena. I suppose some of it might be training, some of it talent….but I do also believe that what the camera captures reflects a greater truth of warmth and happiness.) All hail Rob!
Again, just my two cents… No obligation to respond whatsoever, and I really do wish you and yours the very best in this new year. Thank you.
Sincerely, Jonathan Nee”
And this was my reply to him (edited for improved clarity and readability):
Happy New Year to you too!
You know what’s funny? Elena and I see articles with titles like “Secrets to a great marriage” on the web all the time, and whenever we read those articles, we noticed they pretty much describe exactly how we treat each other.
But knowing the “how” is not the same as being able to do it, as not everyone has the right temperament, values, or lifestyle that’s conducive to a great relationship. Some people have issues with being too narcissistic, or too insecure, or too selfish, or too impatient, or too manipulative, and so on, or they live a lifestyle that’s not possible for a healthy relationship. But even if both parties are willing to make the effort to overcome personality defects or logistical problems, it’s still very important to meet the right person.
It’s weird how we can be very different when interacting with different people, as some people bring out different sides of us. For example, you might be hilarious around someone who’s very receptive to your sense of humor, but when you’re with someone who’s really serious and uptight, you probably wouldn’t crack a single joke. The hard part is finding someone who brings out the sides of you that helps you become the person you aspire to be (as opposed to someone who bring out the worst qualities in you). When I’m with Elena, I’m not the same as when I was with my ex-girlfriends. When she’s with me, she’s not like how she was with her ex’s either. I think part of it was luck that we found someone that happened to match what we need/want and brought out the best of ourselves.
But of course, relationship takes effort too, and if Elena and I had to list the things we have observed that we do but others don’t, they would be:
-We always talk things out if we have disagreements or misunderstandings. Letting it fester is the worst thing you can do. It can be hard to force yourself to openly communicate how you feel when you’re in a bad mood, and sometimes you do need time/space to calm down first, which is fine. But as soon as you’re calmer, talk it out. You have to let the other person know why you’re angry or hurt or disappointed, and then also listen to why the other person is also upset. And then you have to make an effort to correct whatever it is that caused things to go bad. We see too many couples that don’t listen, don’t talk things out, and don’t make enough effort, and their relationship just goes to the toilet eventually. When making an effort, you have to be willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try things that are difficult for you, breaking old bad habits and knee-jerk reactions, and think more before acting.
-You can’t be selfish if you want a great relationship. You have to care about how the other person feels, their health, their mental state, support their passions and interests, share their joys and disappointments, be there for them emotionally, etc. This has to go both ways, and not just one person being selfless while the other person takes advantage of that selflessness. Too many couples have relationships that’s far too one-sided, or neither seem to care enough about each other. If you really love each other, you should be babying each other as if you’re each other’s precious child to protect and love and support, and would never ever want to hurt intentionally. It boggles our minds when we see couples fight and purposely say and do really hurtful things to each other. You’re supposed to be lovers, not enemies, so why would you treat each other like enemies? (Note: this has nothing to do with constructive criticism intended to help the other person grow–it has to do with being sensitive to each other’s psychological/emotional state and not being jerks to each other.)
-We accept each other, and as long as we share the same important values in life, it’s fine. Don’t nitpick and demand that they be perfect in every way that suits your standards, because none of us are perfect. It’s ridiculous how some couples fight over stupid minor things that are so insignificant when compared to the really important values like moral integrity, social responsibility, compassion and tolerance, etc. When couples fight about leaving dirty socks on the floor, or not turning off the lights when leaving a room, or forgetting to pick up the milk–that’s when they are missing the important bigger picture. If little things like that can drive you crazy and hurt your relationship, then there’s very likely something else that’s wrong with the relationship–something much deeper than inconsequential domestic squabbles.
-Have at least some similar interests/hobbies/passions can help a lot. Although Elena and I don’t share the exact same passions (I’m all about the arts and entertainment, and she’s all about gardening, health, and homemaking), we do share some. For example, we love the same TV shows and we discuss the plot, characters, themes, etc. We also love learning about interesting and meaningful things and send each other links all day long (stuff like various TED Talks, scientific news, sociopolitical commentaries, etc. And of course, videos of adorable animals and children and silly viral videos) We also patiently listen to each other when one of us is geeking out over something the other person isn’t passionate about. For example, she will talk my ears off about gardening stuff, and I have zero interest in it, but I would listen and try to understand why she’s excited, and whenever I across interesting articles or videos about botany, or cool domestic life-hacks, or new studies on health/food, I would send those links to her and we’d talk about them. For her, she would patiently listen to me talk about my latest K-Pop obsession and watch K-Pop videos with me (although she likes to tease me about it sometimes. “Oh, are we watching those ass-shaking K-Pop girls again?”).
-Don’t act your age all the time. Seriously, this is important. When couples try so hard to be mature adults who act their age every waking moment, it’s really damn boring. Elena and I are like giddy puppy dogs around each other. We make the most cringe-worthy dumb-ass jokes, say really childish silly things (including endless baby-talk and silly nicknames and make weird animal noises), repeat our own private memes, try to gross each other out by describing the nastiest thing possible (festering wounds, overflowing toilets, eaten alive by insects, etc.), play silly made up games, chase each other around the house, and so on. Just lots of really embarrassing shit–some of which we we might even do in front of other people (as long as it’s not intrusive to others). Of course, all of this is for the sake of keeping our inner child alive and healthy, and has nothing to do with actual immaturity.
“As for photographers and their significant others, I would say that having a great relationship is the first step, because I don’t think Elena and I could keep the Kitty Cat Diary going for all these years (since 2001) if we didn’t have a great marriage. But here are some advice Elena and I would give to others, and it’s with the assumption that they already have a great relationship (and if not, then work on that first. Also, although I’m going to assume it’s a husband and wife relationship, this applies to all relationships):
-You have to understand how your significant other feels about herself. Are there body-image issues? How’s her self-esteem? What causes her to be self-conscious? If there are issues in those areas, ask yourself how you can help her overcome those issues. Do you convey how attracted you are to her? Do you praise her enough?
