Friday, December 30, 2011

Even Lincoln Had an Editor

This country of ours was founded 87 years ago by a group of men who believed very strongly that freedom was the most important thing for their new nation, and also thought that all men and women were legally considered equal under the law.

During the Civil War in which this country is currently engaged, we’ve been put to the ultimate test of whether or not America can “make it,” so to speak. That battle occurred right here under our very noses. This battlefield is thus being dedicated today to honor those who died here to keep America going. I definitely think that this dedication is a good idea.

But, in a way, we can’t really dedicate this battlefield at all. The fact of the matter is that it’s already been dedicated by the brave men and women who died here, and there’s really nothing we can do to add to or take away from that. Everyone will probably forget today’s ceremony, but they should never forget what our fighting men did on that day. Actually, it’s our job to make sure that they don’t forget it. This is a pretty big job, and we should work even harder to remember all the people who we honor; so we’d better roll up our sleeves and do it, because it would be a terrible tragedy if all of those men died for nothing, and we should make sure that America—where the people have control over the government—remains united for a long, long time to come.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Review of P.T. Anderson's film, "Punch Drunk Love," from 2002

Directer Paul “P.T.” Thomas Andersons movie Punch Drunk Love is a film that CLEARLY does not even know what it wants to be. He uses Adam Sandler, who is a great comedian that always makes me laugh with such films as Click and Big daddy, so many people that rent or watched this film thought it would be a comedy when it clearly wasn’t. There are not enough funny parts to call this picture a “comedy.” For example, when the brother in law says that he is a dentist is one funny scene. Perhaps “black comedy” is a better way to describe this movie.

But also the movie tries to be a drama, like when Adam Sandlers character is going to Hawaii to find the girl and we don't know if he is going to get her or not. But this suspenseful point is clearly ruined after this, because afterwards Adam Sandlers character finds the girl and the suspense is ruined! Lots of good drama movies have suspense in them (like “The Shawshank Redemption” for instance), as it were, and suspense is clearly a good thing that drama movies can have a lot of. Also more important however, is the importance of good characters in a drama movie, so that the movie can be dramatic and the viewer can understand the deeper meanings of those characters. In Punch Drunk Love, though, the viewer cannot have these same feelings about the characters because they cannot understand them. Adam Sandler’s character Barry, for example, is the best example because his character changes Throughout the movie. At the films start, he is a plunger salesman who wears a blue suit, which is his business, but we don’t even know why he picked up an organ from the street! Then he gets angry and smashes many windows, but the moviegoers don’t understand why. We can’t understand his character at all! I think the reason is because he hates his many sisters, but this is never proven. Then, however, we start to understand his character more when he starts dating his girlfriend (played by the actress Emily Watson; who also played the blind girl in Red Dragon who couldn’t see) but then Barry becomes angry again at the men who beat him up badly with his girlfriend after the Car Accident Scene, and he runs around crazy because he wants revenge on the person that caused the problem in the first place. Clearly this is to many subplots together to understand his character. Also the sex hotline part makes no sense at all.

Because Barry called the phone sex hotline in the early section of the film, Adam Sandler’s character is considered very unlikeable. Clearly, if someone jerks off to some phone sex hotline, because he found it in a magazine, even giving his Social security number to do it, we think that he is a gross person for doing that. But then isn’t he also supposed to be the protagonist of this film? His characterization makes no sense because we clearly can’t like the films main character for the character that he is.

Also there is another story about the pudding, but in my opinion that part is very hard to understand because they explain it only in the early part of the movie and its not clear whats going on. Then later to his friend. I thought this part was interesting at first but later we never see him get the miles that he wants. This was a big Dissappointment because it was the only part of the movie I was interested in and then we can’t see how it ends. Also the cinematography in the supermarket scenes was pretty well done, I thought, and the director put in lots of good cinematography to make the movie more interesting. It reminded me a bit of the cinematography in “Blade Runner”, where the cinematography is very good and eye-catching. It really grabs your attention when you watch it, and you can clearly see that PT Anderson learned a lot about movies from watching Rildey Scotts films.

So, to sum up, Punch Drunk Love is a bad movie that has some points in it that make it good. It’s director should have picked a type of movie to make and made that movie and chose a different protagonist than Sandler to play his character. However, the cinematography is good, so I definitely recommend checking it out for that. Clearly though, you will be bored and confused by this movie, which is obviously not one of Sandlers best. (Some of the colored parts with music in the middle part were very “artistic” with their cinematography though.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Inappropriate Conversations

Me: (astounded) How can one guy possibly work the size of his own penis into conversation so frequently?

Brian: It depends. Like, this one time, we all went shooting at the sandpit with these dirty hippies from Maine, and Chase* started talking about how Russian chicks would really like him because he had such a large penis.

Me: What does that even mean? Like, Russian women care more about phallus size than other kinds of women? That sounds pretty racist to me.

Brian: (thinking) Yeah, I guess it does. Anyway, that’s just one example. He mentions it pretty frequently.

The others heartily agree.

Me: But why would someone willingly evoke such a shameless topic? It’s both wholeheartedly foul and ridiculously arrogant.

Chris: What kind of people do you associate with, man? There is a huge proportion of guys out there who not only love to talk about their penis sizes, but love to do it often. It’s a fact of life. If this is news to you, then your friends clearly represent a poor cross-section of society.

Me: (thinking) Well, I do hang out with a lot of well-educated people....

*Not his real name


This conversation raises several issues. The first involves how we should view those who talk about their own penis sizes as an overly positive, or even a defining feature. Is it arrogant to announce one’s size (real or imagined) to others the way one might flaunt a high SAT score or a Gucci handbag? Or does it simply show a lack of concern for tasteful conversation? What should we think of those who, failing to stumble upon a natural opportunity to mention their penis sizes (as such situations, though far from common outside the bedroom, do occur once in a blue moon), go out of their way to create one? On the other hand, are there some people who can naturally discern a link between anything (i.e. dental floss, Roy Orbison music, disrespectful bank tellers, or the proper wording on a restroom sign that requires employees to wash hands before leaving) and their own penises?

The second issue (raised by Chris) is whether I am far enough removed from normal society so as to be unaware of a cultural phenomenon occurring millions of times a day among post-pubescent males. Do guys really talk like that? Does the topic frequently arise at parties where large amounts of Bud Light are consumed and professional sports are commented upon in raucous tones? I've heard similarly uncouth reports of male behavior (“And then he went right to sleep!”) that make me embarrassed to be associated with my own gender. Is there a swarm of other men out there giving us a bad name by exhibiting and—dare I say it?—encouraging such penile discussions?


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On the Severity of Headaches

I get bad headaches sometimes that impede my ability to do things that I’d like to do, and sometimes I make the mistake of telling people that I’m not sure whether they’re regular headaches or migraine headaches. If my interlocutor is prone to migraines, he or she will often respond belligerently, saying things like, “If you had a migraine, you’d know!” or “It feels like a NASCAR circuit is holding time trials inside your skull!” One of my friends from college suffered migraines that frequently made her vomit and kept her out of class for days at a time, which made it awkward when we wanted to use her roommate’s TV. Other people I know complain of migraines at work, saying that they’d love to stay the entire day—really, they would—but their migraines would make a half day much more manageable. It made me think that there were different levels of migraines, like different levels of earthquakes. But even on this head-pounding Richter scale, where does a regular headache end and a migraine begin? My migraine-suffering friends didn’t like my attempts at clever metaphors very much, though.

Eventually, I learned not to make conversation out of my personal ailments, because there would always be someone else who was worse off than me, and it was best never to get these people started.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Thought

I've been mulling over the idea, recently, of starting a new blogging project far greater than Corporate Takeover in that it would take up an entire blog, be written by a fictitious character whose view of topics would be drastically different than my own, and take place in a world completely outside my current reality. It would also make fun of hipsters pretty bad.

Perhaps one day you'll see the start of it here, without knowing what it is, and assume the voice is mine. On that day you may think that I've lost my mind. Or, if you're easily taken in by pretentious arguments, you may think I'm making a lot of sense. Or, if you're a casual skimmer, you might not even notice. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

We Want....Information

This is what happened today:

A girl: Mr. Rogers, can you send my application to B____ B_____?

