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The American Dream

November 30, 2009

Whether you have nothing or a lot, be thankful that you live in a land in which dreams are possible, in which you can do more than dreading your future.


“Everyone—By which I mean ‘not you’—is getting rich off the Internet,” humor columnist Dave Barry wrote in the summer of 1999 (“Internet zillionaires realize American dream,” Eugene Register-Guard, August 16, 1999). “We are constantly seeing stories in the media,” he continued, “about young Internet entrepreneurs who look like they should be mowing lawns for spending money, except that they have the same net worth as Portugal…When we read about these spectacularly successful young people—who, through their boldness and vision, have realized the American Dream, and in so doing, have created the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen, thereby benefiting all of us—we cannot help but express our gratitude as follows: ‘I hope they get leprosy.’”

            Well, Dave Barry soon found out that most of the Internet “zillionaires” of the boom years didn’t get leprosy but many of them did go broke or had to get real jobs at real companies in the years after the Internet bubble burst.

Many of us non-students can remember the lazy, hazy days of the last year of the last century when the economy seemed like it was meant to grow forever. This was before the panic of Y2K, the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble, before 9/11 and Katrina, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before the subprime and housing market collapses and the next rapid decline of the stock market. This was before the liquidation of Lehman Brothers, before the meltdowns of AIG and Fannie and Citibank, before the meteoric rise of China. This was before you could read books, magazines, and newspapers on your Kindle, before Madoff and the rescues of the banks and Freddie and GM and Chrysler with taxpayer dollars, before Tarp and the Stimulus plan, before the trillions of dollars the Treasury printed to pump up what’s left of the American economy.

Can anyone remember the American Dream of the last millennium, when a normal goal was to get a union job on a production line or go to college and become a professional something or other, when marrying in your 20s and having 2 kids, 2 cars, and a dog were worthy achievements? Before the last Great Depression, Herbert Hoover did not really call for a chicken in every pot but he did actually say, "the slogan of progress is changing from the full dinner pail to the full garage.” The motto today, on the other hand, might be an iPod or iPhone for every kid, an HDTV in every living room, or in California, Governor Schwarzenegger’s motto might be: “Pot for every cancer patient or at least every Hollywood celebrity.”

Today, so many in the Detroit area, even with our fledgling new film industry, don’t have much money for the finer things in life except the dreams of the good times of the past. Remember Hudson’s or Bob-Lo or Tiger Stadium or Crowley’s or even when the now-bargain-bought Silverdome displayed the sometimes-exciting Detroit Lions as well as the Pistons after Dave Bing left Detroit. Now, we pray for Mayor Bing to lead Detroit to some brighter future and just want to know now where in the world did Circuit City and Michigan National Bank disappear. We are left to wonder where our clothes and computers and TVs and even most of our cars are manufactured today, though we know most things sold in the US are probably not made in the United States anymore.

But this is the land we live in now; this is our land, this is our country. So what should we do about it besides worry? We can’t or shouldn’t spend all of our time focused on the fiscal nightmare of Detroit or the state of Michigan or California or the U.S. federal deficit for that matter. What can you do about it except twitter about it or put it on your Facebook page or blog about it when you get a chance?

Better yet, maybe you can do what 15-year-old Detroiter Trayveon McGuire does. A sophomore at Detroit’s Weston Preparatory Academy, he has amassed more than 1000 followers of Upfront News, a Twitter-based news outlet (“A visit on the other side of the tweet,” Amber Hunt, Detroit Free Press, November 29, 2009). Forget journalism school. McGuire monitors Web sites, wire services and TV news broadcasts and follows up on breaking headlines by attempting to verify the information. So when Tiger Woods got into an auto accident, Trayveon didn’t just accept the other news stories but instead found out Woods was being treated and released for injuries by calling the hospital directly.

