Are the Wheels Round? Thoughts on the American Dream

It’s been established that I play a little tennis. And recently, my team played a match at a swanky country club surrounded by even swankier homes. And for a few minutes, after finishing my match, packing up my gear and re-fueling on a granola bar, I watched a young man hit tennis balls with one of the pros. The teen wore a t-shirt with the name of an elite private school. He was a decent tennis player and most likely a nice boy with a bright future.country club

But imagining his future did manage to turn me a bit green. He evidently lives a privileged life filled with opportunities like private school and private tennis lessons at a lovely suburban country club. I wished in that moment that I could give my children access to such privilege. Don’t misunderstand. We’re not broke. And our kids go to very good public schools. But I don’t see myself as wealthy and sometimes feel I lack the ability to provide access to a “good” life. Therein lies my problem.

I’m the kind of person who is impressed when another parent says their child goes to Stanford or Notre Dame. And yet, telling someone your offspring goes to an elite college really says next to nothing about your child. It maybe tells me that your child is intelligent and possibly even hardworking. It certainly tells me that your child is privileged. But where someone goes to school doesn’t say anything about whether that person is honest, patient, kind, generous, loyal, joyful, gentle or self-controlled.

So in essence, my jealousy–spurred only by my perception–of the young tennis player, mainly signals my desire for privilege in my own life. Whoa.

MercedesYears ago–before we had children–the hubs pondered a job opportunity in Nebraska. We were living on the west coast at the time and I joked to my grandfather about how the lower cost of living in flyover country meant the hubs should buy me a Mercedes for agreeing to move there. (Sorry Nebraska. I’m sure you’re state is lovely.) But the point is, my grandpa didn’t laugh at my joke nor did he understand how having a Mercedes could make me happy. In fact, his exact words to me were, “Are the wheels round?”

Puzzled, I squinted at him and asked, “What?”

“On a Mercedes,” he said. “Are the wheels round on a Mercedes?”

“Yes,” I answered slowly, not entirely sure if he was having a senior moment. But then he smiled and I understood. He needed not say more. Round wheels will get you where you’re going. Anything extra serves an entirely different purpose.

The vehicles we choose to drive, like the clothes we wear, say something about our tastes but nothing real about our person. And I don’t mean to be derogatory toward Mercedes. They are beautiful automobiles. Just as I’m sure Stanford is a good school and that many good and decent students attend there. I just need to check myself and be reminded that there are way more important things to offer my children than privilege. If you’ve never given this much thought, maybe consider how the way you live your life speaks to others. Do people know you to be honest, patient, kind, generous, loyal, joyful, gentle and self-controlled? Is instilling those traits in your children more important than providing them every privilege and opportunity? If not, why not?

photoToday is Memorial Day. A day to honor those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, to ensure the privilege of our continued way of life with its access to democracy, freedom and opportunity. My grandfather did not die in the line of duty. But he was a WWII veteran who served his country proudly and lived long enough to teach me much about what it looks like to live a good life. A life that need not include luxury cars or country clubs to be blessed. Happy Memorial Day.

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Help Reveal the Hope that Exists

 

 

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Snark, cynicism and irony are the revered attitudes of contemporary life. Notions of high-minded humor rest on pillars of sarcasm. Salacious television programming suggests viewers be suspicious of all human interaction. And news stories often stir the pots of divisiveness, perceived helplessness and fear. Our natural reaction is to gird up. Armored with a thick skin and a vicious wit, we believe we can thrive, or can at least survive, in this age of raised eyebrows and hardened hearts.

But carrying around a combined weight of skepticism and scorn can be a heavy load. When we distrust every institution, profession or person, we become isolated. Some vent anonymously online. Some medicate. Others meditate. But living in fear of some sinister truth that lurks around every corner waiting to pounce on our latent “naiveté” isn’t the only way to live. It’s really no way to live.

An attitude of cynicism says disappointment is the only possible outcome and that we must prepare accordingly. But what if there is an alternate truth? A revelation that can free us from being overwhelmed by fear. A truth that conquers cynicism and its accompanying band of Debbie Downers: anxiety, depression and anger.

That truth is, hope exists. And if we cannot go so far as to believe anything is good–can’t we at least offer a taste of the hope that exists by doing good?

Some ideas for transforming attitudes from helplessness to hopefulness:

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

  • Search for at least one good attribute in each person who rubs you the wrong way because hope exists in restored relationships.
  • Practice empathy because hope exists when we seek to understand others.
  • Be a good listener because hope exists when we help lighten another’s burden.
  • Be vulnerable because hope exists when others see they are not alone.
  • Be cheerful because it’s hard to have hope when you’re always bitchy.
  • Pray for others because hope exists when we ask the Almighty to protect and comfort His creation.
  • Filter your media input because hope flourishes when you’re not inundated with negativity. (This isn’t PollyAnna. It’s wisdom.)
  • Spend time in nature because hope exists when you marvel at the universe.
  • Don’t mock or undermine others because hope exists when we eschew tribalism and seek to build on common ground.

Please feel free to add to this list in the comments section with your own ideas for offering hope to a cynical world. And may your Monday be blessed as you bask in this truth–Hope exists.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

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You Can Take a Girl Out of Flint…

Like you, I’m a reader. I read novels and non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and blogs. I’ve got Kindle, Flipboard and iBooks on my phone so that a variety of reading material is literally at my fingertips at all times. And, like you, certain books tend to resonate with me. I’m enthralled by non-fiction and history, books that tend to turn me into the Cliff Clavin of conversations, excited to spurt acquired information like an annoying leaky hose.

