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The depressing geography of Anyplace

Essay by Ed Quillen

Columbine High School shootings – June 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

BLAME IT ON THE MEDIA, perhaps, but lately I’ve had a hard time thinking about much beyond the April 20 rampage at a high school in suburban Denver.

Sometimes it makes me think back on my own high-school years, and to what my daughters have told me of their high-school days. And then I am somewhat astonished that these things don’t happen more often.

The descriptions of social life at Columbine High sounded way too familiar.

The jocks dominate the student hierarchy, they’re bullies, they make everyone else kowtow, and the administration just winks at it. After all, the athletes “represent the school,” and the rest of us are just a part of their support structure. Our role is to cheer them on, and nothing else is really valid.

It was true in 1968, and apparently it remains true today. Curiously though, back when I was in high school, it would have been much easier to launch a terror attack.

In those days, anybody could walk into a hardware store, lay cash on the counter, and walk out with guns and ammunition, or dynamite — a case of 40% Gelex No. 2, along with a box of primers, and a coil of Bickford fuse. I know, because I made such purchases.

I was about as angry and alienated as any other teenager, I suppose, even though I didn’t shoot my classmates or bomb the school. Instead, in 1967, I took up journalism and helped start an “underground” newspaper.

When a local newspaper ran a story about our underground paper, the story quoted the school principal, who did not sound thrilled by how some of his students independently and energetically devoted themselves to writing and publishing.

Instead, he said that we had “weird ideas” and implied there was something very wrong with us that therapy might cure. He never said that about the football players who punched and tripped us on occasion. They were normal, I guess, and from what I’ve been reading recently, they still are the norm, and everybody else is deviant.

Oh, well. Strong as the impulse sometimes is, you can’t spend your life trying to get revenge for the real and imagined slights of high school.

Besides, I’ve never heard of a high school that didn’t have a sick social environment. And if those environments produce twisted little terrorists, then the real surprise is that there aren’t more such horrors.

To move on, I was pretty much glued to the TV during the week after April 20th. Emotionally, it was like the Kennedy assassination — a numbing experience that overwhelmed everything else.

Among those interviewed on television was Tom Tancredo, a Republican who is in his first term representing Colorado’s sixth congressional district — the district where the shootings happened, about a mile from Tancredo’s house.

Although I hardly ever agree with Tancredo on political matters, I did respect him after I watched one interview.

When Tancredo didn’t know something, he just said so. When asked to speculate about matters that nobody knew much about at the time, he refused. When asked what might cause such rampages — computer games, violent movies, Internet connections, gray-market guns — he said he had no idea and that it was foolish to be jumping to conclusions.

Tancredo even resisted coaching from the TV host. “How does this result from the Gun Culture of the West?” he was asked. But instead of responding with the cliches that the interviewer wanted, Tancredo told the truth. “It’s a fairly typical middle- to upper-middle-class suburban area,” he said. It’s soccer-mom territory, he explained, not a frontier teeming with gun-toting rednecks. “You hardly ever see a pickup with a gun rack,” he added.

Tancredo concluded with “It could have happened any place.”

AT SOME FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL, Colorado Central is a magazine about place, an attempt to define and explain some geographical and cultural places on this earth.

The area where the school shootings happened — that Tancredo said “could have been any place” — was indeed a modern American “Anyplace.” Which is to say, Columbine High School sits in the midst of that generic suburban sprawl of franchises and shopping malls where, according to the Census Bureau, the majority of Americans now live.

The high school was in “unincorporated Jefferson County,” but it was hardly in farm country. The nearest post office was in Littleton, which isn’t even in the same county. It was part of the “southwest Denver suburbs,” but it looked about the same as the Baltimore, Dallas, or San Diego suburbs.

In other words, it was very difficult to pin a name on this “Anyplace.” It wasn’t Littleton, it wasn’t Denver, it was in Jefferson County whose seat is way off in Golden, it was a non-descript “Anyplace” that was a “Noplace.”

In the mainstream American “Anyplace,” both parents work outside the home because it’s the only way they can afford the house, which they bought because the suburban area is reputed to have good schools, and they wanted to do right by the children.