-You have to help her understand why you want to capture her with your camera. Tell her why it’s important to you, such as recording precious memories of domestic bliss and capturing every stage of your lives together, satisfying your need for creative fulfillment while having the subject be the person you love so much, and so on.
-Make it fun. In the early years when I first started learning photography, I was a lot more serious and it could put too much pressure on the model. I would try so hard to achieve certain types of results and if we were coming up short, I’d get frustrated, which then ruins the fun atmosphere. If you keep it lighthearted and fun, then it’ll be a lot more enjoyable for your model, and when they have a good time, they’ll be a lot more willing to do it again next time. To be a good photographer of people, you have to learn how to put people at ease and communicate effectively. There’s a time and place to be “the artiste” who’s demanding and critical, but not when it’s at the expense of your relationship with the model. Ideally, when shooting your other half, even when you’re correcting her mistakes and communicating what you want, you should still make her feel like a goddess who’s being worshiped by your camera. (It’s a really effective aphrodisiac too; if you get her too worked up with compliments, she might pounce on you and you’ll have to take a break for some sexy-time.)
-You need to have enough skills as a photographer. If your romantic partner is already reluctant about letting you take photos, it would only make things worse if you don’t have the adequate skills to make her look beautiful. One look at the disappointing results and she would lose all confidence in herself. You might ask, “If I can’t get my significant other to be my model, how do I practice and get better?” Well, you’re just going to have to find other people to model for you so you can practice. Family, friends, or even models for hire (such as from websites like Model Mayhem. Some inexperienced models are willing to do even trade, where they model for you in exchange for your photos). Once you are good enough and your romantic partner can see how good you have become, they’ll be more likely to let you take their photos. (If you’re going to practice shooting with other models, make sure your significant other is okay with it.)
Elena said what she loves the most about being my model/muse, is that my photos of her make her look more beautiful than all the other photographers she’s worked with in the past (she was a professional model/actress in her youth). She said I was able to capture certain alluring qualities that no other photographer ever captured, including qualities she didn’t even know she had. She had no idea she could look adorable and cute, or coquettish and sultry, and it’s only when she saw the photos I took of her that she saw those qualities in herself for the first time. This is another reason why having a great relationship is so important. Other photographers and her past ex’s simply couldn’t bring those qualities out of her.
Beyond technical proficiency, there’s also aesthetic sensibility, and this is where I see a lot of amateur fashion/glamour photographers do poorly (but keep in mind this is subjective). There are different kinds of allure when it comes to capturing a human subject (and I’ll focus on feminine beauty, since that’s what I do) and all of them are valid and can be very interesting and appealing– from tongue-in-cheek and coquettish naughtiness, cute and demure sexiness, elegant sensuality, artistic pensive moods, to stark raunchiness. It’s a matter of knowing what goes well with what person, for both the model and the photographer. Trying to force something that isn’t natural or suitable, or something neither the model or photographer can pull off convincingly, would often result in photos that appear stiff, sterile, contrived, crass, or even revolting.
Most women would like to be alluring (to whom, when, and how often depends on the person), and it’s up to the photographers to unearth what kind of allure is natural to that woman, as well as what she aspires to and has the ability to pull off, despite it not being within her usual persona. When I met Elena, she was far more reserved, and over the years I managed to unearth aspects of her she didn’t even know she had or could be. Those discoveries delighted both of us, and is a part of what makes it fun and fulfilling.
So how do you learn all that? Well, you have to learn all the basics of photography such as composition, proper exposure, depth-of-field control, effective lighting for the look you want, etc. Then you have to learn about shooting people, such as studying facial expressions, body language, posing do’s and don’ts, utilizing props and the environment, convey visual narratives and emotions, and so on. Analyze the works of photographers you admire. Experiment with different focal lengths, aperture settings, camera angles, lighting schemes, poses, expressions, clothing, props, locations, and moods. Also practice capturing people candidly so they are simply being their natural selves.
WHEW, this is what you get when you correspond with a writer; you get replies with massive word-count.
Anyway, I hope you find some of that helpful.”
Jonathan sent me a thoughtful reply that thanked me and Elena for our advice, and I think a couple of things he said in his reply are particularly insightful and important for those who are seeking relationship advice:
“There is so much wisdom in your words… I’ve spent the past couple days reading/reflecting on what you wrote, and still I continue to extract deeper meaning with each pass. The points you raise seem such obvious truths now that you mention them; yet, without knowing what to look out for and simply resorting to feeling one’s way through the darkness, those very truths are entirely too easy to miss. Thank You–I really mean it when I say it, but I feel those two simple words aren’t enough. Until I have more to offer, I hope my commitment to pay it forward will suffice.
Per your suggestion, I’m waiting until later to introduce/incorporate the photography-related tips into our relationship. That said, the “You need to have enough skills…and if not, you need to practice on your own time” paragraph hit me immediately, especially as I find it also has significant meaning when applied to relationships in the broader sense. All throughout the courtship and dating phase (presumably when people fall in love), each individual works heavily behind the scenes so that he/she can show off the best possible version of themselves when actually in the presence of their romantic interest…. Yet, fast-forward a bit to a certain duration after the honeymoon phase (presumably when people begin falling out of love) and the individuals, having already seen and done everything, get more relaxed with each other, often times forgetting that it was all the behind-the-scenes efforts and subsequent surprises that impressed their lover. Certainly I think there’s a case for making the journey together as a couple, but with your text in mind, I do also believe there must be continual independent development as well…. I suppose what this long paragraph means to say is that I have a better perspective now.”
I hope my exchange with Jonathan will help those of you who need it.
For many people, 2016 was a year full of chaos and sadness. We lost some of the greatest creative talents of our lifetime, went through an election that was more like a never-ending comedy skit than real-life, and dealt with some urgent issues in human rights. We all have our own takes on what happened to the world at large in 2016, and I’ve written plenty of Facebook posts about my thoughts on those topics, so I won’t get into them here. This post is just a review of my personal 2016, and then I’ll make resolutions for 2017.
