For You, Briana…
This is for my little cousin Briana, who is about to become the first person in her in family to graduate from a University, and she is graduating from an excellent one-University of California, Santa Barbara with a Degree in Sociology and a Minor in Math. Well done my dear. Always remember that I am proud of you.
For You, Briana
What is the American Dream? I am not sure, but I have an idea, and it is an idea that makes me smile. The American Dream is something that I have been running from for over a year, since my friend Miguel invited me on that surf trip to Nicaragua just over a year ago. I had never been out of the country, aside from a booze-fueled, midnight mission to Tijuana during college, and a short vacation with mom to some sterile, Americanized resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico at the ripe old age of three. Those two brief international excursions do not count as travelling in my opinion, as from what I can remember the depth of those two excursions amounted to nothing more than getting chased out of Tijuana at gun point just before dawn, and running out the front door of a that Americanized Mexican resort and out onto the streets of Puerto Vallarta as a little boy because, for some reason, I thought “the iguanas that were going to get me”
After 29 years of “living” in “The Greatest Country on Earth,” those smiles, those Nicaraguan smiles, spoke to me. Those smiles on the faces of the poorest people in Central America slapped me in the face, making me blatantly aware of something that I did not know theretofore. Those smiles showed me that I did not know anything of happiness, which came as a surprise to me as I was even ignorant of the fact that I was ignorant to the concept happiness. Moreover, with those honest smiles, they told me that America in general is oblivious to the concept of happiness as well. Yes Briana, I do not mean to offend anyone, but chances are that the people sitting to your left and right in class most likely do not have a clue either. Most of them went to school so that they can get a job which will allow them to someday drive a slightly nicer car to a slightly nicer job than the working class does.
More importantly, when you dream out loud (which I hope you do) the people that will tell you “no, you can’t do that,” or “that’s a dumb idea,” or “why don’t you just be happy with the fact that the fruits of your last four years of studying, learning, and growing, will allow you to find a good ‘career,’ and sit in the same office every day, and drive a slightly nicer car to your slightly nicer job?” Or the people that ask “why can’t you just be happy sitting in the same five mile radius as everyone else? Why can’t you be happy sitting in the same place for the rest of your life listening to the Muppets on the TV news tell you that, if you go somewhere like Nicaragua for instance, you will be kidnapped and murdered, listening to the bobble head on TV tell you that, if you go to Baja California, the Drug Cartel boogey men will zero in on you and cut your head off.” Why can you not accept this? They will ask as you dream out loud.
What does this have to do with the American dream? It has everything to do with the American Dream. Take this for what it is worth, because I am just a surf-bum sitting in a trailer park on the other side of the world, and although I am tired from chasing waves, I am no longer running from that American dream. Why? Because the American Dream that I despised, was never really the American Dream to begin with. It was an imposter of the real American Dream.
You see, somewhere along the diverse and wild ride that has been our country’s history, the American Dream became synonymous with having a “good job,” a car, and a house. Then, it seems the dream was completely hijacked as the prosperity of the previous half century allowed our parent’s generation to turn the American Dream into some sort of acid-fueled hippy party of materialism and excess, a spending binge of unsustainable proportions. They turned it into a massive orgy of irrational materialism; they acquired shit, then they mortgaged themselves into oblivion so they could “buy” a bigger house with more storage room for more shit, for their random ornaments meant to say “look at me! Don’t I look happy? I have tons of shit! I especially am especially happy about the pieces of shit that I own which cost more than the pieces of shit that you own!”
I enclosed “buy” in quotations, because the tragic, idiotic irony is that they never even owned their houses, the banks did. The banks made a lease-to-own deal with them, and fueled the hippy generations little acid trip of spending and shit-acquiring habits. And then…
And then…and then it all blew up. And who is left to deal with the fallout from all that irresponsible behavior? You are. I am. Our generation is left to clean up the beer cans and dirty party favors from a half-century long, absurdly low-interest rate fueled, materialistic trip of “cosmic” proportions- a hippy’s frat party of debt and acquiring shit which they could not afford.
You are coming of age in the worst economic times the world has seen in 70+ years. You are entering an adult world with no room for your dreams. The world does not have time to listen to you what you dream of; they are too busy trying to pay for the car that they cannot afford anymore. They are too busy trying to find ways to pay the mortgage on the house they struggling to hold onto.