The parents often work long hours because American companies have downsized and reduced “unnecessary employees.” I see it every time I visit the Denver Post. Years ago, people had time to talk if you dropped by; now they don’t, because their workloads have increased and there’s nobody around to pick up the slack if someone is occupied by an unscheduled visitor.

I’m the same way myself — there’s always so much to do, and so little time before the deadline, that I can get awfully gruff at an interruption. I don’t want to be that way, but the pressure is on, and there are a lot of days when I don’t have the inner strength to resist that pressure.

Besides the time for their jobs, the parents in Anyplace spend a lot of time on the road. Commuting times keep growing — both on account of residential development at greater distances, and from highway congestion. Routine life involves more time on the road, driving to the mall or the big-box retailer, driving back, driving to another store, driving to soccer practice, driving to the game…

As well-meaning as a parent might be under those circumstances, there isn’t much time or energy left for just being a family. It’s difficult to get everybody together for dinner.

When I hear politicians talk about how much they support “family values,” and then continue to encourage Anyplaces to be constructed by the developers who finance their campaigns, I get a little sick. The geography of Anyplace works against families.

Despite the political rhetoric, the only people who seem serious about “family values” these days are the Mormons, who set aside one night each week for the family. When my daughters were in high school, there were many times when I wished for an official family home evening: a time when no club meetings, no practices, and no civic events could be scheduled. Just a night once a week to be home playing Scrabble or reading the Bible or the Iliad or whatever your family wants to do together.

Conversely, the idea in Anyplace is to keep the kids busy, to keep them going to soccer, dance, clubs, practices, lessons. In Anyplace, there’s a clamor to extend the school year and increase the school day. Since Mom and Dad don’t have much free time, neither should the kids.

And if Mom and Dad do have some free time, it’s not going to matter much — because Anyplace has built a kid culture composed of sports, dances, afterschool clubs, part-time jobs, and malls — so the kids don’t have any more time for Mom and Dad than Mom and Dad have for them.

EVEN IF EVERYONE is home and awake at the same time, Anyplace works against much family togetherness. In 1970, the average new house was 1,500 square feet. In 1997, it was 2,150 square feet.

I like a big house and central heating as well as the next guy, but the bigger the house and the better its furnace, the more chance that its occupants are off in their separate corners, rather than gathered in the living room or around the kitchen table.

Add to that the revolution in affordable consumer electronics — everyone can be off in his own part of cyberspace, people watching the TVs in their bedrooms rather than the one in the living room, another surfing the Internet, another plugged into her personal stereo, and you’ve got people who are under the same roof, but interact about as much as people staying at the same motel.

If my career, such as it has been, had taken a few different turns, I’d probably be living in Anyplace, marveling that anyone could even think of raising children in some rural backwater where there are a lot of pickups with gun racks.

I didn’t end up in Anyplace. But I don’t know that this matters, in the long run. Everywhere seems pretty much like Anyplace these days.

We’re all influenced by the same books, fashions, movies, television programs, media, video games, child-care experts, educational theories, and community planners.

We all live in the same economic landscape — where one percent of the population divides 40 percent of the wealth, where downsizing and technical upgrading make professional competition fierce, and where career advancement requires wholehearted dedication and commitment.

We live in a nation that proudly extolls embracing a longer work week and less vacation time than Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and a host of other nations. We live in a country where bigger is better. In America, the big boxes — stores, schools, utility companies, even day care — prevail.

In spite of all the hoopla about family values, in America we’ve replaced human values with corporate values. Since World War II, we’ve been building sprawling Anyplaces — here, there and everywhere.

WHY? Because Anyplace is bigger and better; it offers more goods, more profits and more services. Anyplace has got it all: amusement parks, malls, video arcades, fast food, computers, gymnasiums, swimming pools, cell phones, tennis courts, dance studios, good jobs, private lessons, beautiful houses, horses, bike paths, and nature trails.

But Anyplace promotes corporate values over more human needs. It exalts goods and profits; it doesn’t encourage togetherness, understanding, generosity, or affection.

