Thursday, February 26, 2004

Bluffoon Philosphy

Those of us who live and work in Bluff are often referred to as Bluffoons by the outside world. As a general principle, Bluffoons have very strong opinions on everything. One bit of Bluffoon philosophy goes something like this, "Life is a never ending struggle to understand the people around you." When it concerns people you don't have to contend with on a regular basis, this struggle may not be a serious issue. Those close to you, however, often create problems.

It is my goal to be loving and caring with everyone I encounter, and usually I can ignore unpleasant situations, comments or misdeeds . I simply shake my head, walk away and exact no consequences. Not so with the folks with whom I regularly associate; especially if I wish to continue that association. Understanding and accepting those around me is essential to my emotional survival. Ignoring the slights of these people and what they are saying and doing, I feel, is flirting with disaster.

When my three children were younger they loved jaw breakers. It wasn't always the hard candy itself that was so desirable, often it was the method of delivery. I remember this huge candy machine at the local grocery store that always drew their attention. The machine consisted of a three foot tall transparent plastic globe crammed full of jaw breakers of every imaginable color. That alone was enough to excite their interest, but there was more. Resting beneath the globe was a clear plastic cabinet packed with gadgets that reminded me of a miniature amusement park.

When a quarter was deposited into the coin box on the side of this contraption, the vending machine began a side show of light and sound which ultimately resulted in a jaw breaker dropping out of the delivery slot. Flashing neon, bells, kazoo noises and the candy itself sliding and spinning it's way through the machine to be delivered to the outstretched hand mesmerized my children. It was no use explaining to them that five individually wrapped jaw breakers could be purchased for the same price at the checkout counter. It was the pomp and circumstance that mattered most to them, not whether the candy had any intrinsic value.

I will never forget the time my youngest child, McKale, was presented with her first black jaw breaker from the Las Vegas inspired device. She popped the candy in her mouth and began to nurse it. It wasn't long before a look of severe distaste appeared on her face. She pursed her lips and spat the offending sweet into a nearby trash can. "Hey," I said "you just wasted a quarter." "It was nasty and look at my mouth," she said, viewing herself in the mirror at the back of the machine. Her mouth and lips were indeed stained ebony, and she was not happy about it.

Not being one to waste an opportunity to treat my children to an object lesson, and realizing McKale would soon be looking for another quarter, I began my discourse. "You know, if that jaw breaker had been a person you wouldn't have given him or her much of a chance to get to know you." McKale gave me that, "What does that have to do with the price of rice in China?" look. She was still eyeing her reflection and groaning. I wasn't sure if her look and moan of frustration was because of her unacceptable appearance and the disagreeable taste in her mouth, or my attempted life lesson.

In truth, the real reason I had mentioned the relationship comparison to McKale was that I was struggling with a certain situation at work. The trading post is a great place to meet people, make friends and become associated with a wide ranging menagerie of personalities. My brother/partner Steve is one of the most unique characters one can be forced to deal with. He is opinionated, contrary, controversial, etc., etc., and I often find myself attempting to smooth over upset feelings and antagonistic occurrences Steve has created. I learned how to deal with him long ago. I know his heart is in the right place, so I gladly do it. This time, however, my problem wasn't Steve.

Years ago I realized that not everyone I met was going to fall in love with me. I also realized that some people are going to misunderstand my singular sense of humor, quick wit and quiet, good natured disposition. On extremely rare occasions Steve has had to step in and reassure certain folks that I really am a great guy. Such is the case with Elsie Holiday. Elsie is one of the most talented Navajo basket weavers ever to pick up an awl and knife. I greatly admire her skills, and am often awed by her creations; I just cannot get along with her when cash management is involved.

