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.