Living the American Dream (in Germany)

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but there seems to be a collective existential thing going on. There’s just a lot to consider with how much is both possible and falling apart. 

For some, it feels like angst, maybe depression or bouts of panic. For some it’s their new era to be excited, empowered and liberated. I can be all of the above by Noon on Monday if the tide’s right, but I’m working more on steadying the ship by just holding a steady expectation that these are these kinds of times. Eras in history where it just feels this way. 

I feel like, because of this, more and more we’re sitting around kitchen tables with close friends, in therapist’s offices, at church, or on the psilocybin network asking ourselves, “When was the last time I felt good in my life, happy with my state of affairs?” 

I think as we realize how meaningless some things feel in the face of a lot of despair, doing things that make us happy seems to really take the weight off ourselves and the people around us. It is worth the pursuit. 

I used to equate happiness more with escapism – a vacay, a mall run, a heavy pour on the patio. I don’t hate any of those things, but I’m kind of old now and I enjoy the sense of fulfillment of having things in my life I have to take care of. So pushing the escape button on the regular can leave it feeling like The Day After Mother’s Day every day around here – fun I guess, but double the clean up on the back end. 

So I think about happiness more like a state of satisfaction, safety and contentment. I’ve been lucky to feel that many times, the longest streak being my Kindergarten – second grade years when I lived in Western Kentucky.

It’s easy to be happy when the world is a great place, and so it was in my Ramona era. I lived on Buckner Boulevard in a house my Mom kept cute and my Dad kept nice. It was on the Dogwood route where I’d sit outside in lawn chairs with my sister during the town’s Dogwood Festival and feel like royalty. My mom got us out of the bath and into matching pajamas so everyone could see us and our beautiful Dogwoods and Magnolia tree as they drove by. 

My Mom loved Barbara Bush and I was excited about her excitement that I was going to read, write and comprehend. Kentucky Kindergarten was half day, so I went to the neighborhood school morning Kindergarten program and the afternoon Kindergarten program at my parish Catholic school, where my Dad and his seven siblings had attended. 

I loved my morning public Kindergarten. We learned about the Queen of England. The governor came to the classroom and took a picture with me that was on the front page of the paper! I loved afternoon Kindergarten with my friends from church, my sweet teacher who told me such interesting things about God and taught me how to pray. I was very close with the lunch lady and everyone knew my Dad. 

In between the two Kindergartens, my Dad picked me up on his lunch break while my Mom was teaching at community college and we went to Hardee’s. The first time we went, my Dad ordered his meal and then looked at me and said, “And what would you like?” I realized then, maybe this was the first time to eat alone with just my Dad. I realized also, in that moment, that Mom ordered our food and I couldn’t read the board. So I said like they did on TV, “You know what? I’ll have the same thing.” Which is how I ate a double cheeseburger with curly fries and a strawberry shake for lunch most days of Kindergarten. Life was Heaven on Earth, as I was saying. 

I had ballet and tap one day a week at the rec center and I took things like roller skating with the 4H Club a few times a year, but mostly after school I came home and flopped down on the sofa. After snacks and some TV I’d knock on my friend Ali’s backdoor to play. My Dad had worked with a friend at an iron yard to make us monkey bars and swings. On the weekends, you might have a game or a birthday party and then church on Sunday and lunch and The Grand Ol’ Opry and The Wonderful World of Disney on TV before bed. We sat around the table for dinner almost every night, and then after our baths we would sit on my sister’s bed and see what everyone was up to on Klickitat Street – first Henry and Ribsy, then Ramona and all the Quimbys. We read every one of Beverly Cleary’s books about “normal kids” and their families, all together. 

I understood Ramona’s world because I was so lucky to live in it. My neighborhood was explorable. I felt the right size in a town of 25,000 and I knew where things were – there were no highway commutes to feel lost in. I never needed to, but knew how to walk home from both my schools. When it snowed we walked to the grocery store. I was very busy in my classrooms and at church where I had a nice Sunday school class. I was in my rec center dance classes, a Girl Scout and I took piano after school with my music teacher, but I was never overwhelmed. 