Me: Of course. Let's just make sure you're not missing anything. (skims over papers briefly) Looks like you forgot to put your phone number here.

Girl: Oh, it's fine. My sister goes there, so they can just get it from her.

Me: What?! This is an application to high school, which, along with college and job applications, is one of the most important documents you will fill out in your entire life! You have to fill these out perfectly! If they ask you for something, you have to give it to them, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. If they ask you which cereal was your favorite when you were six, you'd better tell them! It's a simple sign that you can follow directions, which is all these schools really care about anyway! The simple act of filling out the form correctly implies responsibility, and thus proves you will be successful at their institution. How can you be expected to expound upon the relationship between deism and quantum theory if you can't even take the time to fill in your phone number?

Girl: (writes her phone number in the blank) Can I go now?

Me: Yes

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Writing Every Day

These days I think a lot (and I know my fellow writer and former roommate Randall does too) about whether it’s better to write every day, or whether some days are just not worth squeezing creativity from.

“Do you write every day?” George Packard asked me once.
“Um,” I said, “I try to.”

I’ve heard from books, teachers, and peers that writing every day keeps us sharp, focused, motivated, and—most importantly of all—moving toward a goal. Being busy, they would say, is no excuse. If I really wanted to write, I would find the time. (I find that most of the things I really want to do I eventually get around to doing, and those I don’t get around to doing I don’t want to do all that badly in the first place—like visiting Niagara Falls or reading Crime and Punishment.) Being busy is no excuse. Or is it?

When I was unemployed, I didn’t write every day (see this blog post as to why ), so I don’t think it’s a simple matter of free time. Rather, I look at my ability to sit down at the computer (or notepad) with confidence. If I have something clear to say, if I believe in whatever that something is, and I have confidence in my ability to express it well, then it’s less daunting for me to switch into creative mode and make it real. But on days when I’m fearful, pessimistic about the future (much less often now), discouraged, lack confidence in my prose, or afraid that a certain project will never amount to anything greater than a blog post, I find myself lying petrified on my bed unable to develop the ideas, in their place a swirling fury of worries about my very real existence, and not the fictional one I’d like to be working on. Some of these are days when I would very much like to write, and I become frustrated when I cannot.

Other days I find myself too burned out and tired to even think about writing, if I’ve worked late or had a long week, or just been through some exhausting ordeal. Is it better to fight through the fatigue and force the words to come, like an angry lover after a long night of fruitless intercourse? Some of my worst work has come on days like this, but some people might argue that bad writing is better than no writing at all.

On still other days, I have things that I would like or need to do. The April Fool’s Mix CD Swap for instance, while a lot of fun and creatively satisfying, takes up a tremendous amount of time. I write a lot of e-mails to friends now, but am still forgetful about communicating with some. I also read less often than I did in high school, which is something I’m trying to change. Last week the school where I work had a snow day, and instead of writing, I touched up the paint on the door panel of my car. I enjoyed doing it, and the Volvo certainly looks better now, but was it a good use of my time?

I think the ideal solution lies in settling all this other stuff—whatever it may be—so as to leave as much time, energy, and confidence to allow productive writing time. If I lack free time, I should cut back on other activities. If I’m low on energy, I shouldn’t work as hard. And, if some outside factor is affecting my ability to focus positively on writing, I have to fix it.

Perhaps writing every day is less of an ultimatum to be adhered to and more of a goal worth shooting for.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why I Hate Being Called Buddy

I have several pet peeves, the one that occurs the most frequently being the use of the word buddy as a form of direct address, as in the following examples:

How’re we doin’, buddy?
Nice job, buddy.
Watch it, buddy!

though I take no offense to its use in reference to an absent individual, as in this example:
My buddy over in Halifax can unpeel a clementine in one piece.

There is something about being called buddy specifically that irks me in ways that being called man, dude, brother, son, or even the occasional guy or chief do not. (These last two are so astoundingly rare that hearing them is for me anachronistic, so that I would be more likely to comment on the curiosity of these words than on any specific feelings arising from their use.) People often say that if I don’t like being called buddy, then why am I okay with other terms of endearment that are also (arguably) meant to embody close relationships?

The best illustration is an example from writer/director Savage Steve Holland’s* offbeat 1985 comedy Better Off Dead. The moment occurs after the scene where Lane Meyer (John Cusack), starting his shitty new job at the Pig Burger fast food restaurant, has just created a dancing claymation cheeseburger that sings Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some.” The cigar-smoking owner, catching Lane burning his meat, becomes enraged and hurls a hapless Lane into the restaurant where he lands at the feet of the film’s jockish villain, Roy Stalin.**

A little background: Lane Meyer is a high school senior whose decidedly bizarre world is filled with desserts that crawl off his plate and Japanese drag racers who speak like Howard Cosell. Lane is ill-adept at building things, is comically-far behind the rest of his geometry class, and drives a shitty station wagon. Just about the only things he has going for him are his skiing ability and his girlfriend Beth—both of which are taken from him by the confident, charismatic (“Who wants to hold my clipboard?”) Roy Stalin, who is far more popular than Lane and attracts the admiration of everyone for his own superior prowess on the ski slopes.

As Lane lies pathetically on the floor of Pig Burger still wearing an embarrassing chef’s hat with a pig snout attached, Roy Stalin sits above him with one arm around Lane’s former girlfriend. The camera looks up at Stalin from below so that he appears to tower over Lane as he taunts him:
STALIN: Buenos dias! (He makes obnoxious pig snorting noises.) Lookin’ real good, buddy. Lookin’ real good.

Here we have a moment where a clearly stronger character is making fun of a weaker character while also addressing him using the word buddy, a careful choice of words by screenwriter Holland. Whereas the use of Lane’s name would imply a more equal relationship with Stalin, buddy here accentuates Lane’s inferiority. It is not a direct insult, but Holland inserts it to highlight Stalin’s superior, bullying attitude and mockery of Lane’s embarrassing situation just as he also used the lower camera angle. The word buddy here only goes one way: Lane cannot call Stalin buddy because Stalin is a stronger character than Lane is. Holland wants us to hate Stalin and empathize with Lane, and his careful choice of words makes that even easier.

I’ve heard buddy used in this context many times before, from experienced athletes addressing their unconfident teammates to the derisive way that adults speak to small children. Again, in both instances, there is an imbalance in the relationship: the less-experienced teammate has no business calling his superior buddy any more than a child would call a teacher buddy. When the word is spoken to me by my peers, even in the most casual or innocuous of situations, I too feel inferior, as if the other person is also deriding me on the floor of my humiliating fast-food job.

I know that not everyone who uses the word buddy uses it with these intentions. I have been told that many times by many people. But the image is one I cannot shake any more than the lover who feels an excited burst of energy at hearing his partner’s name, or the woman who feels a disgusted chill at hearing the word cunt shouted aloud.