First, let’s see what I wrote for 2016’s resolutions, and how I did:
Now the 2016 resolutions. It’s going to look very similar to what I wrote for 2015’s resolutions, because my life’s a pretty comfortable routine at this point and I relish this stability after all the chaos in the earlier periods of my life.
As predicted, my priorities and goals remained the same in 2016. My routine couldn’t be as consistent as I had hoped due to unforeseen circumstances (I’ll get to those later), but overall it was still a very productive year.
Writing – Not much to say except to continue writing for the love of it, and try not to get stressed out over anything that’s not directly related to my love for writing. I don’t want to think about business and productivity aspects at all as that does nothing but make writing less enjoyable. When I think back on my life, everything I tried to do because I was motivated by money did not turn out well, or I was never happy doing them for that main reason. I don’t ever want my love for writing to end up like that. There are much better and easier ways to make money than writing fiction, and I don’t really hold any hope that my writing will turn into a lucrative career at some point, so I’ll just write because I want to, not because I have to.
Despite often getting derailed by important matters in 2016, I actually had a pretty fruitful year in writing. While working on Darkness Falls, I solved so many critical problems in the thematic focus, character arcs, plot structure, world-building, etc., while outlining. I also continued to work on the query pitch and tested it on a few people whose opinion I value. It was a mixed bag because different people had different preferences. Some wanted more detailed information regarding the characters, plot, premise, and some preferred a more general top-down look at the overall world. I’m going to have to run it by more people when the time comes to actually sending out the query letter.
In terms of the manuscript, the word-count in 2016 was only about 46K for Darkness Falls, but I think I wrote some really compelling scenes. There were chapters that even when just listening to them with text-to-speech software, I was totally engrossed by how the scenes played out. This is always a good sign, because most writers are hypercritical of their own writings — including me — so when what I wrote can actually get past my inner-critic and get me excited as if I was a fan reading something thrilling, it tells me it’s very likely my readers will feel the same way. I’ve read most of the chapters I’ve written to Elena (translating them from English to Chinese on the fly) and her response was very positive. I kept pushing her to tell me anything she didn’t like or found to be problematic, but other than one minor consistency issue with a conversation between two characters, she said she loved every bit of it and can’t wait to hear more. I trust her opinion because we often discuss TV shows, movies, and books, and she’s good at constructive criticism.
One problem I noticed with the book, is that the length of it keeps snowballing. I’m a bit worried that book one might become a bit of a beast, and I might have to break it off earlier and continue in book two instead. I won’t know for sure until I’ve got the first draft done and started the rewriting/editing process. My current guess is that book one might end up being about 200K words, which is twice as long as I originally thought it might be. I suppose for an epic, the length is kind of par for the course. I definitely don’t want to limit its length simply due to commercial concerns. The story for book one will conclude at the point where I feel it’s the most satisfying, with a sense of closure, but also having built up plenty of excitement for the next book.
I didn’t do much work on Promise in 2016, but I did have a couple of very important breakthroughs in the plotting and creating a more satisfying sense of closure when the book ends.
The only writing-related blog post I wrote in 2016 was on how to make themes resonate:
Teaching– I hope my students in 2016 will all be delightful, and there will be no belligerent troublemakers that ruin the experience for others. I’m got it all down to a science at this point, having taught the Becoming a Better Artist workshop for a few years, running it almost back-to-back with very few breaks. After having taught students of all ages from all around the world from different countries and cultures, my instinct for sensing what a student needs in his/her artistic development and personal growth is very sharp. Unfortunately, sometimes the stubborn ones refuse to listen because they aren’t willing to put in the hard-work and learn to become more disciplined, wanting only instant gratification instead of willing to pay their dues and push themselves. But those who do listen to me and take my advice to heart always see significant progress in their artistic development. Hopefully, in 2016 I can persuade as many students to follow my advice as possible.
In 2016, my workshop started running on CGMA’s platform (they merged with CGWorkshops). After a lot of back and forth, I managed to hammer out how to make my workshop run smoothly on CGMA’s platform. The folks over at CGMA have been very accommodating and helpful, and it’s been a good experience thus far. Compared to CGWorkshop’s Moodle system, CGMA’s platform has some advantages, but it’s got its own issues too, so it’s more like a trade-off than upgrade (according to the needs of my workshop, which is quite different from other workshops in general).
The students have all been great–both new students as well as the alumni students. One particular student stood out because he was so enthusiastic and entertaining (sort of like an excited puppy experiencing the world for the first time), reminding me of a few of the really passionate and hard-working students I’ve taught in the past. I hope he keeps that fire burning and continues to work hard to fulfill his aspirations.
Health – My health continued to improve in 2015, and if everything continues as planned, I should see more improvement in 2016. With the new rebounding plan that adds up to 90 minutes of cardio exercise a week and the pull-ups/chin-ups (I’ll probably add other calisthenics workouts), I should be in even better shape by the end of 2016.
I was doing really well during the first quarter, but then my damn foot and knee pains came back, so I couldn’t do any rebounding or use the elliptical machine. Then I cracked my ribs in an accident. Soon after, my damn shoulder and wrists started acting up too, so I couldn’t do pull-ups or any other upper-body calisthenics either. I tell ya, as you age, your joints just go to hell, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to prevent it. Towards the end of the year I was able to start up again (even though the wrists and my feet weren’t fully recovered), and it was hard to get a momentum going again, after getting derailed. Hopefully my joints won’t act up again in 2017 and I can get a full year’s worth of consistent exercise in.
My gallstone attacks in 2015 was half of what I had in 2014, and hopefully 2016 will be even better.
I ended up having ten very mild to minor attacks in 2016, which was two more than 2015, so it’s not bad at all. I’d like to get it down to just a handful a year, or even less, but it’s not really something I can control (I already don’t eat foods at night that will trigger an attack). All I can do is to try to be as healthy as I can be and see if that changes anything.
Feels a bit like déjà vu, right? I did say it’s going to be very similar to 2015’s resolutions.