I was regular, like Ramona. I watched plenty of TV. I had an after school babysitter on some days of the week that, I believe, truly didn’t like me. My parents fought and my Dad had time between jobs. The library story time was really very funny and something all the kids in town continued to attend into elementary school. With the size of our town being more community arts minded over hosting big tours and shows, I did children’s performance workshops, auditioned for plays in the community theater and I sang on one of the scenic river boat tours. I wasn’t really thinking about college applications or my life path when I signed up to take baton twirling lessons but I still think of how much fun I had with my friends and our performance in the school gym every time I hear Achy Breaky Heart. I lived in a place that felt safe for kids where there were easy and affordable things to do. This was the point, Beverly Cleary said, when she first wrote the stories in response to a little boy at the library who complained there were no books about, “kids like us.”

To me, I might be a regular kid but I was living the American Dream. I had a place in society, I had a home where I belonged, I had room to explore, life was an adventure that paired nicely with the comfort of things I could often expect, like the sound of the door opening at 5:30 and my Dad walking in from work or, on Saturday mornings, the sound of him pulling out his TroyBuilt Mulching Mower while I watched cartoons. That sound on Saturday morning made me hopeful for pizza and board game Saturday nights, where my Dad would say all the prompts to Mall Madness in silly voices. Everyone had a job during the week and chores during the day. The purpose of this work was to keep the home running and well cared for so we could spend time in it together. Joyful time together was the reward for joyful work.

This American Dream, I understand, probably will not buy you a lake house. I don’t believe The Quimbys ever made it to Lake Como for a group wedding and pics in designer caftans. I know to many people, The American Dream is instead an idea that if one decides to focus on material worth with little restraint and good ideas, one’s earnings could be limitless.

I see the American Dream the Quimby family lives in as the idea of dignity of work, safety of home, excitement of childhood education and pleasure of time with family, pursuit of hobbies and play as something that should be accessible to all who wish to seek it. No dream is guaranteed, I know. What I notice, as we’ve become accustomed to listening to the Ramona Audible series over and over in our home now, is how often Mr and Mrs Quimby say no to things, firmly but with understanding. Everything has a cost, but, after years of losing time together to work and activities, family has become priceless to me. I have learned my lesson. My “no” is now to a lot of other things. 

But this American Dream, of a family where just regular old life can afford you middle class home ownership, a safe neighborhood to live in and quality schools for your children, does not  even statistically appear as a choice in the States anymore. The median home price in 1955 when the Quimbys lived on Klickitat Street, was $18,290, adjusted for inflation today to $202,957. Beverly Cleary said, “People often ask, What year do your books take place? And the only answer I can give is childhood.” But where in America these days can parents give their children this kind of childhood? 

Wages went up on average in the U.S. by 3% this year, while the prices of homes this past year have gone up 20% while the cost of all goods rose 8.5%. The monthly childhood poverty rate in America increased from 12.1% to 17% in January of this year when the monthly tax credit was cut, which equates to 3.7 million American children. It feels like families these days don’t have a fair shot at the dream of honest work being able to provide a nice life.

Hoping more personal sacrifice might make up for less societal help, I slowly cleansed my soul of all the shiny things I was keen on and felt comfortably entitled to, thanks to working so damn much. I always hoped I was one idea away from being able to afford to be home with my family more, maybe no to lunch out or one less streaming service. I liked my jeans and standard pair of sneakers, my cash car, my second hand furniture. I felt great pride in our lives, but still even on a firm partner salary and my work taking up more and more after school time to make ends meet, it felt ridiculously tight. We paid firm partner-bracket taxes and pushed through another 55 hour work week with no advance notice as part of the corporate life the whole family takes on. My husband left for exercise and work before the sun was up in the name of work/life balance and I kept our daughter up as late as possible praying we could squeeze in dinner together when he got home. And this was all in hopes the year end bonus would make it feel worth it. I thought yes, it really is ridiculous

One thing about my Ramona era was also feeling enough of that early childhood self-pride to develop a real flair for the dramatic. While I always hoped to be good, especially in the face of injustice, I was often flooded with the impulse to be bad. I try to walk away, but I hear a siren song to take my sense of dignity back with a stunt. It was Ramona’s stories of the satisfaction of squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink when angry, of the rebellion of eating one bite of every apple, where I felt the best relief of my dark parts humanized.

