Thursday, April 27, 2006

Day and Night

It constantly amazes me how often the traditional Navajo stories creep into my life and commandeer my consciousness. Just when I think a story has no relevance to me and the way I run my affairs, I find it at the center of my life. Lately, the tale of the day and night animals gambling to determine whether the world would be all day or all night has been very much on my mind. That may be the result of Grange's persistent questions about nocturnal creatures, or it may be that I have found a metaphor in the story that relates to my journeys, both before and after sunrise.

"Shoe Game" by Lorraine Black

The story of why we have days made up of both darkness and light begins long ago, in the early evolution of the Navajo, when the night animals wanted it dark all the time, and the day animals wished it perpetually light. Since the creatures could not come to an accommodation on the issue, one of them suggested the shoe game as a means of resolving the question. As a result, all the animals met in a large hogan, with the day animals on one team and the night animals on the other. Having properly convened, they drew a line across the floor of the hogan, in the center of the room, and the groups retreated to opposite sides of the lodge. At that point, each group buried four moccasins in the dirt floor on their side of the line and the contest commenced.

During the shoe game, a team hides a pinon gum ball in one of its buried moccasins and the other team attempts to discover in which shoe the ball is located. Each side must choose a leader, and while a blanket is held between the hiding team's moccasins and their opponents, the leader of the team whose turn it is to hide the ball goes through a series of hand motions intended to disguise where he has placed the ball. The leader of the opposing team must then guess which moccasins do not contain the ball.

There are strict rules regarding scoring, and the first side to accumulate 100 points is declared the winner. In the shoe game called to decide whether darkness or light would rule, the contest began at sundown and lasted all night. The advantage passed from one side to the other, but no team could muster the points necessary to win. After several hours, Owl asked the night animals to let him try his hand at being the leader, and, once appointed, Owl quickly shifted the momentum to his side.

After a time, the day animals realized their situation was desperate and asked for a break to decide on a new course of action. During the interval, a giant, who was advising the day animals, expressed his belief that Owl was cheating by not putting the ball in any moccasin. The giant therefore dispatched Gopher to dig a hole under the hogan and chew through the toe of each moccasin to see if the ball was in any of them. Gopher discovered the giant's instinct was correct and reported back with his findings.

While the night animals celebrated their pending victory, the leader of the day animals declared that the ball was not in any of the four moccasins and gave Owl a painful whack on the wing. The pinon gum ball dropped out from under Owl's wing, and, with their deception uncovered, the night animals' celebration abruptly ended. Shortly thereafter, the dawn arrived and the nocturnal creatures, including bear who put his shoes on incorrectly, causing him to be club footed to this day, scampered home. Since neither side could claim victory, day and night continued as before.

When I am out before sunup, I often think of that story and am grateful neither group of animals prevailed. Although I enjoy the quiet stillness of the early mornings, I bathe in the golden rays as the sun breaks over the horizon.

"Bear Puts on His Moccasins"

My journeys before sunrise are very different from those originating after the Sun God rises in the east. In the darkness I am very deliberate, stepping carefully, and my senses are more constricted; more tightly constrained. My focus is more immediate, and I worry about the next few steps, not what may exist in the distance. From time to time lights smash through the darkness, illuminating the landscape for miles and giving me a broader view. On most occasions, however, my imagination is my only companion.

During the day, my vision extends all the way to Comb Ridge in the west and Sleeping Ute Mountain in the east, and I can focus less on being tripped up and more on the long view. Many of the dangers that await me during the night are easily identified in the light. Those green-black cluster bombs the rams and ewes from St. Christopher's mission leave on the road for me are easily avoided after the dawn arrives, and I am free to be adventuresome and reckless.

Often I feel these differences in my travel patterns reflect the way I approach my personal goals. The short term ambitions are more like my journeys before dawn; they require careful thought and execution. While there may be flashes of light that show me the way more clearly, generally I must be cautious and well focused, lest I step on a sheepish land mine or into an unseen pothole. On the other hand, my long term desires are expansive, less cautious, like my daytime trips. Although I know I may never reach some of my more ambitious mileposts, which I can clearly identify during the day, I can at least see what it may be like if I do.