So it looks like my quest to simplify my life continues, and it’s kind of gratifying to see the list of things on my new year’s resolutions get shorter and shorter every year. It means whatever it is I’ve been doing to simplify my life is actually working.
It’s going to be very similar again this year. Elena and I have got a comfortable and stable routine going and we’ll take it over any of the chaos we’ve had to live through in the past. Some people find routines boring, but it really depends on whether it’s a routine you actually enjoy, and what your personality is. We’ve done the adventurous youth thing when we were younger and it simply doesn’t interest us anymore. The first half of our lives were spent trying to figure out who we really are and what we really want out of life.
Young people with passions tend to think they already know, but what they don’t realize is that goal posts can shift with experience and age, and you cannot predict how the world will change in the future (which greatly impacts the things you’re passionate about in life). Values and priorities can change, and those changes will alter your personality and general outlook in life. In my youth, there were some things I was absolutely certain about, but with age and experience, some of those things changed, while some remained the same. In the second half of my life, I’m striving for the things that I have remained passionate about since my youth, as well as making sure I can live life on my own terms while pursuing said passions.
Other than the things listed in my resolutions, there were other things that were significant in 2016.
A major one was my step-father having a stroke. He’s one of the healthiest elderly folks I know (played tennis most of his life, had no unhealthy vices, and very fit), so it was a surprise to all us. Elena and I spent two weeks with him after the stroke, and I really treasured the time I spent with him. My step-father’s not a demonstrative man, so it’s never been easy to express emotions in front of him. But because of the circumstances, the whole family was able to be more mushy with him than he’d normally feel comfortable with, and it was nice to be able to show how much we love him through our efforts to help him recover and to reassure him that we’re perfectly happy taking care of him. I did a lot of research on stroke recovery apps that are available on the market and tried out the top recommendations with him to see which one was the most helpful. Elena and I also spent a lot of time just chatting with him, getting him to talk (very important for stroke recovery). We managed to unearth stories from his past he never told anyone before (we always loved hearing stories from his past). We’ve visited him a lot more often than usual since the stroke, and he’s recovered quite well thus far. He still can’t drive or play tennis (mobility/strength limitations with an arm), and he is still having difficulty with his speech, but he’s fine otherwise. He and his wife lives with my sister, and my step-brother lives close too, so they’re taking care of him really well.
Elena and I spent more time on our investments in 2016 than usual, since we’re at a critical juncture in our financial future. It’s common knowledge that vast majority of writers cannot make a living on writing alone, and the famous success stories are the rare outliers that often have more to do with luck than ability. I have learned to accept that reality, which means I cannot allow myself to fantasize about how my books might lead to success (financial or critical), and must write solely for the love of it. This also means I must have other ways of generating income, as well as guarantee we’ll have enough in our old age to live comfortably. The money I make from my teaching is not nearly enough, and I’m not willing to give up my writing time, so that means we have to be smart in our investments if we want to use them as our main source of income. Ideally, our investments will do very well and I can focus on writing full-time without commercial pressures.
As with every summer, the Kitty Cat Diary was bursting with new batches of photos in 2016. We even made an effort to find interesting locations to shoot in, because I got tired of hearing fellow photographers tell me that Elena’s beauty was wasted on the casual home-bound domestic shots, and I ought to push for more. We had a lot of fun looking for new locations, and we got lots of wonderful photos that I’m still slowly processing and posting a small batch at a time. Each year after she turned forty, we wondered if it’s last year we’ll continue the Kitty Cat Diary, and we’ll continue to wonder until we finally stop (when Elena no longer wants to continue). She’s now forty-six, and we’re still going strong.
I finally got a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid in 2016. After doing lots of research and comparison, I settled on the Lenovo X1 Yoga (OLED version), instead of Surface Pro 4, Surface Book, HP Spectre 360, Samsung Ativ Book 9, and a few other similar competitors. The main reasons I chose the X1 Yoga were:
-It had a quality stylus for graphics professionals that embeds into the laptop’s body (instead of merely attaching to the outside, thus clunky and easy to lose).
-It had an OLED display with excellent image quality (wide color gamut, high contrast ratio).
-It was lighter than most 2-in-1 hybrids that had similar specs.
-It had a unique retractable frame for the keyboard when folded over in tablet mode.
-There’s no need to detach the keyboard, and it’s got one of the best keyboards in its class.
Although there are a few minor issues, I’m overall fairly happy with the X1 Yoga.
In terms of arts and entertainment, here are some of my favorites from 2016 (not necessarily released in 2016, but that I experienced them in 2016).
The best movies I watched in 2016 were:
Whiplash – As a musician, this movie affected me in such a powerful way — it was like a punch to the gut. It’s both a terrifying nightmare about abuse as well as a profoundly moving story about perseverance and passion. I wrote a short review of it in a Facebook post.
Sicario – This excellent movie about the war on drugs has one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever seen (the highway shootout), and the score accompanying the entire sequence was so effective, with its sinister and slow-burn progression that really amped up the dramatic tension.
The Revenant – A raw and unrelenting movie about survival and revenge in the wilderness. Probably Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance to date, and my favorite out of Iñárritu’s filmography thus far (although I haven’t seen Amores perros and Biutiful yet). The movie also marked Sakamoto Ryuichi‘s return to film scoring after his recovery from throat cancer (he’s one of my musical heroes).
Spotlight – An engrossing film about The Boston Globe‘s Pulitzer-winning investigative journalism that uncovered the Roman Catholic church’s cover-up of their priests’ rampant sexual abuse of children.
Green Room – This thriller was surprisingly good. It’s about a punk rock band that accidentally witnessed a murder in a white supremacist club they reluctantly performed at, and then try to get out alive as they are vastly outnumbered by vicious killers who don’t want to leave any witnesses alive. It’s one of the most intelligent and intense thrillers I’ve seen in a while.
Frailty – This obscure psychological thriller from 2001 was directed by Bill Paxton, and it’s one of those movies where the screenplay was so good but the directing was so lackluster that you can’t help but wonder how it could have turned out if a more capable director had helmed the project. What’s great about the movie is that it leaves you wondering what really happened.
