Friday, March 27, 2015

From Linear to Pink and Beyond

Each morning when I drop into Bluff a funny thing happens. My trips from Blanding have always proven interesting, and I never tire of the drive. When I arrive at the head of Cow Canyon and begin to drop into Bluff however, my mind kicks into overdrive, and memories come flooding back. Along with my own family experience recollections of what I have learned about the ancient and historical past frolic through my head. For instance, when I see the canyon walls closing in on me I remember a time when my brothers and I huddled in the back of an old Dodge pick-up truck headed north up Cow Canyon; dad driving, while mom, Susan and Cindy rode next to him in the cab. I recall a picnicking adventure near ancient ruins, where we received an up-close glimpse of pot shards and flint arrow points, and I relive the wonder of those first people who made a life here in the sand and sage of southern San Juan County.
Cow Canyon

My mind has a habit of frisking through its catalog of memories, with no particular attention to a historical timeline. For whatever reason, whether it is recognition through sight, sound or smell, I am drawn to images of speeding down the canyon with Steve on our road bikes, blowing by the hanging tree with a big rig on our tails. I see myself scootering down the paved road with my three young children, their screams of delight ringing in my ears as we zip past Ball Room Cave. The old rock-faced gas station at the east entrance of town brings back more fond memories; our father, Duke, and a Navajo helper built the rocky station for Rusty and Lillie Musselman. Rusty salvaged building stones from a dilapidated pioneer home across from the newly renovated Bluff Fort, which now stands as a tribute to the brave individuals who settled the town in 1880. When construction of the filling station was complete, dad rented the place and traded gas and oil for rugs, baskets and jewelry. Every time I drive past that place I imagine my father out there pumping gas and bartering for a weaving, the rug lying over the hood of a rusted-out Buick.

When I look upon the water well at the base of the Twin Rocks, near the Ancient Puebloan ruin, I get a youthful glimpse of my brothers Craig and Steve roping a semi-wild horse, providing Craig the shortest and most dramatic bronc-busting ride of his life. A drive to visit my sister and brother-in-law at the Desert Rose Inn causes me flashbacks at every back road, intersection, bridge and building. As children we pretty much had our run of the town, and we took advantage of it to probe and prospect. I bear witness to all of the true-blue Bluffoons in this town that there was not one unprotected pioneer home my brothers and I were not familiar with. It was a great way to become introduced to the history of the LDS church.

Many years ago, when I was reading everything in sight on the subject of Navajo culture, I asked a Navajo neighbor why "The People" did not care or even concentrate on a correct timeline of events. I told him I was reading an interpretation of the cultural tales by a prominent medicine man. The storyteller recounted early adventures of Navajo gods, which included the Hero Twins, and then, oddly enough, led into the birth of those same coordinate companions. In another reading I learned of Changing Woman, and how she is a representation of the earth and its life-giving, life-sustaining and life-producing qualities. The next thing I know, the author related the birth of Mother Earth to First Boy, who represents thought, and First Girl, who represents speech. " What the heck is going on here?" I asked, "Can't you guys get things straight?"

My native friend looked upon me patiently and said, "Oh, you pink people, you are always looking for a direct line." "Pink people", I queried, "who you calling pink?" My associate waved off this comment as insignificant and got back on point. "Look at your fingertips", he told me, "do they not swirl about and twist back on themselves?" I looked at my fingerprints and nodded, waiting for his impending analogy. It came soon enough. "Our People embrace the legend in the manner of the fingerprint, the timing is insignificant, the meaning and message of the story is what matters. The anecdote is a gift for us to contemplate and attempt to discover the metaphor." Clyde studied my eyes and let the thought sink in. "Open your mind, let it ebb and flow, you may discover a greater understanding." "Pink?" I called after him as he exited through the Kokopelli doors, "What do you mean by pink?"

Maybe it is the energy vortex spiraling overhead, or simply that Bluff is my hometown and the majority of my memories were formed here. Whatever the case, the place sets my mind free. My friend Clyde helped me to get past my exact longitudinal layout hang-up by suggesting that, like the Navajo people, I open my mind and do my best to interpret the stories therein. As far as the "pink" thing goes, I guess we Simpsons, as with most Anglo-American people, are pinker than white, or in the case of Steve, red, in a burnt offerings sort of way.

