The American Dream reconsidered

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The American Dream has different meanings to different people. What’s your definition?

On a recent Saturday night, eight thoughtful adults from different walks of life gathered around a dining table to discuss what the American Dream means to us.

Sounds simple enough, right? But maybe not, with rising housing prices, uncertain job prospects and structural economic changes causing ripples of concern from millennials to boomers.

Countless movies have been made, books written and speeches given about the American Dream. But how often do we stop to think about, much less articulate, what the term means to us individually as well as to society as a whole?

epic-of-americaJames Truslow Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian, coined the term in his 1931 book “The Epic of America.” Adams wrote that his  American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

Politicians are fond of conjuring gauzy notions of upward mobility that revolve around home ownership, typically a suburban ranch home with a lawn and a white picket fence, occupied by a married couple with two kids, and a car or two.

Those with a more critical view take issue with this image of conformity and complacency, often pointing to socioeconomic and cultural divides that keep many Americans from achieving their own version of the idyllic life.

Dictionary.com offers a contemporary definition of the phrase:

1. the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American.
2. a life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U.S.

As the eight of us went around the table, I looked forward to hearing how each person framed his or her understanding of the American Dream. Call me a nerd, but I thoroughly enjoy discussions like these that shed light on our personal histories, illuminating our  differences and commonalities, and offering new perspectives to consider.

***

Even before we began, I could see we were hardly a representative group: Three professors with PhDs, two medical doctors, an advertising professional, a small businesswoman/personal trainer (that would be Lori) and myself, a lifelong journalist now doing adjunct teaching and part-time work in communications for an education nonprofit.

All (or nearly all) of us live in Portland’s eastside neighborhoods, eight college graduates nestled in the city’s liberal cocoon, ranging in age from the mid-30s to the early 60s, and not a single one of us born in Oregon. All of us were raised in cities, or at least near them. One of our hosts lived abroad for several years but moved back to the United States to attend college.

I’d be hard pressed to fairly summarize each person’s take, but I’d venture to say there was general agreement with the idea that the American Dream is malleable, capable of being pressed into different interpretations without losing its original meaning.

Predictably, many of us first viewed the American Dream through the eyes of our parents, some growing up in the middle class with college-educated moms and dads and others aspiring to get there from the working class.

Lori spoke of her dad, the son of Slovenian immigrants and the only one of his siblings to attend college, and her mom, the quintessential ’50s housewife of mostly Italian heritage who also worked outside the home in various retail jobs.

I shared my perspective as the son of Mexican-American migrant farmworkers who didn’t have an opportunity to attend high school. My father became a factory worker and a stationary engineer, operating the boilers and other mechanical systems at an inner-city hospital. My late mother raised my two sisters and me while working as a seamstress and, later, as a taxi driver.

Each had eight siblings. To their credit, they were the only ones in their families to move away from the Salinas Valley to make a life for themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. We grew up initially in a blue-collar town with a large Latino population, then moved to a white, middle-class suburb where the schools were better, the streets wider and cleaner, and the community character was pretty bland.

 

So what does the American Dream mean to me?

I offered a modest vision, couched in terms of financial security, physical safety and psychological freedom. I want for Lori and me to be comfortable now and in retirement, knowing we can pay our bills and have something left over. I want to be healthy and secure in our home and neighborhood. And, I want to know I am able to think, read, travel and act as I please.

But I also realized that definition was incomplete. I was being too selfish. I wasn’t accounting for anyone else’s well-being other than my own and Lori’s.

We’d been invited weeks earlier, so I knew the topic would arise. And in the days before the dinner, I reached out to a few friends and family members for their take.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

“It’s about a comparative level of comfort in this world — financially, ideologically and otherwise — and being afforded great opportunity….Even at my weakest points in life, I’ve had relative comfort and opportunity simply because of my birthright.  I think that along with comfort and opportunity comes the responsibility to help create opportunity and comfort for others — even if that’s as simple as doing our best with what we have so we can reserve resources for others in true need.”

“When I think of my American dream, it is one of collective prosperity–not one where you just earn enough to take care of yourself. [My spouse] and I talk frequently about the inherent selfishness of our economic system. That kind of thinking (and behavior) leaves others behind….I want a fully integrated and prosperous society where there is no single model of success, but rather, endless ways to contribute.”