Normally, when it comes to the financial affairs of others, I maintain a comfortable distance. Because Elsie weaves baskets that take a great deal of time to create, we are often obliged to advance large sums of cash to get her through the lean times. The rub often occurs when she and I try to work out a reimbursement schedule. Elsie is a passionate and high strung individual when it comes to creating baskets; she weaves only when inspiration strikes and her creative juices are flowing. Unfortunately for me, she displays those same attributes when it comes time to repay her outstanding obligations. It is not that Elsie refuses to pay her bills, it is that she wants to pay them on her own terms. It is for these reasons that Elsie and I have one of the most alarming personality clashes I have had the displeasure to be a part of.

I try, I really do, but to no avail. Long ago Steve and I decided that he would be our representative when dealing with Elsie and her financial obligations. Whenever Elsie walks in the door to attempt a withdrawal or payment, she and I smile sweetly at each other, exchange pleasantries and move to opposite ends of the building. Steve has often tried to mediate our differences, but to no avail. Elsie enjoys the understanding she shares with Steve, and avoids contact with my sour apple attitude whenever possible.

So when McKale disposed of her candy in such a hasty manner, it made me think of my relationship with Elsie. Maybe I had been too quick at disposing of my own "Elsie jaw breaker". I vowed then and there to get past the bad taste and emotional stains of our historical dealings. I would attempt to nurture our relationship through it's disagreeable stage and get down to the sweeter layers, without breaking my jaw or chewing the problem to pieces.

McKale saw my changed attitude and snatched the opportunity. "Dad may I have another quarter? I would like to get to know one of these jaw breakers a little better." I smiled down at my daughter, dug in my pocket and handed her a quarter. McKale dropped the coin into the slot and watched in fascination as the machine pulsed, flashed and sang out in it's melodious fashion. McKale reached up in anticipation of a bright, shiny, colorful jaw breaker. Out of the slot popped a hard, round, black object. McKale was crestfallen. I stooped down, hugged her, took the jaw breaker and popped it in my mouth. I nursed the candy for a few moments and then smiled broadly at my daughter.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 19, 2004

A Highly Adaptable Culture

A few weeks ago I was standing in the cafe when a woman approached me and said, “So, are you the one who looks like a bee when you run?” Truth be told, I was a little unnerved, since I was not sure why the question was being asked.

The woman went on to explain that she was the author of the book about Baxter Liebler entitled A Highly Adaptable Gospel, and that she had read some of the stories Barry and I have written about Father Liebler and St. Christopher’s Mission; including the one where I said I look like a bumblebee in my winter running clothes. I greatly enjoyed the book, so I was happy to finally meet the author.

Later in the week I traveled to the Reservation, and was still thinking about the woman, her comments and the title of her book. I have often been told that the Navajo people are quick to incorporate new ideas and techniques into their lives. During the trip I once again saw how true this statement is, and started thinking that a good title for a book about these people would be A Highly Adaptable Culture. I have never been shy about “borrowing” good ideas from other people, so coopting the book's title didn't trouble me much.

As I drove across this land that is striated like the fibers of a hand spun Navajo rug, I noticed some movement in the road a mile or so ahead. I adjusted my speed to account for the impediment and, as I drew closer, realized the obstruction was a flock of sheep meandering across the road. The animals were so infested with cockleburs that they looked brown, in spite of their white wool. The sheep didn't seem to mind the thorny infestation, and contentedly commenced grazing on the sparse grass beside the road.

The flock reminded me of the many Navajo people I know who work so hard to scratch a living from this land where everything is in short supply except adversity and poverty. The Navajo people who come into the trading post at times seem much like the sheep; in spite of all the burrs that have adhered to them throughout the years, they maintain a positive outlook.

I thought of Etta Rock, who year in and year out makes a modest living selling her traditional pitch baskets. I have seen her in every corner of this county peddling her pots, and always with a smile. Even the famous Mary Holiday Black, who has almost single-handedly revived Navajo basketry, and won countless awards for her work, never seems to prosper in the way I expected.

