The Land of Dreams

Posted on May 13, 2016

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What Happened to the American Dream?

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Years ago I was in Moscow teaching Aikido. I was actually had my 25th  birthday there. I remember it because that was the day Boris Yeltsin got elected and all of my friends sang “Happy Birthday” to me, in English, but not the old standard − they sang the Beatles version instead.  At the time, Russian society was still dominated by Communism. The KGB would follow us around and often close the venues we planned to use at the last moment, forcing us to reschedule. Clearly meetings of a hundred people or so made them very nervous. I have many memories of the fascinating process by which Russians dealt with these, for them, daily obstacles. This was way before cell phones or the internet. Calling back to the states cost $150. The Americans would stand around while our hosts debated, waved arms, and finally after an hour or so would reach consensus, turn to us and say, “So? Let’s go!” Like we had been holding them up. We still say that now and people all laugh.

We would end up taking government taxis (which may or may not decide to take you where you wanted to go), hitchhiking with one of the mere 50,000 cars that existed in Moscow at the time (people removed windshield wipers and mirrors when they parked, parts were so rare), private cars (I think there were two in the group), and mass transit − both subways and buses − which you sometimes had to pay for and sometimes didn’t. We would split up and take various methods, all meeting later at some predetermined spot. I now realize was just to make us harder to track.

At the time, people regularly carried  8 x 10 glossies of their kids skiing, dancing, doing whatever they excelled at. You would wave down a car and get in, and there on the seat would be these pictures and the Russians, who are so dour in public , would be so animated talking about their kids, their dreams.  Within 5 minutes every Russian I ever met, every one, would always say “My dream is….” I found this fascinating on so many levels. They would say “You can tell the Americans, they are crazy, always smiling and laughing in public,” and yet here were relative strangers telling me what is arguably the most personal, and important, thing a person can tell you.  Even at lunch the other day I was telling this story to Pavel, a Russian developer at work and he said, “Yes, this is true.”

They weren’t all “grand” dreams. The fellow I was staying with had one of the few cars in town. Driving with him was an adventure. You might make a right hand turn from the left lane across five lanes. His dream was to be a taxi driver in New York. I lost contact with him, I really hope he made it. He was a natural. (And by the way, I never met a pro-communist or a person who didn’t want to come to America. Which was a huge revelation to a kid who grew up during the cold war when every aspect of our culture was part of a huge propaganda machine geared to make use fear and hate Russians. )

This thing about knowing your dream and having it foremost in your mind really struck me, because I had never heard an American say  this, and this is the shining promise of America – the American Dream. So when I got home, I started asking people “What is your dream?” and many, most, people could not answer this. Maybe it is because we are too close to the teat, that we don’t have much to aspire to. This has always struck me as incredibly sad, that people raised here don’t even have the concept of a life dream.  Even people I met who were incredibly sad, if you asked them the one thing that would make them happy, they couldn’t tell you. How can you be happy if you cannot define happy? Yet many of our most successful citizens are immigrants, drawn here because this the place where dreams come true; they believe it, they make it so. It is sad and painful to see them vilified when they embue the very best parts of our culture − the ability to make your own destiny.

So I say, learn your dream. You can’t make it true if you can’t tell the story. Learn from our Russian friends who never lose sight of their dreams, even if they never achieve them. Ask your friends. Teach your kids. Commit to your dreams and those of your loved ones for isn’t this what it means to be free, and shouldn’t we celebrate our ability to do so? Otherwise, why are we here.

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Posted in: Essays