“After years of pursuit of the elusive American dream, I have come to believe that it is a  utopian pursuit and a self-destructive ideal. It elevates self as a deity, and leads one to using people as objects and relationships as a means to an ever moving destination. I choose to pursue God and Love instead. The pursuit of love sees people and relationships as the destination.”

And then there was Lori, asserting that her version of the dream calls for racial harmony and tolerance for all.

***

I was humbled by these perspectives and grateful for the chance to reconsider my own notions of the American Dream.

As a homeowner, college graduate and white-collar professional who climbed from the working class into the middle class, I’d hasten to say I’ve already realized some aspects of the dream on a personal level. But I also know without the love, support and sacrifices of my parents — and my wife of 41 years — it surely would not have been possible.

Their gifts, coupled with the recent conversation, remind me to think outside myself and to rededicate myself to the cause of helping others achieve their dream.

I’m thankful that I have two platforms for this. One, by working directly with college students, many of whom, like me, are the first in their family to attend university. Two, by working on behalf of Portland-area high school students, particularly those at high-poverty, high-diversity schools where many are first-generation immigrants.

Not everyone is so lucky as to be in position to have an influence on their future.

Photograph: H. Armstron Roberts/CORBIS

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A weekend with Charlotte

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Princess Charlotte on her best behavior in the kitchen.

It’s obvious to any reader of this blog that I’ve fallen hard for a furry, feisty little creature named Charlotte.

We adopted her nearly two years ago from a nonprofit here in Portland. She’s a Terrier/Pug/Chihuahua mix with a big bark and a personality to match and, lately, it seems that Lori and I love her more each day.

I suppose that’s the result of her being the only dog in our household since our beloved Otto died in late July. With him gone, Charlotte’s the sole focus of our attention. (Well, we have a cat too, but Mabel is content to hang out alone upstairs, one floor above all the daytime action.)

Lori was away for a few days over the weekend, so it was just Charlotte and me. I looked forward to it, knowing she’s easy to take care of and would appreciate some extended one-on-one time.

(Click on images to view captions.)

The blustery, stormy weather we’ve had recently put a crimp in plans for any long walks, but we still managed to get out regularly around the neighborhood. Though she’s improved greatly about this, she still reacts strongly to other dogs and we often have to change directions or cross the street to avoid confrontations.

I’m sure neighboring dog owners wonder what’s up with the little black dog that gets all tensed up and barky. I wish I could tell them. But because Charlotte is a rescue dog who was initially picked up on the street with her puppy (yes, she became a mother when she was about a year old), we don’t know her back story at all. Undoubtedly, there are some negative memories triggered by seeing other, mostly bigger dogs.

But we accept her — and love her — exactly the way she is.

Charlotte sleeps on our bed, near our feet, happy to no longer be confined to a kennel. In the morning, she crawls up between us for a head-and-ears scratch to start the day. A minute later, she’s rolled onto her back, paws up in the air, and her snaggletooth protruding from below her curled upper lip.

At times I ask myself, “Why do Iove this dog so much?” After all, we’ve had some great pets through the years, both dogs and cats, and every single one of them was easier to care for than Little Miss Charlotte.

I guess my affection for her stems partly from her size. At roughly 14 pounds, she’s the smallest canine we’ve ever had. I am acutely aware of her beating heart against the palm of my hand whenever I carry her in my arm like a football. Nothing like feeling life itself.

During the day, she likes to play fetch with any of her soft toys, growling to let you know who’s in charge. At night, she’s docile as a lamb, happy to curl up like a cat or stretch to her full length on our legs.

When we first got her, her coat was a little ragged and she recoiled if you tried to touch her paws. Now? She’s smooth and sleek and trusts us enough to massage her paws.

Lori is due to fly home this afternoon from the San Francisco area. I don’t know who will be happier to see each other. But I do know I’ve enjoyed having Charlotte to myself for a five-night stretch. She may be a rascal, but she’s our rascal.

VOA 6.0 meetup

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Another year of stellar writing by a diverse group of guest bloggers, ages 12 to 70. (Photograph by Taylor Smith)

 

 

If Voices of August were a child, she would be in kindergarten by now.

