Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The American Dream

The media is telling me constantly that the American Dream is dead.  That no one can better themselves.  That no one can succeed.  I feel so confused.  Then how did I go from being the kind of kid who stole food to the kind of kid who gives people thousands of dollars when they are in a car accident just because I like them and otherwise they won't be able to pay rent.  How did that happen?  Noah.  I married up.

I feel weird guilt and shame over having access to Noah's money.  I feel bad talking about anything related to class because I am no longer poor.  I will never be poor again.  Noah comes from the 1%.  He isn't there himself... yet.  But from everything I understand about human development and financial success, Noah will probably get back there.  People who grow up with that kind of money learn how to make it.  They learn how to be the kind of person who has it.  And I'm just desperate and needy and I have a broken compass.  I don't have the ability to tell when something is "enough" sometimes.  Not money, drugs, sex ... Even though I'm not an "addict" by the classic definitions I still have a broken compass.  I don't know how much is enough or too much sometimes.

I don't have very many friends who are willing to live like Noah and I do.  We live really far away from everything.  We live in a house that is much smaller and crappier than we could technically afford.  We live here and we will continue to live here pretty much forever because I'm not willing to spend more money than the astronomical amount already spent on this house.  Noah mortgaged over a quarter of a million dollars on this house.  I think that's insane.  But it's really cheap for a house here.  It will be paid off before I am 40.

I got lucky.  I married Noah.  That was kind of sort of how I reached where I am.  But I also went to college and worked.  It's not like I would have been this wealthy as a teacher, but I would have done just fine.  I still would have felt like I made the American Dream.  Because my goals would have been smaller.  I got out of poverty.  I became the first one to be educated (high school diploma, BA, teaching credential, and 7 years of MA work).  To me that feels like I am done.  I reached the American Dream.  I went to college and I'm not in debt!  I paid it off within a year of being done with classes.  Because I was married to Noah and when I was working and he was working we had an obscene amount of money.

This is the part that is odd to me.  Noah doesn't make more money than our friends.  Most of our friends have combined househole incomes that are much higher than ours.  We live in the bay area.  Our friends are the ones who went to fancy schools and became computer people.  But no one else I know thinks they are filthy rich.  People complain about not being able to do everything they want or having to compromise on things.

I feel so confused.  I have to wonder if my compass is the broken one.  What do people think the American Dream means?  Do you think it means everyone gets to retire at 35 to free health care forever?  Permanent jobs with a high chance of retirement?  I don't consider it part of the American Dream that people have to own a house or make a lot of money.  I consider the American Dream to be the willingness to change your stars.

Everyone is born with a future that looks like it is obviously theirs.  They can take it if they want.  Or they can go make their own future.  They can be whoever they want to be.  They can rise in the world.  It doesn't mean that everyone will be filthy rich, but people who hustle can improve their lot.  I'm told it doesn't work that way for everyone.  That I am a fluke.

I get told that a lot.  Everything about me seems to be a fluke.  Why did it work out for me then?  Why do so many things work for me that other people say cannot be made to work ever ever ever ever?  For me this is part of feeling invisible.  I never know how to respond when I read things that say it is not possible for me to have done what I've done.  Do you want me to burst into flames?

Whenever I think of the American Dream I think of teaching The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby wanted Daisy.  He wanted to be rich too.... but mostly he just wanted Daisy.  He got rich because he was trying to earn Daisy's love.  Noah seems to feel the same way about me, which is odd.  It's weird living with someone who thinks he has to earn me.  I'm shit, aren't I?  Why would someone want to earn me?  Does that mean you try to coat yourself more heavily in flies?  Of course not.

Noah sees me as high status.  That is the American Dream, really.  It is the ability to change your social status.  I don't understand for the life of me why anyone would associate me with being high status.  Ok, I have access to a hefty bank account.  I didn't have that before Noah, though.  Why does that raise my status?  Why do I magically become a better person?