* I re-watched Better Off Dead recently and was struck by the daring nickname and double-crediting of Savage Steve Holland as writer/director of his first movie. Who was Savage Steve Holland, and what other quirky, creative gems had he produced to equal the masterpiece that is Better Off Dead? I jumped on the internet and, finding his filmography disappointingly short, sought out his second film, One Crazy Summer, again starring John Cusack alongside a St. Elmo’s Fire-era Demi Moore. I dismissed (or skimmed over) the film’s poor reviews and watched it one evening after work only to be utterly disgusted by one of the most insulting movie experiences of my entire life. This movie is so bad that it deserves a proper blog entry explaining how bad it is, and not just a footnote within a marginally-related entry. It’s not even worth watching to see for yourself how bad it is, nor is it worth watching with friends to make fun of a la She’s the Man with Amanda Bynes. The film is made worse by my confusion and disgust at how Holland went from portraying twistedly funny distortions of reality in Better Off Dead to churning out cheap jokes and sight gags slapped on to a clichéd teen movie plot barely a year later. The story is one you’ve seen a million times before: a guy has to win the girl and save a town from destruction by corporate greed, blah blah blah. But while ‘80s movies like UHF or The Goonies have similar plots, they at least have redeeming jokes and characters to support them, whereas One Crazy Summer has none. The animated scenes are uninspired, the theme of a character wanting to find love never resonates with anything, actor Curtis Armstrong (the “Sometimes you just have to say ‘What the fuck’” guy from Risky Business) is frustratingly underused, and one of the other sidekick characters is so annoying that I found myself constantly withholding the urge to punch him in the face. My suspicion is that this movie came out so abominably because Holland, newly-initiated into the world of Hollywood, forgot the natural creativity that allowed him to produce his first film and instead wrote and directed the movie he felt audiences wanted to see, because that’s what everyone else was making, and that’s how grown-up writer/directors made movies, right? (Think of it as an ‘80s Barton Fink.) Writers who lack confidence in their creative abilities (myself included, though moreso when I was younger) will often fall back on clichés and conventions to progress a story, fill out a scene, or even shape an entire work. Imagine an endless string of these conventions pieced together into a movie, and that’s One Crazy Summer.

** My attempt to locate this scene on YouTube only resulted in a video of the original “Everybody Wants Some” scene dubbed over with Creed’s “Take Me Higher,” which I will not be reposting here for obvious reasons.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fiction and Memoirs of Japan: Some Reviews

Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan by Bruce Feiler (1991)

This was the first book I read before going to Japan myself, and, simply put, it is not very good. Feiler taught with the JET program in Japanese public schools back when this was a new thing, and this book was the result. There is nothing wrong with the book, per se; Feiler accurately recounts the realities of both Japanese society and the Japanese school system while injecting his own reflections and anecdotes in a work that is polished, dignified, and teeming with poetic haikus that show Japan’s spiritual, insightful side.

Maybe that’s why I found the book so uninspiring: it’s too polished, too perfect. Feiler spends more time summarizing research unearthed for a thesis paper on Japan and less time recounting his struggles to adapt to Japanese life, leaving the reader feeling detached from him as a narrator. This book would have found a far better home as a series of informative nonfiction essays, but as a story unto itself it falls disappointingly short. When we do get Feiler’s personal experiences, they almost always consist of him having long conversations with Japanese people about Japanese-related topics, with occasional glimpses of him bumbling through the culture around him. Both narrative tactics get old very quickly. His attempts at self-deprecation aren’t self-deprecating enough, and his funny stories (the one exception being his discovery of Love Hotels) aren’t that funny.

Simply put, it’s an informative introduction to the fundamental differences in their culture, but readers looking to find the real Japan won’t find it here.

Rating: 3/10

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer (1992)

Unnecessary subtitles aside, The Lady and the Monk is an insightful, beautifully-written, more personal look at Japan, this time through one of its most beautiful cities (i.e. one of the few not destroyed during World War II). Iyer has a keen sense of prose that makes this a pleasurable book to read as his words form a conscious melody complimented by the observant eye of the travel writer. Instead of boring us with abstract facts and information, Iyer shows us vivid images of Japan: the autumn trees of Kyoto, the deserted back alleys, the neon lights of the city, the quiet monks hidden in the temples.

There’s actually a bit of a plot, too. Iyer meets Sachiko, the dreamy wife of a workaholic Japanese salaryman, and tells the story of their friendship. Sachiko is fascinated by the world outside Japan, firing off pop culture references in her unique brand of garbled English that is all the more entertaining contrasted with Iyer’s otherwise careful prose. Sachiko is a living, breathing Japanese character who lets us into her world by sharing her hopes, frustrations, and reflections on the society around her, and this one character proves more valuable than a thousand textbook lessons.

Rating: 8/10

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)

I’m ambivalent about this book. Marina (an apparently fictional narrator, though I spent half the book thinking this was just the Japanese mispronunciation of the author’s first name) and her girlfriend Carolyn come to rural Ishikawa as JET teachers as their relationship is strained by the challenges of the move and Marina struggles to deal with her father’s suicide. This has all the makings of a good story that could take place almost anywhere, and at times (especially when Watrous shares long, detailed flashbacks of her narrator’s family life back in America) the Japanese setting feels almost inconsequential. The difficulties of Japanese life (garbage laws, indirectness, avoiding confrontation, and blatant sexism) are covered well, but they almost seem an archetype for the difficulties of fitting in with any culture. Most of the writing is also overly sentimental, though after Marina commits several egregious blunders her pain and discomfort become almost painful to read.

Watrous’s world of dilapidated small-town Japan is described with bitter realism, though her background characters are mostly forgettable and underdeveloped to a point where a seemingly climactic and shocking incident is left on the backburner by happening to characters that readers aren’t really familiar with. Where Watrous shines is in her spot-on rendering of the way Japanese speak English: her Nihon-jin characters confuse their r’s and l’s, make realistic grammatical mistakes, interweave their conversations with Japanese words, and end sentences with ne? It’s just a shame that Watrous blurs the line between spoken English and translated English as Marina, who claims to struggle with basic Japanese grammar, is often seen conversing flawlessly with characters whose English is supposedly very poor. Thus, her ability to write realistic conversations spoken across cultural barriers is marred by their inconsistency.

This book is a decent read, but its numerous shortcomings kept me from enjoying it more. That’s a terrible shame, because I really wanted to.

Rating: 4/10

Charisma Man: The Even More Complete Collection, edited by Neil Garscadden, character by Larry Rodney (2010)

Back in print after a frustrating hiatus, this new collection brings together the Charisma Man comic strips that first appeared in The Alien (later rechristened as Japanzine) with some new stories illustrated by different artists. The premise is a superhero spoof of the clueless gaijin: Charisma Man was once a burger-flipping nobody back in Canada, but after arriving in Japan, he gains incredible confidence and good looks that make him irresistible to Japanese women (accompanied by a physical transformation reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes). The setting for Charisma Man is the world of the young eikaiwa teacher: a world of late nights, city streets, tedious English lessons, unpaid overtime, wild parties, binge drinking, and beautiful women. In their finest panels, the strips comment on both the darker moments and glory days of this life, along with the reoccurring theme that any bum can teach English in Japan and become a hero.

Sure, a lot of the gags are cheesy and the jokes repetitive, but maybe I enjoy Charisma Man so much because this was the life I lived for two years, as opposed to the life of the small-town JET teacher or the carefree wanderings of the meditating traveler. The writers know how boring English lessons can be, and don't disguise that the true purpose of hanami is to get blackout drunk in the middle of the day. They capture the zany moments with a humorous spin that makes me lol while beneath the surface there always lurks the harsh truth about the gaijin existence: no matter how great the Japanese may think you are, as far as the Western women are concerned, you’ll always just be a burger-flipping geek.

Read this book. I’ll loan you my copy if necessary.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, October 3, 2011

In Which the Author Proves by Mathematics that Implementing EZ-Pass in New Hampshire Was a Poor Financial Decision

The busiest of New Hampshire’s toll plazas stands in Hooksett just north of the junction between the Interstate 93-293 division that one uses when driving south from Concord to Manchester, Salem, Nashua, or beyond to Lowell, the 128-I95 corridor, and Boston. From the north, one drives down a long, hilly, three-lane stretch unbroken by exits or signage, the only distraction being the state liquor stores flanking both sides of the highway where out-of-state patrons can purchase alcohol and tobacco products for much less than they’re accustomed to. After that, the road widens, the lines vanish, the cars slow down (but not to the extent required by law), and one is forced to choose between getting off at Exit 11 or merging into the Any Vehicle or EZ-Pass lanes.

EZ-Pass (for those readers outside the northeast) is a small, plastic transponder box that allows motorists to pay tolls without cash by fastening it to the inside of their windshields. The box is scanned by the reader when the car passes through the toll gate, automatically deducting the fee from the user’s EZ-Pass account. The system offers numerous advantages, specifically the benefit of not having to stop at toll plazas (traffic permitting), plus a 30% discount in New Hampshire. (Interestingly, Japan uses a similar system in which vehicle transponders require a separate highway card. The chief benefit of the Japanese system is that one card can easily be used in multiple vehicles, as opposed to the American system, which requires unfastening the EZ-Pass and having the passenger hold it crookedly against the inside of the windshield while the driver slows down enough to catch the signal.)

