What American Dream? My Search For Happiness In An Economic Wasteland

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

One at a time, I diligently pulled the push pins out of the sides of my cubicle walls.

I was revered in this office for the colors and personality that my tiny space contained. Photos of my family and friends, doodles and drawings, flowers perpetually perched on my desk. Figurines, model cars, books, lamp light and ambient light, comics, and a busy calendar marked up with X’s for days passed, white out and plans for days to come. Always changing. Nothing certain.

A blanket for my dog who had become a staple in the office for morale and therapy. A sign of happiness and unconditional acceptance. It was dubbed “The happy cube.” I was good with that. But today, it is being packed up into a printer paper box that feels just a little too cliché. It’s not the first time I’ve done this. It probably won’t be the last. I recalled the last time I signed the dotted release line thanks to the almighty Budget Cut, I sat outside a building in downtown Portland with a vase of cherry blossoms and a bowl with a goldfish named Roger. I sat alone, refusing to speak to my family, estranged from a horrid relationship, uncertain as to how I would obtain my next round of awesomely expensive anti-psychotics for Depression, contemplating things that losing an office job should never, ever make someone contemplate.

It’s a bit different this time. People stop by my cube as I take my belongings down. They have sadness in their eyes. I meet them with a hug, a shrug, and a high five. I’ve got a padded landing with ducks and dogs and a garden in a few months. I’ve got a family and friends. I have relationships, all of them functional. I have no pill regimen, nor self destructive addiction (unless you count hours lost on Doctor Who and Cosmos). I have more than a job. I have so much more.

I thought about my weekend with my family, with every photo and item I pulled down from the shelves of my desk, I replaced it with a vision from the last hours in my life that fell between Friday and today.

I pulled down the photo of my niece and nephew from the 4th of July, in red white and blue, sandals, waving an American flag with the anticipation of sparklers dancing in their eyes. As I put it in the box, I replaced it with a vision from yesterday, of when he saw me and how he smiled when I said I had comic books for him. And how we talked about Mars and the intent in his voice as he explained how exactly he was going to get there some day.

I thought of how my niece with the long Rapunzel hair twinkled as I held a duck for her to gently stroke, thanking my little black Runner for being so nice as to allow to be pet.

I reached for the framed photo of my family from three years ago, the family portrait that snapped in time to see me on the ground in the snow, and the rest of my family with mouths wide open, laughing heartily at my misfortune of slipping on the ice when running back to them, after setting the ten second timer on the camera propped up on a ladder.

I put it in the box, and I thought about my mother indulging in a plate of Pad Thai after being treated to a much needed manicure and pedicure by me. She’d sent me a text message the week before with a request for time together. After twenty nine years, my mother and I have a hard time finding a common ground in society, politics, or preferences. It took almost thirty years to realize our common ground is quite literally common ground—a small space to prep and plant lavender, discussing herbs and soil preparation, and digressing from productive talk to chatter of our favorite flowers. “This year,” she says to me as we drive to town, “this year is all about petunias.” I smile. She loves them. I love her.

She pointed out the striped tulips on the side of the road, and recalled one of the few memories I actually share . . . planting tulips in the fall with me, and letting me put the bone meal in with the bulb. I asked her when we’d get to see the flowers shown vibrantly on the package. “We have to be patient and wait for the Spring,” she said. “When these come up, we’ll know winter is over.” I jumped on my dad’s side of the bed every morning for months asking “Is it Spring yet?” I remember sitting on his side of the bed, still young enough to fit both legs into one of his cowboy boots, rising to my hip . . . while he put his shoes on I asked “Do you make looooots of money? Do you think you’ve made a million dollars in your life so far?”

“It doesn’t matter how much money I’ve made,” he said as he pulled on his shoe. “I made you. You’re worth waaaay more than a million dollars.”

I didn’t care. I wanted it to be spring so I could see red tulips.

I thought of my dad, and the labor of love he pours into a 1960 Chrysler Le Sabre. His meticulous polishing of yards of stainless steel and chrome. Sanding and painting and sanding and painting. A perpetual cloud of over spray and sanding dust following him like Charles Schultz’s Pig Pen. I thought of a day when I was eight or nine and I said “Your hair is gray!” and he said “No, it’s just over spray from white paint.” And I thought of the day about ten years ago when I said “Dad…you have a lot of over spray in your hair.” and he laughed and said “No. It really is gray now.” His mustache was the last to to turn silver. He takes naps now.

I don’t jump on his bed anymore. I never ask him about money.

