|Oct/Nov 2018 Nonfiction|
I'm 65, and lately I've been wondering why I haven't achieved more.
My wife argues, "You have a career, three well-developed children, two grandchildren, and a home. Think of the billions of people who struggle just to exist!"
"We live paycheck to paycheck in anonymity."
"You need to be more grateful."
"Yeah, I know. I'm living the dream."
In his book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, Jim Cullen explores the multifaceted nature of the American Dream. I have achieved most of its components. The unalienable right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness: I'm alive, healthy, and free to make my own choices. Making a better life for one's kids: they earn more money than I did at their age. Owning a home in suburbia: rabbits scamper across lawns and people walk dogs at all hours where I live. Maintaining integrity while helping others along: I teach in an urban high school and help elderly neighbors with their home maintenance. Living a carefree life on the West Coast: I was born there. Upward mobility by pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps: well, there's the problem.
I spent my childhood high on the economic ladder in Southern California, with two parents, two cars, and either a swimming pool in the backyard or an ocean view. I lived in stylish houses with collections of literature, classical music, and Asian art. I took lessons in piano, guitar, sailing, horseback riding, and ballroom dance. I went to summer camp in Santa Cruz and spent two years at private schools Back East. I had White privilege, male privilege, educational privilege, economic privilege, and the expectation that I would do something important.
My father began managing my ascendance to the aristocracy when I was in the fourth grade at Las Posas Elementary School in Camarillo. I'd changed schools three times the year before due to his penchant for moving and vacationing.
He said, "You need to make your mark at this school. How about running for treasurer?"
The next evening, he laid four white poster boards on the teak dinner table.
"You need a slogan. What do you think?"
"I don't know."
"How's this? 'Vote for Pool, he's no fool, make him treasurer of our school.'"
He drew parallel lines with his T-square and then printed large block letters in red.
"It needs a little splash; don't you think?"
He outlined the borders in alternating red and black lines. He smiled at his work and that made me happy.
The next day I taped the posters on the window of my class and on poles around the school. I didn't win and my father took it personally.
"I did my part. You just didn't want it enough. You are going to have to try harder."
A year later he made his first and only appearance at one of my little league baseball games. I struck out two times and dropped a fly ball. He sat on the sidelines along first base and frowned.
That evening he told me, "Sports are a waste of your time. We're going to focus on academics, starting with writing. You're going to do reports for me—let's call them compos. Compos will make you a cogent and concise communicator."
I studied his Encyclopedia Britannica and wrote a two-page report about filament tubes. I avoided the lazy "to be" verbs and used the pronoun "one" in place of "I," "me," and "you." He returned my work for correction with a large C at the top and sections circled in red for "foggy thinking," "incorrect syntax," and "misspelling." I rewrote my compo, earned a B- and received my next topic: thermal expansion. Throughout fifth grade, while my younger brother played with friends and my classmates wasted their time on sports, I wrote compos. I even earned a B+ on one.
Many compos later, I sat at my desk and read that osmosis moves water through a membrane due to differences in solute concentration. That made no sense, but I wrote my compo, put it on my father's nightstand, and went outside. When I got home, he called me into his bedroom.
"This doesn't even deserve a comment. You need to reread the article and redo it from the beginning. Hop to it."
I looked at the illustration, reviewed the paragraphs, and tried to explain osmosis again. But after school, the paper waited on my desk with "Unclear—Rewrite" emblazoned in red. I went to my father's bedroom. He lay on the bed in his boxers, the Atlantic propped up on his orb of a stomach.
"What was wrong with my compo?"
"I want you to accurately convey the significance and function of osmosis."
"I thought I did."
"You didn't come close. Your exposition must be flawless even if one were to examine it with a microscope."
"What did you say?"
"Good. Now back at it. Chop, chop."
He raised his magazine, and I trudged back to my room. I painstakingly copied my compo in microfilm-sized letters and took it to him.
"Is this better?" I nibbled on my thumbnail.
"What is this?" He adjusted his thick gold-rimmed glasses.
"You said you wanted to read it with a microscope." My lips bent into a smile.
"This is garbage." He shoved the paper at me.
I never did a rewrite, and he never mentioned compos again.
