Peripatetic is a word based on the way Greek philosopher Aristotle studied and learned: by walking about. Today, that word also describes an itinerant—one who travels about for duty and business.
Dan Paris fits that description.
Paris, 68 and a Rancho Mirage resident, was born and raised in Cleveland, in what he describes as “a Hungarian ghetto.” His father was a soccer-playing immigrant from Hungary who had worked in the salt mines as a child. His mother had been born in Cleveland, but Hungarian was the language spoken at home.
“Knowing another language is an advantage,” says Paris. “It’s like another culture given to you. … I was very inquisitive as a kid, and I always had to excel. … I’d get interested in something and stick with it for a while. I was always looking to do things that made a difference to me and that helped others, either directly or indirectly.”
Paris went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., initially planning to major in German, but he quickly changed to biology, thinking he would go into the medical field.
“I planned to become a doctor, but that meant being inside all the time,” he says. “However, the college allowed students to design their own focus, and I decided to make another major for myself in film. I took classes in film editing and camera work, and even made a film about an artist at the college.
“While at school, I took half a year off and went to Europe to work at the British Film Institute. After a week, I decided I was going to visit the great centers of Europe and Africa and shoot some film. I got a van in Amsterdam and drove to Paris and then to Morocco. I was fascinated with the London Tube (the underground transit system), which had a really creepy ambiance. I visited some family relatives in Hungary during the time when Eastern Europe was still under Soviet domination. I ran out of money in Morocco, so I worked on a fishing boat for three weeks while waiting for some money to come from home. When I got back to college, I put all the experiences together on film.
“While at college, I rented a basement apartment, and one of my memories is that the Humphreys were my neighbors!” (Hubert Humphrey was a senator who served as vice president from 1965-1969 and lost a presidential bid to Richard Nixon in 1968.)
Macalester allowed students an “interim term” to explore their own interests, and Paris had a friend at the UCLA film school. “He asked me to come out,” recalls Paris, “and thus really began my film career.”
Paris now describes himself primarily as a documentary filmmaker—although his peripatetic nature still prevails.
After college, Paris stayed in Minnesota for 20 years, working with a small film-production company. He was then offered a job in New York, but the weekend before he was going there, his then-girlfriend invited him to her family’s lake cabin.
“On the way,” he says, “her dad had to stop at this beautiful farm, 100 acres with a lake and a four-bedroom farmhouse that needed a lot of repairs. It was for sale for only $14,000. So instead of taking the job, I bought the farm. I’d had some experience in gardening, and I pretended I was a farmer for a year. I even rented a cow from a local farmer! I’ve made some bad choices, but I always pick the choice that I think will make me happy.
“After a year, I needed to get a job. I became a human-services technician at a state-run nursing home, which became one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It was a kind of dumping ground for people without family support or who had illnesses that nobody wanted to deal with. I had taken care of my great-grandma when I was young, so I jumped in. I made a documentary film while I was there, based on interviewing the residents. My attitude was that I was going to get into whatever their reality was from day to day, and not try to pull them into mine. That film was actually used for training at that facility for many years.”
Paris later began a career in log-building. “I cut the logs myself and built from the ground up. I just finished and sold a project in Idyllwild built in the old Norwegian style. I even taught classes in how to do it. And I just finished doing a house here in the desert that was featured during Modernism Week.
“I’m always doing several things at once. I put together small film festivals while I was in school. I did sponsored films for corporations while I was in Minnesota. I’m not about to earn a living as a documentary filmmaker, although my current project is filming a series of 15-minute profiles of people in the Coachella Valley who love what they’re doing. I search for unheralded individuals with a passion for their work, and their struggles to help themselves and others to find joy and celebration in their lives. I’d love to pitch it as a series for local film festivals or maybe to run on PBS. It would be a good project to do with film students at College of the Desert.”
Paris loves to cook, dance, watch sports and hike. His enthusiasm when he speaks is engaging. He’s been married to Lori for the past 28 years, and they have a blended family from prior marriages.
“We’re totally opposite,” he says. “She is cautious, a thinker, but we mesh well together, like oil and vinegar once they’re blended.”
Paris came to California almost 30 years ago after visiting his film-historian older brother in Los Angeles.
“I love the desert,” he says. “I love the diversity here, and I love the proximity of five grocery stores within a five-minute drive. But my first week here, I had a nightmare that I couldn’t find a parking space that wasn’t handicapped. That speaks to my anxiety.”
Dan Paris has settled into the desert life, but if his past is any prologue to his future, he will continue his peripatetic lifestyle, always looking for a new way to express himself.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.