U.S. Highway 62 Over the Cairo (IL) Mississippi River Bridge at the Mississippi-Ohio River Confluence

The American Dream is in the Eye of the Beholder

And so the decision was made. We would return to the American Rome. It wasn’t something we had envisioned or even considered just six short months ago. But we didn’t have much of a choice, really. Someone made me an offer I could not refuse. And even though the city was not on our list of favorite places, we were very thankful for the new opportunity that hastened our return. As it is often said, “Do not look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Life is always a mixed bag, although we don’t really begin to grasp this truth until we’ve passed around the sun for about four decades. Every place has its ups and downs, its good qualities and its bad. But in the end, the people make a place what it is; as I have written before, a place is only as good as the people who inhabit it.

The American Rome is a familiar place, a known quantity. It is like no other place in the world, for various reasons. We had lived there four times previously. This would be five. We had made the trip there and back, from one destination or another, too many times to count. The routes in and out, the roads, towns, landscapes and exits seemed to have blurred together over the years; indeed, over the decades.

What we have learned is that no city or town we have yet been to is going to be a permanent part of our version of the American Dream, and neither is the proverbial American Rome. To be certain, each place along our path has played its part and is a chapter in our family story. But we know if you are rooted in one place, then you’ve already experienced the best you’re ever going to experience. We have learned to never say never; those metaphorical roots are all good and well, but sometimes vastly overrated, and so we like to think the best is yet to come. Why? Because we’re open to change. We are open to life and the unexpected challenges it sometimes sends your way.

Accordingly, although I opened this dispatch by speaking about returning to Rome, the place itself is a story for another time. And it’s a rich well to draw from. But Rome is not my subject here, although it forms the backdrop and reason for this particular journey.

No, my topic here is the road to Rome and how when you finally realize that the journey — rather than the destination — is what’s important, you will become a happier person; when you finally realize this thing we call “The American Dream” is in the eye of the beholder, rather than some objective list of accomplishments and possessions that you must compare against your friends, neighbors, or family, you become free and unshackled from the opinions of others, indeed, the harsh and scathing opinions you sometimes have of yourself.

I’ve been down the road of the traditional notion of the American Dream. You know it; the one where you buy a home in some suburban neighborhood, and raise your children in it, become a “part of the community,” and live there for decades. Your kids go to elementary, middle, and high school in that same house, spend their summer vacations away from college there with you, get married and have children of their own, come home for holiday visits with their children, and you do all this until you pass away. I myself cannot imagine a more depressing prospect than living out my years in the same house where I raised my children after they are grown and moved out on their own, with all the mementos of their childhood and teenage years sitting around everywhere to remind me just how quiet, empty and cold the house now feels. And I am thankful we have managed to avoid it.

Now don’t get me wrong; we tried the packaged version of the dream a few times. It just never worked for us. We personally found that each time we tried to do it, places and people had this mysterious habit of subverting the dream. Whether it was a neighbor, an employer, a school, or a government, some thing or some person always seemed to get in the way of how the dream was supposed to play out.

Usually, as I’ve noted in other writings, it was the people. People can get pretty insecure and throw up obstacles to your happiness, in a job or a neighborhood. But challenges to the “dream” can take the form of all kinds of things. Looking back now with the perspective of 25 years since I met my wife and the things we have experienced with attempting to attain the traditional version, I personally believe the old example of the American Dream is slowly and surely fading into mythology.

No, today’s version of the American Dream is something you define for yourself. “Putting down roots” is all good and well, unless you choose the wrong place to grow those roots; the grass truly is not necessarily greener on the other side, as I have learned several times. Add to this fact your being a bit of a nomad with an itch to keep moving around, and it might just suit you to ramble about for a while until you find the right place. Whatever is best for you, just remember, there’s more than one version of the American Dream, and nothing compels you to conform to what everyone else does.

