For years I thought I’d grown up in a family that sneered at the American Dream. We believed it was a naive fantasy of immigrants who were unable to accept that our streets weren’t really paved with gold, who were brainwashed by politically motivated propaganda. Certainly, my parents were, and are, deeply cynical about the political process and what it means economically for people without advantages or connections.
Not that we were poor. My father had a middle-management position at a major corporation, and both of my parents had gone to college. But my father’s income was stretched over seven children and the mortgage on a house big enough to hold all of us, plus the occasional needy relative. Money was tight.
My father even called me one night while I was away at college to tell me he’d become a Marxist. I was going through a Marxist-anarchist stage myself and delighted to think my middle-class father was becoming a radical. Nothing happened after that, though; it may have been a momentary whim caused by anger at some government action or a big utility bill.
But then I think of my mother’s lifelong yearnings for various trinkets. “If only I had a cameo,” she sighed for years. We finally pulled together some extra money and bought her one. (I childishly thought this would make her life complete.) Several months later she was longing for a locket-watch necklace. One of us bought her that, but then it was a china teacup in which to drink her morning tea.
At first I was irritated. Was she never satisfied? But then I realized that satisfaction wasn’t the point. These things were more important to her as dreams. Vesting these objects with hope and anticipation added depth to her life, and she had to develop a new longing once the old one was satisfied; that’s what dreams are all about.
Now she collects antique and unusual toothpick holders. She spends hours rummaging through antique shops for that one precious find. And when she finds it, she shows it around with pride and gives it a place of honor on her display shelves, then goes off looking for the next one.
And my cynical father? He has been chasing dreams all his life — writing books, plays, songs; compiling a special encyclopedia with thousands of entries; trying to invent an entertainment robot.
My son’s first tricycle sits in front of the television. We assembled it while watching documentaries about homeless people taking over abandoned houses, and the fast-food industry’s oppression of its women workers.
My husband and I were laid off from our publishing jobs five months ago. We’ve struggled to recover a sense of dignity, not to mention income. Because we’re facing the end of unemployment checks, with no full-time work in sight, this tricycle, at $15.99, was a gravely considered acquisition.
Just two hours ago, we were feeling like Christmas — a precious child slumbering upstairs, impossible instructions, tiny screws, and noisemakers. Now, we’re frightened, worn down by these images of men and women, some angry and empowered, others resigned and exhausted, all sharing life on the razor’s edge of poverty. We secretly wish for our bad dream to end as neatly as a cut to commercial.
None of my relatives has asked if we need food, clothing, or money; relationships with my affluent friends have become less relevant. There is a noisy, cheery sameness to the quality of their denial. I recalculate how to live, how to get through this, while my family dangles on the edge of something black and vast. I feel a sense of suffocation, choking, as I melt into an unfamiliar and undesirable landscape, the country of my brothers and sisters as portrayed on this now silent television screen.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I was thirteen the summer of 1963 when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, barring the way as the school’s first two black students tried to enroll. Confused, I asked my mother about it. Why didn’t he just shake their hands and welcome them? My mother said, “Well, I guess you’re old enough to know now.” She tried to explain prejudice to me. I was incredulous. I thought she must be making a sick joke.
I had grown up attending an integrated church located in an integrated neighborhood. Surely no one in America would be silly enough to believe that someone’s skin color determined their worth as a person. America was founded on the premise that all people are created equal. My teachers had told me so. Why, my very own ancestors had come to this land, had even shed their blood when necessary, to protect the inalienable rights of all the people who lived here.
I watched the news almost every evening for a while after that. I was determined to present my mother with a well-researched and logical argument against her theory that Americans were prejudiced.
There were numerous civil-rights marches that summer. I grew more pensive and depressed each day. Finally one evening, with tears streaming down my face, I turned off the television as it flashed pictures of “law-enforcement” officials turning fire hoses on blacks who marched peacefully in the streets. I thought to myself, “I can turn this off when it upsets me. Those people can never turn off the cruelty that surrounds them every day of their lives.”
