A very personal thing

Aug 9, 2013 By Betty Starks Case

'American Dream' has different meanings

"Most (people) see the American Dream slipping away," reads the headline of a recent news article.

But don't we need to identify that illusive vision so we can recognize it when or if we should come upon it? Or if it should come upon us?

Because the world seems to think everyone is struggling to acquire the same dream fulfillment, I've searched for years for a one-size-fits-all definition.

Today, I conclude the American Dream is not a universal thing. Rather, it's personal. Each must find his/her own.

So does the U.S. Declaration of Independence declaring our right to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" offer assurance we might experience that dream?

The Declaration offers only the right to try, based on many things.

Personal versions of the American Dream today, I've noticed, vary considerably, from student loan payoffs, to a job that allows one to own a home, to simple survival.

Maybe the great vision is all in our heads, born of an easier life lived when the economy allowed us to expect more.

True, times have changed. But optimism still lives in those who believe.

The famous Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli reminds us, "With change, you learn something. If you do the same thing over and over again, you never learn anything."

The unsighted Bocelli has had to accept and deal with a lot of change.

For many of my generation, learning how one might advance from life in a tarpapered shack with no running water, electricity, phone, or indoor bath took us through change and experience that harshly challenged any American Dream. Ours gradually took form as we worked our way up. We built it as we went and as more became possible.

This difference in expectation is not the fault of the younger ones. Responders to a recent PBS documentary on the American Dream directed by Bill Moyers's crew are children and grandchildren of the generation that was reared in tarpapered shacks -- a defining thought.

These are the parents who declared, "I don't want my kids to grow up deprived as I did" --and made sure they didn't.

The U.S. government then determined that Americans should not have to struggle, to learn the strengthening experience of want, then declared a poverty level below which no one should descend. That program grew through more taxes.

Then, as now, not all were in agreement. I can still see my dad in jeans and chambray shirt, sitting at the old oak table on the farm after a hearty meal, saying, "American Dream? I never knew I was deprived until the government declared it so."

As for my generation, yes, we did live through some good years when interest on our savings paid off.

But first we "went without" to save the money that might earn such interest.

Add in the years of deprivation, the years of reality that tested and taught us the value of any job at all, a reason to save instead of using a credit card or going in debt until we could afford more, to work for room and board or at a part-time job so we didn't have college loans to pay off.

The common response goes, "But college was less expensive then."

The comparison is invalid. Everything was different then.

So I'll add a note that might help explain how a generation born to tarpapered shacks grew strong in the attitude shared in this column. Despite grim realities, they laughed a lot.

At breakfast this morning, my mate asked, "How are you coming with the column? What did you decide on for a subject?"

"The American Dream," I said. "Young folks believe it's slipping away."

He picked up the milk pitcher filled with almost $4 per half gallon of organic milk -- and somehow, it slipped from his hand.

The milk washed like a tsunami into my lap.

"@#^&!," he roared, frantically scrambling for towels. "How in h --did that happen?"

I kicked off my wet shoes and jeans and grabbed paper towels to help sop up the milk.

For some unlikely reason, I felt a small tickle in my throat.

How could I possibly consider this funny while I sat marinating in milk?

"Now what was the subject under discussion?" I asked.

"The American Dream?" he offered, a smile beginning to form at the irony of it all.

The tickle in my throat exploded in laughter.

A dream can morph into a nightmare. But only if you allow it.

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