things to think about

today i am thinking about: TINY ISLANDS
May 3, 2011, 5:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Let’s be real. I am always thinking about tiny islands, but lately I have REALLY been thinking about tiny islands. I have a world map up in my apartment, and sometimes when I am stressed or bored I like to look at it and see new interesting features. Some old friends cropped up:

* Vanuatu, population 221,000;

* Nauru, population 9,200

* Tuvalu, population 11,000

These are some of the tiniest sovereign nations in the world!

There is so much to say about these places: Nauru, the only nation without a capital, which was systemically strip-mined of its phosphorus and now makes its money housing Australian immigration detainees; Tuvalu, who has had a ban on public assembly after civil unrest threatened to overthrow its government and whose primary industry is the .tv domain; Vanuatu, giant in comparison, and its intense tourist trade.

But been there, done that. I’ve priced flights to Nauru, for heaven’s sake! (answer: $500 USD from Brisbane to Yaren. Ouch!)

This time, the small island rabbit hole led me to one of my favorite tiny islands: Little Diomede. Part of Alaska, in the Bering Strait, it is actually its larger friend, Big Diomede, that is visible on my world map. Little Diomede is the westernmost part of America and possibly the western hemisphere (although I imagine there are islands in the South Pacific that come close). Little Diomede is less than half a mile from the International Date Line. There are about 170 people who live there. The mail comes once a week, depending on the weather. Aside from the school and the tribal council, people live a subsistence lifestyle: they hunt for their food and make their own livelihood. People pee in honeybuckets and when the water runs out over the winter, they melt snow and ice to drink. Contact with the rest of the world depends on the weather; sometimes the boats can come over, sometimes they can’t.The sea is solid half the year and half the year it’s choppy and unpredictable. It is 99%+ Ingalikmiut, and I imagine that last 1% are imported teachers.

There is a school there, of course, part of the Bering Strait School District. The BSSD is ungraded, promoting students based on skills rather than age, and integrates the Native languages and traditions. A big grade at the Little Diomede school is 3 students.

I want to go so bad.

I want to go as a teaching artist, although since they focus on Native arts, I think it would be more of a learning artist. I want to go as an extra pair of hands, although I don’t know much about hunting a walrus or paddling a skin canoe. I am compelled by how different it is, how small, how clever you have to be, how everyone must know everyone.

Outsiders like me have been fascinated by Little Diomede and the Ingalikmiut population there. There are collections of documents from the 1900s but even before that (thanks, Wikipedia!) there was contact with Western explorers. Natives traded ivory and skins to the western sailors and explorers that found this tiny place.

People can survive anything. I can only imagine how clever you have to be to survive on a tiny island in the Bering Strait, 25 miles from land, buffeted by wind. I can only imagine how well you have to learn your skills: killing walruses, making things from them, making your boat and then boating it around some of the coldest water in the world. This is the set of skills I am most captivated by – the way in which people can survive anything, anywhere, and find ways to make their homes even in the worst circumstances.

It sounds like such a delicious challenge. Would I bring anything to them? I don’t know. But I sure would like to give it a try.


today i am thinking about: STUBBORN OBJECTS
May 3, 2011, 2:16 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m doing this lez film series right now, which can be subtitled “my excuse to watch a ton of old lez films and take notes and read lez cinema books.” It’s satisfying. I am learning a lot and it is fun to start watching films and see the things I am reading about, and it is fun to see enough films to actually see the connections between them.

But this isn’t about that. This is about the experience of watching the films. This is about the fact that a lot of these films haven’t been re-released on DVD; they’re still on VHS. This is about trying to track down a VCR, and about pressing play, and about BE KIND PLEASE REWIND.

I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve watched something on a VHS tape, so maybe you’ve forgotten. Backing up is a matter of hitting the rewind button. To skip forward, you have to use the fast forward. There is a physical tape there, running back and forth over tape heads. When I got my most recent tape, Madchen in Uniform (the 1931 version, not 1958, which has been released on DVD), the person below it was not kind and did not rewind.

I have been exploring shooting film lately, instead of just playing with digital media. The physical object of it, plus my total lack of film editing capabilities*, means that I have to work even harder than usual to make sure that I have exactly the thing I want from the beginning. I should do that with digital too, but it’s so seductive to just go with it – I can always sort it out later, when I edit on my computer on my nonlinear editor; the only limit is how many little chips I have. Film, though, no dice – I guess I could find ways to work digitally, or edit the old fashioned way, but it is a limited, tangible, and precious commodity.

Lately, all I want are objects. Real and tangible things. I admit the weirdness of writing this on a blog but I am working on an answer to that, too. But I want a pen and I want a paper calendar and I want friends I see face to face, not just friendsters. In this mood, there is something very satisfying about being kind and rewinding, watching the snow on the screen, and having to wait for a real object to move in real time.

I got a free vcr from a friend that doesn’t quite work. Something seems to be wrong with the play button, and so I opened it up with a hankering to take a look at the circuit board and see where the problem is. But first I have to take it apart to see the soldered side of the circuitboard, a process that is frankly just right for me. Find the screws. Get them loose. Find the next ones. Try to understand the construction. Fail. Try again. Fail. Try again. Succeed. I like that this is an object I can take apart.

I worry that the decline of objects in favor of digital files, we will lose something important. Touch, smell, the feel of something – what about when it is all mediated through a screen? What do we lose when we forget that you cannot force everything to do whatever you want instantly. Sometimes you have to take it apart first. Sometimes you have to sit there and wait for the tape to unwind. Sometimes you have to seduce a screw slowly, patiently, little by little. These are important skills for us to remember – the world isn’t all digitalia and NOW NOW NOW. Sometimes. you just have to sit there and wait for it.

* I mean, let’s be real, I edit in iMovie HD. I can splice with splicing tape but that’s all, and even that makes me really nervous.