The world thinks of contracting GDP, falling home prices, and rising unemployment as just cause to dismiss your dreams as selfish, childish, and naive aspirations. They will think of the world now governed implicitly by the unfortunate consequences of their mistakes as just cause to dismiss you as a fool for dreaming, for aspiring, for possessing that oh so sacred of virtues-ambition. Oh yes, ambition is a virtue.
Plenty of them will tell you, and probably already are telling you, that “you should be happy with whatever job you can get” because “times are tough.” They will tell you that you should be happy with whatever pathetic slice of that imposter of an American Dream which you can manage to cling to with your young fingers. They will tell you this because that is all they know. Pity them for that. Pity those that tell you that you cannot, because they will tell you this because they failed, because it is impossible for them, not because it is impossible for you, not because you will fail.
Fuck them, their weakness is not yours, their inability to dream beyond a bigger house or a shinier car is not yours. You have something that they do not; let them compliment you as they display it with their pessimism and regret, their envy evidenced by their nay saying. Take it as a compliment, wear it proudly, use it as a prop to hold your head up high.
Our generation is a lost generation, we are The Lost Generation. We are the most underutilized generation in the better part of a century of American history. The epic spending binge which created the façade of prosperity in our country over the last half century is over. What does this mean? It means that there are a lot of people in our generation that dreamed of being doctors, teachers, writers, or scientists but may not ever achieve that dream as planned because the economy contracted, the overinflated spending binge ended. GDP fell and its weight seemingly squeezed the opportunity out of the world for the young who seek to make their mark on the world. Millions of young, talented people are sitting unutilized, unemployed, or if they are lucky they are underutilized. Millions of young, talented people are not sharing their talents with the world because the world will not give them an opportunity to do so.
My dear cousin, you have accomplished something great. Never forget what you have done, never forget where you come from, because if you do you will forget where you come from, you will have forgotten how far you have come. There are graduates of “better” schools than even you went to (according to “experts”-you’ll learn to pity them as well), and those graduates are struggling to find a place in the world, do not forget that either. Do not forget that the “experts,” with all their criticisms and abilities to read crystal balls, are simply trying to assert their place in the world as well-they may be the most desperate ones of us all.
There are graduates from Harvard and MIT who are sitting unemployed, or perhaps underemployed-if they are “lucky” according to experts. Freshly minted MBA’s from the best schools are not finding the work that they devoted the last two years of their life and $200K to being “qualified” for. We, like them, were raised as children thinking that “success” is no more complicated than getting a good job which would allow us to buy a nice car to drive us to and from that “good job” which allows us to acquire lots of shit. I know you are fully capable of achieving that, I know you will do whatever your heart desires. Do not let my words convince you otherwise my dear cousin.
So, what’s this your old, has been, and never will be businessman of a cousin says? The American Dream is dead, gone, impossible to achieve like it was 10 years ago? No, do not think that.
Am I saying that the world is a hopeless place? That you should get used to watching your dreams fade into oblivion, pushed under the rug, replaced by such fabulous and fulfilling false-virtues as “growing up” or “maturity”? No Briana, please do not think that I am saying that either.
No, my dear cousin, what I am saying is the world has given you a gift, a very precious gift. It is a gift which your kids will not understand, and your parents will not understand. That gift is adversity. That gift is a test which exposes to the world who is really strong and who is just floating with the current. That gift is a chalkboard freshly wiped clean-yours to make your own equations on.
You see, when times were good, it was like people were wading in the sea during high tide-you could not see who was wearing what because the water covered their lacking. But now, the tide has drained and those who were foolish enough to not wear shorts, are naked fools for all to see. The American Dream is not dead, but its preposterous imposter is- the one that was fueled by the credit cards and second mortgages of the baby boomers is gone. At least to all but the fools it is gone. The real American Dream is out there for you to find, for you to recreate, for you to reestablish.
Yes Briana, you are gifted with intelligence, a kind heart, physical beauty, and another gift not to be forgotten-courage. You left your home town, all that you knew, and went to college. An act considered trivial by some, but not by us. You left the bubble that is our family’s world, you left that five to ten mile radius from which seemingly nobody has escaped for generations. You earned your way into a school which only accepts the finest and most promising minds in California. You left your family’s world, but you did not leave your world-you ventured off to find your own. Now you have accomplished something that not too many can understand where you came from. You did this with courage first and foremost. Do not forget that- no matter how many times you hear “no” or “you are not qualified” when you enter that ridiculous joke known as the “adult world.” Remember what you have done, and always smile and thank the fools-the fools who think only of why things are impossible rather than dreaming of what is possible.
