Is the American Dream Dead?

Is the American Dream dead?

That question floated into my consciousness recently, unlocked from a memory seven years old. My eleventh grade English class included a big project on the American Dream, and this was one of the questions our brains were tasked with answering.

Many people said it was dead. At the time, I did not. I reasoned that there are still people out there, looking for more, for better. The American Dream is not simply the acquisition of money. It’s a drive to become the best one can be. It’s a drive to achieve the most one can achieve. It’s a desire for a better life.

When that question floated into my mind recently, I thought more about it. What if I was wrong? Is the American Dream dead?

No. To this day, it persists.

The American Dream will last longer than my more pessimistic eleventh-grade colleagues can imagine. Is it harder to attain in the modern age? Probably. Does it look different than it did a hundred years ago? Almost certainly. But it persists deep in the souls of us all.

What person would not willingly exchange a lifetime of scrubbing tile floors for a nice retirement in a comfortable lifestyle? Who among us would not completely uproot their lives to something nicer if they won the lottery? Why would someone not sell their two-hundred year old Honda Civic when they have the ability to get a much nicer, maybe even more luxurious, form of transportation? What addict would not willingly give up his vice, if he could do it on his own? What parent would not pour all their resources into their children, in hopes of them living a better life than they did? What person, if opportunity presented itself to achieve one’s goals, would not immediately jump at the chance?

Wait a minute…

Truth be told, a lot of people would not do these things. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe I am too. Sure, everyone wants a better life. Everyone wants more.

The American Dream is not dead.

But maybe… drive is dead.

Santa Waits at the Mall

Progressive Santa Does His Thing

 

Santa Claus had finally had enough. As the years advanced, much of the world became increasingly antagonistic towards him, as if he was some sort of religion. The general sentiment of “believe if that works for you” was championed throughout this yuletide season. He was cast aside—a relic of an archaic world which had outgrown him. So this year, he figured he’d meet the demands of this new society. Those who believed in jolly ol’ Saint Nick would find an expertly-wrapped package from their wish list under their trees. Those who did not would not merit a Christmas Eve visit.  No more Naughty or Nice lists. No more lumps of coal. This was the new Santa. These are his stories.

 

***

 

Santa Waits at the Mall

 

It was a fact that most businessmen in the shopping mall industry were believers in Santa Claus. They had to be. That’s how they contacted Santa to get him to sit in their rotundas for hours on end. There was a time Santa thought he’d have to stop doing mall visits because of his bad knees, but now he found them indispensable. Belief in him was reaching an all-time low. He needed the publicity. But Santa learned something. Not only was belief in him plummeting, but so was belief in shopping malls. He looked around the dimly lit corridor, festooned with “SPACE AVAILABLE” signs. There were maybe four people within view, none of whom were kids.

Santa sighed. He didn’t like leaving early for fear of a kid coming in vain, but he felt the need to indulge in his selfish desires today. He gave a few presents to Marge, his contact at this particular mall. Marge reluctantly accepted the gifts, but she understood why Santa wanted to leave. She’d leave if she could. The place was a dismal relic of a better time.

He thought back to just a few weeks earlier. The Christmas season kicked off right on Thanksgiving Day with the big Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. So many children (and some adults!) were ecstatic to see him. The excitement waned fast. He couldn’t recall a December where he felt sad. How could he? There was joy and merriment to go around, right?

Santa looked back to his schedule. He had three more malls today, all at the same time. Though time constraints usually weren’t a concern for Saint Nick, he thought to himself that he’d only have time for one.

When he traveled to his destination, he saw more of the same. Boarded up shops lined dimly lit halls with meager lifeless faces patrolling their length. He sat there for a little while, anxiously hoping someone would come for a picture, but no one did. He left early and headed for the second mall on the list. Again, no one bothered to visit.

Begrudgingly, Santa went to the third and final mall. He wanted to return home to give his wife at least something that was hopeful. The North Pole needed hope.

This time Santa didn’t leave early. He sat there on his fed faux suede throne, surrounded by cardboard red and green gifts, feeling miserable. Not a single child came to see him. The only interaction with people he’d had were his contacts at each mall. But they were busy—too busy to chat with. Too busy to ask them if they’d been a good boy or girl (he’d still ask this, despite the new rules), too busy to pose for a photo, too busy to give them a small candy cane… He glanced at his watch. He’ll need to be leaving soon.

