Tomorrow, I’ll celebrate the 4th of July. And like most Americans, I’ll celebrate not because I’m hyper-patriotic, but mostly because I like an excuse to miss work, spend time with family and friends, drink alcohol, and watch ‘splosions in the sky. But I do like America. I’d even go as far as to say that I like like America. It’s a great country with lots of wonderful people (there’s also plenty to criticize, but I’ll save that for Flag Day), and while I’m obviously biased because I’ve been privileged in ways that minority groups in our country haven’t, it’s a pretty nice place to live (there are lots of people who would disagree, but again, I’ll save those rants for another day). And, to be clear, no matter how much I hate war (spoiler alert: I really hate war), I will always be thankful for the men and women in uniform who have sacrificed, are sacrificing, and will continue to sacrifice for our country.
But, if I’m honest, the American Dream is bull-poopy. That’s overgeneralizing, of course. People have opportunities here that they may not get in other countries. A poor man working hard to build a business and escape poverty is still a beautiful thing. But that feels like the old American Dream. The new American Dream seems different.
Two years ago, my wife and I bought a 3,000+ square foot house (for two people and a dog) that we couldn’t really afford. Technically, we could pay all of our bills, but our house payment (and huge repair costs since the house was almost 100 years old) meant our savings account was small and stagnant. We were one unforeseen, expensive life event away from financial disaster. In a moment of weakness, I thought buying a big house and hosting cookouts with the neighbors was my heart’s desire. But it wasn’t. It was stupid. And for two years, my wife and I regularly wondered aloud why in the heck we bought that house.
Earlier this year, we seized our opportunity to escape. We listed our house, sold it in four days, replenished our bank account, and set up a budget that allows us to save money every month. We decided to move into a 1,100 square foot apartment on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. A lot of people questioned our sanity. “Why would you sell your house? It’s a wonderful house! What are you going to do when you have kids? Where are they going to go to school?” My dad even said, “Well, you have to buy another house at some point.” Really? I do? He meant well, of course. The American Dream for his generation was working a job that paid enough to give your family a nice home in the ‘burbs. And I did love my childhood. My dad worked his arse off for 30+ years to provide for us, and I will be eternally grateful for that.
But, as I said earlier, his dream isn’t the current American Dream. The new dream seems to be, as Chuck Palahniuk so eloquently wrote, “… chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
I’m not saying my American Dream has to be your American Dream. In fact, I’m saying the exact opposite. Define your own dreams. Don’t let our culture dream for you. I slipped up. I forgot my dreams and almost got stuck in a life that felt more like a nightmare. My hunch is that one of the reasons our country is so depressed and so highly medicated is because others have slipped up too. They’re living lives they never intended to live, and they know it. Or, at the very least, they feel it in their hearts and souls.
At first, I apologized for moving to an apartment downtown. I qualified it. “Oh, who knows, we’ll probably be there for a few months and then build a house, or buy a house, or blah blah blah.” I felt embarrassed and silly admitting that my dream (at least for now) is to live downtown in a small apartment that causes me zero stress and just enjoy life with my pretty wife and adorable dog. And it’s working. We’re really happy here. Whatever happens next, happens next.
And yes, you can raise kids downtown. And no, it’s not dangerous down here. And yes, buying a house in the ‘burbs is the right choice for some people. And no, spending money you don’t have to impress people you don’t even like is never a good idea.
You are the only one who gets to live your life. So you should probably dream your own dreams.
Oh, and enjoy those hot dogs tomorrow. We’ve earned them.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Brian Neudorff