Some of my favorite shows returned in 2016 and continues to be engrossing, and there were also new shows that really impressed me too.
Westworld (season 1) – This was one of the best shows in 2016. It’s intelligent, mysterious, thrilling, and has much more in common with Blade Runner thematically than the original Westworld movies franchise. Everything about it was top-notch and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for season two.
The Americans (season 4) – This “Russian spies living among us” series continues to be thrilling and emotionally engaging, with really significant plot and character developments in 2016.
Game of Thrones (season 6) – Do I even have to say anything? This show’s a cultural phenomenon at this point and you either love it, haven’t seen it, or don’t care for it. I have never been disappointed by any of the seasons thus far.
Black Mirror (season 3) – Fans rejoiced when this thought-provoking sci-fi anthology show returned. Elena and I loved espisodes #4 (“San Junipero”) and #6 (“Hated in the Nation”) the most. There other episodes were okay, and only one of them was disappointing (#5, “Men Against Fire”), but only because I guessed the plot twist right from the very beginning and the rest of it offered no additional surprises or social commentary.
Better Call Saul (season 2) – This show continues to be amazing, and one of the best character portraits on TV right now, exploring a morally conflicted character who you can’t help but love and root for. It’s every bit as good as Breaking Bad (the show it spun out of).
The Venture Bros. (season 6) – One of my favorite animated shows for adults (next to Rick and Morty). It’s still as hilarious and subversive as ever, and I hope they never stop making this show.
Atlanta (season 1) – This show was a big surprise. It’s the brainchild of Donald Glover (AKA Childish Gambino), and it’s a universally acclaimed drama about the lives of two young aspiring rappers living in Atlanta. It blends social commentary with Glover’s unique sense of humor and hip-hop culture, and if you liked Glover in Communityor are fan of his music, or just want a really good drama, then you’ll probably enjoy this.
The Magicians (season 1) – When I first found out about this TV show, I was really nervous, because I was afraid it would be very similar to the book series I’ve been writing in the last few years. But after watching it, I was relieved that it’s nothing like what I’m writing. My story’s much more focused on the sociopolitical impact that magick has on our reality and how it can be utilized to change the world (and all the moral dilemmas that come with having that kind of power), while The Magicians is focused on personal issues and fantasy escapism. It’s a lot more commercialized than the book it’s based on, and there were a number of fairly significant differences from the book (the book has more literary elements that explores the main character’s struggle with depression and becoming a responsible adult, while the TV show is focused more on thrilling plot twists, betrayals, and escapism). If you like fantasy at all, you should give it a try.
The Walking Dead (season 7) – This show sometimes really tests my patience and I’m tempted to just give up on it (especially after what happened to Glenn), but I haven’t yet. At the very least, I want to see Negan go down and get what he deserves.
I started several books in 2016, but only finished a couple, and they are:
Wild Seed, by Octavia E. Butler – I’ve always wanted to read one of her books, and I now understand why she’s such a celebrated writer. Her writing has the gravitas of literary fiction, but she also has the wild imagination of a great speculative fiction writer. If you like speculative fiction with intellectual and emotional substance, then definitely give her books a try. This particular book is about characters with supernatural powers such as shapeshifting, body-possession, and telekinesis during the era of American slavery, and it delves into the power struggle between the masculine and the feminine, the line between love and hate, race issues, and eugenics.
5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing – This is a great book that addresses the most common problems editors find in manuscripts submitted to them by writers. The editors that co-wrote the book show by example problematic writings and then demonstrate how they would correct those problems. The book is insightful and covers both basic and advanced problems in not just the mechanics of writing, but also storytelling as well.
2016 was an amazing year for me when it comes to music, for both new releases and older music I discovered.
Meat Beat Manifesto – I’ve been a long-time fan of Jack Danger’s electronic/industrial music, and I had no idea he had a Youtube channel. There’s so much good stuff on there, including the stuff he’s done under the name The Forger. Here are a few favorites available from his YT channel:
(NOTE: If your speakers/headphones cannot output full-range sub-bass frequencies, you won’t be able to hear or enjoy most of this next track, since almost the entire track’s built on low sub-bass frequencies)
Front Line Assembly / AirMech – I hadn’t paid attention to what FLA had been up to in the last few years, and when I checked recently, I was delighted by the soundtrack they did for Airmech in 2012. I think it’s the best work they’ve done in a long time. It’s also one of the very few full-on industrial music soundtracks for a game in recent years that I know of (it used to be more common back during the Quake era).
Disparition – I’ve been a fan Welcome to Nightvale for a while now (a fictional community podcast for town where the supernatural is normal part of life, blending lighthearted humor with horror elements), and the soundtrack is by Disparition. Another supernatural/horror podcast by the same creator is Alice Isn’t Dead (much darker and serious than Nightvale, and much more plot-driven), and Disparition also does the music for it. If you like goth, industrial, shoegaze, ambient, electronic, then you should give Disparition a try.
Here are a few of my favorite tracks from Disparition:
Got a Girl – I was surprised to find out that actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead had a band, and it’s got that moody French indie pop sound I really like.
Aphex Twin – Sometimes Richard is a bit too out there for me, opting for really off-the-wall experimentation detracts too much from the musicality. But when he reigns it in more, he produces stuff I really like. Here are a couple of Aphex Twin tracks I really enjoyed in 2016:
John Tejada / Signs Under Test – I’m a huge John Tejada fan, and his new full-length album, Signs Under Test, has some really nice tracks. Highly recommended for all you techno fans.
Paul Hartnoll – Paul has always been the more musical/creative half of Orbital (one of my favorite electronic groups), and this track from his most recent solo works demonstrates why:
Electronic music playlist – While discussing electronic music on head-fi.org, I was asked to put together a playlist of my favorite electronic music. Not all of my favorites can be found on Youtube, but I put together a playlist of the ones I could find. It includes not only electronic musical artists, but also cues from film and game soundtracks.