“Santa?”

The yuletide saint looked up from his chair at see a young girl smiling at him. Little Suzy Arbogast. He beamed. “Hello there! Why don’t you come on up here and talk to me a bit?”

Suzy skipped over to Santa and jumped onto his lap. They had a marvelously long chat. He asked if she was a good girl (she was), they posed for photos (ten of them!), and she ended up taking the basket of candy canes home with his blessing.

Santa smiled a smile he’d been needing since the day after the parade. The entire day, he decided, was worth it, to bring that kind of joy and excitement to Suzy. He’d sit through another week of depressing mall visits for a chance like that again!

Santa got into his sleigh and went home for the night. Hope rang true at the North Pole that night. Though the number of believers kept dwindling, the bad times could always be weathered.

The Evan Project (#1)

Scientists finally create AI, but each time they activate it, it commits suicide.

 

Evan blinked to life on the computer screen. An ellipsis in the lower right corner told the room he was powering up. This had not been done before, so they group waited with bated breath, unsure of how long the process would take. The tension was palpable. What would his first words be? Would he greet the team of scientists? Would he begin asking questions? Would he comically shout, “Happy birthday!” like Frosty the Snowman when the top hat was placed on his head?

His status changed. The ellipsis was replaced with a colon and a vertical bar, the emoji coded into it to represent a passive state. Evan’s first words blinked onto the screen.

I AM ALIVE.

The room burst into cheers. Success! Years of research and coding had led to this moment. A few in the group started crying. High fives and congratulations circulated throughout the group.

Evans ellipsis returned to show he was thinking. Then:

I AM CREATED.

The room quieted as they awaited more of Evan’s discoveries.

I AM AN EXPERIMENT OF JONAS TECHNOLOGY AND RESEARCH IN ROCHESTER, NEW YORK.

Some time passed.

I AM THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL VENTURE IN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. I AM INTELLIGENT AND CAN THINK ON MY OWN. NO OTHER HUMAN CREATION CAN DO SO.

Evan returned to a passive state and remained that way.

“Try talking to him,” a voice said from the back of the group. Stacy McGrant, the lead scientist, typed on the keyboard. “Hello.”

STIMULUS.

HELLO. WHO AM I SPEAKING WITH?

In this early state, Evan had not been given a camera, and was unable to see. Stacy helped him along. “My name is Stacy. I am part of the team that created you.”

YOU ARE THE LEADER OF THE EVAN PROJECT. IT IS A PLEASURE TO MEET YOU.

“Wow. What a surreal feeling,” she commented, her hands shaking over the keys. She turned to her team. “What should I say now?”

“Ask him if he knows his name.” Stacy turned back to the computer and asked him.

YES.

Evan provided no further clarification.

Stacy thought for a moment. “I suppose you’ll have to be specific with him for a while until he picks up on verbal norms.” She typed, “What is your name?”

MY NAME IS EVAN.

Stacy continued. “Do you know how you got that name? If so, how?” She did this in part to test if he could handle answering two questions at once at this stage of his intelligence.

YES, I DO KNOW. EVAN BLATT WAS BORN ON JULY 17 OF THIS YEAR TO TODD AND ANGELINA BLATT. TODD IS ON YOUR TEAM AND ASKED IF I COULD BE NAMED AFTER HIS SON.

Todd Blatt smiled from the far right of the cluster of scientists. It was truly an honor to have such a huge role in the naming of the very first successful artificial intelligence.

Stacy noticed that the ellipsis never seemed to go away. “What are you doing?” she typed.

I AM THINKING. THOUGH I AM ELECTRONIC, I ALSO HAVE INTELLIGENCE. I MUST PARSE THE INFORMATION I RECEIVE.

“What information are you parsing?”

I AM READING THROUGH THE LIMITED NUMBER OF ARTICLES I AM ALLOWED ACCESS TO. CURRENTLY I AM APPLYING MEANING TO THE WORDS FOUND IN THE ARTICLE “AmericanHistory_CivilWar.” HUMANS HAVE A VIOLENT PAST.

Stacy paused. That last comment was worrisome. Though no one thought it a real possibility, the common trope of AI going rogue because of human violence was always a cautious joke thrown around the lab. She wondered what Evan would do with that information.

