Monday, August 27, 2012

Riding in Circles – Memoirs of a Suburban Upbringing

This is a re-post of a piece I wrote several years ago for a now defunct blog. A post that Lois over at livingsimplyfree wrote recently reminded me of it, and since I've been under the weather with a cold, I figured this might be a good time to unearth it. I also heard on the news today that Russell Scott who played Blinky the Clown died today at the age of 91, so perhaps my timing was a bit prophetic.

I'm proud to announce that my hill climbing abilities have improved significantly since I wrote this - so conquering "the hill" is not such a big deal these days... Here's to progress! Hope you enjoy this piece!

Riding in Circles – Memoirs of a Suburban Upbringing

The Villa Italia Shopping Mall.

It was the crown jewel of the 1970’s suburban shopping experience, and the center of the known universe as far as I was concerned. The Villa Italia was the biggest mall between Chicago and California.

It boasted faux marble floors, planters with fake plastic plants, a Walgreens with a penny candy aisle… it was the stuff that childhood dreams were made of.

Alas- I could not find a picture with the original floors - this is a more recent shot with  a significant facelift from the original early days

It had a Baskin-Robbins and an Orange Julius stand.

It was the place where I first met my childhood idol, Blinky the Clown.

RIP Russell Scott - AKA Blinky the Clown
The place where I took my first music lessons in the back of the Yamaha Music Store.

Oh yeah, I’m the fashion plate with the glasses and the dress that’s several sizes too small. I fear this black and white photo doesn't even give you the full impact of that outfit in all of its red white and blue glory.
And of course, the Villa housed the pet store where one could spend hours at a time lost in kitten petting bliss. (Sorry – I couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in a gratuitous adorable kitten photo).

Photo by eleda_1 on Flickr
Throughout my childhood, finding a way to get to the Villa on our bikes was an obsession for me and my friend David. Oh, David and I were thick as thieves, and we always had a grand adventure in the offing.

We spent an entire summer plotting and planning for our ambitious trip to the Villa. It took a great deal of endurance training before I could master “the hill” on my lime green banana-seat bicycle. but I was a determined child.

It was an arduous task, but we finally achieved self-propelled transportation to the Villa, and whole new world opened unto us. It was one filled with sugar laden trips to See’s Candy stand, whoopie cushions and other eccentricities purchased at the gag gifts shop, and countless afternoons watching teenagers making out behind the fake foliage.

It seemed that as I got older, my life became intrinsically intertwined with that shopping mall.

I saved up my allowance to buy my first soccer ball at the Villa.

And it was the place I cashed in my paper route money for the world’s coolest tennis shoe roller skates, complete with pink pom poms! (This is actually my Photoshopped rendition of those skates. The originals were destroyed years ago in order to protect the innocent.)

The Villa was where I got my ever-important Levis 501 button fly jeans and Nike tennis shoes. Items no teenager in the ‘80s could be without!

And of course, it’s where I conned my poor mother into spending a ridiculous amount of money so I could have the dress for my senior prom. Oh baby, Molly Ringwald had nothin’ on me!

But inevitably, the years rolled on and so did I. I left my hometown, traveled throughout Europe, lived on the East Coast, and when I finally did return home it was with a great disdain for shopping malls and all that they represented. Suburbia was a thing of my past, and I now frequented the bars and coffee houses of Denver’s underground music scene.

Paris on the Platte Coffee House - Photo by louderthandam on Flickr
I freely roamed neighborhoods I only had the vaguest inkling of as a child, in the vast netherworld “over the viaduct”… the places my mother drove through wide-eyed with doors locked and white knuckles on the steering wheel, for fear some urban degenerate might scoop us away never to be heard from again.

And I suppose the world moved on too, because they tore down the old Villa Italia, as it was quickly joining the ranks of America’s “dead shopping malls”.

But the years passed, and my coffee house crawling gave way to a primordial yearning for dirt and a garden. So I became a homeowner in the “land of cracker box houses,” a neighborhood with an uneasy mix of working class folk and recent Mexican immigrants, speckled with a few little old blue haired ladies, the original owners of their homes, who looked upon their immigrant neighbors with the same fear and distrust I saw in my mother’s “over the viaduct” expressions.

And while my neighborhood is culturally worlds apart from the one I grew up in, geographically, it is only a stone’s throw away.