I told my father I had a project on probability due for my seventh grade math class. He built me a machine that demonstrated the possible combinations of 16 coin flips. On a frame of plywood and wooden dowels, he mounted a red plastic dog food bowl with 16 holes drilled around its edge. Clear rubber tubing ran from each hole to one of five vertical tubes fastened to the front of the mechanism. He poured BBs into the bowl and they rolled around, dropped into the tubes and stacked up in a nearly perfect 1,4,6,4,1 formation.
I took it to school on the bus and set it up in front of class. After explaining the math, I poured in the BBs. A tube had pulled out of the bowl and tiny copper balls hopped off the table and rolled across the floor. Kids laughed. I tried to replace the tube and knocked another one out, releasing more BBs.
"He didn't make that himself," a boy said.
Laugh all you want, I thought. My project is better than all of yours.
"Quiet!" the teacher scolded, and the class settled. "That was very interesting. A lot of work went into that project."
I sat down relieved it was over. After class, I dropped my dad's machine in a trashcan outside the classroom.
Psychologist Dr. Suniya Luthar has studied upper-class families and noted that while "at risk" usually refers to children of low-income families, two factors also put affluent children at risk: excessive achievement expectations and isolation from parents.1 Unlike children of poverty, I was not at risk of homelessness, though I lived in my car for three months after college. Nor was I at risk of violence, though my father once chased my brother and me out of the house waving his .22 pistol. What Dr. Luthar found was that kids like me were at a higher risk for use of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs than my inner-city counterparts. She measured greater levels of anxiety and perfectionism in the affluent teens. She also wrote that kids in low socioeconomic groups felt closer to the parents they lived with than wealthy kids.
I was in the tenth grade when my father told me I was going to boarding school. We flew to New York City in February, shared a motel room and ate at restaurants recommended in his travel guide. We visited Deerfield, Choate, Kent, and the Gunnery in Connecticut, driving for hours with only the radio talking. Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts was our last stop.
The admissions director greeted me with a handshake.
"So, how are you doing, Master Pool?" He had a round face, bushy eyebrows, and a friendly smile.
"I'm tired." To make a good impression, I forced out, "This is the biggest school we've been to."
"Our size affords opportunities you won't find at other schools. Now, your academic record is strong, SSAT scores are very good. I would have liked to see more extracurricular activities."
He turned to my father. "If he's accepted, we would want him to enter as a Lower Middler, which means repeating his sophomore year. It will give him a chance to mature."
"I can't agree more," my father said.
As we walked to the car, he said to me, "Why did you act so tired in there? They aren't going to accept you if you don't show interest."
"OK? No one gave me this opportunity. From here you can go to Harvard or Yale, not some mediocre Californian degree mill."
Andover accepted me, and during the summer we moved 400 miles north to Marin County.
My father drove me to San Francisco to shop at Brooks Brothers. The tailor chalked my dimensions on the dark wool fabric and called me "sir" when he asking me to lift my arms or turn around. My father picked out ties, white Oxford shirts, and black leather shoes to complete my ensemble. We ate lunch in Chinatown and then stopped at a dusty discount record store where he bought the complete Brandenburg Concertos and the opera Tannhauser.
A few weeks later we flew to Boston, drove up to the school, and dropped off my things at my dorm. We went downtown to a clothing store where my father opened a charge account in case I needed more underwear or socks.
Before leaving, he said, "You should get involved in as many organizations as you can. That's what made school enjoyable for me. And while you're at it, send me a copy of the school newspaper."
"Do your best."
We shook hands, and he drove away.
Each week I picked up a copy of the Phillipian. On a piece of notebook paper, I wrote a letter about what I was doing in my classes, taped it around the newspaper, and mailed it to him. He wrote back, and I felt close to him despite the 3,000 miles between us. In November, he thanked me again for sending him the paper and urged me to consider joining the writing staff. He closed with this P.S.:
Please refrain from including a personal note when you send me the Phillipian. I'm sure that with all your studies, you can scarcely find time to write. We will see you soon enough for Christmas break at which time you can fill us in on all the developments at "Ole Andover."
I was 16 when my father severed the connection that bound me close to him.
My dorm sat in the shadow of the school's power plant, a ten-minute walk to the dining hall and classrooms on sidewalks shoveled through waist-high snow. My roommate went home on weekends, and when I wasn't taking pictures and developing film in the darkroom or practicing my classical guitar, I listened to maudlin music on my stereo. The winter term passed quickly.
