Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kids These Days

So there it was, one of those moments of clarity, when you suddenly see your life as it really exists, without all the built-in illusions. I had experienced a similar situation years earlier while participating in my last Blue Mountain Bike Chase. It was my 40th year, and I had peddled, pushed and shoved my bicycle to the summit of the Abajo Mountains. As I congratulated myself for making it to the top, and started “racing” down the backside of the mountain, two young turks went screaming past.

The Simpson Men from Twin Rocks Trading Post.

My initial instinct was to turn up the heat and catch them. My mind, however, had other thoughts. It declined to accelerate my body, telling me I was too old to go faster, and reminding me that if I crashed on that rocky road, it would really, and I mean really, hurt. That was the moment I lost my cycling courage, and I have never recovered.

On the most recent occasion, I was standing behind the sales counter of the trading post, rearranging the merchandise, when a couple in their late 60’s came lurching through the Kokopelli doors. As is my habit, I asked how they were getting on, to which they replied, “Well, the grass is still under foot, not overhead.”

A group of young people with wild hair, tattoos and pierced bodies stormed in right after the older couple. When the kids finally retreated and calm had been restored, the elderly woman said, “Can you believe it? Kids these days; many of them don’t even know how to read a watch. Just last weekend my husband was at the Farmington Mall and two teenage girls asked him for the time. When he turned his wrist towards them so they could see the dial, they became confused; couldn’t read it, because they were used to digital, not conventional watches.”

“Yeah,” the husband, who was built like a fire plug, and was also a bright shade of red, said, “and they probably didn’t know how to use a shovel either.” “Kids these days,” I sheepishly repeated, shaking my head, and realizing that I was not very good on the end of a shovel either.

As the dialogue continued, the wife began rotating her body to the right in a slow, evenly measured motion. After about a 90 degree rotation, I began wondering where this was all going. “Can’t read a watch,” she said, “so how do they know which is clockwise and which is counterclockwise? Can’t get that from a digital watch!”

Looking down at my own digital watch, and beginning to sympathetically tick myself, I wondered exactly how today’s kids can be expected to know anything about chronological cycles. As I slowly continued my circuit, Jana happened by, and, poking me in the ribs with her elbow, stopped my rotation.

It was about that time Kira and Grange came renegading through the trading post, and I cautioned them to cool their jets, before I had to trim their sails. “Grandchildren?” the couple asked. “No, children,” I responded, once again begin to tick. “Mid-life crisis?” they returned. “No, seventh marriage,” I replied, showing more than a little disdain. “Can’t be,” said the hydrant, confident I could never find seven women foolish enough to make that commitment, and in unison the pair turned; she clockwise and he counterclockwise, and tottered out the door, shaking their heads.

Later that day, I was standing next to my nephew, Adam, who makes me very proud, even though we don’t always agree. As we talked, he kept reaching into his trousers, extracting his cell phone, briefly peering at the display, rapidly pushing a few buttons on the key pad and returning the instrument to the pocket of his baggy, hole infested jeans.

After observing the process several times, I asked, “Just what are you doing?” “Texting,” he said, and patiently gave me a short tutorial. Now, I have known about text messaging for some time. I have, however, refused to make it a part of my life.

Feeling obsolete, and a bit like my father, who has never turned on a computer, and sees no need to do so, I suddenly realized that the concept of clockwise and counterclockwise was as unimportant to those kids in the mall as text messaging was to me or computers to my father. Their lives had rocketed past conventional time pieces, just as those cyclists had flown past me on the mountain road. Let the old folks worry about the old ways, the young people have moved on and they have no use or patience for antiquated processes. Kids these days, . . . aren’t they great.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Comfort Zone

It was late evening as I walked out on the wide iron-red porch of the trading post to enjoy the golden autumn sunset. Fall is my favorite event here in Bluff. The season often stretches into late November, and sometimes, if we are very lucky, into early December. In our small, protected, high desert river valley we are blessed with enhanced, often exaggerated, seasons.

Bluff Sunset
The Bluff, Utah road Twin Rocks Trading Post is located.

The gnarled and twisted limbs of the cottonwood trees stubbornly hang onto their bright yellow leaves; like overprotective, jealous guardians. Eventually the frosty north winds of winter dip into our sheltered cove and tear them from the trees' selfish grasp. But not today! The circulating current of air was more than tolerable with just a hint of crispness to it. The breeze smelled and felt exhilaratingly refreshing.