My teachers had lied to me. America wasn’t the land of the free and the home of the brave. It was peopled with former slaves — and cowards who wished to keep them that way.
A few years later, I never wondered why others my age burned their flags and draft cards.
As a child, I carried around an image of who I would be as an adult. It was — sadly — a composite of all the media images I’d ingested since birth. I’d be straight. I’d be thin. I’d be a happy, sharp, on-the-go woman, always looking good with the right hair, makeup, and clothing. I’d have an exciting career. And I’d have a handsome boyfriend who would eventually be the prop for the grand finale of my life: a wedding. I wanted these things because they were the only things available to want. Because I was intelligent and attractive, I assumed I could have them.
When I was a teenager, this everyday happiness wasn’t within my grasp, but I still believed that it was on its way. As sure as I started my period at thirteen, my glamorous life would descend from the skies around my twenty-fourth birthday.
During college, it occurred to me that this scenario might not come true for me. With a closet full of khaki cotton in size fourteen, I slipped further away from my dream with the discovery of feminist politics and lesbianism. As I was introduced to new ideas, I found myself wanting the life of those commercial women less and less.
But the American Dream still exists within me and still force-feeds me, twenty-five years later, from every billboard and TV screen I see. When I hold my current life up against these images, I sometimes feel like I have failed, as surely as if I’d abandoned the family business.
Kansas City, Missouri
My grandfather came to America from Odessa in the early part of this century. He was five years old when he and his widowed mother Pearl reached Ellis Island. The story goes that as they were waiting in line at customs, a widower suggested to Pearl that she and her son pose as his family in order to gain a better chance of being accepted by immigration. The stranger’s name was Greenberg, and so my family name became that instead of Weitzman.
Pearl sold handkerchiefs and, mysteriously, they survived so well that my grandfather was able to go to school, graduate a pharmacist, and open his own store. I remember the powders, syrups, rock candies, and soaps displayed; I remember the apples distributed along with a printed essay he’d written explaining why “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
He loved this country and wrote poems and songs in appreciation. When I was small, he’d sit me beside him on the high-back green couch in the apartment above the store and sing to me, his hand cutting the air for emphasis: 1, 2, 3, America is free; 3, 4, 5, our country is alive; 5, 6, 7, freedom has been given; 7, 8, 9, the liberty is mine.
Then it was my turn. He’d beam at me as I sang his own words back to him.
Grandpa was a learned man who was also astute enough in business to accumulate enough money to bring more relatives from the old country to share in the promise that was America. We’d go visit a new cousin or uncle, a young man with a gold tooth who couldn’t speak English but said everything with his smile. I have never forgotten those smiles.
When my grandfather was in his seventies, he began to suffer a form of dementia that transformed him from my personal version of the benign Old Testament god into the angry one. If he could have grabbed a thunderbolt and struck us, he would have. Instead, he picked up his black Bible, shook it over his head, and strode cursing through the same rooms he’d eaten in, slept in, read in, loved in. He died in a city institution in New York, strapped to a bed.
When I was growing up, I was taught the American Dream was to have enough money to live without worry, own your own house, and retire in style. Any time I inquired of my parents or other adults what it would take for me to be happy, the answer invariably involved money and things. Oh sure, there were occasional slogans such as “money can’t buy happiness,” or “money is the root of all evil,” or even “as long as you have your health you can be happy.” But through it all ran the underlying current of money, money, money. My wealthy uncle said it best when he told me, “Money can’t buy everything, and there are those who will tell you it can’t buy happiness, but it has for me. In fact, I haven’t found anything yet it won’t buy.”
So it was with this set of guiding principles that I set out to make my mark on the world. I left a quiet beach on the island of Maui, where I had lived and written in peace before the tour companies had found it, and headed east where I became successful, made my million, bought my expensive toys, and started to raise my children. But the more I had, the more I feared losing it.
Slowly it became clear to me that I was not happier with money; my life was only more complicated. When eventually I lost everything, my fears dissolved. Now I accept each day as it comes. Through good days and bad, I try to be present, treat people gently, steer away from illusions, and remain sharp enough to recognize them.