Now, here is the part that I hope will make you smile. This “horrible” economy, the high unemployment rate, the decreased “wealth” of our country is a gift to you my dear cousin. Treasure it. Embrace it. Make a party out of it. It is a gift, I promise you. I promise you with my life, my honor, every “success” that I have had, and every painful minute which I endured to achieve those “successes.” Why is this supposed misfortune it a gift? Why is a bad economy a gift? Why is the fact that everyone in our country panicking hysterically about money a gift to you?
Well, I’ll tell you, and if this does not result in a smile, then I have failed in my effort to inspire my little cousin, the little cousin who was the first baby that I ever held in my arms. Briana, the gift of all this adversity is this: you have a lot in common with our grandparents. Your generation is coming of age in a world very similar to theirs. Yes, that is right! Our grandparent’s generation, the generation which endured the burdens of the Great Depression, the generation won the largest war the world has ever seen and then came back home and built America into a place worthy of admiration. They are the Greatest Generation.
After they endured the Great Depression and after they won the war, they elected a president who echoed their generation’s spirit when he said “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and he meant it, and so did they. That same president challenged a nation to dream the impossible when he said “we choose to go to the moon, we choose to go to the moon before this decade is out. We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
When John F. Kennedy spoke those words, not one person knew how to get humans to the moon, much less get them back and do it in less than ten years. But they did get to the moon, and they beat their deadline. How did they do it? Well, they had faith in themselves.
They got a hold of some old missiles and started shooting them into the sky. A lot of those rockets blew up without even getting off the ground, some of them blasted off out of control and crashed embarrassingly, but they did not let that deter them. They kept trying, they kept working, knowing that each exploding rocket was a lesson. They knew that each “failure” was information. They learned from that information and finally figured out how to send a man beyond reaches of our own atmosphere and into space without blowing him up. Then they figured out how to operate in space, and orbit the planet. Then, taking all the information they had gathered from their cumulative successes and failures, they built the biggest rocket the world had ever seen, put three guys in it, pointed it towards the moon, and shot it into the sky.
Our grandparent’s generation rightly earned the title of The Greatest Generation because they were and still are the greatest. Do not let anyone from our parent’s generation tell you that Kennedy or the men that went to the moon were of their generation, they were not. Our parent’s generation were snot-nosed kids when JFK was elected, and they watched these events as child observers of the great accomplishments of their parents generation, our grandparents generation.
So what is The American Dream? What is the dream that is our great country? What is that special thing that teases goose bumps to life on our skin when we hear our national anthem? Well it all started with a simple dream, a dream that a brilliant group of renaissance men were willing to die for-and that dream did not involve buying bigger houses, bigger cars, or more stuff. Their dream was an ideal, an ideal which has been quoted into cliché oblivion.
To learn the true American dream, you must look no further than the very first single act of our country. Before this first act, the idea of being American was nothing more than a “what if” pondered by a group of men blessed with bold thoughts and the courage to voice them. The first act of our country was letter to the King of England, and it was written by Englishmen.
The Declaration of Independence is the single most eloquently written “fuck you” letter in the history of humankind. The first Americans were not born, they were Englishmen who became American when they dared to dream the impossible, when they dared to defy a king. They became American when they dared to dream that they should be free to pursue their own happiness, when they dared to think that that a bunch of farmers from 13 little colonies could defy the greatest military power on Earth. They became Americans when they said they will be free to pursue their own happiness, or die trying.
That letter basically told a King sitting on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to go screw himself. What that letter said is, “listen here Mr. King, we do not belong to you, we will not live our lives under the sole of your shoe, we claim our right to be happy, and if you don’t like it, you will have to come kill us.”
The group of men that signed this believed that they were signing a collective suicide letter. After all, they were eloquently communicating to the King in charge of the most powerful military on earth, that he can go screw himself. John Hancock, the name that is now synonymous with “signature” in The States, was the first man to put his name on this letter to the King. After signing, he supposedly said to congress, that having signed the letter together, they must now “all hang together.” To which, Benjamin Franklin replied “yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” How many people do you know like that in America now?
If you read the second sentence of this letter to the king, you find precisely what these men were willing to die for: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These men did not risk death so that their descendents could drive a more expensive car than their neighbors, these men did not sign this letter because they were willing to die in order to “keep up with the Jones’s”. They signed their own suicide letter because they were willing to die for the freedom to pursue happiness.