I do not deny that EZ-Pass is a fine system—my chief qualm is that it displaced New Hampshire’s earlier, more cost-effective system of highway tokens.

When I first became a licensed driver, these tokens were sold by operators in the Any Vehicle lanes of New Hampshire’s toll plazas, where motorists could purchase them as they paid their tolls. (The tokens were not advertised anywhere, I suspect, to keep them a secret from out-of-staters.) A roll of forty tokens cost five dollars. That’s twelve and a half cents per token. But the tokens were worth twenty-five cents each at the tolls. That means that using tokens, one could merge from Route 101 on to I-95 for only twenty-five cents, or pass through the Hooksett toll plaza for thirty-seven and a half cents (the cost of which has since been raised to a dollar). This is less than the price of a candy bar.

When New Hampshire adopted the EZ-Pass system in 2005 (before which time it was the only New England toll-collecting state not to offer an electronic alternative), it discontinued the token system. (It also eliminated the Exact Change lanes with the baskets you had to throw your coins into, though these can still be seen along the Everett Turnpike in Merrimack.) The savings rate was also reduced from fifty percent with tokens to thirty percent using EZ-Pass. That loss of twenty percent was presumably a trade-off for the convenience of the new system. Tokens had to go because it would silly to offer two money-saving alternatives. Besides, a twenty-percent difference is a small price to pay for convenience. Or is it?

Let’s say that a motorist commutes from his home in rural Hopkinton, through the Hooksett toll plaza, to the large, windowless manufacturing building off Exit 2 in Salem that houses his workspace. Let’s also assume that his company grants him one week off at Christmas during shutdown, plus another weeklong vacation of his choosing. (There are of course other company holidays and sick days, but to keep the numbers round, let us also say that he takes various unrelated trips through the toll plaza that cancel out these days.) That means that our hypothetical commuter crosses the toll plaza an average of ten times a week (once northbound and once southbound), fifty weeks a year, at the cost of one dollar per toll.

Using cash, this would cost $500.
Using EZ-Pass, this would cost $350.
Using highway tokens, this would only cost $250.

However, I have neglected to include the initial cost of the EZ-Pass, which the New Hampshire Department of Transportation currently sells for $20.95 (or $33.04 for exterior transponders). This raises the cost of using EZ-Pass to $370.95, meaning that tokens are now the cheaper option by $120.95 the first year.

This twenty ninety-five (which was actually less for those who purchased transponders during the transition period from tokens to EZ-Pass), can, however, be viewed as an investment for those who still want to save some money. Again, using the Hooksett toll plaza as an example, EZ-Pass users save thirty cents at each crossing. This means that users can recover their initial costs after approximately seventy trips. This is opposed to a roll of tokens, which pays for itself after five trips; or the equivalent $21 in tokens, which still pays for itself after only twenty-one trips. The reason for this striking difference is that EZ-Pass, as added equipment, puts only thirty percent of the toll fee towards recovering the initial investment, as opposed to tokens, which, as a form of currency, allow one hundred percent of the toll fee to go towards recovering the initial investment.

Let’s also consider the long-term impact of using EZ-Pass over tokens. Let’s say our hypothetical commuter lives in Hopkinton and works in Salem (or some other office complex in Hudson, Nashua, Merrimack, or Northern Massachusetts) his entire working life, from age twenty-two until age sixty-five, maintaining the same toll-use frequency outlined above. (This seems a reasonable estimate, considering that time spent living or working outside the toll zone will probably cancel out non-commuting trips taken between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, or between ages sixty-five and death.) Let’s also assume that the Hooksett toll rate stays at one dollar for those forty-three years.

Over his lifetime, using cash, that commuter would pay $21,500.
Over his lifetime, using EZ-Pass, that commuter would pay $15,050.
Over his lifetime, using highway tokens, that commuter would pay $10,750.

The tokens are now the cheaper option by $4,300 ($4,320.95 if one counts the initial transponder cost). I consider that a large price to pay for a little convenience.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t worth debating, because tokens are gone forever and they’re never coming back. EZ-Pass of course frees motorists from having to roll down their windows and fish out their cash, makes sense in congested urban areas, and saves a lot of time (including the time it takes to buy tokens), but it also eliminated an option that saved people a lot of money. And not having that option bothers me. Like so many other cost-effective choices, tokens have been replaced by newer, more popular technology that people can use easily while feeling confident that they’re keeping up with the changing times. We live in a more expensive world, but mean incomes haven’t gone up very much in the past few decades. We’re also in the middle of an economic crisis where people are burdened by joblessness, high debt, mortgage foreclosures, home repossessions, large student loans, skyrocketing health insurance costs, strict borrowing guidelines, high gas prices, low savings rates, and an increasingly unreliable Social Security system.

I don’t think the government should force anyone to save money by using tokens instead of an EZ-Pass. But shouldn’t it at least have given them the option?

As a consumer who prefers saving money over convenience, however, I’ve made my decision. I’ll take Route 3A instead.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kitchen Crimes

- Unevenly scooping Neapolitan ice cream in parallel rows along the chocolate and strawberry sections resulting in a disproportionate remainder of vanilla.

- Throwing away the square clip ties that come with more expensive loaves of bread, as these are quicker and more efficient than using the cheaper twist-tie variety that must be laboriously looped around itself to reseal the bread bag.

- Returning empty ice cube trays to the fridge.

- Replacing empty containers of any kind in their usual spot after the last of the food has been drained from them, leaving future consumers in search of their favorite food or drink to excitedly grab the package before feeling the emptiness propel it upward at an unexpected rate that signals the victim’s disappointment at not being able to enjoy the desired portion of cereal, fruit juice, or Ritz crackers that he or she originally craved.

- Dirtying and placing in the dishwasher all of one type of dish before enough other dishes have been so dirtied, creating the predicament of whether to run a three-quarters empty dishwasher, individually wash the desired dish, or improvise using other items that may serve as an acceptable substitute.

- Not doing a proper refrigerator and pantry check before going to the supermarket, then erring on the side of over- rather than under-shopping so as to imbalance the ratio of perishable food items (for example: three dozen eggs, two gallons of milk, four pounds of liverwurst, two cabbages) to nonperishable ones and forcing cohabiters to use up those items in excess before they expire.

- In the aforementioned situation, consuming the perishable items with the later date rather than those closest to expiration, either through negligence, or on the grounds that the chosen item “probably tastes better.”

- Using Miracle Whip for any purpose other than immediate disposal.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Summation of Everything I'm Working Toward, and a Reply of Enthusiastic Assent

(a conversation among friends)

Me: Who cares if you're not making money off your creative projects right now?! They still bring personal fulfillment and motivate you to keep working. In the future, one day, with hard work and effort, we'll have achieved recognition for our work and establish ourselves so that we can quit our crummy day jobs and devote ourselves to doing our own work full time!

Brad: Any chance I could get in on this?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Waiting to Talk

Long before DVDs took the spotlight, the videocassette special edition of Pulp Fiction included an after-the feature interview with Quentin Tarantino introducing some deleted scenes—a great idea I’m surprised more videos didn’t take advantage of. (Remember videocassette special editions? And boxed sets? They were clunky and huge and their oversized boxes included vast amounts of empty space. To carry one of those massive things home from the mall in your shopping bag was to know that whatever funds you’d managed to scrounge up that month had been well-spent.)

The best of the deleted scenes (which Tarantino describes as sounding “more like someone trying to write like me than me”) takes place right after Vincent Vega (John Travolta) arrives to take Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) to Jackrabbit Slim’s. Instead of the director cutting away, Mia comes out with her video camera to ask Vincent some interview questions. Is he an Elvis man or a Beatles man? Does he like the Brady Bunch or the Partridge Family? In conversation, does he listen, or wait to talk?