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team;
Steve, Priscilla, and Danny.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Red Skin

Earlier this week Jana loaded me into her SUV and hauled me off to the Durango dermatologist. “You are getting the blue light treatment”, she informed me a few days prior to our scheduled departure. The only blue light I had previously known was at K-Mart, so her comment intrigued me. “Maybe I was being put on special”, I thought, “who knows here this might lead. As Jana is aware, I am always up for the next grand adventure, so off we went.

As it turns out, blue light treatment involves using special drugs and intense light to treat pre-cancerous skin cells. Photosensitizing agents are applied to your face, and after about an hour the drugs are activated using strong lights. The mutant cells don’t have a chance. Because her skin is fair, Jana has had many similar therapies. Since I have darker skin, however, this was my maiden voyage. When the dermatologist finally released us late in the afternoon, we were cautioned to avoid direct exposure to the sun for 48 hours and given sunscreen and disposable hats to fend off harmful rays.

Looking into the rearview mirror as we exited the parking lot, I was astonished to see how fiery red my face had become and was reminded of something I read during my stint in Northern California during the 1980s. A middle-aged white man living in Texas, who wanted to experience life as an African-American wrote the book, entitled Black Like Me, in 1961. To do so, he took the radical step of undergoing medical treatment to temporarily change his physical appearance. It worked, and his life as a black man began.

Having spent several months on the opposite side of the color divide, the author untimely concluded conditions for Southern blacks were appalling, their communities mostly dilapidated and their populations defeated. In time he even noticed a look of hopelessness had became affixed to his own face. After many interviews about his experiences, to protect his family from angry threats directed toward them, he was forced to leave his childhood home. Before he moved, fearing there would be an explosion of violence if nothing were done, he issued a plea for tolerance and understanding between the races. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was not that I expected to have my own Black Like Me experience after seeing my brightly colored face. Instead, I was reminded how interesting and enjoyable it is to be with the staff of Twin Rocks, most of whom are Native. Indeed, I have often marveled at the friendly, informative conversations I have had with them. Sure, I often blunder into areas that might be uncomfortable if we didn’t respect and care deeply for each other as individuals. In this process, however, I have learned a great deal about Native American and Navajo culture, race relations and just plain old human nature. In the end I have concluded that skin color does not define an individual, it is character that matters.

When I got back to the office the next day, I was, however, reminded how unkind people can be, and how they at times use racism as a tool to further their own personal agendas. In an Internet review of Twin Rocks Cafe on the web site, a writer posted, “Here’s the best part: it’s owned by rich white people from out of state and they hire strictly navajo natives to serve and cook their ‘authentic’ southwest cuisine. If you like . . . being exposed to active racism, come check them out.” Needless to say, I was furious with this person’s intentional ignorance. Not just because it was blatantly false and an insult to Barry and me, but because it was also a slap in the face to all the people who make their living working along side us.

Once again, I was reminded of the funny, talented, independent people who frequent or work at Twin Rocks Trading Post and Twin Rocks Cafe. Apparently this reviewer did not believe they had enough education, training or self-worth to direct their own lives. Instead, she wanted to believe, and wanted the public to believe as well, they were slaves to the, “white people” who exploit them at every turn.

At times like these, I am reminded of a Maya Angelou saying that goes something like this, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” No matter what our skin tone, temporary or permanent, we should strive to raise each other up, to make each other happier and to support each other. Racism and active, intentional ignorance should have no place in our lives.

With warm regards from Steve Simpson and the team;
Barry, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Andrew In a Nutshell

Priscilla and I stood near my office pricing silver and turquoise jewelry when Andrew strode in wearing red whiskers and a festive green felt fedora. He was overtly gregarious and came directly over to introduce himself. His name was Andrew C. Scott he said and, from his ranch near Snowmass, Colorado, he directed the Open Mind Project. It was Mr. Scott's life mission to shed light on the power and influence religious, cultural and foundational narratives have on human psychology, society and the environment. It was an introduction designed to attract your attention and start you thinking. Just as Andrew finished acquainting himself with us and explaining his mission, he cocked his head to one side and peered at the counter immediately behind Priscilla and me. Something had obviously captured his attention, and, as we would soon learn, Andrew was easily distracted.