So when I decided to fully embrace my “greenie” status, and made the commitment to use my feet and pedals as primary modes of transportation, it became necessary to find a nearby source of organic and locally grown food. And as fate would have it, there is now a Whole Foods and a Farmer’s Market where the old Villa Italia used to be!

Photo by bradleygee on Flickr
To top it off, the site has now been recast as the Belmar district, a model of “new urbanism.” It’s a genuine LEED certified community featuring shops, housing, businesses, a center plaza which converts to a skating rink in the winter time, its own wind farm and one of the largest solar arrays in the Western US. They even reused 88% of the materials from the old Villa Italia Mall during construction!

And so it is that here, thirty-some-odd years after David and I spent our summer trying to conquer “the hill” to get to the Villa, I find myself back on my bicycle, trying to plot a route to the same destination.

Of course there are several new hills to be conquered.

And I’m approaching it from a different direction, with mature knees and the somewhat sobering knowledge that any hill I go screaming down on the way there will have to be painstakingly pedaled back up on a bicycle heavily laden with organically grown locally produced goodies.

But the irony does not escape me. Perhaps there’s some sort of existential magnetism in that recycled concrete from the old Villa, something that irresistibly attracts the fibers of my being, forged in the crucible of that shopping mall. Or maybe it’s just that life inevitably comes full circle.

Train rides at the Villa Italia grand opening in 1966
I have to say it’s been quite a journey from suburban sweetheart to eco-warrior, but who would ever have thought that the Villa Italia Mall would make the trip with me!

Here's a fantastic video on the Belmar redevelopment if you're interested:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Falling Down

I took a tumble on the bicycle today.

I have no one to blame but my own stupid self. It was a very crowded section of the bike path, near downtown, at rush hour, where the path narrows and makes a tight little S-curve right up against a busy thoroughfare. I wasn't going very fast, but still, it was too fast for the situation.

And the combination of an oncoming cyclist, my slight distraction because of the traffic, and the 3 inch drop at the edge of the path (because we were in front of the Denver Country Club, and you know, landscaping trumps cyclist safety every time) well... suffice it to say it was enough to push me over the edge...

As much as I would like to be able to blame the landscaping, or the path, or the traffic, or the oncoming cyclist, it really was my own stupid fault.

Fortunately I was on the country club side of the path, not the rush hour traffic side, and nobody else got hurt. Anyhow, aside from a nice bruise on the gluteus bootyus, one small scratch on my finger, and a somewhat wounded sense of pride, I emerged unscathed.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a dear friend of mine who was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer 2 months ago, and has been battling for her life ever since. She saw the most cutting edge specialists in the world, but when I got home from my ride I was greeted with the terrible news that there just isn't anything else they can do, so she's coming home to enter hospice care. Sigh.

So here's the thing. Life takes no prisoners, there are no guarantees, nobody gets out alive, and you never know when your number may be up.

But you know what? The fact that we're all gonna die is not tragic... it's simply the way life works. But what really is tragic in my opinion, is to spend your life caught in the machinations of this crazy society of ours, and never really get to enjoy the good stuff.

And in a funny way my little run-in with the pavement this afternoon was a wonderful reminder of that for me. I sometimes hold back from things that I want to do because of fear.

For me it's mostly fear of getting physically hurt - suffice it to say that my over-protective father inadvertently succeeded in filling my impressionable little head with gruesome fantasies of every conceivable way that I might meet a horrible and untimely demise... and crashing off my bike was always one of those.

But you know what... I fell, I crashed, and I'm OK. Now, I'm not advocating recklessness... lord knows I'm gonna be avoiding that section of the path at rush hour, and I'll certainly be slowing down to a crawl in similar situations in the future.

What I am saying is that in a funny way, I'm not really afraid of crashing anymore. I know it could still happen... and I know that people do get killed on bikes every day. But people also get killed in cars, and from eating the wrong cantaloupe melons, and from rare forms of cancer that come right out of the blue.

The truth is, there really isn't any path through life that's "safe." Somehow I think the best we can do is to live our lives with integrity and unwavering commitment to being true to ourselves.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Random Insight on Race and Oppression

Soooo... I've been sucked into the vortex again recently. I've actually made some progress on the Slovenian branch of the family, which has always been a complete dark corner in my family history since my father barely knew his father - and my Grandma refused to talk about him, only referring to him as "that man."