Young people don’t just have to talk and gossip like our generation did. They can ask questions, find answers, follow up, and be inquisitive. Or even better, they can devote their time to giving, like 12-year-old Zach Bonner from Tampa, Florida, who said, “No matter how old or how young, how rich or how poor, you can always make a difference” (“Caring Kid Who Helps the Homeless,”, 11/30/09). Zach began at 6, collecting bottled water for hurricane victims, and at 7, was filling backpacks with food and toys for homeless kids. Last year at 11, he made a 1200-mile “My House to the White House” walk to raise money to house homeless youth.” Why does he spend so much of his childhood years helping the homeless? Because, he says, “there are 1.3 million homeless kids in America” and “13 die each day on the street.”

In this post-bubble, post-financial-hurricane we live in, there are, tragically, too many people without jobs, especially in Detroit and in most of Michigan, and too many on the streets. Thankfully, there are kids and adults like Zach who know that their American dreams are to help make the lives of other kids and adults a lot better. Just ask Jorge Munoz, a school bus driver who was once an illegal immigrant from Columbia who became a US citizen in 1987 (“Feeding the Hungry,”, 11/30/09). With what he has saved from his modest bus-driver salary, Jorge buys food, helps cook it and personally delivers it every day for the last five years, providing free meals to the hungry in Queens in New York City. Every single day, rain or snow, hot or cold, Munoz serves chicken and rice and hot chocolate and coffee to the poor from the back of his truck parked under an elevated subway stop.

So who says that the American dream is to be the next Kim Kardashian or any other talent-less celebrity followed by millions? I like to believe that the American dream is best achieved by a 3 foot tall 30-year-old man with short arms and mangled legs. Born with brittle bone disease, Sean Stephenson was supposed to die within 24 hours but after hundreds of fractures over his youth, he decided that he would teach others to love life amidst the pain (“Sean Stephenson’s Inspiring Voice,” Investor’s Business Daily, 11/27/2009). Now, he gives 40 to 50 talks a year for a minimum $10,000 per appearance, is a therapist, and has written four books including his newest, “Get off your ‘But:’ How to End Self-Sabotage and to Stand Up for Yourself.”

Stephenson said his “mission is to rid the world in my lifetime of insecurities.” He wants you to stop using crutches and to stop thinking “you’re not smart enough, rich enough, good-looking enough, thin enough” and stop using any of these as excuses “why you don’t have what you want.”

So if a 3 foot tall cripple can aspire to create a summer Confidence Camp to teach children self-esteem, why should any of us lack inspiration to make our own American Dreams come true? It doesn’t matter if American manufacturing is crippled or the economy weak or Detroit in the dumps or even if we just can’t seem to find a job anywhere. The American dream is meant to be just that, a dream, something we can live for or aspire towards.

12-year-old Zach, 15-year-old Trayveon, 30-year-old Sean, and 45-year-old Jorge are all examples of the American dream as they live without excuses while they help the homeless, report the news, inspire and teach others, and cook and deliver food with little money to those who have nothing.

Whether you have nothing or a lot, be thankful that you live in a land in which dreams are possible, in which you can do more than dreading your future. We have the opportunity to start today by doing something that moves us toward some small success. We can think of Zach or Jorge and do a little mitzvah for someone else and build upon that. Think of Jorge who works a regular job but makes sure his life is more than just a daily bus ride. Imagine what pain and discomfort Sean has to live with and yet how he manages to help others and create an incredibly successful life of money and mitzvahs and yet is still not satisfied. His dreams now include starting an orphanage called Adopt An Angel that would be based outside the U.S. in a developing country, "where we can show the power of what it's like to raise a child with a disability."
            The American dream is whatever you make it. It’s working a boring job while you write or sing or play music on the side. It’s fund-raising for people who need help. It’s raising your voice and letting those in power know what you think. It’s being grateful and happy no matter what your livelihood is. It’s inspiring others with your words and your actions. It’s coming up with an idea that no one else has created, dreaming of what you can uniquely bring the world, and then taking a small step to making it happen.

You might not be inspired by exceptional people like Trayveon, Zach, Jorge, or Sean, wondering how you can really make a difference. But you can. It doesn’t matter what your age or race or physical capability is. The American dream is only measured by your heart, no one else’s.

You may never be a zillionaire but no one can tell you what your dream is and no one but you can take it away.

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