Why will people look at me when I am dressed nicely.  Why will people talk to me more now, even though I look increasingly weird?  Sometimes it seems like there is an aura that comes along with financial safety.  And other people recognize it.  It is a relieving of anxiety.  It's practically a difference in smell.  As if people who have to worry more have a more acrid body odor.  I don't think that's literally  true or real.  But there is some strange wall.

The idea of the American Dream mixed with being white trash is the crux.  It's about being told that I can't do things that I already have done so fuck you very much.  It's about feeling like it's not ok to be who I am because I am weird.  Because I have done things other people haven't, for good or bad.  Because I am just plain different and I don't know why.  It is hard to talk about difference without making it sound like being superior or better or aggrandizement.

Some people like chocolate.  I don't.  I like vanilla.  For variety, maybe peppermint.  Does that mean that vanilla is truly qualitatively better because I like it more?  Demonstrably not.  I don't think I am a better person than most other people.  Better than my sister, yes.  Better than mom, probably.  Other people?  Enh, not so much with the comparison.  I don't know what road they walked.  I don't know who tried to knock them down or how.  I'm not better.  But I have done different things.

I want to understand why I make different choices.  I want to understand that about myself.  I want to be able to hack the system.  I have big life goals.  If I want to reach them I am going to have to work very hard for a very long time.  I cannot believe the attitude that it is hopeless.  I can't.  I can't have the feeling about myself that seems to be common for my generation.  I think I can do fucking anything.  I already have.  I don't identify with deserving anything.  I don't think I deserve universal health care.  I think that when I needed insurance I had to find weird jobs that would offer insurance that I didn't really want to do.  But I had different options.

I benefit from enormous privilege.  I'm sure that most of the reason I was able to succeed is just because I am white and slightly above average in attractiveness.  I'm not stunning.  I'm not gorgeous.  But I'm cute.  And I'm bubbly.  And I'm a hard worker and a people person.  I had advantages.

I talk about being white trash because I don't think it is possible for someone of color to do the same things I did because I see how the deck is stacked against my friends.  They are fighting different wars.  They have to fight at all times covertly because they are watched.  They can't directly cause fights the way I can get away with.  I feel deeply uncomfortable with this knowledge.  That as I sit here in my smug pretention of "Well I succeeded!" Yeah... I did because of an intersection of lack and privilege.  I don't know that any part of my life is relevant to anyone else.

Who the fuck am I to talk about succeeding when I had the dog bite settlement that paid for an awful lot of my life.  When I smugly talk about cobbling together insurance I honestly feel kind of sick to my stomach.  I did it.  But I always had $14,400/year to live on.  Ever since I was 18.  Because I was attacked as a kid and half my face was ripped off.  I had a good lawyer.  I think I only had a good lawyer because I am white.

The girl who was born across the street from me.  B.  Her father was my lawyer.  He was my very best friends father.  B wasn't hanging out with the non-white kids on the street (her New York Jewish parents moved her out of that neighborhood when we were four).  He is an excellent lawyer.  I don't even think he took his full fee out of my settlement.  It was less than $100k in settlement but he invested it well for me.  I took that money and I changed my whole life.

My brother Jimmy was hit by a car when he was a kid and got a settlement when he was 18.  He spent the money on a raised truck, a killer stereo (that was stolen a couple months later), and a lot of drugs.  It was gone in a few months.

My brother Tommy was hit by a car when he was a kid and got a settlement.  Technically there is $6,000 left of it somewhere.  I'm thinking about claiming it as my father's dependent.  As an inheritance. Jimmy calls it dirty money and says he doesn't want it.  I think that money is fucking useful.

I suppose at this point my dream is to stop feeling so angry.  I want to be able to talk and think without being so full of bad feelings.  My stomach hurts.  I'm really tired of my stomach hurting.  I'm not special. I'm not better.  But I did things that other people couldn't do.  I feel like I should be proud of myself.  And I simultaneously feel like being proud of myself is somehow wrong or bad.  I should be ashamed of myself because I think I have done anything worth noticing.  What kind of self absorbed bitch am I?  Who the fuck am I to look down my fucking nose at anyone else?