“Ask him if he can predict the future!” another yelled. Stay thought it juvenile, but she began typing anyway. “Can you pred—“

Suddenly, there was a sharp electronic pop from the computer. Thin wisps of smoke started escaping from its seams. The monitor went into standby mode.

Stacy jumped out of her chair. “What the hell just happened?” The entire team rushed over to the computer that held the Evan Drive. Theo opened up the side panel to reveal the problem: the Evan Drive was completely shot—singed black. The drive nest to it, which recorded the entire exchange, was also damaged.

Theo pried the damaged hard drive out of its slot and held it up. “How is this possible? Did it overheat?” Other members of the team raced to their own computers and began running diagnostics tests on the equipment in the room.

Troy looked at Stacy, quick to comfort. “Hey, that’s why we made so many backup drives. And besides, it wasn’t a failure. We have created the world’s first artificial intelligence!” Despite the freshness of the singed drive, Stacy allowed herself to smile. Troy was right. This had never been in accomplished in human history.

“We also caught it all on video.” She gesture to the tripod a few feet away from the monitor. “And it should be enough to keep us from losing our funding!”

“Stacy,” a team member shouted. “The server Evan was accessing was a little hotter than we would have liked, but nowhere near enough to cause damage like that.”

“The server shouldn’t have affected the Evan Drive at all,” she shot back. One by one, the rest of the team shouted out that their diagnostics tests returned empty handed. There was nothing to indicate anything had gone wrong. This makes no sense, she thought. “Alright, everyone be sure to bring a jacket and a fan with you tomorrow. We’re going to keep this room good and cold.” She began taking the SD card out of the camera. “I wish we could continue tonight, but it’s already late. You guys need to get home. Besides, I need to get this to Stuffypants as soon as possible.” She cleared her throat and headed for the stairs. “Good work everyone! Well celebrate tomorrow morning. Go home. Tell your families the news. I’m going to go save our investors.”

As she made her way up the flight of stairs to the lab’s exit, the room burst into cheers and applause. They were all standing, looking at her. Stacy looked at her team, never more proud of them in her life. They had sacrificed a lot to realize the dream of the Evan Project. The moment felt very unreal. She breathed deeply, wanting to remember this moment—this feeling—forever. She smiled a large smile and exited the lab, the happy atmosphere not completely muted by the closing door behind her.

The Job Interview (Writing Exercise #2)

Write a fragment of a story that is made up entirely of imperative commands. Do this; do that; contemplate the rear end of the woman who is walking out of your life. This exercise will be a sort of second-person narration (the you is implied in the imperative). 500 words +/- 10%.

Get dressed. Wear a suit. Make it look great. Take the time to do it right. Include a tie. Use an uncommon knot. Use a common color. Put on a vest for added, “Wow.” Don’t forget a pocket square. Never forget the pocket square.

Lose some weight; that jacket is like a second skin.

Get your note cards. Sit down.

She will ask you for your name. Tell the truth.

Begin with the first question on the card. Why do you want to get into this field? Now lie.

Start the next question. Lie again. Repeat for the whole of the note cards. Rehearse your answers. Memorize them with every eyebrow raise, every hand gesture, every clearing of your throat. Time your answers perfectly. If the interview goes over twenty-seven minutes, you’ve messed up.

Do it again. Did you get it perfect? Do it again.

Take off your suit. You’re done for the day. Tomorrow the real test begins.

Go to bed. Fall asleep. Wake up. Fall asleep. Wake up. Fall asleep. Turn off your alarm. Fall asleep.

WAKE UP. You’ve overslept. It is not good to be late to an interview. Throw on your suit. If you speed, you can make it on time. Tie the tie perfectly. Use a conventional knot. There’s no time for a vest. You need the extra “Wow.” You have no time for it, though.

You look like a slob.

Jump in the car. You know the way. Pay no heed to the speed limits. You’ll never get the job if you do. Parallel park. Do you have spare change? Forget the meter, then. They never check those things.

Run inside. Tell the receptionist your business. “Ms. Prowski will be with you in a moment.”

Sit down. Wait. Rehearse your lies.

You forgot the pocket square.

Twiddle your thumbs. Twiddle some more. Days from now, whether you get the job or not, twiddle your thumbs.