I sat on the warm sunbathed concrete steps and looked to the south. Backlit by the rosy red cliffs, the cottonwoods, with their heavily textured trunks and bouquets of turned foliage, were lit up with an intensely rich glow. The slanting sunlight was filtering through the semitransparent leaves, and putting on a light show that inspired my visual senses.

At times like these, I tend to go "mind-blind". My brain shuts down, blocking the stress and anxiety of my world, and allowing the pleasures of sensation free reign. As I sat there thinking of nothing at all, I glimpsed movement to my right, over near the layered and stacked base of the Twin Rocks. Something had spooked a Merriam Turkey from behind the rocks, and the wild thing was beating a hasty retreat towards the river.

The bird was flying at a high rate of speed about ten feet off the ground, right across the parking lot in front of me. It was a large, full-bodied turkey with heavy plumage; I guessed it to be a tom. Its head was bright red and stretched far out ahead of its much larger body.

The dispersed sunlight washed over the bird, setting off the dark brown feathers tinged with gold. The white tipped tail feathers pointed straight back looking much like the back end of a lighted rocket. I could hear the turkey's wings beating furiously at the evening breeze. In a flash, the creature was gone over the highway and hayfield to the dense tamarisk bordering the river.

Twin Rocks & Trees
The Twin Rocks in Bluff, Utah.

My mind kicked back in, and I thought of how the Navajo people think of the turkey as a savior of sorts. When the people were forced from the previous world by Water Creature's great flood, it was Turkey who thought clearly. Making his way to the grainery, Turkey carefully placed two of each seed on the feathers of his body. Thus, heavily burdened, Turkey made his way to the growing reed; an escape route provided by two men who would one day become Sun and Moon.

The encroaching waters lapped at Turkey's backside all the way to the reed, causing his tail feathers to be forever white as a reminder of his heroism. Turkey was the last one into the reed, barely making his escape. The seeds Turkey made off with provided the people an opportunity to grow and prosper upon their emergence into this world. Turkey had saved the day, ensuring a future to the Navajo.

Breathing deeply, I smiled inwardly, thinking to myself how beautiful and amazing the sight I had just witnessed had been. The sun sank lower on the horizon and the shadows grew longer and deeper. I sighed to myself, thinking it was time to head up the highway to my warm, comfortable home and family. Life is good here at the base of the Twin Rocks; good indeed.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Grafitti or Cultural Treasure

Hosteen Etsitty
Navajo Sandpainting Artist Hosteen Etsitty

After trudging up the sand dune, Jan and I stood in front of the large petroglyph panel, studying the symbols and trying to decipher what may have motivated the ancient ones to scribble these particular images on the stone wall. As we admired the sandstone canvas, Kira and Grange scrambled over boulders a few feet away and Buffy the Wonder Dog dug into the dirt to find a cool spot. Although November had arrived several days before our hike, the sun was bright and the day warm enough to make you long for a siesta.

Looking carefully at the drawings, and considering all the Latino tagging associated with her native Los Angeles, Jan said, “So, is it just ancient graffiti?” Although I have been asked similar questions before, and have often wondered myself, Jan’s query raised a larger issue for me.

The line between cultural treasure and historical irrelevance is often difficult for me to draw; like the distinction between insanity and genius. I often think Barry is crazy, he, on the other hand, believes he is inspired. Experience tells me that, in many cases, time is the crucial element needed to determine the correct answer. Given enough years, what might initially appear to be unfortunate ramblings may ultimately become a significant window into the past.

My question, although related, was more personal than Jan’s. It goes something like this, “In creating their art, when are Native Americans improperly ‘selling their culture,’ and as Anglo traders, when are we inappropriately facilitating the prostitution of the those traditions?” The issue arises from a series of e-mails we have had in response to video interviews Barry recently did with Navajo sandpainter Daniel Smith, who is also known as Hosteen Etsitty.

The e-mails accuse Daniel of trading on his Navajo heritage to generate income. To which I must respond, “Yes, and your point is?” Having watched the video several times, I have developed an greater appreciation for sandpaintings. I also find that I more fully understand the meaning behind Daniel’s work and have a new fondness for him that I did not possess before hearing the stories. To me, the fact that he was so forthcoming about his personal history is especially endearing.

Quite often comments like those made in the e-mails cause me to think of the 1976 movie Network . In that film, news anchorman Howard Beale galvanizes the nation when he says, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

My mania results from Anglo paternalism relative to Native Americans, and the militant anger directed at Indian traders in general. Apparently those e-mailing individuals have not stopped long enough to realize that Native Americans have every right to provide for their families and improve their lot in life; that Native American culture and traditions are an important part of who these artists are; and that those traditions are naturally reflected in their work?