Presumably I have the animals, and their failure to prevail over one another, to thank for this equality of darkness and light.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Old Wrestlers

Spring is in the air! There are definite signs evidencing its arrival, such as a barrage of amplified bird songs outside my bedroom window just before dawn, crocus stubbornly poking up through the snow in Laurie's carefully made flower beds and excess male hormones displayed by some of us with frost on our melons. This last, obnoxious rite of spring and manhood came to light when Laurie and I attended the Moab Invitational Volleyball Tournament. We took our daughters Alyssa and McKale; along with Steve and Jana's redheaded wonder-child, Kira, to help their teams bump, set and spike their way to victory.

The Wrestlers

During a break in the action, I interrupted my frantic pacing and thoughtfully positive comments to refresh my vocal cords with caffeine and rest up for the next round. My daughters find my exaggerated support rather embarrassing, but I am sure they will grow to appreciate it with time. Ignoring my wife's disapproving look, I plopped down next to her. She was sitting next to a friend of hers that I used to esteem for her compassionate and soft spoken nature. Jody smiled sweetly, said hello and then baited me with a comment that went something like, "Have you heard that our alma-mater, dear old San Juan High School, is sponsoring an old-timers wrestling match to raise money for the team? You and your brothers should enter it, you are all old wrestlers!"

Laurie snorted with laughter, and a mischievous look came into her eyes. I knew I was about to pay the price for my vocal indiscretions when she said, "The sponsors must have an age limit and a precautionary mental cap to keep the participants from hurting themselves. I realize older men generally lack judgment and are too proud to admit that their lack of conditioning may permanently cripple them, both mentally and physically." Then came a string of derogatory comments from the two women, "Anyone who would enter such an event would certainly already be mentally unbalanced. They would have to up the weight categories, drop the 98 to 180 lb. weight groups and start at 200 lbs. as their lightweight division. Those singlets the boys wear would be totally unsuited for older men, can you imagine? Talk about a sore sight for good eyes!"

It didn't take long before my fragile ego was battered beyond recognition. I was highly insulted and could no longer endure their misguided sense of humor. So, I stood up, shot them a look of disdain, hitched up my britches, squared my shoulders, puffed out my chest and exited their presence. The very next day I went online and ordered the new workout program I had been contemplating. The Beachbody System promised a beneficial workout structure and support system that, if diligently practiced, would provide the fit and toned body I desired. I felt it was time to pick up the pace; the three aerobic, weight routines I had been doing each week were simply not enough to silence the critics.

As soon as I received my copy of the Beachbody System in the mail, I went to four strenuous workouts a week, attacking them with a passion. It didn't take long, however, before I blew a gasket, causing distorted vision and requiring a visit to our local optometrist, Dr. Kirk. The good doctor became greatly concerned, and directed my dear wife to immediately deliver me to the retina specialist in Provo or suffer the consequences. Laurie was not amused! A hurried trip through one of the rare snowstorms of the season and a shot in the eye later, I was returned home and restricted to a maximum load limit of 50 lbs. for the rest of my days. Visions of a buff body and a senior division wrestling championship dissipated before my wounded eye.

Walking into the trading post the next morning, I found Steve with one hand massaging his aching neck and the other holding his hip in place. It seems he had been wrestling with Grange and Tarrik's coach, which had resulted in an S curve in his spine. He spoke of how he believed whatever speed and agility he was once blessed with had fled the scene. As we were lamenting our woes, Steve's wife, Jana, and our big brother, Craig, walked into the store and began giving us grief about our relative lack of intelligence concerning the condition our condition was in.

Because of his criticism, we quickly ganged up on Craig, suggesting he put his Buddha build to good use and enter the Sumo division of the old-timers wrestling league. He became quite agitated, and threatened to whip us both on the spot if we didn't shape up and back off. Jana, who is famous for finding creative T-shirts, said she was going to order two of those Super Man shirts and add some selective statements just for us. On Steve's shirt, Jana was going to have the S printed on the backside and say something like "Caution Sharp Curves and Unstable Conditions Ahead"; for me "Stupid is as Stupid Does!" The discussion got rather ugly until our associate Priscilla waded in, swinging her broom and sending us all scampering for cover like the juveniles we had become.

