Wake Up, Dear, You Were Just Having an American Dream


Shout out today to new bloggers Laura and Bob of The Two Who Wander.  I am so glad I happened to run across their little corner of the blogosphere.  They are recent retirees who have invited us to share this new chapter in their lives and to tag along on their adventures across the USA.

I particularly enjoyed Bob’s post Retired! in which he takes us on a guided tour of his career working first on coin-operated games at a small firm and then for many years at Hughes Aircraft.  Bob tells us that his employer provided “a pension that will provide enough income to help Laura and I survive into old age.”  I can only sigh and gaze wistfully at such things.

In my mind, I travel back to my junior year of high school, when I was one of two students selected to compete in a national writing competition.  The other student was a girl who was a talented musician, a brilliant student and at the top of our class.  I, on the other hand, was a new student who had just moved to the area and somehow impressed the creative writing instructor with a couple of poems.  Perhaps the school thought that this outsider could be the secret weapon who brings home the big one for good old John Jay High.

When the two of us arrived in the classroom at the appointed time, the proctor informed us that we’d have an hour to write anything we wanted on this year’s topic, “the American dream.”  I asked if it was okay to write a poem.  The proctor reiterated that we could write whatever we wanted.

Peering over to the other side of the classroom, I saw the young lady immediately begin to scribble her thoughts, only occasionally looking up for inspiration before lowering her head and continuing.  I, on the other hand, had no clue what to write.  None at all.

I had no idea what the phrase “the American dream” meant.

I writhed uncomfortably like a butterfly mounted on a pin while still alive.

The jig was up.  I would now be exposed as the fraud I really was.  I ended up turning in three or four lines of nonsense and did the best I could to forget about the whole thing.  Now that forty years have elapsed, I think I can fairly state that I have been as unsuccessful in the forgetting part as I was in the writing part.

Later, I found out that “the American dream” is somehow associated with home ownership.


Even though I was born in Manhattan, I feel as if I must really be from another country, as home ownership has never meant anything to me.  I’ve always been a renter and plan to continue so to the end of my days.  Perhaps somewhere along the line I fell asleep and had the Swedish dream or the Chinese dream.

I guess I could be like my sister, who owns homes in two different states, but has to rent them out in order to pay for them.  Meanwhile, she is unemployed and living in an extended stay hotel in Reno, where she just had her car broken into and had to have the smashed window replaced.  On her own dime, I might add, as she hasn’t yet met her deductible.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the countless multitudes of my fellow Americans who have become victims of subprime mortgages, who have seen the value of their homes plummet in decomposing neighborhoods, whose home loans have gone “under water,” who have been awarded their marital homes in divorce settlements but can neither keep up the mortgage payments nor sell out, or who have absconded after the foreclosure notice has been affixed to their front doors.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the many impoverished households in this area in which ten or twelve people are forced to live together and the roof over their heads is earned at the price of having no food in the house.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like our homeless friend who alternates sleeping in a chair at a friend’s house and rolling up in his sleeping bag outdoors.  One day last week, he came begging for a dollar because he was dying for a cigarette.  Thursday, he came by because he was hungry and we fed him dinner.  The next morning he came by again and we gave him breakfast.  Is that the American Dream?

I suppose I could quit it with the pessimism and look at the multicultural melting pot that we have become as the American dream.  The joy of living in a time and place where I can sing Hebrew songs in a church in which most of the parishioners speak Spanish.  Where I can eat latkes one day and tacos the next.  On that day back in high school, perhaps I should have written about my grandmother traveling by train from Austria to Le Havre in France and boarding a ship to cross the Atlantic in steerage, seasick for weeks, to reach a better life in the United States.  In the insular childhood I enjoyed on the East Coast, I had no idea that there were Mexicans paying their life savings to be ferried across the Arizona border, only to be abandoned and die in the heat of the Sonoran Desert.  Nor did I know about those who actually made it, finding the American Dream working as domestics, field hands and day laborers in California or meat packers in Nebraska in order to send a few dollars back home to the family in Jalisco.