So still today, if someone is being ridiculous to me, I’m tempted to show them who they are dealing with. Mostly, I fight off the urge. As a nostalgic person, thinking America was taking my very nice dream of being a Quimby away from me made me mad. It seemed painful to me that the cost of homes, the cost of college and the general cost of being alive in America made it impossible for a middle class family to work, pay bills and be together. And fixing this was not the priority of our leadership, especially the ones grandstanding for votes in the name of family values. I could not accept this. Not just for my family, but for the principle, which usually makes my desire to do something much worse. 

Welp. Try me, America. You don’t even know what ridiculous is until you’ve seen me land at the Paris Airport at 5:30 a.m. three weeks before Christmas with five suitcases, two dogs, my husband and our seven year old in pursuit of my American Dream. 

As Ramona describes herself, she was not a slow poke grown up. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next. I understand that to be a woman who was afforded a Ramona era, something my parents worked incredibly hard and made sacrifices for me to have, I have immense privilege. I have to use that natural urgency in me and the gumption I developed to hold onto to my belief that every family deserves a life where they get to be a family. I will go full Ramona to make it so for my family, just in the name of being an example. 

Maybe because I got to enjoy one myself, I am passionate about every child having their own era on their proverbial Klickitat Street. The work of our society should be to make it so. As we understand how Adverse Childhood Experiences affect mental health, how could safe childhood not be our priority? We hope every grown up walking around making decisions for themselves and others is standing on the shoulders of a quintessential thriving childhood, and it’s usually obvious when this wasn’t the case. 

It is the quest of that dream for my family that brought me to Germany of all places, but as we settle in, I am giddy in our success. 

On a weekday morning, I open my eyes and Markus is next to me, something we never had happen at home between his weekday and my weekend work. We’re all busy in the flat getting ready for the day, making breakfast, coffee and beds, but we’re together. We love to listen to the German radio and have someone stand on the balcony and check the weather. Markus and Heidi take the bus into town. Markus has a new job at the local department store! Just like Mr Quimby at the ShopRite market. He’s on his feet, talking to customers and never looking at a computer or on a Zoom call all day. The flat is quiet so I can work from here. When I meet Heidi at the bus stop at 3:00 p.m., we’re in the middle of town to shop for dinner together or run an errand. By the time we get home, she’s played sports, made art, sung in choir, had hot lunch and a recess and finished her homework for the day at school. She adores her teacher, who is like a celebrity to her and talks about life in ways I can tell help Heidi a lot. The adventures I hear daily from having a child navigating public transit alone could write a new Ramona series. On Wednesdays, she roller skates at the rec center. Once home, she flops down for a while, calls her grandmother and plays Playmobil at the table while I make dinner or take a phone call. When Dad walks in the door, we get all his stories from the day. I’ve watched him walk in the front door from work for 13 years, and this feels totally different. Mentally, he’s all the way here. No big thing or hot item sits on his desk for tomorrow. Physically, he’s spent as he flops down on the sofa next to Heidi with enough collapse that his feet kick up in the air a little. He giggles while he tells us about what the German Tantes asked him for today or what the back tunnels of the shop are like. He looks like a man taking good care of his family and boyish at the same time. Outside of this job he works on other projects, but there’s a nice hum with a steady paycheck, a place to go, no worries of health care and a family stipend from the government that will hit our account once a month (that same one the U.S. made only available to qualifying families before ceasing in January) with us now paying German taxes.

Did I trade in the American Dream of however much money I could ever want for a life almost certain to stay in the middle (thank you, German taxes)? 

To “settle” for such a simple life certainly goes against the achievement = worth formula I was taught at my college prep-oriented middle and high schools, a night and day experience from the Kindergarten classrooms of my Ramona era. What is the value of a life that’s not advancement oriented? 

I do love adventure, design, good taste and fun in general, but at the soul level I just want to be a Quimby. If I don’t feel that dream realized for part of my life, especially these precious years of my daughter’s childhood, I’m afraid the rest could be for naught. Nothing about our days here feels like settling. We’re far away from certain things and without others, but every single day we are living the dream.

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