Dream, American

The other day Luc had to give a presentation to his English class about the novel “the Great Gatsby.” It had to be 12 minutes long, so I volunteered to listen and time it. He argued that the theme of the book was “The American Dream,” or, more accurately, the Illusion of the American Dream.

See, Gatsby was all about excess – the old idea that the more you have, and the more you can accumulate, the happier you’ll be. You’ll finally reach some point of maximum return, you’ll hit the top of the top. Then people like Tom, who are born rich, will let you into their fold. There’s this idea that everyone has an equal shot at being one of the chosen few. It’s just a matter of hard work. The movie is coming out this summer, in case you didn’t read the book in high school.

Have we really changed all that much? Look at the famous one percent. There is a non-negligible percentage of the American population that isn’t okay with raising taxes on the insane wealth of this group. I believe it’s a very deep-seated part of the American psyche, the belief that anyone has a shot at this. We can’t begrudge these people something that we desperately want for ourselves, can we?

We brought it up at dinner one night, and Marc disagreed with our thesis. For him, the American Dream isn’t about getting rich so much as it is about following your own path to self-fulfillment.

I still think that for many people, the very notion of self-fulfillment involves lots of money and material things.

I’m a bit obsessed with material things at the moment, because I’m in the process of shedding them in preparation for our move. I was fascinated by an article in the New York Times last week about Graham Hill, a man who struck it rich (the Dream come true!), bought all kinds of stuff, and realized it was making him anxious and unhappy.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me.

He says it took him “15 years, a great love, and a lot of travel” to get rid of the inessential things that were cluttering up his life. He claims he lives a “Bigger, better, richer life” with less. I don’t doubt it. He’s designed a 420-square foot apartment that has everything he needs.

My experience is that getting stuff, and thinking about stuff you don’t have but want, occupies a good deal of mental energy. It’s also built into our society, particularly American society, in a way that makes this stuff-focused mindset very hard to avoid.

I have often complained about the fact that everything is closed on Sunday in Switzerland, and it drives me nuts that shopping online is all but impossible here. The way I see it, it’s like a government-mandated moral code: Sunday is Family Time, and If In Doubt, Buy Swiss. Everyone eats a Mandatory Big Lunch, often with extended family, and then goes for a Family Walk. In the paper the other day, in an article about the parliament considering a bill that would allow shops to stay open until 11 pm, a politician even argued that workers “need” to be able to go out on the weekends, and spend time with their families.

Maybe it’s the libertarian American in me, but I still think that this kind of thing should be up to the individual. “No you can’t work on weekends, because you ought to be socializing with your friends or spending time with your family,” strikes me as awfully paternalistic. If I want to work my ass off and build up a chunk of savings, that’s my affair. And if I’d rather spend my Sunday shopping than hanging out with my relatives, that’s my business, too. Why should someone be prevented from making or spending a buck, just because it’s Sunday?

But this American Dream idea gave me pause. As I go through all the things we’ve accumulated in ten years in Switzerland, I realize that a lot of it is totally unnecessary. And I never even shopped on Sunday! A strawberry slicer? Five metric tons of lego? Ten different kinds of candle holders? Granted, I hauled a lot of it over from the US in the first place. But, still. I am taking this opportunity to pare things down, to spend time thinking about what is really necessary.

Here’s one of my favorite songs, from the movie “Into the Wild”- it sums the whole thing up perfectly. I’m heading into the Northern Wilderness, too. “Society, you’re a crazy breed.”

4 thoughts on “Dream, American

  1. I tend to argue in favor of the Swiss policy of limited store hours. My concern if stores were open all the time has to do with working conditions. If I and others wanted to spend Sunday at the mall, the work force would have to adapt. I expect there are many people in that work force (parents with school-aged kids at home, for instance) would find it hard to work late evenings, nights and Sundays. Would they be free to say they don’t want those shifts, and still keep their current working conditions (same hours, no cut in pay)? Doubtful. I think it’s nice that Switzerland recognizes that downtime is good. It seems to be a value defended by the majority rather than something imposed.

    • I get your point, Carol, but I’m not sure I agree. I think there are plenty of people who would not mind working these kinds of shifts, people who really need the money. We’re not talking about the current workforce being expected to cover the extra hours; this kind of change would obviously require more workers and thus increase employment. In addition, it could help some families earn extra money without having to pay for childcare – if you could work a Saturday shift, for example, when your partner was available to care for the kids, then you could be available at another time during the week for them. What I object to is the government deciding what working conditions are “good for us”. They have found in Zurich, for example, where stores are allowed to stay open until 11 pm, that many of them don’t because there are not enough shoppers. The article said that parents who work find it very nice to be able to do basic shopping (groceries) with a more relaxed schedule, particularly in the evenings and on Saturdays, rather than try and cram everything in after their work shifts and before things close – or fight the crowds on Saturdays. If it works so well in Zurich, what’s the big deal with relaxing things elsewhere in Switzerland? I don’t get it.

  2. Hi Mary,

    There’s not much I need in material terms, but having the financial freedom to choose my path in life rates highly with me. Thankfully, I’m sufficiently self-contained not to be concerned with many of society’s quibbles, such a the availability of shopping hours. I agree, though, that people should have the choice, and their shopping habits will then determine whether extended shopping hours are socially and economically beneficial. The crowded food halls in shopping malls during weekend trading, rather than people enjoying exercise during leisure time, is one negative aspect, but I guess many of those people don’t work out much anyway. These days, Jean and I play spot the thin person, when we go shopping.

    Thanks for the Eddie Vedder song.

  3. I just got back from a bike ride and there sure were a lot of people out walking — as well there should be since it’s Sunday! (just joking)

    I’ve often discussed Swiss store opening hours with others and am aware of the arguments you brought up in favor of extending them, Mary. Whenever they get the chance though, the Swiss still vote down the idea of stores staying open at night and on Sundays. But if the federal parliament is talking about it opinions must be shifting some and maybe one day it’ll pass. I think it’s a long way off though.

    There are other huge differences in the shopping culture between here and the US. Look at the uninviting malls (sterile architecture, cluttered with shopping carts because their main feature is a grocery store, usually very little natural light, not often fountains or planters or pleasant sitting areas). Of course city shopping districts in pedestrian zones can be very pretty, but it’s surprising how ugly “centres commerciaux” usually are.

    And then compare the teen work force. Here, many fewer teens have after-school or summer jobs than in the US. I think high schoolers would lose more than gain from American-style retail jobs. Maybe they should be free to decide for themselves and maybe it would stimulate the Swiss economy some, but I’d kind of like to spare them the distraction from their education of unqualified, low-paying casual work (the teens doing apprenticeships are getting good skills that will lead to good jobs).

    It’s different for adults. I see your point about families saving on day-care if one parent could work when another is free (but what about single-parent households?….) and that flexibility plus more practical shopping hours would be a relief for many people.

    So it’s a toughie! Would liberalizing opening hours overall bring positive results — relief, pocket money, flexibility and a more dynamic economy, or would it lead to deteriorating working conditions like I fear and a lower quality of life??? I think people arguing either side of the issue should avoid moralizing about how people should consume and work, and it seems the best way forward in Switzerland is to poll and vote about it on a regular basis and let it evolve where it will, societally.

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