Or perhaps the American dream has evolved into obtaining our fifteen minutes of fame, winning the Power Ball, wearing a chicken costume on American Idol or twerking on the world stage of the VMAs.

No, today I think we have a new American dream, and I thank Bob and Laura for reminding me of this.  The American dream for the twenty-first century is to be able to retire before the age of sixty with a pension that will support us so that we can follow our dreams, American or otherwise, for the rest of our lives.

For myself, however, as for most of us, this is a dream that will forever remain out of reach, a dream that vanishes into thin air the moment we open our eyes.



2 thoughts on “Wake Up, Dear, You Were Just Having an American Dream

  1. First of all, thanks for the kind words of welcome for The Two Who Wander.
    Your post about the American Dream got me thinking. To me it never really meant just home ownership, although the right to own property is part of it. To me the American Dream means that, in this country, a person has the same right to pursue happiness as anybody else does, regardless of who they are, what color their skin is, what family they came out of, and so on. The only real limiting factor is the ambition, drive, and intelligence of the individual. Does that mean that everybody has things equally “easy” in our society? No. Some people need to work harder to become what they want to be than others. More often than not, it’s harder for a dirt poor person to become a business owner than it is for a upper middle class person. Is that fair? It makes no difference, because “fair” means nothing. To quote David Wong, author of a great article I’ll attempt to link to below, “The world only cares about what it can get from you.” It is the individual’s job to learn how to provide something that other people find valuable. It makes no difference how hard you work to gain a body of knowledge unless it allows you to matter to society. It’s hard to master a video game – it can take hours and hours of effort. Guess what that is worth to most of society? Nothing. Spending that same amount of time learning how to fix a car is worth something. You make it in this society (or not) by finding a match for yourself – something that you can become good at that is worth something to other people. What I’m trying to get at is this – the American Dream is what you make it. In my own case, I worked hard for a lot of years to get to retirement. That meant years of working overtime (for free a good deal of the time) in order to get a proposal done in time for my company. Or coming in at 2:00 am to fix a software problem before day-shift showed up at 6:00 am. Did I have some good luck? Were there some people who treated me very well at important times in my career? Yes, of course. But everybody has some luck at times – you have to know how to use it to your advantage. Most of the time, that simply means you have to work hard, and insure that you are keeping your focus on skills that are in demand. I know a few people, mostly from early in my career, who told me that I was crazy to work so hard….that I was “kissing ass”, and that management would just screw me eventually. None of those folks lasted in the job. Maybe they went on to something better, or maybe they continued on as low paid hourly employees, drifting from one job to another, trying to do the bare minimum amount of work they could get away with. Life is what you make out of it. Home ownership is similar. There is some luck involved in real estate, and timing can make or break you, but if you make good choices and take advantage of good opportunities, you usually will do OK. In my case, I bought my first house when I was 22 years old, making about $3.50/hr at that little coin operated game company. How did I do it? I found two homes in the South Bay that I could afford. Both were dumps. Both were in bad areas. I picked one. My mother in law cried when she saw it. In fact, all of my family except for my father thought I was NUTS. My father told me to stay on course and not listen to the others, because in the California real estate market, then or at any other time, you have to get your foot in the door. I lived in this house with my first wife for 7 years. During that time we did a lot of fixing up….painting, landscaping, new fencing, and a kitchen re-model. We tripled our money on that place, but still couldn’t afford a house in a good part of the South Bay with good schools, so I moved out into one of the valleys. I got a nice place there, which was a stretch financially. I had to commute 80 miles a day from there to get to work. I did it, and it paid off. And so it goes – my situation is more of the rule than the exception, but you only hear about the bad stories on the news. Do bad things happen to good people? Sure – I’ve seen hard times as well as good times, as everyone has. You get through them. You don’t give up.
    Here’s the article I was talking about above…..it has some bad language, hopefully that doesn’t cause a problem.


    The Two Who Wander

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