Devin Townsend / Transcendence – Every time Devin releases a new album, I get giddy. The latest one, Transcendence, is as high quality and interesting as anything he’s ever released. The deluxe edition’s disc 2 is all demo songs, yet they are every bit as amazing as the songs on the actual album, and mixed/mastered better than most people’s official releases. If you like progressive metal with soul and melodic aesthetics but also epic and heavy at the same time, you’ll enjoy Devin’s music.
Hiromi The Trio Projet / Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Patinique 2 – I’ve been listening to Hiromi Uehara’s work for a while now, and although I highly respect her skills as a jazz pianist, she sometimes gets a bit too unhinged for my taste. In this performance, her tendency to get really out there is much more reigned in and controlled, and it’s really beautiful (thanks to my old friend Tomasi who posted this on Facebook).
The Faint – My friend Jason Sereno turned me onto this band when he posted about them on Facebook. They totally flew under my radar all these years, but better late than never, because these guys make delicious new wave/post-punk music.
FEMM – This is one of those totally unexpected discoveries. It’s a Japanese duo masquerading as androids, and it’s just really fun electronic pop.
David Raksin / Laura – This stunning orchestral cue from the 1944 movie, Laura, is the kind of soundtrack music we never hear anymore, since impressionism has long gone out of style. It’s a real shame because impressionism is one of the most compelling styles of music ever created by mankind, and this beautiful cue demonstrates it perfectly (thanks to my composer friend, Siddhartha Barnhoorn, for sharing it on Facebook):
Julian Winding / Demon Dance – This amazing electronic track from the movie, The Neon Demon, is one of the best pieces of electronic music I’ve heard in a while. It’s just dripping with sinister mood and dark intensity, matching the movie’s tone perfectly.
Whiplash Soundtrack – Whiplash is one of best movies I watched in 2016, and it is a must-see if you are a musician or loves music. And if you like jazz at all (especially big band jazz), you’ll enjoy the soundtrack too.
And now we get to the South Korean music scene, which some of you probably know, is ON FIRE and the flames keep burning higher as K-Pop’s global fan-base continues to grow. Unfortunately, K-Indie music doesn’t seem to benefit that much from K-Pop’s popularity, which is a shame, because South Korea’s indie music scene is really good. Here are a selection of Korean tracks I really enjoyed in 2016:
Inlayer / Mindjack – Awesome progressive metal band, which ironically, released their song through SM Entertainment’s SM Station (SM is the largest K-Pop label/agency in South Korea). It’s great that SM is promoting non-mainstream music, and I hope they continue to diversify the range of music styles of their releases.
OOHYO – Oohyo is one of the new darlings of the K-Indie scene. She’s bilingual, having lived in both the States and South Korea, and her songs are also often bilingual. Her music is a mixture of indie and electronic pop.
Akdong Musician (AKMU) – This is a band that consists of siblings (brother and sister), and although they are under YG Entertainment (which is mainly known for hip-hop), their style is mainly indie-folk/pop. They are both still in their teens, and having grown up in Mongolia, they have a different perspective and musical style.
The last single they released was probably the most pop-sounding song they’ve done to date:
Baek Yerin – Her song “Across the Universe” was my favorite song from last year, and this single from 2016 is also very good:
Younha / Run – Younha is a singer/songwriter who releases music in both Japanese and Korean, and this song actually has different arrangements for the two versions. It’s a few years old but I only discovered her in 2016. This is one of Elena’s favorite songs.
Juniel – Juniel is another singer/songwriter who has a music career in both Japan and South Korea. Although she’s released newer songs, I like this one from 2014 the most:
From here on, we get into the purely K-Pop idol territory. There were so many good K-Pop releases in 2016, and it’s hard to keep up unless you follow new releases daily and subscribe to at least a few sources of K-Pop news (such as websites, podcasts, Youtube channels, etc.).
BLACKPINK – You can’t really talk about K-Pop in 2016 without mentioning BLACKPINK, because they were one of the most anticipated rookie groups to debut, and when they did, they immediately exploded and took over the charts. These girls have incredible stage presence, and they filled the void left behind by 2NE1 and 4Minute when those two edgier girl groups disbanded.
Some 2NE1 fans criticize BLACKPINK for being too similar, but what they don’t understand is that 2NE1 was never autonomously responsible for their own musical style. The entire 2NE1 sound was created by Teddy/YG Entertainment, and they could easily just swap out the members of 2NE1 with another group of younger and cuter girls with equal levels of talent and skill (which is what BLACKPINK essentially is). Teddy is the real creator and heart and soul of 2NE1’s sound, and he’s now bestowing his talents onto BLACKPINK instead–that’s all it is. There’s no 2NE1 without Teddy, just as there’s no BlackPink without Teddy.
I’m personally very happy about this handing over of the torch, because despite 2NE1’s empowering image and standing in the K-Pop Pantheon, their overall aesthetic can be grating to some. I hated the autotuned sound in some of their earlier songs (and no, it’s not just the trend of that time period, because plenty of other musical acts around that time didn’t use excessive Autotune as a sonic signature in their production), and the imagery/fashion choices were often really cheesy and ridiculous (even you blackjacks have to admit this. They tried to be edgy, but it often just comes off as looking outlandishly silly and unintentionally funny. But to be fair, that was the overall trend back then). BLACKPINK is basically an upgraded modern version that’s just as sassy and empowering, but with better songs (IMO. And remember, “sounding like 2NE1” can’t be a criticism because all the 2NE1 songs were written and produced by Teddy, so that would be like saying “Teddy’s songs sounds too similar to himself.”). They’re also much easier on the eyes to a lot of people (at the very least, the fashion sense for the group doesn’t look like the results of some fashion school flunky’s failed school assignments).
Ultimately, the thing to remember is this: Whether it’s 2NE1 or BLACKPINK, they’re both are just vessels to carry and portray Teddy and YG’s creative vision, and neither groups could have come up with the music or visuals by themselves. Everything you have seen or heard from them are from the creative minds of Teddy and YG.