The last question struck me then, as it does now, as one of the most insightful critiques of conversational style I’d ever heard. Mia implies that there are two mutually-exclusive ways of talking to people: contributing to a natural flow of conversation by responding to another person’s ideas (listening), or sharing your own ideas independently of what the other person has to say (waiting to talk). I think we’ve all spoken to people who nod incessantly, responding with a “Yeah” or a “Sure,” or possibly even a stock phrase like “Yeah I know, right?” because they’re not really paying attention. Conversations with these kinds of people are more akin to separate sharing of stories possibly (but not always!) related to the same topic. It’s frustrating, and I’ve never had any patience for it.

On the flip side, listening creates a balanced and more enriching conversation. We learn more by listening, and challenge ourselves by actually processing what the other person has to say so that we can add our own ideas to it. This is how ideas, stories, and information are shared and develop into more complex and even more enriching experiences.

Of course, occasionally we all find ourselves listening to someone incessantly rambling on in a blatantly uninteresting, ignorant, illogical, inexperienced, ineloquent, bigoted, easily disprovable, repetitive, off-topic, childish, obvious, boastful, spiteful, belligerent, self-deprecating, awkward, out of place, or rude way that forces our minds to drift away from the conversation. When our attention wanders far enough, the natural step is to plan out what we’ll say next. We all do it. It happens.

Think about it and ask yourself this honest question: Do you listen, or wait to talk?

Vincent Vega waits to talk. But he’s trying harder to listen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chemo Games

I think real life professions would be more interesting if they involved bitter rivalries reminiscent of Twister or Raiders of the Lost Ark:

* * *


At long last, a surefire cure for cancer is within our grasp!


You’ve said it, my dear man! I’m confident that this final combination of vaccinations will yield the solution we’ve been searching for these past nine years.

They each peer through microscopes.


Look, sir! The cancer cells are dissipating! We’ve done it!


Yes, it would appear that the radiation is working its magic on the infected cells.


DR. ALEXI (cont)

That’s strange...I’m detecting an irregular growth in the R5 sector.


What is it?


I can’t believe it! It’s a new string of cancerous cells multiplying at an incredible rate of speed!



He looks for himself.

DR. ERIKSON (cont)

I...I’m not certain, but it looks like the cancerous cells are spelling out some kind of message.


(reading through microscope)


An EXPLOSION rocks the laboratory, throwing DEBRIS everywhere. Show TITLE:

Chemo Games

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Karate Church!

When businesses expand or go under, their buildings are sold to other businesses who set up where their predecessors once ran, just as when one family leaves a home, another family moves in. But what happens when an old downtown church moves to a new location?

There's hardly a large number of fledgeling New England churches looking to set up shop in a cheap location, nor can one just demolish a house of God to make room for a new CVS pharmacy. The solution, then, is to rent out the space to a business who can use it, with curious results.

Master An's Tae Kawn Do Academy is located in Bedford, New Hampshire, just past the Everett Turnpike on the toll-skipping route between Manchester and Nashua. I stopped there on a Sunday to take some pictures.

As you can see, the door has been covered with a painting of traditional Eastern dragons, and the tall side windows painted with Chinese characters. I sadly did not get a chance to go inside and see how they had remodeled the main hall (if at all).

Afterward, I remembered that New Testament story about Jesus going into the temple and driving away all the peddlers and shopkeepers who were selling their wares there. If doing business in the Lord's house is wrong, then is it still wrong if the congregation has moved to a new location? When does a church stop being a church? (Think about this one for a minute.) If the congregation moves for a few years and then comes back, is the church still sacred ground while the congregation is gone? Is there a ceremony that happens after a church is shut down to desanctify the building? Or will a church always be a church long after the congregation has moved on to a large suburban location with a two-acre parking lot and a brand-new LED sign?

Other Uses for Old Churches I'd Like to See:

  • Movie Theater
  • Glow-stick Rave Venue
  • Family Fun Center
  • New location for the Bradford Junction
  • Water Park
  • Go-kart Amusement Area
  • Really big Goodwill/Salvation Army
  • Used Car Lot
  • Studio Apartment
  • Miniature Golf Course in which the player needs to hit the ball through the front door and out the back to win a free game
  • CVS Pharmacy

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gemini Rue: A New Life Awaits You in the Off-World Colonies

Gemini Rue is an awesome game. And I’m not just saying that because I love Blade Runner.

That Joshua Nuernberger’s 2011 adventure game was heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film noir should be obvious to even a replicant with Mental Grade C. Gemini Rue’s protagonist Azriel Odin is a gritty, trenchcoat-and-necktie-clad cop in a crumbling city where it never stops raining and new opportunities await citizens in off-world mining colonies. However, if the game’s setting owes much to Blade Runner, it also embodies its own 1930s noir style lacking much of the sci-fi atmosphere and Asian influences of Scott’s film. Space travel and weather control aside, little on planet Barracus is actually drawn from science fiction. Azriel uses a surprisingly normal-looking handgun, busy receptionists staff mailrooms inside old brick buildings, Mafia-esque Boryokudan speak with New York accents, and residents still read about current events in their local newspapers. It’s an enjoyable, unique setting for an adventure game, though I was aghast at a shameless, shameless Blade Runner rip-off about halfway through that I’m surprised made it past the editors.

In Gemini Rue, players also take on the role of Delta-Six, who’s being rehabilitated for life outside the mysterious Center 7 prison facility. Since having one’s memory erased is standard procedure upon entering Center 7, Delta-Six and the player must discover the prison’s rules together, making for an entertaining immersion in the game’s world.

For most of the game’s second act, players can switch between playing as Azriel or Delta-Six, but this isn’t Gemini Rue’s only innovation. The game uses an interface strikingly different from the Sierra-style ones I grew up with. Just like in Phantasmagoria, players are alerted to usable game objects by moving the mouse over them. Clicking on these objects opens up a smaller screen where players can look at, operate, talk to, kick, or use an inventory item on the object. Though it took some getting used to, this system is incredibly efficient while allowing wiggle-room for different puzzles, and even the Foot icon can be used in a surprising number of ways.

As is also the case in Phantasmagoria, Gemini Rue makes excellent use of its medium to immerse us in the Gemini system that is the game’s world. Azriel’s conversations with other characters take place against the backdrop of the system’s history of civil war, revolution, and heavy crime, evidence of which we can also see by reading the game’s newspaper. Like well-timed exposition in a novel, players are introduced to Gemini’s history gradually, helping them to understand the world at their own pace. Those eager for more details, however, can use the search function on the city’s information terminals to read about people and places only briefly mentioned in earlier descriptions, proof that Nuernberger has certainly done his homework.

As impressive as Gemini Rue’s world is, parts of the game are far less interesting than others. In the third act, the excitement of the story increases in direct proportion to a decrease in the variety of the game’s puzzles to the point where most of the final challenges can be easily solved by shooting something, operating something, or moving a conveniently-placed box from one point to another, turning these sections into laborious chores as players eagerly await the next cut scene. Though the dialogue in these cut scenes is well-written and hooks players on to the story, more time could also have been spent on the mundane narration that guides us through the game. Consider, for example, a quick back-and-forth between characters:
Azriel: What do you know about Center 7?
Matthias: How should I know what the Boryokudan do these days?
Azriel: Because you worked with them.
Matthias: Well, back in my day, they used to kill the defectors. I don’t know what they do now.

Now compare it with some descriptions that players might encounter when tackling the weather station puzzle:
These chains are keeping the door in place.
This machine is off-line.
I don’t want to break it.
Got it.