When it comes to literature, last month, I wrote a post about a handful of Midwest inspired novels enshrined on my bookshelf. Tales of endurance, family and the allure the great plains has had on dreamers, immigrants and adventurers over hundreds of years.

Today, my reading suggestions zero in on a very distinctive Midwest region, the birthplace of General Motors, home of autoworker union strikes and of a once burgeoning middle class left devastated by changing economics, poor education and broken homes. This region also happens to be the place of my youth, thus the resonance, wincing and personal heartbreak I’ve felt while reading each one.

I encourage you to read these books and attempt to understand what’s happened in places like Flint and Detroit. Because if you think this wreckage can’t happen elsewhere, you need only pay attention to the state of manufacturing, housing, education, governance and family life in other pockets around the country to recognize how close communities, businesses, families and people can come to the brink of calamity.

 

RivetheadRivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

An oldie but a goodie for anyone curious about automotive factory life in Flint Michigan during the 70s and 80s. I give credence to Hamper’s descriptions as they closely match the stories I heard from other “shoprats” while growing up in Flint. His essays hint of the disastrous and greedy collusion between the UAW and GM executives that paved the way for thousands of manufacturing workers to lose their jobs and an entire town to become abandoned; albeit nobody believed that could happen back then. There are no clean hands in this tale and your mind will be blown by factory floor exploits described in raw detail by this foul-mouthed wordsmith. An interesting read that allows the reader to decide which ingredient in this historical stew is most responsible for a city’s unsavoriness.

 

Please Don't Come Back From the MoonPlease Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos

This novel is set in Detroit during the early 1990’s and describes a community filled with kids forced to grow up without their fathers. The turmoil created by parental abandonment seems to have become accepted as a “normal” adolescent rite of passage in contemporary life. But Bakopoulos effectively narrates the real pain of loss and how children and teens attempt to be “resilient” and navigate life mostly unsupervised and without direction.

As an all too typical fatherless child who grew up in a decaying community of way too many fatherless children, this story touched my heart. Combine this read with a viewing of Kevin Durant’s Mother’s Day speech and you’ll want to pin medals on all the single moms who’ve managed to avoid or overcome depression, frustration, drug addiction, loneliness and poverty to raise children after their husbands took, in Bakopoulos’s words, “a trip to the moon.”

 

TeardownTeardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young

A recent and important book that paints with broad strokes a historical portrait of a city that was once a powerful launch pad into the middle class for thousands of hard-working families. A Flint native, Young manages to highlight the underlying culture of a city unprepared to adapt to change and contrast it with his current hometown of San Francisco–two cities that may as well be on different planets.

When I try to explain what Flint is, this place that partly shaped my young life, many react with skepticism. Could any place in America really suffer in this way? Teardown tells us the answer is yes. It also asks, “What can be done about it?”

 

MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For the more adventurous literary readers, this epic tale takes you on a journey from Greece to Detroit with an astonishing story of family, adolescence and eventual acceptance of self. Less a book about place as the others I’ve mentioned, the setting still provides some pretty interesting insight into the evolution of Detroit–a locale that cannot be described in one word or even one sentence. It is as fraught as the cast of characters in Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

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Get Better, Quit or Reprioritize

The "Radiant Orchids"Sports and other extracurricular activities are a common conversation topic among parents of school age children. Inevitably, these discussions pivot toward our anxieties about performance, achievement and advancement. We furrow our brows and agonize over how best to help little Johnny or Maddie be “winners” in all of their endeavors. Someone once cut to the chase during one of these discussions with a simple summation of reality–a mantra that most likely applies to people of all ages who participate in most all activities–“Everyone eventually gets sick of losing, and when they do, they’ll either improve or quit.”

If this is true, and I believe it is, maybe we need only encourage our kids, our friends and ourselves to try new things, and then stand back and see what happens. Success feels good and is its own natural motivator. We need not push those experiencing success but instead provide support and direction.

Failure, on the other hand, doesn’t feel good and we may be tempted to either shelter our kids (and ourselves) from all failure or unreasonably push for achievement so as to minimize exposure to failure. But remember, “Everyone eventually gets sick of losing, and when they do, they’ll either improve [which requires a combination of talent, practice and determination] or they’ll quit.”

I’m not saying it’s always okay to quit difficult activities out of frustration. No one need give up easily on things we’re not necessarily good at. But we need to have perspective on what it takes to become good at various things and be an encourager through the challenges associated with reaching higher levels of achievement. People will sometimes still choose the exit. And in most instances–yes, I’m going to say it–quitting or at least dialing back the intensity is okay. Try a different activity. Move on. 

Or we could also choose to emphasis something other than winning. For example, I took up tennis a few years ago. I stunk up the court with no natural talent or knowledge of the game. So I took lessons and carved out time to practice until last year I became courageous enough to join a league.

I lost.

A lot.

I was tempted to bail on competitive tennis this year. Instead, I shifted gears. I joined a doubles team instead of singles team. Wins came more frequently for a variety of reasons: experience, coaching, having a partner and competing at a slightly lower level than the previous season.

Our team, the Radiant Orchids, (because we look amazing in our orchid colored gear) recently came within a few sets of winning a championship match. But we lost and that stinks, but only a little. Because afterward, our team captain reminded us of why we play, “We play to be social, to get exercise, to have fun, to improve our skills and to win.”

Yes, losing still stinks and we DO play to win. But winning is last on the list of reasons we participate and we rock at the more important things. I am blessed to have been a part of a group of amazing, fun, competitive and inspiring women. I almost quit playing competitive tennis because I was sick of losing. But with encouragement, practice and time, I’ve improved… at more than just a game.

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