It has been a hard won lesson, but I believe the Simpson Brothers have finally conceded our wrestling days are over. We have been forced to move on and move over so the next generation can find their place in the sporting world. With our profound advice, and their mothers' intervention, they should accomplish much. Our new slogan is "Our springs have sprung, our chests have fell, winter's here and life is . . . . Well, you get the picture!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

It's the Small Things

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the old saying, "It's the small things that make all the difference." The phrase has been drummed into my head for decades; by my mother, by my wife, by my business partners and by numerous Bluff residents. After being tripped up by the small things for years, you'd think I'd learn, but still I struggle to incorporate the wisdom of that saying into my daily living.

Earlier today, I was at Bluff's new coffee shop, discussing town politics with Andrea as she attempted to keep pace with the orders. I could not help being reminded of the early days of the trading post, when everything was new and as uncoordinated as a yearling colt. After a time, our business procedures grew smoother and some of the sharp edges were worn down, but there are still days we struggle mightily just to keep the boat afloat.

As I slopped coffee on her counter and asked for a rag to clean the mess, Andrea said, "It's the small things," as though she had penetrated my thoughts. She was exactly right, often just one small gesture changes the entire psychology of a situation. I often find myself out on the lonely back roads of southern Utah, on the run or on the bicycle, and it always amazes me how a friendly smile or wave from a passing motorist will brighten my workout and make the time pass much faster.

Lately, I have been missing my 15 year old daughter Dacia a great deal, and believe that is what started me thinking about all those little events that greatly affect our lives. When Dacia was eight months old, her mother and I decided we could no longer live together. As a result, in order to see Dacia, I was driving back and forth from Bluff to Salt Lake City on a regular basis. On one trip, when Dacia was still extremely young, I happened to run into my friend Corrine in Monticello.

When Corrine asked where I was bound, I explained that I was taking Dacia back to her mother in Salt Lake and related the story of our breakup. Corrine spontaneously put her arms around my neck, giving me a bracing hug and indelibly inscribing her name on my heart. Now, every time I see Corrine, I remember her kindness and that etching glows with the intensity of morning sunlight on Bluff's sandstone cliffs.

Although it sometimes seems that contemporary business practices are devoid of similarly meaningful emotion, I have found the trading post to have many deeply memorable moments. In the old days, trading post relationships were often founded upon geographic isolation and necessity. The posts were built in locations where there was a certain number of people within a given distance. It therefore behooved the locals to trade at the regional post; primarily because it was just too darn far to the alternative.

With the advent of modern transportation; better vehicles and roads, trading posts are not nearly as important to the local population as they once were. The patrons, whether buyers or sellers, have many choices. The small things have therefore become so much more important. Relationships are founded upon respect and fairness, not simple necessity. That makes them voluntary and more balanced. It can also make them more comical and enjoyable.

For years, I have tried to lure some of the more accomplished rug weavers away from their favorite posts in Shiprock or Farmington, New Mexico. I have often found myself frustrated that the weavers drive right past Bluff on their journeys east. After a time, I realized these weavers had developed trusting relationships with certain traders that were virtually impossible to change. Of course we have been the recipient of that same advantage with respect to many other artists, who rely on us to keep everything in order.

The other evening I was sitting in a town meeting, listening to mind numbing explanations about community waste water solutions, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed someone vigorously waving her arms and hopping from foot to foot like the ladies room was needed. As it turns out, it was Lorraine Black.

"Not now," I said, waving her off. "I have a basket," she demanded. "Not now," I said, vigorously shaking my head and furrowing my brow for emphasis. "Look," she said, unveiling an absolutely stunning basket. "Not now," I repeated. Outside, her almost new Dodge truck, which has been driven enough miles to circumnavigate the globe twice, was in need of attention, so the deal had to be made.

As in all good relationships, we found a way to meet each others' needs, settle the details and make each other happy with the end result. I can still see her dancing excitedly by the door, partly from excitement about her latest creation and partly because she needed to get the deal done. It clearly is the small things that are most memorable and meaningful; a necessary accommodation, an embrace given at just the right moment, a friendly wave on a lonely road or a gentle nudge that sends you off in a completely new direction. The big things come and go, but the small things, administered on a daily basis, make all the difference.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Rock in the Wool

Navajo Folk Art

It is a real treat for us when one of our artists creates a new and exciting art form. Such innovation is rare and highly prized at the trading post. On the other hand, there are a great number of "craftspeople" on and around the Reservation who pick up an existing idea and reproduce it until they have explored every possible variation multiple times. After a while, Steve and I develop a "Ho Hum" attitude for this repetitive art, and tend to lose interest in what we deem production line creations. Henry Ford, however, would be proud of the many artists who have incorporated his assembly line processes into their art.