VOA, as this annual guest blog project is called, debuted on August 1, 2011, at a time when I was working at The Oregonian as a web editor focusing on community engagement. I had taught a couple of introductory communications classes (weekend mini-courses) at Portland State University that prompted me to start a personal blog and led to the subsequent birth of this project.

Fast forward to October 2016 and consider how things have changed or come full circle..

I’m no longer at The Oregonian, having accepted a buyout offer at the end of 2015.

I’m back at Portland State, this time teaching a full-fledged, upper-division class that meets twice a week.

Meanwhile, Voices of August just notched its sixth year. A week ago Saturday, about a dozen of us bloggers, along with spouses and other supporters, came together at a Northeast Portland brewpub to celebrate a remarkable collaboration: a month-long feast of writing, reading and reacting. (Yes, this is one place where you actually can read the comments and not have to take a shower afterwards.)

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Each day, I post a guest blog that’s been written by a friend, neighbor, relative or former co-worker on a subject of their choice. Many of us are professional writers but most are not. And that’s the beauty of this thing. The variety of topics and writing styles flows from the fact that people write from the heart as much as their head, from their personal experiences and professional perspectives.

Since VOA began, about 70 people have participated as guest bloggers. Among them: teachers, professors, musicians, lawyers and documentary filmmakers. Contributions, totaling nearly 200, have come from several states and even a smattering of foreign countries: Vietnam, France, Slovenia, Poland and Texas. (Kidding. Just kidding.)

Looking back at my initial entry on 8/1/11, I launched VOA with three reasons in mind.

  1. I expected it would be fun. Boy, has it.
  2. I thought it could be a teaching tool. Indeed, I’ve learned much about online communication that I’ve applied to my work and social media.
  3. I knew it would bring more diversity to the site. Duh. When you invite people of different ages, races and ethnicities, people who represent different generations, bring varied life experiences and a constellation of passions, well, you wind up with something pretty special.

VOA is like opening a new gift every day. You never know if you’ll read something light or heavy, funny or sad, something universal or deeply personal — but you know it’ll engage you. This year, people wrote about their mothers and their cats, about politics and immigration, about love and loss, about pregnancy and a years-ago fishing trip gone bad.

Call me biased, but I think this year’s batch was the best ever. (I know, I know. I said that last year too.)

At month’s end, bloggers and regular readers cast votes for three favorite pieces — whatever resonated with them for whatever reason — and five were judged the most popular. In no particular order, they are:

“The memory keeper” by Gosia Wozniacka, writing from Poland.

“Rhubarb summer” by Jennifer Brennock, writing from Orcas Island, Washington.

“Night on the Kahawai” by Tim Akimoff, writing from Salem, Oregon.

“American internship in the shadow of Yellowstone” by Aki Mori, of the Portland area, and “My visit to Heart Mountain” by his 12-year-old daughter, Midori Mori. Both reflected on their family’s summer visit to two historical sites in Idaho and Wyoming where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.

A tip of the cap also goes to first-time VOA bloggers Anne Saker, Elizabeth Lee, Sue Wilcox, John Killen, Michelle Love, Maisha Maurant and Gosia Wozniacka.

Final word: Last weekend’s gathering at McMenamin’s on Broadway meant renewing friendships and making new ones between sips and bites and much goodwill. It was great seeing friends from Washington, Oregon and California.

For me, though, the best takeaway from VOA 6.0 was the thank-you note I received from Midori the day after our gathering. In it, she said she had always imagined that the only way to innovate for future generations was as a top government official such as senator or president.

“But the fact that I was given much positive acclaim in my essay moved me to a new perspective I have never once perceived,” Midori wrote. “It was the fact that such a small action, as to writing a blog entry, had moved and altered many people and their way of thinking. I, only being 12, have much to discover in this universe. However, I am grateful to know that my writing was just the beginning.”

If you missed Midori’s piece or want to re-read it or any of the others published this year, visit the VOA 6.0 index page.

None and done

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Losers.

There’s a saying common among disappointed fans when their favorite sports team works hard to make the playoffs, then loses a single game and — poof, just like that — is done for the season.

It’s called “one and done.”