As if fascinated by a bright bauble, Andrew pointed to a silver bracelet sitting on the back counter and asked to see it. As I handed it over, I explained the late Herbert Taylor, brother of Robert Taylor, had created the cuff. Robert had sold us the piece a few years after Herbert passed-away. It was an all silver cuff with stylized guardian bears marching across its surface. Each animal had inlaid turquoise eyes and heart lines indicating its life force. As if under a spell, Andrew queried, "How much is this?" When I quoted him the price, he replied, "I'll take it, my friend Joe will love this." "Well, I don't know", I said hesitantly, "I usually have to work harder for a sell than that." Priscilla gave me her, "Are you insane" look, but Andrew just laughed and said, "I am impressed, I want it." "All right then", I told him, "but next time make me work a little harder will you?" "Agreed", said Andrew.

As he continued to browse, Andrew explained his, "Faith Portal". This he had established, "To promote a broadened world view that reinforces our identity as one human race, transcending the stories that often divide us." "Hey, wait a minute", he said, changing direction in mid-stream once more, "I have stuff. Do you trade?" "Only if the stuff is stuff I want", I cautioned. "Fair enough", said Andrew as he quickly exited the building on his way to retrieve the goods. As he left, I noticed his green chapeau setting on the counter next to the Herbert Taylor bracelet. Andrew soon returned with a small antique suitcase packed with trade goods in one hand, a new ball cap on his shaved head and a mongrel pup at his heels. It was about this time Steve emerged from his office to witness the show. Danny also came downstairs to block the dog from going upstairs to investigate his lunch.
Momma's rose quartz Crystal and our silver coins.

As Andrew unbuckled its clasps and threw open the leather valise, I instantly knew this would be a complicated affair. The ancient bag was packed with baubles, beads and jewelry from across the world. As I set to the task of exploring its contents, Andrew advised me, "There are only two pieces in there I will not trade." "I'll bet I can find them", I said, and did. Soon a turquoise, spiny oyster shell and sterling silver bracelet and a hand fabricated container of silver and copper crafted in Tibet came to light. "I cannot trade those," said Andrew. "I figured", said I, and continued, "but there is nothing else that interests me." "No problem", was Andrew's prompt reply. "Here is a silver, half-ounce round for your trouble." He handed the coin to me, and also gave one to Priscilla, Steve, Danny and three members of a family who just happened to be in the store at the time. As we all stood there admiring the doubloons, Momma Rose arrived for a visit. I introduced her to Andrew and he responded like he had just met Mother Theresa. From around his neck Andrew took a silver mounted rose quartz crystal and presented it to "Mom".

As the dog ran wild Andrew proceeded to describe his mission. It was, he explained, "To connect people from different backgrounds through more open narratives that assist our progression toward a sustainable and equitable civilization." As he spoke, Andrew shopped our cases of silver and turquoise jewelry. Before we knew it, he had discovered several more items he wanted, all as presents for close friends. In the middle of all this action Andrew stopped once again, and, without much more than a mention of hunger pangs, placed the ball cap on the counter next to the green fedora, took the dog outside and left to order a hamburger at Twin Rocks Cafe. As he went out the door, Steve said, "That guy is tumultuous . . . but fun." Gazing at her crystal, Momma Rose agreed, while everyone else fingered their newly received coins.

Before long Andrew returned with his hamburger in a box and a new baseball cap on his head. Lining-up the three hats on the counter, Andrew asked, "Which crown best suits my character?" "The green fedora," I assured him. "Good", replied Andrew, "it belonged to my grandfather." Before Andrew was finished, he gathered together a selection of items for his many friends, tempted us with gold coins and bullion and changed his mind, deciding to pay with plastic. During his siege of Twin Rocks, Andrew misplaced his hamburger, scattered hats and trade stuff over the counters and made us immensely happy with his all encompassing and positive attitude. As she so often does for Steve and me, Priscilla organized Andrew and got him moving in the right direction. In the end Andrew's visit was chaotic but well intentioned, frantic and, in an unexpected way, focused. Andrew's message was, in a nutshell, love one another and respectfully listen to their faith and feelings. Amen Andrew, Amen.

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team;
Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Are You Doing That?

It was a slow night at Twin Rocks Cafe. Outside giant flakes of snow gently fell, and a thick white blanket cloaked the gravel parking lot. But for the occasional snowplow that scraped and sparked along the pavement just east of the restaurant, the highway and the town seemed deserted. There are few functioning streetlights in Bluff, so the community was dark, almost pitch black. Town residents huddled inside, hibernating as the storm mounted its silent but sustained assault on southeastern Utah.