Despite these setbacks, I still recommend Gemini Rue very highly, both as an eye-opening exploration of our own identities and proof that the indie adventure game scene is still alive and kicking. For a trailer, playable demo, and more information, check out the Wadjet Games website at

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Warning Signs

(inspired by an episode of Matt Groening's Life in Hell strip)

  • Gap years
  • Trickle-down economics
  • Overuse of the word pretentious
  • Polo shirts
  • Store-brand purchases
  • Fetal positions
  • Responding to comments with "Yeah, I know, right?"
  • Pulling out (in a sexual sense)
  • Dog-eared pages
  • Excessive keychains
  • Referring to the pursuit of one's passions suffixed with the word thing
  • Pulling out (in a non-sexual sense)
  • Empty notebooks
  • Excessive ice-cream consumption
  • Use of the phrase "the real world"

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

No Furniture at the Shoppes

Last week I was interviewed by two large men in polo shirts who looked like they spent most of their free time at the gym. The job was one for which I was neither particularly well- nor particularly ill-suited in that it required basic competence but no specialized skills, and I wanted the job because A)It paid money, B)It would be a stepping-stone to something else, and C)It probably offered some form of health insurance.

Salem North Shoppes is a small shopping center off the interstate with individually-sloped roofs and natural-colored siding that attempts to evoke the architecture of a bygone era when in reality it cannot be more than a decade or two old. Brittle trees (one of which afforded me some shade to park my car under) grow among thin sections of mulched land sloping out of its half-empty parking lot, for these are professional offices far removed from the retail and residential sectors. A single pizza place services the plaza; a poor substitute for the lunchtime options of a mixed-use downtown area.

A girl in a hooded sweatshirt was working behind the front desk when I walked into the office. It must not have been her desk, because next to the computer was a large and very ‘80s photo of a middle-aged woman with bright, obviously-dyed blond hair. There weren’t any other pictures or pieces of furniture in the room, so my eye was repeatedly drawn to the photo. Inside the owner’s office, the entire back wall consisted of large windows, evoking that of a powerful executive’s office in a tall skyscraper. Unfortunately this room too had only a desk and a chair for furniture, destroying the architect’s vision. An office can hardly be called professional if there is not enough furniture to fill it.

This was a relatively new company whose owner did not seem particularly experienced in giving interviews. I could almost see him glancing over at the sample interview questions on his computer, often interrupting the flow of a conversation to move on to the next one. He seemed confused about why someone from the education world wished to enter his field, and I spent a long time explaining how my skills were relevant to any line of work, real or imagined as this argument may have been. There was also a very noticeable attempt throughout the interview to see how I would fit in at such a place. He asked me what I did for fun, and I said that I enjoyed reading, movies, and hanging out with friends when in reality my hobbies are so numerous that I often have trouble listing them. What did I read? My mind flew to the very dry book on Russian history I’d been reading that morning. That may have been a bad answer for this situation. A better answer would probably have been something physical or sports-related.

At any interview there is always that extremely awkward moment of saying goodbye when applicants resort to excessive politeness in an attempt to make up for their shortcomings. I thanked the owner profusely for his time, bowing from force of habit as I walked past the girl at the front desk (the middle-aged woman’s photo still smiling at me), again saying that it was nice to meet him, and it was nice for him to meet me, and I looked forward to seeing him again, and he was thankful that I had come, and I wished him luck in his business, and he told me to have a safe trip home, and I told him to stay cool on the hot day, and then the door was closed and I was free once more.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Job Opportunity

Date: Thu, 14 Jul 2011 18:39:06 -0400
Subject: Attention New Hire

Thanks for getting back to us to let us know your interest in the positions we had listed on

The postions your submitted resume matched to were.

Office Administrator- $16.00 - $18.00 Per Hour
Front Office Medical Receptionist - $12.00 - $16.00 Per Hour
Office Receptionist/Clerk- $15.00 - $17.00 Per Hour

We are in the middle of processing applications and currently we have 7 other applications along with yours that we are considering, so you can consider yourself on the short list to be hired.

Please help us to express-process your application by performing one of the two mandatory steps that our company must take for all new employees. Since we run both background and credit reports to verify work history on all applicants, you can help us by obtaining your own current credit report, speeding up the process immensely. We have found it's best if you have it in advance to make sure there are no surprises on it and confirm that your work history is correctly listed.

Both myself and the company would prefer that you use This Company to acquire your credit history because they're offering the check at zero cost to you (unlike other places) and their results contain the most precise details I've come across, but feel free to use any service that suits you.

When your finished please e-mail me back at ( with the subject "My Availability" to let us know you obtained a current copy of your credit history along with your availability and which job you are applying for and we will contact you the begining of next week to arrange an interview.
I'm looking forward to your quick response.

Warm regards,

Kara I | HR Dept.

Subject: RE: Attention New Hire
Date: Thu, 14 Jul 2011 19:00:20 -0400


You scammers make me sick. Kudos for trying though; at least your message used proper grammar and did not appear to have been written by a text-messaging seventh-grader. Here's a few tips that might help you next time:

1. Include the recipient's name. Job seekers become suspicious when a response is not addressed to them personally. That was my first clue.

2. Always include a company name. This one's so obvious you probably didn't even think of it! The first thing job seekers will do after getting a response like this will be to research the company, and if there's nothing to research, they'll smell a rat.

3. Know your characters. Does "Kara" have a last name? How about a phone number? E-mail address? Company name listed in her signature? (See above.) What professional would sign an e-mail like this with only her first name?

4. Avoid Excessive HTML. You guys just never learn: real people NEVER use a title to denote a website in an e-mail. Why? It's faster just to type a link as-is. And writing "This Company?" Come on! At least include a fictitious company name!

I could go on, but I think I've given you enough constructive criticism for one e-mail. Besides, I've got real job-searching to do tonight. Again, I would like to reiterate that you are all ignorant fools incapable of emulating the writing style of a real HR department. As a writer myself, I take great pride in my ability to copy different styles, and feel I captured the cold professionalism of an actual company e-mail in a blog piece I called Corporate Takeover:

Again, words can not properly convey the disgust I feel at your pathetic attempt to manipulate job seekers desperate for any lead they can get. Apart from getting caught for the illegal nature of your project, you deserve to be dragged out of your beds in the middle of the night and beaten with a blunt object as punishment for taking advantage of others.

I sincerely hope that you cease such reprehensible behavior and find something productive to do with your life,


A Job Seeker

Thursday, July 7, 2011

On One-Night Stands

In the left-front pocket of my pants I carry a small notebook in which I write things I'd like to remember. These things may include, but are not limited to, names, quotes, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, physical addresses, roughly-sketched maps, ideas for the novel, ideas for short fiction, ideas that could be placed within fiction that hasn't been conceived yet, ideas that could be placed within nonfiction that hasn't been conceived yet, reading recommendations, passcodes of various sorts, and the occasional To-Do list. The other day I opened to a recent page and found this:

Blog idea: On one-night stands

Usually the sight of this kind of note is enough to jog my memory back to whatever I was thinking of at the time. However, in this instance, I cannot think of what I could possibly have meant to say about one-night stands. I don't think about them often (the concept itself is rather cliché), but I do make the occasional one-night stand joke that may or may not be funny.

Someone told me several months ago (citing Spike TV's MANswers as a source) that women in Sweden have more one-night stands than women in any other country. I have never been to Sweden, but would like to visit.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Inpenetrable Barrier to All Rapport

Several years ago I was at a party talking to a girl I was not romantically interested in but wanted to get to know. We were discussing a subject of mutual interest, and both of us were slightly nervous.

Suddenly a great BANG! came from outside and I turned to the window. Nothing.

In that split second she had turned her head, interpreting my surprise as a calculated sign of disinterest, and another girl she was well-acquainted with now held her attention. I wanted to protest that I'd been caught off guard and wanted nothing more than to talk to her, but it was too late. A mere forty degrees had created an impenetrable barrier to all rapport.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Years of Wandering

I've been reading a biography of Samuel Beckett written by Deirdre Bair (who some of you might remember as a guest teacher at Bennington back in '06), as I've become more and more curious about what my favorite authors were doing before they became authors. So far I'd just like to say that if you thought your life was horrible when you were a twentysomething, you've got nothing on Beckett, who was stuck on his parents' estate in Ireland with no money and no job until he was into his thirties. During this time, he also wrote an amazing poem, entitled "Gnome," that speaks pretty well for his feelings after leaving Trinity College and the Paris literary community:
Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through the world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning.

