Pacific Crossroads / Spam Musubi

I’ve been in Honolulu the past few days, half holidaying, half-researching. My trip started with strange and serendipitous encounters – an airplane seat neighbour that claimed to be Steven Segal’s body guard buying me 10am champagne, and randomly recognizing fellow expedition mate, Tim Silverwood, in the hostel lounge.

Early Friday morning I took a taxi to Pearl Harbor with a youth hostel friend, securing a coveted ticket to the memorial. I tried to politely offer my version of the ‘factual’ exhibit. The “road to war” display begins with Commodore Perry landing in Japan and thus ending a long period of isolationism – or, white American man magically changes the entire course of history the second his foot lands on foreign soil. I was most enrage-amused by a large map that marked all the sites of “Japanese Expansion” across Asia and the Pacific but neglected to explain exactly what the US was doing in Hawaii (not a State until 1959) and the Philippines. While overall a careful, interactive exhibit that gives much credit to a technologically advanced, meticulously planned, daring attack, and acknowledging the naïve and arrogant mistakes of the US navy at the time, the exhibit designers still manage to label the Japanese as enemies. Perhaps the most striking contrast from the Hiroshima memorial, is the promotion of American patriotism, not peace, as if what is carefully framed as an event in the past still justifies current (and unacknowledged) presence in Japan and the Pacific. With the mandatory movie explicitly instructing the audience to “mourn the dead,” and remember the event as “monumental history,” Pearl Harbor is a memorial to military sacrifice, not a plea for humanity.

Oahu, of course, is more than a crossroads for textbook history. Waikiki’s transient tourist community has an especially prominent Japanese presence. The grocery store carries bento-box lunches and other Japanese style to-go food with multi-language labels, but offers only plastic forks, not chopsticks at the check-out. There’s an Aloha sushi chain, ubiquitous bilingual reminders that tips are not included in restaurant bills and taxi fares, and local guys cat-calling after pretty girls in awkward Japanese, “kawaii desu ne!” (pretty, isn’t it?). The commodified, superficial mix of cultures (as food/shopping/kitsch), is perhaps most obviously materialized as ‘spam musubi’ – Hawaiin pork, American processed into Japanese convenience food:

At the end of the day, Waikiki reminds me as much of Vegas’ tourist infrastructure as of other beach cities. The towing hotels connected by malls, designed for consumption alone make Cuba’s Veradero seem quiet and quaint in comparison. What is otherwise mostly a typical Hawaiin holiday is increasingly punctured by reminders  – as I stare across the sea, hear others speak of flights home or stumble across signs numbering the miles to North America  – that I am about to embark on my own monumental crossing of 2705 (4354 km) to Vancouver.

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The Things I Ferry

Tomorrow I’m flying to Hawaii where I’ll join the Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s North Pacific Survey, sailing from Honolulu to Vancouver conducting research on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Lots more details to follow, but you can meet the crew and read about research goals here.

As the first installment, I will not attempt to solve the problems of plastic pollution, but offer instead my answer to the question: What to pack for a three-week sailing expedition through multiple climate zones? This will be followed next week by how to make it all fit in a 50x40x26 centimeter storage box.

Highlights include: water shoes, dramamine, pen made from recycled bottle, 5 different modes of documentation (camera, video, audio, laptop, notebooks), sea bands (will they work?), board shorts from when skater clothes were cool in high school, headlamp (for night watch???), comm department t-shirt, Marx t-shirt, lots and lots of sunscreen.

And, after months of deliberation (seriously), the book list:


Moby Dick is secreted away on my ipod, so as to avoid embarrassing photo-cliche opportunities.

Tah-dah!

Packaging

In preparation for the expedition I’ve been ordering electronic bits and pieces off the internet. While rarely pleased with the amount of packaging that accompanies my purchases, I was especially dismayed to have a single, tiny camera battery arrive nested among plastic pillows in a giant box:


As it turns out, Amazon has a packaging feedback button build right into order histories – the internets were awaiting my complaints about packaging size and ease of opening in multiple choice, text and image form. While consumer-me feels somewhat vindicated having uploaded the above image, academic-me is at best ambivalent about the Amazon feature as a market mechanism and voluntary response to systemic problems.  Amazon’s responsibility is to customer satisfaction, making me feel better about consuming, not addressing relationships with people, waste and the environment.