The decomposing carcasses of dogs, cats, horses, skunks, raccoons, cows and the occasional trading post reminded me that there are certain things that do not adjust to this harsh environment quickly enough. As I contemplated that issue, I noticed a truck with a crucifix attached to its grill crossing the center line, testing my ability to change and threatening to send me to the dark side. I have little hope of going to the Promised Land, although Rose has consistently promised that there is a certain place reserved for me if I don't change my ways.

The radio was playing a song by the Seventies band Heart, and the words, “Just live in my memory, you'll always be there,” seemed an ominous omen. In my mind, I could see my shattered body lying in the bar ditch next to one of those poor decaying beasts. Luckily the truck driver changed his alignment in plenty of time, and I was not required to test my adaptive skills.

Since my gas gauge was descending toward the “E,” I pulled into Many Farms to refuel. When I went inside to pay, a man who had been drinking just a little too much sauce pushed his way to the front of the line and shoved $2.00 into the hand of the clerk, presumably for a pack of generic cigarettes. None of the Navajo people in line seemed concerned, although the only other light skinned individual fidgeted a little. This reminded me of our Navajo friend who always says, “I don't understand why you guys call yourselves white, because you're actually pink.”

Without even looking up, the Navajo clerk placed the bills on the counter, attended to the other people and took the teetering gentleman in the appropriate sequence. Her ability to effectively manage the uncomfortable situation confirmed that this is truly a land where people handle unusual situations extremely well.

As I drove back to Bluff, I saw example after example of how the Navajo people have adapted, and continue to adapt, to this red rock wilderness. The shepherd watching his flock on a four wheeler and the hitchhiker crouching beneath a sagebrush to shade himself made me wish I was more adaptable. The sun beating through my window also made me wish I was a little less pink; a trip to the beach may be what is needed. Maybe Barry will give me a weekend pass.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Alive and Well in Utah

On a recent Spring day here in Bluff, we had the double Kokopelli doors propped wide open to let in the life giving warmth of the morning sun. We feel revived and alive when we let Mother Nature come inside; even though she refuses to wipe her feet of the red sand and enters with a flurry of motion that brings in seed pods and other bits of her outdoor world. Through the years we have found that, in Bluff, Mother Earth is going to find a way into your house whether you like it or not. It is best to embrace her and expose yourself to her glory and annual rebirth.

I was packing a Mary Holiday Black basket to ship to Stephanie in Pennsylvania when I heard a car pull up outside. I was focused on my task, so I didn't notice the two women who walked up on the porch in front of the entrance. All of a sudden I heard a loud voice boom out and echo across the Twin Rocks alcove, "I AM ALIVE!" Through the years I have adopted the "duck and cover" reaction when I hear a female voice of extreme volume and, presumed, agitation. It has proven an effective mode of self preservation, and now comes almost instinctively to me. That is how I found myself hunkered over and peering out from behind the cash register.

By the time I once again caught sight of the women, they were inside the store and one of them had a huge smile on her face. The other looked slightly embarrassed, and amused. I raised myself to full height and straightened my back while working a calmer look onto my face. The first woman eyed me up and down, and then said in that same, overly loud, exuberant voice. "Man, this country restores my inner being and refreshes my senses. I just can't explain it. Do you know how lucky you are?"

I assured her that I did, indeed, know how fortunate I was to be here, and that she had expressed herself quite well. My only suggestion was that she keep her voice down, due to our being situated so near standing rocks. I mentioned that the possibility of dislodging loose boulders became exaggerated with high decibel exclamations. The women laughed at my joke, as well as my discomfort. We spent some quality time together, and the woman left with a bauble and some beads to remember their trip and keep them grounded.

Shortly thereafter I received a phone call from our friend, Jan. She is a code enforcement officer in one of the multitude of cities that make up the greater Los Angeles area. It is a natural fact that Jan gets stressed from time to time as a result of her job. Enforcing rules and regulations for the good people of California can make her edgy and anxious. Jan has picked up an interesting vocabulary from her former work with the Santa Monica police department, that and her current position make our conversations colorful.