And my children? I tell them that happiness is really all about relationships — with others, their environment, their work, their play, and more than anything else, themselves. I try to teach them to be kind to others and to themselves, and hope they learn earlier than I, and with less pain, that life is not about money or things.
Intervale, New Hampshire
I was raised on the 1950s American Dream: John Wayne, Jesus Christ, the evils of Communism, and America the moral beacon providing guidance to the world. My parents taught me that my family had played a role in drafting the Constitution and that I had a duty to support my community and my country. They taught me that if I studied hard in college, worked hard at my job, and applied myself, I could even realize a personal American Dream: a house, two cars, a wife, two kids, and financial security. I believed them.
After being drafted, I did a tour as a Marine Corps infantry-platoon commander along the Laos-South Vietnam border. No more John Wayne or Jesus Christ. They vanished into the steamy jungle along with my boyhood and innocence. The light in the beacon was extinguished forever.
My American Dream has changed in the years following my return home. Now I would just like to get through a night without waking up every two hours. I would like to really relax once again and not be constantly hyperalert to every stimulus in my environment. I would like to believe in the American system again — to actually desire to vote, and to care who gets elected. I would like not to be so alone.
President Bush says that the Persian Gulf War has made America proud once again and has finally allowed us to put the cloud of Vietnam behind us. He says that the American Dream has been restored. Which American Dream does he mean?
If the American Dream is the nuclear family — Mom and Dad and two kids, with their own home and good neighbors, friendly in time of need but self-sufficient and hard working, with good jobs so that they can buy enough — I must be one face of the American Nightmare. I am single, never married, living in a trailer (or “mobile home” as I have learned to say to avoid withering looks). One of my neighbors is a brain-damaged alcoholic who bellows profanity. I hear soft thuds punctuating his curses; I imagine it to be the head of his female partner as he bangs it against the wall. On the other side is a nuclear family — Mom, Dad, and their two young daughters. When I am home and he is at work, I hear her shrieking voice and slaps, then the kids crying out, then more slaps. When my windows are open, the stereo voices of pain and abuse meet in my living room.
I have two jobs that do provide me with enough. I work at a university hospital word-processing center, typing from dictation the private physical ills of people living in America: cancer, heart disease, panic disorders, alcoholism, tobacco abuse, diabetes, Alzheimer’s. And I have my own counseling business where people pay me to listen to their secret pains — grief, loneliness, suicide attempts, extramarital affairs, eating disorders, sexual abuse, battering — all the while showing the face of the American Dream to their friends and family.
Iowa City, Iowa
My brother went to work for the company right out of high school. For many years, my parents bragged about how much money he made, how secure his retirement was, how lucky he was, without a college degree, to be so successful. Didn’t I want to work for the company too? In a moment of desperation, I agreed. After four long years, I quit. I hated the monotony, the forced punctuality; I felt pigeonholed. The only thing I liked was the money. I saved enough to try my hand at what I’d always wanted to be — a writer.
My brother stayed with the company. When I came home from whatever part of the country I had moved to most recently, my parents boasted about him still. You could always try again with the company, Dad said. You could retire like us, my mother added. But in the midst of Saturday afternoon tee times, my brother confessed to me how he hated his job.
Finally, when he turned forty, he quit his job of twenty years to work in a field he knew absolutely nothing about, except that everyone involved in it was filled with passion. “I want what they have,” he told me. “I want to stop feeling like I’m dying inside.”
My father was lucky. While he worked for the company, he liked — no, he loved — his job. When my brother turned in his resignation and my father belabored his foolish decision, my brother said quietly, “You never hated your job. You don’t know what it’s like to dread going to work in the morning.” That stopped my father cold.
My father wanted to give us security. When he realized I didn’t want his concept of it, he at least breathed easier knowing I would someday marry a sensible man who would see to it I wouldn’t end up on the streets in my old age. With my brother, he’s not so sure.
But to me and to my brother, safety is not what matters. It’s finding your passion and following it. That is why I write. That is why my brother quit his job. That is why my father worked for the company for forty years.