The very first American Dream was that of happiness. Do not forget that.
The American dream is dead, they say. My dear cousin, it is not dead. The imposter who moonlighted as the American Dream is dead. The American Dream is dead to those who interpreted it wrongly in the first place. If you have ever read the children’s tale by Hans Christian Anderson titled The Emperor’s New Clothes, you will understand what I mean when I say that the emperor had no clothes on to begin with. The American Dream that we were raised on was not the American Dream to begin with, and now it is gone-good riddance. Now that the false dream is gone and there is a void to fill…
That void is there for you to fill. How do you do it? By being yourself, by continuing to have the courage to be you, by greeting the naysayers, the pessimists, and the insecure mudslingers with a smiling “thank you.”
You can learn much from fools, but you must first believe in yourself. You must first trust in your ideals, and derive your strength from faith in those ideals, and from faith in yourself. Close your eyes, dream, dream of your own happiness, and go for it. Thank the people who say “you can’t” because they only say “you can’t” because they can’t, and their lack of courage will leave a more room in the world for you to fill with your own dreams. Those people give you a bigger canvas to paint your story on, and they will follow you as a leader when you prove them wrong.
Take a look to your left and to your right as you walk down that aisle and accept that piece of paper which you have dedicated the last four years of your life to earning. You have worked hard for this moment. Your courage has brought you to this moment. Remember that.
When you walk up that aisle, look at the faces around you. Look them in the eye. Most of those faces that you will see will spend the rest of their lives behaving no more courageously than sheep. They will take the road which appears easiest at every opportunity. They will avoid the risk of failure in attempting the bold, and in pursuing their own dreams. They will avoid falling short in their own pursuit of happiness, by not pursing it at all. Most will accept some fate which they think will allow them to live a life convincing enough in its happy appearance, in its happy façade. They will settle for something that feels secure, rather than working up the courage to dream, and pursue dreams. They will avoid the unknown because the unknown is scary to sheep, but the unknown is also the playground of lions.
The American Dream is not dead my dear cousin, it is alive in you. The future is yours to create how you see fit. Your own pursuit is out there, its waiting for you to jump into that beautiful chase. The thrills of that chase will never be known to most people, because most are too scared to engage.
The pursuit is not an easy path, lord only knows I have had my fair share of catastrophic “failures” along the way, but as Winston Churchill says “success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”, and I believe that with all my heart.
The whole-hearted pursuit of happiness is much more difficult, turbulent, and at times lonelier than accepting the fate of a sheep, but the things you will endure in your pursuit will make you stronger, and more courageous still. The things you will endure, will bring that goal of happiness closer with every moment.
You are cut from the same cloth as our grandparents, the pillars of our family, our direct link to the greatest generation. Our grandfather had no fear in sailing to the various corners of the earth, or in joining the Marines and serving in the South Pacific in WWII. He had no fear in sailing up the Mekong Delta with bullets and rockets whizzing past him, and he did it so that he could provide a better life for his kids, and their kids, for you and I.
Our grandmother has demonstrated the strength of a saint for our entire lives; she has been the calm, warm-hearted center of the dysfunctional and selfish universe which is our extended family. She has been the calm in the eye of the storm, the patron saint of a family awash in anti-empathy. She is the glue that binds us together.
You are descended from these two magnificent humans my cousin- these two members of The Greatest Generation. You share their blood, and you also share the same adversity which they were faced with when they were your age. Remember their courage, and remember that courage is in you. Do not doubt it. Do not doubt your courage, and if you do, remember theirs.
Someone much once wiser than I once said that “it is better to live one day as a lion, than it is to live a thousand years as a lamb.” Well my dear, which one are you? I know the answer to that question; I saw the answer in your eyes the day that I held you as a baby.
When you go up on stage to accept your degree, look around at the thousands of people who are staring back at you, expecting you to quickly disappear off stage right in an orderly fashion- a fashion that is fit for sheep. When you get up on that stage, stop. Take a moment, and have the boldness to look back.
Look those people in the eye, and remember the courage that brought you to that moment. Look at them, and remember their faces as they look back at you. You will see in their eyes that they are wondering what you will do. You will see in their eyes… you will see in their eyes that they have been waiting for you.
Your Proud Cousin,
The (not so) Quiet American…
Margaret River, Western Australia AKA The Land of Broken Boards…(and family pride)