Wednesday, August 24, 2011

They Teach "the American Dream" in German High Schools!

I sat next to a pretty young woman on a bench in Madison Square Park in New York City the other day and saw she was reading a guidebook of the city. To practice being on the road and striking up conversations with strangers, I asked her if she was a visitor to the city.

Her lovely brown eyes lit up, and she smiled. It turns out that she was born in Germany of Turkish immigrant parents and that her dark brown hair and eyes still cause the fair-haired, blue-eyed German majority to look at her a bit longer, walking down the street. She loves the diversity of this city.

I learned that “the American dream” is taught in German high schools! As I questioned her about it, it seemed that the course covers something more like “the American experience.” The course teaches the European immigrants’ dream of owning land and the subsequent conquering of the frontier. It teaches the reverse of that coin, the herding of the original inhabitants into reservations. The African-American experience is taught, from slavery to emancipation to institutionalized discrimination to Langston Hughes and his dream drying up “like a raisin in the sun” in Renaissance Harlem.

Germans do not have an equivalent “German dream,” though people do want to make enough money to live. Is it possible that Hitler’s disastrous dream of “Lebensraum,” the conquering of adjacent countries to give Germans “living space,” makes Germans today cautious of entertaining dreams that they are afraid might be too ambitious?

This young woman, Feruzan, married to a professor of economics who hopes to teach at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, said Germans have more of a community mindset and are less individualistic than Americans about making huge financial gains. The ideal, she said, would be for individuals to make their economic dreams come true and then share it with individuals who were not as lucky in achieving their American dream.

She asked if something that’s not economic might replace the old American dream. A value besides making lots of money.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I'll Go on a Bus Tour to Find the Essence of America

I’m planning to finish my bus tour of America to find out how people are defining success, or “the American dream,” for themselves.  I’m wondering whether they’ve had to downsize their dreams or abandon them altogether.

I’ve set aside October to do it.  I’ll buy Greyhound’s one-month hop-on-hop-off ticket for $535 and stay in Motel 6s and Red Roof Inns and HoJos.  I’ll carry a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter to make breakfast easy every day.  I’ll take my laptop and blog daily.  I’ll gather lots of stories about the people I meet and local color and put them into a fantastic book, “In Search of the Essence of America.”   Or, “The American Dream at Risk.”  Since our dreams for the future drive us, they’re our essence.  And it seems our dreams for the future are under pressure from new realities.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

My Dad Lived the American Dream

My father passed away on April 5, one week after I got home from Savannah.  Hospice nurses told me before I left to go ahead and take my trip to Savannah, and they were right.  I had a chance to be with my Dad one more time before he died.  As I kissed him goodbye for what turned out to be the last time, he sat in his wheelchair and said, “Take care of yourself.”  It’s become a holy mission that I don’t always fulfill perfectly.

I gasped when I got the news of his death.  I listened to the message from my brother on my cell phone as I walked on East 66th Street, just west of York Avenue, after I left a job search interview.  My life is interwoven with New York City.

Everything happened in the next four days:  viewing, funeral, burial at Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.  I was amazed at how strong I was – no tears.

But looking back, I see that I have felt a constant tug at my heart, an undertow of grief that destabilizes me.  The death of a parent is very big.

My Dad lived the American dream, as it was defined in the 30s and 40s, when he grew up.  He started his first job just one week after high school graduation – people were in a hurry back then to get started on the American dream.  His first position was lower than the secretaries – he added columns of numbers, turning a crank on a mechanical computer.  After many struggles, difficulties, and bitter disappointments when he was passed over for promotion, he retired at age 62 from a corner office in a skyscraper in New York City’s financial district, near Wall Street. 

He said the secret of his success was hard work and perseverance.  He told me to keep my shoulder to the wheel, my eye to the future, my nose to the grindstone and my ear to the ground.

I’ve maxed out on his principles of hard work and perseverance and have been laid off three times in the past eight years, twice due to a merger and once due to a corporate bully having her way.

Will my generation (boomers) and our successors do better than our parents?  Probably not, for the first time in American history.