In order to get the staff safely on their way home and me warmly snuggled into bed at a reasonable hour, I sat quietly at table 9 rolling silverware. Don’t misunderstand me, that’s not an unusual circumstance, I can generally be found employing such talents Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings at Twin Rocks. I have, therefore, become a crackerjack restaurant manager. Well, “crackerjack” may be overstating my abilities a bit, but I have at least become proficient at the highly technical skills of mopping, sweeping and schlepping food.
As I rolled on, a family of six trudged in and sat a few feet behind me. They were the only patrons, and therefore added a much-needed dimension to the dining room. One of the children was celebrating his birthday, so his parents had decided to brave the storm and head into Bluff instead of firing up the cook stove. Since the Navajo Reservation roads were a red, muddy, monstrosity, they had made a serious commitment for their offspring’s party. Although they drove a four-wheel drive SUV, it was apparent from reports filtering in over the course of the afternoon that many a better vehicle had been left mired in the muck.

As the cake expired and the ice cream began to run, the celebration wound down. About that time a young man of seven or eight ambled up to my right-hand side and peered at the small pile of eating utensils I had individually encircled with napkins. Having fully inspected the situation and evaluated the quality of my work, the half-pint looked intently at me and asked, “Are you doing that?” “Yep”, I responded, a bit confused by the structure of his inquiry, “you wannna help?” “Nope”, he replied shaking his head back and forth, “it’s my birthday.” “All righty then, happy birthday”, I said, extending my arm and giving him a high-five. He smiled warmly and headed back to his siblings.

Over the next several days I pondered the young man’s question, asking myself over and over again, “Are you doing that? Are you doing that!? Are you doing that!?” No matter how I framed the issue, I could not make sense of it and became haunted by the youngster and his query.

During our years at Twin Rocks Trading Post, Barry and I have often asked each other, “What are you doing?” “What are we doing?” sometimes even, “What the . . . heck are you/we doing?!” To my knowledge, however, we had never asked, “Are you doing that?” The answer seemed self-evident, “Yes, I am doing that.” I could not, however, be certain. Call it an obsession, but I kept wondering whether this peculiar puzzle might add a whole new framework to our experience. I began to question whether Barry and I were missing something really big, so I decided to launch a formal probe into the matter. I was getting to the bottom of this situation, no matter how much it cost or what the conclusion.

Priscilla was intently pricing turquoise bracelets and Navajo rugs just outside Barry’s office, so she was my first target. I elected to use the direct approach, and without any explanation asked, “Are you doing that?” She looked at me as if I had just spoken the secret code. “What?” I stammered.

“That is exactly what Born-for-Water said to Monster-slayer immediately before he slew Ye’iitsoh, the big monster, freeing the Navajo people from Monster-slayer’s tyranny. It is a sacred question that is only spoken by medicine men during the Big Monster Ceremony”, she said. “I have never heard of the Big Monster Ceremony”, I said skeptically. “Well, of course you haven’t”, she assured me, “it’s a ritual we don’t talk about with you white guys.” “Why did you ask that question?” she demanded. “I just wanted to know what you were doing,” I said defensively. All the while I wondered what that kid knew that I didn’t, and whether he had intentionally set me up. “By the way Tonto, what do you mean by ‘white guys’?” I pushed back.

“The Big Monster Ceremony is probably our oldest rite, it came to us from the first world, when we were ants, grasshoppers and dung beetles. We have carried it ever since. I don’t think any non-Navajo person has ever been invited to one. In fact, it may be extinct. Don’t ask me any more questions”, Priscilla said emphatically. “Okay”, I agreed, thinking she had surely confused the chronology of her legends. I would have to ask the Navajo culture expert Bob McPherson about this one.

Later that day I walked into Barry’s office to find he and Priscilla eating processed cheddar cheese slices, low fat Ritz crackers and Vienna sausages. “Come on, join our Big Monster feast”, Priscilla snorted. The two of them laughed out loud. “Are you doing that?” I asked as I reached into the can for a wiener. “Penance”, I told myself as I choked down the slime dog, “penance for being so naive.”

With warm regards Steve Simpson and the team;
Barry, Priscilla, and Danny.