I returned from spring break with bottles of vodka and scotch I had stolen from my father in the hope of making friends. I made screwdrivers with one of my dormmates and learned that vodka left no smell on my breath. When the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings led to a school strike, two guys from the dorm invited me to smoke marijuana with them. We passed the power plant to get to the woods, and the shoulder length hair of one of the boys must have aroused suspicions in a plant worker. The Andover police busted us while I had a joint in my hand.
I sat alone in a room at the police station, wondering if my mental fuzziness meant I was stoned. I stared at the black phone on the table beside me. When I eventually called home, my mother answered.
"Is everything all right?"
"I'm at the police station."
"Are you in trouble?"
I began to cry. "I got caught smoking marijuana."
She yelled to my father, "John, it's Richard. He's at the police station."
I heard the drone of my father's voice and my mother's answer. "He's gotten in trouble for pot. Do you want to talk to him?" More rumbling in the background.
"Your father says he doesn't want to talk to you right now."
"OK. I'll call back tonight."
The school lawyer got us released on our own recognizance. The thought of killing myself gave me some relief, and at dusk I called home. My father answered.
"How are you?"
"That's good. Your headmaster assured me you have good legal counsel and will probably get off with probation."
"I am sorry."
"As you should be."
He was calm and logical, the father I admired.
"Just do your best to finish out the term. Don't slack off now because of this little bump in the road."
They allowed me to take my final exams in a room with a proctor but expelled me for a year with the option to reapply as a senior. At my court hearing, I was assigned a probation officer to whom I would write monthly assurances of my rehabilitation. Two weeks later my father met me in the San Francisco airport terminal. He didn't raise his hand to shake mine, and we retrieved my luggage without a word.
On the drive home he broke the silence. "You told me you weren't going to do anything stupid."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Sorry doesn't make up for the trouble and expense you've cost me. My stockbroker attended the Berkshire School in western Mass. They have a good reputation, and he thinks he can get you in. Then next year you will graduate from Andover."
I had become a problem, but his money and connections rescued me from the consequences. He got me a summer job working at the construction project he managed, and I didn't give Andover another thought.
Dr. Luthar notes that affluent parents often value extrinsic achievements such as fame, wealth, and professional success over intrinsic goals such as interpersonal relatedness, community service, and intimacy. This fixation on materialistic success compels their children to strive for the highest grades, most prestigious colleges, and best paying careers at the expense of self-knowledge, meaning, and satisfaction in accomplishments.2 In my father's eyes, Andover was my ticket to wealth and influence, but the life he planned for me was making me miserable.
At the Berkshire School, I had the top grade point average for a while—the headmaster announced it at dinner—and I was a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. I also played the falling-down-drunk life of the party, ran the mile for the track team, and had friends who called me Poolsy. None of that mattered, though, because I was going back to Andover.
When school ended, I flew to LA because my parents had moved to Irvine Cove, a gated community at the north end of Laguna Beach. A bronze sculpture of a bathing Latina greeted me as I walked in the front door. Paintings by Mexican and European artists covered the dark wood walls, each with its own brass lamp. Floor to ceiling windows looked out over the Pacific to Catalina Island floating in the brown haze at the horizon. I shared my brother's room, which he protected with a brass flip lock and large black letters written along the jamb: "No one enters this room without permission."
I got a job washing dishes at the Chart House restaurant in Newport Beach, where we had eaten as a family years before. I rode my father's three speed bike five miles each way, crossing the uninhabited stretch between Corona del Mar and Laguna at 1:00 AM by starlight with the sound of waves crashing into the rocks below. Mornings I shuffled to the Cove's private beach, bodysurfed, and fell asleep in the cool sand. On days off I followed my brother and his tanned friends around. We dove into the surging ocean from the cliffs at the southern end of the Cove. We spear-fished over the reef off the north end of the Cove. We walked among the coconut scented, bikini-clad surfer girls at the Sawdust Art Festival.
In mid-July I quietly knocked on my father's bedroom door.
I slowly pushed the door open. He peered over his New Yorker as I walked to the end of the bed.
"Can I talk to you? I've been thinking..."
"That's dangerous." He smiled.
"I think I want to stay here in Laguna for my senior year."
"What! Are you crazy?" He slammed the magazine down and sat up.