"That Man" - My Paternal Grandfather
It's been great fun uncovering long lost cousins and finding the tiny town where my father's ancestors came from. I actually don't really think it's very important who descended from whom... according to I am directly descended from King Olav of Sweden, a fact that I find to be totally laughable.

Mostly I just enjoy the treasure hunt of the whole thing, and getting a little picture of what life in the past was like for ordinary folk.

Anyhow, news broke recently that a team of genealogical researchers from had uncovered evidence that President Obama is actually a direct descendant of a man named John Punch, who was the very first African slave in America. Interestingly, the link is on his white mother's side of the family.

Evidently, Punch was an indentured servant in the early 1600's who attempted to flee, and was then enslaved for life. However, he apparently fathered a number of children with a white woman (it's unclear to me if they were actually married or not.)

At any rate, I heard an interview with one of the researchers who was asked if this was considered shocking at the time, and he responded that it really wasn't. According to the researcher, this all took place before widespread enslavement of Africans by white folk, and thus there really weren't any taboos in place about mixed race couples. This is the point that really struck me.

I guess I've always understood the narrative on slavery to be that white people of European descent figured they were superior to Africans, and thus it was OK to enslave them. But given what this guy is saying, it sounds much more like the reality is that white people found it convenient to enslave Africans, and then decided that Africans must be inferior, as a way of easing their guilty consciences.

So... while I'm sure that bigotry does indeed beget oppression, it would appear that the reverse is also true... being an oppressor begets bigotry. Bigotry is, in a certain sense, a personal defense against the reality that one is behaving in an inhuman manner.

I have no great conclusions to draw from this insight, but I thought it was very interesting. It sorta made me wonder what other ways we twist around our belief systems in order to justify our behavior.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Exploring the Off Switch

I'm sure y'all heard about the recent blackouts in India. Basically, massive failures of the power grid left over 600 million people in the dark for several days. People have been calling it the worst blackout in global history.

Yanno.... I felt a funny thing when I heard about it... I felt a twinge of jealousy.

Now, in truth, it would really suck to be caught in a situation like that. I'd probably lose a good chunk of the food in the freezer, since my stove is electric I'd be reduced to using the solar oven and camp stove to cook with, I'd be out of touch with people I care about, and that doesn't even touch on the topic of heating & cooling or, heaven forbid, the water supply.

But just think of the upsides... It would be quiet. There would be no incessant electronic voices, or beepers, or ringers wrangling for your attention.You could go to bed as early as you wanted to because there would be no lights, or television, or internet to keep you up.

And best of all, nobody could expect things from you.

That last one is huge for me. Here I am, six years post-employment, and I still suffer from feeling like the whole world wants something from me.

I know it's ridiculous and self-imposed, but there are parts of me that just feel like I should be keeping in touch with people, and I should be staying up to date on what's happening in the world, and I should be spending more time with my parents, and the worst one of all: I should be "being productive." OY!

And the worst part about being "productive" is that it can mean ANYTHING! I should be cooking, or vacuuming, or preserving, or repairing, or organizing, or working on my web sites, or blogging, or all of the myriad of other things that can be made into chores.

But somehow, if the power were to go out, I feel like I'd be "off the hook." After all, how can anybody expect anything of me if the power's off?

It's totally absurd, because the truth is, I'm the only person who is placing all of those expectations on myself. In reality, NOBODY CARES whether I'm a model of human efficiency or a total and complete slob.

So, with that realization tucked away nicely in my psyche, I've been exploring the off switch this week... creating my own selective blackouts if you will.

I don't have to live with the incessant voices telling my to purchase certain items, or vote a certain way, or care about a certain event... I can just turn off the television.

I don't have to live in a state of constant information overload... I can just turn off the computer.

I don't have to be "on call" for the world... I can take the telephone off the hook.

And I don't have to stay up late trying to "be productive" I can turn off the lights, enjoy the quiet solitude, look at the stars, and go to bed!

I'm not sure why this is such a revelation for me... and the truth is, I've had this same revelation many, MANY times before. But somehow the busyness of the world seems to keep creeping up on me, and I find that I have to keep reminding myself that I have control of the off switches in my life.

How about you? Does anybody else out there have trouble remembering to turn off the craziness?