This year, my three favorite Major League Baseball teams mustered a collective “none and done.”

Meaning? They didn’t even reach the playoffs. Not a single one of them.

With the 2016 MLB playoffs swinging into action this week, I’ve got no one to root for.

  • The Oakland Athletics were weak all season and finished last among five teams in the American League West Division with a sorry record of 69 wins, 93 losses.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates never really got it together and finished third in the National League Central Division with 78 wins, 83 losses.
  • The Detroit Tigers came close with 86 wins, 75 losses, good for second place in the American League Central Division, but not quite enough to earn of the five playoff spots.

The Tigers went out with a whimper, losing their last two games to one of the worst teams in baseball.

I had high hopes for the Pirates, since they had made the playoffs the last three years and seemed poised to make another run. Instead, they faded during the second half of the season and wound up losing 16 more games than they had the previous year.

Early in the season, I had the good fortune to see four baseball games in three cities during a five-day span in May.

I was so excited to see the Pirates play at home twice — and so bummed to see them get whipped twice by the Chicago Cubs.

Likewise, I traveled to Cleveland to see the Tigers on the road. They, too, got hammered.

I didn’t make it down to the Bay Area this year. Otherwise, I’m sure, I would have see the A’s lose, too.

Ah, well, it’s just a game.

This year, I hope the Cubs finally make it to the World Series and win the championship that’s eluded them for 108 years. Sad to say, the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908 — and haven’t even played for the championship since 1945.

No longer a doormat, they were the best team in baseball this year, racking up 103 wins en route to the National League Central Division championship. They have all the pieces this year — great pitching, great hitting, a good balance of speed and power, and a smart manager. If they don’t win it all this year, I don’t know when they ever will.

As for my trio of also-rans, here’s hoping for better results in 2017.

 

 

 

Becca becomes a bride

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The newlyweds: Jeff and Rebecca Olson.

Two weekends ago, Lori and I settled into plastic folding chairs, draped with purple fabric, in a pasture flanked by a 19th century Victorian farmhouse and a row of tall trees shielding us from the late-afternoon sun.

There on the grounds of the Clackamas River Farm, we were gathered with dozens of other guests for the wedding of Rebecca Wilcox and Jeff Olson.

Rebecca is the youngest daughter of our longtime friends, Eric and Sue Wilcox, and known to one and all as Becca. She was born just days after our youngest son, Jordan, and they’ve been friends virtually their entire lives.

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Childhood friends Becca and Jordan.

We’ve seen her grow up along with our own kids, transforming from a chatty, curly-haired little girl to a chatty, beautiful adult. (And I say “chatty” with affection.)

On this particular Saturday, she was beaming. As she should be, surrounded by friends and extended family at a sprawling 45-acre venue about 30 miles southeast of downtown Portland.

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An 1890 farmhouse anchors the scene at Clackamas River Farm near Eagle Creek.

Becca walked in on the arm of her dad, who no doubt felt mixed emotions — a sense of fatherly pride combined with loss of a daughter and the addition of a son-in-law to the Wilcox clan. Her mother, I imagine, probably saw a lot of herself in her daughter, who has followed her into the teaching profession. Both are outgoing and dedicated to family above all.

Scott, the older of two brothers, officiated the ceremony with efficiency and humor. Steve, the younger one, delighted the crowd with a reading from Robert Fulghum’s, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

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Eric and Sue at the May 2013 wedding of their eldest son.

Lori and I were happy to be there, doubly so when we reminded ourselves that we’ve seen each of the Wilcox children get married. Likewise, Eric and Sue have seen two of our three kids get married. (Who knows if the third will someday go down that path?)

If that isn’t a sign of a great friendship that’s spanned almost 30 years, I don’t know what is.

The wedding and reception went quickly. As night fell and the stars came out, the focus of attention shifted from cake and pies to the dance floor, where guests moved to a playlist curated by our DJ son, Nathan.

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The Rede brothers, Nathan and Jordan.

Weddings, like births, are an occasion for celebrating a new phase of life. They give us a chance to express our fondest wishes for happiness, good health and all that comes with being a couple legally committed to each other.

We felt privileged to be there and delighted for Becca and Jeff and their immediate and extended families.