"I have friends here, and I don't want to go away."
"Your brother's associates? Those losers are not your friends. Friends you make at Andover will stand by you for the rest of your life."
"I don't want to go back to Andover."
"You aren't thinking clearly. It was your idea to go there in the first place."
"Was it?" I had liked the feeling of superiority it gave me, and I had liked the academic challenge. But now I wanted to learn how to talk to girls and how to surf.
"Look," he said quieter. "You are too intelligent to waste your senior year. I have talked to the headmaster at Andover, and they want you back."
"I don't want to go back."
"I'm not going to call them and say you've changed your mind after all they've done to let you back in. You think about what you are saying, and we'll talk again."
I went swimming, and when I returned, my parents were in the kitchen. I shut the front door quietly so I could listen to what my father was saying.
"Where would he get an idea like that? He's working as a goddamned dishwasher and associating with juvenile delinquents. What's wrong with him?"
"I think he just wants to stay near the beach."
"What kind of Pollyanna crap is that? He'll never make it to Harvard if he doesn't return to Andover. He can go to the beach once he has a decent job and can support himself."
My father never talked with me again about my decision, and I enrolled at Laguna Beach High School. He had an extension built onto my brother's room, but left the concrete floor bare and the walls unpainted. My brother grew pot on the roof, and I shared his bounty. When our music got too loud, my father pounded on the door.
"Turn down that noise. This is my house, and you are not going to pollute it with your hideous sounds."
"This is my room," my brother yelled back.
"You criminals need to get the hell out of my house."
My brother turned down my stereo and opened the door. "Is this good enough for you?"
My father looked at me holding a can of beer in a room cloudy with marijuana smoke.
"Do you want to be a failure like your brother?"
"Yes," I said smugly.
"You're going down the tubes, wasting everything you worked for."
I taunted him in the voice of the Wicked Witch of the West. "I'm going down the tubes. I'm sliding. I'm sliding."
He walked away mumbling that I had thrown my life away, and I gloated over my power to make him angry.
Within a few months, I no longer enjoyed living at home. Irvine Cove was a desert of wide empty roads between large houses with invisible owners. Its entrance gates kept intruders out but caged me in. I got As in school without studying and experimented with taking LSD during class to telepathically communicate with my brother, smoked cigarettes in the bathroom, and dropped out the back window of my last period English class to hitchhike home. I was relieved to graduate in January.
I got a job at a boat factory, saved money, and hitchhiked across the country and Europe. In the fall I went to college and four years later graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in biology and a minor in creative writing. I floundered for a year until I totaled my car. Possessing only a pair of pants, raggedy Top Siders, and a blue Izod t-shirt, I hitchhiked to my parent's new house in Corona del Mar. My father found me a job working for a building contractor but made me pay for my food and refused to give me a key to the house.
I met a girl to whom I confessed, "I am so fucked up; I feel like a nothing."
"Don't say that. You have your whole life ahead of you."
"Nothing I've done is successful."
"You've got a college degree and a job. A lot of people would be proud of that."
"I have a college degree, and all I can do is pick up boards and sweep floors. If that's not fucked up, I don't know what is."
"I think you probably just need to get your mind off of yourself. You might not believe this, but I tried to kill myself several times. So I know what it's like to feel fucked up."
At her suggestion I entered psychotherapy, and many months later the therapist met with both of us for premarital counseling. I finally felt loved.
Forty years later, I regard my expulsion from Andover as the beginning of my struggle to replace my father's dream for my life with my own dreams. Yet I remain conflicted. I feel inferior around wealthy people because I can't jet off to vacations or remodel my house. I feel ashamed around poor people because I didn't climb out of poverty to get where I am.
The American Dream "has always been to end up with more than you started with," Cullen states in the last chapter of his book. I have wanted things my parents didn't have: a house that felt like a home and time to know my children and help them find their own dreams. My mother once told me, "We gave you lots of material things, but not much love." I wanted love.
We so often equate the American Dream with extrinsic success. For some, that is the American Dream. But I chose an equally valid dream and have lived it. The dissatisfaction that grumbles inside me comes not from regret, but from ambition. I have everything I need for happiness, and like a true American, I want more.
1 Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2005 February; 14(1): 49–53. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x.
2 Child Dev. 2003 ; 74(6): 1581–1593