Hosteen Etsitty Sandpainting
Navajo Sandpainting by Hosteen Etsitty.

Additionally, don’t they realize that Barry and I are traders because we enjoy, even love, the people, their art and their culture? We feel very strongly that we are engaged in an endeavor that will ultimately help preserve and enhance a significant portion of that culture; not destroy or demean it. Are we wrong, and is it possible that the e-mailers are right? Certainly that is conceivable.

The other evening Barry and I were at a function for the Utah Museum of Natural History. In explaining a beautiful dance costume he had prepared for the museum, a Native American artist pointed to black and white beadwork on the breastplate of the outfit and said something to the effect that those colors related to an earlier time; a time when everything was either right or wrong, not gray as it is today. Frankly, I long for a time when my life has such certainty, and realize I will never find it.

Can it be argued that Daniel Smith is compromising his culture by doing his sandpaintings and speaking so candidly about his experiences? Sure. It can also be said that in speaking so freely and giving so openly he has brought many of us closer to his people and given us a newfound respect for them.

Might it also be said that Barry and I are trading illegitimately on the traditions of the local tribes? Again, sure. If our e-mailers take the time to properly investigate, however, they may realize that the issue is more complicated than they believe. After a patina, like that affecting the petroglyphs Jan and I were inspecting, has had the opportunity to settle over the actions of Daniel, Barry and me, we may know whether we are right or wrong. Until that time, however, we must do our best to give the artists freedom to be who they are and to produce what their heart tells them to create.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Changing Women

I am all for change, personal growth and development have been written into my strategic and directional manifesto from day one. I mean, "I was country when country wasn't cool". As my son Spenser says of me however, "You tend to be a bit hypocritical about personal views when they effect you on a deeply emotional and unexpected level." I would love to give that kid a nice "Hawaiian Punch," but the little bounder has a point. Let me explain my situation.

Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday
Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday.

In Navajo culture, there is a deity representative of totally positive energy. So positive, in fact, that any and all negativity she encounters is absorbed and redispersed as goodness and light. How cool is that? This same being is also representative of the ultimate female. She has mastered all skills essential to provide for her family and guide them safely and compassionately through life; the ultimate role model as it were.

Recognized as Changing Woman, this incredibly benevolent being is also known to evolve through time and with the seasons. She is born in the spring, grows into a young woman by summer, becomes a fully mature adult by autumn and declines through winter; eventually passing before the cycle begins again. I love this story, because it touches me on such a basic down-to-earth level. It also makes me sad and retrospective because of its reference to mortality.

From the story of Changing Woman emerges the young women's coming of age ceremony; the Kiinaalda. Very basically, a pubescent girl is inducted into womanhood by selecting an adult female she considers to be her idea of the perfect woman. This stand-in for Changing Woman guides the girl's charge through the ceremony and into a positive, productive and benevolent future; the demise of adolescence and the birth of a woman.

The significance of this story, for me, has altered slightly with time. It scares me now, and keeps creeping into my head; upsetting me. I watch helplessly as my children mature and begin edging towards the door. My darling offspring are growing up and looking forward to dispersing into the big, wide wonderful world. They are going to leave sooner rather than later, and the prospect terribly upsets me. I love those brats, and enjoy their presence in my life more than I can say. It distresses me to think that they are growing up and gravitating away.

Spenser, I believe, would have moved on by now, but for the fact that he has not yet worked out the financial complications of independence. He is one of the most driven and determined individuals I have ever known; the boy is fearless. He is constantly racking up accolades in tennis, cross country and academics, and is ready to fly.

Because she is only twelve, our youngest, McKale, may stay awhile. She has the mind and wit of a 30 year old, and is raw emotion personified. McKale wants to eventually work for NASA. That prospect excites me; I have always wanted to be a space cowboy. Having a daughter in the business couldn't hurt my chances of accomplishing that goal.

Volleyball Team
Alyssa's Volleyball Team.

Daughter Alyssa is also growing up way too fast, she just turned 16 and is gaining confidence in leaps and bounds. Boys beware, her father is, "dangerously psychotic"! Alyssa was recently on a high school volleyball team of totally talented and tenacious young girls. This highly motivated and spirited group battled for and won the AA Utah High School Volleyball Championship. Top notch and motivated coaching, and the outrageous support of an entire town has helped the school bring home five straight titles, and nine in the last eleven years; quite a tradition!