Jan possesses a love of southern Utah, it's people and Native American art. She has a condominium near Cedar City, so she can quickly bail out of her maniacal, metropolitan way of life and regroup. Her hope is to one day retire to Utah and live a peaceful, harmonious existence. On long weekends she delves deeper into the local canyon country and visits us here in Bluff. Jan surrounds herself with Indian art, saying it calms and refreshes her.

On this day Jan was interested in a Navajo rug portraying two coyotes. She associated the Navajo belief of Coyote's chaotic nature with her own predicament. She was hoping her affinity to this creature's penchant for shaking up and reorganizing the world (hopefully resulting in a positive outcome) would bring her own world back into balance. I assured Jan that the weaving would certainly do the trick. Since I adopted Coyote's attitude, I have been a much happier person.

After speaking with my friend Jan, I left Steve alone to manage the trading post and hopped into the truck. I was heading north to Long Canyon, between Blanding and Monticello, to visit my friend Allen. I stopped at the house to pick up Laurie. The kids opted out on the basis of previous engagements. This was fine with me, because my wife and I seldom spend more than a few moments alone together each week. I have begun referring to our children as "wedgies," because every time I try to get close to Laurie there is a kid between us.

As we pulled into Long Canyon, we noticed that Allen had been busy working the land again. Allen is one of the busiest individuals you will ever meet. He is the owner and president of a large privately owned transportation company with offices across the country. He employs and deals with more people each day than we see in six months. He is constantly on the move and in demand. Allen's success stems from his personal concern for family, employees and customers. His compassionate, thoughtful and conscientious ways have created a special friendship between us that has grown over the years.

Every once in a while Allen gets an opportunity to slip away and get back to his roots. He is originally from northern Utah and has a background in heavy equipment operation. His Long Canyon property provides an escape from the pressures and responsibilities he endures on an almost everyday basis. Allen has turned his property into a greenbelt in this high desert country. He has thoughtfully developed land conservation and wildlife management practices, and improved the water resources on his property. His place is a prime example of what can be accomplished when someone has a passion for the land.

After Allen gave us a driving tour of his accomplishments and explained to us his future goals, we were duly impressed. Laurie and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit with Allen. Allen's son David and his family were also visiting, and seemed to have a love and connection to the country as well. The sun was getting low on the horizon as we bid our host farewell. Laurie and I spoke of the therapeutic effect, "tilling the land", seemed to have on Allen, and how he looked forward to his Long Canyon visits with such enthusiasm.

As we pulled up to the highway at the top of Devil's Canyon, we witnessed one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The statuesque, darkened pine and juniper trees along with gnarled oak brush stood out in stark contrast to the explosion of color behind them. It looked as if a wildfire was burning out of control to the west. A yellow semi-circle with smoke like tendrils of orange, dark and light blue, and purple in ominous display reached toward the growing darkness of a gray/black sky.

My jaw hit the floor, and memories of the day rushed through my mind. The exuberant, excited voice of the woman singing out "I AM ALIVE" came back to me with great force and emotion. As the sunset quickly dissipated, Laurie reached over and pushed my mouth closed. She patted me briskly and pinched me on the cheek, "Yes you are." she said. I was a bit embarrassed when I realized that I had made the statement out loud. Looking over at my wife and remembering the "wedgies" she had provided me with, I realized that they were a big part of why I feel as I do.

Beautiful sunset at Devil's Canyon about 45 miles north of Twin Rocks Trading Post
Sunset by Devil's Canyon, just north of Blanding Utah

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Are You A Wrench?

On a beautiful Bluff afternoon, I was standing on the trading post porch talking with Mark, our restaurant manager. As I explained my recent trip to Tempe, Arizona, to contest a traffic ticket, Mark asked, “Are you a wrench?” It was really a rhetorical question, because he already knew the answer; I am not just a wrench, I am a monkey wrench.

Mark’s question was the result of circumstances that were set in motion when Jana asked me if I wanted to go to the Heard Museum Indian Market with her. After clearing everything with all the general authorities at the trading post, we were set to go. Once the kids finished school Friday afternoon, we packed them into the pick up and headed south.