I'm not looking down my nose.  I'm trying to figure out why I made different choices.  I wish I understood better when the choice moments were.  I am not responsible for where I ended up entirely.  It's accident as much as planning.  But if I wasn't in this house right now having a good life I would be in a different house having a good life.  My teaching job would still be stable financially even if the work was shitty.  I lived in an apartment I could afford on $20k/year and by now I would be making about $60k.  It would have taken a while, but I probably would have bought a house in cash in ten years.  About when I'm going to pay this one off instead.

Because somewhere, at some point I crossed a line.  I will never be poor again.  I have lost the habits.  I make different choices.  I can be broke.  It feels like a difference in attitude.  Do you know why I am not worried about my ability to succeed?  Because I walked into my first real job interview and said, "I know I am the first person you are interviewing and you have three days of interviews to go but if you don't hire me today I am not available.  Sorry."  I was offered the job an hour later.  I take a lot of pride in that.

Because the only time in my life I have ever failed at something I wanted to do was passing the MA final exam.  And really I probably psyched myself out so bad that I'm not surprised I failed.  Ugh.  It's obvious I know the material but I can't write enough for academia.  I never wanted to be part of academia, not really.  Having an MA would change my life.  I didn't want it bad enough to make that change.  That is how I feel about it.  Almost like the lit MA was wrong for me.  It would have changed my life choices in a way that would have been ultimately less helpful.

I'm starting to wonder if someday there is social work in my future.  That would be a different MA.  Ugh.  I'm not sure I can handle more school.  Ever.

I feel weird because I am alive during a Revolution.  These are interesting times.  And I don't feel like I have much to say as part of the Revolution.  That's weird and uncomfortable.  It's not like I'm watching Fox news or agreeing with them.  But I don't agree with a lot of the politics I'm hearing lately.  My opinions are just different.

I want to stop being so narcissistic and notice that other people aren't as similar to one another as I project.  I'm not a special snowflake.  I'm not more different.  But I think I am.  This is where the hubris comes in.  How can you believe with intensity that you are different without believing it is superior?  Do I think that other people should try to be like me?  No.  Things that work for me won't work for most other people.  I don't think other people would be ok with the amount of intense emotion my life contains.  I get the impression other people are more calm.

I feel like the American Dream was always a sham.  Look at Death of a Salesman.  Right there.  He believed that who you know and charisma will get you where you need to know.  It won't.  I only occasionally have charisma, mostly I alienate the shit out of people.  But I work fucking hard.  I work hard and I know how to game the system.  I wish I could teach other people the rules of the system so they could game it as well.  I don't think this should be a unique ability.

As crazy, as unstable, as difficult, as confrontational as I am... I do know how to shut up when necessary.  I just don't think it is necessary nearly so often as other people do.  I, in fact, think that everyone should make a lot more waves than they do.

I don't think I have "figured things out" or done things in some magical right way that other people don't do.  I think there is a way of developing your intuition so that you learn which choices are really not safe.  I avoid the unsafe twinges.  I kind of wonder if that is how I survived.  I was afraid at the right times.

I don't think that people necessarily understand that rage is often, at least for me, the flip side of terror.  I spend my life horribly terrified that something bad is going to happen to me again.  I am genuinely scared.  I shake.  It makes me angry that I feel this way.  That I am so scared of everyone and everything in the world.  I don't like that when people say things that make me feel invisible I want to hit them.  Obviously I don't do so.  That would be problematic in a whole new exciting way.  But I'm often not nice.

Nice.  There is that word again.  I wish I was unoffensive.  I wish I was nice.  Somehow it is magically better to be nice.  There is that American Dream again.  You are supposed to be a nice, quiet, middle class person.  But I'm not.  I'm loud.  I'm brashy.  I'm aggressive.  I'm trashy.  I like loud upbeat country music.  And Lady Gaga and Pink.  I like Steel Magnolias unapologetically.  I grew up rural and don't know city manners.  I really don't understand why my city gives a shit if I grow vegetables in my front yard and I think they can fucking sue me if they want me to stop.