The story of Changing Woman helps me understand the cycle of life and the beauty that can be found in it. Attempting a life of turning negatives into positives, learning and sharing love and compassion seems a great way to live. Surely children grow up and move on, and, as parents, we have the responsibility to, "teach them well and help them find their way." I know the dispersal of my children should make me happy and proud, since I know they can and will survive, and will be both positive and productive additions to society. The truth is that the effect on this parent is traumatic at least. I am also afraid that without the distraction my kids provide around the house, Laurie might take a closer look at who and what she has been saddled with and want to change ponies!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Embracing Change

It was the summer of 1977, and I was sitting at a workbench in the back room of Blue Mountain Trading Post, contemplating what to do next. The trading post had opened a year earlier, and Craig, Barry and I soon recognized the need to develop new work skills. No longer could we get by pumping gasoline, changing tires and checking oil; our employment opportunities had changed and we needed to evolve.

Southwest Jewelry by Craig Simpson
Southwest Jewelry by Craig Simpson

In an effort to ensure a continuing source of walking around money, we had begun to make and repair silver and turquoise jewelry. Craig showed a real talent for it, but Barry and I were scarcely tolerable. As I sat considering what project to begin, my favorite Eagles song, Ol’ Fifty-five, blared in the background on KUTA, AM 790, The Voice of the Canyonlands. As a recent high school graduate, the song’s references to the sun coming up and time passing so quickly were extremely meaningful, and made me think of the new path my life was about to take.

KUTA, the local station, and, as I recall, the only radio signal available in Blanding at that time, was an extremely small operation, with very limited geographic coverage. The last time I toured the old trailer that constituted its broadcast office, the facility seemed in imminent danger of collapse, both physically and financially. There was no water to the building, and the bathroom consisted of a portable camp toilet. Not long after my visit, the station closed permanently, leaving a void on the AM dial.

In the 1970s, southern San Juan County seemed, to me, an isolated, almost impenetrable, fortress. Very few outside influences pierced its secure walls. The roads into this region were serviceable, but not inviting, and the communities were far from mainstream America. I have often thought of them as being more than a little like Mayberry RFD; safe, simple and secure from the influences of the larger environment.

In my mind, radio reception has become a metaphor for the changes occurring in this region of the country. In the not too distant past, there were few reliable signals available between Bluff and Salt Lake City, Phoenix or Denver; the options were severely limited. During the day, you could generally have country, country or a little more country. By night, you might pick up KOMA, a clear channel from Oklahoma City. Fuzzy air time was, however, guaranteed as you descended into the canyons breaching the Colorado Plateau.

Recently I traveled to Salt Lake City, and was amazed how many new stations are currently available. Oldies, country, rap, pop, NPR, classical, Christian and hip hop frequencies are all broadcasting. To individuals living in metropolitan settings, this may seem trivial; to those of us accustomed to more spartan accommodations, however, it is a significant change of circumstances.

When we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post in 1989, there was a lot of talk about technology changing our world. High speed communication, it was argued, was about to alter the way people lived. No longer did we have to persevere in a congested parking lot to make a living, we could reside in even the remotest locations and telecommute. Since Bluff is one of the most isolated places in the United States, that dialogue interested me greatly.

At the time, I concluded the “lone eagle” model did not operate in a community like Bluff, telephone equipment servicing this area was antiquated and would not accommodate new technology; travel into and out of San Juan County was inconvenient, if only because the distances are so vast; and there was no reliable air service within a reasonable distance.

Just as new stations are populating the radio dial, so we have begun to see improved services; regional roads have improved, high speed internet connects us to a broad range of services and cellular telephone waves will soon breach our sandstone walls. As a result, the world has started to discover the benefits of our insulated oasis, and we have begun to appreciate the advantages of that larger environment.

As I flipped through the numerous selections on the radio dial while the miles between Salt Lake City and Bluff rolled away, never staying with one station too long, I was reminded how simple it was when KUTA was the only alternative. Change, it seems, can be complicated.

Lately Grange and I have been reading Melville’s Moby Dick, and in Ishmael I found the inspiration needed to openly embrace the changes occurring in our local culture. “[Y]et see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them,” Ishmael said of his unusual associate, the cannibal Queequeg. Love, it seems, is the balm which softens our emotions, and allows us to embrace the changes we fear; love of place, love of one’s companions and love of progress.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.