Is it common for people to shun learning after that final graduation ceremony? In many cases, yes. Does the pedantic learning of post-secondary education turn out to be less useful than we thought it might be? Again, I think so. Is the rhythmic structure of those years of formal education far easier to face than the uncertainty of the big world outside? Definitely.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why I Blog

Back in college, I gradually became aware that though I had a lot of ideas for things to write, almost none of them ever made it on to the page. Most of these ideas (then, as now), were snippets, short pieces, or isolated moments that had no proper place. Instead of developing these ideas, I'd think about them for a length of time ranging from a few minutes to a few days, and unless I could develop them into a short story or integrate them into a project for a class (which almost never happened) I'd forget about them.

I started this blog as motivation, knowing that I'd be more likely to develop these ideas if I had somewhere (however isolated) to put them. I certainly write a lot more now than I did four years ago, so in that sense, the blog is a complete success. I always intended it to be more of a working studio than a finished gallery, with the goal that some pieces from here would eventually be revised, removed, and other homes found for them. Unfortunately I've never been very good at finding other homes for my writing. Call that a goal for the future. One of many.

Sometimes I worry that now I spend too much time writing things to post here, where I should be working on bigger projects (e.g. the novel or the Carcrash Parker adventure game) or smaller ones that could have a wider appeal. I could never be like John Wiswell, who posts hilarious, thoughtful, and clever fiction daily while still managing to develop other work. With real world problems looming large on the horizon, writing time is limited. That I might not be using it wisely is frightening.

But, I go back and forth on this issue a lot. It's always better to be writing something than to be writing nothing, and I'm in a much better place now than I was four years ago. I wonder if I'll ever be able to solve the problem of how to open up my work to a wider audience, and worry that I might spend too much time searching and not enough time writing.

This blog still gives me a forum to develop ideas, so I'll keep it around. The trick is how to expand. It's a problem with many solutions. All I need is one.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


George Orwell once wrote (in The Road to Wigan Pier, I think) that it is impossible for people to focus on creative pursuits if they have to struggle to make ends meet. I'd love to reflect on this further, but I really should be seeking gainful employment instead.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Phantasmagoria: A Strictly Visual Adventure

Last week I did something I should have done a long time ago. I played an adventure game.

It was the brainchild of Roberta Williams (known for such Sierra series as Kings Quest and Laura Bow), a horror adventure called Phantasmagoria. The plot was a straightforward Shining knockoff: young couple moves into old mansion, husband gets possessed by a demon, wife has to stop him. As the wife, you explore the mansion grounds while unraveling the backstory of the crazed magician who owned the place. In traditional adventure game fashion, there are rooms to unlock, characters to talk to, and a handful of items to pick up.

What makes Phantasmagoria stand out from other contemporary adventure games (for better or for worse) is that it was designed around the full-motion video technology that was all the rage back in 1995, technology that often took precedence over a game’s playability. (For some good examples, check out the Angry Nintendo Nerd’s review of the Sega CD.) Players still have control in Phantasmagoria, but the game’s extreme reliance on full-motion video limits their ability to interact with their environment. Each time our character did something as simple as wash her hands or open a door, the game had to show it in full video animation. Because this animation takes up a lot of CD space, the game limits how many things you can look at, pick up, or operate. To help players differentiate these few active objects from the background objects (and limit challenge), a single cursor turns a different color when the mouse is moved over an object with a definite purpose.

The giveaway mouse system prevents the puzzles from becoming very hard, and the structure (divided into chapters) makes the game ridiculously linear. Most of its challenges are less like puzzles and more like arbitrary actions to be performed so that time may pass and players can see more cinematic sequences. Epitomizing this is a bar graph that literally shows how much of the game players have seen. In this sense, Phantasmagoria is more of a playable movie than an open-ended adventure game.

The game’s heavy emphasis on visual effects is also striking to those used to traditional adventures where text reveals much of the game’s world. Again, because so little of Phantasmagoria is accessible to players, the game has little to say about the contents of a given room. Instead of a vivid description of a bureau’s contents, the game shows us a few jewels and a cigarette case. Players still get an impression of the bureau, but it comes through visuals, not words. This visual emphasis works to some extent, but as an experienced adventure gamer and lover of prose, I was disappointed.

The easy interface, lack of challenge, and heavy visual effects make Phantasmagoria easy to cruise through, but players who understand the bigger story will find it infinitely more enjoyable. Apart from the plot of Adrienne discovering that her husband is possessed, there is the backstory of the magician who found a cursed book and murdered a succession of wives in gruesome fashion. Said backstory is revealed by talking to people and watching cut scenes like in traditional adventure games, but a surprising amount of information can only be uncovered after stumbling upon hundred-year old letters and newspaper articles. Players must not only discover these sources on their own, but can do so at any point in the game. This is what makes adventure games special: whereas books and movies reveal information linearly, adventure games give players the opportunity to digest it at their own pace. It’s as active as exploring a story in the real world, and that’s what gives the medium real potential. Maybe it just took Phantasmagoria to remind me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Push-Button Service

“Are you all set, or do you need a few more minutes?”
“A few more minutes, thanks.”

It’s strange being back in the US because a lot of things aren’t the same anymore. I live in a different, smaller house now, where most of my things are still in boxes. My old car is in Los Angeles with my brother Kyle, who’s set out for new frontiers of his own. I see a lot of smart phones now, when before they were a novelty. Last week, I was riding down the streets of Concord when I saw—

“Are you guys ready to order yet?”
“Not yet. How about five more minutes?”
“Not a problem.”
(She stretches out the not in a way that suggests that it may, in fact, be a problem.)

What was I talking about? Right—changes. Things seem different at first, though when I really sit down and remember, they haven’t changed at all. Checkout girls at the grocery store always mumbled, avoided eye contact, and wore too much eye makeup. Certain people always spoke so fast that the words ran together. There were always guys with sideways baseball caps and those pants that weren’t quite shorts, weren’t quite pants. But there’s one thing I’m not used to because Japanese—

“Are you all set or do you need a few more minutes?”
“Uh, yeah." (picks up menu) "I’ll have the Reuben.”
“Did you want onion rings with that?”
“No, just fries.”
“O-kay. And for you?”
“I’ll have the Smokehouse Burger. Medium-well, please.”
“O-kay, I’ll bring those right out for you in a bit.”

Japanese restaurants always have plastic buttons next to the napkinholder. After taking your time to decide what you want, you can press the button (which sounds a satisfying ding-dong across the kitchen) and a waitress with a touch-screen tablet will dash up to take your order and read it back as fast as possible before—

“All rightee, here you go. One Smokehouse Burger?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“And one Reuben. Here you go.”
“Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“No, we’re fine, thanks.”
“Okay, gentlemen, enjoy.”

Wow this looks good. What was I...? Oh yeah—so it’s like they just want to get away as fast as possible so they can leave you alone. And when another waitress comes over with the food, she dumps it on the table—again as fast as possible—and drops off the check to eliminate another unnecessary interruption. If you want something else, all you have to do is—

“How’re we doing over here? Is everything OK?”
“Yes, everything’s fine.”
“That’s great.”

Fuck, where was I? [You were talking about how the waitresses come by as few times as possible.] That’s right. So they basically fix it so that the waitresses come by as few times as possible. The whole thing’s done really efficiently, and you don’t even have to tip. I guess it is pretty cold though, because the waitresses never want to chat with you or laugh at your jokes or anything like that.

“Okay, gentlemen, all set?”
“No, actually, we were just taking a break to talk.”
“Not a problem; take your time. I’ll just leave this right here for whenever you’re ready.”

Dammit. Anyway, some restaurants don’t have a button, so you have to yell out Sumimasen, which means “Excuse me.” Usually the family restaurants—the ones that look like a Friendly’s or a Denny’s or something—have this drink bar where you can pay one price and go up to get any drink you want: soda, water, coffee, tea, and sometimes hot chocolate. We used to go there just to drink and hang out for hours—the waitresses’ll never say anything. And you’d see people there just reading comic books or studying, and once we even saw these people working on an elaborate craft project. And the restaurant is always open late, so unless it’s crowded it’s never a problem. I don’t even think they’d hassle you if the place was crowded, because the Japanese really don’t like confrontations. I feel like in America, though, they’d always come—

“Did you guys need any change?”
“No—we haven’t even paid yet. You said we could take our time.”
“That’s quite all right. Take as long as you need.”