Being nice feels like lying.  It feels like constant low level lying.  It means you never tell the full truth because the full truth is often uncomfortable.  You always leave stuff out so that other people never have to feel bad.  I FEEL BAD MOST OF THE TIME.  Why shouldn't I tell people the truth about how I feel?  Why should bad feelings be hidden?  Should they?  Is that what people want?

Let me tell you, if there is a time and a place where it is appropriate to sit around and tell stories about incest I've never found it.  Even therapy is only kind of sort of the place.  Because just sitting around and telling the stories seems to be un-useful.  But I sit around and drop those mentions into casual conversations.  Because that is what is in my head.  And it alienates people.  It's my truth.  It's my story.  I'm not actually hurting anyone by letting people know it exists.  But it feels not nice.

It is because I think my mental health is more important than other people feeling comfortable that I describe myself as white trash.  There is a self absorption that I witnessed in my family.  A way of seeing yourself as the central figure in this terrible tragedy.  A way of acting like everyone in the whole world is out to get you and everything bad that happens to you is part of this giant conspiracy.  Everyone is out to get us!  They all hate us!  They think they are better than us just because they have money!  Well fuck them!  We at least have pride!

It's weird and kind of sick.  There is an abnegation of responsibility for everything that happens to you that I don't understand.  Sometimes I want to slap my sister and say, "Ok so our dad raped you.  Time to stop dating men who are drug addicts because you are trying to get daddy to love you."  That.  That is a lot of what this comes down to.

Do you know how I survived?  Do you know how I attained the American Dream?  Because people told me that I was shit and I didn't deserve it.  And my response was to fight back.  It's not that I think I deserve anything.  I don't think I have stuff because I deserve it.  I have stuff (college education, money, no car loan) because I made them my top priorities and I didn't let anything stop me.  I want to say that nothing catastrophic happened to prevent it, but that's a lie.  Tommy's accident.  All the rapes.  Going to 25 schools before dropping out of high school at 16.  I did have catastrophic things happen to try and stop me as a kid.  But you just keep getting up and doing things.

And then some day you are 18.  And you leave.  And you never look back.  And with every choice I make I think, "What would my sister do?"  Then I do the opposite.  That's not actually true, but it's kind of funny to think about.  I did get out.  Do you know what my family gave me for high school graduation?  Pots, pans, a crock pot, towels.  They wanted me the fuck out.  They wanted me to go.  Because I was different.  Because I caused problems.

I don't even really feel like my family is white trash, per se.  When I'm being an asshole I include them in the collateral damage.  Mostly they don't want to be like me though.  They have other dreams.  They are hick and redneck and poor.  But they aren't white trash.  Mostly they don't have my aggression.  My sister does.  I would say without reservation that she is also white trash.  Not my aunt or my cousins.  They are just standing too close to evil, manipulative people.

So maybe being white trash is relegated to being an incest survivor?  That's not really it, but it factors in. It's so many things all at once.  It's not one thing.  When people feel defensive and try to tell me that my qualifiers aren't the right ones because they also fit those qualifications... Oh gosh.  I'm not trying to make you feel defensive.  I'm not trying to be not nice.  I don't know that at the end my definition of white trash will ever be useful for anyone but me.  I'm not sure it is applicable.  Ok, for my sister too.  But past us?  I can't know enough of someones story to judge.

I say I am white trash because I am always going to say things about myself that offend the shit out of the people around me.  They will always feel hostile about me saying the stuff I'm saying.  I can only control whether I say it or not.  And sometimes I can't control whether I say it or not.  I don't really understand why trauma has affected me in these ways.

I listen to Adele singing Someone Like You a lot lately.  I'm scared that some day my mom will show up on my doorstep.  I'm afraid she won't.

"I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn't stay away, I couldn't fight it.
I had hoped you'd see my face and that you'd be reminded
That for me it isn't over."