Mamamoo – One of the most universally loved girl groups in K-Pop at the moment is Mamamoo, because not only are they great singers and always put on a good live show, they also have really adorkable personalities that are down-to-earth and goofy. This promo song they did for LG was so much fun. Just listen to that opening harmony–it’s pure aural bliss:
Cosmic Girls – Originally I was kind of meh about this girl group, because I thought, “12 members? Really? Overkill much?” And then they added one more member (Yeon-jung from I.O.I./Produce 101, who’s a formidable singer) and totally won me over with this finely crafted pop song:
Ga-In – The provocateur of K-Pop returned with this delightfully retro 1920’s big band song that contemplates the last moments in life in the face of death. Many K-Pop fans immediately criticized how similar it is to IU‘s “Red Shoes,” but they probably didn’t know that the song was produce by the same producer, and it’s only similar because they both have that retro 1920’s era big band sound.
Stellar – “Sting” is one of my favorite songs from 2016. I love the arrangement, the melodic contour, the mix/mastering, and the overall production. The music video is really nice too, with lots of meta references to the controversial past of the group and the public scrutiny they endured. I also like that they didn’t try so hard to be overtly risque as in their past music videos, and instead opted for more tasteful sexiness:
Twice – Another K-Pop girl group you can’t avoid mentioning in 2016 is Twice. They’ve been extremely popular ever since their debut, but they really blew up in 2016, topping all the charts and went viral with the “shy shy shy” meme during the promotion period for their previous single, “Cheer Up.” “TT” is their biggest hit to date, and it’s easy to see/hear why:
I.O.I – I really enjoyed Produce 101, the reality competition show where 101 K-Pop trainees from various talent agencies competed for the top 11 spots, and the winners became I.O.I, a girl-group that would only last one year and then disband (all the girls going back to their respective agencies).
I was really rooting for Kim Se-jeong, not only because of her sheer talent but also her kindness and generosity and optimism, and also Choi Yoo-Jung because she’s just adorable and such a charismatic performer (and her friendship with Kim Doyeon is just beautiful–Dodaeng forever!). I was annoyed by Kim Sohye’s ascendency to the top 11 because she had no ability in singing or dancing at all and wanted to be an actress instead. The viewers voted for her because the show tried so hard to edit together an underdog narrative, but the reality is, she took the spot away from those who actually spent their entire lives training with the aspiration to become a singer, and had far more talent and ability. I eventually warmed up to Sohye after she improved enough to not be a burden to the group, and her humble personality made it easier to accept her, but I really wanted Park Si-Yeon to have taken her place instead. Hell, I could name at least a dozen girls who should have taken her place (fortunately, some of them have gotten more exposure from the show and have made debuts).
The final lineup of I.O.I was a really good mix because they’re such a lovable goofy bunch that got along so well. The songs they releases were kind of hit or miss (even for the very supportive fans), but the good ones were some of the best K-Pop songs in 2016.
It’s kind of tragic that the group will have to disband once the year is up, because these girls have become such close friends. Towards the end of their one-year promotion, they were all crying uncontrollably during fan-meet events whenever the topic of disbandment comes up.
This cover they performed is a great example of how fun this group is:
Here’s Yoo-jung’s legendary moment on Produce 101 during a performance. It’s amazing because she’s normally really shy and timid, but as soon as she’s on stage she becomes this fiery little demon:
And here’s a great song from before the group was officially formed, during Produce 101:
Laboum – Laboum is a girl group that is so adorkably derpy that you can’t help but love them. Some might find the delirious giddy vibe grating, but once you embrace the campy aspect and just enjoy it for the sugar rush it’s meant to be, you’ll find yourself smiling from ear-to-ear:
Jun Hyo-Seong – Although fans of Secret are dying for them to make a comeback, I’m actually fairly content as long as Hyo-Seong continues to release solo stuff, since every single one of her solo releases have been so good:
You can listen to the entire EP in this playlist:
Dalshabet – Dalshabet never really did much for me, but this song is an instant classic because of Brave Brothers, whose productions are legendary in K-Pop and have produced some of the catchiest songs in recent memory:
GFriend – Their earlier releases often sounded a bit too much like early SNSD, and I didn’t care much for their songs except for “Me Gustas Tu,” but this latest album release is excellent, with some really good songs:
Oh My Girl – OMG continues to release some of the most interesting songs among the new female K-Pop groups. There’s a reason OMG is often cited as the group that other girl groups are big fans of.
Red Velvet – I was not a Red Velvet fan, and it’s only with this most recent release that I started to warm up to them. “Russian Roulette” is just such a fun and catchy song with an infectious melody:
Loona – This group has got a lot of people anticipating its debut, and we the fans have quite a while longer to wait, since the company behind Loona (Blockberry Creative) is using a very clever and innovative promotional strategy. They reveal a new member every month, with a new single and music video for that member, and starting from the second month, they also release another single and music video that features the revealed members so far. There will be twelve members total, which means by the time the group officially debuts later in 2017, they’d have already released 21 songs and music videos total. That is an insane amount of money to sink into the promotion of a rookie group, but it’s so intriguing and effectively in building up a fan-base that’s just giddy with anticipation, getting new surprises every month for an entire year leading up to the official debut. So far, three members have been revealed (which means five songs and music videos released as of now), and these two are the best ones IMO:
Yuri, Seohyun / Secret – These two members of Girls’ Generation released this song, and it just came out of nowhere and delighted all SNSD fans:
Vromance – I rarely ever pay attention to male K-Pop acts, because I’m just not a fan of the overall aesthetic of male K-Pop idols–both musically or visually. For male-vocal musical artists, I much prefer industrial, goth, metal, alternative, indie, progressive rock, acid jazz, new wave, synthpop, etc., and current male K-Pop acts just don’t really tap into those styles (they tend to focus on hip-hop, pop, R&B, EDM). In this case, Vromance (which is the brother group to Mamamoo) is a lot more appealing to me because they don’t try so hard peacocking for the screaming female fans, while the music video also doesn’t try so hard to be ridiculously flashy. It’s just a solid song that’s very pleasing to listen to:
Girl Spirit – This was a really fun singing competition reality show, where they have the main/lead vocalists from less popular K-Pop girl groups battle it out, and there were so many good performances. If you actually know the songs they covered, it’s even more entertaining because you hear how different their renditions of the songs are. I’m not really a fan of singing where there’s a lot of powerful belting; I’m more drawn to lighter, more girly singing styles, which is why Seung-hee (from Oh My Girl) was my favorite. She has a very expressive girly voice, but also has some oomph when she needs to hit some notes with power. This playlist contains my favorite performances from the show:
I listen to podcasts while taking a shower, exercising, and driving, and most of what I listen to are educational ones about writing/storytelling, music, scientific discoveries, economy, sociology, or just interesting facts. The few podcasts I got into and really enjoyed in 2016 were:
Alice Isn’t Dead – Brought to you by the same folks behind Nightvale. As much as I like Nightvale, it tends to be just frivolous fun and can be somewhat vacuous. Alice Isn’t Dead is very different in tone. It is much more plot-driven and quite serious, with a sense of sadness, longing, dread, and moments of paralyzing terror. I like it more than Nightvale and I’m looking forward to season two. If you like moody horror, definitely give this a try.