To be fair with the artists, it is my opinion that we need not look far to discover the source of the mass production problem. There is an old trading adage that goes something like, "Yaadilaah, there is a rock in the wool!" It comes from the early days of trading with the Navajo people, when traders purchased wool and mohair produced by the many sheep and goats roaming the Reservation before the Livestock Reduction Act. No one knows for sure how the poundage problem began, but it quickly became extremely troublesome.

In those days, the traders provided long, narrow burlap sacks for collecting wool and mohair. When full, the bags were brought back into the trading post to be weighed. The wool seller was then paid in cash or trade. Suspicion and deceit soon wormed their way into the transactions, causing distrust on both sides.

After a while, someone noticed the scales were weighing light; not quite up to the proper weight. The reasoning behind this deceptive practice was a real or imagined belief that the wool was being delivered wet or contained a hidden rock or two to goose up the poundage. Whatever the case, everyone blamed everyone else for engaging in unfair trade practices, and the entire undertaking became unbalanced. Thus, evolved the rock in the wool adage, and the resulting out of control, downward spiral.

For years, our staff and I attended trade shows promoting Navajo arts and crafts in major cities around the western United States. We would load up a large Ford van and Wells Cargo trailer with the most exciting pieces of art we had acquired and set out on our adventure. Upon arriving at the desired location, we set up mini Twin Rocks Trading Posts and began selling our wares. The trips were fun, exciting and educational for everyone involved. Through the trade shows, we attempted to provide the artists additional opportunities to become recognized, create more art, develop new outlets and make a better living. Our personal economic prospects improved as well; until the "rock" appeared in our wool sack.

In an effort to expand their overall understanding of the market process, we worked hard with our artists to improve their creativity; educate them to the market; and explain supply, demand and pricing issues. What we failed to anticipate was the Wal-Mart mentality. As consumers, we are all too often focused on what we consider the single most important issue . . . price. The Wal-Mart smiley face represents our desire to get the best buy possible; regardless of the ramifications to producers. A focus on the lowest possible price does not bode well for the artist, or the quality of their work. In spite of that, out on the road, the customers inevitably demanded a better value.

Unfortunately, we were also responsible for creating the downward spiral, because we would come home from the trade shows and tell our artists that if they were able to produce their work for a few dollars less, we could move far more product. Volume, volume was needed, we told them. If we made less on each item, we explained, we would make it up in volume. The artists often reluctantly agreed to the demand, but we found there was not the same amount of labor put into their work; corners were cut to compensate for the drop in pay. Worst of all, the passion for the art was lost. The artists knew that if they did not capitulate, there was always someone else, less creative but more hungry, waiting to step into the void and make the pre-developed concept for less money. It would not take long before the customer noticed the loss of quality, and we would be faced with another request for still lower prices. This turned out to be a rather depressing situation for everyone involved.

Navajo Baskets

In my experience, passion is the key to quality art; a labor of love transcends all boundaries and is recognized for the treasure it truly is. It has been a hard won lesson, but I now realize that everyone involved in this, or any other, business must be treated fairly for the overall endeavor to succeed. The artist, wholesaler, retailer and collector must all feel they have had equitable treatment to maintain progress. Passion for the people and their art, and a understanding of their individual circumstances, are essential elements in the trading business.

Artists like Marvin Jim and Grace Begay create sculptures that metaphorically relate the Navajo creation myth with beauty and an earthy sophistication. The time and effort they put into their work is easily recognized by their attention to detail and delicate brushstroke. The Black family continues to amaze us with their creativity and willingness to share their cultural heritage. Their efforts help maintain a unique belief system which is on the verge of extinction. Silversmiths, potters, rug weavers and folk artists will hopefully continue to create works of beauty and wonder. We are committed to maintaining the balance this business requires and eliminating the rock from the wool. Rock out!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post