We arrived in Phoenix later that evening, and began our search for a hotel. Not just any hotel mind you, we had to have one with an indoor pool for the kids. After several failed attempts to locate suitable lodging, the pool thing kept getting in the way, Jana directed me to turn left at the intersection of McClintock and Broadway.

Having arrived at the intersection when the light was red, I stopped and waited for the left turn arrow to go green. When it did, I proceeded to make the turn. Unfortunately for all parties involved, I found myself still making the turn as the arrow went amber and then red. A young man who seemed in quite a hurry noticed his light turn green and failed to notice me still in the intersection. This resulted in much mashed metal and leaking fluids.

When the police arrived, they were relieved to find that not a drop of blood had been spilled and that all motorists were in a reasonably good frame of mind. After a few questions and completion of witness statements, the officers conferred. Much to my surprise, the illustrious panel of officers elected me the winning contestant, and I was awarded the prize for failure to yield to a stationary vehicle. After protesting that I was not the most qualified candidate and that my performance did not merit the award, I realized the officers would not be persuaded. I took my citation for unmeritorious action and left the scene.

When we arrived back home, I began the process which would confirm my status as a speed bump on the highway of Arizona justice. I collected statutes, cases, maps, diagrams, timing sequences, photographs and every other conceivable exhibit necessary to contest my traffic ticket. After a couple weeks I was ready to return to Tempe and convince the traffic court judge that I had been wronged.

I arrived at traffic court on the designated day at the appointed time, with the 30 exhibits I had collected. The offenders whose cases were called before me were obviously culpable, and the judge had no trouble pronouncing them guilty as charged, dispatching them to the payment counter and calling the next miscreant.

When the judge called my case, “People of the State of Arizona v. Steven P. Simpson,” I began to perspire. Then I thought, “Hey, they don't yet know they are dealing with the illustrious Trading Post Lawyer,” and my nerves calmed. As I laid out my exhibits, the judge immediately recognized that I was sure to be a wrench in his carefully oiled machinery, and that his tee time was in jeopardy.

As I labeled the photographs, maps and other items for my turn at show and tell, the judge cautioned me, “Mr. Simpson, please hurry, the officer doesn't have all day, and I may dismiss him if this takes much longer.” His foursome was probably already wondering where he was. I thought he would have an aneurism when I asked for a drink of water before beginning my presentation. “We don't have all day,” he exclaimed.

Once my exhibits were properly marked, and the judge had spent his patience, the officer got up, made a drawing of the accident scene, explained his version of the events and sat down. I asked a few questions, which greatly perturbed the judge and police officer, and launched into my case in chief. I carefully entered and explained each exhibit, discussed why I should not have been the winner of the citation lottery and asked the judge to rescind my award.

The judge, startling the officer from his light slumber, asked if he had any questions. “Oh. No your honor, no questions,” the officer replied. At that point I knew I had them. I was convinced the judge could not fail to see my point of view, and awaited his decision vindicating me. His response came as a crashing blow. “I'll take it under submission,” he said and hurried off to his golf game. It appeared he needed a few more days to mull over why anyone in his right mind would spend so much time and energy contesting a traffic ticket. This obviously would have to be considered over several days, and discussed in detail with his buddies. I would have to wait weeks for his decision.

The judge must have realized that wrenches must be carefully dealt with, lest they become bigger problems. He was probably also trying to decide whether there was any way he could have me committed for the rest of my life; thereby saving the general population many years of agitation.

After Mark’s comment, and my experience in traffic court, I began searching for the reason I had become a wrench. Although I take some responsibility for my actions, (After all the self-improvement books Jana, Cindy and Amer have given me lately, how can I do otherwise), I can only surmise that it is the local Navajo artists and the trading post that have really caused me to become what I am. The artists are all nonconformists, and they are always doing something unconventional. It was bound to rub off on me.

Copyright©2004 Twin Rocks Trading Post