K-Pop Unmuted – This is a new podcast from the team behind Pop Unmuted, and it brings sorely needed professional criticism/review/discussions to the K-Pop community. I say that because the K-Pop community consists mainly of young fans who are completely ignorant about music in general–genres, history, songwriting, musicianship, production, marketing, etc. What we see online is overwhelmingly very shallow and uninformed rabid fan behavior that’s profoundly lacking in critical thinking, focusing on celebrity gossip and mindless adoration. Although K-Pop in general isn’t exactly a musical movement known for its intellectual or emotional substance, there are still a lot about its merits that’s worthy of critical commentary, and that’s what this podcast brings to the table.
The KPop Show – This is another newer K-Pop podcast that delves into serious music criticism where they discuss the lyrics, composition, arrangement, production, etc., but done it a casual and entertaining way. It’s sort of like two friends share the same love for K-Pop and get together to geek out about the songs from the perspective of musicians, while having a few beers.
Dead Robot Society – Compared to Writing Excuses (my favorite podcast for writers), this podcast is much more meandering than educational. It’s more like writers just shooting the breeze over beers, as opposed to focusing on educating the listener on writing and storytelling and marketing books. It’s a long-running podcast that’s been around for a while, and if you just want to listen to writers talking to each other casually, this is for you. It’s more fun than Mur Lafferty’s I Should be Writing or K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, since there are multiple hosts, and they do not keep it PG-13 at all.
I don’t really play games anymore, not only because they take up so much time, but also because the level of storytelling in the game industry in general is still lacking compared to other mediums (the exceptions are so few and far between). I only played one game in 2016 (although I often watch “let’s play” videos on Youtube of various games just to keep up with what’s out there).
Dreamfall: Chapters – This is the first game I’ve ever supported on Kickstarter. The first game in the series, The Longest Journey,is one of my favorite games of all-time, and the sequel,Dreamfall, while doesn’t have the same sense of wonder, was still engrossing. Unfortunately, I found the final entry in the series disappointing. Due to the tiny budget, the sense of scale and the overall scope of the story didn’t have the same epic feel of the previous games. Also, I think Ragnar Tornquist and Dag Scheve’s writing this time around didn’t live up to their past works (I loved Dag’s writing in The Secret World).
The only thing in gaming that’s got me really excited was the announcement of the sequel to The Last of Us. TLoU was the game that ruined gaming for me, because I loved its storytelling so much that all other games seemed juvenile and meaningless in comparison. It’s kind of fitting that the franchise that ruined gaming for me would be the one to also bring me back to gaming. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to be at least another couple of years before the game is released.
And now, finally, my resolutions for 2017.
I could actually just cut & paste what I wrote for 2016 and it would largely be the same, but there are a few differences that I think are important for 2017.
Writing – Although I prefer to write while unaffected by commercial concerns, I still do care about getting my work out there so I can share these stories with others who might find enjoyment or solace in them. Instead of just continuing to write at a leisurely pace, I’m at the point where I think I should be finishing at least one book in 2017. It could be book one of Darkness Falls or Promise, since both are far enough along that it’s realistic to finish either one before 2017 is over. If I were being strategic, it’d probably be better to finish book one of Darkness Falls first, so that while I’m rewriting/editing it, I could also be working on finishing Promise, if/when I feel the need to take a break and alternate with another book. Then while rewriting/editing Promise, I could be outlining book two of Darkness Falls.
Reading – For a writer, I don’t read nearly as many books as I should, and it’s mainly because I tend to favor film/television more when it comes to experiencing storytelling. But I think since I’m now focused on writing novels and not screenplays, I ought to swap out more of my film/television time for reading instead. I’d like to read one book a week, which means about 52 books a year. That’s a pretty good number. Although there are some people who read hundreds of books a year. I have to wonder if any of them are serious writers though, since that kind of reading will likely use up all the available writing time.
Teaching – I’ll continue to do my best in helping others fulfill their aspirations. I’ll keep teaching my workshop, Becoming a Better Artist, for as long as there’s a demand for it, or until my writing career gets to the point where I must focus all of my time and energy on it (assuming our investments are doing well and I no longer need another source of income). For those of you who have been eyeing my workshop over the years but never drummed up the courage to take it (many people are intimidated by how intense the workshop seems, despite the fact it’s designed to teach artists of all levels, regardless if you are a working professional artist or a total beginner), you probably have at least another year or two left. Past that, I can’t guarantee I’ll still be teaching it, so it would be wise to take the workshop sooner than later.
Health – If my aging joints don’t act up in 2017, I’ll be able to get a consistent exercise regime going. But this is out of my control, so all I can do is cross my fingers and hope for the best. I just got over the last round of inexplicable pains and I’ve started to get a routine going again. Let’s hope I can keep it going throughout 2017 without unexpected interruptions.
I’m going to try to be even more careful about my gallstones in 2017, even if it’s just for the sake of curiosity, to see how much better it could get if I don’t contribute to it in any way (such as eating something fatty or sweet at night).
So there it is. May 2017 be a better year than 2016.