I think they want us to go. Americans can be indirect too.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


It's weird to be back. My first day outside of Japan, and even on the plane out of Narita, I felt uneasy and intimidated surrounded by all white people. It's strange not to always be the tallest, or the biggest, or the loudest in the room anymore. All of this takes some getting used to, and in Australia I found myself gravitating almost exclusively towards Japanese tourists to make conversation.

Everything seems to move really fast back in America, and I find myself overwhelmed wanting to look, listen, and respond to a million stimuli, most of which I would have simply ignored before I left (the opposite of what happened when I first went to Japan). It's like when you say the same word over and over until it loses all meaning, and then say it again a few hours later; the sound has a new freshness that your brain couldn't respond to on the sixtieth repetition.

Look for some updates within the upcoming weeks, though I'm not sure what effect my newfound unemployment will have on my posting frequency. I've had a few people asking me about the third and final Tale from the Japanese Workplace, and I assure you that it's on the way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Last Entry from Japan

Today is my last day at the eikaiwa where I work, whose name I shall not mention.

It has come to my attention that my attitude toward Japan recently, both in general and in this blog, has become an increasingly negative expression of my inner frustrations with this country through two years of exposure to Japanese culture from the perspective of a chain-school eikaiwa teacher. Though understanding the horrific aspects of Japan is important to understanding life here, it's dangerous to focus too entirely on the negative, because there are good things about living here, and there are people who can overcome the pressures of Japanese society enough to make their lives work.

There is still hope for Japan; it is only a question of whether the country can pull itself from the muck of bureaucracy and groupthink and create a better environment for the people who live here, Japanese and gaijin alike.

I'll be back in New Hampshire in mid-March. At that time, I hope to write about Japan with a viewpoint less inhibited by the daily stresses of living and working here. Look for my final tale from the Japanese workplace sometime next month. Look for a novel sometime after that.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

My First Aomori

Japan’s new Bullet Train (Shinkansen) service to the northern city of Aomori opened on December 4th. To alert the public to this momentous event, the walls of every JR Railway station were plastered with advertisements featuring well-groomed railway employees standing stiffly at attention and smiling tourists happily exploring the sights of Aomori prefecture. Their TV commercial (EDIT: now removed from Youtube....) sums it up pretty well.

I find this campaign hilarious for two reasons. The first is the name: My First Aomori. It sounds pretty normal at first, but the more you hear it, the more ridiculous it sounds. My First Aomori. Not “My First Trip to Aomori” or “My First Aomori Experience,” but just “My First Aomori.” It’s like there’s a subject missing. Are we to assume that the consumer is taking control of Aomori prefecture for the first time? Or does Aomori refer to some type of consumer goods that can be purchased and kept as a memento?

The second reason is the truth that, despite JR’s attempts to convince the public of the contrary, there’s not a whole lot to do in Aomori. There’s a little castle there, a handful of museums in the capital city, and some natural scenery in the rural northeast area where the Shinkansen doesn’t go. And in December, when Aomori is blanketed by a foot of snow, there’s even less to do. Despite northern Japan’s tendency towards inclement weather, I didn’t see a trace of snow in any of the posters or TV commercials. I like to think that some foolhardy tourists traveled all the way to Aomori only to be surprised that it wasn’t some sort of magical summer wonderland where the sun always shone and the grass was always green.

The one part that JR got right was the apples. Aomori is known for its apples, which are actually really good. I didn’t, however, think they were good enough to merit an entire trip to Aomori just to eat them, nor were they good enough to feature as prominently as they do in the shop windows, souvenir snack treats, character advertising, and yes, even the mailboxes.

Everything in Aomori was either about apples or the Shinkansen, which shouted its existence to the public on enormous banners hung from buildings and signs posted along the streets on Aomori city. The whole thing reeked of an elaborate attempt to make this otherwise ordinary section of Japan’s northeast region stand out. The Japanese government spent a lot of public works money on the new Shinkansen service, and I sensed a desperate need to get some of that investment back. Though, in Japan, construction is a way of life, as even the most rural roads are constantly paved with fresh concrete, its rivers dammed, its mountainside roads shielded by high retaining walls, and its tiny islands strung together with expensive new bridges. Perhaps the new bullet train is just another way for a nation heavily invested in the construction industry to spend its money. Or maybe Japan has a deep-seated need to prove to the rest of the world that it’s powerful enough to thrust its mighty Shinkansen as deep into the unspoiled countryside as physically possible.

Because, really, what does this remind you of?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Censorship, Maturity, and the N-Word

As you may have heard, an Alabama publisher will soon be a releasing an edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the n-word (which, just so everyone’s on the same page, is “nigger”) with the more reader-friendly “slave.” Amidst cries of censoring what is arguably the most important work of American literature, editor Alan Gribben maintains that he changed the word to appeal both to a more general reader and to schools who wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching the book in the 21st century. I feel his intentions are honorable, certainly, as anyone who tries to make literature more accessible to the public usually gets a thumbs up from me. However, in this case the politically-correct edition is merely a way of avoiding the problem by limiting the scope of Twain’s vision.

I’m no expert on Twain, and I’m slightly ashamed of how few of his works I’ve read (especially when this blog has least one regular and one occasional reader that could comment on Twain’s character far more completely than I could), but I do know about using words in context. When 1930s editions of the Hardy Boys series use outdated stereotypes of Asians, African-Americans, or Jewish people as part of their narrative structure, those stereotypes are like a time capsule showing how the author embraced those stereotypes during that time period. In Goldfinger, when Ian Fleming has Bond go off on a tangent about how the abundance of “pansies” in modern society is the result of increased equality between the sexes, it does a lot to show Fleming’s individual opinions of homosexuality and women’s rights. And, if some blogger refers to an African-American as a “nigger” in a derogatory fashion, it means that blogger is just being racist.

However, racist language can also be used consciously in fiction and nonfiction to help readers understand the attitudes of both society and individuals. Skilled writers can put racial slurs into the mouths of their characters without having those words embody their own ideals, using the language as part of a vivid world in which racism is an inherent part. In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, for example, he is not shy about having his racist white characters use racist language because he wants the reader to see them as racist. Simple, yes? Were he to hold back for fear of offending people, readers would not have a complete sense of how the controlling white minority in South America treated Mandela and the other blacks.

Shelly Fisher Fishkin summarizes this point far more coherently than I in a New York times article about the removal of the n-word from Huck Finn:

To understand how racism works in America, it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements…to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness.

In literature, you simply can’t portray racist attitudes effectively without using racist language. Of course you could capture racism through another medium like sculpture or interpretive dance, but in writing the words have to carry the feeling. To shy away from that language is to create a weaker picture of racism on the printed page.

To use one of my favorite literary characters as a final example, Jason Compson, the paranoid, self-righteous, misogynistic, racist narrator from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, not only refers to all of the novels black characters as “niggers,” he treats women like trash. The latter opinion is summarized perfectly in his opening line of Part III: “Once a bitch, always a bitch, what I say.” Jason goes on to say and do terrible things to women, and as part of his overall character, of course he would use the term “bitch” to refer to the opposite sex. To remove this line because someone was offended by the word “bitch” is to destroy an integral part of Jason Compson, just like cutting out “nigger” tones down the realistic intensity of Twain’s racist characters.

Instead of worrying about offending students or the general public, responsible teachers and parents should show how these words are used in context, and responsible readers should make every attempt to understand the difference between Twain’s language and that of the Hardy Boys. Learning about how to control language is part of becoming a better reader and writer, and understanding which attitudes are worth considering and which aren’t is an important part of growing up.

Fortunately there’s still some hope. In order to preserve the author’s original tone, the Japanese translator of The Sound and the Fury chose outdated, racist Japanese to match the English that Faulkner so carefully chose. At least some editors are still aware of the power of language.