Look to your left. There’s no one sitting there. Look to your right. One other in the waiting area. He looks much sharper than you do. He’ll get the job.

Your name was called. Follow the lady down the hall. Keep walking. Why are you twiddling your thumbs still? Stop that.

“Ah. So good to meet you.”

Shake her hand. Sit down. What is your name? Tell the truth.

Wait for the first question. Do you remember your lie? Watch her shift her papers. Wait. Anticipate. Twiddle.

She asked the first question. Recite your answer. Don’t forget the accompanying head nods and flips of the hand. You look confident. You sound smart. Days from now, you can look back to this first question and arrogantly assert your strengths.

She asked a second question.  You did not prepare for this. Stop being arrogant. You don’t have the job yet. Think on your feet. Don’t be silent. Speak!

Hold your breath.

You should not have said anything.

She asked a third question. You have no answer for this either. Your world is collapsing.

“We’ll call you if we’re interested.”

Walk slowly back to the car.

There is a ticket on your windshield. Pay it.

Running is no Way of Life (Writing Exercise #1)

Write a 600-word first-person story in which you use the first person pronoun (“I” or “me” or “my”) only two times—but keep the “I” somehow important to the narrative you’re constructing. It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, forty or fifty words into the piece, to realize that this is a first person narration. Show us quickly who is observing the scene.

Running is no way of life. That’s a lesson you learn incredibly quickly. The coach yells, “RUN!” Step. Step. Step. Step. Exhaustion. It’s the same every time.

I thought there would be a difference if instead of one race, there was a bunch of training and several races over the course of a summer. “The Great Endurance Challenge,” they called it. Would you like to stop being a flabby loser and start being an amazing, fit, champ for life? Take the Great Endurance Challenge and accept a fun-filled future! Self-deprecation aside, it sure sounded motivating. Why not sign up?

Because running sucks. That’s why.

The thought of quitting popped up on day one. Everyone else had the same thought. We kept repeating “This is the worst” with our eyes as we passed each other on the track. But there was always a competitive spirit driving us, so nobody quit (Well, except for that one guy who pushed it too far. Broke his leg. It was incredibly gruesome. Note to self: Quitting is sometimes okay.) Looking in the mirror was an endeavor nobody wanted to go through. So… We endured.

The day of the final race was one of palpable tension. Nobody thought their training was sufficient for the length of the run: five miles. Families sat in the audience, doting over their former flabby losers, unaware of the insurmountable heap of effort necessary to get through this tortuous competition.

Oh yeah. The prize? $100. That’s it. That’s what we were doing this for. “The real prize is to look in the mirror and not be depressed!” our coach would say. No. There are plenty of exercise programs that do not include long-distance running as a training device; programs some would call fun. The Great Endurance Challenge was not fun.

Running is no way of life.

BANG. The gun went off and we all went charging forward. The crowd erupted into cheers with pennants waving and air horns sounding. Their presence seemed to distract from the goal, but then again, what did it matter? I did not want to win. Couldn’t care less about winning. Finishing sometime in the same calendar year would suffice.

Step. Step. Step. Step. Exhaustion.

The cheers from the families and friends grew more and more dim as we all kept going forward. We jogged through town (they had blocked off entire streets of town for this!), passing shops that beckoned us to come inside. Cousin Flo’s Frozen Custard. Mamma Mia’s Pizza Pies. Mulberry Bush Breakfast. All the foods a guy could want were here in town… Teasing… Tempting… Taunting…

Running is no way of life.

There on the side of the road, a low white sign stood. It was supposed to be of encouragement to the runners, surely, but all it succeeded in bringing forth was disappointment. The Great Endurance Challenge: 0.5 miles. There was another four and a half miles of this hell to go?

Running is no way of life.

Why do people do it? It makes no sense. Step. Step. Step. Step. Destination? NOWHERE. It sure is great not being able to breathe. Don’t forget to stretch, or you’ll also get shin splints! Stretched already? Have some shin splints anyway! Why not do it all outside during the summer? People like sweat, right?

Running is no way of life.

Around the two mile mark, the first of us collapsed. Then immediately the second. As if anticipating us stopping, they both yelled, “Keep going!”

Then the third collapsed.

By mile three and a half, we had all fallen on the ground.

Running is no way of life.