M. Carolyn Seigneur
It’s been one helluva long winter’s nap, if you know what I mean. Not that five hundred years is really such a big deal — barely the blink of a sleepy eye by geological count, stellar chronometry, or Hindu Standard Time. Still, we have thrashed around rather wildly, snored vexatiously, and soiled the bedsheets.
It’s funny that we use the word dream — those boundless uncontrolled/uncontrollable spirit dancers who visit upon us gifts of irrational, incomprehensible truths from beyond the unknown. But this Dream is a brain construct — a concept very much controlled and contrived.
Who knows what all went into the makeup of the American Dream of old? In any case, the “noble experiment” has evolved into a transparent exercise in freedom of indulgence and greed. Like a starving, bloated-bellied child, we shovel in more and more sustenance-less goodies in poignantly ignorant attempts to allay the unending hunger that comes from this bottomless “dream.” We seek peace of spirit via domination and consumption of the material world, rather than through communion with it.
Easy to do. I did it this morning sucking down half-and-half, and inhaling pastry. Understandable mistake; the consequences to self, planet, life, obvious.
My oldest sister hated the words mentally retarded. They seemed to give the rest of our family comfort, providing a detached, clinical way to explain her different-ness. Usually, we would modify the term to mildly mentally retarded. I often wondered if it was our way of reassuring ourselves and our friends that if she was nearly normal, she wouldn’t embarrass us so much when we let her play with us.
She, however, knew the phrase for what it was — an irrevocable label that set her apart from other people. She also resisted the word special, as it was said more often with condescension than with compassion. She would concede that she was a slow learner and nothing more.
My sister went to a “special” school in a town forty miles away. For some of those years, she lived during the week with a family in that community, as the daily commute was difficult for my parents to manage, with their four other children. Even now, I feel ashamed of the part of me that was relieved to have my sister safely out of range of the kids I hung out with. I never had to watch other children tease her. I never had to stick up for her. Being nice to her when she returned on the weekends was a snap.
As we grew older, my other sisters and I became more and more ambivalent about the ideal of Barbie and Ken and two adorable babies. We learned the value of our own careers and lives and became disenchanted with “man as provider.” But not my oldest sister. Her life would be complete only when she had achieved that dream: two babies, and a husband who went to work each morning and came home asking, “How was your day, dear?”
We humored her. While we never said such things were impossible for her, we certainly assumed they would never happen, and believed they shouldn’t. Although my sister would often babysit for others, we believed she was not equipped to become a mother or a wife. We hoped that by ignoring her comments about what she wanted in her life, her dream would die away.
My sister did marry shortly after finishing a vocational program in which she learned to live and work on her own. She and her husband eloped, defying my parents, who had suggested she take it slowly. Before the year was out, she was pregnant with her first child. Before her daughter reached the age of two, it was clear that she too was retarded.
When her daughter was three, my sister divorced her husband, who by then was unemployed and drinking heavily. As she simply put it, “He just was not helping me.” I have yet to hear a more compelling rationale for ending a marriage.
Still my sister hung on to her dream. Eventually, she met another man, not terribly bright or accomplished, but he cared for her and her daughter. He moved in with her shortly after they met, again worrying my parents to distraction.
When my sister announced that she was pregnant again, the rest of the family was visibly upset. We all could see that she was having difficulty raising her first child, who at the age of five was barely communicating in full sentences and was still not toilet-trained. She was furious with us, unable to understand why we couldn’t be happy for her. She explained that she was doing the best she could with her daughter, and that her troubles with her shouldn’t prevent her from having another child.
Early last winter, she gave birth to a baby boy. In the spring, she and her boyfriend were married. As I stood by my sister’s side as her maid of honor, watching her look lovingly into her new husband’s eyes, I suddenly realized what we had been saying to her throughout her life. Our message was that it was wrong for her to be married and have children because by doing so she might bring more people like herself into the world.
And so she has. Her son shows every sign of being slightly retarded, and yet he’s a beautiful child. She and her husband will raise him and his sister, and they will not reach the achievements we expect of our children. Which is just fine.