Mon, Oct

The Lost Hobby


Sometimes I think there are two of me occupying the same body, and if given just the right push at just the right time, one and not the other would have come to the fore.

As I said earlier, the first episode of Doctor Who I ever saw was Genesis of the Daleks, part six, on TV Ontario in 1978. Within months, I was absolutely fanatical about the series. When I learned of the existence of fandom six years later, it was a revelation. I joined the Doctor Who Information Network in 1984, and didn’t look back.

But I was also, at the time, a train nut. I’d been a TTC nut for even longer, but my interest in model trains was possibly launched when my parents took me to Toronto’s Model Train show (one year when it was at the Exhibition), and one of the exhibits allowed kids to play around with an actual model railroad layout, switching coal cars back and forth, coupling and uncoupling them like the real thing. Add to that some historic TTC paraphernalia (I couldn’t believe that you could buy this stuff; why hadn’t anybody told me!!). I never grew out of being a train nut either.

However, in 1985, Doctor Who entered into some tough times. The series was put on hiatus for eighteen months, and its season length was cut in half. In a quiet moment, I could see the writing on the wall, and I figured that Doctor Who wouldn’t be around forever.

And I asked myself a question that, in retrospect, may have been a little odd. I asked myself, “what do I replace it with?”

And I answered almost immediately, “Model railroading”.

In May 1986, I bought my first issue of Model Railroader. By that time, my interest was clear to my parents. They forestalled my detailed plan of earning enough money to buy a model railroad set (by selling lemonade) by buying me a set themselves. They enthusiastically supported my new hobby, lending me a room in their house for my layout, saying nice things about it, and paying for my subscription to Model Railroader.

I loved the hobby. There was just one problem: I wasn’t particularly good at it. I did all right, but I could tell from looking at the exhibits on display and the layouts featured in the model railroading magazines that I didn’t have the patience or the skill to produce what others could. Still, I at least had fun.

But, to my surprise, my interest in Doctor Who didn’t flag, and I discovered other things about it; namely fan fiction. I learned that I could write Doctor Who stories and share them with fans. I started submitting to and then editing my own Doctor Who fan fiction magazines. I like to say that I did all right, there. So, I had two hobbies. But that was okay. I could handle high school, and I didn’t have much of a social life anyway, so I was happy.

Then I went to University, and my family started to move around, and I had to make some choices.

I wanted to become an urban planner. I enjoyed writing Doctor Who fan fiction. I still loved trains, but my model railroad layout was the least portable of my hobbies and would be the greatest time sink if I devoted enough of myself to be good at it. Besides, urban planning, I thought, could be like model railroading in the real world. I could work for cities, or even transit agencies. That could fill that spot in my heart that had been occupied by model railroading. Or so I thought. So I gradually set the trains aside.

It didn’t turn out that way. The one-two punch of the early 90s recession and the mid 90s austerity meant that the planning jobs (both government and private-sector) dried up in Ontario. I jokingly say that Bob Rae and Mike Harris knocked me out of planning, but truly they were only in charge; I don’t hold them personally responsible. And to pay the bills, I started working admin-related jobs in the tech sector, which I had no real love for.

I talk about this period as the time I went to sleep (hat tip to J.S. Porter. My creativity dropped fairly low for a while. The only outlet was the early work on a website called Transit Toronto. But then I started writing — not Doctor Who fan fiction, but stuff in universes of my own creation. Transit Toronto took off, and so did the beginnings of a journalism career. I started writing this blog. I published my first fantasy novel.

The planning and train part of me has been eased aside. I am now a writer (Transit Toronto’s creative outlet is as much writing as it is trains). And I am happy.

But occasionally I think about the part I set aside.

Like today, when I took the kids to the Brampton Model Railway Show. I’d heard about it a couple of weeks ago and instantly went back to my high school days when I’d eagerly await the Toronto Model Train Show weekend and load up on model trains and rail and transit paraphernalia, and when the model railway exhibits on display filled me with ideas I wanted to try out on my layout at home.

So, I went. I took the kids with me, and met a friend and his son, and everybody had a good time seeing the exhibits. There was even a switching layout that the owners kindly invited passers by to try out. I did, and it all came flooding back, as I moved boxcars between sidings with an HO-scale switching locomotive: the joy of playing with trains, seeing a world laid out in miniature.

I can’t take it up again. I don’t have the time. I have writing commitments. I have a career I am passionate about. I don’t dare play Sim City or Trainz for the same reason: I’d get locked up in that world and never write anything again. I’m blessed to be able to be creative and productive at the same time.

Besides: Vivian gave me a Lego train for my birthday. That’s outlet enough.

Still, as I switched the cars, I felt that nostalgia and that sense of what could have been.

You can see photographs of our visit to the Brampton Model Railway Show here.


Sun, Oct

Ancient Tinkertoys


I realize, upon titling this post, that I may have inadvertently insulted my father-in-law, Wendell. I suspect these tinker toys are his. But no offence is intended, and the fact is, toys can become ancient before people do.

Besides, they could also have been Erin’s and Wendy’s. I myself remember those days when Tinker Toys were wooden rather than plastic, and far easier to break. I even remember my father making the merry-go-round detailed in the photograph below.

This picture was taken during our visit to California at the beginning of the summer holidays. I came into Wendell and Judy’s living room and saw the kids happily playing with these antiques, and Wendell and Judy watching them, smiling.

I suspect these toys could fetch a pretty penny on eBay these days, but who can put a price on that moment on the living room floor?


It’s been a busy summer, and I have more writing bylines beneath my belt. Here’s a selection:


Image courtesy the BBC…

If I could, I would start this review with a blast of electric guitar, possibly riffing on “Pretty Woman”. It seems only appropriate as the signature to launch the ninth season of the Doctor Who revival. After spending a year warming up, Peter Capaldi has made the Doctor his own, riffing his tunes and rocking his shades. What’s even more remarkable is that I hadn’t realized that the eighth season was his warm up.

Fundamentally, I love the two part season opener by Steven Moffat, entitled The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. It swaggers. It exudes a confidence that I had not realized had been lacking in the program this past while. It reinvigorated me, and it also left me thinking hard about the implications. Even though I was spoiled, it genuinely surprised me. Moffat may have come down for criticism recently about the quality of his product, and while I liked Jenna Coleman’s performance as Clara through season 8, I’ve argued that it’s always better to leave them wanting more, but the opening two-parter for season 9 shows that there’s life in this Doctor Who yet. It’s not perfect, but I’m happy to still be on for the ride.

I can’t go further without giving spoilers details about this story, so I’ll break it here. You really should watch all of it with an unspoiled mind. Once you’re ready, click on the link below, or jump the line, for my full spoilery review of The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.

When fruits have faces, things have the potential to just go wrong…


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