In Anyplace, parents entrust their kids to institutionalized care from babyhood to graduation, and they rely on the day-care centers, schools, coaches, police, and courts to supervise their children.

And today, there’s a touch of Anyplace in every city and county in America. Everywhere, our schools are built to Anyplace standards, our police forces enforce Anyplace laws, our courts impose Anyplace justice.

Some kids just don’t do well in our one-size-fits-all schools with their standardized academics and competitive athletics. They’re getting lost in our spacious malls and sprawling subdivisions. And they’re not getting what they need from our corporate mental health care systems and bureaucratic special education programs.

Yet even though our politicians rant about the family, they keep on giving us more — more roads, bigger schools, more police officers, more subdivisions, more stores, and a great big growing national economy. And in doing so, they steal our time.

We started building suburban Anyplaces in the late forties. By the 1950s, Dad was a seldom-seen workaholic laboring to pay for the American dream.

And now, as often as not, both parents are overworked, overstressed over-achievers trying to supply all of the essentials of Anyplace.

But no matter what our government gives them — parks, classes, coaches, day care — our kids are being robbed of one-on-one relationships with adults.

For the most part, our kids are raising themselves, and actually they’re doing a fairly good job of it — considering. So what makes a kid shoot his classmates?

Psychiatric illness? Violence in movies and games? Parental negligence? Hazing and bullying? The ready availability of weapons?

Perhaps all of the above. Or maybe none of those things. After all, a great many children are subject to the same conditions, and most of them don’t snap.

BUT I SUSPECT modern corporate values — and the sheer largess of Anyplace — have as much to do with our current social problems as anything else. And the fear that Anyplace will invade our places even more, will overlay our commerce and our geography and our way of life, is the fear that keeps me working on this marginal little magazine.

Since I wasn’t good with my fists in high school, journalism is the only way I know how to fight. And I feel strongly that if we want our place, then we must oppose Anyplace with every tool at our command.

As for the particular Anyplace where the tragedy occurred, it was Columbine High School, often truncated in phrases like “hate produces Columbines,” “the terror of Columbine,” “we must make sure there’s never another Columbine,” etc.

You may know that we have two daughters. The younger (now an honor student at the University of Colorado at Denver) is Abby, and our older daughter’s name is Columbine.

Every time I hear something like “the tragedy of Columbine,” I want to shout: “Columbine isn’t a tragedy. She’s an intelligent, attractive young woman. She speaks three languages, and is graduating with honors from Western State College. She’s our daughter, damn it, and you media jackals can find some other buzzword for this tragedy.”

People used to say “What a pretty name” when they heard it, but lately it’s as though we had named our first daughter Chernobyl, Ludlow, or Wounded Knee. Those are all places — places whose names have become bywords for tragedy.

The developers of America built an Anyplace in a location so vague, a zone so lacking in any real community, that it didn’t even have a name. When the exigencies of journalism required a name, all that was handy was the school’s name — Columbine — which in most of America today is synonymous with a place ravaged by gunfire and pipe bombs. The suburban landscape of Anyplace USA is so generic that when one of its outposts got a name, that name had no other connotation than tragedy.

But it strikes me that the biggest problem of living in a generic Anyplace is that we have started to regard its people as generic.

If our kids have a problem with dividing into antagonistic, mean-spirited cliques, so too do we adults. High schools have cowboys, jocks, goths, and skinheads. And adults have soccer moms, rednecks with gunracks, and Yupscale money-mongers.

As individuals, we have our differences — differences of opinion, of wants, of needs, of resources — but I can’t see how we’re going to resolve anything or to come up with any reasonable compromises by dividing into cliques.

Instead, I think we need to fight the forces of Anyplace — to rebel against having too much stuff at the expense of too little time — because we don’t need more traffic, confusion, telemarketers, or more miles upon miles of mini-malls that swallow our countryside like alien invaders.

I figure that about now, we should try to put people first — to put family, friends and community above money, glitz and glitter. And by doing that, I hope we can keep the seductive, much promoted, politically supported wealth and power of Anyplace from totally overwhelming us.

That’s probably a lost cause, just like trying to restore the good name of Columbine. But maybe lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.

— Ed Quillen