What is Drowning American?

Drowning American… I suppose that’s how I’ve felt for the last 8 or so years of my life as I’ve struggled finding my place in the world and achieving the all elusive “happiness” and American Dream.

I grew up relatively privileged, not lavishly so, but definitely more than most. However, my father never handed me anything. He demanded respect for what I was given and instilled in me an appreciation for the good fortune I’d been birthed into.

I still remember earning my first $100. I had saved loose change and, if lucky enough, dollar bills. I didn’t receive an allowance, my parents didn’t believe in it. Instead, I sold lemonade in the summer, washed my parents’ cars, and foraged neighborhood home building sites for pop bottles and cans (a task twice as lucrative in MI than CA). I wanted a bike. It was a 21 speed, black Schwinn and ran about $200.

My parents refused to buy it for me, but exclaimed that they would be willing to pay half. After who knows how long, I achieved my $100 milestone. I went to the bank with my mother and I cashed in my savings, walking away with one crisp one-hundred dollar bill. I remember being amazed that the culmination of my savings and hard work could be reduced to just one small entity. I held it like a fragile egg, keeping it close to me and scanning my perimeter with a suspicious eye. Sometimes when alone I would pull it out and scrutinize it in all its glory.

Finally, the time had come to go to the bike store and my parents prepared to take me. We stood in the garage and they asked me if I had my money. I pulled the bill from my pocket and said “yes” as I extended it in offering to the only other people I would trust its guardians.

They didn’t take it.

Instead, they asked, “are you sure you want to spend all of your money on this, Travis?”. I thought for a moment, wondering why my parents would ask me such a question. I had planned for this for what seemed like eternity and couldn’t wait to get on my new bike. But in that moment I had a moment of doubt. I questioned if this was the right decision, if I really wanted to trade all my hard work and saving for this object. They stood there, patiently waiting as I struggled internally.

It was the first time I had such a feeling of uncertainty, but I looked back at them proclaiming, “Yes, I’m sure”. They took the money and we left to get the bike.

I had a vested interest in that bike and I took care of it as if it were my own, after all it truly was. To this day that bike is in our garage in Michigan and every time I see it I recall these events and the valuable lessons they taught me. I had no idea how long the memory and lesson would stay with me and I deeply respect my parents for laying this foundation.

My father was not nearly as fortunate in his upbringing. My grandparents struggled to make ends meet for him and his four siblings. My grandfather was an entrepreneur and after three attempts at other failed businesses, had a successful laminating plant in Grand Rapids, MI. The whole family worked long hours in the factory, but it still was not enough to pay for higher education let alone any luxury items.

My father dropped out of high school due to massive violence and riots in the Grand Rapids area schools at the time and completed the GED to earn his diploma. He worked his way through community college and finally a respected undergraduate school. After a couple failed attempts to gain admittance to dental school he was finally accepted and later went on to specialize in Endodontics (root canals).

My father built himself an amazing life, one that allowed him to provide a more privileged up-bringing than the one he had. He often spoke to me about this and told me that this is “the American Dream”. It fascinated me at a young age. I envisioned each generation more successful than the last and I felt it my duty to carry on this tradition when I grew older. I thought about it often and wanted nothing more to follow in my father’s footsteps (in success rather than occupation) and above all, make him proud of me.

I knew that someday I would be an entrepreneur like my father and like his father before him. And someday I too would be able to stake claim that I had achieved the American Dream.

I have yet to realize that dream. But as of recent I feel that I have taken a step forward in my life and am for the first time well on my way…

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