I reach for the photo of my sister and I at a pumpkin patch a few years ago. Her eyes are the color of the sky. Mine match the mud. Locks of our hair blow in the wind in the photo, tangle into each other, they help the sky meet the earth, our sisterhood a horizon my parents forged. Our elements are all the same, but mix like oil and water. Some of the most beautiful color combinations, however, are complimentary. They live on opposite ends of the color wheel most of the time. But when they get together, the world is brighter and more beautiful because of it. She is a mother. She makes people. Cool ones. AMAZING ones. She was meant to. And if I envy my sister, it’s because she knows what she was meant to do and what she was meant to make. And she made them. A dare was put down, and she took it. She succeeded wildly.

I piled the graphic prints penned and painted by peer artists. I paid handsomely for all of them, putting cash in hands that crafted, skrimped, saved. Putting cash, earned doing something I tolerate with the hope of one day being able to do something I love, into the hands of those I respect and admire. The bold. The Brave. The ones who weathered the lingering subtext of useless, loser, poor, lazy, mooch, failure. They don’t have a nine to five. A 401K is a color swatch in Photoshop. A savings account is a mason jar in the freezer with mostly singles, fives, some twenties. A check to her from grandma that she doesn’t want to cash because her name is penned in her grandmother’s script, which will never, ever happen again.

I put my cash into their hands. I don’t feel it’s my cash anyway. I’m a temporary holder. I didn’t earn it. I begrudgingly collected it. I sold out for health insurance because the assholes took over, and raised the price of a band aid by seven million percent.

I ask them to sign their creations. I thank them. I envy them. I thank them. I know their road is bumpy too. But here, right now, this is their moment to shine, to please, to present their labor of love. And I thank them and I praise them and I support them any way I can.

That’s the American dream, after all. Before you earn the right to do what you love, you must do all you despise. Spend money you don’t have on an education you don’t need, to get a job you don’t want, to pay back the money you didn’t have, and to save what is left (there is never any left) to keep your body running, so that one day, maybe, maybe, the world can say “Okay, you’ve got your shit together. Now, if you can remember what it was, do what you love . . . I dare you.” And by then, you’re too scared.

We’re supposed to have it all together like our parents. But the system is wrecked. It’s in tatters. It doesn’t work like that anymore. The promises made to us mean nothing in an economic wasteland full of divided opinions and adults that act like children on the floral carpets of our Capitols.

CSPAN tells me there are red tulips on the floor of our senate, fed by the bones of the public, I despise them a little. It makes me afraid we are entering into the Autumn of our time as a country. We are the generation to plant the bulbs and feed them with bones, with only hopes that they’ll bloom for our children. And that they’ll gaze upon the blooms with beauty instead of cutting them and keeping them for themselves like those before us.

Our challenge, this generation, is not to gather "all the things," like we were taught. But instead, it’s to learn how to be with less. We have more information at our disposal than ever before, but less to hold on to. Less to fill our hands and pockets, we must grasp for anything at all that might fill our hearts.

I may never own a house or a new car. I feel like I’ve won a small war by sincerely being able to say “I’m okay with that.”

In spite of earning two degrees, spending the money I should have been repaying my mother with for kissing that boo-boo, 10 years late and about $50,000+, it’s not helping me right now. I am still emptying the walls of the Happy Cube, and it is becoming barren. I’ll take it with me, and those who came to appreciate it and perhaps envy it during my time here will be the ones in loss. Near a hundred applications have gone out, attempting to advertise my worth in education and experience, and no response. I should snatch those resumes back and say “My dad says I’m worth waaaaaay more than a million dollars!” If anything, it would get a smile.

And like that, I know what I want to make.

I’ve had 29 years of education and experience. I don’t need a Communications degree to say I Love You. And I don’t need a degree in Physics to know that my definition of time management is far different than that of most of America. I wake up slowly and wait to hear my ducks quacking as they wander down to the pond. I say good morning to my dog every day, and kiss him, and tell him to have a good day because his only job is to make people happy simply by being him. He’s my role model.

I don’t think about the office until I am within 10 minutes of it by car. I pass the tulips in my tiny town and wait for the day they pop. Maybe even today. I think about the pheasant I saw on the side of the road. I think about the fox I’ve been tracking. I think about the characters I have in my mind who want to dance out their story. I think about my ballet and the sweet agony it puts my feet through. I think about anything but my “job,” and it pains me to put my life away for eight hours to serve those who will never see me, to never get a smile in exchange for my time.

Today, as I think of my family and my life, not my job, while I pack up a temporary dwelling that brought joy to those around me at the cost of my time and stress . . . As I smile when I think about my family instead of wince . . . As I carefully pile up prints personalized, signed by them to me, remembering conversations with the artists, the way they get caught up and excited while telling you about their creations, the stories behind them, the worlds they are illustrating and bringing to life full of color and passion and inspiration, I taste a bit of their plight. A feeling of an uncertain pay date. The shadow of stereotype. The societal tint of failure. My twenties passing into the rear view mirror, a country on the verge of revolution, and a dare being spelled out in the dotted line of a Severance Agreement.

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