Indeed, a woman who was our neighbor a few years back made a telling statement once. We had just arrived in American Rome for our third stay, thinking we were going to be there for a long time. But life — as life so often does — intervened. And we made the decision to move away — indeed, to escape — as quickly as possible after having been in a new house in what we thought was the perfect neighborhood, just 18 months after we had moved in. I told the woman we were moving and a bit of the reason why, and she said, “Well, it must be very nice to have the ability and the flexibility do that, because most people don’t have the ability to do so.” I sort of nodded. What I didn’t say was, “Of course everyone has the ability and flexibility to do it. They’re just too afraid to extricate themselves from a situation that is not good for them or their family.”

By the way, that last observation goes not only for the town you live in, but it goes for everything else in life: Jobs, schools, teams, relationships, and even groups of friends; if some thing or some person is not good for you, you need get away from it or them. As soon as possible.

People are wising up to the pressure to conform to the American Dream and pushing back in other ways. For instance, the traditional notion of the American Dream holds that you raise your kids to be excellent students in school, so they can get into good colleges and universities, get a job after graduation, and have a “better life” than you had. Perhaps as recently as my generation — born in the tumultuous 1960s — that might have been true; it might have been possible.

But today, our children are attending college more and more and getting less and less out of it than ever before. Some say it might be better for them to skip college altogether, and I am starting to come around to their point of view. Why? Because a college degree is no guarantee of a job. And as even the New York Times has noted, schools have turned from places of objective education that champion the free exchange of speech and ideas — no matter how out of the present day mainstream the speech or the ideas might be— to money-making machines that attempt to indoctrinate students politically and socially. Students come out of college unable to relate to the real world and saddled with higher student loan debt than ever before, sending them out into society with a significant financial burden that has no end in sight, especially when they already have an increasingly difficult time finding employment.

Indeed, a number of observers have begun to challenge the absurd belief that a four-year degree is the only path to success. Mike Rowe, of “Dirty Jobs” fame, has campaigned for more would-be college students to enter trade schools instead, because there is a significant shortage of trade workers in America, which has in turn resulted in crumbling American infrastructure. The problem is, as many see it, trades suffer from several unsupported, negative biases, mainly, that the pay in such jobs is lower than “white collar” jobs. But as other observers have noted, the same four years most students spend taking out over $100,000 in loans to pay for college could have been spent earning a welding certificate or a nursing degree (with minimal student debt) that would lead to a job making $40–50,000 each year for nearly $100,000 earned by the time he or she would be finishing college.

If you want to work in a traditional white-collar job as a means to attain the so-called American Dream, then by all means do it. Just remember, there are several other paths to get to that same goal that will pay just as competitively and might just provide more opportunities than the extremely insular world of the white-collar worker sitting in his or her little cubicle and waiting for the promotion that leads to a glassed-in office. (Most of our kids have figured out that this is all bullshit, by the way.)

Don’t become wedded to the notion that your kids absolutely have to attend a four-year college in order to be successful. We personally know several people who have kids who checked the four-year degree box, have a pretty, framed degree from some “outstanding” institution of “higher learning,” only to find they can’t find a job and have to mark their time working in part-time jobs they could do as a high school graduate. Kids are finally wising up to this higher education racket, and are choosing to forego college.

The bottom line? Make your own American Dream. Each person defines it for themselves. Unshackle yourself from the tired and unsatisfying world of keeping up with the Jonses. Because if you don’t, you might make some money, get some nice cars, and have a big house, but you’ll find out that every one of your neighbors have everything you have (and perhaps even more), in this age of every one one-upping each other on Facebook. And in any event, your big house is going to get mighty quiet and empty after your kids move out.

So go out and create your own personal version of the American Dream. (And let your kids create theirs without your trying to control it for them.)

Glen Hines is the author of two books, Document and Cloudbreak, available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is presently at work on his third book, to be published later this year. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.

Fortunate son. Lucky husband. Doting father. Marine Corps Veteran. On a writer’s journey. Author of the Anthology Trilogy & Bring in the Gladiators @amazon.

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