In more promising news, a zero waste grocery store is opening in Austin (thanks to Hanie for the link), that will encourage re-usable containers while providing compostable plastics as an alternative. Interestingly, the store is billed as ‘package free’ as if re-usable and biodegradable containers somehow don’t qualify as packaging, or more likely, as if packaging has become a dirty word.

Toxic Love

I’ve just finished reading Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. The book is super well researched, and the author, with journalist training, finds the balance between story and substance that made me want to read every page.

Each chapter is organized around a discrete consumer object in conjunction with a particular part of the plastic life cycle – for example, bottles and recycling, design and the plastic chair,  (although Harvey Molotch’s Where Stuff Comes from is a much stronger account of the design of mundane objects). The book offers some interesting and new to even plastic obsessed me ‘fun facts’ – that more plastic has been produced in the last decade than the entirety of the 20th century, that there is not a single plastic resin reprocessing facility on the west coast. At times Friedel follows the conceptual plan to a fault, as with what feels like an overly contrived link between credit cards and the emergence of bioplastics as new materials.

What I find most valuable and captivating, however, are the meticulous behind the scenes prose tours of a plastic resin plant in the US, a Frisbee factory in China, and San Francisco’s recycling sorting facilities (where the line is stopped twice daily so that escaped plastic bags can be extracted from the machinery with the help of bolt cutters). I think these kinds of efforts are incredibly helpful for imagining the longer trajectories of plastic things that seem designed out of consumption processes where consumer goods magically appear on shelves and disappear when thrown ‘away’.

While these accounts are backed by extensive research, I only discovered the ample endnotes after finishing the book. The decision not to include numbers or any other indication in the main text caters to popular reading practices and a smooth story, but unfortunately obscures many important sources. Similarly designed to sell, the story ends optimistically with human ingenuity (the literal building of bridges from recycled plastics), not the frightening plasticized world where synthetic chemicals have seeped into out bodies, and litter even the most uninhabited reaches of the earth. But in refusing to simply blame industry or the offending substance, Friedel’s account suggests the complexity of our entanglements with plastic, a substance we can no longer live without.

Door Agents

Latour has long used the door as an illustration of the ‘missing masses,’ drawing attention to the overlooked but active roles nonhumans play in organizing everyday relationships. Doors, he argues (with help from hinges), solve the ‘wall-hole’ dilemma, keeping order by allowing for selected things to pass through walls at sometimes, but not others. My door, however, also has the power to sign. No, not in the semiotic sense of carrying meaning, representing ‘home’ or ‘privacy.’ I mean the power to sign for things. Tracking packages a few weeks ago, the internets confirmed that my book was at my house, accepted by a mysterious ‘fd.’ Yes, accepted by my Front Door, without so much as a single doorbell ring to alert me of the event. My door, it seems, has been quietly standing witness to deliveries and signing for packages in my absence.

Trade-Marketing

The 2010 Winter Olympics are long over, but a lecture on copyright has me thinking back to two cases of controversial slogans. In a game of trademark taboo (please tell me I can still use that word?), Lulu Lemon, created a line of unofficial Olympic clothing in support of a “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 & 2011.” Clever marketing plan for capitalizing on the Winter Games? Yes. Funny? Definitely. But also yet another example of the absurdity of current copyright laws. While the words (barely) falling between the lines – Winter, Olympics, Vancouver, 2010 – seem in themselves strong examples of the direction of intellectual propoerty laws (under exactly what conditions can seasons be taken out of the public domain?), it is the Vancouver Olympic Committee’s successful trademarking of “with glowing hearts” and “des plus brillants exploits” from O Canada that truly scares me. What better illustrates market logic seeping into the public sphere than the suggestion of removing the national anthem itself from the commons? While the trademark ostensibly prevents only (other) commercial use of the phrase and I am hardly one to defend nationalism, I am left contemplating the implications of so directly ‘protecting’ what should belong to all with the logic of exclusivity, of the very possibility of classifying a season as “intellectual property”.