The problem with having PTSD is that it is never over.  I have to deal with what happened to me forever.  It will never be over.  I will never be over being a survivor of incest.  I will never get over being a dirty little street kid.  I will never be over being moved around constantly as a child and being prevented from properly bonding with people.  I will never be able to have that stop being true.  I will always have this part of me that feels empty and bad and like I am shit.

It's not over for me.  And it spurs me.  It makes me angry.  It gives me wings.  And I flew away.  For all that it isn't over, it is.  I have this husband who thinks I hung the moon.  I have wonderful children who love me and adore me.  I have already made other peoples lives better.

But as I watch the sun come up I question what this American Dream was meant to be anyway.  It's not the house that matters.  It's not the money.  The freedom I have is the freedom to say, "No.  You cannot invalidate me.  I exist.  I am different from you.  My life experiences have shaped me.  And I'm ok.  I do not need to change."  I'm white trash and I'm proud of it.  I'm proud of my ability to fight and over come adversity.  I'm fucking proud of myself.  I think I'm bad ass.  Noah thinks so too.  Does it really matter if anyone else does?

No.  But that's my American Dream.  I don't abandon my self label with my change in financial status because that would be too convenient for everyone around me.  They would like to pretend that people like me don't exist.  I feel like most of the people who are big parts of my life are fairly sheltered people.  Even the ones who were abused tended to grow up in mostly safe, stable places.  They had dads who were emotionally abusive assholes.  That kind of thing.  But they had consistency.  They still only know people who are mostly like them.  Except for me.

I still have to say that I am white trash because people try to excuse my behavior as being some sort of byproduct of unavoidable trauma, the poor dear.  People love me and want to comfort me and tell me that things that happen to me aren't my fault.  I'm a victim.  Well, sometimes.  But an awful lot of my current problems are my fault.  They are my fault because I choose to be aggressive and hostile.  Because I choose to remain white trash instead of catapulting to being middle class.  It's kind of a choice and kind of not a choice.  I'm not middle class anyway, I'm nouveau riche.  I skipped the middle class.  That is kind of weird in and of itself, isn't it?

When I try to think about what I want from my life I'm pretty happy though.  Everything I want is something that I could have.  I want to write and grow.  I want deeper friendships.  I want to have hard conversations with my friends about class.  I love my friends.  I want to find the ability in myself to feel like I have enough.  Like I am not still yearning.  Really, there isn't much left that I have to do.  Write.  Publish.  Wash.  Repeat.

But first, I have to go cuddle my perfect daughter.


  1. This was a really long post! I agree with whoever it was that suggested/requested shorter posts. My comment will also, therefore, be long and cover several topics. :)

    I feel like I should be proud of myself. And I simultaneously feel like being proud of myself is somehow wrong or bad.
    I am proud of you. Although I don't even know you that well. There are lots of others who do, who are also proud of you.

    Good for you for paying off school debt! I didn't know you'd spent so long working on the MA. Personally, I am anti-debt and anti-credit, and I think that education and a house are about the only things that are acceptable to go into debt for. (Look at me, all judgey-judgey!) Right now I am working full-time and taking a full courseload for my MLIS, so that the costs are more efficient. (I paid off my undergraduate debt a couple weeks before applying to the MLIS program, and I am budgeting and saving the same monthly amount now so that I will be able to pay off my grad loans within the 6-month interest-free timeline after I graduate.)

    Re: "the only time in my life I have ever failed at something I wanted to do"... I feel this a lot. I, too, am a white female of slightly above average attractiveness. I'm also smart and I can play the system pretty well -- I tend not to piss people off as often as you do. But in return I lack your aggressiveness that at least reads as confidence. I never would have pulled off your attitude in that interview. I am wildly impressed by that, and by your success in general. With my own success, I often feel like I need to face up to the fact that I am damn lucky. Except I sort of don't believe in luck. Let's say that some of it was my fault and some of it was due to outside circumstances that privileged or enabled me (like my father's profession, my schooling, the lack of catastrophic health issues -- especially while I was uninsured). However that distribution comes out, it's true enough that I have never had anything really, truly bad happen in my life. And when it seemed like it was heading that way, something happened to avert it -- a loan, a windfall, a connection, a realization or insight. I don't know what to think about that; in fact, it's uncomfortable to contemplate. I still think about it sometimes.

    I'm not very informed on the Occupy Wall Street movement, honestly. But what I'm hearing from people that I admire and respect is that it's not all about "poor me; I deserve better". Part of it is about all people deserving better. Looking at how other countries manage wealth and economy. Changing the system rather than teaching people to use the system as it is (even if they have the knowledge or skills or so forth to do it well).

    I know you have worked hard, and that you still do. I respect that. I don't think there are many people who have succeeded in the ways that you have, and so I can understand what you mean when you say that makes you feel invisible. I know that you know that there are other people who work hard. (Not all of the 99%, by any means, but a chunk of that.) When working hard doesn't equal a good job; when working hard means doing so for 60+ hours a week to support yourself and/or your family; when working hard is no guarantee that your teaching job won't be cut or that your test results won't come back clean... what then? Is that any way for a while country to live? Yes, your personal choices affect lifestyle and your future, absolutely. But it's not easy or even possible to succeed, sometimes, even if you make the right choices. That's the sort of foundational thing that needs changing.

  2. And then I went off and read your other post about what people deserve. I don't think I agree with a lot of your opinions there, so much of what I wrote above may not be relevant for you. That's cool.

    Because I accept that fight as being just life. Because I don't think I deserve anything better. Because I don't really think anyone else does either and fuck you if you think you deserve better treatment. I did not god damn deserve being raped over and over and over. But it happened.

    However, if you don't think you deserved to be raped (and I heartily agree there!), do you think other children deserve it? I think they deserve better. I think children deserve to be treated with affection and to be safe. I know for damn sure that not all of them are. But that's something that I -- and anyone who feels the same way -- can work to change.

    Where does that stop? Do children stop deserving civility and lack of violence when they reach a certain age? Does the child who deserved food and clean water when she was young and helpless and dependent on adults stop deserving it when she's old enough to hold a job? Do people really deserve their current living conditions? All of them -- rich or poor?

    Personally, I think you deserve better. I think everyone does.

  3. My metric for shorter posts seems to be "I am going on one topic in one sitting and hitting post" sometimes that means they are still long because I'm feeling gabby. :-\ Sorry.

    I love your comments and I am thrilled you are leaving them. I don't know if my tone will come across right, but I mean this to sound maybe slightly urgent and nervous sounding but not angry. Uh, just to clarify.

    It doesn't matter what people deserve. I want to type that about 50,000 times more. It doesn't matter. It matters *what we can sustain.* Our current system is unsustainable for a variety of reasons. Actually, I'm going to go start another post and answer you there. :)

  4. I love this. I am rich. I am fucking rich. My friends that make more money than I do talk about the rich as if they are not rich. I am rich. They are rich. You are rich. Money is fucking awesome. I'm so rich that I spent 18 months not working. That's pretty fucking rich. I can remember times that my life would have been smoother if I were rich then. Money rocks. It doesn't take a billion dollars net assets to be rich. I love being rich.

    I am not in the 53% and honestly that makes my messy life cleaner. I am probably in the 90%. My brother probably is in the 30%. I feel awkward talking about money around my family of origin, because I don't want my brother to feel bad about the ways our lives differ. That's what being nice is. I think that I'm nice. Being nice sort of /is/ lying. I pick my words so that I am not explicitly lying, but the people that hear my truth are infrequent. I skim over my truth so often that I don't really know how to tell my whole truth. Thank you for telling your truth, all the time.

  5. Why will people talk to me more now, even though I look increasingly weird? Sometimes it seems like there is an aura that comes along with financial safety. And other people recognize it. It is a relieving of anxiety. It's practically a difference in smell. As if people who have to worry more have a more acrid body odor. I don't think that's literally true or real. But there is some strange wall.

    That's pretty close to it, actually. It's not (mostly) a smell. But just like chimpanzees can see that another chimpanzee is high-status just from a photo, people can tell pretty quickly that you're high-status when they talk to you.